Paul – A Biography, Session 3, September 25, 2022

Good Evening Friends,

This week we will join NT Wright in his biographical sketch of Paul by looking at Gal 1:13-17 – Paul’s well known “Damascus Road” experience of the risen Christ.  There are as many conversion stories to faith in Christ as there are individuals who have come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah.  Some stories are about certain chapters, or seasons, of life where the power and presence of God become undeniable, such that conversion is a slow turning toward God in the midst of life’s many avenues; we might think of CS Lewis, and the story of his long conversion.  Other experiences are not unlike Paul on the road to Damascus, or Moses before the burning bush, or Abraham walking in in the night beneath the stars, and suddenly there is a radical transparency of the divine presence.  Each of us walk a different path in finding that Christ is in the midst of our lives.

Paul’s experience is so profound because in occurs literally within a few years of Jesus’s death and resurrection, and it carries Paul across the ancient world as the messenger of a message that he had previously been taught to eradicate with zeal.   

If you are interested in reading Bishop NT Wright’s biography of Paul, look here: Paul: A Biography, paper: N.T. Wright: 9780061730597 – Christianbook.com

Video clip of Paul’s conversion on the road to Damascus: https://youtu.be/EwOScXe-8lw

Video clip of Alister McGrath, a well-known theologian, who converted from atheism to Christianity after having studied the natural sciences in university: https://youtu.be/Hp6SuVaxuJ0

Some may be interested in reading the accounts of other’s “Damascus Road” moments.  The following is an excerpt from William James, “Varieties of Religious Experience,” delivered as The Gifford Lectures in Edinburgh  at St. Andrews University.  I have always found James work fascinating, and these accounts illuminating in trying to understand just how unique each person’s encounter with God might be.

William James, The Varieties of Religious Experience:

Looking forward to seeing you on Sunday in The Garden Room around 9.15.  We will begin the class at 9.30. 

Blessings and Godspeed,

Alston

Paul – A Biography – Note from the Dean – September 18, 2022

Good Evening Friends,

Thank you so much for joining us on Sunday as we begin our study of Paul through the scholarship of Bishop NT Wright.  Each week we will begin to gather around 9.15am in the Garden Room.  The time prior to class will be a time to “stump the rector” with questions or comments about our study, our about religious life in general.  We will begin the class at 9.30.

Everyone has a hometown, and for some of us the place we are born and raised, the place from which we launch, has a tremendous effect on the trajectory of our lives.  We might say the same of Paul, who as a boy was named Saul.  In this class NT Wright will describe and explain what it was like for the young Paul {Saul} growing up in Tarsus, and important yet smaller city in the ancient world.  Paul grew up within a particularly devout and zealous stream of Judaism; and tradition within which he desired a life of distinction and some amount of heroism.  Following our video from Bishop Wright we will have some discussion, and if time allows I will share some summary thoughts before breaking for the Eucharist at @ 10.15.

If you are interested in reading Bishop NT Wright’s biography of Paul, look here: Paul: A Biography, paper: N.T. Wright: 9780061730597 – Christianbook.com

For an informed review of this book look here: N. T. Wright Wants to Reintroduce You to Paul (thegospelcoalition.org)

Scenes of Paul from movies that I have found moving:    https://youtu.be/iGJProHZ2zY    https://youtu.be/0jmT1FA4gTk

Philippians 3:2-6 will be the reading from which our lesson will be taken.

Looking forward to seeing all of you on Sunday.  Blessings and Godspeed,

Alston

Ivory Towers and Woolly-Heads?

A few days ago I opened an old and familiar book that was donated to the Cathedral by the late Terry Coutret, who was something of a mystic and local authority on the inner and spiritual life. She bequeathed her library of Evelyn Underhill works to our library and I have been dipping into them ever since. To say that Underhill was a genius of the interior life is an “under”-statement. Her ability to find and craft the language of the soul’s exploration toward God is remarkable at times; she gives voice to some of the subtlest movements of the conscience and heart in that exploration that I have encountered. In her book “Practical Mysticism: A Little Book For Normal People,” Underhill is distilling her life’s work into a kind of vade mecum of how to pray, and what to do when our prayers become tethered. Her chapters 7-10 give a concise road map of what prayerful recollection, meditation, and prayer can feel like for the beginner, and any one who is wondering if they might be called to such a path.

I have been fortunate through my childhood and early years to have had teachers and mentors who have pitched in, and helped me along the way. However, as a pastor and fellow-traveler with others, I know that everyone is not so fortunate. Sometimes we can feel God’s presence so acutely that we may not know how to explain the sense of urgency we feel in our souls. We can also be drawn so close to God for a season that all terrestrial pursuits lose their flavor and excitement. So that those who love and support us in life might begin to wonder about our well-being, wondering if have lost something of our “good old selves”; and if truth were told, that is exactly what is happening. We are losing one kind of grasp on terrestrial life because we are pursuing, or being pursued, by another kind of life – a life folded into God.

At times I have had to reach into the lives of folks like Underhill, Lewis, Bernard of Clairvaux, John of the Cross, Dame Julian, Reginald Sommerset-Ward, and others to be reminded that this daily concourse with the Good Shepherd, with something eternal amid the terrestrial, is not a fool’s errand. Occasionally there is the criticism that finding a deep stasis within for things divine can make one quite useless in terms of things worldly and practical. I remember once saying to such a critic, “Yes, God has drawn close enough to my life to make me quite useless in the eyes of those whose kingdom remains within this world.” It was said tongue-in-cheek, but with a splinter of truth.

Earlier this week as I thumbed through “Practical Mysticism” I read the preface, and I was struck by the theme and tone of Underhill’s message. She is addressing the cultivation of the interior life on the eve of WWI, and how such inner journeys might be entirely appropriate within a world situation that continually tears itself to shreds. I was inspired and encouraged in walking this path, and having made it a significant piece of my own life’s work. In sharing this Preface, my hope is that when you may come into the presence of the easy and comfortable criticism of “worldlings,” the champions of “common sense,” that you will find a hand on the side of the pool and steady yourself. Like anything worth adding to the storehouse of our minds and hearts, it is a bit long, and it is full of protein rather than carbs. I also recommend the entire work to anyone who has had enough of one world and is seeking another. Blessings and Godspeed. A.

https://ccel.org/ccel/underhill/practical/practical.

PREFACE

This little book, written during the last months of peace, goes to press in the first weeks of the Great War. Many will feel that in such a time of conflict and horror, when only the most ignorant, disloyal, or apathetic can hope for quietness of mind, a book which deals with that which is called the “contemplative” attitude to existence is wholly out of place. So obvious, indeed, is this point of view that I had at first thought of postponing its publication. On the one hand, it seems as though the dreams of a spiritual renaissance, which promised so fairly but a little time ago, had perished in the sudden explosion of brute force. On the other hand, the thoughts of the English race are now turned, and rightly, towards the most concrete forms of action—struggle and endurance, practical sacrifices, difficult and long-continued effort—rather than towards the passive attitude of self-surrender which is all that the practice of mysticism seems, at first sight, to demand. Moreover, that deep conviction of the dependence of all human worth upon eternal values, the immanence of the Divine Spirit within the human soul, which lies at the root of a mystical concept of life, is hard indeed to reconcile with much of the human history now being poured red-hot from the cauldron of war. For all these reasons, we are likely during the present crisis to witness a revolt from those superficially mystical notions which threatened to become too popular during the immediate past.

Yet, the title deliberately chosen for this book—that of “Practical” Mysticism—means nothing if the attitude and the discipline which it recommends be adapted to fair weather alone: if the principles for which it stands break down when subjected to the pressure of events, and cannot be reconciled with the sterner duties of the national life. To accept this position is to reduce mysticism to the status of a spiritual plaything. On the contrary, if the experiences on which it is based have indeed the transcendent value for humanity which the mystics claim for them—if they reveal to us a world of higher truth and greater reality than the world of concrete happenings in which we seem to be immersed—then that value is increased rather than lessened when confronted by the overwhelming disharmonies and sufferings of the present time. It is significant that many of these experiences are reported to us from periods of war and distress: that the stronger the forces of destruction appeared, the more intense grew the spiritual vision which opposed them. We learn from these records that the mystical consciousness has the power of lifting those who possess it to a plane of reality which no struggle, no cruelty, can disturb: of conferring a certitude which no catastrophe can wreck. Yet it does not wrap its initiates in a selfish and otherworldly calm, isolate them from the pain and effort of the common life. Rather, it gives them renewed vitality; administering to the human spirit not—as some suppose—a soothing draught, but the most powerful of stimulants. Stayed upon eternal realities, that spirit will be far better able to endure and profit by the stern discipline which the race is now called to undergo, than those who are wholly at the mercy of events; better able to discern the real from the illusory issues, and to pronounce judgment on the new problems, new difficulties, new fields of activity now disclosed. Perhaps it is worthwhile to remind ourselves that the two women who have left the deepest mark upon the military history of France and England—Joan of Arc and Florence Nightingale—both acted under mystical compulsion. So, too, did one of the noblest of modern soldiers, General Gordon. Their national value was directly connected with their deep spiritual consciousness: their intensely practical energies were the flowers of a contemplative life.

We are often told, that in the critical periods of history it is the national soul which counts: that “where there is no vision, the people perish.” No nation is truly defeated which retains its spiritual self-possession. No nation is truly victorious which does not emerge with soul unstained. If this be so, it becomes a part of true patriotism to keep the spiritual life, both of the individual citizen and of the social group, active and vigorous; its vision of realities unsullied by the entangled interests and passions of the time. This is a task in which all may do their part. The spiritual life is not a special career, involving abstraction from the world of things. It is a part of every man’s life; and until he has realized it he is not a complete human being, has not entered into possession of all his powers. It is therefore the function of a practical mysticism to increase, not diminish, the total efficiency, the wisdom and steadfastness, of those who try to practice it. It will help them to enter, more completely than ever before, into the life of the group to which they belong. It will teach them to see the world in a truer proportion, discerning eternal beauty beyond and beneath apparent ruthlessness. It will educate them in a charity free from all taint of sentimentalism; it will confer on them an unconquerable hope; and assure them that still, even in the hour of greatest desolation, “There lives the dearest freshness deep down things.” As a contribution, then, to these purposes, this little book is now published. It is addressed neither to the learned nor to the devout, who are already in possession of a wide literature dealing from many points of view with the experiences and philosophy of the mystics. Such readers are warned that they will find here nothing but the re-statement of elementary and familiar propositions, and invitations to a discipline immemorially old. Far from presuming to instruct those to whom first-hand information is both accessible and palatable, I write only for the larger class which, repelled by the formidable appearance of more elaborate works on the subject, would yet like to know what is meant by mysticism, and what it has to offer to the average man: how it helps to solve his problems, how it harmonizes with the duties and ideals of his active life. For this reason, I presuppose in my readers no knowledge whatever of the subject, either upon the philosophic, religious, or historical side. Nor, since I wish my appeal to be general, do I urge the special claim of any one theological system, any one metaphysical school. I have merely attempted to put the view of the universe and man’s place in it which is common to all mystics in plain and untechnical language: and to suggest the practical conditions under which ordinary persons may participate in their experience. Therefore the abnormal states of consciousness which sometimes appear in connection with mystical genius are not discussed: my business being confined to the description of a faculty which all men possess in a greater or less degree.

The reality and importance of this faculty are considered in the first three chapters. In the fourth and fifth is described the preliminary training of attention necessary for its use; in the sixth, the general self-discipline and attitude toward life which it involves. The seventh, eighth, and ninth chapters treat in an elementary way of the three great forms of contemplation; and in the tenth, the practical value of the life in which they have been actualized is examined. Those kind enough to attempt the perusal of the book are begged to read the first sections with some attention before passing to the latter part.

E. U.

September 12, 1914.

Be watchful, and strengthen the things which remain . . .

LETTER XVII. Quietness in God our true resource.

Warmth of imagination, ardor of feeling, acuteness of reasoning, and fluency of expression, can do but little. The true agent is a perfect abandonment before God, in which we do everything by the light which He gives, and are content with the success which He bestows. This continual death is a blessed life known to few. A single word, uttered from this rest, will do more, even in outward affairs, than all our most eager and officious care. It is the Spirit of God that then speaks the word, and it loses none of its force and authority, but enlightens, persuades, moves, and edifies. We have accomplished everything, and have scarce said anything.

On the other hand, if left to the excitability of our natural temperament, we talk forever, indulging in a thousand subtle and superfluous reflections; we are constantly afraid of not saying or doing enough; we get angry, excited, exhausted, distracted, and finally make no headway. Your disposition has an especial need of these maxims; they are as necessary for your body as your soul, and your physician, and your spiritual adviser should act together.

Let the water flow beneath the bridge; let men be men, that is to say, weak, vain, inconstant, unjust, false, and presumptuous; let the world be the world still; you cannot prevent it. Let every one follow his own inclination and habits; you cannot recast them, and the best course is, to let them be as they are and bear with them. Do not think it strange when you witness unreasonableness and injustice; rest in peace in the bosom of God; He sees it all more clearly than you do, and yet permits it. Be content to do quietly and gently what it becomes you to do, and let everything else be to you as though it were not.

https://ccel.org/ccel/fenelon/progress/progress.i.html

SPIRITUAL PROGRESS:
or
INSTRUCTIONS IN THE DIVINE LIFE OF THE SOUL
FROM THE FRENCH OF
FENELON AND MADAME GUYON.
INTENDED FOR SUCH AS ARE DESIROUS TO COUNT ALL THINGS BUT LOSS THAT THEY MAY WIN CHRIST.
EDITED BY JAMES W. METCALF
NEW YORK: PUBLISHED BY M. W. DODD, BRICK CHURCH CHAPEL, CITY HALL SQUARE 1853.

Every now and then I find myself suffering from a new kind of “fever” in our media saturated environment – something akin to “the virus of the podcast.” I will stumble across a media platform that simply seems to be speaking the language of my tribe, as though I have been a soul wandering lost in a contemporary jungle looking for the people who can understand both what I want to say, and what I want to hear. However, in the pauses, the in-between moments, the commercial breaks, I wonder what it is I am looking for, and why do I remain thirsty for more after drinking so deeply. Sometimes after taking in as much as I can stand, I am left like a person who has gorged at the trough. Not unlike those late afternoons having worked all day in the yard, coming into the kitchen to find a pizza on the stove, and finishing off half of it while standing there in the cool air conditioning. Very quickly there is a transition from feeling satiated to feeling the slightest bit grotesque; as though I may have been trying to satisfy more then my physical hunger.

Occasionally when I am binging on podcasts I am reminded that I have heard so much of it before; either in history books, biographies, or the philosophically informed commentaries upon “current events” that others have made through time. In all likelihood whatever I am hearing broadcast in my podcasts has been said before by someone else commenting upon the vicissitudes of other events during another place and time. Of course the difference lay in that current commentaries are addressing the events through which I am actually living. But there is some comfort in knowing that others have had their own say about the inscrutability of events, and that they sought to make sense of it by wandering through their own jungle in search of the tribe speaking their language.

I take comfort in recalling that folks like Fenelon, and many others, were also living through such times, and also seeking to find the “notes eternal” in their midst. I offer no remedies or answers of my own, and simply post this as a kind of flag along the trail – a reminder both for myself and others that there is always a visitor in the midst of our jungle – sort of like firing flares from the island. Blessings and Godspeed.

https://ccel.org/ccel/fenelon/progress/progress.i.html

Strife Closed In The Sod

           Take a moment to open your hymnals to 661.  These verses are written by William Alexander Percy, a Mississippian from Greenville, and uncle of the famous Louisiana writer, Walker Percy.  Percy is telling us something about the peace that comes from God, and how that peace fills our hearts brimful, and yet breaks our hearts as well.  It is not the peace that we often think about, that state of trouble free living so many associated with peaceful living.  It is the old human story buried in the sod, as something that exists a bit beyond what is human.  And although it is not what we expect, it is still something for which we long.

            I believe that Percy is saying something true about appearance and reality.  This hymn is telling us that sometimes God’s peace will look anything but peaceful in how we often have peace described to us.  In fact, God’s peace might unmake the world a bit, might unmake our worlds a bit as well.

            Each of us have notions of what real peace might look like.  Left to my own devices, I find myself yearning for a situation of optimal experience, where what I love, and those I love, are not constrained by the limitations of time and space and compassion that seem to riddle the world in which we live.

            Percy’s hymn challenges the figments of my imagination.  God’s peace might very well challenge what I think makes for peace in my own life.

            Jesus is challenging his disciples a bit.  “Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you.  I do not give to you as the world gives.  Do not let your hearts be troubled, and do not let them be afraid.”

            The implication is that if we walk in the peace that Jesus offers, there will come moments with some fear and trembling.  I might be tempted to say, “Thanks but no thanks.”  However, Jesus is preparing his friends for that day when he will no longer be with them; a day when there may be no touchstone upon which to rest trembling fingers.

            Every person in this room today can tell a story about when life suddenly changes, and when what we have thought of as a peaceful life is taken from us.  Any number of things opens that box of powerlessness.  Usually it is a loss.  The loss of a marriage, the loss of a dream, the loss of a life, the loss of some hopeful tether to which we have bound the days of our lives.  There is panic.  There are questions.  There is sorrow and there is anger and there is a reminder of the powerlessness that comes with being human.

            It is hard to grasp “peace” in the midst of any crisis.

            And perhaps you are like me.  Often I would rather fill the painful emptiness with old certainties and half-baked platitudes.  A soft and whispering proposition of peace, telling me that indeed my suffering will “make sense” if I will only be patient. “Be at peace, be at peace, that is just the way of the world, it will all work out in the end . . . time will heal all wounds.”  Although it is sweet, although it is soothing, I find that there is a bitter aftertaste; thus the truth I find in the words of the hymn.

            The peace of God, it is no peace, but strife closed in the sod.

Sometimes there remains an aching in the heart that no soft and sentimental words can touch.

            For some of us, there are days when what the world calls peace is simply not enough blanket to cover us from the cold.  The platitudes are not enough.  We need the power and the presence of something, someone, who will do more than just make sense out of our troubles; we need that someone who will walk a mile in our shoes with us.  I need someone who will walk that mile for me.

            I do not want to simply close the old door; I need a new door.  I need a new life.  What Jesus promises is that there is a new door, there is a new life, and there is a new guide in the Holy Spirit who will carry a light into that dark forest for us.  It is the power of the Holy Spirit walking in our shoes with and for us who will find a passage through the superficial platitudes of a worldly peace, who carries a balm for aching hearts.  The Spirit carries a peace from God that overcomes this world, although it often seems foolish and is misunderstood by this world.

            It is the Holy Spirit who undertakes the deep gardening of the human heart; with God’s unseen hand rebuilding lives that have lost their tether on peace.  It is the Holy Spirit bringing a real, a meaningful, a lasting peace; not as the world gives, but as Christ gives to those who follow him.

            Those in this room today who are following Christ will more and more find that their lives look like the lives of the disciples.  Our lives will sometimes look anything but peaceful in the eyes of the world, in the eyes of those who confuse leisure and pleasure with the peace that only comes from above. 

            The promise that Jesus makes to this small band some two thousand years ago is a promise that stands today; we are not left alone in this world to die a thousand deaths in our hearts and souls with the sentimental bromides of a sick world wiping its feet on us like a doormat.  No.  We have more, much more, than the “peace” that the world would hand to us like a door prize for children; saying essentially, “thank you for playing – please do come again.”

            That holy and powerful someone stands with us, and pushes aside the peace that the world would give us like a piece of candy.  There is a holy and powerful someone who brings meat, who brings medicine, who brings hope, who brings the words that come from another time and place where our Redeemer liveth.  There is a holy and powerful someone who carries the divine gift; the peace that can only come from God.

            It is for this someone that we pray.  It is for this someone to who we give our hearts and souls.  It is for this someone that we raise our hands week after week, year after year, century after century, offering the worlds of the timeless blessing:

            Listen – listen very closely – listen.

The peace of God, which passeth all understanding, keep
your hearts and minds in the knowledge and love of God,
and of his Son Jesus Christ our Lord; and the blessing of
God Almighty, the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost, be
amongst you, and remain with you always. Amen.

            Now let us pray for but one thing . . . the marvelous peace of God.