The Poet Naomi Shihab Nye wrote an article in 2007 (“Gate 4-A”) about being stuck in the Albuquerque Airport and hearing this announcement: “Anyone near Gate 4-A who understands Arabic please come to the gate immediately.” Because she spoke Arabic, Naomi went to the gate and found an older Palestinian woman wailing loudly. The woman thought her flight had been cancelled. She needed to be in El Paso for a major medical treatment the next day. Naomi used her phone to call the woman’s son and got him to quiet his mother down. She told the son she would stay with his mother until the plane took off, and because she was taking the same flight, sit with her.
As they waited for the flight, the woman took out homemade mamool cookies: “little powdered sugar crumbly mounds stuffed with dates and nuts.” She passed them around the waiting area and everyone took one. “We were all covered with the same powdered sugar.” Then the airline attendants handed out apple juice.
Nye concludes with, “And I looked around that gate of late and weary ones and thought, this is the world I want to live in. The shared world….This can still happen anywhere. Not everything is lost.”
I had the privilege of being the Bishop of Western North Carolina for 12 years. After that I taught for three years at Wake Forest University Divinity School. What I loved about both jobs was discovering the “shared world.” In both the church and the classroom, the times when I felt most alive was when conversation led to communion and some kind of conversion.
My desire in offering these discussion groups is not to disseminate information nor necessarily even to be better informed. It’s to find both the vertical and horizontal doors to the shared world--the connection with one another and the direction to which the Holy Spirit points.
We don’t need to study Evelyn Underhill, Dorothee Soelle, Bede Griffiths, Thomas Merton, and Howard Thurman for information. We study them to reorient ourselves in these confusing times. We read their works to open our heads and hearts and lives so that in a time of withdrawal and anxiety we might rediscover the foundational reason for Church--“to restore all people to unity with God and each other in Christ.”
Each session will begin with a short description of the theologian and continue with a discussion of the reading. Then we will turn to an exploration of how these texts deepen our awareness and our appropriate responses. The groups will be small enough so that everyone can speak. I will offer some initial commentary to orient us, but will not be giving lectures.
We won’t be reading books; we will be reading selections from books. The description below gives a sense of the amount of reading. I am hopeful that I can scan the pages required if participants do not wish to purchase the texts.
The outline for these groups is as follows:
1. Evelyn Underhill
In her book The Life of the Spirit and the Life of Today, two chapters stand out:
“The Life of the Spirit in the Individual” and “The Life of Spirit and the Social Order.” In this last chapter she writes: “For spirituality, as we have seen all along, must not be a lovely fluid notion or a merely self-regarding education; but an education for action, for the insertion of eternal values into the time-world in conformity with incarnational principles which justifies it” (p. 217).
2. Dorothee Soelle
Dorothee Soelle was a German theologian (1929-2003). She taught at Union Seminary from 1975-1987 and was a prolific writer. Her work that intrigues me most is The Silent Cry: Mysticism and Resistance. Soelle connects the journey inward with the journeys outward and together. Instead of Underhill’s stages of spiritual growth as Awaking, Purgation and Union, Soelle offers Be Amazed, Let Go, Resist. We will read the chapter “The Journey” from The Silent Cry.
3. Bede Griffiths
Bede Griffiths was a Roman Catholic priest who got permission to establish a monastery in Southern India. He became fascinated with the connections between Christianity and Hinduism. His interest is to “see these two revelations in relation to one another.” He writes “Christianity cannot grow as a religion today, unless it abandons its Western culture with its rational masculine bias and learns again the feminine intuitive understanding of the East” (The Marriage of East and West, p. 199).
We will read “The Christian Revelation: The Rebirth of the Myth” in The Marriage of East and West and “The Eternal Religion” in Return to the Center.
4. Thomas Merton
Thomas Merton wrote more than 50 books. We will read selections that focus on race, community, and world religions.
We will discuss his experience in looking at the giant stone Buddhas in Polonnaruwa. He writes:
“I was knocked over with a rush of relief and thankfulness at the obvious clarity of the figures, the clarity and fluidity of shape and line, the design of the monumental bodies… composed into the rock shape and landscape figure, rock and tree .... Looking at these figures I was suddenly, almost forcibly, jerked clean out of the habitual, half-tied vision of things, and an inner clearness, clarity, as if exploding from the rocks themselves, became evident and obvious….I don't know what else remains, but I have now seen and have pierced through the surface and have got beyond the shadow and the disguise.” (The Asian Journal)
We will read selections from Thomas Merton: Essential Writings
5. Howard Thurman
Howard Thurman was a prolific writer and spiritual giant. He was the dean of Rankin Chapel at Howard University from 1932 to 1944 and then was the dean of Marsh Chapel at Boston University from 1953 to 1965. He wrote over twenty books on spirituality and the Church’s duty to work for equality of all persons. He was a dynamic preacher and retreat leader.
Our focus will be on his work Jesus and the Disinherited first published in 1949, well before the Civil Rights movement of the 1960’s. Thurman learned about mysticism through experiences and not theology. He wrote, “a good life is what man does with the details of living if he sees his life as an instrument,…that transcends all boundaries---it is this beyond dimension that saves the individual life from being swallowed by the tyranny of present needs.” That is, Thurman calls us to look at the actions of our daily life as the instruments that God might use to make God’s reign of justice, peace and mercy come near. We will read the chapter entitled “Love” from Jesus and the Disinherited, pp. 79-99.
If you are interested in joining this discussion group, please notify Anita Lisk at email@example.com.
The Rt. Rev. Porter Taylor