Pope Shenouda III at Rest at St. Mark’s
by Trent Gilliss, senior editor
The body of Pope Shenouda III, the spiritual leader of the Coptic Orthodox Church, sits dressed in formal robes on a wooden throne at Saint Mark’s Coptic Cathedral in Cairo’s al-Abbassiya district. Mourners are paying their respects to the man who reigned over the Middle East’s largest Christian minority group. He was 88.
After a long illness, he died on Saturday and will be buried today at St. Bishoy Monastery in Wadi Natrun in the Nile Delta where he spent his time in exile after a dispute with late president Anwar Sadat.
Photo by Gianluigi Guercia/AFP/Getty Images)
Do Nothing for Lent and Be Grateful
by Amy Ruth Schacht, guest contributor
"Contemplation" (photo: Kasia/Flickr cc by-nc-sa 2.0)
Ash Wednesday is today, inaugurating this year’s season of Lent. Cultural customs dictate “giving something up” for Lent. Without any meaningful or theological reflection, it becomes “giving up for the sake of giving up,” as though the mere act is enough. Is there more to it than just giving us something to talk about and a way to feel good about ourselves?
Perhaps a more faithful practice is to connect an act, or the abstinence from an act, with our longing for God. Give up Facebook, and all that may happen is that other chores fill in that time the way the ocean fills our sandcastle moats; the castle eventually falls, and there’s no trace of our intention left. Give up chocolate, and all that may happen is that we fill our mouths with Skittles or our minds with obsessing about chocolate. Neither connects us with the grace of God, present every moment.
If our intention is to remember our efforts and our strivings cannot save us, it would be better for us to do nothing, and do it often, these six weeks. Stare out the window at creation. Hold a warm cup of tea and sit. Waste an hour doing absolutely nothing. God fills the emptiness that comes. In a culture that measures our worth by the length of our daily accomplishments or the volume of our inbox or how scheduled our days, how countercultural would it be?
To commit to doing nothing. It takes practice to build up the tolerance for non-productivity. Who are we if we are not working? What are we here for if we do nothing? Where is God, and what does the Divine expect for us and from us? What about this invitation for Lent: for a set number of minutes every day, do nothing. It’s more of a sacrifice than we realize, for we are sacrificing what defines us and what gives us life. Perhaps then we will discover the power of grace that comes in every breath.
Amy Ruth Schacht is a pastor at Laurel Presbyterian Church in Maryland.
We welcome your original reflections, essays, videos, or news items for possible publication on the On Being Blog. Submit your entry through ourFirst Person Outreach page.
Living in a Material World: Lent and Our Bodies
by Debra Dean Murphy, guest contributor
Photo by John (mtsofan)/Flickr, cc by-nc-sA 2.0
Remember you are soil, and to soil you shall return.
The language of “spiritual journey” is commonplace in describing the season of Lent — the 40-day pilgrimage Christians undertake as they trek with Jesus from the wilderness to the garden to the garbage heap of Golgotha and beyond. “Spiritual” in this context, as in almost every other, is so vague as to be not merely unhelpful but an actual obstacle to understanding what it is that Lent has called Christians to through the centuries.
Generally, “spiritual” is meant to signal a concern with matters of the heart or the soul or the deepest self. More pointedly, it almost always springs from — even as it continues to endorse — the tired dualisms of modernity that have divided body from soul, matter from spirit, earth from heaven. This false divide, as Wendell Berry has observed, is “a fracture that runs through the mentality of institutional religion like a geologic fault.”
Interestingly, it is geology (sort of) that can help get us back on track or — forgive the pun — onto solid ground. When we Christians receive the ashes on our foreheads we are marked with a visible sign of our mortality, yes, but we are also reminded of our link to all of creation past, present, and future — to elements both earthly and celestial, to the soil and to the stars. We could even say: "remember you are stardust, and to stardust you shall return!"
The season of Lent also reveals how relentlessly incarnational is the faith we confess. When Jesus sojourns for 40 days in the wilderness, it is physical hunger (“he was famished”) that the gospel writers make special note of — except in Mark’s version, this year’s lectionary gospel, which is characteristically spare with the particulars. Fasting from food and its physiological consequences are part of Jesus’ quest for wisdom, understanding, and clarity of purpose.
There is an essential unity among body, soul, and the material world. Jesus is not “freed” of his body — nor of his bodily needs and desires — for the sake of his soul. And his soul is not disengaged from the material realm. As Berry notes about scriptural religion generally: “The Bible’s aim is not the freeing of the spirit from the world. It is the handbook of their interaction.”
In our own time, a relentlessly incarnational Christianity invites reflection on a host of ways that body, spirit, and world interact — ways in which our whole lives and our whole selves are either enriched or impoverished by situations of our own making or circumstances beyond our control. What does it mean, for example, to observe a Lenten fast in the context of social and economic realities like starvation among the poor, increasing food insecurity among the middle class, and growing obesity rates for all of us? How has the formative rhythm of feasting and fasting been obscured, overridden, undone by a culture of excess in which increasingly every meal is a mindless, hastily consumed feast, lacking in both nutrition and conviviality?
Or this: When late in Lent we regard the body of Jesus on the cross, can we see him as he is?
You’re not the figurehead on a ship. You’re not
flying anywhere, and no one’s coming to hug you.
You hang like that, a sack of flesh with the hard
trinity of nails holding you into place.
Can we share in poet Mary Karr’s unflinching gaze of a human body abandoned and broken? Can the “sack of flesh” disabuse us of our tendencies to sanitize the scene, fetishize the cross, and spiritualize the meaning of this first-century revolutionary’s death at the hands of the imperial authorities? With theologian James Cone can we see the reciprocity between the crucified Christ and “the lynched black body” of America’s shameful past? A past, Cone reminds us, that is not so past: one-third of all young black men are in prison or somewhere in the “system.” Bodies, again, alas, abandoned and broken.
The ashes we Christians will receive on Wednesday may not convey enough of our connection to soil and stars and our sisters and brothers, but they do have deep associations with sorrow and repentance. The charcoal smudge across the forehead is a public sign that says to all I meet: I have sins to confess, wrongs to right. The challenge is to take this penitence seriously but to “wear” it lightly. “Beware of practicing your piety before others in order to be seen by them,” warns Jesus in the gospel reading appointed for Ash Wednesday. The task of repentance grounds us in the work of serving our neighbors, not ourselves.
The materiality of the faith we confess is most evident in a simple meal shared with friends. Christ’s body — taken, blessed, broken, and shared — makes of his followers a body. And for all that this means and for all that it requires, there is this fundamental imperative: we are to nourish and care for our own bodies and the bodies of others, including the earth from which we came and to which we will return. In Lent, we journey with Jesus to the place where his own “sack of flesh” redeems a broken world, revealing God’s love for all of creation, and forever conjoining body and soul, matter and spirit, earth and heaven.
Inset photo by Mandy Jansen/Flickr, cc by-nc-sa 2.0)
Debra Dean Murphy is an assistant professor of Religion and Christian Education at West Virginia Wesleyan College and serves on the board of The Ekklesia Project. She regularly blogs at Intersections: Thoughts on Religion, Culture, and Politics.
We welcome your reflections, essays, videos, or news items for possible publication with the On Being Blog. Submit your entry through our First Person Outreach page.
I get a kick out of folks who call for equality now, the people on the left, ‘Well, equality, we want equality.’ Where do you think this concept of equality comes from? It doesn’t come from Islam. It doesn’t come from the East and Eastern religions, where does it come from? It comes from the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, that’s where it comes from.
—Rick Santorum speaking to a crowded restaurant in Boiling Springs, South Carolina before today’s vote, as reported by ABC News.
~Trent Gilliss, senior editor
The Pursuit and Practice of Happiness Is an Awareness of the Suffering and Pleasure of Others
by Krista Tippett, host
A basketball court transformed by flowers and incandescent light. Four thousand people in attendance. Four global religious leaders. I have never concentrated as hard as I did in the two hours I spent on that stage. But it was, in the end, a delight. And it was fascinating as an encounter as much as a conversation. The Dalai Lama embodied joy, his radiant and playful presence, was as defining as the words he spoke.
The biggest challenge with discussing “happiness” in this culture might be finding our way back to the substance of the word itself — a substance that has been hollowed out by its uses in culture. I found myself planted in the definition of happiness that the French-born, Tibetan Buddhist scientist and monk Matthieu Ricard offered on this program. He defines happiness as “genuine flourishing” — not a pleasurable sensation or mood but a way of being in the world that can encompass the fullness of human experience, joy and pleasure as well as suffering and loss.
Muslim scholar Seyyed Hossein Nasr, Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori of the Episcopal Church, and Chief Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks of the United Kingdom all added to that definition as they laid out the virtues and habits, the spiritual technologies, that their traditions have carried forward in time. They all described corollaries, in a sense, to the Dalai Lama’s joyful yet disciplined teachings on cultivating compassion and calmness in the mind as way of flourishing in and amidst all of life’s experiences. But the most exciting part of interreligious encounter, for me, is not rushing to hear similarities but savoring particularities — the distinctive vocabularies of thought and practice, the beautiful and intriguing differences that come to light even as we may seem to be circling towards the same goal.
And so among my favorite moments are Professor Nasr’s explication of beauty as inextricably linked to virtue and happiness in Muslim tradition. Beauty, he says, makes the soul happy. Bishop Jefferts Schori talked about the long tradition in Christianity of practicing gratitude and “the presence of God” in the midst of ordinary activities of life. Rabbi Sacks evoked sabbath as a space to focus on the things in life that are “important but not urgent.” He described the extraordinary power of pausing to let life’s “blessings” — an awareness of the deepest sources of our happiness — “catch up with us.” Such reflections unsettle notions of happiness as a “right” and as something to be “pursued.”
A discussion of happiness is intrinsically serious, too. As we were also reminded in the course of this discussion, spiritual happiness is never merely personal in nature. It is linked to an awareness of the suffering and pleasure of others. And at the same time, it is something we cultivate in our bodies as well as our minds. It communicates itself in our very presence.
There was, fittingly, a great deal of laughter on this stage of religious dignitaries seated center court at Emory. There was a festive atmosphere in the room altogether. Listen, and watch, for yourself. Ponder, and enjoy.
Walter Brueggemann Recites Psalm 146
by Trent Gilliss, senior editor
Sometimes we have to make some difficult cuts for a one-hour show, but, with Walter Brueggemann, a kind of rock star in the theological world, it becomes even more challenging. The audio above includes one of these behind-the-scenes moments.
When Krista asked him to read a biblical verse that means something special to him, he responded by reading an excerpt of Psalm 146. Why he chose it and his explanation is even more intriguing.
Listen in and let us know how you react to his understanding of these verses.
Phyllis Trible has taught us that the Hebrew word for ‘mercy’ is the word for ‘womb’ with different vowel points. And so mercy, she suggested, is womb-like mother love. And it is the capacity of the mother to totally give one’s self over to the need and reality and identity of child. And mutatis mutandis then, mercy is the capacity to give one’s self away for sake of neighborhood. Now none of us do that completely. But it makes a difference if the quality of social transactions have to do with the willingness to give one’s self away for the sake of the other rather than the need to always be drawing all of the resources to myself for my own well-being.
So it is this kind of generous connectedness to others — and then I think our task is to see how translates in to policy…I think that a community or a society finally cannot live without the quality of mercy. The problem for us is what will initiate that? What will break the pattern of self-preoccupation enough to notice the others are out there and we’re attached to them?
French Christians Protest Provocative Play about Jesus, Religion, and Consumer Culture
by Trent Gilliss, senior editor
A woman holds a banner reading “Touche pas à Dieu!" ("Don’t touch God!") during a demonstration in Paris, France this past Sunday. The Institut Civitas called on Christians to gather and denounce “Christianophobia” and Argentine-born author Rodrigo Garcia’s play Golgota Picnic, which the fundamentalist Christian group judges as “blasphemous.” Thousands of Catholics took part in the demonstration and stopped at the Théâtre de Rond-Point on the Champs Elysees which is running the play, which contains a stage littered with hamburger buns and scenes of Jesus’ crucifixion with biblical readings.
Golgota Picnic is a hard-hitting critique of consumer culture and religion in which, Garcia said to the BBC, “depicts the life of Christ through shocking images of contemporary consumer society.”
Photo by Fred Dufour/AFP/Getty Images.
That’s way too much earnestness for the ironic. It’s way too much idealism for the cynical. And it’s way too much selflessness for the self-absorbed. In short, people aren’t upset at Tebow’s God talk. They’re upset that he might actually believe it.
—Daniel Foster ends with this provocative thought in the National Review Online regarding Tim Tebow’s response to Detroit Lions linebacker Stephen Tulloch mocking his style of prayer after sacking the Denver Broncos quarterback: “He was probably just having fun and was excited he made a good play and had a sack. And good for him.”
The commentary is well worth reading. What do you think?
Photo by Justin Edmonds/Getty Images.
~Trent Gilliss, senior editor