Adulting | Words of Wednesday

To grow to adulthood as a social species, including humans, is not to become autonomous and solitary, it’s to become the one on whom others can depend.
–John Cacioppo

Walking with the Nephew


My favorite definition of adulthood.

Quoted in Braving the Wilderness: The Quest for True Belonging and the Courage to Stand Alone by Brené Brown.

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.

Advertisements

The Art of Restraint | Words of Wednesday

The myth says all the author wants it to say and (equally important) it doesn’t say anything else. –C.S. Lewis, The Art of Writing and the Gifts of Writers


From C.S. Lewis’s essay “George Orwell” in The Art of Writing and the Gifts of Writers. 

I’m deeply enjoying listening to some of Lewis’s thoughts on writing (which inevitably means, to some extent, C.S. Lewis’s thoughts on fantasy/fairy tales) — many (most?) reprinted (and reread) from one of my favorite collections of his work, Of This and Other Worlds

This particular essay is, by no means, the highlight of the collection (which includes many of Lewis’s various defenses of children’s literature, fairy tales, and fantasy, along with such treasures as Lewis’s glorious review of Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings, his reflection on “The Novels of Charles Williams,” and his “On Stories” — which, along with Tolkien’s “On Fairy-Stories” and Chesterton’s “The Ethics of Elfland,”1 remains essential reading for anyone who believes that stories somehow matter), but, like so much of Lewis’s work, it is sane and insightful — thrilling with the magic of recognition: oh yes, exactly!

Lewis is ever capable, it seems, in putting the most complex of thoughts into the most straightforward of words. 

Reading the last of Stephen King’s Dark Tower books (a series I’ve been engaged in since the fall), I can’t help finding the quote above particularly pertinent. 

Knowing what to include, and what not to include, seems one of the hardest skills to get right as a writer. The Dark Tower series is — ironically — both an example of a writer excelling in this regard (The Gunslinger getting it so, so right) and utterly failing (Wolves of the Calla getting it so, so wrong).

And there is a world of difference between getting it right, and getting it wrong. 

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. A chapter in G.K. Chesterton’s book Orthodoxy.

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.  

Encountering the Other | Words of Wednesday

Imagination is the best, maybe the only way we have to know anything about each other’s minds and hearts. —Ursula K. Le Guin, Words Are My Matter


From Ursula K. Le Guin’s “Making Up Stories” in Words Are My Matter: Writings About Life and Books 2000-2016 (a collection of essays, book reviews, author notes, and introductions). 

Encountering the World’s Pain: An Ash Wednesday Reflection

We seldom go freely into the belly of the beast. … As a culture, we have to be taught the language of descent. That is the language of religion. It teaches us to enter willingly, trustingly into the dark period of life. These dark periods are good teachers. Religious energy is in the dark questions, seldom in the answers. Answers are the way out, but … when we look at the questions, we look for the opening to transformation. –Fr. Richard Rohr, Everything Belongs (45)

Today is Ash Wednesday, the first day of Lent.

Within the church calendar, Lent is to Easter as Advent is to Christmas. It is a period of preparation. For the cross. For the resurrection.

A period of preparation that serves as a memento mori: “Remember you are dust and to dust you shall return.”

The story that begins with the God of the universe putting on human flesh and entering the world through blood and water (as all of us, sons and daughters of Eve, must do), ends as all human stories must: with death.

Most of our great narratives, our myths, our epics, our hero tales, are stories about humanity trying to escape our fated end. Trying to win out over our own mortality. (Avengers: Infinity War anyone?) If we succeed, it’s to hold off the inevitable for an hour or a day or a decade, but death, like Beowulf’s dragon, always comes for us in the end.

This Lenten story, however, which ends as all human stories must, is fundamentally different than a hero’s story, because here, the one hero who could actually escape humanity’s fate, the one hero who is not, in fact, mortal, lays down that immortality and chooses death. Submits to full humanity.

So doing, death, humanity, Christ himself, are each transformed. But it’s a transformation that comes through, and not around, the grave.

My point? I’ve been reminded recently by Fr. Richard Rohr (among others) that Christianity — this religion predicated on following the footsteps of Christ — is about descent and not ascent.

It is about surrender, it is about gratitude, it is about becoming nothing because “when we are nothing we are in a fine position to receive everything from God” (Rohr 77). It is about growing “by subtraction much more than by addition” (Rohr 121).

I will never challenge anyone’s right to question the presence of evil in the world — the presence of suffering. But while theodicy attempts to offer a systematic, theological construct capable of holding — of answering — those questions, God’s answer was sacramental. Incarnational. God’s answer was to put on flesh and blood and hold the suffering itself. To put on human feet and walk into the suffering, walk through it. And, in walking through it, allow it to shape, change, and transform.1

This, stipulates Rohr, is the heart of what it means to be a disciple of Christ: “So much is happening on earth that cannot be fixed or explained, but it can be felt and suffered. I think a Christian is one who, along with Jesus, agrees to feel, to suffer the pain of the world” (151-152).

The Paschal mystery is the mystery of transformation in and through the ashes. If Lent is the somber reminder of our human condition, then Easter declares that there is hope, but that hope lies not in escaping our humanity but in journeying through it. As Rohr implies in the quote at the top of the page, answers may be a way out of the dark, but they are not the way into transformation. Transformation requires we walk into, we walk through: “We try to change events in order to avoid changing ourselves. We must learn to stay with the pain of life, without answers, without conclusions, and some days without meaning. That is the path, the perilous dark path of true prayer” (46).

Pain and suffering, says Rohr, are “the two primary paths of transformation” (115) and Rachel Held Evans reminds us, in Searching for Sunday, that healing comes when we “enter into one another’s pain, anoint it as holy, and stick around no matter the outcome.”

Anoint it as holy. 

What would happen if we really believed that? That our suffering, our neighbors’ suffering, was holy? Holy not because God delights in suffering but because God came and joined us within it. Holy in the same way the Eucharist is holy — the spilled blood, the broken body — because Christ comes and meets us there. Not symbolically, but sacramentally. Incarnationally.

So, today, whether you will receive the imposition of ashes or not, remember that you are mortal. That you are human (with all the perils and frailty the term implies). And remember that being human is a holy thing. That our mortality is a holy thing.2 Sanctified by the One who came, the One who died, and the One who rose again.

May we all have courage to face our deaths and walk more fully into life.

Footnotes:

1. Christ’s risen body is a mystery of flesh and spirit that bears its scars at the right hand of the Almighty. The incarnated Christ is thus ever, it seems, and for all time, both fully human and fully God.
2. Here’s a quote to wrestle with (if you’re feeling particularly strong of heart):

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 “[Child] 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. (Rohr 19-20)

I Go Down to the Shore | Words of Wednesday

I Go Down to the Shore

I go down to the shore in the morning
and depending on the hour the waves
are rolling in or moving out,
and I say, oh, I am miserable,
what shall–
what should I do? And the sea says
in its lovely voice:
Excuse me, I have work to do.

Mary Oliver


From Mary Oliver’s collection A Thousand Mornings. 

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). 

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).