living through death

"The only way that you can accept life is if you can accept death.” –Leo Buscaglia

Posts Tagged ‘Thomas Keating

It Is Finished!

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Yesterday, Monday, April 11th, between 9:30 and 11:30, I successfully defended my dissertation (I link to the full-text at the end of this post). It passed with no need for further edits and with a surprising amount of enthusiasm! It’s been nine years since I started my academic journey in theology. To be honest, the emotions are still trying to figure out what what they should be doing!


The run up to my defense was chaotic. The person in charge of scheduling the defense was on maternity leave with no auto-response associated with their email address, so our request to schedule my defense (now already after the spring graduation deadline!) sat for an additional two weeks unanswered. When we finally got in touch with someone, things moved fast. Much faster than I was emotionally prepared for!

I was given essentially a week and a half to prepare. I’d never been to one of these before, so I was faced with the added difficulty of not really having a concept of what I was preparing for. At the very least, I knew there was to be a 10 to 20 minute introduction that I would have to give. Seeing that fairly objective, and also feeling the most anxiety about the presentation element of my defense, I got busy cranking out a stellar presentation.

I worked my brain to exhaustion repeatedly over the next ten days. Then, with two days left to practice and read through my draft one last time, I finished my presentation and gave it a test run…

It took me THIRTY EIGHT MINUTES to talk through about a THIRD of it!

The word “doomed” floated across my mind. I imagined myself walking into the defense hall, shrugging my shoulders and saying “Well, I tried to put together an intro, but I screwed it up. What say we just state the title nice and clearly and move on to the questions?”

Instead, I got up early the next morning, retreated to the detached garage in the back yard, stoked a nice fire and proceeded to craft a stripped-down version of both my talk and slides. I began practicing that night. More practicing the next day was combined with an afternoon of reading my dissertation again (while Megan sewed the button back onto the only pair of dress pants that fit me anymore!) Megan and I hit the road at 3:00pm to stay with her sister and our brother-in-law near St. Paul. To bed early, then awake, unable to sleep at 3:30 am. And finally, after some tense traffic, we were alone in an empty auditorium awaiting the arrival of my committee.

“The work is done” I kept telling myself. “All that’s left to do now is relax and be responsive to your readers.” My body seemed altogether unwilling to take my mind’s sage advice, so I fumbled around fretfully arranging the podium and occasionally walked to the window to get my mind off of the stark surroundings. There was a bronze sculpture called “Living Hope of the Resurrection” in the small garden just outside. Its presence was a gift.

The gift was to increase, for just then Megan returned to the conference room with a number of my friends and colleagues who had arrived. The room quickly filled with graduate students, recently graduated friends, and finally my committee, Dr Lois Malcolm (my adviser) and Drs Amy Marga and Mary Hess (my readers).

The actual defense was a blur. I recall feeling deeply relieved that things were finally underway, and pleasantly surprised at the general enthusiasm and encouragement of my committee. My only regret is that I once caused Dr Marga to forget her question when a certain topic she touched on led me to turn and wink at my good friend Derek Maris in the audience. Maybe regret is too strong of a word, but I did feel a little bad about it.

In the end, my committee helped me to reconnect with the possibility that there may well be something important going on in my work. After years of these ideas being couched within a process that we’ve just been trying to just get through, it’s been easy for me to lose sight of what led me to these ideas in the first place. They pushed me to really think about how the theological method I’ve begun to chart has validity for both religious communities as well as for a culture that has largely ceased to give a rip about religious communities. I’m looking forward to the challenge.

Megan and I breathed a tremendous sigh of relief as we walked to the car, only to discover that we had gotten, not one, but TWO parking tickets… which turned out to be letters of congratulations that my Aunt Debra had snuck over sometime during the defense. 🙂


My Facebook feed has been a non-stop accumulation of well wishes and congratulations ever since the first word went out yesterday. What a tremendous feeling. Thank you all!

And now, for those who are curious, I present to you the final draft of my dissertation: Dying to Live: The Paradox of Christian Salvation, The Terror of Death, And Developmental Stages Theory. It is a mix of personal narrative and academic reflection. Many of you have been a part of the narrative it contains. It is my hope that the narrative will only continue and deepen. Thank you!

Published: Prayer Does Not Work

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Last February I wrote that I had submitted a proposal for a paper on prayer called, Prayer Does Not Work: Paul Tillich and Centering Prayer. Today I just received word that it has finally been published. So without further ado, I will now tease you with the introduction before linking to the full paper that you can peruse at your leisure.

Prayer Does Not Work: Paul Tillich and Centering Prayer

The question “Does prayer work?” is, of course, the wrong question. If one answers “yes,” endless counterexamples can be brought to mind in order to demonstrate the naiveté of such an affirmation. But if one answers “no,” the role of prayer in the lives of countless saints and geniuses is given no explanation. The question does not go deep enough, but as easy as it is to brush the question aside, it is by no means so easy to banish the mindset that gives rise to it. In fact, I take no great risk in assuming that anyone who will eventually read this lives their life characterized by the spiritual mindset behind this badly placed question. I’m right there with you, and it’s killing us.

This is an essay for those for whom prayer has become a problem. I have in mind those who may have grown up with regular times of prayer, but who have long since ceased to pray, perhaps not fully knowing why. Or maybe they do know why. Perhaps at some point it was just sensed that the whole thing just didn’t work anymore, God, prayer, the whole bit. Gray Lava Field in South West Iceland As we grow up, our everyday lives become more and more predominated with a constant attention to how well things are working. Before we go to bed at night, we might hope that the alarm clock works, thereby ensuring we make it to…well, “work” on time. We change the oil on our vehicles, exercise our bodies, work on our relationships. Why? So things keep working. Everyday life tends to be a constant attention to making sure that life in general goes on working. If things stop working, however, we either get to work on a solution, or get rid of it. “It wasn’t working.” Is a perfectly sensible answer to a whole range of questions: “You have a new car! What happened to the old one?”, or, “How come she ended the relationship?” It can even be an answer to the question of why someone might choose to give up the whole project of life itself. And with that, we can see just how deep this goes. Not only can the many particular tasks of our life either work or fail to work, our life as a whole can be viewed in the same way.

Is it any wonder, then, that our prayer life easily finds itself under the purview of this regular and necessary frame of mind? Perhaps now that we’ve looked at a few examples it’s not even quite so clear to us why our original question is so badly placed.

Lutherans in particular have always been wary of works righteousness, and rightly so. But the space between salvation by way of moral effort and the drop-out mantra of “let go and let God” has never been an easy one to chart.[1] When we get the sense that our prayer life is missing something, it’s a great deal easier to vacillate between redoubling our efforts and being more disciplined, or just—to take the other approach to something that doesn’t seem to be working properly—stop bothering with it.

As a young man attending a Baptist seminary while working on my M.A., I had tried and failed enough times at the former path that I was pretty much resigned to living in the later state. But it was at that time that a rather unexpected thing began to happen. Through the writings of a Lutheran theologian, Paul Tillich, I came to discover a typically Catholic form of prayer. Though in its contemporary form this mode of prayer was after his time, it remains deeply resonant with his thought. I’m speaking here of Centering Prayer and I’ve come to see it as an interesting path between a crude form of sanctification by moral effort and the lazy caricature of “let go and let God.” In either case, I’d want to argue, prayer simply “doesn’t work.” In fact, the very term “work,” I hope to show, is a bad metaphor for what happens in prayer. I’d like to show how the theology of Paul Tillich and Centering Prayer subvert our usual notions of “work” and reorient the question of prayer toward a deeper question of the fullness of life. You can continue reading the full essay here.

[1] We can think, for example, of Paul’s conflicts with the “Judaizers” who felt he was being too lax on this point, as well as Augustine, who was warmly received by many cosmopolitan Roman citizens, as they felt his theology to be comfortably tolerant of persistent sin.

Written by Alex

January 5, 2015 at 4:03 pm

The Adventure You Are Called to

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How much of life do we miss simply because, though we are bodily present, our minds are worrying away in either the past or the future? How much do we miss by being beyond even those mental stirrings, placing our minds on auto-pilot? It’s hard to blame us, really; this life is often an anxiety producing experience. We carry guilt for our actions in the past. We worry about the possibility of a fulfilling life in the future. And often times all this worrying and longing strikes us as so fruitless that we’d just rather drown it all out with mindless noise. Notice, while alone in the car, how quickly we move to fill the silence with the radio. To be alone with ourselves is often a painful experience. And yet, to lose yourself by tuning out is boring. Life becomes little more than another trip to work, a sitcom, a beer, and bed.


We Are All Self-Absorbed

The basic problem is what those in the world of psychotherapy and spiritual direction call “self-absorption.” Self-absorbtion is the basic human problem of being trapped inside your ego-organized self. But this is a funny thing, because to be trapped inside yourself (your ego-organized self), is, in another sense, to be separated from yourself (your fuller self, the self that is deeply integrated and connected with the world around you).

Often, we prefer life this way. The reason is that life within our ego-organized self has at least one thing going for it: It’s predictable. And to that extent, it’s safe. But the catch is that it’s predictable only because it’s the mental world we’ve personally crafted or bought in to. It’s filled not with the world that emerges as mystery, around us and from within us, but with our concepts of the world around us and with our concept of our own identity. It’s not the immediate experience of this moment, this light, this smell, this texture, but instead it’s “another tree,” “another trip to work,” another “white evangelical.” We’ve constructed this world since birth to deal with the chaotic unpredictability of life. To a certain extent, it even works, but its limits begin to show themselves in a brooding sense of dissatisfaction, boredom, and self-loathing. Underneath it all is the sense of a fuller life, of excitement, of a desire for that which we know not what, of adventure.

Wanting What We’re Scared of

The trouble is, getting in touch with that fuller sense requires courage. We need to learn to leave, at least occasionally, the relative safety of our ego-organized self, of our concepts. A tolerance for an encounter with the unknown, the unpredictable, the chaotic in life, must be developed. In short: We must have a capacity to endure the danger of adventure if we are to embark on the adventure of life that calls to us. It is for this reason that spiritual directors William Connolly and William Barry suggest that “Self-absorption is a concentration on weakness. The effort to help a person to look beyond herself is part of the appeal to strength that is the task of the spiritual director. [emphasis, mine]” (The Practice of Spiritual Direction, 51.)

Quit the Neurotics of Normalcy

The good news is that you don’t need to go to a therapist or a spiritual director to begin to develop this capacity for the unpredictable, and therefore to more easily take hold of the fuller life that is so often buried within you. Here’s a few things I can recommend.

  1. If you are the outdoorsy type (and perhaps especially if you are not!), consider Alastair Humphreys’ philosophy of “micro-adventures.” The genius of his thinking here is that he helps you to get past giving excuses for never living adventurously because of the daunting nature of large-scale adventures.
  2. Unplug. We’ve all heard this before, but it’s true. Do it. Every now and again, try to drive, walk, or just sit without a steady input of artificial stimulation. If you looking for a serious challenge, attempt to take a detached stance to the mental train of thoughts that will immediately rush in to fill the void of silence (for a bit more on the benefits of silence, see my recent post here).
  3. Take Leo Buscaglia’s advice and jump out your bedroom window (at 37:03).
  4. Work on moving your relationship with your spouse from a relation of dependency to interdependency. Nothing will force you to endure the unpredictable than actual intimacy with another human being. And nobody is better at helping committed relationships on this journey than David Schnarch. His book “Passionate Marriage” is revolutionary (Note: not for the prudish, Esp. Chapter 10).
  5. Quit your job (self explanatory).
  6.  Consider contemplative prayer or a practice of meditation: Think number 2. on steroids. If the problem is being trapped inside your ego-organized self, contemplative prayer is the daily discipline in encountering God not in the known contents of your mind, but in the unknown mystery that comes before and stretches beyond you. Thomas Keating’s classic “Open Heart Open Mind” is a great place to begin.
  7. Ride your bike across Europe and Asia.
  8. Raise chickens in your backyard. The interactions you’ll soon have with your neighbors will alone bring all kinds of fun unpredictability.

The Spirituality of Adventure

Whatever you do, be gentle with yourself. All of us, simply by being born and growing up into this world, regularly live within the safety of our constructed worlds. And to a certain extent, such living is normal, natural, and healthy. But on the other hand, we also live in an era where our technological grasp on reality has given us the ability to fashion our very environment according to the whims of our mental constructions. It has become ever more easy, by virtue of the rapid changes in social and mass media, to mistake our constructions for “all that there is.” It is a rare thing for the natural world to break in upon us and force us to wake up to the unpredictable mystery in which we find ourselves. As a consequence, we find it ever easier to live merely within the limits of our constructions. We are bored. We are vaguely dissatisfied. But it needn’t be so. Life itself is danger and adventure! Sometimes all it takes is stepping outside the role culture has crafted for us for that feeling of wonder, awe, and an aching desire for that which we know not what to come rushing back to us.

May you live the adventure from which you flow and to which you are called!

Welcome, Anger. Welcome, Fear.

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Note: This particular entry had the honor of being re-blogged on Patheos’ Cultivare blog as a guest post. Thank you to Dr. Kyle Roberts, who extended the invite.

This morning, after the kids were pretty much all set to go for the day, I flopped down on our bed as the sun was just beginning to cast a warm window-shaped glow on our bedroom wall. As I sometimes do, I picked up a book I’ve been reading and randomly opened it up to see what it could teach me. My mind has been churning ever since.

The book was Cynthia Bourgeault’s “Centering Prayer and Inner Awakening.” The passage I flipped to was dealing with a method of prayer developed by Thomas Keating and others called the Welcoming Prayer. The insight contained therein is overwhelming.

The method of prayer itself is deceptively simple. It is a prayer used throughout one’s day and it is practiced whenever you note that you are beginning to feel agitated (hopefully you feel agitated periodically. If you don’t you have even bigger issues!). There are three steps:

1. Focus and Sink In

2. Welcome

3. Let Go

Prayer always runs the risk of becoming a tool of repression. The Welcoming Prayer goes in exactly the opposite direction. It is designed to get us to notice what is happening in us before it gets “whisked into the unconscious” where it piles up as psycho-physical garbage.

The first step (surprisingly difficult for some) is to simply notice the upset in your bodily sensations. Don’t struggle to change them; pay attention to them. Sink into them. The second step is where the magic happens. Rather than trying to combat the turbulence within you or otherwise remove it, you welcome it. The goal is not to remove the upset but to stop the upset from having the power to compel your actions.

“By embracing the thing you once defended yourself against or ran from, you are actually disarming it, removing its power to hurt you or chase you back into your smaller self.” Bourgeault, 145.

The third step then happens almost by itself.

Wyeth, Wind from the SeaWhat strikes me as so radical about this form of prayer is the paradoxical way that it works to defuse the dynamics that cause nearly all of our social and personal conflicts. We act from compulsion, and therefore live in un-freedom, when we act out of fear. And fear is a constant feature of our lives. We fear losing goods we have and we fear not getting goods we want (a great example of this is Eddie Vedder’s recent feeling of his own mortality). Fear, when embodied, becomes our enemy. Welcoming prayer addresses the problem of the enemy by first confronting our own fears with a sort of mental hospitality.

But what of the ultimate fear, the ultimate enemy: death?

Is not, as Ernest Becker insisted, fear of death so all-pervasive and so deep that there is really no way for us to cope other than by systems of repression and therefore compulsion and un-freedom? If Becker is right, life itself becomes the enemy, for we cannot escape the fear of losing it, and along with it, all the meanings it contains for us. That’s the million dollar question, it seems to me. What does prayer look like when we stop praying against death (and thereby granting death its power) but instead, focus on our fear of death, welcome that fear, and by doing so release it. What kind of life, what kind of courage, would be possible, once our enemy has been disarmed?

“You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you” Mt. 5:43-45

“you have heard it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ But I say to you, Do not resist an evildoer. But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also; and if anyone wants to sue you and take your coat, give your cloak as well; and if anyone forces you to go one mile, go also the second mile. Give to everyone who begs from you, and do not refuse anyone who wants to borrow from you.” Mt. 5:38-42

Written by Alex

September 25, 2013 at 9:40 am