Alan Jones, in his book Passion for Pilgrimage: Notes for the Journey Home (1989), displays an amazing depth of reading! Often we pass over quotes as if they did not come from anywhere. So I thought it would be interesting to peel back the cover of Jones’ work and shine a light on seven people he references. As you will see, he thinks all his listening to authors and artists is listening to the Spirit at work in them. As he keeps saying: “God has fallen in love with you and wants you to come home.” Let’s see how far we get with that.

Today’s Bible reading

For unto you is paradise opened, the tree of life is planted, the time to come is prepared, plenteousness is made ready, a city is builded, and rest is allowed, yea, perfect goodness and wisdom. — 2 Esdras 8:21 KJV

Christ hath redeemed us from the curse of the law, being made a curse for us: for it is written, “Cursed is everyone that hangeth on a tree” — Galatians 3:13 KJV

He that hath an ear, let him hear what the Spirit saith unto the churches; To him that overcometh will I give to eat of the tree of life, which is in the midst of the paradise of God — Revelation 2:7 KJV

There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. – Romans 8:1 KJV

More thoughts for meditation about Helen Waddell (1889-1965)

Helen Waddell was an Irish poet, translator and playwright. Her father was a Presbyterian minister on the more progressive end of the spectrum at the time. He was a missionary in Spain, China and Japan, where Waddell was born, the youngest of 10 children Her mother died when she was three. When her father died when she was twelve, she and a sister went with their stepmother to  Belfast. When her older sister married, that left Helen to care for her stepmother, now in deteriorating health.

She eventually got on with her education. By 1919 she was studying for her doctorate in Oxford where she won a scholarship that allowed her to study in Paris. There she deepened her groundbreaking work in Medieval history and the translation of source material. She made her reputation in 1927 with the book The Wandering Scholars in which she brought the “goliards” to light. They were mostly young clergy in Europe who wrote satirical Latin protest poetry in the 12th and 13th centuries. Wassell translated and contextualized it.

Her most popular work was her best-selling historical novel, Peter Abelard, published in 1933. It marked the beginning of modern historical fiction. The tragic love story of Abelard and Heloise was her lifelong obsession. “Peter Abelard was somehow Jacques Derrida and David Bowie at the same time, so he was a great philosopher and also a famous singer,” (Medieval historian Sylvain Piron).

Some of us might know her better through her book The Desert Fathers (1936) in which she translated and interpreted these influential people who were mostly lost to modern Christians. At one point in her book Waddell champions what the desert offers the human arrogance of her own time. After an anecdote of a young monk’s sad, unnecessary death, she offers her own, frank Jeremiad that reads as a prophecy not only for the world war only three years in the future, but for the rest of the twentieth century as well:

For the martyr’s grave of these lesser pilgrims is not only the waste of youth in human experience. Leaving aside the annihilation of an entire generation in four years, not yet a quarter of a century ago, how many have died or been maimed in chemical or biological research: how many litter the track to the Northern or Southern Pole: how many have been taken by Everest and his peers: how many dead and still to die in the conquest of the air, or in that last exploration which gives this generation its nearest approach to religious ecstasy, the annihilation of space in speed?

By the end of World War II, her career was beginning to fade mostly due to the early onset of Alzheimer’s.

Suggestions for action by Alan Jones

“Believers through the ages have seen the cross as the Tree of Life, binding together heaven, earth, and hell….In traditional Christian mythology the cross is set up in the exact place where there once grew the Tree of Life in the Garden of Eden. The cross is a new Tree of Life set up in what is destined to be a new Garden….

I begin to realize that God knows, really knows, what it is to suffer. In God’s agony is mirrored the struggle of my own soul. God and I, God and all of us, are together on the cross. It is a great tree that binds everything together.

I am not given to tears, so that when I do cry it is particularly significant. Over twenty-five years ago I read Helen Waddell’s Peter Abelard. I ended up crying in my room in college. One particular incident near the end of the book triggered it. Abelard, who had suffered terrible misfortunes, is walking in the woods with his friend Thibault. They hear a piercing cry of pain. They run and find a rabbit caught in a trap, “Oh God, let it die. Let it die quickly.” Thibault released it from the trap and Abelard holds the wounded creature in his arms, where it dies.

It was that last confiding thrust that broke Abelard’s heart. He looked down at the little draggled body, his mouth shaking. “Thibault,” he said, “do you think there is a God at all? Whatever has come to me, I earned it. But what did this one do?”

Thibault nodded.

“I know,” he said. “Only – I think God is in it too.”

Abelard looked up sharply.

“In it? Do you mean that it makes Him suffer, the way it does us?”

Again Thibault nodded.

”Then Why doesn’t He stop it?”

“I don’t know,” said Thibault. “Unless – unless it’s like the Prodigal Son. I suppose the father could have kept him at home against his will. But what would have been the use? All this,” he stroked the limp body, ‘is because of us. But all the time God suffers. More than we do.”

Abelard looked perplexed…”Thibault, do you mean Calvary?”

Thibault shook his head.

“That was only part of it – the piece that we saw – in time. Like that.” He pointed to a fallen tree beside them, sawn through the middle. “That dark ring there, it goes up and down the whole length of the tree. But you see only where it was cut across. That is what Christ’s life was; the bit of God that we saw. And we think God is like that, because Christ was like that, kind and forgiving sins and healing people. We think God is like that forever, because it happened once, with Christ. But not the pain. Not the agony at last. We think that stopped.”…

“Then Thibault,” Abelard said slowly, “you think that all this…all the pain in the world was Christ’s cross?

“God’s cross,” said Thibault. “And it goes on.”

“The Patripassian heresy,” muttered Abelard mechanically. “But, O God, if it were true. Thibault it must be. At least, there is something at the back of it that is true. And if we could find it – it would bring back the whole world.“

In the death of the rabbit, Abelard caught a glimpse of the God of Pathos. For a moment he let go of his conception of the God of classical theism and saw something of the God who suffers. His automatic reaction: ‘the Patripassian heresy‘ (literally, the doctrine of God the Father suffering) gave way to a more spontaneous response. An apathetic God is hardly a God at all.

Alan Jones is very smart, isn’t he? Helen Waddell was probably even smarter. Praise God for smart people! But let’s not just admire them (or resent them); let’s listen. One of the points in all this brilliant stuff is the ring of the tree of life.  That ring we see right now is just one moment of a timeless history. Jesus did not suffer with and for us “back then,” the core of the Trinity is Abelard-like love, a passion that makes us suffer and makes us alive. Go back through today’s entry and pick out a part to which God draws you to mediate. It could be one word, a sentence, a metaphor, a “scene.” What are you hearing?