A Note on Scything

Scything up here in the Maine foothills of the White Mountains of New Hampshire is indeed a wonderful exercise. The exercise itself, to begin with, is good, of course. But there are other benefits. Scything keeps our large field from turning into a forest. Scything also can and typically does produce many piles of “green manure,” as we call it, which a year or two later I dig into our veggie garden. Then there’s all the time I invest standing there, catching my breath, and contemplating the mountains to the West, which were especially beautiful on this crisp, fall-like day toward dusk. There are liabilities, to be sure, like the time when I sliced through the hive of some paper wasps, hidden in the tall grass, dozens of which landed on my legs, which is particularly bothersome to me, since I am allergic to insect stings (I lived). The liability today was walking in from the field and feeling every muscle in my body strained, wondering whether I would make it to the house. But all in all it was a great afternoon.

Georges Rouault: Thoughts at the End of an Exhibit

This was a blockbuster exhibit that was one of the art world’s best kept secrets. Boston College hosted what may well have been a once-in-a-lifetime retrospective of works by Georges Rouault, August 30 to December 7, 2008. Did anyone notice? Did anyone care?

Fifty years ago Rouault was celebrated as one of the great artists of his age. When an exhibit of his works appeared at the Museum of Modern Art, the philosopher Jacques Maritain wrote from Princeton, words highlighted by the art critic Leo J. O’Donovan in a superb essay in Commonweal (October 10, 2008), that Rouault’s Apresent glory is the purest glory a great painter has ever known in his lifetime.

Rouault was an important figure in my own spiritual development. As an undergraduate at Harvard College in the nineteen-fifties I was introduced to his images of clowns and of the Christ figure at University Lutheran Church, Cambridge. As one who had grown up with representations of the Christ figure like Sallman’s Head of Christ (a friend of mine once called that the image of Deus Businessmanus), I was overwhelmed by the power of Rouault’s Christ — and clown — figures. They helped to keep my faith, such as it was in those days, alive and growing. Rouault was also a favorite of Paul Tillich, with whom I took several courses during my undergraduate years. Tillich was a great interpreter of art, especially of existentially challenging imagery such as often appeared in Rouault’s works.

Today very few even know Rouault’s name. That an exhibition of this import was held at — where? — Boston College and not at the MoMA or some comparable institution (no disrespect to B.C. intended; kudos only), tells its own tale, as does the fact that this blockbuster event was a kind of esthetic one-night stand, not a traveling exhibit intended to introduce a major voice in twentieth-century art to seekers or to the just-curious in a variety of settings.

Why was this one of the art world’s best kept secrets? O’Donovan observes that, after Rouault’s mid-twentieth century public accolades, Rouault’s approach to art during his own lifetime he was called, with scornful intent, As the last romantic gave way to Pop and Op Art, to Conceptualism and Minimalism. In other words, Rouault’s works went out of style. Which, of course, is a commonplace of art history.

But I think that that was only part of the story. The audio commentary on the exhibit by its curator, Stephen Schloesser of Boston College, is most revealing in this respect. Schloesser interpreted this exhibit as a kind of dialectical unfolding (my terms) of two aesthetic perspectives, realism (e.g. Daumier) and symbolism (as in the French poets known as symbolists and in some of their painterly followers, one of whom was a teacher of Rouault). Sometimes, Schloesser told us, Rouault’s works were more realistic, sometimes they were more symbolistic, and sometimes they found a way to integrate the two perspectives That was, in many ways, an illuminating interpretive stance to take.

I had expected something more, however, signaled by the exhibit’s theme, also the title of the exhibit’s companion volume, Mystic Masque: Semblance and Reality in Georges Rouault (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2008), edited by Schloesser. Several essays in that volume, as a matter of fact, explore or at least refer to Rouault’s spiritual heritage.

But the experience of the exhibit itself was something else, both as the exhibit was organized and as it was introduced to museum-goers (very few of whom, in all likelihood, were going to part with eighty dollars for the companion volume). This was Boston College, mind you, a historic center of Catholic learning. Strikingly, Schloesser never even mentioned that Rouault was baptized as an adult or that Rouault’s art is suffused with perennial themes of Catholic spirituality, above all the suffering Christ and the suffering poor. Think of the case of St. Francis who was marked by the signs of the Cross and who ministered to the Savior in the persons of the poor. In this sense, call much of Rouault’s painting iconic, even christological. That is a historical fact. But if Boston College cannot bring itself to introduce Rouault’s creations to the public in those terms, who will? And if what is arguably the creative center of Rouault’s life-work, his profound christic mysticism, is no longer of interest to those most responsible for framing the discourse about artistic expression, the critics and scholars themselves, is it any wonder that the entirety of Rouault’s achievement has more or less been shelved, as far as the public mind is concerned?

Not that Rouault’s spirituality must be welcomed by everyone. But it should at least be publicly acknowledged. (I find the same thing going on in popular and scholarly interpretations of Vincent Van Gogh’s works; but that is another story.) If scholars, to begin with, will not talk publicly about Rouault’s iconic spirituality, whether because of esthetic fashion or personal taste or academic parochialism is a secondary matter, how are the eyes of all the rest of us who care about art to be tutored in a way that will allow us to encounter the animating power of works by artists such as Rouault?

Spirituality, Liturgy, and the Specter of Gnosticism

I am all in favor of spirituality and of spiritual experience more generally. I discuss such matters in personal terms in a chapter of my book Nature Reborn.

But not a free-floating spirituality, where anything that “works” is treasured. The specter of Gnosticism has always been lurking at the door of the Church, as the counter-festimonies of Irenaeus, Augustine, and Francis of Assisi show. In our own world, one does not have to maintain that Gnosticism is the American religion, a la Harold Bloom, to see signs of the Gnostic spirit everywhere: precisely in the free floating quest for spirituality that is so popular in American church circles where the experience of the individual has become the treasure-trove of so many of the faithful. Witness the interest in Jung, still, to this day. Witness the influence of New Age trends practically everywhere. Witness even the radical individualism of some forms of post-pietist pietism, whether bequeathed in the sophisticated form of Bultmannian theology or the popular forms of “having a personal relationship with Jesus Christ” evangelicalism. In all these settings, the faith of the individual rules. It becomes the norm even for preaching at times: visiting a Lutheran congregation while on vacation, I heard the preacher say from the pulpit words like these: “I don’t need to tell you about Jesus. You know all about Jesus. What you don’t know about is yourself.” Mercy.

Spirituality if it is not to fall prey to the Gnostic spirit, I believe, must be rooted — in the classical liturgy of the Church (see my book, Ritualizing Nature). But it must be precisely the classical liturgy of the church, and not a spiritualized adaptation. A case in point: the Eucharistic Prayer. This prayer announces the whole Gospel narrative, creation, redemption, consummation. It is in this universal context that the Eucharist has its existential meaning. What is given “for me” is the full Gospel truth, not just the truth of my personal relationship with Jesus Christ. Sadly, however, that prayer if often truncated, reduced just to “the words of institution.” In that way, I become the center of the Eucharist — given for me — rather than God. My experience occupies the center of the stage, not the grace of God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

When spirituality is properly rooted in the catholic liturgy, then it can inspire us to praise God in all things and to know God with us and with every creature, overflowing with power and glory and grace. With spirituality thus rooted, the specter of Gnosticism can be revealed for the false “gospel” that it is.

Biblical Themes That Have Long Spoken to Me: An Introspective Invitational Sermon

I was asked to preach at University Lutheran Church, Cambridge, MA, October 12, 2008. This assignment turned out to be more important for me than I had anticipated. In retrospect, I now realize that, however much I sought to exegete the biblical texts with which I was working, I was also reliving a theological journey of my own.

This was the church I had attended as an undergraduate and served once, for three years, as its Assistant Pastor, 1966-1969, just after I had finished my doctoral studies at Harvard Divinity School. Serendipitously, the lectionary texts appointed for the day bespoke themes that have long captivated me. I invited that university congregation to be claimed by those themes, too. I herewith extend that invitation to a still larger audience.

Are You Living In the Valley of the Shadows?
Come to the Mountain –
Then Come Down to the Feast
A sermon by the Rev. Dr. H. Paul Santmire
University Lutheran Church, Cambridge
The Twenty-Second Sunday After Pentecost

October 12, 2008

It’s a pleasure and a privilege to stand here in this pulpit, where I used to stand, with some frequency, forty years ago. It was a wonderful trip.

Today I invite you to concentrate on three texts from Holy Scripture.

First, this phrase, which you know well, from the 23rd Psalm, appointed for today: “Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death…” (Ps. 23:4)

Second, from our first lesson, the prophet Isaiah: “On this mountain the Lord of hosts will make for all peoples a feast of rich food, a feast of well-aged wines…” (Is. 25:6)

Third, from our Gospel, where Jesus picks up Isaiah’s image, the great feast: “Look, my banquet is all prepared…. Come to the wedding.” (Mt. 22:4)

These texts suggest this theme to me: “Are you Living in the valley of the shadows? Come to the mountain. Then come down to the feast.”


First, the valley of the shadows. I don’t have to tell you too much about this.

Last week a gathering of which I was a part, including some folks from this congregation, explored together some of the striking meanings of the fine 2007 novel by Don DeLillo, Falling Man.

I thought I had had enough of 911, but I was swept along by this book. It is indeed a 911 novel. But it’s much more. It’s a novel about 911 as a metaphor of our times. The tone is set, when the main character, Keith, stumbles out of one of the towers on 9/11, and eventually finds his way home, where his estranged wife, Lianne, tries to pick shards of broken glass out of his dazed, dust-covered face.

I think that that book does tell the story of these times, as well as yours and mine, remarkably well. Are you living in the valley of the shadows? I wouldn’t be surprised to hear you answer Yes.

I’ll leave it to you to read the novel, if you wish, if you haven’t already done so. To fill out the picture, I want to set another book by its side, which in its own mundane way also speaks of the valley of the shadows, but more from the perspective of someone who wants to believe.

Around the time when I was hanging out in this pulpit, a Catholic publishing house issued a thin, but provocative volume called Letters to God from Teenagers. This is one of those letters, which I have kept on file all these years. I take this to be the voice of one who also lives in the valley of the shadows:

Dear God

Where are you? I know you’re supposed to be everywhere, but there are times when I just can’t seem to find you. I see good and honest people getting hurt and dying. I see people who don’t have enough to eat. Are you there with them? It just doesn’t seem fair that people should have to suffer like that. I know that you suffered and died on the cross for us, and maybe I’m a little selfish, but it just doesn’t seem right.

There are times when I really need someone, and I want to reach out, but I don’t know if you’re listening. How can I learn to hear you better? What am I expected to do and become? I want to be able to do the right thing

Your friend,


Are you living in the valley of the shadows? If so, what can you do about it?



Come to the mountain This is the image we meet in the second text, from the prophet Isaiah. It’s an arresting image, which probably has claimed your mind and heart at one time or another. Come to the mountain.

I’m here this morning, because both your pastors are on retreat with students today. That’s probably a very good idea. Years ago, Pastor Connie Parvey, as I recall, used to take groups of Uny-Lu students, now and again, to see the sun rise from the top of Mt. Monadnock in New Hampshire. Another good idea. Come to the mountain.

Actually the image of the mountaintop experience is as American as cherry pie, as you probably know. Many Americans writers, from Henry David Thoreau to John Muir, to a host of authors in our own day, have been fascinated with the wilderness and its heights. The Boston Globe just published a story the other day about Thoreau and Mt. Khatadin in Maine.

So. You don’t like life down here in the valley of the shadows? Get away from it all. Rise above it all in the wilderness. Get some perspective. The Harvard-trained New Testament scholar and ethicist, Richard Baer, called this experience: “breaking with the tyranny of the cognitive mind.” Come to the mountain. Right?

It makes sense, in a sense. But that’s not yet to grasp the particular claims of the mountain image as we meet it in the prophet Isaiah.

Yes, to be grasped by the power of Isaiah’s message, you’re going to have to get away from it all, whether this “all” is the post-911 world of the DeLillo novel or the personal anguish of that Catholic teenager in her letter to God. Break with the tyranny of the cognitive mind. Go somewhere where you can get some perspective, where you’re not the captive of all these shadows.

But for Isaiah, that somewhere isn’t anywhere. For Isaiah, that somewhere is – Jerusalem. Throughout the Old Testament, the image of the mountain of the Lord was a common way of speaking of Jerusalem. And that image typically brought with it a vision of renewal of the whole earth and especially a time of blessing of the poor of the earth, when the people of God would finally be redeemed.

Never mind now the broken historical Jerusalem of those days or ours, the coming of the new Jerusalem, according to Isaiah, will usher in an era of peace and justice on the whole earth.

So here’s the prophet, speaking from exile, presumably, speaking from the position of membership in a marginalized, sometimes persecuted minority. In the midst of this valley of the shadows, he has this dream. He proclaims: come to the mountain! And he means: come to this particular mountain, a new Jerusalem, in the midst of a new creation: a place where God will be “a refuge to the poor;,” as Isaiah says, “a refuge to the needy in their distress, a shelter from the rainstorm and a shade from the heat.” (Is. 25:6)

Even death, according to the prophet, and all the violence of a world where the powers of death hold sway, will be overcome. Life will reign and, in another voice from the same tradition, the lamb will lie down with the lion, and a little child will lead them. And at that time, according to this image, all the peoples – indeed the whole creation – will glorify God. St. Paul later puts the finishing touches on this image by announcing that at that time, when the whole creation will have been renewed – God will be “all in all.”

So. You may have shards of broken glass cutting into your soul, if not your body. You may be poised to write your own letter to God, questioning everything. If so: Come to the mountain, and see the new Jerusalem. Break with the tyranny of the cognitive mind and dream dreams of an incredibly beautiful future for the whole creation.

This is the mountaintop experience that the prophetic tradition holds before you and me, especially for those of us who know we’re living in the valley of the shadows of death.



Which brings me, finally, to our third text, from Jesus’ parable of the wedding feast, as we have it in Matthew’s Gospel today.

I’m not going to try to wrestle with all the details of this marvelous story. Such as the account of the poor bloke at the very end of the story – remember this? – who showed up at the wedding without the right clothes on.

Rather, I want to trace the trajectory of the mountain image in the prophetic tradition, as it was claimed by the Jesus movement and then by the early church.

Are you living n the valley of the shadows? If so, come to the mountain. This now is the invitation with which I want to conclude: Then come down to the feast.

Here I’m informed by a seminal article by Uny Lu’s own Helmut Koester. This article traces what I’m calling today the imagery of the mountain, the vision of the new Jerusalem, as the center of an entirely renewed world of justice and peace. It then shows how that imagery shaped the self-understanding of Jesus’ first followers and presumably of Jesus himself.

It all came together for the Jesus movement in the meals over which Jesus himself presided. The participants in those meals apparently thought of themselves in terms of the festival mountain imagery from the prophetic tradition. These meals, in that sense, focused for them the thought of the new Jerusalem and the new creation.

In this context, there was then another development. The imagery of the mountain festival of the end times coalesced with yet another theme that was apparently near and dear to Jesus’ heart, the wedding banquet.

It’s all happening here, in other words, in some sense. Here in this festival meal, before your very eyes, that mountain vision of the new Jerusalem, is beginning to take shape. What was once – and still is – a great and marvelous hope for the future is now being realized in some sense in this wedding feast. See with your own eyes. Touch with your own hands. Hear with your own ears. And taste.

But there’s more. In that article, Helmut Koester also showed that something remarkable happened to the mountain festival imagery and the wedding theme as they coalesced in the mind of the early church. Jesus had said at one of those meals – “Do this in remembrance of me.” Do this meal for the recalling of my life and death, as you eat and drink together. This consciousness of the Cross then shaped everything else for the early Church.

In effect, the mountain imagery came down to earth, right in the middle of the valley of the shadows. The wedding imagery was likewise shaped by the remembrance of Jesus’ suffering and death. These festive meals thus became the foretaste of the beautiful and just world to come, in this world of death, redeemed by the Savior’s own death.



I stumbled into this experience myself, once upon a time, right here.

Imagine me, as an undergraduate, rolling out of bed up the street in Lowell House, at five to eleven on a Sunday morning, unshaven, wearing the same clothes I fell asleep in the night before – studying, of course. But I kept showing up here, for reasons which I only dimly understood at the time. What I did understand was that I came just as I was, without one plea.

I guess I was no different from many other undergraduates then, or perhaps now, who had been raised in the church, but who had encountered many conflicting and distressing realities in life and learning at institutions like Harvard.

I remember times of intense loneliness in those days, sometimes rejection by others for whom I cared a lot. Early on, I suspected that I had been admitted to Harvard not because of any intellectual gifts, but because they thought I could help them produce a winning swimming team. (That didn’t work either.)

When I did begin to get my academic sea-legs under me, things on occasion tended to get worse, rather than better, as far as my soul was concerned. Of German heritage, with a major in German history, I discovered the holocaust, really for the first time, when I was a sophomore. And I was profoundly depressed to realize, fully, the complicity of many of my German Lutheran brothers and sisters in the murder of six million Jews and many others. That was the tradition that had given me my deepest bearings throughout my life. And was that what that tradition was really like? Why would anyone in his or her right mind want to be a Lutheran Christian?

In those days there was a whole host of reasons, which could easily have prompted me just to chuck the faith of my forebears.

But, for reasons, again, that I only dimly understood at that time, I kept trundling my way down here from Lowell House most Sundays. And I ended up staying! The Lord brought me here, and I never left, for better or for worse. And I ended up being a child of hope, who loves Jesus – and the earth and the poor of the earth. A miracle indeed.

Now it helped that I had very good pastoral guidance here and that I was always welcomed warmly and without preconditions by this community. No one ever told me I didn’t have the right wedding garments on.

But when everything else was said and done, I have no doubt now that it was the bread and the wine that carried me through and blessed me with hope.

Luther once remarked concerning people who weren’t sure whether they should receive Communion or not – throw the bread and wine at them! Not a bad idea.

For me, this bread and wine was and is and hopefully will continue to be, for whatever years I still have left on this earth, the feast of the victory of our God. And this feast opened up for me, again and again, the vision of the travail of the earth and the plight of the poor of the earth – and the promise of God for both. The mountain imagery. The wedding imagery. The power of the Cross. I thank God for the bread and the wine, in this place, in the midst of the valley of the shadows.

Strikingly, at the end of the DeLillo novel, Falling Man, after many accounts of human brokenness, Lianne, the wife of the survivor, Keith, herself plagued with uncertainties and disappointments of all kinds, finds her own way, unknowingly it seems, to a nearby church on Sundays. It appears to be a typical urban Catholic parish, in decline. It has seen better days. The few worshipers there are mainly older women. Improbably, there, it appears that she finds peace for her sharded soul.

It would be pushing DeLillo’s anguished narrative too far, I think, to say that he envisions Lianne as finding God there, in those simple, perhaps pedestrian Eucharists. But the reader can readily imagine Lianne being at peace in the presence of the Crucified there. Maybe, indeed, Don DeLillo knows more than he thinks he knows.

Be that as it may, this is my invitation to you today, as you may find yourself with shards of glass in your soul, if not in your body, as you may be poised to write your own letter to God, if you haven’t already done so.

Are you living in the valley of the shadows? Come to the mountain. Then come down to this feast. Amen.