… by an author from whom I have a lot more to learn

Raphael, ‘Ezekiel’s Vision,’ c. 1518 (Wikimedia Commons)

A reflection from America magazine landed in my inbox this morning (Mon, Aug 8, 6:33 AM, to be exact) that was thought-provoking, gave me a couple of new images of God and introduced me to a writer I really want to study. Her name is Kaya Oakes; she teaches creative nonfiction at UC-Berkeley; and she writes compellingly about subjects I’m interested in.

This morning her subject was the nature of God. It was the reflection for Monday of the 19th Week in Ordinary Time, which is also the feast day of St. Dominic. (It’s the day following the ninth Sunday after Pentecost, by the Lutheran way of reckoning), and her reflection had the subject line: “Each person’s idea of God is unique—and that’s how it should be.”

Oakes begins with a wonderfully poetic translation, from the US Conference of Catholic Bishops’ lectionary, of the prophet Ezekiel’s vision of God“As I looked, a stormwind came from the North, / a huge cloud with flashing fire enveloped in brightness” — and cites the different ways of seeing God she heard from fellow students at the Jesuit School of Theology in Berkeley. She says:

The prophet Ezekiel, writing from exile, has a visionary, mystical experience of God. From his exile in Babylon, Ezekiel’s vision of YHWH might not seem logical to modern readers, but what vision of God makes any kind of logical sense? From Julian of Norwich’s vision of God holding a universe the size of a hazelnut, to the Jesuit who once told me he suspected God moonlights as a stand up comic, to a friend’s explanation that he sees God in the wizened faces of elderly women, to Ezekiel’s own flaming vision, no one’s idea of God is exactly the same as another person’s. 

Along the way, Oakes cites Gerald Manley Hopkin’s sonnet “The world is charged with the grandeur of God” — including his vision of God as “the dearest freshness deep down things” — and concludes we don’t “need to see God seated on a sapphire throne surrounded by flaming angels to understand Ezekiel telling us that God is so magnificent and so large and incomprehensible so, sure, why not?”

That sentence doesn’t quite parse grammatically, but — sure, why should it, considering the magnitude of what it tries to convey? Oakes concludes:

This is perhaps the right attitude toward encountering God. In nature? Sure, why not. In music and art and architecture? Sure, why not. In the written word? Sure, why not. In other people? Sure, why not. Sure, why not. And as to other people’s visions and imaginings of God, Jesus’ own use of metaphors, parables and other creative imaginings lets us know that we have permission to imagine a God who is as expansive as possible within the infinite scope of our imaginations.

This I can relate to. I don’t know if I’ve ever compared God to a standup comedian, but when I consider some of the twists, turns and speed bumps in my spiritual journey, I have long suspected God has a wry sense of humor. My image of God is part Ezekiel and part George Burns’ character in the 1977 movie Oh, God! Mixed in with *Luther’s admonishment [see *note below] that by the grace of God we are called to be as “little Christs” to one other — “with and without the apostrophe” (Christi summus in nominativo et genitivo in his original Latin) — and to recognize the image of God in each other.

Ezekiel’s image reflects the symbolism of his time and place, during the Babylonian captivity between 593 and 571 BCE. Here’s part of it:

As I looked at the living creatures, I saw a wheel on the earth beside the living creatures, one for each of the four of them.[b]16 As for the appearance of the wheels and their construction: their appearance was like the gleaming of beryl, and the four had the same form, their construction being something like a wheel within a wheel. 17 When they moved, they moved in any of the four directions without veering as they moved. 18 Their rims were tall and awesome, for the rims of all four were full of eyes all around. 19 When the living creatures moved, the wheels moved beside them, and when the living creatures rose from the earth, the wheels rose. 20 Wherever the spirit would go, they went, and the wheels rose along with them, for a living spirit was in the wheels. 21 When they moved, the others moved; when they stopped, the others stopped; and when they rose from the earth, the wheels rose along with them, for a living spirit was in the wheels. (NRSV)

Some 2,500 years later and halfway around the world, an African American spiritual arranged by William L. Dawson of Tuskegee Institute would render this as “Ezekiel saw the wheels; / Way in the middle of the air.” They would sing:

And the big wheel run by Faith, good Lord;
And the little wheel run by the Grace of God;
In the wheel in the wheel good Lord;
Way in the middle of the air.

And it would be true, in the language of our time and place. It’s certainly as true as anything I know about God.

I also concur with singer-songwriter Cyndi Lauper’s description of God — I believe I saw it 30 years ago in a Cosmo profile, and I think she said it on other occasions too — as a single welfare mother trying to raise 6 billion squabbling children. (That would be closer to 8 billion now.)

I’m indebted to Kaya Oakes and America magazine, though, for reminding me of Hopkins’ sonnet, and thereby reminding me also, “for all this, nature is never spent; / There lives the dearest freshness deep down things.” I haven’t read much Hopkins since grad school English major days, and I need to remake his acquaintance.

Most of all, I’m indebted to Oakes for bringing the craft and skill of a professional journalist to her writing about religious topics. Her first book, Slanted and Enchanted, was about the indie-rock scene, and she didn’t turn to religious writing until after she rejoined the church in her late 30s after 20 years as one of the “Nones.” Two of her titles are now at the top of my reading list:

  • Radical Reinvention: An Unlikely Return to the Catholic Church, 2012. The Goodreads blurb pulls me in (for obvious reasons): “Rebellious and hypercritical, Kaya relearns the catechisms and achieves the sacraments, all while trying to reconcile her liberal beliefs with contemporary Church philosophy. Along the way she meets a group of feisty feminist nuns, a ‘pray-and-bitch’ circle, an all-too handsome Italian priest, and a motley crew of misfits doing their best to find their voices in an outdated institution.”
  • The Nones Are Alright: A New Generation of Seekers, Believers, and Those In Between, 2015. Again, the Goodreads blurb speaks to me (again, for obvious reasons): “Oakes, herself a ‘revert’ to the Catholic faith, doesn’t just write from the perspective of her own encounters with faith and its absence, but also introduces the reader to a broad range of voices and experiences, interviewing dozens of young Americans on how and why they practice (or don’t practice) their faith.”

Oakes is young enough to have been one of my journalism students (or, for that matter, a granddaughter), and she teaches at a prestigious Carnegie I university. But her experience and professional background both speak to me. Her latest book, The Defiant Middle: How Women Claim Life’s In Betweens to Remake the World, came out in 2021, and she’s working on a sixth book, “on the limits of forgiveness,” according to the bio on her website at

https://www.oakestown.org/

Both are also high on my reading list.

In a 2014 profile of Oakes in National Catholic Reporter, Eddie Siebert cites Oates’ “appreciation for tattoos and indie culture” and says her writing is “a testament to James Joyce’s description of Catholic meaning ‘Here comes everybody’,” (another author from grad school days I need to put back on my reading list). He says:

Kaya’s “hybrid memoir/ethnography/theological rant” Radical Reinvention: An Unlikely Return to the Catholic Church candidly details her journey from atheism to Catholicism without the faux veneer of “I found God and now everything is perfect!” that seems to lace many successful spiritual memoirs.

Siebert acknowledges “her return to the church hasn’t solved all of her problems, especially the ones involving Catholic teaching” that put her at loggerheads with traditionalists. But he also notes that her research for The Nones Are Alright, showed little of the hostility to religion she had expected. Siebert quotes from an interview with Oakes:

“People who choose not to participate in a religion actually really respect people who do participate. They actually look up to the work churches do in the community,” she said. A recurring theme she hears is, “Religion is wonderful and I’m so grateful we have it. I just don’t want to be part of it because I can’t commit to it. … I think actually a lot of people who are religious feel the same way.” That common theme of doubt, so integral to a healthy faith, really struck her, and she hopes that common ground will spark dialogue. [Elipsis in the original.]

All of this resonates strongly with me. I know what she means when she says doubt is essential to a healthy faith, and I share belief in common ground that gives her hope for dialogue. I grew up in a different church, and I wound up in yet another church after my years as a “None” (although that wasn’t the word we used for ourselves at the time). But my faith journey — in and out of the church — has followed the same path. And I have quite comfortably worked, studied and developed my faith in Catholic institutions for nearly 30 years now. When a writer like Kaya Oakes uses the word “Catholic” or “Jesuit,” I just substitute “Christian” and I feel like I know exactly what she’s talking about.

* Luther’s aphorism, in a 1537 letter to Johannes Bugenhagen, is translated in Jaroslav Pelikan’s introduction to Sermons on the Gospel of St. John, Chapters 1-4, Vol. 22 in Luther’s Works (St. Louis: Concordia, 1957), ix-x; quoted in my post “Was Luther a mystic? Hard to say. But an offhand Latin pun and a Lutheran T-shirt offer a new way of thinking about it,” Ordinary Time, June 11, 2020 https://ordinaryzenlutheran.com/2020/06/11/luther-grammar/.

Cites and Links

Daily Readings, Aug. 8, Memorial of St. Dominic, Priest, Lectionary 413, Reading 1, US Conference of Catholic Bishops https://bible.usccb.org/bible/readings/080822.cfm?utm_source=piano&utm_medium=email&utm_campaign=23341&pnespid=qKJqAnlcar9EyPOcryy5GZGW7wikTpByIfPk2Pl2vhZmRcNIQGjEBYWUYgtAmvMm5f4lruv8.

Kaya Oakes, “Each person’s idea of God is unique—and that’s how it should be,” America, Aug. 5, 2022 https://www.americamagazine.org/faith/2022/08/05/god-image-ezekiel-243496.

__________, “The ‘Nones’ Are Alright: What we can learn from a generation of seekers,” America, March 18, 2014 https://www.americamagazine.org/faith/2014/03/18/nones-are-alright-what-we-can-learn-generation-seekers.

Eddie Siebert SJ, “The tattooed feminist Catholic who chooses conscience over catechism,” National Catholic Reporter, Sept. 26, 2014 https://www.ncronline.org/blogs/tattooed-feminist-catholic-who-chooses-conscience-over-catechism.

Wikipedia pages on William L. Dawson (composer), Ezekiel, “Ezekiel Saw the Wheel” and the Jesuit School of Theology at Santa Clara University.

__________

[Revised and published, Aug. 13, 2022]

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