About Me

My photo
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.

Sunday, August 29, 2010

Poets and the Mary Story I: "Her Fiat is our Fortune"

“Her Fiat is our Fortune”: the Mary Story
(also on Episcopal Cafe)

There was a lively and sometimes very scholarly two-part discussion a month or so ago on Episcopal Café about the Virgin Birth, whether and why we should or should not believe in Mary’s perpetual virginity, what doing so says about ideas about women, the role of the creeds, etc., etc . I found as I read that I not really inclined to weigh in because I didn’t care that much about what seemed to be at stake. It may be that it’s a gender thing: one commentator in the fray did notice that not many women were weighing in on the whole question of Mary’s virginity or not, perpetual or temporary or whatever – and I have to admit that it doesn’t seem to be that important a question to me, at least in the terms in which it was being posed, as a question of doctrine).

But this doesn't mean that I don't mean what I say, saying in the creed that Jesus was "incarnate of the holy Spirit and born of the Virgin Mary" -- that mystery, about incarnation, is at the heart of my faith -- and in fact as readers of this blog may know I really like the story of Mary, especially the annunciation as told in the first chapter of the gospel of Luke-- I find it “makes sense of things” in my faith the way that profoundly true stories do, and in a way that make quarrels like the one about the nature & duration of Mary’s physical virginity (or not) seem beside the point, for me. I think this reaction comes out of my instincts as a reader of great imaginative literature and my vocation as a poet.

My own reading of the story of the Annunciation, in particular, has been shaped by the way that a number of 20th century poets, male and female, have read that story – seeing it as a story about how the Incarnation happened, and about miraculous and world-changing cooperation between a human being and God. And also in how the story is told in Scripture – especially in Luke’s gospel.

The story in Luke, skillfully put together, begins with a familiar pattern that we know from Hebrew Scripture: A barren woman, Elizabeth, finds that she is with child, in her old age. This tells us that we are reading a story that is in a continuous tradition with stories of God’s grace and favor to those who are marginalized So, in Luke, we start with the story of a barren woman conceiving, just when everyone thought God had stopped acting. The father, Zechariah, doesn’t believe the angel’s promise, and he’s struck dumb until that promise is fulfilled. So we have a story about the usual way that God’s promise works in the lives of the people. . (To me it misses the point to say that this business of God blessing barren women overvalues childbearing as a sign of female worth: the stories have been abused in this way, certainly, but that’s not what it’s about in Hebrew Scripture. Rather, in a story about the survival of God’s people, both naturally and spiritually, the whole barren-woman-made-mother motif is about the one who was rejected being blessed and made whole and honored by God. When his motif turns up, it’s a signal that God is working in this part of the story: NOT a normative statement about how a society should be organized).

Anyway – we get the story of Elizabeth, and a famliar motif to anyone who knows Hebrew Scripture: and then the stakes are raised.

Side by side with this story, we have the story of Mary, encountering the angel Gabriel with the extraordinary news that she will bear a child. This is extraordinary because she is a virgin/has no husband/has not known a man (pick your translation). Her status as a virgin means that she still “owns” her own body – she doesn’t belong to any man, so in that sense she is free to respond to God’s request. Now, Luke’s Greek readers were used to stories of human women conceiving by gods (the rape of Leda, by Zeus disguised as a swan, comes to mind) – but in those stories it usually happens without the woman’s consent. So you could say it’s a motif familiar to the Greeks, but here it’s told in a very Hebrew way – where the body matters. The story has to be told this way, and it works. (the issues of female purity that the tradition has brought to the reading do not seem to me to be IN the story here.) Mary doesn’t question the promise; she just wonders about the logistics: “How can this be, as I am a virgin?” In that, Luke’s telling of the story contrasts her with Zechariah, who asked for proof, and was silenced for doing so. Mary just wants to know what will happen to her, which seems to be a fair question, and the angel gives her an answer. And Mary gives her consent. That is the heart of the story.

And we know, in the story that follows – written for its audience of Greeks and Jews – that in a wonderfully earthy, Hebrew way, this Jesus whom we read about, empowered by the Holy Spirit, is actually “the Son of God” born of a woman, in the flesh. (I’ve always appreciated, in fact, the human homeliness of the Church’s wisdom in appointing March 25 as Feast of the Annuciation – 9 months before December 25, which was settled on as the Feast of the Nativity.) Aesthetically, imaginatively, theologically, and spiritually, the story “works” this way, and challenges us to consider at every turn that the Jesus we meet here is the hero of a story about how God is active (and now incarnate) in human affairs, both within and beyond Israel. He is God-with-us and “one of us” in a way that is really almost shocking, if you think about it. The story insists that we think about it.

The poet David Jones (about whom you can read more here), writes in the mid-twentieth century and re-tells the marystory in the context of salvation history, offers a reading of it that has shaped my thinking about both Annunciation and Incarnation (and in Jones it’s all connected to the Eucharist – but that’s probably for another post). Anyway, at one point in his long poem The Anathemata, the narrative voice the poem calculates the date of the Passion by looking back to the Annunciation:

Thirty four years and twenty-one days
since that germinal March
and terminal day
(no drought that year)
since his Leda
said to his messenger . . .
(his bright talaria on)
fiat mihi
(The Anathemata p. 189)

In the poet’s retelling of the story, Mary is God’s “Leda” (the woman in Greek mythology raped by Zeus, in the guise of a swan), but this event is not a rape: Mary’s consent is the important thing: she says “fiat mihi”: “let it be to me according to your word” (Luke 1:38). Elsewhere in Jones’s long poem a lively female narrator says of Mary “ her fiat is our fortune” (p. 128) -- and in a note to this passage Jones acknowledges being inspired by the doctrine that “The Eternally Begotten could not have become begotten on a creature except by a creature’s pliant will” (Ana p. 128). In both poem and commentary, Jones, a Roman Catholic, is emphasizing an aspect of the cult of Mary more familiar in the eastern church, where Mary is celebrated as the human “God-bearer,” the Theotokos.

In this strain of the Christian tradition it’s not really about whether she’s a virgin or not,: it’s about her humanity, which happens to be a female humanity, and needs to be, for God’s purposes in this part of the story: it’s about a free human being consenting to be fully used, body and soul, for God’s purposes. “Her fiat is our fortune.” The poet puts it well. This is the kind of insight that has shaped my habit of going to the poets for insight into the deep spiritual and theological questions that challenge us, both in doctrine and in Scripture.

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Anchored in God

I haven't posted much lately, I see -- even forgot to put up my latest summer post from Episcopal Cafe -- Here it is, to get me re-started, and perhaps motivate me to write something else that's been "brewing"

also on episcopal cafe

In several different contexts over the past month, I’ve been brought up short again by this quotation from Evelyn Underhill’s The Spiritual Life. She writes: “a spiritual life is simply a life in which all that we do comes from the centre, where we are anchored in God.” It came up at the annual Quiet Day in honor of Evelyn Underhill, at Washington National Cathedral, and at a conference I was leading on Poetry and the Journey toward God, where we listened for the ways that poems can be an invitation, an opening, a first step into prayer-- into what Mary Oliver calls “a silence in which/ another voice may speak.” Underhill invites readers to think about people they’ve known either personally or through the tradition who reflected this confidence -- insisting that this life from the center is available to “normal people”; it is not some kind of superhuman spiritual achievement.

That same image of the anchor comes up in a spiritual we sing sometimes at my home parish, a hymn by Mother Jones that says what we all know about what we need -- particularly timely nowadays:
“In times likes these, we need a Saviour;
in times like these, we need an anchor
I’m very sure, I’m very sure
My anchor holds, upon the so-lid-rock.

(If you know the tune you’ll recognize how the tune and the meter leave us “anchored” in the rock, who is Jesus).

The anchor image is a good one, actually, because it suggests that even though we may drift, we ultimately know where we are, and there is a place we can get back to. And the spiritual life, considered as an integral part of our journey of faith and mission, is about grounding all that we do in the love and power of a reality beyond our inventions, prejudices, even righteous political positions , and a justice and mercy beyond our own making. Perhaps a fruitful direction for meditation is this: what causes me to drift away from where I am anchored? And what brings me up short, and pulls me back? This anchor image reflects a solidity of faith that many of us yearn for in ourselves and in our leaders. How do we get back to that, individually and collectively? And what sets us adrift?

So often our discussions of church life, governance, mission, and denominational politics seem to lose track of this kind of vision -- to reflect more familiar cultural values of marketing, institutional survival, or for leaders, personal mental health and self-care. Somewhere recently (Was it on the Café? I can’t remember.) I even ran across some discussion about how church leaders and clergy find they may not believe in God any more, and that’s just how it is (though we can be reassured that even if clergy have a crisis of faith this does not affect the validity of the sacraments). I’ve been musing about how often, in the privacy of a spiritual direction conversation, people have been relieved but surprised when I’ve raised the question: “so where is God in all this?” Something makes us forget to ask this question, whatever image that word “God” carries for us. It has become almost a commonplace that spiritual burnout is an inevitable outcome of ministry -- but I keep asking myself, why do we settle for this? Don’t we believe that there is something on offer in the life of faith? Some centering point that can draw us back to what is most real to us? At some point in most of our lives, someone’s centered faith helped bring us into the life of the church to begin with. So why is it so hard to keep track of that “centre, where we are anchored in God?”

I’m just raising the question, today. I suppose (and hope) that for many readers this will all seem obvious, perhaps not worth mentioning, but I’ve been brought up short by that quote from Underhill, and that “anchor” image, enough times lately to wonder whether there is something there worthy of continued meditation. Since genuine faith is usually “caught” rather than “taught,” I am wondering what the church would look like if more of us in leadership paid closer attention to where our faith is “anchored, ” and to what it takes for us, in our own particular lives, to relocate and find our center, in a quiet, undramatic, and “normal” way. The answers will be different for each person, but I think they’re good questions, and they’ve been helpful to my own meditations over this past month.