“DO NOT WORRY ABOUT TOMORROW…”

Photo by Ester Marie Doysabas on Unsplash

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.[1]

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.”[2]  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.[3]

Philoxenos continues: 

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.[4]

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.[5]

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.[6]

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.[7]

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 there tomorrow. 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.[8]

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.”[9]

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.[10]

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). 


[1] 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. 

[2] 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.  

[3] The Discourses of Philoxenos of Mabbug, Mēmrā 4, 31, 101 

[4] 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.) 

[5] See,“Thomas Merton’s Novitiate Conferences on Philoxenos of Mabbug,” 258 and 261.  

[6] “Thomas Merton’s Novitiate Conferences on Philoxenos of Mabbug,” 268-269.

[7] “Thomas Merton’s Novitiate Conferences on Philoxenos of Mabbug,” 269.

[8] “Thomas Merton’s Novitiate Conferences on Philoxenos of Mabbug,” 269-270.

[9] “Thomas Merton’s Novitiate Conferences on Philoxenos of Mabbug, 269.

[10] The Discourses of Philoxenos of Mabbug, Mēmrā 4, 32, 101-102.

WRITTEN ON OUR HEARTS

Photo by Jose Llamas on Unsplash

 

This meditation is taken in part from the sermon I preached at the Ordination of Daniel Paul Spors to the Priesthood on January 18, 2017 

The hymn, “Come labor on” (The Hymnal 1982, #541) begins with a call to action: 

“Come labor on. Who dares stand idle on the harvest plain, while all around us waves the golden grain? And to each servant does the Master say, ‘Go work today.’”  

It is a call to action—a call to follow Jesus—to attend to the harvest to which Jesus, the Son of Man calls each and every person who desires to follow him. My favorite verse, however, is the third:

“Come labor on. Away with gloomy doubts and faithless fear! No arm so weak but may do service here: by feeblest agents may our God fulfill his righteous will”.  

The verse tells of how God takes our feeble efforts and uses them for God’s glory and God’s purposes.  How does God do that? We will never know, but thanks be to God, God does it.  

Working as a priest in parish ministry has many challenges. One thing is eminently true. You will never be able to please all the people all the time. You can try to “be all things to all people” as St. Paul once wrote, but you will never please everyone.  All you can do is to strive to be faithful to God. 

And the most wonderful thing about our respective ministries— and you have one whether you are ordained or a layperson —is that God will work in and through you even when you are sure that you have failed—that no one has heard you—that you have not said enough—or done enough.  God, mysteriously, will have a way of creating something good out of even the smallest and imperfect fragments of your work. It is a mystery—a wonderful mystery—how God speaks, works, and acts through us, despite ourselves.  That is the wondrous work of the Holy Spirit!   

It’s true with most jobs that people will rarely tell you that you are doing a good job, but quick to tell you when you are doing something wrong.  As a priest, it is no different. We are rarely told that what we have done, or said, or not said made any difference in the lives of those to whom we minister. That is in part because we human beings—all of us— rarely recognize it at the time we are being helped. That recognition only comes later.  For that reason, we clergy often do and do, never knowing if what we do makes any difference at all in the lives of those to whom we minister.  In ministry, there are times when we will not know if we are doing a good enough job or not.  We can only trust that if we are doing all in your power to be faithful to God, that God will use us, even if, despite our very best efforts, we feel that we have failed.  All we can do is to be faithful to our call to the priesthood because God will always be faithful to us. 

The Welsh poet R. S. Thomas, ordained to the priesthood in the church of Wales in 1936, wrote a poem entitled “The Country Clergy” that speaks to the situation I have described in words that transcend my meager words on this topic. 

I see them working in old rectories
By the sun’s light, by candlelight,
Venerable men, their black cloth
A little dusty, a little green
With holy mildew. And yet their skulls,
Ripening over so many prayers,
Toppled into the same grave
With oafs and yokels. They left no books,
Memorial to their lonely thought
In grey parishes; rather they wrote
On men’s hearts and in the minds
Of young children sublime words
Too soon forgotten. God in his time
Or out of time will correct this.[1]

In the second letter to the Corinthians, St. Paul says that he does not need a written letter of recommendation to attest to the work of his ministry, because the people to whom he ministered in Corinth, imperfect as they are, in fact, serve as his letter of recommendation. “You yourselves are our letter, written on our hearts, to be known and read by all; and you show that you are a letter of Christ, prepared by us, written not with ink but with the Spirit of the living God, not on tablets of stone but on tablets of human hearts (2 Cor. 3:2-3).

Other people may not appreciate what you are doing when you do it, or even remember what you have done, but if you put your trust in God, and not in what people think of you, God in God’s time works all things for good.  You will “write” on the hearts and minds of men and women, and young children. God takes whatever we have to give and makes the most of it. God is always faithful.

[1] “The Country Clergy” in R. S. Thomas, Collected Poems: 1945-1990. (London: Orion Books, 1993), 82.

THISDAY, THAT DAY, ONEDAY…

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During the Covid-19 pandemic, many of us are living under stay-at-home orders to help “flatten the curve” and slow hospital admissions and also to protect the most vulnerable among us.  While I continue to work full-time at home, it is easy to forget what day it is.  It is in the midst of that confusion someone — and I don’t know who — suggested that we rename the days of the week to Thisday, Thatday, Theotherday, Someday, and Oneday.  

While I remain quite busy during the week, I do forget sometimes what day of the week it is, as each day I work in my home office, rarely going outside the house at all, except for a brief walk in the evening with our dog.  Each day in that sense is pretty much like any other. I suppose that is because without going out of the house, the days seem more similar to each other than they would were my routine a bit more varied. One thing that still trips me up is that when I am scheduled to preach, I think I have until Sunday to prepare a sermon, but then suddenly somewhere around Tuesday (or Wednesday — who knows?) I realize that I have to finish preparing it and that I need to record it by Thursday morning so that it can be processed in time to put it up on the church YouTube page for viewing on Sunday morning. 

In a previous post from September 2019, I reflected on Thomas Mann’s epic 20th century novel, The Magic Mountain, and his perceptive account and analysis of how we humans experience the passing of time. [See, “The Passage of Time,” [https://craigphillips.co/2019/09/17/the-passage-of-time/] At the risk of oversimplification, Mann suggests that the more familiar we are with our setting, the faster time seems to pass. When our setting is entirely new, however, time seems to pass more slowly. That means that at the beginning of the stay-at-home period, when it was something new to us, the days may have seemed to pass more slowly. After a while, when staying home became the new normal, the days may seem to have passed more quickly. What this suggests is that during this time there are opportunities for me do new things, even while at home. 

With the increased time at home, I have tried to find new things to do in the evening (when I don’t have church meetings to “attend” on Zoom).  I purposely have tried not to watch more TV and movies than I normally do, but rather to take the time when I might have been elsewhere to learn new things right where I am. This week I baked a wonderful loaf of Swedish rye bread. As I write this, I have a loaf of a darker Norwegian rye bread rising in the oven prior to baking.  I also plan to bake some sourdough bread over the coming weekend. My wife and I walk our Chocolate Labrador Retriever every evening before bedtime when things are quiet outside and then either watch some television together for a while or we each read something that we enjoy.  I am in the middle of five books at the moment, and in the next few weeks I hope that I will finish one or more of these (without beginning to read any others!)  

In addition to reading, I am taking advantage of online college courses on computer programming on Coursera and EdX.  I have always been interested in computer programming, even though I have absolutely no desire to do it professionally. In the late 1990s, long after I had completed college and graduate studies, I took a college course on Java programming at a local Penn State campus. I never did anything with what I learned in that class, but since high school, when I first learned to program with FORTRAN on an IBM mainframe computer, I have always been interested in computer programming languages. The nice part about auditing a course on one of the online platforms like Coursera and EdX  is that I can watch some amazing class lectures, and I don’t have to do the homework or worry about my grades. I can learn as much or as little as I want.   

Even though the days right now may seem to be running together and it may seem that “Someday” or “Oneday” may never come, think about how you might spend the time that is given to you in a way that is rewarding to you and the people around you. You are never too old to learn something new!  “Carpe diem” — seize the day — enjoy the moment.  

I pray that you remain, healthy, safe, and happy during this time of uncertainty and anxiety.   

“IS THE LORD AMONG US OR NOT?”

This meditation is based on a sermon posted online during a Sunday service of Morning Prayer at St. Peter’s Episcopal Church, Arlington, Virginia on the Third Sunday of Lent, March 12, 2020. 

Photo by Gretchen Seelenbinder on Unsplash

On the first Sunday of Lent it is a custom in the Episcopal Church to chant the Great Litany in procession. In light of the spread of the Covid-19 virus, now officially is designated as a global pandemic, one phrase from the Litany stands out:

Litanist:  “[F]rom plague, pestilence, and famine…”

Response: “Good Lord, deliver us.”

These words first appeared in The Great Litany of the 1549 Book of Common Prayer, produced by Archbishop Thomas Cramner from earlier Latin rites and other existing liturgies from Germany and England.

The Great Litany appeared in 16th Century when people were ignorant about viruses and bacteria and how they worked.  They didn’t know how illness spread. The plague had killed many people in Europe in the centuries prior to the 16th, so people were fearful whenever a disease, cold, or flu began to spread.

Today we know much more about how viruses and bacteria spread, but when we can’t control it or immunize against it, we also are full of fear. That is the case today. Many of us are fearful of what might happen to us, and not knowing what will happen, we feel powerless in the face of it. In the midst of all this fear, we need to remember that our God is still the God who always remains faithful to us. With trust in God as our guiding principle, we need to lift one another up and strengthen one another in community, so that together, we might live as people who are not consumed by fear, but by hope.  

The first reading from the Revised Common Lectionary appointed for this 3rd Sunday in Lent comes from the book of Exodus. It tells the story of the people of Israel as they came out of their bondage in Egypt into the wilderness. They left lives that were difficult but now in the wilderness, they faced different sorts of difficulties.  In Egypt they may have been slaves to the Egyptians, but at least, they said, they had plenty of food to eat and water to drink. Now in the wilderness there were periods in which they did not have enough food and water. When they did not have enough food to eat, they complained and grumbled. But God graciously gave them manna to eat so that they did not go hungry. But then the Israelites began to face a period in which they did not have enough water to drink. Once again, they began to quarrel amongst themselves and began to blame not only Moses, their leader, for their difficulties, but also began to blame God.  

“The people quarreled with Moses and said:” 

Give us water to drink.” Moses said to them, “Why do you quarrel with me? Why do you test the Lord?” But the people thirsted there for water; and the people complained against Moses and said, “Why did you bring us out of Egypt, to kill us and our children and livestock with thirst?” So Moses cried out to the Lord, “What shall I do with this people? They are almost ready to stone me.” The Lord said to Moses, “Go on ahead of the people, and take some of the elders of Israel with you; take in your hand the staff with which you struck the Nile, and go. I will be standing there in front of you on the rock at Horeb. Strike the rock, and water will come out of it, so that the people may drink.” Moses did so, in the sight of the elders of Israel.  And there was water enough to drink.”

The passage ends with a very telling sentence.  Moses we are told named, “He called the place Massah and Meribah” [Massah means quarreling.  Meribah means testing] “because the Israelites quarreled and tested the Lord, saying, “Is the Lord among us or not?”  

“Is the Lord among us or not?” 

We Christians are people who have hope. Even in times of gravest difficulty, we are a people of hope. I am reminded of the words of St. Paul from first Thessalonians, chapter 4 in which he is discussing whether the dead will be raised to new life at the resurrection.  It is not the content of that passage that interests me, but the word’s Paul uses to frame his discussion. These are words we need to hear: “We do not want you to be uninformed, so that you may not grieve as others who have no hope.” “So that you may not grieve as others who have no hope.”  We Christians have hope.  We are a people who hope and trust in God even in the most difficult of times. 

In answer to the question, “Is the Lord among us or not?,” our answer is always an emphatic, “yes“.  The Lord is among us even in the most difficult times and circumstances.

When we face difficulties in our lives, we often try to find understanding or meaning in the midst of the things that are happening to us.  Last Sunday, during our church service together, we sang the hymn, “How firm a foundation, ye saints of the Lord.”  After the service, I found myself reciting the lyrics to the hymn from memory because they give me comfort and remind me to trust in God and not live in fear.    

The second verse is particularly relevant and worth reading, praying with, and memorizing.  It is based on scriptural passages and references. It puts the promises of Holy Scripture together in a way that reminds us about the hope that we Christians have.  

2 “Fear not, I am with thee; O be not dismayed!
For I am thy God, and will still give thee aid;
I’ll strengthen thee, help thee, and cause thee to stand,
upheld by my righteous, omnipotent hand.

3 “When through the deep waters I call thee to go,
the rivers of woe shall not thee overflow;
for I will be with thee, thy troubles to bless,
and sanctify to thee thy deepest distress.

4 “When through fiery trials thy pathway shall lie,
my grace, all sufficient, shall be thy supply;
the flame shall not hurt thee; I only design
thy dross to consume, and thy gold to refine.

5 “The soul that to Jesus hath fled for repose,
I will not, I will not desert to its foes;
that soul, though all hell shall endeavor to shake,
I’ll never, no, never, no, never forsake.

[Hymn 637 in The Hymnal 1982

These are words of promise taken from the scripture and put in lyrical form.  

The verse that I say to myself most often the second one.  

2 “Fear not, I am with thee; O be not dismayed!
For I am thy God, and will still give thee aid;
I’ll strengthen thee, help thee, and cause thee to stand,
upheld by my righteous, omnipotent hand.

Is the Lord among us or not?  Yes. The Lord is among us. But in the midst of all this uncertainty, what can we do as faithful Christians?  I have two practical suggestions in this time of difficulty for us today with what we are facing. 

So, what can we do?

The first thing we can do is quite simple. It is to Practice Gratitude. Practicing gratitude helps remind us to keep in mind the things with which God has blessed us. When we practice gratitude, it helps us feel better about ourselves and our situation. When we start to do the opposite and we begin to complain like the Israelites, we lose sight of God.  It’s so easy to complain. It comes naturally to humans. The story of the wandering of the ancient Israelites in the wilderness, as told in the book of Exodus, shows us that the moment they get away from comforts, they begin to complain and murmur and quarrel. What if they instead had practiced gratitude?  “We have been released from Egypt. We are free. Yes, we are facing some difficulties. We don’t have food and water at the moment, but God has always been with us and we will get through this.” What if they had stuck together and worked together in the midst of that? How much stronger they would have been as a community and a people! 

The second practical thing is we need to during this time to figure out ways that we can support one another and connect with one another.  Religious institutions all over the world are trying to figure out how to connect people with one another during this extraordinary time. Many are turning to video conferencing and other forms of technology that help bring us together even as we self-isolate and keep good social distancing.  One tried and true was to keep connected is by telephone. On the telephone you can call your friends, neighbors, and anyone you think might need some assistance or reassurance, and say, “How are you doing?” “What’s going on?” How can I help?”  

So what can we do?

Practice Gratitude.  Give thanks for what we have.  That helps us to remember that we have many, many blessings in our lives.  When we practice gratitude, we find it’s much easier to deal with the difficulties we face.  

The second thing we need to do is to stay connected. The most important thing for us to do at the moment is to try to stay together as a community – even without being able to worship together.  We need to continue to come up with ways to keep us together as a community who will continue to love and praise God and give thanks for God’s many blessings. We all need to help one another as we all go through this time of difficulty and uncertainty.   

“Is the Lord among us or not?” The answer is an emphatic yes!

May the words of this old hymn remind you of the faithfulness of God who promises to always be with us even in the times of deepest trial and difficulty. 

2 “Fear not, I am with thee; O be not dismayed!
For I am thy God, and will still give thee aid;
I’ll strengthen thee, help thee, and cause thee to stand,
upheld by my righteous, omnipotent hand.

3 “When through the deep waters I call thee to go,
the rivers of woe shall not thee overflow….

4 “When through fiery trials thy pathway shall lie,
my grace, all sufficient, shall be thy supply….

LENT: A SEASON OF GROWTH

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I long have been deeply moved by the wisdom of the desert fathers and mothers who began living in the deserts of Egypt in the third and fourth centuries of the church. The most famous of them was St. Anthony of Egypt (251?-356 AD). His biography, written by St. Athanasius, inspired thousands of young men and women to flee the cities of the Byzantine world for the solitude of the desert. These spiritual warriors, as they saw themselves, had left everything for the sake of Jesus Christ. Now they had arrived in the desert to resist the world, the flesh, and the devil. Many were unprepared for this task and as a result sought out the advice of spiritual elders. This advice was soon collected and widely distributed in the ancient Christian world.

The teachings of the elders were not systematic but rather were a collection of answers to questions from those who came to them for spiritual advice and counsel. A good many of the requests directed to the elders began with these simple words, “Speak to me a word that I may live.” The answers the seekers received most often were not what they expected. Often, they sent the seeker away to re-engage with the very question he or she had hoped the elder would solve. 

One elder apparently was asked why it was so difficult to grow in the life of service and prayer to God. He answered: “The reason we do not get anywhere is that we do not know our limits, and we are not patient carrying on the work we have begun. But without any labor at all we want to gain possession of virtue.” The last sentence is telling. The young seeker thought that his radical renunciation of the world should be enough to catapult him to virtue. The only way, however, that we gain virtue is by repeated effort.  

Virtue in the ancient world was understood to be something gained by practice. We learn to love as we love, to be a giving person as we give, to be forgiving as we forgive and so forth. None of these virtues can be purchased off the shelf or given to us by God or anyone else. To learn to do these things we have to do them. And we most likely will not learn how to do them unless we fail over and over again. “The reason we do not get anywhere is that we do not know our limits, and we are not patient carrying on the work we have begun. But without any labor at all we want to gain possession of virtue.”  

It takes discipline and effort to grow and mature. Lent is the season the church sets aside for particular devotion and dedication, not to burden us with one more thing to do, but as a time in which we can learn more about ourselves and our limits.  May you have a blessed and holy Lent.  

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This Lenten booklet (link below) provides resources to assist you in your daily Lenten devotions and readings. May you be drawn closer to our Savior Jesus Christ in this Lenten season.

“READ, MARK, LEARN, AND INWARDLY DIGEST…”

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Blessed Lord, who caused all holy Scriptures to be written for our learning: Grant us so to hear them, read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest them, that we may embrace and ever       hold fast the blessed hope of everlasting life, which you have given us in our Savior Jesus Christ; who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever.  Amen.   (The Collect for Proper 28 from The Book of Common Prayer)

“…The word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword” (Heb. 4:12). 

CREDO is a program devised by the Church Pension Fund of the Episcopal Church to address Clergy Wellness. At week-long conferences, participants examine four areas of their lives – Vocation, Spirituality, Health, and Finances — and come up with a rule of life tailored to their own lives. It is the hope of the Church Pension Fund that every ordained person in the Episcopal Church will be invited to attend a CREDO conference at least every ten years during their active ministry. I have participated in three separate CREDO programs over the past twenty years.    

I would like to share a story from my second CREDO conference. We gathered for worship twice each day, meeting in large plenary sessions and in small groups, and had personal consultations in each of the four areas.  We got up for breakfast at 7:15AM and worked until 9PM for the first three days and then the pace slackened a bit, giving us some private time to work and prepare our own CREDO plans.  Because I had been to CREDO once before, I knew more or less what to expect and I looked forward to the time of personal reflection, prayer, and fellowship with other clergy from dioceses all over the country. It was not a “retreat” in the usual sense of the word because we were so busy, but it was a “retreat” from the familiar world of everyday life in the parish.   Here was a place where we clergy could go to worship and not be responsible for making sure that everything went according to plan— a place where we could relax and hear the words of Scripture and take in the reflections of the staff members on those readings.

On the second day—at least that is how I remember it— at morning worship, we read a portion of Psalm 107 together.  I knew at once that these were words that would set the tone for what I was going to do that week at CREDO.

  1. Some wandered in desert wastes;
    they found no way to a city where they might dwell. 
  2. They were hungry and thirsty;
    their spirits languished within them. 
  3. Then they cried to the LORD in their trouble,  
    and he delivered them from their distress. 
  4. He put their feet on a straight path  
    to go to a city where they might dwell. 
  5. Let them give thanks to the LORD for his mercy
    and the wonders he does for his children. 
  6. For he satisfies the thirsty  
    and fills the hungry with good things. 

It would be unusual, I think, if you felt the kind of response I felt when I read these words aloud and simultaneously heard these words read in unison. They were words that spoke to me at that moment and perhaps to no one else in quite the same way. It is difficult and a bit awkward to try to explain it.  I knew that I had arrived there hungry and thirsty for revival and renewal. These words hit me as if they were a promise to me of something greater that was yet to happen. My feet would once again be set upon a straight path and God would satisfy my spiritual thirst and hunger. It sounds rather prosaic to write about it, but it was something else to experience the power that these words of scripture had for me at that moment. It was as if I could close the book at that moment with no need to read any further. Perhaps this kind of experience is best described in the book of Hebrews, when it says, “the word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword” (Heb. 4:12).  

The history of the Church is full of stories of people whose lives were changed by a single verse of Scripture. St. Augustine picked up a manuscript of Paul’s letter to the Romans and knew at once with absolute certainty that the words “let us therefore cast off the works of darkness and let us put on the armor of light” were meant for him. When St. Francis heard the words “If you wish to be perfect, go, sell your possessions, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me,” read in church, it gnawed at him until he responded to the word that he knew the Lord had spoken directly to him. John Wesley heard a portion of Luther’s Commentary on the Epistle to the Romans and felt “as if his heart had been strangely warmed.”           

These are only a few of the well-known stories in which a passage of Scripture spoke directly to a person.  When a passage of Scripture speaks to us like that it cuts like a two-edged sword so that we cannot ignore what we have heard or read.  This is not the sort of thing that happens only once in a lifetime.   If you learn to be attentive to the words of Scripture either when you read them or hear them read in church or in your daily devotions, God will speak to you.  

Sometimes it takes a retreat or a place apart for us to find the space within ourselves to truly listen to what God wants to say, or already is saying to us, but because we have been so preoccupied with other things that we have not been able to hear. When you encounter the living God in the “living and active” word of Scripture you will know it. When that happens to you, stop. Read, and re-read what you have just heard. Listen to what it says to your heart. When you revisit it in a few days, it may not have the effect that it had at first, but that is fine. If it is something that is meant for you it will have some lasting effect on you, whether it challenges you and calls you to repentance or nourishes and refreshes you in the face of difficulties and trials.  If you share your experience with someone else do not be surprised if they don’t get it. The words were not meant for them but for you. If you are really puzzled, you might want to speak with a trained spiritual director or a member of the clergy.  

I am sharing this story with you in the hope that you will be attentive to the word of God as it is revealed to you in Holy Scripture. Remember to take to heart the words of the famous collect from the Book of Common Prayer that remind us to “read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest” the words of Holy Scripture. These are words that can satisfy the thirsty and fill the hungry with good things.

THE LAND OF UNLIKENESS: W. H. AUDEN’S CHRISTMAS ORATORIO

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He is the Way.
Follow Him through the Land of Unlikeness;
You will see rare beasts, and have unique adventures.

He is the Truth.
Seek Him in the Kingdom of Anxiety;
You will come to a great city that has expected your return for years.

He is the Life.
Love Him in the World of the Flesh;
And at your marriage all its occasions shall dance for joy.

W.H. Auden  (1907-1973)

“He is the Way,” Hymn #463/464 in the Episcopal Hymnal 1982, is the concluding section of W. H. Auden’s Christmas Oratorio, For the Time Being. The poem was written between 1941 and 1942 as a libretto for an unfinished composition by Benjamin Britten. 

At the risk of oversimplification, the Christmas Oratorio can be described as Auden’s extended meditation on the incarnation of God in Jesus Christ and its meaning for people in the modern world. 

In the penultimate section of the Oratorio, Auden turns his attention to the time immediately following the Christmas season, what we in the Episcopal Church call the season of Epiphany and what in the Roman Catholic Church is called “Ordinary Time.” In Epiphany, we are in the meantime between Christmas, the season of the incarnation and Lent, the season of the cross.    

Auden begins his reflections on the time between Christmas and Lent with these words:

Well, so that is that. 
Now we must dismantle the tree, 
Putting the decorations back into their cardboard boxes….

We know what that is like. For those of us who observe the seasons of the church calendar, the act of taking down the decorations, as the twelve days of Christmas ends and Epiphany begins, is a physical, visual, and emotional reminder that we are entering a different space and time from where we have been. Here Auden, looking back to the incarnation of Jesus at Christmastime, suggests that the reality and life-changing implications of the incarnation of God in Jesus may be too much for us to grasp, so we remain unchanged, living life as we have before, remaining “His disobedient servant.”  Auden writes: 

…Once again
As in previous years we have seen the actual Vision and failed
To do more than entertain it as an agreeable
Possibility, once again we have sent Him away, 
Begging though to remain His disobedient servant, 
The promising child who cannot keep His word for long. 
The Christmas Feast is already a fading memory, 
And already the mind begins to be vaguely aware
Of an unpleasant whiff of apprehension at the thought
Of Lent and Good Friday which cannot, after all, now
Be very far off….

The theme of the disobedient servant is picked up again near the end of this long poem in the section that comprises the lyrics of Hymns 463 and 464.

He is the Way.
Follow Him through the Land of Unlikeness;
You will see rare beasts, and hav
e unique adventures.

Auden borrowed the phrase “land of Unlikeness” from St. Augustine, who describes the years before he fully embraced the Christian faith as years lived in a “land of Unlikeness”: “I realized I was far away from Thee in a land of Unlikeness” (Confessions, Book 7, Chapter 10).

This “land of Unlikeness” was equated in later monastic literature and scholarship with the “far country” to which the prodigal son journeyed: “the younger son gathered all he had and took a journey into a far country, and there he squandered his property in reckless living.” (Luke 15:3). Auden understands that the journey of faith aiming to find and follow Jesus as the Way, the Truth, and the Life requires us to journey through this land as we are transformed from disobedient servant to obedient disciple and from untruth to truth. The Way that leads to Jesus takes us on this journey.

Reflecting on Auden’s poem, in light of my reading of the theologian, Karl Barth, I could not help but think of the incarnation itself as the story of God’s journey into a far country for our sakes. This is not as far-fetched as it might seem. In the second chapter of Philippians, St. Paul cites an early Christian hymn to urge his fellow Christians to model their behavior on Jesus Christ,

            who, though he was in the form of God, 
            did not regard equality with God
            as something to be exploited, 
            but emptied himself, 
            taking the form of a slave, 
            being born in human likeness. 
            And being found in human form,
            he humbled himself
            and became obedient to the point of death—
            even death on a cross  
            Therefore God also highly exalted him… (Phil. 2:5-9).

This is the story of the incarnation of God in Jesus Christ.  God, in Christ, took on human flesh.  God, in other words, gave up the authority that goes along with being God  and took on the form of a servant. God, then, in Jesus Christ, went on a journey from the realm of eternity into the realm of human existence–that is, our world.  

This journey leads from eternity to time, from human birth to human death, from incarnation to death on the cross.  It ends with Jesus’ resurrection and exaltation back in eternity once again. 

In Volume 4:1 of the Church Dogmatics — perhaps the greatest Christian systematic theological contribution of the 20thcentury — Karl Barth reads the story of the prodigal son in light of this passage from Philippians. He reads this story Christologically, that is, he reads the story of the prodigal son as a metaphor for the journey of Jesus from the realm of pre-existent Godhead to earthly, fleshly, incarnation. Jesus, thus, in a manner similar to that of the prodigal son, goes off into a “far country.” 

Where the prodigal son soon after leaving his father got lost in the “land of Unlikeness,” giving himself over to “reckless living,” Jesus, living a real and full human life in our world, the “far country,” remained obedient to his Father.  And where we, in Auden’s words, “have sent Him away, begging though to remain His disobedient servant, Jesus “became obedient to the point of death—even death on a cross” (Phil. 2:8) 

All this Jesus did “for us and for our salvation.”

Jesus is the Way, the Truth, and the Life.  “Follow Him through the Land of Unlikeness….Seek Him in the Kingdom of Anxiety….Love Him in the World of the Flesh.”

THANKSGIVING FOR THE ABUNDANCE OF CREATION

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In late October, a good many years ago, my wife and I drove to Maine for a weeklong vacation. We went to see the fall foliage and to relax and retreat from the demands of everyday life. As we drove across the border, we were greeted by a sign that read: “Maine: The Way Life Should Be.” I’m not sure how true this sounds to anyone who lives and works in Maine year-round, but for us weary travelers, it was music to our ears.

As we drove through the park, stopping periodically to get out of our car, we spotted the rich cranberry colors of blueberry plants long after they have surrendered their large juicy berries. We also admired the lichen in every shade of green, gray, and orange that grew on the mountain rocks.  On every side, we were surrounded by the abundance and bounty of nature.

We spent a few days of our vacation in a small cabin on Mt. Desert Island, five minutes from the entrance to Acadia National Park.  The drive through the park and to the summit of Cadillac Mountain is always splendid. On a clear day, one can see mountain lakes, small islands in the Atlantic Ocean, and foliage in every shade of red, orange, yellow, and green.

Where nature is full of bounty, the world that we humans have constructed, and in which we now live, is ordered by economies of production and consumption in which scarcity is a defining principle. The price of an object, as we well know, is based in part on the degree of its availability. The more rare or scarce an object is, and the more others desire it, the more it will cost. Shaped by these economic forces from the moment we become aware of the world around us, it is easy to see how our attitude towards our money and possessions is shaped by an attitude that sees the world in terms of the scarcity of things.  This attitude is what philosophers call a “pre-understanding, that is, an attitude or worldview that precedes everything we encounter.  It is just “the way that it is” for us.  In human societies, however, it is important to remember that things do not always have to be the way that they are; they could be otherwise.

The stories of the Bible, written long ago, offer us a glimpse of a world very different from our own. In the Old Testament, the prophets see it as their duty to remind the kingdoms of Israel and Judah, both ruled by monarchies, that life could be different—that under God’s rule or reign the world could be ordered differently from the way human rulers order the world. If we read the Bible carefully, we may find that our attitudes to the world in which we now live may not be as fixed as we might at first have thought.

In the midst of a severe drought, the prophet Elijah visited a poor widow who lived with her only son in Zarephath. He asked her for water and a morsel of bread. She replied: “As the LORD your God lives, I have nothing baked, only a handful of meal in a jar, and a little oil in a jug; I am now gathering a couple of sticks, so that I may go home and prepare it for myself and my son, that we may eat it, and die” [I Kings 17: 12]. Elijah told her not to be afraid. He directed her to make a small little cake for him and for her and her son and promised the woman if she did so, her jar of meal and jug of oil would not fail until the drought had ended.

Elijah, Walter Brueggmann observes, “enacts a world of guaranteed abundance for the widow, in defiance of more conventional arrangements of scarcity.” This encounter “is not a ‘do-good’ act of charity, “ but rather “a revolutionary act that rejects the myth of scarcity fostered by the privileged, a myth accepted by the widow who has no available alternative. The prophet is able to enact this ‘wonder’ of meal and oil,” because “in God’s creation “there is more than enough.  This story, then, affirms the “generosity of the creator who has given enough gifts for all” while at the same time criticizing the monarchical government and economy under which the poor woman lives, which has organized the “abundance of creation” by means of a “practice of scarcity.” [Walter Brueggemann, 1 & 2 Kings (Macon, Georgia: Smyth & Helwys Publishing), 216.]

Our contemporary world, like that of the ancient royal world of Elijah’s day, Brueggemann concludes, subscribes to a myth of scarcity.”  This scarcity, however, is not the way it has to be; it is an imposed power arrangement whereby some have too much so that, consequently, some have too little.

Most of us are far richer than we ever imagine because scarcity thinking shapes our perspective on life. In the stewardship of our own resources, including our treasures, time, and talents to God, we more often live according to a “pre-understanding” of scarcity than we do to a celebration of the overwhelming abundance of God’s creation. The Bible continually reminds us that God’s world is not governed by scarcity but by overwhelming abundance.  Jesus promises us that he has come that we “may have life, and have it abundantly” (John 10:10).

Signs of “the way life should be”—or could be — surround us all the time, but you may not see them if you look at the world around you solely in terms of scarcity. Would life be different for you if you began to think in terms of abundance?

LOVE— PART 2

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This reflection is the second part of an exploration into the meaning of love in the letters of St. Paul. It is part of a larger collection of my reflections on what St. Paul in his letter to the Galatians calls “the fruit of the Spirit.” This fruit refers to the virtues evident in the lives of those who have truly patterned themselves on the example of Jesus Christ.

The Fruit of the Spirit — Love, Part 2

The most familiar passage in the New Testament about love is perhaps the description we find of it in the 13th chapter of St. Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians.

Love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth. It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things (1 Cor. 13:4–7).

In the film “Wedding Crashers” the two main characters, played by Vince Vaughn and Owen Wilson, crash the wedding ceremony of an unsuspecting couple. As the pastor invites a reader to the lectern, Wilson whispers to Vaughn: “20 bucks, 1st Corinthians.”  Vaughn replies, “Double or nothing, Colossians 3:12.” Then, in the background, the reader begins reading the first verse of 1 Cor. 13 — “Love is patient, love is kind…” — and Vaughn having lost the bet, pays up.

This vignette shows just how popular and well known the 13th chapter of 1 Corinthians is to the general public, even to folks who may not know much about the contents of the New Testament.

While we immediately see the applicability of this passage from 1st Corinthians to the marriage of two people before God, in its original context this beautiful passage of Scripture was not written to describe Christian marriage.  St. Paul was writing to a Christian community to teach and direct them in the ways that they should love and respect each member of the church.  St. Paul addressed 1st Corinthians to a church divided by factions, each with its own set of conflicting interests, that bore witness to division and not to the mutual love and respect that should have been on display in that particular community.  St. Paul wrote to the Corinthian church members, gently chastising them where necessary, but always with love and great respect.

At the beginning of the letter, he writes: “Now I appeal to you, brothers and sisters, by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you be in agreement and that there be no divisions among you, but that you be united in the same mind and the same purpose” (1 Cor. 1:10. Throughout the ensuing letter, Paul urges the people of the church in Corinth to treat one another with mutual respect, as for example in 1 Cor. 10:24 when he writes, “Do not seek your own advantage, but that of the other.”

St. Paul hopes to form a Christian community built on mutual respect and love.  In this community, each person is invaluable and irreplaceable.  For St. Paul, when we respect another person, we not only show respect to our own self, we respect the person of Jesus Christ who has called and incorporated the other into his own body, the Church.  That is why St. Paul can write the following sentences:

For just as the body is one and has many members, and all the members of the body, though many, are one body, so it is with Christ. … But God has so arranged the body, giving the greater honor to the inferior member, that there may be no dissension within the body, but the members may have the same care for one another. If one member suffers, all suffer together with it; if one member is honored, all rejoice together with it. Now you are the body of Christ and individually members of it(1 Cor. 12:12; 24-27v).

It might escape our notice, on first reading the beautiful words about the meaning and practice of genuine love in the 13th chapter of 1 Corinthians, that the attributes of love that Paul describes in 1 Cor. 13 are those that usually are ascribed to God. St. Paul, however, desires earnestly that this sort of love be embodied in the behavior of the Christians living in the church to which he writes in Corinth.[1]

“Love is patient, love is kind….”  The description of what genuine love looks like on the ground in 1 Corinthians can also be used to flesh out the meaning of the virtues

St. Paul lists in Galatians 5: 22-23: “the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.”  The fruit of the Spirit refers to the virtues evident in the lives of those who have truly patterned themselves on the example of Jesus Christ, and love is first and foremost on that list.

Let’s examine St. Paul’s description of love one more time:

Love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth. It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things (1 Cor. 13:4–7). One thing that stands out that often runs counter to our own expectations is St. Paul’s statement that love “does not insist on its own way.”  This statement is often overlooked.  We sometimes seem to think that if someone truly loves us that they should agree with us in everything.  Personal relationships often falter on this very point. When we love someone, it does not mean that the other person always has to do things just the way we think they should be done.  Genuine love allows for genuine difference in our relationships. As long as there mutual respect and love exist, people can agree to disagree and still live together in loving relationships with one another.

A church that is faithful to Jesus Christ is a community shaped by the love of Jesus Christ in which people can agree to disagree on some things, but not on the essential character of the church, which is always formed by mutual respect and love for one another.

“And now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; and the greatest of these is love” (1 Cor. 13: 13).


[1] Raymond F. Collins; Daniel J. Harrington, ed., 1 CorinthiansSacra Pagina Series, volume 7 (Collegeville, MN, The Liturgical Press, 1999), pp. 476 ff.

THE PASSAGE OF TIME

This summer I began to re-read one of the greatest novels of the 20th century, The Magic Mountain, by Thomas Mann, winner of the 1929 Nobel Prize for Literature primarily for his novels Buddenbrooks (1901) and The Magic Mountain  (Der Zauberberg, 1924).

In 1995 a new English translation of the novel was published that I found preferable to the older translation I had first started to read many years ago. So with a new translation in hand, I began reading the book again.  Ι  say I’m reading  the book again because although  I have read a good part of it at least twice,  I have never managed to  finish it. I seem to get to page 300 or so and then move on to other things without finishing it. Mann said that he thought the book properly should be read twice, once to get the overall story and the second time for the symbolism and the deeper meaning.  So this time, I suppose I’m taking his word and I am determined to finish it.

The novel tells the story of the young Hans Castorp who in the years prior to WWI comes for a three-week visit to his cousin Joachim, a patient at a tuberculosis sanitarium in the mountains in Davos, Switzerland. During his first three weeks as a visitor, Castorp is diagnosed with a lesion on his lung and ends up becoming a resident of the sanitarium for the next seven years. Mann envisioned the book as a reflection on two themes. First the novel was a symbolic description of the terminal sickness of Europe in the years prior to the first World War and second it was a reflection on our human experience of the passage of time

Mann’s reflections on time were influenced by Einstein’s theory of  general relativity and his description of our movement through space-time, as well as by Edmund Husserl’s phenomenological studies of time consciousness, Heidegger’s Being and Time, Henri Bergson’s Time and Free Will, and numerous other philosophical, psychological, and political  thinkers of the day. The sanitarium serves as the stage on which a wide variety of these ideas and political positions battle for the allegiance of young hero of the novel.

Einstein’s observations about the fourth dimension of time or rather the inseparability of space and time had a profound impact on the structure of the novel. Einstein’s work on general relativity was first published in 1915, seven years prior to the publication of The Magic Mountain. To plot a location at any given time we need the latitude and longitude (the X and Y axes)  and the elevation (the Z axis). That is how three-dimensional space is ordered and accounted for in scientific and mathematical terms. Without accounting for the fourth dimension of time, however, our  location is still indeterminate. If you and I, for example, are in the same location on the X, Y, and Z axes at  different times, then we cannot say in the present moment  that we are in the exact same location. As we move through space we also move through time.

For me, the most remarkable thing about the novel is the way in which Mann in the telling of the story reflects on the way in which we experience the passage of time. Have you ever noticed. when you travel to an entirely different location than that to which you are accustomed in every day life, that time seems to go slower than when were are at home in our usual locales?  In that circumstance a single day can seem like two or three days. In the novel, Castorp’s first day seems almost to last forever. The first week seems to last for weeks. By the third week, looking back it seems as if he has been on the mountain for long, long time and yet the time, the time he has spent there seems to have flown by. The first three hundred pages or so of the novel are devoted to the first three weeks of Castorp’s stay. Or, to look at it another way, the first five chapters narrate the first year of Castorp’s stay, and the last two chapters, the remaining six years. In these last six years, time seems to fly by almost unaccounted for as if in the twinkling of an eye.

I thought a lot about Mann’s reflections on the experience of the passage of time during my trip to Stuttgart in late July to present a paper at an academic conference. The first days of my trip  (after accounting for jet-lag) seemed to last forever but by the end of the conference it seemed as if the time had just flown by. How is that, I wondered, and what, if anything, are we to do about it?

The narrator of the novel gives a partial answer:

Habit arises when our sense of time falls asleep, or at least, grows dull. … We know full well that the insertion of new habits or the changing of old ones is the only way to preserve life, to renew our sense of time, to rejuvenate, intensify, and retard our experience of time—and thereby renew our sense of life itself. That is the reason for every change of scenery and air, for a trip to the shore: the experience of a variety of refreshlng epìsodes. The few days in a new place have a youthful swing to them, a kind of sturdy, long-stride— that lasts for about six to eight days. Then, to the extent that we “settle in,” the gradual shortening becomes noticeable.

As we seek to live rewarding, fulsome lives, we need to structure time and space away from the grind of everyday life in which time seems to contract and in which the hum-drum is the ordinary state. This does not mean that we should never put down roots. Without solid deep roots, like plants in a drought, we would perish.  Our human roots, unlike plants, do not stay in the same location all day. We move around even as we are rooted in homes, families, and communities, including the church. On occasion, however, we seem to need the experience of a new place to slow the passage of time, so that in that new time, we can rediscover ourselves and perhaps come to a new awareness of our passing through time. Castorp, living in a sanitarium in which death was a frequent occurrence, observes that we all are moving endlessly toward death. This memento mori serves to bring our temporal limits to consciousness and to awaken us to ourselves so that in the time we have left (and we never know how much that is), we can make the most of our lives.

Now that I have gotten this off my chest (Castorp might have appreciated this pun), I should get back to my “re-reading.” The enchanted mountain awaits my summiting.  I’m now on page 301….