The Dancer III



In autumn she danced with the falling leaves and with the brisk flurries and eddying gusts of the wind’s breath that carried them along. Barefoot she danced over the morning frost in the glens and through the hills above the meadows as the warming fingers of the rising sun reached down to touch her through the trees. She danced until the daylight, chill but bright, faded early from the late afternoon sky.

“To dance with the leaves in the wind, with the frost in the glens, and with the fading daylight,” said the Voice, “is to dance with me. And yet I am not to be found in the leaves nor in the wind; not in the frost nor in the trees of the field; neither in the cold stillness of the fading light of day.”

“To dance with you,” she answered back, “is all my joy and has also become my life.”

And so she passed her days in wonder and contentment.

* * * * * * * *


Pilgrim 2 001

“Follow the Gospel and suffer injustice to yourself and your possessions as befits true Christians.”

                                    — Martin Luther

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The first two saints to be canonized in the Russian and Byzantine Orthodox tradition were Boris and Gleb, younger sons of Vladimir the Baptizer, Christian ruler of the kingdom of Kievan Rus.  For more than a millennium Boris and Gleb, who died somewhere around the year 1015, have been revered in the east as “Passion-bearers” – innocent sufferers and exemplars par excellence of the Orthodox ideal of kenosis, the emptying of self in Christian humility and love.

Vladimir, who had many children, decided to divvy up the realm among his heirs before his death, granting a portion to each of his several sons.  After their father’s demise, Sviatopolk, eldest of the brothers, became Grand Prince of Kiev, the capital city.  But Kiev was not enough for the power-hungry Sviatopolk.

Thomas Jefferson’s astute observation concerning the kind of people who desire advancement in the political realm – his contention that “a rottenness begins in their conduct” as soon as they set their sights on the prestige of public office — was certainly accurate in the case of Sviatopolk, whose cruel deeds subsequently earned him the epithet “The Accursed.”  Desiring to expand his hegemony and rid himself of all rivals, he made plans to kill his brothers Boris and Gleb in order to gain control of their territories.

Boris learned of Sviatopolk’s accession to the throne upon his return from a field campaign with the Russian army.  Being well aware of his older brother’s hostility, he was not surprised to learn that the Grand Prince was plotting his murder.  But Boris was a Pilgrim, not a politician; and when his father’s retainers urged him to collect his forces and oust the unpopular Sviatopolk, he refused.  Mindful of the words of the apostle John — “If any man say, ‘I love God,’ and hate his brother, he is a liar” — Boris sent his soldiers away, saying, “Be it not for me to raise my hand against my brother.  Now that my father has passed away, let him take my father’s place in my heart.”

As night closed down, Boris retired to his tent with one servant to recite the vigil service and await the approach of the assassins.  As they burst into the tent, Sviatopolk’s henchmen heard him singing psalms and asking God to strengthen him for the suffering he was about to endure.  After that, he lay down on his couch and his murderers pierced him through with their lances.

Meanwhile, Sviatopolk sent word to Gleb saying that his father was very ill and desired to see him.  A guileless youth, Gleb set out with a small band of retainers by boat.  As he neared the city of Smolensk, he was met by emissaries bearing a letter from his sister Predislava.  “Do not come,” she wrote.  “Your father is dead and Sviatopolk has killed your brother.”  But it was too late; and when the assassins caught up with him on the river, Gleb urged his company not to offer armed resistance.  He was stabbed by his own cook and his body was thrown on to the shore between two trees.

Boris and Gleb received the Crown of Martyrdom in 1015.  Not long afterwards, a service was composed in their honor by St. John I, Metropolitan of Kiev.  But it’s important to note that Boris and Gleb were not really martyrs in the technical sense of the term.  They did not actually die for their faith, but rather because, in emulation of their Master, they chose not to resist evil with violence.  Like the One who, in spite of His divine claim to power, honor, and glory, humbled Himself and became obedient even to the point of death, they emptied themselves and laid down their lives as an offering to Love.

That is why, in the tradition of the Russian Church, they became known not as “martyrs” but as “Passion-bearers” (Russian strastoterptsy) – imitators of the sufferings of Christ.  And that is what we mean when we speak of the Pilgrim value of kenosis.




The Dancer II



In summer she danced down to the seashore, gracefully skimming white sands and skirting the foamy water’s edge. From rock to rock she skipped and fairly flew like the seabirds that wheeled and skirled their song above her head. She danced with the noonday heat that shimmered on the sand and with the seaweed swaying tangled in the tide. She danced with the sunset as it splayed itself upon the face of the water, and with the stars that followed in its wake.

She danced and danced until she fell each night, exhausted but happy, into her bed. And each morning she woke feeling contented and whole.

“To dance with the foam and the sands, with the rocks and the birds, and with the sun as it sets at the world’s edge,” said the Voice, “is to dance with me. And yet I am not in the foam, nor am I in the sands; neither in the rocks nor in the song of the birds, nor yet in the beauty of the sunset.”

Again she asked, “Who then are you? And where are you to be found?”

But the answer was a command, a happy imperative, and a solemn invitation:

“Come, dance! Dance with me!”

And so she did.

* * * * * * *

Nolo Episcopari

Pilgrim 2 001

     “I know,” said the bishop, “that the king is not to live long.  For never before this time have I seen a humble king.  Whereby I perceive that he must speedily be taken out of this life …”

      – The Venerable Bede, Ecclesiastical History of the English Nation,                     Book III, Chapter XIV 

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


It’s arguable that never at any time in the past have there been so many people wanting to become President of the United States.  As of this writing, the number of candidates on either side of the political ledger rivals the all-star college football lineup on one of those old Bob Hope Christmas specials.

One has to wonder – seriously – about people who have that much ego, ambition, and drive.  Think about it:  a field of maybe twenty or thirty contenders who haven’t the slightest hesitation about standing up and saying, “Yes!  I’d like to be the most powerful person in the world!”  What’s wrong with this picture?  Is it possible to trust anyone who thirsts for that much control over the lives of others?

We hear a lot about “leadership” nowadays – both in the secular realm and the sacred.  “Leadership conferences” are huge in the church right now.  Unfortunately, most of them major in principles that have more to do with success in the corporate world than progress along the Pilgrim path.  For the devotees of the contemporary “leadership” cult, it’s all about initiative, aggression, financial savvy, self-confidence, and a dogged “can do” attitude.  But it’s hard to see how any of this lines up with the “leadership style” of the Man who said “The first shall be last,” and who ended His days on earth as a beaten and crucified criminal.

This is a key area of conflict between kingdom and kosmosKosmic or worldly leaders don’t put much stock in meekness and humility.  After all, in a race to lay claim to the highest office in the land, the humble don’t stand much of a chance.  If they can even get past the gate, they’ll probably end up being trampled by the go-getters in the crowd.

Aidan, bishop of Lindisfarne in seventh-century England, understood this.  That’s why he actually broke down and wept when he saw the Christ-like meekness of Oswin, king of the province of Deira in Northumbria.  As the chronicler Bede tells the story, Aidan had never before seen such a thing as a humble king.  He didn’t know such an animal could exist.  It seemed obvious to him that this particular king wasn’t long for this world.  And so it turned out:  within a very short time Oswin was betrayed and murdered by his rival, Oswy, king of the Bernicians.

True Pilgrims have always taken a tack precisely opposite to that embraced by the current crop of political candidates.  In their intense desire to imitate their Master and to become “leaders” only in the sense of following His example, they have clung to humility and shunned the struggle to climb to the top of the pile.  As a matter of fact, there was a time when ecclesiastical tradition required church leaders to resist appointment to high office.  Nominees to the episcopate were supposed to decline the honor with the words nolo episcopari:  “I do not wish to become a bishop.”  Only the man capable of repeating this formula and really meaning it was considered fit for the task of shepherding the faithful.

Originally this seems to have been something more than just a polite formality.  When the apostle Peter, sensing the nearness of his own death, chose Clement to succeed him as overseer of the church in Rome, Clement tried to beg off:  “I knelt to him, and entreated him, declining the honor and the authority of the chair.”*  St. Anselm (eleventh century), seems to have been of a similar frame of mind:  according to some accounts, he had to be held down, his fingers pried open, and the episcopal staff forced into his hand when he was made Archbishop of Canterbury.  Chad (Ceadda), Bishop of York (seventh century), was unperturbed when critics challenged the legitimacy of his appointment:  “If you decide that I have not rightly received the episcopal character,” he said, “I willingly lay down the office.”**

In the secular realm, too, it has long been recognized that the person best suited to exercise authority is the one who wants it least.  That’s why the early Romans worshipped the memory of Lucius Quinctius Cincinnatus (born about 519 BC), the legendary statesman who was twice called upon to assume the (temporary) office of dictator and twice returned the his farm when the state of emergency had passed.***  Cincinnatus was clearly a very different sort of person than Julius Caesar, that shrewd politician who preferred to hold on to absolute power once it was in his grasp.  Thomas Jefferson might have been thinking of Caesar when he wrote, “Whenever a man has cast a longing eye on [public office], a rottenness begins in his conduct.”****

Nolo episcopari!  Or, as one clever commentator translates it, “Not me, Jack!”*****  That’s the Pilgrim’s attitude toward “leadership” in the kosmic sense of the term.  It’s also the cry of the heart of every true leader – the kind of heart that perceives its own frailty and knows its true condition.  For distrust of self is the first step toward dependence upon Another.


(Adapted from Finding God in the Hobbit, “Reluctant Leader”)


* Clement, Epistle of Clement to James, Chapter 3, in The Ante-Nicene Fathers, vol. 8.

** New Advent Catholic Encyclopedia, s.v. St. Ceadda, (October 6, 2005).

*** Livy, The Early History of Rome, Book 4.  Under the constitution of the Roman Republic, consuls had the power to appoint a dictator during times of national crisis.  The dictator was granted absolute power for a period of six months.

**** Thomas Jefferson, Letter to Tench Coxe, 1799.  Cited in The Oxford Dictionary of Quotations, 268.

***** David Mills,  “Take Me!”  Touchstone:  A Journal of Mere Christianity, August 9, 2003.




The Dancer I



In a green land beside the misty sea lived a poor little girl who had no shoes.

One morning in spring as she walked in a foggy glen through which a sparkling brook ran joyously from the meadow to the sea, she heard a sudden voice:


The mists dispersed and the sunrise glittered through the dark leaves and branches of an oak tree, adorning it with a thousand tiny red-gold stars.

“Dance!” she thought. “And what do I know of dancing?”

“Dance with me!” the Voice said again. And it was as if strong and sweet music rose up from within her, and she was carried away, caught up into something larger and more powerful than herself.

From that moment, then, she was a dancer. Her feet moved quickly and lightly over the jeweled grass, her movements reflected in each crystal dewdrop.

She danced with the last wisps of mist as they floated on the air and vanished. She danced with the fragrance of the flowers carried along on the morning breezes. She danced to the music of the brook and the silent song of the trees.

“To dance with the mist and with the flowers, with the brook and with the trees,” said the Voice, “is to dance with me. And yet I am not in the mist, nor am I in the flowers, nor in the brook, nor yet in the trees.”

“Who are you then?” she asked breathlessly.

But the only answer that came was, “Come, dance with me!”

* * * * * * *

American Dream

Books 001

“But how can we believe that in a civilization entirely oriented toward the pursuit of comfort and the raising of the material living standard, intent on mobilizing all its powers toward that end while increasingly integrating the individual by systematic means — how can we believe that in such a civilization the state would take the chance of of making concessions to spiritual autonomy?”

  — Jacques Ellul, The Political Illusion

The Boat People Don’t Care

Poet's Corner 001

(In response to requests from Steve Alvarez and a couple of others who still remember The Levellers …)

The Boat People Don’t Care


Times are hard, any fool can see it’s true,

I’ve been waiting for my assets to accrue.

But I’m finding it’s a struggle just to maintain,

My standard of living is under such a strain.


I had to make another payment on my Maserati,

Not to mention my townhouse-condominium,

And you don’t have to tell me ‘bout the price of gasoline –

How come those Arabs have to be so mean?

And the worst thing about it is

The Boat People don’t care

They don’t care about me,

The Boat People don’t care,

They don’t care about me …


I can’t bear such a blatant incongruence;

It’s getting hard just holding on to my affluence.

So I try a little harder each and every day,

But every time I make a dollar seems like

Somebody’s taking it away.


Well, you should’ve seen the bill for my microwave oven

And the cost of maintaining my redwood hot tub.

It’s really put a burden on my adding machine –

How come those Arabs have to be so mean?

And the worst thing about it is

The Boat People don’t care

They don’t care about me,

The Boat People don’t care,

They don’t care about me …


Books 001

Man is a creature; all his happiness consists in being a creature; or, as the Great Voice commanded us, in becoming a child.  All his fun is in having a gift or present; which the child, with profound understanding, values because it is ‘a surprise.’  But surprise implies that the thing came from outside ourselves; and gratitude that it comes from someone other than ourselves.  It is thrust through the letter-box; it is thrown in at the window; it is thrown over the wall …

     — G. K. Chesterton, “The Crime of Gabriel Gale,” in The Poet and the Lunatics  

The Night Terrors X

Sunset 001


When I realized it was only a dream, I was glad – at least for an hour, perhaps for as long as a day.  But in time, just as the shadow of the cross faded from my bedroom wall, so the shadow of the dream returned and lengthened and stretched itself over me again like a huge and menacing bird; so that the truth of the matter is that I am sometimes uncertain whether I am in fact awake or whether I continue to walk in this same dark dream.

There are moments – usually in the freshness of the early morning – when the light is clear and I see the cross cast clearly upon my wall, and I rise wakeful and confident and seize the moment’s joy.  And yet the dream still clings to me, so that I am often prevented from seeing anything else.  And so, my friends, my earnest request is that you will pray for me and intercede for me, that one day I may at last fully awake and shed the last stubborn strands of this persistent web of shadow.

For my part, I will pray for you as well, for I have no doubt but that your case is often similar to my own.  Surely every man walks about in a vain show.  But we may trust that the day is coming, and is not far off, when the sun shall rise with such light and such force that all these vanities and phantoms will at last be burned away like chaff and dispersed like smoke.  That, I say, is our one great hope:  for if our dreams should in the end come true, then we are indeed of all men most to be pitied.