The Names of God

Emperor Constantine and bishops holding the Nicene Creed.

Many years ago, on the slopes of Mt. Sinai, I met a monk from the Orthodox monastery at the foot of the mountain. Michael was a young American, but he rebuffed my curiosity about his journey from a Pennsylvania childhood to an ascetic community in the Egyptian wasteland. “A monk’s past is meaningless,” he said brusquely. Embracing the desert spirituality of renunciations, he had little patience for the inessential. He was terse, acerbic, and opinionated, as harsh and unyielding as the landscape. I was intimidated by this strange and demanding figure. My own thoughts and questions began to seem weightless and trivial in the face of such passionate certainty.

Michael reassured me that Anglicans were his favorite schismatics, but our novelties and lack of theological rigor were clearly not up to his standards. “We do have the Nicene Creed in common,” I said, trying to find a point of agreement. “We recite it in the Sunday liturgy.” I was wrong about that, Michael insisted. Since we use the western aberration of the Filioque clause, we are not really saying the Nicene Creed, but only a defective imitation of it.[i]

In an ecumenical spirit, I said I was happy to defer to the eastern Church on the matter of the Filioque. “Not the eastern Church,” Michael shot back. “It’s the undivided universal Church.” He was fond of absolutes. But what did I expect to find in the wilderness––comfortable small talk?

I thought of Michael last Sunday when I experimented with the creed at an outdoor eucharist on the shore of Puget Sound. We wanted to minimize the use of printed texts, so that the people could keep their eyes on their surroundings rather than the pages of a bulletin. That was easy in the case of repeated chants or choruses, but reciting a long text like the Nicene Creed posed a challenge.

Summary statements of the faith have been a part of Christian practice from the beginning. We are bound together by a shared story and shared understandings. St. Paul proposed a creed of exemplary brevity: “If you confess with your lips that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will find salvation” (Romans 10:9). Over the ensuing several centuries, creeds would grow longer and more controversial. The more they tried to say about the mysteries of faith, the more they became subject to critical scrutiny and debate.

Although the liturgical use of creeds remains obscure in its origins, making common declarations of belief eventually came to seem a natural function of the worship assembly as a way of self-definition and communal bonding: “This is why we’re here. This is the story and the reality we belong to.”

Even though individual worshippers may quibble about language and terminology, or differ in their precise understandings of creedal formulations, the fact that we recite a creed together is perhaps more important than its content. What we say about our faith certainly does matter, but unanimous agreement about mysteries beyond all human knowing is not what binds us together. Faith is more relational than propositional. As the Byzantine preface to the Nicene Creed puts it:

So, brothers and sisters, while we have time,
let us love one another,
that we may with one heart and mind
confess our faith.

My concept for the creed in the beach liturgy was to have the assembly chant, slowly and repeatedly, the first words of the Nicene Creed: Credo in unum Deum (I believe in one God). Over this unifying sonic ground a cantor would utter a diverse series of words and phrases expressing the names, attributes and activities of the Holy Trinity.

In one sense, the attempt was pure folly. The God greater than anything we can conceive cannot be captured in language. As the Tao says, “One who knows does not speak. One who speaks does not know.” But God, however hidden, wants to be known. God reveals. God addresses. God responds. And we in turn make our “raid on the inarticulate, / with shabby equipment always deteriorating / In the general mess of imprecision of feeling.”[i]

Creeds are communal work, hammered out in conversations and councils over time. And I, writing in my study, am no Nicaea. But there is still a certain collectivity in my Credo, a diversity of voices either consciously borrowed or lodged deep within me from forgotten sources. You will hear the Bible and Nicene Creed, Augustine, Bonaventure, Henry Vaughan, Gerard Manley Hopkins, Eberhard Jungel, Dorothee Soelle, John Bell, Terrence Malick and others. You may wish to differ, delete or add. Consider it a work in progress. Your reactions and reflections are welcome.

In Arthur C. Clarke’s 1953 short story, “The Nine Billion Names of God,” several American computer scientists are hired by a Tibetan monastery to program a computer that will speed up the spiritual labor of listing every one of the divine names. It’s a huge number, but the computers can make it happen in a matter of weeks.

‘Well, they believe that when they have listed all His names – and they reckon that there are about nine billion of them – God’s purpose will be achieved. The human race will have finished what it was created to do, and there won’t be any point in carrying on. Indeed, the very idea is something like blasphemy.’

‘Then what do they expect us to do? Commit suicide?’

‘There’s no need for that. When the list’s completed, God steps in and simply winds things up … bingo!’

‘Oh, I get it. When we finish our job, it will be the end of the world.’

Chuck gave a nervous little laugh.‘That’s just what I said to Sam. And do you know what happened? He looked at me in a very queer way, like I’d been stupid in class, and said, “It’s nothing as trivial as that.”’

Clarke’s story ends with the scientists fleeing the monastery in the dark, just before the computers list the nine-billionth name. Dismissive of the “superstitious” beliefs behind the project, they were afraid the monks would blame them when the world failed to end as predicted. As they hurry down the mountain, one of them happens to look up. “Overhead, without any fuss, the stars were going out.”

Well, for better or worse, I list my tentative and infinitely incomplete “names of God” below. Brother Michael of Sinai would undoubtedly disapprove. But I am not presuming to supplant the Nicene Creed. I only want to explore the possibilities––and the boundaries––of Christian language in liturgical and poetic forms. How can we make the naming of God a prayerful, contemplative and formative experience in a communal setting? What words take us deeper into the Mystery? Do any of them go astray, or have an expiration date when they become no longer fruitful? How do we recognize and welcome the divine names yet to be revealed?

 

Credo in unum Deum

Holy and eternal God, without beginning or end,
Beauty so ancient and so new,
Source of all that exists and the ground of all possibility.

Hidden yet revealed, author of life and mender of destinies,
desire of every heart, the meaning of every story.

Mystery of the world, fount of our being,
inexhaustible and overflowing, grace abounding.

Constant and just, wiser than despair,
the joyful Yes negating all nothingness.

The great I am, beyond all knowing,
the Unnamable whose names are many:
Creator, Sustainer, Pardoner, Gift-giver,
Goodness, Wisdom, Mercy, Truth, Faithfulness, Blessing,
Alpha and Omega, Ruler of time and history, ineffable and untamable Spirit.

Eloquent silence, dazzling darkness, blinding radiance,
so far beyond us and yet so deep within us,
in whom we live and move and have our being.

Abba, Amma, Father and Mother of us all: personal, relational, intimate;
Love who loves us,
our true home.

+

Jesus Christ, the Given One, eternally begotten of God,
who by the power of the Holy Spirit
became incarnate from the Virgin Mary,
fully human and fully divine,
Word made flesh, living and dying as one of us,
that we might see and know
the self-diffusive love of God,
and at the same time
realize the full and perfected form of our humanity.

As God’s icon, the face of love for us,
Jesus renounced privilege and power,
living without weapons or self-protection,
giving himself away for the sake of others:
servant and sufferer, healer and helper,
shepherd and Savior, repairer of this broken world.

Handed over to the enemies of life,
Jesus died on the cross.
But on the third day he rose again,
breaking the power of death,
opening the way for us
to live in God forever.

+

Holy Spirit, Love’s consuming flame,
the eager, wild wind of divine surprise:

Quickening power, creative energy, inner light,
dearest freshness deep down things,
the strong force of love drawing all things into holy communion.

Life-Giver, Sustainer, Sanctifier, Counselor, Comforter, Awakener,
disturber of the peace, tender bond of affection,
voice of the voiceless, empowering fire of prophetic imagination,
the breath in every prayer, the longing in every heart.

+

Holy and undivided Trinity,
your catholic and apostolic Church belongs to you alone.
We give thanks for the renewing power of our baptism,
marking us as Christ’s own forever, forgiven and free.
And we pray that we may always live in the light of resurrection,
with steadfast hope for the glory to come.

May the faith we confess in this place
be made known in the lives we lead and the choices we make.

Amen!

 

 

 

 

 

[i]Filioque(“and the Son”) was added to the words, “who proceeds from the Father” in describing the “procession” (the movement of self-giving and receiving among the persons of the Holy Trinity––it’s complicated!) with respect to the Holy Spirit. The original Nicene Creed names the Father as the sole source of the Spirit’s procession, but “Filioque”––making the Son a partner in the Spirit’s procession––was later added to the text by the Western Church, creating a major source of conflict with the Eastern Church which continues to this day. The first draft of the Episcopal Book of Common Prayer of 1979 tried to drop the Filioqueclause as a gesture of Christian unity with the East, but traditionalists voted it back in (later conventions have signaled the intention to omit it from any futurePrayer Book). I was present for that debate at the 1976 General Convention, which seemed more orderly and polite than what I’ve heard about the Council of Nicaea! My own practice is to omit the clause when I say the Creed. I guess I still haven’t gotten over that conversation with Br. Michael.

[ii]T. S. Eliot, “East Coker,” Four Quartets,

August’s Feasts of Light

Perseid meteor shower, 2013. (Photo by Jim Friedrich)

Instead of writing a new post this week, I am off to the wilderness in search of solitude and    nature’s blessings. So let me simply offer links to a couple of posts about annual events which make early August such a special part of summer.

The first is a post for the Feast of the Transfiguration (August 6): The Woven Light.

The second, One Vast Miracle, is about the Perseid meteor shower, for which you should definitely find a dark place next weekend (best after midnight). No moon this year, so it should be a great show.

I’ll get back to writing when I return. Meanwhile, may your summer blessings abound.

 

Summer Reading

The New Novel (Winslow Homer, 1877)

Summer reading has a leisurely reputation, way up there with other genteel activities such as croquet and badminton and wildflower gathering. The act of reading has historically been considered a privilege, and summer reading is privilege taken to an extreme. Just the image of a reader in summer brings to mind something sensual and luxurious. We picture the reader outdoors only, arranged in some bucolic setting: forest or beach or yard.

–– Meg Wolitzer, “The Summer Reading List”

 

When Meg Wolitzer was twelve, she belonged to the local library’s Summer Reading Club, whose members agreed to read at least ten books during the long break from school. “Ten,” she exclaims. “We say the number with true disdain. Ten is nothing; ten is what we have ripped through before the first week in July. . .”

At summer’s end, the club newsletter published the names of the youthful readers along with the titles of all the books each has read. The library threw a party to celebrate their accomplishment, and hired a magician for entertainment. But the kids paid little heed to the performer on stage, for they were still “lost in plots, characters, populated worlds that we’ve plowed through during the hottest days of summer. We all know that there is something magical about the sudden voracity that’s been implanted in us.”

As an adult, Wolitzer still begins her summers with a visit to the library, randomly browsing the stacks until a book’s title or author calls to her. “If it does, then I pick up the book and look at the opening pages. . . I stand and read a little way in, trying to imagine myself surrounded by greenery, keeping company with this book for hours at a time. Is this prose I want to lie down with? I ask. Is this a voice I want to hear murmuring in my ear throughout the longest days of summer?” [i]

I’ve always identified with Wolitzer’s lovely essay, for the selection of summer reading is as critical to the season as compiling our travel itinerary or mapping my annual backcountry pilgrimage. What voices do I want to keep me company in the hammock, on the beach, or by the wilderness lake?

In these brilliant, languorous days of late July in Puget Sound, I am anxious to rise from the desk where I write this in order to rejoin my books out in the garden. But first let me share something of what I have found in two of this year’s summer reads.

Kathleen Hill’s thoughtful memoir, She Read to Us in the Late Afternoons, devotes each chapter to a single book, exploring who and where she was when she read it, and the ways in which that book has both illuminated and altered her own story. In her reflection on Henry James’ Portrait of a Lady, she pens a reader’s credo:

“Not so long ago I’d been afraid of living wholly inside of books. Fear of the unlived life had propelled me out of them. Reading, I thought, was a substitute for living, a sphere apart in which the reader underwent the characters’ lives rather than her own. . . And yet here I was, sitting on the verandah with [Portrait of a Lady]. . . pondering Isabel’s life as a way of pondering my own. What could this mean? It was as if I needed a novel, after all, to decipher events. Life was too fluid to reflect on, too transient. One state of feelings replaces another too quickly. . . But in the pages of a novel, time is slowed down so that you can feel within yourself what is transpiring. You can stop, you can ponder. And then see. In reading, you can find yourself where you are. Had I been mistaken, then, to think that reading must lead me away from life rather than toward it?” [ii]

A very different memoir, John Kaag’s American Philosophy: A Love Story, explores the dilemmas of his personal narrative through the lens of great thinkers of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. It was a perfect book to read last week beside Minnesota’s Lake Pepin, a wide stretch of the Mississippi River where my grandfather Charles Friedrich built a summer home still occupied by his descendants from Memorial Day to Labor Day.

“What the river says, that is what I say,” wrote William Stafford. And oh, with what pleasure did I sit on the sandy beach of “Friedrich Point,” regarding the immense flow of water through the heartland while mind and heart absorbed the deep currents of wisdom running through Kaag’s pages:

“The think, am, is, since Descartes, the basic mistake of all knowledge; thinking is not my thinking, and being is not my being, for everything is only of God or of the totality.” (Friedrich Schelling) [i]

“Love, recognizing germs of loveliness [even] in the hateful, gradually warms it into life, and makes it lovely.” (Charles Sanders Peirce) [ii]

“Life consists everywhere in a repetition of the fundamental paradox of consciousness. In order to realize what I am, I must, as I find, become more than I am or than I know myself to be. I must enlarge myself, conceive myself as in external relationships, go beyond my private self, presuppose the social life, enter into [the inevitable] conflict, and, winning the conflict, come nearer to realizing my unity with my deeper self.” (Josiah Royce) [iii]

“Have you then a discontent with your thought-horizon? If it is not a mere discontent but at the same time an earnest aspiration, there are goods in store for you whether you seek them among the mountains of philosophy or elsewhere. I wish I might lead you to some peak of vision, but it is seldom that I feel myself more than a wanderer––a climber.” (William Ernest Hocking in a letter to Agnes O’Reilly, his future wife) [iv]

The heart of Kaag’s book is his deeply personal search for healing and meaning. In the middle of his own Dantean dark wood––“so drear, so rank, so arduous a wilderness! Its very memory gives shape to fear”­­­––he chanced upon a dilapidated stone library in a New Hampshire forest.[vii]

The library is part of “West Wind,” the old 400-acre estate of William Ernest Hocking (1873-1966), a Harvard philosopher who grounded transcendental idealism in the empirical method of American pragmatism. “That which does not work is not true,” he declared. Over the years, he had amassed an extensive collection of precious philosophical works, which had never been donated or dispersed. In the quiet backcountry of New England, Hocking’s books remained exactly as he had left them fifty years ago.

Hocking’s descendants were not around, but the library, seeming dilapidated and forgotten, was unlocked. Upon entering, Kaag discovered an astonishing number of first editions from Descartes and Kant to William James and Josiah Royce, along with handwritten notes and inscriptions by Emerson, Whitman and Frost. It seemed philosophy’s equivalent of the Grail Chapel in Arthurian legend, a phantasmagoric no-place where all questions end and all desires are known. Or perhaps it bore greater resemblance to the long-deserted dining room in Great Expectations. Like Miss Haversham’s forlorn wedding cake, its rare and valuable volumes were being eaten away by mice, insects, moisture and time.

With the blessing of Hocking’s descendants, Kaag began to catalog and preserve what he could, a long process in which his own wounded story was critically examined and ultimately healed.

“West Wind taught me many things,” he wrote. “About longevity in the face of destruction, about dealing with loss, about love and freedom, but also about the discipline of philosophy. Philosophy, and the humanities more generally, once served as an effective cult of the dead––documenting, explaining, and revitalizing the meaning and value of human pursuits. It tried to figure out what is most worthy about us. At its best, philosophy tried to explain why our lives, so fragile and ephemeral, might have lasting significance.” [viii]

Kaag grounded his quest in the fundamental question posed by William James in an 1895 lecture to a student assembly in Harvard’s Holden chapel. His question was, “Is Life Worth Living?” And how did James answer? Maybe. It all depends on the choices and commitments of those who live it. The universe is still wild, untamed, and “half-saved,” he said. And maybe our own commitment to the divine work of redeeming it is a prerequisite, or at least a catalyst, for transformation:

“And to trust our religious demands means first of all to live in the light of them, and to act as if the invisible world which they suggest were real. . . It is only by risking our persons from one hour to another that we live at all. And often enough our faith beforehand in an uncertified result is the only thing that makes the result come true. . . [God’s own self], in short, may draw vital strength and increase of very being from our fidelity. For my own part, I do not know what the sweat and blood and tragedy of this life mean, if they mean anything short of this.” [ix]

Dogmatists may debate whether this grants too much capacity to mortals, undermining our sense of dependence upon grace. I prefer to understand the “maybe,” and our willingness to stake our lives on it, as grace’s natural habitat, and Love’s most perfect work.

Well the day is half gone. So is the summer. What shall I read now? Sebastian Barry’s On Canaan’s Side, an “elegiac” novel my sister just sent me in the mail? Or how about Amelia Gray’s “stunning” and “heavenly” new novel about Isadora Duncan? What else is lying around, crying for my attention? Bijan Omrani’s Caesar’s Footprints: Journeys Through Roman Gaul? Andre Malraux’s art history classic, The Voices of Silence? Edward Sanders’ 1968: A History in Verse? Devin McKinney’s “great metaphysical soup” and “white-hot prose” in The Beatles in Dream and History? David Orr’s Beautiful and Pointless: A Guide to Modern Poetry? Or has the moment come at last to pick up what R. Crumb calls “a crazy idea for a book”: How to Read Nancy, a lavishly learned critique of Ernie Bushmiller’s “perfect comic strip” by Paul Karasik and Mark Newgarden?

What the hammock says, that is what I say.

 

 

 

[i]Meg Wolitzer, “The Summer Reading List,” in Summer, ed. Alice Gordon & Vincent Virga (Reading, MA: Addison-Wesley Publishing Company, 1990), 59-63.

[ii]Kathleen Hill, She Read to Us in the Late Afternoons (Encino, CA: Delphinium Books, 2017), 116.

[iii]John Kaag, American Philosophy: A Love Story (New York: Farrar, Strauss and Giroux, 2016), 167.

[iv]Ibid., 147.

[v]Ibid., 168-69.

[vi]Ibid., 171-72.

[vii] The quote is from Dante’s Inferno I:4-6 (John Ciardi translation). Kaag structures his book into three sections reflecting the triadic progress of the Divine Comedy: Hell, Purgatory, Redemption.

[viii]Kaag, 234.

[ix]William James, “Is Life Worth Living?”, delivered at Holden Chapel, Harvard University, April 15, 1895 (https://archive.org/stream/islifeworthlivin00jameuoft/islifeworthlivin00jameuoft_djvu.txt)

Sacred Dance: Training for Blessedness

The heavenly dance in Fra Angelico, The Last Judgment (c. 1425)

Dancing is like a beautiful garment, a garment in which the Spirit moves and delights…When we dance we can recognize our own beauty…and with all creation simply be, thus spontaneously praising the Lord. To dance is to know we are chosen…responding with a human soul to God’s chosen time.

–– Carla De Sola

In the Time to Come, the Holy One, blessed be He, will lead the chorus of the righteous…and they will dance around Him…and point to Him, as it were with a finger, saying, This is God, our God forever and ever; God will lead us…with youthfulness, with liveliness.”

–– Jewish Midrash

 

It’s a rare Sunday when we get two Lectionary readings about dance, a subject we rarely discuss in church, and almost never engage in. In one reading, dance seems a good thing, a spirited form of prayer. In the other, it is a bad thing, tainted with sex and murder.

In the passage from II Samuel, King David and his huge crowd of supporters make a grand procession to bring the ark of God, the potent symbol of divine presence, into the city of Jerusalem.

The ark, a gilded wooden chest, had been carefully constructed in the Sinai desert soon after the Exodus. As a sign that God was always with them, it accompanied the Israelites during their long years of wandering in the wilderness. Then, after they finally reached the Promised Land, the ark was captured by the Philistines. The Israelites eventually got it back, but there were still more adventures and delays before the sacred symbol could finally come to rest in the holy city.

But when the day of its triumphal entry finally came, we might have expected an orderly, dignified parade to signify the solemn meaning of this moment. But the Bible tells us that King David and thirty thousand others danced before the ark as it approached the city. They danced “with all their might” (that is to say, without any inhibitions––it seems that David flung away most of his clothes). They cheered and shouted at the top of their lungs while trumpets, lyres, harps, tambourines, castanets and cymbals made a deafening racket. It was more like a Seahawks game than a religious procession.

The narrator doesn’t exactly tell us what to think about all this mayhem, but he does give us a brief glimpse through the eyes of Michal, daughter of David’s predecessor and now David’s wife. In a very cinematic way, the story cuts from a wide angle shot of the procession to a close shot of a high window, where a solitary woman is looking out on all the commotion:

As the ark of the Lord came into the city of David, Michal daughter of Saul looked out of the window, and saw King David leaping and dancing before the Lord; and she despised him in her heart (II Samuel 6:16).

Anyone who has danced in church can probably visualize the scorn on Michal’s face, because they themselves have seen that look. It’s the look of someone who knows what belongs in church and what doesn’t, the look of someone who is thinking, “Liturgical dance is not edifying to the Lord.”

While literature, music, painting, sculpture, and architecture have long had honored roles in Christian worship, dance, more often than not, has been regarded with suspicion or hostility.

In the sixteenth century, Catholic priests were threatened with excommunication if they led dances in church, while the dour Presbyterian John Knox blasted the practice of “fiddling and flinging” in the place of holy reading and holy listening. “The reward of dancers,” he said, “will be to drink in hell.”

Five centuries later, the hostility persists in many quarters. If you Google “liturgical dance,” you will find no lack of naysayers. An evangelical complaining about the phenomenon of “praise dancing” is typical:

Looking at people dancing to [a recording] with fake emotions does nothing but take up time. Church is . . . not a Broadway Show. At church people are coming to get delivered from evil spirits. And all this fakery is getting real pagan. Grown men and boys are now dancing too!

And a Catholic priest, feeling ambushed by the unexpected inclusion of dancers at a diocesan mass, called their contamination of the holy mysteries “an act of spiritual and liturgical terrorism.” [1]

Wow. Really? What has dance done to prompt so much attitude?

“Dance in the Liturgy,” a Vatican advisory published in 1975, acknowledged that in some non-Western cultures dance still retains a religious connotation, and may therefore be appropriate for liturgy. But in the West, the union of dance and religion has long been severed:

“Here dancing is tied with love, with diversion, with profaneness, with unbridling of the senses: such dancing, in general, is not pure. For that reason it cannot be introduced into liturgical celebrations of any kind whatever: that would be to inject into the liturgy one of the most desacralized and desacralizing elements; and so it would be equivalent to creating an atmosphere of profaneness which would easily recall to those present and to the participants in the celebration worldly places and situations”. 

Is “an atmosphere of profaneness” unavoidable wherever there is dancing? It’s always a risk, I suppose. Can we watch dance, or engage in dance, without having our intentions of prayer and praise overwhelmed by more carnal responses? In my experience, yes we can.

Today’s other dance reading is the gospel story of Salome dancing for Herod (Mark 6:14-29), sometimes cited half-jokingly as Scriptural support for the anti-dance crowd. See what happens when people start to dance? Things get out of control. This nasty little tale epitomizes the commodification of bodies and the steamy side of dance, what some regard as the inevitable side effects of bodies in motion. To them sacred dance is an oxymoron.

But if our secular consumer society, so impoverished in its collective rituals, has left people ill-equipped to dance for God––and with God––do we just concede the game to the culture and abandon the practice? Or should we endeavor to create occasions where people can recover and nurture the innate human capacity not just to dance, but to let the divine dance in us? In the quaint phrasing of his 1948 reflection on the attentive performance of the mass, Catholic priest Ronald Knox admitted that such aspirations would be nonsense if “what you mean by a dance is the wireless in the hall playing revolting stuff and you lounging round in pairs and feeling all gooey.” [2]

Whatever our anxieties and discomforts about our bodies and others’ bodies and the sexually charged atmosphere of our culture, we need to get over it, or else we will lose one of the best and truest dimensions of embodied life: the ability to offer our whole selves––body, mind, soul and heart––to God, and to feel God’s pleasure in the joy of our sensory lives.

In his classic study of the holy in art, Gerardus van der Leeuw found in the Sufi practice of whirling and bowing a beautiful example of embodied prayer which leaves the anxieties of self behind:

“The dervishes dance until they have forgotten everything. Earthly, bodily life is discarded, blown away. Dancing is not a secular pastime, but training for blessedness. In ecstasy, the body becomes light and the chains of the soul loosened.” [3]

Movement is the world’s most ancient language. The universe itself is a dance of movement and countermovement. God moved over the sea of chaos, and the universe was set into perpetual motion. Earth dances with heaven, finitude dances with the infinite, death dances with life, human dances with divine. Move and countermove. Call and response. When we move our bodies in rhythmic and patterned ways, we mirror the dance of Love that moves the sun and stars, and we echo the angelic dance around the throne of God, whose own inmost nature is a dance of selfless give-and-take among the triune persons.

The Psalmist says that the rivers clap their hands, the mountains dance, the hills skip like lambs. Or as van der Leeuw puts it, “Everything spins and circles, everything leaps to the rhythm of the universe.”[4] Life is motion, and to live it is to dance. Our only choice is to do it well or do it badly.

Who understands the exalted dance,
The bowing, bending, waiting stance,
The spinning round forever?
The mincing pace, the whirling space,
The flight that ceases never?

For love may stop, and love may hop,
And love may sing, and love may spring,
And love may rest in loving,
And love may sleep, and love may leap;
What mind can follow, proving? [5]

 

 

Related post: God is a dance we do

 

[1]Quoted in Heidi Schlumpf, “In Defense of Liturgical Dance,” National Catholic Reporteronline, April 14, 2017 (https://www.ncronline.org/blogs/ncr-today/defense-liturgical-dance).

[2]Ronald Knox, The Mass in Slow Motion(New York: Sheed & Ward, 1948), 3.

[3]Gerardus van der Leeuw, Sacred and Profane Beauty: The Holy in Art, trans. David E. Green (Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 1963), 62.

[4]Ibid., 28.

[5]Ibid., 31.Attributed to Sister Bertke of Utrecht, a medieval recluse, whose tiny cell left her little room to move, much less dance. Perhaps her cramped quarters inspired her vision of the soul’s dance with God.

 

“Let it not happen again.”

The Story Wall at the Bainbridge Island Japanese American Exclusion Memorial, where the Nikkei were forcibly removed from their island home in 1942. (Photo Illustration by Paul Dunn and Tracy Matsue Loeffelholz)

“Later on, they took my dad around five o’clock, and I think I remember my dad went to the corner and prayed. And they said, ‘What is he doing?’ I said, ‘He’s praying because he didn’t do anything wrong.’ But they took him anyway.”

–– Nobuko Sakai Omoto

 

Seventy-six years ago, people of a certain ethnicity were rounded up and transported to concentration camps. This happened not in some distant citadel of despotism, but in the “land of the free,” from the shining sea of the Pacific to the diamond desert of the western interior. It happened in the United States of America, and the island I call home is where it all began.

After Pearl Harbor, everyone of Japanese ancestry (the Nikkei), whether or not they were born in America, became objects of suspicion in the eyes of their government. On February 19, 1942, President Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066 calling for the exclusion of “any or all persons” from areas deemed sensitive for national defense. Although around 14,000 people of German or Italian ancestry were interned for at least part of the war, those of Japanese descent were the prime targets, reflecting an anti-Asian bigotry with deep roots in American history.

On March 21, after only an hour’s discussion in the Senate and thirty minutes in the House, Congress passed a law authorizing the roundup of 120,000 men, women and children of Japanese ancestry. Of that great number, the first 227 would be residents of Bainbridge Island, six miles west of Seattle.

These evacuees comprised a significant portion of the island’s relatively small population. Boasting the world’s largest sawmill––a magnet for job-seekers––in the late nineteenth century, Bainbridge attracted immigrant workers and families, many of them from Japan, even after the mill shut down in the 1920s. By the 1940s, both the Issei (“first generation,” born in Japan) and the Nisei (“second generation,” born in the U.S. as American citizens) had become established members of the island community. But when Pearl Harbor stirred up primal fears of the “other,” 227 friends and neighbors were abruptly severed from their community and shipped off to distant internment camps.

Why was Bainbridge targeted first? The high percentage of Nikkei on the island, along with the proximity of military installations and the Boeing aircraft plant, have been cited as probable causes. The fake news of the day accused Japanese-American farmers of aligning their strawberry rows as pointers toward bombing targets. Frank Kitamoto, only two years old when his family was taken, thought the island’s isolation made it a perfect test case:

“We didn’t have the bridge in those days. So it became real easy for the army to isolate us and to kind of use us as a practice run to see how people would react to something like this––if they came in to force us off the island, whether we’d be violent or whether we would cause problems or protest or whatever. And since we went without any of that going on, then I think that kinda set the pace . . . for them to do things.”[1]

The idea of a practice run seems especially chilling to me after reading a recent op-ed piece by Fintan O’Toole, describing Trump’s corrosive attacks on democratic norms as a means of “test marketing” the spread of fascism. “Fascism,” he writes, “doesn’t arise suddenly in an existing democracy. It is not easy to get people to give up their ideas of freedom and civility. You have to do trial runs that, if they are done well, serve two purposes. They get people used to something they may initially recoil from; and they allow you to refine and calibrate. This is what is happening now and we would be fools not to see it.”[2]

Notice of forced evacuation, posted on March 24, 1942.

On March 24, the Nikkei of Bainbridge were given just 6 days to settle their affairs and pack their things before military trucks would come to take them away to the ferry dock. For those with property, it was especially complicated. Non-citizens couldn’t own property, and Japanese-born were forbidden citizenship by law[3], so titles had to be in the name of either U.S.-born children or supportive friends. In any case, what would happen to their houses and land while they were gone?

There was a limit of one suitcase per person, not only for clothes and personal items, but also to carry sheets, blanket, utensils and plates! If you had to pack one suitcase without knowing where you were going or how long you’d be away, what would you include? Practical things, or emotional treasures? Matsue Nishimori Watanabe, who was 15 at the time, remembers the pressures of packing so lightly:

“And, of course, in that suitcase you’re trying to put maybe a sheet or so, that you can have for sleeping. And the rest is your clothes and your shoes. And so you’re not taking any toys or anything like that. . . one suitcase for the rest of your life . . . isn’t a lot of space to put things. And that’s the way we traveled, and with a tag on the suitcase and a tag on our body. .  .  [O]ne of my girlfriends now, she sees the pictures of my sister and us walking down the dock and she could see that they’re dressed up and they have hats on and everything. And she says, ‘Why did you dress up to go to camp?’ And I said, ‘Well, we had no place else to put it except on our body, because you had one suitcase to carry.’”

But there were greater stresses. Many reported a sense of shame at being treated like criminals. What had they done to deserve this? What would their neighbors think of them?

Steven Gardner panel at the Exclusion Memorial.

 

“And for one thing, we were so busy destroying everything that was Japanese. We, my dad says, ‘Get rid of everything,’ so we just burned things, buried things, broke things up, did everything to get rid of all the things that Grandma sent from Hiroshima. . . I hated to get rid of all the stuff that Grandma sent me, but then again, it was too Japanese, and so we just had to destroy them.” (Kay Sakai Nakao, 22)

Perhaps the worst thing was having no idea of where they were being taken, or what would befall them in the days to come.

“They never told us where we were going, if it’s gonna be hot or if it’s gonna be cold or anything, which sort of — I don’t know how the others felt, but I felt like I was kind of up in the air and I couldn’t come down on earth to get my feet on earth, to really feel sort of secure. I don’t know if that’s the word, right word to use, but you’re just left kinda dangling, wondering.” (Kay Sakai Nakao)

 

Steven Gardner panel at the Exclusion Memorial.

The truckloads of evacuees were dropped at the end of the road I now live on, less than a mile from where I write these words. Escorted by soldiers with rifles and fixed bayonets, they lugged their bulging suitcases down to the dock at Eagle Harbor and boarded the ferry Kehloken to Seattle, where they would, under armed supervision, take train and bus to the concentration camps far inland[4]. Some 10,000 people would eventually be crammed into a primitive settlement of one square mile bounded by barbed wire. After the blue water and green forests of Bainbridge, the harsh landscape of the high desert came as a shock. A resident of California’s Manzanar camp summed it up tartly: “The main thing you remembered was the dust, always the dust.”

Steven Gardner panel at the Exclusion Memorial.

And how had the Nikkei’s neighbors on Bainbridge responded to “the exclusion”? While some residents shared the widespread racism and wartime belligerence of the country as a whole, a majority of Bainbridge Islanders resisted the anti-Japanese hysteria. The bonds of longtime community were stronger than the sirens of fear.

The day after Pearl Harbor, teachers were careful to remind their nervous classes that the students of Japanese ancestry were Americans too. Neighbors pitched in to help the Nikkei families with last-minute logistics. Generous souls took over management of abandoned farms and businesses until the day their rightful owners returned. And the editors of the local weekly newspaper, the Bainbridge Review, mounted an eloquent and courageous defense of the vulnerable.

Walt and Milly Woodward, a young couple from Seattle, had bought the paper when they moved to the island in 1940. Their first editorial made a powerful commitment: “Always strive to speak the truth, unafraid, whether it be on a national issue or something purely local.” And so they did.

On the day after Pearl Harbor, their front page counseled neighborliness over fear: “There is the danger of a blind, wild hysterical hatred of all persons who can trace ancestry to Japan. That some of those persons happen to be American citizens…easily could be swept aside by mob hysteria.”[5] Walt and Milly continued the fight for constitutional rights and mutual respect for the duration of the war. The Review was the only newspaper in the United States to do so! The Woodwards also hired evacuated high school students to send dispatches from the camps, so that absent neighbors would not become faceless or forgotten. Their stories of exile were read widely back home.

Steven Gardner panel at the Exclusion Memorial.

Because Bainbridge had resisted the extremes of racist hostility and fear infecting much of wartime America, it was easier for its exiles to return without incident when the global conflict drew to a close. As the Woodwards’ daughter Mary has written, “All up and down the Pacific Coast that spring and summer [1945], newly released families returned to vandalized houses and damaged or stolen personal property. Bainbridge families also saw damage, but to a lesser degree. There was vandalism––common whenever a house stands vacant––but it was a result more of petty crime and greed than viciousness.”[6]

Some couldn’t afford to return, and others chose not to, but more than half of the exiles did come back, compared to a much smaller return rate in other places. Bainbridge showed little sign of the nasty anti-Japanese sentiment seen elsewhere. Those who voiced their continuing hostility on Bainbridge found few followers, while there were countless expressions of kindness and goodwill to assist the Nikkei in their resumption of lives interrupted.

Steven Gardner panel at the Exclusion Memorial.

 

“And our neighbors were all willing, happy that we came back. That time we came home it was September . . . it was dry summer, they said, the strawberries are all wilted. The dirt, the soil was just like sand, just really, oh, it was sad. Everything was wilted, I remember. And we had to start all over again, and I still wonder how did we ever, you know, with Mom and Dad, how did we ever get going, I always wonder. But we did.” (Michiko Amatatsu Noritake, 22)

 

“I was about thirteen when I came back and I was really frightened, but I went up to school and I signed in as “Sally” because I had to be very American and I didn’t want to be known as Shimako anymore. Well then . . . so the first day of school, Shannon Stafford and Ray Lowry, my classmates from Kindergarten, they came up and said, ‘Welcome back.’” (Shimako “Sally” Nishimori Kitano)

 

Steven Gardner panels at the Exclusion Memorial.

On August 6, 2011, the anniversary of Hiroshima, nearly 600 people gathered to dedicate the Bainbridge Island Japanese American Exclusion Memorial at the exact place where the Nikkei had been removed from the island in 1942. The beautifully designed site is a moving tribute to the dear people of that troubled time, but it also provides a necessary reminder of our perpetual vocation to repair the world by nourishing community and resisting everything which diminishes the human family.

Paper cranes left by visitors at the Story Wall, where the names of all the evacuated Nikkei are inscribed.

In the Memorial’s peaceful setting beside Puget Sound, a cedar “Story Wall,” designed by local architect Johnpaul Jones, holds the names of all the exiles as well as a series of moving terra cotta panels by Seattle artist Steven Gardner, depicting people and incidents of the exclusion.[7]

It is a place to remember––and to hope. As Sada Omoto, one of the surviving exiles, has said, the Exclusion Memorial wants to “create in you a different sense of being.”[8]This should be a pilgrimage site for every American in this dispiriting time. You will take heart from it.

The Bainbridge Island Japanese American Community’s excellent website is also worth a visit for its wealth of fascinating photos, archival films and video oral histories. Most of the interviews quoted in this post may be found there.

Nidoto Nai Yoni: Let it not happen again.

Just before Independence Day, I interviewed Clarence Moriwaki, a local activist who has been a driving force behind the Memorial project. I looked him up after hearing his eloquent speech at the recent Bainbridge Island rally to “Keep families together.” Like so many of us, Clarence is troubled by the normalization of racism and hatred at the highest levels of our government as well as in the untamed id of cultural rage. From the stigmatization of Muslims to the unspeakable cruelty at our southern border, America’s shadow side is on full display, while the crazier voices on the right tout the 1940s internment as an applicable model for the war on terror. Singling out people based on race and ancestry remains an illness hard to cure.

“This is frightening to me,” Clarence said. “We spent months thinking about the motto for the Memorial. We went back and forth, and what we decided on was Nidoto Nai Yoni (‘Let it not happen again’). But it is happening again. It’s happening to those children being separated from their families. The motto is not being lived up to. They’re creating concentration camps, and it’s happening in the name of the United States of America.

“What’s different this time is that people are not remaining silent the way they did in 1942. And they’re making comparisons between what is happening to Muslims and immigrants and the incarceration of Japanese Americans. It has become part of the American narrative. Sites like ours keep it out there so it isn’t forgotten. And people have notforgotten. The story is timeless––and timely.”[9]

Steven Gardner panel at the Exclusion Memorial

Just days before the evacuation of 1942, the Bainbridge High School baseball team opened the season against its traditional rival. They wanted badly to win, of course, but instead of using only the best players, the coach, “Pop” Miller, made sure that all six Nikkei players not only took the field, but remained in the lineup for the entire game. They got trounced, 15-2, but no one seemed to care about all the errors and fruitless swings of the bat. All that mattered to the Nikkei––and to their teammates who cheered them on––was the joy of a love so much stronger than fear.

Steven Gardner panel at the Exclusion Memorial

Among the many fascinating exclusion artifacts in the Bainbridge Island Historical Museum, none is more telling than side by side posters of the high school classes of 1942 and 1943. They make an indelible image of a community bereft by a terrible sense of absence. In the class of 1943, the faces of the Nikkei have all disappeared.

Bainbridge High School Class of 1942.

Bainbridge High School Class of 1943.

But the students stranded in Manzanar would not miss their graduation. The principal sent copies of all the graduation speeches to the camp, along with diplomas for every exiled senior. Meanwhile, during the commencement ceremony back on the island, in the middle of the stage, there were thirteen empty chairs.

Steven Gardner panel at the Exclusion Memorial

Let it not happen again.

 

 

I am very grateful to Clarence Moriwaki and the Bainbridge Island Japanese American Community for their generous assistance in the making of this post. It was a privilege to engage with this unforgettable and challenging story and the enduring legacy of the people who lived it.

[1]Unless otherwise noted, all quotations are from the video oral histories on the Bainbridge Island Japanese American Community (BIJAC) website: (http://www.bijac.org/index.php?p=WELCOME)  The ages given are of the interviewees at the time of their evacuation. Thanks to Clarence Moriwaki for his generous assistance with these sources.

[2]Fintan O’Toole, “Trial runs for fascism are in full flow,” The Irish Timesonline, June 26, 2018.

[3]Incredibly, Japanese legal resident aliens were not allowed to seek U.S. citizenship until the passage of the McCarren-Walter Act in 1952.

[4]Not all spent the war in the camps. Some joined the military and fought in Europe. Some were jailed. Some would be allowed to move outside the exclusion zone for work or school. But no one could return home until war’s end.

[5]Bainbridge Review, December 8, 1941. Cited on the BIJAC website.

[6]Mary Woodward, In Defense of Our Neighbors: The Walt and Milly Woodward Story(Bainbridge Island, WA: Bainbridge Island Japanese American Community / Fenwick Publishing, 2008), 118. This is a beautifully produced and moving account with many striking photographs and illustrations.

[7]My photos of the story wall are used throughout this post. Thanks to Steven Gardner and Johnpaul Jones for their exquisite artistry, and to Paul Dunn and Tracy Matsue Loeffelholz for their composite image of the wall and the historic photo of the evacuees walking toward the ferry.

[8]From a display panel at the Bainbridge Island Historical Society.

[9]Jim Friedrich interview with Clarence Moriwaki, July 2, 2018.

 

 

 

Are All Welcome? The Red Hen and the Spirit of Eucharist

Vincent van Gogh, The Potato Eaters (1885)

Within my house there shall not dwell
one who practices deceit.
A speaker of lies shall not stand firm
before my eyes.

–– Psalm 101:7

 

Jesus loved to break bread with people. He did it all the time––not just with his friends, but with anyone hungry enough to sit down with him, no matter who they were. Sharing a meal together was so much a part of who Jesus was that we who love him practice table fellowship as our most sacred act.

Whenever you eat this bread and drink this cup, I am with you.

Christ’s table is not a privilege of the righteous. Sinners always go to the head of the line. As our primary image of divine hospitality, it is meant to be a place of welcome, not exclusion. Whenever we gather to share the bread of heaven with one another in an act of wondrous love, we become a visible and concrete image of a world come home to God.

All who hunger, never strangers. Seeker, be a welcome guest.
Come from restlessness and roaming, here in joy we keep the feast.
We, that once were lost and scattered, in communion’s love have stood.
Taste and see the grace eternal, taste and see that God is good.[1]

The eucharist reveals the meaning of eating together. Every shared meal is a chance for holy communion. We receive the gifts of the earth, thankful for the labor and skill which have set them before us, and we share them with one another in love and mutual delight. Whenever we eat together with mindfulness and gratitude, we taste and see that God is good.

In a recent New Yorker essay, Adam Gopnik considers “commensality,” the social anthropology of eating. “Nothing is more fundamental to human relations than deciding who has a place at the table,” he writes, noting that Jesus broke all his culture’s rules when he dined with outcasts and sinners. Turning his attention to our own time, Gopnik then writes, “The modern restaurant—invented in Paris, after the Revolution—is a little temple of commensality: all you need, as shown in so many early Chaplin shorts, is five cents to enter and then to share.”

When Sarah Huckabee Sanders, the White House press secretary, was asked by the owner of Virginia’s Red Hen restaurant to leave the premises without being fed, was the temple of commensality being desecrated? Some have thought so, bemoaning the “incivility” of denying service to a fellow citizen. Doesn’t such an act undermine the norms of peaceful coexistence and exacerbate partisan rancor? Shouldn’t we be allowed to eat in peace no matter who we are?

While acknowledging the importance of civility and social reciprocity, Gopnik argues that “someone who has decided to make it her public role to extend, with a blizzard of falsehoods, the words of a pathological liar, and to support, with pretended piety, the acts of a public person of unparalleled personal cruelty—well, that person has asked us in advance to exclude her from our common meal. You cannot spit in the plates and then demand your dinner. The best way to receive civility at night is to not assault it all day long. It’s the simple wisdom of the table.”[2]

Well said. But once you begin to cross the line into shunning, shaming and excluding, where do you stop? When the cold-blooded Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen sat down in a Mexican(!) restaurant, angry protesters drove her out with cries of “Shame! Shame!” for her complicity in the atrocious abuse of immigrant children. Others gathered outside her home to blast her with the heartbreaking audio of border children crying and wailing in a government detention center.

Responding to the unspeakable cruelties of the Administration, Congresswoman Maxine Waters sounded a controversial call to arms:

“We want history to record that we stood up, that we pushed back, that we fought. If you see anybody from that cabinet in a restaurant, in a department store, at a gasoline station, you get out and you create a crowd and you push back on them, and you tell them they’re not welcome anymore, anywhere!”[3]

I’m not likely to spot any of those monsters on my little island anytime soon, but if I did, I’d be pretty tempted to remind them loud and clear that racism, bigotry and cruelty are not okay. Uncivil? Perhaps. But as Mark Sumners writes, “the demand being made for ‘civility’ isn’t about language at all. It’s about throwing a ring of protection around the powerful. It’s about pretending that people whose actions wreck millions of lives on a whim, are cocooned from the consequences of their actions, not just because they have money, and connections, and resources, but because their power puts them on a different plane.”[4]

Of course, confrontation can go too far. During the French Revolution, when Marie Antoinette was under house arrest on an upper floor of her palace, a protester stuck the guillotined head of an aristocratic consort on a pole, holding it high to stare at the queen through her bedroom window. One can only imagine what Ms. Antoinette might have tweeted in response!

Returning to the question of commensality, “the wisdom of the table,” how should churches respond to the presence of notorious sinners when they come to Christ’s table? In the fourth century, St. Ambrose withheld communion from the Emperor Theodosius after his soldiers slaughtered 7000 Greeks attending a sporting event in Thessalonika.[5]More recently, El Salvador’s Archbishop Oscar Romero excommunicated government officials responsible for the murder of priests and nuns.

While the icon of an open and welcoming table is central to Christian practice, there have been those exceptional occasions when it needed to be said that you can’t spit on the Body of Christ one day and consume it piously the next.

When I was a young priest in Los Angeles, I was asked to assist at the liturgy of a congregation I did not know. After the mass, the rector told me I had given communion to the city’s chief of police, whose department was known for abusive practices toward minorities and peace activists. “I didn’t tell you beforehand that he was in attendance,” the rector told me later. “I was afraid you wouldn’t have given him communion.”

He laughed when he said this, so I wasn’t sure how much he was joking. Had I known, how would I have felt about it? Excommunication is a serious matter, certainly not undertaken spontaneously, without considerable discernment and the blessing of a higher authority (i.e., the bishop, not God, who remains provocatively silent on such matters). And since “we are all bastards but God loves us anyway,”[6]who dares to risk the presumptuous task of judging worthiness rather than dispensing mercy?

Still, I wonder. Would I give communion to Hitler? Or Putin? Or Trump? Put the bread of heaven in a hand soaked with so much blood?[7]Assuming they all remained obstinately unrepentant, would I somehow be enabling or endorsing their behavior by affirming their place at the table? Or would giving them communion, even if they received it unworthily, signify that God’s love knows no obstacles, not even the hardened and hateful heart?

 

 

 

[1]Hymn text by Sylvia G. Dunstan (GIA Publications, 1991).

[2]Adam Gopnik, “Sarah Huckabee Sanders and Who Deserves a Place at the Table,” New Yorkeronline, June 25, 2018 (https://www.newyorker.com/culture/cultural-comment/sarah-huckabee-sanders-and-who-deserves-a-place-at-the-table)

[3]For an excellent take on the overheated reactions to Waters, cf. Crystal Marie Fleming, “Maxine Waters and the trope of the angry black woman,” Vox, June 29, 2018 (https://www.vox.com/first-person/2018/6/29/17515192/maxine-waters-sarah-sanders-red-hen-restaurant-trump)

[4]Mark Sumner, “The ‘civility’ debate isn’t about language, it’s about power,” Daily Kos, June 26, 2018 (https://www.dailykos.com/stories/2018/6/26/1775471/-The-civility-debate-isn-t-about-language-it-s-about-power)

[5]It’s a complicated story. The soldiers wanted revenge for the killing of their commander by an angry mob of citizens fed up with abuses by the Roman military. Theodosius, hearing the news in a distant city, flew into a rage, and sent a message giving carte blanche to the soldiers for retaliatory action. He soon sent a second order rescinding the first, but it was too late. The soldiers’ rampage had already taken 7000 lives. Although the emperor himself didn’t wield a sword, he bore the responsibility, and his striking submission to church discipline was an historic recognition that divine authority rules the powers of the world.

[6]When Will Cambell, a Baptist preacher, writer, and wonderful disturber of the peace, was asked to sum up Christianity in ten words or less, this was his reply, as recorded in his moving book, Brother to a Dragonfly.

[7]Trump is already responsible for the deaths of countless Americans in Puerto Rico, and he will bear the blame for tens of thousands of premature deaths due to his animus against health care. His suicidal refusal to address climate change, however, will ultimately be his most murderous legacy.

All Is Grace: The Spiritual Cinema of “First Reformed”

Ethan Hawke in “First Reformed”

“Oh my Lord, when will you cease from scattering obstacles in our path?”
“Do not complain, my daughter. This is how I treat my friends.”
“Yes, my Lord, and that is why you have so few of them.”

–– Attributed to St. Teresa of Avila

 

Many of God’s friends have known the dark night of divine absence, when God falls silent and faith loses touch with an answering Presence. Some have understood this as a form of progress, a necessary purgation of comfortable words, images, concepts and feelings as the questing soul goes deeper and deeper into an ungraspable Mystery. Others have experienced God’s silence as nothing but nothingness, a one-way ticket into the void. My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?

Paul Schrader’s harrowing new film, First Reformed, traverses this abyss with an intelligence and seriousness all too rare in American films about religion. The life of faith is easy to satirize, trivialize or sentimentalize in popular culture, but Schrader treats it as a subject of critical import. And in so doing, his film attempts to go “all the way, till the wheels fall off and burn.”[i]

Ernst Toller (Ethan Hawke) is the middle-aged pastor of an old Dutch Reformed church in upstate New York. The 250-year-old white colonial structure has an interesting history, but its days of relevance are long gone. Almost no one attends Sunday worship, and the building only stays open through the sponsorship of a nearby megachurch, which preserves it as a kind of museum. Tourists stop by now and then for souvenirs, and Toller’s job is to hang around and lend some authenticity to the place, like the costumed actors who re-create the past at popular historic sites.

Toller, however, is an ordained minister with a serious vocation. He conducts real worship and counsels his tiny flock. So the inescapable sense of play-acting in a museum is demeaning and demoralizing. His humiliation will be recognizable to all those clergy and congregations left behind by a culture where the biblical God has been rendered harmless––or even unthinkable.

Toller, whose very name suggests loss and mourning, lives a lonely, solitary life in a house of monastic bareness. His marriage fell apart long ago, after the death of his son in Iraq. His health is failing, and he is depressed. Prayer comes hard for him, and doubt is his constant companion. His life is a desert with no rain in the forecast.

A spiritual director once told me in a time of personal crisis, “Congratulations! You’re exactly where you need to be––fallen overboard into a raging sea.” John Donne said the same thing with seventeenth-century elegance: “No man hath affliction enough, that is not matured, and ripened by it, and made fit for God by that affliction.”[ii]

Such a rigorous spirituality may never pack the churches, but it is intriguing that First Reformed has struck a chord with critics and audiences alike. Perhaps this is due to its demanding seriousness, so refreshingly alien to the self-congratulatory spirituality of our time. We grow weary of trivia. We want to fall for something that matters so absolutely.

Half a century ago, Paul Schrader wrote a book which had a major impact on film studies. Transcendental Style in Film opened many eyes, including mine, to a different kind of cinema, in which the sacred is expressed not through psychological realism but through a film style fraught with renunciations. No expressive or self-conscious acting presuming to explain the mystery of human beings. No fancy camerawork interpreting a scene or manipulating an audience. A withholding of many of the emotional satisfactions which moviegoers have come to expect. Transcendental cinema, in Schrader’s view, doesn’t just represent religious experience. It creates it in the viewer.

“Transcendental style,” he concluded, “can bring us nearer to that silence, that invisible image, in which the parallel lines of religion and art meet and interpenetrate.”[iii]

Schrader was raised in a strict Dutch Calvinist home. Movie-going was forbidden in his childhood. But he eventually fled the constricting faith of his ancestors and, like the Prodigal Son, lived in the distant country of movies saturated with violent themes and forbidden pleasures. He also worked on the script for The Last Temptation of Christ. Some of his films, like American Gigolo, revisited the spiritual terrain of his seminal book, but First Reformed, made in his early seventies, is Schrader’s most explicit homage to transcendental cinema, and especially to the work of my favorite director, Robert Bresson, who once said, “No art without transformation.”[iv]

First Reformed strongly echoes Bresson’s Diary of a Country Priest (1950) in many ways: a pastor in crisis who keeps a journal and speaks it in voice-over; a worrisome stomach ailment; a bleak environment––claustrophobic and without exit; a barren and unanswered prayer life; a heavy dark cloak as metonymy for his sense of confinement; the suicide by shotgun of a parishioner in despair; and long silences begging for divine presence. Schrader’s Bressonesque film style––the constraining “Academy” film ratio (1.37:1) instead of the expansiveness of wide screen, an austere minimizing of music and camera movement, the cold factuality of interior spaces begging for the miracle of life and breath––also tells a story. As Susan Sontag once remarked of Bresson, his form does not merely perfectly express what he wants to say. “It is what he wants to say.”[v]

Schrader’s writing in Transcendental Style about the three forms of alienation in Bresson’s film reads like a template for First Reformed:

  • The priest and his afflcted body: “He feels himself condemned by the weight he must bear, and associates his agony with the sacrificial agony of Christ.”
  • The priest and his parish: “The priest’s agony alienates his community, and it is an agony which he seems unable to control.”
  • The priest and the fallen world: “The priest is unable to cope with the world of sin, either in himself or others. . . He is able to bring peace to others, yet has none himself . . . His holy agony allows him none of the temporal means of release which Church, society, and body provide.”[vi]

But there are also some crucial differences between the two films. The priest’s only diet is bread and wine, identifying the priest’s suffering with the eucharist. The pastor substitutes whiskey for wine, and pours in some Pepto-Bismol to boot, creating a nauseous parody bereft of holy resonance.

The priest is young, innocent and virginal, without a haunting past. The pastor is middle-aged, burned out by an excess of experience, and carrying a burden of grief and loss unknown to the young. Their contrasting faces read like different languages. Claude Laydu, a non-actor whose face suggests an inner life attuned to divine secrets, has the expressive eyes and hieratic features of an icon. When he gazes offscreen, it seems possible he could be glimpsing the hidden God. Hawke’s face is creased, tired, tense and unexpectant; his narrowed eyes give off no light.

Claude Laydu, Diary of a Country Priest (1951)

Ethan Hawke, First Reformed (2018)

Both men identify with the Passion of Christ. Toller’s boss, a megachurch pastor practiced at compromise, tells him, “You’re always in the garden [of Gethsemane]. Jesus wasn’t always in the garden, sweating blood. He was on the mountain, in the marketplace, and the Temple. . . But for you, every hour is the darkest hour.”

In Bresson, the priest writes in his journal, “I am a prisoner of the Holy Agony,” and the film mirrors the Stations of the Cross. But Toller seems unable to turn his personal anguish into gift, while Bresson’s priest, though suffering inwardly and rejected by many, manages to make an immense difference in the lives of some:

Oh miracle –
thus to be able to give
what we ourselves do not possess,
sweet miracle of our empty hands.[vii]

First Reformed also draws key elements from Ingmar Bergman’s Winter Light, described by Robin Wood as a “spiritual documentary” where “alienation from the past, from the traditional beliefs and customs that formed the basis of a way of life” has left church and village stranded “between two worlds, belonging to neither, bewildered and unfulfilled.”[viii] Its Swedish Lutheran parish is as much a relic of a vanished age as Toller’s “souvenir church.”

Bergman’s aging Lutheran pastor, Tomas (the name of Jesus’ doubting disciple), is also in a crisis of faith. He recites the liturgy without conviction, and his pastoral counsel has a patently empty ring. When a parishioner confesses his despair over the prospect of nuclear war (the film was made in 1962), the pastor tells him, “We must trust God.” But then he averts his eyes from the man’s gaze, a “tell” that betrays his own unbelief. After receiving such impotent counsel, the parishioner goes down to the river and shoots himself. Virtually the same incident occurs in First Reformed, but instead of nuclear winter, climate change is the engine of despair. Sickened by statistical forecasts of environmental collapse, a young activist finds no comfort in Toller’s citations from Thomas Merton on facing the abyss with courage. The activist goes out and shoots himself in a snowy wood.

Another element Schrader seems to have borrowed from Winter Light is the character of Karin, the caring woman who wants to mother the troubled pastor. The audience audibly winces when the pastor of First Reformed responds to the woman’s kindness by saying, “I despise you!” But on reflection this seems not just an inability to receive affection, but a way of saying, “This is not that kind of movie. My sickness unto death will not be cured by a romantic cliche.”

In Bergman’s film, Tomas goes even further. In what Wood calls one of the “most painful and ugly . . . in all cinema,” Tomas annihilates Karin’s illusions about their relationship. But strangely, the terrible honesty of this exchange, along with his confession of religious disillusionment in a previous scene, seems to open the possibility for an unexpected grace in which each may discover a kind of salvation in human relationships which an exhausted orthodoxy can no longer provide.

Though Tomas has lost his faith, the film ends with him at the altar, speaking the old words of praise because that’s the only language he possesses for whatever, if anything, is beyond him: “Holy, holy, holy, Lord God of Hosts, heaven and earth are filled with your glory.” The nave is even emptier than the one in First Reformed––only Karin and the sexton. But we see Karin, who is an atheist, listening with the utmost attention. “[T]he irony is very beautiful and touching, the disillusioned priest celebrating Vespers for the confirmed atheist, a sort of inexplicit communion between them.”[ix]

Although neither they, nor Bergman himself, have been able to retain the language or vision of inherited belief, the eyes of faith might still perceive in the ending of Winter Light (its Swedish title is The Communicants) a hint of the communion which God never stops desiring, no matter what the rest of us manage to believe.

As the poet Christian Wiman suggests,

God goes belonging to every riven thing. He’s made
the things that bring him near,
made the mind that makes him go.
A part of what man knows,
apart from what man knows,

God goes belonging to every riven thing he’s made.[x]

Or as Natalie Carnes puts it in her intriguing new book, Image and Presence, the iconoclasm of the cross ensures that the death of old words and images does not mean the death of the Reality behind them. “The cross breaks the brokenness, the violence of idolatry. It breaks brokenness to proclaim the ubiquity of God’s love. It identifies the way God is present in a special way, a riven and riving way, to those suffering divine absence. It courses through the cosmos, which takes its shape, displaying the broken center of all things.”[xi]

The ending for Bresson’s priest, in contrast, remains firmly within the language of Christian orthodoxy. Having passed through his dark night of doubt, and resigning himself to premature death from cancer, he dies in peace. His last words, spoken to comfort a doubting friend, is the best summary I know of the Christian faith:

“What does it matter? All is grace.”

The ending of First Reformed, however, is nothing like the country priest’s trusting departure from this world, nor does it settle for the potential beatitude of purely human relationships suggested by Winter Light. Something extraordinary and redemptive seems to happen in its enigmatic conclusion, but no one can say exactly what. Everybody I know who has watched the film asks the same question: What did you think about that ending?

Its highly charged mix of image, symbol, physicality and feeling resists any closure, and Schrader himself has rightly refused to explain it. Critics have applied words like “epiphany” and “catharsis” to the final scene, but have generally avoided discussing it. This reticence respects the viewer’s right to see for oneself, but it also suggests that none of us are sure what to make of it. I share that sense of indecidability regarding the climax, but can’t help thinking about it.

[SPOILER ALERT: If you haven’t seen the film yet, read no further until you do.]

While most of the film has been inspired by Diary of a Country Priest and Winter Light, the ending shares an affinity with a third film, Bresson’s Pickpocket (1959). For most of that film, the protagonist, Michel, is locked within the prison of his ego, unable to connect with reality beyond the self. Unable to love. In the final scene, he is locked in an actual prison cell. Jeanne, a woman he knows in an unromantic way, comes to visit him. The film has so far given us little reason to think there is, or may be, a deep connection between these two. But in a famous ending that seems sudden, unexpected, and unmotivated, she reaches out to him, and he responds to Love at last. “Oh Jeanne,” he says, “what a strange path I had to take to reach you.”[xii]

The ending of First Reformed, like the ending of Pickpocket, is a powerful image of surprising and unmerited grace. Jean Collet’s reflection on Bresson’s climactic prison scene could describe Schrader’s ending as well: “If this final illumination was caused by some necessity of plot, we would no longer be required to speak of grace. By definition grace is that which is free of any necessity, and hence gratuitous. Isn’t that enough to make the conversion of Michel not appear improbable?”[xiii]

In the course of First Reformed, Toller shifts the focus of his spiritual struggle from his own inwardness to the fate of an earth in dire peril. In a prickly conversation with Edward Balq, the church’s financial patron but also a notorious polluter, he is warned by the conscience-free entrepreneur to keep politics out of church. Clergy should not meddle in public issues. And environmental concerns are too complicated to be subject to moral judgments. But Toller rebukes him with a simple but convicting question:

“Will God forgive us?”

As Toller goes on to ponder the immensity of the stakes, he comes to decide that Balq, as a servant of darkness, must be killed in an act of prophetic terrorism. This horrifying turn of mind threatens to lose the sympathetic viewer. As we watch this decision unfold, we are thinking, “Don’t go there!”

Balq’s arrival at the church’s 250th anniversary celebration provides the perfect opportunity. Vesting for the ceremony in the rectory next door, Toller puts on a suicide vest beneath his black robe as we hear him, in voice over, reciting Ephesians 9:11-12:

Put on the whole armor of God,
so that you may be able to stand against the wiles of the devil.
For our struggle is not against enemies of blood and flesh,
but against the rulers, against the authorities,
against the cosmic powers of this present darkness,
against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places.

In Toller’s troubled mind, the cosmic powers of darkness are sitting in a pew next door. But the viewer is appalled by the pastor’s descent into madness. However evil the acts of men like Balq, equating a suicide vest with the armor of God is abhorrent and wrong.

When Toller learns that Mary, the pregnant widow of the dead activist, is inside the church as well, he abruptly scraps his apocalyptic mission. Her life means more to him than his terrible burden of wrath. And her unborn child, like the child of the Nativity, signifies hope for the human future in a fallen world. To put that at risk would be the greater sin.

But he still feels compelled to make a dramatic self-sacrificial gesture, turning the violence against himself. His vocation is in tatters, he will probably die of cancer, and the end of humanity may be drawing near. He had once warned the activist about the pride of a certitude that surrenders hope in the face of despair. Now he himself has become a prisoner of that fatal arrogance, confusing his own suffering with Christ’s. He prepares to make his own body a signifier of planetary suicide.

He replaces the suicide vest with a coil of barbed wire, wrapping it painfully around his torso in parodic imitation of the crown of thorns. Then he covers his bleeding body with a Christ-like white robe––a vivid image of the paradoxical tension between the Christ of glory and the broken and desolate Christ on the edge of oblivion. But just before Toller can take his own life with a toxic glass of drain cleaner (a grotesque symbol of baptismal cleansing?), he looks up to see Mary, standing quietly on the other side of the unfurnished empty space of his living room. When did she enter? Why has she come?

“Ernst,” she says. It is the first time we have heard anyone speak his baptismal name. He’s always been addressed as “Reverend Toller.” But now, like Magdalene weeping at the tomb, he hears his name called by the tender voice of his “savior,” summoning him back from the dead. Without any hesitation, he sweeps across the room into her arms. As they embrace and kiss with unrestrained intensity, the camera, so still and quiet throughout most of the film, suddenly comes to life, circling round and round this miracle of redemptive love, like angelic praises whirling around the throne of God.

This breathtaking perichoresis [xiv] continues without ceasing for a full minute, until it abruptly vanishes in a startling cut to darkness and silence. No lingering fadeout, just this sudden absence. Over the next bewildering 8 seconds, the viewer wonders whether the projector has broken. But then, the credits begin to scroll across the blackness, accompanied by the same low-pitched waves of mournful sound heard in the film’s bleak passages of environmental dread, as if to resist any presumptions of “happily ever after.” We may have glimpsed for a moment the miracle of saving love at the heart of the universe, but our fallen world still yearns in the dark.

To me the last scene felt like something more than the natural outcome of the affinity we saw building between Ernst and Mary after her husband’s death. Reducing their union to a formula of movie romance would fail to perform the revelatory transit from the visible to the invisible. Schrader wants to give us more than a warm, familiar feeling. He wants to deliver the Wholly Other, who will not be contained by language or understanding.

So Mary, pregnant with future, provides a surplus of meanings as she offers Ernst––and the receptive viewer––the divine embrace in all its forms: grace, mercy, forgiveness, peace, healing, hope, joy and the mystery of self-diffusive love. Its very unexpectedness is a sign of its sacred character. It is not something of our own making. It is pure gift.

The essential function of spiritual cinema is not to structure a plausible narrative confined to the world we know, but to use the means of its form to create an experience of the life-giving sacred in the viewer’s inmost self. So whether Mary is the divine feminine, Dante’s Beatrice, an angel, a dream, Toller’s long-lost soul, or simply another one of God’s human children trying to connect, what does it matter?

All is grace.

 

 

 

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[i] From “Brownsville Girl,” a song by Bob Dylan and Sam Shepard on Bob Dylan: Knocked Out Loaded (1986). “How far are y’all going?” Ruby asked us with a sigh / “We’re going all the way, till the wheels fall off and burn / Till the sun peels the paint and the seat covers fade and the water moccasin dies” / Ruby just smiled and said, “Ah, you know some babies never learn.”

[ii] Devotions lxxxvii 17, q. in Helen Wilcox, ed., The English Poems of George Herbert (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007), 164.

[iii] Paul Schrader, Transcendental Style in Film: Ozu, Bresson, Dreyer (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1972), 169.

[iv] Robert Bresson, Notes on Cinematography, trans. Jonathan Griffin (New York: Urizen Books, 1977), 5.

[v] Susan Sontag, “The Spiritual Style of Robert Bresson,” in Against Interpretation (New York: Dell Publishing Company, 1966), 180.

[vi] Transcendental Style, 73, 75.

[vii] In the film, the priest speaks these words in voice over as we see him kneel by the deathbed of a woman for whom he had been a vehicle of miraculous grace.

[viii] Robin Wood, Ingmar Bergman (New York: Praeger, 1970), 111.

[ix] Ibid., 122-23.

[x] Christian Wiman, “Every Riven Thing,” in his collection of the same name (New York: Farrar, Strauss and Giroux, 2010), 24.

[xi] Natalie Carnes, Image and Presence: A Christological Reflection on Iconoclasm and Iconophilia (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2018), 113.

[xii] Schrader uses this line verbatim, and recreates the essence of Bresson’s scene, in his own film, American Gigolo (1980).

[xiii] Jean Collet, q. in Joseph Cunneen, Robert Bresson: A Spiritual Style in Film (New York: Continuum, 2003), 82.

[xiv] This Greek word for “dancing in a circular pattern” has long been used to describe the ceaseless movement of interpenetrating, self-diffusive love which is the Holy Trinity. Schrader’s image may be more carnal than most theology is used to, but that’s the price of the Incarnation!