Friday, 19 December 2014
Monday, 15 December 2014
Since the first day we met her, my children and I, we never saw Ginger without her sister. The two of them were inseparable. They lived a contented, unassuming life in a little wooden cabin nestled among the sprawling unkempt gardens and the trees. Theirs was a life that seemed to know nothing of the anxieties that come from grand schemes and high ambitions. They had pieced their world together out of a thousand tiny kindnesses, small gestures, shared moments that would have looked like nothing at all to anyone who had not studied the intricate domestic choreography of those sisters.
There is a fellow in our neighbourhood who once had the effrontery to describe the sisters’ life as “dull” – which seemed to me as confused a notion as if he had reproached a German clock for dullness just because it always keeps the time. Certainly there was something staid, almost Victorian, about the manners and habits of those sisters. But the fact that a thing is small and precise, the fact that it follows a scrupulous routine, does not make it empty or contemptible. One can bluster about like the busiest person in the world and yet be fundamentally bored with life – that is the fate of so many of our contemporaries – or one can live richly and well with one’s sister in the confines of a small wood cabin, oblivious to all the world outside. Such was Ginger’s life: a small and uneventful life, perhaps, but a good life too.
And because the life of Ginger was free of all ambition and pretence, it was a hospitable life that always had room for friends and strangers and, most of all, for children. I would like to give you some picture of what Ginger came to mean to my children, but any account will fall far short of the thing itself. Little by little, in her own modest and matter-of-fact way, she welcomed my children into her gentle world. The sisters’ cabin, just a short walk from our own back door, soon became a regular destination. There I would find the children playing, eating, singing, or huddled in a circle chattering away with Ginger and her sister scarcely able to get a word in edgewise.
It sometimes happens that children trespass the boundaries of common courtesy; and there must have been occasions on which the sisters felt that their orderly world had come unhinged in the bustling presence of my three children – not to mention all the times when one of the children would show up, unannounced and unexpected, with a friend in tow. But I never saw anything in the demeanour of those sisters to suggest even a flicker of impatience. They were as indulgent with my children as if they had been their own. Ginger in particular became something of a confidant for my younger daughter. I recall times when, hurt or disappointed, my daughter went straight to Ginger’s place to tell her all about it even before she thought to tell her own parents. Not that Ginger ever spoke of such things to me. Whatever secrets my daughter might have shared with her were sealed up in the impeccable confidentiality of Ginger’s heart, just as they are sealed now forever in the colder confidentiality of the grave.
How suddenly Ginger’s illness came on, and how quickly her frail health went from bad to worse, are matters of which I will not speak here. We had driven her to the hospital – neither Ginger nor her sister drives a car, nor have they ever felt the need of one – and the look on the doctor’s face told us everything. At the very end, we nursed her in our own home. She died around midnight on the night of Thursday December 11th, after those who loved her had stroked her smooth brow and said their last goodbyes.
Ginger was laid to rest near the the big maple tree. We read a psalm and said the prayers that are reserved for such occasions. We thanked God for the simple goodness of Ginger’s life, and prayed that, following her example, we might be good and true and simple in our own lives too. We looked forward to the final day when Ginger will rise with us and with all the ones we ever loved and lost. When there was nothing left to say we threw handfuls of earth into the grave.
When the solemnities had concluded we placed fresh flowers on the grave. We went into the back yard and raised the hinged roof on the wooden hutch and put Ginger’s sister back inside. She shot us a quizzical glance and went back to eating an old carrot. There was something sort of bereaved in the way she nibbled at it. For consolation we brought her lettuce, broccoli, cabbage, a sprig of parsley, an apple sliced in two. There is nothing like fresh veggie scraps for the wounded spirit.
Saturday, 29 November 2014
Also he tells me: at the right time of the year you can sit in this cell and watch a hundred whales go by. I try to keep my composure, but in my heart I bless the Lord.
The cells are similar in design to the ancient monastic cells that have been excavated in the Nitrian desert. A main sitting room branching off into a small bedroom, chapel, bathroom, and kitchen, all opening on to an enclosed garden. The desert fathers each had a well in the garden too, though many of them also had slaves to draw the water. Taps with running water are one of those small but significant improvements to the monastic life. It is not true that the earliest is always the best.
Soon after arriving I hurry to the chapel for evening prayer. The first words that we sing are one of my favourite verses from the Psalms: I love the Lord, for he heard my cry.
I have not spoken today but I have not been silent either. All day long the voices in my mind chatter away like school children on their lunch break.
Coming out from morning prayer I stood outside the chapel and looked over the sea and saw a whale spouting, then another. For a second I forgot to breathe, as one always does when one sees whales. Then with all haste I got in the car and drove down the mountain to get a closer look. On the winding road down from the monastery I saw them spout again. But when I had got to the bottom and stood on the cliff above the sea, I found that the whales were out of sight. I had failed to reckon on the fact that you can see so much further from higher up. There are times when the closer you get to a thing, the more it recedes from view.
At mass each day the brothers form a circle around the altar and all the guests and visitors make a wider circle. When the presider raises his hands for the epiclesis, all the monks who are priests also raise their hands towards the altar. I like the theology behind this gesture, even if it feels a bit hocus pocus to see so many priests arranged in a circle with their hands stretched out towards the centre. I suppose you have to do this kind of thing in California. Anyway it’s reassuring to know that the mass would still be completed even if a presiding brother were to keel over and die on the spot.
After evening prayer the mountain is wrapped in darkness. I have been instructed to use the torch provided in my cell because it will reduce the risk of walking straight off the edge of a cliff and never being seen again. But I prefer to shuffle cautiously in the dark because the stars, shy nocturnal creatures that they are, come closer when there is no other light. On a high cliff I find a bench and lie down and watch the stars, great thickets of them burning out of the silent past. I remember how I always feared the dark when I was a child, ever since we lived in that place with the outdoor toilet (haunted by Australian spiders) that could only be approached by following a winding path under the menacing trees while nightmares rustled in the dead leaves on every side. Even as a teenager I was forever glancing behind me when I was alone and in darkness. And I remember how nineteen years ago, the night you came down and took possession of me, the first thing that happened was I stopped being afraid. From that night to this I have always found great consolation in darkness. I lie here on the bench beneath the moving stars and think: this is your gift to me, this darkness.
On my morning bike ride I saw a snake on the road. It was a baby, less than a foot long, black with an orange belly and a single orange ring around its neck, and it was trying to cross the road. I stopped a while to monitor its progress and, if necessary, to help it get safely across. Judging from its rather phlegmatic style of slithering, I am not sure it was fully apprised of the precariousness of the situation. But when I gave it an encouraging nudge it only rose its little head as if to strike, so I rode off and resolved to let nature take its course. Coming back later I saw the little thing broken on the road. A car had got him. I hoped his mother would never find out. Sometimes it is better not to know. Let her go on supposing that he has hitched a ride to San Francisco and that he is fulfilling all his dreams in the city. Let her go on hoping. There are people who say that knowing is always best, but if this vale of tears has taught me anything it’s that sometimes a little ignorance can go a long way.
My fifth Thanksgiving dinner in America. Twice with families, once with students, once with the homeless, and now with monks. Evaluation: families have the best cooking, students have the best music, the homeless have the best conversation, and the monks have the best wine.
Each night after evening prayer we sit on mats around the altar. One of the brothers carries consecrated bread and sets it on the altar. Three candles are burning. Then the lights go down and we sit for half an hour in silence. Some of the monks and visitors adopt the lotus position. Last night there was a visitor who filled our silence with the sounds of stifled weeping. When it is over the lights come on and everybody goes away. The icon of the Trinity is asking me a question as I touch the font and go out into the dark.
Sometimes I can hardly tell if I am myself or someone else. Sometimes everything in my life reminds me of you. My eyes look out on the sky and the sea but it all reminds me of you who looked out on this world with human eyes (my eyes) and loved it, every last infuriating bit of it. In your eyes, God looked at the world from the inside and saw that it was good. Not that it was a pretty sight. You saw Satan too. He fell like lightning under your gaze. St Thomas said there are five ways to prove the existence of God. I don’t know anything about that, but when I see my own five fingers they remind me of your hands. My feet, tired from walking, remind me of all the roads you travelled on feet like mine. You have cut your paths in me. Everything in me leads back to you. If I desire anything at all, my longing becomes a path to you: for all desire bends invisibly to you and all love whispers your name. If I were to lose you, my loss would become your way to me: for you take special pleasure in finding whatever is lost. If I were to flee from you, my flight would lead me to you: for you are the door that I would finally reach in search of refuge. If I were to hate and reject you, even my hate would lead me to you in the end, and I would find there that the rejected stone had become the cornerstone of my life. Everything in my life is pointing the way to you if only I have eyes to see. My whole being is speaking your name if only I have ears to hear it. I am the place from which you call to me. I am a constant, painful reminder to myself of the great Love that has touched with human hands, seen with human eyes, and heard with human ears. Love calls to me not only from beyond my life but also from within it. You have got under my skin. That’s my problem and my salvation. There is no escaping a human God.
The Camaldolese brothers have a special love for the Little Rule of St Romuald. It is framed on the wall of my cell. “Watch your thoughts like a good fisherman watching for fish. The path you must follow is in the Psalms; never leave it.”
A saying of St Antony: “Life and death depend on our neighbour. For if we win over our brother, we win over God.”
Saturday, 22 November 2014
The scholars of the world are now descending on San Diego for the annual meeting of SBL and AAR. Here are some theology sessions that look notable to me. If you know of any other interesting sessions, feel free to leave the details in a comment.
Pentecostal Theological Seminary
Theme: The Promise of Robert Jenson's Theology: Constructive Engagements
Saturday - 9:00 AM-11:00 AM
Hilton Bayfront-Sapphire D
Featuring Daniela Augustine, Eugene Rogers, R. Kendall Soulen, and Steve Wright
Theme: Mission in Comparative Perspective – Atheist, Mormon, and Inter-religious Views
Sunday - 5:00 PM-6:30 PM
Featuring Aaron Ghiloni, David Golding, Jesse Smith, Ferdinando Sardella, and Janice Rees
Religion and the Social Sciences Section
Theme: Remembering Jean Bethke Elshtain (1941-2013)
Erik Owens, Boston College, Presiding
Monday - 9:00 AM-11:30 AM
Featuring Victor Anderson, Eric Gregory, R. Marie Griffith, David Novak, Daniel Philpott
Eastern Orthodox Studies Group
Theme: Georges Florovsky and Changing Paradigms of Modern Orthodox Theology
Saturday - 4:00 PM-6:30 PM
Featuring Matthew Baker, George Hunsinger, Cyril O'Regan, Vera Shevzov, Brandon Gallaher, and Paul Gavrilyuk
Theme: The Disciplines of Wonder: Bonaventure and Theological Method
Saturday - 6:00 PM-8:00 PM
Marriott Marquis-Torrey Pines 1
Featuring Travis Ables, Holly Taylor Coolman, Andrew Davison, Peter Spotswood Dillard, Shannon McAlister, Kevin L. Hughes, Daniel Wade McClain
Philosophy of Religion Section and Theology and Religious Reflection Section
Theme: What is "Theological" about Theology? A Conversation between Analytic and Continental Perspectives
Sunday - 5:00 PM-6:30 PM
Hilton Bayfront-Indigo E
Featuring Tamsin Jones, Sarah Coakley, Oliver Crisp, Kevin Hector, Andrea C. White
Karl Barth Society of North America and Eberhard Jüngel Colloquium
Theme: Eberhard Jüngel at 80
Saturday - 9:00 AM-11:30 AM
Featuring Ingolf Dalferth, John Webster, George Hunsinger, Paul Hinlicky, R. David Nelson
Analytic Theology Lecture Series
Theme: Fourth Annual Analytic Theology Lecture
Sunday - 3:00 PM-4:30 PM
Hilton Bayfront-Indigo B
Lecture by Oliver Crisp (*note to grad students: sessions includes free food and drink)
North American Paul Tillich Society & Reinhold Niebuhr Society
Theme: A Review of Politics and Faith: Niebuhr and Tillich at Union Seminary in New York
Friday - 4:00 PM-6:30 PM
Society for Pentecostal Studies
Theme: Pentecostal Readings of Biblical Texts
Saturday - 4:00 PM-6:30 PM
Eastern Orthodox Studies Group, Middle Eastern Christianity Group, and World Christianity Group
Theme: Middle Eastern Christians, Collective Memory, and the “Arab Spring”
Sunday - 5:00 PM-6:30 PM
Augustine and Augustinianisms Group
Theme: Augustine on the Emotions
Saturday - 9:00 AM-11:30 AM
Comparative Studies in Religion Section
Theme: Comparative Messianism: Messianism and the Political
Sunday - 5:00 PM-6:30 PM
Featuring David Novak, A. Azfar Moin, Elaine H. Pagels, Francis X. Clooney, Kurt Anders Richardson
Christian Systematic Theology Section
Theme: Human Ends: Deification, Transformation, and Human Freedom
Monday - 1:00 PM-3:30 PM
Kierkegaard, Religion, and Culture Group and Niebuhr Society
Theme: Kierkegaard, Reinhold Niebuhr, and Current Political Theology
Tuesday - 8:30 AM-10:00 AM
Christian Systematic Theology Section
Theme: The Human: Body, Soul, and (Holy) Spirit
Oliver Crisp, Fuller Theological Seminary, Presiding
Tuesday - 9:00 AM-11:30 AM
Platonism and Neoplatonism Group
Theme: Image and Idol in Neoplatonism and Christian Platonism
Tuesday - 9:00 AM-11:30 AM
Thursday, 20 November 2014
I watch the sea gulls and the pelicans and then I watch two seals swimming in the bay. They remind me of my dog when he goes swimming, black nose gliding through the water. I watch the seals for a long time and I want to cry out to the other people on the beach, “Behold! Seals!” But I know they are watching the seals too, and I know the seals come here all the time. My heart is heavy when the seals go away. But then one of them comes back and makes me glad. There is no kind of evening that does not improve in the company of seals.
The big container ships creep by in the distance as slow as snails. They are necessary, these steel contraptions. How else could we get all the cheap stuff made in China? Our houses are filled with brave seafaring trinkets. They are necessary, these ships, and they are the ugliest things on the sea. But when one of them is far enough away and when the sun is setting and all the lights come on, a container ship can look as lovely as Christmas. One yearns for it as one yearns for the lonely unreachable stars. Standing on the beach at sunset, a child would give anything in the world to make the voyage out to those far lights that glitter with such heavenly promise.
A man gets out of a car and stands beside me. He’s one of those gangsta types in baggy gangsta clothes. We stand for a while looking at the sea. Without turning he asks me, “What’s going on?” I tell him, “The sun is setting.” “True that,” the gangsta says. “Happen right here every day.” Then he goes down on to the sand and stays there a long time. Later I see him sitting on the sand, hands folded, looking up into the golden sky. The longer I watch him, the more I am persuaded that he is a poet or a saint.
In the car park behind me a man and woman are arguing in their car. Their voices carry across the sand and mingle indistinctly with the voices of sea gulls and the splash of a landing pelican. I never fail to be impressed by American eloquence. It must be all that therapy. As the sun continues its slow descent over the port of Long Beach, the car park argument gets louder and then I realise they are not arguing at all, only conversing. And there is something else in their voices too: soon they will be making love.
A woman in a pink hijab goes right down to the water and takes a selfie with the pink sky and the lights of the Long Beach oil island behind her. When she turns around again a fish jumps, big and silver, and the woman wheels back and squeals in surprise and her long skirt whirls about her in the wind. I wish I could have taken a photograph to show you because it was as pretty as any picture: the pink sky, the pink hijab, the pink and yellow lights, the silver fish, the silk skirt twirling like a dancer’s.
When I die I don’t want to do it in some windowless white room, doped into oblivion while machines labour over me and faceless doctors tinker with my insides. No black and white death for me! Let me die at sunset. Wheel me out on to the beach and let my eyes be filled with pelicans and my ears with seagulls’ cries. If you can add a seal or two and a pretty Muslim woman startled by a fish, so much the better. Just let me die with open eyes and all the colours blazing, that’s all I ask.
Sunday, 16 November 2014
And to think that all this time I called myself a Christian! But Christ lay dead in me.
With the gift of prophecy stirring in my chest I climbed the narrow steps into the pulpit. I looked out on the faces of the waiting worshippers. I preached Christ to them as though my life depended on it. But Christ lay dead in me.
I did my prayers and readings, I lit a candle and knelt each night before the cross above my bed. But Christ lay dead in me.
When they told me lift up your hearts, I lied we lift them to the Lord. My heart was ashes, not thanks and praise. I could not lift it if I tried. Christ lay dead in me.
And then I sought and found my enemy, the one I love the least. I looked into his face. I spoke his name. I clasped his hand and said my brother. And Christ stood up in me, alive as on the first day, and inside me something moved, as big as stones, and all the graves gaped open.
Thursday, 6 November 2014
Thursday, 30 October 2014
Saturday, 25 October 2014
I walked past an antique store. They had an old three-volume set, very nice, of Boswell’s diaries. I nearly bought them. I stopped myself just in time on the grounds that I already had two editions and still hadn’t read it all. But with Boswell you never feel like you need to read it all. If you are wise you will always save some for later, since never again until the end of the world will there be another Boswell.
I read a book on Hellenistic aesthetics, by Barbara Somebody, with lots of photos of sculptures and paintings. I was moved by all those statues showing infants committing violence. A baby strangling a goose. A baby crushing a duck. A baby strangling snakes in both hands. Also the grotesques: statues of dwarves, hunchbacks, drunken old women. And the beautiful sad slaves. Apparently there is more to the Hellenistic aesthetic than just bad poetry.
A minister was telling me all about Tinder, the dating app. You swipe left to reject someone and right to accept them. He did the hand actions on an invisible phone. Then he said he worried that things like this are diminishing our humanity. His cheeks glowed with pleasure.
I have noted, with some concern, that lately I have forgotten to be afraid of dying. This has made me more cantankerous. A bit insensitive towards my fellow man. I offended somebody yesterday and I think I might have offended someone else today. These are people I like. (I would never offend a stranger.) I wonder if this could explain the famed irritability of our Christian monks and ascetics. Without the fear of dying one runs the risk of becoming just a little bit cranky and unkind.
Missed my afternoon nap in my study. So I snuck into the chapel while no one was around and lay down on the floor for ten minutes. Lying there in the big clear silence, not ten feet away from the baptismal font, my reveries were shattered by the sound of three text messages arriving in my phone. Without checking to see who it was, I wished them harm. In the sacred stillness of the chapel I cursed the sender of the messages and wished them harm.
In the car I am listening to an audiobook of Burke on the French Revolution. I love the eighteenth-century English sentence. It is always full of surprises, if you can pay attention long enough to hear the whole thing out. The nineteenth-century sentence is a different matter. It is like the champagne after the party is ended. The glass is warm. All the bubbles have gone out of it. Drinking it doesn't alleviate your misery but only deepens it.
I stopped on the way home to pick up a pizza. The girl at the counter is pretty in a sultry, inaccessible sort of way. She has a mouth like Scarlett Johansson. And that’s saying something. It is always a pleasure to hand her my credit card. If you pressed your face into her hair it would smell like pizza dough and oregano. But they don’t like it if you behave that way when you’re paying for your pizza. I paid for it and waited, watching an old music video on a big TV above the drinks fridge. The sound was turned down and I kept trying to remember the tune, but in my head it kept getting mixed up with the tune of “Happy.” Then the pizza guy came from the kitchen with the pizza. Unlike most people in his station in life, he looked me full in the face and smiled at me and said my name. He was a middle eastern kid, Lebanese maybe, with one of those thin Muslim beards, and when he handed me the pizza I could have sworn he had the face of Jesus. Or maybe he was just grinning like that because he gets to work with Scarlett Johansson.
My daughter is sick. In a household of this size there is always someone who is sick or down on their luck or torn by a moral dilemma. She woke again just now. I gave her some medicine and put her back to bed. The dog is sleeping in solidarity beside her. He has a better life than any of us, yet he is always the first to sympathise with any human misfortune. Once he ate twelve eggs from a carton that was left out on the table. Once he ate a whole packet of biscuits. Once he ate three chickens. We didn’t give him any sympathy, I can tell you. But when a child is sick he is always the first to lick their face and to lie down on the floor beside them and to stay there through the night, just in case they wake and reach out in the dark and need to feel something strong and reassuring at their side.
Tuesday, 21 October 2014
Part I. Lord Jesus Christ: New Testament Christology
1. The Son of Man: Christ in the Synoptic Gospels
2. The great interchange: Christ in Paul’s letters
3. The Word made flesh: Christ in the Gospel of John
Part II. The Iron in the Fire: The Doctrine of the Incarnation
4. Adam recapitulated (Irenaeus)
5. Wisdom, Word, and Image (Origen)
6. What is not assumed is not healed (Gregory of Nazianzus)
7. The iron in the fire: two natures, one person (Cyril of Alexandria)
8. Singing in one voice: the whole Christ, head and body (Augustine)
Part III. Redeemer of the World: The Doctrine of the Atonement
9. Deification: renewing the image (Irenaeus and Athanasius)In the last class I tried to draw together some of the key points in a list of simple "grammatical rules" for talking about Jesus Christ. I'm sure I've missed some important points, but here are the twelve rules I came up with. Each is a negation followed by an affirmation:
10. Satisfaction: paying our debts (Anselm and Julian of Norwich)
11. Reconciliation: bringing us home (Karl Barth)
12. Messiah: Prophet, Priest, and King (Calvin and Barth)
1. Not to speak of Christ in any way that sidelines his human experience. Jesus Christ is truly human.
2. Not to speak of Jesus in any way that sidelines the divine depth beneath his human experience. Jesus Christ is truly God.
3. Not to divide Christ’s divinity and humanity, or to give the impression that he sometimes functions as God and sometimes as a human. Jesus Christ is divine and human in one person.
4. Not to give the impression that Christ’s divinity is fully contained within his humanity, or that his divinity is limited by his human experience. The human nature of Jesus is assumed by the person of the eternal Word.
6. Not to divide Christ’s person and work, or to give the impression that Christ is merely the instrument by which God achieves salvation. Salvation is a person: Jesus Christ.
7. Not to divide Christ’s life, death, and resurrection, or to give the impression that he achieves salvation at just one moment of his career. The total life-journey of Jesus Christ – from his birth, to his ministry of teaching and healing, to his death and resurrection – is the saving event.
8. Not to speak of Christ’s death as a mere preliminary stage on the way to resurrection. Jesus Christ is the Priest whose death abolishes the power of sin and death. He is the humble God.
9. Not to speak of Christ’s resurrection as a mere reversal of his death. Jesus Christ is the King whose resurrection exalts and glorifies human nature. He is the deified human.
10. Not to speak of Christ in any way that implies that he is absent, or to give the impression that the church’s task is to make Christ present. Jesus Christ is the Prophet who reveals himself. He is present always and everywhere as the divine-human light of the world.
11. Not to divide Christ from Israel’s history, or to give the impression that the New Testament abolishes the Old. As Prophet, Priest and King, Jesus Christ is the surpassing fulfilment of Israel’s messianic hopes.
12. Not to speak of Christ as if he were relevant only to some people in some cultures and circumstances. Jesus Christ is present to all people, in all times and places, as their divine-human Prophet, Priest and King. The church trusts and proclaims, but never possesses, this Messiah.