Think it through: discursive meditation

[The third of five occasional articles of variations on Lectio Divina meditation based on the book Prayer and Temperament by Chester P. Michael and Marie C. Norrisey.]

Discursive Meditation: a Short History

Developed over the first Christian centuries, the form of meditation known as Lectio Divinaincluded the elements of reading, meditation, prayer, and contemplation. These elements are interwoven to make the prayer simple and spontaneous. The passion for analysis brought about by the 12th Century schools of theology began to emphasize more analytical and methodical meditation. A 14th and 15th Century renewal movement – the Devotio Moderna – reacted against the overemphasis of analysis in prayer and emphasized the last two elements of the Lectio Divina. By the 16th Century, the elements of the Lectio Divina generally were no longer interwoven. The term “mental prayer” (as opposed to liturgy and corporate prayer) was coined, and mental prayer was divided into discursive meditation, affective prayer (or affective meditation), and contemplation. In the last 400 years, grace-infused contemplation has been seen as the exception rather than the rule. It has been confused with phenomena such as levitation, visions, and private revelations, and has been associated with certain heresies such as Quietism in the 17th Century. Meanwhile, discursive meditation fit the rational approach to life brought about by the Age of Reason. This overemphasis on analysis and thinking in meditation lasted until The Vatican II Ecumenical Counsel in the early 1960s. Reacting to the inroads made by Eastern religions in the West, Vatican II caused many Catholics to rediscover their own contemplative tradition and theology as expressed by Thomas à Kempis, Francis de Sales, John of the Cross, and others.

Sadly, the pendulum has swung again and discursive meditation is underemphasized. Despite centuries-old warnings by John of the Cross, Teresa of Avila, and others, many today are trying to reach advanced stages of prayer almost solely by means of special methods and without the needed spiritual maturity. With its emphasis on personal growth, discursive meditation helps to bring about maturity.

Discursive Meditation: a Definition

Discursive meditation is a thinking-oriented approach to meditation. One “walks around” a Scripture or truth, seeing it from many angles. One reasons with oneself, moving from the doctrinal to the personal. Reasoning may be based on the seven auxiliary questions: why, who, what, where, when, how, & with what helps. The lectio portion may be brief, centering on a virtue, a fault, or a spiritual truth. The exercise concludes in the oratio portion with suitable resolutions. This discursive meditation results in a change of behavior. (Some sources use the term “discursive meditation” to also include the Feeling-oriented personalization of Scripture that will be described in a future article on NF spirituality.)

[chart]Discursive Meditation and the Rational Temperament

Chester P. Michael and Marie C. Norrisey’s book Prayer and Temperament uses the four temperaments popularized by David Kiersey in his book Please Understand Me: the artisan, the guardian, the idealist, and the rationalist. (For the purposes of Slow Reads’s articles on meditation, I have renamed the guardian temperament the “practical” temperament, and I have renamed the artisan temperament the “free-spirited” temperament.) These four temperaments are extractions from Katharine C. Briggs and Isabelle Briggs Myers’s personality theory, and they fit well with historical personality archetypes.

“Persons of the NT temperament possess a very logical mind which approaches a problem with an orderly movement of thought from cause to effect or from effect back to cause. They gravitate to anything complicated, exacting, or challenging to the mind.” (Prayer and Temperament, page 80.) NT’s (rationalists) usually prefer discursive meditation because of its emphasis on thought and logic. This style of meditation may not come as easily to those of other temperaments, but it would benefit them as well as the rationalist.

A Discursive Meditation

Lectio: read verses on humility, including Matthew 11:28-29, Matthew 23:8-12, 1 Corinthians 4:7, and 1 Peter 5:6.Meditatio: Consider the lives of Moses or Mary (Martha’s sister), or other examples of humility. Perhaps consider Peter’s hard-won humility by comparing Matthew 26:33 with John 21:15-17. Who is the most meaningful example of humility in the Bible to me? Why? Who in real life? Why? When have I been humble in the recent past? When have I been arrogant? What’s behind my arrogance? What’s the purpose of humility? How if at all does humility reflect reality? How can I grow in humility? How did Peter grow in humility? Who can help me grow in humility? How can he or she help? Oratio: End your meditation with suitable prayers for insight and expressions of repentance. Converse with God about an appropriate concrete action step.

Further reading:

Merton, Thomas. The Ascent to Truth. San Diego: Harcourt, 1951, p. 177.

Michael, Chester P. and Norrisey, Marie C. Prayer and Temperament: Different Prayer Forms for Different Personality Types. Charlottesville, VA: The Open Door, Inc., 1991.


Blogging & silence

That quality of hyperalertness is one of the things that has fueled the writing of this blog. Always searching, thinking forward to the next post. Hyperalertness has an addictive power of its own. During this window then, I think it will be better to obligate myself as little as possible. I want to relax the hyperalertness, and the vague feeling of dread that’s often at its center, with a quality that’s more peaceable, without an agenda, but rooted in gentle awareness.

— A Happening, June 14, 2005

Another reason [for no longer blogging] is that recently, I have only been writing things that will be published one form or another (including this blog). It’s almost as if I believe that thoughts are worth articulating and words are worth writing only if another will read them. This is false and dangerous, and I hope to discover what it means to write things that are not necessarily for “someone else.”

— The Dimly Lit Room, May 22, 2005

If we really wanted enlightenment, we’d stop talking…. I am tired of talking and tired of writing. I am tired of reading and tired of chasing ideas. It feels good to just watch. I feel curious.

– Lekshe’s Mistake, June 13, 2005

One of blogging’s serendipities is a happenstance of common themes. Even with a relatively small blogroll, I find that certain ideas and feelings are sometimes expressed at about the same time among my blogging friends. One such recent theme is a danger presented by blogging itself – does blogging interfere with the spiritual quest?

The Dimly Lit Room has recently quit blogging over this, and A Happening has recently cut back on the frequency of its posts. Lekshe’s Mistake has always written in spurts, which I believe is a healthier approach than mine. The timing of her posts seems more in tune with her inner life and less with developing a readership. I can relate to all three of the above-quoted recent posts about blogging (and writing and living).

The Dimly Lit Room has nailed me: my private journal shows the effects of blogging. I still use my journal in prayer and as a private record, but I have also rifled through it for inspiration for posts. Many of the pages are now sketches for future posts. The book is not as holy as it once was, and I have made no substitute for its original function.

The journal reflects my prayer life. I have gained a measure of freedom in this area in recent years, but I have stopped there. Part of it is how busy I have been this year, and part of it is the effort any relationship takes, even one with my Creator. Given a thought or impression, I have always found it easier to run away with it in thinking or in writing than to lay it aside and to empty myself.

I can also relate to the vague unease A Happening talks about. No one has pressured me to post by a certain date. Who turned this operation into a deadline-driven periodical? I did.

I know that writing is a part of me, if only so I can pray better. Perhaps I can put my innermost thoughts in a trunk in my attic, so my ego (an unreliable judge of talent) can imagine they will be published posthumously, aided by the drama afforded in such cases.

I’ve gotten a lot out of blogging, and I hope to get more. I enjoy the sense of friendship my small blogroll has engendered. I hope to figure out how to use something like blogging to help create a community of people committed in part to honestly and lovingly critiquing one another’s writing.

I suspect that – I hope that – my problem is one of priorities. Many of the blessings in my life have turned out to be curses because of my selfishness, my refusal to abide by the most fundamental understanding of my faith: “Seek first the kingdom, and all these things will be added to you.”

But is it really a matter of priorities? I read a one-sentence selection in Merton’s The Wisdom of the Desert, and I’m struck hard by a certain challenge it presents:Abbot Bessabion, dying, said: The monk should be all eye, like the cherubim and seraphim. I’m no monk, though the profession has a great appeal to me. Still, I feel a fundamental calling to be at least more eye, and less mouth and pen. It’s almost like a law of spiritual relativity – the more I want to publish, the drier the well. I’m going to try to bring up the water table, and give more out of an abundance and exuberance than out of some diseased part of me.

There’s a sense in which I must be all eye in order to be more eye. God often speaks in absolutes, and the result is a moderation and balance I could never achieve on my own.


When I cross-reference, I feel his pleasure

All I can remember of Chariots of Fire are the endless slow-motion track meets and a single line: “When I run, I feel his pleasure.” I had a similar feeling a couple of years ago one morning while happily cross-referencing two or three of my books. I became aware that I was made, in part, for God to enjoy my cross-referencing.

My cross-referencing is usually the first part and sometimes a large part of my devotions. It makes up most of the lectio and the meditatio of my Lectio Divina.

Do you read this way? I mean, how weird is this?

I’ll start reading a new book, or rereading an old one. It doesn’t have to be a devotional book, or even a “Christian” book, though it may be both. It may be the Bible or The Book of Common Prayer. It may be late at night and I’m reading a biography or maybe some poetry by Basho or Blake or Ben Zen.

All of a sudden, something in the book reminds me of something else in the book, or of something in another book. And I’m driven to link them with notes in the margins. I study the passages side by side. If it’s really going someplace, I type up something and save it on the computer.

I start spreading the books in front of me on the floor. Sometimes I have more than ten books out along with a few pads, a highlighter and a pen. And I’m excited. “My heart overflows with a good matter…” (Psalm 45:1).

And I’m often excited about the same thought I’ve had over several mornings over several years. My notes on the subject keep piling up, like sand on a drip castle. I sometimes interrupt my meditation with visions of writing a book on the subject.

I’d be tempted to, except my cross-referencing, like my reading, is not that extensive. I read a little at a time, and I stop and move into meditatio or oratio when I’m full enough with reading. It’s not like I’m deliberately researching or anything.

The number of books connected by my cross-references is relatively small. I have lots of books with a few cross references, and I have about twenty books with loads of cross-references. So all of the phantom books I would author would cite the same principal sources.

My method is pretty simple. I collect all references to a particular subject (or thought, if the subject is too broad) in the margin of the book that reminds me most about that subject or thought. Passages on the same subject or thought in other books are cross-referenced to that “central reference.”

I thought I’d give you a sample thought, starting with its central reference.

Thought: Our hearts can become our treasure — the playground God and we share.

Central reference: “Your heart, if it is totally surrendered to God, is itself that treasure, that very kingdom you long for and are seeking.” (Jean-Pierre deCaussade, The Sacrament of the Present Moment (New York: HarperCollins Publishers 1989), p. 30.)


“Watch over your heart with all diligence, / For from it flow the springs of life.” (Proverbs 4:23, NNAS)

“He becomes to them a sensible presence Who follows them and envelops them wherever they go and in all that they do. . . . and when they have to be absorbed in some distracting work, they nevertheless easily find God again by a quick glance into their own souls.” (Thomas Merton, New Seeds of Contemplation (New York: New Directions, 1972), p.276-77.)

“Once the intellect has accomplished its task
of discovering the place where the heart resides,
it will immediately see things
of which it was previously ignorant
and could never have hoped to find.”

(Symeon the New Theologian, quoted in The Book of Mystical Chapters, John Anthony McGuckin, trans. (Boston: Shambhala Publications, Inc., 2002), p. 106.)

“The backslider in heart will have his fill of his own ways, / But a good man will be satisfied with his.” (Proverbs 14:14, NNAS)

“All God’s creatures invite us to forget our vain cares and enter into our own hearts, which God Himself has made to be His paradise and our own.” (Thomas Merton, No Man is an Island (Orlando: Harcourt Brace & Company, 1983), p. 115.)

“Soul, you must seek yourself in Me / And in yourself seek Me.” (Teresa of Avila, “Seeking God.”)

“Isaac of Nineveh likewise used the image of Jacob’s ladder as an image for the ascent to God through descent: ‘Strive to enter the treasure chamber that is within you; that way you will see the heavenly treasure.'” (Anselm Gruen, Heaven Begins Within You, New York: The Crossroad Publishing Company, 1999), p. 21.)

“On one hand, the soul, moved by love, becomes the object of its own knowledge. On the other hand, the soul, touched and inflamed and transfigured by the illuminative flame of God’s immediate presence, is no longer the object of knowledge but the actual medium in which God is known.” (Thomas Merton, The Ascent to Truth (Orlando: Harcourt Brace & Company 1979), p. 278.)

“…[W]here your treasure is, there your heart will be also.” (Matthew 6:21, NNAS)


Nature & the resurrection

My recent trip to the National Museum of the American Indian reminded me that entire cultures can respect and hear from nature, and that in certain times and places one need not be converted in some fashion to see nature.

I don’t live in a time or place like that. Such as it is, my appreciation of nature is the young fruit of my painful conversion from Christianity to Christianity a while ago. I think I have to be converted to respect nature and to hear from nature much.

Most of what I’ve heard about the Evangelical Church’s new interest in ecology does not sound like conversion. We’ve found a Scripture here about “destroyers of the earth”; we’ve recalled God’s charge to Adam to cultivate and keep the garden. But it all feels like an environmental option package on the same gas guzzler. If this planet gets much hotter, we may tack on an eleventh commandment. But probably nothing more.

The possibility of my appreciation of nature comes from living my faith enough to die to my false self. When I rise again in this life, alien to myself, I’ll find nature alongside me, eager and smiling.

Stated another way, the key to my appreciation of nature from a New Testament point of view is the resurrection. Most Christians have no dreaming idea that nature is humanity’s partner in resurrection. Like the foundation of Locke’s version of natural rights, the resurrection is based on the distinctions among God, humanity, and nature. Each of these three has its own resurrection, and the first resurrection – Christ’s – was accomplished before the foundation of the Earth we are destroying.

Paul hears from nature when he speaks of the resurrection. Nature, he says, longs anxiously, waits eagerly, groans and suffers the pain of childbirth. Nature will throw off its slavery to corruption as a result of our own resurrection. It is Christianity’s way of saying what Isaiah said: “And the wolf will dwell with the lamb…”

Do I believe in this resurrection? Who cares whether I say I do. Who cares whether I get concerned about the planet. If the resurrection of the dead is to mean anything, I must fall to the ground and test it. Paul puts it to a group of fellow Christians: “So death works in us, but life in you.” I must come over to the dark side.

The planet’s well-being cannot be only a concern. My daily death must lead me, step by step, to a place where I love nature like a brother.


Posted May 2006

Nature & hope

When Warren and I do chores together, we usually have company. When we’re watering the plants in the summer, the bushes beg for water and then thank Warren for leaving the hose with them longer than he had planned to.

Warren looks directly at a bush. “You’re welcome.” He smiles.

Sometimes the bushes argue about who gets the hose first, and Warren urges them to share, and to wait their turns.

“Make the bushes talk, Dad.” Sometimes I forget.

The turtles talk a lot, too. So do my hands, for that matter, each morning at the bus stop. The left hand is the friendly scratch hand, but the right hand is the evil brain sucker that tries to steal Warren’s brain just before he’ll need it at school.

I remember bawling three years ago, about an hour after Warren and I had been watering flowers (and the day after Warren had me become the voice of the cottage cheese). Of course – it all talks! And if nature talks, it really talks. No more scripts. It was time for me to follow Warren.

I had always enjoyed the woods and the shore and had often felt God’s presence with me there, but nature had always been only a sign of God’s glory. I had given nature a script which it had dutifully followed, one that I had memorized out of the Psalms: “The heavens declare the glory of God…”

Then I had a two-year identity crisis and it changed the world. It even changed glory and heaven. I guess I had to take off some layers to understand what nature and people and heaven and hope really might be.

For most of my life I thought hope was in the future. But my crisis stripped hope of its future and left it bare and shivering in the present. Let it suffer – it’s all the suffering I’ve got.

In this present body we groan, yearning to be covered… (2 Corinthians – REB)

All the hope I have is inside me now. All the hope I have is in you and in the bushes and in the wind. Do I see the image of God in people and in nature? Do I hear the groaning, the cheering, the weeping and laughter?

American evangelical Christianity seems to react to anything that hears the rocks and the trees. Sure, Adam got a commission, but it wasn’t for strip mining. It was to take care. He got to know his friends well enough to name them long before he had any human contact. God or Adam or somebody even wanted to see if the beasts and birds were enough, or wanted to see if Adam thought they were enough. But it is never enough. Nature stood as naked and as hopeful as Adam.

The created universe is waiting with eager expectation for God’s sons to be revealed. . . . [T]he whole created universe in all its parts groans as if in the pangs of childbirth. (Romans – REB)

Sure, there’s an order to the resurrection: Christ, then us, then the rest of nature. But if Christ and nature are not in me, I have nothing to give birth to, and I have no hope. How does Paul put it? “Christ in you, the hope of glory.” If God is not in me, I carry no seed; I am sterile and will produce nothing in this life or the next.

What do I think or do or hear or see that’s born of pain and doom and hope and God?

Why are we afraid of Darwin, of Buddha, of Native American religions, or of anybody who listens better than we? Why are we afraid of the groaning of our own bodies? We’re afraid of a crisis and of a conversion that would open up nature like a clearing night sky.

Posted June 2005

My skin-deep Christianity


You get labeled.  Some of these labels are accurate, and some are not.  Some are helpful, and some are not. All labels are true: they accurately describe how the labeler sees the labeled one or how he wants the labeled one to see herself or be seen by others.  All labels are false: even the best ones tend to diminish the one labeled.  The finest eulogies diminish the dead.

Names are labels, too, though not as much these days, as a whole.  Still, though the name “Brandon” means nothing to me, because of her past experiences Victoria will attempt to put anyone named Brandon on the trading block any September she spots one on her class roster.  Like any words, names absorb connotations.

I am more than my name, and I am more than the sum of my most veracious labels.  Some labels go deeply into who I am – some more deeply than I realize – but none of them goes deeply enough to be fair enough, to touch or much less to capture who I am, or to do anything more than adumbrate some installment of me.

But labels and names have hurt deeply enough, and they have helped deeply enough, to confirm my belief that I have an ineffable, unknown name that my life may be obscurely moving toward that may in some sense capture who I am, at least to the extent that I am captured by Jesus.

Cats understand something like this about themselves, or at least T.S. Eliot thought they did.  Every cat must have three names (though I’ve never known a cat to answer to any): an everyday name, a unique name, and an unknown name.  Concerning the last:

When you notice a cat in profound meditation,
The reason, I tell you, is always the same:
His mind is engaged in a rapt contemplation
Of the thought, of the thought, of the thought of his name:
His ineffable effable
Deep and inscrutable singular Name.

(“The Naming of Cats” from Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats. (So all this “effan” talk (as in, “Man, that move was effanineffable!”) started with Eliot.))

One distinction between a cat and me is that, according to the poem, a cat already knows his ineffable name; it is unknown only to others.  But I attribute this difference to the cat’s higher spiritual attainments.

In Revelation, Jesus gives a new name, unknown to anyone but the person given it, to every person “who overcomes” (2:17).  How can I relate to such a gift?  Is it an hereditary title?  A term of endearment?   Since no one else would know the name besides the giver and the recipient, I think this name would constitute less of an honor than an expression of intimacy.

I never found this reward too appealing until recently.   Why would I want anyone – even God – to label or rename me?  As a teenager, I didn’t accept the rich identity my father offered me.  Instead, I pieced together my own identity.  The pieces that went down deep inside of me were of this order: “I am a Christian” and “I am better than you” and “I am a failure.”  I required my faith to support my ideas about myself, and challenges to my faith, whether intellectual or experiential in nature, felt deeply threatening.

A few hard knocks later, my identity is more wrapped up in another.  It is my experience – I can’t speak for others – that the deepest sense of self comes from being loved.  Jesus loves me after all.  “For the Bible tells me so” was never enough.  And, if things work out, he’ll call me by a new name no one else will know.


Why do Christians see themselves as Christians?  It’s just another label.  In the Bible, Jesus never called anyone a Christian.  God didn’t, either.  And either did any apostle or New Testament writer or any other Christian.

I mean, it’s a fine label and all.  It’d be hard to replace it, even if we wanted to.  (Could you imagine Christians trying to agree on a new name for the religion?)  But is the name helpful as a means of seeing ourselves, of identifying ourselves to ourselves?  “First and foremost, I am a Christian.  That is, I’m a Christian before I’m a father, a husband, a doctor, an American, or a Republican.”  (I couldn’t resist that last one.)  Speak for yourself.

[book cover]More voices: “If someone accused you of being a Christian, would there be enough evidence to convict you?”  I don’t know.  The criminal lawyer in me asks, what are the elements of the crime?  I’d have to find out what my accuser means since the label has picked up a lot of good and bad historical baggage.  It’s not even always clear in the Bible what people meant by “Christian.”  The word is used only thrice in the Bible, and on each occasion it’s a label used only by people outside of the church.

The Bible’s first two references to “Christian” are in the Book of Acts.  In one reference, the narrator explains the term’s origin (a label used by the people of Antioch for the disciples there), and in the other, King Agrippa refers to himself as a potential “Christian” when he came to Caesarea in order to judge Paul relative to the accusations made against him.

And the hand of the Lord was with them, and a large number who believed turned to the Lord.  The news about them reached the ears of the church at Jerusalem, and they sent Barnabas off to Antioch.  Then when he arrived and witnessed the grace of God, he rejoiced and began to encourage them all with resolute heart to remain true to the Lord; for he was a good man, and full of the Holy Spirit and of faith. And considerable numbers were brought to the Lord.  And he left for Tarsus to look for Saul; and when he had found him, he brought him to Antioch. And for an entire year they met with the church and taught considerable numbers; and the disciples were first called Christians in Antioch.  (Acts 11:21-26)

Then Agrippa said unto Paul, Almost thou persuadest me to be a Christian.  And Paul said, I would to God, that not only thou, but also all that hear me this day, were both almost, and altogether such as I am, except these bonds.  (Acts 26:28-29)

It’s interesting to me that, while Paul didn’t object to Agrippa’s term “Christian,” he went out of his way to refer to himself in another way – “such as I am” – and so to adopt no label for himself in this context at all.

The last use of the term Christian in the Bible is in one of Peter’s letters to the church, where the label is at the bottom of a list of otherwise negative labels his readers might have been subject to have been stuck with:

But let none of you suffer as a murderer, or as a thief, or as an evildoer, or as a busybody in other men’s matters.  Yet if any man suffer as a Christian, let him not be ashamed; but let him glorify God on this behalf.  (1 Peter 4:15-16)

(I added the bold font in the above excerpts.  The italics, which are part of the King James translation, indicate words not directly translated from the original but added to make the text more understandable.)

It should be noted that, while Peter used the term “Christian” to refer to the disciples, he used it only to describe it as an accusation other people could have made against the disciples.  One gets the feeling that “Christian” may not have been as positive a label for the people Peter was writing to, or for the people those people lived among, anyway, as it had been for the Antiochans or for King Agrippa.  In his book The Early Church, Henry Chadwick points out that, for about two hundred years after Nero, many Romans considered Christians to be both incestuous and cannibalistic (26, 29).  Nevertheless, it seems clear from 1 Peter that, whatever the negative connotations were that the general public associated with the term at that time, the Christians were to understand them as false accusations that would make their suffering them akin to Christ’s suffering.

Chadwick notes that, after Anticoch, the term “Christian” “quickly spread as the popular term” among the communities where the disciples lived (16).  There were also other labels other Biblical characters outside of the church used for the disciples.  Many Jews first referred to the disciples as “the Nazarenes” (Chadwick 16, 21).  The word “sect” appears twice (Acts 24:5 and 28:22).  I like “sect” because it emphasizes the church’s roots as an offshoot of Judaism.  But I can understand why “sect,” unlike “Christian,” doesn’t show up as part of any church’s name today.  It carries a sort of illegitimate and narrow connotation at a time when many churches, even very small ones, wish to associate themselves with denominations or “apostolic streams” and include phrases like “World Outreach Center” in their names.

I’m fine with “Christian” as a label.  I’ll concede for the sake of argument that it’s a better label than “sect.”  But I think it’s unscriptural – unchristian, if you will – for a Christian to define himself first and foremost as a Christian – as something God never referred to him as.  Can’t a Christian’s most essential understanding of himself rest in something deeper?

Here’s a related and an even more disturbing proposition, perhaps.  Isn’t it unscriptural for us to see ourselves – deeply, I mean – at the level of who we are – as a member of a religion (i.e., Christian) or of a denomination or of a particular church?   In the Old Testament, people identified themselves to themselves and among themselves as members of families and tribes and nations, and the New Testament uses the same language of identity.  We are members of God’s family; we are children of God.  Heck, we’re made in God’s image.  It’s easy to go to war against the other team (“Christians” vs. “heathen,” for instance), but it’s hard to go to war against sisters and brothers of the same God, even if we believe those sisters and brothers have left, or have never found, their spiritual families.  And if persecution ever took away all of the nice buildings and titles and traditions, could we not hope to be left with spiritual and natural fathers and mothers, families and clans?

It isn’t popular today to define ourselves in terms of where we came from.  (E.g., I am of the house of Rollins or Jaworski.)  The displacement of war, the breakdown of families, and the wash left from waves of Western thought have made it impossible or undesirable for most, I guess.  Indeed, I have tended to see myself as what I do (e.g., I am a teacher), what I enjoy, or how I see the world, and not from whence I came.  Further, most church teaching isn’t oriented to this understanding of ourselves.  But in Jesus’ gospel of the kingdom, I am invited to see myself by where I’m from.  Like Jesus, we come from God and return to God.

The New Testament invites us to see ourselves in many ways: disciples and workers, ambassadors and prisoners, servants and kings, priests and stewards, saints and sinners, to name just ten.  While I would argue, perhaps not convincingly, that “children of God” or “beloved” might be the richest identity for Jesus’ disciples to inculcate with the help of the Holy Spirit, it is not to the exclusion of God’s other ways of seeing ourselves.

I’ll continue to call myself a Christian when the need arises, and I’ll accept that appellation from others when I think I understand it.  But I rank it, as Eliot’s cat might, as one my least effanineffable names.


Posted August 2, 2009.

My religious ideation

I want to be a monk.

I feel bad about it sometimes.  It’s a selfish desire for a married man.  Stupid, too: Victoria is my soulmate and beautiful, nine years younger than I, and the work we’ve put in over almost seventeen years of married life has been paying off, we both think.

My therapist, Dr. Kennedy, told me ten years ago that couples with exactly opposing temperaments – she’s an ESTJ (a guardian) on Myers Briggs’s indicator, and I’m an INFP (an idealist)  – often have a hard go of it for the first twenty years, but if they work through their differences, they may have a great relationship thereafter.  (Dr. Kennedy’s marriage exemplifies his assertion, by the way.)

But Dr. Kennedy also inadvertently started me on this monk idea.  While helping me through an identity crisis, Dr. Kennedy clued in on my charismatic and rather evangelical form of Christianity.  He suggested that I read some devotional classics – a genre that had never appealed to me before – to reinforce what I had been learning during my crisis.

I read Augustine, St. John of the Cross, and others, and I was hooked right away.  The writers spoke to me about a side of spirituality that was at the edges or entirely outside of my Protestant experience, a spirituality that insisted on a deeper knowledge of self.  No heights without depths, the concept goes.  The road to self-knowledge is a paradox: it’s humbling and hard, but effort alone isn’t enough; it also requires God’s grace.  For the first time in my life, I was learning what Benedictine monk Anslem Gruen calls “spirituality from below”:

By descending into our earth-boundedness (humility is derived from humus, or soil), we come into contact with heaven, with God.  When we find the courage to climb down into our own passions, they lead us up to God. [Gruen, Heaven Begins Within You, p. 21]

I had been living in an Evangelical world that couldn’t even agree on whether it was appropriate to call Christians sinners in any sense.  Those who feel the word “sinner” is exclusively a label for unbelievers argue that we Christians need to identify ourselves as children of God so as not to void his work on the cross.  I’ll leave my rebuttal for another occasion; my point is that I now believe we can’t know God’s love to the extent we were created to experience it unless we go with God to the bottom of our false nature and discover more than we’d care to about our depravity.  When I read in these classics and in related books about spiritual leaders and explorers who openly acknowledge their status as sinners and who are frank about their sins and faults, I got courage to do the same, and I found a new place of fellowship and consolation with God.

I was almost forty years old when Dr. Kennedy made these reading recommendations, and I had just extended my first real invitation to God to peel away my false self.  I was motivated to do so by a deep-rooted, existential fear that I had avoided for years by constructing my own identity.  A career change and Victoria’s own personal growth conspired to finally expose it as a fraud.  I was about to discover that my approach to God and the Bible had been limited by the contradictory and patchwork manner in which I had built my identity (“I’m a fearful person.”  “I’m better than most people.”  “I’ll never measure up to my father.”)

Most of the devotional writers I read at Dr. Kennedy’s instance are monks, hermits, or spiritual fathers of nuns or monks.  You probably know the names: Thomas a Kempis, Ignatius, John of the Cross, Jean-Pierre de Caussade, Thomas Merton, others.  Something in their writing speaks of the fire that they permitted to burn away a good deal of their false selves.

During my crisis, I shared some of the rudimentary experiences some of them speak of.  I found the grace to admit more of my depravity to myself.  I know that, over twenty years into my Christian vocation, I would have consented to Jesus’ death had he been living then.  I discovered God in the people around me – Christian and non-Christian alike – and I found a new place inside me that seemed to respond to God in a more lissome way.  God was beginning to answer my prayer for intimacy with him.

My stagnation

In the years after my identity crisis waned, my spiritual progress waned, too.  In a way, I have been living out the Song of Moses: my rescue and my ride on God’s wings, followed by my complacency and distraction.  (A lot of great stuff having to do with my spiritual life has occurred in the past ten years, but I am speaking here about an elemental area of my prayer life.)

About seven years ago, I flushed when I read this passage from Merton’s The Ascent to Truth, part of a larger passage parsing John of the Cross’s stages of spiritual development:

. . . the Night of Sense and the period of consoling quietude are only a preparation for the mysticism of the Spiritual Night, Betrothal, and Transforming Union.  In the Night of Sense and the Prayer of Quiet, the contemplative is still in his infancy, and the tragedy is that in most cases mystical prayer does not get beyond this cradle stage.  The cause of this arrested development is to be found in subtle forms of attachment to which the spirit clings perhaps without ever realizing its own imperfections. [pp. 288-89]

It is probably presumptuous for me to claim to be even at the “cradle stage” – stages of spiritual development lose their allure and are no end in and of themselves, anyway – but somehow I recognized myself as suffering from something like this “arrested development” Merton describes.

Part of this stagnation was natural.  Over the last ten years, I’ve had a new career and a growing family.  I couldn’t focus on my spiritual life to the extent I did when my self-identity seemed at stake.

But before my identity crisis, struggles, blessings, jobs, relationships, and coincidences – everything usually seemed to feed into spiritual challenge and growth.  I haven’t felt that way over the past ten years, generally.  The job, the relationships, and the responsibilities – as important as they are – usually feel like more of a distraction than a teacher.  I’ve often been bitter about the great amount of time my job takes.  I often wince or curse when the phone rings.  I pray and meditate, but it seems to take me an hour – and an hour of prayer and meditation is a very rare event, given my schedule and spiritual torpor – just to clear my mind.

I pray and do Christian stuff.  But at some fundamental level, I miss God.

And I keep reading works by or about these monks and hermits, past and present – at least twenty-five books by now.  I’ve read enough to know that monasticism isn’t glamorous (or even necessarily spiritual or healthy, depending on the monk).  That doesn’t seem to lessen my ardor for the vocation, however.

Listening to fantasy

My ardor reached a fever pitch over the past month as I read two books my friend Bill gave me about the Orthodox monks and hermits on Mount Athos and some of their spiritual descendents: Kyriacos C. Markides’s The Mountain of Silence and Gifts of the Desert.  These books demonstrate to me that the tradition and spirituality of the Desert Fathers and Mothers are alive.  Men and women are living out Anthony’s pattern of withdrawing from the world in order to rid themselves of every vestige of their false selves and in order to love the Lord without distraction.  Many of them have become spiritual parents and counselors, and many of them have been sent outside of their monasteries to help others.  Like Anthony, many men and women are leaving the world in order to return to it as better conduits of God’s love.

These two books confronted me with my lukewarm spiritual condition, and they encouraged me with what is possible in God.  They also fed my monastic fantasy, of course.

There are several reasons why I fixate on the monastic life, I think.  First of all, writings by and about monks have helped me.  Second, I am an introvert with a job that quickly drains my limited extroverted energy.  My favorite monastic daydreams therefore involve orders that severely limit talking.  Third, I feel more and more trapped by the ascendant values of Western civilization – time management, consumerism, and logic, for instance – and so my favorite daydreams drift also to more Eastern monastic traditions.

My monastic fantasy is somewhat like sexual fantasy, I think.  I have learned that it’s wise to neither repress sexual fantasies nor give in to them.  Instead, I try to listen to them as friends (old friends!).  What should I pay attention to about them?  Probably not the precise detail that they may involve, but a particular need they may be trying to let me know I’ve ignored.  Similarly, I should neither ignore my monastic fantasy nor leave my wife and family to establish a hermitage.  (I assume no sound monastery would accept me.)

I laid out my monastic fantasy to Michael last week as plainly as I have to anyone.  (Michael is my best friend and spiritual father.)  He thought a long time before he said anything.

We ended up comparing our fantasies of the future, analyzing and laughing at their specifics and considering what they might mean.  Michael pointed out that many people either ignore their higher callings expressed in such fantasies or set out to fulfill them in the half-baked form they usually arrive in.  Our talk was a huge help.

I think I’m itching for the next season in my life, whatever it is.  My fantasy may provide some hints about it, and I think it’s asking me to take some steps in preparation.  For one thing, I need to allow the inward part of me to be developed.  It may not be smart for me to take my ball and go home because God won’t play by my fantasy’s rules.

Two elements of Orthodox mysticism

I hope also to continue examining Orthodox mysticism.  I’m already about through with Timothy Ware’s excellent book, The Orthodox Church and Vladimir Lossky’s classic book, The Mystical Theology of the Eastern Church.  I also hope to blog about some of the stuff I discover.

And I mustn’t forget the twofold purpose of much of Orthodox monasticism expressed well by Theodorus the Ascetic, a seventh century monk who lived near Bethlehem:

When you are in love, surely your constant concern is to be near the beloved at any and every opportunity, and you avoid anything that would hinder you from being in the company and the society of your loved one.  So it is when someone loves God. One constantly desires to be with him and to speak with him.  This can only be achieved though pure prayer.  So let us apply ourselves to prayer with all our strength, for it makes us become like the Lord.  This is the meaning of the Scripture that says, “Oh God, my God, I cry to you at dawn, my soul has thirsted after you.”  This person who, in the Psalms, cries to God at dawn signifies the spiritual intellect that has withdrawn from every evil, and that has been wounded to the heart by the love of God.

As John McGuckin, a professor at Union Theological Seminary, points out in a podcast I listened to today, Theodorus’s coupling of active purification and an inward turning in prayer to God as to a lover is common in Orthodox theology.

McGuckin’s podcast and Theodorus’s words reminded me of how these two elements were coupled for me just a few years before my identity crisis.  Here’s how I wrote about it to myself in my journal during my identity crisis:

The morning of your wedding, you sensed the Holy Spirit’s grief.  You knew your fellowship with God would suffer from the marriage.  That does not mean it was a mistake to marry.  It means you were fixed on substituting Victoria for God.  God is using this struggle to restore Jesus’ place as your beloved and to put your marriage in its proper place.

Three years ago, God showed you a powerful image of Jesus looking at you with the eyes of a lover.  His expression was engaging and jealous, like a lover’s.  You felt both broken and happy because you thought your marriage had ended a close relationship with Jesus.

A moment later, God allowed you to see yourself as a furnace.  As the fire burned, light from the furnace flashed different colors.  These colors represented impurities God wanted to burn out of your life.

Both of these images are beginning to be fulfilled.  The purpose of this struggle is to remove impurities, but the greater purpose is to prepare you for your beloved, Jesus.  Victoria has beautiful eyes, but you have never seen eyes like Jesus’ eyes, and you never will in this life.  Let the longing come.

I know my religious ideation, now as well as then, involves these two elements: purification from the false self (a process involving self-knowledge) and relationship with God.  Orthodox monasticism is not the only way God can fulfill these to my heart’s satisfaction.  (God, I know from my limited experience, is more willing than I am when push comes to shove.)

Two things you should know, since you’ve read this far.  Victoria is quite good-natured about this.  She is too experienced with my idealistic tendencies to be alarmed by them.  Second: I do know myself well enough now at least to know that, even if every impediment to a monastic or hermitic life were to dissolve today, I’d chicken out.

I tried to keep July relatively free of obligations so I could get in touch with myself a little bit again.  Schoolwork resumes the second week of August.  I’m glad I got to bring my fantasy to the surface of my mind, even if that is all I accomplish this month, and I’m grateful, more than ever, for good friends like Victoria and Michael.

Posted July 19, 2008.


Jesus puts a riddle to the twenty-first century church:

Among those born of women there has not arisen greater than John the Baptist! Yet the one who is least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he.

Where does this leave John? Could “the least in the kingdom of heaven” be his new rival? I picture some sort of biblical Macduff riding into battle, lopping John’s head off again, then triumphantly revealing that he was never born but was “from his mother’s womb untimey ripped.”

Or perhaps Jesus is describing John as the last of a dying breed of men, a breed unfortunate enough to have preceded Jesus. Christians – those who make up the kingdom of heaven and who take it by storm – are greater in God’s eyes than Jesus’ forerunner, this reasoning goes. John lost his head for a righteous cause, but he was old school, offering an inferior baptism, and he expressed those nagging doubts, didn’t he? (If we believe the part about John’s unbelief, we know far less about first-century eschatology than John did.)

The worst Christian – the weakest example of this race of supermen – eclipses John, this reasoning goes.

I believed this. For years. I know others who believe it still.


Lichen is Greek for “leprous” because the Greek physician and founder of medical botany – Pedanios Dioscorides – back in C.E. 68 thought lichen resembled the skins of lepers and could be used to treat leprosy. – Marcia Bonta, Appalachian Winter

Michael can’t talk about his first visits to Indian leper colonies without choking up. Impoverished and outcast, some of the lepers he met seem to live on worship and thanksgiving alone.

My old solution to Jesus’ riddle supports various forms of American Christian triumphalism. The world is waiting for the sons of God to manifest themselves and kick butt. After just a little more unity, just another move of the Spirit . . .

Jesus begins his parable of the sheep and goats with triumph. The Son of Man comes in his glory “and all the holy angels with him.” But the parable ends with Jesus equating himself with the hungry, the sick, and the prisoners – the “least of these my brethren.” Bad news for goats like me. We are ready for the triumph, but we never figure out the riddle.

[lichen on tree]

Probably the most famous crustose lichen is what has been named manna lichen because some scientists speculated that it might have been the Biblical manna from heaven. – Marcia Bonta, Appalachian Winter

What is that wafer I eat? Lichen. A broken body. The least in the kingdom.

Posted April 2006

Job’s friends

I wonder if I would ever sit silently with a friend for seven days out of respect for his suffering.

I wonder if I would ever stay with him after he began to talk for the hours or days it took him to grieve his loss, to get in touch with his feelings, and to stand against his God.

I wonder if I would ever stay with him long enough to stand up for his God and to be rebuked by his God for it in the end.

I wonder if I would ever love someone enough to spend hours accusing him as a means of defending my bad theology against my friend’s suffering that would, in the end, invalidate my theology. I wonder if I would ever love someone enough to risk the kind of abyss the loss of such a closely held theology might lead me down.

Would I love him enough to discover that I truly hate him, that the comfort I offer makes everything worse for him?

When I was younger, I tried to avoid hospitals, nursing homes, viewings, funerals — anything that required me to get close to other people in their sufferings. I didn’t know what to say to comfort the sick and the bereaved. Job’s friends later taught me by their example that I don’t have to say anything, and that it is important just to call, just to visit.

At one point, I also shared Job’s friends’ judgmental theology: suffering generally results from sin. My theology was another reason for my avoidance of hospitals and funeral homes. The sick and the dying pitted my heart against my stiff, sick understanding of God. Job’s friends could have helped me here, too. By following their example, I might have stuck it out with others in tight quarters where, sooner or later, God would have shown up and challenged my thinking.

I see the same struggle I went through going on in each of Job’s friends. The struggle plays out in their speeches to Job. They try to help Job by preaching to him about God’s judgment and, in the process, making not-overly-subtle references to the tragedies that rocked Job’s world. For example, Zophar, knowing full well that all ten of Job’s children died when a great wind blew down the house where they were eating, is kind enough to remind Job that ” . . . God shall cast the fury of his wrath upon [the hypocrite], and shall rain it upon him while he is eating.” (Job 20:23)

The following may be only a partial list of remarks by Job’s friends demonstrating how they connect Job’s suffering with what they judge to be his sin:

Job’s disaster (chapter:verse) Friends’ remarks to Job (chapter:verse)
The Sabiens take Job’s oxen (1:15), and the Chaldeans take Job’s camels (1:17) “Whose harvest the hungry eateth up, and taketh it even out of the thorns, and the robber swalloweth up [foolish men’s] substance. (5:5) “[The wicked] shall not be rich, neither shall his substance continue. . .” (15:29)”The robber shall prevail against [the wicked].” (18:9)”In the fullness of [the wicked’s] sufficiency he shall be in straits; every hand of the wicked shall come upon him.” (20:22)”The increase of [the wicked’s] house shall depart, and his goods shall flow away in the day of his wrath.” (20:28)


The sole surviving servant over the oxen and the sole surviving servant over the camels escape and tell Job the news (1:15 & 17) “A dreadful sound is in the [the wicked man’s] ears: in prosperity the destroyer shall come upon him.” (15:21)
“The fire of God is fallen from heaven, and hath burned up the sheep, and the servants…” (1:16) “. . . brimstone shall be scattered upon [the wicked’s] habitation.” (18:15) “The heaven shall reveal [the wicked man’s] iniquity… (20:27)”… the [estate] of [the wicked] the fire consumeth.” (22:20)
A great wind blows Job’s son’s house down, crushing and killing all of Job’s children while they are eating (1:18-19) “Remember, I pray thee, who ever perished, being innocent? or where were the righteous cut off?” (4:7) “[The foolish man’s] children are far from safety, and they are crushed in the gate, neither is there any to deliver them.” (5:4)”If thy children have sinned against [God], and he have cast them away for their transgression. . .” (8:4)”[The hypocrite] shall lean upon his house, but it shall not stand. . .” (8:15)”[The wicked] shall neither have son nor nephew among his people, nor any remaining in his dwellings.” (18:19)

“When [the wicked and the hypocrite] is about to fill his belly, God shall cast the fury of his wrath upon him, and shall rain it upon him while he is eating.” (20:23)


I suppose one could read Eliphaz’s, Bildad’s, and Zophar’s remarks in light of Job’s tragedies and figure that these friends are simply somewhat insensitive. In this way, one might give them the benefit of the doubt, supposing that they might have added, “present company excepted” to each remark had the events of Job’s trial come to their minds during their orations. It is difficult to believe, however, that these three friends would have so entirely forgotten the remarkable events that had led them to remain silent with Job for seven days. Surely the correlations in the above table are more than instances of insensitivity.

Why do these three friends act this way? Logically, of course, they proceed abductively from a faulty explanation. They believe that sin causes all suffering. At a certain stage of many people’s spiritual life, this simplistic belief reinforces itself. At an immature stage of my spiritual life, I may judge others in order to feel good about myself. This makes me quite conscious of other people’s faults. (Needless to say, my judgments are often quite inaccurate.) I am susceptible both to fixating on others’ sins and to accepting the explanation that their sin causes their suffering.

But the root of Job’s friends’ behavior is really not logic but the unrecognized fear that drives the logic. Job’s trials must have scared his friends. After all, if sin doesn’t cause all suffering, what would keep these guys from fates similar to Job’s? What good would their religion be if it ceased to protect them or even to make them feel comfortable or good about themselves? What good would their religion be to them if its essential purpose were not their well-being?

Before Job’s friends show up, the third-person omniscient narrator points out that Job does not “sin with his lips” despite all of his losses. Later, though, his friends’ fear drives them to remonstrate with him, and their attacks in turn drive Job to defend his righteousness. (His rebuttals against their accusations also include some snappy and sometimes sarcastic rejoinders:

Do you imagine to reprove words, and the speeches of one that is desperate, which are as wind? (6:26)

No doubt but ye are the people, and wisdom shall die with you. (12:2)

But ye are forgers of lies, ye are all physicians of no value. (13:4)

I have heard many such things: miserable comforters are ye all. (16:2))

Job’s friends stick around, and Job’s stubborn penchant for justifying himself against God eventually causes them to lose all subtlety. By chapter twenty-two, for instance, Eliphaz no longer requires Job to put two and two together:

Is not they wickedness great? and thine iniquities infinite? For thou hast taken a pledge from thy brother for naught, and stripped the naked of their clothing. Thou hast not given water to the weary to drink, and thou hast withholden bread from the hungry. (22:5-7)

The narrator starts the book by telling us that Job is “perfect and upright, and one that feared God and eschewed evil.” (1:1) The narrator returns after the speechifying to sum up everyone’s chief faults. Job has “justified himself rather than God.” Job’s friends have “found no answer, and yet had condemned Job.” (32:2-3)

Why do I and others I know feel like we have to have answers? What drives us to bright-line theologies that we will defend at the expense of old friendships and normal human kindness? My own experience tells me that fear is involved. Perhaps we have a premonition that, by pretending to possess God, we have grabbed a patient, powerful tiger by the tail.

Yet I have nothing on Job’s friends. I’m not sure I would have goaded Job to defend himself, and I’m not sure I would have risked having my theology ripped away from me by the God it turns out I never knew. At once comfortable and vaguely uneasy in my piety, I’m not sure I would have shown up to comfort Job in the first place.

Posted July 2006

Jobs & vocations

The blind spiritual instinct that tells us obscurely that our own lives have a particular importance and purpose, and which urges us to find out our vocation, seeks in so doing to bring us to a decision that will dedicate our lives irrevocably to their true purpose.

— Thomas Merton, No Man Is an Island

Mr. McGuire: I want to say one word to you. Just one word.
Benjamin:     Yes, sir.
Mr. McGuire: Are you listening?
Benjamin:     Yes, I am.
Mr. McGuire: Plastics.

— From the 1967 movie The Graduate

[I write here with more conviction on the subject of vocations than I am entitled to. I have been mulling over the idea of vocation, and I push hard in certain directions here. Feel free to push back. I hope I am more flexible than I sound here, and I would appreciate any feedback or correction you may wish to advance.]

Our society encourages vocations for something like the first twelve years of a child’s life. Our society stops encouraging kids in their vocations after that, generally, when it’s time to put away childish things and get a job.

Vocations aren’t usually jobs or even professions, at least in their pure forms. Children usually aren’t interested in jobs, per se, anyway. If you want to quiet a child, ask her what she wants to do when she grows up. To a child, the options must seem incomprehensible, dull, or daunting. Most of all, adult work often may seem unimportant to a child except as a means of making money.

“I’d like to be a dental hygienist [forklift operator, hairstylist, corporate counsel, travel agent, telephone repairman, secretary, mortician, drywall hanger, swimming coach, accountant, etc.]!”

I bet you don’t hear any of that from children when you ask them what they wish to be when they grow up. More likely you get averted eyes and something like, “I dunno.”

Most children don’t talk about it, but they innately seem to understand the difference between a job and a vocation. A job is a living, something kids might have to do if the world continues to require people to work to get along by the time they grow up. But vocation is adventure.

Vocation helped me finesse a potential showdown with a student in class a couple of months ago. Tommy was trying to engage the other ninth graders around him with a small ball. I asked him for it, and he responded by putting it behind his back. As I got closer to his desk and asked for it again, he gave me a grin and asked me to guess which hand it was in. (I knew it would be in neither hand at the end of his act if I continued to participate in it.)

I surprised him. I folded my arms and grinned. “You want to be a magician, don’t you?”

He looked up at me with a different kind of engagement. “Yeah. Yeah, I do.”

I never got the ball, but – more to the point – I never saw the ball again. Even better, we found something to talk about for the remaining weeks of school.

People with vocations include entrepreneurs, healers, magicians, mystics, naturalists, poets, prophets, super heroes, virtuosos, and wizards. A lot of kids want to be wizards. My son Warren went through a wizard phase. He hasn’t hit a landscape architect phase yet, though, and I don’t see it happening.

David Keirsey, author of Please Understand Me II: Temperament, Character, Intelligence, has emboldened me to use the word “vocation” in a somewhat unorthodox way. In Please Understand Me II, Keirsey asserts that each of us aspires to become an executive, a mystic, a virtuoso, or a wizard. He defines each of these four terms broadly, and he links each term with one of the four temperaments he creates from Isabel Briggs Myers’s famous personality matrix. What I call a vocation he calls an aspiration and “more of a dream than an ambition,” noting, for instance, that “it’s one thing to dream of becoming a virtuoso . . . and quite another to become one.” True, but I think we might raise our sights if we acknowledge our dreams and then think and talk (discreetly, perhaps, at first) about our vocations in terms of our dreams.

Thomas Merton seems to see vocations pretty much as the Catholic Church teaches about it, but he also finds exceptions that help him define “vocation” in a way I like: as becoming the truth that we love. Sticking with the sense of the word “vocation” usually used in the Catholic Catechism, Merton limits his discussion in his chapter on vocation in his book No Man Is an Island principally to spouses, monks, and priests. He starts the chapter more broadly, though, stating, “Each one of us has some kind of vocation.” He also ends the chapter more broadly, pointing out that St. Francis found any label, even one for his vocation, too constricting:

He had thrown all vocations to the winds together with his clothes and other possessions. He did not think of himself as an apostle, but as a tramp.

Merton writes that, in addition to people with unorthodox vocations like St. Francis, a small percentage of people struggle for years without finding their vocations. This isn’t necessarily bad, since “. . . their paradoxical vocation is to go through life guessing wrong.” I like to think that these people’s cultures – and even their own thinking – aren’t ready for the kind of vocation these people have before God. Our purpose is deeper than our thinking or our culture may be able to grasp. We wish to become the truth that we love, as Merton puts it, and there may not be a label for what we become.

It’s interesting to talk about what a vocation is and how it might differ from a profession or a job. It may also be fun but less rewarding to quibble over titles to the vocations. An agreed-upon list of vocations is impossible and unimportant, I guess. (It may be important to recognize, though, that some titles of vocations may also be titles for professions or jobs, just as some vocations may approximate certain professions or jobs.)

My buddy and mentor Michael is a wizard. He was a pastor (and a good one), but that title didn’t really encompass much of him. When we got rid of the churchy part of the church – you’d have to look pretty hard to find it anymore – Michael found himself with no short answer to the Great American FAQ: “What do you do?”

Wizards are part salesman (sort of the seedy side of the vocation), so Michael tailors his answers to the GAFAQ to fit his audience. He may allude to things like his life coaching, his infrastructure work with tribal leaders in India, his training of pastors in Eastern Europe, or his long conversations and friendships with other underground figures up and down the East Coast. But none of it comes to the point. “Life coach,” for one thing, is such a halfway house of a phrase. Why not commit yourself and say, “I’m a wizard”? That would get them thinking.

(Though I think most wizards abhor direct answers, or at least they don’t like a lot of talk that doesn’t tend to point to a new means of perception. I’m still enjoying one of Michael’s recent remarks: “If people really know you, they don’t know you.”)

Michael has no job anymore, though he works hard. He is one of the relatively few people I know who is paid for practicing his vocation.

I don’t think, though, that we should reinvent our economy to employ people at their vocations. Most of us benefit from working at our vocations without being paid for them. One such benefit is that we learn that our vocation is not about the money. Another benefit may be that we lessen the likelihood of veering from our true vocation at an early stage when it might be more susceptible to corruption. Still, it would be interesting to imagine what our society would be like, and what accommodations it would have to make, if it took to openly and more uniformly recognizing vocations and the people who practice them well.

The relationship between one’s job and one’s vocation is important. If I agree with Merton and Keirsey that everyone has an aspiration or vocation, then I can better put up with a less-than-fulfilling job. If I am in the job market, I may wish to look for jobs that will help me learn some aspect of my vocation, whether that aspect is a skill or a character trait. Finally, understanding that my job and my vocation are different may keep me from falling into the trap of defining myself by my job or profession. (As I hope to establish in another post, someone operating well in her vocation will hardly be tempted to view and understand herself in terms of her vocation alone.)

I think blogging has helped many people with their jobs and their vocations along these lines. I blog in part to get closer to my true vocation or at least to think through my vocation better. Blogging also helps me put my job in perspective since blogging gives me an outlet to express myself in ways I am not called upon to use at work.

Vocations may differ from jobs in at least four ways: in how one prepares for them, in how one is recognized in them, in how one relates to the public, and in what part of us is employed by them.

Vocations may differ from jobs in how one prepares for them. Jobs require training and maybe some experience, but, while vocations often require these efforts as well, they usually require dreams and inner transformation, too. A child or young adult may dream of a vocation, even if he conceives of it poorly. According to the Book of Genesis, Joseph at age seventeen senses his future vocation to govern, and he expresses his sense in the form of dreams he shares with his father and brothers in which the sun, moon, and stars – representing parents and brothers – bow down to him. The dream alone does not make Joseph a ruler. Instead, from the glimpses we get of Joseph over the ensuing thirteen years, it appears that his stints as a slave and a prisoner give Joseph the humility and patience necessary to tackle his vocation.

Literature and culture give us other examples of how the fire of transformation prepares people for their vocations. In J.R.R. Tolkien’s book The Two Towers, Gandalf the Gray needs the abyss to become Gandalf the White, after all! Vision quests and similar coming-of-age rituals practiced by many Native American tribes deliberately put younger male teens through difficult experiences in part to help them discover and prepare for their vocations. The hablacia (“crying for a vision”) ceremony of the Oglala Lakota tribe was typical in this regard:

During the ceremony, a young person will leave behind the mundane problems of life, and contemplate on his place in the universe. Similar to a vision quest, the individual will sit for four days and four nights, without food or water, and contemplate the whys of his existence. A person will ask, “Who am I?” “What am I doing here?” “What is my purpose?” Basically, this ceremony helps a person get in touch with their spiritual being. In other words, they ask the spiritual part of themselves to come to life, so that they may fulfill their part in the Divine Plan.

(Gary Null, “Native American Healing: Native Americans Speak Out on Sacred Healing and Transformational Rituals,”

Vocations may differ from jobs also in how one becomes recognized in her field. Jobs and professions often require certificates or licenses. Instead of these forms of accreditation, I may need confirmation in my vocation somewhat less formally, but sometimes more meaningfully, by some respected mentors and authorities who have themselves been recognized as proficient in their vocations.

Vocations may differ from jobs also in the relationship one has to the public. For most vocations, it’s no good hanging a shingle. Instead of proclaiming my vocation, I may need for someone in need of it to recognize the vocation in me. I think Jesus is saying as much when he sends out his disciples to an unsuspecting public with these words:

He who receives a prophet in the name of a prophet shall receive a prophet’s reward; and he who receives a righteous man in the name of a righteous man shall receive a righteous man’s reward. (Matthew 10:41)

“So long as it’s within your level of competence, when someone recognizes and draws on a vocation in you, he will be rewarded with something from you,” Jesus may be saying. Jesus also seems to recognize that how he himself stands with his audience determines what the audience is going to draw from him. “Who do men say that I am?” and “Who do you say that I am?” are not rhetorical questions, I suggest. If I don’t think someone is a superhero – or if I don’t believe in superheroes – then I may never receive a superhero’s services. In this way, vocations are respectful of the perceptions of individuals their practitioners come in contact with. They thus tend to honor people’s humanity in a way that normal marketing efforts may not.

A vocation’s “if you don’t get it, you don’t get it” approach may be advantageous for another reason: many vocations seem to be more effective when practiced under the radar. As a healer, Jesus was not using reverse psychology when he told many of his patients not to breathe a word about their healing to anybody.

One may well begin to understand the relationship between her gifts and the world’s use of them differently when she is living out a vocation. A vocation may or may not start as a dream, but it ends up being whatever is left once this fire of transformation is underway or ends. Through these fires, someone may become something she never expected to be. One may also sense a hard-won strength within herself, and one may sense when others are drawing on it. A strong humility may replace a fragile confidence in her relations with others. Marketing still may be part of attempting to live by her vocation, but the success of the marketing is not much of an indicator of the validity of her vocation. This passage from a letter by Vincent Van Gogh may express something of these effects:

There may be a great fire in our soul, yet no one ever comes to warm himself at it, and the passersby only see a wisp of smoke coming through the chimney, and go along their way. Look here, now what must be done? Must one tend the inner fire, have salt in oneself, wait patiently yet with how much impatience for the hour when somebody will come and sit down – maybe to stay? Let him who believes in God wait for the hour that will come sooner or later.

(Vincent Van Gogh, The Complete Letters of Vincent Van Gogh (Greenwich, Connecticut: New York Graphic Society, 1959))

Van Gogh’s words suggest a final way in which vocations may differ from jobs: they may employ separate understandings of ourselves. Jobs usually require us to perform a role, to put on a certain hat or helmet during our shift. Jobs may come with codes of conduct, and some jobs (especially professions) may require that we conduct ourselves appropriately after hours as well as when we are at work. Vocations, however, come from inside us more than from a role we have studied and practiced. Someone operating well in a vocation is operating as herself through the truth she loves and has become.



Posted July 2005