STORY: The Story of Jonah, by Leonard Michaels

From Congregation: Contemporary Writers Read the Jewish Bible

(I studied under Leonard Michaels at the University of California (Berkeley).  He was the kind of professor that made even a particularly dry graduate class enjoyable.  But then, we got to read, To The Lighthouse, by Virginia Woolf.  I am still amazed that I passed that course.  I remember the class when he came in and announced that he had cancer, and only had a year or so to live.  But from what I read, however, he didn’t die until he was seventy years old.)


Stories were once meant to be told and retold aloud.  As in the Bible, they were revelations of events on Heaven and Earth and were the common property of the race.  Like fairy tales, they contained only a few immutable details, making them easy to remember from one telling to the next.  Rapunzel has golden hair, but we don’t know the color of her eyes or how tall she is; and if you called her Baboonzel and gave her black hair, it would still be a great story.  The Frog King is handsome.  This says merely that he looks nothing like a frog, and you are free to imagine his appearance however you like.

Today, stories are written to be read, and sometimes in a way that few people understand, leaving out most of the race.  Furthermore, not everyone can read, and those who can do so in isolation and silence, which is exquisitely sensuous but also alienating, perhaps a little scary since it smacks of magic.

When a modern story, which is written to be read in silence, is read aloud before an audience, the experience is sometimes boring and embarrassing.  Events sound contrived, and the motivations of characters sound arbitrary.  This is never a problem with old-time stories.  When God calls Jonah and says, Go to Nineveh and cry out against the wickedness of that great city, it doesn’t occur to you that this event is unconvincing.  Jonah, amazingly, does not go to Nineveh, and perhaps you wonder why not, but you accept the action even if it remains puzzling.

The story of Jonah is puzzling, but it is also fascinating and has been retold innumerable times by writers and painters.  Modern stories are hardly ever retold except in movies.  The most extraordinary retelling of Jonah appears in a magnificently written chapter of Moby-Dick, where a minister uses the story as the basis of a sermon.  He loads the story with highly particular visual detail to make it real for his congregation, much in the manner of the Protestant clergy in his day.  But it also seems that Melville, through the imagined minister, wants to make the story of Jonah uniquely his, to possess it slowly and luxuriously, swallowing it into the belly of this book, as the great fish swallows Jonah.  But the great fish swallows Jonah in one bite, and the effect is terrific, whereas the minister chews long, and the effect is that of magnificence born of desperation.

I want to retell the story of Jonah, more or less as it is written, with emphasis on its repetitions, and the way the story tries to say the thing it cannot say.


God calls Jonah and says, Go to Nineveh, and cry out against the wickedness of that great city.  But Jonah does not go to Nineveh.  He goes down to Joppa.  Then he goes to the docks, pays the fare, and boards ship for Tarshish, a city in the west Mediterranean, not in the direction of Nineveh and far away.

The ship is soon caught in a “mighty tempest” and the sailors are terrified.  They heave the ship’s cargo into the sea and pray to their gods.  Jonah behaves again in a contrary way.  He goes down into the hold and falls asleep.

The shipmaster discovers Jonah in the hold and says, “What meanest thou, O sleeper?”

Jonah is thus obliged to wake up and to explain himself.  He must say who he is, what brought him to this ship, and what brought the ship into extreme danger.  Challenged by the shipmaster, Jonah must suffer consciousness, which is Jonah’s sacred affliction, because he is a prophet and consciousness is his calling.  In a sense, a prophet is not allowed to sleep.

The sailors discover, by casting lots, that Jonah is responsible for the “evil tempest.”  Jonah says he is indeed responsible.  He says he is a Hebrew, he fears the Lord, and has fled his presence.  The sailors ask why.  Jonah doesn’t answer.  He might have said that he could no longer bear the fate of a prophet, which is to be forever sleepless and conscious of God’s will.  Presumably, Jonah wants only a normal life.  It is also possible that Jonah, being a Jew, was frightened or disgusted by the prospect of going to a city of non-Jews and crying out against them.

For whatever reason, Jonah flees the presence of God, but then Jonah hears the voice of God raging in the tempest.  Jonah collapses into sleep, as if to seek oblivion and escape the prophetic burden of consciousness while others, in their ignorance, are terrified by the tempest and throw the cargo overboard to save the ship.  What a dreadful loss, Jonah must have thought, and it is his fault.  Out of guilt, he will ask the sailors to throw him overboard, too.

Finding Jonah asleep, the shipmaster thinks it’s shocking and unintelligible, but sleep is simply consistent with Jonah, a man in flight from consciousness and God.

“What shall we do unto thee,” ask the sailors, “that the sea may be calm unto us?”

Jonah tells them to cast him into the sea.  This strikes the sailors as a hideous idea, not different from murder, and they ask Jonah’s God not to make them murderers.  They try to row Jonah ashore.  The sea defeats their efforts.  In their desperation, they can bring themselves to throw Jonah into the sea.

Jonah “went down into Joppa,” then “down into the ship,” then “down into the sides of the ship.”  Now Jonah is thrown down into the chaos of sea and swallowed down by a great fish that has been prepared for this moment by God.  Since Jonah would flee God’s voice and go down into the hold and sleep, there is justice in his fate, which he himself requested.  If you want to sleep, Jonah, sleep there in the belly of the fish.

In the belly of the fish, Jonah sings the blues, and his theme is again about going down: “I went down to the bottoms of the mountains.”  Ultimately, in his flight from God, Jonah goes down into the deepest solitude, into the primeval wilderness, or what lies within himself.  Insofar as he would flee the presence of God, who is other than Jonah, or outside himself, Jonah must descend into himself, what lies within.  There is no place else to go.  This doesn’t seem a too fanciful idea if we remember that everyone, from little babies to adults, tends to go to sleep when under great stress.

The terrified sailors, who have never known the presence of God, cast Jonah into the sea, and “The sea ceased from her raving.”

Then the men feared the Lord exceedingly, and they offered a sacrifice unto the Lord, and made vows.

Jonah is, thus, not exactly murdered but sacrificed to the wrath of God, and the sailors are converted to the Hebrew faith, which marks their entry into the prophetic world of Jonah.  In this world, people, ships, storms, and great fish are the instruments of sacred imagination, and everything is metaphorical.  It is the world where this can be that, the world of the one God.

The great fish that swallows Jonah is the metaphorical grave of the man who fled the presence of God.  As in a dream, Jonah goes down into the belly of the fish, or into primeval creaturely being, the mysterious, visceral roots of mind, the source of everything that lives and must die.  Just as the fish carries Jonah within itself, Jonah carries the fish within himself, for, in his flight from God, he has gone down into the sea and the fishy sources of the self.  When the poet says, “I must go down to the sea again,” he stirs a strange and melancholy yearning, reminiscent of homesickness.  Not for the old neighborhood and house, but a much older place.

The fish carries Jonah about for three days, then vomits him onto land, and Jonah is restored to consciousness and the responsibilities of a prophet.  God again says, Go to Nineveh.

Jonah, awakened and transformed, goes to Nineveh, and he cries out against the great city, prophesying its doom in forty days.  God did not tell Jonah to say the city would be destroyed in forty days.  But Jonah, having transcended his death in the fish, vomits death onto Nineveh, as if the wicked city, unconverted to the Hebrew faith and oblivious to God, must die just as he, Jonah, in his flight from God, was made to die.

Jonah sounds excessive, as if he were still terrified.  Thus, he terrifies the citizens of Nineveh.  They repent.  Then “God repented of the evil, that he had said that he would do unto them; and he did it not.”

But it displeased Jonah exceedingly. . . .

He had gone about the great city crying, “Yet forty days, and Nineveh shall be overthrown.”  It seems that he now feels bitterly humiliated, but the story says only that he is displeased.  In his displeasure, Jonah tells God he didn’t want to go to Nineveh, because he knew God is merciful, gracious, and loving, and would repent of the evil he intended.

Jonah sits in the burning sun, outside the walls of the city, and refuses to leave until it is destroyed.  The man who fled God’s presence and wouldn’t go to Nineveh now refuses to leave.  Then, in a fit of suicidal petulance, Jonah asks God to take his life, “for it is better for me to die than to live.”

God doesn’t say: “Oh, come off it.  I didn’t promise to destroy Nineveh.”  He says:

Doest thou well to be angry?

The question is solicitous.  But how can Jonah care?  He has been allowed neither to flee the presence of God, nor sleep, nor die, though he has asked twice for death.

God then makes a gourd grow to protect Jonah from the sun.  Presumably, Jonah is enclosed in the womblike belly of the gourd, as he was enclosed by the hold of the ship and the belly of the fish.  The plainness of his response is very moving:

So Jonah was exceeding glad of the gourd.

Then God makes a worm, “and it smote the gourd so that it withered.”  Jonah should remember his gratitude for the gourd, and he should see that he is not essentially different, in his dependence upon God, from the gourd, and that his request for death is too despising of life.  God reminds Jonah of his “pity” for the gourd, which is a reflection of Jonah’s own pathos.  God says you pitied the gourd

for which thou has not labored, neither madest it grow; which came up in a night, and perished in a night.

In other words, Jonah felt sorry for himself, and he should feel sorry for Nineveh.  But he refuses to remember that he was “glad of the gourd,” and he forgets his grave of three days in the fish.

And he said, I do well to be angry unto death.

Jonah fails to appreciate his own existence, which is at once everything and nothing, and the story ends as it begins, with God’s voice looming against the silence of Jonah, for he has been thrown against the limits of his self, or his interior world, even as he was thrown into the sea and vomited onto the shore.  God says:

And should I not spare Nineveh, that great city, wherein are more than sixscore thousand persons that cannot discern between their right hand and their left hand; and also much cattle?

If the ending is humorous, it is a humor of forgiveness, where God forgives his creature, or the superego forgives the ego for being what it is; and again Jonah must recognize the limits of his mortal condition, which includes limited understanding and death, the condition he shares with more than sixscore thousand persons of Nineveh and their cattle.

In his silence, perhaps Jonah feels the necessity of prophets in a world where people “cannot discern between their right hand and their left hand,” and where people are not easily distinguished, in their ignorance, from the unconscious life of cattle.  All life transpires in a kind of sleep, or darkness, or mystery.  It is somehow critical to the existence of fish and gourds and beasts and people.  It has been considered a form of grace, saving us from knowledge of what we are, and possibly how bad we are, or why anything exists or ceases to exist.  The story of Jonah ends here, as if we have come up against mystery in the heart of creation.


When the shipmaster says, “What meanest thou, O sleeper?” Jonah answers that he is a Hebrew and has fled the presence of the Lord.  But this is no answer.  It is only a story, the very one we are reading.  To answer, Jonah would have to say what it means to be a prophet, and why this fate seems to him so dreadful that he fled the Lord.  But as a prophet, Jonah speaks for the Lord, not for himself.  In his few words to the shipmaster, he offers hardly more than images of himself.  But all the events in Jonah’s story occur more as a series of images than as actions leading to, or entailing, one another.  Things happen as they do in a dream, where images issue endlessly from the darkness within ourselves.  When Jonah goes to sleep in the hold of the ship, perhaps he wants to sink into that darkness and let dreams come and deliver him to another story, another life.  “Whereof we cannot speak,” says the great philosopher Wittgenstein, “we must be silent.”  But it is also true that, whereof we cannot speak, we dream, or tells stories.

JONAH: The Inside-Out Messiah

I was just sitting there, innocently enough, and the thought popped into my head: Jesus creates a miracle by making a little fish go a long way; Jonah, on the other hand, creates a miracle by making a big fish spit him out.

One put the fish inside people; the other, well, got inside a fish.

While I realize that this is not the greatest insight of all time, it still made me stop and think.

And so I thought about the other oppositions:

* Jesus has to struggle to find his own way; Jonah has his way not only mapped out in front of him, he gets help with the transportation problem

* Jesus works endlessly to prove himself to God, the Father; God, the Father, stops at nothing to prove himself to Jonah.

* In spite of those who align the resurrection of Jesus with the swallowing of Jonah, I, more, see the distinction: Jesus goes to HELL (for Heaven’s sake), and has to recreate his own life after such an experience; Jonah gets a time out in a slimy belly, his life remaining intact the entire time (all he may get is hungry and dirty).

* People listen to Jesus, but then they don’t, and then, ultimately they either want him dead or pretend that they never met him; all Jonah has to do is show up and the people go wild, they listen to his every word and follow his instructions to the letter (Justin Bieber, here we come!)

* Jesus is so committed to his father that faith isn’t even a faith for him; Jonah has no faith in God, whatsoever, no matter what God does, except when he gets “trench” faith when absolutely pressed.

* Jesus is ever mindful of God; Jonah’s biggest aspiration is to forget about God altogether.

* Jesus is solely other-oriented, tribal membership is not an issue for him; Jonah is appalled that the Ninevites are saved.

The question, then, becomes: so what is the real deal with Jonah?

Jonah is one of those stories that takes the past in one hand and flings it into the future.  It is an accumulation of the stories that came before as it transforms itself into a screaming comment on what is to come.

That’s the way I see it, anyway.

There is something about the story of Jonah that is unmistakable: it pounds away at the idea that God will save you.

Not just Jonah.  The Ninevites, who as a culture, for some inexplicable reason, had to watch their neighbor when told to raise their right hand (and prayed that his neighbor knew the right hand to raise).

And their cows.

Perhaps even their goats.

God, The Savior, of all mankind.

Friend and enemy alike.

That’s the message, isn’t it?

And if you go back in the Bible, you find that sort of, I’ve-got-your-back characterization of God, The Father.

Even with Cain, God saves him from being executed for his crime.

Even murderers get the special God treatment.

Isaac.  Last minute substitution.  (I guess it would be too early in history to qualify it as a Hail Mary save.)

David vs. the really big guy.  No problem.  Just use a stone.

And on and on.

Even Job is restored.  (We’ll set aside, for the moment, that God was the stripper before he was The Savior.)

All these years.  All these pages in the Bible.  All these people.

God Is Here With Us.

And then comes Jesus.

And watch what happens.

Miracles roll off his fingertips like water from a fountain.

You want wine?  I’ve got your Cabernet Sauvignon.

You have doubts?  Let’s take a walk across the lake.

Leprosy?  No problem.  And, you’re welcome.

But what happens at the end of his life?  When he, like Jonah, needs a last-minute rescue?  A reprieve from his fate?


Like Jonah (for once), Jesus does plead to God to be saved from death.

Nothing but crickets.

So I wonder.

There are those who claim that the Book of Jonah is a comedy of sorts.  Dark comedy, but there for the laughs.

Does this story make fun of all the happy-ending stories that came before it?

Is it showing us that as a cartoon, given what will soon happen on Earth, it is mocking our growing assumption that when Jesus is pressed to the wall, an escape door will magically appear?

Are we built up and built up and built up, through all those pages, to believe that, no matter what, God will be there for us?  Only to find out that that is not what God is about at all?  That instead, we are on our paths.  And if we stay on our paths, our paths given to us by God, all we will accomplish is what he wants us to accomplish.

For better.  Or for worse.

Even to the worst.

Even to death.

Is Jonah showing us a picture of ourselves whenever we go, Oh, No Problem, God will be there for me?  And letting us know that we’ve got it all twisted around backwards?  That God-being-there-for-me doesn’t mean a happy ending necessarily.  Doesn’t mean all will listen to us and be instantly converted.  Or that our enemies will be blown to smithereens and we will get the hot-tub we’ve always wanted.

Because we believe in God.

It means that no matter what we go through, God will be there for us.

Like with Jonah.

Only better.

Jonah strips down to its very bones the ludicrousy of making God into the Prince in every fairy tale.  The one who lifts us up and out of the guts of whatever whale shark we’ve found ourselves in.

Where we deserve to find ourselves.

Just because.


We’re not the twinkle in God’s eye because we smile and wear pink socks.

We’re the twinkle in God’s eye because we can serve him here on Earth.  We can do his work.

We can accomplish his goals.

And even when we do this, unlike Jonah but perhaps more like Jesus, we may find ourselves on a path of pain and suffering.

But it’s still our path.  The path that God has assigned us.

We have to lift off our confusion of thinking that the bad things that happen to us in our lives are some sort of punishment.  And the good things are rewards.

It’s one of the hardest detachments to learn, I believe.

But we’re not Jonah, as much as he can represent Everyman.

We won’t have our every prayer answered in the way we want it to be answered, immediately.

We won’t be saved from all the things that swallow us up.

Except, of course, for those times when we are.


THE HOLY SPIRIT: The Sign of Jonah and a New Monasticism, by Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove

From On Heart, One Soul, Mary Forman, editor

I am a representative of the Rutba House, a new monastic community in Durham, North Carolina.  The celebration of one hundred fifty years at Saint John’s is a reminder to me of just how new we are.  We’ve only been around for three years.  The Rutba House takes its name from a little town in the western desert of Iraq, where my wife, Leah, and I were at the beginning of the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq with a group called the Christian Peacemaker Teams.  When American friends of ours were seriously injured in a car accident, some Iraqis stopped by the roadside and picked them up.  They carried our bleeding friends to this town called Rutba.  When they got there the doctor said to them, “Three days ago your country bombed our hospital, but we will take care of you.”  He sewed up their heads and saved their lives.  When I asked the doctor what we owed him for his services, he said, “Nothing.  Please just tell the world what has happened in Rutba.”

The more we told that story after returning from Iraq, the more we realized that it was a Good Samaritan story.  The Iraqis, who were supposed to be our enemies, had stopped by the roadside, pulled our friends out of the ditch, and saved their lives.  God gave us a sign of his love and sent a Good Iraqi to teach us how to love our neighbors as ourselves.  We knew that we had to find a way to live into that love back here in America.

So, we started a little community of hospitality and called it Rutba House.  A couple of folks came to join us, and we were energized by the thought that our faith could become a way of life.  But we didn’t know what we were doing.  We did sense that we were part of something larger than ourselves.  So, we wrote to every intentional Christian community, live-in church, Protestant order, and conventional monastery we knew of and asked them to join us in Durham for a time of discernment about what the Holy Spirit is up to in America.  About seventy-five folks came from a dozen or so communities.

After four days of talking, listening, praying, and eating together, the group discerned twelve practices that mark new communities like ours in the United States today.  Stories of others from other places resonated with our story at Rutba House.  Scholars among us who knew church history recognized in our stories streams that run deep in the church’s story.  We committed ourselves to dig deep in the scriptures and tradition for wisdom that would help us live into the long history of Israel and the church.  The more we dug, the more we sensed ourselves caught up in a movement that we dubbed, a “new monasticism.”

In Matthew’s gospel, Jesus rebukes the scribes and Pharisees when they ask him for a sign.  He shoots back an accusation: they do not know how to read the signs of the times.  He is frustrated because the Pharisees can’t see what God is doing.  For all their study of scripture, they do not know God when they meet him face-to-face.  How could a sign help them when they fail to recognize God in human flesh?  The only sign they will be given, Jesus says, is the sign of Jonah.

The sign of Jonah is an allusion to Jesus’s resurrection after three days in the grave, just as Jonah was three days in the belly of the fish before God had him spit out on the shore.  “The life of every monk, of every priest, of every Christian,” Thomas Merton wrote, “is signed with the sign of Jonah.”  We are a resurrection people, marked by the gift of new creation.  But Merton also reminds us of the tension in Jonah’s story: “Like Jonas himself,” Merton said, “I find myself traveling toward my destination in the belly of a paradox.”

The new monasticism can be described today as a witness to the Holy Spirit’s work in the belly of the paradox called America.  It is a way of life that our communities have received as good news right here in the midst of the world’s last remaining superpower.  This statement certainly does not mean to say that the Holy Spirit is not at work outside America – just that, for better or worse, this is where we have sojourned.  If the new monasticism is a movement, it is more like a river that we have fallen into than a march that we organized.  We stumbled into this way of life by the grace of God and continued efforts to practice the gift of resurrection in the belly of the beast.

In short, to use Matthew’s language, we got to where we are by trying to read the signs of the times.  Three of those signs will be mentioned today: Iraq, Katrina, and immigration, which are indicative signs of the twenty-first century.  First, there is Iraq.  The United States declared war on terror in 2001 and said that our national security demanded aerial bombardment, invasion, and occupation of Iraq in 2003.  Leaders of almost every major denomination of the church said that such a war would be unjust.  Nevertheless, hundreds of thousands of Christians were deployed to the Middle East and have fought a war whose futility is increasingly manifest to a majority of Americans.  Now it is important that we read the sign carefully.  I do not want to be another liberal who says America was imprudent and all we need is a new president in 2008.  My point is not to argue politics (at least, not in any conventional sense).  My point is to say that Iraq is a sign of the times for Christians.  That the American church was powerless to do what its just-war tradition and all its bishops said it should do in Iraq shows us just how hard it is to be Christian in America.

Katrina is another sign.  America will not soon forget those pictures of desperate black faces in the Superdome, looking as if they had caught a glimpse of hell.  Of course, by now the dead have been buried, the homeless relocated, the emergency relieved.  And our churches have demonstrated a great deal of compassion in ministries of hospitality, relief, and reconstruction.  We feel better about Katrina.  But we cannot let our ministry keep us from reading this sign of the times.  Katrina exposes the persistence of white supremacy and economic disparity in the Body of Christ.  I heard a story about a white minister in North Carolina who, when he saw the initial news coverage of Katrina, commented to his wife that he didn’t know New Orleans was such a black city.  Of course, it wasn’t.  Poor African Americans were left behind by fellow citizens of New Orleans who only thought to look out for themselves.  But again, horrible as it is, human selfishness should not surprise us.  We know that people are broken by sin.  This is the real tragedy: not many white Christians stopped on their way out of New Orleans to offer a ride to their black sisters and brothers.  The tragedy is that it didn’t even occur to them – and that it most likely would not occur to us if Katrina happened in our towns.  Katrina is a sign to us that, when the pressure is on, we Christians have not learned to love one another as Christ loved us.

Quickly, a third sign is the current immigration debate.  Within the logic of nation-state politics and democratic capitalism, it makes sense that a country must defend its borders, control immigration, and protect its economic interests.  Debates between liberals and conservatives in American politics have been about how best to do this.  But as people adopted into the family of God, we share our most fundamental citizenship with brothers and sisters from Mexico and Latin America who are being forced by the global economy to leave family and home, risk death in the desert, and work illegally in America.  Catholics are faced with this sign even more clearly than most Americans.  Just go to Mass in any U.S. city – or many rural parishes, for that matter – and look who is eating with you at the Lord’s table.  Christ says, “For I was hungry and you gave me food; I was a stranger and you welcomed me.” (Matthew 25:35)  But America calls that “harboring an illegal alien.”  The signs of the times say it is hard to be Christian in America.

Of course, this is made even more difficult by the fact that America and Christianity are so often equated.  The United States Constitution forbids the establishment of any religion, but that has not kept president after president from quoting Christian scripture, proclaiming America as a “city on a hill,” and ending every speech with, “God bless the United States of America.”  The result has been an unestablished state church of pseudo-Christian civil religion.  In his recent book, The Beloved Community, Charles Marsh writes that this social reality, particularly in the segregated American South of the mid-twentieth century, “bore striking analogies to fourth-century Christianity after the Edict of Milan in 313 brought an end to Christian persecution and Theodosius I in 380 made the Roman Empire an orthodox Christian state.”  At precisely that moment in history, Marsh asserts, when church and empire became difficult to differentiate, “men and women were needed who could offer their lives as testimonies to the crucial difference between loyalty to God and loyalty to nation.”  So, the Desert Fathers and Mothers left the empire’s cities and the first monastic movement began.  It was when ultimate loyalty became hard to discern that the Spirit began to stir.  She stirred again in Saint Benedict to establish the way of life represented here at Saint John’s.  And she stirred in the twelfth century, at the height of the Crusades, to lead Francis and Dominic into a new form of monasticism.  The Bridgefolk group that met here recently has helped me to see that the Anabaptist movement of the sixteenth century, was, likewise, a new monastic movement that produced a community of faithful witness at a time of compromise in the church’s history.  Here, on United States soil, the Spirit stirred again in cotton fields and brush arbors to start a new monastic movement in the slave churches of the South.  To this day, members of the black Baptist church that my wife and I are part of in our neighborhood call one another brother and sister, just as folks do here in the monastery.,

As our communities have tried to read the signs of the times and the Spirit’s movement in church history, it seems to us that the Spirit is stirring again – stirring to lead us into a new monasticism.  We stumbled into this way of life by asking, “What would it mean to pledge our allegiance to God alone?”  It seemed to us that God was offering another kingdom, an alternative politics, that is, a whole new way of life for his people in the world.  We noted the social relocation associated with monastic movements and said God was calling us to the “abandoned places of empire.”  We learned about Sabbath, manna, and the Jubilee, and started “sharing economic resources with fellow community members and the needy among us.”  We considered our adoption as children of God and committed ourselves to “hospitality to the stranger” and “lament for racial division, combined with the active pursuit of a just reconciliation.”  We felt the temptation to think we were doing something radically new and decided instead on “humble submission to Christ’s body, the church,” maintaining relationships of accountability with local churches.  We learned from the monastic practice of a novitiate and have used it to introduce new people to our communities’ way of life.  We said we would love one another as God has loved us, “nurturing common life among members.”  When we came together as communities, some of us were married and some of us were single, so we pledged “support for celibate singles alongside monogamous married couples and their children.”  We are committed to live together and to stick around for the long haul.  We noted how connection to place helped us see the need to “care for the plot of God’s earth given to us” while also supporting local economies.  We felt blessed by God’s peace in a violent world and pledged ourselves to “peacemaking in the midst of violence and conflict resolution” among ourselves.  We said that all this would only be possible if held together by the “commitment to a disciplined contemplative life.”  And we prayed that God would lead us, day-by-day.

Perhaps the greatest surprise of this journey has been the response of American Christians.  When we published a book of essays on these twelve marks with a little press run by a sister community in Oregon, we hardly expected anyone outside of our communities to read it.  Having considered the signs of the times, we had little hope that the American church would take interest.  But in the past few years we have been overwhelmed by people saying, “This is just what I’ve been looking for.”  The Christian Century and Christianity Today ran cover stories on new monasticism last fall.  When Time magazine called in spring 2006 to do a story on what they called this “new movement in American Christianity,” I said, “You know we’re talking about, at most, a couple thousand people living this way.  I mean, most towns have churches bigger than this movement.”  But new communities are springing up faster than I can keep up with them.  It seems that, indeed, the Spirit is stirring.

And I’m reminded once again of old Jonah – how he didn’t want to take God’s word to the Ninevites, and how, when they heard and repented, he was disappointed by God’s mercy.  I’m reminded how much bigger God’s vision for redemption is than what we can imagine.  And I’m excited to be here today with some who’ve been on the monastic way for centuries and others, like me, who are just getting started.  May we, like the good homeowner of Jesus’s parable, take from our storage rooms some things old and some things new as we discern how God is leading us to be his people in the world today.


The Song of Jonah in the Whale’s Belly
Michael Drayton

In grief and anguish of my heart, my voice I did extend,
Unto the Lord, and he thereto, a willing ear did lend:
Even from the deep and darkest pit, and the infernal lake,
To me he hath bowed down his ear, for his great mercies’ sake.
For thou into the middest, of surging seas so deep
Hath cast me forth: whose bottom is so low and wondrous steep.
Whose mighty wallowing waves, which from the floods do flow,
Have with their power up swallowed me, and overwhelmed me though.
Then said I, lo, I am exiled, from presence of thy face,
Yet will I once again behold, thy house and dwelling place.
Waters have encompassed me, the floods enclosed me round,
The weeds have sore encumbered me, which in the seas abound.
Unto the valleys down I went, beneath the hills which stand,
The earth hath there environed me, with force of all the land.
Yet hast thou still preserved me, from all these dangers here,
And brought my life out of the pit, oh Lord my God so dear.
My soul consuming thus with care, I prayed unto the Lord,
And he from out his holy place, heard me with one accord.
Who to vain lying vanities doth wholly him betake,
Doth err also, God’s mercy he doth utterly forsake.
But I will offer unto him the sacrifice of praise,
And pay my vows, ascribing thanks unto the Lord always.

The Ribs and Terrors. . .
Herman Melville

The ribs and terrors in the whale,
Arched over me a dismal gloom,
While all God’s sun-lit waves rolled by,
And lift me to a deeper doom.

I saw the opening maw of hell,
With endless pains and sorrows there;
Which none but they that feel can tell—
Oh, I was plunging to despair.

In black distress, I called my God,
When I could scarce believe Him mine,
He bowed His ear to my complaints—
No more the whale did me confine.

With speed He flew to my relief,
As on a radiant dolphin borne;
Awful, yet bright, as lightning shone
The face of my Deliverer God.

My song for ever shall record
That terrible, that joyful hour;
I give the glory to my God,
His all the mercy and the power.

Randall Jarrell

As I lie here in the sun
And gaze out, a day’s journey, over Nineveh,
The sailors in the dark hold cry to me:
“What meanest thou, O sleeper? Arise and call upon
Thy God; pray with us, that we perish not.”

All thy billows and thy waves passed over me.
The waters compassed me, the weeds were wrapped about my head;
The earth with her bars was about me forever.
A naked worm, a man no longer,
I writhed beneath the dead:

But thou art merciful.
When my soul was dead within me I remembered thee,
From the depths I cried to thee. For thou art merciful:
Thou hast brought my life up from corruption,
O Lord my God. . . . When the king said, “Who can tell

But God may yet repent, and turn away
From his fierce anger, that we perish not?”
My heart fell; for I knew thy grace of old—
In my own country, Lord, did I not say that thou art merciful?

Now take, Lord, I beseech thee,
My life from me; it is better that I die. . .
But I hear, “Doest thou well, then, to be angry?”
And I say nothing, and look bitterly
Across the city; a young gourd grows over me

And shades me—and I slumber, clean of grief.
I was glad of the gourd. But God prepared
A worm that gnawed the gourd; but God prepared
The east wind, the sun beat upon my head
Till I cried, “Let me die!” And God said, “Doest thou well

To be angry for the gourd?”
And I said in my anger, “I do well
To be angry, even unto death.” But the Lord God
Said to me, “Thou hast had pity on the gourd”—
And I wept, to hear its dead leaves rattle—

“Which came up in a night, and perished in a night.
And should I not spare Nineveh, that city
Wherein are more than six-score thousand persons
Who cannot tell their left from their right;
And also much cattle?”

In a Blind Garden
David Shapiro

The whale
is a room
A light blue room
a blind garden
The skulls make room too
And what is the whale
behind you
It’s a complex note
When the whale strains
The little fish die
must die like a school
of lances trained on
our friend of two openings
a blowhole a slippery
prey pointed like a joint
in a design of teeth
Can you guess
which whale
Imagine you are a
whale: what a waste
of captured energy
Jonah sulking
like light in a pyramid

and the summer eats
through you like an
island or like
an island whale
with a huge watery tongue
pushing Jonah to that
elusive depth
where the jaw’s
sounds pierce him
ear to ear: it is
fear, fear of the bottom
fear of the crashing filter
of these open mouths
skinning us, squeezing
us and gulping our happy eyes
Jonah stands naked in the
room with no solutions
throwing lots like a blanket

and the whale also drowns
like he/she slightly singing
The first part to break
is the hole tightly closed
Next the subject
Next the streamlined shape
As we are young
we have reached the zero surface
Mother’s nipple our first meal
nurses for two years
the richest of all animals
Jonah, grow on this
rich milk
in the unique ribs
collapsing under pressure
like Nineveh of grime
The airplane learns
the song is almost continuous
and the prophet’s perfume
is then engraved with a picture
The scratches are filled with soot

In a blind garden
think of the whale
as helping Jonah
a joke in poor taste
in relation to a lack
of consciousness of nonsense
Now think of Nineveh
of madness and associated cities
Dear whale of my youth
you are alive and I am swallowed
Now think of a rotting palm
under which you dream
of a curse like sperm or teeth
of a continuing city’s fine song
that can never be heard
by idiotic ears

the prophet’s a skeleton now
what about a coral skull
or a coral penis
or coral without the body
We must blind one another
like pollen in the bright
sun’s dust Mercifully
mercy concludes the story
Your dreams are those
of a young architect
You don’t want to be seen, but to inspect
the curious architecture
of the island bird’s throat
as you grow aware of the
increasing dark green ground
of the truncated future

LESSON: Source And Orbit

It was a lesson that seemed like just a bunch of words: Between two people there is a relationship.  One is the orbit.  The other is the source.  The orbit gathers and directs energy to the source.  The source recreates the energy into that which will sustain them both.

All I could think of at the time was, He’ll bring home the bacon, and I’ll fry it up the pan.

And that God, somehow, at least for this lesson, was stuck in the ’50s.

Which kind of delighted me.

God with a distinct personality: middle-class, suburban, post-World War II.

Which is to say, I didn’t think much of the lesson.

At all.

There are a number of Between Two People lessons.

The lesson of peerage: Between two people, all things are the same; and, of course, the lesson of distinction: Between two people, all things different.

Lessons 11 and 12.  (I bet you can guess which lesson is assigned to which number.)

Source and orbit wasn’t associated with any number.  Not that that mattered much.

And, really, in life, in my life, these lessons didn’t have much application.  Yeah, we’re the same here. Yeah, we’re different there.


Source and orbit really had absolutely no significance as far as I could see.

I did, from time-to-time, try to sort it out.  Break it apart.  The problem was, I really didn’t get the dynamic of the lesson.  Did it apply to everyone, everywhere, at all times?  That couldn’t be.  I had a relationship with my trigonometry teacher, but the only sharing of energy that I could see was his aid in untangling my messes.

Not really bacon and pan.  Or even bacon and eggs, for that matter.  And just where’s the toast?

Even closer, I couldn’t see how a lesson like this had applied to my brother and I.  He didn’t bring me anything, except aggravation every once in a while.  And I never gave him back anything.  With the exception of a partially eaten sandwich that I threw at him once after he said something particularly nasty.  (I’m assuming it was something nasty.  I have the memory of throwing the sandwich – for which I was chastised; he, on the other hand, was never challenged for whatever it was that he did.)

So what energy was he bringing me, and how was I converting into something that will sustain us both?

And if it is just applied to married people, say, then what really is the point of having a lesson written just for that type of relationship?  I could see all sorts of sourcing and orbiting in a marriage.  But who couldn’t?

Until the other day.

I saw it in action.  Really in action.  Or, in this case, nonaction.

Gone was the view that God was really my grandmother in disguise.  Fussing about a woman’s role.  The same woman who ran a munitions factory during World War II, and later pretty much ran the town in which we lived.  But, really, women should stay at home, she would whisper, hoping it would grab hold of my ear.

My goal in life was to sit in a field and listen to God.  I’m not sure where that fell on her scale of right-place-for-women.

As far as I could tell, I didn’t fall on anyone’s scale.  Ever.

There should be a word for scaleless people.


Of course, the lesson doesn’t assign gender roles.  I just did it automatically because of the association I made when I first “learned” the lesson.

Boys on one side, girls on the other.  Everyone in their place.

As I said, dramatically above, Whatever.

But very recently the Church of England decided (well, not so much decided as was hustled) into believing that women would make just the best bishops.  (I believe that one has already begun a lawsuit against the church because there was a bishopric open and she was not chosen.  You go girl!  (I really have to remind myself to stop grinding my teeth.))

And I saw a picture of their victory.  The result of their pushing aside those who were concerned with the unchurching of the Orthodox and getting their way.

How Christlike.

I’ll stop.  I’ll stop.


But there they were all lined up.  Grinning.

And all I could think of was, Between two people there is a relationship.  One is the orbit.  The other is the source.

And I saw what was happening: those who were once considered the sources of our civilization, women, those who stood by, who washed dirt out in the river, who bent over and picked up, they are leaving.  They are going over to be orbits.

Spinning around.  Getting things done.

Being important.  Being very, very important.

It’s all that is valued these days: being the active one.  And never, ever allowing yourself to receive.  To be passive.

To give back.

Because being given to is an insult to today’s very modern women.  No Opening Doors For Me!

And doing for others is beneath us.

Let the nanny and the maid do it.

Or do it yourself.

Or, best of all, go away and leave me alone so that I Can Be Important.

And I watched as all these orbits, with no sources, or with strained sources, or with forced sources, spun around our universe, without being repaired, built up, fulfilled.

Just spinning.

And not even mystically.

And then the other day I watched as an elderly woman with a soft, lilt to her voice, Jamaican, perhaps, struggle with her bags of groceries.

And as I bent down to pick up a few to help her along her way, I thought, Between two people there is a relationship.  One is the source.  The other is the orbit.

It’s in our kindness.  Our smiles.

Giving a touch of love here and there.

Reviving the orbit.

Supplying it with what he needs to go back on his way.

We’re all sources.  And we’re all orbits.

When we connect and exchange energy, we are the better for it.

And when we are alone, we seek to have God supply us with energy, or transform the energy we’ve gathered in our day into love.

Between two people there is a relationship.


PROPHETS: Jonah, by Harold Bloom

From The Shadow of a Great Rock

It may seem frivolous to speak of a favorite book in the Bible but mine is Jonah, by far.  A sly masterpiece of four brief chapters, Jonah reverberates in Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick, where it is the text for Father Mapple’s grand sermon.  Tucked away in the Book of the Twelve, with such fierce prophets as Amos and Micah, Jonah is out of place.  It should be with the Writings – Song of Songs, Job, Koheleth – because it too is a literary sublimity, almost the archetypal parable masking as short story.  The irony of the J Writer is renewed by the author of Jonah, who may well be composing a parody of the prophet Joel’s solemnities.  Joel’s vision is of nature’s devastation: “the day of the locust.”  Jonah’s counter-vision is of survival, dependent upon divine caprice.

I first was charmed by Jonah as a little boy in synagogue on the afternoon of the Day of Atonement, when it is read aloud in full.  It seemed to me so much at variance, in tone and implication, from the rest of the service as to be almost Kafkan in effect.

The author of Jonah probably composed it very late in prophetic tradition, sometime during the third century B.C.E.  There is a prophetic Jonah in 2 Kings 14:25 who has nothing in common with the feckless Jonah sent against Nineveh.  The earlier Jonah is a war prophet, while our Jonah sensibly runs away from his mission.

Nobody comes out looking very impressive from the book of Jonah, whether God, Jonah, the ship captain and his men, or the king of Nineveh and his people.  Even the gourd sheltering Jonah from the sun comes to a bad end.  There is of course the giant fish (not, alas, a whale) who swallows up Jonah for three days but then disgorges him at God’s command.  No Moby-Dick, he inspires neither fear nor awe.

William Tyndale translated Jonah, providing the King James Bible with its base text but not the humor that shines through its revisions.  In a rather negative Prologue to his version (a powerful piece of narrative) Tyndale nastily compared the Jews who rejected Jesus to the people of Nineveh who believed Jonah and repented.  The comparison is lame but reminds me that Tyndale, a great writer, also was a bigot.

Jonah’s book is magnificent because it is so funny.  Irony, even in Jonathan Swift, could not be more brilliant.  Jonah himself is a sulking, unwilling prophet, cowardly and petulant.  There is no reason why an authentic prophet should be likable: Elijah and Elisha are savage, Jeremiah is a bipolar depressive, Ezekiel a madman.  Paranoia and prophecy seem to go together, and the author of Jonah satirizes both his protagonist and Yahweh in a return to the large irony of the J Writer.

The prophet Jonah, awash with the examples and texts of Isaiah, Jeremiah, and Joel, rightly resents his absurd status as a latecomer sufferer of the anxiety of prophetic influence.  Either Nineveh will ignore him and be destroyed, making his mission needless, or, if it takes him to heart, he will prove to be a false prophet.  Either way his sufferings are useless, nor does Yahweh show the slightest regard for him.  Praying from the fish’s belly, he satirizes the situation of all psalmists whosoever.

As for poor Nineveh, where even the beasts are debecked in sackcloth and ashes, Yahweh merely postpones its destruction.  That leaves the Cain-like gourd, whose life is so brief and whose destruction prompts poor Jonah’s death-drive.  What remains is Yahweh’s playfully rhetorical question:

And should not I spare Nineveh, that great city, wherein are more than sixscore thousand persons that cannot discern between their right hand and their left hand; and also much cattle?

Presumably the cattle (“beasts” in the Hebrew) are able to tell one direction from another, unlike the citizens of Nineveh, Jerusalem, or New York City.  Tucking Jonah away as another minor prophet was a literary error by the makers of the canon.  Or perhaps they judged the little book aptly, and were anxious to conceal this Swiftian coda to prophets and prophecy.


SCRIPTURE: The Book of Jonah, by David Plotz

From Good Book

At last, a minor prophet who’s not minor at all.  It’s been seven books and a trip to Israel since I’ve read a Bible story that I was familiar with.  The last one was Solomon threatening to cut the baby in two, in 1 Kings.  So, howdy, Jonah!  Greetings, whale!

It’s even better than I remember from Hebrew school.  God orders Jonah to Nineveh (near what is now Mosul, Iraq) to warn that the Lord is going to brimstone the city for its sins.  Like some folks recently, Jonah isn’t thrilled about his assignment in Iraq.  So he goes AWOL, jumping a ship bound across the Mediterranean for Tarshish.  The aggrieved Lord sends a mighty storm, and the sailors pray for rescue.  But as the ship tosses, what does the prophet do?  He heads belowdecks to take a nap!  Jonah’s snoozing signals his deplorable tendency to flee from difficulty, to avoid trouble at all costs.

It doesn’t work, of course.  The captain wakes him up.  The sailors cast lots to determine who caused their misfortune, and Jonah comes up snake eyes.  At last, the prophet faces up to his duty.  He offers to be chucked overboard to appease God.  The sailors are reluctant – admirably reluctant – to toss him, and they try to row their way out of the storm.  These sailors are the uncredited heroes of Jonah’s tale, brave, moral, careful.  Finally, after pleading not to be held responsible, they throw him into the sea, and the storm lifts.

The Lord “provided a large fish to swallow up Jonah.”  The word “provided” is marvelous, with its echo of “providence.”  That’s because the fish is not the punishment: the fish is the salvation.  Jonah spends a long weekend in the big fish, praying the whole time.  He thanks God for rescuing him from the edge of death.  God commands the fish to spit Jonah up on the shore.  This story gives biblical literalists fits – you can’t imagine the somersaults some perform trying to find a fish with the right specs – but I am not going to spend any time arguing with them about the truth or science of Jonah.  I don’t believe a word of it.  It’s impossible.  But hey, that’s why they call them miracles.

My childhood memory of Jonah stops with him gasping on the beach, but the story continues, and actually gets even better.  The regurgitated prophet makes his way to Nineveh, stands in the middle the city, and announces that God’s going to smite it in forty days.  The people of Nineveh heed his warning.  The king wears sackcloth, squats in ashes, and orders the entire population to fast in order to gain God’s mercy.  Why do the Ninevites even pay attention to Jonah?  It makes no sense.  He’s a foreigner – he may not even speak their language – he prays to an alien God, and he’s a stranger.  How could he mesmerize an entire city?  His success seems especially unlikely given our recent experience with prophets: from Isaiah to Jeremiah to Obadiah, prophets are notable principally for being ignored.  It’s inexplicable that Jonah would be the exception to that rule.

In any case, the Ninevites’ prayer works.  God relents and pardons the city.  This leads to the funniest part of the book.  Jonah is furious when God forgives Nineveh because his mercy turns Jonah into a false prophet.  Jonah has been screaming about the city’s doom, and instead nothing happens.  Jonah looks like a fraud.  Jonah kvetches that that’s why he fled the Lord in the first place, because he knew God would be compassionate and not actually punish the city.  His pettiness – a combination of utter self-involvement and indifference to the saved Ninevites – is awful and yet recognizably human.  Jonah is a character right out of a Woody Allen movie.

Showing keen psychological perception, God decides to teach Jonah a lesson about selfishness.  He sends Jonah to the desert, and provides him a ricinus plant for shade.  Jonah loves the plant.  God – sly deity! – then kills the ricinus.  Jonah freaks out, and whines melodramatically that he’s so sad about the plant that he wants to die.  At this point, God delivers the knockout punch, in the final verses of the book: “You cared about the plant, which you did not work for and which you did not grow, which appeared overnight and perished overnight.  And should not I care about Nineveh, that great city, in which there are more than one hundred and twenty persons who do not yet know their right hand from their left, and many beasts as well!”

Jonah really is the perfect Bible story.  God is demanding yet merciful, wise yet tricky.  The tale is suspenseful from beginning to end.  The hero is deeply flawed, mostly learns his lesson, and behaves with both the grace and the selfishness that are in all of us.  There is no unnecessary violence.  And it’s extremely funny.

PRAYER: Jonah, by Walter Brueggemann

From Great Prayers of the Old Testament 

And he said:

I cried out to the Lord because of my affliction,
And He answered me.
Out of the belly of Sheol I cried,
And You heard my voice.
For You cast me into the deep,
Into the heart of the seas,
And the floods surrounded me;
All Your billows and Your waves passed over me.
Then I said, “I have been cast out of Your sight;
Yet I will look again toward Your holy temple.”
The waters surrounded me, even to my soul;
The deep closed around me;
Weeds were wrapped around my head.
I went down to the moorings of the mountains;
The earth with its bars closed behind me forever;
Yet You have brought up my life from the pit,
O Lord, my God.

When my soul fainted within me,
I remembered the Lord;
And my prayer went up to You,
Into Your holy temple.

Those who regard worthless idols
Forsake their own Mercy.
But I will sacrifice to You
With the voice of thanksgiving;
I will pay what I have vowed.
Salvation is of the Lord. (Jonah 2:2-9)

Jonah’s prayer in 2:2-9, set apart as the only poetry in the narrative of the book of Jonah, is the centerpiece of the book.  That prayer does not occur in a vacuum, but at one moment in the ongoing vexed transaction between Jonah and his God.

Before we consider Jonah’s prayer, we may review the narrative of the first chapter of Jonah, which creates a context for Jonah’s prayer of thanksgiving in chapter 2.  In that introductory narrative that sets the stage for the prayer, three matters are of note for our reflection:

1.  Jonah is an Israelite (Hebrew) and an avowed worshiper of Yahweh whom he identifies as the creator:

“I am a Hebrew,” he replied.  “I worship the Lord, the God of Heaven, who made the sea and the dry land.” (1:9)

Jonah understands himself to be bound in loyalty and trust to Yahweh.  The confession he makes to the ship’s crew accents the majestic transcendence of the God of Israel as “the God of Heaven.”  It is, moreover, important that he credits Yahweh as the one who “made the sea,” for in what follows it will be crucial to the narrative Yahweh is maker and ruler of the sea.

2.  Jonah is a disobedient adherent to Yahweh.  He is commanded by Yahweh, (1:2), but he flees away from the intent of Yahweh, (v. 3).  Indeed, he attests to Israel’s normative faith enough to conclude that he, in his disobedience, is the cause of “the great storm,” (v. 12).  Thus he fully affirms the tight calculus of Israel’s faith that disobedience evokes divine punishment.  These first two points – an adherent to Yahweh. . . a disobedient adherent to Yahweh – together articulate an irony that runs through the narrative.  Jonah knows but does not do what is required, a perfect setup for a tale of divine wrath and human disaster.

3.  Given Jonah’s compromised faith, it is important to notice that Jonah is not the only one who prays.  As the crew prepared to throw Jonah overboard and so be rid of the cause of the disaster (an action Jonah himself proposes), the crew also addresses a prayer to Yahweh, (v. 14).  Presumably the crew is not Yahwistic or Israelite; nonetheless they accept Jonah’s avowal of the God who causes the punishing storm, and so they address that same God.  They are about to kill Jonah and ask that they not be judged guilty for the necessary murder.  The prayer of the crew evidences great respect for the God of Israel, even if the prayer is formulaic and a conventional prayer in the midst of violence that might have called for more than conventionalism.  The crew takes Yahweh with more seriousness than does Jonah, even if Jonah can acknowledge his failure before Yahweh.

 This introductory chapter concludes with the disobedient Jonah put at risk, “into the sea,” (v. 15), the sea which Yahweh has created and over which Yahweh presides.  Consistent with Jonah’s expectation and the sailors’ concurrence, the expulsion of Jonah from the ship ends the storm, (v. 15).  The expulsion of Jonah and the cessation of the storm happen in the very same verse as a single sentence.  It is as though the God of the storm wanted only to engulf Jonah, who is now profoundly at risk.  Jonah, moreover, has no claim to make to Yahweh and utters no petition.  He is, at the end of the introductory chapter, disobedient to Yahweh; his status at risk is a consequence of that disobedience.  There is no hint that Yahweh has done other than what is appropriate, given the faith of Israel.

The prayer of Jonah is framed in chapter 2 by two narrative notices.  In verse 1, the prayer is introduced by a report that Jonah is now situated in the belly of the large fish that had been dispatched by Yahweh, (1:17).  Indeed, Yahweh had “provided” the fish precisely to rescue Jonah from the threat of the sea, though that rescue itself is perhaps nothing to celebrate.  For Jonah is still profoundly at risk!  It is remarkable nonetheless that the fish was “ordained” by Yahweh to rescue Jonah even though he had uttered no petition.  More than that, he had disobeyed and had no reason to be rescued.

The prayer is followed by the narrative report that Jonah is “spewed out” from the great fish at the command of Yahweh.  Thus the prayer is framed by two actions of Yahweh: Yahweh provided, Yahweh commanded the fish that did the spewing out.  The second expulsion of Jonah, this time from the fish, landed Jonah on “dry land,” the very “dry land” that Jonah has already confessed to belong to the realm of Yahweh, (1:9).  Thus Jonah moves from one zone of Yahweh’s creation to another, from the sea to the dry land.  All the while through the risk, Jonah has been in zones of creation governed by the creator God; he has never been outside the realm of Yahweh’s rule, for Yahweh’s creation comprehends both sea and land.

The prayer on the lips of Jonah is a Song of Thanksgiving, a highly stylized utterance in Israel.  Notice that Jonah’s prayer of thanks is spoken, in narrative sequence, while he is still in the belly of the great fish, that is, before his rescue is completed and he returns to dry land.  It is likely, however, that the narrative sequence wants us to understand that the “swallowing” of Jonah by the fish is already the sign of rescue, for he is no longer “at sea,” no longer subject to the whim and threat of chaotic waters.  The rescue is not at this point complete, but because the fish is Yahweh’s instrument of rescue for him, it is not inappropriate for him to anticipate the complete rescue to dry land.  Thus the fish functions in the narrative as a liminal “middle zone” between the great threat of the sea and the equally great safety of the dry land.  The threat of the sea is overcome and the offer of the dry land is anticipated, and therefore thanks is an appropriate posture for an Israelite.  Even though Jonah was completely recalcitrant against the will of Yahweh, he was still able to pray to Yahweh.  It is as though the threat of the sea and the swallowing by the fish have returned him to the sanity of trust in Yahweh.

This prayer, like Israel’s regular practice of thanksgiving, begins with a description of the trouble from which Jonah required rescue.  The simple rubric of such a prayer is, “I cried . . . you heard.”  But the specific lining out of this prayer is much more complex than that.  The prayer begins by Jonah’s memory that “I called. . . I cried,” (v. 2).  We have no narrative evidence of such a prayer by Jonah unless we refer to verse 1 where the verb for “pray” is much less intense than the verbs used here.  Jonah cried in distress.  He recognized his true situation of helplessness; he knew that he must turn to Yahweh, his only means of help, and he dared to break the silence with his needy, urgent petition.

It is promptly affirmed that “You heard,” (v. 2).  But verse 3 does not follow easily after verse 2.  If Yahweh heard, then Yahweh’s response to the petition in verse 3 is the very antithesis of what Jonah needed.  Or perhaps verse 3 looks behind verse 2 to describe how Jonah was in distress in the first place.  It is clear, either way, that here the distress is credited to Yahweh.  That does not agree with the narrative account, in which the trouble came because the sailors, at the suggestion of Jonah, threw him into the sea.  Thus Jonah misrepresents the cause of his trouble, which in fact was brought about by his own recalcitrance.  Verse 3 attests to the way in which prayer can distort in self-serving ways.  To credit Yahweh with the distress serves to exempt Jonah himself from responsibility.

In verses 4-6a Jonah describes his situation for Yahweh.  In verse 4 Jonah quotes himself.  He repeats his previous statement in which he acknowledges that he is remote from the temple, from the place where Yahweh is present and from which Yahweh’s help will come.  The verbal report in verse 4 is matched by Jonah’s narrative account of trouble in verses 5-6a.  The work of such prayer is to call Yahweh’s attention to trouble and need, and so to evoke divine response.  Here the poetry of Jonah engages in rich hyperbole, for the actual experience of being in the sea is characterized in cosmic terms – “overwhelming waters, the deep, weeds, and mountains” – as threats that robbed Jonah of freedom and a chance for survival.  The language of prayer is free to employ such hyperbole; it is the sort of regressive speech that we may use in contexts of acute danger and pain.  The emotive dimension of the danger is so real that it requires overstatement so that the listener can appreciate the direness of his circumstance.

Letter from Birmingham Jail, by Martin Luther King, Jr.

While confined here in the Birmingham city jail, I came across your recent statement calling our present activities “unwise and untimely.” Seldom, if ever, do I pause to answer criticism of my work and ideas. If I sought to answer all of the criticisms that cross my desk, my secretaries would be engaged in little else in the course of the day, and I would have no time for constructive work. But since I feel that you are men of genuine good will and your criticisms are sincerely set forth, I would like to answer your statement in what I hope will be patient and reasonable terms.

I think I should give the reason for my being in Birmingham, since you have been influenced by the argument of “outsiders coming in.” I have the honor of serving as president of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, an organization operating in every Southern state, with headquarters in Atlanta, Georgia. We have some eighty-five affiliate organizations all across the South, one being the Alabama Christian Movement for Human Rights. Whenever necessary and possible, we share staff, educational and financial resources with our affiliates. Several months ago our local affiliate here in Birmingham invited us to be on call to engage in a nonviolent direct-action program if such were deemed necessary. We readily consented, and when the hour came we lived up to our promises. So I am here, along with several members of my staff, because we were invited here. I am here because I have basic organizational ties here.

Beyond this, I am in Birmingham because injustice is here. Just as the eighth-century prophets left their little villages and carried their “thus saith the Lord” far beyond the boundaries of their hometowns; and just as the Apostle Paul left his little village of Tarsus and carried the gospel of Jesus Christ to practically every hamlet and city of the Greco-Roman world, I too am compelled to carry the gospel of freedom beyond my particular hometown. Like Paul, I must constantly respond to the Macedonian call for aid.
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SATURDAY READING: The Modern Prophetic Acts of Rosa Parks And Martin Luther King, Jr., by Randall K. Bush

From The Possibility of Contemporary Prophetic Acts


In an earlier chapter, a working definition was offered for identifying prophetic acts, calling them deliberate, specific, communicative, interactive acts performed by representatives of faith communities with the intent of interpreting and transforming human perceptions of reality and actions in light of the divine nature and will of God.  Yet, even when guided by this definition, it remains difficult to attribute this quality to contemporary events with any degree of authority.  Jeremiah, Ezekiel, Amos, and others have been given canonical status as Hebrew prophets; no such authenticating and authoritative mechanism exists for naming contemporary prophets in today’s world.  At this point in the discussion, it is appropriate to move from the realm of theory into that of concrete praxis.  If the preliminary conclusion is that prophetic acts are possible today, it will be helpful to explore a few twentieth-century events that could reasonably be designated as such.  The two events to be examined now are the 1955 historic refusal of Rosa Parks to vacate her seat on a Montgomery city bus, and the 1963 arrest of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and his subsequent composition of the “Letter from Birmingham Jail.”  Both are recent enough to be applicable to the twenty-first-century context, while being distant enough to allow for a degree of historical perspective and editorial hindsight when describing them.
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POETRY: O Sweet Irrational Worship, by Thomas Merton

Wind and a bobwhite
And the afternoon sun.

By ceasing to question the sun
I have become light,

Bird and wind.

My leaves sing.

I am earth, earth

All these lighted things
Grow from my heart.

A tall, spare pine
Stands like the initial of my first
Name when I had one.

When I had a spirit,
When I was on fire
When this valley was
Made out of fresh air
You spoke my name
In naming Your silence:
O sweet, irrational worship!

I am earth, earth

My heart’s love
Bursts with hay and flowers.
I am a lake of blue air
In which my own appointed place
Field and valley
Stand reflected.

I am earth, earth

Out of my grass heart
Rises the bobwhite

Out of my nameless weeds
His foolish worship.

PROPHECY: What Is Prophecy?, by John W. Miller

From Meet the Prophets

A. Inductive Divinizing

Having identified the prophetic books we are going to study, having located the date and place of the men referred to in their headings (and having also now discussed their historical setting), a few words about prophecy as such may be in order.  What is a prophet?  What did it mean in the time of the prophets to prophesy?

In answering, it is important to recall, to begin with, how intensely religious the age was during which these prophets lived.  Not only in Israel, but throughout the ancient world it was simply taken for granted that divine forces were at work influencing and shaping all aspects of human existence.  It was an urgent matter therefore to find out, if one could, what these forces were like and how to deal with them.  The various ways employed for contacting this realm, or influencing it, can be referred to as “divinizing.”  Students of divinizing in ancient cultures classify the various techniques and approaches followed as either “inductive” or “intuitive.”  A brief description of each of these will help us locate Hebrew prophecy in its wider cultural context.  By far the most prevalent mode of divinizing the world of the prophets was by means of “inductive” divinizing.  By “inductive” is meant the direct study or observations of concrete objects, in this case with the goal in mind of obtaining divinely revealed knowledge.  In ancient Mesopotamia, for example, if one wished for divine guidance regarding some matter, an expert in liver divinization might be consulted.   After listening to the request, the diviner would sacrifice an animal, then examine the creases of its liver for clues to the will of the god whose advice had been sought.  (See Ezekiel 21:26 for a biblical reference to this practice.)
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POETRY: Prophecy, by Donald Hall

I will strike down wooden houses; I will burn aluminum
clapboard skin; I will strike down garages
where crimson Toyotas sleep side by side; I will explode
palaces of gold, silver and alabaster:—the summer
great house and its folly together. Where shopping malls
spread plywood and plaster out, and roadhouses
serve steak and potatoskins beside Alaska King Crab;
where triangular flags proclaim tribes of identical campers;
where airplanes nose to tail exhale kerosene,
weeds and ashes will drowse in continual twilight.
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PROPHECY: The Trouble With Prophets

I have actually known actual prophets.

One I sort of adopted for a period of time, she being lost in the world, and I very much needing to “pay a bill” for a prayer that I was desperate to see fulfilled.  Not that that was the reason I took her under my wing.  She needed something.  And at the time I had something to give her.

So I did.
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PROPHECY: Revelation Revisited, by Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew I

From the Parabola

Welcome.  We shall be voyaging to Patmos on the sea of possibility from which life emerged.  It is a time of profound cultural change, and at this moment we are mindful of the Spirit of God, which in the beginning moved upon the face of the waters and which continues to move.

We have been brought together by a memory.  Nineteen hundred years ago on the island of Patmos, Saint John received the Revelation which forms the final book of the New Testament.  This is not intended, however, to be a simple anniversary or an academic conference about an ancient text.  Revelation begins and ends with the good news of the Parousia, the coming of Christ.  At the climax of the New Testament, there is no full stop, but an opening of the work of the Holy Spirit in the future and the promise of a new creation.   A new Heaven and a new Earth; a new community in a holy city; a river of life and a tree with leaves for the healing of nations.  It seemed appropriate to celebrate this anniversary with a conference about our common home.  Saint John’s vision is of a united human family – every nation and kindred singing a new song.

Much of the Bible is addressed to those with ears to hear, but the Revelation to John is also to those with eyes to see.  The story is told in symbols and archetypes.
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PROPHECY: A Prophecy Of 1732 Written In The Year Of George Washington’s Birth

From Royal Prayer, by David Baldwin

George Washington’s own religious tenets and political objectives have come under scrutiny of late, with a number of largely unsubstantiated extrapolations made from the fact that he had been initiated on 4 November 1752 into the Fredericksburg Lodge Number 4, Virginia, as a Rosicrucian Mason, passing on 3 March 1753 and raised on 4 August 1753.  He became a Templar Mason by 1768 and was elected Grand Master of the Templar Alexandria, Lodge Number 22 in Virginia, on 28 April 1788.  He used the Holy Bible of Saint John’s Lodge Number 1 of New York City when taking the Oath of Office as President of the United States of America; the oath being administered by Grand Master Robert Livingstone, Chancellor of New York.
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PRAYER: Carmelite Prayer — Prayer In The Spirit And Power Of Elijah (with a meditation on Elijah)

O Lord, the God of Abraham, Isaac and Israel,
You alone are God.
Your servant Elijah lived in your presence,
and acted on your Word.
Help us to drink from the well of his wisdom.
Shelter us in Cherith, and lead us to Carmel,
luring our hearts away from all false gods.
Open our eyes to the needs of those suffering.
Open our mouths to speak comfort and justice.
Open our hearts to your voice in the silence.
Send angels to strengthen us.
Send the rain of your grace to quench our thirst.
Let us break bread with the starving
and bring life to places of death and despair.
Send us as prophets to herald your Gospel.
Allow us to rise to you in paradise.
Those who met your son Jesus saw in him
the spirit of Elijah.
May Elijah lead us to your son.
We ask this in Jesus’s name.
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SATURDAY READING: Epilogue: Sacraments, by Andre Dubus

From Signatures of Grace, Edited by Thomas Grady and Paula Huston

A sacrament is physical, and within it is God’s love; as a sandwich is physical, and nutritious and pleasurable, and within it is love, if someone makes it for you and gives it to you with love – even harried or tired or impatient love, but with love’s direction and concern, love’s again and again wavering and distorted focus on goodness; then God’s love too is in the sandwich.  A sacrament is an outward sign of God’s love, they taught me when I was a boy, and in the Catholic church there are seven.  But, no, I say, for the church is catholic, the world is catholic, and there are seven times seventy sacraments, to infinity.  Today I sit at my desk in June in Massachusetts; a breeze from the southeast comes through the window behind me, touches me, and goes through the open glass door in front of me.  The sky is blue, and cumulus clouds are motionless above green trees lit brightly by the sun shining in dry air.  In humid air the leaves would be darker, but now they are bright, and you can see lighted space between them, so that each leaf is distinct; and each leaf is receiving sacraments of light and air and water and earth.  So am I, in the breeze on my skin, the air I breathe, the sky and earth and trees I look at.
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POETRY: Gerard Manley Hopkins

The Half-Way House

Love I was shewn upon the mountain-side
And bid to catch Him ere the drop of day.
See, Love, I creep and Thou on wings dost ride:
Love, it is evening now and Thou away;
Love, it grows darker here and Thou art above;
Love, come down to me if Thy name be Love.

My national old Egyptian reed gave way;
I took of vine a cross-barred rod or rood.
Then next I hungered: Love when here, they say,
But I must yield the chase, or rest and eat.—
Peace and food cheered me where four rough ways meet.

Hear yet my paradox: Love, when all is given,
To see Thee I must see Thee, to love, love;
I must o’ertake Thee at once and under heaven
If I shall overtake Thee at last above.
You have your wish; enter these walls, one said:
He is with you in the breaking of the bread.

The Windhover:
To Christ our Lord

I caught this morning morning’s minion, king-
dom of daylight’s dauphin, dapple-dawn-drawn Falcon, in his riding
of the rolling level underneath him steady air, and striding
High there, how he rung upon the rein of a wimpling wing
In his ecstasy! then off, off forth on swing,
As a skate’s heel sweeps smooth on a bow-bend: the hurl and gliding
Rebuffed the big wind. My heart in hiding
Stirred for a bird,—the achieve of, the mastery of the thing!

Brute beauty and valour and act, oh, air, pride, plume, here
Buckle! AND the fire that breaks from thee then, a billion
Times told lovelier, more dangerous, O my chevalier!

No wonder of it: shéer plód makes plough down sillion
Shine, and blue-bleak embers, ah my dear,
Fall, gall themselves, and gash gold-vermilion.

Hurrahing in Harvest

Summer ends now; now, barbarous in beauty, the stooks rise
Around; up above, what wind-walks! what lovely behaviour.
Of silk-sack clouds! has wilder, wilful-wavier
Meal-drift moulded ever and melted across skies?

I walk, I lift up, I lift up heart, eyes,
Down all that glory in the heavens to glean our Saviour;
And, éyes, heárt, what looks, what lips yet gave you a
Raptuous love’s greeting of realer, of rounder replies?

And the azurous hung hills are his world-wielding shoulder
Majestic—as a stallion stalwart, very-violet-sweet!—
These things, these things were here and but the beholder
Wanting; which two when they once meet,
The heart rears wings bold and bolder
And hurls for him, O half hurls earth for him off under his feet.

That Nature is a Heraclitean Fire and of the comfort of the Resurrection

Cloud-puffball, torn tufts, tossed pillows | flaunt forth, then chevy on an air-
built thoroughfare: heaven-roysterers, in gay-gangs | they throng; they glitter in marches.
Down roughcast, down dazzling whitewash, | wherever an elm arches,
Shivelights and shadowtackle ín long | lashes lace, lance, and pair.
Delightfully the bright wind boisterous | ropes, wrestles, beats earth bare
Of yestertempest’s creases; | in pool and rut peel parches
Squandering ooze to squeezed | dough, crust, dust; stanches, starches
Squadroned masks and manmarks | treadmire toil there
Footfretted in it. Million-fuelèd, | nature’s bonfire burns on.
But quench her bonniest, dearest | to her, her clearest-selvèd spark
Man, how fast his firedint, | his mark on mind, is gone!
Both are in an unfathomable, all is in an enormous dark
Drowned. O pity and indig | nation! Manshape, that shone
Sheer off, disseveral, a star, | death blots black out; nor mark
Is any of him at all so stark
But vastness blurs and time | beats level. Enough! the Resurrection,
A heart’s-clarion! Away grief’s gasping, | joyless days, dejection.
Across my foundering deck shone
A beacon, an eternal beam. | Flesh fade, and mortal trash
Fall to the residuary worm; | world’s wildfire, leave but ash:
In a flash, at a trumpet crash,
I am all at once what Christ is, | since he was what I am, and
This Jack, joke, poor potsherd, | patch, matchwood, immortal diamond,
Is immortal diamond.

The Blessed Virgin compared to the Air we Breathe

WILD air, world-mothering air,
Nestling me everywhere,
That each eyelash or hair
Girdles; goes home betwixt
The fleeciest, frailest-flixed
Snowflake; that’s fairly mixed
With, riddles, and is rife
In every least thing’s life;
This needful, never spent,
And nursing element;
My more than meat and drink,
My meal at every wink;
This air, which, by life’s law,
My lung must draw and draw
Now but to breathe its praise,
Minds me in many ways
Of her who not only
Gave God’s infinity
Dwindled to infancy
Welcome in womb and breast,
Birth, milk, and all the rest
But mothers each new grace
That does now reach our race—
Mary Immaculate,
Merely a woman, yet
Whose presence, power is
Great as no goddess’s
Was deemèd, dreamèd; who
This one work has to do—
Let all God’s glory through,
God’s glory which would go
Through her and from her flow
Off, and no way but so.
I say that we are wound
With mercy round and round
As if with air: the same
Is Mary, more by name.
She, wild web, wondrous robe,
Mantles the guilty globe,
Since God has let dispense
Her prayers his providence:
Nay, more than almoner,
The sweet alms’ self is her
And men are meant to share
Her life as life does air.
If I have understood,
She holds high motherhood
Towards all our ghostly good
And plays in grace her part
About man’s beating heart,
Laying, like air’s fine flood,
The deathdance in his blood;
Yet no part but what will
Be Christ our Saviour still.
Of her flesh he took flesh:
He does take fresh and fresh,
Though much the mystery how,
Not flesh but spirit now
And makes, O marvellous!
New Nazareths in us,
Where she shall yet conceive
Him, morning, noon, and eve;
New Bethlems, and he born
There, evening, noon, and morn—
Bethlem or Nazareth,
Men here may draw like breath
More Christ and baffle death;
Who, born so, comes to be
New self and nobler me
In each one and each one
More makes, when all is done,
Both God’s and Mary’s Son.
Again, look overhead
How air is azurèd;
O how! nay do but stand
Where you can lift your hand
Skywards: rich, rich it laps
Round the four fingergaps.
Yet such a sapphire-shot,
Charged, steepèd sky will not
Stain light. Yea, mark you this:
It does no prejudice.
The glass-blue days are those
When every colour glows,
Each shape and shadow shows.
Blue be it: this blue heaven
The seven or seven times seven
Hued sunbeam will transmit
Perfect, not alter it.
Or if there does some soft,
On things aloof, aloft,
Bloom breathe, that one breath more
Earth is the fairer for.
Whereas did air not make
This bath of blue and slake
His fire, the sun would shake,
A blear and blinding ball
With blackness bound, and all
The thick stars round him roll
Flashing like flecks of coal,
Quartz-fret, or sparks of salt,
In grimy vasty vault.
So God was god of old:
A mother came to mould
Those limbs like ours which are
What must make our daystar
Much dearer to mankind;
Whose glory bare would blind
Or less would win man’s mind.
Through her we may see him
Made sweeter, not made dim,
And her hand leaves his light
Sifted to suit our sight.
Be thou then, O thou dear
Mother, my atmosphere;
My happier world, wherein
To wend and meet no sin;
Above me, round me lie
Fronting my froward eye
With sweet and scarless sky;
Stir in my ears, speak there
Of God’s love, O live air,
Of patience, penance, prayer:
World-mothering air, air wild,
Wound with thee, in thee isled,
Fold home, fast fold thy child.

SACRAMENTS: God’s Sacramental Starting Point, by Ernest J. Fiedler & R. Benjamin Garrison

From The Sacraments: An Experiment in Ecumenical Honesty

The mysterious prologue to John’s account of the life of Jesus from its outset directs attention to what might be called God’s sacramental starting point.  Commentators have long noted that John’s Gospel begins with an effort to hinge the whole account of Christ’s Earthly life and mission on its eternal pre-creation essence.  In his brief collection of words, John would have us consider, as far as we are able, Christ’s life in the essence he already and always shared with the Father and the Spirit:

In the beginning was the Word:
the Word was with God
and the Word was God.
He was with God in the beginning.
Through him all things came to be,
not one thing had its being but through him.
All that came to be had life in him
and that life was the light of men,
a light that shines in the dark,
a light that darkness could not overpower.

The Word was the true light
that enlightens all men;
and he was coming into the world.
He was in the world
that had its being through him,
and the world did not know him.
He came to his own domain
and his own people did not accept him.
But to all who did accept him
he gave power to become children of God,
to all who believe in the name of him
who was born not out of human stock
or urge of the flesh
or will of man
but of God himself.
The Word was made flesh,
he lived among us,
and we saw his glory,
the glory that is his as the only Son of the Father,
full of grace and truth.

No one has ever seen God;
it is the only Son, who is nearest to the Father’s heart,
who has made him known. (John 1:1-5, 9-14, 18)

He speaks of the “Word” and then tells us that this word was spoken temporally.  To talk of “words” is already to deal with one of the means utilized in the making of sacraments.

It would be interesting at this point to digress and study John’s entire Gospel vis-à-vis sacraments.  But it would, in the time and space available to us, amount more to an unwarranted digression than a contribution.  However, a remark or two are hopefully acceptable.

One of the investigations of note on this point is the learned and highly esteemed study of the Fourth Gospel by C. H. Dodd (The Interpretation of the Fourth Gospel) which emphasizes the sign and symbol stress of this Gospel.  In fact, Dodd goes so far as to call it, “The Book of Signs.”  I am inclined to suggest that we accept the fact of the strong sacramental underpinning of John’s insights and proceed from that perspective.  It is easy to nitpick the academics of such a subject to the point that it becomes a kind of game.  The agreement-disagreement factors here cross denominational lines quite ecumenically.  If you are interested in pursuing the matter a bit further, I would suggest Bruce Vawter’s contribution of a decade ago summarized in “The Johannine Sacramentary” and the commentaries of Raymond E. Brown in the ecumenically blessed effort of the Anchor Bible as primary sources.

Roughly summarizing the contents of these considerations and adding personal thoughts, I might say simply that man uses words and actions to communicate.  These he produces with his body.  As a matter of fact, the only means of communication that man possesses is his human body.  (Even “ESP” depends radically on the body.)  From this perspective the surpassing generosity of the incarnation can be seen from a slightly different point of view than is normally discussed in the journals of theology.  With the incarnation, God takes a human body.  He now communicates with man in the manner that is normal to man.  

How well he succeeded, how completely tangible he became with a human body, John expresses in another of his writings:

We write to you about the Word of life, which has existed from the very beginning: we have heard it, and we have seen it with our eyes; yes, we have seen it, and our hands have touched it.  When this life became visible, we saw it; so we speak of it and tell you about the eternal life which was with the Father and was made known to us.

What we have seen and heard we tell to you also, so that you will join with us in the fellowship that we have with the Father and with his Son Jesus Christ.  We write this in order that our joy may be complete. (1 John 1:1-4)

In many ways it seems presumptuous to write further, unless one possessed the pioneering theological talents and insights of a modern prophet like Teilhard de Chardin.  But we must reject the temptation to stop and accept the presumptuous effort of continuing.

One amalgamation of the concepts of sacraments and communication is the following:

We shall see in John a strong emphasis on events in Christ’s life which foreshadow the sacramental life of the church.  John is dealing with a Christian audience which already depends on baptism for its life and the Eucharist for nourishment of the life.  The only information in the Synoptics on baptism is a verse commanding it, (Matthew 28:19), and on the Eucharist, the verses instituting it, (Matthew 14:22-24).  John takes these institutions for granted, not even mentioning them, but gives the rich background and meaning of baptism in references to the living water of rebirth in cc. 3, 4, 7, 13, and of the Eucharist in the discourse on the living bread in c. 6, and in references to the vine of the new dispensation in cc. 2, 15.  John shows the ultimate source of both sacraments in 19:34). (New Testament Reading Guide)

A lengthy history of God’s more indirect revelation and man’s painfully difficult efforts both to understand and communicate with him in return are recorded in the Old Testament.  The New Testament, then, seems to demonstrate that the exchange can now be carried on in a manner natural to man, that is, by means of the body.  As Schillebeeckx has said: “The human encounter with Jesus is therefore the sacrament of the encounter with God.” (Christ the Sacrament of the Encounter with God)  This happens with every event and at each moment of Christ’s life, but especially does it assume importance in the great events of his redemptive death, resurrection, and ascension.  Even this, however, is not yet all.  Christ makes his presence among us permanently active and permanently tangible by establishing the church as his continuing bodily presence.  This he provides for man living in the ages after the catalyst of his physical body is gone from man’s direct physical encounter.  Within this context we find the basis for any sacrament.  Were this not so, the bodily communication factor of the incarnation would be lost to us.  The II Vatican Council said:

To accomplish so great a work Christ is always present in his church, especially in her liturgical celebrations.  By his power he is present in the sacraments, so that when a man baptizes it is really Christ himself who baptizes.  He is present in his word, since it is he himself who speaks when the holy scriptures are read in the church.  He is present, finally, when the church prays and sings, for he promised: “Where two of three are gathered together for my sake, there am I in the midst of them.” (Italics mine.)

An illustration of the continuity of body presence through the sacraments can be seen in an interesting point made by Schillebeechx who wrote that not one of the twelve apostles who had such immediate contact with Christ, the “primordial sacrament,” was baptized.  But Paul, the “thirteenth apostle,” who had not physically contacted the Earthly Christ, was baptized. (Acts 9:18)  Sacramentality would thus be seen to bridge the gap between the glorified Christ and unglorified humanity.  It became operative as the entity we call “church” after the ascension of Christ’s physical, Earthly body.

The sacraments find their place in the larger context of church as the necessary formative element of effective symbols that man needs even in his basic human life.  Man has used and has always needed symbols in his process of communication.  Situations and occasions inevitably arise when words alone are unsuccessful or incomplete as the means of communication.  Even in very simple things, we frequently find that a box of candy, flowers, an embrace, a smile are more effective than words can be as a means of communication.  This problem of ineptness is in all language.  It is not only true between individuals but also for the communication of information and knowledge to an between members of a community.

Contemporary studies in linguistic analysis note that language seems inevitably and ultimately to lead to mystery, to depths whose expression cannot be accomplished with language alone.  As language begins to reach this point, it begins to use vehicles like metaphors and poetry.  But finally these too fail to express the greater depth of the human person.  The point is reached when man’s last device for communication is ritual.  It is also his most basic device.  Modern philosophy today may in fact be converging with theology on this point in an increasing awareness of the ultimate need for signs.  Essentially, radically, these are sacraments.

Theologically speaking, both Protestantism and Roman Catholicism since the Reformation have come to the same rationalistic stance in the matter of linguistic formulation, and, in effect, the problems of religion, God and man, have been considered as adequately worked out and stated adequately.  Theology produced exact formulas, expressing rigid doctrinal positions and implying that the truths were all safely capsulized.

Paradoxically the mechanics of the physical sciences grew more fluid than the mechanics of theology whose aim is to study mystery, utterly boundless mystery.  And science, in its points of contact with theology, encountered such rigid and static formulas that science decided, understandably, that it did not need religion or a god so neatly indexed and tabulated.  In such a situation the tragedy, if we may call it that, of a man like Sigmund Freud is a good example of the results.  Religious and doctrinal statements, being static and out of tune with the situation of contemporary man and his greater existential depth, could only be considered an illusion by a man dealing with the new concepts of psychology and the mysteries of human depth he was discovering.

But science itself then began to fall victim to the same hazard.  If language was insufficient, or various unknowns were encountered, science would simply develop a system of symbols and equations.  Science also ultimately has ended up with cold, stratified, and impersonal formulas when it speaks of man.  Man might be scientifically described in an equation.  But while “A+B=Man” might give a concrete statement, such a formula clearly could not begin to plumb the depths of man’s existential reality.

Now it seems that science and religion are converging again.  They come to the same dead end when they attempt to use restricted formulas to express the person as a loving, knowing being.  They come to the point where words and formulas are insufficient or useless, and both have ended up groping for something more.  In effect, the search has led back again to mystery and the inadequacy of language to express it satisfactorily.  It may sound quite facile, but it would seem that people always come to an end of words and to a need for sacraments.

If we have begun to learn a costly lesson, and to safeguard falling into the same mistakes again, these signs and symbols, these sacraments must be kept in a dynamic state.  They must communicate truly, but in a living way.  God may lead us, in Christ, to the use of basic symbols, but the church must assure the dynamism of their expression.  We are just beginning to emerge, hopefully from a long static stage in accepting this responsibility.  We have been so busy defending our doctrinal formulas that we allowed sacraments and worship to petrify.  Hopefully, however, God’s sacramental starting point is on the verge of being more actively accepted by man again.  If he succeeds, a rebirth of religious life in greater depth is eminent and inevitable.

A theological worry: Let us not judge that our sacramental action contributes anything to God as God.  We will merely get hung up in another maze that might take several more centuries to unscramble.  The danger of assuming, even unconsciously, that our actions in any way contribute anything to God is that we essentially tend to reverse the roles of God and man.  Even when most perfectly celebrated by man, God’s sacramental “starting point” is not enriched.  Saint Thomas Aquinas sounds quite “modern” at this point.  He says, for example:

In the payment of these bodily observances, we busy ourselves in paying attention to the things of God, not as though we were of service to him, as is the case when we are said to tend, or cultivate, other things by our attentions, but because such actions are of service to ourselves, enabling us to come nearer to God.  And because by inward acts we go straight to God, therefore it is by inward acts properly that we worship God: nevertheless outward acts also belong to the cult, or worship, of God, inasmuch as by such acts our mind is raised to God. 

There are exercised on man certain sanctifications through some sensible things, which man is washed, or anointed, or given to eat or drink, with the utterance of sensible words, not indeed as though profitable to him. 

We pay God honor and reverence, not for his sake (because he is of himself full of glory to which no creature can add anything), but for our own sake, because by the very fact that we revere and honor God, our mind is subject to him; wherein its perfection consists, since a thing is perfected by being subjected to its superior, for instance the body is perfected by being quickened by the soul, and the air by being enlightened by the sun.

God, therefore, is liberal to the highest degree, and he alone can properly be called liberal; for every other being, except him, by acting acquires some good which is the end intended.

(Summa Contra Gentles. Of God and His Creatures, by Joseph Rickaby, and Summa Theologica)

So we receive.  As we enact sacramental life in the church, we must receive constantly and even more consciously the sacramental starting and sustaining principle of the Father – and, of course, it is a living thing, a living presence, a Person.  He gives, we receive: we embody his life.  Hence the need to attend to the condition of our body – the church!  As we learn to receive properly, we will be “giving” everything we can.

What is the extent of this giving by God to us?  It is beyond any measuring available to us.  It seems that it consists of nothing less than God himself.  As Paul says with such undiluted, undiminishing, and absolute timeliness, “This hope does not disappoint us, for God has poured out his life into our hearts by means of the Holy Spirit, who is God’s gift to us!”  His giving is as total as himself.  The only modification, restriction, or abstruction is our own hesitancy, refusal, or temerity.  He will not change.  The only real question is – will we?

POETRY: A Dark Thing Inside The Day, by Linda Gregg

So many want to be lifted by song and dancing,
and this morning it is easy to understand.
I write in the sound of chirping birds hidden
in the almond trees, the almonds still green
and thriving in the foliage. Up the street,
a man is hammering to make a new house as doves
continue their cooing forever. Bees humming
and high above that a brilliant clear sky.
The roses are blooming and I smell the sweetness.
Everything desirable is here already in abundance.
And the sea. The dark thing is hardly visible
in the leaves, under the sheen. We sleep easily.
So I bring no sad stories to warn the heart.
All the flowers are adult this year. The good
world gives and the white doves praise all of it.

POETRY: Ordinary Songs, by Linda Gregg

Dull with pneumonia, wrapped on the porch,
I watch the wind darken parts of the smooth sea
again and again. Watch the sheen return
each time a lighter color. The Greek woman
sings as if the sky were listening.
Ordinary songs. About a man gone long enough
for her to know he’s gone always. Songs like that.
Sings easily and loud over the quiet water
to where the sky disappears. Sheep eating
and bells ringing. I think of the roofs
in Massachusetts with the gray sky above
and the blind man walking in the snow as the train
shook everything passing near us. I think of us
all wanting the gods to touch our skin. Our hearts
blessing the slender bare trees in American lots
of bearded dry weeds. I have come here
for the trial by grace, by loneliness. Remembering
the girl I started as trying to know the earth
with her body, the touch of the bark all she had.
Trying to find her way to the love women know.
I have brought myself to these hot fields of dark
red poppies and the quiet cove over there.
Shepherds and fishermen and the happy women
in black who give me milk and fish while everything
blooms and I accept gratefully. Listening to doves,
I grow sleepy and dream of a still world where space
looks like the sound owls make at night. A world
without color that knows the sea’s dark blue.
Without people, but knows the dancer and marble form.
Without light, but knows the fire it came from.
I sleep as a shard weary from earthquakes moving earth
an inch at a time, tilting each thing. The sea
wearing away the land. Everything stronger than me.
On the shard a reclining naked woman kissed by a god.

POETRY: Glistening, by Linda Gregg

As I pull the bucket from the crude well,
the water changes from dark to a light
more silver than the sun. When I pour it
over my body that is standing in the dust
by the oleander bush, it sparkles easily
in the sunlight with an earnestness like
the spirit close up. The water magnifies
the sun all along the length of it.
Love is not less because of the spirit.
Delight does not make the heart childish.
We thought the blood thinned, our weight
lessened, that our substance was reduced
by simple happiness. The oleander is thick
with leaves and flowers because of spilled
water. Let the spirit marry the heart.
When I return naked to the stone porch,
there is no one to see me glistening.
But I look at the almond tree with its husks
cracking open int he heat. I look down
the whole mountain to the sea. Goats bleating
faintly and sometimes bells. I stand there
a long time with the sun and the quiet,
the earth moving slowly as I dry in the light.

SACRAMENTS: I Prefer The Word, Sacred-Ments

Let’s face it, the “-ment” in the word is really more significant than the sacred.

Not in terms of important importance, of course.  God, the issuer of all things sacred, has the upper hand, importance-wise.

But in terms of understanding sacraments, it’s the -ment that really should get our attention.

-ment means: (1) the action or process of doing something; (2) the product or result of an action; or (3) the state or condition caused by an action.

Get it? -ment always refers to an action.  A thing done.

A sacrament is getting the sacred done.


Getting it done.

I think that’s so cool.

So let’s just ask ourselves one little, tiny question: When we participate in a sacrament in church, do we experience anything getting done?

And if not, just why not?

To begin with, I’ve always felt that we humans have always gotten the concept of marriage, well, backwards.  Christian humans, that it.  And since I’m focusing on the matter of sacraments at the moment, it’s Christians that I’ll be poking.

The Bible says, What therefore God hath joined together, let no man put asunder. (Matthew 10:9)

So we twist it around and assume that anytime a person gets married, God hath joined these people together.

Did he?  Is God truly responsible for all these matings that occur?  Is he the true designer of the marriages between lonely Muslim men and their kidnapped victims?  (If so, then we really shouldn’t be getting involved with their rescue, should we?)

What if we put the emphasis on God in this matter, and not on ourselves, and restate the phrase as Those who God has joined together.  Yes, those guys.  

Getting beloveds together so that love can be created in the universe.  Then, and only then, since God was behind these very specific marriages, no one should mess with them!

Somehow we’ve made it that if you find yourself in a marriage and you need to leave it, you’re the one who is doing the asundering.

The sentence actually has two parts: in the first part we have a couple; in the second, we have a stray man.

And we know what kind of trouble a stray man can create.

Especially to a marriage.

Yes, I know I’m rambling.

Back to sacraments.

What I’m trying to assert here is that it is God who marries the couple.  If and when that marriage takes place is completely up to God.

The church ceremony only puts its official stamp on it.

The church doesn’t marry anybody.

The sacrament of marriage happens between the couple and God.

As in, What therefore God hath joined together.

And, yes, I can see a priest off in the background waving his hand and spitting, but, but.  

I’m God who joins.  Or, I am the one who speaks for God who joins.

And I say, really?

Is that what we need?  A priest to get the sacred things in life done?

Is that what the Bible teaches us?


My hero, John the Baptist, doesn’t really come off as a priest.

Instead of gaudy, elaborate robes, he wore animal skins.

And the only dish he could provide at a post-Baptismal feast is a casserole of roasted bees with nettles.

I doubt if he would even give us salt.

John, the mad mystic (with mad referring to his being carried away by enthusiasm – and anger), was so graced by the Holy Spirit that it was he who got the sacred done to God himself!

How sacred is a getting-the-sacred-done, or sacred-ment, when the Incarnation of Sacred is being made sacred?

Talk about madness.

So where was the fancy building?

The stone font?

The liturgy with words so set in place that the congregation can utter their responses by rote?

Ah, there were none of those things.

Just John.

Some water.

And Jesus.

And I’ve realized, after searching for this for decades, that it was the dove who anointed Jesus.  An oil-less anointing admittedly.

But it was an expression of divine choosing, or, in this case, singling out.

The neon arrow pointing, with the caption: This is my boy!

So here is one very clear demonstration of an act of the sacred getting done.

Where’s the other?

You guessed it, the Last Supper.

Again, no fancy building.

No ornate finery.

No incense.

Just a table.

Some dirty feet.

And food.

The priest is Jesus.

The altar was the table at which he sat.

And who did he serve?  Who did he administer communion to?


The key to the door of his own death.

And Jesus knew this.

He knew how he was sitting at a table with ordinary, sinful men, all of whom would fail him in the next days.

He didn’t take a measure of them; he didn’t make up a list of their past actions.

Peter, were you married to other women before your current wife?

Andrew, did you ever mess around with other boys when you were young?

James, have you ever stolen anything?

Philip, didn’t you bad-mouth your mother-in-law and get her in trouble with your wife?

Oh, and Judas. . . . 

Jesus never screened these men to make sure they passed his “purity” test in order to receive communion.

His communion.

His body.

His blood.

The most precious communion of all time.

And who received it?


Jesus came to save sinners, and that’s who he administers HIS sacrament to.

Both John and Jesus use the sacraments in which they are involved as a means of reconciling God with man.  John and God show people who Jesus is.

Jesus cleans the feet of the man who will betray him.

And he personally blesses his enemy with the sacredness of God.

Both acts were infused, were directed, by the Holy Spirit.

God was there, both times, getting the sacred done.

Isn’t this what the sacraments should be to us today?

Being there.  Watching the Holy Spirit anoint.  Witnessing God’s bustling about his business.

Instead we scrutinize the recipients.  There’s a have-and-have-nots list.  Just like with Santa Clause.

Except that the Holy Trinity isn’t Santa Clause.

God isn’t out to distribute rewards for goodness.

He’s here to lift us out of our suffering.  He’s here to save us from giving up on life.

He’s here to love us as we are.

And his sacraments are a message of that love.

And only that.

The message that God loves us.

Each and every one.


SACRAMENTS: The Church, The Home Of Love, by Evelyn Underhill

From An Analogy of the Love of God

The Church is Cruciform

When the Christian looks at the crucifix, he looks at that which is for him the pattern of all perfection; the double revelation of God’s love towards man and man’s love towards God, the heart of charity.  But he is also looking at the church, that real church which is a holy and living sacrifice eternally self-offered to God; the body of Christ, the number of whose members no man knows but God alone, and which is the living instrument of his creative love within this world.  “Wherever Christ is,” said Saint Ignatius of Antioch, “there is the Catholic church.”  So, to be a member of the church means not merely conformity to an institution, but incorporation in that living organism which only exists to express the thought of God.  It means becoming part of that perpetual sacrifice which continues in space and time the life of Incarnate Charity.  In the name of all her members the church comes up to the altar with awe and thanksgiving, and there, on the very frontiers of the unseen world, she gives herself that she may receive the food of eternal life.  So the inner life of each one of those members must have in it the color of sacrifice, the energy of a redeeming love, if it is to form part of the living soul of the church.  The unceasing liturgic life of the official church, her prayer and adoration, her oblation and communion, only has meaning as the expression of that soul: the voice of the communion of saints.  But as this, it has a meaning, a splendor and claim on us, far transcending those private prayers to which we are apt to give priority.  The whole poetry of man’s relation to the unseen Love is hidden in the liturgy: with its roots in history, its eyes set upon eternity, its mingled outbursts of praise and supplication, penitence and delight, it encloses and carries forward the devotion of the individual soul, lost in that mighty melody.

The Church’s Fellowship of Love

The reality of the church does not abide in us; it is not a spiritual Rotary Club.  Its reality abides in the one God, the ever-living one whose triune Spirit fills it by filling each one of its members.  We build up the church best, not by a mere overhaul of the fabric and furniture, desirable as this may sometimes be, but by opening ourselves more and more with an entire and humble generosity to that Spirit – God – who is among us as one that serves and reaches out through his church towards the souls of men.  Thus the real life of that church consists in the mutual love and dependence, the common prayer, adoration and self-offering of the whole inter-penetrating family of spirits who have dared to open their souls without condition to that all-demanding, all-giving Spirit of Charity, in whom we live and move and without whom we should not exist.

Institutional Religion

To join in simplicity and without criticism in the common worship, humbly receiving its good influences, is one thing.  This is like the drill of the loyal soldier; welding him to his neighbors, giving him the corporate spirit and forming in him the habits he needs.  But to stop short at that drill and tell the individual that drill is the essence of his life and all his duty, is another thing altogether.  It confuses means and end; destroys the balance between liberty and law.  If the religious institution is to do its real work in furthering the life of the Spirit, it must introduce a more rich variety into its methods; and thus educate souls of every type not only to be members of the group but also to grow up to the full richness of the personal life.  It must offer them – as indeed Catholicism does to some extent already, both easy emotion and difficult mystery; both dramatic ceremony and ceremonial silence.  It must also give them all its hoarded knowledge of the inner life of prayer and contemplation, of the remaking of the moral nature on supernatural levels: all the gold that there is in the deposit of faith.  And it must not be afraid to impart that knowledge in modern terms which all can understand.  All this it can and will do if its members sufficiently desire it: which means, if those who care intensely for the life of the Spirit accept their corporate responsibilities.  In the last resort, criticism of the church, of Christian institutionalism, is really criticism of ourselves.  Were we more spiritually alive, our spiritual homes would be the real nesting places of new life.  That which the church is to us is the result of all that we bring to, and ask from, history: the impact of our present and its past.

The Church’s Worship

Christian worship in its wholeness must include or imply such equal, loving and costly responses to the threefold reality as we find, for example, in the writings of Saint Paul, (Romans 11:33-36; 1 Corinthians 2:6-16, etc.): awestruck adoration of the self-existent Eternal, “the only wise God,” total self-offering to him in Christ, and an active and grateful recognition of the Holy Spirit of God, in his creative guiding and purifying action upon the church and the soul.  It involves then, an adoring acknowledgement: first of God’s cosmic splendor and otherness, next of his redemptive and transfiguring action revealed in history, and last of his immanent guidance of life.  Christian worship is never a solitary undertaking.  Both on its visible and invisible sides, it has a thoroughly social and organic character.  The worshiper, however lonely in appearance, comes before God as a member of a great family; part of the communion of saints, living and dead.  His own small effort of adoration is offered “in and for all.”  The first words of the Lord’s Prayer are always there to remind him of his corporate status and responsibility in its double aspect.  On one hand, he shares the great life and action of the church, the divine society; however, he may define that difficult term, or wherever he conceives its frontiers to be drawn.  He is immersed in that life, nourished by its traditions, taught, humbled and upheld by its saints.  His personal life of worship, unable for long to maintain itself alone, has behind it two thousand years of spiritual culture, and around it the self-offering of all devoted souls.  Further, his public worship and commonly his secret devotion too, are steeped in history and tradition; and apart from them cannot be understood.  There are few things more remarkable in Christian history than the continuity through many vicissitudes and under many disguises of the dominant strands in Christian worship.  On the other hand the whole value of this personal life of worship abides in the completeness with which it is purified from all taint of egotism, and the selflessness and simplicity with which it is added to the common store.  Here the individual must lose his life to find it; the longing for personal expression, personal experience, safety, joy, must more and more be swallowed up in charity.  For the goal alike of Christian sanctification and Christian worship is the ceaseless self-offering of the church in and with Christ, her head, to the increase of the glory of God.

The Communion of Saints

The invisible but most actual incorporation of all awakened souls in one supernatural society embracing life and death, past and present in its span: this is what Christianity means by the communion of saints.  Of that vast supernatural society, with its countless types of soul and vocation, – active, intellectual, mystical, speculative, intercessory, sacrificial – cooperating for one great end, the visible church is or should be a sacramental expression.

Praying With the Church

The whole poetry of man’s unseen relation to the unseen Love is hidden in the liturgy: with its roots in history, its eyes set upon eternity, its mingled outbursts of praise and supplication, penitence and delight, it encloses and carries forward the devotion of the individual soul, lost in that mighty melody.  To say, then, that we believe the corporate voice of those who make this melody, whose separate lives are lost in it and who are our companions in the way, begins to look like common sense.  We are units in their mighty procession, and they can teach us how to walk.

The Whole Body

In work and prayer, suffering and self-conquest, we are never to forget that we do not act alone or for ourselves.  We act with and for the whole body.  The prayer of the individual Christian is always the prayer of the whole church; therefore it is infinite in its scope.

We all know what a help it is to live amongst and be intimate with, keen Christians; how much we owe in our lives to contact with them and how hard it is to struggle on alone in a preponderantly non-Christian atmosphere.  In the saints we always have the bracing society of keen Christians.  We are always in touch with the classic standard.  Their personal influence still radiates, centuries after they have left the Earth, reminding us of the infinite variety of ways in which the Spirit of God acts on men through men, and reminding us, too, of our own awful responsibility in this matter.  The saints are the great experimental Christians, who, because of their unreserved self-dedication have made the great discoveries about God; and as we read their lives and works they will impart to us just so much of these discoveries as we are able to bear.  Indeed, as we grow more and more, the saints tell us more and more: disclosing at each fresh reading secrets we did not suspect.  Their books are the work of specialists from whom we can humbly learn more of God and our own souls.

SACRAMENTS: The Church As The People Of God, by Louis Weil

From Sacraments and Liturgy: The Outward Sign

From its inception the Oxford Movement was concerned with the question of the nature of the church.  Their appeal to “the Primitive Church,” with their use of the doctrine of Apostolic Succession as a sure link to the church’s early origins, was a means of affirming the authority of the church in an ever more secularized world.  Their defensive posture served a very important purpose as we view the matter from the closing decades of the twentieth century: it led them to engage the question of the doctrine of the church in a serious, although often tentative way.

Questions about the church are so common today that it is difficult to realize that this concern is a comparatively recent development.  The official dialogues between the various Christian traditions which have been such an evident fruit of the ecumenical movement have compelled Christians who have been engaged by these questions to explore all the various aspects of the church’s identity to an unprecedented degree.  It is not surprising that a number of writers have suggested that the major theological developments of our time find their common focus in the doctrine of the church.  But the source of these developments may be found in the questions which engaged theologians in the nineteenth century, including the Tractarians.  Prior to the raising of the question of the doctrine of the church in the last century, there had been little effort among theologians to define it or to identify the fundamental elements which constitute its reality.  To a great extent, Christians simply lived in the church within the framework of its given structures.  It was conceived, to the degree that it was discussed at all, primarily in terms of its hierarchical structure.  To a great extent, it was essentially the clergy who were identified as “the church” even in countries where membership in the church was normal for the entire society.  This popular identification of the church with the clergy is indicative of a mentality which viewed the church essentially with respect to cultic activity.

In the nineteenth century, theologians began to recover a sense of the church conceived in sacramental terms and to identify its life with the baptized community, as we have observed in the thought of Newman.  The sources for this approach were found in the writings of the early Fathers, whose teaching made a notable contribution to the rediscovery of the church as the people of God.

The first stage of this recovery was, as we have observed, to propose an idealized and static model for the church based upon its characteristics in the high Middle Ages, viewed as the most Christian of all eras in human history.  This romanticizing of the medieval church was not the activity merely of the Tractarians, but was part of the whole cultural fabric at the time.  The restoration of the Benedictine life at the monastery of Solesmes in France in 1833 was, on the Continent, an expression of the same attitude.

This first stage served the purpose of developing an active awareness of the elements which make up the church’s life.  Under the influence of further theological reflection and the force of other factors in the general life of the church, the static model began to crumble and a dynamic concept of the church as an organic, living society began to emerge.  We noted earlier that it is especially in the sermons of Newman, as contrasted with the narrower approach of the Tracts, that we find a sacramental concept of the church emerging, a concept of the church as an instrument in the hands of God, continuing his work in each successive generation.

The sacramental concept of the church has developed significantly as a foundation for all sacramental theology in this century.  At an international theological level, the publication of the encyclical, “On the Mystical Body of Christ,” by Pope Pius XII in 1943 marked a major victory for the sacramental understanding of the church.  In the light of more recent developments, the theology of the encyclical evokes much of the old hierarchical model, but for its time the document was a major turning point and was immediately seen to have great ecumenical significance.  It proposes a sacramental model of the church and makes a clear identification of the church with the whole body of the baptized.   It is this renewed concept of the church which is the foundation for the revised liturgical books of the various churches, and thus establishes the theological framework for future sacramental and liturgical developments.

The Church as Sacrament

The church is itself the primary sacrament of Christ in human history.  It is the sign of the union of all believers with God the Father, and at the same time it is the sign of the promise of the ultimate unity of the whole of humanity.  Its role in human history is as the instrument of an all-encompassing unity which is believed to be God’s purpose for the creation.  The church as sign is an anticipation of that purpose: the unity of the body of Christ is a dynamic process which seeks to draw all generations into its fellowship.  The final fulfillment of that goal is signified in images of the consummation of human history at the end of time.

The exalted vocation spoken of here reveals the awesome purpose to which the whole people of God are invited.  It exposes the triviality of many of our images of the church which have been conditioned by the shattered human situation.  The church is not a club for people interested in religion; it is a society established by God as an instrument of his purpose in human history.  In this perspective the church is, as we have seen in the vocabulary of the Tractarians, “the extension of the Incarnation.”  After the ascension of Christ, the gift of the Holy Spirit is the origin and first principle of the church’s life.  The church is the domain of the Spirit, the instrument through which the Spirit works to draw all mankind to the Father through the fellowship of Christ’s body.

The church, the body of Christ, is the context in which the communication of God’s gifts to believers takes place.  The church is itself the primary instrument of that communication; it is an instrument of grace.  The specific sacraments, especially baptism and Eucharist, signify the fundamental shaping of the common life: baptism brings us into the fellowship of the body through a sacramental identification with the death and resurrection of Christ; the Eucharist builds up our unity in that fellowship through our common nourishment in the one bread and the one cup.  The unity thus effected is a sign of that ultimate unity willed by God for his people.

The corporate nature of the church reflects the belief that God has formed a people to witness to him in the world.  In other words, salvation is not a gift to individuals but to a people.  There is a mutuality in our lives, first as God’s creatures, and still more marvelously as a renewed people of faith.  The corporate nature of the church points to the coinherence of human life, so that we are in a deeply mysterious way instruments of the salvation of which we are also the beneficiaries.  God has summoned an assembly of all who look to him in faith.  That assembly is the church, scattered all over the face of the Earth and at the same time united in Christ, who is himself the primary witness and the essential sacrament of God’s presence in the world.

Diverse Ministries in the Church

The recovery of a sacramental understanding of the church places the question of ministry in a new perspective.  The hierarchical model of the church tended to identify ministry with the cultic responsibilities of the ordained bishops, priests, and deacons.  We saw in the Tractarian emphasis upon the Apostolic Succession a concept of the church in which the ordained ministry has an importance which virtually subsumes other aspects of the church’s life.  Not only does this isolate the ordained ministries from other forms of ministry in the church, but it also isolates one aspect of the meaning of apostolicity from the wider dimensions of its means.  Apostolicity is a gift to the church for the building up of its life through a special form of service.

The renewed awareness of the identity of the church as the whole people of God makes baptism the decisive turning point of Christian faith and commitment.  The authentic model for all Christians is Jesus’s own life of service.  All those baptized into Christ share in his ministry, but the diversity of gifts given by the Holy Spirit to the various members of the church implies a wide diversity in the forms of ministry.  A recent ecumenical document summarizes the matter in these words:

The Holy Spirit bestows on the community diverse and complementary gifts.  These are for the common good of the whole people and are manifested in acts of service within the community and to the world.  They may be gifts of communicating the Gospel in word and deed, gifts of healing, gifts of praying, gifts of teaching and learning, gifts of serving, gifts of guiding and following, gifts of inspiration and vision.  All members are called to discover with the help of the community, the gifts they have received and to use them for the service of the world to which the church is sent.

The static view of Apostolic Succession which we found in Tractarian teaching fell into the trap of implying that it is a valid ministry which establishes a valid church.  But in the renewed ecclesiology which we see reflected in the above quotation, it is the Holy Spirit who is the source of validity (if such a concept is even appropriate), and certainly it is the Holy Spirit who is the source of the gifts of ministry which build up the body.

The relation of diverse ministries to the life of the church is one of the primary areas in which current reflection demonstrates a dramatic shift from the narrow preoccupations fostered by the static model.  The recovery of a sense of the necessity and complementarity of diverse ministries is one of the major signs of an enlarged view of the church’s life in which all members are instruments of God’s action in the world.  There is an enormous task of education to be done if all the baptized are to be brought to the realization that they only are the church.  For many centuries the word has referred to a sacred building or to a hierarchy of ordained officials who have conceived the church’s life primarily in terms of their cultic ministries as the supplier of sacred commodities to otherwise passive laity.  The use of the word “church” with either of those meanings dominating is an indication of the terrible loss of the sense of the meaning of the word in the New Testament.

To be the church is to share a common life sustained by a common faith, not as isolated individuals, but as a people who share a participation in the death and resurrection of Jesus, who share the celebration of his Gospel, who share the problems and joys which are part of every human life, and finally who share a common mission, a common ministry as agents of transformation in the world.

Such a model cannot come into being as a theory, but only within the varied realities which shape each local church.  Members of the church who perceive the importance of a recovery of this New Testament model must take on the task of implementing its norms whenever and wherever possible.  Only through such a groundswell of commitment can the church recover the signs of its true nature.

PRAYER: Prayer To Christ The High Priest

From Treasury of Novenas

Lord Jesus Christ, our great High Priest, by your death and resurrection you revealed yourself as the mediating Lamb of Sacrifice between the Father and ourselves.  You call us to share your dying and rising in the sacraments of baptism and confirmation so that we might unite ourselves in offering your sacrifice through your priesthood in the Eucharist, thus entering into your kingdom on Earth by becoming your holy people.

Lord Jesus Christ, our great High Priest, grant to us your spirit of love and life which unites us to yourself as victim and priest so that God’s plan of salvation for all people is established within us.

Lord Jesus Christ, our great High Priest, grant to us your spirit of wisdom and unity which makes us all one in your mystical body, the church, so that we may be your witnesses in this world.

Lord Jesus Christ, our great High Priest, heal us by your cross, renew us by your resurrection, sanctify us by your Holy Spirit, glorify us by your kingship, redeem us by your priesthood, so that we may be one in you as you are one with your father in the Holy Spirit.

Lord Jesus, gather us all into your person – victim, priest, king – by the saving Eucharistic meal you and we offer on the altar of sacrifice now and all of our pilgrim days on Earth.  Then when we are called into your kingdom in Heaven, may we share with all the saints the glory of your love and life which is yours with the Father and the Holy Spirit for all ages to come without end.


SERMON: The Paraclete, by Gerard Manley Hopkins

But now I go away to Him who sent me, and none of you asks me, “Where are you going?”  But because I have said these things to you, sorrow has filled your heart. Nevertheless I tell you the truth. It is to your advantage that I go away; for if I do not go away, the Helper will not come to you; but if I depart, I will send him to you. And when he has come, he will convict the world of sin, and of righteousness, and of judgment: of sin, because they do not believe in me; of righteousness, because I go to my father and you see me no more; of judgment, because the ruler of this world is judged.

I still have many things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now. However, when he, the Spirit of truth, has come, he will guide you into all truth; for he will not speak on his own authority, but whatever he hears he will speak; and he will tell you things to come. He will glorify me, for he will take of what is mine and declare it to you. (John 16:5-14)

Notes (for it seems that written sermons do no good) – This Gospel and those for the other Sundays after Easter taken from Christ’s discourses before Easter, before his Passion, and in particular from the discourse delivered at the Last Supper.  They are out of their season and why.  Cannot give them the proper attention when engrossed with the Passion.  But when he should be done, Christ said, the Holy Ghost would remind them of what he has said: that time is now and, very suitably, at the earliest opportunity after Easter.

(However the Rector wishes me to write.)
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SATURDAY READING: Flight Of The Spirit, by Teresa of Ávila

From The Book of My Life

One night, I felt so ill that I had to excuse myself from the communal practice of silent prayer.  I took my rosary with me so that at least I could occupy myself with vocal prayer.  Since I was sitting in an oratory, it probably appeared that I was in a recollected state, but I was trying very hard not to let my mind become absorbed.  Such techniques are of little use, however, when the Lord wills otherwise.

I had not been there for very long when such a forceful rapture seized my soul that I was powerless to resist it.  It seemed to me that I was carried to Heaven where I was greeted by my father and mother.  In the short amount of time it takes to recite an Ave Maria, I saw so many wondrous things that I remained utterly transported.  The blessing felt too great to bear.  Although it seemed as if it was over in a fleeting moment, the experience may have lasted much longer; I’m not sure.

The vision felt totally real, but I started to worry that it might be a delusion.  I didn’t know what to do.  I was embarrassed to go to my spiritual director about it.  I don’t think this was a matter of humility; I think I was afraid he would make fun of me.  “You’re a regular little Saint Paul, aren’t you, with your Heavenly visions?” he might say.  Or, “Look who thinks she’s Saint Jerome.”

The fact that these glorious men had experienced similar visions made me worry even more.  All I could do was cry.  I didn’t think I could possibly deserve to see what saints see.
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HOMILY: The Guiding Spirit, by D. W. Cleverley Ford

The Spirit said to Philip, “Go and join the carriage.” (Acts 8:29)

Some time ago a clergy man came to see me because he did not know whether to accept the offer made to him of a certain parish.  He described the place to me, on the strength of which, and of what I knew of the man himself, I advised him to turn it down.  Wisely enough he consulted someone else who also advised him to turn down the offer.  Next morning, the clergyman sought me out again, “I heard what you said,” he began, “but I felt strongly during the night guided to accept the parish.”  I was taken aback but commented, “Then there is no more to be said, you must accept it.”  To make sure, he went off to the other consultant with the same result.  Later in the day we two consultants met privately and agreed, that think what we might about the parish, if the man felt guided by God there was nothing more to be said.  So in due course he was appointed.  That was some years ago.  He is still there in that parish and doing well.

I.  A guiding inner voice

One of the most arresting stories in the New Testament concerning guidance is that of Philip the deacon.  Not that he was a deacon as in the Catholic structure of the ordained ministry of bishops, priests, and deacons, but he had been appointed with six other men to administer the early church’s relief funds.  So he must have been known as level-headed, down-to-Earth, and business-like, the sort of sane person looked for as a treasurer.  And Philip in particular would need to be judicious because of a complaint going the rounds in the church that Greek-speaking widows were being overlooked in favor of Hebrew-speaking.  So a language and a racial problem was on his hands, a touchy subject at any time.  Fortunate then that Philip possessed a Greek name, as did all seven administrators.  Clearly their appointment was tactful.  They were also said to be “of good reputation, full of the Spirit (note that!) and of wisdom.”
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