Tag Archives: Gerard Manley Hopkins

It’s Not a Holy Relic!

Amadeusmov[1]In Milos Forman’s 1984 Academy Award winning film Amadeus, Holy Roman Emperor Joseph II, played by Jeffrey Jones of Ferris Buehler’s Day Off fame, is most of the time an enlightened ruler who makes his decisions after considering the advice of his cabinet entourage who accompany him wherever he goes. Yet he is an Emperor, after all, so there is often uncertainty about how to interact with this very powerful “first among equals.” Those who enter the Emperor’s presence often drop to their knees and kiss his hand, to which (after an appropriate few seconds of kissing) the Emperor often responds by withdrawing his hand and saying “Please, please! It’s not a holy relic!” supported by the sycophantic chuckles of his surrounding posse.

The Emperor is right—his hand isn’t a holy relic—but it also isn’t just a hand. When does a normal, everyday object become something more? When does the mundane become something special? Examples and possible answers abound. I have spent my professional life as a non-Catholic teaching at Catholic educational institutions of higher learning, so have had frequent exposure to various aspects of the holy relic racket. I call it that because the whole idea of holy relics messes with my Protestant sensibilities, even though in the church of my youth we treated the Bible, which appears to be a mere book, with a reverence not to be outdone by the most dedicated Catholic holy relic aficionado. gillespie_kathy_-_st._anthony_s_swing_with_xw_roof_by_lake_1_[1]I remember, for instance, one summer  when my cousin got turned in to the Bible camp authorities for moving a Bible from the seat of a glider swing and placing it on the grass nearby so he and I could operate the glider. I still remember the tone of voice with which the owner of the Bible yelled “YOU PUT THE WORD OF GOD ON THE GROUND!!!” before making a beeline for the director’s office.

Other faith traditions cast a much wider net when considering what might be a holy relic. I was reminded of this just a couple of days ago as I was reading the final entries in an intellectual notebook submitted by one of the students in my Honors colloquium entitled Tucson_000000798345[1]“Beauty and Violence” two or three semesters ago (I will be repeating it this spring). One of the continuing themes of this colloquium was how to have a dynamic and mature faith in the face of all sorts of features of the world we live in that threaten to make such a faith impossible. It was one of the most enjoyable and satisfying classes I have ever taught for many reasons, largely because I had the opportunity to facilitate the often uncomfortable but always fruitful process of challenging one’s beliefs with a dozen honors juniors and seniors. One of these students put it best during her oral exam at the end of the semester when she said “This class really messed me up!—in a good way.”My course syllabi have always included that “my job is not to tell you what to think—it’s to get you to think.” In addition to that I will now include “my job is to mess you up—in a good way.”

The author of the intellectual notebook in question revealed herself early on in the semester, both in writing and in class, as a “devout Catholic.” Yet I could detect from the start that she had both the courage and the willingness to press her faith boundaries, which she did regularly in all sorts of ways. Santa_Croce_in_Gerusalemme[1]So I was a bit disappointed when in one of her last entries she described in some detail a visit to a holy relic site while studying abroad in Rome last spring.

I had the chance to visit Santa Croce in Gerusalemme where my class and I saw several Holy relics. Saint Helena, Constantine’s mother, was sent to Jerusalem to bring back the holy relics of the passion of the Christ. She found parts of the cross that Jesus was crucified on but she wasn’t exactly sure which cross was His. Saint Helena brought the crosses to an old, sick woman and placed each cross on top of her to see if she could identify the cross of Jesus. The woman was suddenly cured by the third cross. This cross now lies in Santa Croce as the cross of Jesus Christ along with several other holy relics such as PHOTO-Rome-Crx-4[1]the finger of St. Thomas which was placed in the wounds of the risen Christ, two thorns from Jesus’ crown, a nail, and a nameplate which was nailed to the cross stating “Jesus of Nazareth.”

Please, I thought. Are you fucking kidding me? How can anyone take any of this seriously? I was reminded of Martin Luther, an extremely vocal critic of the relic racket, who reportedly said that there were enough pieces of the true cross of Christ in the Europe of his day to have exhausted a German forest.

I was somewhat pleased to read further and discover that my student apparently had not needed to take my colloquium to at least think a little bit critically.

How much of these stories do I believe 100% to be true?  . . . Who wrote this story down and why should they be a credible source?  . . . Maybe someone planted all of these relics. Maybe they knew that as human beings we need concrete proof to believe. Maybe it was God planting these relics for us to find as the ultimate concrete proof that Jesus is the messiah—I don’t know. I don’t know.

Well I know, I thought. This stuff is all bullshit. I grew out of the idea that the Bible is a holy relic and the inerrant Word of God. You’ll grow out of this.

My student concluded her notebook reflection with this:

What I do know is that there was a feeling that came across me that is very hard to describe. There was a silence amongst all of us in the small room of Santa Croce as if the Holy Spirit was present right in front of our eyes. My heart dropped. I knew I was breathing but did not feel like I was in control of my breaths. I was frozen and soon felt a rush come over me like I wanted to cry. I did not ask myself “Is this real?” I knew it was real. This must have been my faith taking control of my body. It was exciting. I cannot say whether the historical facts of what I learned that day are accurate or not. It doesn’t matter, because I took away more than just a history lesson. I believe this is what the Holy Spirit wanted when guiding the writings of the gospel—a personal and unique experience.

In my comments I wrote “This is a very powerful paragraph, describing what my family would call a ‘Big Bird moment.’ This is something to remember and embrace. Don’t ever forget it.”

In the Gospel of John, Jesus compares the activity of the Spirit to the wind, which “blows wherever it pleases. You hear its sound, but you cannot tell where it comes from or where it is going.” IMG_4527[1]There is a wonderful, holy randomness to all of this, unpredictable so that it cannot be packaged or formalized, and so powerful that it cannot be mistaken or forgotten. As Gerard Manley Hopkins wrote, “the earth is charged with the grandeur of God.” Sacredness infuses everything, and anything can become a direct channel of the divine wind. Even random pieces of wood and bone.

Humility and Wonder

Last Sunday’s gospel focused on one of Jesus’ signature miracles–the feeding of the five thousand. Here is a reflection on that story and its implications that I first posted about a year ago.

My youngest son was always the inquisitive sort, the kind of kid who, from the moment he began to speak, fashioned most of his communication into questions starting with the word “Why?” The setting for one of his favorite stories is the beat up car I was driving when he was little; I was running errands and his three-or-four-year-old self was strapped into the car seat next to me on the passenger’s side facing the front. This was, as a friend of mine says, “before safety was invented.”

On this particular day, apparently, I had only sufficient tolerance for one thousand “Whys” before noon. As soon as he asked his one thousand and first “Why?”, I yelled “STOP ASKING SO MANY QUESTIONS!!!” To which, I’m sure, he replied “Why?” I have no recollection of this event, since it makes me look bad.

Here’s what I remember as my usual response when his litany of questions exceeded tolerable levels. After several consecutive “Dad, why . . . . .?” events, I would reply “I don’t know, Justin—it must be a miracle.”

And for a long time, that was an effective show stopper, because as Simone Weil wrote, “the reports of miracles confuse everything.” We want answers and explanations, and a miracle says “Oh, yeah? Explain THIS, jerk!” We can’t, because a miracle by definition lies outside the confines of human knowledge. Or at least my knowledge, as my son figured out before very long. One day in response to “It must be a miracle,” he shot back “Just because you don’t know the answer, Dad, doesn’t mean that there isn’t one!” True enough.

I teach philosophy, which has the reputation for trying to rationally explain everything and dismissively rejecting anything that resists such treatment. Philosophers also have the reputation of lacking humility.This reputation is, unfortunately, well deserved if referring to the main streams of philosophy since the Scientific Revolution and the Enlightenment. From its ancient roots, though, real philosophy begins with humility. Hamlet had it right when he said “There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy.” And, I would add, your theology, your science, and anything else we use in our attempts to jam our vast, wonderful, and often terrifying reality into manageable boundaries and straitjackets.

The other ancient philosophical starting point is identified by Aristotle, perhaps the greatest philosopher of all, when he wrote that “philosophy begins with wonder.” This is what a baby shows with her frank and forthright way of gazing about in bewilderment, trying to balance her oversized head on her undersized neck as she wonders “What’s this thing? And what’s that over there? And holy crap what’s THAT??” Wonder and humility, woven together, turn philosophy, as well as theology, science, and everything else into foundational, intimately connected human activities. Psalm 8 gets this connection just right. “When I see the heavens, the work of your hands, the moon and stars which you arranged—What are we that you should keep us in mind, men and women that you care for us?” Wonder turns our minds and imaginations with expectation toward what transcends us, while humility continually reminds us of the vast gulf between us and what transcends us.

I heard a homily a few years ago on Jesus’ feeding of the five thousand in which the homilist struggled mightily with the very notion that so many people could be fed with five loaves and two fishes from a kid’s picnic basket. The homilist set things up eloquently, paid proper attention to Jesus’ compassion for the crowd of hungry people, then hit a wall with the miracle itself. “We modern persons have a difficult time with the stories of Jesus’ miracles,” he said, “since what they describe violates the laws of nature.” Accordingly, he did what most of us do when faced with such an apparent violation—he provided alternative interpretations of the story in which such a violation did not occur.

It’s possible, for instance, unless Jesus was dealing with a crowd of morons that day, that the little boy was not the only person among the thousands in attendance smart enough to have brought along something to eat. The “miracle” is not that a tiny amount of food was increased to feed thousands, but rather that the boy’s innocent generosity sparked similar generosity in others. Those who had intended to hoard their carefully packed lunches for themselves were suddenly motivated, either through inspiration or shame, to share with others around them.

And then perhaps a further “miracle” occurred, in that many realized that they didn’t really need all the food they had brought—five loaves and two fishes are more than one person can eat, right? So not only does a spirit of generosity start spreading through the crowd, but gluttony takes a big hit. If each person eats only what they need and shares the remainder, everyone has enough. An impromptu community is built on the spot, everyone learns to share with others as well as to stop eating too much, and no laws of nature are violated. Thanks be to God.

Why did the homilist, and why do all of us, find it necessary to explain a miracle away, to bring it within the confines of what we believe we know and can explain? This is partly a failure of humility, an insistence that we are the center of the universe and that, as Protagoras infamously claimed, we humans are “the measure of all things.” But we’re not. We are subject to the laws of nature, but they are neither defined by nor limited to our experience and understanding. Remember Hamlet: “There are more things in heaven and earth . . .”

But our dogged attempts to explain (or explain away) everything smells more like fear than lack of humility to me. What better way to carve a home out of a reality far beyond our control than to define it in terms of what we can control? Pascal put it succinctly: “The eternal silence of these infinite spaces fills me with dread.” And while humility is the antidote for hubris, the cure for fear is wonder. Fear turns us inward; wonder turns us outward, toward the infinitely fascinating reality in which we find ourselves. And ultimately, wonder turns us toward God, who crosses the vast distance between divine and human by infusing everything, including us, with transcendence. This is the wonder of the incarnation, that God inhabits everything, that we are living sacraments, testimony to divine love.

Thomas Jefferson once published an edition of the Gospels with all the miracles taken out, resulting in a very short book. A daily existence from which miracles have been removed is similarly impoverished. A good friend of mine defines a miracle as “something that everyone says will never, ever, ever happen and it happens anyways.” And that covers just about everything, from individual acts of generosity, through impromptu human solidarity, to feeding five thousand with a kid’s lunch. As Gerard Manley Hopkins wrote, “The earth is charged with the grandeur of God.” We need only learn to see it with the eyes of wonder and humility.

Big Bird

This is the first election cycle in my remembrance that, at least for a week or so, an eight-foot yellow bird has played a central role in presidential politics. When one candidate promised that his policies, if elected, will put the bird’s employment status in jeopardy, people sat up and took notice. This particular bird has played a special role in my family’s life for several decades. Strangely enough our journey with this bird began with trying to help my sons imagine what God might be like.

It’s pretty much a given that whatever God is, God transcends whatever words and pictures we use to capture the divine reality. But we have to picture what we believe, knowing that all pictures are inadequate. What gender is God, for instance? I have no reason to believe that God is a guy, but since every sacred text I was steeped in from my childhood refers to Him with mostly male nouns and pronouns, it’s been a challenge to picture God as female, a Mother, a nurturer. Old pictures fade hard. So I’ve started using words like “the transcendent,” “the divine,” “what is greater than us.” It helps to remove the picture of the old guy with a white beard, but doesn’t give me a new picture. Recently, I got a lot of help from William P. Young’s The Shack, in which God the Father is a large, robust, African-American woman called “Papa” who is a gourmet cook and generally Loves with a capital “L.”  I’m sure Young has gotten flack from all sorts of people who say “that’s not scriptural,” “that’s disrespectful of tradition,” and so on. So what? All we have is imperfect pictures, we all “see in a mirror, dimly,” and Young cleaned my mirror just a little bit.

Jesus is a guy, of course, simply because Jesus was—a guy. So what’s the Holy Spirit? To be honest, we didn’t talk much about the Holy Spirit in church when I was a kid; sure, the Spirit’s in the Bible, but that’s the only place I ever encountered him (or her, or it). People didn’t talk about the Spirit, probably because they didn’t know what to say, The Holy Spirit lived between leather covers. It wasn’t until I ran into a bunch of charismatics as a young adult that the Spirit all of a sudden became important. If forced to specify a Holy Spirit gender, I suppose I would have said “female” just to mix it up a bit. But the one visual of the Holy Spirit that stuck with me early on was the one that everybody knows from the baptism of Jesus, where God booms from heaven “This is my beloved Son” and the Holy Spirit descends “like a dove.” The whole Trinity together at the Jordan River. Don’t get me started on the Trinity—there is no picture for that.

So the Holy Spirit is a dove (male or female doesn’t really matter, I guess). I can buy the bird part, but a dove doesn’t work for me. Doves are too close to pigeons, those rats with wings that fly only when you’re inches from them in the car, and whose heads jerk back and forth in the same way that Steve Martin’s hands do when he does his “King Tut” routine (I’m really dating myself). The prophet Hosea even refers to the northern kingdom of Israel, which has wandered from God, as “a silly dove without sense.” Enter another inspired piece of iconoclasm. Once many years ago, when Jeanne joined my two young sons and I in a new “blended family”—it’s definitely a good thing that one doesn’t know what one getting into when one makes such decisions—she referred to the Holy Spirit as “Big Bird.” It was a brilliant move on her part, locking into a six and a nine-year-olds imagination, accustomed to regular doses of Sesame Street, an unforgettable picture of the divine. My sons are now in their early thirties, and the name my family uses most frequently when referring to “what is greater than ourselves” still is Big Bird.

And it works. The image is just irreverent and crazy enough to do the job. If God the Father can be a big African-American woman named “Papa,” why can’t the Holy Spirit be an eight-foot tall, bright yellow androgynous bird with massive feet and red-and-white striped stockings? No one’s going to go to doctrinal war over whether Big Bird’s feathers are yellow or orange (I don’t think), but it’s a great place holder for one aspect of what truly transcends any human attempts to get the picture perfect. I once sent Jeanne an email with a link describing a summer writing workshop, asking for her impressions as to whether this would be a good program for me to apply to. In her return email, she wrote “I don’t need to read the description. Anything that will help you write in a non-academic way has Big Bird all over it.”

At the end of his poem “God’s Grandeur,” Gerard Manley Hopkins writes that “the Holy Ghost over the bent/ World broods with warm breast, and with, ah, bright wings.” Indeed. But Gerard Manly forget to add that the wings are bright yellow.

I Don’t Like It

A baptism was part of the morning service a few Sundays ago. Actually, there were two baptisms—ten year old Brooke and her two year old brother Jacob. Many moons ago, when I was in my twenties and considering joining the Episcopal Church, their practice of baptizing young children, even infants, gave me pause. So much about the Episcopal way of doing things was attractive and an obvious spiritual balm to the scars I carried in my twenties from my conservative, fundamentalist upbringing. Liturgy, a pipe organ, excellent music, clerical robes, a prayer-book, weekly Eucharist—if I had been aware enough to design worship that spoke to my deepest aesthetic and spiritual needs, it would have been exactly like Sunday morning at St. Matthew’s Cathedral.

But they baptized infants. After finishing the baptismal liturgy, the Dean would carry the baby up and down the center aisle of the cathedral, saying “This is the brand newest Christian in the world!” as the congregation applauded. For someone taught from his earliest memory that becoming a Christian required a “born again experience,” a once for all conversion event that required a certain level of rational maturity and spiritual awareness, this business of becoming a Christian simply by some water being poured on one’s head in the manner specified by the prayer-book was jarring. My own full immersion baptism, performed by my father in a swimming pool size baptismal when I was twelve, was what a baptism is supposed to be like. I’ve always thought, despite sacred art and Hollywood depictions, that John the Baptist did not just pour a bit of water on Jesus’ head that day in the Jordan River—he dunked him.

None of this stopped me from being confirmed as an Episcopalian more than twenty-five years ago, as I chose to embrace a bit of spiritual life and comfort where I found it. Still, I am always somewhat crestfallen when on my infrequent trips to church I read in the bulletin that a baptism will be part of the morning’s festivities. My discomfort is not as crass as simple annoyance at finding out that the service will be lengthened by ten or fifteen minutes. It’s just that baptisms still confuse me. But as I watched and participated as a member of the congregation a few weeks ago, I was struck by the obvious pleasure that the young girl, dressed entirely in white, was taking in the proceedings. I heard the beautiful words toward the end of the baptismal liturgy—“You are marked as Christ’s own forever.” My doctrinal issues with baptizing children dissolved into a puddle of irrelevance.

Shortly after, as Jeanne and I were headed toward the altar for communion, the brand newest Christian in the world was making her way down the steps after having received the body and blood of Christ for the first time in her life. As she walked by us, she looked in our direction, screwed up her face, and said in a loud stage whisper “I don’t like it!” Out of the mouths of babes. “Kid, you don’t know the half of it,” I thought. There are going to be many things upcoming that you’ll dislike a lot more than a communion wafer epoxied to the roof of your mouth and the aftertaste of cheap wine. This “marked as Christ’s own forever” stuff is no picnic.

In the past, I’ve heard police and firefighter work described as 95% boredom and 5% sheer terror. That’s something like my experience over several decades of being one of “Christ’s own forever.” There have been long stretches of my life when there were no identifiable signs of such a privilege. The problem with ordinary spiritual commitment, as I’ve experienced it and heard it described by others, is that it is so ordinary as to be unnoticeable. Sure there have been some “Big Bird moments,” as Jeanne calls them, where the divine burst through so obviously that even I could not mistake it. But what about the weeks, months, and years during which those who are marked as Christ’s own forever slog through the barren desert of the everyday and mundane? Sometimes the silence is so deafening and the absence so palpable that the value of belonging to Christ escapes me. Teresa of Avila once complained to God that “If this is the way you treat your friends, it’s no wonder you have so few.” No kidding—I don’t like it.

In one of Iris Murdoch’s novels, a central character has a vision in which she is visited in her kitchen by Jesus. As he leaves the room after a brief conversation, Jesus touches the woman on the hand. After the vision ends, she knows that her experience was not simply imaginary because her hand is painfully burned where Jesus touched her. Although the burn heals, and the pain eventually fades over the following days, a small but permanent scar remains. For the rest of her life her scar is an indelible reminder that she is forever changed because one day she encountered Jesus.

Perhaps baptism is something like that. Somewhere in the past and continuing history of those who are scarred by the mark of Christ are events, people, decisions, and experiences that form the skeleton, the internal structure of faith. A person’s spiritual identity is shaped by this structure, fleshed out in ways unique to each individual. Some pieces of this identity come out of the blue, divinely tinged experiences that cannot be easily accommodated or dismissed. Others are deliberately chosen, such as a baptism, responding to an altar call, a choice of worship community, or turning away from what no longer gives life. As Brooke’s and Jacob’s lives as one of Christ’s own unfold, each will be able to identify their baptismal Sunday as a signpost of difference. The fact that Brooke was part of the decision-making process while Jacob’s loving family chose the time and place of his baptism for him is not crucially important. The imprint of the divine on a human life often has nothing to do with individual choice.

The beauty of the Incarnation is that each of the moments of all of our days are, as Gerard Manley Hopkins put it, “charged with the grandeur of God.” The grandeur is not in the product, the greatness of what I or anyone, marked as Christ’s own, might become or achieve. The grandeur is not even in the gloriously random Big Bird experiences that leaven our lives. The grandeur is in the very idea of God in the flesh, an indwelling reality that sanctifies even our most mundane days and disturbing experiences. “Marked as Christ’s own forever”—that’s something to embrace, even when I don’t like it.