P is for Purgation (an alphabet for penitents)

You were taught, with regard to your former way of life, to put off your old self, which is being corrupted by its deceitful desires; to be made new in the attitude of your minds; and to put on the new self, created to be like God in true righteousness and holiness.

-Ephesians 4:22-24

Purgation is never far from Lenten spirituality. The discipline of fasting, and of chastened habits helps us to cast aside the things that hinder us and attend to the stuff that matters. The purgative way is integral to true spirituality. We will not grasp for God with our hands full. There has to be some letting go.

The Christian Mystical tradition places purgation as an early stage of the spiritual life. The mystics name these stages: Purgation, Illumination, Union. There is a purgative stage of stripping off the old self—patterns of behavior, false beliefs, self-centeredness and petty idolatries. Then the ground is paved for deeper spiritual insight and experience (illumination). The illuminative stage likewise involves a letting go of self, but the primary energy is directed at training one’s attention on God. In the final stage, the soul is stripped of self and united with the Divine (union).

These stages roughly describe the shape of spiritual maturity. Purgation is for beginners, Illumination is the promise of those on the way, Union is our telos. However, the spiritual life, like other aspects of life does not always follow a straight ascent. Purgation-Illumination-Union is the cycle of Christian Spirituality: we let go, we attend, we commune.

If that is a little abstract, don’t worry about it. The point is that spiritual progress involves a purge of our old life as we make room for something new. The Apostle Paul instructed the Ephesians to “put off their old self, which was corrupted by its deceitful desires.” For converts in the Ancient world, this meant letting go of religious ideas and the ubiquitous pagan idolatry and learning to locate their lives within YHWH’s story and the redemption Christ brings. It also meant for them, as for us, disciplining passions and desires—the drive for success, greed, covetousness, lust, pride—and seek to follow Jesus wholeheartedly.

The mystics are right that purgation is felt most acutely by those who are beginners in the spiritual journey. It involves a radical reorienting of our thoughts, hopes, and actions. This is conversion. But the purgative way isn’t just the purview of beginners. Wherever you are in your spiritual life, there are things you need to purge: attachments to people, faulty understanding, false beliefs about yourself, harmful habits, past hurts, unforgiveness and bitterness, shame. We will not grasp God with our hands full. There has to be some letting go.

The Pilgrim in Pumps: a ★★★★★ book review

Angela Alaimo O’Donnell teaches English at Fordham University and is the associate director of Fordham’s Curran Center for American Catholic Studies. She has previously published seven poetry collections (in addition to publishing other books, articles, and essays). Her new collection of poems, Still Pilgrim showcases a steady faith and the journey of a woman through the seasons of life and liturgy.

still-pilgrimThe project was birthed after O’Donnell made a pilgrimage to Herman Melville’s grave, a few miles from her home in the New York. Melville had written of the passion of men going off to sea, but his grave plot in Woodlawn cemetery in the Brox was in only one of ‘New York’s five boroughs not surrounded by water” (69).  O’Donnell composed a poem, St. Melville, with these words, “Is this what you were called to still pilgrim,/to sleep beneath six small feet of earth?” (70). An old sailor interred in the earth, still but his work still lives on.

It is O’Donnell not Melville that dons the moniker Still Pilgrim in these poems (perhaps the poetic voice isn’t completely autobiographical, but I am willing to wager that she wears size nine shoes). All but one poem has “Still Pilgrim” in its title. Here is a random sampling: “The Still Pilgrim visits Ellis Island,” “The Still Pilgrim Tells a Fish Story,””The Still Pilgrim Honors Her Mother,” “The Still Pilgrim Sees a Healing, “The Still Pilgrim Hears a Diagnosis,” “The Still Pilgrim Describes How Heaven is.”

These poems are sonnets—metred with fourteen lines and a rhyme scheme—and are arranged fourteen poems in each of the four sections. The arrangement corresponds to the four seasons and is roughly shaped by the liturgical calendar. There are also prologue and epilogue poems, introducing and concluding this collection. The structure of tradition is juxtaposed against a contemporary life, the Still Pilgrim. More than once we hear the heal strike of her size nine pumps against the cobblestone of the pilgrim way. There are encounters between old and new and all the heartbreak and joy which comes through life’s journey. The tone is both serious and playful, at turns exuberant and sad.  O’Donnell writes in her afterward:

The poems in this book aim to tell a story, albeit by means of glimpses and gleanings rather than continous narrative. (This, after all, is more akin to hwo we experience and remember our lives. Continous narrative is a form of fiction.) The Still Pilgrim’s history consists of flashes of joy and visitations of sorrow, engagement with saints,and with artists (the Pilgrim’s personal patron saints), epiphanies sparked by words and songs and stories, revelations triggered by encounters with beauty and terror. The gentle reader who perseveres through these poems is no longer merely a reader—he or she is a partner in pilgrimage and a friend. (74).

I had not read O’Donnell’s work before and was caught off guard by these poems. The sustained character of the Still Pilgrim journeys through all life’s seasons, still a pilgrim from beginning to end.  This is the double entendre of “still.” It is more than stationary, but it also means continual persistence. Like Melville in his grave, lying still but whose work still lives on,  I hope to have much more encounters with the still pilgrim on the road ahead. I give this five stars. ★★★★★

Note: Many of these poems were previously published in various journals. Here is a link to five of these poems as they appeared in the Christian Century if you are curious what these poems are like: https://www.christiancentury.org/contributor/angela-odonnell

Notice of material connection: I received a copy of Still Pilgrim from Paraclete Press in exchange for my honest review

The Wright Way for Spiritual Fruit: a book review

Chris Wright is one of my favorite authors. He is a missiologist, biblical ethicist, international ministries director for Langham Partnership, co-worker and friend to the late John Stott, and an Old Testament scholar (I sometimes refer to him as O.T. Wright). In Cultivating the Fruit of the Spirit, Wright examines each of the nine fruits of the Spirit referenced by Paul in Galatians 5:22-23 and encourages us to pursue the Spirit’s transformation in each of these areas.

4498This book began as a nine day Bible study series, and companion series of videos produced for Langham Partnership for Lent, 2013: 9-A-Day: Becoming Like Jesus. Wright, along with Jonathan Lamb and Langham leadership, was inspired to create this series from John Stott’s example. Every morning Stott prayed this prayer:

Heavenly Father, I pray that this day I may  live in your presence and please you more and more

Lord Jesus, I pray that this day I take up my cross and follow you.

Holy Spirit, I pray that this day you will fill me with yourself and cause your fruit to ripen in my life: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. (quoted in Wright’s introduction, 13).

The chapters of this book examine each of the nine fruits, in turn. Wright explores each theme of each fruit is (1) evidence of God’s character, (2) exemplified in Christ, and (3) and how the presence of each demonstrates the work of the Spirit in our lives. The chapters end with questions for reflection or discussion. There is also a web link to Wright’s talk on the fruit. [ The link provided at the end of the chapter was broken but the original videos that inspired this book can be found at http://9aday.org.uk/the-9-fruits (referenced in the book’s preface) or linked from the book page on the publisher website]. Wright’s introduction and conclusion place the fruit within the frame of Paul’s message to Galatia.

The fruit of the Spirit ought to characterize the lives of followers of Jesus. Reading through this study in Lent, if you pardon the pun, has been fruitful for me. There isn’t always actionable applications in the text, but Wright encourages us to look at the example of Jesus and to pay attention to where we have seen these fruit in the lives of others.  Wright spends most of each chapters describing what each of these fruit/virtues is. The assumption is that while there are things we ought to do, ultimately the growth of the fruit is the Spirit’s work.

This can be read individually or as a group. I give this four stars.

Note: I received this book from IVP in exchange for my honest review.

 

F is for Fasting (an alphabet for penitents)

Fasting confronts our contemporary, consumerist mindset. We don’t generally do it unless we are doing a juice fast detox or getting a colonoscopy. Lent is an exception. It is a season for fasting and many of us have given up something as part of our Lenten practice. Chocolate, cookies, sweets, Facebook or whatever. Six weeks long we lay aside the things that we go to for comfort or to numb our senses. We focus our hearts and energy on Jesus’ road to the cross. While it may be a struggle for us to not eat ice cream or meat but it won’t kill us. If we did one of those real serious fasts, like giving up all food or all food and water,for the six weeks of Lent, we’d be dead.

But what is fasting and why do we do it? To make God love us? To impress Him? Jesus doesn’t love us any more or less if you aren’t watching Netflix and dying on a cross is way more impressive than even six weeks sans coffee. So why? I think of a couple of things that fasting does at a fundamental level. First, fasting (any kind) interrupts our normal routine and enables us to see things in a new light. Second, fasting reveals our appetites.  When we purposely deprive ourselves of something, we grow more conscious of our desire for it, but we were also freed up to ask “what is this _____ feeding in me?” “What ways does this food or activity numb me to reality?”

There is a real benefit to fasting, but you can interrupt your routines, be self-aware of your appetites and still fail to please God with your fast. Isaiah 58: 5 says:

Is this the kind of fast I have chosen,
    only a day for people to humble themselves?
Is it only for bowing one’s head like a reed
    and for lying in sackcloth and ashes?
Is that what you call a fast,
    a day acceptable to the Lord?

The  kind of fast pleasing to God is this:

“Is not this the kind of fasting I have chosen:
to loose the chains of injustice
    and untie the cords of the yoke,
to set the oppressed free
    and break every yoke?
Is it not to share your food with the hungry
    and to provide the poor wanderer with shelter—
when you see the naked, to clothe them,
    and not to turn away from your own flesh and blood?
Then your light will break forth like the dawn,
    and your healing will quickly appear;
then your righteousness[a] will go before you,
    and the glory of the Lord will be your rear guard.
Then you will call, and the Lord will answer;
    you will cry for help, and he will say: Here am I. (Isaiah 58:6-8)

I shared in an earlier post that I went vegan for Lent and that part of my fast includes paying attention to ways my appetite for animal flesh has made me complicit in injustice (i.e. animal cruelty, the drain on earth’s resources, pollution from animal waste). Fasting can make us aware of not only our own appetites but the ways your routines cause us to turn a blind eye to justice.

Whatever you are fasting from, use it as a window to see injustice. If you gave up chocolate you could consider how much of the world’s chocolate is gathered unethically (i.e. use of child labor). Coffee? Think about thinking about rainforest destruction and poor pay for coffee growers (there is more fair-trade, shade-grown options these days, but these just highlight the scope of the environmental impact of our consumption).  Did you give up Facebook? Consider the ways social media detracts from real-time relationships and make yourself more aware of the neglected folks in your own neighborhood.

We gave stuff up, our routines are disrupted. We are aware of our appetites and the things that we go to to fill the dull ache within. But God is pleased when the act of fasting brings to fruition repentance and justice. Fasting can make us more aware and able to respond to a suffering world. May the fruit of justice grow in us.

 

 

Stretch Your Attention: a book review

I am a distracted man and I live among a distracted people. Our electronic devices buzz and chirp. Our online worlds provide portholes to cat pictures, news (real or fake), click-bait quizzes and a nearly endless supply of slideshows on what celebrities wear (or whatever else they do). We work and care for our families. Duty calls and we plod through it all, but feel pulled away by every-little-thing. Is it any wonder we have little sense of God’s presence in our lives? Laura Davis Werezak has written Attend: Forty Soul Stretches Toward God to help us cultivate a greater awareness of God (and everything else). This is a semi-autobiographical exploration of the spiritual practices Werezak has found helpful. She invites us to incorporate these stretches into our own life and faith.

attendlargeWhat does attend mean?  Attend means to be present (as in ‘attending class’). It can also mean ‘to serve’ and ‘to wait’ (59).  The word literally means “to stretch toward”(2).  So these stretches are designed to help us as readers attend well to the condition of our soul and  to the relationships of those around us, as we stretch toward God.

These forty stretches are organized under four headings taken from Isaiah 30:15, “In repentance and rest is your salvation, in quietness and trust is your strength, but you would have none of it.” So it’s organized as follows: I. Returning, II. Rest, III. Quietness,  and IV. Trust. This provides the flow for the stretches which Werezak describes: We return (or turn) our attention to God by learning to pay attention to life; we rest in the Lord, learning to enjoy His presence; we cultivate our ability to hear him the quietness and risk discovering what it means to trust in the Lord in our actions. Werezak begins by describing the practice of opening a window (physically and spiritually) and allowing  fresh air to blow in and ends with a call to plant a seed of peace through the work of justice.  Between these two practices there is not a sequence but a series of interconnected stretches which aim at helping us to attend well.

One of the things I really enjoy about this book is the scope of the practices which Werezak describes. These practices are spiritual (e.g. ways of prayer and mediation), relational (e.g. writing notes, playing with a child, reconnecting with a friend, listening to others), sensate (lighting candles, watching sunsets and sunrises, breathing, writing down five-sense experiences), and mundane (e.g. making your bed, setting tables). She reveals how we can develop our attention to God in all of life (even if it means unplugging from something for a while).

I always have two questions I ask whenever I read a book on spiritual practices. First: is this book just another Christianized version of a self-help book?  Certainly there is overlap being what Werezak calls attentiveness and the concept of mindfulness borrowed from Buddhism and slapped on the cover of every pop-psychology, business and personal growth book. Indeed I think if you practice many of these stretches, you’d be more mindful, aware, more present, and more appreciative of what you have in life. Making your bed, setting the table, cleaning, cutting an onion à la Robert Farrar Capon and watching a sunrise will help you become aware and intentional. Also, Werezak’s stretches are helpful for getting us pay attention to our relationships.However this isn’t just a self-help book because ultimately her hope is that we stretch our attention to God and his place in our lives.

Second: Is there an ecclesiology here? Books on spiritual practices often lack corporate dimensions. Even influential books like Dallas Willard’s Spirit of the Disciplines lack a developed ecclesiology. And yet our experience of God is fundamentally shaped through our participation in church. Werezak  focuses her stretches on the personal dimension, emphasizing embodying our attention to God; however she does connect her experience to the wider Body of Christ.  She shares about finding a home in Anglican liturgy and delving deep into Christian tradition. She draws insights from mystics and the weird old prayers of the Book of Common Prayer.  She connects her personal  attempts to pay attention to God with the corporate practices of confession, praying written prayers, saying a creed out loud, listening to some else read the Bible for you, etc.). She sees deep connections between her experience, the church and the world and she connections her practices to the church’s Sacraments (44-45, 65, 80). But the strength of this book is how rooted these stretches are in Werezak’s own experience. These stretches are practices which have nourished her and her  own relationship to God.

Because this book features 40 stretches, this is an excellent devotional reader for Lent (coming up March 1), or as something substantive to read if your church is embarking on one of those forty-day extravaganzas. Certainly this book can be read by yourself (as I did) but books on spiritual practice are often more fruitful and fun if read with a friend. There is enough meat here for some good discussion and it is more fun to do stretches and work-out with a friend. Or with a small group. This book is a worthwhile read. I give this book four stars.


Note: I received a copy of this book from the publisher in exchange for my honest review.

In the interest of full disclosure, Laura is a friend of mine. We attended the same Christian grad school, had class together, were once neighbors on the University of British Columbia campus and  we were, together with our spouses, in the same justice-themed-small group. These days we catch up occasionally via Facebook. I know Laura to be a smart, reflective woman with a vibrant faith which comes through beautifully in her prose.

A Light Hole Puncher: a book review

The light shines in the darkness but the darkness will never overcome it. Sometimes ‘the dark’ is all too apt a description of how we see reality. Systemic injustice, poverty, sickness, death, wars and rumors of war. In Punching Holes in the Dark, Robert Benson relays a story of being asked by friends (in a round of death by sharing) how he was doing on his journey. He was feeling particularly discouraged, both by personal setbacks and big world problems:

The list was, and still is very long—people organizing up to make sure some do not have access to health care, prospects of more war to try and clean up the mess from the last ill-advised one, patent ignoring of the fact we are ruining the planet for which the one Who Made Us appointed us as stewards, political maneuvers designed to make sure people not like us have no voice, poverty in the gap between the wealthy and the poor in the largest economy in the world, the widespread notion that more guns is the solution to the killing of one hundred of us each day by someone who can buy as many guns as he likes. The fact the charges into the dark are often led by those who call themselves followers of the Christ was almost more than I could bear. (location 133-139 of 969).

Benson was in a dark place and feeling emotionally spent. His friends listened to him, and pointed him away from the dark towards the light of God’s kingdom, already in our midst(location 159).

9781426749582

The title, “Punching Holes in the Dark” came from a close friend of Benson’s father—a seminary friend—who always signed his letters, “Keep punching holes in the dark, my friend.” Benson uses the phrase to show how we participate in welcoming the kingdom, sometimes in a receptive posture of prayer, and sometimes through action, punching holes in the dark so that the Light of God can break in.

Benson is a warm and accessible writer. He is a contemplative retreat leader, a graduate of the Academy of Spiritual Formation, well schooled in prayer and the spiritual life. He is a sacramental, and liturgy-minded Episcopalian with a long evangelical pedigree. But he does not put on airs, speak in a mystical bubbles, or use technical  jargon. His prose is unadorned, and though his life is extraordinary—he’s the son of a major CCM producer and he has bonfire spiritual guru status—he tells stories of everyday life: being an introvert, getting into petty arguments, caring for his mother in the throws of dementia, time spent with mentors, praying for others, starting a film club. And yet ordinary life is exactly the place where Christ’s kingdom breaks in, and through quiet acts of prayer, worship, friendship, Benson demonstrates how we can punch holes in the dark (non-violently, of course).

This is the sort of book that one could read through (easily) in one sitting, or slowly and reflectively. The simplicity of Benson’s prose means that some of his stories and phrases grab you later. With first Benson book I ever read (Living Prayer), long after I set it down, Benson’s words continued to work on me, and help me to envision intercessory prayer in a new way. I expect the same sort of dynamic with this one, simple stories and metaphors that continue to work on my insides, and images that are worth cycling back to. I give this book four stars.

Note: I received a galley copy of this book in exchange for my honest review.