Editor’s note. Lightly edited copy of an email I sent to my spiritual director in advance of our monthly meeting for August. 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. Being able to consult them online helps keep me on track from month to month. 

Hi Sr. _____ —

Here’s my monthly update/agenda-setting/focusing exercise for our Zoom meeting  Wednesday, Aug. 31 (I’ve got it down for 1 p.m. on my calendar). As usual, I’ve been going off in two or three different directions at once.

Our “Sundays@6” adult faith formation classes wound up in mid-August, but they’ll start up again next month with a book by a United Methodist minister titled “Christianity’s Family Tree” that looks at Orthodox, Catholic, Lutheran (!), Calvinist/Presbyterian, Anglican, Pentecostal and Methodist traditions. And Debi and I signed up to audit an online New Testament course our ELCA synod (equivalent to a diocese) offers in the fall, and we’re plowing through what looks like a 300-level college textbook. (Three cheers for the Zoom technology that keeps us active and connected!) So I’ll just highlight a couple of the more salient things from my online journal and let you decide which will be most productive to talk about Wednesday.

I’ve probably done more reading than writing this month, anyway (although I’ve done a lot of both), between class prep and following up on a couple of ideas that came out of my reading on Jesuit spirituality.

A lot of my reading has focused on a writer named Kaya Oakes whom I discovered in a daily emailed meditation from America.com. (I’ll excerpt from it below. It’s about a vision of the prophet Ezekiel.) She’s the author of a book called “The Nones Are Alright,” which I’ve been reading with interest — her generation is more-or-less that of my students at Benedictine, and I identify with what she says about leaving the church and coming back to it even though I’m not exactly in her demographic. She teaches creative nonfiction (a fancy word for free-lance writing), which I also taught my last few years at Benedictine, and I think her instructional videos on YouTube are helping me get my own writing about immigration and church history off the back burner.

In fact, one of her videos inspired me to submit a piece on Salman Rushdie to the Illinois State Historical Society’s membership magazine (not as far-fetched as it might sound, since he and the 19th-century Swedes I write about both reflect the immigrant experience), and they’re tentatively planning to run it in the November-December issue. Yay, score one for Kaya Oakes, the Jesuits and YouTube tutorials!

My journaling has centered on: (1) prayer; and (2) a mishmash of ideas related to my research on church history, none of which I think are ready for prime time yet. Here’s a couple of excerpts that might be worth discussing:

1. My attempt at a Triple Colloquy, as I continued my efforts with Ignatian contemplation, or prayer. I enjoyed writing it (maybe a little too much), but I can see why the literature suggests it’s probably best done during a retreat. It raised some fundamental issues, and I found I had to think through almost every word in order to discern where the process was leading me. An excerpt: 

* Aug. 4 (but I didn’t finish it till Aug. 18): “‘What am I doing for Christ?’: An Ignatian triple colloquy F2F with Jesus via Zoom” https://ordinaryzenlutheran.com/2022/08/04/triple-colloquy/ —

This time Jesus is wearing a clerical collar and a nondescript summer business suit. But he still looks like the Christ Pantocrator in the old Orthodox icons. Short beard, longish hair but not as long as in the icons; something distinctly Middle Eastern about him but also distinctly a part of my world. I remark he’s wearing a suit this time.

“Yeah,” he says. “I did hospital rounds this morning, and I had to be with the parents and the jurors in the Parkland school shooting trial today. Brutal.” He shakes his head. “But it goes with the territory when you’re fully incarnate and you’re there to share in the suffering of your people. Every one of those kids was a beloved child of God.”

Even the shooter? I ask.

“Even the shooter.”

Jesus pauses a minute to let that sink in, then asks, “Well, you up for trying the colloquy?”

I confess I’m having a hard time imagining myself on the scene of the crucifixion, like they suggest in the how-to stories on the internet. When I visited the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, I was so overwhelmed by it all I didn’t even realize one of the chapels was the traditional site of Golgotha until I looked it up later.

“Two chapels,” says Jesus. “The Franciscans have one, and the Greek Orthodox have one.” I remember seeing that in the guidebooks after I got home, and nod my head in affirmation. Jesus continues. “I can see why you felt overwhelmed there, and we may want to get back to that sometime. […]”

I probably have way too much fun with the imaginative part of Ignatian contemplation, but it does get me to think about how I would visualize Christ (as opposed to the historical Jesus, who probably looked a little bit like Yassir Arafat), and I feel like that’s a valuable exercise for a guy who has difficulty wrapping his head around the idea of a personal God. It also reminds me of something I read somewhere, that we tend to imagine God in our own image of our highest and best aspiration for ourselves. It’s no accident my image of Jesus is a rabbi, a teacher. Another excerpt, toward the end:

Then he asks… what ought you to do for Christ?

And that stops me up short. That’s a tough one. I dunno, maybe keep on doing what I’m doing? When I committed to be a Dominican associate, I say, gathering my thoughts as I go along, I went through a pretty thoughtful discernment process and I committed to … I committed to … let me see if I can find it, I add, rummaging around on my desk … ah, here it is [link HERE]. I read, quote, I Peter Ellertsen et cetera, et cetera agree to join you in preaching the Word and witnessing Gospel values by …

OK, I say, looking up from the paper, I agreed to four things. One is those parish faith formation classes I mentioned. And I committed to learning more about what the Dominican sisters do in the community and “contributing as needed.” Like SDART [the Springfield Dominican Anti-Racism Team]. Learning more about Jesuit spiritual exercises and working on my prayer life was one — you’re seeing the fruit of it here, that’s why we initiated these Zoom calls. And writing. One of my gifts is writing. Trying to figure out how to grow my blog. This spirituality stuff is a totally different kind of writing for me.

And what to do about my historical writing, I add, reading from the commitment statement, “[…] seeking opportunities to publish my research on immigrant church history.” I’ve done the basic research — it’s about cultural pluralism and Swedish immigrant churches in the upper Midwest just before the Civil War, and I’ve got a nifty little title, “Swedes in Roger Williams’ Garden.” Clever, eh? But I want to see how some of the culture wars play out before I try to pitch it to a publisher. Between the extremists on the Supreme Court, the white Christian nationalist dingbats storming the US Capitol and one of the major political parties trying to overthrow the administration of elections, I’d like to see things settle down a little before I start writing.

“You may have to wait a while for that,” observes Jesus. […]

***

2. Also a post on how I consider Abraham’s bargaining and Jonah’s back-talking the Lord in the Hebrew Bible to be a form of prayer. It grew out of an associates’ meeting over Zoom at the end of July (yay for the Dominican sisters, too, and for technology)! An excerpt:

* July 28: “‘Lord, teach us to pray’: A spiritual mutt reflects on Abraham’s prayer for Sodom and Gomorrah (Pentecost VII)” https://ordinaryzenlutheran.com/2022/07/28/teach-us-to-pray/ —

[…] Let’s pause now and give thanks for livestreaming and Zoom technology! Even the emailed prayer requests for sisters, associates, their families and friends draw me into community in this time of pandemic and voluntary self-quarantine.

So, after discussing how two years of isolation, loss, grief — and consolation — during the pandemic have affected us, we turned to the story in Genesis of Abraham’s bargaining with God over the fate of Sodom and Gomorrah. If there are 50 righteous people in the city, will you destroy it? How about 45, 40, 30, 20, 10? Will you destroy them? And so on.

So we talked back and forth, these people I’m coming to know primarily as images on a computer screen. I’ve been hearing that story all my life, in and out of the church, but this time the thought struck me as we shared our different perspectives: Hey, the guy’s praying! I hadn’t thought of it that way before

My next thought: Hey, I can do that!

There’s more, including a quick daily prayer I’ve worked out (for my good days), blending a morning prayer from Luther’s catechism — “I give thanks to you, heavenly Father, through Jesus Christ your dear Son, that you have protected me through the night from all harm and danger. I ask that you would also protect me today from sin and all evil, so that my life and actions may please you” — with a Buddhist lovingkindness meditation that goes like this — May [I, you, … people everywhere, animals, all beings, the whole earth] be filled with lovingkindness.
May [I, you, etc.] be safe from inner and outer dangers.
May [I, you, etc.] be well in body and mind.

May [I, you, etc.] be at ease and happy..

I tend to do it on the fly, though, and when I do, it only lasts a couple of minutes at most. (I talk a better game than I actually practice at this point.) In the journal post, I go on about Abraham and Jonah (who reminds me a little too much of myself), and I end with this:

[…] And that’s where Sunday’s lectionary reading comes in. It must sound almost blasphemous, but I wish I could back-talk God like Abraham did and pray for Sodom and Gomorrah. In fact, I wish I could pray like they all did in the Hebrew Scripture.

O God, teach me to walk with you in the cool of the day, the way they did in the beginning; to call on you, the way the psalmist did, as a friend in the midst of trouble; and, yes, sometimes to pout and sulk like Jonah secure in the knowledge that you are a gracious and merciful God, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love.

***

3. Kaya Oakes’ essay on Ezekiel that I mentioned above. This excerpt comes after she mentions several images of God she’s heard around Berkeley, including a “Jesuit who once told me he suspected God moonlights as a stand up comic”):

* Aug. 8: “Reflecting on Ezekiel’s vision of God (and Cyndi Lauper’s) prompted by an email newsletter from America magazine … by an author from whom I have a lot more to learn” https://ordinaryzenlutheran.com/2022/08/08/kaya-oakes/. —

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.

And this, after some discussion of Oakes’ faith journey, which she describes in terms similar to mine:

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 her 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.

Most of what I’ve posted to my blog in the last couple of weeks has consisted of research notes. And I have quite a bit of journaling that isn’t ready to uplink yet. I don’t want to oversell the point, but I think my research about Swedish Lutherans may have something to say about how a smaller faith community adapted and maintained its beliefs in a society that tolerated a degree of religious pluralism but considered a White Anglo-Saxon Protestant (essentially Calvinist) theology to be normative. 

In some ways, Catholic and Jewish immigrants went through the same process of blending — or “creolization,” to use an academic term — that resulted in something new and distinctly American. Certainly our culture has been shaped by immigrants throughout our history, and I’ve been a big believer in the whole thing ever since I was a little boy down South and we’d get Christmas “care packages” from my father’s family in Brooklyn full of canned fish, smoked cheese and Norwegian pastry.

Instead of a melting pot, I think a better metaphor might be a jambalaya, a Louisiana Creole stew that originated in different cultures and cooks down andouille sausage, chicken, pork, okra, rice and other ingredients that add their own flavors to the blend. I think the kind of religious pluralism I’m talking about is threatened now by far-right extremism in Congress and the Supreme Court, and I think I might be able to free-lance my story about cultural pluralism and Swedes in the 1850s to magazines like Christian Century or Commonweal. I’ll give you a couple of links (for possible future reference if nothing else): 

But I don’t think there’s anything in them worth making you read at this point. 

If there’s a common thread to all of this (and after putting this email together, I think there is), it’s the religious pluralism and interfaith dialog that allow a spiritual mutt like me to mix-and-match the common elements I find in different faith traditions and blend them (like a Creole gumbo?) into my own spiritual practice. Also gratitude for internet technology (I thought I’d *never* say that before the pandemic!) and the opportunities we have to keep connected in this time of lingering pandemic

Debi and I had the schedule for tomorrow’s Dominican Reflection Day in our email this morning, and we’re looking forward to it. I want to wrap this up now, even though it’s a little early, and clear the decks for the retreat. Looking forward to chatting with you Wednesday, too.

— Pete

[Posted Aug. 25, 2022]

3 thoughts on “Spiritual direction, August 2022

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