I’ll always remember the day last July when John Henry Newman’s beatification was announced. My family and I were en route to Heathrow Airport, barreling along in a van driven by my fearless godmother, who had promised we would not miss our plane. Her mobile phone signaled a text message, and from where I was sitting, clutching my seat, I had the chance to read it aloud.
T. S. Eliot once declared—and I agree—that the greatest philosophical poem next to the Divine Comedy is the Bhagavad Gita (“Song of the Blessed One”), the most widely revered of the sacred texts of India.
Having lived in the town of Jonathan Edwards and his grandfather Solomon Stoddard for some 20 years, I’ve come to feel a kinship to the 17th- and 18th-century Puritan divines—as if they were relatives who somehow got left off my family tree.
It is by living and dying that one becomes a theologian, Martin Luther said. With that comment in mind, we have resumed a Century series published at intervals since 1939 and asked theologians to reflect on their own struggles, disappointments, questions and hopes as people of faith and to consider how their work and life have been intertwined.
Remember Gomer Pyle, the hapless and saintly TV marine? His philosophical lexicon was limited, but it included two all-purpose expressions: Surprise, surprise, surprise! and Shame, shame, shame! The first of these expressions, along with Golly! and Shazam! expressed Gomer’s childlike sense of wonder.
My mother studied painting at the New York Art Students League with Joseph Solman, the American artist who died last year at age 99. Solman was briefly a member, along with Mark Rothko, of an artistic vanguard known as The Ten, which in the 1930s rejected the literalism of American art and championed expressionism.
Dear Father Anselm: It’s been 900 years since that dawn of April 21, Wednesday in Holy Week, when you fell asleep in Christ. You may be surprised to learn of the fuss that is being made about you, with major conferences in England, Italy and New England, and glasses raised wherever Christian philosophy is prized.
I’m not a great fan of limericks. By a curious accident, however, we have on our living room wall an original autograph letter—itself a limerick, answering a request for a limerick—by one of the great limerick makers of the last century, the English priest and writer Ronald Knox:
There are times when the world, instead of being the solid stage on which we conduct our affairs, instead of enveloping us in its massive givenness, seems to totter at the cliff’s edge. The news announces financial meltdown, the friend who seemed forever young dies, the best plans and provisions crumble. What does the future hold?
Pauline Baynes died on August 1 at the age of 85—one more light gone out from the golden age of children’s book illustration, an age that gave us Arthur Rackham’s fairies, Edmund Dulac’s Cinderella, Beatrix Potter’s spirited rabbits and E. H. Shepard’s Toad and Pooh.
The new atheist movement has reached its high-water mark, and there are signs that it is starting to recede. Wishful thinking, you say? Aren’t there more and more antireligious tracts on the bestseller lists? Aren’t these writers terribly clever? Perhaps so, yet somehow they fail to capture the imagination.
An elderly family member with Alzheimer’s was incapacitated after a fall in her apartment, and my family and I became responsible for her care. Unfinished work mounted up, we had taxes to do, and we felt all the swarming nibbling host of worries that fray the nerves without sinking the soul. I would be an ungrateful sod if I thought such trials anything exceptional.Yet Christian hope pertains to the lesser as well as the greater trials of our life. The short petition that follows the Lord’s Prayer in the Roman eucharistic rite expresses the idea beautifully: “In your mercy keep us free from sin and protect us from all anxiety as we wait in joyful hope for the coming of our Savior, Jesus Christ.”
Hell is talked about cautiously, if at all, in mainline churches. Yet the notion of a divinely ordained place of punishment for the wicked after death is deeply embedded in the Christian imagination. How should we think and talk about hell? Why don’t we talk about it? We asked eight theologians to comment.
One of our family hobbies is to tackle new languages at the dinner table or on trips or in odd moments before bed. I can’t say we’ve made great strides, but we have ventured far enough to decipher Old English fuþark and cry hwœt! as needed, write our names in Egyptian hieroglyphs and order pastizzi in Maltese.
The blizzard hit more suddenly than predicted, dumping several inches on us by noon and stopping traffic dead in all the streets leading from our town to the outlying country. I was rushing to an appointment and, impatient with the slow progress of two people in front of me, I skirted around them, slipped on an icy hill and was momentarily airborne. When I fell back to earth I hit my head, hard.
"Politics pulverizes,” observed the elegant, white-haired editor as she looked at me across her mahogany desk. She knew about such things, having grown up a bishop’s daughter, single-handedly raised several children, lost friends to war, managed a farm and worked for the last decades of her life in journalism and publishing.
Some friends of mine are avid labyrinth walkers and have recommended the practice to me. But though I’ve long admired the floor of Chartres Cathedral—and once had the pleasure of seeing my children race around it at top speed before they climbed the tower and searched the high vaults for bats—I’ve never been on a formal retreat involving labyrinths. Perhaps that’s because I’m more familiar with informal collapses than with formal retreats. Fortunately an economic alternative has suggested itself: puddle hopping.
What would Agatha Christie Do? In 1971 she put her name on a petition urging the conservation of an endangered species: the traditional Latin mass, threatened with extinction in the aftermath of Vatican II. The petition noted that the preconciliar mass, a thing of beauty in its own right, was the inspiration for countless works of poetry, philosophy, music and other arts throughout the centuries.
The current spate of atheist, antitheist and antireligious books has made me ask myself whether I ought to be working, strictly pro bono, for the defense. Fortunately there are a host of reasonable and well-spoken public intellectuals like Alister McGrath, Keith Ward and John Haldane who are willing to undertake this tedious but necessary job.
Once again it was a Lent of loopholes, of minor sacrifices deferred by family travels and travails and of minor irritations unredeemed, so that as Palm Sunday drew near it caught me in need of a new beginning, in want of a jump start.