Praying to the Holy Spirit

Jack Levison, author of Fresh Air: The Holy Spirit for an Inspired Life and 40 Days With the Holy Spirit (which I wrote about here and here) has just had another book published by Paraclete Press.  The book, Holy Spirit, I Pray, is a book of prayers to the Holy Spirit.

A slender, beautifully bound book, Holy Spirit, I Pray contains a series of prayers divided in categories – prayers for morning, prayers for nighttime, prayers for discernment, prayers for crisis and prayers for anytime.  Each prayer is accompanied by the Scripture text that inspired the creation of the prayer.

As I observed to parishioners at Our Lady of Lourdes when I led a book study of one of Levison’s earlier books two years ago, it seems to me that the Holy Spirit often gets short shrift. We know that we get the gift of the spirit at Pentecost, some of us can even list the gifts of the Holy Spirit, but we don’t spend a lot of time focusing on that person of the Trinity.  Levison observes in his introduction to this book, citing St. Basil,  the Holy Spirit is often seen as a medium of prayer and worship rather than as an object of prayer and worship.  (Clearly there are exceptions, and there are some well-known prayers to the Holy Spirit.)

There are many beautiful prayers in this book.  I thought I’d here share one of those that immediately resonated with me.

Holy Spirit
Spirit of Jesus
Spirit of Truth:
Ignite in me a passion for the truth
Instill in me a craving for knowledge
Inspire in me a hunger for wisdom.
Not just any truth, random knowledge, indiscriminate wisdom
But the truth about Jesus
who barked at his mother
who cried like a baby
who wore the towel of a servant and washed feeg
who prayed the night away
who broiled fish on a spring morning.
Come to me as
the Spirit of Truth
the Spirit of Jesus
Holy Spirit.
Amen.

You might consider this book as part of your Lenten prayer.

The Apostle We Love To Hate

I just finished reading Karen Armstrong’s new book, St. Paul: The Apostle We Love to Hate, which was part of my wedding anniversary gift from my husband. (What can I say: 25 years of marriage means he knows me well. Accompanying the book were several goat cheeses.)

This is Armstrong’s second book at Paul. Her first, The First Christian, relied heavily on Acts. In this book, she relies mainly on Paul’s letters. (Throughout the book, she points out differences between Luke’s and Paul’s accounts of the same events.) Acknowledging that there is much we will never learn about Paul, she suggests that “his letters bring him to live and are an extraordinary record of the passions that drove this man to change the world.”

I had a hard time putting this book down once I picked it up. Despite its brevity – it is only 125 pages – I found much here that enriched my appreciation of Paul and his letters. Let me share here just a few comments that I hope will entice you to read the book yourselves.

First, Armstrong does a good job of giving the context of Paul’s various letters. In doing so she reminds us that Paul was speaking to particular audiences in response to specific issues. His letters were never intended to lay down doctrine or guidelines for all Christians for all times. (And in this, I think she effectively combats claims that Paul is misogynist.)

Second, although I had already been aware of the view that certain letters historically attributable to Paul – such as Colossians and Ephesians – were not written by Paul, Armstrong has a helpful discussion of how those letters, in fact, misrepresent Paul’s teaching.

Third, the book does an effective job of creating a cohesive picture of Paul’s theology, a theology premised on the centrality of Jesus’ death and resurrection and the belief that if people “imitated Jesus’s kenosis in their daly behavior…they would experience a spiritual resurrection that brought with it a new freedom.”

Armstrong’s conclusion about Paul is that

Paul has been blamed for ideas that he never preached, and some of his best insights about the spiritual life have been ignored by the churches. His passionate identification with the poor is unheeded by those Christians who preach the Prosperity Gospel. His determination to eradicate the ethnic and cultural prejudices that divide us from one another, his rejection of all forms of “boasting” based on a spurious sense of privilege and superiority, and his visceral distrust of a self-indulgent spirituality that turns faith into an ego trip have not become part of the Christian mindset….Above all, we need to take seriously Paul’s insight that no virtue was valid unless it was imbued with a love that was not a luxurious emotion in the heart but must be expressed daily and practically in self-emptying concern for others.

There have been times I’ve heard words of Paul’s (and, as an aside) Armstrong reminds us that Paul’s letters were meant to be read aloud to people) and wondered what to do with them. This book encourages me to want to spend more time with his letters, aided by the context the book provides.

Short Stories by Jesus

I just finished reading Amy-Jill Levine’s book, Short Stories by Jesus: The Enigmatic Parables of a Controversial Rabbi. I am a big fan of Levine and have benefitted greatly both from lectures she has given on the Old and New Testaments and from her essays in The Jewish Annotated New Testament, and thus have been greatly looking forward to reading this book. It did not disappoint.

Levine’s starting point is that parables are intended to challenge us, to make us feel uncomfortable. Commenting on religion’s role “to comfort the afflicted and to afflict the comfortable,” she observes that “we do well to think of the parables of Jesus as doing the afflicting. Therefore, if we hear a parable and think, ‘I really like that’ or, worse, fail to take any challenge, we are not listening well enough.”  In fact, she suggests, if we hear a parable and are not disturbed, “there is something seriously amiss with our moral compass.”

Levine believes that, unfortunately, we too often ignore that challenge. That we take easy lessons form the parable that “lose the way Jesus’ first followers would have heard the parables,” and thus “lose the genius of Jesus’s teachings.”  (The framing of the parables by the Gospel writers sometimes encourage our taking the easy way out, she suggests.)

Levine discusses nine well known-parables in her book, including the Prodigal Son (which she thinks is better called “The Lost Son”), the Pharisee and the Tax Collector, and the Rich Man and Lazarus. Rather than trying to tell us what the parables mean, she encourages us to treat them as invitations for reflection and to be open to various interpretations – especially those that force us to ask hard questions of ourselves.  She does so, in part, by helping us to understand how Jesus’ audience would have heard the parables.  While she does not think historical context is all that matters, I think she is correct in her observation that “the more we know about the original contexts, the richer our understanding becomes.”

Reading this book caused me to think differently about a number of Jesus’ parables, including some I have prayed with with some frequency.  That in itself is a sign of the success of the book.

The Anchoress

While in the bookstore shopping for a gift for a friend, I noticed a novel by Robyn Cadwallader titled The Anchoress.  Drawn to the title by my love for Julian of Norwich, who was an anchoress, and feeling the need for a break from my work, I added it to my purchases.

Cadwallader’s novel (her first) was inspired by medieval women who lived their lives as anchoresses.  The term “anchoress” comes from a Greek word that means “withdrawn from the world.”   An anchoress was a person who, with the permission of the local bishop, completely withdrew from society and committed herself to Christ, living a life of prayer and contemplation. Often the anchoress’ living quarters (called an “anchorhold”) was a small room built right into a wall of a church. Although these anchoresses lived a generally removed and secluded life, it was not a life completely divorced from contact with others (who would come to seek advice from the anchoress, speaking to her through a small window).

The novel opens in the year 1255 in England (a century before the time of Julian), with the decision of a seventeen year-old girl named Sarah who has just chosen to become an anchoress.  Her reasons are a mixture of her natural piety and religious devotion and uneasiness about her body. The interest of a local lord in marrying her, her sister’s dying in childbirth, church teaching about the sinfulness of the female body all play a role.

While the book is clearly a novel and makes no claim to historical accuracy in its description of the life of women like the protagonist, it does give a picture of what such a life much have been like.  It conveys effectively that withdrawing from the world means more than building a physical wall around oneself.  It addresses issues of isolation, the human need for connection and touch.  It touches on difficult issues of attitudes toward the body and acceptance of the self.  And it gives a real sense of the physical experience (I could feel the smallness of the space).

The author also paints a vivid picture of the time period in which the novel takes place takes place. I read an interview with the author in which she said that “the thirteenth-century was both deeply ordinary and, to us, profoundly strange. In writing, I was trying to keep this balance, mindful of giving the reader enough information to understand all that was needed for the narrative (though always without using clunky exposition of the term).”

While this is not a book I would imagine re-reading, I did find it an enjoyable (and quick) and worthwhile read.

 

More Endo

A couple of weeks ago I shared some reactions to Shusaku Endo’s novel Silence, the story of a Jesuit missionary in 17th Century Japan.  Let me now add to my recommendations of Endo’s work, his book of short stories (better described as spiritual narratives), The Final Martyrs.

For Endo, the short story form was a way to try out ideas and characters that would later take shape in a novels.  So while some authors settle on one genre or anohter, Endo believed that “the best way to give concrete embodiment” to his themes was to alternate between the writing of short stories and novels.

All of Endo’s characters reflect, in his words, “portions of myself.” And his stories contain many biographical elements – his early family life in Dalien, the impact of his parent’s fractious relationship and ultimate divorce, the life of a Japanese student studying abroad, the questions of religion so central to his being and writing.  The themes of exile and alienation are almost always present.

Endo’s characters often find themselves facing complex moral dilemmas. How his characters resolve those dilemmas often reminds us of our frail humanness.  In Life, the same boy who reaches out in kindness to a young soldier billeted in his families home for a few days (the soldier had been mistreated by his superiors and the boy tried to gift him with one of his most valuable treasures) allows the Manchurian houseboy who had treated him always with kindness and goodness to be wrongly punished for an act of theft the boy himself had committed.  In The Final Martyrs, reminding us of one of the characters in Silence, a weak man apostatizes but can’t completely give up his faith.

But his characters also remind us of the good we are capable of.  In The Box, a woman who had been treated badly by the military police during the war refuses to witness against them after the war, preferring instead to report that they had given her potatoes and milk when she and her father lacked food.  In A Sixty-year-old Man, the old man does not give in to his temptation toward a young girl willing to trade relationship with him for some clothes and music, remembering the painting of paradise the appeared in the dream of a character in a Dostoevsky novel.

Another good choice for some Lent reading (which I say recognizing that the end of Lent is closing in on us).

Flannery O’Connor’s Stories

Flannery O’Connor’s once wrote in a letter: “I feel that if I were not a Catholic, I would have no reason to write, no reason to see, no reason to ever feel horrified or even to enjoy anything.”  She wrote a great deal: two novels and thirty-two short stories before she died at the age of 39.

Some years ago I had read a couple of Flannery O’Connor’s short stories but was not very moved by them.  The fact that Thomas Merton was one of her admirers made me decide to go back and read some O’Connor this Lent.  (After her death, Merton said he would compare her with “someone like Sophocles…I write her name with honor, for all the truth and all the craft with which she shows man’s fall and his dishonor.”)  Thus I just finished reading The Complete Stories, which contains thirty-one stories.

Much in O’Connor’s stories is dark.  Much is violent.  Much is quite grotesque.  But she has a way of making you (or at least me) keep reading even when you are not sure you want to.  And of inviting you to keep pondering after you’ve finished reading one.

At a reading at Hollins College in Virginia less than a year before her death, O’Connor talked about “what makes a story work, and what makes it hold up as a story.” She explained:

I have decided that it is probably some action, some gesture of a character that is unlike any other in the story, one which indicates where the real heart of the story lies.  This would have to be an action or a gesture which was both totally right and totally unexpected; it would have to be one that was both in character and beyond character; it would have to suggest both the world and eternity.

She gave an example of such a gesture with reference to the story she read that evening,  “A Good Man Is Hard to Find.”  It is a story in which a family traveling by car has an accident stranding them in a gulch off the side of the road.  One by one, the family is killed by an escaped criminal known as “the Misfit” and his gang.

The last to be killed is the Grandmother who, just before she is shot looks at the Misfit closely and says “Why you’re one of my babies.  You’re one of my own children!”  She then reaches out to touch him on the shoulder.

O’Connor explained

The Grandmother is at last alone, facing the Misfit. Her head clears for an instant and she realizes, even in her limited way, that she is responsible for the man before her and joined to him by ties of kinship which have their roots deep in the mystery she has been merely prattling about so far. And at this point, she does the right thing, she makes the right gesture.

I find that students are often puzzled by what she says and does here, but I think myself that if I took out this gesture and what she says with it, I would have no story. What was left would not be worth your attention. Our age not only does not have a very sharp eye for the almost imperceptible intrusions of grace, it no longer has much feeling for the nature of the violence which precede and follow them.  The devil’s greatest wile, Baudelaire has said, is to convince us that he does not exist.

I’m still not sure whether I would say I like O’Connor’s stories, but I did read every one of them, and sat with quite a few.  That says something.

More Lent Reading: Sharing Sacred Space

I just finished reading Benoit Standaert’s book Sharing Sacred Space: Interreligious Dialogue as Spiritual Encounter.  Unlike some of the spiritual reading I am doing this Lent – reading that is not directly related to anything I am currently working on – this is a book I read in anticipation of teaching World Spiritualities at St. Catherine’s University during the upcoming J-term 2016. Leaving aside my motives for reading it, this is a wonderful book.

Early in the book, Standaert shares the “central intuition” that guided his efforts in writing L’Espace Jesus, only the third and last part of which appears translated here in Sharing Sacred Space.  He write

Any encounter with the great religions of the world is doomed to fail if its staring point is dogma as formulated and transmitted in a given culture, or if it is based on some historical expressions, which are also culturally conditioned.  If we want to provide a level playing field for all the participants, we have to come up with some other approach.  In order to make it possible for us to meet one another as equals, I have made use of the category of “spiritual space.”

Believing that each of the great religious traditions exists in a specific spiritual space, Standaert’s starting point is the concept of “Jesus space.”  By starting there, he believes it will be “possible to move beyond the confrontational impasse that is created when we limit ourselves to dogmatic comparisons or historical reconstructions.”  His discussion proceeds from the premise that “Christians do not have a monopoly on the meaning and richness contained in and radiating out from Jesus space.”

In successive chapters of Sharing Sacred Space, Standaert addresses the encounters between Jesus and Judaism, Jesus and Islam, Jesus and Buddhism and Jesus and Unbelief.  In them one finds, not a treatise on the different faith traditions, but the fruits of his reflection on the relationship of each to Jesus and Christianity.

There is much I could write about the various chapters, but I will limit myself to observing how helpful I found his discussion, in the chapter on Jesus and Judaism, of the major trajectories of Jewish belief from the times of Herod the Great and the beginnings of the Christian movement to the present.  Standaert is absolutely right (and my buddy Rabbi Norman Stein has made the same point) that “for many Christians Jewish history ends with the death of Jesus on Golgotha” and “they know absolutely nothing about the growth and spiritual development of the Jewish people after that.”  How can we possibly engage in meaningful dialogue with our Jewish brothers and sisters if that is the case?

I’ve talked before here and elsewhere on the importance of interreligious dialogue.  This book is an importantone for those wishing for that dialogue to bear fruit.

Silence

One of the books that has been sitting on my bookshelf for quite some time, but which I finally sat down to read this Lent is Silence, by Shusaku Endo.

Shusaku Endo was one of Japan’s foremost novelists, and he wrote from the perspective of a Japanese Roman Catholic.  Sometimes referred to as  Japan’s Graham Greene, Endo’s novels engage in questions such as how Christians should engage a culture when that culture is foreign.

That he addressed such questions is not surprising; I read in one piece about him that “The Christian faith never did rest easily on Endo’s shoulders. Ever since his baptism at the age of 11 at the behest of his mother, Endo often spoke of a faith as awkward as a forced marriage, as uncomfortable as a Western suit of clothes. ‘This clothing did not suit me,’ he later wrote. ‘The clothes and my body were not made for each other.'”  In the novel, he has a Japanese officer argue to the protagonist that  “A tree which flourishes in one kind of soil may wither if the soil is changed.  As for the tree of Christianity, in a foreign country its leaves may grow thick and the buds may be rich, while in Japan the leaves wither and not bud appears.”  (Later in the book, a former Catholic priest makes the same argument to the protagonist.)

A novel of historical fiction, Silence is the story of a Jesuit missionary who endured persecution in Japan, and most of the book is written in the form of a letter written by him. As many people know, although early efforts to bring Christianity to Japan met with some success, Christianity was outlawed in the early part of the 17th Century, ushering in a period of great persecution of Christians.  The priest is presented (or at least sees himself), particularly in the latter part of the book, as a Christ figure, and Endo gives us a Judas figure in the form of the Japanese man who betrays the priest and other Japanese Christians.

The “silence” of the title is the silence of God in the face of suffering.  God’s silence is remarked on a various times, but becomes almost unbearable when the priest is in prison hearing the sounds of Japanese Christians who are being tortured.  They are being tortured, not so that they will renounce Christianity – they have already done so under the strain of the torture, but so that he will.  If the missionary is willing to step on an image of Christ, they will be released.

In the pain of that situation, the priest prays, “Lord, it is now that you should break the silence.  You must not remain silent.  Prove that you are justice, that you are goodness, that you are love.  You must say something to show the world that you are the august one.”  As his mind remembers others who have died in Japan for their faith, he recalls that then, too, God was silent.  Why, he asks, “Why is God continually silent while those groaning voices go on?”  As question that has been asked at so many times by so many people who suffer or witness suffering.

In fact, the silence goes on.  God’s silence is not broken until the moment when the priest is led to the image of Christ and encouraged to step on it.  At that point, as he looks at the image, “the Christ in bronze speaks to the priest: ‘Trample! Trample! I more than anyone know of the pain in your foot.  Trample!  It was to be trampled on by men that I was born into this world.  It is to share men’s pain that I carried my cross.”  And so the priest placed his foot on the image.

Was his act of apostatsy a sin?  The priest does not believe so, although he knows he will be judged harshly by those that hear of his act.  I suspect Endo himself may not believe so.  Earlier in the book we read, “Sin is not what it is usually thought to be; it is not to steal and tell lies.  Sin is for one man to walk brutally over the life of another and to be quite oblivious of the wounds he has left behind.”

Whatever one’s judgment of the protagonist’s actions, the book will offer much to reflect about – with respect to faith, suffering and the effect to spread Christianity to other cultures.

Lent Reading: Night

I mentioned in my post last week about spiritual reading during Lent that one of the first things I planned to read this Lent was Elie Wiesel’s Night.  I did – in a single sitting; I picked up the book and could not put it down until I was finished.

Night is the first book Weisel wrote (it was written in 1958, although I read a new 2006 translation of it), a book the New York Times described as a “slim volume of terrifying power.”  The book records Weisel’s experience of being expelled from his home and of the hell he endured in the Nazi German concentration camps at Auschwitz and Buchenwald.

It is one thing to read about the Holocaust from someone who writes from a distance.  One thing to learn the facts and hear about the atrocities second-hand.  It is quite another to read the first-hand account of this man who was a teenager when he and his family were taken from their home to the concentration camps.  To listen to Weisel describe seeing babies thrown into flames, watching a young boy being hung in the square, hearing the cries of his father as he lay dying and not being able to go to him.

Is it any wonder that Weisel, who had been so devout in his faith before being dragged from his home, reached a point in the camps when prayer became difficult?  He describes a Rosh Hashanah in the camp, a day that previously had dominated his life, a day on which he had pleaded for forgiveness for his sins.  Of that day in the camp he writes

But now, I no longer pleaded for anything.  I was no longer able to lament.  On the contrary, I felt very strong.  I was the accuser, God the accused.  My eyes had opened and I was alone, terribly alone in a world without God, without man.  Without love or mercy.  I was nothing but ashes now, but I felt myself to be stronger than this Almighty to whom my life had been bound for so long.  In the midst of these men assembled for prayer, I felt like an observer, a stranger.

Although he questioned where God was in this suffering, somewhere there, he knew God was there.  On the day he watched three men being hung, someone behind him whispered, “For God’s sake, where is God?”  Weisel writess that “from within me, I heard a voice answer: ‘Where He is?  This is where – hanging here from this gallows.'”

I read an interview with Weisel that occurred about fifteen years ago. He was asked how he and God are doing these days.  He responded

We still have a few problems! But even in the camps, I never divorced God. After the war, I went on praying to God. I was angry. I protested. I’m still protesting—and occasionally, I’m still angry. But it’s not because of the past, but the present. When I see victims of a tragedy—and especially children—I say to God, “Don’t tell me that you have nothing to do with this. You are everywhere—you are God.”

This is a painful book, but it is a testimony worth reading.

Change of Heart

I posted the other day on the subject of Lent reading.  Here is another one to add to your list: Change of Heart: Justice, Mercy and Making Peace with My Sister’s Killer, by Jeanne Bishop.

Jeanne is a dear friend of mine and so I was treated to reading the manuscript of this book before it was published.  I was thrilled to open the mail earlier this week to find my signed copy of the actual book.  I immediately sat down and read it again.

The story begins twenty-five years ago, when, after a family dinner celebrating the pregnancy of Jeanne’s sister Nancy, Nancy and her husband returned home.  An intruder was sitting and waiting for them, gun in hand.  He shot and killed them.

As the title and subtitle of the book reveals, this is the story of how Jeanne moved to forgiveness and, even more, to compassion toward the man who murdered her beloved sister.  How she moved from not even being able to speak the killer’s name, to writing to him and visiting him in prison.  From being an advocate for life without parole for juveniles to advocating against such a punishment.  (The killer was a junior in high school when the murders took place.)  Her story is one of restorative justice and of Christian love.  It is also a story of the cost of discipleship, as some of Jeanne’s actions (such as testifying in favor of reducing the life without parole sentence of people like this killer) sometimes put her on the other side of the aisle of other family members and generated harsh (and sometimes vicious) criticism from others.

Jeanne says this in the opening chapter of the book:

This is the story of how God rolled away that stone [the stone over her heart], loosened the fingers that gripped that rock [the rock she wanted to throw at the perpetrator], till it thudded in the dirt – and grew in its stead the green shoots of transformation and new life, renewal and change.

It is my story, but it is also yours, because God who loves us all and wrought this miracle in my life has the power to transform yours as well, to lead you into places you never dreamed you would go

Jeanne is wonderful model of Christian discipleship.  I admire her greatly and am honored to call her a friend.

I don’t doubt you will find this a compelling story and one of amazing grace.  It would make for good reading during this Lent.