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Thinking Out Loud
  • A Soul Sharpened

    by Michael Jinkins | Jun 20, 2017

    Sharpening StoneI've been reflecting recently on some of the writers to whom I turn most often for guidance: Julian of Norwich, Abraham Heschel, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, for example. Their writings have always demonstrated to me the virtue of a soul sharpened on the stone of scripture.

    Whereas so many contemporary theologians and religious writers seem to believe that the only way to develop a social consciousness is by drilling oneself or one's students on contemporary moral causes and ethical hot topics, without reference to a grounding in transcendence, these writers reflect an alternative. Let the human soul live in constant conversation with the sacred texts of one's faith tradition, these spiritual thinkers tell us, while being attentive to the moment, the situation, the need du jour.

    The difference has to do with depth. Specifically, the depth of the soul, heart and conscience of the person living in a particular moment. The difference also has to do with one's ultimate ground of allegiance. We serve others because we serve God. We are "our brother's keeper" and "our sister's keeper" because we have the same holy parent.

    One moment gives way to another. The present situation steps aside for the next. Needs of one day may not resemble the needs of another. And the attempt to educate ourselves or others that focuses on the social setting alone, even the injustices of the moment alone, almost inevitably surrenders to either/or dynamics, pitting one group of people against another.

    The soul sharpened on the stone of sacred texts finds the timeless in the time, that which is humanly and divinely momentous in the moment. And it knows beyond any doubt that all humanity stands before God troubled by their own limitations and failings whatever side of whatever issue they may stand on. Unless we can find ourselves standing in the shadow of God's paternal grace, we will find it hard to see the face of a sibling in the face of the stranger.

    Such soul whetting does not happen quickly but only gradually over a lifetime. Psalms prayed daily become a part of who we are only over the course of long years. Prophets digested slowly and wisdom acquired through the irony of Ecclesiastes or the Sermon on the Mount does not yield to quick acquisition. The Epistles of the New Testament provide a chorus that is as stirring in their frequent dissonance as in their harmonies, and superficial readings will not reveal meaning within either.

    The soul text-sharpened is ready for the moment in which God places us. And no other preparation makes quite so much difference.

    Which is why we keep reaching for Julian, Heschel or Bonhoeffer when today's hot topics grow cold. They are always there to remind us where we can find the whetting stone.

  • The Healing Power of Compassion

    by Michael Jinkins | Jun 13, 2017

    Healing power of compassionContrary to what the song says, "Rainy Days and Mondays" do not, in fact, get me down. Overcast, chilly, showery days tend to be among my favorite days, probably because as a kid rainy days gave me the perfect excuse to stay inside and read. It was "contrary to ordinary," therefore, (as another song says) that I was feeling pretty down one particular rainy Monday morning this spring.

    I don't know if this ever happens to you, but it wasn't really depression. And I had nothing to be sad about. I just felt down. A little blue.

    Still, life and work must go on, so after running by the office for a few minutes, I headed out for a visit with a potential "friend" of the seminary. These conversations with potential new friends of the seminary often are surprising. You meet the most amazing and wonderful people doing what I do. But when I got to the coffee shop on this particular morning for this particular appointment, I got a bigger surprise than usual.

    We made small talk as we got our coffee. We talked about the usual kinds of things. But within just a few minutes, I found myself listening to someone pouring his heart out, exploring losses, griefs and struggles. My role that morning, I realized quickly, was to listen, and to listen actively. That was it. This person didn't need a seminary president. And he wasn't really looking for a pastor. He just needed another human being to connect with him.

    There was a time when, especially as a young pastor, I would have been tempted to apply emotional bandages to this person's wounds. I would have rushed to do something, without realizing that my urge to do was mostly an attempt to manage my own anxiety. But sitting there listening to this person, I could also hear the echo of words from one of my clinical supervisors from long ago, "Don't just do something! Stand there!" Or sit there. Just sip your coffee, and listen.

    I have no clue at all if my listening helped this person on that morning. No clue at all. But listening to him, hoping my silence was communicating a measure of compassion to him, completely turned my day around.

    That was the big surprise.

    After our visit – and I guess this visit went on for an hour or more – I got back into the car, and driving back down Lexington Road it suddenly occurred to me: my blues has lifted. I don't feel down any more.

    Suddenly I realized I felt – and I do not use this word lightly – joyful. Really. Full to overflowing with joy.

    Isn't that amazing?!

    A few years ago, I was in a theological book group reading the late Hans Urs Von Balthasar's book titled simply, Prayer (published by Ignatius Press in San Francisco). The book is, as readers of Von Balthasar would expect, profoundly Trinitarian. At some point, while reading this book, something dawned on me. It may mean I hadn't been paying attention for a long time, but somehow in all the mix of doctrines I had studied, it had never sunk in at a personal level that when we talk about the Holy Spirit or the Spirit of God or the Spirit of Christ, we are talking about the life-giving love beyond all measure that is God, the creative power of self-giving divine love that flows eternally from the Father to the Son, from the Son to the Father, and through the Son to each of us and all of creation.

    When we love, we are tapping into that mighty rushing stream of God's essential being, that same power that created all things and holds all things in being, that same love which seeks to draw us into loving relationship with one another.

    Whenever we respond to God in prayer – listening to God, opening our hearts to God – we stand in the face of a tsunami of God's love. Whenever we attend to one another, forgetting ourselves in the act of listening to someone else open their hearts, we are giving ourselves over to the outgoing tide of God's love.

    To change metaphors to recall that word from which the word “spirit” is derived in our Bibles (in Hebrew, ruach; in Greek, pneuma), the spirit is the very living breath of God breathing through us. And whenever we love, our little human windmills are hit by a hurricane of life-transforming love flowing right from the heart of God.

    We use pale expressions like "participating in the nature of God" to try to describe what it means to open ourselves to God's life in us. But we're really a lot like that poor blood-bloated little mosquito in the Gary Larson cartoon, stuck into a person's arm and swelling up alarmingly fast with his victim's blood. The mosquito sitting next to him is yelling, "Pull out! Pull out! You've hit an artery."

    So why was I so surprised that I felt so full of joy, so full of life, after sitting across from someone for a while listening to him attentively enough that for just a while I forgot about myself? I had hit an artery of God's love. This wasn't really a professional relationship, not after the first five minutes. It was a human relationship that happened to get caught up into the mystery of the inner life of God the Trinity.

    The really amazing thing was, I could hardly wait to experience it again.

    Compassion might just be habit forming.

    If I can remember to forget myself.

  • Don't Shoot! I'm On Your Side

    by Michael Jinkins | Jun 06, 2017

    Don't Shoot"Just remember, if you get out too far ahead of your people, they'll mistake you for the enemy and shoot you."

    I recall getting this advice, but I don't remember who told me. Whoever it was gave me a great gift because they showed me a dynamic of leadership that is true no matter who is involved. The most sophisticated organization is not immune to this dynamic; the smallest congregation is subject to it as well.

    The pace of change as much as the direction has led to many failures of leadership. Of course, this doesn't take into account the fact that some organizations are simply more change-adverse than others. Academic institutions, for example.

    When Don Shriver became president of Union Seminary in New York City, he asked Ellis Nelson (then dean) to fill him in on how a seminary works. Ellis told him that however socially or politically liberal any academic institution may be, its faculty is inevitably conservative when it comes to institutional change. It is easy for an energetic president to leave the faculty further and further behind until - you guessed it - they mistake you for the enemy and shoot you.

    The same is true for principals of schools, directors of certain nonprofits (especially those with staffs and very engaged volunteer groups), and pastors.

    I often encouraged senior seminarians not to make any significant changes when they were called to their first congregations (and, incidentally, ANY change to worship is by definition a significant change) for the period of one year. Not only should they not make any significant changes, the governing board and the congregation should know about this pledge when the new pastor comes in.

    The first goal of the new pastor is to get to know her people. She should become the historian of the congregation, even if only unofficially. Her love for the congregation should become a matter of conversation throughout the community. After that reputation is well-established, she has the freedom to begin thinking with the congregation about what needs to be accomplished and changed.

    Many a beginning pastor has been burned at the stake as a heretic for doing something as seemingly innocuous as moving the pulpit Bible, changing the order of the service, or making the congregation sing unfamiliar hymns. And, while many beginning pastors have claimed they were rejected because they were fearless prophets for social justice, most of the time they actually failed because they did not communicate a deep respect for the people and their distinctive ways of being faithful in that particular place.

    Every good rule has its exceptions. And as true as it may be that most new leaders fail by failing to connect adequately before making changes, sometimes change is the very thing needed to convince the people that their new leader understands their situation.

    This is especially true in cases where an organization or a congregation has languished and drifted without direction or fallen behind because of unimaginative, unenergetic or chronically conflicted leadership (or all three). In these cases, the first order of business for a new leader may be to bring together the leadership of the group (official and otherwise) and to begin to chart a new course right away.

    Even here a delicate dance is necessary. The leader cannot afford to send the message: "I would like you better if you were different." Rather, the leader must communicate in actions and words: "I love this organization. It has amazing strengths and capacities, and I'm here to work with you in helping you to flourish. Let's imagine our future together."

    In these cases, the leader is not so much the historian of the organization or congregation as the facilitator of adaptive change. But once the organization or congregation starts moving again, the pace of change will become just as important in these cases as in the more conventional situations.

    The old saw just never gets dull. People must know deep in their hearts that the leader is on their side. Otherwise about the only advice I can give a new leader is, "Dive for cover!"

  • For the Time Being

    by Michael Jinkins | May 30, 2017

    For the Time Being

    Sometimes I have no idea why I pull a particular poet from the bookshelf. Perhaps it is an intuition I cannot explain logically. Maybe it is because of a sense felt so deeply I can't express it even to myself. But this morning, as flowers were bursting into bloom all over Louisville, and although the liturgical calendar was well past Christmastide, I reached for W.H. Auden, and for his For the Time Being: Christmas Oratorio. The volume fell open where an old business card was stuck, and I read the closing of a speech by the "Second Wise Man."

    "We anticipate or remember but never are.
           To discover how to be living now
           Is the reason I follow the star."

    For whatever reason I selected this poet and turned to this passage, Auden spoke to me with almost prophetic urgency.

    Late yesterday afternoon, alone at the house, I had set aside time for prayer and meditation. It had been a long day of meetings. As the day wore on, I found myself regretting more and more what I had said in one of the meetings. It wasn't that I had said something unpleasant. Rather I had said something that left me feeling especially vulnerable. It felt as though my "ego" (whatever that is) was standing alone in a stiff winter wind. I found myself wishing I would just shut up and not say what I meant. I also found myself remembering the admonitions of the Desert Fathers to remain silent. As Arsinius, an Egyptian hermit, once said, "I have often repented of having spoken, but never of having remained silent."*

    Try as I might, I could not settle myself into prayer. I could not contemplate. I could not meditate. "Lord have mercy upon me, a sinner" indeed! Thoughts hijacked my mind making it impossible to settle in. "Lord, silence every voice but thine own!" Wildly distracted monkeys swung from limb to limb in my brain chattering at me about my foolishness. I regretted what I had said. I worried about the consequences. I was all over the map internally. I was everywhere except where I was.

    "Sufficient unto the day is the evil thereof," said Jesus. "Do not worry about tomorrow." We are taught by our faith to confess our faults, believe in the everlasting mercy of God and get on with living. We are taught that we should live in what Paul Tillich called "the eternal present." Easier said than realized!

    Then Auden comes along. The passage was underlined. Clearly I had valued these words before, though I don't recall why?

    "We anticipate and remember but never are.
          To discover how to be living now
          Is the reason I follow the star."

    "To discover how to be living now ..."

    If there's a beef I have with my Protestant tradition it is that it is long on “shoulds” and short on “hows.” The Desert Fathers, whose spirituality lies at the heart of Eastern Orthodox spirituality, have their Evagrius Ponticus; the Cistercians have the resources inherited from the Benedictines as well as John Cassian; the Jesuits have their Ignatius and his Spiritual Exercises, but too often we Protestants give the impression that once you believe that "the just shall live by faith" (or with Evangelical Protestants, "you let Jesus into your heart"), there's little more to do than attend weekly club meetings. But the truth is more complicated.

    Somehow we know we need disciplines to reinforce the habits of grace. We need "to discover how to be living now." We need calisthenics for the spiritual heart, for the mind, for the soul, to keep us from atrophying in the past and the future, and to bring us fully awake into the present. Sometimes the thing we most need deliverance from is our own obsessive minds. Then we can be attentive to God and others.

    We tend to tell ourselves stories about our "selves" and "others" on endless feedback loops in our brains, narratives that stoke the fires of anger and keep alive old grievances, stories that conjure up old guilts and griefs, resentments and regrets. All of this lies in the land of remembering. We replay a moment of defeat; reminisce a moment of glory. We obsess about a conversation we had or wished we'd had, or regretted having, or intended to make time for.

    Like records worn scratchy from playing too often, our voices crack and crackle in our memories. All of these remembrances we use to construct a "self," what Thomas Merton often referred to as a "false self," which justifies ourselves to ourselves, explains ourselves, defends ourselves, and ultimately stands in place of ourselves.

    Then there are our anticipations, the conversations we might have, the occasions we might entertain. The "what ifs" of the future rise up in our minds connected to dread or hope, anxieties and fears. And rising in our minds (promising to help prepare us for a future engagement or conversation), in fact, they sap our energy.

    Whether seemingly positive or positively awful, anticipations fixate us on an endless array of unrealities, worries and aspirations, when mostly we need to collect ourselves and entrust ourselves to God. Moments of imagined triumph that will finally prove our worth compete with imagined catastrophes that will prove too great for our abilities. Records of things that have never happened or will never occur play incessantly in our minds. Thoughts tripping through our heads like mad Morris dancers accompanied by a cacophony distract us from what is happening now.

    And "What IS happening now?"

    Unfortunately, too often, we aren't mentally attentive enough to notice. Not really. We are off worshiping at the shrine of St. Elsewhere Perpetua, the patron saint of the habitually distracted. "Lost in thought," a victim of hope, or dread, or fear, or fancy.

    "We anticipate and remember but never are.
         To discover how to be living now
          Is the reason I follow the star."

    Why does it matter that we aren't present for our own lives? Well, I suppose it matters because it is the only life we're likely to have in this world. God gave it to us to make the most of. And it is such a shame to waste what God has given.

    Even the quietest life is blessed by such amazing things.

    A child playing quietly with a spool and a thimble she found in an old box, talking to herself and laughing at her own silly jokes. I would hate to have missed her because I was dreading a meeting I need to have tomorrow.

    That peculiar and wonderful slant of the spring sunshine as it sets, the way the shadows are cast through the twisted branches of trees still denuded of their leaves, but showing just a hint of promised green. I would hate to have missed the promise of spring because I was obsessed with my anger at something someone said yesterday.

    "To discover how to be living now" requires something of us. This doesn't mean it is not a matter of grace and faith, but that it is a matter of grace lived and active faith.

    We follow the star, to learn to live this life, the real one that only exists right now in this moment. The star leads us to the one who says, "Take no thought of tomorrow." Perhaps it is the star itself that adds, "And forget about yesterday." Only this moment is. Don't miss it.
    * This particular passage comes from Henri J.M. Nouwen's The Way of the Heart: Desert Spirituality and Contemporary Ministry (Seabury, 1981, p. 43), to which I have referred in previous blogs; I have drawn from Thomas Merton's The Wisdom of the Desert (New Directions, 1960) too; but I also highly recommend Benedicta Ward's superb collection, The Desert Fathers: Sayings of the Early Christian Monks (Penguin, 2003). All three books are accessible for general readers, and Sister Ward's is by far the largest collection, accompanied by an excellent scholarly and clearly written introduction.

  • The Privilege of Being Here

    by Michael Jinkins | May 23, 2017

    OxfordThe loneliness went so deep, it felt like a physical ache.

    I had been away from Debbie and the kids for months. At that time she was a researcher on childhood literacy in a federal think tank, our children were both in high school, and the opportunity came for me to take a sabbatical at Oxford University on a fellowship. There was simply no way we could afford for them to be with me on sabbatical. And there was no way I could pass up an Oxford fellowship. So I went alone.

    A confirmed creature of habit, I thrive on routine. And I like to work. Each day began early with a breakfast at the faculty club where I had a room. Then I went right to work researching and writing until six in the evening, either in the Bodleian Library or with colleagues at one of several colleges.

    The days were much like days back home, just a different location. So nothing much felt different from being in Austin.

    However, I came to dread six o'clock p.m. when work for the day ended and the loneliness began to set in. Ordinarily I would walk to a favorite restaurant or pub and have dinner. Once a week, a Manchurian physicist and I watched a ridiculous slapstick British comedy in the senior common room together. It became a regular event for both of us far away from home. But most nights, after dinner, I just wandered around Oxford to avoid going to my room.

    The particular night I am thinking about was toward the end of my sabbatical. Within a few days I would be traveling north to Scotland to visit with friends in Edinburgh, before wrapping up my sabbatical by serving as the external evaluator on a Ph.D. Viva Voce at Aberdeen University.

    My mind, typical I suppose of all of us, was swirling around what was coming up (especially dreading the oral examination in Aberdeen because the dissertation I was examining was not up to snuff). And, of course, I longed simply to be home with my family.

    I remember the moment distinctly when I came to the realization on that evening walk: "You idiot! You selfish, selfish idiot! Debbie and the children, and some very nice people at a foundation and at Oxford, and my colleagues at the seminary, are all making it possible for me to have the incredible privilege to be here to do the research and writing I want to do. Then, for goodness sake, I need to BE HERE NOW! Soak it up! Enjoy it fully! To do otherwise is to heap selfishness on selfishness."

    Walking along, my head down, I stopped dead in my tracks and lifted my eyes to see where I was. At that moment I was on the turn in the lane that runs from Merton College past Oriel College back toward the center of Oxford and St. Mary's Cathedral. I had been walking along until that moment utterly unmindful of the path I was walking, unconscious that I was walking along a path trodden for hundreds of years by some of the people I most admired in the world. J.H. Newman and J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis, Dorothy Sayers and W.H. Auden had all walked right here. The great John Locke was memorialized a few steps away in Christ Church Cathedral. The whole time I had been in Oxford, day after glorious day, I had been able to attend Evensong sung by some of the finest choirs in the world in some of the most beautiful college chapels, and I had heard concerts at the Sheldonian, including an unforgettable performance of Verdi's Requiem.

    Suddenly I felt so ashamed of myself for taking the opportunity, the moment, the place and the sacrifice of others for granted, and I realized that one way I could value what they were doing for me was to take in as fully as possible being there. This great undeserved opportunity was mine as a gift from others. And the gratitude I needed to show them was in the form of joy.

    This lesson has stayed with me for years now; when I have forgotten it, it has thundered back into my consciousness.

    Somehow this lesson has touched even the most mundane family and work chores. Being here is a privilege, wherever "here" happens to be.

    What a privilege it is to be able to wash the family breakfast plates. What a privilege to vacuum the living room floor. What a privilege to sit with a group of colleagues trying to figure out the best way to provide an education for our students. What a privilege to sit with a potential friend of the seminary asking them to consider supporting theological education.

    The awareness has turned many a task from drudgery (washing the dishes comes immediately to mind) to a moment of grace and enlightenment. And the lesson has only become more profound the older I have become.

    Life is so fragile, so tenuous, so brief. We hang like spiders from a silken thread over eternity at every moment (apologies to Jonathan Edwards for the theft of his image).

    Death is not a destination at the end of a long road for any of us, not really. The grave is a reality yawning beneath us all the time.

    What a privilege to be here, wherever here is. What a privilege to be here now, whenever now happens to be.

    As I made my way back to my room that night, I felt pretty humbled. But I also felt a new sense of joy.

    I stopped in at a favorite pub for a pint. And before I turned in, I wrote my wife a postcard, as I did every day while I was away, this time just to say, "thank you."

  • Mercy

    by Michael Jinkins | May 16, 2017

    Charge to Louisville Seminary's Graduating Class of 2017

    MercyIn Anne Lamott's delightful new book, Hallelujah Anyway: Rediscovering Mercy (Riverhead Books, 2017), she remembers a cartoon that once appeared in The New Yorker magazine. It pictured two dogs, one of whom says to the other: "It's not enough that we succeed. Cats must also fail."

    "This is the human condition," Lamott writes, "that ... cats must lose."

    This is the human condition. And there's never been a time when we found it easy to be merciful, as I'm sure John Calvin would want to remind us. But I think it is also true that we live in a particularly unmerciful age. This age might be summed up in that phrase: "Cats must also fail."

    The unmerciful especially surfaces in the politically charged atmosphere of our time.

    Recently I was reading a collection of obituaries written by William F. Buckley, and the thing that immediately struck me was how many very close, very dear friends this arch conservative, this intellectual founder of libertarian conservatism, had who were among the leading liberals of his day.

    I've often marveled at the wisdom of the late Jack Stotts, the ethicist and seminary president, who noted with lament that moment in our country when we stopped saying, "I disagree with you. You're wrong." And started saying instead, "I disagree with you. You're evil." When we crossed that line, political opponents became implacable enemies. Clashes over ideas and values became battle lines that no one could question without transgressing the orthodoxy of the right or the left.

    So why am I talking about politics today when you are all graduating from a theological school? Surely, religious faith represents the solution to the problems of polarization and division, hatred and violence. Surely, religious faith lifts us up into a transcendent realm far above such mundane matters.

    You and I both know this isn't true. Somehow politics always seems to find a way to co-opt faith.

    Mercy 1Whether we are reflecting historically on the ways in which imperialism co-opted Christianity in nineteenth- and early twentieth-century Europe and the United States leading to two world wars and the slaughter of untold millions; or we are reflecting on the impotence of Buddhism to resist the rise of radical nationalism in the second of these world wars in Japan; or we remember the violence that followed in the wake of the independence of India from its colonial oppressors when Hindus and Muslims slaughtered each other in their thousands. In each case, religious faith followed political allegiances toward hatred and division, rather than leading their adherents toward mercy, compassion, love and peace, all of which are valued above other qualities in each of these great faiths.

    The powers that work against mercy are as seductive as they are ubiquitous. It is hard for the canine representatives of any economic class to imagine succeeding without also wanting "the cats" to fail. And it is nigh on impossible for the dogs of most any group in society to imagine their own liberation, freedom or flourishing without wanting the cats to suffer.

    Nation, culture, tribe, family all will make their demands on our loyalty, and they will be suspicious of any obligations of faith that counter their interests. They will lift up this sacred text to justify their hatred and reinterpret that sacred passage to fit their interests, assumptions, prejudices and bigotry.

    Even, maybe especially, our highest aspirations can fall victim to the unmerciful impulses of inhumanity.

    Hatred dressed up as faith, justice, righteousness, peace-making or any other lofty aspiration is no less hateful than hatred dressed up in the most vile uniforms of division and suppression, colonialism and fascism. If the devil can successfully convince us to hate other people in the name of God, he has us three-quarters of the way down the path to hell. An evil must appear good to be really attractive.

    So what are we going to do? Are we sending you the graduates of 2017 out, as the Bible says, like sheep to the slaughter? Some of you will be pastors of flocks, preachers called to speak the Word of God. Some of you will counsel those whose lives have been broken on the rack of hatred and violence and those who are breaking others. Some of you will be leaders of communities, congregations and organizations charged to do some good in an often angry and divided society.

    Graduating class of 2017, I want to ask you please to stand to receive your charge:

    My charge to you today is deceptively simple:

    Do justice. Love kindness. Walk humbly with your God, as the Prophet Micah exhorted us. Remember when you stand in a pulpit to preach that all of us stand under the grace and judgment of God's Word with the people to whom we speak. Don't allow the altitude of your pulpit to fool you into thinking you are above your people, morally, intellectually or theologically. Remember that however difficult it is to be merciful and to love kindness it is the thing God requires of us especially when we are seeking justice. Humility demands that we never stop recognizing that we are not God, that we don't know the mind of God. But we do know this: we do know what it means to see a man sent by God broken on a cross built by human hands, and we do believe that seeing him, we have looked into God's heart. Jesus reminds us that for the dogs to succeed, the cats have to succeed also.


  • Paradox of the Familiar

    by Michael Jinkins | May 09, 2017

    Paradox of the Familiar

    Most of us believe we know his story because we learned the song long long ago as children.

    "Zacchaeus was a wee little man, a wee little man was he."

    Often, however, thinking we know a story well can prove to be the enemy of hearing it.

    This might be called the paradox of familiarity. It afflicts all of us sometime.

    Someone stands to read the scripture in church. We think we are listening to it. But, really, what we are hearing, along with the voice of the reader, is a pre-recorded message already in our heads, bearing memories of songs, hymns, sermons on the text, a whole interpretive matrix that mostly just drowns out the passage being read. Because we carry so much of this stuff with us into every hearing of a biblical text, it is very difficult for us to hear it this time, right now; it is very difficult for us to listen to it with our bare attention.

    Every once in a while, however, with the assistance of the Holy Spirit, we may listen, and perhaps be provoked, comforted, challenged, and surprised by words breaking through as the Word of God – strange words, words we don't remember seeing in this text before, as if we were hearing the text for the very first time. We may indeed be hearing it, the text itself, for the very first time, because we are hearing it relatively free of the assumptions and the accumulated interpretive detritus that has kept us from hearing it before.

    So it was, recently, as someone read Luke 19:1-10, I heard the text. And I was stunned to discover what it meant for Zacchaeus to experience salvation.

    My early upbringing was in a very southern Southern Baptist Church in deep East Texas. Salvation was about going to heaven when you die. If you accept Jesus Christ as your Lord and Savior, you'll be saved, you'll belong to Jesus; when you die, you'll go to heaven, not to hell. I don't recall hearing a sermon growing up that didn't include that formula or a variation of it or that wasn't followed by an altar call. I often wonder how there could still be anyone left to be saved in that small church. We had all walked the aisle at least once, some of us had been saved two or three times just to be sure.

    Whether or not this theology of salvation is sufficient isn't my point today. My point is that this formula provided an interpretive structure, a set of assumptions, through which we heard the Bible. Therefore, growing up, when I heard the text about Zacchaeus meeting Jesus, ending with the passage, "Today salvation has come to this house ... ," I assumed I had heard a fancy way of saying that Zacchaeus now believed in Jesus, was saved and would go to heaven.

    Again, this way of thinking about salvation formed an interpretive structure which caused us to hear the Bible through its assumptions. In some sense, we poured whatever biblical text we came across into that structure, not really encountering the text on its own terms. Jesus Christ was made to fit into our system of salvation. He was the key component in that system, it wouldn't work without him, but it was the system of salvation that ruled the day, and shaped our encounter with the biblical text. A particularly vivid example of this approach to the Bible was articulated by the great 19-century British preacher, Charles Spurgeon, who said that his homiletical method consisted in taking a text anywhere in the Bible and making a beeline straight to the cross. The problem, of course, is that this means violating the integrity of the biblical text itself. Most biblical texts are not about the cross of Jesus.

    Apparently, even though I no longer shared and as a theologian have critiqued the doctrine of salvation on which this particular interpretive structure is based, unconsciously the vestiges of it still affected my hearing of this and other texts like it. But, sitting in worship in Caldwell Chapel, listening to the reading of Luke 19:1-10, the cobwebs that had been spun for more than half a century around this passage suddenly blew away, as though someone had opened a window and a gust of wind had sent them flying. In that moment I heard what the text said: "Today salvation has come to this house because this man too is a descendent of Abraham. For the Son of Man has come to seek and to save what was lost."

    This text actually says something far more interesting than that Zacchaeus became a Christian - which he didn't. And there's no hint here that Zacchaeus or Jesus was even remotely thinking about life after death. In other words, what is said in this passage was striking to me, first, because of what is not said. What is in fact said in the text is even more striking.

    Whatever salvation happened that day, happened right there and then. The character of that salvation was indelibly linked to the identity of Zacchaeus and the nature of his estrangement from his community. If there's a parable that corresponds to the story of Jesus and Zacchaeus, it is the parable of the prodigal son (found a few chapters earlier in Luke 15:11-32), because salvation for both the lost tax collector and the lost son consisted in coming to themselves and being welcomed home.

    A prodigal child had gone into the far country and became a wastrel before coming to himself while standing up to his ankles in pig muck. His salvation was waiting for him in the arms of his father. A man who had gone into the far country of becoming a tool of the Roman occupation, a defrauder of his people, the blood-sucker-in-chief came to himself while up to his neck in ill-gotten gain. He came to himself when Jesus invited himself to dinner; he was found when he found he still belonged, that his self-imposed alienation could not break the bonds of God's love.

    The usual crowd grumbled about Jesus eating with sinners, of course, but the fact that Jesus did not recognize the boundary between clean and unclean, insider and outsider, opened the door for Zacchaeus to come to himself, to experience the grace of belonging. Immediately he promised to give half of his possessions to the poor and to recompense anyone he had defrauded by giving them four times in return whatever he had extorted. This was a costly decision, no doubt, because tax collectors made their livings by extortion.

    And Jesus said, "Today salvation has come to this house because this man also is a descendant of Abraham." What Zacchaeus did in response to what Jesus did was his salvation. When grace appeared he didn't say he didn't need it. Jesus awakened in him the consciousness of who he was in relation to God and in relation to his people. Jesus called him to be who he was created by God to be. And he responded with everything he had. This is the salvation of Zacchaeus.

    As though to place an exclamation point on my new hearing of the story of Zaccaeus, I recently came across a passage in the new critical translation of Friedrich Schleiermacher's Christian Faith (published by our own Westminster John Knox Press). I have long been sentimentally attached to the previous English translation of Scheiermacher's classic because it was translated early in the twentieth century by H.R. MacIntosh and James S. Stewart, two legendary ministers and theologians who were the first two ministers of the Beechgrove Church in Aberdeen, Scotland, where I served while studying for my Ph.D. The new translation does what great translations ought to do and has earned pride of place; the new translation not only improves our reading of the original text, it also evokes from a familiar text new subtleties, new turns of meaning in the English.

    As I was reading volume two of the new translation, it felt like Schleiermacher had been standing in the crowd taking notes on the encounter between Jesus and Zacchaeus, and I wondered why I had never noticed this before. In his development of "The Work of Christ,"  Schleiermacher writes: "The Redeemer takes up persons into the strength of his God-consciousness, and this is his redeeming activity." The "strength" into which we are taken up by Christ is, as the footnote explains, "when transmitted to others ... an active enablement." A few pages later, Schleiermacher elaborates: "Christ's activity of taking us up into community with him is thus a creative engendering of the desire-to-take-him-up-into-oneself."*

    Why hadn't I made this connection before? Simple. Because I thought I already knew what Luke was saying. Clearly Schleiermacher was a more attentive listener than I.

    Christ's redeeming activity is identical with his taking us up into his own consciousness, into his own awareness of God, into his own life as Son of God, sharing with us his own trust and dependence and confidence in God. This is the fullness of Christ's redemption of us. This is our salvation. This is eternal life now. And, in story form, this may simply be what Luke's gospel is telling us (although the story tells us even more than this).

    Someone once said that every three years or so we ought to forget everything we knew about the Bible and start over again. That's not really possible, of course, and it might not be desirable. But it would be good if we could be attentive to the Bible so as to hear it afresh, read it anew. If we can do this, imagine the surprises that await us in the book we think we already know.
    *Friedrich Schleiermacher, Christian Faith, translated by Terrence N. Tice, Catherine L. Kelsey, and Edwina Lawler, edited by Catherine L. Kelsey and Terrence N. Tice (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, a new translation and critical edition, 2016), Vol. 2, pp. 621 and 623.

  • The Evidence of Things Seen

    by Michael Jinkins | May 02, 2017

    The Evidence of Things SeenWhy does the irrational govern people's decision-making more than reason?

    This was one of the topics discussed over dinner recently with my friend Gerardo Marti. Gerardo occupies the L. Richard King Chair of Sociology at Davidson College and is pretty brilliant. Our conversation that evening ranged across topics cultural, political, economic and religious, with a five-minute tutorial on the difference the combination of variations of grains makes in the production of a particular beverage native to Kentucky.

    As a seasoned sociologist, Gerardo knows that reason doesn't govern the decision-making of even those of us who think ourselves highly rational. While recognizing this fact, we kept circling around questions like: "Why are people often determined to act upon their assumptions, rather than to attempt to discern the facts of the matter through disciplined study, even when they know their assumptions are not really reliable?" And "Why do people choose to deny reality when confronted with clear evidence?"

    The conversation reminded me of an essay I read last spring in The Economist. Fortunately, because I am something of a packrat when it comes to past issues of this newspaper, I was able to retrieve it fairly easily. The title of the essay is "Ignorance isn't bliss," and it appeared in the May 28, 2016, issue on the “Buttonwood” feature column (p. 64).

    Here's how it starts:

    "It is not the 'unknown unknowns' that catch people out, but the truths they hold to be self-evident that turn out to be completely wrong. On many issues, the gap between public perceptions and reality is very wide."

    The writer gives several examples.

    When asked by a research group to say what percentage of the population of the United States currently is made up of immigrants, Americans polled answered: 33%. The correct figure is less than half that: 14%.

    One poll conducted in Britain found that citizens of that country believed that 24% of the people living in the United Kingdom are Muslim. The correct figure is: 5%.

    When Britons were asked what areas of expenditure represent the largest portion of the national budget of the U.K., 26% said foreign aid was toward the top. In fact, health services, pensions and education rank toward the top of government spending, while all foreign aid combined totals just 1% of the national budget.

    And asked what percentage of teenage girls get pregnant each year, Americans polled said 24%, while the actual figure is 3%.

    All of which might simply be chalked up to a lack of good information or an inability to think numerically. But, in fact, many people when confronted with reliable data gained through the most careful and unbiased research simply refuse to believe it.

    The author of The Economist essay writes:

    "Reasoned presentation of the facts may not help since the source of the information, whether it is the government or the mainstream media, will always be suspect. Those advocating that Britons vote to leave the European Union in next month's referendum [this essay was written before Brexit was approved by British voters last summer] ... dismiss warnings about the economic impact from the IMF, OECD and Bank of England on the grounds that, 'They would say that, wouldn't they.'"

    Too late the British public learned that it was not the mainstream media or the "establishment" sources of information that distorted the facts to win their case, but the proponents of Brexit who thought they were safe in their exaggerations and in making misleading statements because they never expected to win. And they certainly didn't believe they would have to clean up the mess they helped to make.

    I'm often on Paula Poundstone's side when she questions the source of some ludicrous sounding "finding" of some unnamed and unknown "researchers" quoted on the NPR radio comedy contest, Wait, Wait, Don't Tell Me. Paula is always the first to express incredulity about the reliability of the latest study.

    And we all know that political experts (the talking heads, the pundits, the self-appointed and partisan arbiters of public opinion) we often see on the endless cycle of television "news" are accurate in their predictions at roughly the same rate as a blindfolded chimpanzee throwing darts at a stationary target. See: Philip E. Tetlock, Expert Political Judgment, Princeton University Press, 2005.)

    But there are knowables. There is such a thing as a fact. And, as former U.S. Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan once said, while we are entitled to our own opinions, we aren't entitled to our own facts.

    So, why do we act as though we are?

    Sometimes the answer may be as simple as a lack of discipline, as when short-term pressures overrule long-term goods. Sometimes it might be greed, as when private interests trump public goods.

    Sometimes the answer may be that we are so embedded in our partial view of the world, our provincialism, or localism, or tribalism that we just can't or won't see the whole. Sometimes it may be fear that keeps us from confronting facts that run against long-cherished myths. And sometimes, while well-meaning, we may be misled by partial information or wishful thinking. Although we hate to admit it, sometimes we may fall victim to a confidence trickster, to someone who pulls the wool right over our eyes.

    Maybe Jack Nicholson's crusty character in the movie, A Few Good Men, was right. Sometimes at least some of us "can't handle the truth." But, if as Jesus is reported to have said, the truth is what will set us free, then maybe we ought to find ways to overcome whatever the opposite of the better angels of our souls are so that we can see the truth when it is standing in front of us. I wonder if that's possible.

  • Making Peace with God

    by Michael Jinkins | Apr 25, 2017

    Making Peace with GodI wonder in this moment how many stars are slipping into oblivion. How many are being born.

    The turn, turn, turning of the universe goes on all around us all the time, and among and within us too. To everything there is a season in this ceaseless sea of changes, waves rising from the ocean only to fall back again.

    My thoughts have turned increasingly toward wisdom literature over the past year, as losses and griefs have accumulated.

    I watched my strong, proud, independent and good father reduced to a state he would have seen as "pitiful" (one of his favorite adjectives to describe someone in a condition he would hope never to endure). An uncle as close as a brother died weeks later, and a cousin whose name I share in honor of his father died just a few days later. Shortly after returning to Louisville last August, my wife's best friend died after a long and courageous battle with breast cancer. And we had hardly turned around when Debbie's step-mother, who was in so many ways a mother to her, died suddenly. And these losses last fall, it turned out, were just the beginning. As one year gave way to another, more sorrows followed.

    The expressions of sympathy and care we received as a family were overwhelming and overwhelmingly moving. The prayers and words and visits of friends and colleagues bore us through all of these losses as they have sustained so many other families. I have often tried to comfort others by saying that grief is the price of love, the greater the love the more grief we feel. These words are true, I believe, as true as the sympathy we feel for others. But grief is not only a test, it is a teacher.

    Gently or roughly, with compassion or with a sublime indifference to our suffering, this teacher enters our lives. The lessons we learn are at a far deeper level than our heads. Broken hearts discover more than whole ones when it comes to life's most profound lessons.

    As the Greek dramatist Aeschylus said long ago in Edith Hamilton's glorious translation:

    "Even in our sleep,
             Pain which cannot forget,
    Falls drop by drop upon the heart,
             Until, beyond despite,
             And against our will,
    Comes wisdom,
             Through the awful grace of God."

    Epictetus, another ancient Greek, once described what it is we learn if we embrace, rather than resist, the reality of life with its manifold changes and its terrible losses:

    "True instruction is this: – to learn to wish that each thing should come to pass as it does. And how does it come to pass? As the Disposer has disposed it. Now he has disposed that there should be summer and winter, and plenty and dearth, and vice and virtue, and all such opponents, for the harmony of the whole."

    Epictetus might easily have been a conversation partner to the biblical writer Koheleth, the mysterious author of the book most of us know as Ecclesiastes.

    "There is a time for everything under heaven."

    "The sun sets, the sun also rises."

    "Generations rise. Generations fall."

    Wisdom, we learn, consists in embracing with equanimity and grace all the times we are given, each season of life, because the One who Disposes acts for the harmony of the whole. We who live just now are but "a minuscule speck," Epictetus tells us. We exist momentarily within the vast inconceivable reaches and ages of the universe, a minuscule speck given the gift of understanding, a smattering of energy and matter with the gift of consciousness. However foggy and uncertain and faulty these gifts may be; however partial, flawed, deformed by emotions, distorted by assumptions and driven by passions, these capacities we have in common with God, Epictetus tells us.

    With these gifts we glimpse what we are within the universe, a speck of matter, a spark of energy, a wave on a rising then ebbing tide. Yet, we have come to believe that we are also, as small and as apparently insignificant as we may be, created by God in God's own beloved image and likeness.

    One of my favorite stories of the late Carlyle Marney, that maverick Baptist preacher who owned the Reformed tradition as his own and whose teaching and preaching shaped so many of us Presbyterian, Methodist and Episcopal ministers, goes like this. He was leading a service at a retirement home, surrounded by a score of aged men and women, among whom were a number of very elderly people who had outlived everyone in their own generation and most of the people they had loved. Marney began his devotional by saying in that deep Southern voice like God's only deeper, "Oh, what a bunch of losers we are."

    And we are. But until we can embrace the losses, the griefs, the deaths, including our own, and know them ultimately to be a blessing and a gift as surely as are the births; until we learn the wisdom of acceptance in the depths of our souls, we will struggle, as Leonard Cohen has sung "like a fish on a hook" to be free.

    According to the wisdom of our faith and the thought of some of humanity's great souls, wisdom, like joy, lies in embracing life as it is, and holding it with gratitude and grace just as we receive it from the hand of God.

    Maybe this is what is meant by "making peace with God."

  • The Cost of Bridges

    by Michael Jinkins | Apr 21, 2017

    Bridge iconLouisville Presbyterian Theological Seminary is known as a school that builds bridges because we prepare our students to span the gulfs separating people and groups in the name of Jesus Christ.

    In addition to a curriculum steeped in biblical studies, theology and ethics, every student here is taught how to listen generously to others and to speak with a consciousness of how their words may be heard. Our nationally recognized Black Church Studies Program and our Doors 2 Dialogue Program for Interfaith Cooperation develop the capacities in our graduates to listen, learn and work beside persons from a variety of cultural, social, political, racial and religious backgrounds.

    We build bridges.

    There is no worthier cause, especially today when division has become rife in our society.

    Bridges are among the most beautiful creations of humanity, whether made from steel or cast in human flesh and spirits. But bridges cost a lot to build, and not everyone wants to pay for them.

    One of the greatest surprises I have faced as president of Louisville Seminary has been this: it is easier in today's world to raise money to build walls than to build bridges. We see it everywhere. It is hard to turn on the television or radio or computer without hearing insults hurled by one group at another. And so much money today chases after the fear and hatred - wealth only too ready to fuel the forces contributing to an increasingly splintered society.

    Why do walls attract so much funding, while bridges attract relatively little support?

    Maybe some folks take for granted that the social fabric will hold no matter how much stress is placed on it. But leading social historians have warned for years that we cannot afford to take for granted the social compact that holds us together. The compact must be renewed in every generation.

    Maybe they think the bridges will evolve on their own, without a lot of human effort. This has certainly not been my experience.

    Maybe some folks assume that the bridge builders already have lots of institutional support and don't need their financial help. After all, their cause is so good. Most people don't know, however, that a school like our seminary receives less than 1% of its annual budget from our own denomination.

    Maybe some folks just don't realize how crucial their personal investment is for the success of bridge builders in our society. Perhaps they are unaware that 95% of the funding that makes it possible to educate our future church leaders, ministers, counselors and social workers is provided by individuals who share the vision of building bridges in a broken world.

    Please help us make sure we have a future of bridge builders
    in the name of Jesus Christ!

  • This is Your Life

    by Michael Jinkins | Apr 18, 2017

    This is your lifeI suppose you'd have to be at least as old as I am to remember the television program, "This is Your Life," in which a person was presented with several surprise guests, people from the person's past who had been important in their lives, often decades earlier. For some reason the phrase "this is your life" came back to me recently as I was sitting in the lobby of a hotel in Atlanta waiting for the final session of the conference I was attending.

    It is striking how often we seem to think that our life is something that we will get back to or start, once the present thing we're doing is finished. In my case that particular morning, I was keenly aware that in the most recent three-week period I had only been able to be at home and on our campus in Louisville a day-and-a-half, just long enough to empty and re-pack my suitcase, quickly catch up on the work piled up on my desk, meet with senior staff, and attend a couple of conference calls with trustees before heading out again.

    Sitting in the hotel lobby in Atlanta that morning, suddenly, it occurred to me, "this is your life."

    My life does not just consist of the settled relatively routine round of familiar work among the staff and students I so enjoy working with and talking to. My life consists in the moments I wait for a workshop to start, as well as the workshop itself, the time spent waiting in the line to get a hotel room and talking to a desk clerk, the hours spent in planes, in dinners with strangers or long-distance colleagues. Sitting there, it suddenly hit me (although I know I knew this): This is your life! Right here! Right now! Not back home! Not somewhere else when things "settle down" (whatever that might mean)!

    The same is true for all of us.

    So I had a little talk with myself.

    "If you want to locate the meaning in your life," I said to myself, "If you want to locate the vocation, the purpose in your life, you have to discern these values right here. If you want to experience joy, let alone happiness, you can't defer joy and happiness to sometime or somewhere else. This is your life. Don't waste these moments not appreciating them, not paying attention to them. You live here just as much as anywhere because you are alive here now."

    It was a good little talk.

    And as I mulled over what I told myself, I also reflected on a passage in the Gospels I had always taken to be a text mostly about the messianic life - until that moment. Jesus says, "Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests; but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head." (Matthew 8:20)

    Surely the passage should primarily be taken to mean that, while even the lowliest of creatures have homes, the messiah does not. If the phrase "son of man" in this context is construed as a messianic title, as it often is in the Gospels, then it means that Jesus the Christ, the Son of Man, has no place of refuge in this world which was created through him and in which he pitched his tent.

    However, there are also references in the Bible in which "son of man" is simply a designation for a human being, one born of flesh and blood. From that perspective, the passage may also speak to the uncertainty, the fundamental insecurity, the groundlessness every human being experiences cast precariously upon the fragile reefs of existence.

    If "this is our life," suspended always between birth and death, always between right and wrong, always between the past and the future, always between here and there, always between history and eternity, then being at home means coming to terms with the reality that life (our life) is indeed what happens to us, not when we've arrived at a destination we identify as "home," or "refuge," but also on the way, and not just when we're "busy making other plans," as John Lennon has said, but when we're waiting for the next meeting to begin or the connecting flight to arrive, or this mound of dirty dishes to get washed, or the kids to be driven from school to dance lessons and soccer practice, or caring for this loved one who struggles sometimes to remember our name, or waiting for the surgeon to invite us into the little family room to hear what he has found.

    This is your life. Right now. Right here.

    We're not waiting for life to happen. It is happening, whether we are paying attention or not.

    But if we do pay attention, I think we'll notice something really important: God has a way of showing up in our lives, wherever we are, even if we're just resting our heads for a few dozy minutes on that weirdly impossible pillow they give you on the plane, suspended somewhere between here and someplace else. Even sitting in the lobby of that hotel an hour before the last session of a conference that keeps me "here," instead of being "there." Even holding the hand of a friend whose life is ebbing away, or waiting for the birth of a new child. We're there already.

    Our refuge, our home, as the Psalmist reminds us, is moveable, because our refuge, our home, is in God, and God is always with us. "This is your life," then, always with the God in whom we live and move and have our being.

    Let's not miss our life by mistakenly believing that we're just sitting in life's waiting room.

  • Merton's Road to Gethsemani

    by Michael Jinkins | Apr 14, 2017

    Editor's note: Periodically throughout the 2016-2017 academic year, "Thinking Out Loud" readers will receive blog posts that explore concepts of spirituality as they relate to the writings and teachings of Thomas Merton. We hope you enjoy this special series of "Thinking Out Loud." E-mail us!

    Road to GethsemaniIt used to be harder to get to Gethsemani Abbey. Geographically, that is. It has never been easy to get there spiritually and vocationally.

    Trains and poor quality roads have been replaced by planes and multi-lane highways, making physical travel much easier. But the spiritual distance between the life secular and the life of the cloistered religious is still long and arduous. Every Cistercian monk (or Trappist as they are also called), including Thomas Merton, walked this path.

    "Contemplation ...," wrote Merton, "demands silence, solitude, poverty, detachment. And the contemplative life is a life which is organized with one end alone in view: to isolate man from the noise and bustle of temporal activity and to establish him in the profound peace of the presence of God," [Thomas Merton, Cistercian Contemplatives: A Guide to Trappist Life (The Monks of Our Lady of Gethsemani, 1948) p. 10.]

    Merton's early impressions of the Cistercian order, in fact, had left him cold. The austerity and solitude of the life of the Trappist, he says in The Seven Storey Mountain, "almost reduced me to jelly."

    After his first visit to Gethsemani, however, for a Holy Week retreat in 1941, he wrote: "I felt the deep, deep silence of the night, and of peace, and of holiness enfold me like love, like safety. The embrace of it, the silence! I had entered into a solitude ... that enfolded me, spoke to me, and spoke louder and more eloquently than any voice." [Merton, The Seven Storey Mountain (Houghton, Mifflin, Harcourt, 1948) p. 321.]

    Not long ago, in a visit with Father Seamus, the guestmaster at Gethsemani Abbey, I asked him to describe the road one must travel to enter the Cistercian community. Father Seamus found it helpful at a number of points in the conversation to use the language of courtship and marriage to describe the process of discerning the monastic vocation. Those familiar only with the process for ordination in most Protestant denominations will be amazed at the depth of examination and the length of preparation required to become a contemplative monastic.

    "You're forced to go into your head," said Father Seamus, and those helping the inquirer must "analyze his motives," and try to discern if "he is acting selflessly" in seeking a religious vocation.

    You don't become a Trappist to run away from life. It is a sacred vocation. And, as in every calling, one submits to a community of discernment to better understand oneself. In particular, the community seeks to help the potential monk discern what gifts he has which might serve the community. The inquirer may not even know what his gifts are, and it is frequently the case that others in the community discover his giftedness and how these gifts might help the community and the potential monk himself.

    The entire process of becoming a Trappist takes at least five-and-a-half years, though the first step in the process may take as little time or as much as an inquirer wishes, that of the “observer.” At this initial stage, a person makes known his interest in the monastic life and is invited to stay and dine in the guest quarters while praying and working with the monks themselves.

    The observer will not, Father Seamus emphasized, eat and sleep in the cloister. The level of intimacy that attends table fellowship and actually living side-by-side with the monks would be inappropriate for an observer. Father Seamus commented, a bit sheepishly and with his eyebrows raised in shock, that such level of intimacy would be like "going all the way on a first date." The observer will spend a lot of time with the vocation director to try to understand his own motives and to clarify his calling, to discover whether or not this special vocation and its relationship should go further. He may also spend time with the novice master or his assistant, learning more about the monastic life.

    If the observer wishes, in due time, he may subsequently ask to be admitted to the monastery whereupon he becomes a "postulant." The application process for postulants includes an interview with the abbot and an evaluation by a psychiatrist. One cannot be admitted to become a postulant if one has outstanding financial or family obligations.

    Merton famously described the moment when he entered Gethsemani as a postulant in December of 1941, and how when the cloister gate closed behind him he felt as though he had been "enclosed in the four walls of my new freedom" (Merton, Seven Storey Mountain, p. 372). Many who engage in retreats at Gethsemani also speak of the feeling of freedom they experience whenever they walk through the monastery's doors.

    The postulant stage lasts six months, at the end of which one asks to enter the "novitiate." The abbot of the community and the vocation committee of the abbey engage in discernment to determine if the postulant is ready to be admitted as a novice. This is an extremely important stage because it is as a novice that one will take annual vows of obedience, conversion of manners (which includes celibacy and poverty) and stability. One must remain a novice for two years, after which one may take annual vows for a period of three years. At the end of these three years, one must either take solemn vows for life or leave the monastery.

    The concept of a "conversion of manners" is worthy of reflection for those who are not called to a monastery. We often speak of conversion as an event, especially in certain branches of Evangelical Christianity. But a conversion of manners, which is essential to the monastic vows (and one might also consider what this might mean for all Christians) requires an inhabiting of a way of being that is much more gradual. A conversion of manners requires a slow, steady reinforcement in a community of practices of faith that undergird, strengthen and sustain a whole new life.

    The monastic community listens to and observes the novice to discern whether their lives are "singular" - which is not a good thing. To be singular is deliberately to try to get the attention of others, either by affecting outwardly to be especially holy, or to stand apart from the community in some way.

    Even asceticism can be taken too far. A monk may only fast when the community enters into fasts. Otherwise he would have to have special permission from the abbot. Merton mentions the way the monks sing the liturgy in unison, observing that only when you make a mistake do you ever stand out.

    The road from the world to the monastery requires a process of discovering what it means to be a member of a community, what it means to give up striving for individuality, but also what it means to allow your distinctive gifts to emerge in a natural way.

    One can only imagine what a loss it would have been to the world and to Merton himself if his first abbot, Dom Frederic Dunne, had not encouraged him to share his gift of written expression. Within the community, within the four walls of the cloister, enclosed in this freedom he was liberated from everything that degraded and distracted him, to employ his gifts. His vows bound him tightly to this particular freedom.

    There were times, especially under his next abbot, Dom James Fox, that the ties that bound him within the community chafed and scarred Merton. There were many occasions when he contemplated leaving Gethsemani. But there was something about the disciplines and the strict vows, the daily engagements and duties, no less than the solitude and silence, that liberated Merton as a writer.

    The paradox of freedom which is manifested as an inner reality, not merely an absence of restraint, is no less profound than the paradox between the momentary experience of conversion and the practices of faithful living which become habitual and distinguish a converted life from mere intentions and words. Both paradoxes are alive in a monastic community, and both are life-giving for all Christians.

  • Wounds of Grace

    by Michael Jinkins | Apr 11, 2017

    "The dragon sits by the side of the road, watching those who pass. Beware lest he devour you. We go to the Father of Souls, but it is necessary to pass by the dragon." -Cyril of Jerusalem*

    Wounds of GraceOne of the courses I most enjoyed teaching was on the theology of vocation. I designed it to be a first-year course, but soon had to rethink the syllabus because of the large number of middler and senior seminarians who wanted to take it to help them in their process of discernment.

    We were lucky to introduce the course when we did because a wealth of good books were being written on the subject of vocation at that time. Books by Eugene Peterson and Parker Palmer were especially timely. Then there were the classics, like Gregory of Nazianzus's Defense of the Flight to Pontus, a riveting theological reflection by a young man so terrified by the call to become a parish priest that, following his ordination, he literally ran for the hills and had to be coaxed by friends to return to his (rather miffed) congregation. They were so irritated with their young priest, by the way, that when he did return, they didn't come to hear him preach. Gregory wrote his Defense so they would understand why he ran away.

    I think I can say with some confidence that students profited from and most came to enjoy the texts I assigned, even if they were initially puzzled about how a fourth-century tract might be relevant to their experience. In the interest of full disclosure, I must confess that there was one text they didn't care for. It was my favorite of them all, Flannery O'Connor's first novel, Wise Blood (1952).

    If you believe that the power (maybe even the excellence) of a text or a work of art can relate to the reactions it provokes, then you might be tempted to believe - as I am - that this book is powerful and great. It tells the story of Hazel Motes, a man who is running from a God he wishes didn't exist. O'Connor describes Hazel as a person "who can neither believe nor contain himself in unbelief and who searches desperately, feeling about in all experience for the lost God."**

    O'Connor famously reflected further on Hazel Motes in the author's note to the 1962 edition of the novel:

    "That belief in Christ is to some a matter of life and death has been a stumbling block for readers who would prefer to think it a matter of no great consequence. For them Hazel Motes' integrity lies in his trying with such vigor to get rid of the ragged figure who moves from tree to tree in the back of his mind. For the author, Hazel's integrity lies in his not being able to."

    Hazel looks squarely at the religiosity of the religious, their conventional lives with their conventional self-deceits, their struggles to protect themselves against dangers and the insecurities that dog them, their baptism of prejudices and vanities and hatreds, and their inability to see themselves for what they are: sinners in need of mercy and redemption. He knows they believe themselves to be just fine as they are. At most they see themselves as needing a little refurbishment here and there. On the whole these are people grateful that their god has the good sense and proper upbringing to bless their lives pretty much as they are.

    Hazel is a sinner. He knows it, and he is fighting redemption with every fiber of the soul he doesn't believe he has. And he has nothing but contempt for the religious and their self-justifying religion.

    He is too honest to his own perception not to recognize hypocrisy when he sees it, and he is too honest to God not to give in at last when the hound of heaven tracks him down. Self-blinded, self-tortured in mind and body, worn-out, worn-down from running from and cursing at God, this self-proclaimed preacher of the church without Christ crucified, where the lame don't walk and the blind will never see and what's dead stays dead, is found by God and finds himself against all odds redeemed. Grace as uncompromising and unsentimental as a bottle of wood alcohol poured into an open wound tells the good news of the Gospel: Nobody is beyond the reach of God, and no evil of which we are capable is stronger than God's love.

    Are we still wondering why my students had a hard time with this novel, totally devoid of the easy and comforting messages of contemporary religion? In course evaluations, one student called it "ungodly," as I recall. Another, more frequent, assessment was that it is "depressing." But, as I explained to them, I don't think there is a more vivid portrait anywhere than in this novel of the soul under conviction, of a person resisting the call of God, thrashing violently like a fish on a hook. The more he thrashes, the more we know, he is caught.

    Flannery O'Connor has variously been described as a genius, an original American voice. Thomas Merton thought her more like Sophocles than like any of her contemporaries: Ernest Hemingway, Katherine Anne Porter, or Jean Paul Sartre. She is often thought of as a "Southern" writer, and this is obviously true to some extent, but the "South" of her novels is a mythological country not found on any map. O'Connor has aptly been compared to John Donne and Nathaniel Hawthorne. She reminds me even more, however, of James Hogg of Ettrick, whose Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner (1824) used violent and grotesque Gothic themes to communicate the terrifying consequences of a Christianity led astray into antinomianism (the rejection of morality in the name of the freedom of the gospel).

    In fact, O'Connor's mission is even more like that of Søren Kierkegaard, who taught Christian Faith to a nation of people who already believed themselves to be Christian by birth and citizenship. Kierkegaard's quest involved exposing people who had been inoculated with the dead virus of Christendom to the living virus of Christian Faith, in the hope that the live bug would overcome their immune systems and they would be infected with the real thing.

    C.E. Morgan (a graduate of Berea College here in Kentucky, and of Harvard Divinity School), in her introduction to the Folio edition of O'Connor's short stories, makes the case that in O'Connor's stories "violence becomes sacramental via its repetition and its revelation of what Catholics term 'actual grace' understood as a kind of supernatural help from God (not to be confused with 'sanctifying grace,' which is a permanent inner condition). In story after story we see characters broken open by the hard fist of the writer, acts of brutality O'Connor deemed necessary for the eruption of living grace into the stubborn, recalcitrant lives of both the non-believing and the self-professedly devout."***

    Although my favorite O'Connor short story is "Revelation," in which the commonplace, the tragic and the comic combine to convey unforgettably the very heart of Jesus' message, the most vivid example of O'Connor's passionate grace occurs in "A Good Man is Hard to Find." This story illustrates better than anything else I've ever read the truth of a statement O'Connor makes in a letter to a friend: "This notion that grace is healing omits the fact that before it heals, it cuts with the sword Christ said he came to bring."****

    Sometimes the cut is more evident than the healing. The story is horrifically violent.

    A family of six is traveling to Florida for vacation, over the objections of the grandmother, who, wanting to visit her people in eastern Tennessee, doesn't want to go to Florida. She tries in vain to convince her son, with whom she lives, that a violent criminal known as "the Misfit" has escaped from prison and is also headed for Florida. The next day they head for Florida, and on their way have an accident. Sure enough, they fall into the hands of the escaped convict and two other dangerous men. The irony comes thick and heavy: the news story of "the Misfit" the elderly woman had used to try to manipulate her son into doing what she wanted, becomes a prophecy. The entire family is murdered.

    As the she waits her turn to die, a conversation between the woman and "the Misfit" occurs. At first she tries to bargain with the man, offering him all of her money if he will spare her life. He won't budge. As she sits weeping over the death of her family (she can hear them being shot off in the woods), "the Misfit" muses: "Jesus was the only One that ever raised the dead. ... And he shouldn't have done it. He thrown everything off balance. If He did what He said, then it's nothing for you to do but throw away everything and follow Him, and if He didn't, then it's nothing for you to do but enjoy the few minutes you got left the best way you can — by killing somebody or burning down his house or doing some other meanness to him."

    As the conversation progresses, something unexpected happens in the grandmother. Something is awakened in her. She feels compassion toward the murderer. It happens as she listens to him, and she looks into his tormented face as he is on the verge of tears at the meaninglessness of life. She is overcome, it seems, with sympathy. And, saying, "Why, you're one of my babies. You're one of my own children," she reaches out gently and touches him on the shoulder. "The Misfit" recoils at her touch, "as if a snake had bitten him and shot her three times through the chest."

    In the close of this scene of breathtaking violence, "the Misfit" says to one of the other men with him, "She would have been a good woman ... if it had been somebody there to shoot her every minute of her life."*****

    That which had insulated the old woman from the humanity to which Jesus called her was the conventional comfort and relative security of her life up to that point; that which opened her heart to the compassion she might have felt toward others (including her family) was the terrible grace of God in the face of her killer.

    The way to God is through the valley of the shadow of death. Sometimes it is the threat of death, the pain of illness, the hollow ache of grief, the suffering of life that God uses to draw us close, to awaken in us the compassion and humanity to which we are called in Jesus. As St. Cyril wrote, the path to God passes by the dragon. Sometimes we're bound to get burned. It is dangerous out there, and the greatest dangers are not physical, but spiritual; even as the real dragon is that evil that seeks to empty life of purpose, turn every good thing into a perverse and twisted counterfeit, and thwart God's gracious ends. These are matters of life and death, says O'Connor.

    We are cast upon the mercy of God like wrecked sailors on a stone-strewn shore. But the mercy is true.

    *Quoted by Flannery O'Connor in “The Fiction Writer and His Country” (1957), excerpted in Robert Ellsberg, editor, Flannery O'Connor: Spiritual Writings (Orbis, 2003), p. 63.
    **Cited in Richard Giannone's "Introduction," in Ellsberg, O'Connor, p. 27.
    ***Flannery O'Connor, A Circle of Fire and Other Stories (Folio edition, 2013), xiii.
    **** Ellsberg, O'Connor, p. 136.
    *****O'Connor, Circle of Fire, pp. 49-51.

  • Just Definitions: Machiavellian

    by Michael Jinkins | Apr 07, 2017

    Editor’s Note: Occasionally, “Thinking Out Loud” addresses subjects of a very specific nature. In this special series, “Thinking Out Loud” readers are asked to consider the true meanings of certain terms that have recently found prevalence in the current public discourse. What are your thoughts? E-mail us.

    MachiavellianOur final word takes its name from a historical person, rather than a mythological figure (as in the case of “Narcissism”). However a vast mythology has grown up around Machiavelli, especially in relationship to Renaissance popes, the Medici family, and, of course, the Borgias.

    Those of you who are familiar with the book Deborah and I wrote on leadership, which used certain insights from Niccolo Machiavelli to explore political realism and public virtue (The Character of Leadership, Jossey-Bass, 1998) or the research I later did on Isaiah Berlin, which touches on the pioneering place Machiavelli holds for understanding cultural pluralism (Christianity, Tolerance and Pluralism, Routledge, 2004), will know that Machiavelli is a great deal more complex than the popular image of him would lead us to believe. There are, however, aspects of Machiavelli's thought that do reinforce his popular image as the inspiration for nicknaming the devil himself "Old Nick," and this comes through especially in the book for which he is best known today, The Prince. Machiavelli wrote this book (and lavishly dedicated it) in a failed attempt to gain favor with a new ruler, Lorenzo de Medici, after Machiavelli's long exile from power. When placed on the scales of history, this slim volume far outweighs other, arguably more important and certainly less cynical, works by Machiavelli.

    On the positive side, Machiavelli was the counselor of the mighty who advised them that it is always wisest for a ruler to base decisions on the way the world actually works, rather than the way the leader wishes the world would work. Thus, Machiavelli writes, in The Prince: "[S]ince my intention is to write something useful for anyone who understands it, it seemed suitable to me to search after the effectual truth of the matter rather than its imagined one." [Niccolo Machiavelli, The Prince (Oxford University Press, 1984), p. 52.] This remains great advice. But, as helpful as Machiavelli's approach is (encouraging leaders to face reality rather than be guided by wishful thinking), this very perspective soon leads him, when combined with his pessimistic view of human nature, to conclude that because humanity is inconstant and corrupt, the prince must be a master of deceit, force and even cruelty if he wants to rule effectively and long.

    The people whom the prince rules are held in very low esteem by Machiavelli. They are, he says, so fickle that it is easy to persuade them of something, but difficult to "hold them to that conviction." Thus the prince must be prepared to use whatever resources he has, including force, to make the people do what he wills. (Machiavelli, Prince, p. 22)

    Machiavelli recognizes that people want to believe that their ruler is fundamentally virtuous, although the meaning of virtue is defined by the culture in which the ruler leads. The ruled want to believe their ruler is good, merciful and just, the kind of person to whom they can look up morally, the kind of person who inspires love. But, if forced to make a choice between being loved or being feared, as desirable as it may be to be both, it is inevitably safer for the ruler to be feared. Machiavelli writes:

    "For one can generally say this about men: that they are ungrateful, fickle, simulators and deceivers, avoiders of danger, greedy for gain; and while you work for their good they are completely yours, offering you their blood, their property, their lives, and their sons, as I said earlier, when danger is far away; but when it comes nearer to you they turn away. And that prince who bases his power entirely on their words, finding himself completely without other preparations, comes to ruin; for friendships that are acquired by a prince and not by greatness and nobility of character are purchased but are not owned, and at the proper moment they cannot be spent. And men are less hesitant about harming someone who makes himself loved than one who makes himself feared because love is held together by a chain of obligations which, since men are wretched creatures, is broken on every occasion in which their own interests are concerned; but fear is sustained by a dread of punishment which will never abandon you." (Machiavelli, Prince, p. 56)

    The love of one’s subjects may fade, according to Machiavelli, but fear remains. And a ruler must adapt his position as the prevailing wind blows, if, that is, he wants to continue sailing.

    "A wise ruler," Machiavelli writes, "therefore, cannot and should not keep his word when such an observance to faith would be to his disadvantage and when the reasons which made him promise are removed. And if men were all good, this rule would not be good; but since men are a contemptible lot and will not keep their promises to you, you likewise need not keep yours to them." (Machiavelli, Prince, pp. 58-59) Furthermore, Machiavelli writes, because men want to believe their rulers are just and good, it is wise for a ruler not to hesitate to practice hypocrisy and to become a practiced liar. People will demand the appearance of goodness. But, fortunately, Machiavelli says, the public is so simple-minded and so absorbed by their immediate wants and needs, the deceptive ruler is always able to find followers who will believe what he says. (Machiavelli, Prince, pp. 59-60)

    My old friend, Ismael Garcia, the ethicist, once said to me that Machiavelli didn't so much have a system of ethics or morality as a system of prudence. On the other hand, Isaiah Berlin, in his groundbreaking paper, "The Originality of Machiavelli," sees this Renaissance philosopher and political counselor as a proponent of the virtues of the ancient Roman Republic. [Berlin, The Proper Study of Mankind: An Anthology of Essay, edited by Henry Hardy, (Pimlico Press, 1998), pp. 269-325.]

    When a politician is referred to as "Machiavellian" it ordinarily means that he is behaving cynically or deceptively with only his own selfish gain or power in mind, and that he is a sharp practitioner of the principle: "the ends justify the means." While this picture, does not, in fact, accord with all aspects of the complex reality of Machiavelli himself as represented in books other than The Prince (because in those other contexts Machiavelli does sometimes speak of the purpose of justice and laws as the promotion of equality, and the need for leaders to serve the greater good), nevertheless, the fact that the same man could write such divergent treatises, depending upon changes in his own personal circumstances, does lead one to conclude that Machiavelli was fairly Machiavellian himself.

    Jesus taught us, of course, to be as smart as serpents and as gentle as doves. The modern Machiavellian, by contrast, seems to believe that it is always better to be as mean as a snake; whether you are a bird-brain or not appears to be optional.

  • A Sabbath Walk

    by Michael Jinkins | Apr 04, 2017

    Over time, on repeated visits to Gethsemani Abbey, I have walked its garden, surrounding hills and forests. Even before visiting Gethsemani, I began reading Wendell Berry's poetry and prose. Like many, I rank his Sabbath poems among the most beautiful and prophetic poetry. I am profoundly grateful that Mr. Berry has allowed us to combine his poetry with my photography on three of our seminary Christmas cards. Not long ago, while on a midwinter silent retreat at Gethsemani, I wrote an extended theological reflection on Mr. Berry's volume, A Small Porch (Counterpoint, 2016), interspersing these reflections with photos I have taken on my meanderings at Gethsemani.


    If there is such a thing as "the essence of good poetry," it is attentiveness. But if there is any one thing necessary for this attentiveness to be effectual it is humility: a willingness never to close off oneself from whatever sources promise to inform and enlighten. The poet is alive, awake, but not as one who stands on a ladder of judgment above the world looking down. Rather the poet knows his place within the world, and speaks from that place with all the honesty he can muster.

    Sabbath Walk 1Berry writes:

    "The watcher comes, knowing the small
    knowledge of his life in this body
    in this place in this world. He comes
    to a place of rest where he cannot
    mistake himself as larger than he is..."

    "The watcher" is capable of seeing because of what he understands, that he is no "larger" in this place than "the gray flycatcher, the yellow butterfly, the green dragonfly, the white violet." "The watcher" understands also something of enormous theological significance, though he might not use such freighted words as "theological." He knows that he has received no more grace than these birds and insects and bushes. And knowing this, he will not think himself more graceful than he is.

    Much of what the attentive watcher (whether poet or merely prosaic pedestrian) knows, she knows because she is conscious of the general loss of perception we have suffered as human beings in this world. She feels the gap, and, like Rabbi Abraham Heschel's Old Testament prophets, her feelings are tuned more finely than most.* So the watcher, like a prophet, puts into words the grief of a natural world denied and betrayed by its human stewards.

    "What I am sure of," writes Berry, "is that we have lost the old apprehension of Nature as a being accessible to imagination, linking Heaven and Earth, making and informing the incarnate creation, and requiring of humanity an obedience at once worshipful, ethical and economic." (113). It is not only the "numinous and exalted" character of Nature, its "starlike beauty" that we have lost a sense of, (87) though much is lost today in our lack of contemplation on what the Romantic poets experienced as the sublime, that transcendent power and beauty that Nature possesses independent of our powers and preferences, and often in resistance to our efforts to bring the natural world under our control. It is also an "appropriate human cooperation" with Nature (106) that we have lost.**

    If we are willing to allow Nature to teach us, willing to watch and listen, then Nature will tell us of the mutability of all things, the shifting cycles of seasons that roll irresistibly onward, and of the life-giving fertility of the world which relies on birth, and growing, and vitality, and dying, and rotting of everything created; that teaches us that we are not exempt from these changes, that our existence relies on this mutability as surely as does the end of our existence and our returning to the soil from which we also came. Nature can teach us wisdom, if we will be attentive. Nature will even teach us to number our transgressions, if we will enter its sacred confessional. (104-106; 149-151)**

    Sitting in the walled garden by Gethsemani Abbey's Retreat House, I marvel at how Berry's words reflect the natural beauty of this part of central Kentucky, particularly this monastic house surrounding by rolling hills and knobs, as in his poem titled, "To The National Security Agency":

    Sabbath Walk 2"I am away in a quiet valley
    am busy at my quiet work
    in this comely cup of country
    exactly fitted to my mind,
    my mind to it exactly fitted.
    It is enclosed by slopes and trees,
    filled full of light and air and wind,
    fulfilled by time and wear and weather."

    But even here, in this abbey, in this place so saturated by silence, where at times the only thing breaking the quiet and sense of solitude are the bells of the Church tolling at the quarters of the hours, maybe especially here in this valley ringed by forests and farmland, one also bears witness to the scarred and scarring "progress" of those of us who have carved from the wilderness a "possession." Forests, once breathing freely from hill to hill, the world's deep respiration, the world's full lungs, now near asthmatic, cough to catch their breath, the stirring wind interrupted by that which has been denuded.

    So much stripped away. So much washed away. So much lost.

    Sabbath Walk 3Berry writes:

    "From Virginia, they came to wilderness
    old past knowing, to them new. A quiet
    resided here, into which came these
    new ones, minds full of purpose, loud,
    small, reductive, prone to disappointment.
    They surveyed their places in it, established possession...."

    "What was here
    that they so wanted to change?
    They wanted a farm, not a forest. From then to now, no caring thought was given to these slopes, ever tending lower.
    Thus Nature's gift, her wealth and ours, is borne downstream, cluttering the bottomlands in passing, and finally is lost at sea."

    The damage, or much of it, was not intentional. The destruction, or much of it, was unforeseen, says Berry. Much was ruined by remote forces, those "positioned to profit by global trade." (17)

    Berry repeats the refrain, "What was here that you wanted to change?" His poetry hammers away with humanity sitting in the witness box under oath, bound to think carefully before we answer.

    Was the change worth it?
    Were the losses to humanity, not only the losses to the land, worth it?
    Or did we strike a bad bargain?

    Communities eroded as much as the land; laughter and friendships lost along with topsoil until: "the people drift in scatters, homeless/ as their garbage, on the currents/ of a violent economy, their care and work/ from their dismemoried country, beyond/ every dreamed beginning, lost." (19)

    "Beyond every dreamed beginning, lost." Perhaps it is Berry's use of that word "dismemoried" in the previous line that does it, or maybe the rhythm of the whole passage, but I cannot help but think here of Shakespeare, especially when Berry moves from the opening verses to the reflections on what has been lost. When Shakespeare's Henry V confronts the traitorous English lords, once his friends, who betrayed him on the eve of his invasion of France; broken-hearted Henry said it seemed like another Fall of Man. When Berry moves from reveling in the miracle of "good soil" lovingly, responsibly preserved by "perennial vegetation kept with care on the uplands and slopes" to the unforeseen losses that trail after devastating erosion, a local tragedy pointing to an ecological catastrophe beyond words, it seems like another Fall of Creation, a land "dismemoried," and a people too. Any culture that wishes to reach high, Berry tells us, "must cultivate the low arts of land- and water-keeping." (14)

    What grace there is in the next terrible lines! What grace, if we can only interpret the warning as a kind of hard mercy!

    Sabbath Walk 4Berry continues:

    "Nature does not prefer humans
    to the fish, the eagles, or the moles...."

    "The rain falls on the just and the unjust," so Jesus tells us, because the rain is indifferent. Nature has no regard whatsoever for that which gets wet, or that which dies of thirst, or for that which disappears forever from the earth. Nature does not weep. Humanity ought to have learned by now from nature the cruel and beautiful and exacting and gracious reality of God's creation. "If we love ourselves, we have got to love [Nature]." (14)

    Sabbath Walk 5Berry writes:

    "We must study
    endlessly her long unending work,
    thus learning to do our own, also unending, making Nature our ally so far as we can ask and she comply."

    This is what Berry, the watcher, sees from his "small porch," his "lookout upon a place to work, live, move, and be in thought." From this vantage point he can "see the local/ geography as a guide for thinking." (20) And this land teaches him "Right-mindedness," that is, "a mind in place,/ in right relationship to Nature and/ its neighbors." (12)

    So Berry tells us:

    "Thoughts, instructions, stories, songs enter from outside, and some of these are needed, can be made welcome, but nothing replaces the living geography, topography, ecology, history, the mind's waking at home in its creaturely household, which is its work, its burden, its privilege, its intimate reference, its way to find at need, against the time's perilous leanings, the unshifting star." (12)

    The alienation from Creation and Creation's God and the fellow creatures we should call neighbors which is the current shape of our fallenness is not our inevitable default nor our indelible fate. We fell from God's higher intention. We were created for much more than this failure. Creation was willed by God to have a steward not a despoiler. But God's love is always larger than our sin. We were called to the glory of caretakers and co-creators in the fruitful unfolding of this natural world. This is only possible when we are humble enough to understand Nature's own partnership with God in co-creation. "The best of human work defers," says the poet, "always to the in-forming beauty of Nature's work." (68)

    May it be so.

    * Abraham J. Heschel, The Prophets (Harper, 1962), Vol. I, pp. 7-17.
    **The references in these two paragraphs are to the prose essay, "The Presence of Nature in the Natural World: A Long Conversation" included in A Small Porch. In this essay, Berry engages writers as varied as Alan of Lille, Chaucer and Thomas Carlyle, C.S. Lewis and Thomas Merton. I do not believe I have ever witnessed a poet more fluently to make use of his own careful scholarship in the crafting of his poetry.

  • Thomas Merton and the Passion of God

    by Michael Jinkins | Mar 31, 2017

    Editor's note: Periodically throughout the 2016-2017 academic year, "Thinking Out Loud" readers will receive blog posts that explore concepts of spirituality as they relate to the writings and teachings of Thomas Merton. We hope you enjoy this special series of "Thinking Out Loud." E-mail us!

    Merton CornerI suspect that few of us even blink when we hear the word "passion" applied to God. Certainly we take it for granted that the last days of Jesus' life, culminating in his crucifixion, are called his "passion." Blink we should, however, and stammer, and stand amazed in slack-jawed wonder at the God to whom we attribute "passion."

    When we apply the word "passion" to God, and to God incarnate, we are leaping a boundary that proved unscalable to many in the early church. Many early Christians could not imagine a God who really suffers. Make no mistake about it, the word "passion" in English, which we use to speak of Jesus' last days on Earth, derives from the Latin passio meaning "suffering" (from patior, "to suffer") and not from the Greek pascha which means "passover."* (The Greek equivalent for "passion," incidentally, is pathos.) The passion of the Christ is the suffering of the Christ.

    While many in the early church struggled with the idea that God almighty and eternal could suffer and change and decompose (in contrast to the conception of divine immutability, which staunchly held that God cannot change, that God cannot experience corruption, or fall victim to those human experiences that entail suffering), and while some early Christians, such as the docetic gnostics, were so opposed to this idea of divine suffering that they argued that Christ's "divinity" was only apparent, Christian orthodoxy has believed in the irresolvable tension that the eternal and everlasting God beyond all human conception is known fully in Jesus Christ who is co-eternally God of God, true God of true God, begotten not made. This orthodoxy was exemplified in the twentieth century by Reformed theologian Karl Barth who, in his own inimitable manner, wrote:

    "God requires no exclusion of humanity, no non-humanity, not to speak of inhumanity, in order to be truly God. But we may and must, however, look further and recognize the fact that actually [God's] deity encloses humanity in itself." [Karl Barth, The Humanity of God (Westminster John Knox Press, 1960), p. 50.]

    Barth's assertion that God's deity "encloses humanity in itself" reverses the approach to God which sometimes has held sway in the church's long history (and caused so much heartburn, from the early docetics through some adherents to the Westminster Confession) by which we conjure up the attributes of an eternal God and then try to fit the new wine of the incarnation into that old wine skin. Thus, we trap ourselves by defining God according to strange Hellenistic philosophical formulae like "omnipresence," or "omnipotence," or "omniscience" and then try (with considerable difficulty) to combine the biblical portrait of the passionate, living God with these abstract ideas. Instead, with Barth, we begin with the new wine, Jesus Christ as the full revelation of who God is, and rethink all of our notions about God in light of the God we have met in this human being, Jesus of Nazareth.

    When Barth's monograph The Humanity of God, in which this idea was so powerfully expressed, was published, it became clear that Barth's mind had continued to change throughout his life, that he really was committed, as he had claimed, to beginning the theological enterprise again and again each day by taking the name of Jesus Christ as his starting point. Barth makes manifest in this essay his willingness to keep following Christ with his mind, even when following Christ took him along paths that required considerable imagination. But even Barth could not have imagined the paths Thomas Merton would take in following Christ.

    Among the experiences in Merton's pilgrimage that best exemplify this fact is one that occurred one morning in 1958 at a street corner in downtown Louisville, Kentucky. He famously remembered this experience:

    "Yesterday, in Louisville, at the corner of 4th and Walnut [now Muhammed Ali Boulevard], suddenly realized that I loved all the people and that none of them were or could be, totally alien to me. As if waking from a dream - the dream of my separateness, of the 'special' vocation to be different. My vocation does not really make me different from the rest of [people] or put me in a special category except artificially, juridically. I am still a member of the human race - and what more glorious destiny is there for [person], since the Word was made flesh and became, too, a member of the Human Race!

    "Thank God! Thank God! I am only another member of the human race like all the rest of them. I have the immense joy of being [human]. As if the sorrows of our condition could really matter, once we begin to realize who and what we are - as if we could ever begin to realize it on earth"

    If no part of human existence is foreign to the God revealed in Jesus Christ, then it follows that if we are "in Jesus Christ" no part of humanity can ever be foreign to us either. We are not only capable of suffering, i.e., passion, as human beings, we are capable of compassion, suffering with and for others. And in this we are experiencing the life and character of God incarnate for whom all of life was lived under the shadow of the cross.

    Suffering is not the exception to the rule of life. We all know this. But neither does suffering per se guarantee sanctity. Suffering is simply the common lot of all human life. But through suffering, through the test of suffering, through our attentiveness to suffering and our openness to what God may teach us through that suffering, our suffering can be sanctified as a participation in the life of Jesus Christ. We may even learn through this common suffering that we are one with all God's creation and at one with God in Christ. In this we may discover our vocation anew, not as someone set apart, but as one in union with all others through the power of God's love.

    Merton's No Man is an Island explores something of this deep spiritual dynamic, this mystery at the heart of our humanity, our sharing in the compassion of the God who revealed himself fully and forever in human flesh. As Merton writes:

    "If ... we desire to be what we are meant to be, and if we become what we are supposed to become, the interrogation of suffering will call forth from us both our own name and the name of Jesus. And we will find that we have begun to work out our destiny which is to be at once ourselves and Christ." [Merton, No Man Is An Island (Harcourt, Brace, and Company, 1955), pp. 81-82.]

    It is hard for us as Christians today even to imagine a deity who does not possess the capacity for suffering, who does not feel compassion, who does not enclose our humanity, who is foreign to human flesh. We have met Jesus Christ and are convinced by the Spirit of God that we have met in Christ none other than God. Yet, it is even harder to conceive of the eternal God, creator of all that exists, the God beyond all knowledge and understanding, whose entire character is truly disclosed in this human being, Jesus of Nazareth. This inconceivable God in Christ is ultimately our only creed; our creed is not what we believe about God in Christ, nor what we have to say about him. Our creed is this God incarnate. The flesh-and-blood person who is Christ Jesus in whom we believe we have met God, this reality, this fact, this problem to logic and love, this is our only real creed and confession. Trusting him, inevitably, whether we desire it or not, we shall encounter suffering, not suffering as an ordinary fact of life, but suffering for the sake of others in the name of Jesus.

    We may resist this suffering, try to isolate ourselves from others and protect ourselves from the love that leads to suffering, and, in so doing, may invite all manner of lonely hells on Earth. Or, like Thomas Merton, we may embrace the passion of God, suffering with and for others, and may find ourselves, at last, when we look into the human face of God.***

    *Alan Richardson and John Bowden, editors, New Dictionary of Christian Theology (SCM Press, 1989), pp. 252-253.
    **Cited in many places, including in The Intimate Merton: His Life from His Journals, edited by Patrick Hart and Jonathan Montaldo (HarperOne, 1999), p. 124; and in Paul Elie's beautiful study, The Life You Save May Be Your Own: An American Pilgrimage, in which Elie explores what he refers to as an American Catholic moment in literature though the lives and writings of Thomas Merton, Dorothy Day, Walker Percy and Flannery O'Connor (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2003), p. 254.
    ***Thomas Merton's Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander (Image, 1965/66) provides other opportunities to reflect on the relationship between Merton and Barth.

  • Grace is Not PC (Part Four)

    by Michael Jinkins | Mar 31, 2017

    In one of Robert Frost's most beloved poems, there is a line especially resonant for Christians: "Something there is that doesn't love a wall, That wants it down."*

    Resonant because it brings to mind a passage from Ephesians:

    "For he himself is our peace, who has made the two one and has destroyed the barrier, the dividing wall of hostility, by abolishing in his flesh the law with its commandments and regulations. His purpose was to create in himself one new human out of the two, thus making peace, and in this one body to reconcile both of them to God through the cross, by which he put to death their hostility. He came to preach peace to you who were far away and peace to those who were near. For through him we both have access to the Father by one Spirit." (Ephesians 2: 14-18)

    Broken WallMarkus Barth, in his commentary, The Broken Wall, called Ephesians "Paul's Puzzling Epistle." The epistle is puzzling, Barth says, because of the bewildering approach the author takes to his subject and to his readers. If it was written by Paul, Barth says, then he "humbles himself in this letter more than elsewhere," referring to himself in the most bizarrely tortured Greek phrase which, if translated literally into English, would describe the author as "less than the leastest" of all the saints.**

    It occurs to me that the modest posture of the writer of the Letter to the Ephesians is picture perfect.Marcus Barth's father, Karl, (in Church Dogmatics, 1.1.3) referred to theology as "handling an intractable object with inadequate means." This impossible situation is explained by Elizabeth Johnson in her magisterial book, She Who Is: "The unfathomable mystery of God is always mediated through shifting historical discourse."***

    Even the most casual reader of the Bible will see that the Bible is a complex world of literary and spiritual peaks and valleys, vast and beautiful oceans, dangerous swamps, tiny rivulets and rushing rivers, that its dark impenetrable forests have little in common with its majestic plains, and that only a very confused reading of it can claim to hold all of it equally authoritative. In fact, the more carefully one reads the Bible, the more sure one is that if consistency is (as Ralph Waldo Emerson said) "the hobgoblin of little minds," this book is the least infested of hobgoblins, having an incomprehensibly large mind, marked by genius closely trailed by contradiction.

    There are passages in the Bible that reveal a goodness beyond anything we can possibly imagine, such grace, mercy, loving-kindness and love that inspire us; and there are texts of terrifying, breathtaking cruelty and violence such as a monster or a sadist might conjure up. In our Reformed tradition, we say that God is free and sovereign, that God is fully revealed in Jesus Christ, that God speaks the Word of God by the power of the Holy Spirit in the hearing of the Bible. We make no exceptions to the texts God might choose. God might speak through any part of the Bible, or between its lines, or in those moments of silence when the reader is just taking a breath. But saying this does not mean, it cannot mean, that we endorse the cruelty that rears its grotesque head in certain passages. Indeed, we believe that God is not the author of the cruelty of which we read, but that such belongs entirely to a humanity struggling feebly to understand what it means to be a people of God in a particular historical moment. And we believe this because we do believe that God is fully revealed in Jesus Christ.

    C.S. Lewis credited his friend Owen Barfield as helping him understand the foolishness of "chronological snobbery," the "uncritical acceptance of the intellectual climate of our own age, and the assumption that whatever has gone out of date is on that account discredited."**** A slightly different angle on this "chronological snobbery" bears particularly on modern Christians. We cannot take for granted that all or even most Christians will continue to value hard-won insights and values just because they share the same chronological era.

    Change is the constant. But change is not a stream that flows in one direction. It eddies and ebbs and flows and rages and retreats. Belief in witchcraft is not limited to seventeenth-century Salem. Nor the execution of witches. Justifying violence against persons who do not share our faith did not go out of style when the last Crusaders returned to their European homes. Using the Bible to defend and promote ignorance and cruelty, instead of to inspire goodness, mercy and peace, has not stopped just because we live in the twenty-first century. We would do well to remember that the people who titled the twentieth century as "the Christian century" were shocked and humbled as their age became the bloodiest in all of human history.

    "Chronological snobbery" kept C.S. Lewis from believing in God for a long time; but it can also trap us in a dangerous complacency, thinking that the advances in grace and peace and justice and in the translation of grace and peace and justice into popular culture are permanent. The historical discourses that try to convey the mystery of God are not the only things subject to historical shifts and changes; attitudes, perspectives, understandings, values, ethics all shift and change, and never in a predicable manner. We cannot afford to take goodness for granted.

    Christ himself is our peace, writes the humbled author of Ephesians, for "he has destroyed the barrier, the dividing wall of hostility." And Christ himself is that lens through which alone we Christians can read and hear the whole of the biblical witness. A good friend once said to me, there are Psalms only Christ can pray for us. To place them on our lips is truly dangerous. The same could be said of so much of the Bible: passages that in human hands could be used to craft instruments of evil or to justify our selfishness, must be placed in the hands of Christ.

    "Something there is that doesn't love a wall...." Or an instrument of torture, or a bomb, or an AK47, or a demeaning comment, or a justification to subjugate a person because of their race, ethnicity, religion or gender. Something there is that doesn't love hatred and cruelty and violence.

    Christ is the Lord of all broken walls. Christ is our peace.

    *Robert Frost, "Mending Wall," The Poetry of Robert Frost, edited by Edward Connery Lathem (Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1969), p. 34.
    **Markus Barth, The Broken Wall: A Study of the Epistle to the Ephesians (Judson Press, 1959), p. 13.
    ***Elizabeth A. Johnson, She Who Is: The Mystery of God in Feminist Theological Discourse (Crossroad, 1992), p. 6.
    ****George M. Marsden, C.S. Lewis's Mere Christianity: A Biography (Princeton University Press, 2016), p. 10.

  • Just Definitions: Pragmatic

    by Michael Jinkins | Mar 24, 2017

    Editor’s Note: Occasionally, “Thinking Out Loud” addresses subjects of a very specific nature. In this special series, “Thinking Out Loud” readers are asked to consider the true meanings of certain terms that have recently found prevalence in the current public discourse. What are your thoughts? E-mail us.

    PragmatismOne of the games I sometimes invite the faculty to play at the luncheons we host for prospective students is: "What historical person would you most enjoy having dinner with?"

    Our answers vary from time to time. Recently it occurred to me that one of the people that I would like to meet, have dinner with, or just sit and listen to is William James (1842-1910), the great American philosopher and professor at Harvard College, known today as the father of American psychology.

    You only have to read a few paragraphs from any of his lectures or books to get a sense of the man's original vision, the grand sweep of his intellect, his imagination and his wonderful sense of humor. James was so fully alive. And it is to James, more than to any other person, that we owe a debt for advancing the use of pragmatism as a way of determining the validity of philosophical and religious ideas.

    James drew on the pioneering work of Charles Pierce to advance the idea that if one wishes to evaluate the relative truthfulness, validity or durability of an idea we should trace its "respective practical consequences."

    As James once wrote, with characteristic clarity and wit:

    "It is astonishing to see how many philosophical disputes collapse into insignificance the moment you subject them to this simple test of tracing a concrete consequence. There can be no difference anywhere that doesn't make a difference elsewhere - no difference in abstract truth that doesn't express itself in a difference in concrete fact and in conduct consequent upon that fact, imposed on somebody, somehow, somewhere, and somewhen. The whole function of philosophy ought to be to find out what definite difference it will make to you and me, at definite instants in our life, if this world-formula or that world-formula be the true one." [John J. McDermott, editor, The Writings of William James: A Comprehensive Edition (University of Chicago Press, 1977), pp. 377-379.]

    What James did was to announce the death of ideologies unsupported by practical consequences. Yet, such ideologies continue to shape everything from religious practices to public policies.

    In our society it seems as though the ideas which are least testable in practice tend to be the most important when it comes to testing one's orthodoxy in any field. It is as though some religious folks or adherents to a particular political perspective demand of their adherents, "Do you believe that fairies are blue or orange?"

    When the adherent replies, "I don't know, I've never seen a fairy in the flesh. Have you?" the one in authority is shocked by the impertinence of the reply and pronounces the adherent unsound.

    If the adherent persists in refusing to choose between blue or orange, the authority is likely finally to react with the judgment that this adherent is an apostate or a heretic because "all true believers" or "all right-thinking people" know that fairies are blue.

    The very un-knowability and un-testability of the notion is essential to its importance in the ideology. The idea that the ideology will be somehow eventually beneficial, even if its efficacy retreats further and further into an imaginary and unknowable future, does not adversely affect the tenacity with which the ideology is held by true believers.

    William James and his tribe live by the simple dictum: You will know the truth of an idea by examining its fruit, not its roots.

    Among the most provocative practitioners of James' pragmatic method today are Steven D. Levitt (an economist) and Stephen J. Dubner (a journalist) who, together, developed "Freakonomics." Of the many resources these two have produced or inspired, one of my favorites is their recent book, Think Like a Freak (William Morrow, 2014), from which I shall quote extensively.

    Levitt and Dubner, reflecting on a meeting they had with then prime minister of Great Britain, David Cameron, observed that, "whenever people, especially politicians, start making decisions based on a reading of their moral compass, facts tend to be among the first casualties." (Levitt/Dubner, Think Like a Freak, p. 13) What they found was that when leaders strictly adhered to an ideology in the making of public policies and laws, facts about the consequences of these laws and policies tended to be distorted. Often policy makers tried to hammer the square pegs of their legislation into the round holes of their ideological dogma; and if that didn’t work, they would simply ignore any evidence that contradicted what they wanted to see. Most seriously, wherever ideological orthodoxy reigned supreme over pragmatic solutions to problems, the public good tended to suffered. (Levitt/Dubner, Think Like a Freak, pp. 31-41)

    In their praise of pragmatism over ideology, Levitt and Dubner refer to a researcher at the University of California whom readers of my regular blog will remember from years ago, Grawemeyer Award winner (2006) Philip E. Tetlock, whose book, Expert Political Judgment: How Good Is It? How Can We Know? (Princeton University Press, 2005), has become required reading among many pragmatic leaders today. Tetlock is the person who tracked the accuracy of the political experts we often see on television and found that they tended to be less accurate than chimpanzees would be randomly throwing darts at a dartboard on which were tacked various answers to political questions.

    Commenting on Tetlock's findings, Levitt and Dubner write: "When asked to name the attributes of someone who is particularly bad at predicting, Tetlock needed just one word. 'Dogmatism,' he says, 'That is, an unshakable belief they know something to be true when they don't.'" Tetlock and others who track the accuracy of politicians, their expert advisors, and the pundits who comment on them have found a lethal combination having to do with what you might call the "massively overconfident" personality. It is just a disaster to combine “cocky” and “wrong." (Levitt/Dubner, Think Like a Freak, p. 25)

  • Grace is not PC (Part Three)

    by Michael Jinkins | Mar 21, 2017

    This man and I were sitting at a table in the refectory of a camp in northern Indiana. I was there to teach a workshop on the Christian doctrine of the atonement. He came from a church in Illinois to participate in the class. At some point, he raised the question of why Presbyterians ordain women to church offices when, as he said, "the Bible says that women should not speak in church.”

    Grace is not PC 3His comments reminded me of another conversation not long before. A fellow in a study group a long, long way south of Indiana told me that he and his wife were contemplating leaving the Presbyterian Church because, he said, in violation of "the Word of God, it allows women to teach men." I reflected with him on the problem of trying to build a universal doctrine on the basis of what were clearly local teachings which addressed problems in a particular church in the first century, but he persisted. When I asked him how it was that he had become so convinced of these ideas, even to the point of leaving the church to which his family had belonged for generations, he said - without the least hint of humor or irony - "Well, my wife is actually the biblical scholar in our family. She explained all of this to me."

    So, back to our Midwesterner. After reflecting on the biblical text that he used to prove his point (I Timothy 2:11-15), I said, "The larger theological issue, to quote a beloved and respected professor emeritus of our seminary, Eugene March, is that God's circle of love tends to become ever more inclusive rather than exclusive." Or, as Cynthia Campbell, former McCormick Theological Seminary president in Chicago and current pastor of Highland Presbyterian Church in Louisville, writes: "In the end, God's grace will win out, and all creation will be transformed and renewed."* Or, to put it the way I usually do: the trajectory of the biblical faith stretches from grace to grace; from the Gospels through the book of Acts to the letters of St. Paul and beyond the biblical era. God is progressively revealing his full intention to us. And his intention is grace.

    To reflect more fully on this idea, I turned to St. Paul's letter to the Galatians in which the Apostle famously writes: "You are all children of God through faith in Christ Jesus, for all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus." (Galatians 3:26-28) Far from being an isolated, local teaching addressing a particular problem in a congregation, this teaching echoes throughout the epistles of the New Testament from I Corinthians 12:12-13 to Ephesians 2:14-22 to Colossians 3:1-14.

    According to Donald Guthrie, in his commentary on the book of Galatians, Paul is signaling that all who are "in Christ" are ushered into a larger, even universal, perspective on God in contrast to those who wish to restrict God's sphere to the merely cultic, sectarian or ethnic. Guthrie notes that distinctions between Jew and Greek (synonymous here with Gentiles), slave and free, male and female were "deep-seated," not only in ancient society but in Hebrew scripture. Long-established structures defined people according to their religion, ethnicity, economic status, social position, and gender. Paul articulates a perspective that is more radical than anyone in the ancient world could grasp; frankly, the Christian Church and the world have had a very difficult time catching up with him.**

    The "faith" to which St. Paul refers here, which unites the follower of Jesus to the Christ and makes him or her a "child of God" in the full theological sense of the phrase as Paul uses it, is, according to Marty Soards and Darrell Pursiful, "activated by Christ Jesus himself." The union with Christ is a reality that for Christians has priority over other allegiances and appearances. In long doctrinal passages, such as in I Corinthians chapters 10-14, and Romans 11:33-36, as well as chapter 12, St. Paul provides the theological context for understanding his vision of "the Body of Christ." As Soards and Pursiful write: "Members of the congregations of believers are as if they were one person, the Corporate Christ. In Christ Jesus, differences are nullified, and they are replaced not by mere equality but by a unity that was created by and is identified with Christ Jesus himself."***

    When we are "clothed in Christ," to return to Paul's metaphor in Galatians 3:27, we are made one with him, and realize our oneness with one another, a unity that rejects as unreal all the various distinctions we use to stratify society and divide humanity. The image of being clothed with Christ was especially lively for the early church, as we see in writers such as Cyril of Jerusalem, who, in his lectures on the Christian Sacraments provides a glimpse of what baptism actually looked like in early Christian communities. Cyril provides a sort of time machine, taking us into the sanctuary, as it were, to see the ancient Christian ritual in person. We witness those who are to be baptized removing their "street clothes," the raiment that reflected the various distinctions of the world, before going down into the baptistery. We see the very heart of St. Paul's teachings given ritual form: being washed in the baptismal waters, the new believer participates spiritually in the crucifixion, death and burial of Christ; rising up from the cleansing waters, the new believer participates in the resurrection to new life in Christ; being anointed with oil, the new follower receives the sign of the indwelling Holy Spirit. And being sent forth to be clothed in a white robe, the new follower receives the symbol of union with Christ that also revokes all worldly distinctions.****

    The vision of the Apostle was clear. Although various forms of oppression have been practiced in the world and in the Church through the centuries, from anti-Semitism to the justification of enslavement to misogyny and racism, for St. Paul, our union with Christ, our divine sonship and daughterhood in Christ, the indwelling of God's Spirit, has priority over every worldly distinction and division. Christ's union with us through the power of the Spirit has the power to subvert all the walls we try to build. (Ephesians 2:14-18)

    God's ways, we are told in the Bible, are higher than our ways. And this is true. But it is also true that God's ways have a way of staying well ahead of us, drawing us further and further along God's trajectory of grace in human history. The question is: How do we continue to participate in what God is up to in this world?
    *The context of both Gene's and Cynthia's reflections is "religious diversity," but their comments apply equally to the expansion of perspective that attends the movement of God's grace in other areas. W. Eugene March, The Wide, Wide Circle of Divine Love (Westminster John Knox Press, 2005). Cynthia M. Campbell, A Multitude of Blessings (Westminster John Knox Press, 2007), p. 16.
    ** Donald Guthrie, The New Century Bible Commentary: Galatians (New Series, 1974), p. 110.
    *** Marion L. Soards and Darrell J. Pursiful, Galatians, (Smyth & Helwys, 2015), pp. 171-177.
    ****St. Cyril of Jerusalem, "Mystagogical Catechesis, II: On the Rites of Baptism,” in Lectures on the Christian Sacraments, edited by F.L. Cross (St. Vladimir's Seminary Press, 1986), pp. 59-67.

  • Thomas Merton and the Work of God

    by Michael Jinkins | Mar 17, 2017

    Editor's note: Periodically throughout the 2016-2017 academic year, "Thinking Out Loud" readers will receive blog posts that explore concepts of spirituality as they relate to the writings and teachings of Thomas Merton. We hope you enjoy this special series of "Thinking Out Loud." E-mail us!

    Work of GodIt’s 3 a.m., and Gethsemani Abbey is wrapped in a cloak of darkness as impenetrable as the silence. The forests and hills, in the midst of which it sits, lie draped in a dense fog that only adds layers to the darkness and quiet. But within its sanctuary already the monastery is stirring. Monks emerge from doors leading from their living quarters to the church. As light is admitted from the opening door, now and again, you can just make them out processing quietly to their places in the choir to stand or to sit in prayer.

    By 3:15, they will all be in their places, ready for the first office of the day, Vigils.

    A voice speaks: "O God, come to my assistance."

    All respond: "O Lord, make haste to help me."

    So begins the day. And so begins the liturgy of the hours, "the work of God," as it is called in this ancient Christian tradition, which can be traced back at least to the late fifth or early sixth century.

    The monks’ day is framed by these prayers which remind us that all of life in every place, at every moment comes from the hand of God. The day is punctuated by these prayers. The first marks the end of sleep; others mark the beginning of labors, meals and rest. In a Cistercian monastery, the Trappists (whom I consider to be the Marines of contemplative prayer) have seven such services of prayer each day, plus Mass. The first service is at 3:15 a.m., the last, Compline (which I think is the most beautiful), begins at 7:30 p.m.

    St. Benedict says in his "Rule":

    "We believe that the divine presence is everywhere, and that the eyes of the Lord are in every place. ... but most of all should we believe this without any shadow of doubt, when we are engaged in the work of God." [David Parry, OSB, “Chapter XIX. In Households of God: Rule of St. Benedict, with Explanations for Monks and Laypeople Today (London: Darton, Longman & Todd, 1980), p. 41.]

    Anyone who has prayed the liturgy of the hours in a long retreat, I suspect, can bear witness to the way they work upon you. At their heart are the Hebrew Psalms, spoken, sung or chanted. Like drops of rain, they fall and slowly soak into the soul, hour by hour. One service of prayer following another. Drop by drop by steady drop, like a soaking rain of praise, lament and imprecation, the Psalms flow from the lips of the monks; whether a soul enters upon this work thirsty and receptive, or feels itself already quenched and resistant to the Word, the Psalms have a way of working on us, filling longings too deep for words, creating thirst that we did not want and that only God can satisfy.

    Again, those who have participated in retreats will know something of what it means to pray the hours, to do the work of God, as St. Benedict used this phrase. However, we also know that the long experience of those who have taken monastic vows is something altogether different from the retreatant's experience.

    We visit, however sincerely, as mere liturgical tourists or as seekers and pilgrims.

    They live. They endure.

    What might it mean, hour after hour, day after day, week after week, month after month, year after year after year, to do the work of God, as do these monks (i.e., to pray the hours as a life's vocation, to steep in the Psalms and the prayers and the praise of God all the days of your life)?

    A passage from the great theologian of the Desert Fathers, Evagrius Ponticus, comes to mind, in his description of the soul that is safe from the passions and incitements to anger, lust, envy and all that sets us at enmity with God and others. Evagrius praises the person whose "intellect is always 'with the Lord,' whose irascible part is full of meekness owing to the remembrance of God."*

    "Pray without ceasing," admonishes the author of I Thessalonians (5:17). The rhythm of the liturgy of the hours, like the bells of the monastery, throughout the day, brings the monks back again and again to the remembrance of God, reinforcing the habit of praying at all times. Because this is the goal: to have God before us always.

    Thomas Merton was nourished by the rhythm of the work of God in the monastic community. Yet, even in the midst of what many of us would regard as a hushed world of peace set apart from the hectic and frantic world beyond monastic walls, Merton found himself often restless, often harried, "rushing back and forth to church," yearning for a work of God that could only be performed in a more profound solitude away from the community, and free from the interruptions.**

    The Cistercian communal life had set him free from the bondage he had experienced in the world which most of us know, nevertheless he longed for an even greater freedom, the freedom of the hermit, bound to the work of God in an even deeper sense. This is why, as many believe, he wrote of the ancient Desert Fathers with such empathy, why he seemed to understand so intimately the Eastern Orthodox disciplines of Hesychasm.

    At the close of the introduction to his brief collection of sayings of the Desert Fathers, we sense the fullness of the work of God toward which Merton's own heart inclined:

    He writes:

    "We must liberate ourselves, in our own way, from involvement in a world that is plunging to disaster. But our world is different from theirs [the Desert Fathers]. Our involvement in it is more complete. Our danger is far more desperate. Our time, perhaps, is shorter than we think.

    "We cannot do exactly what they did. But we must be as thorough and as ruthless in our determination to break all spiritual chains, and cast off the domination of alien compulsions, to find our true selves, to discover and develop our inalienable spiritual liberty and use it to build, on earth, the Kingdom of God. This is not the place in which to speculate what our great and mysterious vocation might involve. That is still unknown. Let it suffice for me to say that we need to learn from these men of the fourth century how to ignore prejudice, defy compulsion and strike out fearlessly into the unknown."

    5:45 a.m., Lauds begins. “Ruthless in prayer;” that is a phrase that resonates with me this early in the morning, when my body rebels, my stomach turns, and I do not want to cooperate with myself (whatever that means!).

    I so often hear folks these days, especially among my particular sort of Protestantism, say they are looking for a church in which they can feel at home, comfortable; or who complain of a congregation they visited that just didn't make them feel welcome. I have begun to suspect that mostly we tend to seek a religious experience or a congregation that reinforces what we prefer or that affirms what we perceive to be our strengths, that may even confirm our opinions and prejudices, but we shy away from those that challenge us or might make us grow or might cause us to confront others (potentially a real problem if God really is, as Søren Kierkegaard and Karl Barth both maintained, "wholly other").

    I recall my spiritual advisor, at the end of our first session, instructing me to pray a particular Psalm each day.

    I said, "I don't really like that one."

    He said, "That's what I suspected. That's why I want you to pray it."

    We have come to treat faith as we treat everything else in this consumer's smorgasbord in which we live, as an opportunity for indulgence, self-expression or bias confirmation. You might say that choice has become the spirit of this age, especially choice that we use to reinforce our own preferences or pathologies, whether spiritual, emotional or physical. To some degree, the idea that faith is just one option among many is at the heart of this age, and the assumption is that freedom lies in the ability to exercise that option without constraint.****

    What if true freedom, however, is somehow predicated on a will beyond our own? What if faith is not about making ourselves comfortable, but doing "the work of God"?

    Thomas Merton seems to have struggled with a desire for release from the community in which he found himself from sometime in the 1940s. And I have to wonder whether his writings would have taken him so deep into the world of the Desert Fathers, would have led him into so intimate an encounter with the worlds of Judaism, Zen Buddhism, Taoism and Sufism, and into so many other places where he sought ever more deeply the life of God, if he had not chafed against the constraints that held him tethered to the community at Gethsemani.

    Perhaps the ruthlessness of determination that Merton believes we need is to match the ruthlessness of God's love for us, a love which knows what will shape us to become all we were meant to become and called to be. A love that will bind us fast, perhaps, is the only love that sets us free.

    *Gabriel Bunge, Dragon's Wine and Angel's Bread: The Teaching of Evagrius Ponticus on Anger and Meekness (Yonkers: St. Vladimir's Seminary Press, 2009), p. 17.
    **Thomas Merton, The Intimate Merton: His Life from His Journals, edited by Patrick Hart and Jonathan Montaldo (New York: HarperOne, 1999), pp. 50-54.
    ***Thomas Merton, The Wisdom of the Desert (New York: New Directions, 1960), 23-24; see also: Bernadette Dieker and Jonathan Montaldo, editors, Merton and Hesychasm: The Eastern Church & The Prayer of the Heart (Louisville: Fons Vitae, 2003), p. 263-310.
    ****Charles Taylor, in his magnificent study, A Secular Age, (Harvard University Press, 2007), in fact, understands the essential feature of secularity not simply as having to do with "the conditions of, experience of and search for the spiritual," but with the very fact that belief is no longer the individual's "default option," but is just one among many options from which people may choose. For a general start, see the introduction to his book, but for details, see Part IV, "Narratives of Secularization," pp. 424-535.

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