This spring I have had the privilege to take a sabbatical from my teaching and administrative responsibilities at Seattle Pacific University and come with my family to Oxford University where I am a visiting research scholar for 2012 at Blackfriars Hall. Blackfriars is what is termed a permanent private hall (PPH) of Oxford University which is a bit distinct from the other colleges. Permanent Private Halls are established by religious groups to serve the specific needs of their intellectual and spiritual heritage. Over the years many of the PPHs have become part of the larger university and in many respects function as any college here. Yet Blackfriars is a PPH with a particular ecclesiastical tie to the Dominican order in Roman Catholicism and while offering both undergraduate and graduate degrees under the auspices of Oxford University is also a spiritual home to English Dominicans and other members of their order worldwide. It is this calling as a community formed and nurtured by God’s grace that has been most humbling and necessary for me this season.
I came to Blackfriars on Easter Monday and have been working here within the community for the past month trying to recalibrate my life to the rhyme and rhythm of the other Dominican friars and scholars who are here. Friars differ from monks such as Thomas Merton in that they take a vow of poverty, chastity and obedience to their call in similar ways that monastic orders do, yet Friars work with laypeople and are not cloistered off from the world. Monastic orders will create their own income sources while Friars will throw their dependence on the world around them – accepting donations for their work from secular sources and even faith traditions outside of Christianity thereby challenging the “engaging the culture” mantra to new levels of humility. The Dominicans have been in Oxford since 1221 and although during the Reformation they were removed from the university, they have been an active part of the intellectual and spiritual life of this ancient place for longer than most colleges have. With a tradition reaching back to St. Dominic and Thomas Aquinas, the Order of Preachers is a tradition of faith that fully embraces the spiritual at its most critical and mystical as practiced not merely in deep intellectual work but in the lived life of faith together in community.
This balance of lived faith with critical reason is what I sorely needed and have found here.
While I came into my sabbatical with quite a bit of excitement, I hadn’t realized just how spiritually and emotionally bankrupt I had become. I do not wish to seem melodramatic with that last sentence but the term ‘bankrupt’ is well suited to the state of my body, mind and soul. I had greatly overspent my emotional and spiritual reserves in ways that I am only now coming to terms with. The frenetic work and pacing of my life back in Seattle become so normative that only now am I beginning to see what a blur it all was. Little time for depth, little chance for considerate and compassionate dialogue with others let alone God, and not living up to the expectations I had promised others and letting things slide away from me are now coming into focus and I am having to sit in the mess and blur of it all. This is the ‘good pain’ on the way to healing.
Sabbatical is to be a time of not merely being still nor is it a ‘spiritual vacation’ – it is a time of work. The sabbath was part of Israel’s redemption plan and it was a militant stance to be taken during their seasons of captivity. While their captors saw them as merely tools with which to build roads, clean up garbage, tend to their pigs and wet nurse their children, sabbath was a time to stop all that and stand up straight and tall and hold the grinding hours of dehumanizing work at bay for a time. Rather than being seen by captors and each other as merely tools for some pragmatic end, they were to become husbands, wives, sons and daughters to one another. They were to spend time in laughter, in sorrow, in joy and quiet contemplation with the personhood of God always at the center of things.
What has been helpful is to be in a community to help me heal and journey back into a rhythm that is at once humanizing in reminding me what it means to be truly ‘human’ and also provocatively pulling me toward the holiness of God once again. This has been the gift of the Dominican friars and the space they have created and continue to tend with passionate care at Blackfriars Hall here in Oxford. Everyday at 1pm the friars and other scholars stop their work as a bell is chimed by a friar who tolls the bell up and down the hallways and cloisters sounding the gathering for midday prayer. This service of sung chant and prayer is a highlight of the day for all of us here – stop our reading, cease our computer work, to turn away from teaching and tutorials, and gather in prayer in ways practiced for centuries. This space created for stillness, waiting, longing, hungering and patiently holding fast to the presence of the Holy Spirit in calm and community is the best 15 minutes you will spend. Just making space like this has reminded me of just how frenetic my life had become and how needed a liturgy of the hours really is.
All this to say that things came to head last week as I gave my stated lecture as a Research Fellow for 2012 on the topic of “Literature, Theology and Poetics: An Elective Affinity.” As a Visiting Research Fellow I am invited to give a university lecture on the topic I am working on while I am in the community. My title was fairly benign in order to give me some space to tweak it as I went long, but it turned out to be the topic I needed to follow up with. For the past few weeks as I have been reading and reflecting with other scholars in the libraries here in Blackfriars and in the Bodleian and I came back to some very important truths about myself and the work I am called to. As someone who moves between and betwixt cultural forms (literature, films, songs) in search of how people seek and frame meaning in their lives as well as finding ways God seems to be ‘showing up’ that perhaps Christians might miss, I realized that I will always be someone seeking ‘the new/lost song’ of Psalm 137. Where are the ‘harps’ hung up as we hear in verse 2 in the world around us? Where are those ‘willows’ planted and drawing their strength upon which these harps are hung, swaying in the postmodern breezes? When tormenters ask to hear a song of hope and promise, how does anyone sing when they will not be understood? This post-exilic psalm that sings out the lament of being asked to sing songs for those who don’t understand, who don’t weep, laugh, cry and embrace with the same sources that I do is deep in all people. Truly Israel was lost in their 70 years of captivity having to remember the source of their hope in a foreign land. Perhaps we too have walked away from our harps, left them swaying in the breeze on willows that are neither in Zion nor in Babylon.
Perhaps they to be found again by sojourners, peregrine travelers willing to move between categories of sacred and profane and listen to voices and songs that are beyond those labels. Perhaps the harps and willows will be found by you…
So when asked what I am doing in the library, why I am reading novels and listening to song lyrics, my answer is essentially…
“I am looking for lost harps swaying in the breeze and wondering what song they are singing.”
This is what I am wondering about today as I pour over texts both ancient and contemporary seeking to find a new language for faith in our time. At times I am overwhelmed by the task yet I continue to hear a still, small voice pulling me away from what has been the accepted models and trying to find something like those harps swaying in the breeze where the holy wind of God blows through the strings and bringing forth a song I never knew was possible. This is what makes being with the Dominicans (The Order of Preachers) so rich. They do not have a ‘fixed’ method regarding the inner spiritual life in ways that the Jesuits do in relation to the Ignation exercises. St. Dominic set forward a call for the friars to be “true preachers of the gospel, following in the footsteps of their Saviour; not speaking except with God or about God, whether amongst themselves or for the benefit of others” and with that calling be open to hear whatever God has in store wherever it may come from and from whomever.
May you find space in your day to listen for lost harps swaying in the breeze and have the courage to sing those songs that arise from the divine breeze blowing through those long-forgotten strings…