Changemaking Churches and the Transformation of Neighborhoods

From "This is not a gentle poem" by Arne Pihl, part of "All Rise," a Seattle art happening about neighborhood change and social struggle, 2014-15 (Photo by Jim Friedrich)

From “This is not a gentle poem” by Arne Pihl, part of “All Rise,” a Seattle art happening about neighborhood change and social struggle, 2014-15 (Photo by Jim Friedrich)

It is not so much the gift of tongues that we now need as the gift of ears, not so much the proclamation of our beliefs as the willingness to listen to the ways in which we ourselves are being addressed, not so much the assertion of our knowledge but the silent admission that we are ready to learn. — Alan Ecclestone[i]

 

Does institutional Christianity have a future? We have certainly heard the dismal narratives of decline. Churches and seminaries are closing, congregations are aging, and budgets are shrinking, while the unaffiliated— “Nones” and “Dones”— are on the rise. There are still many pockets of vitality— thriving, growing, committed churches— but their long-term sustainability remains a serious question in the unsupportive habitat of postmodernity.

How many Christian bodies, at either the local or the denominational level, have resigned themselves to a diminished role as complacent and compliant chaplains to the dominant culture, or as harmless historical societies dedicated to the preservation of endangered practices and memories? An English priest of the last century, Alan Ecclestone, warned that such abdication of its changemaking mission would produce a “miserly and unexpectant” church.

Thankfully, we have antidotes for such a fate: resurrection and the Holy Spirit. Resurrection transforms death into rebirth; the Holy Spirit makes all things new. The Book of Common Prayer describes this potency with elegant brevity: “things which were cast down are being raised up, and things which had grown old are being made new.”

Enough with the narratives of decline! It is time to tell Easter stories. And at the recent Inhabit Conference in Seattle, I was blessed to hear many encouraging accounts of new life and abundant Spirit. For two days, Christian changemakers shared stories about doing and being “church” in new ways and new places. Even though many of the speakers do ministry in the lusterless environs of makeshift buildings and impoverished neighborhoods, their stories glowed with resurrection light.

Strangers sharing nothing but a zip code become friends over soup suppers. A trashy vacant lot is transformed into a beautiful park or neighborhood garden. Economic wastelands bloom as social entrepreneurs are raised up locally. The hungry and homeless become neighbors-in-need rather than faceless problems. The powerless organize to make their voices heard in civic planning and development. Police and residents defuse tensions and break stereotypes by socializing together. “Low-status neighborhoods” are redeemed by the work of many hands, becoming places of human flourishing. Such things don’t always happen, but when they do, the Kingdom of God draws near, and the church of God rises from the dead.

The Inhabit conference presenters, many in their twenties and thirties, have committed themselves to simplified and generous lifestyles as residents of the struggling communities they serve. Their “churches” tend to be improvisational— living rooms, storefronts, neighborhood centers, local watering holes, and street corners. If any of their ministries employ a traditional church space, it is usually where the old congregation has been on the verge of extinction.

These youthful pastors understand “parish” in its original sense— designating a whole neighborhood rather than simply the church situated within it. Their ministry is dedicated not to their faith community alone, but to the flourishing of their whole geographical parish. Don’t just feed the hungry; get to know them by breaking bread together. Don’t just serve the poor; help them get the skills and opportunities they need. Don’t just care about people, but work with them to challenge and change the forces which impact their lives. Organize for parks and housing. Educate. Demand justice. Reclaim the commons. Foster hope. Develop local economies. Lift up social entrepreneurs. Build equity. Break barriers. Nurture relationships. Network solutions. Innovate. Improvise. Advocate, organize, include, connect, encourage and empower. Be Jesus for others. Imagine.[ii]

The mission statement of Parish Collective, one of the Inhabit conference sponsors, summarizes the vital work of fostering communities of belonging in the forgotten corners of an alienating and divisive society: “We seek to reconcile fractured relationships and celebrate differences by collaborating across cultural barriers and learning to live in solidarity with those in need.” Or put more simply, “Living local together” for “street-level renewal.”[iii]

All of the speakers were passionate about making a difference in the neighborhoods they inhabit. But they are careful to act “with” rather than act “for” the local community. They don’t arrive as colonists imposing their vision, or saviors with the big idea for everyone else to follow. They come as relentless listeners, with the gifts of ears and respectful attention. As one speaker said, “Love listens.” Another added, “Let the neighborhood speak to us, rebuke us, teach us.”

This is not easy work, nor is it quickly done. As one pastor told the conference, “Our church is in the oven, not the microwave. It starts slow and takes longer, but it tastes better.” Sometimes faith is a lot like patience. The Tree of Life doesn’t grow overnight. But still we believe in the promised fruit, as Shane Claiborne, a young Christian changemaker, reminds us:

“Faith is believing despite the evidence—
and then watching that evidence start to change.”

 

 

 

 

 

[i] Alan Ecclestone, q. in Gordon Mursell, English Spirituality: From 1700 to the Present Day (London: SPCK 2008), 472

[ii] Good recent resources on these themes are The New Parish: How Neighborhood Churches are Transforming Mission, Discipleship and Community (Paul Sparks, Tim Soerens, Dwight J. Friesen; Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2014) and Live Like You Give a Damn: Join the Changemaking Celebration (Tom Sine; Eugene, OR: Cascade Books, 2016)

[iii] http://parishcollective.org

 

Keeping the faith in a time of terror

The Deposition (early Gothic; Leon cathedral on the Camino de Santiago)

The Deposition (early Gothic; Leon cathedral on the Camino de Santiago)

Keep your mind in hell, and despair not.

— Staretz Silouan[i]

Ah, children, ah, dear friends, do not be afraid of life!

— Fyodor Dostoevsky[ii]

How do we sing the Lord’s song in the shadow of terror? In solidarity with all the victims of Brussels and the whole human family this week, I protest, I rage, I grieve, I pray. But I must also try to think.

Indiscriminate terror has long been a scourge on this earth, but its globalization through television and social media has now made it emotionally inescapable. Were I to dwell in the uttermost parts of the sea, I could not flee from its presence.[iii]

So as we try to absorb the terrible news from Brussels, how do we “despair not” even in the face of monstrous evil? No simple task, and easy answers seem disrespectful in the time of weeping. But I do believe the antidote to despair is to keep the faith. We must never forget the sacred story we belong to. Even at the grave we make our song: Alleluia, alleluia, alleluia.[iv]

The terrorist, on the other hand, belongs to a story which for most of us in inconceivable. Terror is “the language of being noticed,”[v] a kind of performative rhetoric designed to bring a neglected or disregarded worldview into the open by subjecting others to the violent norms of its alternate reality. They see themselves as global victims, in search of a global audience for their cruel narrative. Mark Juergensmeyer, in his study of religious violence, explains this terrorist rationale:

If the world is perceived as peaceful, violent acts appear as terrorism. If the world is thought to be at war, violent acts may be regarded as legitimate. They may be seen as preemptive strikes, as defensive tactics in an ongoing battle, or as symbols indicating to the world that it is indeed in a state of grave and ultimate conflict.[vi]

In the minds of many terrorists, the war they are so eager to wage is apocalyptic, a cosmic conflict of good and evil in which there is no compromise or bridging of differences. They are, in Don DeLillo’s term, “lethal believers.” And the very worst thing we could do in response would be to play the part they have written for us: satanic enemies in a cosmic struggle. The proposals of certain American presidential candidates to “bomb the hell out of them,” or bring back the good old days of torture, would play perfectly into the terrorists’ hands, conceding the primacy of their deadly story.

However, I choose to belong to a better story, the one enacted and embodied in the powerful liturgies of Christ’s Passion. Step by step on the Way of the Cross this Holy Week, Christians will bring to mind and heart the saving journey which Jesus made, without weapons, into the abyss of suffering and death.

Renouncing all violence and hatred, Jesus remained faithful to the end. After pouring his whole life into a ministry of healing, forgiveness, and reconciliation, he continued to show us the face of love even as he was tortured on the cross. “Father, forgive,” he said with his dying breath. To the last moment, in his most bitter hour, he remained the human who shows us God by doing what God does.

Which story do we choose to live in? The story of terror and violence, or the story of self-diffusive love? Both are costly in the end, but only one leads to new and unconquerable life. Even after Brussels, the word remains: Be not afraid! Love makes the abyss into a Way.

The cross shows us how it is possible to absorb evil and neutralize its effects, rather than pass on the anger and live in bitterness. Turning the other cheek, going the extra mile, giving away your coat to the robber who steals your shirt, loving enemies, doing good to those who hate, blessing those who curse us – all this turns out to be an intelligent and intelligible Christian way of living.[vii]

When medieval women mystics contemplated the cross in prayer and vision, they saw not death’s triumph but a kind of birth. The crucified Jesus was like a woman in labor, enduring pain and travail in order to bring us all to birth: Ah! Sweet Lord Jesus Christ, who ever saw a mother suffer such a birth! For when the hour of your delivery came you were placed on the hard bed of the cross and … in one day you gave birth to the whole world.[viii]

To see such a death and call it birth is the central act of Christian imagination. It is why we declare victory at the cross. We don’t wait for Easter Sunday. We declare victory at the cross, because the Passion isn’t just a story about violent powers that always trample the weak and kill the prophets. It’s also a story about the Realm of God, where dry bones breathe and lost hopes dance, where the prodigal is welcomed home and the tears are wiped from every eye. The Love that makes such a realm was nailed to a cross, but was not consumed by it. Death did what death does, and God did what God does.

And on the outcome of that story, I stake everything.

 

 

Related posts

We are the singers of life, not of death

After Paris and Beirut, what story shall we tell?

Beyond Punch and Judy: The art of nonviolent resistance

 

 

[i] Staretz Silouan (1866-1938) was a Russian monk on Mt. Athos in Greece. Appearing as an epigraph to Gillian Rose’s book, Love’s Work, I found this provocative saying in Andrew Shanks’ Against Innocence: Gillian Rose’s Reception and Gift of Faith (London: SCM Press, 2008), 9. Rose herself added this typically intense comment: “What Staretz Silouan is talking about is the subjective experience of God-forsakenness,” and even there finding God. “I want to sob and sob and sob,” she says, “until the prolonged shrieking becomes a shout of joy.”

[ii] From Alyosha Karamazov’s final speech in Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov, trans. Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky (New York: Vintage Classics, 1991), 776

[iii] cf. Psalm 139:6, 8

[iv] Burial of the Dead, Episcopal Book of Common Prayer, 499

[v] Don DeLillo, quoted in Mark Juergensmeyer, Terror in the Mind of God: The Global Rise of Religious Violence, (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2000 ), 139

[vi] Juergensmeyer, 10

[vii] David Wood, in Consuming Passion: Why the Killing of Jesus Really Matters, eds. Simon Barrow & Jonathan Bartley (London: Darton, Longman and Todd, 2007), 118

[viii] Marguerite d’Oingt (d. 1310)

Is holiness a Lenten obligation?

Bench carving, Cathedral of Seville, Spain

Bench carving, Cathedral of Seville, Spain

In the liturgical rite for Ash Wednesday, the priest stands up before the people and invites them “to the observance of a holy Lent.” It is a solemn and noble custom. But is it a serious proposal? And if so, what is actually being asked of the faithful?

When people hear the word “holy,” they often think “devout” or “virtuous,” but qodesh, the word for holiness in the Hebrew Bible, is not a moral or behavioral term. It means “apartness,” conveying an inherent, critical difference between what is holy and what is not.

The word itself is set apart. Unlike other divine attributes like power, justice and love, holiness has no analogue in the everyday life of Israel. It doesn’t refer to a common experience and then say God is like that. Instead, it evokes the one quality of God which is unlike anything we know.

In ancient Judaism, holiness meant the radical otherness of God, the Holy One. The divine presence is not to be approached easily or casually, either by our bodies or by our language. God dwells in a sacred zone which is highly charged, difficult and risky to enter.

Israel’s worship practices grew up around this strict sense of separation. At the center of cultic life was a holy of holies, a space set apart from contamination by the world. And only priests, who were themselves set apart and highly trained in the intricacies of access, were allowed to have contact with this sacred center. There was a sense that if the sphere of holiness were to be contaminated or carelessly regarded, the presence of the Holy One might withdraw from Israel, and that would be disastrous.

Leviticus, not a book I spend a lot of time with, contains a long section known as the Holiness Code because of its repeated use of holy and holiness, as well as related terms like sanctify, hallow, consecrate, dedicate, and sacred. It is filled with detailed prescriptions ranging from ritual practice to sexual behavior. Many of these seem archaic and largely inapplicable today. But may we still find something valid in the impulse to preserve the “holy” from profanation or inattention?

The sacred is made present by the attention we give to it. For example, if you come to a labyrinth occupying an open space, do you just walk straight across it, or do you go around it, acknowledging it as a space set apart for prayerful activity? Or does it only become holy space when it is put to its intended use, rather than just lying there as a decorative floor pattern?

I once led a weeklong family retreat for a Nevada parish on the eastern shore of Lake Tahoe. There was a beautiful stone church, with a large window looking across the water to the high peaks of the Sierra mountains. The space around the altar was large enough to hold all of us, so we did most of our worship there, in the intimacy of a circle.

I asked everyone to do two things each time they came inside the altar rails. One was to remove their shoes, like Moses at the Burning Bush. The other was to perform an action of their choice to mark their entrance into holy space: they could lift their hands in prayer, bow, genuflect, cross themselves, kiss the altar, or prostrate themselves on the floor. Most of the children, being the enthusiastically embodied creatures they are, opted for prostration! The effect of these physical observances was tangible. The attention we gave changed the quality of being there. It became for us holy ground.

But what Leviticus is after, and what a holy Lent is about, is more than the quality of a space or the attention we pay to it. Holiness is meant to be something contagious, something which gets inside us and changes us forever.

You shall be holy, for I your God am holy (Leviticus 19:2). God is not content to limit holiness to Godself. God’s people are invited to be holy as well. Not just our sanctuaries, but ourselves, are made to be set apart, consecrated, sanctified, hallowed. Biblical theologian Walter Brueggemann has called this the “obligation tradition,” where “the purpose of Israel’s life is to host the holiness of Yahweh.”[i]

As biblical people gradually figured out, hosting divine holiness means more than maintaining ritual purity or devotional piety. It means embodying justice and peace as well, uncontaminated by the dehumanizing, violent and oppressive practices of the dominant culture. Such holiness requires the consecration and dedication of every aspect of life to the will and purpose of God.

Leviticus 19:9-18 provides some excellent guidelines for our own time:

  • Don’t keep all your food for yourselves
  • Remember the poor and the immigrant
  • Don’t steal, lie, or defraud one another
  • Don’t exploit your workers
  • Be mindful of those with special needs
  • Be fair and just in your dealings with others
  • Don’t slander, seek revenge, or carry grudges
  • Love your neighbor as yourself

The nice thing about such a list is that these are all things we can do. They are not perfections only achievable in a messianic future. We can perform them right now. Jesus offered a similar list. Is somebody hungry? Feed them. Is anybody thirsty? Get them some water. And if curing the sick or setting the prisoner free seems beyond you, surely you can at least visit them. This is not impossible stuff.

Holiness, an attribute of God, becomes for us a practice.
Not something we are, but something we do.

Of course the specific obligations of holiness are not always clear. It is one thing to separate yourself by going to the desert, the monastery, or a countercultural refuge. It is quite another to live in contemporary society with its inevitable complicity in the evils by which the system maintains itself: militarism, consumerism, economic injustice and violence against the planet. How do we say no to the evil and yes to the good in a world of such complex interdependence?

And yet, Scripture remains insistent that we continue to strive for sanctification, dedicating our lives to God and separating ourselves from whatever is not of God.

  • God chose us in Christ to be holy and blameless, full of love (Ephesians 1:4)
  • Clothe yourselves with the new self, created according to the likeness of God in true righteousness and holiness (Ephesians 4:24)
  • Surrender your bodies to righteousness in order to create a holy life (Romans 6:19)

Surrender. Is this too much to ask? Is a holy life too much to ask? Does it set the bar so high that we just abandon the field to an elite corps of ethical heroes: the few, the proud, the saints?

Even worse, does a religion of obligation veer us toward “works righteousness,” overestimating our powers and denying the need for grace? Well, even Calvin admitted the possibility of making progress in personal goodness. He echoed the purity language of Leviticus when he wrote:

Ever since the Holy Spirit dedicated us as temples to the Lord, we should make it our endeavor to show forth the glory of God, and guard against being profaned by the defilement of sin. Ever since our soul and body were destined to heavenly incorruptibility and an unfading crown, we should earnestly strive to keep them pure and uncorrupted against the day of the Lord.[ii]

But where do we begin? Thomas Aquinas outlined three stages of holiness: First, distance yourself from sin and wrong inclinations (holiness as an act of separation, turning your back on sin and turning toward God). Second, work on cultivating the virtues in your life (holiness as a daily practice). Finally, rest in loving union with God (holiness as communion with the Holy One).

This triptych of holiness is echoed in my favorite collect in the service of Morning Prayer:

  • drive far from us all wrong desires (separation)
  • incline our hearts to keep your law, and guide our feet into the way of peace (practice)
  • that, having done your will with cheerfulness during the day, we may, when night comes, rejoice to give you thanks (communion)

Or to put this in the simplest terms:

  • What do I need to let go of?
  • What do I need to acquire and cultivate?
  • In whose reality do I want to dwell?

It’s not about effort, of course. Sola fide, sola gratia, soli Deo. Only faith, only grace, only God. As Augustine knew, “When God crowns our merits, God crowns nothing but God’s own gifts.”[iii]

And it’s never done, this holiness business. It’s an open-ended process of continual striving. Gregory of Nyssa said, “The perfection of human nature consists perhaps in its very growth in goodness.”[iv] In other words, holiness isn’t something we achieve, it’s a commitment to growth.

And as an old eucharistic prayer suggests, the time to start is now:

And here we offer and present unto thee, O Lord,
our selves, our souls and bodies,
to be a reasonable, holy, and living sacrifice unto thee.[v]

What if, every day during Lent, each of us were to make such a prayer?
Here I offer and present to you, O God, my ________.

Just fill in the blank with whatever the time and place requires.

 

Related posts

Grace me guide

Heart work and heaven work

 

 

 

[i] Walter Brueggemann, Theology of the Old Testament: Testimony, Dispute, Advocacy (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1997), 428

[ii] John Calvin, Institutes 3.6.3

[iii] Augustine, Epistle 154, 5.16

[iv] Gregory of Nyssa, Life of Moses 10

[v] Thomas Cranmer, Book of Common Prayer (1549), based on Romans 12:1, in the Episcopal Book of Common Prayer (1979), 336.

Ash Wednesday: A time for self-compassion

 

Alleluia ashes 2sm

There is a really deep well inside me. And in it dwells God. Sometimes I am there too. But more often stones and grit block the well, and God is buried beneath. Then he must be dug out again.

– Etty Hillesum[i]

 

Hillesum’s evocative image expresses the duality of the Lenten season. On the one hand, God is not the end product of spiritual attainment, something brought closer through our own efforts. The deep well of divinity is already present within us, “more intimate to me than I am to myself.”[ii] We don’t have to go somewhere else to find it. Lent is a time to tune in, go deep, and pay heightened attention to the Presence we often miss.

At the same time, our awareness of – and relationship with – this Presence may be hindered or obstructed by any number of things, requiring some real digging on our part. The trouble is, that digging can quickly become a self-improvement project, with Lent’s success judged by the quality and success of our efforts. We imagine a more spiritually heroic self, and strive to make it come true.

The ancient Desert Fathers and Mothers, who fled the corruption and distractions of their culture to seek a holier life in the wastelands beyond Empire, might seem at first glance to be overflowing with heroic aspiration. A typical regimen would be to “get up early every day and acquire the beginning of every virtue and commandment of God. Use great patience, with fear and long-suffering, in the love of God, with all the fervor of your soul and body. Exercise great humility, bear with interior distress, be vigilant and pray often with reverence and groaning, with purity of speech and control of your eyes… Do your work in peace. Persevere in keeping vigil, in hunger and thirst, cold and nakedness, and in sufferings.”[iii]

Such rigorous spiritual practice wasn’t for the halfhearted. But it risked the competitive sin of pride. Paul of Pherme, for instance, undertook the project of “continual prayer” – 300 prayers per day, keeping count with a pile of 300 pebbles in his lap. After each prayer, he tossed away one pebble. But he was crestfallen to learn of a certain woman who had been saying 700 prayers per day for thirty years! He would never catch up. Another desert father, Macarius the Alexandrian, warned Paul that his spiritual life lacked both balance and humility. But Macarius was no moderate. He once did penance for swatting a mosquito by moving to a swamp to endure six months of insect bites, without ever raising a hand in defense.[iv]

Thankfully, the extremists were not the norm. More prevalent was a spirit of deep humility about one’s capacities. John Climacus was a seventh-century monk at Mt. Sinai. His image of the spiritual life as a “Ladder of Divine Ascent” was later pictured in a famous twelfth-century icon.

Ladder of Divine Ascent, St. Catherine's Monastery, Mt. Sinai (12th century)

Ladder of Divine Ascent, St. Catherine’s Monastery, Mt. Sinai (12th century)

If you have ever climbed a very tall ladder, or done any rock-climbing, you know the degree of both effort and risk involved. John’s image makes it very clear that the spiritual life is strenuous and challenging. “We need to exercise ourselves greatly,” he wrote, “to lay upon ourselves many hidden labors after a life of negligence.” But then he said,

Be of good heart. If the passions lord it over us and we are weak, let us with great confidence offer to Christ our spiritual weakness and our impotence . . . He will help us irrespective of what we deserve, on the sole condition that we descend continually to the bottom, into the abyss of humility.[v]

So we don’t have to be heroes after all. What a relief! Humility, not heroism, is the way up the ladder. As the Rule of Saint Benedict teaches us, “by trying to climb we descend, and by humility we ascend.”[vi] That’s why Ash Wednesday strikes just the right note for the beginning of Lent. It brings us down to earth as creatures of ashes, dust and mud, undermining any pretensions of Promethean heroism. The Lenten journey is come-as-you-are.

Mary Oliver puts this perfectly: “You do not have to be good. / You do not have to walk on your knees / for a hundred miles through the desert, repenting. / You only have to let the soft animal of your body love what it loves.”[vii] Or as Simone Weil suggested, self-compassion means to “accept what one is, at a given moment, as a fact – even one’s shame.”

In the 1988 Winter Olympics, American speed skater Dan Jansen was favored in the 500 and 1000 meter events. On the morning of the 500 final, he learned his sister had just died from leukemia. His focus clearly elsewhere, he fell on the first turn of his race and never finished. He would also fall and fail in the 1000 meters. At the 1992 Olympics, he again failed to win the medals expected of him. The 1994 Oympics offered him one last chance, and he came to the line of the 500 meter race as the clear favorite, the only skater ever to break 36 seconds, which he had done four times. But after one slight slip on the ice, he finished out of the medals yet again.

Ash Wednesday came just after that race, and I reflected on Jansen’s story in my homily. Although Jansen would finally win a gold medal a few days later (in the one race where he was an underdog), it was his “failures” that resonated with people. After the liturgy, a therapist in the congregation told me that many of her clients that week had talked with her about Jansen’s story, and how much it moved them. If the world’s greatest skater could fall, then maybe it was all right for them to fall as well. You don’t have to be a hero, only yourself, letting the soft animal of your body love what it loves.

In his youth, the poet David Whyte was hiking in the Himalayas when he came to a deep chasm. The only way across was a rickety old rope bridge with many missing slats. Although he was a confident, experienced mountaineer, he suddenly froze at the prospect of traversing the abyss on so treacherous a path. He sat down on the ground and stared at the bridge for hours, unable to proceed. “There are times when the hero has to sit down,” he said later. “At some bridges in life the part of you that always gets it done has to sit down.” Then an old Tibetan woman came along, gathering yak dung for fuel. She walked with a limp. “Namaste,” she said with a smile. Then she turned and limped across the bridge. Immediately, without thinking, he rose up and followed. Sometimes, he realized, it is “the old interior angel,” the unheroic, limping, unequipped part of ourselves, that gets us to the other side.[viii]

Remember that you are dust, and no hero. Whether your Lent will be a time of giving up, going deep, or reaching out, may it always be done with a generous measure of self-compassion.

As Mary Gauthier sings so beautifully, we could all use a little mercy now.

 

 

Related posts

George Herbert: Heart work and heaven work

Solitude (Part 1)

Solitude (Part 2)

 

[i] Etty Hillesum, An Interrupted Life (New York: Henry Holt and Company, 1996), August 25, 1941 (two years before she died in Auschwitz)

[ii] St. Augustine, Confessions III.

[iii] The Apophthegmata (Sayings of the Desert Fathers), in William Harmless, S.J., Desert Christians: An Introduction to the Literature of Early Monasticism (Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 2004), 199-200

[iv] ibid., 288

[v] John Climacus, Ladder of Divine Ascent, 1st Step, 17, in Olivier Clement, The Roots of Christian Mysticism (New York: New City Press, 1993), 152

[vi] ibid., 156 (Rule of St. Benedict VII)

[vii] Mary Oliver, “Wild Geese,” New and Selected Poems (Boston: Beacon Press, 1992), 110

[viii] From a talk given by David Whyte in the 1990’s

 

Feast of the Epiphany: The worst time of year for such a journey

Along the Camino de Santiago, April 2014

Along the Camino de Santiago, April 2014

It is not commended to stand ‘gazing up into heaven’ too long; not on Christ himself ascending, much less on his star. For [the Magi] sat not still gazing on the star. Their vidimus begat venimus; their seeing made them come, come a great journey.

— Lancelot Andrewes, sermon for Christmas Day, 1622[i]

 

When T. S. Eliot wrote his great Epiphany poem, “Journey of the Magi,”[ii] he borrowed freely from a Nativity sermon preached in 1622 by the English bishop, Lancelot Andrewes:

A cold coming they had of it at this time of the year, just the worst time of the year to take a journey, and specially a long journey. The ways deep, the weather sharp, the days short, the sun farthest off, in solstitio brumali, ‘the very dead of winter.’

Andrewes, who oversaw the translation of the King James Bible, had a gift for elegantly expressive language, and Eliot altered the original only slightly to make the first lines of his poem:

‘A cold coming we had of it,
Just the worst time of the year
For a journey, and such a long journey:
The ways deep and the weather sharp,
The very dead of winter.’

The liturgical and theological focus of today’s Feast of the Epiphany is the universal reach of the Light of the World. The three Magi, coming from faraway places to do homage to the Christ Child, signify that whatever was revealed in Bethlehem was not confined to a single culture, language, or tradition. The babe in the manger would ultimately spark recognition in every longing heart.

But Eliot’s particular focus is on the psychology and spirituality of the Magi themselves, or at least the one whose voice speaks the poem. He recites the complaints common to pilgrims: bad roads, bad weather, bad food, unpleasant companions, inhospitable strangers, and the homesick yearning for one’s own bed. He wonders whether the journey might be ‘all folly.’

The bleak desert crossing resounds with haunting echoes of The Waste Land, heightening the relief we feel when the traveler finally comes to “a temperate valley … smelling of vegetation.” But instead of the sweet, unblemished beatitude of a Nativity scene, the Magus is baffled by a series of disparate sights whose meanings are still in the future: vine branches, empty wine-skins, pieces of silver, three trees on a hill, the pale horse of the Apocalypse.

As for the actual moment of arrival, of seeing the long-sought Epiphany, it is described with the utmost reticence, as though words must fail before such a mystery:

… it was (you may say) satisfactory.

Then what? The Magi go back home, to the world they knew,

But no longer at ease here, in the old dispensation,
With an alien people clutching their gods.

Whatever Bethlehem had shown them, nothing in their lives would ever, could ever, be the same. This holy Birth had also brought a kind of death: the ‘old dispensation,’ whatever the Magi had settled for up to now, could no longer stand. The world of the past – erring, broken, lost, in love with the wrong thing – was being swept away. Behold, I make all things new.

In Andrewes 1622 sermon, he played nicely upon the Latin verbs for having seen (vidimus) and having come (venimus). What the Magi saw made them come. ‘Their vidimus begat venimus.’ But in our own day, says the preacher, we are apt to hold ourselves back, and resist the journey of transformation:

And we, what should we have done? Sure these men of the East will rise in judgment against the men of the West, that is with us, and their faith against ours in this point. . . . Our fashion is to see and see again before we stir a foot, specially if it be to the worship of Christ. Come such a journey at such a time? No; but fairly have put it off to the spring of the year, till the days longer, and the ways fairer, and the weather warmer, till better travelling to Christ. Our Epiphany would sure have fallen in Easter week at the soonest.

I am well acquainted with such spiritual procrastination. It is a practice not so easy to shed. We do prefer our comfort zones. Or as Andrewes put it, ‘We love to make no great haste.’

And yet, despite our best evasions, there may come a time when we find ourselves on a strange and arduous journey into that Place where everything is changed. Whether we choose the journey, or the journey chooses us, doesn’t really matter. In either case, once we have encountered the Epiphany, we will be ‘no longer at ease here, in the old dispensation.’

And then what?

 

[i] Andrewes’ complete sermon may be found here.

[ii] “Journey of the Magi,” T. S. Eliot: Collected Poems 1909-1962 (London: Faber and Faber, Ltd., 1974), 99

Reprise: Ten Ways to Keep a Holy Advent

image

Here in Puget Sound, the first Sunday of Advent has begun in darkness, fog, and frost. It is for many of us a deeply felt time, the season where we wait expectantly for the dawning of the New. The spiritual practice of waiting is not a state of passivity, but rather the cultivation of attention, lest we miss what is being offered to us in the unfolding of God’s future.

I do not usually do re-runs of old posts, but some readers found last December’s “Ten Ways to Keep a Holy Advent” a useful list, and you can access it here. I hope you will find some blessing in it. And please feel free to share it with your communities.