the widow’s mite

‘[she gave] all that she had to live on’ (Luke 21: 4).

Everything. She gave everything. Usually when I have heard homilies or read reflections on this text, the application has been predominantly financial. Giving out of our abundance is good; giving out of our meagre resources—giving ‘until it hurts—is better. And I wouldn’t want to deny that. It is a very good rendering of the way the words go. Giving what we can afford shows generosity; we can spend our discretionary income however we choose, and charitable giving is a Good choice. But the widow’s gift goes beyond generosity. If I were in the New Testament commentary business, I’d now be doing some research on the culture of giving in the first century. (I’d start with L W Countryman’s Rich Christians in an Age of Empire…) Because there is more to be said about this: I’ll pay close attention to future homilies on the text.

But there are other readings of this text. (See here for some centuries-old examples.) There’s an allegorical reading, I think, worth pursuing. Because money is important, and yet it is not ‘all [we] have to live on’. Very few of us will be called to give all the money we have to live on (probably at least in part because the culture in which we give is not at all like the widow’s culture; see Countryman). Discipleship is radical, though. The New Testament is full of parables and exhortations that call for a total trust in God, an unreserved giving of self in the hope that God will give back that self, infused with the light and life of Christ, which is the divine light and life.

All I have to live on names not just what’s in the bank. Even if I gave that away (and it isn’t strictly mine to give, but a resource shared with my husband and children: he makes more of that money than I do!), I would still ‘live’ on the love of my family and friends, my sense that what I do in some small way makes a difference in at least some small corner of the world; I ‘live’ on the enjoyment I take from the tree in the garden and the way it looks against the sky, whether blue or pale or charcoal grey; I ‘live’ on the hope that I still have a future, and I have hopes for that future; I ‘live’ on what I plan to do and the expectation that my plans will not all come to naught.

How do I hand that over? What would it mean to give all I have to live on? I would step into the darkness, emptiness, and despair that characterizes my most desperate days, the days when love and beauty and hope fail to touch my soul, days when emptiness seems a fate worse than death. Very many of the saints have been there, and spent long seasons in that place of anguish; Jesus went there, into the darkness and loneliness of abjection. I have been there, and I know not for the last time. To embrace that place of utter wretchedness and isolation is to offer up ‘all [I] have to live on’, to find myself once again in the formless void.

I hate that place. Because when I am in it, I cannot see. I am totally unable to recognize what I know more certainly than I have ever known anything else: that the Spirit of God is moving over the face of those dark waters. I only love that place when I have left it, when finally the Word sounds forth, fiat lux! Only then do I recall what I have always known, that the darkness was never really dark to Him; for He is the light that shines in the darkness—shines sometimes imperceptibly in the very blackest darkness—and the darkness can never, ever overcome Him.

Deo gratias.

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All the angels and saints

Late last night, I received a text message from a friend, asking whether I had a meditation for All Saints' Day. No, I had to reply, I didn't. But I felt I should. The saints are essential to my Christian life, and in one way or another always have been. One way or another, I say, because there was a time when I would not have been so eager to ask, as we do when we say the confiteor, for the prayers of 'all the angels and saints'. When I was small, it was the 'ordinary' saints, the living company of the faithful, who guided me. At least they pointed me in the right direction; I didn't always follow their lead. In college, I began to appreciate the 'saints' in Hebrews 11, especially as they form the 'cloud of witnesses' who surround us as we follow Jesus.
 
But the picture is bigger than that. The saints–those who have gone before us and stand before the throne of grace–play a vital role in the spirituality of my everyday life. There they are, on the mantelpiece beside my bed: the Blessed Virgin and child, the Holy Family, St Michael the Archangel; there is my San Damiano cross, which I wear everyday to remind myself of St Francis's holy life. When I say 'all the angels and saints' in the confiteor, I mean it. I mean that I need their prayers. And often the invocation of the saints reminds me that I am not alone. There is a whole company on this road, and the company keeps pressing on.
 
The fact that it doesn't depend on me, that the saints are already the church triumphant, liberates me to pray, to worship, to receive forgiveness and to hope that I can live the life of a disciple of Jesus. The life of the church is carried forward by the saints and saints-in-the-making, and all the saints share one vital characteristic (if you can call it that): being made holy by the Spirit of Holiness. Saints don't shine because they're polished; they shine because somehow they let the light of God show through them. I want to be like that, and I realize that there is no formula for getting there. There is no recipe for saint-making, just a Spirit who blows where he wills. 'Fixing our eyes on Jesus' (Hebrews 12) is the main thing. The church depends on him, he is the vine; he is the author and perfecter of our faith; he is the one in whom all things–perhaps most especially the communion of saints–hold together.
 
But that's not all. The communion of saints, the universal church, covers me when I go astray. 'Look not on our sins, but on the faith of your church', the priest prays, and the words always come as such a tonic to my soul. The faith of the church is the faith to which I cling. It is no product of my own heart or my own mind, but it belongs to the communion of saints. In the words of Rich Mullins, 'I did not make it…it is making me.' The faith of the church is something strong, lasting, and perfect.
 
It would be wrong to think, though, that the strength of the church's faith means I can just take a seat and wait for heaven to come to me. No: clinging to the church's creed is sometimes hard work. That's where 'taking every thought captive to the obedience of Christ' and 'working our your salvation' and all those passages in the New Testament that make the Christian life seem like such hard work come into play. It is easy to forget–at least it is easy for me to forget–that holding onto what the gospel says to us in Scripture and tradition does not come naturally to those of us trained and formed by a world that doesn't believe any of it, and hopes in very different directions.
 
Whatever it is that seems to threaten my Christian life, it's not new. The challenges, temptations, and doubts that come my way are not unique to me. Whether I think I have done well or badly, I haven't done anything totally unprecedented. The saints have already been there.
 
And this is a good day on which to be grateful for that.

What worries me

Well, honestly, a lot of things worry me. Stupid things and little things and big things and almost impossible things. But Rowan Williams names precisely what worries me about what I do as a theologian: “[the desert fathers and mothers] seem very well aware that one of the great temptations of religious living is to intrude between God and other people. We love to think that we know more of God than other people…” (Silence and Honey Cakes).

That worries me. It probably worries me more because I am not the smartest theologian I know. Not nearly. (Since you asked, I would certainly rank Rowan Williams as one of the two or three smartest theologians I know.) I spent an awfully long time trying to write a Very Clever conclusion to my book, Rethinking Christian Identity, and eventually realized that in trying to write a sexy and theoretical finale, I was trying to be someone I am not. Yes, I read the necessary books by de Certeau. But in the end I didn't write about that stuff. I wrote about discipleship, because that's what seemed to me to be the heart of Christian identity. It's about following Jesus. This is not a Clever and Original idea. It's a commonplace in Christian theology from the gospels onward.
 
So where does that leave me, as a teacher of theology? Well, the book was published, and the only review I have seen so far didn't write it off as just repeating stuff everyone already knows. I'm grateful for that, and for the reviewer's practical response to the book, which was to read Gregory of Nyssa. But I am never going to be a person who trades in cleverness. I know how much I don't know, and I would far rather start with cards on the table. I know what I do know, and I have confidence that I can teach the subject. I also know that I am not going to win arguments with John Milbank about Plato or political theory. (By the way, he's in that small group with Rowan Williams.)
 
I would, however, be perfectly happy talking with John, even arguing, about Jesus. Not about Christology, certainly, but about Jesus. And that's what worries me. Because not trading in cleverness all these years, first as a graduate student, and then as a teacher, has meant that I put a great deal of emphasis on faithfulness to the gospel and on spiritual discipline; I say that it is more important to be faithful than clever, if you are a theologian. It isn't knowing about God that makes good theology; it's knowing God. (It is both, of course, and you can't just have one or the other, as Andrew Louth suggested a great many years ago in an essay about theology and spirituality. And he's another theologian I would place on the top of the smart list.)
 
But do I thereby imply that I know God better than my students or my colleagues? Good heavens, no. Teaching theology to people who are training for ministry is an awesome privilege and a serious charge. What qualifies me to stand in front is formal and academic knowledge; it's having practiced talking about the God we all know in particular ways, ways that are faithful to the Bible and the Church's memory of Jesus preserved through the ages in its sacred doctrine. I certainly can make no claim to “know more of God” than my students. Faithfulness is a shared enterprise, and spiritual discipline is for the Church and not solely (or even primarily) for individuals.
 
A lot of the things that worry me are petty, even ridiculous. But not this one. I take Rowan Williams' words to heart. This should worry me. I don't have any formula for getting it right, for teaching sound doctrine intelligently to intelligent people, and simultaneously bearing in mind that it's not all about intelligence; or for bearing in mind that in the classroom faith does actively seek understanding, that the exercise of the intellect is a part of faithful discipleship. It is enough that I worry about it, I think, so long as the 'worry' always becomes 'pray.' This work I do is like the rest of my life before God: possible only by his grace.
 
 

The Trinity for toddlers, part 2

Teaching theology affords an incredible opportunity to see how people cope with a doctrine that resists the intellect's instinctive attempts to solve it. It is not, as theologians like Rowan Williams and Thomas Weinandy (two very different thinkers, to say the least) have observed, a puzzle to be solved, but a mystery to be pondered. It's a mystery. Rowan Williams says, drawing on the resources of Eastern Orthodox theology, that 'the doctrine of the Trinity is a crucifixion of the intellect.' So it isn't surprising that students of theology, whether giving the lectures or hearing them, find it difficult.
 
But it doesn't crucify the intellect to no purpose, nor is it the most difficult of the mysteries of the faith. We might think that Jesus is the answer, but he raised a whole lot of questions for a few hundred years. The incarnation and the atonement present us with mystery just as irreducible as the Trinity. The intellectual life of the believing soul involves contemplating the truths of the faith while holding fast to the knowledge of God's ultimate incomprehensibilty. And nowhere is this more true than in that most difficult, deal-breaking area of theological reflection that we call theodicy. The problem of evil is not, like the Trinity might be, a stumbling block just for the intellect. It confronts us when inexplicable and unjust things happen to us or to those we love, things that make us turn to God in confusion, wondering how a God who is omnipotent and perfectly, completely good, could allow such things to happen. I understand how it ends up being a deal-breaker.
 
I used to wonder why I still had my faith, after all I did to lose it, and after it was challenged by my experience of life. Eventually I came to see that it wasn't 'mine' to lose, really: it is the faith of the Church, and I participate in it, I don't possess it. But that doesn't explain why I am still hanging around. Probably I owe that to my mother, who taught me lots of songs about Jesus when I was small. They're not the sorts of songs that survived the 1980's, but they impressed upon me a certain understanding of Jesus, one that stayed with me. The core of what I think about Jesus was formed before I was old enough really to be puzzled about how someone could be fully God and fully human.
 
So I am really glad that when my small son asked me, 'Who is God?' I answered with reference to the Trinity, with the sign of the cross, with the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. I could have answered, as I supposed might be more practical, with something about God as the creator, or God as love. These would have been good. But at age three, my son never asked how the one I called God could also be called the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. It isn't like we grow up and suddenly the penny drops, and we grasp how three can be one, how one can be three; we don't mature intellectually such that if we wait long enough to introduce these difficult concepts, we will be able to understand them. Better to get used to a name that names something we don't understand from the get-go, and grow into appreciation of the mystery as we develop intellectually and spiritually.
 
Now I can imagine lots of objections to that, but they will have to wait for another day.

with angels and archangels

We never had a plan for taking the children to Mass, beyond taking them to Mass. I've read the strategies of really organized parents, in awe of their attention to detail and advance preparation. I am not that organized, and I take full responsibility for that. If walking around outside with the toddler is what it takes, then that's what we do. And we have had some pretty unpleasant moments with the children during Mass.
 
I remember going to church with my mom when I was a child. We always sat in the front row (effective, I think–at least there you're bound to notice something, as my kids sometimes do). She gave me lifesavers, tropical fruit flavor, which were really quite effective. (Banana and coconut were my favorite.) My kids don't particularly like sweets (which is otherwise great), so that's not really an option for me.
 
As they get older, the still-and-quiet routine gets easier. Getting them really to attend to what's happening, though–that's another story. One Sunday recently Iain (just before he turned 7) dug my iPhone out of my bag and started playing can knockdown during the liturgy of the Eucharist. However displeased I was, I wasn't willing to incite loud and angry protest in the front row. So he might have looked like he was kneeling piously….but no.
 
That's not to say I don't have certain hard-and-fast rules. Everyone stands and says the Our Father. And that makes me happy. (Honestly, it does.) I am always trying to strike a balance: on the one hand, I want the children to begin to grasp the significance of what's happening; on the other hand, I don't want to make the experience of going to Mass into an hour-long prison sentence every Sunday. And I find myself holding in tension the need to express my own spirituality by engaging with the Mass, and the need to attend to the children, who are engaging on a very different level.
 
Sometimes I fail. (Shocking, I know.) But those moment are the moments when I am most grateful for the liturgy of the Catholic Church. Last Sunday, between policing Iain on the iPhone and discouraging Anna from trying to engage the kids behind us in conversation, I completely lost track of where we were…until suddenly my attention was grabbed again, just in time to join in the Sanctus: '…with angels and archangels…'
 
Joining in. That's what it is about. It is about taking part in the ongoing praise of God that happens in eternity, for eternity. Not about perfectly behaved children, or about the quality of my singing (I'm terrible). I think some weeks I depend completely on the angels and archangels to glorify God, as I am working to keep my children from storming the sanctuary. 'Look not on our sins, but on the faith of your Church…' indeed: the faith of the Church, like the liturgy, does not depend on me. It is. However focused or distracted I am, the worship happens, the Mass happens. Knowing that is incredibly humbling as it is freeing.
 
In his 1947 encyclical Mediator Dei, Pope Pius XII wrote:
Jesus Christ burned with zeal for the divine glory; and the offering of His blood upon the cross rose to heaven in an odor of sweetness. To perpetuate this praise, the members of the Mystical Body are united with their divine Head in the Eucharistic sacrifice, and with Him, together with Angels and Archangels, they sing immortal praise to God and give all honor and glory to the Father Almighty (71).
 
'Zeal for the divine glory' seems pretty far from many of my Sunday experiences. If I am burning with anything, it is probably way less holy than that. But I know that's what it is about: participating in the self-offering of the Son to the Father, in the Holy Spirit. All we do is respond to the love of God as it comes to us through Jesus. And even our response is helped by the Spirit (my attention just happened to be drawn back to the liturgy at the Sanctus…).
 
Deo gratias.
 

The rubber meets the road

Some days are like that: the sense of the unfairness of the world is overwhelming. I have been following the story of a former student. She's 29. She's a Methodist minister. She is married and has two little girls. She has Stage IV renal cell cancer. Look it up.
 
Doesn't seem fair, does it? I teach theology. Every year, I know which lecture is going to be the hardest. It's the one in which, however the topic is named, we deal with the 'Why?' question. Why do bad things happen to people who don't deserve it? Why does God allow people to suffer? Why? It is the hardest lecture because there are no easy answers. I gave that lecture to this young woman. And however difficult it is to talk about it in a classroom, it is inconceivably more difficult to wrestle with the question when you meet it on the street. There, it lies in wait. It ambushes you. It knocks you down and stands over you, daring you to get up again. It seems–however well you might have coped with it in front of the whiteboard–stronger than you are. You can't answer it.
 
I am amazed, again, by the faith of my students. In the months I have followed her diagnosis and treatment, I have seen an incredible strength and courage, and a refusal to let the 'Why?' question get the upper hand. I often say that my students have the difficult job–to go out, to be the face of Christ in ministry. I teach, and I love teaching; when my students leave the classroom, most of them go out into a world that doesn't know how deeply it needs healing. And when people do seek God, they don't come looking to me. They look to them. I am conscious of this responsibility, and it is humbling. More humbling still, though, is knowing that whatever I have to give pales in comparison to the faith, hope, and love that are the real gifts that the minister requires. All I can do is point to the source, and hope I have gestured accurately and clearly, that I have helped and not hindered the process that began long before students walk into my classroom. Not surprisingly, I pray for my students, all of them, because I know that everything I say and do is useless without the grace of God, without the Spirit of God being poured out into their hearts.
 
And their faith is nothing to do with me–the testimony of so many, especially my cancer-fighting former student. I taught her years ago; now she's teaching me. Next time I give that lecture, I will have her in my heart. I will be more humble in my approach. I will say, 'It's a mystery' with a lump in my throat and tears in my eyes. But I will also say it in hope, in faith, and with love, because the mystery of the unfairness of the world is the same as the mystery of love that redeems the world. Her faith reminds me of that, reminds me that in the face of the question on the ground, faith still flourishes.
 
Amazing.