Thursday, February 2, 2012

Excerpts from Spiritual Masters!

Some cool excerpts from The Essential Writings of Christian Mysticism, edited by Bernard McGinn.

Gregory of Nyssa, THE LIFE OF MOSES
     And the true vision of God consists in this, in never reaching satiety of the desire. We ought always to look through the things that we can see and still be on fire with the desire to see more…Yet from another point of view this running is also a standing still for, he says, “I will station you up on the rock” (Exodus 33:22)…For normally he who ascends never stays still, while he who stands still does not ascend. Yet, in this case, it is precisely through being still that the ascent occurs. The meaning of this is that the more firm and immoveable a person is in the good, so much the more does he accomplish the race of virtue.

Origen, PRAYER
     …we must hold in the same way that we profit by the recollection of the God in who we believe and who sees the most secret movements of the soul. The soul is disposing itself to please him as being present and looking on and anticipating every thought, “the searcher of hearts and reins” (Ps 7:10)…Those who give themselves continually to prayer know by experience that through this frequent practice they avoid innumerable sins and are led to perform many good deeds…”The light of your countenance, O Lord, is signed upon us” (Ps 4:6).
     The person who prays in this way and who has already received such benefits becomes more fitted to be united with the Spirit of the Lord…Moreover, because of the purification already mentioned, he shares in the prayer of the Word of God, who stands in the midst even of those who are not aware of it…praying for those who pray and pleading with those who plead…For virtuous works, or the carrying out of what is enjoined, form part of prayer…if we regard the whole life of the saint as one great continuous prayer. What is usually termed “prayer” is but a part of this prayer, and it should be preformed not less than three times each day.

John Cassian, CONFERENCES 9 AND 10
     Hence we must prepare ourselves before the time of prayer to be the prayerful persons that we wish to be. For the mind in prayer is shaped by the state that it was previously in…This makes us angry or sad, depending on our previous condition, or it recalls past lusts or business…Therefore, before we pray we should make an effort to cast out from the innermost parts of our heart whatever we do…
     A supplication is an imploring or a petition concerning sins…”Prayers are those acts by which we offer or vow something to God, which is called ‘vow’ in Greek…”in the third place there are intercessions, which we are also accustomed to make for others when our spirits are fervent”…”Finally, in the fourth place there are thanksgiving which the mind, whether recalling God’s past benefits, contemplating his present ones, or foreseeing what great things God has prepared for those who love him, offers to the Lord in unspeakable ecstasies.
     ‘That the love with which you have loved me may be in them, and they in us’ (Jn 17:26). And again: ‘That all may be one, as you Father in me and I in you, that they also may be one in us’ (Jn 17:21)…this will be the case when every love, every desire, every effort, every undertaking, every thought of ours, everything that we live, that we speak, that we breathe, will be God, and when that unity which the Father now has with the Son and which the Son has with the Father will be carried over into our understanding and our mind, so that, just as he loves us with a sincere and pure and indissoluble love, we too may be joined to him with a perpetual and inseparable love and so united with him that whatever we breathe, whatever we understand, whatever we speak, may be God.

John Tauler, SERMON 39
     You should realize truly: all prayers or actions that hinder your spirit from praying should simply be let go, whatever they might be or be called, or however great or good they might seem…He should recollect himself and turn to his interior ground with upraised heart and mind and with his faculties ready, with an interior gaze focused on god present, and with an interior desire, especially for the dearest will of God, in a sinking away of one’s own self from people and all creatures and a sinking deeper and deeper into the transfigured will of God. And then a person should with devotion draw in all things that were entrusted to him and should desire that god bring about his own honor and praise for the advantage and consolation of those people that are entrusted to him.
     Some carry the stones, others the mortar – all the many skills. All this is directed to serving one accomplishment – that the construction of the cathedral be one thoroughly and be completed. All this is so that it may become a house of prayer.

     Here we are, you and I, and I hope that Christ may be the third between us.
     Therefore, on the basis of the perfection o f charity we love many people who are a burden and pain to us. We are concerned about them in an honest, not a feigned or pretended way, but truly and voluntarily.

John Tauler, SERMON 39
     In the first stage, that of jubilatio, a person becomes intensely aware of the dear signs of his love that God has marvelously given us in the heavens and on earth, how marvelously much good he has done for us and all creatures…showered him with gifts, carried him, advised him, waited for him, cared for him, and for his sake became human and suffered, how he offered up his life, his soul, and himself for us, and to what inexpressible nearness to him he has invited him, and how that most Holy Trinity has expectantly awaited him eternally so that he might be filled with joy forever…thus does god lure, pull, and yank a person, first of all out of himself, and then out of all dissimilarity to himself.

     It is impossible for the power of desire to be moved except by love, and whatever is loved can only be loved under the aspect of the good. No one is good but God alone, as the Truth says (Lk 18:19). Everything that is loved or chosen by reason of goodness is not loved without any knowledge of goodness at all, because it is loved insofar as it is good. Therefore, in every such love by which a person is carried into God knowledge enters in although it does not know the essence that it loves. There is, then, a coincidence of knowledge and ignorance or a learned ignorance…Love of the good presents the good as not yet grasped, for the spirit’s motion that is love would cease if it attained its goal. It is always moved to attain more, and because the good is infinite, the spirit will never cease being moved forward…Since even the uneducated can be led to faith by the word, they are swept up into God’s friendship…

George Herbert, THE ELIXIR
     Teach me, my God and King,
     In all things Thee to see,
     And what I do in any thing
     To do it as for Thee

John Tauler, SERMON 3
     …if you are hungry or thirsty, if someone saddens you by word or deed, or whatever might happen to cause you distress – all this molds you and serves to make you a noble and joyful person. It has been completely ordained by God that this should happen to you…All the myrrh that God gives us is rightly ordered, so that he might lead a person to great things through suffering. He has arranged it that all things vex humankind. God could just as well and just as easily have made bread grow instead of grain. But men must toil in all things.
     Now, there is one kind of very bitter myrrh that God gives: interior affliction and darkness…For God visits upon him horrible trials in strange and unusual ways that no one notices except the person going through it. Such people have such astounding sufferings, strange myrrh, and hardly anyone know s what to make of it…myrrh is resisted in two ways: with the senses and with the faculty of reason…Some people think themselves so wise and imagine they are deflecting it with their wisdom and attribute these external reversals to good or bad luck, and they think they might have better preserved themselves against suffering. If this or that had been done, they imagine, things would have turned out well and suffering would have been avoided. They consider themselves wiser than God…

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Love Your Enemies - NOT Either/Or!!!

It took me 30 years to figure out how to talk about Love Your Enemiesyou can watch… or read the following section, which subverts the absurd “Either-Or” dodge most Christians employ so they need not love their enemies

When accepting the Nobel Peace Prize in 1964, Martin Luther King Jr. said: "I refuse to accept the idea that the 'isness' of man's present nature makes him morally incapable of reaching up for the eternal 'oughtness' that forever confronts him." If you want to know how cynical Americans are, how chained we are to the bitter realities of life, how flat our imaginations have become, simply read to people Jesus’ words: Turn the other cheek. Love your enemies. We immediately cycle into, "Jesus didn’t know our situation today; you can't just love a terrorist or a thief." But I’m not sure Jesus was issuing a rule, or establishing a constitution for government. Jesus was trying to resurrect us out of the death of the 'isness' that we know all too well and to capture our imaginations so that we might glimpse again the 'oughtness' that forever confronts us. I think Jesus said this because he wants to set us free.

For some reason, we've decided it's an either/or. We either use good sense or we love our enemies; we either protect ourselves and think safety or we love our enemies. Maybe if we look to the friends of Jesus over time we can begin to see a slightly different story. Let me share about some places I've been or taken my family.

The Coventry Cathedral was built in the middle ages. Then one November night in 1940, during a Luftwaffe blitz, the cathedral was destroyed. The Church members vowed to rebuild, and asked What kind of Church will we be? Sorting through the rubble, one man noticed two old medieval timbers charred by the flames that had fallen into the midst of the knave in the form of a cross. This cross became the high altar erected amid the ruins, and behind that cross they wrote the words "Father forgive." With war still raging with Nazi Germany, they said, "We are going to be the followers of Christ who forgive; when we rebuild this church, it's going to be dedicated to forgiveness, to reconciliation.” And for years they have helped people who do not like one another to talk to one another. Be very clear: in November of 1940 they were not ready to surrender and lose the war. Churchill was still in his bunker in London. The Nazis had to be stopped and everyone in Coventry knew it – but these Christians, still prosecuting a war, said "We will forgive. We will love. We will work for peace."

In 2006, in Nickel Mines, Pennsylvania, Charles Roberts entered a one-room Amish school house, held children hostage, and eventually killed six of them. The next day, the grandfather of one of the children who was killed spoke to a crowd that gathered outside the school: "Do not hate this man. He has a father. He has a mother. He has a wife. He has children. He is in the hands of God." The Amish baked food and delivered it to the family of the shooter. They raised money to help the children of the shooter. In Pennsylvania, we need police. We need to do everything possible to protect children. We need to do whatever it takes to fend of whatever it is that happens that makes somebody go crazy and harm children. But the Christians in Nickel Mines said "We will forgive. We will love. We will follow Jesus.”

In 1956, Martin Luther King, Jr., was speaking one evening when he was interrupted by news that his home was ablaze. He knew that his wife, Coretta, and his young daughter, Yoki, were in the house. I took my son to visit the porch where the bomb detonated, and where a crowd had gathered outside - a very angry crowd in 1956; they were enraged by the KKK and their acts of venomous violence. But King stood in the yard and told them, “Don't do anything panicky. Don't get your weapons. If you have weapons take them home. He who lives by the sword will perish by the sword. Remember what Jesus said. We are not advocating violence. We want to love our enemies. I want you to love our enemies. Be good to them. This is what we must live by. We must meet hate with love." We need good laws in our land and they need to be enforced so that people's homes aren't bombed, so that people aren't hated because of the color of their skin. But when that broke down in Montgomery, Ala., at least one Christian leader stood up and said "Let's remember what Jesus said. Jesus said Love your enemies.”

Recently I got to visit the Dietrich Bonhoeffer home in Berlin – where he was arrested in 1944 by the Gestapo. He lived in jail and concentration camps until being executed just days before the Allies freed Germany. What is amazing is that the prison guards told how much they loved Bonhoeffer, how he listened to them, prayed for them, sang with them. Bonhoeffer loved his enemies. He knew Hitler had to be brought down; he played a small part in a plot to assassinate him – which is why he was imprisoned by the Gestapo in the first place! But when he was in jail, he looked at his enemies and loved them.

Why must we have this either-or? Can’t we love our enemies, while also being wise and prudent? Why do we let absurd scenarios (You can’t let a thief walk off with your stuff! or We can’t just let terrorist rampage through America!) release us from Jesus’ imaginative invitation into the “oughtness” of God’s way, which is the liberating hope of “Love your enemies”?

Friday, December 3, 2010

John the Baptist

A long time ago I heard a sermon where the preacher pointed out that John the Baptist never appears on any Christmas cards – even though he is a prominent character in the Bible’s Christmas stories. I repeated this in a sermon – and was gifted a few days later with history’s first ever John the Baptist Christmas card.

The Bible seems to think we will never understand Jesus without getting past John the Baptist. John is born, it seems, a bit earlier than Jesus – but to hear the names John is to imagine a bellowing shout: “Repent!” I’ve always thought of John as rough, sort of a survivalist, unshaven, unkempt, wild-eyed, with a booming, raspy voice; consider the way is was played by Michael York in Jesus of Nazareth – intense, ferocious, rippling with condemnation and urgency.
But was he really so loud? What if his voice were more gentle, his invitation to “Repent!” more of a plaintive plea, the way a lover might urge his beloved, or a tender parent whispering to a sick child to try to get to sleep? The name “John” means something like Grace, or Mercy. What if this repentance movement isn’t a grim groveling in guilt, but a shedding of what has shackled us, leaving our two-bit life behind, and embracing the joy of fellowship with God? I think of that funky, fun opening scene in Godspell, which you can’t watch without giggling, or feeling a bit envious.

DaVinci painted him as somewhat gentle but strong. Grünewald captured his essence - as one who simply points to Jesus - and I like to think that a life goal might be to be that finger of John (as Karl Barth suggested), that my very being points to Christ.

I want to know more about John the Baptist. Two years ago I visited a cave, with the archaeologists who dug it up – and they believe this is where John got his start, preaching, washing people with water, anointing their feet with oil. Then he took his show on the road, down to the Jordan River, where Jesus finally came and was baptized.

I love the intriguing image in the Saint John’s Bible – depicting the moment when the baptism has just ended, John is walking away, and evil awaits the shimmering Jesus coming up out of the water. Historians and archaeologists are helping us learn more and more about John.

More importantly, I want to know John, not just about John – and I want to know the One he knew. John deferred to Jesus; John touched him; John knew him; John worshipped him; John wanted to decrease so Christ might increase. John knew you had to "prepare the way of the Lord," to clean house, get rid of the clutter - and then, and only then, is there room for Christ to come.
If I can get close to John, I might repent – not being hollered at, but feeling the love of being invited into a better life, to let that old scaly skin of my cold life molt away, and become a new creature, a serious follower of Christ, not straddling two worlds, clinging to my old ways, the ways the world thinks are cool and comfy, but abandoning ego, pride, pleasure, rushing out after Christ before he gets away, not noticing the door slamming behind me, getting as close to him as possible, and always – and I suspect then, and only then, will I feel the joy, and really discover the coming of Christ this Christmas. DaVinci did picture the baby Jesus quite clearly in the company of John the Baptist...

Friday, November 5, 2010


In July of 2002, I was in Assisi with my daughter, thinking about history, things Catholic, and St. Francis, when I received the news that Roland Murphy had died in Washington. I had just that day remembered that I had failed to mail him a birthday card. We’d spoken by phone a few weeks earlier, and I knew he was failing. Sometimes a death isn’t a surprise, but the finality of the loss falls like a thud in the mind – and there was nothing left to do but to remember, and to tell stories, which I did with Sarah over a long Italian dinner.

I had met Father Murphy my first day of Divinity School, when by sheer luck I became his advisee. Fr. Murphy was unforgettable. Just his size: he loomed. My roommates and I had him over for dinner and he knocked over a bottle of wine, as his legs wouldn’t fit under the table. And yet from his height he curved downward to us in class, almost as if God’s accommodation to us mortals was imprinted on his posture. His hands were long, crowdedly pecking on an old manual typewriter. He handwrote much, despite what he called “this damned palsy” – including the last note I got, whose legible sections detailed his illnesses and his pending writing projects, with a PS that read, “At least I don’t have Alzheimers yet.”

All students recall him at 6’7” ranging about the front of the room, Bible in hand, voice booming, boring into some passage like a miner chipping away stone to find diamonds. He was always in motion. Occasionally he would crash into the blackboard, erasers tumbling in a cloud of dust. Once he spun on a remark made on the other side of the room, and his Bible flew from his hand, as if thrown at the hapless student.

His face (which I jokingly told him reminded me of that El Greco version of St. Jerome as a cardinal, which hung in his office and graced the cover of the Jerome Biblical Commentary) was effusively expressive, deploying an assortment of grimaces, scowls, smirks, grins, raised eyebrows. From behind that face came these sounds, gutturals, too deep for mere words: Ha! Or Huummm?… or a growling Ugghhh…, pained evocations from within, if you showed lack of comprehension, but then the rewarding Ummmm, like a bear having swallowed a delicious piece of meat, should you utter something wise. The most brilliant student was humbled, the appetite whetted; the slower students were always encouraged.

We who studied with him do not remember the precise points that he made in his lectures, but his palpable, giddy excitement over an open Bible was contagious. Students did not call him Dr. Murphy. They did not call him Prof. Murphy. And no one called him Roland, although he would not have minded. We called him Father Murphy. Being Protestants, I think we relished the idea of having a Father. He certainly was Father to me.

I loved Old Testament with him so much I didn’t want to leave when everybody else departed Divinity School, so I stayed on, served as his research and teaching assistant, and somehow managed to complete a Ph.D. under his direction. He was ridiculously busy as one of the world’s premier scholars, but he wore his extensive learning lightly, and was modest about honor and acclaim. Once I stepped into his office, sat down, and said, “Tell me about this George Washington Ivey chair” (one of the most prestigious honors at the university just awarded him) – and he said, “Well, look under your behind, you’re sitting on it.” At his insistence, I always sat in the chair, as did countless students who discovered to their surprise that this bountifully productive writer was always interruptable. He would look up from that typewriter mid-peck and talk with you for as long as was needed, and then plunge back into his work unflustered. Of course, were it time for his daily swim, the interruptor got to walk with him to the pool.

Fr. Murphy taught the Wisdom books of the Bible. He not only knew a lot about wisdom; he was wise, perhaps the wisest person I have ever known. He was my teacher, my doctoral advisor, but also my mentor, and even my friend. I did not make any important life decisions without consulting him. To this day, when I feel that gaping hole of uncertainty, that hunger for some perspective or somebody to tell me the truth, God’s truth for me, I miss him terribly.

Fr. Murphy was revered by scholars all over the world, and even more beloved by elderly Catholic ladies I have met in places like Rock Hill, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin. He once told me he decided to be a priest when he was a little boy. To prepare himself, he learned French, Spanish, German, Portuguese, Arabic, Hebrew, Italian, and a few others languages so he could hear confession from any person who happened to come. His professors steered this brilliant young man into the study of Bible, where he proved to be a valiant pioneer, opening the windows of the Church to the strange world of the Scriptures. Catholics did not read the Bible much before the Second Vatican Council, which declared In order to keep the gospel forever whole and alive within the Church, the living teaching office of the Church has been granted the task of authentically interpreting the word of God. This task should be performed in such a way that as many ministers of the divine word as possible will be able effectively to provide the nourishment of the Scriptures for the People of God, thereby enlightening their minds, strengthening their wills, and setting men’s hearts on fire with the love of God. This sacred Synod encourages the sons of the Church who are biblical scholars to continue energetically with the work they have so well begun, with a constant renewal of vigor and with loyalty to the mind of the Church. Roland’s photo should appear in the margin at this point in the Vatican II documents.

But Fr. Murphy’s contributions to Catholicism were matched by his ecumenical achievements. He quite naturally became the first Catholic faculty member at Methodist Duke Divinity School, and brokered countless conversations among Christians of all persuasions, helping them to understand one another.

Father Murphy actually died with considerable panache, exquisite timing: one day past his own 85th birthday, he died on what Roman Catholics observe as the Feast Day of Elijah – awfully cool for a professor of Old Testament, and as he was of the Carmelite order, those quirky Catholics devoted to Elijah! I imagined him being swept up into the heavens on a chariot to meet St. Francis, those little old ladies who adored him, his own mother, and brother, St. Jerome, and Elijah himself.

Monday, November 1, 2010


True saints never dwell in splendid isolation; they inevitably give birth to other saints, who influence still others – and it might eventually land on you and me. Everybody has heard of Habitat for Humanity, in virtually every city in America, and now worldwide in scope. Saints you know have hammered on houses – and perhaps even lived in a Habitat house too. It started because a wealthy man, trying to fix his flailing marriage, went on vacation with his family, and had been encouraged to stop by a place in the middle of nowhere in Georgia to meet a saint. Instead of staying for lunch, he stayed for a month, and then came back for a lifetime. Millard Fuller wound up giving away his wealth – a bit like St. Francis – and launching Habitat, which has built nearly a million homes.

The saint he met who changed everything? A quirky, smart, smart-alecky farmer-preacher named Clarence Jordan. Clarence grew up Baptist – and as a child proved to be one of those souls with a natural sensitivity to hypocrisy. After singing “Red and yellow, black and white, they are precious in his sight,” he wondered why black children were dressed so shabbily. He saw deacons who could dreamily sing hymns about their love for Jesus, but then turn around and harass and even torture blacks on the rack.

In college, he studied agriculture, pursuing his vision of improving the plight of poor farmers. His ROTC commitment didn’t cozy up well to what he read in the Bible: how could he be a soldier and follow Jesus, who said to love your enemies? His struggle of conscience eventually led him to Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Kentucky, where he managed yet another degree, this one a doctorate in Greek New Testament!

Jordan became famous for his homespun translation of the New Testament, the clever and humorous Cotton Patch Version (with the subtitle, “Jesus’ Doings and Happenings, a Modern Translation with a Southern Accent, fervent, earthy, rich in humor”) – and perhaps you have seen the musical it inspired. When he translated the Good Samaritan story, he imagined that a man was robbed, somewhere between Atlanta and Albany. A white preacher and a Gospel song leader passed by before a black man stopped to help. The Pharisees always were cast as “Sunday School teachers.” Cotton Patch became a delightful musical.

Jordan’s most brilliant translation of the New Testament did not appear in print, but in his real work on the red earth of Georgia, and in the lives of people he worked, ate, and argued with. In 1942, Jordan started Koinonia Farm outside the county seat town of Americus. He wanted blacks and whites to live together, to embody the kind of community life described in the book of Acts (2:42-45, 4:32-36), where fellowship (koinonia in Greek) meant communal sharing of all goods. Georgia of the forties and fifties was not exactly ready for this kind of real-life implementation of the Gospel. Jordan and the Farm were ridiculed and attacked at every turn. The Ku Klux Klan repeatedly terrorized, bombed, and vandalized Koinonia.

In 1948, Jordan brought a dark-skinned man (actually an Indian) to the local Baptist church. The deacons demanded he meet with them, and desist from this kind of troublemaking. Jordan handed one of them a Bible and said, “Show me where it says in the Book that if a man is dark-skinned, he should not enter the house of the Lord. Brethren, if I have violated any teaching of this book in my beliefs or conduct, I will withdraw quietly from this church. Point to the text or teaching I have failed to try to live up to!” The deacon silently handed the Book to another deacon, who handed it to yet another – who slammed the Book on the table and shouted, “Brother Jordan, don’t pull that Bible stuff on us!” Jordan got the last word: “I’m asking you to give it to me.” That day, Jordan and his friends became “ex-Baptists.”

Jordan’s saucy yet hauntingly true remarks are legendary. A Klan delegation visited Koinonia and announced to Jordan “We don’t allow the sun to set on any white man who eats with a nigger.” He smiled, and replied, “I’m a Baptist preacher, and I’ve heard of men with power over the sun. But until today I never hoped to meet one.”

After preaching at a gilded, cathedral-like church in Atlanta, Jordan was asked for some advice by the pastor. Their custodian had eight children, and worked seven days a week, for a mere $80 per week. The concerned minister claimed he tried to get the man a raise, but with no success. Jordan considered this for a minute, and then said, “Why don’t you just swap salaries with the janitor? That wouldn’t require any extra money in the budget.”

To another pastor, proudly pointing to the fancy new $10,000 cross adorning his sanctuary, Jordan said, “Time was when Christians could get those crosses for free.” Jordan’s preaching featured splendid phrasings, like: “God is not ‘in his heaven with all well on the earth.’ He is on this earth, and all hell’s broke loose.” Or, “The good news of the resurrection is not that we shall die and go home with him, but that he has risen and comes home with us, bringing all his hungry, naked, thirsty, sick, prisoner brothers with him.” And again, “The trouble with God’s bride (the church) today is that she either has passed the menopause or she’s on the pill. Or perhaps even worse, she’s gone a-whoring.”

After one of many visits from KKK intimidators, Jordan said, “It was not a question of whether or not we were to be scared, but whether or not we would be obedient.” Another obedient saint we've studied, Dorothy Day, visited Koinonia - and got herself shot at!

Koinonia perched itself on the American landscape as a mundane call to obedience – and the church responded poorly. Jordan once asked his brother, Robert (who became a state senator and a justice on the state Supreme Court), to be Koinonia’s attorney. “I can’t do that. You know my aspirations. I might lose my job, my house, everything I’ve got.” Clarence said, “We might lose everything, too.” “It’s different for you,” Robert responded. “Why? You and I joined the church the same Sunday as boys. The preacher asked, ‘Do you accept Jesus as your Lord and Savior?’ What did you say?” Robert replied, “I follow Jesus – up to a point.” Clarence: “Could that point by any chance be the cross?” “I follow him to the cross, but not on the cross. I’m not getting myself crucified.” “Then I don’t believe you are a disciple. You’re an admirer of Jesus. You ought to go back to that church you belong to, and tell them you’re an admirer, not a disciple.” Robert: “Well now, if everyone like me did that, we wouldn’t have a church would we?” To which Clarence applied the coup de grace: “The question is, Do you have a church?” Later, Robert saw the light, became a disciple himself, and boasted that his brother was “the greatest Christian I have ever known.”

Clarence’s daughter Jan was hassled and ostracized at school. One especially vicious boy, Bob Speck, called her names and threw her books down repeatedly. After a few weeks, Clarence decided he had heard enough of this harassment, and told his daughter, “I’m coming to school tomorrow. I’ve tried to be a follower of Jesus, and he taught me to love my enemies and all that, but I’m going to ask Jesus to excuse me for about fifteen minutes while I beat the hell out of Bob Speck.” Jan said, “Daddy, you can’t be excused from being a Christian for fifteen minutes.” So Clarence suggested: “Maybe you could let your fingernails grow about three inches, and if he calls you a name, throw your books at him and scratch his eyes out; that would do him a lot of good.” Again she said, “You’re not serious.”

Two weeks passed, and Clarence had not heard a word about Bob Speck. When he asked Jan about it, she reported, “He doesn’t bother me any more.” Dad was stunned: “Did he move?” “No, he’s still there.” “Has he been converted?” “No,” she answered. “Does he call you names?” “No, never.” “Well what happened?” Jan told her story: “Well, I got to figuring that I’m a little taller than Bob, so I could see him coming before he could see me. When I’d see him, I’d begin smiling and waving and gushing at him like I was just head over heels in love with him, like I was going to eat him up. The other kids got to teasing him about me having a crush on him, and now, the only time I see him is when he peeps around the corner to see if I’m coming. If I am, he goes all the way round the outside.”

Clarence Jordan died suddenly and prematurely of heart failure on October 29, 1969, a mere fifty seven years old. He was buried wearing old blue jeans out in the field at Koinonia, not far from the shack he called his office. Some time later, his wife Florence was asked the whereabouts of his grave. “We planted him out there somewhere.”

Thursday, October 14, 2010


Paul Elie, after looking at some old photographs of Dorothy Day, suggested that she “doesn’t look like someone who might make you want to change your life… In her castoff overcoat and kerchief Dorothy Day might be a nun or a social worker, not a radical under surveillance by the FBI.” My favorite photo captures her, nearly eighty, sitting in defiant calm before two policemen towering over her, pistols in their holsters: how does a person grow up, and grow old, with such clarity of purpose that as an octogenarian you would think nothing of being arrested or shot?

In childhood photos, she appears serious, prematurely grown up. When she was eight, she was in the thick of the 1906 San Francisco earthquake. Later she remembered that “while the crisis lasted, people loved each other. It was as though they were united in Christian solidarity. It makes one think of how people could, if they would, care for each other in times of stress, unjudgingly in pity and love.” That loving solidarity provided the script for her life.

In so many photos, Day is holding some book or another. She discovered her vocation, interestingly enough, largely through reading Dostoevsky, Jack London, Upton Sinclair; she longed to life “a life worthy of the great books she had read,” hoping people would say about her “She really did love those books!”

"I’m not a great one for analyzing those novels; I want to live by them! That’s the ‘meaning of my life’ – to live up to the moral vision of the Church, and of some of my favorite writers… to take those artists and novelists to heart…"

Day never looked like one of those pastel, sweetly pious saints. Instead, she lived a rough, dog-eared life, battling inner crises and what she called the “long loneliness.” Having abandoned her childhood religion, she frequented a saloon called the Golden Swan with her Greenwich Village intellectual friends. After an abortion, a divorce, and a child born out of wedlock, she returned to the church for which she had little patience, where she had seen people fawn over the rich, but do nothing for the poor. Thankfully she came back anyway, as a missionary from the streets into the Church, worrying that she was being untrue to the poor she loved, yet determined to remind the Church that it does in fact have a social program.

She published a newspaper out of her own kitchen, selling The Catholic Worker for a penny a copy, cheap enough for anyone to buy and read. She challenged the laziness of an uninvolved church that ignored Christ’s mandate to care for the poor. She questioned how the church could bless the powers that be, instead of lifting up the powerless. She tackled racism and unfairness in the workplace. The Church did not always appreciate being told the truth about its calling. But despite guffaws from inside the Church, circulation of her paper skyrocketed from a first edition run of 2,500 to more than 150,000 in three years.

Day not only needed to, but wanted to back up her talk with action, spending half her life publishing, the other half being a doer of her own words. She personally opened dozens of shelters (the first was her own apartment, which also housed the paper!), places where the poor could come to eat, pray, make friends, and get vocational training. No one preached at them. They were simply loved and welcomed. She served, combining radical advocacy with radical service – an impulse with which she was born:

"Whatever I had read as a child about the saints had thrilled me. I could see the nobility of giving one’s life for the sick, the maimed, the leper. But why was so much done in remedying the evil instead of avoiding it in the first place? …Where were the saints to try to change the social order, not just to minister to the slaves, but to do away with slavery?"

Questions and more questions. Every photo of Day I have ever seen leads me to believe that she was framing, in her mind at just that moment, a question – the kind Jesus asked, the kind that makes people squirm, the kind of questions without which (if they are left unasked) the Church will shrivel.

She was devoted to the sacraments: those offered up by the priests, but also what she called the “sacrament of duty,” changing sheets and bedpans for the needy who found her piety to be tangible, and helpful.

"Does God have a set way of prayer, a way that He expects each of us to follow? I doubt it. I believe some people – lots of people – pray through the witness of their lives, through the work they do, the friendships they have, the love they offer people and receive from people. Since when are words the only acceptable form of prayer?"

The simplicity of her life and conversation were striking. Hospitality was everything: “Let’s all try to be poorer. My mother used to say, ‘Everyone take less, and there will be room for one more.’ There was always room for one more at our table.”

The sorrow and loneliness of her own life sharpened her sensitivity to those who were lonely and sorrowful. The answer to her own plight was the answer to the plight of those to whom she reached out. She said, "The only answer in this life, to the loneliness we are all bound to feel, is community. The living together, working together, sharing together, loving God and loving our brother, and living close to him in community so we can show our love for him."

For community to happen, we must recognize the dignity of the poor. One day, a well-dressed woman visited Dorothy Day and donated a diamond ring. Dorothy thanked her, and later in the day gave the ring to an elderly woman who took most of her meals at the shelter. A co-worker protested, suggesting Dorothy should have sold the ring and used the money to pay the woman’s rent for a year. But Dorothy insisted that the woman have her dignity. The woman could choose what to do with the ring. She could pay her rent for a year; or she could just wear the ring, like the woman who donated it. “Do you suppose that God created diamonds only for the rich?”

What I love about Day is that she embodied the truth that faith without works really is dead (James 1:22), that faith issues in action, that action issues in faith. Jim Forest said that Day’s ability to see good in every person “was surely due to the depth and intensity of her spiritual life. It was obvious to anyone who was in sight of Dorothy for more than a few hours that she was a woman of prayer. When I think of her, I recall her first of all on her knees.” As Dorothy said, “We feed the hungry, yes. We try to shelter the homeless and give them clothes, but there is strong faith at work; we pray. If an outsider who comes to visit us doesn’t pay attention to our praying and what that means, then he’ll miss the whole point.”

I cannot think of any better verbal portrait of what the Christian life is about, what it can be about, that this remarkable thought that Day shared with Robert Coles not very long before her death in 1980: "I try to remember this life that the Lord gave me; the other day I wrote down the words ‘a life remembered,’ and I was going to try to make a summary for myself, write what mattered most – but I couldn’t do it. I just sat there and thought of our Lord, and His visit to us all those centuries ago, and I said to myself that my great luck was to have had Him on my mind for so long in my life!"

Now, that looks like somebody who makes me want to change my life.

Wednesday, September 29, 2010


October 4 is the feast day of St. Francis – not his birthday, but the date of his death; for the faithful, it is the end of life, its consummation, and reaching its final destination, that matters. I am unsure what to say in such short space about Francis. For me, Francis has been a deeply personal journey, from my first visit to Assisi, through times I have taken family and groups there, to daily thought and prayer, icons of him hanging in my home and office… I wrote a book about Francis and my interactions with him… and when people ask me What is your favorite among the books you’ve written? I’m inclined to pick this one.

Recently I received a handwritten note from Murray Bodo, a priest and wonderful author who has shaped my thinking about Francis. In one of his lovely books, he pinpointed why Francis matters to me: “Francis dares to live the Gospel the way I would like to live it, and he loves Jesus the way anyone would like to be loved… It is easier to rationalize and dismiss Jesus than Francis, because Jesus, after all, is divine and so far above us. But Francis is only human like us. What he is, we can become… What is so unique about Francis is that he does what we would like to do, and he does it in such a simple, ingenuous way that we know we could do the same if only we would.”

Francis wasn’t an ordained minister! and he could just barely read and write. We do not need to be Francis; but we do need to be the person God calls us to be. Another intriguing writer about Francis is Gerard Straub, a former soap opera producer! He thought about the saint’s last words: “Francis said, ‘I have done what was mine to do; may Christ teach you what you are to do.’ Do not seek to follow in the footsteps of the men of old; seek what they sought.”

Francis sought God, with an intensity and constancy that might be instructive. After being seriously wounded as a soldier, he was trying to piece his life back together; every day, at length, he knelt before a crucifix in a little broken down church and prayed these words, over and over: O most high, glorious God, Enlighten the darkness of my heart, and give me a correct faith, certain hope, and perfect charity, wisdom and perception, that I may do, O Lord, Your most true and holy will. I made this the centerpiece of my book on The Will of God.

For Francis, knowing the will of God became almost embarrassingly obvious, and simple: he listened to the Bible being read, carried a copy of the Gospels around with him, and thought he was supposed to do whatever it said. Jesus said “Give all you have to the poor,” and instead of rationalizing or being puzzled, Francis just went out and gave what he had to the poor. Francis “took the Bible literally,” not in the sense of arguing about historical accuracy, but taking its words as his to-do list for the day.

He wanted to do the things of which the Bible spoke – but at the heart of it all was his desire to be like Jesus. Whatever Jesus did, Francis wanted to imitate. Jesus was poor, so Francis became poor. Jesus touched lepers, so Francis bought a building and opened a hospital for lepers. His first biographer summed up his life: He was always with Jesus: Jesus in his heart, Jesus in his mouth, Jesus in his ears, Jesus in his eyes, Jesus in his hands; he bore Jesus always in his whole body.

Not surprisingly, Francis’s father, Pietro Bernardone, who had huge ambitions for his son, was chagrined, and infuriated. Francis was squandering a career in the cloth merchant business, and giving away precious family possessions! So, in a famous scene, Pietro sued his son Francis, who returned even the very clothes off his back, with the courageous, tragic yet faithful words, “No longer do I call Pietro ‘my father,’ but from now on I will only speak of ‘our Father in heaven.” Jesus had said his presence would divide families, and Francis knew that pain – as did his father. I think my best thoughts in Conversations with St. Francis are my guesses about how this felt to father and son.

Francis had been sent on a mission by the God he’d prayed to repeatedly. After seeking God’s will, Jesus spoke to Francis and said “Go, rebuild my church, for as you can see, it is falling into ruin.” Francis thought Jesus meant the very building in which he was kneeling; so he used masonry skills he’d learned as an aspiring knight and repaired it! But it was the Church, all of it, which had become listless, pompous, and frankly too rich, that Francis was to rebuild.

But he was never a critic of the Church: Francis loved the Church, and would not act with the approval of the bishop, and the pope. He visited Rome, and at first the pope refused to see such a poor, dirty little man. But he had a dream that the great Lateran basilica was falling to the ground, propped up only by a poor, dirty little man. So he summoned Francis back to the basilica and blessed his work.

Statues of Francis are often placed in gardens. He was a lover of nature – but for the same reason he was a great lover of people: whatever God made, he treasured. One of the witty quotes from G.K. Chesterton’s eloquent book on Francis is this: “Francis seemed to have liked everybody, but especially those other people disliked him for liking. Francis had all his life a great liking for people who had been put hopelessly in the wrong.” Indeed, Francis saw the creative work of God in every person, and in flowers, birds, fish, trees, and rocks; he slept out of doors, even on hard stones, partly to experience the discomforts Jesus must have known, and partly to be as close as possible to what God had made.

Because of this, Francis was history’s greatest peacemaker, and may have a few things to teach us about the tensions in our world. Francis lived during the violent decades of the Crusades, when Christian armies battled Muslim armies. Francis wanted to meet the sultan, so he marched off with the Crusading armies, and trudged out, unarmed, to the camp of the Muslims – who started to kill him, but as he was unarmed and so different from other Christians they had ever seen, they took him to the sultan. For several days they conversed, and became friends; one version of the story says the sultan was prepared to convert! He gave Francis a horn made from an elephant tusk, used to call warriors to battle; Francis brought it home and used it to call his friends to prayer. A new book I just finished reading explores this whole episode, and what it might mean for how we could conceivably rethink political hostility in today’s world. Other stories from Francis’s life, such as the charming “wolf of Gubbio” incident, boggle our minds, and show us a better way.

Francis’s health was never good after his war injuries. Nearly blind, and having endured brutal surgeries, suffering malaria and other maladies, in the thick of misery, Francis wrote some of the most beautiful poetry praising God ever conceived. He also became even more determined, late in life, to be like Christ. Devoted all his life to crucifixes and the beauty of Christ’s love for us on the cross, Francis began to pray,

My Lord Jesus Christ, two graces I ask of you before I die: the first is that in my life I may feel, in my soul and body, as far as possible, that sorrow which you, tender Jesus, underwent in the hour of your most bitter passion; the second is that I may feel in my heart, as far as possible, the abundance of love with which you, son of God, were inflamed, so as willingly to undergo such a great passion for us sinners.

On a mountain northwest of Assisi, Francis experienced a painful but wonderful encounter with God, and came away with wounds in his hands, feet and side – which bled intermittently, and which he hid out of humility. Since Francis, history has witnessed many “stigmatics,” people who have had such wounds appear spontaneously on their bodies out of their devotion to Christ.

Ironically, and sadly in a way, Francis was buried in a splendid basilica he would not have wanted built. The beautiful basilica houses his body and those of his closest friends, and features stunning frescoes depicting dramatic moments in the saint’s life. Henri Nouwen once reflected on the many challenges facing Christians in today’s world, and asked “Who will be the St. Francis of our day?”