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.

The Gymnasium for Underused Imaginations

Photo: Green Chameleon, Unsplash

”At its best, the sensation of writing is that of any unmerited grace. It is handed to you, but only if you look for it.”1

I suppose I write about the need for imagination so often because I’m never confident that I have enough to see me through to the end of the sentence I have begun. All writing is a movement of discovery, never more so than when we are diving into the waters of memory and hope, the springs which feed my need to write.

When I was growing up with my grandparents, inveterate readers themselves, I was encouraged to read early and often. They weren’t keen on comic books, however, so I grew up without those, and we didn’t have a television until I was in high school—and then only for “60 Minutes” and National Geographic specials. They were also suspicious of most fiction, seeing “made up” stories as a distraction from soul-building and a waste of time. An exception was made for poetry, however, and I darted through that doorway to the Victorian and Romantic poets first, and then to Frost, Poe, and many others in The Pocket Book of Modern Verse and Immortal Poems.

But I read a lot of fiction anyway behind closed doors. I read indiscriminately; not deeply, but enough that I had the beginnings of a reservoir of the Western canon to draw from as I wrote through high school and college.

Reading Hemingway, Faulkner, Tolstoy, Gardner, Vonnegut, Bellow, and others, widened the limits of what was possible for me to imagine. It seemed the most wonderful thing to see a character in one’s mind and to follow that person through the moments of her life. The creation of such a character and the growing sense of one’s faith seemed like parallel paths, each asking for the next step to be taken without certainty, but rather with the allure of possibilities.

Annie Dillard’s fierce call to writers is to spend everything they’ve got every time they write. “Examine all things intensely and relentlessly,” she writes. “Do not leave it . . . Follow it down until you see it in the mystery of its own specificity and strength.”2

In the same way, I see the writing life as parallel to the life of faith. Both demand a concentrated intensity, both may be directed to the transcendent, both require the discipline to follow the truth where it may lead. And I can testify that to write is an exercise of one’s faith, especially when the next word seems far over the horizon.

I am recalling this now while realizing that retrieval of such memories brings them back to life from a state of suspended animation. Most of what we need from the past seems to seep into our consciousness unacknowledged. When we do summon a particular name or place or event, we are—okay, Iam—often left only with a dim outline of its shape, bereft of color and detail, waiting to be filled in later. Or to change the analogy: I am standing on the station platform waiting impatiently for the train to arrive—which it does—but only after I have driven out of the parking lot.

Given all this, it’s no wonder that much of my life seems fragmentary and elusive to the touch. Tracing one of many paths of personal experience from then until now is like trying to drive the Pacific Coast Highway after an earthquake. Still, I am learning to cherish these fragments. I can dump them out of the bag I carry, spread them out in front of me, and move them around.

It is in this retro-fitting that I begin to see the workings of grace in my life. Looking back, lines of fracture, moments of dislocation, the upthrust of forces beyond my control—all these begin to coalesce into something colorful and lively, as a crazy-quilt pattern begins to emerge. What I thought was tragedy now looks like comedy, and what seemed mundane is seen for the change agent it was. God took the chaos and gave it order. In retrospect, mere existence quickened at liminal points into genuine life.

August Strindberg, the Swedish playwright, thought of the characters in his plays as souls which are “agglomerations of past and present cultures, scraps from books and newspapers, fragments of humanity, torn shreds of once-fine clothing that has become rags, in just the way that a human soul is patched together.”3

This is certainly true for me; I have been on a life-long quest to understand how the selves that we are become the true self that Jesus so urgently warned us we could lose. Can we recognize what God is doing?

Honesty with oneself is paramount. Mary Karr, in her wonderful book, The Art of Memoir, remarks, “A memoirist forging false tales to support his more comfortable notions—never learns who he is. He’s missing the personal liberation that comes from the examined life.”4

Faith, like personal writing, asks us to plumb the depths of our character, diving deep to find the sources of our fear, our hope, the accumulated awareness of who we are so far. From these we give voice—our testimony, if you like—to what we have experienced. Mary Karr again: “Voice isn’t just a manner of talking. It’s an operative mindset and way of perceiving that naturally stems from feeling oneself alive inside the past. That’s why self-awareness is so key.”5

We are asked, in the community of faith, to give an account of the “hope that is within us,” an exercise that arises in the moment, but draws on our submerged self-identity. That we are willing to do so does not mean that we are immune from fooling ourselves in the telling. “The trick to fashioning a deeper, truer voice,” advises Karr, “involves understanding how you might misperceive as you go along; thus looking at things more than one way. The goal of a voice is to speak not with objective authority but with subjective curiosity.”6

Jill Kerr Conway, the author of two outstanding memoirs about leaving Australia and settling in America, writes that “What’s difficult and exhausting about writing as honest a memoir as you can, I think, is going back as a historian and, instead of just weltering in all those emotions, trying to think, ‘Why did it happen that way? What was really going on?’”7

“The unexamined life,” said Socrates, “is not worth living,” a measure of the importance he placed on self-reflection. To this I would add, “The unlived life is not worth examining,” and from there, gather the courage to say with the Psalmist, “Search me, O God, and know my heart; test me and know my thoughts. See if there is any wicked way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting.”8

***

I have thought that some were born with imagination and others were not. Think of Tolkien, Dostoevsky, Ray Bradbury, Bob Dylan, Leonard Cohen, and Toni Morrison. Or Dante, Homer, Isaiah, and the Apostle John. These are people who spun up whole worlds, languages, cultures, and characters as they were moved to do so through their imaginations stimulated by the Spirit.

Their native talent is undeniable; there are good reasons for admiring them as artists and cherishing their works. But now I think that imagination is a virtue, something that must be practiced until it becomes second nature, a la Aristotle. Thus, the difference between these artistic exemplars and the rest of us may be one of degree, rather than kind.

Now I think that faith and imagination have a lot in common. There is enough overlap between them that comparisons can be made, and territory explored. Faith is a gift from God, but the seed of imagination is in all of us. Faith is not certainty, or it would not be a risk; imagination, too, builds the path it is traveling. Both must be practiced in order to be real, and while “practice makes perfect” is not the point for either one, both must be exercised to have any effect.

Mark Oakley, Anglican priest, Dean of St. John’s College in Cambridge, England, and the author of books I return to often, believes that the Church can learn from theatre. He quotes Benedict Nightingale, who calls plays “the gymnasium for underused imaginations.” Oakley suggests this is a felicitous metaphor for the Church in the world. “Both are committed to heightened perception,” he says. Both the Church and the theatre are focused on the horizon of the world, but the Church wants to tilt that horizon toward the vertical. “It then transforms into a channel between the sacred and the human . . .”9

In this season of Advent, in these days leading up to the wonder of incarnation, with all its tragic beauty and humble beginnings, more than ever we need imagination and faith to speak and to write of the One who brings life out of death and beauty out of pain.

  1. Dillard, Annie. The Writing Life. New York: Harper & Row, 1989, p. 75.
  2. Dillard, p. 78.
  3. Quoted in Oakley, Mark. The Collage of God. London: Darton, Longman and Todd, 2001, p. 100.
  4. Karr, Mary. The Art of Memoir. New York: HarperCollins, 2015, p. 12.
  5. Karr, p. 36.
  6. Karr, pp. 48-49.
  7. Conway, Jill Kerr. Inventing the Truth: The Art and Craft of Memoir. Edited by William Zinsser. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1998, p. 51.
  8. Ps. 139:23.24, NRSV.
  9. Oakley, pp. 101-102.

Small Acts of Courage

”. . . and the dream outlasts/Death, and the dreamer will never die.”1

Photo: Jehyun Sung, Unsplash.com

What is fearful is usually evil, says Aristotle. We fear poverty, disrepute, disease, being friendless, death. But a courageous person, Aristotle continues, is not concerned with all of these. Some things are worse than others, and some things are more to be feared than others. “A man who fears disrepute is decent and has a sense of shame, a man who does not fear it is shameless.”2 A person’s character was reflected in his or her deeds and one’s deeds were the legacy that survived one’s death. Courage in battle was most often praised, for it stood against the natural fear of danger and of death. As a veteran himself, Aristotle knew what it took to stand one’s ground when instincts of self-preservation fought with virtue.

Even more to be admired was the person who displayed courage when caught up in unexpected danger. “It is a mark of even greater courage to be fearless and unruffled when suddenly faced with a terrifying situation than when the danger is clear beforehand.” When we have time to prepare, we may resolve to be courageous—think of the men in transport ships approaching the coast of Normandy on D-Day. But what of those suddenly caught in an ambush when out on patrol? “When we see what is coming, we can make a choice,” notes Aristotle, “based on calculation and guided by reason, but when a situation arises suddenly our actions are determined by our characteristics.”

Since courage displayed is the result of virtue practiced, those who display it when startled have courage at the core of their being. But whether anticipated or arising in the moment, courage is noble and elevates the soul.

***

It is winter and Jesus is sowing discord in the temple precincts. Walking in Solomon’s Cloister with the disciples, he is surrounded by a group of surly priests who demand to know who he thinks he is. “If you are the Messiah say so plainly.” And Jesus says something like, I already have but you don’t believe. My actions are my credentials. You don’t believe because you are not one of mine. If you were, you would know that nobody can snatch my own from me because my Father and I are one.

If they’d had guns the safeties would have clicked off. As it is, they pick up rocks. You have to work with what you’ve got. Jesus shrugs and asks for which of the good deeds God has done through him are they going to stone him? Not for any of that, they say, but for you claiming to be a god. Well, says Jesus, doesn’t your scripture say you are gods? Gods are people who have received the word of God—and you can’t set aside Scripture. So why charge me with blasphemy, a person sent into the world by God, because I say I am God’s son?

The disciples are watching this verbal ping-pong with increasing dread. And Jesus throws a parting shot: If you don’t believe what I say at least believe what I do, that God is in me and I am in God. Time to go, fellas. “This provoked them to one more attempt to seize him. But he escaped from their clutches (John 10:39).”

***

Jesus and the disciples are across the Jordan, back where John first baptized Jesus. The crowds that come out to see him there recall that while John hadn’t done anything miraculous, everything he’d said about Jesus had come true. Among other things, John had been certain that Jesus was “God’s Chosen One,” and it sure looked like it, given all the people he had healed and the demons driven out and sight restored to the blind.

People were still talking about Jesus healing the man who was born blind. It was the general belief that something that unlucky had to be assigned blame. “Who sinned,” the disciples asked, “this man or his parents?” Neither one, said Jesus. This is an opportunity to show God’s power in healing him. So he spit on the ground and made a paste of the mud and put it on the fellow’s eyes and told him to go wash it off in the pool at Siloam. The man went and washed and when he came back he could see. But he didn’t see Jesus because Jesus had gone, leaving one grateful man awash in controversy. It can’t be him, said his neighbors. Must be someone who looks like him. Who healed you, they ask? Jesus did it, said the man. Where is he? I don’t know, he answered.

Later, the Pharisees hauled him up for questioning because Jesus healed him on the Sabbath. Who did this to you, they demanded. So he ran through the story again, just the facts: I was blind, Jesus put mud on my eyes and told me to wash. I did and now I can see. That set them off again. The nub of the argument was that the Sabbath commandment had been shattered, thus the healing was not of God. Others felt that the very rarity of the event pointed to a divine intervention. There was also a strong feeling in certain quarters that the man was lying about being born blind. Get his parents in here, they snarled. Is this your son? Was he really born blind? Don’t ask us, they snapped. He can answer for himself. Yes, he was born blind and no, we don’t know how he was healed. They were afraid of being expelled from the synagogue.

So they summoned the man again, swore him to tell the truth before God, and denounced Jesus as a sinner. I don’t know about that, retorted the fellow. All I know is that I was blind and now I see. Can’t have been that easy, they cried. There was some gnashing of teeth. What did he do to you? You really want me to go through it all again, asked the man? You want to be his disciples too?

It got ugly. You’re his disciple, they said. We follow Moses and we know God spoke to Moses. But we don’t know where this one came from. Astonishing, said the man, because since time began no one born blind has gained their sight. If he wasn’t from God, how could this have happened? Don’t be giving us lessons, they yelled. Flecks of foam appeared at the corners of their mouths. You—born and bred in sin! And they threw him out of the synagogue.

Later, Jesus found him and said, “Do you have faith in the Son of Man?” Tell me who he is, said the man. You’re looking at him, said Jesus. “Lord, I believe, he said, and bowed before him.”

All of this was prologue. The fear the authorities held of Jesus was that his power and charisma would inflame the people; it meant they watched his every move.

***

Lazarus has died. In fact, he’s been dead for four days, and in the meantime Jesus has dawdled. The word had come that Lazarus was deathly ill; it was his sister Martha who sent it from the village of Bethany, two miles from Jerusalem. Blithely, it seemed, Jesus brushed it aside. “This sickness will not end in death,” he said, but it did. Was he naive or just in denial? This has come about, said Jesus, so that God can be glorified. The disciples were appalled. They knew he loved Lazarus and his sisters, but he deliberately stayed in place for two more days, ensuring that Lazarus would be good and dead.

Let’s go down there, said Jesus, back to Judea. Are you serious? asked the disciples incredulously. Last time we were there you were almost killed. Twice, in fact. We doubt they’ve forgotten, and they sure haven’t forgiven. We must work while there’s light, he said. And then he added, almost as an afterthought: “Our friend Lazarus has fallen asleep, but I shall go and wake him.” Ah well, perhaps we were wrong, said the disciples, and Lazarus is sleeping it off. He’ll recover, then?

But Jesus said plainly, “Lazarus is dead.” He went on to say that he was glad it turned out this way because it would be good for their faith, Lazarus being dead and all. Then they understood what a high-wire act this was. It was a trap. He—and they—would be tracked, arrested, and killed. Jesus would no more avoid this than the priests and their spies could refrain from catching him out. After the healing of the blind man—and the stir that caused—“waking” Lazarus would be the last straw. “But let us go to him,” said Jesus.

All the signs pointed to an early and violent death for Jesus—and probably for those most closely gathered around him. His actions posed a threat to the whole nation, as the priests tried to keep the fragile peace with the Romans. He had the power to incite the people. What if he acted on it? Even if he didn’t seize power the people might rise up in his name. It was a risk that could not be tolerated. Better the death of one than the end of the nation and the temple.

It was the raising of Lazarus that set the final plot in motion to bring Jesus down. While many who came to console Mary and Martha found their faith in Jesus after seeing Lazarus raised, others went directly to the priests and Pharisees to report the clear and present danger of Jesus. “So from that day on they plotted his death (John 11:53).”

***

Thomas, the Twin (early Christian legend has it that he had a twin sister, Lydia), we usually characterize as the doubter, the one who holds out for tangible evidence of the bodily reality of Jesus, post-resurrection. Thomas is in direct contrast to Peter. Where Peter is impetuous, Thomas is deliberate. Where Peter blurts out whatever surfaces in his mind, Thomas is reticent. Peter is all in for what is in front of him, Thomas hangs back. Not easily fooled, he is fully committed once he is moved by love.

Does doubt corrode trust? It might, in certain circumstances. It might also be a clearing out of the underbrush of weak notions in preparation for the planting of the stronger oaks of faith.

Thomas speaks three times in the New Testament. Twice, he has questions about Jesus. The third time, he rallies the disciples to follow Jesus to Bethany. ‘Let us also go,” he says, “that we may die with him (John 11: 16).’”

Sometimes courage mounts the ramparts in defiance of incoming fire. Sometimes it forges alliances to stand up to tyrants. Sometimes it refuses to betray the principles of a nation in exchange for the passing praise of the corrupt and the powerful. And sometimes we see it in the set of a man’s shoulders and the lifting of the head: knowing the danger, counting the cost, he strides out anyway.

  1. Thomas, R. S. “Circles.” In Collected Poems 1945-1990. London: Orion House, 1993, 245.
  2. Aristotle. Nicomachean Ethics. Translated by Martin Ostwald. Upper Saddle River: Prentice Hall, 1999, 69.

A Heart for Yearning

Photo: Kristine Weilert, Unsplash.com

“But how very beautiful are those instants in which desire is on the verge of being satisfied.” — Jean Grenier1

How does one describe air: a colorless, odorless (usually) gas without which there is no life? Adequate, perhaps, but notable only in its subtractions and absences. How odd that something with weight, velocity, temperature, penetration, and mobility should be so ubiquitous and so indispensable—and yet so invisible.

Our language reveals these absences and ambiguities. “I can’t breathe!” Even reading these words, we feel our throats tighten. “Put your hands in the air!” We instinctively know where to put them—but where were they before? “He has an air about him . . .” We should hope so. In fact, let’s be generous and wish him the presence of many airs, not just one.

It is the marvelous capacity of our social imagination that these phrases usually bring about the desired effect and yet when we take them literally their meaning expires with a little gasp.

***

I struggle to describe God with any sense that I’m making sense, even to myself. I know that the letters G-O-D hold realms of meaning for many of us, but I suspect that these are inherited meanings which form an oral tradition that keeps us talking about God. If we come up dry on names for God, we need only hum a few bars of Handel’s Messiah for a full list. Those names come from Isaiah and it makes one wonder if we’ve added anything of value to the list for names and descriptions of God since the 5th century BCE. Alfred North Whitehead said in passing that everything in Western philosophy was but a footnote to Plato—an exaggeration perhaps, but one that reveals how indebted we are to our ancient masters.

“Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent,” said Ludwig Wittgenstein in his Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus. This advice, if followed, would save us from a multitude of fevers carried like a bacillus in the veins of our social media. Wittgenstein also said, “The limits of my language means the limits of my world.” This too, seems like a good word. Language expands the world we perceive, and our horizons shrivel for lack of vocabulary. “Only describe, don’t explain,” cautioned Wittengenstein. But how to describe a being whose hiddenness preserves us from extinction in that presence?

But we learn, however haltingly, by trying this and that, by speaking and hearing ourselves speaking, and by listening and speaking and going away to think. When it comes to speaking about God, I’ve done enough of it as a youth pastor, a one-time evangelist, and a teacher, to know that I wish I’d spoken less, listened more, and not been so . . . certain that God could be described within the limits of our language alone.

***

Since the Enlightenment we’ve taken “belief” to mean assent to demonstrable truth. Still, the word “faith” in the New Testament, pistis, or pisteuo, meant trust, loyalty, engagement, commitment.2 One committed to a person, took a vow of loyalty, promised to engage. Early Christian converts went through an intensive preparation leading up to the baptismal rites performed on Easter Sunday. They fasted, prayed, attended vigils, received instruction on the basics of the gospel message. But they weren’t required to believe anything before baptism. The transformative power of the ritual was first necessary; understanding the dogma came later. Experience of commitment led to belief.3

In the Jerusalem community after Jesus left those who loved him were still reciting the Jewish declaration of faith, “Hear, O Israel.” Listen, don’t speak, especially not the name of God. Only the high priest was allowed to say the name of God, and that was only on one day of the year, Yom Kippur, when he pleaded for the life of the people, knowing that he was touching fire.

It’s hard for some Christians to listen for God; it’s easier to speak. I cringe when I hear the name “Father God” or “Jesus” repeated mindlessly in public prayers, as if running up the number could force God’s hand. Jesus invited his disciples to pray to God, and indeed to call God, Abba, the familiar name, equivalent to “Daddy.” He also cautioned them to keep their prayers short and to pray in private. He intimated that long prayers in public were all for show and like any hypocrisy the users had their reward already.

***

In graduate school, studying philosophy of religion, my classmates and I took up the proofs for the existence of God. Thomas Aquinas played a starring role. Here was a man who fused the philosophical categories and reasoning methods of Aristotle with the scriptural and dogmatic propositions of Augustine, adding to it his own extraordinary powers of reasoning and expression, and forming the basis of medieval Catholic theology. Aquinas could keep six scribes busy at once, dictating to each the contents of separate books he was writing, the equivalent of a Grand Master at chess playing six opponents simultaneously.

In his Summa Theologica, Aquinas defines “God” as “that than which nothing greater can be signified, and that which exists in reality is greater than that which exists only in the intellect.”4 It was self-evident to him that God exists. He proceeds to five proofs for the existence of God, the first being the argument from motion. God is the First Mover who is himself not moved by anything and, Aquinas says, “all men understand that this is God.”

Aquinas lived in a time when the existence of God could be vigorously disputed and stringently proven. I was impressed by his logical brilliance, somewhat envious of his unshakable certainty, but ultimately unmoved by his First Mover. My professor was fond of saying, “No one ever gave his life for the ontological argument,” a statement that could not be verified, but rang true, nonetheless.

Now we live in an era in which the arguments for the existence of God are mostly of historical interest for the philosophy of religion. They may also function as exercises in logic. But the ground has shifted under our feet and we are no longer as confident in our syllogisms and proofs. For many people, these are irrelevant arguments about a mythical being in whose name enormous atrocities have been perpetrated, and whose adherents, be they Christian, Jewish, or Muslim, are responsible for much of the injustice and suffering in the world. They are willing to hand in the ticket for their share of God’s grace and go it alone.

I believe them when they make that claim, but in turn I will not claim that I know how they feel. The mystery of evil has been, and remains, the rock that I roll up the mountain as Sisyphus. Meanwhile, I continue to pray and to sense—in ways that probably would not stand up to philosophical scrutiny—a presence in my life that I am convinced is God.

***

The Hebrew Bible is the record of the gradual withdrawal of God from direct human interaction. Angels, fire from heaven, visitations from God in person cease after Elijah. God appears in prophetic visions and dreams, and after Hezekiah even that avenue gradually dwindles to nothing. God is remembered through words and those words rise in strength and meaning. But God is not seen in the land.

“Our faith,” said Julian of Norwich, “is nothing else but a right understanding, and true belief, and sure trust, that with regard to our essential being we are in God, and God in us, though we do not see him.”5

Then comes Jesus, the Word, who reveals God with signs and wonders, who heals through the power of God and becomes the lens through which his disciples and others can see God again. But this revelation is not self-evident and most miss it entirely. God speaks only twice to Jesus in the presence of others and most who were there probably thought it was summer thunder. As Barbara Brown Taylor says in When God is Silent, “the voice of God in Jesus was not a shout. In him, the revelation of God comes to us as a whisper. In order to catch it, we must hush, lean forward, and trust that what we hear is the voice of God.”6

In this world and this time and this place, we trace the presence of God in hindsight through the paths we make between our memories and God’s movements. Our future in God, however wildly our faith may flicker, we can imagine as Jesus, the anticipation of hope fulfilled.

In our wordless desire for God we are already in God’s presence.

  1. Grenier, Jean. “The Attraction of the Void” in Islands: Lyrical Essays. Translated by Steve Light. Copenhagen: Green Integer, 2005, 22.
  2. Armstrong, Karen. The Case for God. New York: Alfred Knopf, 2009, 87.
  3. Armstrong, The Case for God, 97.
  4. Aquinas, Aquinas on Nature and Grace. Edited by A. M. Fairweather. Philadelphia: Westminster, 1954, 50.
  5. Julian. Revelations of Divine Love. Translated by Clifton Wolters. Harmondsworth, UK: Penguin Books, 1966, 158.
  6. Taylor, Barbara Brown. When God is Silent. Lanham, Maryland: Rowman & Littlefield, 1998, Loc 475.

One Love

”By his grace and help therefore let us in spirit stand and gaze, eternally marveling at the supreme, surpassing, singleminded, incalculable love that God, who is goodness, has for us.” — Julian of Norwich

On the eighth of May, in the year of our Lord 1373—the third Sunday after Easter—a thirty year-old woman, known to us as Julian of Norwich, received sixteen “shewings” or revelations, which she later acknowledged were visions from God. Near the beginning of that month she had fallen to an illness, the nature of which was not known. After a week in which her condition worsened and she was thought to be dying, a parish priest was called to administer the last rites. At the conclusion, as he was leaving, he placed a crucifix before her and bid her look upon the face of her Savior for comfort. In the next hours, as she prepared herself for death, the showings were revealed to her in rapid succession.

The first fifteen came to her the morning after the visit of the priest, starting at four a.m. and finishing at nine. The last one, the sixteenth, occurred later that night, concluding and affirming the previous ones. Much to her surprise, and that of her family and friends, she recovered. The meaning of the visions occupied her for the remainder of her long life.

There resulted two written versions of the revelations, the first and shorter version inscribed soon after she recovered, and the longer version some twenty years later, the result of much meditation in the intervening years. Although the later, longer version may naturally contain some embellishment on the original visions, both are considered authentic by the Church. She called herself “an unlettered person,” a deprecatory statement that testifies to her humility, but is refuted by “the sheer integrity of Julian’s reasoning, the precision of her theology, the depth of her insight, and the simplicity with which she expounds profound truths.”1

So little is known of her life that what we learn of her character and background must be gleaned from the writings themselves. Based on allusions and hints in the text, biographers have tried to put together a plausible story that takes into account the context of her times.

In 1332, ten years before her birth, the bubonic plague—the Black Death—originated in India, making its way westward by 1347 to devastate Europe. Geoffrey Chaucer was born in 1340, two years before Julian, the same year that Queen’s College was founded at Oxford. In 1349 the Black Death arrived to kill off a third of the population of England. By 1350 Salisbury Cathedral was completed, and in 1352 Corpus Christi College, Oxford, was founded.

In 1361 the Black Death reappeared in England for the second time, devastating Julian’s home city of Norwich, this time striking down infants and small children. Julian would have been nineteen at the time. Her memories of the first plague during her childhood may have been diffuse but unforgettable. In the second wave she was nineteen, married and probably the mother of at least one child, a child who quite possibly was also one of the victims.

Although she does not mention specific personal losses in her writings, she does reflect on the travail and sadness she experienced. There was a time, she writes, “when I had a great longing and desire of God’s gift to be delivered of this world and of this life. For oft times I beheld the woe that is here and the wellness and blessed being that is there . . . This made me to mourn and earnestly to long—and also my own wretchedness and sloth and weariness—that I did not want to live and to travail as it fell to me to do.”2

Plagues and wars were regarded as God’s punishment in Julian’s time, although human sin was the weakness that brought on the devastation. A single sinner could bring down the wrath of heaven on a community. It is the state of our sufferings here that weighs upon her in her solitude. Like anyone else, the presence of evil and suffering seems to her disproportionate to our culpability.

Her biographers and translators (she wrote an early form of English that can be difficult to read) are quick to affirm that in matters theological she followed the Church’s teachings without question—with two important exceptions. She did not accept that God could be wrathful and she did not believe that humans were wholly evil. Augustine’s doctrine of original sin neither convinced her nor intimidated her. As for the wrath of God, she saw only love in all that God did.

Just as the whole of life is rooted and grounded in love, and just as we cannot even exist were it not for God’s love poured out on us, so Julian infers that it is impossible that God should be angry. “I could see no sort of anger in God, however long I looked,” she recounts. “Indeed, if God were to be angry but for a moment we could not live, endure, or be (Julian 138)!” The dread we feel when we sin is not from fear of God, but from our deep need for God’s forgiveness and grace to overcome our sense of separation. It is the fear of the runaway child who suddenly sees herself alone and longs for home and for her parents.

Various theories and conjectures have been put forward to explain her divergence on these matters. Insubordination does not factor here: she voluntarily submitted to the Church’s authority and teachings. Lack of knowledge? Hardly, since the doctrine of hellfire, purgatory, and eternal torment would have been part of every child’s upbringing in her time. One commentator suggests that despite the trauma of surviving two waves of the Black Death before she was twenty, she was the product of a loving, stable, and happy home. While Norwich was a consequential city, the fourth largest city in England at the time, she had been shielded from its ranker aspects and probably never traveled beyond its immediate countryside. Simply put, she had little continued exposure to the cruelties and vileness of human depravity. In her innocence she saw the beauty and worth of every person.

“There is a godly will in our higher part, which by its basic goodness never wills what is evil, but only what is good. This is the reason why he loves us, and why we can always do what pleases him,” she wrote (Julian 118).

In her work as an anchoress, a person who voluntarily withdraws from the larger world to pray for the world and to counsel others, she no doubt heard their woes, their pains, their grievances against others, and their spitefulness. But she steadfastly held the belief that there was a seed in every person—without exception—that was pure and undefiled and was the germination point for the Holy Spirit in that person’s life.

Yet, the very presence of evil and suffering troubled her. She returned to the subject time and again throughout the revelations. “Good Lord,” she writes, “how can everything be all right when such great hurt has come to your creatures through sin?” In an aside to her readers she confides, “I desired, as far as I dared, to have more information for my own peace of mind (Julian 106).”

The answer came to her in two parts. Of the first, concerning our salvation, there is no mystery. Everything we need to know, everything we are hungering to hear from God about forgiveness, grace, and love, is there for the taking. “In this our Lord intends us to be occupied: delighting in himself, as he delights in us (Julian 106).”

The other part may not satisfy us today, accustomed as we are to perceive mysteries as information we have not yet analyzed, collated, and distributed. “The other part is completely hidden from us,” she writes. “It is our Lord’s own private matter, and it is the royal prerogative of God to be undisturbed in that which is his own business (Julian 107).” If we really wanted to please God, she says, we would want only what is God’s will, and in this case it is God’s will that we should not know this just yet. In later passages she hints that the last great secret that God will reveal to his children will be how he has determined the final judgment.

Sin, Julian says, “has no substance or real existence. It can only be known by the pain it causes (Julian 104).” The pain passes quickly and works on us to purge us and make us self-aware; in that pain we turn to God for mercy. “Because of his tender love for all those who are to be saved our good Lord comforts us at once and sweetly, as if to say, ‘It is true that sin is the cause of all this pain; but it is all going to be all right; it is all going to be all right; everything is going to be all right (Julian 104).’ ”

The refrain that sings throughout the Revelations, from beginning to end, is that all will be well. We might think this to be a passing surge of emotion, but it remains at the core of her being after a lifetime of reflection on her extraordinary personal vision. She lived, as near as can be determined, well into her seventies, loved and admired by those drawn through need and circumstance into her circle, as acquainted with the sorrows and agonies of life as with the abiding assurance of God’s love.

***

Every once in awhile, perhaps when it is most needed, some person is lifted and held in the arms of God long enough that they return with God’s heartbeat pulsing through their veins. This has happened in diverse eras to reassure us that God has not left us orphaned. What catches our breath and quickens our spirits is that some of them return with gifts from that far country (as miraculously close as the light behind their eyes)—gifts of words and images that draw us up to God.

“With regard to the physical sight,” Julian states, “I have related what I have seen as truthfully as I can. For the words I have repeated them exactly as our Lord showed them me. About the spiritual sight I have already said a fair amount, but I can never describe it fully (Julian 191–2).”

What we can say runs behind what we can imagine. What we can imagine we can’t always say. Does our imagination outrun our language? Does our language constrict the limits of our imagination? Julian’s vision of God and of Jesus—she called him ‘Mother Jesus’—and of the Holy Spirit, transcended both her time and her Church.

The being of God is, in our present state, unknowable, but in the Word made flesh—in Jesus—we see all we need to know of God that we can bear. We sometimes turn away from this because we do not trust our experience. Julian herself at first could not believe her spiritual eyes: “On the very day that it happened, when the vision had passed, I—wretch that I am!—denied it, and said quite openly that I had raved (Julian 187).” But the Lord showed it all over again to her, in greater detail this time, and quietly said, “You know that was no raving that you saw today.” Take it, he said to her. Believe it, comfort yourself with it, live in it. “For his will is that we should continue to believe it to the end of our life, and remain in the fullness of this joy thereafter (Julian 188).”

All will be well.

  1. Julian of Norwich. Revelations of Divine Love. Translated into Modern English by Clifton Wolters. New York: Penguin Books, 1966, 29–30.
  2. Frykholm, Amy. Julian of Norwich: A Contemplative Biography. Brewster, MA: Paraclete Press, 2010, 24.

The Doubtful Pilgrim

1DoubtfulPilgrim:vincent-riszdorfer-1420323-unsplash

“Doubt wisely; in strange way

To stand inquiring right, is not to stray;

To sleep, or run wrong, is.” John Donne, Satire III

If there is one thing I should like to give up for Lent it would be impatience. I do not look like an impatient fellow to my friends, but that is because I have perfected an expression of benign composure that covers a roiling sea of clashing thoughts and enough second-guessing to keep me dithering in place. Rarely do I accelerate down the golden road of certainty without fishing in the glove compartment of my memory for maps of alternate routes.

Usually, people give up something they like for Lent, such as chocolate or the movies or donuts. The idea is that such a sacrifice, however provisional, will concentrate the mind long enough to focus on more serious things. Somehow that seems off-point to me, not really weighty enough to bend the needle on the spiritual Change-O-Meter. And one of the unintended consequences is the flagrant growth of spiritual pride. So, I would hope to give up something that will make a difference, something I don’t like.

Although I have come lately to an awareness of Lent, I understand it to be a season for introspection, for searching ourselves for our motives and attitudes. It is a way to examine our spiritual habits, those ingrained neural pathways that can free us up for deeper thought or can dull our sensitivities. We may also liken Lent to a pilgrimage of the spirit, a way to cast a look backward along our path and then forward to where we hope to go.

Impatience isn’t all wrong; it can spur us to cut through our hesitation over things that are trivial. Sometimes it really doesn’t matter which brand of chips you buy in an aisle with dozens of slight variations on a theme. But most of the time impatience makes us cut corners, disregard the context, and nullify the nuances.

Sometimes impatience is a form of intellectual laziness. We don’t want to think a thing through; it’s easier just to jump the gap to the closest conclusion and hope to find a handhold. People who are good at math and actually like it assure me that finding the solution to the problem is as much about the steps in the process as it is about cresting the mountain to find — surprise! — the summit. There’s an elegance there, they say, a beauty in the way the symbols lead one through the maze to the fountain at the center.

I just wonder what fiend thought it would be fun to make x stand for something unknown. What are they trying to hide, I wondered in math class. If I can see the solution, why do I have to go through all the steps to prove I got there?

There is a saying that I’ve begun to find irritating, partly because I’ve used it myself since it was cheap and available, but mostly because it doesn’t square with my experience. The saying is: “Getting there is half the fun.” We usually cite this phrase when it is manifestly untrue, when getting there was an unconscionable slog, only redeemed by the fact that ultimately, we prevailed and finally did get there.

I feel this way about flying these days. A journey of two hours of actual flying time inevitably becomes six or even eight hours of travel time (ah, there’s the unknown x in the equation!), once you factor in getting to the airport two hours early, trudging shoeless through TSA, suffering the delay while the airline waits for a missing part to be delivered through rush hour traffic, and then the final half-hour on the tarmac while we gaze at the airport terminal. No, getting there is not half the fun. It’s not even an eighth of the fun. It is not fun.

There is a related phrase that I do appreciate, however, despite my struggle with impatience. That is, “It’s not the destination, it’s the journey.” Granted, it might seem too similar to pass inspection, but there is a difference — context matters.

I am thankful to have come from a religious tradition that regards our passage through this life as a pilgrimage. It teaches us that pilgrims have their eyes set on a future home and thus, in this journey one must travel light, unencumbered by the excess of having that ties one down. It is part of our traditional hope in the Second Advent of Christ, that portal through which we imagine justice and peace just beyond the foreground of the breakup of all things on this earth.

An image that captured this for me as I studied the philosophy of Gabriel Marcel was his description of us as Homo Viator, humans as wanderers and wayfarers, whose provisions for our journey are indeed “pro-visions,” those acts of imagination and faith which stimulate us before we set out and which sustain us on the journey.

We are restless beings, says Marcel, forever longing for transcendence and fulfillment. That hunger lures us onward, what C. S. Lewis called Sehnsucht, the longing for a joy that will never be completely satisfied on this earth. We have choices to make, implies Marcel, between resigning ourselves to the absurdity of traveling without meaning until we die or rising to the risk of faith that we shall discover ourselves in God through hope and trust while on the road.

Here is where patience must play its part and where doubt becomes the handmaiden of faith. “Doubt wisely,” advises John Donne in the epigram. “To stand inquiring right is not to stray.” We have no need to rush on the way; our journey toward the kingdom yet to come does not hasten or prevent its coming. What matters is that we find our way forward in faith, remembering experience but not hampered by it, attentive to our reasonable doubts.

Donne continues with the famous metaphor:

On a huge hill,

Cragged and steep, Truth stands, and he that will

Reach her, about must and about must go,

And what the hill’s suddenness resists, win so.

Some of the really important things in life must be approached indirectly. Doubt can foster patience, the willingness to traverse that huge hill around and around, climbing higher as we go, learning in the journey toward the truth as it is in Christ.

Two roads diverged in a yellow wood, mused Robert Frost. I looked down one as far as I could . . . and then took the one less traveled by. And that, of course, has made all the difference.

If we will it to be, our capacity to doubt will be matched by our desire for truth; ironically, we doubt because we want only authentic faith, the kind to sustain us through our doubt. And so, it seems that after all, now would be a good time for a pilgrimage of the heart.

Photo: Vincent Riszdorfer, Unsplash.com

Jonah’s Bad Trip: A Lenten Meditation

1CloudCity:anton-rusetsky-52560-unsplash

”Lent is a time set aside to reorient ourselves, to clarify our minds, to slow down, recover from distraction, to focus on the values of God’s kingdom and on the value he has set on us and on our neighbors.” Malcolm Guite, The Word in the Wilderness

As prophets go, Jonah went—as far away as he could from this thunderous, all-seeing, lion of a god who could pick him up and shake him like a rag doll. It was no use; he’d taken a ship to Tarshish, roughly in the opposite direction from Nineveh, which was picturesquely situated far out on the burning plains of what would much later become Iraq.

Most prophets decidedly did not want the job; long hours, no benefits, one’s very presence tended to make the children cry and the dogs bark. And it could get you killed. The killing part is what Jonah objected to the most.

So, he rushed down to the docks, paid the captain and went aboard without so much as an overnight case. This raised suspicion. Most of the passengers on ships out of port were merchants. Jonah looked like a fugitive, but he paid up front, so the captain took him aboard. He told the first mate to keep an eye on him though. There was something fishy about him.

The first day out a tremendous storm came up. The wind roared and cracked through the rigging and the deck was slippery with foam. The crew flung the cargo over the rails to keep the ship afloat and it was all they could do to keep the bow headed into the waves. It being a multi-ethnic and polytheistic crew, they were desperately calling on their gods for relief when someone thought to search out their odd passenger.

He was found deep in the hold, asleep in a fetal position. Finding this both unnerving and insulting under the circumstances, the captain shook him awake and forced him topside. “What are you doing asleep! Get up, call on your god! Perhaps the god will spare us a thought so that we do not perish.”

Since all the usual gods had been accounted for and the storm still raged on, the sailors cast lots to see who was at fault. When the lot fell to Jonah, the men rounded on him. “What’s your business? Where do you come from? Who are your people?”

“I’m a Hebrew,” he replied. “I serve the God who made the sea and the dry land.” At this, the crew gasped and drew back. “What did you do?” they demanded, and as the storm increased in fury they screamed, “What should we do to you to quiet this storm?”

“Throw me overboard,” he cried out, “It’s my fault this storm is upon us.”

Let us pause here a moment to consider Jonah’s plight. He is a prophet on the run from the God who controls all of the world. Perhaps it was simply a reflex to run, to escape a frightful duty. But it was a duty imposed by a God whose reach extends over the globe and who controls heaven, the sea, and the earth. A prophet on the run from a God like that is the living embodiment of futility and Jonah knows it.

To their credit, the crew sees flinging a man overboard in a whip-lashing storm as the last resort. They row for shore, even though if they succeed, they will crash on the rocks. But they row anyway, without progress, in the teeth of this blinding gale until, at last, exhausted and fearful, they pray for mercy from Jonah’s god for throwing him overboard, and then over he goes. No doubt they see it as a sacrifice to a capricious god who can be appeased by a human sinking down into the cruel depths.

Does Jonah think the same way? In his state, confused, angry, bitter, and afraid he may have felt he had nothing left, that his flight from the all-seeing God was a sure sign of his guilt, but that somehow, some way, this was all God’s fault. But Jonah would get even. He’d die in the waves and then God would be sorry.

At this point, the story takes a wild turn. In fact, it becomes a fable, replete with a fantastic animal. Scholars are unsure of when this story was written, although it was most certainly long after Nineveh had vanished into history. As a historical event it doesn’t meet the bar, but as a story with a point, how could it be better?

A fugitive on the lam from God gets swallowed by a big fish, spends three days and three nights in the depths of both the ocean and the fish’s innards, and after a heartfelt prayer for salvation, is vomited (the Hebrew here is precise) up on the beach, dazed and slimy. It’s a perfect set-up for comedy and drama.

Onward, then! No time to lose! There’s a whole city of wicked people to be warned, after which Jonah (he imagines) will be ceremonially cut into pieces and fricasseed over an open fire, all for the glory of the all-seeing God. Let’s get this over with.

We can’t fault Jonah too much for a grim outlook. He stood in a long line of prophets who understood that their messages, however compelling, would usually fall on deaf ears, and at the very least they would be mocked and scorned. He had also grasped, with singular clarity, that while most of the top tier of Hebrew prophets risked derision only from their own people, he, Jonah, was compelled to thrust God’s warning under the noses of their ancestral enemies, a people wholly given over to unholy practices and unvarnished blasphemy. In the history of Israel, the Ninevites were the ultimate bogeymen, renowned for dragging their prisoners by hooks through the nose. And that was tender and thoughtful compared to what lay ahead for those who survived the long trek back to the city. No, there was nothing for it: he had been singled out by God for this exquisite punishment. Pardon me, he thought bleakly, if I go to my death stinking of fish and short on manners.

“And the word of the Lord came to Jonah a second time, saying, ‘Get up, go to Nineveh the great city, and call out to it the call that I speak to you.’ And Jonah got up and went to Nineveh according to the word of the Lord. And Nineveh was a great city of God’s, a three days’ walk across (Jonah 3: 1-3).”

Robert Alter’s commentary on Jonah in his magnificent three-volume translation, The Hebrew Bible (2019), cheerfully informs us that doing the math for a three-day walk across a city would give us a metropolis larger than Los Angeles, a sprawl no city in the ancient Near East could achieve, but if we regard it symbolically we see that just as Jonah was in the belly of the fish for three days, so he will have three days to proclaim the message throughout Nineveh.

And it also appears that Nineveh, that great city, belongs to God, just like the sea, the mountains, donkeys, figs, and Israel. Jonah should feel right at home. Off he goes, then, striding a day’s walk toward the center, shouting as he went, “Forty days more, and Nineveh is overthrown.” And the people, the story says, trusted God and donned sackcloth and ashes and repented, just like that, from the greatest of them to the least.

The news travels like an invisible tsunami from the periphery to the center of the city where the king resides, and when it reaches him, he stands up, throws off his mantle, covers himself in sackcloth and sits down upon ashes (an observer wonders, did they keep sackcloth in the linen closet for just such an occasion?). The king makes a proclamation, remarkable in its force and comprehensiveness. Immediately, everyone, even the cattle and sheep, are commanded not to eat nor to drink water. “And man and beast shall cover themselves with sackcloth, and they shall call out to God with all their might . . . Who knows? Perhaps God will turn back and relent and turn back from His blazing wrath, and we shall not perish (Jonah 3:8,9).” There is an echo here of the ship captain who tossed out a similar hope that God might tamp down His wrath in order that they might live.

Cattle and sheep wearing sackcloth, an entire city wearing sackcloth, no one eating or drinking, everyone (even the animals) repenting of the evil they had done? It’s safe to say that no evangelist since has scored so complete a victory as Jonah. It’s a record that will stand for all time.

But of course, it wasn’t him. In fact, he did not take it well. “And the thing was very evil for Jonah, and he was incensed.” He was incensed enough to pray to God in complaint, virtually fizzing in anger. Isn’t this what I said when I was back home, he yells. I knew you would pull a trick like this! “For I knew that You are a gracious and compassionate God, slow to anger and abundant in kindness and relenting from evil.” So put me out of my misery — just kill me — I’m better off dead than alive. “And the Lord said, ‘Are you good and angry (Jonah 4:4)?’”

Yes, yes, you could say that, muttered Jonah bitterly. He retraced his steps, trudging out of the city up to a hill to the east where he made himself a shelter and sat down to watch what would happen. He wanted fire from heaven, napalm, and howitzers, the mother of all bombs to flatten this great city. Maybe that would make him feel better, salve his bruised ego and lower his blood pressure.

And God, smiling quietly to Himself and compassionate to a fault, “set out a qiqayon plant, and it rose up over Jonah to be a shade over his head to save him from his evil plight. And Jonah rejoiced greatly over the qiqayon.” And despite the long arms of the sun as it sets on that day, Jonah finds comfort in the shade and passes the night thankfully and well.

And in the morning, as the sun rises, God sends a hot wind to wither Jonah’s precious plant. Immediately, the bile rises in his throat, his blood pressure shoots skyward, and again he prays to die. The city, that great city, lies peacefully spread out below him, its inhabitants hungry but redeemed, its cattle and sheep bewildered by their sackcloth outfits and vaguely aware of how quiet it is.

“Are you good and angry over the qiqayon?” chuckles God. Jonah sighs, “I am good and angry, to the point of death.” We can almost hear the shake of the divine head and a hint of exasperation because of this child. You cared more about the plant than the people, says God. “And I, shall I not have pity for Nineveh the great city, in which there are many more than one hundred twenty thousand human beings who do not know between their right hand and their left, and many beasts (Jonah 4:11)?” And there, the fable ends.

***

We don’t know how Jonah got home again or if he did. The story leaves us with questions, like all good stories do. Did the animals get to go naked again? Is Jonah like the prodigal son’s elder brother? Can we drop our resentment at God’s forgiveness? Does God really love our enemies? Are we good and angry over His compassion? Can we forgive ourselves as He has forgiven us?

Can we go home again?

Photo: Anton Rusetsky, Unsplash.com

The Eyes of Your Heart

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“. . . so that, with the eyes of your heart enlightened, you may know what is the hope to which he has called you, what are the riches of his glorious inheritance among the saints, and what is the immeasurable greatness of his power for us who believe, according to the working of his great power.” — Ephesians 1:18,19

Once we understand there are many ways to enlighten our hearts, the horizon of possibilities before us widens. This is especially true when we seek beauty and truth — distinguishable and thus equally indispensable. When we find these sources, whether they be bathed in the center of God’s glory or reflecting God’s light from their centrifugal swings around the Son, they open to us new channels for perception.

Poetry penetrates deep to the heart, but indirectly. If you’re willing to look you can find the poets who somehow hear the music that beats in your bloodstream and when you read them, you understand yourself in ways you couldn’t have arrived at on your own. “When you encounter this splash of words,” writes priest and poet Mark Oakley, “you understand that ultimately poetry is not about factual information but human formation. Like water, language goes stagnant if it doesn’t move.”

When I first read Rainer Maria Rilke, this poet of the great silences, the man who was christened with a girl’s name for the sister who was lost, it was as if he had read my heart’s way and was speaking my longings in words that were almost holy. When I began with his Sonnets to Orpheus, I could only manage a page or two and then I’d have to put it aside and do something else for awhile, something that didn’t lay me open to the bone. If we can bear it, this is an opening to wonder and mystery.

Or maybe it’s music — Faure’s Requiem, or Bach’s St. Matthew’s Passion, or U2’s I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For or the tears that flow from Eric Clapton’s guitar through While My Guitar Gently Weeps during the “Concert for George.” That’s what Carlos Santana calls “Holy Ghost music,” something that happens between musicians and audience that goes beyond artistry and technique to a communion of fire and spirit.

These moments, these strands of bright beauty, are all around us, and if we choose, we can weave them together in our memories for a coat of many colors to wear on our dull and darker days. Their beauty, though ephemeral, is real in the moment: we can see them and feel them as they pass through us. But their greater power is that they remind us of something we’ve known and lost or once had but did not fully appreciate. They are signs of the ineffable, signals received from a source whose coordinates seem strangely familiar. As such, they give us practice in the exercise of faith.

***

“It is within man’s power to seek Him,” writes Rabbi Abraham Heschel in God in Search of Man, “it is not within his power to find Him. All Abraham had was wonder, and all he could achieve on his own was readiness to perceive. The answer was disclosed to him; it was not found by him.”

Heschel turns to Maimonides, who did not offer proof for the existence of God but said that the source of our knowledge of God is the ‘inner heart,’ the medieval name for intuition. We don’t apprehend God through a syllogism, but through an insight, a spiritual discernment.

It’s not that reason can’t play a role in spiritual things; reasoning often brings us into the neighborhood of faith and removes barriers to our willingness to listen. It provides a way to organize our categories: faith, evidence, rationality, miracles, finitude and infinity, eternity and time-boundedness, perfection and inexactitude, the sacred and the mundane. It helps us bracket our prejudices and recognize our standpoint. And it can reveal our inconsistencies and lapses in judgement. This is the stuff of the philosophy of religion, all of it intriguing, fascinating, compelling. But it can also keep God at a distance, an object to be argued about, not a Being who enthralls us. For that, we need the eyes of the heart. “Faith terminates not in a statement, not in a formula of words, but in God,” writes Thomas Merton in New Seeds of Contemplation.

Heschel continues: “But the initiative, we believe, is with man. The great insight is not given unless we are ready to receive.” Faith commences, God completes.

So here now is Paul, writing to his friends in Ephesus, rejoicing with them that their sins are forgiven, that God has chosen them to be filled with love, and that when the right time arrives the whole universe — heaven touching earth — will be brought into joyful harmony in Christ. That time is now, Paul insists. The “eyes of your heart” will perceive it through faith.

Here is the audaciousness which characterizes the apostolic community and which still — perhaps even more now — takes our breath away. In the midst of wearying journeys, dissensions and disputes, divisions which cut to the heart of who Paul and his friends thought they were because of Christ, he gathers up the threads of their faith in action and promises that this is indeed the first light of the new day of God’s kingdom.

Two millennia later this promise almost seems like mockery. Far from being a community without divisions, the Church seems to model the political world with all its coercion, bad faith, and posturing. We see the same underhandedness and false hope in the Church that plays out in a daily live-stream from any number of our politicians and corporate leaders. The Church as a body sometimes does not even reach the standard of respect and equality for people that our society continues to struggle toward. We Christians have a lot to answer for. Are we wandering in the wilderness?

Paul’s message to Jew and Gentile was that God was in Christ reconciling the world to Himself. What had been promised for centuries, though covenants made were broken and straight places fell into crookedness, had now in the fullness of time come to pass. Quite beyond any power they might have exercised to move the cosmic forces into alignment, the promise was made good in spite of their weakness. Nothing they did could bring it into being nor could they prevent what God had planned from the foundation of the world. It was a gift open to all who could see it, a world reborn.

Paul has heard of the faith of these Ephesians and their “love toward all the saints,” and he prays that God may give them “a spirit of wisdom and revelation.” To his friends at Ephesus — and to us — he says, “you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are citizens . . . of the household of God (Ephesians 2:19).”

To Paul, every little community of believers that formed was the household of God, a wavering light that would bloom brighter as their faith was seen in action.

The question was whether they could see this potential for themselves if the bonds of friendship and community they had begun could strengthen and flourish. Could they perceive God in the whirl and flux of this world? The eyes of their hearts would see the hope to which God had called them, the richness of belonging to this great cloud of witnesses, and the greatness of God’s power to sustain them.

Faith commences, God completes. Believing is seeing.

Photo: Shalom Mwenesi, Unsplash.com

Wisdom for the Contingent World

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“The truth is, that Jesus remains too disturbing a figure ever to be left to himself. Christianity in all its multifarious manifestations, Orthodox and heterodox, has been a repeated attempt to make sense of him, to cut him down to size . . . How oblique and how terrifying a figure he actually was in history. Terrifying, because he really does undermine everything.”— A. N. Wilson, Jesus: A Life

It is a remarkable fact, given Christianity’s 2,000 years of history, that Jesus was not a Christian nor is it at all certain that if he could walk among us in the flesh that he would know what to make of what we have made of him. Like a child’s bendable toy, Jesus can be made to assume almost any posture that we choose. And it has been pointed out innumerable times that what we make of Jesus says more about us than it does about him.

When we try to measure his effectiveness as a reformer in terms of how closely his followers adhere to his ideals, we have to admit that Plato, Aristotle, St. Augustine, St. Paul, Mohammed, and Darwin, Marx, and Freud have had a far greater direct influence on the human race.1 Even so, for a figure in history whose story has nevertheless touched billions of people, it is sobering to realize how little we know of him as a man. Millions invoke his name as a prayer or an oath and of his image, there is no lack in art, music, drama, poetry, and scholarship. Bumper stickers proclaim him, from the testy, “Do you follow Jesus this close?” to the smug, “Jesus Christ is the answer” to the cloying, “Jesus is not a Republican or a Democrat. His party is the Kingdom of God.”

A. N. Wilson’s book, Jesus: A Life, quoted above, attempts to grapple with the powerful story of Jesus (Wilson calls it a ‘myth’), a story that cannot be fully contained by the factuality of history but spills over in narrative and imagination. Wilson, who read history at Oxford as an undergraduate, cannot shake off his fascination with Jesus and Christianity, despite his skepticism about the divinity of Christ. He sees Jesus as ultimately a tragic figure whose attraction for us is unparalleled, and who was a Jew who only longed for faithfulness in following God. Our encounter with his story, says Wilson, arises from a careful reading of the Gospels, while knowing that they are not biographies nor are they historical accounts as we understand them.

Jesus did not fit neatly into the various strands of Jewish life and thought of his time. He was raised in Galilee, traditionally a hotbed of revolutionary activity, and included among his friends Simon the Zealot (read terrorist), a tax collector, professional fishermen, several women, and various members of the priestly ruling class. Swirling around him during that time were Pharisees, Sadducees, Samaritans, followers of John the Baptist, zealots, and the thousands of simple, often desperate, common folk. He was accused of loving his food and wine too much and of flouting the rules about Sabbath. All of this made him suspect in the eyes of the religious authorities. Yet, in the last week of his life he has dinner at the home of a prominent Pharisee and another one, Nicodemus, comes to him at night to speak with him directly.

To be a Jew in his time was not to belong to a religion set apart from political life, but to be suspended in a web of religious, historical, and cultural threads that composed a whole life. Jesus cuts across all these threads in his own way, and yet somehow appeals to people of all classes.

Greg Riley, in One Jesus, Many Christs, says “People, apparently, did not follow Jesus for his words. For all the attention given in the modern era to the sayings of the historical Jesus, his precise words seem hardly to have mattered at all.” Yet for us, the Gospels are stories about Jesus with claims to be the teachings of Jesus. Each gospel writer has reshaped the oral traditions of Jesus’ sayings and each one views Jesus from a particular perspective. Their timelines of events in Jesus’ life differ—for different reasons—and they transpose his sayings into contexts that vary considerably.

But there are enough details here and there that could not be anything but authentic because they are too specific, too unusual, too unique to be a literary fiction. The gospel writers were not writing history, but neither were they writing fiction.

“A culture tells its members stories that embody its ideals and reinforce social norms and goals,” says Riley. “We in the modern world tell ourselves consciously or unconsciously a story of success, the Horatio Alger story, that no matter what our circumstances if we work hard and try our honest best, we will eventually climb the social ladder to wealth and status.”

There could hardly be a more definitive contrast to the lives people lived in the Greco-Roman world of the first Christians. Most people’s lives were short, subject to sudden reversals of fortune, disease-prone, and frozen in social structures that defied mobility or change. They looked to heroes, people whose physical attributes of beauty and strength and their exploits in war to win glory and honor, blurred the lines between the gods and humans. For us, Jesus was neither a conventional success nor was he close to being a hero, save in the bravery he exhibited in going to the cross. Nevertheless, for many in the first century after Christ, there were cultural templates in place to regard him as just such a hero type.

Flannery O’Connor’s novel, Wise Blood, gives us Hazel Motes, the God-haunted preacher who “saw Jesus move from tree to tree in the back of his mind, a wild ragged figure motioning him to turn around and come off into the dark . . .” I find myself drawn to that figure too, the enigmatic Jesus who rejoices because God has hidden “these things from the wise and the intelligent and have revealed them to infants (Luke 10:21).”

So, who is Jesus for us? Who do we say Jesus is?

***

Jesus’ presence in my mind is like a low murmur rising at times to unspoken prayer, and then slipping back into images, questions, and memories. Every now and then I take out a book of art about Jesus, images of him in painting, sculpture, and drawing. There are black Christs, Korean Christs, Native American, Spanish, Russian, Samoan, and Filipino Christs — and many more besides. It is a visual conversation, a congress of voices that raise in praise of Christ as the embodiment of us all, God Incarnate.

I grew up with Harry Anderson’s paintings that adorned pamphlets, churches, and memory verse cards. Jesus is invariably depicted as a tall white man in robes, standing amongst a rainbow of little children, a kindly expression on his face. Later, in the sixties, as Jesus was seen as part of the counterculture, other artists depicted him as a healthy and vigorous young man, hair tousled and face sweaty, more a rock star than a man of sorrows.

Through graduate school, Jesus was an object to be studied from all angles, a being whose main effect was to stimulate several centuries of scholarship, but whose inner light and expression receded behind waves of theories and contending ideas. I didn’t lose sight of him in those days, but there was distance between us.

Jurgen Moltmann’s The Crucified God, Gustavo Gutierrez’s A Theology of Liberation, and Segundo Galilea’s Following Jesus swept away my unconscious assumptions of a middle-class and respectable Jesus. Their combined shockwave cleared my horizon about how and why he died and spun me around to face systemic evil and suffering.

Then, as I began teaching Jesus and the Gospels to first-year students, their questions forced a pause. How could Jesus help with school loans? Did he ever have an older brother who suffered through addictions? What if he had brought home a girlfriend his parents didn’t like? What if Pilate had set him free? Would he still have had to die? Gradually, we began to realize the obvious, that Jesus spoke in story rather than in precept and that the exercise of our imaginations is what would best open those stories to us.

Without question, there was much we could learn about his times from archeology and history, and there was a wealth of information about the formation of the gospels. We could reason our way through competing theories about the world-view of the gospel writers, but we could not see how radical Jesus was unless we let him lead us back to the root, the radix of God’s searing justice and love. “If you’ve seen me, you’ve seen the Father,” Jesus said. Together, we tried to imagine how that would change our lives.

If we are reading the Gospels to understand and to feel, we will sense how terrifying Jesus is, how disruptive to those who would attempt to contain him in a system. “Neither do I tell you by what authority I do these things.” As A. N. Wilson says with only slight exaggeration, “A patient and conscientious reading of the Gospels will always destroy any explanation we devise. If it makes sense it is wrong.”

Life is uncertain, a truth that may seem to some perplexing, if not heretical. What makes Christianity real for me right now is the humanity of God in Jesus, the total commitment to seeing the contingency of this world from the ground level. The pain, the weariness, the flashes of anger as well as the quick compassion, all of that is there in Jesus. His constant deflection (“Why do you call me good? Only God is good.”), his humor, irony, and hyperbole (“If you have faith the size of a mustard seed, you will say to this mountain, ‘Move!’), and his sense of proportion (“The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath.”) — these things speak of God’s deep plunge into His creation.

In Jesus’ very helplessness we see our own pain and fear writ large: My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me? In Jesus’ last words from the cross, Father, into your hands I commend my spirit, we need not hear desolation and resignation. Through imagination and faith, they may become our daily thanksgiving for God’s sustaining love. Such is the wisdom of the infants.

  1. A. N. Wilson, Jesus: A Life, 1992, p. 253.

Photo: Arunas Naujokas, Unsplash.com

This is Only a Test

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Man is always being challenged; a question is always being asked of him. Abraham Heschel, Moral Grandeur and Spiritual Audacity

When I walked out of my comprehensive exams at graduate school, it was a beautiful Southern California day and I thought, “That’s it, I’m done. No more exams!” Of course, I was wrong, which is concrete evidence of how much I still didn’t know. Life is a series of tests, none of which we can cram for and many of which we will not see the results of until long after we’ve forgotten what we were tested on.

It’s not that I hated exams; I rather enjoyed the opportunity to explain, describe, and analyze complex issues. It was the build-up to the exams that brought anxiety, the persistent feeling that no matter how thorough your preparation there would always be some question designed not to show what you knew but to punish you for what you didn’t know.

When I started teaching, I kept in mind how I felt about exams. I steered clear of minutiae and tried to design questions that gave students an opportunity to take a long view. I made it clear I expected accuracy in portraying the positions of others, honesty in expressing one’s own position, and clarity in writing. Nobody was getting paid by the word; brevity and conciseness were virtues. On questions of ethical practice as distinguished from analysis of ethical theory, I blessed responses that were exploratory and forward-looking. I encouraged students in philosophy and ethics to use their imaginations as well as their reasoning and analytical powers. Above all, I asked them to see themselves as both teachers and learners.

How would they describe and explain what they knew to someone who was deeply interested in what they had to say, but lacked their foundational knowledge on the subject? Could such a person pick up their written responses and understand them? Could those responses be the starting point for a deep and exciting conversation? Could they lead others to see what they had learned? And could connections be made in all directions from the subject they were studying? What had they learned in their American history class that their ethics might address? Could their ethical theories apply to their health practices, their economics courses, and their intercultural communication?

“There is only one subject matter for education,” said A. N. Whitehead in The Aims of Education, “and that is Life in all its manifestations.”

***

There are two kinds of exams in education. One tests what we have learned (summative assessment) and the other tests what we need in order to learn (formative assessment). Generally speaking, the life of a spiritual wanderer, someone seeking the Water of life, is a process of formative assessment. If life is for learning, then we can look to every day as experimental research into that which helps us learn of God, of ourselves, and of others.

“Speculation does not precede faith,” says Abraham Heschel in God in Search of Man. “The antecedents of faith are the premise of wonder and the premise of praise. Worship of God precedes affirmation of His realness. We praise before we prove. We respond before we question.”

For those who have been on this path all their lives, and who find themselves no nearer knowing God than when they began, this may almost sound like mockery. How can a person in their fifth or sixth decade of life on this planet regain this wonder? “Can one enter a second time into the mother’s womb and be born?” asks Nicodemus (Jn. 3:4). We get worn down by life; our capacity for wonder ebbs and our willingness to suspend our disbelief diminishes in inverse proportion to our need to appear objective and aloof. All the evidence that the world is indifferent to our struggle swarms before our eyes and we shake our heads in exasperation. Experience cannot be reverse-engineered back to innocence.

Heschel invites us to look again: “It is not from experience but from our inability to experience what is given to our mind that certainty of the realness of God is derived.” Our very lack of what we seek takes on the outlines of a God-shaped vacuum in our lives, the via negativa of the medieval mystics and contemplatives.

But we are twenty-first century people who respond more readily to the merest factoid, rather than venturing beyond our skepticism. The trust that is the DNA of faith does not come easily, despite the brave face of certainty that we profess when pressed. Instinctively, we believe that a testimony given must be anchored, not understanding that a profession of belief without the trust of commitment can sometimes be a grappling-hook thrown heaven-ward to draw us up.

Doing can result in being, a genuine form of faith.

But there are some caveats to the formative assessment of our education in faith. “Knowledge is not the same as awareness,” notes Heschel, “and expression is not the same as experience. By proceeding from awareness to knowledge we gain in clarity and lose in immediacy. What we gain in distinctness by going from experience to expression we lose in genuineness.”

It’s a risk worth taking. Heschel assures us that “To the prophets, wonder is a form of thinking,” a way forward when faced with the numinous, with the burning bushes, and the whispers of God within the hurricane. “Our certainty,” says Heschel, “is the result of wonder and radical amazement, of awe before the mystery and meaning of the totality of life beyond our rational discerning. Faith is the response to the mystery, shot through with meaning; the response to a challenge which no one can for ever ignore.”

For Christian existentialists, of whom I am one, authentic faith is a leap beyond what can be wholly certified through reason. “Keep some room in your heart for the unimaginable,” suggests poet Mary Oliver. That challenge comes in the form of questions put to us by God, corporately and personally. Some of them are formative: they shape us going forward. Others give us a needed pause on this journey, a timeout to catch our breath and look around us. They are summative of what we have learned through our experience.

***

These are some of the questions I am seeking to be shaped by and to answer to.

“Where are you?” – Genesis 3:10

“What does the Lord require of you?” – Micah 6:8

“And can any of you by worrying add a single hour to your span of life?” – Matt. 6:27

“You of little faith, why did you doubt?” – Matt. 14:31

And the most important question of all . . .

“Who do you say that I am?” – Mk. 8: 29

We are questions to ourselves. Life itself throws us demands that we may field as questions. The ones that draw us in, turn us inside out, and lift us higher come to us from the Spirit “who searches everything, even the depths of God (1 Cor. 2:10).”

Photo: Barry Casey