Lending a Helping Click

The Hunger Site is the best known charity site where a click a day triggers a donation of a cup of food to starving people that is paid for by the site’s sponsors. If you are not familiar with it, I suggest you check it out. Note the tabs for other important causes such as child health and autism. It happens that there are a few other site that work the same way. They are listed on my links page. All they cost us is a little time to help other people and the environment.

As a Benedictine, I treat daily visits to these sites as a daily discipline, a daily thing to do as are the times of prayer that I also do. It is a way to be reminded daily of the need to reach out to others.

An Imaginary Garden

Some of you might have seen in the title of my blog a parody of the famous line in Marianne Moore’s famous poem Poetry: “Imaginary gardens with real toads in them.” As an aspiring writer with a lot of imagination, I was strangely stirred by that line when I studied it in high school and it has stuck with me ever since.

Obviously, this line suggests a turning and twisting and re-turning and re-twisting relationship between imagination and reality. The two are not the same but they are intertwined one with another. These words also suggest that any attempt to explain the relationship will fail.

My title ties together the fantastical imagination with the yearning for peace, a yearning that seems more fantastical than flocks of dragons and herds of unicorns. But it is precisely because peace is so elusive that he must open our imaginations toward it. If we do not imagine peace, we will never get it. At the same time, if we do not pay close attentions to current human realities, we will never find peace.

In his Rule, Benedict was a down-to-earth person, grounded in reality. He never thought his community was made up of certified saints with immaculate records. He knew that community life requires living with the weaknesses of others each member prods the other to do better. When it is time to rise early in the morning for prayer, the monks need to “quietly encourage each other, for the sleepy like to make excuses.” At the same time, Benedict hopes that his monks will compete “in obedience to one another,” quite a vision of peace.

Benedict directed his heart toward heaven, but he knew that imagining peace begins with tending a real garden with real plants in it and sharing the produce with real human beings.

Fantasy Literature & Theology

I have just added an article called Baptizing the Imagination that was originally published in the Abbey Letter of St. Gregory’s Abbey. Here, you can read about my reflections on the theological dimensions of fantasy literature with comments on several important writers such as C.S. Lewis and J.K. Rowling. Helpful background to Creatures We Dream of Knowing & From Beyond to Here.

Two Ways of Gathering

A strange gathering of devout Jews from every nation took place a little over two thousand years ago in Jerusalem. These Jews were bewildered to hear a group of Galileans speaking in each of their languages. A new and exciting gift of understanding was unfolding in their midst. In their perplexity some thought the Galileans were drunk.

Peter explains this strange gathering by telling his fellow Israelites about a very different gathering that had taken place just a few weeks earlier where everybody conspired to crucify an innocent man. The Pharisees, Sadducees and the Roman authorities, constantly at loggerheads about just about everything, suddenly and miraculously came to an agreement to put Jesus to death.

Peter goes on to say that this man was “handed over to you according to the definite plan and foreknowledge of God” and killed “by the hands of those outside the law.” That Jesus was killed unjustly, by those outside the law, indicates that God’s plan and foreknowledge should not be equated with God’s will. To the contrary, Peter insists that the execution of Jesus was contrary to God’s will. Peter’s next announcement was even more startling: “God raised him up, having freed him from death.” The risen victim, “sitting at the right hand of God” has poured out the Holy Spirit that everybody was seeing and hearing. In declaring that the crucified and risen Jesus was the Messiah, Peter was claiming that a radically new understanding of life was being given through the Holy Spirit.

Quotations from the psalms that accompany the apostolic preaching indicate that the story of people at enmity making peace by agreeing to persecute a person is then blamed for the discord in the community is actually an old story. The opening verses of Psalm two express this old story succinctly: “Why did the Gentiles rage . . . . the rulers have gathered together against the Lord and against his Messiah.” Children do the same thing on the playground every day.

What was truly strange about the gathering by the Holy Spirit was that people were being gathered without creating a victim. Instead, the victim of just a few weeks past has risen from the dead to gather God’s people in a radically new way based on sharing God’s love for every person.

 Tools for Peace explores how Benedictine spirituality helps us live in the gathering in the risen forgiving victim.

Chills and Salvation

Ghost stories fascinated me when I was a child. Slipping into an eerie unknown territory gave me a slightly pleasurable chill in a dose I could take. Although I read ghost stories for pleasure, they stretched my world and, more importantly, confronted me with issues of good and evil against a backdrop deeper than the material world. M.R. James’ “Lost Hearts” is a particularly powerful example.

As I grew older, I became aware of the psychological insight the best ghost stories called offer, adding depth to the chills they offered. Henry James (no relation to M.R. James) was the great master of this sort of ghost story. The Turn of the Screw is a troubling, masterpiece that inspired a great, if equally troubling, opera by Benjamin Britten. James’ story has inspired an unresolvable debate as to whether the ghosts are real or are projections of the fevered imagination of the governess. Britten’s opera presents them as all-too-real and malevolent. What both the story and the opera show with devastating clarity is that the governess’ rivalry with Quint, whether a real ghost or a figment of her imagination, destroys the boy Miles, as conflicts of this kind always distort one’s sense of reality and destroy vulnerable people caught in the crossfire.

Turn of the Screw does not invoke any transcendent dimension beyond the tragedy in either the story or the opera. Some of the ghost stories by Mary Downing Hahn, such as All my Lovely Bad Ones, move in a more redemptive direction. Stories such as those by James and Hahn show us how victims and victimizers can be stuck, seemingly for all eternity, in a destructive relationship unless they are delivered. We experience this stuckness that feels as if it will never end in real life often enough.

Approaching the ghost story genre with my religious convictions, I am concerned with the possibilities God holds out to each one of us for all eternity. I am also concerned for how, just as one can do God’s work by helping a troubled person in this life, one might do God’s work by helping a troubled person who is stuck and cannot “move on” without help. An encounter with a ghost can give a fictional character and the reader chills as it does in “Ghost of Swiss Castle” and “The Dark Window” in From Beyond to Here. The Light reaching to us offer salvation can give us much deeper chills.

Welcoming the Strange Stranger

We all become at least slightly disoriented when we meet a person who is different. This disorientation is often mixed with fear and distaste, maybe even disgust. If we encounter someone really strange, such as a visitor from another planet or a ghost, our fear can easily turn into panic. Although most daily strange encounters are less drastic than that, we often find that we react with fear and disgust before thinking rationally when meeting even a mildly strange person. If we get to know the stranger, however, we often find that person to be a gift to us.

Fantasy stories give us the opportunity meet with the strange, the weird and the frightening and learn to overcome our fears enough to see the potential giftedness in these encounters. In “Merendael’s Gift,” the opening story in the collection From Beyond to Here, a boy named Eddie encounters a very strange creature with an elusive and frightening appearance, yet the creature communicates to Eddie a desire to give a gift that is very important. As the story unfolds, Eddie has deal with his fears, not only of the creature, whose name is Merendael, but of losing his social standing with the boys he hangs out with. Each story in Creatures We Dream of Knowing brings together one or more allegedly fantastical creature and one or more children. In “The White Tree,” for example, a mysterious white plant growing quickly where four backyards meet frightens some people but offers great musical gifts to those open to receive them.

As a Benedictine monk, I follow a monastic rule that enjoins hospitality as a major apostolate, second only to the ministry of prayer. We are constantly challenged to open our hearts to strangers, some of whom seem strange and some of whom really are difficult to deal with. Hospitality, of course, is a Christian virtue. The author of the Epistle to the Hebrews reminds us that, like Abraham, we may entertain angels unawares when we offer hospitality. I discuss Benedictine hospitality in my book Tools for Peace.

The story “Merendael’s Gift” and the others in From Beyond to Here and in Creatures We Dream of Knowing can help readers of all ages reflect on the challenge of welcoming the truly strange stranger into our lives and learn what God would have us learn from them.

A Bit About Me

A Benedictine monk in the Episcopal Church who writes fantasy fiction? How did that happen? The short answer is: God knows. As for myself, all I can say that the fantastical has always fascinated me and matters of faith have always been a consuming interest. The first two books to have my name written in them were that tales of Hans Christian Andersen and Grimm’s fairy tales. I started writing fantasy stories as a child and I haven’t stopped since. My religious journey took many twists and turns during my youth, including detours in Hinduism and Buddhism, although I consistently believed that religion dealt with the most important things in life. This journey led me back to the Episcopal Church in which I was raised and then to St. Gregory’s Abbey in Three Rivers, Michigan.

Another interest that caught me and has never let me go is music. Singing in a high quality church choir as a boy introduced me to great choral masterpieces and music has been woven with my religious interests ever since. These days, I sing plainsong in the monastic church and listen to music of all kinds in my spare time. Along with my religious convictions, music is a major strand in many of my stories.

Another swirl running through all of these major interests is a concern for peace and for alternatives to violence. In my stories and other writings, seeking peace within oneself and, more important, within social relationships, has become one of the major themes I deal with. Tools for Peace engages in a dialogue between the Rule of St. Benedict and the thought inspired by René Girard, a thinker preoccupied with the social dimensions of violence while my stories take the reader through enchanted but sometimes troubling pathways in search of visions of peace.

I suppose I could sum up my outlook in life as: Saint Benedict in Fairyland. In their various ways, St. Benedict and fairy tales combine an earnest moral and spiritual drive with a delight in God’s goodness. For me, monastic discipline and the freedom of the fantastical imagination reinforce each other. Both my religious writings and my stories witness to my conviction that, contrary to the violence humans perpetrate, God has created a friendly universe grounded in God’s love for all of us.