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 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 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.


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