September 21 – Henri Nouwen

Today’s Bible reading

Read Colossians 3:1-3

So if you have been raised with Christ, seek the things that are above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God. Set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth, for you have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God.

More thoughts for meditation about Henri Nouwen (1932-1996)

On this day in 1996, Father Henri Nouwen died at age 64. Henri is a favorite author of many of us at Circle of Hope. Born in the Netherlands, he taught in universities abroad and at Yale, Harvard and Notre Dame. The last decade of his life, he spent in the L’Arche community of Toronto, sharing his life with community members with severe disabilities. Henri’s transparency, intelligence and faith brought him many readers. He has led many of us to deeply value solitude and contemplative practices.

In this excerpt from The Way of the Heart Henri reflects on the call to solitude that led the Desert Fathers and Mothers (and us, still today) to understand their gifts by fleeing the shipwreck of the society of their day:

“Our society is not a community radiant with the love of Christ, but a dangerous network of domination and manipulation in which we can easily get entangled and lose our soul. The basic question is whether we ministers of Jesus Christ have not already been so deeply molded by the seductive powers of our dark world that we have become blind to our own and other people’s fatal state and have lost the power and motivation to swim for our lives.”

Other Nouwen quotes:

“As soon as we are alone…inner chaos opens up in us. This chaos can be so disturbing and so confusing that we can hardly wait to get busy again. Entering a private room and shutting the door, therefore, does not mean that we immediately shut out all our inner doubts, anxieties, fears, bad memories, unresolved conflicts, angry feelings and impulsive desires. On the contrary, when we have removed our outer distraction, we often find that our inner distraction manifest themselves to us in full force. We often use the outer distractions to shield ourselves from the interior noises. This makes the discipline of solitude all the more important.” ― Henri J.M. Nouwen, Making All Things New and Other Classics

“Aren’t you, like me, hoping that some person, thing, or event will come along to give you that final feeling of inner well-being you desire? Don’t you often hope: ‘May this book, idea, course, trip, job, country or relationship fulfill my deepest desire.’ But as long as you are waiting for that mysterious moment you will go on running helter-skelter, always anxious and restless, always lustful and angry, never fully satisfied. You know that this is the compulsiveness that keeps us going and busy, but at the same time makes us wonder whether we are getting anywhere in the long run. This is the way to spiritual exhaustion and burn-out. This is the way to spiritual death.” ― Henri J.M. Nouwen, Life of the Beloved: Spiritual Living in a Secular World

“Hospitality means primarily the creation of free space where the stranger can enter and become a friend instead of an enemy. Hospitality is not to change people, but to offer them space where change can take place. It is not to bring men and women over to our side, but to offer freedom not disturbed by dividing lines.” ― Henri J.M. Nouwen, Reaching Out: The Three Movements of the Spiritual Life

“For most of my life I have struggled to find God, to know God, to love God. I have tried hard to follow the guidelines of the spiritual life—pray always, work for others, read the Scriptures—and to avoid the many temptations to dissipate myself. I have failed many times but always tried again, even when I was close to despair.

Now I wonder whether I have sufficiently realized that during all this time God has been trying to find me, to know me, and to love me. The question is not “How am I to find God?” but “How am I to let myself be found by him?” The question is not “How am I to know God?” but “How am I to let myself be known by God?” And, finally, the question is not “How am I to love God?” but “How am I to let myself be loved by God?” God is looking into the distance for me, trying to find me, and longing to bring me home.” ― Henri J.M. Nouwen, The Return of the Prodigal Son: A Story of Homecoming

Want more?

The Henri Nouwen Society can tell you everything: [link]

On Nouwen’s struggles with celibacy and orientation: [link]

Suggestions for action

Nouwen is famous for encouraging self-reliant and denial-ridden Christians to accept their neediness and self-delusion. He taught that healers are wounded, like Jesus.

Are you avoiding solitude because your outer distractions are helping you avoid your inner turmoil and the struggle of spiritual development? Probably. We, as a community, are devoted to going deep with God, but we know that many of us are trying to stay shallow. Let God pull you under. Be receptive to being loved, not just avoiding the realization that you don’t love or are not loved well.

September 18 — George MacDonald

Today’s Bible reading and an excerpt

Read Ephesians 3

Now to him who is able to do immeasurably more than all we ask or imagine, according to his power that is at work within us, to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus throughout all generations, for ever and ever! Amen. — Ephesians 3:20-21

More thoughts for meditation about George MacDonald

“In very truth, a wise imagination, which is the presence of the spirit of God, is the best guide that man or woman can have; for it is not the things we see the most clearly that influence us the most powerfully; undefined, yet vivid visions of something beyond, something which eye has not seen nor ear heard, have far more influence than any logical sequences whereby the same things may be demonstrated to the intellect. It is the nature of the thing, not the clearness of its outline, that determines its operation. We live by faith, and not by sight.”
— George MacDonald, A Dish of Orts

George MacDonald, who died on September 18, 1905, spent his life putting this quote into practice. He was a prolific writer, constantly trying to light up the imagination and the hearts of his readers; to open up their spiritual sight. He consistently created scenarios in his fiction in which God’s love and the New Creation could be encountered from a new angle. He asked “What if?” and followed it far beyond the conventional wisdom of his day. He banked on what could not be described and for that many consider him a mystic.

He loved exploring the character of God’s Fool. He created countless characters and circumstances that helped us to see ordinary things with new eyes. In many novels and stories he imagines a person who knows the foolishness of Christ so intuitively and completely that they just can’t fit into the norms of various British societies (often his home, Scotland).  They are misunderstood almost to the point of absurdity, which delivers many plot twists and much inspiration for those of us wishing to be invasive separatists in our own time and place. Examples of this fool include, Sir Gibbe in the book by the same name, who is really the quintessential example; also Donal Grant’s mother in Donal Grant; David Elginbrod, the title character of his first novel; Ruby in The Back of the North Wind; and Dawtie in The Elect Lady.

The spiritual adventurer is the main character of his most well known fantasies, Phantastes and Lilith.  There is a sequence at the end of Lilith which imagines heaven in such a beautiful, extended way it seems impossible. The protagonist wakes from his vision reflects on his journey through the land of the dead to this beautiful heaven. Was it a dream or a real journey and does that matter? MacDonald cites imagination as a source for faith. Believing our dreams to be given by God we can touch the truest nature of things that often lies beyond the perceptible.

In moments of doubt I cry,
“Could God Himself create such lovely things as I dreamed?”
“Whence then came thy dream?” answers Hope.
“Out of my dark self, into the light of my consciousness.”
“But whence first into thy dark self?” rejoins Hope.
“My brain was its mother, and the fever in my blood its father.”
“Say rather,” suggests Hope, “thy brain was the violin whence it issued, and the fever in thy blood the bow that drew it forth.—But who made the violin? and who guided the bow across its strings? Say rather, again—who set the song birds each on its bough in the tree of life, and startled each in its order from its perch? Whence came the fantasia? and whence the life that danced thereto? Didst THOU say, in the dark of thy own unconscious self, ‘Let beauty be; let truth seem!’ and straightway beauty was, and truth but seemed?”
Man dreams and desires; God broods and wills and quickens.
When a man dreams his own dream, he is the sport of his dream; when Another gives it him, that Other is able to fulfill it.

Princesses, witches, goblins and fairies abound in his fairy tales, for which he is probably most well known.

MacDonald says “For my part, I do not write for children, but for the childlike, whether of five, or fifty, or seventy-five.” His stories provide us with courage and loyalty for our own impossible tasks. The allegories between the fantastic world he paints and the spiritual world he perceives are thick and rich enough to walk on barefooted beyond the edge of your familiar spiritual climes. The tenderness of his language, though old fashioned and often even in the Scotch language (did you know there was a distinct Scotch dialect?) are difficult enough to be all consuming, intellectually and spiritually. They are worth the effort. All of his works are in the public domain and can be read for free at Project Gutenberg. Also, LibriVox has recorded dozens of his works in audio format, many of which you can find in your podcast app.

More? An extensive fan page

A great video that eloquently introduces his mysticism and his impact.

This post focused on his imaginative works but his Unspoken Sermons is a gold mine of really good theology.

Suggestions for action

Put a novel on your reading list, even if MacDonald is not your cup of tea. Where does your imagination find a home? What goodness can you dream? What did you actually dream last night while you were sleeping? All of these are sometimes neglected, or underappreciated sources of revelation. Practice trusting beyond the intellect. Perhaps you can grasp at it with your own art⁠—language or otherwise. Share that feeling that is hard to describe. Attempt to illustrate God’s glory.

September 17 — Hildegard of Bingen

Today’s Bible reading

I know a man in Christ who fourteen years ago was caught up to the third heaven. Whether it was in the body or out of the body I do not know—God knows. And I know that this man—whether in the body or apart from the body I do not know, but God knows—was caught up to paradise and heard inexpressible things, things that no one is permitted to tell. I will boast about a man like that, but I will not boast about myself, except about my weaknesses. Even if I should choose to boast, I would not be a fool,because I would be speaking the truth. But I refrain, so no one will think more of me than is warranted by what I do or say, or because of these surpassingly great revelations. — 2 Corinthians 12:2-7

Hildegard von Bingen.jpg
Portrait based on her visions

More thoughts for meditation about Hildegard of Bingen (1098-1179)

Hildegard of Bingen lived from September 16, 1098 to September 17, 1179. She has been called by her admirers “one of the most important figures in the history of the Middle Ages,” and “the greatest woman of her time.” Her time was the century of Eleanor of Aquitaine, Peter Abelard and Bernard of Clairvaux, the time of the rise of the great universities and the building of Chartres cathedral.

At a time when few women wrote, Hildegard produced major works of theology and visionary writings. When few women were accorded respect, she was consulted by and advised bishops, popes, and kings. She used the curative powers of natural objects for healing, and wrote treatises about natural history and medicinal uses of plants, animals, trees and stones. She is the first composer of music whose biography is known. She founded a vibrant convent, where her musical plays were performed.

Revival of interest in this extraordinary woman of the middle ages was initiated by musicologists and historians of science and religion. Her music also attracted “new age” followers. Now students of medieval history and culture are also likely to give her a proper place in their studies.

Hildegard was the daughter of a knight. When she was eight years old she went to the Benedictine monastery at Mount St. Disibode to be educated. The monastery was in the Celtic tradition, and housed both men and women (in separate quarters). When Hildegard was eighteen, she became a nun. Twenty years later, she was made the head of the female community at the monastery. Within the next four years, she had a series of visions, and devoted the ten years from 1140 to 1150 to writing them down, describing them (including pictures of what she had seen, as on this page), and commenting on their interpretation and significance. During this period, Pope Eugenius III sent a commission to inquire into her work. The commission found her teaching orthodox and her insights authentic, and reported so to the Pope, who sent her a letter of approval (or her legacy might have been different since people in her own time thought her visions might come from the devil). She wrote back urging the Pope to work harder for reform of the Church.

Hildegard’s mandela-like vision of choruses of angels surrounding God, who is depicted as a white space, signifying that the divine cannot be captured by an image

The community of nuns at Mount St. Disibode was growing rapidly, and they did not have adequate room. Hildegard accordingly moved her nuns to a location near Bingen, and founded a monastery for them completely independent of the double monastery they had left. She oversaw its construction, which included such features (not routine in her day) as water pumped in through pipes. The abbot they had left opposed their departure, and the resulting tensions took a long time to heal.

Hildegard traveled throughout southern Germany and into Switzerland and as far as Paris, preaching. Her sermons deeply moved the hearers, and she was asked to provide written copies. In the last year of her life, she was briefly in trouble because she provided Christian burial for a young man who had been excommunicated. Her defense was that he had repented on his deathbed, and received the sacraments. Her convent was subjected to an interdict which meant communion could not be served on their site, but she protested eloquently, and the interdict was eventually lifted shortly before she died.

Her surviving works include more than a hundred letters to emperors and popes, bishops, nuns, and nobility. Many persons of all classes wrote to her, asking for advice, and one biographer calls her “the Dear Abby of the twelfth century.” She wrote 72 works of song, including a play set to music. Musical notation had only shortly before developed to the point where her music was recorded in a way that we can read today. Accordingly, some of her work is now available, and presumably sounds the way she intended. She left us about seventy poems and nine books. Two of them are books of medical and pharmaceutical advice, dealing with the workings of the human body and the properties of various herbs. She also wrote a commentary on the Gospels and another on the Athanasian Creed. Her major works are three books on theology: Scivias (“Know the paths!” — explored in Daily Prayer :: WATER), Liber Vitae Meritorum (on ethics), and De Operatione Dei. They deal (or at least the first and third do) with the material of her visions. The visions, as she describes them, are often enigmatic but deeply moving, and many who have studied them believe that they have learned something from the visions that is not easily put into words.

Quotes:

“Listen: there was once a king sitting on his throne. Around Him stood great and wonderfully beautiful columns ornamented with ivory, bearing the banners of the king with great honor. Then it pleased the king to raise a small feather from the ground, and he commanded it to fly. The feather flew, not because of anything in itself but because the air bore it along. Thus am I, a feather on the breath of God.”

Want more?

Fan page

Short Bio in honor of becoming a “doctor” of the Catholic church.

Daily Prayer :: WATER week on Scivias

Three minute bio done with pictures!

Suggestions for action

What made Hildegard great was more than her genius. It was her prayer. Her visions matched those of Paul the Apostle’s (as seen in today’s reading). They motivated her as they motivated Paul. Prayer made her irrepressible.

What derives from your prayer? There is no substitute to devotion to knowing God and receiving Spirit to spirit.

September 14 — John Chrysostom

John Chrysostom

Today’s Bible reading

Through him you have confidence in God, who raised him from the dead and gave him glory, so that your faith and hope are in God.

Having purified your souls by your obedience to the truth for a sincere love of the brethren, love one another earnestly from the heart. You have been born anew, not of perishable seed but of imperishable, through the living and abiding word of God; for

“All flesh is like grass
and all its glory like the flower of grass.
The grass withers, and the flower falls,
but the word of the Lord abides for ever.”

That word is the good news which was preached to you. —1 Peter 1:21-25

More thoughts for meditation about John Chrysostom (c. 349 – September 14, 407),

John of Antioch was nicknamed Χρυσόστομος (Chrysostomos, anglicized as Chrysostom), which means “golden-mouthed” in Greek, because he was famous for being eloquent. He not only preached frequently, he was also among the most prolific authors in the early Church. He is known as one of the “church fathers.” As Archbishop of Constantinople (seat of the Roman Empire at the time) he was known for his denunciation of abuse of authority by both church and political leaders, as well as his emphasis on worship and prayer.  

John was raised in Antioch, a leading intellectual center of his day, by his widowed mother, Anthusa, a devoted Jesus follower. His tutor was Libanius, the famous pagan rhetorician who had been a professor in both Athens and Constantinople.

After his education, like many devout men of his day, the spidery John (he was short, thin, and long-limbed) entered monastic seclusion. But his ascetic rigors were so strenuous, they damaged his health (the effects would last his whole life), and he was forced to return to public life. He quickly went from lector to deacon to priest at the church in Antioch.

It was in Antioch where Chrysostom’s preaching began to be noticed, especially after what has been called the “Affair of the Statues.” In the spring of 388, a rebellion erupted in Antioch over the announcement of increased taxes. Statues of the emperor and his family were desecrated. Imperial officials responded by punishing city leaders, killing some; Archbishop Flavian rushed to the capital in Constantinople, some 800 miles away, to beg the emperor for clemency. In Flavian’s absence, John preached to the terrified city: “Improve yourselves now truly, not as when during one of the numerous earthquakes or in famine or drought or in similar visitations you leave off your sinning for three or four days and then begin the old life again.”

When Flavian returned eight weeks later with the good news of the emperor’s pardon, John’s reputation soared. From then on, he was in demand as a preacher. He preached through many books of the Bible, though he had his favorites: “I like all the saints, but St. Paul the most of all—that vessel of election, the trumpet of heaven.” In his sermons, he denounced abortion, prostitution, gluttony, the theater, and swearing. About the love of horse racing, he complained, “My sermons are applauded merely from custom, then everyone runs off to [horse racing] again and gives much more applause to the jockeys, showing indeed unrestrained passion for them! There they put their heads together with great attention, and say with mutual rivalry, ‘This horse did not run well, this one stumbled,’ and one holds to this jockey and another to that. No one thinks any more of my sermons, nor of the holy and awesome mysteries that are accomplished here.”

His large bald head, deeply set eyes, and sunken cheeks reminded people of Elisha the prophet. Though his sermons (which lasted between 30 minutes and two hours) were well attended, he sometimes became discouraged: “My work is like that of a man who is trying to clean a piece of ground into which a muddy stream is constantly flowing.” At the same time, he said, “Preaching improves me. When I begin to speak, weariness disappears; when I begin to teach, fatigue too disappears.”

In early 398, John was seized by soldiers and taken to the capital, where he was forcibly consecrated as archbishop of Constantinople. His kidnapping was arranged by a government official who wanted to adorn the church in the capital city with the best orator in Christianity. Rather than rebelling against the injustice, John accepted it as God’s providence. And rather than soften his words for his new and prestigious audience—which now included many from the imperial household—John continued themes he preached in Antioch. He railed against abuses of wealth and power. Even his lifestyle itself was a scandal: he lived an ascetic life, using his considerable household budget to care for the poor and build hospitals.

He continued preaching against the great public sins. In a sermon against the theater, for example, he said, “Long after the theater is closed and everyone is gone away, those images [of “shameful women” actresses] still float before your soul, their words, their conduct, their glances, their walk, their positions, their excitation, their unchaste limbs … And there within you she kindles the Babylonian furnace in which the peace of your home, the purity of your heart, the happiness of your marriage will be burnt up!”

His lack of tact and political skill made him too many enemies—in the imperial family and among fellow bishops. For complex reasons, Theophilus, the archbishop of Alexandria, was able to call a council outside of Constantinople and, trump up charges of heresy against  John. He was deposed and sent into exile by Empress Eudoxia and Emperor Arcadius. He was taken across the plains of what is now Turkey in the heat of summer, and almost immediately his health began to fail. He was visited by loyal followers, and wrote letters of encouragement to others: “When you see the church scattered, suffering the most terrible trials, her most illustrious members persecuted and flogged, her leader carried away into exile, don’t only consider these events, but also the things that have resulted: the rewards, the recompense, the awards for the athlete who wins in the games and the prizes won in the contest.” On the eastern shore of the Black Sea, at the edges of the empire, his body gave out and he died.

Thirty-four years later, after John’s chief enemies had died, his relics were brought back in triumph to the capital. Emperor Theodosius II, son of Arcadius and Eudoxia, publicly asked forgiveness for the sins of his parents. He was later given the title “Doctor of the Church” because of the value of his writings (600 sermons and 200 letters survive).

Quotes:

    • “It is foolishness and a public madness to fill the cupboards with clothing and allow men who are created in God’s image and likeness to stand naked and trembling with cold, so that they can hardly hold themselves upright.
      Yes, you say, he is cheating and he is only pretending to be weak and trembling. What! Do you not fear that lightning from Heaven will fall on you for this word? Indeed, forgive me, but I almost burst from anger.
      Only see, you are large and fat, you hold drinking parties until late at night, and sleep in a warm, soft bed. And do you not think of how you must give an account of your misuse of the gifts of God?” — 21st homily on 1 Corinthians
    • A comprehended god is no God.
    • Hell is paved with priests’ skulls.
    • Slander is worse than cannibalism.
    • You received your fortune by inheritance; so be it! Therefore, you have not sinned personally, but how know you that you may not be enjoying the fruits of theft and crime committed before you?—Epist. i. ad Tim., 12
    • Let all partake of the feast of faith. Let all receive the riches of goodness. Let no one lament their poverty, for the universal kingdom has been revealed. Let no one mourn their transgressions, for pardon has dawned from the grave. Let no one fear death, for the Savior’s death has set us free.
    • As it is not to be imagined that the fornicator and the blasphemer can partake of the sacred Table, so it is impossible that he who has an enemy, and bears malice, can enjoy the holy Communion. I forewarn, and testify, and proclaim this with a voice that all may hear! ‘Let no one who hath an enemy draw near the sacred Table, or receive the Lord’s Body! Let no one who draws near have an enemy! Do you have an enemy? Draw not near! Do you wish to draw near? Be reconciled, and then draw near, and touch the Holy Thing!’…We are commanded to have only one enemy, the devil. With him never be reconciled! But with a brother, never be at enmity in thy heart. —Homilies on the Statues, Homily XX

More?

Bio and recitation of “The Resurrection” in this video

One of his famous works: Divine Liturgy of Saint John Chrysostom

All his works online

John is very controversial for some of his teaching that goes against modern sensibilities:

Suggestions for action

Maybe John was writing for posterity, but that is doubtful. Most of us would not want all our writings collected and then dissected by later generations. What we said in our 20’s might not match what we said in our 40’s. Had John lived, he might have changed some of his views.

Most of what you think and say is probably worth hearing, however. You may not have a golden tongue, but you should probably speak up with what you’ve got. John’s fearlessness made him influential for Jesus.

September 12 — Johnny Cash

johnny-cash-pondering-michelle-dickToday’s Bible reading

The Spirit of God came on Azariah son of Oded. He went out to meet Asa and said to him, “Listen to me, Asa and all Judah and Benjamin. The Lord is with you when you are with him. If you seek him, he will be found by you, but if you forsake him, he will forsake you. For a long time Israel was without the true God, without a priest to teach and without the law. But in their distress they turned to the Lord, the God of Israel, and sought him, and he was found by them. In those days it was not safe to travel about, for all the inhabitants of the lands were in great turmoil. One nation was being crushed by another and one city by another, because God was troubling them with every kind of distress. But as for you, be strong and do not give up, for your work will be rewarded.” — 2 Chronicles 15:1-7

More thoughts for meditation about Johnny Cash (1932-2003)

John R. “Johnny” Cash born February 26, 1932. He is widely considered one of the most influential musicians of the 20th century and is one of the best-selling music artists of all time, having sold more than 90 million records worldwide. Although primarily remembered as a country music icon, his genre-spanning songs and sound embraced rock and roll, rockabilly, blues, folk, and gospel. This crossover appeal won Cash the rare honor of multiple inductions in the Country Music, Rock and Roll, and Gospel Music Halls of Fame.

Cash was known for his deep, calm bass-baritone voice, a rebelliousness coupled with an increasingly somber and humble demeanor, free prison concerts, and his trademark attire, which earned him the nickname “The Man in Black.” He traditionally began his concerts with the simple “Hello, I’m Johnny Cash,” followed by his signature Folsom Prison Blues.

Much of Cash’s music echoed themes of sorrow, moral tribulation and redemption, especially in later life. During the last stage of his career, Cash covered songs by several late 20th century rock artists, most notably Hurt by Nine Inch Nails.

Cash was raised by his parents as a Southern Baptist. He was baptized in 1944 in the Tyronza River as a member of the Central Baptist Church of Dyess, Arkansas.

A troubled but devout Christian, Cash has been characterized as a “lens through which to view American contradictions and challenges.” He wrote a Christian novel, Man in White, which showcases his theological studies. It is is a portrait of six pivotal years in the life of the apostle, Paul. In the introduction Cash writes about a reporter who, once tried to paint him into a corner, baiting him to acknowledge a single denominational persuasion at the center of his heart. Finally, Cash laid down the law: “I—as a believer that Jesus of Nazareth, a Jew, the Christ of the Greeks, was the Anointed One of God (born of the seed of David, upon faith as Abraham has faith, and it was accounted to him for righteousness)—am grafted onto the true vine, and am one of the heirs of God’s covenant with Israel….I’m a Christian. Don’t put me in another box.”

He made a spoken word recording of the entire New King James Version of the New Testament. Cash declared he was “the biggest sinner of them all”, and viewed himself overall as a complicated and contradictory man. Accordingly, Cash is said to have “contained multitudes,” and has been deemed “the philosopher-prince of American country music.”

Cash’s daughter, singer-songwriter Rosanne Cash, once pointed out that “My father was raised a Baptist, but he has the soul of a mystic. He’s a profoundly spiritual man, but he readily admits to a continual attraction for all seven deadly sins.”

“There’s nothing hypocritical about it,” Johnny Cash told Rolling Stone author Anthony DeCurtis. “There is a spiritual side to me that goes real deep, but I confess right up front that I’m the biggest sinner of them all.” To Cash, even his near deadly bout with drug addiction contained a crucial spiritual element. “I used drugs to escape, and they worked pretty well when I was younger. But they devastated me physically and emotionally—and spiritually … [they put me] in such a low state that I couldn’t communicate with God. There’s no lonelier place to be. I was separated from God, and I wasn’t even trying to call on him. I knew that there was no line of communication. But he came back. And I came back.”

“Being a Christian isn’t for sissies,” Cash said once. “It takes a real man to live for God—a lot more man than to live for the devil, you know? If you really want to live right these days, you gotta be tough.”

What’s more, he was intimately aware of the hard truths about living God’s way: “If you’re going to be a Christian, you’re going to change. You’re going to lose some old friends, not because you want to, but because you need to.”

”I’m thrilled to death with life,” he told Larry King during an interview. “Life is—the way God has given it to me—was just a platter. A golden platter of life laid out there for me. It’s been beautiful.”

“I don’t give up … and it’s not out of frustration and desperation that I say ‘I don’t give up.’ I don’t give up because I don’t give up. I don’t believe in it.”

Suggestions for action

Johnny Cash was a celebrity, which usually equals trouble. He had plenty of trouble. But he also had plenty of conviction that lasted his whole life. In many ways he is an “everyman” who stubbornly tried to do his best, often standing with the downtrodden. Notably, he risked his career early on to speak out on behalf of Native Americans. He used his capabilities and his notoriety for more than his own pleasure and profit.

Cash sang these words in one of his last songs, “Ain’t No Grave Gonna Hold My Body Down,” recorded in 2003 in the final months of his life and released posthumously in 2010: “When I hear that trumpet sound, I’m gonna rise right out of the ground. Ain’t no grave can hold my body down. … Well, meet me, Jesus, meet me. Meet me in the middle of the air. And if these wings don’t fail me, I will meet You anywhere.”

Can you sing that?

If you can’t be held down, what can you do?

September 6 — Madeleine L’Engle

Image result for madeleine l'engle

Today’s Bible reading

Yet among the mature we do speak wisdom, though it is not a wisdom of this age or of the rulers of this age, who are doomed to perish. But we speak God’s wisdom, secret and hidden, which God decreed before the ages for our glory. None of the rulers of this age understood this; for if they had, they would not have crucified the Lord of glory. But, as it is written,

“What no eye has seen, nor ear heard,
    nor the human heart conceived,
what God has prepared for those who love him”—

these things God has revealed to us through the Spirit; for the Spirit searches everything, even the depths of God. For what human being knows what is truly human except the human spirit that is within? So also no one comprehends what is truly God’s except the Spirit of God. Now we have received not the spirit of the world, but the Spirit that is from God, so that we may understand the gifts bestowed on us by God. And we speak of these things in words not taught by human wisdom but taught by the Spirit, interpreting spiritual things to those who are spiritual.1 Corinthians 2:6-13

More thoughts for mediation about Madeleine L’Engle (Nov. 29, 1918 – Sep. 6, 2007)

“If we are willing to live by Scripture, we must be willing to live by paradox and contradiction and surprise.” Madeleine L’Engle said it, and she certainly lived by it.

Formidable in personality and far-ranging in accomplishments, L’Engle wrote more than 60 books, including novels, poetry, memoir, essays, sermons, commentaries, and creative nonfiction. She is best known for A Wrinkle in Time, the first novel in the Time Quintet, but she may be best loved for Walking on Water: Reflections on Faith and Art, her breathtaking opus on the creative process. In it, she writes, “We live by revelation, as Christians, as artists, which means we must be careful never to get set into rigid molds. The minute we begin to think we know all the answers, we forget the questions.”

L’Engle refused to be “forced into either/or.” Her life and work reflects this: Icon and Iconoclast, Sacred and Secular, Truth and Story, Faith and Science, Religion and Art, Fact and Fiction. She showed a clear preference for risk over certainty, narrative over affirmation, and questions over answers.

L’Engle’s refusal to be pigeonholed had a tumultuous effect on her life and career. The mixed reception of A Wrinkle in Time is one example. Wrinkle is clearly, unequivocally Christian, enough to make non-religious readers squirm. Lois Lowry, a celebrated children’s author, has expressed doubt that the book would even be published today. “In the world of literature, Christianity is no longer respectable,” wrote L’Engle. “When I am referred to in an article or a review as a ‘practicing Christian,’ it is seldom meant as a compliment.”

But censorship of her work from Christian critics has been just as ferocious. A Wrinkle in Time has been labeled “spiritual poison” and banned by believers who accuse her of promoting witchcraft, goddess worship, divination, and a host of similar heresies. Similar criticism was aimed at C. S. Lewis. Both have been denounced by people of faith, scorned by the literati, and banned from libraries. Both worked as lay evangelists and apologists. Both reclaimed myth and championed the arts. Both wrote in multiple genres, and both remain notoriously difficult to categorize. One more comparison worth sharing: Both Lewis and L’Engle wrote in reaction to the prevailing assumptions of modernism. Biographer Sarah Arthur observes:

To combat [modernist assumptions], Lewis mined back into the riches of tradition—the ancient myth of Cupid and Psyche for his novel Till We Have Faces, for instance, or from Plato and Aristotle’s universal moral law in The Abolition of Man—in order to glean insights about God and human nature that had been dismissed or forgotten. L’Engle, by contrast, pressed forward into the mysteries of scientific discovery. …She engaged science to show just how small, how relative, how limited our view of God has been in light of the wonders of an astonishing universe.

Although she once considered herself an atheist, after L’Engle became a Christian she had a daily practice of reading the Bible and praying. Her granddaughter said L’Engle’s coming to her faith was slower “acceptance of what she had always known to be true,” rather than a sudden conversion moment.“She was a Christian because she was deeply rooted in its traditions and language, and she was moved by and trusted in its stories,” Although L’Engle did not like denominational labels, she mostly attended Episcopal churches, serving for four decades as a librarian and writer-in-residence at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine in New York City.

Quotes:

  • “Faith is what makes life bearable, with all its tragedies and ambiguities and sudden, startling joys,”—  Walking on Water: Reflections on Faith and Art.
  • The great thing about getting older is that you don’t lose all the other ages you’ve been.
  • You have to write the book that wants to be written. And if the book will be too difficult for grown-ups, then you write it for children.
  • Maybe you have to know the darkness before you can appreciate the light.
  • Some things have to be believed to be seen.
  • I will have nothing to do with a God who cares only occasionally. I need a God who is with us always, everywhere, in the deepest depths as well as the highest heights. It is when things go wrong, when good things do not happen, when our prayers seem to have been lost, that God is most present. We do not need the sheltering wings when things go smoothly. We are closest to God in the darkness, stumbling along blindly.

More?

Interesting PBS show on L’Engle [link]

A video (one of a set) on L’Engle talking about faith and doubt. [link]

Hollywood made sure there was little God and certainly no Jesus in the movie:

Suggestions for action

L’Engle loved the childlike qualities, still resident in all of us, that could be called upon to meet the wonder of being creatures of a loving God. We have often quoted her during Advent, even making art from the quote: This is the irrational season, when love blooms bright and wild. / Had Mary been filled with reason, there’d have been no room for the child.

As you explore her work, even the little snippets on this page, let yourself be full of the child, both child and Child. She spent her life meditating for us and provides a wonderful resource for our own deeper journey. Slow down with her and let yourself go deeper.

September 5 – Teresa of Kolkata

Today’s Bible reading and an excerpt

Read Matthew 25:31-46

Then the righteous will answer him, “Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink? When did we see you a stranger and invite you in, or needing clothes and clothe you? When did we see you sick or in prison and go to visit you?”

The King will reply, “Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.”

More thoughts for meditation about Mother Teresa

Teresa of KolkataTeresa of Kolkata introduced herself by saying, ”By blood, I am Albanian. By citizenship, an Indian. By faith, I am a Catholic nun. As to my calling, I belong to the world. As to my heart, I belong entirely to the Heart of Jesus.” She was born Agnes Gonxha Bojaxhiu on August 26, 1910 in Skopje, which was then part the Ottoman Empire (now capital of the Republic of Macedonia). She took her first religious vows in 1931, her solemn vows in 1937 while teaching in Calcutta (the now-corrected anglicization is Kolkata).

In 1936, while traveling through India, Sister Teresa received her call to help the poor while living among them. She began a new work in 1948. She had already learned Bengali, but she went further. She made her ”habit” a white sari with blue trim and became an Indian citizen while getting some basic medical training. In 1950, she began an order that became the Missionaries of Charity with 13 nuns (now over 5,000 worldwide). In 1952, she converted an old Hindu temple into the first Home for the Dying, a site for free hospice care. She died of heart problems in 1997 after being a prolific fund raiser, Nobel Peace Prize Winner, missionary, author, and advocate for the global poor.

“In the West we have a tendency to be profit-oriented, where everything is measured according to the results and we get caught up in being more and more active to generate results. In the East—especially in India—I find that people are more content to just be, to just sit around under a banyan tree for half a day chatting to each other. We Westerners would probably call that wasting time. But there is value to it. Being with someone, listening without a clock and without anticipation of results, teaches us about love. The success of love is in the loving—it is not in the result of loving. ”—from A Simple Path: Mother Teresa

More?

Video at Nobel Prize.org [link]

Interview with Malcolm Muggeridge and Mother Teresa. Muggeridge’s book Something Beautiful for God and film made Teresa famous. [link]

Video from Kenyan TV upon her sainthood ceremony. [link]

Suggestions for action

It is amazing how Mother Teresa, a small, simple woman from India, managed all the media attention devoted to her. She spoke to powerful people with an undiluted gospel message of love. Literally millions of people were enriched.

Consider her example. Do you think you need to be respected by famous people to be successful? Or are you content to pick up the dying and do what you can do? Rest in Christ for a minute and be simple—nothing more or less than who you are, dependent on Jesus, embraced by love.

August 31 — Aidan of Lindisfarne

Today’s Bible reading and an excerpt

For to this you have been called, because Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example, so that you should follow in his steps. —1 Peter 2:21

More thoughts for meditation about Aidan of Lindisfarne

“He cultivated peace and love, purity and humility; he was above anger and greed, and despised pride and conceit; he set himself to keep and teach the laws of God, and was diligent in study and in prayer…I greatly admire all these things about Aidan.” —the monk,The Venerable Bede,writing in his masterwork: “Ecclesiastical History of the English People” (3:17)

Aidan (ca. 600-651 A.D.) was an Irish Celtic Monk on the Island of Iona (630 A.D.), where The Book of Kells was made. Iona was founded by Columba, who was the missionary instrumental in converting the Picts of northwestern Scotland to Christianity. So his faith was nurtured in a deep, missional community.

Many Britons followed Jesus long before the faith spread to Ireland. This was due to the fact that Britain, but not Ireland, was part of the Roman Empire and Christianity following the trade routes of the Empire. Some of the missionaries who first took the faith to Ireland were British: Patrick (who became the “patron saint” of Ireland) was the most famous but not the only one. When the power of Rome declined, the Angles (from North Germany) began to infiltrate Britain and gradually turned it into England (the word “English” comes from “Angle-ish”). These incoming English were pagans.

The kingdom of Northumbria was largely created by the English warrior-leader Aethelfrith. But when he was killed in battle (in 616) his children fled into exile and some of these children found their way to what is now south west Scotland. Here they met the Irish monks of Iona and accepted the the Christian faith. Oswald, the second son of Aethelfrith, grew up determined to regain the throne of Northumbria and to let the pagans among his people hear about Jesus. In 633 he fought a successful battle and established himself as king, choosing Bamburgh, a natural outcrop of rock on the North-East coast, as his main fortress. He then invited the monks of Iona to send a missionary.

In 635 Aidan arrived with 12 other monks and chose to settle on the island of Lindisfarne (Holy Island), north of Bamburgh. An earlier missionary monk named Corman had given up, saying the people were too uncivilized and stubborn to be Christianized.

The monastery Aidan founded was said to be moderate—by Irish standards of aceticism! From here the community went out on mission. First they needed to learn the English language. Their new king of the English, Oswald, who had learned Irish in his boyhood in exile, helped them. Then they went out, using Aidan’s only method as a missionary, which was to walk the lanes, talk to all the people he met and interest them in the faith if he could. His monks visited and revisited the villages where he sowed the seeds and in time local Christian communities were formed.

Aidan loved to talk to the pagan Angles about Jesus. He would not ride a horse, because it deprived him of opportunities to witness about Christ while he traveled. It was easier to talk to people, he thought, when you were on their level.

One time King Oswin of the Angles gave Aidan an expensive horse, as befit the respect he had for him. Aidan had not ridden very far before he gave the horse away to a poor person. The King was angry with Aidan for doing this. Aidan asked the King if a horse was more important to him than one for whom Christ had died. The King, who was a Christian, repented and asked his forgiveness.

Aidan freeing slaves
Aidan freeing slaves

Strongly opposed to slavery, Aidan spent much time and effort in ransoming slaves and sending them home.

Aidan had to ensure that his efforts did not die with himself and his Ionian monks. What was needed was English leadership of the English church. He had to educate the next generation of leaders. Irish monks were very keen on Christian education, which required the new skills of book-learning, reading and writing and Latin—the language in which all the books they could obtain were written. Once the essentials of literacy had been grasped the expansion of mental horizons must have been amazing. Books could bridge the natural restrictions of time and space! School began with the 150 psalms and then went on to the four gospels. After these essentials, the students could master as much as their library offered and their minds could hold. Such education at this time could be obtained only in monastic schools. Aidan began with 12 boys, who of course would learn the practical work of being monks, priests and missionaries by observing and working with the older monks. Their system had a powerful impact.

The monastery on the Island was for men and boys only. This was not true everywhere. As the Christian faith spread in England double monasteries became popular; under the rule of one leader, monks and nuns, girls and boys, lived and worked in the same establishment. But Lindisfarne was different in that it had been founded specifically to be the center for mission. Nuns did not walk the lanes and speak to people. Aidan made sure that it was possible in Northumbria for women to become nuns if they so wished. He discovered the woman who was to become the most famous abbess of her day, Hild, who was to be in turn the abbess of double monasteries at Hartlepool and Whitby. Her contribution to the church was great: at least five of her students became bishops.

After 16 years as bishop, Aidan died at Bamburgh in 651. We do not know his age. What he had achieved may not have been clear to him at his death but subsequent history showed the strong foundations and lasting success of his mission. The missionaries trained in his school went out and worked for the conversion of much of Anglo-Saxon England.

More?

Video: Footsteps of St. Aidan

Suggestions for action

Aidan was a humble, dogged evangelist. His style was incarnational. His radical monks built their community among the people. They did not refuse the aid of powerful people, but they also put them in their place. Their approach was face-to-face and on foot, not from above but alongside. He was also strategic, handing down his leadership to people he prepared to exercise it. Lindisfarne deepened the whole area of Northumbria for centuries as a center of learning and faith.

Circle of Hope has many similarities to Lindisfarne. From our “holy island” in the middle of the Philadelphia region we humbly present the truth of Jesus. We go back again and again, exercising our gentle influence. What is your part in it all? Pray for our strength and for the vision to be a community in mission.

August 28 – Lilias Trotter

Image result for lilias trotter

Today’s Bible reading

…unless your righteousness exceeds the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees, you will by no means enter the kingdom of heaven. —Matthew 5:20

More thoughts for meditation about Lilias Trotter (1853-1928)

Lilias Trotter has been recently reintroduced to our century through the documentary, Many Beautiful Things, which depicts her life and vision.

Trotter was born in England in 1853 to an upper-middle-class family. She was a gifted artist and was told she could be England’s greatest living artist, but in order to do so, she would have to give herself totally to her art. At the same time Lilias had a growing faith which encouraged her not only in her personal spiritual growth, but also in service to others.

Trotter felt the call from God to go to North Africa and serve the Lord there. She had to choose between pursuing her career as an artist and answering the call God had placed on her heart. She chose to follow God. As a single woman who was denied support from a mission agency because of health issues, who didn’t know the language or culture, going to Africa was a radical decision.

Lilias Trotter’s father died when she was twelve. She was devastated. Fortunately, the family’s financial circumstances were only comparatively diminished by his loss. When the family moved to 40 Montagu Square, their next-door neighbor was writer Anthony Trollope.

In her early twenties, Trotter and her mother were greatly influenced by the Higher Life Movement, and Lilias joined the volunteer force that counseled inquirers during the London campaign meetings of American evangelist Dwight L. Moody.

Trotter’s mother thought her self-taught daughter was an exceptional artistic talent. In 1876, she sent some of Lilias’ drawings to art critic and social philosopher John Ruskin while all three were staying in Venice—the latter while recovering from the early death of Rose La Touche, a young pupil to whom he had proposed marriage. Ruskin praised Trotter’s artistic skill, and she became an informal student and a good friend despite the disparity in their ages. Ruskin told Trotter that if she would devote herself to her art “she would be the greatest living painter and do things that would be Immortal.”

Although Trotter was drawn to the prospect of a life in art, in May 1879, she decided that she could not give herself “to painting and continue still to ‘seek first the Kingdom of God and His Righteousness.'” Trotter became active in the Welbeck Street YWCA and served as secretary, “a voluntary position usually filled by women like herself from wealthy families.” She did a considerable amount of teaching and (unusually for respectable young women of the period) fearlessly canvassed the streets alone at night near Victoria Station for prostitutes who might be persuaded to train for an employable skill or to simply spend a night in a hostel. In 1884, suffering from physical and emotional exhaustion, she underwent surgery which, though “slight in nature…left her very ill.” Apparently her heart was permanently damaged in the process.

During the next few years, Trotter felt an impulse toward missionary work in non-Christian lands, even telling one of her friends that “whenever she prayed, the words ‘North Africa’ sounded in her soul as though a voice were calling her.” In May 1887, when a missionary to North Africa asked at a religious meeting if God was calling anyone to North Africa, Trotter rose and said, “He is calling me.” On her thirty-fourth birthday, she applied as a candidate to the North African Mission—which then rejected her because she was unable to pass its health examination. However, because she had the resources to be self-supporting, the Mission decided that she might “work in harmony” with the society without being an official member.

Nine months later, Trotter and two other financially independent women—including Blanche Haworth, who for more than thirty years played “Martha” to Trotter’s “Mary,” arrived in Algiers. Trotter recalled, “Three of us stood there, looking at our battle-field, none of us fit to pass a doctor for any society, not knowing a soul in the place, or a sentence of Arabic or a clue for beginning work on untouched ground; we only knew we had to come. Truly if God needed weakness, He had it!”

The women moved into the French quarter and diligently studied Arabic through French study materials and eventually through a professional tutor. They also learned how do domestic work, all of them previously having had their needs met by servants.

Later Trotter said that the early years were like “knocking our heads against stone walls,” but the women were indefatigable, trying one technique after another in an attempt to make inroads into the Algerian culture and all the while improving their Arabic. Eventually Trotter was able to gain access to the heavily secluded women by first befriending their children. The outreach to women, she believed, was a “great line of cleavage in the rock face of Islam.”

Converts were banished, beaten, even (Trotter believed) poisoned with “mind drugs” that were to be administered in food or drink and would produce “a paralysis of mind and will.” Many converts died, and Trotter “came to rejoice in their loss. ‘We were glad to let them go….One draws a breath of relief when they get safe home [to heaven].'”

Trotter’s health was so seriously impaired that she regularly spent extended periods of convalescence in Great Britain or on the continent. Adding to the difficulties of the English missionaries was French colonial suspicion of their activities. The local government bought a house across the street and for three years lured potential converts away with competing classes. Spies and gendarmes even followed the women into the southern desert and threatened fines and imprisonment for any who went near them or accepted their literature.

Lessons from a Hero: What Lilias Trotter Can Teach Us Today
An illustration from Trotter’s Parables of the Cross.

By 1906, with warming relations between England and France, Trotter experienced less governmental antagonism and more freedom for her missionary work. In 1907 five new workers joined the “Algiers Mission Band.” By 1920, there were thirty full-time workers and fifteen preaching stations. Trotter became the reluctant, but unchallenged, leader of the group. Trotter was sensitive to the contemporary difficulty of a woman exerting authority over a man, but as the staff included more men, she shrewdly refined “the organizational system to capitalize on their leadership.” Trotter never solicited funds because she said God’s wealth was boundless.

Trotter was also a pioneer in attempting to adapt Christian missionary endeavor to the Algerian culture. Referring to evangelistic meetings as a “European idea,” she proposed evangelizing with “a native cafe on a Christian footing,” readings of the Bible in a “rhythmical recitative” accompanied by a drum, a craft house that would teach little girls embroidery, and a Christian retreat for women to “take the place of the outings to shrines which are their only chance of fresh air.” Trotter designed cards that had biblical passages drawn by an Arab scribe because “no one but a native can give the subtle lines & curves of the writing as they should be.” The mission society even published a series of cards with a sentence from the Koran followed by verses from the Old Testament.

Image result for lilias trotter

While Lilias turned her back on fame, she did not turn her back on her art. In addition to art found in her journals, she used her art in the pamphlets she created to share the gospel with the people in Algeria. Trotter was a “prodigious writer,” filling a journal page nearly every day for forty years and illustrating the world around her with sketches and watercolors. From these efforts came several books of somewhat flowery and mystical prose, including Parables of the Cross and Parables of the Christ-life. Though she considered orthodox Islam “dry as the dune, hard as the gravel,” she responded to the “sincere hunger for things of the spirit” in the Sufi mystics and wrote for them The Way of the Sevenfold Secret as a devotional guide based on the seven “I am” statements found in the Gospel of John.

Confined to bed during her last years, Trotter devoted herself to prayer, writing, and sketching while continuing to manage the affairs of the Algiers Mission Band as best she could. As her body failed, her mind remained clear, even at the end asking prayer for the strength to dictate a letter to Amy Carmichael of India, with whom she had regular correspondence. As she was dying, while attendants sang a hymn, she exclaimed, “A chariot and six horses.” “You are seeing beautiful things,” someone asked. “Yes,” she said, “many, many beautiful things.”

More?

The documentary: Many Beautiful Things

The original biography.

Parables of the Cross online

Suggestions for action

Trotter was inspired by the higher life of notable Christians. Perhaps you will be inspired by her.

Trotter loved those who were marginalized. She ministered among the prostitutes in London and lived among the poor of Algiers, ministering with women and children. One Algerian woman shared this about her: “No one loved us like she did.” Lilias writes in her journal, “I have been thinking lately what a work for God it is just loving people.” In our current cultural climate of hatred for the ‘other’, we have an opportunity to be people of love, not hate. To overcome evil with good. 

She had courage to take risks, following where God was leading her. Her choices were radical, defying concern from friends and societal expectations. She served the Lord alone.

She was willing to turn her back on everything she knew and what was familiar and comfortable to follow God. She was willing to leave behind comforts, friends, culture, language, and fame. This is no different for people today who choose to follow Christ. It costs them everything. 

She recognized that her gift as an artist was from God; it wasn’t her own doing. While we might think we are where we are today because of our own abilities, in reality it is God who decided which time period, family, country, and gifts were given to us. We are simply stewards of all that we have and are to use our gifts for God’s glory and to further His kingdom.

She engaged in cross-cultural ministry by listening and learning from the people. She respected their culture. She did not come to the people with a paternalistic mindset; rather, she came as a fellow traveler in life and as a learner. She met physical needs as well as spiritual needs. She was driven to share the love of Christ with whomever she met.

August 19 – Nicholas Black Elk

Today’s Bible reading and an excerpt

Read Acts 15:5-11

Then some of the believers who belonged to the party of the Pharisees stood up and said, “The Gentiles must be circumcised and required to keep the law of Moses.”

The apostles and elders met to consider this question. After much discussion, Peter got up and addressed them: “Brothers, you know that some time ago God made a choice among you that the Gentiles might hear from my lips the message of the gospel and believe. God, who knows the heart, showed that he accepted them by giving the Holy Spirit to them, just as he did to us. He did not discriminate between us and them, for he purified their hearts by faith. Now then, why do you try to test God by putting on the necks of Gentiles a yoke that neither we nor our ancestors have been able to bear? No! We believe it is through the grace of our Lord Jesus that we are saved, just as they are.”

More thoughts for meditation about Black Elk

On this day in 1950, Oglala Lakota medicine man Black Elk (Hehaka Sapa) died, at age 87. He lived, along with his cousin Crazy Horse, during the last days of the Indian Wars. He participated, at about age 12, in the defeat of Custer at Little Big Horn in 1876. He was wounded during the massacre at Wounded Knee in 1890. Black Elk was part of the first generation of Lakotas to be confined to reservations. Extreme poverty and communal responsibility were factors that led him to both join Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show in 1886, travel internationally, and to agree to be interviewed for the book for which he is best remembered, the much debated Black Elk Speaks by John Neihardt in 1930. One of the major controversies with the book is the exclusion of Black Elk’s faith in Jesus and mission—as well as the withholding of payment for participation in the work.

As a medicine man, Black Elk had prepared to visit a dying boy in the village, only to encounter a Jesuit priest praying there first. He encountered a power greater than his own, and accepted an invitation to spend time at the mission. He was baptized and took the name Nicholas shortly after. As a Catholic Catechist (an often downplayed aspect of his life), he was widely considered an apostle to the plains Indians. Thousands of people were brought to faith—both Indian and non-native, through his work and famous preaching.

His primary work was with new converts and as an evangelist alongside the priests—when priests were not available his duties included baptizing and burials. His passion for Christ as the Creator and fulfiller of things drove him to vigorous and passionate study. Nick thought that many of the Lakota spiritual traditions had come from God to teach them to live in a good way and that Christ made sense of all of it. Many experts agree that his practice of the Christian faith, life, and mission were well-integrated with his worldview and practice as a Lakota. Others say that when Black Elk provides the details of seven traditional rituals of the Oglala people in John Epes Brown’s, The Sacred Pipe, it shows that the tribal traditions concerning Wakan Tanka (The Great Spirit) were more important to him than his Catholicism.

John Neihardt’s interpretation of Black Elk put into a prayer:

One integration Black Elk accomplished is the change in the symbolism for the sun dance ceremony. Traditionally, it was a time of fasting, prayer, and suffering in order to attain personal power for victory in battle. It has become, and many credit Nicholas Black Elk for this shift, a ceremony of prayer and fasting on behalf of all the people—including enemies. For Black Elk, it was a ceremony to remind the people of the suffering and death of Christ for all of creation.

Further Reading

Black Elk: Colonialism and Lakota Catholicism by Damian Costello

Short Article on his life and faith by Pat McNamera

Black Elk, Woke — book review by Ann Neumann that explores meaning and integration.

Suggestions for action

Pray for all people. List the people you consider your enemies first, as you pray. consider the depth of faith it took to be confined to the reservation prison and reorient the sun dance to intercession.

Consider again how you may benefit from the domination system, or how, in essence, your prayers may be mostly for power in battle, not strength in suffering love.

Black Elk’s faith was “indigenized,” it was enculturated into the ways of the Lakota. He saw how the wisdom of his people also led to faith in Jesus. The famous book about Black Elk’s wisdom left out his integration with his faith. Are you living by some wisdom that is not integrated or even at odds with your faith?