Tuesday, May 27, 2014


Arms-Open Flying
(from a Sermon preached by the Rev. Lowell E. Grisham, Rector St. Paul's Episcopal Church, Fayetteville, Arkansas, March 23, 2008; Easter Sunday, Year A)
The late spiritual writer Henri Nouwen liked to tell how enthralled he was the first time he saw the trapeze artists The Flying Rodleighs. After watching their elegant performance, he returned to their circus the following day to see them again, hoping to meet them and tell them what a fan he was. He was able to meet them, and they responded generously, inviting Henri to watch their practice sessions, giving him free tickets, inviting him to dinner, and later, suggesting that Henri travel with them for a week sometime in the near future. Henri took them up on their offers, and they all became good friends. 
One day while he was sitting with Rodleigh, the leader of the troupe, Henri fell into a discussion with him about flying. The acrobat told Henri this: "As a flyer, I must have complete trust in my catcher. The public might think that I am the great star of the trapeze, but the real star is Joe, my catcher. He has to be there for me with split-second precision and grab me out of the air as I come to him in the long jump." 
Henri asked him to explain how it works. "The secret," Rodleigh said, "is that the flyer does nothing and the catcher does everything. When I fly to Joe, I have simply to stretch out my arms and hands and wait for him to catch me and pull me safely over the apron behind the catchbar." 
"You do nothing!" Henri said, surprised. "Nothing," Rodleigh repeated. "The worst thing the flyer can do it to try to catch the catcher. I am not supposed to catch Joe. It's Joe's task to catch me. If I grabbed Joe's wrists, I might break them, or he might break mine, and that would be the end for both of us. A flyer must fly, and a catcher must catch, and the flyer must trust, with outstretched arms, that his catcher will be there for him." (Writings Selected, p. 55; originally from Our Greatest Gift, p. 66) 
When Jesus faced his death on the cross, he did nothing. Nothing other than continue to be who he was. He refused to fight or to run away, he didn't curse or threaten his attackers. He did nothing but hang there, trusting God, stretching his arms and hands out on the bars of the cross, waiting for God to catch him. Today we celebrate his death-defying leap. 
On the cross, Jesus taught us how to die. When our time comes, we know that we can jump toward God and trust with outstretched arms that the catcher will be there for us too.

This arms-out-flying is a lot more than a way to die, it is the way that Jesus lived his life as well. Flying-with-your-arms-out is the way Jesus invites us to live our lives also.

Read the rest HERE.

HT: JofIndia


Francis at the Israeli separation wall in Bethlehem, May 25, 2014
Occasionally on this blog I have dabbled in something that I call "pure act" or "pure prayer" or what I intuit as something that happens without our conscious thinking or preparing. Something given. Something to which (to whom?) we can only be open. (Grace?) A collection of these dabblings are here:


Over the weekend I was glued to the Pope App on my phone as Francis made his way around the Middle East. On the plane back to Rome last night he gave one of his hour long "off the cuff" press conferences with journalists. The journalists asked him if he had planned many of the symbolic gestures that were made during the trip. Francis' reply is getting very close to what I intuit as "pure act":

“The most genuine gestures are those which are made spontaneously. I had thought something could be done but none of the concrete gestures I made was conceived that way. Some things, like the invitation to the two presidents we had thought of doing there, during the visit, but there were lots of logistical problems, many, the place where we intended for it to happen was not an easy one. But in the end, the invitation was accepted and I hope the meeting will go well. But my gestures were not pre-planned, I just do what comes to me spontaneously. Just to clarify about the meeting in the Vatican. The purpose of the meeting will be to pray not meditate. The two presidents and I will only meet to pray and I believe that prayer is important and doing this helps. Then they will go home. There will be a rabbi, a Muslim and me. I have asked the Custody of the Holy land to deal with the practical side of things.” 
(quoted from the Vatican Insider HERE)

Lax says it best:

“… I think it’s what Merton is saying about prayer, - whatever it is, anything in it that is an impurity, that is anything but the act itself, which is practically unnamable. And if it is what it should be, then the poetry is prayer, the acrobatic act is prayer. 
“Pure act, I think it’s a metaphysical concept starting with Aristotle and flowering in St. Thomas that God is pure act and that there is no POTENTIA in Him. But that almost everything else in the universe is IN POTENTIA, it’s on its way to being pure act, on its way to unity with God. But only God is pure act. And that made me think about a lot of things. One of them is that business of the purity of an acrobatic performance, of any performance, at the point where it becomes really pure, is at its closest to the divine and closest to that unity.” 
“Throwing everything away except the act itself, and I think at that point it also joins with the ideas of Zen, that everything is right here in this moment, and all those same things are being thrown away in what they describe as the Zen act. So if you were living in that kind of purity or call it action, it would be close to the kingdom of heaven. (p. 437-438)

Sunday, May 25, 2014


UPDATE: By the way, I contacted Christian Wiman today and let him know, while praising his book, that we thought he had lifted the Merton words out of context. He agreed, said we were surely right, said that he loved Merton's work and should have excised that paragraph.
“The reason why Catholic tradition is a tradition,” writes Thomas Merton, “is because there is only one living doctrine in Christianity : there is nothing new to be discovered.” A little bit of death from a thinker who brought the world so much life. Nothing new to be discovered? The minute any human or human institution arrogates to itself a singular knowledge of God, there comes into that knowledge a kind of strychnine pride, and it is as if the most animated and vital creature were instantaneously transformed into a corpse. Any belief that does not recognize and adapt to its own erosions rots from within. Only when doctrine itself is understood to be provisional does doctrine begin to take on a more than provisional significance. Truth inheres not in doctrine itself, but in the spirit with which it is engaged, for the spirit of God is always seeking and creating new forms. (To be fair, Merton himself certainly realized this later in his life, when he became interested in merging ideas from Christianity with Buddhism.)
* * *
Of course, to assert that all doctrine is provisional and in some fundamental way untenable is itself a doctrine, as subject to sterility and vainglory as the rantings of any radio preacher bludgeoning his listeners with Leviticus. One must learn to be in unknowingness without being proud of it.

Wiman, Christian (2013-04-02). My Bright Abyss: Meditation of a Modern Believer (p. 109). Farrar, Straus and Giroux. Kindle Edition.

Tuesday, May 20, 2014


Who is it that clasps and kneads my 
naked feet, till they unfold, 
till all is well, till all is utterly well? the 
lotus-lilies of the feet! 

I tell you it is no woman, it is no man, 
for I am alone. 
And I fall asleep with the gods, the gods 
that are not, or that are 
according to the soul’s desire, 
like a pool into which we plunge, or do 
not plunge. 

The operative word in these lines from D. H. Lawrence, who wasn’t a conventionally religious person, is “soul.” It’s a word that has become almost embarrassing for many contemporary people unless it is completely stripped of its religious meaning. Perhaps that’s just what it needs sometimes: to be stripped of its “religious” meaning , in the sense that faith itself sometimes needs to be stripped of its social and historical encrustations and returned to its first, churchless incarnation in the human heart. That’s what the twentieth century was, a kind of windstorm-scouring of all we thought was knowledge, and truth, and ours— until it became too strong for us, or we too weak for it, and “the self replaced the soul as the fist of survival” (Fanny Howe). Anxiety comes from the self as ultimate concern, from the fact that the self cannot bear this ultimate concern: it buckles and wavers under the strain, and eventually, inevitably, it breaks.

Wiman, Christian (2013-04-02). My Bright Abyss: Meditation of a Modern Believer (pp. 90-91). Farrar, Straus and Giroux. Kindle Edition.


Some modern philosophers (Heidegger, Kierkegaard) have argued that existential anxiety proceeds from being unconscious of, or inadequately conscious of, death. True, I think, but I wonder if the emphasis might be placed differently, shifted from unconscious reaction to unrealized action: that is, our anxiety is less the mind shielding itself from death than the spirit’s need to be. It is as if each of us were always hearing some strange, complicated music in the background of our lives, music that, so long as it remains in the background, is not simply distracting but manifestly unpleasant , because it demands the attention we are giving to other things . It is not hard to hear this music , but it is very difficult to learn to hear it as music.

Wiman, Christian (2013-04-02). My Bright Abyss: Meditation of a Modern Believer (p. 90). Farrar, Straus and Giroux. Kindle Edition.

Thursday, May 8, 2014

Saints Cosmos and Damian

“I happened to be getting fed up with the remains of the Roman Empire, and wandered into one of the churches [the Basilica of Saints Cosmas and Damian] by the Forum, where there was a mosaic above the altar. I glanced at it, I looked back, and I could not go away from it for a long time, it held me there, fascinated by its design and its mystery and its tremendous seriousness and its simplicity.” – Thomas Merton
Last month I was in Rome for Holy Week and Easter. I was able to attend Easter Mass at St. Peter's. I also visited the Basilica of Saints Cosmos and Damian.

I suppose that I was most interested in seeing the art in the Church of SS Cosmos and Damian because of the mention that Merton makes of it during the pilgrimage (and some say “conversion”) he made to Rome when he was 18 years old.

The church itself is part of the Forum area and was originally a Roman structure, perhaps a library. It was rebuilt as a church in the 6th century.

Cosmos and Damian were twin brothers and physicians who worked without pay – “unmercenary physicians”. They were born in what is today’s Turkey and died as martyrs in Rome about CE 284. Saints Cosmos and Damian are the patron saints of doctors and surgeons.

This church and its mosaic icon played an important role in the life of Thomas Merton. Here is an extract from his unpublished autobiographical novel, “Labyrinth”:
“I don’t know what had happened in the two-year interval [since his first visit to Rome in 1931] to change my taste, but now I suddenly began to find out about Byzantine mosaics and frescoes; things that before I scarcely looked at, for being clumsy and ugly and brutally stupid, suddenly revealed themselves to be full of sophistication of technique [yet] with innocence of feeling. These things had a depth and [...] subtlety and wisdom in them that I had never seen anywhere: something the Roman copies of Greek statues did not allow you even to imagine possible: but something, nevertheless, that was in archaic Greek sculpture, and in Etruscan sculpture, and, if you thought about it, in all good art: the only thing was, in a lot of things you did not realise this intellectual quality existed if you were only interested, as I had been, in the way the work imitated the shape of a physical thing. 
“If I had vaguely recognised some sophistication in the formal aspect of archaic Greek sculpture, here, in Byzantine art was something more than that: something deeper than sophistication; a kind of vision, a kind of wisdom. This was something I found out quite suddenly. I happened to be getting fed up with the remains of the Roman Empire, and wandered into one of the churches [the Basilica of Saints Cosmas and Damian] by the Forum, where there was a mosaic above the altar. I glanced at it, I looked back, and I could not go away from it for a long time, it held me there, fascinated by its design and its mystery and its tremendous seriousness and its simplicity. 
“Now, indeed, these Byzantine mosaics had given me some kind of a clue as to what it was that stood opposed to the things I feared. And it obviously wasn’t any particular age, or any other time, or anything that could be so easily classified. It was something more mysterious and more powerful, and I was not quite sure what it was. But I knew, now, that if I wanted to see it, I could go and hunt for it in these old churches of the Dark Ages: and there, in mosaics, in statues, in thrones and stone altars, I could see quite plainly something that I was looking for. I didn’t know what it was: it was not a material thing, it was an intellectual and spiritual quality these ancient artists had given to their works. But it was not something that could not be seen, and not something you had to accept blindly: for it was there, you could see it. If I had known it I suppose I was looking all the while at a kind of miracle. 
“Soon I explored every basilica I could find….”


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