Saturday, February 27, 2010

Sacred Places

There are no unsacred places;
there are only sacred places
and desecrated places.
-Wendell Berry

For Lent this year I copied my friend at Two Square Meals who is giving up artificial light. As night approaches in my little cottage, the oil lamps come out, and the time of day is apparent in every dark corner of the house.

I’ve ended up sleeping more. I’ve realized how tired I am. I’ve worked less at home. I’ve awoken rested. I’ve slowed down. I’ve noticed the changes in the length of day. I’ve noticed more sunrises and sunsets. I’ve prayed more in the evening.

Of course, these descriptions of my Lenten fast only apply when I’m home, and the pace of life these days doesn’t find me home very often. There are many ways that Lent this year is no different from any other season, and the pace of life keeps me hopping all over the various towns in a 30-mile radius of my city. It’s hard to consecrate an entire season.

But I realized as I read a Wendell Berry poem posted at A Telling Place that while I feel incapable of consecrating the entire season as much as I wish I could, I can consecrate spaces. The places around me are sacred places, sacred places hidden behind the desecrations of cheap junk and noise and the iridescent glow of work. For Lent this year, I am trying to uncover the sacredness.

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

If you want to

“Auntie Em!” I heard the five-year-old call from his darkened bedroom after I finally managed to get his sick baby brother to bed. “Come here!”

With the two hours of soothing a crying baby behind me in the back room and a stack of unattended work before me in the living room, I made a short detour into the boy’s bedroom. “What is it?” I asked.

It became apparent from the munchkin’s difficulty in coming up with an answer that he had merely been bored. The poor kid cannot turn his brain off at night, and normally lies there for hours before he can get to sleep.

“Sweetie, you need to go to sleep,” I interrupted his nonsensical descriptions of his blanket. “You have school in the morning.”

“Well, there is at least one more thing,” he interjected in his adult tone.

“What is it?” I asked softly, somewhat dubious.

“Well... you can lay with me for a while, if you want to.”

I smiled in the dark, charmed enough by the invitation to consider foregoing my self-inflicted projects in order to help yet another nephew get to sleep, and amused by his lack of decorum. “Are you asking me to lie with you?” I asked like an annoying adult, supposing that if I were going to sacrifice the last bit of my unproductive babysitting night, he may as well ask me directly.

His polite tone developed a bit of a frustrated edge. “You can do whatever you want,” he insisted. “I am just telling you that you can lay with me if you want to, that’s all!”

Good thing for him, I did want to.

My efforts to teach manners having failed, I climbed into his bunk bed in the dark, tucking him in and lying beside him. As I listened to his breathing, I knew that I had melted to his non-request because it is so familiar. So rarely do I ask directly for things I want, even to those who love me most, even to God who has graces aplenty to spare. So rarely do I risk being turned down. So rarely do I venture to reveal my neediness. So rarely do I expose my longing to be loved.

The boy’s body broke the silence as he shifted his position and, as if an afterthought, flung his hand out toward me in dark.

“You can hold my hand, if you want to,” he informed me nonchalantly.

Yes, Little One, I do want to. I want to very much indeed.

Monday, February 22, 2010

Have this mind

I had always thought the story of Christ’s temptation in the wilderness was a little strange. I was never sure why the things he was being asked to do were particularly bad, and thus, if Jesus’ resistance to Satan was supposed to be our model for handling temptation, I assumed I would be hopeless.

But I wondered as I listened to this week’s gospel reading if Satan was not tempting Christ to do directly bad things but rather to become a fundamentally different Messiah.

Satan tempts Jesus, “If you are the Son of God, command this stone to become bread”—but Jesus had not come to feed his body with bread, but rather to give his body as bread.

Satan shows Jesus all the kingdoms of the world and tempts him, “To you I will give all this authority and their glory”—but Jesus had not come to be served, but to serve.

Satan tempts Jesus, “If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down from here, for it is written, ‘He will command his angels concerning you, to guard you,’ and ‘On their hands they will bear you up, lest you strike your foot against a stone’”—but Jesus had come to throw himself down to die without rescue.

In Lent as we empty ourselves, reflecting not only on our sin and mortality but also on the passion and death of Christ, perhaps we are learning the posture of our Lord who feeds us with his body, who takes authority by serving, and who shows his glory by dying. If Lent is a time of emptying, it is teaching us to take on the posture of Christ himself.
Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but made himself nothing, taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

This Radiant Fast

I am borrowing this from Fr. Stephen at Glory to God for All Things. This Orthodox poem comes from John Chrysostom's paschal homily, and, though today marks the beginning of Lent rather than the end, I find that my spirit is in need of remembering that this time of preparation is part of a greater celebration. Perhaps repentance and fasting and other reminders of our frailty are not about the brokenness for its own sake, but to clear the room for true celebration. This year, I need to reminder that the celebration is on the horizon.

* * *

If anyone be devout and love God,
Let him commence this radiant fast with joy!
If anyone be a wise servant,
Let him, rejoicing, enter into the school of repentance.

We who have wallowed long in sin,
Let us now begin our return.
If anyone has strayed from the first hour,
Let him today repent with zeal.
If anyone has sinned from the third hour,
Let him with gratitude embrace the fast.
If anyone has fled God from the sixth hour,
Let him have no misgivings about his prompt return;
Because he shall in nowise be turned away therefore.
If anyone has indulged the flesh since the ninth hour,
Let him draw near, fearing God alone and trusting in His mercy.
And if anyone has turned away only at the eleventh hour,
Let him also not hesitate to turn back with haste.

For the Lord, who is longsuffering and full of compassion and mercy, will accept the last even as the first.
He restores him who repents at the first hour,
As He does him who turns back at the eleventh.
And He shows mercy upon the last,
And cares for the first;
And to the one He gives,
And upon the other He bestows gifts.
And He both accepts the confession,
And welcomes the intention,
And honors the contrite heart and rejoices in the return.

Wherefore, enter all of you into the holiness of your Lord;
Offer your repentance,
Both the last, and likewise the first.
You rich and poor together, repent, for today we stand outside the closed gates of paradise.
You sober and you heedless, prostrate yourselves before your King!
Return to the Lord today, both you who have sinned with knowledge and those who have done so in ignorance.

Your pantries are full; empty them to the hungry.
The belly enslaves us, let no one be dominated thereby.
Enter all of you into the Great Fast;
Stripped of heavenly wealth by sin, all draw near to God’s rich loving-kindness!
Let no one despair in his sinfulness,
For the Bridegroom comes at midnight.
Weep all of you for your iniquities,
And draw near to the life-giving Cross of our Lord.
Let no one put confidence in the flesh,
For the Devil has deceived us all thereby, and therewith enslaves us to sin.

By turning from God, we are made captives.
We have called good evil and evil good, and put bitter for sweet, and sweet for bitter.
And Isaiah, foretelling this, did cry:
Woe to those who put darkness for light, and light for darkness!

We are embittered, for we are banned from Eden.
We are embittered, but it is we who have mocked God.
We are embittered, for now we shall surely die.
We are embittered, for we have succumbed to the serpent.
We are embittered, for we are fettered in chains.
We partook of a fruit, and met the deceiver.
We were entrusted with paradise, but we chose Hell.
Our eyes were opened to see the nakedness of sin.

Be pleased, O Lord, to deliver us!
O Lord, make haste to help us!

This is the acceptable time, let us repent!
This is the day of salvation, let us crucify the passions!
The end is at hand and destruction hangs over us!
The end draws nigh, let us come again to our senses!
The Kingdom of Heaven is at hand, what first-fruit shall we offer?
Let us delay not, lest we remain dead in the grave, sold under sin!
For God desires not the death of the sinner, but that he should turn from his wickedness and live!
So, let us choose life, and live, for the mercy of God endures forever!
To Him be glory and dominion
Unto ages of ages. Amen.

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

The Lamp of Sacrifice

In preparation for a trip this spring, I started reading John Ruskin’s Seven Lamps of Architecture today, a book I had supposedly read my freshman year of college (we won't discuss my undergraduate study habits). Ruskin, in his poetically complex nineteenth-century diction, lays out seven principles that govern the moral law, explaining that moral laws govern all practical laws (like architecture), for:
However mean or inconsiderable the act, there is something in the well doing of it, which has fellowship with the noblest forms of manly virtue; and the truth, decision, and temperance, which we reverently regard as honourable conditions of the spiritual being, have a representative or derivative influence over the works of the hand, the movements of the frame, and the action of the intellect.
Clearly, a sometimes-recovering Platonist like me is delighted.

The first “Lamp” of architecture he names is Sacrifice, which “prompts us to the offering of precious things, merely because they are precious, not because they are useful or necessary,” which he says is “the opposite of the prevalent feeling of modern times, which desires to produce the largest results at the least cost.”

And it just so happened, as I read Ruskin, sipping on my New Orleans style café au lait that the owner of my favorite coffee shop was offering customers in celebration of the day, that I remembered it was Mardi Gras, and Ash Wednesday is tomorrow. I wondered if the Lamp of Sacrifice that Ruskin highlights in architecture applies especially to us who prepare for Lent in a culture that cannot understand the utility of fasting.

In the building of the soul like the building of a cathedral, perhaps there is no utility in sacrifice. Perhaps (as I remember reflecting during Advent as well) the value is the sacrifice itself, not the results. Perhaps as we offer what is precious because it is precious, we are carving the marble of our souls into a temple worthy of being inhabited.
I do not want marble churches at all for their own sake, but for the sake of the spirit that would build them. The church has no need of any visible splendours; her power is independent of them, her purity is in some degree opposed to them…It is not the church we want, but the sacrifice; not the emotion of admiration, but the act of adoration; not the gift, but the giving.

Tuesday, February 9, 2010


Sometimes I need God to show up physically. I have always imagined that if I were a better Christian I would be able to sustain my faith with the ephemeral knowledge of God's presence in my soul. I would be able to be joyful when life crumbles, to feel content in pain, to feel God's presence in isolation, all because of an intimate knowledge of God's friendship in my spirit. Whether or not that is true, I don't seem to be that Christian yet. I rather doubt I ever will be.

On Wednesday I crashed. I went home that afternoon and begged him to be near me, to let me know his nearness, to meet my physical needs with more than an ephemeral hope. A God who would take on our flesh and resurrect it must, I hope, intend to redeem the flesh and blood of our world. Banking on that, I scribbled down a prayer.
And you were always near as air
When I was battered in the war—
But I am broken flesh, and your
Ephemeral love won't mend this tear.
You may have spoken in the wind and tongues
But I would have you feed more than my lungs.

And I have loved you, in a way—
The way a cripple loves his staff
Or as a slave his master's laugh—
At least I limpingly obey.
But lest I feed your sheep here with a cane
I'll have to ask you firstly for the grain.

And you had hinted there'd be rest
Though I have only found your yoke;
But souls that never slept awoke
To find the thief become a guest.
And you would dine with me despite my fear
That I have only loaves and fishes here.
Right as I put the finishing touches on my poetic demand for God's tangible presence like the Israelites had in the wilderness all those years ago, transcribing it from my journal to my poetry book and reading it through one last time there in my cozy green cottage God provided for me almost three years ago with a green picket fence, my phone rang. It was the graduate director of one of my number 1 schools from that bleak application season. It was a long-shot school that I wasn't particularly sure accepted anyone, offering me a position with funding early enough in the season that I hadn't even had time to start getting nervous.

I don't know if the saints and martyrs had been able to get on without physical reminders of God's presence. I'm grateful that so far God does not seem to be expecting that kind of sainthood of me.

Monday, February 1, 2010

The work has been done

Once upon a time, I decided to write a master’s thesis. This was, in fact, entirely optional for my MA program which had recently decided to eliminate the thesis option in favor of a smaller “capstone project,” but never one to take the easy way out I wanted to go for the throat.

I chose for my director one of the most intimidatingly smart and well-read professors in the department. I played around with a couple different ideas for a topic, not wanting to research anyone too overdone to be approachable nor too obscure to be interesting, and finally decided on Thomas More. My director advised that I avoid More’s larger, more famous works like Utopia or his Response to Luther, and pointed me in the direction of his poetry. He recommended that I explore what influence his poetry might have had in the development of the English epigram. Armed with a topic I knew almost nothing about, I set out to begin my research.

Well, actually, first of all I set out to learn Latin for two months in an intensive Latin boot camp in Ireland. Then I returned home to begin my research.

Now, I didn’t exactly know what an epigram was, nor was I aware that Thomas More wrote any. Nor was my university library aware of this fact, for though it housed the definitive Yale edition of the Complete Works of Thomas More, it had neglected to purchase the volume of his Latin poetry. But after procuring a copy, I read the text along with some letters in the appendices, and was ready to begin exploring their influence.

I read the first-century poet Martial to get a feel for the Classical background of the epigram tradition (and discovered among his thousands of epigrams one that More had used as a model!). I read Ben Jonson's epigrams to see what the quintessential English epigram had become (and discovered one that seemed to be based off of one of More’s epigrams!). I read books about the English epigram tradition (because other than Jonson and now More, I had no idea who else might have even written them), and discovered a couple references to translations of More’s epigrams. I read volumes of Renaissance epigrams by obscure epigrammatists. I discovered an entire journal devoted to Thomas More, and read every article it had published about the epigrams in the past thirty or so years. I searched the collections of various rare books libraries for obscure collections of epigrams in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries to see what they might have included of Thomas More.

Months later when I had done enough research to get a feel for how gargantuan a topic I had chosen for the thesis and how impossible the task of doing it well really was, my director told me to go ahead and start writing it. “This is not your magnum opus,” he reminded me. “It is not your first book. It is not even your dissertation. Just think of it as a scholarly exercise and begin writing.”

Feeling like an impostor for pretending I could say anything about the topic before I had read every epigram ever written and every scholarly book and article on the topic, I nevertheless wrote the thesis with the mere scraps I had managed to discover. Then I defended it, and despite the hazing I’m told I did well enough. They gave me my degree at any rate.

And now, months later as I prepare to write a talk for a frighteningly prestigious Renaissance conference, I picked up that volume of epigrams I succeeded in getting my university to purchase and read through them again. While flipping through the volume, I happened to notice something for the first time:

The endnotes and appendices.

The former included information like the Classical sources behind each epigram (like Martial). The latter had a chart I had instinctively ignored that listed every time in the sixteenth or seventeenth century More’s epigrams had been reprinted, quoted, translated, or discussed. There were certainly all the sources I had "discovered" in my months of research, and many many many many more. Oops.

My research had already been done for me. Some people can receive the grace to realize that the work has already been done before trying to take on the giant alone with their bare hands. There is a lot of grace in that, I imagine, but I don't seem to be one of those people. At least not this time around.

But even for me, there is another grace to receive as I realize that I had just spent months gathering information that had already been gathered by better, more able scholars. I reflect on my director’s reminder to me that no one had ever expected me to write the definitive work on More’s epigrams. No one had expected me to discover anything, per se. The telos (the end, the goal) of the project had never been the actual thesis: it had been me. Through my intensive research on a topic that had already been done in order to write a thesis that no one would ever need to read, I was becoming a scholar.

I don’t think there is generally a lot of grace among us arrogant academics, so I’ll take it when I can!