The Art of Borrowed Scenery

A medieval hortus conclusus: The Little Garden of Paradise, Upper Rhenish Master (c. 1410).

Outside, the mountains have been drawn into the garden, becoming a part of it. Aritomo was a master of shakkei, the art of Borrowed Scenery, taking elements and views from outside a garden and making them integral to his creation.

— Tan Twan Eng , The Garden of Evening Mists [i]

The Rev. James Bramston, an eighteenth-century English cleric, was known for his satirical verses. One of his targets was Archibald Campbell (Lord Islay), who wanted to improve his extensive gardens by removing some of the trees blocking his view of the world beyond his private Eden. 

Old Islay, to show his fine delicate taste,
In improving his gardens purloin’d from the waste,
Bade his gard’ner one day to open his views,
By cutting a couple of grand avenues;
No particular prospect his lordship intended,
But left it to chance how his walks should be ended. 

With transport and joy he beheld his first view end
In a favorite prospect — a church that was ruin’d —
But also! what a sight did the next cut exhibit!
At the end of his walk hung a rogue on a gibbet!
He beheld it and wept, for it caus’d him to muse on
Full many a Campbell that died with his shoes on.
All amazed and aghast at the ominous scene, 
He order’d it quick to be clos’d up again
With a clump of Scotch firs, that served for a Screen. [ii]

In those days, landscape design cultivated the idea of the “Picturesque,” in which a visual environment is composed like a painting. In a picturesque scene, whether discovered or constructed, every element presenting itself to the eye of the beholder plays a part in summoning a feeling, stimulating reflection, or creating a mood. “Views were created resembling paintings or recalling events from myth or literature with the aim of producing desired states of feeling in the observer.” [iii]

One of the more unusual elements of the Picturesque was the ruin. A decaying church or temple, a weathered pagan statue, a partially collapsed arch or a broken column—traces of human pastness amidst the greenness of the natural world—aroused “la douce mélancolie qui parle à l’âme sensible” (“the sweet melancholy which speaks to the sensitive soul.”) [iv]  Since authentic ruins were few and far between, it became the fashion to build new ones, in either classical or medieval styles, fabricated to appear like ancient remnants. In 1767, Diderot described the intellectual and emotional effect this way: 

“The ideas aroused in me by ruins are lofty. Everything vanishes, everything perishes, everything passes away; the world alone remains, time alone continues. How old this world is! I walk between these two eternities … What is my ephemeral existence compared to that of crumbling stone?” [v]

When the poem’s Lord Islay told his gardeners to “open his views” by cutting a couple of wide avenues in the woods around his estate, he was reaching for the Picturesque, though rather by chance than careful design. In the first instance he succeeded wonderfully. At the end of the first avenue, perfectly framed, was a ruined church, promising many pleasurable ruminations on time, history, and divinity in the days to come. 

But when more trees were felled to make the second avenue, the results were less agreeable. Lord Islay’s eyes were met with a ruin of the worst kind: a human corpse hanging on a gallows. “Amazed and aghast,” he quickly closed off the terrible vista with a planting of tall firs.

I recently came across Bramston’s poem in Roy Strong’s marvelous anthology, A Celebration of Gardens. While I can’t vouch for the factuality of the story, it struck me as a vivid image of the challenge for spirituality in this troubled and suffering world. How can we enjoy our gardens—the necessary environments and practices for emotional and spiritual health—and yet remain vulnerable and responsive to the cries of distress from near and far? 

Isaac Walton window, Winchester Cathedral (1914).

From the Garden of Eden to the medieval cloister, the hortus conclusus (enclosed garden), a tranquil space of beauty and calm, walled off from the outside world, has been a significant image of the interior life. We all need the kinds of spaces, both physical and spiritual, where we can shelter from the storm, sink into the depths of holy Presence, and “study to be quiet.” [vi]

But we are long past the innocence of the first Eden. We know, all too well, of the terrors and horrors raging beyond the protecting walls which nurture our peace and shield our joy. We may, like Lord Islay, be aghast at the sudden glimpse of the victim on the gallows—or the cross—but we are long past surprise. A row of tall firs cannot protect us. The knowledge remains. How do we live with it—and act in response to it—and still guard our heart in its hortus conclusus

Tan Twan Eng’s deeply moving novel, The Garden of Evening Mists, suggests a way. The Japanese gardening practice, shakkei, is described (see the epigraph above) as “the art of Borrowed Scenery.” Sometime after the Second World War, Aritomo, a Japanese master gardener living in Malaya, agrees to teach his art to the Malaysian narrator, Yun Ling. But their collaborative garden project does not enjoy the innocence of Eden. Yun Ling’s sister had suffered abuse and death in a Japanese internment camp during the war, and she wants to create a memorial garden for her lost sibling. Years later, she returns to the garden while investigating war crimes by the occupying forces. Aritomo, who had participated in that occupation, carries his own secret burdens and sorrows. 

Aritomo and Yun Ling are not insulated from pain, guilt, grief and loss. Even from their beautiful garden, they can glimpse the gallows. And yet, the garden’s beauty—and the spirituality it engenders—is not diminished by the pain outside its sacred enclosure. Yes, look just beyond the garden, and you will see immense suffering. But look further, beyond the gallows. Can you borrow what lies in the greater distance? Can you make the Transcendent an integral part of your view?

Are the mists, too, an element of shakkei incorporated by Aritomo? I wonder. To use not only the mountains, but the wind, the clouds, the ever-changing light? Did he borrow from heaven itself? [vii]  

The rose garden in Portland, Oregon, “borrows” distant Mt. Hood for this view.

[i] Tan Twan Eng, The Garden of Evening Mists, (New York: Weinstein Books, 2012), 25.

[ii] Cited in Roy Strong, A Celebration of Gardens (Portland, OR: Sagapress/Timber Press, 1992), 105-106.

[iii] Diana Ketchum, Le Desért de Retz: A Late Eighteenth-Century French Folly Garden (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1997), cited in Susan Stewart, The Ruins Lesson: Meaning and Material in Western Culture (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2020), 224.

[iv] Christopher Woodward, In Ruins (New York: Pantheon Books, 2001), 158.

[v] Ibid., 153.

[vi] The famous motto of Anglican writer Isaac Walton (1593-1683), who valued his tranquility (and loved to fish). 

[vii] The Garden of Evening Mists, 27.

America in the Ditch: The Good Samaritan Revisited

Balthasar van Cortbemde, The Good Samaritan (1647).

Jesus’ parable of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:29-37) is usually heard as a reminder to care for the needs of others, including strangers or even enemies. That’s why some hospitals have taken their name from the protagonist. I myself was born in the Episcopal Hospital of the Good Samaritan in Los Angeles and, four days before my 22nd birthday, my father died in the Intensive Care Unit of the same “Good Sam.” So this parable carries some special meanings for me.

We all hope to be like the Good Samaritan, but the late Doug Adams, an extraordinary friend and professor of Religion and Art at the Pacific School of Religion in Berkeley, proposed an alternative reading of the parable. Instead of asking us to identify with the Good Samaritan, he wondered, what if Jesus wants us to identify with the man in the ditch?

The Samaritan is the person with all the power in the situation. He has a donkey, oil and wine, enough extra clothing to make bandages, the strength to lift the wounded man onto the donkey, and money to pay for the man’s medical care. He gives, most admirably, out of his own abundance. 

But the naked, beaten, half-dead man in the ditch has no power. He has no capacity or ability to help himself. He is entirely dependent on the kindness of strangers. And who is the one who stops to help him? Not the priest, not the Levite, not one of his own kind, but a Samaritan. For a Jew, including everyone in Jesus’s original audience, a Samaritan was a bad person, a despised enemy. 

Now you don’t need to understand the history of the cultural and religious enmity between Jews and Samaritans to grasp Jesus’ point here. Think of anyone of whom you disapprove, or someone you have a difficult history with. If you are lying helpless in the ditch, you don’t get to be selective about your rescuer. You have to accept their help, even if they happen to be your worst enemy. And that would mean you’d have to change your mind about them and, like it or not, be in relation with them.

Remember the question that prompted Jesus to tell this parable: “Who is my neighbor?” And the answer turns out to be: Everybody! In God’s alternative version of reality (which the gospels call the Kingdom), everyone—even my enemy—is my neighbor.

When I first heard Doug talk about this parable, it was during the first Gulf War. “Imagine you are lying helpless in that ditch,” he said, “and down the road comes Saddam Hussein. When he sees you, he bends down, offers his hand and says, “Can I help you out of the ditch, brother?”

Today we might substitute Vladimir Putin for the Samaritan to experience the same radical discomfort that Jesus’ first listeners must have felt when they heard the parable. Or suppose the person in the ditch is a white supremacist, and the Samaritan is a person of color? What if the victim is homophobic, and the rescuer is gay? What if a misogynist is the helpless one, and a woman comes by? What if it’s a Progressive in that ditch, and along comes a Proud Boy? 

Do you find any of these scenarios unsettling? Parables are meant to be hard. They are meant to break us open.

And as I listen to this parable in the Year of Our Lord 2022, it strikes me that America itself is in the ditch, wounded by its sins, torn by its conflicts, half-dead from innumerable unaddressed ills. White supremacists and so-called “Christian” nationalists seek a cure in the subjugation or even the elimination of those they consider to be “other”—that is, those who are “not our kind,” whether that be people of color, the LGBTQ community, empowered women, Muslims, Central American refugees, nonwhite immigrants, or whomever. That way lies madness and death.

If we are ever to be delivered from the ditch of our own national folly and sin, we desperately need the help of the “other”—the ones whose race, religion, class, gender and life experiences are different from our own. We need to listen to their voices, their perspectives, their pain, their anger, their sorrows, their hopes, their dreams. We need not only to learn from them and be taught by them; we need to receive their stories into our hearts. Otherwise, we’re just going to stay stuck in that ditch. 

Another Bad Decision: The Supreme Court and School Prayer

Post-game ritual with Coach Joseph Kennedy, Bremerton High School, WA, October 16, 2015 (Attribution: 9th Circuit Court of Appeals)

A recovering alcoholic reciting the Serenity Prayer, a Catholic nun telling her beads, a child crossing himself before a meal, a quaking Shaker, a meditating yogini, a Huichi Indian chewing a peyote button, a Zen monk in satori, a Lubavitcher dancing with the Torah, Saint Francis receiving the stigmata, a bookie crossing his fingers before the final race, Ebenezer Scrooge pleading for just one more chance, dear God, just one more chance: all this is the work of prayer. In this world one may sit, stand, run, kneel, fall prostrate, dance, faint, or whirl in imitation of the cosmic spheres. One may chant, sing, shout, mutter, groan, or keep silent. One may make use of nuts, beads, books, flags, wheels, shells, stones, drums, idols, icons, jewels, incense, flowers, blood, and fruit, for all these belong to the armamentarium of prayer. 

— Ann and Barry Ulanov [i]

“I wasn’t going to stop my prayer because there was kids around me.”

— Joseph Kennedy, football coach

If January 6th is the coup that failed, the Supreme Court is the one that has succeeded. The extremist majority, abandoning both precedent and good sense, has gone rogue, wreaking havoc with a barrage of malignant decisions. While the recent decisions on abortion and climate change are the most broadly calamitous, I want to address the case of Kennedy vs. Bremerton School District, a poorly considered ideological gambit with unsettling implications for both politics and religion.

Joseph Kennedy was an assistant football coach at Bremerton High School, a few miles by water from my island home in Washington State. Hired in 2008, he began to kneel in silent prayer at midfield after the game. He got the idea from a televised movie about a coach at a Christian school who prays and witnesses with his team as he leads them to the state championship. 

At first, Kennedy prayed alone, but over time he was joined by most of his players, as well as members of the visiting team. At some point he began to add religiously flavored “motivational” speeches to this postgame ritual and, it seems, his prayers were no longer entirely silent. It took seven years for the Bremerton School District to take notice, but when it did, it expressed concerns about upsetting the delicate balance between private religious expression and the religious neutrality mandated by the Establishment Clause of the U.S. Constitution.  

In September, 2015, the District instructed Coach Kennedy to refrain from religious talks and prayers with his players, and to keep his personal religious activity “nondemonstrative” while on duty, “to avoid school endorsement of religious activities.” At first he agreed to the terms, but while driving home after a game, he felt he had “broken [his] commitment to God” by not praying on the field after the game. So he returned to the empty stadium to kneel at the 50-yard line for a brief prayer. 

But that would not be enough for him. On October 14, two days before the Homecoming game,  he informed the District that he planned to resume his “private” postgame prayer practice, insisting that he would not invite or encourage anyone to join him. This was disingenuous, since he had been throwing gasoline on the fire through social media, complaining to the world that he was being persecuted for praying. And his choice of the well-attended Homecoming for his defiant display ensured maximum attention. 

Predictably, he was joined in “prayer” not only by players and news cameras, but also by spectators who jumped fences in a rush to midfield (knocking over some band members in their stampede). This “prayer” circus continued for another two weeks, joined by the sort of politicians who profit from religious resentment. 

By the end of October, Kennedy was out of a job. He likes to say he was fired for praying, but the record reflects a more complicated story. As Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor would note in her carefully argued dissent, there were a number of reasons for Kennedy’s suspension:

“In Kennedy’s annual review, the head coach of the varsity team recommended Kennedy not be rehired because he ‘failed to follow district policy,’ ‘demonstrated a lack of cooperation with administration,’ ‘contributed to negative relations between parents, students, community members, coaches, and the school district,’ and ‘failed to supervise student-athletes after games due to his interactions with media and community’ members. The head coach himself also resigned after 11 years in that position, expressing fears that he or his staff would be shot from the crowd or otherwise attacked because of the turmoil created by Kennedy’s media appearances. Three of five other assistant coaches did not reapply.” [ii]

The head coach’s fear of being “shot from the crowd” might have raised eyebrows in 2016, but it would surprise no one today. The rise of white “Christian” nationalism in the United States has made home-grown terrorism a significant threat. And given the Trumpian swerve of so many white Evangelicals, a lot of that terrorism is tied to twisted religious rhetoric. The Supreme Court’s decision in Kennedy, along with its dismantling of Roe and other radical rulings, will only encourage the Guns-and-God crowd further. Inch by inch, we are slouching toward Gilead.[iii] Lord have mercy. 

In his opinion for the Supreme Court majority, Neil Gorsuch began with a lie: “Joseph Kennedy lost his job as a high school football coach because he knelt at midfield after games to offer a quiet prayer of thanks.” But a lower court judge, in the ruling subsequently overturned by SCOTUS, drew a more honest picture: 

“No case law requires that a high school teacher must be out of sight of students or jump into the nearest broom closet in order to engage in private prayer, but it cannot be denied that this football coach’s prayer at the fifty-yard line, immediately after a game, under stadium lights and in front of players and spectators, objectively sent a public message.” [iv]

Joseph Kennedy poaes with a football in front of the Supreme Court. (After a photo by Win McNamee)

Personal prayer, which Jesus called praying “in secret” (Matthew 6:6), has no human spectators, and any self-consciousness about one’s appearance to others is an interruption of prayerful attention. But liturgical prayer, performed with others in public, is meant to be seen. Worshippers are strengthened and encouraged by the knowledge that they are bound together in ritually shared speech and practice. At the same time, public worship makes a visible statement to the world.

But liturgical prayer requires a common language and worldview. In a pluralistic society, such specific religious commonality is rarely possible. Worship is most authentically and effectively situated within each particular tradition. In the United States, therefore, the government should neither restrict the diversity of worship practices, nor endorse or favor one religious expression over any other. 

Given the importance of religion in American history and culture, and the large number of religious believers in public life, the separation of church and state lacks a firm and absolute boundary. There are Inaugural prayers, Congressional chaplains, funerals for public figures at the “National Cathedral,” and the frequent invocation of divinity by political speakers. Some of that is boilerplate civil religion, but no one can doubt the formative effect of religious belief and practice on our political life, for better or worse. For the record, all six justices who voted against abortion and for school prayer are conservative Catholics, although Gorsuch has been attending an Episcopal church. Sonia Sotomayor is also Catholic, with the remaining justices comprised of one Jew and one Protestant. 

For a long time, public schools have had relative clarity about the Establishment Clause. Justice Sotomayor, in her Kennedy dissent, cited the precedents:

‘The public school is at once the symbol of our democracy and the most pervasive means for promoting our common destiny,’ meaning that ‘[i]n no activity of the State is it more vital to keep out divisive forces than in its schools.’ Families ‘entrust public schools with the education of their children . . . on the understanding that the classroom will not purposely be used to advance religious views that may conflict with the private beliefs of the student and his or her family.’ Accordingly, the Establishment Clause “proscribes public schools from ‘conveying or attempting to convey a message that religion or a particular religious belief is favored or preferred’ or otherwise endorsing religious beliefs.

I myself went to an Episcopal elementary school where every day began with worship. From 7th to 12th grade I attended an Episcopal boys school. We had religion courses, and two chapel eucharists each week. The popular chaplain, Father Gill, conducted a gorgeous Sarum rite, and our hymns were propelled by a youthful desire to make loud sounds in a resonant space. When I returned for my 40th class reunion, I found a school mostly secularized by its merger with a non-religious girls school. When we visited the chapel in a campus tour, I asked our student guide what remained of the school liturgies. “I don’t really know,” she said. “I’ve never been in here before.”

That made me sad, since my religious schools had been so formative and joyous for my own faith. But I know that public schools are neither appropriate nor feasible venues for common prayer. Inclusivity and diversity are a part of their strength, and in matters of religion they must remain neutral ground. That is why the SCOTUS ruling in Kennedy is so unsettling. It opens the door to some very undesirable outcomes. 

The overview provided at the top of the ruling states, “Respect for religious expressions is indispensable to life in a free and diverse Republic. Here, a government entity sought to punish an individual for engaging in a personal religious observance, based on a mistaken view that it has a duty to suppress religious observances even as it allows comparable secular speech.” I have no idea what is meant by “comparable secular speech.” Does it mean anything not involving religious language, or any human rituals—like football games, for example—which do not invoke the divine? The misleading fiction of competition here feels like an absurd whine: They get to be secular, but we don’t get to be religious! 

The Bremerton School District was not trying “to punish an individual for engaging in a personal religious observance.” I can’t judge the sincerity or quality of Coach Kennedy’s initial silent prayers, but once he became the presider at a public ritual as a school employee in a school setting, eager to display himself as a visible and symbolic champion of white Evangelical grievance, it was no longer a private act. Gorsuch argued that non-Evangelical, non-Christian, or non-religious students would be mature enough to feel no pressure to join the prayer circle, whether to please their coach (and get more playing time), or to blend in with their peers. Nope, no pressure at all to conform! Apparently, Gorsuch never went to high school. 

There are many nuances to explore in this case and the Establishment Clause in general. If you want to dive deep, you can read the lower court decision here, and the Supreme Court decision here. But one question in particular interests me. When people say they want prayer back in the schools, what are they imagining? As a liturgist committed to eloquence, poetry and theological depth in verbal prayer, as well as the beauty of holiness in public rituals, I’m not sure I would want to trust an ad-libbing football coach with bad grammar to set the standard for spiritual expression in my community. I suppose that’s my elitism showing. 

But seriously, where do you draw the line? If we sanctioned prayers in schools, who would write them and who would critique them? Can you imagine the state prayers if white Christian nationalists ever seize power? In any case, who would decide what could or could not be included in officially approved forms of prayer? Would there be a government liturgical commission? How would we arrive at the government definitions of such broad and inexact terms as “religion” and “prayer”? And should SCOTUS manage to reestablish prayer in public schools, would any and all forms of religious expression then be acceptable, or only the ones favored by conservative Catholics and white Evangelicals? 

The best prayers are rooted in specific traditions. Generic prayers risk a bland vagueness. But there are occasions—mostly tragic—when some ritual spiritual expression as a nation is regarded by most as a good and necessary thing. President Obama’s singing of “Amazing Grace” during his eulogy for the Rev. Clementa Pinckney, murdered in a mass shooting by a white supremacist in 2015, is a powerful example. 

Might we draw inspiration from Ralph Waldo Emerson’s Transcendentalist vision of “unlocking at all risks [our] human doors and suffering the ethereal tides to roll and circulate through [us].” [v] (Kids, don’t try this at home!) Or is it possible to emulate the broad sweep of Martin Luther King’s elegantly inclusive phrasing?

“Whether we call it an unconscious process, an impersonal Brahman, or a Personal Being of matchless power and infinite love, there is a creative force in the universe that works to bring the disconnected aspects of reality into a harmonious whole.” [vi]

But what about the “religious speech,” say, of Allen Ginsberg, who after taking acid in the Sixties burst naked out of Timothy O’Leary’s bedroom to declare: “I am the Messiah. I’ve come down to preach love to the world. We’re going to walk through the streets and teach people to stop hating.” [vii]  How would that go over on the 50-yard line of your local high school?

The Supreme Court has lifted the lid on this rabbit hole—and many others. May we find a way to curtail the ambitions of that power-mad cabal before they drag us all into the dark. 

Luckily for us, I’m not a government official, nor are you, dear reader, under any coercion whatsoever. After so much talk about prayer as a political question, let us simply consider the nature of prayer in the wise and powerful words of Native American poet Joy Harjo:[viii]

To pray you open your whole self
To sky, to earth, to sun, to moon
To one whole voice that is you
And know that there is more
That you can’t see, can’t hear
Can’t know except in moments
Steadily growing, and in languages
That aren’t always a sound but other 
Circles of motion
Like eagle that Sunday morning
Over Salt River. Circled in blue sky
In wind, swept our hearts clean
With sacred wings.
We see you, see ourselves and know
That we must take the utmost care 
And kindness in all things.
Breathe in, knowing we are made of
All this, and breathe, knowing
We are truly blessed because we 
Were born, and die soon within a
True circle of motion,
Like eagle rounding out the morning 
Inside us. 
We pray that it will be done
In beauty. 
In beauty.


[i] Ann and Barry Ulanov, Primary Speech: A Psychology of Prayer (Westminster John Knox Press, 1982), 10.

[ii] Citations from the Supreme Court opinions and dissents can be found at https://www.supremecourt.gov/opinions/21pdf/21-418_i425.pdf

[iii] Gilead was the new name given to the former United States after a violent takeover by a patriarchal Christian theocracy in Margaret Atwood’s harrowing novel, The Handmaid’s Tale. Of course the original reference for my phrase is from W. B. Yeats’ poem, “The Second Coming,” where an apocalyptic beast, a hideous antichrist, is “slouching toward Bethlehem to be born.”

[iv] Judge Morgan Christen, 9th Circuit Court of Appeals. For the court’s full text: https://cdn.ca9.uscourts.gov/datastore/opinions/2021/03/18/20-35222.pdf

[v] David R. Williams, Searching for God in the Sixties (Newark: Univ of Delaware Press, 2010), 116.

[vi] Ibid., 116.

[vii] Ibid., 109.

[viii] Joy Harjo, “Eagle Poem” from In Mad Love and War (Wesleyan University Press, 1990).

Keep Your Eyes on the Prize: Following Jesus in the Worst of Times

Caravaggio, The Calling of St. Matthew (1599-1600)

Any number of things can happen when we encounter Jesus. We might be comforted—or we might be uncomfortable. We might be healed—or we might be wounded. We might be instructed—or we might be turned upside down. Jesus is a difference maker. For better or worse, he comes to interrupt—and disrupt—our lives. 

Sometimes Jesus speaks to our heart. Sometimes he speaks to our mind. But every time, he speaks to our will, as he puts the crucial question: 

Will you come and follow me if I but call your name?
Will you go where you don’t know and never be the same?
Will you let my love be shown?
Will you let my Name be known?
Will you let my life be grown in you and you in me? [i]

We can always say no, of course. Many people have; many people do. Or we may profess our unreadiness or our inadequacy. “Are you kidding me?” said Moses at the Burning Bush. “Who am I to go and talk to Pharoah? I am slow of speech and slow of tongue.” In the same way, the prophet Jeremiah also resisted his call: “No way, Lord! Don’t ask me to be a prophet. I don’t know how to speak. I’m only a child.” God has heard all the excuses, but the Divine Intention is not easily dissuaded. “Just do it,” God says.

When Jesus tries to recruit a few followers in Luke 9:51-62, he hears plenty of excuses. “Lord, let me first go home and bury my father,” says one. This sounds reasonable enough, if he’s talking about a corpse back at the house that needs some prompt attention. But this line can also be understood to mean, “I can’t go anywhere as long as my parents are still living. Family obligations come first.”

Another makes a similar excuse: “I will follow you, Lord, but first I must go home to take my leave. I need to get permission from my family before I can come with you. And that may take some time.”

I don’t think Luke’s gospel is telling us to walk out of important relationships. Rather, it is prompting us to ask ourselves: What is so important in my life that I need its permission before I can follow Jesus? My true master might be something as big as the security of having somewhere comfortable to lay my head at night, or as trivial as my habitual routines. I’d love to follow you, Jesus, but let me check my calendar first. 

The excuses in Luke’s passage suggest a world of expectations, obligations, and best-laid plans that prevent us from running away to join the Jesus circus. Today we may enjoy far more social mobility than a first-century Middle-Easterner, but we each have our own version of situations and circumstances that delay and distract us. Some things just won’t let us go. It might be something lingering from our past, like unhealed anger or grief. Or it might be a present concern, like a steady income, emotional needs, or personal ambition.

Jesus says: If you want to follow me, nothing can have more authority over you than the will of God. As for the things that hold you back, just let them go. Let the dead bury the dead. It’s time to move on, deeper and deeper into God. Seek ye first the kingdom of God. And once you’ve put your hand to the gospel plow, don’t look back. Keep your eyes on the prize, hold on!

The call to be a follower of Jesus may arrive unexpectedly. It may seem inconvenient, or even impossible. But as the saints all tell us, it’s what we are made for. To borrow a line from songwriter Bob Franke, 

I can’t really say it’s the thing I do best, 
but it’s the best thing that I do. [ii]

True vocation is not so much surrender to an outside force as it is the recognition of an internal capacity. In his book, Let Your Life Speak, Parker Palmer makes this point beautifully. “Vocation does not come from a voice ‘out there’ calling me to be something I am not,” he writes. “It comes from a voice ‘in here’ calling me to be the person I was born to be, to fulfill the original selfhood given me at birth by God.”

“Vocation does not come from willfulness. It comes from listening. I must listen to my life and try to understand what it is truly about—quite apart from what I would like it to be about.… The word vocation … is rooted in the Latin for “voice.” Vocation does not mean a goal that I pursue. It means a calling that I hear. Before I can tell my life what I want to do with it, I must listen to my life telling me who I am.” [iii]

When Jesus calls me, it is, as it were, “my life telling me who I am.” And Jesus has many voices. You may hear him in the Scriptures or the liturgy, or when you enter the prayerful state of “absolute unmixed attention.”[iv] He will speak through the need of your neighbor, or in your deepest longing. His voice may come as dissatisfaction with the old, or as the intuition of fresh possibility. It may proceed from the mouth of friend and stranger. It may thunder like the transcendent Other, or whisper like the intimate inward presence who has known you all your life.

However Jesus may call us, what happens if we say yes? How do we put our hands to the plow, keep our eyes on the prize, and not look back? When we decide to follow Jesus, when we consent to lose our old lives in the Paschal Mystery of dying and rising, we are born again into a new way of being. No turning back, no turning back. But what will that new being look like? How will we be different? How will we make a difference?

St. Paul gives us a good list to start with in his letter to the Galatians (5:1, 13-25). Everything that binds, enslaves, and weighs you down, forget it. Instead of indulging yourselves, start loving one another. Say goodbye to enmities, strife, jealousy, anger, quarrels, dissensions, factions, envy and licentiousness. Practice love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. Let the Spirit dance in you. 

Paul’s advice seems radically countercultural in an America so sickened by hatred, division, malice, and fear—a contagion which has spread to a degree unimaginable just five years ago. As Judge Michael Luttig recently lamented in his testimony before the January 6th Select Committee, “In the moral, catatonic stupor America finds itself in today, it is only disagreement we seek, and the more virulent that disagreement, the better.” [v]

In such a country, such a world, such a time, what is a disciple to do? Well, there’s no easy answer, no single method or path. We must figure it out as we go, the way the saints of old did amid crumbling empires, or as Dietrich Bonhoeffer did in 1930s Germany, or as Martin Luther King did in a Birmingham jail. It will certainly require steadfast faith and boundless love, but perhaps it is courageous hope we will need most of all. 

In the worst of times, hope is the engine of persistence and the antidote for despair. Never forget: God makes a way where there is no way, and as God’s friends we are called to shine with that truth every day, “planting the seeds of resurrection amid the blind sufferings of history.” [vi]


[i] “The Summons,” a song from the Iona Community in Scotland (GIA Publications, 1987).

[ii] Bob Franke, “Boomerang Pancakes” (Telephone Pole Music, 1986).

[iii] Parker J. Palmer, Let Your Life Speak: Listening for the Voice of Vocation (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2000), 10, 4.

[iv] The phrase is from Simone Weil.

[v] Michael Luttig, testimony before the January 6 Select Committee of the U.S. House of Representatives, June 16, 2022.

[vi] I believe I got this quote from an Orthodox theologian, but I can no longer trace the source. 

This post is adapted from a homily for the Third Sunday after Pentecost, 2022.

“No Dove, no Church”—Keeping Pentecost in a Dispiriting Time

Gerard David, Annunciation (detail), 1506

“Hope does not disappoint us, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts
through the Holy Spirit which has been given to us. 

— Romans 5.5

What do you believe?
“I believe in everything.”
“You make it sound almost easy.”
“It’s hard as hell.” 

— Frederick Buechner, The Book of Bebb

Hope is hard to come by these days. Overwhelmed by climate apocalypse, exhausted by COVID, horrified by mass shootings, outraged by war crimes, saddened by the evisceration of democracy, savaged by racism, maddened by tribalism, sickened by political insanity, many of us have grown increasingly dispirited. Are we just going from bad to worse, or is hope still a viable practice? On this Pentecost, the Feast of the Holy Spirit, I choose hope, no question. But I have to admit, it’s hard as hell. 

My hope does not rest in any existing social mechanism or political ideology. As an American embedded in this historical moment, I will continue to support political efforts and movements to bend our political, economic, and social order toward justice and human flourishing. But recent years have left me with few illusions about the capacity of our frail and broken system to deliver us from crisis. Although the stupidest man in Congress complained last week that “you can’t even lie to Congress or lie to an FBI agent or they’re coming after you,” the safeguards aren’t what they used to be.[i] And the prospect of America becoming a dystopian “Gilead” is no longer inconceivable.[ii]

But despite the heretical and dangerous claims of America’s “Christian nationalists,” God’s friends do not rest their faith in any nation-state, which by its nature has no theological aim or sense of ultimate purpose (telos). “The Church as a community transcends every political order because it is animated by the Holy Spirit and has as its telos and aim friendship with God and neighbor.… What distinguishes the community that is the body of Christ is not only its redirection to humanity’s proper telos, but also the regeneration of the heart that makes redirection toward the pursuit of this telos possible.… As such, it stands in contrast to every other polis [communal society] insofar as no other shares its narrative (the Scriptures) or is the site for the Spirit’s regenerative, sacramental, and sanctifying presence.” [iii]

Is it realistic to expect communities of faith, consisting of flawed human beings, to be sites of the Spirit’s sanctifying and renewing presence? Many of us have encountered spiritless churches in our own day, and through the centuries far too many Christian communities have managed to extinguish the Pentecostal flame. But for God’s friends, “people of the Spirit” is who we must be. In the 17th century, Anglican bishop Lancelot Andrewes used a memorable image to preach the centrality of the Spirit to Christian identity: 

“The Holy Ghost is a Dove” he said, “and He makes Christ’s Spouse, the Church, a Dove … No Dove, no Church.” Noting that the dove is a symbol of peace and blessing, innocence and gentleness, he warned against all who “seek and do all that is in them to chase away this Dove, the Holy Ghost.” In its place they would have a monster of their own making, with “the beak and claws of a vulture.” Instead of an olive branch, this terrible creature would “have a match-light in her beak or a bloody knife.” [iv] (“Christians” who love your guns more than children, I’m looking at you!)

We may not always make the best Spirit-people, but that is our only true vocation—to receive the Holy Spirit into our hearts and our communities, not hoarding it for ourselves, but distributing its gifts for the repair of the world and the flourishing of humankind. 

Edwin Hatch, a nineteenth-century Oxford scholar who wrote the famous Spirit hymn, “Breathe on me, breath of God,” said that “the fellowship of the Divine Spirit is a sharing in [its] Divine activity, in an unresisting and untiring life, always moving, because motion and not rest is the essence of [the Spirit’s] nature—always moving with a blessing.”  In other words, the Holy Spirit is a gift, and gifts exist to be shared—passed around freely in perpetual circulation. As Jesus exhorted us, let your light so shine, that all the world may see and know Divine blessing. Or as Hatch put it:

“The blessing of God, if it be within us, must shine forth from us.
No one can see God face to face without [their] own face shining.” [v]

The gifts of the Spirit are many, but hope is my subject today, so I’ll stick with that. As divine gift, hope isn’t a mood that comes and goes. Nor is it something we work hard to produce out of our own psyches, willing it with all our might against all odds. Rather, it comes from beyond ourselves, as a gift from God, not to be grasped in blindness or indifference to the chaos and sufferings of history, but as an enduring disposition, a habit of being, practiced daily in confident fidelity to the divine future which “broods over the world warm breast and with ah! bright wings.” [vi]

I will close with two compelling affirmations of the nature of hope. May they be an encouragement to your own practice of life in the Spirit. The first is by theologian John Cobb: 

In spite of all the destructive forces [we] let loose against life on this planet, the Spirit of Life is at work in ever new and unforeseeable ways, countering and circumventing the obstacles [we] put in its path. In spite of my strong tendencies to complacency and despair, I experience the Spirit in myself as calling forth the realistic hope apart from which there is no hope, and I am confident that what I find in myself is occurring in others also.… what makes for life and love and hope is not simply the decision of one individual or another, but a Spirit that moves us all.” [vii]

And from the inimitable Frederick Buechner:

But the worst isn’t the last thing about the world. It’s the next to last thing. The last thing is the best. It’s the power from on high that comes into the world, that wells up from the rock-bottom worst of the world like a hidden spring. Can you believe it? The last, best thing is the laughing deep in the hearts of the saints, sometimes our hearts even. Yes. You are terribly loved and forgiven. Yes. You are healed. All is well. [viii]


[i] Louis Gohmert, a Republican representative from Texas, made this sadly revealing remark in an interview on right-wing media on June 3, 2022. 

[ii] Gilead is the name of the scary theocratic American state in Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale (1985). If you don’t have HBO, just watch the latest news from Texas and Florida. 

[iii] James K. A. Smith, Introducing Radical Orthodoxy: Mapping a Post-secular Theology (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2004), 237, 239.

[iv] Love’s Redeeming Work: The Anglican Quest for Holiness, eds. Geoffrey Rowell, Kenneth Stevenson, Rowan Williams (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001), 118.

[v] Ibid., 491.

[vi] The full line from Gerard Manley Hopkins’ poem, “God’s Grandeur,” is: Because the Holy Ghost over the bent / World broods with warm breast and ah! bright wings.” The gift of the Holy Spirit is the gift of God’s future, nurturing the new creation into being, even as the Spirit brooded creatively over the waters at the beginning of time.

[vii] John B. Cobb, Jr., Is It Too Late? A Theology of Ecology (Beverly Hills, CA: Bruce, 1971), cited in Marjorie Hewitt Suchoki, “Spirit in and through the World,” in Trinity in Process: A Relational Theory of God (New York: Continuum, 1997), 180.

[viii] Dale Brown, The Book of Buechner: A Journey Through His Writings (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2006), 124.

The Pursuit of Happiness

Comet Falls, Mt. Rainier National Park (July 29, 2005).

The tables outside the cantina were full of beautiful laughing men and women.… Everyone who sat there looked on display, the women in their lovely summer dresses, the men with their hair oiled back on their heads, their tanned bare feet resting proprietorially on top of their Gucci loafers. One wanted to applaud them for presenting such a successful vision of life: you could almost believe they had lived their whole lives, had been reared and groomed from birth, for this one particular night: that this was the pinnacle, this golden summery evening they had all reached simultaneously. 

Yet it made me a little sad to see them there, laughing and drinking champagne, for you knew it was all downhill from here.[i]

— Peter Cameron, Andorra

The narrator in Cameron’s novel experiences the “golden summery evening” at the cantina through the lens of his own unhappiness. He has fled a failed life in America for a Mediterranean idyll, but joy continues to elude him. This apparently happy scene of shared human pleasure only deepens his alienation. Unable to join the fun, he judges the beautiful, laughing people for their complacency, their privilege, and their shallow indifference to mortality. 

In Michael Cunningham’s The Hours, Clarissa Vaughan recalls her own close encounter with happiness, when she made the mistake of thinking it would last. 

It had seemed like the beginning of happiness, and Clarissa is still somewhat shocked, more than thirty years later, to realize that it was happiness.… What lives undimmed in Clarissa’s mind more than three decades later is a kiss at dusk on a patch of dead grass, and a walk around a pond as mosquitoes droned in the darkening air. There is still that singular perfection, and it’s perfect in part because it seemed, at the time, so clearly to promise more. Now she knows: That was the moment, right there. There has been no other. [ii]

What is happiness? It can be pursued, but can it be possessed? The word is derived from “hap,” an Old English term for fortune or chance—something that happens to us, for good or ill. But “happy” and “happiness” have come to denote only the good things, without the mishaps. 

If asked to recall our happiest moments, a multitude of memories would rise to the surface. But if asked whether we are happy now, or living happy lives, how would we answer? The University of Pennsylvania is conducting an online Authentic Happiness Survey, with twenty-four groups of five statements each to measure the presence or absence of happiness. Group 24, for example, offers the following choices: 

  1. My life is a bad one.
  2. My life is an OK one.
  3. My life is a good one.
  4. My life is a very good one.
  5. My life is a wonderful one. 

The #1 statement in a group is always pretty dismal (I’m usually in a bad mood … I’m pessimistic … I am unhappy with myself … I feel like a failure, etc.) The #5 statement sounds way too good to be true (My life is filled with pleasure … If I were keeping score in life, I would be far ahead … I always get what I want … My life is filled with joy … I could not be happier with myself, etc.). 

The majority of my own answers landed in the middle (#3), reflecting a pretty typical mix of highs and lows. I had no #1s, a couple of #2s, six #4s (three due to privilege, three due to personality), and two #5s (“I truly love my work” and “Most of the time I am fascinated by what I am doing”—both of these reflecting a mixture of privilege, personality, and the good fortune of getting to do what I love). My authentic happiness score was 3.46 out of 5. That seems about right for a privileged white male occasionally beset by the minor melancholies of disappointed hopes, both personal and generational.

It was an interesting survey, one of many attempts to grapple with the unhappiness of our times. Currently, the most popular course at Yale is “Psychology and the Good Life,” created by Professor Laurie Santos in response to the mental health crisis among college students, who, she says, are “much more overwhelmed, much more stressed, much more anxious, and much more depressed than they’ve ever been.” 

In a survey of Yale students taken before the pandemic, 60% said they had felt “overwhelmingly anxious” sometime during the last year. And 50% reported feeling “completely overwhelmed” in the past week. For many college students, and for Americans in general, “happiness feels increasingly out of reach.” The pandemic, climate change, and the politics of fear and hate have multiplied our sorrows and anxieties almost beyond measure.

According to University of California (Irvine) professor Sonia Lyubomirski, author of The How of Happiness, 50% of one’s happiness is determined by genes, while 40% flows from our thoughts, actions, and attitudes. That leaves only 10% attributable to circumstances, although many people believe that circumstance is the key factor in personal happiness. If I change my job, my home, my partner, I will be happier. Lyubomirski’s numbers assume, of course, that one’s basic needs are being met. For a war zone Ukrainian, a Central American refugee, or a long Covid sufferer, circumstance weighs far more heavily.

Santos’ course, and her ongoing podcast, The Happiness Lab, seek to help people address the more significant 40% factors: thoughts, actions, and attitudes. I’ve only listened to the first episode, but many have testified to the value of her efforts.[iii]

Happiness is a subject of supreme interest. Everyone wants it, but for many it seems in short supply. It’s also hard to define. A century ago, Vita Sackville-West questioned its usefulness as an index for life.

But what was happiness? Had she been happy? That was a strange, clicking word to have coined—meaning something definite to the whole English-speaking race—a strange clicking word with its short vowel and its spitting double p’s, and its pert tip-tilted y at the end, to express in two syllables a whole summary of life. Happy. But one was happy at one moment, unhappy two minutes later, and neither for any good reason; so what did it mean? … Certainly, there had been moments of which one could say: Then, I was happy; and with greater certainty: Then, I was unhappy—when little Robert had lain in his coffin, for instance, strewn with rose petals by his sobbing Syrian nurse—but whole regions had intervened, which were just existence. Absurd to ask of those, had she been happy or unhappy? … No, that was not the question to ask her—not the question to ask anybody. Things were not so simple as all that. [iv]

Well then. Am I happy or unhappy? I have had moments and days when it was indeed bliss to be alive. But what should I say about those intervening regions where the evidence is mixed? Is happiness only an occasional oasis in the desert of ordinary time, or can happiness reside in the barren places as well?

“Small things go a long way,” says Zadie Smith. “All day long I can look forward to a Popsicle. The persistent anxiety that fills the rest of my life is calmed for as long as I have the flavor of something good in my mouth,” [v] Rebecca Solnit, arrested for demonstrating at a nuclear test site in the Nevada desert, said that “even when you’re in handcuffs, the sunset is still beautiful.” [vi]

In The Spiritual Meadow, John Moschos’ seventh-century collection of tales about desert monastics, an elder warns a wayward disciple, “Brother, pay attention to your own soul, for death awaits you and the road to punishment.” The disciple took little heed, and when he died, the elder continued to worry about his fate. 

The elder fell to his prayers and said, “Lord Jesus Christ, reveal to me the state of the brother’s soul.” He went into a trance and saw a river of fire with a multitude of people in the fire itself. Right in the middle was the brother, submerged up to his neck. The elder said to him, “Didn’t I warn you to look after your own soul, my child?” And the brother answered, “I thank God, father, that at least my head is spared from the fire. Thanks to your prayers, I am standing on the head of a bishop.” [vii]

Even in hell, small things go a long way! And happiness can turn up anywhere, as poet Jane Kenyon reminds us:

There’s just no accounting for happiness …
It comes to the monk in his cell.
It comes to the woman sweeping the street
with a birch broom, to the child
whose mother has passed out from drink.
It comes to the lover, to the dog chewing 
a sock, to the pusher, to the basket maker,
and to the clerk stacking cans of carrots 
in the night. [viii]

We are grateful when it comes, and for the memory it leaves. But happiness is more than the occasional perfect moment. It is a practice, a way of being, a fullness of life which transcends the inevitable fluctuations of fortune. Such a practice might be summarized in two words: authenticity and love. 

At my ordination to the priesthood (September 17, 1970).

Authenticity is fidelity to your truest self: becoming more and more like the person you have been created and called to be. Sometimes the way is rough and steep. Sometimes you get lost or delayed. But by God’s grace, you embrace the journey. Parker Palmer describes this process as a matter of vocation:

Our deepest calling is to grow into our own authentic selfhood, whether or not it conforms to some image of who we ought to be. As we do so, we will not only find the joy that every human being seeks—we will also find our path of authentic service in the world. True vocation joins self and service, as Frederick Buechner asserts when he defines vocation as “the place where your deep gladness meets the world’s deep need.” [ix]

Authenticity, then, finds its greatest expression in acts of love. Becoming our truest self takes us beyond our individuality, into the interdependent communion of the Divine Whole. My own happiness cannot be sustainably severed from collective well-being. Happiness, as it turns out, is not a private affair. It is the way of self-diffusive, self-offering love. And until justice and human flourishing are universally shared, the way of love will include suffering. Self-sacrifice for love’s sake can be costly and painful, as Jesus and the saints have shown. Happiness accepts the truth of that. No justice, no peace. But it is also true, as Catherine of Siena said, that “all the way to heaven is heaven.” You don’t have to wait until the end of time for happiness to show up.

“Do not look for rest in any pleasure,” said Thomas Merton, “because you were not created for pleasure; you were created for JOY.” [x]  Happy are those with a hungry heart. Happy are those who give themselves away. Happy are those who do not mistake crumbs for the feast. Happy are those who know it’s not just about them. Happy are those who say yes to the gift. Happy are those who yearn for the Divine Beloved. Happy are those who don’t count the cost. Happy are those who love their story. 

On the summit of Mount Sinai (May, 1989). Blessed is the way up. Blessed is the way down.
The trail is beautiful. Be still.

We think of Saint Francis of Assisi as a joyful saint, but he was also pierced by the stigmata, the wounds of Christ. And he taught that the most perfect joy is to be found neither in worldly things nor in spiritual enjoyments. Nor is perfect joy simply a matter of pleasure, contentment, or delight. This was bewildering and counterintuitive for his brothers, so he explained it this way:

“Imagine coming home to the monastery on a stormy night.
We knock on the door, but it is so dark
that the surly porter mistakes us for tramps.
‘Go away!’ he shouts.
And if we continue to knock and the porter comes out 
and drives us away with curses and hard blows—
and if we bear it patiently
and take the insults with joy and love in our hearts.
Oh Brother Leo, write down that that is perfect joy! 
Above all the graces and gifts of the Holy Spirit 
which Christ gives to his friends is that of conquering oneself 
and willingly enduring sufferings, insults, humiliations and hardships 
for the love of Christ.” [xi]

Saint Francis wouldn’t have sold many self-help books, but he knew that happiness unacquainted with suffering and sorrow isn’t the real deal. “If it be sweet, if it be not sweet,” [xii] my story is what I was made for. My story is why I’m here. Happiness is saying yes to the story’s gift with a thankful heart.

The late Joseph Golowka, one of my most beloved elders, still roughing it in Baja at 86 (Sept. 24, 2005).

When I go back to earth
And all my joyous body 
Puts off the red and white
That once had been so proud,
If men should pass above
With false and feeble pity,
My dust will find a voice
To answer them aloud: 

“Be still, I am content,
Take back your poor compassion!—
Joy was a flame in me
Too steady to destroy.
Lithe as a bending reed
Loving the storm that sways her—
I found more joy in sorrow
Than you could find in joy.” [xiii]

— Sara Teasdale, “The Answer” 


[i] Peter Cameron, Andorra (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1997), 149-150.

[ii] Michael Cunningham, The Hours (New York: Farrar, Strauss and Giroux, 1988), 98.

[iii] The statistics and quotes from Santos and Lyubomirsky are found in Adam Sternbergh, “The Case for New York Face,” in Lapham’s Quarterly, Vol. XII, No. 3 (Summer 2019), 81-85. Four times a year, Lapham’s Quarterly presents a marvelous and stimulating collection of writings and images from many periods and sources on a given topic. This issue’s subject is “Happiness.” Sternbergh’s article was originally published in New York Magazine in 2018. Additional quotes from Santos were taken from her podcast, The Happiness Lab, Season 1, Episode 1 (“You Can Change”): https://www.happinesslab.fm

[iv] This excerpt from Sackville-West’s novel, All Passion Spent (1931), is also in the “Happiness” issue of Lapham’s Quarterly, p. 139.

[v] Ibid., 134. Smith’s excerpt is from her essay “Joy” (New York Review of Books, Jan. 10, 2013). 

[vi] Rebecca Solnit, Storming the Gates of Paradise: Landscapes for Politics (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2007).

[vii] John Moschos, The Spiritual Meadow (written c. 600), trans. John Wortley (Collegeville, MN: Cistercian Publications, 1992/2008), 35. 

[viii] Jane Kenyon, “Happiness.”  

[ix] Parker Palmer, Let Your Life Speak: Listening for the Voice of Vocation (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2000), 16.

[x] Thomas Merton, Seeds of Contemplation (1949), p. 172. Cited in William H. Shannon, Christine M. Bochen, Patrick F. O’Connell, eds., The Thomas Merton Encyclopedia (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 2002), 231.

[xi] Adapted from The Little Flowers of St. Francis, 53 chapters on the life of Francis of Assisi written at the end of the 14th century.

[xii] Anne Sexton, “Rowing.” “As the African says, / This is my tale which I have told,/ If it be sweet, if it be not sweet,”/ Take somewhere else and let some return to me.…” 

[xiii] Sara Teasdale, “The Answer,” in Christian Wiman, ed., Joy: 100 Poems (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2017), 138. 

What Will the Cross Make of Us? — A Good Friday Sermon

Christ on the Cross (Auvergne, 12th century), Cluny Museum, Paris.

A sermon preached on Good Friday at St. Barnabas Episcopal Church, Bainbridge Island, WA

I’m going to ask you some questions, 
and the answer you will give is, “I am here”.

Judas, slave of jealousy, where are you?…
Peter, slave of fear, where are you?…
Thomas, slave of doubt, where are you?…
Men and women of Jerusalem,  enslaved by mob violence, where are you?…
Pilate, slave of expediency, where are you?…

You’re all here, then. Good. 
Because the crucified God has something to say to you: 

Mercy.

Let us pray.

God, we pray you, look upon your family 
for whom our Lord Jesus Christ was willing to undergo 
the torture of the cross. Amen.

I find this opening Collect for Good Friday so moving, because it doesn’t make any requests for particular outcomes. It simply asks God to look at us—just look at us—with the loving gaze of mercy. In the middle of a terrible war, with a million dead from COVID in this country alone, and a pandemic of hate and racism and sheer folly leaving us dispirited and exhausted: Lord, have mercy. That’s our prayer at the foot of the cross. Lord, have mercy

In the 1965 Jesus movie, The Greatest Story Ever Told, the Holy Family is returning from Egypt after the death of Herod. And when they’re back in their own country, on their way home, they come up over a rise, and there before them are dozens of crosses along the road, with a man dying on every one—human billboards advertising Roman justice and the cruel fate awaiting anyone who might trouble the tranquility of the empire. In those days, it was an all too common sight.

The camera gives us a good look at those suffering victims, anonymous in their pain, and then cuts to a closeup of the two-year-old Jesus, riding on a donkey in his mother’s arms, looking at those crosses with wide and wondering eyes. 

Thirty years later, another donkey would bring Jesus toward his own cross, and there he would be cradled one last time in the arms of his grieving mother.

Can’t we have a better story? Why couldn’t the people have been transformed and the authorities converted and the Anointed Son of God lived to a ripe old age teaching and healing and wisely overseeing the first generation of God’s Kingdom on earth as it is in heaven?

That’s what the disciples expected of the Messiah. Of course, you and I know better. We expect the good to die young. We’ve seen enough of it in our own day. As someone says in an A.S. Byatt novel: “There will always be people who will slash open the other cheek when it is turned to them. In this life love will not overcome, it will not, it will go to waste and it is no good to preach anything else.” 

But it could have been otherwise. Everyone had choices. That was the problem, of course. God let everybody choose, and God’s own choices were limited by the choices that his creatures made. When Jesus fell upon the ground and begged for an alternative to the cross, God remained silent. There was no reversing the choices already made by Judas and the clergy and the police who were already closing in on the garden.

But God never stopped working to bring good out of the situation, to accomplish the purpose for which Christ was sent into the world. An illuminating perspective on this can be found in that notable theological work, The Joy of Cooking, In its advice to the host of a party, it says, 

“Satisfy yourself that you have anticipated every possible emergency…Then relax and enjoy your guests….If, at the last minute, something does happen to upset your well-laid plans, rise to the occasion. The mishap may be the making of your party…[As the Roman poet] Horace observed, ‘ A host is like a general: it takes a mishap to reveal genius.” 

The mishap of sin revealed God’s genius. O felix culpa, as Augustine said. O happy fault. God never gave up on the party we call the Kingdom. But since God refused to control others’ free will, God had to improvise, to work with whatever hand God was dealt by the choices made by human beings. And the hand God was dealt was the cross. But God said, “The cross will not foil my plan. In fact, I will make of it the cornerstone of salvation.” And so it was that Jesus could say with his dying breath: “It is accomplished.”

A century ago, Russian theologian Sergei Bulgakov described the accomplishment of the cross this way: 

God tells His creation: you are created by My hands. You are my work, and you would not exist if I did not will it. And, since I am responsible for you, I take upon Myself the responsibility for your guilt. I forgive you; I return your glory to you, for I take your sin upon Myself; I redeem it with My suffering.[i]

There are those who recoil at the idea that the death of one innocent man somehow atones for humanity’s collective guilt. But the death of Jesus was not a crude transaction where Jesus just picks up the check for our feast of follies when we prove unable to pay the debt ourselves. Admittedly, there is some language in our tradition which might prompt such a misreading of the cross. For example, in the beautiful Easter Vigil chant, the Exultet, there is the line, 

“O blessed iniquity, for whose redemption such a price was paid by such a Savior.”

That may be true poetically, but not theologically. There’s plenty of guilt to atone for, no doubt. Just watch the news. And by ourselves we can never hope to set it right. But redemption has nothing to do with accounting. It has to do with love. For God so loved the world, and there is no love without vulnerability—and sacrifice. Anyone who has ever suffered because of their love for another knows the truth of this.

Christ’s death didn’t just happen on Golgotha. It took place in God’s own heart. And the salvation wrought on the cross wasn’t because somebody named Jesus got punished for our crimes, but because love proved greater than sin and death. 

The powers of hell have done their worst to God this day, but Christ their legions hath dispersed. The victory didn’t have to wait for Easter. Love wins today—on the cross—because it absorbs every evil without returning the violence, and it refuses to give up on any of us—not even the killers who know not what they do. 

David Bentley Hart, a contemporary Orthodox theologian, sums this up beautifully:

“The only true answer to the scandal of this blood-soaked cosmos is the restoration of the very One who was destroyed … the only horizon of hope is that of the humanly impossible; and the only peace for which [we] can now properly long is not that which can be bought by a victim’s blood, which is a plentifully available coin, but that which can be given solely by that One who has borne the consequences of human violence and falsehood all the way to the end and then miraculously returned, still able and willing to forgive …”[ii]

Therefore, kind Jesus, since I cannot pay thee,
I do adore thee, and will ever pray thee,
Think on thy pity, and thy love unswerving,
Not my deserving.[iii]

One of my Facebook friends, an Episcopal priest in Delaware, posted a story this week about a young woman, a newcomer to her parish, who asked her, “What are the qualifications to carry the cross in church? Because, you know, well, see? I was homeless for about five years. Yeah, and you know, see? I did some things I’m not proud of, but it was really the best choice between some really bad choices. So, I’m kinda embarrassed and I don’t want a lot of people asking a lot of questions so, you know, am I qualified?” 

“Oh, sweetheart,” said the priest, “I don’t know anyone in this congregation who is more qualified than you are to carry the cross. I have no doubt that you will be one of the best-qualified crucifers in the history of crucifers in The Episcopal Church.”

“Well, I don’t know about that,” she said. “But thank you. Just one more question: Do I get to wear white gloves?”

“Absolutely, my friend. Let’s go find you a pair.”[iv]

That’s such a perfect story because Jesus made his own cross an act of solidarity with people just like her—with the outcast, the homeless, the powerless, and the survivors of bad choices. He shared their condition and he suffered their pain. He bore their griefs and carried their sorrows. He made the sin, alienation, and brokenness of the world his own, so that no human experience would ever be alien to God. 

As a Franciscan scholar has written: 

“The Crucified is the diffusing center of God’s love in the world whereby he reaches down to that which is furthest from [God] to draw all into [the divine] goodness and thus into the love of the Trinity.” [v]

And an Anglican theologian puts it this way: 

“In [God’s] own Trinitarian history of suffering, God opens [Godself] to include the uproar of all human history; oppressed and forsaken people can find themselves within the situation of a suffering God, and so can also share in [God’s] history of glorification.”[vi]  

I love the image of that young woman carrying the cross as she herself, I would say, is being drawn into the divine goodness and sharing in the history of Christ’s glorification. And it being an Episcopal church, she got to do it with white gloves!

So here we are on God’s Friday, at the foot of the holy cross, puzzling over its multiple meanings. Why did Jesus have to die? How exactly has that death broken the power of sin and death? What does the cross tell us about God’s love for us? 

These are all profound questions, but I will let the liturgy’s hymns and prayers speak to those questions rather than my trying to reduce the mystery of Good Friday to a few paragraphs. Just open your heart and the liturgy will speak the word you need to hear today. It may come in a hymn, or when you venerate the cross, or receive Sacrament. But it will come.

So rather than explore what we make of the cross, I will conclude with a few thoughts about what the cross wants to make of us

On Palm Sunday, we heard St. Paul urge us to “Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus … who humbled himself and became obedient to death—even death on a cross” (Philippians 2:8). This isn’t telling us to try harder, but to see differently, or as Paul says in Romans, “be transformed by the renewing of your minds so that you may discern what is the will of God—what is good and acceptable and perfect” (Romans 12:2).

When we start to put on the mind of Christ Jesus, when we begin to think God’s thoughts instead of our own, not only will the world become different, but we will begin to live differently—not in fear of death, despairing over the uproar of the times, or retreating into our fortress egos—but in self-diffusive love, offering all that we have and all that we are for the sake of others, as we move deeper and deeper into the holy communion with God and one another that is our destiny. The cross proves that Jesus lived that way until his last breath. And the cross invites us to do the same.

The gospels never tell us what’s going on in the mind of Christ. They simply show us what kind of life that mind produced. But if I were to venture a glimpse into Christ’s mind, I might choose a passage from The Brothers Karamazov, where young Alyosha, the most saintly of those memorable siblings, is out looking at the stars when he is suddenly seized, as it were, by the mind of Christ: 

The silence of the earth seemed to merge with the silence of the heavens, the mystery of the earth touched the mystery of the stars. . . Alyosha stood gazing and suddenly, as if he had been cut down, threw himself to the earth.

He did not know why he was embracing it, he did not try to understand why he longed so irresistibly to kiss it, to kiss all of it, but he was kissing it, weeping, sobbing, and watering it with his tears, and he vowed ecstatically to love it, to love it unto ages of ages. “Water the earth with the tears of your joy, and love those tears. . . ,” rang in his soul. 

What was he weeping for? Oh, in his rapture he wept even for the stars that shone on him from the abyss, and “he was not ashamed of this ecstasy.” It was as if threads from all those innumerable worlds of God all came together in his soul, and it was trembling all over, “touching other worlds.” He wanted to forgive everyone and for everything, and to ask forgiveness, oh, not for himself! but for all and for everything. . .[vii]


[i] Sergius Bulgakov, The Lamb of God (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2008), 364.

[ii] David Bentley Hart, Theological Territories: A David Bentley Hart Digest (Notre Dame, IN: Notre Dame University Press, 2020), 23.

[iii] “Ah, holy Jesus,” verse 5, text by Johann Herrmann, tr. Robert Seymour Bridges.

[iv] Thanks to the Rev. Elizabeth Kaeton for letting me use her story.

[v] Ilia Delio, Crucified Love: Bonaventure’s Mysticism of the Crucified Christ (Fransciscan Media, 1999), 165.

[vi] Paul Fiddes, The Creative Suffering of God (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1988), 151.

[vii] Fyodor Dostoevsky, The Brothers Karamazov, tr. Richard Pevear & Larissa Volokhonsky (New York, Vintage Classics, 1990), 362.

The Importance of Tables—A Maundy Thursday Reflection

The Last Supper, Cloister of Moissac (12th century).

If this were the last night of your life, what would you do?
On his last night, Jesus gathered at table with his friends.

Jesus loved tables. He spent a lot of time sitting at tables.
At a table, Jesus ate and drank with sinners,
so that you and I would know we are always welcome at God’s feast.
At a table a woman became a teacher to the apostles
when she anointed Jesus with oil.
At a table Jesus presented a startling image of God
as slave and servant of all, when he washed his disciples’ feet.
At a table our Lord gave us, in bread and wine,
the means of tasting his sweetness forever.

I think Jesus liked tables because they are places of intimacy.
Everyone is close together—
it’s a place to let your guard down.
Jesus probably did more teaching quietly around a table
than he did shouting from boats or mountaintops to vast multitudes.

And I don’t think Jesus just walked into a room
and started telling people about God.
I think he sat down with them, and learned their names,
and listened to their stories.
And after a while, they would open up to him,
sharing their broken dreams and broken hearts,
their longings and their demons.
And it was there, responding to their particular stories,
that he would bring God to them, casting out their demons,
unbinding them with forgiveness,
empowering them to stand up and walk through that open door into God’s story,
proclaiming them—even the most prodigal sinner—the beloved children of God.

Tables also got Jesus into deep trouble.
In the Temple of Jerusalem, he overturned the tables of the old paradigm,
the tables of the smug and comfortable religionists
who can’t see the fault lines running through their ecclesiastical constructions
and their lifeless pieties.
He overturned the tables where some are in and some are out,
where some are welcome and some are not.

“This isn’t what God wants!” said the carpenter from Nazareth,
and he made a new table,
a table where all divisions and discriminations are put aside,

where enemies are embraced,
where outcasts and fools are honored as our wisest teachers,
where the abundant life of God’s future is as close
as the food you see before you tonight.

The world was not ready to sit at such a table –
the world didn’t even want to know there was such a table.
So it stretched its maker upon another piece of wood,
hoping to bury the dream before it could infect the general population.

But the table survived, and we sit round it tonight.
How costly and precious it is!
Gathered around Christ’s table,
we will do simple things—wash feet, share a meal, tell stories.

And as we do, we will begin,
as St. Augustine says,
to say Amen to the mystery we have become.

The Footwashing, Cloister of St. Trophime, Arles (12th century).

Living by the Sword: Putin and the Perils of Messianic Politics

Vladimir Putin and the icon of the Savior “not made by hands,” (Attibution: AP Photo/RIA Novosti, Alexei Nikolsky, Pool)

“The hour is late. The world is choked with weapons, and dreadful is the mistrust peering from all men’s eyes. The trumpets of war may blow tomorrow. Who knows if we shall see each other in another year? What are we waiting for? Peace must be dared. Peace is the great venture.”

— Dietrich Bonhoeffer (August 1934)

At a pro-war rally in Moscow last month, Vladimir Putin praised his troops for their embodiment of Christian love. “And this is where the words from the Scriptures come to mind,” he said. “‘There is no greater love than if someone gives up his soul for his friends.’ The heart of the message is that this is a universal value for all the people and all the confessions of Russia …. Shoulder to shoulder they are helping and supporting each other and when it’s necessary they cover as if it was their own brother, they cover each other from the bullets. We haven’t had such unity in a long time.”[i]

The crowd loved the speech. “Forward Russia!” they chanted. Jesus! Love! Unity! Was this a political rally, or a religious revival? Some of each, I would think. For a thousand years of Russian history, politics and religion have been closely entwined. In 988, after the Christian conversion of Prince Vladimir of Kievan Rus’—the original Russian state—his subjects waded into the Dnieper River to be baptized en masse.

The fact that this birth narrative of Slavic Orthodoxy took place in Kyiv helps explain the lingering Russian attachment to the Ukrainian capital. It’s their Jerusalem. Even though the Ukrainian Orthodox Church was granted independence from its Russian counterpart in 2018, one third of the Orthodox churches still loyal to the Moscow Patriarchate are situated in the Ukraine, and Putin has argued that his army is coming to their defense. 

The mythology of Holy Rus’, a divinely ordered “kingdom” of Slavic believers—a “Third Rome” inheriting the world-transforming mission of its failed predecessors in Europe and Constantinople—became a staple of Russian identity. In contrast to the perceived decadence, individualism, and secularism of the West, Holy Rus’ was thought to preserve communal spiritual values for the sake of all humankind. In a famous speech given in 1880, Dostoevsky said:

“[T]o be a true Russian does indeed mean to aspire finally to reconcile the contradictions of Europe, to show the end of European yearning in our Russian soul, omni-human and all-uniting, to include within our soul by brotherly love all our brethren, and at last, it may be, to pronounce the final Word of the great general harmony, of the final brotherly communion of all nations in accordance with the law of the gospel of Christ!”[ii]

When Russia seized Crimea in 2014, such Third Rome mythology seemed alive and well when Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov dismissed the protests of the “godless West, hostile to the Russians because we [remain] Christian traditionalists.”[iii] Many observers think the invasion of Ukraine is fueled by the same mythology. If so, Putin’s nostalgia for the old Russian Empire would be more than the product of personal and political ambition. It would amount, in that case, to a crusade to recover the lost lands of Holy Rus’ and restore the Third Rome to its proper glory. To let Ukraine drift away into western decadence would betray the myth.

Historian Anna Geifman dismisses any speculation about Putin’s mental stability:

“He’s not crazy — he’s messianic,” she says. “What Putin says is logical, and consistent with his entire policy since 2008 … To sustain his legitimacy, the regime chose to delineate a more national-patriotic and anti-Western direction, grounding its appeal on a strong conservative, Orthodox [Christian] foundation …  He may not use that term [the Third Rome], but he talks about the corruption of the West, with its ‘everything goes’ lifestyle that no longer differentiates between good and evil … Disregarding historical evidence to the contrary, Putin views Ukraine as part of the Russian family. Their independence is a slap in the face to his ideology.”[iv]

Vladimir Putin observers an Orthodox Epiphany ritual imitating the baptismal immersion of Christ.(Attribution: Mikhail Klimentyev, Sputnik, Kremlin Pool Photo)

Putin is coy about his personal beliefs, though he wears a cross around his neck and makes a public display of his Orthodox rituals. Is his employment of Holy Rus’ rhetoric just a cynical ploy to move the masses, or is he a religious crusader at heart? And which would be worse? Either way, the resulting atrocities have been horrifically evil. The Russian messiah is a war criminal.

Empty strollers in Lviv represent the children killed in the war’s first 3 weeks.

The unholy matrimony of religion and violence is always toxic, poisoning both church and world. We have seen too much of that right here in the United States. Many of the violent seditionists who stormed the Capitol on January 6, 2021, thought they were enacting God’s will. They blew shofars to make “the walls of corruption crumble.” They waved Jesus banners and Bibles, dragged large crosses into the fray, erected a gallows for their enemies. Their madness was driven by a core belief: “God, guns, and guts made America.”[v]

MAGA Jesus at the January 6 insurrection.

It wasn’t just the confused angers of the mob at work. The madness was deployed by the highest levels of government. As Capitol police were being beaten and killed and politicians were running for their lives, the President’s Chief of Staff sent an email from the White House to the sedition-enabling wife of a Supreme Court justice: 

“This is a fight of good and evil … Evil always looks like the victor until the King of Kings triumphs. Do not grow weary in well doing. The fight continues …”[vi]

For the seditionists, and a majority of white Evangelicals overall, Trump was a messianic figure, seeming to offer deliverance and rebirth to a desperate and despised people. “Donald Trump is in the Bible,” a rioter told a journalist. “Get yourself ready.”[vii]

The moral and theological collapse of right-wing Christianity in America echoes the capitulation of the Protestant German Church to the Third Reich. In the 1930s, most German clergy and theologians joined the Nazi party. Some were just playing it safe, but others were swept up in the nationalistic fervor. It became customary to conclude the baptismal rite by praying “that this child may grow up to be like Adolf Hitler.” And the head of the government Ministry of Church Affairs declared in 1935 that the Führer was “the bearer of a new revelation … Germany’s Jesus Christ.”[viii]

In the face of such absurd and blasphemous perversions of Christianity as we have seen in Russia, Germany, and the United States, what are God’s friends to do? Some would have us abandon religion altogether. Recent American studies have shown that many of the “nones” cite bad politics as their primary reason for rejecting Christianity, while many churches are themselves retreating from public life to avoid the contaminating risks of political action.[ix]

Dietrich Bonhoeffer

Dietrich Bonhoeffer was a German theologian and pastor who came of age during the rise of the Nazis. During a fellowship year at Union Theological Seminary in New York, he absorbed Professor Reinhold Niebuhr’s Christian realism. If you avoid history’s messy struggles to preserve your purity, Niebuhr warned, the vacuum you leave will be filled by the demonic. 

Attending an activist black church in Harlem also had an enormous impact on young Bonhoeffer. As his superb biographer Charles Marsh has written, “No longer would he speak of grace as a transcendent idea but as a divine verdict requiring obedience and action. The American social theology … had remade him into a theologian of the concrete.”[x] When, a decade later, he joined a conspiracy to assassinate Hitler, “he would abandon any hope of innocence, incurring the guilt of responsible action. Of the two evils, it was the one he could abide.”[xi] The failed plot would cost him his life. He died in a concentration camp two weeks before it was liberated by the Allies. His body was never found. 

Bonhoeffer had assented to a selective use of violence in order to interrupt mass murder. The unspeakable suffering of the many outweighed his own need for innocence. But he did not do it lightly, and the political captivity of the German Church made him keenly aware of how religion’s engagement with culture can easily go off the rails. He thought deeply about the ambiguities involved in repairing a broken world, but he knew that we cannot just think our way out of the human condition. We need something more, something divine. And words he wrote during the dark days of World War II still point the way:

“Who stands firm amidst the tumult and cataclysms? … The huge masquerade of evil has thrown all ethical concepts into confusion … The failure of ‘the reasonable ones’—those who think, with the best of intentions and in their naïve misreading of reality, that with a bit of reason they can patch up a structure that has come out of joint—is apparent. With their ability to see impaired, they want to do justice on every side, only to be crushed by the colliding forces without having accomplished anything at all. Disappointed that the world is so unreasonable, they see themselves condemned to unproductiveness; they withdraw in resignation or helplessly fall victim to the stronger … Who stands firm? Only the one whose ultimate standard is not their reason, their principles, conscience, freedom, or virtue; only the one who is prepared to sacrifice all of these when, in faith and relationship to God alone, they are called to obedient and responsible action. Such a person is the responsible one, whose life is to be nothing but a response to God’s question and call.”[xii]


[i] https://www.thenationalnews.com/world/europe/2022/03/18/putin-rallies-stadium-crowds-and-lauds-troops-fighting-in-ukraine/ The quotation is a paraphrase of Jesus’ words in John 15:13, just after he says, “Love one another as I have loved you.” Putin used the Russian word for soul (душу (dushu) instead of the biblical “life.”

[ii] Dostoevsky’s speech, given in honor of Russian poet Aleksandr Pushkin (1799-1837), can be found here: http://web.archive.org/web/20050207093332/http://www.dwightwebber.com/pushkinspeech.html

[iii] Quoted in Binyamin Rose, “Russia’s Deep-Seated Messianic Complex,” Mishpacha: Jewish Family Weekly (Mar. 15, 2022) https://mishpacha.com/russias-deep-seated-messianic-complex/

[iv] Ibid.

[v] Emma Green, “A Christian Insurrection” (The Atlantic, Jan. 8, 2021).

[vi] David French, “The Worst Ginni Thomas Text Wasn’t from Ginni Thomas (The Atlantic, March 25, 2022).

[vii] Jeffrey Goldberg, “Mass Delusion in America” (The Atlantic, Jan. 6, 2021).

[viii] Charles Marsh, Strange Glory: A Life of Dietrich Bonhoeffer (New York: Vintage Books, 2014), 283, 271.

[ix] Ruth Braunstein, “The Backlash against rightwing evangelicals is reshaping American politics and faith” (The Guardian, Jan. 25, 2022).

[x] Marsh, 135.

[xi] Ibid., 346.

[xii] Ibid., 341.

“We must love one another or die”—What Does the Iliad Tell Us about the Invasion of Ukraine?

Francisco de Goya, “Ya no hay tiempo” (There isn’t time now), from The Disasters of War (1810-1820).

It is true that our weakness could prevent us from defeating the force that threatens to overwhelm us. But this does not prevent us from understanding it. Nothing in the world can stop us from being lucid.

— Simone Weil

Humility before the real, before untamable existence, is what we learn from the grief and supplications of the tragic poets and the exhortations and lamentations of the prophets.

— Rachel Bespaloff

In the summer of 1939, two women visited an exhibition of Goya’s The Disasters of War at the Geneva Museum of Art and History.[i] Goya’s 82 etchings, graphic depictions of the human cost of war, impressed each of them deeply, especially in the shadow of looming European conflict. The day after the exhibition closed, Hitler’s troops invaded Poland.

Rachel Bespaloff.
Simone Weil.

Rachel Bespaloff and Simone Weil did not know each other. They saw the Goyas in Geneva on different days. But they had many things in common. Both were of Jewish descent, and both were French, although Bespaloff had been born in Ukraine. Both were philosophers, consumed by the questions of affliction and human suffering. Both would die too soon—Weil at 34 from malnutrition and heart failure in 1943, and Bespaloff at 53 by suicide in 1949. And both responded to the outbreak of World War II with influential essays on the Iliad

Homer’s tragic epic, the founding work of European literature, bears impartial witness to the creative and destructive forces at work in the finite historical world. The poet sings of war, but his underlying theme is the complexity of human nature and human experience. There is rage in the Iliad, and cruelty, but wisdom and compassion as well. 

With the Russian invasion of Ukraine, the reflections of Weil and Bespaloff on this ancient epic provide a timely lucidity. For example, Weil’s analysis of wrathful Achilles pinpoints the ultimate futility of force. In the Iliad, the harder Achilles tries to enforce his will, the more resistance he generates. Weil could have been describing Vladimir Putin: 

“Homer shows us the limits of force in the very apotheosis of the force-hero. Through cruelty force confesses its powerlessness to achieve omnipotence. When Achilles falls upon Lycaon, shouting ‘death to all,’ and makes fun of the child who is pleading with him, he lays bare the eternal resentment felt by the will to power when something gets in the way of its indefinite expansion. We see weakness dawning at the very height of force. Unable to admit that total destruction is impossible, the conqueror can only reply to the mute defiance of his defenseless adversary with an ever-growing violence. Achilles will never get the best of the thing he kills: Lycaon’s youth will rise again, and Priam’s wisdom and Ilion’s beauty.” [ii]   

Weil argued that the Iliad’s true subject was not any one figure, but the fateful dynamics of force to which both Greeks and Trojans were subject: “Force employed by man, force that enslaves man, force before which man’s flesh shrinks away. In this work, at all times, the human spirit is shown as modified by its relations with force, as swept away, blinded, by the very force it imagined it could handle, as deformed by the weight of the force it submits to.” [iii]

In her opening paragraph of her essay, Weil sees both the victors and the vanquished as dehumanized and uncreated by powers not of their own making. The victors are “swept away” when force goes its own way, generating consequences they can’t control. The vanquished are turned into “things,” stripped of the capacity to think, or act, or hope. Even if a victim’s life is spared, he or she is as good as dead. Force “makes a corpse out of [them]. Somebody was here, and the next minute there is nobody here at all.” [iv]

Francisco de Goya, “Que Valor!” from The Disasters of War (1810-1820).

Goya’s war images convey this truth. They grant no wider picture of strategy or purpose, but only offer snapshots of an ambient violence, which seems to exist independently of the anonymous actors caught up in war’s depersonalizing horror. “What courage!” reads the artist’s caption, “Que Valor!” Was Goya being ironic? One might interpret this etching as an image of resistance—a brave woman standing on the bodies of her fallen comrades to reach the cannon’s fuse and repel the oppressors. But I can’t help seeing a pile of indistinguishable corpses, and a faceless figure whose own subjection to the laws of force has but one future. 

As Weil put it, “for those whose spirits have bent under the yoke of war, the relation between death and the future is different than for other men. For other men death appears as a limit set in advance on the future; for the soldier death is the future, the future his profession assigns him.” [v] In his classic novel of the American Civil War, Stephen Crane said the same thing even more chillingly: War is “like the grinding of an immense and terrible machine.” Its “grim processes” are designed to “produce corpses.” [vi]

This pair of photos posted last week by a young Ukrainian couple on social media feels both stirring and sad. Scheduled to be married in May, they realized they might not live that long. So they rushed the wedding. As sirens sounded the Russian attack on Kyiv, they made their vows of lifelong fidelity. Then they took up arms to defend their city. Their courage is inspiring, like the man before the tank in Tiananmen Square. But their vulnerability is heartbreaking. May God protect them.

Weil describes the immutable laws of force, which has no regard for such “perishable joys.” [vii] “To the same degree,” Weil says, “though in different fashions, those who use it and those who endure it are turned to stone.” In battle, thought and choice and hope are swept away. “Herein lies the last secret of war,” Weil says, “a secret revealed by the Iliad in its similes, which liken the warriors either to fire, flood, wind, wild beasts, or God knows what blind cause of disaster, or else to frightened animals, trees, water, sand, to anything in nature that is set into motion by the violence of external forces.” [viii]

In other words, everyone involved is a victim of war. That is why neither Homer nor Goya seem to take sides. The unflinching visual witness of The Disasters of War may have been undertaken in protest against the brutality of Napoleon’s army in Spain, but as the series evolved it became harder to distinguish the nationality of perpetrators and victims in the images. We only see human beings equally deformed by the workings of force. There is no great cause in these pictures, only suffering. 

Attribution: Nexta TV

For me, one of the most disturbing images of the war’s first week was this video of a Russian soldier taking evident pleasure in the firing of missiles into Ukraine. As a Christian, I am obligated to see Christ in his arrogant face, but it is not easy. He is smiling at the death of his fellow beings. The patch on his uniform reads: “They will die and we will go to heaven.” Nevertheless, understanding this man to be himself a victim of force plants a seed of compassion in me. He has lost his humanity to the machinery of war. I must pray for him as well. 

In writing about the Iliad, Weil was repeating Goya’s message that “violence obliterates anybody who feels its touch. It comes to seem just as external to its employer as to its victim. And from this springs the idea of a destiny before which executioner and victim stand equally innocent, before which conquered and conqueror are brothers in the same distress. The conquered brings misfortune to the conqueror, and vice versa.[ix]

Francisco de Goya, “Las mujeres dan valor” (The women are courageous) from The Disasters of War (1810-1820).

Rachel Bespaloff, writing during the Nazi invasion of France, attributes the Iliad’s impartiality to the seeming impartiality of life itself: 

“With Homer there is no marveling or blaming, and no answer is expected. Who is good in the Iliad? Who is bad? Such distinctions do not exist; there are only men suffering, warriors fighting, some winning, some losing. The passion for justice emerges only in mourning for justice, in the dumb avowal of silence. To condemn force, or absolve it, would be to condemn, or absolve, life itself. And life in the Iliad (as in the Bible or in War and Peace) is essentially the thing that does not permit itself to be assessed, or measured, or condemned, or justified, at least not by the living. Any estimate of life must be confined to an awareness of its inexpressibility.” [x]

The impartiality of Homer and Goya is echoed in one of the most remarkable battle scenes in the history of cinema. In Terence Malick’s The Thin Red Line, U.S. marines are trying to take a Japanese position on a Pacific island in World War II. But instead of encouraging the viewer to take sides, the director presents both the Americans and the Japanese as common victims of force, as if we were seeing war through God’s eyes. On the soundtrack the gunfire and explosions remain faint, barely there, while a slow elegiac score, like the music of weeping angels, allows us to reflect on the tragedy of violence instead of stirring our partisan emotions. One of the soldiers, a kind of Christ figure, speaks in voice-over: 

This great evil, where does it come from? How does it still enter the world? What seed, what root did it grow from? Who’s doing this, who’s killing us, robbing us of life and light, mocking us with the sight of what we might have known? Does our ruin benefit the earth? Is this darkness in you too? [xi]

Impartiality is not the same as indifference. Although she favored pacifism, Weil wrote her essay after joining the fight against fascism in Spain (the near-sighted and clumsy intellectual had to be sent home after accidentally stepping into a pot of boiling oil). She spoke out in favor of struggles for independence in the French colonies, and worked for the French Resistance. Similarly, Bespaloff renounced her own pacifist sympathies when Hitler seized France. Both women felt their ideals constrained by the “yoke of necessity.” [xii] Sometimes force simply won’t let you abstain. Bespaloff would later lament that history had forced her entire generation “to live in a climate of violent death,” amid “the smoke of crematories.” [xiii]

To see everyone as a victim is to realize the limits of force and begin to discover the power of compassion. “Those who live by the sword die by the sword,” said Jesus. And Weil, who got to know Jesus pretty well in her final years, urged us to “learn that there is no refuge from fate, learn not to admire force, not to hate the enemy, nor to scorn the unfortunate.” [xiv]  

This is not a prescription for passivity in the face of naked aggression. Along with most of the world, including many of Russia’s own people, I support the Ukrainian resistance, but it’s not enough just to take sides in the ancient game of force. Even as we are swept up in the necessities of conflict, we must strive to imagine a better way and a better world. 

In late 1942, when Weil was working in the London office of the French Resistance, she proposed a plan to parachute hundreds of white-uniformed nurses onto battlefields, not only to tend to the wounded but also to provide an image of self-sacrificial goodness in the midst of cruelty and violence. She herself wanted to be in the first wave of this non-violent invasion. In submitting her plan to the Free French authorities, she made a visionary argument:

“There could be no better symbol of our inspiration than the corps of women suggested here. The mere persistence of a few humane services in the very center of the battle, the climax of inhumanity, would be a signal defiance of the inhumanity which the enemy has chosen for himself and which he compels us also to practice … A small group of women exerting day after day a courage of this kind would be a spectacle so new, so significant, and charged with such obvious meaning, that it would strike the imagination more than any of Hitler’s conceptions have done.” [xv]

Charles de Gaulle thought her quite mad, and her plan of course went nowhere. But I always find myself inspired by “impossible” visions which refuse the seductions and delusions of force. When Hitler invaded Poland, W. H. Auden wrote a poem, “September 1, 1939,” calling upon the lovers of justice to “show an affirming flame” in the night of “negation and despair.” As we now weigh our best measures against the worst possibilities, Auden’s key line is more urgent than ever:

“We must love one another or die.” 

Käthe Kollwitz,”The Mothers,” from Seven Woodcuts on the War (1924)

[i] After Madrid was bombed in the Spanish Civil War, the Prado’s art treasures were moved to the League of Nations in Geneva in early 1939. The museum exhibition with the Goya etchings ended on August 31 of that year. The invasion of Poland began on September 1, 1939.

[ii] Simone Weil, in Simone Weil & Rachel Bespaloff, War and the Iliad (New York: New York Review of Books, 2005), 54. Thanks to NYRB for publishing these essays together for the first time.

[iii] Ibid., 3.

[iv] Ibid., 3.

[v] Ibid., 21-22.

[vi] Stephen Crane, The Red Badge of Courage, ch. 8, quoted in War and the Iliad, p. xi.

[vii] The term is Bespaloff’s, referring to Hector’s recitation of everything the war is about to take from him: his city, his family, his comrades, his very life (War and the Iliad, 43).

[viii] War and the Iliad, 26.

[ix] Ibid., 20.

[x] Ibid., 50.

[xi] The Thin Red Line (1998), written and directed by Terence Malick, based on the novel by James Jones (1962). Released by Twentieth Century Fox. A beautiful blu-ray edition is available from The Criterion Collection. Jim Caviezel, whose other-worldliness rose above the warring world to intimations of the Transcendent, spoke the voice-over. He would eventually play the role of Jesus in Mel Gibson’s Passion of the Christ (2004).

[xii] War and the Iliad, 21. The phrase is Weil’s.

[xiii] Ibid., 23.

[xiv] Ibid., 37.

[xv] Simone Weil, quoted in Robert Zaretsky, The Subversive Simone Weil: A Life in Five Ideas (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2021), 155.