This Costly Caring

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Is not this the fast that I choose: to loose the bonds of injustice . . . To let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke? — Isaiah 58: 6

At nineteen I am traveling Europe with friends during the winter break from college in England, in December of ‘71. Each of us has a Eurail pass, which guarantees a place to sleep every night on the train if you don’t mind waking up in a different country.

We have split up for a few days, so I am on my own, traveling from Switzerland to Austria. Funds from home had not arrived by the time we left for the Continent, and I am in Austria when I run out of money. All I have are a few coins from some of the countries I have passed through. There is no possibility of getting money from home, so I will wait it out. Perhaps, when I meet my friend again, he can float me a small loan to get me through until I can get back to college.

I step into a bakery shop in Vienna, sort through the coins in my pocket, but I realize I don’t have enough even for a bun. So, back out into the grey and freezing day, one of the coldest winters in Europe for years. I walk and walk to keep warm, stopping in shops along the way and jamming my hands in my jean pockets. I am to meet my friend that day at the train station, so I walk there and back and there again, throughout the day, but something has happened, and he does not arrive.

One day without food becomes two, and then three. At night, I take the train to another city, someplace like Munich, arriving at three a.m. I wait an hour or two and then take a five a.m. train to still another city. The first twenty-four hours I fantasize about food, the second day I have cramping hunger pangs, but by the third day, although I am getting lightheaded and walking slower, my senses have sharpened. I almost feel euphoric. It seems to me—in this state—that going without food isn’t so bad, and that if I had to, I could keep this up indefinitely.

I begin to notice people I might not have seen otherwise. People slumped in the shadows around the train stations I am frequenting. People in doorways, on park benches, huddled under bridges. They remind me of how privileged I am and that my discomfort, such as it is, will be temporary. Unlike them, I have a ticket out of here. That is my ultimate insurance policy; if things get really bad, I know someone in Davos I can stay with. And eventually, Lord willing, my friend and I will meet up again.

So, I drop deeper into this experience, discovering the boundaries and limitations of fasting, plumbing the depths of spirit and temperament, absorbing and examining physical exhaustion and cold. In some way not completely clear to me, I am trying on the cloak of poverty and homelessness, all the while knowing that my situation is still salvageable, not hopeless.

On the evening of the fourth day, during the week leading up to Christmas, I am waiting on the train platform of a town in Switzerland. It is about ten p.m. A raucous party is in session just inside the station doors. Through the windows I can see steins being raised, songs sung, tables and tables of food and wine, flushed faces, red cheeks, and Christmas cheer. I am alone on the platform.

Suddenly, the door bursts open, and a young man strides out with a tray full of pastries, fruit, and a beer. He is smiling broadly, and through the open door behind him I can see people clustered together, peering at me and throwing kisses. He sets the tray down on the bench beside me and shouts, “Ist gut?” He gestures back to the people behind him. “Merry Christmas!” he says, and bows. There is a beery chorus of “Merry Christmas!” from the crowd and much lifting of steins. I am almost speechless, but I manage a “Ja, das ist gut!” My train is huffing in, so I stuff as much as I can of everything into my pack, bow to the young man and the crowd, and with new energy hop aboard as they wave me into the night.

Years later, riding the Metro in Washington, D.C., day after day, to job interviews that invariably went well but produced nothing, I felt again the pangs of desperation that hit me during the first day of my enforced fast. I could overhear young lawyers in the seats around me complaining about their seventy-hour weeks and the costs of maintaining their BMWs, and I inwardly rolled my eyes. I would have been happy to be overburdened with work of any kind.

Yet, those experiences gave me a taste of how people think and feel when their lifelines fail. There is a sense of helplessness. The usual means we have of making things happen are gone. Without money we are first impotent and later invisible. Money is power, however temporary and ultimately illusory. With it, we extend ourselves into the world around us and affect changes that benefit us and others. Without it, we eventually become invisible. But before we become invisible, we first undergo a blurring, a smearing, of our lines of identity. Our desperation leaks out, however feverishly we repress it. It makes people nervous; they cover their mouth as if we had coughed in their face. They look away and mumble. You can see the panic in their eyes.

The invisibility comes later. Some become invisible because their skin color blends with the shadows, some because they are shockingly decrepit and ragged. Others become invisible because of age. Some years ago, in a local Panera, I was moving toward the coffee machines when an elderly woman crossed my path. I stopped to let her by, and she looked up at me and said, “Thank you for noticing me.”

I have talked to people in homeless shelters who were stunned at how quickly they found themselves on the street. For some, two missed paychecks meant eviction. There were no savings to fall back on, no credit lines to be extended, no relatives in a position to offer help. One day they were working, the next they were laid off. The safety net extended only so far and there were gaps in the webbing that most people fell through. These are truths worn thin on the treadmill of regrets.

Many of us live insulated from the rigors of being poor in the United States. We have a steady income, adequate healthcare, a decent school system. We are safe—for now. But now we are in the midst of a pandemic, the limits of which cannot be determined yet. Our way of life, our routines, so much of what we take for granted, has been and will be, upended to an extent we are only just beginning to discern. There are no guarantees, either for the continuity of our lives or for life itself. Some of us will die from this; many of us will lose family and friends. All of us will be changed by this.

Some have said that we should never let a crisis go to waste. Perhaps the divisive politics of the last several years can be shouldered aside as we face a common enemy. In the words of Jean-Luc Picard from my favorite Star Trek episode: “Danger shared can sometimes bring two people together.”

If we were not convinced before, the spread of the coronavirus should wipe away any denial of how connected we all are. No respecter of boundaries—political, geographical, religious, or ethnic—the virus has revealed how mobile we are, how interdependent we are, how reliant we are on the social contracts of decency, respect, and fairness. In a literal sense, when just one person is afflicted, everyone is at risk. It becomes a powerful metaphor for the ways injustice and inequity destroy a society from within.

Now we have an opportunity to see how deep the bonds of our communities run. How we can respond with resilience to this clear and present danger. How our imaginations can help us find ways to connect despite our distance from each other.

There are more questions than answers in this time. Aside from the medical emergency questions, there are questions that go to our humanity and our humaneness. Going forward after this crisis, how do we bring justice to our healthcare institutions, our network of social services, our educational system, our political priorities, and our sense of who we are as people within countries? These are the perennial challenges within any society; they are not solvable, only made more adaptable and more just. But a crisis of this scale exposes the fissures in our foundations and gives us the opportunity and incentive to rebuild with diligence for a more humane future.

This is the season of Lent for Christians. We are called to reflect upon our past with hope toward our future, to remember that despite our blindness, our mistrust, our flailing about, God-in-Christ loves us still. It is not the healthy who need the doctor, Jesus reminds us, but the ill. That is us; coronavirus or not, we all suffer from pre-existing conditions that threaten our trust and faith. Now is the time to sidestep those “sins which so easily beset us,” and to live into the answers.

I discovered some small-scale truths when I returned to the States after my year in England. Much that I had taken for granted was ephemeral, and that which seemed insubstantial turned out to be rock-solid and everlasting. My fast was not of my choosing, but it did set me free and it broke the yoke that I so blithely carried.

Living into Truths

“Christianity . . . is, in other words, a form of life that requires—in order to be truly grasped—the engagement of the imagination, the sense and the intellect.”1

Photo by Ray Fragapane, Unsplash

In one of his most famous letters, Rainer Maria Rilke advises a young poet to “live the questions now,” to not be too quick to assume the answers. Let yourself experience life, Rilke says, and “Perhaps you will then gradually, without noticing it, one distant day live right into the answer.”2 It is a matter of living everything, including the questions. He asks the young man to experience the mysteriousness of the questions, as if they were closed rooms or language in a strange tongue.

As an example of how we stumble onto truth, or rather peer into truths that wait quietly in the corners of our evenings, Rilke’s words illuminate. How often does a way through a thicket of questions appear after a night of dreams or the most obvious of meanings emerge in the gaps between our conscientious struggles with familiar problems? And how surprising and humbling to recognize, belatedly, how much was there in front of us that we did not see? We are built to want answers or at least to keep turning the questions over in our hands like smooth stones.

Rilke could avow this because he had learned, through solitude and transience, to live his own way into the questions. If you’re young, like his poet friend Kappus, questions are tools to help you pry open the chest where the secrets are kept. Kappus wanted to learn how to write poems that would make people gasp, that would open their eyes to what was around them. Rilke wanted precisely that for Kappus: to see his own life as a question directed to the answers that were within him, that no one but he could know.

***

All learning—so I learned after the fact—begins with questions. From a standing start, how high you could jump would be limited only by the spring of your questions. That’s not to say you would try to find the most obscure, complex questions, but rather that you asked the questions of the heart, the ones stated simply, the ones you had to ask.

My history with questions began with an early fascination with how things worked and why people did what they did. Because I loved to write, I found my way into a journalism major, the nearest I could come to learning how to write about what triggered my curiosity. Later, I extended my questions God-ward—where does our freedom and God’s will intersect? Why does God allow evil to exist? How and what can we know of God? Eventually, I took degrees in philosophy of religion.

When I began teaching, I discovered that the questions I asked often determined the answers given. At the time, fresh out of graduate school and trying to learn how to teach to learn, it was a revelation that lead me to epistemology—how we learn and what we can know.

To ask a question is to admit a deficit. It takes a certain humility, a learned virtue that we are not born with. We can practice epistemological humility; in time, it will be the bass line to the melody of the answers we perceive. In time, it may become a blind virtue, one that we don’t need to see with in order to move with confidence.

In the constantly re-forming seascape that is our consciousness, we pay attention, as William James said, to what matters to us. Yet, if we’re not aware of what we don’t know, how can we see the new if it does not break into our consciousness in some way, long enough for our attention to focus on it?

“Our perceptions shape our decisions, for good or ill,” David Harned reminds us, “and how we see is ‘a function of our character, of the history and habits of the self, and ultimately of the stories that we have heard and with which we identify ourselves.’”3

Farther back and higher up, above our questions, lies our imagination, fed on stories and images that shape us as we take them in to live with us. Questioning is an act of the imagination. When we ask, we are springing over the abyss, taking a leap to land on all fours, praying we can rise to walk. That’s one reason for teachers to encourage students to question; it’s also a reason not to scoff at the questions they ask. When we question—in our innocence—we are vulnerable, imagining a different world, a parallel universe perhaps, in which hazy ideas take root and a new way of being can emerge. Imagination previews transformation.

***

When it comes to religion, there are questions that should not be asked—or so we were told as teenagers. Hearing that some things ought not to be questioned turns curious students into moles digging tunnels. A constricted view assumes that all we need to know is what we have to do to get to heaven. It demands that we give up reason and imagination for blinkered obedience: “Here’s the algorithm—just run it.” But there is so much more to a life with God-in-Christ.

David Brown, in God and Mystery in Words, says, “two competing streams have characterized the history of western monotheism: the search for definition and explanation on the one hand and on the other the acceptance of mystery.”4 The tendency from medieval times to the present, favored explanation over mystery and experience. There is no reason why mystery and doctrine have to fight it out; in fact, epistemological humility would suggest they complement each other rather than compete. But we feel safer explaining than exploring.

Mystery calls for imagination while doctrine relies on reason. We can debate and argue and cajole one another over points of doctrine, but the only test that matters in matters of faith is whether faith can stand when the sand on which we stand slips out with the tide.

“There is no clean intellectual coherence, no abstract ultimate meaning to be found,” says Christian Wiman, “and if this is not recognized, the compulsion to find such certainty becomes its own punishment. This realization is not the end of theology, but the beginning of it: trust no theory . . . in which the author’s personal faith is not actively at risk.”5

Abraham Joshua Heschel, the rabbi-philosopher who has made awe and wonder the starting-point for authentic religion, declares two types of thinking: conceptual and situational. Conceptual thinking uses reason to extend our knowledge of the world. Science and philosophy are the methods. Situational thinking tries to understand issues “on which we stake our very existence.”6 Religion is often where these questions spring up.

Philosophy’s answers are really new questions in disguise, each answer opening new inquiries. “In religion, on the other hand, the mystery of the answer hovers over all questions.”7 Philosophy requires the detachment of observers, not participants. Problems are held at arms-length and the important ones are rendered as universals. For religion, though, every such problem is personal. “Unless we are involved,” insists Heschel, “the problem is not present.”8

If I have questioned my life’s direction, its meaning wells up in unguarded moments, as present as tears. It’s the oblique angles, the accidental discoveries, which startle us to attention. We see ourselves at a distance and strain to hear what we say, imagining how we might have done better to square the difference between our intentions and our inventions of ourselves. “Creative thinking,” offers Heschel, “is not stimulated by vicarious issues but by personal problems.”9

None of this should cancel out our reasoning, our listening to trusted friends, the solitude of our prayers. These are ways God breaks through our encrusted and stale shells. Even so, the imagination flourishes in asking if there is more than the dull repetitions of our spiritual treadmill. “What imagination offers is . . . to think laterally, to allow combinations that are not themselves necessarily present either in the mind or in nature.”10

I think the imagination is where the Spirit is most free to enliven us. It’s where our attention is captured, where our perceptions sharpen, where the patience to live into the questions is nurtured. It’s where we begin to trust that “Divine folly is wiser than the wisdom of man, and divine weakness stronger than man’s strength.”11

If we can imagine how God has chosen “mere nothings, to overthrow the existing order,” as improbable as that seems, then with a sense of profound relief we can give up trying to strong-arm our way through life and can look around us with renewed hope to see where God is at work in the world. “You are in Christ Jesus by God’s act . . . In him we are consecrated and set free.”12

  1. C. S. Lewis and Friends: Faith and the Power of Imagination. Edited by David Hein and Edward Henderson. Eugene, OR: Cascade Books, 2011, p. 2.
  2. Rilke, Rainer Maria. Letters to a Young Poet. Translated with an Introduction and Commentary by Reginald Snell. Mineola, NY: Dover Publications, 2002, p. 21.
  3. Hein and Henderson, p. 4.
  4. Brown, David. God and Mystery in Words: Experience Through Metaphor and Drama. Oxford University, 2008, p. 4.
  5. Wiman, Christian. My Bright Abyss. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2013, p. 75.
  6. Heschel, Abraham Joshua. God in Search of Man: A Philosophy of Judaism. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1955, p. 5.
  7. Heschel, p. 4.
  8. Heschel, p. 5.
  9. Heschel, p. 5.
  10. Hein and Henderson, p. 4.
  11. I Corinthians 1:25 NEB.
  12. I Corinthians 1:30 NEB.

No Offense

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“But observe what a poor service one renders Christianity by doing away with the possibility of offense and making it an amiable, sentimental paganism.”1 — Soren Kierkegaard

More than any other relationship that asked of us honesty, endurance, and humility, our relationship with Christ turned us inside out, caused us to question our version of reality, brought us up short when we examined our motives.

And so it should, for there was no one to whom we, the original Twelve, could compare Christ. Having given himself into the hands of God, he remained solidly here among us, visible but not definable, offering words that slid past us like melting ice, vanishing even as we clutched at them. Yet somehow, they burned themselves into our memories, to be recalled and spent in the moment, with effects on others that we recognized, but only later understood.

***

Soren Kierkegaard, that contentious, brilliant, and caustic Romantic of 19th-century Copenhagen, wrote his most accessible book, Training in Christianity, not long before he died in 1855 at the age of forty-two. In it, he contrasted Christianity with Christendom, with the latter receiving his everlasting scorn.

Christendom, said Kierkegaard, was the smoothly-accommodating cultural partner of the world, consonant with citizenship, demanding nothing of its members, offering no critique against the shallow perversity of society. Christianity, on the other hand, as defined by Kierkegaard, was a narrow path for the one who was not afraid of martyrdom. The one who rose to the standard he called ‘the knight of faith.‘ Kierkegaard was alert—some might say, obsessively so—to those who misunderstood and mischaracterized him. He addressed himself to ‘my reader.’ The singular noun was intentional.

In Training in Christianity, Kierkegaard insists that unless Christ gives offense he is not really the God-Man. It’s the method and direction of his communication that makes the difference. Christ asks his disciples directly, “Do you believe?”, a question they cannot avoid to his face and will answer positively. But for today’s disciples, asserts Kierkegaard, Christ asks indirectly, putting them to the test. He hides himself, speaks through his absence, so the individual disciple really must choose, must make a decision to trust or not. This inward, indirect communication of Christ to the believer is the real test of faith. Kierkegaard’s attack on Christendom was over making Jesus, as the God-Man, too tame, a being without offense, for whom we do not have to sacrifice, over whom we are not tested, and therefore do not have to exercise authentic faith.

This astringent Christianity is, for Kierkegaard, the only true type because it requires a leap of faith that is not supported by any rationalization. That is the only kind of faith which is genuine, he says, because it is not reliant on the crowd nor on our preferences nor on a dilatory choice among a buffet of options nor on a syllogism of logic within a tidy system of thought. On the contrary, this faith requires everything of us: “Let us go and die with him.”

***

I have been scratching the itch that is Kierkegaard for many years, ever since I first read him in college. For a young person just beginning to own his Christianity, SK (as he is known in the philosophy trade) is thrilling. He doesn’t have the coruscating cynicism toward religion that Nietzsche has, but neither does he have the startling clarity and immediacy of Nietzsche’s aphorisms. What he does have in everything he writes, is a singular focus on faith as the passionate commitment to Christ above all else.

The tension is between the individual following Christ and the church that bows the knee to the ruling culture. The Danish Lutheran church in SK’s time was a branch of the state; it would not bite the hand that fed it. As he saw it, the official church was lost, irredeemable—and even worse—placid in the face of its idolatry.

For it was clear to SK that genuine faith in the God-Man was so contrary to our worldly desires that if we weren’t offended then it wasn’t real faith. “But whether one does away with faith or with the possibility of offense, one does away at the same time with something else—the God-Man. And if one does away with the God-Man, one does away with Christianity.”2

In SK’s time, to be Danish was to be a Christian—and that was deeply offensive to him. Christianity was not our birthright nor was it included as a signing bonus in our citizenship papers. It was always and ever to be a decision made regardless of the cost, in which one threw oneself across the void to be caught in trust by God’s grace in Christ. A stark and clear commitment.

For the Christian, this is a perennial question. How are we to relate to the world? We are in it; as humans we belong here, yet we are called to live on the border between the immanent and the transcendent. We are to love the world in all its broken, weary beauty—but to remind it that its ways are broken, that justice must lift up the powerless, and that its power plays are tragically and irreversibly flawed.

Christendom assumed Christ was in the past, safely subsumed under the weight of history, culture, military might, ritual, and shrewd thinking. We could look back on him, almost nostalgically, at Christmas and at Easter, and admire his stalwart dedication—without considering that his whole life, and especially his death, was an electrifying call to us to change our lives.

For Kierkegaard, we are to be “contemporaneous with Christ,” nothing less will do. Christ is the present tense of God and about him a decision must be made—today.

But in contrast to the mind-set of our time, Kierkegaard refuses to be seduced into the autonomy of the self-made person. He has seen his own weaknesses; he knows there can only be solace and strength in casting his lot with the Christ who, through love, bore everything the powers could throw at him. In his Works of Love, published in 1847, he brings us to the inmost heart of the Christian experience in a series of reflections or “Christian discourses” on God’s gift of love to us. As with all his other writings, these reflections are meant to provoke action and change in our lives.

“The most mediocre defense against hypocrisy,” he says, “is prudence . . . The best defense against hypocrisy is love . . . This also is a fruit whereby love is known—it secures the lover against falling into the snare of the hypocrite.”3 But Kierkegaard knows that the fruit of love in a person develops slowly; there will be setbacks and discouragement. We will be tempted to give up and to turn bitter when loving our neighbor as ourselves does not come easily.

“But now we return again to the first point and say, repeating: believe in love! This is the first and last thing to be said about love if one is to know what love is.”4 He continues: “If mistrust can see something as less than it actually is, love also can see something as greater than it is . . .”5 If we are happy to see the fruits of love in ourselves or in another person, he says, it is still more blessed to “believe in love.” To go back to the beginning, to ground ourselves in the belief that God loves us, no matter how meager the fruits of our love, is to enjoy the upwelling of the Spirit in our lives.

“Therefore the last, the most blessed, the absolutely convincing evidence of love remains: love itself, which is known and recognized by the love in another. Like is known only by like. Only he who abides in love can recognize love, and in the same way his love is to be known.”6

***

Kierkegaard’s prophetic message against Christendom and for the rise of true Christianity is a message for our time. The Church should always, whether it acknowledges it or not, be in a prophetic tension with the world. At times, it may assure itself that it has power enough to contend in the arenas with the other players. But this is an illusion. On the other hand, it may attempt to keep its head down, to pride itself on a demeanor that allows it to move unscathed through the world. But this, too, is illusion, since it is more likely that the powers—political, military, technological, entertainment—regard it within a spectrum from condescension to indifference. The Church must steadfastly renounce the temptation to claim power that would coerce, for it has been called to announce the liberation of the captives—everyone of us—through God’s grace.

For individual Christians, this Christianity may be daunting. “Our uncertainty,” says Rowan Williams, “about the degree of our responsibility need not be cowardly or self-deceiving; it can be an honest acknowledgement of the way in which reality, even human and personal reality, resists the mind’s desperate attempt to organize it reasonably.”7

When we look at the world going up in flames, we may despair of ever seeing a day when new growth will spring up from the bomb craters. “All that can be done is, again and again, to refuse the temptation to rationalize, and turn to the compassionate Word of God,”8 says Williams.

For our courage—as humans and as Christians—will rely upon the nobility of our humility in finally turning to God’s grace. It is abundant and all-encompassing, but it is not cheap.

  1. Kierkegaard, Soren. Training in Christianity. Translated and with an introduction by Walter Lowrie. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University, 1972, p. 143.
  2. Kierkegaard. Training, p. 143.
  3. Kierkegaard, Soren. Works of Love. Translated by Howard and Edna Hong. New York: Harper and Row, 1962, p. 32.
  4. Kierkegaard, Works, p. 32.
  5. Kierkegaard, Works, p. 33.
  6. Kierkegaard, Works, p. 33.
  7. Williams, Rowan. A Ray of Darkness: Sermons and Reflections. Boston, MA: Cowley Publications, 1995, p. 76.
  8. Williams, A Ray of Darkness, p. 79.

A Labor of the Instant

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“Religious writing, poetry that is authentic religious writing, writing that is religious work, is very precisely an attempt to be where the action is, God’s action, where this reality, me, my words, my perception, meet what is fundamental, God. . .”1

What do we say when we talk and write about God? It’s a question that goes deeper and deeper, like those little Russian dolls, one inside the other, until you lift out the last one, the one so small it cannot be opened but only may be held. Much of what we talk about when we talk about God is precisely that—talk about our talking of God, metatalk,talk that sets us at several removes from God and turns God into an object to be scrutinized alongside other objects in the world. Such talk clarifies the boundaries of definitions and aligns the methods of discourse, but it does not translate well out of the seminar and the conference setting.

We must ask ourselves, then, especially those of us who call ourselves Christians, why people—or rather, why we—talk and write about God? One reason, surely, is that we hope others will experience something of God, something that will help them dive deeper, become more supple, find more meaning, discover a saving attunement to Spirit. And this motivation arises on the assumption that we have witnessed in our own lives the outlines of what that something is, through tradition and revelation and personal experience. We can only express with credibility that which we ourselves have seen.

So the “why” of this form of talk inevitably leads to the “what,” a movement from motive to content. But that seems backwards, as if our enthusiasm (from en theos, to be in God) suddenly went searching for the message about God that we could give to others.

The way we were taught about witnessing for our faith always began with the content of doctrine, a system of beliefs that logically cohered and was meant to be persuasive. Only then did you overcome your shyness or your instinctual respect for the privacy of others, and launch the frontal assault for their conversion in the paramilitary style of witnessing that some Protestant traditions employ.

We looked to doctrine to guide us into a relationship with Christ. We thought that to begin with beliefs would eventually lead us to love and to a sense that we were accepted by God. Content would trigger inspiration and lead to motivation to talk and write of God with others.

There are many people whose temperament and outlook on life make this the most natural way to God. “Count the cost,” Jesus said, “before you build.” Are you ready for the changes that come with being in Christ? Do you know what you’re getting into? Acolytes in the early centuries of Christianity spent up to a year studying the beliefs, and observing and learning the practices of the communities of Jesus, before they were formally accepted into the body of Christ through baptism. Given that joining such a community was often a prelude to martyrdom, it was essential that they had counted the cost—and that they would not betray their companions.

“Christian doctrine,” says Rowan Williams, the former Archbishop of Canterbury, “exists so that certain obstacles may be taken away to our openness to the action of God.”2 There is a subtle nuance here: doctrines are gates that open to let the flow of responsive spirituality through. They should not be dams to stop the flow until it silts up behind the barrier. Religion does not have to be the death of spirituality.

But for other people the best course is to allow God the lead in this dance. If God is the center of our universe, then God’s gravitational field will draw those willing to him, as we were drawn to him.

“Thou hast made us for thyself,” prayed Augustine, “and our hearts are restless until they find their rest in thee.” I memorized that when I was trying to understand prayer and was reading a lot of books about prayer. Notably, I was not praying. My prayers, I believed, fell too easily into the category of “vain repetitions.” They embarrassed me and I was sure they embarrassed God.

As much as possible, I wriggled out of praying in public, convinced that I could only offer up the palest petitions and the most tepid thanksgivings. On the few occasions when I could not refuse, I did not prepare. Instead, I offered up a silent, desperate cry before moving to the lectern. “Say what you want through me,” I prayed. “I’ve got nothing.” Those were the prayers which fell upon receptive ears, and some of the owners of those ears remarked that I had seen into their hearts. “Not me,” I said, “I was just the breath and mouth of it.”

I was a restless heart for whom the study of the philosophy of religion was finally not enough. I will not cut off as dead weight the years I spent in preparation and the years I enjoyed opening students to it. It satisfied a part of me that wanted to witness the grand sweep of thought about God. And I taught ethics so my students and I might be awake and contributing for justice to roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream. But it was not enough.

“And I, when I am lifted up from the earth,” said Jesus, “will draw all people to myself.” And the Gospel of John continues: “He said this to indicate the kind of death he was to die.”3 That death has drawn the suffering of this broken world into itself. This man, the very image of God, was and is the Word that spoke creation into being. And where the creative impulse flourishes in humans, through art, music, poetry, fiction, essays, there God-in-Christ makes visible his transformation of suffering into beauty.

For many of us, there is a path to God under the open sun, that winds through standing forests, breathes in poetry and song, and blinks in wonder at works of art. We carry a hunger or a sense of lostness or catch a glimpse of beauty or the sharp edge of justice, and then live our way into a structure that builds on that. In a gallery in a city we find a torso draped in cloth—but it is carved of wood—the flowing miracle of solidity. In another gallery we marvel at the dress that’s spun of glass, the rainbow woven of ten thousand anchored threads. The wonder of forms that reveal grace, these are intimations of God in the presence of a distilled silence heard with reverence.

Rowan Williams reminds us that “We need Christian doctrine because we need some notion of what it is we are trying to be attuned to . . . But if doctrine doesn’t make possible poetry and contemplation, then doctrine is a waste of time; it becomes purely and simply old, safe, and useful.”4

The doctrine of Creation, that there is in all of us a creative impulse reflective of the very image of God, bursts forth in wider and wider circles from the still point of the Spirit at the center. I hear it in the poetry of R. S. Thomas, Mary Oliver, and Rilke. It rings through in the secular psalms of U2, Bruce Springsteen, Paul Simon, and Sting. It is there in the delicate balance of forces in the kinetic art of Andy Goldsworthy’s natural sculptures, in the brooding portraits by Georges Rouault, and the sensual delight in Marc Chagall’s angels, cows, and villagers.

“Man is all Imagination,” wrote William Blake, that God-intoxicated poet. “God is Man & exists in us & we in him. The Eternal Body of Man is The Imagination, that is, God himself . . . It manifests itself in his Works of Art.”5

God is in the world in many forms and voices; grace gives us the lens to see his glory in the world. In those artists whose works take us through the painful descent into the hells of human suffering, we see the steps of the Christ who harrowed those hells and destroyed the power of death.

Williams says, “. . . God is spoken of, and spoken for, or indeed just spoken, precisely in writing that has no explicitly religious content, because of the character of the writing as a labor of the instant.”6

The Spirit moves as does the wind, springing up in an instant and coursing through us. “And we are put on earth a little space,” says Blake, “That we may learn to bear the beams of love.”7 To that, our most eloquent response, our deepest talk of God, may be our grateful silence.

  1. Williams, Rowan. A Silent Action: Engagements with Thomas Merton. Louisville, KY: Fons Vitae, 2011, p. 47.
  2. Williams, p. 50.
  3. Jn. 12:32,33 NRSV.
  4. Williams, p. 50.
  5. Quoted in Frye, Northrop. Fearful Symmetry: A Study of William Blake. Princeton University, 1947, p. 30.
  6. Williams, p. 49.
  7. Blake, William. Songs of Innocence and Experience. New York: Avon Books, 1971, p. 37.

Fear Not

Photo: Johannes Plenio Nfreue, Unsplash

Better to await the long night’s ending,

Till the light comes, far truths transcending.1

One of the surprises of growing older is to realize, on days that are bright, cold, and clean, that we feel younger than we really are. I don’t mean how we measure the occasional absence of aches and pains, but rather the mental image of ourselves that we carry, as if our present self looked with affectionate amusement upon our younger self, dressed in raiment three decades back and striding purposefully into the day.

We might want to say to that younger self, “Be mindful; listen to the sound of your footfalls; be dazzled by the choreography of birds overhead; allow yourself a smile directed nowhere in particular. Consider generosity with your time.” This private image we regard subjectively, as if we are watching a group that includes our younger self.

When we are young we think we’ll live forever, but that’s a characterization that only the old make of the young. The young might think in the abstract about death now and then, but for the most part they are just getting on with life—as they should. Perhaps we older folk confuse their attention to the present and the near-future with indifference to the terminus point for all of us. There’s time enough to think about death, much more time than one so young would think.

But time runs on and we run to keep up and much of what we grasp about life is learned breathlessly as we run. In the midst of going to college, first real jobs, raising children, seeing our parents age and become infirm, divorces, loss of jobs, switching careers, and retirement—we may have our moments of reflection waiting out the light at the intersection. Or we may wake at four in the morning, trying to puzzle out the riddle of our lives.

For many, religion is what they turn to when suffering overwhelms. “Life is suffering,” said the Buddha, a simple statement of fact in his lexicon, and he went on to offer examples. Pain, obviously, was suffering, but so also could happiness be suffering, if by that we indulge in desire before arriving at it, and bitterness when it’s gone. It was not so much the particulars within the general condition, as it was the general condition itself.

When I would introduce the Buddha’s statement to my Religions of the World classes, there would be puzzled looks and a shifting in their chairs. Almost invariably, someone would take exception by stating how good life was—or could be—if we would just quit moping around and be happy. It was almost an affront—almost unAmerican—to admit to anything less than the best of all possible worlds. But others, those who would speak up hesitantly after others had had their say, would ask if the loss of innocence was suffering or if the pang of never arriving at a place one could call home counted as suffering.

Epicurus, working his garden and discussing philosophy with his students in Athens in the fourth century BCE, took the long view. “Death,” he said, “the most awful of evils, is nothing to us, seeing that when we are, death is not yet, and when death comes, we are not.”2 Serenity in the face of the inevitable contrasted vividly with Dylan Thomas’ anguished cry to his dying father, to “Rage, rage against the dying of the light.”3

Augustine, whose book Confessions, is the first and longest open prayer to God, pours out his heart about the death of his best friend, unnamed to us.

“Well it was said of a friend that he is the soul’s other half. My soul and his I considered one soul in two bodies—so my life was unbearable, to live with only half of our soul, but my death was terrifying, perhaps to see his remaining half of soul die in me whom I so much loved.”4

Augustine fears death, not so much for himself, as for the extinction, finally, of his friend. Half a life is better than none at all. But that was when Augustine was a pagan.

Some years later Augustine has a different reaction to the death of his mother, Monica. She had been praying and weeping and beseeching for his conversion for years. When it occurs, as Augustine dramatically describes in the Confessions, her life’s work seems complete. Some days later she falls under a high fever and within nine days is dead. Augustine, in private, loosens the tears he had held in, “resting softly on my sobs at ease.”

He writes, somewhat defensively, “whoever wishes can read me and, as he wishes, decide whether I mourned my mother excessively, by this or that part of an hour, but not deride me for it.”5 He is asking us not to judge him too harshly for weeping over his mother’s death, even though his weeping was for less than an hour. His grief is doubled, he says, by the fact that he is grieving. Apparently, he believed that for a Christian, such grief is unbecoming. In his own eyes Augustine is condemned for not having enough reliance on God to tough it out without giving way to his emotions. But we grieve because we love and a love that is not grieved is less than love.

And yet later, when his own precocious Adeodatus, a fine young man of seventeen, his son by a long-time mistress, is suddenly struck down, Augustine is at peace, for both of them—father and son—had been baptized on the same day. He does not weep nor break stride as he goes about his duties. His son is with God. And as he looks toward the Resurrection, missing Monica, Augustine foresees his own Mother and Child Reunion—an event greatly to be anticipated.

For Christians, Augustine tells us, our fear of death diminishes the nearer we are to God.

But not everyone has seen it quite that way. Consider Michel Montaigne (1533-1592), Renaissance statesman, philosopher, part of the nobility in France at that time, and the father of the modern essay. When Montaigne was thirty-six, he had a near-death experience. He was riding in the forest with three or four companions, servants in his household, musing over something intriguing to him, when suddenly he took a tremendous blow to his back, was flung from his horse, and landed ten yards away, unconscious. It seems that one of his men, a burly fellow, had spurred his horse to full gallop to impress his friends, and had misjudged the distance between himself and his master, inadvertently knocking Montaigne and his little horse off the path.

Sara Bakewell tells the story in her book, How to Live: Or A Life of Montaigne.6 At the time, Montaigne felt himself to be drifting peacefully toward eternal sleep, although he was actually retching up blood and tearing at his belly as though to claw it open for release. For days he lay in bed recovering, full of aches and grievous pains, marveling at the experience he’d had and trying to recall every moment of it. It changed his life, which, until then, had been dedicated to learning how to die with equanimity and grace.

In an essay on death, written some years after the incident, Montaigne rather offhandedly sums up the lesson: “If you don’t know how to die, don’t worry. Nature will tell you what to do on the spot, fully and adequately. She will do this job perfectly for you; don’t bother your head about it.”7

Bakewell notes that this became Montaigne’s answer to the question of how to live. In fact, not worrying about death made it possible to really live. In an era in which a man of thirty-six could, by the limits of those times, see himself on the verge of getting old, the contemplation of death had been refined to a high art. Montaigne picked this up from his voluminous study of the Greek and Roman classics, his admiration for the Stoics, like Seneca, and the Roman orator, statesman and philosopher, Cicero, who famously wrote, “To philosophize is to learn how to die.”

Death was an obsession for Montaigne when he was in his twenties and early thirties. In succession, his best friend died of the plague in 1563, his father died in 1568, and in 1569 his younger brother died in a freak sporting accident. In that same year Montaigne got married; his first child, born that same year lived only two months. Montaigne lost four more children, only one of six living to adulthood. Yet, in spite of all that early sorrowful practice, he had grown no easier with death.

It wasn’t until his near-fatal accident that he began to understand how little his own death need affect his life. His memory of it was one of peaceful release; he had almost kissed Death on the lips. From that experience he gradually migrated from the fear of dying to the love of life.

Sometimes, we may be so concerned with dying that we forget the point is to live.

Lewis Lapham, the editor of Lapham’s Quarterly, parses the difference between how he was raised to think about death as a young man in the 50s, and today. He says that several thousand years of art, literature, and religion raise the question, “Why must I die?” And the natural follow-up question is, “How do I live my life?” Our question today is, “Why can’t I live forever?” And that, says Lapham, consigns the custody of one’s death to powers that promote the fear of it, among them the church, the state, the biochemical engineers, and those who will profit from our endless war against terrorism.8

If religion functions as a device (and I use the word deliberately) to ingratiate us to an absent god or to palliate the pain of our swollen egos, then it belongs in the medicine cabinet alongside the opiate of the people. But if it is so engrained in our being that it is first about being and only then about doing, then we have something that can see us through the valleys of suffering on the way to death.

“Religion is not the answer to the unknowable or the unfaceable or the unendurable,” says Peter Gomes in The Good Book; ”religion is what we do and what we are in the face of the unknowable, the unfaceable, and the unendurable. It is a constant exercise in the making of sense first, and then of meaning.”9

As a person of faith, I am grateful for the insight of Eamon Duffy who says of the Christian’s way, “Our dignity and our burden is to be that part of creation which is conscious not only of itself but of its finitude,” and, “We sing to the light in the midst of a darkness which we know will one day devour us.”10

We may sing, not because we are indifferent to death, not because we resent the encroachment of death upon our absolute right to endless life right now, but because “This is eternal life: to know thee who alone art truly God, and Jesus Christ whom thou hast sent.”11

  1. Thomas, R. S. Selected Poems 1946-1968. Newcastle upon Tyne: Bloodaxe Books, 1986, p. 13.
  2. In Lapham, Lewis. Lapham’s Quarterly. “Memento Mori, ”Vol. VI, No. 4, Fall 2013, p. 15.
  3. Thomas, Dylan. Miscellany One. London: J. M. Dent & Sons, 1963, p. 31.
  4. Saint Augustine, Confessions. Translated and with an introduction by Garry Wills. New York: Penguin Books, p. 68.
  5. Augustine, p. 205.
  6. Bakewell, Sarah. How to Live: Or a Life of Montaigne in One Question and Twenty Attempts at an Answer. New York: Other Press, 2010.
  7. In Bakewell, Loc. 362.
  8. Lapham, Lewis. Lapham’s Quarterly. “Memento Mori,” Vol. VI, No. 4, Fall 2013.
  9. Gomes, Peter J. The Good Book. New York: Avon Books, 1996, p. 213.
  10. Duffy, Eamon. Walking to Emmaus. London: Burns and Oates, 2006, p. 150.
  11. Jn. 17:3, NEB.

Communion at Calais

Photo: Wesual Click, Unsplash

“‘Then what must we do,’ they asked him, ‘if we are to work as God would have us work?’ Jesus replied, ‘This is the work that God requires: believe in the one whom he has sent.’” — John 6:28,29

One summer I worked with a clutch of ministers-in-training to build a house on spec. The idea was that we would build this house with a loan, and then sell it for profit. It was a hot, sweltering Michigan summer, and the humidity was like nothing I had ever experienced in California. We did everything except dig the foundations. I learned a lot that summer about what goes into a structure to make it a living, humming, warm and inviting home.

I was definitely the odd man out. The others were seminary students; I was a graduate student. They had built houses before; I messed up trying to make a bird house. They were all friends of long standing; I knew only one of them slightly. They were out to make money; I was just trying to learn something practical and pay some bills.

I can’t say I brought much talent to the team. My foreman friend took a chance on me, and in the end he was disappointed. I was definitely not the brains, and not much brawn either. I think I was meant to be the one who jumped into every situation that needed an extra hand. My problem was that I couldn’t anticipate the next step in the work, hour by hour. I was like one of those guys in a pickup football game who runs downfield, waving to the quarterback. They weren’t going to risk me dropping the ball. So, I stood around a lot, trying to figure out how I could be helpful, jumping in where I could, and trying not to cut across the big plays.

We don’t always know what we should do in life and often others can’t tell us. If we have to ask, the thinking goes, we probably don’t belong there. Life is a series of tests, most of which we cannot prepare for.

***

The sixth chapter of the Gospel of John is all about bread. The words “bread” or “loaves” are mentioned twenty times in the narrative. Coming off chapter five—which is about Jesus healing people in places and times that break the rules—the sixth chapter continues the running conflicts that Jesus has with the religious authorities. John’s Gospel is remarkable for the many signs that Jesus does—“signs” being John’s code for wonders, maybe even miracles, that point beyond themselves to a larger reality for whom Jesus is himself a sign, pointing inevitably and definitively to God.

In Jesus’ lexicon, “bread” and “work” go together. As chapter six opens, Jesus and his friends have landed on the eastern shore of the Sea of Galilee. John hints that Jesus was seeking a break from the crowds who pressed their sick and hungry upon him. It was almost Passover time, so there were thousands of people swirling around the city, excitedly tracking the latest news and gossip, and chasing after any holy man who could heal and deal. Jesus and the disciples make their way up the hillside and settle down, tired after rowing across the lake. But they won’t get any quiet time. “Raising his eyes (we can almost hear him sigh), and seeing a large crowd coming toward him,” he turns to Philip and says, “Where are we to buy bread to feed these people?” It’s a test, says John to us in an aside. Jesus knew what he was going to do.

Are the disciples tested? With Jesus constantly pushing his own boundaries of faith, the disciples, his support team, can’t help being caught up in it. Like a man stepping out against the current in a surging river, Jesus extends himself further and further in trust, until he must go on in order to get back to the shore.

Philip walks right into the test. Twenty pounds, he says, wouldn’t be enough to buy everyone a little morsel. Andrew tries to be helpful: “There is a boy here who has five barley loaves and two fishes,” he says, and adds lamely, “but what is that among so many?” Andrew, Simon Peter’s brother, rarely gets the ball in these scrimmages. For him to speak up is itself a test, but he rises to the occasion. Jesus graciously notes it. “Have the people sit down,” he says.

Then follows one of his greatest signs, the feeding of the five thousand. That’s five thousand men — apparently the women and children didn’t figure in the official crowd count. All are fed, and there is enough left over for twelve baskets of take-home (“shall I bring you a box for that, sir?). Licking their fingers and brushing the crumbs from their mouths, the crowd seizes on a rumor that Jesus is the final prophet to come into the world. They want a king, one who can supply them bread and fish. Jesus vanishes into the hills and the disciples push off from shore. There will be no popular uprising today.

The next day, Jesus and the disciples are together on the other side of the lake, the trip across in the night being another wonder—but that is a story for another time. Suffice it to say, that when the crowd meets him on the beach, they want a repeat of the meal.

You should be asking me for food that can last, he says. “I am the bread of life,” he says. “Whoever comes to me shall never be hungry, and whoever believes in me shall never be thirsty.” These are puzzling words, and the people shift from foot to foot and ask each other what he could mean. You don’t believe me, he says, but what you don’t know is that everybody who puts his faith in me and believes me, will have eternal life. I am the real bread, he says, the bread that comes from heaven.

Wait a minute, they say, we know this man. We know Joseph and Mary, his parents. We knew him when he was a kid; what’s all this about coming from heaven? Stop it! Jesus says. Stop your murmuring. I tell you the truth: the believer has already got eternal life. He looks around at all of them, gesturing with his hands. I am the bread of life, he says, as the voices begin to rise. Your ancestors ate bread in the desert and they’re all dead. I am the living bread. If you eat this bread you will live forever. What I give I give for the life of the world.

He pauses, and tries again. “Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood possesses eternal life, and I will raise him up at the last day.” In the sudden silence, he looks around at them. In one of those jarring, dream-like shifts of scene, we learn these words are spoken at the synagogue in Capernaum. Many of his disciples are bewildered now, and backing away, they exclaim without irony, “This is more than we can stomach! Why listen to such words?” Off they go, some in anger, some in disappointment, others with the cutting sarcasm that betrays a passion upended.

Jesus turns to the Twelve: “Do you also want to leave me?” He searches their faces. A door creaks, somewhere there is a fading footstep. Simon Peter, his mouth suddenly dry, swallows hard. They expect me to answer for them, he thinks. “Lord, to whom shall we go?” He looks around at them and then at Jesus. “Your words are words of eternal life.” He pauses. The late afternoon sun slants across the threshold through the open door. And then more softly, “We have faith, and we know that you are the Holy One of God.”

***

I am remembering a Eucharist, a communion celebrated with friends. We three have crossed the English Channel from Dover to Calais from our college near Windsor. It is December, with an early darkness, and we are freezing. It is Friday night and we know that an island and a continent away, friends are sharing in the Body and Blood of Christ. We move through the streets away from the docks until we find a shop still open, and we crowd in, our glasses fogging from the sudden warmth. Because we don’t drink wine and because all they have is Fanta, we leave moments later with a baguette and bottles in hand to look for a place to share our communion. At last we find it, the narrow vestibule of an apartment building, and sitting on the steps together we pass around chunks of warm bread as we sip from our Fanta. We read the words of the Last Supper together, “Do this in remembrance of me,” and we remember that all that is asked in this moment, all the work we need to do, is to believe the wildly improbable, beautifully paradoxical, wholly unfathomable truth that Jesus is here and now with us.

Apocalypse When?

Photo: Jason Wong, Unsplash

“If hope means a number of things, it certainly means the ability to wait . . . Pure religion and pure Christianity, therefore, call both for the power to wish and act and the equal power of ascetic waiting.” 1— William Lynch

I belong to a religious tradition which believes it must be watchful and active as it waits for the end times to begin. Many believe that we are living now in those end times, that the generally decaying sense of order—civil, social, political, and environmental—are sureties that the world is ending, and Christ will soon return. My grandparents felt that way under different, but no less alarming, circumstances. And in 1844, the founders of my church left everything to wait for the imminent return of the Lord. He didn’t come, the date passed, and now we somewhat ruefully remember every October 22 as “The Great Disappointment.”

Like every community which has looked for the return of the Christ, we have had to answer— if only to ourselves — why the Second Advent hasn’t happened yet. It isn’t as if we are daily confronted by the jeers of the cynics or the accusations of those who feel betrayed in their belief. People have their own problems, making their way through the world from day to day; they don’t add to their own burdens by worrying about a cosmic event for which they have only the word of the professionally nervous.

The imminence of Christ’s return was always part of my own consciousness as a child. It was the far boundary of my imagination, the limit of what was possible in my lifetime, yet my mind refused to linger on the details of the chaos and horror that would precede it. We knew the natural order would be thrown over, earthquakes and violent storms would prevail, the moon would turn to blood and the sun be darkened, the stars would fall, and the seas would rise, and plagues would slay millions.

The unspoken assumption, as I remember it, was that we—those who had been faithful—would survive this peril and would live to witness Christ’s return. We would be spared, although our neighbors might not be. Like a tornado that rips through a town, taking out a swath of houses, but leaving one miraculously intact, we would have a force field around us that kept us safe. We would be preserved. The lesson for us children was to be ready and righteous.

***

Woody Allen said, “I’m not afraid of dying. I just don’t want to be there when it happens.” That’s how I felt about the Second Coming when I was a teenager. This was more than a simple desire to dodge a raging conflagration, although there was, naturally, a low-grade fever of fear at what those times could bring. There was a whole welter of tangled emotions churning through me, along with confusion and bewilderment. Couldn’t we go from things being unpleasant, but not deadly, to the resolution of justice in the world and peace forevermore? Scripture said, “He shall wipe away every tear and sin shall be no more.” That sounded good—let’s just do that and skip all the stuff in between.

What I came to realize in time is that none of this is under our control. There were those who claimed that God was preparing a people who would perfectly reflect his character. Once that was achieved, God would feel free to return and claim us all as his own. But surely in all these thousands of years there were times and peoples who could be trusted to be more faithful than us? And doesn’t that mean that we who claim to follow Christ are holding up the Earth made new for everybody just because we can’t stop lying or coveting our neighbor’s ox?

There were others who claimed that God would step in when the world reached a crisis point, to save us from ourselves. But haven’t there been innumerable times when it seemed we had finally pulled the pin from the grenade in our mutually assured destruction? Two world wars, constant regional conflicts, genocide, oppression on a vast scale, human trafficking, corruption in high places and policies that destroy the social fabric and corrode trust among people—add them up. And, of course, if the Holocaust wasn’t enough for a divine intervention, who could predict a worse event? How much suffering is enough? This is about moral evil, what we do to each other from within our God-given freedom.

Then there is the natural world and the diverse ways in which we harrow, poison, tear, smash, pollute, and foul our oikos, our home. The ice caps are gushing like rivers, the seas are rising, and we’ve just had the hottest decade on record. If God intervened to save the Earth from our recklessness, wouldn’t now be a good time?

For some, the optimistic ones, the cure is to live on this side of that threshold of pain, to deny the reality of it and turn away, rather than allow themselves to be overwhelmed and distracted. Focusing on the good in life raises the spirits and keeps the heart uplifted. Don’t worry, be happy.

Others of us, myself included, struggle continuously to rejoice in the good that we see. We live precisely on the pain threshold, neither in nor out. On one side lies the optimistic life, an attitude of heartiness and good cheer. There are no problems that cannot be solved, God smooths the path before us—we have only to wake up and sally forth into the world. Some versions of this believe that sadness shows distrust of God, and more extreme forms find melancholy intolerable. God wants us to be happy—and rich. Pull yourself together, they say, God wants to make you a winner.

On the other side is the pessimistic life, those whose first thought is of failure and despair. They cannot believe that goodness and joy could ever be theirs for they do not and cannot deserve it. God looms over them as a terrifying presence and their every mistake further condemns them in their own eyes. There is no comfort to be found in God, only judgment and anger.

For those of us living on the threshold, the pain of this world is continually before us. Like the pessimist, we see how dark the human experience is. Our eyes glaze over. These horrors appear embedded for eternity as our folly. There is always another place and another people worse off than we are. Every day is a breaking point for millions in this world. For millions of people, this life is apocalypse now, and they die without justice or remembrance. Why should tomorrow be any different?

“Do you want to change the world?” asks the Tao Te Ching, “I don’t think it can be done.” I resisted that idea because it seemed so passive, even defeatist. Protestantism believes we are malleable, that we can change, we must change. Not too long ago, American optimism believed that enough of us changing together for the better could create a better world. Surely, as the saying goes, we should be the change we want to see. I also resisted the virus that seems to afflict the old—expecting the worst of people and finding some perverse pleasure in fulfilling that prophecy by goading others into being their worst selves.

The question for those of us who default naturally to the tragic, and who smile wistfully at the heroic, is whether the stoic is enough. The light version of the stoic is to endure without complaint, doing one’s best under the circumstances. We could all do with more of that. The deeper, more philosophical version, what is called Stoicism, has a nobility about it that is attractive. But there is also a coldness toward the world and one’s life that sidesteps the joy that is possible for the Christian.

The tragic view of life takes account of the world’s pain, remembers it, and honors it. To live as much as possible without adding to the pain of others is the ethical minimum; to share in the suffering as God may lead us is part of discipleship. To have a tragic sense about life is to live in revolt against the sin that besets us, to know the price that sin exacts, and to live with gratitude for the hope that is within us.

For those of us who find ourselves on the threshold, the prosperity gospel in all its mutations horrifies us, the church triumphant raises suspicion, a blinkered certainty confounds and distances us. But for that very reason hope means a great deal to us. We “hope against hope” and live constantly with the refrain, “I have faith! Help my unfaith!”

“In some, then, what is present is to be nourished,” said Augustine in a famous sermon. “In some, what may be lacking is to be kindled; so that we may all rejoice together in one single charity. Where there is charity, there is peace: where there is humility, there is charity.”2

Augustine is speaking of a community of hope, for charity, peace, and humility emerge into the light between people and are insubstantial when trapped in theory. And that’s the rub for people like me: feeling at home in a community. Naturally reticent, introverted by nature, belonging comes easier than joining. Yet, the Old Testament testifies, above all, to a people who are in a relationship with God together, as fractious and ragged as it may be. The New Testament amplifies that theme, now expanding the community to include anyone—in fact, every nation, kindred, tongue, and people. That’s the invitation, open and waiting.

I don’t know if we are in the last days. Sometimes, reading the news, it feels that way. It certainly felt that way to people suffering during the Mongol invasions, or the Black Plague, or the Soviet gulag, or genocide in Rwanda. For all those who were burned out of their homes, beaten and harassed, and finally lynched, those were the last days.

The world goes on, and as long as it does the invitation to make a community that loves in spite of itself, that resists all attempts to monetize itself, that actively waits in hope and creates beauty—that invitation stands.

  1. Lynch, William F. Images of Hope: Imagination as Healer of the Hopeless. University of Notre Dame, IN: 1974, pp. 177,178.
  2. Augustine. Augustine: Later Works. Selected and translated with Introduction by John Burnaby. The Library of Christian Classics, Ichthus edition. Philadelphia: Westminster Press, p. 259

I Am Seeing You

Photo by Aziz Acharki, Unsplash

”But (you will see): he brings joy.”1 — Rainer Maria Rilke

I remember reading in Laurens Van der Post’s memoir of life with the bushmen of the Kalahari Desert in South Africa, that the most honorable thing one could say to one of them upon meeting was, “I saw you coming from afar.”2

Van der Post, tall and lanky, had no difficulty seeing and being seen by the bushmen. What might this have meant for them? It was a valuation transcending stature, a generous extension of the imagination beyond mere physicality into the realm of kindred spirits. As brothers, they were never entirely absent from each other. Their presence in memory, more often in the flesh, was sought and desired, offered and accepted. In a landscape as trackless and sere as the moon—at least to white people uneasy in its vastness—seeing one another from a distance was reassurance that they were not alone, though separated by miles.

***

In the forest near our home, where I walk two or three times a week, I am on the lookout for deer. There are three bands that I regularly see, usually in different areas, mothers with their fawns and their teenagers. I watch for them because, to the casual eye, their coloring blends naturally into the grays and browns of the winter trees and shrubs. They know I am there far sooner than I see them, but they seem unconcerned when I come across them near the path. I’ve found that if I stop and stare, they get nervous, but if I continue, walking slowly, they accept my presence as near as five or six feet. I always speak to them, assuring them they won’t get hurt by my hand, asking them if they’ve found enough breakfast, and wishing them well. Occasionally, someone else comes along the path during these monologues and wonders out loud who I’m talking to. When I point them out, we both watch as they move lithely through the underbrush to disappear, white tails lifted like exclamation marks.

There is a watchful serenity about them, a cool tolerance of my babbling, that usually stills my voice after a few moments. The young ones, the fawns, stand on stick legs, googly-eyed and frozen with curiosity at this strange forked creature. Their mothers and cousins are more nonchalant, giving me a pitying glance before returning to their grazing. Neither of us wants to move jaggedly, but if it comes to it they will be gone in a heartbeat.

Their beauty is surely in their form and movement, but also in their demeanor. I am trying to see them, not as objects in the underbrush, but as beings with whom we share the world and whose language we cannot speak. I wish to see our world from inside their consciousness and then to bear testimony to what I have seen.

They remind me of Avatar, James Cameron’s entrancing film of another world parallel to our own, reached only through a mental transport. To know another being in that world, really to know them, is to be connected through the source of their energy, a sacred tree, that in some way sustains them in life and joins their consciousness to one another. The most intimate expression one can say to another person in that world is, “I see you.”

***

When I go to a museum or a gallery, and I linger before a painting, I am seeking the sacred, that moment in which the artist received, with the eye of imagination, what she then gathered into herself. In time, and with effort, she birthed what she received as a gift, now transformed, and so we go where we can receive it. In receiving it, grateful to have been where the gift entered the world, we let it speak to us and we answer the artist. The painting becomes the visual symbols of sound in our silent conversation—spoken music, we could say. We know the artist through the world she has opened to us. “We feel less alone in face of what we ourselves see each day appearing and disappearing.”3

The world seems so evanescent, solidity fuming up into light and air and disappearing, millions of times a second. To see someone is to gaze at the speed of light as singular particles reflecting color coalesce into the figure of the one we love. We trust the paradox of this coalescence, that what we see is the momentary residue of millions of fragments endlessly generated.

***

“It was there from the beginning; we have heard it; we have seen it with our own eyes; we looked upon it, and felt it with our own hand; and it is of this we tell. Our theme is the word of life. This life was made visible; we have seen it and bear our testimony; we here declare to you the eternal life which dwelt with the Father and was made visible to us. What we have seen and heard we declare to you, so that you and we together may share in a common life, that life which we share with the Father and his Son Jesus Christ. And we write this in order that the joy of us all may be complete.” — 1 John 1:1-4, NEB

This letter, like the Gospel of John before it, begins with poetry and ends in testimony. There is an incantatory rhythm to it; the phrases invoke in the reader the slanted light falling on a company of friends whose sensual recall of “it” compels the raising of a story. “Our theme is the word of life,” a word that shimmers into being in the muscle memory of their hands, visible, maybe audible, in their memories as they bear their testimony to us.

These people have been drawn and held by something so fleeting and yet so haunting that none of them will ever feel at home again in the old dispensation, clutching their alien gods. They have seen through the “accidents” of appearances to the essence of Jesus, whom they now know as Immanuel, God-in-Christ. Their community flourishes through its collective memory, this “sacred tree” that will sustain them, though the parousia is not yet.4

“The raison d’etré of the visible,” reasons John Berger, “is the eye; the eye evolved and developed where there was enough light for the visible forms of life to become more and more complex and varied.”5 “We have seen it with our own eyes,” they testify. These are people whose memories enable a wider spectrum of light than the rest of us. They have evolved.

To see, and to bear witness to what we have seen, is to testify to an event which is unique, which cannot be repeated, which took place between ourselves and another, which bears value for others “because I hold, as it were, a particle of light, and to keep it to myself would be equivalent to extinguishing it.”6

“The witness always conceives of himself as standing in the presence of someone,”7 says Gabriel Marcel. “What we have seen and heard we declare to you,” says the author of 1 John. Do we bear witness to all the absurdity and horror of this world as well as the nobility and beauty? Those who loved Jesus could not help but see the cruelty and faithlessness of those who turned on him. It was John alone, of the men closest to him, who did not turn away from Jesus in his singular desolation. John willed to stand his ground, though the air was thick with the demons of fear and guilt.

“The value,” says Marcel, “lies in the faithful following, through darkness, of a light by which we have been guided and which is no longer visible to us directly; indeed, it can be said that it is because there is a darkness, an eclipse, that there can be testimony—attestation.”8

Maybe what the author of 1 John was trying to say is that he and the others once had Jesus with them. They could touch him, talk with him, see him. He was everything to them. He was their window to God; in all that he did they could see the living kingdom playing out in the life of a man. And then he was gone—though he promised the Spirit to them.

“What is a likeness?” asks John Berger, in his essay on seeing. “When a person dies, they leave behind, for those who knew them, an emptiness, a space: the space has contours and is different for each person mourned. This space with its contours is the person’s likeness and is what the artist searches for when making a living portrait. A likeness is something left behind invisibly.”9

Now what we have is each other. Maybe that is the closest we can come to God-among-us, the new order flaming up, here and there, as we see through the appearances to the real within each of us, making visible to each other the likeness of the invisible God, whom we nevertheless will see, coming to us from afar.

“And we write this in order that the joy of us all may be complete.”

  1. Rilke, Rainer Maria. “The Birth of Christ,” in The Unknown Rilke: Expanded Edition. Translated with an introduction by Franz Wright. Oberlin, OH: Oberlin College, 1990, p. 68.
  2. Van der Post, Laurens. The Lost World of the Kalahari. New York: Morrow, 1958.
  3. Berger, John. “Steps Toward a Small Theory of the Visible,” in The Shape of a Pocket. New York, Vintage International, 2001, p. 21
  4. I am indebted to my wife, Joy Daquila-Casey, for the analogy.
  5. Berger, p. 17.
  6. Marcel, Gabriel. The Philosophy of Existentialism. Translated by Manya Harari. New York: Citadel, 1962., p. 95.
  7. Marcel, p. 93.
  8. Marcel, p. 98.
  9. Berger, p. 19.

Immaculate Naïveté

Photo: Kalen Emsley, Unsplash

What do we imagine is the nature of God’s point of contact with any part of creation? Can God, does God, intervene? . . . Those who allow themselves to think about God and God’s relation to the universe find sooner or later that their feet are no longer on solid rock but walking on water with five fathoms of uncertainty beneath them.1 — John V. Taylor

I can still remember when I discovered that prayer might be good for finding things. A few friends and I were playing ball late in the afternoon in a glade near the acres of an abandoned vineyard. In front of the tree line behind us, there was a bank of grass, thick-bladed and tall, growing lushly. I was playing outfield, stomping around, waiting for a fly-ball. When it came, up and up against the orange light spurting through the trees, I lost it for a moment as I stumbled backward. When I thrashed through the tall grass, trying to keep my footing and still track the ball, I tumbled, legs in the air, arms thrown wide, my glove landing a few feet away. The runner was circling the bases and the ball, a gleaming white softball, had disappeared.

It couldn’t have gone far, but no one in the infield had seen where it landed. I crashed around for a minute or two, expecting to pick it up and hurl it to home plate. But it was gone, like it had been swallowed in mid-air by a pterodactyl. My friends shouted at me to hurry up; we were trying to even the score with one last inning before we all had to run for home and chores and supper.

I ran up and down that stretch of grass, tracing an expanding grid. I tried to calculate the arc of the trajectory. I stamped the grass methodically. I got down on my knees and combed the grass the way you would a horse’s mane. Nothing. A couple of friends ran up to join me as I felt around in the gathering twilight.

I had the memory of a Bible verse, something about, “He has counted the hairs of your head,” tedious and pointless work, in my opinion. But there was another one—“he cares for the sparrows”—that seemed the right level of detail for a loving God in charge of the universe, though I had to admit that by comparison, the loss of a baseball was in the negative end of the scale. But I was getting desperate and my friends had gone, leaving me and another friend to find it or go home. So I prayed, bent over as I searched, and when I straightened up there it was, nestled in a clump of grass I must have gone over several times. With a shout, I grabbed it up and we ran for home in the twilight, the ball glowing like a stranded moon in my hand.

With the eyes of a lifetime, I look back to that boy running joyfully for home, his prayer answered. Should I stop him to say that prayer is about more than finding lost toys? Should I ask him what he’ll do the next time he prays, say, for the life of a friend’s mother, and she dies? What is God’s providence? Does he have his eye upon the sparrow and the softball? Can we say with certainty that our lives and those of our loved ones are always within God’s reach?

I was grateful that God (as I saw it) helped me find the softball. I’ve had many other moments since, when looking back I saw that the pieces of my life at certain intersections fell into a coherent pattern. I don’t know how providence “works.” I certainly can’t predict the outcome looking forward nor should I demand the outcome that I want without putting my effort and my faith into it. “It is not meaningless to thank God for a particular event or for the course of a lifetime, despite being unable to explain the way in which God gave it that form,” muses John V. Taylor in his The Christlike God.2

***

Think of Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel painting, ‘The Creation of Adam,’ with God extending a finger toward Adam, who lounges back against the verdure. He looks lazy and I want to say, ‘On your feet, man! This is God reaching out to you!’ But perhaps I am too hasty to judgement. God is the first being Adam has seen. He hasn’t even seen himself yet. If he doesn’t stretch to meet God’s outthrust arm, it’s probably because he’s only gradually becoming aware of where he ends, and God begins.

With an immaculate naiveté, Adam will trust the flying, whirling, wind-blown muscular God, who has launched himself across the heavens, surrounded by cherubim. Only later will he know distance and regret and shame. For now, he is awakening to the face of glory. This is the first day of the rest of his life—and all life, as it happens.

Let us say that God has called us in as consultants to Adam. Arriving from the future and with the hindsight of thousands of years, we’ve seen more good and evil than he ever will. What have we learned?

Evil is what sears itself into memory we might tell him, although once you’ve catalogued the primary sins, what follows is a tedious but deadly repetition, with the only remarkable deviations being those of scale. Yet, for all that we did not seem to learn from our history.

We first blamed the deities for the elemental forces of floods, avalanches, fires, earthquakes. Later, when we better understood the chain of events, we described them as the laws of nature, and we when we broke them there were consequences. It took time, a lot of time, but it became clear that there would be an accounting for our greed and lawlessness against the Garden. Some wanted to call it the judgement of God; it was rather that Nature would always redress our imbalances with a blind, impersonal power that was awesome and horrifying.

If we could offer moral advice to the First Man, what would it be? Do we want to say, ‘Don’t eat that fruit!’, and then have to explain what fruit is and how you eat it and what eating is, and then why he shouldn’t do the very thing we’ve spent precious minutes instructing him to do? Or maybe you want to say in a whisper, ‘God is going to give you a creature who is lovely and mysterious and has a mind of her own. Don’t presume for a minute that she is any less than your equal.’ Maybe we can head off the sin of sexism before it begins.

And then there were two. Eating the fruit from the Tree of Knowledge, both of good and evil, is their primal step out over the abyss. Lovely to look at, intensely desired, this knowledge with which they take their futures into their own hands is irresistible. The serpent lies: they do not die. They are as beautiful and as vital as ever. Precariously, they take their first timid steps out across this narrow finger of stone. On the other side is the unknown. They are in this together, for better or for worse, until death they do part.

Adam and Eve stand on the other side of the abyss, trembling but exultant. “We made it!” Then as they turn to look back at the Garden they freeze, bewildered. The bridge is gone, they are alone. There is no going back; they face a featureless plain on which they must carve, in labor, their own future.

We might explain the expulsion from the Garden as recorded historical truth or simply a curiously nostalgic folktale. Or, better, we see the story laying bare the God-shaped hole inside ourselves as we toil in the city, far across the plains from the gate to the Garden. Then perhaps we will say to the two of them, ‘Live in your God-given freedom, let your mistakes be your own. Learn to trust going forward, for God can bring good out of this.”

‘Live with trust,’ we might say to them, ‘and love, for love casts out fear and violence is fear without a conscience. Temper your justice with mercy and apply both with compassion. Take on the suffering of others. Put yourself in the place of another, even someone you hate; there are many ways to seek justice.’

In the absence of the knowledge of good and evil, trust is unnecessary. Immaculate naïveté will suffice at first, but true freedom cannot develop. Within the constraints of the freedom God has given us to care for this earth and for each other, God works with us as agents who are responsive and responsible. In the strength of the Spirit, as we follow Jesus step by step, we learn to see the hand of God in the circumstances around us. We can accept the courage it takes to become God’s agents of providence for others. For those whose suffering is not answered and for whom God cannot intervene, “We who would like to say, and rightly, that God suffers with and in the victims must validate the claim by being, if possible, the agent, the body, in whom God does that sharing.”3

  1. Taylor, John V. The Christlike God. London: SCM Press, Ltd., 1992, p. 206.
  2. Taylor, p. 207.
  3. Taylor, p. 233.

Poetry and Joy at the End of Days

Photo: Park Street on Unsplash

“I walk, I lift up, I lift up heart, eye,

Down all that glory in the heavens to glean our Saviour.”1

This was the year I was surprised by joy.

It was also the year in which my perceptions of the world ranged from bewilderment to sorrow, and finally, to disgust. I have never been so dumbfounded by partisan fury, so aghast at the abyss between facts and folly, so disheartened by callousness and cruelty.

But I also had occasion for humility when my prejudice outran the reported experience of others with whom I was at odds. I was given opportunity, not so much to rethink my position, as to allow that others felt as passionately as I did across the ideological divide. Bracketing my own logic, I tried—within my considerable limitations—to enter into ‘fellow-feeling’ with those whose outlook and attitude were almost entirely alien to mine. I say ‘almost’, because I continue to believe that on the spectra of communication available to humans, there are colors which, though invisible to the eye, are nevertheless there. We must evolve to see them.

I’m a user and an observer of religion. If my faith is to have any practical value, it should help me in situations like that. It should—and it does—open my eyes to the ‘great cloud of witnesses’ that surround me through the wellsprings of history. I haven’t been able to shake off a life-long interest in world religions. I’ve peered at it through the eyes of sociologists of religion such as Max Weber, Emile Durkheim, and Peter Berger. Others, like Huston Smith and Karen Armstrong, opened up their own journeys into (and out of) the religions with a candor that is exhilarating. Augustine and Thomas Merton have been guides and companions for many years as have more recently, Barbara Brown Taylor, Kathleen Norris, and Anne Lamott.

Helen and Mike Pearson, British friends and mentors, nudged me into reading Rowan Williams, former Archbishop of Canterbury, and Mark Oakley, Chaplain at Cambridge, who led me to Michael Mayne, former Dean of Westminster Abbey, and then to Malcolm Guite, Eamon Duffy, and John V. Taylor. These poet-priests and scholars have tilled the fields of the Lord with a beguiling celebration of the arts in worship and spiritual meditation.

Oakley and Mayne, especially, acknowledged and quoted so many poets whose works I had not read, that I began to read their books with a finger inserted in the notes and bibliography pages.

Earlier in the year, my good friend and mentor, Lyn Bartlett, gifted me a copy of Rod Dreher’s How Dante Can Save Your Life, a chronicle of Dreher’s family crises as diagnosed through an intensive reading of Dante’s Commedia. That book, poignant and inspiring in its own right, got me back into Dante.

Thanks to Penny and Murray Mahon, friends of almost fifty years, the Collected Poems of R. S. Thomas, Welsh priest, and one of the greatest poets of the twentieth century, became one of my constant wellsprings. Add to that the poems and writings of Mary Oliver, Ursula LeGuin, Osip Mandelstam, Gerard Manley Hopkins, and especially, Seamus Heaney, and I began to walk this year in the rhythms of the poets.

This was part of my joy, the pouring of poetry into my life and the discovery of how essential it has become for my spiritual well-being.

***

Christians of all stripes are fond of saying that God is love. We report it as a claim that millions have experienced as bone-marrow true over thousands of years. That humans can make such claims and present their dizzying, disparate, and sometimes desperate lives as evidence is reason enough for awe.

We repeat it because it is a standard-issue declaration about God from the religious organizations we belong to. But more truthfully, we revel in it because, while it is there for anyone to discover, on rising to it personally it is like the shock of seeing the Pacific Ocean panoramically from cliffside after living in Iowa all your life.

But I was surprised by joy—and to realize that makes me wonder how I missed it all these years. How could my gaze, directed toward Jesus and the transcendent in life, be off by a fraction of a degree—enough that God’s love could appear as contractual and mine to be dutiful? Such are the surprises in life, in themselves revelatory of the sublime in the mundane.

I’ve always felt closer to Jesus than to God—which is fortunate since God for us is known through Jesus. I see Jesus, as real as breath, in my imagination. I try to place myself within the parables or in the crowd listening to them. This year the pouring of Christ into our form, and the offering up of Christ to God became real to me, because it means that we, too, are lifted up to God. This is joy, which C. S. Lewis described as “the fact that anyone who has experienced it will want it.

We know ourselves as we are in others, not just as we are in ourselves. Those who have influenced us have, in a sense, entered into us—we are indebted to them. The authors I mentioned have changed me in ways that are unique to our relationship, as one-sided as it is. With other authors there would be yet other differences. Austin Farrar’s question startles: “But have you reflected that Jesus is Jesus because of Mary and Joseph and the village rabbi . . . Above all because of the disciples to whom he gave himself and the poor people to whose need he ministered? But for these people he would have been another Jesus.”2

That ‘God loves us’ has been for me an hypothesis neither fully accepted nor tested. You can live a long time, apparently, without unwrapping that particular gift. Maybe I was afraid of how it would change me. Julian of Norwich, a fourteenth-century English mystic, the first woman to write in English, handed me that gift this year and stood there until I opened it. Her Revelations of Love, a book which she worked on for twenty years, is the recounting of a series of visions which she was given within twenty-four hours as she lay close to death.

Julian’s sturdy and direct prose drew me in immediately. There are several excellent translations of her work—she was a contemporary of Chaucer and both need translating for our benefit. It is a book of eighty-six short and compressed chapters which should be lived with over time to be fully appreciated. Nevertheless, an attentive reading yields riches to sustain us on our journeys. Here are two of them.

A major theme in the sixteen ‘shewings’ is the nature and consequences of sin. Julian understands that Adam’s original sin was an accident, not a deliberate act of wrongdoing. It arose from Adam’s desire to please God, misguided though it was. God’s response, according to Julian, was to regard Adam with tenderness and pity. There were consequences, of course, but they were not punishments from God: they were the natural result of actions that contort our nature as God designed it.

The poignancy of the Fall, and the confusion it casts upon us she captures well: “All of us who shall be saved have, during this lifetime, an amazing mixture of good and ill within us. We have within us Jesus, our risen Lord. We have within us the misery of the mischief of Adam’s fall and dying . . . And so we live in these mixed feelings all the days of our life” (Ch. 52).3

While we may be confused and bewildered by sin, even to the point that we lose sight of God, God never loses sight of us. Even when we are in the depths of sin of our own making, God’s love for us never flags.

She has no time for theology that asserts we are naturally rotten to the core. For her, it’s sin that’s unnatural. “We shall truly see that sin is, in truth, viler and more painful than hell . . . for it is against our fair nature. For as truly as sin is unclean, just as truly it is unnatural” (Ch. 63).

Julian believes that all of us are deeply implicated in sin, but to her surprise she reports that “I did not see sin. For I believe it has no substance or manner of being, but is only known by the pain it causes” (Ch. 27).

Though we are constantly confronted with sin, Julian sees the good within us. “I saw and understood that in every soul . . . there is a godly will that never assented to sin, nor ever shall. This will is so good that it can never will any evil. But always and forever it wills good, and does good, in the sight of God.” This is paralleled in Hebrews, channeling Jeremiah: “I will put my laws into their hearts and write them on their minds. I will never call their sins to mind, or their offences.”4

A second major theme is Julian’s vision of the cross, which occupied her all her life. It was the centerpiece of the ‘shewings’ and it begins with joy. Before she visualizes Christ’s physical sufferings on the cross, “suddenly the Trinity filled my heart full of joy. And I understood that this is how it will be in heaven without end for those who come there” (Ch. 4).

Her theology of the crucifixion and atonement was for me a crucial shift of kind—not just degree. Jesus on the cross is not shielding us from a furious God who demands his pound of flesh: he is God in the flesh and he is us. Like Paul, Julian wants to be at the cross with Mary and John (the only disciple courageous enough to stay, she says) to stand in love and solidarity with Jesus. The cross, as Jesus shows her in vision, is a flashpoint of joy because God-in-Christ willed to take it up for us.

This is what swept away my anger and discomfort at the whole forensic view of the cross and atonement. “And I, seeing all this through his grace, saw that the love he has for our soul is so strong that he sought our soul with great longing, and willingly suffered for it—and paid for it in full” (Ch. 20). We cannot compel Jesus to die for us; he goes there willingly, for through it he defeats the powers that be.

What we see through Julian’s eyes is that Christ became one of us so that God could know the evil we suffer from the inside—and change our lives. As Sheila Upjohn comments: “There is no place so dark and painful that God has not been there before us and stays there with us. And the fact of the resurrection means that there is no evil so bad that he cannot turn it into good.”5

There is a kind of joy that catches in the throat; it may well up in the eyes and quiver in the heart. There is glory to be gleaned where the Lord is passing by.

  1. Hopkins, Gerard Manley. “Hurrahing in Harvest” in A Hopkins Reader edited with an introduction by John Pick. Garden City, NY: Doubleday & Company, Image Books edition, 1966, p. 51.
  2. Quoted in Taylor, John V. The Christlike God. London: SCM Press, 1992, p. 237.
  3. All quoted translations are from Upjohn, Sheila. Why Julian Now? A Voyage of Discovery. Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publ., 1997.
  4. Hebrews 10:17.
  5. Upjohn, p. 93.