On Lived Theology: AAR’s Reading Religion Reviews PLT Publication

Lived Theology: New Perspectives on Method, Style, and Pedagogy; Charles Marsh; Sarah Azaransky; Peter SladeNewly Released Book Receives Praise

Lived Theology: New Perspectives on Method, Style, and Pedagogy contains the work of an emerging generation of theologians and scholars who pursue research, teaching, and writing as a form of public responsibility motivated by the conviction that theological ideas aspire in their inner logic toward social expression. Written as a two-year collaboration here at the Project on Lived Theology, this volume offers a series of illustrations and styles that distinguish Lived Theology in the broader conversation with other major approaches to the religious interpretation of embodied life.

Reading Religion, the newly launched book review site of the American Academy of Religion, recently reviewed the book, recognizing the work’s unique and valuable contribution to today’s theological inquiry:

“…this diverse work should prove engaging for any theologian interested in practices. It coheres through shared conviction that the lived realities of faith constitute a rich and primary focal point for theological inquiry. Together, the authors illustrate and explore this conviction well… Their diversity provides a broad and engaging introduction to the work of lived theology while gesturing toward a much larger conversation.”

To read the review in its entirety, click here. Find more details on the Lived Theology publication here.

Publication contributors include Sarah AzaranskyJacqueline Bussie, David DarkSusan GlissonJohn de GruchySusan R. HolmanLori Brandt HaleWillis JenkinsWillie James JenningsJohn KiessJennifer M. McBrideMary McClintock Fulkerson, Charles MarshPeter Slade, and Ted Smith.

For more details about the Spring Institute for Lived Theology 2016/2017: Can I Get A Witness? initiative, click here. We also post updates online using #SILT. To get these and other news updates, please like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter @LivedTheology. To sign up for the Lived Theology monthly newsletter, click here.

Psalms: praise and gratitude, sorrow and lament

Just as I had set out the watercolors, paper, paint brushes, and pens on the kitchen island at Magdalene house, the kitchen door opened and all of the Magdalene staff members walked in with pizza, cookies, and drinks. The other Magdalene intern Marlena and I had been preparing for the activity we’d be leading for the residents in our last group of the summer, and suddenly we were having a party, breaking bread and sharing memories and gratitude of our shared experiences together this summer. Each person in the room spoke about our experiences together over the past few weeks, the party wound down, and I was completely filled with sadness, joy, and gratitude.

“So,” one of the residents said once the staff members had returned to the office, “what are we doing today?” Once the party had started, I was not expecting that we would be doing the activity Marlena and I had planned, and I was once again overwhelmed with gratitude. Marlena and I pulled ourselves together and explained that we had planned to write psalms together and display them with visuals on watercolor paper. I had participated in psalm-writing activities with my student fellowship at UVA, and I was excited to give the women of Magdalene space and structure to address their higher power with praise and gratitude or sorrow and lament in a form of prayer to be used both individually and liturgically. Together we transitioned from a celebration over a shared meal to the creation of art and writings that were explicitly liturgical. I found myself for the final time this summer joyfully in community at the intersection of liturgy and the daily work of Magdalene.

To guide the women in their writing, Marlena and I provided formats for psalms of lament and psalms of praise. As we discussed the general parts of a psalm of lament, it became clear that their theological and liturgical functions were deeply felt and intuited by the residents. I found this to be particularly true of the “Confession of Trust” component of a psalm wherein the psalmist expresses her trust in God and her hope that God will assist and be present in her situation of suffering and sorrow. In our conversation­—whether we were writing to God or our personal higher power—the women intuited this notion of simultaneous surrender and lament, trust and petition.

Watercolor paintsIn Serene Jones’ work Trauma and Grace: Theology and Healing in a Ruptured World, she examines the parallels between trauma theory and theologian John Calvin’s Commentary on the Psalms. According to Jones, Calvin’s progression through the psalms parallels progressions toward healing according to contemporary trauma theory. A key aspect of this healing—in trauma theory, Calvin, and the psalms—is reclaiming a sense of agency and autonomy. This is accomplished, in part, by relinquishing control. As Jones writes, in his reading of psalms of lament, “Calvin creates an imaginative space where those who have felt helplessness in the face of violence can once again imagine themselves as agents whose actions in the world matter,” she says, by trusting in a divinely-created and ordered world (57). Trauma research suggests that survivors “desperately need to believe that the world is fundamentally ordered and trustworthy if they, in turn, are to have the capacity to imagine themselves as meaningful actors within it again.” The paradoxical notion of giving up control in order to reclaim it is a necessary component of healing for women like the residents of Magdalene who have survived significant trauma. It is a constant give and take that arises intrinsically and liturgically in the psalms and works in the normalcy and mundaneness of daily life.

It occurred to me as I reflected on the psalms written by the women of Magdalene that this notion of simultaneously reclaiming and relinquishing control is deeply related to the Serenity Prayer, which is part of a regular ritual in the lives of the Magdalene women.

God grant us the serenity to accept the things we cannot change,

The courage to change the things we can,

And the wisdom to know the difference.

This prayer, written by theologian Reinhold Niebuhr and popularized by twelve-step programs like Narcotics Anonymous, encapsulates the notion of giving up control as a means to gain autonomy and sovereignty over our lives. Members of this community are exposed to this deeply theological and liturgical notion in their regular attendance of NA meetings. Throughout my time at Magdalene, I’ve heard many of these women speak of a desire to recognize their lack of control over certain circumstances and apply this to their lives and relationships. In writing and discussing psalms together over a kitchen island full of art supplies it became clear that an idea examined in our space of liturgical creation is already deeply woven into daily moments and interactions for the women at Magdalene. In this moment of creativity and in many moments over the past months here, liturgy was created and was at work in the healing process.

For updates about the PLT Summer Internship, click here. We also post updates online using #PLTinterns. To get these updates please like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter at @LivedTheology. To sign up for the Lived Theology monthly newsletter, click here.

Telling others’ stories

A fact of life that all of us good post-modernists know is that reality is relative: a fact that is important to keep in mind when attempting to tell any story, especially someone else’s. Everyone sees and interprets things differently, and to some degree, we will never, ever be able to fully understand another’s point of view. In the book Reading the Bible with the Damned, Bob Ekblad describes his experiences with teaching bible classes and forming relationships with prisoners and illegal immigrants. He describes the differences in our perceptions of reality anecdotally to his students one day. “‘You already know how to see many things I cannot see,’ [he] tells them. ‘You can tell where crack cocaine or heroin is for sale. You know which cars are likely to have stereos worth breaking windows for. You know the telltale signs that alert you to someone from an enemy gang, or an undercover narcotics cop.’” (14). I have to side with Ekblad on this one—if I went outside into the parking lot right now, I wouldn’t know which car would be worth breaking into or not. But it still doesn’t mean I see things exactly the way Ekblad does, and there’s beauty in that, and there’s isolation in that.

I asked my theological mentor about this idea, and he explained that the fact of relativism can be combatted, to a certain extent, by putting ourselves in scenarios that broaden and enhance our ability to see others’ points of view. By interacting with strangers, investigating differences, and putting ourselves into the role of the ‘other,’ we can make our own realities a little bit more comprehensive and closer to a metaphysical, perhaps omniscient sense of ‘holistic truth’ in the world.

Why is this important? In his biblical courses, Ekblad attempts to read the Bible in a way that his students can deeply relate to. This means reading the text as a narrative of setting the oppressed free, of God suffering alongside the prisoners and the damned, of giving ear and story to the ‘least of these.’ An alternative reading to this type of biblical interpretation would include focusing on the triumphs of individual characters, creating heroism in individuals’ unrelenting faith, and picturing Jesus as docile and gentle to all, rather than wrathful and sharp in his criticisms of oppressive wealth systems. The second reading of the Bible tends to be one that the “powerful” in our society often lean toward. But when this is the only message that the poor, the powerless, the prisoners in our society hear, the Bible’s message is deeply unappealing and inaccessible. When Ekblad asks his students how God speaks to humanity, one of his students answers, “through someone like you” (14)—which implicitly means “not through someone like me.” This should fundamentally alarm us. If Christians are to believe that the Bible offers good news to all of humanity, yet the people that society has shunned believe that God shuns them as well, then the message of God that is emerging from our pulpits and pews is clearly not good news to all of humanity.

To circle back, I believe this idea of relativism is one of the core causes of this disconnect between the text of the Bible and its accessibility to all people. If the faithful, the literate faithful, and the privileged faithful are not committed to understanding the experiences of those who are vastly different from themselves, then exclusive theology will be normalized and accepted. We even have reason to believe that this theology would become exclusive to the point of excluding God herself from our theology—and ourselves from eternal life. Matthew says, “Then he will say to those on his left, ‘Depart from me, you who are cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels. For I was hungry and you gave me nothing to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, I was a stranger and you did not invite me in, I needed clothes and you did not clothe me, I was sick and in prison and you did not look after me.’ They also will answer, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or needing clothes or sick or in prison, and did not help you?’ He will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did not do for one of the least of these, you did not do for me.’ Then they will go away to eternal punishment, but the righteous to eternal life” (Matthew 25:41-46).

Call me an English major, but I believe that intentionally incorporating others’ stories into our lives is the best and truest way to make our theologies as inclusive and comprehensive of the entire Kingdom of God as possible. How to do this? Working at The Haven this summer and interacting with our guests has truly been one of the greatest privileges of my life, and I feel so thankful to have met so many excellent people. Ekblad writes, “As the years go by and I converse with hundreds of individuals convicted of every possible crime, I find my view of people becoming increasingly positive” (24), and I feel the same way after spending the last nine weeks at The Haven. I want to share my experiences with those of you who may be unfamiliar with those who are poor or homeless—but I feel great anxiety about telling their stories truly and rightly. As a person in a certain position of power because of my skin color, abilities, and socioeconomic status, I’ve given quite a bit of thought to how to tell stories well. Any time we try to portray any person, scenario, or story, we make assumptions and decisions concerning our audiences, our subject, and our own ability to write or describe. That imparts responsibility onto the speaker to uphold an assumed trust: to portray truly and honestly—both for the sake of the storyteller’s audience and their subject.

I’ll loop back to the beginning again to make my final point: that ultimately, I can’t encompass the stories and lives I’ve heard this summer on paper. I’ll try, but I deeply hope that you’ll try to experience them yourselves, too. This past week at writing group, we each tried to write the first line of our own autobiographies. It was both a lighthearted yet meaningful experience, and after sharing what we’d written, Angela looked around at us. “I can just tell… we’re not amateurs at this,” she said. She’s right, of course. We’re experts at the story of our own lives. Angela, and all of the others who attend the writing group, don’t need me to tell the stories of their lives: they are ready and able to tell you themselves, if you only give them the time. And we are missing out on such beauty and perspective and expertise if we fail to listen, hear, and pursue greater knowledge and understanding of the reality that we all share. In this, we experience a fuller and truer revelation of the Kingdom of God. Ekblad writes, “Revelation appears to happen precisely when we see that this weak one, this one wrapped in the swaddling clothes of the text, is God’s very self. Through the weak, powerless word and its feeble mediators, the Word becomes flesh and lives among us. The apparently distant God draws close” (92). As we draw near to the lives and stories of the least powerful in our society, we also draw near to the divine, and the fullness of perspective and truth that comes along with Holy presence. I hope that as our guests become further equipped in the sharing of their own stories, they’ll be met with eager ears and open minds, and that each listener will gain a greater perspective of the shared reality of the Kingdom of God.

The Haven

For updates about the PLT Summer Internship, click here. We also post updates online using #PLTinterns. To get these updates please like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter at @LivedTheology. To sign up for the Lived Theology monthly newsletter, click here.

Healing the body, healing the soul

In the midst of taping boxes, archiving files, and clearing bookshelves, I stumbled on several tubs of Thistle Farms body butter. My site mentor Shelia and I were clearing out an old office in a Magdalene House that will soon be converted into a gym for the residents. Finding these body butters—adorned with Thistle Farms’ first generation of packaging—as we prepared for a space for self-care, in the same week that I attended a joyful going-away celebration for the Magdalene nurse who recently resigned, I have been reminded of the holistic healing that has been central to the Magdalene program for years. At the party, I heard women speak of their appreciation for the nurse who cared for them in ways they had never experienced and facilitated relationships in overseeing the community garden. M. Shawn Copeland writes of the need to “cope with body memories of vulnerability, psychic and physical pain, in order to come to grips with internalized repercussions of violence and abuse” (Enfleshing Freedom: Body, Race, and Being, 50). Although not all the women of Magdalene work at the social enterprise Thistle Farms, I have seen how love, healing, and soothing of the body—foundational concepts for Thistle Farms—are at work here.

Copeland highlights an intrinsic connection between loving and healing one’s physical body and developing an identity as a member of a community. She analyzes Toni Morrison’s character Baby Suggs, a freed slave who serves as a spiritual guide to her community, in the novel Beloved. Copeland notes that Baby Suggs “voices the principle of life, which is love, and calls the freed people to new identity-in-community, to the demands of proper love of the black self, black body, black flesh” (52). This simultaneous care for the body and call to community was a founding feature of Magdalene and Thistle Farms. Becca Stevens, who founded the recovery community and social enterprise, describes her vision for Magdalene, a community named for Mary Magdalene, the first person to preach on resurrection: “I wanted to name the community in her honor and for it to be a sanctuary,” she writes, “I knew that in order to heal people, women needed a place to speak their truth in love without fear of being judged” (Snake Oil: The Art of Healing and Truth-Telling, 43-44). At Magdalene, to heal and be healed in body, mind, and spirit requires a community of survivors to live, love, work, and grow together.

I’ve seen this interaction at work daily in my time at Magdalene. Becca Stevens believed Magdalene homes “needed to be sanctuaries where women were absolutely safe, not just physically, but mentally and emotionally safe enough to follow their own instincts toward healing. Magdalene would be known for its sweet healing gardens, beautiful baskets, and thick new comforters” (Snake Oil, 45). As my experience at Magdalene has unfolded, this has proved to be deeply true. Over my past several weeks here, I’ve had the privilege of witnessing five new women welcomed into this community. One of my tasks as an intern has been assembling welcome baskets–filled with journals, toiletries, slippers, pillows, and other things to make the residents feel physically cared for—and putting them on freshly-made beds for the new women. I’ve carried the baskets to the house with new women and watched as they’ve met the other residents and have been immediately embraced, showed around the house, and fed.

BedIn this way, the Magdalene program itself is something of a healing balm. In Copeland’s work, she describes the Eucharist as “Jesus’ great nourishing sacrificial gift of his own life in the struggle to bring about this Father’s dream of love, mercy, joy, and peace” (108). For Copeland, the Eucharist is healing and nourishing. And while it does such healing, salvific work, it calls us to solidarity: “in sacramental reception [Christ’s] self-gift nourishes, strengthens, and orders us as we make visible his body through a praxis of solidarity, which counters the disorder of this world” and “sets the dynamics of love against the dynamics of domination” (109, 126). Being at Magdalene, I see a community that nourishes each other and stands together in loving solidarity, cooking meals for each other and proclaiming “Love Heals.” Divine, sacred work is done here. Being a small part of this community, I’ve come to know that “there are balms that soothe our souls and bodies and embracing them is a gift in this world” (Snake Oil, 100). This is true of the oils and balms used at Thistle Farms, and it is true of Magdalene in acts of kindness, care, and community. I’ve witnessed the women of Magdalene care for and be cared for as both individuals with physical needs and members of a community in a gentle and fierce, relentless and merciful divine praxis of solidarity.

For updates about the PLT Summer Internship, click here. We also post updates online using #PLTinterns. To get these updates please like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter at @LivedTheology. To sign up for the Lived Theology monthly newsletter, click here.

Lived Theology after Charlottesville

All of us at the Project on Lived Theology extend our gratitude for the many expressions of concern and solidarity received since the white supremacy marches on grounds and in Charlottesville. In the coming months, our work building bridges between scholars and practitioners has assumed a new urgency. We look forward to learning from and sharing resources in the conversations and exchanges emerging at UVa, Charlottesville, and around the nation. This statement drafted by our colleagues in the Department of Religious Studies eloquently conveys our renewed mission and purpose going forward.

August 14, 2017

An Open Letter from the Department of Religious Studies at the University of Virginia in Response to the Events of August 11th and 12th

The Department of Religious Studies denounces the violence and terror perpetrated by the gathering of white supremacists in Charlottesville, VA on August 11th and 12th, 2017. As a faculty, we are particularly horrified that our University Grounds were used to promote this agenda and that students, who were exercising their constitutionally protected right to protest, were physically attacked a short distance from their dormitories.

The Department of Religious Studies rejects the white supremacist ideology of intolerance and its practice of hateful speech, as well as the violence it engenders. We stand in solidarity with the victims of these events and with those who courageously resisted the hate groups and their virulent messages; we stand with the community of Charlottesville and with all those at whom hate continues to be directed. We cherish the diversity of our student body and commit ourselves to supporting students who are targeted by hate groups. We promise to be available to students who seek support from us, even as we actively develop new initiatives to support them.

As a department, we advocate for no single religious faith or political point of view. Our faculty comprises scholars who practice different religions or no religion at all. Our professors, all of whom serve the Commonwealth of Virginia, hold a range of political views. Those who are American citizens vote their consciences individually in elections, for a wide array of political parties. Amid this political and national diversity, we stand united in our unanimous and unequivocal condemnation of those who promote hate, by way of violent speech and action—the white supremacists, the neo-Nazis, the neo-Fascists, the anti-Semites. And we regard this condemnation as the expression of a simple, moral truth rather than a political statement.

We must not hesitate to name and condemn the intimidation, terror, and violence that convulsed and profaned our city and university this weekend. We consider the groups who organized and participated in the “Unite the Right” rally to be hate groups. We do not take their views to represent a legitimate, alternative political perspective: they are dangerous, and they perpetuate what is universally condemned by all the world’s religions and ethical systems. We feel morally compelled to call out those who afflicted our community with their night-time mob on the University’s Grounds and with their violence on our city’s streets the following day. Burning torches, aggressive chanting, and racist, homophobic, and antisemitic slogans echo the symbolism, and messages, of Nazi-era Germany and of the Ku Klux Klan in the United States. This is not a time for equivocation. We stand firmly and explicitly against the views and actions of those espousing hate, terror, and violence in Charlottesville over this past weekend, and any other day.

Grief and “a multitude of pains”

In our society, grief is often a lonely, quiet, private affair. There is a time for public mourning: funerals, vigils, anniversaries of tragic events. But generally, sorrow is kept behind closed doors. We muffle sobs into pillows, wipe tears away quickly, hide numbness behind polite smiles. However, many individuals who are very poor may not have private spaces to conceal their grief or quietly recover from a personal tragedy. The Haven is a space filled with our guests’ lives, a place where they experience and share their joys as well as their traumas. During the first week of my internship, a woman’s loud sobs echoed throughout the dining hall. Discreetly, the other guests left the room, leaving only one friend to sit beside her through her pain. Her friend did not provide comfort, rather, her presence merely validated the raw emotion her friend felt. In these public spaces, grief may be robbed of the reverence and respect that it deserves—however, moments like this may equip others with true camaraderie and companionship in their greatest need.

“Jesus was sent by His Father to the poor and to be able to understand the poor, Jesus had to know and experience that poverty in His own Body and Soul. We too must experience poverty if we want to be true carriers of God’s love. To be able to proclaim the Good News to the poor we must know what is poverty” (Mother Teresa, 1991).

There is a different woman with whom I am quite friendly at the shelter. A while ago she and her husband were both in and out of the hospital. They both looked so tired. Each day I look into her face to see how I should greet her. On days she looks more tired, I softly say, “How are you doing today?” On days she looks less tired, I tell her, “You look good today!” She always looks tired. Yesterday she looked more tired. She went into the hospital the previous night because she had a miscarriage. One of our regular volunteers was sorting shampoo and did not look up when she told him. He mumbled, “At least your baby doesn’t have to face this cruel world.” Today, this woman came to the desk, and I gave her scissors and a safety pin. She did not look so tired today. She even bounced a little. “We are going swimming today!” She told me. “We just made swim trunks!” she told me. She looked joyful. I smiled, and remembered the way her face looked yesterday.

None of the theology I’ve read so far has taught me what to say to a woman who lost her child and has nowhere to hide her loss.

“I loved God with all the powers of a child’s heart. He was the centre of everything I did & said. Now Father—it is so dark, so different yet my everything is His—in spite of Him not wanting me, not caring as if for me.” (Mother Teresa, 1961)

The Haven can be a beacon of hope in these moments of grief, a night light in a very dark room. But sometimes that beacon seems very small, and the light very dim, to combat the deep darkness that envelopes the daily lives of our guests.

“Pray for me—for within me everything is icy cold. It is only that blind faith that carries me through for in reality to me all is darkness. As long as Our Lord has all the pleasure—I really do not count” (Mother Teresa, 1949).

Today, a woman approached me at the front desk and asked if we had any Bibles. It’s the first request of its type that I’ve received all summer, and it was perhaps only providential coincidence that I had seen one lonely Bible earlier in The Haven that day. I found it on a shelf of random odds and ends that guests are welcome to take: a yo-yo, a pair of shoes without the laces, a very small purple sweater, and one Holy Bible. The guest who requested it looked new, and she sparked my curiosity, so later in the day I approached her as she was reading it. The woman—I’ll call her Naomi—had set out on the valiant yet regrettably difficult task of reading the Bible by starting in Genesis 1—a feat perhaps not even accomplished by Mother Teresa herself. Naomi has only been coming to The Haven recently because she just got evicted from her apartment a week or two ago. She’s been in Charlottesville for less than a year. She moved from another town in Virginia after she witnessed her boyfriend’s murder during a robbery. “He had three hundred dollars on him—that’s what someone thought his life was worth.” Now she can speak about it calmly and frankly, but she had to leave her hometown for a time in order to try to escape the hauntings of the event. Sometimes the grieving process is a luxury that few can afford without quickly falling behind in financial responsibilities. The Haven has been a small stop on her journey of healing.

“If you only knew what goes on within my heart. Sometimes the pain is so great that I feel as if everything will break. The smile is a big cloak which covers a multitude of pains” (Mother Teresa 1958).

Today, another guest informed me that that one of our frequent guests (I’ll call him Joe) was hospitalized due to alcohol. Often, our guests who struggle with addictions suffer from severe withdrawal symptoms if they don’t have enough money one day to purchase the substance to which they are addicted. This causes guests to experience debilitating headaches, shakes, and even seizures, which sometimes result in even greater injuries caused by falling or seizing while unconscious. Joe is one of our most friendly, kind, beaming, and sweet guests. He keeps to himself, minding his own business. I’ve grown very fond of him, and I was heartbroken to hear that he was in very serious condition. He’s since returned to The Haven, but I wonder if anyone visited him in the hospital. I wonder if he had to walk by himself from the hospital back to his normal corner at The Haven.

“The greatest disease in the West today is not TB or leprosy; it is being unwanted, unloved, and uncared for. We can cure physical diseases with medicine, but the only cure for loneliness, despair, and hopelessness is love. There are many in the world who are dying for a piece of bread but there are many more dying for a little love” (Mother Teresa).

Stephen Hitchcock, the executive director at the Haven and my site mentor, has years of experience working here. Last week, we spoke about his experience on staff and the reactions he receives when he describes his job to people. Stephen often finds himself confronted with well-meaning perceptions that his job must be “fulfilling” or “rewarding.” He said bluntly, “Sometimes at The Haven, we work in full knowledge that we are accompanying folks to their deathbed—and often very early and painful deaths. We know that. There is dignity in that, and honor in that, but I would use a different word than rewarding.” Stephen often emphasizes a core value that traces through each of our services: to provide our guests with the most excellent, compassionate, and thoughtful care possible. Homelessness can often be a choiceless experience. Individuals often have little autonomy over the type of food they consume, the places they sleep, or the clothes they wear. Our guests might lack choices of where to grieve, or what will cause them misery. Our guests are sometimes not given the privilege of making healthy lifestyle choices which could provide them long lives. To provide a counter to this, The Haven tries to provide our guests with lots of options, excellent options, in order to restore a necessary sense of individualism and personal control. The tangible services provided that address physical need provide opportunities for intimacy and emotional compassion along guest’s journeys, however painful or joyful they may be.

**All quotes are taken from Mother Teresa: Come Be My Light, edited by Brian Kolodiejchuk

Grieving woman

For updates about the PLT Summer Internship, click here. We also post updates online using #PLTinterns. To get these updates please like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter at @LivedTheology. To sign up for the Lived Theology monthly newsletter, click here.

On the Lived Theology Reading List: Dorothy Day: The World Will Be Saved by Beauty

Dorothy Day: The World Will Be Saved by Beauty: An Intimate Portrait of My Grandmother, by Kate HennessyAn Intimate Portrait of My Grandmother

Dorothy Day (1897-1980) was a prominent Catholic, writer, social activist, and co-founder of a movement dedicated to serving the poorest of the poor. In Dorothy Day: The World Will Be Saved by Beauty, the life and work of this prominent activist is intimately retold by her granddaughter, Kate Hennessy.

Born at the turn of the century, Dorothy Day was a radical during her time, translating her deeply-held spiritual beliefs into prophetic witness to champion social issues. In 1933, she co-founded The Catholic Worker, which spawned the Catholic Worker Movement, an organization of hospitality houses and farming communes that has been replicated throughout the United States and other countries. With a stunning legacy whose contributions continue into today, she remains a candidate for sainthood in the church for her social activism and commitment to her faith. Hennessy, drawing from family letters, diaries, and memories in writing the biography, offers a valuable and nuanced portrait of this undersung and provocative American woman.

In a recent interview with NPR, Hennessy responds to a question on whether Day wrestled with the patriarchal policies of the church:

“Yes, she did. But she also – she always saw the church at its heart. She wasn’t – well, as my mother used to say – she said, Dorothy wasn’t raised in the church. She doesn’t understand the need for, you know – to ask permission. And that was one of the things about the Catholic Worker was that my grandmother did not ask permission to start this. She just started it. She would – she saw what needed to be done and would just do it.

And I think in terms of how that relates to the hierarchical church, she always said that if she was told to stop, she would stop. But, you know, she was on to something. And I think whenever people see that, they recognize that.

And she also said that, you know, when – I mean, there are many ways you can tussle with the church. And people would want her to take up certain causes against the church. And she just said, I will not fight the church. That is not a battle that I am going to do. And I think that that is extraordinarily wise. I mean, I think that you can really get caught up in proceduralism or institutionalism and lose the sight of the heart of a matter. And I think that’s her genius, is that she never lost sight of the heart of the church.”

For more information on the publication, click here. Find the full NPR interview here.

Fellow travelers are scholars, activists, and practitioners that embody the ideals and commitments of the Project on Lived Theology. We admire their work and are grateful to be walking alongside them in the development and dissemination of Lived Theology.

For more of “On the Lived Theology Reading List,” click here. To engage in the conversation on Facebook and Twitter, @LivedTheology, please use #LivedTheologyReads. For more recommended resources from our fellow travelers, click here, #PLTfellowtravelers. To sign up for the Lived Theology monthly newsletter, click here.

This Worldwide Struggle: Sarah Azaransky Delivers Guest Lecture

This Worldwide Struggle: Religion and the International Roots of the Civil Rights Movement, by Sarah AzaranskyThe International Roots of the Civil Rights Movement

On May 2, Sarah Azaransky delivered a guest lecture previewing the work in her new book, This Worldwide Struggle: Religion and the International Roots of the Civil Rights Movement (Oxford University Press 2017), which studies a network of black American Christian intellectuals and activists who looked to independent movements, particularly in India and West Africa, for a model to inspire an American racial justice campaign. 

By comparing racism in the U.S. with imperial oppression abroad and recognizing the continued global struggle among people of color in the face of white supremacy, Azaransky discussed the idea of black Christian internationalism. She then emphasized the importance of being attentive to the category of religion itself when studying its role in the international civil rights movement, concluding with one pivotal discussion between theologian Howard Thurman and Indian civil rights leader Mahatma Gandhi in the mid-1930s and the profound religious and political reflection that resulted. 

In her discussion of this momentous exchange, Azaransky recounts:

Thurman followed up and asked Gandhi, ‘how are we to train individuals or communities in this difficult art of nonviolence?’ Thurman answered by describing in detail ahimsa, or non injury and also noncooperation, and what these might look like in the context of Jim Crow.

It was at the end of this meeting that Gandhi proclaimed, ‘it may be through black Americans that the unadulterated message of nonviolence will be delivered to the world.’

So here we have Gandhi’s benediction of the later movement, and this exchange… shows the significance really, too, of critique and engagement to building effective social movements. Certainly it strikes me, too, that these are the kinds of lessons that we need today as we’re developing our ownas Thurman would want us todisciplines, methods, and techniques toward a more just social order.”

Listen to the entire lecture through its resource page here.

Sarah Azaransky is an Assistant Professor of Social Ethics at Union Theological Seminary. Her recent publications include This Worldwide Struggle: Religion and the International Roots of the Civil Rights Movement (OUP 2017) and The Dream is Freedom: Pauli Murray and American Democratic Faith (OUP 2011).

For more event details and up-to-date event listings please click here to visit the PLT Events page. We also post updates online using #PLTevents. To get these and other news updates, please like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter @LivedTheology. To sign up for the Lived Theology monthly newsletter, click here.

Brachot – Blessings Part 2: Practice

When the praises go up, the blessings come down

It seems like blessings keep falling in my lap

From “Blessings,” Coloring Book, Chance the Rapper

As I wrote about in my last post, blessings within Judaism are not necessarily set in stone; they can and have been adapted to reflect contemporary societal and cultural needs. In this follow-up post, I mean to touch on how the very concept of what a prayer/blessing in Judaism is might also be susceptible to change.

Our final exercise with Adam during our class on brachot was to write a new blessing of our own and then to find a way to illustrate it. I didn’t really write a blessing, and the illustration I went with is admittedly pretty unclear without explanation. At the center of my page I did my best to write a Hebrew Aleph—the first letter of the alphabet, unpronounced, mysterious, and central to a story by one of my favorite fiction writers, Jorge Luis Borges. All around it I scribbled in an asemic script that I’ve used to doodle with since high school. The idea behind it was that I’m interested in silence and in meaninglessness—in the tension between our observation as human beings of a senseless, chaotic universe and the search for meaning that is fundamental to our nature, and in the seeming unresponsiveness of the void. While it might seem like a bleak outlook, it is in those two places that I most readily and consistently locate my understanding of God. So I’m interested, as well, in the idea of nonverbal blessings, in prayer that is not based in language, and in the potential to connect to something higher through that. One place where I see the most potential for this is in meditation.

Wordless blessing drawing

In his book Jewish Meditation, Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan lays out the foundations for what he considers to be an indigenous Jewish meditative tradition, one that is deeply steeped in Kabbalah (a form of Jewish mysticism) and rooted, as it turns out, in prayer. For instance, Rabbi Kaplan suggests meditating on certain Hebrew phrases and Jewish prayers in a similar fashion to how one might use a mantra in Buddhist meditation practices (Kaplan 62). He also talks at length about the ecstatic prayer practices of the Chasidic movement (a Kabbalistic Orthodox sect), linking them to meditation in their ability to produce altered states of consciousness (Kaplan 48). Both meditation and prayer are capable of producing in the practitioner “altered states of consciousness,” and this forms the crux of Rabbi Kaplan’s argument that Judaism has its own indigenous meditative practice. He goes so far as to present meditation as an integral component of many biblical narratives and experiences of Jewish prophets and mystics, arguing that it is the “states of consciousness” engendered by meditative practices that we associate with the “enhanced spiritual experiences… experienced by prophets and mystics.” He claims that it is in “meditation” that “the feeling of the Divine is strengthened, and a person can experience an intense feeling of closeness to God” (Kaplan 38). To read Kaplan is to be left with the impression that, without meditation, Judaism as we understand it would not exist, and that prayer is itself a form of meditative practice already.

Rabbi Kaplan’s view on Jewish meditation is perhaps controversial. Personally, I find it problematic that he insists that Jews stick strictly to “Jewish” forms of meditation while avoiding “non-Jewish” (i.e. Buddhist and Hindu, among other traditions) forms due to an insinuated association with “idolatry.” This is problematic especially given the fact that his understanding of meditation as a white American writing in the 1980’s was clearly inflected by Western, appropriated understandings of Eastern traditions. Nonetheless, his writings on the topic open up an interesting dialogue on the relationship between saying blessings and sitting for meditation, and on the shared goals of both practices.

Why do we pray? During a session with Rabbi Dev Noily from Kehilla in Oakland, we learned of four basic types of prayers that people make: prayers of gratitude, prayers to make request, prayers asking for forgiveness, and prayers expressing awe. During our class back in June, Adam presented saying blessings as a way to slow down, be mindful, and check in with ourselves and the universe. Clearly, Adam and Rabbi Dev approach the topic of prayer from different directions, but I think there are ways to map one answer onto the other. After all, what’s the point of articulating one’s gratitude and/or awe if not to slow down and take a moment? Can’t we see the goal of “checking in” as being articulated by the idea of evaluating one’s needs and regrets, a way of evaluating our particular position in the nexus of space-time? Can’t we see meditation as fulfilling similar purposes?

When I think about meditation and the ways or reasons why I’ve integrated mindfulness practice into my life, I often frame it as a way of getting to better know my thoughts and mental landscape while also working towards the goal of transcending ego and connecting with a greater presence. As I’ve come to understand prayer through my experiences here, I see it in a similar way. Another aspect linking prayer and meditation is their relationships to tradition and community, both practices coming with their own long histories and an intrinsic quality of linking their practitioners to each other in a certain communal bond. In speaking and saying blessings (as well as meditating) with my cohort here at Urban Adamah, I’ve felt firsthand the power of these practices to unite groups and orient individuals within lineages of practitioners. Observing these common aspects shared by meditation and prayer, it strikes me that they’re not the only activities that I engage in that fulfill these needs, and it makes me wonder about the broad swathe of activities that could be potentially subsumed into the category of “blessings.” Two that seem particularly salient given my experiences here are physical work (farming) and activism.

Runners often talk about their “runners’ highs.” I’ve tried (and stopped trying) to be a runner. But for a while during my undergraduate career, I did work down in the stacks at UVA’s Special Collections Library, where most of my day consisted of being on my feet performing repetitive tasks such as putting books away in order on shelves or working with my hands to make cases to help preserve precious items. Nowadays, I’m a farmer, which, while intellectually engaging, also involves a lot of rote, physical tasks. In both cases, I’ve experienced the pleasure of losing myself in mechanical tasks, and the reward of connecting with something bigger than myself. At the Special Collections Library, that thing was history; at Urban Adamah, that thing is the Earth. In both cases, these experiences have helped me to better understand the way that I am constituted and the position I take within the world. Similarly, activism for me has involved a lot of repetitive action (marching and chanting for hours, sitting through long and frustrating meetings that go in circles, learning and unlearning and challenging my perceptions) that have, in certain moments, brought me to elevated heights, helped me to feel more connected to my community, and better understand myself as a body navigating society and a subjectivity existing within the context of history. Perhaps this is too liberal an application of the concept of prayer, but I tend not to shy away from being too far to the left on any issue. I believe that prayer can be a lot of things, and that language is only the beginning.

Blessings artwork by fellows

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Lament, healing, and recovery

Greeting card with lavenderNotebook, water bottle, and grocery bag full of notecards in hand, the other intern Marlena and I headed across the street to the largest of the Magdalene Houses where community meetings are held. For this session of the weekly group we lead, we would be discussing encouragement as a spiritual practice and writing notes to people we knew who we either wanted to celebrate or to encourage during difficult times. The discussion started out fairly smoothly. We gave examples of times we had felt encouraged, times we had felt that we weren’t encouraged when we needed to be, and how it felt to give and receive encouragement. I introduced the idea of encouragement as rooted in spirituality wherein we seek “to instill courage, confidence, and hope through expressing the delight of God in others” (Calhoun, Spiritual Disciplines Handbook, 198). Each of the residents who spoke during the conversation did so affirmatively, sharing how they had seen God or their personal higher power working in each other throughout their time in the Magdalene community. They seemed to internalize the practice of encouragement fairly easily, until Sandra[1]–a resident I’ve had the pleasure of getting to know since my very first day at Magdalene–spoke up.

“I’m just not good at understanding when someone is encouraging me because I get so wrapped up in the negative,” she said, “and I don’t go around thinking about the God in everyone else.” She talked about the combination of struggling to recognize encouragement when it was given to her and constantly worrying about ulterior motives of those who might say something positive to her. What she was ultimately describing was a lack of capacity for imagination.

Imagination, according to Maureen H. O’Connell, “provides our primary means to encounter and be in relationship with a God who can only be understood or experienced logically but also in the context of mystery that invites ever-deeper interior reflection and ever-expansive external engagement in the created world” (If These Walls Could Talk: Community Muralism and the Beauty of Justice, 196). It is not the capability to fantasize or to engage with that which is imaginary, but to use creativity to engage that which is truly real. It is how we take moments of insight in our own reality and “channel them toward creative acts that cultivate whole persons.” It is the way we can move between and understand both the concrete reality and deep mystery of God and the way we reflect Her image. As O’Connell asserts, “it is the capability through which we accept our inherent dignity that comes with being made in the image of a wildly imaginative and creative God.”

That day during our group Sandra demonstrated the difficulty and emotional creativity required to look at oneself or someone else and conceive that they are the bearer of God’s image. This can be particularly difficult for people like the women of Magdalene who have sustained significant trauma. Imagination is a human capability needed for flourishing. It is something to be reclaimed, reformed, and reinstated throughout the recovery process.

Although I hear women tell painful stories and allude to their traumatic past fairly regularly, until now most of my direct confrontation with suffering has been during the intake process, safely distanced by the phone. Now, I was being directly addressed with what was ultimately a lament–a biblical and deeply spiritual form of expression. As O’Connell writes, laments “are a communal spiritual practice that arise from simultaneous experiences of two disparate realities–one of suffering and the other of fulfillment. The depth of emotion they convey can only arise from stark experiences of being separated from God and an even stronger desire for reunion” (188). Laments express deep faith and deep suffering. In Sandra’s case, she articulated that she could see someone encouraging her, but she could not internalize it. She spoke of having a relationship with God, but struggling to see God in others. We all listened as she spoke–frustrated and hurt–of these struggles.

The moment she began her lament, Sandra created space for the rest of the circle to express similar feelings. She was greeted with cries of “I’ve been there” and “It’s hard for me too.” O’Connell describes the way in which laments “have an ability to shift collective consciousness. They interrupt comfortable complacency with an evocative longing for something different” (191). The conversation before she spoke up was a good one–I look forward to our weekly group time together and its capacity to provide some positivity and creativity to otherwise long, sometimes arduous days. But when Sandra spoke so honestly and so expressively, the atmosphere of the room completely shifted to something the group perhaps didn’t even realize we wanted or needed. Her lament “disruptively carve[d] out public space” and granted permission for the rest of the room to express a longing for imagination, for positivity, and for encouragement (190).

I understand laments to be paradoxically both historically-rooted and future-oriented–just like the recovery process as a whole. We work to heal from, but not to forget, our pasts, and to walk humbly and strongly into a salvific, rehabilitated, relational future. Sandra and the women who spoke after her made clear that those who lament “refuse to move toward the future without ensuring that a truthful reckoning of the past is part of the future’s memory” (190). We must understand why and how our capacities for imagination, encouragement, and creativity have been stunted as we struggle to restore them. These women “reveal[ed] the depth of the community’s pain as well as their refusal to be overcome by it” (192). I am humbled to have witnessed and been confronted by such deep, sorrowful, hopeful honesty, and I am grateful for communal spaces for joy, for vulnerability, and for lament.

God of imagination, of beauty, of creativity
God of healing and God of justice,
We are broken by our past
We struggle to see your image in us
To trust one another
To comprehend joy
We trust that you work in and through our imperfections
And we long to heal
Restore in us imaginative hearts
To know that we are made, shaped, and loved by You
That we might feel and see your creation and disruption
In ourselves and in our sisters

[1] Name changed to protect privacy

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