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Steven Chase

Steven Chase

Yesterday we posted an entry by Steven Chase about slowing down and noticing the natural world in order to enrich our perception of God and bring healing — the subject of Nature as Spiritual Practice. Today’s post is an example of how to slow down. More exercises like the one below will be available in Chase’s A Field Guide to Nature as Spiritual Practice.

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Intention: Balance is critical to discernment and to the “power of the slowing.” The intention of this practice is to recognize balance and imbalance in nature.

Practice: Paying careful attention to the natural world helps us practice discernment. Recognizing balance and imbalance also draws us closer to nature and to discernment. Allow yourself at least one hour of uninterrupted time for this practice.

  • Find a place in nature where you are comfortable and where you can spend time exploring the subtle balances and imbalances in creation. Focus for a time on your breath; become mindful and still.
  • When you are ready, begin going through the list of “balances” below. The idea is to recognize and complete a statement of “Balance is . . .” in the natural world around you. Move from one to the next only as you feel the need or as the next catches your attention. Focus on whatever draws your attention: a tree, the ecosystem, colors, a few blades of grass, wind, waves.
  • You may wish to journal, draw, photograph, or from your field guide “track” your particular interest in nature — birding, for instance. Whatever helps you pay careful attention to nature will help you focus on balance in nature.
  • When you are ready, bring to mind a particular issue that is important for you to discern at this time. Do an internal accounting of this issue in relation to how you are balanced or imbalanced in a similar way to nature. This internal accounting is an “examen of conscious” and a preliminary step in discernment.
  • How does nature guide your contemplations and meditations in directions that help you live mindfully?
  • How does balance in nature and internal balance guided by nature help you slow down? What do you notice about your discernment process?

Balances:

  • Balance is to locate the still point at the center of complexity.
  • Balance is to be in a constant state of sensitive fine adjustments.
  • Balance requires exquisite sensitivity to inner and outer forces.
  • Balance requires yielding and resisting, yielding and resisting.
  • Balance appears spontaneous and improvisational but is utterly responsible and devoted.
  • Balance is thwarted by pretense, also by insistence.
  • Balance knows both this and that, and prefers neither.
  • Balance is opportunistic.
  • Balance finds home anywhere, finds the center everywhere.
  • “Balancing” is more in balance than “balanced.”
  • Complete balance is the end of nature.

Click on the cover images below to order Steven Chase’s books:

Nature as Spiritual PracticeA Field Guide to Nature as Spiritual Practice

Steven Chase

Steven Chase

Steven Chase is resident scholar at the Collegeville Institute for Ecumenical and Cultural Research and president of the Society for the Study of Christian Spirituality. His forthcoming books from Eerdmans, Nature as Spiritual Practice and A Field Guide to Nature as Spiritual Practice, highlight the role of nature in the formation of Christian spiritual and moral identity. With vivid imagery, Steven illustrates here how slowing down and noticing the natural world actually enriches our perception of God and brings healing.

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Careful attention to nature fosters what Gerald May in his book The Wisdom of Wilderness calls, “the power of the slowing.” Such attention — such slowing — calls us into spiritual practice, into formation, and into a path to healing; it calls us into discernment. Yet, how does nature’s slowing guide us into discernment?

In a recent best-selling historical novel, Girl With a Pearl Earring, Tracy Chevalier writes of the famous seventeenth century Dutch painter, Johannes Vermeer, and of a peasant girl, Griet, who enters Vermeer’s household at a young age as a maid. Chevalier tells the story through they eyes of Griet, who gains the trust of Vermeer and, though still young, is given the important task of cleaning and arranging Vermeer’s studio. Eventually she becomes the model for Vermeer’s famous painting, Girl with a Pearl Earring.

Girl with a Pearl Earring

Girl with a Pearl Earring

Griet’s chores include laying out the colors of paint Vermeer requests for the next day. One day, Griet lays out blue paint instead of the ultramarine Vermeer had asked for. At first annoyed, Vermeer soon recovers and walks over to open the studio window. He invites Griet to look out the window. It is a breezy day, and Griet can see clouds disappearing behind a church tower.

“What color are those clouds, Griet?” Vermeer asks. Griet looks hard at the clouds and answers, “Why, white, sir.”

“Are they?” he asks. She looks again: “And gray,” she says, “perhaps it will snow.”

“Come, Griet, you can do better than that. Think of your vegetables . . . your turnips and your onions — are they the same white?”

“No. The turnip has green in it, the onion yellow.”

“Exactly. Now, what colors do you see in the clouds?”

“There is some blue in them,” she says after studying them for a few minutes. “And yellow as well. And there is some green!” In the first-person narrative of the novel, Greit says, “I became so excited I actually pointed. I had been looking at clouds all my life, but I felt as if I saw them for the first time at that moment.”[1]

Vermeer teaches Greit contemplative attention, wonder, and slowing — just as the clouds, over time, had taught Vermeer. Likewise, it is Greit’s vegetables — her turnips and her onions, and now the clouds — that slow her gaze, arouse her curiosity, and, by the end of the book, will teach her a new way of being on the earth.

In 1857 the painter Frederic Edwin Church completed his spectacular and now famous painting Niagara. The foreground of the huge canvas, which is nearly four feet high and seven feet across, is taken up entirely by the tumultuous water and spray of the falls; land is represented only by two small, nearly imperceptible islands offshore on the far side of the falls. Only a thin line paints the islands between the water and the sky. The sky itself comes forward — thunderous, ominous as the falls — with a small rainbow lending color. One art critic of the period wrote that the painting was the Falls — the only thing missing was the sound.

Ten years after its completion, the painting was a sensation at the Paris Exposition of 1867. European viewers, normally suspicious of any “art” emerging from the United States, lined up for blocks and blocks outside the Exposition’s exhibit hall waiting for a chance to see the painting. Even with hundreds of people waiting in line behind them, it is reliably reported that men, women, and children spent an average of one hour slowing before this spectacular window into nature.

Seeing yellow, green, and blue in clouds and standing before a single painting for an hour — these two examples of attentive slowing are remarkable in part because that kind of intensity of perception is unusual today. Yet attention, slowing, and intensity of perception are components of discernment. Christians are called to discipleships of discernment; they are apostles of healing. To see a complete palette of colors in a cloud is an act of discipleship. To be rapt by the spray of water falling from a painting is a way of discernment. All we attend to on this earth is a part of our apostolate. This kind of contemplative perception both sees and acts; it hears the groaning of creation and attends to its healing. In turn, creation hears your groaning and attends to your healing.

Intensity of perception leads to curiosity, which may lead to compassion. It is a Christian’s baptismal right to be curious. Peter follows in curiosity. Mary Magdalene is curious as she approaches a tomb. Christ looked at every person he met with the intensity of Vermeer looking at a cloud — curious, rapt, probing. How intensely and with what discernment must Jesus have considered the lilies of the field.

Click on the cover images below to preorder Steven Chase’s books:

Nature as Spiritual PracticeA Field Guide to Nature as Spiritual Practice


[1] Tracy Chevalier, The Girl With a Pearl Earring (New York: Plume, 2001), scene, 99-102, dialogue, 101.

Jodi Magness

Jodi Magness

Jodi Magness is Kenan Distinguished Professor for Teaching Excellence in Early Judaism at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. She is an award-winning teacher and archaeologist who has participated in numerous excavations. Magness’s published works include The Archaeology of Qumran and the Dead Sea Scrolls, a Choice Magazine Outstanding Academic Book, and the forthcoming Stone and Dung, Oil and Spit: Jewish Daily Life in the Time of Jesus, which she writes about here.

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Stone and Dung, Oil and Spit situates Jesus in his contemporary setting by examining Jewish daily life in late Second Temple period Palestine (modern Israel, Jordan, and the Palestinian territories). Nearly all aspects of Jewish daily life at that time were influenced by the observance of biblical (Old Testament) law, which dictated how the God of Israel — the national deity of the Jewish people — was to be worshiped. Many of the laws concern the sacrificial cult in the Jerusalem temple, which was considered literally to be the house in which the Jewish God dwelled.

By the late Second Temple period (first century B.C.E. and first century C.E.), disagreements among Jews concerning the interpretation of biblical laws led to the rise of various sects and groups, the best-known of which are the Pharisees, the Sadducees, the Essenes, and Jesus’ movement. While all of these groups took for granted the observance of biblical laws, they disagreed about the correct interpretation of these laws. For example, does the prohibition in Exodus 35:3 against lighting a fire on the Sabbath mean that it is forbidden to leave an already kindled fire burning?

Stone and Dung, Oil and Spit: Jewish Daily Life in the Time of Jesus

Stone and Dung, Oil and Spit: Jewish Daily Life in the Time of Jesus

Many of the disagreements among Jews focused on the correct interpretation and observance of biblical purity laws. Like other ancient religions in the Mediterranean and Near East, Judaism required everyone entering the deity’s presence to be in a state of ritual purity. This meant that all Jews were required to purify themselves before entering the Jerusalem temple, which was the house of the God of Israel. According to the Hebrew Bible, ritual impurity is caused by coming into contact with certain things (ranging from mildew on the walls of a house to lizards to corpses) and by certain natural processes (such as nocturnal emissions for men and menstruation for women). For most types of ritual impurity, purification is effected through immersion in water and the passage of time (usually waiting until sunset).

The observance of Jewish purity laws has left material traces in the archaeological record. For example, in the late Second Temple period immersion pools (Hebrew: miqva’ot) became common at sites around Palestine, especially to be found clustered around Jerusalem’s Temple Mount, in priestly dwellings (since priests had to maintain a high degree of purity to serve in the temple), and along pilgrimage routes to Jerusalem. More traces remain in the Essene settlement at Qumran (the site associated with the Dead Sea Scrolls), whose inhabitants lived a priestly lifestyle. This settlement is characterized by a large number of large-sized miqva’ot, which accommodated the community’s need for repeated ritual immersion. Stone vessels also became common in the late Second Temple period, due to the belief that stone could not contract ritual impurity.

These archaeological finds attest to the widespread observance of purity laws among the Jewish population of Palestine. The Gospel accounts suggest that Jesus also engaged in debates about the correct interpretation of biblical purity laws, as, for example, when he reportedly declared, “there is nothing outside a person that by going in can defile, but the things that come out are what defile” (Mark 7:15).

In Stone and Dung, Oil and Spit, I examine various aspects of Jewish daily life in the time of Jesus based on a combination of archaeological evidence and literary information, including ritual purification, diet, household vessels, dining customs, Sabbath observance, fasting, coins, clothing, oil, spit, toilet habits, and tombs and burial customs. The results of my study highlight some of the similarities and differences between the various Jewish sects and groups of the late Second Temple period.

Click here to preorder Stone and Dung, Oil and Spit

Richard J. Mouw

Richard J. Mouw

Richard J. Mouw is professor of Christian philosophy and president of Fuller Theological Seminary, Pasadena, California. He writes the blog Mouw’s Musings and has published many books with Eerdmans, including Praying at Burger King and He Shines in All That’s Fair.

In honor of our anniversary year, we asked Mouw to write about a book that is central to Fuller’s mission and that first stirred evangelicals to action: Carl Henry’s The Uneasy Conscience of Modern Fundamentalism.

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When the Eerdmans folks asked me, back in 2003, to write a foreword to a new edition of Carl Henry’s The Uneasy Conscience of Modern Fundamentalism, originally published in 1947, I did not have to think twice about whether or not to do it. For one thing, I like the Eerdmans company. When I was first starting out in my academic career — teaching philosophy at Calvin College — Eerdmans was a kind of second intellectual “home” to me. They published my first two books (and several later ones), and I was very involved as an editor of The Reformed Journal — which was the company’s marvelous labor-of-love gift to the Reformed and evangelical world. And Eerdmans was a place where I formed some of my most lasting friendships.

The Uneasy Conscience of Modern Fundamentalism

The Uneasy Conscience of Modern Fundamentalism

But the assignment to help with a re-publishing of the Henry book in particular was also attractive in its own right. The book played an important role in my personal journey. Many folks these days, especially those who were not around in the 1950s and ’60s, may find it surprising that there was a time when evangelicals — generally thought to be an important voting bloc in present day American politics — were chided by many for being “a-political.”  When I began to struggle with questions about political discipleship in the turbulent ’60s, the discovery that Carl Henry had already issued his critique of evangelicalism’s “uneasy conscience” two decades before was a matter of great encouragement.

His book took on a new meaning for me when I became president of Fuller Seminary in 1993. Henry was a member of the first faculty at Fuller, and The Uneasy Conscience appeared in the same year that the seminary was founded. Harold John Ockenga, Fuller’s founding president, had written the introduction to Henry’s book, and it was clear that he and Henry saw the critique of evangelicalism embodied in the book as a manifesto for “the new evangelicalism” — for which they saw Fuller as an important think tank. I still see the agenda laid out in Henry’s book — emphasizing the need for careful scholarship, active social engagement, and an “ecumenical” evangelicalism — as central to Fuller’s mission.

Both Henry and Ockenga get quite specific in the pages of The Uneasy Conscience about what they see as the shortcomings of the evangelicalism of their day. Reading their 1947 list of evangelical sins today not only gives a glimpse into a past era but also paints what seems to be a surprisingly “prophetic” portrait of the future. Ockenga, for example, criticizes “the Bible-believing Christian” of his day of having been “on the wrong side of social problems, such as war, race, class, labor, liquor, imperialism, etc.,” and Henry offers a similar list: “aggressive warfare, racial hatred and intolerance, the liquor traffic, exploitation of labor or management.”

It took several decades before evangelicals began actively to pursue those areas of concern, and they still need to address several of the items with more intensity (although I am sure that Ockenga and Henry wouldn’t be happy about the fact that the informal activist strategizing that does take place among evangelicals these days often happens in pubs and bars!).

Much has changed in the social role played by evangelicalism in the larger culture since Henry issued his manifesto in the immediate post-World War II years. During his stint as editor of Christianity Today, and in his subsequent work as an itinerant scholar, Henry was often unhappy with the ways in which a younger generation took up the causes he had espoused. This was clear when a group of us gathered in Chicago during the early 1970s to draft “the Chicago Declaration of Evangelical Social Concerns.” Henry was there — and he regularly dissented from some formulations of the issues we addressed. In the end, though, he signed the statement with the rest of us. In doing so, he gave his blessing to an agenda that he clearly was not quite comfortable with in its entirety. I like to think that, for all of his misgivings, he did not want to leave that gathering with an uneasy conscience!

Click here to order The Uneasy Conscience of Modern Fundamentalism

Rachel Bomberger

Rachel Bomberger

Rachel Bomberger is the copywriter at Eerdmans. She loves reading, writing, and “silver white winters that melt into springs.”

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Sigh. “I wish there were Lutheran nuns.”

It wasn’t the first time Sara, my best friend since fourth grade, had said it, only half tongue-in-cheek. It wouldn’t be the last.

We knew almost nothing about nuns beyond their trademark black and white habits — just a few tidbits we’d pieced together from movies like Sister Act, Nunsense, The Sound of Music, and The Bells of St. Mary’s. At fourteen, though, we were already somewhat weary of the world and scared to death (though we might never have admitted it) of the perilous mid-90’s dating landscape looming before us. We both felt a mildly wistful longing for a cloister to hide away in, set apart and safe from the temptations and profanities of modern life. We yearned for a more peaceful, consecrated existence where we could be free, really free, to devote ourselves whole-heartedly to seeking God and serving others. And since almost all of the people closest to us at the time were girls — friends, sisters, cousins — the idea of a perpetual, sacred community of sisters held a powerful allure.

Sara’s comment was, of course, pure pipe dream. There were no Lutheran nuns (at least not in the Missouri Synod), and we had no real desire to convert to Catholicism simply for the privilege of living in a convent. Before too many years had passed, I came to find that God had prepared a very different (very joy-filled) vocation for me: that of wife and mother. Sara, too, is now happily married.

Yet I have never lost my fascination with the Catholic religious orders — so you can imagine my excitement when I discovered Elizabeth Rapley’s book, The Lord as Their Portion: The Story of the Religious Orders and How They Shaped Our World on Eerdmans’s Spring 2011 list. At last I’d have a chance to get some real answers about the life I that had so piqued my interest as a teenager. At last I’d know more about monks and nuns than I could learn from Hollywood.

Of course, I really had no idea what I was diving into.

The Lord as Their Portion

The Lord as Their Portion

The history of the Catholic religious orders is massive. It reaches back to the Egyptian deserts in the third century and stretches through the Middle Ages, the Reformation, the Enlightenment, the Industrial Revolution — all the way to the twentieth century and beyond. Moreover, the religious orders have been so intricately intertwined with Western culture and civilization that reading Rapley’s book at times feels like reading the story of the whole world, or at least all of Europe, rather than just one relatively minor portion of a larger narrative.

What’s more, it’s complex. In my Protestant ignorance I always just figured that boys become monks and girls became nuns — end of story. I never before would have thought to notice the obvious difference between the contemplative orders (think The Sound of Music) and the active orders (think Sister Act II), or even between the monastics (monks) and the mendicants (friars). I would never have guessed at the dizzying array of orders available to Catholics interested in the religious life: Benedictine, Augustinian, Dominican, Franciscan, Cistercian, Jesuit, Carmelite, Salesian, Vincentian, and many, many more, each with its own unique history and its own unique approach to piety, austerity, and service.

In almost any other volume, this would all be too much to absorb — a sheer overload of information. Seventeen centuries of history. Dozens of orders. Scores of individual personalities. Yet Elizabeth Rapley manages it stunningly.

It helps that she’s a gifted writer with a flair for words and sentences that makes her work a joy to read. Her writing is at times dramatic — but then, so is the subject matter. Rapley’s lively writing brings all the many characters to life. She’s quite right to call her book the story of the religious orders. (Here’s an excerpt, if you’d like to see for yourself.)

As I close the book on The Lord as Their Portion, it’s pretty obvious to “grown-up me” (as it kind of always was to my teenage self) that I will never take holy vows. But I also will never lose my respect and admiration for the men and women that do. Though Rapley doesn’t gloss over the ignoble moments (or even the ignoble eras) of their history, I am in no way deterred in my awe of this sanctified and increasingly rare way of life: a life single-mindedly devoted to God, to the church, and to fellow humanity.

And although, in her epilogue, Rapley expresses uncertainty about whether the religious orders, now so often dwindling, will endure indefinitely into the future, I cannot foresee them ever vanishing completely. Indeed, one of the many patterns I see lacing itself through Rapley’s broad history is this: in every age, human beings hunger for the divine — and always, there are many who long, sometimes with very private sighs, for the opportunity to make a more radical commitment to God.

In fact, I’ll play prophet here and predict that our culture is now ripe for a new blossoming of consecrated religious life. As I witness the emphasis being placed on organized piety by my fellow Missouri-Synod Lutherans this Lenten tide, as I hear rumors of a new monasticism springing up among young Evangelicals — even as I listen to NPR on my evening commute — I see the old spirit of the religious orders not only surviving but gaining ground.

In an age of jaded hyper-sexuality, the religious orders offer chastity. In an age of rampant consumerism, they offer voluntary poverty. In an age of spiritual apathy and relativism, they offer steadfast faith and moral certainty. In an age of unbridled license, they offer structure and discipline. In an age of isolation and loneliness, they offer community.

No, I don’t think the story of those who take “the Lord as their portion” will be ending any time soon. Now, about those Lutheran convents . . .

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For a note from Elizabeth Rapley on the countercultural men and women we call monks and nuns, read her blog entry From Maternity Ward to Death Row.

Click here to preorder The Lord as Their Portion

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