Pope Francis goes to Washington (and brings Dorothy Day)

It’s always a terrible thing to come back to Mott Street. To come back in a driving rain, to men crouched in stairs, huddled in doorways, without overcoats because they sold them perhaps the week before when it was warm, to satisfy hunger and thirst, who knows. Those without love would say, ‘It serves them right, drinking up their clothes.’ God help us if we got just what we deserved.”[i]

– Dorothy Day

Let us remember the Golden Rule.

– Pope Francis to the American Congress

When the innovative and influential musician and thinker John Cage was a 14-year-old student at Los Angeles High School, he won the Southern California Oratorical Contest of 1926 with a speech that has a striking resonance for our own time.

After a critique of American capitalism and “its crazed congregation of Gold-Worshippers,” the young Cage envisioned a “great pause” in American affairs, a “moment of complete intermission, of undisturbed calm” in which they might really listen – to their own collective conscience as well as the neglected voices of others: “Then we should be capable of answering the question, ‘What ought we to do?’ for we should be hushed and silent, and we should have the opportunity to learn what other people think.”[ii]

Cage’s inherently religious proposal came to mind this morning as I watched Pope Francis speak to Congress. Compared to the noisy strife that currently dominates our legislative chambers, the papal talk felt like a hush of calm in which we might better hear both our consciences and one another. And in that “great pause,” we heard many themes which go largely unheard in our public life, from the common good to stopping the arms trade.

I was particularly struck by Francis’ choice of Dorothy Day as one of his four American exemplars. Everyone knows Lincoln and King, and many have at least heard of Thomas Merton. But Day, the feisty co-founder of the Catholic Worker movement, is hardly a household name in America. Her deep commitment to social justice, non-violence and pacifism, her association with anarchists, communists, and intellectuals of the left, her outspoken advocacy for working people and the poor in the face of a rigged and predatory system, and her uncompromising commitment to gospel values would make her suspect even today. She was all about the imitation of Christ, and well aware of the consequences. She was jailed, shot at, and periodically investigated by the F.B.I. And though she was a devout Catholic in both theology and spiritual practice, she made some within the hierarchy very uneasy.

Although she has been called “the most influential, interesting, and significant figure in American Catholicism,”[iii] her own bishop kept his distance. After her death in 1980, he deflected requests to put forward her “cause” in the official process of saint-making. Nevertheless, the idea found other advocates. In 1983, the Claretian Fathers of Chicago announced a campaign to pursue her canonization as “a saint for our times.” Day herself would have protested. Refusing the domestication that comes with spiritual celebrity, she once said, “Don’t call me a saint. I don’t want to be so easily dismissed.”

One of her granddaughters, Maggie Hennessy, sent a cease and desist message to the Claretians: “Take all your monies and energies that are being put into her canonization and give it to the poor. That is how you would show your love and respect to her.”[iv] And the Jesuit activist Dan Berrigan, who did his own share of jail time for Jesus, wrote a similar plea:

Abandon all thought of this expensive, overly juridicial process … Dorothy is a people’s saint, she was careful and proud of her dignity as layperson. Her poverty of spirit, a great gift to our age, would forbid the expensive puffing of baroque sainthood. Today her spirit haunts us in the violated faces of the homeless of New York. Can you imagine her portrait, all gussied up, unfurled from above the high altar of St. Peter’s? I say, let them go on canonizing canons and such. We have here a saint whose soul ought not be stolen from her people – the wretched of the earth.[v]

Day was a fitting addition to what television commentator Chris Matthews called the Pope’s “spiritual Mt. Rushmore.” And Francis’ address to Congress was masterful in its creation of an alternative space, an interval where so many critical issues, hopelessly deadlocked within the combative rigidity of American politics, could be thoughtfully reconsidered in terms of shared and agreeable ends: the common good, human flourishing, love of neighbor and welcome for the stranger.

And in this extraordinary rhetorical space, he even managed to lift up the much-maligned vocation of the politician:

Politics, he said, is “an expression of our compelling need to live as one, in order to build as one the greatest common good: that of a community which sacrifices particular interests in order to share, in justice and peace, its goods, its interests, its social life. I do not underestimate the difficulty that this involves, but I encourage you in this effort.”

Process theology describes a non-violent God who neither commands nor compels, a God who persuades and lures. Similarly, Pope Francis today was luring both leaders and public into a new kind of discourse, where the heartlessness, selfishness and folly so rampant in our public life seem – suddenly, laughably – quite out of place:

When the stranger in our midst appeals to us, we must not repeat the sins and errors of the past. We must resolve now to live as nobly and as justly as possible … rejecting a mindset of hostility.

We must not be taken aback by [the refugees’] numbers, but rather view them as persons, seeing their faces and listening to their stories.

It is time for courageous actions and strategies, aimed at implementing a “culture of care” and “an integrated approach to combatting poverty, restoring dignity to the excluded, and at the same time protecting nature.”[vi]

This was Francis’ “I have a dream” speech, and the public, the media and the politicians are all enjoying the high in its aftermath. Will it have any lasting effect? In the short term, there may be a few votes that go better than expected, but I don’t expect the House to hold hands and sing “Give Peace a Chance” anytime soon. Even if we were to renounce the toxic speech of recent years, democracy is rarely a love fest of common consensus, but rather what Chantal Mouffe calls an “agonistic pluralism.” Noting the constructive role of antagonism in public life, she argues that “a healthy democratic process calls for a vibrant clash of political positions and an open conflict of interests.”[vii] And yet, I do like the fact that Congress gave its biggest standing ovation today to the Golden Rule.

As for the long term, who knows? Conversion and formation are mostly undramatic processes, like corn growing in the night. Substantive change takes time. But the fact that Congress, and the country, paused to listen to such a sermon, to consider our common life in terms of transcendent values, does not seem insignificant. John Cage would have approved.

Personally, one of the probable outcomes that gives me the most pleasure is that many people are now going to Google “Dorothy Day,” and God only knows where that might lead.

[i] Paul Elie, The Life You Save May Be Your Own (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2004), 179

[ii] Kay Larson, Where the Heart Beats: John Cage, Zen Buddhism, and the Inner Life of Artists (New York: The Penguin Group, 2012), 26

[iii] Unattributed quote in Robert Ellsburg, All Saints: Daily Reflections on Saints, Prophets, and Witnesses for Our Time (New York: The Crossroad Publishing Company, 1997), 519

[iv] Kenneth L. Woodward, Making Saints: How the Catholic Church Determines Who Becomes a Saint, Who Doesn’t, and Why (New York, Simon & Schuster, 1990), 32

[v] ibid., 35

[vi] Phrases in quotation marks taken from the encyclical, Laudato Si’

[vii] Mouffe is a Belgian political theorist quoted in Kevin Roberts, Into the Image: Culture and Politics in the Field of Vision (London & New York: Routledge, 1996), 102

The summer’s final mass

A perfect summer moment: Blue moon rises on the last day of July 2015.

A perfect summer moment: Blue moon rises on the last day of July 2015.

T-shirts, cut-offs and a pair of thongs,
We’ve been having fun all summer long.

– Brian Wilson & Mike Love

Piecemeal the summer dies ….
The field has droned the summer’s final mass.

– Richard Wilbur

In seventeenth century landscape painting, there was a tendency to idealize, to suspend change and death by capturing an eternal present. Through meticulous depiction of nature’s details, the fantasy of a deathless Arcadia was made concrete for the viewer. Inside the frame, there was no time, no death. Gazing upon one of these pictures, a character in Dostoevsky exclaims,

Here lived beautiful men and women! They rose, they went to sleep, happy and innocent; the groves rang with their merry songs, the great overflow of unspent energies poured itself into love and simple-hearted joys… The sun poured its rays upon these isles and the sea, rejoicing in its fair children. Oh, marvelous dream, lofty illusion![i]

The painting in question was Claude’s “Acis and Galatea.” And indeed, as the lovers embrace in their tent along the shore of a lovely harbor, it seems a perfect moment of harmony and bliss. But will it last? Claude has placed subtle harbingers of change within the scene. The sun is about to set. Polyphemus, the giant who will soon despoil the lovers of their happiness, lurks in the distance – not yet arrived, but on his way. Claude seems to find a heightened sweetness in such mortality; brevity breeds intensity. But Acis and Galatea might take a different view. We’ve been having fun all summer long. Why can’t it go on forever? But there you have it: golden ages, lovers, summer idylls, T-shirts, cutoffs, thongs – all carried off by time’s merciless flow.

Last night another summer slipped away. I was sorry to see it go. If only I could make it stay a little longer. And in fact, here on my island, these first hours of autumn seem no less radiant than yesterday. A warm afternoon is promised. But the idea of summer – marvelous dream, lofty illusion! – is unsustainable. Days shorten. Vacations end. Travelers return. Work calls. Schedules resume. The Sabbath rest of carefree hours and idle days is overruled by necessity. We can no longer enjoy the fiction of having all the time in the world.

In “real” life, a perfectly carefree interval of beach time, lawn parties and magical vacations is an unattainable myth. But now and again, when we do pause to breathe, to notice, to play, to be; when we forget time, giving ourselves wholly to the present moment; when we are attentive and receptive to whatever the universe wants to show us, summer draws near to bathe us in radiance.

All we need is the gift of reverie. Henry David Thoreau spent many a summer morning by his cabin door at Walden Pond, sitting quietly in the sun, listening to birdsong, feeling the warmth on his skin. To those afflicted by the pressures of a 24/7 world, this may seem an incredible waste of time. But like the saints who aspired to pray without ceasing, Thoreau dreamt of even more radical experiments in multi-sensory contemplation:

Would it not be a luxury to stand up to one’s chin in some retired swamp for a whole summer’s day, scenting the sweet-fern and bilberry blows, and lulled by the minstrelsy of gnats and mosquitoes?… Say twelve hours of genial and familiar converse with the leopard frog. The sun to rise behind alder and dogwood, and climb buoyantly to his meridian of three hands’ breadth, and finally sink to rest behind some bold western hummock. To hear the evening chant of the mosquito from a thousand green chapels, and the bittern begin to boom from his concealed fort like a sunset gun![ii]

It’s a comic exaggeration, typically deadpan New England humor, but it makes a point. The luxuriance of summer is a standing invitation to surrender to sensation, to unlearn the cultural imperatives of useful employment in order to pay close attention, moment by moment, to the poetry of the given world. Don’t just look. Dive in and get soaked.

Jesus said, “Unless you throw away your phones and cancel your appointments, unless you go outside and let a wandering cloud be your guide, you cannot enter the kingdom of heaven.” Those who have ears to hear, let them hear.

As a child, Mary Oliver “spent all summer forgetting what I’d been taught.” When she was summoned back to the chalky classroom in the fall, she still treasured the epiphanies of leisure in her heart:

the way the river kept rolling its pebbles,
the way the wild wrens sang though they hadn’t a penny in the bank,
the way the flowers were dressed in nothing but light.[iii]

And if the rest of us have been likewise receptive, we too will exit the summer laden with the gifts of deeply-lived moments. Some will call them memories and be done with them, but that would be a mistake. They can endure within us as a renewing source. Wordsworth called them “spots of time,” potent concentrations of aliveness by which we are ever “nourished and invisibly repaired.”[iv] And as Emerson recommended, on every such epiphany we should “rear a temple of wonder and joy.”[v]

This summer I never stood neck-deep in a swamp to hear mosquitoes chant, but I did keep watch in a field from midnight to dawn as meteors fell from an August sky. Some were brief flashes in the corner of my eye. Others left bright fiery trails lasting long enough for a good look. The profound nocturnal silence was broken only twice. A coyote howled in the brush around three a.m., and at four-thirty an owl whooshed close over my head – twice. That was it. Nothing much “happened.”

Or everything happened, and that night became a temple of wonder and joy I can return to again and again. Even now, as autumn sweeps in with all its portents of vanishing and loss, there is still a summer inside me.

[i] Fyodor Dostoevsky, The Devils

[ii] Thoreau’s Journal, June 16, 1840

[iii] “Just as the Calendar Began to Say Summer,” in Mary Oliver, Long Life: Essays and Other Writings (Cambridge, MA: Da Capo Press, 2004), 35

[iv] William Wordsworth, The Prelude (1799: 1.288-294)

[v] Ralph Waldo Emerson, Lecture (Dec. 19, 1838) in Ashton Nichols, The Poetics of Epiphany: Nineteenth Century Origins of the Modern Literary Movement (Tuscaloosa, AL: University of Alabama Press, 1987), 8

Sweet miracle of our empty hands

Young priest in the Chapel of the Transfiguration, Grand Tetons National Park (1976)

Young priest in the Chapel of the Transfiguration, Grand Tetons National Park (1976)

When I preached at my wife Karen’s ordination on All Souls Day, 2005, I reflected on the peculiar vocation of priesthood. Since today, the Feast of Hildegard of Bingen, is the 45th anniversary of my own ordination, it seems fitting to publish it here.

In nineteenth-century Paris, there was a certain priest who was not quite right in the head, and one day he walked into a bakery, made the sign of the cross over the assorted breads, and said Hoc est corpus meum (This is my body) – the Words of Institution from the eucharistic prayer. When the Archbishop of Paris heard what had happened, he bought up every baguette and croissant in the shop, and reverently consumed them.

This story reflects an understanding of priesthood and sacrament which we do not share, but it does raise questions about the power that is conferred in ordination. What will happen to Karen tonight when the Holy Spirit is called down, and the hands of bishop and priests are laid on her head? How will she be different? What is the nature of the gift she will receive?

Priesthood has a certain aura. You wear special vestments, preside over worship in the name of the whole assembly, and stand at altar and pulpit to speak for God and Christ as though you were heaven’s ambassador. You are called and set apart by God and the Church to do holy things.

Eventually, the doers of holy things are sometimes regarded as possessors of an occupational holiness. The distinctiveness of what priests do becomes a distinctiveness in who priests are. The parson is seen as a kind of model person.

At its best, this understanding of a priest as a walking icon of the Christian life has produced some remarkable saints, clergy who have indeed exemplified a godly life, clergy whose words, actions, and faithfulness manage to bring God a little closer. At its worst, this attribution of holiness to the priest has let everyone else off the hook. We don’t have to be faithful or devout. The priest does that for us.

But in our own day, we have been rediscovering, to our joy, the ministry of all the baptized. All of us, clergy and laity, are empowered and called to be ministers of the gospel, to be doers of the Word in all the times and places of our lives.

Whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable [i] – that’s on every Christian’s agenda. When the saints go marching in, we are all “in that number.”

Our common vocation as ministers was beautifully summarized by Paul Moore, the late bishop of New York. When he retired, his last words to his people were these: “You are messengers clothed in the beauty of God. Take hope, be strong, be brave, be free, be open, be loving, and hold up the vision of the Heavenly City.”

You are all messengers clothed in the beauty of God, and you will be reminded of that again tonight, when you renew your baptismal vows and are sprinkled with water from the baptismal font, in the hope that Isaiah’s cry may ever be on your own lips: Here am I; send me.

But if we are all ministers, then what is so distinctive about the role of priest? If your understanding of priesthood is purely functional, based on what a priest does, the ministry of the baptized creates a crisis of definition as more and more of the priest’s jobs are outsourced to the laity.

Parish administration, pastoral counseling, preaching, teaching, evangelism, social witness and outreach, worship planning and a great deal of worship leading can all be done by laypeople. There are really only three things that a priest can do that a layperson cannot: preside at the eucharist, pronounce God’s forgiveness after confession, and give God’s blessing.

Just these three things. But perhaps they are not such little things.
Bread, forgiveness, blessing.
The things that priests give, in the name of God, in the name of Christ.
Bread, forgiveness, blessing.

It’s actually quite a lot, really, requiring no less than everything – and a lifetime of preparation. Why a lifetime of preparation? Can’t anyone do these things? Speak some words, perform a few actions? Simple, yes. Easy, not so much.

Ritual is like art, requiring natural gifts, extensive training, and a deep grasp of the cluster of conditions that constitute ritual practice: theology, history, the meaning of sign and symbol, the nuances of body language, gesture and gaze, and so forth.

Karen comes to this calling with her own particular identity, her own unique blend of gifts and qualities. Priesthood is always an embodied phenomenon, something only realized in the form of particular persons. In that respect, each priest is different.

But when the Church sets a person apart in ordination, she becomes more than her individual self. Whenever Karen puts on her priestly stole, she will become 2000 years old, a public representative of the cumulative tradition and collective wisdom of the Church.

As priest, she will be a keeper and guardian of our sacred stories, whose task it is to tend the flame of their saving grace. At the same time, she is given the privilege of being entrusted with the stories of her people, helping them to understand that their own lives are also sacred stories.

The priestly role is not for everyone. It requires a delicate balance between self-awareness and transparency to Spirit, the sensitivity to be attuned not only to one’s own self but also to all the other selves in the room, and to the Holy One in whose presence we gather.

At the eucharist, who the presider is, and how the presider is, both have an effect on the assembly’s understanding of what is really going on when we gather to worship.

The performance of ritual doesn’t happen by accident. It is the product of charism, call and holiness of life. It is a full-time, serious business, as Richard Baxter insisted in the seventeenth century when he said to worship leaders:

[A]bove all be much in secret prayer and meditation. There you must fetch the heavenly fire that must kindle your sacrifices. Remember that you cannot decline and neglect your duty to your own hurt alone; many will be losers by it as well as you. For your people’s sake, therefore, look to your hearts… If [your hearts] be then cold, how [are they] likely to warm the hearts of [your] hearers?[ii]

In its essence, priesthood is a concrete and visible expression of belief: belief in the presence of God, and belief in the meaning and destiny of the eucharistic assembly as the body of Christ.

Every time the priest stands at the altar and says the holy words, the whole assembly is alerted to the fact that we all stand on the border between earth and heaven, the visible and the invisible. The border is where worship is conducted: it is where God gives us the bread of life and we offer in return “our selves, our souls and bodies, to be a reasonable, holy and living sacrifice”[iii] unto God.

The priest’s ritual words and actions make clear to the assembly what is going on at the border. It’s not a place where we escape the world; it’s where we discover just how sacred the world is. Ordinary bread and wine become the food of heaven and the cup of salvation.

As Gordon Lathrop puts it, the eucharistic assembly is “a hole in the fabric of things, through which life-giving power flows into the world.”[iv]

But the priestly work of bread, forgiveness and blessing is something that belongs to the entire body of Christ – not just the priest, not just this particular assembly, but the whole Church of God’s people throughout the world and throughout all time.

You and I are all priests in a cosmic sacrament, standing in the place of Christ, seeing with the eyes of Christ, in order to make visible and tangible the eucharistic nature of all things. As priests, we look at our neighbor with the most sacred attention – and intention – and say, This is my body, that is to say, Christ’s body.

We look at the stranger and say, This is my body.
We look at our enemy and say, This is my body.
We even look at bread and wine,
ordinary matter, the stuff of the universe,
and say, This is my body.

And so, to return to that bakery in Paris, we may assume that the bread was already sacred before the priest ever got there, and that every crumb was already worthy of reverent consumption. But we would never know these things had not Jesus, and every priest since, taken bread, said the blessing, broken it, and passed it around.

When I was preparing to preach this sermon, I emailed some of my ordained friends around the country, asking if they had any words of counsel or encouragement for a priest at the beginning of her journey.

One priest repeated what a Methodist minister told him at his own ordination 30 years ago: “You can’t help anybody in their relationship with God unless you are completely human.”

Another said that “who you are is infinitely more important to God and the world than the words you speak, the lists you complete or the sermons you write.”

A priest ordained for 46 years offered this advice: “Try to see [God’s people] the way God sees them.”

A seminary classmate who went on to become parish priest, cathedral dean, and diocesan bishop said, “Never leave or forget your diaconal calling. Jesus came as one who serves. As a priest, you must first of all be a servant.”

And a priest I’ve known since elementary school simply said, “Give all to God.”

I also asked my friends if they could provide a few words that distilled for them the essence of priesthood. One of the best teachers I’ve ever had – an Old Testament professor, seminary dean, parish rector, and priest for 63 years – described it this way:

living with and for sisters and brothers
being the body of christ
celebrating with brothers and sisters
word and sacrament and pastoral act
christ recalling us reshaping us refreshing us
being christ’s body for the world

A priest and poet who has worked since the 1960’s in parishes, campus ministry, foreign missions, and the national church office, offered this succinct couplet:

Everything we share is broken;
and yet we remember the whole and make it present.

Another longtime priest wrote: “Yours is to walk with people to the Mystery and back.”

 And finally, the canon to the ordinary in a Midwest diocese, a woman ordained five years ago, quoted a 16th century Sufi mystic:

Go where you are sent
Wait until you are shown what to do
Do it with your whole self
Remain until you have done what you were sent to do
Walk away with empty hands

Empty hands. I have loved this image ever since I first encountered it, just before my own ordination, in Robert Bresson’s film of the Georges Bernanos novel, Diary of a Country Priest.

The story, a retrospective account narrated with passages from a young priest’s journal, turns on a dramatic and transformative pastoral encounter with a parishioner. In one of the great scenes of cinema, fraught with a severe and holy beauty, we witness “a supernatural storm.”[v] And somehow, by what the young and inexperienced priest says to this woman, but even more by who he is, the woman’s hardened heart is broken open, and she is filled with grace and peace.

That night, the priest learns the woman has suddenly died. He hurries to the vigil where her body lies. We see him kneel by her bed to make the sign of the cross over her. At the same time, we hear his voice describe the moment as he would later record it in his journal:

“Be at peace,” I told her.
And she had knelt to
receive this peace.
May she keep it forever.
It will be I that gave it to her.
Oh miracle –
thus to be able to give
what we ourselves do not possess,
sweet miracle of our empty hands.

Sweet miracle of our empty hands. Let us pray that Karen, like every priest before her, may go to the altar of God, the God of her joy, with empty hands:

Hands that offer, and hands that receive,
hands that feed, and hands that heal,
hands that welcome, and hands that bless.

[i] Philippians 4:8

[ii] Christopher Cocksworth and Rosalind Brown, Being a Priest Today: Exploring Priestly Identity (Norwich: Canterbury Press, 2006), 150

[iii] From Thomas Cranmer’s 16th century eucharistic prayer, retained in Rite I of The Book of Common Prayer (1979), 336

[iv] Gordon Lathrop, q. in Graham Hughes, Worship as Meaning: A Liturgical Theology for Late Modernity (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003), 150

[v] André Bazin, trans. Hugh Gray, What is Cinema? (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1967), 137

Late summer days and the shadows of impermanence

Nelson Cruz

Nelson Cruz

It was supposed to be the Mariners’ year in major league baseball. With a few weeks still left in the regular season, Seattle’s star pitcher has 17 wins, and their best batter has hit 40 home runs. These are great numbers. But the team itself has been out of the pennant race since July. For a long time, the Mariners just couldn’t score when they needed to, lost a lot of close games, and are currently 7 games out of first place, and 6 games below .500. With only 20 games left, their chances of making the playoffs are virtually nil.

So has their season lost all its meaning? Was it all for nothing? If a season is worthwhile only if you win the championship, then only one team can ever stave off meaninglessness. But as basketball legend Bill Russell has noted, in sports “the basic unit of time is the moment. Sports fans and players appreciate each instant.”[i] We enjoy the evening highlights on ESPN even if we don’t follow a particular team, even if our own team is having a bad year, because we are witnessing the timeless essence of the sport: a great pitch, the crack of the bat, a stolen base, a diving catch.

Sportswriter Meg Rowley, in an artful post called “How I learned to stop worrying and love Nelson Cruz,” reminds us that every game, every team, has moments of pure skill and beauty with a value unto themselves, regardless of their relevance to the overall standings. We watch the games even if they don’t “matter” in the long run, because we love those moments.

I once saw Sandy Koufax strike out 18 Giants. I remember cheering and laughing with my dad from a bleacher seat high above right field. I remember Wally Moon blasting a 3-run homer to win the game in the bottom of the ninth. But I didn’t remember, until I looked it up, was the year it happened, or the fact that this dramatic win helped the Dodgers go on to win the World Series. Seasons come and go, fortunes rise and fall, but the special moments endure.

Citing the Mariners’ Nelson Cruz (40 home runs) and the Detroit Tigers’ Miguel Cabrera, who is hitting .351 and will probably win the batting title for a team that is 19 games out of first place, Rowley says that “every season is really about appreciating great performances in the face of eventual failure.” Every team but one will fail in the end. And even the winner is unlikely to repeat next season. “It’s all futile. But guys like Cruz and Cabrera make that futility beautiful … for a couple of at-bats every game, Cruz and Cabrera keep the futility at bay.”[ii]

As I savor the luscious local weather of late summer in Puget Sound, I am also conscious of its imminent departure. No matter how many perfect moments have adorned these summer months, no one gets a winning season in the game with time. The day will come when night falls early, the birds have gone, and it’s too cold to sit outside in the garden with a book.

Emily Dickinson, who loved the “sacrament of summer days,” was haunted by the shadow of impermanence that falls across our sunlit lawns. The times when we forget that shadow, like the brief return of balmy weather in Indian summer, are but a “fraud that cannot cheat the Bee.”[iii] Yet Dickinson’s poetry, in its act of acute noticing, in its cherishing of the beauty which is all the more precious for its brevity, keeps the futility at bay. She could not solve the puzzle of where it was all headed, this ephemeral life. She wasn’t sure whether the future would turn out to be consummation or cessation (to borrow John Dewey’s evocative duality). Despite her inheritance of Christian vocabulary, she was steeped in nineteenth century doubt. But she always stepped to the plate and took her swings, and her readers still share the pleasure of her every at-bat.

I am currently reading Vera Brittain’s Testament of Youth, her moving memoir of the generation who came of age on the eve of the First World War. Her descriptions of “carefree summers” before the war are especially poignant because both writer and reader know what is about to happen. When, in 1915, she received news about the death of one of her ‘summer friends’ – the kind of people “with whom one dances and plays games and perhaps flirts a little,” she wrote to her fiancé serving on the front that “it gives one the shock of incongruity to imagine the Angel of Death brooding over one’s light and pleasant acquaintances, and to think of them with all their lightness and pleasantries shed away.”[iv]

The dream of summer as a timeless sabbath from mortality soon vanished in the trenches, and with it many of Brittain’s generation, including her brother and her lover. But did the shortness of those young and precious lives invalidate whatever love and meaning and joy they did experience, however briefly?

Like Emily Dickinson, Gustav Mahler confronted the shadow of impermanence in all of his work. He said specifically of his Second Symphony (“Resurrection”) that he was asking the big questions: “What did you live for? Why did you suffer? Is it all only a vast terrifying joke?”[v] With the vast orchestral intensity for which he was famous, Mahler takes the listener through a sonic storm of anguish and despair, hope and fear, apocalypse and catharsis, until the extraordinary moment when the chorus refutes the turmoil with the astonishing serenity, verging on silence, of its glorious invitation: Rise again.

I first heard the Resurrection Symphony from the third row of the Los Angeles Philharmonic. Zubin Mehta conducted, and Jessye Norman led the singers in the exultant affirmation of the finale, as voices, strings, brass and percussion carried us in a gigantic wave of sound across the abyss of loss into the transcendent:

Arise, yes, you will arise from the dead,
my heart, in an instant!
What you have overcome
will carry you to God.

In Thomas Mann’s Doctor Faustus, when a fictional composer describes the final passage of his valedictory work, he captures something of what I experienced that night at the end of Mahler’s Resurrection:

It would be the hope beyond hopelessness, the transcendence of despair … Hear the close, listen to it with me! One group of instruments after the other drops out, and what remains, with which the work dies away, is the high g of a cello, the last word, and the last suspended sound, in a pianissima fermata, slowly fading. Then there is nothing more. Silence and night. But the note that continues to hang and pulsate in the silence, the note that is no more, for which only the soul listens, and which was once the expression of sorrow, is no longer that but changes its meaning, and endures like a light in the darkness.[vi]

In the emotionally charged silence which followed the Philharmonic’s inspired performance, no one dared clap or even whisper. Mehta kept his arms high and extended, seemingly frozen in his final gesture, for a very long thirty seconds, forbidding us to drown out “the note that is no more” with the harshness of applause. Norman’s eyes welled up. Some of the orchestra wiped away tears. It was the closest I’ve come to eternity.

At last, very slowly, Mehta lowered his arms. When they finally reached his side, his shoulders relaxed, and we were all released back into time. We rose to our feet and thundered our joy. Yes, that sublime moment had kept futility at bay. More than that, it had carried us to God.

[i] Bill Russell, Second Wind, quoted in Lapham’s Quarterly: Time, Vol. vii, No. 4, Fall 2014, p. 118

[ii] Posted at http://www.foxsports.com/mlb/just-a-bit-outside/story/good-players-bad-teams-nelson-cruz-seattle-mariners-micuel-cabrera-detroit-tigers-090915

[iii] The Complete Poems of Emily Dickinson, ed. Thomas H. Johnson (Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1960), #130, p. 61

[iv] Vera Brittain, Testament of Youth: An Autobiographical Study of the Years 1900-1925 (New York: Penguin Group, 2004), 158

[v] q. in Philip Kitcher, Deaths in Venice: The Cases of Gustav von Aschenbach (New York: Columbia University Press, 2013), 141

[vi] ibid., 178

“Show me a coin” – A stewardship reflection

Roman coin with the head of the emperor Tiberius. The inscription may contain a claim of divinity.

Roman coin with the head of the emperor Tiberius. The inscription may contain a claim of divinity.

When the temple clergy in Jerusalem sent their stooges to ask Jesus a loaded question, they thought they had him cornered: Should we pay taxes to Caesar or not? If Jesus endorsed the Roman tax, he’d lose the crowd. If he encouraged nonpayment, he’d lose his freedom. His famous answer, of course, outsmarted his opponents and postponed his arrest for a few precious days.

“Show me a coin,” he said. One of them dug into his pockets and pulled out a coin, stamped with the image of the Roman emperor. “Whose picture is on it?” They all looked at the coin, straight men headed for a fall. “Caesar,” they said. Duh! “Well then,” Jesus said. “Give to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s.”

We always smile at the Teacher’s wit. I like to think that Jesus pocketed the coin with a wink before walking away. But when the amusement fades, we are left with a puzzle. What does this saying mean for us? Is it a teaching, or even a commandment? What are we being asked to do with the money in our own pockets? The colorful Southern theologian Will Campbell, himself a country preacher, once said to me that if we give to God what belongs to God, there won’t be anything left for Caesar!

I loved what Will said – it had his characteristic prophetic edge – but it didn’t really solve the practicalities of being faithful to God while sharing in the costs and benefits of a complex economy. Most of us are not among the brave few who refuse participation by taxation in the military-industrial complex. We send in our check and accept our complicity in the mixed blessings of the system, which does provide for much common good along with its regrettably baneful effects (drones, for instance).

It’s like Monty Python’s Life of Brian, where a dissident complains, “The Romans took everything from us, and what have they ever given us in return?” His followers, to his chagrin, come up with a long list of benefits, including the aqueducts, sanitation, roads, irrigation, education, public baths, and even the absence of war in the Pax Romana.

While we live in this world, Jesus’ aphorism on taxes will never be an “answer” in the sense of an unambiguous guide for specific action. Instead, it persists as a question that interrogates every individual as well as every system. What does belong to God, exactly? And how then do we return to God what is God’s own?

Pooling our resources through taxation in order to educate our children, feed the hungry, protect the environment, provide universal health care and so on, might be regarded as one form of return, to which we subscribe as citizens with varying degrees of enthusiasm. Common good requires common action. Pooling our resources through church pledging to sustain a community of faith and grow God’s mission to the world is a less messy and more direct form of “giving to God what belongs to God.” Charitable giving is yet another kind of return.

This is how we live as citizens of heaven: we keep the gifts moving – in circulation – rather than hoard them for ourselves.

And did you notice that in this gospel story of the coin the notion of “belonging to” refers only to God or Caesar? We ourselves own nothing. We are but recipients and stewards. The only thing that really belongs to us, Jesus says, is the giving.