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.”
“Wandering away from everything, giving up everything, not me anymore, not any of it.”
— Agnes Martin
In “Bartleby the Scrivener,” Herman Melville’s notoriously perplexing short story, his principal character speaks just thirty-seven lines, over a third of them variations on a simple declaration: “I would prefer not to.” Having taken a job copying documents in a law firm, he offers that same maddening reply to every request. He prefers not to perform assigned tasks, or to explain why. When finally discharged by his boss, he prefers not to leave the premises. When, in the end, he lands in jail, he prefers “not to dine,” and dies of starvation.
The story is narrated by his employer, who finds himself “strangely goaded on” to discover the motivation for Bartleby’s eccentric behavior.
“Bartleby was one of those beings of whom nothing is ascertainable except from the original sources, and, in his case, those are very small. What my own astonished eyes saw of Bartleby, that is all I know of him.” [i]
For his employer, Bartleby remains an unknowable blank, an impenetrable opacity. His past is unknown; he is barely present in the here and now. As Elizabeth Hardwick describes him, “Bartleby is not a character in the manner of the usual, imaginative, fictional construction. And he is not a character as we know them in life, with their bundling bustle of details … He is indeed only words, wonderful words, and very few of them.” [ii]
Every attempt by the bewildered narrator to categorize or interpret his eccentric employee vanishes into the black hole of Bartleby’s essential unknowability. Neither reader nor narrator can solve the puzzle of his abiding negation. And what is true of Bartleby the character is also true of “Bartleby” the story.
Literary critics and perplexed readers have been trying to explain Melville’s tale for 168 years. Bartleby is clinically depressed. He’s the existential resistance to a deadening, soulless economy. He’s the embodiment of modernity’s “sickness unto death,” the enervation of purpose and will. Or the story itself is Melville’s practical joke on the reading public, luring us down the hermeneutic rabbit hole of a world without reasons. We want to know why, but in Bartleby’s world there is no why.
Bartleby came to mind this week when “the greatest gymnast in history,” Simone Biles, withdrew from the Olympic team competition after a flawed performance in her first event. The world immediately demanded explanations. Why did she prefer not to perform? Some were puzzled, even outraged, and, like Bartleby’s frustrated colleagues, they rushed to supply their own speculative interpretations.[iii] Unlike Bartleby, however, Biles made known her motivation. She told the press she was taking care of her mental health. Her body and mind had slipped “out of sync” in Tokyo, causing her to feel lost in midair during her twisting somersaults off the vault table. It’s not like dropping a pass or missing a putt. A mistake in gymnastics can mean a broken neck.
“You have to be there 100%,” she explained in a press conference. “If not, you get hurt. Today has been really stressful. I was shaking. I couldn’t nap. I have never felt like this going into a competition, and I tried to go out and have fun. But once I came out, I was like, No. My mental is not there.”
Her decision was not only good for her. It probably helped the team, which might not have medaled had she continued to underperform. And she has been credited by many for making a memorable case for self-care—mental as well as physical—in the pressure cooker of elite public performance.
In Ethan Hawke’s 2014 documentary, Seymour: An Introduction, we meet Seymour Bernstein, a celebrated concert pianist who disappointed his public by quitting the stage at age 50 after becoming “a total wreck” from the pressures of performance. When Hawke first encountered Bernstein at a dinner party and learned his story, the actor/director found himself sharing his own anxieties with the older man.
“I decided to confide with him that I’d been performing with a crippling stage fright,” said Hawke in an interview. “The bottom line of the conversation: most artists are not nervous enough .… Pianists have it worse than anybody in the world … If you have to play Carnegie Hall, and you know that one performance will define your whole life, and if you have a memory slip, or if your finger goes rogue, you’re going to be living with the ramifications of it for the rest of your life. They have anxiety like nobody else, and so he was the perfect person to talk to about how to pass through it.” [iv]
Few of us can even imagine the pressures of being the GOAT (Greatest of All Time) who is not allowed to fail, the face of the Olympics, America’s standard bearer, and the always dependable foundation of the team’s success. But her renunciation of these burdens, however temporary, may be her greatest achievement insofar as it helps athletes—and society as a whole—engage with issues of mental health and personal well-being as never before, without stigma or shame.
William James defined renunciation as “a denial made on behalf of a deeper yes.” In refusing to be shaped by the images and expectations of the world, and by renouncing the projects, desires and identities which do not originate in our deepest place, we begin to affirm and become the truth of ourselves. Taken to its furthest point, this process is a matter of dying to self and living unto God.
The medieval mystic Henry Suso taught “the science of Perfect Self-Abandonment,” the letting go of “self” in order to merge with the more of God. Until you consent to abandon your inauthentically constructed self, he counsels, “you are like a hare hiding in a bush, who is frightened by the whispering of the leaves. You are frightened every day by the griefs that come to you; you turn pale at the sight of those who speak against you; … when they praise you, you are happy; when they blame you, you are sad.” [v]
In his book, Renunciation: Acts of Abandonment by Writers, Philosophers, and Artists, Ross Posnock examines creatives who made “an exit from the public glare.” For figures of renown, self-erasure is a means of escaping the pressures of public attention, but it may also involve a more radical interior process: grappling with the ego in search of the authentic self. But dropping out of the fame game is suspicious behavior in America. If a gifted person doesn’t crave celebrity, we wonder what’s wrong with them.
One of Posnock’s subjects is the painter Agnes Martin, who fled the New York art scene in her fifties for the solitude of a remote desert mesa in New Mexico. During her forty years in the wilderness (she died at 92), she continued to make art that was highly praised for its abstract mysticism and formal beauty, but she did her best to keep herself out of sight. When a prestigious museum proposed a major retrospective of her work, she refused, fearing it would be more about her than her art, for which she claimed to be simply a transparent medium. As she told the museum, “the idea of achievement must be given up” if we are “to live truly and effectively.” [vi]
An Agnes Martin could go off the grid without creating a stir, since she was not a cultural superstar. But when the writer J. D. Salinger began to recede from public view in the 1950s after the immense success of Catcher in the Rye, curiosity about his private life grew ever more insistent and, in his mind, more oppressive.
Behind the walls of his New Hampshire hideout, he crafted his response to what Posnock calls “the culture’s defensive compulsion to label and control,” in the form of enigmatic narratives about the fictional Glass family’s spiritual quests and confusions. Like Bartleby, Salinger preferred his own life to remain a blank, letting the stories speak for themselves. “This blank is his way,” says Posnock, “of outwitting or baffling the arrogant paradigm of meaning production with its ‘menacing pressure’ to generate a legible identity for consumption …” [vii]
“A legible identity for consumption” could describe what the world has tried to make of Simone Biles, before she issued her brave and risky no “on behalf of a deeper yes.” What that deeper yes will be for her, God only knows. May she walk in Beauty.
But renunciation as a spiritual practice is something we all need to think about. Less ego. More grace. And if I were asked to find the right words for this cultural moment, I’d go with the passionate cri de couer of Salinger’s Franny Glass:
“I’m not afraid to compete. It’s just the opposite. Don’t you see that? I’m afraid I will compete—that’s what scares me. That’s why I quit the Theatre Department. Just because I’m so horribly conditioned to accept everybody else’s values, and just because I like applause and people to rave about me, doesn’t make it right. I’m ashamed of it. I’m sick of it. I’m sick of not having the courage to be an absolute nobody. I’m sick of myself and everybody else that wants to make some kind of a splash.” [viii]
[i] Herman Melville, “Bartleby the Scrivener.” The employer’s failure to reach any solid conclusions about Bartleby makes him an unreliable narrator for a story he does not himself understand.
[ii] Elizabeth Hardwick, American Fictions (New York: The Modern Library, 1999), 9.
[iii] For the critics obsessed with national glory, Biles’ personal well being was of little use. One writer vilified her as proof that “we are raising a generation of weak people.” The deputy attorney general in her home state of Texas called her “our selfish, childish, national embarrassment.” But every gymnast, and I hope most of the public, knew better.
[v] Henry Suso (German, c. 1295-1366), cited in Evelyn Underhill, Mysticism: The Nature and Development of Spiritual Consciousness(Oxford: Oneworld Publications, 1993/2008, originally published 1911), 405. I have modernized the pronouns.
What is God? When the biblical Jews asked that question, they responded from their experience of salvation history. God is the one who told me to leave behind everything I knew and set out for God-knows-where, says Abraham. God is the one who asked me to go back to the land of oppression and enslavement so I could speak truth to power, says Moses. God is the one who made a covenant with us on Mount Sinai, in the cloud of unknowing. God is the one who remembered us in the days of exile. God is the one who brought us home from Babylon.
Then Jesus came along, and even though he lived and died as a human being, there were those who experienced the fullness of God in the unique particularity of his life, death, and resurrection. The risen Lord, who said “I am with you always,” would become an object of worship very early in the life of the Church.
And after the Ascension of Jesus came the Holy Spirit, not only as an indwelling presence but also as a radically transformative force, in whom divine fullness was equally and uniquely manifest.
For the early Christians, then, the One they called God had been revealed to have three distinct ways of being: Source, Savior, and Spirit. Love who loves us; Word who saves us; Spirit who renews us. And before long they were offering worship not only to the God of Israel, but to Jesus and the Holy Spirit as well.
They were not polytheists. They rejected pagan notions of a heaven and earth populated by competing deities. But their experiences of God in Christ and God in the Spirit were unique enough to differentiate them from the Holy One who sent Jesus into the world.
At the same time, the second and third Persons were not understood to be partial or lesser versions of God. Only the true God can save us, as Christ did. Only the true God can sanctify us, as the Spirit does.
Those first Christians couldn’t deny their experience, or the witness of Scripture. Christ was God. The Spirit was God. But that posed a conceptual problem.
How can the Three be One? How can the One be Three? Mathematics or logic can’t solve this puzzle. Several centuries of ecumenical councils struggled with the questions, doing their best to preserve the paradox of Three in One and One in Three from collapsing into the simplicity of God as “One is One and all alone.”
Although it would have put a lot of theologians out of work, It would have been a lot easier just to stick with the Oneness. But that would not have been true to Christian experience. The Threeness is essential to our informed—and formative—encounters with God. As contemporary Catholic theologian Catherine LaCugna puts it, “The doctrine of the Trinity is ultimately a practical doctrine with radical consequences for Christian life.” 
Does that mean that the friends of God have to master the bewildering terminology and complicated nuances of ancient dogma in order to live the Christian life? Will heaven admit only the most sophisticated thinkers? Let’s hope not.
I’ve read a lot of theology and Church history over the last fifty years, and I still have trouble remembering the differences between Monophysites, Monothelites, Monarchians, Modalists, Ebionites and Sabellians. As Japanese theologian Kosuke Koyama wonders, what if we were to exchange the metaphysical tangles of the West for more down-to-earth analogies. For example, he asks, what might the yin-yang of “pepper” and “salt” tell us about the divine nature?  Or St. Patrick’s shamrock, for that matter.
For the Offertory anthem at the liturgy for Trinity Sunday, Mozart’s Laudate Dominum, I’ve assembled 26 concrete images of persons and objects grouped in threes. As you watch the video, I invite you to contemplate the Christian koan of Three-in-One and One-in-Three.
Now then, what shall we say about the Trinity? One of the sixteenth-century reformers counseled intellectual modesty. “We adore the mysteries of the Godhead,” he said. “That is better than to investigate them.”  In a similar vein, a contemporary theologian reminds us that the “triune God is not simply unknown, but positively known to be unknown and unknowable—which is a dear and profound knowledge.” 
But on Trinity Sunday, it is the preacher’s ritual duty to offer a sacrifice of ignorance on the altar of unknowing. So here we go.
Back in the day—the fourth century, that is—when the Council of Nicaea was parsing theories of the divine life, theology was a popular sport, and people kicked around trinitarian doctrines the way some of us recite the arcane numbers of baseball metrics today. But in the late Middle Ages, the doctrine of the Holy Trinity went into cold storage. By the time of the Enlightenment, Immanuel Kant could say that Trinitarian theology had “no practical relevance at all, even if we think we understand it.” 
In recent centuries, any sort of God talk has been drained of content for many people. We live in a secular age, where a divine power who is in but not of the world has become increasingly unthinkable. Religion, in the world’s eyes, has become more of a private matter than a public truth.
And yet, the Spirit continues to work, and in the last few decades we have seen a remarkable resurgence of attention and thought devoted to the meaning and relevance of the Trinity. It’s not just white, western males doing this work. Feminists, Africans, Asians, Middle Easterners and Latin Americans are all bringing fresh and urgent perspectives to Christianity’s core doctrine of God. And their work is of enormous consequence for both our personal faith and our common life.
The Nicene Creed declares that the three Persons are “of one substance.” In other words, whatever God is made of, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit have all got it—and in equal measure.
But what is that “substance?” Is it a divine essence which existed prior to, or in addition to, the Persons themselves? Is there a one God hidden behind or beyond the Trinity? Such a notion would undercut the completeness of the Trinity, making it dependent on something external—in other words, less than fully divine in itself.
Or is the divine substance like a pie which has been cut into three equal pieces? That would divide God into parts and lose the unity of the whole. It would also make the Persons less than eternal, since the whole pie would have to precede the creation of the separate pieces.
But what if we were to give up the idea of divine “substance” as some kind of stuff which exists on its own and gets divided into three, or possesses a reality in addition to whatever the three Persons consist of? What if being the divine Trinity does not mean to have a divine substance, a kind of primordial stuff. What if being a Trinity means to be in relation with one another?
Perhaps the Trinitarian God is best described not as a fixed, objective entity, but as an event or activity, an eternal communion shared between the Persons. The Greek word perichoresisdescribes the divine communion as a dance where the partners are in continuous motion, weaving in and out of one another.
This conceptual shift from substance to relation is a central theme of contemporary theology. As feminist theologian Elizabeth Johnson writes (using inclusive terms for the Persons):
“The mutual coinherence, the dancing around together of Spirit, Wisdom and Mother; or of mutual Love, Love from Love, and unoriginate Love; or of the three divine persons – this defines who God is as God. There is no divine nature as a fourth thing that grounds divine unity in difference apart from relationality. Rather, being in communion constitutes God’s very essence.” 
A couple of British theologians elaborate this point when they say that the divine Persons do not “exist over against the others as self-enclosed centers of consciousness, as with human persons … but rather each dwells in the other through a kind of inter-permeation.” Then they sum it up this way: “The consciousnesses are fused but not confused.” 
This is not a new idea. The First Epistle of John assures us that “God is love” (4:8). And love, as we all know, cannot exist alone, without an “other” to share with, give to, receive from. Love exists only by going beyond the self in a process of perpetual self-offering.
Love is not a secondary or optional property of God. Love is who God is, and how God exists. Simply put: “the Trinity is not derived from God’s essence; the Trinity is God’s essence.” The communion and community of the Persons is God’s nature and essence.” 
Jürgen Moltmann notes the impossibility of a loving God being otherwise. “God cannot find bliss in eternal self-love,” he writes, “if selflessness is part of love’s very nature. God is in all eternity self-communicating love.”  A Kenyan Christian, John Mbiti, who comes from a more communal culture, puts this even more succinctly:
“I am because we are, and since we are, therefore I am.”
We may struggle with this interdependent Trinitarian model because our culture has taught us to think of a person as an autonomous individual, whose identity, mind and will are separate and independent from every other person.
But what the doctrine of the Trinity tells us is that you cannot be a person alone. You can only be a person in relationship with others. Addressing another, listening to another, conversing with another, loving one another, offering ourselves to one another—these are the means of becoming a person and existing as a person, if we are to live in the image of the relational personhood of the divine, in whom the one does not exist without the many.
When we hear Jesus say, you must lose yourself to find yourself, we may think he’s speaking of death, either metaphorical or physical, some kind of painful stripping away. And sometimes that is the case.
But I think Jesus is also describing the divinely grounded process of communion and community. “I am because we are, and since we are, therefore I am.” St. Athanasius had a wonderful term for this state of being in communion. He called it “reciprocal delight.” We are all in this together, God says, and so say God’s friends as well.
It seems especially fitting at this particular moment to contemplate communion as the essential and constitutive fact of divine life, for in one week’s time we will gather together, in person at last, as the Body of Christ at St. Barnabas. It has been fourteen months since we last did this. What joy it will be to share the sacrament of God’s self-diffusive love once again and celebrate the bonds between us.
After so many words about the Holy Trinity, let me conclude with an image. Thirty years ago, Polish film director Krzysztof Kieslowski made a series of 10 one-hour films called Decalogue. Each of the films is based on one of the Ten Commandments, and the series is one of the masterpieces of spiritual cinema. 
In the first film, there’s an exchange between Pawel, an eleven-year-old boy, and his aunt Irena. Pawel has a great curiosity about God, which his single-parent father, an unbeliever, cannot satisfy. So Pawel takes his questions to Irena, his devout Catholic aunt:
Pawel: Do you believe that God exists? Irena: Yes. Pawel: What is God?
Irena doesn’t answer with words. Instead, she puts her arms around Pawel and pulls him close.
Irena: What do you feel now? Pawel: I love you. Irena: Exactly. That’s what God is.
 Catherine M. LaCugna, cited in Veli-Matti Kärkkäinen, The Trinity: Global Perspectives (Louisville, KY: Westminster ]ohn Knox Press, 2007), 179.. This is the opening sentence of LaCugna’s God for Us: The Trinity and Christian Life (1991). As you will see, I found Kärkkäinen’s study of recent Trinitarian theology to be an invaluable resource.
In spite of all the destructive forces [we] let loose against life on this planet, the Spirit of Life is at work in ever new and unforeseeable ways, countering and circumventing the obstacles we put in its path. In spite of my strong tendencies to complacency and despair, I experience the Spirit in myself as calling forth the realistic hope apart from which there is no hope, and I am confident that what I find in myself is occurring in others also … what makes for life and love and hope is not simply the decision of one individual or another but a Spirit that moves us all.
Of perfect love thou art the ghostly flame. Emperor of meekness, peace and tranquility, My comfort, my counsel, my perfect charity, O water of life, O well of consolation, Against all storms of hard adversity …
— 15th century English lyric
On the fiftieth day of Easter, our liturgical prayer addresses the Holy Spirit more than on any other day. Most of the time our words of supplication and praise address an “other” who is metaphorically outside or beyond: God, Jesus, Father, Mother …. But the dominant prayer of Pentecost calls upon the most obscure and elusive of the divine “Persons”—One who is not “out there” but “in here.”
Veni Sancte Spiritus. Come, Holy Spirit.
The tricky thing about such a prayer is that it is not prayed to the Spirit. It is prayed in the Spirit and by the Spirit. The Spirit is not the object of our prayers, but the subject, dwelling within our inmost parts more surely and substantially than the transitory, constructed “I” produced by the particular confluence of history, biology, and personality which has sculpted our individuality over time. When truth speaks through us, when our energies are directed toward the well-being of all, when our lives are written and rewritten as narratives of divine love, the Spirit isn’t just in us—the Spirit is us.
This is to claim nothing for ourselves. Only those driven by unholy spirits make that mistake. Participation in the divine reality—life “in the Spirit”—is always a matter of giving yourself away, becoming part of something larger. The Holy Spirit’s proper name is communion. When we’re in the Spirit, that’s our name too.
Compared to writings about “God” and “Christ,” theological expositions on the Holy Spirit can seem relatively thin. The early creeds didn’t have much to say either, making the Spirit seem like an afterthought—oh yeah, and the Holy Spirit too. But this isn’t due to neglect so much as it is to the Spirit’s way of disappearing into the world as anonymous giftedness. As Orthodox theologian Vladimir Lossky put it:
“[T]he Holy Spirit effaces himself, as Person, before the created persons to whom he appropriates grace … He mysteriously identifies himself with human persons while remaining incommunicable. He substitutes Himself, so to speak, for ourselves.” 
Canadian poet Margaret Avison addresses the Spirit’s indescribability in her poem “… Person or A Hymn on and to the Holy Ghost.”
How should I find speech to you, the self-effacing whose other self was seen alone by the only one,
to you whose self-knowing is perfect, known to him, seeing him only, loving with him, yourself unseen?
Let the one you show me ask you, for me, you, all but lost in the one in three,
to lead my self, effaced in the known Light, to be in him released from facelessness,
so that where you (unseen, unguessed, liable to grievous hurt) would go I may show him visible.
The poem’s profusion of pronouns makes it hard, at first, to tell which divine Person is doing what. “You” is clearly the Holy Spirit, but who is “him?” Is it Christ, or the Father, or God in general who releases us from “facelessness,” or whom we ourselves make visible in the practice of holy living? The “unseen, unguessed” Spirit may be “all but lost in / the one in three,” but without it (or him, or her, or they), Love Divine could not do its proper work in the world and in the heart.
O fiery Spirit, come burn in us. O sacred breath, come breathe in us. O blazing love, come flame in us.… O delight of life, come live in us. 
This past year has generated its share of anxiety, fear, madness and grief, but as John Cobb reminds us, “the Spirit of Life is at work in ever new and unforeseeable ways, countering and circumventing the obstacles we put in its path.” It is in this Spirit that I have shaped my retelling of Ezekiel’s vision in the Valley of Dry Bones (see video below). When the divine breath comes into the lifeless bodies, I layer multiple inhalations and exhalations to make a chorus of breaths. For me that collective sound symbolizes the Spirit’s fierce resistance to every power that would silence and choke us. As the Psalmist says, You send forth your Spirit, and the people are created; and so you renew the face of the earth (Psalm 104:31).
 Cited in Marjorie Suchocki, “Spirit in and through the World,” in Suchocki and Joseph A. Bracken, S.J., Trinity in Process: A Relational Theology of God (New York: Continuum, 1997), 180. And yes, masculine pronouns are problematic. Depending on the language, Spirit has been feminine and neuter as well. Do you think She minds?
 Vladimir Lossky cited in Paul S. Fiddes, Participating in God: A Pastoral Doctrine of the Trinity (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 200), 261.
 Jody L. Caldwell, after Hildegard of Bingen, in Voices Found (New York: Church Publishing, 2003), #62.
In the convent of San Marco in Florence, Fra Angelico painted a fresco of the mocking of Christ. The cruelties of Christ’s tormenters are represented as fragments, floating in the space around the white-robed, blindfolded victim: a disembodied head spits at our Lord, a floating hand strikes him with a rod. These fragments are very flat, two-dimensional, as though pasted on the image’s surface. But Christ himself is not restricted to the plane of the image. It projects forward in an illusion of three-dimensionality, into the space occupied by two saints. The suffering Christ emerges from his own time into theirs.
But neither saint is looking at him. They face away from the scene, toward us. The mocking is not something they look at with their physical eyes. It is for them an interior contemplation. And their devotion to the Passion takes two different forms. On the right, St. Dominic, the great intellect and preacher, is looking at a book, open in his lap. The Passion is something he is reading about, and processing in his mind. On the left side, the mother of Jesus, sitting in an attitude of quiet sorrow, has no book. She is apprehending the Passion through the medium of her heart. Dominic is thinking about the suffering of Christ. Mary is feeling it.
On God’s Friday we bring both head and heart to the foot of the cross. We may want to puzzle over the why of it: Why did this have to happen? Why do we keep returning to this bloody act? Why does it matter? Or maybe we just prefer to watch and weep over a mystery beyond all comprehension.
In any case, here we are again, at the foot of the cross. A lot has happened since the last Good Friday—so much suffering, so much struggling, so much dying. We bring all that with us to the cross today, along with our questions, our wounds, our laments. Finding the right words for this strange time is a daunting task.
Wiliam Sloane Coffin, one of the great Christian voices of the twentieth century, once told a young minister not to worry too much about his Holy Week sermon. “Anybody can preach on Good Friday,” he said. “Hell, read the newspaper!”[i]
On Good Friday, 2021, we don’t need a crucifix to remind us of a premature death which should never have happened. We’ve seen it replicated over half a million times in this country alone—worldwide, nearly 3 million times.
We don’t need an ancient form of execution, designed to cause asphyxiation in a sagging body, to remind us of human cruelty. This very week, in a Minneapolis courtroom, a congregation of judge and jury is meditating on the last words—of George Floyd: “I can’t breathe.”
We don’t have to go back 2000 years to learn the story of hatred, violence, and innocent victims. We’ve got Atlanta and Boulder and far too many other examples.
As for the mindless mob shouting “Crucify! Crucify!” in Pilate’s courtyard, we’ve got our own version from January 6th, that epiphany of collective rage by the ones who “know not what they do.”
Yes, we still see crucifixions every day. So why do we keep returning to Golgotha? How is the death of Jesus not like any other? In one sense, it is like every death. In choosing to embrace human experience, to live and die as one of us, the Divine identified completely with our suffering as well as our joy.
Anglican poet Thomas Traherne expressed this truth with 17th-century fluency:
“O Christ, I see thy cross of thorns in every eye, thy bleeding naked wounded body in every soul, thy death lived in every memory. Thy crucified person is embalmed in every affliction, thy pierced feet are bathed in everyone’s tears ….” [ii]
Jesus is not only the icon of God but also the representative human, our “Everyman” and “Everywoman,” who bears our griefs and carries our sorrows. A folksong from back in the day said it this way:
If somehow you could pack up your sorrows, and give them all to me, you would lose them, I know how to use them, give them all to me.[iii]
Why did, and why does, Jesus want to carry the full weight of our human condition? Love. Love so amazing, so divine. God thirsts for us even more than we thirst for God. And as the incarnation of that love, as the divine thirst for communion in human form, Jesus was willing to drink the bitter as well as the sweet.
Why on earth does God desire us so much? It’s not because we’re so easy to love—God knows we’re not. It’s because love is God’s nature, love is who God is. When the eternal self-offering, self-giving, that constitutes the Holy Trinity, got narrowed down into human shape, that loving nature came with it. Jesus loves me, this I know, because Jesus is love incarnate. It’s who Jesus is, and what Jesus does.
And what happens to love in a world gone so wrong? It suffers. Love hurts. On Palm Sunday we sang about “love’s agony, love’s endeavor, love’s expense:”
Drained is love in making full, bound in setting others free; poor in making many rich, weak in giving power to be.
Therefore he who shows us God, helpless hangs upon the tree; and the nails and crown of thorns tell of what God’s love must be.[iv]
Nobody wants to suffer, but it seems to be part of the deal. As Julian of Norwich said in the century of Europe’s most deadly plague:
If there be anywhere on earth a lover of God who is always kept safe from falling, I know nothing of it — for it was not shown me. But this was shown: that in falling and rising again, we are always held close in one love.[v]
In early 19th century Kentucky, 3 women founded a religious community called the Friends of Mary at the Foot of the Cross. They were dedicated, in their words, “to bring the healing spirit of God into our world.” One of their current sisters, Elaine Prevallet, has written some very helpful words about suffering:
Suffering is always about change — either something needs to change, or something is changing. And changing means letting go of the way things are, the way I know them, the way I have put and held my life together…The idol of control holds out to us the hope that suffering and death can be eliminated. ..That false hope, in turn, has the effect of setting suffering up as an enemy to be avoided at all costs. [But] if we are unwilling to suffer, we are unwilling to love.[vi]
Nobody gets off lightly on God’s Friday, not God, not the world, not us. But we get through, we all get through—it is the way, the only way in this mysterious universe of freedom and risk, dying and rising.
You can do several things with suffering. You can try to avoid it or at least repress your awareness of it. Some people make that their life’s work. But avoiding suffering means you avoid a lot of love and a lot of life. Jesus considered this strategy of avoidance, in the desert Temptation and in the agony of Gethsemane. But that “adamant young man”[vii] chose instead to embrace the consequences of his divine nature and his human vocation.
Another way to deal with suffering is to struggle against its causes, to work for its elimination. As both healer and prophet, Jesus demonstrated this way, even onto death at the hands of the oppressive powers. But like the weeds among the wheat, violence and suffering remain a persistent part of the fabric of creation, despite our best efforts. We do what we can, but suffering remains.
And so we, with Jesus, come to the third way: to undergo suffering as a means, not an end. To see suffering not as life-threatening, but life-giving. Suffering, instead of thwarting God’s purposes, becomes part of the repertoire of salvation. God does not create suffering, but does deal creatively with it. Suffering becomes, in God’s hands, formative rather than destructive. The Passion is not a detour. It is the way. As a recent hymn puts it, God is “wiser than despair.” [viii]
I once read about a Quaker meeting held on Easter Day. The assembled Friends were speaking, as the Spirit moved them, about the Resurrection. Then one woman got up and said that her only son had been killed in a car crash some months before. A chord of shared grief was struck in every heart. We know about that, don’t we, here on Bainbridge Island, thinking about Hannah, Hazel and Marina.[ix] But then this sorrowing mother said, “My heart is broken, but it is broken open—this is my resurrection and my hope.” [x]
To speak of the way of the cross as the way of life is not to deny its pain or its horror—Jesus himself cried out in deep protest from the cross: Why? Why? And the way of the cross is more than a simple homily about building character or learning compassion or awakening our own vocations to relieve the world’s pain where we can. Those are all valuable outcomes of our suffering, but on this day, at the foot of this cross, we must say something deeper and more difficult to grasp.
For this dying man, this Jesus upon the cross, is not just one more victim ground up by the teeth of history. This Jesus “bears in His Heart all wounds”[xi] carries our griefs and our sorrows, carries them into the divine heart, into the deepest place of God. Our pain has become God’s own pain, and however long we must dwell in that Pit where there seems to be suffering without end, God dwells there with us. The One who died abandoned and alone now keeps us company on our own crosses—for as long as it takes.
Jane Kenyon, the poet who died too young of leukemia, knew the truth of this:
The God of curved space, the dry God, is not going to help us, but the son whose blood spattered the hem of his mother’s robe.[xii]
God does not create suffering. But God is the place where all suffering comes to rest. “Give it to me, ” God says. “I can take it. I will transform it.” When our suffering becomes God’s suffering, something new happens. It is no longer the tomb of dead hopes. It is the place of new birth.
How does this happen? How does God bring forth good from evil? How does the cross of Christ make all our crosses into trees of life? How does God turn our abyss into a redemptive journey?
We could discuss theologies of atonement and sacrifice, or reflect upon the spiritual and psychological and social implications of Christ’s death. But on this day, we don’t come to the cross for ideas. We come for love.
In Antonello da Messina’s Crucifixion we see, as in Fra Angelico’s Mocking, two witnesses in the foreground: Mary, the mother of Jesus, and John, the beloved disciple. John is gazing intently at his Crucified Lord, while Mary looks inward, to her pierced heart. For me this image expresses something written by a present-day friend of Jesus, Virginia Stem Owens:
“Good Friday is the day when you can do nothing. Bewailing and lamenting your manifold sins does not in itself make up for them. Scouring your soul in a frenzy of spring cleaning only sterilizes it; it does not give it life. On Good Friday, finally, we are all, mourners and mockers alike, reduced to the same impotence. Someone else is doing the terrible work that gives life to the world.” [xiii]
So here we are, at the foot of the cross on God’s Friday, while Jesus does the terrible work that gives life to the world.
“Give me your pain,” Jesus says. “Give me your sorrow. I will make it the place where your healing begins. I work good in all things. That is my nature. There is nothing that I cannot make into the means of new life.
“Suffering…fear…grief…illness…anger…depression…despair…abandonment…. whatever your burden, give it to me, join your pain to mine, and I promise you: You shall rise up with me.
For there is only one death in the history of the world, and I have made it mine. And there is only one life in God’s universe, and from now until forever it is yours. I give it to you.
“Die with me today…rise with me tomorrow…It is accomplished.”
This sermon may be seen on video in the Liturgy for Good Friday at St. Barnabas Episcopal Church (Bainbridge Island, WA), available on YouTube starting at noon on Good Friday, 2021.The link is here.
[i] Personal reminiscence by Will Willimon, in “Stunned observers: A Conversation between Richard Lischer and Will Willimon, The Christian Century (March 24, 2021), 35.
[ii] Thomas Traherne, Centuries of Meditations, i.86.
[iii] Richard Fariña and Paula Marden, “Pack up your sorrows” (1965). I heard Farina and his wife Mimi sing this in concert in my college years. They were local favorites, and I often played their songs on my campus radio show. A promising writer and novelist, Fariña died in a motorcycle accident a year after writing this song. He was 29. To hear the song: https://youtu.be/NHRNqjOcaMM
[iv] W. H. Vanstone, “Morning glory, starlit sky.” This powerful text is set to a beautiful tune, Bingham, by Dorothy Howell Sheets, in The Episcopal Hymnal 1982, #585.
[v] Julian of Norwich, Showings (the Long Text), 14th century.
[vi] Elaine Prevallet, Weavings: A Journal of the Christian Spiritual Life (“Letting Go,” Vol. 12, No. 2, March/April 1997), 14.
[vii] I love Dag Hammarskjöld’s use of adamant, a Greek word for a hard stone or diamond. This term for a resistant substance came to mean “invincible.” Jesus’ refusal to let his love be misshapen by the world makes this an apt adjective for him. I found Hammarskjöld’s phrase in Bread and Wine: Readings for Lent and Easter (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 2003), 163.
[viii] Brian Wren, “Bring many names” (1989): “calmly piercing evil’s new disguises, glad of good surprises, wiser than despair.”
[ix] The tragic death of these three teenagers in an automobile accident last month has deeply shaken my local community.
[xi] The line is from Edith Sitwell’s poem, “Still Falls the Rain.” Written during the bombing of London in 1940, it does not single out the enemy, but laments the collective guilt of a warring humankind. The last lines: “Then sounds the voice of One who like the heart of man / Was once a child who among beasts has lain—/ ‘Still do I love, still shed my innocent light, my Blood, for thee.’”
[xiii] Virginia Stem Owens, cited in “It Is Done,” a reflection on the Passion by Watchman Nee in Bread and Wine, p. 244. Nee (1903-1972) was a Chinese Christian who spent his final 20 years imprisoned for his faith.
Still louder ever rose the crowd’s Hosanna in the highest! ‘O King,’ thought I, ‘I know not why In all this joy thou sighest.’
— The Merchants’ Carol
Where thy victorious feet, Great God, should tread, In honor this green tapestry is spread; And as all future things are past to thee, The triumph here precedes the victory.
— Giambattista Marino, “Palm Sunday”
An anthem for Palm Sunday, “Ride on! ride on in majesty,” sung by the choir of St. Barnabas Episcopal Church, Bainbridge Island, WA, under the direction of Paul Roy, with the late Darden Burns on piano. Lyrics by Henry Hart Milman, music by Mark Shepperd. Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem is from “Day of Triumph” (1954) a feature film produced by my father, James K. Friedrich. The palm branches are from Taryn Elliott via Pexels. My footage of the Seattle viaduct, shot the day before its demolition began, imagines Jesus’ entry into our own cities, while the empty road in Montana recalls the spiritual, “Jesus walked that lonesome valley.” The one who rode among the cheering crowds must go alone to the cross. The sun directs its deathly gaze through the smoke of a forest fire in the Bitterroot Mountains. The irony of Palm Sunday’s “triumph” is seen in the video’s final image of Christ, now carrying the cross through a different kind of crowd (Lippo Memmi, Santa Maria Assunta, San Gimignano, Tuscany, c. 1340).
For most of my life, a majority of Americans—around 70%—identified with a religion. In the twenty-first century, that stability in religious affiliation has collapsed, falling by 20 points in just two decades. The United States, long one of the world’s most religious countries, has become, rather suddenly, one of the least.
Rapid changes in society, technology, mobility and time management, along with the reluctance of younger generations to make institutional commitments of any kind, have contributed to this erosion. So have the manifold sins of believers and religious institutions, which publicly discredit the transformational claims of faith communities. If religious people behave badly, what’s the point?
The major religions have survived comparable challenges in the past. What may be different in these latter days is the degree to which the secular age has flattened reality into a strictly horizontal dimension, excluding the verticals of transcendence and depth. For growing numbers of Americans, God is neither felt nor thought. Religion’s windows into the divine invisible have been replaced by mirrors.
At least since the Enlightenment, critics and skeptics have been writing obituaries for religion. By the nineteenth century, doubt was in full flood. An appraisal in 1878 was typical: “one can hear faith decaying … This decay has been maturing for three hundred years, and their effects prophesied for fifty; indeed, not prophesied only but in some degree accomplished.” [i]
Thirty years later, Thomas Hardy would write “God’s Funeral,” a somber poem about the death of belief. As the “strange and mystic form” of the expired deity passes by, borne by a great procession of mourners, the poet confesses the object of faith to be a delusion:
… tricked by our own early dream And need of solace, we grew self-deceived, Our making soon our maker did we deem, And what we had imagined we believed.
Till, in Time’s stayless stealthy swing, Uncompromising rude reality Mangled the Monarch of our fashioning, Who quivered, sank; and now has ceased to be.[ii]
At least Hardy felt sad about the demise of divinity (“Sadlier than those who wept in Babylon, / Whose Zion was a still abiding hope.”). These days, unbelief is more a matter of indifference than sorrow. How many people still take God into account, or think theologically, and shape their lives accordingly? Once God is gone, what’s the use of religion?
The precipitous decline of religious affiliation in America has prompted anxious speculations about what’s next. In “America Without God,” Shadi Hamid, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institute, sees religious fervor being sublimated into political conviction.[iii] As we have seen in the case of the recent Trump cult, with its sociopathic savior, this can go very wrong. At least religion attempts to temper the zeal of believers with mandates of repentance and forgiveness, as well as the humility of unknowing in the presence of mystery. Politics, not so much.
In an article on the “Death of Faith,” journalist Murtaza Hussain deems the extinction of traditional religion in America to be only a matter of time. “Older expressions of religion are not completely absent in public, to be sure. But compared with the past, their influence over events feels akin to the light of a dead star.… The slow-rolling death of religion in American life begs the question, then, what type of new world will emerge from the wreckage of the old?”
Hussain hopes that any emergent communal expressions will not repeat what he calls “the worst aspects of the old religions, including the moral censoriousness, judgmentalism, heresy-hunting and the persecution of those who think differently.” We should construct a new social imaginary, he suggests optimistically, “with the self-conscious idea of improving on the mistakes of organized religion.”[iv]
Personally, I am not prepared to exchange Jesus, the sacraments, saints, centuries of wisdom, sacred conversation, communal prayer, or the Paschal Mystery for a mistake-free startup. While I may lament the Church’s manifold sins and grumble over its frustrations, I will continue to feast on its visions and receive its graces. Even the soul’s darkest nights are preferable to a world without divine depth or holy wonder. As Meister Eckhart said, “I would rather be in hell and have God, than in heaven and not have God.”[v]
In concluding his illuminating study of religious defections by the Victorians and their successors, A. N. Wilson quotes one of the era’s greatest religious thinkers, Baron von Hügel (1852-1925), who insisted that “religion was the deepest kind of life.” And to that, Wilson adds his own Amen: “And I am bound to say that compiling this study of those who tried to live without religion, or who chose to live within the limitations of a purely materialistic explanation for the problems of metaphysics, has not made me wish to revise the baron’s viewpoint.”[vi]
How, then, should the Church respond to declining numbers, or address widespread indifference to its priorities and practices? Shall we attempt to shape a social imaginary more congenial to “the deepest kind of life?” Do we welcome the death of antiquated forms in order to practice resurrection? Or should we wait and listen in faithful silence for a word not yet spoken?
George Tyrrell was an Irish Jesuit who urged the Church at the dawn of the 20th century to adapt and evolve in response to the challenges of modernity. His progressive views were out of step with his contemporaries, and when the anti-modernist Pius X became pope in 1903, Tyrrell’s fate was sealed. He was expelled from the Jesuits in 1906, denied the sacraments in 1907, excommunicated in 1908, and forbidden a Catholic burial in 1909. Half a century later, his views would be mostly vindicated at the Second Vatican Council.
The fact that Tyrrell was wrong in 1906 and right in the 1960s demonstrates the tension between stability and innovation which is unavoidable—even necessary—within a living tradition. A great religious institution may not be able to turn on a dime, but it still contains within itself an ultimate loyalty to its transcendent and ineffable core, enabling it to adapt and survive. The secret of Christianity’s longevity is its rootedness in a reality which exceeds any particular institutional or theological expression. Transition, revolution, or even apparent catastrophe do not signify ultimate defeat if you are in covenant with the God of infinite surprise.
As Orthodox theologian David Bentley Hart puts it, “the proof that any tradition is a living one is precisely that it does not fiercely cling to every aspect of what it has inherited but instead exhibits an often astonishing ruthlessness in shedding the past, out of obedience to some still more original spiritual imperative.”[vii]
Dying to the old and rising into the new is a costly and painful process, but it is the ultimate vocation of every believer and every church. In a letter to a friend in April 1906, Tyrrell movingly expressed both the anguish and the hope of trusting in the unknown futurity of God:
“I quite understand your desire for a life of prayer—the nostalgia for the old days ‘when His lamp shone about my head.’ God knows I feel it. But I think they will return for us all in some better form. I find the Breviary lives for me again after a long transition period of death. One has to pass through atheism to faith; the old God must be pulverized and forgotten before the new can reveal himself to us.” [viii]
Tyrrell’s “pulverized and forgotten” God sounds little different from Hardy’s “mangled Monarch,” except for one thing: resurrection. Hardy thought death was the end of the story. Tyrrell knew it was only the beginning.
[i] W. H. Mallock, The Nineteenth Century, cited in A. N. Wilson, God’s Funeral (New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 1999), 164.
[v]Meister Eckhart (c. 1260 – c. 1328), cited in Evelyn Underhill, Mysticism: The Nature and Development of Spiritual Consciousness, originally published 1911 (Oxford: Oneworld Publications, 1993), 209.
God guides the humble in doing right and teaches the divine way to the lowly
— Psalm 25:8
There was a hermit who was able to banish the demons. And he asked them: “What makes you go away? Is it fasting?” They replied: “We do not eat or drink.” “Is it vigils?” They said: “We do not sleep.” “Then what power sends you away?” They replied: “Nothing can overcome us except humility alone.”
— Sayings of the Desert Fathers and Mothers
When I spent Orthodox Holy Week in Jerusalem years ago, I saw an unusual ritual in the Syrian church on Holy Thursday. The patriarch, imitating the humility of Jesus, girded himself with a towel and knelt at the feet of the clergy to wash their feet. After this, he took his seat. Then the clergy surrounded his chair and lifted it above their heads, for “all who humble themselves shall be exalted” (Luke 14:11). From this elevated position, the patriarch gave us all a blessing.
Humility is perhaps the most misunderstood of Christian virtues. It has been confused with low self-esteem, or suffering devaluation by others without complaint. Religious tropes of unworthiness (“I am a worm, not a person!”) haven’t helped. But humility is foundational to spiritual growth. When the Psalm says that God “teaches the divine way to the lowly,” it means that there is something essential, life-giving and godly which comes only through humility.
In the 4th century, Christian men and women fled the corruptions of a dehumanizing culture in search of a more authentic way of being. In the deserts of Egypt and Palestine, they discovered that humility was not just the first step on the path toward the “divinization” of our humanity; it was the path itself—the self-emptying process which makes room for God to fill us. This is the wisdom the Psalmist promised, and it became foundational for western monasticism, of which every contemporary Christian is a beneficiary. As Thomas Merton put it, humility “empties the soul of all pride and annihilates it in the sight of God, so that nothing may be left of it but the pure capacity for God.” [i]
Humility is countercultural in the age of “selfies.” It is the antidote for narcissism—grandiose self-importance, entitlement, insatiable lust for attention, and self-promotion. It gives glory only to God.
Humility begins with consciousness of sin—our own incompleteness, our distance from what we are made to be. This frees us from having to pretend to be what we are not. We drop the disguises and self-delusion, admit our weaknesses and limitations. We relinquish the need to be in control or make everything about us. We accept our dependence on God—everything is gift, not possession. We acknowledge our need for mercy.
Humility also heals our relationships with others. If we don’t have to be the smartest in the room, or the most important, or always correct, we can shed the arrogance, egotism, fear and competitiveness which disable loving community. We submit ourselves to the presence, influence and “otherness” of others, even when it is difficult to do, because interdependence is the truth of love. We even accept the hard things beyond our control without losing faith. And by not insisting on always having the best for myself, or asserting my rights without reverent regard for humanity or the planet, humility restores the balance of paradise.
Benedictine sister Joan Chittister sums it up this way: “Humility is the total continuing surrender to God’s power in my life and in the lives of those around me.” [ii]
[i] Thomas Merton, New Seeds of Contemplation (182), cited in William H. Shannon, Christine M. Bochen, & Patrick F. O’Connell, The Thomas Merton Encyclopedia (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 2002), 216.
[ii] Joan Chittister, O.S.B., Wisdom Distilled from the Daily: Living the Rule of St. Benedict Today (New York: Harper One, 1991), 65.
I took the photograph at the Venice Biennale in 2019. The sculpture is “The Guardians of Time” (2018) by Austrian artist Manfred Kielnhofer. The faceless anonymity of the monkish figures and the young woman refute the assertion of self. Even the latter’s self-conscious pose is at least practicing the posture of humility and surrender, if only in play (her act was spontaneous, inspired by the figures). But is not all Christian practice a form of play, where we try out a self we have not yet become?