RESILIENCE

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Life is full of ebbs and flows. As we mature our resilience helps us to deal with the changes, disruptions, and upsets in our life.

The word “upset” describes an interesting phenomenon in our lives. It refers to a turning over, a dumping out, of something held or maintained. Upsets are usually unexpected.  When we are resilient, however, we are able to bounce back from them and move on with our lives.

Resilience is something learned—something we gain through practice, trial and error, and a series of upsets over a lifetime. It is not something given all at once. It is also not something that we just employ once when needed as an automatic fix. Resilience and patience go hand in hand and they are always practiced and learned over time.

When I began teaching at Temple University in the mid 1990s I was embarking on a second career—the first one being my ordination and work in the Episcopal Church. I was still a priest active in the church, often working on Sundays but I was looking to exercise different talents. When I began work there I knew my job was uncertain. The position was not a tenure-track position. There was a promise that the job would turn into one, but the university began to downsize and that never happened. I was given reassurances during my first year that all would be well next year. And the same the year after that—but then it wasn’t. The tenure line was never opened and I found myself in a place I never really expected to be—even though I knew from the start that nothing was assured and that this was always possible. Now I had to figure out how to bounce back.

I did not work for a few months as I began to search for a new job and then quite out of the blue I received a phone call from a nearby church, six miles from where I lived, for whom I had filled in on a Sunday morning a year before.  They wanted me to be their rector. Even with a new job it took me some time before I could shake off the sense of disappointment from the upset to what I had thought was a new career track for me. I found solace in the words of Psalm 37: “Take delight in the Lord, and he shall give you your heart’s desire.”

The word the New Testament uses to describe the resilience I am writing about is most often translated as “endurance” or “perseverance,” which in this context refers to the capacity to continue to bear up under difficult circumstances. This perseverance and endurance is grounded in our trust in the loving mercy of God, who always desires what is best for us.

In the epistle to the Colossians, St. Paul writes: “May you be made strong with all the strength that comes from his glorious power, and may you be prepared to endure everything with patience, while joyfully giving thanks to the Father…” (Col. 1: 11-12). Similarly, in the parable of the sower in the Gospel of Luke, Jesus says of those whose lives take root in the good soil, that“these are the ones who, when they hear the word, hold it fast in an honest and good heart, and bear fruit with patient endurance” (Lk. 8:15).  Patient endurance. The two words go hand in hand.

When upset or even disaster strikes someone’s life and they have difficulty dealing with it over time, we often say that their life went “off the rails.” There are of course no rails in life. None of us lives on a track that takes us directly to our destination—whatever that may be.  There are always detours, upsets, and dead ends along the way. How we deal with the things that disrupt our lives is a measure of our own resilience.

The way we learn resilience is not by doing everything in our power to avoid upsets but by facing them head on and doing everything we can not to give up or despair (for too long) but to bounce back. No matter how strong or determined we are, bouncing back often takes time. When we have a community of people who support us, bouncing back is made easier, even when it is a daunting task for us.

Life has its ebbs and flows. Our trust in God, the support of those who love and care for us, and our own resilience help us through the best and the worst of times.

MUTATIS MUTANDIS

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The Latin phrase mutatis mutandis once was used quite often in English prose but now appears, or so it seems to me, primarily in the arcane language of academic writing. It refers to the process by which we can use an idea from one area of knowledge and apply it in another completely different area. The phrase mutatis mutandis refers to the necessary changes that have to be made for one to apply something that has meaning in one context and to apply it in another context. We do this when for example we apply an idea taken from poetry and apply it to quantum physics. And we do it whenever we take an idea from one religion and endeavor to find its parallels in another. When we do this with any field of knowledge, we often come up with surprising insights.

This interpretive process came to mind when I read the “Triple Gem,” a Buddhist text that functions in many Buddhist communities much like the Lord’s Prayer, or perhaps more closely like the Nicene Creed, in Christian worship and piety. School children in Thailand, for example, often recite the Triple Gem as they begin their classes for the day and continue to recite it at specified times throughout the day. The text of the Triple Gem, with my annotated notes explaining the terms used, is as follows.

“I take my refuge in the Buddha” — the awakened (or enlightened) one.
“I take my refuge in the Dharma” — what the Buddha taught his disciples.
“I take my refuge in the Sangha” — the community of those who live according to the teachings of the Buddha.

If we Christians are to learn something from another religious text, something that could be applied to our own religious experience and context, we can not just read the text and apply it directly as is. We will need to make the necessary changes that will allow us to learn something from a text that arose in a context and tradition that is not our own. We could, for example, make the Triple Gem a Christian text, mutatis mutandis, but it would in no way mean the same thing the original Buddhist text does. The Buddha and Jesus are not the same person and in spite of the occasional similarity of their teachings, the teaching of one is not the same as the teaching of the other. That is to say that although we can find certain similarities between their teachings, their teachings arise out of vastly different worldviews. If we were to combine them into one package, or claim that they are say the same thing, it would not be an accurate representation of either tradition. But if mutatis mutandis we read the Triple Gem for what it might say to a contemporary Christian, it might go something like this:

I take my refuge in Jesus.
I take my refuge in his teachings.
I take my refuge in the Church.

What immediately strikes me when I read this Christianized version of the Triple Gem is the central importance of the church, the community of those who live according to the teachings and example of Jesus. Where the community of the Sangha is of central importance to the Buddhist tradition, Christians sadly all too often see the Church as something that is optional in their own lives.

Buddhism has had great appeal in North America but the Buddhism people are turning to often is an individualized and North Americanized version that bears little resemblance to what the Buddha taught. Where the Buddha taught that the self has no real existence, some North Americans who call themselves Buddhists often practice it for reasons of self-fulfillment and self-improvement. Where the Buddha taught that all desire must be eliminated if the human person is to find ultimate joy and peace, these same persons accumulate vast wealth and personal property. We could, of course, say much the same thing about many Christians today because Jesus taught that true joy is to be found only when we give away all that we have. But what particularly concerns me is that in either case in many of the manifestations of contemporary Buddhism and Christianity the assumption is that these religions can be practiced all alone—apart from involvement in organized religion or apart from the community of fellow believers/practitioners. In both cases nothing could be farther from the truth. In neither tradition, if we take them seriously, can a genuine spirituality be based on individual and personal choice apart from a larger religious community.

In our North American context in which religion is understood to be a private, personal, and individual thing, we forget that being a Christian at the core necessarily involves us in the life of a community, the community of fellow Christians, which the Holy Scriptures call “the body of Christ.” The Christian faith, therefore, is not something we can engage in all by ourselves apart from the larger community of the church.

Buddhists say the very same thing about what it means to practice Buddhism faithfully. Last week I stopped in a bookstore and happened to pick up a book by the bestselling Buddhist author Thich Nhat Hanh entitled Living Buddha, Living Christ. As I scanned the book my eyes fell on the following words: “Any Sangha is better than a non-Sangha. Without a Sangha you will be lost” (68). “The church is the hope of Jesus, just as the Sangha is the hope of the Buddha. It is through the practice of the church and the Sangha that the teachings [of Jesus and the Buddha] come alive” (70).

Speaking as an academic philosopher/theologian and as a Christian I do not always agree with what Thich Nhat Hanh has to say. He is writing as a Buddhist and offers numerous suggestions to Christians based on Buddhist and not Christian assumptions. At times I have trouble with the somewhat tenuous way in which he makes it seems that both traditions are really saying the same thing. In other words, I think he needs to pay attention to what I said about mutatis mutandis earlier in this article. At the same time the reflections of Thich Nhat Hanh remind us that Christians and Buddhists have much that they can learn from each other and that each of our traditions can be enriched by interaction with the other. We do agree on one thing: one cannot be a Christian or Buddhist all by oneself; we can be faithful only when we vigorously involve ourselves in the life of the community of faith that the one we follow founded for us and for our salvation.

READING ALOUD

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I recently saw and heard what I thought was a man talking to a cup of coffee. As I approached him he was pulling the spigot on one of those large institutional coffee machines one usually finds in a cafeteria. Even though I too wanted some coffee, I was not sure that I wanted to get too close to him. Overcoming my reticence, I went around him and saw at once that he was talking into the microphone of an earpiece. Although I know it is possible, and I have done it myself, I still am still not accustomed to hearing others do it.

In the late 4th century St. Augustine of Hippo registered a somewhat similar surprise when he encountered a well-known bishop reading silently to himself. Augustine had traveled from North Africa to Milan to meet Ambrose, a popular bishop and renowned preacher and teacher of his day. Although Augustine wanted desperately to approach Ambrose with questions about the Christian faith, he was afraid to approach him because Ambrose occupied himself for hours reading in his cell alone in silence.

When he read his eyes scanned the page and his heart sought out the meaning but his voice was silent and his tongue was still. Anyone could approach him freely and his guests were not commonly announced, so that often, when we came to visit him, we found him reading like this in silence, for he never read aloud.

Augustine was amazed at such a sight of a person reading silently to himself.  “We wondered,” he wrote,

if he read silently perhaps to protect himself in case he had a hearer interested and intent on the matter, to whom he might have to expound the text being read if it contained difficulties, or who might wish to debate some difficult questions.  If his time were used up in that way, he would get through fewer books than he wished.  Besides, the need to preserve his voice, which used easily to become hoarse, could have been a very fair reason for silent reading. Whatever motive he had for this habit, this man had a good reason for what he did.

In The Love of Learning and the Desire for God, a classic book on monastic culture in the Middle Ages, Dom Jean Leclerq reports that

in the Middle Ages, as in antiquity, they read usually, not as today, principally with the eyes, but with the lips, pronouncing what they saw, and with the ears, listening to the words pronounced, hearing what is called the “voices of the pages.

Nowadays when we read most of us read silently, but it was not (as can be seen from the story Augustine tells about Ambrose) always that way. In antiquity the normal way to read if one wanted to read by him or herself, was to read out loud. This necessitated a different kind of architecture for libraries than we find today. In ancient Greece and in later in the Roman empire libraries were constructed with covered porches or stoa, sometimes surrounded by gardens, where readers could spread out at a distance from one another and read aloud. St. Benedict recommends “during the time the monks ‘are resting on their beds in silence,’ that if one wants to read he should “do so in such a way that he does not disturb others.”

Where today we are expected to as quiet as possible in libraries, so as not to disturb others, reading in antiquity was integrally involved with hearing.

In the early 1980s, when I was newly ordained, I attended two preaching workshops led by Phil Swander, a professor who taught at Auburn Theological Seminary in New York City. He insisted that we read the scripture passages on which we were planning to preach out loud over and over again so that we could hear the text as if it were speaking to us. I have found that when I read scripture out loud to myself, even if like Ambrose I am alone in my “cell,” that I hear things that I would not or could not hear had I read the text in silence.

There is much to learn from this ancient practice of sacred reading. Initially it may seem a bit strange to you to hear your voice reading the words on the page, or because it takes a bit longer to read that way than it does to read silently, it may seem as if you are wasting time. As you grow more comfortable with this practice, however, you will begin to hear the words you read, and not just see them, and in so doing you will begin to hear the text come alive as it speaks to you. I encourage you read from the Holy Scriptures aloud, even if you are as the psalmist says “alone on your bed.” Listen to the voice of the words on the page and to the voice of the Lord speaking to your heart.

RUNNING ON EMPTY

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You crown the year with your goodness.

Abundance flows in your steps, in the pastures of the wilderness it flows.

The hills are girded with joy,

the meadows covered with flocks,

The valleys are decked with wheat.

They shout for joy; yes, they sing

Psalm 64, The Grail Psalter

For months, until the fuel pump gave out and I had to replace it, the gas gauge in my car did not work. No matter how far I drove, the gauge would not register anything below half a tank. While the gauge still showed that my tank was half full, if I did not refill the tank quickly, my car soon ran out of gas.

I put off repairing it because it meant that the whole gas tank had to be removed to fix the problem. So, I learned to keep the tank as close to full as I could at all times. Every time I refilled the tank I reset the trip odometer so that I could keep track of how many miles I had driven since the last fill-up and would know how soon I needed to refill the tank.

There is no gauge like that for the soul, or for the spiritual life, by which we can measure the strength of our own inner resources. We usually realize that the tank is empty only when it has bottomed out.

In the late Spring, right after Easter, I knew that my tank, so to speak, was empty and I knew that I needed to make a retreat at a Benedictine monastery.

I arrived at mid-afternoon at Mount Saviour Monastery, on the outskirts of Elmira, NY, tired and worn out.  In the days prior to my arrival at the monastery, I had had a low backache and a persistent tightness in my neck that made it difficult for me to turn my head. The pain was not from lifting but from the tension and stress I carried in my body.  Here I had to learn once again to be silent and to sit still and listen.

I greeted the guest brother and, after a brief prayer with him at the monastery door, I was shown to my small room—what monks call a “cell.” It was a simple room equipped with a bed, chair, desk, closet, and a bible.

When I sat down after unloading my suitcase from the car, I heard the lovely sound of birds chirping in the trees and sheep bleating as they grazed on one of the hills high above the monastery.  Most of all I heard the inner voices of turmoil, doubt, anger, despair, desire, hope, and love.

In solitude and silence all these inner voices compete to be heard, so much so that we want to run away from our silence and find the comforts of television, radio, the telephone, or even a novel. Sitting in my cell between the regularly scheduled hours of monastic prayer, I tried to resist the urge to run away from my self-imposed silence and solitude. While I in my cell had no intention of becoming a monk, I was reminded there of the story of an Egyptian man in the early centuries of the church, who was endeavoring to become a monk and failing miserably at it. He went to an elder in the community and asked for advice.

What shall I do, Father, for I work none of the works of a monk: but here I am in torpor, eating and drinking and sleeping and in bad thoughts and in plenty of trouble, going from one struggle to another and from thoughts to thoughts?” Then the old man said: “Just you stay in your cell and cope with all this as best you can without being disturbed by it.

I, like the man who asked for advice, knew that I needed to take the elder’s advice: “Go sit in your cell, and your cell will teach you everything.”

As I remained quiet and still amidst the overwhelming silence that pervaded the monastery and its communal life, I slowly began to relax and find relief to the inner rush of thoughts and feelings that makes real inner calm so difficult to attain in my everyday life.

Benedictine monastic life is structured by a balance between work and prayer. Every few hours I was called by the ringing of the chapel bells, to prayer. I ate my meals in silence with the monks, while a monk read from to us from various texts. I then helped to clear the tables and wash and dry the dishes in the refectory. In my free-time I wandered alongside the verdant fields and meadows covered with flocks of sheep. I watched the hummingbirds fly back and forth to taste honey in a birch tree outside the chapel. I watched the sunset from the chapel steps and from the hillsides around the monastery. At night I tried to go to bed before it was fully dark outside, so that I could arise for Vigils at 4:45AM.

When I left the monastery, I was a different person from the one who had arrived only four days earlier. Where I had arrived tense and tired, I now left in a calm frame of mind and at peace with myself.

My experience at the monastery powerfully reminded me that silence and solitude are necessary for spiritual growth and development. I know now that I must try to find time each day to be quiet and still.  When our soul rests in silence, we make ourselves open to hear the voice of God.

PRAYER AND WRITING

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I have a shelf full of books at home on how to write. I have books about the “courage” to write, how to find my writer’s voice, how to write on history, how to write for social scientists, how to revise a dissertation for publication, and how to avoid procrastination.  There are books on the shelf detailing all kinds of strategies and tools to help me get going with writing and doing it well. None of them, however, is any help at all when it comes down to actually writing.

In How to Write: Advice and Reflections, the Pulitzer-winning author Richard Rhodes relays advice he once received from a writer when he asked how one became an author.   The answer in so many words was that one simply had to apply the rear end to a chair.   It sounds so easy and yet it is often the most difficult thing a person can do.

Some of the books I have describe the great lengths to which writers go to avoid writing, or at least to put it off until a more opportune time. Some people have to clean their desk or even their entire apartment or house before they can write. Some have to retreat to a coffee shop or a diner or take a long walk before they can write. Their hope is that if they leave where they are now and go somewhere else, anywhere else, then what needs to be written somehow will magically appear without any struggle. Some think they will do better if they purchase the right equipment: a new pen, notebook, or even a software program. To be honest, I did not have to read about those “strategies” in a book someone else has written, I have tried them all myself.

If you want to write, you simply have to sit down and start doing it.

When you think about it, beginning to pray is an awful lot like beginning to write. If you really want to pray you have to take the time to do it. I also have a good many books on prayer. I can tell you from my personal experience that it is easier to read about someone else’s spiritual life or to read about someone else’s praying, than it is to pray yourself.  Praying, like writing, is hard work.

If you want to pray, you have to sit (or kneel) long enough in one place to do it.

Whenever you begin to pray you will find that distractions will abound. You will begin to think of all the things that need to be done. Everything else will seem more important and more urgent than what you actually are trying to do at that moment. Getting up to do something else or leaving where you are might seem the best thing to do right at that moment, but if you sit still and persevere you will find that the distractions slowly begin to ebb away.

When I finally sat down to write this meditation, I wrote it all at once. The reason I finished it was not because I had any fancy techniques or equipment to employ. It was not because I felt particularly inspired. When I started I knew only that I was going to begin writing about how difficult it is to start writing. I did not know in advance how this was going to turn out. I finished it simply because I sat down in one place and stayed there long enough to finish my task.

Do you find yourself wishing that you prayed more often than you actually do? You may not know in advance how your prayer will turn out, but if you want to pray, then you will have to ignore the distractions and temptations, and apply yourself to a chair (or a kneeler).

OUR DAILY BREAD

I have always been fascinated by the etymology of words. Perhaps this interest explains why I studied so many languages in school, or perhaps this interest arose from my studies of those very languages. In high school I studied German and French. In college I learned Ancient Greek, Latin and Biblical Hebrew. In seminary I added one more—Syriac, a dialect of Aramaic used widely around the time of Jesus and closely related to the Palestinian Aramaic that Jesus spoke.

English, the native language of many of us, belongs to the Indo-European family of languages.  It is one of the many languages that comprise the Germanic language family that includes, for example, modern German, Dutch, Swedish, Norwegian, and Icelandic.  For a time, Britain was part of the Roman Empire, and Latin was spoken there. In 122 A.D. the Emperor Hadrian began building a wall to mark the northernmost boundary of Roman Britain and to serve to keep the “barbarians” out. Later, because of numerous raids by the Norse and other barbarian tribes across the Northern boundaries of the empire, the Celtic languages native to the place were changed or influenced by a variety of Germanic linguistic influences. After the Norman invasion in 1066 A.D., French was spoken by the nobility in England, and English remained the “vulgar” tongue, the language of the common people.

Words contain in themselves not only a history of meaning but also a cultural history.  Some words meant one thing in an earlier time and place and mean something entirely different today.

A few years ago I was asked to give a talk at a church gathering on the Lord’s Prayer. As I prepared my talk—and especially as I reflected on the meaning of the phrase “give us this day our daily bread”— I discovered the etymology of the English word “lord.”

According to the Oxford English Dictionary, “lord” is derived from the Old English word hláford, once hláfweard, which means “loaf-ward,” that is, the “keeper of the loaf.” A lord, then, is the bread-keeper for the family. He was the head of the household in relation to all who ate his bread.

In the ancient world the making of a loaf of bread did not happen overnight. First the wheat had to be grown, tended, harvested and ground into flour. Then the flour had to be mixed with other ingredients and baked. Because most of us today buy our bread from a store, we forget how time-consuming the making of bread from start to finish really is. In the ancient world bread was a valuable commodity, and that commodity needed someone to protect it from anything that might harm, unlawfully take or destroy it.

As everyone on a low-carbohydrate diet today knows, bread is a source of sustained energy for the human body. Where there is enough bread, there is life.

In the Lord’s Prayer we ask God, who is “Lord”—the “loaf-keeper”—of all creation, to give us the “bread” we need each day to live. We do not ask the Lord for more than we need, but only for what we need to survive and flourish.

In God’s economy there is always enough bread for all. In human economies there often is not abundance, but scarcity. There is scarcity because the resources of the planet are limited; God calls on us to shepherd them wisely, but we fail in that duty when some have more than they need for human flourishing while others have nothing. The stories of the feeding of the four thousand and five thousand in the gospels remind us of the abundance of God’s creation — a creation in which there is always enough bread to sustain life for all.

The Eucharist that we celebrate each week is a sign of the abundance of God’s creation and an invitation to all to eat and share in the abundance that God has given us. It is a sign of the economy of God by which the hungry and thirsty are invited into the Lord’s table. We see this in the Gospel of John when Jesus tells the disciples that “the bread of God is that which comes down from heaven and gives life to the world. They said to him, “Lord, give us this bread always.” (John 6:33-4)

When we ask God to give us our daily bread, we recognize that God is the “keeper of the loaf,” and in the Old English sense of the word, God truly is the “Lord” of all creation.

 

LONESOME DOVE

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During my summer vacation in 2003, I finally read Larry McMurtry’s Pulitzer Prize winning novel, Lonesome Dove. Although friends and family had often hyped the novel, it is one of those books I had never gotten around to reading. Eighteen years after it first appeared in print, I finally finished reading it — all 945 pages.

McMurtry is a delightful storyteller who simultaneously weaves numerous narrative plots with artfully developed and intriguing characters.

As the book begins, the two main characters, Woodrow Call and Augustus MacRae, two former Texas Rangers, are residing at the Hat Creek Cattle Company in the small backwater town of Lonesome Dove, Texas. Augustus is happy to live day-by-day frittering away his time with simple pleasures. Woodrow Call, on the other hand, is driven each day to accomplish something that is physically demanding, if not exhausting. While Augustus sits on the porch all afternoon and sips whiskey from a jug, Call is breaking his back in the hot Texas sun digging a new well. When they hear of the wide-open spaces of Montana, Call begins to dream about accomplishing something big, at least one last time before he dies. Together and for different reasons Call and Gus decide to take a cattle drive to Montana.

The novel tells of the deep abiding friendship of these two men who know each other so well. Even though they exasperate each other, each knows the other perhaps better than they know themselves. Shortly after they have begun the long, dangerous and arduous journey from Texas to Montana, Gus pulls Call aside and observes:

“I hope this is hard enough for you Call. … I hope it makes you happy.  If it don’t, I give up. Driving all these skinny cattle all [the] way [from Texas to Montana] is a funny way to maintain an interest in life.”

“Well, I didn’t,” Call said.

“No, but then you seldom ask,” Augustus said, “You should have died in the line of duty, Woodrow.  You’d know how to do that fine.  The problem is you don’t know how to live.”

“Whereas you do?” Call asked.

“Most certainly,” Augustus said.  “I’ve lived about a hundred to your one. I’ll be a little riled if I end up being the one to die in the line of duty, because it ain’t my duty and it ain’t yours either.  This is just fortune hunting.”  [Lonesome Dove, 242.]

As I read the story McMurtry tells of these two men and their friendship, I found myself asking a very important question: does it matter ultimately what we do or accomplish in our lives or is it more important to live life well?  To phrase the question somewhat differently, is the question “who am I” ultimately answered by what I have accomplished in my life or by the person I have become?

Long before Larry McMurtry wrote his novels, the ancient Greek philosopher Aristotle maintained that the goal (telos) of human life is a whole life lived well. In his Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle distinguished our human “virtues,” that is what we do well, from our “character,” that is who we are over time. We become excellent or virtuous at something, Aristotle maintained, through practice. We cannot become good at anything without first making mistakes. Sometimes the more mistakes we make, the more we learn. Human life is like that. We can only become excellent at something as we try again and again to get it right. When I used to teach ethics, I would ask my students on the first day of class, “am I an honest person?”  They of course replied that they had no way of knowing. In short, I was asking them whether I had the virtue of honesty and they were saying to me that they did not know me well enough to judge my character. As they got to know me through daily interactions with me, they were more able to come to a decision on that score.

Today much of what passes for ethics inquires only into individual decisions, asking whether they are right or wrong. This sort of ethics invariably identifies and discusses quandaries where clear-cut “yes” or “no” answers seem all but impossible. An ethics that asks about character forces us to ask different kinds of questions. What kind of person am I?  What or who do I wish to become? These sorts of questions are never easy to answer.  One thing, however, is certain: who I am is not the sum of the decisions I have made or have failed to make but rather a reflection of my character.

I am convinced that finding happiness and satisfaction in life depends to a great degree on how you have come to terms with the tension between what you do as opposed to who you are. I myself have not yet found balance between these two poles. My self-definition too often is based only on what I have accomplished. On this issue at least, I am still too much like Call, but want to be more like Gus.

However we understand ourselves, God is not through with us yet. It is only as we endure the difficulties and travails of the trail that is set before us, through fits and starts, trials and errors, that we begin to find within ourselves the proper balance between being and doing. Through God’s grace we can only hope to become the whole person God calls us to be.

ONE THING

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While waiting in the airport in Tucson, Arizona, I read the following information printed inside the cap of a Snapple juice bottle: there are 119 grooves on the edge of a US quarter.  I have not checked the truth of this, but I will accept it at face value. This information, of course, is not earth-shattering but rather provided as a form of entertainment. As we all know, we live in an “information age” in which we are incessantly confronted by so much information that we cannot possibly know it all, much less process it. Much of that information is of little value. But that does not stem the flow of it coming at us wherever we go.

The technological advances of our age mean that we are never far from this incessant flow of information. Ordinary people now carry communication and information devices that once were reserved primarily for businesses. What seemed like a luxury a few years ago is now a necessity, especially if one wants to “stay connected.” No doubt, you have a mobile phone, a laptop computer, and numerous other devices that keep you connected. The problem with all this technology is that now it is hard to escape from its grip on our lives. Wherever we go, we now can be contacted by the office via telephone, an email message, a text message,  or overnight letter  The boundaries between work and leisure are eroded when we can be found at any time. Whether we are in the car, on a train, or in the air — at the beach or in our own backyard, our time away from work can always be interrupted.

“Multi-tasking” is the neologism coined to describe the frenetic activity of modern life.  I suspect that while “multi-tasking” is seen a virtue, at least in the business world today, in previous years it would have been called “being distracted.”

Even though no one used this term when I was growing up, I have long been a multi-tasker. When I was a full-time student, I sometimes studied with the stereo and television on at the same time, while I jumped from one subject to the other. Even now, I am invariably in the process of reading five or more books at the same time.  While I am aware that this kind of frenetic activity is not always good for me, I, like many people I know, find it hard to stop.

The patron saint of multi-taskers, if one can call her that, is Martha.  In the 10th chapter of the Gospel of Luke, we find the story of Jesus’ visit to the home of the two sisters Mary and Martha. While Mary sat at Jesus’ feet and listened to him, Martha was busy cooking, cleaning, and serving food to Jesus and the other guests.

But Martha was distracted by her many tasks, so she came to Jesus and asked, “Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me to do all the work by myself? Tell her to help me.”  But the Lord answered her, “Martha, Martha, you are worried and distracted by many things, there is need of only one thing. Mary has chosen the better part, which will not be taken away from her.” (Lk. 10:40-42, emphasis added).

The meaning of this saying is not immediately clear. While it is possible that Jesus means that she need prepare only one dish, or that only a few things are really needed on the dinner table, Jesus’ words seem to point to a deeper, more spiritual meaning. If we examine the rest of the gospel of Luke, we see that Jesus again and again stresses that the duty of the Christian is to seek first and foremost to do the will of God. When we are busy doing so many things, we are more easily distracted from doing “the one thing that is needed.”

In the gospels, Jesus reminds those who seek to follow him that we should not allow ourselves to be identified solely by what we do. That is how we are often judged by the world around us. God cares above all about who we are. What we do, that is, how we choose to be stewards of the time that God has given us on the earth, flows from who we are.

In the midst of a multi-tasking world, take time to think about the “one thing” that God asks of you.

LADY JULIAN OF NORWICH (1342-1416)

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Lord God, in your compassion you granted to the Lady Julian many revelations of your nurturing and sustaining love: Move our hearts, like hers, to seek you above all things, for in giving us yourself you give us all; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen. [Collect for Julian of Norwich]

Lady Julian of Norwich is remembered in the Episcopal Church and in the wider Anglican Communion on May 8th. Although little is known of her life, Archbishop Rowan Williams describes her writings as “what may well be the most important work of Christian reflection in the English language.” She may have been born to a prosperous family in Norwich in southeastern England in 1342 and she died sometime in 1416. In her writings she frequently claimed to know “no letters,” but that was more of a rhetorical flourish common to her age and her gender than a matter of fact.  On May 13, 1373 she reported that at the age of thirty-nine and a half that she received revelations that she felt compelled by God to write down. They were published at a later date with the title Showings (or Revelations).

The revelations described in Showings came to her as she lay on what she believed to be her deathbed. In her 30thyear Julian had asked God for “three graces”: “to have a recollection of Christ’s Passion” so that she “might see with my own eyes our Lord’s Passion which he suffered for me”; a “bodily sickness” that “might be so severe that it might seem mortal, so that I should in that sickness receive all the rites which the Holy Church had to give me, whilst I myself should believe that I was dying, and everyone who saw me would think the same,” so that she could experience all that death entailed prior to her own death and because of her desire to soon be with God; and three wounds, “the wound of contrition,” “the wound of compassion,” and “the wound  of longing with my will for God.” As a result “God sent me a bodily sickness,” she writes, “in which I lay for three days and three nights; and on the fourth night I received all the rites of the church.” (Showings, 125-127)

It is difficult to do justice to such a beautiful and comprehensive vision of God’s love for all humanity in a short reflection. I would like to focus on three of the best known and most beloved passages from her work in hopes that you might want to read deeper and explore it for yourself.

In the 31st chapter of this book of showings or revelations we find perhaps its famous words, where God tells Julian that “all manner of things will be well.”  The great majority of English translations of this passage, however, are inaccurate, because the Middle English words with which she writes are often translated according to the modern meaning of similar English words. The recently published guide, The Complete Julian of Norwich (2009), finally sets this right. As correctly translated, Julian writes:

And so our good Lord replied to all the questions and doubts I could raise, saying most reassuringly: “I have the ability to make everything well, and I have the knowledge to make everything well, and I have the wish to make everything well, and I shall make everything well, and thou shalt see for thyself that all manner of thing shall be well.

In the notes to Chapter 31, the editor explains that the four Middle English words underlined in the paragraph above, in order of their appearance, may, can, wil, and shalle, are often translated incorrectly in accordance with more modern meaning of these terms and not with the correct meanings of these words in Middle English. The modern English “may” is derived from ‘might’ and so this is better translated as “I have the ability.” The Middle English word can means to “know” or “to know how” (see for example the modern German verb meaning to know, “kennen”), and so is best translated as “I have the knowledge.”  In Middle English wil means want (the German word meaning want is “will”), and so this is best translated as “I have the wish.”  Finally, shalle in Middle English refers to a definite intention, that God “shall make everything well” (Complete Julian, 156).

Where other translations, for example, say, “I make all things well, and I can make all things well, and I shall make all things well, and I will make all things well,” the translation found in the Complete Julian of Norwich provides access to the richer meaning of this text.

In its larger context this passage is not a promise that we will never suffer in this life.  This revelation to Julian is closely connected to her sufferings and the sufferings of Christ.  The promise contained in this passage is in the context of our entering into and participating in the sufferings of Christ. We may suffer, but those sufferings ultimately will not overcome us.

In the 5th Chapter, Julian relates how God showed her “something small, no bigger than a hazelnut lying in the palm of my hand….”

I looked at it with the eye of my understanding and thought: What can this be? I was amazed that it could last, for I thought that because of its littleness it would suddenly have fallen into nothing. And I was answered in my understanding: It lasts and always will, because God loves it; and thus everything has being through the love of God. In this little thing I saw three properties. The first is that God made it, the second is that God loves it, the third is that God preserves it. But what did I see in it? It is that God is the Creator and the protector and the lover (Showings, 183).

What is so amazing about this passage and about the book as a whole is the vivid awareness of the love, care, and compassion that God, in unity of being and in trinity of persons, has for all creatures.  Her vision is one in which the whole Trinity is engaged and working in all things to bring divine love to fulfillment in every creature.

In both the revelation involving the hazelnut and in the revelation “that all manner of things shall be well,” Julian is uncompromisingly Trinitarian. This is evident in her description of the Trinity as God, the Creator, protector, and lover. When she tells us that God says,  “I have the ability,” she understands this to refer to the work of the Father. Similarly, “I have the knowledge” refers to the Son” and “I have the wish” refers to the Holy Spirit. “I shall make everything well” refers to the work of the whole Trinity of whom she says parenthetically, “three Persons and one truth.”

Although Julian’s writings are unrelentingly Trinitarian, the fact that a woman of the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Centuries could write about God as both a father and a mother, and about Jesus as a mother, is a surprise for many modern readers.  In the 58th chapter Julian writes:

…God almighty is our loving Father, and God all wisdom is our loving Mother, with the love and the goodness of the Holy Spirit, which is all one God, one Lord (Showings, 293).

The Showings are visions, as the collect for Julian says, of God’s “nurturing and sustaining love.” In conclusion, let us rejoice with Julian reciting her “five great joys”:

And so I saw that God rejoices that he is our Father, and God rejoices that he is our Mother, and God rejoices that he is our true spouse, and that our soul is his beloved wife. And Christ rejoices that he is our brother and Jesus rejoices that he is our saviour. These are five great joys as I understand, in which he wants us to rejoice, praising him, thanking him, loving him, endlessly blessing him, all who will be saved (Showings, 279).

Citations were taken from:

Julian of Norwich: Showings. The Classics of Western Spirituality.  Edmund Colledge, O.S.A. and James Walsh, S.J., eds. New York: Paulist Press, 1978

The Complete Julian of Norwich.  Father John-Julian, OJN., ed.  Brewster, MA: Paraclete Press, 2009.

FINDING GOD IN EVERYDAY LIFE

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On a recent visit to New York City, once I had finished the business I had come to do, I made a beeline for Café Reggio. It is an old historic café that has operated in New York since 1927.  I had a couple of hours before my train left for Washington, D.C. and I figured I would first stop and have a cup of coffee there and then walk through Washington Square for a quick lunch at Veselka, my favorite Ukrainian restaurant in the East Village.

I first learned about Café Reggio in the mid-1990s when I met there with one of my graduate students. The café is located on MacDougal Street in Greenwich Village, just around the corner from Bleecker Street, a storied place in 1960’s American folk music. When I went there for the first time, my student showed me the best seat in the house, hidden in a corner by a window looking out onto the street. It is tucked in against the wall so that one can see the whole interior of the café from that perspective. While most of the chairs in the café are wrought iron patio style furniture paired with marble-top tables, the two chairs in the window are ornately carved of wood, covered with burgundy cushions, and bolted to the floor. Whenever I visit New York I always try to fit in a brief stop at Cafe Reggio and I always hope that that particular seat — what I like to call “my chair” — will be available.

During the years our family lived in the Philadelphia area, I used to take a trip every couple of months to New York, during which I would write and grade papers on the train. I usually stopped at Café Reggio for at least forty-five minutes to an hour to write. This cafe, it seems to me, is the kind of place in which one should begin writing the “great novel” or some other such adventurous and noble undertaking.

When I arrived around 11AM the café was nearly empty. There to my delight was “my” unoccupied table and chair. I quickly sat down and ordered a cappuccino. The coffee there is served with a good dose of cinnamon and because, as far as I can tell, the milk is often heated with the coffee, the cappuccinos have more of an old-fashioned style than one finds today at the newer coffee chains. On each of the tables one finds an ornate metal sugar bowl and spoon. As I sat down to enjoy the surroundings, I looked up at the old tin ceilings that rested above the walls painted rusty brown and covered in places with dark wood. On the walls hang numerous antique oil paintings that have the certain dark patina that comes with age and constant exposure to the light of a busy public café.

I am certain that you have your own favorite “haunts” in places where you once lived or where you frequently visit either for work or pleasure. They might be restaurants, parks, gardens, libraries, bookstores, or particular buildings or structures. Such places offer us a sense of stability and comfort when we venture outside of our daily routine in places distant from wherever we call home. While a café away from home, or some other such place, cannot be called a “sacred space” in the ordinary sense of the words, it can be a place in which we re-collect ourselves, making it possible for us to move about in our strange and at the same time familiar space to which we have returned. Because returning to a favorite place can be refreshing, even exhilarating, we may also find that our spirits are lifted and that in some way we are restored and renewed.

Sitting there with the coffee in my hand, a stanza from a poem of Gerard Manley Hopkins, whose poetry is suffused with a profound Christian spirituality, came to mind: “the world is suffused with the grandeur of God.” I was not looking at the Grand Canyon, a beautiful beach, a spectacular mountain view, or a majestic waterfall. I was in the middle of New York City looking at the world in and through an ordinary cup of coffee. Yet, I was thankful for the splendor of this world and the “grandeur” of God made evident to me in that moment. Perhaps it was borne of the exhilaration of being in one of my favorite places or perhaps it was just a result of a good dose of caffeine, but I think it was more than that. It was in and through something in which I found simple happiness, that God found me and invited me to open my eyes to the “grandeur” of the people, places, artifacts and devices of every day life in which God is revealed.

Christian spirituality ultimately is about finding and responding to God in all that happens to us, in all the places we find ourselves, and in all the things we do. Each and every day try to remember to open your eyes to the grandeur of God revealed in the ordinariness of everyday life. You never know how with even such a simple act of faith you might be surprised, even be overcome by joy.