Editor’s (admin’s) note. Lightly edited copy of an email I sent to my spiritual director the night before our monthly meeting for May. I email her every month, mostly to focus my mind before we meet, and I archive them here so I have a record of issues I’ve dealt with over time.
Here’s my monthly review of what I’ve been journaling about on my spiritual blog — it may be a little shorter than usual because I haven’t been journaling that much …
I already linked you to the final version of my “annotated bibliography” on Laudato Si’. Since the May 1 commitment ceremony, I’ve been focusing mostly on how to be more intentional about incorporating prayer, study, community and witness — in my daily life. I guess Laudato Si’ fits into it under the heading of study, since there’s so much I don’t know about it … and the spiritual dimensions of the climate crisis in general.
Other than that, I’ve journaled (or sent out blast emails) about: (1) figuring out what it means to be a newly minted Dominican associate: (2) the congregational faith formation classes that Debi and I co-facilitate; (3) something called “holy envy,” a term coined by a Swedish theologian named Krister Stendahl that involves seeking the best in different faith traditions and incorporating it in one’s own spiritual life; and (3a) more of Stendahl’s thoughts on understanding different religions that I’m finding useful, especially in a time of increasingly sectarian culture wars.
This month I’m reminded even more than usual of that quote from Flannery O’Connor — “I write because I don’t know what I think until I read what I say.” So if there’s a common theme here, it may be how a “spiritual mutt” navigates all these currents.1. The first post I’ll link you to is my effort to start putting what I pledged at the commitment ceremony into practice in my daily life. Here’s the cite: “Another step in a spiritual mutt’s surprising journey — committing as a Dominican associate,” posted May 10
Here’s the pertinent part (imho) of what I wrote:
Lay people who are active in their Catholic parishes or schools predominate in our formation class of 2022, for example. But there’s ample precedent for non-Catholic associates. One is Kathleen Norris, a poet, essayist and Benedictine oblate (equivalent to a Dominican associate) who leads services as a lay member of her Presbyterian and Episcopal churches in South Dakota and Hawaii. As a self-proclaimed “spiritual mutt,” I’ve considered her a good role model ever since I encountered her poetry 20-25 years ago when I was teaching freshman English as a spiritual-but-not-religious lay faculty member at a Catholic liberal arts college.
Associates in different Dominican congregations have different ways of doing things, according to Dominican Life | USA, so I can’t speak for anyone else. But for now I think it’s enough for me to keep doing what I’m already doing while I learn more about the Dominican charism, but do more of it — and do it more intentionally.
The word charism means a gift of the Spirit, but in practice it seems to combine elements of a mission statement and what we called our vision or core values in academic life. The Dominicans are known as the Order of Preachers, and, as I interpret it, that means we’re called as associates to more intentionally “preach from the pulpit from our lives” (to quote an aphorism I especially like) or to set an example of the Dominican values, or “pillars,” of study, prayer, community and service. I like to think of it as a gift that keeps on giving.
2. Much of my time has been taken up with the “Sundays@6” faith formation Zoom sessions — adult Sunday school, in other words — that Debi and I co-facilitate at our parish church. We’ve been reading a book titled “Reclaiming the ‘E’ Word: Waking Up to our Evangelical Identity” by Kelly Fryer, who writes a lot of ELCA church renewal material. (A bit of background: Luther didn’t like the term “Lutheran” and called his new church the “Evangelische Kirche.) The book study is part of a congregational evangelism initiative we were asked to join — that has me thinking about faith communities and charisms (although we don’t use the word in Lutheran churches, at least not in my hearing). I’ve been in the habit of sending out blast emails to participants, with Zoom links, preliminary discussion questions, etc., and in one I wrote:
One theme in Chapter 4 deals with community service. Kelly Fryer quotes Martin Luther (on p. 58) and says, “In other words, through Christ, God sets us free from having to worry about ‘getting’ saved by being good enough or by having the right kind of spiritual experience *so that* [italics in the original] in freedom we can love and serve our neighbors. Simply put, Luther said we are set free *so that* we can serve.” The Lutheran churches she observes — [which she calls] “Blessed to Be a Blessing,” “Changed Lives,” “Making Disciples,” etc. — live out that mission.
By coincidence, we were reading an article in America magazine at the same time by Holly Taylor Coolman, who teaches theology at Providence College in Rhode Island, about a diverse, vibrant Catholic parish in downtown Providence. “The final defining point of this parish is that both as a community and as individual members, our parish puts itself at the service of our neighborhood and our city. … [The pastor] has a single-minded focus on our central vocation, that of living together in the love of Christ and sharing that love with others. Particular programs and initiatives come and go. What is essential is that we remember and live into that central truth.”
Fryer’s first discussion question (under “Wrestling with the Word” on p. 61) refers back to her passage on Luther and asks: “Is the ‘so that’ a new idea for you? It is for a lot of Christians who are used to thinking about their faith as all gift. But the gift for salvation and freedom is also a call to service.” Under the heading “Thinking Things Through” on p. 62 she asks, “What is ‘the point” of your congregation? Getting people in the doors? Or sending them out? How can you tell? Be specific.”
I don’t want to carry this “spiritual mutt” metaphor too far, but I think we’re all barking up the same tree.
3. Otherwise, I haven’t posted much. One post, on April 23, touched on a couple of very longstanding spiritual interests of mine at
I headlined it, “How ‘holy envy’ enhances religious pluralism and guards against spiritual shoplifting or appropriation,” and it goes back 15 years when I was reading about the Russian Orthodox missionaries who converted the Aleuts and Tlingit Indians in Alaska. Here’s the gist of it:
I’ve told the story before, HERE and, more recently, HERE (in a meditation on salmon chowder, muktuk — dried whale blubber — Russian Orthodox liturgical hymnody and cultural pluralism). But here’s the gist of it — when I tagged along with Debi as she rolled out training manuals she wrote for the Alaska Network on Domestic Violence and Sexual Assault, I was teaching a Native American cultural studies course at Benedictine. I was fascinated with the way Russian Orthodox missionaries respected Native Alaskan belief systems and incorporated Native spiritual practices into their own, and I used my time in Alaska to learn as much as I could of the history. I think it’s one of the great American stories.
The insights added to my classes and, in time, my own faith. I was especially taken with the Very Rev. Michael J. Oleksa of Anchorage (aka “Father Alaska”), who finds a common chord in Native and Russian concepts of the imminence of God. “Orthodox Christians are not pantheists, but they are pan-en-theists,” says Oleksa. “The universe, taken as a whole, is not God, but He is ‘everywhere present and fills all things’.” This isn’t all that different from Franciscan theology, as popular Franciscan author Richard Rohr explains in an online daily devotion:
“This is not pantheism (God is everything), but panentheism (God is in everything!). Such a central message of cosmic incarnation was never seriously taught in the Western, overly individualistic church, except by a few like Hildegard of Bingen (1098-1179), Francis of Assisi (1181-1226), and Bonaventure (1221-1274). It was much more common in the Eastern Church, especially in early scholars and mystics like Maximus the Confessor, Gregory of Nyssa, and Symeon the New Theologian.”
And in time I would discover a similar theological school of Finnish Lutheran scholars who maintain, in dialog with their Russian Orthodox counterparts, that “Christ is present, in the very fullness of his divine and human nature, in [a believer’s] faith itself,” to quote Tuomo Mannermaa of the University of Helsinki. It turns out, in unexpected ways, that Luther has more in common with Orthodox — and Franciscan –theology than I ever could have imagined before I visited Alaska and started digging into the local cultural history.
I don’t have it worked out in my mind yet — especially the Christology! — but this has an effect on the way I seek the presence of God in everyday life. And the way I think about prayer.
3a. That phrase “Holy Envy” comes from a Swedish theologian named Krister Stendahl who taught at Harvard and was heavily involved in ecumenical work, especially Christian-Jewish dialog. I was reminded of it by the lectionary readings from John that have — to me — anti-Semitic vibes. On April 15 I wrote a post headlined “Uneasy with John’s bias against ‘the Jews’ in an age of religious pluralism? Here are a couple of ways to deal with it”
Today Krister Stendahl may be remembered best for something he said at a 1985 press conference in Stockholm, when he stood up for Mormons who wanted to build a controversial temple [in Stockholm, where he was serving as bishop at the time]. Codified as “Stendahl’s Three Rules of Religious Understanding,” his observations are widely cited (quoted here from Wikipedia):
1. When you are trying to understand another religion, you should ask the adherents of that religion and not its enemies.
2. Don’t compare your best to their worst.
3. Leave room for “holy envy.”
Wikipedia explains (or tries to explain), that last one: “By this Stendahl meant that you should be willing to recognize elements in the other religious tradition or faith that you admire and wish could, in some way, be reflected in your own religious tradition or faith.”
Pretty much what the evangelist John was unable to do for hoi Ioudaoi during the religious upheaval that followed the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem!
I don’t know exactly what “holy envy” means to theologians, but I do know it’s an attitude I want to cultivate. Barbara Brown Taylor, Episcopal-priest-turned-college-religion-professor-turned-best-selling-author, wrote a wonderful book in 2019 titled Holy Envy: Finding God in the Faith of Others. In it she recalls field trips with her students to mosques, temples and synagogues in the greater Atlanta area. Students and prof alike returned to campus with their own faith enriched. Why? Holy envy.
At the end of the day, Taylor told her mostly-Christian students from North Georgia, it boils down to the “central teachings of their own faith: loving the neighbor as the self, with no fine Rather than attempting to define the term, Taylor recalls a field trip when her students heard a sermon about “being the change they wanted to see in the world and treating others as they wanted to be treated” during Friday prayers at a mosque in Atlanta. I summarized:
At the end of the day, Taylor told her mostly-Christian students from North Georgia, it boils down to the “central teachings of their own faith: loving the neighbor as the self, with no fine print about the neighbor’s religion.”
As I get more involved with ecumenical matters — to me, a fancy way of saying “spiritual mutt” — I’ve been thinking about that a lot. Also this: As this year’s political “culture wars” get increasingly nasty and divisive, I think Krister Stendahl’s rules for religious understanding — especially the first two — might help me keep an even keel even there.
Well, I’ve given you more than enough to wade through. As always, if you feel like there’s something more productive for us to take up (like prayer, for example, which I’ve neglected when so many other things were going on in my life), I’m certainly amenable to that. Unless I hear different, I’ll be looking forward to a Zoom session at 1 p.m. on the 17th.