Advent is underway, the season when Christians prepare themselves -- not their homes, their gift lists, or their holiday menus, but themselves --- for Christmas. Keeping one’s priorities straight is difficult enough in ordinary times, especially in the face of overwhelming cultural cues on gift-giving, shipping deadlines and budget-friendly feasts. But focusing on the state of my soul, my words, my actions, and my inaction during this time of pandemic and a problematic presidential transition, as the nation seems to splinter around me, is almost impossible. Recently I have been thinking about Watch Night, an old Christian custom that has been reclaimed several times over the past 500 years. Watch Night might be the best way to end 2020 and prepare for 2021.
In the fifteenth century, Christians in the Eastern European settlements of Bohemia and Moravia (now the Czech Republic) were inspired by the words of Jan Hus, a Bohemian theologian and professor who criticized the Catholic Church sixty years before Martin Luther nailed his protests to a church door. Hus faulted the institutional church for selling papal indulgences and participating in unholy alliances with secular leaders. He was excommunicated in 1411, but popular support for his ideas grew. The church officially declared him a heretic in 1415, and he was burned at the stake by secular authorities. His ideas endured, however. In 1457, Moravian Christians, in something of a prophetic move (the official Protestant Reformation began in 1517), broke away from the Catholic Church and established a denomination that still exists today. The core of their faith is that accepting a particular doctrine or creed does not make one a Christian. More important is living one’s life according to the example and teachings of Jesus Christ. And the point of their faith is to serve the poorest and most despised among us. The Morovian tradition included Watch Nights, or covenant renewal services. Often held on New Year’s Eve, Watch Nights were prayerful gatherings where the faithful assessed their lives over the past year and rededicated themselves to following Jesus’ example in the next one.
John Wesley, a more modern Christian reformer and a founder of the Methodist movement, encountered the Moravian Church in the 18th century. His journal from 1736-38 records their calm, cheerful, and selfless service of others living in poverty and suffering injustice. Wesley was so impressed with the Moravian covenant renewal service that he adopted the Watch Night principles and encouraged covenant renewal services within his tradition. Many Methodist Churches still hold them on New Year’s Eve.
Then on December 31, 1863, African Americans gathered in churches for a vigil the night before Abraham Lincoln was to sign the Emancipation Proclamation. As midnight approached, the faithful knelt in silence to pray. Known also as “Freedom’s Eve,” this rendering of Watch Night still is marked today because persistent racism still exacts a deadly toll on people of color.
This thumb-nail history of Watch Night reminds me of the need to rededicate myself to my faith, especially in these trying times. And, believing that saying or writing one’s intentions “out loud” is often a way to make sure they are carried out, I am telling you that this New Year’s Eve will find me alone at my kitchen table. I will light a candle and think about my failings: the anger I feel in the wake of the presidential election; the sorrow and resentment I wrestle with in this pandemic; my own racist thoughts, words and deeds; the privilege that I struggle with; my fears for the future that keep me from being more generous; and my unrelenting critique of the church that has, too often, subverted my faith in Jesus Christ. I have also decided to re-read the Gospel of Mark all at once. Mark was the earliest gospel written -- the shortest one -- and was, scholars think, intended to be heard or read in a single sitting. I will pray for strength to begin again in the New Year. And I will ask God’s blessings on Moravians, Methodists, on all Black men, women and their families, and on all human beings, created, as we are, in the image of God.
May we all have a better year in 2021.
Mother's Day is complicated for those of us whose mothers left much to be wished for. Society's emphasis on good mothering calls attention to the best and worst that we have known or experienced. And I am mindful today that my mom did bless me in unexpected ways.
This morning I read this lovely piece on Mary, Jesus' mother, by Kaya Oakes. It made me think about what Mary has meant, does mean and will mean to me as I live out my days as a grandmother. Please take a few minutes and read it.
To me, it reads like a prayer for all the women working, sheltering, parenting, recovering, and loving from afar on the front lines of this pandemic. And I'm walking away with the reference to Mary as "the undoer of knots."
Happy Mother's Day.
There is a Jewish tradition that the youngest child present, who is able to do so, begins the Passover Seder with a question: “How different is this night from all other nights?” The sacred meal then unfolds with symbolic foods, scripture passages and prayers, all telling the story of Israelite slavery and the exodus from Egypt.
Some Jews believe that as they taste bitter, salty and sweet foods and listen deeply to the biblical story, they are not so much remembering the story of their spiritual ancestors as they are reliving it themselves. Jesus and his friends shared a Seder dinner on the Thursday night before he died. Because I want to keep him connected to his faith and find him in mine, I am borrowing the first question of Passover on this Easter morning.
Sheltering at home during the coronavirus pandemic means that most Christians are not dressed up and filling church pews around the world. We are finding different ways to celebrate the resurrection, separate but united in spirit. Like many other believers, I am thinking about past years, especially those I spent at Catholic Easter vigils. They are long services -- especially the one we attended one year in New York City, where all the required scripture was read in English, Spanish and Vietnamese.
I remember how the service begins outside the church as the darkness grows. Everyone assembles around the Easter fire, a symbol of light and hope. I remember the smell of burning wood and the crack of sparks rising into the darkening sky. I remember the lighting of the tall Easter taper from the fire and watching the light spread as that great unwieldy candle lights smaller ones held by the faithful.
I remember the stream of light processing slowly into the dark church. A leader chants the name of a saint, the rest of us chant back, “Pray for us.” This litany of the saints is longer at the vigil, replete with names of holy women and men rarely mentioned in ordinary services. I remember when the lights of the church are turned on. We blow out the small candles. The smell of smoke and hot wax lingers as the long progression of readings starts. They begin with the creation and end with the resurrection, aiming to remind us all of our shared salvation history.
As I think about these Easters past, I see how the holy celebration of light begins in darkness. That it is seeded in the grief and doubt of Jesus' family, friends and followers. The beginning of its end lies with a tiny group of women, gathered to do the work of preparing Jesus’ body for burial. I remember their surprise at finding the tomb empty, how the words of a stranger send them back to where their compatriots are hiding in fear and sorrow. I see how the women shared the good news despite the scepticism of those who heard it.
This morning, Easter 2020, is different from all other mornings. It holds together darkness and light. It fuses the church’s liturgy of saints with the next-door holy ones who go to work while the rest of us shelter at home. It challenges us all to endure the frustrating and frightening waves of grief and doubt and surprise and hope swirling around us today.
We are not just remembering the first Easter, we are reliving it, too.
I always dread Good Friday services. Somehow, it feels odd to me to gather as a community on such a lonely day. And, after years spent as a Presbyterian, I've never been comfortable with kissing the cross. I can't even bring myself to wear one.
Now, with coronavirus and its attending angel of death passing over us, I'm at peace with my solitary Good Friday. To be sure, there are services online. And there are moving photographs of Pope Francis marking the way of the cross in a mostly deserted Vatican square.
But I took a walk alone through my mostly deserted neighborhood, reflecting on how lonely the family, friends and followers of Jesus must have felt on the day they saw him die. And I remembered an interview I read earlier this week with the pope for Commenweal titled A Time of Great Uncertainty. It's a good piece to read during Holy Week.
So, today, on Good Friday, I am carrying two of his thoughts with me:
First, that we all live next door to saints -- doctors, nurses, clergy, first responders, grocery clerks, shelf stackers, pharmacists, delivery people, mail carriers, and on and on.
And this quotation from Francis, which includes a line from one of his favorite novels, The Betrothed by Allesandro Manzoni: "'The Lord does not leave his miracles half-finished.' If we become aware of this miracle of the next-door saints, if we can follow their tracks, the miracle will end well, for the good of all. God doesn’t leave things halfway. We are the ones who do that."
Unlike those people who first followed Jesus, we know Easter is coming.
Like many people around the world I have been keeping to myself these days. I've pulled myself away from the coronavirus news over the past four days to do some spring cleaning that I didn't get around to last year. Here are seven other things that I accomplished today -- all small, insignificant but somehow life-giving in a trying time.
1. I decided to leave the thermometer on my coffee table so I keep taking my own temperature. Otherwise, I forget because, thankfully, I"m feeling fine right now.
2. I've written and mailed a letter, long overdue, to someone dear to me.
3. I made a new list of new groceries so I remember to use everything up before I ask someone to go to the store for me.
4. I've set an alarm so I remember to immerse myself in a virtual viola concert by a friend's talented daughter.
5. I've cleaned up a few pairs of old earrings because, while makeup seems stupid, a sparkle here and there doesn't.
6. I've made a point of savoring both of my cups of coffee this morning -- one alone and one 10 feet away from my neighbors.
7. I've added one app and tackled some new software so I can "visit" others online. I will not let this devastating horror get the best of me.
For almost a year now, I have been working my way through the Book of Ruth. Yes, I know it is a short biblical book. Only four chapters long. But there is a method to my madness, one that I could explain, but that’s not the point right now.
This morning I am studying Ruth 4:16: “Then Naomi took the child and laid him in her bosom, and became his nurse.” A dozen commentaries lie open or stacked on my dining room table. Recording almost that many arguments about whether Naomi, an old woman, the mother-in-law of the baby’s mother, might really have been a wet nurse to this tiny child.
I’m not quite finished reading all the commentaries. Right now, I’m leaning toward the “Not Very Likely” camp. But as I work, we in the United States are being urged to self-quarantine and embrace the practice of social distancing. So here I sit, alone at my dining room table, working, stopping while my one son drops off a dozen eggs and couple of boxes of facial tissues, and listening for the “FaceTime” chime telling me my other son and his children are checking in on me. “They miss their Nana,” he texted me a while ago.
This is a pandemic and the logic behind self-quarantining and social distancing makes sense to me. And I am doing my best to do both. But I’ve known for days now how hard this will prove to be: on people who struggle emotionally to be on their own, who are endangered or hungry when they are “home,” who already were lonely and isolated before the virus struck. And so, some of the points made this week by David Brooks were already haunting me before I sat down to read his column. He’s done his homework on pandemics and the toll, not only in terms of the lives lost, but on the people who lived through them. I highly recommend that anyone reading this read his column.
Meanwhile, I’m taking a few minutes to recommend that and write this because of something I read just now in my work on Ruth. Before Naomi takes her grandson into her arms, the women of the town remind her that, despite the deaths of her husband and her two sons, Naomi is no longer “empty.” The women bless God for providing Naomi with a nearer redeemer, not the boy’s father, Boaz, but the child himself. “He shall be to you a restorer of life and a nourisher of your old age,” the women say.
One of the scholars from the “Not Very Likely” camp has concluded that a tiny child can redeem an old woman without her being his wet nurse. She cites some biblical verses but rests her case on the two phrases the women also use: “a restorer of life” and “a nourisher of . . . old age.” Elsewhere in the Bible, “a restorer of life” saves one from death and feeds someone who is starving. And a “nourisher” feeds those who are hungry, revives their courage in stressful times and redeems a troubled soul.
I am not as eloquent as the women of Bethlehem or the writer of the Book of Ruth, but they express what I feel whenever I gather up a grandchild and hold him or her close to my chest: All of us are too old to nurse, but they restore and redeem me whenever I hold them. And now the prospect of not holding them for a while brings tears to my eyes. I think the women of Bethlehem were right, the redemption and restoration of Naomi doesn’t mean she could nurse her newborn grandson. And I think David Brooks is right to warn us of the clear and present danger we face in this pandemic (and it’s not just a virus). And I hope I am right about children redeeming their grandparents -- even from a social distance.
Last month a former Oregonian colleague, Joe Rose, invited me to take part in a retreat on hospitality and strangers at Trinity Retreat Center in West Cornwall, Connecticut. For months, I’d read about how wonderful this center was, newly refurbished by his wife, Heidi, and bursting with ideas, thanks to both of them. The center, part of Trinity Church Wall Street's ministry, was all the photos and reviews had promised.
Sitting alongside the Housatonic River, in the midst of a stripped but probably lush deciduous forest, the center is quiet, spacious, comfortable, with a library, windows full of light and outdoor beauty, gracious common rooms and a kitchen staff that inspires even the tired, old cook inside me.
And the people who came to the retreat, almost all strangers at the beginning, ended the weekend knowing names, broad outlines and some precious details of each other’s lives. It was for me, a chance to see walls fall and bridges being built. And that is what my heart needed.
For my part, we all read and talked about the story of Naaman in 2 Kings 5:1-27. He is one of the characters I wrote about in Sacred Strangers. From the standpoint of the “believers” in the story -- the Israelites -- he was an outsider, an actual enemy who had conquered them in past wars because, Scripture says, God was on his side. As if that weren’t surprising enough, the story goes on to recount his peace-time encounter with the Israelites in which he seems to have a better grasp of the Holy than the believers around him.
If you have a few minutes, I encourage you to read his story and watch for some of the surprises that we talked about on the retreat. What you discover may open your eyes to what the strangers in your own life might be teaching you.
A few questions to get you started: Who is it who gets the ball rolling in this story? And what does it say about Naaman that he ends up before the king of Israel? What does the king’s behavior reveal about government authority? Why does Naaman resist a solution that sounds too simple to be effective? Finally, if this is a story about servants, good and bad, what kind are you and which do you aim to be?
As our discussion ended at the retreat center, some of us objected to the notion that the punishment of one generation is felt by the next one, and the next. It is an idea familiar to readers of the Bible, and one that we want to reject. That is not fair, we say. And we are right. But here’s one thought: Many who study the Bible recognize that it is often descriptive, not prescriptive. That the intention is not that one person’s punishment should be visited on subsequent generations. But, if we are honest with ourselves, that’s often what does happen. If we try on that perspective for a moment, does it change the end of Naaman’s story?
My heartfelt thanks to Heidi and Joe and all who took part in that amazing weekend.
Today on Martin Luther King, Jr., Day, I'm remembering James Cone and his book, Martin & Malcolm & America: A Dream or a Nightmare. Cone quotes King on the relationship between love and justice:
"Love is one of the principal parts of the Christian faith. There is another side called justice . . . . Justice is love correcting that which would work against love. . . . Standing beside love is always justice."
I took my Christmas tree down this week, setting my all-time record for putting off a day I hate. I have martialed all my excuses: It was a beautiful tree. I needed the lights to remind me that this is season of hope. My cat got sick. I had to attend a retreat earlier this month. But, while all of that is true, I confess I held onto that tree because Christmas itself seemed so fleeting this year.
People blamed it on a late Thanksgiving. But for my family, at least, there was more to it than that. My brother-in-law passed away in early December and the loss has hit all of us who knew and loved him hard. He was the smartest, kindest, most generous man I ever encountered, a man who worked with his hands (who could fix almost anything) and always reasoned with both his brain and his heart. His cancer was diagnosed as my husband died in 2012. Their treatments ran almost parallel, but Albert survived his and spent every minute of every following day loving his family and my own.
As brightly as the lights on my tree shown, every glance at it reminded me of the lights that are missing from my life. I can hear it now, give it now, the sermon about how the coming of Jesus transforms all loss and fills every human void with hope. But this year, it felt like Christmas was bearing down on me as relentlessly as the steam engine that pulled the Polar Express. And, if I am honest, it ran me over. Weeks later, it feels like I am putting one foot in front of the other, moving forward one step at a time. I know from experience this strategy works for me. In time.
Meanwhile, I pray for all people who were, for one reason or another, not able to receive the gift of Christmas. There are, I suspect, a lot of us. And I hope that next year will be different.
In my life, I’ve known two women who have made prayer a priority in their lives -- for a long time now. One keeps a written record of her prayers and really means it when she says, “I’ll add that to my prayer list.” Another made her daily prayer a ritual, by lighting a candle, reading from a book of hours and -- a theme here -- keeping a list.
The new school year always reminds me of how much I have to learn, how much I long to be a student again. So here is my new goal -- to practice prayer more intentionally on a day-to-day basis. To light a candle, read a bit and keep a list. I think that discipline can give me something to hang onto when the waters are rising and I feel like we are all swirling in a sea of lies, self-interest and mindless “thoughts and prayers.” We’ll see how it goes.
One after another. Ohio after Texas. Dayton after El Paso. Too many thoughts and prayers. Sometimes a picture is worth a thousand words: nebraskaepiscopalian.org/?cat=32&paged=2
I'd expected to spend Sunday afternoon at my dining room table working on a tricky part of the Book of Ruth. Instead, my oldest son, his wife and one of my granddaughters "nannapped" me and took me to the Hood River County Fair. It was wonderful.
My granddaughter's favorite books from my hand-me-down collection include those with pictures of farm animals. And when we read them together, I say the animal's name and she answers with the sounds they make. We've got our own call-and-response thing going. Sometimes I tease her by arguing that pigs say "woof woof" and she looks at me puzzled, before she bursts into a grin, realizing, I hope, that I am only teasing her.
The drive to the fair was wonderful, speeding up the Columbia Gorge, through a typical Oregon mist, the deep blue river on our left and rocky cliffs and water falls on our right. It was the perfect prescription for a life lately grown too hectic. We left the freeway and wound through the hills around Hood River on our way to the fairgrounds. I know these roads well from decades of Apple Quests (so named by my husband), the October search for the perfect pumpkin and summer Sunday drives. I got a little weepy as I sat behind my son while he did the driving, knowing he'd sat behind his dad on so many similar trips before.
The Hood River County Fair is small, steeped in all kinds of 4-H competitions. We took in the kitchen entries, walked along tables of cookies and jams. But we lingered longest in the animal barns. My granddaughter, who says "whoa" in a way that makes me stop, take notice and smile every time she utters it, repeated the word each time she encountered a new animal. Chickens, ducks, geese, turkeys, chickens, roosters, goats, sheep, pigs, cows and horses greeted her with the same sounds she'd been practicing at story time. And she seemed incredulous.
You get the drift. There's no way that I can describe the wide-eyed delight on that little girl's face as she realized these animals, who looked just like the pictures in her books, spoke to her in languages that she recognized. I laughed all afternoon. What an unexpected surprise. One that has me smiling today as I sit at my dining room table working on a tricky part of the Book of Ruth.
This week I drove to Mount Angel Abbey, about an hour from Portland, to use the theological library. No matter how hectic the day, turning off of I-5 to pass through Woodburn and turn off to the hills of hops on the way to the abbey is a healing experience.
I climbed the stairs from the parking lot and turned to the left, to follow the brick path around the quad to the library. Immediately two pieces of blue tape caught my eye. It came to me that someone had marked the uneven bricks in the walk so that the spotter or another worker might repair, or level, the bricks so passersby didn't trip.
I continued to meander around the walk and thought about the arguments over racism, what constitutes a religion and who should stay in the United States that I'd left behind when I left the freeway. A voice inside my head noted that I've marked several troublesome spots with my own cross of blue tape and, in my mind at least, I know where they are. Now it's up to me to work on leveling out those uneven places, maybe going so far as digging up a brick or two and resetting them.
I know that other people are working on these trouble spots, but I need to find ways to help more with that work. That became the prayer in my heart and on my mind as I wandered through the library in pursuit of journal articles. Escaping is a good thing, but one must always come down from the hill and unevenness always awaits us.
I have been remiss in writing for this blog. A new grandchild, a book project and a knee injury have kept this personal writing low on my "to do" list. But I attended a remembrance of the Srebrenica genocide this past Saturday night and I can't stop thinking about it.
If you don't know what I'm talking about, here is a link describing how Bosnian Serb soldiers killed more than 8,000 Muslims in a Bosnian village that the United Nations had declared a safe haven 24 years ago. Here in Portland, we have a large community of Bosniaks who have created their own mosque and community center. Determined not to forget, they sponsor a commemoration of this tragedy every year. This was the second time I have attended, asked to speak because of my work with the Institute for Christian Muslim Understanding,
It was a difficult evening. The two hour program was conducted mostly in languages that I don't speak, so I sat and thought about how it feels to be the one who doesn't understand the readings, prayers and songs that surrounded me. The brief videos were hard to watch -- because of the horror they portrayed and the weeping of the women seated behind me, whose ties to the massacre were so much closer than my own. I spent a lot of time thinking about my two sons and their late father and how impossible it would be to live without the people I love most in this world.
Since that somber evening, I'm left with three things I simply can't absorb:
The men who conceived and carried out this massacre represented the victor in the Bosnian war and the village where the evil unfolded is their village now. A survivor observed that students do not learn about the genocide in the village schools.
In this world, where we pour out prayers and promises on bloody ground as we vow to never forget, voices are proclaiming that the genocide never happened.
And, finally, I read this morning that some religious leaders here in the United States are arguing that Islam is not a religion and so it's believers are not entitled to the same protections as Christians and Jews and other people of faith.
In my talk Saturday, I touched on the need to examine ourselves for the fear and loathing that can so easily be stirred up by politicians lusting after more power. I fear for all of us, especially those who imagine a world where anyone who disagrees with them is dead and forgotten. We cannot become fertile ground where evil thrives.
I am among the thousands of readers mourning the death on May 4 of Rachel Held Evans. Brilliant, beautiful, humble and funny, she wrote honestly of her own spiritual journey from evangelical beginnings to a more progressive place. Along the way, she challenged conservative theology and patriarchal thinking that ignored, belittled or excluded women and dismissed, even damned, members of the the LGTBTQ community. Her observation on Twitter a few years ago became a popular meme: “The folks you’re shutting out of the church today will be leading it tomorrow. That’s how the Spirit works. The future’s in the margins.”
Dozens of writers have written moving tributes to Evans in the last few days, and I suggest that if you don’t know of her, you search her name and read a few of them. Better yet, read her last book Inspired: Slaying Giants, Walking on Water and Loving the Bible. An Atlantic piece I read just now captured her essence, but the headline gave me pause: “Rachel Held Evans, Hero to Christian Misfits.” By definition, any Christian is, or ought to be, a misfit. I can’t help thinking of the Letter to the Romans, reminding us that we “all fall short of the glory of God.” Evans counted herself among the sinners. So should we all.
Just before Thanksgiving I was in Denver, eavesdropping on 10,000 religious scholars at the annual meeting of the Society of Biblical Literature and the American Academy of Religion. It was a great chance to connect to a good friend, learn some things, shop for academic books (40 percent off!) and see a beautiful city.
I'm still thinking about those five days and some memories still are making me smile:
In a relentless shifting sea of well-worn brown oxfords, one male scholar was walking around in blue glitter ankle boots.
I heard two scholarly presentations that connected the Black Panther movie to biblical themes, one describing the film as an “empathy generating machine.”
In every restaurant, coffee shop or market, I overheard conversations about religion and scripture. When was the last time that had ever happened to me?
"If they want to know what I think about I Peter, they can read my book.”
"You find it all through the writings of the Desert Fathers.”
"To be an effective missionary in Madagascar, you have to speak French and Malagasy.”
I had no trouble topping 10,000 steps as I walked around downtown Denver during my free time. I hadn't had time to do any research on the city, so I just walked different directions and meandered through the city. One evening, I turned a corner and was enchanted with Larimar Square, dressed for the holidays (above).
And, finally, one evening I was reading through the next day’s offerings and ran across another familiar name (A lot of these names are familiar, people whose work I’ve read or interviewed for news stories). This particular scholar and I grew up in the same small northern Idaho town. We'd spoken once on the phone for a story I was writing -- I don't remember if I had the nerve to remind her then that we had known each other. But now it felt like I had nothing to lose.
“Are you Professor Brooten?” I asked. “I’m Nancy Haught. Our mothers were friends.” There wasn't time to share much more than my mother's name and her love of "opera night," when she and Mrs. Brooten and friends would listen to a recorded opera and indulge in dessert. That gathering meant a lot to my mom, who I suspect often wished she lived in a bigger city. And it meant a lot to me, fifty years later, to share a memory of our mothers with another woman who grew up in my hometown and went on to do great things.
This is a small world and an empathy generating machine.
With only a few days left on my pilgrimage to Ireland and Scotland, we landed on the island of Iona. I’ve longed to see this place since sixth grade, when someone gave me a bookmark showing old stone ruins against a blue sea and clear sky. Iona is a storm-swept rock in the Hebrides, an island a mile and a half across and three miles long. It was an early foothold for Christianity in Scotland; St. Columba established an abbey there in 563. Viking raids and the Reformation took their tolls on the good saint’s abbey. All that remains are a few bits and pieces, but it is the place that seems holy to me. Iona’s often described as a “thin place,” where heaven and earth are sometimes very close together and spiritual encounters are a possibility.
On my last morning on the island, I ate my yogurt and granola quickly and left my friends at the breakfast table. I wanted one more look at the rebuilt abbey before we had to catch the 10 a.m. ferry and begin our journey home to Portland. I half-ran up the spiral staircase to my room, grabbed my coat, dashed downstairs and opened the outside door of the inn. The early morning glistened. The torrent of rain that had pelted my window and woke me up before it was light had been swept away by winds. I could still hear them wrapping themselves around the hotel and ruffling the treetops. The odd sparkling raindrop fell on my uncovered head.
At the inn’s gate, I turned right right and began walking toward the abbey, maybe a block away if there were blocks on this ancient island. I walked on a road, paved but broken in places and awash with puddles. Wide enough for a few pedestrians or one car at a time. Verdant grass hugged the roadside and swept right up to the stone walls that keep sheep and cattle in their places. Between the inn and old but still used cemetery, I passed a metal gate. It's three horizontal bars reached across a wide opening in the stone wall. I stopped and as I lifted my eyes, expecting to see the blue-gray Atlantic and the shoreline of a neighboring island, a pair of large, wet brown eyes met mine.
Above them, red hair coiled between the two worn, brown horns of a highland cow, or as a Scot would say, a “coo.” This particular coo blew out steamy breath as she stared at me, so close I could have run my hands through her bonny curls.
Neither of us moved. Our eyes locked as I marveled at her size and solemnity. I wondered if she could bend the metal bars of the gate with her horns or massive hooves and walk right over me. But she held her power perfectly still, watchful, curious even. The island around us was quiet, save for a flock of small black birds that swept past me in search of food and the hesitant wind that buffeted the sturdy stone walls. Several seconds passed. I snapped a photo as unobtrusively as I could. Still she stared at me. I sensed movement over her shoulder and saw her friend ambling through the pasture toward our private meeting place.
“You are a beauty,” I said softly to her mate at the gate. “I will remember you.”
I turned away and resumed my walk toward the then-and-now graveyard and the re-emerging abbey next door. A handful of buildings have been mostly restored, including the tall and narrow abbey church. It is the crowning glory for a rugged landscape that never has promised safety or security, only the possibility of a thin place and the chance to be surprised by beauty.
Time’s up. My time, I mean. The 30 days I devoted to finding a measure of hope in these trying times. That I would even attempt such a thing is evidence that my mind is limping along like my heart. I focused on two books: Jon Meacham’s The Soul of America (I wrote about this last time) and Pierre Teilhard de Chardin’s The Divine Milieu.
I am still processing de Chardin’s book. There is much in it that I like, and much that I don’t quite understand. I want to share his faith that our experience as Christians involves us in the upward movement of the universe toward God. He says it so eloquently:
“The doctrine of the Cross,” he writes, “is that to which all men adhere who believe that the vast movement and agitation of human life opens on to a road which leads somewhere, and that that road climbs upward. Life has a term: therefore it imposes a particular direction, orientated, in fact, towards the highest possible spiritualisation by means of the greatest possible effort.”
He writes about “communion through diminishment,” which is what I am beginning to feel now that I am growing older, in body, mind and spirit. He composed this prayer:
“When the signs of age begin to mark my body (and still more when they touch my mind); when the ill that is to diminish me or carry me off strikes from without or is born within me; when the painful moment comes in which I suddenly awaken to the fact that I am ill or growing old; and above all at that last moment when I feel I am losing hold of myself and am absolutely passive within the hands of the great unknown forces that have formed me; in all those dark moments, O God, grant that I may understand that it is you (provided my faith is strong enough) who are painfully parting the fibres of my being in order to penetrate to the very marrow of my substance and bear me away within yourself.”
Both of these books -- and the hope that I long for -- come down to faith. Which is great and, at the same time, grating. It is hard to have faith without hope, and hope without faith. It may be that my self-defined crisis of hope is one of faith. I am getting ready to go on pilgrimage and I certainly have a lot to think about as I start this particular journey.
I had this ridiculous notion that I could find some answers in 30 days, the period of time that one yoga program, advertised on television, assured me would increase my strength and flexibity. The ad claims are probably true; the crucial factor would be me -- would I practice faithfully? And, as it turns out, that may be the crucial factor in my search for hope -- will I practice faithfully? We’ll see.
Reading Jon Meacham’s book, The Soul of America, has shaken my own soul. I knew the argument that the United States has endured terrible times when racism, poverty, greed and the pursuit of political power have threatened what I think of as our deepest national ideals. But to read about specific examples (the Civil War, the Great Depression), the presidents and the people involved was eye-opening. To see the duplicity of elected leaders, who said one thing and believed another, to see laws enacted with great intentions gutted by even greater greed, to see Americans veer from openness to foreigners to become citizens of an us-first country reminded me of two-steps-forward-one-step-back thinking I hear so much of today. And the question inside me, “Yes, but now what,” grew louder with every chapter. I am so impatient with progress that happens one faltering step at a time -- especially when the two-step, backward stumbles are so stunning.
But now that I have read the last chapter, I see five behaviors Meacham advises:
Enter the arena: “. . . The paying of attention, the expressing of opinion, and the casting of ballots are foundational to living up to the obligations of citizenship in a republic.”
Resist tribalism: “Wisdom generally comes from a free exchange of ideas, and there can be no free exchange of ideas if everyone on your side already agrees with one another.”
Respect fact and deploy reason: “To reflexively resist one side or the other without weighing the merits of a given issue is all too common -- and all too regrettable.”
Find a critical balance: Theodore Roosevelt said, “To announce that there must be no criticism of the president, or that we are to stand by the president, right or wrong, is not only unpatriotic and servile, but is morally treasonable to the American public.”
And, finally, to keep history in mind: Harry Truman said, “The people have often made mistakes, but given a time and the facts, they will make the corrections.”
So, surviving these trying times does not require rocket science, only attention, thought and action, all shaped by compassion, courage and humility. Ah, if only it was that easy.
The Soul of America is worth reading, of course, because it reminds us of our shared history and reveals the sometimes surprising wisdom of our leaders, including this quotation from George W. Bush, who never seemed very wise or eloquent to me. After 9/11, he said that God created a world of “moral design,” and added:
“Grief and tragedy and hatred are only for a time. Goodness,
remembrance, and love have no end. And the Lord of life holds
all who die and all who mourn.”
Next time, The Divine Milieu.
Back to the process at hand -- my personal search for hope. In thirty days -- or more. (See entry for August 1.) I realize now that while my body might adapt to yoga poses in four weeks time, it will probably take longer to wrap my mind around some of the philosophical ideas described by Teilhard de Chardin in The Divine Milieu. He was a scientist, and I’m not. But I have always been intrigued by scientists who are people of faith, that their understanding of science -- evolution, for example -- does not hinder or cancel out their faith in God.
Honestly, I don’t know much about de Chardin, who died before I was a year old. I know that during his lifetime, some of his philosophical writing was considered controversial by leaders of the church. Much of his written work was suppressed, and he was ordered not to teach. Then, as sometimes happens, his work is picked up again after his death, reconsidered and now church leaders are inspired by his writing.
So de Chardin was a scientist -- a paleontologist and geologist -- who found no inconsistency between science and spirituality. For de Chardin, the more he understood the world around him, the more deeply he believed not just in God but in the idea that creation is still underway and moving, inevitably, toward Christ. I’d like to believe that, that we and this earth are moving toward ultimate unity, but it sure doesn’t look like that right now.
In The Divine Milieu, he writes about a connection between the human soul and God. “What is most divine in God is that, an an absolute sense, we are nothing apart from him,” he writes, following that with this: “ . . . the general influence and practice of the Church has always been to dignify, ennoble and transfigure in God the duties inherent in one’s station in life, the search for natural truth, and the development of human action.”
Right action, he says, must begin with “good intention,” “the necessary start and foundation of all else . . . . it is the golden key which unlocks our inward personal world to God’s presence.” And one of our chief tasks, as human beings with souls, is to sort the myriad influences that wash over us in waves:
“Through every cleft the world we perceive floods us with its riches -- food for the body, nourishment for the eyes, harmony of sounds and fullness of the heart, unknown phenomena and new truths, all these treasures, all these stimuli, all these calls, coming to us from the four corners of the world, cross our consciousness at every moment.”
I am pretty sure that de Chardin is thinking of positive stimuli, but in this moment, I am nearly drowning in negative information about our government, my fellow citizens, our treatment of each other and the “outsiders” who come here in search of safety and food to put on their tables. So, when I read the previous quotation from de Chardin, I see a good description of being overwhelmed. And then he observes that all the stimuli bombarding us (that of course, is my phrase) “will merge into the most intimate life of our soul and either develop it or poison it.”
Is the choice facing my soul between development or poisoning from all these stimuli? What’s surprising to me is that we have a choice at all. Then de Chardin observes that “that the human soul, however independently created our philosophy represents it as being, is inseparable, in its birth and in its growth, from the universe into which it is born. In each soul, God loves and partly saves the whole world which that soul sums up in an incommunicable and particular way. . . . It is we who, through our own activity, must industriously assemble the widely scattered elements.”
Easier said than done, I say. But here’s why it may be so important:
“We may, perhaps, imagine that the creation was finished long ago. But that would be quite wrong . . . We serve to complete it even by the humblest work of our hands. That is, ultimately, the meaning and value of our acts.”
So, what do I take away from the past few days of reading de Chardin? That as a believer, it is my job to sort through the influences around me and not allow them to poison my soul but find, maybe among them, a good intention and work toward that end, even in a humble way. Maybe that means helping with voter registration -- a good intention and a positive effort.
But I suspect there is more to it. In my circumstances, I want to engage with people who don’t agree with me (good intention, check; positive action, check) listen to their fears, (positive action, check), think about where those fears come from (positive action, check) and to resist, resist, resist the temptation to judge them, scream that their fears are unfounded and, in the process, contribute to the discord that characterizes Americans these days (not so postive). I don’t think I’m there yet.
Next time, mulling over The Soul of America.