PRAYER: For The Forgiveness Of Sins, by Thomas Aquinas

To You, O God, Fountain of Mercy,
I come, a sinner.
May You wash away my impurity.

O Sun of Justice,
give sight to the blind.
O Eternal Healer,
cure the wounded.
O King of Kings,
restore the despoiled.
O Mediator of God and man,
reconcile the sinful.
O Good Shepherd,
lead back the straying.
O God,
have pity on the wretched,
show leniency to the guilty,
bestow life on the dead,
reform the impious,
and give the balm of grace
to the hard of heart.

O most merciful God,
call back the one who flees,
draw back the one who resists,
lift up the one who falls,
support the one who stands,
and accompany the one who walks.

Do not forget those who forget You.
Do not desert those who desert You.
Do not despise those who sin against You.

For in sinning,
I have offended You, my God;
I have harmed my neighbor;
I have not even spared myself injury.

I have sinned, O my God,
against You, almighty Father,
because of my weakness;
against You, all-knowing Son,
because of my ignorance;
against You, merciful Holy Spirit,
because of my malice.

Thus have I offended You,
most high Trinity.

Woe to me, a pitiful soul!
How many,
how great,
and how diverse
are the sins I have committed.

I abandoned You, Lord
I question Your goodness,
by yielding to evil cravings
and weakening myself with harmful fears.

By such things, I preferred
to lose You
rather than abandon what I desired,
to offend You
rather than face what ought not to be feared.

O my God,
how much harm have I done
by word and deed,
and by sinning
secretly, openly, and defiantly.

out of my weakness I beg You
not to pay heed to my iniquity,
but rather to Your immense goodness.

And I beg you mercifully to pardon
what I have done,
granting me
sorrow for my past actions
and precaution in the future.


SATURDAY READING: My Journey Towards Wholeness And Forgiveness With The Aid Of Therapy, by Joy Green

From Forgiveness and the Healing Process, Cynthia Ransley and Terri Spy, ed.

Everyone says forgiveness is a lovely idea, until they have something to forgive. (C. S. Lewis)

At 50, after working for 30 years in children’s homes, I started a social work training course and found myself in a place of fear and depression, questioning my abilities.  My self-esteem plummeted and my Christian faith, somehow, became less fulfilling and available to me.  Psychotherapy started me on an unexpected journey to self-discovery and ultimately forgiveness. In this chapter I will offer my journey in order to encourage others to find what is hidden within their lives and to give therapists an understanding of the complexity of any process towards forgiveness.


My father was an officer in the Air Force, and spent more time overseas than at home.  I have a brother two years younger than me.  Because of the war, he was three years old before he met my father for the first time.  My grandmother lived with us, so we were raised by her and my mother.  My mother was a powerful woman who ruled us with a rod of iron.  I seemed to take the brunt of her wrath.  I don’t really remember much affection being shown but I do remember the cane kept at the side of the kitchen cupboard.  My grandmother shared my bedroom.  She was a gentle soul who said very little and did not argue with my mother.  My father retired from the services when I was 14, and it was only then that I really got to know him.  We had a great time together.  He died of cancer when I was 25.  I deeply regret the years I missed being with him.

What I do remember of my childhood is school, activities at church, writing weekly letters to my father and all the goodbyes when he left after holidays or weekends.  Church played an important part in my life, even as a child.  We would go to church three times on Sundays.  I would be entered for scripture exams and elocution and singing competitions organized by the church.  But I did miss out on fun.  I was never allowed to collect the prizes I won, nor receive presents on my birthdays.  We were not even allowed to play outside with other children.

I went to work in a children’s home, and, over the next three decades, mainly cared for young children who had been abused or had multiple disabilities.  As a matron for 17 years, I was used to carrying responsibility.  I saw my work as a practical expression of my Christian faith and as where God wanted me to be.  I found it challenging, fulfilling, and it was my life!  I enjoy being with people and believe I was seen as compassionate, sensitive, fair, and with a sense of humor.  I have patience and fought injustices faced by children in a responsible and professional way.  I was known for this and gained respect.  I had been brought up not to show anger as this was not Christian.  The emphasis was on loving your enemies and forgiveness.  I had to struggle with this as my role was also to care for the parents who had abused their children and I would have liked to have seen them suffer the full consequences of their actions.  I worked hard and all hours but towards the end, having given so much of myself to so many, I had little more to give and was almost burnt out.

After the death of my mother, I started to think about my future and the path I would take.  To move on, I needed further training and I was accepted on a social work course.  But I was exhausted and I found it difficult doing the course at the same time as coping with the loss of both caring for the children and my mother.  I knew I had to do it for my own satisfaction and career development: I thought of it as a chance to stand back from all the pressures, look objectively at my life and work, find out “who am I in all of this?” and move on.  However, it produced new challenges and suddenly things I would normally have handled capably provoked different responses which I could not understand.  I particularly remember becoming upset in a seminar discussion talking about child abuse.  I had spent years attending court for the most horrendous cases and caring for children who had suffered serious consequences of abuse.  I had experienced little emotion and saw it very much as part of my professional life and work.  Suddenly, the feelings were overwhelming.

Therapy was suggested by a college tutor whom I trusted.  Although I had no idea what this would involve, I agreed to consider it but made the stipulation that I work with a Christian therapist whom I hoped would understand where I was coming from and why certain aspects of belief were so important to me.  She suggested someone and after meeting together and feeling reasonably comfortable with her, we agreed to begin the journey.


I had buried so much of my past to enable me to lead a relatively happy and fulfilled life and was, certainly, not aware of anything I needed to forgive or let go.  It was only in the course of time that I became aware of how affected I was by what had happened to me.  I had no idea what therapy would entail and thought it would be a short journey, more of an excursion.  But, what started as an excursion ended up as a long haul lasting a total of five years.

To have company

I knew there would be common ground as the therapist was a Christian.  But she was not of the same denomination and I recognized we would not have exactly the same beliefs.  I didn’t know my companion and had to test the relationship and build up trust.  This was not easy for me.  I had been very independent and in control of my life and now, unusually for me, I was on the receiving, not the giving, end of being helped.  I was aware there were three of us on this journey: God, myself, and the therapist.  The therapist and I needed to be open to God and seek his guidance and help.

But my faith was also a barrier to the therapy.  I had to trust someone else other than, or as well as, God.  I felt guilty and an enormous sense of failure as a Christian that I needed to ask for help.  There was also a sense of shame, so much so that I felt unable to tell people that I was in therapy, for fear of their reaction.  The church gives out ambivalent messages about therapy.  This was highlighted in an address given by the Archbishop of Canterbury in Amsterdam (July 2000) where he said, “When therapy replaces faith and when therapeutic techniques are seen as the total answer to humanity’s deepest needs and longings, another idolatry is introduced.”  This is an example of the suspicion felt by many church representatives and it perhaps prevents a number of Christians having therapy.

I guess I was very unsure of what I was getting myself into and a little battle went on as I was testing out how skilled my therapist was and whether I could trust her.  I was determined not to use the tissues provided!  I had built up a defensive wall to protect myself and to conform to the type of person people wanted me to be.  Poor therapist!

POETRY: North, by Thomas Merton

(Based on Dr. James Laws’s Journal of the Kane Relief Expedition – 1855 – in Stefansson Collection at Dartmouth)


Morning came at last
The storm over we sighted
Quiet mountains green and
Silver Edens
Walls of an
Empty country—Near?
(We were deceived—30 miles at least)

You can tell when Sunday comes
Everything on ship-board
icebergs like Churches
Slow sailing gifts
A sailor intoned
An Anglican hymn

“One iceberg on our port bow
Resembled a lady dressed in white
Before her shrine”
(Dazzling whiteness
gemm’d with blue-green)
“In the attitude of prayer”

“As if some magician etc. . . .”


A huge berg between us
And the green shore.
“As we were gazing it grounded and the shock
caused one end of it to fall over upon the other
and both burned over. A terrible sight. Crashed like
thunder. Spray flew mast-high”

The whales came
And played around us all day.

Black parapets
Of Disko conjured
Out of cold rain
Something like a sentry box
On a tall summit

A boat shot out
Suddenly produced
From behind that rock
Came for us
With six eskimos
And Lieut Saxtroph
Of the Danish army.

Our pilot took over
Headed straight for the rock
A crack in the cliff
Ninety yards wide
Secret basin land—
Locked dark
All stone straight up
Two thousand feet
Into the rain
Not a spot of green
I inquir’d where to
Look for the town
He pointed to
Twelve cabins.

Then kayaks all around us
Offered fish for sale
You could obtain
A duck for a bisquit

“The Lieutenant had been in the wars between Denmark and
Schleswig Holstein; he spoke English very well and during
our stay at Lievly done everything in his power to make our
time pass pleasantly. He was a splendid dancer and sang
the national songs of his country with much spirit.”


We climbed to a graveyard
High on the wet rock
There bodies sleep in crevices
Covered with light earth then stones
Some were sailors from England
And America
Now asleep
In this black tower
Over Baffin’s Bay
Waiting, waiting
In endless winter.

We left them to their sleep
Ran down to meet the living girls.

“I would have given almost anything for a daguerreotype of
that room. Voices soft and clear eyes light blue or hazel.
Not one bad tooth. Their hair is all combed up to the top of
the head and twisted into a knot and tied with ribbons, red
for the unmarried, blue for the married ones. Jumper or
jacket lined with finely dressed deerskin trimmed with fur
and a band of ribbon. The most beautiful part of their dress
is the pantaloons of spotted seal, very soft, with an embroi-
dered stripe down the front which says: “ready for marriage.’”

We called for a Polka. The band
“Struck up Camptown Races we had taught them
the previous night”
Seizing our partners
We all commenced

Better dancing
I never saw at home.

“The space between the pants and boots is filled with a
legging of linen or muslin edged and lined with deerskin.
They were all scrupulously clean.”


75 N.Melville Bay
July 29.
“A conical island in a bay of ice to starboard. It is the
Sugar Loaf island of whalers. It tells that on rounding the
headland now in sight (Wilcox Point) we shall see the far
famed Devil’s Thumb the boundary of dreaded Melville Bay”

July 30.
“Toiling slowly through the leads with plenty of bear tracks
around us.”

July 31.
“A good lead opening. Towed twelve miles. The much talked of
Devil’s Thumb is now in sight. It appears to be a huge mass
of granite. . . . Here begins Melville Bay.”

Bay of ice and gales
Grave of whalers
Where “in one disastrous year the whaling fleet
Lost twenty eight sail.”

From the Devil’s Thumb northward
Vast glacier
“One of the manufactories
From whence the huge ice bergs
Are given off”

Fifty miles wide.

8 days driven to and fro
By masses of ice.
To be crushed
“All provisions on deck
Ready for a run
At a moment’s warning.”

The bark was thrown over on her beam ends
Our batteau lashed to the bulwark
Was ground to atoms
In a couple of minutes.

“All hands on the qui vive for a smash.”

(Must we go 200 miles over ice
Dragging our boats
To Upernavik?)

Finally clear of pack ice on the 13th
We stood for Cape York
Red snow on the rocks. Open water
Finally out
Of Melville Bay!


Cape Alexander.
Here K. promised to leave a Cairn
And a bottle with a clear account of his proceedings
To tell us his intended course
A small mound
A homeopathic vial containing a mosquito
Covered with cotton
A small piece of cartridge paper
With the letters “OK” written on it
As if with the point of a bullet.


78N.Cape Haterton and Etah.

Two Indians on a rock
Like an owl’s cry

“We landed and found a village of tents in a valley with
a lake of fresh water. A large glacier over the edge of
which a cataract was pouring into the lake. Grass almost
knee deep, full of flowers. Indians in dogskins and the
skins of birds collected around us and examin’d our fire-
arms with the greatest attention.”

“We soon found unmistakable signs of K’s party having been
there. Knives and cutlery bearing the mark of the Green
River works. Pewter cups and part of a microscope. Preser-
ved meat and pemmican cans, baking pans, forks, spoons,
a piece of shirt with the initials H.B., spools of cotton
marked N. York, curtain material, the top rail of a berth,
red velvet and an ivory handled carving knife. . . .”

“By signs they gave us to understand that the vessel had been
crushed in the ice. This they done by taking a clay pipe and
crushing it between their hands.”

“They pointed to a child and made signs
That K was a small man
Bald and without whiskers.”

O hairless Kane
Lost in ice
How long gone?
They do not understand
But he cured
One of their children.

They catch birds on the rocks by means of nets
Eat the birds raw
Give anything for a knife.

That ivory handled carving knife
Probably stolen.


Possession Bay

“Moonlight among the ice presents a scene that none but
those who have sail’d in Arctic regions can form any
conception of. It glances from the floe ice with a
blinding glare and gives the ice bergs the appearance of
mountains of light.

“Light streaming through a tall archway in a berg
Like scenes in the showy fairy pieces
At the theaters.”


Pond’s Bay

Rookery of loons
“Greatest sight of bird doings”

Cliffs terraced notched every projection

Wheeling over us in moon-
Light so tame
You could knock them down with an oar.


“We entered a cave at the foot of the cliff and found it
filled with young loons and gulls.”

So we shot 500 weighing 1172 lbs.


Sept 4th 1855


“Get up Dr we are rushing down on an iceberg.”

As I reached the deck
We crashed

A huge ice berg
Four times as high as the mast
Overhangs our ship
More of the same
White mass
Driven head on we
Beat against it
Bows staved in jib
Boom carried away we
Recoil swing star-
Board beam smashes
Into small end of ice-
Berg quarterboat in splinters
All bulwarks driven in
Catheads bumpkins and the rest
Swirling around angle of ice
Like a hurricane
Rush for boats driven back:
“We fired minute guns but the gale was so high the noise of
crashing ice so great the steamer could not hear us. . . .”

(The account ends here. Both expeditions reached safety.)

FORGIVENESS: The Process Of Healing, by J. Norman King

From The God of Forgiveness and Healing in the Theology of Karl Rahner

Both the forgiving grace of the mystery and the responding conversion of man occur at the center or spiritual nucleus of the person, at the deepest roots of his being.  The challenge and task of an authentic conversion is to progressively extend that core decision to every sphere and layer of one’s existence.  One must integrate more and more all that one has and all that one is into a total “yes” to that freely forgiving presence which we call God.  Indeed, the radical decision of conversion involves by its very nature the will to achieve this integration.  According to Karl Rahner, the gift of conversion is intended to draw into its sphere of influence the whole nature of man including its physical side, in order that all might be healed and sanctified.  Conversion should also leave its impact upon the whole physical and social environment.

The fundamental unifying force in this process by which man is matured is love.  Guilt is a failure and refusal to love.  It is a rejection in some fashion of the intrinsic worth of one’s neighbor which implicitly contains a betrayal of the self-giving mystery.  The reversal of this process can only be achieved through love.  This love, however, is not to be understood as a “mere sentiment,” an attitude of mind, but as a power which gradually permeates the whole reality of man in his concupiscent and hitherto sinful nature, and orients him to God.  The very process of integration constitutes the mode in which love grows and develops in the direction of fullness.

The process of integration is usually slow and painful and never complete during one’s lifetime.  In seeking to embody itself in the more outer levels of one’s person and in one’s environment, the original, central act of freedom meets with painful resistance.  It meets with concupiscence and original sin, as well as with the lingering after-effects of previous negative courses of behavior: egotism, hardness of heart, pharisaism, cowardice, and other ingrained dispositions.  These remain despite conversion or the level of integration attained within guilt.

From this point of view, God may be conceived as the infinite presence which enables and summons to this integrating task, to the purifyingly painful struggle toward a love which accepts, gathers, and gives itself fully and definitively, and which does so without falling into despair at the incompleteness and painfulness of the task.

This precisely is a fundamental facet of asceticism, “the long period of ascetical striving” to overcome “all the secret roots and impulses of his sin” which remain even though repented.  These include not only “those which simply belong to his lot, the circumstances in which man finds himself placed from birth onwards, but also those which effectively owe their existence to his own fault.”  We may simply point out here a few aspects of the task of integration, not previously mentioned, which Rahner notes in his ascetical and spiritual writings.

As a gradual struggle, never complete during one’s lifetime, this integration entails much more than associating a vague thought or pious wish with whatever a person may be doing.  Such velleities are readily divorced from a person’s real life and have little or no effect upon the actual motivation and performance of the concrete action.  Nor should a person unduly dwell upon self, attempting to analyze and dissect his or her own motivations.  Rather, says Rahner, “it is better to try to purify and refine one’s motives by looking away from oneself to things, and by letting oneself be occupied by life, others, and their needs.”  He greatly stresses the ascetical and purifying role of human life itself, both in its crucial moments, and in the humdrum of daily existence.

People should give themselves to the multiplicity of the demands, tasks, and challenges of their daily life in the world, in accordance with valid moral norms and their unique personal situation, even though they cannot seem to harmonize fully this diversity, but must bear it in hope.  They must attempt to respond to and live this “secular life” with integrity, constancy, and fidelity, and be guided and educated by the inner motivation contained within the tasks themselves.  They may be borne up on occasion by zest, interest, enthusiasm, and a sense of the value of what they are doing.  At other times, they will be tried in the crucible of aridity, boredom, weariness, and futility, through which their complexity of motives may be tested and refined.  Rahner sums up this task and relates it to the question of God in the following way.

He who responds to the world with genuine love, whose life in the world is lived joyfully, eagerly, earnestly, and bravely, with unreserved honesty, even without any explicit reference to religion, encounters in it the Cross of Christ and the inconceivability of God, if he practices the virtues of the world and suffers himself to be educated by it in joyfulness, courage, devotion to duty and love, such worldly virtues will one day open to him the innermost mystery which they contain, namely God himself. (Christian Living Formerly and Today)

At the depths of any of the virtues of life, therefore, one finds God.  God is present behind the moral responsibility inherent in the tasks of everyday life.  A person will grasp this matter more clearly, affirms Rahner, if he or she engages in solitude, silence, serious reflection, and prayer.  The blending of activity and withdrawal, of speech and silence, which we only mention here, does reflect the discovery of God both in one’s own inwardness and in the historical dimension; the discovery of God, in Christian terms, as Spirit and as incarnate Word.

Besides the realm of the everyday, Rahner draws attention to the fundamental phases of life and its critical moments, which he sees as so many forms or situations of conversion.  Puberty, marriage, entering a profession, the beginning of old age, a profound friendship, proximity to death, and the like, all provide special occasions for deepening one’s conversion or positive fundamental option and integrating it more fully into one’s life.  These are the key moments in which the underlying transcendental experience of God presses more irresistibly into one’s awareness.  Both in the ordinary and in the special moments of life, we are enabled and summoned to grow in the integration and healing process, by acting from the core of our being with a greater intensity and existential depth, and by (or better through) responding fully and appropriately to the demands of each situation.

This response to the moral demands of life is not merely a patient and passive acceptance or endurance of the circumstances, events, and trials of one’s existence.  The asceticism of today, in the service of integrative love, includes active social responsibility, “an increasingly effective responsibility of the individual within a society as such.”  One characteristic of contemporary man is the capacity to exercise a greater mastery over his natural environment and even over himself, through the remarkable developments in the natural and social sciences.  He has the opportunity, the task and the responsibility of more fully shaping his own Earthly future.  According to his or her situation and condition, each person should participate in the attempt to build a better and freer world that is more worthy of mankind, more expressive of and responsive to personal dignity, more conducive to peace, justice, and love, and more restrictive of arbitrary power and exploitation.  This is a fundamental way in which people today are called to embody their response to mystery and extend its healing power into their environment.

POETRY: Christian’s Poem, by Jorge de Lima

(Translated from the Portuguese by Dudley Poore.)

Because the blood of Christ
spurted upon my eyes
I see all things
and so profoundly that none may know.
Centuries past and yet to come
dismay me not, for I am born and shall be born again,
for I am one with all creatures,
with all beings, and with all things;
all of them I dissolve and take in again with my senses
and embrace with a mind
transfigured in Christ.
My reach is throughout space.
I am everywhere: I am in God and in matter;
I am older than time and yet was born yesterday,
I drip with primeval slime,
and at the same time I blow the last trumpet.
I understand all tongues, all acts, all signs,
I contain within me the blood of races utterly opposed.
I can dry, with a mere nod,
the weeping of all distant brothers,
I can spread over all heads one all-embracing and starry sky.
I invite all beggars to dine with me,
and I walk on the waters like the prophets of the Bible.
For me there is no darkness.
I imbue the blind with light,
I can mutilate myself and grow my limbs anew like the starfish,
because I believe in the resurrection of the flesh and because I believe in Christ,
and in the life eternal, amen.
And possessing eternal life I am able to transgress the laws of nature:
my passing is looked for in the streets,
I come and go like a prophecy,
I come unbidden like knowledge and Faith.
I am ready like the Master’s answer,
I am seamless like His garment,
I am manifold like His Church,
my arms are spread like the arms of His Cross, broken yet always restored,
at all hours, in all directions, to the four points of the compass;
and I bear His Cross on my shoulders
through all the darkness of the world, because the light eternal is in my eyes.
And having in my eyes the light eternal, I am the greatest worker of wonders:
I rise again from the mouth of tigers, I am clown, I am alpha and omega,
I am fish, lamb, eater of locusts, I am ridiculous,
I am tempted and pardoned, I am
cast down upon earth and uplifted in glory, I am clothed in mantles of purple and fine linen,
I am ignorant like Saint Christopher
and learned like Saint Thomas. And I am mad, mad,
wholly mad forever, world without end, mad with God, Amen.
And being the madness of God I am the reason in all things,
the order and the measure,
I am judgment, creation, obedience,
I am repentance, I am humility,
I am the author of the passion and death of Jesus,
I am the sin of all men,
I am nothing.
Miserere mei, Deus, secundum magnam misericordiam tuam!

MYSTICISM: The Remarkable Lack Of Edges In The Unseen World

We define ourselves by running into things.

We begin our lives by feeling hunger.  Then discomfort.  Then the shock of separation.

It’s all new.  And very quickly, it becomes who I am.

There is a cat in the house at this time – not mine, none of them are mine, but they are here nevertheless – who must have been sadly treated before he was adopted.  It has taken quite a bit of time, but he has discovered that he can actually communicate with me.

So he has begun a routine: he jumps out of the open window and walks quickly to the door, scratches on it, and waits excitedly for me to come and open it, give him a great, big, friendly welcome, and pet him a bunch.  And then he does it all over again.

And again.

We shape our thinking by smashing into facts and beliefs that leave their imprint on our minds.  I believe we spend our twenties picking out thoughts we find in our own heads that we discover really belong to our mother.  Or our father.  Or the priest who was getting old and muttered impatient insults under his breath.  Or the junior-high teacher that wrongly thought we would never understand math.

Almost everything we are comes from reacting to someone or something else.

It’s why contemplation is such a significant factor in our lives.  It’s the breath of nothing.  The complete letting go of all that we hold onto so tightly.

It’s the moving into the realm of possibilities.  Without anyone else watching or having the ability to comment on such a move.

Our difficulty in finding God in our lives comes from this difference between the seen world and the unseen world: we keep expecting something tangible to run into, to slap us across the face, to mold us.

But that is not how the unseen world works.

Instead of walking on land, feeling the bite of the rocks and the grit of the sand beneath our feet, dragging our hand across the bark as we round the tree, kicking up the water in the puddle before us, maneuvering in the unseen world is more like being in the ocean.  The currents are there, to be sure, and we can even learn to find our way just on feeling the subtle differences in the water temperature.

But it’s our responsibility to get about.  It’s no longer a process of starting and stopping all the time.  Responding to the activity that surrounds us.  Even when we are alone.

For some odd reason, recently I’ve been treated to hearing (or reading) the following knot in life: I’ve been going three steps forward, and two steps back.

Or the even darker: I’ve been going two steps forward, and three steps back.

And I see the conflict in our understanding of God in just those lines.

In a dance, we may move forward and back.  Our partner may spin us around; or, if we are the lead, then we can do the directing.

In an exercise class, we may step here and there, march up and back, step to the side, bend over.

But in God, there is only ahead.  There is only the path at our feet that leads us forward.

In God, there is no back.

There may be returns, however.

We may return to something that we experienced once before.

Or many times before.

But that’s not a going backwards.

That’s a return.

And we return in order to deepen our understanding of the event.  The person.  The place.

We are there to pull yet something new off the burgeoning Tree of Knowledge that always has something for us.

Life, whether we like it not, is always a gift.

The challenge with working with prayer is to come to an understanding of this edgeless reality.  That answers to prayers can slip in beside you silently and sit there until you get around to noticing it there.  And knowing how to work with it.

We want to apply our living standards to God.  We want to apply value judgments and critique the outcome of everything.

This isn’t what I prayed for, must be the most common prayer that God hears.

And yet, in God, it is all a gift.

A gift for which we are responsible.  To unwrap.  To understand.  To utilize.  To be grateful for.

To manipulate ourselves around in the unseen world, we must hone our ability to pay attention.  To every little thing in our lives.  Even to those things that we are accustomed to sweeping out the door.

In God, it is all a gift.

It is all our reality.

Our real reality.

Attentiveness isn’t just a spiritual practice that sounds cool when we read about it.

It’s the assumption of the role that angels have in the universe.

It’s the taking on the divine responsibilities that came with us as we entered our bodies.

If we know that we are always facing God, that God is always there before us, no matter what, would we learn to step more gently in our lives?  To progress in a less jarring manner and allow our worst nightmares to become our inspirations?

With practice, perhaps.

With hope, perhaps.

With faith, most definitely.


HEALING: Forgiveness, by Francis MacNutt

From The Prayer That Heals

“Yes, if you forgive others their failings, your Heavenly Father will forgive yours; but if you do not forgive others, your Father will not forgive  your failings either.” (Matthew 6:14-15)  Similarly, just as our Father will not forgive us, he will not heal us until we forgive those who have injured us.

Part of this is a natural spiritual law: We have all sinned and, as a sign that we believe God will forgive us out of his compassion and goodness, we must be willing to pass that forgiveness on to others and break the chain of hate that affects the whole human race.  “It is the man who is forgiven little who shows little love.” (Luke 7:47)  We cannot receive the love of Jesus, the lifeblood that circulates through us and keeps us going, unless we are willing to pass it on to others.  We need to change our hearts of stone into hearts of flesh.

The tragedy is that so many marriages and other relationships are poisoned and wounded.  A mother says something unkind to her child, “It’s too bad you are not as pretty as your sister,” and 30 years later you may still find that insult rankling in an adult woman who is unsure about herself and finds it hard to trust.  She felt betrayed by her mother, the one who was closest to her and knew her best, and the experience has affected her whole life.  Or a husband may say something cutting to his wife who retorts in kind.  Before you know it, there is a distance between them that tends to widen unless they forgive one another.  “Bear with one another; forgive each other as soon as a quarrel begins.” (Colossians 3:13)

So, a vital part of our prayer with one another is talking out any differences that we may have and expressing our feelings in a constructive way.  Then forgive one another and pray for each other for any wound you may have inflicted.  If you haven’t already discovered it, you will find that you cannot pray in any real, spontaneous way with others when you hold something against them or believe that they have something against you.

So then, if you are bringing your offering to the altar and there remember that your brother has something against you, leave your offering there before the altar, go and be reconciled to your brother first, and then come back and present your offering. (Matthew 5:23-24)

Over and over again I have seen people physically healed once they were willing to forgive someone who had hurt them!  It’s amazing how we Christians are sensitive to such sins as drunkenness and adultery, but seem so insensitive to the hatred we may be constantly nourishing in our hearts.  Usually we believe that the other person is really bad – or, at least, the person’s action is – and he or she doesn’t deserve anything but scorn and punishment.  At the moment I write this, for instance, Iran is holding 53 hostages from the United States, and everywhere I go now I see bumper stickers that insult Iran and store signs that say “Iranians not welcome,” or hear radios blaring forth a song attacking the Ayatollah and Iran.  Now, the holding of the hostages is wrong, but some Christians don’t seem to have any compunction about hating a whole group of the world’s people.  Hating at a distance may not be so dangerous, but holding grudges at home is devastating.  It not only binds up the person we hate, but it can also bind us up and make us sick.  When we hate or harbor anger, without working it out, we hurt ourselves even more than the other person.  Our hate may eventually destroy us.

More and more, doctors are discovering the role that unresolved feelings play in making us sick.  Dr. and Mrs. Carl Simonton in Getting Well Again show evidence that unresolved loss or trauma can lead to cancer’s onslaught; Dr. James Lynch in The Broken Heart gives evidence that lack of love and community increases the incidence of heart disease; and nearly everyone recognizes that tension and anger building up over a period of time can lead to certain kinds of arthritis and ulcers.

Increasingly, then, medical people and praying people are coming to the same conclusion: Sickness may be caused or aggravated by unresolved emotions, especially fear and anger.  Ultimately we need to forgive, to give up the grudges and resentments that cause adrenalin and other endocrine secretions to continuously pour into our bodily systems, when these substances were only meant to be secreted occasionally, to help us during times of emergency.  If I am afraid over a period of time, my shoulders hunch up in a fear reaction; if I am habitually afraid, I may end up in a permanent stoop and my posture will be permanently affected.

How much I need God’s help to forgive, especially my enemies!  I truly believe that holding grudges is such a natural process that only Jesus can free us.  Often I have prayed with someone who was unable to forgive and have asked Jesus to fill the person with his own understanding and love for the other party and then to pour out his forgiving love into the heart of the person who is having a hard time forgiving.  Over and over, I have seen this prayer answered with the forgiveness that Jesus won upon the cross when he cried out, “Father, forgive them; they do not know what they are doing.” (Luke 23:34)

At times, the person you cannot forgive may be yourself.  You may feel so guilty that you do not even want to be healed.  You are punishing yourself.  If this is true for you, it is important that you repent and confess any sin that has not yet been brought to the light.  (Those churches that offer sacramental confession give a wonderful opportunity for people to bring their guilt out of the dark and into the light.)

Many people can’t feel forgiven, even when they know they are forgiven.  For instance, a woman who has had an abortion may be unable to shake the feeling of guilt, even after repenting, for she knows that her child would be alive if she had not ended its life.  That death doesn’t change after repentance; something happened to that child and it cannot be changed.  When something like this happens, the following approach to prayer is often helpful.

First, have the person imagine Jesus (or the Father) with the eyes of their spirit.  (If you are praying alone, you can do this yourself.)  Try to see Jesus as clearly as possible and speak to him.  Listen to him, should he choose to speak.  Or perhaps he will shake your hand or even embrace you.  After you have welcomed Jesus in this way and are comfortable, imagine him standing by your side.  The door opens and the person with whom you need to be reconciled walked in.  Try to see the person clearly: the expression on the face, the way the hair looks, the look in the eyes.  Then, asking Jesus to help you, go up to that person and say or do whatever Jesus inspires you to do.  Often this prayer comes alive in the Spirit.  You really seem to see Jesus; he helps you by putting a true desire in your heart to be reconciled.  You may end up asking for forgiveness or the other person may ask for yours; you may end up shaking hands or embracing; you may see Jesus with his arms around both of you; you may feel a great weight of resentment being lifted, almost physically, off your shoulders.

FORGIVENESS: The Dynamics Of Processes Of Reconciliation — Three Steps, by Geiko Müller-Fahrenholz

From: Comfortable Words, John D. Koch, Jr., and Todd H. W. Brewer, ed.

Why do I introduce reconciliation here?  My observation is that forgiveness is only one step although of central importance within a wider process for which I use the term reconciliation.  I hope to be able to explain this in the following part.  What I have tried to say thus far leads me to conclude that each act of wrongdoing produces a twofold history of effect (Wirkungsgeschichte).  Simply put, on the side of the perpetrator we are bound to find a history of denial – in other words, psychic maneuvers such as rationalizations, justification, or trivializations to cover up shame and guilt.

On the side of the victims we find a history of shaming which also produces its own forms of denial.  Here we come across various forms of distrust, anxiety, and/or aggressiveness.  The longer these dual histories exist side-by-side for centuries – we observe ever-growing walls of mutual distrust that can easily lead to wars, and have done so in the past.

But sometimes there are within these antagonistic groups movements striving for change.  For them, the enmity becomes intolerable.  They are searching for peaceful solutions.  Such movements are decisive, for without them processes of reconciliation do not stand a chance.  By the way, it is important to really think of processes; for considerable time is needed to move through the necessary steps.  Provided there is enough momentum to move beyond enmity we can distinguish three steps.

The first step needs to be made by the perpetrator(s) by offering an apology to the victim(s).  Such an apology or plea for forgiveness must be serious, precise, and unambiguous.  There needs to be a clear recognition of the wrong that has been done, and of its various aspects and consequences.  And there must be a distinctive readiness to stand up to the effects of the wrong that has been done and to make amends.

Such an initiative requires considerable emotional and moral sovereignty, for it contains an element of denuding oneself.  Those who manage to acknowledge their guilt make themselves vulnerable and that requires a lot of courage.  An example of such a courageous and unambiguous acknowledgement was the speech of Richard von Weizsäcker, President of the Federal Republic of Germany, in 1985, forty years after the end of World War II.  Many representatives of nations that had suffered from that war expressed that they considered this to be an adequate and honorable apology.

Whenever apologies are general and unspecific they tend to be without success.  Worse still, they deepen the bitterness of the grieving side.  To give here an example that also comes form my German background: when in 2010 numerous cases of sexual abuse in institutions of the Roman Catholic Church found their way into the public, the bishops offered a very general apology which provoked responses of disappointment and anger by the victims.

An apology is but the first step.  To be sure, it is a crucial one because it opens up a healing process.  For the perpetrator, such a “coming out” may have some salutary effect, but it is not yet the end of the way.  The victims must do the second step.  They need to come to terms with what has been offered to them.  Will they be able to respond affirmatively to the apology?  Is it adequate, so that they can respond with the granting of forgiveness?  These are very real questions.  There can be no automatism here.  People often tend to think that to ask for forgiveness already implies the granting of it.  “But I did apologize!” they will say, thereby assuming that forgiveness must be the consequence.  To offer an apology is the beginning.  But to respond to such a plea by granting forgiveness constitutes a painful moment for the victim side.  They are forced to face what was done to them, to return, as it were, to the places of their humiliation, to move beyond their denial, to let go of their “identity” as the eternal victim.

The granting of forgiveness also signifies a high degree of emotional sovereignty.  You leave the bondage of your humiliations; you become the master of your own house.  And that is healing.

This is the mystery and wonder of forgiveness.  When and where victims forgive they do not only liberate the perpetrators from the burden of their guilt, they also liberate themselves from the burden of their own humiliation.  To forgive is to set the other free and oneself too.  (It is important for victims to work on their willingness to forgive even if the wrongdoers have no intention to ask for it.  As the South African Bishop Ruben Philip said to me, “In my heart I have forgiven the Apartheid people although they have not offered me their apology.  But I intend not to be a prisoner of the Apartheid system.  I want to be free, and at peace with myself.”)

What follows is the third step.  I call it the covenanting part of the reconciliation process.  In the traditional Christian theology of repentance this is called the satisfactio operum.  What does this imply?

It is a tragic fact that wrongs cannot be undone.  Their effects linger on.  But it is possible to soften the consequences of past wrongs, to create ways to prevent similar wrongs from happening again, to agree on practical measures, to ease the burden inflicted by the wrong, and to create cooperative projects in social, educational, political, and economic fields.  (In many cases it is not the money that makes the difference!)  To offer an example: The South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission had the mandate to facilitate the first two steps, and they did this in an exemplary manner.  Regarding the third step the TRC Commission set up a list of clear proposals and submitted it to the government.  Unfortunately, the government took years to come up with some reparations.  And this reluctance halted the healing that the TRC had begun; it frustrated the hopes of many victims and deepened their resentment.

I am not saying that reconciliation processes that successfully move through these three stages will lead to a complete forgetting of past guilt and hurt.  We can only forget what is no longer hurting.  And that may well take a lot of time.  But what we are in fact able to do is to decontaminate our memories of wrongdoing and humiliation, thereby creating confidence among the antagonistic partners and opening up areas of cooperation.  We gain a lot if we help each other to look back at our wretchedness without rage and pain and to arrive at a way of affirming our common woundedness.  There is such a thing as smiling under tears.

To bring this part to a close: By taking you through these three steps I did not end up merely repeating some mediation techniques.  I needed to show the reality of humiliations so we can be fixed in a number of ways, such as rediscover the salutary importance of forgiveness even to those of our contemporaries who do not believe in God.  I am searching – in Dietrich Bonheoffer’s terms – for a “non-religious interpretation” of such a loaded theological concept as forgiveness.  My hope is that by looking at the massive impact of humiliation this may be more effectively achieved.

PRAYER: Daily Healing Prayer

From Prayer Course for Healing Life’s Hurts, by Matthew Linn, Dennis Linn, and Sheila Fabricant

Each day choose one of the following healing or contemplation-in-action prayers and pray it for at least 10 minutes.  These prayers are only suggestions.  Perhaps you will find yourself drawn to pray what is in your heart using varied breathing, a symbol, a repeated word, a melody, a gesture, a drawing, or a piece of clay which you can mold.  Although there are many prayers suggested, it would be best to pray only a few of them, parts of them, or to repeat from this or any other chapter the prayer that most moved your heart.  Use whatever way you can best give your heart to Jesus and enter into his heart.  Perhaps your prayer will be as simple as looking at a beautiful flower and taking in God’s love for you.  You may wish to begin your prayer by centering yourself.

1.  Healing Through Receiving God’s Love

(Tape prayer.)

a.  Prayerfully read Isaiah 49:14-17:

I will never forget you, my people.  I have carved you in the palm of my hand.  I will not leave you orphaned.  I will never forget my own.

b.  Place your left hand in the palm of your right hand.
c.  Be attentive to any tenseness in your right hand or left arm.  Move your hand or arm until your
left hand is resting in the palm of your right hand.  Readjust your right hand until it holds the
left hand securely.
d.  Let your right hand be the hand of the Father who will never forget you.  Feel the strength and
sureness of that Father’s hand and enjoy how good it feels to rest in the palm of his hand.
e.  Then take a deep breath and ask the Father to bring to mind one moment when you felt
especially loved by him, especially held in the palm of his hand.  Perhaps it was a moment
when you received physical or emotional healing, or a moment of solitude or forgiveness
when you felt loved by him.  Perhaps it was the time of your marriage, first child, or other joyful
f.  Enjoy that moment with him and once again give thanks as you rest in his love.

2.  Embrace Prayer

See Jesus standing before you, or seated in a rocking chair.  See him open his arms and invite you to him.  Go to him, letting him hold you and perhaps rock you in the chair.  Feel his arms around you and let yourself be loved as if you were a small child in its father’s arms.  (You may want to pray in a similar way with the Father or with Mary as your mother).

3.  Prayer for Receiving the Grace of This Lesson

Ask Jesus to give you his ability to receive love from the Father.  Breathe it in with every breath and breathe out all the blocks in yourself to letting the Father love you.  (You may wish to pray this prayer with Mary instead of Jesus.)

4.  Period Prayer

Recall a specific period of your life (in childhood, adolescence, or adulthood) or a period of life when you felt least loved.

a.  Within a circle, write the names of ten people through whom God loved you and called you to
grow during this period.  Draw a small circle around each of these names.
b.  Within the circle, write ten events through which God loved you and called you to grow during
this period.  Draw a small rectangle around each of these events.
c.  Spend time in prayer thanking God for each way he loved you during this time.

5.  Sun Prayer

Jesus is the light of the world.  Soak yourself in the sun, letting it fill you with Jesus’s love.  Breathe in Jesus’s love and breathe out your thanks.

6.  Body Gratitude Prayer

a.  Focus your attention on each part of your body, beginning with your forehead and gradually
moving down to your toes.  As you focus on each part, be aware of how the surface of that
part feels, perhaps even tensing it and then relaxing it.
b.  When you have become fully aware of a given part, thank God for it.
c.  In gratitude for the ways in which it serves you, make the sign of the cross on each part of your
body as a way of consecrating it to serve God.

7.  Hand Prayer

a.  Take the hand of another person, or imagine yourself holding another’s hand.
b.  Now let the hand you are holding become the hand of the person who has loved you the most,
the person with whom you have had the most good times.
c.  Thank Jesus for all that this person has been for you.
d.  This person’s hand is the hand that has been most like Jesus’s hand in your life.  Because Jesus
was with your friend, your friend was able to forgive you, to heal you, to perhaps even be
willing to lay down his or her life for you.  Let that hand gradually become the hand of Jesus.
e.  Thank Jesus for all that he has been for you through your friend.

8.  Sleep Prayer

a.  Skim over the events of the day and give thanks for the events that you are most grateful for.
b.  Breathe out into Jesus’s healing hands the event for which you are least grateful.
c.  When the event for which you are least grateful is in Jesus’s hands, fall asleep saying, “Thank
you, Jesus.”

9.  Recall

Recall a moment when you felt deeply loved.  Recall the beauty that you felt within yourself and the sense of your own goodness.  Re-experience that moment, thanking God for revealing to you then the wonderful person that he sees when he looks at you.

10.  Read

Prayerfully read Psalm 139:13-16:

For You formed my inward parts;
You covered me in my mother’s womb.
I will praise You, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made;
Marvelous are Your works,
And that my soul knows very well.
My frame was not hidden from You,
When I was made in secret,
And skillfully wrought in the lowest parts of the earth.
Your eyes saw my substance, being yet unformed.
And in Your book they all were written,
The days fashioned for me,
When as yet there were none of them.

Imagine that you are with the Father just after he has created you and is about to send you forth to be born into this world.  Imagine that he tells you the special kind of person that he has made you to be, and all that he wants you to do in this world.  Hear him say your name over and over with the greatest love.  Thank him for the miracle of yourself.

11.  Find

Find a created object which you especially love, and which speaks to you of God’s goodness and the beauty of his creation (e.g., a plant, tree, cloud, lake, shell, etc.).  Let it speak to you of his goodness and give thanks to him for all that you hear.

SERMON: Father Mapple’s Sermon On Jonah, by Herman Melville

From Moby-Dick

Father Mapple rose, and in a mild voice of unassuming authority ordered the scattered people to condense. “Star board gangway, there! side away to larboard – larboard gangway to starboard! Midships! midships!”

There was a low rumbling of heavy sea-boots among the benches, and a still slighter shuffling of women’s shoes, and all was quiet again, and every eye on the preacher.

He paused a little; then kneeling in the pulpit’s bows, folded his large brown hands across his chest, uplifted his closed eyes, and offered a prayer so deeply devout that he seemed kneeling and praying at the bottom of the sea.

This ended, in prolonged solemn tones, like the continual tolling of a bell in a ship that is foundering at sea in a fog – in such tones he commenced reading the following hymn; but changing his manner towards the concluding stanzas, burst forth with a pealing exultation and joy—

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 deepening down to 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.

Nearly all joined in singing this hymn, which swelled high above the howling of the storm. A brief pause ensued; the preacher slowly turned over the leaves of the Bible, and at last, folding his hand down upon the proper page, said: “Beloved shipmates, clinch the last verse of the first chapter of Jonah – ‘And God had prepared a great fish to swallow up Jonah.’”

“Shipmates, this book, containing only four chapters – four yarns – is one of the smallest strands in the mighty cable of the Scriptures. Yet what depths of the soul Jonah’s deep sealine sound! What a pregnant lesson to us is this prophet! What a noble thing is that canticle in the fish’s belly! How billow-like and boisterously grand! We feel the floods surging over us, we sound with him to the kelpy bottom of the waters; sea-weed and all the slime of the sea is about us! But what is this lesson that the book of Jonah teaches? Shipmates, it is a two-stranded lesson; a lesson to us all as sinful men, and a lesson to me as a pilot of the living God. As sinful men, it is a lesson to us all, because it is a story of the sin, hard-heartedness, suddenly awakened fears, the swift punishment, repentance, prayers, and finally the deliverance and joy of Jonah. As with all sinners among men, the sin of this son of Amittai was in his willful disobedience of the command of God – never mind now what that command was, or how conveyed – which he found a hard command. But all the things that God would have us do are hard for us to do- remember that- and hence, he oftener commands us than endeavors to persuade. And if we obey God, we must disobey ourselves; and it is in this disobeying ourselves, wherein the hardness of obeying God consists.

“With this sin of disobedience in him, Jonah still further flouts at God, by seeking to flee from Him. He thinks that a ship made by men, will carry him into countries where God does not reign but only the Captains of this earth. He skulks about the wharves of Joppa, and seeks a ship that’s bound for Tarshish. There lurks, perhaps, a hitherto unheeded meaning here. By all accounts Tarshish could have been no other city than the modern Cadiz. That’s the opinion of learned men. And where is Cadiz, shipmates? Cadiz is in Spain; as far by water, from Joppa, as Jonah could possibly have sailed in those ancient days, when the Atlantic was an almost unknown sea. Because Joppa, the modern Jaffa, shipmates, is on the most easterly coast of the Mediterranean, the Syrian; and Tarshish or Cadiz more than two thousand miles to the westward from that, just outside the Straits of Gibraltar. See ye not then, shipmates, that Jonah sought to flee worldwide from God? Miserable man! Oh! most contemptible and worthy of all scorn; with slouched hat and guilty eye, skulking from his God; prowling among the shipping like a vile burglar hastening to cross the seas. So disordered, self-condemning in his look, that had there been policemen in those days, Jonah, on the mere suspicion of something wrong, had been arrested ere he touched a deck. How plainly he’s a fugitive! no baggage, not a hat-box, valise, or carpet-bag, – no friends accompany him to the wharf with their adieux. At last, after much dodging search, he finds the Tarshish ship receiving the last items of her cargo; and as he steps on board to see its Captain in the cabin, all the sailors for the moment desist from hoisting in the goods, to mark the stranger’s evil eye. Jonah sees this; but in vain he tries to look all ease and confidence; in vain essays his wretched smile. Strong intuitions of the man assure the mariners he can be no innocent. In their gamesome but still serious way, one whispers to the other – “Jack, he’s robbed a widow;” or, “Joe, do you mark him; he’s a bigamist;” or, “Harry lad, I guess he’s the adulterer that broke jail in old Gomorrah, or belike, one of the missing murderers from Sodom.” Another runs to read the bill that’s stuck against the spile upon the wharf to which the ship is moored, offering five hundred gold coins for the apprenhension of a parricide, and containing a description of his person. He reads, and looks from Jonah to the bill; while all his sympathetic shipmates now crowd round Jonah, prepared to lay their hands upon him. Frightened Jonah trembles. and summoning all his boldness to his face, only looks so much the more a coward. He will not confess himself suspected; but that itself is strong suspicion. So he makes the best of it; and when the sailors find him not to be the man that is advertised, they let him pass, and he descends into the cabin.

”’Who’s there?’ cries the Captain at his busy desk, hurriedly making out his papers for the Customs  –‘Who’s there?’ Oh! how that harmless question mangles Jonah! For the instant he almost turns to flee again. But he rallies. ‘I seek a passage in this ship to Tarshish; how soon sail ye, sir?’ Thus far the busy Captain had not looked up to Jonah, though the man now stands before him; but no sooner does he hear that hollow voice, than he darts a scrutinizing glance. ‘We sail with the next coming tide,’ at last he slowly answered, still intently eyeing him. ‘No sooner, sir?’ – ‘Soon enough for any honest man that goes a passenger.’ Ha! Jonah, that’s another stab. But he swiftly calls away the Captain from that scent. ‘I’ll sail with ye,’ – he says, –  ‘the passage money how much is that? – I’ll pay now.’ For it is particularly written, shipmates, as if it were a thing not to be overlooked in this history, ‘that he paid the fare thereof’ ere the craft did sail. And taken with the context, this is full of meaning.

“Now Jonah’s Captain, shipmates, was one whose discernment detects crime in any, but whose cupidity exposes it only in the penniless. In this world, shipmates, sin that pays its way can travel freely and without a passport; whereas Virtue, if a pauper, is stopped at all frontiers. So Jonah’s Captain prepares to test the length of Jonah’s purse, ere he judge him openly. He charges him thrice the usual sum; and it’s assented to. Then the Captain knows that Jonah is a fugitive; but at the same time resolves to help a flight that paves its rear with gold. Yet when Jonah fairly takes out his purse, prudent suspicions still molest the Captain. He rings every coin to find a counterfeit. Not a forger, anyway, he mutters; and Jonah is put down for his passage. ‘Point out my state-room, Sir,’ says Jonah now, ‘I’m travel-weary; I need sleep.’ ‘Thou lookest like it,’ says the Captain, ‘there’s thy room.’ Jonah enters, and would lock the door, but the lock contains no key. Hearing him foolishly fumbling there, the Captain laughs lowly to himself, and mutters something about the doors of convicts’ cells being never allowed to be locked within. All dressed and dusty as he is, Jonah throws himself into his berth, and finds the little stateroom ceiling almost resting on his forehead. The air is close, and Jonah gasps. Then, in that contracted hole, sunk, too, beneath the ship’s waterline, Jonah feels the heralding presentiment of that stifling hour, when the whale shall hold him in the smallest of his bowels’ wards.

“Screwed at its axis against the side, a swinging lamp slightly oscillates in Jonah’s room; and the ship, heeling over towards the wharf with the weight of the last bales received, the lamp, flame and all, though in slight motion, still maintains a permanent obliquity with reference to the room; though, in truth, infallibly straight itself, it but made obvious the false, lying levels among which it hung. The lamp alarms and frightens Jonah; as lying in his berth his tormented eyes roll round the place, and this thus far successful fugitive finds no refuge for his restless glance. But that contradiction in the lamp more and more appalls him. The floor, the ceiling, and the side, are all awry. ‘Oh! so my conscience hangs in me!’ he groans, ‘straight upwards, so it burns; but the chambers of my soul are all in crookedness!’

“Like one who after a night of drunken revelry hies to his bed, still reeling, but with conscience yet pricking him, as the plungings of the Roman racehorse but so much the more strike his steel tags into him; as one who in that miserable plight still turns and turns in giddy anguish, praying God for annihilation until the fit be passed; and at last amid the whirl of woe he feels, a deep stupor steals over him, as over the man who bleeds to death, for conscience is the wound, and there’s naught to staunch it; so, after sore wrestling in his berth, Jonah’s prodigy of ponderous misery drags him drowning down to sleep.

“And now the time of tide has come; the ship casts off her cables; and from the deserted wharf the uncheered ship for Tarshish, all careening, glides to sea. That ship, my friends, was the first of recorded smugglers! The contraband was Jonah. But the sea rebels; he will not bare the wicked burden. A dreadful storm comes on, the ship is like to break. But now when the boatswain calls all hands to lighten her; when boxes, bales, and jars are clattering overboard; when the wind is shrieking, and the men are yelling, and every plank thunders with trampling feet right over Jonah’s head; in all this raging tumult, Jonah sleeps his hideous sleep. He sees no black sky and raging sea, feels not the reeling timbers, and little hears he or heeds he the far rush of the mighty whale, which even now with open mouth is cleaving the seas after him. Aye, shipmates, Jonah was gone down into the sides of the ship – a berth in the cabin as I have taken it, and was fast asleep. But the frightened master comes to him, and shrieks in his dead ear, ‘What meanest thou, O, sleeper! arise!’ Startled from his lethargy by that direful cry, Jonah staggers to his feet, and stumbling to the deck, grasps a shroud, to look out upon the sea. But at that moment he is sprung upon by a panther billow leaping over the bulwarks. Wave after wave thus leaps into the ship, and finding no speedy vent runs roaring fore and aft, till the mariners come nigh to drowning while yet afloat. And ever, as the white moon shows her affrighted face from the steep gullies in the blackness overhead, aghast Jonah sees the rearing bowsprit pointing high upward, but soon beat downward again towards the tormented deep.

“Terrors upon terrors run shouting through his soul. In all his cringing attitudes, the God-fugitive is now too plainly known. The sailors mark him; more and more certain grow their suspicions of him, and at last, fully to test the truth, by referring the whole matter to high Heaven, they all-outward to casting lots, to see for whose cause this great tempest was upon them. The lot is Jonah’s; that discovered, then how furiously they mob him with their questions. ‘What is thine occupation? Whence comest thou? Thy country? What people? But mark now, my shipmates, the behavior of poor Jonah. The eager mariners but ask him who he is, and where from; whereas, they not only receive an answer to those questions, but likewise another answer to a question not put by them, but the unsolicited answer is forced from Jonah by the hard hand of God that is upon him.

“‘I am a Hebrew,’ he cries – and then – ‘I fear the Lord the God of Heaven who hath made the sea and the dry land!’ Fear him, O Jonah? Aye, well mightest thou fear the Lord God then! Straightway, he now goes on to make a full confession; whereupon the mariners became more and more appalled, but still are pitiful. For when Jonah, not yet supplicating God for mercy, since he but too well knew the darkness of his deserts, – when wretched Jonah cries out to them to take him and cast him forth into the sea, for he knew that for his sake this great tempest was upon them; they mercifully turn from him, and seek by other means to save the ship. But all in vain; the indignant gale howls louder; then, with one hand raised invokingly to God, with the other they not unreluctantly lay hold of Jonah.

“And now behold Jonah taken up as an anchor and dropped into the sea; when instantly an oily calmness floats out from the east, and the sea is as Jonah carries down the gale with him, leaving smooth water behind. He goes down in the whirling heart of such a masterless commotion that he scarce heeds the moment when he drops seething into the yawning jaws awaiting him; and the whale shoots-to all his ivory teeth, like so many white bolts, upon his prison. Then Jonah prayed unto the Lord out of the fish’s belly. But observe his prayer, and learn a weighty lesson. For sinful as he is, Jonah does not weep and wail for direct deliverance. He feels that his dreadful punishment is just. He leaves all his deliverance to God, contenting himself with this, that spite of all his pains and pangs, he will still look towards His holy temple. And here, shipmates, is true and faithful repentance; not clamorous for pardon, but grateful for punishment. And how pleasing to God was this conduct in Jonah, is shown in the eventual deliverance of him from the sea and the whale. Shipmates, I do not place Jonah before you to be copied for his sin but I do place him before you as a model for repentance. Sin not; but if you do, take heed to repent of it like Jonah.”

While he was speaking these words, the howling of the shrieking, slanting storm without seemed to add new power to the preacher, who, when describing Jonah’s sea-storm, seemed tossed by a storm himself. His deep chest heaved as with a groundswell; his tossed arms seemed the warring elements at work; and the thunders that rolled away from off his swarthy brow, and the light leaping from his eye, made all his simple hearers look on him with a quick fear that was strange to them.

There now came a lull in his look, as he silently turned over the leaves of the Book once more; and, at last, standing motionless, with closed eyes, for the moment, seemed communing with God and himself.

But again he leaned over towards the people, and bowing his head lowly, with an aspect of the deepest yet manliest humility, he spake these words:

“Shipmates, God has laid but one hand upon you; both his hands press upon me. I have read ye by what murky light may be mine the lesson that Jonah teaches to all sinners; and therefore to ye, and still more to me, for I am a greater sinner than ye. And now how gladly would I come down from this masthead and sit on the hatches there where you sit, and listen as you listen, while some one of you reads me that other and more awful lesson which Jonah teaches to me, as a pilot of the living God. How being an anointed pilot-prophet, or speaker of true things and bidden by the Lord to sound those unwelcome truths in the ears of a wicked Nineveh, Jonah, appalled at the hostility he should raise, fled from his mission, and sought to escape his duty and his God by taking ship at Joppa. But God is everywhere; Tarshish he never reached. As we have seen, God came upon him in the whale, and swallowed him down to living gulfs of doom, and with swift slantings tore him along ‘into the midst of the seas,’ where the eddying depths sucked him ten thousand fathoms down, and ‘the weeds were wrapped about his head,’ and all the watery world of woe bowled over him. Yet even then beyond the reach of any plummet – ‘out of the belly of hell’ – when the whale grounded upon the ocean’s utmost bones, even then, God heard the engulphed, repenting prophet when he cried. Then God spake unto the fish; and from the shuddering cold and blackness of the sea, the whale came breeching up towards the warm and pleasant sun, and all the delights of air and earth; and ‘vomited out Jonah upon the dry land;’ when the word of the Lord came a second time; and Jonah, bruised and beaten – his ears, like two sea-shells, still multitudinously murmuring of the ocean – Jonah did the Almighty’s bidding. And what was that, shipmates? To preach the Truth to the face of Falsehood! That was it!

“This, shipmates, this is that other lesson; and woe to that pilot of the living God who slights it. Woe to him whom this world charms from Gospel duty! Woe to him who seeks to pour oil upon the waters when God has brewed them into a gale! Woe to him who seeks to please rather than to appall! Woe to him whose good name is more to him than goodness! Woe to him who, in this world, courts not dishonor! Woe to him who would not be true, even though to be false were salvation! Yea, woe to him who as the great Pilot Paul has it, while preaching to others is himself a castaway!

He drooped and fell away from himself for a moment; then lifting his face to them again, showed a deep joy in his eyes, as he cried out with a heavenly enthusiasm, – “But oh! shipmates! on the starboard hand of every woe, there is a sure delight; and higher the top of that delight, than the bottom of the woe is deep. Is not the main-truck higher than the kelson is low? Delight is to him – a far, far upward, and inward delight – who against the proud gods and commodores of this earth, ever stands forth his own inexorable self. Delight is to him whose strong arms yet support him, when the ship of this base treacherous world has gone down beneath him. Delight is to him, who gives no quarter in the truth, and kills, burns, and destroys all sin though he pluck it out from under the robes of Senators and Judges. Delight, – top-gallant delight is to him, who acknowledges no law or lord, but the Lord his God, and is only a patriot to heaven. Delight is to him, whom all the waves of the billows of the seas of the boisterous mob can never shake from this sure Keel of the Ages. And eternal delight and deliciousness will be his, who coming to lay him down, can say with his final breath – O Father!- chiefly known to me by Thy rod – mortal or immortal, here I die. I have striven to be Thine, more than to be this world’s, or mine own. Yet this is nothing: I leave eternity to Thee; for what is man that he should live out the lifetime of his God?”

He said no more, but slowly waving a benediction, covered his face with his hands, and so remained kneeling, till all the people had departed, and he was left alone in the place.

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?