About Me

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I work as a teacher, poet and spiritual director at a number of institutions in the DC area. My teaching focuses in various ways on writing, poetry, Spirituality and Christian vocation and ministry - especially from the point of view of the laity. I also offer classes and retreats encouraging people to explore their inner lives, engage their creativity and reflect on their beliefs about God, vocation, and how we can discern and pursue new ways to transform our broken world. I enjoy speaking of faith in the secular academy as well as reminding those preparing for ministry in the Church that our primary purpose is to love and serve the world beyond the church's doors. I love helping people to grow in faith and to find their own voices, and I also love encouraging them to use their minds. I see no contradiction between these impulses, believing as I do that faith, reason and creativity work together.

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Tolstoy, Wordsworth, and My Summer Break

As we move into the last 10 days of August I'm looking back on my summer to see what has come out of it. The thing I love about the academic life is this long, fallow time in the summer. We do expect ourselves to be "productive" but there is also time to replenish and refresh, intellectually and spiritually. And I actually have been pretty "productive" -- writing and revising poems, sending 2 articles off for publication (one of them already came back, rejected, but never mind. . . ), reading and thinking. Even though there's still some summer left, I've turned a corner since we got back, last week, from our week at the beach -- which was its usual long, lazy blessed unscheduled time, during which I lost myself in several books -- One of them was Tolstoy's massive novel Anna Karenina, which turned out to be both that delightful opportunity to "lose myself" in another world that a big, fat, brilliantly constructed novel provides -- AND the occasion for some further spiritual musings.

Away from the seminary and other contexts where I am surrounded by people of faith and in frequent conversations about the spiritual life, in the summer I tend to be around family members and friends who are not particularly interested in things spiritual and theological and sometimes it feels lonely, sometimes oddly refreshing. I found myself interested in the character of Levin in Tolstoy's book, an alter ego of the author, who is trying throughout the novel to work out whether he can arrive at faith through reason, and to justify his innate sense of what makes for a "good life." In the end, to his delighted surprise, he finds that there is a goodness and love, outside of the "chain of causality" that he has always known, striven for, and that sometimes he experiences in a moment of deep lucidity and peace. It is the awareness of goodness and love that he shares, in a world riven by class divisions, with the peasants who work for him, and with his family, though they rarely engage in theological discussion. And arriving at this goodness he realizes to his surprise that the teachings of the Church provide the best ways of contemplating this goodness that is Reality. I appreciated this 19th century rendering of a thinking person's journey of faith, which spoke to me as well. Especially since my reading has included some further explorations of the "teachings of the Church."

Doing some theological reading for my own interest over the summer, I've found myself returning to discussions of the earliest teachings of the pre-Nicene church -- not lost with Nicea, certainly, but somehow buried, especially in Western Christianity, under institutionalization and dogmatism over the centuries -- the mysterious idea of a God who is real, who is, before anything else is, the source of our being, what we deeply know as the profoundly good and what we name somewhat inadequately as "love", known intimately and personally by the followers of Jesus in his lifetime, and alive in the ongoing resurrection life of his followers to this day, however unlikely that seems. The Trinitarian theology of the early church, emphasizing an image of God as a loving relationship among "persons" - as an image of the reality that humanity is made to experience and grow into: This has spoken to me in deep ways in the quiet "green moments" this summer has provided here and there -- The chances to interact with the beauty of nature - in my backyard and along the beach - the delight of long, rambling conversations with my grown children during their visits back home. The sense of connection, even in solitude, that has come at prayer - enhanced by journeys into other people's imaginative worlds, as I've had time to lose myself in fiction and good poetry. Even the additional time to reflect and pray over the brokenness of so much in the world around us, as I read the news. All this has been fruitful and renewing. And somehow connected to a deeper awareness of the call to grow into the loving Communion that is the heart of who God is. A wonderful mystery - easier to express in prayer & worship than in reasoned prose. But I've been grateful for the quiet openings that this summer sabbath time has provided.

I'm beginning now to look to September, to fiddle with syllabi -- sort of an "art form" for me -- and to put dates on the calendar and begin envisioning the shape of the semesters soon to begin at the various places I've taught. But I can say I have found in my summer-time what Wordsworth called "life and food/for future years".

That's from his long poem, Lines: composed a Few Miles Above Tintern Abbey . . . usually referred to as "Tintern Abbey." Funny how I return to Wordsworth this August as I did last year (see last year's post drawing on his "Immortality Ode." ) Well, as long as I am here, let me quote some more from Tintern Abbey, where this reflective poet does capture well the nourishment that I have drawn from this year's long green season. And glad there's a bit more of it left.

Here's what Wordsworth writes about his experience in nature -- not unlike what Levin discovers in Anna Karenina, I realize. I guess I have never lost my affinity for the wisdom of these 19th century Romantics.

So yes, Here's a bit more Wordsworth for this August Day from about halfway through "Tintern Abbey" -

For I have learned
To look on nature, not as in the hour
Of thoughtless youth; but hearing oftentimes
The still, sad music of humanity,
Nor harsh nor grating, though of ample power
To chasten and subdue. And I have felt
A presence that disturbs me with the joy
Of elevated thoughts; a sense sublime
Of something far more deeply interfused,
Whose dwelling is the light of setting suns,
And the round ocean and the living air,
And the blue sky, and in the mind of man:
A motion and a spirit, that impels
All thinking things, all objects of all thought,
And rolls through all things.


  1. any source materials you would recommend from your pre-Nicene Trinitarian reading list?

  2. Well, it's all secondary, but useful. I read Kathryn Tanner's "Jesus, Humanity and the Trinity" - short and I thought pretty readable. And I'm reading Mark McIntosh because I'm a respondent to one of his talks at convocation -- Discernment and Truth and especially his "Mysteries of Faith" in the church teaching series, which I'd like to see used in parishes more. It really is beautiful, theology, when it's done well. I've also been enjoying the poetry in a collection by Scott Cairns called "Love's Immensity," where he renders into poetry the writings of some of the desert fathers and mystics of the church.
    Poetry works better, anyway, for exploring these mysteries. . . .

  3. I don't know how I came upon your blog. But I'm happy I did because it feeds my hungry soul. Thanks so much.