The Spiritual Journée

Join Cameron Dezen Hammon, award-winning spiritual memoirist and writing instructor for a Spiritual Writing Workshop, Sunday, October 24, 6 -8 p.m.

When I say, “Spiritual writing,” what do you imagine? Does the image of a darkly clad Victorian lady transcribing messages from the great beyond pop into your head? Or do you think of St. Augustine, pouring out his Confessions? A medieval monk prayerfully copying the Gospel by candlelight in a high tower?

Or do you picture yourself in more modern settings with contemporary tools: a Moleskine prayer journal, where you transcribe prayers and respond to them, or where your original prayers flow freely onto the page? A blog where you click and share your devotional thoughts with others in real time? 

Spiritual writing has taken many forms over the ages, but its purpose has always been to answer the same question: How do we connect with the divine? How do we capture the concept of infinite Love with a few nouns and verbs? How do we convey our feelings and questions about God to other mortals? Words fail.

But words are often all we have. And they are a powerful starting place. Henri Nouwen said, “Writing can be a true spiritual discipline. Writing can help us to concentrate, to get in touch with the deeper stirrings of our hearts, to clarify our minds, to process confusing emotions, to reflect on our experiences, to give artistic expression to what we are living, and to store significant events in our memories.” By writing, he said, we claim what we have lived, and we can integrate it more fully into our journeys. In this way, writing can become lifesaving, for us, and for others. It can connect us, to ourselves, to each other, and to God.

We’re all on a spiritual journey, and we can benefit from writing our stories. Whether you want to write your experiences to process them for yourself or to share them with other travelers, the first step is to take pen to paper to capture the details.

It’s interesting that the Old French root for both journey and journal is journée: a day’s length, a day’s work or travel. We experience our spiritual journey one day at a time. If we are going to write a spiritual memoir, we need to begin capturing our experiences one day at a time, journaling until we can begin to see pattern or direction emerge. At that point, we can begin telling the stories of our journey in ways that provide even deeper meaning for us and for our fellow travelers. 

Join us this Sunday evening, October 24, 6 p.m. til 8 p.m. when Cameron Dezen Hammon, who teaches Creative Nonfiction and Spiritual Writing in the English Department at Rice University, leads us in a Spiritual Writing Workshop. She will delve into the ways we take part in a spiritual story that connects us to one another, to the Divine as we understand it, and to the natural world in which we live. We will investigate our own spiritual experiences through writing prompts, conversation, and a short reading from her award-winning spiritual memoir, This Is My Body: A Memoir of Religious and Romantic Obsession.

Take the first step on the writing journey, or find companionship along the path you are already following. Whatever your experience with writing, this evening promises to be centering, enlightening, and encouraging.

Join us before the workshop at The Well, a contemplative Celtic Eucharist, and for Tea & Toast by the bookstore in Latham Hall.

The cost of the workshop is $20, and it includes a copy of This Is My Body, as well as a journal. Register to attend by clicking here. For more information, click here. And, if cost is a hardship, please contact the Rev. Becky Zartman by clicking here.

I write because I don’t know what I think until I read what I say.
~Flannery O’Connor

Spiritual Writing with Cameron Dezen Hammon is presented in partnership with Brazos Bookstore.

Honoring Our Founders

When you ask two powerful women if they’ll start a bookstore for you, don’t be surprised if they are still an integral part of it four decades later.

The Cathedral Bookstore begins its 39th year this month. On October 12, the Dean of the Cathedral honored two retiring founders, Wendy Bentlif and Cynthia Pyle, with a Celebration Tea in the Mellinger Room. The following is an article that appeared in the October 2021 edition of the Cathedral Bulletin and provides some insight on the dedication of these two remarkable volunteers.

The Cathedral Bookstore thrives because of its volunteers 

Christ Church Cathedral Bookstore Manager Lucy Chambers thinks of the store as the front porch of the Cathedral. 

“It is a part of the Cathedral with a long tradition,” Chambers said. “The Bookstore helps to create a welcome and a feeling of family.” 

A large part of the Bookstore’s success is due to its volunteers, two of whom are being honored with a champagne tea on October 12. Cynthia Pyle and Wendy Bentlif, who both recently retired from their duties, had been there since the Bookstore opened on October 16, 1983. 

Bentlif remembers her reaction when former Dean J. Pittman McGehee talked to them about staffing the store. 

“I turned to [Cynthia] and said, do you think we can do it?” Bentlif said. 

The answer was a resounding yes. 

To understand what a community jewel the Bookstore is now, you must consider what downtown Houston was like in the early 80s. 

“It was vacant,” McGehee said of the area when he ar- rived in 1980. “I was a young ambitious priest, and my charge was to bring it back to life.” 

As he told Chambers for a 2017 blog, he followed Henry Ford’s advice: “The greatest wisdom is in doing the obvious.” For McGehee, the obvious was taking an “old-fashioned church parlor” known as the Red Room and repurposing it as a center of intellectual curiosity. Opening a restaurant in The Cloisters was an additional community-building move. “People started coming,” McGehee said. “It became its own presence.”
Pyle, who also was the store’s first manager, was on board with a Bookstore from the start.

“I had asked to volunteer,” Pyle said. “I’d always been involved in books, schools, and libraries. I told Dean Mc- Gehee and Canon Logan that I thought we could do it. I was sure the volunteers – with me included – would make a great team.” 

After Alberta Jones, the former manager of Episcopal Bookstore in River Oaks, helped get the store going, Pyle managed the Bookstore until Kathy Jackson became manager around 2003.  After Jackson started as assis- tant manager beginning in 1993. Pyle stayed on as a dedicated volunteer leader until the end of 2020. 

“I loved creating something,” Pyle said. 

Over the years, the Bookstore has come to hold a special place in the hearts of staff, volunteers, and patrons. 

“The Bookstore is special because it provides a welcoming space for members of the church, the com- munity and the Diocese,” Kathy Jackson said. “Sharing stories and experiences in such a beautiful setting draws many repeat customers who are often surprised at the variety of books and gift options this small store offers. The volunteers are absolutely the key element to the longevity of this ministry.” 

Author, retired priest and 19-year volunteer Earle Martin said he’d always wanted to work in a bookstore. 

“I was the only man back in 2002,” he said. 

Earle was a widower when met his second wife Kristi there. After Kristi passed away, Earle became acquainted with his current wife Nancy through her patronage of the store. 

“We just knew each other over the counter at first,” he said. 

Earle was pleased to do the signing for his second book, The Boy Who Saved My Life, there. 

“The thing that makes [the bookstore] special is the people,” he said. “It’s just a wonderful place.” 

Long-time volunteer Jan Fitzhugh loves that there is a place to see her friends, check out books and gather on Sunday morning. 

“My favorite memories revolve around children sitting on the floor in their section and discovering reading is fun,” she said. 

Frequent patron the Rev. Ed Stein said it’s important to remember that the Bookstore doesn’t just serve the Cathedral community. 

“[Tourists] come into the Cathedral to find something to look at, and then discover the store and the people who are working there that day and leave having had a personal welcome to the city with maybe a purchase or two – and more importantly leave with a really positive experience of the Episcopal church as a place of friendliness and welcome,” Stein said. 

“It’s so rare to find an independent bookstore nowadays and I think we are a hidden gem in down- town Houston,” adds volunteer Roxanne Dolen. 

Chambers, who took over for Jackson in 2017, said that the volunteers are the ones who carry the store’s history. They also start new traditions, like the 1,000-piece puzzle that Truitt Hallmark, husband of longtime volunteer Pat, oversees. 

“I love being in a community of book lovers,” Chambers said. 

Chambers gives Pyle all the credit for the institutional procedures and sound practices she instituted in the beginning .

“We still use them today,” she said.

Chambers also praised Bentlif ’s convivial nature. “Wendy was always right there with you,” Chambers said. “She made me feel at home.”

Pyle and Bentlif say that the Bookstore will always be special to them.

“We all always got on so well together,” Bentlif said. “The store was such a big part of my life all these 40 years,” added Pyle.

Volunteer Catherine Lippincott sums up nicely the magic of the Bookstore, which goes beyond books. “It’s a feeling that is experienced when you walk in the door,” she said. “It is rooted in the history, time and tide of the shop. The books ground the space, but the fairy dust comes from the happy spirits who enter and who work there—past and present.” 

~

If you want something said, ask a man. If you want something done, ask a woman.
~Margaret Thatcher

pictured above: (left) Cynthia Pyle and (right) Wendy Bentlif at a Bookstore Christmas party in the 1980s

Reading the Greats—or not

Feeling literary? Looking for inspiration? Tune in to the EBA’s conversation with Marilynne Robinson on Thursday, October 14, 6 p.m. Central, as this Great Author discusses her latest novel, Jack.

Have you read Moby Dick?

It’s not a trick question. I just wonder sometimes how many people have really read it, versus how many just read the CliffsNotes for a high school English test, or how many just say they’ve read it because everyone has. Or thinks they should have.

When I was younger and trying to be literary, when faced with the have-you-read question regarding a popular, controversial, or classic book, I would make a non-committal Mmmm or Hmmm—not an untruth, but a sound that could be interpreted as yes, or as I’m pondering what I might say to you about this significant work. 

The world is different now, and no one is expected to have read anyone else’s booklist. There is no longer a canon, a list of classics that render you uneducated if you have not read them to the point of quotability. Yet somehow, when recently faced with the question “Have you read Marilynne Robinson? Would you review Jack?” I found myself wishing I had steeped myself in her previous novels, wanting to be a person who had, and tempted to make a vague, disingenuous noise. 

I, too, am different now, so I admitted that I had not, in fact, read the previous ones. Many people whose taste in books resonates with mine have loved these books and recommended them, but I missed the boat when Gilead was published; over the intervening years, I got busy reading newer, shinier titles. But considering Jack, I thought taking the plunge into the fourth of the four would at least get me started with this esteemed collection. If I sank with my lack of perspective and needed to get on more solid footing, I could revert to old bad habits from my days of literary pretension and save myself by reading reviews, (or, God forbid, Cliffs Notes) to fill the gaps in my understanding.

To my delight, I discovered that Jack is so deftly constructed that no knowledge of the previous novels was necessary. Elements of the back story that readers need to make sense of the eponymous main character emerge naturally, the way we might recall part of our own story as new experiences cause us to reminisce or fret about encounters in the past.

Jack, the prodigal son of Reverend Robert Boughton, was born in Gilead, Iowa, with clouds from a dark realm surrounding him. To polite, too talented, and too difficult to pin down with rules or mores or even minimal expectations as a child, when this novel opens, he has become a vagrant in post WWII St. Louis. He’s out of jail for a crime he didn’t commit, but admits he could have, and he’s trying to deal with just being Jack without hurting — or connecting with — anyone else. That’s a big challenge, as trouble manifests around him even when he is most desperately trying to be harmless. Jack is a gifted man: literary, philosophical, musically inclined, well-mannered. He seems only able to use these talents sardonically, which has earned him the nickname Slick.

When Slick meets Della, the warm, intelligent, and upright daughter of an A.M.E. bishop, his carefully constructed world of avoidance and non-connection is radically changed. Recognizing that the persona he has created (or that Fate has created for him) is destructive to Della’s respectable life, he tries to stay away from her. But she has seen through his dark façade and has recognized a soul mate. 

Being a soul mate has no bearing in pre-Civil Rights America, where all that the heartbreaking majority of people on both sides of the racial divide can see is that there is no place, physically, legally, or morally, for a white man and a black woman to have a committed relationship. 

The book is told completely from Jack’s point of view. Della materializes for the reader though extensive dialogue. Both characters, as well as her family, who appear in the narrative, and his, who do not, still come clearly to life. Page after page contains wisdom about the human condition, and in the end, though it is difficult to see it coming after every hard thing that happens, there is room for grace. A nuanced, real, and surprisingly fresh grace. Much like grace appears in our broken world, even today.

Have I read Marilynne Robinson? I’m working on it. After reading Jack, I am eager to read the previous Gilead books. Do I regret reading them out of order? No more than I regret hearing my family stories in overlapping, circuitous ways, where the same story can have a different moral depending on the times, the teller, or the circumstances. No more than I regret having read the Gospel in a piecemeal fashion over the years. Robinson has created a profound world, and wherever we choose to enter it, it makes sense, or it doesn’t, in just the way our real lives—on earth, in the mind, and of the spirit—do. 

If you have read Robinson’s previous books, of course you must read Jack to discover how this bittersweet character spent his prodigal years. And if you haven’t read them, still read Jack. It’s a timely story from the Gilead universe, and it resonates with the racial reconciliation work we are doing now. Though it seems like there is no hope for Della and Jack, there is grace. And though we see ourselves mired in unresolvable tensions now, seeing how far we have come since the time in which their story is set provides hope that perhaps further progress can be made, and further grace experienced.  

And Moby Dick? As for me and my reading list, it may never surface.

To register for the EBA Author Series Conversation with Marilynne Robinson, click here.

To purchase Jack from the Cathedral Bookstore, click here.

Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.
~Martin Luther King Jr.

Do you know how to pray?

On Thursday, September 9, at 6:00 p.m. Central, The Rev. James Martin, SJ, discusses his latest book, Learning to Pray: A Guide for Everyone, as part of the Episcopal Booksellers Association Author Series.

When I was a little girl, I thought that praying meant asking God that I not die in my sleep, then commending everyone in my inner circle to him: Now I lay me down to sleep…if I die before I wake…and, of course, God bless Mommy and Daddy and Nanny and all the relatives, named at extensive length until I fell asleep. I also had a poster on my wall that asked the Good Lord to deliver me from ghoulies and ghosties, long-leggitie beasties, and other fairly horrific creatures that could have been drawn by Hieronymus Bosch. Needless to say, praying was a little fraught.

Sunday School didn’t focus much on prayer, but it did assure me that because I was a little child Jesus loved me. There wasn’t a lot of how-to involved. He just did. Later on, I was informed by numerous camp counselors that prayer had the quality of a miraculous incantation. You ask, and you receive. Sort of like a genie lamp, with far more wishes. When my very specific and mundane requests didn’t get answered, I had the option of believing that I was asking for the wrong things, or that prayer just didn’t work. I took the latter approach, to the point that if I really wanted a certain outcome, I would pray for the opposite, because I had such a bad record of answered prayers.

It would be many years before I came to understand how much I didn’t understand about prayer: that the Lord’s Prayer isn’t something to be recited without error to prove that one is not a witch; that the “telephone to Jesus” really does create a connection, but not in a Ma Bell sort of way; that the Book of Common Prayer contains some of the most beautiful sentences ever written.

Anne Lamott’s book Help, Thanks, Wow provided the perspective that since God knows everything already, one word prayers will often suffice. But even with that insight, there’s much more to prayer than my early life as a Christmas and Easter Only Episcopalian ever prepared me to understand. More ways to do it. More history behind it. More moving language in it. And, perhaps most importantly, more connection created by it—not just to God, but to the world, to each other. Now that I know a little more than I used to, it makes me want to understand even more.

Do you, too, want to know more about how to pray? On Thursday, September 9, at 6:00 p.m. Central, The Rev. James Martin, SJ, will discuss his latest book, Learning to Pray: A Guide for Everyone, as part of the Episcopal Booksellers Association Author Series. Father Martin is a Jesuit priest, editor at large of America magazine, and bestselling author of Jesus: A PilgrimageThe Jesuit Guide to (Almost) Everything, and Between Heaven and Mirth. He has written for many publications, including the New York Times and The Wall Street Journal, and he is a regular commentator in the national and international media. He has appeared on all the major radio and television networks, as well as in venues ranging from NPR’s Fresh Air, FOX’s The O’Reilly Factor, and PBS’s NewsHour to Comedy Central’s The Colbert Report. Before entering the Jesuits in 1988, He graduated from the Wharton School of Business and worked for General Electric for six years. In 2017, Pope Francis appointed him to be a Consultor for the Vatican’s Secretariat for Communication. He knows how to communicate, with God, and with others here on Earth.

It seems to me that learning how to pray better from an expert like Father Martin would be a very timely practice. For everyone.

If you want to know more about Learning to Pray, you’ll find a review from St. John’s Cathedral in Jacksonville, FL, below.

If you would like to register for the EBA Authors Series conversation with Father Martin, click here.

If you would like to purchase the book from the Cathedral Bookstore, click here.

Prayer is nothing else than being on terms of friendship with God.
~St. Teresa of Avila

Learning to Pray: A Guide for Everyone
by James Martin, SJ
(386 pages, HarperOne, 2021)

            A good resource to consider as we are encouraged to devote ourselves to prayer during Lent 2021 is a new book by James Martin, SJ.  Martin, a well-known author of over 20 books, has written Learning to Pray: A Guide for Everyone to encourage everyone to engage in prayer.  He starts by noting that for many, prayer is “foreign, daunting, even frightening…” (3), and then lists why so many find prayer difficult — they weren’t taught; they think it’s only for holy people; they think or have been told they’re praying “wrong”; they don’t realize that they already pray; they think they have “failed” at prayer; they see no point in praying; they’re too busy or lazy; or they fear change. (3-9)  He tells his readers that prayer is all about a relationship with God, and that God plants in us the desire for a relationship with God—God doesn’t pick some of us for a relationship, but makes the opportunity available to all.  After a thorough discussion of why everyone should pray, how to pray without even knowing you’re praying, what is prayer, various types and methods of prayer, descriptions of what happens when we pray and how do we discern God’s presence in our prayers, he concludes Learning to Pray by affirming that, when we pray, we can expect that:

–God will show up.
–You will encounter God.
–You will experience God’s love.
–God will invite you into further conversation and deeper relationship, (354), and
–You will be moved to act. (355-364)

            So, what is prayer?  Martin reviews a number of traditional definitions, including “a raising of one’s mind and heart to God” (from St. John Damascene, an 8th Century Syrian monk), and “a surge of the heart; it is a simple look turned toward heaven” (by St. Therese of Lisieux, a 19th Century nun), among others.  But Martin is most taken with that “prayer is a conscious conversation with God” because he believes that God desires a personal relationship with each one of us.  He analogizes that what works well for the development and nurture of human friendships would also apply to a relationship with God.  That, for Martin, means that the prayer should spend time with God, learn about God, be honest with God, listen and be silent at least some time, and be willing to change.  All of the prayer practices he discusses are how one develops and deepens a relationship with God.

            Martin notes that both petitionary prayers (asking God for something for oneself or others) and rote prayers (prayers that have been written down, such as the Lord’s Prayer and the prayers in the Book of Common Prayer, among many) are sometimes pooh-poohed by writers about prayer.  He notes that other spiritual writers suggest that petitionary and rote prayers can too often be recited without meaningful thought or intention by the one who prays.  Martin, however, entertains the idea that a substantial part of one’s prayer life can and will consist of these types prayer.  After all, such prayers are natural and appear often in the Bible or throughout history.  They are often written on our hearts.  Such prayers unite us with those who have prayed the same prayers over time.  He does suggest some useful ways to use such prayers, and also suggests that other forms of prayer should supplement petitionary and rote prayers.  

As a good Jesuit, he recommends using the daily Examen as a way to become more aware of God’s presence in everyday life.  He also promotes using lectio divina, or sacred reading, as a form for praying with scripture.  Centering prayer and praying with nature are other methods to deepen one’s relationship with God.  When he discusses each different form or method of prayer, he suggests how the method has been used by others, and shares personal and other stories to illustrate how the prayer is used and experienced. 

Many books on prayer discuss types and methods of prayer, but don’t help the reader understand what happens when they pray, nor do they address how we know that it is God that is present with us in prayer rather than an evil spirit or just our own selves – Martin includes a chapter to address each of these concerns.

Wherever you are in your relationship with God, this book will likely have something beneficial for you to consider.

Reviewed by Joe O’Shields, St. John’s Cathedral, Jacksonville, Florida

C.S. Lewis n+ 1 Book Sale

Increase your peace, joy, and love with more books for less money! One amazing day only. This is truly your lucky day.

C.S. Lewis famously said, “You can never get a cup of tea large enough or a book long enough to suit me,” and we agree.

We would add that finding peace, joy, love and all the good things in life always requires more books.

And the number of books that one needs is n+1:  “n” being the number of books currently owned.

In light of these truths, the Cathedral Bookstore announces the first ever

C.S. Lewis n+ 1 Book Sale

One day only, August 22, 2021

20% off everything in stock in the store

May your peace, joy, and love increase. 

And your bedside book stack. 

Because book love.

Badge Heart with solid fill

For some of us, books are as important as almost anything else on earth. What a miracle it is that out of these small, flat, rigid squares of paper unfolds world after world after world, worlds that sing to you, comfort and quiet or excite you. Books help us understand who we are and how we are to behave. They show us what community and friendship mean; they show us how to live and die. 
~Anne Lamott

photo:Burt Glinn/Magnum Photos

No Toxic Fish

Giving shouldn’t just feel good; it should do good. Dr. Robert Lupton, author of Toxic Charity: How Churches and Charities Hurt Those They Help and How to Reverse It explains the difference in the Episcopal Booksellers Association Authors Series on Thursday, August 12 at 6:00 p.m. Central.

We’ve all heard the adage “Buy a man a fish and he’ll eat for a day; teach him to fish, and he’ll eat for a lifetime.” It’s good common sense: give skills rather than gifts. But until Bob Lupton published his book Toxic Charity in 2011, the good works and generosity of churches, schools, and charities often didn’t connect with this concept. How many of us have been involved in Christmas Drives that gathered bicycles and new dolls for underprivileged children, or bought presents off a list for everyone in a family? How many parties have we been to where the price of admission was a toy for a needy child? And what makes us feel better than a day spent working with colleagues at a food bank, processing meals for hungry families? It feels good to care for others; it feels good to be generous. How could that be toxic?

When I first heard the title of this book, I found myself getting irritated: What’s the problem with being generous? People can make an issue out of anything these days. But after that initial knee-jerk, I read further. And I realized the connection between the old fish-saying and Lupton’s message. Toxic Charity isn’t about suppressing the urge to help those in need in our communities, it is about how to actually help them.

He begins by describing what he calls “The Scandal,” which is the situation where charitable giving is being wasted or is harming the people it is intended to help. At the time of writing this book, Lupton had worked over forty years in inner-city Atlanta and around the world trying to create models of urban renewal that actually served the poor. He worked with every type of helping organization that exists—churches, corporate volunteers, entrepreneurs, government agencies and individuals. There is no shortage of people desiring to help: according to Lupton, almost 90% of American adults are involved either personally or financially in the charity industry.  The upside of helping is well-established.

But the outcomes are unexamined. “The food we ship to Haiti, the well we dig in Sudan, the clothes we distribute in inner-city Detroit—all seem like such worthy efforts. Yet those closest to the ground—on the receiving end of this outpouring of generosity—quietly admit that it may be hurting more than helping.” While that seems surprising, Lupton goes on to explain that the heart of the scandal is that this type of giving creates dependency. It destroys personal initiative. And he gives many examples of charity that has caused communities to stagnate or even regress. The aid received becomes “the disease of which it pretends to be the cure.”

On the surface, it’s a very sad thought. But the strength of Lupton’s message is that it takes us beneath the surface. He details the difference between the type of aid a community needs when it is in crisis—after a storm, an earthquake, or another tragedy—versus the type of support it needs to face chronic problems. He explains how human nature affects both ends of the charitable spectrum. It is easier to collect old clothes and drop them off than it is to work with people to create a thrift store that they can run and that allows them to regain their dignity. It is easier to give people food than it is to work with them to create a food co-op where they have responsibility and ownership for the care of their own community. Aid agencies often aren’t able to shift their actions from “crisis relief to the more complex work of long-term development.” And when that transition is not made in a timely way, “compassion becomes toxic.”

In his experience, Lupton has seen example after example of charitable relationships that soured because the basic formula of giving and taking creates imbalance. His book provides a mission statement for healthy compassionate service, in the form of an oath, and he explores the principles outlined to create redemptive rather than toxic interactions between those with resources and those who need them. His examples are sometimes shocking—mission churches that have been painted ten times in one summer; demanding “vacationaries” who pay exorbitant sums to “help” by doing work that has to be undone once they leave; churches that spend tens of thousands of dollars on mission trips for their members to lay tile that will need to be ripped out when the community they mean to serve has real needs the money could address; and many, many more examples of both groups and individuals who suffer from the outcomes of toxic charity. But as he explains the power dynamics of the giver and the receiver, and reiterates the difference between crisis and development, it is clear how situations like these would evolve time and again if we don’t change the model.

Once we recognize what healthy helping can look like, we need to recognize that it can be challenging to move beyond what he calls “us-based giving.” People on both ends of the formula will push back. It’s harder to get someone to come and work than it is to get them to come in and get a handout. It is harder to form relationships with people whose situations are different than ours than it is to write a check. We need to focus our efforts and move from betterment to development. It is obvious that it is harder to teach someone to fish than it is to go to the store and buy a box of fish sticks, but the book goes into the nuances of very specific types of charitable giving and service, outlining both pitfalls and solutions.  

Lupton paints a clear picture of what will happen if we don’t realign our charitable impulses with actual outcomes.  When I finished, I realized that my initial irritation was defensive: It’s scary to enter into relationships with people who are needy, but it is what we are called to do. If our intention is to truly help people, we need to do it in a way that helps them, rather than provides a quick fix for them and a helping-high for us. To modify another old expression, the road to hell is badly paved by well-intended, unskilled volunteers who didn’t take the time to understand or work with the people they were trying to help. Lupton reminds us that our intentions can be used for good. There will always be need, and we are always called to help. But we need to be honest about the situation and about ourselves before we decide how to proceed. Although it’s not a new book, it has new relevance now as we reconsider many of the relationships and attitudes in our communities. Reading Toxic Charity would be time well-spent before beginning or continuing any outreach program. Everyone deserves the opportunity to catch their own fish.

Dr. Lupton will be in conversation with the Rev. Dr. David Barr, Associate Rector at St. George’s Episcopal Church in Nashville, TN, as part of the Episcopal Booksellers Association Authors Series on Thursday, August 12 at 6:00 p.m. Central time on Zoom.

For the link to the conversation, click here.

To purchase the book from The Cathedral Bookstore, click here.

Don’t judge each day by the harvest you reap but by the seeds you plant.
~Robert Louis Stevenson

The Logic of Love

Transcending traditional literary alchemy, the plot lines of the 2021 Cathedral Reads choice combine to create the perfect formula for a summer read: sizzling and serious.

What’s your formula for a perfect summer read? If it combines endless love with deep scholarship, dueling medieval and modern churchmen, and truths that survive Nazi persecution, you’re in luck. Join Cathedral friends this summer to explore the logic of love, as we discuss James Carroll’s novel The Cloister

Carroll — former priest, National Book Award winner, and author of over a dozen acclaimed fiction and non-fiction titles — brings the romance and rhetoric of the twelfth-century monk Peter Abelard and his brilliant pupil Héloïse to life in this well-researched historical fiction. Opening in post-war New York City, The Cloister weaves the narratives of the legendary lovers with those of a fictional French-Jewish medievalist, his scarred and private daughter, and an Irish-American priest. Through the lens of the Church, it illuminates concepts of love and tolerance—tolerance for knowledge, for difference, and for love that doesn’t fit prescribed categories. Scholar, monk, daughter, lover, friend: each must struggle to determine if redemption lies within the boundaries of the cloister. While academia and the church may celebrate intellectual inquiry, Carroll suggests that those who press the circumscribed boundaries — for love or logic — do so at perilous personal risk.

What were the dichotomous views of the church held by Bernard of Clairvaux and Peter Abelard? Did the Church play a role in creating anti-Semitism? What role did women have in medieval scholarship? Can we overcome life-changing loss? the Cloister delves deeply into questions like these. It’s a love story on all four levels — storgephiliaeros, and agape — as well as a mystery and an intellectual journey. Transcending traditional literary alchemy, its elements combine to create the perfect formula for a summer read: sizzling and serious. 

Sign up to join a small group to discuss The Cloister as you read. Or read at your own pace and join the whole community for discussion during the Dean’s Hour on September 5. Look for more information to come about Cathedral Reads 2021, James Carroll, and his fascinating historical characters. No matter how hot the summer gets, Cathedral Reads 2021 will provide you with some very cool ideas!

To purchase The Cloister from the Cathedral Bookstore, click here.

To sign up for a discussion group, or to watch a marvelous discussion of monastic and intellectual life in 12th century France, click here. Groups begin the week of June 13, 2021.

The image above is of the Cloisters museum in New York, one of the settings for The Cloister. In conversation with Mary Gordon at the New York Public Library, James Carroll said that the structure of this novel was inspired by the construction of the museum from five medieval monasteries, including one where Peter Abelard once walked. To listen to that conversation, click here.

The beginning of wisdom is found in doubting; by doubting we come to the question, and by seeking we may come upon the truth.
~Peter Abelard

Putting the Pieces Back Together

Lots of people wring their hands and say the church is broken. The Rev. Canon Stephanie Spellers explains why and suggests how we can fix it.

If you’ve been spending Sundays watching church on Zoom and hoping that things will just get back to normal, the Rev. Canon Stephanie Spellers’ new book The Church Cracked Open: Disruption, Decline, and New Hope for Beloved Community will shake you up. Rev. Spellers, who serves as Presiding Bishop Curry’s Canon for Evangelism, Reconciliation, and Creation, realized that the painful social upheavals that boiled over during the summer of 2020 offered the opportunity for the church, and specifically the Episcopal Church, to get away from the empire-oriented, exclusive practices that were alienating people and causing the church to decline and to move towards something more sustaining, more like what Jesus’ first followers experienced. In just two months she wrote this short, direct book that focuses her education and experience on hard truths of the church, past and present, and what they might mean for the future.

Nadia Bolz-Weber explains The Church Cracked Open well: “If you are looking at the landscape of the church and wondering ‘How’d we get here’ and ‘what’s next,’ I invite you to board Rev. Spellers’ plane and take in the big picture with her. Take in the history, the theology, the pain, the beauty and the hope that her view from thirty-thousand feet offers. When she lands the plane, you’ll realize—there’s simply no better guide out there.”

Spellers introduces her powerful treatise with the story in Mark’s gospel about the woman at Bethany who came into the house of Simon the leper with an alabaster jar of nard, costly perfumed ointment, which she broke and poured onto Jesus’ head. Everyone was angry at her for wasting the precious substance and breaking the beautiful jar, but Jesus understood that she recognized something the others didn’t: “she was literally giving up the best of what she had—the alabaster jar and the nard—because he mattered that much to her. He was the holy one, the center of her world, and she had reoriented her life around him as her focus.”

There is no denying that the world as we know it cracked open this past year. And Spellers provides powerful evidence that the church as we know it was in quick and serious decline, cracked and broken even before the pandemic. In eight chapters, she explains why and provides a plan for using the broken pieces of our tradition to orient our lives more truly around Jesus and come closer to creating beloved community. 

She begins by explaining why “Euro-tribal” churches have fallen to the margins. Rather than seeing the crises of the pandemic as the final blows to an ailing church, she says, we should use them as motivation to move away from White empire towards God and God’s dream. Spellers is very direct about how the Episcopal Church historically embraced and often epitomized racism, but her abiding love for the broken church comes through clearly. 

After she names the problems and explains how they evolved, she moves towards imagining a better future, sharing the stories of men and women throughout history who lived better lives and provide hope that we can too. She explores the idea of kenosis, the non-attachment and self-giving that Jesus exemplified, and explains how we need to be brave enough to break our attachment to the alabaster jar of our church. She proposes a life of solidarity, where Christian communities who once identified with empire and establishment walk humbly with the oppressed to find salvation and holiness for all. And she brings these stories and concepts together by explaining the Way of Love —the rule of life for Episcopalians that the presiding bishop has developed —through their lens.

Spellers hopes this book will inspire more than just deeper reflection. “My fervent prayer is that you will examine your life and the life of your church, and the systems and assumptions that shape both. I hope you will become less anxious about how you and your community are cracking open and more curious about how God might remake you as a true community of love.”

The Church Cracked Open packs a wallop. Though it’s short, it’s not an easy read— her deep understanding of the church and its history can get dense for a lay reader, and many of the anecdotes she shares are ugly and uncomfortable to face. But through these hard truths, she weaves poetry, specific hopes, and examples of people who have overcome the ugliness to provide images of what the future might look like. She leaves us not with the broken pieces of the church, but with a clear plan for how they might be put back together to create something truly beautiful and precious, something worthy of honoring God. Whether or not you agree with her diagnosis or her recovery plan for the church, you’ll discover profound new ways of considering what the return to church might look like. And you’ll understand why it can’t just go back to normal.

For a link to join the Episcopal Booksellers Association Authors Series conversation with the Rev. Canon Spellers on Thursday, May 13, at 6:00 p.m. Central, click here.

To purchase The Church Cracked Open from the Cathedral bookstore, click here.

The Church Cracked Open: Disruption, Decline, and New Hope for Beloved Community
Stephanie Spellers
Church Publishing 
Paperback: 160 pages
ISBN: 978-1640654242
$16.95

One voice speaking truth is a greater force than fleets and armies.
~Ursula K. Le Guin 

Anne Lamott Always Shows Up for Us

The prolific author’s latest book provides a booster shot of spiritual courage. She’ll be discussing it with us on April 8, 2021.

The flaps of Anne Lamott’s latest book, Dusk Night Dawn: on revival and courage, ask, “How can we recapture the confidence we once had as we stumble through the dark times that seem increasingly bleak? How can we cope as bad news pile up around us? Where, Anne Lamott asks, ‘do we start to get our world and joy and hope and our faith in life itself back…with our sore feet, hearing loss, stiff fingers, poor digestion, stunned minds, broken hearts?’” These are big, good questions.

I have more questions: How do you review an Anne Lamott book? How do you explain this verbal life-force to someone who may not already be familiar with her? How do you catch a cloud and hold it down?

The New York Times bestselling author of Help, Thanks, WowSmall VictoriesStitchesSome Assembly RequiredGrace (Eventually)Plan BTraveling MerciesBird by BirdOperating InstructionsHallelujah Anyway and many other fiction and non-fiction books, Anne Lamott is a successful writer by anyone’s definition. Words pour out of her. While a large proportion of these words are about herself, her stories of single-motherhood, writing, alcoholism, activism, and Christianity have resonated with readers for over three decades. 

When asked why she writes, she told the Dallas Morning News, “I try to write the books I would love to come upon, that are honest, concerned with real lives, human hearts, spiritual transformation, families, secrets, wonder, craziness—and that can make me laugh. When I am reading a book like this, I feel rich and profoundly relieved to be in the presence of someone who will share the truth with me, and throw the lights on a little, and I try to write these kinds of books. Books, for me, are medicine.”

Anne Lamott is nothing if not self-aware. With dead-eye accuracy, she writes the books she wants to read. They are good medicine, but they are difficult to describe individually. They even dress alike. Her latest book, Dusk Night Dawn, is packaged like all her books since Help Thanks Wow: It’s a slim volume with two color printing, gift-book binding, pretty endpapers and a single excerpt on the back cover. She does not need to be endorsed by other writers; rather, what she writes just needs to be packaged beautifully and presented to her adoring audience.

Despite the sameness and the foregone conclusion of success that this formula suggests, I’m part of that audience. I love Anne Lamott’s writing. I have all her books, and I’ve gone to hear her speak every time she’s come to town. But it’s tricky trying to individuate this latest book. In many ways, Dusk Night Dawn is just like Help Thanks Wow, or Hallelujah Anyway, or any of her other books in this vein. They’re each a stream-of-consciousness recounting of episodes from throughout her life, with a few images and individuals anchoring her thoughts. This one, written after her recent marriage to Neal Allen and during the last presidential term adds these topics, polar opposites that both lead her to deep rumination, and still covers single-motherhood, writing, alcoholism, activism, and Christianity.

If you haven’t read any of her previous books, I have no idea how you might respond if you jumped into this massive oeuvre with Dusk Night Dawn. If you have read Anne Lamott before, of course you need to read this latest. While you’ll be interested to hear about how her online dating worked out, you’ll have the same reaction to her writing that you’ve had before: you might think she needs more editing; you might think she’s prophetic; you might wonder where she’s going with some of her anecdotes, only to find yourself pondering them like a good parable several days later. Or you might skip the literary judgement and declare this new book just perfect. Because, more than anything, her constant message to readers is how deeply we are loved by our Creator, even in the darkest night of our unedited, rambling imperfection. Even, and especially, when the world seems like it’s falling apart. Nobody’s looking for perfection; we just need to show up for each other.

The Anne Lamott quote on the back of the book says, “Yes, these are times of great illness and distress. Yet the center may just hold.” Dusk Night Dawn is sub-titled on revival and courage. But isn’t all her writing about revival and courage? While she struggles every day to show up for her life, her center has clearly held. It hasn’t always been pretty, but it’s held well enough for her to create a multitude of books about her journey, books that help us better understand where the center of our own lives should be and help us show up, for ourselves and our dear ones.

So, yes, we are older. Yes, our joints are stiff, and we’ve been stumbling through a heartbreaking year, even if we were lucky enough to find or hold love in it. And yes, this book looks and reads a lot like her books that have come before it. But don’t let that keep you from reading it. It’s the same, but it’s different. The parables stay the same, but we change. There’s still more to understand.

As always, she’s tangential, irreverent, charming, opinionated, and brutally honest. Reading her, book after book, is like sitting down with a thoroughly modern Maria (When I’m with her I’m confused, out of focus, and bemused, and I never know exactly where I am. Unpredictable as weather, she’s as flighty as a feather. She’s a darling; she’s a demon; she’s a lamb. She’d out pester any pest, drive a hornet from its nest. She can throw a twirling dervish out of whirl. She is gentle; she is wild; she’s a riddle; she’s a child; she’s a headache; she’s an angel…she’s Anne Lamott.) How do you explain her remarkable verbal magic?

How do you hold a moonbeam in your hand? Read Dusk Night Dawn. Or, if you’re not already familiar with her work, go back to Operating Instructions or Bird by Bird and get to know her and her people from the beginning. Each book layers richness on the last. You can’t read about Anne Lamott: you have to experience her books for yourself. You might not be able to explain just why, but chances are you’ll feel revived and more courageous afterward. And isn’t that what the sub-title promised?

Anne Lamott will be featured in the Episcopal Booksellers Association Authors Series on April 8 at 6 p.m. Central. Join us to experience her irrepressible wisdom by registering at the link here.

To purchase Dusk Night Dawn from the Cathedral Bookstore, click here.

When we honestly ask ourselves which person in our lives means the most to us, we often find that it is those who, instead of giving much advice, solutions, or cures, have chosen rather to share our pain and touch our wounds with a gentle and tender hand.
~ Henri Nouwen

Blessed, Indeed, Are the Cheesemakers

Dr. Amy-Jill Levine explains Jesus’s teaching so clearly, it’s as if centuries of varnish have been cleaned from the surface of a gorgeous painting. Join the Episcopal Booksellers Association in conversation with her on February 11, 2021.

When Amy-Jill Levine was in first grade at Job S. Gidley Elementary School in North Dartmouth, Massachusetts, her teacher led the children in the Pledge of Allegiance, the Star-Spangled Banner, and the Our Father prayer. Recalling that ritual in her latest book, Sermon on the Mount, Dr. Levine says, “So after pledging loyalty to ‘liver tea’ and singing about the ‘donzerly’ light, I’m sure I was not the only one in the class who bowed my head and prayed, ‘Our father, who art in heaven, Harold be thy name…Lead us not into Penn Station…’…Little children have much to learn.’”

When it comes to the New Testament, the Sermon on the Mount, and the Lord’s Prayer, as we Episcopalians call it, Dr. Levine has much to teach us. Sermon on the Mount approaches chapters 5-7 in the Book of Matthew that most of us consider familiar ground and shows us in the most enthusiastic and loving way that our understanding (at least as a lay reader) is not much more accurate than her interpretation of the “dawn’s early light” was back in first grade.

University Professor of New Testament and Jewish Studies and Mary Jan Werthan Professor of Jewish Studies at Vanderbilt Divinity School and College of Arts, and Sciences, Dr. Levine is the first Jew to teach at Rome’s Pontifical Biblical Institute, and her list of degrees and accomplishments is long and impressive. She brings all her education and experience to her deconstruction of Jesus’s Sermon on the Mount, which she begins by saying “is not a sermon. It’s a series of discrete teachings, each of which could be the basis of a sermon, a lecture, a community study, or a personal meditation.” She suggests that Matthew needs marketing help, and that what we call the Sermon on the Mount (and he never did) should be called something like “A Sampling of Jesus’s Greatest Teachings.” And then she uses her knowledge of Jewish practices at the time of Jesus, her understanding of the Torah and the New Testament, and the range of translations of the bible to deepen our understanding of every significant phrase in these chapters.

Her book is not long—six chapters cover The Beatitudes, The Extensions, Practicing Piety, Our Father, Finding Your Treasure, and Living into the Kingdom. Each of these chapters is packed with thought-provoking, knowledge-based, exciting ideas. Though her erudition is apparent, her work has a strong sense of joy. She is able to laugh at herself, the religious establishment, and outdated interpretations of what Jesus was teaching, while remaining respectful and non-judgmental. She connects the holy with history, head, and heart: reading her book feels like engaging with a remarkable professor—one so sure of her material that she can explore new ideas even as she teaches, one who is delighted to share her knowledge because she has experienced it as life-changing.

Each chapter is an exploration. Sometimes she detours into her own experience or delves into playing with language, and as she does, she remarks on the richness of the Matthew’s writing. She leaves the reader with the hope that future books will further explore these paths that she glimpses down as she moves through the elements of the Sermon on the Mount.

The Jesus that she presents and his messages that she explains come though so clearly, it’s as if centuries of discolored varnish have been cleaned from the surface of a gorgeous painting. We still recognize the beloved subject, but now we can see it as it was intended to be seen. It seems so logical—if we are to accurately understand Jesus’s lessons, of course we need to understand who he was as a Jew, who he was teaching, and what language they were speaking. 

In Monty Python’s “Life of Brian,” the crowd hears Jesus say, “Blessed are the Cheesemakers.” Some past translations and interpretations of the Book of Matthew have left us with some ideas that are just as inaccurate. After reading Sermon on the Mount, we not only know specifically what Jesus means when he uses terms like “Peacemakers,” we also come away with a practical understanding of how to apply these powerful teachings in our own lives. Blessed are both cheesemakers and peacemakers and blessed is Amy-Jill Levine for so generously and articulately sharing her learning and experience to shed new light on this important section of the New Testament. 

To register for the EBA Authors Series discussion with Dr. Levine on February 11, 2021 at 6:00 p.m. Central, click here.

To purchase Sermon on the Mount: A Beginner’s Guide to the Kingdom of Heaven, click here.

To see David Hockney’s vision of the Sermon on the Mount, click here.

The real voyage of discovery consists not in seeking new landscapes, but in having new eyes.
~Marcel Proust