The Only Life You Can Save | Words of Wednesday

The Journey

One day you finally knew
what you had to do, and began,
though the voices around you
kept shouting
their bad advice–
though the whole house
began to tremble
and you felt the old tug
at your ankles.
“Mend my life!”
each voice cried.
But you didn’t stop.
You knew what you had to do,
though the wind pried
with its stiff fingers
at the very foundations,
though their melancholy
was terrible.
It was already late
enough, and a wild night,
and the road full of fallen
branches and stones.
But little by little,
as you left their voices behind,
the stars began to burn
through the sheets of clouds,
and there was a new voice
which you slowly
recognized as your own,
that kept you company
as you strode deeper and deeper
into the world,
determined to do
the only thing you could do–
determined to save
the only life you could save.

–Mary Oliver


This poem is not unproblematic. Especially in the deeply individualistic world we inhabit. And yet, there’s something here all the same. Something dangerous and sacred and true. At the end of all things, the soul stands alone before God. (At least on some level, at least in some sense.)

Did you do the only thing you could do? Did you save the only life you could save?

Quoted in Shauna Niequist’s Present Over Perfect: Leaving Behind Frantic for a Simpler, More Soulful Way of Living.  

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A Worthy Life | Words of Wednesday

And she hoped she’d lived a life worthy of the great books she had read. –Paul Elie, The Life You Save May Be Your Own: An American Pilgrimage


This is the cry of my heart. To live a life worthy of the meaning I have glimpsed, the beauty I have tasted.

As my brother reminded me recently, a life spent reading is not a bad life. I certainly hope that is true, for while I can’t claim to be doing much these days, I am certainly reading … as I have read all the years of my life, in all the places I have journeyed.  

Paul Elie’s The Life You Save is an interwoven biography of Thomas Merton, Flannery O’Connor, Walker Percy, and Dorothy Day (the “she” of the above quote). It is “the story of four modern American Catholics who made literature out of their search for God”1 (and very good literature at that: two of them won the National Book Award and all four continue to be read, and read, and read).

I wrote a fairly substantial review on Goodreads, so rather than repeat that all here, let me just say that this spiritual biography is unique in that it is also a literary biography. Not just in its treatment of what these authors wrote (and how they engaged their faith in that process), but in what they read — for all four, to one degree or another, read their way to God.

As I noted in Reading is a Sacred Act, that is a trajectory with which I am intimately familiar.

The story of their lives, then, is also its meaning and its implication for ours. They saw religious experience out before them, they read their way toward it, they believed it, they lived it, they made it their own. With us in mind, they put it in writing. –Paul Elie

Note: I listened to this book in audio format, so I’m relying on a combination of my own and others’ transcriptions (thank you, internet) without the ability to double check punctuation against the original text. I apologize for any errors in accuracy.

Footnotes:

 1. Quoted from the synopsis on Goodreads.

Reading is a Sacred Act: A Follow-up

A semi-companion to this post about writing and a direct sequel to this one about reading spiritual books by women. 

I promised, a while ago, to follow up my post about women’s writing (and why we should be reading more of it) with a list of some of my personal “must-reads” — the books by women that have most deeply impacted my heart and mind.

At the time, I didn’t quite realize what an impossible task I’d set myself.

How does one curate such a list? Even if the only criteria is “personal impact,” how is one to measure and define such impact? Especially across genres and years? How do I compare Eloise Jarvis McGraw’s Moccasin Trail, for instance, one of my favorite Newberry Honor books from grade school (which spoke to my heart deeply on the topics of exile and displacement — the losses and gains of straddling worlds) with Jane Austen’s Persuasion, Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse, or (on an even more different playing field) Jeannette Winterson’s Art Objects? For that matter, should Moccasin Trail even be a candidate, given that its protagonist is male? And what about Emily Bronte’s Wuthering Heights, loved so dearly for its lyricism and strangeness, which I would claim as one of my all-time favorite classics … but which boils down, in the end, to a masterfully told tale?

I can hear the hecklers already, It’s your list, do what you want. Yet it’s such a knotty business, choosing favorites. Publicly declaring, This matters more to me than all those others I left off the list. And whether one wants to admit it or not, the public aspect also gets messy. By posting this on a public blog, I’m not really saying, simply, Here are some books that moved me, challenged me, changed me. I’m saying, Here are some books I think you, too, should read. Yet, as a teacher, I recognize that my personal favorites are not always the best books for my classroom. Personal impact is not the same as “objective” worth (or general value). Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, for instance, is an important read, and, dealing with gender and religion as it does, leaving it off the list seems almost irresponsible. It would certainly belong on a list of “books you should read.” Yet, while it was certainly thought-provoking, engaging, and worth my time, its personal impact was limited.

And if you’re thinking, Wait, I thought the whole point (as stated in the aforementioned article) was that these were meant to be spiritual books by women … well, that isn’t as simple as it might sound either. You see, there’s a reason I majored in literature in college. A reason I cared enough about what and how students were reading to become an English teacher upon graduating. Literature has been inextricably tied up with my faith journey since I read my first Newberry Honor book when I was eight. Earlier, actually, since I was already listening to stories (read aloud, played on tape, told orally) long before I could read them. I’ve read, and been deeply impacted by, my fair share of nonfiction over the years, but it is in the pages of fiction that I most consistently come face to face with the deep truths, beauty, and goodness that have drawn my heart, over and over, back to God.

If I hadn’t known Aslan as a child,1 or had my heart pierced by Justin’s sacrifice,2 or longed for the glory of Arthur,3 or tasted Hassan’s goodness4 — if I hadn’t had my imagination sanctified, over and over again, with glimpses of meaning, of sacrifice, of hope — if I hadn’t tasted life so often and so young — would I have recognized, in Christ, the fulfillment of my heart’s yearning? Or even known what I was yearning for?

I don’t know the answer to that question, but I do know that I came to God by way of story. By way of literature. By way of books. And for me there is no clear demarcation between the spiritual and the secular in this realm. Rather, there are books that send me back to the world alive and awake (to wonder, to beauty, to pain, to the search for truth, to the need for healing, to the yearning for joy) — and books that do not.

As a Christ-follower, I also believe that part of our calling, as readers, writers, artists, people, is to search for that goodness, coherence, meaning, and beauty in the world around us5 (to create cosmos out of chaos, as Madeleine L’Engle might put it6). Are some texts drivel that do little more than de-sensitize us to the sorrows and joys of our fragile, beautiful world? Of what it means to live, to love, to die — to be human? Undoubtedly. Pornography’s a real thing (the dangers of which go far beyond the boundaries of trivializing sexual encounter — for treating sex casually is nothing compared to treating people casually, treating life casually, treating meaning casually). Yet I’d rather be on the lookout for the sacred than spend my time decrying the profane. Which is why I’d happily declare Kate Chopin’s The Awakening and James Goldman’s Lion in Winter two of the most moral, spiritual, and powerful texts I know.

So, yes, I’m still working on those lists (which will probably appear as a series of several shorter lists — divided by genre, topic, etc. — to make the act of choosing less traumatic). It’s quite possible that many (most) of the selected books won’t explicitly deal with faith — or be written by those who identify as people of faith. Even so, I see them connected, inextricably, with the purpose laid out in that original blog post: to cast our nets wider and encounter the image of God in places we have long ignored (namely, the words spoken by women).

As you wait for my lists with bated breath, what are some of your favorite texts by women? Or some of the unexpected places where you have encountered God? What stories remind you that there is hope and goodness in the world? Something to fight for, something to gain, something to lose? Something to this business of living that matters and matters mightily? 

Footnotes:

  1. C.S. Lewis’s The Chronicles of Narnia
  2. Robert C. O’Brien’s Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH
  3. Mary Stewart’s Merlin Trilogy
  4. Khaled Hosseini’s The Kite Runner
  5. Philippians 4:8 — “Finally, brothers and sisters, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things.”
  6. Walking on Water: Reflections on Faith and Art

 

Searching for Sunday | Words of Wednesday

I prefer a church which is bruised, hurting and dirty because it has been out on the streets, rather than a church which is unhealthy from being confined and from clinging to its own security … More than by fear of going astray, my hope is that we will be moved by the fear of remaining shut up within structures which give us a false sense of security, within rules which make us harsh judges, within habits which make us feel safe, while at our door people are starving and Jesus does not tire of saying to us, “Give them something to eat.” —Pope Francis (quoted in Searching for Sunday)


The above quote opens Rachel Held Evans’s Searching for Sunday: Loving, Leaving, and Finding the Churchthe first book I read in 2019 (Malafrena, the first book I finished in 2019, was begun months earlier). And, like Krista Tippett’s Speaking of Faith, it was a book that spoke to my heart, to my yearning for a spacious, generous faith — a faith that would welcome all to the table: pain, fear, doubt, and question alike. A faith that would say,You are welcome here. While you wrestle. In your uncertainty. Even when you don’t believe. Come anyway. Come to the table. Come eat and drink and be refreshed. Come rest in the presence of Christ.’

This is what God’s kingdom is like: a bunch of outcasts and oddballs gathered at a table, not because they are rich or worthy or good, but because they are hungry, because they said yes. And there’s always room for more. –Rachel Held Evans

From the moment I read Evans’s prologue — parts of which read like a millennial manifesto (articulating what she perceives to be the questions, frustrations, and hopes of this “post-Christian” generation) — I knew I was going to love this book. I found myself chanting yes, yes, yes over and over in my head as I moved from paragraph to paragraph. Evans puts into words (beautiful, articulate words) the heart of much that has been building within me over these past several years (as a quasi-millennial myself, but, even more-so, as a teacher of young adults — young adults who have amazed me, over and over again, with their levels of integrity, courage, compassion … and despair). This book is, in many ways, both an answer to the students who asked me, “Ms. Magnuson, why are you still a Christian?” and a plea to those who (all-too unwittingly) made them think they no longer could be or should be.

It is an attempt to communicate, to bridge a divide, to tell a story. Her story, but also so many of our stories. It is her attempt to point us (all of us, regardless of generation) back to the Jesus we have been searching for — and to encourage, challenge, inspire us to be what he called us to be: his body, the church.

Like every generation before ours, and every generation after, we’re looking for Jesus — the same Jesus who can be found in the strange places he’s always been found: in bread, in wine, in baptism, in the Word, in suffering, in community, and among the least of these. –Rachel Held Evans

As Evans notes in her prologue, millennials are not looking for a hipper version of Christianity, but a truer one: “We millennials have been advertised to our entire lives, so we can smell b.s. from a mile away. The church is the last place we want to be sold another product, the last place we want to be entertained.” Pushing back against a triumphalism that would proclaim Christianity a religion of victory and success — of ascent — Evans claims church as the moment “when a meal, a story, a song, an apology, and even a failure is made holy by the presence of Jesus among us and within us.” She reminds us that Jesus didn’t come bearing quick fixes, and that the church doesn’t offer any either, only “death and resurrection” and “the messy, inconvenient, gut-wrenching, never-ending work of healing and reconciliation.” Only grace.

Evans’s book is a reminder of the power of vulnerability and authenticity in a photo-shopped world. A reminder that “there is nothing nominal or lukewarm or indifferent about standing in [a] hurricane of questions every day and staring each one down until you’ve mustered all the bravery and fortitude and trust it takes to whisper just one of them out loud.” A reminder that the Kingdom of Heaven is for the hungry, not the ‘worthy,’ and that our hunger for church is a hunger for “safe places to doubt, to ask questions, and to tell the truth.” That sanctuary — sacred space — is created not so much in the answering, in the fixing, but in the listening, in the holding. In the tears, and the table, and the perfume poured out on dusty feet. Christ came and dwelt among us, yet what he offered was not theological treatise, but life (and life abundant).

Sometimes I wish they’d find someone with a bit more emotional distance to give these lessons, someone who doesn’t have to break herself open and bleed all over the place every time someone asks, innocently enough, ‘So where have you been going to church these days?’ … And yet, I am writing. … I am writing because sometimes we are closer to the truth in our vulnerability than in our safe certainties. Because … even when I don’t believe in church, I believe in resurrection. I believe in the hope of Sunday morning. –Rachel Held Evans

As I wrote in my Goodreads review, “A book that re-instills hope for all the Church is called to be, while elucidating the pitfalls of so much of what we choose to be instead. Prophetic, powerful, truth-speaking.”

Note: I listened to this book in audio format, so I’m relying on a combination of my own and others’ transcriptions (thank you, internet) without the ability to double check punctuation against the original text. I apologize for any errors in accuracy.

The Sparrow | Words of Wednesday

And deeper, in a place she rarely inspected, there was a part of her that wanted to believe as Emilio seemed to believe, that God was in the universe, making sense of things. –Mary Doria Russell, The Sparrow


I was introduced to the science fiction novel The Sparrow through Krista Tippett’s podcast, On Being. An account of a Jesuit mission to “know and love God’s other children” (the ones not inhabiting Earth), the story — written by a life-long scientist, former atheist, and later-life convert to Judaism — deeply intrigued me.

I’ve been immersed in The Sparrow‘s world for about a week now, and though I’ve yet to reach the end, I already know that I would highly recommend it. Whether you’re interested in sci-fi, or faith, or just a really well-crafted narrative, this book is for you.

And, yet, I don’t recommend it lightly. Whatever the above quote may imply, this is one of the most uncompromising explorations of devastation I have encountered. It is, in its way, a subtle, deeply original, and utterly un-didactic retelling of the Old Testament book of Job. What does one do when it is God who destroys one’s faith? God, as Emilio tells us, who breaks one’s heart? 

Whatever peace I’ve made with the presence of suffering in the world (a peace predicated entirely on the incarnational presence of a God who enters into that suffering — wearing it like skin — in all times, and all places), this text (more, perhaps, than any other) has forced me to wrestle again with who God is and what God wants from us. How to reconcile the paradoxes of Old and New Testaments — of a God who both gives life and takes that life away.

And this I think is the point — these questions, this wrestling — and why I can declare Russell successful, regardless of where she takes the narrative from here. Whether she concludes with consolation, or answers, or only with silence, she has forced us to look again, question again, wrestle again. To acknowledge that we are mortal and dust, and God is mystery, vaster and deeper than any expanse of space, or time, or unknowable universe. 

And so, as Marc, one of the book’s priests, declares, “Perhaps we must all own up to being agnostic, unable to know the unknowable.” And yet, he continues, “The Jewish sages also tell us that God dances when His children defeat Him in argument, when they stand on their feet and use their minds.” 

So, with Job and Jacob and all the patriarchs of old, we must keep wrestling, keep questioning, till we meet God face-to-face, receive our true names, and hold our hands over our mouths. 

“And then,” Marc finishes, “we shall dance with God.” 

Lilac Breasted Roller in Flight (Naibosho Conservancy, Kenya)

You can listen to the On Being episode that first inspired me here

 

Everything Belongs | Words of Wednesday

One always learns one’s mystery at the price of one’s innocence. –Fr. Richard Rohr

Pulling out the chair
Beneath your mind
And watching you fall upon God–
There is nothing else for Hafiz to do
That is any fun in this world!
–Shams-ud-din Mohammed Hafiz, Muslim mystic (1320-89)

First there is the fall, and then there is the recovery from the fall. But both are the mercy of God. –Julian of Norwich, Christian mystic (1342-1416)

It seems that we Christians have been worshiping Jesus’ journey instead of doing his journey. . . . If your prayer is not enticing you outside your comfort zones, if your Christ is not an occasional “threat,” you probably need to do some growing up and learning to love. . . . God is always bigger than the boxes we build for God, so we should not waste too much time protecting the boxes. –Fr. Richard Rohr

Only when we rest in God can we find the safety, the spaciousness, and the scary freedom to be who we are, all that we are, more than we are, and less than we are. Only when we live and see through God can “everything belong.” All other systems exclude, expel, punish, and protect to find identity for their members in ideological perfection or some kind of “purity.” The contaminating element always has to be searched out and scolded. Apart from taking up so much useless energy, this effort keeps us from the one and only task of love and union. –Fr. Richard Rohr


I started Richard Rohr’s Everything Belongs today (and all the above quotes come from its pages).

Father Richard Rohr (a Franciscan friar) is one of my father’s favorite authors, and someone I’ve been intending to read for a long time. Winning Rohr’s book in our extended family’s Christmas book exchange seemed like a good reason to stop putting it off. I’m only one chapter in, but there’s already a lot to wrestle with and meditate on. There’s certainly a lot here that resonates with my recent exploration of Thich Nhat Hanh’s work. The mystics in every tradition seem to echo the same message — a message that often leaves the rest of us feeling rather unsteady on our feet, desperately trying to redraw the lines.

Probably the most challenging statement in Rohr’s book thus far is this one: 

We do not know what it means to be human unless we know God. And, in turn, we do not really know God except through our own broken and rejoicing humanity. In Jesus, God tells us that God is not different from humanity. Thus Jesus’ most common and almost exclusive self-name is “The Human One,” or “Son of Humanity.” He uses the term seventy-nine times in the four Gospels. Jesus’ reality, his cross, is to say a free “yes” to what his humanity finally asks of him. It seems that we Christians have been worshiping Jesus’ journey instead of doing his journey. The first feels very religious; the second just feels human, and not glorious at all.

This is a message I can imagine Thich Nhat Hanh, a Buddhist monk, embracing. But a Catholic priest? No matter what our dogma (“fully God and fully human”) we are so wary of Jesus’ humanity. So uncertain of what it means to reconcile those truths, that paradox. Surely, Jesus’ incarnation can’t mean that we, too, are meant to embrace our humanity, are meant to find our salvation there. 

Can it?

Will “liv[ing] and fully accept[ing] our reality” really bring us into the presence of God, as Rohr suggests? Will “the edges of our lives — fully experienced, suffered, and enjoyed — lead us back to the center and the essence”? 

The saints say, yes, and I’m inclined to believe them.

So may this year, 2019, be a year of “bearing the mystery of God’s suffering and joy” in the midst of our holy, ordinary moments. May we be fully human, as Christ was, embracing this life we have been given, even as we submit it to the One who made it, and us, and called it good.  

May we find God right where we are.

Faith as Sight | Words of Wednesday

Seeing isn’t believing; believing is seeing. —The Santa Clause


Yes, I know. Disney isn’t exactly where one usually turns for words of wisdom. But this film has a special place in my heart, having been one of three movies (the other two being Bananas in Pajamas and The Wiggles) that accompanied my first summer in Egypt, the year I turned 9 (a summer spent with ten other individuals in a two-room apartment — one room of which had AC).

I hadn’t seen it since that summer (over 22 years ago) until we revisited it this Christmas season.

It’s filled with much of the wonder I remember (though I make no claims regarding it’s objective quality), and this line (easily dismissed as so much nonsense) caught my attention as encapsulating many of the conversations about materialism, objectivity, truth, and faith in which I’ve recently engaged.

We see the world through the lense of the reality we’ve chosen to believe in — the reality we choose, often, because we must, because we can’t imagine leaping in a different direction. We contrast science and faith when both represent their own belief systems, and neither offers the kind of proof we like to imagine, reference, and cite. What we believe about life — what we imagine to be possible — what we set out to seek — directly impacts what we will indeed see, experience, and find.

While I have no problem with apologetics, I’ve never found that line of argument particularly convincing in my own walk of faith. Ultimately, I believe because I must. Because, as with Life of Pi, I believe it to be “the better story.” I choose to believe in hope, in meaning, in significance, in love. I choose to believe in God. Because, in believing, I find. And without those things, I couldn’t get out of bed in the morning.

So I’ll follow Puddleglum in living like a Narnian even if there is no Narnia. And is it not in living as citizens of the Kingdom of Heaven that we usher in that Kingdom?

In this Christmas season, may we have eyes to see the presence of God in our midst, inhabiting the world where we least expect him. In the bodies of women and children, immigrants and refugees. In war-torn countries and forgotten nations. In Yemen and Syria, Gaza, the West Bank … Bethlehem. Amidst poverty and hunger, hopelessness, anxiety, and fear.

As we face the birth of a new year, may we carry with us the hope of Christmas: Emmanuel, God with us. God has stepped into our darkness. We have not been left alone.

Expanding the Spiritual Canon: Women’s Voices, Inclusivity, and the Imago Dei

Originally published 6 Dec. 2018 on Christians for Biblical Equality’s blog Arise. Altered slightly. 

While I was recently “home” in Jordan, I happened to notice 25 Books Every Christian Should Read lying on the coffee table. While there’s something humorous, it seems to me, in writing a book about the books one should be reading, I was intrigued to see what — with 2000 years and the vast world to pick from — the editors might have chosen. Flipping to the table of contents, I was frustrated and saddened (though not particularly surprised) to see that only two of the works listed were written by women (and none were pulled from outside the Western canon).

Why this matters — why it might be a problem — should, I would hope, be fairly obvious.

As Sarah Thebarge wrote, in “(Half) the Sky is Falling,”

The creation story in Genesis says that in order to reflect God’s image in the world, God created men and women.  So, just like Mao Zedong’s insistence that “Women hold up half the sky,”  there should be a similar statement in the Christian tradition that says, “Women hold half the voice of God.” There should be a similar insistence that we not only hear about God from women, but that we in fact hear God’s voice through women.

If we believe, as we claim, that women (not to mention people of color) are created equally in the image of an ineffable God — and if we long to know that God, whose image they embody — shouldn’t we be actively pursuing their voices and perspectives? In some ways, the more different we believe our experiences of the world to be, the more important it becomes to hear the truths only the Other — the one who is not me — can speak.

If we want more than our own voices echoing in our ears, we need to cast our nets wider.

And yes, I know the answer to this general line of questioning: these simply are the classics of Christian history.1 “That they are what they are, do not blame me.”2

And I get it; I really do. Many of these authors have been deeply significant in my own faith journey and in the faith journeys of many of the people I know. But isn’t there also a self-fulfilling prophecy at work here? If we keep handing our children the same handful of books, written by the same handful of men, those books will continue to be the ones that most powerfully shape their journeys and their lives. The “must reads” they, too, will pass on as an inheritance for the next generation.

Whatever important, beautiful, and challenging works have been written by women or composed in other quadrants of the globe, how will our sons and daughters value work to which they’ve never been exposed?

When we omit the spiritual commentaries of women from our lists,  we perpetuate the myth that texts written by men are the only ones that matter, the only ones with any authority. We retain the lie of the universality of the white male voice — somehow uniquely situated to speak into all lives, at all times, in all places — and the equal and opposing lie that all other voices are situational and specific (with nothing to say to anyone beyond the borders of their own culture, experience, or gender).

But the point of this post isn’t actually to rant. Or to disparage books that really are worth reading (regardless of who wrote them). Or to imply that this is somehow a uniquely Christian quandary (the entire literary canon is rife with the same challenges — the same implications and assumptions). Rather, it’s to point out a problem, and suggest (request?) an alternative. How do we stretch the boundaries of the books we value and pass on? How do we create a more inclusive reality? How do we embody what we believe (about diversity and the image of God) in the space we make for other voices?

How do we intentionally break this cycle?

In the midst of a conversation sparked by these questions, my father made me an offer: write up a list of my favorite texts by women and he’d do his best to read one for every book he read by a male author.

This suggestion struck me as both simple and extreme. How do we bring equality to the canon? Well, we make sure we’re reading as many books by women as by men. Yet this is so divergent from the norm that it feels like a profound and costly concession (esp. when you have as long a reading list as my father). And one, I’m embarrassed to admit, I’ve never attempted myself.

I am, you see, part of the problem, not detached from it. Ask me to list my favorite authors, and I can easily give you five men for every woman. Most would be from Britain. A handful would be from the US. And almost none would be non-white.

And this from someone who did her master’s in women’s studies, grew up outside the US, and taught Global Literature for four years. So, yes, I think it fair to say the problem is pretty widespread.

My challenge to you, therefore, is my challenge to myself: it’s not to stop reading books by men, Westerners, or white people (let’s face it: I’m never going to give up Chesterton, MacDonald, or Lewis). It’s not even to commit to a 50/50 split (though I’d consider it a worthy goal to work towards). Rather, I’d suggest we strive to be a bit more aware of what we’re reading and why. Whose stories and voices we’re privileging and how that impacts our implicit narratives of value — of what is and is not applicable, worth listening to, worth knowing, worth learning from.

And yes, I’d challenge us to cast our nets a little wider. To broaden our reading, hear voices we haven’t heard before, learn from the Other. (If you have yet to listen to Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s TED Talk, “The Danger of a Single Story,” stop reading this and go watch it — I promise you won’t regret it.)

Here, as with every other aspect of our lives, we need to be intentional, aware, and awake — so maybe next time we set out to create a collection of the 25 Books Every Christian Should Read, things will look a little bit different.

There will hopefully be a follow-up to this post with some of my personal recommendations for must-read female authors (both in the realms of fiction and non-fiction). In the meantime, what books have most impacted your own spiritual and personal journey? Whatever the race or sex of the author, share away! I love to have my reading list expanded, and finding new favorites is always a joy. 

Footnotes

1. And by this universal phrase we usually mean the history of the Western church.
2. I stole this phrase from Charles Dickens’s A Christmas Carol and the Ghost of Christmas Past.

Eucharist

Calvary Episcopal Church, Santa Cruz
Sunday, 28 October 2018

The priest wore red
today, as he held his hands
aloft over bread and wine.
The color of martyrs and
remembrance, Christ’s passion
leaking from instep and
palms, blinked rapidly
from stinging eyes (oh, God,
were there flies? I’ve never thought
about the flies — the agony
of a body so taut, it can’t
even twitch to drive away
the swarms which gather,
like clouds without rain, or
so much dust in the desert,
to feast upon the bleeding flesh
of the too-soon dead),

yet today was not meant
to be a day for red.

Eleven are dead,
yet they never asked
to be martyrs (do any ask
to be martyrs?), as they
gathered to worship, to
celebrate, to pray, “on a quiet
drizzly morning,” just another
Saturday. Just another
sunrise, just another breakfast,
just another day
until it wasn’t.

We kneel at the altar,
my unpierced palms open
to receive the dry and tasteless
wafer, the wine smooth and
sweet (no hint of vinegar or gall)
on chapped and broken lips. We say
the “Our Father,” the offered
bread still heavy on my tongue,
and ask deliverance
from evil

— but whether his
or mine is left unspoken
as the music swells and the cross
processes down the nave,
and through the open door into
the sunshine of an ordinary
street, an ordinary day.
Pater dimitte illis: dare we
follow in its wake?

Written following the attack on the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. 

The Setting Out (and the Letting Go)

I would apologize for all the Perelandra quotes in the footnotes — except it’s the most powerful book I know on the subject of embracing gratitude in the face of the unknown. So I guess I’m not actually sorry.   

Almost exactly two weeks ago, on the first day of the Rosslyn school year, while my (former?) colleagues welcomed students back to their classrooms and worked to set the groundwork for the year ahead, I walked in Karura Forest one last time, processing endings and beginnings, and the 31 years I have now spent on this planet (four of those years, and five of those birthdays, having been lived, and celebrated, in Kenya).

Two days later, I ate my last Ethiopian meal, gave my last hugs, and got on a plane bound for all that comes next.

As I have written elsewhere, I am not good at goodbyes. Not good at endings. Not good at letting go of the things, the places, and the people that I love. Not good at holding the tension of the eternal and the temporal.

At reconciling meaning with brevity.

Which is one of the reasons I have taken so long with this particular goodbye. This “so long” to a community, a place, and, it seems, a profession. This letting go — in some ways — of the first third of my life.1 Of this particular story arc, with its heartbreaks, lessons, losses, and joys.

And so we circle back around — back to what feels, in many ways, like the beginning. Back to the precipice of the unknown. Of looking out at the mystery of one’s life, and wondering what could possibly lie ahead.

But, of course, we are not quite who we were the last time we were here. Like Santiago,2 finding his treasure at last beneath his very own sycamore tree, or Gilgamesh,3 returning to the walls of his city, the journey itself, circular though it may be, has changed us — more, perhaps, than even we know. As with Santiago and Gilgamesh, perhaps we are now capable of finding the treasure that was always before our eyes (or beneath our feet) because the journey itself (and all we have encountered along the way) has taught us to see our world anew. (And at least a little bit more truly.)

Has taught us to find beauty and meaning in the world around us — in sunsets, and deserts, and cities, and art, but also in mortality and suffering and distance and loneliness and tears.

Maybe we’ve learned how to find traces of God with us, here, at this moment. Whatever this moment may contain. Maybe the words of the Catholic mass have become engraved upon our hearts, proclaiming “it is truly right and just, our duty and our salvation,4 always and everywhere to give You thanks, Lord, holy Father, creator of the world and source of all life.”

Maybe we’ve learned to let go a little more. Trust a little more. Be human a little more. Be loved a little more.

Maybe we’ve learned something of grace.

And so, as I face my thirties, knowing little of what comes next, I am not afraid. And though I recognize that girl I was in my early twenties, so desperate for life to mean something, for the picture to cohere, for the story to make sense — she also is not me. And I am thankful that I am no longer (quite fully) her.

Yes, she is younger, with more potential, more drive, more certainty in her vision of the world and its requirements of her — more expectations of herself and of life.

But I think I am more patient, more self-aware, more at peace, and more dependent upon the God who is not me.5

Walk Cheerfully

My newest tattoo, in honor of my birthday, transition, and my favorite George Fox quote: “Walk cheerfully over the earth, answering that of God in everyone.”

I think my palms are open wider to whatever good God may choose to place within them.6 My heart more attuned to the gift. My soul more fully submitted to a journey I may never wholly understand.

And so I set out, once more, upon these winding paths of life. More vulnerable, less certain; more brave, less armored. I set out, seeking to walk cheerfully, to walk courageously, to walk humbly, to walk gracefully, to walk wholeheartedly. To walk with my hands wide open.7

I set out, trusting that — in the words of Julian of Norwich — “all shall be well, and all shall be well and all manner of thing shall be well” and that the power of an unearned grace shall sanctify every moment of this precious, precarious life.

May I never forget what a miracle it is to be alive.

Footnotes

1. At least conceptually. Who knows how many years any of us might actually have upon this globe.
2. From The Alchemist by Paulo Coelho (one of the required reads of Rosslyn’s 10th grade Global Literature curriculum).
3. From the Mesopotamian Epic of Gilgamesh, one of my very favorite texts to teach.
4. As C.S. Lewis demonstrates in his beautiful and wise Perelandra, it is within our ability to reject the gift, and thus reject our own joy: “One joy was expected and another is given….The picture of the fruit you have not found is still, for a moment, before you. And if you wished…you could keep it there. You could send your soul after the good you had expected, instead of the turning it to the good you had got. You could refuse the real good; you could make the real fruit taste insipid by thinking of the other.” (61)
5. “But how can one wish any of those waves not to reach us which [God] is rolling towards us?” (60)
6. “The best fruits are plucked for each by some hand that is not [their] own.” (Perelandra 194)
7. “‘I thought,’ she said, ‘that I was carried in the will of Him I love, but now I see that I walk in it. I thought that the good things He sent me drew me into them as the waves lift the islands; but now I see that it is I who plunge into them with my own legs and arms….It is delight with terror in it! One’s own self to be walking from one good to another, walking beside Him as Himself may walk, not even holding hands….I thought we went along paths–but it seems there are no paths. The going itself is the path.'” (Perelandra 62)