Life is like a wheel


Images drive ideas. That is the most salient take-away from my writing instruction at journalism school. When my pastor quoted a letter from Catholic priest, Henri J. M. Nouwen, the well-chosen image pressed itself on my mind, communicating a deep spiritual truth.

Life is like a wheel. God is the hub. By focusing on the hub of life you come closer to God. The closer you come to the center, the closer you also come to each other. Everyone travels on a different spoke, but as long as we travel to God we travel to each other. What about that image for a bike specialist?!

Source: Henri J. M. Nouwen, Love, Henri: Letters on the Spiritual Life


A world of endless cross-reference

How do you see the world? That question arose as I read Rowan William’s New Statesman article, “Everything Is Illuminated,” on the Welsh painter and artist, David Jones (1895-1974). According to Jones, modern man views the world as isolated atoms, whereas pre-modern man viewed the world as symbolic connection. A sacramental theology will be needed for us to perceive the “endless cross-reference” again.

We are living, [David Jones] wrote, in a culture where objects are thought of in terms of their usefulness. An electric light bulb is designed to illuminate human dwellings or workplaces; if an artist wants to evoke something about light more generally, the light bulb is not a good metaphor, because it is merely a functional object. It is what it is because of the job it has to do. But we need images that are allowed to resonate more freely because they are not determined in this way – fires, stars, the sun. How then does the artist avoid “a kind of invalidity”, a corrupting distance from the actual world of his or her experience?

Jones often wrote about “the Break”, the cultural moment somewhere around the beginning of modernity when the European world-view shifted decisively. Instead of a world where things were unique but linked by an unimaginable density of connection and cross-reference, we had created one in which things were unconnected but endlessly repeatable and where everything could be exchanged in the market for an agreed equivalent: above all, for money. Jones saw his work – both as a visual artist and as a poet – as a sustained protest against the Break and an effort to show that the older picture could, after all, be brought to life.

Born in 1895, he had family roots that helped to shape his interests from the beginning. His mother’s father had been a London shipwright and his father’s origins were in North Wales. Both Wales and London kept a central place in his imagination throughout his life. It was not surprising that when the First World War broke out, he enlisted in the 1st London Welsh Battalion of the Royal Welch Fusiliers. His 1937 masterpiece, the astonishing book-length poem In Parenthesis, describes the experience of foot soldiers in the First World War, revisiting his own experiences up to and including the disastrous engagement at Mametz Wood in July 1916. Jones was wounded in the leg during the battle (a wound described by the medical orderly as “a beautiful blighty” – serious enough to get him off the front line, yet not life-threatening). But he was back in the trenches in a matter of months.

The traumas of war stayed with him to the end. In Parenthesis, which he struggled with painfully over many years, is one of the most unsparing accounts of the life of infantry soldiers in the trenches and of the horrors of the Somme; but at the same time it meditates on any number of connections – echoes of conflict, from Troy to the struggles of the British against the Saxons in the 6th century to Malory’s Arthurian narratives, and, woven through it all, the founding act of bloodshed that is the death of Christ. Jones was raised an Anglican, but by the time he wrote In Parenthesis he was a Catholic, and believed passionately that the Church’s sacramental theology was what made sense of a world of symbolic connection, where nothing existed as an atom but where everything enriched the perception of everything else. For him, all art rested on the conviction that God had made a world of endless cross-reference, and that humanity was most fully human when it acknowledged this. Art was humanity doing what only humanity could do.

Talk to yourself

In chapel this week, my colleague quoted a profoundly wise statement by the British evangelical minister D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones in his book, Spiritual Depression: Its Causes and Cures:

The main trouble in this whole matter of spiritual depression in a sense is this, that we allow our self to talk to us instead of talking to our self. Am I just trying to be deliberately paradoxical? Far from it. This is the very essence of wisdom in this matter. Have you realized that most of your unhappiness in life is due to the fact that you are listening to yourself instead of talking to yourself? Take those thoughts that come to you the moment you wake up in the morning. You have not originated them, but they start talking to you, they bring back the problem of yesterday, etc. Somebody is talking. Who is talking to you? Your self is talking to you. Now this man’s treatment [in Psalm 42] was this; instead of allowing this self to talk to him, he starts talking to himself, ‘Why art thou cast down, O my soul?’ he asks. His soul had been repressing him, crushing him. So he stands up and says: ‘Self, listen for a moment, I will speak to you’. Do you know what I mean? If you do not, you have but little experience.

The main art in the matter of spiritual living is to know how to handle yourself. You have to take yourself in hand, you have to address yourself, preach to yourself, question yourself. You must say to your soul: ‘Why art thou cast down’–what business have you to be disquieted? You must turn on yourself, upbraid yourself, condemn yourself, exhort yourself, and say to yourself: ‘Hope thou in God’–instead of muttering in this depressed, unhappy way. And then you must go on to remind yourself of God, Who God is, and what God is and what God has done, and what God has pledged Himself to do. Then having done that, end on this great note: defy yourself, and defy other people, and defy the devil and the whole world, and say with this man: ‘I shall yet praise Him for the help of His countenance, who is also the health of my countenance and my God’.

What does singleness teach the church?


El Greco, “Saint Paul” (1610-14)

From Lauren F. Winner’s book, Real Sex: The Naked Truth About Chastity:

Singleness tells us, for starters, of a radical dependence on God. In marriage, it is tempting to look to one’s spouse to meet all one’s needs. But those who live alone, without the companionship and rigor of marriage and sex, are offered an opportunity to realize that it is God who sustains them. Catholic writer Henry Nouwen suggests that this dependence is the unmarried person’s primary witness to the married. In singleness, says Nouwen, “God will be more readily recognized as the source for all human life and activity. . . . The celibate becomes a living sign of the limits of interpersonal relationships and of the centrality of the inner sanctum that no human being may violate.” Unmarried people are asked to specialize in “creating and protecting emptiness for God,” an emptiness that everyone, married or single, needs to maintain. This, perhaps, is why Aquinas spoke of celibacy as a “vacancy for God.”

In singleness we see not only where our true dependence lies, but also who and what our real family is. Singleness reminds Christians that the church is our primary family. In an era in which the church is known for prompting “family values” but not social justice, in an era in which families are so exhausted from an endless round of after-school ballet lessons and late-night work-related e-mail sessions that they sleep through Sunday morning worship, in an era when middle-class Americans hurtle across exurban sprawl in our SUVs and then zip through our subdivisions and into our garages without ever speaking to our neighbors, this is a very important lesson indeed.

Marriage, and families, can be sources of grace, but they are not the primary source of grace. The primary source of grace is the church. Single people witness to the Christian hope that the kingdom of God unfolds not principally when we nurture our nuclear families, but, as theologian Stanley Hauerwas explains it, when we show “hospitality to the stranger. . . . As Christians we believe that every Christian in one generation might be called to singleness, yet God will create the church anew.”


Single Christians remind the rest of us that our truest, realest, most lasting relationship is that of sibling: even husband and wife are first and foremost brother and sister. Baptismal vows are prior to wedding vows. (Inversely, insofar as marriage is essentially an opportunity to learn, in concentrated form with one other person, what being a sibling in Christ means, married people can instruct single people in some slices of the sibling relationship.)

Marriage and singleness remind us of and resonate with different moments in God’s relationship to His people. As St. John Chrysostom wrote, marriage “is the image of heaven,” and celibacy is the image of the kingdom, “where there is no marriage.” Married people—as the frequent scriptural analogies between marriage and Christ’s relationship to His church make clear—mirror God’s relationship with His people eschatologically. At the end of time, when the kingdom of God is consummated, when Christ returns, there will be a huge wedding feast between Christ and His people. Paul gets at this in Ephesians 5: “‘For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh.’ This is a profound mystery—but I am talking about Christ and the church. However, each one of you also must love his wife as he loves himself, and the wife must respect her husband.” The church, as a collective people of God, become the Body of Christ. Marriage, in this way, instructs the church in what to look for when the kingdom comes—eternal, intimate union. 

And singleness prepares us for the other piece of the end of time, the age when singleness trumps marriage. Singleness tutors us in our primary, heavenly relationship with one another: sibling in Christ.


What does marriage teach the church?


Micer Marsilio Cassotti and his wife Faustina (1523) by Lorenzo Lotto

From Lauren F. Winner’s book, Real Sex: The Naked Truth About Chastity:

In the Christian grammar, marriage is not only for the married couple. Insofar as marriage tells the Christian community a particular story, marriage is also for the community. Marriage presupposes fidelity, and married people are a sign to the church of God’s own radical fidelity toward all of us. He loves us, and is faithful to us, when we cheat on Him. He loves us, and is faithful to us, when we insist that our love has died on the vine. Marriages are made in part to remind us of God’s relentless fidelity. 

And marriage tells the church about the communion and community that is possible between and among people who have been made new creatures in Christ. It hints at the eschatological union between Christ and the church. As ethicist Julie Hanlon Rubio has put it, “Marriage consists not simply or even primarily of a personal relationship. Rather, it crystallizes the love of the larger church community. The couple is not just two-in-one, but two together within the whole, with specific responsibility for the whole. . . . They must persevere in love, because the community needs to see God’s love actualized among God’s people.” 

The inflections of community are important because they get at the very meaning of marriage. Marriage is a gift God gives the church; He does not simply give it to the married people of the church, but to the whole church, as marriage is designed not only for the benefit of the married couple. It is also designed to tell a story to the entire church, a story about God’s relationship with and saving work among us. 

Lord, am I called to lifelong singleness?

From Lauren F. Winner’s book, Real Sex: The Naked Truth About Chastity:

We’ve all heard (and many of us have asked) that dreaded question: “Lord, am I called to lifelong singleness?” This is usually followed by a protest. And it is sometimes followed by “How do I know?”

It’s good language, the language of call, when linked to either marriage or singleness. It reminds us that our social, familial, emotional, and sexual arrangements are not only about us—they are foremost about God, about the one doing the calling; and they are also about our community, the community that helps us discern and live out these callings. The language of call reminds us that the choice to marry, or to join a convent, or to stay single sans monastic vows, is about more than merely making a choice.

I once heard a pastor address the question, how do I know if I am called to lifelong singleness? His answer: if being single is not hard for you, if you are able to do it easily, then you might have a call to remain single forever. This is a reasonable word on discernment as far as it goes; we are generally called to the things God has gifted us in, and that gifting often translates into a certain ease and desire. Calls to professions or jobs offer a useful analogy: I am quite certain I am not called to be an architect, because spatial relations are impossible for me. If I were asked to read blueprints for a house, I would find no joy or ease. But many of us are called to things that we do not always find easy. I may be called to be a writer, at least right now, but I often find writing to be the hardest thing in the world. And ask most married people whether they think “gifting” equals “ease”—they may feel they have been called to be married, but not too many married couples will tell you marriage is easy. I think these burdens are part of the fall. 

Perhaps we ought not fixate on the call to lifelong singleness. Some people, of course, are called to lifelong singleness, but more of us are called to singleness for a spell, if even a very long spell. Often, our task is to discern a call to singleness for right now, and that’s not so difficult. If you are single right now, you are called, right now, to be single—called to live single life as robustly, and gospel-conformingly, as you possibly can. The problem comes when the assumption that these are lifelong callings creeps in—panicked single folks think they must discern, at some given age or some given date, whether or not they are called to singleness forever. Again, consider our professional callings. We are often called to certain vocational or professional paths for periods of time—one is called to be a doctor or a teacher or a waitress, but to discern a call to go to dental school at age twenty-four is not to assume that one will be called to work as a dentist forever. Perhaps at thirty-five, one will be called to stay home with small children. Perhaps at forty, one will be called to open a stationary store. Perhaps at sixty-three, one will be called to retire. Indeed, even calls to marriage are often not lifelong—not because of divorce, but because of death. Jane may be called to be married to Peter right now, but if Peter dies, she will find herself called, for a season, to singleness—to widowhood.

Orthodox theologian Paul Evdokimov has stressed that discernment is always mysterious, tricky, careful work; we always see through a glass darkly. We should think of vocation as “an invitation, a call from the Friend. I accept it today in the contours of my present situation until the moment when I will perhaps see more clearly.” A single person contemplating his future, says Evdokimov, should accept the “open, though still undefined, horizons” that stretch out before him, and he should not let fear push him to “control the freedom of the spirit.” (This is wise advice, but I find it very hard to follow. I am a terminal J on the Myers-Briggs, so I love closure and plans. The open horizons and freedom of the spirit sometimes makes me very, very nervous.) “For the time being,” writes Evdokimov, the single person “accepts this situation cheerfully, with joy; he views it as a task limited to today, as the present and the full value of his life.”

This wisdom, I think, teaches us something about vocation and discernment in general—not just how to think about a call to singleness or a call to marriage, but how to think about a call to teach, or preach, or parent, or befriend. “One’s vocation is found exactly on the crest between necessity and creative freedom, along the line of faith, which reveals the direction as its free and strong confession grows,” says Evdokimov. “One’s entire vocation is an option, an answer to a call that has been heard. It can simply be the present condition. It is never a voice that clarifies everything. The dimness inherent in faith never leaves us. There is one thing we can be sure of, that every vocation is always accompanied by renunciation. One who is married renounced monastic heroism; a monk, the married life. The rich young man of the Gospel is not invited either to marry or to enter a monastery. He had to renounce his wealth, his ‘having’ his preferences, in order to follow the Lord . . . . However, in all cases of deprivation Scripture speaks of, grace offers a gift; out of a negative renunciation it creates a positive vocation.”

What is chastity?

Gherardo di Giovanni del Fora, 1445-1497; The Combat of Love and Chastity

“The Combat of Love and Chastity” by Gherardo di Giovanni del Fora (1475-1500)

From Lauren F. Winner’s book, Real Sex: The Naked Truth About Chastity:

Let’s get down to brass tacks. What is chastity? One way of putting it is that chastity is doing sex in the Body of Christ—doing sex in a way that befits the Body of Christ, and that keeps you grounded, and bounded, in the community. As we’ve seen, that means sex only within marriage—which means, in turn, abstinence if you’re not married, and fidelity if you are.

Sex is, in Paul’s image, a joining of your body to someone else’s. In baptism, you have become Christ’s Body, and it is Christ’s Body that must give you permission to join His Body to another body. In the Christian grammar, we have no right to sex. The place where the church confers that privilege on you is the wedding; weddings grant us license to have sex with one person. Chastity, in other words, is a fact of gospel life. In the New Testament, sex beyond the boundaries of marriage—the boundaries of communally granted sanction of sex—is simply off limits. To have sex outside those bounds is to commit an offense against the Abstinence before marriage, and fidelity within marriage; any other kind of sex is embodied apostasy. 


Chastity . . . is a spiritual discipline. Chastity is something you do, it is something you practice. It is not only a state—the state of being chaste—but a disciplined, active undertaking that we do as part of the Body. It is not the mere absence of sex but an active conforming of one’s body to the arc of the gospel.

From G. K. Chesterton’s essay, “A Piece of Chalk“:

Chastity does not mean abstention from sexual wrong; it means something flaming, like Joan of Arc. In a word, God paints in many colours; but he never paints so gorgeously, I had almost said so gaudily, as when He paints in white. In a sense our age has realised this fact, and expressed it in our sullen costume. For if it were really true that white was a blank and colourless thing, negative and non-committal, then white would be used instead of black and grey for the funereal dress of this pessimistic period. Which is not the case.