Many people are committed to working for God in the church. As they go about the tasks at hand, they hope that they are doing what they call “God’s will.” In my experience, persons on Vestries and other committees of the church facing difficult decisions don’t often stop their meetings to ask aloud what “God’s will” might be for their church in the decision at hand. And so, they figure that if they just proceed as they normally would, God will bless all their endeavors done in God’s name with success.
If you find yourself having to make decisions like this, I would like you to ask yourself this question: are you doing “works for God” or are you doing “God’s work”? There is a difference. Works done for God may be performed merely out of self-interest. Doing God’s work means that you have taken the time to discern with your sisters and brothers in Christ exactly what “God’s work” might be at a particular time and in a particular situation.
Thomas Green, a Roman Catholic priest who served in the Philippines, illustrates the difference between God’s work and works done for God. He develops his ideas in two inter-connected books, When the Well Runs Dry and Darkness in the Marketplace.1 Citing the story of Mary and Martha in the gospel of Luke, Green observes that Martha was busy doing works for Jesus while Mary was sitting at the Lord’s feet “listening to his teaching (Luke 10:38-42). While both of their labors were important, Martha, as Jesus reminded her, needed to stop her busy-ness and listen to the words of her Lord: “Martha, Martha, you are anxious and troubled about many things; one thing is needful.”
Fr. Green remembers how, when friends travelled back to the United States for visits, they would often ask him if he would like them to bring anything back for him. He told them he would love some blue cheese, an item not easily found in the Philippines. Many of his friends who themselves did not like blue cheese would return with something “better” in place of the cheese he had requested. Fr. Green observes that he knew he had a true friend, that is, one who truly cared about him, when the friend who personally hated blue cheese nonetheless brought some back as a gift. Fr. Green concludes that God is like that. God often asks us for blue cheese but we feel the need to do something “better.” When we try to do something “better”, are we busy doing works for God or are we doing God’s work? Are we so “anxious and troubled about many things” that we do whatever we want, or are we doing what “is needful?, that is, what God may be asking us to do.
As you think about what God wants from us, take time to reflect on the difference between “God’s work” and “works for God.” Remember: “the Lord likes blue cheese!”
1Thomas H Green, S.J., When the Well Runs Dry: Prayer Beyond the Beginnings (Notre Dame, IN: Ave Maria Press, 1979); Darkness in the Marketplace: The Christian at Prayer in the World (Notre Dame, IN: Ave Maria Press, 1981).
This week my essay, “Freedom from the Law: From Luther to Agamben” was published in Ecumenical Perspectives Five Hundred Year after Luther’s Reformation. It was first presented at a conference of Ecclesiological Investigations international Research Network conference held in 2017 in Jena, Germany.
In the chapter, I examine how the Pauline concept of “freedom from the law” is interpreted by Italian philosopher and political theorist Giorgio Agamben and contrast his secular use of it with Martin Luther’s theological understanding of the same concept. I contrast the passive righteousness that Luther finds in Christian freedom with the freedom Agamben finds in law that has been made inoperative. For Luther and Agamben, I argue, the way to genuine freedom is accomplished not through action, but through inaction.
To date, I have published chapters in six separate books in the Palgrave Macmillan series, “Pathways for Ecumenical and Interreligious Dialogue.” (The details of these publications can be found on the “Academic Publications” page of this blog.)
As I wrote in an earlier post, I don’t often write about my academic publications in this blogspace, but because these publications allow me to address both the academy and the church at the same time, they may be of interest to some of my readers.
“If we look to the bottom of the raging dissatisfaction that characterizes so many people today, chances are it all goes back to a dislike of self that has a way of poisoning everything else one perceives.”
John R. Claypool, The Preaching Event
The way we treat ourselves is the way we will treat others. The counsel of Jesus to “Love your neighbor as yourself” and“Do unto others as you would have them do unto you” both begin with a love for the self as a unique and wonderful creation of God. We often miss the fact that we have to respect ourselves before we can respect others. In order to love our neighbors, following Jesus’ advice, we first have to drop the harsh and often hostile manner with which we treat ourselves.
The recognition that you will only be able to love your neighbor as you learn to love yourself is an important insight into the words of Jesus. The pattern you develop in dealing with the person you deal with most often, — yourself — becomes the pattern by which you will begin to relate to everyone else. If you don’t like yourself and are critical of yourself at every juncture, you begin to see others only in a critical way.
The hostile, critical, dissatisfied way we treat others becomes the way we perceive and begin to act toward others. One escape is to try to find heroes whom we imagine are not like us. They are super-humans without our flaws and imperfections. “If only we could be like so and so,” we say. And so, in our raging dissatisfaction with ourselves we try to become someone else, rather than learning to love the person we are.
The parables of Jesus are wonderfully good news for us if we could truly believe that what Jesus says is true. His parables tell of a God who accepts all of us as we are, without condition, in spite of who we are and where we have been. The doors to God’s acceptance are flung wide open. All are invited to enter, the poor, the marginalized, the unworthy—even you. Entrance is free and welcome to all who will enter. The parables tell of a God who is even willing to come out and search for the lost, the wayward, and the lonely. The doors to God’s acceptance of whom we are right now, in spite of our flaws, are open to all.
Why do so few go in through these doors? Is it because, in our critical way of dealing with ourselves, we know ourselves to be unworthy, undeserving of that kind of love—the love we really need?
What would happen if you believed these stories just for a minute and, foolish as it might seem, you went in? You might find that knowing you are loved and accepted will allow you to be a little easier on yourself. At the same time, you may become less critical of others and more willing to love them as you love yourself.
This year I was honored to be asked to write the reflection for Palm Sunday (March 28, 2021) in this year’s Living Compass booklet of daily Lenten reflections entitled Living Well Through Lent 2021: Listening with all your Heart, Soul, Strength, and Mind. (You will find my meditation on pages 59-60). Because the theme chosen for the reflections is listening, I wrote my reflection on Jesus’s entry into Jerusalem at the beginning of Holy Week with that theme in mind.
I am posting this notice on the first day of Lent, Ash Wednesday, so that if you wish to use this resource daily during Lent, you will be able to start using it right away.
Living Compass “provides tools and trainings to assist individuals, families, and congregations as they seek to live the life God calls them to in all areas of life —heart, soul, strength, and mind.” They use these four areas as “compass points to help guide and equip” persons for their health, wholeness, and wellness. (See pp 8-9).
I hope that this resource will help you with the observance of a Holy Lent.
For the past few weeks, I have been engrossed in the book Wintering: The Power of Rest and Retreat in Difficult Times by Katherine May. I was attracted to the book by the title and ordered it right away. Not every title has that kind of immediate appeal.
I have always loved the winter season, but I have had difficulty articulating exactly why to folks who don’t like the cold. There is so much more to winter than cold, ice, and snow. Besides the appeal of winter for me, the words “rest,” “retreat”, and “difficult times” in the title of the book all spoke to me and my (or should I say our?) current situation.
Working from home has become the norm for many of us during the COVID-19 pandemic. That has been particularly difficult in households where there are young children attending virtual school while the adults try to continue with their own work. The challenges of contemporary life made the subtitle of the book—The Power of Rest and Retreat in Difficult Times — all the more appealing to me. May’s book was written before the current COVID-19 pandemic. Life is certainly different now from what it was when the book was written. Nevertheless, the difficulty of adjusting to life amidst a pandemic makes her reflections on adversity all the more pertinent now.
The book is an extended secular meditation on the fallow periods in life in which we can retreat, rest, and recover. May’s reflections are part memoir and part elegantly written investigation of the metaphorical concepts of “winter” and “wintering” that she invents to describe our way of dealing with our fears and anxieties. The book is deeply autobiographical. At the same time, it is written in such a way as to leave space for its readers to identify and reflect on their own experiences of “wintering.” That is the great strength of this book.
Reflecting on the falling leaves in October, May writes: “Life meanders like a path through the woods. We have seasons when we flourish, and seasons when the leaves fall from us, revealing bare bones. Given time they grow again.”
“Wintering,” May explains, “is a season in the cold. It is a fallow period in life when you are cut off from the world, feeling rejected, sidelined, blocked from progress, or cast into the role of an outsider. …Wintering is usually involuntary, lonely, and deeply painful….We like to imagine that it’s possible for life to be an eternal summer. ” Life is not like that.
Reflecting on an illness that struck her, May states bluntly that “winter blanked me, blasted me open. In all that whiteness I saw the chance to make myself new again.”
The book,she tells us, is about “learning to recognize the process” of wintering, “engage with it mindfully, and even to cherish it.” We might never choose to winter, but, but once we understand our experiences in light of that concept, she maintains, we are more likely to be in the place in which we can choose how we do it.
In November and December, I experienced a wintering of my own. Who knew that a slight twist of my spine unloading the car would lead to two successive surgeries on my back in the same place where I already had a previous surgery? It seemed like nothing at the time, so much so that when my back began to hurt the following day, it took me three days to remember that I had twisted it earlier that week.
This event began two months of excruciating pain down my right leg all the way to my toes. The cause turned out to be a herniated disc in much the same place that I had had back surgery three years ago. This led to an additional surgery. My surgery went well and a couple of weeks out things looked promising. But that was not to be. Three weeks after surgery, I found myself back in the hospital for an additional week with an infection that required opening up one of the surgical sites and cleaning it out. Because no visitors were allowed, I spent the week alone in my room. Of course, it was a hospital, so I was never really alone, but due to the state of the COVID-19 pandemic I was allowed no visitors. My hospital stay was followed by three weeks of IV antibiotics and then a couple more weeks of oral antibiotics.
Throughout this ordeal, I took things as they came, calmly and in stride, never finding myself to be upset about much of anything. I can’t say that it’s always been that way when I have faced adversities like this in the past. This time, however, I seemed to have the resources necessary to cope with my circumstances, when at other times in the past I did not. Working from home, a loving family, a supportive church community, not going out as much as I had before the pandemic, time to rest, and taking time to read at night before going to sleep, had given me resources I never knew I had until they were needed.
Rather than fleeing from the difficult times in our lives, May maintains, we need to learn to embrace them —“we must learn to invite the winter in”— so that we can learn from them and grow. She writes: “Once we stop wishing it were summer, winter can be a glorious season when the world takes on a sparse beauty and even the pavements sparkle. It’s a time for reflection and recuperation, for slow replenishment, for putting your house in order.”
After recovering from her own illness, which May interpreted in a metaphorical way as form of wintering, she writes, “ Winter is asking me to be more careful with my energies, and to rest a while until spring.” That is advice I needed to hear. And it is advice, that you might want to take to heart.
“At its base,” May concludes, the book “ is about noticing what’s going on and living it. That’s what the natural world does: it carries on surviving. Sometimes it flourishes…and sometimes it pares back to the very basics of existence in order to keep living…. It winters in cycles, again and again, forever and ever. For plants and animals, winter is part of the job. The same is true for humans.”
We cannot move on from our metaphorical winter, without embracing it first. When we invite the winter in, we are not necessarily overtaken by it. Rather, we enter it so that one day spring will arrive for us, with all its possibilities for new life and growth.
 Katherine May, Wintering: The Power of Rest and Retreat in Difficult Times (London: Penguin/Random House, 2020). The book was highlighted for the 2020 Wainwright Prize, sponsored by the National Trust in England, that celebrates the best in English Nature Writing.
Three chapters of mine have recently been published in separate volumes of the Palgrave Macmillan series, “Pathways for Ecumenical and Interreligious Dialogue.” The books in this series derive to a great extent from expanded conference presentations at meetings of the Ecclesiological Investigations International Research Network. Two of the three chapters published recently arose from conference presentations, and one was written especially in memory of a departed colleague, Gerard Mannion of Georgetown University. To date, I have published chapters in five separate books in this series, with one still forthcoming. (The details of the publications can be found on the “Academic Publications” page of this blog and in the links at the end of paragraphs below.)
I don’t often write about my academic publications in this blogspace, but because these publications allow me to address both the academy and the church at the same time, they may be of interest to some of my readers.
All three of these chapters employ the work of the Italian philosopher and political theorist, Giorgio Agamben, to engage specific theological topics and issues. While Agamben writes from outside the church, his writings often illuminate ideas and themes from the Christian archive, that might otherwise go unnoticed by those working from within a Christian perspective. In using resources from Agamben for my own purposes, and not necessarily in the way that he deploys them, I aim to craft new perspectives on Christian theological themes and issues.
The title of the chapter in Changing the Church, “To Live according to the Form of the Holy Gospel: St. Francis of Assisi’s Embodied Challenge to the Institutional Church,” is taken from the words St. Francis of Assisi used to describe his manner and form of life, that is, he sought solely to live according to the form of life described in the Holy Gospels (forma sancti Evangelii). The chapter explores what the contemporary church can learn from Francis of Assisi and the monastic traditions of the church so that by focusing less on itself as an institution, the church might offer concrete resources to help contemporary Christians find continuity between who they are and what they do. The second half of the chapter examines “The Way of Love,” promulgated by the Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church, Michael Curry, understood as practical ways of living out the gospel in the modern world. This contribution was part of a volume in memory of Georgetown Professor Gerard Mannion, a founder of the Ecclesiological Investigations International Research Network, who died unexpectedly, in 2019. https://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-030-53425-7_29
My chapter in The Church and Migration: Global (In)Difference entitled, “The Refugee as Limit-Concept of the Modern Nation State,” contrasts the work of two of the most influential contemporary international voices on behalf of refugees, migrants, and asylum seekers, Giorgio Agamben and Pope Francis. After an explanation of the the way that Agamben understands the refugee to be the “limit concept of the modern nation state,” I examine a few of Pope Francis’ statements and comments on the status of migrants and refugees in light of Agamben’s analysis of the refugee crisis and its integral connection to the nation-state. https://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-030-54226-9_11
Finally, my chapter in Stolen Churches, or Bridges to Orthodoxy, Volume 2 was first presented at a 2019 conference in Stuttgart as part of an ongoing dialogue between Eastern Catholic and Eastern Orthodox Christians. The chapter entitled, “Giorgio Agamben’s Stasis (Civil War): An Illuminating Paradigm for Ecumenical Dialogue?” examines how Agamben’s paradigm of stasis (civil war) might shed light on contemporary conflicts and engagements between Eastern Catholic and Eastern Orthodox Churches. https://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-030-55458-3_3
I will make a similar announcement, when another chapter of mine is published in Ecumenical Perspectives Five Centuries after Luther’s Reformation later this year.
Because things do not always go according to our plans or our desires, disappointment and hope always go hand in hand. We may discover the truth of that observation when we apply for a job or for admission into a program, organization, or school. You might think, for example, that you and your prospective employer or program are a perfect match, but despite your earnest efforts and self-confidence, you, for reasons often beyond your control, may not be chosen. It is always easy to get discouraged. That’s why, after such a disappointment, writing the next letter of application or making the next phone call is sometimes so hard to do.
I know how it feels to be rejected. A tall metal file cabinet in my home office contains a folder of hundreds of rejection letters that I received from 1988-1993 in reply to my application for university teaching positions. I was not alone. It seemed to be the norm then, both for me and for my classmates that one out of two hundred letters resulted in a full-time academic teaching position. Many persons I knew, despite their hard work, could only find adjunct teaching positions with low pay, no benefits, and no job security. I was extremely lucky to land the position I did at Temple University in a time of hefty budget cuts and hiring freezes.
In her senior year of college, my youngest sister and her suitemates devised the best strategy I know for dealing with the frequent disappointment that comes with applying for a job. Every rejection letter that she and her friends received from prospective employers was posted on the walls of their suite. By early May their walls were completely covered with rejection letters pasted side by side and end to end. This communal sharing of their rejection letters made it obvious to each of them that the rejections could not be taken personally, that is, each response was not a rejection of them as a person. They each knew that they had specific talents and skills; they only needed to find an employer who would appreciate those abilities.
Despair and hope go hand in hand. To live our lives fully we have to continue to hope in the face of despair. In Advent, we are often reminded of our “eager longing” and hope in the present for the future redemption of the whole creation (Romans 8:19 ff.).
The hope of the Hebrew people for a Messiah was borne and nurtured through centuries of disappointments, military disasters, and cataclysms. Their hope in the face of many reversals and disappointments was unabated. This hope was sustained, just as my sister had learned in her senior year in college, because together her suitemates were able to support one another in bad times just as they did in good times. The hope that they nurtured together empowered them to live under the promise that something better was yet to come.
The season of Advent this year is unlike any other in my lifetime. With the COVID-19 pandemic, we are unable to safely meet together for in-person worship and fellowship, where we would, if only we could, support one another in person. We have found other unexpected ways to stay connected with Zoom and YouTube, and other electronic resources, that while they can never replace person to person contact, they have allowed us to widen the sphere of our connections, allowing people who might not otherwise be able to join us whether because of health or distance from us to do so. Even in the midst of our present despair, loneliness, and lack of meaningful personal connections, we remain hopeful that better days will soon be at hand.
Judge not that you be not judged…. Why do you see the speck that is in your brother’s eye but do not notice the log that is in your own eye? Or how can you say to your brother, Let me take the speck out of your eye, when there is the log in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your brother’s eye. (Matthew 7:1-5)
In the album “The Final Cut” by the British rock group Pink Floyd, Roger Waters questions the “post-war dream,” asking whether the period of Western prosperity following World War II was worth it all. Roger’s father, a RAF pilot, was shot down fighting the Japanese in the battle of Leyte Gulf when Roger was a very young child. In this album and in other albums by the group we find glimpses of his tortuous life growing up fatherless in Britain after the war.
This recording was released at the time of the Falkland Islands war between Argentina and Great Britain. The questions raised by this conflict parallel Water’s own questions about the Second World War. What I am interested in here, however, is not so much his views on war, but the way in which he expresses the hurt he has felt in his life.
The complexity and poignancy of the lyrics of this album were not appreciated by all of their listeners who quickly, and I might add prematurely, concluded that it was one of Pink Floyd’s worst albums. This may be because it contained a cry of anguish too personal or threatening to contemplate. Roger Waters, the creative genius behind this group, you see, is no stranger to personal anxiety and sadness. In the title song of the album, the vocalist asks (his partner) in anguish:
If I show you my dark side, will you still hold me tonight?
And if I open my heart to you and show you my weak side, what will you do?
Would you sell your story to Rolling Stone?
Would you take the children away and leave me alone?
And smile in reassurance as you whisper down the phone?
Would you send me packing, or would you take me home?
These lyrics reflect the fear of telling another, even our closest friends and loved ones, our deepest pain, sadness, and faults. This fear arises for a number of reasons. The first is the possibility of rejection by the other. Another is the fear that if we tell someone how we really feel, or who we really are, it could be used against us. Yet another is the fear that we might have to change. Because of the fear of admitting who we really are and what we really feel, we often keep our deepest hurt and pain to ourselves. It is so much easier to tell others of their inadequacies than to look deeply at ourselves. We are often afraid that we will be found out—that others will discover that deep down we are inadequate and imposters at what we do. And so we, afraid to admit who we really are, locate our own faults in the lives of others. We, who are afraid to tell others of our deepest needs and hurts, for fear of their rejection, live a kind of self-imposed exile in which we are far more competent in judging the faults of others than being accountable for our own self.
It is also far easier in the community we call the “church” to find fault with others than to accept the brokenness of our own lives and the lives of others. Jesus observes that human persons often see the “splinter” in the eye of other persons more clearly than the “log” in our own eye. There’s quite a difference in size between a splinter and a log!
The life of ordained ministers in the church often comes under greater scrutiny than the life of others in the Christian community. After all, so many reckon, they are to live out the “moral life” for their congregation. The priest, in that case, however, becomes a professional Christian attempting under difficult odds to embody the Christian life before those who have often given up trying to live that life themselves. It is difficult today for all of us living in the kind of society we have made to find persons with whom we can share our deepest hopes, joys, fears, and disappointments. It is even hard to find Christian communities in which this honest sharing goes on. But if we cannot find it in the church, where will we find it?
We in the church are often more ready to judge than to love, more ready to criticize than to listen. When we judge, we stand apart from other persons; when we love, however, we stand beside them waiting to share in their hopes and dreams. Jesus calls us who seek to follow him to give an honest account of our own life before we examine the lives of others. We are called first to love others, and not judge them. To do this we have to become a people more willing to trust than to fear.
Over the past few months, I have been reflecting on the difference between loneliness and solitude. In English, the two words have slightly different meanings; where loneliness has a more negative connotation, solitude has a more positive one. “Being alone” can be good or bad depending on the feelings and emotions attached to it. We might say, for example, that we enjoy “being along,” but when we say that we are “lonely” it is always value-laden and negative. Solitude, on the other hand, suggests that it is an aloneness that we have sought out, a space that we have carved out for ourselves in which we might devote needed attention on ourselves.
We do not always experience loneliness when we are alone. On the other hand, we may feel very lonely in a crowd. In A Philosophy of Loneliness, the Norwegian philosopher Lars Svendsen, observes:
Loneliness as such cannot be predicted by the number of people that surround an individual, but by whether the social interactions that individual has satisfy his or her desire for connection; that is, by whether they interpret those social interactions as meaningful. Loneliness is a subjective phenomenon.
Svendsen distinguishes between chronic, transient, and situational loneliness and by extension between endogenous and exogenous loneliness. Chronic loneliness describes the situation in which “the subject experiences constant pain on account of having insufficient ties to others.”
Transient loneliness, Svendsen observes, “can overtake us at any moment, whether we are at a crowded party or home alone.”
Situational loneliness is caused by life changes, such as the death of a friend or a family member. The COVID-19 pandemic has forced many people into isolation. This is particularly true for those living in skilled nursing care, who in order to protect themselves, are often isolated not just from their families but from the very people with whom they live in common. Many are left alone in their rooms with little to no contact to family and friends outside because of their current situation.
During the COVOID-19 pandemic we find ourselves in a peculiar form of situational loneliness in which we desire to be with one another person — in school, church, or other social situations — but cannot fulfill the desire for the personal closeness that might mitigate our loneliness because in-person contact in these places is either restricted or forbidden.
Svendson did not have the pecularities of the loneliness brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic in mind when he published this book in 2015. His main contention when he wrote the book is that loneliness, whatever the cause, has more to do with the interpretation of our own internal state, than it does with external factors. Loneliness is experienced as coming from external forces even if that is not truly the case. We may think that loneliness is a fact of our environment and that changing our environment will change our own perceptions of loneliness. Loneliness “is experienced as a lack of satisfying relationships to others” because either we may not have sufficient relationships with other people to satisfy our own expectations or because the relationships we do have do not provide the emotional closeness that we desire — or perhaps both may be the case.
Loneliness feels as if it is being externally imposed on us, but perhaps we have some character traits or personal expectations of others that shape that perception. Do we, for example, feel lonely even in the midst of a large group of friends and family members? Do we expect other people to respond and somehow take care or reduce our own loneliness? “The pain of loneliness,” Svendson argues, “is the pain of insufficient acknowledgment.” In other words, our perceived loneliness may in fact be caused by the expectations we bring to our relationships with others.‘
Instead of expecting others to take away our loneliness, Svendsen maintains, we must acknowledge and take responsibility for our own emotions. “Your emotions are your emotions,” he observes. “They belong to you.” While you can’t choose what or how you feel, you “can try to change the way that you think” about the situations in which you experience loneliness. “You are not lonely because you are alone, you are alone because you are lonely.” It is a loneliness for which you must take responsibility. For despite everything, Svendson says, it is your loneliness.
Loneliness in all its forms will come and go in life. Loss and isolation are a part of living. No matter how many connections you have with others, you may not be satisfied with the quality of these relationships. How then can you find a way to move from loneliness to making more meaningful connections with others? When you acknowledge and take responsibility for your loneliness, that begins to transform your perception of that loneliness. Instead of looking to others to satisfy your longing for connections, you might examine what you expect of others. Rather than viewing your loneliness as something that originates outside yourself, ask yourself what you might do to begin to make more meaningful connections with others?
 Lars Svendson, The Philosophy of Loneliness. Kerri Pierce, trans. (London: Reaktion Books, Ltd., 2017).
Over the past few months, as a result of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, I have been working mostly from home. During this time, I have thought a lot about what Jesus says in the 6th chapter of the Gospel of Matthew in which he tells his followers not to worry about what they will eat or drink or wear. “Strive, first for the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well.” Then he concludes: “So do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will bring worries of its own. Today’s trouble is enough for today” (Matt. 6:31–34 NRSV).
We are living in a time of great anxiety. How can we live without worry? Is it possible? And if it is, how would we go about putting it into practice? As I reflected on these questions, I was reminded of something that Thomas Merton had discovered on this topic in the writings of the 6th century Syriac bishop and monk Philoxenos of Mabbug. I will come to that in a minute, but first, let me say something about Merton and Philoxenos.
The American Trappist (Cistercian) monk, writer, theologian, poet, and mystic Thomas Merton (January 31, 1915 – December 10, 1968) was among the greatest Christian spiritual writers in the 20th century. The 1948 publication of The Seven Story Mountain, Merton’s autobiographical account of his conversion to Roman Catholicism and his decision to become a Trappist monk, was propelled by critical acclaim to the best-seller lists of the day and led to an enormous increase in the number of people seeking monastic vocations.
During my seminary training, I studied ancient Syriac, a dialect of ancient Aramaic that bears a close resemblance to the language that Jesus spoke. There were vast numbers of Syriac-speaking Christians in the early centuries of the church, but many people in the West are entirely ignorant of the great wealth of theological and spiritual treasures that were written down in Syriac language along with the central importance of ancient Syriac texts and translations for the study of the text of the Holy Scriptures.
Because of my interest in Syriac literature and language, I became interested in what Merton had to say about Philoxenos of Mabbug (Aksenāyâ Mabûḡāyâ, ܐܟܣܢܝܐ ܡܒܘܓܝܐ (ca. 440-523 A.D.). His monastic name, ’Aksenāyā means “the stranger,” or, in other words, a person who was a lover of hospitality. In Greek that was translated as Philoxenos (a friend or lover of strangers,” or “the hospitable one.”)
Philoxenos was a monk and bishop in the Syriac Jacobite Church that separated from the Churches of Rome and Constantinople following the Council of Chalcedon in 451 A.D. That council declared that the incarnate Word, Jesus Christ, had two natures, one human and the other divine and that those who held otherwise were heretics and were no longer welcome in the church. The Syriac Jacobite Church, formed in reaction to the Council of Chalcedon, was officially miaphysite, that is, they insisted that after the incarnation the human and divine natures were merged in such a way that the incarnate Word had only one nature (Gk. mia = one and Gk. physis = nature). This might seem to be of minor theological importance today, but at the time and for the centuries that followed, it was a church-dividing issue.
An important source for Merton’s wisdom is found in the conferences that Merton, known as Fr. Louis within the monastery, held with the novices at the Abbey of Our Lady of Gethsemani, near Bardstown, Kentucky. Merton was the novice master and as such was responsible for the academic formation of monks in training. While recordings exist of many of these conferences (or what we might also call classes), most of them have not been published.
What drew Merton to Philoxenos was their shared monastic vocations. Despite the fact that Philoxenos was from a separated church, the deep wisdom of his reflections on how to live simply as a monastic ineluctably drew Merton to his writings. This wisdom, as Merton demonstrates in his conferences, is just as valuable to those living out monastic vocations as it is to those of us who are not.
The genre Philoxenos employed in his Discourses was the mēmrā (Syriac plural, mēmrē). The genre can best be described as metrical poetry in the form of a homily addressed to a monastic audience. The thirteen Discourses of Philoxenos begin with an introductory mēmrā followed by pairs of mēmrē, each pair centered on the same theme but developed in different ways. It is not immediately clear why two separate mēmrē were written on the same theme. Sometimes the first of the two mēmrē takes a moralistic tone while the second takes a more mystical tone. Or, perhaps the second is a later reworking of the first. There is no consensus on this.
Mēmrē 4 and 5 both focus on the topic of “simplicity.” After a brief analysis of a passage from Philoxenos that Merton identifies for discussion, I will look to see what Merton does with this topic in the conferences with his own monastic students.
In Mēmrā 4, “On Simplicity,” Philoxenos discusses the simplicity of Jacob who was unfairly deceived more than once by Laban his father in law. In spite of this, Philoxenos writes, “The purity of Jacob was not afraid and his simplicity was not shaken, and his innocence did not become inflated.” As long as Jacob was attending to his own concerns, God was concerned for him about the other external things that happened to Jacob. Jacob, thus, “is an example of enlightened instruction to all who wish to labor with the Lord: one should not let his thoughts cease from reflection on God nor occupy them with devising schemes by which to harm his enemies.” From the example of Jacob, Philoxenos turns to the monastic audience and exhorts them with the following words.
But you, O disciple, remain in the purity of your mind. It is the Lord’s to know how to guide your life, and which things are beneficial for you that he should do for you. Have you heard about others that are preparing to do harm to you; and others that are lying in ambush to take your life; … and others that reproach your glory and find fault with your way of life; and others that dig in order to throw you on the earth from the height on which you are standing; … or others that speak against and revile you, and hurl mocking abuses on you…? But you, in all of these things, remain in your simplicity and do not turn your back from where you have been watching, and do not cease from your secret conversation with God.
Do not let the coercion of these things outside of you defeat the coercion of the hidden anchor on which your life is suspended, but hold on to Christ with the hope that is not found false, according to the promise of Paul to us, “Let us hold on to the hope that was promised to us, which is to us like an anchor tied onto our soul” so that you may not be moved.
It is quite interesting to see what Merton makes of this passage. As he interprets it to his own monastic audience, Merton seems to have Jesus’ admonition not to worry about what is going to happen to us in the future in the back of his mind, even though neither Merton nor Philoxenos mention it explicitly. “So do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will bring worries of its own. Today’s trouble is enough for today” (Matt. 6:34).
In his monastic conferences, Merton frequently relates what Philoxenos has to say with examples from Zen Buddhist themes and texts. It is the juxtaposition of the texts of Philoxenos with the Holy Scriptures and Zen Buddhist ideas that makes Merton’s idiosyncratic interpretation so remarkable.
After talking about what Philoxenos wrote on the topic of simplicity in much more detail than have outlined here, Merton makes the following, somewhat colloquial, observations:
Anxiety about yourself. What is going to happen to me? Now this, I would say, is extremely important. This is the big thought. And this is the thought that we as monks really need to learn how to handle. This is the thought. What is going to become of poor me? One year from now, ten years from now, where am I going to be? What is going to happen? How’s it going to be? So I’m going to croak, but how, when, where? It doesn’t matter. What we have to do is attain this purity of spirit and let God take care of it. What is going to happen to me is of no importance. Why? Not because in itself it is of no importance. But it is useless for me to worry about it because it is already taken care of. So this is purity of spirit in this particular context. And this is simplicity.
As Merton continues his reflections about the anxiety that each of us faces in our own ways, he relates it first to the experience of his monastic colleagues, who even in their partially cloistered existence can never be sure what tomorrow will bring. As Merton talks, he gradually brings his monastic audience back to what Philoxenos says about hope and why when we put our ultimate “hope” in God we find not only simplicity of life but rest from the overwhelming anxiety that so often clouds our ability to see that hope. Merton says:
[You] don’t stand back and judge what God is making out of your life. This is absolutely essential. What we are constantly doing [is] constantly looking at our lives: where are we going, how is it going, how are we going to get there, how am I going to get around the next corner and what happens at 5 pm or 5:26 and what’s going to happen at 5:27? How am I going to get this done? What’s going to happen if he says this, what do I say? And if Reverend Father makes the foundation in Norway, then what? This is what we have to learn not to do. It’s extremely important for the contemplative life. And this is the real contemplative life to stop doing this! But it’s extremely hard. It’s very difficult indeed. And so what we have all got in our heads is a whole lot of gimmicks about ‘how to make it’ and ‘how can I handle this’ and all these eventualities and so forth. So there’s a great deal of anxiety. And the answer is hope. We have got to have real hope in God, because when we’re thinking about ourselves and figuring out about ourselves we’re not hoping—we’re figuring! To figure is not to hope! We have to put all the important stuff in God’s hands.
At this point, Merton makes a turn in his interpretation of Philoxenos that seems to interweave what Merton’s reading of Buddhist texts, particularly as they relate to the illusory nature of the self. Here, Merton offers his most profound insight on what Philoxenos has to say about simplicity. Merton observes:
We have to put all the important stuff in God’s hands. [Which means] not being preoccupied with this ‘I’ who is going to be theretomorrow. Where the trouble comes [from] is this centering our thoughts on the ‘I’ that is here: ‘Here I am.’ But this ‘I’ is not all that important because it isn’t all that real. What we experience as ourselves is 99% imagination. We construct an imaginary self that we have to live with, and this is not for real. And it’s not important. The real self, the depth of our true self that is going to last, is a self that we don’t see, we can’t observe and can’t plan for. And that self is in God’s hands, and is constantly safe, constantly secure, can’t get out of God’s hands. Everything that is real in us belongs completely to God and he isn’t going to let go of it for two seconds. He is not worried about the unreal in ourselves, but we are. So constantly if we are worrying about the unreal part of ourselves, which is the part that we worry about, then we have to constantly keep constructing it, and protecting it, and defending it, and fixing it up so that it won’t collapse and pushing it along so that it will get through these things and so forth. And there’s nothing there! But we waste all this time worrying about this. And if we can get rid of this we [would have] a great more time for doing more important things and we can forget about this business of keeping this self which isn’t really that important and really isn’t that much there. We can forget about this and think about God and not worry about ourselves and He’ll take care of the rest. So hope then is this great important thing.
These words of Merton are extremely profound. Hope is an antidote to worry and anxiety. Real, authentic, hope is more than just wishful thinking. It is found in our willingness to put our fragile selves into the hands of God so that God can hold them for us. When we put ourselves in the hands of God, we can re-focus the energy we waste trying to shore up the illusory self that we mistake for our real self. The real self is in God’s hands and it “can’t get out of” them. As Merton concludes, “Everything that is real in us belongs completely to God and he isn’t going to let go of it for two seconds.”
I think it’s worth paying attention to what Philoxenos says about how we should deal with the things that give us worry and anxiety.
Do not let the coercion of these things outside of you defeat the coercion of the hidden anchor on which your life is suspended, but hold on to Christ with the hope that is not found false, according to the promise of Paul to us, “Let us hold on to the hope that was promised to us, which is to us like an anchor tied onto our soul” so that you may not be moved.
In these troubled times, may you find rest for your souls (Mt. 11:30) anchored to the hope we have in Jesus Christ (Hebrews 6: 19-20).
 Thomas Merton’s Novitiate Conferences on Philoxenos were recorded at Abbey of Our Lady of Gethsemani near Bardstown, KY between April and June of 1965 and some excerpts from them have been published. For selected passages, see Thomas Merton, OCSO, “Thomas Merton’s Novitiate Conferences on Philoxenos of Mabbug (April-June 1965): Philoxenos on The Foundations of the Spiritual Life and the Recovery of Simplicity,” Edited, with an introduction, by David M. Odorisio. Hugoye: Journal of Syriac Studies, Vol. 13.2, (2010), 251–271. Merton makes additional comments about Philoxenos in Thomas Merton,“Rain and the Rhinoceros”in Raids on the Unspeakable (New York: New Directions Publishing Corporation, 1964), 9-23. See, 14-23.
The Discourses of Philoxenos of Mabbug: A New Translation and Introduction, Cistercian Studies Series # 253, trans. Robert A. Kitchen (Collegeville, MN: The Liturgical Press, 2014). See, Mēmrā 4: 30, 101.
The Discourses of Philoxenos of Mabbug, Mēmrā 4, 31, 101
The Discourses of Philoxenos of Mabbug, Mēmrā 4, 32, 101-102. 1 Philoxenos cites Hebrews 6:19-20: “We have this hope, a sure and steadfast anchor of the soul, a hope that enters the inner shrine behind the curtain, where Jesus, a forerunner on our behalf, has entered, having become a high priest forever according to the order of Melchizedek.”( It is generally accepted today that Paul did not write the book of Hebrews but that authorship was widely accepted in the time of Philoxenos.)
 See,“Thomas Merton’s Novitiate Conferences on Philoxenos of Mabbug,” 258 and 261.
 “Thomas Merton’s Novitiate Conferences on Philoxenos of Mabbug,” 268-269.
 “Thomas Merton’s Novitiate Conferences on Philoxenos of Mabbug,” 269.
 “Thomas Merton’s Novitiate Conferences on Philoxenos of Mabbug,” 269-270.
 “Thomas Merton’s Novitiate Conferences on Philoxenos of Mabbug, 269.
The Discourses of Philoxenos of Mabbug, Mēmrā 4, 32, 101-102.