Email sent last night to my spiritual director. Copied here because these “heads-up” emails force me to think about my progress — or lack thereof — and because I can refer back to it so important things don’t slip between the cracks.

Hi Sister —

How did it get to be November already? Here’s the usual heads-up for our scheduled meeting at 2:30 p.m. Monday, Nov. 4, at the motherhouse. And, again as usual, my spiritual life hasn’t taken quite the direction we’d anticipated — with health issues coming to a head, it’s been more an exercise in foxhole spirituality, although i *did* have the opportunity to catch up on my reading a little in the ER at St. John’s — but I think it’ll be productive when I get around to what we’d talked about last month. 

And maybe I haven’t been entirely wide of the mark. 

I’ll make a note of it here, anyway, and transfer your suggestions from those little notebooks I carry to a platform where I can retrieve it. I’d been reading up on the Gospel of John, and you suggested some contemplative reading and prayer, (a) focusing on the idea that St. John was an old man when he got to Ephesus and recorded the gospel (according to tradition), incorporating some philosophical ideas he wished to convey along with his reminiscences of Jesus of Nazareth — to imagine myself asking him: “Who is this man you’re talking about, John? I want to come to know him as you knew him”; and (b) reading to where my heart gets pulled in. What did I notice, and what within me caused me to notice it? I think it was me who brought up T.S. Eliot’s Four Quartets:   

… And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.

… whoever brought it up, it fit. 

October turned out to be pretty tempestuous, with various health issues pretty much front and center all month, but I did manage to do quite a bit of reading. Not exactly focused, contemplative reading. (I’m afraid I wouldn’t make a very good Jesuit!) But quite a bit of John, very slowly, in a little paperback with Raymond Brown’s commentary; several Lutheran theologians including Tuomo Mannermaa of the University of Helsinki and Krister Stendahl of Harvard Divinity School. 

Unfocused as it was, I think that time may have been well spent, because there’s a lot that I really, really like about the gospel of John, especially the more mystical language in the first chapter or two, but there’s a lot I still have to come to terms with. Stendahl addresses the anti-Semitism, and both he and Mannermaa have a way of getting past the don’t-drink-and-don’t-dance-so-you’ll-get-to-heaven theology I objected to so much down South. 

Mannermaa, who spent a lot of his academic career in dialog with Russian Orthodox theologians, also has a view of justification theology that fits right in there. I’ll cheat and quote a snippet from Goodreads instead of looking it up in his book “Christ Present In Faith: Luther’s View Of Justification.” It’s a pretty good summary:

“Thus the righteousness of Christ becomes our righteousness through faith in Christ, and everything that is his, even he himself, becomes ours … and he who believes in Christ clings to Christ and is one with Christ and has the same righteousness with him.”

So I’m reading theology instead of spirituality — in my head instead of my heart — but I do feel like I’m heading in the right direction. And I think coming to terms with John may be the key to it. I’ve even sent off on Amazon for a used copy of a series of sermons that Luther preached in 1537 and 1538 on the first four chapters of John. 

Very little to report on my blog, and it’s all about music. I’ll link you in case any of it is germane …

— — “A joyful South African freedom song (by way of Sweden) of Word, sacrament and witness for Pentecost XVII” — nothing remarkable about it, the post just riffs on a very nice hymn we’re learning in my parish choir.

— — “Seeking the holy in a trad Irish music festival video from Derry, a 10th-century Irish poem and choir practice at a Lutheran church in downstate Illinois” — another meditation from the parish choir lift. It’s a effort, not altogether successful, to relate our singing “Be Thou My Vision” to St. Augustine’s dictum, “He who sings, prays twice.” 

Seems like I keep coming back to singing in the choir. Back in the spring, I even tried a lectio divina meditation on a poem/hymn attributed to St. Patrick that I grew up with. It’s on my earlier blog, at

… and it’s headlined “St. Patrick’s Breastplate: My confirmation hymn, our bounden duty and seeking God’s presence when the rubber hits the road.” (Another one of those long headlines! What can I say? They’re a weakness of mine, but they’re usually the last thing I write in a blog journal, and I like to think they tie things together.)

It’s another in-my-end-is-my-beginning piece, one that comes back around to some of the verities I absorbed as a youngster that seem to keep popping up again. I wrote it back in March, and it tied together a medical emergency, St. Patrick’s Day, music and, since the music was my confirmation hymn, the Summary of the Law that I grew up with in the Episcopal Church — “Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, with all thy mind, with all thy soul, and with all thy strength; this is the first and great Commandment. And the second is: Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself” — and it still seems, to me, to sum up the essence of the Christian faith.

Without particularly meaning to, by the way, I fell into another allusion to T.S. Eliot in the last paragraph. Also from the Quartets:

Old men ought to be explorers
Here or there does not matter
We must be still and still moving
Into another intensity
For a further union, a deeper communion
Through the dark cold and the empty desolation,
The wave cry, the wind cry, the vast waters
Of the petrel and the porpoise. In my end is my beginning.

T.S. Eliot’s poetry, especially his later Anglo-Catholic writing, is something else I keep coming back to. Along with music, Lutheran theology, the historical Jesus of Nazareth, incarnation, the gospels and choir practice at Peace Lutheran. But almost always it gets back around to the Great Commandment — the Summary of the Law — and music. Especially music. Might be worth exploring.

Unless I hear otherwise, I’ll see you at 2:30 Monday afternoon.

— Pete  

* * *

Peter Ellertsen, 2125 S Lincoln Ave, Springfield IL 62704. For random notes on dulcimers, history, hymnody, cultural studies and all kinds of music, visit my research blog “Hogfiddle” at

2 thoughts on “Spiritual formation, October

  1. I can’t help but think that you need a broader sense of what is spiritual. Clearly being with your wife in the hospital is deeply spiritual. Have you just allowed yourself to see God moving in your life from day to day without thinking you have to do something spiritual? Ok. Unsolicited direct advice comes with a guarantee: you can ignore it! Peace this All Souls’ Day.


  2. You’re probably right about that! And you’re not the first person to suggest it — including my spiritual director, who is remarkably patient with me and has a way of suggesting, very gently, that I tend to overthink things. I know when I actively look for the presence of God in my life (typically after I’ve been reading James Martin), I tend to find it in small, quotidian things and/or in the people around me.

    It’s a process, I guess. I have 60-plus years of over-intellectualizing everything, and it leaves me with a feeling that if it’s not set out somewhere in a book about spirituality, no matter what it is, it’s not spiritual. Ironically, what seems to help me the most in getting away from that mindset is the Zen masters I read 20-25 years ago when I was working the spirituality steps in a 12-step program. More day-to-day, get-your-head-out-of-the-clouds stuff.

    Anyway, I do appreciate the unsolicited advice! And the wishes for All Saint’s Day. We had a monthly “dinner church” service today, and Debi and I are in the choir so we get to take another bite at the apple tomorrow morning — and hear a lectionary reading on the Beatitudes for a second time. A nice accident of timing.


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