Are All Welcome? The Red Hen and the Spirit of Eucharist

Vincent van Gogh, The Potato Eaters (1885)

Within my house there shall not dwell
one who practices deceit.
A speaker of lies shall not stand firm
before my eyes.

–– Psalm 101:7

 

Jesus loved to break bread with people. He did it all the time––not just with his friends, but with anyone hungry enough to sit down with him, no matter who they were. Sharing a meal together was so much a part of who Jesus was that we who love him practice table fellowship as our most sacred act.

Whenever you eat this bread and drink this cup, I am with you.

Christ’s table is not a privilege of the righteous. Sinners always go to the head of the line. As our primary image of divine hospitality, it is meant to be a place of welcome, not exclusion. Whenever we gather to share the bread of heaven with one another in an act of wondrous love, we become a visible and concrete image of a world come home to God.

All who hunger, never strangers. Seeker, be a welcome guest.
Come from restlessness and roaming, here in joy we keep the feast.
We, that once were lost and scattered, in communion’s love have stood.
Taste and see the grace eternal, taste and see that God is good.[1]

The eucharist reveals the meaning of eating together. Every shared meal is a chance for holy communion. We receive the gifts of the earth, thankful for the labor and skill which have set them before us, and we share them with one another in love and mutual delight. Whenever we eat together with mindfulness and gratitude, we taste and see that God is good.

In a recent New Yorker essay, Adam Gopnik considers “commensality,” the social anthropology of eating. “Nothing is more fundamental to human relations than deciding who has a place at the table,” he writes, noting that Jesus broke all his culture’s rules when he dined with outcasts and sinners. Turning his attention to our own time, Gopnik then writes, “The modern restaurant—invented in Paris, after the Revolution—is a little temple of commensality: all you need, as shown in so many early Chaplin shorts, is five cents to enter and then to share.”

When Sarah Huckabee Sanders, the White House press secretary, was asked by the owner of Virginia’s Red Hen restaurant to leave the premises without being fed, was the temple of commensality being desecrated? Some have thought so, bemoaning the “incivility” of denying service to a fellow citizen. Doesn’t such an act undermine the norms of peaceful coexistence and exacerbate partisan rancor? Shouldn’t we be allowed to eat in peace no matter who we are?

While acknowledging the importance of civility and social reciprocity, Gopnik argues that “someone who has decided to make it her public role to extend, with a blizzard of falsehoods, the words of a pathological liar, and to support, with pretended piety, the acts of a public person of unparalleled personal cruelty—well, that person has asked us in advance to exclude her from our common meal. You cannot spit in the plates and then demand your dinner. The best way to receive civility at night is to not assault it all day long. It’s the simple wisdom of the table.”[2]

Well said. But once you begin to cross the line into shunning, shaming and excluding, where do you stop? When the cold-blooded Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen sat down in a Mexican(!) restaurant, angry protesters drove her out with cries of “Shame! Shame!” for her complicity in the atrocious abuse of immigrant children. Others gathered outside her home to blast her with the heartbreaking audio of border children crying and wailing in a government detention center.

Responding to the unspeakable cruelties of the Administration, Congresswoman Maxine Waters sounded a controversial call to arms:

“We want history to record that we stood up, that we pushed back, that we fought. If you see anybody from that cabinet in a restaurant, in a department store, at a gasoline station, you get out and you create a crowd and you push back on them, and you tell them they’re not welcome anymore, anywhere!”[3]

I’m not likely to spot any of those monsters on my little island anytime soon, but if I did, I’d be pretty tempted to remind them loud and clear that racism, bigotry and cruelty are not okay. Uncivil? Perhaps. But as Mark Sumners writes, “the demand being made for ‘civility’ isn’t about language at all. It’s about throwing a ring of protection around the powerful. It’s about pretending that people whose actions wreck millions of lives on a whim, are cocooned from the consequences of their actions, not just because they have money, and connections, and resources, but because their power puts them on a different plane.”[4]

Of course, confrontation can go too far. During the French Revolution, when Marie Antoinette was under house arrest on an upper floor of her palace, a protester stuck the guillotined head of an aristocratic consort on a pole, holding it high to stare at the queen through her bedroom window. One can only imagine what Ms. Antoinette might have tweeted in response!

Returning to the question of commensality, “the wisdom of the table,” how should churches respond to the presence of notorious sinners when they come to Christ’s table? In the fourth century, St. Ambrose withheld communion from the Emperor Theodosius after his soldiers slaughtered 7000 Greeks attending a sporting event in Thessalonika.[5]More recently, El Salvador’s Archbishop Oscar Romero excommunicated government officials responsible for the murder of priests and nuns.

While the icon of an open and welcoming table is central to Christian practice, there have been those exceptional occasions when it needed to be said that you can’t spit on the Body of Christ one day and consume it piously the next.

When I was a young priest in Los Angeles, I was asked to assist at the liturgy of a congregation I did not know. After the mass, the rector told me I had given communion to the city’s chief of police, whose department was known for abusive practices toward minorities and peace activists. “I didn’t tell you beforehand that he was in attendance,” the rector told me later. “I was afraid you wouldn’t have given him communion.”

He laughed when he said this, so I wasn’t sure how much he was joking. Had I known, how would I have felt about it? Excommunication is a serious matter, certainly not undertaken spontaneously, without considerable discernment and the blessing of a higher authority (i.e., the bishop, not God, who remains provocatively silent on such matters). And since “we are all bastards but God loves us anyway,”[6]who dares to risk the presumptuous task of judging worthiness rather than dispensing mercy?

Still, I wonder. Would I give communion to Hitler? Or Putin? Or Trump? Put the bread of heaven in a hand soaked with so much blood?[7]Assuming they all remained obstinately unrepentant, would I somehow be enabling or endorsing their behavior by affirming their place at the table? Or would giving them communion, even if they received it unworthily, signify that God’s love knows no obstacles, not even the hardened and hateful heart?

 

 

 

[1]Hymn text by Sylvia G. Dunstan (GIA Publications, 1991).

[2]Adam Gopnik, “Sarah Huckabee Sanders and Who Deserves a Place at the Table,” New Yorkeronline, June 25, 2018 (https://www.newyorker.com/culture/cultural-comment/sarah-huckabee-sanders-and-who-deserves-a-place-at-the-table)

[3]For an excellent take on the overheated reactions to Waters, cf. Crystal Marie Fleming, “Maxine Waters and the trope of the angry black woman,” Vox, June 29, 2018 (https://www.vox.com/first-person/2018/6/29/17515192/maxine-waters-sarah-sanders-red-hen-restaurant-trump)

[4]Mark Sumner, “The ‘civility’ debate isn’t about language, it’s about power,” Daily Kos, June 26, 2018 (https://www.dailykos.com/stories/2018/6/26/1775471/-The-civility-debate-isn-t-about-language-it-s-about-power)

[5]It’s a complicated story. The soldiers wanted revenge for the killing of their commander by an angry mob of citizens fed up with abuses by the Roman military. Theodosius, hearing the news in a distant city, flew into a rage, and sent a message giving carte blanche to the soldiers for retaliatory action. He soon sent a second order rescinding the first, but it was too late. The soldiers’ rampage had already taken 7000 lives. Although the emperor himself didn’t wield a sword, he bore the responsibility, and his striking submission to church discipline was an historic recognition that divine authority rules the powers of the world.

[6]When Will Cambell, a Baptist preacher, writer, and wonderful disturber of the peace, was asked to sum up Christianity in ten words or less, this was his reply, as recorded in his moving book, Brother to a Dragonfly.

[7]Trump is already responsible for the deaths of countless Americans in Puerto Rico, and he will bear the blame for tens of thousands of premature deaths due to his animus against health care. His suicidal refusal to address climate change, however, will ultimately be his most murderous legacy.

All Is Grace: The Spiritual Cinema of “First Reformed”

Ethan Hawke in “First Reformed”

“Oh my Lord, when will you cease from scattering obstacles in our path?”
“Do not complain, my daughter. This is how I treat my friends.”
“Yes, my Lord, and that is why you have so few of them.”

–– Attributed to St. Teresa of Avila

 

Many of God’s friends have known the dark night of divine absence, when God falls silent and faith loses touch with an answering Presence. Some have understood this as a form of progress, a necessary purgation of comfortable words, images, concepts and feelings as the questing soul goes deeper and deeper into an ungraspable Mystery. Others have experienced God’s silence as nothing but nothingness, a one-way ticket into the void. My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?

Paul Schrader’s harrowing new film, First Reformed, traverses this abyss with an intelligence and seriousness all too rare in American films about religion. The life of faith is easy to satirize, trivialize or sentimentalize in popular culture, but Schrader treats it as a subject of critical import. And in so doing, his film attempts to go “all the way, till the wheels fall off and burn.”[i]

Ernst Toller (Ethan Hawke) is the middle-aged pastor of an old Dutch Reformed church in upstate New York. The 250-year-old white colonial structure has an interesting history, but its days of relevance are long gone. Almost no one attends Sunday worship, and the building only stays open through the sponsorship of a nearby megachurch, which preserves it as a kind of museum. Tourists stop by now and then for souvenirs, and Toller’s job is to hang around and lend some authenticity to the place, like the costumed actors who re-create the past at popular historic sites.

Toller, however, is an ordained minister with a serious vocation. He conducts real worship and counsels his tiny flock. So the inescapable sense of play-acting in a museum is demeaning and demoralizing. His humiliation will be recognizable to all those clergy and congregations left behind by a culture where the biblical God has been rendered harmless––or even unthinkable.

Toller, whose very name suggests loss and mourning, lives a lonely, solitary life in a house of monastic bareness. His marriage fell apart long ago, after the death of his son in Iraq. His health is failing, and he is depressed. Prayer comes hard for him, and doubt is his constant companion. His life is a desert with no rain in the forecast.

A spiritual director once told me in a time of personal crisis, “Congratulations! You’re exactly where you need to be––fallen overboard into a raging sea.” John Donne said the same thing with seventeenth-century elegance: “No man hath affliction enough, that is not matured, and ripened by it, and made fit for God by that affliction.”[ii]

Such a rigorous spirituality may never pack the churches, but it is intriguing that First Reformed has struck a chord with critics and audiences alike. Perhaps this is due to its demanding seriousness, so refreshingly alien to the self-congratulatory spirituality of our time. We grow weary of trivia. We want to fall for something that matters so absolutely.

Half a century ago, Paul Schrader wrote a book which had a major impact on film studies. Transcendental Style in Film opened many eyes, including mine, to a different kind of cinema, in which the sacred is expressed not through psychological realism but through a film style fraught with renunciations. No expressive or self-conscious acting presuming to explain the mystery of human beings. No fancy camerawork interpreting a scene or manipulating an audience. A withholding of many of the emotional satisfactions which moviegoers have come to expect. Transcendental cinema, in Schrader’s view, doesn’t just represent religious experience. It creates it in the viewer.

“Transcendental style,” he concluded, “can bring us nearer to that silence, that invisible image, in which the parallel lines of religion and art meet and interpenetrate.”[iii]

Schrader was raised in a strict Dutch Calvinist home. Movie-going was forbidden in his childhood. But he eventually fled the constricting faith of his ancestors and, like the Prodigal Son, lived in the distant country of movies saturated with violent themes and forbidden pleasures. He also worked on the script for The Last Temptation of Christ. Some of his films, like American Gigolo, revisited the spiritual terrain of his seminal book, but First Reformed, made in his early seventies, is Schrader’s most explicit homage to transcendental cinema, and especially to the work of my favorite director, Robert Bresson, who once said, “No art without transformation.”[iv]

First Reformed strongly echoes Bresson’s Diary of a Country Priest (1950) in many ways: a pastor in crisis who keeps a journal and speaks it in voice-over; a worrisome stomach ailment; a bleak environment––claustrophobic and without exit; a barren and unanswered prayer life; a heavy dark cloak as metonymy for his sense of confinement; the suicide by shotgun of a parishioner in despair; and long silences begging for divine presence. Schrader’s Bressonesque film style––the constraining “Academy” film ratio (1.37:1) instead of the expansiveness of wide screen, an austere minimizing of music and camera movement, the cold factuality of interior spaces begging for the miracle of life and breath––also tells a story. As Susan Sontag once remarked of Bresson, his form does not merely perfectly express what he wants to say. “It is what he wants to say.”[v]

Schrader’s writing in Transcendental Style about the three forms of alienation in Bresson’s film reads like a template for First Reformed:

  • The priest and his afflcted body: “He feels himself condemned by the weight he must bear, and associates his agony with the sacrificial agony of Christ.”
  • The priest and his parish: “The priest’s agony alienates his community, and it is an agony which he seems unable to control.”
  • The priest and the fallen world: “The priest is unable to cope with the world of sin, either in himself or others. . . He is able to bring peace to others, yet has none himself . . . His holy agony allows him none of the temporal means of release which Church, society, and body provide.”[vi]

But there are also some crucial differences between the two films. The priest’s only diet is bread and wine, identifying the priest’s suffering with the eucharist. The pastor substitutes whiskey for wine, and pours in some Pepto-Bismol to boot, creating a nauseous parody bereft of holy resonance.

The priest is young, innocent and virginal, without a haunting past. The pastor is middle-aged, burned out by an excess of experience, and carrying a burden of grief and loss unknown to the young. Their contrasting faces read like different languages. Claude Laydu, a non-actor whose face suggests an inner life attuned to divine secrets, has the expressive eyes and hieratic features of an icon. When he gazes offscreen, it seems possible he could be glimpsing the hidden God. Hawke’s face is creased, tired, tense and unexpectant; his narrowed eyes give off no light.

Claude Laydu, Diary of a Country Priest (1951)

Ethan Hawke, First Reformed (2018)

Both men identify with the Passion of Christ. Toller’s boss, a megachurch pastor practiced at compromise, tells him, “You’re always in the garden [of Gethsemane]. Jesus wasn’t always in the garden, sweating blood. He was on the mountain, in the marketplace, and the Temple. . . But for you, every hour is the darkest hour.”

In Bresson, the priest writes in his journal, “I am a prisoner of the Holy Agony,” and the film mirrors the Stations of the Cross. But Toller seems unable to turn his personal anguish into gift, while Bresson’s priest, though suffering inwardly and rejected by many, manages to make an immense difference in the lives of some:

Oh miracle –
thus to be able to give
what we ourselves do not possess,
sweet miracle of our empty hands.[vii]

First Reformed also draws key elements from Ingmar Bergman’s Winter Light, described by Robin Wood as a “spiritual documentary” where “alienation from the past, from the traditional beliefs and customs that formed the basis of a way of life” has left church and village stranded “between two worlds, belonging to neither, bewildered and unfulfilled.”[viii] Its Swedish Lutheran parish is as much a relic of a vanished age as Toller’s “souvenir church.”

Bergman’s aging Lutheran pastor, Tomas (the name of Jesus’ doubting disciple), is also in a crisis of faith. He recites the liturgy without conviction, and his pastoral counsel has a patently empty ring. When a parishioner confesses his despair over the prospect of nuclear war (the film was made in 1962), the pastor tells him, “We must trust God.” But then he averts his eyes from the man’s gaze, a “tell” that betrays his own unbelief. After receiving such impotent counsel, the parishioner goes down to the river and shoots himself. Virtually the same incident occurs in First Reformed, but instead of nuclear winter, climate change is the engine of despair. Sickened by statistical forecasts of environmental collapse, a young activist finds no comfort in Toller’s citations from Thomas Merton on facing the abyss with courage. The activist goes out and shoots himself in a snowy wood.

Another element Schrader seems to have borrowed from Winter Light is the character of Karin, the caring woman who wants to mother the troubled pastor. The audience audibly winces when the pastor of First Reformed responds to the woman’s kindness by saying, “I despise you!” But on reflection this seems not just an inability to receive affection, but a way of saying, “This is not that kind of movie. My sickness unto death will not be cured by a romantic cliche.”

In Bergman’s film, Tomas goes even further. In what Wood calls one of the “most painful and ugly . . . in all cinema,” Tomas annihilates Karin’s illusions about their relationship. But strangely, the terrible honesty of this exchange, along with his confession of religious disillusionment in a previous scene, seems to open the possibility for an unexpected grace in which each may discover a kind of salvation in human relationships which an exhausted orthodoxy can no longer provide.

Though Tomas has lost his faith, the film ends with him at the altar, speaking the old words of praise because that’s the only language he possesses for whatever, if anything, is beyond him: “Holy, holy, holy, Lord God of Hosts, heaven and earth are filled with your glory.” The nave is even emptier than the one in First Reformed––only Karin and the sexton. But we see Karin, who is an atheist, listening with the utmost attention. “[T]he irony is very beautiful and touching, the disillusioned priest celebrating Vespers for the confirmed atheist, a sort of inexplicit communion between them.”[ix]

Although neither they, nor Bergman himself, have been able to retain the language or vision of inherited belief, the eyes of faith might still perceive in the ending of Winter Light (its Swedish title is The Communicants) a hint of the communion which God never stops desiring, no matter what the rest of us manage to believe.

As the poet Christian Wiman suggests,

God goes belonging to every riven thing. He’s made
the things that bring him near,
made the mind that makes him go.
A part of what man knows,
apart from what man knows,

God goes belonging to every riven thing he’s made.[x]

Or as Natalie Carnes puts it in her intriguing new book, Image and Presence, the iconoclasm of the cross ensures that the death of old words and images does not mean the death of the Reality behind them. “The cross breaks the brokenness, the violence of idolatry. It breaks brokenness to proclaim the ubiquity of God’s love. It identifies the way God is present in a special way, a riven and riving way, to those suffering divine absence. It courses through the cosmos, which takes its shape, displaying the broken center of all things.”[xi]

The ending for Bresson’s priest, in contrast, remains firmly within the language of Christian orthodoxy. Having passed through his dark night of doubt, and resigning himself to premature death from cancer, he dies in peace. His last words, spoken to comfort a doubting friend, is the best summary I know of the Christian faith:

“What does it matter? All is grace.”

The ending of First Reformed, however, is nothing like the country priest’s trusting departure from this world, nor does it settle for the potential beatitude of purely human relationships suggested by Winter Light. Something extraordinary and redemptive seems to happen in its enigmatic conclusion, but no one can say exactly what. Everybody I know who has watched the film asks the same question: What did you think about that ending?

Its highly charged mix of image, symbol, physicality and feeling resists any closure, and Schrader himself has rightly refused to explain it. Critics have applied words like “epiphany” and “catharsis” to the final scene, but have generally avoided discussing it. This reticence respects the viewer’s right to see for oneself, but it also suggests that none of us are sure what to make of it. I share that sense of indecidability regarding the climax, but can’t help thinking about it.

[SPOILER ALERT: If you haven’t seen the film yet, read no further until you do.]

While most of the film has been inspired by Diary of a Country Priest and Winter Light, the ending shares an affinity with a third film, Bresson’s Pickpocket (1959). For most of that film, the protagonist, Michel, is locked within the prison of his ego, unable to connect with reality beyond the self. Unable to love. In the final scene, he is locked in an actual prison cell. Jeanne, a woman he knows in an unromantic way, comes to visit him. The film has so far given us little reason to think there is, or may be, a deep connection between these two. But in a famous ending that seems sudden, unexpected, and unmotivated, she reaches out to him, and he responds to Love at last. “Oh Jeanne,” he says, “what a strange path I had to take to reach you.”[xii]

The ending of First Reformed, like the ending of Pickpocket, is a powerful image of surprising and unmerited grace. Jean Collet’s reflection on Bresson’s climactic prison scene could describe Schrader’s ending as well: “If this final illumination was caused by some necessity of plot, we would no longer be required to speak of grace. By definition grace is that which is free of any necessity, and hence gratuitous. Isn’t that enough to make the conversion of Michel not appear improbable?”[xiii]

In the course of First Reformed, Toller shifts the focus of his spiritual struggle from his own inwardness to the fate of an earth in dire peril. In a prickly conversation with Edward Balq, the church’s financial patron but also a notorious polluter, he is warned by the conscience-free entrepreneur to keep politics out of church. Clergy should not meddle in public issues. And environmental concerns are too complicated to be subject to moral judgments. But Toller rebukes him with a simple but convicting question:

“Will God forgive us?”

As Toller goes on to ponder the immensity of the stakes, he comes to decide that Balq, as a servant of darkness, must be killed in an act of prophetic terrorism. This horrifying turn of mind threatens to lose the sympathetic viewer. As we watch this decision unfold, we are thinking, “Don’t go there!”

Balq’s arrival at the church’s 250th anniversary celebration provides the perfect opportunity. Vesting for the ceremony in the rectory next door, Toller puts on a suicide vest beneath his black robe as we hear him, in voice over, reciting Ephesians 9:11-12:

Put on the whole armor of God,
so that you may be able to stand against the wiles of the devil.
For our struggle is not against enemies of blood and flesh,
but against the rulers, against the authorities,
against the cosmic powers of this present darkness,
against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places.

In Toller’s troubled mind, the cosmic powers of darkness are sitting in a pew next door. But the viewer is appalled by the pastor’s descent into madness. However evil the acts of men like Balq, equating a suicide vest with the armor of God is abhorrent and wrong.

When Toller learns that Mary, the pregnant widow of the dead activist, is inside the church as well, he abruptly scraps his apocalyptic mission. Her life means more to him than his terrible burden of wrath. And her unborn child, like the child of the Nativity, signifies hope for the human future in a fallen world. To put that at risk would be the greater sin.

But he still feels compelled to make a dramatic self-sacrificial gesture, turning the violence against himself. His vocation is in tatters, he will probably die of cancer, and the end of humanity may be drawing near. He had once warned the activist about the pride of a certitude that surrenders hope in the face of despair. Now he himself has become a prisoner of that fatal arrogance, confusing his own suffering with Christ’s. He prepares to make his own body a signifier of planetary suicide.

He replaces the suicide vest with a coil of barbed wire, wrapping it painfully around his torso in parodic imitation of the crown of thorns. Then he covers his bleeding body with a Christ-like white robe––a vivid image of the paradoxical tension between the Christ of glory and the broken and desolate Christ on the edge of oblivion. But just before Toller can take his own life with a toxic glass of drain cleaner (a grotesque symbol of baptismal cleansing?), he looks up to see Mary, standing quietly on the other side of the unfurnished empty space of his living room. When did she enter? Why has she come?

“Ernst,” she says. It is the first time we have heard anyone speak his baptismal name. He’s always been addressed as “Reverend Toller.” But now, like Magdalene weeping at the tomb, he hears his name called by the tender voice of his “savior,” summoning him back from the dead. Without any hesitation, he sweeps across the room into her arms. As they embrace and kiss with unrestrained intensity, the camera, so still and quiet throughout most of the film, suddenly comes to life, circling round and round this miracle of redemptive love, like angelic praises whirling around the throne of God.

This breathtaking perichoresis [xiv] continues without ceasing for a full minute, until it abruptly vanishes in a startling cut to darkness and silence. No lingering fadeout, just this sudden absence. Over the next bewildering 8 seconds, the viewer wonders whether the projector has broken. But then, the credits begin to scroll across the blackness, accompanied by the same low-pitched waves of mournful sound heard in the film’s bleak passages of environmental dread, as if to resist any presumptions of “happily ever after.” We may have glimpsed for a moment the miracle of saving love at the heart of the universe, but our fallen world still yearns in the dark.

To me the last scene felt like something more than the natural outcome of the affinity we saw building between Ernst and Mary after her husband’s death. Reducing their union to a formula of movie romance would fail to perform the revelatory transit from the visible to the invisible. Schrader wants to give us more than a warm, familiar feeling. He wants to deliver the Wholly Other, who will not be contained by language or understanding.

So Mary, pregnant with future, provides a surplus of meanings as she offers Ernst––and the receptive viewer––the divine embrace in all its forms: grace, mercy, forgiveness, peace, healing, hope, joy and the mystery of self-diffusive love. Its very unexpectedness is a sign of its sacred character. It is not something of our own making. It is pure gift.

The essential function of spiritual cinema is not to structure a plausible narrative confined to the world we know, but to use the means of its form to create an experience of the life-giving sacred in the viewer’s inmost self. So whether Mary is the divine feminine, Dante’s Beatrice, an angel, a dream, Toller’s long-lost soul, or simply another one of God’s human children trying to connect, what does it matter?

All is grace.

 

 

 

Related postThe Ten Best Religious Films

 

[i] From “Brownsville Girl,” a song by Bob Dylan and Sam Shepard on Bob Dylan: Knocked Out Loaded (1986). “How far are y’all going?” Ruby asked us with a sigh / “We’re going all the way, till the wheels fall off and burn / Till the sun peels the paint and the seat covers fade and the water moccasin dies” / Ruby just smiled and said, “Ah, you know some babies never learn.”

[ii] Devotions lxxxvii 17, q. in Helen Wilcox, ed., The English Poems of George Herbert (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007), 164.

[iii] Paul Schrader, Transcendental Style in Film: Ozu, Bresson, Dreyer (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1972), 169.

[iv] Robert Bresson, Notes on Cinematography, trans. Jonathan Griffin (New York: Urizen Books, 1977), 5.

[v] Susan Sontag, “The Spiritual Style of Robert Bresson,” in Against Interpretation (New York: Dell Publishing Company, 1966), 180.

[vi] Transcendental Style, 73, 75.

[vii] In the film, the priest speaks these words in voice over as we see him kneel by the deathbed of a woman for whom he had been a vehicle of miraculous grace.

[viii] Robin Wood, Ingmar Bergman (New York: Praeger, 1970), 111.

[ix] Ibid., 122-23.

[x] Christian Wiman, “Every Riven Thing,” in his collection of the same name (New York: Farrar, Strauss and Giroux, 2010), 24.

[xi] Natalie Carnes, Image and Presence: A Christological Reflection on Iconoclasm and Iconophilia (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2018), 113.

[xii] Schrader uses this line verbatim, and recreates the essence of Bresson’s scene, in his own film, American Gigolo (1980).

[xiii] Jean Collet, q. in Joseph Cunneen, Robert Bresson: A Spiritual Style in Film (New York: Continuum, 2003), 82.

[xiv] This Greek word for “dancing in a circular pattern” has long been used to describe the ceaseless movement of interpenetrating, self-diffusive love which is the Holy Trinity. Schrader’s image may be more carnal than most theology is used to, but that’s the price of the Incarnation!

When Love is the Way

Magnus Zeller, The Orator, Germany c. 1920 (Los Angeles County Museum of Art)

The Episcopal “Daily Office” provides prayers and Scripture for various times of day. Derived from medieval monastic liturgies, the practice of hallowing the beginning, middle and end of our days with both corporate and private prayer can offer refuge and refreshment, lifting us out of the relentless rush of time to remember what it’s all about and deepen our connection with the holy One, who is our Source, our Companion, and our End.

This venerable prayer practice is not an escape from the world, but a way of attending to it with clearer vision. Thus the Daily Office offers challenge as well as comfort. The God of history will not let us ingore the calamity and suffering wrought by what the original Book of Common Prayer called “the devices and desires of our own hearts.”

Sometimes the biblical readings seem ripped from the headlines, like this week’s Wednesday reading from Proverbs:

There are six things that the Lord hates,
seven that are an abomination to him:
haughty eyes,
a lying tongue,
and hands that shed innocent blood,
a heart that devises wicked plans,
feet that hurry to run to evil,
a lying witness who testifies falsely,
and one who sows discord in a family.[i]

I have to confess that in the midst of my prayer time I succumbed to uncharitable amusement when I read these words. They describe the American president––and his corrupt and cruel minions––so perfectly! But neither righteous outrage nor satirical jesting––and certainly not any presumption of our own goodness––will deliver us from the menace of these times.

Of course we must take sides against the malicious designs of evil tyrants in order to defend the vulnerable and preserve the common good. As Reinhold Niebuhr reminded my generation of theology students, trying to keep one’s own hands clean in a dirty conflict can be a form of capitulation. Sometimes our innocence must be sacrificed in the historical struggle for a better world. Dietrich Bonhoeffer knew this when he joined the plot against Hitler.

But engaging the powers of darkness solely on their own terms is toxic, perhaps fatal, in the long run. If our goal is community and communion, we cannot make division and opposition our primary weapons. On the day following the assassination of Martin Luther King (and two months before his own violent end), Bobby Kennedy made this point boldly to an audience afflicted by passions of grief, fear and rage.

“We must recognize that this short life can neither be ennobled or enriched by hatred or revenge. . . . violence breeds violence, repression brings retaliation, and only a cleansing of our whole society can remove this sickness from our soul.”[ii]

The United States has weathered dark and dangerous times before. But with the exception of the Civil War, has there been another time when our nation’s very survival has been in such doubt? Institutional and legal norms are under daily assault by the White House and Congress; Republicans turn a blind eye to corruption and the clear threat to democracy; racism, hatred and fear are fostered and encouraged by “the most powerful man on earth,” and a third of this country lives in a fact-free bubble, impervious to reason and morality. A recent headline called us “The Banana States of America.”[iii]

Bells of warning should ring out Danger! in every city and town. Prophets should shout The end is near! on every street. Pundits may worry, dissenters object, and activists resist, but where is the widespread public cry of peril and alarm? Imagine such passivity after Pearl Harbor or 9/11. Are most of us still taking for granted our national stability? Do we simply assume everything will return to normal after the next two elections?

In a recent Washington Post column, “Watch What Happens in Rome,” Anne Applebaum examines current Italian politics as a disturbing cautionary tale for the United States. After finally ousting a corrupt authoritarian leader, Italy failed to revert to a more benign and centrist public order.

“Reeling from the flood of broken promises, electorates did not turn back to honest realists who told them hard truths or laid out the hard choices. On the contrary: In Italy, as in so many Latin American countries in the past, the failure of populism has led to greater dislike of “elites,” both real and imaginary; a greater demand for radical and impossible change; and a greater sense of alienation from politics and politicians than ever before.”

Applebaum then wonders what we all should be wondering:

“In President Trump’s wake, we too are not necessarily going to return to the status quo ante, to a tame trade-off between centrist conservatives and centrist liberals, all of whom respect the Constitution, believe in the old definitions of patriotism and get elected based on their experience and political views. It is just as likely that national politics becomes a patchwork of competing, incompatible single-issue groups and causes; that otherwise disparate groups meet one another online and form temporary alliances. It is just as likely that irresponsibility and irrationality become something that people vote for, not something that they reject. Watch what happens in Rome, because it could be America’s future.”[iv]

Whether this or some other equally destabilizing scenario should come to pass, what are the friends of God called to do? Sadly, many of my Christian brothers and sisters are only making things worse. As another columnist, Leonard Pitts, lamented last week:

“Having seen putative Christians excuse the liar, rationalize the alleged pedophile, justify the sexual assaulter and cheer as walls are raised against the most vulnerable, it’s obvious that many of those who claim that name embody a niggardly, cowardly, selfish and situational “faith” that has little to do with Jesus.”[v]

In encouraging contrast to such shameless apostasy, an ecumenical group of Christian leaders has issued a timely manifesto, “Reclaiming Jesus: A Confession of Faith in a Time of Crisis.” Click the link to read the whole text, and share widely. It’s a good theoretical foundation for a gospel-based resistance.

The Confession is structured in six sections, pairing what we believe as disciples of Jesus and what we reject. Yes to imago Dei, no to racism; yes to compassion and kindness, no to neglect or abuse of the vulnerable; yes to servanthood, no to domination; yes to communion, no to division and oppression; yes to truth, no to lies; yes to global community, no to “America first.”

The last of these may be the most challenging for those who subscribe to the great American heresy of exalting nation over God. As Clarence Jordan observed many years ago, the biggest lie told in America is, “Jesus is Lord.” But “Reclaiming Jesus” aims higher: “Our churches and our nations are part of an international community whose interests always surpass national boundaries. We in turn should love and serve the world and all its inhabitants rather than to seek first narrow nationalistic purposes.”

Tonight the framers of this Confession are processing to the White House gates for a candlelight vigil. As they have written,

“We are living through perilous and polarizing times as a nation, with a dangerous crisis of moral and political leadership at the highest levels of our government and in our churches. We believe the soul of the nation and the integrity of faith are now at stake.”[vi]

Among the many church leaders marching in that procession will be the Most Rev. Michael Curry, the Episcopal Presiding Bishop whose sermon on love’s redemptive power, at last week’s royal wedding, invited a global audience to imagine the world as God made it to be:

Imagine our homes and families when love is the way.
Imagine neighborhoods and communities when love is the way.
Imagine our governments and nations when love is the way.
Imagine business and commerce when love is the way.
Imagine this tired old world when love is the way.[vii]

Let all the people say: Amen!

 

 Related posts

7 Spiritual Practices: A To-do List for the Time of Trial

Dante and Lewis Carroll Walk into a Dark Wood

 

[i] Proverbs 6:16-19.

[ii] Remarks to the Cleveland City Club, April 5, 1968: https://www.jfklibrary.org/Research/Research-Aids/Ready-Reference/RFK-Speeches/Remarks-of-Senator-Robert-F-Kennedy-to-the-Cleveland-City-Club-Cleveland-Ohio-April-5-1968.aspx

[iii] Patrick T. Fallon, “The Banana States of America,” Washington Post, May 22, 2018.

[iv] Anne Applebaum, “Watch what happens in Rome. It could be our post-Trump future,” Washington Post, May 18, 2018.

[v] Leonard Pitts, “Oregon school district forced LGBTQ students to read the Bible––how Christian,” Miami Herald, May 17, 2018 (http://www.miamiherald.com/opinion/opn-columns-blogs/leonard-pitts-jr/article211384374.html).

[vi] “Reclaiming Jesus: A Confession of Faith in a Time of Crisis” (http://www.reclaimingjesus.org)

[vii] https://www.episcopalchurch.org/posts/publicaffairs/presiding-bishop-currys-sermon-royal-wedding

Ascension Day: Parting is Such Sweet Sorrow

Giotto, The Ascension (c. 1305, Scrovegni Chapel, Padua)

Hail the day that sees him rise,
glorious to his native skies;
Christ, awhile to mortals giv’n,
enters now the highest heaven.

–– Charles Wesley (18th century)

At once the disciples wept and, groaning deeply,
said to the teacher,
“Are you leaving us, O Compassionate?
Parting from those who love you?”

–– Romanos, Kontakion for the Ascension (6th century)

O envious cloud,
do you grudge even our brief delight?
Where do you fly in such haste?
Your departure, so splendid and bright!
But how poor and blind you leave us!

–– Fray Luis de Leon ((16th century)

 

This is the fortieth day of Easter, Ascension Thursday, commemorating the cessation of resurrection appearances and the exaltation of Christ into a state of divine glory and universal presence. The liturgical texts and hymns are festive and celebratory: the divine fullness, hidden and humbled in the life of a first-century mortal, is lifted high once again, but without discarding the humanity assumed and hallowed in the Incarnation. By ascending, Christ does not abandon us to “earth’s broken Eden,”[i] but rather makes the way for us to follow, deeper and deeper into God. Our humanity, made glorious in Christ, is joined to divinity forever.

O strong Ramme, which hast batter’d heaven for mee,
Mild lambe, which with thy blood, hast mark’d the path;
Bright torch, which shin’st, that I the way may see . . . [ii]

Still, the day has always felt bittersweet to me. Amid all the festive imagery of a glorified Christ taking up his rightful crown as “cherubic legions shout him welcome to the skies,”[iii] and despite the promise that we now have a Mediator who, as one dear priest put it to me long ago, “whispers our prayers into the ear of the Father for all eternity,” a sense of ending and departure is there as well. The companion who once graced his disciples with the intimacy of daily presence, even after his death––where is he now?

Those once blessed,
now sad, afflicted,
those nourished at your breast
and now by you dispossessed,
where will they turn their faces? [iv]

Divine absence is a common theme in our time. In the secular imaginary, where heaven is but empty space, the Ascension is a flight to nowhere. It’s not just a matter of declining interest in the labor of belief as other matters compete for our attention. For many, “God” is simply no longer even thinkable. Divinity seems a term referring to nothing in contemporary experience. The vocabulary and grammar necessary to speak God into being have become, for many, a dead language.

Climbing high into the mountains fifty years ago, on the lookout for divine presence, Czeslaw Milosz saw only absence––“the mighty power of counter-fulfillment; the penalty of a promise lost forever.”

No eagle-creator circled in the air from which the thunderbolt of its glory had been cast out.

Protective spirits hid themselves in subterranean beds of bubbling ore . . .

God the Father didn’t walk about any longer tending the new shoots of a cedar, no longer did man hear his rushing spirit.

His son did not know his sonship and turned his eyes away when passing by a neon cross flat as a movie screen showing a striptease. . .

And those who longed for the Kingdom took refuge like me in the mountains to become the last heirs of a dishonored myth. [v]

The Ascension does not only signify absence, however. It also promises a new form of presence, which I have written about in “Ascension Day ‘Charade’: The Puzzling Exit of Jesus.” But absence is as fundamental to faith as presence, and deserves to be treated by Christian communities with equal respect and attention.

Since most churches, unable to get good attendance at weekday liturgies, now celebrate the joyful glories of the Ascension on the Seventh Sunday of Easter, perhaps we should consider devoting Ascension Thursday to the honest contemplation of its shadow side. What if God’s friends were to gather annually in an “upper room” for an Ascension potluck or pub night to share their stories and their wonderings about the experience and meaning of divine absence?

Might we then, like those first disciples left behind on the Mount of Olives, find the sincerity of our questions and the depth of our longing answered by the winds of heaven and the fire of unquenchable Love?

So now, be joyful and radiant,
be glad, and sing a new song.
For everything that may happen, happens for your sake.
It was for you I came down and went through all . . .
It is for you again that I ascend into heaven,
to prepare the place
where I must be with you. [vi]

 

 

 

 

[i] Denise Levertov, “Ascension,” in Divine Inspiration: The Life of Jesus in World Poetry, eds. Robert Atwan, George Dardess, Peggy Rosenthal (New York: Oxford University Press, 1998), 567.

[ii] John Donne, “Ascension,” in John Donne: The Complete English Poems (London: Everyman’s Library, 1985), 433-34.

[iii] Isaac Watts, “Morning,” in The Sacred Harp (Bremen, GA: The Sacred Harp Publishing Company, 1991), #163t.

[iv] Fray Luis de Leon, “The Ascension,” in Divine Inspiration, 566.

[v] Czeslaw Milosz, “How It Was,” in Czeslaw Milosz: New and Collected Poems, 1931-2001 (New York: Ecco, 2003), 232-33.

[vi] Romanos, “Kontakion on the Ascension,” in On the Life of Christ: Kontakia, trans. Archimandrite Ephrem Lash (New York: Harper Collins, 1995).

Dante and Lewis Carroll Walk Into a Dark Wood

Dante goes astray in a dark wood (Gustave Dore, 1870)

When I used to read fairy tales, I fancied that kind of thing never happened,
and now here I am in the middle of one!

–– Lewis Carroll, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland

The economy of nightmare demands waking.

–– Gillian Beer, Alice in Space

 

We’re trapped in a nightmare and we can’t wake up. America’s ruling faction, supported by 75% of white evangelicals and 40% of American voters, seems pretty much OK with planetary suicide, racism, misogyny, militarism, authoritarianism, plutocracy, kleptocracy, blatant corruption, sexual assault and possibly even treason. The norms of democracy, truth and decency remain under sustained assault by the Trump crime family. Cruelty and violence against the “other” are on the rise, inflamed by the preachers of hate. As W. H. Auden wrote in another dark time (1941-42):

The evil and armed draw near;
The weather smells of their hate
And the houses smell of our fear.[i]

We organize, march, resist. We yearn for Mueller’s evidence and November’s Armageddon (though anxiously mindful of voter suppression, racial gerrymandering, Russian hacking and White House lawlessness). But even if we manage to throw the current rascals out, over a third of America will still be in love with disturbing ideas and ruinous behaviors. Malevolent lunacy is no longer confined to the fringes of American society. It has been openly embraced, endorsed, nurtured and exploited by the leaders and voices of the right, and it will not return to the shadows willingly––or, I fear, very soon.

The actions of the ruling powers now appear utterly contrary to normative assumptions about ethics, rationality and common decency. How can they be saying such horrid and crazy things? How can they be doing such horrid and crazy things? The United States has become a land of crippling nonsense.

Many of us feel as bewildered and indignant as Alice lost in Wonderland, where rules of logic and truth no longer apply. Her frustrated complaint about the chaotic croquet game could be a current op-ed column from the Washington Post: “I don’t think they play at all fairly . . . and they don’t seem to have any rules in particular: at least, if there are, nobody attends to them.”[ii]

Wonderland’s fascistic Queen is possessed by what Lewis Carroll described as “ungovernable passion––a blind and aimless Fury.”[iii] Sound familiar? As critic Gilian Beer describes Carroll’s dystopian fantasy, in the violent atmosphere of the tyrant’s court “there are rules but no order, voices but no listening, and assertions but no evidence.” The Queen of Hearts––long before Twitter––shouts “her mantra of ‘Off with their heads’ at the slightest show of resistance or misunderstanding.”[iv] In such a world, reasoned discourse is fruitless, and all our certainties come into question.

In Wonderland’s sequel, Through the Looking Glass, young Alice does her best to establish a sense of firm reality within the unstable flux of Lewis Carroll’s narrative world. But Tweedledee infects her with radical doubt, telling her she’s only a figment of the Red King’s dream.

“I am real!” said Alice and began to cry.

“You won’t make yourself a bit realer by crying,” Tweedledee remarked: “There’s nothing to cry about.”

“If I wasn’t real,” Alice said––half-laughing through her tears, it all seemed so ridiculous––“I shouldn’t be able to cry.”

“I hope you don’t suppose those are real tears!” Tweedledum interrupted in a tone of great contempt.[v]

Of course, Alice herself has been dreaming, and when she wakes up she sensibly declares: “I don’t like belonging to another person’s dream.” And with that her story ends, at which point the reader awakens as well, suddenly restored to the more stable “reality” of his or her familiar environment. But is that environment, the world in which we habitually live and move and have our being, just another dream as well? Can we rely on it? Can we trust it? Or must we wander forever in a hall of distorting mirrors, an endless maze of competing fictions and conflicting interpretations?

Several centuries of epistemological doubt have severed the connection between words and things. Language and narrative are reduced to a play of arbitrary signs which say and mean whatever we want, with no necessary connection to real things or proven facts. In the objectless virtuality of the Internet Age, the world is not directly encountered, but only imagined. “Reality” becomes a construction produced by the subculture of our choice––or the choice of those who manipulate our thinking.

Reality in such a circumstance is no longer a communicable experience which can be shared between opposing world-views. I, for example, am unable to comprehend the cruelty of the immigration storm troopers, the poisonous malice of the EPA administrator, or the murderous greed of the gun lobby. But in the world imagined by such people, it all makes perfect sense. As far as I know they all sleep with untroubled consciences. That’s why shame has proven such a feeble weapon of resistance. The liars, the haters and the destroyers take pleasure in what they do.

I suppose we can find some small hope in conservatives’ visceral reaction to Michelle Wolf’s monologue at the White House correspondents’ dinner last week. When the comedian held up a mirror to Trumpian vulgarity, skewered the hypocrisy and heartlessness of the ruling powers, and named liars for what they are, the tuxedoed elite showed at least a vestigial capacity to be ashamed, resulting in a lot of misdirected anger but alas no repentance.

Michael Certeau, a French Jesuit thinker (d. 1986), said we have become a “recited society,” where “people believe what they see and what they see is produced for them.”[vi] Like Alice, a society of spectators belongs to dreams manufactured by others. But unlike Alice, many of us are finding it difficult to wake up. Or as Graham Ward summarizes Certeau’s diagnosis of our preference for representations of reality over reality itself (the “object”):

“We defer the truth about the object to other experts, whom we have never seen nor can substantiate. These hidden experts in whom we put our trust enable us to accept as credible that which we are told is true. The space we as believers inhabit then is a space of ‘consumable fictions.’”[vii]

Who will rescue us from this body of death?[viii] Is there no exit from the infinite maze of fatal illusions? Can we glimpse any possible truth beyond the self-referential confines of human imagination?

In his sublime Commedia, Dante trod the perilous pilgrimage from illusion toward ultimate reality. By narrating his journey from the selva oscura (”dark wood”) of human ignorance, folly and sin into the radiant smile of divine Love, he made his supreme fiction a vehicle for transcending every fiction, including his own.

O you who have sound intellects,
consider the teaching which hides itself
behind the veil of these strange verses. (Inferno ix.61-63)

Let me suggest a few insights from the Inferno to provide perspective on our own predicament. First of all, the very structure of Hell clarifies the taxonomy of sin. The lower you go, the worse the offense. The upper level contains the “incontinent,” those whose will to resist evil and do good was weak or distorted. The next level down contains the violent, those who could not control the raging beast within them.

But the lowest level (occupying fully half of the Inferno’s text!) is reserved for the fraudulent and the treacherous, who didn’t just make bad choices or surrender to impulse. These are they who deliberately undermined the foundations of human community, which needs mutual good faith and trustworthy behavior to function in a healthy way. When lies become the common speech and there is no reliable shared reality, we are all in the deepest pit of hell.

The Inferno also raises questions of salvation and forgiveness. If we recoil at the apparent theology of eternal punishment so vividly described by the poet, we must remind ourselves that the Commedia is a fiction, using unreal means to convey real truth. As St. Augustine warned biblical literalists, “Whatever appears in the divine Word that can be referred to neither virtuous conduct nor to the truth of faith must be taken to be figurative.”[ix] Or as Dante scholar William Franke puts it, “the fantastic story exists for the sake of something that is supposed to be learned from it.”[x] In other words, the Inferno is about something other than the anger of a merciless god.

So what are we to learn from the troubling images of infernal suffering? Franke observes that “the inhabitants of Dante’s Inferno are consistently shown to be damned by their own self-interpretation, their eternally stubborn resistance in refusing to understand themselves as God sees them.”[xi] At best, they continue to romanticize their illusions and idealize their failings. At worst, they cling to their bitterness and rage. Either way, says the poem, if you have no desire to be transformed, go to hell.

But Dante’s poem is comedy, not tragedy, and the stasis of sin is not our fate. We are, in fits and starts, on the move toward bliss––but by no power of our own. Throughout this life and beyond, we are ultimately drawn and driven by Love divine.

The way may be rough and steep, and Dante the pilgrim suffers the trials of every pellegrino. He grows weary, succumbs to fear, wants to turn back, encounters insurmountable obstacles. And yet, by the grace of God, he finds his way, even when there is no way.

As for Dante the poet, neither the insufficiencies of language or of human intellect can prevent the poet––or the reader––from the prize of beatific vision. But it is hard to accept our limited capacities. From the depths of hell, Dante laments the impossibilities of his journalistic task:

Surely every tongue would fail,
for neither thought nor speech
has the capacity to hold so much.  (Inferno xxviii.4-6).

Even in the final canto of Paradiso, Dante is still confessing––repeatedly––how little justice his words can do to grasp and convey divine experience. But in the Commedia’s final lines, he lets go of language at last and simply abandons himself to “the Love that moves the sun and all the other stars.”

And to all who still languish in Alice’s nightmare, Dante’s Inferno, Trump’s America, or the particular thickets of our own dark wood, the Spirit and the bride say,

Come!

 

 

 

 

 

[i] W.H. Auden, For the Time Being: A Christmas Oratorio, in Collected Poems, ed. Edward Mendelson (New York: Random House, 1976), 272.

[ii] Lewis Carroll, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, q. in Gillian Beer, Alice in Space: The Sideways Victorian World of Lewis Carroll (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2016), 192-3.

[iii] Lewis Carroll, q. in Beer, 208.

[iv] Beer, 204.

[v] Lewis Carroll, Through the Looking Glass, q. in Beer, 161.

[vi] Graham Ward on Certeau’s The Practice of Everyday Life (1984), in Cities of God (London & New York: Routledge, 2000), 73.

[vii] Ward, Cities of God. The quoted phrase is from Michael Certeau, Culture in the Plural (1997), q. in Graham, 74.

[viii] Romans 7:24.

[ix] St. Augustine, in William Franke, Dante’s Interpretive Journey (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1996), 86.

[x] Franke, 86.

[xi] Ibid., 106.

 

Citations from Dante’s Commedia are from Robert and Jean Hollander’s marvelous translations (New York: Doubleday: Inferno 2000, Paradiso 2007).

Wars and Rumors of Wars

Antiwar poster, World War I

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

 

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

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

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

Magdalene: The Poetic Gospel of Marie Howe

Donatello, Mary Magdalene (late 1430s)

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

 –– A. J. Langguth, Jesus Christs

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

–– Marie Howe, “The Teacher”

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

 

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

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

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

[iv] “Adaptation,” in Howe, 79-80.

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

[vi] “The Teacher,” in Howe, 69.

[vii] “The Teacher,” in Howe, 42-43.

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