“What is my work?

Messenger,  Mary Oliver

“The error of economism [is] that of considering human labor solely 
according to its economic purpose.”

Laborem ExercensPope St. John Paul II

In a basic course on Buddhism, my students and I spend some time reflecting on “right livelihood,” one of the steps on the Noble Eight-Fold Path. They’re intrigued that a religious tradition would set parameters on what counts as legitimate work for human beings to do. I note in our conversation that there might also be such a thing as a Christian theology of work but in their eyes Buddhism is exotic (and thus de facto profound) and Christianity familiar (so they think) and, besides, Christianity is for many of them a dubious proposition altogether so they’ll just go with the Buddhist view, thank you. It’s a course on Buddhism after all so we go with it.

Our conversation is a reminder to me and an eye-opener to the students that for all the talk of “jobs” in our culture we almost never talk about work in the sense of work as elemental to our humanness. Work as the capacity to make something from something else (a kitchen table from a pile of lumber; a a book about modern art from a lifetime of study) for a good greater than oneself while sometimes, but not always, not necessarily, being remunerated for one’s efforts. Work in this sense is not equivalent to “gainful employment.”

Work is a part of our dignity as human beings. According to the Jewish, Christian, and Muslim traditions it is an outflow of our participation in the creative work of an ever-creating God.

Even in regard to work-for-pay, most religious traditions (and humanist ones, too) recognize the intrinsic worth of the worker—her right to fair treatment and to a just, living wage. Most economists, by contrast, don’t hold these assumptions as central; rather, the value of a worker is in his productivity, his usefulness in helping to ensure profit in a competitive market.

Within such a view, work is only about jobs, and to be concerned that everyone has a job is less about promoting “right livelihood” and more about increasing consumer spending. If people have jobs, they’ll buy more things, the economy will grow, all will be well.

Likewise, when politicians talk about jobs they’re not talking about work. They’re speaking, we know, to our collective anxiety about things we’ve been told to worry about: “lackluster employment numbers,” “stagnant wages,” “the outsourcing of manufacturing jobs.”

I don’t mean to diminish the real, material difficulties of those struggling to find work-for-pay—the chronically unemployed, especially. But it seems worth asking what our jobs have to do with human flourishing, with the well-being of all creation, with our own creatureliness. Buddhism, Christianity, and other wisdom traditions invite us—urge us—to wrestle with such questions.

Donald Trump’s recent empty and irresponsible promise to West Virginians that he’ll “bring back coal jobs” highlights the complexity and urgency of these matters. He (like all politicians, liberal or conservative, left or right) assumes as a matter of course “economism”—the belief that factors and indicators like supply and demand, profit margins, gross domestic product, and access to markets—provide the overarching framework, the foundational paradigm for evaluating societal health and well-being. In such a system, as Pope St. John Paul II observed, human labor is considered solely for its economic value.

Moreover, in such a system, coal miners and other workers in similar relationships with corporations and outside interests, collude with their own oppression. This is exacerbated in Appalachia by an enculturated self-effacement: no group is more ridiculed and pitied than we are so we might as well ridicule and pity ourselves. This self-effacement (which may also be a twisted form of self-loathing) morphs into a kind of stoic pride. This pride may seem admirable, but in reality it undermines the interests and long-term well-being of people who do things like mine coal for a living.

I’m mindful of how offensive this can sound so let me be clear: I don’t wish to denigrate the risky work that coal miners historically have done and continue to do, nor the sense of accomplishment they feel in their vocation, and the benefits all of us receive from their labor.

But here’s the thing: I worry, at least a little, when generations of West Virginians—whether they are connected to coal mining or not—absorb this narrative that they are beleaguered and put-upon, the most-derided regional group in America, and then turn that woundedness into a kind of guarded bravado that refuses to reckon with hard, uncomfortable truths. And then cheers wildly as Donald Trump raises false hopes and exploits worst fears and resentments.

+ + +

What is our work?

It sounds a little hackneyed to suggest that, at least in part, work, including remunerative work, is less about making a living and more about making a life.

But isn’t it?

And the work one does that contributes to the making of a life can include bread-baking and neurosurgery, building a fence and mapping the human genome. We have wrongly internalized a kind of hierarchy of work that ascribes the most worth to those prestigious occupations assumed to be at the top. (There was a not-so-subtle paternalism in Trump’s speech in southern West Virginia last week). We drill into our children, for example, from an early age, that they need to go to college so they don’t end up “flipping burgers.” But what about the people who make our food or clean our offices when we go home at night? Are their lives worth less? Does our work matter more than theirs?

In his book, Shop Class as Soul Craft: An Inquiry into the Value of Work, Matthew Crawford tracks the educational apartheid that has given rise to these divisions, this hierarchy, and argues for the cognitive richness and moral significance of manual work. He also insists that “if thinking is bound up with action, then the task of getting an adequate grasp on the world, intellectually, depends on our doing stuff in it.”

No matter one’s vocation (a word that deserves its own post), a rich theology of work assumes that, along with the dignity of the worker, there are goods intrinsic to work worth doing well. Economism instrumentalizes work—treats it as a means to some other end. It may be this in part, but the work we do in the world—for pay, for the sheer pleasure of it, because we must—is, when it and we are at our best, its own deep joy and satisfaction.


(Part of this post is taken from some reflections I wrote in 2010 after the explosion at the Upper Big Branch Mine in WV in which twenty-nine miners were killed).


It’s my turn to write the lectionary reflection on bLOGOS, the blog of The Ekklesia Project:

The Sixth Sunday of Easter

Acts 16:9-15 (RCL); Acts 15:1-2, 22-29 (LM)
Psalm 67 (RCL); Psalm 67:2-8 (LM)
Revelation 21:10- 22:5 (RCL); Revelation 21:1014, 22-23 (LM)
John 14:23-29

“When love has entirely cast out fear, and fear has been transformed into love, then the unity brought us by our savior will be fully realized, for all [people] will be united with one another through their union with the one supreme Good.”Easter Lily 4666

St. Gregory of Nyssa,
from a homily on The Song of Songs

In a wide-ranging conversation with Bill Moyers early last year, writer Marilynne Robinson spoke about fear in American life. With eloquence and insight (and no little exasperation), she noted how we have managed to convince ourselves—or, rather, how we have been persuaded by powerful interest groups—that fear is really courage.

We fashion, she said, “little narratives” that make each of us the hero of an imagined drama and anyone else a potential threat. And all the ways in which we prepare (expect? secretly hope?) for our fear-driven stories to unfold constitute something of an addiction, a cultural obsession, a collective pathology.

Robinson’s insights are as timely as ever these many months later. Why is America’s culture of fear taken as a matter of course?

To read the rest click here.


A Holy Week post I wrote for public radio’s On Being with Krista Tippett:

As Lent moves toward its end–both in the sense of its conclusion and its purpose–I think of this powerful poem by Ariel Dorfman. Its subject matter is the execution by firing squad of a political prisoner, inspired by events during the brutal dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet in the 1970s in Dorfman’s native Chile.

They put the prisonerOn Being Holy Week photo
against the wall.

A soldier ties his hands.
His fingers touch him—strong,

gentle, saying goodbye.
—Forgive me, compañero—
says the voice in a whisper.
The echo of his voice
and of
    those fingers on his arm
fills his body with light
   I tell you his body fills with light
and he almost does not hear
the sound of the shots.

Scottish composer James MacMillan set the poem, entitled “Sun Stone,” for choir and organ as the final movement of his work, Cantos SagradosMusically, the text is framed by–or rather infused throughout with–this phrase from the Credo of the Mass, sung in ethereal tones mostly by the sopranos:

Et incarnatus est de spiritu sancto.                           And by the Holy Spirit was incarnate
Ex Maria Virgine, et homo factus est.                       of the Virgin Mary, and became man.
Crucifixus etiam pro nobis.                                          For our sake he was crucified.

It is a work of excruciating beauty (cruciāre to torment, cruc-em cross) and the jarring juxtaposition of texts lays bare, obliquely not directly, the drama of Holy Week with its stark contrasts of power and weakness, cruelty and tenderness, unspeakable suffering and astonishing forgiveness. The passio of Jesus in the gospel narratives is the culmination of an obscure life lived in complete embodiment of the shalom of God–in the midst of political tyranny and dehumanizing violence, in suffering and death and seeming sure defeat.

During Holy Week Christians enact this painful drama that we might know more fully the Easter story that counters, subsumes, and transforms it. It is theatrical, disturbing, cathartic, and deeply necessary, for the torture of crucifixion and of firing squads (and of waterboarding, for the record) is, as William Cavanaugh has written “a kind of perverse liturgy [in which] the body of the victim is the ritual site where the state’s power is manifested in its most awesome form.” This anti-liturgy is met in the true liturgy of the Eucharist, where the body of the victim makes possible the creation of a new body which lives by resurrection hope and loves by a power not of its own making.

To read the rest click here.


In a few weeks I’ll begin a sabbatical year of travel, research, and writing. (Not that I’m counting the days or anything).

Sabbatical: from sabbath (shabbat), meaning to cease or stop or rest.

Academic sabbatical: a period in which one is to be demonstrably productive.

In my application for sabbatical leave, I noted this contradiction by citing an observation by Max Page, a professor of architecture and history at the University of Massachusetts:

What “sabbatical” meant was that the land—your productive capacity, your brain, your heart—should not be used or exercised in exactly the same way it had been for the previous six years. It needs to be refertilized. It will be more productive and life giving (and refereed journal article producing) if it is allowed a rest from its usual activities. I found it particularly remarkable, and disturbing, that in the sabbatical seminar I attended no one spoke about improving the quality of the work of their sabbatical, only that they produce more, and faster.

I hope to take the “rest” part of sabbatical to heart but will also work, reasonably productively, I hope, on a project that is situated at the intersection of religion, science, and art; one that begins with an uncontested truth—our planet is in crisis—and proceeds with an unconventional claim: we have neglected the aesthetic response to this crisis. I want to show that at the intersection of theology and poetry lay fertile ground for confronting the problems of ecological degradation and matters of culpability, accountability, and the flourishing of all of creation.

I will not argue that poetry helps us to better appreciate the natural world (though poems can do that). Nor will I champion the polemical—poetry as argument for political change. I’m with Robert Lowell, the American poet who once confronted a Soviet bureaucrat who was urging more frequent exchanges between poets and superpowers for the purpose of promoting peace. “Art,” Lowell snapped, “does not make peace. That is not its business. Art is peace.”

I am most interested in the intrinsic connection between the loss of linguistic capacity (our ability to speak truthfully, to wield language responsibly) and the loss of the world (its destruction by forces driven by ignorance and self-interest and our culture’s willing and often unwitting collusion with them). Poetry, I will suggest, is one way to recover from this loss—not because it is “useful” but because, as Nobel Laureate Seamus Heaney has said, it “offers a clarification, a fleeting glimpse of a potential order of things ‘beyond confusion.’”

There’s much more to say and I’m grateful that I have a couple of summers and a couple of semesters to try and say it. But lately I’ve been thinking about the connections between poetry and politics. Not so much in the sense of how nice it would be if politicians spoke in more poetic terms but wouldn’t it, though? The linguistic gutter that Trump and Rubio have dragged us through is foul territory indeed.

But much more than that, what would it mean to attend to the aesthetic dimension of our political plight in this particular historical moment? To take account of the diminishment of language broadly (not just vulgar political speech) that keeps us from desiring, seeking, and living into the beauty we were made from and for? To even ask such questions in our current political culture sounds naive, a little ridiculous, even.

We would have to get our heads around the idea that language is creative of meaning, not descriptive of something we call “reality.” (An idea whose explication requires more than a blog post, I realize). We would have to agree that, on one level, at least, theology is the work of giving an account of the world that makes possible certain kinds of communities, produces certain kinds of people. The theo-poetic speech of Martin Luther King, Jr. was about this kind of work: “the end is reconciliation; the end is redemption; the end is the creation of the Beloved Community.” As is that of  Pope Francis: ““Give us a holy courage to seek new paths, that the gift of unfading beauty may reach every man and woman.”

Where we have been paralyzed by information overload–almost all of it maddeningly contradictory–or polarized by soundbite one-upmanship, how might we recover the language, the speech-acts of shared responsibility and care, of mutual joy and delight, such that we might desire, seek, and work for the well-being of our neighbor above our own?

And how does poetry help with this?

Poetry, I suggest, is a kind of witness, a form of protest (things can be otherwise), a vision of wholeness out of disorder, for it is the art of making a new thing with the material—human language, a nearby dictionary—at hand. (No creation ex nihilo here. As Wendell Berry says, “poetry can be written only because it has been written.”)

But we don’t mine poems for meaning or to see what truths they might express for application to this or that situation. Good poems are “beautiful and pointless.” That is, they don’t mean; they—not unlike the liturgy—do. “Authentic poetry,” says theologian Rowan Williams, “is labour, it’s work: the doing of something which has its own integrity.”

So I vote for poetry.

I vote for exposing ourselves and our children especially to the contagion that good poetry is–poetry of all kinds. For, as Mary Oliver has said, “poems are not words, after all, but fires for the cold, ropes let down to the lost, something as necessary as bread in the pockets of the hungry.” And like a contagion, good poems, says Pulitzer prize-winning poet Jorie Graham, “want to go from body to body. Built in is the belief that such community—one could even say ceremony—might ‘save’ the world.”

Well, if not the world, then maybe our dismal politics.


From Blossoms

From blossoms comes
this brown paper bag of peaches
we bought from the boy
at the bend in the road where we turned toward
signs painted Peaches.

From laden boughs, from hands,
from sweet fellowship in the bins,
comes nectar at the roadside, succulent
peaches we devour, dusty skin and all,
comes the familiar dust of summer, dust we eat.

O, to take what we love inside,
to carry within us an orchard, to eat
not only the skin, but the shade,
not only the sugar, but the days, to hold
the fruit in our hands, adore it, then bite into
the round jubilance of peach.

There are days we live
as if death were nowhere
in the background; from joy
to joy to joy, from wing to wing,
from blossom to blossom to
impossible blossom, to sweet impossible blossom.

Li-Young Lee, “From Blossoms” from Rose. Copyright © 1986 by Li-Young Lee

Recently, a theologian friend penned a Facebook post that I haven’t been able to stop thinking about. The crux of it was this:

“It would be good for all people of faith to remember that any politician who invokes the name of God in order to bolster his or her poll numbers, or court an interest group, has taken God’s name in vain. It uses God for empty things, one of the gravest evils possible . . . Only the politician who dares to be silent about God could possibly be a person of genuine faith.”

This long-time friend had me at “it would be good.” But I suspect that for many Christians on both
the right and the left (and likely for some Jews and Muslims) this is exasperating if not infuriating
speech. Most Americans, it seems, take it as a given—as a good—that, in one way or another,
presidential candidates have to say something about God. Generally, Republicans embrace this expectation enthusiastically; Democrats variously so. The image of America as a “city on a hill” was conjured by the Puritan John Winthrop and invoked by John F. Kennedy and Ronald Reagan, enshrining the myth of American exceptionalism and the belief in God’s special favor on America as hallmarks of presidential politics.

When Jesus says the phrase “city on a hill” in St. Matthew’s gospel, he seems to be enjoining among his followers a witness  against the Pax Romana, not endorsing its strength or greatness. He was not a patriot or a champion of Empire or a would-be reformer of it but its willing victim. Arrested, tortured, tried, and executed on a charge of sedition, his aim was not to be the commander-in-chief but to embody a radically alternative politics—of non-violence and revolutionary love—to the sham political system and its death-dealing ways.

In 2016, a number of presidential candidates want us to know that their Christian faith will be central to their governance should they be elected, especially, it seems, as they plot violence against our enemies. They give no hint that there might be conflict between being a president and being a Christian. They routinely, as my friend put it, “use God for their political aspirations.” And they rouse people of faith from across a range of traditions, treating them as just another interest group—the evangelical vote or the Catholic vote (neither of which is a monolith)—and thus take God’s name in vain.

Much of the candidates’ Christian rhetoric either rings hollow (Donald Trump) or is unrecognizable as Christian speech (Ted Cruz). (Trump is also admired by many Christians for being blunt, unfiltered, and combative in saying what he thinks. Drunk people and three-year-olds also often speak this way. We don’t usually salute them for it).

Hillary Clinton has spoken of the importance of her Methodist faith, though one might wonder how her lucrative alliances with Wall Street investment firms, many of whose practices are unconscionable from the perspective of almost every religious tradition, would square with, say, John Wesley’s concern for the working poor. Or how her “boastful embrace of the mass incarceration machine” is consistent with Wesley’s and Methodism’s call for judicial and prison reforms.

And then there’s Bernie Sanders. I have no idea if he would be a good president. That he has so expertly diagnosed many of our social and political ills does not necessarily mean he can apply the cure. Probably no president can. For all his (welcome) silence on the campaign trail about his religious heritage, there’s something appealing about a passionate Jew who angrily condemns corrupt bankers—echoes of rabbi Jesus and the money changers.

But Sanders, like Clinton, like President Obama, talks in tired tropes when it comes to abortion. The shallow slogans on both sides of this issue are evidence that 40-plus years of a poorly-conducted public debate has only entrenched the divisions and the false notion that this is and only can be a two-sided “battle,” and that to identify with one side is to feel no affinity for the other.

Fredericka Mathewes-Green’s recent essay on abortion unsettles all the tired tropes, even as the current presidential candidates routinely, if sometimes subtly, claim God for their side. And the fact that Mathewes-Green’s article appears in National Review means that left-leaning Christians will write it off before reading it, or likely won’t read it at all; that sacrosanct binary, that entrenched divide again.

But I think it’s possible to be a Christian who doesn’t lobby for the overturning of Roe v. Wade but who has deep, deep concerns about abortion and its practice in the United States. It’s hardly ever acknowledged, for example, that abortion and capitalism are intimately linked but, as Mathewes-Green notes, “we’ve agreed to surgically alter women so that they can get along in a man’s world. And then expect them to be grateful for it.”

Would-be American presidents may always feel this pressure—either from within or without—to cloak themselves in religious garb, sometimes heavily, sometimes lightly; to see themselves as saviors of a sort, as those called to run “the greatest country in the world” and thus have a powerful hand in running the world. This seems laughable when it comes to the kind of servant leadership, the kind of counter politics that a crucified messiah asks of his followers. But it’s not funny. Especially when the religious rhetoric we’re hearing is so charged with murderous hate.

But, then again, there’s Bernie Sanders. I don’t think he has aspirations to run the world. He is—unlike almost every other contender in the race, Democrat or Republican—without affect or grandiosity. I don’t know that I’ll vote for him. I don’t know that I’ll vote. It’s not a settled question that Christians have an obligation to or even ought to. (Another idea that may seem exasperating if not infuriating to many.)

But I like Sanders’ rumpled, scruffy, scrappy ways. I like how he is both erudite and populist. I like that he doesn’t talk in soundbites and that he refuses to simplify hard, complex problems. I like his passion and compassion. I don’t know that he has ever adequately described the democratic socialism he espouses to the satisfaction of his critics. And maybe he can’t, given most Americans’ knee-jerk alarmism when the phrase is uttered.

But I think he articulates a vision of political community and human flourishing that is compelling and worthy of consideration in an era of astonishing injustices toward those on the edges. And yet it is one of the deep ironies of this political season that among many Christians, for whom Sanders’ vision of the good ought to have at least some resonance, he is at best dismissed and at worst reviled.

But he carries on, a flawed human being for sure, a predictable politician in many ways. But also, consistently, rightly, leaving religious pandering out of all of it.

Took a turn on the bLOGOS rotation at the Ekklesia Project website:

Widow's Mite - Ancient Roman Bronze Coins

Widow’s Mite – Ancient Roman Bronze Coins

Ruth 3:1-5, 4:13-17 (RCL); I Kings 17:10-16 (LM)
Psalm 127 or 42 (RCL); Psalm 146:7-10 (LM)
Hebrews 9:24-38Mark 12:38-44

For they have all contributed from their surplus wealth, but she, from her poverty, has contributed all she had, her whole livelihood. 

Mark 12:44

By the time we get to the familiar text in this week’s Gospel reading—sometimes referred to as the story of the widow’s mite—Jesus has made his so-called triumphal entry into Jerusalem. More street theatre and political satire than victory parade, the festivities end with Jesus casing the temple late of an evening. He returns the next day and turns over a few tables, infuriating the religious authorities and confounding everyone else. He enters the temple a third time on the third day (a detail not extraneous to Mark’s purposes, we might suppose), and offers an accusatory parable. Pharisees and Herodians are dispatched to trap him; they find themselves amazed instead. He bluntly tells some Sadducees: “you are wrong . . . you are quite wrong.” Third up are the scribes, for whom Jesus reserves his most caustic criticism:

Beware of the scribes, who like to go around in long robes
and accept greetings in the marketplaces,
seats of honor in synagogues,
and places of honor at banquets.
They devour the houses of widows and, as a pretext
recite lengthy prayers.
They will receive a very severe condemnation.

Jesus then takes a seat “facing” (kateanti) the treasury. This detail, too, seems deliberate on Mark’s part: a short while and a few verses later Jesus will “face”—the same word in Greek—the temple mount as he foretells its imminent destruction (13:3).

 From his choice seat, Jesus carefully “scrutinizes” (etheōrei) the scene, observing “how the crowd put money in the treasury,” and noting that “many rich people put in large sums” (41).

Just the day before he had directly attacked the temple establishment so we might assume he’s still seething a bit. Not because a sacred place had been profaned by commerce—the temple was an economic institution as well as a religious one. Rather, Jesus is scandalized by the exploitation of the poor in their attempts to participate in Israel’s cultic life.

But his anger at what he sees in the temple treasury has a sharper focus. He has just depicted the scribes—the temple lawyers—as not only religious hypocrites but also as abusers of their fiduciary power: “they devour the houses of widows.” (40)

To read the rest click here.

There are the contradictions in the man himself: Pope Francis presides over an institution of enormous wealth, power, and privilege, while in his very being embodying—effortlessly, compellingly—the poverty, humility, and simplicity of the way of Jesus.

This was evident at St. Patrick’s Cathedral on Thursday night: wealthy donors sitting in prime seats while the Pope gave a beautiful shout-out to women religious—in the cheap seats—who have been much-beleaguered by the Vatican in recent years.

There are the contradictions in the giving of his astonishing speech to Congress: One could describe it as power speaking truth to power, while at the same time starkly, radically calling into question America’s notions of what actually counts as power and truth.

There are the contradictions in the canonization of Junipero Serra: Pope Francis is clearly the antithesis of what the colonial project embodied—and what it wrought—yet he sanctioned the sainthood of a man whose life and legacy leave deeply troubling questions about the Church’s collusion with the worst of globalization. Supporters of Serra, the first saint canonized on American soil, summon the mildest of endorsements: at least he wasn’t as bad as the others.

(This one, I admit, mystifies me. As a Catholic friend noted: The Serra canonization was rife with missed opportunities and bridges left unbuilt. Yes and yes).

What to make of these and other such contradictions?

It’s hard to avoid striking the stance we all learn as heirs to modernity–that of the autonomous self with its view from nowhere and its reasoned, privately-held “opinions” offering or withholding approval for this or that position, this or that pope. In relation to Pope Francis (and to Catholicism and Christianity generally), such a stance generates questions like “do the Pope’s words and the Church’s actions align with my own securely-held convictions?” or “Does this or that doctrine (or political idea or economic policy) square with what I believe?” These seem like reasonable questions; we can hardly help asking them, even tacitly.

But they assume, wrongly I suggest, that the Church is an organization I belong to—like the Kiwanis Club or the Junior League—and, as such, the unencumbered “I” gets to negotiate my relationship to it on my own terms. Rather–and I know how weird this sounds to those outside of Christianity and even to many within it—the Church is the sign and sacrament of Trinitarian communion. “The individual personal spirit lives solely by virtue of sociality,” Dietrich Bonhoeffer insisted, linking anthropology and ecclesiology in ways unintelligible to our default understandings of both self and church.

What this means, in part, is that as members of Christ’s body, the Church, our primary identity is that of those who share in the divine life of God, with all of the real-world, nitty-gritty implications of such a claim (political, social, economic; implications of race, gender, and class). The true humanity we take on in baptism summons us to the freedom to love beyond the bounds of family, tribe, and nation. This is the nature of the ekklesia itself, as it bears witness to the new creation made possible in Christ through the power of the Spirit: we are the community of the baptized whose love for the world (the neighbor, the stranger, the enemy) glimpses the eternal self-giving love of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. It is a love without partiality because its source is the Trinitarian love-in-communion that transcends every exclusivism. It is not a love that we muster by our own power, through force of will or personal resolve. Rather, it is a love imputed to us and efficacious through us. We are its vessels, not its wellspring.

So what?

What does this mean for the contradictions I feel in this historical moment? It means that I am part of a body of flawed, weak, striving, broken, yearning, conniving, beautiful, irritating, struggling human beings. (If one more student tells me they can’t go to church because of the hypocrites . . . ). Messed up though we are, who we are is not dependent on who we are, thank God.

And so in the big, messy house that is the Catholic Church we live with people we might not agree with, who can make us a little crazy. But we know that our membership in this body is not based on like-mindedness but on the One who gathers us at his table and feeds us that we might then scatter and feed a hungry world.

Who knows? The canonization of a colonizer might open the way for repentance and reconciliation. And Pope Francis, in America, and in his everyday life and living, shows us, with great tenderness and love, what might be possible.

I was interviewed by Mary Ann McKibben-Dana of The Englewood Review of Books for their latest issue. We talked about my new book, Happiness, Health, and Beauty: The Christian Life in Everyday Terms. Here are a few excerpts.

ERB: You do a good job of putting happiness into a broader and deeper context than the sometimes banal version of happiness that popular or consumer culture wants to serve up. Still, I found myself having to translate in my head what you meant versus the way the word is used colloquially.

DDM: A theological account of happiness has some affinity with certain cultural conceptions of the term, even as it critiques much of what Westerners mean by it. We are created for happiness. Human beings long for steadfast, deep-seated contentment, for full and satisfying lives, for fundamental well-being, but modern marketing has seduced us into thinking that such happiness is found in the endless pursuit of things—not in the things themselves,
interestingly, but in our insatiable desire for the next thing, the next experience, that next feeling of happiness. Of course, advertisers brilliantly exploit the fact that this quest is illusory. (On this note, I have found the recently concluded TV series Mad Men—about Madison Avenue in the 1960s—particularly suited for this kind of theological exploration).

Classic Christian doctrine has insisted that we are happy only in God, but also that such happiness is found in relationship with others as we seek to be like God in goodness. And Jesus shows us very concretely, very specifically, what God’s goodness looks like; we don’t have to wonder or guess. Happiness, then—our flourishing together in the goodness of God—is relentlessly social, unavoidably political, and delightfully (and sometimes riskily) countercultural.

ERB: You ask a wonderful question in the health chapter: “What are we to make of the unhealthy, overweight body we have become? How do we address—with grace, not judgment—the alarming rise in food-related illness and obesity in the bodies of men, women and children who are members of the Eucharistic body?” You answer that in your book but I wonder what you might share with readers here.

DDM: Increasingly grim health statistics (skyrocketing rates of type 2 diabetes, obesity, heart disease, stroke, and cancer) have mostly to do with food— eating the wrong kind and too much of it. At the heart of Christianity is a ritual that has to do with food—bread and wine that we believe is Christ’s body and blood given for the well-being of all who partake of it. That we have failed to see the connections between these two kinds of eating—one to our detriment, one to our salvation—is due, at least in part, to the pervasive idea that what matters most in the Christian life is our spiritual well-being. We are dualists, basically; we believe that each of us is an immortal soul housed in a temporary body.

But this is Plato, not Jesus. In the New Testament, the word for “salvation” implies cure, remedy, recovery; it connotes the health and well-being of individuals and communities. Jesus doesn’t save disembodied souls; he rescues whole persons—body, mind and spirit— that they might live abundant lives of wholeness and happiness and bear witness, that this is the way of the kingdom here and now. Yet our contemporary imaginations are held captive by the dualistic view. If our bodies are sick or chronically obese, at least we’ll be well when we get to heaven— so the thinking goes. It’s no wonder, then, that most churches are bereft of resources to address these mounting health crises in a rigorously theological, responsibly biblical sort of way.

But for those who want to try, who sense that these problems are not, at root, a failure of individual willpower but a crisis of community, we begin where we always do—at the Eucharistic table. From the sharing of this simple meal flow sermons, studies, and conversations about physical health; community gardens; adventures in eating slow and eating together (we often eat to to our harm when we eat alone); and a reckoning with our complicity in unjust food systems.

ERB: Moving on to your third section, my perception is that many theologians are okay with beauty so long as it has a sense of utility—so long as it points us to truth or right living. What’s your response to that? Can and should beauty exist for its own sake?

DDM: Yes, there’s a long-standing tradition of valuing beauty for its benefits. I note in the book that one of the few occasions when Wesley allowed himself to be caught up in beauty was when he read Homer’s Odyssey during a long stretch of riding horseback. His journal entry on this occasion is uncharacteristically effusive and he reveals a kind of playfulness and delight often absent in his reflections on art and beauty. Still, for Wesley, Homer’s true value lies in how he (and poetry generally) can be instructive for the moral life.

But if the best of the Christian tradition has held that beauty inheres in the beingness of things, then of course beauty does not exist primarily to serve our interests or agendas or moral advancement. To insist that it must reveals something of the arrogance and solipsism to which we are easily prone. In the book, I mention the gospel story of the woman who anoints Jesus with costly perfume. Jesus says of her action that “she has done a beautiful thing for me.” On one level, I suppose we could read the utility of the action: she prefigures Jesus’s burial, she does a beautiful thing for the sake of something else, etc. But I’m more persuaded by the idea that this unknown, unnamed woman simply makes beauty visible: she bears the beauty of the divine image in self-emptying action. For all that seems extraordinary about this tender act, it offers for us a witness, a model for how we, too, in ordinary, everyday ways might learn to be possessed by beauty, to open our lives, individually and corporately, to the gift, the call, the joyful art of becoming beautiful.

To read this issue’s full table of contents, click here.
For more about Englewood Review of Books, click here.


Archbishop Oscar Romero has been beatified by the Roman Catholic Church. It’s no doubt a coincidence that this happened on Memorial Day weekend; much more significantly, it’s the feast of Pentecost.

And it’s a remarkable thing.

Both church and state villified Romero in his lifetime and in the early years after his murder. For the Vatican, the fear was that Romero, with his Marxism-infused rhetoric, was a practitioner of liberation theology. (He was). For the state–the governments of El Salvador and the U.S.–Romero was an obstacle to securing popular support for El Salvador’s regressive, repressive military government. (True again).

Oscar Anulfo Romero, bookish priest, reluctant archbishop, firebrand preacher and populist, was a thorn in the side of both the religious and political establishments.

We know now, and have always known, of course, that the corrupt government that Romero called out time and again–always with unflinching honesty and Christ-like charity–was supported and defended by the United States. By Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan. By six billion dollars in military aid to prop up a regime which oversaw unspeakable abuses of the Salvadoran people, a breathtaking range of human rights violations: torture and rape, the disappearing of dissidents, the slaughter of priests and peasants as a matter of course.

This weekend, if you’re Catholic, if you’re Christian, if you’re human, you have to take this historical reality into account.

But much of our memorializing will trend, as it always does, toward the jingoistic, the simplistic, the cliche-riddled hyperpatriotism that does a disservice to the women and men who fight and die in wars conceived by powerful men whose own sons and daughters are largely spared the suffering and the dying.

Surely it’s possible to honor the selflessness that’s part of soldiering and to mourn the fallen without slipping into the kind of sentimental white-washing that denies the complexities and ambiguities, the compromises and betrayals, both large and small, that the war dead knew well?

Why, then, can’t we–in their stead, on their behalf, for their sake–be honest enough to honor such truths?

On Pentecost, we celebrate a most unlikely gift: that a beleaguered and bewildered band of followers of a failed Messiah (he didn’t stick it to Rome as many had hoped) became a body, his body, for the sake of a broken, suffering, war-torn world. Through the Spirit’s power, this body is the sign, servant, and foretaste of God’s reign of justice and shalom.

One of the readings for mass this weekend is from 1 Corinthians, where St. Paul describes the unity of the body. As members of the one body, our lives are linked with sisters and brothers everywhere–in El Salvador, Syria, Iraq, and the ends of the earth. We are the church not in lordly domination but in solidarity with the suffering.

Many Protestants will hear Paul’s words to the Romans where the same spirit of unity and humility obtains: the whole creation groans and waits; we don’t know how to pray as we ought but we trust the Spirit’s sighs of intercession for us. This, too, is the posture the people of God are called to assume–not one of might-makes-right or of glorifying death but one of hope and humility in a world that aches for peace.

Our brother, Oscar, bore witness to this in his life and his death. And for that, they killed him. May we remember and memorialize his death and all deaths, this day and every day, with the truth-telling they deserve.

Blessed Oscar, pray for us.

Murphy_25117e (2)-page-001

From Chapter One:

Being Human, Being Happy

Popular advertising slogans could lead a person to think that happiness is what human beings are made for. Coca-Cola invites us to “open happiness.” At the International House of Pancakes it is “come hungry, leave happy,” while the all-you-can-eat restaurant chain Golden Corral entreats: “help yourself to happiness.” Disneyland, since the mid-1960s, boasts that it is “the happiest place on earth.” We feed children “happy meals,” strive for a “happy medium,” admire the “happy-go-lucky” (who seem to live by the mantra “don’t worry, be happy”)—all while trying to find our own private “happy place.” Even one of our nation’s founding documents, the Declaration of Independence, asserts that human beings have an “unalienable right” to the “pursuit of happiness.” Happiness, it seems, is ever on our minds (and on our stomachs, if the corporate restaurateurs are to be believed). We want desperately to be happy.

But what counts as genuine happiness? If, as corporations like Coca-Cola and Disney would have us believe, happiness can be had in the products and experiences we consume, why are we—the savviest shoppers in the history of modern advertising—notoriously unhappy?[1] At least one answer to this question can be found in poet John Ciardi’s observation, made half a century ago, that advertising and the whole of our economy are based on “dedicated insatiability.”[2] It isn’t that consumerism makes us happy by satisfying our desires for material goods or attractively packaged experiences; rather, our consumer culture trains us to be perpetually dissatisfied. As theologian William Cavanaugh has observed, consumerism is not so much about having more as it is about having something else.[3] So the happiness I might feel at acquiring a new pair of shoes or a luxury vacation (increased, perhaps, if I believe I got a good deal on the purchase) is not only a kind of temporary pleasure since soon enough the newness of the product or the experience will fade and my euphoria with it. Rather, American consumer culture teaches me that the pleasure of consumption is itself in the very process of acquiring my good deal: advertisers want me, want all of us, to be addicted not to things but to the endless pursuit of things. And most of us seem all too happy to oblige.

Yet even if we concede that the happiness held out by marketing campaigns is fleeting if not false, shallow, and ultimately unsatisfying, why do we still find ourselves seduced by the promise that happiness can be ours if only we can secure the ideal job or the perfect mate, if we can just lose those excess pounds or raise successful children or have the respect of our peers? Perhaps this promise lures us because a hunger for happiness is at the heart of what it means to be human. As theologian Paul Wadell observes: “The story of our lives can be read as one unfolding search for happiness because we relentlessly pursue whatever we think will be good for us; whatever we suspect will fulfill us, delight us, bring us peace, and deepen the meaning of our lives.”[4]

The Christian tradition has always held that human beings are created for happiness, but it has defined ultimate happiness as knowing, loving, and enjoying God. We are created in the image of God, bearing something of the divine within us, and thus communion with our Creator—and with all of creation—is central to what it means to be fully human. Famously, St. Augustine declared that our hearts are restless till they find rest in God. The Westminster Catechism opens by asking what is the purpose of our lives as human beings, and answering with: to love God and to enjoy God forever. And St. Thomas Aquinas, in perhaps one of the most thorough treatments of the subject, observed that happiness is intimately linked with goodness. In this he was following Aristotle who believed that only goodness can make us happy. And while there are many goods intrinsic to a life of happiness—food, shelter, satisfying work to do, enough money to live on, art and music and beauty of all kinds to stir our imaginations, friends and loved ones to enjoy all of these things with—the highest good and our ultimate happiness can be found, Aquinas believed, only in God.

Happiness as Gift-in-Community

But how does that work exactly? What would it look like to discover and experience complete happiness in God? For Aquinas, attaining ultimate happiness is a matter of our becoming like God in goodness. But this, too, sounds far-fetched—impossible, even (and perhaps not a little presumptuous). How can we become like God in anything?

In contrast to a culture that trains us to view happiness as something we buy or take or make, something we earn or deserve or accomplish, the Christian tradition has insisted that a life of genuine happiness is beyond our own powers and capacities. It is not, as much talk-show psychology would have it, something available within ourselves if only we would reach down deep enough to find it. Rather, genuine happiness comes to us through grace; it is a gift. “The God who wants our good,” Wadell says, “gifts us with the happiness we seek.”[5] Our lifelong task, then, to repurpose a beautiful phrase from novelist Marilynne Robinson, “is to put ourselves in the way of the gift.”[6]

The happiness we were made for, that comes to us as gift to be received rather than goal to be achieved (or interior state to be accessed) is, as Scripture makes clear, relentlessly social. This is at least one reason why seeking happiness through the exercise of individual choice in a market economy is a futile quest. In the opening chapters of Genesis we learn that God created human beings for friendship with one another and with God, and the book of Revelation describes powerfully the heavenly communion that characterizes the ultimate happiness—the beatific vision—for which all of creation is destined. Thus the Bible reveals, from beginning to end, that the gift of happiness is deeply social, “ineluctably political.”[7] “Political,” in this sense, has to do with how human beings are constituted by community and how we might flourish in it—how it is that we are good together. There is no human thriving, no genuine happiness apart from life lived in connection with others as the good is sought and practiced and enjoyed and witnessed to. For Aristotle, this meant that the polis is “more than a pact of mutual protection or an agreement to exchange goods and services … [it] is intended to enable all, in their households and their kinships, to live well.”[8] In Christian terms we would say that through the sacrament of Baptism we are initiated into a polis—the communion of saints being one way to name it—and that in the Eucharist we are nourished and sustained as a community of friends who, week after week, year after year, enact our desire to be transformed into the likeness of Christ, to be drawn more and more deeply into the goodness of God. Yet even in the polis of the worshiping community, our attempts to “become like God in goodness” are not our own moral achievements. As we have said, all of this comes through grace and as gift.

To learn more, click here.


[1] Harris Poll Happiness Index. http://www.harrisinteractive.com/NewsRoom/HarrisPolls/tabid/447/ctl/ReadCustom%20Default/mid/1508/ArticleId/1200/Default.aspx

[2] Ciardi, “Is Everybody Happy?,” 18.

[3] Cavanaugh, Being Consumed, 35.

[4] Wadell, Happiness and the Christian Moral Life, 2.

[5] Wadell, 16.

[6] Robinson, Gilead, 134.

[7] McCabe, The Good Life, 25.

[8] Aristotle, Politics, III, 9. Quoted in McCabe, 38. (Italics in McCabe).



If slow food is a thing–a good thing–is there such a thing as slow art?

In Wallace Stegner’s beautiful novel, Crossing to Safetythere are moving descriptions of the city of Florence. The book tells the story of two couples who become friends during the Depression and who, many years later, spend a year–one of them is on sabbatical–living in this beautiful city. IMG_5726

In a year, one could possibly take in what visitors like me try to see in a week.

There’s something about gorging on art that feels like stuffing oneself with food–just because it’s there, just because you can. But gorging isn’t feasting and how do you do the latter when there’s just not enough time?

This is a good problem to have. I’ve been in Florence, Italy for a week. I don’t mean to complain.

But it can sometimes feel like the worst of smorgasboard consumerism, the silliest kind of checklist tourism: “we did the Uffizi today” (or the Louvre or the Met or the National Gallery). I don’t think so.

I have seen some of the most breathtaking paintings, frescoes, statues, and other objets d’art in some of the world’s most glorious churches, museums, piazzas, and palaces. But I have also at times felt such sensory overload, such emotional exhaustion, that looking at one more chapel ceiling, one more gallery of paintings is all but impossible. Okay, it is impossible.


There is such a thing as the antipasto of an amazing Tuscan meal, the foretaste of a magnificent banquet. That I have experienced.

And it has been so very good.

Arrivederci, Firenze.


If the places in which fast food is eaten are aseptic and nondescript, let’s rediscover the warmth of a traditional osteria, the fascination of a historic café, the liveliness of places where making food is still a craft . . . 

Carlo Petrini, Slow Food: The Case for Taste

I don’t think it’s an accident that the slow food movement was founded by an Italian.

Ristorante-Paoli-firenzeIn my brief, limited experience, meals in the city of Florence are occasions for conviviality more than caloric intake.

Convivium: from the Latin meaning “to live with,” but also suggesting “joyous feasting,” even “carousing together.”

In this city of beautiful food and the people who serve it, I think of a scene in Life is Beautiful–a film written and directed by and starring Roberto Benigni (another Italian), that is by turns charming and haunting.  In the scene, Guido, the main character, is schooled in the art of waiting tables:

Think of a sunflower, they bow to the sun. But if you see some that are bowed too far down, it means they’re dead. You’re here serving, you’re not a servant. Serving is the supreme art. God is the first of servants. God serves men, but he’s not a servant to men.

I notice this distinction in the men and women who wait and serve in this city. No hovering. No smothering. Just competence and confidence with humility in the work they do.

Another favorite writer says this:

“Man invented cooking before he thought of nutrition. To be sure, food keeps us alive, but that is only its smallest and most temporary work. Its eternal purpose is to furnish our sensibilities against the day when we shall sit down at the heavenly banquet and see how gracious the Lord is. Nourishment is necessary only for a while; what we shall need forever is taste.”

In this age of eating fast and eating alone, we hardly know how to cultivate taste–which isn’t the prerogative of the affluent only but the call of every person to desire, to enjoy (and to have access to) good, delicious, nutritionally dense food.

I think that the food-related health issues that our culture currently faces (obesity, the steep rise in type-2 diabetes, for instance), are, at least in part, crises of taste. And at least one solution to the increasing–and increasingly global–problem of overconsumption is not deprivation—not endless scrimping and skimping and counting and calculating, but (re)discovering the myriad pleasures of eating.

To take delight in good food mindfully prepared and beautifully served (even if done so by ourselves) is to acknowledge our dependence on the gifts that sustain our very lives. It is to practice conviviality: to abide with, carouse with, feast with family and friends at the abundant table of creation.


And then there was Michelangelo’s David.

And I couldn’t speak. And I really don’t know what to write. Really.david-hand-760x970

In a crowd of Japanese school children and a host of other tourists and visitors, I was completely overwhelmed, completely overcome.

For all the things going through my head in those moments and the hours since, I come back to this one thing: Michelangelo represents the humanism of the high Renaissance, and every first-year Humanities student can list the characteristics of this movement–the celebration of human achievement, for one.

But in trying to take in this astonishing feat of human achievement, I was struck–am struck–by the power of art to make us more human, to make us more fully what we are meant to be, to make us beautiful.

Much more needs to be said about this, for sure, and in contemplating the David all day, I am exhausted and bereft of words. But this at least:

We don’t take in a profound work of art in order to possess its beauty but rather that we might  be possessed by beauty ourselves, that we might learn what it means to open our lives, individually and corporately, to the gift, the call, the joyful art of becoming beautiful.


With some free time today, I had hoped to make it to San Marco, a church and monastery-now-museum, where Dominican Girolamo Savonarola (mentioned in day two’s post) lived and delivered his fiery sermons to the citizens of Florence. More famously, the painter, Fra Angelico, was also a monk, and later the prior, at San Marco. Coppo_di_Marcovaldo._Madonna._1250-60_Santa_Maria_Maggiore,_Florence.

Under the patronage of Cosimo the Elder de Medici, Angelico’s art adorned both church and cloister–his crucifix on the high altar and his frescoes (along with those of other artists) installed in individual cells. And they’re still there.

One of the most iconic images of the Renaissance–Angelico’s Annunciation–is placed at the top of a staircase, its figures life-size, the landscape backdrop of the Angel Gabriel’s announcement to Mary very similar to the courtyard of the Florentine monastery.

Not that I saw this or any of the other glorious art of San Marco today. There were some unexpected delays and changes in plans. Another day, I hope.

But walking back toward the hotel, I found myself alongside the outer north wall of a church so non-descript that I wouldn’t have known it was a church, save for a small, modest sign indicating that it was Santa Maria Maggiore. I ducked inside.

And I had that experience that I’ve had several times already in this stunning city: Outward appearances can be deceiving. Not always, of course. When you gaze upon the Duomo or the Church of Santa Maria Novella, they are–in very different ways–imposing and impressive. You know, so to speak and to a certain degree, what you’re getting into.

But a church like Santa Maria Maggiore, plastered and de-plastered numerous times through the centuries, does not spill its secrets or flaunt its treasures. From a busy street one enters the quiet, dark interior and finds one of the most antique churches in Florence. Built in the 10th century, Romanesque and Cistercian, Santa Maria Maggiore has three aisles with pointed arches on square piers. There are striking paintings of two episodes from the story of King Herod, and the left chapel features a relief in gilded wood of Madonna and Child.

There is much more, of course, but this was all I could take in during the few minutes I had.

This brief experience today was about more than “never judge a book by it’s cover”–as true and useful as that old saw is. It isn’t despite plainness and simplicity that beauty often shines forth. It’s that the plainness and simplicity are always part of the beauty–of buildings, of people.

But it takes work to see that. We are hard-wired, perhaps, to respond immediately, to be moved viscerally, by the visually striking. And it strikes me, in this city of ancient and medieval churches, that American Christians often want the spectacular, the dazzling, the entertaining in their worship experiences, especially.

What is ordinary, what is plain or simple, what has been steadfastly unspectacular through the centuries–praying the liturgy of the hours, for example–seems manifestly uninteresting to us.

But in such plain beauty are secrets revealed, treasures discovered. If only we have eyes to see.

As you climb the stairs to the top of the Duomo, the stunning cupola that tops the altar area of the Cathedral of Santa Maria del Fiore, you think about the 467 stone steps to the summit. You think about the narrow passageways. You think about the dozens of people ahead of you and the dozens behind you. You think you should just take deep breaths.il-duomo-evening-615

In 1420, Filippo Brunnelleschi, a goldsmith with no formal architectural training, won a contest to build an enormous airy dome that he claimed would need no visible, fixed supports. There are two domes, actually–two concentric shells, the inner one of herringbone-patterned brick nestled in the larger, taller one, with tension rings and tie beams between them to reduce stress and distribute the weight evenly. The city planners and church authorities didn’t know if it would work–no one did. Except maybe the goldsmith.

You ascend on the stairway between the two domes, feeling the cool of the herringbone brick on your hands, seeing the beams above your head. As the stairs lead you out onto the interior walkway, your eyes are immediately drawn to the dramatically frescoed dome ceiling above. (Brunnelleschi designed and constructed it bare; apparently there have been proposals through the centuries–time is measured in centuries in Florence–to restore the ceiling to its pristine whiteness).

Like other domed ceilings in churches and basilicas, the bottom tier depicts scenes of hell and judgment. The artists who painted the Duomo’s ceiling, Georgio Vasari and Frederico Zuccari, offer shocking, gruesome, ghastly scenes of deadly sins and the horrors of hell.

There is something theologically interesting (of course there is) about both the architecture and the art. On the walkway, the hellish frescoes are too close for comfort. The figures are simply enormous. Depictions of the beatitudes, the virtues, saints, angels, the gifts of the Holy Spirit, Mary, Christ–all of these seem very far away indeed.

As you leave the inner walkway and climb the remaining steps to the top of the dome, the steps are steeper, the passages even narrower. Light pours in at intervals from openings in the stone, but it is intermittent, fleeting. You feel like you’re groping, not striding, toward the summit.

And then when you step out of the darkness, when you complete the journey of many step and emerge into the light of a late Tuscan afternoon, when all of Florence is bathed in golden sunshine and even the hills and groves beyond the city are visible, you think about your life. About the precariousness of your own journey of many steps. About the light that sometimes seems intermittent, fleeting, but which always, always appears. And you realize it is Lent and that this is fitting, and that soon it will be Easter.

And you are grateful.


The planet Venus in last night’s sky. Botticelli’s Birth of Venus today at the Uffizi Gallery.

This work of art was like none other of its time. The first Renaissance painting to portray a nude woman in a non-Christian context–only Eve heretofore–The Birth of Venus was controversial from the start. Commissioned by Birth-Venus-Bott-LLorenzo di Medici, likely as a wedding present for a cousin (it would have hung over the marital bed), the painting barely escaped destruction at the hands of a zealous Dominican monk. During Carnivale of 1497, Girolamo Savonarola organized what came to be known as the bonfire of the vanities.  He ordered a house to house search of costumes, masks, wigs, cosmetics, musical instruments, and other objects deemed ill-suited for the devout. Also caught up in the banning/burning were precious manuscripts and various works of art. The night before the beginning of Lent that year, the great pile of “vanities” was set afire. Botticelli himself, who had been captivated by Savonarola’s apocalyptic preaching, contributed some of his own work to the blaze.

But Venus survived.

To stand in front of this magnificent painting is to be overwhelmed by qualities that one does not encounter in most paintings in the Uffizi, or in Renaissance art generally, where subjects (and subject matter) are weighty and substantial and realistically rendered. (Notice the impossible postures/positions of Venus and the figures representing the Zephyr winds). The Birth of Venus is charming, graceful, lyrical, ethereal, delicate, and deeply sensuous. It celebrates human desire.

And to my untrained eye, it seems to be, ultimately, about beauty. It invites one to contemplate physical beauty, erotic beauty, not as voyeur, but in recognition of the truth that we are creatures who hunger for beauty, who are made from beauty and for beauty, and who must learn that all desire is a desire for beauty.


Wendell Berry

I knew her when I saw her
in the vision of Botticelli, riding
shoreward out of the waves,
and afterward she was in my mind
as she had been before, but changed,
so that if I saw her here, near
nightfall, striding off the gleam
of the Kentucky River as it darkened
behind her, the willows touching
her with little touches laid
on breast and arm and thigh, I
would rise as after a thousand
years, as out of the dark grave,
alight, shaken, to remember her.


A stunning sunrise over the city of Amsterdam more than made up for the lack of sleep on the flight from Washington, DC.  Unexpectedly, our flight to Florence was diverted to Pisa–too much wind on the ground for a safe landing. Also unexpected: exquisite views of the Italian Alps and the Mediterranean Sea. Such spectacular grandeur, IMG_5407such ancient beauty. And then finally entering Firenze, as it is known in Italy, a city which in some ways looks like any other but in most ways like no other.

A late afternoon walking tour of the center city–brief glimpses of the Cathedral (God in heaven, the glory of every part of it), the Baptistry of San Giovanni, the Piazza della Repubblica, the Piazza della Signoria–how will we bear the beauty of it all in the coming days?

As night fell, the sight of Jupiter in the east of the cobalt-blue sky. He stood brilliant, silent vigil over a sea of tourists and Bartolomeo Ammannati’s Neptune Fountain, which I’m not sure what I think about. It’s either much-loved or much-reviled, I hear. At first sight of it, Ammannati’s teacher, Michaelangelo, is said to have quipped, “what a beautiful piece of marble you have ruined.”

As we walk past the Galleria Uffizi (on the schedule for our second day), a classical guitarist plays “Gabriel’s Oboe,” from the film The Mission and written by Italian composer, Ennio Morricone. It is beautiful beyond words.

And then, walking back to the hotel, along the Arno river, Venus shines bright in the western sky, and I know that I am in love.

The Epiphany of the Lord

Isaiah 60:1-6the-adoration-of-the-magi-1510-1
Psalm 72:1-7, 10-14
Ephesians 3:1-12
Matthew 2:1-12

Lectionary for Mass

Welcome home, my child. Your home is a checkpoint now. Your home is a border town. Welcome to the brawl.

“Song of the Magi,”Anaïs Mitchell

They are as familiar as any in the cast of characters that make up the mash-up we know as the Christmas Story.

The “wise men from the East” in Matthew’s gospel join the shepherds and angels found only in Luke to populate children’s Christmas pageants everywhere. With tinfoil crowns on their heads and festive tablecloths draped over their tiny shoulders, solemn preschoolers reverently place wrapping-paper-clad boxes at the feet of makeshift mangers. Parents and grandparents sigh and chuckle. Video and still shots are posted to Facebook before “Silent Night” has been sung and happy applause has been rendered.

Christians high-church and low have ritualized these stories (even as they have conflated them) in this very recognizable and much-beloved form. And why not teach children (and others) in such ways—through embodiment, performance, spectacle?

But for those who may be weary of the inevitable kitsch of this rite of passage, and perhaps especially for those who wonder if the whole nativity narrative isn’t just another fairy tale, it’s worth noting how the story of the wise men in Matthew (and also of the shepherds and angels in Luke) is rooted not in cuddly cuteness but in the politics of domination and costly resistance to it. 

To read the rest click here.

I had the privilege of making a quick trip to East Tennessee this week to give the homily at Adoration, a contemplative, ecumenical service of Word and Table. We observed the Solemnity of All Saints.

Revelation 7:2-4, 9-14
Responsorial Psalm 24: 1BC-2, 3-4AB, 5-6
1  John 3:1-3
Matthew 5:1-12A

Let us pray:

Great God of light,
as the radiance of these candles dazzles our eyes,
so may the light of your Spirit illumine our hearts and minds,
that we might behold your beauty—in word, in sacrament, in one another.

+ + +

When my two sons were about 8 and 12 years old, the younger one, Patrick, came home from school one day and announced to the older one, Drew: “I was named after a saint, and you were named after the past tense of a verb.” This is the same younger son whom I once overheard say to a new friend: “My mom is a doctor but not the kind who can do you any good.”

 Patrick is now in his 20s and he is still learning to live into his sainthood.

As are all of us. Each one of us.

And for some of us, we find this to be a daunting proposition: to try and live—whether or not we bear the name of a saint—into the vocation of sainthood. Because for most of us, sainthood suggests sinlessness, or at least a singlemindedness of devotion or piety or virtue that we could never muster.

We think about our lives that often seem so small. We regret choices we have made. Hurts we have inflicted. Friendships we have allowed to languish or worse. We consider how judgmental we can be. How petty or prideful or preoccupied with a thousand things other than the way of discipleship. We know that our faith is often shaky—something we can barely admit to ourselves, let alone to others, let alone to God.

And our calling is to be saints?

When Jesus speaks these familiar words in St. Matthew’s gospel—what we call the “Beatitudes”—he gives his first hearers and us something of a litany of sainthood:

Poverty of spirit.
A hunger and thirst for righteousness.
Cleanness of Heart.
Being persecuted for righteousness’ sake.

These are the states of being, the conditions of life, the qualities of character that Jesus says are blessed by God. And blessedness here, the New Testament scholars tell us, means something like “happiness.” But this word, too, gives us pause: Happy are the poor in spirit? Really?

The Christian tradition has always held that human beings are created for happiness, and it has defined happiness as knowing, loving, and enjoying God. St. Thomas Aquinas, in perhaps one of the most thorough treatments of the subject, observed that happiness is ultimately linked with goodness. In this he was following Aristotle who believed that only goodness can make us happy.

At the beginning of the Bible we learn that the happiness we were created for is friendship with one another and with God, and at its end we have heard, this very night, of the heavenly communion that characterizes the ultimate happiness—the beatific vision—that all of creation is destined for:

“A great multitude, which no one could count, from every nation, race, people, and tongue, standing before the throne and before the Lamb . . . “

This is the happiness we were made for:  to contemplate the beauty of God. John’s vision isn’t one of leaving anyone behind; it is the eternal adoration of God in the communion of saints.

In contrast to a culture that trains us to view happiness as something we buy or make, something we earn or deserve, the Christian tradition has insisted that a life of genuine happiness comes to us through grace. “The God who wants our good gifts us with the happiness we seek” (Paul Wadell).

Scripture also makes clear, from beginning to end, that the happiness we were made for is deeply social, ineluctably political. “Political” in this sense has to do with how human beings are constituted by community and how we might flourish in it—how it is that we are good together.

Thus the Beatitudes—indeed the whole Sermon on the Mount in which they are set—are not a list of ethical mandates for the individual or a prescription for self-actualization. What Jesus blesses are not moral states he orders his followers to achieve—be meek! be merciful!—but the conditions of our shared life as we seek to flourish together in the goodness of God.

So for instance when Jesus says, “happy are those who mourn,” we know that he is not enjoining chin-up cheerfulness in the face of blinding sorrow. Rather, we have it on Jesus’ authority here that “in deep sadness human beings are in God’s hands more than at any other time” (Dale Bruner).

But there is another kind of mourner: the one who weeps with those who weep (Rom. 12:15). And here we might see Jesus as the one who makes known what blessed mourning looks like. At Bethany, Jesus wept for his friend, Lazarus, and through his own tears, transformed the grief of his friends and the suspicion of his skeptics.

Blessed are those who weep with those who weep.

In our lives, we have the privilege of making a gift of our own tears as we attend to those who grieve—the wounded, the weary, the broken, the broken-hearted.

But in truth we find this to be a very difficult thing. Tears are profoundly intimate. They reveal our human frailty like almost nothing else. The grieving often suffer alone because they do not know how to receive the tears of another—their own can be bewildering enough.

And those who might offer comfort to the grieving by weeping with them are also often embarrassed by tears—their own and the tears of others—and at a loss with how to be so exposed and unguarded; how to simply be with another through unstoppable tears.

But “God’s heart calls to our hearts, inviting us to come out of ourselves, to forsake our human certainties [and] to make of ourselves a gift of unbounded love” (Pope Benedict XVI).

If genuine happiness is learning to be like God in goodness, then those who mourn and those who weep with them know something of the vulnerable heart of our good and gracious God.

On the feast of All Saints we are reminded, happily, that we do not go it alone on this journey of living into the blessedness, the happiness we have been called to, created for. The New Testament never uses the word “saint” in the singular. There are only saints in the plural.

In trying to live into the gift, the vocation, of sainthood—into the gift of happiness—we have the witness of other saints: beloved people in our own lives and the beatified, canonized saints of the Church, many of whose countenances surround us here tonight like the great cloud of witnesses they are in these beautiful icons.

Yet these beautiful, iconic witnesses to our faith are not persons whose lives are beyond our reach. As Dorothy Day once said: “Don’t call me a saint; I don’t want to be dismissed so easily.”

We pray to the saints—or, rather, we beseech the saints to pray for us—not because they were perfect but because they weren’t—because they, like us, lived messy lives. They had regrets. They inflicted hurts. They struggled with pettiness, pride, a shaky faith.

Yet in the midst of their flawed, imperfect lives, they were men and women who relished life as a gift, and who realized that the only way to honor such a gift is to give it away (William Stringfellow).

 + + +

A great American tradition on Halloween is to carve a pumpkin into a grinning lantern. We set it by the front door as a sign of hospitality to strangers and guests. According to our faith, offering hospitality to strangers and guests is a way to experience a foretaste of the great heavenly banquet where all of us will be welcomed into the presence of Christ and invited to feast at his table.

Tonight we, too, experience a foretaste of the great heavenly banquet as we partake of this holy meal set before us. We sup with the saints of the ages. And we sup with the saints beside us in this room even now.

“See what love the Father has bestowed on us that we may be called the children of God. Yet so we are. What we shall be has not yet been revealed. We do know that when it is revealed we shall be like him, for we shall see him as he is.” (1 John 3:1-2).

Until then, we have this meal. We have each other. We have the witness of those in whom we see the goodness of God, who show us what blessedness, what happiness, looks like.

With them, we are saints in the plural.



On a long drive the other day, I heard an NPR story about an adventure playground in California where kids can “play wild” on a half-acre park that has the deliberate vibe (and potential danger) of a junkyard. The day before that, the TED Radio Hour featured a talk by Gever Tulley, founder of The Tinkering School, who says that when kids are given sharp tools and matches, their imaginations take off and they become better problem-solvers.

These stories are part of a trend in which Americans (or at least American journalists) are beginning to question the overprotection believed by many to characterize modern American parenting. In Europe, by contrast, risky, junkyard playgrounds have been around since the end of World War II, when their construction was spurred by the conviction that children who might grow up to fight wars shouldn’t be shielded from danger; rather, they should meet it, early and often, with confidence and courage.

Recently, when a mother in Florida was arrested for allowing her seven-year-old son to walk alone to a city park a half-mile from their house, talk shows, blogs, and Facebook news feeds lit up with impassioned responses, revealing a deep divide over this issue: either the mother’s actions constituted criminal negligence or we are now criminalizing commonsense parenting. (Important class issues that come into play here received only scant attention).

Such a set of cultural concerns could only come about through a particular confluence of factors. Perhaps the most significant is our increasing fearfulness, individually and collectively. Much of it is unfounded, a good deal of it misdirected, almost all of it cultivated dishonestly and exploited shamelessly by those who stand to gain by it. What we ought to fear–that honeybees may soon be extinct, for one thing, and that half of the planet’s topsoil has been lost in the last hundred and fifty years, for another–is overtaken by any number of false worries: that there is something called “the gay agenda,” that President Obama is secretly a Muslim, and (the one that keeps us up at night regardless of our politics) that we are largely failures as parents.

There is also the factor of the kind of anthropology of children we operate with. In a market economy, children are regarded alternately, though sometimes simultaneously, as commodities/consumers or burdens/liabilities. We routinely think of children as “instruments” for our own fulfillment, “objects” of our (micro)management skills, “projects” for reform or redirection. Of course, we love our children and, of course, we don’t use this language when speaking of them or to them. But we swim in the sea of global capitalism with its discourse of cost-benefit analysis, investment and return, and profitability. Often at the heart of both child-bearing and child-rearing are questions of affordability and the pressure to compete, the latter of which we seem to pass on to our children as readily as we give them our curly hair or nearsightedness.

Our theology of children often doesn’t fare much better. While the Church has rightly insisted that children are gifts from God–not commodities and certainly not burdens–parents, congregations, and clergy often unwittingly regard children as personal possessions. When an infant is baptized, the whole community makes long-haul promises to help nurture the child in the way of discipleship. Yet when that child is not the sweetly-sleeping cherub in her mother’s arms but a rebellious teen making disastrous choices, we often turn away–embarrassed for the family, hopeful that the kid will get the professional help she needs. It’s not our business, we tell ourselves. It’s a private matter. We wish them all the best.

What we don’t seem to get very well is that in the mystery of baptism we discover that our lives are linked with all those–children, women, and men–who have been baptized into Christ. And because we believe that all people–all children, women, and men everywhere–are created in the image of God, our lives are also linked with those of other faiths and those of no faith. No exception.

But what about the children of Gaza–the traumatized and suffering, the dead and dying? What about the refugee children at our southern border? Why is it that we cannot conceive that they are our children, too? that our lives are inextricably, quite inconveniently, linked with theirs?

We feel sorry for them–perhaps deeply sorry–but when we make them into objects of our pity, we engage in a kind of emotional self-indulgence that may soothe our own discomfort for awhile (at least until the next human catastrophe appears on our screen) but which changes nothing.

All the while we  worry that our own children won’t be tough enough. We debate the parenting skills of a single mother in Florida. These are preoccupations of the safe and the privileged. It’s only if our children are secure, after all, that we can contemplate filling their lives with more risk.

In the meantime there are children living daily under conditions of unspeakable danger. Theirs are playgrounds of death, not of their own choosing. They inhabit junkyards of ruined hopes, ruined lives.

Would that we might be accused of overprotecting them.





Third Sunday After Pentecost
Thirteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time
Matthew 10:40-42

When I first began attending mass several years ago, I was struck by the kind of welcome I received. Or, rather, the kind I cead mile failtedidn’t. Raised in the over-eager Protestantism that hovers and fawns over every guest at worship (a well-meaning practice; I’ve engaged in it myself), Catholics were noticeably cool, it seemed—a little distant, even.

This wasn’t (and isn’t) calculating or conspiratorial on their part—nor on mine now as a Catholic. Any given group of parishioners at any given mass is not following a script about how to treat newcomers to the liturgy. And I don’t mean to suggest an absence of warmth or kindness; I’ve never experienced that in a Catholic church and I hope I’ve never communicated it. But I do think that the Eucharist—week after week, year after year—trains worshipers to know, even if they don’t or can’t articulate it theologically, that it is not the people or even the priest who does the welcoming; it’s Christ who does so.

All of us—long-timers and first-timers alike—are Christ’s guests, receivers of his gracious welcome.

And yet when we think about the welcomes we experience in other settings, most of us—Catholics and Protestants—find it difficult, I think, to be on the receiving end of another’s generosity. It seems to go against our sense of pride or self-sufficiency to be vulnerable in ways that would cause others to freely offer us welcome or refuge, harbor or hospitality. Interestingly, we don’t mind paying for such things—a nice hotel stay, a day at the spa—but this is because the hospitality industry is about market exchanges, not true acts of gracious, gratuitous, no-strings-attached welcome.

To read the rest click here.



“To inflect the inner silence, to give it body, that’s all we’re doing.”

Li-Young Lee, A God in the House: Poets Talk About Faith

I walk out of the guest house toward the Abbey church a few minutes before midday prayer. Already the air is steamy. The scent of manure in nearby pastures is faint but insistent. We’re in Indiana, though farther south than Louisville. Weather- IMG_3949wise, it feels like Dixie. In the quiet of the church is coolness and the lingering fragrance of incense, as earthy and pungent in its own way as the compost on the fields.

* * * * *

One of the readers this week is a monk who has the voice of a baseball announcer. Not basketball. Not football. Baseball on the radio in the 1950s. If he told me that Stan Musial had just hit a line drive to win the game for the Cardinals, I’d be able to see it. When he tells me that “there is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear,” I believe him.

* * * * *

What does it do to, in, and for a human body to sing so much of a day, every day of your life? There’s all the interesting science about how slow chanting can induce a rhythmic pattern and rate of breathing with significant health benefits. And there’s the very interesting science of synchrony in singers’ heartbeats. But what does all this have to do with the way you live? the way you love?

* * * * *

At times there is a kind of holy tedium that sets in when praying the divine office. I speak only for myself in this. I notice it especially at vigils–it’s early, it’s long. It’s not really sleepiness, though. Is there such a thing as reverent boredom? Can I offer that, too, with my morning prayers?

* * * * *

At times a single musical line–like the alleluias in the responosry for First Vespers on the Feast of the Ascension–almost breaks your heart. And heals it, too.

* * * * *

At mass on a Tuesday the presider tells us that we bring all our zeal, all our sin, all our brokenness, every time we gather for the Eucharist. “Conversion,” he says, “is literally on the table.” Like the baseball-announcer-monk, when he says this, I believe him.

* * * * *

St. Meinrad Archabbey
The Feast of the Ascension

(I spent a month here last summer. It is good to be back).

Easter A
John 20:1-18
(RCL); John 20:1-9 (Lectionary for Mass)Tulip 7576

You have to preach to those for whom the resurrection narrative is known inside and out, is loved and adored, is the sense-making story of their life in God, their life with others, their life in relation to all the world. What is there to say?

You have to preach to those for whom the resurrection narrative is science fiction or harmful propaganda. They may be in church this day only to please a mother or grandmother. (There are worse things). They may smirk. They may sleep. They may pity your benighted ignorance. What is there to say?

You have to preach to those who are curious but who would never let on that the story of Jesus’ rising from the dead sometimes keeps them up at night. They have a healthy dose of the same skepticism as the group above, but unlike them, they have a hunch that truth can be revealed through means other than the scientific method. What is there to say?

You have to preach to those who long for subtlety and sublimity in an Easter sermon. They may share a good deal with group one but, like group three, they also live with a fair amount of uncertainty about things. They think that poetry and art might be the best media for conveying the story of Easter. What is there to say?

Much is welcome about the Church’s signature Feast: the glorious music, the sparkling Alleluias! after the soberness of Lent, the bursting forth of springtime (at least in the northern hemisphere). Yet how does the preacher communicate Easter’s strange, improbable story to this strange, improbable gathering?

To read the rest click here.

There are so many sources of wistful regret to choose from, so many different clocks to mark time.

Elizabeth Ehrlich, Miriam’s Kitchen

With the imposition of ashes imminent–this stark ritual signalling the onset of a season starker still in its confrontations with mortality and its fleshly (and fleshy) deprivations–I am reading about food. Glorious food.

Miriam’s Kitchen is the 1997 memoir of Elizabeth Ehrlich, a smart, skeptical, secular Jew who, in her mid-30s,  found herself, despite herself, drawn to kashrut–the dietary laws of Judaism. Her gentle yet resolute mother-in-law, Miriam, and the memories of her grandmothers’ kosher Brooklyn kitchens beckon Erhlich toward a way of eating–a way of life–that causes her to wonder: “have I consented to my own oppression?”

But the food. God in heaven, the food.

Honey cake and mandelbrot, mushroom barley soup and noodle kugel, potato pudding and summer squash, cheese danish and chocolate sour cream cake. (Did I mention cake?). And more than a dozen other dishes, recipes included. (Once when I taught this book in a Women and the Bible course at an all-women’s college, we brought many of these dishes to class one day. I remember how text, tradition, food, faith, and gender–and the quotidian realities of their complicated convergence–came to life for us in the extravagant meal we shared).

And as Lent arrives I think about the many ways we often regard food as an enemy. There is, of course, something toxic about much of our contemporary relationship to food–the literal poisoning of our bodies with chemicals and additives, the alarming rise in chronic conditions like obesity, type-2 diabetes, and coronary disease. We are prone to promiscuity in our eating; we can be mindless gluttons.

Not for nothing, the day before Ash Wednesday is known as “Fat Tuesday,” but how does this observance make any sense in a culture of excess where all meals easily become feasts of overconsumption?

A kosher Lent–a fit or proper Lent–might mean giving up the practices of individualizing–in mostly negative ways–our relationship to food: Shared abundance–not private obsession in the form of, say, counting fat grams or giving up chocolate–might be the better Lenten discipline.

Ehrlich makes this observation:

Kashrut, I believe, gave Jesus his great opening. He ate with the common people in their homes, when other learned teachers wouldn’t. Poor folk might not have had enough wooden bowls, ceramic vessels, and cooking implements to adhere perfectly to dietary laws. They might not have enough knowledge or resources to make their kitchens kosher enough for the standards of a truly learned man. Jesus swallowed his own squeamishness, perhaps, sat down and broke bread. You can get to heaven without all of this, he taught. I can see the appeal.

But oddly enough, and at the same time, trying to be kosher confronts one with the ultimate impossibility of perfection. Finally you have to live with your accommodations, the limits of being human. As with a calculus problem, the solution may draw close to an imaginary line, but never quite get there. At least, I’m sure I never will.

Her last point here–about living with limits–is Lenten theology at its best. We are finite creatures. We are dust and to dust we shall return. Yet in our finititude, in the boundaries set by our being human, lie the possibilities for experiencing the fullness of life we were created for. During Lent we ponder this paradox.

But too often we make the Lenten experience an exercise in personal heroics–as if it were a solo trip, a competition, even. Whatever challenges we face in the wilderness of our own temptations, we are pilgrims together on the journey to resurrection light and joy. Sharing our lives, sharing food (did I mention cake?): fitting ways to observe a holy Lent.

Epiphany 5ALuminous Darkness
Fifth Sunday in Ordinary Time
Matthew 5:13-16

Who among those who have read the gospels does not know that Christ has made all human suffering his own?

Origen, “On Prayer”

On Sunday, when I read that Philip Seymour Hoffman had died, my breath caught a little. I didn’t know him, of course, though I’ve admired every performance of his I’ve seen. (Oh, the power of cinema to make us feel like we know the actors we love—indeed to make us love them in the first place.) Hoffman was an actor of astonishing intuition and virtuosity. As one writer put it, “he could nail a part in one punch, summoning the richness of an entire life in the smallest gesture.”

It would be tempting to narrate Hoffman’s all too brief life and tragic death within the tired tropes of celebrity culture (money can’t buy you love; movie stars are desperately lonely people) but, thankfully, I’ve seen none of that in the moving tributes I’ve read to Hoffman’s life and art.

In particular, James Martin, SJ, recalls spending time with Hoffman in preparation for the off-Broadway production of The Last Days of Judas Iscariot:

Phil, as everyone called him, projected a unique blend of relaxed intensity as a director . . . He approached the text with an almost scholastic seriousness, carefully attending to every line in the script . . . From time to time, to illustrate a thorny point, or to describe the emotion that might underlie a scene, he would offer a story from his own life. “Did you ever have this experience?” Phil would ask, and recount a tale illustrating despair, or hope, or joy, or betrayal or trust . . . When I asked Phil Hoffman about his directing style on “The Last Days of Judas Iscariot,” he readily agreed with the inherent strength of the parable—or, in his words, the personal anecdote—in its ability to communicate more than a strictly worded directive . . . In Phil’s words, Jesus was always suggesting, in order that the decision to follow or not follow was always that person’s own decision.

For all that was luminous about Philip Seymour Hoffman—his generosity and kindness, his immense talent—he, like all of us, struggled against darkness. His was in the form of an opiate addiction that he would not conquer. But also in his art, he revealed the “luminous darkness” of the human condition.  “He could take the most pitiful souls,” writes Ryan Gilbey, “and imbue each of them with a wrenching humanity. The more pathetic or deluded the character, the greater Hoffman’s relish seemed in rescuing them from the realms of the merely monstrous.”

To read the rest click here.



A post from awhile back. I showed this movie in my film and lit class yesterday. So powerful, so beautiful . . .

Last week, as media coverage of the May 21st doomsday prediction was gathering speed, I saw the movie Of Gods and Men. I’m still thinking about it. I can’t stop thinking about it, actually–even as the apocalyptic deadline has, predictably, come and gone. Not that the film has anything to do with bad end-time theology, but it does have everything to do with how we think about time (chronos and kairos) and space (earth and heaven and their continual meeting).

The first thing that comes to mind in pondering this beautiful French film is that in a hundred years of American cinema Christianity has not fared well. (When I teach a course on religion in contemporary film we necessarily read lots of subtitles). Not that there haven’t been lots (and lots) of Christians protrayed in lots (and lots) of American movies, but they have tended toward the cartoonish: hucksters or hypocrites or the insufferably pious and sentimental

So we can thank a deeply secular French culture in which (until last week, perhaps) the extramarital conquests of rich and powerful men are a matter of course for giving us a film of immense moral power, heartbreaking humanity and grace, and stunning theological acumen.

Xavier Beauvois’s Of Gods and Men tells the true story of a small community of Cistercian monks caught up in the violence that overtook Algeria in the mid-1990s. Their abbey had been a mainstay in the Atlas mountains for more than a hundred years and the brothers’ daily lives were inextricably (and contentedly) linked to those of their Muslim neighbors.

In the film, Brother Luc, a physician, treats the infirmities of the impoverished villagers who repay him with smiles of relief and gratitude. The prior, Brother Christian, studies the Koran and quotes it in Arabic when a violent rebel group comes calling at the Abbey. Early scenes in the film establish a long-standing relationship of mutual trust and respect between the monks and townspeople.

When the violence becomes an intolerable threat to everyone, the brothers must decide what to do: leave immediately? break away gradually? stay unequivocally? They argue about their options and are, by turns, angry and magnanimous, petty and courageous, fearful and trusting. That is, they are fully-rendered human beings, not celluloid stereotypes of the best (or worst) of confessing Christians.

The film’s real power, though, is in revealing how the monastic rhythm of work and prayer informs a way of life that refuses the facile divisions of time and eternity, earth and heaven, and instead engages and inhabits this world in the hope of God’s good future–the shalom embodied in the way of Jesus. Which is not, as some skeptics would have it, religious naivete or pious wishful thinking–“can’t we all just get along?” Rather, the kairos of God’s coming reign is the demanding work of sustaining difficult relationships and praying when you don’t feel like it and refusing the way of violence in a world gone mad with war. It is, in short, the way of the cross–which is never the way of “niceness” but of costly discipleship.

After the rebel soldiers visit the monastery for the first time the frightened monks go inside to celebrate the Christ mass, the Christmas vigil. As Brother Christian says,

It’s what we had to do. It’s what we did. And we sang the Mass. We welcomed that Child
who was born for us absolutely helpless and already so threatened.

And it’s what he says next that stands in such stark contrast to the well-meaning but misguided “Rapture” Christians who believe that redemption lies in escape from the material world, who imagine a radical yet thoroughly unbiblical disconnect between earth and heaven, time and eternity:

Afterwards, we found salvation in undertaking our daily tasks. The kitchen, the garden, the prayers, the bells. Day after day. We had to resist the violence. And day after day, I think each of us discovered that to which Jesus Christ beckons us. It’s … to be born. Our identities as men go from one birth to another. And from birth to birth, we’ll each end up bringing to the world the child of God that we are.

Finally, Of Gods and Men reminds us that we are called to lives of beauty that will likely be misunderstood by those around us, that might in fact get us into trouble or, as in the monks’ case, even killed: Beauty in our worship (if only American Protestants would give up “relevance” for beauty); beauty in our work and in our relationships. But beauty is intolerable in a world driven by raw power, cruelty, and violence.

Doomsday prophets don’t speak much about beauty. But the end of our existence–the purpose for which we were created–is to participate in the beauty that makes our lives possible, to “give beauty back to God,” as another monk once said, “beauty’s self and beauty’s giver.”

In his role as prophet to the nation, Martin Luther King, Jr. drew on the ancient wisdom of both the Greeks and Hebrews. From Aristotle he learned that the character of an orator is of prime importance, but not in the ways we moderns might imagine. It wasn’t personal morality that was the prized dimension of skillful oratory so much as it was the proper execution of a persona (“mask” in Latin). “Person” in this sense – literally, “that which is sounded through” (per-sonar) – is not an essence or ego or the irreducible human self. Rather, it’s a role one plays.

This strikes us – shaped as we are by our culture’s rhetoric of “always be yourself” – as not only odd but deeply deceptive. We want our public speakers – politicians and preachers, especially – to be transparent, accessible, down-to-earth, one of us. To claim that they are wearing masks is to suggest that they are perpetrating a fraud, pulling one over on us. Facades in public discourse, we think, reasonably, are precisely the problem.

But this misses Aristotle’s point and King’s perceptiveness regarding the role of public speech – namely, that an orator’s powers are not tied primarily to his or her own moral character (though character is not unimportant), but to inhabiting a role that persuades, moves, exposes, inspires, transforms. As Richard Lischer notes, “orators have more in common with actors than the orators – or the preachers – like to admit.”

King also drew on Israel’s prophetic tradition as he “adopted a series of biblical personae, masks, that captured the several roles he understood himself to be playing in American life” (Lischer). These  personae (Jeremiah’s sensitivity, Amos’s eloquence) — much more than King’s own personality — authorized and legitimized his work, locating it in broader, deeper streams of tradition which could speak powerfully and persuasively to the present moment.

It’s instructive, I think, to consider these qualities in King’s oratory in light of current trends in American preaching and speech-making. We live in the age of authenticity – or we’d like to think we do. We want our leaders to be “real” – what you see is what you get. Politicians campaign on this all the time: “I’m one of you.” “I’m not really a politician” – they often say, all evidence to the contrary. “I’m a father, mother, concerned citizen, you fill in the blank.” “I’m one of you.”

Martin Luther King still has no peers in the skill and art that counteract all of this, and we’ve not really heeded the lesson he taught us: namely, that the moral power of a great sermon or speech is not derived from an “authentic self” (for we have no access to such a thing), but from a role inhabited, a part well-played, a mask worn well, such that people are moved and a nation is changed.

Finally, it is precisely in King’s humanness, including his moral frailty, that his prophetic witness derived much of its moral force. His personal failings shouldn’t be dismissed or ignored, especially as they hurt other people in his life. But neither were they disqualifications, as his detractors would have it. Martin Luther King, Jr. and a long line of saints and martyrs have been instruments of healing and transformation in and through their fallibility as human beings.

And they have borne witness to peaceableness in the midst of violence; to subversive love in the face of all-consuming hatred. And in death — in bodies brutalized by systems propped up by fear — they summon us to our own subversive witness against the powers.

The WordPress.com stats helper monkeys prepared a 2013 annual report for this blog.

Here’s an excerpt:

The concert hall at the Sydney Opera House holds 2,700 people. This blog was viewed about 27,000 times in 2013. If it were a concert at Sydney Opera House, it would take about 10 sold-out performances for that many people to see it.

Click here to see the complete report.

A post I wrote as a guest contributor to the blog at On Being with Krista Tippett.

Luke 2:1-14
John 1:1-14

“The Ancient of Days has become an infant.”

John Chrysostom, 4th century

On Christmas  Eve we read Luke’s dramatic account of the birth of Jesus. On Christmas Day we read the prologue  from John’s gospel. At first glance these texts seem to offer two very different  perspectives on the coming of Christ All Creation Bowsinto the world: Luke’s is earthy and  political, conveying the historical contingencies (and palpable dangers) that attended the first Advent; John’s is meditative and philosophical, written in  academic Greek, locating the “Word made flesh” not in the provincial politics of  first-century Palestine but boldly and unapologetically in the sweeping history  of the cosmos.

But despite  the differences there is, I suggest, an affinity, a necessary and even urgent correspondence  between these two traditional Christmas narratives. In Luke, we  glimpse what the tyranny of the imperium  romanum meant for its subjects, especially those on the margins of empire geographically,  ethnically, and religiously. In verses 1 through 5 it is clear that the events  leading up to Jesus’ birth were no picnic – nothing like the familiar, beatific  stuff of greeting-card sentimentality. Rather, despots and oligarchs populate  the scene and the treacherous journey to the stable – labor pains upon labor  pains – includes refugees on the run, authorities asking for papers, and risky  border crossings.

To read the rest click here.

In 1595, the English Jesuit Robert Southwell wrote “The Burning Babe,” a startling, unsettling poem about the incarnation–which means, given Southwell’s rich theological imagination and deep Catholic piety, that it is also a poem about suffering and salvation. And about the human predilection to resist divine love.

371 years later, Denise Levertov penned “Advent 1966” in which her vision of the “Burning Babe” is not Southwell’s blessed Infant “scorched with excessive heat” (though her poem is replete with references to Southwell) but dying babies in Vietnam–“infant after infant” . . . “flesh on fire” . . . “moaning and stinking in hospitals three abed.” (Full text of poem below).vietnam-war-photos-10

47 years after Levertov’s startling, unsettling poem, its indictment of the human predilection for violence is as timely as ever. Napalm has long been superceded in modern warfare, most recently by the surgical precision of drone strikes, but the incinerated dead are just as dead.

Some say poetry as raw political commentary is a bad idea. Indeed, Levertov’s friend and long-time correspondent, poet Robert Duncan, excoriated her political turn, insisting that the poet’s job is “not to oppose evil but to imagine it.” Yet Levertov’s work in the Vietnam era was as much personal as political. In “Advent 1966,” the subtext is the speaker’s vision–the increasing lack and loss of it: “There is a cataract filming over my inner eyes.”

This is the poetry of conviction, of wrestling with human failure and frailty in ways large and small. It is the poetry of despair–a refusal to make a leap toward hope that would put a tidy finish on the senseless and catastrophic.

It is fitting that Levertov locates her outrage, personally and politically, in Advent–whether or not something particular in December of 1966 occasioned the poem. In Advent, we are mindful of despair–in parts of the story that shape our Christian convictions and also in our own lives on these long, dark days when the senseless and catastrophic sometimes overtake us.

Writer and Anglican priest Fleming Rutledge points out that “a famous painting of the annunciation in the Cloisters in New York shows the embryonic Jesus slipping down a shaft of sunlight toward Mary–and he is already carrying his cross.” The incarnation–the feast of Nicene dogma, as Rutledge notes–is of a piece with a suffering Christ, a suffering world, a suffering you and me.

In Advent we live with that startling, unsettling truth, refusing to rush toward a tidy finish.


Advent 1966

Because in Vietnam the vision of a Burning Babe
is multiplied, multiplied,
                                               the flesh on fire
not Christ’s, as Southwell saw it, prefiguring
the Passion upon the Eve of Christmas,

but wholly human and repeated, repeated,
infant after infant, their names forgotten,
their sex unknown in the ashes,
set alight, flaming but not vanishing,
not vanishing as his vision but lingering,

cinders upon the earth or living on
moaning and stinking in hospitals three abed;

because of this my strong sight,
my clear caressive sight, my poet’s sight I was given
that it might stir me to song,
is blurred.
                    There is a cataract filming over
my inner eyes. Or else a monstrous insect
has entered my head, and looks out
from my sockets with multiple vision,

seeing not the unique Holy Infant
burning sublimely, an imagination of redemption,
furnace in which souls are wrought into new life,
but, as off a beltline, more, more senseless figures aflame.

And this insect (who is not there—
it is my own eyes do my seeing, the insect
is not there, what I see is there)
will not permit me to look elsewhere,

or if I look, to see except dulled and unfocused
the delicate, firm, whole flesh of the still unburned.

First Sunday of Advent  

Isaiah 2:1-5
Psalm 122 
Romans 13:11-14

Matthew 24:36-44

The story of the end, of the last word of the end, when told, is a story that never ends.

From Mark Strand’s  “The Seven Last Words”


Christianity makes the brazen claim that Jesus of Nazareth is the end of history, and the double-entendre is deliberate.

On the one hand, the consummation that Christ’s resurrection makes possible cannot be an event in history, enclosed by history, any more than creation can be an event enfolded in time. On the other hand, the life, death, Hickory Treeand resurrection of this first-century crucified Jew is the telos, the goal, the realized hope of all human (and non-human) existence. Jesus of Nazareth is history’s end.

In other words, the crucified and risen Christ not only completes history but ruptures it. Precisely in and through the historical contingencies of first-century Palestine—this specific set of laws and customs, that particular Roman procurator—the future, God’s good future, begins. In a backwater province of Empire, the truth of the triune God breaks history open not through political coercion or insurrection but with a revolution of forgiving, reconciling love. As John Howard Yoder put it:

The point that apocalyptic makes is not only that people who wear crowns and who claim to foster justice by the sword are not as strong as they think—true as that is . . . It is that people who bear crosses are working with the grain of the universe.

To read the rest click here.

When we have learned how to do something well, in the world generally, we say it has become “second nature” to us. Many are the second natures that have taken up residence inside us, from the way Aunt Sally threads a needle to the way Uncle Elmer votes. It Hauerwas celebrationdemands, finally, a thrust of our own imagination–a force, a new idea–to make sure that we do not merely copy, but inherit, and proceed from what we have learned.

Mary Oliver, A Poetry Handbook:  A Prose Guide to Understanding and Writing Poetry

Last Friday I attended a celebration of the life, work, and friendship of Stanley Hauerwas on the occasion of his retirement from Duke Divinity School. It was an extraordinary day of honoring a man whose extraordinary generosity has shaped the lives and vocations of so many. There were funny stories and moving tributes. There was beautiful worship and scholarly discourse. There were smiles and sighs and laughter and tears. There was much tenderness.

Stanley’s Texas twang has always invited mimicry (and there was plenty of that, too). But the real concern with imitating Stanley Hauerwas has long been that his larger-than-life persona and his staggering intellectual output would create clones rather than independent thinkers, copycat theologians instead of original scholars. (In my experience, this has worried Stanley’s critics more than it has concerned Stanley or his friends).

Stanley himself has never gone in much for originality. He has often said that the theologian’s task is not to be original but to be a faithful custodian of the tradition entrusted to the Church. Yet he’s also famous for lines like this one: “I don’t want you to think for yourselves, I want you to think like me.”

Who has not seen a young painter in a museum intently copying a Vermeer, or a Van Gogh, and believing himself on the way to learning something valuable? (Oliver).

As I took in the rich celebration of this charismatic, controversial man, I noticed that his students, colleagues, and friends revealed, again and again, that they had taken in the best of Stanley’s life and work–trying it all on, seeing what fit, what didn’t, what needed tailoring or tweaking or fine-tuning. They had studied him intently–attending to the contours of his art, the broad strokes and finer nuances of his craft.

And in the thrust of their own imaginations they did what the best imitators do: they bore witness. With honesty and straightforwardness they engaged their teacher. They described Stanley’s work better than Stanley often does. They praised him. They pushed back. They took risks.

But there is also this:

What most of us long to imitate in Stanley Hauerwas is, I think, his attentiveness to the people around him. It is Stanley the teacher who makes me want to be a teacher like him: passionate about texts and deeply interested in the well-being of students. I believe that Stanley loves his students.

Such talk, of course, in this age of assessment and learning outcomes, sounds ridiculous. But the art of teaching is an act of giving oneself away in love for the sake of what (and whom) one loves, without reservation or embarrassment. I have experienced this as Stanley’s student; I hope my students experience this in me.

And here, I think, is the difference Christ makes (the theme of the celebration last Friday): Stanley taught us, in his writing, in his teaching, in his being, that in the body of Christ we have time enough and all that we need to cultivate friendships, to practice patience and generosity, to pay attention to beauty, to teach students and to love them as Christ loves them. In this, it isn’t the imitation of Stanley that we aspire to, but imitatio Christi.

Still, Stanley has been our companion on the way, our teacher and our friend. Thanks be to God for such gifts.

There’s a trend in the trick-or-treat business that I find a little sad. It’s called “trunk-and-treat” and it’s popular in church parking lots. The idea is that open car trunks are decked out in Halloween decor (usually not the gross or scary stuff), stocked with lots of candy, and then pirates and ladybugs, superheroes and Disney princesses go car to car filling up their treat bags.

I understand the rationale: it’s considered safe for the kids; it’s a no hassle, one-stop-shopping excursion; there’s some stimulation for the adults as they have other adults to talk to. And it’s part of a larger effort in many churches (especially in the south) to remove Halloween from local neighborhoods and park it on the church grounds, literally — to clean up the holiday’s image and minimize its dark undertones.

But the thing is, Halloween has always been connected to Christianity, and its preoccupation with death is inseparable from its religious roots. All Saints Day, November 1 — the day that Christians commemorate the saints of the Church who have died — is also known as All Hallows. So October 31 is All Hallows Eve or Even, contracted from the Old English into “Halloween.”

November 1 was also the beginning of the new year for the ancient Celts. October 31 marked the end of their growing season and on that night they would pay tribute to the spirit world with gifts of food to insure that next year’s crop would be bountiful. It was a time for communicating with the dead and receiving wisdom from the ancestors to help secure future prosperity.

And so All Hallows Eve has always been intertwined with the angricultural rituals of Celtic folk religion. In ancient times huge bonfires were set in order to frighten away evil spirits. In medieval times the pagan and Christian traditions merged, with children going door to door begging for “soul cakes” for the wandering spirits. if no treats were offered, the beggars would play pranks. Trick or treat.

This crisscrossing of the pagan and Christian is not unusual in the Church’s history and is no cause for alarm. Christmas, for example, is celebrated on December 25 not because this is the date of Jesus’ birth — no one knows when he was born — but because of a popular Roman celebration. Saturnalia — a festival devoted to Saturn (and before that to the sun-God Mithra) was a raucous affair of much feasting and merry-making. Church authorities tried forbidding it, insisting that Christians not take part, but to no avail. So they adopted it, adapted it, and in the year 336 turned it into the commemoration of the nativity: Christmas — the “Christ mass.” And many of the beloved traditions we associate with Christmas — garlands of greenery, trees lit with candles, the yule log — have their roots in these pagan, pre-Christian traditions.

And so, too, with the traditions of Halloween: the carved pumpkins, our fascination with death, dressing up and going door to door. I don’t want to get too heavy-handed with the theological significance of these rituals but there is something to the idea that we open our door to strangers on a dark, autumn night, a grinning lantern on the porch to light their way. It’s a small gesture of hospitality, a willingness to want to know our neighbors. (Of course it’s also about the candy).

There’s also something about the risks of hospitality and neighborliness in Halloween’s rituals. Sometimes doors are closed and locked, houses dark — hospitality denied, neighborliness feared. The work of community is harder than we think. But when we offer a gift to a stranger (a cup of cold water, a Snickers bar on Halloween), we are also learning to receive gifts from strangers — to be transformed by encountering Christ in them. They might be wearing a mask (a vampire mask, say, or the mask of loneliness or irritability), but we all wear masks, all the time. Discarding them is the work of a lifetime.

Halloween in a parking lot is safe and of course we want our children to be safe. But opening our doors on the night before All Saints Day can be a surprising gift of grace — hospitality given and hospitality received. Death comes for us all but, until then, dare we give ourselves away in small gestures of friendship and neighborliness?

This is slightly revised from a post written in October 2010.

Twenty-Sixth Sunday in Ordinary Time
Twentieth Sunday after Pentecost

1 Timothy 6:6-19
Luke 16:19-31

This week’s texts present the preacher with a dilemma that is perhaps all too common: How to find new life in old words: familiar admonitions in the Epistle lesson, a well-known parable in the Gospel of Luke.

Preoccupied with the problem that money presents for kingdom living, Luke begins this week’s story as he did last week’s: “There was a rich man.” The tradition has named him “Dives” (Latin for “rich man,” first used by St. Jerome in the fourth century) and his life is one of prodigal extravagance and a callous disregard for his poor neighbor, Lazarus. The suffering Lazarus, who knew no peace in his earthly existence, rests, in death, in the arms of Abraham. Dives, no surprise is consigned to the torments of hell.

The story’s description of the “great chasm” between these two men might tempt us toward an analysis of the ever-widening gap between rich and poor in today’s global economy. And we wouldn’t be wrong to see the parallels between the scene Jesus describes in the parable and the realities of our troubled world.

But that temptation can keep us at the level of abstract analysis. We find ourselves talking about “the poor” in deeply sympathetic ways, all the while realizing that we hardly know any poor people.

So what is there to say?

We know we have issues with money. Indeed, we’re so conflicted about our relationship with money, and so weary of our anxiety over our conflicted relationship with money that we’re not sure where to begin. It seems we’ve had this conversation before—in our own heads, even in our churches—and we’re as conflicted and anxious and weary as ever. (And also deeply aware that this is so quintessentially middle class of us).

To read the rest click here.

We live small lives.

Perhaps this is one explanation for both the sad spectacle offered by Miley Cyrus and Robin Thicke at Sunday night’s Video Music Awards and our culture’s round-the-clock obsession with it since.

Americans are famously preoccupied with sex and with the sexual antics of the famous. This might seem like another reason for our fascination on Sunday night, but it is simply a corollary of the proposition: We live small lives.

Fifty years ago today the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. delivered his now famous “I Have a Dream” speech. In many ways, our collective (and selective) memory has softened the sharp edge of King’s radical vision of a just America.

Three days ago a 20-year-old pop star–starved for attention? desperate to shed an image? (mis)managed by corrupt media moguls?–gave a painful-to-watch lesson in how white, privileged female celebrities, ignorant of history and easily exploited by “the industry,” appropriate minority cultures with disastrous consequences.

Cyrus may have intended homage (she solicited material for the performance–apparently without irony or a twinge of guilt–by requesting “something that feels black”). What she offered instead was an example of “the privileged having unchecked access to the cultural trinkets of marginalized people.”

And while she probably thought she was giving artistic expression to female empowerment, she was, in fact, working the tired tropes that objectify and make available for public consumption women’s bodies. (Or, rather, a highly stylized, commodified version of the female form.) And the sexism here: for all the moral outrage directed at Cyrus, there’s been little said about Robin Thicke’s role (and his abominable hit song) in both the minstrel show and the misogyny.

And while the issues raised by this whole sad story are not unimportant, it’s been interesting to ponder this week why it is that all my students knew about the VMA performance on Sunday but none of them knew that the Supreme Court nullfied a key provision in the Voting Rights Act this summer.

Dr. King dreamed big. But we live small lives.

The bud 
stands for all things,
even for those things that don’t flower,
for everything flowers, from within, of self-blessing;
though sometimes
it is necessary 
to reteach a thing its loveliness . . .

Galway Kinnell, “Saint Francis and the Sow”

I devoted a good bit of time this summer to thinking and writing about beauty.SAC 1681

How it is that modernity (and modern Christianity) are the poorer for abandoning the ancient idea that beauty is in the beingness of things–atoms and daisies and persons and prime numbers and everything.

How it is that contemporary life has taught us to regard beauty as consumable, reducing it to “the ornamental and innocuous pleasant.” (Stephen Garrett)

How it is that our task as creatures of a God who is beauty, truth, and goodness is not so much to possess beauty but to understand how it possesses us–how beauty is at the heart of what it means to be human.

And then the fall semester began and I was caught up in syllabi and course rosters and faculty meetings and the grim bureaucracy of a higher education philosophy that expects us to regard students as customers to satisfy, revenue sources to retain at all costs (awkward pun, I realize; we need to keep these students so they can pay us). This philosophy is so pervasive across the disciplines and across campuses everywhere that we don’t even question it much anymore.

And beauty seems absent. And who can blame her.

And on the first day of class I look out at a sea of faces telegraphing everything from anxiousness to indifference, eagerness to sleepiness. And what’s with the two young men on the back row who chatter away under their breath the whole time I’m talking despite a gentle warning (it’s the first day, after all) and a few daggered stares?

And what does beauty have to do with any of this?

I’m not completely sure, but here’s the thing. Or at least one thing:

I want these anxious, indifferent, eager, sleepy students to see the beauty of our common work. As we delve deeply into texts, as we risk failure and embarrassment in our class discussions, as we ask hard questions about impossible things (God, and faith, and the nature of evil), I want them to find it beautiful–to see the intrinsic worth of our work, not to calculate its potential contribution to their future plans or their personal satisfaction.

At the risk of sounding sentimental and presumptuous, I want to help reteach them their own loveliness–or help reveal it to them for the first time. I want them to know–perhaps more than anything–that they are beautiful.

My friend, Nola, was ordained yesterday. She is a woman of grace and goodness and beautiful gifts for ministry. My life has been richer for having known her. She asked me to write a poem for the ordination service, drawing inspiration from a painting by a mutual friend of ours. Here’s the stunning painting and the poem . . .


Rooted in Love, Kathy Ammon

For Nola on the Occasion of Her Ordination

 . . . we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses . . . Hebrews 12:1

It comes fleetingly into view as all clouds do:
vivid and substantial one minute,
wispy and ephemeral the next—
a memory, an impression, a happy dream.

And like all clouds its parts are magnificently varied:
some dramatic, even daunting in their appearing,
some subtle and shy and silently beautiful.
All of them harbingers of heaven.

These God-bearers, gift-givers, promise-keepers,
who with a single word or a torrent of words,
a momentary look or the sustained attentiveness of years,
revealed in her what she could not see.

This cloud of witnesses, today vivid and substantial,
still touches her for good.
For the work ahead.
Showering forth grace and blessing.

Eighteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time
Eleventh Sunday After Pentecost

Ecclesiastes 1:2, 12-14, 2:18-23
Colossians 3:1-11

Luke 12:13-21

When I was a child, the adult members of Pittsburgh society adverted to the Bible unreasonably often. What arcana! Why did they spread this scandalous document before our eyes? If they had read it, I thought, they would have hid it. They did not recognize the lively danger that we would, through repeated exposure, catch a dose of its virulent opposition to their world. Instead they bade us study great chunks of it, and think about those chunks, and commit them to memory, and ignore them. By dipping us children in the Bible so often, they hoped, I think, to give our lives a serious tint, and to provide us with quaintly magnificent snatches of prayer to produce as charms while, say, being mugged for our cash or jewels.

Annie Dillard, “The Book of Luke,” The Annie Dillard Reader, 276

By the twelfth chapter of St. Luke’s gospel we get it: Jesus and the kingdom he inaugurates turn everything upside down. The proud are scattered, the powerful are brought down from their thrones, the hungry are filled with good things, the rich are sent away empty, the poor find good news, the captives are released, the blind recover their sight, the oppressed go free. Blessed are the poor, the hungry, those who weep; woe to the rich, the full-bellied, and those who are laughing now.

These words of justice and compassion stir us, move us, inspire us. Occupying a place somewhere between the destitute poor and the obscenely wealthy, we want what Jesus wants. Preach it, Jesus.

To read the rest click here.


Colossians 1:15-28; Luke 10:38-42

Sixteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time
Ninth Sunday After Pentecost

Caravaggio, Martha and Mary Magdalene, c.1598. Oil and tempera on canvas

“It’s not about you.”

Rick Warren made this line famous in the book that made him famous, The Purpose Driven Life. “It’s not about you” is now regularly invoked in all kinds of discussions—theological and otherwise. It’s meant to counter the solipsism of our age, the tendency to frame and evaluate everything in light of modernity’s angst-ridden question: “What’s in it for me?”

Discussions about Christian worship—in books, on blogs, and in lots of other places—often feature the “it’s-not-about-you” argument. In response to the niche-marketing approach to worship (designing meaningful experiences with various demographic groups in mind), it’s a fair enough point: the centerpiece of the Church’s liturgy is our adoration of the triune God—not ourselves and not our feelings as worshipers.

But on another level, worship is always and only for our sake. As James Alison puts it:

God needs no worship, no adulation, no praise, no glory. No divine ego is flattered, stability maintained, nor is any threatened petulance staved off, by our worship. No, the only people for whom it matters that we worship God is ourselves. It is entirely for our benefit that we are commanded to worship God, because if we don’t we will have no protection at all against the other sort of worship.

The “other sort of worship” that Alison refers to is any of a great number of ways that worship takes place in our violent world: the liturgical organization of “football matches, celebrity cults, raves, initiation hazings, newspaper sales techniques and so on.”

Alison describes a Nuremberg rally as an example of liturgy in a culture of violence, not because it is uniquely awful but because its liturgical elements are easily recognizable:

You bring people together and you unite them in worship. You provide regular, rhythmic music . . . You give them songs to sing. You build them up with a reason for their togetherness, a reason based on a common racial heritage . . . You keep them waiting and the pressure building up . . . After the build-up, the Führer appears . . . they are united in fascination with this extraordinary person, to whom they have handed over the task of being the chief liturgist. And he does not disappoint . . . the crowd is delirious, outside themselves, united in love and adoration . . .

Worship in a violent world is a dangerous and dehumanizing thing. The un-Nuremberg, by contrast, is the true worship of the true God, for it is there that our imaginations are “set free from fate, from myth, from ineluctable forces, from historical grudges.”

In worship—in repetitive, mundane acts like saying the Creed or offering our gifts or singing a hymn—we participate in a kind of “orchestrated detox” (Alison) through which, over time, our desires are transformed and a glimpse is offered into the divine mystery at the heart of our life together.

The epistle and gospel lessons for this weekend help us to get at this, I think. Jesus’ words in Luke’s familiar story of Mary and Martha reveal the “need of only one thing” (10:42): worship. “Mary has chosen the better part”—to adore the One in her midst, making herself present, as Alison would say, to “the other Other who is just there, and who has been inviting [her and] us, all along, to his party.”

The reading from Colossians is itself a kind of liturgical hymn that rehearses (recounts, recapitulates) the substance of the faith we confess. It’s a poetic primer of sorts in systematics—Creation, Incarnation, Salvation, and more; it’s all there to be read, heard, preached, pondered, and lived.

“For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, and through him God was pleased to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, by making peace through the blood of his cross” (1:19-20).

These words and all the words we say in worship are not for the purpose of conjuring certain emotions or making worship “relevant” or “exciting.” Rather, they are part of “a long-term education in becoming un-excited, since only that will enable us to dwell in a quiet bliss which doesn’t abstract from our present or our surroundings or our neighbour, but which increases our attention, our presence and our appreciation for what is around us” (Alison).


Worship: It’s about us.


This is a slightly edited version of a post from July, 2010.


Given that lambs
are infant sheep, that sheep
are afraid and foolish, and lack
the means of self-protection, having
neither rage nor claws,
venom nor cunning,
what then
is this ‘Lamb of God’?

I’ve been re-entering the atmosphere of my “real” life after a month-long writing retreat at a Benedictine Abbey. It’s been a little hard. Thirty-one days is long enough to alter your body’s rhythms around sleeping and eating, not to mention your very way in the world: how you order your day, what you notice around you, what you prioritize in your life, what you let go.

When you pray five times a day in a Benedictine community–with the arresting beauty of the liturgy, the patient pace of the psalmody, the lush silences–it is easy to forget that monasticism began as a protest movement in the midst of political chaos and decay.

The desert fathers and mothers in the second and third centuries and Benedict and his twin sister Scholastica in the sixth established each of their communities as a counter-polis–an experimental social order born of grievance against corruption, scandal, and state power, and as a witness to the gospel’s call to humility, hospitality, and ceaseless prayer.

What terror lies concealed
in strangest words, O lamb
of God that taketh away
the Sins of the World: an innocence
smelling of ignorance,
born in bloody snowdrifts,
licked by forebearing
dogs more intelligent than its entire flock put together?

It is the gentleness of praying the liturgy of the hours that perhaps struck me most, moved me most–the unhurried attentiveness, the graceful cadences of sung or spoken lines, the ceremonial courtesy one must show to those with whom one prays.  (Whether or not one feels particularly agreeable or amicable seems beside the point).

We live in the midst of a good deal of muscular Christianity–of stridency and bombast, of desperation for edginess and novelty and noise. And of course we live in a culture of violence and speed in which gentleness seems laughable, irresponsible.

But for centuries monastic communities of all kinds have entered the rhythm of daily prayer in order to be transformed by the way of gentleness. And it does not seem to me that this is merely an aesthetic or a matter of preference or, least of all, a retreat from the “real” world.

God then,
encompassing all things, is
defenseless? Ominpotence
has been tossed away, reduced
to a wisp of damp wool?

Is it implied that we
must protect this perversely weak
animal, whose muzzle’s nudgings
suppose there is milk to be found in us?
Must hold to our icy hearts
a shivering God?

The way of Jesus that St. Benedict and others sought to embody was revolutionary gentleness–a response to the imperium romanum no less political for being nonviolent, no less radical for resisting the status quo. And in praying the ancient prayers born of such a movement we go deep into the heart of our vulnerable God, where gentleness–against every intuition of our age–is revealed to be the way that leads to life.

So be it.
Come, rag of pungent
dim star.
Let’s try
if something human still
can shield you,
of remote light.

Excerpts from Denise Levertov’s “Mass for the Day of St. Thomas Didymus – VI Agnus Dei”

I started writing a blog almost four years ago partly because I hoped it would make writing, generally, come easier to me. (Or should that be “more easily”?)

It hasn’t worked out that way.

I write painfully slow. (Or should that be “slowly”? Well, yes, probably so if grammatical correctness is important (it is) but I like the sound of the line, the word this way. But I’m not sure; maybe it will trip up the reader if I say “painfully slow.” That wouldn’t be good).

Perhaps you can see part of my problem. And this, believe me, is just part of my problem . . .

I have a book project I need to devote my full attention to, so for a month this summer I’m going to reside at a Benedictine abbey and hope that the writing comes. Easier. More easily.

I’m not counting on luck or magic. I’m trusting that there really is something to the ancient wisdom of ordering one’s day, one’s life, around the rhythms of work and prayer.

I know there’s nothing romantic about this. It really is work. And prayer. Routine and habit. Tedium and fortitude. As Kathleen Norris observes of her early experiences as a Benedictine oblate,

One of the first things I noticed on my longer retreats, when I was with the monks in choir four or five times a day for a week or more, was how like an exercise class the liturgy seemed. It was sometimes difficult to rise early for morning office, at other times during the day it seemed tedious to be going back to church, but knowing that the others would be there made all the difference. Once there, the benefits were tangible, and I usually wondered how I could have wished to be anywhere else. When I compared all this to an aerobics class, a monk said, “That’s exactly right.”

I think that writing is like that, too. It’s the showing up that matters, the discipline of being present and attentive to the work, even when you don’t feel like it, even when nothing is coming–even when you wish to be anywhere else. Some days, if I can suggest a different athletic image, it’s like a 4-mile run with a breeze at your back and plenty of air in your lungs and strength in your legs. But on many days, you struggle, you trudge; it’s drudgery. But at least you got up, put on the workout clothes, and did the work.

For 30 days I’m going to show up, both for prayer and for the work. Neither may come easily. But I’m trusting, hoping, praying that by the end I will have wondered how I could have wished to be anywhere else.

I got a good look at my heart on Sunday morning.

It wasn’t any kind of religious experience, though maybe it was something of one: I had an echocardiogram.

It is profound to see one’s own beating heart. As a friend said to me about their own similar experience: we talk about our hearts all the time, but to see that muscle pumping in real time . . . . it is both sobering and wonder-inducing.

As I looked at the screen and as the technician identified this chamber, that valve, I was a little undone by the realization that this muscle has been doing the work of keeping me alive my whole life. I thought I had been appropriately thankful for that gift. But seeing my heart — or at least an image of my heart and much of its structural intricacy — I was moved to gratitude in ways that I didn’t know quite what to do with in that moment, dressed as I was in a baggy hospital gown, lying uncomfortably on my side, the noises and flickers of light coming incessantly from the machine, the helpful technician, chatting to me. It was such a sterile, clinical setting, yet it seemed like a holy moment.

When you see this muscle on a sonogram it strikes you as odd that we use the heart as a metaphor for so many aspects of our humanity. We talk about a broken heart while clearly this is as durable an organ as is in the human body. We say we’re heartsick but we don’t mean by that coronary disease. We call a beloved “sweetheart” but the sight of this muscle doesn’t invoke thoughts confectionary. We’re told to follow our heart, to speak from the heart, to name our heart’s desire.

We want to get to the heart of the matter, act out of the goodness of our hearts, take heart (not lose heart), We don’t want to have a heavy heart, a cold heart, a heart of stone (a heart of gold is best). We want to learn by heart, know by heart, open wide our hearts.

Meanwhile, this muscle in the chest does its silent work. Sometimes we don’t treat it well by lifestyle choices we make. Sometimes our hearts fail us. Eventually, inevitably, our hearts will fail every one of us, or at least cease from their labors once and for all.

But seeing with the eyes of the heart (Eph. 1:18) we can try to love all beating hearts and the people whose lives these faithful hearts make possible. And we can be grateful.


P.S. My echocardiogram was routine (no health worries). But it was kind of strange having it scheduled on a Sunday morning.

A prose poem I wrote in the Creative Writing class I took last fall. (WordPress won’t let me reproduce its original linebreaks here) . . .IMG_2134


For the Love of Teaching

 . . . of all things visible and invisible. 
                                                The Nicene Creed

Some would say that it’s the invisible things we’re about in a classroom like mine: God, for instance, or love or goodness or truth. There’s truth in that, I suppose. Theology wrestles with much that is unseen.

And some would say that objectivity is the invisible goal in such a setting: Just give them the facts; let them decide.

And some would say that the teaching enterprise itself is something of an invisible pact: you fill their heads with knowledge, they prove their mastery of it (or they don’t), transaction complete.

But here’s what I see: In the mysterious synergism of a classroom discussion on, say, the lepers of Calcutta, we discover that God has a face, and that truth and goodness have arms and legs, hands and feet that are about the work of love in the world.

And I see that there is no way that I can teach them about God or love or truth in a way that exempts me from any of it. I’m not neutral—but neither am I an evangelist. Wasn’t it Kierkegaard who said that the best teaching is personal in the sense that the teacher impersonates—mimics, models herself after a kind of selflessness meant to move, persuade, compel, convince?

And I see that in our sterile, fluorescent-lighted classroom we operate less by contract than by covenant: the mutual promise to show up, to keep at it, to attend to the process and all its uncertainties, even when we don’t feel like it, even when we struggle—I to communicate and they to understand. Yes, there will be grades, but there is also, always, grace.

Because my students are also neighbors I’ve been given to love, I see in them—incomprehensible as it is to the bureaucrats of assessment and of managed classroom expectations—the very face of God. And in our common work, some days, once in a while, I think it was yesterday, love, goodness, and truth are right there in our midst—in a question asked, a doubt expressed, a circle closed. And at semester’s end, I hold onto the hope that beyond grades and through grace, each of us will have been surprised by joy, our unseen hearts moved to make the invisible visible: to be about the work of love in this world.

What terrorists want is to terrify people; Americans always oblige.
Adam Gopnik

It seems odd in this era of “pervasive cultural irony” (David Foster Wallace) that Americans are so prone to sentimentality. We have been schooled to be cool with the shocking, the disgusting, the daring, the outrageous–to strike postures of ironic detachment and to mask our true feelings by displaying their opposite: indifference, say, for disappointment or amusement for anger. Having recently attended a reading featuring the poetry and fiction of undergraduates, I submit as anecdotal evidence a roomful of students and professors who winced not a whit as bland and clinical reportage about post-adolescent sexual experimentation was lauded as literary art. In such a setting the desire to know what the students actually longed to say is met by what Wallace says is irony’s always unspoken answer: “How totally banal of you to ask what I really mean.”

And then something happens like a terrorist bombing at the Boston marathon, and our “hip fatigue” (Wallace again) snaps out of itself, turns on the TV, and gets with the program. Our cynical knowingness meets our deep insecurity–our fear that we are not safe, that the world is a precarious place and not simply the site onto which we map our rebel cool.

And yet even this fear is out of proportion, a mismatch for what we can’t turn away from on our screens. Our exaggerated sense of the risk of terrorism leads us to villify whole ethnic groups. It instills an unquestioning reverence for the nonsense that comes out of so-called experts on terror in the corporate media. Americans are, as Wallace notes, united more by common images than by common beliefs, and thus the iconography of terrorism–video and still shots of the maimed and dead, of airplanes slamming into towers, all played on an endless loop on TV–makes of us fearful practitioners of American civil religion, the central tenet of which seems to be that we are an exceptional people whose suffering is always exceptional and whose public lamenting of our exceptional suffering must go on and on and on. (And on some more).

More subtly, perhaps, this fear reveals that we might not know who we really are or what our lives are for. Are we fearful because the American dream (so central to American civil piety) turns out to be empty pomp, and pressure-cooker bombs going off in Boston remind us that our pressure-cooker lives have been seduced by a vacuous fantasy?

And then our ironic-gazing-turned-fearful-watching can’t help but make us sentimental. Sentimentality is, of course, excess; it is, as Flannery O’Connor observed,

a distortion of sentiment usually in the direction of an overemphasis on innocence, and that innocence, whenever it is overemphasized in the ordinary human condition, tends by some natural law to become its opposite.

The script for narrating every act of violence against the U.S. and its citizens since 9/11 (and arguably before) contains the dominant theme that we are the innocent, the bedeviled, the blameless put-upon. It is given voice by liberals and conservatives alike; it is codified in our laws; ritualized in our civil piety; inscribed, it would seem, on our very hearts.

And this distortion of sentiment, this overemphasis on innocence makes us the opposite of innocent. In little more than a decade our exaggerated fears have helped to produce and sanction a sophisticated weapons system by which a CIA official in a windowless, Washington office can launch a drone attack a world away and still make it home in time for dinner and his kid’s soccer game.

But that’s not terrorism. That can’t be terrorism. Not in a world where we can’t name our deepest fears and in which sentimentality infuses our piety, our politics, and our very definition of terrorism: that it is only the dangerous fanatic, the disgruntled immigrant who shatters lives and rains down terror on the innocent.

In this era of pervasive cultural irony, how can we miss the irony in that?


I have been trying to find the words all week.

Words to describe the experience of the Easter Vigil, the Triduum, Holy Week 2013.

JMU purple gem iris reticulataA week later, I still got nothing. At least in terms of a tidy narrative that would chronicle the events of those days in some kind of interesting, orderly fashion.

(And I don’t presume that readers of this blog have been waiting expectantly for such an account; but I have been a little anxious that the words haven’t come, that I might not have some written record, if only for myself, of this life-changing experience).

All I have are some impressions–some fleeting, some seared into my psyche–but all of them, all of them, precious to me.

  • The Triduum. It is one continuous liturgy. I should have known this but I didn’t. It was deeply moving to me to move deliberately through this days-long observance, recalling and reliving the arc of a story of friendship and betrayal, of imperial violence and forgiving love, of blinding grief and unbounded joy.
  • Sacred Chrism. On Holy Thursday I carried the Sacred Chrism to the altar at the beginning of mass. At the Easter Vigil I was anointed with it in the sacrament of confirmation. I liked the feel and fragrance of this holy oil on my forehead. I didn’t wash my face on Saturday night.
  • Kissing the Cross. It’s actually called the Veneration of the Cross and I was completely undone by this Good Friday ritual. Given all of the ways that many Christians, both Protestant and Catholic, tend to regard the cross in militant, triumphalist terms, touching or kissing it is such a surprising gesture–so tender, so grace-filled. Such beauty in seeing women, men, and children (especially those with infirmities) bow and bend and kneel to venerate the cross of Christ on Good Friday night.
  • The Communion Rite. On Good Friday there’s no mass. (Jesus is in the tomb, after all). But there is communion (though not yet for me): consecrated hosts reserved from the Mass of the Lord’s Supper the evening before. I don’t quite understand this theologically. I mean: I know why it isn’t Eucharist. I just don’t know why we do it.
  • Friends. Throughout this journey–not just Holy Week, the Triduum, and the Great Vigil–I have been moved beyond words by the support and encouragement of friends. Cards, emails, facebook comments, phone calls, gifts (beautiful gifts). Five friends from the Sunday School class I teach at my husband’s church (and will continue to teach) came to the Easter Vigil. As did a student of mine. And my sponsor–a lovely, lovely woman who has prayed for me and cheered me on all these months. Seeing all of these faces at the Vigil, taking in their genuine good wishes for me. Still, no words.
  • My Parents. Who, having raised their daughter in the Methodist Church and who must have felt some disappointment with my decision to convert, never once conveyed anything to me but their complete love and support. More than that, they embraced the journey with me–wanting to learn more about Catholicism; waxing effusive (my dad did) about the new pope. Having them happily present at the Easter Vigil . . . this is something I will always be grateful for.
  • Bees. Is it crazy that one of the most indelible memories I have of the Easter Vigil (a service of taxing length and tremendous beauty) is that of bees in the Exsultet, the hymn of praise sung by a deacon before the Paschal candle? The revisions of the Roman missal in 2010 resulted in these beautiful lines:

. . . accept this candle, a solemn offering,
the work of bees and of your servants’ hands,
an evening sacrifice of praise . . .

But now we know the praises of this pillar,
which glowing fire ignites for God’s honour,
a fire into many flames divided,
yet never dimmed by sharing of its light,
for it is fed by melting wax,
drawn out by mother bees to build a torch so precious.

  • Eucharist. Through all the months of the RCIA process, I wondered what this moment at the Easter Vigil would be like–the moment when I would receive the body and blood of Christ for the first time in the Catholic church. I was conflicted: I very much wanted to resist sentimentalizing the experience–privatizing it, turning it into something pious and precious; but I also felt that it did hold a kind of significance, bore a kind of gravitas that I needed to pay attention to. I don’t know that I resolved that conflict in the actual moment. What I most remember is my priest’s luminous face, the blandness of the wafer, and how the taste of the wine lingered long on my tongue. I also remember that after I and the other candidates received, the rest of the congregation processed forward and it all seemed rather ordinary and unremarkable–as I think it should.

IMG_0137* * * * *

It’s been hard to find the words this week. Especially to describe the Easter Vigil.

So a few words from the Exsultet will have to sum it up:

Dazzling [was] the night for me.
And full of gladness.

“I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another.”

John 13:34
Gospel Reading for Holy Thursday

Last week in my Christian Ethics course we talked about love.

God’s love. Human love. Love and sexuality. Loving the whole of God’s creation.

I shared with my students a favorite quote from a favorite writer, Wendell Berry:

I take literally the statement in the Gospel of John that God loves the world. I believe that the world was created and approved by love, that it subsists, coheres, and endures by love, and that, insofar as it is redeemable, it can be redeemed only by love. I believe that divine love, incarnate and indwelling in the world. summons the world always toward wholeness, which ultimately is reconciliation and atonement with God.

And the author of our course text, Paul Wadell, reminded us — among many other things in his robust treatment of the subject — that genuine love is always directed toward the well-being of others. To love genuinely, truly, fully is to desire and pursue the flourishing, prospering, thriving of that which (whom) one loves.

True enough.

Nothing to disagree with here.

But I’ve been thinking about love, theologically construed, with its many rich associations, in all of its messy, complicated beauty in light of the news about the Steubenville rape trial.

It’s true that the media coverage of the verdict in the case was troubling for its one-sided focus on the “ruined lives” of the convicted rapists, sixteen-year-old boys with “promising futures.”

It’s true that we need more cultural conversations, both small- and large-scale, about the relationship between sex and structural power, between rape and “consent.”

It’s true that well-meaning sympathy for female victims of sexual assault often unwittingly reinforces America’s deeply disturbing rape culture.

It may be true that the defendents deserved harsher sentences. Maybe.

But it’s also true, I think, that in our responses to this news we would do well to consider what it might mean to attend to the humanity, the brokeness, the possibilities for healing and redemption for the two boys.

In most of the angry reactions to the verdict and the media’s coverage of it, Ma’lik Richmond and Trent Mays have been used as props for moral outrage scoring points. They have served to uphold one of the cardinal rules for how, as citizen-spectators, we are allowed to engage American jurisprudence: you can be on the side of the victim or on the side of the perpetrator; but never on the side of both.

Earlier this semester in Christian Ethics we watched a video interview of Sr. Helen Prejean who argued that indeed it is possible to be on both sides. Necessary, even.

“When you descend down deep to where God is,” she says, “that’s upholding the dignity of life on both sides.”

Jesus, Sr. Helen goes on to say, always has one arm around the victim, holding him or her as a beloved child of God, and the other around the perpetrator, saying, “He or she has done an unspeakable crime, but this too is my beloved son or daughter. Don’t abandon them.”

In other words: love them.

This week, Holy Week in the Christian Year, we will remember and relive the scandalous ways of love. A love that:

washes the feet of betrayers and those who would curse and deny a friend . . .

refuses to respond in kind to brutality and violence . . .

looks with tender forgiveness on wrongdoers who know not what they do . . .

assures a convicted criminal of his place in paradise . . .

surrenders everything to the divine will that “summons the world always toward wholeness” (Berry).

We will hear the familiar story of this scandalous love this week. We will act it out as we wash each other’s feet on Holy Thursday, find our place in the drama of Jesus’ passion on Good Friday, and sing of love’s triumph at the Great Vigil of Easter.

But will we hear this story of scandalous love as a summons to our own participation in God’s reconciling work in the world?

Jesus’ outstretched arms on the cross embrace thieves and thugs, the woefully misguided, and us. Is it possible that we might learn to love scandalously, to pursue — however costly, inconvenient, or counterintuitive — the well-being of all others?

On the third, fourth, and fifth Sundays of Lent the scrutiny rites are celebrated during mass. These liturgies recover and reclaim much of the early church’s insistence on rigorous self-examination before taking up the way of Jesus. You really want to follow this crucified Messiah? asked second- and third-century priests and catechists. Then scrutinize your deepest commitments: how do you make your livelihood? (pimps and gladiators had to find new jobs); what’s your position on violence and war? (those with “the power of the sword” had to renounce it).

In contemporary language the priest prays that the elect will be “strengthened against worldy deceits of every kind” and that they might be encouraged by the example of “catechumens who have shed their blood for Christ.”

For those preparing to be received into full communion at the Easter Vigil, the scrutinies are sobering. They are also beautiful. (One of the petitions in the third scrutiny’s intercessions for the elect prays “that the whole world, which God has created in love, may flower in faith and charity and so receive new life”).

There is also the scrutiny-like penitential rite for those baptized candidates who are coming into the Catholic Church from other Christian traditions. Also sobering, also beautiful, this liturgy solemnizes the candidates’ desire (and the Church’s) that they be duly prepared to receive the sacraments of confirmation and Eucharist at the Easter Vigil.

And as catechumens and candidates have undergone these rites during this Lenten season, a new pope also finds himself under scrutiny.

Under a microscope is more like it.

But what has been revealed so far is also sobering. And beautiful.

An archbishop with a pastor’s heart and the people’s admiration and affection.

A man who has communicated with each word and gesture a deep and long-standing humility, an endearing sense of humor, and a desire to shepherd the church in new and necessary ways.

The reforms he will promote (yet unknown, of course; there will likely be some disappointments) will be revealed, I suspect, less through pronouncements and press releases, and more through his own humble witness to what the gospel is at heart–love of God and neighbor, especially the poor and suffering neighbor.

And his name.


Leonardo Boff puts it this way (and a radical priest/liberation theologian praising a cardinal-become-pope is its own sobering, beautiful miracle):

Francis isn’t a name; it’s a plan for a Church that is poor, simple, gospel-centered, and devoid of all power. It’s a Church that walks the way together with the least and last, that creates the first communities of brothers and sisters who recite the breviary under the trees with the birds. It’s an ecological Church that calls all beings those sweet words “brothers and sisters”. Francis was obedient to the Church and the popes and at the same time he followed his own path with the gospel of poverty in hand.

As we make our way toward Easter may each of us scrutinize with love and compassion–ourselves, the church, the new pope–that we might “walk the way together with the least and last.”

This is the sobering call of the faith we confess.

And it is beautiful.

Like everybody else, I bowed my head at Mass during the consecration of the bread and wine, lifted my eyes to the raised host and the raised chalice. I believed (whatever it means) that a change occurred: I went to the altar rails and received the mystery on my tongue, returned to my place, shut my eyes fast, made an act of thanksgiving, opened my eyes and felt time starting up again. It was phenomenally refreshing and, when I began to admit to myself that I was losing faith in it, I was very sorry. Intellectually speaking the loss of faith occurred offstage, there was never a scene where I had it out with myself or with another. But the potency of those words remains for me, they retain an undying tremor and draw; I cannot disavow them. Nor can I make the act of faith. In ‘Station Island,’ I arranged for John of the Cross to help my unbelief by translating his ‘Song of the Soul that Knows God by Faith.’

Seamus Heaney,
Stepping Stones: Interviews with Seamus Heaney, Dennis O’ Driscoll
(Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2008), 234

Song of the Soul that Knows God by Faith

How well I know that fountain, filling, running,
although it is the night.

That eternal fountain, hidden away,
I know its haven and its secrecy
although it is the night.

But not its source because it does not have one,
which is all sources’ source and origin
although it is the night.

No other thing can be so beautiful,
Here the earth and heaven drink their fill
although it is the night.

So pellucid it can never be muddied,
and I know that all light radiates from it
although it is the night.

I know no sounding line can find its bottom,
nobody ford or plumb its deepest fathom
although it is the night

And its current so in flood it overspills
to water hell and heaven and all peoples
although it is the night.

And the current that is generated there,
as far as it wills to, it can flow that far
although it is the night.

And from these two a third current proceeds
which neither of these two, I know, precedes
although it is the night.

This eternal fountain hides and splashes
within this living bread that is life to us
although it is the night.

Hear it calling out to every creature.
And they drink these waters, although it is dark here
because it is the night.

I am repining for this living fountain.
Within this bread of life I see it plain
although it is the night.

Station Island, XI

It’s my turn on the bLOGOS rotation at The Ekklesia Project to write this week’s lectionary reflection:

The Second Sunday in Lent, Year C

Revised Common Lectionary:                                  Lectionary for Mass:
Genesis 15:1-12, 17-18                                                Genesis 15:5-12, 17-18
Psalm 27                                                                       Psalm 27
Philippians 3:17-4:1                                                   Philippians 3:17-4:1 (or 3:20-4:1)
Luke 13:31-35 or Luke 9:28-36                               Luke 9:28-36

The Lord is my light and my salvation; whom shall I fear? The Lord is the stronghold of my life; of whom shall I be afraid?

Psalm 27:1

The gospel reading for the Second Sunday in Lent differs significantly for Protestants and Catholics. The Revised Common Lectionary appoints four pithy verses from Luke 13 which reveal a rather astonishing range of reactions in Jesus as he reckonsVan_Gogh_-_Starry_Night with both his imperial pursuers and his faithless kinsmen.

To Rome’s proxy ruler, Herod, he sends a message of combative confidence (“go and tell that fox for me . . .”). To Jerusalem, “the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it,” he speaks with surprising, maternal tenderness:

“How often have I desired to gather you children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings . . . “

The fox and the hen. Herod the stealthy predator; Jesus the protective mother.  Power versus vulnerability. And we know where this confrontation is headed . . . .

To read the rest click here.

“It’s been a difficult year to be Catholic,” a friend said to me recently.

I felt her pain.

Controversy has abounded, to put it mildy: the HHS contraceptive mandate; tension between the Vatican and the Leadership Conference of crucifixWomen Religious; the coming-to-light of sexual abuse by priests during the tenure of Archbishop Mahoney of Los Angeles (in the midst of similar decades-long scandals).

All of this has been compounded by pretty relentless scrutiny of a pretty unpopular pope.

In the American media and in parts of American Catholicism, Benedict XVI is routinely labeled a conservative (and worse)–a  rigid, humorless leader leading the Church backward in time, not forward.

(It says something about Americans’ impoverished political discourse when all we can think to call this pontiff, who is opposed to gay marriage but is also a virulent critic of laissez-faire capitalism and a staunch enviromentalist, is conservative”).

And we’ve never quite been able to forgive him for not being like his predecessor. Charisma and compassion are not words that spring readily to mind when thinking of Cardinal Ratzinger/Pope Benedict.

Morever, the missteps of his papacy, some of them egregious (like the speech at Regensburg in 2006), have not endeared him even to many who were predisposed to give him the benefit of the doubt.


Soundbite journalism can never fully and fairly chronicle the complex legacy of any world figure. For instance, as Carol Zeleski observed earlier this week,

With his distinctly nonfundamentalist interpretation of the Book of Genesis; his sophisticated handling of recent trends in biblical criticism (most notably, though least noticed, his book “Eschatology: Death and Eternal Life”); his role in the creation of the modern Catholic catechism; and his papal writings on faith, reason and love (beginning with his extraordinary first encyclical “God Is Love”), Pope Benedict has opened a new era in the dialogue between religion and secular reason.

And as a priest friend said to me this week, in illness and frailty Pope John Paul II chose to remain in office as a witness to suffering; in resigning the office under similar personal circumstances, Pope Benedict XVI offers a witness of humility.

Yet can our media-saturated views of this controversial man allow us to see such nuance, such complexity?

* * * * *

All of this matters to me in more than just an academic way.

When my friend made her remark a few days ago, I replied with: “It’s been a difficult year to be converting to Catholicism.”

Because that’s what I’m doing.

And as the questions have come (and as more will likely come), here’s pretty much all I’ve got:

I am at home in the mass.

I need the Church’s historic liturgy in my life: the familiarity of it, the poetry of it, the predictability of it, even the tedium of it. I am weary of the Protestant way of  “engineered” worship.

I attend Saturday afternoon mass at the Catholic church in the town where I live, a community I’ve fallen in love with, a community that will soon welcome me into full communion at this year’s Easter Vigil. Of course it’s possible that I may someday move and not have St. Brendan Church to love. But the worship there – along with the gifted priest and the beautiful people – will have helped to make me at home in Catholic life and liturgy wherever else I might land. (I don’t think my first tradition, Methodism, or Protestantism generally, knows very much about how to do this).

Related to this is something else I’ve always been deeply moved by (and appreciative of) in Catholic worship: there’s no hovering or smothering when a visitor like me shows up at mass. In fact, it can sometimes feel “unfriendly” to someone used to the Protestant way of welcoming committees and strategic follow-up with newcomers. What I observe, however, even though I don’t think many Catholic laity would articulate it this way, is the sense that in the mass it is Christ who does the welcoming; the people’s task is to never interfere with that.

Of course there’s the big thing — the elephant in the room for those like me undergoing RCIA: how can you join such a messed up church, with its abusive priests, prohibition of women priests, bullying bishops, and all the rest?). Part of me would say, rather impatiently, show me a church that isn’t messed up. And part of me would like to say (as the poet Mary Karr did when she became Catholic from nothingness), and I’m paraphrasing: I’m not joining the pope’s team; I just love the worship and the people.

But I’m not sure I can do that.

I am, in some sense, joining the pope’s team (or rather I’ll be joining the new pope’s team). I don’t have to love everything he says and does, but I have to somehow see that I am not my own authority as a follower of Jesus. I know how this can be perceived and how, as a woman, I might be seen as the messed-up one, the deluded one: relinquishing my autonomy, my identity, etc.

But what I believe, and what I believe to be at the heart of a Catholic anthropology, is that genuine freedom is always exercised within limits, and limits are not confinements but are, rather, “inducements to fullness of relationships and meaning.”

* * * * *

It’s been a difficult year to be Catholic. And to convert to Catholicism.

But I’m hoping and praying for grace–for the current Pope, for his successor, for myself, and for a Church bound up in controversy and crisis, that in all things it might bear witness to the way of suffering, the way of humility.

And in these ways my hope and my prayer is that the Catholic Church and the church catholic might be Christ’s welcoming, light-filled body in and for the world.

The WordPress.com stats helper monkeys prepared a 2015 annual report for this blog.

Here’s an excerpt:

The concert hall at the Sydney Opera House holds 2,700 people. This blog was viewed about 14,000 times in 2015. If it were a concert at Sydney Opera House, it would take about 5 sold-out performances for that many people to see it.

Click here to see the complete report.


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