The Door

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Spend a few minutes with the above photo.  To see more detail you may want to expand it by clicking on it.  What do you notice?  What are your eyes drawn toward?  Pay attention to the carvings in the wood.  The leafy branches.  The rooster handle.  The glass window.  What might God be trying to say to you through this image?  What does your imagination anticipate you would see if you were to open the door?

Jesus said to his disciples, “I assure you: I am the door [gate] of the sheep…If anyone enters by Me, he will be saved and will come in and go out and find pasture.”  Additionally, in his book, Silence and Beauty, Makoto Fujimura shares some insights into beauty from a Japanese philosopher.  “[T]he ideogram of “beauty” is made up of the sacrificial sheep on top of an ideogram for ‘great,’ which I infer means ‘greater sheep.’  It connotes a greater sacrifice…This greater sacrifice may require sacrifice of one’s own life to save the lives of others…This is what is truly beautiful.” 1

How have you experienced a connection between sacrifice and beauty in your own life?  How might accepting the invitation of an open door require a sacrifice on your part?  How might it be a sacrifice on the part of the one extending the invitation?  Jesus made the ultimate sacrifice for us, his sheep.  Have you or will you accept his open door invitation?  Where in your life might he still be extending invitations to pass the threshold?______________________________________________________________

1 Tomonobu Imamichi, “Poetry and Ideas,” Doyo Bijutsu 2, no. 114 (1994): 42, cited in Makoto Fujimura, Silence and Beauty: Hidden Faith Born of Suffering  (Downers Grove, IVP Books, 2016), p. 66.

Still Bearing Fruit

In recent years there have been a number of books published on the topic of aging, dying, and the Christian faith.  No doubt, this is to meet the needs and to answer the questions of an aging church in the West and to help those in the latter half of life respond to spiritual concerns about growing older.  While there are other books that examine the spirituality of the second half of life (Richard Rohr’s Falling Upward readily comes to mind), R. Paul Stevens takes a more unique approach in that his book relates primarily to the question of what one’s calling is in later life, and especially after one retires.

The book is broken up into three sections and the first part deals solely with calling.  The first chapter is notable for it’s argument that retirement is not a biblical concept, in that in the ancient world one had to work as long as one was able.  After a brief history of how retirement came about, the chapter one looks at how retirement can be a catalyst for growth and of a broader and more biblical concept of calling. While Stevens does not suggest we should not retire, his emphasis is that the idea of idling one’s remaining days in self-leisure is not a Scriptural notion and that one can still contribute to society, even if one is not receiving remuneration.  This last point is addressed in more detail in the second chapter as the concept of calling is explained and some guidelines on late-life calling are provided.  And the third chapter takes a closer look at some Scriptural examples of those who lived out their late-life calling faithfully, with special emphasis on Abraham and Jacob.

The second part of the book reflects on the spirituality that comes with aging.  Here, I felt the book had some similarities to Richard Rohr’s book, especially in chapter four where midlife is viewed as a time of transition from doing to being, and from living to accomplish much to living into a more contemplative lifestyle.  Stevens lists a few ways that aging provides opportunities for us to grow spiritually.  The next two chapters detail the potential vices and virtues that arise as one grows older.Aging Matters

The third section looks at how one’s calling affects others beyond one’s death in what we refer to as “legacy”.  Chapter seven is about different facets of one’s legacy, including factors to consider when bequeathing a monetary legacy.  There were two things that stood out for me in this chapter that are not talked about often enough: one’s non-monetary legacy, to include out investment in other people and how that affect our relatives for good or bad even after we are gone, and the importance of writing a living will.  The next chapter, chapter eight, is about preparing for death by reviewing the life we have lived and along that review to enable us to “finish well”.  And the last chapter looks forward to what we can expect in the life, in the new heaven and new earth, and does so by way of clearing some misunderstandings on the nature of death and on Scripture says about our life after death.

Overall, this was a welcome book to the growing bodies of literature on calling and on aging.  While some, perhaps much, of it was already familiar to me, I think Stevens did a great job at exploring the intersection of calling and the spirituality of aging.  He draws upon and interacts with some interesting thinkers in this area, some of who were familiar to me, including Catholic Richard Rohr and Jewish Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi, and some who were unfamiliar, such as psychiatrist Paul Tournier.  I think one of the best features of the book was the Scripture studies at the end of each chapter.  One of the studies that impacted me most was Jacob’s blessing of his grandchildren upon his deathbed.  Having practiced vision divina with an artist’s rendering of that scene and knowing Jacob’s history, as one who stole his brother’s birthright and blessing, made it a very impacting study on aging, calling, and gaining wisdom from one’s mistakes.  Ultimately, Stevens, who has written a number of books on calling and the workplace from a faith perspective, and who is also in the third third of his life, draws upon a lifetime of wisdom and experience.  To the extent that this book passes on his accumulated wisdom to the next generations, I would say he has embodied the generativity that he wrote about in this book.

Shadows of the Ordinary

Beguines.  Most people are probably unfamiliar with the name.  However, the Beguines were communities of lay women in the Middle Ages, particularly the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, who sought to live their lives with increasing devotion to God.  There are many aspects of the Beguines that deserve mention, not least their spiritual writings which focus on intimacy with God and Christ.  They employed a lot of bridal imagery as they saw themselves as brides of Christ.  Other important emphases of the Beguines includes their zeal for evangelism (especially to other women), their service to the poor, simplicity in material possessions (although some were well-to-do), and “ecstatic prayer as well as public preaching”. 1

But the aspect of the Beguines that I wish to focus on is their ordinary, mundane livinig.  You see, it would be a mistake to equate them to a Catholic monastic order, for they were still lay women.  Part of the reason for their existence appears to have been the result of the Crusades.  As many men went to war, the devout women in these communities assisted one another along with less fortunate women, including the poor and prostitutes.  Writing about the Beguines, Glenn Meyers mentions that

Of particular interest to many contemporary readers is the fact that the Beguine communities attempted to bridge the gap between laypeople and the ‘religious,’…Beginning in the twelfth century…Beguines and other laypeople, mostly from the emerging middle class, were pursuing spiritual growth…Thus, forming their semimonastic communities, Beguines forged a middle way between the lifestyle of the religious and the majority of Christians who lived in the ‘world.’ 2

This emphasis on obedience to God in all things and in one’s daily living never fails to capture my imagination and provide a sense of vision.  As I wrote in a recent blog post titled, “Why I Didn’t Go to Seminary”, I didn’t feel that living a life of professional ministry was for me.  Although I recognize the importance of religious communities and those who engage in professional ministry, I never felt a particularly strong call.  Rather, the challenge of living out one’s faith in the daily grind of life and the world is what I sometimes think true faith is all about.  Clearly, the via media, or middle way, of the Beguines shows that one can live an ordinary life and still be zealous for God.  I think Jean-Pierre de Caussade puts it well.  He writes,

God chooses what human nature discards and human prudence neglects, out of which he works his wonders and reveals himself to all souls who believe that is where they will find him.  Thus wide horizons, sure ground and solid rock can only be found in that vast expanse of the divine will which is eternally present in the shadows of the most ordinary toil and suffering; and it is in these shadows that God hides the hand which upholds and supports us. 3

Speaking of shadows, the picture below is of a painting I purchased while in Bruges, Belgium.  Bruges used to be one of many cities in Europe that had a thriving population of Beguines, their communities being referred to as beguinages or .  In the painting below, you can see one of the buildings that was part of the beguinage.  Today, the beguinage in Bruges is owned by Catholic Benedictine nuns.  However, I have spent a long time gazing at the painting, and what strikes me is that the swan, hidden from the nun’s gaze behind the tree amidst shadows, almost appears to have a secret.  Or perhaps the swan is the secret.Beauty Amid Shadows

Like the swan, the Beguines are secrets of history, noticed only by those who have the eyes to see.  And like the swan, they were ordinary women who experienced that “divine will which is eternally present in the shadows of the most ordinary toil and suffering”.  They had mystical (i.e. direct experience) encounters of God as they sought Him in their daily lives.  This brings me back to the first post in this tripartite blog series which began in “God, Red Robin, and Me”.  There I wrote about a sense of God’s presence at a Red Robin restaurant among friends and retro surroundings.  If I could have a felt encounter with God there, believe me, anyone can encounter God anywhere.  But the Beguines knew this centuries before Jean-Pierre de Caussade, and long before me.

I know this because Mechthild of Magdeburg, one of the more prolific writers from the Beguines, proclaimed, “The day of my spiritual awakening was the day I saw-and knew I saw-all things in God and God in all things.” 4  And in the first book of the Old Testament is recorded the story of Jacob, who stole his brother Esau’s blessing and birthright.  After he flees from his brother, he stops for a night and dreams of angels and ascending and descending a ladder or a stairway.  The Lord speaks to him in the dream and when he wakes up he declares, “Surely the Lord is in this place, and I did not know it…What an awesome place this is!  This is none other than the house of God.  This is the gate of heaven” (Genesis 28: 16-17).  May the Holy Spirit enable us – like Jacob, like Mechthild of Magdeburg, and like Jean-Pierre de Caussade – to discern God’s presence and will in the shadows of the ordinary, and to”dwell in the shadow of the Almighty” (Psalm 91:1).

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Beguinage at Bruges

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1 Glenn E. Meyers, Seeking Spiritual Intimacy: Journeying Deeper with Medieval Women of Faith (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Books, 2011), 23.  Much of the information that I provide in this post comes from this book, particularly chapters 1 and 5.  Meyers does a good job of introducing one to the Beguines and the book includes photos taken at certain Beguine communities, including the one in Bruges.  Personally, while I do not question Meyers’ emphasis on the evangelical approach of the Beguines (although, given that evangelicalism as a movement had yet to begin one would be better thinking of them as proto-evangelicals), I think their approach to life and pious living was grounded more in their mystical experience of God and faith.  By “mystical”, I mean having a direct experience or encounter of God, whether through Scripture or prayer.  Meyers does describe this, particularly in chapters 6, 9, and 12.

2 Ibid., 92.

3 Jean-Pierre de Caussade, The Sacrament of the Present Moment (New York, NY: HarperOne, 1989), 20.

4 Epigraph to Chapter 4, “Surrounded By Sound”, in Keith R. Anderson, A Spirituality of Listening: Living What We Hear (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Books, 2016), 63.