Reverence as spiritual practice, pt. the last: Standing by the pool

01/20/2023 § 1 Comment

I am standing by a pool into which several streams are pouring. Each brings its own burden of sediment and debris down from the mountain; the different colored waters mix in the pool before me, and unite, they and all that they bear. I followed a line of toadlets down to the brink, and now while they clamber away up the hill, making noises too small for me to hear, I am given the everyday gift of water, woods, birdsong, wind, and moving leaves. The longer I stand, the more kinds of lives I recognize; the myriad unseen links among them tug at me, real but infinitesimal, like the gravitational pull of Jupiter or Cochab. None of this requires me or my action, though I can make changes for good or for ill in the way things go. It is “my land,” temporarily mine in law.
The contemplation of this situation— the land where I am located, its great age before my time, and after; my little understanding of what is happening here even at my feet; the opening of heart and mind to the birdsong and the active pool — re-centers me, decenters me. Accepting how little I matter, the limited ways in which I belong, gives me the gift of an anointing: anointing as a steward, a shepherd of trees and mayflies, chickadees, and fragrant, fragile dogbane.
It is the gift of the Light of Christ to show us what we are, and where we stand. Only so can we begin to guess how we, too, take our place among the miracles of the creation, each of us. But this unitive experience — the most common and lovely mystical experience that rejoics and diconcerts the human heart— is not enough until it is the place from which we operate, and not just a place we are graced to visit. “Give us this day our necessary bread”: and what is more necessary for a living creature than that it know its place, know in its bones where it belongs, and that it is welcome.
Once we know that, we sapient earthlings who can bring so much to consciousness, and even to expression, then we can begin to know the world, the whole creation in its terror and its beauty, supporting us, but not us alone. The Word is spoken livingly, actively in every thing that is now present, or lingers in memory and lore, in molecules circulating through the biosphere, and every track and trace in hill and rock, glacier and ocean bed.
If we let our presumptions of lordship go, the world is given back, whole, for our cherishing. The practice of reverence is a way to know and remember the frameshift. Basil of Caesarea teaches that the person who contemplates reverently is not only an onlooker, but a participant, just as spectators at a race are participants in the athletes’ gift as they give it. This I know in my measure to be true, in my own experience. There is an intimacy that makes gratitude most piercing and persistent.
Reverence as far as it is incorporated into a newly whole personal awareness is a central virtue or equipment for our travails in the Anthropocene. The element of givenness teaches us to consume, to build, to travel, to cultivate, in such a way as not to destroy the world’s ability to recover, and to maintain the power of growth. The element of humility teaches us about our own preciousness, and the limits of our understanding of consequences and connections, so that (as Ged° said) we learn to do what we must do, and no more. The element of love teaches us the heart of the Creator, in whose image and likeness we are made, who holds all the worlds, and yet does not possess or exploit; seeks for each the good according to its kind; and whose gift is reconciliation and healing, abundance, truth, and joy.
If our contemplation is participatory, in heart, soul, strength, and mind, these three become indistinguishable in their flow and nurture of our life, and the power of our endurance, and the constancy of our faithfulness in service and in gratitude.

° in LeGuin’s Wizard of Earthsea


Reverence as a spiritual practice pt 3: Toadlet

01/20/2023 § Leave a comment

A tiny dark creature struggles through the grass near my bare toes in late spring. At first I take it to be an immature cricket. When I look closer, however, I see that it has only four legs, moving it jerkily along in the undergrowth: a toadlet. It could fit on my fingernail, yet it is a complete, working toad, lighter than a raisin of about the same size.
I scoop it carefully into a little glass, so it can’t get away, and then I sit down and peer at it. When the toadlet becomes the center of your regard, what happens? First I see its perfection: 4 little fingers on each “hand,” slightly askew from each other in the toadly way; and 5 little toes on the rear feet. Already the skin is speckled, with dark dots where warts will be. Slightly moist, in the slanting light of the morning it is a dusky and tan jewel.
The eyes are little dark spots, as well, but mobile and attentive, not yet visibly encircled by the patterned, colored rims that adults have. A little swelling behind each eye hints at where the poison-gland will develop, but right now the toadlet is defenseless, as it makes a simple mouthful for a gartersnake or pecking bird.
Toads are not sociable except at mating time, but now that my eye is tuned, I see that the grass is crawling with toadlets. Toads have a “safety in numbers” strategy for ensuring a next generation, like codfish or masting oaks: perhaps two percent (2%) of the toadlets survive to the end of their first year. That seems to be enough, since we always have toads around. It is true that our land is not crammed with toads, which means that we share the place with toad predators, mostly unseen. When they are tadpoles, dragonfly larvae and other water predators consume them. Once their legs appear and their tails vanish, snakes take over.
It is easier to imagine what eats toadlets, than to imagine what toadlets eat. When they were in the water as tadpoles, they were vegetarian, eating algae and other water plants. Once on land, however, their mouths change shape as their diet changes, to tiny invertebrates. What masses of minature worms, centipedes, new-hatched crickets, and all the rest must be alive and at work, with the toadlets striding among them, hunting and gulping! I have never been so aware of their presence, yet still unseen by me, as now, as I hold the toadlet within its glassy pen, and look at its obsidian eye. Holding it, I sense that I am plucking up the fabric of nature, and if I were to follow the threads that my toadlet knows, I would travel through astonishing labyrinths that know me not at all, nor even suspect my interest.

Reverence as a spiritual practice pt 2: An exercise

01/20/2023 § 1 Comment

Some notes on method for a beginning practice of reverence
The purpose of this exercise is to increase our surprise at the nature of the world in which we take part, to diminish our thoughtlessness in our relations with all the other created things, and to practice stepping into the awareness of the givenness of the world that sustains us in all our activities.
Getting ready. Choose a natural object† (animal, vegetable, or mineral). I suggest at first something towards which you already have some feeling, some attraction or aversion. Position yourself and your object in such a way that you can pay relaxed attention for a sustained period of time. A good photograph will work for squirmy or fragile living things, or things not in season that attract you, but at some point you will want a live encounter.
This will be an exercise in which feeling and the senses lead the way. The aim is reception, not mastery. Thinking is fine, but will need to be firmly reigned in so as not to drown out the testimony of the physical and spiritual senses. This is why, at first, starting with an object in which you have some investment is useful. The feeling connection that you already have with it can open your perceptions.
How long? Set aside a solid block of time: 20 minutes or so is good: it should be a bit demanding, so that your mind wanders and then needs to be brought back. But several shorter observations are better than one over-long marathon.
Now to begin
1. First, pay attention. Do not worry about naming, or dissecting, or doing any other intervention, except perhaps to move yourself or the object of your attention for a different angle, or a better light. Drink in whatever sight, sound, odor, or texture is available.‡ Be alert to aspects of the object that you were not aware of before — subtle differences of color on its surface, perhaps, or the actual shape of some part, and the relation of one part to another. Hope to discover. If drawing or writing help you focus and remember, OK, but do not let these become your focus — you can work things up later. This is not a drawing or a writing project.
After at least one session of simple attention, you can open towards the three moments of reverence: givenness, humility, and love. You may wish sometimes to dedicate one visit with your object to each of these. In any case, be sure to take time to look with each lens intentionally.
For each of these, I offer a starting place, from which you will shape your own reflection. Only bear in mind: each of these, good in itself, is not the end, it is a path, and that the three paths converge on one destination, where they become one again, like three streams falling into a single pool. We will return to sit by that pool at the end of this story.
(i) Givenness. Fix your attention on your subject, and wait until you can realize: You did not bring it into being, nor could you. It exists owing to causes not of your devising, and it is healthy, renewable, continuingly available on the basis of “laws” (dependencies, relationships, resources) not fully understood. It has its own fragilities, its own strengths. Time passes differently for it than for you. In these and other ways, no one can possess it and it has dimensions of existence you do not know.
(ii) Humility. While continuing your attentive observation, reflect on some ways that your understanding of it is limited. Wait until you can see these limits as sources of delight; honor them first by accepting them. Stop to reflect that, like yourself, any natural object is the present form of age-long processes still at work in the world (and in our own bodies and artifacts as well). Consider that human activity is an intervention, perturbation, or interruption in these processes of creating and sustaining.
(iii) Love. Love has many varieties, of course. Here, I suggest a sympathetic participation, an intentional suspension of self-reference. This is a thing that is not manufactured, but must grow. Wait until you start to feel how there is value in the object of regard that is not owing to “use” or “service,” but just because it exists. Wait until you can feel warmth towards it and its welfare integrity, and towards the world that contains such things: the world and the object of your contemplation both unique in the universe. Here, gratitude is a close ally.

* * *

When you have been through this exercise with a familiar object, to which you have paid enough attention in the past to have positive or negative feelings. repeat with new objects. If at first you chose an object that you like, now choose one that you are uncomfortable with.

For the third repetition, choose an object you have never looked closely at before. As you get more comfortable with the practice, try doing a brief version with things you encounter by chance during your day.
After you have practiced on animals, plants, and mineral objects for a while, perhaps including such things as stars, moon, clouds, bodies of water, then start over again with humans: positive, negative, unknown. How do givenness, humility, and love feel different?
In my next post, I will offer an example of a meditation on a natural object using this method, and then return to stand by the pool into which I said the three moments of reverence empty.

† A human being could serve as the object, but not at first, and do not contemplate a human artifact until you’ve practiced quite a bit on naturally occurring objects.
‡ Louis Agassiz, the great Swiss-American naturalist, was famous for his “fish lessons” for advanced or graduate students: No matter whether they were hoping to study insects or geology or botany, each was provided with a fish (usually one that had been collected and preserved in alcohol or formaldehyde solution). The assignment was simple: look at the fish intently. Drawing was permitted, but no dissection or other operation on the body. This lesson might go on for days, before another fish was laid beside the first. Samuel Scudder’s firsthand account is good fun.

Reverence as a spiritual practice for the Anthropocene pt. 1

01/18/2023 § 8 Comments

Dear Friend:

I am going to recount a little exploration I have  been drawn into in recent days, in case it might be of any use in the coming year.  It has been a journey of seven steps.

First step. As the year came to a close I was reflecting with some distress on recent environmental developments. Despite real postiive news of people’s responses to our many-sided crisis, most trends are in the wrong direction: more emissions, more heat retention, more disruptions to the biosphere (including human lives), more anomalous weather…Moreover, decision-making power, the control of key resources, and definition of what is valued, in political and economic terms, still lies in the hands of those whose pricipal effort is aimed at the creation and concentration of wealth for themselves and their ilk, rather than at human welfare supported by an appropriate use of the earth’s resources.  I have to say that as the year came to an end I was cast down very low.

Second step.  I recalled this passage from George Fox’s Journal:

…I might not eat and drink to make myself wanton, but for health, using the creatures in their service, as servants in their places, to the glory of him who created them: they being in their covenant, and I being brought up into the convenant, as sanctified by the word which was in the beginning…wherein is unity with the creation.
People being strangers to the covenant of life with God, they eat and drink to make themselves wanton with the creatures, wasting them upon their lusts…devouring the creation; all in this world in the pollutions thereof without God: therefore I was to shun all such.

Well, George, I thought, you spoke truth there.  A pivotal word in that passage is “lusts.”  It is a word he uses often in his diagnosis of people’s spiritual ailments (recalling among other prophetic passages the epistle of James (ch.4), who attributes wars and fightings to “lusts.”  This word (literally “pleasures” in Greek) in Fox’s time had a broader meaning than it has in modern usage, and it can be paraphrased as “unhealthy and acquisitive desire” for anything.  (For those who read Tolkien, recall Gollum’s insatiable “lust” for the Great Ring).  Fox sees that the convenant of God with creation includes a proper role for humans as consumers and (by their right use) stewards of the commons, but that people, unconscious of the convenant of life,  let their desires for enjoyment drown out their discernment of their place, so that they are not in unity with the creation.

Third step. It happened that in the lectionary I am using right now, the morning psalm for December 31 is Ps. 147.  From the King James Version, some verses:

Praise ye the Lord: for it is good to sing praises unto our God… He healeth the broken in heart, and bindeth up their wounds.
He telleth the number of the stars; he calleth them all by their names.
The Lord lifteth up the meek: he casteth the wicked down to the ground…. sing praise upon the harp unto our God: who covereth the heaven with clouds, who prepareth rain for the earth, who maketh grass to grow upon the mountains.
He giveth to the beast his food, and to the young ravens which cry. He delighteth not in the strength of the horse: he taketh not pleasure in the legs of a man. The Lord taketh pleasure in them that fear him, in those that hope in his mercy.
Praise the Lord, O Jerusalem; praise thy God, O Zion. For he hath strengthened the bars of thy gates; he hath blessed thy children within thee.  He maketh peace in thy borders, and filleth thee with the finest of the wheat.
He sendeth forth his commandment upon earth: his word runneth very swiftly. He giveth snow like wool: he scattereth     the hoarfrost like ashes. He casteth forth his ice like morsels: who can stand before his cold? He sendeth out his word, and melteth them: he causeth his wind to blow, and the waters flow.
 He sheweth his word unto Jacob, his statutes and his judgments unto Israel

In my mood of need, I drank this in and was glad to have it ringing inside as I watched the dawn through my little wondow, with my harp standing there by the sill.  I felt some healing from the awe, the re-centering, that the psalm prompted for me.  For that moment, “all creation gave forth a new smell,” and I had some peace.  But I knew, in that moment of quiet awareness, that that peace would be taken from me — or I could banish it — when some test, in the hustle of the everyday, broke the mood, shook me,  or led me out of my centered condition.  So, too, it happens when we go on a retreat, and are given spiritual gifts among our friends for healing and refreshment — and then we go home and the blessings are dissolved in a few hours or days, as we re-enter our routines and daily tasks.   People are like that, many-minded and distracted, and it’s a matter of regret:  our inner weather fluctuates from moment to moment.  (Ch. 4 of the Cloud of Unknowing says, “even so  many willings or desirings — no more and no fewer — are in one hour in thy will, as are atoms in one hour.” *  Don’t I know it! )

Fourth step. But later in my morning reading on that same day, I returned to the following passage in the Hexaemeron, homilies by Basil of Caesarea on the six days of creation**:

The invisible things [of the Spirit]  are brought to mind by the things made from the creation of the world (cosmos), and his eternal power and deity, so that in the earth, and in the air, and in heaven, and in the water, and in the night, and in the day and in everything we can see, we plainly perceive reminders of the Crafter.  So we will neither give any opportunity to sins, nor make any place in our hearts for the enemy, because we are keeping God at home within, through unremitting mindfulness.

Basil here is recommending a practice, an exercise.  He is saying (here and elsewhere) that the wonder that is aroused by the contemplation (reflective observation) of nature is a delight (as celebrated in the psalms), but it is not enough — later, he compares a thoroughgoing spiritual practice to the workouts of an athlete.

If you observe intently the phenomena of the created world, our life-world, youi can be so filled with the awareness of it that you have no room for evil tendings.   But such moments of openness are not enough, as any experienced soul can attest.   If we are going to integrate these moments, unbidden and beyond our control, into the reality of our lives, we need to bring our wills to bear, with some intentionality, and some linking of ends and means. The exhortations that now often appear in  popular media to seek out moments of awe do no more than encourage us to repeat the moments of uplift or transcendence.  This is no bad thing,  but it can remain quite separate from the work of spiritual growth.   Daily attentive practice is not the same as mere repetition, because practice has an aim in mind.

Fifth step.  Now, it is my conviction that our ultimate aim (telos, to use a term from early Christian practice) is holiness, or as I sometimes paraphrase it, complete availability to the spirit of Christ (what Brother Roger of Taizé called disponibilité).  As James Nayler writes, this spirit is recognized at work by its effects:

 it is the like of gentleness, meekness, patience, and all other virtues which are of a springing and spreading nature, where they are not quenched, but suffered to come forth to His praise in His will and time, who is the Begetter thereof, and to the comfort of His own Seed, and cross to the world  (How Sin is strengthened, and how it is overcome)

Note that Nayler says these effects are known “where they are not quenched.”  The resistance can take many forms, but one important one in these times and days is best summed up in the fierce old word idolatry.  As humans have rushed into concentrated, urban living, building up and up, out and out, fed by supply-chain tentacles, sending our waste somewhere away (to the outskirts of town, to the “countryside,” to other countries who accept our waste as a source of income, to the far oceans….away).  Rainforests are protected because it’s good for us; open spaces are preserved because green is good for our mental health, or for cleaning the air to prevent our illness— you know the line of reasoning.  And I do not deny for a moment that these benefits are not desirable and just.

However, where this point of view is supreme, and human use is the only measure of value, then we are liable to all kinds of excess.  We permit ourselves to ignore destructive consequences (ecologic, aesthetic, and all the rest) and permit ourselves to mistake short-term satisfactions for long-term goods.   Moreover,  some humans are seen to be more worthy of respect than others, owing to their mastery of the rules of our society’s games, wresting their success by coercion sometimes, by free acquiescence at other times.  As a result, we have built for ourselves a prison whose structure and infrastructure are rapidly deteriorating.   Hopkins puts it powerfully:

Generations have trod, have trod, have trod;
    And all is seared with trade; bleared, smeared with toil;
    And wears man’s smudge and shares man’s smell: the soil
Is bare now, nor can foot feel, being shod.

Step the sixth. How can we escape this idolatry of the human, so as to live in ‘unity with the creation’? As the early monastic writers saw it, one’s telos (holiness, or the kingdom of heaven, or availability) is not achieved all in one go, but by a succession of intermediate aims (each being a skopos, scopus), each arrived at by a practice appropriate to the soul’s formation for that aim.  Thus, for example, as John Cassian teaches, our realization as citizens of the kingdom of heaven is not possible without purity of heart ( “Happy are the pure in heart, for they will see God.”).  So there arose many disciplines or practices to help one arrive at purity of heart.

It seems evident that in these times we must overthrow the Idol Homo sapiens as the “measure of all things,” when it prevents the holy Spirit from working its transformative cultivation on us, is an important step towards removing a resistance to the Spirit, so that it can “come forth to His praise in His will and time, who is the Begetter thereof, and to the comfort of His own Seed.”   I suggest that for this aim, the necessary practice is reverence — taking a spontaneous experience in which we feel ourselves and our kind removed from the center of importance, and transforming it into a conscious exercise, with the aim of freeing the Holy Spirit’s access to us, and enabling us in that freedom to “have unity with the creation” — not abstractly, but in our willing and working, as well as our imagining, praying, thinking.

Step 7,  or the last. Many great manuals of prayer (such as the Philokalia, or the Imitation of Christ, or the Introduction to the devout life by Francis de Sales) take reverence for granted, or direct the reader’s attention to related practices as “watchfulness” or “gratitude,” which can be powerful allies or gateways to reverence.  To begin this work, then, I will suggest that  “reverence” has at least three important moments, which can serve as your guides for contemplation. :  (i) givenness, (ii) humility, and (iii) love.   With a clear recognition of my presumption, in my next post, I will provide some suggestions for an exercise in which each of these will be explained a bit more, as a way to train for the practice of reverence in the Anthropocene. 

*One manuscript divides an hour into 23,560 atoms.
** Blame me for the translation;  from the text in Migne’s Patrologia Graeca.

Dominion: George Fox Epistle 62, pt 2 Meditations

12/16/2022 § 3 Comments

1.. It’s not what goes into someone that defiles them, it’s what comes out of them;  and their fruits give evidence of their condition.

2. We can choose life, and its ways,  rather than death;  turn the other cheek, seek our neighbor’s good as earnestly as our own.  Christ and all the prophets teach that it is in this that true religion consists, and it is only when our heart’s integrity is nutured in the way of life that we can worship in spirit and in truth.

3. But these and other virtues do not come naturally (“The light says, Love your neighbor as yourself.  This the first birth cannot do”).  Incarnated as we are, beings of and from earth, as we grow into the fullness of human existence, many influences make commanding claim upon our attention and our intentions.  The old trio of “the world, the flesh, and the devil” can serve to summarize the diversity of these influences, inherent to us as social creatures: the world (culture and our social being), the flesh (the daily demands, gifts, and vulerabilities of our biological lives), and the devil (the preconscious influences that shape our passions, reactions, and perceptions — genetic, pre-natal, early childhood).    So when we desire to respond to the invitation from the Holy Spirit to a freedom from these, a freedom towards the way and ways of love, we are setting out on a learning path, beginning with the renewing of our minds and a dwelling in that which reveals and condemns all evil.

4. Moreover, the evil without is a fruit (and therefore an evidence) of inward evil, that is, acts taken while under the allegiance to culture, self-interest,, and learned impulse.  Wars, injustice, and other evil tendings are enacted by our cultures, habits, conventions, governments — all are constructed by individuals, and activated by them (us).   Accordingly, our inward condition Godward and towards our neighbor is our garden to till, and our hearts the classroom of our instruction.  When we become aware of this, we can cease to do evil, and learn to do good,  according to the prophetic virtues of justice, compassion, truth, and reverence.

5. By reverence I mean the condition that is necessary to understand our limitations and right place in a world we did not make, to keep teachable, and to know that our learning, our transformation, cannot be fully effected by will power alone.  So we must lower ourselves, that is, abandon the mirage of all-competence, control, self-sufficiency.  In a condition like that of children, we must  seek help and strength beyond our own.

6. What are we then to have dominion over?  Our Lord has said that his kingdom is within.  If therefore we are to reign as he reigns, that is, to live in inward freedom according to the laws of his nature, as incarnated in human lives.  it is in our inward realm that we (having the mind of Christ, the Truth and Life) can exercise sovreign power.

7.  Friends from the first generation have understood this, and understood the beauty that appears when Truth exercises its dominion in those who have come to the place where they can willingly receive guidance and accept healing and re-creation:  when a person, a minister, a community, gets off their high horse, and lowers themselves to the Ground.   The ministers of the middle period often speak with joy (and sometimes relief) when they can attest to an event like this:

 My soul was under baptism and exercise for the service when writing. It proved a time of renewal of strength in the Lord’s work, for I humbly trust He raised the power of truth into dominion…

We have held a good many meetings in the country, mostly occupying barns for this purpose. Sometimes these have been as much as a mile from any village, but the people have shown great readiness to come. I think it may be said that in each of them the powerof the Lord had the dominion, sooner or later…Oh! the love that over flowed towards those who assembled !

(from letters of Sarah Lynes Grubb

When Truth rises in dominion, when we come into a condition by which we rule ourselves justly, truthfully, compassionately, it can seem and feel like a miracle, and as Fox teaches, it is a gift from the Lord.

8.  Jesus’ miracles of healing are often accompanied by forgiveness, and an exhortation to sin no more;  soul-healing is far more difficult than body-healing, though that is a great blessing.  The path to an inward dominion marked by the rule of love and light is accompanied by many inward baptisms, deaths, and rebirths, and is only possible as we receive provisioning and guidance from the one who is both shepherd and Lamb.

9. Some people are impatient with talk of this kind, and want to get on with social action.  But  this inward work is in no way disconnected from the outward aspects of the Lamb’s war against the “man of sin,” the strength and cogency of the system of self-interest, injustice, and the improvidence that marks our economies and our governments. It is the way to grow, even amidst our doings, in integrity and compassion (even for ourselves).  When we know in measure the inward reign and dominion of the Lamb, and are joined with others in the common life that flows from that source, then we can in measure bring forth good things new and old, for the healing of the nations, and being ruled by love, our seeing, our speaking, and our doing are one, and being one are stronger than we can be when we yearn, fear, act, and speak from a divided mind, a soul with mixed allegiances.  “In his power and life and seed ye may live and reign” who taught and lived that whoever would be greatest must be a servant to all, even the least of his brethren.


All Friends, be low, and dwell in the life of God, to keep you low. Ye are the salt of the earth, to make it savory unto God. Ye are the light of the world. Therefore, walk in the light of Christ, whose light doth justify you, who then shall condemn you? Therefore in that dwell, which doth condemn all the evil in the world. G.F.

And all Friends every where, pray to the Lord to give you dominion over all, and that in his power, and life, and seed, ye may live and reign. And all Friends, submit yourselves one to another, in the fear of God, and be one with the witness of God in all, and look at that, and that will keep you down from looking at the bad; but looking at the good, keepeth your minds over the bad, with the Lord. G.F.

Dominion: George Fox Epistle 62 pt. 1

12/12/2022 § 2 Comments

I have been reflecting on the following short epistle of George Fox, from 1654 (really two even shorter epistles).* Here is the text: reflections will follow in another post soon.


All Friends, be low, and dwell in the life of God, to keep you low. Ye are the salt of the earth, to make it savory unto God. Ye are the light of the world. Therefore, walk in the light of Christ, whose light doth justify you, who then shall condemn you? Therefore in that dwell, which doth condemn all the evil in the world. G.F.

And all Friends every where, pray to the Lord to give you dominion over all, and that in his power, and life, and seed, ye may live and reign. And all Friends, submit yourselves one to another, in the fear of God, and be one with the witness of God in all, and look at that, and that will keep you down from looking at the bad; but looking at the good, keepeth your minds over the bad, with the Lord. G.F.

* From the 1831 Works, as reprinted by the New Foundation Fellowship in 1990). Vol 7, pg. 75.

Erasmus Birthday II:The Holy Spirit sticks like glue

11/16/2022 § 6 Comments

John the Baptizer’s preaching brought his many hearers to an intense experience of repentance and renewal.  But he told his followers that this was but a shadow of what was to come:  The Lamb of God whose advent he expected would baptize not with water, but with the Holy Spirit and with fire, that power that transforms and reveals.

The Spirit, we are taught, is not under our control, it works as it will, and its presence takes us out of time, out of our daily context.  Though as incarnated beings we cannot escape the rhythms of time and the imperatives of matter, the Spirit’s work reminds us of our other dimensions, of our inheritance of freedom, and our foundational relatedness to the Logos, the Wisdom of God:

Whatever is born of the flesh is flesh;  whatever is born of the Spirit is spirit.  So don’t be amazed that I say you must be born from above. The wind blows where it wants to, and though you hear its sound, you don’t know whence it comes or whither it goes. That’s how it is with  everyone who is born of the Spirit.   (John 3:6-9, my translation)

The freedom of the Spirit, however, is not divine whimsy.  We don’t control it, and so can’t predict it, because God’s wisdom transcends ours, to such an extent that it sometimes seems foolishness — as Paul taught, and Erasmus after him.  Yet the steadfast love of God is reiterated in Jesus’ assurance that “I am with you always, even to the end of the world.”

While church historians have long taught that early Christianity’s  big crisis was that no End Times arrived as expected, I think that in the world of the Gospels, and especially John’s, the big crisis was the removal of Jesus whose companionship, teaching, and healing felt to his friends (and enemies)  as physical, as earthy, as their own lives. His death came as a shock and a bereavement like others — except that the wound was deeper, because he had seemed more, offered more, promised more.  Earlier, when people were leaving Jesus because of his “bread from heaven” teaching (John Ch. 6), Jesus asked Peter, “Will you go, too?”  And Peter said, “Where would we go?  You have the words of life.”  But then Jesus left them.

As I tried to describe in my previous post, Erasmus taught that Christ’s resurrected presence, his “body adorned with the glory of immortality” (a phrase that bears meditation upon), now served as a bridge from the untransformed life (as understood by the “world,” that is, by people living entirely within their cultures’ assumptions and values) to the life so freed from sin’s power  that it can mature towards perfection — becoming perfect (that is) in allegiance, in obedience, in teachableness (meekness) and in embodiment of the law of Love. This life is so radically different from the “world’s” life that it dwells as it were in the cosmos of God.

Teaching on the threshold between the worlds, Jesus in his second coming now makes clear (in Erasmus’s unpacking of his dialogue with Mary in the Garden), how his persistence with them always, his continued steadfast presence, teaching, power, and comfort,is henceforth to be experienced as the Holy Spirit. It is felt and known inwardly, by our spiritual senses.  To the soul that “always stands ajar” (as Emily Dickinson says), this presentment, this encounter, is inalienable:  death cannot remove it, as death has removed Jesus the carpenter’s son and traveling sage, friend and daily companion at table, in the temple, on the road.  Thus, in a way that a body cannot be, the Spirit is permanent, and so unconfined in space that it can fit into any small welcoming cranny of ourselves, and be at work there, the guest at every table, the traveller knocking at every door, continuing to unfold the gospel in knowledge and in power, as our faithfuless and understanding grow:

[The Spirit] by its secret inspiration will supply you with all the truth, which now you understand as if through a cloud or a dream….For the time being, I have presented myself to good people and bad alike, so that none can claim they were not invited to regain their health. But it is otherwise with the Spirit: because it is heavenly and true, this world, which gazes with longing only on good things which are solely mundane and deceitful, cannot receive it.  Why not?  Because as long it has eyes that are so dull that they love only the crass and the worldly, the world cannot see the Spirit, nor know it.  For the silent Spirit slips in by way of the soul’s secret perceptions, wherever it finds a suitable spot. And you —  if you spurn the world’s trickeries, and seek after the things of true value, you will come to recognize him.  For the Spirit will not only come, as I have come [for this while], in visible form, but will also establish himself among you permanently.  Nor will the Spirit present himself to you as a master among retainers; rather,  he will dwell in the secret places within you, and will so bind himself to your spirits that one is made of all. Because he will take up residence in your heart of hearts, he will accompany you in all things.  (LB610 CDE;  my translation)

Now, the words in bold in this passage, bind himself,  explain my curious title for this blog post — because the Latin word Erasmus uses is conglutinare, a verb related to gluten, which in Latin means “glue.”   Erasmus is thereby conveying a close and lasting bond, in itself a paraphrase of Jesus’ prayer on the previous Thursday evening, “that they all may be one; as you, Father, are in me, and I in you, that they may be one in us,”  The presentation of the Divine One in the bodily ministry and personality of Jesus the Nazarene, whose mother, brother,  & siblings are mentioned more than once — that must come to an end,because it is in the nature of humanity.  But God is spirit, and the Anointed One (christos), the action of God as healer and liberator, is beyond the bounds of mortality. The gospel of John makes clear that Jesus made it astonishingly clear that this Anointed One was (and had been) present and at work in and through creation (including our created bodies) always, and will be, always.  Erasmus brings out this intimate, inseparable relationship, and Jesus’ declaration of it (in words, and through the post-resurrection mode of his appearances), in graphic form, with the word conglutinare, “stuck together (as if glued).”

The reason that this passage rivited and delighted me is that it was as the inward motion of the Spirit that I first understood God, in the moments of awe and mystery with which childhood often is saturated*.  In the passages of my life, I have been (and somtimes still am) inattentive or unfaithful to that Spirit;  I have at times been distracted by too  much head-work and not enough heart-work, by anxious toil, and by the outrageous evils and distortions done in Jesus’ name.  Yet in those times, when in inward sickness I have felt to reach within, or go on search for healing or freedom from one of my chains, I have found the Spirit present, as quiet and undeniable as ever, an unquenchable spring.

It is for this reason that I cannot talk about “believing” in God, anymore than I can talk about “believing” in winter, or my cat, or the welcome flowers of spring.  Of course, I have asked many questions (and still do) about this Spirit, most especially how its leadings, intimations, actions are to be known, and not confused with my own impulses or my culture’s preferences, or any other plausible counterfeit; I have sought to know the Spirit’s personality, you might say.  Early in the course of this long seeking,  I found (as George Fox said of himself), “The Father led me to his Son by his Spirit.”  A pearl of great price once discovered, which I often lose in the clutter and dust of living, but which I always recognise with joy when I seek it with a single heart: for it is reliably to be found.

*One reason why we need to bring our children to meeting, with all its challenges: Amidst the discomfort and lack of outward events, children can taste the power there, and recognize it from their other encounters in the open spaces of their lives.

Erasmus Birthday 1: Love and recognition at the Garden Tomb and after

11/13/2022 § 2 Comments

All good people agree in declaring that there is no book from which they have taken more fruit than they have from my Paraphrases. — Erasmus

Before ever he published his edition, translation, and annotations on the New Testament in 1514, Erasmus had been working on a commentary on Paul’s epistle to the Romans.  This was never completed, but in the wake of the New Testament edition he published a “paraphrase” of the epistle in 1517.  Its reception encouraged him to continue through the rest of the epistles, and then, with some reluctance, he paraphrased the Gospels, as well.  The Paraphrases were written for a popular audience with the aim of instructing, pleasing, and moving the reader. Though moderns might ridicule the idea that a Latin work on the Bible might be “popular, ” it should be remembered that devotional works were in great demand at the time, and that “literacy” for many sorts of people (including the rising middle class who could afford to purchase books)  often included Latin, the language of law, international commerce, science, and medicine as well as theology and “good letters.”  (This continued to be true well into the 19th century.) Erasmus employed the ancient mode of paraphrase to use the fruits of deep scholarship and prayerful reflection to engage the reader emotionally and spiritually, as well as intellectually, with the sacred texts.  He sought to please and move, as well as instruct, and this reflects his fundamental conviction that the Christian life consists in embodying the teachings of Christ, instructed and transformed with the aid of his spirit:

I believe anyone should not think himself to be a Christian if he disputes about instances, relations, quiddities and formalities with an obscure and irksome confusion of words, but rather if he holds and exhibits what Christ taught and showed forth.

In the gospels of Mark and Matthew the encounters with the risen Jesus are met with a mix of emotions — joy, fear, disbelief, and eventual acknowledgement.  The ending of the gospel of John returns us to the lessons and the affirmations of the Logos prologue, the “bread of life” passage in Chapter 6, and the “farewell discourses” of chapters 14-17.  The lessons and affirmations at the Garden Tomb are not explicit, and here Erasmus’s narrative serves to bring them out for us

Mary Magdalene has found the empty tomb and alerted Peter and the Beloved Disciple. The general response is that something has happened, but the first suspicions are of human agency — maybe Jesus’ enemies have taken the body? Or maybe disciples have moved the body to a more secure location?
While the two apostles run off to tell the others, Mary remains mourning at the tomb’s mouth. Some guy comes up and says, “Ma’am, why are you crying?” Mary turns to him, and replies that her Lord has been moved and she doesn’t know whither. Taking him for a gardener, she asks if perhaps he knows?  He then simply says her name, “Mary”; With sudden recognition, she replies “My teacher!”

In his rendition (LB 643CDE), Erasmus describes how Mary, distracted in her grief, sees a stranger who might have information for her.  She bursts out with her trouble, and turns away from the stranger towards the empty tomb again.  While she is glancing backward, the man says her name, “Mary,” in a voice she knows.  As he gives her name, she knows him, knows her teacher: in being known, she knows.  These details are embroidered by the paraphrase, but seem fully realistic, even necessary to understand the unfolding of events.

At least since Plato’s Symposium, there has been a strand of teaching that sees love as a kind of knowing, that advocates a pedogogy of the heart, which can engage the whole person and render them teachable.  Moreover, just as prayer can yield a heightened awareness of the nature and condition of the one prayed about, so love can enable one to see and know the beloved object in ways that are not otherwise accessible. Bill Taber of Ohio Yearly Meeting and Pendle Hill used to talk about “coming to the place that knows.  This center is where we stand in the prophetic stream, which is the active love of God to us-wards.  Here, feeling known as we are in truth, we can learn to recognize the Shepherd’s voice.

Something very similar happens later in John’s Gospel (ch. 21), when the apostles from their fishing boat see someone cooking fish on the shore.  Upon his inquiry, they report a fruitless night’s fishing, and the stranger directs them to cast their nets on the other side of the boat.  The nets are abundantly filled, and as the blessing takes place, the disciple whom Jesus loved says, in sudden recognition, “It’s the Lord!” Peter. trusting the perception of love, throws himself over the side and makes for shore.   Again, in Luke’s gospel, the disciples walk to Emmaus with a stranger, whose teaching is enlightening and comforting to them in their confusion and mourning after the Crucifixion and the discovery of the empty tomb.  The community recognizes the Lord when he gives thanks before their meal;  in retrospect, they understood the burning of their tell-tale hearts .

In these, as in other passages, Erasmus holds in mind — even in the awesome encounters with a risen Christ—  the paradox that the Lord of Majesty, the constituting Logos,  is also fully human, and therefore is to be known not only in the manifestations of power, but also in companionship, friendship, and the teacher-learning relationships, journeys, table-fellowship, adversity, death.

But in the Garden story as Erasmus tells it we see how this divine-human nature serves as a bridge to our own transformation, our journey to perfection  and full unity — Christ with the Father, we with Christ, and thus we with the Father.  For when Mary in joy reaches towards Jesus, now that she recognizes him, he warns her not to touch him, not to hold on to him. His strangeness is, as it were, a parable or sign, teaching that the next lesson to be learned by Mary, and by all the disciples, is to change a relationship nurtured by human friendship, by a sharing of the common elements of daily life, into something that more explicitly partakes of the transcendent: moving from earthly to celestial, from visible to invisible, from matter to spirit.  It is no rejection of the bodily life, the creature’s life in creation, but a passing within to the life of the Logos, through which all things were created, and which continues to maintain all things.  We are now to live our companionship, work out our discipleship and the call to perfection, under the guidance of the Spirit, and travel on the way that he leads.  As Erasmus writes (LB643F, 644A;  my translation),

Do not, he said, hold on to me — it is the same body that hung on the cross, but now adorned with the glory of immortality.  For up to now, your [thy] attachment understands the flesh, because I have not yet ascended to my Father.  When I have done that, I will send to you [all] the Spirit, the Comforter, who will render you perfected, and worthy of my spiritual fellowship…after tarrying some days with you, I will let go of earth, and ascend to the Father in which we are united, and the same God in which we are one,  Accordlingly, let [my friends]  lay down their attachments to earthly things, and direct their intention towards spiritual and heavenly things.

Erasmus’ birthday 2022: a short preface

10/30/2022 § 2 Comments

Note: Desiderius Erasmus has been a member of my invisble oversight committee since I first encountered him (in a high school Latin class).  I enjoy sharing something from this friendship  from time to time, and one way I indulge myself is by writing a post on this blog every year around the time of Erasmus’s birthday (Oct 27th).
I have been late in writing this one, because I have been of three minds ( like a tree in which there are three blackbirds, as Wallace Stevens says).
For the past few months, my morning devotional reading has been the Gospel of John —first reading a chapter of the text, then slowly working through Erasmus’s paraphrase of the chapter. From this, there have emerged three topics that I wanted to explore on this occasion. In the end, I have decided to write about all three,  but not all in one post, and since the topics touch me deeply, they may come slowly.  The three topics are:

1. Love and recognition at the Garden Tomb, and after;
2. The Holy Spirit sticks like glue; and
3. Confronting a mentor’s flaws: Erasmus as anti-semite (with a note on early Quakers).

Before I write these posts, a reflection:  Since I was able to think, my spiritual questions have often arisen from a desire to know how it works.  In my Episcopal upbringing, I wanted to know how the sacraments, especially the Eucharist, were supposed to work.  How does praying work?  How do you love your neighbor as yourself, or love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, all thy soul,  all thy strength, all thy mind?  How was a church supposed to work (and why were there so many kinds of them, and what was a church, anyway)? How did ministry work for the community?

I was given dogmas and stories.  The dogmas, the official teachings,  represented conclusions that other people had come to in answering their own questions, sanctioned by the church as Facts to be Accepted.  These I imbibed readily enough — after all, a chief occupation of the child is to learn their elders’ worldview,  and learning is a fundamental part of the delight of childhood in any case (a delight that can help keep ging children childlike).

The stories were what showed me that the most important thing about dogmas was the questions that brought them about, that all those pronouncements and assertions were really doorways or invitations to the explorer.  So they were essentially travellers’ tales: Someone followed a question, or entered a maze, and amazed wrote about what happened to them there; and then other people answered with their own experience or opinion,  until they agreed to stop arguing about some thing and declared it Figured Out.  So the dogmas originated in stories, but it was the stories, the lives and encounters, that were the heart of things — not the doors in and of themselves.

I have walked through many of those doors, though I have often strayed from a path thus entered, or abandoned it as uninteresting or (for me) too tangled to make any progress.  I have written or spoken about some of my travels in this Perilous Realm, and once I was freed by experience to see Dogma as the tales of other travellers, then I came to be interested by (some of) their accounts.For then you get a feeling for what this kind of thinking and exploring does to the explorer — what theologiaing does to the preacher or teacher.

Now, some people are motivated, to a large degree, by a need to find certainty (and some of them, to impose their own certainty upon others, to control Chaos).  But others, I would say, are seeking clarity,  as they wander in the wilderness of this world (to use Bunyan’s resonant phrase), and are using their imagination to understand and to live according to a beloved recognition.   You wander, in wonder, through a beguiling but apparently trackless forest.  However much delight the wandering brings, though, it’s nice to get assurance, from time to time, that you’re heading in a useful direction, perhaps  to find a path that others have worn that can both help you on the outward journey, and also help bring you home, with your head and heart full from all you’ve come across.   You get familiar with the experience of being lost while seeking, and your knowledge, your inner map of the landscape, becomes richer and more full of connections, and you realize that all the wanderings are part of one journey, one task.  Someone who learns and masters a craft undergoes something of the same kinds of experience, in their wrestling with materials to achieve the designs they envision.

People whose words are those of an experienced explorer or craftsperson— those people I love to listen to, argue with, learn from. Their stories are authentic, and part of the way you explore the value of their stories is to get to know them — who they, are in their times and places, what they were hunting for, where their hearts and imaginations live, who they learned from and turned away from.   In the end, it is their lives that speak through their words.  Such people can often see and talk about vistas that they have not reached themselves, and if they do so honestly and simply, then there is authenticity in those accounts, too.   So for me Erasmus, and pre-eminently the first Friends, and some others, met by chance along the way, or introduced to me by my companions.  The eagerness, the ardency, of their seeking, their finding, and their recounting of their discoveries, is what I feed on and listen for,  because they are all exploring the same wood I am, and orienting their compasses and their wandering steps to the same Dayspring.

I recently came across a lovely passage by Rowan Williams that moved me, because it touched on the educative power, the nourishing power,  of thinking on the things of the Spirit, and talking about them.

the language of doctrine holds together a set of intractably complex questions in a way that offers a coherent context for human living. They make sense, not first as an explanation of things but as a credible environment for action and imagination, a credible means of connecting narratives, practices, codes of behaviour; they offer a world to live in. The reasons that might make us decide actually to live in that world, to inhabit, not just vaguely entertain, a scheme of language and imagery like the classical theologies of Christ’s nature, will be as various as the histories of the people who make such a decision. Reflecting on the language of doctrine will not in itself do the job of persuading anyone to believe; what it may do is to give more depth and substance to imagining what it is like to believe and what new connections or possibilities are opened up by speaking and imagining like this.   — Rowan Williams,  Christ the Heart of Creation .

Meeting for learning and the formation of ministers

10/25/2022 § 1 Comment

Does your meeting have ‘meetings for learning’?   Parker Palmer (and Douglas Steere) used this phrase to advocate for Friends’ intentional learning, even studying, together.

Friends have had varying attitudes to such practices, and there have been times and places in whcih we have been very hesitant to organize such a thing, because of our deep fear of “notional religion.”

Howard Brinton, in his fascinating reminiscence, “Friends for 75 years”, commented on how, in the strongly Wilburite strand of Philadelphia Quakerism that was formative in his youth, the distrust of “head knowledge” in religious or spiritual matters was very strong. It made a strong impression on him, then, when his parents swam against this current:

We had no First Day Schoo. Such an institution would have been thought to resutly in a confusion between the intellectual and the religious. However, I was aware of the first adult study group, which sometimes met in our home. It was led by Dr. Henry Goddard, ad met secretly like a group of bootleggers in the days of prohibition.

Brinton’s parents, who had married across Quaker fault lines, were part of a generation that saw intellectual engagement as needful and nourishing — they were of the generation of Rufus Jones  John Wilhelm Rowntree, and others, who argued strongly for Friends to grapple with the challenges of modern thought and social movements.  It was exciting to see that (to quote Brinton again) the Light Within could be thought about, and indeed must be.  And after all, many of the Publishers of Truth, and the other leaders of Friends in the founding generations, were energetic and often skilled controverialists and debaters.

You could say, though, that they understood first-hand how one’s head could carry you away into places and assertions that their hearts, and the Spirit of Christ, had not led them to.  I often think over Like Howard’s comment on Job Scott (here) , in whom he found

a perceptible excess on the side of the imagination and the feelings. This had been the case with many good and useful men before him: and such a temperament makes a minister faithful, or courageous and energetic in the discharge of duty—but in measure disqualifies him from being a competent judge of doctrine and controversies. It is nevertheless sometimes corrected by experience, and by intercourse, in a spirit of charity, with others as zealous and knowing as himself.

Now Luke Howard was zealous for orthodoxy, though also an advocate of education and study, and he opposed the publication of Scott’s Salvation by Christ, a powerful and daring tract, in which he could see the excesses he warns of in the letter quoted.   But he does not refer (I don’t believe) to a telling anecdote in Scott’s Journal, which gives a glimpse into Scott’s practice, and in particular his participation in “meetings for learning” in which he might engage in a spirit of charity, with others as zealous and knowing as himself.”  While the meetings of ministers and elders could provide some of this engagement, we see in the Journal (chapter 6) something more informal, “retired,” and searching:

A number of well-concerned Friends of this Monthly Meeting, from a desire of good to themselves, and to promote the good of society, having for some time a desire to meet together, at seasons, solidly to confer together upon such subjects as might appear profitable, did,at some time past, make a beginning.  We have met divers times, and have been, at several of these seasons, baptized into death, or such creaturely abasement, as not to be able, for a considerable length of time, to move forward upon any subject.  But as we have lain low, and been willing to be with Christ, in his depression, his agony, his death, and hisburial, we have been livingly raised with him in his resurrection, into newness of divine life, to have sensibly known him to be “the resurrection and the life,” to, and in our own souls.  Then have we gone forward rejoicing, he going before us.  Divers [sic] important matters have been the subjects of these our religious conferences. We have had much solid satisfaction in them, and a belief has been sealed on our minds, that such opportunities are very profitable, and might be highly promotive of the welfare of society, if rightly encouraged and attended, in the several Monthly Meetings; anad perhaps, in some places, members from seberal Monthly Meetings might usefully attend such conferences.

Scott here is clearly not describing a “heady” or primarily intellectual activity.  The tone suggests that these well-concerned Friends were as careful about “notions” as their Quaker milieu might require — but they were led, by what one can perceive as their  zeal for the prosperity of Truth among their membership to meet together for discourse, a discourse in which the mutual instruction takes place with a full awareness of the Inward Teacher’s presence and priority.  The tone of searching and being searched, of watchfulness and patience, is palpable and intense.

We know, too, from Scott’s Journal and the writings of many other “Quietist” Friends of the time, that this attitude of watchfulness did not preclude hard reading and engagement with key topics of the day (not only the burgeoning of the natural sciences, but the emergence of the Insdustrial Revolution and the rise of capitalism — and the civil turmoil that would manifest in revolutions on both sides of the Atlantic.

The distinctive note that I hear in this story from Scott, however, is that the intellectual work, and the open and exercising exchanges that no doubt took place, were saturated witn the intent that this should be edifying — that their explorations should persistently be interrogated by the living Christ, as well as interrogating them and their habits and forgone conclusions.

In our own time, too, I think meetings for learning can (and do) feed the prayer life and the ministry in our homes and meetings;  and anyone concerned for ministry (of any kind,  but especially the gospel ministry)  shoud see it as their duty and their delight to participate as “humble learners in the school of Christ.”   It is nice to hear that Job Scott and his ilk are also in the classroom with us.

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