Notable links from the week, with a smattering of commentary

Buzzfeed(!) profiles pioneering Catholic feminist theologian Elizabeth Johnson. I blogged about Johnson’s book She Who Is back in 2009–see here, here, here, and here.

Nadia Bolz Weber preached a good Ash Wednesday sermon.

Rep. Paul Ryan thinks free school lunches are bad for kids’ souls. I take this a bit personally since I got free lunches when I was a kid and don’t think my soul is particularly worse off for it. You know what is bad for your spiritual and moral development? Being too poor to eat.

David Brooks wrote a great column about the evils of solitary confinement.

A wonderful essay from the New York Review of Books on the “secret life” of W. H. Auden. Apparently the great poet–who was also Christian, if a somewhat idiosyncratic one–did a lot of surreptitious charitable works, even when it made him look like a jerk in public.

The impending publication of some of his journals reignite the debate about whether philosopher Martin Heidegger was an anti-Semite.

The Democratic primary for D.C. mayor is next month, and the Washington Post has put together a helpful guide on where the candidates stand on various issues. I’m still undecided on this.

Political scientist Adolph Reed Jr. published an essay in Harper’s (not available online) about what he says (apparently; I haven’t actually read the essay) is the long decline of the American Left and its over-investment in the electoral fortunes of the Democratic Party.  This garnered some push-back from various quarters (see here, here, and here, among others); Reed replied to some of these criticisms here. I’m probably less left-wing than most of the participants to this argument, but it’s hard to deny that conservatives have been more successful than the Left in recent decades in building a grass-roots movement that can drive policy changes. The GOP is far more beholden to the conservative movement than the Dems are to the Left. I don’t think, however, that investing in such a movement should prevent anyone from supporting the superior alternative (or lesser evil if you prefer) in a given election. And for left-of-center folks this will almost invariably be the Democrat.

On the situation in Ukraine, and the persistent demands that the U.S. “do something,” I found this helpful.

Music-wise, I’m still on a St. Vincent kick. Here’s a great live session from a couple of years ago.

The Rosary as contemplative prayer for everybody

In his book The Word Is Very Near You: A Guide to Praying with Scripture, Martin L. Smith, a spiritual director and formerly the superior of the (Episcopal) Society of St. John the Evangelist in Cambridge, Mass., considers various ways of using the Bible in prayer. These include Ignatian-style meditation, where we imaginatively place ourselves in a biblical story, such as one from the gospels; lectio divina, where we mediate on a word or phrase from scripture; and what he calls “gazing,” or simply contemplating and resting in one of the great biblical images.

Smith says that this third, contemplative type of prayer is more common than people may think:

Many people are praying contemplatively though they do not know it. For example, in the widespread devotion of the rosary people meditate on a series of key events in the life of Mary and Jesus, allowing their attention to focus on each “mystery” in turn while repeating the Hail Mary, the Gloria and the Lord’s Prayer in a set pattern regulated by the sequence of the beads. The repeated prayers are intended to occupy the mind and keep distractions away so that we can be free to soak ourselves in the grace and meaning with which the great images are saturated. Far from being the technique or a privilege of the spiritually advanced, simple forms of contemplative prayer are the ‘bread and butter’ of the spiritual lives of millions.

Similarly, Anglican theologian Austin Farrer referred to the rosary as a “heaven-sent aid” for meditation on the great truths of the faith. In his short book Lord I Believe, which is on using the creed in prayer, Farrer writes:

If I had been asked two dozen years ago for an example of what Christ forbade when he said ’Use not vain repetitions,’ I should very likely have referred to the fingering of beads. But now if I wished to name a special sort of private devotion most likely to be of general profit, prayer on the beads is what I should name. Since my previous opinion was based on ignorance and my present opinion is based on experience, I am not ashamed of changing my mind.

I am no great pray-er, but speaking personally, the rosary is the most meaningful way I’ve come across to mediate in prayer on the major events in the life of Christ (the “mysteries” as they’re called). Before I began using it, I wondered how one was supposed to recite the prayers while simultaneously meditating on the mysteries. But in my experience at least, the prayers do seem to work as advertised–to provide a kind of background noise that helps one to stay focused on the mysteries. Sometimes there is a sort of oscillation of the attention between the words of the prayers and the images of the mysteries–but I find that they often infuse each other with additional meaning and associations as one proceeds through the decades of the rosary.

For whatever reason, many Protestant forms of prayer strike me as too wordy and intellectualistic. But I also haven’t had much luck with forms of meditation where you’re supposed to “empty” your mind and wordlessly contemplate the divine. The rosary provides a good balance of structure and freedom, or mind and heart. It’s grounded in the great truths of the faith, and so has a certain “given-ness” and objectivity, but it also allows for one’s personal prayers and affections to range freely. Your mileage may vary, of course, but reading Smith’s book has encouraged me to pick up the beads again after a period of neglect.

The Gospel as the basis of prayer

The good news of the Gospel is that God in Christ meets us where we are and accepts us as we are, that God has come to us when we could not go to God, that we are right with God through God’s gift in Christ, that we are justified by faith, by trust in God’s grace in Christ. Therefore, we can come before God as we are, because God sees us as righteous in Christ. This is why even as beginners in prayer we can offer our simple, real, honest prayers to God through Christ, because God in Christ has opened up a new way for us to come in the presence of God as we are. — Owen C. Thomas, “Prayer in Anglican Practice,” Christian Life & Practice, p. 94

Friday links

–Ta-Nehisi Coates on Moby-Dick.

–Amy-Jill Levine: “A Critique of Recent Christian Statements on Israel

–From Jeremy at Don’t Be Hasty: Why the church can’t take the place of the welfare state.

–A discussion of “summer spirituality” with Fr. James Martin, S.J., author of The Jesuit Guide to (Almost) Everything.

–A review of Keith Ward’s recent book More than Matter?

Lady Gaga: “Iron Maiden changed my life.”

–Grist’s David Roberts has been writing a series on “great places” as a reorienting focus for progressive politics: see the first installments here, here, and here. Also see this reflection from Ned Resnikoff.

–Four different demo versions of Metallica’s early tune “Hit the Lights” (with some, ahem, interesting vocal experimentation by a young James Hetfield).

Cursing our enemies before God

Given the debate over the last few days about whether it’s appropriate to be happy about, and even celebrate, the death of Osama bin Laden, I thought it would be worth revisiting Ellen Davis’s discussion of the cursing (imprecatory) psalms in her book Getting Involved with God. These psalms, which call God’s wrath down upon the psalmist’s enemies in what often seems like a very unchristian spirit, are frequently glossed over or heavily edited, if not extirpated entirely from contemporary Christian worship.

However, Davis argues that “the cursing psalms are in fact a crucial resource for our spiritual growth, indispensable if we are to come before God with rigorous honesty” (pp. 24-5).

The cursing psalms help us to hold our anger in good faith. Sadly, most of us feel about our enemies more like the psalmist does than Jesus did. We must pray to be healed from our hardness of heart, but healing will not come through a cover-up. Healing for ourselves and even for our enemies requires that we acknowledge our bitter feelings and yet not yield to their tyranny. Rather we must offer them, along with our more attractive gifts, for God’s work of transformation. In several ways, the cursing psalms give us strong practical guidance in making that offering of anger. (pp. 25-6)

What is this practical guidance? Davis says that it comes in three forms. First, the cursing psalms give us words to express our anger. And not only do they provide a means for venting our anger when we are betrayed or victimized, they can help us move past anger. By giving us words with which to externalize our anger, they allow us to look at it more objectively and, perhaps, to recognize the element of self-righteousness it contains. “For the cursing psalms confront us with one of our most persistent idolatries, to which neither Israel nor the church has ever been immune: the belief that God has as little use for our enemies as we do, the desire to reduce God to an extension of our own embattled and wounded egos” (p. 26).

Second, the cursing psalms can be modes of access to God. They teach us that God is known in judgment on evil as well as in mercy. “The God who created us for life together (Genesis 2:18) is, like us, outraged by those who violate trust and rupture community” (pp. 26-7). It is part of our baptismal vows to name evil when we see it and to reject it wholeheartedly.

Finally, and most importantly, these psalms direct us to give the desire for vengeance or payback over to God. “[T]he cry for vengeance,” Davis says, “invariably takes the form of an appeal for God to act” (p. 27). The cursing psalms don’t authorize us to take matters into our own hands. “On the contrary, the validity of any punishing action that may occur depends entirely on its being God’s action, not ours” (p. 27). Moreover, leaving vengeance in the hands of the Lord means relinquishing control of the outcome:

Through these psalms we demand that our enemies be driven into God’s hands. But who can say what will happen to them there? For God is manifest in judgment of our enemies but also, alas, in mercy toward them. Thus these vengeful psalms have a relationship with other forms of prayer for our enemies. (p. 27)

So, if there’s a lesson here for us, maybe it’s that we ought to bring our feelings about enemies like bin Laden–whatever they are–before God. If I’m happy about bin Laden’s death, then I should say that to God in prayer. But doing so in the spirit of the psalms means that I may come to recognize an element of self-righteousness in my righteous anger and satisfaction. It means naming the evil that he was responsible for and our anger about it. But it also means giving up the position of ultimate judge of his, or anyone else’s, fate. (It’s noteworthy, though not particularly surprising, how many people are confident in consigning bin Laden to hell.) Human justice may have required bin Laden to be killed, or at least to be sufficiently disabled to prevent him from wreaking more terror. But ultimate judgment remains beyond us. Navy SEALs might have been the instrument that drove bin Laden into the hands of the living God, but what happens once he gets there remains a mystery.

The prayer of suffering

Another insightful passage from Ellen Davis on the Psalms:

The preponderance of laments in the Book of Praises is a fruitful contradiction from which we can learn much. But we live with a second discrepancy that should trouble us more than it does; namely, the contrast between the biblical models of prayer and our own contemporary practices in the church. It seems that ancient Israel believed that the kind of prayer in which we most need fluency is the loud groan, and they have bequeathed us a lot of material on which to practice. Therefore it is troubling that most Christians are almost completely unfamiliar with the lament psalms. Except on Ash Wednesday and Good Friday, these psalms almost never appear in worship services. Evidently modern Christian liturgists define the business of worship more narrowly than did ancient Israel, and as a result our lives as individual believers and as a church are impoverished. The shape of the Psalter–the fact that the laments are brought to the fore–suggests that our own worship is deformed by our failure to bring the language of suffering into the sanctuary as an integral part of our weekly liturgy. (“With My Tears I Melt My Mattress,” Getting Involved with God, pp. 15-16)

There’s a tendency among Christians to see the expressions of raw emotion in the Psalms–including despair, anger, and longing for vengeance–as sub-Christian and to conclude that they have no place in public worship or private prayer. But as Davis points out, most of the psalms of lament have an internal movement that finishes in praise. “[T]he lament psalms regularly trace a movement from complaint to confidence in God, from desperate petition to anticipatory praise” (pp. 20-21). Bringing the experience of suffering into God’s presence is necessary for that suffering to begin to be healed.

The First Amendment of faith

The problem with [many common] notions of prayer is that we cannot have an intimate relationship with someone to whom we cannot speak honestly–that is, someone to whom we cannot show our ugly side, or those large clay feet of ours. We in this culture are all psychologically astute enough to know that honest, unguarded speaking is essential to the health of family life or close friendship. But do we realize that the same thing applies to our relationship with God? That is what the Psalms are about: speaking our mind honestly and fully before God. The Psalms are a kind of First Amendment for the faithful. They guarantee us complete freedom of speech before God, and then (something no secular constitution would ever do) they give us a detailed model of how to exercise that freedom, even up to its dangerous limits, to the very brink of rebellion.

-Ellen F. Davis, “Improving our Aim: Praying the Psalms,” Getting Involved with God, pp. 8-9