Sunday, August 26, 2018

God: You Are Altogether Beautiful My Love

The voice of my beloved! Look, he comes, leaping upon the mountains, bounding over the hills. My beloved is like a gazelle or a young stag. Look, there he stands behind our wall, gazing in at the windows, looking through the lattice. My beloved speaks and says to me: “Arise, my love, my fair one, and come away; for now the winter is past, the rain is over and gone. The flowers appear on the earth; the time of singing has come, and the voice of the turtledove is heard in our land. The fig tree puts forth its figs, and the vines are in blossom; they give forth fragrance. Arise, my love, my fair one, and come away.”- Song of Songs, 2:8-13
What words reach the way I touched you last night –
as though I had never known a woman – an explorer,
wholly curious to discover each particular 
fold and hollow, without guide,
not even the mirror of my own body. 
- Ellen Bass, excerpt from “The Small Country,” The New Yorker, August 24, 2015

Both of these passages steam my glasses. What a blessing.

Here I am, months beyond my sell-by date, kept alive by beta blockers, diabetic drugs, and nitrates. And still I am able to wallow recklessly in erotic imagery as if I were 18 again.

Even better, as I approach my 72nd birthday, time has freed me from the illusion that sex is dirty. Sex, as poets and the author of Songs attest, is a metaphor of God’s passionate love for us.

Not that sex means the same thing to me as when I was 18. As with most people my age, I read the dialogue between Sarai and Yawweh – rendered in its original frankness in the Book of J – with annoyed recognition. Yahweh has just promised Abram and Sarai a baby:

“But Sarai and Abram were old, many days were behind them; for Sarai the periods of women ceased to exist. So within her Serai’s sides split: ‘Now that I’m used to groaning, I’m to groan with pleasure? My Lord is also shriveled.’” (p. 82)
Sarai could have talked all day without adding that last comment, but it’s true. Males rarely speak of it except in jest. When I worked for the National Council of Churches, the Development Officer, my friend the late John Briscoe, would pepper me with emails urging me to post a propitious item on the webpage. I once responded, “I’ll get it up this afternoon.” John replied, “At my age, it warms my heart to hear such youthful optimism.”

Yahweh, of course, was offended by Sarai’s lack of faith in Abrahams ability to fulfill his duty, asking her, “Is a thing too surprising for Yahweh?”

In truth, Yahweh can resurrect the shriveled as well as the bygone stirrings of women and men. And a physical arousal is not the same thing as a spiritual or emotional passion. As the Apostle Paul noted, bodies may shrivel and shrink, but love never dies.

The bible, as any devoted reader knows, is a compendium of erotic literature. There are dark stories of coercive sex and rape, but for the most part physical love is depicted as a celebration of life. Jesus is not reported to have had a sex life, but he certainly reveled in the company of women and in the tactile joys of scalp and foot massages.  He also enjoyed the corporeal pleasures of eating and drinking. 

For those who struggle to understand the intensity of God’s love for us, the answers are writ large in Songs:

Let him kiss me with the kisses of the mouth! For your love is better than wine, Your anointing oils are fragrant, Your name is perfume poured out; Therefore the maidens love you. Draw me after you, let us make haste. The King has brought me into his chambers. We will exult and rejoice in you; We will extol you’re your love more than wine; Rightly do they love you.” (1:2-4)
I am not, I should point out, advocating free love or sexual libertinism. Sex becomes a metaphor of God’s love only when it is accompanied by deep respect and firm commitment. God’s covenant with us is to love us unconditionally, and our sexual pledge to our fellow human beings should be equally sturdy: “I take thee.”

But whether our physical relationships are genitally-involved or not, there is no better way of understanding God’s love than through physical encounters with persons we love. A newborn baby senses the presence of love in a parent’s caresses, just as two lovers create a divinity of wellbeing through their touches. “To love another person,” Victor Hugo wrote, “is to see the face of God.”

This December 30 the Divine Dr. M and I will celebrate our 23rd wedding anniversary. There is much I could write about the passion we have shared over these years, but I am silent. (Hey, the kids may read this.) And it would be wrong to suggest that our marriage has not had both stresses and successes. Marital love is not a safe haven from the turbulence of life. That’s why we promise to love each other for better or for worse. 

Still, marital love is a partnership of mutual support no matter what happens. When that love is unconditional, it is a true metaphor of the Creator’s tangible presence throughout all the ebbs and flows of life. And looking back on the decades of love I have shared with my spouse, I know we have brought each other closer to God.

If you're lucky you can still catch Sister Wendy Beckett on a PBS broadcast. Sister Wendy is a British hermit, a consecrated virgin, and an art historian who became well known internationally during the 1990s when she presented a series of documentaries for the BBC on the history of art. Her praise of sensuality in art seems to belie her calling, especially her full-throated tributes to voluptuous thighs and silky pubic hair. 

During a visit to a Birmingham museum, Sister Wendy’s gaze fell upon Jan Gossaert’s 1517 oil-on-wood painting of Hercules and Deianira.

“It depicts the perfect marriage,” Sister Wendy cooed in her lilting Edinburgh accent. “See the love in their faces, the trust they have for each other, the way their legs are intertwined.”

The expressions on the faces of Hercules and Deianira, captured so tenderly by Gossaert, are exquisite manifestations of love: love for each other, but also the love the Creator has for each of us.

Classicists know that the gentle moment captured in the painting is fleeting. Deianira sits innocently on a silver cloak given to her by the evil centaur Nessus. When Hercules wears the cloak, he will be engulfed in flames and die.

A pity. But the love portrayed, unlike the subjects, is both divine and eternal. 

God the Creator of infinite universes is enormous and unknowable. And while the essence of God is love, the Creator is a concept far too vast for us to grasp. It’s not like we can break open a bottle of wine and hold God’s hand.

But we can get close enough to God if we place our arms around the humans we love, tenderly, or passionately, or erotically. The joy we feel is indescribable. And the love we sense radiating back to us is God.

Your two breasts are like two fawns.
Twins of a gazelle,
That feed among the lilies.
Until the day breathesAnd the shadows flee, 
I will hasten the mountains of myrrh And the hill of frankincense.
You are altogether beautiful, my love.  
There is no flaw in you. 

- Songs, 4:5-7
Greek runners gif. from 

Tuesday, August 21, 2018

Catherine Drinker Bowen and the Ignatian Imagination

I always wondered if historian Catherine Drinker Bowen fired her agent in 1970 after she was sent on a brief author-in-residence gig at Eastern Baptist College.*

As an English major and student newspaper editor, I was one of the students who welcomed her to the campus.

I could tell immediately that she had not volunteered for the honor. The expression on her face, when she realized she would be surrounded by born again Christian adolescents for two days, was as if she had just buried her shoe in three inches of cow pucky. 

She recoiled at the perky welcome she received from grinning students who never heard of the author of Miracle at Philadelphia. When a beaming Sophomore squeezed her hand too tightly and said, “God BLESS you,” she looked as if she had been slapped. She scowled suspiciously at John Ruth, chair of the English department, who wore a Mennonite plain coat that she mistook for priestly garb. 

As the English majors gathered on the rickety folding chairs that encircled her, she sat stiffly as if she were about to be grilled by the House UnAmerican Activities Committee.

Professor Ruth read her long and impressive vita to the students, and said, “Doctor Bowen … ” (every visiting clergy or writer was doctored at Eastern in those days, because that was the highest honorific undergraduates could imagine) … “Doctor Bowen says she has no prepared remarks but she will be pleased to answer your questions.”

Bowen sat in her chair with her long legs tensely wrapped together like a coiled spring. She was an imposing figure with her white hair and sharp featured face, and her eyes squinted suspiciously as she waited for the first question. 

There was a long, uneasy silence.

Finally, a baby-faced blond girl from Maine bounced in her chair and waved her arm at the writer. Bowens squinty eyes got narrower.

With a misplaced sweetness familiar to those who dwell among the Born Again, the girl squealed, “Do you have a hero?”

I had heard the question often, and I knew the expected answer at Eastern was: “Yes! JEsus!”...

But Bowen turned her gaze inward and thought it over. Her face began to relax. Almost imperceptibly, she smiled – not a “what a sweet question” smile but a “maybe I can get through this” smile.

Bowen nodded and said, “Of course, Dear. Holmes.”

As was known by almost no one in the room, Bowen’s opus was Yankee from Olympus

In the book, Catherine Drinker Bowen showed she had the imagination to make history come alive. Under her deft hand, Oliver Wendell Holmes is no distant, dusty judge. He becomes a living presence, capable of handing down landmark common sense to presidents. 

As a young Union officer, Holmes found himself escorting President Lincoln to the barricades surrounding Washington. The six-foot-four-inch president stood up to examine the enemy lines in the distance, making him a perfect target. Holmes’ panic overcame his diplomatic judgment. He bellowed, “Get down, you damned fool!” Lincoln obediently folded his knees.

Bowen also recorded an equally brash scene in which Holmes, as a retired Supreme Court Justice, advised President Franklin D. Roosevelt – famously described by Walter Lippmann as a “pleasant fellow without any important qualification for office” – to spend more time improving his mind.

Bowen had a genius for seeking out the details that put flesh on the gray bones of history. 

Slowly warming to the students, she told them an anecdote.

When she was researching Miracle at Philadelphia, her award-winning account of the Constitutional Convention, she became frustrated when sources didn’t tell her what she wanted to know.

“Such as George Washington’s voice,” she confessed. “How did it sound? No one knows. I became crazy to know how that man talked!”

Bowen, who died in November 1973, had a gift for filling that kind of historical gap. Where there is no concrete historical evidence, she said, you have to use your imagination.

The human imagination is one of God’s greatest gifts, not only because it helps us escape reality but because it helps us achieve a deeper understanding of reality. It’s one thing, for example, to know Renaissance Europeans rarely bathed. It takes a practical imagination, and a brave nose, to fancy yourself on a hot, crowded street corner in 15th century Florence.

Many of us are especially curious about history’s most significant historic event, the coming of the Messiah. The poetry of Luke, sacred art, and chancel bathrobe dramas are essential parts of the celebration, but they don’t tell us all we want to know. 

What was it really like to walk the dusty roads of first-century Palestine? 

What was it like when women and men began to sense the first uncertain signs that God was working a miracle in their midst?

Who was Jesus and what was he really like?

One of my favorite devotional exercises over the years is re-reading Meeting Jesus (Harper Collins, 1991), by the Rev. William P. Sampson, a Jesuit priest and former English teacher. 

In this engaging book, Father Sampson offers a guide for using the imagination to encounter Jesus. Used with a modicum of creativity, these encounters can go far beyond the rewards of daily devotionals. 

As any casual bible reader knows, the gospel accounts leave out a lot of details about Jesus but offer tantalizing hints about his human personality. Jesus seems to have had an engaging sense of humor. He was capable of anger. He liked to eat and drink. He was a spellbinding preacher with a charisma that drew huge crowds.

But what was he like?

Did he know, every year of his life, that he was the Messiah?

What was going on inside his mind?

What would it have been like to sit beneath a cedar tree in Capernaum and talk with him?

Father Sampson, among others, has asked these questions.

Bible scholars suggest some answers but, for the most part, Sampson achieves insight by exercising his imagination.

“I do believe Jesus is God, the Son,” Sampson writes. “I do believe that he never made a sinful choice. I also believe that Jesus became aware of his divine identity before his crucifixion. He was the first to grasp the full nature of his own place as redeemer of all through his life and death.”

Using this criteria, Sampson projects “what it was like to be Jesus, what his inner experience was.”

Page by page, 
Meeting Jesus guides the reader’s imagination.

The book takes us on a journey through Jesus’ childhood (“As a child of Nazareth Jesus does a lot of memorizing. There is just one copy of the Scriptures in the village …”).

We witness his adult encounters with his own divinity (“Jesus knows he is at the center of a secret. Whatever is to happen and however it is to happen, he will be its centerpiece.”)

Ultimately, in our imaginations we are present at Jesus’ final act of sacrifice for all.

Ray Hollenbach, in “Students of Jesus, Taking the Yoke of Discipleship,” takes these acts of imagination to another level:

At the close of William Sampson’s wonderful book, Meeting Jesus, he asks, “What was the color of Jesus’ eyes?” 

The literal-minded person will immediately answer, “The Bible doesn’t tell us. We cannot know. At best we can only presume that because Jesus was born to Jewish parents blah, blah, blah.”

Sampson’s answer is more compelling: “No color is mentioned. But they were not colorless, like Little Orphan Annie. They were human eyes. And that they were human and could be looked into like any human eyes can make a big difference in getting to know Jesus.”

Can you imagine looking into the face of Jesus? Have you brought your imagination into the service of following him? In my experience too many Christians are taught to avoid subjective experiences with God. 

The miracle of the incarnation is that the vast, unfathomable, unimaginable creator of the universe appears before us and invites to look into his eyes. And even more miraculous is that to know Jesus is to know God.

Granted, getting to know Jesus is an act of will, an act of yearning, as when Catherine Drinker Bowen became obsessed “to know how that man talked.”

And getting to know the true Jesus is as much an act of faith as believing in God. Even many of Jesus’ contemporaries lacked the imagination to look in Jesus’ eyes and see the truth. Pontius Pilate was as clueless after he met Jesus as before.

Then Pilate entered the headquarters again, summoned Jesus, and asked him, “Are you the King of the Jews?”

 Jesus answered, “Do you ask this on your own, or did others tell you about me?”

Pilate replied, “I am not a Jew, am I? Your own nation and the chief priests have handed you over to me. What have you done?”

Jesus answered, “My kingdom is not from this world. If my kingdom were from this world, my followers would be fighting to keep me from being handed over to the Jews. But as it is, my kingdom is not from here.”

Pilate asked him, “So you are a king?” Jesus answered, “You say that I am a king. For this I was born, and for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth. Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice.” (John 18:33-37)

Pilate didn’t get it and Jesus knew why: Pilate didn’t belong to the truth and he had no idea who Jesus was and where his realm existed.

But imagining Jesus can be a powerful and transforming experience for all who dare to seek the truth by wondering about the color of his eyes. 

It’s not just the imagination of Father Sampson or Catherine Drinker Bowen that is being enlisted in this dynamic exercise. 

You, too, are invited along for the journey, and once you begin you may well find yourself engaged in an excursion of the mind that will bring you closer than ever to the mind and experience of Christ.

* Now Eastern University

Sunday, August 12, 2018

Before Jesus Was Christ

I begin many days reading a brief devotional by the late, great Henri M. Nouwen, a Dutch-born Catholic priest who wrote 40 books about spirituality. Daily emails of these snippets can be obtained at

Each day, emails from Nouwen’s writings take seekers on a guided tour of the mysteries of the universe, offering fresh insights into Jesus’ teachings about life, death, faith, and moral behavior.

This week the editors chose a Nouwen comment that has stuck in my mind like the lyrics of a old song that bursts forth with new and unexpected meaning.
“The largest part of Jesus life was hidden,” Nouwen wrote. “Jesus lived with his parents in Nazareth, ‘under their authority’ (Luke 2:51), and there ‘increased in wisdom, in stature, and in favor with God and with people’ (Luke 2:52).  When we think about Jesus we mostly think about his words and miracles, his passion, death, and resurrection, but we should never forget that before all of that Jesus lived a simple, hidden life in a small town, far away from all the great people, great cities, and great events.  Jesus’ hidden life is very important for our own spiritual journeys.  If we want to follow Jesus by words and deeds in the service of his Kingdom, we must first of all strive to follow Jesus in his simple, unspectacular, and very ordinary hidden life.”
Jesus had a hidden life. Of course he did. The Gospels are accounts of the special moments in Jesus’ life, observed by many, and passed along by oral tradition for decades until someone decided to write them down. The gospel writers are not so much inspired auditors of God’s dictation as they are the beneficiaries of careful Middle Eastern Griots – oral historians and story tellers – whose job it is to pass the same basic story to succeeding generations. We know from African oral traditions that Griots have been remarkably reliable in preserving great truths over many centuries, so the basic veracity of the gospel stories is not in question. 

But it’s clear that the stories of Jesus became memorable when he said or did something remarkable. There are perhaps three decades in his life about which we know nothing, but which we must assume to have been – in Nouwen’s words – simple, unspectacular, and very ordinary.

Why is this revelation so exciting?

Maybe it’s just the element of mystery, the idea that we know almost nothing about 90 percent of Jesus’ life on earth. By that measurement, we are stunned that we know so little about the most famous person who ever lived.  And, too, we are amazed that so much of what we think we know about Jesus is based on information we can’t have. 

No where in the gospels, for example, are we told precisely how Jesus dressed. One account is that he wore a seamless robe of undetermined color. The gospel writers make no mention of the likelihood that he wore a tallit, or prayer shawl. Artists occasionally portray Jesus with a scarf over his head, but the artists leave out the corner fringes that would have been prescribed in Numbers 15:38 or Deuteronomy 22:12. 

Our most likely image of Jesus is of a brown skinned man with long black hair and a beard, which is what most Jewish men looked like in Palestine in the first century. But this image omits curly uncut sideburns that Jesus almost certainly wore with most of his male contemporaries. 

Our image of Jesus does not include phylacteries affixed to his forehead, the small leather boxes containing scripture verses that he undoubtedly wore during morning weekday prayers, as all Jewish males did. 

If Jesus omitted any of these things, it would have been noticed and remarked upon for gospel posterity. The Griots wouldn’t have been able to to keep quiet about it.

We have also come to think of Jesus as an ascetic bachelor who eschewed married life in order to devote himself to God and to his flock. Perhaps so. Certainly large doctrines and time-honored practices have been based on this assumption, including the celibate priesthood. But that notion, too, is based on information lost in the thirty years of Jesus’ life we know nothing about. And if Jesus had broken so radically from the Jewish tradition that the husband-led family was God’s basic unit of society, why wouldn’t the Griots have said something about it?

Perhaps the Griots didn’t mention it because women were akin to slaves in Jesus’ day, and they saw no reason to mention wives as appendages to the public lives of the disciples. We wouldn’t know Peter was married if his mother-in-law had not fallen ill and required a miraculous cure by Jesus. Did the other disciples have wives who were not deemed to be worth mentioning because they didn’t get sick? Did Jesus?

It’s all speculation, of course. And this is not a lead-in to the premise of The DaVinci Code, the 2003 novel in which Dan Brown posits that Jesus was married to Mary Magdalene and the church covered it up for doctrinal reasons. Until we cross over, we will not know the answer to this and other mysteries. But they are mysteries, not heresies, because they are part of Jesus’ life we know nothing about.

We do know, of course, that Jesus was a carpenter. This has led to entertaining theories as to how he plied his trade, my favorite being a scene in the 1961 epic King of Kings starring Jeffrey Hunter. 

Hunter, who also played the callow youth who attached himself to John Wayne in The Searchers and was the bad guy in Walt Disney’s The Great Locomotive Chase, died before he could ice the cake of his career as the captain of the starship Enterprise. But the tall, blue-eyed actor was perfectly suited for the role of Jesus, better looking even than Salman’s Head of Christ. 

Hunter acquitted himself well in the role, portraying Jesus as a likeable guy who didn’t lord his special status over everyone else. 

But screenwriter Philip Yordan seems to have struggled with how to portray Jesus as a savior who got his fingernails dirty working with wood. 

Brilliantly, Yordan conceived a scene found no where in the bible in which Jesus’ mom, played by Siobhán McKenna, interrupts her son as he attempts to slip out of the house to save the world. But wait, she asks, have you made that little wooden table you promised me? Aw, Mother, I’ll get to it, the savior replies with a polite smile as he swoops out the door. But he knows and she knows and you know it’s never going to happen. 

Anthropologists have a pretty good notion what other Palestinian carpenters did in the thirty mysterious years when Jesus lived under Joseph’s authority. According to the Christianity Today Library:
“As carpenters, Joseph and Jesus would have created mainly farm tools (carts, plows, winnowing forks, and yokes), house parts (doors, frames, posts, and beams), furniture, and kitchen utensils.”
Almost 2,000 years before electric power tools, that would have been hard isometric exercise. Apart from providing daily development of the carpenters’ pects and delts, it was also the kind of work that would have placed Joseph and Jesus on friendly business terms with most of their neighbors. Jesus grew to adulthood providing most of the residents of Nazareth with the tools and wooden paraphernalia they needed to live. We must assume his products were of excellent quality and that he did not overcharge.

Archeologists who study first century Palestinian settlements make it clear that Jesus would have grown up in intimate proximity with his neighbors. According to, an excellent website “where people of all backgrounds learn about Jesus,” the standard living arrangements provided little privacy.
“Houses were all purpose 1-2 room squares, with dirt floors, flat roofs, low and narrow doorways, and front wooden doors,” the site explains. “Often people would sleep on flat roofs during hot nights. The houses were arranged around a central shared courtyard where neighbors performed daily chores (cooking, laundry, etc.) in each other’s company. Water was carried in from a public well and stored in a courtyard cistern. Lighting was provided by earthenware oil lamps. People slept on mats, and owned limited personal goods.”
There are no records or apocryphal gospels that give us a clear idea what Jesus hidden years were like. We can only speculate that he lived like everyone he knew when he was growing up: a nice Jewish boy raised in the law and tradition of his ancestors, living and working and often sleeping with relatives and neighbors he saw every day of his life.

It was a life of extreme ordinariness. He came into the world in a barn, surrounded by the redolence of fetid hay and farting animals, and we shake our heads that God’s son, the world’s savior, got such an inauspicious start. But even more staggering is the probability that Jesus grew up in mundane, commonplace, everyday surroundings, where he looked and acted like everyone else. The good people of Nazareth knew him as Jesus from the block, not Jesus Christ.

It’s no wonder, then, that when Jesus finally assumed his messianic mode, his intimate acquaintances and other observers looked at him like he’d grown a new nose. 
“‘I am the living bread that came down from heaven. Whoever eats of this bread will live forever; and the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh.’ The Jews then disputed among themselves, saying, ‘How can this man give us his flesh to eat?’” (John 6:51-52)
Granted, the ensuing passage with its references to eating flesh and drinking blood is difficult for anyone to understand. Jesus’ friends and neighbors are particularly befuddled because they knew Jesus before he was Jesus. 

After thirty years of a hidden life among them, Jesus abruptly emerged from the shadows as the light of the world. That’s an unexpected and dazzling transition to behold.

But Jesus made the transition with power and ease, in part because he had put the hidden years to good use. He knew what none of his neighbors knew: that he was the anointed one of God, sent to take away the sins of the world. But he also knew that in order to accomplish his mission, years of preparation would be necessary: years of hiddenness.
“Hiddenness,” Nouwen wrote, “is an essential quality of the spiritual life. Solitude, silence, ordinary tasks, being with people without great agendas, sleeping, eating, working, playing ... all of that without being different from others, that is the life that Jesus lived and the life he asks us to live.  It is in hiddenness that we, like Jesus, can increase ‘in wisdom, in stature, and in favour with God and with people’ (Luke 2:51).  It is in hiddenness that we can find a true intimacy with God and a true love for people.”
Jesus could not have accomplished his goal if he had spent all his time on earth above the fray, floating like a twilight sprite above the mud and the dust and the suffering. In the thirty years of his life we know so little about, he lived – literally – as one of us. He got to know all our needs, our foibles, our temptations, our quirks, our sins. He got to know us, in a sense, more completely than God the Creator who counts the hairs on our head. The experiences and insights Jesus gained during his hidden years took on a mighty power when he began his formal ministry. 

“Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood abide in me, and I in them,” he declared in terms that the literary minded found cannibalistic.

But Jesus had hit upon the perfect metaphor to describe the sacrifice he was to make to atone for the sins of the world – the sacrifice that opens the door to life for all who accept it.

Neither Jesus’ understanding of his role or the metaphor he used to describe it sprung up over night. Both were the product of long years discovering “a true intimacy with God and a true love for people” when no one was writing down what he said or did.

It is, after all, precisely what developed in the hidden years that would make the declaration true: 

“This is the bread that came down from heaven, not like that which your ancestors ate, and they died. But the one who eats this bread will live forever.”