I am an Episcopal priest, liturgical creative, filmmaker, writer, musician, teacher and retreat leader. My itinerant ministry is devoted to religious imagination and holy wonder. My blog is a space where diverse ideas and perspectives - theology and culture, liturgy and spirituality, arts and religion - can meet and converse with one another.
The turning of the year is the only ritual observance shared universally by humankind. Each religion has its own sacred days scattered across the months, but tonight everyone on earth will join in one great procession, time zone by time zone, into the New Year. We pause a moment to look back, with a mixture of gratitude and regret; then we turn our faces toward the unwritten future. We usually do this with gleeful clamor and warm embraces, welcoming the New with our brightest hopes. The arrival of 2022 may strike a more tentative note.
In my seven years of blogging, I have written a reflection every New Year’s Eve. Most of those posts have been about hope. On the eve of 2017, with my country “teetering on the brink of insanity and ruin,” I hoped that we would “not to be mesmerized by the abyss,” but rather be on the watch for the divine ingenuity “already and always at work amid the blind sufferings of history.”
Three years later, with the flag of hope tattered and torn by endless battles, I drew inspiration from Thoreau, who continued his quiet work of studying the natural world even as the Civil War ravaged the American consciousness. We must, he argued, refuse the hypnotic spell of the chaos which seeks to seduce our gaze. The refusal to take our eye from the transcendent goodness and beauty at the heart of things is “the only fatal weapon you can direct against evil.”
At the end of 2021, such spiritual poise feels elusive, if not unimaginable. This was supposed to be the year we returned to normal. With COVID now raging like the fires and storms of climate change, and our body politic critically ill with malice and madness, normal is no longer on the itinerary.
Didier Maleuvre, a specialist in the study of Western culture, describes hope as an inherently perilous task: “So long as one hopes, one puts oneself at the mercy of the future.” Isn’t that where we find ourselves on the eve of 2022—at the mercy of the future? It is an unnerving time for sure, and few of us will be stepping so bravely into the New Year tonight.
Yet we must, now more than ever, light our candles in this dark and declare our fidelity to the dawn, whenever and however it may come. God desires a better world. However our follies may frustrate and obstruct divine hope, God is wiser than despair. “Behold,” says the Holy One, “I make all things new.”[i] May we all heed the summons to embody that great redemptive labor in our own stories, whether it be in small acts of kindness or collective works of social and spiritual transformation.
The world as we know it is passing away. But death is never the final meaning, only the portal to new birth. Can we embrace this moment in time as an invitation to radical transformation? The Indian writer Arundhati Roy expresses such a hope:
“What is this thing that has happened to us? It’s a virus, yes. In and of itself it holds no moral brief. But it is definitely more than a virus … It has made the mighty kneel and brought the world to a halt like nothing else could. Our minds are still racing back and forth, longing for a return to ‘normality,’ trying to stitch our future to our past and refusing to acknowledge the rupture. But the rupture exists. And in the midst of this terrible despair, it offers us a chance to rethink the doomsday machine we have built for ourselves. Nothing could be worse than a return to normality. Historically, pandemics have forced humans to break with the past and imagine their world anew. This one is no different. It is a portal, a gateway between one world and the next. We can choose to walk through it, dragging the carcasses of our prejudice and hatred, our avarice, our data banks and dead ideas, our dead rivers and smoky skies behind us. Or we can walk through lightly, with little luggage, ready to imagine another world. And ready to fight for it.”[ii]
Dear reader, I believe that our faith and our love, as well as our hope, will be severely tested in the coming year. When the demons of weariness and discouragement do their worst, remember the Paschal Mystery: The way down is the way up.
When Dante’s descent into the abyss of Hell reached its deepest point, his downward trajectory ceased. Once the poet passed through the nadir—the center of the earth—his motion became, without a change in direction, an ascent back toward the surface. His journey taught him that even the “lightless way,” if you take it far enough, is bound for glory.
… we climbed the dark until we reached the point where a round opening brought in sight the blest
and beauteous shining of the Heavenly cars. And we walked out once more beneath the Stars. [iii]
Dear readers, thank you for engaging with my posts over the last year. I am especially grateful when your own thinking is stirred or your soul is fed by what you find here. My work is to pass on whatever comes to me in reading, experience and the occasional inspiration, planting what seeds I can in the community garden. It is a labor of love. To all who take the time to write a comment or share a post with others, thank you for valuing and extending the conversation.
I wish for you both courage and joy in the New Year. Keep tending the fires of hope!
For summaries and links for previous New Year’s Eve posts, click here.
[ii] Arundhati Roy, “The Pandemic is a Portal,” in Freedom. Fascism. Fiction, (New York: Penguin, 2020). This quote has been widely posted on the Internet, and you can see her read the full text on YouTube: https://youtu.be/7hgQFaeaeo0
[iii] Dante Alighieri, Inferno xxxiv.140-143. John Ciardi translation.
That glorious Form, that Light unsufferable, And that far-beaming blaze of Majesty, Wherewith he wont at Heav’n’s high council-table, To sit the midst of Trinal Unity, He laid aside, and here with us to be, Forsook the courts of everlasting day, And chose with us a darksome house of mortal clay.
— John Milton, “Ode on the Morning of Christ’s Nativity”
What on earth happened last night—at that little stable on the edge of town? It was all so strange, so unbelievable. Some of us are still sleeping it off. Some of us didn’t get any sleep at all, or maybe we were asleep the whole time and it was all just a dream.
There was a really bright star, and then the sky started singing: Gloria in excelsis Deo! It was angels, someone said. I don’t know about that, but it was so beautiful, as if music were being invented for the very first time.
And suddenly, we all started running, don’t ask me why, until we came to this cave––it was a stable with a cow and a couple of donkeys––and in the back there was a woman lying down on some hay, and a man kneeling beside her. And between them there was a little baby, just a few hours old, I’d say. What a place to begin your life! They must have been pretty desperate to end up there. Maybe they were refugees. Or undocumented. I don’t know. But they didn’t look scared or out of place. They seemed to belong there. And you know, I had the feeling that I belonged there too. We all did.
I can’t really explain it, but I got this feeling that everything in my life before that had just been waiting around for this moment, as if after a long and pointless journey I had finally come home.
And I know it sounds weird, but I swear that little baby looked right at me, as if he knew who I was––or who I was going to be, because when I left that stable I knew––I knew!––that my life was never going to be the same. Pretty crazy, right? Part of me hopes it was just a dream, because if it’s not, I have no idea what happens next. But I have to admit I’m a little nervous about where all this is going to take me.[i]
That’s how I imagine the “morning after” speech of a Bethlehem shepherd. After such a vision, he’s intoxicated by wonder, struggling to make sense of it, and feeling both curious and anxious about what happens now, after this wondrous birth. What will happen now—to me, to you, to the whole wide world? A change gonna come, yes it will.[ii] Yes it will, because what happens in Bethlehem doesn’t stay in Bethlehem. It goes home with us, it gets in our blood, it becomes part of our story. Nothing in the world will ever be the same again. Nothing in our lives will ever be the same again.
And that is why, on the morning after, we listen to St. John’s grand prologue to the Fourth Gospel. Its cosmic perspective on the birth of Christ reminds us how vast and consequential was that humble birth in a lowly stable.
In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. . . And this divine Word became flesh and lived among us (John 1:1-14).
In other words, God was not content to remain purely within the confines of the divine self. God desired to go beyond the inner life of the divine, to enter the confines of time and space and history, to become incarnate as the mortal subject of a human life and experience the human condition from the inside. The Word was made flesh and dwelt among us.
What a fantastic thought: God wants to be with us—not just love us at a distance but to be intimate with us. Joy to the world, the Lord is come … let every heart prepare him room. But perhaps we have some doubts about our capacity to receive such a guest.
I’ve been reading a couple of 17th-century poets who expressed their own doubts our capacity to host divinity. Matthew Hale (1609-1676) in a poem titled “Christmas Day” (1659), said:
I have a room ‘Tis poor, but ‘tis my best, if thou wilt come Within so small a cell, where I would fain [willingly] Mine and the world’s Redeemer entertain …
Here he’s speaking about his heart as the place he would entertain the Redeemer. He goes on to describe sweeping up the dust and cleaning up the mess, just as we would if we expected an important houseguest. The poet even attempts to wash this “room”—with his own penitent tears.
And when ‘tis swept and washed, I then will go, And with Thy leave, I’ll fetch some flowers that grow In Thine own garden [i.e., the flowers of faith and love]; With those I’ll dress it up … yet when my best Is done, the room’s [still] not fit for such a Guest.
Well, if we can’t make our hearts fit dwellings to house the divine, who can? Only God can make us so:
Thy presence, Lord, alone Will make a stall a court, a cratch [manger] a throne.
The poet/priest George Herbert, in his own “Christmas” poem (1633), expresses the same need for divine assistance:
O thou, whose glorious, yet contracted light, Wrapt in nights mantle, stole into a manger; Since my dark soul and brutish is thy right, To Man of all beasts be not thou a stranger:
Herbert’s poetry is always resonant with Scriptural references. “Beasts” recalls Psalm 49:12—prideful humans are like “the beasts that perish”—while “a stranger” evokes Ephesians 2:12—without Christ, we remain “strangers to the covenants of promise.”
Then Herbert, like Hale, calls upon God as the only one who can complete his moral and spiritual remodeling project:
Furnish & deck my soul, that thou mayst have A better lodging, than a rack, or grave.
“Rack” is another word for a manger, but it can also mean an instrument of torture, suggesting the cross. In other words, the first time Christ came, humanity provided him the cross and the grave. The poet prays that next time Christ comes to us, we may give him better lodging—a newly furnished soul, adorned with God’s grace.
Both of these poets were saying: Let every heart prepare him room. But they were also confessing that such preparation is more than we can do by ourselves. However, with God’s help, we may yet become fit lodging for divine presence.
In the 20th century, whose atrocities left our confidence in human potential badly shaken, the Catholic contemplative Thomas Merton could still claim that we “exist solely for this, to be the place God has chosen for the divine Presence. The real value of our own self is the sign of God in our being, the signature of God upon our being.”
Merton wrote this after a life-changing experience at the corner of Fourth and Walnut in downtown Louisville. As he was studying all the faces of the milling crowd, he suddenly felt an overwhelming love for all of them, even though they were all strangers to him. It was like what the shepherds experienced in the Bethlehem stable, where, as W. H. Auden said in his own Christmas poem, “everything became a You and nothing was an It.” [iii] Merton would later put his street-corner epiphany at into words.
“It is a glorious destiny to be a member of the human race, though it is a race dedicated to many absurdities and one which makes many mistakes: yet, with all that, [God’s own self] glorified in becoming a member of the human race.
“I have the immense joy of being [a human person], a member of a race in which [God’s own self] became incarnate. As if the sorrows and stupidities of the human condition could overwhelm me, now I realize what we all are. And if only everybody could realize this! But it cannot be explained. There is no way of telling people that they are all walking around shining like the sun.” [iv]
Just so, on that wondrous Christmas night in Bethlehem, our human nature was lifted up as the place where God chooses to dwell. We are still works in progress no doubt, but we are bound for glory. St. Paul believed this when he said that “all of us, with our unveiled faces like mirrors reflecting the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the image that we reflect in brighter and brighter glory” (II Cor. 3:18).
A thousand years later, St. Symeon the New Theologian echoed Paul’s luminous text: “As they who behold the light are within the light and partake of its brightness, so they who behold God are within God, partaking of God’s brightness.”
They who behold the light are within the light and partake of its brightness. Our pale mirrors are made to contain the most impossible brilliance. And even when we turn away from the Light, the Light comes looking for us. No matter how shadowy the path we have taken, the Light will find us, and fill us with divine radiance. That is our destiny, says the Child in the manger.
What happens in Bethlehem does not stay in Bethlehem.
Bethlehem is not a dream fading away into the past. It is the human future. And Christmas Day is not the morning after. It is the first day of the rest of our journey deeper and deeper into God. And whether we know it or not, as we walk that pilgrim road, we are all shining like the sun.
As we used to say back in the day, “Can you dig it?” Can you embrace the wonder of the holy birth: the immensity of heaven cloistered in one small room, be it the Virgin’s womb, the Bethlehem stable, the human heart, or whatever place you’re in right now? Can you embrace the wonder? Will you?
The world wants you to believe far less. But why would you want to do so?
In a novel by the Anglican writer Charles Williams, a young woman goes to church with her aunt on Christmas morning. She is a seeker, not quite a believer, but she finds herself touched by a carol they are singing:
Christians, awake, salute the happy morn Whereon the Savior of the world was born; Rise to adore the mystery of love, Which hosts of angels chanted from above.
The young woman leans over and whispers to her aunt, “Is it true?” Her aunt, one of those quiet saints who has spent her life submitting to divine love, turns to her niece with a smile and says simply, “Try it, darling.”[v]
[i] It’s a risky thing to follow Jesus. At the end of the Fourth Gospel, Jesus tells Peter that “someone else will put a belt around you and take you where you would rather not go” (John 21:18).
[ii] Sam Cooke’s prophetic cry for social transformation was influenced by Martin Luther King’s “I have a dream” speech and Bob Dylan’s “Blowin’ in the Wind.” Cooke said the song came to it in a dream. Listen to it and imagine a shepherd singing it after the Nativity: https://youtu.be/fPr3yvkHYsE
[iii] W. H. Auden, For the Time Being: A Christmas Oratorio. The line is from the Narrator’s concluding speech. Auden’s marvelous poetic dramatization of the Nativity, written during the dark days of World War II, is imbued with hope. Alan Jacobs’ helpful annotated edition is highly recommended (Princeton University Press, 2015).
[iv] Thomas Merton, Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander (1966).
[v] Charles Williams’ Christmas novel is The Greater Trumps (1932).
In calling me, the call does not leave me intact; it surges only by opening a space in me to be heard, and therefore by shattering something of what I was before I felt myself to be called.
— Jean-Louis Chrétien
In Mahler’s Third Symphony, the first movement is an eruption of massive orchestral sounds: horns, drums, fanfares and marches, a shaking of the foundations to make way for a new world to appear. And for the next four movements, the music rarely takes a breath. The adagio, the slow, contemplative movement which usually comes in the middle of a symphony, is delayed until the very end. And what an ending it is—23 minutes long!—taking us with unhurried solemnity ever deeper into the mystery of the world. Mahler called it “the higher form in which everything is resolved into quiet being. I could almost call the Third’s finale ‘What God tells me,’” he added, “in the sense that God can only be understood as love.” [i]
Advent is like that symphony, it seems to me. Over the first three Sundays, the prophets roar, the heavens shake, the voices cry. Repent! Make way! Stay awake! Cast away the works of darkness! Put on the armor of light! But on the Fourth Sunday, it’s suddenly quiet. No more cosmic thunder. No more urgent warnings. The Baptist’s big crowds have drifted on home. Advent’s adagio finale is a miniature: two pregnant women in a humble courtyard, having an intimate conversation.
But what a conversation it is! “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb!” says Elizabeth. “My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior.” replies her cousin Mary. Their ecstatic words have been on our lips in worship ever since.[ii]
The cousins had a lot to process. One was carrying the last of the Old Testament prophets, John the Baptist. The other was carrying the founder and pioneer of a transformed humanity. They held creation’s future within them, ever since they had each said “Yes” to a story that was no longer their own. They now belonged to God, come what may. I imagine they both did a lot of laughing and crying that day.
The Rev. Mark Harris, a dear friend I first met in seminary a half-century ago, began last year’s challenging Advent by writing a poem about Mary’s consent. It’s called “Implications of Yes.”
The neighbors talked about it for a while, How the young girl who was beginning to show Came back from meeting her cousin And seemed kind of quiet,
How she was seen leaving her house Early one morning with a small sapling Bundled in rough cloth in one hand, And a shovel in the other.
Later she was seen coming back, No sapling, the shovel over her shoulder, Her hands and dress smeared with dirt, Her eyes red and swollen.
Later, sitting with the others, she spoke Of her longing for a lost simplicity And her preparations for realities that follow from her quiet Yes .
Years from now, she said, There will be need for this tree grown, Just as there is need now for this Child that grows in me.
The tree will bear the body of the Man, As I bear the Child. We will each be ready in our turn To do as the Holy One requires.
We will, with the Holy One we bear, Be broken by the bearing, And will give our lives For the healing of the nations. [iii]
The poet gives us a stunning image here. Mary, pregnant with Jesus, plants the tree that will become his cross! Both mother and tree will, like Jesus, offer all that they have and all that they are for the healing of the nations, the repair of the world. That’s how the story goes in a fallen, broken world, and if you say ”Yes” to this story, it will cost no less than everything.
When Mary said “Yes” to the angel of the Annunciation, it was neither the first nor the last time she would do so. Her whole life up to that point had been a series of consents that would prepare her to receive the Holy One into herself. And in the years that followed, she never renounced her acceptance of the story that would one day take her weeping to the foot of the cross. It is no light thing to say Yes to such a story.
We will each be ready in our turn To do as the Holy One requires.
Mary was ready in her turn. But now it’s our turn.
The Incarnation of the Divine Word was a singular event. Only Jesus could be who he was and do what he did as the unique conjunction of human and divine—God in the flesh. But in another sense, the Incarnation is a continuing event to the degree that we ourselves become open and receptive to the divine that wants to be born in us.
The Russian Saint Seraphim of Sarov (1759-1833) put it this way: The purpose of human life is the acquisition of the Holy Spirit. In other words, our human destiny is to be filled with Divinity, to dwell in God and let God dwell in us. What did we ask in today’s collect-prayer? May our own souls and bodies become “a mansion prepared for Godself.”[iv]We weren’t kidding around. It’s our most serious Advent prayer, committing ourselves to becoming God-bearers.
The first Christians made some strikingly bold claims for humanity’s potential for “divinization” (becoming like God). The Second Letter of Peter (1:4) says: “God has given you such precious and majestic promises, that you may become partakers of the divine nature.” The First Letter of John (3:2) says, “We know that when God appears, we shall be like God, because we shall see God as God is.” And St. Paul, in Second Corinthians 3:18, insists that “all of us, with faces unveiled, mirroring the Lord’s glory, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another.”
The two most famous summations of divinization as corollary to incarnation were made by Irenaeus in the second century and Athanasius in the fourth. “In God’s immense love,” said Irenaeus, “God became what we are, that he might make us what he is.” Athanasius was even more explicit: “The Divine Word became human that humans might become God.”
Now many have argued against this whole idea of divinization. There’s too great a gulf between Creator and creature, some say. Who can hope to cross that infinite abyss? Others say that humanity is simply not up to it. Just look at world history over the past century, or the last few years in America. On the Feast of the Epiphany, January 6, 2021, for example, did anyone see Christ’s glory being reflected from those tormented faces at our nation’s Capitol? [v]
But if we believe that the Divine Word was truly made flesh, and that Jesus was both fully human and fully divine, then we must acknowledge the existence of an innate human capacity to receive and embody God. Absent that capacity, Mary could never have conceived our Lord and Savior. There is an integral part of our human makeup which is designed to answer when God calls. In other words, our humanity always contains a mansion prepared for Godself. That receptive capacity to say Yes to God may be buried beneath multiple layers of ego and sin, but it cannot be destroyed. It’s a feature, not a bug.
One of the greatest Orthodox theologians of the last century, Sergius Bulgakov, insisted on the indispensable role of humanity in the Incarnation:
Christ did not bring His human nature down from heaven, and He did not create it anew from the earth; rather, He took it from “the most pure flesh and blood of the Virgin Mary”… [T]he Incarnation of Christ is realized not in one Person but in two: in Christ and in the Virgin Mary. The icon of the Mother of God with Infant is therefore the true icon of the Incarnation.[vi]
To become fully human, the only-begotten of God did not destroy human nature, making it something it was not. Rather, Christ fulfilled human nature, manifesting our human potential to dance with God. But we need help to realize our full humanity. It’s not just that our wills are impaired by sin. The fact is that we are not made to function as autonomous beings at all. We are choral beings at heart. We need the full choir, the whole company of heaven and earth, in order to be our truest selves and exist not in isolation but in holy communion.
So let us admit that Mary was capable of divinization. She could contain and give birth to the holy in our midst. But what about the rest of us? Are we capable of embodying divinity? Many Christians have said yes, absolutely! The great hymn writer Charles Wesley put it this way:
Heavenly Adam, life divine, Change my nature into Thine; Move and spread throughout my soul, Actuate and fill the whole; Be it I no longer now Living in the flesh, but Thou.[vii]
That’s a high bar for sure. But it happens. The saints prove that every day. And we ourselves are here because we are engaged in the same transformational project.
Be it I no longer now Living in the flesh, but Thou.
Less me, more God.
Our parish hosted a film series this Advent, and last week’s feature, Of Gods and Men (2010), told the true story of French Trappist monks who served an impoverished Muslim village in Algeria. Their monastery, Our Lady of Atlas, had been there since 1938, but in the decades after the end of French colonial rule in 1962, their community was threatened by civil unrest and a lingering suspicion of Europeans. In the 1990s, returning to France was clearly the safest choice, but the village leaders begged them to stay. They depended on the monks, not only for medical care, but for their stabilizing and loving presence.
On Christmas Eve, 1993, terrorists broke into the monastery and held the monks at gunpoint, making it clear that they were now in mortal danger. The terrorists eventually departed without incident (even apologizing for disturbing the holy feast of Jesus’ birth), and the monks celebrated Midnight Mass with special intensity. But the threat remained.
Two years later (March 1996), that Christmas Eve of both fear and deliverance was still reverberating in their hearts. Dom Christian, the prior, told the brothers in a Lenten reflection:
… through that experience we felt invited to be born again. The life of a man goes forth from birth to birth … In our life there is always a child to be born; the child of God who each of us is … We have to be witnesses of the Emmanuel, that is, of “God with us.” There is a presence of “God among us” which we ourselves must assume.[viii]
A few weeks after Dom Christian wrote these lines about giving birth to God, the monks were taken hostage just before Holy Week. They would be martyred during Eastertide. If they had fled the country when they had the chance, they could have preserved their lives. But the brothers would not abandon the people they served. And their writings and their actions made it clear that they had already surrendered their lives long before, in both their baptismal vows and their monastic vows. They were people who knew what it meant to say yes when Jesus calls, come what may.
If any of you still have doubts about the human capacity to embody divinity, listen to what Dom Christian wrote after that pivotal Christmas Eve, imagining what he would say to his future killer at the hour of his death:
And also you, my friend of the last moment, who will not have known what you are doing: Yes, I want this thank you and this “a-dieu” to be for you, too, because in God’s face I see yours. May we meet again as happy thieves in Paradise, if it please God, the Father of us both. Amen! In h’allah! [ix]
Who could write such a thing had God not filled him to the brim! Another monk, Fr. Christopher, wrote in his journal during that same Christmastide: “We are in a state of epiclesis.”[x]Epiclesis is a Greek term denoting the invocation of the Holy Spirit in the eucharistic prayer, asking for the sanctification of our lives as well as the holy gifts on the altar.
We are all in a state of epiclesis—the acquisition of Spirit. And indeed, it is God’s desire to give us more spirit, more grace, more love, more humanity and more divinity. All we need to do is say Yes.
[i] Gustav Mahler, letter to Bruno Walter in 1896, the year he composed the Third Symphony.
[ii] Elizabeth’s words are part of the “Hail Mary” prayer used in the Rosary; Mary’s Magnificat (“Song of Mary”) is one of the oldest Christian hymns, and draws upon the Song of Hannah (I Samuel 2:1-10) and other Old Testament texts. This scene of the two cousins only appears in Luke 1:39-55.
[iii] Mark Harris is an Episcopal priest, poet and artist living in Lewes, Delaware. The poem, written December 1, 2020, is used by permission.
[iv] The Collect for Advent 4 in the Book of Common Prayer reads: Purify our conscience, Almighty God, by your daily visitation, that your Son Jesus Christ, at his coming, may find in us a mansion prepared for himself; who lives and reigns with you, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.
[v] January 6, the Feast of the Epiphany, celebrates the manifestation of Christ to the world. It is a bitter irony that that date has now been corrupted by the violence, hate and delusion of the insurrection. A similar irony taints the Feast of the Transfiguration, when the brilliant light of Christ’s divinity must share August 6 with the incinerating explosion of the atomic bomb at Hiroshima.
[vi] Sergius Bulgakov, The Lamb of God (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2008), 200, 202.
[vii] Charles Wesley (1707-1788), Since the Son Hath Made Me Free.
[viii] Dom Christian de Chergé, Reflections for Lent (March 8, 1996), in Bernardo Olivera, How Far to Follow: The Martyrs of Atlas (Petersham, MA: St. Bede’s Publications, 1997), 103, 99.
[ix] Testament of Dom Christian, dated Dec. 1, 1993 & Jan. 1, 1994, opened, after his death, on Pentecost Sunday, May 26, 1996, in Olivera, 127.
[x] Fr. Christopher Lebreton (January, 1994), in Olivera 111.
This new Israel the Lord brought by a mighty hand and an outstretched arm over a greater than the Red Sea, and gave them these ends of the earth for their habitation. In a day, with a wonderful alteration such as was never heard of in the world, the remote, rocky, bushy, wild-woody wilderness became for fertileness the wonder of the world, a second Eden, rejoicing and blossoming as a Rose, Beautiful as Tizrah, Comely as Jerusalem.
— A New England sermon, 17th century
Adam saw it in a brighter sunshine, but never knew the shade of pensive beauty which Eden won from his expulsion.
— Nathanael Hawthorne, The Marble Faun
Forty years ago, traveling in an old school bus with four other humans and two dogs, I visited New England communes to engage in dialogue about the nature of community. The project, funded by the Episcopal Church, was conceived by the Rev. Bill Teska, a fellow priest who thought the Church had something to learn from grassroots experiments in the nurturing of a common life.
It was November. Snow was beginning to blanket the land. Whenever we had to sleep in our chilly bus, I regretted that we were one animal short of a three-dog night. New England freezes will test the soul. At a newly-formed commune in Maine, we wondered how their experiment was going. “Ask us in the spring,” they told us. “We haven’t gone through our first winter yet. A commune hasn’t proved it can survive until it’s been through a winter.”
The United States of America has survived some pretty severe winters of discontent, but the storms brewing now have us all on edge in a way that feels unprecedented. We have begun to doubt our survival.
In reading Colm Toíbín’s The Magician, a novel about the life of Thomas Mann, I was struck by a couple of paragraphs describing Germany in 1934. With a few word changes, they could have been ripped from the headlines of America today:
“Each morning, as they read the newspapers over breakfast, one of them would share an item, a fresh outrage committed by the Nazis, an arrest or confiscation of property, a threat to the peace of Europe, an outlandish claim against the Jewish population or against writers and artists or against Communists, and they would sigh or grow silent. On some days, while reading out an item of news, Katia would say that this was the worst, only to be corrected by Erika, who would have found something even more outrageous.”
“The Nazis … were street fighters who had taken power without losing their sway over the streets. They managed to be both government and opposition. They thrived on the idea of enemies, including enemies within. They did not fear bad publicity—rather, they actually wanted the worst of their actions to become widely known, all the better to make everyone, even those loyal to them, afraid.” [i]
Sound familiar? What decent soul has not been worn down by the relentless succession of lies, madness, and evil acts over the past five years? And who does not now tremble at the increasingly overt embrace of violence, fear and hatred as acceptable political tools by a major political party?
I was born 6 weeks after D-Day. Although I have lived through some troubled times in America, I have never doubted my country’s ability to survive its sins—until this year. Suddenly the American experiment seems shockingly fragile and strangely impermanent. While the majority of Americans may still desire the greater good, the proliferation of bad actors, along with their enablers and dupes, has metastasized into the tens of millions. Our democracy managed to survive January 6th, but not by what anyone could call a comfortable margin. The party that enabled and even fomented insurrection not only refuses to show a shred of shame or remorse, it is actively working to undermine whatever defenses—like voting rights, or an impartial judiciary—remain against future coup attempts.
There is not yet a majority in Congress willing to overturn an election. Nor is a military takeover currently in the cards. But such scenarios are no longer utterly inconceivable. The smell of burning books is already in the air. Where do we go from here?
When the demons run wild in our common life, we cry, “This is not who we are!” The myth of American innocence has been a prevalent theme since the first colonists arrived in the “New World.” Freed of the dead weight of the past, armed with a sense of limitless possibility and buoyant resilience, we (i.e., white Americans) have preferred to think of ourselves as forever young.
The American, according to the myth, is the new Adam (or Eve) in the new Eden, a “radically new personality, the hero of the new adventure: an individual emancipated from history, happily bereft of ancestry, untouched and undefiled by the usual inheritances of family and race; an individual standing alone, self-reliant and self-propelling, ready to confront whatever awaited him with the aid of his own unique and inherent resources.” [ii]
However, the preservation of this myth requires an immense labor of forgetting. Slavery, racism, the Native American genocide, xenophobia, mob violence, misogyny, environmental destruction and countless other sins do not fit the narrative of innocence. If myth’s stabilizing power lies in both conscious and unconscious agreement about our collective memory (“This is who we are!”), stirring up the troubling ghosts of historical evidence poses a threat to our sense of cohesion and identity. Tradition loses its binding force if it is allowed to be put into question.
“Don’t mess with our myths!” is the rallying cry of the far right, who have shown their willingness to destroy America in order to save their version of it. But the rest of us should not feel too secure within our own fictions of innocence. We have yet to resolve our legacy of racism. We seem incapable of addressing our propensity for violence. And our lifelong assumptions about American democracy have been plunged into doubt. When fascism infected Europe in the 1930s, Americans said, “It can’t happen here.” In these latter days, we know better. It can.
Okay, this all seems a little grim for Thanksgiving Eve. But if our current crisis forces us to reexamine and reform the foundations of our common life, perhaps we can be thankful for that. For people of faith, the survival of life as we know it is never the highest good. As we reminded ourselves last Sunday on the Feast of Christ the King, we are not in charge of history, and don’t have to be in love with particular outcomes of transitory events. Empires rise, empires fall. The Kingdom of God—the reign of self-diffusive love—is the only thing that endures, because it knows the secret of dying and rising. Therefore, even at the grave we make our song: Alleluia, alleluia, alleluia! [iii]
Even as the mountains tumble into the sea, the holy Mystery whispers “Rise! Rise!” into every moment, even the most forlorn. For that, I give thanks.
God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble. Therefore we will not fear, though the earth be moved, or the mountains tumble into the sea; though the waters of chaos rage and foam, though the mountains tremble at its tumult, the Lord of hosts is with us; the God of Jacob is our stronghold.
In a 1998 New York Times interview, Gregory Peck reflected on the challenge of playing Ahab in Moby Dick. “I think I should have been more ferocious in pursuit of the whale, more cruel to the crew,” he said, “and I think I’d have a better grasp now of what Melville was talking about. Ahab focused all his energies on avenging himself against the whale, but he was trying to penetrate the mystery of why we are here at all, why there is anything. I wasn’t mad enough, not crazy enough, not obsessive enough. I should have done more.” He paused, took a long breath, and added: “At the time, I didn’t have more in me.” [ii]
When you hear the stories of the saints, do you say, “I mean to be one too!”—or do you feel you’re not quite ready for the part? Maybe you’re not crazy enough, not obsessive enough, not pure enough, not loving enough. You may think, “I don’t have it in me.”
Well, you’re right. You don’t. But that’s the point. The saints don’t have it in them either. Saintliness comes from a source deeper than their own solitary selves. The true hero or heroine of a saint’s life is not the individual person, but the divine intention taking flesh in his or her story. As St. Paul said of his own life’s protagonist, “Not I, but Christ in me” (Gal. 2:20).
As Wendy Wright has written, saints “are people who have had the imagination and audacity to allow themselves to be remade slowly in the image of the living God, people who have so opened their hearts to God that God’s own story is in them once again … retold.” [iii] Every saint’s life is a unique retelling, shaped by the particulars of heredity, personality and environment, but down deep it’s always the same story, over and over again: the story of “love’s endeavor, love’s expense,”[iv] perpetually pouring itself out for the life of the world.
When I graduated from high school, my parents gave me a gilt-edged copy of one the great classics of Christian devotion, Of the Imitation of Christ, written by Thomas à Kempis in the early 15th century. My father wrote in the front, “We hope that this book will bring you closer to the knowledge and love of God, and of his Son, Jesus Christ our Lord. Love, Mom & Dad.”
Although not all of Thomas’ late medieval spirituality resonates today, much of it still hits home.
Blessed are the ears that catch the pulse of the Divine whisper, and give no heed to the whisperings of this world … Blessed are they that prepare themselves more and more, by daily exercises, for the receiving of heavenly secrets. Blessed are they who are glad to have time to spare for God.[v]
O my friend, lose not thy confidence of making progress toward the things of the Spirit; still thou hast time, the hour is not yet past. Why wilt thou defer thy good purpose from day to day? Arise, and in this very instant begin, and say, Now is the time to be doing, now is the time to be striving, now is the fit time to be amending myself.[vi]
(Mom, Dad, I’m still working on it!)
Every saint’s life is an imitation of Christ. The very structure of Christian sacred biographies reflects this theological point. In the Book of Acts, the martyrdom of Stephen—the first biography of a Christian saint—deliberately mirrors the Passion of Christ. Like Jesus, Stephen is an innocent killed by a world which refuses his message. Like Jesus, Stephen uses his final breaths to forgive his enemies and surrender his spirit to the divine. “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit,” he prays at the end. Perhaps it’s not enough to say that Stephen was imitating Christ in his martyrdom. He was, in truth, repeating Christ, in the Pauline sense of “Christ in me.” We suggest the same sense of return and presence in the Words of Institution at every eucharist: Whenever you perform these actions, I am with you once again.
Eleven centuries after the death of Stephen, St. Aelred, abbot of Rievaulx in the north of England, lay on his deathbed, eyes closed. His friend and fellow monk, Walter Daniel, leaned over to whisper in his ear, “Look on the cross; let your eye be where your heart is.” Aelred opened his eyes for just a moment, and spoke his last words: “In manus tuas commendo spiritum meum” (“Into your hands I commend my spirit.”) Once again, the surrender of spirit by a dying saint echoes the last words of Jesus from the cross in Luke 23:46.
In fact, unlike Stephen’s paraphrase, it was a direct quote. Did Walter, Aelred’s biographer, insert the verse from Luke into his abbot’s mouth as a pious fiction, or had Aelred in fact repeated Christ’s words verbatim? In the genre of sacred biography, we don’t need to know the factual answer. Holy stories are always about more than what a camera or microphone can record. As narratives straddling the mysterious boundary between the human and the divine, their language dives beneath the empirical surface to explore the hidden depths. Hyperbole, metaphor, miracle—these are all rhetorical tools to convey the inherently mysterious nature of religious experience.
As Thomas J. Heffernan points out in his seminal study of sacred biographies,“Walter would argue, and his monastic audience would agree, that Aelred’s death has become more memorable because it is now able to arouse in us the memory of another death, the death of Christ, which is the paradigm for the manner in which all Christian martyrs are meant to surrender to God.” [vii]
When it comes to saints, it is not in the historical particulars of their stories, however interesting, edifying, or inspiring, that the central meaning of their lives is to be found, but rather in the way their stories imitate, or repeat, the Christ event, as divine love takes place anew in the flesh of our human existence. As hymn writer Isaac Watts summarized this process:
“The image of Christ is transcribed upon our natures, we go from one degree of it to another, we are changed from glory into glory, from one degree of glorious holiness to another: thereby the gospel appears to have a fairer, brighter, and a stronger evidence.” [viii] We, having Christ in us, become the evidence for the truth of Christian faith.
In other words, saints are living icons, radiant with the light of heaven—even if they sometimes have messy and complicated lives. Take, for example, Elizaveta Pilenko. Born to a wealthy Russian family in 1891, she was caught up in the revolutionary movement during her late teens. She briefly flirted with a plot to assassinate Trotsky (Russian politics were deadly even then). But at the same time, her Orthodox faith was beginning to deepen. She fled the Stalinist regime for Paris in the 1920s, by which time her second marriage, like her first, had failed, and a daughter had died of influenza.
In her new home, she began a ministry to the poor, and her bishop encouraged her to take vows as a nun. She did so, receiving her religious name, Maria Skobtsova. She was permitted to continue to live and work among the people, and her rented Parisian house had an open door for refugees and lost souls. Her bishop called her faux monastery “the desert of human hearts.”
She wasn’t exactly easy for her sister nuns. She wore odd clothes, and hung out in cafes and bars late into the night, counseling people on the brink of despair. She also missed many liturgies while off scrounging food for her soup kitchens in the markets of Las Halles. She’s been called the Orthodox Dorothy Day.
When France fell to the Nazis in 1940, Mother Maria sheltered many Jews, supplying them with baptismal certificates and assisting their escape. Eventually arrested by the Gestapo, she died in the gas chamber at Ravensbrück on Holy Saturday, 1945. She was canonized as St. Mary of Paris in 2004.
Mother Maria was also a writer of poetry and theology. Listen to what she said about the Christian life as a continual self-emptying:
“Renunciation teaches us not only that we not greedily seek advantages for our soul but that we not be stingy, that we always be extravagant in our love, that we achieve a spiritual nakedness, that our soul hold nothing back, that we not hold back anything sacred and valuable which we would not be ready to give up in Christ’s name to those who need it …That which was given away returns. The love which was expended never diminishes the source of that love, because the source of love in our hearts is Love itself, Christ… Here we are speaking about a genuine emptying out, in a partial imitation of how Christ emptied himself by becoming incarnate in humanity. We must likewise empty ourselves out completely, becoming, so to speak, incarnate in another human soul, offering it to the full measure of God’s image which is contained in ourselves.” [ix]
Now when we hear a prescription like that, we may worry, as Gregory Peck did over Melville’s Ahab, about our capacity to perform such a demanding role. What we need to remember is this: the subject of our life is not our individual, autonomous self, but the transcendent, empowering Christ who dwells within us. In a recent podcast, Mark Harris, one of my most eloquent priestly friends, made this point perfectly. “When I look at the heroes I have in terms of justice ministries,” he said, “they are people who live into this to the point of self-emptying. They get out of the way finally. It’s not about their being good; it’s about good being done. So it’s God’s justice that’s done, not them doing justice.” [x]
Heavenly Adam, Life divine Change my nature into Thine; Move and spread throughout my soul; Activate and fill the whole; Be it I no longer now Living in the flesh, but Thou.
— Charles Wesley
Our own holiness practice may not entail the rigors or reach the heights of the greatest saints. Most of us are called to what Thérèse of Lisieux described as “the Little Way.” As a dreamy teenager, Thérèse thought it would be simply thrilling to be a saint:
“I would be a Martyr … I would be a Missionary. I would be flayed like St. Bartholomew, plunged into boiling oil like St. John, or, like St. Ignatius of Antioch, I would be ground by the teeth of wild beasts into bread worthy of God. With St. Agnes and St. Cecilia I would offer my neck to the sword of the executioner, and like St. Joan of Arc I would murmur the name of Jesus at the stake.” [xi]
However, such heroic drama would be denied her. After a brief and uneventful life hidden within a Carmelite cloister, she died from tuberculosis at 24. But her autobiography, detailing her efforts to respond to the smallest, most ordinary moments with a loving, patient and generous heart, would inspire countless faithful around the world. “I am only a very little soul,” she said, “who can only offer very little things to the Lord.”
Fr. Alban Butler, who in the 18th century compiled the most extensive compendium of saintly lives in the English language, also made the point that sanctity can be a practical, everyday kind of holiness:
“Perfection consists not in raptures and lofty contemplation; nor in austerities, or any extraordinary actions: for thus, it would have been above the reach of many. But God has placed it in what is easy, and in every one’s power. The rich and poor, the learned and unlearned may equally aim at perfection: for it requires only that we perform our daily actions in a spirit of true Christian virtue … we must be holy not by fits, but by habit … it is then our ordinary actions performed in a true spirit of virtue … which must sanctify our lives.” [xii]
We must be holy not by fits, but by habit, performing our ordinary actions in a true spirit of virtue.
Blessed are those who rise and shine. Blessed are those who lend a hand. Blessed are those who listen. Blessed are those who take the time. Blessed are those who speak kindly. Blessed are those who smile at strangers. Blessed are those who plant. Blessed are those who raise children. Blessed are those who teach. Blessed are those who provide our meals. Blessed are those who do the hard things. Blessed are those who look with compassion. Blessed are those who do justice. Blessed are those who wonder. Blessed are those who welcome. Blessed are those who nurture. Blessed are those who care. Blessed are those who struggle with failing bodies. Blessed are those who suffer. Blessed are the broken. Blessed are those who know loss. Blessed are those who persist. Blessed are those who surrender. Blessed are those who remember hope. Blessed are those who practice resurrection.
“To be a saint,” says Frederick Buechner, “is to live not with hands clenched to grasp, to strike, to hold tight to a life that is always slipping away the more tightly we hold it; but it is to live with the hands stretched out both to give and receive with gladness.” [xiii] You see, it’s very simple to be a saint. Just open your hands, and your heart.
The greatest cinematic depiction of sainthood is Robert Bresson’s Diary of a CountryPriest, based on George Bernanos’ novel of the same name. The unnamed priest is rejected by many in his village, but it is clear to a few—and to the viewer—that Christ is truly in him. The priest experiences what he calls “the miracle of our empty hands!—that we may give what we do not possess!” Claude Laydu, the non-professional who played the part, threw himself into the role, living with working-class priests, adopting an austere diet, studying the novel throughout the shoot, and submitting without question to Bresson’s strict direction. As critic Tony Pipolo writes, “The very qualities this behavior manifests—obedience, obsessive concentration, a combination of fire and composure, and genuine dedication—were exactly those Bresson sought for his curé.”[xiv] But only after viewing the finished film would Laydu recognize the true nature of his role. “I didn’t know I was playing a saint,” he confessed. I think all the saints would say pretty much the same thing.
I’ll give the last word to Buechner, who writes about saints as well as any. In a novel about Brendan of Ireland, his protagonist sums it up beautifully:
“[God] wants each one of us to have a loving heart … When all’s said and done, perhaps that’s the length and breadth of it.” [xv]
[i] Cited in Tony Pipolo, Robert Bresson: A Passion for Film (Oxford/New York: Oxford University Press, 2010), 71.
[ii] Gregory Peck New York Times interview in 1988, quoted in William Grimes’ New York Times obituary for Mr. Peck, June 13, 2003.
[iii] Wendy Wright, “For all the saints,” in Weavings: A Journal of the Christian Spiritual Life (Vol. III, No. 5, Sept.-Oct. 1988), 17-18.
[iv] From W. H. Vanstone’s hymn, “Morning glory, starlit sky” (Episcopal Hymnal 1982, #585). The endeavor and expense are spelled out in verse 3: “Love that gives, gives evermore, / gives with zeal, with eager hands, / spares not, keeps not, all outpours, / ventures all, its all expends.”
We pray for the dead, believing that, as they are drawn nearer to God, they are enabled to grow in the knowledge and understanding of God, in the service of God, and in the joy and fulfillment of God’s renewing love. We do not pray for the dead as those without hope, but trusting that the faithfulness of God will bring them to the completion and bliss for which every human soul was created.
On All Souls Day (November 2), we call the dead to mind with stories, mementos, photographs, and rituals. In some ways, the dead never leave us. We still use the language they invented, live in the houses they built, learn from their wisdom, pay for their sins. And we carry their DNA inside our bodies. Bill Holm, a Minnesota poet, has noted the strong resemblances between his own living and dead:
When Jona at sixty traveled to her father’s farm in Iceland, the relatives looked down at bony knuckles, veins popping up, said: “See! She has the Josephson hands even after a hundred years…”
Now, when I bellow at parties, or look down at my own hands; knuckles growing, veins rising as I age, I think: I’ll be living with all these dead people inside me. How will I ever feed them? They taught me, dragging carcasses a thousand winters across the tundra inside their own bodies. [iii]
“How will I ever feed them?” We certainly contain and nurture the legacy of the dead in our culture, in our very bodies, but is there any form of continuing relation with the dead as discrete entities who remain other than ourselves? Do the dead still exist somewhere, and can we still be in relation with them? In both the Odyssey and the Aeneid, the hero descends to the underworld to speak with the dead and get their advice. However eerie, it was a sensible quest. The dead have “been there, done that.” They possess the voice of experience. Robert Pogue Harrison explains what Homer and Virgil were up to when they put words in the mouths of the shades in Hades: “We lend voice to the dead so that they may speak to us from their underworld—address us, instruct us, reprove us, bless us, enlighten us, and in general alleviate the historical terror and loneliness of being in the world.” [iv]
As a person of faith, I believe this continuing presence to be more than the lingering effects of the departed on our bodies and our psyches. The communion of the living and the dead possesses an ontological dimension. The afterlife has an existence, a reality, outside our imagination. And it is not only in the past. It is part of our present, and our future. Whether we live or die, we all belong to a larger divine wholeness—“all the company of heaven”— from which we can never be separated. This wholeness, for which there are many names, is the Love that binds us all together. This interconnection, this “communion of saints,” cannot be broken, even by death.
Such radical sense of interdependence, where we all, as John Donne put it, “lie open to one another,” may not come naturally to people who value privacy and individuality and have the means to live without others. Among the world’s poor, however, survival depends on mutuality. People pool and share their resources, with no illusions that they can make it on their own. Community and family are absolutely necessary, and this solidarity is not broken by death.
In her study of Mexico’s Días de los muertos, Juanita Garciagodoy writes that the poor do not regard the self as “atomistic, independent of the social body that constitutes its extended family and community. The physical body is not the private property of its owner with the array of rights to privacy and individualism and the independence from relations, friends, and neighbors the body of the typical “first worlder” claims. People are felt to be connected radically.” This connectedness includes the departed, as the Days of the Dead make clear. “Those people’s spirits are still part of the unit of the living. There is no question about their desert to be humored, fed, entertained, and regaled on dates of remembrance. Those who live with this understanding know that no one is an island.” [v]
Dead or alive, we’re all in this together. The Mexican calaveras, cartoonish depictions of skeletons performing the activities of the living, make this point with comedic verve. I once saw a woodcut of three skeletons in festive dress, arms around each other, smiling and waving as they looked me in the eye. Below them, like a postcard greeting, were the words, Wish you were here!
My father died when I was 21. One of my best friends died when we were 30. But for the most part, death kept its distance in my younger days. Lately, however, the losses have begun to mount. The pandemic, tragically, has taken vast multitudes—“a huge number, impossible to count.”[vi] And on a personal level, the vanishing of loved ones grows way too frequent now that I’ve reached a certain age. In the past few years, I’ve addressed personal loss in my writing, and in honor of All Souls, my Day of the Dead “altar” will be a brief florilegium—flowers for the dead, if you will— from four of my requiem posts.
This is the story that God’s friends stake their lives on: God has loved us into existence. God sustains us every step of our life’s journey. And even after our bodies give out, God loves us too much to let us go.
Bill Fisher, born five days earlier than I, was a close friend for 59 years. In his final days, after he slipped into unconsciousness, I gave him last rites, and his earthly companions sang him to rest. In Paradisum: On the Death of a Friend, describes what happened next.
I entered his room alone to sing him one more song, “Waterloo Sunset.” We had both loved the quirky music of Ray Davies, and the song’s image of crossing over the river “to feel safe and sound” seemed so fitting.
And I won’t feel afraid As long as I gaze on Waterloo Sunset I am in paradise
I want to go with you to the other side of the light where we’ll see what the shadow reveals will be such a relief … time in its disguises won’t fool us anymore …
Days tumble on with minds of their own they breathe in our lives, and make them their own and time, time disappears like the wind from a sail … and every good day will be just another good day of eternal life. [vii]
Anise Stevens, my sister’s child, left us far too soon at age 49. She died in the first minute of dawn on New Year’s Day, 2019. Through my tears, I preached “Trailing clouds of glory” at her requiem.
In her last weeks, Anise wondered about what lay ahead. That is the question. My sister Martha said to me before the funeral that her daughter is “on her way.” Then she recited Wordsworth’s evocative image of the next life as our native home to which we shall one day return:
Our birth is but a sleep and a forgetting; The Soul that rises with us, our life’s Star, Hath had elsewhere its setting And cometh from afar; Not in entire forgetfulness, And not in utter nakedness, But trailing clouds of glory do we come From God, who is our home. [viii]
I have always found Wordsworth’s hopeful and exuberant spirit an inspiration, so much so that I marked my fiftieth birthday with a pilgrimage to the poet’s grave. After nine miles of rambling through the Arcadian charms of English countryside, I arrived at dusk. I had brought along my copy of The Prelude, with two wildflowers from home, an orange California poppy and a pink Farewell-to-Spring, pressed within its pages. As a quarter moon set over the darkening hills beyond St. Oswald’s churchyard, I took out the flowers and laid them on the grassy grave. Then, in the fading light of a summer evening, I spoke the lines which epitomize my own trust in the providence and grace of the human journey:
The earth is all before me. With a heart Joyous, nor scared at its own liberty, I look about; and should the chosen guide Be nothing better than a wandering cloud, I cannot miss my way. I breathe again! [ix]
[i] Martin Brokenleg, “Mitakuya owasin: You are all my relatives,” in The Witness, Vol. 76, No. 11 (Nov. 1993), p. 8. Brokenleg is an Episcopal priest and a member of the Rosebud Sioux tribe.
[ii] Jon Hart Olson, newsletter of Christ Church, OntarIo, CA (Nov. 1994). Jon was an Episcopal priest, colleague, mentor and friend.
[iii] Bill Holm, “Genealogy,” in The Dead Get By with Everything (Minneapolis: Milkweed Editions, 1991) 14.
[iv] Robert Pogue Harrison, The Dominion of the Dead (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2005) 150-1.
[v] Juanita Garciagodoy, Digging the Days of the Dead (Boulder, CO: University Press of Colorado, 2000), 269.
[vi] Revelation 7:9, from the liturgical readings for All Saints Day.
[viii] William Wordsworth, “Ode on Intimations of Immortality from Recollections of Early Chiidhood.”
[ix] William Wordsworth, The Prelude, I.14-18. Wordsworth’s image is a happy reversal of Milton’s melancholy account of the Expulsion from Paradise, where the first humans’ outward journey has dimmer prospects: “The World was all before them, where to choose / Their place of rest, and Providence their guide: / They hand in hand with wandering steps and slow, / Through Eden took their solitary way” (Paradise Lost, 646-649).
Jesus was walking out of Jericho, surrounded by a big crowd. Like all such crowds, it was a mix of the curious and the adoring. Jesus was at the height of his popularity. He stirred people’s imaginations and raised their hopes. The excitement was palpable. But amid all the festive clamor, a single shout brought this parade to a sudden halt:
“Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!” It was a blind beggar, sitting by the roadside. His name was Bartimaeus. “Shush,” people said. “Don’t make a scene.” But he cried all the louder: “Son of David, have mercy on me!”
And Jesus stood still, just the way the sun had stood still in the sky for Joshua in that same city of Jericho.
“Call him here,” Jesus said. And so they did. “Take heart!” they told him. “Get up. He is calling you.”
Immediately, Bartimaeus threw off his cloak, sprang to his feet, and came to Jesus. Then Jesus asked him a question that went straight to the point: “What do you want me to do for you?”
“My teacher,” he said, “Let me see again.” And what Bartimaeus asked, Jesus granted.
— Mark 10: 46-52
In Mark’s gospel, this is the last miracle performed by Jesus before he goes to his death in Jerusalem. It marks the fatal turning point between his ministry and his Passion. It is our Lord’s last act, his last word, before beginning the Way of the Cross. To the world, that looked like the path to oblivion. But to those who have been given the eyes of faith, the Way of the Cross, as we pray every Holy Week, is “none other than the way of life and peace.”
And thus the healing of Bartimaeus is not just the story of one man’s good fortune. It is an invitation to each of us to perceive and receive the vision of salvation which is about to unfold. Mark is telling us that if you want to understand the Paschal Mystery of Passion and Resurrection, you need to open your eyes. And it is crucial to note that the climactic words of this story are not “he regained his sight,” but rather, “he followed him on the way.” Once you see what God is doing through Jesus, then it’s your turn to take up your own cross and follow.
Let there be light!” says the God of Genesis. “I am the light of the world,” says the God incarnate.
And yet, in the story leading up to this moment, even Jesus’ closest friends have suffered their own blindness. “Are your minds closed?” he chides them. “Have you eyes and do not see?” But they go on missing the point again and again. To their credit, they continue to follow Jesus. They are drawn to him, they know something is happening here—but they don’t know what it is. “Do you not yet understand?” Jesus sighs. I’m sure he said this more than once.
And then, after repeated examples of the disciples’ blindness throughout Mark’s gospel, suddenly we hear a plaintive voice cry out from the crowd: “Jesus! Have mercy on me. Remove this grievous blindness.”
That’s our prayer too, isn’t it? Lord, take away our blindness.Help us to see. And Jesus replies, “I thought you’d never ask!”
St. Gregory of Nyssa, in the fourth century, was one of many theologians who have shared Mark’s diagnosis of the human condition as one of persistent blindness:
“Humanity was created for this end, that it might see ‘good,’ which is God; but because humanity would not stand in the light, [in fleeing from the light] it lost its eyes… We subjected ourselves to blindness, that we should not see the interior light.”
St. Augustine described the interior eye, our capacity to see the things of God, as “bruised and wounded” by the transgression of Adam and Eve, who, he says, “began to dread the Divine light [and] fled back into darkness, anxious for the shade.”
Refusing to stand in the light… subjecting ourselves to blindness. Is this what we do? Are we truly so “anxious for the shade?”
Arthur Zajonc is a quantum physicist who became fascinated with the literal dimensions of this question, examining case histories of blind people who recovered their sight. In his book, Catching the Light: The Entwined History of Light and Mind, he tells of an 8-year-old boy, blind at birth from cataracts, who underwent surgery in the year 1910. When the time came to remove his bandages, the doctor was very hopeful. He waved his hand in front of the boy’s eyes, which were now physically perfect.
“What do you see?” asked the doctor. “I don’t know,” the boy replied. “Can’t you see my hand moving?” said the doctor. “I don’t know,” said the boy.
The boy’s eyes did not follow the doctor’s slowly moving hand, but stared straight ahead. He only saw a varying brightness before him. Then the doctor asked him to touch his hand as it moved, and the boy cried out in a voice of triumph, “It’s moving!” He could feel it move, and even, as he said, could “hear it move,” but it would take laborious effort to learn to see it move.
As that first light passed through the child’s newly clear black pupils, it called forth no echoing image from within. His sight, Zajonc tells us, began as a hollow, silent, dark and frightening kind of seeing. The light of day beckoned, but no light of mind replied within the boy’s anxious, open eyes.
“The sober truth” says Zajonc, “remains that vision requires far more than a functioning physical organ. Without an inner light, without a formative visual imagination, we are blind.”
This echoes Augustine’s description of our “bruised and wounded” inner eye. What is it that makes us so unable to process what is before us, to see what is being offered to our open eyes?
The mystical Anglican poet Thomas Traherne framed an answer in the ornately vivid language of the seventeenth century:
“As my body without my soul is a carcass, so is my Soul without Thy Spirit, a chaos, a dark obscure heap of empty faculties ignorant of itself, unsensible of Thy goodness, blind to Thy glory.”
And what are the causes of this abysmal state? he asks. They are several.
“[The Light within us is eclipsed] by the customs and manners of [others], which like contrary winds blew it out: by an innumerable company of other objects, rude, vulgar and worthless things, that like so many loads of earth and dung did overwhelm and bury it: by the impetuous torrent of wrong desires in all others whom I saw and knew that carried me away … from it: by a whole sea of other matters and concernments that covered and drowned it…”
“Contrary winds” blowing out the Light within us… being overwhelmed by “an innumerable company… of rude, vulgar and worthless things”… “the impetuous torrent of wrong desires” – does any of that sound familiar? Who among us has not had days like that, or even years like that? Is that not the world we live in today?
Not long after Traherne wrote those words, another English writer, John Bunyan, told the story of two pilgrims, named Christian and Faithful, who came upon Vanity Fair, a kind of shopping mall where all the transitory pleasures of this world were on seductive display.
“What will ye buy?” cried one of the merchants. And Christian and Faithful replied, “We buy the truth!”
This was clearly the wrong answer, for the two pilgrims were immediately set upon, beaten, smeared with mud, thrown in a cage, and finally put on trial. The jury was rigged, led by Mr. Blind Man and Mr. Hate-Light. “Guilty,” they cried, and Faithful was put to death. But Christian managed to escape, and his journey into God continued.
Bunyan’s allegorical constructs seem quaintly archaic today, but Vanity Fair is still with us, with its endless commodification of unsatisfiable desires. And Mr. Hate-Light is still at work, generating the ceaseless illusions that blind us to the beauty of holiness.
Now once Christian had escaped Vanity Fair, he still had to pass through the Valley of the Shadow of Death, where the light was so scarce, and the path so narrow, that he was in constant danger of stumbling into the ditch on his right or the quagmire on his left.
But Christian was not without hope in that dark valley. As Isaiah says, the God of light travels with us:
I shall lead the blind by a road they do not know… I shall turn the darkness into light before them, and the quagmire into solid ground. (Isa 42:16)
All of us, deep down, want the light. All of us need the light. But sometimes we resist the light, or run away from it, or shut our eyes to it. There are things we’d rather not see, in the world or in ourselves. Illuminating our dark places can feel like a judgment, as if the light were accusing our shadows.
In Franco Zefferelli’s film, Jesus of Nazareth, we meet another blind man at the pool of Bethsaida in Jerusalem, but unlike Bartimaeus, he is deathly afraid of being healed. “Leave my eyes alone!” he shouts. “Stop touching my eyes!”
After analyzing sixty-six cases of blind people who had recovered their sight, Arthur Zajonc would concur with Zeffirelli’s portrayal of our resistance to an enlarged perception of the world:
“The project of learning to see,” he writes, “inevitably leads to a psychological crisis in the life of the patients, who may wind up rejecting sight. New impressions threaten the security of a world previously built upon the sensations of touch and hearing. Some decided it is better to be blind in their own world than sighted in an alien one… The prospect of growth is as much a prospect of loss, and threat to security, as a bounty.”
In other words, opening our eyes to a more truthful clarity can be scary—no more fictions or illusions about the state of the world or the state of our souls. If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us (I John 1:8). Seeing—clearly and accurately—the fallenness of our broken world—and our wounded selves—is a painful revelation. Once we face facts, transformation is the only way forward. We must change our life. A new way of seeing demands a new way of being. We can either fight that divine summons, like the man in the Zeffirelli film (Don’t touch my eyes!), or we can jump up and embrace it, like Bartimaeus.
But it’s not just the wrongness of things which is hidden by our blindness. The truth is, there is also so much blessing and beauty in this world, eagerly waiting to be discerned and embraced. And whatever our doubts and fears about losing our protective blindness, the beauty revealed will be worth the price. It’s the beauty of God’s future—what Jesus called the Kingdom. We often think of the Kingdom as impossibly distant, but it is possible to glimpse it even now, in this present age. We only need the eyes to see.
This healing of our inner eye, this recovery of the divine Light within us, is perfectly expressed in a passage from Willa Cather’s novel, Death Comes for the Archbishop. Her protagonist, Jean-Marie Latour, a nineteenth-century missionary bishop to the territory of New Mexico, is discussing visions and miracles with his Vicar.
“Where there is great love,” he says, “there are always miracles. One might almost say that an apparition is human vision corrected by divine love .… The Miracles of the Church seem to me to rest not so much upon faces or voices or healing power coming suddenly near us from afar off, but upon our perceptions being made finer, so that for a moment our eyes can see and our ears can hear what is about us always.”
Human vision corrected by divine love. How blessed are they who receive such a miracle!
Let us close by hearing the gospel story one more time, succinctly told by John Newton, the author of “Amazing Grace,” in an old American shape note hymn called “Villulia.”
“Mercy, O thou Son of David, thus poor blind Bartimaeus prayed. “Others by thy grace are saved, now afford to me thine aid.”
Money was not what he wanted, though by begging used to live; but he asked, and Jesus granted alms which none but he could give.
“Lord, remove this grievous blindness, let mine eyes behold the day.” Straight he saw, and, won by kindness, followed Jesus in the way.
Summer has just ended, twenty minutes past noon in the Pacific Northwest. I am always sorry to see it go. The languorous days, granting us license to play and to dream, now bid us farewell. The year’s shadowless noon gives way to the urgencies of time. Poet Penelope Shuttle describes September’s turning point with succinct perfection: “The year changing its mind.” [ii] The autumn may be agreeably mellow at first, but we all know where it’s headed. Every Arcadia must fail in the end, every Paradise be lost.
Yesterday I made my final communion with summer in a tranquil float down the Deschutes River. Ponderosa pines, willows and tall grasses lined the banks. Snowy egrets swept past on radiant wings. An osprey spiraled upward into the blue. My mind sank into stillness. I knew nothing but Now.
When I threw some books into my suitcase for an end-of-summer vacation in eastern Oregon, I didn’t realize how autumnal my reading would turn out to be. Patrick Leigh Fermor’s account of his epic walk from the Hook of Holland to Constantinople—before he turned 20—preserves his vivid memories of an exotic world, from shepherds’ campfires in the Carpathian wilds to the sumptuous libraries in the country estates of cultured Austro-Hungarian patricians. But Fermor didn’t write his trilogy until he was an old man, long after the Middle Europe of 1934 had been swept away. The reader feels the shadow of not only lost youth but also a lost world. [iii]
Johan Huizinga’s The Autumn of the Middle Ages documents the passing away, in the cultural imagination of France and the Netherlands, of chivalric dreams of a more beautiful life. Before the sadness of fate and history set the dominant tone, says Huizinga, “in many respects life still wore the color of fairy tales.” [iv] At the end of the 14thcentury, a French poet summed up the spirit of his despondent age:
La fin s’approche, en verité … Tout va mal.
The end is truly near … Everything is going bad. [v]
At a time when so much of our own “reality” seems to be a fading dream—democracy, climate, human health, civic sanity—the poet’s autumnal lament rings true. Happily, I brought a third book, containing a cure for such melancholy themes. In Thomas Merton’s journal of his experiences in the far East, the Catholic contemplative wonders whether he is seeing the “real Asia,” or simply finding “an illusion of Asia that needed to be dissolved by experience.” In a deep valley within the Himalayan foothills, he is instructed by the landscape:
“What does this valley have? Landslides. Hundreds of them. The mountains are terribly gashed, except where the forest is thick. Whole sections of tea plantations were carried away six weeks ago. And it is obviously going to be worse the next time there are really heavy rains. The place is a frightening example of annicca—‘impermanence.’ A good place, therefore, to adjust one’s perspectives. I find my mind rebelling against the landslides. I am distracted by reforestation projects and other devices to deny them, to forbid them. I want all this to be permanent. A permanent postcard for meditation, daydreams. The landslides are ironic and silent comments on the apparent permanence, the ‘eternal snows’ of solid [Mount] Kanchenjunga.”
The landslides become Merton’s teacher. Stability is an illusion. Even the great Himalayan mountain, in all its sublime majesty, is subject to impermanence. Once this is accepted, Merton is liberated from autumnal sadness, and a measure of Edenic summer knowledge is restored. He can live in the given moment, accepting its blessings with a peaceful, unanxious heart.
“The sun is high, at the zenith. Clear soft sound of a temple bell far down in the valley. Voices of children near the cottages above me on the mountainside. The sun is warm. Everything falls into place. Nothing is to be decided … There is nothing to be judged.” [vi]
Photographs by the author.
[i] Reprinted in The Heart of Autumn: Poems for the Season of Reflection, ed. Robert Atwan (Boston: Beacon Press, 2003), 16. This fine anthology is one of a series on poetry of the 4 seasons.
[iii] I am currently reading the 2nd volume of the trilogy, Between the Woods and Water (New York: New York Review of Books, 1986/2005).
[iv] Johan Huizinga, The Autumn of the Middle Ages, trans. Rodney J. Payton & Ulrich Mammitzsch (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1996), 9. This more recent translation is much preferable to the one I read in my youth, The Waning of the Middle Ages.
[v] Eustache Deschamps (1346-1406), in Huizinga, 35.
[vi] Thomas Merton, The Asian Journal (New York: New Directions, 1975), 150-151.
A decade ago, the 10th anniversary of 9/11 fell on a Sunday when I was the preacher. The Scriptures for that day were strikingly apt, a divine Word spoken directly to us in the turbulent here and now. The questions which 9/11 raised about the American future—and the human future—have not gone away. They have only grown more urgent. The text of my 2011 sermon is below.
It was one of those perfect late summer mornings, the sky above an impossible blue, the city below humming with life. Suddenly, without warning, the world ended in smoke and fire and falling dust.
On that day, a great city, and all of us who watched at a distance, suffered a kind of violence strangely new to American experience. In an instant we became citizens of an unfamiliar, nightmarish world. As a Catholic poet noted at the time, on 9/11 “the united states of america spent a night and a day in beirut… walked the length of somalia… entered the gates of auschwitz.” Or as the writer Don DeLillo said about this demise of American exceptionalism, “Parts of our world have crumbled into theirs, which means we are living in a place of danger and rage.”
On the 10th anniversary of that terrible day, the Lectionary speaks to us with an eerie timeliness. From the Hebrew Scriptures, we hear the story of the Red Sea, where Pharoah’s entire army is drowned by an act of God.
Thus the Lord saved Israel that day from the Egyptians; and the Israelites saw the Egyptians dead on the seashore.
Thousands dead. An act of God?
Now the miraculous deliverance of unarmed slaves from a pursuing army that wants to slaughter them is not the same thing as deliberate acts of violence committed in God’s name. The Red Sea was not an instance of religious terrorism. But the Exodus passage does raise the uncomfortable topic of sacred violence, where God, whether by proxy or direct intervention, saves some and lets others perish. In God’s defense, such actions are always on the side of the powerless and the oppressed in the Bible. As we recite in the Magnificat at Evening Prayer:
He has cast down the mighty from their thrones, and has lifted up the lowly.
We find a lot of this casting down in Revelation, a book written to encourage persecuted Christians: Don’t worry. The day is coming when mighty Rome will fall. While consoling to the downtrodden, this is not good news for the powers that be. The 11th chapter delivers this chilling line: the time has come to destroy those who are destroying the earth.(Rev. 11:18).
These words express the eschatological hope for a better world, but they sound uncomfortably close to the kind of writings that informed the pious, angry young men who hijacked those planes to strike a blow against “godless” modernity.
A critical examination of sacred violence—the blood on religion’s hands—and the way such texts are countered with more life-affirming scriptures—these are complicated subjects for another time. For now let us simply note that passionate religious certainty, and the tendency to escalate difference and conflict into a cosmic struggle between good and evil, is not exclusive to the jihadists. We can find it in our own scriptures.
On a different day, the Red Sea story might be a joyful celebration of God’s defense of the powerless, or an image of baptismal passage through the waters of death. But on this day—ten years after 9/11—it may simply want to pose a troubling question, lest we be too eager to say that God is on our side. We can’t just dance with the Israelites anymore. We must also weep with the Egyptians.
A litany published the week after 9/11 embraces this inclusiveness, affirming that Jesus is carrying the “dead, the wounded, and those who mourn; the killers and those who were killed; the frightened, the angry, the sorrowful – Jesus is carrying all of this, all of us, every part of us, into the loving heart of God.”
Our second reading offers the comforting assurance from St. Paul’s letter to the Romans that we hear every time we bury a loved one:
Yet none of us has life in himself or herself. If we have life, we are alive in the Lord, and if we die, we die in the Lord. So, then, whether we live or die, we are the Lord’s possession.
The shock of 9/11 inflicted enormous trauma upon the American people, a trauma that still lives in our bodies. We have never fully worked through the grief process, so eager were our leaders to launch into war, short-circuiting the work we really needed to do.
A recent PBS documentary, Faith and Doubt at Ground Zero, explored a wide range of religious questions arising from 9/11. And one of the things people talked about in interviews was the presence – or absence – of God in the face of such evil and suffering. There were no easy answers.
As one rabbi put it, “Since September 11th, people keep asking me, ‘Where was God?’ And they think because I’m a rabbi, I have answers. And I actually think that my job as a rabbi is to help them live with those questions. If God’s ways are mysterious, live with the mystery. It’s upsetting. It’s scary. It’s painful. It’s deep. And it’s interesting. No plan. That’s what mystery is. It’s all of those things.”
The rabbi goes on to say that he resists any answers that get God off the hook, because “right now, everything is on the hook.”
And yet, wherever or whatever God may be in this, and whether we find ourselves among the living or the dead, we always remain inside the divine mystery, enfolded in the loving arms of God. If I make the grave my bed, you are there also, says the Psalmist. Only such a faith can deliver us from the icy grip of fear and dread.
Today’s final text is from Matthew’s gospel, and what a gospel it is for September 11th! “How long should I keep forgiving, Lord?” And Jesus says, “Oh, about a billion times.” The text actually says seventy-seven, or in the math of King James, seventy times seven. But the point is: stop counting. Don’t keep track. Forgiveness isn’t a one-time transaction; it’s a practice, a way of being.
We exist to forgive, to reconcile, to mend, to heal— generously, unreservedly, endlessly.
A recent feature film, Of Gods and Men, tells the true story of eight French Catholic monks who lived in the mountains of Algeria during a time of civil war and terrorist violence in the 1990s. Their monastery was at the edge of a poor Muslim village, where they lived in harmony with their neighbors, providing the only accessible health care. As the surrounding political violence escalated, the monks were warned by the government to leave the country. But they felt called to remain among the people they served, despite the high probability of martyrdom. Despite their own fears.
Their abbot, Dom Christian, wrote a letter to his family in Advent, 1993, two years before he and his brother monks were killed by terrorists. Anticipating his own martyrdom, he insists that he is not exceptional, since so many others in that land were also at risk.
“My life,” he wrote, “is not worth more than any other — not less, not more. Nor am I an innocent child. I have lived long enough to know that I, too, am an accomplice of the evil that seems to prevail in the world around, even that which might lash out blindly at me. If the moment comes, I would hope to have the presence of mind, and the time, to ask for God’s pardon … and, at the same time, to pardon in all sincerity him who would attack me…”
What an extraordinary thing to say: Here is a good and humble and holy man confessing his own complicity in the evils of the world. And what does he hope for? He hopes for the presence of mind, in the very moment of being murdered, to ask forgiveness. Forgiveness not only for himself, but for his killer as well.
The end of his letter is addressed not to his family, his loved ones, but to the stranger who will one day kill him, the stranger whom he calls “my friend of the last moment.”
“And to you, too, my friend of the last moment, who will not know what you are doing. Yes, for you, too, I wish this thank-you, this “A-Dieu,” whose image is in you also, that we may meet in heaven, like happy thieves, if it pleases God, our common Father.”
Such faithfulness to the way of Jesus is sheer nonsense to the world, and perhaps to many Christians as well.
How dismal a contrast we find in the official government reaction to 9/11, when our leaders, most of them Christians, set out to hunt down and kill the “evildoers.” Their violent, retaliatory response bequeathed a dark legacy which continues to poison our common life: the politics of fear and division, the launching of endless war, the shameless profiteering that feeds and encourages armed conflict, the stain of Guantanamo and the worldwide network of secret prisons, and the outrageous authorization of torture as national policy.
In an article entitled “Did Osama bin Laden Win?” —written just after bin Laden’s death—Mark Sumner offers the analogy of the human body’s autoimmune system, where the worst damage is not done by the original disease, but by the overreaction of “the same systems that fought off and destroyed the invader. Long after the bacteria is excised by the body,” he writes, “the damage lingers.” Then turning to the overactive immune system that gave us two ruinous wars as well as the corrosion of the American conscience by torture and other public sins, Sumner points out that “it wasn’t bin Laden who did this. He could never do this. It’s our response to bin Laden. That’s what has already crippled us, and what may yet kill us.”
But there is an antidote for this poison, and it too rose out of the ashes of Ground Zero. A sample of this antidote is contained in a statement by the Catholic Worker communities of California ten years ago.
The Catholic Worker movement was co-founded by Dorothy Day, one of the true saints of the last century. As an eight-year-old child, she was in San Francisco during the great earthquake and fire of 1906. When she witnessed on the streets of San Francisco the same kind of care and camaraderie among strangers as we saw in New York after 9/11, she asked, “Why can’t people live like this all the time?”
When she grew up, she explored that child’s question through a network of small lay communities who today continue to live among the poorest of the poor to feed the hungry, clothe the naked, shelter the homeless, and visit the sick and imprisoned.
In the immediate aftermath of 9/11, this is what the Catholic workers had to say:
Even after all this…
Our grief will not be short-circuited with cries of vengeance nor with acts of retribution. We will not cooperate with incitements to become that which we most oppose, namely perpetrators of violence.
We will honor the deeper levels of grief, acknowledging the woundedness inflicted upon us, and the woundedness that our nation has inflicted upon others…
We invite you to participate with us in all our wildest dreams and visions for peace. For now we sadly know that our affluence, our power, our possessions cannot serve as protection from harm. We invite you to clamber off the wheel of violence. It is the only worthy legacy we can offer to those who have died…
We are Catholic Workers and we still believe… the only solution is love.
More love, more love … the angels are calling: Oh children, more love. The love that birthed the universe into being and raised the dead. A love as defenseless and potent as Christ on the cross.
You can’t build empires with it, but it is the only true way out of the abyss, the only antidote for evil’s poison.
We saw love at work in countless ways in the days after 9/11: So much solidarity, generosity, selflessness and compassion, so much courage and resilience, so much caring for one another.
We’ve all been moved by the stories. One of my favorites is of a man in Manhattan’s Union Square. Just as people were filing out of a memorial service, he began to sing: “Start spreadin’ the news…” And one by one, others joined in, until hundreds of people were singing “New York, New York” at the top of their lungs, in streets still swirling with the dust of fallen towers. Who knew there was a resurrection hymn in the Sinatra canon?
Even at the grave we make our song: Alleluia, alleluia, alleluia! But is this enough? Can love’s fragile flowers break the rocks in the desert of abandonment and lament? Can they get us through the time of trial? Can they deliver us from evil? I will let a New Yorker answer that question.
At the end of the documentary, Faith and Doubt at Ground Zero, we hear several voices reflecting on the haunting televised image of two anonymous people, co-workers or strangers, we don’t know, who jumped together from the south tower. Just before they jumped, they reached out to take each other’s hand. Then they fell into space. Holding hands.
For an unbelieving novelist in the film interviews, this was an image of human desperation and despair in an indifferent universe. For an NPR correspondent, the gesture of mutual touch was a frail sign of hope that we are not totally alone when we face the abyss.
As we hear these voice-overs, we don’t see the image they are talking about. That would be unbearable. Instead, we are shown nighttime shots of the two vertical columns of blue light that shine every year on September 11th in the empty space left by the collapsed towers. Emanating from 88 searchlights aimed straight at the heavens, transparent twin towers: ghostly evocations of presence and absence, absence and presence.
The voices continue over these shots, and finally we hear from a Catholic writer, Brian Doyle, a New Yorker by birth. His words speak for all people of faith:
A couple leaped from the south tower, hand in hand. They reached for each other and their hands met, and they jumped. I try to whisper prayers for the sudden dead and the harrowed families of the dead and the screaming souls of the murderers, but I keep coming back to his hand in her hand, nestled in each other with such extraordinary, ordinary, naked love.
It’s the most powerful prayer I can imagine, the most eloquent, the most graceful. It’s everything we’re capable of against horror and loss and tragedy.
It’s what makes me believe that we’re not fools to believe in God, to believe that human beings have greatness and holiness within them, like seeds that open only under great fire, to believe that who we are persists past what we were, to believe, against evil evidenced hourly, that love is why we are here.
Dionysius the Areopagite, a sixth-century Syrian mystic, made the classic case for theological modesty. We should not presume to say too much about God. When it comes to what he called the “Unutterable,” he said, words fail. An encounter with divine reality leaves us speechless.
“Reject all that belongs to the perceptible and intelligible … and lift yourself as far as you are able to the point of being united in unknowing with the One who is beyond all being and all knowledge.” [iii]
Dionysius’ insistence on divine ineffability was a subversive counterbalance to the theological project of the ancient ecumenical councils, which devoted intense intellectual energy to the pursuit of dogmatic precision. Words, phrases, even individual letters had been fiercely debated over the course of several centuries. With the stakes so high, no one wanted to get it wrong. But Dionysius’ caution about saying too much would have a lasting influence on both mystics and theologians from the Middle Ages to post-modernity.
Thomas Aquinas, whose exhaustive systematic theology, Summa Theologica, used 1.8 million words to speak of God, issued a striking caution in one of his shorter works: “as to the mode of signification [for God] goes, every name is defective.” [iv] A modern Catholic theologian, Karl Rahner, agreed, since transcendence “presents itself to us in the mode of withdrawal, of silence, of distance, of being always inexpressible, so that speaking of it, if it is to make sense, always requires listening to its silence.” [v] That kind of listening without making words is hard, when our heads are so full of ideas. But if we desire accuracy, we must try, as Jean-Luc Marion has said, “to think God without any conditions, not even that of Being.” [vi]
It’s not just that God is unknowable; language itself is chronically imprecise—“a raid on the inarticulate,” T. S. Eliot called it, “with shabby equipment always deteriorating.” [vii] But of the One who is “the Wholly Other, for whom we have no words, and whom all our poor symbols insult,” can we say anything at all? [viii]
Even Dionysius admitted the necessity of God-talk. We need to understand something about ultimate Reality if we are to be in relation with it. In Divine Names, Dionysius wrote at length about the attributes of God, and so have countless Christian thinkers before or since. While God is always beyond our conceptual reach, we still have religious experiences through which we learn something of who—and how—God is for us. Sometimes we speak in literal terms, as when we say that God loves us. God’s love may be more perfect than human love and mediated in a different way, but it’s love all the same.
Metaphors, on the other hand, use something familiar to tell us about the unfamiliar. God is not literally a shepherd, a shield, or shade from the heat, but God has been known to be like these things in some way. Those three are all biblical images, but every age provides new metaphors. A British youth minister told me that skateboarders use their experience of what they call “flow” as a kind of divine name. But metaphors are only provisional—“scaffoldings around invisible reality,” in Jerzy Peterkiewicz’s aptly metaphorical image, “liable to vanish” when pressed to become literal. [ix]
What can I say, my God, my life, my holy joy? Or what can anyone say who speaks of you?”
St. Augustine’s questions were on my mind when I composed an experimental “creed” for an alternative liturgy at our local Episcopal parish.[xi] The Nicene Creed, crafted by the fourth-century Council of Nicaea to be a concise summary of orthodox belief, is still recited in the Sunday rites of most liturgical churches. Its insertion into the liturgy 150 years after the Council resulted from a now-forgotten doctrinal quarrel, and some of today’s liturgical theologians question its continued use in the rite. [xii]
My own intent, however, was not to critique the Nicene Creed per se, but to explore God-talk in terms of the One and the Many, drawing upon something Thomas Aquinas said about the names of God:
“[We] see the necessity of giving to God many names. For, since we cannot know Him naturally except by arriving at Him from His effects, the names by which we signify His perfection must be diverse, just as the perfections belonging to things are found to be diverse. Were we able to understand the divine essence itself as it is and give to it the name that belongs to it, we would express it by only one name. This is promised to those who will see God through His essence: “In that day there shall be one Lord, and His name shall be one” (Zech. 14:9). [xiii]
I divided the assembly into three parts. Each droned the same Latin text, slowly, in 4 beats: Crèdo in ùnum Dè-ùm (“I believe in one God,” the opening words of the Nicene Creed). They sang on a single tone in unison, but in three harmonizing pitches, with a 2-beat silence between the repetitions. As they continued their droning ground, I both chanted and spoke a descant of divine names.
The people’s repeated line was the One; my recitation of diverse names was the Many. The division of parts was a reverse complementarity: many sang the One and one sang the Many. I drew the names from many sources—hymns, prayers, theologians, mystics, poets, and one filmmaker—absorbed into my own prayer and preaching over the years. I can’t remember exactly where all of the names came from. Some you will recognize. A few sprang from my own religious experience.
The torrent of words, coming and going so quickly, evoked multiple associations, perspectives and meanings without letting any single “name” linger long enough to permit an idolatrous fixation, as if it alone were the one most accurate or true. No sooner did a “name” appear than it was replaced by another—affirmation and negation in a perpetual dance, just the way Dionysius liked it. People told me later that they stopped trying to grasp individual words and simply sank into the flow, surrendering to the meditative state generated by their repetitive chanting and silent breathing.
If any liturgists and musicians out there want to try your own variations, please feel free. Trained singers might add more complex harmonies (think Arvo Pärt), and a speech choir could explore creative arrangements of the many names. And of course, you or your community might want to compile a fresh list of names from your own traditions and personal experiences. That this particular list is woefully incomplete is part of the point.
Credo in unum Deum …
Holy and eternal God, Beauty so ancient and so new, Source and sustainer of everything that is.
Author of life, mender of destinies, desire of every heart, the meaning of every story.
Mystery of the world, most deeply hidden and yet most near, fount of our being, inexhaustible and overflowing. Grace abounding.
Constant and just, wiser than despair, joyful Yes against all negation.
The great I am, beyond all knowing, yet called by many names:
Creator, Sustainer, Pardoner, Gift-giver, Goodness, Wisdom, Mercy, Truth, Faithfulness, Blessing, Alpha and Omega, Ruler of time and history, ineffable and untamable Spirit.
Presence. The depth in every moment.
Eloquent silence, dazzling darkness, blinding radiance, so far beyond us—and so deep within us, in whom we live and move and have our being.
Holy One: Thou—Abba!Thou—Amma! Love who loves us.
Our true and lasting home.
Jesus Christ, the Given One, eternally begotten, who by the power of the Holy Spirit became incarnate from the Virgin Mary: fully human and fully divine.
Word made flesh, to live and die as one of us, that we might see and know the self-diffusive love of God, and realize the fullness of our humanity.
As God’s icon, the face of love for us, Jesus renounced privilege and power, living without weapons or self-protection, giving himself away for the sake of others: servant and sufferer, healer and helper, Savior and friend!
Handed over to the enemies of life, Jesus died on the cross. But on the third day he rose again, breaking the power of death, opening the way for us to live in God forever.
Holy Spirit, Love’s consuming flame, the eager, wild wind of divine surprise:
Quickening power, creative energy, inner light, divine imagination, disturber of the peace, dearest freshness deep down things, the strong force of love, drawing the universe into communion.
The breath in every prayer, the longing in every heart.
Holy and undivided Trinity, your catholic and apostolic Church belongs to you alone. We give thanks for the renewing power of our baptism, making us Christ’s own forever—forgiven and free.
Grant us to live always in the light of resurrection, overflowing with love and steadfast in hope.
May the faith we confess in this assembly be visible in the lives we lead and the choices we make.
Let all the people say: Amen!
Photographs by the author. The view of the sky through the arch of the south porch baldaquin of the Cathedral Basilica of St. Cecilia in Albi, France, is an image for the limits of theological speech: the stairs of language take us upward, but only so far. After that: a wordless sky. You can read about the “Via Negativa” installation here. Arne Pihl’s “Gentle” sculpture (2014-15) was part of an installation in a razed lot in Seattle, responding to questions about the future of a changing neighborhood.
[i] Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologica 1a.13.1. Thomas quotes from Dionysius to support this statement.
[ii] Jacques Derrida cited in The Oxford Handbook of Philosophy and Religion, ed. William J. Wainwright (Oxford & New York: Oxford University Press, 2005), 489.
[iii] Dionysius the Areopagite, Mystical Theology 1.1, cited in Olivier Clément, The Roots of Christian Mysticism (Hyde Park, NY: New City Press, 1993), 247. The anonymous mystic’s name is a pseudonym taken from Acts 17:34 to suggest apostolic authority.
[iv] Thomas Aquinas, Summa contra Gentiles 30.3. Italics mine.
[v] Karl Rahner, S. J., Foundations of Christian Faith (1983), p. 64, cited in Thomas M. Kelly, Theology at the Void: The Retrieval of Experience (Notre Dame, IN: Notre Dame University Press, 2002), 130.
[vi] Jean-Luc Marion, God Without Being (1991), p. 45, cited in The Oxford Handbook of Philosophy and Religion, 484.
[vii] T. S. Eliot, “East Coker,” in Four Quartets.
[viii] Evelyn Underhill, Mysticism: The Nature and Development of Spiritual Consciousness (Oxford: Oneworld Publications 1999/2008, orig. published 1911), 337.
[ix] Jerzy Peterkiewicz, The Other Side of Silence: The Poet at the Limits of Language (London: Oxford University Press, 1970), 45.
[x] St. Augustine, Confessions 1.4. The full passage has a wonderful list of divine names: Summe, optime, potentissime, omnipotentissime, misericordissime et justissime, secretissime et presentissime, pulcherrime et fortissime; stabilis et incomprehensibilis; immutabilis, mutans omnia. Numquam novis, nunquam vetus, … Semper agens, semper quietus; colligens et non egens: portans et implens et protogens; creans et nutrigens et perficiens: quaerens cum nihil desit tibi … Quid dicimus, Deus meus, vita mea, dulcedo mea sacnta? Aut quid dicit aliquis, cum de te dicit? (“Highest, best, most potent, most omnipotent [transcendent], most merciful and most just, most deeply hidden and yet most near, fairest, yet strongest, steadfast, yet ungraspable, unchangeable, yet changing all things; never new, yet never old.… ever busy, yet ever at rest; gathering yet needing not; bearing, filling, guarding; creating, nourishing, and protecting; seeking though you have no wants … What can I say, my God, my life, my holy joy? Or what can any say who speaks of you?”).
[xi] St. Barnabas Episcopal Church, Bainbridge Island, WA.
[xii] In his 1995 commentary on the liturgy at St. Gregory of Nyssa Episcopal Church in San Francisco, Richard Fabian writes that Peter the Fuller, Patriarch of Antioch, whose Monophysite party was defeated at the Council of Chalcedon (451), inserted the creed into the cathedral liturgy to show his loyalty to the earlier Council of Nicaea (325). Though he was soon deposed, the creed remained, “a massive monument to doctrinal quarrels ever since.” Its inclusion was resisted in the western church, especially in England, but slipped into English worship in the 15th century, and incorporated into the Book of Common Prayer in the 16th. Today, some question its lack of inclusive language as well as the ancient Greek terminology whose original meanings are obscure to many. And some liturgists wonder about its effect on the natural flow of the rite. (Worship at St. Gregory’s, All Saints Company, 25-26).
[xiii]Summa contra Gentiles, 31.4. As to just how many names there are, I’ve always liked the number from Arthur C. Clarke’s short story, “The Nine Billion Names of God.”