Encouragement for a lifelong journey of faith

Category: Alan Jones (Page 1 of 2)

August 1, 2021 — Let me in!

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

Jesus said to them, “I tell you the solemn truth, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in yourselves. The one who eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise [them] up on the last day. For my flesh is true food, and my blood is true drink. The one who eats my flesh and drinks my blood resides in me, and I in [them]. Just as the living Father sent me, and I live because of the Father, so the one who consumes me will live because of me. This is the bread that came down from heaven; it is not like the bread your ancestors ate, but then later died. The one who eats this bread will live forever.” – John 6:53-8 NET

More thoughts for meditation about Anne Sexton (1928-1974)

Anne Sexton was an American poet known for her highly personal, confessional verse. She won the Pulitzer Prize for poetry in 1967 for her book Live or Die.

Sexton never got to a comfortable faith, but she wrote about it a lot. And she had a long correspondence with a monk, right up to the point when she sent off her last work The Awful Rowing toward God, then put on her mother’s old mink coat, went to the garage, started the car and made the exhaust that killed her at age 45. One poem in her last self-collected book was titled after one of Soren Kierkegaard’s works:

The Sickness Unto Death

God went out of me
as if the sea dried up like sandpaper,
as if the sun became a latrine.
God went out of my fingers.
They became stone.
My body became a side of mutton
and despair roamed the slaughterhouse.

Someone brought me oranges in my despair
but I could not eat a one
for God was in that orange.
I could not touch what did not belong to me.
The priest came,
he said God was even in Hitler.
I did not believe him
for if God were in Hitler
then God would be in me.
I did not hear the bird sounds.
They had left.
I did not see the speechless clouds,
I saw only the little white dish of my faith
breaking in the crater.
I kept saying:
I’ve got to have something to hold on to.
People gave me Bibles, crucifixes,
a yellow daisy,
but I could not touch them,
I who was a house full of bowel movement,
I who was a defaced altar,
I who wanted to crawl toward God
could not move nor eat bread.

So I ate myself,
bite by bite,
and the tears washed me,
wave after cowardly wave,
swallowing canker after canker
and Jesus stood over me looking down
and He laughed to find me gone,
and put His mouth to mine
and gave me His air.

My kindred, my brother, I saidand gave the yellow daisy
to the crazy woman in the next bed.

Her last book was dedicated to the monk. Sexton drafted her final book in two and half weeks during January 1973. Two of those days were spent in a mental hospital, where she spoke with a priest. She told him that she wasn’t sure if she believed in God. “I can’t go to church,” she said. “I can’t pray.” She wished to take communion but knew that she could not. She feared formal conversion: “It would ruin, it would formulate, my thinking: I’d want Him to be my God, anyway. I don’t want to be taught about Him; I want to make him up.”

The priest read Sexton’s drafts aloud to her. “Your typewriter is your altar,” he said.

Suggestions for action from Alan Jones

“Ironically, the Virgin Birth was insisted upon in the early years because there were those who said that Jesus wasn’t really human. He was some heavenly being. Mary was the guarantee that Jesus was really one of us. This crude insistence on the material is emphasized in the Gospel [as in today’s reading]…

Think for a moment of Mary. She has just said Yes! To the baby, to the longed-for unknown. She contemplates the future stretching from her belly, and her own stretching by the child that will be born. It is a common experience for mothers. It is a metaphor that others in our culture need to appropriate – both men and women. Giving birth is an ordeal, and we, pregnant with God, are to give birth to a new understanding of ourselves. We are called to assist at our own birth. I know of no greater adventure. I know of no other way to describe it but as an ongoing drama of resurrection. The love letters never cease to amaze me.

George Emery, an old friend and expert in Christian mythology, sent us a Christmas poem not long ago about Mary as a sign and promise of new life breaking out in us.

To understand ordeals underground
Following the footsteps of the Lord
Into our own identity
Is difficult. As a new baby
Finds his mother to be another,
And she is a new person,
Mary saw God in her son,
Beholds him still for us
Both there and on the cross.

This describes our inner pilgrimage. It is an underground ordeal into the mystery of who we are. Through the agency of others we become new persons. Anne Sexton contributed to the bundle of love letters when she wrote,

Oh, Mary
Gentle Mother,
open the door and let me in.
A bee has stung your belly with faith.
Let me float in it like a fish.
Let me in! Let me in!
I have been born many times, a false Messiah;
but let me be born again
into something true. (from The Awful Rowing Toward God)

…We follow the footsteps of our Lord into our own identity…to be born again and again and again. What freedom there is in my not having to be my own messiah!”

Poor Anne! Standing on the outside of Mary’s belly trying to get in. One reason we like her poetry is because she describes our reactions and says what we would not dare. Alan Jones has drawn us into all sorts of interesting conversations with a whole new community of people he loves. I wonder what part of you is still saying “Let me in!” What answer comes back?

July 31, 2021 –  Enlarging Our Hearts

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

On the evening of that day, the first day of the week, the disciples had gathered together and locked the doors of the place because they were afraid of the Jewish leaders.Jesus came and stood among them and said to them, “Peace be with you.” When he had said this, he showed them his hands and his side. Then the disciples rejoiced when they saw the Lord. So Jesus said to them again, “Peace be with you. Just as the Father has sent me, I also send you.” And after he said this, he breathed on them and said, “Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive anyone’s sins, they are forgiven; if you retain anyone’s sins, they are retained.”

Now Thomas (called Didymus), one of the twelve, was not with them when Jesus came. The other disciples told him, “We have seen the Lord!” But he replied, “Unless I see the wounds from the nails in his hands, and put my finger into the wounds from the nails, and put my hand into his side, I will never believe it!”

Eight days later the disciples were again together in the house, and Thomas was with them. Although the doors were locked, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you!” Then he said to Thomas, “Put your finger here, and examine my hands. Extend your hand and put it into my side. Do not continue in your unbelief, but believe.” Thomas replied to him, “My Lord and my God!” Jesus said to him, “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are the people who have not seen and yet have believed.”

Now Jesus performed many other miraculous signs in the presence of the disciples, which are not recorded in this book. But these are recorded so that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name. – John 20:19-31 NET

More thoughts for meditation about John Cheever (1912-1982)

John Cheever wrote short stories with sentences filled with light and nature like this:

“The world that was not mine yesterday now lies spread out at my feet, a splendor. I seem, in the middle of the night, to have returned to the world of apples, the orchards of Heaven. Perhaps I should take my problems to a shrink, or perhaps I should enjoy the apples that I have, streaked with color like the evening sky.” (The journals of John Cheever and all over the internet)

Five years before he died Cheever finally stopped drinking. Some people thought he then began to do his best work, especially his novel Falconer. His daughter thinks he would have finally come out as bisexual had he lived longer. He began to collect awards.

After he died his voluminous journals revealed what had really been going on all those years behind his presentation as a wry, suburban observer and generous moralist.

In a well-known interview with John Hershey of the New York Times in 1977 he offered some thoughts about how he saw his faith.

JH: Your voice has a blurted quality—shifts, ellipses, disjunctions.

JC: I have always felt there is some ungainliness in my person, some ungainliness in my spiritual person that I cannot master. Perhaps you mean that….

[Hershey does not follow that but stays with his style, then comes back]

JH: Your spiritual person…

JC: I have been a churchgoer for most of my adult life —a liturgical churchgoer. I am very happy with Cranmer’s “The Book of Common Prayer.” The current schisms of the church concern me not at all. It seems to be one of God’s infinite mercies that the sexual disposition of the priest has never been my concern. The religious experience is very much my concern, as it seems to me it is the legitimate concern of any adult who has experienced love….

{Hershey ignores this and asks him about his desk, but later gets back to the spiritual characteristic in almost all of Cheever’s writings]

JH: Fire suggests fear. I see another kind of light in your writing—more joyous.

JC: The whiteness of light. In the church, you know, that always represents the Holy Spirit. It seems to me that man’s inclination toward light, toward brightness, is very nearly botanical—and I mean spiritual light. One not only needs it, one struggles for it. It seems to me almost that one’s total experience is the drive toward light. Or, in the case of the successful degenerate, the drive into an ultimate darkness, which presumably will result in light. Yes. My fondness for light is very, very strong and, I presume, primitive. But isn’t it true of us all?

Suggestions for action from Alan Jones

“The Resurrection is not, in the first instance, a puzzling doctrine over which to make an intellectual decision. It is an invitation to life and to live now. Our journey has, in part, been to teach how much we dread and long for this new life.

What John Cheever claimed about the proper function of writing can be said of the purpose of the believing community. ‘The proper function of writing, if possible, is to enlarge people, to give them their risk, if possible to give them their divinity, not to cut them down.’ This is precisely the inner work of the Resurrection. It is the power of God giving us our risk, enlarging our hearts, and, thereby, breathing new life into us. That is why I rely on the Spirit’s marvelous working in novelists, poets, and other artists. John Cheever came to realize that his calling was to be an agent of the Spirit. ‘I think one has the choice with imagery either to enlarge or diminish. At this point I find diminishment deplorable. When I was younger I thought it brilliant.’ The imagery of the Christian Drama has been for our enlargement. It speaks to our longings and stretches our capacity for awe. It sows the seed of faith.

Easter brings together images of our woundedness and our longing for peace, for home, for glory. When Jesus appeared to his disciples (in John 20:19-31) he said, ‘Peace be with you!’ and then showed them his hands and his side. There is no peace without wounds, no peace without responsibility, no peace without the risk of being sent off to god knows where. There is no peace without the goad and the irritant of the Spirit. There is no private peace while others suffer, no peace without forgiveness and judgment.”

Do you “dread and long” for this new life of the resurrection? Some of our hearts might need to be “enlarged” in order to contain such a feeling. We might be a bit tamped down or avoidant — at least distracted by endless shopping, entertainment and porn possibilities. Spend some time with the alcoholic Cheever and see if you are ready to quit something and get some peace from Jesus.

Today is Ignatius of Loyola Day. Learn about the great disciple-maker at Celebrating Our Transhistorical Body.

July 30, 2021 — The Tree of Life

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?

July 29, 2021 – The cleansing power of hatred

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 scripture reading

So Jesus’ brothers advised him, “Leave here and go to Judea so your disciples may see your miracles that you are performing. For no one who seeks to make a reputation for himself does anything in secret. If you are doing these things, show yourself to the world.” (For not even his own brothers believed in him.)

So Jesus replied, “My time has not yet arrived, but you are ready at any opportunity! The world cannot hate you, but it hates me, because I am testifying about it that its deeds are evil. You go up to the feast yourselves. I am not going up to this feast because my time has not yet fully arrived.” When he had said this, he remained in Galilee.

But when his brothers had gone up to the feast, then Jesus himself also went up, not openly but in secret. So the Jewish leaders were looking for him at the feast, asking, “Where is he?” There was a lot of grumbling about him among the crowds. Some were saying, “He is a good man,” but others, “He deceives the common people.” However, no one spoke openly about him for fear of the Jewish leaders. – John 7:3-13 (NET)

More thoughts for meditation about William Butler Yeats (1865-1939)

William Butler Yeats is one of the most celebrated poets in the English language. He is also one of the most difficult to talk about in relation to following Jesus.

He was born into a Protestant family who was part of the minority rule of Ireland for hundreds of years. His grandfather was a rector in the Church of Ireland. Yeats told a familiar, almost clichéd story about what took away any Christian faith in his upbringing. It was, he said, empirical science. Charles Darwin and John Tyndall, as for many other Victorians, persuaded Yeats that Christianity was a fraud.

Yet he found a materialist view of the world inadequate for his searching, speculating mind. In this he was, again, not unlike many other upper-class non-Christians during the Victorian period when England was the most powerful empire in the world. In the first instance, Yeats followed Matthew Arnold in understanding Celtic identity as unusually alert to the spirit world, particularly fairies. Yeats’s earliest work as a writer focused on distilling Irish folk narratives and myths into verse and prose, describing a world where there was always a chance of seeing a spirit or “eternal beauty wandering on her way”.

When Yeats was 24 he wrote a poem that may be one of the all-time favorites. In it, you can see his influence in many movies of the last 20 years in which a child is lured in fairyland or left for the fairies: Peter Pan, of course, Hellboy, Changeling, and Outlander, to name a few. Here is part of it.

Where the wave of moonlight glosses
The dim gray sands with light,
Far off by furthest Rosses
We foot it all the night,
Weaving olden dances
Mingling hands and mingling glances
Till the moon has taken flight;
To and fro we leap
And chase the frothy bubbles,
While the world is full of troubles
And anxious in its sleep.
Come away, O human child!
To the waters and the wild
With a faery, hand in hand,
For the world’s more full of weeping than you can understand.  — The Stolen Child (1889)

Yeats may be the stolen child himself. In another Victorian-like way, he filled the gap in his early spiritual life with theosophy and then with a commitment to the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn. After infighting led to the dissolution of that secret society, Yeats maintained his commitment to magical thinking. His marriage to Georgie Hyde-Lees in 1917 further deepened  his sense that he lived among the revelations of other worlds as they devoted themselves to automatic writing led by spirit guides.

But Yeats never quite gave up on Christianity. Take The Ballad of Father Gilligan (1890). In this poem an old priest is too tired to visit a dying man. But his place is taken, he learns, by an angel, visiting on his behalf. When Father Gilligan awakes and realizes this, Yeats has him say:

He who hath made the night of stars
For souls who tire and bleed,
Sent one of His great angels down
To help me in my need.

He who is wrapped in purple robes,
With planets in His care,
Had pity on the least of things
Asleep upon a chair.”

Those are not the lines of a man unable to imaginatively sympathize with a priest’s prayer.

At the end of his life Yeats writes the poem Jones quotes, below. His Supernatural Songs blur the lines between Christian and pagan principles. In his fantasy world, “Ribh” is Yeats the “wild old wicked man,” an imaginary hermit and theologian.

Suggestions for action from Alan Jones

“Our anger and disappointment seem justified. Things are not as they should be, and if God isn’t responding, then who is?

One of the hardest things for people to admit is their hatred of God. Hatred of and disappointment in God underlie a great deal of what passes for unbelief. They are also common among people who consider themselves religious. ‘God’ is continually letting them down by not doing what he is supposed to do. People believe, but resent what they believe. Hatred of  God, however, can be a very important stage in our homecoming. William Butler Yeats wrote, ‘I study hatred – a passion in my own control.’ [full 24-line poem] Hatred is a dangerous route back to God, but one that many have to take.

Then my delivered soul herself shall learn
A darker 
knowledge and in hatred turn
From every thought of God mankind has had.
Thought is a garment and the soul’s a 
That cannot in that trash and tinsel 
Hatred of God may 
bring the soul to God.

The pilgrimage of Lent places us in a crucible of love that purges away the trash and tinsel of our thoughts and feelings about God. We may even have to get to the stage of ‘hating God,’ or, better, ‘hating’ the idol we worship instead of God. What we worship is often a trashy (vindictive or sentimental, according to our mood and training) ‘God’ made to our own specifications. We live in a culture that specializes in custom-built gods for personal use. Westerners have often been guilty of judging other forms of belief in parts of the world in a supercilious way. Christians have denigrated non-Christians for worshiping many gods and for indulging in what looks like superstitious practices. But our pantheon is no less crowded and our behavior no more rational than that of other peoples.”

It would be nice if we had a soul friend to ask whether we have “trash or tinsel” littering our spiritual landscape. As it is we might just have our own self-reflection which is often filled with the same hate we have for “god.” Jones at least brings up some good questions to ask, like a caring friend might, if they were not afraid of being hated for asking.




Today is William Wilberforce Day! Get to know this bon vivant who became a serious foe of slavery at Celebrating Our Transhistorical Body.

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