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A little prayer from Etty Hillesum

God, take me by Your hand, I shall follow You dutifully, and not resist too much.

I shall evade none of the tempests life has in store for me, I shall try to face them the best I can.

But now and then grant me a short respite.

I shall never again assume, in my innocence, that any peace that comes my way will be eternal.

I shall accept all the inevitable tumult and struggle.

I delight in warmth and security, but I shall not rebel if I have to suffer cold, should You so decree.

I shall follow wherever Your hand leads me and shall try not to be afraid.

I shall try to spread some of my warmth, of my genuine love for others, wherever I go.

But we shouldn’t boast of our love for others.  We cannot be sure that it really exists.

I don’t want to be anything special, I only want to try to be true to that in me which seeks to fulfill its promise.

I sometimes imagine that I long for the seclusion of a nunnery.  But I know that I must seek You among people, out in the world.

Pray for Us

Check out my latest post at From the Pews in the Back, entitled “Pray for Us.”


“We don’t need a moment of silence.  There has been too much silence already. I propose noise—a moment of clapping.”

A woman said this to Karen during her recent trip to Honduras. Along with a group of students from Harvard Divinity School, Karen was there to learn from the women of this rural Honduran community whose lives are plagued by rape and murder.  She had proposed a moment of silence to initiate the gathering of local women and foreign students that day, but she learned there was no more tolerance for silence in this community.  For too long violence and abuse has been hushed.

So they clapped.

Increasingly, I am aware of how silence shapes my formation as a young Catholic theologian.  Beginning with my early undergraduate years, I was schooled in the politics of Catholic speech: there are theological statements—even questions—that one simply cannot ask before certain audiences.   Over the years, however, I have learned that with meticulous care, one can find ways to articulate these inquiries in a language that veils its hints of potential “uncertainty” or “disagreement.”  If I break this decorum of speech, even in the nascent phases of my theological career, I fear it may cost me a professorship or a ministry job. I can already name numerous theologians and ministers for whom this is the case.

It is unsettling to recognize the many ways in which I must privately silence myself for the sake of avoiding potential silencing from others.  What kind of theology can happen in this environment? Can I produce relevant theology when I often feel that I cannot outwardly address the probing, courageous questions of my community?  Maybe once I’m tenured.  Can these questions wait twenty years?

For years, the unfolding public recognition of the Church’s orchestrated silencing of clerical sexual abuse victims has shaped my life as a Catholic.  These clergymen stood up and spoke before their congregations week and week—year after year—while their victims sat silently in the pews.  Yesterday in a report on Pope Benedict’s Palm Sunday Homily, the New York Times analyzed what sounded like an implicit response to critics who implicate his guilt in the European abuse scandals.  Granted, the Times reads between the lines of the Pope’s homily, but in the context of his public indictment, his words strike me as a clear attempt to hush his critics: “The pontiff said faith in God helps lead one ‘towards the courage of not allowing oneself to be intimidated by the petty gossip of dominant opinion.’” The silence continues–and I continue to wonder what kinds of faith development, worship, or social justice work can happen in a church of whispers and hushed voices.

How can a young theologian, situated within her own matrix of silence, speak out against the perpetual silencing that enabled—and continues to enable—the grave injustice of the global clerical abuse crisis and its mismanagement at seemingly every level of church leadership?  My silencing—as a woman, as a lay person, as a theologian and minister—will never amount to the painful silence imposed upon so many abuse victims in our church.  Breaking my silence will not cost me nearly as much either.

I do not know how to speak to our Church right now. In fact, these days I find myself so hurt and angry words feel useless for articulating the magnitude of our situation.  But I know there must be noise. “We don’t need a moment of silence.  There has been too much silence already.”  There must be noise.

Perhaps on Good Friday when I approach the cross of Christ’s suffering with our suffering, there will be no moment of silence.  Perhaps I will do as Jesus did—I will shout. “God, why?”

Image from http://www.flickr.com/photos/42304632@N00/351678683/

Wally’s Cathedral

The liturgy begins when a handsome young man, dressed neatly in an argyle sweater, lifts the worn brass trumpet to his lips. His eyes are closed, his composure calm.  With just one breath, everything in the tiny cathedral comes to a halt.  We remove drink classes and beer bottles from our lips.  Bar chatter hushes. We join the trumpeter’s band in shifting our eyes toward the sound—toward the man who is filling this tiny Boston bar with the most commanding, memorizing music….

Throughout the years I have experienced the benefits of going to worship services at unfamiliar churches.  Foreign religious environments force me to face my own assumptions about God and religion—about who God is, how that God is to be worshiped, and what God’s worshipers look like and think about.  When I stand with charismatics lifting their hands in praise, or kneel with Muslim women as they whisper Arabic words of prayer, I ask myself, “What can I learn from this genuine expression of worship? How does this push me to think about God in new ways? Who is this God before me?”

Last night in Wally’s Jazz Cafe, I found myself asking these questions.  Although I have a casual appreciation for jazz music, I am no musician (to my dismay).  I know nothing of the music theory and rhythms and chords upon which jazz improvisation is situated.  I could not recognize the finger settings and swift movements as the musicians’ fingers fluttered across trumpet, alto sax, electric guitar or acoustic bass.  The rhythmic bounce and sway of the drummer appeared chaotic to my untrained eye.

But while sitting there at the small wooden table—I believed.  The aesthetics and decorum of the worship space were foreign, but the energy, vulnerability, conviction of the performance before me was intoxicatingly persuasive.  I didn’t know how to recognize It, but I knew the Jazz God was in the room. I believed it.  I could feel It. I heard It.  I witnessed It in their worship.

I want to believe in the religious experiences of others, at least most of the time.  Only in assuming their genuineness can I begin to meet their Gods for myself.  And many times, these meetings become meetings with my own God in new ways.

Sometimes Love Is Stronger Than One’s Convictions

121666253_3f9026bd83 Sometimes love is stronger than [one’s] convictions.” -Isaac Bashevis Singer

It is my experience that one of the marks of falling in love, particularly in its glorious initial phases, is an unshakable desire to be with one’s partner. This desire is such that even when physical presence is impossible, alternative connections are eagerly welcomed: a phone call that simply brings the sound of that voice. A message with words that capture that charm.  A day on a calendar that marks our next meeting. An imagined vision of what he or she is doing at the present moment…

I realized today that I have fallen deeply in love with the simple Catholic liturgy I experienced on weekday afternoons this past summer. I find myself longing for it, longing to be present to it again, the way I have eagerly longed for the comforting presence of my beloved.  I worry, sometimes anxiously, about the next time I will experience  a liturgy that brings me such peace. Sometimes I hear a song or enter a sanctuary or recite a prayer here in Boston, and their aesthetics recall that simple noon service, and more than anything I want to celebrate a liturgy like that again.  I want us to be together again.

As genuine as it is, I’m sure my longing for the comfort of this beloved liturgy is only magnified by the religious displacement I currently experience.  I’m thinking and talking all the time about why I am Catholic, and how that really does make me different from so many people here.  I always talk about  how I possess lots of convictions that align with the tradition, and plenty of convictions that do not.  The more I talk about the former and the latter–especially on the tough days, like today, when the convictions for and convictions against seems particularly convoluted–I sometimes feel as if all I have to offer up in response to “why” is this mysterious longing to be in that simple, white-walled chapel in Seattle.  I’m in love, and I long to be with my beloved.  That’s why I am Catholic today.  I have fallen in love in this Church, with this Church, and today, that is stronger than my convictions.

Image from http://farm1.static.flickr.com/55/121666253_3f9026bd83.jpg

From My Dream of A Common Language

usaKAP603 I spent the evening at ArtXchange, a gallery in downtown Seattle dedicated to promoting cultural exchange through the art they showcase. As I studied the featured exhibit by Deborah Kapoor against the captivating, meditative chant of a live Indian music group, I kept thinking about how my love of art is so bound up with spirituality.

In the opening stanzas of “Origins and History of Consciousness,” a poem by Adrienne Rich (it is among my favorite poems of all time), she characterizes the “true nature of poetry” as “The drive to connect./ The dream of a common language.” These simple phrases capture the real quality of poetry like no other description I have ever encountered. I would also apply the description to other mediums of artist expression, including the various mediums I enjoyed tonight. Literary, visual, and performing art captures me because it is a tangible form of our common human yearning for…for something beyond systematic grammar and simple cohesive reason. We need meter, clay, melodies and creativity to convey what our systematic, straight-forward prose cannot: something more. It is out of our dream of a common language that we create and engage art of all kinds.

And it is out of a “dream of a common language” that I pray. That I meditate. That I seek God in metaphors and old rituals. My spirituality pours out of the same longing that brings me to art–a longing to connect with reality in a way that transcends the division and limitations of ordinary words.

Both art and spirituality pull me beyond myself into the realm of this common language–a language beyond words that feels so much more Real than a lot of the talk I hear all day long.


St. Mark’s Episcopal Cathedral in Seattle sits atop Capitol Hill watching over the cityscape with its big, round eye of a window.  Since high school, I’ve periodically made pilgrimage to their Sunday night Compline service where their pitch-perfect men’s choir chants the evening prayers in a vast sanctuary full of Seattle’s most eclectic crowd.  Some nights I sit in a pew next to a homeless man; other nights I lay on the cool concrete floor next to a cuddling couple who brought pillows and a blanket.
Tonight, my friend Casey and I chose the concrete in the front corner of the Cathedral where his friends used to congregate when they attended together in high school.  Casey says the choir sounds different in that spot compared to anywhere else in the church. The sound bounces off the gigantic round pillar in that corner, he explained, giving the voices a magnificent echo.
When the choir began I closed my eyes and pictured the city below the Cathedral’s gaze.  At first the perfect harmonies hovered magically above me in the room, like the perfect figurines of the Sistine Chapel.  They just hung there, perfectly, while I imagined the city outside the sanctuary walls. As time went on, though, the hum of the choir grew and I saw it pouring, spilling out of the building’s walls, down its hillside and over the freeway passes, lakes, and landmarks.  The sound was alive and twirling as it bounced from building top to building top, hopping on the city’s water masses like they were puddles on a rainy day.  Soon my whole image of the city was reverberating with this beautiful sound…
Every Sunday night the choir fills that space with prayers so incredible that I can’t help but believe they change the world beyond the sanctuary. Most Sundays I don’t hear those prayers with my own two ears, but they are prayed nonetheless.  They shake the city with their beauty, nonetheless. And that gives me great hope.
My friend Christine told me that when she heard the news about 9/11, she thought of the monastic community she often worships with at Big Sur in California.  She told me that the whole world was in chaos, but she knew those men where praying.  When everything was falling apart she knew they were holding us together with their prayers.  A few people hold the whole world together with their prayers.

Of the numerous parts of my faith that theological studies have unfortunately confused, my intellectual understanding of prayer–what it is and how it works–has been most affected.  Therefore, upon inquiry, I will not explain to someone how it works. I tell them I just don’t know. But I also tell them that I am often undeniably compelled to do it when I see people I love in pain, especially spiritual and emotional suffering.  I am also compelled to do it when I see people I don’t know in pain.  I tell them my most intimate moments with loved ones occur during prayer.  And, more than that, I tell them that some simple part of me really, truly believes that it both shakes the earth and holds it together, and it does all other sorts of things.

And now, I will tell them that it sounds beautiful. So absolutely beautiful, and so alive.