Friday 28 November 2014

New Camaldoli Hermitage notebook

When I arrive one of the brothers gives me an orientation to the monastery. He shows me the chapel and which books to use for each service, he shows me my cell with its private garden looking out over the ocean, he explains the fireplace and the bells and the time for meals. He tells me what to do if a deer should come into my garden (don’t corner it), and what to do if I see a skunk (ditto), and what to do if one of the mountain lions strays on to the monastery (clap hands and sing a psalm while maintaining eye contact at all times). I wonder if there is anything in the Rule of Benedict about dealing with mountain lions.

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.”

Friday 21 November 2014

Theology sessions at AAR

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

Wildcard Session
Theme: Mission in Comparative Perspective – Atheist, Mormon, and Inter-religious Views
Sunday - 5:00 PM-6:30 PM
Convention Center-9
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
Convention Center-28D
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
Hilton Bayfront-310A
Featuring Matthew Baker, George Hunsinger, Cyril O'Regan, Vera Shevzov, Brandon Gallaher, and Paul Gavrilyuk

Bonaventurean Studies
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
Convention Center-29D
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
Omni-Gaslamp 5

Society for Pentecostal Studies
Theme: Pentecostal Readings of Biblical Texts
Saturday - 4:00 PM-6:30 PM
Marriott Marquis-Laguna

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
Convention Center-29A

Augustine and Augustinianisms Group
Theme: Augustine on the Emotions
Saturday - 9:00 AM-11:30 AM
Convention Center-23A

Comparative Studies in Religion Section
Theme: Comparative Messianism: Messianism and the Political
Sunday - 5:00 PM-6:30 PM
Hilton Bayfront-502A
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
Convention Center-2

Kierkegaard, Religion, and Culture Group and Niebuhr Society
Theme: Kierkegaard, Reinhold Niebuhr, and Current Political Theology
Tuesday - 8:30 AM-10:00 AM
Convention Center-24A

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
Convention Center-23A

Platonism and Neoplatonism Group
Theme: Image and Idol in Neoplatonism and Christian Platonism
Tuesday - 9:00 AM-11:30 AM
Hilton Bayfront-501B

Wednesday 19 November 2014

Sunset over Long Beach

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.

Saturday 15 November 2014

But have not love: meditation on 1 Corinthians 13

And to think that all this time I called myself a Christian! But Christ lay dead in me.

I spoke in tongues with the Pentecostals, attended Bible study with the evangelicals, kissed icons with the Orthodox, worked for justice with the liberals. But Christ lay dead in me.

I went to church and said amen, I sang the alleluias. But Christ lay dead in me.

I prayed Christ’s words, I knew them all by heart, I ate the bread of life and drank his cup. But Christ lay dead in me.

I kept the Lenten fast and kept the vigil, sang Easter hymns, said Christ is risen. But Christ lay dead in me.

I studied Christ, read books about him, and as if that weren’t enough I wrote some too. (Letter from a woman in Johannesburg: Thank you for your book. It helped me to believe in Christ again.) 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.

I went on pilgrimage, prayed in monasteries, visited great churches and cathedrals, saw the relics of saints and martyrs. But Christ lay dead in me.

I prayed O wisdom, O Adonai, O root of Jesse, O key of David, O morning star, O king of nations, O Emmanuel. It was Advent and I prayed as if expecting something. But Christ lay dead in me. 

The doubts began. Not niggling manageable doubts but doubts like earthquakes, doubts that shift the roads and bring the bridges down. Not that I had many doubts, only four. Matthew, Mark, Luke, John. Four witnesses who said that Christ was still alive. But I knew the place where they had laid him: for Christ lay dead in me.

I took the consecrated bread. I thought, it is the greatest mystery or the greatest folly, who knows which. I ate it as though eating death. For 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.

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.

Wednesday 5 November 2014

In praise of short sentences

One of the themes of my life this year has been the short sentence. Early in the year an experienced editor brought to my attention the virtues of the short sentence. I took his words to heart. I have been trying to use a greater variety of sentence types in my writing, and I have particularly been labouring to achieve good short sentences. It is harder than it sounds.

I have also begun to notice that many college students could improve their writing dramatically merely by setting their sights on shorter sentences. Many students have somehow got the assumption that scholarly writing requires a certain tone of voice. I don’t know where this assumption comes from. I am inclined to blame it on the rhetorical posturing of well-meaning but fundamentally inept high school English teachers – the kind of teacher who promotes “critique” and “decoding” of “texts” instead of explanation and clarity of ideas. I do not blame these teachers. I hope they will still be allowed into heaven. I know they are only doing what they’re told. At any rate, whatever the source of this malaise, the symptoms are evident in the tendency of students to obfuscate simple ideas through a complexification of syntax, a multiplication of imprecise verbs instead of the selection of the one strong verb, and a deliberate substitution of polysyllabic words whose meanings are often vague and slippery for smaller ones whose meanings are plain and solid. It is all very anti-working-class. The student’s shame of his uneducated parents and their drab suburban home is transferred to a (deeper and more scandalous) shame of plain speech. Nothing good will come of this.

So I have been encouraging students to aim for shorter sentences that say exactly what you want to say, not for longer sentences that sound the way you would like to sound. And – physician, heal thyself – I’ve been trying to do it too.

I have also been noticing short sentences when I read. Sometimes I have underlined a sentence simply because it is so short and good. One of the theological geniuses of the short sentence is Tertullian. Some of Tertullian’s most impressive (and humorous) rhetorical effects are achieved with short sentences. In his treatise on the Trinity Against Praxeas, he cites a list of biblical texts used by his opponents, and then responds drily with a two-word sentence: “Legimus omnia” – “We’ve read all that.” What a sentence! Sharp as a sniper’s shot. The whole of Tertullian’s little treatise on the Roman toga (De Pallio) is abuzz with similar short-sentence effects, humorous and biting and precise.

A modern genius of the short theological sentence is the congregationalist writer P. T. Forsyth. He uses potent bursts of staccato sentences. Like the following: “To lead the democracy the Church must be free of the democracy. The Church is not a democracy. It is certainly not the democracy on its religious side. That is but Hooker up to date. It is latter-day Erastianism. What is the difference? Democracy will acknowledge no authority but what it creates whereas the Church has no authority but what creates it. It is an infinite difference…. The Church is not the indiscriminate champion of the democracy but its benefactor, its faithful friend and prophet. It is not its tribune but its conscience. The Church is not there in the first instance to represent democracy, but to represent God to the democracy. It is not there to speak for it, but to speak to it” (The Church and the Sacraments, p. 118).

What a difference it would make to contemporary theological writing if we had more of this! At the end of his treatise on the toga, Tertullian avows his preference for the philosopher’s cloak over the Roman toga with the short exclamation: “Gaude pallium et exsulta!” – “Rejoice, O cloak, and exult!” I will paraphrase the great North African, in praise of short sentences: Rejoice, O short sentence, and triumph!


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