Aloha! I’m taking a break in Hawaii at the moment, but will be back with a new post next week. Meanwhile, here are a couple of posts from February 2015 about a rather more serious – and more rigorous- getaway from civilization.
Still, if it is a dream, let us indulge it a moment longer. Let us believe that some things last,
and some places and some people are not touched by change.
– Virginia Woolf[i]
When anyone spends nearly a hundred years on this earth, their departure hardly feels untimely. But it leaves a hole which is hard to get used to. They were always there––and now they’re not. When my mentor and fatherly friend Joe Golowka died in his sleep around dawn yesterday, a month before his ninety-ninth birthday, I knew it was coming. But I still felt the shock of sudden absence.
I first met Joe six years after losing my father. Heart attack, 62 years old. Fatherless in my twenties, I needed considerably more mentoring, and Joe supplied it with gentleness and warmth. His family welcomed me as one of their own, and I cherish many happy memories of hanging out at their house for barbecues, swimming and cheering on the Dodgers and Lakers. I had a priestly role in two family baptisms and a wedding, and the whole clan drove a thousand miles to celebrate my own marriage. Whenever I visit them, I don’t need to knock before entering.
Joe enjoyed many things, but his love for the California mountains was our closest bond. He started teenage backpacking adventures in the Sierra for the Episcopal dioceses of Los Angeles and San Diego, and we first met in 1972 when he recruited me to be chaplain for his annual excursions. I possessed a little backpacking experience at the time, and had been training my eyes and heart for nature by reading Thoreau and John Muir. But Joe soon became my best teacher in the physical and spiritual dimensions of wilderness walking.
He gave a master class in the art of paying attention. Don’t race down the trail. Take your time. Stop and look. Wait patiently for nature to show itself. Get down on the ground, climb a tree, try a different angle. From the tiniest orchid to the grandest sunset, he wouldn’t let you miss anything of what John Muir called “these vast, calm, measureless mountain days … opening a thousand windows to show us God.”[ii] Joe’s voice––Don’t forget to look!––still keeps me company when I hike alone. And hundreds of his other trail companions would tell you the same.
There is a Zen story about a monk who was meditating by the window of his mountain cabin when a thief broke in. The monk did not react, but just kept on meditating. His eyes were not on the thief, but on the full moon passing between the pines. The thief took what little there was, then slipped back into the night. “Poor fellow,” said the monk. “I wish I could have given him this beautiful moon.” Joe was like that monk. He gave us the moon, and so much more.
In 2003, I planned an eight-day solo hike in the eastern Sierra. Since I would finish many miles south of my starting point, I needed to leave my car at the hike’s terminus (the bottom of a 9-mile, 6000’ descent to high desert from 12,000’ Taboose Pass), and then get myself 17 miles up the highway to the trailhead at Big Pine Creek. As it happened, Joe was on a fishing trip in the area, and he offered to provide my shuttle ride.
In his mid-eighties at the time, Joe had reluctantly given up mountain hiking a few years before. But during his fishing trips in the Owens Valley east of the Sierra, he would sometimes visit his favorite trails, walking a short stretch to bid them farewell. So when I began my walk, Joe kept me company for the first mile, until we reached a bridge below a grand cascade. We stood on the bridge for a while, leaning on the railing in wordless contemplation of the roaring falls. Then we crossed to the other side, where the trail began a steep ascent into a forest of incense cedar and Jeffrey pine. Joe had gone as far as he could. He looked down at the trail for a moment, and offered his regrets. “I wish I could come with you”, he said. It wasn’t just me he was addressing, but the trail itself. How hard to surrender something you love so much.
To live in this world you must be able to do three things, says Mary Oliver.
to love what is mortal;
to hold it against your bones knowing
your own life depends on it;
and when the time comes to let it go,
to let it go.[iii]
Nine days ago, my wife’s father, Art, died peacefully in hospice at his home, surrounded by his children and grandchildren. When his body began to give out last fall, he did not talk much about what lay ahead, but once his last days arrived, he seemed to know exactly what to do. His attention began to shift from this world to the next as he went inward, responding less and less to the empirical world in which he had lived and moved for 87 years. He was letting go. Going home.
I’ve almost gained my heavenly home,
My spirit loudly sings.
Behold, they come, the holy ones,
I hear the sound of wings.[iv]
In Art’s last hours, his family laid hands on him as I said the Last Rites: Depart, O Christian soul, out of this world . . . Then my wife Karen, wearing a stole she had just brought back from a Holy Land pilgrimage, anointed her father with oil. As evening fell he breathed his last, and departed in peace.
It is no denial of grief to mark the holiness of such a dying. Absent the tragedy of an untimely death, or the anguish of a painful one, we may glimpse even through our tears what a solemn and beautiful mystery it is to pass from the temporal to the eternal.
Jerusalem, my happy home,
When shall I come to thee?
When shall my sorrows have an end,
Thy joys when shall I see?[v]
When Joe and I parted at that Big Pine Creek trailhead, he blessed me with an affectionate hug, and I began my long climb. As I trudged upward, he called out after me, giving the same admonition I’d first heard in his gruff voice thirty years earlier: “Don’t stare at the trail! Your feet can see the trail just fine. Look around, see everything, enjoy everything.” Then he turned and started back toward the trailhead. I stopped to watch until he disappeared into the trees.
In the space of eight winter days, I have lost two fathers. Joe’s departure was like Art’s––peaceful, in his own bed, surrounded by family. When I got the news by phone, it was snowing outside. Suddenly the power went off and the call dropped. It felt like Joe’s final message to me: Hey Jim, get off the phone and go outside. This snowfall is too beautiful to miss!
[i] Virginia Woolf, The Second Common Reader (New York: Harcourt, Brace & World, Inc., 1960)
[ii] John Muir, My First Summer in the Sierra (San Francisco: Sierra Club Books, 1988), Chapter 2, June 23, 1869, p. 35
[iii] “In Blackwater Woods,” Mary Oliver: New and Selected Poems (Boston: Beacon Press, 1992), 178
[iv] “Angel Band,” text by Jefferson Hascall (1860), tune by William Batchelder Bradbury (1862). This is one of the songs we sang at Art’s bedside.
[v] c. 16th century, The Episcopal Hymnal 1982 (New York: Church Hymnal Corporation, 1982), #620
If I had to formulate the message of my Decalogue, I’d say,
‘Live carefully, with your eyes open, and try not to cause pain.’
– Krzysztof Kieslowski[i]
The late Krzysztof Kieslowski’s Decalogue (1988), one of cinema’s great religious masterpieces, had its origins in the depressing bleakness of Polish life in the mid-1980s. “Chaos and disorder ruled . . . everywhere, everything, practically everybody’s life,” wrote the filmmaker. “Tension, a feeling of hopelessness, and a fear of yet worse to come were obvious. I sensed mutual indifference behind polite smiles and had the overwhelming impression that, more and more frequently, I was watching people who didn’t really know why they were living.”[ii]
Driven to explore the questions of why we suffer and how we live, Kieslowski collaborated with Krzysztof Piesiewicz (not a writer but a great talker) to develop a series of scripts based on the Ten Commandments, which he then directed as ten one-hour episodes for Polish television. Subsequent theatrical screenings of the 584-minute series brought him instant international acclaim. A beautiful new restoration is now available on Blu-ray, but if you ever get a chance to see it on the big screen, don’t miss it. I’ve done the full immersion twice––in the nineties, and two months ago––and each time I exited the theater deeply affected, as though emerging from an all-night liturgy.
To call this work “religious” may seem a misnomer to those who think religious art requires explicit messaging, dogmatic certainty or a happy resolution of narratives. Decalogue offers neither clear answers nor divine fixes. Instead, it combs the landscape of doubt and anguish for the elusive traces of a power or presence which we might call grace, or even “God.”
Kieslowski’s given name, Krzysztof, means “Christ,” but he staunchly resisted religious labels and institutions. He was, he said, an “agnostic mystic,” a searcher attuned to something beyond the immanent and empirical. In exploring the idea of the Commandments as transcendent guides for living, he argued that “an absolute point of reference does exist … it’s something which is lasting, absolute, evident and is not relative… especially for people like me, who are weak, who are looking for something, who don’t know.”[iii]
The Commandments are not so much about the dictates and prohibitions in themselves as they are about relationships. In setting limits on human failings––violence, acquisitiveness, exploitation, idolatry, etc.––they create a safe space to flourish in just relation with one another, while at the same time binding human community in a covenantal relationship with a transcendent “point of reference.” As they prod us toward love of God and neighbor, the Commandments foster the deep interconnectedness which theologians call the image and way of divinity.
Decalogue’s characters are no saints. They are as weak, muddled and lost as the rest of us. The ten films don’t show us how to keep the Commandments; they show us what happens when we break them––damage and suffering, yes, but possibilities of grace as well.
All the stories involve the residents of a single apartment building, an oppressive concrete high-rise where joy is a rare commodity. Many of its occupants are lonely, broken or suffering. No one smiles much. Since we see little interaction of its inhabitants with a wider socioeconomic environment, it feels like a closed world, a laboratory for experiments in human nature, with God and the film viewer as the only outside observers. The actors themselves were not always sure which commandment applied to their story, since correlations between story and commandment were not always clear in the scripts. And a single story might actually involve multiple commandments.
But even if what to do or how to live may not seem clear to either the characters or the viewers who watch their stories, Decalogue gives us people for whom choices clearly matter. As Kieslowski put it, they “live carefully.” Even when they make a bad choice, it is the product of thought, not just careless impulse. And they convey the sense that even in seemingly small decisions, souls may be won or lost.
The stories are varied and often unexpected in their narrative twists and turns. Every situation centers on family issues: parenting, childhood, conflict, rivalry, infidelity, reconcilation and loss. I won’t spoil the pleasure of anyone’s first viewing by describing the plots, but subjects range from Christmas, ice skating, and stamp collecting to voyeurism, incest, kidnapping, suicide, murder and the holocaust. The totality is less grim than it sounds––humor, kindness and even redemption play a part––although Decalogue 1 will break your heart (even as it reveals divine compassion in an unforgettable image), and the murder in Decalogue 5 is almost unwatchable (as is the capital punishment which mirrors the original crime). Kieslowski sought God even in the abysses of human experience. His films are like the homeless drunk in Decalogue 3, dragging a scrawny tree through the streets on Christmas Eve, caroling in a slurred voice, “God is being born.”
If God is really being born, where is the birthplace? How on earth do we find it? German theologian Eberhard Jüngel says that the primary God question for modernity is not “whether God is” or “what God is,” but “where God is.” Before we argue existence or essence, we need to locate divine presence in the stories and places we ourselves inhabit.
Kieslowski looked for it through cinema. His faithful doubt gives Decalogue an honest authenticity. What he finds is not overdetermined by prior theological conviction. As critic Joseph G. Kickasola writes, “There is no evidence that Kieslowski ever felt that he concretely found that Transcendent hope, but his films stand as a testament to the integrity of his search and his longing.”[iv]
How do you show the Divine on film? God’s immanent manifestations may certainly be glimpsed in moments of human forgiveness, reconciliation, healing and liberation. But how might God’s elusive and ineffable transcendent dimension be represented? One way is through film style, using abstraction, reflections, filters, lighting, color, music, sound, and editing to dislodge the eye from habitual perceptions and suggest the possibility of less empirical realities. Decalogue abounds with such visual epiphanies. It is a world full of signs, once you start looking for them.
Another cinematic means of representing invisible Reality is to show one thing while allowing it simultaneously to mean something else. In Decalogue 9, a man lies in the hospital after a bungled suicide attempt. His wife, reading his suicide note, thinks he is dead. A hospital nurse dials her number, and holds a phone to the immobile husband’s ear. His wife answers. “God, you’re there!” she says. He responds, “I am.” It’s a very human moment of reconciliation, but in the context of the story, one cannot miss the dual meaning of this exchange. The object of deepest longing (“God”), thought to be gone forever, has not only been found (“you’re there”), but it answers the seeker with the divine name (“I am”). Fade to black.
In Decalogue 1, a man who has suffered unspeakable loss enters a candlelit church. Angry at a God whose existence he doubts, he overturns an altar beneath a large icon of the Virgin. A candle on top of the icon tips over, spilling its hot wax, which then drips slowly down the Virgin’s cheek. For this viewer at least, this is not simply a mediating image of divine compassion. It feels like direct experience. I know it’s just wax sliding down a painted surface. I know I am watching a film. But still: I see God weeping for our sorrow.
Another indicator of transcendent reality is the recurring sense of fate or destiny suggested by compelling coincidences, as if some intentional, benevolent design is trying to assert itself amid the happenstance of human affairs. There are many such uncanny connections in Decalogue. But such evidence is inherently ambiguous. As Slavoj Žižek wonders, “Is this the final answer of the Real, the proof that we are not alone, that ‘someone is out there,’ or just another stupid coincidence?”[v]
And then there is the enigmatic stranger who neither speaks nor acts. Appearing in every story but one, he witnesses but never intervenes, though at one point we see him wipe away a tear. Like the three strangers in Abraham’s tent, or the one who wrestled all night with Jacob, he suggests divine presence in anonymous human form.
In Decalogue 1, his first appearance is next to a fire, evoking the burning bush. He always seems to possess a secret knowledge of the heart, indicated by his knowing gaze. He turns up, as if omnipresent, at key moments of decision or crisis. Whether he is a powerless divinity who can sympathize but not save, or a mysterious agency which bends human causality, however subtly, toward positve outcomes, remains indeterminate throughout the Decalogue. But crucial changes or differences sometimes follow in his wake.
The script simply calls him “the young man.” The actor, Artur Barcis, thought of him as the Christ. Kieslowski told the actor to play him “as if you were five centimeters off the ground.” One critic compares him to an icon, “materially bearing [God’s] presence and eternal gaze in the broken, desolate community and reminding us that the commandments have always been perceived (by the faithful) to have a living, transcendental dimension.”[vi]
Each time I watch, I am moved by the stranger, so perfectly expressive of God’s ineffable oscillation of presence and absence: a transcendence which cannot be possessed or summoned, though it will never truly abandon us. But perhaps Decalogue’s supreme revelation––an incarnational, unambiguously human image of the divine––is found in 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 his devout Catholic aunt.
Pawel: Do you believe that God exists?
Pawel: What is God?
Irena 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.
Related post: The ten best religious films
[i] Annette Insdorf, Double Lives, Second Chances: The Cinema of Krzysztof Kieslowski (New York: Hyperion/Miramax Books, 1999), 124
[ii] ibid., 69-70
[iii] Monica Maurer, Krzysztof Kieslowski (North Pomfret, VT: Trafalgar Square Publishing, 2000), 13
[iv] Joseph G. Kickasola, The Films of Krzysztof Kieslowski: The Liminal Image (New York: Continuum, 2004), 89
[v] Slavoj Žižek, The Fright of Real Tears: Kryzysztov Kieslowski Between Theory and Philosophy (London: British Film Institute, 2001), 123
[vi] Kickasola, 165-6
To almost all the questions that might be asked about you the answer would be “perhaps.” Shall you have a large fortune, great talents, a long life? “Perhaps.” Will your last hour find you in the friendship of God? “Perhaps.” After this retreat, will you live long in a state of grace? “Perhaps.” Shall you be saved? “Perhaps.” But shall you die? “Yes. Certainly.”
– Ignatius of Loyola
I spent last night at Mount Calvary Monastery in Santa Barbara. During dinner I asked one of the older monks, whom I hadn’t seen for a while, how he was doing. “Oh,” he said, “I’m biodegrading on schedule.” Later, at Compline, he chanted in a faltering voice,
I will lie down in peace,
and sleep comes at once;
for you alone, Lord, make me dwell in safety.
Earlier in the day, on the plane to California, I had been reading Tracy Daugherty’s riveting biography of Joan Didion, The Last Love Song, which is suffused with the subject of mortality: not just the death of individuals, but the demise of our collective narratives as well. Even the best stories we tell about our lives and our world tend to unravel over time.
Didion’s late writings have explored the grief of private loss- the death of a husband, the death of a daughter- but they also connect with her lifelong attempts to make sense of the country and culture she inhabits. Didion has always been a keen observer and distinctive storyteller, but there have been times, like 1968 and 9/11, when she could no longer “believe in the narrative and the narrative’s intelligibility.”
Whether writing about her own physical decline and the pain of outliving those you love, or documenting the demise of a recognizable public world, Didion gives voice to the laments within us all. As Daugherty writes, “She helped us admit things we intuited but rarely aired: the fragility of our national myths and the constant nearness of death.”
Lately I find myself preoccupied with the coincidence of private and public loss. A friend and significant mentor lost his eldest child to cancer this week, just three months after losing his beloved wife of 71 years. Members of my own family have also had recent occasion to contemplate “the constant nearness of death.” Meanwhile, “the fragility of our national myths” has become all too clear. When President Obama described a lofty vision of democracy in his moving farewell address, it felt like the eulogy at America’s funeral. We wept not just for the noble beauty of his subject, but because we were feeling the loss of it so keenly.
After any profound loss, we wonder how we can go on. But we do. And we do it with “quiet confidence,” as the Book of Common Prayer says in the Burial Office, because death is never the end. From the dry bones of our shattered narratives, God will begin to construct a new and better story.
Yes, we’re all freaking out as January 20 draws near. How awful can it get? How do we survive? How do we resist? I’m looking for the same answers you are. But over the last 24 hours, it has been both consoling and empowering to keep the hours with the monks, chanting the psalmody which puts everything in a larger perspective:
Those who dwell in the shelter of the Most High
and abide in the shade of the Almighty
say to the Lord: “My refuge, my stronghold,
my God in whom I trust. (Psalm 91)
The Lord is my light and my help…
Though an army encamp against me,
my heart would not fear.
Though war break out against me,
Even then I would trust. (Psalm 27)
In the shadow of your wings I take refuge
till the storms of destruction pass by…
My heart is ready, O God,
my heart is ready.
I will sing, I will sing your praise.
Awake, my soul!
Awake, lyre and harp!
I will awake the dawn. (Psalm 57)
Faith is not an exemption from struggle, mortality and loss. God’s own self walked the way of the cross. But for the ready heart, enduring all things in quiet confidence like the old monk “biodegrading on schedule,” even the downward path will be the way up. And what St. Chrysostom said about monastics should apply to all:
“The monks have no sadness.
They wage war on the devil
as though they were performing a dance.”
Old Christmas is past,
Twelfth Night is the last,
And we bid you adieu,
great joy to the new.
– Welsh carol
For now the time of gifts is gone–
O boys that grow, O snows that melt,
O bathos that the years must fill–
Here is dull earth to build upon
Undecorated; we have reached
Twelfth Night or what you will…
– Louis MacNeice[i]
Christmas ends tonight. That may surprise those who thought it done by December 26th, or with the final New Year’s game. I do get funny looks when I utter “Merry Christmas on days 2 thourgh 11. But for those who keep the traditional Feast of the Incarnation, it is best when savored the full twelve days. With the gathering, gifting and communal celebrations mostly behind us, the last days of Christmas can be a peaceful inbreathing of wonder before ordinary time resumes. The angels have returned to heaven, but the starry nights are no less radiant. The shepherds have returned to their flock, but we still linger in the stable, desiring to adore the newborn Mystery just a little longer.
Poet Mary Oliver, experiencing an intuition of charged significance at a New England pond, wrote, “oh, what is that beautiful thing / that just happened?”[ii]– Her question perfectly expresses our devotional response to the Nativity. The event itself is but a moment, but its meaning generates a lifetime of reflection and adoration. So in these last days of Christmas I have continued to carol with guitar, bowed psaltery and hammered dulcimer, read the poems of Incarnation, contemplated the crèche by the light of the decorated evergreen, and gazed in attentive silence at our candlelit icon of Madonna and Child. Oh what is that beautiful thing that just happened?
But tonight, it’s all about to end. A few savvy churches may observe the playful but largely forgotten Twelfth Night revels tonight, and tomorrow we will make some fuss about the arrival of the Magi to worship the holy Child, but then our retreat into festive space/time will be over and done. The Holy Family’s Christmas concluded that way: abruptly, with a quick exit to escape Herod’s swords. So too will ours, as we resume not only our private travails but also the current dismal prospects of our public life, so well described by W. H. Auden in his “Christmas Oratorio”:
The evil and armed draw near;
The weather smells of their hate
And the houses smell of our fear …
There’s no escaping history. We can’t stay dreaming forever in holy and silent nights. “Well, so that is that,” Auden wrote. “Now we must dismantle the tree, / Putting the decorations back into their cardboard boxes … The Christmas Feast is already a fading memory…”
But, for the time being, here we all are,
Back in the moderate Aristotelian city
Of darning and the Eight-Fifteen, where Euclid’s geometry
And Newton’s mechanics would account for our experience,
And the kitchen table exists because I scrub it.
As for the Christmas revelation of Incarnate Love, will it also fade away in the glare of the everyday, after being too briefly entertained as only “an agreeable possibility?”[iii]
Joseph Pieper, writing about the way we wish each other well at Christmas, says that “the real thing we are wishing is the ‘success’ of the festive celebration itself, not just its outer forms and enrichments, not the trimmings, but the gift that is meant to be the true fruit of the festival: renewal, transformation, rebirth.”[iv]
Renewal. Transformation. Rebirth. Were these among the gifts you received this Christmas? And if so, what are you going to do with them? How will your life be different, now that you have seen the Child of Bethlehem? How will your world be different?
Thirty-five years ago, on the Ninth Day of Christmas, I was running on the beach in Santa Monica, California, when I saw four young men standing along the shore, gazing out at the vast Pacific. They wore sweatshirts printed with their school name: IOWA. They had come west for the Rose Bowl, held the previous day. Their team had lost to Washington, 28-0, but now they were discovering the real reason for their journey: the sea. It was perhaps the first time they had ever seen it. They were standing quite still, not talking, transfixed by its boundless liquid infinity. Wonder shone from their faces.
Earth and sky had been washed clean by a pre-dawn storm. Cumulus billows erupted along the horizon, while the morning sun, having won its battle with the longest nights, blazed above us in a pure blue heaven. It was one of those days when the world seemed freshly made.
I continued running down the beach, but when I returned twenty minutes later, the Iowans were still there, staring at the sea, taking all the time they needed to absorb so much wonder.
I thought to myself: When they return to Iowa, will they carry that bright ocean with them? Would we someday hear about puzzled farmers who swore they’d heard waves roaring in their cornfields?
And when you leave Christmas behind, heading home to your Nazareths, or fleeing to distant Egypts, will you carry its bright immensity with you? Will the people you encounter ever hear its roar?
[i] “Twelfth Night,” q. in William Sansom, The Book of Christmas (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1968), 187
[ii] Mary Oliver, “At Blackwater Pond,” New and Selected Poems (Boston: Beacon Press, 1992), 226
[iii] W.H. Auden, “For the Time Being: A Christmas Oratorio” in Collected Poems, ed. Edward Mendelson (New York: Random House, 1976): “The evil and armed” is in Advent section, 272; the rest is in “The Flight into Egypt,” 307
[iv] Joseph Pieper, In Tune with the World: A Theory of Festivity, trans. Richard & Clara Winston (New York: Harcourt, Brace & World, 1965), 30-31
The free animal has its decrease perpetually behind it,
and God in front.
– Rainer Maria Rilke, Duino Elegies
150 years ago, German immigrants in Philadelphia fired guns out their windows at midnight on New Year’s Eve. “Murdering the old year,” they called it. At the end of such a crazy and dispiriting year, we may envy them. Preparing for our own New Year, we abandon the wreckage of 2016 with little regret. But is there any appetite for what lies ahead in a country poised on the brink of insanity and ruin? The Zero card in the Tarot’s Major Arcana provides a vivid image of our situation, but take note: the Fool himself does not share our fear.
He is festively attired, holding a bright flower beneath a happy sun. The precipice holds no terror. The abyss seems not even to exist for him. His attention is instead on the open sky, and his expression is calmly expectant. He walks in trust as a child of the Light. In the eyes of the world he is indeed a fool, advancing heedlessly toward nonexistence. But to people of faith his foolishness is the wisdom of Christ, who has been defying gravity ever since the resurrection.
We too would do well not to be mesmerized by the abyss, but to focus on the greater power already and always at work amid the blind sufferings of history. God neither causes nor prevents those sufferings, but divine ingenuity always outwits them in the end. I realize that is a big claim in the face of history’s unspeakable horrors, and I do not mean to trivialize their enormity, but the alternative is nihilism or despair. If we belong to a story of life not death, then we must insist on its narrative truth, even in our darkest hour.
No one can say exactly where and how the divine work of repairing the world will manifest itself in 2017, but I have already seen it coming to birth in a widely shared desire to get involved in the work of resisting evil, protecting the vulnerable, and advancing the common good. Yesterday’s Episcopal prayer for the Feast of Holy Innocents states our agenda perfectly: to “frustrate the designs of evil tyrants and establish [God’s] rule of justice, love, and peace.”
May we all, boldly and joyfully, do that holy dance, even on the edge of the precipice, not in terror of the abyss, but trusting in the love that enfolds us in every moment. What better way to celebrate and embody the Christmas feast, which declares the generative power of God pouring itself into the particulars of human experience? As Thomas Merton reminds us, “we exist solely for this: to be the place God has chosen for his Presence. If once we begin to recognize, humbly but truly, the real value of our own self, we would see that this value was the sign of God in our being, the signature of God upon our being.”
As we adore the great mystery of Incarnation–“the signature of God upon our being,”–let the beauty of this primal truth be the Star that guides us out of the old year into the new.
At year’s end, allow me to thank you, dear reader, for taking the time to reflect on the writings posted here, and for sharing them with others. Your attention, comments and supportive sharing are deeply nourishing and greatly appreciated. My New Year’s prayer for you is expressed in these lines from Edward Pusey, a nineteenth-century priest:
God ripen you more and more. Each day is a day of growth.
God says to you. “Open thy mouth and I will fill it.”
Only long…the parched soil, by its cracks, opens itself
for the rain from heaven and invites it.
The parched soil cries out to the living God.
Oh then long and long and long, and God will fill thee.
More love, more love, more love.
I know people who can’t stop crying. America has gone mad. Those who “love evil more than good, and lying more than speaking the truth” (Psalm 52:3) are the new normal. Democracy’s traditional safeguards–checks and balances, constitutional law, vigilant journalism, the Electoral College, the voices of principle, factual empiricism, and a healthy sense of shame–are being undermined or ignored with impunity. “Who is like the beast, and who can fight against it?” (Rev. 13:4)
That cry of despair in the Book of Revelation is answered by heaven itself: “Look, I am making all things new.” (21:5) The world of evil and suffering will not stand forever. The world of God is being born, and we are invited to make our home in it. That does not mean we get to exit cleanly the dying world for a more perfect one. History consists of both worlds messily mixed like the wheat and the tares. We interact with both simultaneously. But we can still decide which world claims our allegiance: the world of death or the world of life, the world of hate or the world of love.
The Scripture, hymns and prayers of Advent are cognizant of the old broken world and the damage it can do. This prophetic season, mindful of time’s arc bending toward justice, calls every believer to engage evil not just as critics but as activists, resisting it wherever and however we can. But Advent also reminds us that the powers we contend with are neither ultimate nor lasting. The best way to resist the darkness is to be a bearer of the light. Don’t fixate on the dying world, granting it more seriousness than it deserves. Live in the coming dawn, even before you can see it. Be a prisoner of hope.
For most of us, such hope is sustained less by awesome displays of divine power than by small moments of daily grace, the merest hints of benevolent Presence bathing the ordinary with a holy light. Advent spirituality–the poetics of hope–is mostly a matter of paying attention. And while I wish I could report a grand vision of the beast and his minions being cast into a lake of fire, my own Advent revelations this year have been small and personal.
The first was ten days ago, when I was taking a bus to the Roman Catholic cathedral in Seattle for a concert by the Medieval Women’s Choir. I struck up a conversation with a homeless woman who was on her way to a women’s shelter at a local Episcopal church. When we got off the bus, I offered to haul her rolling suitcase for her, since we were going in the same direction. As we walked, she shared her story. Now 72, she had to stop working years ago due to a variety of illnesses. She now has colon cancer. She hopes to get into a housing project soon. Her conversation was articulate and insightful. When we parted, I gave her some money to see her through the weekend. “Give me your hands,” she said. She took them into hers, and began to pray for me and my ministry with eloquent, heartfelt words. Whatever I may have given her, this impoverished woman bestowed upon me far greater riches.
Later, at the concert, the women’s choir sang a 13th century English carol that made a lovely Latin pun about Gabriel’s annunciation to Mary:
Verbum bonum et suave
Pandit intus in conclave,
Et ex Eva formans ave,
Eve verso nomine.
The good and sweet word
Spreads through the room
Forming “ave” out of “Eva”
By changing Eve’s name.
Forming “ave” out of Eva. As I listened, it occurred to me that the “good and sweet” words the woman had prayed over me had transformed her from “Eva”–a mortal woman of the Seattle streets–into a kind of angelic messenger. Had Gabriel himself appeared to utter an “ave,” I could not have been more sure of the divine presence behind that chance meeting.
My second Advent revelation also involved a concert, this time by the Seattle Pro Musica, whose exquisite renderings of seasonal choral music from many centuries moved me to tears more than once. It wasn’t simply that the pieces, ranging from Dufay and Praetorius to contemporary composers like Morten Lauridsen and Eric Whitacre, were sublime marriages of text and music, flawlessly performed. It was that such perfect beauty was being offered up in the gloom of the post-election nightmare. That is why I wept. Those superb voices, expressing everything that is best within the human heart and soul, seemed so brave and yet so vulnerable as we sink deeper and deeper into the American abyss. When the powers of hell have done their worst, what will be left of such beauty? Will all of it, human and divine, just be swept away?
One of the carols they sang, an e.e. cummings text in a setting by Joshua Shank (b. 1980), provided the answer I sought:
mind without soul may blast some universe
to might have been, and stop ten thousand stars
but not one heartbeat of this child; nor shall
even prevail a million questionings against the silence of his mother’s smile
–whose only secret all creation sings.
My third Advent revelation began with a dream the following night. A woman (my soul?) asked me why I liked living in this place. I said I enjoyed the balance of nature and culture. You can hike in a mountain wilderness and attend a symphony on the same day. “Is nature where God has gone?” she asked, perhaps echoing my recent immersion in Thoreau studies. “God is alive, surprising us everywhere,” I told her, aware that it was not exactly a reply to her question. But that’s what came out of my mouth.
Then I awoke. Bright moonlight shone through the window. Though it was only 3 a.m., I felt impelled to go outside for a better view before the big moon disappeared into the Douglas-firs. Small masses of low cumulus clouds raced across the lunar face, veiling and unveiling its brightness. Orion stood watch on the moon’s right. Faint barking of distant seals. A coyote’s cry. Winter cold. Silence. What did the night want to tell me?
God is alive, surprising us everywhere. The message of a dream, intimating something more real than language. But what? Not an idea in my mind. A feeling in my body. I tried briefly to give it words. Nearness. Urgency. Strength. Presence. Then I let the words go, and rested in whatever it was. In times so dark and dangerous, it felt . . . consoling. Heaven and earth may pass away, but this Presence will not. We are not alone. Perhaps, even loved.
 Missus Gabriel de celis is a late 13th century chant for the Solemnity of Mary (Jan. 1). English translation by Ginger Warfield & Ali Corbin
 Text from “from spiralling ecstatically” by e.e. cummings. Joseph Shanks’ piece is called “Winter”