Monthly Archives: January 2015

There are no strangers

In Louisville, at the corner of Fourth and Walnut, in the center of the shopping district, I was suddenly overwhelmed with the realization that I loved all those people, that they were mine and I theirs, that we could not be alien to one another even though we were total strangers. It was like waking from a dream of separateness, of spurious self-isolation in a special world, the world of renunciation and supposed holiness.

I have the immense joy of being man, a member of a race in which God Himself became incarnate. As if the sorrows and stupidities of the human condition could overwhelm me, now that I realize what we all are. And if only everybody could realize this! But it cannot be explained. There is no way of telling people that they are all walking around shining like the sun.

This changes nothing in the sense and value of my solitude, for it is in fact the function of solitude to make one realize such things with a clarity that would be impossible to anyone completely immersed in the other cares, the other illusions, and all the automatisms of a tightly collective existence. My solitude, however, is not my own, for I see now how much it belongs to them — and that I have a responsibility for it in their regard, not just in my own. It is because I am one with them that I owe it to them to be alone, and when I am alone, they are not “they” but my own self. There are no strangers!

From Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander by Thomas Merton, excerpted here.

Thomas Merton icon by William Hart McNichols, from an article by Jane Christmas in the Anglican Journal.

Advertisements

Traveling light

[Jesus] called the twelve and began to send them out two by two, and gave them authority over the unclean spirits. He ordered them to take nothing for their journey except a staff; no bread, no bag, no money in their belts; but to wear sandals and not to put on two tunics. He said to them, “Wherever you enter a house, stay there until you leave the place. If any place will not welcome you and they refuse to hear you, as you leave, shake off the dust that is on your feet as a testimony against them.” So they went out and proclaimed that all should repent. They cast out many demons, and anointed with oil many who were sick and cured them. (Mark 6:7-13)

I don’t know if it’s exactly what Jesus had in mind, but I do try to travel light as I go about my business.

I’ve written elsewhere about viewing my hotel room as a sort of monastic cell. For me, the point is that I am at home wherever I happen to be. The town may be different, but hotel rooms are pretty much the same everywhere, and I pack my suitcase the same way every week.

Peter Matthiessen, author and world traveler, even turned and bowed to his hotel room as he left, as a mark of his gratitude for the hospitality he had enjoyed. He explained his practice in an interview with Jonathan White:

My first Zen teacher, Soen-roshi, always made a little bow of gratitude to the world around him, and I learned that from him. It’s a wonderful habit. Even if I’m leaving some neutral or lifeless place, like a motel room, it feels right to thank the room for its hospitality. In Zen practice, one bows to the buddha principle, the imminence of awakening, within oneself. I love that idea. A bow is a wonderful way to appreciate this moment, pay respectful attention to the world around you.

Now understand: Our voluntary simplicity as we go about the Lord’s business is not the same as the poverty too many people experience in their daily lives. Perhaps, however, our simplicity can make room for us to see what’s happening around us. Perhaps traveling light can give us the freedom to respond quickly when we recognize a need.

That same spirit of voluntary simplicity (see Acts 2:43-47) may have been working among those same disciples some years later as they considered what to do about Paul, their former persecutor, who now said he had a mission to preach the Gospel to the Gentiles. Perhaps their simplicity gave them the freedom to recognize that God was acting in a new way. Perhaps their traveling light gave them the freedom to respond to the Gentiles’ need for the Gospel.

When James and Cephas and John, who were acknowledged pillars, recognized the grace that had been given to me, they gave to Barnabas and me the right hand of fellowship, agreeing that we should go to the Gentiles and they to the circumcised. They asked only one thing, that we remember the poor, which was actually what I was eager to do. (Galatians 2:9-10)

Our voluntary simplicity, our freedom to recognize God acting in new ways, and our remembering the poor are ways in which we follow Jesus’ instructions to his first disciples.

God grant that our repentance and our willingness to share our lives with others will likewise bear the fruit of peace and fellowship.

Collect for the Third Sunday after the Epiphany

Give us grace, O Lord, to answer readily the call of our Savior Jesus Christ and proclaim to all people the Good News of his salvation, that we and the whole world may perceive the glory of his marvelous works; who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

Singing, fasting, praying, and working

Athanasius, bishop of Alexandria, wrote this about Antony, who lived as a monk in the Egyptian desert and created a rule for monks in the third century:

Antony was like a physician given by God to Egypt. For who met him grieving and did not go away rejoicing? Who came full of anger and was not turned to kindness? … What monk who had grown slack was not strengthened by coming to him? Who came troubled by doubts and failed to gain peace of mind?

How can you give joy to others? Turn their anger to kindness? Strengthen those who are growing slack? Give people around you peace of mind?

What habits of singing, fasting, praying, and working would help you to be that kind of person? What people would help you to live that kind of life?

O God, by your Holy Spirit you enabled your servant Antony to withstand the temptations of the world, the flesh, and the devil: Give us grace, with pure hearts, to follow you, the only God; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever.

The password that opens the heavens

Yesterday, several members of our deanery went to the Chazen Museum of Art on the campus of the University of Wisconsin to see an exhibit of The Saint John’s Bible.

The Saint John’s Bible is the first handwritten and hand-illuminated Bible commissioned by a Benedictine abbey since the invention of the printing press. It represents 15 years of work by a team of calligraphers and artists under Donald Jackson in Wales and a Committee on Illumination and Text at St. John’s Abbey in Collegeville, Minnesota.

The exhibit at the Chazen Museum includes actual pages from The Saint John’s Bible and a display of the calligraphers’ tools, including hand-cut quills and tools for applying gold leaf. There is a video documentary about the process of creating the Bible, and an example of a full-size “Heritage Edition” bound in oak boards and rich leather.

+ + + + +

One of the most arresting pages in The Saint John’s Bible is the frontispiece to the Gospel of John. I own the reproduction volume of the Gospels and Acts, so the featured image for this post is a closeup of that page.

Donald Jackson uses gold leaf to signify God, and the figure of the Word made flesh shines brightly from the cosmic background (based on images from the Hubble telescope) behind him. The art underscores the way John connects the coming of Christ to the account of creation in Genesis.

Verses from Paul’s hymn in the letter to the Colossians appear to the left of the figure:

He is the image of the invisible God,
the firstborn of all creation;
for in him all things in heaven and on earth were created,
things visible and invisible,
whether thrones or dominions or rulers or powers —
all things have been created through him and for him (Col. 1:15-16)

The keyhole along the left edge of the image reminds me of the sermon I heard in Munich on December 26, St. Stephen’s Day. We attended the Eucharist with my wife’s Tante Barbara at her neighborhood church, Maria Trost.

Sermon at Maria Trost Kirche, Munich

Sermon at Maria Trost Kirche, Munich

The priest spoke of this opening passage of John’s gospel, describing Jesus as not just the “word” of God, but as the “password” whose coming opens the heavens to human beings.

Stephen, he went on to say, was one of the first who knew the password, who exclaimed as he was being stoned, “Look, I see the heavens opened and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God!” (Acts 7:56).

+ + + + +

In the introduction to his companion book Word and Image: The Hermeneutics of The Saint John’s Bible, Michael Patella OSB, chair of the Committee on Illumination and Text, writes:

Readers should not be surprised if they find that their engagement with The Saint John’s Bible opens their imaginations, hearts, souls, and intellects to new ways of conceiving God. In addition, they may also find themselves entering a deeper relationship with God (xiv).

The Saint John’s Bible is a beautiful, sacramental expression — in ink and gold leaf, vellum and leather, word and image — of the “immeasurable riches of [God’s] grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus,” as today’s Epistle reading suggests.

May meditating on its words and images, and on the Word made flesh whom it reveals, open the heavens to you, too.

The Journey of the Magi

‘A cold coming we had of it,
Just the worst time of the year
For a journey, and such a long journey:
The ways deep and the weather sharp,
The very dead of winter.’
And the camels galled, sorefooted, refractory,
Lying down in the melting snow.
There were times we regretted
The summer palaces on slopes, the terraces,
And the silken girls bringing sherbet.
Then the camel men cursing and grumbling
and running away, and wanting their liquor and women,
And the night-fires going out, and the lack of shelters,
And the cities hostile and the towns unfriendly
And the villages dirty and charging high prices:
A hard time we had of it.
At the end we preferred to travel all night,
Sleeping in snatches,
With the voices singing in our ears, saying
That this was all folly.

Then at dawn we came down to a temperate valley,
Wet, below the snow line, smelling of vegetation;
With a running stream and a water-mill beating the darkness,
And three trees on the low sky,
And an old white horse galloped away in the meadow.
Then we came to a tavern with vine-leaves over the lintel,
Six hands at an open door dicing for pieces of silver,
And feet kicking the empty wine-skins.
But there was no information, and so we continued
And arriving at evening, not a moment too soon
Finding the place; it was (you might say) satisfactory.

All this was a long time ago, I remember,
And I would do it again, but set down
This set down
This: were we led all that way for
Birth or Death? There was a Birth, certainly
We had evidence and no doubt. I had seen birth and death,
But had thought they were different; this Birth was
Hard and bitter agony for us, like Death, our death.
We returned to our places, these Kingdoms,
But no longer at ease here, in the old dispensation,
With an alien people clutching their gods.
I should be glad of another death.

-T.S. Eliot (1927)