W. Paul Jones is a priest and monk who spends one week a month in Trappist Assumption Abbey, in Ava Missouri, and the other three weeks in a hermitage he built, several driving-hours north, on Lake Pomme de Terre, later adapting the house on the next property into a refuge for anyone needing a quiet retreat. http://www.assumptionabbey.org/ http://www.hermitageretreats.org/
Before becoming a Roman Catholic priest and monk, he was a Methodist pastor and taught theology at Yale, Princeton, and St. Paul School of Theology in Kansas City. He describes himself a “bridge person,” having “a Protestant mind and a Catholic heart” (Table, 3).
I became interested in him and his publications during one of my several retreats at Assumption Abbey. I have also visited his hermitage retreat center, and we have developed a warm though occasional email correspondence. As he always signs his letters just “Paul” (perhaps to acknowledge our shared Protestant heritage), I will refer to him thus here.
Paul does not fit the stereotyped image of a hermit as an isolate. From the monastery and his hermitage, he provides spiritual direction, in part via email, having published, in 2001, The Art of Spiritual Direction: Giving and Receiving Spiritual Guidance. In a variety of ways he assists the poor in his area, and he is an activist in a number of peace and justice causes, such as opposition to the death penalty. He often provides spiritual guidance to prisoners and has described one example in a book published in 2011 with Sr. Helen Prejean, A Different Kind of Cell: The Story of a Murderer Who Became a Monk.
One of my favorites is his Teaching the Dead Bird to Sing: Living the Hermit Life Without and Within (2002), a memoir of his transition into the life of a monk and hermit. I plan to reread it and post about it soon.
As I have been much enriched by his writings, I wish he were better known along with other Roman Catholic religious who have gained a wide following among non-Catholics such as Thomas Merton, of course, and the still-living Richard Rohr and Joan Chittister.
Now, to A Season in the Desert: Making Time Holy, and A Table in the Desert: Making Space Holy.
What I valued most about my retreats at Assumption Abbey was a revised experience of time and space. Life slows enough so that one experiences them as ends in themselves rather than a means to some goal. And paradoxically, I found that when one focuses entirely on the present moment within a fairly simple and circumscribed place, that present, small space sometimes springs open and thrusts one into a cosmic all-time and all-place. As William Blake would have it, in “Auguries of Innocence,” you see “a world in a grain of sand, And a heaven in a wild flower,” you “hold infinity in the palm of your hand, And eternity in an hour.”
I believe this is something of what Jones means by “making” “time” and “space” “holy,” although I’m guessing that if he had not had to minimize words for book titles, he would have allowed that all we ourselves can do is arrange our lives so that we are open to how time and space can sometimes be “made holy” for us.
After each visit to Assumption Abbey, I would try to better prepare for such “holiness” by simplifying my environment and slowing down. I never tried to follow the monks’ round of prayers throughout the day, but I did and do follow the one daily ceremony of rising before dawn to write in my journal, do some “spiritual” reading, and silently wait (often sitting next to or holding my two small dogs) for the present to become Presence.
Paul’s books on time and space have often enriched these morning sessions. And so, when last June I moved from Springfield, Missouri, to Bluffton, Ohio, I returned to them as part of an effort to sacralize this new time and space. They did not disappoint me.
While revisiting these books, I was also reading Gordon D. Kaufman’s In the Beginning. . . Creativity (2004) and Jesus and Creativity (2006). And it struck me that Paul and Kaufman were addressing some of the same questions, such as how current cosmologies are affecting concepts of “God” and how religion can encourage or hinder human efforts to pull back from making the planet uninhabitable by nuclear holocaust or resource poisoning and depletion. But it also struck me that Paul and Kaufman were addressing these questions in strikingly different ways.
As I said in my January 3 post, I find Kaufman’s approach impressive intellectually but lacking in appeal to other aspects of our humanity. Aspects I find provocatively engaged in Paul’s books, written largely from the view of a religious practitioner, although as a former theology professor, his intellect is also fully engaged.
A few days ago, a friend told me he was reading around in “theopoetics.” I checked the Wikipedia definition and decided this term could be used to describe Paul’s approach; I emailed him, he agreed, and so I’m going to suggest that his books on space and time offer a “theopoetic” answer or complement to Kaufman’s creativity books.
In A Table in the Desert, Paul asserts, “We have reached the point of history in which theology, to be significant, must be written by those whose senses are poetically charged, and who have a firm sense that music is preferential to all but silence” (43).
“Secularism has seriously deadened our ability to recognize and function in a world of mystery and symbol” (Table, 157). Hence, “more deeply now than perhaps at any other time in its history, the Church is at a crossroads. Its viability rests in its ability to provide an alternative way of living time and space than that which characterizes our bitter age, an age of materialism and individualism. . . . This would require the understanding and power sufficient to re-sacralize time and space—with their intersecting establishing the ‘mystery’ of place” (Season, 29).
Not surprisingly, as a Roman Catholic priest and monk, Jones devotes a considerable portion of his books to liturgical time and space—e.g., the Triduum (Easter weekend), the “Sacraments.” I recommend these chapters highly, especially for a reader interested in comparisons of Roman Catholic to Protestant and Orthodox traditions, about all of which Paul is knowledgeable as well as respectful.
Here, I will focus on two chapters near the end of his second book, Table book, Chapter 5, “The Shaping of Space as Beauty,” and Chapter 6, “Thoughts on God.”
Near the beginning of Chapter 5, Jones observes that “the profound contemporary sin is ‘taking things for granted,’ diluting our ability to enter into the beauty of anything, our soul closed even to the absolute wonder simply in ‘being.’” Accordingly, “we are called to sacralize our spaces into the fullness of life with which we are gifted daily.” (179-181) Paul then illustrates these generalizations by a discussing a variety of specific spaces from homes, churches, and a public monument to wilderness.
He begins by describing how he built his hermitage on the wooded shore of a lake. While still teaching at St. Paul’s Methodist seminary in Kansas City, he took a “side-job” tearing down condemned tenements,” his “pay” being the “resurrected lumber” and “bent nails” with which, “in due time was birthed . . . a hermitage of beauty, built by my own hands out of my own dreams, ” “in its own way, . . . an ecological atonement for the waste of our society for its prostitution of ‘beauty.’” (186)
Paul provides an extended description of his hermitage, including details such as that the main pillars came from an actual house of prostitution, that the basic color is “barn wood painted by the rain and wind,” that “the perimeters between inside and outside are intentionally blurred,” that “there are almost no ninety-degree angles in the whole home, nothing predictable, inclining more to the serendipitous and unexpected” (186-187).
When I visited Paul’s hermitage, its various zig-zags and floor levels seemed to be responding to the ground on which it is built—uneven, rocky, irregularly treed, descending toward the lake—as if organically grown from bottom up.
Not surprisingly, the other home Paul describes in some detail is Frank Lloyd Wright’s Fallingwater. And his “theopoetics” of religious architecture includes description of a Wright-designed church and three others as well as Jewish and Latter-Day Saints temples, all of which he and his students visited and studied in Kansas City.
Near the end of this chapter, “The Shaping of Space as Beauty,” Paul points to the necessity for spaces untouched by humans:
“The Church must enter a plea for sacred spaces—both natural and created. Without deserts and wildernesses for the human soul, without the waters and oceans and rivers, the heights and depths of mountains and hills, the plains and the sunsets, the straight paths and the labyrinths, the forests and the caves—without these, the human spirit languishes, deeply.” (223)
Accordingly, at the center of his next chapter, “Thoughts on God,” is an account of his hike down into the Grand Canyon where, like Jacob, he wrestled with God.
As he descended, he went through several stages. First, his “eyes became those of an artist”; then he became “contemplative, empty of thought.” Finally, his journey became “decidedly physical and, simultaneously, more spiritual.” Thirst and warnings not to progress further without a gallon of water reminded him that, unlike the “toads, lizards, a coiled rattlesnake,” a circling “vulture,” he did not belong here. Pondering the age of a pebble, he remembered that “in a universe possibly twenty billion years old, the first dated year in history is 4241 BC”; he observed “how utterly insignificant to this bleak wholeness is the fact of self-conscious mind”; and he wondered “how can one any longer take this recent phenomenon of self-consciousness as the image for understanding the whole?” (227-229)
This question reminds me of Kaufman’s assertion that given our current understanding of the cosmos, anthropomorphic images of God are no longer valid. However, while, as I see it, Kaufman addresses this God-problem largely from the perspective of someone flying well above human history and individual experience, Paul speaks from deep within the gritty subjectivity of human life.
As well as “theopoetically,” for his physical trip down into and back out of the Grand Canyon is portrayed as archetypically parallel to his spiritual journey.
At some point during his descent, he watches a spider assault a fly caught in its web and asks, “How can I stomach a God who designed such an arrangement, especially when, sooner or later, each of us will experience the whole from the vantage point of the fly?” “It is inconceivable that one can identify God as a loving Creator, for in Creation every organism routinely devours something else for its livelihood.” (231-233)
Speaking as a theologian, Paul observes that “in the trade we call this conundrum ‘theodicy,’ the effort to vindicate God in the face of sin and evil.” However, beginning to see a possible way up out of this canyon-conundrum, he reflects that “the enigma that confounds every attempted theodicy rests on one beginning assumption: that from the beginning, God is a fully conscious Creator.” (233)
He considers a “process theology” alternative, in which God is not seen to have preceded creation but is “organically related to it. God is to cosmos much as mind is to body, luring forth the novel possibilities of each instant” (235)—a concept which reminds me somewhat of Kaufman’s concept of God as “serendipitous creativity.”
However, Paul rejects this “process theology” answer. For, just as he cannot stomach “a transcendent, all-knowing God who borders on sadism,” he finds unsatisfying “a God so immanent within the organic process that ‘it’ borders on impotence.” “With such a God, the highs and the lows are leveled, diluted into a quietly reasonable and aesthetic order, kindly focused as divine invitations to choose well from divinely weighted choices.” Confronting these two unacceptable options, Paul says to himself, “Damn. This canyon is becoming harder to climb.” (235-236)
“No. I refuse such a god for the price is too great. The price is a sacrifice of the full mystery, the terror, the grotesque, the hemorrhaging and blatancy of evil, as a surd worthy of rage. While their God drinks deeply of sadness, the process imagery cannot keep hidden the God of the Grand Canyon. The God here is the One who dabs with blood, with a huge brush made of human hair. I would be a traitor if I denied that the cross remains the bottom line on history’s balance sheet, inscribed in red.” “What matters is if there is room for Nikos Kazantzakis’s portrait of God.” (237-237)
As Paul continues his hiking spiral up out of his physical and spiritual Grand Canyon, he increasingly finds within his Christian tradition images with which to understand it—and perhaps more important, live with and be inspired by it.
Observing that “contemporary theologians have largely abandoned the once widely accepted image of a completed Creation, from which humans fell,” Paul proposes a “reverse Trinity.” The traditional Trinity begins with “the Father” as “a self-conscious, willing, all-powerful, all-knowing creator and designer of the whole” who “sends first his Son as Incarnation . . . bridging through suffering the alienating distance universally manifested as death,” and then his Spirit, as a “gift for those who believe.” (239-240)
“A reverse Trinity,” on the other hand, “would begin with the Spirit brooding over the face of the chaos . . . bringing form to the void.” “This sacred restlessness becomes carnal, incarnated in and through and with the breath and depth of all Creation. Intertwining nature and history in a common pilgrimage, this surging Spirit we call Holy, for it is Divine-self-consciousness in the making . . . moving powerfully toward the Divine fullness of consciousness whereby God is All in all. . . . With this image, the ‘Father,’ as fully self-conscious Being, no longer appears at the cosmic beginning, but as the ongoing end, as the eternal culmination of the Spirit’s contending.” (241)
As in the traditional Trinity, Christ is central to Paul’s reverse Trinity: “Expressed Christologically, God is birthed as the lowly one, unrecognized during the hidden years, crushed and bloody in divine-human crucifixion, resurrected as the intoxicating hope of ascension luring all things as a Pentecost.” (245)
As in Kaufman, there seems to be an underlying evolutionary model here: “God,” as well as cosmic and human history, is to be understood as “Becoming” rather than “Being”; all are intermixed in an unfolding process of Mysterious Creativity; human beings are co-creators, having, for example, a crucial role in deciding whether life will continue on our planet.
However, unlike Kaufman, Paul does not see the need for abandoning “anthropomorphic” images of God, such as, here, “Divine self-consciousness in the making.” Nor even the more specifically anthropomorphic images of Christian scripture and tradition.
Perhaps because he is a “theopoet” who believes that “when the poet in each of us dies, God is strangled” (244). Perhaps because he realizes that in talking with each other about that which is both most mysterious and most important to us, we humans often need to use self-reflective language, language rooted in all aspects, including the physical details, of our lives. Although we must choose them wisely and always be aware of their limitations, we humans do need images.
Moreover Paul asserts that we need a “primary” or “primal image,” one “so powerful that it is able to hold in place most of the assorted pieces of one’s life”; “a primal image sufficient to sacralize our time and space” (Time, 86).
Not surprisingly, “Father” Paul says that the “primal image” that has “bitten” him is the Eucharist, which he does not limit to that which is part of his priestly function in church. The Eucharist includes “the cup of joy with friend or stranger, intoxicated by the sheer delight of simply being alive.” It also means “lifting up daily the paten of pain and yearning and brokenness of the world, lifting everything into God’s own becoming, forever.” (Time, 95)
This latter meaning is prominent in his depiction of his Grand Canyon journey. Here, the Eucharist and Grand Canyon provide an image for his growing understanding of how God and the cosmos, the living and the non-living, the human and the non-human, are related in an unfolding creation:
“The Grand Canyon is a cauldron of death. I began seeing it as a symbol of Creation’s bloody chalice. Its restless sides teem with life, propelled by an insatiable drive to to endure, indeed, to prevail. The restless wind, the soundless pull of river, the clutching root-fingers of trees, lean varmints in crouched determination—all are sister-brothers in this surging restlessness. We can feel this straining deeply within ourselves. Life is thrashing about, expanding, reaching out—in uncertain directions for seemingly unknown reasons. But here it is that one can sense strangely that consciousness is not totally alien. It is an amazing breakthrough within the whole, for the sake of the whole. Leaning out with giddiness over the rail, I could begin to confess that this emergence of self-consciousness does bring us to the alienating burden of knowing what nothing else in Creation seems yet to know; and yet it opens a deeply religious threshold. At the center of Michelangelo’s famed fresco in the Sistine Chapel appears the image of God reaching out toward Adam, newly created. Their fingers almost touch, as God and human finally greet in self-consciousness, as this aperture exposes the meaning of the Whole.” (Table, 237-38)
I have quoted Paul generously this discussion not only to illustrate the “theopoetry” in his use of language but also to whet an appetite for the books themselves. Being a retired literature professor rather than theologian or philosopher, I am personally predisposed to prefer Paul’s books over Kaufman’s. But I recommend them both highly. And I am very glad I read them together, because they complemented each other in very instructive ways.