Like a Beaten Bell
Praying in Place Thick and Thin
Br. Keith Nelson, SSJE
My best friend and I went camping in Utah a few months before I came to the Monastery as a Postulant in 2014. The trip was a pilgrimage into a landscape wonderfully strange to us as east coast natives. I use the word “pilgrimage” here in a less-than-conventional sense. Our holy destination was The Desert – both literal and physical, but also inward and spiritual. In the desert, we hoped to taste something of God’s vast, untamed power, just as Jesus did, and just as generations of saints have done from the ancient Israelites to the Desert Fathers and Mothers of Egypt. Perhaps because our eyes and ears were opened by this intention, God came to meet us everywhere we turned. Every horizon held our gaze and enlarged it, beckoning us beyond that vanishing point where endless blue sky and rippling red stone merged. As we hiked about this desert paradise, we wept or fell silent or laughed in wonder, as unself-consciously as the shooting stars or lightning that flashed in the night sky or the rainbows that shimmered in the rare desert rain. At so many moments, utterly surprised by the Creator, we could have echoed the sentiment of author Annie Dillard, writing from Virginia’s Blue Ridge Mountains: “I see something, some event that would otherwise have been utterly missed and lost; or something sees me, some enormous power brushes me with its clean wing, and I resound like a beaten bell.”
In 2017 I undertook a quite different journey, but one with some remarkable parallels. Our community embarked on a pilgrimage – in the conventional sense – to England and Scotland, to see some of the sites that have shaped the course of Anglican history and the story of our own community. We prayed our way to and from Canterbury and Oxford, Durham, Lindisfarne, and Iona, sites famed for their holiness throughout the Western Christian world. I felt drawn deeper into God’s heart through my encounters with all of these places, but the Spirit surprised me in a much humbler place: as we ascended, one behind the other, the winding staircase of our Society’s old Mission House in Oxford, to arrive at a final landing and duck through a modest door into the “Founder’s Chapel.” This is an attic room, converted into a small chapel, where the very first Brothers of the Society of St. John the Evangelist worshipped, day by day. It is entirely unremarkable in its outward personality. If I hadn’t known anything about its history, I would have found it quaint, but not much more. But because of who we are – men whose spiritual forbears laid hold of a strange and special calling here, who sang and knelt and preached and probably laughed and cried here – it was imbued with a holiness that made us weep and linger in love and gratitude for what God has done for us. With my eyes closed, I could almost see and hear those first courageous men whose hearts were set on fire and whose lives were offered to the glory of God as they listened to a man named Richard Meux Benson proclaim what God had done for him, and what God would do for them, if they only let him.
Now, I mention these two experiences because each place – the soul-enlarging terrain of Utah’s high desert and that soul-enfolding room at the top of the Mission House stairs – was for me a thin place. This term, originating in Celtic Christian traditions, designates a physical place where the line between Heaven and Earth is thought to be “thin”: the wall is more porous, the veil more diaphanous. It’s a term that has been in the vocabulary of contemporary spirituality for a number of years, and there is a simultaneously delightful and maddening lack of agreement about just what it means, depending on whom you ask. Questions, my own included, abound. Why should this “line” or “veil” be thinner in some places and thicker in others? After all, isn’t God present everywhere and in everything, as the One “in whom we live and move and have our being”?
Words are such fragile, brittle tools to communicate our deepest, truest, most powerful encounters with God. When the curtain is pulled back and we glimpse a flicker or flash of a reality that is both wholly other and nearer than our next breath…well, a stammer or a song or a long lull of silence will do. Word’s won’t, except as shorthand (and oh, how I love words!). The term “thin place” is a shorthand that many find helpful for pointing to a place where encounters with God are prone to happen. Such places disarm us, draw forth a deeper quality of perception from us, strip us of our expectations, and simplify or still our galloping thoughts. Deep forest or rocky ocean coastline, darkened churches flickering with candles or wayside shrines clustered with cairns are among the world’s frequently acknowledged thin places.
Alternatively, some places may leave us feeling, in the words of Gerard Manley Hopkins, “bleared with trade, seared, smeared with toil.” We feel heavier of heart; we feel less connected to God and our fellow creatures; the whispered revelations of truth or beauty are barely audible. Many people feel a heightened sense of this “thickness” in places where there is little green space, silence, or natural light (as in many urban centers) or in places where there is unceasing visual and auditory competition for our attention (as in stores, airports, or anywhere a wifi signal can be found).
And yet, we are here. And so is God. Wherever here happens to be, the possibility of reconnection with God is as close as our next breath. My experiences of thinness in Utah and Britain did unfold because I undertook those journeys with the seeking heart and open eyes of a pilgrim. But while numerous thin places can be found at the beginning, middle, and end of pilgrimage routes, going on pilgrimage to a far-flung place is not necessary for an encounter with God in the million-and-one thin places of the world. One could make an argument that the whole world – created, redeemed, sustained, and groaning for the consummation of God’s mysterious purposes – is a single thin place bequeathed to God’s children. But until we can wrap our heads and hearts around that wondrous truth, the specific, small, and particular places our wandering souls encounter as “thin” must be for us “the House of God, the gate of Heaven.” In this way, they are not unlike sacraments. Without participation in those “outward and visible signs of inward and spiritual grace,” the awesome reality we know intimately as God in Christ would be far too large to see, taste, touch, or love in a personal way.
Our own garden patch or dining-room table or the corner where our easel stands hold the redolent grace of awakened possibility that dwells in thin places. I have come to believe that the more consciously we cultivate relationship with these particular “thin places,” however humble and ordinary, the more well-equipped our praying perception becomes at noticing God’s presence in the unlikely and challenging places. The “thickness” we anticipate at the airport security checkpoint, under the humming fluorescent lighting of the hospital hallway, in the drab office cubicle, or in the lowly but well-swept tent of a refugee camp is slowly eroded to its thinness in God’s sight. Through our trust in Jesus, the thickness of the cross becomes the thin place of resurrection – while our feet are still planted on Calvary.
The ancient Celts seem to have revered many, many thin places – and Christians in Celtic lands followed suit – but this is probably because they had a predisposition to look for them. And, by the movement of God’s Holy Spirit stirring in our depths, so too do we.
Br. Keith Nelson
Hebrews 1:1-4; 2:5-12
“It is not good for man to be alone; I will make a fitting helper for him.”[i]
In her masterful study of the book Genesis, Jewish scholar Avivah Zornberg notes that this is the first statement uttered by God in the creation narrative that does not immediately bring something into being. It is a brief soliloquy, an aside, a window into God’s thoughts. God does not act upon this thought directly. He creates the animals, and brings them to Adam to receive names. Among them, “there was not found a helper as his partner.” In his commentary on this text, the medieval rabbi Rashi proposes that God knew this would happen. He imagines Adam, the Human,as the one who seeks yet does not find, as God presents the animals to him already in pairs. At the conscious, painful realization of his human aloneness, sleep overwhelms him. Like God, Adam has been great in this aloneness. He has stood vertically, upright, among all the animals who creep, slither, and swarm horizontally upon the earth. But in greatness, aloneness, verticality, he has known no equivalent Other. For this to happen, Zornberg writes, Adam “must, in a sense, diminish himself” and “come to know the rightness of a more complex form of unity.”[ii] He falls, horizontally upon the earth, as if under divine anesthesia. Eve comes into being.
I honestly have a lot of trouble hearing today’s passage from Luke’s gospel with anything like fresh ears or an open heart. To be more precise, it is verse five that makes me want to stop listening, cross my arms, and scowl: “Wherever they do not welcome you, leave that town and shake the dust off your feet as a testimony against them.”
That temptation to scowl has a backstory. Plenty of Christians rely on this verse and its companion texts in Mark and Matthew as a way of dismissing non-believers or anathematizing fellow Christians with differing views or practices. When aggressive efforts to evangelize yield no fruit or when believers fail to see how they have strayed from the straight and narrow path, these Christians are licensed to deploy a common, ancient Near Eastern practice – shaking the dust from their feet – as they see fit, in their own contemporary, interpretive warfare. It is a clean and tidy way of making a conversation partner into an opponent. It says, “I’m right, and God is my witness. You’re wrong, and I hope you reconsider.” End of story.
If you have been on the receiving end of such foot-shaking (whether literal or figurative) you will know how it feels to be the object of a unique and pungent blend of condescension, self-righteousness, and false pity. Having grown up in the Bible Belt, I can say with confidence that this technique is excellent at one thing: producing atheists.
So to hear these words spoken by Jesus, my Savior, my beloved, my Lord and my God, I must get out the steel wool. I must strip and scrub all the interpretive detritus from my memory and listen. I must listen long, listen deeply, and with the utmost humility.
Here are some things I think I hear:
Not every command of Jesus to his followers in every instance recorded in the Gospels applies to you and to me. The Resurrection, the Ascension, and the birth of the Church at Pentecost have radically altered our relationship with the kingdom and its requirements of Love. It is indeed beautiful and awesome to hear about the radical trust of the apostles, as they set out with only the clothing on their backs and the power and authority of their Master gleaming in their eyes. But Luke was well aware even by his own time that slavish duplication of the earliest methods of spreading the gospel would be reductionist and simplistic. Scholar François Bovon identifies some core aspects of Christian missionary practice at the center of Luke’s vision: receiving power and authority from the Lord; preaching and healing; the inevitable experiences of both acceptance and rejection; a hospitable house as the center of mission; and the meeting of resistance with perseverance by shaking off the dust. For Luke, these are practices enjoined upon all Christians, before or after Easter.[i] But it is up to us to discover the precise contours of those practices in our lives and our communities.
So if shaking off the dust can be said to apply to us, what might that look and feel like?
Bovon notes that, in its ancient Near Eastern context, the symbolic, non-verbal gesture of shaking dust from one’s feet did not express anger or a desire for revenge, nor was it a curse on an opponent or a claim of triumph over an enemy. It did soberly express the experience of a rupture or divide in a relationship. In Luke’s gospel, it constitutes a “testimony about the other,” rather than a “testimony against the other.”[ii] It could be seen as a non-verbal story intended primarily for God, a narrative enactment of the reality that Love cannot force itself on others. It could be seen as a way of entrusting another to God when he or she, for whatever reason, is unable to accept God’s offer of Love from us personally.
So, shaking off my interpretive baggage, I hear several humbling reminders in Jesus’s injunction to the apostles to shake the dust from their feet. I hear the crucified and risen Christ, covered with the dust of the world for our sake, saying:
Shake off the illusion that you are responsible for meeting the needs of every living creature. Only God knows what each creature truly needs, and will use your help when and as God sees fit. Shake off the need for universal acceptance. Shake off the pain when the Gospel you have to offer is rejected. Shake off the presumption that you have arrived at the correct interpretation of my vast and life-giving Word. Shake off the dust as you rise from the tomb with me. And whatever you do or don’t do with your dusty feet, keep reaching out your hands in Love.
[i]Francois Bovon. Luke 1: A Commentary on the Gospel of Luke 1:1-9:50. Hermeneia Series. c. 2002, Fortress Press. Pgs.342-344.
[ii]Ibid, p. 346.
Human beings have evolved in such a way that we do most of our sleeping at night. Under normal circumstances, even so-called “night owls” tend not to stay awake all night long without very good reason. Physical pain, insomnia, or intense anxiety may banish sleep from our eyes, but so also might sheer anticipation or overwhelming joy. A sense of urgency may compel us to remain awake, when something or someone simply cannot or will not wait until morning: a newborn infant, a dying friend, or an impending deadline. Night may afford a precious window of opportunity, when the world is quiet and we are unburdened by the duties of our waking hours. Artists, writers, musicians, aspiring comedians: all these know a form of passionate asceticism as they labor at their primary vocation long into the night, especially if they work during the day at other paid professions. And night has always been a sacred time for lovers of all sorts, giddy with the rush of newfound or newly rekindled intimacy. The night hours become an inner sanctum of privacy enfolding the union of lover and beloved.
In today’s gospel lesson we encounter one of the few, tantalizing glimpses of the nocturnal life of Jesus – who loses sleep for the love of God.
“Now during those days Jesus went out to the mountain to pray; and he spent the whole night in prayer to God.”
In one line, Luke’s subtle highlights and shadows render not just a person, but a personality. In Luke’s many portraits of Jesus, we meet a man who is drawn into intimate, moment by moment communion with the God he knew as Father. We encounter a person filled with power by the Spirit of God, led by the Spirit to astonishing new heights and depths of self-offering. It should come as no surprise, then, that Luke’s Jesus spends the whole night in prayer.
1 Corinthians 1:17-25; Matthew 25:1-13
Before Scripture is read in the context of the Eastern Orthodox liturgies, the deacon comes forward and announces loudly to the assembly, “Wisdom! Let us attend!” It is as if he is saying, “If your attention has wandered off, now is the time to bring it back. Get ready!” Though I’d be hard-pressed to define wisdom in the abstract, it has a refreshingly straightforward, tangible quality when I witness it in the life of an individual person. I hear an inner voice cry, “Wisdom, let us attend!” Wise people tend to be real people, people with “street cred.” There is a quiet authority that has no need to announce itself but is obvious to anyone whose wisdom-o-meter is in good order. A truly wise woman or man possesses presence like shade on a hot day. Their whole affect communicates a life lived well, deliberately, mindfully, wholeheartedly. On my first encounters with people like this – who are, truth be told, rare – my first impulse is to grow quiet, to listen more intently, to ask questions that are simple, questions that do not waste time demonstrating how much I think I know. I become aware that time is too precious for such drivel. I become aware that I am in need of oil. This person cannot give me that oil directly (if only it were that simple!) but can show me how to find some for myself.
Sometimes the message we most need to hear is the one we least want to receive. When such a message arrives, the urge can be quite strong to either fight with – or flee from – the messenger.
Maybe the messenger was your brilliant, beloved professor. Rather than offer your work the praise and affirmation you did not need, she articulated a challenging and pointed critique that she knew you could handle. In the end, this forced you to see things from a fresh perspective and inspired a more mature artistic vision. But in the moment, you thought, “Excuse me?”
Maybe it was the time your best friend sat you down and said some things that left your heart and your ego badly bruised. In the days, weeks, or years that followed, that conversation proved to be medicine for your soul and a catalyst for new self-awareness. But in the moment, you thought, “Excuse me?”
Maybe it was a spiritual director who gently pushed you when you were stuck in some existential swamp by persistently asking hard questions. With time, the Holy Spirit used those questions, unearthing insights that ushered in a new era in your relationship with God. But in the moment you thought, “Excuse me?”
Matthew 9: 9-13
I believe that to be true. Probably, so do you. We believe that Jesus saves us from sin – our own and the sins of the whole world. Jesus saves us from death: by his Incarnation, by his freely given human life, and by his freely chosen death on the cross. Jesus saves us from the worst in ourselves: from our daily blindness, ignorance, resentment and failure to love. Jesus saves. For us, that is good news.
But just imagine that somewhere there is a person who doesn’t believe he is in need of saving. The message that “Jesus saves” rings hollow in his ears. In fact, he and his many friends hear this proposition and yawn, or chuckle, or roll their eyes. The offer of a Savior is not what they need.
I believe that, also, to be true. Probably, so do you. We believe that Jesus, our Savior, was also a Healer at heart, spending himself, spending his life bending down and reaching out to touch the leper, the blind, the deaf, the lame, the bleeding and broken and forsaken of the world. In healing bodies, he healed hearts and souls, and lives even now to do the same. Jesus heals. For us, that is good news.
John 15:26-27; 16:4b-15
Since the origins of Western drama in ancient Greece, playwrights have utilized the narrative convention of the unseen character. Through layers of references and descriptions established by the onstage characters, the offstage, unseen character begins to acquire a distinct identity and motivation within the mind of the audience. The absence of such a character works to advance the action of the plot as much as any of the characters present. The Wizard of Oz is the best example of this in popular film. If the unseen character does eventually appear onstage – as does the “great and powerful Oz” – it is after much anticipation, and the moment rarely unfolds as the audience has come to expect it will. Sometimes the unseen character dies, or departs, or simply never shows up. Samuel Becket’s play Waiting for Godot is a classic, twentieth century example. And sometimes, as in the plays of Tennessee Williams or Edward Albee, the audience may be tempted to question whether the unseen character is a projection, a symbol of an onstage character’s unresolved longings: an unseen male child, a lost mother, or a beautiful, young stranger. These characters are like messengers from another world, or magnets whose energy holds together a visible outer life and an invisible, unconscious world.
Throughout the long story of salvation history, there are distinct moments when the Holy Spirit acts in the manner of an unseen character. The Spirit dances around the borders or surges as an undercurrent beneath the lives of women and men, palpably felt though never quite glimpsed directly: at times, a blazing fire on mountaintop or altar, whose power is just barely contained; at other times, an almost fluid substance invading a prophet from without; at still other times, a guiding light illumining the dreams or visions of a hero. Even in the synoptic gospels, the moments we might consider cameo appearances of the Spirit serve in the narrative much more like elements of Jesus’s inner experience, enriching and deepening our understanding of Jesus as one whose every intention and motivation are guided by the Spirit. It is in our reading from Acts of the Apostles that we seem to encounter the iconic, much-awaited stage direction of the Divine Playwright: “ENTER, from above, the HOLY SPIRIT.” But as in many dramas, this momentous, much-anticipated appearance onstage contains an unforeseen twist: as the first followers of Jesus are “clothed with power from on high” the Holy Spirit speaks not a climactic soliloquy, but in the speech of one-hundred-twenty actors speaking all at once, in all the languages of the known world. Offstage and onstage collapse as framing devices that no longer apply, if they ever had. The author of Acts sends a clear message: we are there among them. The Holy Spirit has come upon us, and is with us, and is in us. The whole world has changed. A new era has begun. By undergoing baptismal rebirth, the Spirit can be given by one believer to another, like the passing of a candle flame.
This gradual, transformative, and utterly significant shift in our relationship to the Holy Spirit, effected by the death, resurrection, and glorification of Jesus, is delineated with the greatest power and subtlety in John’s gospel. Scholar Andrew Byers has dedicated significant attention to the Holy Spirit as a distinct character in John. For Byers, the Spirit is a significant “offstage” presence who emerges quite slowly and mysteriously as an “onstage character.”[i] The role of the Spirit in relation to the intimacy shared by the Father and the Son comes into focus as language applied to Jesus in John is re-applied to the Spirit. Jesus describes the Spirit as “another Advocate,” the Spirit of Truth, who is with and in the disciples, and is unacceptable to the world. The true work of the Spirit ultimately extends beyond the gospel narrative. The Holy Spirit cannot emerge in his own right as an agent and source of the disciple’s ongoing transformation in Christ until the primary onstage character of the gospel – Jesus – has made his exit in the flesh.
At our baptismal re-birth, the Holy Spirit catalyzes a process that the ancient church would come to call theosis. A single white cotton thread, when dipped in a cup of red dye will gradually absorb the dye and become red by osmosis. Likewise, we are called to enter into full participation in God’s inner life, whereby we undergo theosis: absorption by grace of what God is by God’s divine nature.[ii] We do not become God, but we become more and more like God – and more and more the full expression of who and what God has made us to be, in a dynamic, life-long process of synergy between our faithful praxis and God’s free and energizing self-gift. As we allow God to be God-in-us, the likeness of Christ is restored to us and suffuses our whole personhood. While this is not a linear progression, there are some basic movements described in Scripture and the writings of the saints.
Before we ever consciously embark on this adventure, the indwelling Holy Spirit already prays within us, preparing the ground for theosis. In the letter to the Romans, Paul writes:
Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but that very Spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words. And God, who searches the heart, knows what is the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for the saints according to the will of God.[iii]
The transforming Holy Spirit bestows deepening inner freedom as we engage the life of theosis in the Church. Again, Paul writes in the Second Letter to the Corinthians:
Now the Lord is the Spirit, and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom. And all of us, with unveiled faces, seeing the glory of the Lord as though reflected in a mirror, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another; for this comes from the Lord, the Spirit.[iv]
The empowering Holy Spirit frees us and sends us to receive each moment and circumstance of life as it is. The whole of life becomes an opportunity for ever-deepening theosis. In the gospel of Matthew, Jesus counsels his disciples:
See, I am sending you out like sheep into the midst of wolves; so be wise as serpents and innocent as doves. Beware of them, for they will hand you over to councils and flog you in their synagogues; and you will be dragged before governors and kings because of me, as a testimony to them and the Gentiles. When they hand you over, do not worry about how you are to speak or what you are to say; for what you are to say will be given to you at that time; for it is not you who speak, but the Spirit of your Father speaking through you.[v]
As a high school actor I had the joy and privilege of becoming more fully myself by inhabiting the skin of a character onstage. Later in life, that experience was put to the test when I myself began teaching high school and was unexpectedly asked to direct student theater. The most gratifying and miraculous moments in a high school play are those in which an audience catches a glimpse of a young actor’s unselfconscious humanity: the embodied expression of her personhood taking shape behind and beneath the memorized lines and tentative gestures. Here and there, true feeling flashes forth and art takes flesh before our eyes. She has become the character because she is becoming herself.
The true miracle of our own becoming, our own theosis, becomes apparent by a similar process. The Holy Spirit, once an unseen character dancing around the borders or surging as an undercurrent in the life of God’s people, has been revealed in power and glory at Pentecost. Now it is the Holy Spirit who anticipates, with hints and guesses, the unseen character waiting in the wings of our own inner stage. That Spirit encourages us in sudden epiphanies and cherished dreams, in quiet moments of profound trust, in providential encounters with loved ones and wise guides, and in times of waiting, when the strength of our courage or faith may be put to the test. For the one who is ready, the Holy Spirit stands ready as an intimate, personal companion, a co-creator, and a collaborator in our sanctification. Of the person whose life is gathered in that state of readiness, Richard Meux Benson, our founder, writes, “The powers of the Holy Ghost are ready to co-operate with him, if he is ready to use them. The Holy Ghost waits, and is kept waiting by our unreadiness. If we are too fast or too slow we miss his presence; whereas if we are just doing the right thing at the proper time, we find him ready to meet us and work with us.”[vi]
Come, Holy Spirit, again and again, in the Pentecost of every moment, revealing the likeness of Christ within, and sending us to see Christ in all. Amen.
[i]See Andrew Byers’ extended treatment of the Holy Spirit in Chapter 11 of his Ecclesiology and Theosis in the Gospel of John, Cambridge University Press (2017).
[ii]For a unique and masterful exploration of theosis from an Anglican perspective, see A. M. Allchin’s Participation in God: A Forgotten Strand in Anglican Tradition.
[iv]2 Corinthians 3:17-18.
[vi]Richard Meux Benson. Instructions on the Religious Life, Series III.
Running in the dark
a stone out of place
a broken seal
an open door.
Sweat evaporating on necks and ankles chills the skin of of two men who followed Him everywhere.
Tears well up and spill over in the eyes of a woman who loved him above all else.
Hearts beat faster
reason flutters, falters, and fails
in the face of a
where He who said I AM seemed not to be
Feast of the Presentation of Christ in the Temple
As I read the opening chapters of Luke’s gospel, I often imagine seeing an enormous tent being painstakingly erected, like those that are used for outdoor weddings. With the introduction of each significant character – Elizabeth, Zechariah, Mary, Joseph, the shepherds, Simeon, and Anna – another stake or peg is fixed in the earth, with its own cord attached. These cords begin to cross and intersect at just the right angles, as if by the arrangement of some mysterious, divine geometry, held taut by the weight of poles and the canvas now unfurling from the ground into a recognizable structure. Into the particularity of time and space there unfolds a tabernacle, a tent or dwelling for Christ Emmanuel, God-with-Us. A web of divinely inspired, interpersonal encounters prepares the ground and provides a sheltering roof.