“The deepest kind of life”—Is Religion Dying?

St. Mary’s, Fairford, Gloucestershire, England (Jim Friedrich)

For most of my life, a majority of Americans—around 70%—identified with a religion. In the twenty-first century, that stability in religious affiliation has collapsed, falling by 20 points in just two decades. The United States, long one of the world’s most religious countries, has become, rather suddenly, one of the least.

Rapid changes in society, technology, mobility and time management, along with the reluctance of younger generations to make institutional commitments of any kind, have contributed to this erosion. So have the manifold sins of believers and religious institutions, which publicly discredit the transformational claims of faith communities. If religious people behave badly, what’s the point?

The major religions have survived comparable challenges in the past. What may be different in these latter days is the degree to which the secular age has flattened reality into a strictly horizontal dimension, excluding the verticals of transcendence and depth. For growing numbers of Americans, God is neither felt nor thought. Religion’s windows into the divine invisible have been replaced by mirrors.

At least since the Enlightenment, critics and skeptics have been writing obituaries for religion. By the nineteenth century, doubt was in full flood. An appraisal in 1878 was typical: “one can hear faith decaying … This decay has been maturing for three hundred years, and their effects prophesied for fifty; indeed, not prophesied only but in some degree accomplished.” [i]  

Thirty years later, Thomas Hardy would write “God’s Funeral,” a somber poem about the death of belief. As the “strange and mystic form” of the expired deity passes by, borne by a great procession of mourners, the poet confesses the object of faith to be a delusion:

… tricked by our own early dream
And need of solace, we grew self-deceived,
Our making soon our maker did we deem,
And what we had imagined we believed.

Till, in Time’s stayless stealthy swing,
Uncompromising rude reality
Mangled the Monarch of our fashioning,
Who quivered, sank; and now has ceased to be.[ii]

At least Hardy felt sad about the demise of divinity (“Sadlier than those who wept in Babylon, / Whose Zion was a still abiding hope.”). These days, unbelief is more a matter of indifference than sorrow. How many people still take God into account, or think theologically, and shape their lives accordingly? Once God is gone, what’s the use of religion? 

The precipitous decline of religious affiliation in America has prompted anxious speculations about what’s next. In “America Without God,” Shadi Hamid, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institute, sees religious fervor being sublimated into political conviction.[iii] As we have seen in the case of the recent Trump cult, with its sociopathic savior, this can go very wrong. At least religion attempts to temper the zeal of believers with mandates of repentance and forgiveness, as well as the humility of unknowing in the presence of mystery. Politics, not so much.

In an article on the “Death of Faith,” journalist Murtaza Hussain deems the extinction of traditional religion in America to be only a matter of time. “Older expressions of religion are not completely absent in public, to be sure. But compared with the past, their influence over events feels akin to the light of a dead star.… The slow-rolling death of religion in American life begs the question, then, what type of new world will emerge from the wreckage of the old?” 

Hussain hopes that any emergent communal expressions will not repeat what he calls “the worst aspects of the old religions, including the moral censoriousness, judgmentalism, heresy-hunting and the persecution of those who think differently.” We should construct a new social imaginary, he suggests optimistically, “with the self-conscious idea of improving on the mistakes of organized religion.”[iv]   

Personally, I am not prepared to exchange Jesus, the sacraments, saints, centuries of wisdom, sacred conversation, communal prayer, or the Paschal Mystery for a mistake-free startup. While I may lament the Church’s manifold sins and grumble over its frustrations, I will continue to feast on its visions and receive its graces. Even the soul’s darkest nights are preferable to a world without divine depth or holy wonder. As Meister Eckhart said, “I would rather be in hell and have God, than in heaven and not have God.”[v]

Baron von Hügel (1852-1925)

In concluding his illuminating study of religious defections by the Victorians and their successors, A. N. Wilson quotes one of the era’s greatest religious thinkers, Baron von Hügel (1852-1925), who insisted that “religion was the deepest kind of life.” And to that, Wilson adds his own Amen: “And I am bound to say that compiling this study of those who tried to live without religion, or who chose to live within the limitations of a purely materialistic explanation for the problems of metaphysics, has not made me wish to revise the baron’s viewpoint.”[vi]

How, then, should the Church respond to declining numbers, or address widespread indifference to its priorities and practices? Shall we attempt to shape a social imaginary more congenial to “the deepest kind of life?” Do we welcome the death of antiquated forms in order to practice resurrection? Or should we wait and listen in faithful silence for a word not yet spoken? 

George Tyrrell (1861-1909)

George Tyrrell was an Irish Jesuit who urged the Church at the dawn of the 20th century to adapt and evolve in response to the challenges of modernity. His progressive views were out of step with his contemporaries, and when the anti-modernist Pius X became pope in 1903, Tyrrell’s fate was sealed. He was expelled from the Jesuits in 1906, denied the sacraments in 1907, excommunicated in 1908, and forbidden a Catholic burial in 1909. Half a century later, his views would be mostly vindicated at the Second Vatican Council. 

The fact that Tyrrell was wrong in 1906 and right in the 1960s demonstrates the tension between stability and innovation which is unavoidable—even necessary—within a living tradition. A great religious institution may not be able to turn on a dime, but it still contains within itself an ultimate loyalty to its transcendent and ineffable core, enabling it to adapt and survive. The secret of Christianity’s longevity is its rootedness in a reality which exceeds any particular institutional or theological expression. Transition, revolution, or even apparent catastrophe do not signify ultimate defeat if you are in covenant with the God of infinite surprise.  

As Orthodox theologian David Bentley Hart puts it, “the proof that any tradition is a living one is precisely that it does not fiercely cling to every aspect of what it has inherited but instead exhibits an often astonishing ruthlessness in shedding the past, out of obedience to some still more original spiritual imperative.”[vii]

Grave at Wesley’s Chapel, London (Jim Friedrich)

Dying to the old and rising into the new is a costly and painful process, but it is the ultimate vocation of every believer and every church. In a letter to a friend in April 1906, Tyrrell movingly expressed both the anguish and the hope of trusting in the unknown futurity of God: 

“I quite understand your desire for a life of prayer—the nostalgia for the old days ‘when His lamp shone about my head.’ God knows I feel it. But I think they will return for us all in some better form. I find the Breviary lives for me again after a long transition period of death. One has to pass through atheism to faith; the old God must be pulverized and forgotten before the new can reveal himself to us.” [viii]

Tyrrell’s “pulverized and forgotten” God sounds little different from Hardy’s “mangled Monarch,” except for one thing: resurrection. Hardy thought death was the end of the story. Tyrrell knew it was only the beginning. 


[i] W. H. Mallock, The Nineteenth Century, cited in A. N. Wilson, God’s Funeral (New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 1999), 164.

[ii] Full text and notes for Hardy’s poem: http://greatpoetryexplained.blogspot.com/2019/01/gods-funeral-by-thomas-hardy.html

[iii] Shadi Hamid, “America Without God,” The Atlantic (April 2021): https://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2021/04/america-politics-religion/618072/

[iv] Murtaza Hussain, “How the Death of Faith Will Hurt the Left,” Wisdom of Crowds (Sept. 15, 2020): https://wisdomofcrowds.live/death-of-faith-hurt-the-left/

[v]Meister Eckhart (c. 1260 – c. 1328), cited in Evelyn Underhill, Mysticism: The Nature and Development of Spiritual Consciousness, originally published 1911 (Oxford: Oneworld Publications, 1993), 209.

[vi] A. N. Wilson, 336.

[vii] David Bentley Hart, Theological Territories: A David Bentley Hart Digest (Notre Dame, IN: Notre Dame University Press, 2020), 106.

[viii] George Tyrrell, cited in A. N. Wilson, 351.

Praying the Hours (2): Vigils

This is the second in a series on the canonical hours, the ancient Christian practice for living a mindful day. The first, “Reclaiming My Time,” gives a general introduction, with a list of helpful resources for your own practice of prayer and meditation. This second reflection concerns “Vigils,” the liminal space between yesterday and tomorrow.

“Could you not stay awake for one hour?” — Lippo Memmi, Agony in the Garden (detail), Collegiata Santa Maria Assunta, San Gimignano, Italy (c. 1340).

What if you slept? And what if, in your sleep, you dreamed? And what if, in your dream, you went to heaven and plucked a strange and beautiful flower? And what if, when you awoke, you had the flower in your hand? Ah, what then? 

— Samuel Taylor Coleridge, “What if you slept?”

The night, O my Lord, is a time of freedom. You have seen the morning and the night, and the night was better. In the night, all things began, and in the night the end of all things has come before me. 

— Thomas Merton, “Fire Watch, July 4, 1952”

Vigils is the most fluid of the canonical hours. It may be kept at midnight, or at 3 a.m., or just before dawn, as a prelude to the sunrise hour of Lauds. While the world sleeps, monastics rise from their beds and make their way in the dark to the choir. The sixth-century Rule of St. Benedict recommends that the first Psalm be read “slowly and deliberately,” to allow the community’s sleepyheads extra time to arrive. “If the resurrection of the dead is anything like getting up in the morning,” complains one monk, “I am not completely convinced that I want to be included.”[i] But prayer never sleeps. “At midnight I will rise to give you thanks,” says the Psalmist. “My eyes are open in the night watches.”[ii]

Vigils is not for all people at all times, but as an occasional practice it has much to offer. Being awake in the night is not like being awake in the day. We are different, our surroundings are different, and time is different. All these differences affect the quality of our consciousness, our physical energies, and our prayer. It’s no accident that the two most mysterious events in the gospels, the Nativity and the Resurrection, took place in deepest night.[iii] “When all things were wrapped in peaceful silence and night was in the midst of its swift course,” said Meister Eckhart, “a secret word leaped down from heaven.…”[iv]

The hours between midnight and dawn should not go unvisited by the waking self. They whisper secrets which sleepers never know. I’ve driven through black nights on lost highways, watched 72-hour film marathons with (mostly) open eyes, arisen at midnight to ascend Mt. Rainier with a headlamp, drifted in and out of sleep lying on the floor of the Fillmore Auditorium in the wee hours of a Grateful Dead concert, and curated all-night multi-sensory worship in a circus tent with 400 Episcopalians.[v] Even though only the last of these was a specifically religious event, I always felt transformed to some degree by my night-journeys. By the time the sun restored the ordinary, I was no longer quite the same person. Something had shifted. Maybe it was the world; maybe it was just my eyes, or my heart. But the next morning I always felt radiant and new, like the first morning of Creation. 

What is it about a vigil experience that makes this so? For one thing, my post-midnight self, even when awake, is more prone to a state of reverie, when the daytime’s fully conscious subject gives way to the “night dream” which, as Gaston Bachelard suggests, “does not belong to us. It is not our possession. With regard to us, it is an abductor, the most disconcerting of abductors: it abducts our being from us. Nights, nights have no history.… we are returned to an ante-subjective state. We become elusive to ourselves, for we are giving pieces of ourselves to no matter whom, to no matter what.”[vi]  

The world, too, is different in the dark—its solid forms dissolved into shadow, purged of detail and color, cloaked in absence. The noise and strife of daytime forgotten in the hush. Deep, deep silence: like the primordial stillness before the birth of everything. An environment without verbs. “Baptized in the rivers of night,” said Thomas Merton of the Vigils hour, the earth recovers its “innocence.”[vii]

Time slows, pausing deliberately between yesterday and tomorrow. No longer a flowing river, it becomes a pool of infinite depth where we can wash away our hurry-sickness. “A single hour takes a long time to pass,” says a modern Book of Hours, “but living in it is discipleship for eternity.”[viii]

In the Book of Genesis, Jacob has two contrasting experiences at the Vigils hour. In one, he is given a blissful vision of a ladder between heaven and earth, revealing the ultimate Reality so often invisible in the glare of sunlight. In the other, he wrestles desperately with God till dawn.[ix] So it is for us. Sometimes our night vigil is bathed in tranquility and illumined by love. And sometimes we watch anxiously over a sick child or a dying friend, or pray for the ones who are afraid or lost in the dark, or wrestle with our own troubled thoughts, or wait with expectant and vulnerable hearts for the dawn of God.

Benedictine writer Macrina Wiederkeh distills the essence of Vigils prayer, when even the most restlessly wakeful are invited to rest in the sacred pause of what T. S. Eliot called “the uncertain hour before the morning.”[x]

“In the middle of the night, I pray for those who sleep and those who cannot sleep. I pray for those with fearful hearts, for those whose courage is waning. I pray for those who have lost vision of what could be. When I rise in the middle of the night, my prayer is simply one of waiting in silence, waiting in darkness, listening with love. It is a prayer of surrender. In my night watch I do not ordinarily use words. My prayer is a prayer of intent. I make my intention and I wait. I become a deep yearning. The silence and the darkness are healing. My prayer is now a prayer of trust. I keep vigil with the mystery.”[xi]

When I was a teenager, the climactic all-night vigil in Alan Paton’s novel, Cry the Beloved Country, made a deep impression on me. In the days of South African apartheid, on the night before his prodigal son’s execution, the Rev. Stephen Kumalo, an Anglican priest, climbs a high mountain to pray—for his own failings, for the soul of his son, and for the liberation of his people. Hour after hour, through the darkness, he keeps vigil for Absalom (“my son, my son!”) and for all the broken and lost. When the sun finally breaks the horizon—the very moment of his son’s execution—he makes eucharist with a maize cake and tea, remembering with thanksgiving God’s promise of salvation. “But when that dawn will come, of our emancipation, from the fear of bondage and the bondage of fear, why, that is a secret.”[xii]

Over the years, the image of Fr. Kumalo on that nocturnal summit has informed my own affinity for Vigils. There is something profoundly uncanny about every “night watch,” when sleep is forsaken in order to contemplate “the Mystery of the world,”[xiii] whose ineffability is uniquely conveyed in the hours of deepest dark and silence.

At Gethsemani Abbey in Kentucky, the monks would take turns making the rounds of the expansive main building on “fire watch,” guarding the multitude of flammable wooden spaces through the night while the community slept. Thomas Merton’s shift on the night of July 4th, 1952, became for him a vivid metaphor for the spiritual journey into God, related in his famous “Fire Watch” essay. 

As Merton moves thoughtfully and prayerfully through the monastic spaces, he retraces his personal history as a monk. Every room is inscribed with significant memory. But his fire watch is also the journey of the human soul. By first descending into the monastery’s lower depths and gradually ascending to its highest point in the abbey tower, he replicates the pattern of the Paschal Mystery and the Divine Comedy, where the way down becomes, in the end, the way up. 

Merton’s “Fire Watch” reflection is framed by biblical images. It begins with Isaiah’s tower watchman keeping vigil through the long night, alert for a word of revelation. And it concludes with a divine word of comfort to Jonas, better known as Jonah, whose descent into the belly of the fish foreshadowed Christ’s death and resurrection. 

“The sign of Jonas”––Merton’s term for the Paschal Mystery of dying and rising––is “burned into the roots of our being,” he said. And he described his own life’s pilgrimage as “traveling toward my destiny in the belly of a paradox.”[xiv]

For the receptive soul, Vigils is the hour when we listen to the voice of silence, and rest in the grace of unknowing. In “Fire Watch,” Merton sums up prayer in the dark in four lines:

While I am asking questions which You do not answer, 
You ask me a question which is so simple that I cannot answer.
I do not even understand the question. 
This night, and every night, it is the same question.
[xv]


[i] Mark Barrett, O.S.B., Crossing: Reclaiming the Landscape of Our Lives (Harrisburg, PA: Morehouse Publishing, 2008), 11.

[ii] Psalm 119: 62, 148.

[iii] The Christmas midnight mass and the Easter Vigil both incorporate the Vigils aura of nocturnal mystery when they take the assembly deep into the night. But many churches sacrifice this dimension when they choose the convenience of starting so early that they end well before midnight. 

[iv] Meister Eckhart, cited in Elizabeth Yates, A Book of Hours (Noroton, CT: Vineyard Books, 1976), 50. Yates’ book contains prayers and reflections for each of the 24 hours. The Eckhart quote appears at Midnight.

[v] A description of the all-night liturgy may be found here: https://jimfriedrich.com/2014/08/12/experiments-in-worship/

[vi] Gaston Bachelard, The Poetics of Reverie: Childhood, Language, and the Cosmos (Boston: Beacon Press, 1971), 145.

[vii] Thomas Merton, “Fire Watch, July 4, 1952,” epilogue to The Sign of Jonas (1953), cited in Lawrence S. Cunningham, Thomas Merton: Spiritual Master—The Essential Writings (Mahwah, NJ: Paulist Press, 1992), 107.

[viii] Yates, A Book of Hours, 55.

[ix] Genesis 28:10-17; 32:23-33.

[x] T. S. Eliot, “Little Gidding” (section II), in Four Quartets. “In the uncertain hour before the morning / Near the ending of interminable night …”

[xi] Macrina Wiederkehr, O.S.B., Seven Sacred Pauses: Living Mindfully Through the Hours of the Day (Notre Dame, IN: Sorin Books, 2008), 31.

[xii] The last line of Paton’s novel, published in 1948. 

[xiii] Eberhard Jüngel’s name for the Divine, unencumbered with overuse or limiting connotations, offers an open space for the varieties of religious experience.

[xiv] Merton, The Sign of Jonas (New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1953). 

[xv] Merton, “Fire Watch,” in Cunningham, 111.

How can this be?

Cathedral Films producer James K. Friedrich on the set of Child of Bethlehem (1940)

Cathedral Films producer James K. Friedrich on the set of Child of Bethlehem (1940)

My mother Elaine, pregnant with her firstborn child Marilyn, rode to Bethlehem on a donkey (in 1936 around Jerusalem, cars weren’t safe – they attracted gunfire). My father, the Rev. James K. Friedrich, made biblical films, including several on the birth of Jesus. In Holy Night (1949), I was a shepherd boy at the manger, with a stupefied look on my face from the blinding lights behind the camera. But no one could top my sister Martha, who played the baby Jesus in Child of Bethlehem (1940). You could say the Nativity story runs in our family. Even the Episcopal parish church of my childhood was a converted stable.

The thing about Christmas, though, is that everyone gets to be in it. By virtue of the Incarnation, our human nature, our human stories, have become the place where God chooses to dwell. Meister Eckhart put this claim most vividly in the fourteenth century:

“There is only one birth – and this birth takes place in the being and in the ground and core of the soul…Not only is the Son of the heavenly Creator born in this darkness – but you too are born there as a child of the same heavenly Creator. and the Creator extends this same power to you out of the divine maternity bed located in the Godhead to eternally give birth.”

Of course I have been reminded by women friends that only a male could find the sublime in a labor lasting for eternity. But Eckhart’s image makes us uneasy in other ways, for in these disturbing times it may be hard to imagine ourselves as worthy vessels for divinity. Everywhere we turn, we see human life devalued and held in contempt. The poor, the weak, the wounded are marginalized and forgotten. Abuse, violence, cruelty and self-loathing are rampant. Overt racism is making a comeback. Even torture has its shameless defenders.

But Christmas tells a counter-story, about a God who remembers the glory for which we were made, who yearns to speak the word of Love in the vocabulary of human flesh. The seventeenth-century metaphysical poet Henry Vaughan expressed his astonishment at this fact in a memorable line:

Brave worms, and Earth! that thus could have
A God enclosed within your Cell…

Oh, we are brave worms indeed, to believe our frail flesh made for the Incarnation, for the union of time and eternity, finite and infinite, flesh and Word. “God became human,” said St. Athanasius, “in order that humans might become godlike.” And St. Paul told the Corinthians that “all of us, with our unveiled faces like mirrors reflecting the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the image we reflect in brighter and brighter glory.” (II Cor. 3:18)

In the face of such a wonder, we find ourselves repeating Mary’s old question: “How can this be?” And the best answer I know was given by the medieval mystic, Mechthild of Magdeburg: “Insofar as we love compassion and practice it steadfastly, to that extent do we resemble the heavenly Creator who practices these things ceaselessly in us.”

As we kneel before the Mystery this night, may we know how beloved of God we mortals are, and how very much the Glory wants to be born in us.

To you, dear readers, I wish the merriest and holiest of Christmastides.
God bless us every one!