The Making of a Soul | Words of Wednesday

We’re social animals, but we crave solitude to make our souls. —Ursula K. Le Guin, Words Are My Matter


From Ursula K. Le Guin’s “A Very Good American Novel: H. L. Davis’s Honey in the Horn” in Words Are My Matter: Writings About Life and Books 2000-2016 (a collection of essays, book reviews, author notes, and introductions). 

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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.

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.

Loving Questions | Words of Wednesday

I have given myself over to questions: large, hard, loving, full-blooded questions.
–Krista Tippett, Speaking of Faith


I’m currently on a roll of reading one excellent book after another (well, not one after another, exactly, as I’m currently reading 8 books simultaneously — 5 actively, and 3 at a more gradual tempo — but you know what I mean). Krista Tippett’s Speaking of Faith, the third of my January reads, was no exception.

I wish Krista Tippett needed no introduction. But though I know she has a wide audience for her NPR podcast, On Being — and thus a wide readership — I also know that most of my friends have never heard of her.

Suffice it to say that I consider her one of the wisest, sanest, most hopeful, reflective, careful, balanced, and, well, loving thinkers in the world today.

Her gift is ultimately one of listening, and in her years of interviewing some of the most extraordinary voices in our world — Thich Nhat Hanh, Fr. Richard Rohr, Elie Weisel, Mary Oliver, Parker Palmer, Naomi Shihab Nye (and so, so many more) — the mystics, poets, reformers, and prophets — she has developed deep wells of truth from which to draw.

Her book, Becoming Wise, which I read in 2016, gifted me hope in the midst of a heart-wrenching election, and Speaking of Faith did something similar.

The last few years have left me heartsore and bruised (more so than I realized) from too many run-ins with a version of evangelical Christendom that finds it necessary to draw the lines in bold — the lines separating truth and heresy, the in and the out, the allowed and the repudiated. What is safe and what is not. A kind of Christianity described by Fr. Richard Rohr in Everything Belongs: “It wants to attach itself to everything in order to figure out everything, in order to control everything. It doesn’t have a high tolerance for mystery or even for ambiguity. [It] is preoccupied with clarity and control.”

More than the obsession with right thinking over right action, the disproportionate obsession with sexual “purity,”1 or even the tendency to literalize certain passages of scripture while discarding others as idealized object lessons (the sermon on the mount, anyone?), I am weary of the claim to certainty. Weary of being offered prepackaged answers to prepackaged questions. Weary of being told where to look, what to ask, how to think, who to be. Weary of having this perilous journey of faith simplified into something easy, manageable, logical, safe.

And weary, perhaps most of all, of having to defend (over and over) the sacred spaces where I have encountered God. (In the silence, in the questions, in the what-ifs, in the stories, in the possibilities, in the midrash, in the unknowing.)

Weary of having to fight for the privilege of calling myself a Christian.

And into this weariness, Krista Tippett spoke. For Tippett’s book is, ultimately, a defense of faith. A defense of meaning, mystery, and spiritual truth in a culture that likes to maintain that civilization has moved beyond religious fairytales, but also (more significantly, in my case) a defense of faith as something spacious and large. Something big enough for our questions, our hopes, our deepest longings, our pain. Something not to be dissected, defended, and defined so much as journeyed with, wrestled with, and embraced.

How can I not love a book that qualifies questions as large, hard, and loving?

For sometimes the questions need to be asked (wrestled with, journeyed with, embraced) far more than they need to be answered. And that is a truth I wish the evangelical church could re-embrace.

I have no idea if Krista and I (it feels wrong somehow — too impersonal — to call her Tippett) would agree on any elements of theology. But I don’t really think it matters. This was a book that refreshed my soul and gave my spirit space to breathe. A book that called me back to the life of the spirit, the heart, the mind. A book that restored hope.

I have precious few quotes on-hand from the text (mostly because I was listening to it in audio format — and was often out walking while I did so — so finding the pertinent places to transcribe was difficult at best), but here are a few random snippets taken throughout:

I had decided I believe in God because the world makes too much sense; I still believe in him . . . but no longer that the world makes sense.

___________________________

And paradox always gives me hope. It means there are tensions that long for resolution, gaps that might be pried open by human understanding and connection.

___________________________

This angle of approach to the broken world resists choosing sides and accepts antithesis and contradiction as given realities much of the time. I find that I grieve as bitterly for the broken humanity of the perpetrators of crimes as for their victims. . . . I find it harder and harder to label and dismiss them, render them abstract. I am constrained to be mindful of both the fragility and resilience of the human spirit. I sense that seeing the world the way God sees the world means, in part, grieving in places the world does not forgive and rejoicing in places the world does not notice. It would mean, therefore, to live with a patience that culture cannot sustain and with a hope the world cannot imagine.

Footnotes:

1. I don’t mean to discount the significance of a holistic purity. However, if one were to count up all the times Christ addressed sex in his teaching vs. all the times he addressed other things — well, it would be hard not to get the idea that we’re far more obsessed with the topic than he ever was (and far less obsessed with issues that he took far more seriously: like feeding the poor, for instance). 

A Conscious Act | Words of Wednesday

For any act done consciously may be defiant, may be independent, may change life utterly. –Ursula K. Le Guin, Malafrena


Yesterday was the one-year anniversary of Ursula K. Le Guin’s death. An award-winning fantasy and science fiction writer, whose published work spans more than five decades, Le Guin was (among other things) a woman in a male-dominated field (specifically, the science fiction genre), a life-long student of Taoism, an astute observer of human nature, and an unparalleled tale-weaver, word-smith, and world-builder.

Le Guin sold her first novel at the age of thirty-seven (a fact that, at thirty-one, gives me great hope), and the years she’d already spent as a scholar (as an undergraduate at Radcliffe, as a graduate student at Columbia, and as a Fulbright recipient in France) — not to mention as a mother, wife, and generally thoughtful, engaged human being — lent her books a care and depth that is unquestionably literary (despite their broad public appeal).

I’ve long been a fan — a lover — of Le Guin’s work (especially her Earthsea cycle, which, in contrast to so much contemporary fantasy, manages to create worlds of depth and originality with an economy of pages and words), but it’s only recently that I’ve started to realize the true breadth of her genius. There is a particular kind of joy in discovering that a favorite author is not only brilliant, but prolific — and prolific across genres. I’ve read fifteen of her books to date, and numerous short stories, ranging from fantasy, science fiction, and retold myth to young adult novels and historical fiction, yet there remain a veritable feast of books, essays, and short stories to discover. 

This quote comes from my most recent Le Guin read (which also happens to be the first book I finished in 2019). Set in the early 1800s, in an imaginary central European country, Malafrena was utterly refreshing and unexpected. Published in 1979, it was written (at least in draft form) over twenty-five years earlier, and thus represents the oldest of Le Guin’s published work. It reads . . . well . . . like a text written in central Europe in the early 1800s.

Despite my love and appreciation of Le Guin, her ability to write so far outside her expected canon still took me by surprise. The prose, characterization, and narrative are each rich, complex, nuanced, contradictory, and, ultimately, alien. Not familiar as even her most far-flung worlds are familiar, rooted as they are in a contemporary genre whose questions, contours, and tropes are our own. In contrast, the world of Malafrena is remarkably other: these are not our people (not contemporary minds and hearts, playing dress-up in historic clothes); this is not our time.

Yet the very strangeness echoes like a memory, reminding us of something important we’ve forgotten. As with Chesterton’s “moor eeffoc” (“coffee room” encountered backwards), we are startled awake — and the world is strange and wonderful and new once more.1 

It is a book, ultimately, about the nature of freedom, intentionality, necessity, and all the paradoxes and perils of our entangled, tragic, beautiful, brief, and confounding existence. What a perilous thing is choice; what a marvel to be human and alive.

If this was her world, she was strong enough to live in it. She was a woman, not trained for any public act, not trained to defiance, brought up to the woman’s part: waiting. So she would wait. For any act done consciously may be defiant, may be independent, may change life utterly. –Ursula K. Le Guin, Malafrena

Footnotes:

1. This is an effect I’m more used to attributing to fantasy, than realism (and thus the shock is somehow greater and stranger encountered in a historical novel like Malafrena, hiding as it is in plain sight), but Chesterton himself declared it “the motto of all effective realism.” So who am I to argue? 

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

 

The Old Poets | Words of Wednesday

The Old Poets of China

Wherever I am, the world comes after me.
It offers me its busyness. It does not believe
that I do not want it. Now I understand
why the old poets of China went so far and high
into the mountains, then crept into the pale mist.

–Mary Oliver


Introduced to be by a former student (and current poet) who used to visit my classroom during breaks to share beautiful words. From Mary Oliver’s collection Why I Wake Early. It speaks to the contemplative at my core.

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.

Knowing We Are Alive | Words of Wednesday

To know that we are alive, that we can be in contact with all the wonders within us and around us, is truly a miracle.

–Plum Village Meditations (with Sister Jina)


Enjoying the gift of Christmas with family (in the Minnesotan homeland, complete with cousin-dominated Saturday broomball). This quote is from a series of meditations recorded at Thich Nhat Hanh’s former monastery. If you aren’t familiar with Thich Nhat Hanh’s life or teaching, I strongly recommend you become so. (Fifty-one years ago, he was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize by Martin Luther King, Jr, if that helps put his work in perspective — he’s currently 92 years old.)