Slow theology: John Swinton and Matthias Scheeben

Everything else seems to have a ‘slow’ version–why not theology? I feel as though ‘slow’ is just the way I do theology, more by necessity than by choice. Reading and writing happen slowly, and my ideas unfold over time. Sometimes I think I’ve got a giant percolator for a mind, one in which life experience accumulates (like coffee grounds) and then everything I read goes through it. Then, of course, experience filters through the whole mess of reading and previous experience, and so on. No wonder I read so slowly and write more slowly still. Mind you, I am not saying that this is a better way. It certainly isn’t, if what you want is to ascend. I’m not ascending; I’m barely treading water.

becoming friends of timeSince this is my mode of theological and intellectual operation, I found myself delighting in John Swinton’s recent book, Becoming Friends of Time: Disability, Timefullness, and Gentle Discipleship. He calls out modern culture of efficiency into question, and suggests that God has given us the gift of time for love, not for achievement. In God’s time, humility and gentleness trump speed and efficiency. (Check out the symposium on Syndicate! ) It was in reading John’s book that I began to think seriously about the possibility of slow theology. There is a methodological slowness in doing theology as an intellectual practice that fits with my own (often frustrating) experience of academic-theological work, and gentleness is at the heart of it.

In a way, it is gentleness that appeals to me in the work of a no-longer-widely-read dogmatic theologian, Matthias Scheeben. My attempts to read my way into Scheeben’s work were revitalised by Bruce Marshall, who wrote a perceptive and hortatory essay suggesting that ‘Scheeben teaches us the virtues theologians need.’ These virtues, together, shape a practice of theology that takes time. ‘Dogmatic theology,’ Scheeben shows us, ‘must discipline itself to be about God in a specific way, one that draws us into the mysteries revealed only in Christ.’ Scheeben’s deep attentiveness to these mysteries shows through clearly in his (aptly titled) The Mysteries of Christianity. It’s a book that an mysteriesacademic theologian would have difficulty publishing today, I expect. His erudition (which Marshall describes as staggering) is balanced with an equally profound piety. Scheeben’s study of the mysteries of God, revealed in Christ, is a discipline at once ‘intellectual’ and ‘spiritual.’

Another aspect of Scheeben’s study reveals the second of the virtues Marshall identifies:

Scheeben does not lord over the past and judge it, as if the modern mind were in a superior position to know divine truths. Nor does he equate genuinely dogmatic theology with rigorous adherence to a past master, no matter how much we may learn from him. His use of the thirteenth-century scholastics, for example, is remarkably catholic. He does not play them off against one another, or adhere to a particular school, but makes constructive use of all of them, usually in mutually reinforcing ways. 

Although Marshall doesn’t name it ‘gentleness,’ the respect Scheeben shows to his interlocutors is just that: gentle. Much scholarship advances in less constructive and more critical ways, as if the only way to make an argument is to show where others have gone wrong. (I suspect that Scheeben would not have had much time for snarky comments on Facebook, but that might just be a little bit of hero-worship.)

The virtue that perfects the others, on my reading, is humility. Indeed, Marshall finds this to be ‘the most striking feature of Scheeben’s theological writing.’ In particular, Scheeben sustains this attitude ‘before the divine mysteries he seeks to understand.’ Scheeben’s attention to these mysteries shapes his engagement with his interlocutors and his understanding of the character of the theological task. His piety (which is an aspect of the first virtue) and gentleness (which is the essence of the second) are bound up inextricably with his profound humility before the mystery of God.

Scheeben wasn’t a slow theologian in the sense that his writing took a long time. (Neither is John Swinton, by that measure.) As Marshall points out, the foundations of his theological work were already mostly laid ‘by the time Scheeben published the Mysteries…at the age of thirty.’ But his attention to thescheeben divine mysteries had been formed by a theological culture marked, as Marshall puts it, by ‘breadth and sympathy.’ Scheeben might have been a fast learner, building a knowledge base in his twenties that I can’t hope to match if I keep at it until I am eighty. He was, however, measured in his judgements and not dismissive, never rash.

If there is any advantage in the glacial speed of my own theological work, it may be that I have no fast-track through my intellectual process: the knowledge I acquire drips slowly through the ‘grounds.’ This means that I have to say things like ‘I don’t know’ and ‘Let me think about that.’ And so, I lose arguments frequently, and do not seek them out. There’s no virtue in losing, of course. But there is some healing that comes with the realisation that winning–which tends to come by being the strongest and the fastest–isn’t everything. There is more to be said, much more, about the possibility of slow theology. But I’ll just have to let it brew.

 

 

 

 

‘offer it up’ –on the feast of St Josephine Bakhita

Don’t worry. I’m not especially proficient at this particular mode of self-denial, which seems, as far as I can tell, to preclude complaining or fretting. The first time it was ever offered to me as advice (I wasn’t raised by a Catholic mother), I had arrived at Mass and it was absolutely freezing. I said as much to the friend I’d just joined, and he whispered back, ‘offer it up.’ Say what? I thought. But I’m cold. (Also, I’m in England, where griping about the weather is something of a national pastime. So how can I just bear it without comment?)

I’ve chewed on that phrase, though, in the intervening years. Along the way, I have noticed instantiations of the practice that are inspiring. I mentioned three in class the other day that somehow have worked their way into my consciousness and stuck fast. 5611The first, not surprisingly, is Mother Teresa‘s saying ‘give what he takes, and take what he gives.’ I’d never heard it before I listened to the collection of her ‘private’ letters. (The audible app reads me books while I am picking things up off the floor, ironing, etc.) It struck me with particular force as I reflected on the spiritual richness Mother Teresa
enjoyed very early on, which left her so soon and never returned. Although I don’t recall her saying so explicitly, it seems clear that she regarded even that spiritual barrenness as something ‘taken’ and so she chose to offer it up, to give it willingly rather than resent the loss of it. Not that it wasn’t incredibly painful and exhausting; but it did not destroy her faith, however tempting it is to believe that she ‘lost’ her faith. Jean Danielou, in a beautiful passage from his book on prayer, says that going to Mass when you feel nothing (as Mother Teresa did daily) isn’t hypocrisy; it is an act of faith.

The second example I gave to the class was Josephine Bakhita. Despite her suffering–from  childhood through adolescence, in her life as a slave–Josephine Bakhita did not become bitter. While she was still a slave, she became a Christian; after she was freed, she became a nun. unknown-3Toward the end of her life, she often was in a great deal of pain, and confined to a wheelchair. Nonetheless, when asked how she was, she always gave the same reply: ‘as the Master wishes’. With that phrase, I think she offered up not only her present physical pain, but all that she endured in her life. I can’t imagine how she did it, how she maintained her composure, and remained cheerful. Surely having suffered so much should count for something; God ought to have taken that into account and spared her the pain of her illness later in life. Obviously that’s not how St Josephine regarded the matter. I guess that’s why she’s a saint, and I am not.

My third example comes from an entirely different walk of life: Pope St John XXIII. I confess to having got a bit bogged down in his Journal of a Soul, though I find the narrative of his early life fascinating. His piety reflects the era in which he grew up, and I find it almost alien. But then, he was the Pope who called the Second Vatican Council, and I am a thoroughly Vatican II Catholic. It’s not surprising that his Christian upbringing in Italy at
the turn of the century should seem so different to someone who grew up at the end of the 20th century in California. All that aside, though, one sentence he spoke in confidence, near the end of his life, reveals (to me, at least) the character of his faith: ‘Now I understand what contribution to the Council the Lord requires from me: my suffering’ (Journal of a Soul, xxviii). Although he opened the Council, he became very ill; he died in June 1963, having seen only one of the sessions through.638064928-incense-burner-john-xxiii-prayer-visit

Pope St John XXIII’s observation says something, though, about this business of offering it up, something that I don’t find in either Mother Teresa (or, I should say, St Teresa of Calcutta) or St Josephine Bakhita–something about the mystery of undeserved suffering. If we read resignation into the words of Mother Teresa or Josephine Bakhita, we read something more like ‘rationalisation’ in the words of John XXIII. But I don’t think it is as formulaic as that. Because there is no way that suffering from an excruciating and terminal illness can contribute, in human terms, to the work of an ecumenical council. All human eyes can see is John XXIII’s absence from the council. But his words are an act of hope. In his agony, he cries out to the Lord–whether audibly or not–like the psalmist, like the Son of God.

And in the suffering willingly accepted, two things happen. In one sense, the sufferer joins his or her pains to those of Christ, as St Paul describes in Colossians 1. What is suffered with Christ and in Christ is suffered on behalf of the whole body of Christ. In another, related sense, the sufferer stands in the place of the one who cries out to the Lord in the day of trouble. This is, in Psalm 49 (50) exactly what God requires of God’s people: ‘call upon me in the day of trouble; I will deliver you, and you shall honor me.’ Not a sacrifice of money or pigeons, but a sacrifice of thanksgiving. ‘Offer it up’ with thanksgiving, yes. But I think this maybe doesn’t preclude complaining after all. Offering it up means taking all the agony–and mere annoyance–to God. Isn’t that what Jesus did in the garden? ‘Father, all things are possible for you; remove this cup from me; yet, not my will but yours be done.’

So I can still gripe, and hurt, and grieve; I can, and should, call upon the Lord in my day of trouble. The tough part is believing in the rescue, even though it may not come until the end of time. That’s hope–what Danielou, in that same wonderful book calls the most difficult of the theological virtues. That’s what Mother Teresa, Josephine Bakhita, and John XXIII all had. Hope. Not hope that things would be better tomorrow, but hope in the One who is making all things new. Even me.

Deo gratias.

On the Trinity and the newspaper

Yesterday was the feast of the Most Holy Trinity. How did I mark it? I wrote my usual piece for the church bulletin at St Cuthbert’s and I led the children’s liturgy–a lot less ‘usual’ and a whole lot more nerve-wracking. More on that later. Late in the afternoon, after the rain dashed our hopes of a walk to the park, I caved to the 12-year-old’s plea for ‘another James Bond movie.’

UnknownIt may have been watching Goldfinger that made me alert to the three articles in one newspaper (the New York Times) this morning, all touching on the situation of women in the contemporary Western world. I was slightly shocked by the behaviour of our favourite spy towards women–obviously it has been a while since I watched the Sean Connery films. Fortunately, two of the articles today suggest that the reason I find his behaviour inappropriate is that things have changed for women, not only in the US, but also, finally, in France. Denis Baupin was forced to resign from his post as the Assembly’s vice-president because of his persistent sexual harassment of female colleagues. Big firms in the US have come a long way on these issues, but the less obvious discrimination against women continues: the pay gap and the obstacles to advancement on Wall Street. Unfortunately, the vehicle for changing the rules about sexual conduct may not be much use to women in addressing the other structural issues, as firms make arbitration the rule and prohibit employees from being involved in class-action lawsuits.

23BOOKZEISLER1-master180The article about women on Wall Street makes Jennifer Senior’s review of We Were Feminists Once: From Riot Grrrl to CoverGirl®, the Buying and Selling of a Political Movement, by Andi Zeisler, all the more pertinent. Zeisler denunciates the cheapening of feminism, arguing that ‘feminist’ has lost its meaning and its power. Now any woman can be a feminist, and the only goals she has to embrace are ‘to seize [her] power and tap into [her] inner warrior.’ I won’t rehearse Jennifer Senior’s good work here: her review is worth reading. In short, the difficulty with the book is that the real issues, to which Zeisler often refers, get very, very short shrift. And why? Because, perhaps, the boring issues like the wage gap, especially as it affects workers in the lower tax brackets, don’t sell books.

My interest in this trinity of articles in this morning’s New York Times doesn’t require all the details from each of the articles. Some of us women have benefited enormously from those who resisted the James Bond approach to relations between the sexes; some of us have found our way into spheres of work and influence that would never have been open to us 30 or 40 years ago. I know I am one of those women. I worry because the playing field onto which I have emerged, somewhat uncertainly, still operates by a set of rules that haven’t changed too much since women weren’t allowed to play. This affects me deeply, as a caregiver and someone who believes strongly that there are more important things in the world than career advancement. But it affects many, many more women who have to play by those rules in order to survive, and women who cannot play by those rules, and so are excluded.

Things have changed. Things haven’t changed nearly enough. Unfortunately, as long as we are ruled as a culture (and here I am thinking of culture both in the US and the UK) by the need for comfort and stability, and driven by the desire for luxury and entertainment, nothing will change very much. The problem feminists face is a part of the bigger problem we face in the world: sin. Sexual harassment can be fought; women can win, because sexual harassment doesn’t really increase the profit margin. (Note that one broker mentioned in the article about women’s struggles on  Wall Street was promoted, despite having such a bad record on sexual harassment that he wasn’t allowed to have a female administrative assistant: he must have been really profitable.) But equal pay, family leave, and improved wages for those earning the least are difficult, costly.

It all seems pretty dismal: I guess that’s why books addressing poverty and discrimination in specific and concrete detail, don’t sell. Whatever sort of oppression we might be fighting, the odds are against us. The wisest thing I’ve ever found in Judith Butler’s writings (not to be a feminist name-dropper) is the observation that real change comes when we are able to resist the urge to fight back when we have been hurt. (See her Frames of War; I reviewed it for Modern Theology a while back.) I think I have heard that somewhere before. Fighting back seems like the only way to get anywhere; it is refreshing to find someone whose work has shaped critical gender theory for more than twenty years saying something different.

TrinityNow, maybe you’re wondering what the Trinity and the whole business of feminism have in common. No, I am not going to go in the direction of feminist theology. Yesterday, in that terrifying experience of trying to say something to children about the Trinity, a beautiful thing happened. There we were, talking about the Glory be, and listening to the gospel (John 16:12-15), and trying to make sense of it all (without actually using the word Trinity, which seemed extraneous), and the children somehow managed it. Why don’t we hear ‘Son’ in the gospel, we wondered. Because Jesus is the Son, and he’s speaking, offered one of the children. We wondered how God was present with us now. ‘In our hearts,’ offered another child; and ‘by the Spirit,’ said a third. But the best of all was in their free drawing time. One of the girls came up to show me her drawing afterward. Below the text of the Glory be, she had drawn a circle with a series of arrows to indicate the circle’s direction. ‘Because it continues,’ she explained.

So it does: this business of God’s involvement with our world, with all it suffers from the sin of men and women, continues. Because we women and men have that same Spirit living us, the Spirit of him who raised Christ from the dead; and so we stay in the game, despite the odds, offering our suffering as a part of the struggle.

Glory be to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Spirit, as it was in the beginning, is now and ever shall be, world without end. Amen.

Note: yesterday, in other years, would have been the memorial of St Rita of Cascia, who might make an excellent patroness for Catholic feminism, insofar as there is such a thing…

 

 

 

David Foster Wallace and the practice of love

A few years back, I posted about David Foster Wallace. Having just (a bit behind the times, admittedly) listened to his 2005 Kenyon College commencement address, I was taken by his candour and sensitivity. Where is he now? I immediately began to search the internet. And then, of course, I remembered my first introduction to David Foster Wallace by a colleague, who told us that Wallace had committed suicide. A very bright light has been extinguished.

Last year, I published an essay in Church Life, which has just been re-issued on their new website. Reading it over again–because David Foster Wallace is so compelling–I am once again floored by his insight, wit, and sensitivity. I give thanks for his life, and grieve his tragic death all over again. Also, I give you the link to the essay, in case you want to know what David Foster Wallace implies about the practice of love in that commencement address now more than ten years old.

I know my readers are few and my followers even fewer. I give thanks for all of you today.

Deo gratias.

How newness enters the world

Once upon a time I was a graduate student with time to read and discuss postcolonial theory. Gradually I built up a repertoire of books written in rhyming couplets, though, and my time for the likes of Homi Bhabha (who wrote the essay whose title I’ve taken for this blog post) dwindled.

Even as a keen grad student, I had to read Bhabha’s essay about three times before I could work out exactly how it is that newness enters the world. Since the essay is well-crafted and enjoyable to read, the repetition wasn’t a chore. After those re-readings, I came to the understanding (right or not) that the social-historical-cultural world really does move forward in the grinding of big structures (as the structuralists have it), but that is not the whole story. Change emerges in the interstices, Bhabha argues; newness slips in along the fault lines. At this distance from my reading and re-reading, that remains my basic impression.

In the intervening years, my reading of books by Sandra Boynton and Julia Donaldson (two writers at the very top of their game), the children’s literature, and the raising of the children have come to play well together with post-colonial theory . Now, I might sum up the argument of Homi Bhabha’s essay as something like: newness enters the world at points of transition and emerges slowly; or, newness doesn’t barge into the world boldly, but slips in at the corners, gently, so you hardly notice it until is well underway. That is, the grand, tectonic changes begin as tiny fissures and grow so gradually into mountains and rivers that you only see them once the landscape itself alters.

Looking at Bhabha’s brilliant theory now, it seems somehow obvious. At least, as a mother, it seems obvious: the changes of childhood are enormous and powerful, but it is impossible really to watch them happen. Change happens–in the world and in children–as the grass grows. So the really trite saying about the little things being the big things, which one hears occasionally, turns out to be true. But it isn’t true for the reason that I used to think, or at least not only for that reason. I used to think that the little things, the things we do for each other daily, really do become the big things as we look back on the building of relationships and the growing of families and communities. That’s true.

It is also true, however, that changing the world is not something that mostly get done by people whose Great Deeds make the news. No: the world is constantly changing, and you and I are the ones changing it. The thing is, and maybe this is what Homi Bhabha was trying to tell me all those years ago, we don’t always see ourselves in that way. We fear that we do not make a difference. Nothing appears to change as the result of what we do or fail to do, however grand our gestures may be. Not so! If we think that, we do not see our own great power, which lies in the very small opportunities to ‘be the change’, as the saying goes.

The trouble with newness and change is that we want to see it. We want to see results when we extend ourselves, trying and hoping to shift the hills. But newness enters the world behind us, as it were, in our tracks. And if we keep looking behind us to check whether it has happened, we will lose our way entirely.

I suppose, if I were not a person of faith, I might just stop there. But I cannot forget that there is one more thing that’s true about newness and change in this world, and that is that they have already happened. What I do in the way of making change is simply to walk in the good works set out for me by the Author of this world and its Redeemer. So the business about looking back is doubly important: if I spend all my time turning round to see what a difference I have made, I will lose sight of the one who is the Difference, whose love brought the world into being and has redeemed it, and is restoring it all the time. This is not work I do by my own power; this is my participation in the Newness of All Things that is the work of the One in whom they all hold together. So all I do really does matter, and yet the burden or changing the world does not rest on my shoulders: it rests on the shoulders of the One who carried it up to calvary.

Deo gratias

 

 

 

Heaven and earth are full of your glory

imagesThe glory of God might seem an odd topic for reflection during Lent. After all, we omit the Gloria at Mass, and we direct our attention to the Lord’s temptation and his passion. But the Sanctus reminds us, week by week—even during Lent—that ‘heaven and earth are full of [God’s] glory’. We don’t always recognize that glory: it is hidden. As John’s gospel tells us: ‘the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, full of grace and truth; we have beheld his glory, glory as of the only Son of the Father’ (1.14). Jesus makes God known to us; all the fullness of the Godhead was pleased to dwell—hidden—in Christ. Peter, James and John glimpsed that glory at the transfiguration of the Lord. They learned to see in Jesus, even after his brightness subsided, the radiance of divine glory. So also we learn to see the world differently as the eyes of our hearts are trained by faith: to see Christ’s presence in the Eucharist, for example; or to see his face in the faces of the poor and the marginalized.

Learning to see in this way does not give way to full vision, however. The mystery of God’s presence in the world is like the mystery of the Incarnation itself. How does God become human without eliminating or overriding the human? The Old Testament reading from the third Sunday in Lent gives us a way in to contemplating the mystery: Moses encounters a bush that burns, but is not consumed. So also God’s presence with us and in us throughout creation enlivens and enlightens us, but does not consume us. Only that which is incompatible with God’s presence (that is, sin) cannot survive the coming of the Lord. The flame of God’s holiness burns in us—as in the burning bush—but all it consumes is sin.

As we sing ‘pleni sunt caeli et terra gloria tua’ (‘heaven and earth are full of your glory’), let’s remember that ‘caeli et terra’ includes us. We strive for holiness in the hope that the glory of God may one day be revealed in us as well.

the holiness of the Lord

(from the second Sunday in Lent: I am catching up…)

Isaiah6

The scene that follows the announcement ‘holy, holy, holy’ is dramatic: ‘the foundations of the thresholds shook at the voice of him who called, and the house was filled with smoke’. Isaiah’s response is not worship, as we might expect. Instead, he exclaims, ‘Woe is me!’ Seeing the holiness of the Lord makes Isaiah aware of his own lack of holiness, and fearful: ‘a man of unclean lips’ should not (he thinks) behold ‘the King, the Lord of hosts’. God’s glory shows up all that is unworthy about us. Similarly Peter, in the gospel reading from a few weeks ago, responds to the miraculous catch of fish: ‘Depart from me, O Lord, for I am a sinful man’. Beholding the greatness of the Lord brings about a new, and unsettling, revelation of our own lack of sanctity. The response from on high is not judgment, however, but comfort. One of the seraphim brings a burning coal from the altar, touches Isaiah’s lips with it, and announces, ‘Behold…your guilt has been taken away, and your sin forgiven’. Likewise Jesus reassures Peter (in the same words the angel used to put Mary at ease): ‘Do not be afraid.’

Contemplating the holiness of God ought to make us mindful of the ways we have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God. This is not the way into condemnation, though, but the door to forgiveness and new life. For both Isaiah and Peter, the recognition of his own unworthiness marks the beginning of a career (if we may call it that) in the service of God. Isaiah accepts the invitation to take God’s word to the people of Israel, and Peter becomes that rock on which the Church is built. Our own careers of discipleship may be less dramatic, but God nevertheless promises to draw us near and involve us in the real drama—the drama of our redemption and that of the whole world. We need not ask whether we are worthy; we need only allow God to make us so.