Virtual Choir, FAPCinNYC, Sept. 27, 2020

There’s an image in Gary Snyder’s “How Poetry Comes to Me” that I like very much. He compares poetry, the creative impulse, to a wild animal that comes up to his campfire, but stays just out of range at the edge of the darkness. So, says the poet, “I go to meet it at the / Edge of the light.” There are clear differences between the two, and I don’t want to overdo the analogy. But that’s where I tend to meet up with God, just out of range at the edge of the light.

I’m comfortable with the idea of God as the Holy Trinity or the incarnate Word made flesh, but I don’t think I can really say I believe in a personal God who intervenes in my life, or, as Wikipedia puts it, a “a deity who can be related to as a person, instead of as an impersonal force, such as the Absolute, ‘the All,’ or the ‘Ground of Being’.”You’d have to put me down as a Christian agnostic instead, who recites the ancient creeds of the early church every Sunday but simply doesn’t know how — or whether — they can be proven.

But I’ve been reevaluating that lately. Maybe I can find ways to relate to God, the Holy Trinity and/or the Word made flesh, after all.

Why reevaluate now, at the age of 80? For one thing, the side effects of chemotherapy have been clobbering me. (Don’t ask for details: Prince Harry, the Duke of Sussex, has given us all a lesson in why the things we consider “TMI” really and truly are too much information. But I will say even the side effects I don’t want to talk about in public have been pretty standard, and so far I seem to be tolerating chemo.)

At the same time, Debi and I have joined a faith-based cancer support group. It’s non-sectarian, but it has an evangelical Protestant flavor, and we’re using a workbook that promises, “Jesus wants to give you more than peace. He wants to give you bottomless strength, unsurmountable courage, abundant guidance, abounding joy, thriving relationships and above all hope.” This isn’t the way I talk about my faith. Dude lived 2,000 years ago, I can’t claim a personal relationship with Jesus. But the Christ, the incarnate Word of God? Maybe. Besides, I sense these people are on on the up-and-up, and if I set aside some of my political opinions and study the workbook with an open mind, I can learn from them.

So, I’m asking myself, what can I find in my own ragtag, a-pinch-of-this-and-a-dash-of-that spirituality that corresponds to the trust in a personal relationship with Jesus that so many evangelicals experience?

It’s worth a try. Pascal’s wager, anyone? Let’s put it this way: It’s too dramatic to say I’m experiencing a Dark Night of the Soul now — it feels more like a wintry February twilight of the soul — but I’m feeling stuck, and I’m willing to try something new. Writing in 2015 in the online Journal of Lutheran Ethics, retired ELCA pastor Harlan Frank Showers says these moments of feeling “the absence of God” are a “common development in the spiritual life” and the “Dark Night is a sign that God is bringing about in you a growth of faith.” He adds:

Another assessment of the absence might not be as profound as the Dark Night. It may be that your current way of praying is no longer helping open your heart to God’s grace. You may be distracted by life’s pressures so that you find yourself seldom praying. You are not in touch with your deepest desire which is to be closer to God. The absence could signal a need for some intentional action on your part. Returning to prayer and/or doing it differently can help. Perhaps you need more times of silence or a time to reflect on a sacred text.

One prayer discipline that Showers, the retired pastor, specifically mentions is what the Jesuits call Ignatian discernment or discernment of spirits. According to St. Ignatius, founder of the Jesuit order, God sends us trials or spiritual desolation in times of spiritual dryness. But God also sends us consolations — Showers, paraphrasing St. Paul, identifies them as “those gifts that show God’s grace is working through us.”

I’ve experimented with Ignatian discernment quite a bit since I started chemo (blogged about it HERE and HERE, for example). And last night I was thinking about it before I fell asleep. One technique involves naming a specific grace and praying for it. (Mine, at least since I was diagnosed with cancer, has usually been trust. I blogged about it HERE.) This morning when I woke up, I had the 18th-century English Baptist hymn “Come Thou Fount of Every Blessing” running through my head. It’s long been one of my favorites, and from my days as a shape-note singer I know at least four settings to distinct early American folk melodies.

An earworm or an Ignatian consolation? Or some combination of both? An answer to a prayer? I think it is. The video embedded above features a virtual choir singing a familiar choral arrangement by Alice Parker and Robert Shaw, which they took from an 1844 shape-note tunebook called The Sacred Harp. It adds the following floating verse, or chorus, often heard at camp meetings of the day:

I will arise and go to Jesus,
He’ll embrace me in His arms,
In the arms of my dear Savior,
Oh! there are ten thousand charms.

Talk about a personal relationship with Jesus! The Parker-Shaw arrangement is titled “I Will Arise,” taking its name from the added-on camp meeting chorus. To hear the Sacred Harp version it’s based on in something more like its natural habitat, listen to this video of a Sacred Harp singing in northeastern Texas in 2012. Shape-note singing is still a living tradition in parts of the South, and the singers in Texas belt out the song with passion and intensity. They sing like they believe it, and I wish there was something in my own faith formation to match it.

Well, maybe there is. As I was settling into my February twilight of the soul during the last round of chemo, I remembered a Franciscan sister named Ilia Delio who is at the forefront of finding common ground between religion and science. Another longterm interest of mine — see HERE for example — since I grew up in a time and place where it was against state law to teach evolution in the public schools. My father worked with tree crop genetics for the Tennessee Valley Authority, developing strains of fast-growing, straight-grained pine seedlings, so I knew how evolution works. And the standoff between science and religion left me with a lasting contempt for anyone who uses the coercive power of the state to mandate their religious beliefs. I’m still trying to get over it. Delio has PhDs both in pharmacology, from Rutgers, and theology, from Fordham, so her writing can be dense and difficult to sort out. But it’s worth the effort, and I think she has something to say to me about seeking a personal God. Luckily enough, she was interviewed in 2011 for U.S. Catholic magazine. And in that format, she discussed her core ideas in informal language instead of academic discourse.

Delio’s theology — and her spirituality — start 13.7 billion years ago — with the big bang — and whole galaxies away from my spiritual struggles in February 2023 in Springfield, Illinois. And her thinking is squarely within a Franciscan tradition that wasn’t familiar to me until a couple of years ago when I started reading Delio, as well as a Franciscan priest named Richard Rohr who develops similar themes. To vastly oversimplify it, the Franciscans downplay issues like original sin and substititionary atonement by saying God operates out of love, and the spirit of God is incarnate — becomes flesh — in all of God’s creation. Illia explains her christology, i.e. the academic study of “Jesus Christ’s humanity and divinity, and the relation between these two aspects,” like this in the U.S. Catholic interview:

A “cosmic christology” reminds us that every aspect of the cosmos is in Christ, everything is Word incarnate. Everything bears the infinite love of God, each in its own way, which means that there’s nothing earthly that doesn’t have some divine dignity to it.

The medieval Franciscan theologian St. Bonaventure said the whole world is exemplary of God because everything bears a relationship to God. God created the quark and the star, the bacteria, the snake. Everything reflects God in some way.

St. Francis’ well-known regard for Brother Sun, Sister Moon, the animals and the birds he preached to is part of this. (Fr. Rohr sometimes refers to it as “birdbath spirituality.”) And what of God? Well, Delio speaks of the Trinity as a dynamic relationship between the Father, Son and Holy Spirit in a way I can wrap my head around without trying to remember now exactly what was it the fourth-century Greeks meant by “begotten not made” or the other litmus tests in the historic creeds. In the U.S. Catholic interview Delio says:

Another way to approach this is that each person, every single thing that’s created is created uniquely out of the infinite love of God, which means everything bears in its own unique, distinct way the reflection of God’s love.

When we talk about God’s love, the model is the Trinity. The first person of the Trinity, the Father or the fountain source of love, loves one other than the Father—the Son. That relationship between the Father and the Son is bound in a union of all things, the Holy Spirit.

In other words God’s love is uniquely and distinctly personal. God doesn’t love in some general diffuse way. Your life and my life and every single life is loved in a unique, personal, and distinct way. Everything bears a unique expression of God in a way that cannot be reproduced or clumped together, which makes everything uniquely lovable.

Well, yes, I like that! But how does it play out in my everyday life? Delio’s interviewer for U.S. Catholic may have had the same question — as she was asked next, “How do we start seeing with this broader vision?” Prayer, Delio answered:

The first thing is prayer. I don’t mean just saying prayers, such as the Our Father or Hail Mary. I mean really praying to know yourself first of all. In our very busy world we need to take time to be with God.

People say that they’re not sure how to pray, but prayer is really just talking that leads to deep dialogue. Do you talk to yourself? That’s part of prayer. Who are we talking to when we talk to ourselves? It’s God, the source of life within us.

Prayer is talking to myself? I hadn’t thought of it that way before, but it fits. It’s in the nuts and bolts of the 11th Step of Alcoholics Anonymous: “Sought through prayer and meditation to improve our conscious contact with God as we understood God, praying only for knowledge of God’s will and the power to carry that out.” When I was practicing that Jesuit exercise this morning, I didn’t see an old man with a long white beard leaning over a cloud, like in the Michalangelo painting, and handing me a link to a choir in New York City singing Alice Parker’s arrangement of “I Will Arise.” Instead, no doubt, consolation came out of my unconscious, and from my memories of singing it from the Sacred Harp and believing every word of it as I sang. It came, in other words, from within. The next step, as Delio framed it for U.S. Catholic (and as the “spiritual awakening” referenced in the 12th Step of AA also implies), is more clear-cut. She says:

The next step is looking at the life of Jesus, at his healing, mercy, and forgiveness. The humanity of Jesus is our humanity. What he did in his life is what we’re capable of doing as well. We’re capable of being compassionate, of being merciful, of forgiving others.

Even on a gloomy February afternoon slowly ebbing into a winter twilight, even with the pain and uncertainty of another round chemo infusions looming ahead, that’s how I want to think of it. Luther famously called us to be “little Christs,” and I believe this, exactly this, is what he meant. Jesus’ humanity is our humanity, and what Jesus did in his life, the healing, the mercy, the forgiveness, is what we’re capable of too. I’ll have to think more — a lot more — about all of this. But Delio is talking here of a personal God I can relate to.

Links and Citations

Alcoholics Anonymous, The 12 Steps

Ilia Delio, Universal Savior: Ilia Delio reimagines Christ,” U.S. Catholic, March 20, 2011

Ava Gilchrist, “Prince Harry’s Todger Is Taking Over Social Media—Here’s The Best Memes From *That* Viral Excerpt,” Elle Australia, Jan. 16, 2023

Harlan Frank Showers, “The Absence of God as Opportunity for Personal and Social Transformation,” Journal of Lutheran Ethics, 15, no. 3 (March 2015)

Gary Snyder, “How Poetry Comes to Me,” Silver Birch Press, Aug. 24, 2013

Wikipedia articles on agnosticism, christology, Come Thou Fount of Every Blessing, Dark Night of the Soul, discernment of spirits, John 1:14, Paschal’s wager, personal God, substitutionary atonement and Trinity.

Vann Vicente, “What Does ‘TMI’ Mean, and How Do You Use It?” How-to-Geek, July 4, 2021

[Published Feb. 19, 2023]

4 thoughts on “‘I will arise and go to Jesus’: Seeking a personal God for a dark February twilight of the soul in Ilia Delio’s christology

  1. Thanks for this “Ordinary Time”, Pete. My only brother, Denis, is going through something similar to your situation. He is not telling people about his medical condition, but when he starts his chemo, I will forward today’s “Ordinary Time” to him. He is not very religious, but the way you stated things, he’ll read it and use what is useful to him without talking about the religious parts. He was trained as a biologist, therefore, he keeps his thinking in the scientific vein. He may check out support groups in Nashville where he lives with his wife.I will also share this “Ordinary Time” edition with my husband. As a caregiver, some of this edition helped me. I keep thinking I’m supposed to solve all my husband’s medical problems and I have to be reminded who is really in charge.Thanks, again,Tomi (Tomilea)

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks, Tomi. (Btw, I love your screen name, had been wondering who “crzypch” is when I saw it in my notifications from WordPress.) These posts seem self-indulgent to me when I’m writing them, and it’s good to hear they might be helpful to other folks. You, and your brother, might like a book by David Downs called “A Mild Touch of the Cancer.” It’s available in the US on Kindle. Downs is a PR guy and standup comedian from New Zealand, and the book is based on a series of blogs he wrote when he was in treatment. Very funny, and also very informative. Helped me know what it was like going into it.

      About support groups, caregivers, etc.: In addition to the group I mentioned in OT, Debi and I are seeing a psychotherapist in the Chicago suburbs via telehealth Zoom calls. Debi lined her up through a referral from our PCP, so she could deal with the stress that comes with being a caregiver. I was reluctant to get involved at first, but I figured oh, hell, I’ll do it once if she wants me to. Well, we’re three weeks into it, and it turns out it’s ONE OF THE BEST THINGS I’ve done for myself as well as Debi. It’s covered by Medicare, too. Bottom line (and the reason why I’m writing this): None of us have to go through this wilderness alone.


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