Perhaps it is that calm before the storm or that sensation of water recessing back into the ocean in anticipation of a bigger wave building but yet to come, but the days before a new academic term always fills me with both expectation and a bit of dread. This is heightened this fall due to the fact that I was on sabbatical last term in Oxford and wondering how to keep a Sabbath mindset alive as the rush of the academic year crashes onto shore. I mused a bit about my thoughts of standing at the podium on my first day of class in a previous blog posting, but this experience of drumming my fingers on the desk, picking over my syllabi by tweaking bits and bobs in the text, and fingering the pages of the core texts for references I need to make sure to lift up during the term are all the signs and symptoms of deep thrill and panic all teachers face before the plunge of that first day.
There is that moment at the beginning of the academic year when the professor comes into the classroom, sets down his or her stack of papers and books, moves to the podium and begins class. It is a very mundane moment in many ways. Students chatter away, texting friends, drinking expensive espresso drinks in shimmering travel mugs with café logos you don’t get the reference to and you move your papers around, look at the technology that surrounds you more and more each year and take a deep breath as you launch into your ‘welcome’ speech.
Yet as a faculty member those few seconds between setting down my briefcase and books and when I turn to face my new class and begin to speak is a sacred moment like no other. Something happens in those brief moments that I wish I could explain to my students but I don’t think they would understand. Perhaps I sell them short in this. I don’t know. It is a strange rush of anxiety (“Is this class really going to come together?”) a thrill of introducing new students to material you hold so dear (“Can’t wait to read that passage to them”) and the look of strangers meeting in blank gaze who will become people who you will care about in ways that as a teacher who sees hundreds of students a year is always surprising.
This strange ability to not only care but deeply love these students is always a shock to me.
Perhaps it shouldn’t be, but it is.
This infinite capacity of the human heart to allow people you meet through the medium of an ancient text in the context of this artificial arena of the mind called a university classroom to touch you, hurt you, stir you to wonder, to break your heart and to awaken memories of when you also first heard a philosophical argument, a Chilean poem, a Shakespearean sonnet, a rising note borne on the bow of a cellist breathing life into Bach across the centuries or the darken light of a Dutch master whose subject is an aged women inclining her head over the Scriptures with such gentle purpose that angels seem to brush wingtips across the oils on the canvas in your midst is awe-inspiring to be sure.
And those ‘moments’ that appear and disappear oh-so-fleetingly over the weeks of a term will flame up unannounced like a roman candle in a subterranean cave – so sudden and crisp as to blind you before giving way to sight. Yet they happen again and again – sometimes only a flickering flame on a wet match of a poorly thought out question, or sometimes akin to a signal flare of desperation as the student is grasping for anything to support not only their understanding of the subject in the churning sea of material they are glupping down, but some buoyancy for their very soul.
In such moments something more than learning happens or mastery of material. In such moments whether they are but a whisper or akin to Walt Whitman’s ‘barbaric yap from the rooftops of the world’ show us to be human at long last. These moments allow us to step away from the world that swirls around us, the technology that blinds and deafen us to ourselves and the humanity of others, the self-consciousness and obsession with our own needs and problems and even separated from the so-called security of that which we put our trust in more than God which is the artifice of our public self. Like the striking of high C to blast apart a wine glass from across the room, these moments explode with the tinkling of glass upon the floor as we open ourselves up to one another in the space of a question, a point of clarification, a nod of the head in agreement, a glance at the art on the screen with unveiled eyes and the sigh of resignation that what had been held as true in small or large ways is now forever changed.
When I stand at the podium on Monday, setting down my books and rustling papers to mask that breath I draw in deeply before I speak, this is what is rushing through my head. That something more sacred than learning will happen in spite of my best efforts as a professor and the material I put before us. No, what will happen is the parting of a sea that separates human from human and human from the God of the universe.
What happens is holy.
What happens is redemptive.
What happens is more than I could have ever planned and if I am not careful midst all the papers and exams and small group exercises I could miss it.
In that breath there is always the option to just say “no… I can’t do this again. The price is too high.” The option to walk away, to drive away, to fly away is always there for student and professor alike.
But on Monday I plan to draw my breath, look into the eyes of my students, and welcome them to this moment together. It will be probably fairly anticlimactic for some – course assignments will be discussed, the texts we will read, who the authors are, when the midterm and final will be. But these furrows into the soil that will seem mundane are the channel markers of Grace in ways none of us can expect. I know this because this isn’t new to me. I have seen Grace show up again and again which is why I know how vulnerable and painful this journey will be for some.
But I will draw that breath again as I have many times before.
And I will say the word that I am finding is a much deeper well than I could have imagined.
A spiritual practice that I have adopted after my time on sabbatical with the Dominican community of Blackfriars Hall in Oxford has been to pray for my students prior to class starting. One of the friars I met at Blackfriars spoke of the importance of praying for those we have yet to meet so that we could soften our hearts to whatever God has in store for this sacred relationship of a student and the professor. I find real wisdom in this. So often my time prior to classes starting is consumed with prepping lectures, updating syllabi, reviewing textbooks and pulling together other media that I forget to be still, seek guidance from the Holy Spirit as to what I should be focusing on, and then listen to how God wants to reshape my heart and mind for the sake the students I am called to teach and learn from.
To this end, I offer this prayer to all my students from an Ancient Celtic prayer collected by Alexander Carmichael (1832-1912), published in Carmina Gadelica (Edinburgh: Floris Books, 1992; 2012) which is a collection of prayers and hymns collected in the Highlands and Islands of Scotland in the 18th century.
Gracious and Loving God -Provoke us this day to walk in the fullness of your Triune name,
May the hand of God keeping us push to the point of courage for the sake of the broken hearted,
May the passion of Christ burn in our veins to support our neighbor,
May the strength of the Holy Spirit bathe and cleanse us from sin and refresh our souls,
May we stand fully awake in your presence this academic year, Oh Triune God:
In the full and complete knowledge of Faith,
In the enduring beacon of your Kingdom forged in Hope,
In the humble repose of Love
We raise our sails to your Spirit this day
Asking to be taken to distant shores of discovery and hospitality that we have yet to discover
Where you will meet us in the eyes of the widow and orphan, the blind and the lame, the forgotten and silenced
And learn anew of your grace, peace and presence.
For there is no plant in the ground
But is not full of Your virtue,
There is no form in the strand
But is not full of Your blessing.
There is no life in the sea,
There is no creature in the river,
There is naught in the firmament
But proclaims Your goodness.
There is no bird on the wing,
There is no star in the sky,
There is nothing beneath the sun,
But proclaims Your Holiness.
Bind us to your sojourn this day in the fullness of Your Triune embrace, Oh Lord our God.
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…
Each Holy Week I try to pull together some poems that evoke the mystery, pain, confusion, hope, silence, whispers, tragedy, exhaustion and expectation of this dark time of the year. For many theologians this is a time where we become bankrupt in language and reasoned resources with which to approach this time-between-times. You cannot rush through the week – the days will not go quicker for us nor will Easter become brighter if we ignore Good Friday and Holy Saturday. No, we have to sit in this time and what makes all this a bit more bearable is that in the midst of the pain of loss we are not alone. The gathering of the brokenhearted is what this strange, odd time is about. People stumbling under the weight of grief crossing the threadbare carpets of our homes and churches and finding more than answers – they find fellowship for the rest of the journey this weekend. Whether you are traveling this dark season of Christian faith with others or merely watching the flickers of the fire while perched on some rock looking at all this at a save distance, do take a moment and sit with some fellow sojourners who also find themselves bankrupt with meaning for such a time as this yet still need to write something, say something, feel something.
“Keeping Quiet” by Pablo Neruda
Now we will count to twelve and we will all keep still.
For once on the face of the earth,
let’s not speak in any language;
let’s stop for one second,
and not move our arms so much.
It would be an exotic moment
without rush, without engines;
we would all be together
in a sudden strangeness.
Fisherman in the cold sea
would not harm whales
and the man gathering salt
would look at his hurt hands.
Those who prepare green wars,
wars with gas, wars with fire,
victories with no survivors,
would put on clean clothes
and walk about with their brothers
in the shade, doing nothing.
What I want should not be confused
with total inactivity.
Life is what it is about;
I want no truck with death.
If we were not so single-minded
about keeping our lives moving,
and for once could do nothing,
perhaps a huge silence
might interrupt this sadness
of never understanding ourselves
and of threatening ourselves with death.
Perhaps the earth can teach us
as when everything seems dead
and later proves to be alive.
Now I’ll count up to twelve
and you keep quiet and I will go.
—from Extravagaria (translated by Alastair Reid, pp. 27-29, 1974)
You can hear Sylvia Boorstein read the poem at the show’s website:
Stop all the clocks, cut off the telephone
Prevent the dog from barking at a juicy bone
Silence the pianos and with muffled drum
Bring out the coffin, let the mourners come
Let aeroplanes circle moaning overhead
Scribbling in the sky the message “He is dead”
Put crêpe bows round the white necks of the public doves
Let the traffic policemen wear black cotton gloves
He was my north, my south, my east and west
My working week and my sunday best
My moon, my midnight, my talk, my song
I thought that love would last forever, I was wrong
The stars are not wanted now, put out every one
Pack up the moon and dismantle the sun
Pour away the ocean and sweep up the wood
For nothing now can ever come to any good.
- Wystan Hugh Auden (1907-1973) “Stop All The Clocks”
The More Earnest Prayer of Christ
and being in an agony he prayed more earnestly… Luke 22:44
His last prayer in the garden began, as most
of his prayers began – in earnest, certainly,
but not without distinction, an habitual…what?
Distance? Well, yes, a sort of distance, or a mute
remove from the genuine distress he witnessed
in the endlessly grasping hands of multitudes
and often enough, in his own embarrassing
circle of intimates. Even now, he could see
these where they slept, sprawled upon their robes or wrapped
among the arching olive trees. Still, something new,
unlikely, uncanny was commencing as he spoke.
As the divine in him contracted to an ache,
A throbbing in the throat, his vision blurred, his voice
grew thick and unfamiliar, his prayer – just before
it fell to silence – became uniquely earnest.
And in the moment – perhaps because it was so
new – he saw something, had his first taste of what
he would become, first pure taste of the body, and the blood.
- Scott Cairns, “The More Earnest Prayer of Christ”
After The Last Words
By now I’m dead. Make what you will of that.
But granted you are alive, you will need
to be making something more as well. Prayers
have made, for instance, but (trust me)…
Settle instead for food, nice meals (thick soup);
invite your friends. Make lively conversation
among steaming bowls, lifting heavy spoons.
If there is bread (there really should be bread),
tear it coarsely and hand each guest his share.
for intinction in the soup. Something to say?
Say it now. Let the napkins fall and stay.
Kiss each guest when time comes for leaving.
They may be embarrassed, caught without wit
or custom. (see them shifting from foot to
foot at the open door?) Could be you will
repeat your farewells a time or two more
than seems fit. But had you not embraced them
at such common departures prayers will
fall dry as crumbs, nor will they comfort you.
- Scott Cairns, “After the Last Words”
Salvator Mundi: Via Crucis
Maybe He looked indeed
much as Rembrandt envisioned Him
in those small heads that seem in fact
portraits of more than a model.
A dark, still young, very intelligent face,
A soul-mirror gaze of deep understanding, unjudging.
That face, in extremis, would have clenched its teeth
In a grimace not shown in even the great crucifixions.
The burden of humanness (I begin to see) exacted from Him
That He taste also the humiliation of dread,
cold sweat of wanting to let the whole thing go,
like any mortal hero out of his depth,
like anyone who has taken herself back.
The painters, even the greatest, don’t show how,
in the midnight Garden,
or staggering uphill under the weight of the Cross,
He went through with even the human longing
to simply cease, to not be.
Not torture of body,
not the hideous betrayals humans commit
nor the faithless weakness of friends, and surely
not the anticipation of death (not then, in agony’s grip)
was Incarnation’s heaviest weight,
but this sickened desire to renege,
to step back from what He, Who was God,
had promised Himself, and had entered
time and flesh to enact.
Sublime acceptance, to be absolute, had to have welled
up from those depths where purpose
Drifted for mortal moments.
- Denise Levertov, “Salvator Mundi: Via Crucis”
The Theology of Doubt
I have come to believe this fickleness
of belief is unavoidable. As, for these
backlot trees, the annual loss
of leaves and fruit is unavoidable.
I remember hearing that soft-soap
about faith being given
only to the faithful – mean trick,
if you believe it. This afternoon,
during my walk, which
I have come to believe is good
for me, I noticed one of those
ridiculous leaves hanging
midway up an otherwise naked oak.
The wind did what it could
to bring it down, but the slow
learner continued dancing. Then again,
once, hoping for the last
good apple, I reached among
bare branches, pulling into my hand
an apple too soft for anything
and warm to the touch, fly-blown.
- Scott Cairns, “The Theology of Doubt”
Dear relatives and friends, when my last breath
Grows large and free in air, don’t call it death –
A word to enrich the undertaker and inspire
His surly art of imitating life; conspire
Against him. Say that my body cannot now
Be improved upon; it has no fault to show
To the sly cosmetician. Say that my flesh
Has a perfection in compliance with the grass
Truer than any it could have striven for.
You will recognize the earth in me, as before
I wished to know it in myself: my earth
That has been my care and faithful charge from birth,
And toward which all my sorrows were surely bound,
And all my hopes. Say that I have found
A good solution, and am on my way
To the roots. And say I have left my native clay
At last, to be a traveler; that too will be so.
Traveler to where? Say you don’t know.
But do not let your ignorance
Of my spirit’s whereabouts dismay
You, or overwhelm your thoughts.
Be careful not to say
Anything too final. Whatever
Is unsure is possible, and life is bigger
Than flesh. Beyond reach of thought
Let imagination figure
Your hope. That will be generous
To me and to yourselves. Why settle
For some know-it-all’s despair
When the dead may dance to the fiddle
Hereafter, for all anybody knows?
And remember that the Heavenly soil
Need not be too rich to please
One who was happy in Port Royal…
He has come to the gathering of his kin,
Among whom some were worthy men,
Farmers mostly, who lived by hand,
But one was a cobbler from Ireland,
Another played the eternal fool
By riding a circus mule
To be remembered in grateful laughter
Longer than the rest. After
Doing what they had to do
They are at ease here. Let all of you
Who yet for pain find force and voice
Look on their peace, and rejoice.
- Wendell Barry, “Testaments”
The Morning’s News
To mortalize the state, they drag out a man,
and bind his hands, and darken his eyes
with a black rag to be free of the light in them,
and tie him to a post, and kill him.
And I am sickened by the complicity in my race.
To kill in hot savagery like a beast
is understandable. It is forgivable and curable.
But to kill by design, deliberately, without wrath,
that is the sullen labor that perfects Hell.
The serpent is gentle, compared to man.
It is man, the inventor of cold violence,
Death as waste, who has made himself lonely
Among the creatures, and set himself aside,
so that he cannot work in the sun with hope,
or at peace in the shade of any tree.
The morning’s news drives sleep out of my head
at night. Uselessness and horror hold the eyes
open to the dark. Weary, we lie awake
in the agony of the old giving birth to the new
without assurance that the new will be better.
I look at my son, whose eyes are like a young god’s,
they are so open to the world.
I look at my sloping fields now turning
green with the young grass of April. What must I do
to go free? I think I must put on
a deathlier knowledge, and prepare to die
rather than enter into the design of man’s hate.
I will purge my mind of the airy claims
of church and state. I will serve the earth
and not pretend my life could better serve.
Another morning comes with its strange cure.
The earth is news. Though the river floods
And the spring is cold, my heart goes on,
faithful to the mystery in a cloud,
and the summer’s garden continues its descent
through me, toward the ground.
- Wendell Barry, “The Morning’s News”
Lord, not you,
it is I who am absent.
belief was a joy I kept in secret,
into sacred places;
a quick glance, and away – and back,
I have long since uttered your name
I elude your presence.
I stop to think about you, and my mind
like a minnow darts away,
into the shadows, into gleams that fret
the river’s purling and passing.
Not for one second
will my self hold still, but wanders
everywhere it can turn. Not you,
it is I am absent.
You are the stream, the fish, the light,
the pulsing shadow,
you the unchanging presence, in whom all
moves and changes.
How can I focus my flickering, perceive
at the fountain’s heart
the sapphire I know is there?
- Denise Levertov, “Flickering Mind”
Variation and Reflection on A Theme by Rilke
If just for once the swing of cause and effect,
cause and effect,
would come to rest; if casual events would halt,
and the machine that supplies meaningless laughter
ran down, and my bustling senses, taking a deep breath
and left my attention free at last…
then my thought, single and multifold,
could think you into itself
until it filled with you to the very brim,
bounding the whole flood of your boundlessness:
and at the timeless moment of possession,
fleeting as a smile, surrender you
and let you flow back into all creation.
There will never be that stillness.
Within the pulse of flesh,
in the dust of being, where we trudge,
turning our hungry gaze this way and that,
the wings of the morning
brush through our blood
as cloud-shadows brush the land.
What we desire travels with us.
We must breathe time as fishes breathe water.
God’s flight circles us.
- Denise Levertov, “Variation and Reflection on A Theme by Rilke (The Book of Hours, Book I, Poem 7)”
St. Patrick’s Day is more than green beer, The Pogues and 5K runs. It is a time to remember during this Lenten season the life of a former slave whose freedom meant freedom from darkness for not only Ireland but many people through the centuries.
We live in the real world. This may come as a shock to some, but it remains a truth that needs to be reflected on. As we engage ever more in the virtuality of our age – becoming more and more what MIT researcher Sherry Turkle in her recent book “Alone Together” has called ‘tethered selves’: those who are so bound to our smartphones, iPads, and big screen televisions as the mediating locus for anything transcendent – we forget to live into the space of the Now. This real world includes not only Syria and Afghanistan which are made real to us through trauma and awakens us to the present, but it is the real world of the homeless teens around the corner, the areas of subtle bigotry and violence not too far from the place you might deem ‘home’, and even the ‘clack-clack-clack’ of the tree branches outside your window signaling out a new way of seeing and hearing that perhaps has the hope of salvation in the sound if we could but listen deep enough and with cruciform hearts.
The real world – a world of pain, joy, heartbreak, wonder, tumult, laughter and silence – is a world that Lent desires to bring us back to. While disciplines like Theology and Philosophy can be seen as yet another distraction from the ‘real life’ in which people live and die, these are also open apertures that challenge us not to forget the very things that make life worth living. One such stream of reflection is phenomenology – a discipline which continually challenges human beings to dig a bit deeper into their respective busy lives and see… and I mean REALLY see, hear, touch, taste and feel – what it means to be right here, right now, in this space with you. This is a Lenten call as well: to understand that our existence as human beings in and with the world around us includes more than the highs and the lows of our day. It also includes the ‘still, small voice’ found not in the storm nor in the quiet, it includes the ‘hush’ of a child’s whisper during hide-and-seek, it includes the ‘BANG’ of the pot you dropped in the sink that shocked you into yourself again, it includes the heavy sigh when you sit down at your desk and the ‘awe’ you experience in the presence of one you love in ways that go beyond your ability to grasp.
Lent is a season to not only acknowledge this seemingly mundane moments as truly holy, but to also come to grips with the ways our need to describe, to categorize and to label such things apart from ‘the-thing-in-itself’ often leaves us separated from that which we seek. We create terms, phrases, slogans, symbols, images to act as short-hand for these luminous, fleeting moments and but then we are eventually trapped by them. As Martin Heidegger stated in an essay entitled “Building Dwelling Thinking” found in a collection called Basic Writings, “language speaks man” and that “language is the house of being” in that we are formed by the symbols and language systems we engage with, the terms and practices we articulate in word and deed that are to be pointers to that ‘something’ that is beyond our grasp yet is all that we end up seeking in the end. Because we fall back on language – the words we choose, the categories within which we describe something from a child’s first steps to a person’s conversion experience at the foot of the Cross – we become entangled and ultimately what we say and repeat over and over again in attempts to find that which is beyond our words and phrases ends up changing us – the words that form on our lips, the voice that we call forth from our throats, the images that flicker before our eyes, the very thoughts held captive in our heads. If we are cynics and continue to engage the world with cynical tropes and aphorisms – slogans born of pain and violence that ask nothing of the world but to be heard at all cost – then we too will become cynical to our core. And yet, as St. Paul said so well, even if we had the tongues of angels yet have not love, we are nothing but a clanging gong. St Paul does not say we merely ‘sound’ like a clanging gong… we will become the language and forms of language we engage. In this Heidegger and St. Paul shake hands and agree.
So in this we are not beings who merely use symbols or utter sayings blithely, but we become what we say, think and do. Yet there is more to life than language and text and symbol. While we describe ourselves and our existence with both scientific precision and artistic flourish, there is still something about our lives that escapes category yet is a drive that we can’t help. As philosopher Paul Ricoeur has made clear in a chapter entitled “Phenomenology and Hermeneutics” found in The Conflict of Interpretations, “To bring [experience] into language is not to change it into something else, but, in articulating and developing it, to make it become itself.” (p. 225)
While signification in the form of language or symbol makes experience become itself, there is an excess meaning to being, what phenomenology calls the noema, which is the excess which escapes articulation even as it is shaped by it.
This is the something that always alludes us – the part of our very core that we can never quite put our finger on. Our job is never quite enough, our relationships always seem to fall a bit short, our families are filled with love yet even this only points beyond itself. So we will seek to bridge this longing and try to gain access to that which escapes our categories. For phenomenologists, this is the drive and demand for metaphor, image, narrative, nuance, and other leaps of the imagination. It is the this drive that led St. Thomas Aquinas to suggest that perhaps every attempt in Theology to find God will always fall back into metaphor and simile. This is why Martin Heidegger supposed that our existence (existenz) is larger and more luminous than the constraints of mere humanness. We are for Heidegger more than merely human as culture would have us believe - we are “Dasein” as “beings-in-the-world” who continually frame, form and forge our way as both temporal and timeless beings that are both particular and alone yet always communal with others even though we lack the care (sorgen) to fully embrace this truth (aletheia). This reality of “being-in-the-world” in the here and now is ultimately a world-making endeavour and means that the culture in which we live is vitally important for it is the culture of language, symbols, songs, phrases, images, colors and silence in all its simplicity and complexity that we discover what life is about and what animates it. Paul Ricoeur puts it this way in an essay entitled “What is a Text?” found in A Ricoeur Reader: Reflection and Imagination:
On the one hand, self-understanding passes through the detour of understanding the cultural signs in which the self documents and forms itself. On the other hand, understanding the text is not an end in itself; it mediates the relation to himself of a subject who, in the short-circuit of immediate reflection, does not find the meaning of his own life. Thus it must be said, with equal force, that reflection is nothing without the mediation of signs and works, and that explanation is nothing if it is not incorporated as an intermediary state in the process of self-understanding. In short, in hermeneutical reflection — or in reflective hermeneutics — the constitution of the self is contemporaneous with the constitution of meaning. (p. 57)
Long before we understand ourselves through the process of self-examination, we understand ourselves in a self-evident way in the family, society and state in which we live. The focus of subjectivity is a distorting mirror. The self-awareness of the individual is only a flickering in the closed circuits of historical life. That is why the prejudices of the individual, far more than his judgments, constitute the historical reality of his being. (276 – 277)
Lent is a season of divine disruption that, akin to both Ricoeur and Gadamer, call into question the existence we inhabit without reflecting upon. We need to step back from our ordinary lives for a season – these 40 days, these six Sabbaths – that throw us out of “ordinary time” and break open the world for what it is in all its reality. In order to ‘understand’ the way and the how of our life we must first ‘foreunderstand’, have a stance, an anticipation and a contextualization for world, ourselves, others, and the God within whom and with we “live and move and have our being.”
We are compelled to follow the circle [of interpretation]. This is neither a makeshift or a defect. To enter upon the path is the strength of thought, to continue on it is the feast of thought, assuming thinking is a craft. Not only is the main step from work to art a circle like the step from art to work, but every separate step that we attempt circles this circle. In order to discover the nature of the art that really prevails in the work, let us go to the actual work and ask the work what and how it is. (p. 18)
Like the discipline of Lent, the hermeneutic circle can be taken to be an innately limiting, self-blinding process in which one only knows what one is prepared to know and restricted only to listen and allow to speak that which is before us. Can we learn the meaning of life by merely being in the midst of the moment, without hurry, without anxiety, without needing to get to the bottom of things and then generate some category, some phrase, some means to understand and thereby remove ourselves from “the-thing-in-itself”?
According to phenomenological hermeneutic theory the hermeneutic circle does not close off, however, but opens up, because of the symbolic and self-reflective nature of our being. Inside of us is the call of God seeking a response. Rather than living in a world where God is obvious and ready-at-hand, we live in a spectral age and time. Shadows and falsity fill our sight and we cannot find the “real life” anymore. The sound that pours from our churches takes on the resounding gong and clang of St. Paul’s lamentations, the image that fill our eyes bespeak violence and insecurity rather than comfort, the taste of our food is faint and without distinction in our fast food homogeneity, and our need to love and be loved fades under waves of disappointment, longing, and fear. Lent is a season for which we are to stand aside from all this acceleration and through this divinely appointed unknowing find ourselves standing before our life unplugged, unfettered, and unbridled so that we may hear, touch and taste our way back to what these mere words and images only faintly remind us of.
When I think of the hermeneutic circle in our Lenten season, it is not only the phenomenological tradition that I turn to. One of the most ancient forms of prayer in the Celtic tradition is that of the circling prayer – a prayer that encircles a situation and seeks to find the face of God in the midst of it. Arguably the most famous of these ancient circling prayers is St. Patrick’s Breastplate. It is with this prayer of circling, binding and releasing that I will leave off and commend you to pray as well as you seek to be present in the Now amidst this Lenten time:
I bind unto myself today
The strong Name of the Trinity,
By invocation of the same,
The Three in One and One in Three.
I bind this day to me for ever.
By power of faith, Christ’s incarnation;
His baptism in the Jordan river;
His death on Cross for my salvation;
His bursting from the spicèd tomb;
His riding up the heavenly way;
His coming at the day of doom;*
I bind unto myself today.
I bind unto myself the power of
Confessors’ faith, Apostles’ word,
The Patriarchs’ prayers, the Prophets’ scrolls,
All good deeds done unto the Lord,
I bind unto myself today
The virtues of the starlit heaven,
The glorious sun’s life-giving ray,
The whiteness of the moon at even,
The flashing of the lightning free,
Protect me, Christ, till Thy returning.
Christ be with me, Christ within me,
Christ behind me, Christ before me,
Christ beside me, Christ to win me,
Christ to comfort and restore me.
Christ beneath me, Christ above me,
Christ in quiet, Christ in danger,
Christ in hearts of all that love me,
Christ in mouth of friend and stranger.
I bind unto myself the Name,
The strong Name of the Trinity;
By invocation of the same.
The Three in One, and One in Three,
Of Whom all nature hath creation,
Eternal Father, Spirit, Word:
Praise to the Lord of my salvation,
Salvation is of Christ the Lord
May you experience the encircling call of God during this Lenten time and this binding of God in relationship through the Father, Son and Holy Spirit be your vision this day and onward. May you wait for the Lord as the days of Lent press forward, sing your song in the days to come…
Few people working with the English language in the modern period have thought about the power of language in the ways that JRR Tolkien has. Author of what many consider a modern metamyth – The Lord of the Rings – that is matched only by sacred texts, Tolkien was deeply concerned that word not only meant something, but we should stand before them in awe and not allow ourselves to flatten their meaning into simplistic and easily defined categories.
Take for example his reflections on the word “argent” taken from a letter to Jane Neave written on 22 November 1961 – one year before his friend CS Lewis would die:
the meaning of fine words… [fine, especially for the English, I think, means not just precise, but great, perfect, glorious] the meaning of fine words cannot be made ‘obvious’, least of all to adults, who have stopped listening to the sound because they think they know the meaning. [That's a deadly separation, and that accounts for bad Bible translations all over the place.] They think the word argent ’means’silver. [The dictionary says so.] It does not. It and silver have a reference to x, or the chemical Ag, but in each case x is clothed in a totally different phonetic incarnation, x + y or x + z; and these do not have the same meaning, not only because they sound different and so arouse different emotional responses, but also because they are not in fact used … in the same way. We must learn to appreciate the intrinsic heraldic overtones that a word like argent has, in addition to its on peculiar sound, which the word ‘silver’ does not have. I think that this writing down, flattening, Bible-in-basic-English attitude is responsible for the fact that so many older children and younger people have little respect and no love for words, and very limited vocabularies.
- J. R. R. Tolkien, ed. Humphrey Carpenter with Christopher Tolkien, The Letters of J. R. R. Tolkien (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1981), Letter 134, to Jane Neave, 22 November 1961.
The phrase “We will not propagate a Bible-in-basic-English attitude” is something I think should be stamped on the bulletins of every church in America and proclaimed on every church sign on the motorways and street corners of the land. Perhaps by offering up this manifesto it will come true and churches will return once again to be places where the prophetic imagination that breaks open language to seek its deeper and more abiding meaning is not questioned nor look down upon. What would it mean to have churches that loved the beauty of language, the poetry of the human heart set free, the abandon of the soul released with an artist’s drive and honesty to create for the sake of the Lord? What would such a place be like?
It would certainly be worth so much more than silver… that’s for sure…
A few years ago I wrote a book calledFreedom of the Self that was an extended reflection on what it would mean to embrace the call of Philippians 2: 5 – 11 as more than a designation of Christ’s servanthood and self-emptying of the Divine, but a syllabus for the life we are to be living as what I called “the kenotic self”. The word ‘kenosis’ is the term used to describe Jesus’ emptying himself of all privilege so that He could be truly human and truly Divine in all aspects of his life and ministry. A challenging concept to get our minds around and, as I argue in Freedom of the Self, why we need to get our lives around this in community with others.
A few years back NT Wright gave a paper at a conference in the UK I attended entitled “One God, One Lord, One People: Incarnational Christology for a Church in a Pagan Environment” that dealt with notion of embodiment of a kenotic life through the challenges before the Christian community as seen in I Corinthians as they sought to live out their faith in an increasingly pagan city. In this community members of the early church were becoming troubled with the challenges of faith being around people who held different values. One option for this ancient community was to withdraw from contact with the world, to retreat into an isolated world without contact with pagan culture. The problem with this was the strong Jewish belief in the goodness of creation: treating large areas of the world as off limits went against the theology of the Psalms with their celebration of the created order. A retreat into some mode of dualism, though it often happened, could never represent a wholeheartedly Jewish solution. The other option was of course to assimilate and join into the culture. Jews have always faced this possibility and this loss of distinct identity certainly haunts many faiths including Christianity.
As seen in the writings of I Corinthians, these choices (run away or assimilate) were further challenged by huge questions that would be debated constantly in the marketplace and people’s homes: degrees of monotheism versus polytheism, questions of the identity of the people of the one God, and questions of behavior with respect to food, drink and sex. As I Corinthians makes clear, these are not merely matters of abstraction. One of the key issues facing the community we see in I Corinthians was the very real challenge of dietary restrictions in a pagan world: should we be eating foods sacrificed to idols, we eat at tables with pagans, etc? NT Wright takes this question as voiced in I Corinthians and draws us back to the kenotic example of Christ in Philippians 2:
The incarnational Christology of Philippians 2:5-11 thus undergirds explicitly the appeal that Christians should give up their own rights for one anothers’ sake. What we have in 1 Corinthians 8 and 9, I suggest, is the same theme spelt out in one particular way. To the question, should we exercise our God-given liberty and, scorning idols as nonexistent irrelevancies, go ahead and eat meat that has been offered to them? Paul makes three replies:
First get your monotheism straight; it is true that there is only one God, but this God is now made known in and through Jesus the Messiah, and in loving this God you may find that there are other more pressing duties than showing your contempt for idols by eating their food without caring.
Then recognize that among these more urgent need needs is to care for those who are struggling in the faith, and that this may mean happily forgoing your demonstration of monotheism in terms of eating idol meat in favor of a demonstration of this redefined monotheism in terms of abstaining from idol meat.
then recognize that in this abstention, too, you are demonstrating that you are the people of this one true God, since in Jesus this God gave up his rights to come and rescue you too.
For Wright, the cross stands clearly underneath this argument. Sometimes, we need to lay down our militant fundamentalisms in order for the world to see the deep and abiding reality of God that animates our lives and things we love, not merely the rules we adhere to. For Paul, the crucifixion of Jesus does not simply have to do with the attaining of individual salvation. It means the remaking of the community of the people of god in a particular fashion, namely, as the community that is given such security in the love of the true god that it is able to forgo all human privileges and rights to which it might otherwise lay claim. What is more, Paul saw clearly that the cross, in achieving this, offers the most fundamental challenge to paganism at every level. For what the cross offers is a true ‘freedom of the self’ by calling us to lay down our views, our militant beliefs and passions, our desire to be righteous and open the path to a vocation beyond all this so we can be found in the radical embrace of God. For Tom Wright, this is the real subtext of I Cornithians and I would argue is the deep challenge of Lent: Instead of asking “how far can we go?” in apparent assimilation to paganism or “what must I give up for the sake of God?” in Lent, Paul shows a different agenda altogether. The monotheism which has been redefined so as to have Jesus, and hence the cross, at its heart, is the monotheism which not only provides a way for its adherents to live within a pagan world with integrity, but which also issues to that pagan world a decisive and devastating challenge (compare with 1 Corinthians 2:6-8 for example). Instead of merely pursuing a path of private spirituality within the world, the church is to pursue a path of mission to the world. And the victory which is to be won by that mission is the victory of the cross.
In this we have a challenge this Lenten season: to be redefined and remade in this time of resignation. We are not fasting so that the world sees our willful allegience to the cross. No, we fast so that we rely so completely on Christ Jesus that what is seen is Christ and not us. Not our politics, not our denominations, not our moralisms, not our black-and-white views. No, in our releasing of things that distract and tempt us to grasp to things other than the grace and mercy of Christ, we ultimately are called to release the very thing we have no grip on directly but grips us more than anything… our very being. Whether it is our views, our politics, our need to be traditional, emergent, mosaic, denominational, post-christian, hipster, relevant, ancient future, missional, reconcilation-minded, urban, rural, global, church growth, culturally-attuned, ethnically-diverse, musically-excellent or scripturally-sound, any and all of these so-called platforms can become the idol that blocks the living Light of God. Yes, we give up coffee, Facebook, chocolate, watching TV, and other manner of things. But have we given up ourselves yet? Have we become so comfortable with ourselves that we couldn’t conceive life without the person we have managed, pampered, protected, and striven to be recognized by others? As Tom Wright challenges us in this reading from I Corinthians drawn from a kenotic reading of Philippians 2, perhaps the grand challenge this Lent is that we need to see more of Christ and less of ourselves.
Perhaps it is time to come on up to the house and leave all that stuff behind this Lent…
One of my setbacks is that there are so many brilliant men and women on this earth, and so many of them have different opinions on religion. There doesn’t seem to be one that is “more right” than the other. I consider you a smart person. What has you sold?
I thought that was a great question for Lent. Here is my response:
True, there indeed are many brilliant people of multiple intelligences: musically, athletically, charismatically, scientifically and even spiritually attuned. One of the joys of being human is engaging people who think and act so differently than we do… so much diversity is truly staggering.
That said – which path is the right path when so many people with greatly differing viewpoints either challenge or endorse faith traditions? Is Buddha correct? Mohammed? John Wesley? John Calvin? Joseph Smith?
Who do you trust?
When we spoke about Augustine earlier in the course, we spoke about the challenge of the heart – what we feel and reason deep, deep down inside ourselves that is underneath all our reason, our judgments, our prejudices, our anger, our joys. What is it that keeps our hearts beating and makes us want to find a better way in the world? Why bother getting up in the morning and seeking meaning at all? Something animates that drive according to Augustine and since it is a drive to find something beyond ourselves and our limits, perhaps it is a drive as much as a pull from beyond us. This is a place to begin I think. It is where I come to. There is more than ourselves, our limited reason, our broken dreams, our self-righteousness and certainty. Yes, even more than our futile attempts to make meaning on our own terms. This is a place to consider and a place to begin.
On what am *I* sold? Perhaps I am delusional and insane… but I believe to the core of my being that God is love…it’s just that simple some days. I see the reality of it in my children’s eyes, in the laughter of students in Martin Square on a sunny day, in the embrace of an elderly couple at Greenlake, in the sheer joy of teammates after winning a meet, of the look of parents when they say goodbye to their child on the first day of starting SPU, of the way light dances on the waterfront at sunset in August… things both little and profound. Even in the pain and sorrow I just don’t see despair and nihilism as the answer nor a goal. I have been down that road and it is just bankrupt from my perspective. Sure, power and wealth offer some great benefits. But they continue to disappoint after a spell. I am in awe of humility and charity in ways that power and wealth can’t even begin to touch.
Last summer I was standing before a couple about to be married. I was reciting their vows with them as the pastor before a congregation of family and friends. The look in their eyes was a mixture of terror and unbridled joy. The whole of the human condition was poured into their glances at each other and nothing was left for chance. Sure, they were scared. Sure, they knew that the words they were promising each other were flat and awkward compared to the height and depth of what they were experiencing in that moment. Yet they stood there before those people and in an act of courage both said “I do.” This “I do” was more that a ceremonial pronouncement. It was a statement of belief in the possibility and promise of love that was as clear-eyed, truthful and pure as they could muster. Their “I do” was like striking a perfect note on a tuning fork that filled that sanctuary to overflowing.
Each and every human being in the room felt the truth of their “I do” and resonated with it. It was a sacred promise made by flawed and broken people dressed in ridiculous attire they would only wear for a day surrounded by flowers and candles that would fade away in a matter of hours. Yet the perfection of the tone of that “I do” still carries on and radiates in everything that is love. It is in the voice of friends on street corners, choir members on a Sunday morning, soldiers calling home from Iraq, the whisper of the hospice patient days from dying.
There is a deep “I do” in us that reaches from an even deeper “I believe” credo that is the love of God animate in our very souls. It is a depository from the foundations of the world left in us to be awakened and quicken into an “I do” before each other whether in friendship, marriage, charity, compassion or merely bowing to the divine spark in each and every one we meet. This is what Jesus offered in his life – a profound example of the “I do” drawn from the “I believe” in which He bound Himself to this world of flesh and drew us into His life of salvation and hope with not mere words but embrace everlasting.
So… on what am *I* sold? I am sold on this God, this promise, this passion, this story reaching out from and to before stars were set ablaze and green grass pushed through the newly formed earth, and the love that fires and forms us all. I am sold on this God who awakens, quickens, enlivens and perfects people like you and me. I am hopeful that this is not all there is but a Hope that walked this earth in Christ is still moving toward us and drawing us into Himself.
So yes I am *sold*… because I have been bought for such a time and love as this.
Thanks for your question and hope we keep the conversation moving forward…
As I am heading off in just over a month for a sabbatical term as Visiting Research Scholar at Blackfriars Hall, University of Oxford I have been thinking about writers associated with that amazing place who have impacted my spiritual journey. As with many people, C.S. Lewis tops the list. From my childhood through to my teaching career as a theologian, Lewis has impacted my work, my reflections, my sense of call and provided solace in dark seasons. As this is the season of Lent, I thought I would dedicate a series of Lenten blog posting on Lewis around the themes most often found in Lent.
When one enters this season of Lent, we begin with Ash Wednesday. This is the reminder that we are the stuff of earth. As we hear in the postlapsarian words of God in Genesis 3 where Adamah (“dusty one”) is told that from “dust you have come and to dust you shall return,” we are sealed into the creation as a creature. This promise of God (yes… God knows that we will die someday…) is that our fate is forever bound to the earth and God’s creative power. It is from God that our true origin is derived and it is God that sustains us. We are also ushered into this life ‘east of Eden’ to work, to toil and yes, to experience pain and loss. Lent is the entering into ‘true’ life – a real life without Novocaine as Lewis once remarked. A life that is facing truth in the burning hot reality of noonday. Without falsities, without compromise, without distractions from who we truly are. In this journey of lent we will experience pain. We will long for a life with Novocaine – those things we “gave up” to learn to depend more upon the Living God.
In Lewis’ masterful book – The Problem of Pain- he sets about the task that is older than Job’s suffering: how do we make sense of suffering in a world that claims God is real? Rather than provide reams of commentary for a wonderful book, I have provided some of my favorite quotations.
I hope you take a moment to reflect on these, see what strikes you, and pick up a copy of the book this season:
“If the universe is so bad…how on earth did human beings ever come to attribute it to the activity of a wise and good Creator?”
“Love is something more stern and splendid than mere kindness.”
“Love may forgive all infirmities and love still in spite of them: but Love cannot cease to will their removal.”
“When we are such as He can love without impediment, we shall in fact be happy.”
“When God becomes a Man and lives as a creature among His own creatures in Palestine, then indeed His life is one of supreme self-sacrifice and leads to Calvary.”
“If we will not learn to eat the only food that the universe grows…then we must starve eternally.”
“Everyone feels benevolent if nothing happens to be annoying him at the moment.”
“Unless Christianity is wholly false, the perception of ourselves which we have in moments of shame must be the only true one…”
“The ‘frankness’ of people sunk below shame is a very cheap frankness.”
“We have a strange illusion that mere time cancels sin. But mere time does nothing either to the fact or to the guilt of a sin.”
“It is by human avarice or human stupidity, not by the churlishness of nature, that we have poverty and overwork.”
“God whispers to us in our pleasures, speaks in our conscience, but shouts in our pains: it is His megaphone to rouse a deaf world.”
“[Pain] removes the veil; it plants the flag of truth within the fortress of a rebel soul.”
“We regard God as an airman regards his parachute; it’s there for emergencies but he hopes he’ll never have to use it.”
“It matters enormously if I alienate anyone from the truth.”
“Those who would like the God of scripture to be more purely ethical, do not know what they ask.”
“[God] is not proud…He will have us even though we have shown that we prefer everything else to Him.”
“If God were a Kantian, who would not have us till we came to Him from the purest and best motives, who could be saved?”
“Tribulations cannot cease until God either sees us remade or sees that our remaking is now hopeless.”
“Those who would most scornfully repudiate Christianity as a mere “opiate of the people” have a contempt for the rich, that is, for all mankind except the poor.”
“Every uncorrected error and unrepented sin is, in its own right, a fountain of fresh error and fresh sin flowing on to the end of time.”
“Heaven offers nothing that a mercenary soul can desire.”
“Be sure that the ins and outs of your individuality are no mystery to Him; and one day they will no longer be a mystery to you.”
“God will look to every soul like its first love because He is its first love.”