How romance novels heal the world: happy endings as prayer

by Amber Belldene

Several years ago, back before video on demand, my husband and I found ourselves with a stack of unwatched DVDs from Netflix. They were dramas, foreign films, Oscar winners—things I thought we were supposed to like. Months worth of dust had settled on them where they languished on the DVD player. Because the truth is, my husband and I don’t like to watch movies like that.

Back then, I thought that in order to be the emotionally deep and intelligent kind of priest I aspired to be, I had to appreciate gritty, realistic art and literature.

Thank God I grew out of that smug notion. Now I am convinced that genres with happy endings are not superficial, but profoundly hopeful and spiritual. They train us to believe in redemption and look for possibility. I like hard-boiled detectives like Martin Cruz Smith’s Arkady Renko, who tenaciously fights for justice yet never achieves it, even though he always solves the mystery. And I love romance—historicals, vampire stories, anything with a tortured hero—because they unequivocally promise a happily ever after.

The rules of these genres comfort me as a reader. They assure me that no matter what happens to the characters I have come to love, some satisfying ending will be reached, even if I can’t possibly see how halfway through.

Narrative is a powerful force—it’s a way we make sense of things, and find meaning, and recount our memories. Words make our lives, just the way God spoke the creation into existence in the first place. Religions themselves develop out of stories, the welling up of narrative within a community to describe what God has done. The transcendent mystery of God becomes real and concrete in those stories—a child is promised to Abraham and Sarah, a nation is born, its people become slaves and then are delivered into freedom, the law is engraved in stone, things go awry, and the prophets promise a better future.

And, like genre fiction, these Bible stories promise a happy ending for creation—they all point to a future of peace, of well-being or even paradise, and an eternal life in union with God. The promise of this future gives us hope, and lets us rest in the comfort of God’s care for the world, even when we suffer.

We writers call the moment of worst possible calamity in a novel the major black moment. Sometimes when I reach it in a book I’m reading, I give up, overwhelmed by emotion and my intense care for the characters. I throw my e-reader aside, abandoning the hero or heroine in their suffering. But because it’s a mystery, or a romance, I always come back when I’ve found the strength to feel their pain, so that I can rejoice in their happy ending.

In the story of Jesus, Good Friday is the heartbreaking turn. But there is a way that, for the church, Advent is an annual black moment. This is the time of year when the days grow short and dark, and we look around, noticing all the ways the world is not yet the kingdom of God, that the wolves are still eating the lambs, and we are still making more swords than plowshares. It’s the time we slow down and ask, how can I make the world better? And we are forced to recognize our own human limits—that sometimes all we can do is wait for the part of the story that is in God’s hands alone. On some deep level we recognize that if we flip pages, skipping ahead to the happy ending without honoring the real and present darkness, our joy will not be complete.

Several years ago, after struggling a long time to conceive, I became pregnant with twins and then miscarried them both. On the heels of so much joy, the loss was devastating. It was nearly impossible to believe that wasn’t the end of the story, and that I’d ever become a mother. Then my stepmother said something surprising--that when I died and went to be with God, I would meet those babies there, grown into the fullness of what God had intended for them. If I had been wearing my theological hat, or my political hat, I might have argued or laughed. Instead, I was a grieving woman, trying to make sense of a terrible loss. And the promise of that future comforted me through many sad months, until I became pregnant again and my children were born.

That part of my story did have a happy ending, but if you asked me today to read a novel about a woman who experienced a miscarriage, I would say, “Hell, no.” That is, unless it had a man with an incredibly muscular bare chest embracing her on the cover, and trying to rip open her bodice.

And I don’t feel even a little guilty about it.

Every sexy love story I read helps me believe in the future the Bible promises. Every story about good triumphing over evil, or someone’s hard-won redemption, or a couple overcoming fierce obstacles to be together—every one I read is a prayer that justice, love, and life will prevail. And I believe it. It keeps me reaching for my own happy endings.

God began this story we are living by speaking words into the void. It’s a story of promise, a story about a future on a scale so much bigger than our individual lives and personal tragedies, and perhaps even bigger than our human social crises. In Advent, we remember that God does not abandon us to the darkness, believing that when God finally says, “The End,” it will only be after the sentence “And all of creation lived happily ever after.”

Post Script: I am grateful to Episcopal Café for publishing this little essay. You may think it's strange that I don't mention the shooting at Sandy Hook a week ago. I wrote this piece before that tragic event. (more from Amber in comments)

Amber Belldene is the pen name of an Episcopal priest. Her debut novel Blood Vine will be released in January from Omnific Publishing.

On the border of the profane

By Amber Belldene

My favorite book about being a priest is Bill Countryman’s book, Living on the Border of the Holy: Renewing the Priesthood of All. Bill says nearly every human being practices priesthood one time or another, when he or she stands in a liminal space between the transcendent and our mundane, gritty reality, and helps others pass between. Doctors, teachers, athletes, parents, artists—they are all priests. But, a person with a priestly vocation is called to do this liminal ministry all the time.

There are bizarre and awkward moments of ordained priesthood—when the pita bread that shows up at the altar is onion flavored, or when kids ask a shocking question at youth group. I find these moments some of the holiest, because they break open our routines and let the Spirit in. Thanks to Bill Countryman, on those occasions I like to picture myself straddling the fault line between heaven and earth, the holy and the profane.

Profane really just means “not holy,” so it’s funny that it has come to be associated with four-letter words. The unconsecrated parts of our lives aren’t obscene, but we tend to see them standing in contrast to the holy parts. Ordained people know this well, because of how people react when a person encounters something unexpected, if profoundly normal, about us.

As a priest by day and a romance novelist by night, I occasionally write four letter words, and scenes of people enacting them. It titillates some folks to hear of this avocation, but I didn’t follow my muse to titillate. I followed her because she wouldn’t leave me alone—compelling me to consume, analyze and eventually pen romance novels. Artists talk about muses, but we Christians know the true source of inspiration is Divine. And the ever-provocative Spirit kept leading me to the border between holy and profane and asking me to look at it very closely, and play hopscotch back and forth ¬¬¬across it.

As the English-speaking world learned with Fifty Shades of Grey, I am not the only woman interested in fiction that explores gender, explicit sexuality, and above all else, love. If you don’t know what I am talking about, please find out. (Let me be clear, I’m not recommending you read this book, simply that you know about it.) We can dismiss it as mommy porn, or we can ask ourselves what people are finding in a book like that and what it tells us about people’s longings (especially its huge audience of primarily young and middle aged mothers—ahem, that’s one of our mission fields). Both romantic and sexual love are Biblical metaphors for God’s love of humanity, and I wholeheartedly believe the popular passion for romance is about our human longing for God. People want love, and we Episcopalians have something radical to say about it.

As a church, we are struggling to speak about who we are and what we have to offer that other denominations don’t. I grew up in a charismatic Episcopal parish, and since then have attended every type on the spectrum. What we have in common, from our liturgies of blessing and marriage to our Eucharistic theology, is that we embrace incarnation and we reject the notion that our bodies and desires are bad. That’s not some slippery slope where we begin to think anything goes. It’s the Gospel. God became one of us, and God made us for love, of both the human and the divine varieties.

What does profane evangelism look like? For me, it involves speaking about the spiritual and liminal aspects of things like love, sex, and romance novels. Writing genre fiction is my guerrilla theological formation. I hope my novels are invitations to a spiritual and mystical worldview that may have something to do with God. But to many (or most) readers, they probably just seem like one more variation on the vampire tale.

If we’re right that people are hungry for God, and just don't know enough about our church to find us, perhaps we need to speak more about where and how God is in the profane parts of our lives. Because, the truth is, the liminal space between heaven and earth is just as likely to open up for us in the bedroom as it as around the altar, and we need to be less afraid to talk about that. Perhaps if we did, people might know they could bring their whole selves, longings and all, to the Episcopal Church, and find love.

Amber Belldene is the pen name of an Episcopal priest. Her debut novel Blood Vine will be released in December from Omnific Publishing.

"Gods Without Men" and our search for God

by Sam Candler

Watch closely, and we can see the search for God most everywhere. Sometimes that search strikes us as crazy, and sometimes that search is dazzlingly beautiful. Sometimes, that search is most clearly articulated by people who confess no particular Christian faith at all. I am most appreciative, then, for the self-identified atheist, Hari Kunzru, and his wonderful new book, Gods Without Men.

Doug Coupland, in the New York Times, calls Kunzru’s book part of a new literary genre (NY Times, March 8, 2012), an exploration which transcends our usual notions of time and space. I like that kind of exploration, because it points out our human limits. The exploration of human limits is a critical part of the spiritual quest. Then, when we pay attention to actual words and actual places, we engage also in a religious quest; we make those words and places holy.

Kunzru’s book is about many things: space and time, Wall Street excess, autism, cultural differences, UFO cults, the desert of the American West, even love. But it is also about one place: a (fictitious) three-fingered rock formation somewhere around the Mojave Desert. Kunzru’s characters, some of whom are human and some of whom are not, arrive at this formation during different historical times. Coyotes, Native Americans, Spanish missionary priests, UFO cults, aged rock musicians, hippies, American military personnel, all end up there. But the characters whose journeys are most studied are a young married Manhattan couple, one of whom is American Jewish and the other of whom is immigrant Punjabi; Lisa and Jaz have a severely autistic son.

Of course, I will not reveal too much of the story. In fact, one might debate with me what the story actually is. Perhaps the story is how one character, Schmidt, understood his work: “The shape of his project was becoming clear: how to connect the mysteries of technology with those of the spirit” (Gods Without Men, Kunzru, page 11). Or maybe the story is about how one character describes some New York art in a glass case:

There’s a tradition that says the world has shattered, that what once was whole and beautiful is now just scattered fragments. Much is irreparable, but a few of these fragments contain faint traces of the former state of things, and if you find them and uncover the sparks hidden inside, perhaps at last you’ll piece together the fallen world. This is just a glass case of wreckage. But it has presence. It’s redemptive. It is part of something larger than itself. (page 137)

Later the same character, a Wall Street quantitative analyst, says:
“There are certain things you can’t look at directly. You need to trick them into revealing themselves. That’s what we’re doing with [this financial model]. We’re juxtaposing things, listening for echoes. …Parapraxes. Cosmic slips of the tongue. They’re the key to the locked door. They’ll help us discover it….The face of God. What else would we be looking for?” (page 138)

“You need to trick them…” Indeed, the novel begins with a coyote, the trickster; and coyotes also play a significant role in the novel. Remember, then, that “coyote” and “trickster” are also roles that have been assigned to “Hermes,” the god of interpretation, the messenger of the gods to humanity. The hermeneutical task of interpretation takes its name from a trickster.

Ultimately, I believe the story line can be reduced to a question that one earnest local girl asks the visiting musician: “Tell me something,” she said. “Are you out here looking for lights?” (page 28). Yes, these characters, like all of us, are out there looking for lights. Wherever we are, right now, we are looking for lights.

Some places, over time, have become sources of light for us. Hari Kunzru’s book makes the implicit point that those places of light are often where we meet limits. Jaz’s search, for instance, began to be clear when he was at MIT graduate school, in “the field of quantum probability, where he worked on reconciling competing mathematical descriptions of the physical world, attempting to understand life at a scale where precision dissolved in indeterminancy” (page 58).

Finally, the place Jaz and Lisa are drawn to is only an absence: “Ahead of them lay only a vast emptiness, absence. There was nothing out there at all” (page 381). The ultimate limit. This limit, a via negativa, leads to my favorite definition for God, most famously worded by Saint Anselm of Canterbury in the twelfth century: “God is that greater than which nothing can be conceived.” God is that place where our human capacity fails; God is at the limits of our human experience. God is greater. Those are the places I call holy. They are holy because so many of us, of so many wildly various perspectives and types, have found truth and light there.

Maybe you know where I am going here. Yes, I am going to Church. The Church is holy because people have found holiness here, generation after generation. For Kunzru’s characters, the holy place is an odd three-fingered rock formation (the priest inevitably interprets it as the Trinity). Again, Kunzru, the author, has publicly identified himself as atheist; but he provides quite a friendly study for how people come to identify holy places.

For Christians trying to be faithful in the twenty-first century, Church will be the place where we meet limits and light – a place of re-discovery, though it may not be a physical structure at all. We will go there when all the other tricks of the world – both ancient and modern—have gradually failed to satisfy us. Like the characters in Gods Without Men, none of us is perfect. In fact, we are rather mistaken, dirty, and forlorn. Nevertheless, the Holy finds us. The Holy finds us when we reach certain limits. In the Christian Church, the Christian Community, we witness to that search, we witness to those limits, and we witness to a love that transcends time and space.

So it is that Lisa says,

“She felt like she’d been destroyed and rebuilt again. She felt, if she had to give a name to her feeling, symbolic, as if she now stood for something greater and more significant than herself, stood for the knowledge of limits, was—no, not God’s representative, nothing so grandiose or egotistical—just one of His signposts, a person in the crowd whose life story pointed toward Him, showed the way out of the vanities of this world and into reverence for the unknowable, impenetrable beyond” (page 359).
Yes. God is that greater than which nothing can be conceived.


The Very Rev. Sam Candler is dean of St. Philip's Cathedral in Atlanta. His sermons and reflections on “Good Faith and Common Good” can be found on the Cathedral web site.

Beach reading

By Derek Olsen

It’s that time of the summer—my wife is stocking up on sunscreen and the girls are working themselves into a fevered pitch. Yes, it’s almost vacation time! Every year we spend a week at the Jersey Shore with my wife’s family. A great time is had by all, and it includes everything such a vacation should: sun, sand, home-made ice cream, poker games with my father-in-law, and the inevitable family dramas that result when three generations pack themselves into one beach house for a week.

One of the highlights for me is reading on the beach, so an important part of my pre-vacation planning is working over my shelves to decide which books I’ll be taking with me. In determining beach reading, I like to split my selections into three categories: serious books, engaging books, and guilty pleasures.

The serious books tend to be more academic works that I keep saying I’m going to read when I have the time—and rarely seem to. Every year I dutifully pack at least one, promising myself that between watching over the kids, schlepping things from the beach to the house and back again, and listening to my mother-in-law’s stories about teaching , I’ll be able to give the tome the time it deserves. Of course, every year, this turns out to be more delusion than reality and most of them return home again with only a few chapters or pages read than before. But hope springs anew…

This year’s serious pick is The Oxford Guide to the Book of Common Prayer: A Worldwide Survey edited by Charles Hefling and Cynthia Shattuck. The book is broadly divided into seven sections that examine the prayer books of the Anglican Communion (and a little beyond as well) from a variety of angles through sets of essays, and the contributors represent a wide range of liturgical and theological stars. I’ve read parts of it before, but I want to focus in on a few sections that impact my current research. In particular, I’m looking forward to the section on social history which delves into diaries and parish records to talk about how the prayer books were used “on the ground” in various times and places, and to the section on the future of the Book of Common Prayer especially as it’s impacted by technology and the Internet.
The engaging books tend to be more popular books that make me think. Lighter than the serious books, these are sometimes political, sometimes theological, but have as the aim something that’s going to stretch my spirit. Often I find that it’s the engaging books that I keep returning to throughout the following year as they’ve touched some nerve or sparked my thinking in one area or another.

This year’s engaging book is Essays by Plutarch translated by Robin Waterfield and introduced by Ian Kidd which was a gift from my sister-in-law. A little bit political, a little bit theological, Plutarch is one of my favorite writers. A Greek writing in the Roman Empire around the same time as St Paul, I find him pleasantly philosophical but not tedious or jargon-heavy. Stoic by training, practical and pragmatic by nature, he talks through some of the universal questions of human significance in a way that’s still meaningful and accessible two thousand years later. This collection includes a number of his pieces I haven’t read before, but whose titles reflect the same kind of themes as his pieces that I have read: “On Listening”, “How to Distinguish a Flatterer from a Friend”, and “On God’s Slowness to Punish”.

I’d like to commend Plutarch to you for two reasons. The first is political. The European Renaissance, in its recovery of classical learning eagerly embraced Plutarch. In the sixteenth, seventeenth, even the eighteenth centuries, Plutarch was read avidly and was used as a model. The humanist philosophy that gave rise to the principles of Enlightenment liberalism and democracy was influenced and inspired by Plutarch and his vision of moral life as it impacted both individuals and societies. Modern politics could use a real shot in the arm by once again examining the themes that invigorated Montaigne, Jefferson, Franklin, and the Founding Fathers.

The second is biblical. Plutarch (along with the letters and essays of Seneca) serves as a great companion to the New Testament. Paul takes on a new light when read in the company of Plutarch. The point is not to try and figure out what Paul’s getting from his culture and what form revelation so we can toss out the “culture” part. No, Plutarch is so helpful because we get to see another author from the same time and a similar cultural background using the same moral vocabulary. We receive a clearer picture of Paul’s vision of life in Christ by seeing Plutarch talk about faith, hope, and virtue from his own non-Christian perspective. Too, our reading of the Gospels are informed by Plutarch’s Lives where he offers the preeminent view of how Antiquity read biography.
This year’s guilty pleasure is sponsored by my Kindle. Thanks to the Kindle and other e-readers, I’m able to pick up big collections of my favorite old authors for cheap.

Thus, the guilty pleasure is The Definitve H. P. Lovecraft: 67 Tales of Horror. I haven’t read Lovecraft since late high school/early college, and it’s great to revisit the grounds of Miskatonic University and the other New England haunts of horror that came out of Lovecraft’s brain. (I may as well confess now that I’ve already started in on this one…)

As a religion geek, I’m use to talking and thinking about experiences of the numinous and the supernatural tied hand in hand with goodness, beauty, and truth leading to positive transformative experiences. In his weird tales, Lovecraft presents another option—experiences of the numinous and supernatural entirely divorced from goodness and beauty that leave you wondering about truth (and sanity).

Too, Lovecraft, while not considered a proper literary figure in his own day, is a major influence for some of the today’s great authors of fantasy and science-fiction. I was pleasantly surprised to discover upon rereading “The Dream Quest of Unknown Kadath” just how much the “ghoul” chapter of Neil Gaiman’s Graveyard Book is an homage to Lovecraft’s work.

So—that’s what’s on tap for my beach reading: a little “work,” a little “play” to be squeezed in among the other pleasures of the trip. We’ll see how much actually gets read, of course, and, if this year is like every other it’ll be less than I hope but more than I’d get read otherwise!

Derek Olsen recently finished his Ph.D. in New Testament at Emory University. He has taught seminary courses in biblical studies, preaching, and liturgics; he currently resides in Maryland. His reflections on life, liturgical spirituality, and being a Gen-X/Y dad appear at Haligweorc.

Parish seders: a resource

By Ann Fontaine

A year ago I wrote an essay for the Episcopal Café, Say No to Christian Seders, outlining why I opposed these events. When I saw a friend's note on Facebook announcing Meredith Gould's Come to the Table: A Passover Seder for Parish Use, I retorted with my usual negative comment on the practice of holding seders in Christian Churches. Being a good friend, he asked if I had read it. Then the author joined the conversation and intrigued me with her ideas. While I am still not convinced, the following is an interview with Meredith Gould, who answers many of the questions about her book and the issue of seders in Christian churches. I do recommend it for those who wish to explore the issue and perhaps hold a type of seder that might be appropriate in a Christian church. From the book's web site the author, "invites faithful, curious Christians to appreciate the Last Supper as a Last Seder for Jesus and his disciples."
Table-cover-FINAL_00.jpg AF: Why did you decide to write this book?

MG: Several factors contributed to my increasing sense of urgency about writing Come to the Table: A Passover Seder for Parish Use, a project I started well over a decade ago. Key among these was, of course, my growing awareness that many churches were cobbling together seders that were. . .strange. But to be fair, what resources have been readily available?

In my experience, it’s usually someone from the Women’s Club or in an interfaith marriage rather than a liturgist who makes church-based seders happen. I tend to be more charmed than offended by such efforts, recognizing them as earnest expressions of interfaith outreach rather than a venal expropriation of Jewish ritual. Many years ago, after a supermarket encounter with someone whose cart was filled with yeasty baked goodies because, “dessert is after the seder is over,” I simply prayed, “Forgive her Lord, for she knows not what she’s doing,” and redoubled my efforts to get Come to the Table written, vetted and published.

Since parishes were already holding seders despite elegant formal statements issued by church hierarchy, I felt compelled to make my own contribution, one providing more education about the significance of Passover in the life of Jesus. I also decided to write a seder that I hoped would help Christians better understand the structure and meaning of Holy Eucharist.

In fact, most of my published work is an ongoing effort to help my sisters and brothers in Christ better understand just how much of Christian praxis is anchored in Judaism. A couple of years ago, I wrote Why Is There a Menorah on the Altar? Jewish Roots of Christian Worship (Seabury) to provide this information and education in more detail.

AF: Many Christians and Jewish people argue against seders put on by Christians - what do you say to them?

MG: First, I want to find out what they’re arguing against and learn a bit more about their experiences to date.

From Christians, I want to know if they’ve ever been to an authentic Jewish seder and, if so, within which movement of Judaism. (Judaism has movements, not denominations). Their experience at a Reconstructionist seder will be quite different from one at the home of a Conservative family.

From Christians and Jews, I want to know more about their religious tradition growing up; if they’ve changed denominations/movements (if so, which and when and why); what their interfaith experiences have been so far.

From Jews, I want to know if they’ve ever been to a church-based seder. If they have, I want to know what they might have found disturbing. I also want to know if they’ve ever invited Christians to their family seder. If they have, I want to know if they felt equipped to help their guests make connections between ritual actions of the seder and what goes on during Holy Eucharist. Did they encourage active midrash?

I want to get this information before responding because I know it will help me engage in a more authentic conversation. It’s also my way of creating more space for me to calm down after having my first, second and third reactions to what I generally perceive as an attack.

AF: What is your personal history with the issue of holding seders in Christian churches?

MG: My personal history with this issue and Holy Week especially has been, in a word, painful. As I’ve written elsewhere (and often), I consider myself Jewish by identity and Christian by faith. As a Jew, I remain keenly aware of anti-Judaism and anti-Semitism. Passover and Holy Week were difficult for me before being baptized and that seems still to be the case.

When it comes to church-based seders, I think it’s important that everyone understand that only the structure and some – but certainly not all – of the content can be replicated. Christian faith makes using the traditional Jewish seder totally inappropriate as well as impossible.

With this in mind and heart, I created a Christian observance for Holy Week that draws upon core Christian concepts and verses from Christian scripture to help participants understand the Last Supper as Last Seder. This meant removing some rituals entirely (e.g., proclaiming, “Next year in Jerusalem.”) I provide extensive notes to reference and unpack scholarship in this area for laity.

AF: What field testing did you do in preparation for writing and editing your book? What about getting it published?

MG: Revealing the years of field testing would mean revealing my age! Let’s just say I’ve spent decades attending and creating authentically Jewish seders in Jewish homes. (I sought and received baptism during my early 40s.) After baptism, I became much more aware of what Christians were actually doing for and to Passover. I elaborate my personal history in the preface from the first edition in this revised one. Yes, this is a blatant request for readers to buy my (very affordably priced) book!

Come to the Table was written and rewritten over a period of seven years before it was published by Plowshares Publishing in 2005. During that time the manuscript was vetted by Jewish and Christian reviewers before being submitted to religion publishers.

The first edition was rejected by every religion publisher to which it was submitted. I received comments like, “we don’t want to offend the Jewish people” so frequently that I was tempted to snap back with, “Hey, my mother is a Jew and she’s not offended.” Actually, I did finally say this and ended up being in an ongoing dialogue that resulted in Come to the Table being picked up by one well-regarded Catholic publishing house. It was pulled from the schedule (a nicely symbolic) three days before going into production. I received the news via terse email. At that point, I set up Plowshares Publishing.

Come to the Table has been used by many Roman Catholic parishes during the past five years since it references prayers and blessings in the Roman Missal. I’ve even had the privilege of presiding over one parish-based seder using my own haggadah. That experience as well as the positive notes I’ve received from those involved in adult formation has reinforced my commitment to this project.

I almost retired this title in 2010 because the Roman Missal was being rewritten but decided instead to revise the liturgy for use by any Christian congregation called to deepen its appreciation of Passover in the life of Jesus. I have Twitter in general and @Virtual_Abbey (more specifically) to thank for my growing commitment to ecumenism. That’s another story; more megillah than a haggadah.

_____________________________________

Meredith Gould, PhD, is the author of seven books The Word Made Fresh: Communicating Church and Faith Today (Morehouse); The Catholic Home: Celebrations and Traditions (Doubleday); and Deliberate Acts of Kindness: Service as a Spiritual Practice
(Doubleday). She blogs at More Meredith Gould, serves as abbess of The Virtual Abbey and is a frequent contributor to dotMagis.

The Rev. Ann Fontaine, Interim Vicar,St. Catherine's Episcopal Church, Manzanita OR, keeps what the tide brings in. She is the author of Streams of Mercy: a meditative commentary on the Bible.

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Opening to God: Childlike Prayers for Adults: A review

Book Review: Opening to God: Childlike Prayers for Adults by Marilyn McCord Adams

By Frederick Quinn

During her five years as Regius Professor of Divinity and Canon at Christ Church Cathedral, Oxford, 2004-2009, Marilyn McCord Adams was widely known for her sermons, which she worked on all day Saturday and delivered without notes on Sunday morning. She was equally known for the specially composed prayers with which she concluded services of choral evensong. The place for the three concluding collects chosen by the canon in residence allowed Adams “an opportunity to speak in another voice and to try and convey the relevance of what we had just done in another way.” Some 258 of these prayers were published in 2008 by Westminster John Knox Press, Louisville, Kentucky. “Over time, I got more comments on these prayers than I did on any of my sermons,” she wrote in the book’s introduction. “People reported themselves moved, surprised, provoked, or startled. It seemed that the prayers had touched something. My guess is that it touched their own desire to be childlike with God.”

The prayers were written for the specific Christ Church Cathedral setting, with its steady flow of global tourists. Many of those attending the six p. m. daily service might have limited fluency with English and less familiarity with the 1662 Book of Common Prayer. Adams envisioned a congregation of children between the ages of seven and ten years of age, with a good command of language, an awareness of the world around them, ”but who are not yet civilized into adult inhibitions.” The language is frank, trusting, and uninhibited, different from that of the public services in the Book of Common Prayer that “get treated as the Emily Post or Miss Manners of prayer practice, authoritative manuals instructing us in the approved terms of flattery and self-deprecation.” Instead, it is a response to Jesus’ invitation to enter the kingdom of heaven as children.

Presently Distinguished Research Professor of Philosophy at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, and formerly on the faculties of the University of California at Los Angeles and Yale University, Adams concludes that such prayer “is a way of sharing the ups and downs, the disastrous failures and wrenching losses, the satisfactions and sweet successes, all the twists and turns of our lives with God.”

The prayers are gathered under three headings, Opening the Self to God, Faith Seeking Understanding, and caring for God’s World. The language is not carved in stone. The author suggests that readers try different prayers that speak to them, not as finished works, but as models for their own efforts. This is a book that could easily be used by parish prayer groups and in adult classes, and for laity and clergy bold enough to move their prayer life in a new direction. It could easily become a “go to” volume in daily prayers and is eminently worth adding to the small shelf of devotional works from which a person draws.

Three representative prayers provide an example of Adams’ work: On Death (29), Terrorism (187) and For the Incarnation (83).

On Death
O God, you made us out of dust. But it’s hard to believe that the people we love are just fancy mud pies. For years we’ve known them as full of life and creativity, working towards goals and polishing skills. We’ve experienced them as persons we connect with – giving and receiving and living so deeply into relationships that we scarcely know how to say who we are and what we’re about without them. It’s hard to accept that all of this – they and we – will unravel. O God, help us trust you with our dead. Enable us to trust you with ourselves. Through Jesus Christ. Amen.

Terrorism
O God, even within our own families, we sometimes get so upset that we splatter our anger all over the room onto whomever happens to be around. But there are orders of magnitude. What would it be like to think it permissible, even a right and noble thing to blow up oneself and other human beings with bombs? O God, the thought terrifies us, the reality so stuns us that we don’t want even to understand this. Only your mind is wide enough to take this in. Only your heart is deep enough to love the perpetrators and be good to the victims. We need your wily wisdom to persuade us, to teach us how to love together in better ways. Amen.

For the Incarnation
O God, when life gets really difficult we sometimes wonder where you are and why you aren’t making it easier. You know how readily we feel abandoned, worry that you are hostile or really don’t care. O God, thank you for reassuring us at Christmas that you are not aloof but ready to share our lives. Thank you for being with us in the good times. Thank you more for being with us in the worst times, when projects fail, when relationships shatter, when love is lost through betrayal or death. Thank you for being Emmanuel, with us always, no matter what. Through Jesus Christ. Amen.

Frederick Quinn is an Episcopal priest, holds a doctorate in history from the University of California at Los Angeles, and has written books about law, history, and religion.

Troubles on the Tenth Parallel: Muslim-Christian Conflict

By Frederick Quinn

No question facing the Anglican Communion today is more explosive that the present and future of Muslim Christian relations. Eliza Griswold’s new book, The Tenth Parallel, Dispatches From the Fault Line Between Christianity and Islam (Farrar, Straus, and Giroux) is a must read for anyone seriously wishing to explore this subject. Along this latitude line seven hundred miles above the equator, sometimes described as part of a wider “an arc of instability,” live more than half the world’s Christian and Muslim populations. They interact both peaceably and in conflict in impoverished, unsettled conditions that were this skilled journalist’s beat for nearly seven years. The Fault Line’s s deteriorating ecological political, economic, and demographic tensions are often explained in the language of religious conflict, and the award-winning American writer set out to explore these issues first hand.

As populations expand, cropland shrinks, and global warming produces unpredicted devastation through drought and floods, millions of the world’s most vulnerable people are left living in stressful conditions. It is easy to assess blame for such tensions in inflammatory religious language, but the realities are far more complex. The author concludes, “Religious strife where Christians and Muslims meet is real, and grim, but the long history of everyday encounter, of believers of different kinds shouldering all things together, even as they follow different faiths, is no less real. It follows that their lives bear witness to the coexistence of the two religions – and of the complicated bids for power inside them – more than to the conflicts between them.”

Christian fundamentalists in northern Nigeria and Islamic jihadists in Indonesia are some of the people Griswold interviewed during time spent traveling by rattling vehicles through Nigeria, Sudan, Somalia, Indonesia, Malaysia, and the Philippines. Griswold has the gift, found in only a handful of journalists on global issues, for compressing telling detail into compact sketches. One instance: she returned to Nigeria’s flood stricken Middle Belt in September 2007 shortly after torrential flooding of the Wase River had caused thousands of people to flee in panic. They lifted possibly two thousand babies into nearby trees, the only possible place of protection, hanging the children from branches. “They spent two days without food or water. Some were silent. Others cried from hunger. Below them, in the slick, black water, cows, goats, pigs, and a human bodies floated past.”

The wider Anglican Communion knows little about Islam, and Muslim-Christian relations remain an almost unexplored subject. The Tenth Parallel represents an important step in remedying this lack of information and perspective on another major world religion. The quality of Griswold’s writing and the author’s perceptiveness of human and public policy issues invites comparison with the Polish travel writer, Ryszard Kapuscinki, and Rory Stewart, whose The Places in Between and other works on Afghanistan and Iraq, have provided vivid, on-the-ground accounts of life in other desolate-yet-hopeful settings.

Frederick Quinn is the author of “The Sum of All Heresies,” the Image of Islam in Western Thought (Oxford University Press, 2008) and a contributor to Episcopal Café.

Rehabilitating the image of the Magdalene

By Beatrice Gormley

On social occasions people always politely ask me what I’m writing. These days, I tell them my latest book is a young adult novel about Mary Magdalene.

Some are startled. “This is a book for young people? But she was a prostitute.”

I gently disagree: nothing in the Gospels indicates that Mary of Magdala was ever a prostitute. The legend of her as the archetypal repentant sinner grew up several centuries after her death. I’m tempted to explain in more depth, but if I go on to summarize a close reading of the Gospels, plus an overview of early church history, the other person is likely to excuse himself and head for the bar.

On the other hand, some people react in quite a different way. An intense light comes into their eyes. “I’ve always been fascinated with Mary Magdalene,” they say. Clearly, whether they know a little or a lot about Mary, they feel a personal connection with her.

For a long time, I have to admit, I was one of those who accepted the traditional legend of Mary uncritically. I didn’t think much about Mary of Magdala. I only began to change my mind while studying the Gospels for a class. Going over Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John line by line, I learned that Mary the prostitute was nowhere to be found in the text.

But—then what was the basis for all the famous Magdalenes in religious art, such as Veronese’s painting of a remorseful (but bare-breasted) young woman, or Donatello’s statue of a hideously aged but spiritually purified hermit? What about Nikos Kazantzakis’s novel The Last Temptation of Christ, or the many film versions of Jesus’ life that depicted Mary as a prostitute? They could all be traced back to the sixth-century sermon in which Pope Gregory I conflated Mary of Magdala with other women in the Gospels, and identified her as an iconic repentant sinner.

This “penitent whore” legend obscured the already faint knowledge of what was really important about Mary: She must have been a key disciple in Jesus' following. Otherwise, the Gospel writers wouldn't even have mentioned her name. They wouldn’t have described Mary and other women disciples as having the courage to witness Jesus’ crucifixion, while the male disciples hid. Mary, in particular, was so close to Jesus that according to Mark and John, she was the first to see the risen Christ.

By the time Dan Brown’s novel The Da Vinci Code was published, I knew enough about Mary of Magdala to be really irritated by his portrayal of her. Although Brown rejected the traditional concept of Mary as a whore, it was only to substitute the idea that she was Mrs. Jesus, the “vessel” that bore his child. One could write volumes discussing how much is wrong with this, including the ludicrous idea that Jesus passed on his spiritual power through his genes.

Meanwhile, I had been busy writing historical novels based on stories in the Bible. Those Bible stories! They’re some of the most dramatic tales ever told, full of passionate love, deadly jealousy, overweening pride, devastating loss. But many of them are tantalizingly sketchy about the female characters, practically begging to be expanded and fully imagined.

I wrote into novels the stories of several of those young women: Miriam, about the girl who saves her brother Moses from Pharaoh’s soldiers; Adara, about the Israelite slave girl in General Naaman’s household who connects him with the prophet Elisha; Salome, about that girl who danced for the head of John the Baptist. But I’d never considered Mary of Magdala for one of my books, because I thought she was too old.

Then, casting around for an idea for my next novel, I asked my friend Jean Grasso Fitzpatrick for suggestions. Her answer was instantaneous. “Obviously, Mary Magdalene.”

Before I could object that my teenaged readers weren’t going to go for a story about a middle-aged church lady, something clicked in my brain. I was still harboring an unexamined assumption about Mary: that she was older than Jesus. In fact, Mary may not have been even twenty when Jesus and his followers set out on that last journey to Jerusalem. So my story of Mary could cover her life from preadolescence to young adulthood and still include her encounter with Jesus. My story would answer the question, what kind of girl was she? By what rocky journey did that girl grow into an extraordinary spiritual leader?

Writing a novel is all about challenges. A particular challenge of this novel, since I intended to stick as closely to the historical record as possible, was that there was almost no solid information about Mary of Magdala. Only a few sentences in the Gospels, plus the later, extracanonical Gospels of Mary, Thomas, and Philip. All my other research had to be indirect, carefully constructing possibilities about Mary from what was known about life in first-century Galilee. I examined many scholarly speculations (some of them contradictory) about Mary’s background and decided which ones seemed most plausible, as well as most useful for my story.

A different kind of challenge, in Mary’s story, was daring to portray Jesus. It seemed presumptuous, almost sacrilegious, to write about the way he might have looked, might have talked, might have acted with his followers. I had to keep telling myself that Yeshua of Nazareth was, after all, a historical person. It was my function as a novelist to imagine his physical presence. In order for a character in a novel to come to life in the reader’s mind, the writer has to provide details about that person.

Illogically, I also worried about the effect on my faith, if I succeeded in describing a convincing Jesus. Would that trivialize him in my eyes? Would that make him small enough to fit inside the covers of a book?

I had to point out to myself that I was not, after all, trying to write a definitive biography of Jesus of Nazareth. I was not trying to understand him. I was writing Mary’s experience of knowing Jesus, the man who healed her and transformed her life. Poisoned Honey would be the story of Jesus’ effect on Mary, and I was qualified to imagine that. I know many people who have been healed and transformed by faith, including myself.

And I felt strongly drawn to defend Mary, maybe the most misunderstood person of the Bible. I know that a good story can be more convincing than all the scholarly arguments in the world. I wanted very much to tell what I thought was Mary of Magdala’s real story: An idealistic young woman, blocked by her social environment from developing her gifts, suffers and struggles but finally finds her mission as a close disciple of Jesus. This is the Mary of Poisoned Honey.

Beatrice Gormley is the author of many novels and biographies for young readers, including Poisoned Honey: A Story of Mary Magdalene. (Knopf, 2010, ISBN 978-0-375-85207-7) She is a parishioner at St. Andrew’s by-the-Sea, Little Compton, RI. Her website: www.beatricegormley.com.

An American awakening: Next

This is the third of three excerpts from An American Awakening: From Ground Zero to Katrina, the People We are Free to Be, published by Church Publishing.

By Courtney Cowart

One day in late May 2008, I am straightening some papers in my office and come across a cardboard box in the corner of the room. In it is a curious combination of haphazardly piled documents and artifacts. As I start to dig through them, I have the feeling people must have when they open a time capsule. It is as if, for a minute, I have returned to my old life of poring through musty diaries from the past.

Stacked on top of each other are layers and layers of images and articles from 9/11 and Katrina –now crumpled and yellowed by time –shuffled together in no particular order. In the upper regions of the pile are copies of some of the children’s letters that came to us in the chapel in the fall of 2001. Among them is my favorite –Claudia’s letter to a firefighter listing all the hair-raising catastrophic ways her young imagination can think of dying.

Since I love that letter so much I pause and read it again. Claudia was certain of one thing –that she would not die in a fire, “Because,” she said to the firefighter, “people like you would go into the fire to save an ordinary person like me. And that’s what makes you so great, courageous, brave, terrific, wonderful, special people.”

Underneath that letter is an article by Dr. Stephen Post, Director of the Institute for Research on Unlimited Love. I see by the date that the piece was written shortly after 9/11. As I glance at the lead for the story I see that Post is relaying an account of a journalist interviewing the famous children’s television personality, mr. Rogers, and asking him on behalf of parents, ‘What should we say to our children when they ask us questions about 9/11?” Mr. Rogers replied simply, “Tell them to keep their eyes on the helpers.”

Digging deeper in the box I find an old color photograph showing one side of the interior of the chapel with thousands of children’s letters taped to the walls and the pews –papering every inch. Suddenly I have a sense of all those impressionable young eyes watching us –watching all the helpers. Putting their crayons and pencils to paper they told us what they saw. They saw what makes human beings great.

Beneath those pictures are several more photographs from New Orleans. These are of young ladies in their late teens and early twenties straining to lift crates of debris as they gut a flooded home. What strikes me immediately is how vulnerable the girls look against the backdrop of grim destruction. I think to myself, “Why are so many kids who at their age should be having fun, choosing to shoulder such a heavy responsibility?” I sit for a moment looking at the two images side by side. Then suddenly my mind produces an answer: “These youth in New Orleans are the generation of children who wrote the letters papering the chapel’s walls. It is an “Oh my God!” kind of moment.

After that day my curiosity is piqued, and I begin to do some research. I discover that statistics gathered over the past few years reinforce the observation that an unusually strong altruistic streak is being exhibited by youth who gre up in the shadow of 9/11. It happens that these young people comprise the largest generation in our nation’s history.

The Claudias of our country – a whole generation – are coming of age right now. Something of the relentless love exhibited in their heroes who gave their lives at the time of 9/11 has seemingly come alive in them. Now my ears are alert to listening to what they say about their motivations. Every day I hear statements like Katie Mears’s, describing why she takes on the most difficult Katrina cases when she could be living a conventional twenty-something life: “To me giving up anybody is not an option.” That is exactly what I heard the first-responders say inside the pile.

This is the ethic that is saving New Orleans and may save our country as well. It is incredibly hopeful to realize that 50 million young Americans of this generation will be eligible to vote in 2008, and that the vast majority of them completely reject the notion that any human life is dispensable. How could they accept such an ethic? This is the 9/11 generation.

Courtney Cowart, author of An American Awakening is Director, Advocacy and Community Affairs, Episcopal Community Services, Diocese of Louisiana.

An American Awakening: Katrina

This is the second of three excerpts from An American Awakening: From Ground Zero to Katrina, the People We are Free to Be, published by Church Publishing.

By Courtney Cowart

Before the storm John Mac, as everyone calls the high school, was considered the lowest ranked public school in America. Louisiana ranked last in the nation. New Orleans parish ranked last in Louisiana. And John Mac was ranked last in New Orleans.

“It was bad then,” Principal Jackson tells us, “but it is worse now. We have eight hundred students attending, fifteen teachers, and twenty-six security guards. Forty percent of our students are back in the city without either parent. They are squatting in gutted houses, living with boyfriends, sleeping on different sofas night to night. And when they come to school we have no textbooks, not one book in our library, no doors on the bathroom stalls, frozen-solid meals are handed out at lunchtime.”

I talk to Shedrick White, a teacher at John Mac, about all of this because he is in the classroom with the kids every day. Shed puts it this way, “You see New Orleans is like an American refugee camp. This city, to be honest with you, is where you spend the least amount of money on the school system, and where you spend the most in the prison system.”

“That’s why I started the poetry to provide that outlet for the kids and even more to teach them about coping. I think they need to write. They need to write to get some of it out.”

The church begins to work with Shed on realizing his dream, which he was close to achieving at the time Katrina hit.

“What I’d love to see is a weekly venue with the kids expressin’ themselves.
We have a fearless, courageous generation of youth out there. They just need to be pointed in the right direction and be part of some kind of movement. They’ll join. People just waitin’. Just waitin’ for a call. In the community with the kids this poem is the signature piece. This is how it goes.”

Suddenly Shedrick White assumes his persona as the bard of the black youth of the city, and begins to tell their story in rhyme.

The black struggle is not over so for me it’s still crunch time, Was the thought that ran through my mind as I passed the school during lunchtime. And it was ghetto-fab y’all. Instead of jumpin’ rope, the girls were backin’ it up. And instead of playin’ ball, the boys were on the hood of the car, Because the truancy hackin’ ‘em up. Now you woulda really thought they was grown if you’d a heard these children conversin’. I mean you woulds really thought they was grown if you coulda heard How these kids was cursin’. On this particular day in my life, I really must make mention. It was a conversation between two boys that really caught My attention. I know I shouldn’t be nosey –or maybe I should ‘cause The topic of the conversation was how hard each other’s hood was. Now the first one had to be from the project or at least that’s what I assumed, Because he said, “To live in my court I either gotta pick up a gun or pick out a tomb.”

Then he talked about how he hit the block and helped his uncle
Sell rock.
Or how they beat up people with G-Nikes because him and their
click only wear Reeboks.
Then he talked about how they be hittin’ hustles and pullin’ capers.
He said, “Man my hood’s so notorious they don’t even deliver
the mornin’ papers.
Said, ‘It’s rough like that when you’re livin’ in the ‘jects.
The only reason the mailman comes through is because he gotta
deliver them checks.
He said, ‘The weak ones we punk’em, the cowards we
scare ‘em.
They be so petrified they buy brand new Jordans and don’t even
wear ‘em.
He said, ‘I was thirteen years old when I drunk my first Forty.
And fourteen years old when I stayed out all night at my first party.
And fiftenn years old when I sold my first dime.
And sixteen years old when I snorted my first line.
We bought it like that in my hood and we ain’t never gonna
stop that.
I know my hood’s the hardest. Let me see you try to top that?

And the second boy replied by saying:
When I said my hood was hard I wasn’t talkin’ about thuggin’.
I was talkin’ hard from ahrd times, that come from hard core strugglin’.
You see its hard for us to eat at Houston’s and Copeland’s,
‘Cause all we can afford is Church’s.
And it’s hard for us to get a Visa or Mastercard because all we
have is the Louisiana Purchase
Hard is how my daddy works, but he ain’t make much cash.
The closest he came to pullin out a credit card is when he pulled
out his bus pass.
And it’s hard for us to live in peace, ‘cause people gossip and keep mess.
And it’s hard to get to the next grade ‘cause they done made it
hard to pass the Leap Test.
Uh-oh, look it. The bell ringin. Said bro’ I gotta go.
But we can talk after school if you want to discuss this some mo’.
But I’m gonna leave you with this, ‘cause I don’t think I’ve said
enough.
You see, I’m talkin’ about life bein’ hard
While you talkin’ about a hood bein’ rough.
After talkin’ with with my Pops I know this for a fact.
We wouldn’t be talkin’ about whose hood is the hardest
If we both wasn’t black.
And once we realize this we should study to be the smartest.
Because life for black people in any ghetto is always going to
be the hardest.

Courtney Cowart, author of An American Awakening is Director, Advocacy and Community Affairs, Episcopal Community Services, Diocese of Louisiana.

An American Awakening:
Ground zero

This is the first of three excerpts from An American Awakening: From Ground Zero to Katrina, the People We are Free to Be, published by Church Publishing.

By Courtney Cowart

The sheer cliffs of the pile rise to the east of where we are standing. These are the sliced corpses of buildings. Their bones are fractured. Their guts are spilling out. Sinews of tangled cable snake through eviscerated black tissue matted in clumps. “Where are we going?” I ask. Lyndon answers, “In there.”

We start to walk a slope. I feel extremely weak and horribly insignificant. The bewildering scale and uncountable number of shards, billions of gargantuan matchsticks dropped like giant pick-up sticks pointing in every direction make me feel like a speck. The thought of any team tackling this is irrational – absurd, pointless, impossible. This is a lost world. I hear the voice of one of the workers, “I looked at it and thought ten years it will take to do this. Ten years! Where do we even begin?”

I’ve never stood directly on ground where people came seeking to obliterate life. Most terrifying is the fact that you can still feel that intention to take, to sever, to confuse, to quell. There is an overwhelming feeling of subtraction. I feel it like hunger in my stomach, a great gnawing acid emptiness that makes me slightly sick.

All this tempts me to think, “Forget this you fool. Get out of here now. It is not too late to run.”

But this dissipates once we are with the workers. In contrast to the problem: death, destruction, fear, all the lost lives laced through this mind-boggling heap, and the horrible toll working in here must take on any human, are the acts I am about to see.

The man in the hazmat suit, who looks like a yellow astronaut, directs us to where they are digging. In the intense heat radiating through our clothes the workers gently rake the ash. The smell of decay is strong, but the seekers do not notice. They commune so intently with the one who is lost. I can almost hear them praying, “I will dig on my knees to find you. I will scoop you into my hand. I will carry you out and take you where we can name you. We will find the ones who love you and know that you belong. We did not leave you. We would never leave you in Hell.”

I am spellbound. Despite the hideous strength that is palpable, this contrasting commitment is total. It began the morning of the attack. It persisted through the early days and hours of search and rescue. Now it continues as the firefighters I see reach for those they failed to save on 9/11. These are human beings bound to the lost by one absolute and undeterred purpose: to protect, to serve and to rescue lives – no matter the cost, no matter the grave.

I think of what a firefighter said to me. “See this?” he asked, pointing to the shield in the shape of a Maltese cross stitched on his uniform. “It means that the person who wears this is willing to lay down his life for you.” I have never been completely surrounded by the presence of people like this.

The searchers speak in low voices. One of the ones who laid down his life has been found. We gather the person’s remains from the ash, immediately encircling the container in a blanket of prayer. One extraordinary life to thank the Creator for making. One life given for this world. One death that makes us incomplete forever. One of us.

I hear the voice of Tony, a sanitation worker and volunteer fireman.

“I really believe in my heart they knew they weren’t coming out. Everybody obviously gave up their life, but the firemen actually gave up their life to save somebody else’s, going in knowing full well they weren’t coming out. So that is why I don’t care what we have to do. It doesn’t matter. I don’t care if they ask me to get down on one of those streets and lick it with my tongue. It won’t bother me. Because you can’t put any price on that there – what they did. So whatever it takes…”

Thank God that seeing humanity loved like this renews the passion to give all you can. Being in the presence of these men I begin to believe just maybe, if something of their commitment to life rubs off on the rest of us, many will be activated to give their all, and we will actually do this. If anything can tap into wells of passion and kindle the “whatever it takes” so that it catches, leaps from person to person, causes a chain reaction, seeing the sacrifices of these responders and remembering how they behaved in the moment of trial – that has the power to do it.

How many of us, I wonder, are having this experience in some way, in some measure? If thousands (maybe millions) this must be the most remarkable feature of the days we are living through. I don’t know if this is the case, but I feel as though I might be in the grip of a larger initiation.

I catch the parable of the firefighters’ task inside this giant wreck. If they represent how far our human hearts can go, our enormous capacity to care, to give, to sacrifice for each other, maybe the pile shows the time has come to unleash this power in all of us.

Courtney Cowart, author of An American Awakening is Director, Advocacy and Community Affairs, Episcopal Community Services, Diocese of Louisiana.

Food, namely herbs and stewed rabbit, for the journey

By Adam Thomas

The hobbits Frodo Baggins and Samwise Gamgee arrive in a heather-strewn woodland between the River Anduin and the mountains that border the dreaded land of Mordor. After some walking around and griping about the knavish Gollum, who is their deranged hostage and guide, they sit down for a meal, as hobbits often do. They eat herbs and stewed rabbit and then…

…I have no idea what happens next.

I’m twelve years old, and I have made it nearly two-thirds of the way through The Lord of the Rings. But I can no longer bear it, and I shelve the book. It’s just so boring. All they do is walk! They start in one place, walk for a bit, meet someone and chat, and then walk some more! I just want them to get somewhere! I want to yell, “Get to your destination, Frodo – don’t stop to eat herbs and stewed rabbit, which the author has described in painstaking detail! Just get to the mountain and be done with the ring! Enough of this walking…”

A year later, I’m thirteen (a much wiser and more mature age), and once again I pick up The Lord of the Rings. Maybe this year, I’ll finish it. I begin at the beginning, and they walk and meet folks and chat and run away from enemies and Frodo and Samwise reach the heather-strewn woodland and eat herbs and stewed rabbit and then…

…I have no idea what happens next.

My wisdom and maturity are no match for the walking. Again, I stop reading. The quest is just too long and arduous and their destination is still on the other side of the mountains and several hundred pages away.

A year later, I’m fourteen, and I pick up The Lord of the Rings again. On page 641, Frodo and Samwise sit down for a dinner of herbs and stewed rabbit and then…

…I keep reading. They find themselves in the middle of an ambush, Sam sees an oliphaunt, the hobbits are captured by people who are supposed to be on their side, and the story goes on and on. A few days later, I finish it. And I’ve read it at least eight more times since.

Finally, at fourteen, I could appreciate the journey, and let the destination take care of itself. Tolkien understood that a destination is more than a physical place. A destination is the culmination of all the shaping events of the journey that brings you to that ultimate location.

Every year, after the tryptophan has worn off, we begin just such a journey in our walks with God. While secular Christmas disgorges itself out of shipping containers every year the day after Thanksgiving, we have the opportunity to let Christmas happen only after the four weeks of Advent have run their course. Christmas is the destination. And Advent is about not arriving at your destination before you are shaped by the journey.

Have you ever had the soup du jour at a restaurant? It’s not some fancy French dish. It’s just the soup made for that particular day. Likewise, my journey happens every day. Every encounter, every decision, every road taken or not shapes me. The season of Advent gives me a dedicated four weeks to notice the shaping influence each day has on my journey with God.

On the first Sunday of Advent, we heard the psalmist pray, “ Show me your ways, O Lord, and teach me your paths…All the paths of the Lord are love and faithfulness” (25:3, 9). This Advent, I’m adopting this prayer because I’ve always had trouble not skipping to the end of the story. Every year of my childhood, I wanted to open the windows of my Advent calendar all at once. I just couldn’t wait to open tomorrow’s window tomorrow. Now, at twenty-six (a much wiser and more mature age) I pray for God to give me the patience to notice each day’s impact on my life. When I ask God to “teach me your paths,” I’m not hoping for some inside knowledge about the destination. I’m simply asking for guidance along the road.

Some time ago, I heard this illustration (the origin of which no longer resides in my brain). Have you ever noticed that headlights only show you thirty or forty yards ahead of your car on a dark night? But they still get you to your destination. Likewise, God teaches me God’s path even as I am struggling to stay on it. As I walk towards Christmas on this particular Advent journey, Christ walks a few steps ahead of me, illumining the road to his own nativity, to his own unique and wonderful expression of love and faithfulness.

Despite my opening description, my love for Tolkien’s works of fiction is deep and abiding. They taught me the lesson of Advent: don’t arrive at your destination before being shaped by the journey. I pray that, during this season of Advent, God teaches us God’s paths, which are love and faithfulness. And I pray that we may meet someday on the road, about which Tolkien’s Bilbo Baggins rhymes:

The Road goes ever on and on
Down from the door where it began.
Now far ahead the Road has gone,
And I must follow, if I can,
Pursuing it with weary feet,
Until it joins some larger way,
Where many paths and errands meet.
And whither then? I cannot say.

The Rev. Adam Thomas, one of the first Millennials to be ordained priest, is the curate of Trinity Episcopal Church in Martinsburg, WV. He blogs at wherethewind.com.

The lessons of Three Cups of Tea

By George Clifford

The 4th and 5th grade Sunday School class in the parish where I’m currently serving as the priest in charge read the New York Times bestseller, Three Cups of Tea by Greg Mortenson and David Oliver Relin this autumn. Three Cups of Tea traces Mortenson’s evolution from mountain climber to humanitarian change agent.

Through his twenties and into his thirties, Mortenson lived for mountain climbing, working as a nurse when not climbing in order to support his climbing expeditions. Then his attempt to climb Pakistan’s K2, the world’s second highest mountain located like the better-known Everest in the Himalayas, ended in failure. Mortenson spent his energy heroically rescuing another team member, then wisely recognized that he no longer had the strength required to cover the last half mile to the summit.

On his descent, Mortenson, through inattention induced by his weakened condition, became separated from the others in his party. He spent a night alone on a glacier without fire, food, or friends. Only his innate physical endurance and the intensity of his focus enabled him to survive.

The crucible of K2 and his relationships with the Pakistanis porter and villagers who helped him to survive changed Mortenson. Before leaving the remote village whose residents had nursed him back to health, he promised to return and to build them a school. No grand vision lay behind the promise. Instead, Mortenson’s gratitude and his realization that helping others represented a far greater achievement than scaling a challenging mountain inspired his promise.

Several of Mortenson’s lessons learned and experiences in his transformation from climber to humanitarian change agent resonated deeply with me. First, the book’s title highlights a tribal custom of the people who sheltered Mortenson and for whom he promised to build the school. Sharing one cup of tea is between strangers, the second cup is between friends, and the third is between family for whom the other family members are willing to do anything, even die. However one defines family, do you really value your family enough to sacrifice a long-cherished ambition for their well-being? Theologically, sharing the Eucharist is analogous to that third cup of tea. Yet for how many of the people who share in the Eucharist, whether locally or globally, am I willing to die? Like Mortenson, I can benefit from lessons in valuing family.

Second, Mortenson has to learn that wisdom and education are not synonymous. Paternalism, even a genial, well-intentioned paternalism, remains paternalism and demeans its intended beneficiaries. Ecclesial structures that implicitly value clergy more than laity or insiders more than outsiders generally embody a similar paternalism. Walking together does not necessitate having a hierarchical leader with subordinate followers.

Third, Mortenson never attempted to convert the Muslims among whom he worked to his religious perspective. Although spirituality permeates Three Cups of Tea, the book never clarifies Mortenson’s personal beliefs and practices. Yet the influence of his strong Christian upbringing is repeatedly evident. Mortenson’s genuine respect for the Muslims among whom he works – Sunnis, Shias, and Ismailis – exemplifies respect for the dignity and worth of all people to which we commit ourselves in our baptismal vows. Mortenson communicates his real respect for people by living as they live, praying as they pray, eating what they eat, dressing as they dress, etc. He never pretends to be who is not, e.g., a Muslim. But he learns the importance of unfailingly honoring those in whose presence he is. Individuals need to adopt a spiritual path and then travel that path. Wandering aimlessly among paths or picking and choosing what feels good in the moment usually results in the idolatry of a God of our own making or our traveling in circles (which is what people who are lost almost invariably do without a compass). Conversely, believing that only one path leads to God expresses an unfounded hubris that God preferentially loves some groups, nationalities, and ethnicities because over 90% of the world’s population inherit their religion by accident of birth and never depart that faith.

Finally, Mortenson builds one school, then another, and another, and yet more. He builds water systems. He builds a bridge. In other words, he translates his commitment to help people into practical actions. He perseveres in the face of seemingly overwhelming obstacles. For example, he has no idea how to raise the funds to build the first school. Of the 580 fund raising letters he mails, he receives only one response. The physical hardships that he endured are legion. Unwavering focus and unrelenting effort, often at great personal cost, enabled Mortenson to change thousands of lives, empowering people with literacy and hope. If the Church strove with equal diligence and wholeheartedness to translate its avowed love for others into practical actions, the one billion plus Christians would literally transform the whole world.

I am thankful that the Sunday School class read Three Cups of Tea. I am confident that their teachers and parents know and share the story of God's love in Jesus with these children. After thirty years of ordained ministry, I am far less sanguine about the likelihood of Sunday School igniting raging motivational fires in these children to go into the world and translate Christianity’s basic principles – love God and love others – into transformative, pragmatic actions. God's “frozen chosen” need the heat of passionate love for others to thaw the Church’s body, igniting a contagious zeal to be about God's business. Such a fire will help us to keep our ordinary preoccupations, personal and ecclesial, in perspective. If Three Cups of Tea ignites such a passion in only a single child, I for one will see a miracle – the hand of God at work – in the life of that child and that class.

The Rev. Dr. George Clifford, Diocese of North Carolina, served as a Navy chaplain for twenty-four years He taught philosophy at the U. S. Naval Academy and ethics at the Postgraduate School. He serves as priest in charge at the Church of the Nativity in Raleigh and blogs at Ethical Musings.

John Cheever and the realm of God's mercy

By Jean Fitzpatrick

"All the candles burn. Miss F. has worked day and night on the flower arrangements....We raise our voices in some tuneless doggerel about life everlasting," wrote John Cheever in his journal in 1964. "These are earnest people, mostly old, making an organized response to the mysteriousness of life. What point would there be in going to church at daybreak to ridicule the priest? But he does draw a breathtaking parallel between the Resurrection and the invention of television." I was curious to read Cheever, Blake Bailey's new biography, because I love Cheever's stories and because I knew Miss F.

I live in Ossining, New York, Cheever's home for most of his adult life, where many of us saw him around town now and then and where he would grace us occasionally with elegant readings from his work. It wasn't until I'd attended All Saints' Church in neighboring Briarcliff Manor for several years that I learned that "the Chekhov of the suburbs" had been a parishioner and confirmand there. By the time I arrived Cheever was dead, but Miss F. -- Catherine Figart, by then an elderly, soft-spoken woman who had once been an artist -- still reigned over the Altar Guild.

Cheever's plain yet soaring sentences run through my mind every time I drive past his first house on my way to the Scarborough commuter train: "We have a nice house with a garden and a place outside for cooking meat," says Johnny Hake in "The Housebreaker of Shady Hill," "and on summer nights, sitting there with the kids and looking into the front of Christina's dress as she bends over to salt the steaks, or just gazing at the lights in Heaven, I am as thrilled as I am thrilled by more hardy and dangerous pursuits, and I guess this is what is meant by the pain and sweetness of life."

"He was a transcendentalist, wasn't he?" I said to Bailey, who visited the Ossining Public Library recently for a talk and book-signing that drew Cheever's wife, Mary, son Ben, and a tribe of local friends, acquaintances and admirers.

"Yes," Bailey said, hesitating. Then he frowned. "But he also descended to complete and utter gloom."

In his book, Bailey notes that Cheever attended church for many years, often explaining that he'd regained his faith "as a result of falling in love for the first time, or, as he sometimes put it, 'because of an experience of sexual ecstasy so great that I felt impelled to respond through liturgical gesture.'" Cheever wasn't one to proselytize, Bailey writes, rarely mentioning his faith "except at odd moments when visited by the same happiness that had moved him to become a communicant in the first place: 'There has to be someone you thank for the party.'" But since the contrast between lyrical heights and despair was nowhere more evident than in Cheever's religious journey, which occupies surprisingly little space in Bailey's otherwise comprehensive tome, I decided to take another look at his published journals.

"To church this morning. I think I will be confirmed," he wrote in 1954. "The idea that I take this morning, is that there is some love in our conception; that we were not made by a ruttish pair in a commercial hotel." Page after page reveals Cheever's struggle to reconcile body and spirit, one that is often as startlingly fresh to the reader as it was surely agonizing for him: "To church; the second Sunday in Lent. From the bank president's wife behind me drifted the smell of camphor from her furs, and the stales of her breath, as she sang, 'Glory be to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Ghost; As it was in the beginning, is now, and ever shall be, world without end.'"

Not surprisingly, as he sits in the pew he reflects on his bisexual longings: "Easter morning sunny and cool," he writes in 1959. "....The church for once is full. I am delighted to hear that Christ is risen. I think that it is not against God's will to have my generative powers refreshed by the face of a pretty woman in a forward pew or to wonder about the hairy and somehow limpid young man on my left. It is the combination of hairiness and wistful grace that seems to mark him."

In the same entry, he expresses his doubts, moving through them to embrace the religious imagination without ever letting go of unbelief: "When I hear that Mary found at the tomb a man in white raiment I am incredulous. It is hard for me to believe that God expressed His will, His intent in such a specific image. But when I go to the altar I am deeply moved. The chancel is full of lilies and their fragrance seems as fresh as it is heavy; a sign of good cheer. And that this message should have been revealed to us and that we should cherish it seems to be our finest triumph. Here in the chancel we glimpse some vision of transcendent love, some willing triumph over death and all of its lewd guises. And if it is no more than willingness, how wonderful that is in itself."

And eight years later: "I believe that there was a Christ, that he spoke the Beatitudes, cured the sick, and died on the Cross, and it seems marvellous to me that men should, for two thousand years, have repeated this story as a means of expressing their deepest feelings and intuitions about life."

As always, in church Cheever could feel like an outsider: "The church is meant to evoke rural England. The summoning bells, the late-winter sunlight, the lancet windows, the hand-cut stone," he wrote in 1952. "....World without end, I murmur, shutting my eyes, Amen. But I seem to stand outside the realm of God's mercy." He struggled to know what to do with the ancient stories, to understand them in the context of the human heart: "Palm Sunday. Ten above zero. .... What am I doing here on my knees, shaking with alcohol and the cold?" And over a decade later, "When we say, 'Christ, have mercy upon us,' we don't ask for a literal blessing, I think. We express how merciless we are to ourselves."

Cheever had an up-and-down relationship with his rector, the Rev. William Arnold, whom Bailey describes as "an affable, tippling bachelor." "With this man at least somewhat in mind," Bailey writes, "Cheever once told his son Ben that it didn't matter if the minister was a jackass -- though there were times, plainly, when it did. 'I will not go to church,' Cheever recorded on Good Friday, 'because B[ill] will insist upon giving a sermon and I will not have the latitude or the intelligence to overlook its repetitiousness, grammatical errors and stupidity.'

"Cheever stuck with All Saints," Bailey writes, "because it met his basic requirements: it used the Cranmer prayer book and was less than ten minutes away, and (as Susan Cheever pointed out) its altar was 'sufficiently simple so that it [didn't] remind him of a gift shop.' Also, the eight o'clock service was sermon-free, so he could have at least twenty-three minutes of relative peace each week ('a level of introspection that's granted to me at no other time')."

He did love the 1928 prayer book and the early service: "The language has the sumptuous magnificence of an Elizabethan procession," he wrote in his journal. "The penultimate clauses spread out behind their predicates in breadth and glory, and the muttered responses are emblazoned in crimson and gold. On it moves through the Lamb of God, the Gloria, and the Benediction until the last amen shuts like a door on this verbal pomp; and the drunken priest puts out his lights and hurries back to his gin bottle, hidden among the vestments." It was All Saints' switch to the 1979 prayer book that sent Cheever north to Trinity, Ossining -- one more Episcopalian who took a stand on liturgical grounds. Trinity he described as "a homely building of common granite...Now impoverished and in debt, barely kept together by the hands of the faithful...The carpet is, of course, worn; the colored windows are flashy and vulgar....But to me this is the climax of the week."

Trinity's rector at the time, the Rev. George Arndt, was the one Susan Cheever called to her father's deathbed, Bailey recounts. "'I don't think your father wants me,' said Arndt, who'd been sent away once before, angrily, since Cheever wasn't ready yet and despised the man besides. Sure enough, he began thrashing when he noticed Arndt standing there in his white robe." But Arndt made the sign of the cross on Cheever's forehead and Mary, Ben and Susan joined hands around the bed and recited the Lord's Prayer.

Those were words Cheever himself had spoken without irony, it seems, at AA meetings, where his inner critic was otherwise as sharp as ever. Pain and the longing for love were, as always, intertwined: "I do observe how loudly and with what feeling we say the Lord's Prayer in these unordained gatherings," he'd written five years earlier. "The walls of churches have not for centuries heard prayers said with such feeling. Deep."

Jean Grasso Fitzpatrick, L.P., a New York-licensed psychoanalyst and a member of the American Association of Pastoral Counselors. A layreader in the Diocese of New York, she is the author of numerous books and articles, including Something More: Nurturing Your Child's Spiritual Growth and has a website at www.pastoralcounseling.net.

A pilgrimage to Paradiso

By Deryl Davis

It’s unfortunate that many of us, particularly in our student years, encounter Dante’s gripping Inferno without ever making it to the beatific heights of Purgatorio and Paradiso. Our literary journeys come to an abrupt end in Hell, where fires still burn around a multitude of heretics and Satan chews history’s most egregious traitors. The crisp language and vivid imagery are entertaining for sure, but one wonders if there’s anything more the poet would have us experience?

The answer is yes. Dante invites us to go on pilgrimage with him as an act of spiritual transformation. The concept is not foreign to our age, when interest in spiritual pilgrimage of one kind or another is dramatically increasing, perhaps in response to growing political and cultural instability. Last year, an estimated 70 million Hindus journeyed to the sacred Ganges River in India for spiritual cleansing; a record six million people visited Jerusalem’s Western, or Wailing, Wall; 150 million Christians are estimated to be “on the move” each year to one pilgrimage site or another. (Source: The Washington Post.) The Divine Comedy does not call us to a specific locale, but to an inner journey that, with proper preparation, can be begun at any time. It provides a familiar three-part template for such a journey, based in part on St. Bonaventure’s description of the pilgrimage to God as intra nos (going within ourselves), extra nos (going outside ourselves), and supra nos (going above or beyond ourselves). In terms of the Comedy’s structure, this is represented by the spiritual and moral isolation of sinners in Hell, who must endure their infernal circumstances and the actions that accompany them for eternity; the spiritual and moral community of Purgatory, where all are cleansed, redeemed, and welcomed back into right relationship with God; and the communion of Paradise, in which souls experience the fullness of God’s love and of each other, metaphorically sitting before the divine throne in Dante’s celestial rose.

It is a journey from the false self to the true self, from the toxicity of self-concern to the joy of living with and for others. Rightly, the journey begins and ends in prayer, with the Virgin Mary’s response to Dante’s cries in the dark wood of Inferno to St. Bernard’s entreaty to the Virgin to lift the veils of the pilgrim’s eyes in preparation for the ecstatic vision at the end of Paradiso. It is a difficult journey to begin, however, requiring descent into “an eternal place” of darkness before ascent up the mountain of joy. Like Shakespeare’s King Lear or the ivory trader Kurtz from Heart of Darkness, the pilgrim must strip away the layers of his or her developed persona in order to face the “soul truth” about him or herself. But, unlike the sinners in Hell, change is possible for the pilgrim, who avoids the “second death” of the soul by heeding its call. Descending into Hell with Dante as our guide, we grasp the general effects of misdirected love and see its particular, destructive manifestation through the allegory of sinners like Paolo and Francesca, whipped about by torrents of lust; Ulysses encased in divisive flames; or Ugolino gnawing at the scalp of fellow traitor Ruggieri.

This is a frightening experience, as it should be. Apparently, Dante put it off as long as he could, until waking one day to find himself alone in the dark wood, having lost “the straight path” without even knowing it. Although Virgil tells the pilgrim he must “journey down another road . . . if ever you hope to leave this wilderness,” Dante-pilgrim is hesitant, looking for excuses not to begin the fearful work of transformation. Why me? He asks. I’m not worthy. I don’t know how to do it. It might be an act of folly. Virgil rightly rebukes the pilgrim for “that cowardice/which often weighs so heavily on man/ . . . [turning] him from a noble enterprise.” Explaining the heavenly origins of this rescue operation, Virgil convinces the pilgrim that, if his faith is sufficient and he will allow himself to be guided by the noble Roman, Dante can overcome the demons below in order to rise to the stars.

Time is of the essence when one is journeying toward salvation. Not infrequently does Virgil have to hurry his charge along, when he is stopped in his tracks by an unusually hellish sight or lingers to talk shop with the soul of a fellow poet. Although time is eternal in both Heaven and Hell, the minutes keep ticking by in Purgatory as they do on earth, until the moment when the soul is judged by God. Twice hesitating on his journey, at the entry into Hell and again before the purifying fires of Purgatory, Dante-pilgrim may well deserve the stern rebuke he receives from Beatrice at their first meeting.

But Dante does reach Paradise at last. He beholds the host of the Elect in the celestial rose and receives the mystic vision of the Godhead, its three circles spinning as one. While language fails the poet, the joy and fulfillment of the moment are clear. Here, there is no more striving, no desire or longing; here, all is made one and eternal by “the Love that moves the sun and stars.”

It would be hard to appreciate the fullness of Dante’s vision of Paradise without the journey that precedes it. This is a truth both literal and figurative, as Dante might have it, for reading the Comedy is rightly only prelude to making the pilgrim journey oneself. That is a fearful task for many modern readers, who approach the Comedy with all the humility, real or imagined, of Dante responding to Virgil’s directive to follow him into Hell: “O poet come to guide me,/tell me if you think my worth sufficient. . . . “ Or with all the false pride (cowardice?) of the Tuscan poet’s second evasion, “I fear it might turn out an act of folly!” Certainly, reading the Comedy without the right preparation, or without a good expectation of what it can deliver, might be folly. Despite its majesty, the Comedy is full of medieval arcana that requires pages and pages of annotations under which to bury the contemporary reader. However, many good references and critical studies are available, and as the reader makes his or her way through the Comedy, he or she finds the symbolism and allegory becoming more familiar and more striking, taking on a personal and often very contemporary meaning. That does not belie the fact that the Comedy is a book that deserves – one may say, demands – to be read with others. It is the crystallization of a journey upon which we are all pilgrims, and if the Comedy teaches us anything, it is that, in matters literary as well as spiritual, one needs a companion to share the way. Ultimately, whether the journey begins within, reading the poem first on one’s own; without, reading it first in community with others; or beyond, teaching or sharing it with someone else, is of little consequence. The important thing is to begin with a trustworthy spiritual guide. Seven hundred years after he first set pen to paper on what would become the Comedy, Dante is still one of the best around.

Deryl Davis is producer of the Sunday Forum at Washington National Cathedral and an associate faculty member in religion and drama at Wesley Theological Seminary. His work on religion and culture has appeared in a number of newspapers and magazines and on public radio and television.

Barbara Kingsolver at the National Cathedral

By Helen Thompson

Barbara Kingsolver isn't one to give advice, she says. She's more the sort to listen to a problem for a while and reply with, "Well, I don't know, what do you think you should do?" On Tuesday night, she greeted a crowd of hundreds who had come to Washington National Cathedral to hear her discuss her family's new book, Animal, Vegetable, Miracle. Her challenge to the audience was for them to hear out her story—for she is quite a storyteller—and then decide what they should do.

Kingsolver and her family had moved from Tuscon, Arizona, to Southwestern Virginia for the typical reasons: work and family. But there was another reason: food. They wanted to eat deliberately, Kingsolver said, in "the promised land, where water falls from the sky and green stuff grows all around—and to begin the adventure of realigning our lives with our food chain."

The irony of leaving Tuscon via a pit stop for "junk food and fossil fuel" was heightened when a store clerk started to complain about ominous storm clouds outside. Kingsolver noted how much the desert area needed it, but to no avail: Rain was going to ruin the young lady's plans—to wash her car. Even though Kingsolver has now lived in a world where rain is looked for, even prayed for, she noted the disconnect. "What are the just desserts for a species too selfish or preoccupied to hope for rain when the land is dying?"

Over the course of two generations, America's population has dramatically shifted from rural to urban. Along with that shift has come an increasing abstraction in the nation’s attitude toward its food. This stems in part from the correlation Americans perceive between getting an education and "moving away from dirt and manual labor," Kingsolver said. This isn't exactly a good thing, she explained. "Isn't ignorance about our food causing problems as diverse and serious as our overdependence on petroleum?" Obesity, and the likelihood that today's youth may actually have a shorter life expectancy than their parents, are just two of the indicators.

By eating "out of season" and depending heavily on shrink-wrapped, precut meats from supermarkets, Americans are purchasing produce bred for shelf life over flavor and meats from animals bred exclusively for rapid weight gain. "A fair definition of American food is that it travels farther than most Americans do," Kingsolver said. "An average food item covers 1,500 miles to reach us. Because of industrial farming and food transport we are now putting almost as much gasoline into our diets as into our cars." Adding to the problem is the U.S. Government, which superficially touts eating fruits and vegetables while subsidizing agribusinesses that produce prolific amounts of high fructose corn syrup and "feed lot grain for cheap burgers."

Each anecdote from the book is interspersed with fascinating commentary on the monolithic approach to eating that many of us take for granted—for instance, the difference between a Butterball turkey and one of the heritage breeds (yes, like heirloom tomatoes), or determining the number of seeds to plant to feed a family or just what's in that Farm Bill our legislators happily sign off on every few years (hint: it's Pork Plus). She explains the complete that the disconnect between country folks and city folks is not political so much as it is a subtle distrust of outsiders, born of past days of exploitative carpetbagging.

And nothing could be worse, she added, than watching her farmer neighbors who had gone through three years of certification and training to become organic farmers—because that's what the city consumers wanted, they were told—only to watch consumers scoop up the cheaper produce brought from distant lands (the foodway with "a double yellow line down the middle"). Appalachian Harvest, the co-op behind the initiative to get these folks growing green, found a way to donate the un-purchased food to area food banks, but, as Kingsolver observed, these farmers were barely getting by. "It always seems like the people who have the least, give the most," she said.

Ultimately, however, her book is not so much political as domestic—the story of how her family's lives were transformed. Joined by her husband, Steven, and her daughter Camille, Kingsolver journeys back and forth between memoirist and investigative reporter as she unfolds a year of mindful eating. "Plenty of consumers are trying to get off the petroleum-driven industrial food wagon," Kingsolver said. "This book is about how our family joined that small revolution, trying to integrate our food choices with our family values, which include both 'Love your neighbor' and 'Try not to wreck every bloomin' thing on your planet while you're here.'"

Helen Thompson, known on the faithblogging circuit as Gallycat, is a writer living in the northern Shenandoah Valley of Virginia.Visit her on the web at Gallycat's Lounge.


For additional reading visit the book's site, Kingsolver's site. Appalachian Harvest Foods, Slow Food, Fair Trade Certified and Sustainable Table.

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