Monthly Archives: March 2013

Reading The Silver Chalice

Basil, a slave in first-century Antioch, follows a path from poverty to artisan (with many steps in between) in Thomas B. Costain’s novel, The Silver Chalice.  Along the way we see the nascence of Christianity as readers meet Luke, Joseph of Arimathea, Peter, Paul, and many fictional characters who are following this new faith based on the life, teachings, and death/resurrection this rabbi now called the Christ.  Followers risk their lives, seek to define their beliefs, argue with one another, and encourage.  There is great work being done. The preaching of John, the service of Peter, and the gathering of stories by Luke.  

However, a simple, silver cup becomes the means by which Basil, and the readers, are drawn into this community that was first named Christian at Antioch (Acts 11: 26).  Leaders of this young church wanted to create a chalice in which to keep their most precious relic, the cup Jesus used at his last Passover with the disciples.  Luke is drawn to this young young silversmith for the job after seeing his extraordinary work. With his freedom purchased, Basil is taken to the home of Joseph of Arimathea and begins the task of recreating the faces of those who had been present at that last supper.  Since the disciples are aging and in danger of death from persecution, time is short for Basil to see those still alive so he can reveal the lives behind the faces.

He puts extreme effort into designing and creating this object. In order to gain a deeper sense of the meaning of the chalice, he attends hidden worship services, travels to Ephesus and Rome, learns the network of Christians, runs from Roman soldiers, and hides in cramped spaces.  The work itself draws people to be involved.  Christians in this growing community know the importance of the cup from which the disciples first drank Jesus‘ ‘blood shed for them’.  It’s a physical remembrance of faith to which they can hold.

Once the chalice is complete, and Basil is at home with his wife Deborra, the word goes out and Christians come to see it.  Then, one night, it’s stolen.  Will this be the end of the faith for those involve?  Of Basil whose work is now gone?  Of Deborra whose grandfather, Joseph of Arimathea, is no longer around?  What more do they have left that builds a bridge to Jesus? 

Yet, it’s through the process of creating this chalice that Basil’s faith grows and flourishes, not in worshipping the final object. In fact, the theft emphasizes that Christianity can not be contained in any one, man-made item. The work of honoring this new faith doesn’t point to the workers.  Instead the work is a means of God to draw people to him.  Similarly the teaching of Paul, the writing of Luke, and the service of Peter are also not ends in themselves, but means to draw others into relationship with God through the forgiveness Jesus offers.

Throughout this narrative we meet many people who have given up their world or had it taken from them because of these new and threatening beliefs.  No longer are they clasping to this life, but letting go. Ultimately, the story is not about the chalice, but the One who had held it.  


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Lenten Hospitality

thMardi Gras and Easter vs. Lent and Good Friday.  When you think of inviting others to church this time of year many people are more drawn to welcome people to join in the excess of Mardi Gras or the elation of Easter than in the somber remembrance of Lent and Passion Week.  Don’t we want to invite people to church when they will see a celebration and can get caught up in the festivities?  We want to welcome people when think the church is at its best, which often means decorated, rehearsed, and filled with smiling faces.

Yet, maybe the observance of Lent opens up a needed hospitality that can be lacking in our churches when we focus on welcoming people to an upbeat, well planned event.  Though we may want to show off our church’s best side to visitors, if that’s the only side they see our churches soon become like any other institution that markets to the desires of possible consumers.  Lent can provide space for people to let down their outer shells created to please the external world.

Lent is a marginal, a liminal time.  We are between times, preparing for a story we know to expect, Jesus’ resurrection, but aren’t yet there in the church year.  During this time, we are walking with Jesus on his journey to the cross, a story not of triumph but of questioning, miscommunication, and doubt. During these times the readings show a Jesus who is open about what will be happening and shares his pain. He is suffering along with the people around him.

 “O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it! How often would I have gathered your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing!”   Matthew 23:37

Then he said to them, “My soul is very sorrowful, even to death; remain here, and watch with me.”  And going a little farther he fell on his face and prayed, saying, “My Father, if it be possible, let this cup pass from me; nevertheless, not as I will, but as you will.”  Matthew 26:38-39

Christine Pohl in her book Making Room writes that “Although we often think of hospitality as a tame and pleasant practice, Christian hospitality has always had a subversive, countercultural dimension” (61).  Inviting people into the church’s Lenten practices – whether that includes a time of self-reflection, singing hymns in minor keys, or a discipline of sacrifice – offers this countercultural dimension.  The time of Lent directs us to see ourselves as the sinners we are, to repent – and in turn to provide this gift that God offers to us to others.  It’s a safe place to let go and be who we are in brokenness, not who we or others imagine we are.

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Literary Pilgrimage – A New Look

Literary pilgrimage.

  • A journey to places of story related to literature and its writing.
  • A  memoir of reading and journey.
  • A narrative of place and story, parable and poetry.

The introduction to the draft of my forever-in-progress book on literary pilgrimage, Walking the Path of Story, describes what the book is trying to do – build a connection between pilgrimage, literature, and reader.  It even lists the books and questions approached throughout the chapters. Yet, something is missing.  However, it doesn’t really get to the heart of this writing, the why it’s important, a reason to read.  So what is that reason?

This book is not full on literary criticism or religious ritual.  Nor is it a random jaunt to a tourist site.  Literary pilgrimage could be a way of simply following in the practices of earlier pilgrims, the authors and readers who have trod this path before.  But it’s not a path of imitation that underlays pilgrimage.  It’s a path of guidance.  This guidance frees the reader’s own story to come out as she lives in the places along the journey – the novels’, the authors’, the sites’, the pilgrims’.  It opens up new paths into the original story and into the pilgrim’s life.

Sitting in a grove of olive trees across from the Acropolis in Athens, Greece, I could barely keep my eyes open.  Jet lag was pressing in on me even as the breeze of this land drifted across my body and I sat before ancient temples.  My first evening in Europe felt like a dream.  I didn’t know what to expect over the next twelve days on this Mediterranean tour, but I was ready to follow our guides as we heard familiar stories and were surprised by new ones. The growing connection of place and story slowly dissolved the dream and I was soon on an unexpected journey.  Each day one story led to others, drawing me on to the next place – whether the Aeropagus in Athens, the Forum in Rome, or this book on literary pilgrimage.

Many times the guidance on these journeys comes in the language of the book itself.  Readers engage with words penned in a specific time and place by a specific author.  The contemporary interaction of the reader with the authored words brings meaning to life in the practice of reading.  So, what happens when this contemporary interpretation includes places along with words?  How does the reader encounter these places?  Definitely not in the same way as the author.  This contrast is part of the richness of literary pilgrimage.  It puts one face-to-face with the uniqueness of both reader and writer and allows them to be in a multi-layered conversation.

On an overcast day in July I spent several hours on Cadbury Hill – a possible site of the fabled Camelot.  Through the trees I could see a lone piece of land rising out of the earth –  Glastonbury Tor, the Isle of Avalon, home to the Lady of the Lake, the grave of King Arthur.  The grass underneath and branches above grounded me in an actual place, yet there was more.  While sitting in this place numerous stories came together as I read Marion Zimmer Bradley’s novel, Mists of Avalon, and recalled other Arthurian legends.  Lives opened up.  Imaginations roamed.  A fullness welled up as I contemplated being in that place, at that moment.  Men and women had been walking across those fields for centuries.  Stories of kings and knights had been lived and embellished, given new life for others to retell.  In these connections I was drawn to the stories all the more.  Yet, many others had come this way before.  What difference did it make that it was new to me?

Similarly, what difference would it make for others to walk in the paths of stories that drew me on journey?  I had found connections that opened up the novels of Jane Eyre, Little Women, To the Lighthouse and The Girl of the Limberlost, but would others also find these connections inspiring?  Ultimately, these journeys shouldn’t only be about the pilgrim’s experiences.  Through the readings and the places, the writings will get into the heart of the journeys, the wanderings, the way of the initial interactions.  But, the should also provide pathways on which readers can start their own journeys.

On an overcast March day I was wandering through the ruins of Whitby Abbey on the eastern coast of England.  A storm rolling in from the sea made the place seem even more desolate.  Over the next days I also explored Bolton and Fountains Abbeys.  These immense skeletons of stone are all that remain of church buildings that were caught in the midst of a political and religious battle.  Grand architectural monuments now decayed.  Remnants of a religious legacy that people alternately romanticize and critique.  In these places men sensed the power of God; but, also abused human power in God’s name.  Now we only have the vestiges of these buildings calling us to hear their former stories and fill them with new ones.

Though the paths and stories encountered taken in this book are not through stone ruins, they do form a scaffolding that will hold a new story, a new community.  They can provide a path for others to understand these novels through new means.  This path won’t be in a stranglehold of rules and procedures for reading, but in the telling of stories.  It’s a journey into words, outside of the chains of expectations and into the grace of living a story.

What is such a book for?  To help other people engage in pilgrimage – first vicariously, and then on their own.  To relish literature, story, these types of journeys.  To show God’s story in the midst.  It’s not just about these authors, these places, one person’s journey.  It includes the readers.  It’s about their stories and our stories interwoven.  Through the chapters we walk down a pilgrimage path exploring the liminal elements of life – on a journey to stories and at home.

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