Poetry & sacred reading

Lectio divina is like reading poetry: we need to slow down, to savor what we read, and to allow the text to trigger memories and associations that reside below the threshold of awareness.

Michael Casey’s comparison of poetry and meditation (lectio divina being perhaps the most flexible and durable in the Christian tradition) in his book Sacred Reading: The Ancient Art of Lectio Divina got me to thinking. What else might poetry and devotional reading have in common besides the slower and more intuitive reading skills they demand?

Perhaps both poetry and meditation offer us the possibility of rediscovering our hearts. Sometimes, at a certain point in poetry reading or devotional reading, the rest of the mind is asked to stay in shallow waters while the heart – something both vague and vital – plays like a porpoise that has just rediscovered the open sea. The mind becomes aware of a certain distinction between it and the heart.

While we’re engaged in poetry or sacred reading, the uniqueness of a turn of phrase or the power of an image may have our attention for a while. At some point after these early motions, however, something strange may happen. We may move, however vaguely or imperceptibly, into a new realm. In the framework of lectio divina, we may move from lectio(reading) into the remaining three “moments”: meditatiooratio, and contemplatio. Our slow reading opens the door to a slow kingdom. Perhaps it is similar to becoming travelers to something like John Keats’s “realms of gold” – the world he discovers himself in while reading Homer.

I love Teju Cole’s occasional references to “the kingdom of poetry” along with the brief parables that accompany them at miracle speech, his poetry web site. Parables, koans, and failed analogies sometimes seem like the only kind of mental diplomacy possible between the realm we normally walk in and the kingdom of the heart.

Asked to disengage from the kingdom it normally functions in, the mind – the more efficient and confident (or confidently unconfident) part of us – may struggle. Perhaps this newly discovered kingdom that attracts our hearts might pose some kind of vague threat to something fundamental: our self-concept or our life’s work. If, as poet Billy Collins claims, poetry helps us discover who we are, then the part of us that doesn’t really exist may feel threatened. While our heart may herald a new kingdom’s arrival, another part of us may hang back like King Herod, sending the heart off for more particulars ostensibly so that we may later come and worship, too.

A comparison of poetry reading with meditation or sacred reading is limited, of course, and perhaps unhelpful to most. I haven’t done justice to either form of reading. For one thing, I’ve limited myself to one experience in reading poetry or devotional works. On the other hand, others may find a comparison unhelpful because there is nothing to compare. Someone inclined to either poetry or to devotional literature may find sufficient reading for any given moment spray-painted on an overpass.

That due sense

As a boy in the Episcopal Church, I loved to say the General Thanksgiving. My knees ached against the hinged kneeling pads we had spent the last hour repeatedly pulling down and then retracting back up against the pew in front of us. Mom had torn the gold foil from around her last Certs somewhere around the Jubilate Deo. The minister had knocked off what seemed like a massive number of collects and prayers, and, with what seemed like a long, collective exhale, we all finally joined him in “humble and hearty thanks.” It was the General Thanksgiving; the service was almost over.

I loved the General Thanksgiving also for lesser, half-conscious reasons. I loved the way my lips worked out “inestimable,” whatever it meant. I loved the sound of “not only with our lips, but in our lives.” (The difference between hypocrisy and charity is effectively expressed in the difference between a short and long “i.”) And each week my forehead seemed pressed against the glass of those long sentences. What view were these phrases and commas affording of God? Twenty years later I would be writing airtight contracts, settlements, and releases with the kind of thoroughness and droning that the Book of Common Prayer (“BCP”) had planted deep in my soul. Lawyers can get to heaven.

What comes of repeating a prayer almost every week for an entire childhood? More may come of it than the child would understand. Life forms around prayers like that, making sense of the words, and the words help make sense of life.

The General Thanksgiving was added to the BCP in 1662, possibly as the result of the Puritans’ push to add more prayers of thanksgiving to the book. According to An Episcopal Dictionary of the Church, Edward Reynolds (1599-1676), Bishop of Norwich, wrote the prayer and may have based it in part on “a private prayer of Queen Elizabeth that was issued in 1596.” The 1979 BCP artlessly updates the prayer’s language (“inestimable” becomes “immeasurable,” for instance, and “that due sense of all thy mercies” becomes “such an awareness of your mercies”). However, the BCP also retains the original prayer.

The prayer is in two parts: a thanksgiving and a petition. The first part, which includes the first two sentences, summarizes what there is to be thankful for. The first sentence sees God’s gifts to us in terms of his intention: “goodness and loving-kindness.” The second sentence mentions six gifts, but its language focuses on life and redemption.

The prayer’s second half – its final sentence – asks for a greater sense of mercy that would lead to a richer thanksgiving and a religious life.

The prayer’s three sentences may be outlined as follows:

I. We give thee thanks
A. For all thy goodness
B. And loving-kindness
II. We bless thee
A. For this life
1. Creation
2. Preservation
3. All other blessings
B. For the life to come
1. Redemption
2. Means of grace
3. Hope of glory
III. We beseech the, give us that due sense of all thy mercies
A. That our hearts may be unfeignedly thankful
B. That we show forth thy praise, not only with our lips, but in our lives
1. By giving up ourselves to thy service
2. By walking before thee in holiness and righteousness all our days
C. Through Jesus Christ our Lord

The General Thanksgiving’s big turn is foreshadowed in the appositive that begins the prayer: “Almighty God, Father of all mercies…” At the hinge of the prayer, where the prayer turns from thanksgiving to its only petition, is the prayer’s only other reference to mercy. Wrapped up in the petition’s nine words may be the most profound thing I know.

As we thank God for a litany of his gifts in this life and the next, we experience something of the joy of gratitude. We now want our thanksgiving to be a well within us, something we may drink from anytime. So we ask God for “that due sense of” – that appropriate awareness of – “all thy mercies.” With it, “our hearts may be unfeignedly thankful.”

We teach our children to say “thank you” so they will be polite and get along in the world. We also hope our training will lead our children to a more grateful and satisfying philosophy of life. But the General Thanksgiving understands that a true heart of thanksgiving doesn’t come through training alone. We have to understand the value and the source of the gifts we are thankful for.

Jesus told a story to his judgmental host who was watching an “unfeignedly thankful” woman convulse at Jesus’ feet:

Two men were in debt to a moneylender: one owed him five hundred silver pieces, the other fifty. As they did not have the means to pay he cancelled both debts. Now, which will love him more? (Luke 7:41-42, Revised English Bible)

Simon, the host, gave the right answer. Then Jesus implied that Simon was the debtor in the story who was forgiven less. Simon would not be as thankful as the woman and would not love as much as the woman, because he was not forgiven as much as the woman.

What Jesus didn’t tell Simon was that he was just as big a debtor as the woman he judged. Simon would have to discover that for himself.

What does it take to have “that due sense” of all God’s mercies? We must be willing to take the path Jesus invited Simon to take. Simon must walk a path of self-discovery that would lead him to a much narrower view of himself. It would also lead him to accept a greater gift from his heavenly Father.

In his book No Man is an Island, Thomas Merton describes the process to something like “that due sense” this way:

If we are to love sincerely, and with simplicity, we must first of all overcome the fear of not being loved. And this cannot be done by forcing ourselves to believe in some illusion, saying that we are loved when we are not. We must somehow strip ourselves of our greatest illusions about ourselves, frankly recognize in how many ways we are unlovable, descend into the depths of our being until we come to the basic reality that is in us, and learn to see that we are lovable after all, in spite of everything!

A heart of unfeigned thanksgiving is more than manners. It comes from more than religious insight or intuition. For most of us, it is the welcome city at the end of a long road.

According to the prayer, “that due sense” leads to more than a heart of thanksgiving. It leads to the life God intended for us. It leads to the charity and the holiness that Isaiah frequently links and that James joins to describe “true religion.”

Giving up ourselves to God’s service is not possible without this due sense. Walking in holiness is not possible without this due sense. All of our religion and all of our life must be a response to God’s mercy. Until it is, our real work is to walk the hard road we asked for when we prayed the General Thanksgiving.


The General Thanksgiving

Almighty God, Father of all mercies,
we thine unworthy servants
do give thee most humble and hearty thanks
for all thy goodness and loving-kindness
to us and to all men.
We bless thee for our creation, preservation,
and all the blessings of this life;
but above all for thine inestimable love
in the redemption of the world by our Lord Jesus Christ,
for the means of grace, and for the hope of glory.
And, we beseech thee,
give us that due sense of all thy mercies,
that our hearts may be unfeignedly thankful;
and that we show forth thy praise,
not only with our lips, but in our lives,
by giving up our selves to thy service,
and by walking before thee
in holiness and righteousness all our days;
through Jesus Christ our Lord,
to whom, with thee and the Holy Ghost,
be all honor and glory, world without end. Amen.


Why I love the Old Testament

These generalizations about the Tanakh – its proper name – don’t quite hold for the latest books, Ezekiel and especially Daniel, which betray a great deal of Iranian influence and thus should really be classed more with the intertestamental apocrypha and pseudepigrapha. NOTE: This is a draft post, subject to further refinement. These reasons are basically all right off the top of my head – the kind of things I would tell you if we were sitting down to coffee, and you happened to ask me how the heck a professed anarchist like me can love the Bible.

1. It does not depict a creation ex nihilo, but opens (pace the usual translations), “When God was beginning to create the heavens and the earth…” God creates as a sculpter does, day by day uncovering an emergent order from the primordial wilderness (see 15, below).

2. It contains no theology (aside from God’s teasing statement to Moses in Exodus 3:14, the sense of which is “I will be whoever the hell I want!”).

3. It is not entirely monotheistic, alluding in a few places to other gods (e.g. Psalm 82); depicting Yahweh as having divine offspring and/or representatives (“angels”); and suggesting a multiple nature for divinity itself with Yahweh’s frequent alternate name Elohim, which is a plural form. (Adonai is also a plural form, but this “is usually construed as a respectful, and not a syntactic plural,” whereas “it is argued that the word elohim had an origin in a plural grammatical form.” See the Wikipedia article Names of God in Judaism for further discussion of the way different names reflect different aspects or personalities of divinity.)

4. Its Yahweh is not incorporeal, all-good, or all-wise, and in some stories resembles an amoral trickster deity similar to the Norse Loki, the Yoruba Eshu or the Maidu Coyote. Yahweh kicks ass.

5. It is free of the poisonous influence of radical dualism (good and evil – or matter and spirit – as wholly separate, mutually exclusive categories). The problem of evil is raised but not “solved.”

6. The destiny of the individual soul after death is alluded to, but nowhere treated as a matter of consequence.

7. The language is direct, rhythmic and repetitious in the manner of the best oral epic. The graceful language and vivid imagery recall poetry more than prose.

8. It is full of analogic thinking and creative leaps, such as “Man is born to trouble, as the sparks fly upward” or “As the crackling of thorns under a pot, so is the laughter of fools.”

9. So-called “Biblical parallelism” extends from the level of the verse to the overall organization (alternate tellings of the same story, even alternate histories – e.g. Judges-Kings vs. Chronicles), teaching a tolerance for alternative interpretations.

10. For every passage that seems hateful and exclusive, there’s a passage that’s accepting and inclusive.

11. Hints of an earlier matriarchal order abound, and despite the overwhelming patriarchal emphasis, there are more strong female characters than in any comparable work from antiquity. In Proverbs, Wisdom is allegorized as a woman. By way of comparison, Zhuangzi, my other favorite anthology of sacred literature, contains virtually no references to women.

12. The Saul-David cycle has a depth of psychological realism worthy of the greatest novels. In general, Biblical characters are three-dimensional, flawed beings.

13. No one has ever written a book on The Plants of the Prajnaparamita Sutra.

14. Human beings are consistently depicted as a very small and weak part of an overwhelmingly large universe, and become guilty of the worst kind of impiety if they start to believe otherwise.

15. Desert or wilderness (tohu) is portrayed as part of a separate order that in some sense (as the tohu-wa-bohu of Genesis 1:2) predates and gives rise to Creation; thus, it is a place of testing and renewal (for Jacob/Israel, David, Elijah, etc.) and an image almost of Emptiness in the Buddhist sense.

16. Even as captured and subverted by end-time and Messianic theologies (including Christianity), its literary richness and depth of ambiguity has provided a much-needed moderating influence on radical movements, from the hey-day of gnosticism, through the Scholastics and Kabbalists, down to the Inquisition (which is, in one form or another, on-going).

17. It spawned two translations (the King James Version and, I gather, Martin Luther’s) which rank among the most beloved and influential works of literature in their respective languages – mainly by virtue of cleaving as much as possible to the literal meaning, even at the price of excessive strangeness.

18. The opening chapter of Genesis justifiably served as Exhibit A for the pagan author Longinus’ work On the Sublime. In the Bible, things don’t have to be ideal or perfect in a Platonic sense to inspire awe or reverence.

19. The Bible’s emphasis on mitzvot (“commandments,” duties) basically reinvented religion in the West, turning it away from a primary emphasis on the worship of power and toward an emphasis on the cultivation of individual morality and social justice.

20. The Bible makes room for scathing critiques of kingship and priesthood, and its nebiim (“prophets”) constitute one of the earliest and most important literary and historical models for conscientious objection to institutional power in the West.

21. Because awe is the beginning of wisdom, as the Bible repeatedly suggests, and because spirit and breath are intimately connected, as the Hebrew word ruah (and possibly the very name Yahweh) implies.

© 2006 Dave Bonta. Used by permission.

Via negativa

When the day comes, many will say to me, “Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, drive out demons in your name, and in your name perform many miracles?” Then I will tell them plainly, “I never knew you. Out of my sight; your deeds are evil!” (Matthew 7:22-23 – REB)

But now that you have come to know God, or rather to be known by God… (Galatians 4:9 – NNAS)

Now I know in part; but then shall I know even as also I am known. (1 Corinthians 13:12 – KJV)

If anyone fancies that he has some kind of knowledge, he does not yet know in the true sense of knowing. But if anyone loves God, he is known by God. (1 Corinthians 8:3 – REB)

What distinction may Jesus and Paul be drawing between knowing and being known?

If I know God, then I may know him no longer.

But if God knows me, then I may know him by his mercy. I have only to let him know me enough to know myself.

Categorized as Devotional

What is conversion?

The root of much of my hypocrisy may have been a fundamental misconception of Christianity. I believe I have shared this misconception with many of my evangelical friends for more than twenty years. The misconception? I equated being a follower of Jesus with conversion.

They’re not the same. Take me, for instance. I became a follower of Jesus at age sixteen. My conversion gained some traction at age forty, though, as the result of a debilitating identity crisis. And my conversion continues (I hope).

For much of the twenty-four-or-so years between my decision to follow Jesus and my most significant conversion experience to date, I struggled to make the Christian ideal real. Because I thought I was converted, I blamed myself for the discrepancy between what I was and what I thought I should be.

Now I think this discrepancy was based on mission creep. Jesus’ main mission is to lead me to the end of my false self. I understood something of that, but my main mission was to be more like Jesus. These are different enough goals to have kept Jesus and me at odds for years without my knowing it. I’m glad I made certain efforts to improve, but I mistakenly saw my efforts as evidence of conversion instead of as preparation for it.

Jesus is also at odds with his apostle Peter over the same mission conflict. Three years into following Jesus, Peter is still trying to show himself worthy of Jesus: you know, cutting off a soldier’s ear, swearing his undying .allegiance, etc. And the hypocrisy of it: Peter says he’ll follow Jesus to the end, but he denies Jesus only a few hours later. The cool thing is that Peter’s willingness to find out just how strong he was brings him to the end of himself

Just before Peter’s spectacular flame-out, Jesus tells him this:

Simon, Simon, behold, Satan has demanded permission to sift you like wheat; but I have prayed for you, that your faith may not fail, and you, when once you have turned again [“converted,” the KJV has it], strengthen your brothers. (Luke 22:31-32, NNAS)

When he first meets Jesus, Peter gives up everything to follow him, but Luke suggests that most of Peter’s conversion doesn’t take place until about three years later.

I think the keys to Christianity are elusive to most Christians: concepts such as “the kingdom of God” and “Christ in you,” God in you. I believe conversion is misunderstood because we assume we understand the kingdom of God as well as Christ in us. We assume we understand the birth analogy in the Gospel of John and in two of the epistles.

There’s another way to look at this birth analogy. If we refer to the stages the New Testament uses in this analogy, perhaps Peter receives Jesus’ seed when Jesus first calls him; perhaps Peter labors with child when he betrays Jesus; and perhaps Peter is born again around the time of Jesus’ resurrection. Perhaps Christ is in Peter the whole time, but, for Peter’s first three years in the Bible, “Christ in him” is only a growing seed.

The difference between receiving Jesus (a seed analogy, recall) and being converted may be the difference between being a potential child of God and a functioning one. “To as many as received [Jesus], to them gave he power to become the sons of God.” (John 1:12) For at least twenty-four years I was becoming, all the while taking myself as the genuine article. I wasn’t very childlike at all. (Childish, yes – and still am.)

(Of course, these child metaphors get difficult. In one sense, we’re all God’s children. In another, Paul assigns sonship to “all who are being led by the Spirit of God.” (Romans 8:14) Consistent with an underlying premise in Jesus’ prodigal son story (and in King Lear), there are daughters and sons, and then there are daughters and sons.)

Peter is still a sinner after this conversion. (Luke’s own book of Acts and Paul’s letter to the Galatians point this out; Paul even points out Peter’s continued hypocrisy.) But there is far more evidence of a new person after this conversion experience then there is during Peter’s first three years of following Jesus. After Peter denies Jesus, he finally is capable of being weak and befuddled. Soon after his resurrection, Jesus asks Peter if he loves him more than the other disciples do. (Like any good mentor, Jesus can’t resist piling on when it suits him.) In response, Peter is far more circumspect on this issue than he has been up to his public denial of Jesus.

Peter has come to the end of himself, and he finds that God loves him anyway. I think that’s why our crises can be gifts. Our crises are sometimes opportunities to strip off more of our false selves and to receive God’s love at a deeper level that our false selves are often unwittingly defending.

My trying to live up to something wasn’t all bad, at least when I wasn’t judging someone to make myself feel better. (Peter also found judging others to be an important strategy in following Jesus: he enjoyed comparing himself favorably to his fellow disciples.) My efforts to live up to who I thought I should be actually prepared me for some conversion, if only because my failures in that regard helped me to come closer to the end of myself. (I’d add to my hypocrisy if I now claimed to have reached the nadir of my false self.)

Paul figures that trying to follow the Bible’s laws plays an important role in someone’s conversion. He says, probably with a wry smile, “The law is a schoolmaster, to bring us to Christ.” I need to study, to pray, to try to love — to try and fail. In his book Celebration of Discipline, Richard Foster puts it this way: “The Disciplines allow us to place ourselves before God so that he can transform us.”

Conversion is an unmerited gift given over time. It’s a life based on weakness and favor alone. Conversion is the child in me that sometimes sees things I miss as an adult. (“Unless you are converted, and become as children…”)

Conversion means I no longer have to be better than others. It means that what I call Christianity doesn’t have to be better than other religions. Now that I’m a little more converted, I meet people of other religious faiths or with little religious background who are more converted than I am. Who cares? I’m weak – that’s the whole point.

Conversion is the darkness that helps me see and the child that guides me. I hope for more of it. I don’t date it (“I was converted on such-and-such a date”) and I don’t push it (“Are you converted?”). That would be like date-stamping and selling love.

Conversion, in the sense I believe the Bible uses the term, isn’t a decision to accept the tenets of a religion. Instead, conversion may be a gradually increasing ability to receive love.

Categorized as Devotional

The nose knows

Paul describes knowledge as a scent. God “uses us to spread abroad the fragrance of the knowledge of himself,” he says. (2 Cor. 2:14, REB) I understand that the sense of smell brings back memory and emotion more viscerally than does any other sense. I remember smelling my grandmother’s apartment in some strange place six years after she had died. It was as if she were in the same room with me.

Who else might an acquaintance of mine experience while with me? If I have knowledge like a scent, the possibilities are endless, I suppose. Paul goes on: to those on the way to salvation he and his pals are “a deadly fume,” but to those on their way to destruction they become a life-giving fragrance.

Paul understood the kind of religious knowledge I focused on for years. It’s a cheap substitute for knowledge like a scent. “’Knowledge’ inflates a man, whereas love builds him up. If anyone fancies that he has some kind of knowledge, he does not know in the true sense of knowing.”

Categorized as Devotional