Archive for community

The compassionate presence of the Spirit

"Campfire Pinecone" by Emeldil at en.wikipedia. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Commons

“Campfire Pinecone” by Emeldil at en.wikipedia. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Commons

…real prayer brings us closer to our fellow human beings. Prayer is the first and indispensable discipline of compassion precisely because prayer is also the first expression of human solidarity. Why is this so? Because the Spirit who prays in us is the Spirit by whom all human beings are brought together in unity and community. The Holy Spirit, the Spirit of peace, unity, and reconciliation, constantly reveals itself to us as the power through whom people from the most diverse social, political, economic, racial, and ethnic backgrounds are brought together as sisters and brothers of the same Christ and daughters and sons of the same Father.

To prevent ourselves from slipping into spiritual romanticism or pious sentimentality, we must pay careful attention to the compassionate presence of the Holy Spirit. The intimacy of prayer is the intimacy created by the Holy Spirit who, as the bearer of the new mind and the new time, does not exclude but rather includes our fellow human beings. In the intimacy of prayer, God is revealed to us as the One who loves all members of the human family just as personally and uniquely as God loves us. Therefore, a growing intimacy with God deepens our sense of responsibility for others. It evokes in us an always increasing desire to bring the whole world with all its suffering and pains around the divine fire in our heart and to share the revitalizing heat with all who want to come.  

Henri Nouwen from Compassion (Doubleday: 1982) quoted in The Only Necessary Thing: Living a Prayerful Life (Crossroad: 1999, pp.61-62).

The fellowship of the weak

Forgiveness is the name of love practiced among people who love poorly. The hard truth is that all people love poorly. We need to forgive and be forgiven every day, every hour increasingly. That is the great work of love among the fellowship of the weak that is the human family.

― Henri J.M. Nouwen


A quotidian task, the family’s work, this cleaning up the mess of living.
Washing what is soiled, repairing what is broken,
putting away what someone else has taken out and carelessly forgotten.
A thousand injuries healed not counted, in a world where, the hard truth is that all people love poorly, and we
the weak, are called to the great work of Love.


Embracing community

Phone book cover2012-02-23 adj


The world is full of a number of things, and too many of them, I fear, have found their way into my possession. Some of them cause me to wonder “Why did I buy this?” and “Why am I keeping this?” but in this great world of things there are also a very few others that I wish I had picked up and didn’t. The item above is one of the latter.

I found it on a shelf of “miscellaneous stuff” in the Goodwill store in a small community in Southwest Virginia. At the time, I only knew it was quirky, and I didn’t have a use for it, so I took a picture and left it behind. To my surprise, this curious object kept visiting my mind, and in the years since I snapped that picture, I’ve pondered its significance and charm. Now I think I finally understand what it means.

The treasure I found that day is a handmade, plastic-canvas phone book cover. As I recall, plastic canvas needlepoint was particularly popular during the late 1970s and early ’80s, though it doesn’t appear to have ever really gone away. I can’t date this cover with great specificity, but the plastic canvas, the redesign of the Bell logo in 1969, and the breakup of the Bell System in 1984 suggest a time between the mid-’70s and mid ’80s.

What struck me first about this piece was the juxtaposition of symbols–Jesus and Ma Bell side by side–the sacred and the secular. That’s unusual of course, but as I thought about it more, I also realized how much time and love went into creating this cover. Who would take such care and why?

When this cover was first created, phone books mattered. Back in the day, phone books described and connected communities–particularly small communities. We all had each others’ numbers–it was rare that one should be unlisted. Our phones were attached to the wall, and a telephone directory was always near by. We used them daily–white pages and yellow pages, looking up names, addresses, and phone numbers–the cheap paper becoming dog-eared and torn with heavy use. A phone book might actually wear out! and so a cover like this would protect and personalize year after year, as each new book was slipped inside to replace the old.

But even if we can understand why someone would labor to make a telephone book cover, why would they put a cross on the back? What does Jesus have to do with telephones? What were they thinking?

It was the needlepoint that gave me a clue. Plastic canvas, often used for making tissue box and even iPod cozies, is surely a descendant of the punched paper mottos loved by the Victorians. You’ve probably seen examples of perforated card-board work made possible by new printing technologies. At the turn of the century, framed samplers proclaiming “God Bless This House” and “Give us this Day our Daily Bread” were displayed in many parlors. Perhaps the creator of the needlepoint cover had seen such samplers too, and so need and materials and tradition came together one person’s imagination and a plastic canvas phone book cover was created. A variation, perhaps, on the Bible cover. Probably unique.


Bless this house


I wish I had rescued that homemade cover from the Goodwill. It’s really rather extraordinary if you think about it. Someone once cared about their community, and the book that kept them connected. They wanted to protect the book and probably their neighbors. Someone wanted to make a statement, and they wanted to do it artfully. And this thing is evidence of that desire. I hate to see such things pass, though I know they often must.

Jesus and Ma Bell, wrapping their arms around this small community. Blessed be the ties.


Building of the Tower of Babel British Library, Add MS 18850 f17v Photo via Wikimedia Commons

Building of the Tower of Babel
British Library, Add MS 18850 f17v
Photo via Wikimedia Commons



Now the whole earth had one language and few words. And as men migrated from the east, they found a plain in the land of Shinar and settled there. And they said to one another, “Come, let us make bricks, and burn them thoroughly.” And they had brick for stone, and bitumen for mortar. Then they said, “Come, let us build ourselves a city, and a tower with its top in the heavens, and let us make a name for ourselves, lest we be scattered abroad upon the face of the whole earth.” 

And the Lord came down to see the city and the tower, which the sons of men had built. And the Lord said, “Behold, they are one people, and they have all one language; and this is only the beginning of what they will do; and nothing that they propose to do will now be impossible for them. Come, let us go down, and there confuse their language, that they may not understand one another’s speech.” So the Lord scattered them abroad from there over the face of all the earth, and they left off building the city. Therefore its name was called Babel, because there the Lord confused the language of all the earth; and from there the Lord scattered them abroad over the face of all the earth.

Genesis 11: 1-9


“Now the whole earth had one language and few words.”

I like that sentence. It’s condensed and powerful. It’s musical. It’s a great opening line for a story, and it makes me think.

One language and few words.

What if there were fewer words to choose from? Would it be easier? Is nuance a killer?

I think about the energy and emotional capital I use trying to find the right words. I need words that will say what I mean. Words that won’t offend. Words that won’t be twisted. Oh, but there are so many words. Which to choose? How to arrange them?

I think about how you can use multitudinous words to describe something in detail, or to weary and confuse the listener while giving the impression that you are an expert. Great storms of words, piles of words, blasting and burying, with no guarantee of meaning.

One language, few words.

For me, the story of Babel is about the misuse of language as well as being a cautionary tale of hubris. What language made possible–understanding, cooperation, the undertaking of mighty works–was turned to the wrong purpose. A migrating people decide to stop moving and settle, to build an impressive culture that will last; to keep themselves from being scattered and lost.

“…let us make a name for ourselves, lest we be scattered abroad upon the face of the whole earth.”

Why is this so wrong?  People are always trying to overcome mortality. Look at how we build pyramids, and corporate empires, and reputations and wealth. People want sons who will carry on the family name. People stake a claim to a spot of land. This land is mine. People will remember me. What I have built will bear my name for generations.

“Therefore its name was called Babel, because there the Lord confused the language of all the earth; and from there the Lord scattered them abroad over the face of all the earth.”

They thought they would make a name for themselves and a monument, and instead God named their effort–Babel (Hebrew: jumble; confuse)–and scattered them.

We still try to build towers. We call them corporations and institutions and governments and denominations and various other sorts of entities constructed to aid preservation and codification. So many words like bricks to build them. Charters and articles and bylaws and constitutions… always a tension between ourselves in the present and our mortality. At our passing, will our memory be scattered like our ashes?

Homelessness will gnaw at you whether you have no home or because you cannot get back to the place where you belong. I think about the expulsion from the Garden of Eden, the wandering in the wilderness of Sinai, the Babylonian exile, people like sheep without a shepherd, harassed and helpless: so much scattering, so much wandering. Refugees without rest. Lonely rootless souls.

And yet…though the Lord himself confused their language and scattered them abroad, he also sent The Word to dwell in his people and transform them. God’s people are still on the move, but this time they do not wander, they are sent. “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations.” We are nomads. We are travelers. We are scattered like seed, blown by the Spirit while that same Spirit binds us in community–living members, living stones.

Parable of the Sower Sts. Konstantine and Helen Orthodox Church, Cluj, Romania Photo: Wikimedia Commons

Parable of the Sower
Sts. Konstantine and Helen Orthodox Church, Cluj, Romania
Photo: Wikimedia Commons

Someone else’s servant

sculpture by Michael Grab

Accept those whose faith is weak, without quarreling over disputable matters. One person’s faith allows them to eat everything, but another person, whose faith is weak, eats only vegetables. The one who eats everything must not treat with contempt the one who does not, and the one who does not eat everything must not judge the one who does, for God has accepted that person.  Who are you to judge someone else’s servant? To their own master they stand or fall. And they will stand, for the Lord is able to make them stand.

Some consider one day more sacred than another; others consider every day alike. Everyone should be fully convinced in their own mind.  Those who regard one day as special do so to the Lord. Those who eat meat do so to the Lord, for they give thanks to God; and those who abstain do so to the Lord and give thanks to God. For we do not live to ourselves alone and we do not die to ourselves alone. If we live, we live to the Lord; and if we die, we die to the Lord. So, whether we live or die, we belong to the Lord.  For this very reason, Christ died and returned to life so that he might be the Lord of both the dead and the living. You, then, why do you judge your brother or sister? Or why do you treat your brother or sister with contempt? For we will all stand before God’s judgment seat.


Romans 14: 1-10, Today’s New International Version


Denominational wisdom from Romans.

Overflowing joy

God does not give his joy to us for ourselves alone, and if we could possess him for ourselves alone we would not possess him at all. Any joy that does not overflow from our souls and help other men to rejoice in God does not come to us from God. (But do not think that you have to see how it overflows into the souls of others. In the economy of his grace, you may be sharing his gifts with someone you will never know until you get to heaven.)

If we experience God in contemplation, we experience Him not for ourselves alone but also for others.


Thomas Merton from New Seeds of Contemplation, I-5, quoted in The Essential Writings of Christian Mysticism, Bernard McGinn, ed.

Hands and feet: St. Jerome and the Lion


On a day towards even Jerome sat with his brethren for to hear the holy lesson, and a lion came halting suddenly in to the monastery, and when the brethren saw him, anon they fled, and Jerome came against him as he should come against his guest, and then the lion showed to him his foot being hurt. Then he called his brethren, and commanded them to wash his feet and diligently to seek and search for the wound. And that done, the plant of the foot of the lion was sore hurt and pricked with a thorn. Then this holy man put thereto diligent cure, and healed him, and he abode ever after as a tame beast with them.

From “The Golden Legend ,” by Jacobus de Voragine, a medieval compilation of stories about the saints


On a recent trip to Madrid I was captivated by this painting of St. Jerome and the Lion in the Museo Thyssen-Bornemisza. Usually the lion appears as an attribute of Jerome based on a story found in the medieval bestseller, The Golden Legend. Here the lion is more than an identifier, and the saint’s relationship with the creature is the focus of the composition.

I love the artist’s gentle juxtaposition of hands and paw, expressing kindness, affection, and blessing. And I love the lion’s face, looking out into the distance as if in contemplation, with just the hint of a smile. It’s as if we are witnessing a moment of understanding between a man and his animal companion.


The story of the Jerome and the lion is interesting and multifaceted. It begins like the tale of Androcles and the lion as an example of charity overcoming fear and of kindness repaid. In this version, however, the lion is referred to as a “guest” (and thus a recipient of hospitality) who then becomes a sort of brother in the monastic community. The lion is given responsibilities reflecting his new nature and according to his abilities–he is to tend and guard the monastery donkey. When the animal is stolen while his guardian sleeps, the lion is falsely accused of having eaten it, which is to say, of not having a true conversion and yielding to the sin of gluttony. The lion is punished and shamed by being forced to take on the work of the ass, and the author notes, “he suffered it peaceably.”

Thankfully the story has a happy ending. Eventually the lion finds the stolen ass, brings it back, and is forgiven.

And then the lion began to run joyously throughout all the monastery, as he was wont to do, and kneeled down to every brother and fawned them with his tail, like as he had demanded pardon of the trespass that he had done.

How curious and fitting that the lion’s nature makes him both run joyously and demand pardon!  And because of the lion’s righteous ferocity, the thieves also come before Jerome to ask pardon. The saint does not take all their valuable oil, though they offer it as penance, but tells them to “take their own good, and not to take away other men’s,” and so debts are paid, sin is forgiven, and community is restored.

Which bring us back to the painting–so different from the many other pictures of St. Jerome–a painting about more than the holiness of a saint. A painting about a saint and a lion. Surely it is no accident that hands and paw should tell this tale and bring to mind those virtues of hospitality, humility, and forgiveness present in other stories we know so well: the washing of feet, the suffering of shame, the blessings of community.

Holy fellowship

There is nothing in human life better than mutual love nor anything sweeter than holy fellowship. To love and be loved is a sweet exchange, the joy of one’s whole life, the recompense of blessedness. What can be lacking in the sweetness of this good and pleasant dwelling, this place where God dwells and where he rests? ‘God is in his holy place, God, who makes those of one mind to dwell in a house’.


Baldwin of Forde
In the School of Love: an Anthology of Early Cistercian Texts, p. 126.
This passage translated by David N. Bell.