Forty Years of Chewing Sand

St. Anthony the Abbot in the Wilderness (Osservanza Master, Siena, c. 1435)

The desert can be tomb and cradle, wasteland and garden, death and resurrection, hell and heaven. Thus in the desert you will find that God is simultaneously present and absent, proximate and remote, visible and invisible, manifest and hidden. He can receive you with great tenderness and then abandon you on the cross of loneliness. He consoles you and torments you at the same time. He heals you only to wound you again. He may speak to you today and ignore you tomorrow.

–– Alessandro Pronzato [i]


In American Nomads, my recent reviiew of Jessica Bruder’s Nomadland, I applied the term “ascetics” to the motorized wanderers who have left behind the oppressive futility of a dysfunctional society to seek a freedom and authenticity seemingly unattainable within the rigged game of economic inequality. Although most of those contemporary nomads might take issue with the religious connotations of the word, I believe that any intentional exodus “away from here” is inevitably a quest for the redemptive space of a Promised Land. Its refusals and renunciations are the necessary first steps toward new being.

In popular usage, asceticism conjures images of bodily self-mortification, like sleeping on a bed of nails, for the sake of a purely spiritual goal. Such a limiting caricature reflects an unfortunate dualism of body and soul. But the term comes from the Greek word for athletic training, and is best understood as a wholistic practice in which everything which comprises the human person—body and soul, heart and mind, inner psyche and outer world—is fully engaged in a committed discipline of patterned living.

Asceticism is not solely a matter of giving old things up; it also involves taking on things that are new. Lenten discipline, for example, involves the addition of deeper spiritual practices and loving actions, and not merely the common subtractions of culinary pleasures and worldly amusements. More prayer and more justice, not just less chocolate.

But even the embrace of positive actions or behaviors involves the renunciation of obstacles, distractions and hindrances which impede or resist the ascetic’s goal. And since we are social beings, both formed and deformed by the worlds we inhabit, it is not always enough to work on ourselves within the confines of the given world. To borrow a phrase from Wallace Stevens, we sometimes need to “exit the whole Shebang.”

And from the biblical Exodus to the “vandwelling” nomads fleeing the enslaving fleshpots of America, the exit always leads to the desert: the no-where beyond the reach of the social imaginary, the silence beyond the captivity of language, the trackless waste where all our constructions turn to dust. As I wrote in Via Negativa:

The desert is the emptiness where there’s no place to hide. In the desert, you come face to face with yourself, your demons, and your God. Nothing is defined there, nothing known in advance. Your scripts are no good in the desert. Your evasions are futile. Whatever makes you want to turn around and run back to the safety of your old illusions is the very thing that is trying to kill you.

We could all use some time in the desert, whether it’s Jesus’ 40 days or the Israelites’ 40 years. But whenever we step outside the noise of our social and personal fictions, the silence is going to wound us with questions. Who am I really, when my familiar props, costumes and stories are stripped away, leaving me naked and alone on an empty stage? Do I have what Salinger’s Franny Glass called “the courage to be an absolute nobody?”

Even the great desert saints of Late Antiquity trembled on the brink of so much nothingness. As Belden C. Lane writes in his indispensable guide to wilderness spirituality, The Solace of Fierce Landscapes:

“What they fled with greatest fear was not the external world, but the world they carried inside themselves: an ego-centeredness needing constant approval, driven by compulsive behavior, frantic in its effort to attend to a self-image that always required mending.” [ii]

The desert way is threatening and fierce, but it is also a place of transformative clarity, as mystics and artists continue to remind us. Indifferent to the old scripts of alienation and inauthenticity, it can be the birthplace of a new way of being human. Video artist Bill Viola describes the lure of the desert issuing from the spiritual desire for true and undistorted existence:

“I want to go to a place that seems like it’s at the end of the world. A vantage point from which one can stand and peer out into the void – the world beyond… There is nothing to lean on. No references… You finally realize that the void is yourself. It is like some huge mirror for your mind. Clear and uncluttered, it is the opposite of our urban distractive spaces. Out here, the unbound mind can run free. Imagination reigns. Space becomes a projection screen. Inside becomes outside. You can see what you are.” [iii]

Of course, the desert can be anywhere. Alassandro Pronzato, one of my favorite desert teachers, describes it as an essentially inward condition:

“You can find your desert in a corner of your house, on a motorway, in a square, in a crowded street. But you must first renounce the slavery of illusions, refuse the blackmail of pressure, resist the glitter of appearances, repudiate the domination of activity, reject the dictatorship of hypocrisy. Then the desert becomes a place where you do not go out to see the sand blowing in the wind but the Spirit waiting to make his dwelling within you.” [iv]

The desert is no place for the casual tourist. It is a pilgrimage of arduous passage, demanding time, patience, endurance and persistence. “You do not settle there, you pass through. One then ventures on to these tracks because one is driven by the Spirit towards the Promised Land. But it is only promised to those who are able to chew sand for forty years without doubting their invitation to the feast in the end.” [v]

Chewing sand for forty years—not the best sales pitch for the pilgrimage to God. But all the easy roads just lead back to Egypt. Endure the trials, bless the oases. Persist. Never turn back.

Do not doubt the feast.



Related posts:

Via Negativa: A Lenten Worship Installation

Solitude (Part 1)

Solitude (Part 2)


[i] Alessandro Pronzato, Meditations on the Sand (1982), q. in John Moses, The Desert: An Anthology for Lent (Norwich, UK: The Canterbury Press, 1997, 30-31.

[ii] Belden C. Lane, The Solace of Fierce Landscapes: Exploring Desert and Mountain Spirituality (New York: Oxford University Press, 1998), 166.

[iii] Bill Viola, Reasons for Knocking at an Empty House: Writings 1973-1994 (London: Thames & Hudson, 1995) 54.

[iv] Moses, 31.

[v] Ibid., 26.

I took the photograph in California’s Alabama Hills, where I have run among wildflowers and slept beneath the stars. The mountain peak on the right is Mt. Whitney, the highest point in the lower 48 states. I climbed it in 1998.

What Happens in Bethlehem Doesn’t Stay in Bethlehem

Giovanni Bellini, The Madonna of the Small Trees (1487)

If you want, the Virgin will come walking down the road, pregnant with the holy, and say,
“I need shelter for the night, please take me inside your heart.
My time is so close.”

 Then, under the roof of your soul,
you will witness the sublime intimacy,
the divine, the Christ,
taking birth forever.

 –– St. John of the Cross


The story we celebrate on Christmas Eve isn’t just about a long-ago wonder. It describes something that is still going on, as the divine “takes birth forever” in mortal flesh and human stories. The infinite God, the Creator of time and space and matter, the Source and Sustainer of all existence, yearns to be born in us, to express the life-giving Word in the vocabulary of human flesh. Your life, my life, our common life as the body of Christ––these are God’s Bethlehem tonight.

In other words, the Nativity isn’t just something we remember. It’s something we do, something we become.  As St. Paul said, “all of us . . . are being transformed into the image that we reflect in brighter and brighter glory.” In other words, we are destined to become God-like.

But what does that mean––“God-like?” It doesn’t mean having superpowers or being invulnerable. Look at Jesus. His life tells you what God-like means. He was born in poverty and weakness, in a stable not a palace, and he lived a life of utter self-emptying and self-offering, giving himself away for the life of the world.

To let the divine be born in us, then, means simply this: to let our humanity achieve its true fullness by allowing divine Love to have its way with us. A 13th-century mystic, Mechtild of Magdeberg, put it like this:

“When are we like God? I will tell you.
Insofar as we love compassion and practice it steadfastly,
to that extent do we resemble the heavenly Creator
who practices these things ceaselessly.”

O come, let us adore Christ. But not only that. O come, let us imitate Christ. Let God’s life be born in us. And when the divine is born in us, when the divine takes place in us, we will not be the only ones changed by it. Everyone we meet will be changed. And perhaps one day, the whole world will be changed––into “brighter and brighter glory.”

I think it all comes down to this: What happens in Bethlehem doesn’t stay in Bethlehem.
It goes out into all the world, to all people, all places, now and forever.
And nothing will ever be the same again.



Dear reader, thank you for taking the time to consider these posts. You are a writer’s best gift. I wish you a most happy and luminous Christmastide. May your own encounter with the embodied God––whatever form it may take––bless and empower you in the days to come.

How long? Not Long! – The Advent Collection

Oregon dawn (Photo by Jim Friedrich)

Yet saints their watch are keeping,
their cry goes up, “How long?”
and soon the night of weeping
shall be the morn of song.

–– Samuel John Stone

Of all the seasons, Advent is the one I love the best. Its flavors are so richly complex: prophetic shouts and angelic whispers, deepest dark and magical light, wintry cold and warming hearts, the end of the world and the birth of the new. And its symphonic progression, from the eschatological thunder of its opening movement to the midnight hush in the shepherds’ field, sounds the profoundest depths of the cosmos and the soul.

I fell in love with Advent as a child, when I knew no distinction between sacred and profane. The glow of colored lights on almost every house, our family prayers around the Advent wreath, the search for the perfect tree, the interminable wait for presents to be opened, the smell of baking cookies shaped like stars and Santas, the glorious texts of Isaiah and Luke on Sunday mornings, and hearty renditions of “O come, O come, Emmanuel” and “Come, thou long-expected Jesus”––they were all about the same thing: the wonder of a world where magic is afoot and Love’s gifts are never exhausted.

Over the years, as I have grown more acquainted with the sorrow, pain and injustice of mortal life and human history, the meanings of Advent have only deepened. And in today’s evil times, the practice of hope is more necessary than ever.

I have written more posts about Advent than any other season, and I gather all the links together here. Wander through them as you will. Try the practices. Share whatever you like. And may your own Advent bring you blessing, joy, and the nearness of holy Presence.


Ten Ways to Keep a Holy Advent –– This has been my most popular Advent post, with simple practices to deepen our experience of the season. “In a month that is already far too busy and rushed, these are not offered as one more to-do list to work through, but as ways to slow down, take a breath, pay attention, and make room in our lives for the birth of the Holy.” The 10 ways are: Interrupting, Silencing, Waiting, Listening, Watching, Praying, Reflecting, Loving, Giving, Receiving. (Dec. 6, 2014)

Praying the O Antiphons –– These sublime antiphons (best known in the hymn, “O come, O come, Emmanuel”) are a beautiful way to pray during Advent. This post includes my contemporary variations on the ancient texts. On each of the seven days before Christmas, put the appropriate antiphon on your mirror or refrigerator, and pray without ceasing. (Dec. 17, 2014)

The O Antiphons: Drenched in the Speech of God –– Further reflections on what the antiphons have to tell us. “God is not a hypothesis to be tested or a puzzle to be solved by detached observers, but an experience to be encountered by receptive participants, those who know how to say ‘O!’” (Dec. 17, 2015)


Dancing with Time: An Advent Prelude –– My most recent Advent post is a meditation on time, a major preoccupation of the season. As W. H. Auden said, “Time is our choice of How to love and Why.” (Dec. 1, 2017)

The World’s End (An Advent Manifesto) –– Worlds end all the time. Neither personal worlds nor public worlds last forever. That may bring sadness, but it is also the foundation of hope’s possiblities. “Yes, all the inadequate, incomplete versions of world will come to an end (some of them kicking and screaming!), but creation as it was intended will be restored, not discarded. Like a poet who creates a new language out of old words, Love will remake the ruins and recover the lost. And the Holy One who is the mystery of the world will be its light and its life forever.” (Nov. 25, 2016)

“God Isn’t Fixing This” –– For an Advent liturgy, I constructed an enormous wall, made of newspapers with distressing headlines, and set it as a veil between the congregation and the beauty of the sanctuary. In the course of the liturgy, the wall was torn down, symbolizing God’s grace breaking into our troubled history. As I wrote in this post (after yet another American gun massacre): “What if an unexpected future is breaking through the walls of our self-made prison? The Advent message is to embrace this hope, as we take off the garments of sorrow and affliction to welcome the God of joy into our midst.” (Dec. 15, 2015)

“God is alive, surprising us everywhere” –– “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. In the deep gloom after the presidential election, I was given the grace of three small revelations. One came during a concert, one in a dream, and one from the mouth of a homeless woman. (Dec. 13, 2016)


Advent Adventures in Worship (Part 1: The Electric Eschaton) –– “As the liturgical season when the old is judged and found wanting and the new is never quite what anyone expects, Advent seems particularly suited to a disruption of routine and the intrusion of novelty into the worship experience.” In the apocalyptic year of 1968, I curated a multi-media Advent mash-up of sounds and images from films, rock and roll, poetry, political documentaries and other diverse sources to evoke two Advent themes: “Break on through to the other side” and “Please don’t be long.” This post includes an unusual 20-minute audio collage which, 49 years later, remains a unique artifact in the history of preaching. Wear headphones and turn it up! (Dec. 13, 2014)

Advent Adventures in Worship (Part 2: Homecoming) –– In a pioneering example of a worship “installation,” people journeyed in small groups through a series of multi-sensory experiences. “The journey was a dying (baptismal figure, narrowing of space, sounds and images of a yearning world, an unknown way, darkness) and a rising (emergence into an open, “transcendent” space, and being gathered into the community of the eucharist). It was a losing (leaving the original assembly and the main space) and a finding (rediscovering the community and the original space).” (Dec. 20, 2014)

Unsilent Night: An Advent Revelation –– In an annual December art experience by musician Phil Kline in cities across America, participants collectively create a river of sound moving through the streets––a striking instance of Advent surprise and wonder. “If God is more of a situation than an object, then the community, relationality, mystery, beauty, wonder, delight, and communion produced by the event seemed apt expressions of divinity taking ‘place,’ or ‘being here now.’ You didn’t have to name it to live it.” (Dec. 21, 2015)

Dancing with Time: An Advent Prelude

Time is our choice of How to love and Why.

–– W. H. Auden[i]


Every December, as we approach the border between the years, I think a lot about time. Where did the last twelve months go? How will this year be remembered? What will the New Year bring? How will I ever find time––or make time––to breathe during the holiday rush?

Then there are the big questions. What am I meant to do with the gift of time? How much of it is left? Does time have any purpose or meaning? Is it going anywhere?

The season of Advent, beginning this Sunday, is all about time.

  • We recall the past, pondering the Scriptural history of humanity’s deepest longing and desire, and celebrate the coming of the One in whom “the hopes and fears of all the years” converge at last.
  • We look to the future, when Creation will one day correspond to the purposes of God: the broken mended, wounds made whole, tears wiped from every eye––and everyone gathered into Love’s eternal dance.
  • And we attend to the present, alert for the signs of God’s self-revealing in every moment. The world is saturated with divine appearance, and the practice of Advent is to keep watch and stay awake.

But time is tricky, elusive and complex. It takes many forms. In The Myths of Time, London priest Hugh Rayment-Pickard posits four distinct modes of time.

CATASTROPHIC TIME is devoid of redemption or meaning. It is going nowhere fast. The world feels dark, empty, terrifying. There is neither purpose nor hope nor beauty. It’s a state of utter depression: time has no goal, and everything is sinking into the abyss of nonbeing.

Catastrophic time extinguishes every impulse to rise up and live anew. It is hell’s “darkling plain,” where there is “neither joy, nor love, nor light, / Nor certitude, nor peace, nor help for pain.”[ii] Most of us have experienced this temporal condition––even Christ in his cry of abandonment––but it’s not a place you can stay for long.

APOCALYPTIC TIME shares with the catastrophic a deep disillusionment with the projects of human history. The apocalyptic view knows the mess we’re in: “genocide, ravenous capitalism, grotesque inequalities, world-destroying technologies and competing fundamentalisms.”[iii]

And it looks to God alone for deliverance, as in this lyric by Leonard Cohen:

If it be your will, let your mercy spill
on all these burning hearts in hell,
if it be your will to make us well…
and end this night,
if it be your will.[iv]  

Yes, the world is broken and wounded in ways that seem beyond human remedy. Still, we hope: God is coming to save us. We don’t know how, we don’t know when, we don’t even know what. But we believe, trust and hope that in the end God will “end this night” and “make us well.”

PROPHETIC TIME shares the apocalyptic sense of crisis and judgment, but it doesn’t leave all the work to an outside, transcendent agency. We ourselves are invited and encouraged to become the hands and feet of God, the visible embodiment of divine intention. The prophets don’t just wait for God’s future to arrive like a package from Amazon Prime (expedited shipping available!). They point to the Now as the place where “every heart prepares him room,” where we all can join the work of repairing the world as well as our own broken and unfinished selves.

The prophetic sense, like the apocalyptic, longs for a better world; but it insists on our own participation in the process of revolutionary transformation. We don’t just sit still until the Kingdom comes; we go out to meet it.

The source of so much positive social change, the prophetic understanding of historical time as an unfolding of divine purpose may at times overestimate human potential and underestimate human sin. It can leave us disillusioned when our efforts go awry or the world fails to improve in a timely manner.

KAIRIC TIME differs sharply from both the apocalyptic and the prophetic. Instead of looking to the future end of time and the completion of salvation history, it devotes all its attention to the profound depths of the present moment, to what the Greeks called kairos: the epiphanic Now, charged with meaning in its own right, whatever its connection to a larger ongoing story.

Kairic time is the domain of the poet, the artist and the mystic, who know how to find what T. S. Eliot called “a lifetime burning in every moment.” But in fact it is available to us all. We only need the discipline to wait until it shows itself, and the attentiveness to be fully present and receptive when it comes.

As the 14th century author of The Cloud of Unknowing recommends:

“Be attentive to time and how you spend it. Nothing is more precious. This is evident when you recall that in one tiny moment heaven may be gained or lost. God, the master of time, never gives the future. God gives only the present, moment by moment.”[v]

The Incarnation is in one sense a validation of kairos, because it shifts the crucial moment of history from the end of time to the middle: God comes into the midst of world and time, giving the divine presence fully, holding nothing back. Therefore we can find “God-with-us” in every moment, if we pay attention and stay awake.

But kairic time, like the other modes, has its liabilities and limitations. We can be so swept away by the beauty of the moment that we become insensible of the suffering all around us. We may grow so enamored of our own experience that the demands and tasks of a shared public life fade into insignificance––the world out there is “not our problem.” Living in the moment can be enlightenment. It can also be escape.

Does any single mode take precedence over the others?
Or do they all have gifts for us?
The fact is, we live and move and have our being
in all the temporal modes––sometimes simultaneously.
And each of them calls us to respond in a particular way:[vi]

Apocalyptic: Renounce and resist the things that bind us to the ways of violence, greed and death, and wait upon the surprises of God with faith and hope.

Prophetic: Prepare ourselves to make room for God’s coming, offering our energies and our choices as visible signs of the dawning Kingdom.

 Kairic:  Stay awake for the revelation in every moment.

“My times are in your hand,” says the Psalmist.[vii]
What would happen if we could realize this in every moment?
This Advent, may your own dance with time be full of grace.



Related posts:

Ten Ways to Keep a Holy Advent

The World’s End (An Advent Manifesto)


[i] W. H. Auden, “For the Time Being: A Christmas Oratorio,” Collected Poems (New York: Random House, 1976), 297.

[ii] Matthew Arnold, “Dover Beach.”

[iii] Hugh Rayment-Pickard, The Myths of Time: From St. Augustine to American Beauty (London: Darton, Longman and Todd Ltd, 2004), 99.

[iv] Leonard Cohen, “If It Be Your Will,” on Various Positions (1984)

[v] The Cloud of Unknowing, q. in Hugh Rayment-Pickard, 92.

[vi] Even catastrophic time may contain a gift. Good Friday is the prelude to Resurrection.

[vii] Psalm 31:15

Applauding the Saints

Jeremiah, portal of Moissac abbey on the Le Chemin de St. Jacques (Photo by Jim Friedrich)

At least once in our lives we have dreamed of becoming saints… Stumbling under the weight of the contradictions of our lives, for a fleeting moment we glimpsed the possibility of building within ourselves a place of simplicity and light.

–– Carlo Caretto[i]

Did I offer peace today? Did I bring a smile to someone’s face? Did I say words of healing? Did I let go of my anger and resentments? Did I forgive? Did I love?

–– Henri Nouwen[ii]


On the Feast of Pentecost in 2001, I attended the papal mass in the densely packed outdoor plaza of St. Peter’s Basilica. As the grand procession made its way toward the altar, the assembly began to applaud. While the sound of one hand clapping may induce a spiritual state, the sound of many hands can be jarring in a worship setting, at least for contemplatives. Pope Benedict XVI, never a happy-clappy man, called it “a sure sign that the essence of the liturgy has totally disappeared and been replaced by a kind of religious entertainment.”[iii]

But Rome has a long tradition of applauding the pope as he enters for mass, and this day was no exception. However, this papal entrance was unique, for there were not one but two popes coming up the aisle––the reigning pontiff, John Paul II, but also the mortal remains of the beloved John XXIII as well. On the anniversary of his death (June 3), John’s body was being transferred from an underground crypt to a more public location under the altar of St. Jerome in the basilca’s central nave. But for the duration of the mass, it rested by the outdoor altar in full view of the assembly.

John XXIII died in 1963. When his original coffin was opened after 38 years, his body was found to be remarkably intact. It was dressed in red and white pontifical robes and placed in a glass coffin designed to block UV rays from the Roman sun. His face was protected by a wax mask, displaying the smile which had once dissolved the gloomy severity of a fortress church.

The living pope got his share of the applause, but the most affectionate attention was directed toward the “Good Pope John,” who would be canonized as a saint by Pope Francis in 2014. John’s humility, humor, and love of the poor were striking qualities in a pontiff, but he was best known for initiating the landmark reforms of Vatican II.

John XXIII famously said he wanted to “open the windows” of the Church so that fresh air could blow through its stuffy rooms. So it seemed to me a clear act of divine whimsy when a sudden gust of wind swept through St. Peter’s Square at that Pentecost mass, blowing the caps off the heads of cardinals as we chanted the Creed.

Ironically, John himself discouraged the custom of applauding him or any other pope in church. In templum Dei, he said, the focus should be on God, not ourselves. While we may want to celebrate the saintliness of exemplary persons, the true saint always deflects such praise. Not I, but Christ in me, they tell us.

This deflection is not an act of false humility. Saints are too busy chasing God or serving others to check their spiritual Fitbit. Saints never know that they are saints. They only know that something absolutely essential is calling them, and their life becomes the record of their response.

The first officially recognized Christian saints were the ancient martyrs, who took Christ’s “lose your life to find it” in the most literal sense. As Thomas Becket says in T. S. Eliot’s Murder in the Cathedral, the martyr is one “who has become the instrument of God, who has lost his will in the will of God––not lost it, but found it. . . . The martry no longer desires anything for himself, not even the glory of martyrdom.”[iv]

Although physical martyrdom is still a widespread occurrence around the world, self-sacrifice need not be lethal. Most people engage in some sacrificial practices for God or neighbor, but few of us take it as far as the asceticism so vividly imagined in Don DeLillo’s novel, The Names:

“Go naked in a scatter of ashes, stand in the burning sun. If there is a God, how could we fail to submit completely? Existence would be decrease, going clean. And adding beauty to the world, Kathryn might say. To her the spectacle had merit even if the source was obscure. They would be beautiful to see, leaning on staffs, mind-scorched, empty-eyed, men in the dust of India, moving to the endless name of God.”[v]

The late medieval mysticism of Marguerite of Porete was steeped in this kind of radical self-emptying. What she called the “annihilated soul” (âme aniente) has “neither what nor why”–– it wills nothing, knows nothing, possesses nothing. Such utter evacuation of ego makes space for the Divine to dwell. The Soul, she said, “was created for nothing other than to have within the being of pure charity without end.”[vi] This was a forbidding, perhaps impossible spirituality.

Ecclesiastical authorities repeatedly warned Marguerite to stop circulating her troublesome ideas and writings. Nevertheless, she persisted. Certainly the outspokennes of a free-spirited woman was enough in itself to disconcert the male hierarchy. But the radical nature of her mystical spirituality seemed a very real threat to the stability of Christian community. Imagine a congregation of annihilated souls trying to manage the mundane duties of parish life. What happens when the church needs a new roof? What do they teach in Sunday School? Would a visitor feel welcome––or terror––at the liturgy?

Marguerite was burned at the stake in Paris on June 1, 1310, “the earliest recorded death sentence for mystical heresy in Western Christianity.”[vii] While we abhor such an outcome, we may share the underlying concern about a spirituality of utter self-negation. Few of us are called to “go naked in a scatter of ashes.” If this life is a gift and not a prison, shouldn’t our spiritual practice affirm and embrace the blessings and epiphanies of embodied existence?

“Your Enjoyment of the World is never right,” wrote 17th-century Anglican Thomas Traherne, “till evry Morning you awake in Heaven: see your self in your fathers Palace: and look upon the Skies and the Earth and the Air, as Celestial Joys.”[viii] Traherne is miles from Marguerite of Porete, yet they both share the one thing common to all the saints. They turn their faces Godward.

“I ought therefore evermore . . . . to remember God, and aim at His Glory as my Supreme End. When I forget Him I walk in Darkness, when I aim at myself it is in vain Glory.”[ix]

Tomorrow is All Saints Day. We will remember and celebrate the great company of our ancestors and mentors in the blessing way. We will praise their godly qualities, be inspired by their examples, and take heart from the fact that they were and are “just folk like me”[x]––forgiven sinners, “stumbling under the weight of their contradictions” yet keeping their eyes on the prize.

Yes, we applaud their sanctity, but listen! Our applause is being drowned out by a mightier sound. The company of heaven returns the compliment. While we make our own stumbling way deeper and deeper into the Mystery, the saints are now applauding us.



Related post: For All the Saints


[i] Robert Ellsberg, The Saints’ Guide to Happiness: Practical Lessons in the Life of the Spirit (New York: Doubleday, 2003), 29.

[ii] Ibid., 146-7.

[iii] Joseph Ratziner, The Spirit of the Liturgy (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2000), 198.

[iv] Quoted in Martyrs: Contemporary Martyrs on Modern Lives of Faith (San Francisco: Harper San Francisco, 1996), 4-5.

[v] Don DeLillo, The Names (New York: Vintage, 1989), 92.

[vi] Joanne Maguire Robinson, Nobility and Annihilation in Marguerite Porete’s Mirror of Simple Souls (Albany, NY: State University of New York Press, 2001), 78, 83.

[vii] Ibid., 27.

[viii] Thomas Traherne, Centuries of Meditations I.28-29, q. in Denise Inge, ed., Happiness and Holiness: Thomas Traherne and His Writings (Norwich, UK: Canterbury Press, 2008), 125.

[ix] Ibid., Select Meditations III.75, in Inge, 262.

[x] Lesbia Scott, “I Sing a Song of the Saints of God.”

Falling Leaves and the Fate of Mortals

New Hampshire, October 2016 (Photo by Jim Friedrich)

Grant us, Lord, not to be anxious about earthly things,
but to love things heavenly; and even now,
while we are placed among things that are passing away,
to hold fast to those that shall endure. . .

–– Collect for the Sunday closest to the Autumnal Equinox


The Book of Common Prayer has a collect, or gathering prayer, for each Sunday of the year. Many of the collects reflect the themes of their liturgical season, but only one of them seems to make an explicit connection with one of the four natural seasons. At the beginning of Autumn, when leaves will fall, flowers wither, and birds depart, the Church prays that we who “are placed among things that are passing away” may not be “anxious.”

The origins of the prayer are, in fact, not seasonal, but political. It was composed when the stability of the late Roman Empire was under threat by barbarian invaders. Inspired by the text of Colossians 3:2 (Set your mind on things that are above, not on things of earth), it reflects the sense of the world as we know it coming to an end. When all that defines us is being swept away, what is the enduring rock to which we can cling?

With perfect brevity, the prayer sums up the spirituality of Autumn, the season of loss and letting go. In a year when my best friend, my father-in-law, and two nonagenarian mentors have all passed away, the season’s metaphorical message seems acutely personal. No matter how dearly we cherish the colors of fall, they are the prelude to decay––“the hectic beauty of death.”[i] Outside my window, the katsura’s golden cloak and the maple’s scarlet finery will soon lie on the earth beneath naked branches. It feels like loss.

Katsura and maple trees, Bainbridge Island, October 2017 (Photo by Jim Friedrich)

In January of 1842, Henry David Thoreau suffered two bitter deaths, both terribly premature. His older brother John cut himself shaving on New Year’s Day and died ten days later of tetanus. He was 27. Two weeks later, Waldo Emerson, the endearing five-year-old son of Thoreau’s great friend and mentor, came down with scarlet fever. In three days he was gone.

In her revisionist study of America’s iconic naturalist––Bird Relics: Grief and Vitalism in Thoreau–– Branka Arsić sees his life’s work grounded in deeply personal experiences of loss. His private grief led him to contemplate the “perpetual grief” in nature, as matter continuously mutates from one form to another, and find in it, as Arsić argues, “an “endless/formless mourning that recreates as it grieves.”[ii] Through his close observations of natural processes, Thoreau came to understand death and loss as the means of life, and not its annulment. Decay and decline are not deviations from a normally healthy state, but an integral, inevitable part of the performance of mortal existence. As he wrote in his final essay, October, or Autumnal Tints:

“Will not the land be in good heart
the crops die down from year to year?
The herbage cheerfully consents to bloom, and wither,
and give place to the new.”[iii]

The growth and decay of New England leaves became a presiding image for Thoreau’s reflections on a world where passing away is a necessary part of an enduring cycle of renewal. Published six months after his death, his concluding work celebrated the autumnal cycle as a mirror of the human condition:

“It is pleasant to walk over the beds of these fresh, crisp, and rustling leaves. How beautifully they go to their graves! How gently lay themselves down and turn to mould!––painted of a thousand hues. . . . They that soared so loftily, how contentedly they return to dust again, and are laid low, resigned to lie and decay at the foot of the tree, and afford nourishment to new generations of their kind, as well as to flutter on high! They teach us how to die.”[iv]

Vermont, October 2016 (Photo by Jim Friedrich)

In Autumn: A Season of Change, Peter J. Marchand similarly concludes that there is “as much life as there is death in the browning of meadows and the drying of leaves. . . .” 14

For the apparent disappearance of many plants and animals, autumn is often seen as an end. But the seasons are part of a continuum, a revolving process of birth, death, and renewal—and if such could be said to have any beginning or end, then fall could just as well be viewed as a beginning. . . . The seeds of another season have already been planted—sown on the wind and the wings of birds and the coats of animals to find new life in new places. Another generation is already awakening in the wombs of the great mammals. And in all the hidden sanctuaries of autumn—in the crevices of dormant trees, in the cold safety of piled leaves and decaying logs, in the sediments of stream and pond bottom—myriads of insect larvae are beginning their incredible metamorphic journey into spring and adulthood. Energy is flowing and nutrients are circulating. These are the processes by which nature’s bounty is reinvested in a burst of new growth, reproduction, and dispersal, to arrive at yet another autumn and another season of change.[v]


New Hampshire, October 2016 (Photo by Jim Friedrich)

But if this cycle of perpetual renewal frees us from the burden of mourning the fall of every leaf, what about the “falling-sickness” of our own mortality? What will become of me when I fall into the arms of Mother Earth? Do I simply decompose into primordial materials for the making of some entirely new form of future life? Is my unique consciousness swallowed into eternal anonymity, like a raindrop in the sea? Or is there an “I”––with identity, memory, personhood––who survives the transit into whatever’s next?

Arsić understands Thoreau’s “I” as dying to any sense of persisting identity, so that there is no essentialist, interior self to maintain its distinctive subjectivity in an afterlife. Rather, the whole universe is alive with thoughts and relations which re-occur in new ways and inhabit new forms. What survives are the thoughts and experiences, the presences, which are not the possession of separate, autonomous individuals. The universe as a whole is doing the thinking and being, not any of us in particular. Or as Arsić puts it in her twist on Descartes, “where there are thoughts there is no ‘I’.” The sovereign self surrenders to the greater flow of consciousness whose source is beyond the self.[vi]

We tend to think of ourselves as an “I” who surveys the world from a protected tower. But what if we are not so insulated from the things and presences in which we live and move and have our being? What if, like Walter Benjamin’s flâneur[vii], “I” am spellbound and possessed by external objects, no longer a private isolated self but a receptive convergence of the multiple sensations of a world saturated with communicative presence? When Thoreau, in taking a walk, felt himself “grandly related” to everything he experienced, he became what he saw, in a world where every object is alive and returns our gaze.

“Hence,” writes Arsić, “Thoreau can not only say that he is interested in thoughts that the body thinks but he can also risk a more startling claim: ‘All matter, indeed, is capable of entertaining thought’ (Journal: c. Fall 1845). Contemplation, then, is not something brought to matter by the mind; rather, in Thoreau’s account, all matter is treated as contemplative, alive, and thoughtful.”[viii]

This takes us pretty far into the philosophical weeds, but have we also wandered away from Christian orthodoxy? The “resurrection of the body” implies that the unique particularity of every human being will be re-membered by God on the Last Day. Personal identity will not utterly vanish into the All. Heaven will not be a congregation of amnesiacs. Something of our embodied being––our stories, our relationships––will have a future in the economy of God.

However, Christian theology also admits a radical discontinuity between this life and the next. We do not share the ancient Greek conception of immortal souls who simply shed their physical bodies to carry on in eternity without interruption. For there to be resurrection, there must first be annihilation. “So death will soon disrobe us all of what we here possess.”[ix] As St. Augustine said, to climb up “through my mind towards you who are constant above me. . . I will pass beyond even that power of mind which is called memory.”[x] If memory means “the story by which I define myself,” that’s a lot to let go of. How many of us are really prepared for such radical surrender?

If we are truly made in the image of the self-emptying God, then our insistence on maintaining the self as we know it only exacerbates the distance between human and divine. To overcome that distance requires a complete letting go, like the last autumn leaf, and falling into the no-thingness from which all are created.

Resurrection is then, in effect, a reprise of creation ex nihilo by the Love which “breaks, creates, and re-makes all meaning out of nothing.”[xi] Whatever it turns out to mean that God will be “all in all,” does it really matter how much of our individual construct of self survives the transition to the “other side?” When we are truly lost in wonder, love and praise, will self-consciousness matter, or even exist? Will it be important that “I” know that “I” am the one who is immersed in divine Being? Or will my former, earthly identity be rather beside the point in the interdependent, intertwined dance of God where we belong so completely to one another?

None of us will be shouting “Hey, look, it’s me!” in heaven.
We won’t even be shouting “Hallelujah!”
We will have become Hallelujah!

Vine maple, Washington Cascades, October 2017 (Photo by Jim Friedrich)

To enter the abyss of God, says Catholic theologian Caitlin Smith Gilson, is “no longer to be the self that knows itself and its God by separateness, for there would be no separation and thus no knowledge of difference or identity in God.” Her argument resolves into a prayer of surrender:

You are the source of my most genuine wants,
and I wanted to be nearer than difference
and therefore I surrender to You
who desire my genuine desires
emphatically and inexhaustibly
more than I can ever want.
You desired me and I desired You
and we desired a union
closer than philosophy and reason
and even faith
could give.[xii]




Related posts:


A Tender Doom


[i] Martha McCulloch Williams, “What Saith September?” (1892), in Peter J. Marchand, Autumn: A Season of Change (Hanover, NH: University Press of New England, 2000), 14.

[ii] Branka Arsić, Bird Relics: Grief and Vitalism in Thoreau (Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 2016), 379.

[iii] Henry David Thoreau, October, or Autumnal Tints (New York: W.W. Norton & Co., 2016), 37.

[iv] October, 89.

[v] Marchand, 135-6.

[vi] Arsić, 316.

[vii] Walter Benjamin adopted the 19th-century literary image of the flâneur (“stroller,” “saunterer”) as an image for the modern urban wanderer who loses himself in, or is possessed by, the impressions his world offers to him. In The Arcades Project (1999, p. 449), Benjamin cites an example of self-dissolved-into-world from Flaubert: “Today, for instance, as man and woman, both lover and mistress, I rode in a forest on an autumn afternoon under the yellow leaves, and I was also the horses, the leaves, the wind, the words my people uttered, even the red sun that made them almost close their love-drowned eyes.”

[viii] Arsić, 310.

[ix] “Evening Shade,” a shape-note hymn, text by John Leland (1792), The Sacred Harp, #209 (Bremen, Georgia: Sacred Harp Publishing Company, 1991).

[x] Confessions X, xvii, q. in Caitlin Smith Gilson, The Philosophical Question of Christ (London: Bloomsbury Academic, 2014), 209.

[xi] Gilson, 211

[xii] Ibid., 207, 213.