Wonderful and Terrible

One of the reasons I chose to become a spiritual director is due to it’s emphasis on prayer and listening.  In high school and college, I had made some rather serious blunders in my attempts to speak God’s truth into the lives of others and, instead of improving the situation, probably only made it worse.  Further, I myself have often been the recipient of well-intended advice which was motivated more by an attempt to change me than out of love and understanding.  I find that humans in general, and Christians in particular, are often hasty in providing advice to others.  The beauty of spiritual direction is that advice, if given at all, is done so sparingly and usually only after much holding of the other person in a ministry of prayerful listening.

Just as my zeal committed me to speaking truth out of a desire to shape others in my image, we all have reforming tendencies. 1 Dorothy L. Sayers, writer of the Lord Peter Wimsey mystery series in the early to mid-twentieth century was also an astute observer of human nature.  Having lived through World War I and writing shortly before the start of World War II, she wrote about the “modern phenomenon of ‘the impulsive reformer, over-sensitive to suffering, impatient of the facts, eager to set the world right by sudden overthrow.'” 2 Most of us will not turn into Hitlers, Stalins, or Mussolinis of the world.  But still, that seed of a desire to shape others and our spheres of influence into our own image is there.

I am reminded of another novelist who had a keen insight into the nature of evil who wrote in the same circles, namely J.R.R. Tolkien.  Like Sayers, he was deeply influenced by his Christian faith in how he understood human nature.  In one scene in particular in his Lord of the Rings trilogy, Galadriel has the opportunity to take the One Ring for herself and to use its power to her own ends.  As she tells Frodo, who offers it to her freely, “In place of the Dark Lord you will set up a Queen. And I shall not be dark, but beautiful and terrible as the Morning and the Night! Fair as the Sea and the Sun and the Snow upon the Mountain! Dreadful as the Storm and the Lightning! Stronger than the foundations of the earth. All shall love me and despair!” 3

Her proclamation came to mind one day when I was reading a passage of Scripture from the Old Testament.  I was struck by the parallels with Joel 2:1-2, 10-11: “Let all the residents of the land tremble, for the Day of the Lord is coming; in fact, it is near – a day of darkness and gloom, a day of clouds and dense overcast, like the dawn spreading over the mountains…The earth quakes before them; the sky shakes.  The sun and moon grow dark, and the stars cease their shining…Indeed, the Day of the Lord is terrible and dreadful – who can endure it?”

Before comparing the passage in Joel and the quote from The Lord of the Rings, I wish to reflect on the nature of this “terrible and dreadful” Day of the Lord.  Rather than these adjectives being inherently negative, Michael Mears Bruner notes that “the word terror” can be used “to indicate something dreadful or something that causes great fear, as opposed to something necessarily evil.”  Further, he also points out that our contemporary association of it with something evil has “robbed it of its deeper and richer original meaning…It can either be glorious or demonic, salutary or despicable, depending on who inflicts it.” 4 That last phrase, “depending on who inflicts it”, is key to understanding the similarities and differences of the two passages.

To begin, given the above definitions of “terrible” and “dreadful”, it is not inherently the case that the Day of the Lord is a negative event.  Although there are many other passages of Scripture that reference the Day of the Lord, at least in this passage it appears in the sense that Michael Mears Bruner has in mind: as causing great fear.  This is also the case with the passage from The Fellowship of the Ring.  Despite Peter Jackson’s cinematic vision of the event, there is nothing in the book that indicates that Lady Galadriel turns into an evil version of herself.  Rather, the book describes a light that shines on her from her own Elven Ring, but it is not the nightmarish, almost ghoulish, scene from the movie.  Lady Galadriel describes herself in terms of being “beautiful” and “fair”.  The terribleness in both instances can be viewed in terms of a holiness that is fear inducing.  Both instances are reminiscent of God’s passing by Moses, wherein only a glimpse could be had of God’s holiness.

But there is a significant difference between the two passages.  Unlike God, Lady Galadriel is not perfect.  Although not a fallen elf like the orcs, Galadriel is in Middle-Earth in exile and capable of falling under the Ring’s influence.  And we see the more than a little of the self-justifying reformer in her temptation to take the ring for herself.  Although she might overthrow the Dark Lord Sauron, she would set herself in his place.  However, God is perfect in his holiness, righteousness and justice.  As Jesus commands his disciples, “Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect” (Matthew 5:48).

I am celebrating Lent this year by reading through Malcom Guite’s book on poetry, The Word in the Wilderness.  A few early poems were on Jesus’s temptations in the wilderness by Satan.  What I find curious is that Jesus, as God, would have been well within his rights to do the things Satan tempts him to do, to satisfy his hunger, to elevate Himself, and to expect His Father to protect him.  And yet, Jesus chooses the way of humility.  For he came to earth to die on our behalf.  As the apostle Paul wrote in his book to the church at Philippi about why Christ came to earth, “And when he had come as a man in his external form, He humbled Himself by becoming obedient to the point of death – even to death on a cross” (Philippians 2:7-8).

If Jesus had chosen to exercise his authority over creation, or had he refused to be led to the cross, then he would have been like Galadriel.  He would, like the Lady of Lórien, been one in whom all would love and despair.  As Malcolm Guite elaborates, “If Jesus were simply set before me as an example of heroic human achievement I would despair.   His very success in resisting temptation would just make me feel worse about my failure.  But he is not only my exemplar, he is my saviour; he is the one who takes my place and stands in for me, and in the mystery of redemption he acts for me and makes up, in his resistance to evil, what is lacking in mine.” In other words, if Jesus had abandoned His mission, then he might still be all-powerful, but he would no longer be my Savior.

After Lady Galadriel resists her own temptation, there is a beautiful moment both in the book and the movie versions.  After the light fades, “‘I pass the test,’ she said. ‘I will diminish, and go into the West, and remain Galadriel.'” 6 In today’s vitriolic climate, it can be tempting to hold onto perceived or actual wrongs and believe that “suffering has it’s privileges”. 7  At moments, I myself am tempted toward such self-righteous justification.  But it occurs to me that saying is true only if the one who is suffering is perfect, which none of us are except Jesus, the God-man.  We have all contributed to the suffering of the world and brokenness in our relationships with God, others, creation, and ourselves. Like the Lady of Light we must be willing to diminish, or die to self.  Jesus told his followers, “If anyone wants to be My follower, he must deny himself, take up his cross, and follow Me.  For whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life because of Me and the gospel will save it” (Mark 8:34).  Denying ourselves, losing our life for our Savior, is not what this world wants to hear.  Humility is not valued in a society which preaches ambition, success, and material prosperity.

As we observe the season of Lent and journey toward Good Friday, let us hear the words of Paul who exhorts us to “Make your own attitude that of Christ Jesus, who, existing in the form of God, did not consider equality with God as something to be used for His own advantage.  Instead He emptied Himself by assuming the form of a slave, taking on the likeness of men” (Philippians 2:6-7).  Jesus told his disciples the Father is perfect, and as one who shared the very nature of God, Jesus was also perfect.  But he chose the way perfect way of humility and grace, even though it led to a hill called Calvary and to an instrument of torture and death called a cross.  May God grant us the strength to be followers of that Way and remain our true selves in Christ.

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1 For fans of the Enneagram, I use the term “reformer” intentionally.  Although Type Ones are often labeled “reformers”, I by no means wish to implicate only those types as I find in each type a tendency to want to remake things in their own image when in their unhealthy and unredeemed states.

2 Colin Duriez, Bedeviled: Lewis, Tolien, and the Shadow of Evil (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Books, 2015), 88. eBook.

3 “The Fellowship of the Ring.” Wikiquote.org. Web. Accessed on 19February 2018.<https://en.wikiquote.org/wiki/The_Fellowship_of_the_Ring&gt;.

4 Michael Mears Bruner, A Subversive Gospel: Flannery O’Connor and the Reimagining of Beauty, Goodness, and Truth (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2017), 144.

5 Malcolm Guite, The Word in the Wilderness: A Poem a Day for Lent and Easter (Norwich, UK: Canterbury Press, 2014), 11.

6 Wikiquote.org, ibid.  Cate Blanchett, who plays the character of Lady Galadriel in the movie version, portrays well the sense of melancholy and relief that comes with dying to self, and the sense of diminishment associated with decreasing so that God might increase (see John 3:30).

7 One of the differences I observe between activists of the past and of today is the basis for their activism.  Whereas in the past, social justice was often based on the image of God in the lives of those suffering injustice, today it is often based on a sense of entitlement as a result of suffering.  I would posit that such a shift is not entirely surprising given that the privileged modern Western world is largely immune to the types of suffering that has been experienced by most individuals throughout human history and even today by the less advantaged majority world.

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Wisdom’s Stance

Owl“The Owls” by Charles Baudelaire

Among the black yews, their shelter,

the owls are ranged in a row,

like alien deities, the glow,

of their red eyes pierces. They ponder.

They perch there without moving,

till that melancholy moment

when quenching the falling sun,

the shadows are growing.

Their stance teaches the wise

to fear, in this world of ours,

all tumult, and all movement:

Mankind drunk on brief shadows

always incurs a punishment

for his longing to stir, and go.

“Mankind drunk on brief shadows / always incurs a punishment / for his longing to stir, and go.”  In what ways do you find yourself “longing to stir, and go”?

Proverbs 1:7 claims that “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom”.  Charles Baudelaire, although a troubled soul, finds that owls teach “the wise / to fear, in this world of ours, all tumult, and all movement”.  What connection do you find between the spiritual practices of silence and stillness and growing in wisdom?

In this season, how might you resist the tendency to constantly be on the go and create margin in your life for stillness?

A Beholding that Ascends

When I decided to write a review of Nancy J. Nordenson’s Finding Livelihood: A Progress of Work and Leisure, the first word that came to mind was “impressionist”.  And indeed, her book on calling and vocation does not so much state her perspective directly as it leaves the reader, through vignettes of her own life and through other illustrations, with a distinct impression of what she is conveying.  So subtle can the distinctions between her stories be, often interweaving two or more in a chapter, that it can be easy to miss the point she is trying to make.  In this sense, her work is distinctly artistic.

But on other, I would have to say that her book is also iconic.  Not only does her book, through the use of personal stories and reflections on art and literature, reflect the way in which the Divine shines through and is mediated by the natural world, as icons do, but she also at one point quotes from Russian Orthodox thinker and priest, Pavel Florensky, when she borrows the phrase, “a beholding that ascends”.  Florensky was specifically describing the religious impact of icons in that phrase.

There is another sense in which her theology of vocation is iconic.  It comes through in the way in which she perceives and writes about one’s calling.  Where it has become popular in certain evangelical circles to cite Frederick Buechner’s “the place God calls you to is the place where your deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet”, Nancy Nordenson takes a different approach or, at the very least, a different emphasis.  Buechner’s quote is one I have often found inspiring myself, but I have to admit it can be a tad idealistic, being actualized very seldomly in a reality tainted by sin and the effects of the Fall.  Thus, Nordenson takes the tack that much of our calling is lived out in places of necessity and pragmatism.  She writes that “work, even good work for which we are grateful and love, has a shadow side.”  And her own life illustrates this.  Much of the book, especially later on, is taken up with reflections during her time having to work after her husband lost his job.  She had planned to reduce her work schedule while going through graduate school, but found herself adjusting to the reality of what was.

The book itself is presented in three “acts”.  The first act reflects on the limitations of life, “where we encounter ground level and metaphysical realities…idealistic work experts and criteria for ‘good work’; hiddenness and exhaustion; and a longing for meaning and a will to be satisfied.”  The second act is primarily on learning to rest and paying attention to what is unfolding before us in our life and work.  It is in this act that one reads Florensky’s quote and sees how she applies the concept of beholding to one’s vocation.  It is also at the end of this part that she writes the chapter about her husband coming home after losing his job.  Prior to this, her reflections were based on earlier memories of past work experiences, but with the last chapter of Act II, the readers is segued into Act III, “where we encounter love, devotion, and guidance; the sacrament of the present moment and every moment;…patience and transformation; and a blessing of countenance.”

For me, one of the joys of this book was her interaction with other writers and thinkers that I am fond of.  These include quotes from Simone Weil and Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Dorothy Sayers and C.S. Lewis, Julian of Norwich and The Cloud of Unknowing, T.S. Eliot and Gerard Manley Hopkins.  But as one might guess from the quote above regarding Act III, she quotes from that French mystic, Jean-Pierre de Caussade, in his book The Sacrament of the Present Moment.  And this reinforces the iconographic nature of her writing.  For, in attending to the moments of her life and her work as present realities which mediate God’s grace, she is able to write, “On one level we make our livelihood; on another level we keep our eyes open and find it.”  Nancy Nordenson’s book is a testament to what revelations can result when we open our eyes to what is in front of us and receive it as grace.  Truly, in the reading of this book one is engaging in a beholding that ascends.