The Day I Became Elijah

Ma_Yuan_Walking_on_Path_in_SpringBy Martyn Wendell Jones

In his essay “The Wounded Word,” French philosopher-poet Jean-Louis Chrétien describes prayer as situated in “an act of presence to the invisible.” People who pray are disclosed to God and, secondarily, themselves, illuminated with a “light from elsewhere.” I was six when I first experienced this in its full measure.

“It troubles me,” our teacher said, “that lots of you said “ooh” and “wow” when the football players were getting tackled in the first part of the video, but no-one said anything when the football player told us about what Jesus had done for him during the second part of the video.”

We squirmed in the benches. The grass outside was positively shining; a second teacher blocked the door to keep us from running out to play in it. Fans spun overhead, not dissipating the heat so much as mixing us into it.

Finally we were released. My peers ran and played.

I, on the other hand, received a call from the Lord. It didn’t come down from the sky with thunder. Instead, I remember a quietly emerging sense of destiny. When our keepers called for us to reconvene in the classroom, I wandered towards a path my father had shown me earlier. It led into the woods. [Read more...]

Wrestling with Sunday Mornings

14597764532_57904b2b45_zThis past Saturday afternoon I warned my husband, “I’m not going to church tomorrow.” In the morning when he went off early to help with music for the service, I went for a walk, made bacon and eggs, sat by an open window, and read every single page of the New York Times.
I really, really enjoy not going to church.

I’ve been going to Sunday services nearly every week as far back as I can remember. I figure that between ages four and forty-four I’ve been to around 1600-1800 church services, subtracting vacation and sick days and adding the years I went twice on a Sunday.
That’s a lot of church services. I feel like I need a break, at least from attendance as my default setting, and while I feel relieved to come to this awareness and sense that it might be okay to take a break, there’s also sadness and a pinch of fear.

The sadness is because my identity as a churchgoer is such a longstanding part of me—I literally don’t know a life without it. The thought of changing that brings with it a sense of loss of something that has mattered a great deal to me at various points in my life. There’s also the sadness of thinking that perhaps the entire experience of church as I know it is a failed experiment in Christian community that got off track long ago. I’m not saying it is (and I’m not saying it isn’t), but even entertaining that thought makes me sad. [Read more...]

Learning to Pray

Go, sit in your cell, and your cell will teach you everything. —Abba Moses

The way up and the way down are one and the same. —Heraclitus


Trinity IconIt is six o’clock in the morning. I am on an overnight business trip to New York, alone in my hotel room. Weak streams of dawn light leak around the edges of the blackout shades on the window of my room in the Club Quarters Midtown. For the moment, I have silenced the frenetic squawking of local traffic and crime updates on New York One, because I am about to pray, and I am trying to figure out which way is East.

Part of me feels completely ridiculous, but I have committed to this, and though I have brought nary an icon with me, I stand in the middle of the hotel room floor and pray in the direction that seems to be towards Jerusalem: I cross myself and touch my fingertips to the floor, then pray the Trisagion prayers—the most rock-bottom-basic prayer in the Eastern Orthodox prayer book, called such, as the Internet notes, for its “triple invocation of God as holy”:

Glory to Thee, our God, Glory to Thee.
O Heavenly King, Comforter, the Spirit of Truth, Who art everywhere present and fillest all things, the Treasury of good things and Giver of life: Come, and abide in us, and cleanse us from every stain, and save our souls, O Good One.
Holy God, Holy Mighty, Holy Immortal: have mercy on us. (3 times)
Glory to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Spirit, both now and ever, and unto the ages of ages. Amen.
All-Holy Trinity, have mercy on us. Lord, cleanse us from our sins. Master, pardon our iniquities. Holy God, visit and heal our infirmities for Thy name’s sake.
Lord, have mercy. (3 times)
Glory to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Spirit, both now and ever, and unto the ages of ages.

Even in prayer, the lay critic in me bubbles up: All those thrice-repeated phrases, how can they not be a subtle Trinitarian dig at the overwhelmingly singular focus of the Shema, the foundational Jewish prayer from Deuteronomy 6: “Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is one…” But of course, I remember, we still believe that one too. [Read more...]

Is the Gospel Good News or Bad?

Kintsugi-bowl-honurushi-number-32Continuing a little bit what I started with my essay “What Is a Christian?,” I’ve been thinking about how I might articulate the good news of the gospel to myself and perhaps begin to comprehend it.

Theologically, I know basically what the gospel is. And if you ask Google, it returns a Wikipedia page that describes the Christian gospel as “the news of the coming of the Kingdom of God…, and of Jesus’ death on the cross and resurrection to restore people’s relationship with God. It may also include the descent of the Holy Spirit upon believers and the second coming of Jesus.”

That seems pretty straightforward and would fly in any church I’ve been a part of. But sometimes for a lifelong Christian, this can feel more like old news than good news. Occasionally, it even feels like bad news when I’m overwhelmed with questions. [Read more...]

Wanted: God—Dead or Alive?

305880083_7cf2d7bf10_mIf you practice a religion faithfully—faith-fully—, why do you do this? And why is it this particular religion that you practice?

“The embarrassing fact is that most religious people seem to believe in a religion for no better reason than that their parents believed in it.” So states poet and literary critic Adam Kirsch in his review-essay “Is Reason Enough?” in The New York Review of Books (April 23, 2015). [Read more...]