Praying the Hours (2): Vigils

This is the second in a series on the canonical hours, the ancient Christian practice for living a mindful day. The first, “Reclaiming My Time,” gives a general introduction, with a list of helpful resources for your own practice of prayer and meditation. This second reflection concerns “Vigils,” the liminal space between yesterday and tomorrow.

“Could you not stay awake for one hour?” — Lippo Memmi, Agony in the Garden (detail), Collegiata Santa Maria Assunta, San Gimignano, Italy (c. 1340).

What if you slept? And what if, in your sleep, you dreamed? And what if, in your dream, you went to heaven and plucked a strange and beautiful flower? And what if, when you awoke, you had the flower in your hand? Ah, what then? 

— Samuel Taylor Coleridge, “What if you slept?”

The night, O my Lord, is a time of freedom. You have seen the morning and the night, and the night was better. In the night, all things began, and in the night the end of all things has come before me. 

— Thomas Merton, “Fire Watch, July 4, 1952”

Vigils is the most fluid of the canonical hours. It may be kept at midnight, or at 3 a.m., or just before dawn, as a prelude to the sunrise hour of Lauds. While the world sleeps, monastics rise from their beds and make their way in the dark to the choir. The sixth-century Rule of St. Benedict recommends that the first Psalm be read “slowly and deliberately,” to allow the community’s sleepyheads extra time to arrive. “If the resurrection of the dead is anything like getting up in the morning,” complains one monk, “I am not completely convinced that I want to be included.”[i] But prayer never sleeps. “At midnight I will rise to give you thanks,” says the Psalmist. “My eyes are open in the night watches.”[ii]

Vigils is not for all people at all times, but as an occasional practice it has much to offer. Being awake in the night is not like being awake in the day. We are different, our surroundings are different, and time is different. All these differences affect the quality of our consciousness, our physical energies, and our prayer. It’s no accident that the two most mysterious events in the gospels, the Nativity and the Resurrection, took place in deepest night.[iii] “When all things were wrapped in peaceful silence and night was in the midst of its swift course,” said Meister Eckhart, “a secret word leaped down from heaven.…”[iv]

The hours between midnight and dawn should not go unvisited by the waking self. They whisper secrets which sleepers never know. I’ve driven through black nights on lost highways, watched 72-hour film marathons with (mostly) open eyes, arisen at midnight to ascend Mt. Rainier with a headlamp, drifted in and out of sleep lying on the floor of the Fillmore Auditorium in the wee hours of a Grateful Dead concert, and curated all-night multi-sensory worship in a circus tent with 400 Episcopalians.[v] Even though only the last of these was a specifically religious event, I always felt transformed to some degree by my night-journeys. By the time the sun restored the ordinary, I was no longer quite the same person. Something had shifted. Maybe it was the world; maybe it was just my eyes, or my heart. But the next morning I always felt radiant and new, like the first morning of Creation. 

What is it about a vigil experience that makes this so? For one thing, my post-midnight self, even when awake, is more prone to a state of reverie, when the daytime’s fully conscious subject gives way to the “night dream” which, as Gaston Bachelard suggests, “does not belong to us. It is not our possession. With regard to us, it is an abductor, the most disconcerting of abductors: it abducts our being from us. Nights, nights have no history.… we are returned to an ante-subjective state. We become elusive to ourselves, for we are giving pieces of ourselves to no matter whom, to no matter what.”[vi]  

The world, too, is different in the dark—its solid forms dissolved into shadow, purged of detail and color, cloaked in absence. The noise and strife of daytime forgotten in the hush. Deep, deep silence: like the primordial stillness before the birth of everything. An environment without verbs. “Baptized in the rivers of night,” said Thomas Merton of the Vigils hour, the earth recovers its “innocence.”[vii]

Time slows, pausing deliberately between yesterday and tomorrow. No longer a flowing river, it becomes a pool of infinite depth where we can wash away our hurry-sickness. “A single hour takes a long time to pass,” says a modern Book of Hours, “but living in it is discipleship for eternity.”[viii]

In the Book of Genesis, Jacob has two contrasting experiences at the Vigils hour. In one, he is given a blissful vision of a ladder between heaven and earth, revealing the ultimate Reality so often invisible in the glare of sunlight. In the other, he wrestles desperately with God till dawn.[ix] So it is for us. Sometimes our night vigil is bathed in tranquility and illumined by love. And sometimes we watch anxiously over a sick child or a dying friend, or pray for the ones who are afraid or lost in the dark, or wrestle with our own troubled thoughts, or wait with expectant and vulnerable hearts for the dawn of God.

Benedictine writer Macrina Wiederkeh distills the essence of Vigils prayer, when even the most restlessly wakeful are invited to rest in the sacred pause of what T. S. Eliot called “the uncertain hour before the morning.”[x]

“In the middle of the night, I pray for those who sleep and those who cannot sleep. I pray for those with fearful hearts, for those whose courage is waning. I pray for those who have lost vision of what could be. When I rise in the middle of the night, my prayer is simply one of waiting in silence, waiting in darkness, listening with love. It is a prayer of surrender. In my night watch I do not ordinarily use words. My prayer is a prayer of intent. I make my intention and I wait. I become a deep yearning. The silence and the darkness are healing. My prayer is now a prayer of trust. I keep vigil with the mystery.”[xi]

When I was a teenager, the climactic all-night vigil in Alan Paton’s novel, Cry the Beloved Country, made a deep impression on me. In the days of South African apartheid, on the night before his prodigal son’s execution, the Rev. Stephen Kumalo, an Anglican priest, climbs a high mountain to pray—for his own failings, for the soul of his son, and for the liberation of his people. Hour after hour, through the darkness, he keeps vigil for Absalom (“my son, my son!”) and for all the broken and lost. When the sun finally breaks the horizon—the very moment of his son’s execution—he makes eucharist with a maize cake and tea, remembering with thanksgiving God’s promise of salvation. “But when that dawn will come, of our emancipation, from the fear of bondage and the bondage of fear, why, that is a secret.”[xii]

Over the years, the image of Fr. Kumalo on that nocturnal summit has informed my own affinity for Vigils. There is something profoundly uncanny about every “night watch,” when sleep is forsaken in order to contemplate “the Mystery of the world,”[xiii] whose ineffability is uniquely conveyed in the hours of deepest dark and silence.

At Gethsemani Abbey in Kentucky, the monks would take turns making the rounds of the expansive main building on “fire watch,” guarding the multitude of flammable wooden spaces through the night while the community slept. Thomas Merton’s shift on the night of July 4th, 1952, became for him a vivid metaphor for the spiritual journey into God, related in his famous “Fire Watch” essay. 

As Merton moves thoughtfully and prayerfully through the monastic spaces, he retraces his personal history as a monk. Every room is inscribed with significant memory. But his fire watch is also the journey of the human soul. By first descending into the monastery’s lower depths and gradually ascending to its highest point in the abbey tower, he replicates the pattern of the Paschal Mystery and the Divine Comedy, where the way down becomes, in the end, the way up. 

Merton’s “Fire Watch” reflection is framed by biblical images. It begins with Isaiah’s tower watchman keeping vigil through the long night, alert for a word of revelation. And it concludes with a divine word of comfort to Jonas, better known as Jonah, whose descent into the belly of the fish foreshadowed Christ’s death and resurrection. 

“The sign of Jonas”––Merton’s term for the Paschal Mystery of dying and rising––is “burned into the roots of our being,” he said. And he described his own life’s pilgrimage as “traveling toward my destiny in the belly of a paradox.”[xiv]

For the receptive soul, Vigils is the hour when we listen to the voice of silence, and rest in the grace of unknowing. In “Fire Watch,” Merton sums up prayer in the dark in four lines:

While I am asking questions which You do not answer, 
You ask me a question which is so simple that I cannot answer.
I do not even understand the question. 
This night, and every night, it is the same question.
[xv]


[i] Mark Barrett, O.S.B., Crossing: Reclaiming the Landscape of Our Lives (Harrisburg, PA: Morehouse Publishing, 2008), 11.

[ii] Psalm 119: 62, 148.

[iii] The Christmas midnight mass and the Easter Vigil both incorporate the Vigils aura of nocturnal mystery when they take the assembly deep into the night. But many churches sacrifice this dimension when they choose the convenience of starting so early that they end well before midnight. 

[iv] Meister Eckhart, cited in Elizabeth Yates, A Book of Hours (Noroton, CT: Vineyard Books, 1976), 50. Yates’ book contains prayers and reflections for each of the 24 hours. The Eckhart quote appears at Midnight.

[v] A description of the all-night liturgy may be found here: https://jimfriedrich.com/2014/08/12/experiments-in-worship/

[vi] Gaston Bachelard, The Poetics of Reverie: Childhood, Language, and the Cosmos (Boston: Beacon Press, 1971), 145.

[vii] Thomas Merton, “Fire Watch, July 4, 1952,” epilogue to The Sign of Jonas (1953), cited in Lawrence S. Cunningham, Thomas Merton: Spiritual Master—The Essential Writings (Mahwah, NJ: Paulist Press, 1992), 107.

[viii] Yates, A Book of Hours, 55.

[ix] Genesis 28:10-17; 32:23-33.

[x] T. S. Eliot, “Little Gidding” (section II), in Four Quartets. “In the uncertain hour before the morning / Near the ending of interminable night …”

[xi] Macrina Wiederkehr, O.S.B., Seven Sacred Pauses: Living Mindfully Through the Hours of the Day (Notre Dame, IN: Sorin Books, 2008), 31.

[xii] The last line of Paton’s novel, published in 1948. 

[xiii] Eberhard Jüngel’s name for the Divine, unencumbered with overuse or limiting connotations, offers an open space for the varieties of religious experience.

[xiv] Merton, The Sign of Jonas (New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1953). 

[xv] Merton, “Fire Watch,” in Cunningham, 111.

Praying the Hours (1): “Reclaiming my time”

Book of Hours (c. 1475)

I wasted time and now time doth waste me.  

— William Shakespeare, Richard II

The Abba Moses asked Abba Silvanus, “Can a person every day make a beginning of the good life?” The Abba Silvanus answered him, “If he be diligent, he can every day and every hour begin the good life anew.” 

Sayings of the Desert Fathers      

When wrongdoers are questioned by congressional committees, they try to evade self-incrimination through rambling, irrelevant responses to pointed questions. Since each committee member is given very limited time to interrogate a witness, those who have something to hide try to “run out the clock,” hoping that time will expire before the truth can be revealed. A skillful questioner will shut down such verbal evasions with a parliamentary phrase: “Reclaiming my time.”  Whenever those words are uttered, the witness must cease to babble, allowing the questioner to attempt a more productive use of the allotted time. 

I love that phrase—“Reclaiming my time”—for its spiritual implications. It seems a perfect description of the ancient spiritual practice of “praying the hours”—setting aside certain moments or periods of each day to reclaim our time from whatever is wasting it. I don’t mean wasting in the sense of failing to perform ceaseless labors of “doing” rather than “being.” An hour daydreaming in the hammock, reading poetry or playing the guitar is not misspent, however much the voices within or without may cry, “Get back to work!” No, by wasting time I mean the failure to enjoy its fullness or attend to its depth. I mean forgetting the sheer wonder of being here in this moment, this story, this life. I mean failing to understand that time, as W. H. Auden reminds us, “is our choice of how to love and why.”[i]

Judaism, Christianity and Islam all developed cyclical prayer practices for reclaiming time. Through words, music, attentive silence and bodily postures, the faithful pause periodically during the day to remember, praise and thank the divine Source in whom we live and move and have our being. Prayer times synchronize the believer’s consciousness with the natural sequence of the day: morning, midday, evening and night. For Christian monastics, for whose life of “unceasing prayer” there were no secular hours, only sacred ones, seven divine “offices” became the norm. The pattern was Scriptural—“Seven times a day I praise you” (Psalm 119:164)—but also natural: the sequence of hours reflects the changes in the quality of light and sound as well as the energy levels of our bodies.

There are seven traditional, or “canonical”[ii] hours. Some of the specific times are variable in accord with changing seasons and differences in latitude, but the “seven times” span the length between waking and retiring. An eighth “hour,” Vigils (or Matins), was combined with Lauds to keep the list at seven, but it really stands apart from the chronology of the waking hours, in the timeless interval between the days, when monastics rise from sleep to dwell prayerfully in the deepest dark of ineffable Mystery. 

Vigils (Midnight or later)          Waiting and reverie
Lauds (4-5 am or daybreak)     Waking
Prime (6 am)                            Beginning
Terce (9 am)                             Doing
Sext (Noon)                              Pausing
None (3 pm)                             Doing
Vespers (Sunset)                      Ending
Compline (Bedtime)               
Surrendering

In the late Middle Ages, devout laypersons created a demand for a portable “Book of Hours”—a sequence of devotional texts and images structured on the monastic daily pattern. For two and a half centuries, these prayer books were the most widely read texts in Europe. But once the sacredness of time was eclipsed by modernity, hours became commodities, acquired and spent in labor and leisure, but no longer burning with divine Presence. Most people no longer “had time”—or inclination—to pause and pray seven times a day. 

If you are ever able to go on retreat to pray the hours with a monastic community, do it, as often as you can. Your relationship with time will be deepened and renewed. But how might we pray the hours when we are on our own in the secular world, immersed in the ordinary circumstances and flow of our lives? Given all the demands on our time and attention, is it possible to forge a sustainable practice?  I believe that it is not only possible, but absolutely necessary, in order to reclaim our time as gift and blessing.

As St. Anselm of Canterbury urged the faithful in the twelfth century: 

“Flee for a while from your tasks, hide yourself for a little space from the turmoil of your thoughts. Come, cast aside your burdensome cares, and put aside your laborious pursuits.… Give your time to God, and rest in the Divine for a little while. Enter into the inner chamber of your mind, shut out all things save God …”[iii]

In a 24/7 world, it’s hard to make any space to shut out “all things.” As Kathleen Deignan writes in her contemporary Book of Hours: “There is no room for the mysterious spaciousness of being, no time for presence, no room for nature, no time for quiet, for thought, for presence.”[iv]

During the many months of pandemic shutdowns and lockdowns, our habitual relationship with time has been significantly disrupted . So many routines which shape our customary lives, like going to work or school, have been altered or cancelled. The annual round of seasonal markers—liturgical celebrations, sporting events, holiday weekends, performing arts series, music festivals, vacation travel, graduations, birthday parties—has suffered a similar fate. Sheltering-in-place homogenizes our waking lives with an enervating sameness. Sometimes I forget what day of the week it is. 

Time blurs and dis-integrates, loses its shape, becomes increasingly subjective as we disconnect from the larger rhythms and measures of season, cosmos, and tradition. Our temporality seems less firmly structured by the interplay of memory and hope, planning and expectation, coming and going, activity and rest, labor and festivity, variety and difference. 

In Martin Amis’ short story, “The Time Disease,” a fear of time itself acts like a virus, attacking the balance that integrates past, present and future in human consciousness. Having lost the capacity to believe themselves part of a meaningful narrative with a redemptive future, people have grown numb to hope, deathly afraid of “coming down with time.” The story, published in 1987, is set in the year 2020! 

COVID-19 reminds us daily of our ephemeral and vulnerable condition: finite, mortal, subject to immense forces beyond our control. At the same time, it has weakened our ritual relation to time, by erasing the recurring collective markers, like the first communal shouts of “Alleluia!” at the end of Holy Week, or the joyous tumult of fireworks at a Fourth of July picnic, which affirm a sense of regularity, continuity and renewal. The future has become radically uncertain. We don’t know what tomorrow will bring, much less next year. Fewer of us are making long term plans right now. But it still remains within our power to receive and embrace the gift of this day, this hour, this moment. We can, through conscious practice, sink deeper and deeper into the mystery of being-here-now.

Praying the hours

I am the appointed hour,
The “now” that cuts 
Time like a blade.

— Thomas Merton, “Song: If you seek…”

An hour is not an hour, it is a vase full of scents and sounds and projects and climates.

— Marcel Proust, Swann’s Way    

Rather than pass the time, we must invite it in. 

— Walter Benjamin, The Arcades Project     

In The Cloud of Unknowing, an anonymous medieval mystic calls us to practice mindfulness: “Be attentive to time and how you spend it. Nothing is more precious. This is evident when you recall that in one tiny moment heaven may be gained or lost. God, the master of time, never gives the future. He gives only the present, moment by moment.”[v]  But such mindfulness is not native to moderns, as Hugh Rayment-Pickard laments:

“We ignore the time that is open to us. We diminish ourselves by wishing time to pass. We are, for the most part, incapable of real concentration. Our days are broken by distraction, scrambled into muddles of chores, errands, impulses, evasions, interruptions and delays, besotted with routine. We characteristically fail to see the ways in which a given period can be expanded, deepened and slowed by the exercise of will and awareness.”[vi]

This condition of un-mindful triviality is good for some laughs in Sarah Dunn’s “A Day in the Life of an American Slacker, circa 1994,” a diaristic parody of the Book of Hours. After rising at noon, the Slacker’s day includes naps, television, café idling and aimless wandering, but also the following highlights:

12:45 p.m.       Plan the world tour you would take if any of your relatives happened to die and handed you a pile of money.

1:52 p.m.         Peruse an op-ed article stating that your generation represents ‘the final exhaustion of civilization.’ Resolve to fire off a scathing yet piquant rebuttal.

2:42 p.m.         [During a commercial break in an episode of “Hogan’s Heroes,” think about starting a new project]: a flow chart in which you … categorize and classify every philosopher throughout time …

After more wandering, napping, drinking, and all of 17 minutes dedicated to “hunker down with Schopenhauer,” the Slacker’s day concludes: 

11:05 p.m.       Return home.
11:30 p.m.       Putter around your room.
11:48 p.m.       Rake the sand in your Zen rock garden.
12:15 a.m.       Alphabetize your cassettes.
12:33 a.m.       Practice your dart game.
1:00 a.m.         Assume the fetal position for late night infomercial viewing.
1:26 a.m.         Stare near-crippling bout of existential angst in the face.
1:57 a.m.         Once again, glorious sleep.[vii]   

Will time so waste us? Or can we restore our souls—and our daily experience— with an attentive, receptive relation to temporality, and the eternity from which it springs? As the monastic communities discovered while the ancient world was collapsing all around them, praying the hours at the beginning, middle, and end of each day is a deeply transformative practice. It changes the quality of the day, and it changes us. 

There are a number of excellent contemporary guides to help us pray the hours in our wordly precincts beyond the cloister. In Music of Silence: A Sacred Journey Through the Hours of the Day, Br. David Steindl-Rast and Sharon Lebell describe the canonical hours as “seasons”: each stage of the day has its own character, its own virtue, its own meaning: 

“The hours are the inner structure for living consciously and responsively through the stages of the day.… The message of the hours is to live daily with the real rhythms of the day. to live responsively, consciously … We learn to listen to the music of the moment, to hear its sweet implorings, its sober directives.”[viii]

In Seven Sacred Pauses: Living Mindfully Through the Hours of the Day, Macrina Wiederkehr sees the hours as an antidote for contemporary hurry-sickness: 

“We practice pausing to remember the sacredness of our names, who we are, and what we plan on doing with the incredible gift of our lives—and how we can learn to be in the midst of so much doing.”[ix]

In Wisdom Distilled from the Daily: Living the Rule of St. Benedict Today, Sr. Joan Chittister reminds us that prayer is not a mood but a practice: 

“To pray only when we feel like it is more to seek consolation than to risk conversion. To pray only when it suits us is to want God on our own terms. To pray only when it is convenient is to make the God-life a very low priority in a list of better opportunities. To pray only when it feels good is to court total emptiness when we most need to be filled. The hard fact is that nobody finds time for prayer. The time must be taken. There will always be something more pressing to do, something more important to be about than the apparently fruitless, empty act of prayer. But … without prayer, the energy for the rest of life runs down.”[x]

Grounding ourselves in a daily prayer practice is vital in the best of times. In 2020’s massive tsunami of pandemic, climate disaster, social unrest and political madness, it is a lifesaver, a shelter from the storm. Tossed between the Scylla and Charybdis of high anxiety and profound melancholy, many of us are exhausted or worse. We need proven tools for survival—and renewal. 

This post is the first in a series on praying the hours. Subsequent posts will explore various dimensions and qualities of the hours contained within the day’s three main divisions: Beginning (Vigils, Lauds, Prime); Middle (Terce, Sext, None); and End (Vespers, Compline). The series will conclude with some suggestions for adapting the hours to the diverse and demanding lives we actually live. As Benedictine John Chapman counsels, “Pray as you can, not as you can’t.”[xi]   

For further reading

Elizabeth Yates, A Book of Hours (Norton, CT: Vineyard Books, 1976). This classic little volume has 2 pages of prayers and reflections for each of the 24 hours. I have opened this often over the years.

Brother David Steidl-Rast & Sharon Lebell, Music of Silence: A Sacred Journey Through the Hours of the Day(Brooklyn, NY: Ulysses Press, 2001). A wise and indispensable treasury of reflections on each of the hours. 

Macrina Wiederkehr, Seven Sacred Pauses: Living Mindfully Through the Hours of the Day (Notre Dame, IN: Sorin Books, 2008). A thoughtful exploration of the 7 hours, with many excellent texts and thoughts to inspire your own construction of a daily practice. 

Kathleen Deignan, ed., Thomas Merton: A Book of Hours (Notre Dame, IN: Sorin Books, 2007). Contemplative rites for a 7-day cycle for Dawn, Day, Dusk and Dark, consisting entirely of prose and poetic texts by Thomas Merton, with a helpful introduction by Deignan. Much of the imagery is drawn from the natural world surrounding the famous contemplative’s Kentucky hermitage, tincturing the devotions with a deep awareness of the seasons of the day and of the year. 

Joan Chittister OSB, Wisdom Distilled from the Daily: Living the Rule of St. Benedict Today (New York: Harper One, 1991). Chittister’s attractive Benedictine balance of attention and receptivity provides an accessible foundation for a daily prayer practice.

Mark Barrett OSB, Crossing: Reclaiming the Landscape of Our Lives (Harrisburg, PA: Morehouse Publishing, 2008). Another Benedictine offers fruitful and imaginative reflections on each of the canonical hours. 

Kenneth V. Peterson, Prayer as Night Falls: Experiencing Compline (Brewster, MA: Paraclete Press, 2013). This thorough appreciation of the last office of the day blends liturgical history, theology, and personal experience. The perspectives on Compline illumine our approach to all of the hours. Peterson’s website provides glorious examples of Compline choral music discussed in the book: http://prayerasnightfalls.com

World Enough and Time: On Creativity and Slowing Down (Christian McEwen, Peterborough, NH: Bauhan Publishing, 2011). Not a religious text per se, it invites us into a way of being which is essential for mindful living and praying. It’s delightful reading, celebrating what Thoreau called “the bloom of the present moment.”

Robert Grudin, Time and the Art of Living (New York: Ticknor & Fields, 1988). A fertile appreciation of our relationship with time, and how to deepen it.

Hugh Rayment-Pickard, The Myths of Time: From St. Augustine to American Beauty (London: Darton, Longman and Todd Ltd., 2004). An accessible read on the theology of time. 

Kevin Jackson, The Book of Hours: An Anthology (London/New York/Woodstock NY: The Overlook Press, 2007). A secular celebration of every hour of the day, with a wide range of literary excerpts. While not about prayer or spirituality, it is great fun, and will sharpen your sense of each hour’s aspects.

There are many books and websites with liturgies for praying the hours. The Episcopal Book of Common Prayer has daily offices for Morning, Noon, Evening and Compline. A number of other Anglican prayer books can be found at http://justus.anglican.org/resources/bcp/

Roman Catholic rites can be accessed at https://divineoffice.org

Phyllis Tickle’s 3-volume seasonal compilations for the Divine Hours are available from Doubleday.

Forward Movement’s Hour by Hour has 4 daily offices for each day of the week. 

For a much more extensive list of publications and websites, see Kenneth Peterson’s wonderful array of resources in Prayer as Night Falls (listed above), pp. 205-213.

Finally, my 2015 post about time, Tick Tock: Thoughts for New Year’s Eve, a discussion of Christian Marclay’s 24-hour video, The Clock, has some bearing on the subject of praying the hours. 


[i] W. H. Auden, “For the Time Being: A Christmas Oratorio” (1941-42), in Collected Poems (New York: Random House, 1976), 297.

[ii] “Canon” in Greek meant a straight rod, used for measuring or aligning. In Church usage, the word designated right rule, measure, or proper order, as in the biblical canon, canon law, or the canonical hours.

[iii] Elizabeth Yates, A Book of Hours (Norton, CT: Vineyard Books, 1976), 42.

[iv] Kathleen Deignan, ed., Thomas Merton: A Book of Hours (Notre Dame, IN: Sorin Books, 2007), 32.

[v] The Cloud of Unknowing, an anonymous English work of the late 14th century, cited in Robert Grudin, Time and the Art of Living (New York: Ticknor & Fields, 1988), 92.

[vi] Hugh Rayment-Pickard, The Myths of Time: From St. Augustine to American Beauty (London: Darton, Longman and Todd Ltd., 2004), 20.

[vii] Sarah Dunn, “A Day in the Life of an American Slacker, circa 1994,” in The Official Slacker Handbook, cited in Kevin Jackson, The Book of Hours: An Anthology (London/New York/Woodstock NY: The Overlook Press, 2007), 62-64.

[viii] Brother David Steidl-Rast & Sharon Lebell, Music of Silence: A Sacred Journey Through the Hours of the Day (Brooklyn, NY: Ulysses Press, 2001).

[ix] Macrina Wiederkehr, Seven Sacred Pauses: Living Mindfully Through the Hours of the Day (Notre Dame, IN: Sorin Books, 2008), 13.

[x] Joan Chittister OSB, Wisdom Distilled from the Daily: Living the Rule of St. Benedict Today (New York: Harper One, 1991), 31.

[xi] Mark Barrett OSB, Crossing: Reclaiming the Landscape of Our Lives (Harrisburg, PA: Morehouse Publishing, 2008), 26.

How Do We Pray for This President?

Angel and Church pray for the victims of a violent century (mural, c. 1940, Église du Saint-Esprit, Paris).

But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.

— Matthew 5:44

Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave room for the wrath of God; for it is written, “Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.”  No, “if your enemies are hungry, feed them; if they are thirsty, give them something to drink; for by doing this you will heap burning coals on their heads.” Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.

—Romans 12:19-21

In my last post, “Subjected thus”—The President Gets COVID,” I touched on the question of how to pray for the President. Of course we pray in general for all who have been infected by the coronavirus, but regarding specific petitions on the President’s behalf, I wrote: “I will pray that Trump’s time of trial may effect the healing of his soul. If he is going to suffer, may his illness be for him a birth of empathy, compassion, humility and goodness.”

With every passing day, that prayer becomes harder to offer with any conviction. As we witness Trump’s continuing disregard for the safety of others—both those around him and the country at large—we wonder whether he may be past saving. Instead of being humbled by his illness, he has only grown more malicious. The people around him are dropping like flies, and countless Americans will continue to die from his mismanagement. And now we fear that his relentless disparagement of life-saving protocols will kill even more. “Far less lethal!!!” than the flu, he tweets against all evidence. It’s as if he’s shouting to the world, “Hurry up and die!” 

What, then, is our prayer to be for such a man in such a time?

In the Episcopal Book of Common Prayer, prayers for the sick don’t ask that the ill simply be restored to their former state so they can resume their story exactly where they left off. While those prayers ask for relief from pain, protection from danger, freedom from fear, the banishment of weakness and the gift of healing, they also propose a life transformed by suffering: 

“… enable him to lead the residue of his life in thy fear, and to thy glory.”

“… that, his health being renewed, he may bless your holy Name.”

“… restore to him your gifts of gladness and strength, and raise him up to a life of service to you.”

“… restored to usefulness in your world with a thankful heart.”

“… that he, daily increasing in bodily strength, and rejoicing in your goodness, may order his life and conduct that hemay always think and do those things that please you.” [i]

As for a President and all those in authority, the Prayer Book asks that they be guided by “the spirit of wisdom,” beseeching the “Lord our Governor” to “fill them with the love of truth and righteousness, and make them ever mindful of their calling to serve this people in your fear.”[ii] Would that it were so! But the way things are going, the prayer “For our Enemies” seems more to the point: 

O God, the Father of all, whose Son commanded us to love our enemies: Lead them and us from prejudice to truth; deliver them and us from hatred, cruelty, and revenge; and in your good time enable us all to stand reconciled before you; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.[iii]

The “and us” is a critical part of this prayer, because we have all, symptomatic or not, been infected by the Trumpist pandemic of hate and cruelty. If we say we have not had a few hateful thoughts in the past four years, the truth is not in us. Resistance to evil and purity of heart are not soul mates or easygoing partners. They must work hard to stay coupled. 

Another timely prayer is the Collect for the Feast of Holy Innocents, when we remember the children of Bethlehem murdered by King Herod (Matthew 2:13-18). The prayer is not concerned with the state of Herod’s soul, but with the damage inflicted by his successors: 

We remember today, O God, the slaughter of the holy innocents of Bethlehem by King Herod. Receive, we pray, into the arms of your mercy all innocent victims; and by your 
great might frustrate the designs of evil tyrants and establish your rule of justice, love, and peace; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you, in the unity of the 
Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.[iv]

We are all standing in the need of prayer these days. And even though we can never fully understand what prayer is and what prayer does, prayer “without ceasing” is an essential part of the healing of the world and the perfection of our souls. 

Prayer isn’t like online shopping—placing our order and expecting 2nd-day delivery. It’s not a mechanism for producing outcomes. It’s a relationship, a state of being-with and being-for. It is offering and entrusting ourselves to the One who is “always more ready to hear than we to pray,” who knows “our necessities before we ask and our ignorance in asking.”[v]

Knowing exactly what to pray for is impossible. We cannot see into the hearts of others, nor can we foresee the future. God only knows what is best. As for our own judgments, perspectives and desires, they can taint the purest prayer. In our essential state of imperfection and unknowing, perhaps the safest petitions are these: “Hold us in your mercy” and “Thy will be done.”

But with regard to more specific petitions for this President, I will be guided by the examples cited from the Book of Common Prayer. I will pray for his suffering to be brief but transformative. I will pray for his power to be guided by wisdom and truth. I will pray that his evil designs be frustrated, and that he (and we) be freed from the grip of hatred, cruelty and revenge. But I must confess that Donald Trump is not easy to pray for.

When I think of the monster who has tortured children in cages and caused countless COVID deaths, I struggle with my anger, my horror, and my disgust. But as I sat in the silence of a moonlit garden before this morning’s dawn, I was given the image of a little boy so damaged, so broken, so unloved, locked deep inside the dungeon of Trump’s psyche seventy years ago—guarded by dragons, hidden from the light, lost to the world. That tragic, wounded, forgotten child is someone I can pray for with my whole heart.


[i] The Book of Common Prayer, according to the use of The Episcopal Church USA (New York: Oxford University Press, 1979), 458-459.

[ii] BCP, 820.

[iii] BCP, 816.

[iv] BCP, 238.

[v] BCP, Proper 21 (p. 234) and Proper 11 (p. 231).

“Subjected thus”—The President Gets COVID

Richard II (Georges Bigot), Téâtre du Soleil at Los Angeles Arts Festival, 1984.

For God’s sake let us sit upon the ground
And tell sad stories of the death of kings:
How some have been depos’d, some slain in war,
Some haunted by the ghosts they have deposed,
Some poisoned by their wives, some sleeping kill’d,
All murdered – for within the hollow crown
That rounds the mortal temples of a king
Keeps Death his court, and there the antic sits,
Scoffing his state and grinning at his pomp,
Allowing him a breath, a little scene,
To monarchize, be fear’d, and kill with looks;
Infusing him with self and vain conceit,
As if this flesh which walls about our life
Were brass impregnable; and, humour’d thus,
Comes at the last, and with a little pin
Bores through his castle wall, and farewell king!
Cover your heads, and mock not flesh and blood
With solemn reverence; throw away respect,
Tradition, form, and ceremonious duty;
For you have but mistook me all this while.
I live with bread like you, feel want,
Taste grief, need friends – subjected thus,
How can you say to me, I am a king?

— Richard II [i]  

Shakespeare’s tragedy of Richard II dramatizes the gradual stripping away of royal power, until the mighty king is but a naked subject—“subjected thus” to mortality and the threat of nonbeing like everyone else. The moment comes when the impregnable aura gives way, “and farewell king!” Almost 40 years ago, I saw Ariane Mnouchkine’s Téâtre du Soleil perform the play as Kabuki theater, and the wrenching transformation of the richly vested monarch, who could “kill with looks,” into a caged prisoner, naked and helpless, remains vivid in my mind to this day. It was an important part of my political education, and it came to mind when I heard that the President has COVID.

Dante also came to mind. In Canto XX of the Inferno, the pilgrim Dante is rebuked by Virgil for weeping over the fate of the damned. While Dante certainly condemned their fraudulent deeds on earth, their disfiguring pain in hell moved him to tears. “Reader,” he says, “imagine if you can how I could have kept from weeping when I saw, up close, our human likeness so contorted…” 

“Stop acting like an idiot,” Virgil tells him. “There’s no place for pity here. You will never learn piety if you sorrow over the shape of justice.” [ii]

This is not the only time that Dante the pilgrim experiences feelings of sympathy in hell. Modern readers always side with him, sharing the natural human response to the suffering of others. But Dante the writer and theologian remains committed to the poem’s implacable design. For the damned, there will be no exit. But then, none of them shows any desire for escape. Hell is populated by souls who refuse to change. As Helen Luke puts it in her Jungian reflection on the Divine Comedy, “the damned are those who have not only fallen into the unconscious but have chosen to remain there and so have lost their will to choose.” [iii]

Souls in Dante’s hell are no longer really persons in the sense of autonomous individuals engaged in a process of development and growth. Instead, they are indistinguishable from the sin which possessed them in their mortal life. Although they may appear vividly lifelike, with memorable personalities, they are ghostly simulacra, like cinematic images of long-dead actors, repeating the same self-absorbed words and actions, without change, for all eternity. 

So our horror at the Inferno’s ingenious punishments is meant to be directed at the sins rather than the punishments. As Dante scholar John Freccero points out, “The punishments fit the crimes, provided we understand ‘fittingness’ as an aesthetic category.… If the bodies in hell are really souls, then it follows that their physical attitudes, contortions and punishments are really spiritual attitudes and states of mind, sins made manifest in the form of physical punishment. It is therefore correct to say that the punishments are the sins.” [iv]

Dante’s ambivalent interplay of sympathy and judgment resonates with my own response to the news that Donald Trump has tested positive for COVID-19. I do not wish suffering on anyone, nor do I even find much satisfaction in the blatant ironies of his case. It is a terrible disease and he is in an especially vulnerable category, and when I pray daily for the 7.5 million Americans who have the coronavirus, he and his wife will now be in that number.  

At the same time, there is a degree of Dantean “fittingness” to his case. The pandemic, which Trump has made worse by things done and things left undone, has come home to roost. The sin has become the punishment. Trump is responsible for 38% of dangerous misinformation about the virus; he has encouraged millions of Americans to engage in reckless behavior; and even after learning of his own exposure, he continued to endanger others with physical proximity. 

But as much as I desire an end to the abuse he has inflicted on our country, our world and our planet, I want that to come from a vote, not a virus. However, there are some who are openly enjoying the poetic justice. “I wish Trump, his wife, and cabal,” writes one blogger, “the same care and consideration they have given to those struggling to survive COVID19.… I wish Trump, his wife, and cabal the same care and consideration they have given to those grieving lost loved ones – the children, parents, and grandparents, friends and family who mourn.…  I wish Trump, his wife, and cabal – Justice.[v]

Eric Stetson, a Unitarian minister, blogged an admonition in “Don’t be a jerk about Trump getting COVID.”[vi] Not only would too much shadenfreude risk political blowback, he cautioned, but indulging our hates is “spiritually dangerous” for ourselves and our country. As Bobby Kennedy urged us after Martin Luther King’s assassination, “We must admit in ourselves that our own children’s future cannot be built on the misfortunes of others. We must recognize that this short life can neither be ennobled or enriched by hatred or revenge.” [vii]

Another blogger, a therapist, disagreed, arguing that it was fine, even healthy, to gloat. “I am not religious or spiritual,” he wrote. “I do not think there is any danger to me if I take pleasure in the suffering of evil people.”[viii] Really? God forbid! There’s more than enough such “pleasure” going around. A better world will not be built out of our darkest shadows. Resistance without love is the road to nowhere.

In addition to pleading mercy and care for all who suffer from COVID, I will pray that Trump’s time of trial may effect the healing of his soul. If he is going to suffer, may his illness be for him a birth of empathy, compassion, humility and goodness. Impossible, you say? The business of prayer is precisely the impossible. The possible can take care of itself.

In his poems on “affliction,” 17th-century poet/priest George Herbert, who died at 39 from consumption, discerned a transformative dimension in suffering. In “Affliction (III),” he prays:

My heart did heave, and there came forth, O God!
By that I knew that thou wast in the grief,
To guide and govern it to my relief …

In “Affliction (IV),” Herbert confesses to be “broken in pieces all asunder, / … tortur’d in the space / Betwixt this world and that of grace. / My thoughts are all a case of knives, / Wounding my heart …” But, he finds, all “those powers which work for grief” are actually in God’s employ. “And day by day” they work for “my relief,” 

With care and courage building me,
Till I reach heav’n, and much more thee.


[i] Scene III, Act 2 (151-173. As Marjorie Garber notes in Shakespeare After All (2004), the more the king’s power wanes, the more poetic and reflective he becomes. “The failed ruler becomes a poet, writing the tragedy of Richard II.” As in Herbert’s poems cited at the end, suffering can be a teacher, guiding us toward our best self.

[ii] Inferno xx.19-21, 27-30.

[iii] Helen Luke, Dark Wood to White Rose: Journey and Transformation in Dante’s Divine Comedy (New York: Parabola Books, 1989), 13.

[iv] John Freccero, Dante: The Poetics of Conversion (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1986), k105-106.

[v] Onamastic, “I wish them justice,” Daily Kos (Oct. 2, 2020): https://www.dailykos.com/stories/2020/10/2/1982751/-I-wish-them-Justice

[vi] Eric Stetson, “Don’t Be a Jerk About Trump Getting Covid,” Daily Kos (Oct. 2, 2020): https://www.dailykos.com/stories/2020/10/1/1982696/-Don-t-Be-a-Jerk-about-Trump-Getting-Covid#comment_78754030

[vii] Robert F. Kennedy, “Remarks to the Cleveland City Club” (April 5, 1968): https://www.jfklibrary.org/learn/about-jfk/the-kennedy-family/robert-f-kennedy/robert-f-kennedy-speeches/remarks-to-the-cleveland-city-club-april-5-1968

[viii] Hal Brown, “As a therapist I want to remind you not to feel guilty if you have dark thoughts about Trump,” Daily Kos (Oct. 2, 2020): https://www.dailykos.com/stories/2020/10/2/1982773/-As-a-therapist-I-want-to-remind-you-not-to-feel-guilty-if-you-have-dark-thoughts-about-Trump

Love Among the Ruins: Roberto Rossellini’s “Journey to Italy”

Alex (George Sanders) and Katherine (Ingrid Bergman) on the road to Naples.

Alexander:       “Where are we?”
Katherine:       “Oh, I don’t know exactly.”

— Opening lines of Journey to Italy

 

The first shot of Roberto Rossellini’s 1954 film, Journey to Italy, is through the windshield of a speeding Bentley on an open stretch of country road. It is an image of pure velocity, revealing neither origin nor goal, but only the fact of motion. Inhabiting the subjective eye of the camera, we know only that we are rushing forward, out of the past, into the unknown.

Then we see who is inside the car. Alex and Katherine Joyce are Londoners, on their way to Naples to sell a villa inherited from their Uncle Homer. We deduce from their clothes—his tweed jacket and her leopard-skin coat—that they are a couple of means, accustomed to shaping their own story. But the names “Joyce” and “Homer,” invoking the great voyager Ulysses, suggests that their journey will take them beyond the familiar into the land of unknowing. “Where are we?” “Oh, I don’t know exactly.”

For the Joyces, Naples, along with nearby Vesuvius and Pompeii, is radically elsewhere—neither Rome nor Milan, and certainly not London. In the Italian south, modernity has not erased the archaic remnants of mythic memory or silenced the primal voices of earth, sea, and sky. The ancient past is not dead and gone. It speaks through rituals and ruins. It erupts from the depths of history, utters forgotten tongues.

Time slows in the south. The north’s purposeful hurry dissipates beneath the Neapolitan sun. The forward rush of the opening scene is replaced by aimless drift. A firm sense of story—beginning, middle, and end—dissipates into Mediterranean languor. The eventful developments we expect from movie narrative are absent. Like Dante in the dark wood, Alex and Katherine have strayed from the straight road of storytelling. They have lost their way.

The Italian south doesn’t create their malaise; it reveals it. “I’m getting sick of this crazy country,” Alex complains. “It poisons you with laziness. I want to get back home, back to work.” Without the familiar fictions of their London life, the habitual doings and distractions which postpone the honest reckonings of a hungry heart, they find themselves face to face with the alienation, egoism and fatigue of a failing marriage. They hardly know what to say to each other. When they do, the words are often abrasive or wounding.

Rossellini’s leads were actors whose own lives were in emotional disarray. Both Ingrid Bergman (Katherine) and George Sanders (Alex) had recent divorces, and Bergman’s current affair with Rossellini—a scandal at the time—was coming apart. She was tearful on the set. Sanders, recruited precisely for his sour and cynical manner, was also unhappy. With his biggest roles behind him, what was he doing with a largely nonprofessional cast in a low-budget art film?

Rossellini’s practice of handing out dialogue at the last minute kept his actors off balance, so they couldn’t overthink their performance in advance . Trained in the conventions of Hollywood’s highly scripted and plot-driven narratives, Bergman and Sanders often seem at a loss in a film where so little happens. His confusion and her uncertainty infused their roles with authenticity, blurring the line between fiction and documentary.

“All those shots of eyes looking.” —Jacques Rivette

“The film opens a breach and all cinema on pain of death must pass through it.”

— Jacques Rivette on Journey to Italy [i]

Journey is more than the story of a marriage. Its wider theme is the malady of the secular age. Both Alex and Katherine are imprisoned within themselves, unable to connect with each other or the world. To borrow a phrase from Jean-Luc Godard, they are “castaways of the western world, survivors of the shipwreck of modernity.” [ii]  Journey would pave the way for a cinema of alienation, haunted with the ghostly nonbeing of lives “lacking in purpose, in passion, in zest, in a sense of community, in ordinary human responsiveness, in the ability to communicate.…” [iii]

This was a new kind of cinema, born of twentieth-century trauma. After the Holocaust and Hiroshima, it became impossible to limit the art of film to self-contained stories, within which the actors can take action to resolve problems and produce definitive and satisfying conclusions. The damage and disfigurement of humanity, its existential crisis and utter lostness, had to find authentic representation in movies about “nothing.” That is to say, their true subject would not be a narrative but a condition.

French film scholar Antoine de Baecque writes about the impact on filmmakers of the shocking footage shot during the liberation of the Nazi death camps. The idea of “aestheticizing horror” through fictional recreations of the camps seemed obscene at the time. “I could never do that,” said American director Samuel Fuller. “How can you do it better than the Germans?”[iv]  But those terrible images lodged themselves permanently in the psyches of directors like Rossellini, Antonioni, Resnais and Godard. As de Baecque writes:

“These images born of the war, which deeply marked cinema and filmmakers at the time, did a kind of subterranean work, a ‘reworking’ so to speak, subconsciously—since they never actually appear in postwar films—and then resurfaced in films (often ten years later) in definite forms, like traumatic memory that, little by little, had bored its way into the history of cinema. An art form had lost its innocence, and the great auteurs would no longer be making the same kinds of films.” They could only “return to the real by getting out of the studio to film the world.” [v]

Skulls of unknown dead at the cave cemetery of Fontanelle in Naples.

In Journey, the memory of death resurfaces again and again. We see the charnel house skulls in a Naples cemetery, a funeral cortège rounding a corner to block our progress, and the ruins of Pompeii, where a thousand Romans were buried alive by the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in 79 A.D. Even when Alex and Katherine bask in the pleasant Mediterranean sun, the volcano looms behind them as a reminder of mortality.

Sunbathing at Homer’s villa, with Vesuvius in the background.

Two people have lost their way in a world of death. Is there no exit? The spirituality of Naples wants to speak, but Alex has no ears to hear, no curiosity beyond his enclosure of self-absorption. Katherine, however, proves more adventurous. When she drives into Naples from the villa, the film cuts between her “entombment” inside the car and the fecundity of street life all around her—strolling lovers, pregnant women, sidewalk vendors. The contrast between the carefully composed studio shot of Katherine behind the wheel and the cinéma vérité footage of the street creates an unstable mix of fiction and documentary. The wall between herself and a wider reality is starting to crumble.

The polished studio shot of Katherine encased in her car contrasts with the documentary realism of the street scenes around her.

“That’s what God is for, to make our lies truth.”

— Iris Murdoch, The Good Apprentice

In writing about the novels of Iris Murdoch, theologian Paul S. Fiddes describes the ‘unselving’ of self-enclosed characters. He could be writing about the Joyces as well. Like Murdoch’s protagonists, they “learn, or fail to learn, to be truthful, which means giving attention to what is real around them. At one level … this means noticing people as they actually are, rather than as we want them to be for our convenience. It means delighting in all the contingent details of the world, recognizing the ‘otherness’ of people and things, and living with all the hazards of accident. At the very least the disciples of goodness accept the ‘muddle’ of the world, and at the best they experience its amazing variety as being the Sublime.” [vi]

Katherine’s tourist itinerary of Naples thus becomes something more: a journey into the depths of the past—the cave of an ancient Sibyl, an ossuary of anonymous skulls, galleries of Roman sculpture, the ruins of Pompeii. Here she begins to face what Rose Macaulay called “the ruins of the soul; the shadowy dreams that lurked tenebrously in the cellars of consciousness; in the mysterious corridors and arcades of dreams, the wilderness that stretches not without but within.” [vii] Remnants of a vanished past, signifying the paradoxical dance of time and eternity, interrogate the meaning of her present existence. As we are now, so you shall soon be. What are you doing with the tiny slice of time you’ve been given? When you’re gone, what remains?

In the archaeological museum, the eyes of the past interrogate the modern viewer.

 When Katherine looks at statues, they stare back. Who are you? The “I” of the camera, a third subjectivity, looks at both—at the statue, then at Katherine. In the museum and the other visited sites, the film becomes a documentary of Ingrid Bergman’s face, “a sensory surface on which the sounds and images are imprinted. The film appears to rest entirely on her reactions.” [viii]

When Katherine gazes into the sulphur pits of Vesuvius, where subterranean energies surface into visibility, we are reminded of Dante’s Inferno, the classic template for every descent into the soul’s hidden depths.

Katherine and her guide at the sulphur pits of Vesuvius.

Gustave Doré: Dante and Virgil in the 8th circle of hell.

The crisis point in Journey follows a bitter argument between Katherine and Alex. At the very moment Alex says the fatal word—“divorce”—they are interrupted by Burton, the villa’s property manager, who insists they come immediately to the excavation at Pompeii, where a pair of “bodies” is about to be uncovered.

When Pompeii was buried under six meters of volcanic ash two thousand years ago, its inhabitants died instantly. Their bodies dissolved over time, leaving hollow forms in the hardened ash. During the shooting of Journey to Italy, archaeologists were in the process of injecting plaster into those forms to recreate the ancient “bodies,” and Rossellini was allowed to film the fictional Joyces watching the real uncovering of a buried past.

“You must come!” Burton had told them. “Imagine—to actually see the shape of a man just as he was then, the moment when he was surprised by death.” In fact, what they do see is two people, a couple who took their last breath lying side by side as lovers.

The forms are real plaster, but at the same time they are fictional figures, reimagined into the visible from the empty shapes left behind by the dead. They are, in effect, tangible expressions of nothingness, which might also be said about the hollow and aimless lives of the Joyces. For any viewer, those plaster forms of vanished Pompeiians prompt unsettling meditations on life and death, presence and absence, and our own essential nothingness. I myself contemplated Pompeii’s plaster ghosts almost fifty years ago, and I can still recall the melancholy—and the fascination—those forms evoked in me. As Julian of Norwich put it in the 14th century, without divine love sustaining us in every moment, we would all sink into nonbeing.

Alex and Katherine watch the unearthing of the ancient couple at Pompeii.

What the Joyces behold, as they watch the archaeologists brush away the ash from the plaster forms, is history made visible. Staring into the abyss of time, they are confronted by the smallness and brevity of their own lives. Their own nothingness surfaces into awareness. The falsity of their solipsistic lives, independent of a larger world and ignorant of death, begins to give way.

The image of the ancient lovers is itself a shock, history’s rebuke to their own loveless marriage. Perhaps most terrible of all is the photographic nature of the forms, capturing a single instant of the past and removing it from the flow of time. The Roman lovers are a still image, frozen in a moment with no future. For Katherine and Alex, stuck in a hell of their own making, it displays the horror of an existence which cannot change, a deadness with no exit. They recognize themselves—sans embrace—in the plaster forms.

Katherine recoils and bursts into tears, demanding that they leave the site. As the couple descends a flight of ancient stairs to find their car, Katherine asks her husband, “Is this the way out?” It is another Dantean moment: the way down is the only way up.

Once back in their car, they try to put some distance between themselves and the place which has tried their souls. But the south will not let them go. Passing through the town of Maiori on the Amalfi Coast, they are blocked by a great crowd jamming the central square. It is a procession for San Gennaro, the only Christian festival to claim an annual miracle: the liquefication of the martyred bishop’s dried blood. The persistence of this claim in a skeptical age highlights the archaic strangeness of a region where the past seems so unperturbed by modernity. And in this land of miracles, Journey to Italy reaches its miraculous conclusion.

Unable to drive any further, Katherine and Alex get out their car, the symbol of their isolation from and control over exterior circumstance. Immersed in the teeming crowd, they seem nakedly exposed to the energies all around them. When Katherine is suddenly swept away by a surge of bodies, Alex runs to rescue her. They embrace. Suddenly—miraculously—awakening to a forgotten but genuine bond between them, they confess their folly and profess their love.

The miraculous reconciliation defies expectations.

It’s a Hollywood ending, but one in quotes, because this is a modernist work, where the real and ambiguous world insists on breaking into the neatly scripted story. If the revelations and crisis that preceded this moment only result in a happy ending for the couple, who might then resume their distance from the world if not each other, it is not a true unselving. It would allow the lie of autonomous lives to carry on.

Alex and Katherine embrace as the camera pulls away.

The film’s true miracle is not the “happy ending” of the Joyces’ embrace and the lovely closeup of famous movie stars. Rather, it is their disappearance into the larger world of humanity and history, and through that, into the ultimate mystery of the world, whom we call divine. And this miracle happens when the camera, on a crane, pulls away from the couple to sweep over the crowd. The Joyces are not forgotten, but they are now understood as part of a much larger world. But this world is not anonymous and impersonal. The uniquely personal remains undiminished in this great communion of mortal beings, as the final shot, now at eye level, watches face after face after face pass by, into a collective future that never stops unfolding.

Every age will see a film differently. I’ve watched Journey to Italy many times over the years, but viewing it during the pandemic has touched an existential nerve. Larger realities are breaking into our settled world, and we will never be the same. Our own Vesuvius looms on the horizon.

Film critic Laura Mulvey, in her commentary on the excavation scene, points out that cinema itself, not just particular films, confronts us with our mortality:

“The figures of the excavation are formed by an imprint left by the original. Film too is an imprint.…The presence of the human figure on celluloid is one more layer, one more trace of the past brought to life and preserved.… With the coming of death and the passing of time, Ingrid Bergman and George Sanders, as well as the passersby in Naples, are now themselves dead, their images fossilized on celluloid, just as the figures of Pompeii were cast in plaster.” [ix]

“Life is so short,” says Katherine among the ruins. And as today’s pandemic spreads its shadow over the earth, and climate change undermines the stability of the physical world, we too have become more conscious of our vulnerability and our brevity, and less able to maintain the illusion of untouched autonomous lives. We can no longer keep death at a safe distance; we dance every day on the razor’s edge between being and nonbeing. Who knows when we, too, will be “surprised by death?”

But in the long run of time, the question of my fate or your fate must give way to a larger perspective. We are all in this together, and—come what may—I believe we will, in the end, be gathered into the great procession of a redeemed humanity, shouting “Glory!” for all eternity. It will no longer be death that takes us by surprise, but grace.

Love among the ruins. “Life is so short.”

 

Journey to Italy (1954) is the third feature in a trilogy of “voyage” films which Rossellini made with Ingrid Bergman, who left a successful Hollywood career to make these art films—some of her best work—with the Italian director, with whom she would fall in love. All 3 films involve a transformative journey into an unfamiliar and challenging place—a barren island in Stromboli (1950), the world of the poor in Europe ’51 (1952), and the mysterious south of Italy in Journey. In the U.S., The Criterion Collection has produced a beautifully mastered box set of the Trilogy, with excellent commentaries, to which I am indebted, on the discs and in the booklet. Journey to Italy can be streamed, but (in the U.S. at least), it is available on disc only in the box set, which is definitely worth having if you love film.

 

[i] Cited in James Quandt’s commentary, “Surprised by Death: Roberto Rossellini’s Voyage Trilogy,” on the Criterion disc, 3 Films by Roberto Rossellini with Ingrid Bergman (2013). Rivette, along with Godard, Resnais, and Truffaut, would be greatly influenced by this film, and often praised it in their writings.

[ii] Godard is describing his own film, Contempt (1963), which was itself an hommage to Journey to Italy. Cited in Quandt’s commentary.

[iii] This quote from Richard Gilman’s “About Nothing—with Precision,” Theater Arts 46, no. 7 (July 1962), p. 11. Gilman is writing about another Italian director, Michelangelo Antonioni, who would take the theme of alienation to the limit in films like La Notte (1961), where the alienated couple remains stuck in their private hell, unlike the couple in Journey to Italy. Rossellini regarded Antonioni’s films as too pessimistic, but both filmmakers were dealing with the same modern malady: alienation, drift, and emptiness. Gilman is cited in Seymour Chatman, Antonioni, or, the Surface of the World (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1985),

[iv] Cited in Antoine de Baecque, Camera Historica: The Century in Cinema, trans. Ninon Vinsonneau & Jonathan Magidoff (New York: Columbia University, 2008), 68. Fuller shot footage for the U.S. Army during the liberation of the camp at Falkenau (you can find it on YouTube), but he never tried to recreate the horror in a fictional way. He did show his actors watching documentary footage in Verboten!(1959). The fictional shots pale when intercut with real images of mass death.

[v] Antoine de Baecque, 45.

[vi] Paul S. Fiddes, Freedom and Limit: A Dialogue between Literature and Christian Doctrine (Macon, GA: Mercer University Press, 1999), 173.

[vii] Rose Macaulay, The World My Wilderness (1950), cited in Christopher Woodward, In Ruins (New York: Pantheon Books, 2001), 231. Macaulay’s character is contemplating the bomb craters and ruined buildings in 1946 London. The remnants of past destruction bear thematic resemblance to Pompeii and evoke similar responses.

[viii] Antoine de Baecque, 65.

[ix] Laura Mulvey is a noted British film theorist. Her richly informative commentary is on the Criterion disc.

Should “God” Be Spoken at a Political Convention?

“I alone am God; there is no other.” (Phrygian Sybil, Vito de Marco, pavement of Siena cathedral, c. 1482)

I always cringe when political figures conclude their speeches with “God bless the United States of America.” In that context it is not a prayer; it is an assertion of privilege and dominance, invoking divine consent and protection for a sinful status quo. At best it is a formulaic trivialization of divine-human communication, lacking the humility, attentiveness and depth proper for addressing the Holy. At worst, in the mouths of scheming hypocrites and cruel tyrants, it’s blasphemy.

How many times, at this week’s Republican National Convention, did we hear the word ‘God’ on the lips of angry, hateful, lying partisans? I don’t know which is worse—the cynicism of unbelievers who speak the word only to dupe the gullible, or the bizarre piety of those who seem to believe that God blesses corruption, deception and violence.

One might debate degrees of difference between Democrats and Republicans regarding the promiscuous appropriation of “God” in their rhetoric. No one is without sin in the world of politics, and the abuse of rhetorical piety is a bipartisan failing. It’s hard to remain spotless when it comes to power struggles. But can we at least agree that anyone who has committed, condoned or enabled the torture of caged children should never dare to cry “God!” unless they are lying prostrate on the ground, weeping bitter tears, begging forgiveness in fear and trembling?

Time magazine cover, July 2, 2018.

When I was a young man studying theology with Robert McAfee Brown, he read us a passage from Martin Buber’s Eclipse of God. Fifty years later, I still remember the passionate wisdom of the Jewish theologian’s words. He was responding to a friend who thought “God” to be a word so defiled by centuries of misuse that its utterance should be suspended indefinitely, giving it time to recover its proper purity and depth. Buber replied:

“Yes,” I said, “it is the most heavy-laden of all human words. None has become so soiled, so mutilated. Just for this reason I may not abandon it. The generations have laid the burden of their anxious lives upon this word and weighed it to the ground; it lies in the dust and bears their whole burden. Human beings with their religious factions have torn the word to pieces; they have killed for it and died for it, and it bears their finger marks and their blood.

“Where might I find a word like it to describe the highest! If I took the purest, most sparkling concept from the inner treasure-chamber of the philosophers, I could only capture thereby an unbinding product of thought. I could not capture the presence of the One whom the generations have honoured and degraded with their awesome living and dying. I do indeed mean God whom the hell-tormented and heaven-storming generations mean. Certainly, they draw caricatures and write ‘God’ underneath; they murder one another and say ‘in God’s name.’ But when all madness and delusion fall to dust, when they stand over against Him in the loneliest darkness and no longer say, ‘He, He,’ but rather sigh ‘Thou,’ shout ‘Thou,’ all of them the one word, and when they then add ‘God,’ is it not the real God whom they all implore, the One Living God, the God of the human race? Is it not He who hears them?

“And just for this reason, is not the word ‘God’, the word of appeal, the word which has become a name, consecrated in all human tongues for all times? We must esteem those who interdict it because they rebel against the injustice and wrong which is so readily referred to ‘God’ for authorisation. But we may not give up. How understandable it is that some suggest we should remain silent about ‘the last things’ for a time in order that the misused words may be redeemed! But they are not to be redeemed thus. We cannot cleanse the word ‘God’ and we cannot make it whole; but, defiled and mutilated as it is, we can raise it from the ground and set it over an hour of great care.”

The Deposition (early Gothic; Leon cathedral on the Camino de Santiago)

An Unforgettable Night at the Troubadour (50th Anniversary)

Fifty years ago tonight, I was lucky enough to hear a legendary concert by two extraordinary songwriters and performers, David Ackles and Elton John. A fanciful depiction of that night in the 2019 biopic Rocket Man shows the audience rising ecstatically to float above the floor. Actually, we were all sitting around big tables, but that is pretty much how it felt to be there. For the fiftieth anniversary of that unforgettable evening, I reprise my tribute written in 2016. 

David Ackles singing at the author’s ordination, Sept. 17, 1970 (Photo by Marilyn Robertson)

I have no explanation as to why the David Ackles albums spoke to me so intensely, but it was with those records that I probably spent the most time when I was about sixteen, listening in a darkened room, trying to imagine how everything had come to exist.” 

— Elvis Costello, Unfaithful Music and Disappearing Ink

They suffer least who suffer what they choose.

— David Ackles, “American Gothic”

 

The Troubadour, an intimate club in West Hollywood, has seen some pretty special nights over the years. Joni Mitchell, Leonard Cohen, Randy Newman, Prince, Tom Petty, Pearl Jam and so many others have performed on its stage. Neil Young and James Taylor each made their solo debut there. The Byrds sang “Mr. Tambourine Man” for the first time in public. Tom Waits was discovered during amateur night. Springsteen, Dylan and Led Zeppelin dropped by after hours for legendary jams. Miles Davis and Van Morrison recorded there.[i]

When Elton John made his smashing American debut at the Troubadour on August 25, 1970, he was not yet widely known. He was originally booked as the opening act for David Ackles, a Los Angeles musical artist greatly admired by Elton John and his lyricist Bernie Taupin. But John’s record company pulled some strings to get the bill reversed. In conjunction with the release of his first album, John would become the headline act.

He would admit later to some embarrassment at being promoted above Ackles on the billing, since Ackles was one of his heroes, “one of the best that America has to offer.” Elvis Costello was also a fan, “It’s a mystery to me why his wonderful songs are not better known,” he has said.[ii] When Costello interviewed John on his Sundance cable series, Spectacle, they both voiced generous tributes to Ackles’ genius and influence, and closed the show with a duet of his great song of loss and longing, “Down River.” [iii]

Ackles put out four memorable albums between 1968 and 1973. His masterpiece, American Gothic (1972), generated critical raves. “The Sergeant Pepper of Folk,” gushed a noted British critic, astonished at its thematic brilliance, structural complexity and musical originality. Rolling Stone called it “moving” and “eloquent.” A retrospective appraisal in 2005 acclaimed it “a largely unrecognized work of genius, one of the most unfashionable and uncompromising American albums ever. . . Crafted layer upon layer, it reveals itself more as a dramatic work than a conventional rock or pop release, drawing on modern American classical composers such as Charles Ives and Aaron Copland as well as gospel, rock, blues, and soul. Imagine an art-folk album that bridges Woody Guthrie’s passionate storytelling and Kurt Weill’s orchestrations.” [iv]

Rolling Stone said at the time that American Gothic “deserves a wide audience,” but when sales proved weak, his recording company, Elektra, lost interest. Ackles made one more album on the Columbia label, but his music seemed too hard to categorize in an industry driven by identifiable genres. Was it folk, pop, classical, musical theater, or what? His originality didn’t fit the system. A ten-minute elegy to a lost past (“Montana Song”) was not going to get much radio time. And you couldn’t dance to it. But however neglected, the heartbreaking beauty of Ackles’ imagery still blooms like wildflowers on a deserted prairie:

The fallen barn, the broken plow,
the hoofprint-hardened clay;
where is the farmer, now,
who built his dream this way ?
Who felled the tree and cut the bough
and made the land obey,
who taught his sons as he knew how,
but could not make them stay. [v]

Disappointed by the lack of tangible support for his work, Ackles abandoned his recording career, but not his joie de vivre. “I’m not bitter about a thing that’s happened to me,” he told an interviewer in 1998. “I would hate for people to think I’m over here getting all twisted up about what happened 20 years ago. All that feels like another life, lived by someone else.” [vi]

Although he could write an achingly beautiful love song like “Love’s Enough,” he was at heart a storyteller, weaving poetic and sometimes tragic narratives of American dreamers and strivers, who “joined the circus, worked the fields,” but “never saved a dime.” And even when they had to “learn to dance to someone else’s song,” they managed to endure:

But I hold on to my dreams, anyway.
I never let them die.
They keep me going through the bad times,
while I dream
of the good times coming by. [vii]

Bernie Taupin, who produced American Gothic, summed up Ackles’ intensity and conviction in a 2008 remembrance: “Man! If you didn’t believe every word this guy was singing, you were dead inside.” [viii]

I first met David Ackles in early 1970, when I was working at Canterbury House in Ann Arbor, Michigan, an Episcopal campus ministry and coffeehouse known as one of the premiere folk music venues in the country. I was just out of seminary, working with two priests as an intern during the year of my “transitional diaconate,” the prelude to priestly ordination. While I was in residence, Canterbury House featured Neil Young, Doc Watson, Ramblin’ Jack Elliott, and David Ackles.

David was one of Canterbury’s most popular performers, loved not only for his music but also for his manifest warmth and wry humor. He was a lifelong Christian, deeply spiritual and theologically astute, an authentic and generous man. And though some of his songs revealed a profound empathy with the suffering of displaced souls, there was an essential core in him—a comedic faith in resurrection—which survived the harrowing descent of the artist into the nether regions of the human condition.

By summer of 1970, I was back home in Los Angeles, awaiting my ordination to the priesthood in September. When I saw that David was playing at the Troubadour, I knew I had to be there. Meanwhile, the radio was starting to preview a few unreleased songs by the other guy on the bill, and he sounded quite good as well. Word got around, excitement grew, and on August 25 the house was packed. We shared a table with Odetta, the “queen of American folk music.” [ix]

Before the show, I went backstage to ask David if he would consider singing at my ordination, and he graciously consented. While we were talking, Elton John entered the dressing room, wearing denim overalls with a cartoon duck patch on the front, to tell David how much he admired his work and how honored he was to share the stage with him.

And the concert? It’s been nearly fifty years now. Details grow hazy; I can’t recite the set lists anymore. But I can still feel the electricity of that Hollywood night, the passion of the performers, the visceral connection they made with their audience.

Stacy Sullivan, a jazz singer who once worked with David, is currently performing, in small New York clubs, “A Night at the Troubadour: Presenting Elton John and David Ackles.” While showing the brilliance of two stars aligning, her re-imagining of that night suggests the strangeness of fate: one singer became an international superstar, the other remained largely undiscovered.

The New York Times has called Sullivan’s tribute a “tour de force” which “interweaves more than a dozen Ackles songs with several of Mr. John’s hits, radically deconstructed, into a dual portrait in which their opposite sensibilities (Mr. John’s gregarious showmanship, and Mr. Ackles’ dignified introspection) eventually merge.” [x] Lucky Easterners can still see her at Manhattan’s Metropolitan Room on September 10 and October 8 [Note: this was in 2016]. I can only pray that she will do a West Coast reprise. I promise to come.

A few weeks after the Troubadour show, David sang two songs for my ordination at All Saints, Beverly Hills, where the opening hymn was “Let It Be” and large projected images filled the wall behind the altar. Those were the days! During communion, David sang “Be My Friend.” At the Dismissal, he led the congregation in “Family Band,” which he said was autobiographical, since he grew up in a musical family of church-going Presbyterians. I still play that song on my guitar every ordination anniversary:

I remember the songs we sang Sunday evening . . .
when my dad played the bass, mom played the drums,
I played the piano,
and Jesus sang the song.

David got lung cancer in the late nineties. When he went into remission, he and his wonderful wife Janice rented a Pasadena mansion, filled it with musicians, and threw a grand party for their friends, to celebrate the gifts of life and love. Then, in 1999, David departed this world, far too soon. He is dearly missed. But that gathering in Pasadena remains a joyous foretaste of the blessedness which awaits us all.

And I will cherish the faith in the songs we knew then,
till we all sing together, till we all sing together,
till we sing them together again.

 

 

[i] For a more extensive historical list: http://www.troubadour.com/history

[ii] Reuters obituary in March, 1999, cited in Kenny MacDonald interview: http://www.terrascope.co.uk/MyBackPages/David%20Ackles.htm

[iii] YouTube has a version of their duet: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sXvlCjrlHCQand their conversation about David is at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Qbt1Cee7Usw

[iv] George Durbalau, 1001 Albums You Must Hear Before You Die, 2005. Along with other review quotes, found at http://www.superseventies.com/spacklesdavid.html

[v] David Ackles, “Montana Song,” on American Gothic. Some of David’s songs can be heard on YouTube, and his albums can be found online as well.

[vi] Kenny MacDonald interview

[vii] “Another Friday Night,” American Gothic

[viii] Bernie Taupin’s blog, Dec. 3, 2008

[ix] Attributed to Martin Luther King, Jr.: http://entertainment.time.com/2011/10/24/the-all-time-100-songs/slide/take-this-hammer-odetta/

[x] New York Times, July 16, 2016: http://www.nytimes.com/2016/07/16/arts/music/stacy-sullivan-david-ackles-review.html?_r=1

 

What Would Samson Do? — Finding Trump in the Bible

Who can be serene in a country where both the rulers and the ruled are without principle? The remembrance of my country spoils my walk.

— Henry David Thoreau [i]

[T]his president and those in power—those who benefit from keeping things the way they are—they are counting on your cynicism … Do not let them take away your power. Don’t let them take away your democracy. 

— Barack Obama [ii]

 

When the previous American president called out the most dangerous man in America at the Democratic Convention, he broke the presidential norm of speaking softly about your successor. “Donald Trump hasn’t grown into the job because he can’t,” said Obama. “And the consequences of that failure are severe. 170,000 Americans dead. Millions of jobs gone while those at the top take in more than ever. Our worst impulses unleashed, our proud reputation around the world badly diminished, and our democratic institutions threatened like never before.” [iii]

Three years ago the press would have worried more about the broken norm than the words themselves. No longer. Democracy is on fire, and even some former White House officials are grabbing the nearest hose. In normal times, the Senate report detailing Trump’s extensive Russian collusion would bring an Administration’s swift collapse. But amid the ongoing maelstrom of misdeeds, it’s barely noticed. In normal times, a reporter would not be inviting a president to refute the conspiracy theory of his secret plan to save the world from a satanic cult of pedophiles and cannibals. And in normal times, the president would not respond by wondering “is that supposed to be a good thing or a bad thing?” [iv]

Coincidentally, in recent weeks the Episcopal Daily Office has been taking us through the Book of Judges, one of those disturbing texts that won’t let us mistake the Bible for a handbook on exemplary behavior. It’s a collection of ancient tales—legends with historical origins—from Israel’s history after the Exodus, when the refugees from Egyptian slavery were establishing themselves in a Promised Land. That land’s existing occupants were not so thrilled with the immigrants’ aspirations, and the narrative accounts are filled with appalling violence. It’s not a book I’d care to preach on.

When a later editor wove the stories into the Book of Judges, he sought to make a larger point about the Israelites losing their way as a people whose identity and survival was rooted in the divine Deliverer. Judges begins with stories of charismatic leaders who rise up as needed to guide their people through a formative time. But charisma proved an unreliable form of governance. Judges ends with several tales to demonstrate a need for a more stable political system, as the tribes devolve into civil war. The story of Samson is the turning point.

While Sunday school teachers have long cringed at the sex and violence of the Samson saga, children (and Hollywood producers) have been captivated by his superhero powers and comic-book adventures. Outnumbered by those Philistine bullies, he always gives them their comeuppance. BAM! POW! OOF! Not even a lion can beat him. And though tricked and weakened by a femme fatale, he still brings the house down on the bad guys in the end.

But to what purpose? He has no particular interest in the greater good of his people. All he cares about is himself. He is driven by impulse, not thought. Revenge and lust shape his choices. Although we are told “he led Israel … for twenty years,” he shows no leadership skills, and generates considerable hostility among his own people. However, he does excel at destruction—what Robert Alter calls his “anarchic impulse”—so cruelly exhibited when he ties torches to the tails of three hundred foxes to set Philistine fields and vineyards ablaze.

Finally captured and blinded by his enemies, he refuses to admit defeat. If he has to go down, he’s going to take everyone else down with him. In a famously spectacular finish, he pushes “powerfully” against the pillars of their temple, and the great structure collapses, killing three thousand men and women, including himself. The narrator ends with a chilling summation: “And the dead that he killed in his death were more than he had killed in his life” (Judges 16:30).

As Alter notes, the Book of Judges goes on to relate further episodes of “unbridled lust, implacable hostility, and mutual mayhem,” not to mention “dishonesty and deception … venality and the ruthless pursuit of personal and tribal self-interest.”[v] It’s a disheartening book, whose final sentence conveys the total disintegration of social bonds and the common good: “Every man did what was right in his own eyes” (Judges 21:25).

Sound familiar? Three years ago, few of us imagined how fragile and corruptible our own political institutions would prove to be. As Barack Obama warns us, we are on the verge of losing our democracy—and so much more. The current president’s small hands are pushing hard against the pillars of America. He’d rather kill us all than be the only “loser.”

It’s a stressful time to be an American, even without a pandemic. To paraphrase Thoreau, the “remembrance of my country” is spoiling my summer. Serenity is a rare commodity these days. And that is perhaps how it must be until we expel the demons from White House and Senate. Keep our eyes on the prize and hold on!

In Thoreau’s essay, “Slavery in Massachusetts,” his dark thoughts about America’s sins are succeeded by the memory of a walk when he chances upon a white waterlily. The flower becomes a redemptive epiphany:

“It bursts up so pure and fair to the eye, and so sweet to the scent, as if to show us what purity and sweetness reside in, and can be extracted from, the slime and muck of earth … What confirmation of our hopes is in the fragrance of this flower!”

So many moments in this week’s Democratic Convention have provided a confirmation of my own hopes: the determined voices of those who transform personal suffering and pain into commitment to the common good; the joyful spirits whose ideals still burn bright; the splendor of so many diverse and shining faces; a passionate yearning for beloved community; and the uplifting video segments which burst “so fair upon the eye.”

 

[i] H. D. Thoreau, “Slavery in Massachusetts,” Collected Essays and Poems (New York: The Library of America, 2001), 346.

[ii] The 44th President’s speech at the Democratic Convention (August 19, 2020).

[iii] Ibid.

[iv] https://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/americas/us-election/donald-trump-qanon-conspiracy-2020-election-a9678946.html

[v] Robert Alter, The Hebrew Bible: A Translation with Commentary, Volume 2: Prophets (New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 2019),

Walking on the Sea with Jesus: A Homily on Matthew 14:22-33

Gustave Brion, Jesus & Peter on the Water (1863).

This is the text of a homily preached from a kayak “on location” in Puget Sound, a stand-in for the Sea of Galilee where the gospel for this Sunday takes place. You can view the video below. 

“Get in the boat!” Jesus tells the disciples. “Get in the boat and go to the other side of the lake.” We don’t know the exact words Jesus used, or his tone of voice, but Matthew’s gospel is pretty clear about the forcefulness of his command. The original Greek words suggest that he had to force them or push them into the boat. They clearly were reluctant to go. But why?

They may have been hesitant to go anywhere without their trusted teacher. And certainly none of them would be eager to go to the other side. That’s where the Gentiles lived, those weird foreigners who were so disliked and feared. The other side, in the disciples’ eyes, was a bad neighborhood, infested by Roman rats.

But the scariest thing was the sea itself. Although the Sea of Galilee is only a large lake (about one-third the size of Lake Tahoe), its original Hebrew name, Yam, means “roar,” perhaps because of the tempestuous waves created by its infamous sudden storms. A few years ago, 80 swimmers in that lake had to be rescued when strong winds swept them out into deep waters.

I have only seen the Sea of Galilee in good weather. But almost without warning, it can become a wild and dangerous place. The fishermen disciples knew the risk of drifting too far from the shore, but here was Jesus making them cross its depths for five or six miles—that’s the distance between Bainbridge Island and Seattle. Would you want to do that in a small boat in a big storm?

For biblical people of the land, wild seas were not just physically dangerous. They conveyed a cosmic threat as well, manifesting the primal chaos which threatens to undo the harmonious stability of the world. Only the divine Creator can tame this chaos. As the Psalmist says,

You rule the raging of the sea.
When its waves roar, it is you who subdues them.
(Psalm 89:9)

Scriptures like that made the world seem safe, but when the winds kicked up and the waves began to wash over their little boat, Jesus’ disciples were probably thinking of another Psalm:

Save me, O God, for the waters have risen up to my neck.
I am sinking in deep mire,
and there is no firm ground for my feet.
I have come into deep waters,
and the torrent washes over me. (Psalm 69:1-3)

Matthew tells us that “the wind was against them.” No matter how hard they tried, they could make no headway. When the sun went down, the storm continued to batter them in the dark. They became exhausted, disheartened, and afraid. Would the long and terrible night ever end?

This was the archetypal night-sea journey, where everything familiar and safe is left behind in a perilous passage through a formless sea of unknowing and unmaking which threatens to swallow the voyager.

We know something about that, don’t we? We are all on a night-sea journey now, in this strange and anxious time. Having left behind the shore of “normal” life, battered by the fierce waves of multiple crises, we are trying desperately to stay afloat in the darkness. But like those first disciples, we find ourselves against the wind.

So how does the gospel story end? In the darkest hour just before dawn, Jesus “came walking toward them on the sea.” It’s an extraordinary moment in the gospel narrative, but a few centuries ago it became something of an embarrassment. Empiricists declared it to be the kind of thing that just doesn’t happen, and authors of books with titles like Christianity Not Mysterious (1696) began to purge the gospels of anything “inconsistent with the Light of Nature, and the eternal Reason of Things.” [i]

Christian rationalists sought plausible explanations for gospel miracles. Healings were deemed psychosomatic, for example, and walking on water, if not dismissed altogether, was explained as Jesus wading in the shallows along the shore, or standing on a raft which disciples couldn’t see in the dark.

This isn’t the time to address the complex questions about biblical miracles, but let me say in passing that we should be careful about applying modernity’s criteria for what is possible to anything dealing with the transcendent. The gospel stories come from a different thought-world, and sometimes they describe realities not yet fully realized in our fallen and unfinished world. Those of us who have grown familiar with biblical texts can forget just how strange the stories really are, and how strange Jesus is.

In both Jesus’ day and our own, the powers-that-be tend to affirm and enforce a “reality” of suffering, cruelty, and violence. “It is what it is,” they tell us. But then Jesus invades this so-called reality and calls it into question. He not only preaches the impossible, he proves it: the blind see, the lame walk, prisoners go free, mourners dance, and the poor inherit the earth.

Make no mistake: Jesus leads us into a very different world, and that world, in comparison to the present state of things, can appear miraculous to inexperienced eyes.

As for the story of Jesus walking on water, the question of its historical plausibility is not a critical question for me. It’s not the kind of thing I expect to happen, but I won’t rule out the possibility of something uncanny and transcendent lying behind this enigmatic narrative.

Jesus was in but not of this world, and the mysterious is an inseparable element of his story. How much does it matter what we are able to make of the story’s strangeness? What really matters is what the story makes of us.

And the story, like the disciples’ boat, is built to transport us out into the sea of unknowing, to find something we will miss if we remain on shore. So get on board, little children, get on board. Even if you are reluctant to embrace the miraculous, get on board. The story wants to take us all to the other side.

And so we soon find ourselves far from shore, awash in the sea’s brawling swells, helpless against the wind, hearts breaking in the endless night, when suddenly we see something—someone—walking toward us, walking on the sea like the Maker of heaven and earth who once “trampled the waves of chaos” (Job 9:8).

How can this be! It’s a ghost! A phantasm. A figment of our imagination. Our fear is making us crazy. But then we hear that voice we know so well:

“Take heart, it is I;
do not be afraid.”

It’s still hard to make out what we’re seeing in the darkness, but Peter calls out, “Lord? Oh Lord, if it is really you, call me, and bid me come to you.” The voice answers, “Come.” And that’s what Peter does. He climbs out of the boat, and begins to walk toward Jesus, striding impetuously across the water as if it were solid ground.

His eyes see nothing but the gaze of his Master. But just before he reaches Jesus, he remembers the storm, the wind, the waves. He remembers his fear. He takes his eyes off Jesus and looks at the raging water. Immediately he begins to sink, and the sea is swallowing him. “Lord, save me!” he cries. Jesus grabs his hand. “You of little faith, why did you doubt?” I like to think Jesus says this tenderly, with a smile.

And as soon as the two of them get into the boat, the wind ceases. The storm is over. The sea grows smooth and still. After so much turbulence and drama, this sudden calm may be the story’s greatest miracle, one we so desperately need today.

Buffeted on every side by so much danger, affliction, and loss, we have come to know the demons of anxiety and sadness. We’ve drifted too far from the shore, the wind is against us, and some of us are starting to sink. Who can even remember what it was like to be at peace in an uneventful time?

James Martin, a Jesuit author and teacher, wrote a book about Jesus based on his pilgrimage to the places where the gospels happened. At the Sea of Galilee, he recalls a time when he was deeply stressed by the relentless grind of nonstop speaking engagements. It felt like a ceaseless storm, and he was drowning. So he decided to pray about it with a visual meditation on Jesus and Peter on the sea.

“When I closed my eyes,” he says, “the first thing I saw in my mind’s eye was Jesus, clad in a light blue robe, standing silently on the sea, a glassy calm. He stretched out his hands as if to say, ‘Come.” But unlike Peter I didn’t feel the invitation to walk on the water, as if to prove something. Instead, he seemed to be saying, ‘Why not come into the calm?’ The wind whipped around his blue garments, with the sound of a flag in the wind, but both he and the sea remained calm.” [ii]

Why not come into the calm? What a precious and necessary gift this story wants to give us, inviting us into the calm. We all need that calm so very, very much. And I would be tempted to leave it at that, but I believe there is something else, equally important, we need to take from this story.

Last year, a minister in the United Church of Canada, Hilde J. Seal, was speaking with a parishioner at the door after worship. The woman thanked Seal for her sermon, and then she said, “I wish you would speak about racism.”

The preacher thought about that challenge for weeks, but she worried that the volatile subject might take her congregation, as she put it, into “troubled waters … Deep, murky, swirling, rushing, dashing water… exploding like a storm.” It’s not something a pastor does lightly.

But when it came time to preach on Matthew’s account of Jesus and Peter on the Sea of Galilee, she knew she had to go there, to address systemic racism in her country in the light of the gospel, because the middle of that storm, or any other, is exactly where the church needs to be if it wants to fulfill its vocation, trampling on the waves of sin and fear.

“Jesus calls us into the rough waters,” she said, “to meet the power of God’s presence within the storm. So let’s get out of the boat, to walk on the water toward Jesus. “But I warn you,” she added, “that once our toes are splashed by the swirling, rushing, dashing water… we might feel like we are about to drown.” [iii]

The wild sea, the storm-tossed boat,
the sinking disciple crying for help—
these are powerful and challenging images.
Most of us would rather remain on shore,
or at least inside the boat.
Who among us is prepared to step out into the deep?

That kind of courage doesn’t come naturally. British novelist Olaf Stapledon once described comfortable moderns as ill-suited for times of crisis.

“[A]ccustomed only to security and mildness,” he wrote, “[we] were fit only for a kindly world … We were adapted only to fair weather, for the practice of the friendly but not too difficult, not heroic virtues, in a society both secure and just. Instead, we found ourselves in an age of titanic conflict … when grave choices must be made in crisis after crisis, and no simple or familiar principles were adequate …” [iv]

Those words from 1937 could have been written yesterday. We are indeed better suited to fair weather and a kindly world. But that is not where we are right now, is it?

A 14th-century prayer, the Anima Christi, incorporates the powerful words that Peter shouted against the wind: O good Jesus, … call me and bid me come to you.

And faith knows how that prayer gets answered:
Come.
That’s what Jesus says to Peter,
and he says it to us as well:
Come.

Sometimes that will mean seeking the place of calm in a stormy world; and sometimes it will mean consenting to leave our comfort zone for the wild sea, where our only stay against drowning will be the touch of the Master’s hand.

Take heart, it is I; do not be afraid.

O good Jesus, call me, call your church,
and bid us come to you –
wherever you are,
even when you are
in the heart of the storm.

 

 

[i] John Toland wrote Christianity Not Mysterious. The quote is from from Matthew Tindal’s Christianity As Old As the Creation (1730).

[ii] James Martin, Jesus: A Pilgrimage (New York: Harper One, 2014), 237-238.

[iii] Hilde J. Seal is a minister at the United Churches of Langley, British Columbia. Her excellent homily, “With-in a Storm” (August 11, 2019), is online: https://www.unitedchurchesoflangley.ca/podcasts/sermons/2019-08-11-with-in-a-storm

[iv] Olaf Stapledon’s Star Maker (1937) is a science-fiction classic admired by H. G. Wells, Virginia Woolf, Jorge Luis Borges, Doris Lessing, and Arthur C. Clarke. This passage is cited in Gordon Mursell, English Spirituality: From 1700 to the Present Day (London: SPCK, 2008), 509.

“Seek ye first”—Scenes from the Camino de Santiago

A 500 mile pilgrimage led me to the Cathedral of Santiago (May 11, 2014).

Today is the Feast of St. James, whose tomb in Galicia has drawn countless pilgrims to trek across Spain for 13 centuries. I walked the 500-mile Camino de Santiago in 2014, and this blog began with my dispatches along the way. It was, as every pilgrim will tell you, an indelible experience, and you can read about my own journey in the links below.

It took me 33 days, averaging 15 miles a day, but now you can do it in about 2 minutes.

For tomorrow’s segment of the virtual liturgy streaming on Sundays from our parish during lockdown, I combined images (in sequential order) from my Camino with a pre-COVID  recording of the parish choir singing “Seek Ye First.” It seemed a fitting way to honor the saint on his feast day.

The pilgrimage begins with a rainy day in the French Pyrenees, and ends inside the Santiago cathedral with the spectacular censing at the daily “Pilgrims’ Mass.”

Buen Camino!

 

Blog posts from the Camino de Santiago

The First Day (April 8)

Pamplona (April 10)

Cherish Every Step (April 11)

Palm Sunday (April 13)

Semana Santa (April 14)

Small Steps (April 15)

Jesus’ Bakery (April 17)

Christ is Risen! (April 20)

Hospital for the Soul (April 24)

By the Numbers (April 25)

Walking (April 29)

The Third Phase (May 1)

A Mountain Day (May 2)

The Movement of Hearts and Souls (May 7)

Surrender (May 9)

Songs to Sing and Tales to Tell (May 10)

Arrival (May 11)

The End of the World (May 15)