Thursday, June 18, 2009

large gifts to unlikely recipients

This story of St Aidan came my way from Frans Zoer of the Amsterdam Catholic Worker community.

“He [King Oswin] had given to Bishop Aidan a very faire and proper gelding ... to passe over waters and ditches, or when any other necessitie constrained. It fortuned shortly after, a certaine poore weake man met the Bishop, riding on his gelding, and craved an almes of him. The Bishop as he was a passing pitefull man and a very father to needy persons, [alighted] and gave the poore man the gelding, gorgeously trapped as he was. The King hearing after hereof, talked of it with the Bishop, as they were entering the palace to dinner, and saied, What meaned you, my Lord, to give awaie to the beggar that faire gelding which we gave you for your own use? Have we no other horses of lesse price ... to bestowe upon the poore, but that you must give awaie that princely horse? To whom the Bishop answered, Why talketh your Grace thus? Is that broode of the mare dearer in your sight than that son of God, the poore man? Which being said they entered for to dine. The Bishop took his place appointed, but the King would stand a while by the fire ... where musing with himself upon the wordes which the Bishop had spoken, suddenly put off his sword and came in great haste to the Bishop, falling downe at his feete, and beseeching him not to be displeased with him for the wordes he had spoken, saying he would never ... measure any more hereafter what or how much he should bestow of his goods upon the sonnes of God, the poore.” (From a chapter on St. Aidan and his royal friends, St. Oswald & St. Oswin, in “A Procession of Saints” by James Brodrick, SJ (London 1949), twelve stories on English and Irish saints, p. 109- 110.)

St Aidan and St Oswin lived in the seventh century. Their lives are known from Bede’s writings. Brodrick is quoting Bede from the translation made by Thomas Stapleton in 1565.

Frans recognized in this ancient story a similar one related in Love is the Measure, my biography of Dorothy Day:

“From time to time Dorothy was able to set a stunning example of giving away what was given to the Catholic Worker. Another story told by Tom Cornell recalls a well-dressed woman who visited the Worker house one day and gave Dorothy a diamond ring. Dorothy thanked the visitor, slipped the ring in her pocket, and later in the day gave it to an old woman who lived alone and often ate her meals at St. Joseph’s. One of the staff protested to Dorothy that the ring could better have been sold at the Diamond Exchange and the money used to pay the woman’s rent for a year. Dorothy replied that the woman had her dignity and could do as she liked with the ring. She could sell it for rent money or take a trip to the Bahamas. Or she could enjoy having a diamond ring on her hand just like the woman who had brought it to the Worker. ‘Do you suppose,’ Dorothy asked, ‘that God created diamonds only for the rich?’”


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Saturday, June 13, 2009

Some thoughts about prayer

Yesterday I had a letter from a teacher friend about an experience she had of praying for a student who had been very angry with her for a grade she had given him plus some feedback she given him that he didn’t agree with. Though the student wasn’t her enemy, he seemed to regard her as his enemy. Recalling Christ’s advice about praying for enemies, she decided to begin praying for her student. The next few weeks in the classroom were difficult – his anger was obvious. “But God gave me an incredible amount of compassion for him,” she told me, “and also showed me that I should have communicated with him more sensitively. One day he came back to class to pick something after the other students were gone. He was obviously not feeling well, so I just said that I was sorry and hoped he would be feeling better soon. He then began to cry. We talked for about an hour. He shared many things with me including his rejection of the God he was brought up to believe in – the angry, wrathful one. I mainly listened, but also shared a little of my own journey.”

My friend ended up giving him a book that she thought might help (Mountain of Silence). They’ve had more conversations. Things have changed dramatically, not only in the classroom, but in the student’s life and faith.

It’s distressing to recall how many times in my life I have failed to pray, or have even refused to pray, for people who ought to have been high on my prayer list.

It was Dorothy Day, the founder of the Catholic Worker movement, who first impressed upon me the significance of praying for others. She carefully kept lists of people she had been asked to pray for, or felt she had a duty to pray for.

In the period I was closest to her – she was then in her early sixties – I became aware that she spent a good deal of time every day on her knees praying. One afternoon I looked in the prayer books she left on the bench of the chapel at the Catholic Worker farm and discovered page after page of names, all written in her careful italic script, of people, living and dead, for whom she was praying. She prayed as if lives depended on it. The physician Robert Coles, of the Harvard Medical School, credited Dorothy’s prayers with the miraculous cure of his wife, who had been dying of cancer and suddenly recovered.

Dorothy also kept a list of people who had committed suicide and prayed for them daily. I once asked her, “But isn’t it too late?” “With God there is no time,” she responded. She went on to say how a lot can happen in a person’s thoughts between initiating an action that will result in death and death itself – that even the tiny fraction of a second that passes between pulling a trigger and the bullet striking the brain might, in the infinity of time that exists deep within us, be time enough for regretting what it was now too late to stop, and to cry out for God’s mercy.

This attentive praying for others, including many people for whom she probably felt no love at all (love in the emotional sense of the word), was one of the aspects of Dorothy that startled and challenged me. Not that I was very quick to pick on her example – it took years before I started keeping my own prayer lists. Now Nancy and I normally make use of our prayer lists before going to bed.

When Jesus gave his challenging command about loving one’s enemies, he said, at the same time and in the same sentence, to pray for them. Who are the enemies for whom we should be praying? The word “enemies” comes from the Latin word, inamicus, which simply means non-friend – people whom one would love never to see of hear of again or whose death probably wouldn’t grieve us.

I’ve found that in some cases it helps to write out a special prayer for a person one has very urgent needs or from whom I am seriously estranged – for that person’s healing, well-being, recovery of love, recovery of faith, etc – and use it two or three times a day.

I’ve often struggled with the very basic question of why we need to ask God for anything? Doesn’t God know our needs far better than we do? What need can God possibly have for appeals from me? And yet it seems, precisely because God isn’t a Calvinist and isn’t working from a script in which the future is foreordained, that prayers do matter. In any event, praying for anyone creates new threads of connection, new spaces, new possibilities.

– Jim

note: The photo was taken after a Vespers service at St Nicholas of Myra Russian Orthodox Church in Amsterdam.

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Ten Dimensions

A few days ago, a member of our extended family sent us these links to an interesting short film on YouTube:

part 1)

part 2)

It’s called “Imagining the tenth dimension,” and it’s a simple explanation for non-scientists of the various physical dimensions of the universe, starting with a single one-dimensional point. I find this is one of those places where science and Christianity intersect. It’s also one of those opportunities to talk to a non-religious person about why you happen to be religious. So I sent him this mail:

Jim shared with me the YouTube link you sent about imagining the tenth dimension. Thanks so much. This kind of thing has always been fascinating to me, and you may be surprised to hear that it's one of the reasons why Christianity is so fascinating to me. Setting aside everything negative or repugnant you've ever heard about Christianity, one thing that is very interesting (particularly in Orthodox Christianity) is the concept of infinity. In Orthodox theology, God exists in infinity. There's a standard Orthodox prayer in which God is described as "who art everywhere present and fillest all things." This is religious language, I know, but when I watched the YouTube thing I thought about it immediately. Since God is by definition beyond our comprehension, we've come up with a way of trying to understand him, and that is trying to imagine him as being three persons in one, three at the same time (three dimensional?), which in theology is called the Trinity. The Trinity is an ancient concept, and maybe now, with this idea of ten dimensions, we would have to change it. But it does suggest a fully dimensional being.

When religious people try to come into contact with God, they can only do it by meeting him in his infinite-ness. This is what prayer is. To non-religious people, prayer sometimes sounds pretty silly, but to deeply religious people it's almost like the diagrams on the YouTube thing, folding the dimensions over on each other.

I'm not going to go any further, because this is starting to sound preachy, and I don't want to be preachy! But I thought you might like to know how this struck me.

It's also very interesting that the priest of our church is a physicist. Another friend of ours in church is a particle physicist working at Delft University (he's also Russian). I really believe science and religion have a lot in common and can really inform each other in important ways.

– Nancy

Re the photo: this is a Hubble view of deep space sent to us by the friend who sent us the link to the Ten Dimensions film.