In My Arms

Fyodor Dostoevsky in The Brothers Karamazov tells a tale of hell as self-pre-centeredness and self-absorption. The failure of compassion. The story is about a stingy person and a generous God who weeps and, for the moment, flies away.

Once upon a time there was a peas­ant woman and a very wicked woman she was. And she died and did not leave a sin­gle good deed behind. The dev­ils caught her and plunged her into the lake of fire. So her guardian angel stood and won­dered what good deed of hers he could remem­ber to tell to God; ‘she once pulled up an onion in her gar­den,’ said he, ‘and gave it to a beg­gar woman.’ And God answered: ‘You take that onion then, hold it to her in the lake, and let her take hold and be pulled out. And if you can pull her out of the lake, let her come to Par­adise, but if the onion breaks, then the woman must stay where she is.’ The angel ran to the woman and held out the onion to her; ‘Come,’ said he, ‘catch hold and I’ll pull you out.’ And he began cau­tiously pulling her out. He had just pulled her right out, when the other sin­ners in the lake, see­ing how she was being drawn out, began catch­ing hold of her so as to be pulled out with her. But she was a very wicked woman and she began kick­ing them. ‘I’m to be pulled out, not you. It’s my onion, not yours.’ (bold print added by Views from the Edge)

As soon as she said that, the onion broke.  And the woman fell into the lake and she is burn­ing there to this day. So the angel wept and went away.

The story is about the hell of me and “mine” on the one hand, and the angel who weeps, on the other. Will the weeping angel ever return?

Three years ago during the final months of stepdaughter Katherine’s terminal illness, I sought help at the Benedictine Abbey at St. John’s in Collegeville.  I spent three days there in silence, except for meetings in the morning and the evening with a spiritual director.

In the first meeting with Father John, I shared with him the story of Katherine’s cancer.  I was feeling helpless and frustrated.  “Is Katherine a person of faith?” he asked. “Yes,” I said, “but it has nothing to do with that. I don’t believe in hell. I believe in the sovereignty of God. God is Love. I don’t believe in hell, except for the hell we’re going through right now.

“Well,” said Father John, “our tradition says that there probably is a Hell, but it’s likely there’s no one in it!” The good Father was walking the balance between God’s sole prerogative as “judge of the living and the dead,” as the Apostles’ creed says, and the nature of the Judge himself as Love, whose judgments are always a function of God’s mercy.

So…will the angel who fled the old woman come again to the old woman still clutching the half-rotten onion?

Nothing speaks to this so well, in my experience, than Sir Francis Thompson’s “The Hound of Heaven.”

He imagines himself as a rabbit fleeing from the steady, unperturbed steps of a hound.

I fled Him, down the nights and down the days;
I fled Him, down the arches of the years;
I fled Him, down the labyrinthine ways
Of my own mind; and in the midst of tears
I hid from Him, and under running laughter.
Up vistaed hopes I sped;
And shot, precipitated,
Adown Titanic glooms of chasmed fears,
From those strong Feet that followed, followed after.
But with unhurrying chase,
And unperturbèd pace,
Deliberate speed, majestic instancy,
They beat—and a Voice beat
More instant than the Feet—
‘All things betray thee, who betrayest Me’.

Who was the man who wrote these lines? Why and how would he see himself as a rabbit, and God as the hound who was chasing him?

Francis Thompson is remembered as a great English poet. But it was not always so. After attending college to become a doctor like his father, he moved to London in 1885 to become a writer, but ended up on the street selling matches and newspapers. He became addicted to opium, which he first had taken as a remedy for ill-health. Living in destitution and self-destruction, he submitted a poem to a poetry magazine called Merrie England. The magazine’s editors, Wilfrid and Alice Meynell, moved by Thompson’s poem, rescued him from the verge of starvation and self-destruction. They provided safe lodging and arranged for the publication of his first book, Poems, in 1893, which opened the door to a publishing career after favorable reviews in the St James’s Gazette and other venues.

Subsequently Thompson lived as an invalid in Wales and at Storrington. A lifetime of extreme poverty, ill-health, and an addiction to opium took a heavy toll even when he had found success in his last years. According to several accounts, he began an attempted suicide in the depths of despair, but was saved from completing the action through a vision which he believed to have been that of a youthful poet, Thomas Chatterton, who had committed suicide almost a century earlier. Shortly afterwards, a prostitute – whose identity Thompson never revealed – befriended him, gave him lodging, and shared her income with him. Thompson later described her as one who saved his life, a kind of savior. She soon disappeared, however, and never returned. He died of tuberculosis at the age of 48.

Whether man’s heart or life it be which yields
Thee harvest, must Thy harvest-fields
Be dunged with rotten death?

Now of that long pursuit
Comes on at hand the bruit;
That Voice is round me like a bursting sea:
‘And is thy earth so marred,
Shattered in shard on shard?
Lo, all things fly thee, for thou fliest Me!

‘Strange, piteous, futile thing!
Wherefore should any set thee love apart?
Seeing none but I makes much of naught’ (He said),
‘And human love needs human meriting:
How hast thou merited—
Of all man’s clotted clay the dingiest clot?
Alack, thou knowest not
How little worthy of any love thou art!
Whom wilt thou find to love ignoble thee,
Save Me, save only Me?
All which I took from thee I did but take,
Not for thy harms,
But just that thou might’st seek it in My arms.
All which thy child’s mistake
Fancies as lost, I have stored for thee at home:
Rise, clasp My hand, and come!’

Halts by me that footfall:
Is my gloom, after all,
Shade of His hand, outstretched caressingly?
‘Ah, fondest, blindest, weakest,
I am He Whom thou seekest!
Thou dravest love from thee, who dravest Me.’

Neither Dostoevsky’s weeping angel of mercy nor Francis Thompson’s Hound of Heaven is far from us. The scared rabbit cannot outrun the slow, unperturbed steps of Divine Love.

How little worthy of any love thou art!

Whom wilt thou find to love ignoble thee,

Save Me, save only Me?

“All which I took from you, I took not for your harm, but that you might seek it in My arms. All which you mistakenly thought was lost, I have stored for you at home.

“Rise, clasp My hand, and come!”

– A sermon preached at Shepherd of the Hill Presbyterian Church, Chaska, MN, September 9, 2012

The Shadow of the Grand Inquisitor

Conscience is the “still, small voice” (a whisper) that makes ancient truth appear uncouth. Conscience and dissent change the world.

It is a great sadness to learn of Archbishop Nienstadt’s reported threat of disciplinary measures against priests in the Archdiocese of Saint Paul and Minneapolis who openly dissent from the proposed amendment to the Minnesota State Constitution that would restrict marriage to a man and a woman (“Priests told not to voice dissent,” Star Tribune, 1/18/12).

The protest of the priests and parishes under Archbishop Niensted’s jurisdiction will be mostly silent. They will simply go on about the business of being the church. Their Protestant brothers and sisters either stand by in quiet support or choose to speak out loud what they cannot.

It is customary practice – and a good one – to regard the internal matters of another church as off limits to non-members. Both as a person of significant frailty and as a Presbyterian minister, Jesus’ injunction to take the log out of my own (Presbyterian) eye before reaching for the speck in my (Roman Catholic) neighbor’s eye gives me great pause.

I choose to speak out of great love and respect fore the Roman Catholic Church, my priest colleagues and friends. I tremble that my words will be mistaken as disrespect or that they will turn the clock back to the era before the Second Vatican Council (“Vatican II”) that blew fresh air across the whole Christian world. Before Vatican II, Protestants and Catholics lived in self-imposed religious ghettos on opposites sides of the main street. Today the dividing line has been erased. People are talking, and what many of them are saying is the same…whether out loud or in the chain of whispered protest that happen when the old authoritarian patterns squelch conscientious dissent.

Jesus the Prisoner and the Cardinal, the Grand Inquisitor

We all do well to remember Fyodor Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov where it is the Church, not Satan, that puts Jesus on trial in the parable of the Grand Inquisitor. The setting is the City of Seville during the 16th Century Spanish Inquisition. The night sky is lit with the fires of heretics being burned at the stake.

Christ has returned to the City of Seville – an unexpected Second Coming without notice or fanfare – to take his place once again among the poor and destitute. As at the first coming, his love for human dignity and freedom of conscience threaten the civil and religious order that has lit the fires of heretical burning martyrs – in his name and for his sake, at the command of the Cardinal of Seville.The Cardinal takes Jesus prisoner – a prisoner of the Church. He tells him that since his departure, the Church has corrected each mistake he had made in the temptations in the wilderness. He tells Jesus that he is a fool for failing to provide the people with what they most want – a hero who will take away their dread of standing alone in freedom before God.

“You thought too highly of them (i.e. ordinary people),” says the Cardinal, “for they are slaves, though rebellious by nature. Look around and judge, Jesus; fifteen centuries have passed. Look at them!   Who have you raised up to yourself?  I swear, man is weaker and baser by nature than you have believed him to be! Can he do what you did? By showing them so much respect, you failed to feel for them; you asked too much from them – you who loved them more than yourself!”

In the end the Cardinal does not execute him. With loss from his “bloodless lips” he sends the Church’s Prisoner off into the night and tells him never to return.

The Archbishop of the Diocese of Saint Paul and Minneapolis is not the Cardinal of Seville. But the Grand Inquisitor’s dark shadow has fallen across the Diocese among those sworn to obedience to the Archbishop’s authority. It has also fallen over their parishes and their Protestant friends. A pall of silence has fallen over the parishioners for whom the Prisoner had “too much respect.” The conversations take place in whispers and in privacy over back fences, or in parish councils where priests and Catholic lay leaders discuss how to be faithful to their own consciences while living under the vow of obedience.

It is one thing for the Church to promulgate an official position on marriage; it is quite another for an Archbishop to tell a priest he must be silent if he dissents on a theological matter, much less on a political and possibly partisan matter.

The Second Vatican Council (Vatican II) strongly re-affirmed the doctrine of the priesthood of all believers.  It made clear that the entire baptismal community constitutes the Church, and that the Church’s teaching office and hierarchy exist to serve the people, not the people the hierarchy. Vatican II lifted up doctrines that date back to the Early Church Fathers: the sensus fidelium (the sense of the faithful) and the sensus fidei (the sense of the individual’s faith).

Among the documents produced by Vatican II was Dignitatis Humanae that celebrated the dignity and freedom of religious conscience. The document opened the Church’s arms to other religions, and there was a great swelling of joy within the Roman Catholic Church and in other Christian churches touched by the Spirit of respect for other views and practices.

No longer were conscience and dissent regarded ipso facto as enemies of the Gospel or of the Church. Those of us in churches separated during the 16th Century Protestant Reformation were embraced by our Roman Catholic brothers and sisters as partners in ministry.  The Second Vatican Council’s spirit of ongoing reform (“aggiornamento”) re-awakened in Protestant communions the call to continual renewal and reform by the Holy Spirit, a 20th Century reformation that refreshed us all.

The proposed Marriage Amendment is a moral question, and the Church’s leadership has a right and responsibility to address it, in light of Traditio (sacred tradition, or the movement of the Holy Spirit among earlier disciples) and the movement of the Holy Spirit among disciples today.

Priests, ministers, and lay people – Roman Catholic and Protestant – on both sides of the pre-Vatican II divide – do not share a single view on the question of the proposed Marriage Amendment that Minnesota voters will decide next November. What we do share is a deep belief in the freedom of the pulpit, the freedom of conscience, and the freedom of the Holy Spirit to work through an informed laity and the church’s ordained leadership in together interpreting Scripture and tradition. We share a deep belief in the sensus fidelium embraced by the Second Vatican Council.

Jesus leaving the city never to return

“By the light of burning martyrs, Jesus’ bleeding feet I track, Toiling up new Calvaries ever With the cross that turns not back; new occasions teach new duties, time makes ancient truth uncouth; They must upward still and onward, Who would keep abreast of truth” (James Russell Lowell, 1845).