Tag Archives: St. John’s Abbey

Undoing Babel

Jeanne and I watched a documentary not long ago called “Fierce Light: When Spirit Meets Action,” created, filmed and directed by a man with the fabulous name “Velcrow Ripper.”imagesCAMGJ7EL He is the cousin-in-law of a colleague and friend of Jeanne’s who made the recommendation. The movie was beautifully constructed and filmed, as well as being very thought-provoking. The central thread of the documentary traces various ways in which people seek spiritual growth and reality that are seldom located in traditionally religious frameworks. All this, of course, in the middle of a world that seems to have little concern for matters of the spirit at all. The voices of spirituality, religion, secularism, materialism, power, and greed often are speaking languages so incompatible that our world appears to be little more than a cacophony of white noise at different pitches.

The Old Testament reading for Pentecost tomorrow is a story that is familiar to many but has probably been actually read by few.  The Tower of Babel tale was part of the first seminar assignment (Genesis 1-25) for one hundred or so freshmen last fall in the interdisciplinary course I teach. These chapters contain stories so seminal and formative—creation, the Garden of Eden, Cain and Abel, Noah and his ark, the call and adventures of Abraham—that it is impossible to do them all justice. So I didn’t try. Hendrik+III+van+Cleve+-+Tower+of+Babel+(Kröller+Müller+Museum)[1]Instead, I focused our seminar attention on the strange story in Genesis 11. Very briefly, it is traditionally interpreted as a story similar to Noah and the flood—human beings are getting uppity and God puts them in their place. Because of their hubris, God scatters people in every direction as well as “confusing their language” so they can no longer understand each other. Just as we can blame Adam and Eve for original sin, so our seeming incapability of understanding or truly communicating with each other is inherited from the people of Babel who thought themselves to be greater than they actually were.

Reading this story anew with my students last fall, however, revealed something far more interesting and provocative. First of all, there is no obvious challenge to God from the people of Babel. What they want to do is build a city, share their talents, build a tower as tall as their abilities and technology will allow, settle down, stop wandering, and “make a name for ourselves—otherwise we shall be scattered abroad upon the face of the earth.”el-castillo[1] In other words, this is a story about the early beginnings of what we recognize as civilization. Recognizing that the world is a demanding and scary place, human beings learn that there is strength and security in cooperation and numbers. Self-reliance and independence are better established collectively than individually. There is no obvious sense of humans thumbing their noses at God here, just a desire to reap the benefits of community. So what’s the big deal?

From the perspective of Elohim (the plural name for God used in this story), apparently this is a very big deal in a negative sense. Something about human attempts at solidarity, independence and strength is threatening to God throughout the Old Testament, but never more so than in this story. “This is only the beginning of what they will do; nothing that they propose to do will now be impossible for them.”1aaatowerofbabel2[1] These amazing creatures that we made? Look at what they can do! Planning, creativity, cooperation, independence, ambition—the sky’s the limit! Great stuff, right? Our kids are growing up! Divine high fives all around! Not exactly. “Come, let us go down, and confuse their language there, so that they will not understand one another’s speech.” Someone’s sounding threatened and paranoid.

At the very least, the Tower of Babel story reveals that human progress by its very nature creates tension with what is greater than us. This particular God, sounding like somewhat of a control freak, is made uneasy by the prospect that what has been created might actually have a mind and will of its own. These are the early seeds of tension between the secular and the sacred. The divine response? Put an end to it now. Scatter them, confuse them, cut this thing off at the knees. Not surprisingly, when I asked my seminar students to reflect in their journals on the question “Did God treat the people of Babel fairly?” they unanimously judged that God did not.

Toward the end of the semester, as we moved into the New Testament for a couple of weeks, the seminar assignment was the Gospel of Luke, the Book of ActsSt_%20Luke%20Shirt%20Logo%20Gold%20Cross[1], and Romans. What, among the vast array of possibilities, to focus on? In preparation it occurred to me, as it occurred independently to several students in seminar, that there is far more than simply a surface level connection between the story of Pentecost in Acts 2 and the Tower of Babel story in Genesis 11. In fact, Pentecost undoes Babel, turns it on its head. Rather than dispersing human beings and confusing their language, at Pentecostpentecost1[1] the divine unites human beings by causing them to understand each other.

I was taught that Pentecost is the “birthday of the church,” but actually I think it signifies something much greater and more important than the start of a church or religion. Pentecost tells us that the divine is neither angry at us nor threatened by us. God wants human beings to cooperate and communicate effectively. Furthermore, our ability to do so is a divine giftActs 2:1-4. When the day of Pentecost came. Pastel & pen. 26 May 2012.. Whenever we overcome the vast differences that separate us, differences too many to count, the divine is present. Whenever human beings connect, not by eliminating differences but rather by finding commonality, enhanced and deepened by our diverse perspectives and experiences, God is there. The divine strategy, culminating in Pentecost, is simple and profound. The distance between God and humanity in Genesis 11 has been eliminated; Pentecost completes the story of the Incarnation—as my friend Marsue says, we all are “God carriers.”

Pentecost also tells us that the divine solution to our failure to understand each other is not conformity, getting everyone on the same page and believing the same thing. Everyone did not miraculously start speaking the same language at Pentecost, as humans did at the start of the Babel story. Each person retained his or her language and was divinely enabled to hear the good news in his or her own tongue.Earthen%20Vessels[1] God met everyone exactly where they were, as the divine continues to do. Because we now “contain this treasure in earthen vessels,” as Paul wrote to the church at Corinth, we can easily be distracted by the various shapes, sizes, designs, and materials of the clay pots. But the divine connects us all. In the words of the ancient Gregorian chant,

Where charity and love is,

God is there.

ubi_caritas_et_amor_wedding_sticker_template-re6fcd4ed855b45a3b33a27c44272a696_v9wf3_8byvr_210[1]

Flowering Trees

Several years ago, I spent spent the early months of the year on sabbatical on the campus of a Benedictine college in Minnesota. Lining the road on the fifteen minute uphill walk from my Ecumenical Institute apartment to St. John’s Abbey in the depths of winter were any number of small, leafless trees. Judging from their shapes and sizes, I guessed that many of them were the flowering sorts of trees that are always the harbingers of spring at home in Rhode Island. But as winter slowly faded and spring emerged with the pace of a turtle, I was disappointed to see that the buds on the trees were 78461814[1]clearly just plain old leaf buds. No flowering trees after all. I complained to Jeanne on the phone, as well as to my friend from Washington DC who commiserated—“back home, the cherry trees would have been in blossom a long time ago.”

On a walk to the Abbey several days later, as young leaves were emerging, I noticed some tiny flower buds hiding behind the new growth. This is bizarre—flowers after leaves? Sure enough, the trees I had been complaining about were flowering trees after all—they were just doing it ass-backwards. “Listen,” I said to a group of these trees, “you need to get your branches out of your roots and do this right. You’ve got this backwards—it’s flowers first, then leaves. What’s the matter with you??” cdurand[1]My annoyance level raised when I asked various Minnesota natives about what was wrong with their trees—there was no consensus. “The leaves always come before the flowers,” said one acquaintance, implying that the flowers-first trees I have known were mutants of some sort. Elisa[1]Another Minnesotan offered that flowers usually come first, but the winter this year was so unusual (too warm, too cold, too long, too short, too wet, too dry—take your pick) that everything got screwed up. Worst of all was the person who said “Oh really? I never really noticed which comes first.” What do you mean, you never really noticed?? This is important!

One morning early in what has come to be known as “Holy Week,” after spending the night with Mary, Martha and Lazarus in Bethany, Jesus and his posse are talking a morning walk to Jerusalem. Jesus is hungry, sees a fig tree, and plans to have a breakfast snack. But, Matthew tells us, “He came to it and found nothing on it but leaves.” So Jesus curses the tree, “and immediately the fig tree withered away.” My goodness. I can imagine the disciples as the events unfold—several are trying to point out that this isn’t fig season, Andrew offers Jesus a bite of his bagel, Judas is looking in the community purse to see if there’s enough to buy Jesus some breakfast at the restaurant down the road, and Peter is going into immediate damage control. “What happens at the fig tree stays at the fig tree, right? Right??”, but Matthew is already making mental notes to put into his memoirs later.

cable[1]Imagine the stir if this happened today with 24-7 media coverage. “Jewish Holy Man Kills Innocent Tree in a Display of Temper.” Environmentalists would be outraged, talking heads from anger management therapists to tree-friendly carpenters to Pharisees to a cult of fig-worshippers would debate the topic on FOX, CNN, and MSNBC. Everyone would be trying to get an interview with Jesus, but no one’s gotten an interview with him ever, not even Rachel Maddow or Lester Holt. Peter, the spokesman for the group, tells some convoluted story about Jesus doing it as an illustration of what any of us can do with just a tiny bit of faith, but that sounds like a lot of spin.

In such situations, there’s always someone who’s looking for fifteen minutes of fame, claiming to have seen exactly what happened. “We’re talking with Fred bar-William, a local Jerusalem tanner. Fred, you were an eyewitness to what happened at the fig tree, right?” “Yeah, man, I was just sort of hangin’ around to see what was goin’ on, him being famous and all. He stopped with a bunch of guys by the treeFig-Tree-cursing-Tissot-300x225[1]—I couldn’t hear everything, but he was obviously pissed and dropped an F-bomb or two on the tree, then went on and stopped at the restaurant a ways down the road. I thought that was kinda harsh, and now look at it—it’s all, like, withered up and disgusting. I mean, we knew the guy had a temper with what happened in the temple market and all, but this is ridiculous. Like, you’d think a guy from the sticks would know when it’s fig time and when it ain’t.”

220px-TheByrdsTurnTurnTurnAlternate[1]The writer of Ecclesiastes and The Byrds remind us that “To everything there is a season, A time for every purpose under heaven.” But seasons work differently in different places and times are unique to each person. Eventually, of course, the flowering trees along the walk to the Abbey flowered into glorious bloomflowering-tree-on-april-4-2011-bike-ride[1], and a less observant person than I would not even know that they became beautiful in an entirely unconventional and non-traditional fashion. To the casual observer, they’re just pretty trees, but I know their history. It’s a sort of organic, arboreal Goldilocks story, where each tree, and each one of us, survives through seasons of winter; we bloom in our own way only when things are “just right.” Those who are “happy indeed,” claims Psalm 1,

are like a tree that is planted

beside the flowing water

that yields its fruit in due season

and whose leaves shall never fade;

and all they do shall prosper.

Turning Around

no smokingConversion is an odd phenomenon. I’ve often observed that those who convert, who ”tum around” radically in some aspect of their lives, tend to embrace their newly adopted beliefs and behaviors with a sense of urgency and commitment that can border on fanaticism. Thus those who quit smoking become front line enforcers in the “No Smoking” brigade, those who cut caffeine (or sugar, or anything significant) out of their diet will regale those of us who have not quit with endless data about why what they just quit ingesting will kill us, and someone who just lost fifty pounds looks at the ten-pound-overweight person with a judgmental eye.

But such converted commitments pale in comparison to the righteous energy of the religious convert. I’ve known many people who professed a st-paul-conversionSaul-on-the-road-to-Damascus type of conversion experience, reporting that while once they were blind, they now see. And that new vision often looks more like tunnel vision than anything else. The beliefs and accompanying rules of their newly found religious perspective, beliefs and rules that they either rejected with disdain or were entirely ignorant of just yesterday, suddenly become the instruments according to which they measure the acceptability quotient of those outside their group. And the outsiders are generally found to  be seriously wanting.

I was raised in a religious environment in which such “once for all” conversions were the hallmark of membership. But since I never had such an experience, born againI felt something like an outsider on the inside during all of my childhood and adolescent years. Although I stopped thinking of myself as a part of that religious community many years ago, issues of my religious identity were frequently front and center during my sabbatical residence a few years ago at an ecumenical Institute on the campus of a Benedictine University and Abbey.Abbey

I am comfortable as a non-Catholic in Catholic surroundings, having spent my last twenty-five years teaching philosophy in Catholic higher education. This was different, though, because the whole focus of my sabbatical experience turned out, unexpectedly, to be about my own spiritual identity. I’ve always called myself a “person of faith,” even a Christian, but was no longer sure of what I meant by that—all I knew was that the usual definition of  “Christian” was becoming less and less meaningful all the time. Seeking some sort of reawakening I took full advantage of the daily prayers at the Abbey, eventually receiving achoir stalls behind-the-scenes green light from one of the monks to receive communion if I wished, in total violation of Catholic exclusivity.

So I was somewhat taken aback by  a conversation with a fellow resident scholar at the Institute shortly before the end of my four and a half month stay. The topic of conversation was a former Institute  scholar who, during two year-long residencies at the Institute in the early nineties, wrote two books that spent several months at the top of the New York Times bestseller list. She’s now a very famous author, and made a couple of brief visits to the Institute, Abbey, and campus while I was there. She even ate corned beef dinner with the current residents on St. Patrick’s Day; I got to speak with her for ten or fifteen minutes and, just like any other groupie, got her to sign my copies of three of her books. I wrote more about this author not long ago:

http://freelancechristianity.com/strange-and-beautiful/

Although she was on campus for several reasons during her brief stays, it was clear to me that she, as non-Catholic as I, was getting her spiritual batteries recharged as she sat a few seats over from me during morning, noon, and evening prayers. So it surprised me when one of my fellow Institute residents, a Catholic convert whose powerful intellect and even more powerful spirit I’d come to respect and admire, expressed annoyance at the famous author’s behavior. “It bothers me that she for years has come here to the Abbey, catholic_guiltand to other monasteries (as described in her books) to bask in the liturgy, take full benefit of the prayers and services, and get reviled, yet she remains non-Catholic,” he said. “If she’s going to reap the gains, she should also have to suffer through the shit that we Catholics have to put up with on a daily basis.”

I assured my colleague that Catholics have no comer on dealing with religious excrement; my whole stay at the Institute had focused on struggling with the constricting grave-clothes of my own conservative Protestant upbringing. Protestant guiltFurthermore, I reminded him, the transformation of spirit and  soul that had been taking place in me over the past months, about which the two of us had conversed many times, had centered around my full participation, as  a non-Catholic ,in the liturgical and prayer life of the Catholic Abbey. “Your criticism of her applies to me too,” I said, to which he replied “but this is all very new and unexpected for you.”Implied but unspoken was his expectation that I would eventually convert to Catholicism.

But I won’t be converting to Catholicism, any time soon or ever. I used to think this was because of the powerfully top-down hierarchy of the Catholic Church, ordain womenas well as its positions on any number of issues including the ordination of women and abortion. I still  believe its positions on these issues are utterly wrong. But I know many Catholics, including the one with whom I was having this conversation, who long for the day when the Catholic Church will adopt a stance that engages honestly with all of the complexities of the abortion issue and will finally come to the realization that women are full-fledged members of the human race and are just as suited, perhaps more suited, to pursue ordination as men.

The real reason I won’t become Catholic is because I have  no desire to become anything with a recognizable  religious label other than  committed seeker after God. I am officially an Episcopalian, confirmed in my late twenties as a response to a church whose liturgies and music I loved and to a specific faith community that embraced and nurtured me when I badly needed to be embraced and nurtured. For years I was not a regular attendee at any church services, Episcopal or otherwise, and my current regular attendance at Trinity Episcopal began three or four years ago when a close friend became their interim rector. But I find that many of the Episcopalians I know are perfectly willing to accept into their circle persons with all sorts of religious histories (or none at all). As I often tell people unsure about the rules and limitations of Episcopal worship, if you have a pulse, you can participate in the Eucharist at an Episcopal church.

I told my fellow resident at the Institute that, as far as I was concerned, what happened to me at the Abbey had nothing to do with its being a Catholic place of worship. indexIt had everything to do with its being the place that, unexpectedly, I met the Divine in a new and exhilarating way. Under different circumstances, it could have happened in a synagogue, a mosque, on a mountain-top, or in my chair at home. “Oh, I have to disagree with you there,” he said. “I know you do,” I responded as I thought “but it is my encounter with God that I’m talking about. That’s bigger than any religion.”

Clouds of Glory

kant1[1]The great but incredibly difficult German philosopher Immanuel Kant, in a rare moment of clarity, wrote that all important human questions can be boiled down to these three: WHAT CAN I KNOW? WHAT OUGHT I TO DO?  and WHAT MAY I HOPE FOR? The Advent and Christmas seasons focus on the last of these three questions. A major figure in the seasons’ stories is John the Baptist, Jesus’ relative who once sent his disciples to ask his cousin a “What may I hope for?” question. “Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?” This is one of the many imagesCAS1UEG4poignant and excruciatingly human scenes in the gospels—John has been imprisoned by Herod Antipas and his head will be on a plate soon. He is by no means the only prophet in the land—they came a dime a dozen in those days. Nor is Jesus the only Messiah candidate around—Israel is full of them. So John’s question is not an academic one. What he really wants to know is “has my whole life been a waste?”

Jesus’ answer to John’s question relies on John’s knowledge of the prophet Isaiah. “Go and tell John what you hear and see: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them.” Hopefully the message got back to John before he was executed by Herod. The man whom you baptized is the real deal–the Messiah has truly come. That’s what John foretold and waited for.

And that’s what we wait for every Advent and Christmas season. As Christians we anticipate and celebrate what we believe to be the single most important event in human history—the Incarnation. But there’s a secret, perhaps perverse part of me that asks, “so what?” What exactly are we celebrating at Christmas? imagesCAK1O2WOWhat difference do the circumstances of Jesus’ birth make, a story told differently by Matthew and Luke and considered to be so insignificant by Mark and John that they don’t even include it? As the 13th century Dominican monk Meister Eckhart provocatively asked, “What good is it for me that Christ was born a thousand years ago in Bethlehem?”

Collegeville lecture 3During the first five months of 2009, I spent a sabbatical semester as a resident scholar at an ecumenical institute on the campus of St. John’s University, run by the Benedictine Catholic order, in Collegeville, Minnesota. My academic plans were set; a well-defined book project was ready to be written. But upon arrival, it gradually became clear to me that something else was going on. For most of my then fifty-plus years, I had struggled with the conservative, fundamentalist Protestant Christianity in which I was raised. What became clear to me in Minnesota was that what I thought was a long-term, low-grade spiritual dissatisfaction had become, without my being aware of it, a full-blown spiritual crisis. Beneath my introverted, overly cerebral surface my soul was asking John’s question—“Are you the one, or is it time to look for another?”

100_0331The answer developed quietly, subtly, unheralded, over the weeks and months. As I tested the waters of daily prayer with the monks at St. John’s Abbey, I noticed a space of silence and peace slowly opening inside of me that I had never known. No voices, no visions, no miracles—but I was writing differently. The low-grade anger that had accompanied me for most of my life began to dissipate. I felt more and more like a whole person instead of a cardboard cutout of one. The world looked different. I felt different. Eventually a few of my colleagues said “you’re not the same person you were when you first got here.” And they were right–I wasn’t. I began spending more time with the monks at prayer, often three times daily. Essays began to flow from a place I didn’t recognize, but really liked. Little had changed outwardly, but everything was changing.

As the day of returning home after four months drew near, I was worried. Would these changes be transferable to my real life? Would this space of centeredness and peace be available during a typical 80-90 hour work week in the middle of a semester? Or would these changes soon be a fond memory, to be stored in an already overfull internal regret file? 443px-Santa_Caterina_Fieschi_Adorno-dipinto_Giovanni_Agostino_Ratti[1]Two days before leaving, one of the Benedictines preached at daily mass (which I did not normally attend). In the middle of an otherwise forgettable homily, he quoted the obscure St. Catherine of Genoa, who said “My deepest me is God.” This was the answer. The space of quietness, silence and peace inside of me, the one I’d never known and had just discovered—is God. I was stunned. Tears filled my eyes. I tingled all over. I’m tingling all over right now as I write this. Because what I had been looking for is here. And it is transferable. Trust me.

I used to think that the evidence Jesus sent to John in prison—the blind see, the lame walk, and all of that—was all well and good, but I’ve never seen a blind person healed, I’ve never seen a cripple stand and walk. Faith 05[1]But I was looking in the wrong place. Because although I don’t see perfectly, I’m a little less blind than I was. My frequent tone-deafness to the needs of others is getting a little better. My inner cripple is now walking with a limp. Some days I even think I know what Lazarus must have felt like as his sisters started to unwrap his grave-clothes. A few paragraphs ago I quoted Meister Eckhart—but only half of the quote. The full quote is “What good is it for me that Christ was born a thousand years ago in Bethlehem, if he is not born today in our own time?” The answer to that pressing question? He is born today. In us.

Let’s make this Christmas season a coming home, an embracing of the true, continuingwilliam_wordsworth[1] mystery of the Incarnation. Yes, God became flesh. And God continues to be incarnated in you, in me. This is our heritage and the promise to us. Our deepest me is God. William Wordsworth expressed this truth beautifully: “But trailing clouds of glory do we come from God, who is our home.

I’m hoping that in the darkness of his dungeon cell, John remembered his father Zechariah’s words spoken at John’s naming ceremony, words that I’m sure were part of the family stories in John’s childhood. Zechariah and Elizabeth[1]The Song of Zechariah, the “Benedictus,”  is the canticle that closes every morning prayer service in the Benedictine daily liturgy of the hours. You may remember that Zechariah had not spoken for months, struck dumb because he found it difficult to believe the angel’s announcement that his wife Elizabeth, well past child-bearing years, would bear a son. When Zechariah and Elizabeth’s son is circumcised at eight days old, a family squabble breaks out over what the baby’s name will be. Most of the group votes for “Zechariah Junior.” But Zechariah motions for a tablet and writes “His name is John,” as the angel directed. His power of speech returns—the Benedictus follows. After a beautiful meditation on his new son’s role in the divine economy, Zechariah closes with a stunning promise.

In the tender compassion of our GodC-002-r%20Advent%202[1]

the dawn from on high shall break upon us,

To shine on those who dwell in darkness and the shadow of death,

and to guide our feet into the way of peace.

Let’s walk in that dawn together.

How Can This Be?

I have a colleague and friend with whom I share a lot in common. Eric and I are both “Johnnies,” graduates of the St. John’s College Great Books curriculum (he graduated a few years before I did in the seventies). SJCWe are both Simone Weil scholars and aficionados (he founded the American Weil Society more than thirty years ago). He was an outside reader on one of my books, as I was on one of his a few years later. And we are both hardcore Protestants. I write about my Baptist roots frequently in this blog; Eric is an ordained Presbyterian minister who has been a theology professor, a college chaplain, and for the past several years has been a hired-gun interim pastor for several large Presbyterian congregations on the Eastern seaboard.

Eric and I see each other once a year at most at the annual Weil colloquies. A few years ago as we chatted at dinner I found myself describing my professional life as a non-Catholic who has been teaching philosophy in Catholic institutions of higher learning for more than two decades. “I could never be a Catholic,” Eric observed. “I just don’t get that Mary thing.” But I love Advent, Mary is a major Advent player, testament-of-mary-book-jacketso every year I get to think about the Mary phenomenon once again.

A couple of years ago I read Colm Toibin’s novella The Testament of Mary. Toibin places the reader in the mind of Mary many years after her son was crucified. She is full of guilt and bitterness, has little use for Matthew and John who visit on occasion to fact check their accounts of Jesus’ life, and is convinced that her son’s death was not worth it. The book is not for the Christian faint of heart—the gentle, submissive, ethereal, and holy Mary of tradition and art masterpieces is nowhere to be found. But as always, I found it exhilarating to consider a religious icon as the flesh-and-blood human being that she was.

I believe that over the centuries Christians have made two mistakes concerning Mary. We have treated her either as a museum piece or as a holy relic. In the tradition I grew up in, we treated Mary as a museum piece. The only time I ever heard about Mary was around Christmas or if the text for the day was the marriage at Cana when Jesus is unaccountably rude to her. At Christmas, Mary showed up in the pageant.imagesCAXNTWCG I remember in various Christmas pageants being the innkeeper, a wise man, a shepherd—all of the usual male roles; once I even got to be Joseph.  So there was a Mary wing in the Baptist Christian museum of my youth, but it was small and uninteresting.

In other Christian traditions, such as the one in which Jeanne grew up, Mary plays a slightly more central role. In these churches Mary often gets more face time in artistic representations than Jesus himself. Attention to Mary has evolved into complicated ritualistic forms which in some cases border on the cultish. San+Gennaro+Festival+Returns+New+York+Little+1r1OJyXXSo3l[1]You may remember a scene from the movie Godfather II  in which a much larger than life statue of Mary is carried reverently through the streets of Manhattan as onlookers attach dollar bills to her. Jeanne tells me that such Mary-as-a-holy-relic events are by no means uncommon—if it’s Tuesday, it must be time for another Mary parade!

Because we have either placed her virtually behind glass or smothered her in ritual, Mary has been effectively hidden from us. But if Mary is neither a museum piece nor a holy relic, who or what is she?

From the few details provided in the gospels, joined together with what we know about the culture in which she lived, we can sketchily picture Mary. Mary is young, most likely in her early teens.2006_the_nativity_story_007[1] She is engaged to Joseph, a man much older than Mary, an engagement arranged between Joseph and Mary’s father. Mary is almost certainly poor. Her skin is darker than suggested in traditional artwork. She has dirt under her fingernails. We do not know whether she has siblings, nor do we know from the gospels anything about her parents. She’s nothing special, just an insignificant young girl living in a nothing town in the eastern backwater of the Roman Empire. And she is visited by an angel.

In scripture, angels are always the heralds of new beginnings, inviting us to adventure. They introduce mystery—they do not clarify. Angels announce new departures and the beginning of something whose end is not in view. This particular angel’s announcement to Mary is an explosion of beauty from the first sentence: annunciation1[1]“Greetings, favored one—the Lord is with you.” And in the narrative of incarnation that Advent prepares us for, the Lord is with all of us. “Greetings, favored ones—the Lord is with us.” We are all too aware of our humanity, of our shortcomings and failings, that we bear the burden, as John Henry Newman wrote, of “some aboriginal calamity.” But we are also the bearers of the divine. The promise of incarnation is that God chooses, inexplicably, miraculously, to inhabit flawed and imperfect matter, to become human. The promise to Mary is the promise to us—the Lord is with us. We, as Mary, are the wombs from which the divine enters the world each day. We are the incubators of God.  Mary’s response to Gabriel is the only one possible—“How can this be?” It is a mystery. It is also a great story.

When Mary gathers herself sufficiently to comment on the angel’s announcement after he leaves, she begins in the right place. “For he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant. Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed.” Mary is saying that “I’m nothing special. I’m just a garden variety human being. But the divine has shown favor toward me and has bestowed blessing on me by choosing to inhabit me.” There is only one possible reason for this favor, because Mary knows that she has done nothing to earn it. This reason is love. Love is holy because it is a lot like grace—the worthiness of its object is never really what matters. The astounding mystery and wonder of God’s love for us permeates throughout the beautiful story of the Annunciation. This favor and blessing continues. hands_and_feet_2[1]The incarnation narrative—the story of God becoming flesh—is a direct response to our inherent flaws, imperfections, limitations, and evil. Divine favor and blessing is offered to all of us. And the status of humanity is raised when God inhabits it. I remember singing a Sunday School song that included the lines “we are his hands, we are his feet.” That is the mystery, the scandal, and the beauty of the incarnation story: God entrusts flawed human beings to be the divine in the world.

At St. John’s University and Abbey in Collegeville Minnesota, Benedictine priestdiekmann[1] Godfrey Diekmann was a rock star. He and his mentor, Fr. Virgil Michael, were perhaps more responsible for liturgical reform and renewal in the Catholic Church than any others. When I was a resident scholar at an ecumenical institute at St. John’s in the Spring 2009 semester, I heard many Godfrey Diekmann stories—his wit as well as his temper were legendary. My favorite of these stories might be apocryphal, but I heard it so often that I suspect it is true. One evening while eating with colleagues and students in the student dining room, Diekmann got involved in a spirited conversation about the heart of Christian theology and life. He startled those at his table as well as those within earshot by slamming his hand on the table and shouting “It’s not the Resurrection, god-dammit! It’s the Incarnation!” As students, stunned into silence, slipped away he added “But we don’t believe it. We don’t believe that we are invited to become the very life of God.” The Christmas we anticipate—that is incubating in each of us—is the moment of salvation as God enters time, history, and each of us.matthew_fox_original_blessing[1]

We are His hands. We are his feet. It almost makes me agree with former Dominican Matthew Fox, who has argued for years that the doctrine of original sin should be replaced with the doctrine of original blessing.

NativityAdvent’s strongest image is pregnancy. Elizabeth’s . . . Mary’s . . . so unexpected, so miraculous. Advent reminds us that in our lives there is always a child ready to enter the world—the divine child that is in each of us and the child of God that each of us is. So here we all are, favored of God, loved by God, regardless of whether we feel it or deserve it. A great gift has been placed in us, a gift that carries with it unlimited responsibility. How will we nurture this child? How will we bring it to birth? What is incubating in each of us is as individual and unique as each of us is—and it is divine. How will we welcome this child? Mary’s response must be ours: “Here we are, the servants of the Lord. Let it be with us according to your Word.”024

That Hopey Changey Thing

Although I was raised in the most non-liturgical version of Christianity imaginable, I love liturgy. When I was introduced to the annual liturgical cycle when I encountered the Episcopal church in my twenties, I found that I particularly resonated with Advent, the four weeks between Thanksgiving and Christmas that kicks off the liturgical year. Advent is the season of hope and expectation, which this year is particularly welcome. Because for many of us, hope is a particularly scarce commodity these days.Cyprian

Cyprian Consiglio, the Benedictine monk, theologian, hermitage prior and musician who ran the retreat I attended in Minnesota a couple of years ago, defines “liturgy” as “ideology in action.” Annie Dillard defines it as a collection of words and phrases that human beings over the centuries have been able to address to God without getting killed (she also suggests that we should wear crash helmets to church).

Annie Dilard I like both of these definitions. I have a deep resonance with liturgy, especially liturgy expressed in music, something surprising given that there was none in my Baptist world growing up. Although “ideology” is usually something I accuse people I disagree with of embracing, Cyprian’s definition reminds me that at its core, ideology is simply the collection of beliefs, stories, ideas and commitments, some conscious and some unconscious, that guides a person’s actions and frames a person’s life. We are all ideologues. Liturgical frameworks provide a container that shapes this collection with reference to what is greater than us. Annie’s definition is a reminder that the very attempt to say or do anything with content and meaning referring to what is greater than us is at best misguided, at worst ridiculous.

004Of the many varieties of liturgical celebration I have encountered over the past several years, including a number of them at St. John’s Abbey in Minnesota (the Benedictines know how to do liturgy better than anyone), the most striking is the Good Friday morning prayer service I have experienced twice with the monks at the Abbey. On Good Friday afternoon there is the large, austere three-hour service permeated primarily with silence and capped by kissing the cross that certain sorts of Christians are fond of (I’m not one of them). But at 7:00 in the morning, the Good Friday morning prayer service sets the tone for the day as a solitary monk chants the entire book of Lamentations from the Jewish scriptures. lamentationsNot familiar with that book? That’s probably because it’s the most depressing book in the Bible—perhaps anywhere. Lamentations is a litany of five poetic dirges over the destruction of Jerusalem. Traditionally attributed to the prophet Jeremiah, the tone of the poems is bleak: God does not speak, the degree of suffering is presented as undeserved, and expectations of future redemption are minimal. In Psalm 129 the Psalmist writes “Plowmen have plowed my back and made their furrows long”—Lamentations is page after page of that sentiment.

Exactly two years ago I found myself sitting toward the back of Providence College’s main chapel waiting for the beginning of a service in memory of our beloved colleague and friend Siobhan who died far too soon in an automobile accident the day before Thanksgiving. As I sat with the several hundred persons who closed offices and cancelled classes in the middle of the day to honor ross-siobhan-headshotSiobhan and celebrate her life, I noticed in the program that the Old Testament reading was from Lamentations. “That’s appropriate,” I thought. “At least there’s nothing in Lamentations that will tell us we should not feel the devastating loss and sadness that we share right now.” But I had forgotten that just about half way through the poems, Jeremiah comes up briefly for air.

I will call this to mind, as my reason to hope:

The favors of the Lord are not exhausted, his mercies are not spent;

They are renewed each morning, so great is his faithfulness.

My portion is the Lord, therefore will I hope in him.

Good is the Lord to one who waits for him, to the soul that seeks him;

It is good to hope in silence for the saving help of the Lord.

IHopey Changeyt seem like only a short time ago that a dynamic, fresh new face burst onto the American political scene promising “Hope and Change”; not long afterwards Sarah Palin, not particularly enamored of this new guy, snarkily asked “How’s that hopey changey thing working out for ya?” Politics aside, it’s a good question. The Apostle Paul famously wrote “Now abide faith, hope and love—but the greatest of these is love.” The editor of First Corinthians took out something else Paul wrote: “But sometimes the toughest of these is hope.”

Advent is the liturgical season of hope—my favorite of all the liturgical seasons because it means that the semester is almost over, I like purple, enjoy the Advent carols that only come around once a year, appreciate the opportunity to do something other than slog through the interminable Ordinary Time that has been going on since May, and because I am by nature a very hopeful person. But it has been a bit of a tough sell for many of us lately, with seemingly daily evidence that the world is a mess, no one has the capacity or wants to do anything about it, our country has elected a spectacularly unqualified person to be our next President, sprinkled with regular and tragic reminders that human life is fleeting and even the best can be taken away in a moment. “NPRThe world really sucks,” my lovely wife commented as we listened to NPR the other morning on the way downtown to the bus station so she could catch a ride to NYC for a weekend with her sister whose husband just died. And it does suck. But if we are willing to poke our heads even momentarily up from the shit, Lamentations tells us that hope is always appropriate—and is a choice.

Providence College’s annual Advent Lessons and Carols Service, an annual early December event, always opens with a beautiful hymn:lessons and carols

O come, divine Messiah!

The world in silence waits the day

When hope shall sing its triumph,

And sadness flee away.

Dear Savior haste;

Come, come to earth,

Dispel the night and show your face,

And bid us hail the dawn of grace. 

Who doesn’t want sadness to flee away? Who doesn’t want to see the dawn of grace that will drive away the night? But when the sadness is palpable, when the night is especially dark, what hope can a song offer? More importantly, in the midst of Advent, do we have any reason to believe that what we hope for—a divine presence in the midst of human sadness and darkness—is anything more than a fairy tale we repeat regularly in order to convince ourselves that there is a glimmer of meaning in a horribly dark world?

According to Lamentations, we have reason to hope if we choose to have it. And the reason to hope will not be found in external events, which will be as they will be. Hope finds its home in waiting, in silence, in emptiness, and in the conviction that there is more going on than meets the eye. There are as many ways to nurture the space of quietness and silence within as there are people containing that space. Our task is to be ready, to prepare a space for hope and promise to be nurtured, even when every external indicator is that there is no reason to hope. As Lao Tzu wrote,lao tzu

We shape clay into a pot,

but it is the emptiness inside that holds whatever we want.

We hammer wood for a house,

but it is the inner space that makes it livable.

I was taught as a child that I should find a place for the Christ child in my heart. I don’t exactly use that language any more, but I know what it means.

You come in peace and meekness,

And lowly will your cradle be;

All clothed in human weakness

Shall we your Godhead see.

Embracing the Barbarian Invasion

Every year the world is invaded by millions of tiny barbarians. We call them “children.”  Hannah Arendt

One of the wonderfully gratuitous features of my early years as a college professor was the opportunity to teach regularly with a couple of master teachers. During the first decade of my teaching career at Providence College, I taught on an interdisciplinary Honors Development of Western Civilization team every year with two such colleagues. images[6]Rodney was a teaching icon from the English department who now, a few years after his untimely passing, has a tree on campus, a seminar room in the brand new humanities building, and an annual lecture named after him. One of the most dynamic and engaging pedagogues I have ever encountered, I remember telling Jeanne shortly after meeting Rodney in the middle nineties in my first year at Providence College that “when I grow up, I want to be Rodney.”

rays[1]The other member of our teaching triumvirate, Ray, is an extraordinary professor out of the History department. He is also one of the flat-out finest human beings I have ever had the privilege of knowing. This coming spring Ray and I will be teaching a colloquium together for the third time the past four years, and class fondly referred to by students as “Nazi Civ.” I am a far better teacher and human being for having spent so many years in the classroom in the company of these outstanding colleagues.

Because we spent so much time together in and out of the classroom, the three of us got to know each others business over the semesters a bit more than is typical between professional colleagues. We often spoke of our children; Rodney’s and Ray’s were young adults at the time, while mine were in high school and junior high. One morning before class as we were getting coffee in the break room, Rodney was bemoaning the fact that he had returned home from work the previous day at 5:00 in the afternoon at the very same time that his son, yowl-380x190[1]a twenty-something who was still living at home, emerged bleary-eyed from his basement bedroom for the first time that day. As we compared notes about the shortcomings and failures of our respective offspring, Ray, who I had always pegged as the perfect father and husband, grew reflective. “I’ve heard so many parents talk about the wonders of parenthood, how raising children is such a privilege, how their children’s growing up years were the best years of their lives,” he said. “I guess I must have missed that.” Preach it, Ray. For all of our politically correct claims about the wonders of child rearing, all parents know that Hannah Arendt’s “tiny barbarians” comment is absolutely true. Civilizing barbarians is hard work.

Conan-the-Barbarian[1]The word “barbarian” is from the Greek word βαρβαρος (barbaros), the term Greeks used to refer to anyone who was not Greek. To the refined but xenophobic Greek ear, the sounds coming out of a non-Greek speaker’s mouth sounded like “bar, bar, bar”—hence, “barbarian.” We would call such persons “blahblahblahrians.” The wider connotation of “barbarian” is simply someone or something that does not fit into the expected categories, abide by the accepted rules, or behave according to agreed-upon standards. That description certainly fits children and a lot more—I frequently call our 196834_112520205494582_3062546_n[1]dachshunds barbarians when they pee or take a dump in the middle of the floor, just as I would probably call a human being a barbarian (and worse) if they did the same thing.

And yet there is something exhilarating about having barbarians in our midst. A world without barbarians, without unfamiliar hordes pressing against the outer walls of our holy-of-holies comfort zones, is a world that eventually would stagnate into a smug status quo. I realized this past semester, as I do in varying degrees every semester, that one of the regular features of what I do as a teacher is to let the barbarians loose on the civilized yet unexamined thought processes of my students. conan-barbarian-04_510[1]Philosophy is an inherently barbarian discipline because it’s entire raison d’etre is the challenge to consider that one’s most cherished beliefs might indeed need improvement, that the doors and windows to the inner sanctum might regularly be opened to allow the smelly and scary barbarians in.

Several years ago, when I was still an untenured assistant professor and should have been keeping my mouth shut, I recall being involved in a conversation about this feature of philosophy during a philosophy department meeting. We were in the process of crafting a new “mission statement” for the department, an exercise guaranteed to generate disagreement. Title[1]One of the older members who had been chair of the department for a couple of decades before my arrival, a Dominican priest, proposed that our mission statement read that “The mission of the philosophy department is to teach the Truth.” Period—and make sure that it’s a capital “T” on “Truth.” I, along with several others, suggested that this would presume that we possess the Truth with a capital T, a presumption that is directly contrary to the very spirit of the philosophical enterprise. In a condescending tone (or at least so it sounded to me), another priestly colleague said “Vance, some of us around here think we have the truth,” to which I replied “And here I thought we were a philosophy department.”

So how does one keep the pursuit of truth alive without it being sidetracked into defense of the Truth? Over the past several years in my teaching and writing this question has been directed more and more toward the arena within which Truth rears its ugly head most often—religious belief.collegeville-lecture-31[1] During my sabbatical semester at an ecumenical institute five years ago I described my original book project as follows: “Is it possible to live a life of human excellence, of moral focus and spiritual energy, in a world in which the transcendent is silent, in which God is arguably absent?” As I led an afternoon seminar based on my early work on this project with a dozen fellow “resident scholars,” one of them—a Lutheran pastor—asked “But Vance, don’t you have to believe something with certainty if you’re going to call yourself a Christian?” To which I replied, “I don’t know—do I?” I had been wondering that for many years, but this was the first time I had said it aloud. And it was liberating. What would a faith that in which no “truth” is a “Truth,” a faith in which no cows are sacred, look like?

As I’ve dug into these questions with new energy and focus over the past few years, several matters have begun clear, beginning with the fact that the transcendent is not silent after all and God is definitely not absent. They just show up in entirely different places than where we have traditionally looked for them. And I am finding that, for me at least, a vibrant faith requires little in the way of defending the Truth, but rather a willingness to welcome the divine even when wrapped in unexpected packages. JCarse3YT1.2c_000[1]As James Carse writes,

This is Christianity’s strongest feature: it tirelessly provokes its members to object to prevailing doctrines without having to abandon the faith . . . Neither Christianity nor any of the great religions has ever been able to successfully erect barriers against the dreaded barbarian incursions of fresh ideas. 

Such barbarian incursions are not to be feared or defended against. They are to be invited and welcomed. Just as the millions of tiny barbarians who invade the world every year are actually the way in which the human species is renewed and regenerated, so the regular introduction of barbarian ideas into our civilized and supposedly completed belief systems will keep those beliefs from turning into idols. What would a faith in which no “truth” is a “Truth,” a faith in which no cows are sacred look like? It would look a lot like Faith–the real thing.

The Joyful Owl

SagataganJust about seven years ago, on a beautiful summer morning very similar to the ones we are experiencing in Providence these days, I was just finishing a post-morning prayer walk around beautiful Lake Sagatagan behind St. John’s Abbey on the campus of St. John’s University in Collegeville, Minnesota. I had been in Collegeville for the first four-and-a-half months of 2009 on sabbatical and was now back for a week of writing and relaxation while Jeanne participated in a workshop at the Episcopal House of Prayer nearby. ThMary at stella marise point of destination when walking the perimeter of the lake is Stella Maris Chapel on the opposite shore from the Abbey, a lovely little chapel which contains an exquisitely unique statue of a pregnant Mary. St. John’s is situated on a national wildlife preserve; I learned during my months in residence never to walk the trails without a camera. On this particular morning, I noticed a dark shape in one of the massive trees just off the trail to the right. I stared at it for what seemed like several minutes. After concluding that it must be a large abandoned nest or simply the remains of a long-ago fallen branch, the top third of the shape turned slowly 180 degrees and looked directly at me. It was an owl.100_0767

I have noted occasionally in this blog that I am obsessed with penguins, to the extent that I once dedicated a post exclusively to penguins.

Well-Dressed Birds

But I also love owls. They’re not quite as cool as penguins, but come in a very close second. If penguins did not exist (a world I do not care to consider possible), my office would be full of owl paraphernalia instead of penguin stuff. And I could make a better case for an owl obsession than I can for penguins. Owls are iconic symbols of wisdom, something everyone wants (I think).the owl of minerva Accordingly, philosophers should like owls. As a matter of fact, The Owl of Minerva is generally considered to be the best philosophy journal in the English-speaking world dedicated to the philosophy of the great nineteenth-century German philosopher Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, just in case you’re interested. The title of the journal is a reference to the owl being the favored bird of Athena, the Greek goddess of wisdom (Minerva is her Roman name)—who just happens to be my favorite resident of Mount Olympus. Stuttgart_Athene_ZeusYou have to take notice of someone who sprang fully grown and clothed in battle armor directly from her father’s skull and started giving him advice. So I immediately chalked up my owl sighting as yet another gratuitous favor sent to me from the divine as confirmation that this place in the middle-of-nowhere Minnesota is indeed a spiritual home. It only could have been topped by some penguins waddling down the path in my direction.

I don’t recall that owls were a favorite of mine as a child. My attraction to owls was most likely triggered during my first couple of years of teaching after graduate school. I was on the faculty at a small Catholic college in Memphis where they basically needed someone to teach business ethics to their business and engineering students. spotted owlSo I did—five sections per semester for three years. I always included a unit on environmental issues, and during the early 90s this invariably meant spotted owls. Native to the Pacific Northwest, the endangered spotted owls were very picky about where they nested and lived—which just happened to be in the middle of prime timber forest. Every time well-meaning people would relocate the owls, they immediately moved back to their original section of the forest that various constituencies wanted to cut down and turn into useful items that people will pay money for. So the debate raged—tree_huggertree huggers arguing that this forest must remain untouched so the spotted owls could live where they chose, and good capitalists screaming foul over the idea that a stupid, useless bird that no one ever saw because they only came out at night when everyone was asleep could actually hold up progress and money-making. My students had many fine, spirited debates—so many that at the end of one semester they presented me with a stuffed spotted owl toy that perches twenty years later proudly on top of one of my office bookcases.

Imagine my delight when taking the “What Animal Were You in a Past Life” quiz that popped up one day on Facebook to find out that

What Animal Were You in a Past Life?

You were the Owl. Graceful, quiet, and majestic, you glide silently through the night. You are self-sufficient, independent, and make the most of everything around you. You are not very picky about what you like, and when you love something, it will be forever. You would make a wonderful parent, but in no way would you spoil your children; they would be taught how to look after themselves. You are a symbol of guidance.

flying owlIt’s very interesting how these descriptions put a positive spin on features that aren’t that attractive. For instance, “You are not very picky about what you like” is a reference to the fact that owls are birds of prey and will basically eat anything they find. The positive qualities listed are ones that I certainly aspire to and I can almost remember “glid[ing] silently through the night” in my past life as an owl.

Owls are not funny. Here’ a typical example of owl humor:

An owl and a field mouse walk into a bar. The owl turns to the field mouse, but doesn’t say anything because owls can’t talk. Then the owl eats the field mouse, because owls are predatory birds.

Owls are serious predators of the night, wise and stealthy as they swoop about taking care of their nocturnal business. Nothing humorous there.

So I was confused a few days later when I took the “What is Your Spiritual Power?” quiz (I really do need to get a life) and was told that

What is Your Spirit Power?

You got Joy. You are the most joyful spirit around. The happiness within you never stops flowing. You’ve never kept it all for yourself either, you’ve always made others happy when they needed it most.

Joy? Really? This will come a surprise to Jeanne. She’s the one who has Pharell Williams’ song “Happy” as the ringtone on her phone.

I would be more likely to have the tune to “Leave me the fuck alone” on my phone. What would a happy, joyful owl be like? In the world of Photoshopping, all sorts of possibilities are available.untitled But in the real world, owl joy is hard to detect. Take my word for it—it’s in there. As soon as I find it, I’ll let it out.Caleb owl

I AM smiling.

I AM smiling.

The Universe in a Coffee Cup

If you are fond of a cup, say “I am fond of a cup!” For then when it is broken you will not be upset. Epictetus

My first foray into the world of podcasts a couple of weeks ago included an extended discussion of Stoicism. Every time I teach the Stoics, I am reminded of how full their philosophy is of “Well, duh!!” truths. That’s a compliment, not a criticism. As a philosophy professor, I rely on such truths when trying to hook students into a discipline that can often be—Grand Inquisitoras Dostoevsky’s Grand Inquisitor accused Jesus of being—“vague, exceptional, and enigmatic.” Every time the students’ eyes glaze over after a little too much exposure to metaphysical fog, it’s good to find something, somewhere, in the assigned text that actually relates to the lives that human beings live. This is not a case, as my father used to say, of “putting the cookies on the lowest shelf where everyone can reach them.” Rather, it is a recognition that since all human beings live on the same shelf most of the time, a “take away” relevant to life on that shelf helps to keep bad attitudes about philosophy at a minimum.

One the most basic “Well, duh!” Stoicisms has to do with not getting too attached to material things. EncheiridionIn his Encheiridion, Epictetus reminds us regularly that putting all of our happiness eggs in the material things basket is risky business, a business he strongly advises against. My students all know that they are not supposed to love material things—Jesus said so, Socrates said so, Gandhi said so, and so did their grandmother—but we live in a world in which this “truism” is extraordinarily difficult to actually live out. Although one of the typical concerns about material things is that they tend to corrupt one’s soul or turn one’s attention away from eternal things, in true Stoic fashion Epictetus’ warning is more practical. It doesn’t make sense to get too attached to anything that is not within one’s control, and despite our best efforts, material things are not within our control. Just ask the millionaire whose carefully selected and accumulated possessions have just been wiped out by a tornado or a wildfire. We need material things to survive but should not try to construct happiness on such a foundation. Well, duh!

I have never had much difficulty with this particular truth—case in point is that the eleven year old Hyundai Jeanne and I are currently driving is the nicest car we have owned in the twenty-five plus years that we have been together (although we just dropped a bunch of money to keep it in good running order). Even though we have accumulated a lot of stuff over the years, stuff just isn’t that big of a deal for me for the most part. Except for books. And my favorite coffee cupS. We must have a couple of dozen coffee cups at home, two of which are my favorites, one because its handle accommodates two fingers on my large right hand rather than one, the other because it has an image of the Book Cow from the CowParade phenomenon of several years ago. coffee cupThen there is my “I’m a Big Fucking Deal” coffee cup–a much appreciated Father’s Day gift from my youngest son–that sits proudly on a top shelf in myoffice. That cup is so important that I have never drunk anything out of it.

But in terms of importance and meaning these all pale in comparison to a coffee cup that experienced a tragic disaster a couple of years ago. One of the fascinating features of the Collegeville, MN collection of university, Benedictine Abbey, ecumenical institute and other interesting centers of spirituality and education where I spent a life-changing sabbatical over seven years ago is the St. John’s Pottery, described on its main web page as follows:

St Johns potteryFor 35 years, The Saint John’s Pottery has embodied the Benedictine values of community, hospitality and self-sufficiency as well as the University’s commitment to the integration of art and life; the preservation of the environment; the linkage between work and worship; and the celebration of diverse cultures.

During my months at Collegeville I never visited the Pottery, which is located in enough of an out-of-the-way location on campus that I chose not to take the dozens of extra steps in ass-freezing weather to get there. But I often admired the plates, cups and other assorted pottery things in the university bookstore. I imagined that the Pottery was something like elvesSanta’s Workshop at the North Pole, with Benedictine monks taking the place of Santa’s elves, making and then packaging their wares to be shipped around the world. I never could pull the trigger on purchasing a $35 coffee cup, though, and returned home from sabbatical without one. It was only a couple of years later when back on campus with Jeanne for Easter that we visited the Pottery and she talked me into purchasing a coffee cup (not that it took a lot of convincing). It turns out that a master potter and his assistants make the stuff rather than monks. With the trademark St. John’s cross imprinted in the center, attractive blue/gray and cream swirled colors (or so they seem to partially colorblind me), and the necessary handle large enough to accommodate my fat fingers, I had a monk-made coffee cup (I chose to believe the myth) to remind me of my spiritual home away from home. Nice.004

Until I dropped it and it broke into about eighteen pieces not that long ago. It happened on a typically frantic morning as I juggled various demands; it slipped out of my hand on my way to the Keurig machine. A hush fell over those in the break room, as they knew this was my favorite drinking implement. As I stoically said “Oh well, there are more where that came from” I was internally screaming “FUUUUUUCCCCKKKK!” Stoicism is about creating a space of inner tranquility that will lead to outer effectiveness, but in this case my attempts at inner tranquility had not averted outer catastrophe. The largest portion of the shattered cup preserved the imprinted cross intact; this shard has perched on my desk ever since as a reminder of a dark day in my history. It will also be a cool remnant of twenty-first century culture 005when it is excavated at an archaeological dig many millennia in the future.

Some time later I returned to Collegeville for a four-day retreat; before even showing up at the retreat venue I drove onto campus in order to visit the bookstore and purchase a new monk-crafted coffee cup (I still choose to believe the myth). From a row of a half-dozen candidates, I chose a cup with the same shape, color scheme and imprinted cross, plunked down my $35 (inflation has not hit Minnesota pottery yet) and I was in business. I drank tea and coffee from it mindfully and with proper attentiveness at the retreat and it is now my favorite coffee cup in my office. But in comparing it with the fragmented shard from the broken original, I noticed that while the exteriors of the new and old cups are quite similar, the inside of the new one is significantly more attractive than the inside of its predecessor. 006The swirling contrasts of the colors are more interesting, a couple of random cream-colored spots celebrate its uniqueness, and I especially like that the inside of the bottom says NO KIDDING–YOU REALLY ARE A BIG FUCKING DEAL! when I have emptied the liquid (not really).

I choose to consider my replacement monk-crafted cup as a reflection of what has been going on with me over the past several years. I’m pretty much the same on the outside (except for a few less pounds and larger bags under the eyes); all of the change has been internal. And for the most part, the changes have been welcome. lao tzuBecause I like what I’m discovering inside, I’m becoming more effective externally. Inner tranquility to outer effectiveness. The retreat I attended reminded me of the importance of internal peace and tranquility as a proper receptacle for the divine within me. As Lao Tzu wrote, We shape clay into a pot, but it is the emptiness inside that holds whatever we want007

Learning How to Read

There is a mystery in reading, a mystery which, if we contemplate it, may well help us, not to explain, but to grab hold of other mysteries in human life. Simone Weil

CB and LinusMy early years were full of apocryphal stories of how I learned to read. According to my mother, I was reading by age three without anyone having taught me how to do it. I was never without a book,  and lined up my menagerie of stuffed animals on the couch to read to them. Knowing how stories tend to take on a life of their own, I cannot attest to the accuracy of these reports (although it was my father rather than my mother who was prone to telling tall tales). I do know that my love of books extends as far back as I can remember, and that I know how to read before I could tell time or tie my shoes—perhaps my parents should have provided me with instruction manuals to read. Because I could read on a fifth grade level before starting first grade, according to the school board member who tested me at home, I went through first and second grade in one year. moving from one side of the room to the other in our little school after Christmas break. cursiveI’ve paid a lifelong price for that honor—I joined second grade when they were all the way to the letter “W” in their cursive writing studies. My “w’s.” “x’s,” “y’s” and “z’s” are fabulous, but other than that my cursive has been illegible, even to me, ever since.

Several years ago during an eye exam, my new ophthalmologist asked “do you read very much?” I laughed as I said “I read for a living!” The written word is not only the foundation of my professional life, but has also been my spiritual lifeline for most of my life. For many years all that remained of my religious upbringing was the Bible. bigstock-Holy-Bible-828340-300x235Even though I no longer believed it to be the literally inerrant word of God as I was taught, large portions of it resided in my memory, ready to be accessed in class and conversation as well as popping up even when uninvited. I memorized large portions of the Bible growing up, as all good Baptist kids should, continually reminded that “Thy Word have I hid in my heart, that I might not sin against Thee.” We were taught that since the canon of Scripture was completed, we should not expect further communication from the divine in the form of miracles, signs and wonders, or direct communication. We already had God’s final word to us in completed form; now we just needed to obey it and hang on until the Second Coming.

I was accordingly jerked up short a few years ago when I read in a book by theologian Patrick Henry that “God died because people forgot how to read.” I don’t entirely remember the context of the claim nor Henry’s explication, but I was reminded of the phrase this past week as I read a manuscript on SimoneSimone Weil’s philosophy as an outside reader for a prestigious academic press. In her “Essay on the Concept of Reading,” she argues that we “read” everything in our environment. “The sky, the sea, the sun, the stars, human beings, everything that surrounds us is something that we read.” This is much broader understanding of “reading” than our traditional Western conception, which considers reading to be an exclusively cognitive, intellectual, and mental activity—precisely the sort of activity I’ve spent the majority of my waking hours on this planet doing. So how is it that such a crucial, human defining activity as reading could be forgotten, even to the point of emptying the divine of content? The problem is not with reading per se—it’s that we’ve forgotten that reading is not just an intellectual activity. lectioGod’s death is not due to a misuse of or over-reliance on the activity of reading. It’s due to forgetting what true reading even is.

I had heard and read about “lectio divina,” sacred reading before I went on sabbatical to a AbbeyBenedictine college campus with a large abbey on site, but it had not struck me as a particularly interesting concept. Just another skill to learn, technique to master, perhaps—but really, if there’s one thing I know how to do pretty well, its reading. But after several weeks of daily prayer with the abbey monks, it dawned on me that lectio divina isn’t about words and meaning and retention at all. I often found that I did not remember, even for the amount of time it took to walk from the choir stalls to the front of the abbey and exit, which Psalms we had read nor any of the content. Yet I had a sense that what we were doing was far more important than reading a book, marking it with highlighter and pen in my usual method, and perhaps memorizing a phrase or two for future reference in class or conversation.choir stalls

What was happening in the choir stalls was not a mind event, but a full body experience bypassing my overdeveloped mind and seeping into all the other parts of me that had been starved for years. My bodily rhythms, my intuitions, my emotions, my spirit. The Psalms speak of God’s word all the time, but almost never of thinking about God’s word. jeremiahIt’s more like what Jeremiah reports: “The words were found and I did eat them, and thy word was unto me the joy and rejoicing of my heart.” Simone Weil was channeling her internal Jeremiah when she wrote that “I only read what I am hungry for at the moment when I have an appetite for it, and then I do not read, I eat.” And like a mother bird regurgitating food for the babies, an important word or phrase would come into my consciousness later in the day, one that I didn’t remember reading but which had dripped into my soul.

In our “real world” of immediacy, getting it done, making money and a living, is there a place for what I began to absorb in a monastery abbey in the middle-of-nowhere Minnesota? Over the subsequent years I’ve seen small but important evidence of change in how I converse with people, how I approach the day, and a heightened and more immediate sense of when a layer is threatening to grow back over my divine reading space. silence-is-the-language-of-godLearning how to read differently is not just another technique; because it is a new way of being, it is transferable to everything. I went on sabbatical expecting to write about trying to sustain a life of faith when God at best is a silent partner who never writes, calls, emails, texts or tweets. Now the divine is everywhere and seems to have a lot to say. Reading the divine begins with believing that everything is sacramental, infused with the breath of God, with taking “the Word became flesh” very seriously. All of creation is a sacred text. I didn’t know it, because I didn’t know how to read.