Tuesday, April 24, 2007

The Dangers of Distance

"What do you mean you don't hate?" Sister's eyes flashed as she moved down the room. This very outspoken Dominican nun had been stirring up a group of Episcopal clergy for hours, and with each move she took us closer and closer to the dark places within, the places we clergy find it hardest to admit even exist within our God washed souls. Like a sixty something Beatrice, she was helping us navigate a treacherous, but liberating, path. She was taking us past our assumptions and accommodations, past the pious personas imposed upon us by our parishioners, past the good children our parents had raised us to be, all the way down to the flashpoint of our ministries. where the full, flesh and blood, flawed and wonderful human beings that we were might emerge from their vestments, the real people that Jesus loved and called. She stopped and smiled at Father Matt. "Are you sure there's nothing you hate? What makes you so special?"

There was a pause. Matt melted into gentleness, the real gentleness that was the Matt we all knew. "No, I realize you think I should hate, and perhaps I might, but I really don't hate anyone," he answered quietly. "Disagree sometimes, certainly, but hate? I think hate might be a litle too strong."

"Are you sure?” Sister paused again. “Jesus hated. Are you trying to tell me that you are better than Jesus?"

"No,” (laugh) “but -- "

"But what?"

The room began to soften into confusion, into clearings of throat and semi-sentences. Hate is a red flag kind of word in the world of the enlightened church and civil society. Sister admitted this, but as she didn't inhabit civil society, it mattered little to her. Red flags waved in her world and she was determined to name them. She wanted nothing less than the truth that sets us free. I began to get where she was taking us. So I took pity (or so I thought) upon my friends and spoke up. "I'm not afraid to tell you that I hate things. I hate it that we're at war in Iraq. I hate it that people are driving SUVs and stealing their children's fuel. I hate it that our president has the emotional age of a two year old. I hate it that we’re destroying this beautiful earth."

"Fine," she said curtly. "But there’s something missing. You haven’t mentioned yourself once. I want to hear about YOU. Who wounded YOU when you were very small and made all this hatred possible?" Again she paused as if silence were just as essential to her message as words. "All of us have a primal wound. We will spend the rest of our lives trying to come to terms with it."

At the root of all stories, say the wise ones, perhaps one of their reasons for being, is the need to explore conflict. Stories expose wounds so impossible and so unfair that only telling can heal them. But like Father Matt, they are usually soft spoken at the beginning, a mere flutter of words as small as a dropped handkerchief or a visit from a wise relation. But the action builds like the hurricane that started with a butterfly in the Sahara, until they are embracing the impossible through a community of characters whose diverse voices give the impossible breadth and depth. I think this may have been where Joseph Campbell was coming from when he made my favorite statement, "Myth is public dream and dream is private myth." Joseph Campbell loved stories and he told them all the time and in public. I think he believed that somehow, if we could get away from the kind of history whose facts we memorize and which solidifies in our brains, and begin instead to tell tales about the past to one another again, we might be able to invite the old gods to the table. Maybe, with that kind of help, we might at last get over the technological barbarism into which our divided age seems to have descended. Maybe, the old ones hint, I would be less grateful for what I have if I understood the true cost of its power.

“What do you mean you don’t hate?” Sister asked. “If you don't embrace who you are, who’s going to do your dirty work for you?”

Sunday, April 22, 2007

In a Hole in the Ground There Lived a Hobbit

It has today become such common practice to mine written texts for their true meaning and intent, that it often comes as a shock to learn that people have not always read this way. Other times and places have been more open to admitting that the true meaning of anything, much less a text, can be slippery business indeed. A reader can only enter a text from where he or she happens to be. If I am a baseball player, a dog breeder, an army officer or a physician, I am going to approach the rest of life in much those same terms. Ancient readers, recognizing all these differences, and also differences of education and temperament, practiced reading on many different levels. A four fold path, called the quadriga, was the standard model for readers, especially readers of sacred and philosophical texts, which were known to be potentially curious and unfathomable.

Mythology, sacred scriptures, non mathematical philosophizing, and dreams are all “polysemic” or “polyvalent,” which only that they can mean a great many different things at the same time and that there are many different ways to approach them. Remember that words are magic and that they transform letters and sounds into concepts and things. When words are used to approach the divine, they also transform the person who reads, chants, prays, memorizes, dances, paints and imagines them. And as I am transformed, so also is what I am reading transformed, hence the need for a story that can contain me when I am small, and grow with me as I become wiser and more far ranging.

Which brings me back to the problem of Mr. Tolkien The Lord of the Rings and whether or not it can or should be read as allegory. Allegory was and is one of the way to read mythological texts, and if Mr. Tolkien did not care for it, perhaps he should not have written mythology. What I would have said, had I written the books, (and would that I could!) is that if I limit myself to an allegorical reading, I will certainly miss the book's greater point. Allegory as allegory is a post-reformation phenomenon. If it began as writer imposing self upon reader, it has not stayed as such. A story is a conversation, and finally what the writer says is far less important than what the reader hears. Imagine if we had all internalized Mein Kampf as an allegory of the divided self and had battled our own internal demons instead of using it as a text to kill people!

So let us pretend to be ancient readers for a moment and let us explore the quadriga. Or, since, quadriga in fact refers to the fourfold yoke, which meant that we would be in a chariot pulled by four spirited steeds, lets take up the reins and gallop across the fields of Story.

The first horse is called Literal. In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit. In a literal reading, words function as signs, much as the stop sign on the corner functions today. The story we are embarking upon involves a being who lives in the ground.("Of course they are not awful burrows full of worms an oozy smell, nor yet a dry, bare, sandy hole with nothing in it to sit down on or to eat: it was a hobbit hole, and that means comfort.") In this way, we know that an important character in this story is chthonic. And here I stop and that is that. Literal readings encompass surface information: in the beginning God planted a garden in the East, or Lucy opened the doors of an old wardrobe. This may be excessively simple, but it cannot be dispensed with. The beginning and foundation of human consciousness begins in the particular. In the beginning there can be no abstract category of “parent” or “mountain.” There is Mt. Horeb and there is my mother and my father and these are very solid, and very much themselves. So is this hobbit, whom, after learning about all the comfortable things he lives with, we discover is named Bilbo Baggins. And also, I must literally confess that this sentence does not hail from The Lord of the Rings, but actually begins The Hobbit.

Now right beside our Literal horse, is yoked the horse named Allegory. It seems to be an ineluctable human trait that no sooner do we learn something than it cannot just stay there. We have to make a pattern of it. If you have ever sat and tried to empty your mind while holding a rock in your palm, you will know exactly what I mean. It is almost impossible to let a rock just be a rock, a particular piece of black stone and nothing other than itself. Even a mute rock can be transformed into a synecdoche of earth’s whole history. That little pattern of dimples becomes the pock marks of ancient volcanoes. A sharp edge takes on a resemblance to a wolf’s head and one does not have to look much further for the head and paws of her pups to emerge from the rock’s lower edge. In the blink of an eye, then, the souls of a family of wolves are now abiding in the stone in the palm of my hand, wildness trapped and patiently awaiting over eons for the devastations of men to pass so that they might emerge once again. One who understands the Word of God is like a man who builds his house upon rock. In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit. Allegory functions as one-to-one correspondence. Aslan of Narnia is not only a lion, he is also the allegory of the creative and self-sacrificing Christ. The fruit in the Garden represents temptation, which corresponds to appetite. Hobbits, small, earth-dwelling and comfortable, represent that which is cozy, warm and innocent, the unfallen people we really are beneath the surface of our arrogance and sin.

But now the third horse is neighing loudly. “Arrogance and sin are moral categories,” it whinnies, “and those belong to me.” Indeed, allegory does slip easily into morality, for that is what allegory is often constructed to teach. Aesop’s fables were wonderful examples of moral tales. The parables of Jesus have often been understood in such a way. Thomas Jefferson edited the Gospels so that we might more easily appreciate Jesus as a great moral teacher, the friend of enlightened men. Jefferson’s Bible has no miracles whatsoever, and the story ends when Jesus dies and everyone goes away. Today, many people are quite content with religion as morality. We are wild creatures who must learn to behave! We have too much power and too little discipline. Look at Sauron and his ring. If his mother had toilet trained him more properly he would not have been so tempted to grow up and become a dark lord. (I realize that this is bad Freud, but it is irresistable to throw in a little psychology at this point.) In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit. Voltaire would have liked this. Il faut cultiver son propre jardin. The moral is, the time has come to emerge from your hole and face the consequences. We all know that Voltaire was an ironist.

The fourth and highest level, the Darley Arabian of reading levels, was the anagogic, or mystical reading. This was when the thing became thing again, not as sign, but as self in and of itself. When I reach the anagogical I have transcended sign, pattern and morality and can appreciate the particular stone as nothing less than the particular stone. When the hole in the ground in the very first sentence becomes a hole: the entry way it really is, set in the ground of meaning, the alpha point, the depth of soul, the resiliency of truth, and I know that he who inhabits it has been chosen and I am ready to follow him wheresoever he goes.

Great writing, like great religions, are insoluble, as they sit at the very point of paradox. They ask us to live with many, often contradictory meanings, all at once. The four horses are there in their diversity to guide us over that impossible hurdle. It is where, I am told, the Holy Spirit appears. In the fourfold path, faith and life and stories become journeys. I can take my journey anywhere. I can take my journey without ever having to leave home.

Monday, April 16, 2007


Four years after Lucy walked through the wardrobe door, a certain Hobbit named Bilbo Baggins celebrated his eleventy-first or one hundred and eleventh birthday. Bilbo did not need to walk into another world to do so, as he was already in one. Having been out and back again and having amassed a great treasure during his travels, he was more aware than most of the wider world that would soon be so aware of him. In contrast to most of his neighbors who were quite content to live out their lives in their generous and homely Shire, Bilbo had an adventurous streak. It appeared to have served him quite well. As Tolkien writes, “Time wore on, but it seemed to have little effect on Mr. Baggins. At ninety he was much the same as fifty. At ninety-nine they began to call him well-preserved; but unchanged would have been nearer the mark.” (1 But finally, things were beginning to change, and not only did the wizard Gandalf bring fireworks for Bilbo’s gala, he also brought unsettling news.

It is a well known fact that J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis were very good friends, and that both became well known as writers of imaginative literature during the 1950's, although Tolkien had begun far earlier, with the publication of The Hobbit in 1937 and with mythologies birthed, but not published, far earlier than that. Indeed, Tolkien’s well tuned instinct for the deep truths revealed in myth was instrumental in Lewis’ shedding the cocoon of his atheism and embracing the far more interesting complexities of spiritual life. Tolkien’s image was the tree of tales, branching from a common root, very different, yet revealing interlacing truths. It was through stories that our most mysterious, enduring and truthful connections were made.

As a young man, understanding innately that words are magical, Tolkien invented languages. “Many children,” he wrote to his publisher in 1950, “make up, or begin to make up, imaginary languages. I have been at it since I could write. But I have never stopped.” (2 He soon discovered that languages, even invented ones, cannot live unless they have stories to tell, and in this way, over many, many years the cultivator of Middle-earth fashioned the languages and mythologies that sustained the land and its races that his heart and mind brought to light. I would guess that it was the stories, along with his love for the woman Edith who would become his wife, that kept him alive in the trenches of World War I where he, like almost all of the men of his generation, was sent to come of age.

My grandfather, too, survived those trenches, although as an immigrant from Scotland to Canada, and therefore a more expendable colonial, he shouldn’t have. He was one of a handful of survivors from an entire battalion, the Princess Pat. Like Tolkien, my grandfather was kept alive by love. My grandmother Esther, whom he loved, but had not yet married, knitted him socks. He credited these socks with saving him. They made it possible for him to stay connected to something deeper and truer than the sacrificial slaughter that was to traumatize him for the rest of his relatively short life. Because of Tolkien and my grandfather, I have come to believe that love and stories are the connective tissue of the human soul.

Also thanks to my grandfather, the First World War formed a part of my consciousness, although at greater remove than the second, just as Middle-earth lay at a greater remove in my young life than the more child-friendly world of Narnia. The First War was an amazing, shocking and unprecedented slap to the idea that humans had achieved in their civilization anything that might be called higher consciousness. The trenches were slimy, wet and cold and had no respect for living things. C.S. Lewis remembers them. “Through the winter, weariness and water were our chief enemies. I have gone to sleep marching and woken up again and found myself marching still. One walked in the trenches in thigh gumboots with water above the knee; one remembers the icy steam welling up inside the boot when you punctured it on concealed barbed wire.” (3 More brutalized than feet, or even lives, were ideas of honor, meaning and bravery. Men steeped in the heroic ethos of the classics suddenly found themselves animals at the slaughterhouse, their carefully trained minds cast aside, their usefulness and meaning reduced to the body. My grandfather recalled hiding like a fugitive, often buried underground like one dead already, as Germans sniffed about like predators seeking to exterminate anything that moved.

It took me a long time to understand how my childhood was shaped and formed by all this. Just as Tolkien categorically denounced any attempt on the part of his readers to directly link The Lord of the Rings with events in the wider world, so was my childhood characterized as peace time, a time when American values and goodness would surely prevail thanks to our innate goodness, a time when I did not need to worry as wise men were taking care of me. War was something behind us. I grew up during a “cold” war in which the hatred of other people, Germans, Japanese, now became a hatred of ideas. Though it began with a hatred of specific ideas such as “communism” or “fascism,” it would soon extend to a great many more ideas than that.

Is it any wonder, therefore, that the fictional worlds of Narnia and Middle-earth held an appeal that the utilitarian world of my waking life did not? Is it any wonder that I sought to learn from these places? The Narnia stories, being admittedly allegorical, seemed straightforward enough in their lessons. The Lord of the Rings, on the other hand, was a much different case. To the very end of his days, Tolkien insisted that anyone who attempted to draw allegorical meanings from its pages was not really reading them. “The real war,” he wrote, referring to the world wars in his preface to the second edition, “does not resemble the legendary war in its process or its conclusion. . . . I cordially dislike allegory in all its manifestations, and always have done so since I grew old and wary enough to detect its presence. I much prefer history, true or feigned, with its varied applicability to the thought and experience of readers. I think that many confuse ‘applicability’ with ‘allegory’; but the one resides in the freedom of the reader, and the other in the purposed domination of the author.” (4

In this way, Tolkien was asserting, not only the power of imagination, but the power of reading. Although The Lord of the Rings was voted the most influential novel of the twentieth century by the customers of Amazon.com, its author never claimed celebrity status. He never imposed his success upon those not fortunate enough to write great literature and leave their mark upon the ages. Indeed, the books, the deepest work of his imagination, his consciousness, even, I daresay, his soul, were ultimately not about him at all. They were a gift. And since they were a gift, we who received it, could become just as much a part of the story as the hobbits, wizards, orcs, men, dwarves, ents and elves who peopled its pages

1) Fellowship of the Ring, Chapter 1
2) The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien, 143
3) Quoted in Colin Duriez, The C.S. Lewis Chronicles, Bluebridge, 2005, p. 91
4) From the forward to the Revised Edition, Fellowship of the Ring, p. 7

Wednesday, April 11, 2007

NEW SERIES: Will Appear Wednesdays

THE SACRED IMAGINATION: Stories for the End of the World

In the year that I was born, a little girl named Lucy Pevensie walked through a wardrobe door and discovered a whole new world. The place Lucy entered was quite different than the one she left, for she left a rainy spring and entered winter. Indeed, the landscape around her rather resembled the world in which human life itself awoke, the glacial age of the Pleistocene. Like the deep past itself, the land Lucy discovered was inhabited by different creatures than ours. A faun named Tumnus asked her home with him for tea. It was from Tumnus that she learned that the icy terrain wasn't exactly natural: Narnia (for such was the name of this land) lay in the chill enchantment of a certain white witch who turned all her enemies to stone.

I am sure that Lucy wondered how she had stumbled into this place and what on earth she was doing there. She would soon learn that she had been called, that her existence was necessary to the evolution of this enchanted land. She would discover that she, and later, her sister and two brothers, arrived in fulfillment of an ancient prophecy.

In 1950, the year that C.S. Lewis published The Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe, no one doubted that the book was anything but pure fantasy, or allegory, if one chose to accept its Christian storyline and premises. But stories, like lives, change over time, and the distinction may be less clear today than it was in 1950. Many generations of children have longed to follow Lucy into Narnia, and, in the way of the deep magic that existed before time, many of them, or so I am told, have managed to find their way there.

Magic is contingent upon words. Numbers may have the capacity to describe things like curves, acceleration, velocity, distance, quantity and set as these things absolutely and truly are, but an equation cannot transform the rate of gravity into a supernova. Only words, uttered properly, can perform the task of transformation. We know this from Lucy herself. It was words that transformed an idea in the mind of a writer into a curious little girl who wandered into a wardrobe one rainy afternoon and found, on the other side, the unknown country of her heart.

And she would need a very great heart when she came back through after her adventure and tried to tell her sister and brothers what she had found. Although Susan, Peter and Edmund were quite as imaginary in their way as Lucy was in hers, they refused to believe in imagination. They accused her of letting her imagination get away with itself as was sometimes the case with small children. (Lucy was about eight years old when the story begins.) No wardrobe on the upper story of a large house could give way to another country without ones taking a nasty fall; and besides, the seasons were wrong. Finally, and in the age of watches and train schedules, this fact clinched everything, had Lucy visited a snowy country and taken tea with a faun, hours would have needed to pass, and in fact, Lucy emerged from her hiding place before her brother Peter even had time to find her.

Of course, words are quite as capable of dissolving time as they are of transforming themselves into people: have you never lost yourself in a book? Who can read War and Peace or Anna Karenina and not inhabit 19th century Russia, or the Iliad and not be in god haunted Troy, or the Bible, and not get a good whiff of ancient Jerusalem?

Some might call such deep reading escapism, and they would be partially right, especially with reference to Narnia. In every way, Narnia was a place of escape. Lucy, Susan, Peter and Edmund Pevensie were war evacuees, put on a children's train in London and sent to the country house of a professor. The house itself was a grand old place, many stories high, where the Professor lived with his housekeeper, the dread Mrs. Macready and three maids. And as befitting a house of many stories, the place was itself storied: hence its extraordinary wardrobe.

Although Lucy was born eighteen years before me in calendar time, our births in so called real time coincided nonetheless. Just as I could not count myself fully born until I had emerged from the womb and into the sight of others, neither could Lucy be said to fully exist until she had found readers. But the year in which we both first saw the light of day is not the only thing Lucy and I have in common. Neither is our predilection for mythical landscapes which turn real in surprising ways. Perhaps the most important thing about us both is that we each came to light as World War II raged furiously offstage. For Lucy, the distance was spatial. For me, born five years after Hiroshima, Nagasaki and V-J day it was temporal. But in both cases, war remained indispensable to our tales.

Sunday, April 8, 2007

He is Risen!

It was a beautiful day in spring when we gathered on the lawn for Patrick Mariner’s memorial service. The fragrance of the flowers, the bright sun releasing the oils of pine trees so that the air was tangy with them, the soft grass underfoot, all this seemed to belie the fact that a young family had just lost their only son.

The priest stood on the porch of the church to preach. He said, “We are accustomed to thinking of death as the end. We may know less than we think. What if life is just part of the path we tread? I want you to imagine being a baby in the womb. I want you to imagine a place this safe, warm, watery, a place where you are fed and held. Now imagine that someone, or something, comes to tell you that there is a whole new world beyond this one, a world so wide and so beautiful you cannot even see its boundaries, a world of movement, music, companionship, love and joy. And now imagine, if the only world you had ever known was the womb, what you would say to such a teaching. “What kind of fantasy is this? Has anyone ever returned from that place? Thanks but no thanks. I think I will remain here as long as I possibly can.” And so you remain, safe and snug in your watery world, even clinging to it as it gets more and more uncomfortable because without knowing it, you are growing out of it. And then one day, there comes this inexorable tug. And ready or not, the tug grows and grows until it is contracting and constricting into a terrible cataract, and all of a sudden those waters which had once kept you safe are now rushing you into a great unknown. . . .No return.” And here the priest paused. And we paused. We wiped the tears from our eyes.

Suddenly the blue sky was filled with balloons.

Happy Easter, dear ones. The tomb is empty so I can’t tell you what the One Earth will look like after it is showered with God's new life, but this is the day in which all those promises turn real. This is the day when the flimsy curtains part and we are given a glimpse of the big picture. This is the day when God touches us on the shoulder and says, “There is nothing you can do that I cannot make new.” That includes you. That includes me. That includes the entire Earth. Thank you for keeping this season with me. Blessings. Alleluia!

Coming Soon: The Sacred Imagination

Saturday, April 7, 2007


The rest of the world may celebrate Earth Day on the third Saturday of April, but I celebrate it on Holy Saturday. Holy Saturday is the day that Jesus descends to the dead and hallows the earth. This is the day when the air feels different on my dog walk, the winds empty and still, the day when I am tempted to contemplate God’s absence in the tomb and then I remember Jesus beneath the earth and the very stones suddenly ripen with the promise of resurrection. If it also feels empty, that is all right, too, for in the Buddhist world, emptiness is the greatest gift, the greatest spiritual attainment, for in emptiness, all my hopes and fears have dissolved and I can live fully in the Now.

This is the day, according to Christian legend, when Jesus rescues all the prisoners from all the Hells we have put ourselves into.

At the Saturday night vigil we begin the mysteries of Easter. We kindle the first light of new time. We read the stories of God creating, loving and saving us. We read of the dry bones of dispair taking on flesh and rising to return to their home. Hollywood may see such living dead as the ultimate horror movie, but God has no horror. God comes to tell us that nothing, whether for good or for ill, nothing ever dies. The task of the spiritual life is not to kill my sins or my enemies but transform them with love. Tonight we open the tomb where that love has been hidden. Tonight we welcome Jesus back from death.

Lent is over. Some of us kept it well, some of us, including me, kept it less well, some of us kept it not at all. It doesn’t matter. Lent keeps you. Or as the great fourth century preacher John Chrysostom says in his Easter homily:

You that have kept the fast, and you that have not,
rejoice today for the Table is richly laden!
Feast royally on it, the calf is a fatted one.
Let no one go away hungry. Partake, all, of the cup of faith.
Enjoy all the riches of His goodness!

Let no one grieve at his poverty,
for the universal kingdom has been revealed.
Let no one mourn that he has fallen again and again;
for forgiveness has risen from the grave.
Let no one fear death, for the Death of our Savior has set us free.
He has destroyed it by enduring it.

He destroyed Hades when He descended into it.
He put it into an uproar even as it tasted of His flesh.
Isaiah foretold this when he said,
"You, O Hell, have been troubled by encountering Him below."

Hell was in an uproar because it was done away with.
It was in an uproar because it is mocked.
It was in an uproar, for it is destroyed.
It is in an uproar, for it is annihilated.
It is in an uproar, for it is now made captive.
Hell took a body, and discovered God.
It took earth, and encountered Heaven.
It took what it saw, and was overcome by what it did not see.
O death, where is thy sting?
O Hades, where is thy victory?

Friday, April 6, 2007

"It is Finished"

Today I stand before the cross and acknowledge its terrible power. “Behold the hard wood of the cross on which hung the salvation of the world,” say the words of one of the many liturgies I have read. Living trees stripped into instruments of death, our salvation nailed, a kind young man, stripped, mocked, murdered, all because I don’t really want to be saved. I want to be powerful. I don’t want to believe in God. I want to be God. And when God really turns up, he’s not at all what I expected.

Today I stand before the cross and acknowledge its terrible power. Oh the liturgies call it glorious, because the liturgies must. Worship, after all, is all about the promise, the truth. Worship is as much possibility as fact. It is like a guidebook, telling me what I can expect, when I finally emerge from the chrysalis of my own illusions. But I'm not there yet.

We glory in your cross, O Lord,
and praise and glorify your holy resurrection;
for by virtue of your cross
joy has come to the whole world.

On Good Friday, I ask myself. Can I yet see the joy that lives beyond the terror of dead wood and dead ideas? Can I catch even the tiniest glimpse of the horizon of blessing that lies beyond the media blitz of a world gone mad? On Good Friday, I face the fact that no matter how faithfully I worship, the cross still has power over me. I face the fact that I am still afraid.

In the dream I had on that long ago winter night in Yosemite, a vision received on a night when warm, tropical storms were brewing in the air above me and the snows held the memory of glaciation at my feet, in the midst of all that earth power, I was transported down a very long road to Gabbatha. It was hot on Gabbatha that first Friday, the pavement reflecting the blinding noonday sun where no shadow could be cast. As I had asked God to be a priest, I stood with the priests on the sidelines in all that intolerable heat. The paving stones were like a labyrinth. Jesus stood alone in the middle and Pilate sat on his judgment seat, right where I knew I would find him. The messenger had arrived with the letter from Pilate’s wife, saying that she had been troubled by a dream, and it sat in Pilate’s hand, maybe read, maybe not. And they stood there in silence, eyeing one another. Then, something very tiny happened. A fly, seeking moisture as flies do in desert climate, landed at the corner of Jesus’ eye to drink. It was the most inconsequential little movement, this fly, but it caught Pilate’s attention and it shifted his vision just the most wee little smidge, and suddenly, as he looked into Jesus eyes – now liquid, transparent and blue – he realized who Jesus was. And he got up from his throne, threw down his hands and said. “I can’t do it. A man I could kill for you. But I can’t murder God.”

At that moment, the universe itself shifted. The heavens parted and a voice said, “Congratulations. You have just passed your first test.” There seemed to be an infusion of angels. It was strange and frightening, how close we had come. But to what? Who could have known? It was at this point that someone thought to ask, “Where is Jesus?” It seemed that in all the confusion of chrerubim, nobody had bothered about him.

And then we saw. While the rest of our eyes turned heavenward, he had bowed his head and given up his spirit. A heart attack probably. Had the prophecies not said he must suffer and die?

Thursday, April 5, 2007

This is my Body, This is my Blood

Here are two stories for Maundy Thursday.

In the spring of 1999, after she had undergone unsuccessful surgery for alveolar cancer, I went to visit my best friend in the hospital. Her family was just leaving as I arrived, not because they did not want to see me, but because they needed a break from their shock and their grief. No one at that point had the slightest idea what to do. If you have ever been present at the time that cancer is diagnosed, when the awareness of love, malignancy and helplessness is especially high, when medical treatment fails, you will know how strange it feels. So many fears hover in the room. “Is this going to metastasize into me, too?” "Will I die with her?"

She was sitting in a darkened room, a dinner tray on the little wheeled table beside her. We had talked about a lot of this already. Now she turned to me and said, “They couldn’t get it. It was in the wrong place. Right where the lungs meet. They couldn’t get the cancer without taking out both lungs. They did what they could. I’ll have to have chemo and maybe radiation. Would you like my dinner?”

It was a little plate of quiche, salad and broccoli. I answered, and I’m still not sure where this answer came from, “No, I don’t want your dinner, but I’d love to share it with you.”

She smiled as we began to divide the plate into two servings. “I asked them all if they wanted it. Nobody did. They thought it would make them sick. You know how I hate to see food go to waste.”

“That’s the most absurd thing I’ve ever heard. Cancer may be many things, but it’s not catching.”

“I probably caught it from my father’s second hand smoke when I was a child. He smoked all the time.”

“Shall we pray?”

And so, as she prepared for the work of her dying, Priscilla and I shared a little meal of quiche, broccoli and salad in a darkened hospital room on a spring evening in San Rafael. I would not be a priest until much later that year, but I knew I had just celebrated my first communion.

I never met Patrick Mariner. I only knew him from the prayer list. He was a little boy who went to our church. He was ten years old and he suffered from leukemia, and every week we said his name. I was in my early thirties at the time and it seemed sadder than anything I could think of that a ten year old boy should have cancer and would maybe, even probably, die of it.

After a couple of months, a request went out in the parish that Patrick needed infusions of platelets and if anyone at church had Type A blood, could they possibly become a donor? As it happened, I had the right blood type and one day I drove into the city to be hooked up to a machine through which my blood was circulated, processed and returned to me; the process took about an hour. We all lay in a room and watched TV. It was Never Cry Wolf, a movie I loved, until one woman complained that it was unpleasant to give blood amid so much howling and we should watch something more “positive.” I only remember this well, because when the vapid comedy replaced the wolves, I developed a terrible reaction to the anticoagulant drugs and had to be unhooked for fifteen minutes so that my body might catch its breath.

Two days later my blood was flowing through the veins of Patrick Mariner. I knew this because I woke up that morning knowing that I lived in him. I could feel his little life. Even though we had never met, he was suddenly my child, my heart, my very own being. He was, indeed, my blood and since my invisible encounter with Patrick, Holy Communion, indeed, the whole meaning of the Body of Christ, has never been quite the same.

Wednesday, April 4, 2007

“Very truly, I tell you, one of you will betray me.”

A number of years ago, the local Baptist Church put on an amazing Last Supper Pageant. As live music played and spotlights turned the upper room into the world’s stage, twelve impassioned actors examined their very souls and wondered, “Am I the one?” Even as Jesus was dipping the fateful piece of bread to hand to Judas Iscariot, the other disciples realized that not one of them was pure: all of them, in one way or another, had let their teacher down.

“Do quickly what you are going to do.” In a kind of ironic counterpoint to the language of ordination, Judas becomes the one set apart, not for service to God, but for God's betrayal. Others may have betrayed Jesus in small ways, but Judas Betrayed the Lord in Big Ways. Judas did not just deny Jesus or desert him; he handed him over to the authorities who would so cruelly take his life. Dante puts Judas in the very bowels of Hell, the lowest of the low, below Brutus and Cassius who betrayed Rome. For all eternity, Judas is devoured by Satan, the skin on his back flayed by the devil’s implacable claws. This is a strange gloss upon the myths of the heavenly goddess Nut swallowing the Egyptian sun at day’s end so that he may be born more gloriously than before the next morning, upon Cronos, father time, swallowing his children, thinking he can stop them, only to have them reborn as the gods and goddesses of Mt. Olympus. Is Judas really so safely removed in Hell? Is betrayal more powerful than resurrection? And if even evil can be resurrected, wherein lies our hope?

Such was the horror of the ancient church toward Judas that the first theologians declared that he could never be redeemed, never transformed, never saved. Jesus became not only savior, but jailer, saving us from the worst evils, keeping Satan and his minions irrevocably damned in Hades. It was easier that way, to get rid of evil once and for all and threaten people with eternal damnation. But we know that Hell is not a safe prison at all, because evil crops up all the time. More damage has been done to our souls by threatening us with eternal punishment than anything I can think of. If I'm already lost, then why should I even try to find the good?

People like to paint Judas as somehow the agent of fate, a much needed cog in the inexorable machinery that brings Jesus to the Cross for a Mel Gibson extravaganza of saving violence. Judas and Pilate are often bundled into a doctrine called felix culpa, “happy guilt.” Though they themselves are evil, God uses their evil to bring salvation to the world. Fate, predestined, a done deal.

The only problem here is that Fate was the state religion of Ancient Rome, not a teaching of the Church. Grace is a Christian teaching. Free will is a Christian teaching. Grace and free will break through the illusion of fate, like hands parting a filmy curtain. The only way I can say accurately that Jesus was fated to suffer and die is to acknowledge that as a human being there were three sufferings he could not escape, because no human can escape them: the suffering of birth, the suffering of sickness, the suffering of death. St. Paul understood that the cross was a terrible form of deliverance when he wrote in his first letter to the Corinthians, “we speak God’s wisdom, secret and hidden, which God decreed before the ages for our glory. None of the rulers of this age understood this; for if they had, they would not have crucified the Lord of glory.” (2:7-8)

What if Judas is less a scapegoat than sign? What if Jesus invited evil into his inner circle in order to reveal it? In John's Gospel, evil is almost always depicted as night, as darkness, which is to say, evil arises when we are ignorant of what we are capable, or worse, if we deny it. If he does nothing else, Judas shows me that I cannot escape my own dark side any more than I can escape God. Which is why I suspect that no Hell is forever, no matter what Dante might say.

Still, it is impossible to live in this age of Darfur, Rwanda, the AIDS crisis, Auschwitz, the Killing Fields, ethnic cleansing, prison camps, torture, crippling ideologies and midnight arrests and disappearances and not wonder about the problem of evil, to seek, somehow, to contain it, as Dante contained Judas Iscariot in the lowest reaches of the underworld. The world's atrocities are too much to deal with. I want to think that they might be cast into the outer darkness and never come back.

But they do, even as every year, Holy Week comes back and makes me face things I would rather not face. Who is the God I serve, the God of life or the God of death? I think this may be what Jesus asks Judas. It may be Judas’ faith in the power of death rather than his betrayal that destroys his soul. Others betrayed Jesus and repented. By killing himself, Judas gave no one time to forgive him. I wonder had he managed to live through it all, I wonder whether even he might have found new life.

Tuesday, April 3, 2007

Ordination Vows

Unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit. Those who love their life lose it, and those who hate their life in this world will keep it for eternal life. Whoever serves me must follow me, and where I am, there will my servant be also. Whoever serves me, the Father will honor.

The crowd answered him, "We have heard from the law that the Messiah remains forever. How can you say that the Son of Man must be lifted up? Who is this Son of Man?" Jesus said to them, "The light is with you for a little longer. Walk while you have the light, so that the darkness may not overtake you. If you walk in the darkness, you do not know where you are going. While you have the light, believe in the light, so that you may become children of light." (John 12:24-26, 34-36)

Today is the day I go to Grace Cathedral to renew my ordination vows. Although I was ordained eight years ago, I still feel my growing edges keenly. If I love the holiness of silence and woods and long weeks of monastic life, the communion of healing prayer and sitting at the bedsides of the dying, the wisdom of dreams and the wisdom of other people, I’ve still got a lot of the Berkeley kid in me, outspoken, outrageous, an Anglo cantadora with a bratty German shepherd dog who likes to finish my sentences. Living in the often uncomfortable reaches of imperfection, and faced with an all-wise, all-wonderful God in Christ, ordination made me both more and less than what I was, more, in that the Christian life compels each one of us to always grow and learn, but less, in that God asks me to give everything I am and everything I have completely and utterly away.

As we continue into holy week, Jesus explores the radical nature of self-giving. To a people terrified of death, he likens it to a seed that falls into the earth and dies, splitting apart and releasing something greater than individual life. A seed grows into a plant or a tree that gives nourishment, that is more than just life because it makes all life possible. Jesus says that God is to be found in this kind of giving. It is not turning away from the earth for some heavenly gambit, either. The gift is not ascent, but descent. The life and death of Jesus hallowed the earth. At the last supper, he held up bread, made from all those grains of wheat and said “This is my body.” It suggests to me that when I can at last be one with the earth, with all the earth’s changes and chances, I am also one with God.

I can say this, yes. It is easy to say. But can I really let myself die? What does it mean to die? Holy Week brings me face to face with my timidity.

Now the second part of today’s teaching is truly odd. What is all this about being lifted up? It evokes the ancient language of priesthood, of a people set apart for the sacred. Many people quite rightly object to the exclusive language of ordination, to this sense of bishops, priests, deacons and religious as a people set apart, as if we were a club. On the day I renew my ordination vows, I'll tell you that though some may feel exclusive, I don't. Never have I felt less set apart than during my years of ministry. Instead I have felt vulnerable and public, asked, in a very visible way, to give my own life as a reflection upon life itself, its stupidities as well as its strengths.

In this passage, Jesus speaks truths that his listeners are unable to hear or grasp. Of course the Law is correct, and the Messiah is with us forever, but she or he can often be hard to see. Can I see the Christ in that vastly overweight woman, or in the pest at the street corner who is always asking for money? Much of the life of faith is knowing where to look and how to listen. It reminds me that what I say is ultimately far less important than what others hear. This is one of the most fundamental truths of the Christian faith. The teacher is reflected in the student. My obedience to the doctrine, discipline and worship of the Church is not an act of servitude, but a commitment to working with these things long enough to enter into them with a depth of understanding and not some snap judgment based upon my peculiar traumas or experience of things. The obedience I swear to my bishop is a commitment to relationship and an antidote to my pride. I live in a world that favors the quick answer over the difficult one, the simple above the complex, the super-star and celebrity above the community. Jesus was able to be simple, but that is because he mastered a great deal of complexity. Andrew Lloyd Webber to the contrary, he was not a super-star, but one who hid out with the ordinary. He spent forty days in the wilderness with wild beasts and angels. I like to believe that he died there and came back, able to teach us about the mysteries of grain because he had practiced them.

Holy Week is a good time to think about these things. Holy Week is a whirlwind of paradox. Being saved may be different than we think. Once I thought that becoming a priest would save me. And then, on a November morning, eight years ago, I knelt before the bishop and he laid hands upon me. To my immense surprise I felt all the power rushing out. I remembered the story of Jesus healing the woman with the woman with the hemorrhage and the heart within me broke open.

Monday, April 2, 2007

The Money Changers

The first thing Jesus did after he arrived in Jerusalem was to go to the temple and overturn the tables of the money changers. “You have made my father’s house a marketplace, a den of robbers,” he said, depending upon which Gospel you happen to be reading. In John’s Gospel he also set all the sacrificial animals free at this time, opening dove cages and driving the sheep and oxen out of the temple precinct. Some say that this was the act that drove the authorities over the edge, the charge upon which he was crucified: public disturbance, desecration of property. I think if Jesus were to turn up on Wall Street and do this in the stock market, he would surely be tried as a terrorist.

“You cannot worship God and money.”

When I was a young person in the 1960's and 1970's, my friends and I thought we could escape the clutches of money. I came of age in the Northern California of hippy communes, homesteaders moving to Alaska to live off the land, radically simple lives in what was then deliciously inexpensive housing. I was not a hippy; my friends and I lived for art, music, literature and theater. Our coherence lay in making beauty and beauty, we believed, could save us. We feasted on macaroni from the Co-op Low Cost Cookbook and debated Russian literature until far in the night. On the dark side, Vietnam cast a very long shadow – I’ll never forget when my dearest, most gentle poet friend had to register at the Draft Board – and the drugs were ubiquitous and insidious, mocking our privilege with their own peculiar horrors.

The political cause that won my heart was the rise of the Earth Movement in the early 1970's. In 1973, the gas crisis reminded us that petroleum was nonrenewable and we dreamed of turning away from dirty machinery to build sustainable, high density communities embraced by open space, where life could be lived in foot and bicycle and neighbors would know each other face to face. Our family got along quite well with one car and public transportation. Environmental laws improved our air, our water, our public lands. The endangered species act raised public compassion for the non human. The ocean blossomed with gray whales, their spouts rising like steam in the clear air of January. Wolves and Grizzlies were no longer hunted from planes. We continued to explore new ethics and morals and asked the question almost daily, “What is the best way to live?” But again, there was much evil. I saw my own quest for beauty conflated into a quest for easy sex, and at the end of the 1970's AIDS was stalking the streets of San Francisco, and Americans were being held hostage in Iran.

I don’t know what really happened next, but here’s how I saw it. At the beginning of the 1980's, a weary nation returned to money as the most rational way of ordering our society. Let the market decide! came the hopeful call. Money, being morally neutral, could shield us from our own worst intentions. Money assigns value apart from the thing itself and would allow us to be more impersonal. A robust market would create security, rationality, exchange. This decision was so completely accepted that both Republicans and Democrats have contributed to its phenomenal success. There’s an estate within walking distance of me that is on the market for 22 million dollars; its monthly payment on a conventional mortgage is more than 200,000, and there are people who have this kind of wealth. We Americans are living longer than ever. There is no rioting in our streets.

But our earth is dying and many of my friends will not hear of my love of Jesus because they think that Jesus is a tool of the Religious Right and that Jesus came to brainwash and enslave. All of these are values apart from the values that Jesus set for himself. Jesus came only to show us the truth. He came only as himself. And his protest cost him his life.

Sunday, April 1, 2007


Next Year in Jerusalem

"And so Galahad decided that it would be a disgrace to set off on a quest with the other knights. Alone he would enter the dark forest where there was no path. This is the myth of the Hero’s Journey." —Joseph Campbell

Every year, I stand at the brink of Holy Week, knowing what is going to happen and wishing it wasn’t going to: the wild acclamation on Palm Sunday that teases me with hope as Jesus enters the dark forest of Jerusalem, both alone and surrounded by a crowd, and how, as the week progresses, he becomes more and more alone, until all is lost and everything I love the most stands betrayed by a relentless, mocking power. Yes, Easter sits out there on the horizon beyond all this, but as a friend who is relatively new to the faith asked, “How can you celebrate Easter after all that? I would be just too exhausted.”

At the end of a Passover Seder, it is traditional to say, “L’shana ha’ba-ah b’Yerushalayim. Next year in Jerusalem,” recalling the old Jewish tradition that each person, at least once in their life, should celebrate the holy feast in the holy city. During the thousands of years of diaspora, the phrase “Next year in Jerusalem” expressed a hope that would take many lifetimes to fulfill, for the earthly Jerusalem remained closed to the Jews who loved her for centuries. Today, when her gates are once again opened wide, the hope remains, but it is tinged with grief, not of exile, but for the human condition itself.

“Next Year in Jerusalem.” I wonder how many times Jesus said that during the years of his life, his growth, his ministry. I wonder how he found the courage to stake everything he was to be in the city that God called holy. I wonder if Jesus considered going there before he actually did, but then changed his mind. “Not this year, God. Next year in Jerusalem.” This we will never know. We only join Jesus when he is at last ready to go and celebrate the Passover and meet his accusers.

Holy Week is when everything rushes together: history, myth, prayer, practice, sacred, profane, waking life and dream, a terrible crime and an impossible forgiveness, the sense that although God had worked up the courage to stand vulnerable before the people, we had not yet worked up the courage to receive him. And so we must relive this story every year, rather as in the comic movie, Bill Murray was forced to relive Ground Hog Day, until he finally understood that life was not about loving himself.

If Americans have reduced the Eternal Return to a cute movie with a message and localized it not in Jerusalem, but Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania, others have taken it far more seriously. According to religious historian and philosopher Mircea Eliade, human beings onced lived in a world that was entirely sacred, whose time was cyclical, where nothing was ever lost, and then the Israelites discovered that time was a line, an historical sequence, with a beginning, a middle and an end. The Greeks and Romans also embraced historical time and it came to replace myth as the ordering principle of Western culture. Philosophers such as Max Weber and Lewis Mumford suggest that our modern life was more deeply shaped by clocks than technology; time is what controls us, and the time that controls us where I live is relentlessly linear, the seconds of our lives ticking away as we race against the treadmill of busy-ness until old age at last forces us to slow down and we disintegrate and die. Clock time is purely secular and economic. Secular time is a transaction, a notation in my appointment book. Sacred time, on the other hand, as it circles and returns, tells me that whatever it is, for good or ill, whatever it is, will never die, but will rise again as inevitably as the spring. Time is not the watchspring winding down the universe, but cycles of ebb and flow, growth, maturity, decay, dormancy. Transformation, not death, is the key.

Holy Week is where these two ideas of time meet. The events we observe this week physically happened only once. But every year I face them over and over again.

“Next year in Jerusalem,” say my Jewish friends at the end of the Seder, echoing their own sacred time. No matter what Eliade might have said about them and the invention of history, the Jews treat time as more sacred than anyone I know. With the work week and Shabbat, Judaism practices the cycles of work and rest. Jewish life is measured not in terms of eras, but in terms of single years, for God only writes our story one year at a time.

2000 years ago, God thought we were ready to embrace the truth and be set free. I wonder how far we have come. I wonder. I am back in Jerusalem for another year.