A Fraudulent Offer

Books 001

How wise You were to decline the Devil’s offer of the kingdoms of the earth – as he proudly explained – in his gift alone! The offer, as You well understood, was fraudulent; there are no kingdoms – only script-writers, make-up girls, a wardrobe mistress, a stage manager. As for that other kingdom, Yours – it alone is real. The Cross is real wood, the nails are real iron, the vinegar truly tastes bitter, and the cry of desolation is live, not recorded.

—   Malcolm Muggeridge, Jesus Rediscovered


Pilgrim 2 001

     The book of Revelation knows all about the principalities and powers of arkydom – yet it knows nothing of the common arky-faith alignment that divides human arkys into two categories (the “good” ones sponsored by God and the “bad” ones by Satan) which are then pitted against each other in determining humanity’s future … 

Arkys have no ultimate significance or even lasting function.

     — Vernard Eller, Christian Anarchy.


 * * * * * * * * * * * *


Sociologist Jacques Ellul was both incisive and prophetic when, in 1966, he contended that everything in the modern Western world is now understood and evaluated solely from a political point of view.  Nothing is allowed to escape the infection of what Ellul termed the “politization” of society.  “Politics and its offspring,” he wrote, “have become the cornerstone of what is good or represents progress.  Political concerns are thought to be inherently excellent.”*

On this day in history (September 25, 2015), much is being made of Pope Francis’s celebrated address to the joint session of Congress.  And true to Ellul’s observation, the whole thing is being given a purely political twist.  It’s a sign of the times we live in.

This Pope is worthy of our respect and admiration on a number of different levels.  On that point there can be no doubt.  There is one respect, however, in which he has made a sad departure from the example of his historic namesake.  For we can be sure that the Little Poor Man of Assisi would never have wasted his time talking to the Stuffed Shirts and Bigwigs on Capitol Hill.

The original Francis was entirely unimpressed with that kind of power.  The story goes that in September 1209, when the Poverello and his Little Brothers were living in a poor hut near the streambed of Rivo Torto, Otto IV, newly elected Holy Roman Emperor, passed through the neighborhood on his way to Viterbo to be crowned by Pope Innocent III.  With him traveled a dazzling retinue of horsemen, churchmen, soldiers, and retainers – all the political pomp and circumstance the thirteenth century was capable of mustering gathered together in one big parade.  Naturally, the entire population rushed out and lined the roadways in order to get a glimpse of this magnificent cavalcade.  But not Francis.  Biographer Julien Green writes,

     “What was an emperor?  Francis and his brothers remained in the hut, all except one, who was dispatched to the great man to remind him that all triumphs are ephemeral.”**

According to some sources, the message delivered by this single barefoot friar was simpler than Green’s account would lead us to suppose:  “Emperor Otto!  Take your crown and throw it in the river!”

Francis, of course, was not the first to adopt this kind of attitude toward rulers, “arkys” (Vernard Eller), and political hoopla.  He was only following the example of the apostle Peter, who told the rulers of the Sanhedrin, “We ought to obey God rather than men;” of the prophetess Huldah, who bluntly told King Josiah’s royal embassy, “Tell the man who sent you to me, ‘Thus saith the Lord …;’” and of Jesus Himself, who reminded the Roman governor of Judea, “You would have no power over me whatsoever were it not granted to you from above.”

This is the Pilgrim’s attitude toward kings, presidents, congressmen, candidates, and all the “powers that be,” of whatever description:  neither disrespect nor defiance, but rather pure indifference to the theatrics of small-time pretenders to the throne.


*  Jacques Ellul, The Political Illusion, p. 17.

** Julien Green, God’s Fool:  The Life and Times of Francis of Assisi, p. 128.

Not A Subject of Interest

Books 001

“It is accepted that since the eighteenth century the individual’s participation in political affairs has increased.  But while this is generally admitted (before the eighteenth century there was little such participation in the West), the corollary is generally omitted:  except on rare occasions, political affairs in and by themselves, and in the eyes of man, formerly had little importance.

“In view of the fact that we judge everything in relation to political affairs, this seems unbelievable.  How can we admit that in those past centuries political affairs were not a subject of interest, of passion — that lack of public participation was much less the result of the autocratic character of the prevailing regimes than of great indifference on the part of the public itself?  Nevertheless, it seems that for centuries political affairs, except for rare moments, produced little activity, were the care of specialists in a specialized domain, or a princes’ game that affected a very limited number of individuals.”

     — Jacques Ellul, The Political Illusion   

The Night Terrors VIII


Millstone 001


As I looked on, the entire congregation was changed in the twinkling of an eye and took on the appearance of a great flock of woolly white sheep.  The prophet took his staff and led them away to one side of the sanctuary.

After this, the angel came to me and held up a bright mirror before my face.  Gazing into it, I saw that my own countenance had changed, and that I had taken on the appearance of a scrawny, straggle-bearded goat.  Withdrawing the mirror, the angel led me apart by myself to the other side of the church.

Then the angel and the prophet and the judge and the jurors came and brought my books and my boxes and my notes and my dulcimer and a great heavy chest in which were laid up all the sorrows and pains of which I had been the cause, and they tied all these on my back.  When this was done, they drove me out of the church, down the twelve flights of marble steps, down to the quay at the rippling water’s edge with the great flock of sheep following close behind.

There they took hold of me and tied a huge mill-stone around my neck and cast me into the sea.  I went down in a cold flurry of dark and ever darker green, in a blinding white fury of foam and brine and bubbles that gave way to blackness as the black waters flooded into my lungs and into my soul and stopped dead like a cold dead stone round the dead and stony coldness of my heart.

* * * * * * * * *

In The News …

Books 001

Because he is riveted to the news, the citizen rejects the truly fundamental problems, remaining attached exclusively to perfectly outmoded and useless terms and images, such as “Right” and “Left,” “capitalism” and “communism,” and really believes that the fundamental political problems are located …

The man who lives in the news … is a man without memory.  Experimentally this can be verified a thousand times over.  The news that excited his passion and agitated the deepest corners of his soul simply disappears.  He is ready for some other agitation, and what excited him yesterday does not stay with him.  This means that the man living in the news no longer has freedom, no longer has the capacity of foresight, no longer has any reference to truth.

      — Jacques Ellul, The Political Illusion  



The Night Terrors VII

Judge 001


I mounted the pulpit then.  I stood trembling and looked out over that sea of faces, all so well known to me.  I saw the jury seated in the choir loft.  I recognized my teachers, friends, neighbors, relations, and acquaintances and nodded in acknowledgment of their presence.  And then I spoke.  I told them everything.  I told them how it was true that I had never once in my life acted purely out of love for another human being; how everything I had ever done, no matter how good or kind, had been done with an eye to my own self-interest.  I told them how proud and vain I really was; how I desired above all things to be better than others, to be admired and loved and honored and held in high esteem.  I told them, too, how little regard I had ever had for any of them, how I had cleverly manipulated and used them for my own ends.  I told them how I had been sick with longing for things that were not rightly my own and never could be.  And when I had finished telling them all these things, I came down from the pulpit and stood between the prophet and the angel before the pure and shining whiteness of the linen tablecloth.

The judge spoke:

“You stand condemned,” he said quietly; and though I still could not see his face, I knew it was dark and grim.  “You have been weighed in the balance and found wanting.  By your own words you have been judged.  We find ourselves obliged to sentence you to death!”

“Thank you!” I managed to stammer when I could find my voice at last, and I meant it.  My despair was mingled with a sense of gratitude and relief.  Justice, at least, would be served at last.

*  *  *  *  *  *  *


Pilgrim 2 001

  One time Snedgus and Mac Riaghta, clerks that were of the people of Columcille, got into their currach of their own will, and went out over the sea on a pilgrimage, and they turned righthandways and the wind brought them north-westward into the outer ocean.

      — From “the Voyage of Snedgus” in Lady Augusta Gregory’s A Book of Saints and Wonders.

* * * * * * * * * * * *

Not all those who wander are lost.

You’ve heard the words before. They come from a snatch of verse found in Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings, but the thought they express is far older. It is in fact ancient and timeless and fundamental to the Pilgrim life.

“Wanderer” (as the reader may recall) is one of the primary meanings of the English word pilgrim. Its Latin precursor, peregrinus, denotes a person on the way – someone who makes a journey through (per) the land (ager). From this primary sense comes a secondary meaning: stranger or foreigner. A traveler who is simply passing through a place can never really belong to that place. He’s bound for some other destination. He’s on a quest to find his own true home, and that true home is elsewhere. He’s what the Greeks called parepidemos: a temporary resident, a refugee, one who lives among a people not his own.

The apostle Peter uses this word to address the recipients of his first epistle: “Peter, an apostle of Jesus Christ, to the pilgrims (parepidemoi) of the Dispersion (diaspora) in Pontus, Galatia, Cappadocia, Asia, and Bithynia …” He was writing to Christians – Jews and Gentiles – who had been driven out of Rome by decree of the emperor Nero and were now sojourning in the province of Asia Minor. It’s consistent with their character and identity that these people were strangers to the vicinity in more ways than one: later in the same letter, Peter acknowledges that their neighbors were surprised to find them unwilling to “plunge into the flood of wild and destructive things they do.” Apparently these wayfarers were outlandish not only in terms of their place of origin, but also in their customs, values, and behavior. They were odd both culturally and spiritually. As a result, the locals called them “evildoers” and labeled them “haters of mankind.” As history and current circumstances teach us, this is just part and parcel of what it means to be a peregrinus.

Put differently, the Pilgrim life is in many ways a restless, rootless, unsettled, and misunderstood life. It’s a life characterized by a certain amount of pain, strain, and tension – the tension that comes from not belonging, of being in-between. The Pilgrim is a stranger because, like the Master (who said He had no place to lay His head), he is caught between two worlds or two conflicting realities. He has one foot in the kingdom and another in the kosmos.

So important was this aspect of the Pilgrim path to some of the early Irish saints that they made self-imposed exile a central element of their personal spiritual discipline. Patrick, for instance, was not a home-born Irishman. He was in fact a transplanted Briton who came to Eire originally as a captive slave and later returned of his own free choice as God’s willing bondservant. By way of contrast, Columba (Columcille) was not only a native of Donegal, but a member of the royal household. Yet in spite of his deep Irish roots, Columba turned his back on the Emerald Isle in order to embrace his identity as a stranger in the earth and “make a journey for Christ” (peregrinari pro Christi)*. He went out singing,

    My foot in my tuneful coracle,

     My sad heart tearful …

     There is a grey eye

     That will not look back again upon Ireland:

  It shall never see again the men of Ireland nor her women.**

The result of his peregrination was the founding of Iona, the tiny island monastery from which the Christian message spread not only into Britain, but across most of the European continent, carried by successive waves of wandering Irish monks.

Brendan was one of these wanderers. Many have heard about his fantastical voyage in a hide-covered currach with twelve brother monks. Some have even suggested that he may have reached the shores of North America long before Leif Ericson’s Norsemen. But fewer are familiar with the underlying motive for his journey. For as it turns out, Brendan was no mere adventurer or explorer. He did not put out to sea in search of thrills, wealth, or fame. He was driven by a desire that ran much deeper than anything of that sort: “After that, then,” writes his anonymous biographer, “the love of God grew exceedingly in Brendan’s heart, and he desired to leave his land and his country, his parents and his fatherland.”***

When Brendan threw himself upon the bosom of Ocean, he was actually casting his lot with divine mercy. He was cutting his ties with the world and putting himself in a place of utter dependence upon God’s grace. At the profoundest level, he was seeking a homeland above, which he saw with the eyes of faith and hailed as if from afar.

In a word, he was learning by experience what it means to be a Pilgrim.

 St. Brendan 001


*Adamnan, Prophecies of St. Columba.

** “Columba’s Farewell to Ireland,” tr. Kuno Meyer; in Celtic Christianity, ed. Christopher Bamford & William Parker Marsh.

*** “The Life of Brendan of Clonfert, the Navigator,” in The Book of Lismore.

Martyr’s Mirror

Poet's Corner 001

    Fire, sword, or crucifixion

Were lightly borne where heart and mind are sure;

But where uncertainty’s the soul’s affliction

    A word or look inflicts a wound that knows no cure.


          Can martyrs know what pains we bear,

We who never saw our own true face?

We cower at the execution place,

     Doubting all the while we should be hanging there;


          Doubting our own disbelief

And disbelieving our own doubt; while he,

Fixed securely to the upright tree,

     Suffers, sure of comfort, bliss, and sweet relief.


          Reviled, he answers not, but rests

Impaled upon the spike of confidence;

He flinches not from lash of trials or tests;

     Barbed tongue unravels not his seamless innocence.


          He knows that he is in the right:

He does not swing in anguished oscillation.

The rope about his neck is not so tight

     As that by which self-doubt secures its own damnation.


          But as for me, how can I know

If black be white or white be black, whose eyes,

Accustomed to the shades of shadow skies,

     See nothing but the grays in which I walk below?


          I know, O Lord, you suffered much;

Yet at their worst those tortures could not touch

Your spirit’s singleness:  how can it be

     That you should know the petty pains of such as me?


 *  *  *  *  *  *  *  *  



On the Banks of the Stream

Books 001

Civilization is a stream with banks.  The stream is sometimes filled with blood from people killing, stealing, shouting, and doing things historians usually record, while on the banks, unnoticed, people build homes, make love, raise children, sing songs, write poetry.

The story of civilization is what happened on the banks.  Historians are pessimists because they ignore the banks for the river.

                                            —   Will Durant

The Night Terrors VI

Prophet and Angel 001


After another awkward pause the judge’s voice rang out once more.

“If the defense is quite finished,” he cried, “then let the prosecution present its case.”

The brown and aged prophet stepped forward. At his side stood an angel robed in purest white.

“Let all who will come forward to bring charges against this defendant!” called the prophet. A sound like thunder followed, and I turned to see what had caused it. The entire congregation was on its feet.

And so they came. The blind and the lame, the halt and the crippled and the maimed, the homeless and marginalized, the friendless and the poor. One by one they all rose up and condemned me.

“I was hungry,” said one, “and you gave me nothing to eat.”

“I was thirsty,” said another, “and you gave me nothing to drink.”

“But I tried my best — ” I began.

“Objection!” cried the prophet. “To try is not enough!”

“Objection sustained!” ruled the judge. “Proceed.”

Some of my neighbors then took the stand.

“I was a stranger,” said one, “and you did not invite me in or speak to me.”

“I was naked,” said another, “and you did not clothe me; sick, and you failed to visit me.”

“But one can only do so much!” I protested.

“It is not enough,” said my neighbor.

“Your Honor, I object!” said I.

“Objection overruled!” the judge responded. “Proceed.”

My friends came forward then. One by one they took the stand.

“I was in need, and you did not help me,” said one.

“You failed to love me as you loved yourself,” said another.

“You were stubborn, selfish, insubordinate, ruled by vain opinions and imaginations,” added a third.

“I was in prison,” said another, “and you did not visit me.”

And so it went until at last the testimony of the final witness had been heard. Then the ancient prophet bowed his balding head and approached the table with great solemnity.

“Your Honor,” he began, “all that you have heard is but as nothing compared with what is to follow. For there remains yet one more witness whose testimony far outweighs the rest.”

“Who is this witness?” I feebly asked, sick with despair; for I half suspected the answer already, and sensed that my case was lost.

“It is yourself!” said the prophet, jabbing a withered, bony finger in my direction. “I adjure you now to take the stand and to speak truth this day in the presence of God and these witnesses!”

* * * * * * * *


Pilgrim 2 001

A fine state for the church to be in when it has no support left but God! …

      – Blaise Pascal, Pensees 


* * * * * * * * * * * *


It’s a bad thing to be poor.  Right?

Of course it is.  A lot of very intelligent, conscientious, and compassionate people have thought so – with good reason.  The more eloquent among them have given moving expression to their ideas on the subject.

“Poverty,” says author J. K. Rowling of Harry Potter fame, “entails fear and stress and sometimes depression.  It meets a thousand petty humiliations and hardships.  Climbing out of poverty by your own efforts — that is something on which to pride yourself.  But poverty itself is romanticized by fools.”

Confucius, in the Analects, took a similar point of view.  “In a country well governed,” he said, “poverty is something to be ashamed of.”

“Where justice is denied,” wrote former slave Frederick Douglass, “where poverty is enforced, where ignorance prevails, and where any one class is made to feel that society is an organized conspiracy to oppress, rob and degrade them, neither persons nor property will be safe.”

South African statesman and civil rights activist Nelson Mandela dedicated his life to opposing this kind of oppression.  “We pledge ourselves,” he said, “to liberate all our people from the continuing bondage of poverty, deprivation, suffering, gender and other discrimination.”

Jesus of Nazareth was as intelligent, conscientious, and compassionate as the best of them.  He put his concern for the poor into action as nobody else could when He miraculously multiplied the loaves and fishes to feed the hungry multitude.  He and His disciples had very little money, yet He placed Judas, treasurer of the small band, in charge of making regular contributions to the needy.  And when a rich young ruler asked Him what he had to do in order to be saved, He told him to sell all of his possessions and give the proceeds to the poor.

How strange, then, that Jesus never had anything to say about the evils of poverty!  Quite the contrary.  In one of the oddest of His many odd and paradoxical statements (the radical and nonsensical implications of which are usually piously overlooked), He actually called the poor “blessed.”  He even went so far as to declare them lords and proprietors of the heavenly kingdom.  In so doing, He suggested that the poor have a huge spiritual advantage over the rest of us.  Why would He say such a thing?  Because the poor, unlike the rich, have nothing to fall back on except sheer divine providence.  In effect, Jesus told us that we, who sometimes pride ourselves on being their kind and generous benefactors, have much to learn from the example of the poor.

Not many of Christ’s followers have taken Him seriously on this point.  Of the few who have, Francis of Assisi, true Pilgrim in the earth, was perhaps the most notable.  At the decisive turning point of his life – that moment of crisis biographer Julien Green calls “The Great Refusal” – Francis, crazed with an unearthly love, stood before his rich bourgeois merchant father, the man who had hitherto supplied all his needs, and declared his intention to abandon human support and live a new kind of life – a life of complete and utter dependence upon God.  Stripping off his clothes and throwing his money on the floor, the young man cried out, “Listen, listen, everyone!  From now on I can say with complete freedom, ‘Our Father who art in heaven!’”* Then he went off, as he put it, to marry Lady Poverty.  She was his closest companion for the rest of his days.

Lyndon Johnson declared a War on Poverty.  He meant well, of course, and his goals made perfect sense from a strictly social, political, and human point of view.  But the Pilgrim knows that, for his purposes, it’s much better to wage war on wealth and affluence.  He understands that, all too often, our financial assets become our support, our comfort, and our confidence – in other words, a false idol.

The Pilgrim, of all people, lends generously to the poor.  But at the same time he is careful not to do the good he does out of a secret sense of superiority, skipping over the fundamental truth that giving is not so much a matter of helping as it is of identifying with the helpless – of becoming poor and destitute himself.

It’s a lesson the rest of us desperately need to learn.


*Julien Green (tr. Peter Heinegg), God’s Fool:  The Life and Times of Francis of Assisi (San Francisco:  Harper & Row, 1985), p. 82.

*  *  * *  *  *  *