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.

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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.

Brother Owl

Whoo. Whoo.  

Whoo-who-whoooo.  

I can hear the calls and responses of two owls in the dark night beyond.  I look out the window in a vain attempt to see them.  Even after turning the lights off, the owls remain obscured by the darkness of night, hidden among the even darker silhouettes of trees.  I spend some moments listening to their plaintive cries, wondering why their low sounds seem so comforting…

In our culture today, the image of the owl is fashionable.  I walk into stores and see cutesy owl images on everything from handbags to scrubs to wall hangings.  What is so ironic about this is that an image our society celebrates, and sees as symbolic of wisdom, was also representative of, in many ancient cultures, a concept our society fears: death.1  In societies from Native Americans to Egyptians, the owl was a symbol of death.  And for the ancient Israelites, who had a habit of taking concepts from their ancient Near Eastern neighbors and putting theological twists on them, the owl is representative of mourning and destruction and desolation.  Not quite death, but close enough.

In Isaiah 4:23, we read, “I will turn her into a place for owls and into swampland; I will sweep her with the broom of destruction,” declares the LORD Almighty.”  And the author of Psalm 102:3 compares himself to, “a desert owl of the wilderness…an owl of the waste places”.  This bleak usage of the owl in Scripture caused me to ponder even more strongly my sense of having a kindred spirit in the owl.

I found a possible connection in the music of the singer/songwriter Josh Garrels.  In his song, “White Owl”, he sings the following lyrics:

When the night comes,
and you don’t know which way to go
Through the shadowlands,
and forgotten paths,
you will find a road

Like an owl you must fly by moonlight with an open eye,
And use your instinct as a guide, to navigate the ways that lays before you,
You were born to take the greatest flight

Like a serpent and a dove, you will have wisdom born of love
To carry visions from above into the places no man dares to follow
Every hollow in the dark of night
Waiting for the light
Take the flame tonight 2

When I read or listen to the above lyrics, I am reminded of one of the more interesting symbolism of owls.  According to one website, “In some middle and far eastern cultures, the owl is a sacred guardian of the afterlife, ruler of the night, a seer and keeper of souls transitioning from one plane of existence to another.”3  When I think of that in connection with the lyrics above, I am reminded of Jesus Christ.  Today is Holy Saturday, the day in between the days when we celebrate the death of Christ on Good Friday and His resurrection on Easter Sunday.  It is a time when we meditate on the bleak in-between time of his crucifixion and his victory over death as he rose to life.

Scripture has the following to say about that time: “But all who knew Him, including the women who had followed Him from Galilee, stood at a distance, watching these things…It was preparation day, and the Sabbath was about to begin.  The women who had come with Him from Galilee followed along and observed the tomb and how His body was placed.  They they returned and prepared spices and perfumes.  And they rested on the Sabbath according to the commandment” (Luke 23:49, 54-56).  When I read this passage, I wondered why it was included in Scripture.  It seems so mundane.  But I am struck by the description of the women.  In the face of death, in this time of mourning and hopelessness, all they can really do is observe and then rest.

When it comes to death, you and I are like the women who followed the passage and burial of Christ’s body to the tomb: mere observers.  Mere followers of the Way.  We need one who will make the path straight and safe, who will guide us along the Way from life to Life.  While Josh Garrels might be singing about followers of Christ as being like owls who navigate the darkness of this world, it is Jesus Christ himself, the Great White Owl, who went before us and makes the way possible.  He, the Great White Owl, bridged the divide between us and God the Father in his death and resurrection, and is the ultimate guardian and keeper of souls as we transition from this world into the new heaven and earth.

…I reflect on the above things as I prepare to go to bed.  Lying down, I can still hear the cries of the owls in the night.  I can almost imagine that, as the keepers of the night that they are, they are watching over me.  And as I surrender myself into the care of Another, and as sleep begins to pull at my consciousness, I thank God for the death and resurrection of Brother Owl.

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1 While it is the case that many ancient cultures viewed the owl as a symbol of mystery, wisdom, secrets, mysticism – in short, gnosis – there are just as many, if not more, that perceive it as representing death.  African, Egyptian, Celtic, many Native American, and Hindu cultures all saw the owl as relating to death in some way.  See, for example, “Symbolism and Mythology.” Wikipedia.org. Web. 25 March 2016. <https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Owl&gt; and “Animal Symbolism: Meaning of the Owl.” Whats-Your-Sign.com. Web. n.d. <http://www.whats-your-sign.com/animal-symbolism-owl.html&gt;.  I hope to write a follow-up post at some future date on the other meaning of owls: wisdom.

2 “Love &War & The Sea In Between.” Josh Garrels. Web. n.d. <https://joshgarrels.bandcamp.com/track/white-owl&gt;

3 “Owl Symbolism.” Macramé Owl. Web. 5 Mar. 2016. <http://macrameowl.com/owl_symbolism.html&gt;