PRAYER: Anger And Prayer, by Gabriel Bunge

From Dragon’s Wine and Angel’s Bread

The Teaching of Evagrius Ponticus on Anger and Meekness

From everything that we have heard up to now, it is clear that anger is an odious vice.  It “animalizes” man and turns him into a “demon.”  Furthermore, whoever allows himself to be dominated by this vice becomes a plaything of the demons, who terrorize such bold person through frightful nocturnal visions.  Had Evagrius nothing more to say on this subject, studying his writings would hardly be worthwhile.  But we stand only at the beginning!

The man who stores up [grounds for] injuries and resentments and yet fancies that he prays might as well draw water from a well and pour it into a cask that is full of holes.

This surpassing importance Evagrius ascribes to anger in all his writings is based on its utterly negative relation to prayer, as several preceding texts have already indicated.  “Prayer” is understood here as the quintessence of the spiritual life or of “mysticism,” as we say today.

Every war fought between us and the impure spirits is engaged in for no other cause than that of spiritual prayer.  This is an activity that is intolerable to them; they find it hostile and oppressive.  To us, on the other hand, it is both pleasant in its highest degree and spiritually profitable.

In support of his strong conviction that anger and prayer – like fire and water – are mutually exclusive, Evagrius can appeal not only to Holy Scripture, but also to the “hidden and ancient custom of people”:

Tell me, why do you plunge into battle so quickly if you have renounced food, honor, and possessions?  Why do you feed the dog [i.e., anger] if you profess to possess nothing?  When it barks and attacks people, it is clear that it has something in the house and wants to keep it.  Such a [man], I am convinced, is far from pure prayer, for I know that anger destroys such prayer.

Moreover, I am surprised that he has even forgotten the saints: David, who exhorts us, “Refrain from anger, and forsake wrath!”; and Ecclesiastes, who urges us, “Remove anger form your heart, and put away evil from your flesh”; while the Apostle commands that always and everywhere, men should “lift holy hands [to the Lord] without anger or quarreling.

And why do we not learn from the hidden and ancient custom of people driving dogs out of the house during prayer?  This indicates allegorically that those who pray should be free from anger.  And further, “the anger of dragons is their wine.”  But Nazirites (i.e., those consecrated to God) are to abstain from wine.

The gall bladder and the haunch were inedible for the gods, as one of the wise pagans unwittingly said, I surmise.  I mean that the first is a symbol of anger, while the second is that or irrational desire.


The negative effects of an inflamed irascibility on the one who prays are at first glance once again of a purely psychological nature.

All demonic thoughts introduce into the soul mental representations of sensory objects, and the intellect, marked by them, then carries the forms of these objects around with itself.  The approaching demon is then recognized by means of the objects themselves.

For example, if the face of one who has done me some harm or has dishonored me arises in my mind, then the approaching thought of resentment is thus transferred.

Thus it is with reason that the Holy Spirit convicts us: “You sit and speak against your brother; you slander your own mother’s son.”  You have opened the door to thoughts of resentment and have confused the intellect at the time of prayer by constantly imagining the face of your enemy and by making him into a “God,” for what the intellect sees when it prays can justly be called a “God.”

Evagrius describes here an experience which no doubt everyone has had once: the almost obsessive fixation on an object – or worse, on a particular person who has actually or allegedly insulted us and away from whom one cannot tear one’s thoughts precisely during prayer.  Under such circumstances, prayer becomes a caricature; we will return to this point.


How do the demons actually know by which passion we are being assailed at any given moment?  Evagrius spoke of mere “mental images” (νοήματα) that the demons supply to us.  The demons do not know our “heart,” that is, our intellect or inmost being; this statement is of great significance for Evagrius.  This inner sanctum is inaccessible to them.  Only God, who has created it, knows our heart.  Still, the demons are first-rate, experienced observers of our behavior on account of their long presence in creation: even the smallest and to us completely unconscious movement does not elude them.  From these “signs” (σύμβολα) they recognize what is hidden in our hearts, from whence proceed our good or evil intentions.  From these treacherous signs, they create the material of their temptations, by stimulating, for example, our memory during prayer and furnishing us with the image of the one who has offended us.  We then hold this image before our eyes like an “idol” in order to converse with it instead of with God.

All material things make an “imprint” on our mind, of course; that is they leave behind in it an “image” (είδολον) or an impression (τύπος), which we mentally regard as though it were the actual object itself.  Only God, who is altogether “immaterial” and “formless” (since he is “bodiless”) leaves the intellect – in person or also in the guide of his “thought” – “without impress.”  He is “without intermediary” (μηδενύς μεσιτεύοντος) – personal, we would say – present, and accordingly also working without an intermediary.

Now, if we have a falling out with a fellow human being – whether we are the cause or not – and have “passionately” reacted to this incident, then, as a demonic thought, the “image” (εικών) of a perceptible human being is imprinted in our mind, with which we then “speak or interact secretly in a lawless way,” as though the corresponding person were present.  This converse with images has catastrophic effects above all “at the time of prayer,” when the intellect should be “free of images” precisely because it is then holding converse with the immaterial and formless God.

Whoever “desires to pray ‘as we ought’ and grieves someone ‘runs in vain.'”  His supposed prayer is nothing else but a “mimicry” (ανατύπωσις) of reality that now provokes God’s anger.  Hence the warning:

Whatever you might do by way of avenging yourself on a brother who has done you some injustice will turn into a stumbling block for you at the time of prayer.

The same, of course, is also true for the brother whom we have offended and to whom we have not then been reconciled.

Be very attentive lest ever you cause some brother to become a fugitive through your anger.  For if this should happen, your whole life long you will yourself not be able to flee from the demon of sadness.  At the time of prayer this will be a constant stumbling block to you.

With full justification one can say then that in prayer, a type of “tribunal” on our inner condition is held.

When you find yourself tempted or contradicted; or when you get irritated or when you grow angry through encountering some opposition or feel the urge to utter some kind of invective – then is the time to put yourself in mind of prayer and of the judgement to be passed on such doings.  You will find that the disordered movement will immediately be stilled.

Do not give yourself over to your angry thoughts so as to fight in your mind with the one who has vexed you.  Nor again to thoughts of fornication, imagining the pleasure vividly.  The one darkens the soul; the other invites to the burning of passion.  Both cause your mind to be defiled and while you indulge these fancies at the time of prayer, and thus do not offer pure prayer to God, the demon of acedia falls upon you without delay.  He falls above all upon souls in this state and dog-like, snatches away the soul as if it were a fawn.

Once more, this text discloses quite beautifully how the various “thoughts” arise from one another.  The one who is to blame for an enduring estrangement from a fellow brother no longer escapes from the demon of sadness during his lifetime because he cannot possibly undo what has happened.  The pangs of conscience that arise sooner or later remain fruitless.  But sadness is the twin brother of boredom, which at the time of prayer plunges us into this peculiar condition of acedia (soul-weariness), which Evagrius has so aptly described.


The goal of the practical life (πρακτική) is to bring as an offering to God a prayer that is “pure” of all passionate “thoughts” and “images,” and, finally, in general, of mental representations of created things.  This also means that nothing distracts or “scatters” our intellect.  Such “undistracted prayer” is a great thing; indeed, it is the “highest act of the intellect.”  One can also say – in an Evagrian sense – that man is fully himself only in prayer, since in this immediate and personal “intercourse of the spirit with God,” the created “image” finds its way back to the uncreated “archetype” which is its end goal.  Satan, who disturbed this relationship already at the beginning, does not cease even now to frustrate this dialogue in every conceivable way.

When the spirit begins to be free from all distractions as it makes its prayer, then there commences an all-out battle day and night against the irascible part.

It would be an error to think that this struggle diminishes to the extent that one makes progress in the spiritual life.  The opposite is the case!  The demon of anger attacks most fiercely not the beginners, but the “elders” in knowledge, that is, the “spiritual fathers” who “have already received the gift of the Spirit.”  For with the “contemplatives,” the “ones who see,” the sins of anger have the most devastating consequences: they blind the intellect’s “eyes,” with which it beholds God and perceives his creation.

By night the demons demand the spiritual master for themselves – to harass him.  By day they surround him with pressures from men – with calumnies and with dangers.

Accordingly, Evagrius forcefully warns those who “are still held by sin and still subject to fits of anger” not to “strive shamelessly after knowledge of more divine things or to rise up to the level of immaterial prayer.”  Their supposed “prayer in spirit and in truth” would then be, of course, nothing but a grotesque caricature of “true prayer.”  God would not leave such an outrage unpunished.

Just as it hardly is of benefit to a man with bad eyes to stand gazing at the midday sun, when it is hottest, with fixed attention and uncovered eyes, so also is it of no avail at all for an impure spirit, still subject to passions, to counterfeit that awesome and surpassing prayer in spirit and truth.  On the contrary, it stirs up the resentment of God against itself.

Evagrius then was already well aware of what we today call “self-induced states,” which one only “spuriously” feels without actually experiencing them.  It is significant that primarily those who “are still held by sin and still subject to fits of anger” incline to such “imitations” (ανατυπώσεις).  It is pride, hiding behind this anger, that drives them not to wait to be called (as was Moses by God from the Burning Bush), but rather daringly to set foot in “the place of prayer.”  “True prayer” is indeed a “bestowal of grace” (χάρισμα), a gift (δωρον) God gives “to the man who prays,” and of which one must be “deemed worthy.”  So should the one inflamed with anger not pray at all?  By no means!  But instead of reaching for what is unattainable and even dangerous on account of his passionate condition, he should resort to those “short and intense” invocations of Christ, mentioned everywhere in the early monastic literature: those “short prayers” (as Augustine calls them), out of which the well-known “Jesus Prayer” developed.

If you want to put the enemy to flight, pray without ceasing.

These “concise,” “terse,” “repeated,” indeed “ceaseless” short prayers are the daily bread of whoever is tempted – even of him who is tempted directly by the demon of anger.  They are offered with tears, because nothing better softens “the inherent crudeness of the soul” – which is indeed of demonic origin.  But on this point, we have already arrived at the remedies for the inflamed irascibility.

LOVE: Anger, by Kathleen Norris

From The Cloister Walk

His abba, taking a piece of dry wood, planted it, and said to him, “Water it every day with a bottle of water, until it bears fruit.” (The Sayings of the Desert Fathers)

If it is true that the Holy Spirit is peace of soul, and if anger is disturbance of the heart, then there is no greater obstacle to the presence of the Spirit in us than anger. (John Climacus, The Ladder of Divine Ascent)

One night, many years ago, I was angry at my husband.  He’d had good news – the galleys of his second book of poems were coming in the mail – but he’d responded to it by growing more distant and then driving off to God-knows-where.  When he hadn’t returned by evening, although I was worried about him, it was anger that woke me up in the middle of the night.  Hoping I could get back to sleep, I lay in bed, my mind suddenly racing with all the things, great and small, that I held against my husband. As good as it felt to review this little catalog of slights and injuries, it brought me no satisfaction; instead, I soon found that I was in a stew over someone else, a man who had treated me with contempt.  Then it was someone else that I fussed and fumed over, a grudge I thought I’d forgotten.  I was building an impressive storehouse of grievances, and I thought to myself, sleepily, this could go on forever.

I sat upright, suddenly wide awake.  Of course it could go on forever; that was exactly the point.  I’d recently come upon the writings of a monk named Evagrius and realized that I had rapidly moved beyond any justified frustration with my husband, and was becoming possessed by what Evagrius would have called the “bad thought” of anger.  If my husband was in trouble, anger was the last thing either of us needed.  I got out my breviary and prayed the compline psalms 4 and 91, with their talk of peaceful sleep and angelic protection.  Despite all I’d read in the desert monks about how prayer causes demons to flee, I was amazed to discover how quickly the anger dissipated.  In its place, I found that what I was really feeling for my husband was fear.  Somewhere in my reading of monastic literature, I had found the statement that anger is the seed of compassion; I began to realize the truth of it.

The inner voice that had warned me – this could go on forever – now brought to my mind a poem I’d completely forgotten, one that I’d forsaken as hopelessly muddled years before.  I wasn’t even sure I could find that old manuscript, but the inner voice asked me to find it and work on it, and so I went.  It was a love poem, of course, and if I ever needed proof of Saint John’s assertion that “love casts out fear,” I had it.  I spent the rest of the night reviving that dead stick of a poem (no doubt watering it as well; weeping is an ordinary but valuable part of the writing process).  In the morning, when my husband telephoned – he was feeling better, he said, and would be home soon – I was ready to rejoice at the sound of his voice.  I was able to welcome him instead of sniping at  him.  I’d been worried about him, I told him, and he said that he’d been worried about himself.  “Say,” I said, “remember that old poem I began years ago, when we first lived together in New York?  I got it out last night and finished it.  Want to hear it?”

PRAYER: An Angry Prayer From A Lost Soul, by Ian Punnett

From How to Pray When You’re Pissed at God

God, there is no poetry to my prayer.  Poetry, like so much else, disappeared for me a long time ago.  I have been either forgotten or deliberately forsaken by you, God, if you even exist.

I spent the first half of my life searching for you, O Lord, searching everywhere with endless study.  Still, I am empty and without hope, angry, and finally numb, faithless, and forsaken.

Springsteen says, “In the end what we don’t surrender, well, the world just strips away.”  God, I can only beg, plead, cry to you for so long.  I have nothing left to strip away.  So now I only search for anybody who God knows in order to ask God on my behalf, “Why?”

What is so wrong with me?

Whatever I may have done, I am sorry.  If you tell me what I have done, O Lord, to be so cut off from you, I promise, God, to try to fix it; make it better, be better.

I will do whatever it takes if you will end the torture I have experienced since I was a child and saw a black shadow hovering behind me at all times.  Even as a child I knew it was part of me, that part of me that keeps me from God.

As I have gotten older, I only feel the black shadow trailing me with my psychic eyes, but it’s always nearby.  Of course, I suffer from depression, and the shadow man is moving closer and closer in on me.  Doctors tell me that my stress comes from some past traumatic shock, but what can I have done at so young an age to bring this upon myself?

Who could be so horrible as to be utterly forsaken by a God who is supposed to be merciful?

Why would God inflict this upon me and leave me so alone to spend every day wishing for death or waking every morning of my entire life to face yet another miserable day?

And if God is the Creator, then am I not God’s creation too?  Why don’t I deserve parental love or bonding?  What sin could I have committed as a child to be punished with a life of poverty and loneliness and one traumatic event after another for fifty-two years?

Foreclosure, homelessness, hunger, sadness, grief: I have lived a cursed life of one loss after another.  In fifty-two years I have never had more than three days when I have been content to be alive.

I carry the weariness of an eternity.

So please, God, hear my prayer: All I ask is that you just tell me why and when will this hell finally be over?

I go to church, but not to services.  I go just to be alone just in case the day would ever come when something would be revealed to me.

I go to church to give private thanks when I am grateful for something, to beg when I am in more dire straits, to rest when I am weary.

So, God, while I am now mostly just numb, you can restore my soul by finally answering. . .


And when will finally be over?


MYSTICISM: Bread, by Daniel Berrigan

From Love, Love at the End

Want nothing small about men – except perhaps their words, modest and thoughtful and almost inaudible before their deeds.  For the rest, bigness; heart, brain.  Imagination too; let it take the world in two hands and show us what it’s like to be!  Tell us about it, we’re hungry.  Doesn’t the Bible call truth bread?  We’re starved, our smile has lost out, we crawl on a thin margin – a life, maybe, but so what?  Where’s the man who says yes, says no, like a thunderclap?  Where’s the man whose no turns to yes in his mouth – he can’t deny life, he asks like a new flower or a new day or a hero even: What more is there to love than I have loved?

When I hear bread breaking, I see something else; it seems almost as though God never meant us to do anything else.  So beautiful a sound, the crust breaks up like manna and falls all over everything, and then we eat; bread gets inside humans.  It turns into what the experts call “formal glory of God.”  But don’t let that worry you.  Sometime in your life, hope you might see one starved man, the look on his face when the bread finally arrives.  Hope you might have baked it or bought it – or even needed it yourself.  For that look on his face, for your hands meeting his across a piece of bread, you might be willing to lose a lot, or suffer a lot – or die a little, even.  “Formal glory”; well yes.  Maybe what we’re trying to understand is what they’re trying to say, who knows?  I don’t think they understand – or every theologian would be working part-time in a bread line.  Who knows who might greet him there or how his words might change afterward – like stones into bread?  Most theologians have never broken bread for anyone in their lives.  Do you know, I think they think Christ is as well fed as his statues.

But I don’t know.  Man keeps breaking in.

Take your “typical man” across the world.  Let him in.  Look at him, he isn’t white, he probably isn’t clean.  He certainly isn’t well fed or American, or Christian.  So then what?  What’s left?  Well, maybe now we’re getting somewhere; Christ is all that’s left, if you’re looking for a mystery.  He’s real as a man.  Don’t just stand there!  Sit him down.  Offer him some bread!  He’ll understand that; bread comes across.  So does Christ – Luke says so – in the breaking of bread.  What a beautiful sound – try and see!

I keep thinking of that poor man.  And his face, when someone shows up against all odds to treat him like a human being.  But that isn’t all, or even half the truth.  The other half, or more, is what he sees in you.  And that’s a mercy, because Christ is merciless about the poor.  He wants them around – always, and everywhere.  He’s condemned them to live with us.  It’s terrifying.  I mean for us, too.  It’s not only that we are ordered, rigorously ordered, to serve the poor.  That’s hard enough; Christ gives so few orders in all the gospel.  but the point is, what the poor see in us – and don’t see, too.  We stand there, American, White, Christian, with the keys of the kingdom and the keys of the world in our pocket.  Everything about us says: Be like me!  I’ve got it made.  But the poor man sees the emperor – naked.  Like the look of Christ, the poor man strips us down to the bone.

And then, if we’re lucky, something dawns – even on us.  Why, we’re the poor.  The reel plays backward, everything’s reversed when the gospel is in the air.  The clothes fly off Dives; he’s Negro, he’s nothing, he’s got his hand out – forever.  Empty as a turned-up skull.  Watch the reel now – it’s important to see which way the bread is passing.  To you, to me!  We’re in luck.  This is our day.

The poor have it hard, the saying goes.  Well, we’re the hardest thing they have.  Do you know I think sometime if we poor rich are ever going to grow up into faith, it will be only because poor men are around – everywhere, always, drunks, winos, junkeys, the defeated, the ne’er-do-wells, those who didn’t make it onto our guarded spoiled playground.  And those who never wanted to play our game, and whose rages are therefore a kind of riches we will never wear.  All of them, a special Providence, a holy rain and sun, falling equably on the unjust, the smooth conmen, the well oiled Cadillac humans and inhumans, the purblind, the Christians and their impure gods in cupboards and banks and nuclear silos, the white unchristian West, all of us.  But for the poor, we’d never know who we are, or where we came from or where we are (just possibly) going – in spite of tons of catechisms and the ten editions of the Handbook for Instant Salvation and that best of sellers, I Kept You-Know-Who Out and Found God.

On the Cloud of Unknowing; number nine.  Blind as bats.  Then a poor man (they are all miracle men, they have to be to live one day in our world) stands there.  His poverty is like a few loaves and fishes – enough for everyone!  He breaks and breaks bread and feeds us and we line up again and again, literally bottomless with our need, going for broke, sore and ill tempered and jostling one another, hearing the word p[ass down the line, there’s hardly any left, resenting, straining forward in a frenzy of despair.  But there’s always enough, always some more.  Christ guaranteed it – I don’t know why.  The poor you have always with you.  Like a marvelous majestic legacy of God.  His best possession, in our hands.  Undeserved like the Eucharist.  O send someone in from the gate where Dives sits on a dungheap in his sores, send even one of the dogs to whimper for us – Would Lazarus of his heart’s goodness let a dog lick up the crumbs from the floor, and carry even in a dog’s mouth something for the damned?

This is the truth about the world, our Lord said.  Everything comes right, all the deep wrongs of existence are turned inside out, the rich are stripped even of their shrouds, the poor men go in wedding garments.

The first way to defeat Christianity is to strike Christians blind.  Let the rich really think they can hang on to it all, and wheeler deal even with the angel of judgment named Christ, and (imagine) face him for the first time in death – when all of life is a great tragic Greek chorale sung by Christs in masks, sometimes furies, sometimes war-racked women.  Sometimes a foul wino in a mission sings it out like a bird of paradise remembering his last incarnation, but never, never looks up when Mr. Big goes by.  The untranslated, unbearable cry, pure judgement, pure anger, pure rejection.  Reality !  Reality!

O the poor will line up before the Judge with Torrid Eyes, a handful of daisies in one hand, a sword in the other.  They look gently toward his right side.  They know.  Come.  They were the workers of corporal mercy.  They are saved for having been, for being, for being for others.  They save even us.  They carried fresh bread to stale lives.  Come, beloved of My Father.

CHRISTIANITY: Is There Life After Truth?, by Richard John Neuhaus

From The Veritas Forum at Yale University, 1996

It’s a great privilege to be here, and the earnestness and sense of expectation that I know marks this gathering, Lux et Veritas at Yale.  Lux et Veritas – “Light and Truth.”  I mean, they really narrowed the subject down, didn’t they?  You know, it’s this passion for specialization in the academy today, you know?  Nobody wants to take on a big question.  So we just got light and truth.

Now, the title for my talk is “Is There Life After Truth?”  I didn’t want to keep you in suspense about this title; I wanted to answer the title question right away and say that, yes, there is life after truth, but it’s not a life that’s really worthy of human beings.

Truth as a Conversation Stopper?

And yet, the extraordinary thing (every time is an extraordinary time marked by much that is unprecedented, but our time is marked by something that I think we can truly say is quite astonishing) is that, at least at certain levels of intellectual discourse and conversation in American life, and particularly in the academy, it has been concluded that we do not need to deal with the question of truth.  That somehow, the question of truth itself is beyond the purview of serious intellectual discourse.  That the only truth, if you must use the word, is that there is no truth, at least, no truth that has any obliging force for anybody other than yourself.

When our Lord stood before Pilate and said, “For this reason I came into the world, to testify to the truth,” (John 18:37), and Pilate’s famous, or infamous, answer, depending on your view – I certainly don’t want to suggest there’s one truth about this that I’d want to impose on you – was, “What is truth?”  You can take that as a cynical answer, as many interpreters do – a kind of jaded, nihilistic response on Pilate’s part.  He was a disillusioned, world-weary man, perhaps, who simply couldn’t be bothered by it, especially when truth within the context of the world he was involved in, with all these crazy Jews, was an impossibly perplexing and conflict-ridden thing.  “Who has time for truth?”   Maybe that’s how he said it.

Today, there are many who ask Pilate’s question, “What is truth?” and take it to be the mark of sophistication.  It is assumed that we can’t get into the question of truth and still keep our society and our relationships going, because once you get into the question of truth, you’re going to come into conflict.  Truth is a conversation stopper, it is suggested.

I want to explore with you whether exactly the opposite is not the case – whether, in fact, the only conversation starter, and the only conversation sustainer that is worthy of human beings, is the question of truth.

The Search for Truth

Certainly, that is a proposition supported by a very venerable tradition of reflection on these matters.  It is supported, I would suggest, by the Christian tradition in all of its variety.  To be human is to seek the truth, and the quest for truth is a kind of open-ended adventure.  It really is an excitement, and yes, a kind of delight, into an exploration that is never ended in this life.  It’ll be ended at the time in which, as Saint Paul says in 1 Corinthians 13, “then I will know fully, even as I have been fully known” and “we see in a mirror, dimly, but then we will see face to face.”

Until then, this truth is something that more possesses us than we possess it.  It is much more a matter of being possessed by the truth than possessing the truth.  It is a matter of walking along a certain way, the way of the One who said, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life,” (John 14:6).  “Follow me.”

The Christian understanding is that truth is found only in following, in a faithful, trusting following.  It’s a following in which we can’t see where the next step is, where we really do say with Cardinal Newman, “O, lead, kindly light.”  We do not need to see the distant destination, we need to know only the company.  We need to know only the One who travels with us, who says, “I am the way, the truth, and the life.  And wherever the honest quest for truth is going to take you, it’s going to take you to where I am.”

This is not a truth we need fear.  To know this truth is to be wondrously freed.  The same Person said, of course, in John 8, “You will know the truth, and the truth will make you free.”

This is very countercultural, isn’t it?  It’s very much against the grain of the way people think about truth today.  In our conversation, we bring up the question of truth and say, “Well, this is true,” meaning that in some sense it’s binding on all of us.

“Hey, whoa, hold on there, that’s heavy.  You know, don’t lay this on me, you know.  I wanna be free.”

But we get this weird way of turning it all around in someone saying, “‘You will know the truth, and you will be free,’ and you’re not free until you know the truth.”

We’re not free until we’re bound to be free, until there’s something that has a claim upon us other than ourself, our aspirations, our psychological and intellectual and sexual tics and yearnings and desires for community.  When all of that is somehow brought into a constellation of obedience to something other than ourself, we start to become, to taste, what it means to be free.

It’s really against the grain, that obedience.  Talk about a word that doesn’t have a lot of appeal or cachet today.  It’s a lovely word; it’s from the Latin, oboedire – “to listen attentively, responsively; to be alert to the other”  To be bound to be free: you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free.

In most of our discourse today, and certainly in most academic settings, talk about truth makes people very uneasy, and especially if the truth turns to religion and questions of moral truth.  “Moral truth?  Surely that’s an oxymoron.”  This is because morality in the minds of many people is simply that on which we turn up the motive dial very high.  A moral issue is a gut issue.  A moral issue is an issue that we feel powerfully about.  So you have your moral truth, and I my moral truth: whatever works for you.

But that there could be a truth about the way human beings are made to be, built-in ends and destinations and directions, and right orderings of the human life, in such a way that some ways of living and some ways of being are true, and others are false – it’s hard to make this case today, especially when people suspect us of coming from a religious commitment.  To speak of moral truth is almost to throw open our jacket and expose the T-shirt that says, “Beware – fanatic!”

An Antifoundationalist View of Truth

We have to try to understand why.  This is a moment in history in which the question not only of moral truth, not only of religious truth, but of truth itself has, in very many circles of powerful culture-forming influence, been very determinedly bracketed off.  What has brought us to this pass?

We can call it antifoundationalism, deconstructionism, postmodernism; it goes by many different names and appears in many different variations.  But it’s certainly in the academy today, and not only in the academy, for the influence of the academy is insinuated throughout society.  As Richard Weaver says, “ideas have consequences,” and also, very bad ideas have consequences.  The idea is insinuated that what we call truth is but social convention, historically contingent, culturally conditioned, or as it’s more commonly said, socially constructed.

As Richard Rorty (one could argue, at least in America, that he is the single most influential philosopher, at least in the academy) says, “It’s constructed all the way down.”  So then, maybe there is no foundation, there’s no layer.  Once you start unpeeling all the things that have shaped your mind and constructed socially what you call truth, and you take off one layer after another – psychological, family influence, all the other stuff – and find there is no foundation anywhere.  There is no basis on which you can say that one thing is “more true” than another.  All you can say is what you prefer.

And this radical antifoundationalism, not only bracketing of the question of truth, but a very systematic and sophisticated demolition job on the concept of truth, leads to (though not necessarily immediately) Hobbes’s war of all against all, and return to barbarity in its most vulgar and extravagant and sensational forms, for some of the nicest people in the world think this way, beginning with Richard Rorty – an eminently nice person.

“What then,” you say to Richard Rorty, “is to prevent anything of which human capacities and ambitions and aspirations are capable?”  You don’t have to go immediately to the Holocaust, but you’d certainly want to ask about that as well.  What is to prevent slavery?  What is to prevent rape?  What is to prevent my simply taking advantage of you in whatever way it would seem to me to be in my interest to do so?

The answer is, “Well, we’re not that kind of people.  We’re not the kind of people who do those kind of things.”  And the tag that is put on this answer is a style of ironic liberalism, that we ironic liberals believe in certain liberal values about how we ought to be decent to one another, but with a profound sense of irony, knowing that none of them are true.  There’s no way of demonstrating that they’re any better, or that they’re superior to anybody else’s values.  But those are the ones that we, and people like us, “prefer.”

And if other people come along and say, “Well, you know, actually, the nice way you guys live is possible because it’s true” – if someone comes along and starts talking about truth that way, says Richard Rorty, or if they come along and start talking about truth in a way that contradicts the way we live, well, we’ll just have to understand that they’re not part of our circle of ironic liberalism.  They’ll just have to be declared crazy and kept somehow safely confined, where they cannot do public damage, cannot cause mischief by raising the question of truth.

There are many religious folk in the world today, some theologians of considerable intelligence, who welcome this (what’s called) postmodernist, deconstructionist, antifoundationist turn.  They say – and there’s some truth to this – “You know, this is really good, because now in the academy, all kinds of things can be discussed.

“Once we’ve decided that the old eighteenth-century secular rationalists – with their narrow, reductionist, stifling, little notions of what constitutes truth on the basis of very scientistic testing of everything by values and by procedures that cannot begin to understand what they, in fact, are dealing with – are no longer in control, and now that we’ve all decided that there is really no truth – there’s simply your truth and my truth and her truth and his truth, and there’s simply the truth of this community and of a body defined by some experience of suffering or victimhood or exclusion or marginalization – so that there are just all these different truths, well, that’s great for us Christians,” some Christian thinkers say.  We can understand why some Christian theologians and thinkers are talking that way, welcoming this kind of antifoundationaism, this kind of rejection of the very notion of truth.  It gives them an opportunity to insert their particular Christian truth.

POETRY: The Reader, by Thomas Merton

Lord, when the clock strikes
Telling the time with cold tin
And I sit hooded in this lectern

Waiting for the monks to come
I see the red cheeses, and bowls
All smile with milk in ranks upon their tables.

Light fills my proper globe
(I have won light to read by
With a little, tinkling chain)

And the monks come down the cloister
With robes as voluble as water.
I do not see them but I hear their waves.

It is winter, and my hands prepare
To turn the pages of the saints:
And to the trees thy moon has frozen
on the windows
My tongue shall sing thy Scripture.

Then the monks pause upon the step
(With me here in this lectern
And thee there on thy crucifix)
And gather little pearls of water
on their fingers’ ends.
Smaller than this my psalm.

POETRY: Star Turn, by Charles Wright

Nothing is quite as secretive as the way the stars
Take off their bandages and stare out
At the night,
that dark rehearsal hall,
And whisper their little songs,
The alpha and beta ones, the ones from the great fire.

Nothing is quite as gun shy,
the invalid, broken pieces
Drifting and rootless, rising and falling, forever
Deeper into the darkness.
Nightly they give us their dumb show, nightly they flash us
Their message and melody,
frost-sealed, our lidless companions.

ART: God’s Truth Is Life, by Christian Wiman

From Image

When I was twenty years old I spent an afternoon with Howard Nemerov.  He was the first “famous” poet I had ever met, though I would later learn that he was deeply embittered by what he perceived to be a lack of respect from critics and other poets.  (I once heard Thom Gunn call him a “zombie.”)  My chief memories are of his great eagerness to nail down the time and place for his mid-day martini, him reciting “Animula” when I told him I loved Eliot, and asking me at one point – with what I now realize was great patience and kindness – what I was going to do when I graduated later that year.  I had no plans, no ambitions clear enough to recognize as such, no interest in any of the things that my classmates were hurtling toward.  Poetry was what I spent more and more of my time working on, though I found that vaguely embarrassing, even when revealing it to a real poet, as I did.  Equivocations spilled out of me then, how poetry was all right as long as one didn’t take it too seriously, as long as one didn’t throw one’s whole life into it.  He set down his martini and looked at me for a long moment – I feel the gaze now – then looked away.


The irony is that for the next fifteen years I would be so consumed with poetry that I would damn near forget the world.  One must have devotion to be an artist, and there’s no way of minimizing its cost.  But still, just as in religious contexts, there is a kind of devotion that is, at its heart, escape.  These days I am impatient with poetry that is not steeped in, marred and transfigured by, the world.  By that I don’t mean poetry that has “social concern” or is meticulous with its descriptions, but a poetry in which you can feel that the imagination of the poet has been both charged and chastened by a full encounter with the world and other lives.  A poet like Robert Lowell, who had such a tremendous imagination for language but none at all for other people, means less and less to me as the years pass.


I once believed in some notion of a pure ambition, which I defined as an ambition for the work rather than for oneself, but I’m not sure I believe in that anymore.  If a poet’s ambition were truly for the work and nothing else, he would write under a pseudonym, which would not only preserve that pure space of making but free him from the distractions of trying to forge a name for himself in the world.  No, all ambition has the reek of disease about it, the relentless smell of the self – except for that terrible, blissful feeling at the heart of creation itself, when all thought of your name is obliterated and all you want is the poem, to be the means wherein something of reality, perhaps even something of eternity, realizes iself.  That is noble ambition.  But all that comes after – the need for approval, publication, self-promotion: isn’t this what usually goes under the name of “ambition”?  The effort is to make ourselves more real to ourselves, to feel that we have selves, though the deepest moments of creation tell us that, in some fundamental way, we don’t.  (What could be more desperate, more anxiously vain, than the ever-increasing tendency to Google oneself?)  So long as your ambition is to stamp your existence upon existence, your nature on nature, then your ambition is corrupt and you are pursuing a ghost.


Still, there is something that any artist is in pursuit of, and is answerable to, some nexus of one’s being, one’s material, and Being itself.  The work that emerges from this crisis of consciousness may be judged a failure or a success by the world, and that judgment will still sting or flatter your vanity.  But it cannot speak to this crisis in which, for which, and of which the work was made.  For any artist alert to his own soul, this crisis is the only call that matters.  I know no name for it besides God, but people have other names, or no names.


This is why, ultimately, only the person who has made the work can judge it, which is liberating in one sense, because it frees an artist from the obsessive need for the world’s approval.  In another sense, though, this truth places the artist under the most severe pressure, because if that original call, that crisis of consciousness, either has not been truly heard, or has not been answered with everything that is in you, then even the loudest clamors of acclaim will be tainted, and the wounds of rejection salted with your implacable self-knowledge.  An artist who loses this internal arbiter is an artist who can no longer hear the call that first came to him.  Better to be silent then.  Better to go into the world and do good work, rather than to lick and cosset a canker of resentment or bask your vanity in hollow acclaim.


Dietrich Bonhoeffer, after being in prison for a year, still another hard year away from his execution, forging long letters to his friend Eberhard Brege out of his strong faith, his anxiety, his longing for his fiancé, and terror over the nightly bombings: “There are things more important than self-knowledge.”  Yes.  An artist who believes this is an artist of faith, even if the faith contains no god.


Reading Bonhoeffer makes me realize again how small our points of contact with life can be, perhaps even necessarily are, when our truest self finds its emotional and intellectual expression.  With all that is going on around Bonhoeffer, and with all of the people in his life (he wrote letters to many other people and had close relationships with other prisoners), it is only in the letters to Brege that his thought really sparks and finds focus.  Life is always a question of intensity, and intensity is always a matter of focus.  Contemporary despair is to feel the multiplicity of existence with no possibility for expression or release of one’s particular being.  I fear sometimes that we are evolving in such a way that the possibilities for these small but intense points of intimacy and expression are not simply vanishing but are becoming no longer felt as necessary pressures.  Poetry – its existence within and effect on the culture – is one casualty of this “evolution.”


The two living novelists whose work means most to me are Cormac McCarthy, particularly in Blood Meridian, and Marilynne Robinson.  Both of these writers seem to me to have not only the linguistic and metaphorical capacities of great poets, but also genuine visionary feeling.  My own predispositions have everything to do with my preference, of course: I believe in visionary feeling and experience, and in the capacity of art to realize those things.  I also believe that this is a higher achievement than art that merely concerns itself with the world that is right in front of us.  Thus I don’t respond as deeply to a poet like William Carlos Williams as I do to T. S. Eliot, and I much prefer Wallace Stevens (the earlier work) to, say, Elizabeth Bishop.  (To read his “Sunday Morning” as it apparently asks to be read, to take its statements about reality and transcendence at face value, is to misread – to under-read – that poem.  Its massive organ music and formal grandeur are not simply aiming at transcendence, they are claiming it.)  Successful visionary art is a rare thing, and a steady diet of it will leave one not simply blunted to its effects but also craving art that’s deeply attached to this world and nothing else.  This latter category includes most of the art in existence (even much art that seems to be religious), and it is from this latter category that most of our aesthetic experience will inevitably come.


The question of exactly which art is seeking God, and seeking to be in the service of God, is more complicated than it seems.  There is clearly something in all original art that will not be made subject to God, if we mean by being made “subject to God” a kind of voluntary censorship or willed refusal of the mind’s spontaneous and sometimes dangerous intrusions into, and extensions of, reality.  But that is not how that phrase ought to be understood.  In fact we come closer to the truth of the artist’s relation to divinity if we think not of being made subject to God but of being subjected to God – our individual subjectivity being lost and rediscovered within the reality of God.  Human imagination is not simply our means of reaching out to God but God’s means of manifesting himself to us.  It follows that any notion of God that is static is not simply sterile but, since it asserts singular knowledge of God and seeks to limit his being to that knowledge, blasphemous.  “God’s truth is life,” as Patrick Kavanagh says, “even the grotesque shapes of its foulest fire.”


What is the difference between a cry of pain that is also a cry of praise and a cry of pain that is merely an articulation of despair?  Faith?  The cry of a believer, even if it is a cry against God, moves toward God, has its meaning in God, as in the cries of Job.  The cry of an unbeliever is the cry of the damned, like Dante’s souls locked in trees that must bleed to speak their release from pain only further pain.  How much of twentieth-century poetry, how much of my own poetry, is the cry of the damned?  (By “damned” I mean simply utterly separated from God, and not condemned to a literal hell.)  But this is oversimplified.  It doesn’t account for a poet like A. R. Ammons, who had no religious faith at all but whose work has some sort of undeniable lyric transcendence.  Perhaps this: a cry that seems to at once contain and release some energy that is not merely the self, that does not end at despair but ramifies, however darkly, beyond it, is a metaphysical cry.  And to make such a cry is, even in the absence of definitions, a definition, for it establishes us in relation to something that is infinite.  Ammons:

. . . if you can
send no word silently healing, I

mean if it is not proper or realistic
to send word, actual lips saying

these broken sounds, why, may we be
allowed to suppose that we can work

this stuff out the best we can and
having felt out our sins to their

deepest definitions, may we walk with
you as along a line of trees, every

now and then your clarity and warmth
shattering across our shadowed way:


Reading the Scottish poet Norman MacCaig and thinking again of how some poets – surprisingly few – have a very particular gift for making a thing at once shine forth in its “thingness” and ramify beyond its own dimensions: “Straws like tame lightnings lie about the grass / And hang zigag on hedges”; or: “The black cow is two native carriers / Bringing its belly home, slung from a pole.”  What happens here is not “the extraordinary discovered within the ordinary,” a cliché of poetic perception.  What happens is some mysterious resonance between thing and language, mind and matter, that reveals – and it does feel like revelation – a reality beyond the one we ordinarily see.  Contemporary physicists talk about something called “quantum weirdness,” which refers to the fact that an observed particle behaves very differently from one that is unobserved.  An observed particle passed through a screen will always go through one hole.  A particle that is unobserved but mechanically monitored will pass through multiple holes at the same time.  What this suggests, of course, is that what we call reality is utterly conditioned by the limitations of our senses, and that there is some other reality much larger and more complex than we are able to perceive.  The effect I get form MacCraig’s metaphorical explosiveness, or from that of poets such as Heaney, Plath, Hughes, is not of some mystical world, but of multiple dimensions within a single perception.  They are not discovering the extraordinary within the ordinary.  They are, for the briefest of instants, perceiving something of reality as it truly is.


Encroaching environmental disaster and the relentless wars around the world have had a paralyzing, sterilizing effect on much American poetry.  It is less the magnitude of the crises than our apparent immunity to them, this death on which we all thrive, that is spinning our best energies into esoteric language games, or complacent retreats into nostalgias of form or subject matter, or shrill denunciations of a culture whose privileges we are not ready to renounce – or, more accurately, do not even know how to renounce.  There is some fury of clarity, some galvanizing combination of hope and lament, that is much needed now, but aside from some notable exceptions of older poets (Adrienne Rich, Eleanor Wilner) it sometimes seems that we – and I use the plural seriously, I don’t exempt myself – are anxiously waiting for the devastation to reach our very streets, as it one day will, it most certainly will.


“The intellect of man is forced to choose / Perfection of the life, or of the work, / And if it take the second must refuse / A heavenly mansion, raging in the dark.”  Lord, how much time – how much life – have I wasted on the rack of Yeat’s utterly false distinction.  It is not that imperfections in the life somehow taint or invalidate perfections of the work.  It is, rather, that these things – art and life, or thought and life – are utterly, fatally, and sometimes savingly entwined, and we can know no man’s work until we know how, whom, and to what end he did or did not love.

JESUS: Telling The Truth, by Glen H. Stassen

From Living the Sermon on the Mount

Vicious cycles like war and violence, dishonesty and manipulation, are what Jesus is diagnosing realistically in the Sermon on the Mount.  And he shows how God is doing something new in our lives: bringing God’s way of deliverance from these vicious cycles.

This is, once again, not a matter of high ideals and hard teachings but of transformation and deliverance.  In a time of nuclear, chemical, and biological weapons; terrorism; civil war; and ethnic cleansing, followers of Jesus have a gospel that the world badly needs.  We can receive and spread his gospel with joy.

Traditional RighteousnessAgain, you have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, “You shall not swear falsely, but carry out the vows you have made to the Lord.” (Matthew 5:33)

Diagnosis of Vicious Cycle: But I say to you, not to swear at all, either by Heaven, for it is the throne of God, or by the Earth, for it is his footstool, or by Jerusalem, for it is the city of the great king.  Nor swear by your head, for you cannot make one hair white or black. (Matthew 5:34-36)

Transforming Initiative: Let your word be, “Yes, yes,” or “No, no”; anything more than this comes from the evil one. (Matthew 5:37)

Traditional Righteousness: False and True Vows

Jesus may be pointing us to the Ten Commandments in Matthew 5:33-37 as well: “You shall not make wrongful use of the name of the Lord your God, for the Lord will not acquit anyone who misuses his name,” (Exodus 20:7).  The Old Testament clearly teaches against swearing falsely, (Leviticus 19:12; Numbers 30:2; Deuteronomy 23:21-23; Zechariah 8:17).  Ecclesiastes 5:5 says pretty much what Jesus says: “It is better that you should not vow than that you should vow and not fulfill it.”

The Vicious Cycle: False Claims and Oaths

Jesus is concerned about both truthfulness and God’s holy name.  Each kind of swearing uses loyalty to God to manipulate and dominate another person through false claims.  What a wrongful use of the name of God!

Matthew 23:16-22 shows the kind of vicious cycle that Jesus is concerned with.  He says, “Woe to you, blind guides, who say, ‘Whoever swears by the sanctuary is bound by nothing, but whoever swears by the gold of the sanctuary is bound by the oath.’  You blind fools!  For which is greater, the gold or the sanctuary that has made the gold sacred?”

Here the practice makes an oath that sounds real (swearing by the sanctuary) but actually has a cross-your-fingers-behind-your-back secret limitation that you are not really committed to do what you promise to do.  This is first of all untruthful.  But more, you are taking advantage of a person, trying to manipulate and dominate him or her by deceit.  Third, it is using God’s sanctuary to deceive and manipulate, which is a horrendous betrayal of God’s care for justice for the powerless and vulnerable.

We also notice that Jesus is angry here, calling the blind guides “fools.”  This supports what we saw in the last chapter: Jesus did not legalistically command people never to be angry, and not even never to call anyone a fool, but commanded that when we are angry we need to talk directly and explain what is wrong so we can make peace.  Here his “talk” is a direct confrontation.  Jesus’s love includes the kind of tough love that confronts directly when necessary.  It names the viscous cycle realistically.

Jesus continues: “And you say, ‘whoever swears by the altar is bound by nothing, but whoever swears by the gift that is on the altar is bound by the oath.’  How blind you are!  For which is greater, the gift or the altar that makes the gift sacred?  So whoever swears by the sanctuary, swears by it and by the one who dwells in it; and whoever swears by Heaven, swears by the throne of God and the one who is seated upon it.

Notice the words in italics: they emphasize the presence of God.  Jesus focuses on God’s presence – one of the seven characteristics of the reign of God.  Whenever we make a promise or say anything to someone else, and certainly whenever we take an oath, we do it in God’s presence.  If we claim to be followers of Jesus, we represent his presence to others.  Therefore, making a false promise or speaking an untruth is doing it in God’s presence, and making a negative testimony to Jesus.

Here is a clue for what Jesus means by going beyond the righteousness of the Pharisees, (Matthew 5:20).  It means being more truthful, and in particular it means serving God first, above other loyalties.

Transformation and Deliverance

Some followers of Jesus have refused ever to swear an oath.  Historically, the Quakers were faced with sentences for contempt of court when they refused.  But they earned an outstanding reputation for telling the truth.  Eventually they won court provisions to allow Quakers to affirm the truth of what they were saying and avoid taking oaths.  Their reputation for telling the truth fits the main point of this passage: it is more about being truthful to other persons in God’s presence than about oaths.  (We are always in God’s presence.)

The command, the imperative, in Jesus’s teaching is, “Let your word be, ‘Yes, yes,’ or, ‘No, no.'”  His emphasis is on the way of deliverance: being truthful.  In Jesus’s society, saying the words twice (yes, yes) intensified the meaning – saying yes and really meaning yes, a true yes.

Learning to tell the truth begins in early childhood.  Babies bond with their parent(s) from early on, and the quality of their communication is crucial.  I still remember clearly the impression my mother made on me when she said she would always know if I was telling the truth.

As a young boy I would go to the farmer’s market with my grandfather, a German immigrant tomato farmer.  His bushels of tomatoes were beautiful, all on display!  One day a customer came by and began lifting out the top tomatoes to see if those on the bottom were as good as those on the top.  I remember what my grandfather said in my deep, gruff voice and heavy German accent: “Dey’re da sam t’rough an t’rough; ya don’t believe it, ya go buy somewhere else!”  Though the customer would have heard that as “true and true,” he meant, “through and through” – all the way through.  My grandpa was so honest that he was offended if someone even hinted he might be deceiving customers about the quality of his tomatoes.  His honesty was so widely known that he could afford to chase away the rare customer who might doubt him.  In fact, his reputation was so sterling that the town of West Saint Paul, Minnesota, elected my grandpa – with his sixth-grade education, German accent, and modest means – mayor of the town.  For the rest of my life, his deep, gruff voice has been echoing in my head: “True and true, through and through.”  He is my model for being truthful, all the way through.

Today’s corporate culture, often emphasizing profits as the one goal that counts, and today’s political culture, often using information not as respect for truth but as what’s effective in tearing down the reputation of a rival, threaten the quality of truth in our society.  Yet when a corporation is shown to be untruthful, we see it heavily penalized and even driven into bankruptcy.  When people lose confidence in the veracity of a president – as happened to Lyndon Johnson over the Vietnam War, Richard Nixon over Watergate, Bill Clinton over personal matters, and George W. Bush over claims of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq despite United Nations inspection reports to the contrary – it gradually eroded their popular support.  By contrast, presidents of both parties who cultivated greater respect for the truth – notably Harry Truman, Dwight Eisenhower, Jimmy Carter, and Gerald Ford – grew in stature and respect.  We should not become cynical and give up on demanding truth from our leaders.  Our leaders set much of the moral tone for the nation.

The theological ethicist Dietrich Bonhoeffer faced a major challenge to truthfulness during the Nazi regime in Germany in World War II.  Bonhoeffer was involved in a secret project that successfully helped Jews escape to Switzerland, and in a plot to try to topple the Nazi government.  To save lives, he had to tell some lies.  Yet he had enormous loyalty to telling the truth.  It was he who wrote the truthful confession of the sins of Germany, including sins of churches that allowed themselves to become supporters of this evil government.  (Ethics)

The truthful confession led churches, and eventually government leaders to begin the process of national confession and repentance.  The practice of acknowledging error has spread to other governments and become an important practice of peacemaking, healing some of the bitterness from war and massacres.

How could Bonhoeffer be such a strong follower of Jesus and such a believer in telling the truth, and yet justify not telling the Nazis what he knew about Jews hiding and escaping?  He wrote an essay about a boy in school being asked by his teacher in front of the whole class whether his father often comes home drunk.  The boy knew his father did, but he also sensed that the teacher had no business asking a question so damaging to his father’s reputation in front of everyone.  So he answered, no.  Bonhoeffer wrote that the boy understood the meaning of truth in relationship to reality better than the teacher did.  He had no covenant with the teacher obligating him to tell about private family matters.  Truth is thus a covenant.  Bonhoeffer had no covenant relationship with Nazis to tell them where Jews were hiding.  Parents have a covenant relation with their children to tell them the truth, but not the part of the truth that is too frightening for them to be able to cope or understand.  By contrast, children do have a covenant relation with their parents to tell them the whole truth.

This covenantal understanding is very different from calculating when telling the truth or a lie is to your advantage.  Such self-interested calculation opens the door to a life of deceit.  In a society where everyone is always calculating whether to tell a lie, trust breaks down and people learn to do only what is in their own selfish interest.  People learn to lie to God and deceive themselves.  It is a society at war with itself, and at war with God.  Telling the truth is a covenant obligation to others in God’s presence.

PRAYER: Always Pray And Do Not Lose Heart, by John Piper

From What Jesus Demands from the World

And he told them a parable to the effect that they ought always to pray and not lose heart. (Luke 18:1)

Pray for those who persecute you. (Matthew 5:44)

But when you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret. (Matthew 6:6)

And when you pray, do not heap up empty phrases as the Gentiles do. (Matthew 6:7-8)

Pray then like this: “Our Father in Heaven, hallowed by you name.” (Matthew 6:9)

Pray earnestly to the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers into his harvest. (Matthew 9:38)

How much more will the Heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him! (Luke 11:13)

Ask, and you will receive, that your joy may be full. (John 16:24)

Whatever you ask in my name, this I will do, that the Father may be glorified in the Son. (John 14:13)

Jesus intends to create a praying people.  His demand is clear, and the issue is so important that he tells us why, how, for whom, and what we are to pray.  And though we might think that the Son of God would be above the need to pray, he sets the example for us, as a perfect human being, by rising early in the morning to pray, (Mark 1:35), and seeking times alone to pray, (Matthew 14:23), and sometimes spending the whole night in prayer, (Luke 6:12), and, in the end, preparing for his suffering by prayer, (Luke 22:42-42).

Why? For the Glory of God

Why did Jesus think prayer was so important for his followers?  The reason is that prayer corresponds with two great purposes of God that Jesus came to accomplish: God’s glory and our joy.  Jesus said, Whatever you ask in my name, this I will do, that the Father may be glorified in the Son,” (John 14:13).  Prayer is designed by God to display his fullness and our need.  Prayer glorifies God because it puts us in the position of the thirsty and God in the position of the all-supplying fountain.

Jesus knew the Psalms and read Psalm 50:15 where God, like Jesus, demands that we pray for help and shows that this gives glory to God: “Call upon me in the day of trouble; I will deliver you, and you shall glorify me.”  Prayer is designed as a way of relating to God, so that it is clear we get the help and he gets the glory.  Jesus said that he had come to glorify his Father.  “I glorified you on Earth, having accomplished the work that you gave me to do,” (John 17:4).  Part of what God had given him to do was to teach his disciples to pray, because when we pray in Jesus’s name, “the Father [is] glorified in the Son,” (John 14:13).

Why? For Our Joy

The other purpose Jesus came to accomplish was our joy.  Everything he taught was aimed to free us from eternal-joy-killers and fill us with the only joy that lasts – joy in God.  “These things I speak in the world, that they may have my joy fulfilled in themselves,” (John 17:13).  One of his most pervasive teachings for our joy was the teaching on prayer, and he made his motive explicit: our joy.  “Ask, and you will receive, that your joy may be full,” (John 16:24).  The most wonderful thing about prayer, as Jesus demands it, is that it is perfectly suited to secure God’s glory and our joy.

These are great incentives for us to obey Jesus’s demand that we “always. . . pray and not lose heart,” (Luke 18:1).  To these he adds other incentives, because he is so eager for us to feel hopeful in our praying.  He says, for example, “Your Father knows what you need before you ask him,” (Matthew 6:8).  The point is that we don’t need to multiply pious phrases in prayer hoping that we might awaken God’s attention or inclination.  He is our caring Father, and he is all-knowing.  He will answer.  Then Jesus underlines God’s readiness to answer by comparing him to a human father, but pointing out that God is far more eager to answer than human fathers.

Ask, and it will be given to you; seek, and you will find; knock, and it will be opened to you. . . which one of you, if his son asks him for bread, will give him a stone?  Or if he asks for a fish, will give him a serpent?  If you, then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father who is in Heaven give good things to those who ask him! (Matthew 7:7-11)

So in answer to the question why we should pray, Jesus says: because God is very inclined to hear and answer our prayers – which is not surprising, since prayer is designed to magnify God’s glory while sustaining our joy in him.

How? Simplicity

How then are we to pray?  The readiness of God to answer and his perfect knowledge of what we need before we ask means that we should be simple in our working and reject anything like a repetitive mantra that would imply God is aroused by our monotonous incantations.  “When you pray, do not heap up empty phrases as the Gentiles do, for they think that they will be heard for their many words.  Do not be like them, for your Father knows what you need before you ask him,” (Matthew 6:7-8).

How? With Perseverance

This does not mean there is no place for perseverance in prayer.  In fact, Jesus is explicit in telling us to be persistent in prayer over a long period of time, if necessary, as we seek some crucial breakthrough in the cause of righteousness for his glory, (Luke 11:5-8; 18:1-8).  The point is not to finally break God’s resistance but to discover, by patient prayer, God’s wisdom as to the way and time the prayer should be answered.  He is not disinclined to help his children and glorify his name.  He simply knows better than we do when and how the answer should come.  Therefore, our persistence in prayer shows both our confidence that God is our only hope and that he will act in the best way and the best time in response to our persistent pleas.

How? Through His Death and in His Name

The confidence that we have in prayer is owing to Jesus.  He did not just teach us to pray – he died for us and rose again to remove insuperable obstacles to prayer.  Without the death of Jesus, our sins would not be forgiven, (Matthew 26:28), and the wrath of God would still be against us, (John 3:36).  In that condition we could expect no answers to prayer from God.  Therefore, Jesus is the ground of all our prayers.  This is why he taught us to pray in his name.  “Whatever you ask in my name, this I will do, that the Father may be glorified in the Son,” (John 14:!3; cf. 16:23-24).  Ending our prayers, “in Jesus’s name, Amen,” is not a mere tradition; it is an affirmation of faith in Jesus as the only hope of access to God.

How? With Faith

This implies that Jesus does indeed want us to pray with faith.  “Whatever you ask in prayer, you will receive, if you have faith,” (Matthew 21:22; cf. Mark 11:24).  Some have taken verses like this and turned them into the power of positive thinking.  They believe that if we can be confident that something will happen, it will indeed happen.  But that would be faith in our faith.  When Jesus teaches us how to “move mountains” by faith, he says explicitly, “Have faith in God,” (Mark 11:22).  There seem to be times when God makes clear to us that his will is to do a particular thing.  In that case we may be perfectly confident that very thing will be done.  In that sense Jesus says to us, “Whatever you ask in prayer, believe that you have received it, and it will be yours,” (Mark 11:24).  It is God who does it, and our belief rests on him and his revealed will.  Otherwise, we would be God, and he would run the universe according to our will, not his.

Jesus makes it clear that there is a kind of filter that our prayers must pass through in order to be sure that they are according to God’s will.  “If you abide in me, and my words abide in you, ask whatever you wish, and it will be done for you,” (John 15:7).  Here Jesus’s promise is more clearly qualified than in Mark 11:24.  Are we trusting in him as our all-supplying vine?  And are his words shaping our minds and hearts so that we discern how to pray according to his wisdom?

Praying in faith does not always mean being sure that the very thing we ask will happen.  But it does always mean that because of Jesus we trust God to hear us and help us in the way that seems best to him.  It may mean that he gives us just what we ask, or that he gives us something better.  Will a father give a son a stone if he asks him for bread?  No.  But neither will he give him bread if it is moldy.  He may give him cake.  Sometimes God’s answers will overwhelm us with their excess.  Other times they taste more like medicine than food and will test our faith that this medicine is really what we need.

How? Not for the Praise of Others

In view of all this, it should be clear that the reward of prayer comes from God, not man.  But Jesus shows us that the human heart is capable of turning the most beautifully Godward act in a manward direction and ruining it.  He warns us:

When you pray, you must not be like the hypocrites.  For they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and at the street corners, that they may be seen by others.  Truly, I say to you, they have received their reward.  But when you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret.  And your Father who sees in secret will reward you. (Matthew 6:5-6)

Jesus hates hypocrisy – like appearing to love God when what you really love is the praise of man.  His most disparaging language was reserved for “hypocrites.”  He called them children of hell, “blind guides,” “full of greed and self-indulgence,” “whitewashed tombs,” (Matthew 23:15, 24, 25, 27).  The demand is unmistakable: “Beware of the leaven of the Pharisees, which is hypocrisy,” (Luke 12:1).  The implication for prayer (and fasting and almsgiving, Matthew 6:1-4, 16-18) is: Treasure God, and all that he will be for you, in prayer; but do not treasure the praise of man.  And most of all do not turn a God-treasuring act of prayer into a man-treasuring act of hypocrisy.

For Whom?

For whom does Jesus demand that we pray?  Clearly ourselves.  Not because we are deserving.  Prayer has nothing to do with deserving.  It’s all mercy.  We pray for ourselves because we are weak.  We are so prone to sin and utterly dependent on preserving grace to sustain our flawed obedience.  “Pray then like this,” Jesus said, “lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil,” (Matthew 6:9, 13).  That is a prayer for ourselves first, since we know our own frailty and vulnerability better than anyone.  Then it is a prayer for the other followers of Jesus and the world.

No one is to be excluded from our prayers.  When Jesus tells us to pray, “Hallowed be your name,” (Matthew 6:9), he means that we should pray this for anyone who does not yet hallow God’s name.  And if our selfish hearts should think of some adversary that we do not like, Jesus is unsparing – these too must be blessed in our prayers.  “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you,” (Matthew 5:44); “bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you,” (Luke 6:28).  None must be excluded from our love, and none may be excluded from our prayers.


Finally, what does Jesus demand that we pray?  What are we to ask the Father to do?  Jesus’s summary answer is called the Lord’s Prayer, (Matthew 6:9-13).

Our Father in Heaven,
1) hallowed be your name.
2) Your kingdom come,
3) your will be done, on Earth as it is in Heaven.
4) Give us this day our daily bread,
5) and forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors.
6) And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil.

We pray for ourselves and for other followers of Jesus and for the world (1) that we would reverence and cherish the name of God above things.  This is the first function of prayer – to pray that people would pursue the glory of God.  (2) We pray that God’s saving, purifying, Jesus-exalting rule would hold sway in our lives and would finally come in universal manifestation and extent.  (3) We pray that we would do the will of God the way the angels do it in Heaven – namely, without hesitation and full of zeal and thoroughness.  (4) We pray for the practical provisions of body and mind that make an Earthly life of obedience possible.  (5) We pray for forgiveness for our daily failures to honor God as we ought.  That is, we ask God to apply to us each day the perfect redemption that Jesus obtained once for all when he died on the cross.  (6) We pray that God would protect us from the evil one and from the temptations that would bring us to ruin and weaken our witness for him.

The Lord’s Prayer shows us the astonishing nature of prayer.  It puts in the position of greatest importance the prayer for God’s name to be glorified, God’s kingdom to advance and triumph, and God’s will be accomplished on the Earth the way it’s happening in Heaven.  This means that God intends to use human prayers to accomplish his most ultimate and universal purposes.  For example, Jesus tells us to pray for the workers that will be required to spread the gospel to all the nations.  “Pray earnestly to the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers into his harvest,” (Matthew 9:38).  Yet nothing is more certain than that the kingdom of God will triumph.  Jesus said, “I will build my church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it. . . this gospel of the kingdom will be proclaimed throughout the whole world as a testimony to all nations, and then the end will come,” (Matthew 16:18; 24:14).  There is no uncertainty about the triumph of God.  Nevertheless, in God’s providence it depends on human prayer.

This implies that prayer is not only a duty of man but a gift of God.  Jesus will awaken in his people the spirit of prayer that asks for everything it will take to accomplish God’s purposes in the world.  The prayers of Jesus’s followers and the purposes of God will not fail.

MYSTICISM: The Degrees Of Prayer, by Evelyn Underhill

Printed for the Guild of Health, 1922

The subject of this paper is man’s fundamental spiritual activity – prayer.  Every religious mind is, of course, familiar with the idea of prayer; and in one degree or another, with the practice of it.  Yet we sometimes forget how very little we really know about it; how personal and subjective are the accounts spiritual writers give of it; how empirical and how obscure in its deepest moments, even for the best of us, our own understanding of it must be.  Here we are, little half-animal, half-spiritual creatures, mysteriously urged from within and enticed from without to communion with spiritual reality.  If and when we surrender to this craving and this attraction, we enter thereby – though at first but dimly – on a completely new life, full of variety, of new joy, tension and pain, and offering an infinite opportunity of development to us.  Such is the life of prayer, as understood by the mystics, and as practiced with greater or less completeness of surrender and reward by all real lovers of Christ.

Now because of its truly living richness and variety, these men and women of prayer do not always describe their experience in the same way.  Hence the attempt which is made in many devotional books to reduce their statements to a system, turn their art into a science, often leads to failure and confusion.  I do not want, primarily, to study and compare these specialists, or discuss the subject of prayer in too technical a way; though we cannot avoid some use of psychology if we are to bring it into line with our thoughts about other aspects of life – a mental necessity for us all.  I wish rather to consider our own prayerful activities in the light of the certain fact that there are quite definite and different grades and sorts of prayer, which do appear to be the normal expressions of different grades and sorts of souls at various periods of their growth.  It seems to me well that all those truly in earnest about the practice of the inner life, and especially those trying to help other souls, should realize and study this; not in order that we may always be feeling our own devotional pulses – for nothing is worse than that – but in order that we may learn to deal wisely with our own souls, and better understand the problems of those who come to us for help.  Surely all Christians ought to possess a general conception of the normal development of the religious consciousness; and this conception should be present with us, as a general conception of the right functioning of the body is present with us.  It should govern our own prayer, truing up and correcting it, and control all our dealings with the problems of the spiritual life.

In prayer, we open up our souls to the divine energy and grace perpetually beating in on us; and receive that energy and grace, in order that it may be transmuted by our living zest into work – may cleanse, invigorate, and slowly change us.  It is therefore of primary importance to all Christians to know how best to set up and maintain the contacts of prayer.  This is a difficult art – we should bring intelligence as well as love to bear on it.  It is all very well to say that you will find it all in Saint Teresa.  For persons of mature experience, the writings of Saint Teresa are the most exact of guides; but they are guides to the mountains, and can be misunderstood by the novice, or even lead into danger those who are hasty and untrained.  Emotional temperaments, too, can find in such books an excuse for reveling in mere devotionalism; and this is contrary to the true ethos of Christian spirituality.  Christian spirituality seeks untion with God in order that we may better serve the purposes of his will; and one of the ways in which this is done is by the expansion of the prayerful consciousness.  Anything, therefore, which we can find out about this is a true extension of our knowledge of the kingdom of Heaven.

The first thing that occurs to us is, that all the machinery of prayer has but one very simple object – our loving intercourse with God – and that all progress in it can be described as an increased closeness in the intercourse and an increased perfection in the love.  The varieties and degrees of the machinery have in themselves no intrinsic importance, except in so far as they contribute to this.  We study them, as we study the normal development of bodily or mental activity, because we find, in practice, that they occur; and it is better and more healthy to know this, than to be baffled and puzzled when, for instance, we find ourselves for the first time plunged in the prayer of simplicity, and unable to make use of our ordinary forms.  But, in considering our own prayer, it is of little importance to ask ourselves whether we have attained this or that degree, but of great importance to ask ourselves what is the condition and attitude of our souls in the degree which we find ourselves to be practicing – whether this prayer is truly humbling, bracing, and vivifying us, or merely inducing a state of emotional languor or spiritual strain.  All the greatest masters of prayer bring home to us the simple, natural, unforced character of real intercourse with God.  They say again and again that prayer is nothing else but a devout intent directed towards him; and this intent expresses itself in various ways.  The beginner must be shown these ways, and often be helped to use them; but in the mature man or woman of prayer their exercise is free and spontaneous.  Perhaps there is no other department of the spiritual life in which Saint Augustine’s great saying, “Love, and do what you like,” becomes more completely true.  Julian of Norwich says at the end of her Revelations, that what she has found and felt most fully is “the homeliness, courtesy, and naturehood of God.”  So the soul’s real progress is not towards some mysterious, abnormal and trance-like condition; but rather towards the unspoilt, trustful, unsophisticated apprehension of the little child.  This is what matters; not the special degree in which it is experienced.  Thus a badly held, distracted attempt at the prayer of simplicity, involving tension and effort, and therefore self-consciousness, has far less spiritual content than an unforced, humble, and natural vocal prayer.  In prayer, will and grace cooperate.  Neither a limp abandonment to the supposed direction of the Spirit, nor a vigorous determination to wrestle with God on our own conditions the reception of grace: grace conditions the power of the prayerful will.  Hence it is useless to endeavor by willed struggle, or by obeying the rules in ascetic manuals, to reach a level of prayer to which we are not yet impelled by grace.  We cannot by stretching ourselves add an inch to our stature; the result will be strain, not growth.  All this means that we should be very chary of taking at face value the advice given in little books about “going into the silence” and so on: and should never treat this advice as though it were applicable to every soul at every time.  Real inward silence is not achieved by any deliberate spiritual trick.  It develops naturally; and most often from the full exercise of mental prayer, which is in its turn the child of properly practiced vocal prayer.  Therefore I think that no one ought to set to work to practice such inward silence until they feel a strong impulse so to do.  If we try such artificial methods, we probably drift into a mere quietistic reverie; and such reverie, though pleasant, has nothing in common with real contemplative prayer.

So, we shall do best if we enter on the study of the degrees of prayer safeguarded by this principle: that whilst keeping in mind the highest ideal of attainment, we are never to struggle for a degree or condition of fervor in which we do not naturally find ourselves.  People are often encouraged to do this by indiscriminate reading of ascetic and mystical literature, a practice to which real dangers are attached.  They browse among descriptions and counsels intended only for advanced souls, and struggle to produce states of consciousness far beyond their power.  These states will arise within us naturally and simply, only when and if we are ready for them.  In all normal cases, God feeds and leads the soul very gently.  Growth is gradual.  The many adjustments necessary to the full establishment of the prayerful consciousness take time; and often its advance is checked by periods of dullness, fatigue, and incapacity which are explicable by psychology, and must be borne with patience as instruments of our purification.  All the great masters of prayer refer to them, and insist, too, that humble surrender, not constant fervor, is the best index of the soul’s goodwill.  Thus Walter Hilton says: “When thou disposest thee to think of God, if thy heart be dull and dark, and feels neither wit nor savor nor devotion for to think, but only a bare desire and a weak will that thou wouldst think of God, but thou canst not – then I hope it is good to thee that thou strive not much with thyself, as if thou wouldst by thine own might overcome thyself.”  Here Hilton shows himself to be intuitively aware of that which psychologists now call the Law of Reversed Effort – the fact that such desperate striving with ourselves merely frustrates its own end, and increases our baffled sense of helplessness.  And again, to the soul dissatisfied with its ordinary prayers and hankering after contemplation, he says: “Press not too much thereafter, as if thou wert abiding or gaping after some strange stirrings or some wonderful feeling other than thou hast had.”  And another old English mystic tells us not to be like “greedy greyhounds” snatching at God’s gifts, but to come gently and willingly to his outstretched hand and take what he gives us.

Psychology could gloss all these counsels, and prove their validity from its own point of view.  Indeed, the more we read of the directions for education and practice in prayer which are given by the mystics, the more we are struck by their psychological exactitude.  All that we are at present able to say about the technique of prayer and contemplation as a part of the psychology of religious experience has been said by them more beautifully and incisively.  I think that nothing gives one more strongly the sense of belonging to a supernatural society committed to the practice of the spiritual life than the discovery of this identity: finding on one hand our own difficulties and errors noted and dealt with centuries ago, on the other hand those psychological conceptions of the unconscious, of affective thought and of suggestion, which we like to think so modern, merely translating the discoveries of the mystics into the language of the present day.  The degrees of prayer can therefore be described either in terms of psychology or in terms of grace.  We ought, I think, to study them on both levels; for the more we are able to come to terms with modern forms of expression the more we are likely to be able to spread the news of the kingdom of God.

GOD 101: The Mechanics Of Love, or playing against type

“So, Joan,” he begins, leaning an elbow against a quasar.  “I’ve got this absolutely fantastic idea.”

But he didn’t speak to Joan directly, did he?

Instead he sent three luminous angels.  Saints, really.  But at that point in existence, what’s the difference?

She was young.  So young.

I remember being young.

It wasn’t the content of the visions that mattered so much.

It was the experience.

The finding of the secret door at the back of the wardrobe and walking into a whole new land.

And realizing that this whole new land was real.

So did she understand what was being said to her?


Go lead a man’s army into battle and win the war for me.

Of course.  Of course I will.

It wasn’t the reality of the assignment.

It was that he asked.

And, being young, being asked anything by God is everything.

If not more than everything.

But who, in any novel, in any piece of imagination, would put a teenaged, peasant girl at the head of a man’s army and expect her to win?

She had, in herself, no magical qualities.  No superhuman strength.  No prodigious understandings.

She just had enthusiasm and willingness.

But, still.  Only God could come up with such a plan.

And make it work.

I was enthusiastic and willing once.

When I was young.

Then I wanted to be normal.

That didn’t last very long, really.

And when the walls moved, like on a television game show, to reveal my reality, my world of visions that would not end, I found a new response to God.

I found that my head was made of iron and stone.  That instead of lying in his lap and listening to how the universe is all his, is all good, I lowered my ramming head and turned to face him.

You’ll have to get past me with that vision in order to teach me anything.

As though I had any real capacity to understand anything on my own.  To resist learning, knowing.

It was there, like the wind.

Go blow somewhere else, I would command.

As the trees bent over to touch their roots.


Youth, trying to grow up and be an adult.

Illusions offer such reassurance, but, in the end, provide no substance.

Always wrong.

I got to learn as a young woman, growing into a mother, into an old woman, that I am always wrong.

The force that is God, leaning an elbow against a quasar, and whispering, “Julia, I’ve got this absolutely fabulous idea.”

But half a lifetime ago, I still had my head of iron and stone.

And I’d grown a heart that could rival any substance on Earth for hardness.

Not cold.

Just impenetrable.


Love, he says, picking his teeth with a star beam.  That’s your assignment.

But not just any love.

Romantic love.

They were the words that brought me to my knees, soaking my core with tears, pleading for the inevitable humiliation and degradation to pass me by without any contact.

I went to India.

Remember to laugh, God said as I waited at the plane’s gate.  Or you’ll die.


All my belongings were packed up and stored with a friend who had a string of houses that he was renovating.  So he had the room for my furniture.  My dishes.  My towels.

I returned from India.

Dazed.  Wondering where I was, really, and why people wore silk dresses and sat with space between them.

And there was my friend, picking me up at the airport.

We’re getting married, he told me.

After I had buckled my seatbelt.

I’ve told my mother.

His mother?

Back in Maine?

We hadn’t even dated.

Talked about stuff from time-to-time.

He took me to his house.  The one he was working on.

My beautiful curly maple bed had been set up in his bedroom.

It was the only bed available.

So, there I was.

Wondering why the universe was spinning around me.

It could have been God.

Julia, I’ve got this absolutely fabulous idea.

The next morning came.  I was not really that rested, but certainly more conscious.  Conscious enough to organize my belongings and find a room in a friend’s apartment to sleep in until I got on my feet again.

But, by then, by the morning after the latest great idea, I was pregnant with my son, Nathaniel.

Don’t everyone swoon at once.

Right.  The romance of it all.

That’s about as romantic as my life has ever been.

So, Julia, about love….



Years of pleading.  Years of silence.

Perhaps it has passed me by.

But then the you-say-tomato-I-say-fried-egg dialog reintroduced the matter, and there was the dripping of the lesson.

The lesson of love.

It was the only time in my life that I could remember actually wishing I could instead study evil.  Which seemed to me to be more like a puzzle to be solved.  The reach of the evil.  The structure.  The desperate search in the chaos.

But then I noticed that I, Of All People, began to pay attention to the lesson of love.

The finger that is my brain sometimes began to underline certain concepts and align them with love.

Spiritual warfare = love.

Healing = love.

Prayer = love.

And breath.

Love isn’t breath.

But it sure seems to control it.

From discovery (you take my breath away) to loss (how do I breathe without you).

It balls its fist and pounds against the heart raising sighs that drill a well to drop the emotion into.

And then there are the periods of no breath.

No breathing at all.

Which can go on for months.

A fading of life.

A refurling of the fronds.

Then and there, while sitting at the bottom of a bottomless puddle of resignation, in a darkness that etches the outline of my aloneness, I caught the vision.

There was love.

Standing firm like a conquering hero.

And things began to drop away from my idea of love.

Clothes and money.

Anger and violence.

Desperation and grasping.

I saw that were I ever to tell someone, I love you, and that person said that he loved me, too, that I would be destroyed.

I even began to posit that that might very well be how one would know he was in love.

Are you completely annihilated?  Is there nothing left of you?

Then you are in love.

It was fascinating to behold.

Complete loss of self.

Then and there, there in the center of the lesson, there was life.

In its purest form.


The formation and structuring of life.

The reaching out and touching.

The distinction that is lost, and is reformed as a whole.


A whole, new world.


PRAYER: Theology Is Prayer: Prayer Is Theology, by Bernard Häring

From Prayer: The Integration of Faith and Life

Whoever wants to make a contribution to theology has to do hard and careful work, has to dedicate himself to painstaking scientific research in whatever fields may lead him to an ever better knowledge of God and man.  He must submit himself to scientific method, must have a knowledge of languages and of the social and cultural context of scripture and later traditions.  He needs intuition, a sense of synthesis and expertise in history, in order to assess the context in which the church has worked out her doctrine and life, and thus distinguish the mainstream of divine tradition from ossified human traditions.

Obviously, then, to be a good theologian, piety alone does not suffice.  Yet it has to be emphatically affirmed that the very heart of theology is prayer.  It is an absolute condition for the theologian if he wants to be on the right wavelength in his endeavor.  Prayer confronts him with the living God and gives to his study the quality of an act of faith.

Faith is the joyous, humble, grateful, and adoring reception of God who reveals himself as our life and our saving truth.  The primordial act of faith and theology is listening to God who speaks to us and reveals his love for us and for all mankind, and thus calls us to unity with himself and among ourselves.

Faith, theology, and prayer require attention to all that God has revealed to man, but even more they require loving attention to God himself in his act of self-revelation.  Whoever forgets God deprives his word and his action of their source of life, their gift of joy; they are no longer spirit and truth.  One cannot possibly receive the word of God in a vital way without a grateful heart and trust in him.  Furthermore, sincere and authentic listening to God presupposes the readiness to respond to him with one’s whole being.  In a specific Christian understanding, human life and morality constitute a total response to God, that can be fulfilled only to the extent that we bring the whole of our life home to him in faith.

A prayerful theologian manifests a radical readiness to hear the word of God and to respond to him in view of the salvation of all mankind.  In other words, theology is an expression of the love of God and man, and a service of salvation.

God’s word is ever active, ever creative, a redeeming light and energy, since God is present in his word and in whatever he does and communicates to us.  Theology listens to him as he speaks in the ongoing creation and history of man.  A theologian who is an adorer of God in spirit and truth can never forget that God reveals himself and his design of salvation, of peace and joy, in all his works, and above all, in his masterpiece, the human person, created in his image and likeness.

God is always present to us; he always comes dynamically into our life, bringing his work gradually to fulfillment.  This demands on our part constant attention and readiness to be his co-workers, co-creators, and co-revealers of his love.  The theologian is called, with all his fellow Christians and even in a particular way, to grow in the knowledge and love of God so that he can be ever more a co-revealer of God in his ongoing creation and his act of redemption which renews the face of the Earth and the hearts of men.  Only in so far as he lives in the spirit of adoration and praise can he come to a comprehensive understanding of the sense of history.  Without that spirit, the theologian will lack the necessary connaturality with the design and loving presence of God in history.

This is a point strongly stressed by Saint Thomas Aquinas: that all history is a living and active word of God, the history of the relationship between God and man.  We are all inserted into, and involved in this powerful and ongoing word of revelation.  God takes us seriously while he calls us to work with him.  This gives stability and continuity to theology and to the theologian who, by constant attention to God’s presence in human events, acquires an increasing awareness of being on the road with the Lord of history.

By its very vocation, theology is a vigilant, adoring and grateful attention to the redeeming presence of God in the world.  It demands outstanding alertness in the dialogue between God and man.  In Jesus Christ, true God and true man, there is the absolute reciprocity of persons: Jesus lives the perfect consciousness of his coming from the Father and returning to him.  The love of the Father for all men shines forth in him as perfect humanness, perfect consciousness, in total response to this very love.  By loving all mankind with the love of his Father, the Son of man reveals the Father to man.

The theologian enters the history of this reciprocity of consciousness only to the extent that he himself grows in awareness of God’s presence in history here and now.  In this awareness he can reach out from an understanding of the past to the dynamic of hope which promises the fullness of reciprocity.  To speak properly to others about this event which is itself truth, he has to live intensely in the presence of God, creator and redeemer.

God’s presence is a rallying call.  When God calls men to himself, his word is at the same time a call to brotherhood.  His name, “Father,” is hallowed when men are one in mutual respect, in love and justice.  This is God’s glory on Earth.  It is expressed also in the friendship of theologians among themselves and with their students.  And this friendship is always meant for all those to whom the word of God is directed.  A healthy theological community is not thinkable without foundation in a community of prayer which demonstrates its oneness in faith and in the loving concern of its members for one another.

A theology degenerates inevitably into Pelagianism when theologians imagine that they are able to say something reasonable and worthy of God without the active presence of the Holy Spirit.  Theology demands complete awareness of our dependence on God’s gracious presence; and this is not possible without unceasing prayer, humble and grateful openness to the grace of the Holy Spirit.

A theologian should also be fully aware of being “a man with impure lips, living among people of impure lips,” (Isaiah 6:5).  Theology itself, as an encounter with the holy God, will lead him to pray, “Let your Holy Spirit come upon us and purify us.”  This prayer is, in the oldest manuscripts, a part of the Our Father in the eleventh chapter of Saint Luke.  Our theology is the more imperfect, fragmented and exposed to error, the less our heart is purified by the Spirit and by our response to him.  Only “the pure in heart shall see God,” (Matthew 5:8).

Christ has come to baptize us with the Spirit and with fire.  It is the Holy Spirit who gives energy, enthusiasm, and purity of intention to the theologian.  No genuine theological work is possible without the experience of Moses and the other prophets.  When Moses met God as a living fire, “he covered his face for fear to look at God,” (Exodus 3:5-6).  The prophet Isaiah came to know the purifying strength of the fear of God.  “One of the seraphim flew to me, holding an ember which he had taken with the thongs from the altar of God.  He touched my mouth with it.  ‘Now that this has touched your lips, your wickedness is removed, and your sin is purged,'” (Isaiah 6:5-6).

This purifying experience leads man into the promised land of the knowledge of God.  From it derives the authentic mission of the theologian.  “And I heard the voice of the Lord saying, ‘Whom shall I send?”  And I answered, ‘Here am I.  Send me,'” (Isaiah 6:8).

Of what value is a theologian who has never had the experience that Christ has come to bring fire on the Earth?  How can anyone share with others this truth if the fire of the Spirit does not burn in him and purify him?  A theologian who does not pray perseveringly, “Grant to us, O Lord, a heart renewed,” will gradually lose not only the sense of sin but also the sense of God.  His vocation as a theologian is thoroughly linked to faith in his being called to holiness, together with all men.

Christian faith is not a system of abstract concepts, not a philosophy, and even less an ideology.  The study and teaching of theology have to be understood as a saving event, an experience of God’s creative, redeeming and sanctifying presence, and as a sign of the encounter with God that derives from his having called us.  If the tools of theology fall into the hands of people who do not pray, then everything degenerates into ideologies and alienation.  On the contrary, in the life of those theologians and teachers and students who not only pray but allow theology itself to be an act of openness to God’s purifying presence and to the mission for the salvation of the world, alienation and blindness are gradually overcome.

Theology is faith searching for insight (fides quaerens intellectum) more than human insight searching for faith (intellectus quaerens fidem).  For those who live an intensive life of prayer, theology is an act of faith that leads to an ever deepening knowledge of God and his saving design.  This does not, however, exclude the other direction.  Theology is also an ongoing effort to bring all human experiences and insights home to an integrated faith.  Wisdom and intellect, gifts of the Holy Spirit, give to the theologian an increasing connaturality with the truth of faith.  Since these are gifts of the Holy Spirit, they are granted only to those who pray and adore with all their heart.

Theology has its most vital center in the Eucharist, where we learn to praise God for his gratuitous gifts.  In this light and with this spirit, we also see human experience and competence as gifts of God;, and they become, then, an integral part of the charism, of the special gifts of the Holy Spirit.

We praise you, living Word of the Father, for those men and women to whom you have given the special charisma of theology.  We thank you for theologians like Saint Paul and Saint John, whose whole reflection and message arose out of their life with you.  The church is suffering wherever pastors are neither theologians nor saints; and she suffers no less where theologians are neither pastorly-minded nor saints.

Grant to your church, O Lord, that pastors, professional theologians, and the faithful share together their faith, their insights and experiences, and thus grow in the knowledge of your name.


POETRY: The Journey, by Mary Oliver

One day you finally knew
what you had to do, and began,
though the voices around you
kept shouting
their bad advice—
thought the whole house
began to tremble
and you felt the old tug
at your ankles.
“Mend my life!”
each voice cried.
But you didn’t stop.
You knew what you had to do,
though the wind pried
with its stiff fingers
at the very foundations—
though their melancholy
was terrible.
It was already late
enough, and a wild night,
and the road full of fallen
branches and stones.
But little by little,
as you left their voices behind,
the stars began to burn
through the sheets of clouds,
and there was a new voice,
which you slowly
recognized as your own,
that kept you company
as you strode deeper and deeper
into the world,
determined to do
the only thing you could do—
determined to save
the only life that you could save.

POETRY: Saint Francis And The Sow, by Galway Kinnell

The bud
stands for all things,
even for those things that don’t flower,
for everything flowers, from within, of self-blessing;
though sometimes it is necessary
to reteach a thing its loveliness,
to put a hand on its brow
of the flower
and retell it in words and in touch
it is lovely
until it flowers again from within, of self-blessing;
as Saint Francis
put his hand on the creased forehead
of the sow, and told her in words and in touch
blessings of earth on the sow, and the sow
began remembering all down her thick length,
from the earthen snout all the way
through the fodder and slops to the spiritual curl of the tail,
from the hard spininess spiked out from the spine
down through the great broken heart
to the sheer blue milken dreaminess spurting and shuddering
from the fourteen teats into the fourteen mouths sucking and blowing beneath them:
the long, perfect loveliness of sow.

PRAYER: Sacred Prayers Drawn From The Psalms Of David, by Peter Martyr Vermigli

From Psalm 42

There is none, O almighty God, who has really studied your goodness who does not pant and aspire for you night and day, like a stag who is dying from thirst.  How could it happen that anyone endowed with true faith should not hasten to the living God?  But so far that eagerness has been very slack in us, nor have we sought you, as was right, by good faith in holy assemblies.  Because of our sadness and trouble, tears have become for us our food and drink in these difficult times, and enemies far and wide mock the church and say: “Where is their God?”  But we beg you, O God, since you are merciful and kind, to put aside your anger which you have rightly conceived against us and, mindful of your promises, grant that we may be made firm in a solid hope and faith, although we have not merited it, so our soul may not be unduly downcast.  Although it seems that all the waves, storms, and abysses of temptations have been poured upon your church, may you be appeased by the goodness of your mercy and grace so that the solid joys of heart and conscience may not be taken away from us.  Make it happen that stirred by the Holy Spirit we may continually encourage ourselves to hope and trust in your help, because henceforward we are going to glorify your name and give thanks for being restored to salvation and tranquility.  Through Jesus Christ, our Lord.


From Psalm 112

O almighty God, the fear of you, namely inborn godliness, makes those truly happy who are touched by no concern except the immediate execution of your will.  Thereby we are led to request your mercy so that you may be pleased to restore your dilapidated church.  For there is no other way that her posterity, which is your posterity, can ever emerge either illustrious or powerful.  There is no other source from which to expect an abundance of spiritual gifts, nor can light burst forth any other way amidst errors and the darkness of calamities.  Besides, if as we pray, godliness revives in her, our sincere duties of charity toward our neighbors will be carried out without fail.  Instead of themselves, people will look after their sisters and brothers.  They will govern their actions not by chance or impulse but by a spiritual standard.  We therefore request this as a chief priority: that you solidify our confidence in you, from which neither storms of troubles nor the pleasure of good fortune can tear us in any way.  Through Jesus Christ, our Lord.


From Psalm 119:17-32

Since our strength depends on you, O great and good God, and without your help we cannot accomplish anything that pleases you, we rightly take refuge in you so that by the help of your grace we may indeed conform our actions to your laws.  That can in no wise happen if you do not remove from our eyes the curtain that evil desires keep putting between us and sound teaching.  The result is that we pay no attention to the beneficial things it commands us to do.  Also keep far away, we pray, the swelling of the mind and the elation of the heart by which we are sometimes inclined to overestimate human institutions and inventions so that compared to them your institutions seem vile to us.  That happens mainly when we fear to undergo the contempt and hatred of this world.  Therefore, when we find our hearts so torn between opposites, do, O God, refresh us with your word and be pleased to calm the cares of our hearts and our excessive anxiety with spiritual tranquility and to prevent us form being deceived by the lies of this world, which otherwise are so enticing.  For if you shall have once enlarged our anguished heart with your Spirit, nothing shall be able to block us from running as fast as we can to carry out your commands.  We beg you with all the intensity we can that we may be able to attain this in the end.  Through Jesus Christ our Lord.


From Psalm 128

Nothing good or joyous can happen except to those who fear and reverence God and who walk faithfully in the ways of God’s commandments by upright living.  That fact now shows us the reason why we are undergoing disasters.  In your supreme mercy, almighty God, you gave us your salutary teaching, but the last thing we have carried through is worshiping you in the proper way.  We ranked fear and reverence for your name behind our own desires, and we discarded the discipline of your commandments.  We have no reason then to complain that sufferings are sometimes laid upon us unfairly.  Disregard, we pray, our iniquities and wicked deeds and because of your mercy reestablish within us fear, devotion, and holy behavior.  Finally shine down from Zion, that is, from your lofty and inaccessible light, upon your suffering church and rescue her when she is beset by such dangers.  Through faith you have taken her unto yourself as a wife; grant that she be increased by the fecundity of her holy children.  May she be like a vine which spreads out widely and cannot be cut down, regardless of how antichrist strives to do so.  We urgently ask that we obtain this especially from you, good Father: that you deign to grant good and salutary things to your Jerusalem and to send peace and tranquility to the true Israel.

Through Jesus Christ, our Lord.



PRAYER: Novena To The Sacred Heart Of Jesus

Introductory Prayer

Most holy Heart of Jesus, fountain of every blessing, I adore you, I love you, and with a lively sorrow for sins, I offer you this poor heart of mine. Make it humble, patient, pure, and wholly obedient to your will. Grant, good Jesus, that I may live in you and for you. Protect me in the midst of danger; comfort me in my afflictions; give me health of body, assistance in my temporal needs, your blessing on all that I do, and the grace of a holy death.

First Day

Recite the Introductory Prayer.

Scripture reading [Matthew 11:28-30]: Come to me, all you who labor and are burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am meek and humble of heart; and you will find rest for yourselves. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.

Prayer: With open arms, O Lord, you continue to embrace the universe. I know I am a small part of that universe. Yet in your eyes I am also a very important part. Lord, it is by my surrendering to you that you are able to bring me closer to your Heart – the source of all love, compassion and kindness.

(1) Our Father, (1) Hail Mary, (1) Glory Be

Most Sacred Heart of Jesus, have mercy on us!

Second Day

Recite the Introductory Prayer.

Scripture reading [Luke 18:15-17]: People were bringing even infants to him (Jesus) that he might touch them, and when the disciples saw this, they rebuked them. Jesus, however, called the children to himself and said, “Let the children come to me and do not prevent them; for the kingdom of God belongs to such as these. Amen, I say to you, whoever does not accept the kingdom of God like a child will not enter it.”

Prayer: O Lord, we are orphans, lost and alone. But with you we are saved. As I come to you today, Lord, let me approach you as a child – enthused by your love of life, in need of guidance and support. Jesus, protect the children of the world, give me the grace to be an example of your love to them.

(1) Our Father, (1) Hail Mary, (1) Glory Be

Most Sacred Heart of Jesus, have mercy on us!

Third Day

Recite the Introductory Prayer.

Scripture reading [Mark 5:36-42]: When they arrived at the house of the synagogue official, he caught sight of a commotion, people weeping and wailing loudly. … He took the child by the hand… “Little girl, I say to you, arise!” The girl, a child of twelve, arose immediately and walk around. [At that] they were utterly astounded.

Prayer: Lord, allow your healing hand to heal me. Touch my soul with your compassion for others. Touch my heart with your courage and infinite love for all. Touch my mind with your wisdom, that my mouth may always proclaim your praise. Bring me health in body and spirit that I may serve you with all my strength.

(1) Our Father, (1) Hail Mary, (1) Glory Be

Most Sacred Heart of Jesus, have mercy on us!

Fourth Day

Recite the Introductory Prayer.

Scripture reading [John 10:10b-14]: I came so that they might have life and have it more abundantly. I am the Good Shepherd. A Good Shepherd lays down his life for the sheep. … I know mine and mine know me.

Prayer: Lord, it is written that you care especially for the lost sheep in this world. Today I place into your hands someone I care about deeply (NAME PERSON HERE). To be lost is terrible feeling, to be unknown and unsure is to live in fear. With you we have nothing to fear. Let this day, Lord, be another step closer to your heart for all of us.

(1) Our Father, (1) Hail Mary, (1) Glory Be

Most Sacred Heart of Jesus, have mercy on us!

Fifth Day

Recite the Introductory Prayer.

Scripture reading [John 6:51]: I am the living bread that came down from Heaven; whoever eats this bread will live forever; and the bread that I will give is my flesh for the life of the world.

Prayer: O Lord, your generosity knows no limits! Your burning desire to be one with us knows no bounds! You gave of yourself in Bethlehem, in Galilee, at Calvary. In the gift of our Eucharist, you continue to give of yourself day in and day out. Today I ask you, Lord, to forgive my selfishness, my pettiness, and my sins. Help me live like you lived – a life lived for others, filled with the fullness of grace.

(1) Our Father, (1) Hail Mary, (1) Glory Be

Most Sacred Heart of Jesus, have mercy on us!

Sixth Day

Recite the Introductory Prayer.

Scripture reading: [Matthew 26:38-39]: He (Jesus) said to his disciples, “My soul is sorrowful even to death. Remain here and keep watch with me.” He advanced a little and fell prostrate in prayer, saying, “My Father, if it is possible, let this cup pass from me; yet not as I will, but as you will.”

Prayer: O Lord, you were no stranger to sorrow, to the loss of family and dear friends. You even knew the fear of death. Why, Lord, did you face such trials? Was it so you could understand me in my times of trial? Lord, I offer you my suffering today; do with it as you will, for it is a powerful gift. It is yours, Lord; let it be my way of saying “I love you.”

(1) Our Father, (1) Hail Mary, (1) Glory Be

Most Sacred Heart of Jesus, have mercy on us!

Seventh Day

Recite the Introductory Prayer.

Scripture reading (John 19:33-34): When they came to Jesus and saw that he was already dead, they did not break his legs, but one soldier thrust his lance into his side, and immediately blood and water flowed out.

Prayer: Lord, it is only because of the foolishness of your cross that life makes sense. You abandoned your own life to teach me what really matters. How I strive after foolish things and use people rather than love people. You died the shameful death on the cross to teach us the joyful lesson in life. Today, Lord, give me the courage to love what is important and to forsake all that is self-serving and deceitful.

(1) Our Father, (1) Hail Mary, (1) Glory Be

Most Sacred Heart of Jesus, have mercy on us!

Eighth Day

Recite the Introductory Prayer.

Scripture reading (John 20:26b-28): Jesus came, although the doors were locked, and stood in their midst and said, “Peace be with you.” Then he said to Thomas, “Put your finger here and see my hands, and bring your hand and put it into my side, and do not be unbelieving, but believe.” Thomas answered and said to him, “My Lord and my God!”

Prayer: Lord, if only we believed fully in you. We are all yours. Help me believe that you are every answer to every problem, that you are everywhere to guide, strengthen, encourage and lead. Yes, I believe in you, but my faith is often weak. In times of trial I doubt you and in times of joy I forget you. In the patience of your Heart, Lord, continue to reveal yourself to me everywhere.

(1) Our Father, (1) Hail Mary, (1) Glory Be

Most Sacred Heart of Jesus, have mercy on us!

Ninth Day

Recite the Introductory Prayer. 

Scripture reading [Revelation 21:1-4]: Then I saw a new Heaven and a new Earth… “Behold, God’s dwelling is with the human race. He will dwell with them and they will be his people and God himself will always be with them [as their God]. He will wipe every tear from their eyes, and there shall be no more death or mourning, wailing or pain, [for] the old order has passed away.”

Prayer: O Lord, how often I wonder where life will lead. Where am I going – how will it end? Life ends where life began – with you, Lord. You said of yourself: “I am the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end.” I am yours, Lord – yesterday, today and forever. I am yours. Lord, forgive my past, bring light and peace to my present, and prepare me with a generous heart for the future. I know you will be there for me, my Lord and my God.

(1) Our Father, (1) Hail Mary, (1) Glory Be

Most Sacred Heart of Jesus, have mercy on us!

(From Space and Grace)


MYSTICISM: The Blessing Attributed To Saint Clare

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.


May the Lord bless you and keep you.  May he show his face to you and be merciful to you.  May he turn his countenance to you and give you peace.

I, Clare, a handmaid of Christ, a little plant of our holy Father Francis, a sister and mother of you and the other Poor Sisters, although unworthy, ask our Lord Jesus Christ, through his mercy and through the intercession of his most holy mother, Mary, of blessed Michael the Archangel, and all the holy angels of God, and of all his men and women saints, that the Heavenly Father give you and confirm for you this most holy blessing in Heaven and on Earth.  On Earth, may he increase his grace and virtues among his servants and handmaids of his Church Militant.  In Heaven, may he exalt and glorify you in his Church Triumphant among all his men and women saints.

I bless you in my life and after my death as much as I can and more than I can with all the blessings with which the Father of mercies has and will have blessed his sons and daughters in Heaven and on Earth.


Always be lovers of God and your souls and the souls of your sisters, and always be eager to observe what you have promised the Lord.

May the Lord be with you always and, wherever you are, may you be with him always.


THE CHURCH: A Righteous Congregation, or scrubbing bubbles

It was Wednesday of Holy Week.  Maundy Thursday was to come.  Followed by Good Friday.  And then the weekend.

The big weekend.

Big, in terms of music and smoke and folderol.

But this church took time to do something big on Wednesday of Holy Week.

Music.  Endless chants.  Each note perfect in tone and pitch.  The hush enveloped the rest of us, as though we had all been tucked in behind the couch waiting with bated breath for the birthday boy to come through the door.

Absolute silence on our part.

It was the least we could do to contribute to the importance of the event.

So important.

But there, tucked in there somewhere, in the packed congregation, so packed that we had to hold our folded jackets on our laps to give as much space in the pew to wanna-be sitters, was a man.  A man of the street.  Literally.  A man who had brought in with him a few grocery bags.  You know the type.  Plastic.  Crinkly.  The slightest touch sending echos of their character bouncing through the rafters.

The seating was very tight.  The homeless man, not accustomed to being frozen in his seat, kept seeking a bit of space.  Space for himself.  Space for his bags.  A continual push-and-push-back with those around him.  The grocery bags supplying the sound track for the battle.  For space.  For propriety.

And so a man, an usher, a man new to the church, eager to be just what this very proper church expected of him, threw the homeless man with his bags out onto the street.

In the dark.

In the rain.

So I got up, walked over all the people that sat between the aisle and me, and walked out into the dark, rainy night to stand with the homeless man.

I only had change on me that night.

So I spent the time that the Tenebrae service was being offered as our very significant, monumental gift to God digging through my purse, extracting each and every penny to give to the man who stood there shivering.  Waiting for the service to end so he could feel a warm cup of coffee in his hands.  Tuck a few salmon sandwiches into one of his precious bags.  Perhaps even a bit of cake.

I just stood in the rain crying.

All I could think of was, Jesus was born homeless.  Jesus was homeless when he died.

For the rest of the week, I could not bring myself to speak in church.  Not to pray aloud.  Not to sing the hymns.  Not to exchange peace.

I just stood there, looking at all the coats and hats.  The purses full of money.  The easy smiles.

I didn’t cry.

But I didn’t speak either.

Eventually, I heard out of the mouth of one of the priests, the words, Jesus was born homeless.  And when he died he was homeless.

And I spoke again.

The man who evicted the homeless man was quietly taken off the team of ushers.

Only to be put on the altar as an acolyte.

Ultimately, to be made Master of Ceremonies.

In the jadedness that I carried in my heart for that church, I kept waiting for him to announce that he was going to go to seminary.  That he had been enthusiastically approved by the diocese to become a priest.

A clean house.

We must, at all times, maintain a clean house.

Recently, Pope Francis said something about his church and how it should be friendly to gay folk.

Friendly? they all shouted back.  Friendly?  

To them?

Hell no.

What kind of church would we be if we were friendly to them?

The Roman church isn’t alone in this obsession for cleanliness.  To keep sin on the other side of the door.

My church isn’t alone in their belief that only people who have the ability to behave properly in church should be allowed in. 

Each denomination appears to have its own set of standards, of who is acceptable to be made part of the congregation.

We don’t want those kind of people here.

Whatever the those refers to.  Perceived imperfection.

Perceived sin.

Our job as a church is to make sure this is a place of sinlessness.

The worst exclusion, in my eyes, is the Roman church’s refusal to allowed divorced and remarried women to receive communion.

You are too dirty to come to the rail.  To get down on your knees.  To hold out your hand and be given a sign of love from your Lord and from God.

Too dirty.

Too sinful.



It is, to my mind, a most upside-down-inside-out way to run a church.

Only the good are allowed in.

All the bad are to stay on the outside.

Like the homeless man and his bags.


But Jesus came to save the sinners.

He didn’t come to deal with the righteous.

They’re already good.

It’s the bad ones he came for.

The thieves and the beggars, the adulteresses and the abusers.

He came to Earth for them.

Those people that are thrown out of churches on a weekly basis.

He didn’t come for all the good folk who serve coffee hour and teach Sunday school and serve on the vestry and raise funds to fix the roof.

He came for the man who doesn’t make it to church because he drank too much the night before.

He came for the woman who sends her children to church with her sister but makes fun of it all when they get home.  What you do in Sunday school?  Color a dove?  Well that ought to save your soul!

He came for the man who stole the money out of the poor box at the back of the church.

Most congregations, whether we want to admit it or not, sing our songs with enthusiasm to express our joy that Jesus loves us.

Sure, he may love us.

But he came to serve the ones we throw out into the street.

The ones we neglect to invite to our church.

The ones we don’t welcome when they creep in to see what its like.

The simple truth is this: if we only let the righteous into our faith community, we don’t have Jesus in there with us.

He’s not there for us.

He’s here for them.

And without them in our churches, there is no Jesus.

A church free of sinners is one free of Jesus, too.

It is ironic, that being good means excluding ourselves from the work of Jesus.

Unless, that is, we join him in his work, like we’re supposed to, and make the church a home for the sinners of the world.

It’s what our righteousness is for, after all.

Isn’t it?


GRACE: With The Silent Glimmer Of God’s Spirit, by Lambert J. Leijssen

From With the Silent Glimmer of God’s Spirit

My grace is sufficient for you.
(2 Corinthians 12:9)

To celebrate the sacraments is to enter into a dialogue with the self-giving God.  We allow God’s Word to come to us, and we know that Jesus’s story directly addresses us.  This encounter unfolds in the real circumstances of our life.  It is rooted in the power of the living Spirit who issues forth from the Father and the Son.  In this way, we come to stand in the mutual love of the three divine persons and become immersed, as it were, in this divine mystery.  We participate in their love that is offered to us.  Our response to God’s love, which consists in voluntary acceptance and thankfulness, is itself possible only through the power of the Spirit active and moving within us.

Reforming the Classical View of Grace

Classical theology conceives of the effects of the sacraments in categories of grace that are communicated to the faithful.  Ontologically based theology sees grace as a situation, an attitude, a condition (habitus), “something” in and of the person, that a person either has or does not have, or possesses in greater or lesser degree.  We need to reformulate this representation of grace, and in so doing we can be guided by the distinction made earlier between uncreated and created grace.

The term uncreated grace applies to the Trinity as the interpretation of their mutual exchange of love, which is transcendent, that is, above creation.  This mystery of divine love is poured out on creation and, in the incarnation of Jesus, “received from the Holy Spirit.”  The believer is called to participate in this divine love.

Upon accepting the divine offer, the believer enters a new form of relationship with the divine persons, one indicated by the term created grace: the sanctifying grace in the human soul.

Renewed Understanding of Grace

In the current context of a phenomenological theology, we do well to abandon the concept of grace as a “thing” and instead to refer to grace as “God’s habitation through God’s Spirit.”  Created grace can be conceived of as a dynamic relation established by the Spirit.  If we regard the sacrament as the language of the self-giving God, we direct our attention toward the gift of the Spirit.  This gift is the grace of every sacrament.  The Spirit is poured out in the various celebrations of the sacrament.  There is no place here for an objective thinking in terms of more or less.  As the third person of the Trinity, the Holy Spirit is communicated to the participants in the sacramental celebration and is also active there.  The relationship that is forged between Spirit and believer is a dynamic, spiritual reality, immanent in the faithful.  It is the Spirit who prays within us and who, as “the other Helper/comforter” (paraclete; see John 14:16 and 26), remains with the disciples after Jesus’s departure.  The Spirit of truth instructs these followers in the path of truth and righteousness.  Therefore, the sacraments are many forms of the gift of the Spirit, God’s Advocate (advocatus), who strengthens us in the changing circumstances of our lives.

Spirit as Light

The greatest metaphor in all religions for the divine, transcendent mystery is light, lucidity, the clarity that bursts through and drowns the darkness.  The symbol of light also figures quite prominently in the Jewish and Christian traditions.  It is said that God lives in inaccessible light, blinding to our eyes.  The prologue to the Gospel of John, echoing the creation narrative, elaborates further on this metaphor: Jesus as “light from light.”

The activity of the Holy Spirit is also represented in terms of light and fire that shine in the darkness.  Blinding light is thus a symbol of the transcendent God, and participation in that divine light is described as the reflection, the splendor that shines forth from this light.  The activity of the Spirit, immanent in the believer, can be characterized as a reflection of the divine light, an inner glow and warmth.  The mystics bear witness to this phenomenon in their experience of the divine love,(Beatrice of Nazareth, Hadewijch).

Yet, a distance from the divine also remains.  We experience emptiness or a “dark night,” something lacking in our senses.  For that reason it is advisable to speak of the silent glimmer of the Holy Spirit: by this means, the human life that is sanctified by the sacraments, brought into a relation with the deepest mystery, receives a silent glimmer of divinity, a reflection and illumination of the divine life.  Herein lies the uniqueness of the Christian sacraments as metaphors of daily life.  The human reality that is celebrated in the sacraments receives a special luster and depth from participation in the divine life.

Both postmodernism and apophatic and negative theology are sensitive to the distinction and the difference between transcendence and immanence.  The divine Other cannot simply absorb humans into itself.  For that reason, participation in the divine must also maintain this distinction; but it must also confirm the connection via the meditation of language and symbols.  The believer really becomes a new creation in his or her own way through God’s habitation in the reception of the gift of the Spirit.  He or she lives on in this mystery as a “new person.”  The divine is simultaneously present yet also hidden, invisible in the human form of appearance.  Just as in the person of Jesus the divine came close to us and, as the Son of God, lived among us, so too the divine presence in the sacraments is also a veiled presence.  The man Jesus revealed God’s self most fully in his self-emptying (kenōsis), his not regarding “equality with God as something to be exploited.” (Philemon 2:6)  The mystery of the incarnation of God’s son continues in the sacraments of the church.  They are the ways in which the glorified humanity of Jesus (humanitas Christi) appears.  They share in the same veiling of divinity as occurred with the man Jesus.  Sacraments are human acts in which a faithful response is given to God’s self-communication in Christ through the Spirit.  Thus they fit into the pattern of God’s self-revelation in Jesus.  In this way, Jesus is again present, through the power of the Spirit, in the lives of the faithful, under the figure of human signs and speech-acts, but also illuminated from within by divinity.  This divinity can be seen only by the inner eye; it can be experienced only from this inner connection, with reverence and thankfulness.  For that reason, we speak of the silent glimmer of the Holy Spirit.

The Activity of the Sacraments

Compared to the classical interpretation of the doctrine of grace, does the theme of the “the silent glimmer of God’s Spirit” say enough about the activity of the sacraments?  Is this characterization of the effect of the sacraments on the faithful too modest or too weak?  I do not think so.  My explanation of this is guided by the thought of Karl Rahner and Piet Fransen on created grace, as well as that of Jean-Luc Marion on the phenomenology of love (charité).

Grace as Gift of Love

The Greek word for grace in the Bible is charis, the love from God to us, undeserved and unselfishly communicated.  It comes first, before any achievement or title of esteem.  The love in return that the individual exhibits in his or her caritas is itself a result of this divine acceptance.  Interestingly, the great scholastics never overlooked this personal character of God’s love.  In fact, Peter Lombard did not hesitate to compare this caritas with the Holy Spirit.  In this vein, it is not the “Godhead” that lives within us, but rather the three distinct persons of the Trinity.

The Father lives within us as origin and source of all divinity, the first beginning and the last end, the Alpha and the Omega.  The Son lives within us as the image of the Father, and thus precisely as the original image of all that is created, that is reborn in grace.  That “being-image” (eikoon) of the Son and our own “image-of” are not static qualities.  We share in the Son’s life, ut servi in Servo et ut filii in Filio (“as servants in the Servant and as sons and daughters in the Son”) through helpful obedience and filial love, because we love the world and live for it through him.  As the final doxology of the Eucharistic Prayer intones, we are “through him, with him, and in him” bound in thanksgiving to the Father.  The Holy Spirit resides within us because the Spirit, both within and outside of the Trinity, is the one through whom everything comes to perfection – the divine persons as well as creation (according to the mystic Ruysbroec) – each in its own way.  This bringing to perfection is no static construction but the actualization of the image (eikoon) of the Son in us, in the dialectical tension between our external acts and our internal introspection.  Put somewhat differently, the Spirit is that which propels us toward the world and toward humanity in the multiplicity of activities that form our existence, the multiplicity that develops into a living witness precisely through this “inspiration.”  The Spirit is also the one who allows us to rest inwardly in God, who directs our lives toward greater intimacy and unites us with God through our “heart,” the most profound core of our personhood, according to the mystics.  We are attached and bound to God as to the deepest ground of ourselves.  God knows our “heart” and is far greater than our heart.  This interior dynamic forms the rich, overflowing life of grace, a life that is not to be conceived of as a static acquisition but that bubbles up within us as a continuously renewed source of joy and fulfillment.  We are immersed in that stream of grace.

Rahner’s Prevenient and Accepted Grace

Karl Rahner’s distinction between prevenient grace and accepted grace offers further clarification.  In the first place, grace is a selfless offer (Vorgegebenheit) intrinsic to the divine invitation from the divine ground within us.  It is a creative given-ness that gives rise to situations within which, in the context of this divine presence, the aceptance and assent to human freedom follow, and thus it becomes accepted grace.  It is offered grace (gratia oblata) as well as accepted grace (gratia accepta), both on the level of one’s personal fundamental option (sanctifying grace), and on the level of the freedom of choice that develops in time and is thus called immediate grace.

Rahner regards this accepted grace not as the receptive person’s own achievement, but rather as the believer’s response, borne by God, who now comes to stand in the one grace, the one Love.  Only those who exclude themselves from this proffered grace by means of a guilty “no” place themselves (temporarily) outside of this offer.  God always reaches out to humans in self-communication.

This problem arose again in the Jansenist controversy.  A distinction was made between accepted grace and purely sufficient grace (zureichende Gnadenhilfe), which is not active in and of itself but is elevated to the status of active grace only by human freedom.  This sufficient grace was described as proportionate to the goal to be attained or dependent on the state of the recipient.  Human freedom remains clearly respected, but it remains just as much an experience of faith that even this freedom is borne by grace.  This is why a more adequate definition of grace is “the light of faith,” clarification and inspiration by God’s Spirit.  The human person gains further insight into his or her faith, as well as further acceptance, by the dwelling of God’s Spirit within.

A Perspective

According to Piet Fransen and Karl Rahner, the distinction between prevenient grace and its existential acceptance is as old as the theology of grace itself.  Fransen pointed out a similar distinction in the work of the great Lowland mystic Jan Ruysbroec, namely, the distinction between “image” and “likeness.”  As told in Genesis, humans were created in the image and likeness of God.  This subtle distinction regards image (eikoon, imago) as a quality or a property put in the person in God’s name that remains undeniably present.  Meanwhile, likeness (omoioma, similitudo) is a goal that the person attempts to realize by living in accordance with his or her deepest and final destiny.

The theology of creation and redemption has developed this theme of the imago Dei through the irreplaceable responsibility of the human person for the entirety of creation and a society worthy of human occupation.  The theology of the sacraments connects this theme to the elaboration, activity, and fruitfulness of sacramental experience, in which the faithful participate in divine life for the life of the world (pro mundi vita, Jean-Luc Marion).  In this perspective, the grace of the sacraments is nothing other than the Spirit, who is once again creatively active in the world.

This is a Spirit of pure love (charis) which, having been given beforehand (étanta donné, Jean-Luc Marion), inspires and illumines the believer.  In this mystery of gratuitous love, returning this love is no requirement for existence.  Love is offered to and respects the freedom of the individual.  When the offer is accepted, the self-communication is raised to a sacramental occasion whereby the participants are taken up in divine love.  Gratitude and thanksgiving are the only adequate responses to the completely gratuitous love bestowed on us through the Spirit of God.  In this gracious response, our lives are illuminated with an inner glow, filled with divine light that imparts a silent glimmer to daily existence.  The celebrations of the seven sacraments are high points in which this glimmer breaks through in the various situations of our concrete journey through life.

POETRY: Gravity And Grace, by Betsy Sholl

Grace fills empty spaces, but it can only enter
where there is a void to receive it.
(Simone Weil)

Simone Weil, it’s hard to concentrate on you
with those three boys on the next bench
blowing up balloons and letting them go,
all squirt and grunt, fizzling into—

the void, I think you’d say. And leaving
a void too—if spent breath becomes exhaust,
if everything we do ends up empty.
So prayer, you’d add, becomes a little death

as we pour our desires into words
that fill to bursting, then leave our lips
to corkscrew and sputter into thin air,
selfless, anonymous enough to rise.

Now the boys race up the slide, all high-fives
and laughter, blowing off gravity, while I read
you’d like to be blown away, see a landscape
as it is when I am not there—as if the self

blocks God the way bodies block light.
Thus your executor was to destroy
all record of your mind—those notebooks filled
with stark meditations as Hitler railed,

as death camps filled and ghettos burned. Love is
not consolation, 
you wrote, it is light,
meaning that fierce headlamp of attention
which leaves the self in shadow and trains

its high beam on that void where prisoners
huddle under gravity’s dark weight,
and grace, if it comes, comes in secret,
to those struck dumb, trembling in the glare.

POETRY: Grace Notes, by Nancy Mitchell

Is that a cardinal’s song so doleful
or the clock’s battery wearing down?

Said she’d try to meet him for a drink,
but the cat curls so warm against her hip,

the hot tea has cooled just enough
to sip, the laptop sits so squarely

in her lap, and there, out the window,
what bird is it that doesn’t fly upward

so much as is lifted from ground
to branch by an invisible hand?

Easier to find a four leaf clover
in a nettle patch than linen pants

on line for him—no, not yellow,
more a golden rod—

36 waist, he can have them
taken in when he gets thinner.

There’s no finding him the shirts, too,
only blue just this side of sea breeze

as anything else will wash him out,
and please, no three quarter sleeves.

Like the rusted hinge of the picket
fence gate she left unlatched

coming in from getting the mail,
wings of passing geese creak.

Is their falling shit the velocity
of snow or rain or leaf?

Pines cast out shadows; further
from noon, longer the reach across the lawn,

What sense, now, in getting dressed
up, eyeliner, lipstick, without which

she’s plainer than a marsh hen.
How the Kleenex wads flock

at her feet like small sheep grazing
the carpet. It’s Phillip Glass in  her ear

buds again, smearing the greens,
blurring the hours clean.

FAITH: Grace, by Kathleen Norris

From Amazing Grace

Jacob’s theophany, his dream of angels on a stairway to Heaven, strikes me as an appealing tale of unmerited grace.  Here’s a man who has just deceived his father and cheated his brother out of an inheritance.  But God’s response to finding Jacob vulnerable, sleeping all alone in open country, is not to strike him down for his sins but to give him a blessing.

Jacob wakes from the dream in awe, exclaiming, “Surely the Lord is in this place – and I did not know it!”  For once, his better instincts take hold, and he responds by worshiping God.  He takes the stone that he’d kept close by all night, perhaps to use as a weapon if a wild animal, or his furious brother Esau, were to attack him, and sets it up as a shrine, leaving it for future travelers, so that they, too, will know that this is a holy place, the dwelling place of God.

Jacob’s exclamation is one that remains with me, a reminder that God can choose to dwell everywhere and anywhere we go.  One morning this past spring I noticed a young couple with an infant at an airport departure gate.  The baby was staring intently at other people, and as soon as he recognized a human face, no matter whose it was, no matter if it was young or old, pretty or ugly, bored or happy or worried-looking he would respond with absolute delight.

It was beautiful to see.  Our drab departure gate had become the gate of Heaven.  And as I watched that baby play with any adult who would allow it, I felt as awe-struck as Jacob, because I realized that this is how God looks at us, staring into our faces in order to be delighted, to see the creature he made and called good, along with the rest of creation.  And, as Psalm 139 puts it, darkness is as nothing to God, who can look right through whatever evil we’ve done in our lives to the creature made in the divine image.

I suspect that only God, and well-loved infants, can see this way.  But it gives me hope to think that when God gazed on the sleeping Jacob, he looked right through the tough little schemer and saw something good, if only a capacity for awe, for recognizing God and worshiping.  That Jacob will worship badly, trying to bargain with God, doesn’t seem to matter.  God promises to be with him always.

Peter denied Jesus, and Saul persecuted the early Christians, but God could see the apostles they would become.  God does not punish Jacob as he lies sleeping because he can see in him Israel, the foundation of a people.  God loves to look at us, and loves it when we will look back at him.  Even when we try to run away from our troubles, as Jacob did, God will find us, and bless us, even when we feel most alone, unsure if we’ll survive the night.  God will find a way to let us know that he is with us in this place, wherever we are, however far we think we’ve run.  And maybe that’s one reason we worship – to respond to grace.  We praise God not to celebrate our own faith but to give thanks for the faith God has in us.  To let ourselves look at God, and let God look back at us.  And to laugh, and sing, and be delighted because God has called us his own.

LOVE: On The Grace Of Tears, by Smaragdus of Saint-Mihiel

From The Crown of Monks

It is written that Achsah the daughter of Caleb said to her father with sighs, Give me a blessing.  You have given me some dry land in the south; give me also some well watered land.  And her father gave her the upper well watered place and the lower well watered place. (Joshua 15:19)  This means that we must with great groaning seek from God, our creator and father, the grace of tears.  For there are some who have already received other gifts of the Lord, signified by the south land, but have still not received the grace of tears.

The soul that thirsts for God is first pierced by fear, and afterwards by love.  It first stirs itself up by tears, because when it recalls the evils it has done it is in great fear of suffering eternal punishments for them.  But when fear has spent itself in a long period of anxious grief, a certain security is born from the presumption of pardon, and the mind is inflamed with love of Heavenly joys.  People who formerly wept lest they be led off to punishment, afterwards begin to weep most bitterly because they are kept away from the kingdom.  The mind contemplates who those angelic choirs are, what the society of the holy spirits is like, and what the majesty of the eternal vision of God.  And it laments because it is absent from everlasting good things more than it used formerly to weep when it was in fear of eternal evils.  And thus it comes about that the perfect compunction of fear draws the mind to the compunction of love.  The soul receives the upper springs when it afflicts itself in tears with desire for the Heavenly kingdom.  It receives the lower springs when it dreads with weeping the punishments of hell.

They used to say of Abba Arsenius that during his whole life while sitting at manual work, he kept a cloth in his bosom on account of the tears that frequently ran from his eyes.

Saint Syncletica said, “When people are first converted to God it is hard work and a great struggle; but afterwards they have unspeakable joy.  For just as those who want to light a fire first of all inhale smoke, and so obtain what they wish, so ought we to light the divine fire in ourselves with tears and toil.  For it is written that our God is a consuming fire.” (Hebrews 12:24; see Deuteronomy 4:24; 9:3)

An old man said, “As we carry around with us everywhere the shadow of our bodies, so must we have the tears of compunction with us wherever we are.”

Abba Hyperechius said, “Night and day the monk toils, keeping watch, remaining in prayer; the piercing of his heart produces tears and more speedily arouses the mercy of God.”

PRAYER: The Stages Of Prayer, by Carlos Carretto

From Letter from the Desert

Prayer is words, poetry, song.

Turn your ear, O Lord, and give answer
For I am poor and needy.
Show me, Lord, your way,
so that I may walk in thy truth
Guide my heart to fear your name. (Psalm 86)

Often it contains a shout, a cry, a groan of anguish.

Lord my God, I call for help by day;
I cry at night before you.
Let my prayer come into your presence.
O turn your ear to my cry.

For my soul is filled with evils;
my life is on the brink of the grave.
I am reckoned as one in the tomb:
I have reached the end of my strength,
like one alone among the dead;
like the slain lying in their graves;
like those you remember no more,
cut off, as they are, from your hand. (Psalm 88)

And sometimes an explosion of joy:

I love you, Lord, my strength,
My rock, my fortress, my savior.
My God is the rock where I take refuge. (Psalm 18)

Or ecstatic admiration of God’s works:

The heavens proclaim the glory of God
And the firmament shows forth
the work of his hands. (Psalm 19)

Or the impassioned praise of his providence:

The Lord is my shepherd;
There is nothing I shall want.
Fresh and green are the pastures
Where he gives me repose.
He guides me along the right path;
He is true to his name.
If I should walk in the valley of darkness
no evil would I fear.
You are there with your crook
and your staff;
And with these you give me comfort. (Psalm 23)

This way of speaking to God is for people of all ages and cultures.  People will express themselves in those ways from the beginning of their spiritual life until the end.  With words they will express their feelings to their creator.

But here too, it is the same as with love.  Words pour out to begin with.  Then they get rarer and deeper.  In the end they are reduced to some monosyllable which nonetheless contains everything.  Mostly a soul speaks a great deal at the time of its conversion, during the period of its novitiate, that is, the first years of its discovery of God.  It is the easiest time for the soul.  Prayer has a certain novelty, it seizes the imagination.  And God, for his part, encourages the soul; everything pours out as in the beginning of a happy marriage.

My heart is ready, O God;
I will sing, sing your praise.
Awake, my soul;
awake, lyre and harp.
I will awake the dawn.

I will thank you, Lord among the peoples,
Praise you among the nations;
for your love reaches to the heavens
and your truth to the skies. (Psalm 108)

Another stage of prayer is meditation.  Sometimes it naturally follows the use of words.  Especially when the soul is mature, the two become blended and fused.  Sometimes meditation comes later.

We are now at the stage when we need to know what others have said about God; the stage of deep reflection, and of theological study; it is very, very rewarding.

If the world knew the joy Christians feel at this time, the peace which reigns in their hearts, and the sense of balance which dominates their whole being, it would be intrigued, fascinated.

I have known this and I have had the good fortune to share it with hundreds, thousands of other young people.  God, the church, souls, were the only enthusiasms we had.  It seemed everyday we had a new world to forge.  We moved against error like David against Goliath.  A number of us met together to pray and speak of God.  What did they matter, those sleepless nights, those long train journeys on wooden benches, those treks across the countryside by bicycle to spread our movement; the economic sacrifices and the holidays we gave up so that once a year we could make a retreat?  These are among the dearest memories of my life and I always recall them with joy and peace.

There are a thousand ways of meditating, and everyone must find what suits him best.  We will realize, as we go on, which way is the most suitable for us.  Here I would like to mention two things which I have learned from my great master, John of the Cross – one on the method of meditation, and the other on the book to choose.

The Method:

Saint John divides it into three parts, and up to this point there’s nothing new.

1. Imaginative reflection on the mystery which one wishes to meditate.

2. Intellectual consideration of the mysteries represented.  (Here too there’s nothing new.)

3. (And this is important.)  Loving and attentive repose in God, to make sure we are fully
prepared for that moment when the intelligence opens itself up to God’s illumination.

This exercise of love, which is deeply human, results in a serene and devout repose before God.  It must be meditation clearly directed towards simplicity and interior silence.

 The Book to Choose:

Above all other books, choose the Bible.  If you like, read as many books of meditation as possible, but that isn’t essential.  It is essential to read and meditate on the scriptures.  Christianity without the Bible is a contradiction in terms.  Preaching not anchored in the scriptures is equally impossible.  There is no true religious formation which is not based on the Gospel.  The Bible is the letter which God himself wrote to humans in the thousands of years of their history.  It is the long drawn-out sigh for Christ (Old Testament) and the account of his coming among us (New Testament).

When the temple of Jerusalem was burning, the Jews abandoned all its treasures to the flames but saved the Bible.  Paul knew the Bible by heart, and Augustine said “Ignorance of scripture is ignorance of Christ.”

The Bible is the word of God, the Word made flesh is the Eucharist.  I put both of them on the altar and kneel down before them.

There’s an awakening of interest in the Bible at the present time.  Let us thank God for it; but we are still a long way from fully realizing the importance of the Bible in and to our lives.

I said earlier that prayer is like love.  Words pour at first.  Then we are more silent and can communicate in monosyllables.  In difficulties a gesture is enough, a word, or nothing at all – love is enough.  Thus the time comes when words are superfluous and meditation is difficult, almost impossible.

That is the time for the prayer of simplicity.  The soul converses with God with a single loving glance, although this may often be accompanied by dryness and suffering.

In this period the so-called litanical prayer thrives; that is, repetitions of identical expressions, poor words, but very rich in content.

Hail Mary. . . Hail Mary. . . Jesus I love you. . . .  Lord, have mercy on me. . . my God and my all.

And it is strange how in these ejaculations, monotonous and simple, the soul finds itself at ease, almost cradled in God’s arms.  It is also a time for the rosary, lived and loved as one of the highest and most inspired prayers.

Often in my life as a European I have taken part in animated discussions on the pros and cons of the rosary.  But in the end I was never fully satisfied.  I was not in a fit condition to really understand this way of praying.

“It’s a meditative prayer,” some would say.  Well, then, the young people are right to complain of the distractions which this useless repetition of ten Hail Marys bring to the meditation.  Announce the mystery and leave me to my thoughts.

“No, it’s a prayer of praise,” others would say.  “And one must think of what one is saying word by word.”

But it’s impossible!  Who’s capable of saying fifty Hail Marys distracted by the pictures of five mysteries without losing the thread?

I must confess that never in my life, although I have made the effort, have I succeeded in saying a single rosary without getting distracted.

It was in the desert that I came to realize that those who discuss the rosary – as I discussed it in that way – have not yet understood the soul of this prayer.

The rosary belongs to that type of prayer which precedes or accompanies the contemplative prayer of the spirit.  Whether you meditate it or not, whether or not you get distracted, if you love the rosary deeply and can’t let a day go by without saying it, you are already a person of prayer.

The rosary is like the echo of a wave breaking on the shore, God’s shore: “Hail Mary. . . Hail Mary. . . Hail Mary. . . .”  It is like your mother’s hand on your childhood cradle.

The rosary is a point of arrival, not of departure.  For Bernadette the point of arrival came very soon, because she was destined to see Our Lady on this Earth.  But normally it is a prayer of spiritual maturity.  If a young man doesn’t like saying the rosary, and says he gets bored, don’t force him.  Reading a text from scripture is best for him, or maybe some more intellectual kind of prayer.  But if you meet a child in the remote countryside, or a peaceful old man or a simple old woman who tells you they love the rosary without knowing why, rejoice and be glad, because the Holy Spirit prays in their hearts.  The rosary is an incomprehensible prayer for the “commonsense” person, just as it is incomprehensible to repeat, “I love you,” a thousand times a day to a God one cannot see.  But for the pure of heart it is understandable; the person rooted in the kingdom and living the beatitudes understand the rosary.

The orthodox, who are highly contemplative, have developed a litanical prayer similar to our rosary; they call it “the Jesus prayer.”

It is said by repeating slowly, again and again, with one’s soul peacefully disposed, the Kyrie Eleison:

Lord have mercy on me
I am a sinful man
Christ have mercy on me
I am a sinful man

In this prayer they keep time with their breathing, or even their heartbeat.

As prayer becomes richer in content and uses fewer words, meditation grows difficult and distasteful.  What before was a source of intellectual pleasure, now becomes dry and painful.  One gets the impression of reaching a crossroad in the spiritual life.  Sometimes one thinks he is going backward instead of making progress.  The heavens have lost thier bright colors, the soul feels “grey” in mood.

At this stage of spiritual life the person who has a good guide is fortunate, especially if one has the humility to let oneself be led.

It is not easy.  We all think we know how to get along alone and only failure puts things in the right perspective.

What is this dryness in meditation which I am describing; this refusal to fix our thoughts on spiritual things?  Clearly it may depend on some fault in ourselves.  It may depend on some unhealthy attachment in our hearts, lack of vigilance, or the thorns in which we have let the good seed be choked.  Difficulty in meditation is not always the sign of an advance of the soul towards God, or the progress to a higher type of prayer.

But it may, thank God, be a sign of that.  How can one know the difference?

Again John of the Cross tells us.

There are three signs which indicate the movement from discursive to contemplative prayer:

1. We lack the desire to use the imagination.

2. The imagination and the sense no longer have the will to think about specific things.  The things
of the Earth offer no consolation.

3. The soul wants to remain still, directed towards God alone.  It desires inner peace, quiet and
repose; it no longer feels the need to use the human faculties.

This third condition is good.  If it is present in the soul it justifies the other two.  If I have difficulty in meditating on God, if I no longer succeed in fixing my attention on one mystery or another in the life of Jesus, on one truth or another, but I am craving to remain alone and motionless and silent at the feet of God, empty of thought but in an act of love, . . . it means something great.  It is one of the most beautiful secrets of the spiritual life.

SERMON: The Fire And The Calf, by Phillips Brooks

So they gave it me: then I cast it into the fire, and there came out this calf. (Exodux 32:24)

In the story from which these words are taken we see Moses go up into the mountain to hold communion with God.  While he is gone the Israelites begin to murmur and complain.  They want other gods, gods of their own.  Aaron, the brother of Moses, was their priest.  He yielded to the people, and when they brought him their golden earrings he made out of them a golden calf for them to worship.  When Moses came down from the mountain he found the people deep in their idolatry.  He was indignant.  First he destroyed the idol, “He burnt it in the fire, and ground it to powder, and strewed it upon the water, and made the children of Israel drink of it.”  Then he turned to Aaron: “What did this people unto thee that thou hast brought of my Lord wax hot: thou knowest the people, that they are set on mischief.  For they said unto me, Make us gods which shall go before us. . . And I said unto them, Whosoever hath any gold, let them break it off.  So they gave it me: then I cast it into the fire, and there came out this calf.”  That was his mean reply.  The real story of what happened had been written earlier in the chapter.   When the people brought Aaron their golden earrings “he received them at their hand, and fashioned it with a graving tool, after he had made it a molten calf; and they said, These be thy gods, O Israel, which brought thee up out of the land of Egypt.”  That was what really happened, and this is the description which Aaron gave of it to Moses: “So they gave it me: then I cast it into the fire, and there came out this calf.”

Aaron was frightened at what he had done.  He was afraid of the act itself, and of what Moses would say.  Like all timid men, he trembled before the storm which he had raised.  And so he tried to persuade Moses, and perhaps in some degree even to persuade himself, that it was not he that had done this thing.  He lays the blame upon the furnace.  “The fire did it,” he declares.  He will not blankly face his sin, and yet he will not tell a lie in words.  He tells what is literally true.  He had cast the earrings into the fire, and this calf had come out.  But he leaves out the one important point, his own personal agency in it all; the fact that he had molded the earrings into the calf’s shape, and that he had taken it out and set it on its pedestal for the people to adore.  He tells it so that it shall all look automatic.  It is a curious, ingenious, but transparent lie.

Let us look at Aaron’s speech a little while this morning and see what it represents, for it does represent something.  There never was a speech more true to our human nature.  We are all ready to lay the blame upon the furnaces.  “The fire did it,” we are all of us ready to say.  Here is a man all gross and sensual, a man still young, who has lost the freshness and the glory and the purity of youth.  He is profane; he is cruel; he is licentious; all his brightness has grown lurid; all his wit is ribaldry.  You know the man.  As far as a man can be, he is a brute.  Suppose you question him about his life.  You expect him to be ashamed, repentant.  There is not a sign of anything like that!  He says, “I am the victim of circumstances.  What a corrupt, licentious, profane age is this in which we live!  When I was in college I got into a bad set.  When I went into business I was surrounded by bad influences.  When I grew rich, men flattered me.  When I grew poor, men bullied me.  The world has made me what I am, this fiery, passionate, wicked world.  I had in my hands the gold of my boyhood which God gave me.  Then I cast it into the fire, and there came out this calf.”  So the poor wronged miserable creature looks into your face with his bleared eyes and asks your pity.  Another man is not a profligate, but a miser, or a mere business machine, “What can you ask of me?” he says.  “This is a mercantile community.  The business man who does not attend to his business goes to the wall.   I am what this intense commercial life has made me.  I put my life in there, and it came out this.”  And he gazes fondly at his golden calf and his knees bend under him with the old habit of worshiping it, and he loves it still, even when he abuses and disowns it.  And so with the woman of society.  “The fire made me this,” she says of her frivolity and pride.  And so of the politician and his selfishness and partisanship.  “I put my principles into the furnace and this came out.”  And so of the bigot and his bigotry, the one-sided conservative with his stubborn resistance to all progress, the one-sided radical with his ruthless iconoclasm.  So of all partial and fanatical men.  “The furnace made us,” they are ready to declare.  “These things compel us to be this.  In better times we might have been better, broader men; but, now behold, God put us into the fire, and we came out this.”  It is what one is perpetually hearing about disbelief.  “The times have made me skeptical.  How is it possible for a man to live in days like these and yet believe in God and Jesus and the Resurrection?  You ask me how I, who was brought up in the faith and in the church, became a disbeliever.”  “Oh, you remember that I lived five years here,” or “three years there.”  “You know I have been very much thrown with this set or with that.  You know the temper of our town.  I cast myself into the fire, and I came out this.”  One is all ready to understand, my friends, how the true soul, struggling for truth, seems often to be worsted in the struggle.  One is ready to have tolerance, respect, and hope for any man who, reaching after God, is awed by God’s immensity and his own littleness, and falls back crushed and doubtful.  His is a doubt which is born in the secret chambers of his own personal conscientiousness.  It is independent of his circumstances and surroundings.  The soul which has truly come to a personal doubt finds it hard to conceive of any ages of the most implicit faith in which it could have lived in which that doubt would not have been in it.  It faces its doubt in a solitude where there is none but it and God.  All that one understands, and the more he understands it the more unintelligible does it seem to him, that any earnest soul can really lay its doubt upon the age, the set, or the society it lives in. No; our age, our society is what, with this figure taken out of the old story of Exodus, we have been calling it.  It is the furnace.  Its fire can set and fix and fasten what the man puts into it.  But, properly speaking, it can create no character.  It can make no truly faithful soul and doubter.  It never did.  It never can.

Remember that the subtlety and attractiveness of this excuse, this plausible attributing of power to inanimate things and exterior conditions to create what only man can make, extends not only to the results which we see coming forth in ourselves; it covers also the fortunes of those for whom we are responsible.  The father says of his profligate son whom he has never done one wise or vigorous thing to make a noble and pure-minded man: “I cannot tell how it has come.  It has not been my fault.  I put him into the world and this came out.”  The father whose faith has been mean and selfish says the same of his boy who is a skeptic.  Everywhere there is this cowardly casting off of responsibilities upon the dead circumstances around us.  It is a very hard treatment of the poor, dumb, helpless world which cannot answer to defend itself.  It takes us as we give ourselves to it.  It is our minister fulfilling our commissions for us upon our own souls.  If we say to it, “Make us noble,” it does make us noble.  If we say to it, “Make us mean,” it does make us mean.  And then we take the nobility and say, “Behold, how noble I have made myself.”  And we take the meanness and say, “See how mean the world has made me.”

You see, I am sure, how perpetual a thing the temper of Aaron is, how his excuse is heard everywhere and always.  I need not multiply illustrations.  But now, if all the world is full of it, the next question is, What does it mean?  Is it mere pure deception, or is there also delusion, self-deception in it?  Take Aaron’s case.  Was he simply telling a lie to Moses and trying to hide the truth from his brother whom he dreaded, when he said, “I cast the earrings into the fire, and this calf came out”?  Or was he in some dim degree, in some half-conscious way, deceiving himself?  Was he allowing himself to attribute some power to the furnace in the making of the calf?  Perhaps as we read the verse above in which it is so distinctly said that Aaron fashioned the idol with a graving tool, any such supposition seems incredible.  But yet I cannot but think that some degree, however dim, of such self-deception was in Aaron’s heart.  The fire was mysterious.  He was a priest.  Who could say that some strange creative power had not been at work in the heart of the furnace which had done for him what he seemed to do for himself.  There was a human heart under that ancient ephod, and it is hard to think that Aaron did not succeed in bringing himself to be somewhat imposed upon by his own words, and hiding his responsibility in the heart of the hot furnace.  But however it may have been with Aaron, there can be no doubt in almost all cases this is so.  Very rarely indeed does a man excuse himself to other men and yet remain absolutely unexcused in his own eyes.  When Pilate stands washing the responsibility of Christ’s murder from his hands before the people, was he not feeling himself as if his hands grew cleaner while he washed?  When Shakespeare paints Macbeth with the guilty ambition which was to be his ruin first rising in his heart, you remember how he makes him hide his new-born purpose to be king even from himself, and pretend, that he is willing to accept the kingdom only if it shall come to him out of the working of things, for which he is not responsible, without an effort of his own.

If chance will have me king, why, chance may crown me,
Without my stir.

That was the first stage of the growing crime which finally was murder.  Often it takes this form.  Often the very way to help ourselves most to a result which we have set before ourselves is just to put ourselves into a current which is sweeping on that way, and then lie still and let the current do the rest; and in all such cases it is so easy to ignore or to forget the first step, which was that we chose that current for our resting place, and so to say that it is only the drift of the current which is to blame for the dreary shore on which at last our lives are cast up by the stream.  Suppose you are today a scornful man, a man case-hardened in conceit and full of disbelief in anything generous or supernatural, destitute of all enthusiasm, contemptuous, supercilious.  You say the time you live in has made you so.  You point to one large tendency in the community which always sets that way.  You parade the specimens of enthusiastic people whom you have known who have been fanatical and silly.  You tell me what your favorite journal has been saying in your ears every week for years.  You bid me catch the tone of the brightest people whom you live among, and then you turn to me and say, “How could one live in such an atmosphere and not grow cynical?  Behold, my times have made me who I am.”  What does that mean?  Are you merely trying to hide from me, or are you also hiding from yourself, the certain fact that you have chosen that special current to launch your boat upon, that you have given your whole attention to certain kinds of facts and shut your eyes to certain others, that you have constantly valued the brightness which went to the depreciation of humanity and despised the urgency with which a healthier spirit has argued for the good in man and for his everlasting hope?  Is it not evident that you yourself have been able to half forget all this, and so when the stream on which you launched your boat at last drives it upon the beach to which it has been flowing all the time, there is a certain lurking genuineness in the innocent surprise with which you look around upon the desolate shore on which you land, and say to yourself, “How unhappy I am that I should have fallen upon these evil days, in which it is impossible that a man should genuinely respect or love his fellowmen”?

For there are currents flowing always in all bad directions.  There is a perpetual river flowing towards sensuality and vice.  There is a river flowing perpetually towards skepticism and infidelity.  And when you once have given yourself up to either of these rivers, then there is quite enough in the continual pressure, in that great movement like a fate beneath your keel, to make you lose the sense and remembrance that it is by your own will that you are there, and only think of the resistless flow of the river which is always in your eyes and ears.  This is the mysterious, bewildering mixture of the consciousness of guilt and the consciousness of misery in all our sin.  We live in a perpetual confusion of self-pity and self-blame.  We go up to the scaffolds where we are to suffer, half like culprits crawling to the gallows and half like martyrs proudly striding to their stakes.  When we think of what sort of reception is to meet us in the other world as the sum and judgment of the life we have been living here, we find ourselves ready, according to the moment’s mood, either for the bitterest denunciation, as of souls who have lived in deliberate sin; or for tender petting and refreshment, as of souls who have been buffeted and knocked about by all the storms of time, and for whom now there ought to be soft beds in eternity.  The confusion of men’s minds about the judgments of the eternal world is only the echo of their confusion about the responsibilities of the life which they are living now.

SATURDAY READING: Despair, by Joyce Carol Oates

From Deadly Sins

What mysterious cruelty in the human soul; to have invented despair as a “sin”!  Like the Seven Deadly Sins employed by the medieval Roman Catholic Church to terrify the faithful into obedience, despair is most helpfully imagined as a mythical state.  It has no quantifiable existence; it “is” merely allegory, yet no less lethal for the fact.  Unlike other sins, however, despair is by tradition the sole sin that cannot be forgiven: it is the conviction that one may be damned absolutely, thus a refutation of the Christian savior and a challenge to God’s infinite capacity for forgiveness.  The sins for which one may be forgiven – pride, anger, lust, sloth, avarice, gluttony, envy – are all firmly attached to objects of this world, but despair seems to bleed out beyond the confines of the immediate ego-centered self and to relate to no desire, no-thing.  The alleged sinner has detached himself even from the possibility of sin as a human predilection, and this the church as the self-appointed voice of God on Earth cannot allow.

Religion is organized power in the seemingly benevolent guise of the “sacred” and power is, as we know, chiefly concerned with its own preservation.  Its structures, its elaborate rituals and customs and scriptures and commandments and ethics, its very nature, objectify human experience, insisting that what is out there in the world is of unquestionably greater significance than what is in here in the human spirit.  Despair, surely the least aggressive of sins, is dangerous to the totalitarian temperament because it is a state of intense inwardness, thus independence.  The despairing soul is a rebel.

So, too, suicide, the hypothetical consequence of extreme despair, has long been a mortal sin in church theology, in which it is equivalent to murder.  Suicide has an element of the forbidden, the obscene, the taboo about it, as the most willful and the most defiantly antisocial of human acts.  While thinkers of antiquity condoned suicide, in certain circumstances at least – “In all that you do or say or think, recollect that at any time the power of withdrawal from life is in your hands,” Marcus Aurelius wrote in the Meditations – the church vigorously punished suicides in ways calculated to warn others and to confirm, posthumously, their despair: bodies were sometimes mutilated, burial in consecrated soil was of course denied, and the church, ever resourceful, could confiscate goods and land belonging to suicides.

Yet how frustrating it must have been, and be, the attempt to outlaw and punish despair – of all sins!

(In fact, one wonders: is “despair” a pathology we diagnose in people who seem to have repudiated our own life-agendas, as “narcissism,” is the charge we make against those who fail to be as intrigued by us as we had wished?)

At the present time, despair as a “sin” is hardly convincing.  As a state of intense inwardness, however, despair strikes us as a spiritual and moral experience that cuts across superficial boundaries of language, culture, and history.  No doubt, true despair is mute and unreflective as flesh lacking consciousness; but the poetics of despair have been transcendentally eloquent:

The difference between Despair
And Fear—is like the One—
Between the instant of a Wreck—
And when the Wreck has been—

The Mind is smooth—no Motion—
Contented as the Eye
Upon the Forehead of a Bust—
That knows—it cannot see—
(Emily Dickinson)

This condition, which might be called a stasis of the spirit, in which life’s energies are paralyzed even as life’s physical processes continue, is the essence of literary despair.  The plunging world goes its own way, the isolated consciousness of the writer splits from it, as if splitting from the body itself.  Despair as this state of keenly heightened inwardness has always fascinated the writer, whose subject is after all the imaginative reconstruction of language.  The ostensible subject out there is but the vehicle, or the pretext, for the ravishing discoveries to be made in here in the activity of creating.

Literary despair is best contemplated during insomniac nights.  And perhaps most keenly savored during adolescence, when insomnia can have the aura of the romantic and the forbidden; when sleepless nights can signal rebellion against a placidly sleeping – un-conscious – world.  At such times, inner and outer worlds seem to merge; insights that by day would be lost define themselves like those phosphorescent minerals coarse and ordinary in the light that yield a mysterious glimmering beauty in the dark.  Here is the “Zero at the Bone” of which Emily Dickinson, our supreme poet of inwardness, writes, with an urgency time has not blunted.


My first immersion in the Literature of Despair came at a time of chronic adolescent insomnia, and so the ravishing experience of reading certain writers – most of them, apart from Dickinson and William Faulkner, associated with what was called European existentialism – is indelibly bound up with that era in my life.  Perhaps the ideal reader is an adolescent: restless, vulnerable, passionate, hungry to learn, skeptical and naïve by turns; with an unquestioned faith in the power of the imagination to change, if not life, one’s comprehension of life.  To the degree to which we remain adolescents we remain ideal readers to whom the act of opening a book can be a sacred one, fraught with psychic risk.  For each work of a certain magnitude means the assimilation of a new voice – that of Dostoevsky’s Underground Man, for instance, of Nietzsche’s Zarathustra – and the permanent altering of one’s own interior world.

Literary despair, as opposed to “real” despair, became fashionable at mid-century with a rich, diverse flood of English translations of European writers of surpassing originality, boldness, and genius.  Misleadingly linked by so-called “Existentialist” themes, these highly individual writers – among them Dostoevsky, Kafka, Kierkegaard, Mann, Sartre, Camus, Pavese, Pirandello, Beckett, Ionesco – seemed to characterize the very mission of literature itself: never in the service of “uplifting,” still less “entertaining,” but with a religious ideal of penetrating to the most inward and intransigent of truths.  Despair at the randomness of mankind’s fate and of mankind’s repeatedly demonstrated inhumanity was in a sense celebrated, that we might transcend it through the symbolic strategies of art.  For no fate, however horrific, as in the graphically detailed execution of the faithful officer of Kafka’s great story, “In the Penal Colony,” or the ignominious execution of Joseph K. of Kafka’s The Trial – cannot be transmogrified by its very contemplation; or redeemed, in a sense, by the artist’s visionary fearlessness.  It is not just that despair is immune to the comforts of the ordinary – despair rejects comfort.  And Kafka, our exemplary artist of despair, is one of our greatest humorists as well.  The bleakness of his vision is qualified by a brash, unsettling humor that flies in the face of expectation.  Is it tragic that Gregor Samsa is metamorphosed into a giant cockroach, suffers, dies, and is swept out with the trash? – is it tragic that the Hunger Artist starves to death, too finicky to eat the common food of humanity? – no, these are ludicrous fates, meant to provoke laughter.  The self-loathing at the heart of despair repudiates compassion.

I would guess that my generation, coming of age at the very start of the Sixties and a national mood of intense political and moral crisis, is the last American generation to so contemplate inwardness as a romantic state of being; the last generation of literary-minded young men and women who interiorized the elegiac comedy of Beckett’s characters, the radiant madness of Dostoevsky’s self-lacerated God-haunted seekers, the subtle ironies of Camus’s prose.  I doubt that contemporary adolescents can identify with Faulkner’s Quentin Compson of The Sound and the Fury as, a Harvard freshman, he moves with the fatedness of a character in a ballad to his suicide by drowning in the Charles River – “People cannot do anything that dreadful they cannot do anything very dreadful at all they cannot even remember tomorrow what seemed dreadful today,” Quentin’s alcoholic father tells him, as if urging him to his doom.  For even tragedy, in Faulkner’s vision of a debased twentieth-century civilization, is “second-hand.”

That this is a profound if dismaying truth, or an outrageous libel of the human spirit, either position to be confirmed by history, seems beside the point today, in a country in which politics has become the national religion.  The Literature of Despair may posit suicide as a triumphant act of rebellion, or a repudiation of the meanness of life, but our contemporary mood is one of compassionate horror at any display of self-destruction.  We perceive it, perhaps quite accurately, as misguided politics; a failure to link in here with out there.

For Americans, the collective belief, the moral imperative is an unflagging optimism.  We want to believe in the infinite elasticity of the future: what we will, we can enact.  Just give us time – and sufficient resources.  Our ethos has always been hardcore pragmatism as defined by our most eminent philosopher, William James: “truth” is something that happens to a proposition, “truth” is something that works.  It is a vehicle empowered to carry us to our destination.

Yet there remains a persistent counterimpulse; an irresistible tug against the current; an affirmation of those awkward truths that, in Melville’s words, will not be comforted.  At the antipode of American exuberance and optimism there is the poet’s small, still, private voice; the voice, most powerfully, of Emily Dickinson who, like Rilke, mined the ideal vocabulary for investigating those shifting, penumbral states of consciousness that do, in the long run, constitute our lives.  Whatever our public identities may be, whatever our official titles, our heralded or derided achievements and the statistics that accrue to us like cobwebs, this is the voice we trust.  For, if despair’s temptations can be resisted, surely we become more human and compassionate; more like one another in our common predicament.

There is a pain—so utter—
It swallows substance up—
Then covers the Abyss with Trance—
So Memory can step
Around—across—upon it—
As one within a Swoon—
Goes safely—where an open eye—
Would drop Him—Bone by Bone.
(Emily Dickinson)

The self’s resilience in the face of despair constitutes its own transcendence.  Even the possibility of suicide is a human comfort – a “carrion” comfort.  In the poetry of Jesuit Gerard Manley Hopkins, extreme states of mind are confronted, dissected, overcome by the poet’s shaping language:

I am gall, I am heartburn. God’s most deep decree
Bitter would have me taste: my taste was me;
Bones built in me, flesh filled, blood brimmed the curse.
Selfyeast of spirit a dull dough sours. I see
The lost are like this, and their scourge to be
As I am mine, their sweating selves; but worse.
(“I Wake and Feel”)

Not, I’ll not, carrion comfort, Despair, not feast on thee;
Not untwist—slack they may be—these last strands of man
In me, or, most weary, cry I can no more. I can;
Can something, hope, wish day come, not choose not to be.
But ah, but O thou terrible, why wouldst thou rude on me
Thy wring-earth right foot rock? lay a lionlimb against me? scan
With darksome devouring eyes by bruisèd bones? and fan,
O in turns of tempest, me heaped there; me frantic to avoid thee and flee?
(“Carrion Comfort”)

These poems are among the most unsettling ever written; yet, in the way of all great art, they so passionately transcend their subject as to be a statement of humankind’s strength, and not weakness.

MYSTICISM: Message To Poets, by Thomas Merton

(NOTE: This message was read at a meeting of the “new” Latin-American poets – and a few young North Americans – Mexico City, February 1964.  This was not a highly organized and well-financed international congress, but a spontaneous and inspired meeting of young poets from all over the hemisphere, most of whom could barely afford to be there.  One, for instance, sold her piano to make the trip from Peru.)

We who are poets know that the reason for a poem is not discovered until the poem itself exists.  The reason for a living act is realized only in the act itself.  This meeting is a spontaneous explosion of hopes.  That is why it is a venture in prophetic poverty, supported and financed by no foundation, organized and publicized by no official group, but a living expression of the belief that there are now in our world new people, new poets who are not in tutelage to established political systems or cultural structures – whether communist or capitalist – but who dare to hope in their own vision of reality and of the future.  This meeting is united in a flame of hope whose temperature has not yet been taken and whose effects have not yet been estimated, because it is a new fire.  The reason for the fire cannot be apparent to one who is not warmed by it.  The reason for being here will not be found until all have walked together, without afterthought, into contradictions and possibilities.

We believe that our future will be made by love and hope, not by violence or calculation.  The Spirit of Life that has brought us together, whether in space or only in agreement, will make our encounter an epiphany of certainties we could not know in isolation.

The solidarity of poets is not planned and welded together with tactical convictions or matters of policy, since these are affairs of prejudice, cunning, and design.  Whatever his failures, the poet is not a cunning man.  His art depends on an ingrained innocence which he would lose in business, in politics, or in too organized a form of academic life.  The hope that rests on calculation has lost its innocence.  We are banding together to defend our innocence.

All innocence is a matter of belief.  I do not speak now of organized agreement, but of interior personal convictions “in the spirit.” These convictions are as strong and undeniable as life itself.  They are rooted in fidelity to life rather than to artificial systems.  The solidarity of poets is an elemental fact like sunlight, like the seasons, like the rain.  It is something that cannot be organized, it can only happen.  It can only be “received.”  It is a gift to which we must remain open.  No man can plan to make the sun rise or the rain fall.  The sea is still wet in spite of all formal and abstract programs.  Solidarity is not collectivity.  The organizers of collective life will deride the seriousness or the reality of our hope.  If they infect us with their doubt we shall lose our innocence and our solidarity along with it.

Collective life is often organized on the basis of cunning, doubt, and guilt.  True solidarity is destroyed by the political art of pitting one man against another and the commercial art of estimating all men at a price.  On these illusory measurements men build a world of arbitrary values without life and meaning, full of sterile agitation.  To set one man against another, one life against another, one work against another, and to express the measurement in terms of cost or of economic privilege and moral honor is to infect everybody with the deepest metaphysical doubt.  Divided and set up against one another for the purpose of evaluation, men immediately acquire the mentality of objects for sale in a slave market.  They despair of themselves because they know they have been unfaithful to life and to being, and they no longer find anyone to forgive the infidelity.

Yet their despair condemns them to further infidelity: alienated from their own spiritual roots, they contrive to break, to humiliate, and to destroy the spirit of others.  In such a situation there is no joy, only rage.  Each man feels the deepest root of his being poisoned by suspicion, unbelief, and hate.  Each man experiences his very existence as guilt and betrayal, and as a possibility of death: nothing more.

We stand together to denounce the shame and the imposture of all such calculations.

If we are to remain united against these falsehoods, against all power that poisons man, and subjects him to the mystifications of bureaucracy, commerce, and the police state, we must refuse the price tag.  We must refuse academic classification.  We must reject the seductions of publicity.  We must not allow ourselves to be pitted one against another in mystical comparisons – political, literary, or cultural orthodoxies.  We must not be made to devour and dismember one another for the amusement of their press.  We must not let ourselves be eaten by them to assuage their own insatiable doubt.  We must not merely be for something and against something else, even if we are for “ourselves” and against “them.”  Who are “they”?  Let us not give them support by becoming an “opposition” which assumes they are definitively real.

Let us remain outside “their” categories.  It is in this sense that we are all monks: for we remain innocent and invisible to publicists and bureaucrats.  They cannot imagine what we are doing unless we betray ourselves to them, and even then they will never be able.

They understand nothing except what they themselves have decreed.  They are crafty ones who weave words about life and then make life conform to what they themselves have declared.  How can they trust anyone when they make life itself tell lies?  It is the businessman, the propagandist, the politician, not the poet, who devoutly believes in “the magic of words.”

For the poet there is precisely no magic.  There is only life in all its unpredictability and all its freedom.  All magic is a ruthless venture in manipulation, a vicious circle, a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Word-magic is an impurity of language and of spirit in which words, deliberately reduced to unintelligibility, appeal mindlessly to the vulnerable will.  Let us deride and parody this magic with other variants of the unintelligible, if we want to.  But it is better to prophesy than to deride.  To prophesy is not to predict, but to seize upon reality in its moment of highest expectation and tension toward the new.  This tension is discovered not in hypnotic elation but in the light of everyday existence.  Poetry is innocent of prediction because it is itself the fulfillment of all the momentous predictions hidden in everyday life.

Poetry is the flowering of ordinary possibilities.  It is the fruit of ordinary possibilities.  It is the fruit of ordinary and natural choice.  This is its innocence and dignity.

Let us not be like those who wish to make the tree bear its fruit first and the flower afterwards – a conjuring trick and an advertisement.  We are content if the flower comes first and the fruit afterwards, in due time.  Such is the poetic spirit.

Let us obey life, and the Spirit of Life that calls us to be poets, and we shall harvest many new fruits for which the world hungers – fruits of hope that have never been seen before.  With these fruits we shall calm the resentments and the rage of man.

Let us be proud that we are not witch doctors, only ordinary men.

Let us be proud that we are not experts in anything.

Let us be proud of the words that are given to us for nothing; not to teach anyone, not to confute anyone, not to prove anyone absurd, but to point beyond all objects into the silence where nothing can be said.

We are not persuaders.  We are the children of the Unknown.  We are the ministers of silence that is needed to cure all victims of absurdity who lie dying of a contrived joy.  Let us then recognize ourselves for who we are: dervishes mad with secret therapeutic love which cannot be bought or sold, and which the politician fears more than violent revolution, for violence changes nothing.  But love changes everything.

We are stronger than the bomb.

Let us then say “yes” to our own nobility by embracing the insecurity and abjection that a dervish existence entails.

In the Republic of Plato there was already no place for poets and musicians, still less for dervishes and monks.  As for the technological Platos who think they now run the world we live in, they imagine they can tempt us with banalities and abstractions.  But we can elude them merely by stepping into the Heraklitean river which is never crossed twice.

When the poet puts his foot in that ever-moving river, poetry itself is born out of the flashing water.  In that unique instant, the truth is manifest to all who are able to receive it.

No one can come near the river unless he walks on his own feet.  He cannot come there carried in a vehicle.

No one can enter the river wearing the garments of public and collective ideas.  He must feel the water on his skin.  He must know that immediacy is for naked minds only, and for the innocent.

Come, dervishes: here is the water of life.  Dance in it.

GOD 101: Finding Our Sin

This wouldn’t be the first time that I think the church has things completely backward.

Back end front, and all that.

Perhaps it’s the challenge of being a mystic that is at the root of this dissension.

Don’t get me wrong, I think the church – any Christian church, really – does a great job in finding ways to point out to people how wrong they are.

It’s just that they do this from a people perspective.

And people aren’t God.

This passion to point, condemn, and feel satisfied in the condemnation could be separated out into its own little sideshow and entitled, This Is Exactly What You Do That Pisses Off Others.  I think that would handle the phenomenon.

And put it in its place.

But the church, in the matter of sin, doesn’t distinguish between people judgment, and God judgment.

I remember listening to Mother Angelica, the stalwart founder of EWTN, rant one afternoon about those stupid Christians who think a general confession during Mass was an adequate way to address own one’s missteps of the week. No, she said.  Each and every sin must be named.

How else can one be given absolution and have it mean anything?

Again, here the responsibility for identifying one’s spiritual corruption falls on the shoulders of the person.  Not God.  Only this time it’s the shoulders of the person himself and not the congregation around him.

The longer I work with God, the more I see how vastly different he is from people.

Not that that growing awareness should surprise me.  Or anyone else.

But it’s how he’s different that impresses me.  Or stamps me, like hot metal in soft wax.

Here’s a good example.

I once participated in a period of judging.  Whether it was done just for my benefit of learning, who knows.  Whether it was even real, again, who knows.

But I did participate and watched the results.

One person who was being focused on endured the process.  Very bravely.  Very nobly, even.

And it was the only person whose result I was privileged to learn: he was deemed, in the end, to be frivolous.

And I remember thinking, well, that’s not so bad, is it?  What’s the real harm in being frivolous?

Is there any harm in being frivolous?

I couldn’t see any, really.

But, shortly after the judging, the man’s life took such a seriously drastic turn for the worse, it was almost as though the stamp of the judgment was coming to the surface of his life and telling us just what God thinks of him.

And it was really, really not a pleasant thing to watch.

Which, of course, is not to say that all calamity comes from disapproval from God.

It’s just that, in this case, to my mind, the two things were tightly bound together.  He was judged.  He suffered.

But he was judged to be frivolous.

I hope you are catching my drift.

Earlier in my life I had been taught, over quite a long period of time, that the two worst sins, in the eyes of God, were presumption and immodesty.

Both of which have definitions that confounded me.  And would probably confound you, too.

But where and how are these two sins addressed in church?

Every once in a rare while, presumption comes up under a different name and is addressed.  Perhaps.


Immodesty, in the way God uses that term, pretty much never.

So, then, if presumption and immodesty and even being frivolous – and who knows what all else – are qualities that God looks for in judging, and if the church doesn’t have a clue about this, how, then, is the church able to help us put our souls in order?

Well, I think, with all respect to Mother Angelica, that a general confession does do a lot of good.  For two reasons.

The first is that it gives us the chance to say, I’m sorry for dissing my neighbor and “forgetting” to feed his dog as I  agreed to do, and bring to mind and heart other acts that we regret; but it also gives us a blank check to hand over to God and say, Here, you fill in the blanks.

You fill in the blanks.

You know what I’ve done that really has been inappropriate.  I may not remember them, or I may have not even recognized them at the time and now, here on my knees, I still can’t see them.  But you can.

We’re not just blind to our own faults, we may not even be able to define them.

Like all those colors that other animals can see, but our eyes filter out.

We live in our world, not God’s.  We define our sins by what we understand about life.  Life here on Earth.

Not in terms of our eternal life, our soul’s life.

We barely even admit to the existence of the soul, let alone grasp any of its workings and subtleties.

And now for the second reason that I feel makes the General Confession such a great prayer.

How do we, in our infinite limitedness, know our sins?

We can listen to other people, sure.

We can take to heart what we absorb from the world around us.

Or, we can sit at the feet of Jesus, in prayer, and just let the light that he shines on us reveal our rotten spots.  Our places of decay.

We can just rest in his gentleness, mercy, and grace and let our inadequacies rise to the top of our consciousness.

We can learn about our own sin by letting ourselves acknowledge his purity.

We can become like children, imperfect and ignorant, and be shown how to reach for something less imperfect and less ignorant.

And then we can practice.

And pray.

Because absolution is always there when we stumble and err.

There is always a hand, even when we don’t know that we’ve fallen.


SIN: Anger, by Mary Gordon

From Deadly Sins

There would be no point to sin if it were not the corridor to pleasure, but the corridor of anger has a particularly seductive, self-deceiving twist.  More than any of the other sins, anger can be seen to be good, can perhaps even begin by being good.  Jesus himself was angry, brandishing his whip and thrillingly overturning tables: coins, doves flying, the villainous sharpsters on their knees to save their spoils.  It would seem to run in the family; by far the angriest character in the Old Testament is God.

Of all the sins, only anger is connected in the common tongue to its twinned, entwined virtue: justice.  “Just anger,” we say.  Impossible even to begin to imagine such a phrase made with the others: try as you will, you can’t get your mouth around the words, “just sloth,” or, “just covetousness,” to say nothing of the deadly breakfast cereal that sticks to the ribs for all eternity, “just lust.”

Anger is electric, exhilarating.  The angry person knows without a doubt he is alive.  And the state of unaliveness, of partial aliveness, is so frequent and so frightening, the condition of inertia common, almost, as dirt, that there’s no wonder anger feels like treasure.  It goes through the body like a jet of freezing water; it fills the veins with purpose; it alerts the lazy eye and ear; the sluggish limbs cry out for movement; the torpid lungs grow rich with easy breath.  Anger flows through the entire body, stem to stern, but its source and center is the mouth.

Its taste draws from those flavors that appeal to the mature and refined palate: the mix of sour, bitter, sweet, and salt, and something else, something slightly frightening, something chemical or at least inorganic, something unhealthful, something we suspect should not be there, a taste that challenges us because it might be poison – but if not, think what we have been able to withstand, then crave.  Gin and Campari, the vinegary mint sauce alongside the Easter lamb, a grapefruit ice to cleanse the palate between heavy courses, a salad of arugula and cress, the salt around the margarita glass, all of them seeming to promise wisdom and a harsh, ascetic health.

The joy of anger is the joy – unforgettable from childhood – of biting down on a loose tooth.  The little thorn (our own!) pressing into the tender pinkness of the gum, the labial exploration, the roughness we could impose on the thick and foolish tongue (a punishment for the times it failed us by refusing to produce the proper word?), and the delicious wince when we had gone too far.  The mouth as self-contained, containing oracle.  The truth: pain is possible.  The freedom: I can both inflict and endure.  The harsh athletic contest, ultimately satisfying because of the alarming and yet deeply reassuring taste of blood.

Even the ancillary words, the names of anger’s sidekicks, are a pleasure on the tongue.  Spite, vengeance, rage.  Just listen to the snaky “s,” the acidic, arrowlike soft “g,” the lucid, plosive “t” preceded by the chilled long “i,” then dropped.  The onomatopoeia of drawn swords.  Nothing muffled, muffling, nothing concealing, nothing to protect the weak.  To live in anger is to forget that one was ever weak, to believe that what others call weakness is a sham, a feint that one exposes and removes, like the sanitizing immolation of a plague-ridden house.  The cruelty essential for the nation’s greater health, because, after all, the weak pull down the strong.  The angry one is radiant in strength, and, blazing like the angel with the flaming sword, banishes the transgressors from the garden they would only now defile.

Deadly anger is a hunger, an appetite that can grow like a glutton’s or a lion’s, seeking whom it may devour.  Once fed, the creature grows hypnotized by itself.  The brilliant Ford Madox Ford created an unforgettable character almost entirely moved by anger, Sylvia Tiejens, the beautiful, sadistic wife of the hero of his tetralogy, Parade’s End.  Sylvia’s mother explains her daughter’s rage by using herself as an example: “I tell you I’ve walked behind a man’s back and nearly screamed because of the desire to put my nails into the veins of his neck.  It was a fascination.”

This fascination begins in the mouth, then travels to the blood, then to the mind, where it creates a connoisseur.  One begins to note the intricate workmanship of one’s own anger and soon to worship it, to devote oneself to its preservation, like any great work of art.  Simple anger, the shallow, unaddictive kind, starts with a single action, and calls forth a single and finite response.  You have done this to me, I will do that to you.  An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.  In this bargain, there is hope for an end: eventually there will be no more eyes or teeth.  But deadly anger is infinite; its whorls, emanating from themselves, grow ever smaller, but there is no end to the possibility of inward turning, inward fecundation.

Deadly anger is fanatic of embellishment.  The angry person, like a Renaissance prince with endless coffers, travels the world in search of the right gem, the most exquisitely tinted snatch of silk, the perfect quarter-inch of ivory, the most incandescent golden thread, the feathers of the rara avis.  The original cause of anger, like the base metal below the ornament, may long have been obscured by the fantastic encrustation.  Even the plain desire to hurt may be lost in the detail of the justification for the hurting or the elaborations of the punishment.  Anger takes on a life of its own, or it divorces itself from life in the service of death dealing, or life denying, or the compulsion to make someone’s life unendurable simply for the sake of doing it, simply because it has become the shape of the angry one’s life to punish.

The habit of punishment is quickly acquired and self-supporting.  It has one food, plentiful and easily obtained: the need for blame.  In this, it is a really very comprehensible attempt to render a senseless universe sensible.  Everything that is, particularly everything that one wishes were otherwise, must have its cause, and so its causer.  Perhaps the person taken over by deadly anger is for this reason, at bottom, pitiable, like Dostoevsky’s Grand Inquisitor, who demanded death on a large scale so that suffering could be reduced.  We destroyed the village in order to save it.  I destroy you because all that is wrong must be your fault.  Accident is a concept of the weak-minded: what is wrong is someone’s fault.  Yours.  And I must punish you.  Furthermore, I demand that you see the rightness of your punishment.

This is the difference between the good, the necessary anger, the enlivening anger, and the deadly kind.  The first is tied to justice, the death-dealing kind to punishment.  This is the reason that the Greeks, who assumed their gods to be irrational, killing men like flies for their sport, wrote about anger so differently from the writers of the Old Testament, who assumed God to be a partner in their covenant.  Saul’s irrational and jealous rage, prompting him to seek David’s death, is punished by the Lord.  Moses’s higher rage, causing the Levites to murder thousands of the children of Israel who had worshiped the golden calf, was prompted by their violation of the law.  But Achilles, dragging the corpse of Hector around the walls of Troy, was acting from no impulse of justice or law.  Only from an insistence upon mastery, upon a display of power, which makes a defiled thing of its object.  Thinking it is fixed on its object, deadly anger actually forgets him, and is carried up in the black cloud of its own dominion.  The country of deadly anger, with its own cultures, its own laws.  A country ruled by a tyrant so obsessed with the fulfillment of his desire that all else is lost.

I am reminded of a story the Polish writer Ryszard Kapushcinski told me once about Idi Amin, Amin ordered, as he often did, one of his ministers to be summarily executed.  The man was hanged.  The next day, Amin said, “And where is my friend the minister, who is so amusing?  Bring him here, I wish to see him.”  When he was told the man had been executed, he ordered the execution of those who had complied with his original orders.

Anger, in feeding on itself, creates around itself the overfed flesh of limitless indulgence.  At the same time it emanates a styptic breath that withers hope and youth and beauty.  So the angry person is at once two creatures: gross and bestial in the fulfillment of his appetites, desiccated, fleshless, nearly skeletal with the effort to keep active the tiny coal that fuels his passion.

If the word “sin” has any useful meaning at all in a time when there is no possibility of redemption, it must speak about a distortion so severe that the recognizable self is blotted out or lost.  Many current thinkers wish to abandon the idea of a continuous self; novelists have always known that selves are fleeting, malleable, porous.  Nevertheless some recognizable thing, something constant enough to have a name sensibly fixed to it, seems to endure from birth to death.  Sin makes the sinner unrecognizable.

I experienced this once myself, and I remember it because it frightened me.  I became an animal.  This sinful experience occurred – as so many do – around the occasion of a dinner party.  It was a hot August afternoon.  I was having ten people for dinner that evening.  No one was giving me a bit of help.  I was, of course, feeling like a victim, as everyone does in a hot kitchen on an August day.  (It is important to remember that the angry person’s habit of self-justification is often connected to his habit of seeing himself as a victim.)  I had been chopping, stirring, bending over a low flame, and all alone, alone!  The oven’s heat was my purgatory, my crucible.

My mother and my children thought this was a good time for civil disobedience.  They positioned themselves in the car and refused to move until I took them swimming.  Now my children were at tender ages at that time, seven and four.  My mother was seventy-eight and, except for her daily habit of verbal iron-pumping, properly described as infirm.  They leaned on the horn and shouted my name out the window, well within hearing of the neighbors, reminding me of my promise to take them to the pond.

There are certain times when a popular cliché disgorges itself from the dulled setting of overuse and comes to life, and this was one of them.  I lost it.  I lost myself.  I jumped on the hood of the car.  I pounded on the windshield.  I told my mother and my children that I was never, ever going to take any of them anywhere and none of them were ever going to have one friend in any house of mine until the hour of their death, which, I said, I hoped was soon.  I couldn’t stop pounding on the windshield.  Then the frightening thing happened.  I became a huge bird.  A carrion crow.  My legs became hard stalks; my eyes were sharp and vicious.  I developed a murderous beak.  Greasy black feathers took the place of arms.  I flapped and flapped, I blotted out the sun’s light with my flapping.  Each time my beak landed near my victims (it seemed to be my fists on the windshield, but it was really my beak on their necks) I went back for more.  The taste of blood entranced me.  I wanted to peck and peck forever.  I wanted to carry them all off in my bloody beak and drop them on a rock where I would feed on their battered corpses till my bird stomach swelled.

I don’t mean this figuratively: I became that bird.  I had to be forced to get off the car and stop pounding the windshield.  Even then I didn’t come back to myself.  When I did, I was appalled.  I realized I had genuinely frightened my children.  Mostly because they could no longer recognize me.  My son said to me: “I was scared because I didn’t know who you were.”

I understand that this is not a sin of a serious nature.  I know this to be true because it has its comic aspects, and deadly sin is characterized by the absence of humor, which always brings life.  But because of that experience and others I won’t tell you about, I understand the deadly sin of anger.  I was unrecognizable to myself and, for a time, to my son, but I think I still would have been recognizable to most of the rest of the world as human.  Deadly sin causes the rest of the human community to say: “How can this person do this thing and still be human?”

The events in the former Yugoslavia seem to me to characterize perfectly the results of deadly anger.  We outsiders are tormented and bedeviled by unimaginable behavior from people who seemed so very like ourselves.  They didn’t look like our standard idea of the other: they read the same philosophers as we, and we vacationed among them, enjoying their food, their music, their ordinary pleasantries.  And yet, a kind of incomprehensible horror has grown up precisely because of an anger that has gone out of control and has fed on itself until all human eyes are blinded by the bloated flesh of over-gorged anger.  People who five years ago ate together, studied together, even married, have sworn to exterminate one another in the most bloody and horrifying ways.  Hundreds of years of mutual injustices, treasured like sacred texts, have been gone over, resurrected, nurtured, so that a wholly new creature has been brought to life, a creature bred on anger to the exclusion of vision.  Hypnotic, addictive vengeance, action without reflection has taken over like a disease.  Thousands upon thousands of women have been raped; impregnation has become a curse, a punishment.  The old are starved, beautiful ancient cities destroyed.  The original cause of the anger is less important now than the momentum that has built up.

This is the deadly power of anger: it rolls and rolls like a flaming boulder down a hill, gathering mass and speed until any thought of cessation is so far beside the point as to seem hopeless.  It is not that there is no cause for the anger; the heavy topsoil of repressed injustice breeds anger better than any other medium.  But the causes are lost in the momentum of the anger itself, and in the insatiable compulsion to destroy everything so that the open maw of rage may be fed.

The only way to stop this kind of irrational anger is by an act of equally irrational forgiveness.  This is difficult to achieve because anger is exciting and enlivening, and forgiveness is quiet and, like small agriculture or the domestic arts, labor-intensive and yielding of modest fruit.  Anger has the glamour of illicit sex, forgiveness the endlessly flexible requirements or a long marriage.  Anger feeds a sense of power; forgiveness reminds us of our humbleness – that unpopular commodity, so misunderstood (Uriah Heep is not humble; Felicité in Flaubert’s “Simple Heart” is).  To forgive is to give up the exhilaration of one’s own unassailable rightness.  “No cause, no cause,” says Cordelia at the end of King Lear, enabling the broken father to become a “foolish fond old man.”  “The great rage. . . is kill’d in him,” says the doctor.  But Cordelia’s words turn a dead place into a garden where they can sit, “God’s spies,” and wait for what we all wait for, the death that we cannot keep back.

Only the silence and emptiness following a moment of forgiveness can stop the monster of deadly anger, the grotesque creature fed and fattened on innocent blood (and what blood is not, in itself, innocent?).  The end of anger requires a darkness, the living darkness at the center of the “nothing” that Lear learns about, the black of Mark Rothko’s last panels, a black that contains in itself, invisible, the germs from which life can reknit itself and spring.  Its music is the silence beyond even justice, the peace that passes understanding, rare in a lifetime or an age, always a miracle past our deserving, greater than our words.