Wars and Rumors of Wars

Antiwar poster, World War I

With a cornered President governing by tantrum and a National Security Advisor eager for Armageddon, storm clouds are gathering––and peacemakers are on the alert. A recent article by Stephen M. Walt in Foreign Policy magazine provides the “Top Five Warning Signs We’re Going to War”:

  • The danger is grave and growing.
  • War will be easy and cheap if we act now.
  • War will solve our problems.
  • The enemy is evil and/or crazy.
  • Peace is unpatriotic.[i]

 Sound familiar? Read the whole article here. And while you’re at it, consider Laurence Lewis’ cautionary piece, “Wars are easy to start. They’re not so easy to end,”[ii] as well as Michael Klare’s “The New ‘Long War,’” which notes a strategic shift in military planning, away from counterterrorism toward old-style great powers confrontation.[iii] These days, it’s natural to be fully absorbed by the downward spiral of American democracy, but the dogs of war are barking as well. Whether the prospect be endless quagmire or sudden apocalypse, we ignore the prophets’ warnings at our peril.

In 1991, Desert Storm rained down fire on Iraq in the name of who-can-remember-what. Twenty-seven years later, we’re still in the global violence business. But after so much blood, treasure and toil, are things better, worse, or the same––not only in the Middle East, but in an America which has been living by the sword for far too long?

In going through some old files last week, I came across the sermon I preached in an Episcopal parish on the first Sunday after the launch of Desert Storm, which had received an overwhelming 79% approval rating from the American people (the war, not the sermon!). In the wake of the recent missile attacks in Syria, it was interesting to re-read that ancient text in light of what has changed––and what has not––in the world, in my country, and in myself over the past three decades. It also made me wonder what God’s friends ought to be saying and doing in our present time of trial.  

I’d be interested to hear your own thoughts on these questions. Meanwhile, here’s what my younger self said so many years ago:

A sermon preached at Christ Church in Ontario, California, on January 20th, 1991.

I would speak to you of war. This war. Our war. Let me say at the outset that I do not believe it to be a just war.

We have been told that Saddam Hussein is a Hitler. But for the last seven or eight years, he was our ally. In violation of U.S. law prohibiting arms sales to terrorist nations, the Reagan-Bush administration secretly provided Iraq with weapons by laundering them through countries such as Jordan. Saddam is a bad and brutal man, no doubt. But is Assad of Syria [Haffez al-Assad, the current president’s father] any better? And Assad, for now, is our ally.

We have been told that we are there to liberate Kuwait, but I doubt that a free Kuwait is what the Emir-in-exile as in mind. So let us be spared the pieties invented to solicit public opinion. This is a war of power politics.

To put it in its best light, we want to demonstrate that the sovereignty of nations cannot be taken lightly if we are to have a stable “new world order.” That is fine as far as it goes. Now you might say, in the light of 52 cases of border-crossing aggression since World War II––most of which the United States ignored––that we might not have paid as much attention to this one if Kuwait’s chief export were broccoli.

But purity of intent is not the issue to be addressed here. What much concern us today is the means employed to achieve our ends. Is this war necessary?

Last Tuesday, George [H. W.] Bush, who worships according to the Book of Common Prayer as we do, spoke with Presiding Bishop Edmund Browning by telephone. We don’t know what was said. But hours later, President Bush unleashed the dogs of war, while his bishop led a march of protest from the National Cathedral to the White House gates.

President Eisenhower once said that “every war is going to astonish you.” The anxiety of these terrible days exists because we don’t know just where the dogs of war intend to go. Perhaps this war will be quick and cause only a minimum of pain for the sake of the greatest good. But what if the greatest air assault in the history of the world has already functioned as a recruiting program for a new generation of terrorists?

Or what if Israel is drawn into the conflict, the coalition falls apart, and the war escalates into a chemical or even nuclear conflict? What if we take out Hussein, only to see another demon take his place, or find the vacuum of Iraq’s defeat filled by Iran? What if Hussein burns the oil fields, throwing world markets into chaos and creating environmental disaster from the massive smoke that would result? What if the war drags on into a war of attrition, causing immense loss of life on both sides and deeply dividing the American people? And what if we can’t foot the bill for this war without robbing the poor and neglecting the environment?

The scenarios of disaster multiply. We pray that none of them will come to pass. But once we started the war, they all became possibilities.

According to the CIA and other experts advising the President, sanctions were working. And serious diplomacy had not even been attempted. This war was nowhere close to being “necessary.”

But this war is not only unnecessary. It is, in the words of the National Council of Churches, “a failure of the human spirit.” It is immoral to punish a dictator by killing innocent women and children. As the Anglican bishops declared in the Lambeth Conference of 1978:

“War as a matter of settling international disputes is incompatible with the teaching and example of our Lord Jesus Christ. The use of the modern technology of war is the most striking example of corporate sin and the prostitution of God’s gifts.”

On a purely pragmatic level, it should be added that the destructiveness of modern weapons has made war obsolete as an instrument of national policy. War has become eschatological. The suicide of the planet seems to be an excessive price to pay for the settling of a border dispute. And even if this war remains “limited,” there can be no winning in the long term.

Violence breeds violence. Americans all suffer from amnesia. We don’t understand cultures with long memories. But I have met Arabs in the Middle East who are still mad about the Crusades.

Americans love winning. “We’re number one!” and all that. But there is a new attitude gaining acceptance in recreational circles today, which is this: “If your opponent stops having fun, you lose.”

Heavy-handed violence––the big guy pushing the little guys around––not only leaves all the essential conflicts unresolved, but it inflames the passions that obstruct fruitful dialogue and resolution. Beware of “victory.” And if our victory is quick and painless, we face another danger: our faith in violence will grow deeper.

Sam Nunn, Chairman of the Senate Armed Forces Committee, said last week that our faith in weapons technology has been vindicated. All those defense contractors who took so much heat for cost overruns and other problems can now stand up and take a bow.

Simone Weil defined violence as the transformation of a person into a thing. When the warrior had to look his victim in the eye, this depersonalization required some work. But weapons technology has made such detachment effortless.

Desert Storm is a great video game. Iraqis are just blips on a screen––abstract, bloodless targets in an electronic arcade. Eighty-three percent of Americans, according to the polls, are caught up in this game. Television, which the military is treating as an instrument of policy, is leading the cheers. Hey, our weapons work! We’re going to win one for a change! I myself am not immune to this. I can feel the predators in my past, singing in my blood.

What, then, is a follower of Jesus to do? First of all, we must look for the cross in this. Where is the crucified Christ to be found? Where Christ is always to be found––in the suffering of the sons and daughters of God. At the cross, there are no Americans, there are no Iraqis. There is only the One who suffers.

In Baghdad’s art center, there is a painting of Jesus, looking over the world with an expression of profound sadness and pain. He wears a Palestinian scarf around his neck, and he is handcuffed. If a Christian pilot knew that Christ was in Baghdad, would he deliver his payload?

Of course, war is not run by the personally motivated decisions of individual soldiers. War is organized from above. Soldiers just play their part. But they can only function as long as the enemy remains a mere target, rather than a brother or sister. Executioners must be indifferent to the stories of their victims. Don’t see. Don’t feel.

You and I cannot let this war be a video game, bloodless and abstract. Let us see Christ crucified in every victim. Let us see whose hands are pierced by the nails, whose cry of anguish rends the heavens. Let us see the Madonna and Child blown to bits in the air raid. Let us see Christ in the foxhole, taking the bullet meant for his buddy.

But let us also see beyond the cross, to the risen life already present in the hope of the faithful. The saints have illumined even the darkest times by holding fast to this hope. Christian Century magazine gives a striking example of this from our own day:

Festo Kivengere, Anglican bishop in Uganda, was a witness to, and in many ways a victim of the barbaric rule of Idi Amin. While in exile he was asked: ‘If you were sitting in Idi Amin’s office with a gun in your hand, what would you do?’ He responded, ‘I would give the gun to Amin, saying, ‘This is your weapon; my weapon is love.’

The peacemaker does not retreat from the struggle against evil. But the peacemaker responds to hate and aggression in ways that create community rather than enemies. When Lincoln was urged to wreak vengeance on the leaders of the Confederacy at the end of the Civil War, he said, ‘Do I not destroy my enemies when I make them my friends?” And Martin Luther King, whose birthday was so disgracefully dishonored by the bombings last week, said, ‘Our ultimate end must be the creation of the blessed community.’

What then is a follower of Jesus to do? Here are the recommendations of the Anglican bishops who met at Lambeth in 1978, calling on Christian people everywhere:

  1. To reexamine as a matter of urgency their own attitudes towards, and their complicity with, violence in its many forms.
  2. To take with utmost seriousness the questions which the teachings of Jesus places against violence in human relationships and the use of armed force by those who would follow him, and the example of redemptive love which the Cross holds before all people.
  3. To engage themselves in non-violent action for justice and peace and to support others so engaged, recognizing that such action will be controversial and may be personally very costly.
  4. To commit themselves to informed, disciplined prayer, not only for all victims of violence, especially for those who suffer for their obedience to the Man of the Cross, but also for those who inflict violence on others.
  5. To protest in whatever way possible at the escalation of the sale of armaments by the producing nations to the developing and dependent nations, and to support with every effort all international proposals and conferences designed to place limitations on, or arrange reductions in, the armaments of war of the nations of the world.

I would add to this list a call for immediate cessation of hostilities and the beginning of real and constructive diplomacy in the Middle East.

Last Sunday night I joined with 1500 Christians, Jews and Muslims for a service of peace. The very fact of such a gathering was extraordinary. We listened to each other’s scriptures, we prayed each other’s prayers. And, at the end, we stood to make a common affirmation which concluded with these words based on the Book of Deuteronomy:

Before us this evening are set life and death.
We choose life
so that we and our children
may live.
Let it be so.

 

Window detail, St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Virginia City, Montana (1903)

 

[i] Stephen M. Walt, “How to Start a War in 5 Easy Steps,” Foreign Policy online, April 2, 2018: https://foreignpolicy.com/2018/04/02/how-to-start-a-war-in-5-easy-steps/

[ii] Laurence Lewis, “Wars are easy to start. They’re not so easy to end,” Daily Kos, April 15, 2018: https://www.dailykos.com/stories/2018/4/15/1756334/-Wars-are-easy-to-start-They-re-not-so-easy-to-end

[iii] Michael Klare, “The New ‘Long War’”, April 3, 2018: http://www.tomdispatch.com/blog/176406/

Magdalene: The Poetic Gospel of Marie Howe

Donatello, Mary Magdalene (late 1430s)

‘I have come to die for your sins,’ Jesus told a stooped figure passing him on the road. ‘Then what am I to die for?’ the old man asked. Jesus took a small notebook from his pocket and copied the question. ‘If I may have your name and address” he said, “an answer will be sent to you.’ 

 –– A. J. Langguth, Jesus Christs

Everyone wanted to pour his wine, to sit near him at the table.
Me too. Until he was dead.
Then he was with me all the time.

–– Marie Howe, “The Teacher”

 

Jesus Christs, A. J. Langguth’s little-known novel published in 1968, imagines Jesus turning up in a wide variety of situations both ancient and modern. In a series of short narratives, he’s a schoolboy, a prisoner, a Vietnamese soldier, a talk-show host, a priest, a prophet, and a host of other characters. Not limited to his biblical incarnation as a first-century Jew, he exists as a recurring phenomenon with an innate awareness, if not always complete understanding, of his unique nature and demanding vocation. Despite being thrown into a new time and place every page or two, the multiple Jesuses retain a semblance of self-recognition within the flux of ceaseless improvisation. But over the course of the novel, the struggles and hopes of all those Jesus Christs begin to seem indistinguishable from our own.

Langguth’s pluralizing of Jesus explores Gerard Manley Hopkins’ premise that “Christ plays in ten thousand places,” wearing many faces, as if the Incarnation were not a singular event but a series of experiments––not only in the range of human possibilities, but in the very feasibliity of translating divinity into the syntax of creaturely dilemmas. Some of these experiments fail in sad or funny ways, but the ongoing repetition of the attempt suggests that there may be something––or Some One––whose desire for human flourishing remains eternally persistent.

Langguth’s quirky novel first appeared when I was a young seminarian immersed in biblical studies, and it had a lasting impact on the way I think about both the representations and the manifestations of the living––that is to say, ever-recurring––Jesus. The One who changes everything keeps coming again and again, and “the holy gospel according to us” not only reframes the way we understand our own stories, but the way we re-read the original biblical texts. Jesus lives, and so does Scripture, and the thing about living things is, they can’t be pinned down or dissected into fixed and final meanings. They keep surprising us with new revelations.

All this came to mind when I discovered, during Easter Week, Marie Howe’s Magdalene, a luminous and moving collection of poems in which two biblical figures, Mary Magdalene and Jesus, assume new identities in the deeply felt narratives and perceptions of a contemporary woman.

When the sixth-century Pope Gregory the Great conflated Mary Magdalene with the anonymous woman taken in adultery and the weeping sinner whose tears bathed the feet of her Lord, Magdalene became a compelling archetype for the forgiven sinner. The haggard penitent carved from a tree trunk by Donatello is famous for its rigorous rejection of idealized beauty. Both vanity and earthly delight have been stripped away. But this was an exception. Most depictions of Magdalene retain a robust sensuality, like the close-up of Joanne Dru’s tear-stained face, gazing up at her Savior in my father’s 1954 Jesus film, Day of Triumph. Her riveting Technicolor image made a lasting impression on my ten-year-old self.

Joanne Dru as Mary Magdalene in Day of Triumph (1954)

Through the long centuries of male-dominated biblical storytelling, the conflated Magdalene figure was typecast as a fallen women tainted by her erotic past. These days she is more accurately understood as an important disciple and primary witness to the Resurrection. But Howe, in voicing the complexity of feminine experience, candidly embraces the Magdalene tradition’s erotic themes while attaching new ones––particularly motherhood––as well. Instead of sticking to the original gospel scripts, she claims the authority of personal experience. “That’s what the story says, but that’s not what he told me,” insists the speaker of these poems.[i]

The collection contains some overtly biblical moments, such as “Magdalene on Gethsemane,” where “what he imagined was not his own torture, not his own death,” but the abuse and torture of “the others”––history’s countless victims. In “Calvary,” the shock of the Crucifixion is felt keenly in its defamiliarizing depiction as a distant, unnoticed thing:

Someone shaking out a rug from an open window
might have heard hammering, one or two blocks away
and thought little or nothing of it.

When the modern Magdalene puts her little girl to bed in “Christmas Eve,” she notices the baby Jesus is missing from the crèche they had set up in her room.

Later when I went to check on her, I saw she’d built a labyrinth of blocks,
a very high tower in the middle of the labyrinth. . .
and at the foot of the tower, the clay baby Jesus and a lamb.

Where was Mary, and Joseph?
Here, she pointed out from her bed––wandering through the seemingly
endless corridors of the labyrinth––looking for their lost child.

“Christmas Eve” could be a metonymy for the book’s overall interplay of the biblical and the contemporary, with the witty difference here of using the clay figures of a Christmas crèche instead of “real” characters. Even more representative of the whole is the poem’s image of endless search––not only for an absent Jesus, but for the inner truth of the seeker herself.

Explaining her attraction to biblical figures, Howe has said, “I grew up with these characters. They are us––flawed, faithful, frightened.”[ii] But in most of these poems, her Magdalene disappears into the everyday sorrows and joys of the poet, so that both Mary Magdalene and her modern counterpart become Everywoman, representing the many through the particularity of the singular and personal. Mary/Marie, like the Jesus in Langguth’s novel, becomes the “I” who contains multitudes:

Remember the woman in the blue burka forced to kneel in the stadium
then shot in the head? That was me.
And I was the woman who secretly filmed it.[iii]

Such unbearable imagery is countered by the vivid register of small delights, like resting her chin on her lover’s shoulder as their bodies entwine in the shallows of a summer sea, or binge-watching an Edith Wharton adaptation with her adopted daughter:

both of us, wrapped in blankets shouting No no no no
when the last most vibrant girl agreed to marry the rich sop.[iv]

Mary Magdalene, St. Luke tells us, was afflicted by seven devils, and the voice in these poems knows them well. “The first was that I was very busy.” The list grows; the demons become darker, more difficult. Halfway through the lengthy poem she admits that the first devil actually was that “I could never get to the end of the list.”[v]

In “Magdalene: The Addict,” her torment is naked and unashamed:

I liked Hell,
I liked to go there alone
relieved to lie in the wreckage, ruined, physically undone.
The worst had happened. What could hurt me then?
I thought it was the worst, thought nothing worse could come.
Then nothing did, and no one.

And yet, to the biblical Magdalene, something––someone––did come. And to the poet as well, although her “Teacher” remains shadowy and elusive. Like the Christ who warned Magdalene, Noli me tangere (“Touch me not!”), her redemptive guide cannot be grasped. “Was he my husband, my lover, my teacher? / One book will say one thing. Another book another.”[vi]

The turning point for the Mary/Marie persona is anticipated in a confessional lament, “What I Did Wrong.” After a painfully honest catalogue of personal failings, she shows a snapshot of her tormented soul: “Years holding on to a rope / that wasn’t there, always sorry . . .” But then, the crucial question:

Who would
follow that young woman down the narrow hallway?
Who would call her name until she turns?

Who indeed? We all know that hallway. We all long for that loving voice. The weeping Magdalene heard it by the garden tomb. “Mary,” he said. When she turned to respond, she rose from the dead.

Whoever he was––and is––the Teacher knows your hunger, your desire, but the finding you seek always means a losing as well. Desire is the prelude to surrender:

So, I thought I had to become more than I was, more than I’d been,
but that wasn’t it. It seemed rather that
something had to go. Something had to be let go of.[vii]

No cheap grace here; instead, the “hard and bitter agony. . . like death” endured by T. S. Eliot’s Magi in their own search for the Holy One. As Magdalene sums up the message in another poem:

How many times did he say it
Change doesn’t hurt he’d say,
as much as resistance to change [viii]

Howe’s haunting suite of poems, like Mark’s gospel, ends inconclusively. “What use / has it been? Somebody loved me / Somebody left. . .” And yet, “Whatever flooded into the world when / He died” relieves the wounding absence with traces of an impossible presence. This redemptive hope is perfectly expressed in “Magdalene at the Grave,” whose clear echo of the Easter appearance stories blesses us with a strange and consoling grace.

On a late summer afternoon, the poet is driving to a cemetery to mourn a departed loved one. Whether she’s Mary remembering Jesus or Marie mourning an unnamed contemporary doesn’t matter. All mortal stories converge at the remembering place. When a heavy rain starts to fall, she decides to turn the car around and head for home. But once she reaches her driveway, she feels a strong compulsion (“as if something were pulling me”) to go back and complete her pilgrimage to the grave of her beloved.

Ridiculous as it was to park and kneel where he’d been buried
––to kneel in the rain––I laughed out loud!

After a few minutes, I looked up and saw the other car idling,
the driver’s window rolled down.

It’s a moment radiant with resurrection mystery. The sudden appearance of the other car. The window rolled down, but is someone there or not? No running over for a closer look. No touch. Only this final, utterly persuasive testimony:

The tears I wept were not tears of grief.
How many times must it happen before I believe?

 

Giotto, Noli me tangere (Scrovegni Chapel, Padua, 1304-6)

 

[i] Marie Howe, “Magdalene on Gethsemane,” in Magdalene: Poems (New York / London: W.W. Norton & Company, 2017), 46. All of Howe’s cited poems are from this volume.

[ii] Interview in EDS Now (Spring 2013), p. 5. Episcopal Divinity School (EDS) in Cambridge, MA, was my seminary.

[iii] “Magdalene Afterwards,” in Howe, 48.

[iv] “Adaptation,” in Howe, 79-80.

[v] “Magdalene––The Seven Devils,” in Howe, 16, 18.

[vi] “The Teacher,” in Howe, 69.

[vii] “The Teacher,” in Howe, 42-43.

[viii] One of 7 untitled interludes in Howe, 54.

What Shall We Preach on Easter Sunday?

Harrowing of Hell, Barberini Exultet Scroll (Italy, c. 1087)

The original disciples were shocked into bliss by the Resurrection––
and they never recovered.

–– Dom Sebastian Moore O.S.B.

 

At the entrance to the Jerusalem’s Church of All Nations, next to the Garden of Gethsemane, there is a sign warning every visitor:

NO EXPLANATIONS INSIDE THE CHURCH

This was intended to discourage talkative tour guides from disturbing the church’s prayerful ambience with shouted lectures, but it has always struck me as very good advice for preachers on Easter Sunday. Confronted by a room full of people who spend most of their time in the secular social imaginary where the dead stay dead and God––if there is one––does not intervene in the natural order, preachers are tempted to mount a defense of the Resurrection within the plausibility structures of the modern mindset. In doing so, they not only tame a dangerous mystery into a manageable––and rather harmless––assumption, but they also waste a valuable opportunity to bring the assembly into confrontation with the transformative presence of the living Christ.

There is nothing wrong with addressing people’s doubts, or wondering what facts might lie behind the “painfully untidy stories”[i] of the Easter narratives. But that is work for another day. Easter Sunday is for proclamation, not explanation. It is a time to meet the One who changes everything.

The central question of Easter is not, “What happened to Jesus way back then?” but rather, “Where is Jesus now––for us?” Or even more strikingly, “When is Jesus­­? When is Jesus for us?”[ii] So Easter becomes not a matter of our questioning the Resurrection, but of allowing the Resurrection to question us. Who are we now, and what must we become, in the light of the risen Christ?

If I were preaching on Easter Sunday, I wouldn’t want to convince so much as to invite–– to invite the mixed crowd of believers, seekers and doubters to embrace the Easter experience and consent to its transformative effects. In order to connect the risenness of Jesus with the risenness of us and all creation, I would pursue two fundamental themes: Easter is now! And, Resurrection has consequences!

Easter is now!

Since it only occurs once a year, Easter Sunday is sometimes mistaken for a commemorative anniversary of a past event. In fact, the earliest churches treated the Paschal mystery of Christ’s death and resurrection as the timeless (or time-full) subject of every eucharistic liturgy. The establishment of an annual observance of “Easter Day” was a later development.

The Resurrection, although breaking into history on a specific temporal occasion, is not the property of the past. As God’s future showing itself in our present, it belongs to all times and seasons. Jesus is alive, still showing up as a transfiguring presence in a world fraught with absences. Jesus is not over, and his story is not over. It will only be completed in the divinization of the cosmos, when God is in all and all are in God.

Easter isn’t something we remember. It’s something we live and breathe.

Resurrection has consequences

The Resurrection is more than an idea we talk about or believe propositionally. It’s something we become, something we “prove” in the living of our stories. Rowan Williams describes it this way:

“[T]he believer’s life is a testimony to the risen-ness of Jesus: he or she demonstrates that Jesus is not dead by living a life in which Jesus is the never-failing source of affirmation, challenge, enrichment and enlargement––a pattern, a dance, intelligible as a pattern only when its pivot and heart become manifest. The believer shows Jesus as the center of his or her life.”[iii]

In the Orthodox icon of the Resurrection, Jesus is never by himself. He is always depicted taking the dead by the hand and pulling them out of their own tombs. Christ’s hand snatching us from death is a vivid image (as in the Exultet scroll above), and George Herbert, the seventeenth-century poet-priest, employs it artfully in ‘Easter’:

Sing his praise
Without delayes,
Who takes thee by the hand,
that thou likewise
Mayst rise . . .

But the things that are killing us exert a powerful gravity. We sag under the weight of our despair, we resist the hand that pulls us upward. Nevertheless, Christ persists. “Arise, sad heart,” says Herbert in ‘The Dawning’:

if thou dost not withstand,
Christ’s resurrection thine may be;
Do not by hanging down break from the hand
Which, as it riseth, raiseth thee.

Do not by hanging down break from Christ’s hand. Christ came to save us from our least selves. That’s the gift––and the challenge––of the Resurrection, and it applies to our common life as well as to our private selves. The first disciples, so scattered and shamed by the events of the Passion, made this perfectly clear when their broken and bewildered community was restored to life. And so it is for all of us who follow.

Resurrection is about the healing and restoration of wounded and severed relationships: relationships between God and humanity, between human persons and, ultimately, among all the elements of creation. An Orthodox theologian puts the case in the widest possible terms: “The Resurrection is not the resuscitation of a body; it is the beginning of the transfiguration of the world.”[iv]

That’s what I would preach on Sunday. Of course we don’t control what people take away from the Easter celebration. But we can hope that the faithful will be inspired and empowered, and that “outsiders” may be intrigued–– and even fed–– by spending time with a resurrection community alive with the Spirit.

The primary task of preachers and evangelists on Easter Sunday is not to recite or argue the evidence for the Resurrection, but to help their communities become that evidence. May the whole world one day see and know a church which has been shocked into bliss––and has never recovered!

+

 

Holy Week posts

Dear reader, as we enter the Triduum, the Great Three Days of Holy Week, I pray that your own experience of dying and rising, whether ritually embodied in the traditional rites or undergone in the particularity of your own spiritual path, may bring you to the place of new life and true peace. Easter graces be upon you.

I have written a number of posts about aspects of Holy Week, and I link them below as seeds for your own reflection. As always, I am blessed by your reading.

The Journey is How We Know (The Triduum)

Temporary Resurrection Zones (Maundy Thursday)

We Are Not Alone (Good Friday)

Good Friday

My Body Shall Rest in Hope – A Holy Saturday Reflection

Just a Dream? – Reflections on the Easter Vigil

Are We Too Late for the Resurrection?

 

[i] Rowan Williams, Resurrection: Interpreting the Easter Gospel (Cleveland, OH: The Pilgrim Press, 1982 & 2002), 100.

[ii] Gareth Jones, “The Resurrection in Contemporary Systematic Theology,” in Resurrection Reconsidered, ed. Gavin D’Costa (Oxford: Oneworld Publications, 1996), 42.

[iii] Williams, 55-56.

[iv] Patriarch Athenagoras, q. in Michel Quenot, Resurrection and the Icon, trans. Michael Breck (Crestwood, NY: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1997), 232.

March For Our Lives: When Hope and History Rhyme

 

Seattle March for Our Lives (Photo by Jim Friedrich)

History says, Don’t hope
On this side of the grave.
But then, once in a lifetime
The longed-for tidal wave
Of justice can rise up,
And hope and history rhyme.

–– Seamus Heaney, “Doubletake”

 

Heaney’s powerful words seem the perfect epigraph for this amazing day, when hundreds of thousands of people In over 800 communities took to the streets to say “enough is enough.” Enough shootings!  Enough victims! It’s time to heal our national gun-sickness. It’s time to choose life.

Have we finally reached a turning point? We’ve seen countless turning points come to naught. We have become well accustomed not to “hope on this side of the grave.” But this new movement, led by highly committed young people not yet practiced in the art of resignation, does feel different. Could this in fact be one of those rare moments, like the end of apartheid or the fall of the Berlin wall, when “hope and history rhyme”?

Seattle March for Our Lives (Photo by Jim Friedrich)

In “Summoning the Sanity to Scream,” posted in the wake of Orlando, I wrote:

Gun worship seems the most powerful religion in America. From presidents to schoolchildren, the blood of countless victims stains its altars. And however much we rage and moan we feel powerless to stay the hand of sacrifice.

 After the joy of marching with thousands of beautiful fellow citizens in the streets of Seattle, and later viewing media excerpts of the utterly compelling young voices at the demonstration in Washington, D.C., I felt myself being awakened from the deadly illusion of inevitability. I began to let myself hope again. The kids are leading the way out of the Slough of Despond. How can we not follow?

Seattle March for Our Lives (Photo by Jim Friedrich)

I was especially moved by Emma Gonzalez, a senior at Parkland’s Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School. Already well known for her prophetic cry against the NRA and its political puppets (“We call BS!”), she began with a brief, heartbreaking roll call of her seventeen dead friends. Then, remaining at the podium, she stood in solemn silence for a very long six minutes––ritually enacting the excruciating duration of the mass shooting.

Ms. Gonzalez had not explained her silence in advance, nor had she invited the crowd to observe it with her. Many in the crowd of 800,000 were undoubtedly bewildered by such an exercise, periodically filling the uncomfortable silence with shouts of “We love you, Emma,” or chants of “Never again.” But the camera also showed many faces mute and tearful. It was a risky liturgical move to immerse that vast multitude in such a long silence (almost unendurable for talkative Americans!) without any advance consensus on its intention or meaning. Those weren’t a million Trappists out there. As far as I could tell from the video, she more or less pulled it off, never quite losing them. I suspect that many will be haunted by the experience for a long time to come. You can watch it here.

Seattle March for Our Lives (Photo by Jim Friedrich)

It is late, I am tired from a lot of walking, and I hesitate to reduce what happened today into a few concluding paragraphs. Something great happened out there, and let’s leave it at that for now. But I am prompted  to make a brief digression before signing off.

As a priest on the eve of Holy Week, I could not help making connections between today’s events and what Christians will be doing over the next eight days. How could I not carry echoes of today’s joyful urban processions into tomorrow’s commemoration of Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem? Both processions involved cheering crowds envisioning a better world; both posited fundamental challenges to the established powers. As for the fate of today’s crowds compared to the one in first-century Jerusalem, I suspect there are crucial differences as well. While every human dream must endure repeated crucibles of resistance and setback, I suspect that the kids on the streets today will not replicate the failures of the Palm Sunday crowd. In that sense, they may prove to be more like Jesus––enduring faithfully with their eyes on the prize––than like the fickle crowd whose “hosannas” turned so quickly to “crucify.”

The other connection I’m thinking about tonight is Emma Gonzalez’s six-minute silence. Founded on an original experience of unimaginable pain and loss, it created a space where suffering might be both remembered and transcended. Like the rites of Holy Week, it engaged the past as something never to be forgotten, something that is intrinsic to the story, but in the context of a future which can contain and redeem whatever has been lost. We all dwell in the provisional space between memory and hope, where we neither forget nor give up. There is always more to our story than we can ever know. Even in the darkest night, God continues to imagine the dawn.

Seattle March for Our Lives (Photo by Jim Friedrich)

At the Easter Vigil next Saturday night, one of the stories we will tell is the deliverance of the biblical Israelites from the powers that enslave them. Instead of an adult reading the story from the Bible, children will act out the Exodus from Egypt. When they reach the Red Sea (adults blocking their way with waves of blue fabric), the congregation will shout “No way! No way!”–– like Congress telling the kids to give up and go home. But Moses will raise his staff, a way will open through the sea, and the Israelites will cross over. One will be carrying a “Never again” sign; another will wear a “March for our lives” T-shirt.

Once they are safely across the sea, Miriam, Moses’ sister, will reflect on what has happened, concluding with a declaration of faith:

“The world says NO.
The power of God is YES!”

 

 

Related posts

The Murderous Hypocrisy of Thoughts and Prayers

Summoning the Sanity to Scream

God Isn’t Fixing This

 

 

 

 

Forty Years of Chewing Sand

St. Anthony the Abbot in the Wilderness (Osservanza Master, Siena, c. 1435)

The desert can be tomb and cradle, wasteland and garden, death and resurrection, hell and heaven. Thus in the desert you will find that God is simultaneously present and absent, proximate and remote, visible and invisible, manifest and hidden. He can receive you with great tenderness and then abandon you on the cross of loneliness. He consoles you and torments you at the same time. He heals you only to wound you again. He may speak to you today and ignore you tomorrow.

–– Alessandro Pronzato [i]

 

In American Nomads, my recent reviiew of Jessica Bruder’s Nomadland, I applied the term “ascetics” to the motorized wanderers who have left behind the oppressive futility of a dysfunctional society to seek a freedom and authenticity seemingly unattainable within the rigged game of economic inequality. Although most of those contemporary nomads might take issue with the religious connotations of the word, I believe that any intentional exodus “away from here” is inevitably a quest for the redemptive space of a Promised Land. Its refusals and renunciations are the necessary first steps toward new being.

In popular usage, asceticism conjures images of bodily self-mortification, like sleeping on a bed of nails, for the sake of a purely spiritual goal. Such a limiting caricature reflects an unfortunate dualism of body and soul. But the term comes from the Greek word for athletic training, and is best understood as a wholistic practice in which everything which comprises the human person—body and soul, heart and mind, inner psyche and outer world—is fully engaged in a committed discipline of patterned living.

Asceticism is not solely a matter of giving old things up; it also involves taking on things that are new. Lenten discipline, for example, involves the addition of deeper spiritual practices and loving actions, and not merely the common subtractions of culinary pleasures and worldly amusements. More prayer and more justice, not just less chocolate.

But even the embrace of positive actions or behaviors involves the renunciation of obstacles, distractions and hindrances which impede or resist the ascetic’s goal. And since we are social beings, both formed and deformed by the worlds we inhabit, it is not always enough to work on ourselves within the confines of the given world. To borrow a phrase from Wallace Stevens, we sometimes need to “exit the whole Shebang.”

And from the biblical Exodus to the “vandwelling” nomads fleeing the enslaving fleshpots of America, the exit always leads to the desert: the no-where beyond the reach of the social imaginary, the silence beyond the captivity of language, the trackless waste where all our constructions turn to dust. As I wrote in Via Negativa:

The desert is the emptiness where there’s no place to hide. In the desert, you come face to face with yourself, your demons, and your God. Nothing is defined there, nothing known in advance. Your scripts are no good in the desert. Your evasions are futile. Whatever makes you want to turn around and run back to the safety of your old illusions is the very thing that is trying to kill you.

We could all use some time in the desert, whether it’s Jesus’ 40 days or the Israelites’ 40 years. But whenever we step outside the noise of our social and personal fictions, the silence is going to wound us with questions. Who am I really, when my familiar props, costumes and stories are stripped away, leaving me naked and alone on an empty stage? Do I have what Salinger’s Franny Glass called “the courage to be an absolute nobody?”

Even the great desert saints of Late Antiquity trembled on the brink of so much nothingness. As Belden C. Lane writes in his indispensable guide to wilderness spirituality, The Solace of Fierce Landscapes:

“What they fled with greatest fear was not the external world, but the world they carried inside themselves: an ego-centeredness needing constant approval, driven by compulsive behavior, frantic in its effort to attend to a self-image that always required mending.” [ii]

The desert way is threatening and fierce, but it is also a place of transformative clarity, as mystics and artists continue to remind us. Indifferent to the old scripts of alienation and inauthenticity, it can be the birthplace of a new way of being human. Video artist Bill Viola describes the lure of the desert issuing from the spiritual desire for true and undistorted existence:

“I want to go to a place that seems like it’s at the end of the world. A vantage point from which one can stand and peer out into the void – the world beyond… There is nothing to lean on. No references… You finally realize that the void is yourself. It is like some huge mirror for your mind. Clear and uncluttered, it is the opposite of our urban distractive spaces. Out here, the unbound mind can run free. Imagination reigns. Space becomes a projection screen. Inside becomes outside. You can see what you are.” [iii]

Of course, the desert can be anywhere. Alassandro Pronzato, one of my favorite desert teachers, describes it as an essentially inward condition:

“You can find your desert in a corner of your house, on a motorway, in a square, in a crowded street. But you must first renounce the slavery of illusions, refuse the blackmail of pressure, resist the glitter of appearances, repudiate the domination of activity, reject the dictatorship of hypocrisy. Then the desert becomes a place where you do not go out to see the sand blowing in the wind but the Spirit waiting to make his dwelling within you.” [iv]

The desert is no place for the casual tourist. It is a pilgrimage of arduous passage, demanding time, patience, endurance and persistence. “You do not settle there, you pass through. One then ventures on to these tracks because one is driven by the Spirit towards the Promised Land. But it is only promised to those who are able to chew sand for forty years without doubting their invitation to the feast in the end.” [v]

Chewing sand for forty years—not the best sales pitch for the pilgrimage to God. But all the easy roads just lead back to Egypt. Endure the trials, bless the oases. Persist. Never turn back.

Do not doubt the feast.

 

 

Related posts:

Via Negativa: A Lenten Worship Installation

Solitude (Part 1)

Solitude (Part 2)

 

[i] Alessandro Pronzato, Meditations on the Sand (1982), q. in John Moses, The Desert: An Anthology for Lent (Norwich, UK: The Canterbury Press, 1997, 30-31.

[ii] Belden C. Lane, The Solace of Fierce Landscapes: Exploring Desert and Mountain Spirituality (New York: Oxford University Press, 1998), 166.

[iii] Bill Viola, Reasons for Knocking at an Empty House: Writings 1973-1994 (London: Thames & Hudson, 1995) 54.

[iv] Moses, 31.

[v] Ibid., 26.

I took the photograph in California’s Alabama Hills, where I have run among wildflowers and slept beneath the stars. The mountain peak on the right is Mt. Whitney, the highest point in the lower 48 states. I climbed it in 1998.

American Nomads

You can do everything right, just the way society wants you to do it,
and still end up broke, alone, and homeless.

–– Bob Wells

I’ve found all space is hallowed ground,
If we will but look around
In our sacred search for the New Earth.
Queens of the Road!  

–– Sylvianne Delmars

 

At last weekend’s Search for Meaning literary festival at Seattle University, there was a multitude of interesting authors speaking on “topics surrounding the human quest for meaning and the characteristics of an ethical and well-lived life.” The challenge was to select only one out of nineteen offerings per hourly session. That was tough for for an indecisively curious omnivore like me. Among the choices were “Rain: A History for Stormy Times,” “Spotlighting Forgotten Injustices Through Historical Fiction,” “Competing Fundamentalisms: The Violent Face of Christianity, Islam and Hinduism,” “The Tao of Raven,” “Writing on the Canvas of Eternity,” and “The Wisdom of the Zombie Apocalypse.”

I was a little surprised by where I ended up––in Jessica Bruder’s “Nomadland: Surviving in the Shadow of the American Economy.” Instead of sticking to a well-hewn path of accustomed interests, I felt pulled aside by the strange and unfamiliar, like Moses yanked off course by the unlikely voice from a burning bush. The analogy may seem grandiose, but the session, and the book it led me to read, turned out to be a revelation which continues to haunt me.[i]

Jessica Bruder is a journalist who spent three years immersed in the alternative world of “vandwellers”––the “houseless” (not “homeless”) ascetics,[ii] mostly of retirement age, who wander the marginal spaces of America, surviving on ingenuity, grit and arduous seasonal labor. In her beautifully written book, Nomadland, she documents the daunting challenges and indomitable spirits of downwardly mobile elders who find ways to survive the hardships and cruelties of an economic system whose shocking inequality puts America near last place among developed nations.

The foreclosure crisis and the 2008 crash only accelerated the ongoing concentration of wealth in fewer and fewer hands. Three American billionaires––Bezos, Buffet and Gates–– are now worth more than the bottom half of the whole U.S. population. Wages remain stagnant or falling while the system continues to suck money upward, stranding the majority in a barren waste of meager scraps. Nearly half of middle class workers contemplate a food budget of $5 a day in retirement, while one in six American households now spends more than 50% of their income on shelter (the recommended maximum is 30%).

As Bruder writes, the choices are becoming excruciating for many: “Would you rather have food or dental work? Pay your mortgage or your electric bill? Make a car payment or buy medicine? Cover rent or student loans? Purchase warm clothes or gas for your commute?”[iii]

For the elders who have played by society’s rules all their lives, the prospect of perpetual misery in their golden years has prompted them to go off the grid and live in the margins. They dump their biggest expense––housing––and take to the roads in RVs, vans and campers, for “a life just a little freer, a little more autonomous, and less anxiety-ridden, a little closer to their heart’s desires.”[iv] This rapidly expanding nomadic movement has been dubbed “the Old Rush.”

As Sylvianne Delmars, age 60, puts it in her “Vandweller’s Anthem” (to the tune of “King of the Road”):

Old beat-up high-top van,
Like livin’ in a large tin can.
No rent, no rules, no man,
I ain’t tied to no plot of land.[v]

Bruder describes vandwellers as “conscientious objectors from a broken, corrupted social order. Whether or not they choose their lifestyle, they have embraced it.”[vi] It is not an easy life; for many of us, it is almost unimaginable. In my youth I sometimes slept in my car outside of Yosemite’s Ahwahnee Hotel, enjoying pleasant evenings of reading in its luxurious public interiors before retiring to my free lodging in the parking lot. It was hardly comparable to the rigors of nomadic life, but that tiny taste of slipping beneath the system’s radar returned when I read Bruder’s book.

Nomadland left me in awe of the enterprising can-do spirit of the vandwellers, who generously share their hard-earned survival knowledge both online and in tribal gatherings. “Boondocking” is one of the most essential topics: learning to be self-sufficient in the boondocks, without any hookups to electricity or water, using solar panels, gas generators and water tanks. “Stealth parking” is also a vital skill: how and where to park overnight or longer in towns and cities without getting the dreaded “knock” on your vehicle’s window.

Even such a radically frugal and improvisational lifestyle requires infusions of cash, which “workampers” earn through seasonal labor. They may flip your burger at a Cactus league game, take your ticket at NASCAR races, staff tourist traps like Wall Drug, run the rides at amusement parks, lift your Christmas tree onto your car roof, or guard the gate at a Texas oil field.

The three jobs which Bruder treats in detail are campground host, beet picker and “CamperForce,” Amazon’s motivational euphemism for shopping season warehouse temps. All three are physically hard and verge on exploitation. But since the work is temporary, the justice questions are not pursued. As long as the seasonal end remains in sight, there seems to be tacit agreement by both employers and workers to live with necessary evils.

“Get paid to go camping!” is a typical recruiting slogan for campground hosting, where you are paid for 30 hours a week even if the job really requires 45 long hours of cleaning, maintenance and managing. That leaves hosts little time––or energy––to enjoy the natural beauty. You work for a private concessionaire hired by government agencies who look the other way if you lodge a complaint, and you can be terminated at any time without cause. But the literature still insists that “retirement has never been this fun!”

Signing up for an autumn beet harvest in North Dakota, Bruder spent a short time working twelve-hour shifts, dodging beet bits and dirt clods flying off a conveyer belt while holding vinyl sacks to collect beets pouring down a vertical chute. “It felt like catching bowling balls in a pillowcase,” she says. Although she was 30 years younger than many of her co-workers, her whole body hurt at the end of every day.[vii]

Fritz Lang, Metropolis (1927)

Her experience at Amazon, though, provides the most harrowing reading in the book. It reminded me of the factory scene in Fritz Lang’s Metropolis, where workers are mere cogs in a rigidly determined mechanism. In an Amazon warehouse, you are constantly under the eye of your masters. Your scanner sets off a timer monitored by computers. Take too long walking to your next scan, and a supervisor will suddenly appear to deliver a reprimand. At the end of the day, you endure a 30-minute (unpaid) wait in a security line to be screened as a potential thief.

Amazon loves the elderly plug-and-play labor force. They are conscientious workers, and few complain about the lack of benefits. But it’s grueling work for aging bodies: walking 15 miles a day on concrete in a warehouse the size of 13 football fields, going up and down stairs, lifting 50 pound loads in 90 degree heat, injuring arms, back and shoulders, or getting “trigger-finger,” a repetitive strain from operating barcode scanners.

The motivational newsletters are cheerful about “getting paid to exercise,” power walking the vast spaces to lose weight and get those “buns of steel.” But the ubiquitous wall dispensers full of free painkillers tell a different story. The 68-year-old former university academic advisor who begins and ends every Amazon workday with 4 ibuprofen is not untypical.

Although CamperForce recruiters advertise the fun of camaraderie and friendship with fellow workers (“worth more than money!”), Bruder’s own conversations during an “undercover” stint in an Amazon warehouse sometimes felt “like talking to prison inmates. It was tempting to cut through the pleasantries and ask, ‘What are you in for?’” [viii]

Some workampers take pride in surviving the ordeal of a demanding seasonal job, like the marathoner or Camino pilgrim who embraces physical hardship as a spiritual trial. Disparagement of “whiners” and slackers is not uncommon. But Bruder also records instances of joy and pleasure even in the rough stretches. “The truth as I see it,” she writes, “is that people can both struggle and remain upbeat simultaneously, through even the most soul-testing of challenges. This doesn’t mean they’re in denial. Rather, it testifies to the remarkable ability of humankind to adapt, to seek meaning and kinship when confronted with adversity.”[ix]

Nomads live for the day when the work ends and they can return to the road, where open space and distant horizons provide the allure of reinvention, or at least escape. Many of them are loners, thriving on solitude and detachment and treasuring their self-sufficiency. But like the Christian desert hermits of the ancient world, they also take genuine joy in the community of tribal gatherings, such as the annual Rubber Tramp Rendezvous.

For two weeks every winter, thousands of vandwellers gather in Quartzsite, Arizona, to trade nomadic wisdom, share stories of work and travel, renew friendships, and bask in the love of a community that loves and accepts them. As veteran nomad Bob Wells has suggested on his popular website, CheapRVLiving, “In many ways we vandwellers are just like the Mountain Men of old: We need to be alone and on the move, but we equally need to occasionally gather together and make connections with like-minded people who understand us.”[x] Or as another nomad describes the experience of community where no one feels a stranger, “This is what family looks like.”

Another blogger, LaVonne Ellis, conveys the sense of melancholy when the Rendezvous ends:  “One by one, they are leaving for other places. I will see some of them again, I’m sure, but this sadness is an inevitable consequence of nomadic living. People come and go in your life. You don’t get to hang on to them forever.”[xi]

Nomadlands chief protagonist, 64-year-old Linda May, dreams of settling into a permanent home of her own, beyond the reach of consumer society, “something she owned free and clear, something that could outlast her.”[xii] Others resign themselves to endless wandering until they become “bleached bones in the desert.” And some hold dear the final image of Thelma and Louise––as if they too will one day vanish into an unimaginable beyond. But few seem to look backward, or dream about the day when they can return to their former life.

Perhaps, Bruder suggests, the vandwellers “are analogous to what biologists call an ‘indicator species’––sensitive organisms with the capacity to signal much larger shifts in an ecosystem.” Some even hope that this nomadic phenomenon foreshadows the emergence of “a wandering tribe whose members could operate outside of––or even transcend––the fraying social order: a parallel world on wheels.”[xiii]

Nomadland left me with so many questions about our unjust and damaging system, and my own participation in it. Can I ever buy another book from Amazon without thinking of the exhausted person who has to walk miles to retrieve it? Will I start to see the nomadic elders beneath the cloak of social invisibility? How will my own comforts and privileged insularity be challenged by these stories of struggle and pain? And are there any alternative to our nation’s passive acquiescence to the insatiable predations of the one-percent?

Bruder’s remarkable book is unsettling, but it is by no means a downer. She has given us a life-affirming, inspiring and often funny read, filled with engaging and memorable characters––not just survivors, but pioneers, pointing the way toward a world more free, more just, and more loving. Whether any vandwellers finally reach that future of human flourishing, or provoke the rest of us to try the same, their single-minded pursuit of something radically better cracks open the cave of our collective complacencies to admit the light of New Possibility.

It wouldn’t be the first time a desert drop-out performed such a divine labor.

Photo by Jim Friedrich

 

 

Related Posts

You Can Never Go Fast Enough

The Questions That Matter

 

[i] Jessica Bruder’s book is Nomadland: Surviving America in the Twenty-First Century (New York: W. W. Norton, 2017).

[ii] I employ this largely religious term because the nomads’ rejection of the dominant system, their practices of radical simplification, and their love of the desert seems akin to the monastic flight to the wilderness in the third and fourth centuries. I will say more about this in another post.

[iii] Nomadland, xii.

[iv] David A. Thornburg, Galloping Bungalows: The Rise and Demise of the American House Trailer (Hamden, CT: Archon Books, 1991), q. in Nomadland, 76.

[v] Sylvianne K. Delmars, “Queen of the Road,” q. in Nomadland, 17. Her song is also quoted in the epigraph. Her blog is Silvianne Wanders: The Adventures of a Cosmic Change Agent.

[vi] Nomadland, 204. Bruder is paraphrasing Bob Wells, drawing on his book, How to Live in a Car, Van, or RV: And Get Out of Debt, Travel, & Find True Freedom (CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform, 2014).

[vii] Ibid., 187.

[viii] Ibid., 57.

[ix] Ibid., 164-5.

[x] RTR invitation posted in January, 2014, on Bob Wells’ website, cheaprvliving.com, q. in Nomadland, 136. I also quote Mr. Wells in the epigraph.

[xi] Posted on LaVonne Ellis’ blog, completeflake.com, q. in Nomadland, 157.

[xii] Nomadland, 235.

[xiii] Ibid., 247, 79.

Ash Wednesday Isn’t for Heroes

Giovanni Bellini, Dead Christ Supported by Two Angels (1460)

Yesterday’s come-from-behind Olympic victory by Shaun White in the snowboarding halfpipe was both thrilling drama and breathtaking athleticism. Following a failure to medal in the last Olympics and a serious injury in competition just four months ago, his triumph fit the classic pattern of the hero’s journey: an arduous path “through many dangers, toils and snares” until the prize is won. But the hero’s journey, however inspiring, is not our Lenten theme. We walk a different way, practicing self-compassion in the dust and ashes of our own defeats.

Every Ash Wednesday, my favorite Winter Olympics story comes to mind. Readers may recall it from a 2016 post, but I offer it again here, prefaced by Mary Oliver’s Lenten antiphon:

You do not have to be good.
You do not have to walk on your knees
for a hundred miles through the desert, repenting.
You only have to let the soft animal of your body love what it loves.[i]

In the 1988 Winter Olympics, American speed skater Dan Jansen, the best in the world, was the consensus pick to win the 500 and 1000 meter events. On the morning of the 500 final, he learned his sister had just died from leukemia. His focus clearly elsewhere, he fell on the first turn of his race and never finished. He would also fall and fail in the 1000 meters. At the 1992 Olympics, he again failed to win the medals expected of him. The 1994 Olympics offered him one last chance, and he came to the line of the 500 meter race as the clear favorite, the only skater ever to break 36 seconds, which he had done four times. But after one slight slip on the ice, he finished out of the medals yet again.

Ash Wednesday came just after that race, and during the liturgy I reflected on Jansen’s story in my homily. Although Jansen would finally win a gold medal a few days later (in the one race where he was an underdog), it was his “failures” that resonated with people. After the liturgy, a therapist in the congregation told me that many of her clients that week had talked with her about Jansen’s story, and how much it moved them. If the world’s greatest skater could fall, then maybe it was all right for them to fall as well. You don’t have to be a hero, only your own flawed and unfinished self, letting the soft animal of your body love what it loves.

In his youth, the poet David Whyte was hiking in the Himalayas when he came to a deep chasm. The only way across was a rickety old rope bridge with many missing slats. Although he was a confident, experienced mountaineer, he suddenly froze at the prospect of traversing the abyss on so treacherous a path. He sat down on the ground and stared at the bridge for hours, unable to proceed. “There are times when the hero has to sit down,” he said later. “At some bridges in life the part of you that always gets it done has to sit down.” Then an old Tibetan woman came along, gathering yak dung for fuel. She walked with a limp. “Namaste,” she said with a smile. Then she turned and limped across the bridge. Immediately, without thinking, he rose up and followed. Sometimes, he realized, it is “the old interior angel,” the unheroic, limping, unequipped part of ourselves, that gets us to the other side.[ii]

Remember that you are dust, and no hero. Whether your Lent will be a time of giving up, going deep, or reaching out, may it always be done with a generous measure of self-compassion.

 

 

[i] Mary Oliver, “Wild Geese,” in Devotions (New York: Penguin Press, 2017), 347.

[ii] Remembered from a David Whyte talk in the 1990s.