The unvanquished

Last night we bought a bed. Before we did, we had a date. The salmon was as good as I’ve ever had. It lay on a wonderful reduction. She had trout crusted with parmesan and ate it all.

Our waiter was an older man, and he was busy. But he had us say our names. He repeated them deliberately, first looking at her and saying her name, then doing the same with me. Then he never called us by our names. Maybe he’s using them now in prayer. The service, anyway, was good.

Before our meals came, I looked at her, and I found myself looking at her. Our eyes met every so often, and she averted hers, unless she was speaking. I’ve always liked this.

On one level, she’s aware I’m looking at her, and she likes it, too. Closer to the surface, she’s thinking. She averts her eyes to continue thinking. I’m watching her think.

My eyes can rest with very few people. My mother’s another. She’s 92, convalescing slowly from a fall, and when I visited her in Richmond last weekend, I told her that she meant a lot to me because she was one of the few people with whom I can sit in silence and simply see.

Brynmawr in the 1920s.

Eye contact has a lot to do with silence, I think. There’s a story somewhere in Conversations with William Faulkner about Faulkner reducing an angry stranger to silence over several minutes by only looking at her. There’s a story, too, in Douglas Steere’s Prayer and Worship, published the same year as The Unvanquished, about Peter Scott, who tried to give a homily to a bunch of unemployed Welsh miners:

They said nothing back to him as he talked and talked. But their silence searched him, choked him, and at last reduced him to silence. He went away inwardly humiliated, but he returned soon to throw in his lot with theirs, to help them pool their capacity, to work and to rebuild their community on a basis of co-operative and self-help enterprises.

The “Brynmawr Experiment” began.

This week I read that fear and hatred stick immediately to the nerves, while gratitude and appreciation don’t stick unless we wait on them for at least fifteen seconds — much longer than it takes for me to read a Tweet. (This fifteen-second rule is from Rick Hanson’s Hardwiring Happiness as summarized in Richard Rohr’s The Divine Dance.)

A “national conversation” is an oxymoron. We can’t change a thing if our eyes haven’t met.

Jesus on reading


I have two shelves of devotional books, plus lots of other books – books of poems, writing instruction, history, and even political science – that often seem to act on me like devotionals. More than enough devotionals. When I’ve lost my way, as I have again now, I sometimes go back and read parts of a few of my earliest devotionals, works by Nouwen, Merton, and Steere. My heart doesn’t know or care if it’s a first or twentieth read, after all. My heart knows only if it’s being fed. Sometimes it takes a lot of rumination – years of it – to digest some short but vital writing I feel drawn to. Sometimes it takes a lot of rumination to rediscover the heart in its feeding again.

We have record of Jesus referring to reading six times. On each occasion, he asks his audience – always Pharisees, chief priests, elders, Sadducees, or scribes – if they have read some bit of scripture. (Matthew 12:3 & 5; 19:4; 21:16 & 42; 22:31.) He asks ironically, of course, knowing that they have indeed read the text he refers to. But his irony suggests that his audience hasn’t read or thought about the text sufficiently.

Jesus therefore counsels second or multiple readings – fresh reflections on texts that acknowledge the gentle way in which our hearts feed. Lectio Divina, the Jesus Prayer, and the like, perhaps. He suggests, I think, that we revere the Scripture so much as to disclaim our deeper understanding of it, because for Westerners, to understand words is often to exhaust and dismiss them and to starve the heart.

But go ye and learn what that meaneth, I will have mercy, and not sacrifice: for I am not come to call the righteous, but sinners to repentance. (Matthew 9:13, KJV)

I’m going with the Pharisees for another read.

A few luminous seconds

A real devotional book is one that you can live with year after year and that never stales or never fails to speak to some needs in your life.

Douglas V. Steere wrote those words near the end of Prayer and Worship, one of a handful of devotional books he authored. By Steere’s definition, Prayer and Worship is a real devotional book. Whenever I start over, which is frequently, I find Prayer and Worship waiting for me. Employing insight and a cloud of witnesses, it reintroduces me to the fundamental practices of a devotional life.

Steere, who succeeded fellow Quaker Rufus Jones as a philosophy professor at Haverford College, is not a great proponent of structure in prayer. He accepts a wide range of means to communion with God, however, and he argues in his introduction for “a much-needed psychology of the deeper reaches of life.” He disagrees with those who dismiss visual aids in prayer as idolatry and who dismiss selective meditation as autosuggestion.

Steere sees such structure as scaffolding – a means to an end – and is more interested in the broader areas of regular practice “that serve to arouse this spiritual nimbleness and swiftness and vivacity of devotion.” Prayer and Worship is divided into three areas of this practice: private prayer, corporate worship, and devotional reading. Each section nudges us on with examples from history and literature. Steere seems never to forget that devotion comes from the heart and not from a regimented practice or method.

One of Steere’s comparisons struck me this morning, and I never got beyond it in my reading. Steere compares the mind subject to silent prayer with the mind of an author. He describes the state of an author’s unfinished, chaotic manuscript just after his death:

The materials were all there…. But the mind that was to have brooded over this mass, this heap – the mind that would at some moment have seen a simple line dart through all of these materials, make most of them superfluous, underline the few remaining, and produce out of it all a living unity – this mind was withdrawn by death.

Silent prayer does for our lives what the author was to have done with his manuscript. “It restores us to the creative matrix.”

There is freshness and openness in Steere’s thinking that befits a wide-ranging mind whose heart early on joined itself with a small sect of Christianity. Steere was an ecumenicist, andPrayer and Worship draws from the examples of many sects and faiths. Steere found in Quakerism the spiritual roots and the humility and flexibility of expression that fitted his mind and heart.

[picture of Steere]This union of mind and heart is most evident in the book’s final section, which amounts to an energetic and inclusive introduction to Christian devotional reading. Steere felicitously discusses the virtues of works as disparate as Dostoevsky’s The Idiot and de Sales’ Introduction to the Devout Life. Steere suggests how to approach different devotional classics and points out what to look for in the ones he guides us toward. For instance, he hopes the reader of Augustine’s Confessions will discover “how readily and how naturally the writer of a devotional book can flow from precise description into the most passionate prayer and then on into our narrative again without any note of artificiality whatsoever.”

Along the way, Steere offers simple advice on how to read devotional books in general. Paraphrasing Keyserling, Steere believes “that in a whole lifetime we only have a few luminous seconds of insight.” When one comes, declare a holiday. Don’t rush to finish the insightful book:

To hurry on in order to finish the book, to take up the book again “for the purpose of scaring away one’s own original thoughts,” is, as Schopenhauer once remarked, a “sin against the holy spirit.”

There is no need to become the master of all of the works Steere mentions, either. “Nowhere does novelty count for so little as in devotional reading,” he writes.

With the exception of the unusual depth of devotion one feels in his writing, most aspects of Steere’s book may lead one to believe that it was recently published. For instance, Prayer and Worship describes the business and loquacity of our society as the enemies of devotion. Prayer and Worship is the third devotional book that I have read from the 1930’s and 1940’s that inveighs against radio. What would these writers think about the distractions of our present age!

Prayer and Worship is the middle book in a volume entitled The Religious Life, an anthology of three small devotional books by different authors. The books were first published separately in a series in 1939, and the present hardbound anthology was published in 1953. A seventy-seven-page paperback edition of Prayer and Worship is in print, but its editor saw fit to change historical references found in the original version in order to make it more relevant to post-World War II America, presumably. The editing manages to disturb the feel of the original considerably. Fortunately, copies of the 1953 volume can still be found at several used book sites on the Internet. (Links to two of them are here and here.)