“Don’t mess with our myths!” — Thoughts on Thanksgiving Eve

Ron Cobb’s troubling cartoon in the Los Angeles Free Press has been in my Thanksgiving file for 50 years.

This new Israel the Lord brought by a mighty hand and an outstretched arm over a greater than the Red Sea, and gave them these ends of the earth for their habitation. In a day, with a wonderful alteration such as was never heard of in the world, the remote, rocky, bushy, wild-woody wilderness became for fertileness the wonder of the world, a second Eden, rejoicing and blossoming as a Rose, Beautiful as Tizrah, Comely as Jerusalem.   

— A New England sermon, 17th century

Adam saw it in a brighter sunshine, but never knew the shade of pensive beauty which Eden won from his expulsion. 

— Nathanael Hawthorne, The Marble Faun

Forty years ago, traveling in an old school bus with four other humans and two dogs, I visited New England communes to engage in dialogue about the nature of community. The project, funded by the Episcopal Church, was conceived by the Rev. Bill Teska, a fellow priest who thought the Church had something to learn from grassroots experiments in the nurturing of a common life. 

It was November. Snow was beginning to blanket the land. Whenever we had to sleep in our chilly bus, I regretted that we were one animal short of a three-dog night. New England freezes will test the soul. At a newly-formed commune in Maine, we wondered how their experiment was going. “Ask us in the spring,” they told us. “We haven’t gone through our first winter yet. A commune hasn’t proved it can survive until it’s been through a winter.”

The United States of America has survived some pretty severe winters of discontent, but the storms brewing now have us all on edge in a way that feels unprecedented. We have begun to doubt our survival. 

In reading Colm Toíbín’s The Magician, a novel about the life of Thomas Mann, I was struck by a couple of paragraphs describing Germany in 1934. With a few word changes, they could have been ripped from the headlines of America today:

“Each morning, as they read the newspapers over breakfast, one of them would share an item, a fresh outrage committed by the Nazis, an arrest or confiscation of property, a threat to the peace of Europe, an outlandish claim against the Jewish population or against writers and artists or against Communists, and they would sigh or grow silent. On some days, while reading out an item of news, Katia would say that this was the worst, only to be corrected by Erika, who would have found something even more outrageous.” 

“The Nazis … were street fighters who had taken power without losing their sway over the streets. They managed to be both government and opposition. They thrived on the idea of enemies, including enemies within. They did not fear bad publicity—rather, they actually wanted the worst of their actions to become widely known, all the better to make everyone, even those loyal to them, afraid.” [i]

Sound familiar? What decent soul has not been worn down by the relentless succession of lies, madness, and evil acts over the past five years?  And who does not now tremble at the increasingly overt embrace of violence, fear and hatred as acceptable political tools by a major political party? 

I was born 6 weeks after D-Day. Although I have lived through some troubled times in America, I have never doubted my country’s ability to survive its sins—until this year. Suddenly the American experiment seems shockingly fragile and strangely impermanent. While the majority of Americans may still desire the greater good, the proliferation of bad actors, along with their enablers and dupes, has metastasized into the tens of millions. Our democracy managed to survive January 6th, but not by what anyone could call a comfortable margin. The party that enabled and even fomented insurrection not only refuses to show a shred of shame or remorse, it is actively working to undermine whatever defenses—like voting rights, or an impartial judiciary—remain against future coup attempts.

There is not yet a majority in Congress willing to overturn an election. Nor is a military takeover currently in the cards. But such scenarios are no longer utterly inconceivable. The smell of burning books is already in the air. Where do we go from here?

When the demons run wild in our common life, we cry, “This is not who we are!” The myth of American innocence has been a prevalent theme since the first colonists arrived in the “New World.” Freed of the dead weight of the past, armed with a sense of limitless possibility and buoyant resilience, we (i.e., white Americans) have preferred to think of ourselves as forever young. 

The American, according to the myth, is the new Adam (or Eve) in the new Eden, a “radically new personality, the hero of the new adventure: an individual emancipated from history, happily bereft of ancestry, untouched and undefiled by the usual inheritances of family and race; an individual standing alone, self-reliant and self-propelling, ready to confront whatever awaited him with the aid of his own unique and inherent resources.” [ii]   

However, the preservation of this myth requires an immense labor of forgetting. Slavery, racism, the Native American genocide, xenophobia, mob violence, misogyny, environmental destruction and countless other sins do not fit the narrative of innocence. If myth’s stabilizing power lies in both conscious and unconscious agreement about our collective memory (“This is who we are!”), stirring up the troubling ghosts of historical evidence poses a threat to our sense of cohesion and identity. Tradition loses its binding force if it is allowed to be put into question. 

“Don’t mess with our myths!” is the rallying cry of the far right, who have shown their willingness to destroy America in order to save their version of it. But the rest of us should not feel too secure within our own fictions of innocence. We have yet to resolve our legacy of racism. We seem incapable of addressing our propensity for violence. And our lifelong assumptions about American democracy have been plunged into doubt. When fascism infected Europe in the 1930s, Americans said, “It can’t happen here.” In these latter days, we know better. It can. 

Okay, this all seems a little grim for Thanksgiving Eve. But if our current crisis forces us to reexamine and reform the foundations of our common life, perhaps we can be thankful for that. For people of faith, the survival of life as we know it is never the highest good. As we reminded ourselves last Sunday on the Feast of Christ the King, we are not in charge of history, and don’t have to be in love with particular outcomes of transitory events. Empires rise, empires fall. The Kingdom of God—the reign of self-diffusive love—is the only thing that endures, because it knows the secret of dying and rising. Therefore, even at the grave we make our song: Alleluia, alleluia, alleluia! [iii]

Even as the mountains tumble into the sea, the holy Mystery whispers “Rise! Rise!” into every moment, even the most forlorn. For that, I give thanks.

God is our refuge and strength,
a very present help in trouble.
Therefore we will not fear, though the earth be moved, 
or the mountains tumble into the sea; 
though the waters of chaos rage and foam, 
though the mountains tremble at its tumult,
the Lord of hosts is with us; the God of Jacob is our stronghold. 

— Psalm 46: 1-4

Mount Rainier dawn (March 4, 2015)

Previous Thanksgiving posts:

Utopian Dreams and Cold Realities: A Thanksgiving Homily

Trying to Get Home for Thanksgiving



[i] Colm Toíbín, The Magician (New York: Scribner, 2021), 229 & 231.

[ii] R. W. B. Lewis, The American Adam: Innocence, Tragedy, and Tradition in the Nineteenth Century (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1955), 5.

[iii] The Burial Office, Episcopal Book of Common Prayer, 499.

“I mean to be one too”: A Homily for All Saints

Procession of the Faithful from Baptism to Eucharist, Bamberg Commentaries, c. 1000.

There is only one sadness; it is the sadness of not being saints. 

— Leon Bloy [i]

In a 1998 New York Times interview, Gregory Peck reflected on the challenge of playing Ahab in Moby Dick. “I think I should have been more ferocious in pursuit of the whale, more cruel to the crew,” he said, “and I think I’d have a better grasp now of what Melville was talking about. Ahab focused all his energies on avenging himself against the whale, but he was trying to penetrate the mystery of why we are here at all, why there is anything. I wasn’t mad enough, not crazy enough, not obsessive enough. I should have done more.” He paused, took a long breath, and added: “At the time, I didn’t have more in me.” [ii]

When you hear the stories of the saints, do you say, “I mean to be one too!”—or do you feel you’re not quite ready for the part? Maybe you’re not crazy enough, not obsessive enough, not pure enough, not loving enough. You may think, “I don’t have it in me.” 

Well, you’re right. You don’t. But that’s the point. The saints don’t have it in them either. Saintliness comes from a source deeper than their own solitary selves. The true hero or heroine of a saint’s life is not the individual person, but the divine intention taking flesh in his or her story. As St. Paul said of his own life’s protagonist, “Not I, but Christ in me” (Gal. 2:20).

As Wendy Wright has written, saints “are people who have had the imagination and audacity to allow themselves to be remade slowly in the image of the living God, people who have so opened their hearts to God that God’s own story is in them once again … retold.” [iii] Every saint’s life is a unique retelling, shaped by the particulars of heredity, personality and environment, but down deep it’s always the same story, over and over again: the story of “love’s endeavor, love’s expense,”[iv] perpetually pouring itself out for the life of the world. 

When I graduated from high school, my parents gave me a gilt-edged copy of one the great classics of Christian devotion, Of the Imitation of Christ, written by Thomas à Kempis in the early 15th century. My father wrote in the front, “We hope that this book will bring you closer to the knowledge and love of God, and of his Son, Jesus Christ our Lord. Love, Mom & Dad.”

Although not all of Thomas’ late medieval spirituality resonates today, much of it still hits home.

Blessed are the ears that catch the pulse of the Divine whisper, and give no heed to the whisperings of this world … Blessed are they that prepare themselves more and more, by daily exercises, for the receiving of heavenly secrets. Blessed are they who are glad to have time to spare for God.[v]

O my friend, lose not thy confidence of making progress toward the things of the Spirit; still thou hast time, the hour is not yet past. Why wilt thou defer thy good purpose from day to day? Arise, and in this very instant begin, and say, Now is the time to be doing, now is the time to be striving, now is the fit time to be amending myself.[vi]

(Mom, Dad, I’m still working on it!)

Every saint’s life is an imitation of Christ. The very structure of Christian sacred biographies reflects this theological point. In the Book of Acts, the martyrdom of Stephen—the first biography of a Christian saint—deliberately mirrors the Passion of Christ. Like Jesus, Stephen is an innocent killed by a world which refuses his message. Like Jesus, Stephen uses his final breaths to forgive his enemies and surrender his spirit to the divine. “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit,” he prays at the end. Perhaps it’s not enough to say that Stephen was imitating Christ in his martyrdom. He was, in truth, repeating Christ, in the Pauline sense of “Christ in me.” We suggest the same sense of return and presence in the Words of Institution at every eucharist: Whenever you perform these actions, I am with you once again.

Eleven centuries after the death of Stephen, St. Aelred, abbot of Rievaulx in the north of England, lay on his deathbed, eyes closed. His friend and fellow monk, Walter Daniel, leaned over to whisper in his ear, “Look on the cross; let your eye be where your heart is.” Aelred opened his eyes for just a moment, and spoke his last words: “In manus tuas commendo spiritum meum” (“Into your hands I commend my spirit.”) Once again, the surrender of spirit by a dying saint echoes the last words of Jesus from the cross in Luke 23:46. 

In fact, unlike Stephen’s paraphrase, it was a direct quote. Did Walter, Aelred’s biographer, insert the verse from Luke into his abbot’s mouth as a pious fiction, or had Aelred in fact repeated Christ’s words verbatim? In the genre of sacred biography, we don’t need to know the factual answer. Holy stories are always about more than what a camera or microphone can record. As narratives straddling the mysterious boundary between the human and the divine, their language dives beneath the empirical surface to explore the hidden depths. Hyperbole, metaphor, miracle—these are all rhetorical tools to convey the inherently mysterious nature of religious experience. 

As Thomas J. Heffernan points out in his seminal study of sacred biographies, “Walter would argue, and his monastic audience would agree, that Aelred’s death has become more memorable because it is now able to arouse in us the memory of another death, the death of Christ, which is the paradigm for the manner in which all Christian martyrs are meant to surrender to God.” [vii]

When it comes to saints, it is not in the historical particulars of their stories, however interesting, edifying, or inspiring, that the central meaning of their lives is to be found, but rather in the way their stories imitate, or repeat, the Christ event, as divine love takes place anew in the flesh of our human existence. As hymn writer Isaac Watts summarized this process:

“The image of Christ is transcribed upon our natures, we go from one degree of it to another, we are changed from glory into glory, from one degree of glorious holiness to another: thereby the gospel appears to have a fairer, brighter, and a stronger evidence.” [viii] We, having Christ in us, become the evidence for the truth of Christian faith.

In other words, saints are living icons, radiant with the light of heaven—even if they sometimes have messy and complicated lives.  Take, for example, Elizaveta Pilenko. Born to a wealthy Russian family in 1891, she was caught up in the revolutionary movement during her late teens. She briefly flirted with a plot to assassinate Trotsky (Russian politics were deadly even then). But at the same time, her Orthodox faith was beginning to deepen. She fled the Stalinist regime for Paris in the 1920s, by which time her second marriage, like her first, had failed, and a daughter had died of influenza. 

In her new home, she began a ministry to the poor, and her bishop encouraged her to take vows as a nun. She did so, receiving her religious name, Maria Skobtsova. She was permitted to continue to live and work among the people, and her rented Parisian house had an open door for refugees and lost souls. Her bishop called her faux monastery “the desert of human hearts.” 

She wasn’t exactly easy for her sister nuns. She wore odd clothes, and hung out in cafes and bars late into the night, counseling people on the brink of despair. She also missed many liturgies while off scrounging food for her soup kitchens in the markets of Las Halles. She’s been called the Orthodox Dorothy Day.

St. Mary of Paris (Maria Skobtsova).

When France fell to the Nazis in 1940, Mother Maria sheltered many Jews, supplying them with baptismal certificates and assisting their escape. Eventually arrested by the Gestapo, she died in the gas chamber at Ravensbrück on Holy Saturday, 1945. She was canonized as St. Mary of Paris in 2004.

Mother Maria was also a writer of poetry and theology. Listen to what she said about the Christian life as a continual self-emptying:  

“Renunciation teaches us not only that we not greedily seek advantages for our soul but that we not be stingy, that we always be extravagant in our love, that we achieve a spiritual nakedness, that our soul hold nothing back, that we not hold back anything sacred and valuable which we would not be ready to give up in Christ’s name to those who need it …That which was given away returns. The love which was expended never diminishes the source of that love, because the source of love in our hearts is Love itself, Christ… Here we are speaking about a genuine emptying out, in a partial imitation of how Christ emptied himself by becoming incarnate in humanity. We must likewise empty ourselves out completely, becoming, so to speak, incarnate in another human soul, offering it to the full measure of God’s image which is contained in ourselves.” [ix]  

Now when we hear a prescription like that, we may worry, as Gregory Peck did over Melville’s Ahab, about our capacity to perform such a demanding role. What we need to remember is this: the subject of our life is not our individual, autonomous self, but the transcendent, empowering Christ who dwells within us. In a recent podcast, Mark Harris, one of my most eloquent priestly friends, made this point perfectly. “When I look at the heroes I have in terms of justice ministries,” he said, “they are people who live into this to the point of self-emptying. They get out of the way finally. It’s not about their being good; it’s about good being done. So it’s God’s justice that’s done, not them doing justice.” [x]

Heavenly Adam, Life divine
Change my nature into Thine;
Move and spread throughout my soul;
Activate and fill the whole;
Be it I no longer now
Living in the flesh, but Thou. 

— Charles Wesley

Our own holiness practice may not entail the rigors or reach the heights of the greatest saints. Most of us are called to what Thérèse of Lisieux described as “the Little Way.” As a dreamy teenager, Thérèse thought it would be simply thrilling to be a saint:

“I would be a Martyr … I would be a Missionary. I would be flayed like St. Bartholomew, plunged into boiling oil like St. John, or, like St. Ignatius of Antioch, I would be ground by the teeth of wild beasts into bread worthy of God. With St. Agnes and St. Cecilia I would offer my neck to the sword of the executioner, and like St. Joan of Arc I would murmur the name of Jesus at the stake.” [xi]

Thérèse of Lisieux.

However, such heroic drama would be denied her. After a brief and uneventful life hidden within a Carmelite cloister, she died from tuberculosis at 24. But her autobiography, detailing her efforts to respond to the smallest, most ordinary moments with a loving, patient and generous heart, would inspire countless faithful around the world.  “I am only a very little soul,” she said, “who can only offer very little things to the Lord.”

Fr. Alban Butler, who in the 18th century compiled the most extensive compendium of saintly lives in the English language, also made the point that sanctity can be a practical, everyday kind of holiness: 

“Perfection consists not in raptures and lofty contemplation; nor in austerities, or any extraordinary actions: for thus, it would have been above the reach of many. But God has placed it in what is easy, and in every one’s power. The rich and poor, the learned and unlearned may equally aim at perfection: for it requires only that we perform our daily actions in a spirit of true Christian virtue … we must be holy not by fits, but by habit … it is then our ordinary actions performed in a true spirit of virtue … which must sanctify our lives.” [xii]

We must be holy not by fits, but by habit, 
performing our ordinary actions in a true spirit of virtue.

Blessed are those who rise and shine.
Blessed are those who lend a hand. 
Blessed are those who listen.
Blessed are those who take the time.
Blessed are those who speak kindly.
Blessed are those who smile at strangers.
Blessed are those who plant.
Blessed are those who raise children.
Blessed are those who teach.
Blessed are those who provide our meals.
Blessed are those who do the hard things.
Blessed are those who look with compassion.
Blessed are those who do justice. 
Blessed are those who wonder.
Blessed are those who welcome.
Blessed are those who nurture.
Blessed are those who care. 
Blessed are those who struggle with failing bodies. 
Blessed are those who suffer.
Blessed are the broken.
Blessed are those who know loss. 
Blessed are those who persist.
Blessed are those who surrender.
Blessed are those who remember hope.
Blessed are those who practice resurrection. 

“To be a saint,” says Frederick Buechner, “is to live not with hands clenched to grasp, to strike, to hold tight to a life that is always slipping away the more tightly we hold it; but it is to live with the hands stretched out both to give and receive with gladness.” [xiii]  You see, it’s very simple to be a saint. Just open your hands, and your heart.

Claude Laydu, Diary of a Country Priest (Robert Bresson, 1951).

The greatest cinematic depiction of sainthood is Robert Bresson’s Diary of a Country Priest, based on George Bernanos’ novel of the same name. The unnamed priest is rejected by many in his village, but it is clear to a few—and to the viewer—that Christ is truly in him. The priest experiences what he calls “the miracle of our empty hands!—that we may give what we do not possess!” Claude Laydu, the non-professional who played the part, threw himself into the role, living with working-class priests, adopting an austere diet, studying the novel throughout the shoot, and submitting without question to Bresson’s strict direction. As critic Tony Pipolo writes, “The very qualities this behavior manifests—obedience, obsessive concentration, a combination of fire and composure, and genuine dedication—were exactly those Bresson sought for his curé.”[xiv] But only after viewing the finished film would Laydu recognize the true nature of his role. “I didn’t know I was playing a saint,” he confessed. I think all the saints would say pretty much the same thing. 

I’ll give the last word to Buechner, who writes about saints as well as any. In a novel about Brendan of Ireland, his protagonist sums it up beautifully: 

“[God] wants each one of us to have a loving heart …
When all’s said and done, perhaps that’s the length and breadth of it.” [xv]



[i] Cited in Tony Pipolo, Robert Bresson: A Passion for Film (Oxford/New York: Oxford University Press, 2010), 71.

[ii] Gregory Peck New York Times interview in 1988, quoted in William Grimes’ New York Times obituary for Mr. Peck, June 13, 2003. 

[iii] Wendy Wright, “For all the saints,” in Weavings: A Journal of the Christian Spiritual Life (Vol. III, No. 5, Sept.-Oct. 1988), 17-18.

[iv] From W. H. Vanstone’s hymn, “Morning glory, starlit sky” (Episcopal Hymnal 1982, #585). The endeavor and expense are spelled out in verse 3: “Love that gives, gives evermore, / gives with zeal, with eager hands, / spares not, keeps not, all outpours, / ventures all, its all expends.”

[v] On the Imitation of Christ, Book 3, ch. I.

[vi] Ibid., Book 1, ch. XXII.

[vii] Thomas J. Heffernan, Sacred Biography: Saints and Their Biographers in the Middle Ages (Oxford/New York): Oxford University Press, 1988), 79.

[viii] Isaac Watts (1674-1748), cited in Gordon Mursell, English Spirituality: From 1700 to the Present Day (London, SPCK, 2008), 69.

[ix] Maria Skobtsova, in Michael Plekon, Living Icons: Persons of Faith in the Eastern Church (Notre Dame 2002), 76.

[x] The Rev. Mark Harris, speaking about the Beatitudes on the video podcast, Circuosity .21https://youtu.be/6V6zGsX9yqA

[xi] Thérèse of Lisieux (1873-1897), cited in Jill Haak Adels, The Wisdom of the Saints: An Anthology (Oxford/New York: Oxford University Press, 1987), 7.

[xii] Alban Butler (1710-1773), Meditations and Discourses, cited in Mursell, 36.

[xiii] Frederick Buechner, The Magnificent Defeat (New York: Seabury Press, 1966), 119.

[xiv] Pipolo, op. cit., 71.

[xv] Buechner, Brendan (New York: Atheneum, 1987), 216.

All Souls Day: Will the Circle Be Unbroken?

Gravestone, Peacham, Vermont.

Our experience shows us that death does not break our kinship bond. We turn to one another for help and support regardless of which side of death our relatives are on.

— Martin Brokenleg [i]

We pray for the dead, believing that, as they are drawn nearer to God, they are enabled to grow in the knowledge and understanding of God, in the service of God, and in the joy and fulfillment of God’s renewing love. We do not pray for the dead as those without hope, but trusting that the faithfulness of God will bring them to the completion and bliss for which every human soul was created. 

— Jon Hart Olson [ii]     


 

On All Souls Day (November 2), we call the dead to mind with stories, mementos, photographs, and rituals. In some ways, the dead never leave us. We still use the language they invented, live in the houses they built, learn from their wisdom, pay for their sins. And we carry their DNA inside our bodies. Bill Holm, a Minnesota poet, has noted the strong resemblances between his own living and dead:

When Jona at sixty traveled 
to her father’s farm in Iceland, 
the relatives looked down
at bony knuckles, veins
popping up, said: “See!
She has the Josephson hands
even after a hundred years…”

Now, when I bellow at parties, 
or look down at my own hands;
knuckles growing, veins
rising as I age, I think:
I’ll be living with all 
these dead people inside me.
How will I ever feed them?
They taught me, dragging carcasses
a thousand winters across
the tundra inside their own bodies. [iii]

“How will I ever feed them?” We certainly contain and nurture the legacy of the dead in our culture, in our very bodies, but is there any form of continuing relation with the dead as discrete entities who remain other than ourselves? Do the dead still exist somewhere, and can we still be in relation with them? In both the Odyssey and the Aeneid, the hero descends to the underworld to speak with the dead and get their advice. However eerie, it was a sensible quest. The dead have “been there, done that.” They possess the voice of experience. Robert Pogue Harrison explains what Homer and Virgil were up to when they put words in the mouths of the shades in Hades: “We lend voice to the dead so that they may speak to us from their underworld—address us, instruct us, reprove us, bless us, enlighten us, and in general alleviate the historical terror and loneliness of being in the world.” [iv]

As a person of faith, I believe this continuing presence to be more than the lingering effects of the departed on our bodies and our psyches. The communion of the living and the dead possesses an ontological dimension. The afterlife has an existence, a reality, outside our imagination. And it is not only in the past. It is part of our present, and our future. Whether we live or die, we all belong to a larger divine wholeness—“all the company of heaven”— from which we can never be separated. This wholeness, for which there are many names, is the Love that binds us all together. This interconnection, this “communion of saints,” cannot be broken, even by death.

Such radical sense of interdependence, where we all, as John Donne put it, “lie open to one another,” may not come naturally to people who value privacy and individuality and have the means to live without others. Among the world’s poor, however, survival depends on mutuality. People pool and share their resources, with no illusions that they can make it on their own. Community and family are absolutely necessary, and this solidarity is not broken by death. 

In her study of Mexico’s Días de los muertos, Juanita Garciagodoy writes that the poor do not regard the self as “atomistic, independent of the social body that constitutes its extended family and community. The physical body is not the private property of its owner with the array of rights to privacy and individualism and the independence from relations, friends, and neighbors the body of the typical “first worlder” claims. People are felt to be connected radically.” This connectedness includes the departed, as the Days of the Dead make clear. “Those people’s spirits are still part of the unit of the living. There is no question about their desert to be humored, fed, entertained, and regaled on dates of remembrance. Those who live with this understanding know that no one is an island.” [v]  

Dead or alive, we’re all in this together. The Mexican calaveras, cartoonish depictions of skeletons performing the activities of the living, make this point with comedic verve. I once saw a woodcut of three skeletons in festive dress, arms around each other, smiling and waving as they looked me in the eye. Below them, like a postcard greeting, were the words, Wish you were here!  

Gravestone, St. Peter’s churchyard, Lewes, Delaware.

My father died when I was 21. One of my best friends died when we were 30. But for the most part, death kept its distance in my younger days. Lately, however, the losses have begun to mount. The pandemic, tragically, has taken vast multitudes—“a huge number, impossible to count.”[vi] And on a personal level, the vanishing of loved ones grows way too frequent now that I’ve reached a certain age. In the past few years, I’ve addressed personal loss in my writing, and in honor of All Souls, my Day of the Dead “altar” will be a brief florilegium—flowers for the dead, if you will— from four of my requiem posts. 

When two of my most beloved elders, Joe and Phyllis Golowka, died within weeks of each other, I wrote (and preached) “You say goodbye, I say hello”: A Requiem Sermon

This is the story that God’s friends stake their lives on:
God has loved us into existence.
God sustains us every step of our life’s journey.
And even after our bodies give out,
God loves us too much to let us go.

Bill Fisher, born five days earlier than I, was a close friend for 59 years. In his final days, after he slipped into unconsciousness, I gave him last rites, and his earthly companions sang him to rest. In Paradisum: On the Death of a Friend, describes what happened next.

I entered his room alone to sing him one more song, “Waterloo Sunset.” We had both loved the quirky music of Ray Davies, and the song’s image of crossing over the river “to feel safe and sound” seemed so fitting.

And I won’t feel afraid
As long as I gaze on Waterloo Sunset
I am in paradise 

Another friend was taken suddenly early this year. In “When I begin the long work of rising”—A Tribute to David Fetcho, I quote one of his songs:

I want to go with you
to the other side of the light
where we’ll see
what the shadow reveals
will be such a relief …
time in its disguises 
won’t fool us anymore …

Days tumble on with minds of their own
they breathe in our lives, and make them their own
and time, time disappears
like the wind from a sail …
and every good day will be 
just another good day
of eternal life. [vii]

Anise Stevens, my sister’s child, left us far too soon at age 49. She died in the first minute of dawn on New Year’s Day, 2019. Through my tears, I preached “Trailing clouds of glory” at her requiem.

In her last weeks, Anise wondered about what lay ahead. That is the question. My sister Martha said to me before the funeral that her daughter is “on her way.” Then she recited Wordsworth’s evocative image of the next life as our native home to which we shall one day return:

Our birth is but a sleep and a forgetting; 
The Soul that rises with us, our life’s Star, 
Hath had elsewhere its setting 
And cometh from afar;
Not in entire forgetfulness, 
And not in utter nakedness, 
But trailing clouds of glory do we come 
From God, who is our home. [viii]

The author lays California wildflowers on the grave of William Wordsworth in St. Oswald’s churchyard, Grasmere, England (July 16, 1994).

I have always found Wordsworth’s hopeful and exuberant spirit an inspiration, so much so that I marked my fiftieth birthday with a pilgrimage to the poet’s grave. After nine miles of rambling through the Arcadian charms of English countryside, I arrived at dusk. I had brought along my copy of The Prelude, with two wildflowers from home, an orange California poppy and a pink Farewell-to-Spring, pressed within its pages. As a quarter moon set over the darkening hills beyond St. Oswald’s churchyard, I took out the flowers and laid them on the grassy grave. Then, in the fading light of a summer evening, I spoke the lines which epitomize my own trust in the providence and grace of the human journey:

The earth is all before me. With a heart
Joyous, nor scared at its own liberty,
I look about; and should the chosen guide 
Be nothing better than a wandering cloud,
I cannot miss my way. I breathe again! [ix]



[i] Martin Brokenleg, “Mitakuya owasin: You are all my relatives,” in The Witness, Vol. 76, No. 11 (Nov. 1993), p. 8. Brokenleg is an Episcopal priest and a member of the Rosebud Sioux tribe.

[ii] Jon Hart Olson, newsletter of Christ Church, OntarIo, CA (Nov. 1994). Jon was an Episcopal priest, colleague, mentor and friend.

[iii] Bill Holm, “Genealogy,” in The Dead Get By with Everything (Minneapolis: Milkweed Editions, 1991) 14.

[iv] Robert Pogue Harrison, The Dominion of the Dead (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2005) 150-1.

[v] Juanita Garciagodoy, Digging the Days of the Dead (Boulder, CO: University Press of Colorado, 2000), 269.

[vi] Revelation 7:9, from the liturgical readings for All Saints Day.

[vii] David Fetcho, “Just Another Good Day.” You can listen to the song here: https://soundcloud.com/ds_feco/just-another-good-day

[viii] William Wordsworth, “Ode on Intimations of Immortality from Recollections of Early Chiidhood.”

[ix] William Wordsworth, The Prelude, I.14-18. Wordsworth’s image is a happy reversal of Milton’s melancholy account of the Expulsion from Paradise, where the first humans’ outward journey has dimmer prospects: “The World was all before them, where to choose / Their place of rest, and Providence their guide: / They hand in hand with wandering steps and slow, / Through Eden took their solitary way” (Paradise Lost, 646-649).

Human Vision Corrected by Divine Love — A Homily on Jesus and Bartimaeus

The Healing of Bartimaeus ( Master of the Gathering of the Manna, c. 1465).

Jesus was walking out of Jericho, surrounded by a big crowd. Like all such crowds, it was a mix of the curious and the adoring. Jesus was at the height of his popularity. He stirred people’s imaginations and raised their hopes. The excitement was palpable. But amid all the festive clamor, a single shout brought this parade to a sudden halt:

“Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!”
It was a blind beggar, sitting by the roadside. His name was Bartimaeus.
“Shush,” people said. “Don’t make a scene.”
But he cried all the louder: “Son of David, have mercy on me!”

And Jesus stood still, 
just the way the sun had stood still in the sky for Joshua 
in that same city of Jericho.

“Call him here,” Jesus said. And so they did. 
“Take heart!” they told him. “Get up. He is calling you.”

Immediately, Bartimaeus threw off his cloak, sprang to his feet, and came to Jesus. Then Jesus asked him a question that went straight to the point: “What do you want me to do for you?”

“My teacher,” he said, “Let me see again.”
And what Bartimaeus asked, Jesus granted.

— Mark 10: 46-52

In Mark’s gospel, this is the last miracle performed by Jesus before he goes to his death in Jerusalem. It marks the fatal turning point between his ministry and his Passion. It is our Lord’s last act, his last word, before beginning the Way of the Cross. To the world, that looked like the path to oblivion. But to those who have been given the eyes of faith, the Way of the Cross, as we pray every Holy Week, is “none other than the way of life and peace.”

And thus the healing of Bartimaeus is not just the story of one man’s good fortune. It is an invitation to each of us to perceive and receive the vision of salvation which is about to unfold. Mark is telling us that if you want to understand the Paschal Mystery of Passion and Resurrection, you need to open your eyes. And it is crucial to note that the climactic words of this story are not “he regained his sight,” but rather, “he followed him on the way.” Once you see what God is doing through Jesus, then it’s your turn to take up your own cross and follow. 

Let there be light!” says the God of Genesis. 
“I am the light of the world,” says the God incarnate. 

And yet, in the story leading up to this moment, even Jesus’ closest friends have suffered their own blindness. “Are your minds closed?” he chides them. “Have you eyes and do not see?” But they go on missing the point again and again. To their credit, they continue to follow Jesus. They are drawn to him, they know something is happening here—but they don’t know what it is. “Do you not yet understand?” Jesus sighs. I’m sure he said this more than once.

And then, after repeated examples of the disciples’ blindness throughout Mark’s gospel, suddenly we hear a plaintive voice cry out from the crowd: “Jesus! Have mercy on me. Remove this grievous blindness.”

That’s our prayer too, isn’t it? Lord, take away our blindness. Help us to see.
And Jesus replies, “I thought you’d never ask!”

St. Gregory of Nyssa, in the fourth century, was one of many theologians who have shared Mark’s diagnosis of the human condition as one of persistent blindness:

“Humanity was created for this end, that it might see ‘good,’ which is God; but because humanity would not stand in the light, [in fleeing from the light] it lost its eyes… We subjected ourselves to blindness, that we should not see the interior light.”

St. Augustine described the interior eye, our capacity to see the things of God, as “bruised and wounded” by the transgression of Adam and Eve, who, he says, “began to dread the Divine light [and] fled back into darkness, anxious for the shade.”

Refusing to stand in the light… subjecting ourselves to blindness. 
Is this what we do? Are we truly so “anxious for the shade?”

Arthur Zajonc is a quantum physicist who became fascinated with the literal dimensions of this question, examining case histories of blind people who recovered their sight. In his book, Catching the Light: The Entwined History of Light and Mind, he tells of an 8-year-old boy, blind at birth from cataracts, who underwent surgery in the year 1910. When the time came to remove his bandages, the doctor was very hopeful. He waved his hand in front of the boy’s eyes, which were now physically perfect. 

“What do you see?” asked the doctor.
“I don’t know,” the boy replied.
“Can’t you see my hand moving?” said the doctor.
“I don’t know,” said the boy.

The boy’s eyes did not follow the doctor’s slowly moving hand, but stared straight ahead. He only saw a varying brightness before him. Then the doctor asked him to touch his hand as it moved, and the boy cried out in a voice of triumph, “It’s moving!” He could feel it move, and even, as he said, could “hear it move,” but it would take laborious effort to learn to see it move.

As that first light passed through the child’s newly clear black pupils, it called forth no echoing image from within. His sight, Zajonc tells us, began as a hollow, silent, dark and frightening kind of seeing. The light of day beckoned, but no light of mind replied within the boy’s anxious, open eyes.

“The sober truth” says Zajonc, “remains that vision requires far more than a functioning physical organ. Without an inner light, without a formative visual imagination, we are blind.”

This echoes Augustine’s description of our “bruised and wounded” inner eye. What is it that makes us so unable to process what is before us, to see what is being offered to our open eyes?

The mystical Anglican poet Thomas Traherne framed an answer in the ornately vivid language of the seventeenth century:

“As my body without my soul is a carcass, so is my Soul without Thy Spirit, a chaos, a dark obscure heap of empty faculties ignorant of itself, unsensible of Thy goodness, blind to Thy glory.” 

And what are the causes of this abysmal state? he asks. They are several. 

“[The Light within us is eclipsed] by the customs and manners of [others], which like contrary winds blew it out: by an innumerable company of other objects, rude, vulgar and worthless things, that like so many loads of earth and dung did overwhelm and bury it: by the impetuous torrent of wrong desires in all others whom I saw and knew that carried me away … from it: by a whole sea of other matters and concernments that covered and drowned it…” 

“Contrary winds” blowing out the Light within us… being overwhelmed by “an innumerable company… of rude, vulgar and worthless things”… “the impetuous torrent of wrong desires” – does any of that sound familiar? Who among us has not had days like that, or even years like that? Is that not the world we live in today?

Not long after Traherne wrote those words, another English writer, John Bunyan, told the story of two pilgrims, named Christian and Faithful, who came upon Vanity Fair, a kind of shopping mall where all the transitory pleasures of this world were on seductive display.

“What will ye buy?” cried one of the merchants.
And Christian and Faithful replied, “We buy the truth!”

This was clearly the wrong answer, for the two pilgrims were immediately set upon, beaten, smeared with mud, thrown in a cage, and finally put on trial. The jury was rigged, led by Mr. Blind Man and Mr. Hate-Light. “Guilty,” they cried, and Faithful was put to death. But Christian managed to escape, and his journey into God continued. 

Bunyan’s allegorical constructs seem quaintly archaic today, but Vanity Fair is still with us, with its endless commodification of unsatisfiable desires. And Mr. Hate-Light is still at work, generating the ceaseless illusions that blind us to the beauty of holiness. 

Now once Christian had escaped Vanity Fair, he still had to pass through the Valley of the Shadow of Death, where the light was so scarce, and the path so narrow, that he was in constant danger of stumbling into the ditch on his right or the quagmire on his left. 

But Christian was not without hope in that dark valley. 
As Isaiah says, the God of light travels with us:

I shall lead the blind by a road they do not know… 
I shall turn the darkness into light before them, 
and the quagmire into solid ground. (Isa 42:16)

All of us, deep down, want the light. All of us need the light. But sometimes we resist the light, or run away from it, or shut our eyes to it. There are things we’d rather not see, in the world or in ourselves. Illuminating our dark places can feel like a judgment, as if the light were accusing our shadows.

Light of the world, rescue us from darkness!

In Franco Zefferelli’s film, Jesus of Nazareth, we meet another blind man at the pool of Bethsaida in Jerusalem, but unlike Bartimaeus, he is deathly afraid of being healed. “Leave my eyes alone!” he shouts. “Stop touching my eyes!”

After analyzing sixty-six cases of blind people who had recovered their sight, Arthur Zajonc would concur with Zeffirelli’s portrayal of our resistance to an enlarged perception of the world:

“The project of learning to see,” he writes, “inevitably leads to a psychological crisis in the life of the patients, who may wind up rejecting sight. New impressions threaten the security of a world previously built upon the sensations of touch and hearing. Some decided it is better to be blind in their own world than sighted in an alien one… The prospect of growth is as much a prospect of loss, and threat to security, as a bounty.”

In other words, opening our eyes to a more truthful clarity can be scary—no more fictions or illusions about the state of the world or the state of our souls. If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us (I John 1:8). Seeing—clearly and accurately—the fallenness of our broken world—and our wounded selves—is a painful revelation. Once we face facts, transformation is the only way forward. We must change our life. A new way of seeing demands a new way of being. We can either fight that divine summons, like the man in the Zeffirelli film (Don’t touch my eyes!), or we can jump up and embrace it, like Bartimaeus.

But it’s not just the wrongness of things which is hidden by our blindness. The truth is, there is also so much blessing and beauty in this world, eagerly waiting to be discerned and embraced. And whatever our doubts and fears about losing our protective blindness, the beauty revealed will be worth the price. It’s the beauty of God’s future—what Jesus called the Kingdom. We often think of the Kingdom as impossibly distant, but it is possible to glimpse it even now, in this present age. We only need the eyes to see. 

This healing of our inner eye, this recovery of the divine Light within us, is perfectly expressed in a passage from Willa Cather’s novel, Death Comes for the Archbishop. Her protagonist, Jean-Marie Latour, a nineteenth-century missionary bishop to the territory of New Mexico, is discussing visions and miracles with his Vicar. 

“Where there is great love,” he says, “there are always miracles. One might almost say that an apparition is human vision corrected by divine love .… The Miracles of the Church seem to me to rest not so much upon faces or voices or healing power coming suddenly near us from afar off, but upon our perceptions being made finer, so that for a moment our eyes can see and our ears can hear what is about us always.”

Human vision corrected by divine love. 
How blessed are they who receive such a miracle! 

Let us close by hearing the gospel story one more time, succinctly told by John Newton, the author of “Amazing Grace,” in an old American shape note hymn called “Villulia.”

“Mercy, O thou Son of David, 
thus poor blind Bartimaeus prayed.
“Others by thy grace are saved,
now afford to me thine aid.”

Money was not what he wanted,
though by begging used to live;
but he asked, and Jesus granted
alms which none but he could give.

“Lord, remove this grievous blindness,
let mine eyes behold the day.”
Straight he saw, and, won by kindness,
followed Jesus in the way.

“The year changing its mind”— Embracing Impermanence at the Autumnal Equinox

Cherry Tree, University of Washington.

These are the last days.
Already the stalks of lilies
have withered, and the gold petals
of the rose melt on the grass.

— Patricia Hooper, “Equinox” [i]

Summer has just ended, twenty minutes past noon in the Pacific Northwest. I am always sorry to see it go. The languorous days, granting us license to play and to dream, now bid us farewell. The year’s shadowless noon gives way to the urgencies of time. Poet Penelope Shuttle describes September’s turning point with succinct perfection: “The year changing its mind.” [ii] The autumn may be agreeably mellow at first, but we all know where it’s headed. Every Arcadia must fail in the end, every Paradise be lost.

Yesterday I made my final communion with summer in a tranquil float down the Deschutes River. Ponderosa pines, willows and tall grasses lined the banks. Snowy egrets swept past on radiant wings. An osprey spiraled upward into the blue. My mind sank into stillness. I knew nothing but Now. 

Deschutes River, Sunriver, Oregon.

When I threw some books into my suitcase for an end-of-summer vacation in eastern Oregon, I didn’t realize how autumnal my reading would turn out to be. Patrick Leigh Fermor’s account of his epic walk from the Hook of Holland to Constantinople—before he turned 20—preserves his vivid memories of an exotic world, from shepherds’ campfires in the Carpathian wilds to the sumptuous libraries in the country estates of cultured Austro-Hungarian patricians. But Fermor didn’t write his trilogy until he was an old man, long after the Middle Europe of 1934 had been swept away. The reader feels the shadow of not only lost youth but also a lost world. [iii]

Johan Huizinga’s The Autumn of the Middle Ages documents the passing away, in the cultural imagination of France and the Netherlands, of chivalric dreams of a more beautiful life. Before the sadness of fate and history set the dominant tone, says Huizinga, “in many respects life still wore the color of fairy tales.” [iv] At the end of the 14thcentury, a French poet summed up the spirit of his despondent age: 

La fin s’approche, en verité …
Tout va mal.

The end is truly near …
Everything is going bad. [v]

At a time when so much of our own “reality” seems to be a fading dream—democracy, climate, human health, civic sanity—the poet’s autumnal lament rings true. Happily, I brought a third book, containing a cure for such melancholy themes. In Thomas Merton’s journal of his experiences in the far East, the Catholic contemplative wonders whether he is seeing the “real Asia,” or simply finding “an illusion of Asia that needed to be dissolved by experience.” In a deep valley within the Himalayan foothills, he is instructed by the landscape:

“What does this valley have? Landslides. Hundreds of them. The mountains are terribly gashed, except where the forest is thick. Whole sections of tea plantations were carried away six weeks ago. And it is obviously going to be worse the next time there are really heavy rains. The place is a frightening example of annicca—‘impermanence.’ A good place, therefore, to adjust one’s perspectives. I find my mind rebelling against the landslides. I am distracted by reforestation projects and other devices to deny them, to forbid them. I want all this to be permanent. A permanent postcard for meditation, daydreams. The landslides are ironic and silent comments on the apparent permanence, the ‘eternal snows’ of solid [Mount] Kanchenjunga.”

The landslides become Merton’s teacher. Stability is an illusion. Even the great Himalayan mountain, in all its sublime majesty, is subject to impermanence. Once this is accepted, Merton is liberated from autumnal sadness, and a measure of Edenic summer knowledge is restored. He can live in the given moment, accepting its blessings with a peaceful, unanxious heart.

“The sun is high, at the zenith. Clear soft sound of a temple bell far down in the valley. Voices of children near the cottages above me on the mountainside. The sun is warm. Everything falls into place. Nothing is to be decided … There is nothing to be judged.” [vi]



Photographs by the author.

[i] Reprinted in The Heart of Autumn: Poems for the Season of Reflection, ed. Robert Atwan (Boston: Beacon Press, 2003), 16. This fine anthology is one of a series on poetry of the 4 seasons. 

[ii] From “September,” Ibid., 17.

[iii] I am currently reading the 2nd volume of the trilogy, Between the Woods and Water (New York: New York Review of Books, 1986/2005).

[iv] Johan Huizinga, The Autumn of the Middle Ages, trans. Rodney J. Payton & Ulrich Mammitzsch (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1996), 9. This more recent translation is much preferable to the one I read in my youth, The Waning of the Middle Ages.

[v] Eustache Deschamps (1346-1406), in Huizinga, 35.

[vi] Thomas Merton, The Asian Journal (New York: New Directions, 1975), 150-151.

“The only solution is love”—Remembering 9/11

A decade ago, the 10th anniversary of 9/11 fell on a Sunday when I was the preacher. The Scriptures for that day were strikingly apt, a divine Word spoken directly to us in the turbulent here and now. The questions which 9/11 raised about the American future—and the human future—have not gone away. They have only grown more urgent. The text of my 2011 sermon is below.

9/11 Memorial & Museum, NYC. Virgil’s words from the Aeneid were forged from steel remnants of the Twin Towers by Tom Joyce. The background—2983 unique shades of blue painted by Stuart Finch— is entitled, “Trying to Remember the Color of the Sky on That September Morning.”

It was one of those perfect late summer mornings, the sky above an impossible blue, the city below humming with life. Suddenly, without warning, the world ended in smoke and fire and falling dust. 

On that day, a great city, and all of us who watched at a distance, suffered a kind of violence strangely new to American experience. In an instant we became citizens of an unfamiliar, nightmarish world. As a Catholic poet noted at the time, on 9/11 “the united states of america spent a night and a day in beirut… walked the length of somalia… entered the gates of auschwitz.” Or as the writer Don DeLillo said about this demise of American exceptionalism, “Parts of our world have crumbled into theirs, which means we are living in a place of danger and rage.”

On the 10th anniversary of that terrible day, the Lectionary speaks to us with an eerie timeliness. From the Hebrew Scriptures, we hear the story of the Red Sea, where Pharoah’s entire army is drowned by an act of God. 

Thus the Lord saved Israel that day from the Egyptians;
and the Israelites saw the Egyptians dead on the seashore.

Thousands dead. An act of God?

Now the miraculous deliverance of unarmed slaves from a pursuing army that wants to slaughter them is not the same thing as deliberate acts of violence committed in God’s name. The Red Sea was not an instance of religious terrorism. But the Exodus passage does raise the uncomfortable topic of sacred violence, where God, whether by proxy or direct intervention, saves some and lets others perish. In God’s defense, such actions are always on the side of the powerless and the oppressed in the Bible. As we recite in the Magnificat at Evening Prayer:

He has cast down the mighty from their thrones,
and has lifted up the lowly.

We find a lot of this casting down in Revelation, a book written to encourage persecuted Christians: Don’t worry. The day is coming when mighty Rome will fall. While consoling to the downtrodden, this is not good news for the powers that be. The 11th chapter delivers this chilling line: the time has come to destroy those who are destroying the earth.(Rev. 11:18). 

These words express the eschatological hope for a better world, but they sound uncomfortably close to the kind of writings that informed the pious, angry young men who hijacked those planes to strike a blow against “godless” modernity. 

John Brown, painted by John Steuart Curry in 1939. After visiting the 9/11 Memorial in 2019, I saw this unsettling portrait at the Whitney Museum. The accompanying commentary strikes a chord in the America of 2021: “Brown’s crazed expression suggests the messianic fervor and wrath that fueled his opposition to human bondage through armed rebellion.”

A critical examination of sacred violence—the blood on religion’s hands—and the way such texts are countered with more life-affirming scriptures—these are complicated subjects for another time. For now let us simply note that passionate religious certainty, and the tendency to escalate difference and conflict into a cosmic struggle between good and evil, is not exclusive to the jihadists. We can find it in our own scriptures. 

On a different day, the Red Sea story might be a joyful celebration of God’s defense of the powerless, or an image of baptismal passage through the waters of death. But on this day—ten years after 9/11—it may simply want to pose a troubling question, lest we be too eager to say that God is on our side. We can’t just dance with the Israelites anymore. We must also weep with the Egyptians. 

A litany published the week after 9/11 embraces this inclusiveness, affirming that Jesus is carrying the “dead, the wounded, and those who mourn; the killers and those who were killed; the frightened, the angry, the sorrowful – Jesus is carrying all of this, all of us, every part of us, into the loving heart of God.”

Our second reading offers the comforting assurance from St. Paul’s letter to the Romans that we hear every time we bury a loved one: 

Yet none of us has life in himself or herself.
If we have life, we are alive in the Lord,
and if we die, we die in the Lord.
So, then, whether we live or die, 
we are the Lord’s possession.

The shock of 9/11 inflicted enormous trauma upon the American people, a trauma that still lives in our bodies. We have never fully worked through the grief process, so eager were our leaders to launch into war, short-circuiting the work we really needed to do. 

A recent PBS documentary, Faith and Doubt at Ground Zero, explored a wide range of religious questions arising from 9/11. And one of the things people talked about in interviews was the presence – or absence – of God in the face of such evil and suffering. There were no easy answers. 

As one rabbi put it, “Since September 11th, people keep asking me, ‘Where was God?’ And they think because I’m a rabbi, I have answers. And I actually think that my job as a rabbi is to help them live with those questions. If God’s ways are mysterious, live with the mystery. It’s upsetting. It’s scary. It’s painful. It’s deep. And it’s interesting. No plan. That’s what mystery is. It’s all of those things.”

The rabbi goes on to say that he resists any answers that get God off the hook, because “right now, everything is on the hook.”

And yet, wherever or whatever God may be in this, and whether we find ourselves among the living or the dead, we always remain inside the divine mystery, enfolded in the loving arms of God. If I make the grave my bed, you are there also, says the Psalmist. Only such a faith can deliver us from the icy grip of fear and dread. 

Martin Johnson Heade, Approaching Thunder Storm, 1859 (detail). Painted on the eve of the Civil War, the figure peers into the imminent darkness with extraordinary calm.

Today’s final text is from Matthew’s gospel, and what a gospel it is for September 11th! “How long should I keep forgiving, Lord?” And Jesus says, “Oh, about a billion times.” The text actually says seventy-seven, or in the math of King James, seventy times seven. But the point is: stop counting. Don’t keep track. Forgiveness isn’t a one-time transaction; it’s a practice, a way of being. 

We exist to forgive, to reconcile, to mend, to heal— 
generously, unreservedly, endlessly.

A recent feature film, Of Gods and Men, tells the true story of eight French Catholic monks who lived in the mountains of Algeria during a time of civil war and terrorist violence in the 1990s. Their monastery was at the edge of a poor Muslim village, where they lived in harmony with their neighbors, providing the only accessible health care. As the surrounding political violence escalated, the monks were warned by the government to leave the country. But they felt called to remain among the people they served, despite the high probability of martyrdom. Despite their own fears.

Their abbot, Dom Christian, wrote a letter to his family in Advent, 1993, two years before he and his brother monks were killed by terrorists. Anticipating his own martyrdom, he insists that he is not exceptional, since so many others in that land were also at risk.

“My life,” he wrote, “is not worth more than any other — not less, not more. Nor am I an innocent child. I have lived long enough to know that I, too, am an accomplice of the evil that seems to prevail in the world around, even that which might lash out blindly at me. If the moment comes, I would hope to have the presence of mind, and the time, to ask for God’s pardon … and, at the same time, to pardon in all sincerity him who would attack me…”

What an extraordinary thing to say: Here is a good and humble and holy man confessing his own complicity in the evils of the world. And what does he hope for? He hopes for the presence of mind, in the very moment of being murdered, to ask forgiveness. Forgiveness not only for himself, but for his killer as well. 

The end of his letter is addressed not to his family, his loved ones, but to the stranger who will one day kill him, the stranger whom he calls “my friend of the last moment.” 

“And to you, too, my friend of the last moment, who will not know what you are doing. Yes, for you, too, I wish this thank-you, this “A-Dieu,” whose image is in you also, that we may meet in heaven, like happy thieves, if it pleases God, our common Father.”

Such faithfulness to the way of Jesus is sheer nonsense to the world, and perhaps to many Christians as well. 

How dismal a contrast we find in the official government reaction to 9/11, when our leaders, most of them Christians, set out to hunt down and kill the “evildoers.” Their violent, retaliatory response bequeathed a dark legacy which continues to poison our common life: the politics of fear and division, the launching of endless war, the shameless profiteering that feeds and encourages armed conflict, the stain of Guantanamo and the worldwide network of secret prisons, and the outrageous authorization of torture as national policy. 

In an article entitled “Did Osama bin Laden Win?” —written just after bin Laden’s death—Mark Sumner offers the analogy of the human body’s autoimmune system, where the worst damage is not done by the original disease, but by the overreaction of “the same systems that fought off and destroyed the invader. Long after the bacteria is excised by the body,” he writes, “the damage lingers.” Then turning to the overactive immune system that gave us two ruinous wars as well as the corrosion of the American conscience by torture and other public sins, Sumner points out that “it wasn’t bin Laden who did this. He could never do this. It’s our response to bin Laden. That’s what has already crippled us, and what may yet kill us.”

But there is an antidote for this poison, and it too rose out of the ashes of Ground Zero. A sample of this antidote is contained in a statement by the Catholic Worker communities of California ten years ago.

The Catholic Worker movement was co-founded by Dorothy Day, one of the true saints of the last century. As an eight-year-old child, she was in San Francisco during the great earthquake and fire of 1906. When she witnessed on the streets of San Francisco the same kind of care and camaraderie among strangers as we saw in New York after 9/11, she asked, “Why can’t people live like this all the time?” 

When she grew up, she explored that child’s question through a network of small lay communities who today continue to live among the poorest of the poor to feed the hungry, clothe the naked, shelter the homeless, and visit the sick and imprisoned. 

In the immediate aftermath of 9/11, this is what the Catholic workers had to say: 

Even after all this… 

Our grief will not be short-circuited with cries of vengeance nor with acts of retribution. We will not cooperate with incitements to become that which we most oppose, namely perpetrators of violence. 

We will honor the deeper levels of grief, acknowledging the woundedness inflicted upon us, and the woundedness that our nation has inflicted upon others…

We invite you to participate with us in all our wildest dreams and visions for peace. For now we sadly know that our affluence, our power, our possessions cannot serve as protection from harm. We invite you to clamber off the wheel of violence. It is the only worthy legacy we can offer to those who have died…

We are Catholic Workers and we still believe… the only solution is love. 

More love, more love … the angels are calling: Oh children, more love. The love that birthed the universe into being and raised the dead. A love as defenseless and potent as Christ on the cross. 

You can’t build empires with it, 
but it is the only true way out of the abyss, 
the only antidote for evil’s poison.

We saw love at work in countless ways in the days after 9/11: 
So much solidarity, generosity, selflessness and compassion, 
so much courage and resilience, 
so much caring for one another. 

We’ve all been moved by the stories. One of my favorites is of a man in Manhattan’s Union Square. Just as people were filing out of a memorial service, he began to sing: “Start spreadin’ the news…” And one by one, others joined in, until hundreds of people were singing “New York, New York” at the top of their lungs, in streets still swirling with the dust of fallen towers. Who knew there was a resurrection hymn in the Sinatra canon?

Even at the grave we make our song: Alleluia, alleluia, alleluia! But is this enough? Can love’s fragile flowers break the rocks in the desert of abandonment and lament? Can they get us through the time of trial? Can they deliver us from evil? I will let a New Yorker answer that question. 

At the end of the documentary, Faith and Doubt at Ground Zero, we hear several voices reflecting on the haunting televised image of two anonymous people, co-workers or strangers, we don’t know, who jumped together from the south tower. Just before they jumped, they reached out to take each other’s hand. Then they fell into space. Holding hands. 

For an unbelieving novelist in the film interviews, this was an image of human desperation and despair in an indifferent universe. For an NPR correspondent, the gesture of mutual touch was a frail sign of hope that we are not totally alone when we face the abyss. 

As we hear these voice-overs, we don’t see the image they are talking about. That would be unbearable. Instead, we are shown nighttime shots of the two vertical columns of blue light that shine every year on September 11th in the empty space left by the collapsed towers. Emanating from 88 searchlights aimed straight at the heavens, transparent twin towers: ghostly evocations of presence and absence, absence and presence.

The voices continue over these shots, and finally we hear from a Catholic writer, Brian Doyle, a New Yorker by birth. His words speak for all people of faith:

A couple leaped from the south tower, hand in hand. They reached for each other and their hands met, and they jumped. I try to whisper prayers for the sudden dead and the harrowed families of the dead and the screaming souls of the murderers, but I keep coming back to his hand in her hand, nestled in each other with such extraordinary, ordinary, naked love. 

It’s the most powerful prayer I can imagine, the most eloquent, the most graceful. It’s everything we’re capable of against horror and loss and tragedy.

It’s what makes me believe that we’re not fools to believe in God, to believe that human beings have greatness and holiness within them, like seeds that open only under great fire, to believe that who we are persists past what we were, to believe, against evil evidenced hourly, that love is why we are here.

Words Fail: Thinking the Divine Name(s)

“… “to think God without any conditions, not even that of Being.” — Jean-Luc Marion

It seems that we can use no words at all to refer to God.

— Thomas Aquinas [i]

As soon as there are words … direct intuition no longer has any chance. 

— Jacques Derrida [ii]   

Dionysius the Areopagite, a sixth-century Syrian mystic, made the classic case for theological modesty. We should not presume to say too much about God. When it comes to what he called the “Unutterable,” he said, words fail. An encounter with divine reality leaves us speechless. 

“Reject all that belongs to the perceptible and intelligible … and lift yourself as far as you are able to the point of being united in unknowing with the One who is beyond all being and all knowledge.” [iii]

Dionysius’ insistence on divine ineffability was a subversive counterbalance to the theological project of the ancient ecumenical councils, which devoted intense intellectual energy to the pursuit of dogmatic precision. Words, phrases, even individual letters had been fiercely debated over the course of several centuries. With the stakes so high, no one wanted to get it wrong. But Dionysius’ caution about saying too much would have a lasting influence on both mystics and theologians from the Middle Ages to post-modernity. 

Thomas Aquinas, whose exhaustive systematic theology, Summa Theologica, used 1.8 million words to speak of God, issued a striking caution in one of his shorter works: “as to the mode of signification [for God] goes, every name is defective.” [iv] A modern Catholic theologian, Karl Rahner, agreed, since transcendence “presents itself to us in the mode of withdrawal, of silence, of distance, of being always inexpressible, so that speaking of it, if it is to make sense, always requires listening to its silence.” [v]  That kind of listening without making words is hard, when our heads are so full of ideas. But if we desire accuracy, we must try, as Jean-Luc Marion has said, “to think God without any conditions, not even that of Being.” [vi]

It’s not just that God is unknowable; language itself is chronically imprecise—“a raid on the inarticulate,” T. S. Eliot called it, “with shabby equipment always deteriorating.” [vii] But of the One who is “the Wholly Other, for whom we have no words, and whom all our poor symbols insult,” can we say anything at all? [viii]

The “veil” before the Altar of Presence in the author’s worship installation, “Via Negativa.”

Even Dionysius admitted the necessity of God-talk. We need to understand something about ultimate Reality if we are to be in relation with it. In Divine Names, Dionysius wrote at length about the attributes of God, and so have countless Christian thinkers before or since. While God is always beyond our conceptual reach, we still have religious experiences through which we learn something of who—and how—God is for us. Sometimes we speak in literal terms, as when we say that God loves us. God’s love may be more perfect than human love and mediated in a different way, but it’s love all the same. 

Metaphors, on the other hand, use something familiar to tell us about the unfamiliar. God is not literally a shepherd, a shield, or shade from the heat, but God has been known to be like these things in some way. Those three are all biblical images, but every age provides new metaphors. A British youth minister told me that skateboarders use their experience of what they call “flow” as a kind of divine name. But metaphors are only provisional—“scaffoldings around invisible reality,” in Jerzy Peterkiewicz’s aptly metaphorical image, “liable to vanish” when pressed to become literal. [ix]

What can I say, my God, my life, my holy joy?
Or what can anyone say who speaks of you?”

— St. Augustine, Confessions [x]

St. Augustine’s questions were on my mind when I composed an experimental “creed” for an alternative liturgy at our local Episcopal parish.[xi] The Nicene Creed, crafted by the fourth-century Council of Nicaea to be a concise summary of orthodox belief, is still recited in the Sunday rites of most liturgical churches. Its insertion into the liturgy 150 years after the Council resulted from a now-forgotten doctrinal quarrel, and some of today’s liturgical theologians question its continued use in the rite. [xii]

My own intent, however, was not to critique the Nicene Creed per se, but to explore God-talk in terms of the One and the Many, drawing upon something Thomas Aquinas said about the names of God:

“[We] see the necessity of giving to God many names. For, since we cannot know Him naturally except by arriving at Him from His effects, the names by which we signify His perfection must be diverse, just as the perfections belonging to things are found to be diverse. Were we able to understand the divine essence itself as it is and give to it the name that belongs to it, we would express it by only one name. This is promised to those who will see God through His essence: “In that day there shall be one Lord, and His name shall be one” (Zech. 14:9). [xiii]

I divided the assembly into three parts. Each droned the same Latin text, slowly, in 4 beats: Crèdo in ùnum Dè-ùm (“I believe in one God,” the opening words of the Nicene Creed). They sang on a single tone in unison, but in three harmonizing pitches, with a 2-beat silence between the repetitions. As they continued their droning ground, I both chanted and spoke a descant of divine names.

The people’s repeated line was the One; my recitation of diverse names was the Many. The division of parts was a reverse complementarity: many sang the One and one sang the Many. I drew the names from many sources—hymns, prayers, theologians, mystics, poets, and one filmmaker—absorbed into my own prayer and preaching over the years. I can’t remember exactly where all of the names came from. Some you will recognize. A few sprang from my own religious experience. 

A divine name?

The torrent of words, coming and going so quickly, evoked multiple associations, perspectives and meanings without letting any single “name” linger long enough to permit an idolatrous fixation, as if it alone were the one most accurate or true. No sooner did a “name” appear than it was replaced by another—affirmation and negation in a perpetual dance, just the way Dionysius liked it. People told me later that they stopped trying to grasp individual words and simply sank into the flow, surrendering to the meditative state generated by their repetitive chanting and silent breathing. 

If any liturgists and musicians out there want to try your own variations, please feel free. Trained singers might add more complex harmonies (think Arvo Pärt), and a speech choir could explore creative arrangements of the many names. And of course, you or your community might want to compile a fresh list of names from your own traditions and personal experiences. That this particular list is woefully incomplete is part of the point.

Credo in unum Deum …

Holy and eternal God, 
Beauty so ancient and so new,
Source and sustainer of everything that is. 

Author of life, mender of destinies, 
desire of every heart, the meaning of every story.

Mystery of the world,
most deeply hidden and yet most near,
fount of our being, inexhaustible and overflowing. 
Grace abounding.

Constant and just, wiser than despair, 
joyful Yes against all negation.  

The great I am, beyond all knowing,
yet called by many names:

Creator, Sustainer, Pardoner, Gift-giver,
Goodness, Wisdom, Mercy, Truth, Faithfulness, Blessing,
Alpha and Omega, Ruler of time and history,
ineffable and untamable Spirit.

Presence. 
The depth in every moment.

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

Holy One: Thou—Abba! ThouAmma! 
Love who loves us. 

Our true and lasting home. 

+

Jesus Christ, the Given One, eternally begotten,
who by the power of the Holy Spirit
became incarnate from the Virgin Mary:
fully human and fully divine.

Word made flesh, to live and die as one of us,
that we might see and know the self-diffusive love of God,
and realize the fullness of our humanity. 

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

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

+

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

Quickening power, creative energy, inner light,
divine imagination, disturber of the peace,
dearest freshness deep down things,
the strong force of love, drawing the universe into communion.

Sustainer, Sanctifier,
Counselor, Comforter,
Dancer.

The breath in every prayer, 
the longing in every heart.

+

Holy and undivided Trinity, 
your catholic and apostolic Church belongs to you alone.
We give thanks for the renewing power of our baptism,
making us Christ’s own forever—forgiven and free.

Grant us to live always in the light of resurrection,
overflowing with love and steadfast in hope.

May the faith we confess in this assembly
be visible in the lives we lead and the choices we make. 

Let all the people say: Amen!



Photographs by the author. The view of the sky through the arch of the south porch baldaquin of the Cathedral Basilica of St. Cecilia in Albi, France, is an image for the limits of theological speech: the stairs of language take us upward, but only so far. After that: a wordless sky. You can read about the “Via Negativa” installation here. Arne Pihl’s “Gentle” sculpture (2014-15) was part of an installation in a razed lot in Seattle, responding to questions about the future of a changing neighborhood.

[i] Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologica 1a.13.1. Thomas quotes from Dionysius to support this statement.

[ii] Jacques Derrida cited in The Oxford Handbook of Philosophy and Religion, ed. William J. Wainwright (Oxford & New York: Oxford University Press, 2005), 489.

[iii] Dionysius the Areopagite, Mystical Theology 1.1, cited in Olivier Clément, The Roots of Christian Mysticism (Hyde Park, NY: New City Press, 1993), 247. The anonymous mystic’s name is a pseudonym taken from Acts 17:34 to suggest apostolic authority.

[iv] Thomas Aquinas, Summa contra Gentiles 30.3. Italics mine.

[v] Karl Rahner, S. J., Foundations of Christian Faith (1983), p. 64, cited in Thomas M. Kelly, Theology at the Void: The Retrieval of Experience (Notre Dame, IN: Notre Dame University Press, 2002), 130.

[vi] Jean-Luc Marion, God Without Being (1991), p. 45, cited in The Oxford Handbook of Philosophy and Religion, 484.

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

[viii] Evelyn Underhill, Mysticism: The Nature and Development of Spiritual Consciousness (Oxford: Oneworld Publications 1999/2008, orig. published 1911), 337.

[ix] Jerzy Peterkiewicz, The Other Side of Silence: The Poet at the Limits of Language (London: Oxford University Press, 1970), 45.

[x] St. Augustine, Confessions 1.4. The full passage has a wonderful list of divine names: Summe, optime, potentissime, omnipotentissime, misericordissime et justissime, secretissime et presentissime, pulcherrime et fortissime; stabilis et incomprehensibilis; immutabilis, mutans omnia. Numquam novis, nunquam vetus, … Semper agens, semper quietus; colligens et non egens: portans et implens et protogens; creans et nutrigens et perficiens: quaerens cum nihil desit tibi … Quid dicimus, Deus meus, vita mea, dulcedo mea sacnta? Aut quid dicit aliquis, cum de te dicit? (“Highest, best, most potent, most omnipotent [transcendent], most merciful and most just, most deeply hidden and yet most near, fairest, yet strongest, steadfast, yet ungraspable, unchangeable, yet changing all things; never new, yet never old.… ever busy, yet ever at rest; gathering yet needing not; bearing, filling, guarding; creating, nourishing, and protecting; seeking though you have no wants … What can I say, my God, my life, my holy joy? Or what can any say who speaks of you?”).

[xi] St. Barnabas Episcopal Church, Bainbridge Island, WA.

[xii] In his 1995 commentary on the liturgy at St. Gregory of Nyssa Episcopal Church in San Francisco, Richard Fabian writes that Peter the Fuller, Patriarch of Antioch, whose Monophysite party was defeated at the Council of Chalcedon (451), inserted the creed into the cathedral liturgy to show his loyalty to the earlier Council of Nicaea (325). Though he was soon deposed, the creed remained, “a massive monument to doctrinal quarrels ever since.” Its inclusion was resisted in the western church, especially in England, but slipped into English worship in the 15th century, and incorporated into the Book of Common Prayer in the 16th. Today, some question its lack of inclusive language as well as the ancient Greek terminology whose original meanings are obscure to many. And some liturgists wonder about its effect on the natural flow of the rite. (Worship at St. Gregory’s, All Saints Company, 25-26).

[xiii] Summa contra Gentiles, 31.4. As to just how many names there are, I’ve always liked the number from Arthur C. Clarke’s short story, “The Nine Billion Names of God.”

The Courage to Be Nobody: Simone Biles and the Art of Renunciation

Aurélien Arbet and Jérémie Egry, I would prefer not to (2005).

“Wandering away from everything, giving up everything, not me anymore, not any of it.”

— Agnes Martin

In “Bartleby the Scrivener,” Herman Melville’s notoriously perplexing short story, his principal character speaks just thirty-seven lines, over a third of them variations on a simple declaration: “I would prefer not to.” Having taken a job copying documents in a law firm, he offers that same maddening reply to every request. He prefers not to perform assigned tasks, or to explain why. When finally discharged by his boss, he prefers not to leave the premises. When, in the end, he lands in jail, he prefers “not to dine,” and dies of starvation.

The story is narrated by his employer, who finds himself “strangely goaded on” to discover the motivation for Bartleby’s eccentric behavior.

“Bartleby was one of those beings of whom nothing is ascertainable except from the original sources, and, in his case, those are very small. What my own astonished eyes saw of Bartleby, that is all I know of him.” [i]

For his employer, Bartleby remains an unknowable blank, an impenetrable opacity. His past is unknown; he is barely present in the here and now. As Elizabeth Hardwick describes him, “Bartleby is not a character in the manner of the usual, imaginative, fictional construction. And he is not a character as we know them in life, with their bundling bustle of details … He is indeed only words, wonderful words, and very few of them.” [ii]

Every attempt by the bewildered narrator to categorize or interpret his eccentric employee vanishes into the black hole of Bartleby’s essential unknowability. Neither reader nor narrator can solve the puzzle of his abiding negation. And what is true of Bartleby the character is also true of “Bartleby” the story. 

Literary critics and perplexed readers have been trying to explain Melville’s tale for 168 years. Bartleby is clinically depressed. He’s the existential resistance to a deadening, soulless economy. He’s the embodiment of modernity’s “sickness unto death,” the enervation of purpose and will. Or the story itself is Melville’s practical joke on the reading public, luring us down the hermeneutic rabbit hole of a world without reasons. We want to know why, but in Bartleby’s world there is no why. 

Bartleby came to mind this week when “the greatest gymnast in history,” Simone Biles, withdrew from the Olympic team competition after a flawed performance in her first event. The world immediately demanded explanations. Why did she prefer not to perform? Some were puzzled, even outraged, and, like Bartleby’s frustrated colleagues, they rushed to supply their own speculative interpretations.[iii] Unlike Bartleby, however, Biles made known her motivation. She told the press she was taking care of her mental health. Her body and mind had slipped “out of sync” in Tokyo, causing her to feel lost in midair during her twisting somersaults off the vault table. It’s not like dropping a pass or missing a putt. A mistake in gymnastics can mean a broken neck. 

“You have to be there 100%,” she explained in a press conference. “If not, you get hurt. Today has been really stressful. I was shaking. I couldn’t nap. I have never felt like this going into a competition, and I tried to go out and have fun. But once I came out, I was like, No. My mental is not there.”

Her decision was not only good for her. It probably helped the team, which might not have medaled had she continued to underperform. And she has been credited by many for making a memorable case for self-care—mental as well as physical—in the pressure cooker of elite public performance.

In Ethan Hawke’s 2014 documentary, Seymour: An Introduction, we meet Seymour Bernstein, a celebrated concert pianist who disappointed his public by quitting the stage at age 50 after becoming “a total wreck” from the pressures of performance. When Hawke first encountered Bernstein at a dinner party and learned his story, the actor/director found himself sharing his own anxieties with the older man. 

“I decided to confide with him that I’d been performing with a crippling stage fright,” said Hawke in an interview. “The bottom line of the conversation: most artists are not nervous enough .… Pianists have it worse than anybody in the world … If you have to play Carnegie Hall, and you know that one performance will define your whole life, and if you have a memory slip, or if your finger goes rogue, you’re going to be living with the ramifications of it for the rest of your life. They have anxiety like nobody else, and so he was the perfect person to talk to about how to pass through it.” [iv]

Few of us can even imagine the pressures of being the GOAT (Greatest of All Time) who is not allowed to fail, the face of the Olympics, America’s standard bearer, and the always dependable foundation of the team’s success. But her renunciation of these burdens, however temporary, may be her greatest achievement insofar as it helps athletes—and society as a whole—engage with issues of mental health and personal well-being as never before, without stigma or shame. 

William James defined renunciation as “a denial made on behalf of a deeper yes.” In refusing to be shaped by the images and expectations of the world, and by renouncing the projects, desires and identities which do not originate in our deepest place, we begin to affirm and become the truth of ourselves. Taken to its furthest point, this process is a matter of dying to self and living unto God. 

The medieval mystic Henry Suso taught “the science of Perfect Self-Abandonment,” the letting go of “self” in order to merge with the more of God. Until you consent to abandon your inauthentically constructed self, he counsels, “you are like a hare hiding in a bush, who is frightened by the whispering of the leaves. You are frightened every day by the griefs that come to you; you turn pale at the sight of those who speak against you; … when they praise you, you are happy; when they blame you, you are sad.” [v]

In his book, Renunciation: Acts of Abandonment by Writers, Philosophers, and Artists, Ross Posnock examines creatives who made “an exit from the public glare.” For figures of renown, self-erasure is a means of escaping the pressures of public attention, but it may also involve a more radical interior process: grappling with the ego in search of the authentic self. But dropping out of the fame game is suspicious behavior in America. If a gifted person doesn’t crave celebrity, we wonder what’s wrong with them. 

One of Posnock’s subjects is the painter Agnes Martin, who fled the New York art scene in her fifties for the solitude of a remote desert mesa in New Mexico. During her forty years in the wilderness (she died at 92), she continued to make art that was highly praised for its abstract mysticism and formal beauty, but she did her best to keep herself out of sight. When a prestigious museum proposed a major retrospective of her work, she refused, fearing it would be more about her than her art, for which she claimed to be simply a transparent medium. As she told the museum, “the idea of achievement must be given up” if we are “to live truly and effectively.” [vi]

An Agnes Martin could go off the grid without creating a stir, since she was not a cultural superstar. But when the writer J. D. Salinger began to recede from public view in the 1950s after the immense success of Catcher in the Rye, curiosity about his private life grew ever more insistent and, in his mind, more oppressive. 

Behind the walls of his New Hampshire hideout, he crafted his response to what Posnock calls “the culture’s defensive compulsion to label and control,” in the form of enigmatic narratives about the fictional Glass family’s spiritual quests and confusions. Like Bartleby, Salinger preferred his own life to remain a blank, letting the stories speak for themselves. “This blank is his way,” says Posnock, “of outwitting or baffling the arrogant paradigm of meaning production with its ‘menacing pressure’ to generate a legible identity for consumption …” [vii]

“A legible identity for consumption” could describe what the world has tried to make of Simone Biles, before she issued her brave and risky no “on behalf of a deeper yes.” What that deeper yes will be for her, God only knows. May she walk in Beauty.

But renunciation as a spiritual practice is something we all need to think about. Less ego. More grace. And if I were asked to find the right words for this cultural moment, I’d go with the passionate cri de couer of Salinger’s Franny Glass: 

“I’m not afraid to compete. It’s just the opposite. Don’t you see that? I’m afraid I will compete—that’s what scares me. That’s why I quit the Theatre Department. Just because I’m so horribly conditioned to accept everybody else’s values, and just because I like applause and people to rave about me, doesn’t make it right. I’m ashamed of it. I’m sick of it. I’m sick of not having the courage to be an absolute nobody. I’m sick of myself and everybody else that wants to make some kind of a splash.” [viii]



[i] Herman Melville, “Bartleby the Scrivener.” The employer’s failure to reach any solid conclusions about Bartleby makes him an unreliable narrator for a story he does not himself understand.

[ii] Elizabeth Hardwick, American Fictions (New York: The Modern Library, 1999), 9.

[iii] For the critics obsessed with national glory, Biles’ personal well being was of little use. One writer vilified her as proof that “we are raising a generation of weak people.” The deputy attorney general in her home state of Texas called her “our selfish, childish, national embarrassment.” But every gymnast, and I hope most of the public, knew better. 

[iv] Hawke took his title from J. D. Salinger’s story about the unexplained self-annihilation of the fictional Seymour Glass. The Today Show (March 2015) interview is online: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EqsdmR8fGoo

[v] Henry Suso (German, c. 1295-1366), cited in Evelyn Underhill, Mysticism: The Nature and Development of Spiritual Consciousness(Oxford: Oneworld Publications, 1993/2008, originally published 1911), 405. I have modernized the pronouns.

[vi] Ross Posnock, Renunciation: Acts of Abandonment by Writers, Philosophers, and Artists (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2016), 376. Olivia Laing’s excellent piece on Martin in The Guardian is well worth reading: https://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/2015/may/22/agnes-martin-the-artist-mystic-who-disappeared-into-the-desert

[vii] Posnock, 147.

[viii] J. D. Salinger, Franny and Zooey (New York: Little, Brown and Company, 1961/2014), 26.

“What do I know?”

Caravaggio, The Conversion of St. Paul (1601). Rome, Santa Maria del Popolo.

In the year 1570, Michel de Montaigne, age 36, was riding “an undemanding but not very reliable horse” through the woods near his Dordogne estate. It was a leisurely outing, a respite from his duties in local politics and the management of the family lands. He was accompanied by some of his workers, one of whom decided to show off by racing his powerful farm horse to the front of the line. But the show-off misjudged the width of the path. Instead of dashing triumphantly past Montaigne’s horse, he rammed it from behind, “striking us like a thunderbolt with all his roughness and weight, knocking us over with our legs in the air.” 

Montaigne flew a good ten yards beyond his fallen horse, losing consciousness when he hit the ground, “with no more movement or sensation than a log.” His companions thought him dead, and sought to carry his inert body back to his home. Along the way, however, he began to revive, “but only little by little and over so long a stretch of time that at first my sensations were closer to death than to life.”

Over the next few hours, Montaigne’s thoughts “floated on the surface of my soul … not merely free from unpleasantness but tinged with that gentle feeling which is felt by those who let themselves glide into sleep.” For that blessed interval, the pain of his body did “not belong to us.” When that pain finally entered his conscious awareness, its severity felt like a second brush with death, but without the dreamy gentleness of his initial encounter with fatal proximity.

The last thing his mind recovered was the memory of his accident. At first he thought he’d been hit by a stray bullet. The Wars of Religion had reached the Dordogne, and the distant pop of primitive firearms was not uncommon in his neighborhood. Eventually, his memory of colliding horses returned, “but that perception had been so sudden that fear had no time to be engendered by it.” And whatever happened next—his horse disappearing under him, his flight through the air, the hard landing and loss of consciousness—remained an utter blank.[a]

Although Montaigne’s Essais are an essential part of the literary canon, I must confess that I had not read his account of this unfortunate fall until my later years—last month, in fact, about twelve hours after I flew off my bicycle to make my own painful fall to earth. Such a timely reading was itself an accident. I happened to have with me Patricia Hampl’s reflections about Montaigne in The Art of the Wasted Day, and when I opened the book in my hospital room the next morning, her chapter about his fall was the next one up.

My own Montaigne moment occurred after the penultimate session of the Olympic Track & Field Trials in Eugene, Oregon, where I was spending ten days in athletics heaven. Bicycling across the University of Oregon campus at dusk, I was surprised to discover—too late!—that the sidewalk suddenly morphed into three descending steps, the kind of impossible shape-shifting that only happens in bad dreams or cartoon catastrophes. I remember a violent bounce off the first step, but not what happened next. I probably squeezed the brakes, pitching the bike into a forward roll and throwing me into space, but I retain no memory of my flight path. I can only recall the moment of impact and the immediate sensation of pain in my right side and shoulder. Thankfully, my head was untouched. Unlike Montaigne, however, I did not drift in a painless state of gentle detachment. But I did have the experience of a certain doubleness in my awareness. While part of me was howling with pain, another part was busy assessing the damage, noting the details, and wondering at the strangeness of my new reality.

Thanks be to God, I was soon supplied with angels of mercy—three students, plus a nurse who had finished her shift at a Catholic hospital only two blocks away. These angels helped me hobble to the emergency room. After two days in hospital, I was on the highway home with my wife at the wheel. Three and a half weeks later, I’m pretty much back to normal life while awaiting the orthopedic verdict on a displaced clavicle.

“I am myself the matter of this book,” said Montaigne of his immense and influential collection of essays. Although his voice is very personal in its wide-ranging reflections on self and world, vivid stories about himself are rare in his writings. Many have attributed the inclusion of his riding accident to its significance as a turning point for Montaigne. A year after his fall, he would withdraw from the world for a life of reading, thinking, and writing. For the next 22 years until his death, he spent the majority of his days philosophizing in the stone tower adjacent to his house.

His near-death experience had produced a clarity of purpose. Close encounters with extinction tend to focus the mind on what truly matters. Since I’m not going to be here that long, how shall I spend the time that remains? But what happened to Montaigne was more than a sense of heightened resolve. It also sparked a new perception of how consciousness works. Hampl describes this pivotal shift:

“In being knocked off his horse, he experienced the doubleness necessary to empower personally voiced writing. He experienced the fall—but he also observed the fall. Both. In separate but related strands of consciousness he experienced, and he saw the experience.”[b]

Michel de Montaigne (1533-1592)

Hampl compares Montaigne’s fall to the conversion of Saul. While the Book of Acts (9:1-6) says only that Saul “fell to the ground” in the face of blinding revelation, Caravaggio’s biblical painting makes it a fall from a horse, dramatizing the image of transformation as a great tumble from the heights of control and self-assurance, terminating in a shocking, shattering thud. Thus did Saul become Paul, someone altogether new. 

As for Montaigne, he might not have invented the personal essay had he not first been knocked silly, discovering in the process that the self is not just trapped within its own individual experience, but is capable of a larger, less narcissistic, more reflective understanding of mind and world. As Hampl writes, Montaigne’s head wound “gave him a new, enlarged consciousness. In his Essais he found the purpose of this self: to see and then to say. The personal essay was born of a smack upside the head.”[c]

Montaigne’s fall changed the course of his life, but it also changed his relation to death. He struggled with the fear of it through the loss of his father, brother, best friend and five infant daughters, not to mention the persistent slaughters of the religious wars. But when, in the first hours after his fall, he hovered in a strangely tranquil state of letting go, death appeared to have a “friendly face.” It seemed no longer a feared stranger or an impersonal nullification, but a companion as near to us on our first day as our last. 

For the rest of his life, the embrace of our mortality would be a recurring theme. His essay, “To philosophize is to learn how to die,”[d] offers various perspectives to help us live with death:

To begin depriving death of its greatest advantage over us, let us adopt a way clean contrary to that common one; let us deprive death of its strangeness; let us frequent it, let us get used to it … Whenever a horse stumbles, a tile falls, or a pin pricks, let us at once chew over this thought: ‘Supposing that was death itself?”

Why are you afraid of your last day? It brings you no closer to your death than any other did. The last step does not make you tired: it shows that you are tired. All days lead to death: the last one gets there.

‘Leave this world,’ Nature says, ‘just as you entered it. The same journey from death to life, which you once made without suffering or fear, make it again from life to death. Your death is a part of the order of the universe; it is part of the life of the world.’

I want Death to find me planting my cabbages, neither worrying about it nor the unfinished gardening. I once saw a man die who, right to the last, kept lamenting that destiny had cut the thread of the history he was writing when he had only got up to our fifteenth or sixteenth king!

Que sais-je?

And what has my own fall produced in me? I am not Paul. I am not Montaigne. But after that close encounter with the precipitous boundary of my existence, can I remain the same person I was before my short flight into the unexpected? 

The meanings of that Oregon night are still sinking in. Time will tell what I will make of them, or what they will make of me. As Montaigne always said, “Que sais-je?” [e]



[a] Michel de Montaigne, “On Practice,” in The Complete Essays, trans. M. A. Screech (London and New York: Penguin Books, 2003), II:6, pp. 416-427.

[b] Patricia Hampl, The Art of the Wasted Day (New York: Viking, 2018), 214.

[c] Ibid., 215-216.

[d] The Complete Essays, I:20, pp. 96, 107, 103, 99.

[e] Montaigne’s motto (“What do I know?”) reflected his suspicion of certainty and final conclusions, and his inquisitive open-mindedness.

Celebrating the Fourth of July When America is in Doubt

Frederic Edwin Church, “Our Banner in the Sky” (1861)

Insofar as the Fourth of July is the American Midsummer Day, full of warm weather conviviality, playful communal rituals, and the climactic glory of fireworks, it is a day of pleasure and joy. As a celebration of our founding ideals, however, it has always been fraught with the ironies of our national and cultural imperfections.

I have noted these troubling ironies in recent years. “Your Celebration is a Sham”—Indepedence Day in an Age of Cruelty (2019) and Fourth of July 2020: Last Rites for a Dying America? are the most recent examples. In light of the January 6 insurrection and all the calamitous behavior in its wake, one could write volumes about the weird vibe of this year’s holiday affirmations about “America.” But a separated shoulder suffered a week ago, when I flew off my bicycle for a painful meeting with unforgiving concrete, has momentarily limited my ability to sit for long at a computer, and I need to go into the garden now to renew my love for America in conversation with Dickinson and Thoreau. But let me pass on a couple of things before I do.

When a friend posted Church’s 1861 painting, “Our Banner in the Sky,” today, it struck me an image of where we are as a country today. When Church painted it at the outbreak of the Civil War, he was expressing his support for the Union cause. In the most tempestuous of times, he assures us, our flag shall yet wave. But to me the painting seems fraught with fundamental tensions. Is that sunrise or sunset in the background? Does the flag made of colored clouds and a patch of clear starlit sky promise the endurance of an ideal written in the heavens, or does the dematerialization of Old Glory signify the vanishing of a perishable dream? Does the withered tree anchoring the flag imply death—or resurrection? In America 2021, the answers seem no more certain than they did 160 years ago.

Throughout the nineteenth century and well into the twentieth, the Fourth of July was an occasion not only to celebrate our ideals, but also to educate the public in the habitual virtues of public life by which those ideals might continue to be realized. A central part of this educative function was the Fourth of July oration, a usually long-winded address that recalled the great deeds of the past, tabulated the growth and progress achieved over the years, and exhorted the listener toward the same zeal for liberty and the common good that had inspired our founders.

In 1852, the eloquent abolitionist and former slave Fredrick Douglass was invited to give such an oration on July 4 by the Ladies’ Antislavery Society of Rochester, New York. But due to the absurdity of celebrating Independence Day while slavery persisted, Douglass chose to speak on July 5 instead.

“The rich inheritance of justice, liberty, prosperity and independence, bequeathed by your fathers,” he said, ” is shared by you, not by me. The sunlight that brought life and healing to you, has brought stripes and death to me. This Fourth [of] July is yours, not mine.”

For Independence Day 2021, in a country still beset by rampant racism, National Public Radio invited young descendants of Frederick Douglass to recite portions of that 1852 speech, followed by brief reflections of their own. Like any truly prophetic text, Douglass’ address condemns our sins, urges repentance, and preaches hope. This video is a compelling and moving updating of the traditional Fourth of July oration, and I hope you will make its viewing (and sharing) a part of your own celebration this year.