With all the ridiculous self-serving shock over Stephen Colbert’s appearance at Congress, I think it’s time to pull the focus to a moment the media and our politicians, bless their self-righteous and pretentious hearts, seem to overlook in their coverage:
“What is the first thing you think about in the morning?”
I spend the majority of my waking professional day asking questions. As a teacher with a curriculum geared toward literary analysis, this seems to be my natural state of communication. Questions such as “What does the narrator mean when he says x?” Or, “Why does the poem emphasize this particular image?” come trippingly off my tongue during a school day. I love asking difficult questions which challenge my students’ perceptions, and to see them squirm in their chairs and furrow their brows (their “brains wrinkling” as I have described it before).
But what happens when the tables are turned?
This usually occurs during the weekend, when, after grading (or often before), I allow my mind to wander freely over anything that catches my interest.
Lately, I have dived, once again, into an exploration of Christian monasticism, particularly the practices of the Cistercians and the Carthusians (sample reading: The Infinity of Little Hours by Nancy Maguire, The Cistercian World: Monastic Writings of the 12th Century, and The Love of Learning and the Desire for God: A Study of Monastic Culture.). Reasons for this wading into monastic waters include my own desire for simplicity and solitude, and the attempt to find common ground, and balance, with the contemporary dialogue of the Church, and the gathering of wisdom from its past.
Lectio Divina is one of the practices of the Benedictines, often described as a slow, careful, meditative reading of Scripture. Readers immerse themselves in the Word, not for “answers,” but for the experience of the Word in their lives, at that particular moment in time. The reader reads until a verse or word catches her attention, and then the reader repeats the verse or word almost as a mantra, to let the passage sink in and allow the Word to reveal itself in her heart.
A spiritual practice which butts heads with my answer to the question posed at the beginning of this blog entry.
Coffee. That’s the first thing I think about.
Not God. Not my faith. Not thankfulness to God for Him or my faith.
Coffee elicits the direct opposite state of mind that lectio encourages.
You want to do stuff.
And more stuff.
Any print material I come across, I analyze to pieces.
Because that energy needs to GO somewhere.
It can’t just BE.
Which is what lectio demands: that you be on God’s time, not your own, and certainly not on the accelerated bouncing off the walls conception of time that our venti double-espresso culture values so highly.
So I love reading- intensely reading- about monasticism, yet when it comes to the practices of monasticism, such as lectio divina, I come up woefully short in my caffeinated state.
And short as in I’m not taking the time to let the fullness of Scripture tell its tale. The words become jumbled together and meaningless. Not always, but enough to make it an issue.
I have a feeling I know what I need to give up for Lent.
This is not exactly going to be fun.
But necessary nonetheless.
To call this new campaign by the religious right misguided is an understatement. Below you’ll find a newsclip focusing on the religious right’s (mis)use of Psalm 109:8. The video which follows is a well-articulated rebuttal to such fear-based violence from a monk at All Saints Monastery. May we begin, as Christians, to spread the message of God’s love once again.
I have a rigid interior clock that does not usually deviate from its rhythm. Therefore, when I found myself wide awake at 6 this morning, it gave me pause. Seriously, I get up at 7:03 every day. That’s right: 7:03. Why my body has started to register minutes as opposed to “oh, the sun’s up. let’s rise, shall we?” is beyond me, and if I start thinking about it too much, I’ll probably come to the conclusion that my body somehow knows it has less time on this earth than I think, and then I’ll REALLY start freaking out. Oops. Too late.
I felt a bit of grace through this early rising, however: like I was being given a chance to take some time to quiet a mind that’s been rather stressed the past few weeks. So I went out to our library room and meditated for a bit, watching the sun slowly start to rise, turning the sky from a hazy azure to pink, then orange. I picked up my Bible and prepared to settle my mind further in lectio divina, or meditated reading. It’s a slow, rhythmical reading of Scripture where you allow the words to just unfold within you, and when a word or a phrase catches your attention, you take time to dwell on it, to meditate on its application to your life in that moment, in that place.
The Psalms are a great for this, because the Psalmists run the whole gamut of human emotion, from anger to fear to hatred to love to joy to praise to despair to pride to humility. It’s all there. Many people are turned off by the Psalms because of this. This is supposed to be the “word of God?” All this hatred and violence? What gives? But the Psalms show this relationship between God and man where man has a voice as well, and aren’t there times when all of us feel hatred and joy, love and despair- sometimes even in prayer? But I digress…
I read Psalm 124, one of David’s “songs of ascents.” Part of the Psalm reads:
Praise be to the Lord,
who has not let us be torn by their teeth.
We have escaped like a bird
out of the fowler’s snare;
the snare has been broken,
and we have escaped.
When I read this, an image began forming in my mind of that bird in the snare. I sensed the panic, its heart racing, the recognition, instinctively, that this hindrance to flight was very very very wrong. The panic increases when all attempts to escape just seem to trap it even more. Remaining still is not an option, that way lies open only to death.
Then I began to think about what happens when someone tries to help the bird. All too often, the bird struggles even more.
I began to think of what a snare is meant to do: it’s such a simple device that causes so much pain and hurt. The reason? It lets its victim work with it. It depends on the struggling of its victim to achieve its end result, which is often quite gruesome. Here’s a description by Rosemary Groom, from her blog at Wildlife Direct:
Snares are hard to find and thus hard to control. Snares are wasteful – poachers often set them and then fail to check them, resulting in the death of animals which end up just rotting in the bush. Finally, snares are inhumane. Animals are caught in snares when they put their head, or a limb through the wire noose, which then pulls tight as the animal attempts to escape. The animal then dies through asphyxiation or through dehydration. In many cases, animals manage to break the snares, leaving them to walk around with a cutting ligature on a limb, or dragging a broken branch to which the snare was attached.
A lion caught in a snare – an unnecessary waste
Even when the snare is broken, it can still cause pain if the animal carries it around, or can’t get completely free.
So why did my eyes open a little wider pondering all this? For one, it seemed as if the Psalmist was recognizing the pain when he writes “the snare was broken.” For some of us, spiritually, this can be a painful process. We panic, we struggle- even when someone is trying to help us. The struggle may even occur after we have escaped- the memory of a painful event can stick with us, sometimes overwhelming us again, until it seems like we are right back in the heart of the snare.
“And we have escaped” reads like a sigh of relief. One can imagine the bird spreading its wings, finding use for them again, in essence realizing once again, instinctively, that it can do what it was meant to do, and be who it was meant to be.
I pray the Lord releases us each and every day, that we may truly be who we are meant to be, in His eyes.
This story may not be just as the Lord told it, and yet may contain in its mirror as much of the truth as we are able to receive, and as will afford us scope for a life’s discovery. The modifying influence of the human channels may be essential to God’s revealing mode.
It was one of those nights last night when I wasn’t exactly in the mood for a three hour theological debate, but it happened anyway. A good friend of mine and I had a bit of an argument that opened up some old wounds. In the midst of coming to peace with that, we got on a tangent on how our respective views of the world color our thinking. It’s no secret to my friend that I am a Christian, and in his frustration, he said, pointing to my Bible, “Doesn’t it bother you that none of it is even true. That it’s all just stories someone made up?”
Oh, boy. Now this is where my problem of reading more than conversing comes into play. I hear these words “true” and “stories,” and immediately my mind is abuzz with articles, essays, books, and podcasts that I’ve absorbed on these two words. I try valiantly to remember my reflections on those essays in which I put those articles, etc. into my spiritual context as a Christian. Merton, Bell, Norris, Aquinas, Feiler, Underhill, the conflicting doctrines of Protestantism, Orthodoxy, and Catholicism, the Cloud of Unknowing- all dancing in my head as I face the increasingly annoyed and aggravated gaze of my friend.
Did I tell you that at this point it was 1 AM? It was 1 AM.
So my mind wasn’t exactly primed and prepped for this discussion, and of course I fell flat on my face. We ended up having a rather garbled interchange on the nature of truth and the need for comforting fictions to keep us in line- ah, can hardly remember, really. I do remember at one point admitting, “Look, I just don’t know. But I’m convinced it is worth it. There’s something there. I just don’t know what.” Yeah, put that in your theological pipe and smoke it.
So this quote of George MacDonald resonates with me. It probably got him into a bit of trouble- there’s always the literalists out there, and they usually have the loudest voices, ready to defend “The Book.” But he’s admitting something terribly important to our faith as Christians. “[Scripture] will afford us scope for a life’s discovery.” In other words, it’s enough for what it can impart- words that describe the nearly indescribable. We don’t bow down to it, we don’t worship it, but it is a text that tries to convey the unfathomable mystery of God.
Kathleen Norris, in her book Amazing Grace, continues this thought:
It is a mystery, a matter of faith in something that can’t be explained or understood, at least not in our conditional human speech. Silence is the best language for it- “the silence of eternity interpreted by love” (quote by Whittier). She later goes on describe how Christians can say “yes,” about what they believe: “Answered in the spirit of hope, not that other people of faith will come around and see things my way, but in the conviction that the incarnation of Jesus is powerful enough to live up to its name and will work to the good of all people despite all our groaning, quibbling, and squabbling over terminology.”
It’s not really about the Bible, ultimately, but what happens when that follower of Jesus lifts their eyes from the page and looks out at the world. Are they able to see and hear the word of God in their interactions with their neighbors and enemies, in the soft breeze that gently flows by them, in the darkness of a night lit by only one lamp, with a frustrated friend sitting on the couch? Are we ready for discovery through human channels? Are we open to the experience of word?
Here there is no room for ambition. Ambition is the desire to be above one’s neighbor; and here there is no possibility of comparison with one’s neighbor: no one knows what the white stone contains except the man who receives it… Relative worth is not only unknown- to the children of the Kingdom it is unknowable.
A note of context before we begin: the “white stone” that MacDonald refers to alludes to Revelation 2:17 (“He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches. To him who conquers I will give some of the hidden manna, and I will give him a white stone, with a new name written on the stone which no one knows except him who receives it.”) MacDonald notes that each of us gets a “white stone” from God, that expresses, in Him, our deepest identity and meaning.
We like ambition in the United States. We need ambition now- the drive to get this country moving again, to recover what’s been lost- sense of unity and hope. But it’s necessary to define the first word in this reflection: “Here.”
What “here,” is MacDonald talking about? When ambition is “the desire to be above one’s neighbor,” it is an ambition based on the Self. What “I” want, what “I” deserve. Therefore, the “here” that MacDonald speaks of , which has “no room for ambition” must be a place of Non-Self, or a focus to where the Self is not the Center. This is a “here” in the presence of God. There is no measure, no “relative worth,” for, as Jack Kerouac once said, “All is precious and holy.”
This is why when Jesus was approached by the mother of the sons of Zebedee, who wanted her two sons to sit at the right and left of Christ in Heaven, he said “You do not know what you are asking.” Later in the passage he spoke to the other disciples: “You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great men exercise authority over them. It shall not be so among you; but whoever would be great among you must be your servant, and whoever would be first among you must be your slave, even as the Son of man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.” (Mt. 20: 25-29)
Those who long to be close to God must first let go of the desire to be first among others. There is no hierarchy of Love with God. It encompasses all completely and fully. To desire to have more of the Love than another corrupts that Love, and makes it unattainable.
As a Christian, the fundamentalism of some who practice the faith deeply disturbs me. It disrupts the spirit of embracing “The Other” that Christ so adamately demanded of those who would follow Him. I stumbled upon this clip while perusing through Youtube, and find a rational, balanced, faith-driven assessment of the faults of fundamentalism, particulary as it relates to holy scripture:
Beautiful, right? It’s not a picture I took myself- this is simply included with the “sample pictures” folder that came with Vista. Ever since my school has upgraded their technology (overhead projectors, plugins, etc.), I have been using Powerpoint to present notes from my own computer, and this is the picture my students most often see before we commence with the lesson of the day. It’s inspired some conversation, most notably “What’s down the path?” I find it a great source for teaching imaginative/descriptive writing.
Opening up my laptop this morning, with the familiar photo of dirt path, tall trees, and mist before me, I began contemplating, “Am I really walking down the Path set before me? Or am I simply content talking about walking down the Path?” The image is so beautiful from where I stand, at the start of my journey- why bother going into the mist? Into the unknown? Into the unfamiliar? What if it not so beautiful later on? What is out there? Or, if I am walking, are my eyes closed? Focused on the ground?
I think I’ve been lingering too long at the head of the pass, or else not really seeing what is on the path, but instead trudging along blindly, and every once in a while determining where I am by a smudged map written by others.
I am a Christian, and by the tenets of my faith I am charged with “taking up my cross and following Christ,” but lately doubts, distractions, laziness, and confusion have taken hold of me. I came back to the faith three years ago (has it been that long already?), no longer doubting God’s presence in the world, or doubting the sanctifying blood of Christ, but still wary of how Christ was presented to others, and deeply embarrassed and put off by the particular vitriol of the American Christian evangelistic tradition, an approach to “presenting the love of Christ” that seemed arrogant, demeaning, demanding, and hurtful.
But I had a “God moment” as some might title it, (and others deride as naive and delusional- fine- I’m not really concerned in this post about “proving” or “disproving,” everything simply slams up against the wall of Faith anyway), and found this incredible need to explore my new found faith, which effectively dismantled all previous assertions made when I was “born again” in my teens, and assumptions and expectations of the happily “born against” person I had become in my twenties. I discovered the strong tradition and path of monasticism.
Monastic spirituality removed all the hype and pretense of the evangelic tradition of which a majority of my Christian knowledge consisted. Many Protestants may be able to attest to this. Anything that happened before the Reformation and after “Scripture” (re: Christ) is deemed null and void theologically. Christianity went wrong, the Reformation put it right, and all truth comes from the Bible, and that’s it. So I was never really exposed to the early church’s history, even from the intellectually vigorous pulpit of Park Street Church in Boston where I was raised. Or, to be more honest, I never chose to investigate the early history of my faith. When I did, however, in my early thirties, I came across a whole new spectrum and expression of the Christian faith, one that started with St. Antony in the year 300 and went all the way up to Thomas Merton in the 20th Century. Who were these people- what do you call them? Monks?– that gave up everything they had for God? Who were these people that seemed to have a much more, for lack of a better word, calmer and contemplative approach to the Faith, one that wasn’t about a scorecard with “this many converted,” but a truly humble and grateful sense of the Living God?
Well, my father, for one.
Okay, this is where it gets a little odd. “Greg, your father was a monk?” “Uh…yep.” “Then all this ranting and raving about not knowing about Church history is kind of…”
Ignorant. Sure, you can say it. I never said I didn’t have a head full of rocks when I was a teenager, or was able to put two and two together (math was never my strong suit). My father was a Benedictine novice monk from 1959-1963 at Weston Priory, in Vermont. My family and I used to take trips up to the monastery when I was a kid- around 6 years old. It remained in my memory as just a long car ride ( 3 hours), old people (the brothers), and two pigs named Bilbo and Frodo who never woke up, or stopped snoring, no matter how much grass I threw on them.
The Lord, I am convinced, jump started this hazy memory of the monastery soon after my “God Moment,” and I googled up the monastery to see if these monks still existed. They did. And wouldn’t you know it, they had something called a Monastic Retreat for Young Men in June of that year (2006), and openings were still available (which is great considering only five men are allowed at a time). I experienced in that short week, at taste at least, of monastic spirituality and culture. The structure and routine of the monastic life: Lectio divina, the Liturgy of the Hours, the Eucharist, ora et labora (work and prayer), allowed me to see a rhythm and pattern to the Christian life, centered on Christ’s love, peace, and goodwill and brotherhood towards others.
After my retreat, and back “into the world,” recapturing that feeling of love and peace, as Brother Michael warned, did not come easily. I partially shot myself in the foot on this one, choosing to fret and frown and worry about the paradoxes in Christianity I saw. “Why aren’t you people- you Christians- getting this? Why do you have to be so aggressive, so enraged, so un-Christ-like?” My anger turned towards the monastic communities- “Why aren’t you more vocal? Why don’t you speak up against what people are doing in God’s name?” And I began to read, and read, and read, trying to find the arguments that fit, the rebuttals I could use. I tried to find the denomination that didn’t have blood on its hands (literal or figurative). I tried to put on rose-colored glasses. I tried not to look at all. I tried to put it in human terms.
I never turned that anger and frustration against myself, of course. Didn’t Christ once speak of the oak plank and the speck? (Matt 7:4) What exactly was I doing to show the love of Christ to others? Why was I making things complicated and angaging in conflict? What I failed to do, and what I’ve failed to do since, is take myself back to a conversation I had with my wife over coffee at Starbucks, when I finally came back to the faith I had left so many years ago. I remember it clearly: she was worried about the direction I was taking, worried that I may become a religious “fanatic.” I tried to assuage her worry. I quoted from I John: “God is Love.” And that, I continued, is all I know right now, but it is enough, and I am just exploring and discovering what that means. What that means to me, to us, to the world. I did not delve into anything else, but took her hand as she sat, semi-convinced that I wasn’t off my rocker.
So I gaze at the photo on my desktop, and Christ, the good Rabbi, leans in and whispers “Why are you so afraid of the mist? Come, and follow me.” And I think I finally realize the ridiculous answer I so often give to God: “Okay, I’m almost finished with this chapter.” Because who knows what’s out there, right?
But ultimately I should remember who is with me.
Reading: Matt. Ch 4: 1-11
Most chapters of the Gospels are very short. It only takes a few minutes to read, say, Ch. 1 to Ch. 6 or 7 at an average rate of reading. So upon skimming the beginning of Matthew, it shouldn’t have surprised me that, less than a minute after reading about Christ’ birth, I was reading about his Temptation. It is almost foolish to point out the obvious- Christ’s life went at a much slower rate than how it is actually recorded. That span of a minute it took me from reading his genealogy to his Temptation by the devil took 25+ years in Christ’s life. C.S. Lewis gives an illustration of this obvious point when he attempts to puzzle out the infinitely more complex question of the concept of time in relation to God. He envisions an author writing one action of a character, then taking off for a cup of tea, before sitting down to write the character’s next action. The time between the one action of the character and the next (say, opening a door and then stepping inside a room) takes no time at all to the reader or the character, but the author is aware that much time has passed. To the opposite effect, we know as readers that much time has passed between Christ’s birth and his Temptation though Matthew has truncated the events in short passages.
I should also point out the view that, although this is not dogma or doctrine, most elders of the Church would say and have said over the centuries this is not really a useful or helpful way to read the Bible. You don’t read the Book like a book. In the practice of lectio divina, a small portion of scripture is chosen and reflected and meditated upon with care. A phrase of Christ’s is worth a day’s meditation would be the adherent’s motto. Take it slow. The goal is not the finish line, but the journey itself. Etc. One should avoid starting at Matthew in the morning and finishing up with Revelation by lunchtime.
All that said, and with full knowledge that God is able to reveal Himself despite our rushed reading habits, I realized something about the nature, force, and will of Temptation and sin through my fast reading of the first gospel of the New Testament: temptation is a speedy little stinker.
It is worth noting that in Ch. 3 of Matthew, Christ is baptized by John. The end of the chapter presents the iconic image of the dove descending from Heaven, and God saying “This is my son, with whom I am well pleased.” The very next line, which begins Ch. 4, reads “Then Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil.” I am no Biblical scholar, but I have no doubt that alternating forms and languages throughout the centuries have modified and adjusted segues in Scripture, but let’s play with the form as it is presented to us in the Revised Standard Version. That being said, allow this English teacher a grammatical knee jerk reaction with what is presented before his eyes. I would be stunned if any of my students began a paragraph, much less a chapter with a sentence beginning with the adverb “then.” “Then” is a conjunctive adverb, linking two ideas together. Therefore, a prior thought is needed that connects the two thoughts together. One thing follows another, and you cannot start a new chapter with an after-thought. The prior thought followed by “then,” inextricably binds the two thoughts together. While I was having this (rather garbled) grammatical hissy fit, I looked at the two statements this aberrant “then” was connecting. By grammatical logic, Christ’s baptism led directly to His Temptation. “’This is my son, with whom I am well pleased.’ Then, Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil.” It certainly seemed like an odd transition. Or was it? Why did Matthew write it this way? Does it mean anything?
This strange little conjunctive adverb, I believe, can teach us a great deal about something we already know quite a bit about. Ask yourself the following questions: “How soon after you were baptized, or committed your life to Christ, were you tempted? Tempted, even, to throw it all away for the comfort of one pleasure or another? How often are you tempted every day? How quickly does the temptation set upon you? How quickly do you rationalize in your mind to act upon that temptation?”
If you are like me, the answers are “Too soon, a lot, fast as lightening, faster than lightening.” And, if you are like me, or were at one point of your spiritual journey, a sense of despair and hopelessness creeps in, compounding the temptation and all the more leading to acting on it.. All too often this sense of hopelessness and despair comes because we are trying to be “good Christians.” We are endeavoring to be like Christ, to live His life- and of course (in our mistaken, “green” perception), how can we be like Christ with these lustful, selfish, angry, power-hungry, gluttonous, prideful (etc.) thoughts and temptations swirling through our heads? How can we walk when we constantly struggle? Christ walked on water, and here I am unable to dog-paddle! What gives?
So I admit it was a bit of a relief, in skimming Matthew, to see how “quickly” Christ had to face temptation. Immediately after His baptism, when God Himself spoke to Christ in all His Glory, Christ was “led away to be tempted.” No reveling in His Divinity, no comfortable resting place, no after Baptism party- the conjunction “then” prohibits it. He was led away, brought to His lowest point- 40 days and nights of fasting would certainly wipe the smile off my face- and tempted. The God-Man faced what we face every day. And from there comes another realization. In the previous paragraph I talked about the sense of hopelessness and despair that comes from trying too hard to be “like Christ,” from getting discouraged by the bombardment of temptation around us all the time, that pulls us away from his Divinity. In fact, to face temptation is to be like Christ. We should not feel hopeless or depressed. Instead of banging ourselves over the head constantly about a failed effort to “measure up,” we should pause to consider the earnestness and desire of Christ to bring Himself down to our measure. Ridicule, pain, awkwardness- despair, even- he experienced it all. And He built the bridge that overcomes it all, as well. He does not expect us to build another, just to cross His.
I’ll end on a note from C.S. Lewis’s Mere Christianity:
The practical upshot is this. On the one hand, God’s demand for perfection need not discourage you in the least in your present attempts to be good, or even in your present failures. Each time you fall He will pick you up again. And He knows perfectly well that your own efforts are never going to bring you anywhere near perfection. On the other hand, you must realize from the outset that the goal towards which He is beginning to guide you is absolute perfection; and no power in the whole universe, except you yourself, can prevent Him from taking you to that goal. That is what you are in for.