Lightly edited copy of an email I send monthly to my spiritual director to: (a) give her a heads-up on my where my spiritual journey has taken me since our last meeting, and (b) help me focus for our meeting. Which may or may not go off in unexpected directions. They read like a Reader’s Digest condensed version of the blog, since they excerpt from my posts, but I’ve been archiving them here for several years as sort of a spiritual journal.
Hi Sr. _____ —
Here’s my monthly update-and-agenda-setting exercise for our Zoom meeting Wednesday, Sept. 28. With one caveat — I’m waiting for a biopsy to be scheduled, to see what’s going on with a growth on my bladder, so I may need to reschedule our meeting if there’s a conflict; I don’t think that’s very likely, though, and if I do, we should know well in advance. So unless I hear something different from the doctor, we’re still on at 1 p.m. Wednesday.
Anyway, things have been topsy-turvy this month — I guess John Lennon had it right when he said life is what happens when you’re making other plans. On the plus side, I’m getting more practice with intercessory prayer. I was in the hospital the first week in September — I’ll link to my journal about it below, which will have details. Also on the plus side: Encountering what could be a major health issue — on or about my 80th birthday, no less — has me reevaluating a lot of things. It turns out they’re some of the same things that were on my mind when I started spiritual direction with Sr. [_____] in 2018.
When she and I were getting started, she sent me a questionnaire asking my “hope for / idea of Spiritual Direction.” I replied, in part, I hoped it would help get me over a “sense of being stuck, of frittering away my talents, or gifts, especially relating to music and writing. […] Especially when the music I like best tends to be sacred music, and my research and writing have tended to focus more and more recently on hymnody and church history.” This, too: Following up on 12-step recovery by “working a spiritual program (i.e. trying to reorient my life along spiritual lines).” When I looked up my old memo to Sr. [_____] this afternoon, I was surprised to see that lot of what I’ve been doing this year — committing as a Dominican associate, trying to incorporate more Ignatian spirituality and the Dominican pillars of prayer, study, community and mission into my daily life — seems like a natural follow-through to what I was struggling with four years ago.
This quote also rang a bell, from an earlier draft of my “about” page: “I qualify as a spiritual mutt all right. Sometimes I feel more like a whole spiritual kennel, yapping at passing traffic.”
My 2018 memo to Sr. [_____], responding to her questionnaire, is on my “about” page at https://ordinaryzenlutheran.com/about/.
Three excerpts from my journal this month worth sharing with you:
1. Sept. 11 (https://ordinaryzenlutheran.com/2022/09/11/praying-grace/) “Praying for trust, acceptance and other graces in the emergency room, ‘singing softly … like the south wind blows’”
I won’t try to summarize here what I wrote in the linked post, but my trip to the ER was kind of disconcerting, and I fell back on an Anglican “Prayer of Good Courage” that’s seen me through other crises (I’ve practically memorized it over the last couple of years):
O God, you have called your servants to ventures of which we cannot see the ending, by paths as yet untrodden, through perils unknown. Give us faith to go out with good courage, not knowing where we go, but only that your hand is leading us and your love supporting us; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
Another rote prayer I’ve been falling back on is from the Episcopal prayer book I grew up with, “for one about to undergo an operation.” It goes like this:
ALMIGHTY God our heavenly Father, we beseech thee graciously to comfort thy servant in his suffering, and to bless the means made use of for his cure. Fill his heart with confidence, that though he be sometime[s] afraid, he yet may put his trust in thee; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
The rest of my journaling about “ER spirituality,” as I call it, is kind of rambling and hard to paraphrase. But it’s at lesst a record of how I struggled to apply a Jesuit prayer technique I’d been reading about and to pray for the “graces” of trust and acceptance — “[t]rust in the emergency medical staff, trust that whatever was going on would be treatable — and trust that this prayer technique would lead somewhere” — and then to meditate on scripture in a spirit informed by those graces, or attitudes. This I did, after I got home, except instead of scripture I meditated on an African American folk carol that calls to my mind the presence of God and memories of walking in the woods with my father (a TVA forester) when I was little. It brought a sense of peace, and I was able to distill it into a prayer. Here’s as close as I could come to a summary:
In the meantime, I’ve come up with a prayer of my own. It’s kind of an ecumenical patchwork of scraps from that African American folk carol, Jesuit spirituality, the Prayer of Good Courage from Holden Village, the [Episcopal] Book of Common Prayer and the 11th Step of Alcoholics Anonymous (“[…] praying only for knowledge of God’s will for us and the power to carry that out”). Plus a couple of bells and whistles of my own. It’s a little different every time I try to put words to it, but it usually goes something like this:
O God of the south wind and God of treetops, of pine woods and second-growth Southern upland deciduous forests, walk beside me now as you walked beside Mary and Joseph in the grotto at Bethlehem, appear to me as you appeared to the shepherds and Magi; guide me, protect me and support me; give me your graces of trust, acceptance, quiet confidence and the courage to walk by paths untrodden, not knowing where they lead; and help me to know your will and give me the strength to carry it out.
It’s kind of a cut-and-paste job at best, but I think it says what I need to say now.
2. Sept. 14 (https://ordinaryzenlutheran.com/2022/09/14/sundays6-new-book/) “‘Sundays@6’: New book on Christian traditions for parish book study, plus a lovely quote on 4th-century heresies”
What else has been going on? Debi and I are now co-facilitating Zoom sessions on our fourth book, on “Christianity’s Family Tree” by a United Methodist minister. So we followed through on one of our commitments as Dominican associates by leading a Lutheran bible study group’s discussion of the Orthodox churches. A spiritual mutt yapping at passing traffic indeed! Well, it’s what I feel called to do. I quoted the author in the Zoom link we emailed to members of the group:
“[…] I want to be clear that the focus in this book is not to convince you that United Methodists are better Christians than others. I am hoping that all of us, of whatever denomination, can learn from one another, and by listening to others, can become more faithful Christians. My aim in each of these chapters is to help us learn from the traditions we are studying and to allow each of them to deepen our own faith and our experience of God.”
And added this on my own:
Other chapters explore the Catholic, Lutheran, Presbyterian, Anglican, Baptist, Pentecostal and Methodist traditions. They’re pretty much in chronological order. We’re in full communion with the United Methodists, by the way.
The “lovely quote” I mentioned in the headline, by the way, is from St. Gregory of Nyssa, one of the Fathers of the early church who had this to say about the controversies over the nature of the Holy Trinity in the Constantinople in the 390s:
“The whole city is full of it, the squares, the market places, the cross-roads, the alleyways; old-clothes men, money changers, food sellers: they are all busy arguing. If you ask someone to give you change, he philosophizes about the Begotten and the Unbegotten; if you inquire about the price of a loaf [of bread], you are told by way of reply that the Father is greater and the Son inferior; if you ask ‘Is my bath ready?’ the attendant answers that the Son was made out of nothing.”
3. Sept. 3 (https://ordinaryzenlutheran.com/2022/09/03/stories/) “‘The word of God … does not sit on coffee tables’: An old English major’s reaction to a New Testament course for lay ministers”
Debi and I are also auditing a course (over Zoom, natch!) for synodically authorized ministers, as we call eucharistic ministers in our branch of the Lutheran church, and the author we’re reading, Mark Allan Powell, gets into reader-response theory a little. I probably had a little too much fun writing this, since Powell’s discussion of literary criticism reminded me of grad school days, but I wrote this after the first class meeting:
Basically reader response theory says each reader creates meaning by interpreting a text in light of their own knowledge and experience. My understanding of Hamlet, for example, would be different if I lived in Elsinore (modern Helsingør) and knew my way around Hamlet’s castle. Like all literary theories, it can get complicated in a hurry. But for my students, it meant they didn’t have to guess at “The Hidden Meaning” in a poem, with a capital “T,” a capital “H” and a capital “M.” (Spoiler alert: There is no such thing, no matter what your 8th-grade English teacher may have told you.) For me, now, reading scripture, it means I can create my own meaning, within limits, of a difficult passage. It also means I can respect the meaning that others create. In fact, I think it means I have to.
More and more, I feel like I’m called to be an *ecumenical* mutt, yapping at all the passing traffic. And more and more, I’m yapping about ecumenism, interfaith relations and pluralism, both cultural and religious.
Even my historical research, which I’m struggling to get off the back burner now that the fun part is over and it’s down to getting something in writing, is boiling down to questions of cultural and religious pluralism. What can we learn today from the way things played out in the 1850s and 60s? I won’t quote from them — I’ve given you quite enough to wade through already — but I’ve been sharing articles to my blog that might help give me a conceptual framework for the historical project. Like these:
- Sept. 21 (https://ordinaryzenlutheran.com/2022/09/21/survey-data-white-christian-nationalism/) “University of Maryland survey data show extent of Christian nationalism, white grievance among Republicans”
- Sept. 19 (https://ordinaryzenlutheran.com/2022/09/19/historical-parallels-1850s-1930s/) “Historians, including Ken Burns, cite historical parallels between today, the slavery crisis of the 1850s and the anti-Semitism of the 1930s”
That’s why I post so much material to the blog about today’s culture wars, white Christian nationalism, “replacement theory,” Islamophobia and extreme polarization over cultural and moral issues, extending even to the US Supreme Court. I feel like some kind of conspiracy theorist even pointing out the parallels, but I think there may be lessons there. In the 1850s, Swedish immigrants began to create a blended culture that was neither 100% Swedish nor American but combined elements of both. The little Swedish immigrant Lutheran churches became cultural centers (in much the same way as ethnic Irish and Italian Catholic parishes did during the same period in history), and I think it’s a story worth telling. I also think it’s worth reminding folks of our immigrant heritage when minority religions, and cultural pluralism in general, seem to be under sustained attack. I think we need to, in fact.
Anyway, I’ve started reworking and combining papers I presented at the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum in 2017 and 2020, and I feel like maybe revising them for publication is getting the wheels turning again after too long a hiatus.
And that, in turn, brings me back to the questions I raised when I started spiritual direction back in 2018: Am I frittering away my gifts when I keep getting reminders, in the form of birthdays, hospital visits, etc., that time is not an unlimited commodity? I suspect I still am, to some degree, but I feel like this is a start.
Revising an academic paper isn’t strictly spiritual, at least not in the candles-and-meditation sense of spirituality, but it does follow through on one of the commitments I made as an associate, i.e. “seeking opportunities to publish my research on immigrant church history” (https://ordinaryzenlutheran.com/2022/05/10/commitment/). And I’ve managed to follow through on others, especially at my parish church; in fact, it keeps my mind off my problems. And does so in a way that feels constructive.
So that’s what the month of September has been like, kinda all over the place. I’ll trust you to help me cut through the churn and know what’s most productive for us to follow up on Wednesday. See you then!
[Revised and uplinked, Oct. 1, 2022]