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The Wound of Knowledge

| 15.12.04
The Wound of Knowledge: Christian Spirituality from the New Testament to Saint John of the Cross, by Rowan Williams

This was one of those books that, while difficult to digest, nonetheless opened up vast vistas of thought currently unknown to me. While I have done some reading about Christian thought from the Reformation to the present, and even did my master's thesis on religious radicalism and revivalism among American frontiersmen, I had never really done even a cursory reading of the patristics, the mystics, or the monastics of the early Christian centuries. I felt a bit out of my element, but I was still fascinated by the differences between the thought of these early Christians and typical conventional Christian thought today.

If this book made one impression on me, it was that while the pursuit of spiritual understanding and experience of God has remained fairly constant over the centuries, how they have been understood has radically changed over time. Furthermore, modern day Protestantism in both its evangelical and mainline forms seems far removed from the earliest thinkers!

What follows here isn't going to be my typical book review. Instead I'm going to just leave my notes and quotes in an unfinished form. These are the ideas that jarred me, grabbed me, and fascinated me. Take from them what you will. They have certainly given me further food for thought, and have impressed upon me the need for further readings in this area. I hope they will take hold of you, and inspire both reflection and further study. The items in quotes are from the book. What remains are my responses to what I read.


"...the goal of a Christian life becomes not enlightenment but wholeness –an acceptance of this complicated and muddled bundle of experiences as a possible theater of God's creative work." (p. 12)

God is hidden.

To grow is to become more capable of both pain and love –just as the way of the cross represents extreme love and extreme pain.

What role does God play in our suffering? Ignatius of Antioch visioned God as a devourer, "to be in front of the wild animals [in the Colosseum] is to be in front of God." (p. 25)

"Thus martyrdom comes as the natural culmination of a more prosaic process of unselfing..." (p. 27)

Life is not suffering, but a task to be borne diligently and with grace, service, charity, culminating in a death symbolic of that life.


The second century is the beginning of real systematic theology. Paul and Ignatius are letter writers, not theologians. Much early theology was a reaction to Gnosticism. Some of the problems early theologians saw with gnosticism was that it conceived the world as accidental, demeaned parts of human experience as illusory, meaningless and --most importantly-- irredeemable. Finally, it saw God as separate from creation.

Ireneus of Lyons (c 130-200 CE)

"There is no sort of human activity that automatically generates the vision of God, but there are actions that make one 'apt' for the vision of God" (p. 36) Acts of the whole person, not just the spirit emphasize that the connection with God's salvation is in our humanness, not in an attempt to escape from it because Christ transforms Adam's failure into the Imago Dei.

"...creative will is at the heart of human reality, as it is at the heart of God's reality; so that salvation is the encounter and union of these two wills, when human beings will to be God wills them to be." (p. 41)

Clement of Alexandria (c 150 -215 CE)

Christian gnosticism sees instruction as Christ's role. Unlike the view espoused by the heretic Gnostics, God cannot be manipulated through correct ritual. However there is still the conviction that God cannot be known -- "knowledge" of God is not the gathering of facts about God but the stripping away of what is known, finally "bearing God in himself and being borne by God." (p. 44) According to Clement, faith leads to gnosis, gnosis leads to love, and love leads to God. (p. 45) The faithful adherent is marked by a readiness to instruct and enlighten.

Clement was one of the first to write about wealth not being a problem for Christians, provided that it was seen properly as being irrelevant to ones spiritual state. While this eliminates poverty as a requirement for Christians, it is still a marked contrast to some modern notions of wealth as a sign of godliness, or "prosperity gospel."

Origen (c. 185-254/5 CE)

Love and spiritual knowledge go hand in hand, "the inner wound of love" drives us to seek direct and personal experiences of Christ. Origen's emphasis is on firsthand versus secondhand experience. Knowing Christ incarnate is the beginning of a progression that ends with knowledge of the eternal Word. The progression is from physical to spiritual. Physical and spiritual are major themes with Origen, with the spiritual always being superior (or perhaps the culmination of) the physical. Perhaps most famously Origen is known for saying that there are two ways to read the Scriptures, the physical (literal) reading and the spiritual (allegorical/symbolic) reading.


Rowan Williams interprets Athanasius thusly: "the Son has not only to live a human life, but to die a human death, since without this, death would remain an area untouched and untransfigured by God, and we would never become inheritors of immortality and incorruption." (p. 59)

Gregory of Nyssa emphasized participation in the Divine as participation in what God does. "The man who shares with the poor will have his share in the one who becomes poor for our sake." (p. 63) Imitating what God does instead of who God is was foremost because for Gregory God is beyond intellect, and God is beyond being itself. The mark of having God in oneself is a life of compassion for others. Spirituality is visioned as one whose being is expanding and falling into an infinite God.


Augustine of Hippo

Confessions was published in 401 CE. Augustine was groundbreaking in that he was the first to show an interest in childhood as significant in spiritual autobiography. A neo-Platonist, Augustine thought that the good in us is part of God, and our true selves lie in God. Yet unlike most neo-Platonists, who were logical and passionless in their arguments, Augustine recognized the irrational.

"To become Godlike is to accept crucifixion by the destructiveness of the world. There is, then, no route to God that does not pass under the cross. . ." (p. 91)

"The risk of irrationalism and quietism is great." (p. 95)

"Augustine's is rather the inscrutable God who speaks out of Job's whirlwind and makes himself known in a dying man. . ." (p. 97)


Anthony (c. 305 CE)

St. Anthony was the founder of the monastic movement --"a time is coming when men will go mad when they see someone who is not mad, they will attack him saying, 'You are mad, you are not like us.'" (p. 103) Monasticism was a way to preserve Christianity from any cultural inroads, to attempt to assure against a version of the religion that is synonymous with culture.

"The monk has come to the desert to escape the illusory Christian identity proposed by the world; he now has to see the roots of illusion in himself. . . " (p. 105)

"Everyone has equal claim on the Christian's unconditional service, because of the unconditional self offering of Christ to all." (p. 111)

I ask, "where is the monastic vision of Christianity expressed today?" Conventional Christianity --the type taught in most churches and on display in most Christian bookstores seems to be totally synonymous with a capitalist, consumerist, market driven culture of overconsumption. There seems to be a book and a Bible study about every little whim, marketed to every little niche. When does a Christianity that has taken on all the trappings of our culture cease to be Christianity?

Benedict of Nursia (c 480-547 CE)

While most famous for his Rule, it was not strictly or uniformly applied until the Cisterian reform at the end of the 11th century.

Bernard of Clairvaux (1090 - 1153 CE)

Cisterians - a form of monasticism that had very clear definitions and rules for living, was of mass appeal to the uneducated classes. Only the love of God gives us proper perspective on loving self and neighbor. (p. 118)


Dionysius the Aereopagite: "God is God, surpassing alike language, intuition, and being." God is too real to exist as things exist. God manifests through emanations. Seeking God is the abandonment of both sense experience and religious experience.

Maximus the Confessor (d. 645 CE)

"The eternal Word first empties himself of his divinity to become human, then empties himself of instinctive human passions in accepting suffering and death. Human beings are called to share in his human kenosis, responding to the divine kenosis: we must empty away our lives in order to grasp what he has done. . ." (p 130)

Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274 CE)

For God, being and acting are the same --for us there is a gap between these. We need to be stimulated to act. God can be his own focus.

In contemplation, therefore, is the "passage from 'rational' consideration of intelligible realities and the direct contact with divine truth; at the final level there is no concept for the reason to work on, therefore no work for the reason to do." (p. 138)

Meister Eckhart (c 1260-1327 CE)

A disciple of Aquinas, Eckhart emphasized that purity of soul, or "virginity of soul," causes God's spirit to conceive in them and become a child, the son of God. This is the model for the contemplative. "The true following of Christ is the following of the whole Christ, the eternal Word as well as the historical figure." (p. 143).

"The Trinity is God, but not Godhead." This concept is not clear to me. It seems to tease at the idea that there is a "God beyond God," meaning that the real God, the God that Is, goes beyond any of our conceptions of God, including the Trinity.


Martin Luther (1500s)

"A God who could be loved, prayed to and trusted even as he smote and killed. A strange and terrifying God; yet a source of life and hope." (p. 157).

Luther was also a proponent of the idea that only "in hell" can one hear the good news. Given the context for Luther's spiritual breakthrough this is not surprising. Perhaps this is also a point Luther shares in common with Lars Levi Laestadius, a nineteenth century Finnish revivalist and pietist who is said to have preached extreme hellfire and damnation in his sermons so that the subsequent repentance and conversion would be deeper and sweeter.


St. John of the Cross (1542-1591 CE)

Dark night of the soul, dark night of the spirit. "Illumination is the running-out of language and thought. . ." (p. 181)

"No 'spiritual' experience whatsoever can provide a clear security, an unambiguous sign of God's favor." (p. 182)

God as the enemy and oppressor of the spiritual seeker --union with God is annihilation of all the dross within a human that is not of God.

"God himself breaks and reshapes all religious language as he acts through vulnerability, failure, and contradiction." (p. 189)

Those are my notes. I finished this book with no strong or clear sense of what exactly the "Wound of Knowledge" is supposed to be. If I were to hazard a guess, I would say that since according to these Christian thinkers God cannot really be known in the sense that we think of knowledge in the modern age, knowledge is a problem, or "wound." On the other hand, Christian spirituality in this period also seems to favor the idea that direct experience of the Divine involves the annihilation, or letting go, or burning away of all that is not Divine. Therefore as one is granted "knowledge" of God, ones old or false self is wounded in the process.

PUBLISHER: Cowley Publications, Massachusetts (1991); ISBN: 1-56101-047-2


| 14.10.04
Christopher: The Holy Giant, by Tomie dePaola

Lately I've been reading a lot of Tomie dePaola's books to my daughter. Some, like The Clown of God and Christopher deal with Christian themes. Others, like Now One Foot: Now the Other deal with the impact on a child of his aging grandfather after he suffers a stroke. Still others, like Tom and The Art Lesson deal with themes surrounding individuality, conformity, growing up, and just plain having fun. All are richly illustrated with prose that manages to convey both depth and simplicity at the same time. Not skirting mature themes such as death and suffering, dePaola nonetheless manages to present these topics in a gentle way appropriate to younger children.

I found Christopher to be especially exemplary of dePaola's sweet yet substantive style. While retelling the legend of St. Christopher with alacrity, simplicity, and vivid illustrations, he also retains the full allegorical impact the tale for the benefit of the adult reading the story. I felt like two stories were being told simultaneously. One was a fairy tale for children, complete with monsters and a happy ending. Yet on another level we are introduced to the important themes of the Christian journey --spiritual practices, the dark night of the soul, the face of Christ found in service to others, prayer-- culminating in the transformation of the Christian into the image of Christ.

Transformation on every level is most clear in the middle of the story, which I consider the fulcrum or turning point of the entire tale. After having worshiped strength and power in the forms of both an earthly king and Satan, Reprobus wants to serve Christ because of Christ's power. He demands of a hermit he meets during his journey through the desert, "Tell me how to find him, so I can serve him." But the hermit refuses, saying "You cannot find him. . . you must pray, and Christ will find you. . . then you will be told how best to serve Christ." Reprobus obeys, humbles himself, and eventually finds Christ through serving others. And when he finds Christ, Christ's strength is made manifest through the weakness of a child. Yet as Christ's strength is made manifest through weakness, Reprobus' strength is also only perfected after he has humbled himself and carried the Christ child across the river on his back.

It was this theological depth that I loved about the book. While dePaola tells a good story and gives children what they want, he doesn't talk down to them, instead telling a tale that will grow in meaning instead of diminish with the passage of the time.

PUBLISHER: Holiday House, New York (1994); ISBN: 0823408620

Mystical Christianity

| 2.10.04
Mystical Christianity: A Psychological Commentary on the Gospel of John, by John A. Sanford

In this 337 page commentary on the fourth gospel, John A. Sanford paints a fascinating picture of Christianity that is steeped in the mystical, the mysterious, and the psychological. Drawing upon his clinical experience and extensive knowledge of Carl Jung's psychological theories, Sanford explicates a gospel message that connects spiritual and psychological realities, takes them seriously, and relates them to the modern world.

I read this book straight through from cover to cover, which is probably not the best way to read it. It is intended to be used as a commentary and reference guide. Either way, Sanford's work does much to explain both depth psychology and the gospel of John. As I've written elsewhere, I have struggled to understand Jung's writings, and Sanford helped me both comprehend them and see how they relate to Christianity.

"Christianity as a religious movement is in danger of losing its vitality, as it becomes ensnared in the conventional, and as the powerful and numinous impact of the Gospels is emasculated by the rationalistic and materialistic mentality of our times." (p. 310) In many ways the purpose of Sanford's book is to offer a corrective to our overly modern world view, which sees and takes seriously only the material, physical universe. The author of John's gospel calls us to see a hitherto unseen spiritual world, and to recognize that what happens in the spiritual world directs and impacts the material world. Sanford's genius lies in linking the spiritual world with the archetypal world of depth psychology, giving the spiritual new credence for modern people.

One of Sanford's most evocative images is the Son of Man. Often used in John's gospel to describe Jesus, this mysterious term is avoided by the church in favor of the term Son of God as the favorite title for Christ. Sanford sees Jesus the Son of Man as the ideal man, the archetypal man to whom all humanity can look to see its true self. Yet as Christ is believed by the church to be both fully God and fully human, when humanity strives for its true self it accepts both its humanity and its divinity.

Sanford quotes Robert Johnson, stating "the world isn't meant to work; but it does provide an arena for the development of individual consciousness." (p. 301) Christ is the exemplar of both the way to live and the way to die, the way to be fully human and the way to participate fully in the nature of the Divine. Life's purpose is to gain authentic knowledge of oneself, and of God. Christ's Way is the path to consciousness. Christ's cross is a mandala –a sacred image of wholeness and centeredness. As followers of Christ, we are the ground in which the cross is planted –the way of the cross is planted into our lives and consciousness. (p. 317)

PUBLISHER:Crossroad Publishing Company (February 1, 1994); ISBN: 0824514122

Hear the Difference

| 21.9.04
Hear the Difference? By Robert Hansen

Sometimes one is called to write a book to correct what one perceives as an imbalance in the conventional way of thinking. In “Hear the Difference?” Robert Hansen contends that what we think is the gospel in reality is something less. This not only tends to make an idol out of whatever it is we are substituting for the gospel, but it flattens the mystery that is the gospel, causing us not to see and hear the kingdom of heaven that is at hand all around us, and preventing us from loving God with all our heart, soul, and mind. While difficult to define, Hansen maintains that the true gospel by definition must transcend every category and resist efforts to put it in terms other than itself.

So what is the difference between the Christian gospel and everything else? Hansen suggests that it is a unique way of hearing --hearing others, and hearing the biblical texts. It is not self-esteem, change, acceptance, "keeping it real," utilitarianism, experience, reason, positive thinking, good intentions, or myriad other forms of seeking. To emphasize something such as change as the heart of the gospel is to subordinate it to an imported category –-and for Hansen the gospel must never be subordinate. Painstakingly aware that to proclaim the gospel may actually prevent others from hearing it as it truly is, Hansen gives us the sense that we must listen to others and to the biblical texts more deeply and differently than we have ever listened before.

Hansen finds the gospel crystallized in Jesus' saying, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.” But what is repenting? While the dominant ideology today sees repenting as the need to change oneself, the need to accept oneself, or an attempt to strike a balance between acceptance and changing, Hansen points out that all of these are cut of the same cloth. “Our active, all embracing way of hearing embraces what is different and turns it into more of what we already do” (p. 53) To be able to truly see the realm of God and to respond to it transcends all worries regarding change, acceptance, or anything in between. “It is not by doing, thinking, believing, experiencing, or having any of them that separation from [God] is ended.” (p. 64) The heart of the gospel is to depend on God, and accept God as God is, without having any expectations of God. When things go badly or when things go well, we are confronted with the question: Do we trust God? Or do we trust in things going well or things going badly? What is non-negotiable for us? What we see as non-negotiable is our gospel.

The bulk of the book consists of Hansen's critique of various ways the gospel is transformed for the worst by would-be evangelists. He is critical of pastors and churches who try to frame the gospel in terms of everyday life, because that puts “keeping it real” above the gospel. Another way people bend the gospel is to hear it as “whatever works for me.” While in the Reformation era theologians argued about grace versus works, in our era the dividing line is “what works versus what doesn't work.” (p.117) If grace is “what works” is that not just works? Hansen says that to really hear grace, one must realize that nothing works, but grace comes from God. “It is not a matter of whatever we may do, think, experience, or have. None of them will do it. . . the Christian gospel says it is a matter of God --God's grace in Jesus Christ.” (p. 129)

Insofar as choice is something we do, it misses the point. “For we are not saved by our decisions, any more than we are saved by our actions, our inclinations or intentions, positive thinking, change, acceptance or by doing the best we can. That's the whole point: we are saved by God. God is the savior, not our choosing,” (p. 158) “Even if our will is free, even if it can and does indeed make choices, this does not mean that it is within its power to bring us salvation.” (p. 165) Drawing upon Martin Luther, Hansen drives the point home that repenting is different from choosing. Repenting is turning from anything but God, to God.

While Hansen's prose sometimes seems cumbersome and would greatly benefit from a more ruthless redactor, his message is both timely and timeless. In an age of polarized and competing religious ideologies, a gospel heard through deep and compassionate listening has never been more welcome. In a culture where individualism, self-help and choice reign supreme, it was refreshing to see the gospel presented in a way that attempts to transcend all that. Finally, Hansen succeeds in calling the reader to hear the gospel anew and afresh.

PUBLISHER: Xlibris Corporation, 2000. ISBN: 1-4010-8214-9

The Strange Redemption of Sister Mary Ann

| 6.9.04
'The Strange Redemption of Sister Mary Ann,' by Mike Moscoe

This haunting eight page tale of a woman looking back on a full, long life while suffering through the terminal stages of cancer barely qualifies as science fiction, at least on first glance. What science there is gets developed as she questions some of the choices she made to delay childbirth through birth control and have children through in-virtro fertilization. Her culminating life choice of joining a convent in her twilight years definitely challenges prevailing notions of the role of traditional religion in modern society. Yet author Mike Moscoe provides no easy answers, instead preferring to let us live with the tension the questions evoke. As such 'The Strange Redemption of Sister Mary Ann' is a beautiful, evocative and wistful tale that stirs the emotions and supports further reflection.

Mary Ann's life, up until the end, has been full, rich, and rewarding. A successful career, wonderful husband, happy children, and satisfying sex life symbolize the American dream and all that scientific and material abundance promise. It isn't until her husband dies and she is diagnosed with cancer that Mary Ann starts to question the potential cost of these choices, and starts to be haunted by the images of her unborn children in her dreams. Perhaps hoping to resolve the tension between her faith and her life actions, Mary Ann joins a convent where she leads a life of inward and outward piety, all the while struggling with ethical, philosophical, and theological questions. Where does life begin? What is the nature of existence after death? Do theologians have anything meaningful to offer?

I'm continually impressed by good efforts to integrate broader sociological, spiritual, and psychological questions into science fiction. Roscoe is not an author I remember reading before, but I'll be sure to be on the lookout for his works in the future.

PUBLISHER: Analog Science Fiction and Fact (Astounding); Dell Publishers; ISSN: 10592113 (November, 2004)

Soul Sex

| 15.5.04
Soul Sex: Tantra for Two, by Pala Copeland and Al Link

When I think of Tantric sex, the first thing that comes to mind is rock musician Sting. We've all heard by now that he's this awesome Tantric lover, that he and his wife have amazing sex for hours on end, no doubt hanging off the ceiling and the chandeliers, taut rock star perfection glistening with charged sweaty erotic concentration. . . well!

Soul Sex: Tantra for Two, by Pala Copeland and Al Link presents Tantric sex for the rest of us. Ordinary everyday folks with stressful jobs, children, and perhaps an extra pound or twenty can also be Tantric lovers. De-mystifying Tantra for ordinary people, this easy-to-read guide combines the best of down-to-earth sex and relationship advice with a nice overview of Tantra and how to incorporate some or all of its practices into a committed, lifelong, monogamous relationship.

The two big things that just leapt off the page as I read this book were "This just makes so much sense, I can't believe I'm not doing it" and "I could really do this...this is SO within the realm of possible I can't believe I'm not doing it." Copeland and Link have taken the esoteric sexual secrets of the East and repackaged them, translating and transmuting them into commonsense practices and techniques that practically anyone can feel comfortable with.

The view of Tantra in the book falls within a long western tradition of taking religions and philosophies from the East, removing the specific religious aspects, deities, and rituals, and presenting a more abstract set of principles that can get results without having to be a Buddhist or a Hindu. Coming from a Christian background, I couldn't help but think that many of the principles in the book were complimentary to a western worldview, while others dramatically re-evaluated traditional views. One of the areas where Eastern ideas were most obvious was in the discussion of chakras, or energy centers, in the body. While I could accept the idea that people experience energy as residing in certain centers in the body, I found many of the details regarding the chakras esoteric and hard to take seriously. Despite this, however, one can take the pieces that work and incorporate them selectively into your sex life, discarding what feels alien or uncomfortable.

The second half of the book gets into the nut and bolts of Tantric meditation and sexual practice. Beginning with an overview of the seven energy centers in the body, Copeland and Link present breathing exercises, muscle exercises, sexual positions, mood enhancers, and other hints for more soulful lovemaking. They actually make sense out of sexual positions. I've read many books that merely list the sexual positions, failing to the mention the role each sexual position plays in lovemaking. I never knew that some of the more movement limiting sexual positions are actually intended to slow down the pace while maintaining the emotional connection between lovers. Thank you for explaining this!

It was surprising to me that this book about spiritual sex spent the first 100 pages or so speaking mostly about emotional states, communication skills, unspoken beliefs and how they can shape and overshadow a relationship. Yet it underscores the conviction of both the authors and myself that what happens outside the bedroom in the relationship has a radical impact on one's sex life. Without a healthy relationship in which each partner is willing to deal with their "stuff," spiritual growth and sexual ecstasy just isn't going to happen. "What causes the relationSHIP to sink is the accumulated weight of unresolved 'stuff.'" (p. 94)

PUBLISHER: New Page Books, New Jersey. 2003; ISBN: 1-56414-664-2
LINKS: http://www.tantra-sex.com


| 13.4.04
Rebekah: Women of Genesis, by Orson Scott Card

As he did in his previous novel Sarah, Orson Scott Card has once again told a fascinating tale about a biblical character, making Rebekah come to life in a way that is both plausible and profound. The wife of Isaac and mother of Jacob and Esau, Rebekah comes across as intelligent yet humble, beautiful yet modest, and strong-willed yet obedient to her own sense of God's calling.

My one quibble with the novel was that some dialogues between characters seemed overly long, discussing a point to death from all possible angles. Yet even this seemed plausible in the context of the novels ancient setting. In a society with no television or other forms of distraction, I imagine people did have very long conversations with each other. The slower pace of life "back then" would also provide longer time to reflect on ones actions.

Card is able to flesh out a biblical story yet not detract from it. Racing through this exciting installment in the lives of the matriarchs, I found myself noticing broader biblical themes that I had not noticed through reading the Bible alone. In addition to providing a great story that is exciting to read, Card's greatest achievement may be in pointing us to the biblical story, and serving as a helpful guide in its interpretation.

PUBLISHER: Forge (Tom Doherty Associates, LLC), 2002; ISBN: 0-765-34128-X
SEE ALSO: Sarah, by Orson Scott Card

The Anglican Vision

| 7.4.04
The Anglican Vision, by James E. Griffiss

What is the Anglican vision anyway? What makes Anglicanism different from other Christian traditions? What does the Anglican tradition offer that can't be found elsewhere? Griffiss wrestles with these difficult questions across 130 densely written pages, looking through the lenses of Anglican history, sacramentalism, and the incarnation of God in Christ to see a vision of Anglicanism that is grounded in continuity and conversation with tradition, while being open to ongoing direction from the Holy Spirit as mediated through the entire creation.

The first half of the book is devoted to a capsule history of the Anglican churches as a study in conflict management. From the 16th century beginnings of the Church of England there was internal dissent between the Protestant reformers and Roman Catholics. Yet with the Elizabethan Settlement both parties stayed within one church. Later as England's colonies declared independence in the United States and elsewhere, there was more tension as each national church struggled to find its own unique identity. There have always been parties within Anglicanism that were more evangelical, more catholic, or more modern in their theological outlook. In the end, this produced a church centered more on common worship than codified doctrines, containing more theological diversity and ambiguity than more confessionally based churches, and finding authority not in an inerrant Bible or an inerrant Pope, but in an understanding of tradition, scripture, and reason that was shaped and negotiated by disagreeing Christians joined together in one common body.

Griffiss sees the sacraments of Baptism and the Eucharist (Holy Communion) as illustrative of the Anglican vision. According to the Book of Common Prayer, a sacrament is "a visible and outward sign of an inward and spiritual grace." Sacraments are bi-modal in that they contain both a physical and spiritual component. They are fragile (water can get stagnant, wine sour, and bread stale). Sacraments depend on God for their power, but also require human co-operation for their delivery. They are inherently mysterious and hard to understand. Griffiss sees sacramental understandings as having played a critical role in allowing Anglicans to live with greater levels of ambiguity and tension than is the case with most other Christian denominations.

Most importantly for Griffiss, the doctrine of Christ's incarnation is what saves humankind, and saves the Anglican church. Unlike substitutionary atonement, where Christ is the blood sacrifice that blots out sin (analogous to animal sacrifice in temple Judaism) incarnation theology states that the chasm between God and humanity is bridged through Christ as the Word made flesh. Fully God and fully human, Jesus occupies both spaces simultaneously, redeeming humanity and breathing the Spirit into the entire creation. Griffiss believes this helps explain Anglicanism's predisposition to view scientific progress, historical research, contributions from the humanities, and even the views of secular philosophical systems as new lenses through which to view both the Bible and the Christian tradition.

Combining a sacramental view of reality with a redeemed creation and high tolerance for conflict, the Anglican vision is one of openness to the on-going revelation of the Holy Spirit, an acknowledgment of the ambiguity and mysteriousness associated with trying to discern God and God's will for humanity, and a willingness to live in tension with others while working out one's faith with fear and trembling.

PUBLISHER: Cowley Publications, Copyright 1997. ISBN: 1-56101-143-6.

Cathedral of Saint Paul

| 10.3.04
Cathedral of Saint Paul: Living the Mission of the Church, Mary Cabrini Durkin, editor

Although I'm not a Roman Catholic, I've enjoyed visiting the Cathedral of Saint Paul on many occasions. I've taken the occasional self-guided tour, attended numerous organ recitals, the occasional Minnesota Sinfonia concert (it was the rain location), and even went every Friday evening during Lent for Taize one year. In addition to being a hub for many spiritual and artistic events, however, the Cathedral draws me back again and again because the architecture, iconography, and stained glass create a soothing atmosphere brooding and simmering with spirituality.

Begun in 1906 but not completed until 1915, the Cathedral was the brainchild of Archbishop John Ireland. Not one to think small, he saw the overflow crowds and lack of space in the existing structures and envisioned a building with both architectural beauty and prominence in the city of St. Paul. (p. 2) This vision has been realized not only because of the many beautiful works of art that are part of the Cathedral, but also because the Cathedral occupies a prime piece of real estate on the hill just outside of downtown St. Paul and across from the Capitol building. The Minnesota statehouse and the Cathedral seem to twin each other, with the Cathedral dramatically upstaging its secular sibling.

This short, photo-filled book highlights the specific pieces of spiritual art in the Cathedral and draws out their greater story and purpose. Sometimes that greater story refers back to biblical passages. Other time the story is specific to the history of the church in the United States. Often it is an interesting interplay between the two, as is the case with the south rose window --a stained glass creation in which Jesus is depicted preaching the Beatitudes to a listening audience comprised of major saints of the Western Hemisphere. (p. 4)

Included on page 3 is a small map containing the entire floor plan of the Cathedral, with references to other page numbers explaining the art found in each of the chapels, altar area, sanctuary and other spaces. I found this helpful because even though I've been to the Cathedral a number of times I still didn't really know what all the areas were, or their function.

One of the more striking features of the Cathedral once you're inside is the apex of the dome above the sanctuary, on which is painted a huge golden dove --symbolizing the Holy Spirit. Surrounding the magnificent dove are figures representing the gifts of the Spirit (knowledge, counsel, understanding, piety, wisdom, fear of the Lord, and fortitude) and stained glass windows with representations of the sacraments of the Church (baptism, confirmation, holy orders, the Eucharist, matrimony, penance, and anointing the sick.) "The ceiling might be seen as a full theology of grace: God's love and care pouring out on us through the Holy Spirit and the Church's Sacraments, which are special avenues through which we experience that grace." (p. 14)

One interesting theme throughout the book is the attempt to interpret the meaning of some of the statuary and stained glass saints in light of the Catholic Church's sweeping reform efforts in Vatican II. Although the Cathedral was constructed long before council convened, some changes have been made to the sanctuary to foster a feeling of less distinction between the clergy and the laity. In this way the Cathedral can be seen as a kind of living organism that grows and changes as new understandings emerge. Yet there is also an unseverable link with the past that is reflected in the depictions of saints and customs tied to ethnic groups that may reflect the demographic past of the Roman Catholic Church more than its present or future. In any case, the Cathedral emerges as one complex, diverse, yet unified whole, stretching both forward and backward through time, space, and Spirit.

PUBLISHER: Editions Du Signe. France, 1998. ISBN: 2-87718-729-2
LINK: http://www.stpatricksguild.com/browse.cfm/4,329.html

Open Mind, Open Heart

| 29.2.04
Open Mind, Open Heart: The Contemplative Dimension of the Gospel, by Thomas Keating

I've been interested in the contemplative aspects of Christianity for some time. Ever since I experienced my first Taize service, I have had a strong sense that silence and stillness can be very powerful avenues for experiencing God. Questions raised by that first encounter led to Thomas Keating's book, which explains centering prayer and contemplative prayer in detail. Open Mind, Open Heart is available free online from Contemplative Outreach, and it is also published in book form, available at Amazon.com and other booksellers.

Drastically boiled down, a thumbnail definition of contemplation is the idea echoed by the Psalmist, who writes: "Be still and know that I am God." When one practices centering prayer one sits quietly, intending to empty the mind and heart of all thoughts, expectations, and demands, waiting for God to respond or not respond in any way God chooses. Through the practice of centering prayer one hopes to undergo "a process of interior transformation, a conversation initiated by God and leading, if we consent, to divine union. . . A restructuring of consciousness takes place which empowers one to perceive, relate and respond with increasing sensitivity to the divine presence in, through, and beyond everything that exists." (see Introduction). This state of being is called contemplation. Resting in this state is the essence of contemplative prayer. It is the hope of those practicing centering prayer that they might receive contemplative prayer.

One aside which might be helpful --the words "contemplation" and "meditation" are often used differently in the Christian tradition than they are used in Eastern religions such as Buddhism. Sometimes Christians will talk about "meditating" on the Scriptures. The act of "meditation" here means to ponder, study, or ruminate over. When a Buddhist talks about meditation, they are talking about clearing the mind of thoughts and emotions. Christians use the word "contemplation" to describe the same practice.

Another way to look at contemplation is in terms of "consent." In the same way that Christians consent to have Christ be born and live in them, the contemplative person consents to the Spirit's desire to pray in them. By clearing away the obstructions that appear on the conscious level, they are able to experience the Spirit on a more direct level that bypasses the mind, the ego, and consciousness.(see Chapter 2)

Keating spends some time in this book tracing the history of contemplative Christianity, and explaining why it eventually fell into disfavor. Blaming both Catholic Scholasticism in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries and the Protestant Reformation of the sixteenth century, Keating explains how prayer became understood more and more as a discipline to occupy ones conscious mind. The theologically vague yet more comprehensive way of "praying the scriptures" (lectio divina) more prevalent in the early centuries of the church gradually slipped away (see Chapter 3.1) and was replaced by discursive forms of prayer that could more easily fit into philosophical, theological, or doctrinal categories.

Despite the lamentable state of prayer today, Keating is convinced that if one uses the conscious modes of prayer faithfully enough, one will eventually be driven to what John of the Cross called "the dark night of the soul." Counter-intuitively, Keating writes that when one is unable to pray and feels unconnected to God, the devout practitioner may potentially be at the gateway to a deeper, more mature relationship with God --a relationship marked by contemplation. Keating implies that Christianity's collective amnesia regarding the mystical, contemplative modes of prayer has contributed to people leaving Christianity for Eastern religions where meditation is more readily available. One gets the sense that there are ecumenical as well as evangelistic imperatives behind promoting a more contemplative dimension to Christianity. (see Chapter 3.3)

Moving from theory to practice, Keating outlines a basic method for centering prayer. The method consists of finding a quiet space to sit comfortably, relax, and let go of conscious thoughts. When unavoidable thoughts occur, gently think about a pre-chosen "sacred word" or phrase. Keating recommends two periods of centering prayer per day; one in the morning and one in the early evening. While requiring no small commitment, this put contemplation within the realm of possibility for ordinary people. One does not need to be a monk or nun living in a cloister to be contemplative --some of the most contemplative folks Keating knows are married people living busy and active lives. (see Chapter 4.1) "Contemplative prayer is a way of tuning in to a fuller level of reality that is always present and in which we are invited to participate. Some discipline is required to reduce the obstacles to this expanded awareness. One way is to slow down the speed at which our ordinary thoughts come down the stream of consciousness. If this can be done, space begins to appear between the thoughts, enabling an awareness of the reality upon which they are resting." (see Chapter 4.2)

The remaining chapters of the book deal with such practical matters at choosing a sacred word, dealing with distractions and thoughts that may arise, and keeping disciplined in one's practice of centering prayer. While these chapters are very useful as a "how to" guide, I also saw a more universal, Jungian theme emerge as Keating outlined the solution to most problems in terms of acknowledgment and acceptance. Specifically, for every problem that arises it is central that one recognize it and acknowledge it. Then, perhaps counter intuitively, one much accept it. Only once one can accept problems and accept oneself as they truly are, is there any possibility for the problems to recede into the background and for spiritual growth to occur. "Every response to God, whatever it is, must begin with the full acceptance of reality as it actually is at the moment." (see Chapter 6.1)

In one very down-to-earth example, Keating compares maintaining interior silence and listening to God to conversing with a friend near a busy street. It is easy to get angry at the noise of the passing cars, but anger won't stop the noise and will ruin the conversation. Yet by being able to accept the noise for what it is, one is freed to carry on the conversation. In the end, the noise is unimportant. "So it is with the rumbling that goes on in our heads. It is so bad sometimes that many people will not put up with it. They say, 'Interior silence and contemplative prayer are for the birds. I cannot endure this barrage of tiresome thoughts going through my head.' So they get up and leave. If they would just hang on and give themselves a little more time, they would get used to the noise." (see Chapter 6.1)

In the last third of the book Keating draws some interesting comparisons and contrasts between contemplative Christianity and the charismatic movement. While Keating credits charismatic renewal for opening up ordinary Christians to the possibility of the Spirit moving powerfully and being active in people today, he puts charismatic gifts (especially the gift of speaking in tongues) in the context of being primitive forms of contemplation, or gateways to contemplation. When one speaks in tongues, Keating says, one doesn't understand what one is saying. Therefore one can't have thoughts about what they are saying. This is similar to clearing the mind of thoughts during centering prayer. Keating seems open to the possibility that both contemplative Christianity and charismatic Christianity can lead to experiencing visions, ecstasies, and other unusual spiritual experiences. However, Keating puts great stress on accepting such experiences for what they are and not dwelling on them or analyzing them, lest one become full of pride for one's perceived spiritual accomplishment. For in the end, (see Chapter 8.1) "God is incomprehensible to our faculties. We cannot name Him in a way that is adequate. We cannot know Him with our mind; we can only know Him with our love. That is what some mystical writers call unknowing. It is by not knowing Him in the ways that we now know Him, that we do know Him. Visions, locutions or ecstasies are like frosting on a cake. The substance of the journey is pure faith."

KEYWORDS: Centering prayer, contemplative prayer, mystical prayer, spiritual practices, disciplines
PUBLISHER: Continuum Pub Group; (July 2002) ISBN: 0826414206
LINK: http://www.centeringprayer.com/OpenHeart/index.htm



| 28.1.04
'Dibs', by Brian Plante

If I didn't realize it already, I'm now gaining an even greater awareness that it is a real talent to write a good science fiction short story. In just a few pages an author must flesh out believable characters, motives, and settings. Then there is the added ingredient that makes the story SF --a compelling ethical, philosophical, or physical issue that is raised by or solved with science or technology.

I thought Brian Plante did a fine job of using these elements artistically in 'Lavender in Love', which I reviewed last January. That story dealt with robots and artificial intelligence. This time, Plante tackles the ethical issues raised by organ donation --both voluntary and involuntary. If three people's lives would be saved, is it justified for doctors to kill you and harvest your organs to save them? Shouldn't a truly moral person be willing to sacrifice themselves if they know they will do greater good dead than alive? Is it ever morally justified for someone in need to call "dibs" on your heart, liver, skin, or spleen? When do the needs of the many truly outweigh the needs of the few?

Plante imagines a near-future world in which available organs and needy recipients can be matched with computer precision, --and the sick can lay claim on the organs of the healthy under the right circumstances! Told in the first person from the point of view of David Danila, a government employee whose organs are in risk of being involuntarily harvested, we are taken on an emotional and ethical roller coaster ride. David struggles both for survival and with the ethical issues surrounding organ donation --all in just six pages!

Brian Plante is definitely an author to watch, both in the pages of Analog and elsewhere.

PUBLISHER: Analog Science Fiction and Fact (Astounding); Dell Publishers; ISSN: 10592113 (April, 2004)

The Amazing Spider-Man vol. 2

| 3.1.04
Marvel Masterworks: The Amazing Spider-Man, (vol 2), by Stan Lee and Steve Ditko

Last June I reviewed volume 1 of this, what appears to be an on-going compilation of all the early Spider-Man comic books. In that review I mostly compared and contrasted with Superman, DC, and Smallville. While I'd still love it if DC put out a similar compendium of all the early Superman comics, I'm actually starting to enjoy Spidey more than Superman now that I've steeped myself in so much of the early story.

Volume 1 of this collection contains "Amazing Fantasy" (number 15), where Spider-Man is first introduced, along with "The Amazing Spider-Man" issues 1-10. Volume 2 contains "The Amazing Spider-Man" issues 11-19, along with "The Amazing Spider-Man" Annual number 1. These works were all originally published between August 1962 and December 1964. Reading historic comics like these more than 40 years after they were originally published is for me more entertaining than reading something contemporary because of all the interesting differences between that culture and ours today. Not only do the characters dress differently and have different hairstyles than would be fashionable today, but their attitudes towards dating, the sexes, computers, doctors, and technology is far more divergent from our own mores than one might first expect.

When I was a kid spending my meager allowance on comic books, I used to hate it when the story would refer me back to earlier issues I had not previously read. This series does that in abundance, but ironically I find it adds to the stories, giving them more depth. Especially when read back to back, this compilation doesn't seem nearly as episodic as volume 1, but almost reads like one continuing on-going story. Sure, Spidey fights all kinds of evil villains, but there are also more complex plot-lines exploring his relationships with the women in his life --Betty Brandt, Aunt May, and Liz Allen-- as well as how he interacts with rival schoolmate Flash Thompson and rival superhero The Torch.

Those whose primary exposure to Spider-Man may be the movie and not the comic books, you'll be interested to find that Mary Jane Watson gets hinted at near the middle of volume 2, although Peter and MJ have yet to even meet or go out on a date. Betty Brandt seems to be fading from the picture as Peter's love interest, although there is still plenty of room for developments here. Liz Allen, who Peter liked in volume 1, now seems to like Peter. So the classic love triangle that is present in Superman and Archie is also a part of the Spider-Man story. Finally, the Green Goblin is introduced in volume 2, although we do not yet know the Goblin's true identity.

Keep 'em coming, Marvel Masterworks! Re-printing these classic comics exposes them to a whole new pool of readers!

PUBLISHER: Marvel Comics, New York. ISBN: 0-7607-4957-4. Copyright 2003.

Common Sense for a New Century

| 1.1.04
Common Sense for a New Century, by Governor Howard Dean, M.D.

"No one is going to change America for you. You must participate to make it happen." --Howard Dean

This short pamphlet outlines Howard Dean's commonsense vision for returning America to its past position of moral leadership, democratic example, and idealistic benevolence in the world. This is a vision that Dean believes has become especially obscured and darkened during the current Bush administration. The key theme is simple: ordinary citizens need to get involved in the political process and take back power from extremists on both sides --especially moneyed extremists.

Weighing in at only 8 pages, the pamphlet doesn't get into too many detailed policy positions. It's more about a general vision. In order to really do your homework on Dean's views, I'd recommend two sources. First, see where Dean's campaign is coming from by reading the Dean for America web-site. This will give you Dean's positions from Dean's perspective. Secondly, go to Google News and run a search on Howard Dean. This will give you access to hundreds of news stories and blogs about Dean, from all kinds of different perspectives, especially critical ones.

Every candidate bellows about special interests, claims to be in favor of fair elections, and says they want more ordinary people involved in the political process. What makes Dean so compelling, however, is that in his case the claims are demonstrably true. The Internet has revolutionized the way political involvement can happen, and Dean's campaign has utilized this technology to hear the voices of some of those 50% of eligible voters who just choose to sit out election day. They have also revitalized the marginally active voter like me, who always votes but had never contributed monetarily or through boosterism.

Dean has raised far more money than any of the other candidates going up against George W. Bush, and he has done it with contributions averaging only $85. (as of last November). Bush, by contrast, raises most of his money from people who can afford to give the maximum $2000 a person contribution. Nobody I know. Yet if just 2 million people contributed $100, Dean would have as much money for this election as Bush does!

My state (Minnesota) doesn't have its caucus election until March. Normally by then the results of the nominations are a foregone conclusion, and it feels like one's voice and vote don't really count. In Dean's campaign, by contrast, I was able to vote last fall in an electronic primary sponsored by Moveon.org. Dean won that primary, giving him an early boost. The decentralized, Internet-based structure of his grass-root supporters has given him the edge, and inspires me to dare hope that individuals can actually make the difference in a presidential campaign.

For me, the Dean campaign epitomizes a revolution in the way politics can operate from the grassroots on up, instead of dictated from the top down by party insiders. I support Howard Dean, and give him my personal and official endorsement for the nomination, and for President in 2004.

But even if you don't agree with Dean's views, I think that the increased involvement of ordinary people in politics is nothing but a good thing for America. Watch out special interests, here we come!

PUBLISHER: Dean for America, 2003.
LINKS: http://images.deanforamerica.com/docs/cs/commonsense_all.pdf (1740 KB PDF document)

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