Category Archives: Faith in Action

L’Shana Tova

1. How an Apostate Was Made

Out of some closet or other to create not a barbaric yawp but a titanic yawn. “Oh God, not one of Ken’s obsessions again!”

Yes. That again. So get over it. Or, as my mother would have said, “Geh kahkt auf in Yahm.” Here is my journey’s end. I hope.rh

Back in 1997 a number of strange and terrible things happened to me. First, my marriage ended, albeit informally and initially for the time being. My wife and I recognized that we’d been living inside a lie. Or I did. And I did not want to be the kind of man I’d become. Most of you know the overly-revealed details. Why redisplay them now?

Anyway, I moved into my own place after a peculiarly tense week in mid-April 1997. I was so unaccustomed to fending for myself that women in the ShopRite near my house had to help the helpless waif (me) negotiate my way around the market. I would not dignify it with the label PTSD. I’d simply say to myself, “What the fuck am I doing?” But God bless those ladies who assisted me.

Then came Monday, and back to work I went after spending a week on “vacation” moving 13 miles back and forth repeatedly between Wayne and Lyndhurst, New Jersey. Presumably, I drank myself comatose on Sunday night. This is news?

For whatever reason, when I got to work on Monday, I remembered something I’d forgotten, and that suddenly loomed as critical. That would be the night of the first Passover Seder: like most Jewish holidays, a time for family companionship. And suddenly I had no family. (“General Lee, I have no Division!”) I had cordially been not invited to sit with my wife and my kids. If my mother or mother-in-law had been alive, I would have been cordially disinvited from sitting with them, too.

Reconnecting with a faith I’d cast aside after my mother died in 1992 suddenly acquired the emotional level of a Class A Crisis. I wanted to rejoin in time for Pesach. But there was no place for me to go. The logical step seemed to be to call Jewish Federations in north Jersey and New York City. Whoever heard of a Federation without some communal outreach?

They had.

When I made some calls, I was informed that nobody had community Seders for the solitary Jew with no home inside his own tradition.  I was frozen out.

I got crazy-desperate. I’d tried to keep personal business off the Internet, but this time to hell with propriety. I posted a cry for help to a mailing list called Opera-L. Lots of Jews, with even more opinions about everything from Marcella Sembrich and Emma Eames to Roberto Alagna and Placido Domingo. Right, a list for discussions of opera, an art of which I’ve been particularly fond since I was 14 years old. Is there a vacant seat…is there a table…is there anything for a solitary Jew on one of the most critical nights of the year, and at one of the critical turning points of his life? And the answer was always the same: lots of sympathy but no seat. It wasn’t a “fuck off” message, but the impact was the same.

At Morgan Stanley, where I worked at the time, we had to put a slug into our email with our contact information. So around two PM, the phone rang. It was a true gentleman named Rabbi Mark Loeb, Z”L, who led a congregation in Pikesville, Maryland, in the Baltimore suburbs. He said, “No Jew should be alone on the first night of Pesach. There’s a prepaid Metroliner ticket waiting for you at Penn Station. Take the 4 PM train to Baltimore, take a cab to my address, call when you get there, I’ll take care of that when you get here. You’ll be at my Seder, you’ll stay over, and I’ll drive you back to the Amtrak station in the morning.”

I couldn’t believe it. People don’t do things like that for total strangers. Do they? But I remembered God’s direction to the Jews about to enter their own land after their enslavement in Egypt: You shall not oppress a stranger, for you know the feelings of the stranger, having yourself been strangers in the land of Egypt.My boss told me to get my stuff and go. I rushed to 33rd Street, picked up my ticket, and went to Rabbi Mark’s Seder. And I had a wonderful, haimische time. The food was catered; we sang the old songs I remembered from my misspent childhood. Mark sat up with me until 2 AM and simply listened to me unload. I was two days out of my marriage and I was very much in shock. He told me about his opera trips to Vienna and London, including one funny-horrible tale of a man who said that one of the greatest conductors he ever heard at the Vienna Staatsoper was “Der Jude”: Leonard Bernstein. Oy. And in the morning, again good to his word, Mark drove me to the Baltimore Amtrak station.

But then I had to confront my Jewish future. And I discovered that I had none.

I’d been at what amounted to the world’s greatest mustering-out party, and the idea of going back into congregational Judaism where everything is politicized, seemed not just alien but even repellent. Yet I had Cleopatra’s “immortal longings in me,” and a need for the House of Faith. My complacency was gone. All that was left was a wound, a trench in which I was the only occupant, and which was crying for some form of belief to fill it.

Well, God is One, but there are different ways of expressing and reaching that Divine Presence. And I found one that was one in three, and that had been dormant beneath the surface for years. It was called Christianity. And it long had been seductive and calling to me. I didn’t want to do this. I figured I was mad and courting total dispossession. But the pull was there. It would not go away. I read a website called Leaflets of Faith (I think it still exists, though perhaps under a diiferent name), and it had simple instructions for someone drawn to–in my case–Catholicism. Talk to a priest. Pray. Recite “Jesus, Lord, lead me where you want me to go, and I will try to follow.” I finally forced myself to say the words out loud at about 4 PM on June 15, 1997. It was as though a stone sitting on me for years had been lifted. The air in the room began to move again. “Oh my God, I think I’m a Christian.”

Just like that. Catholics call it the Baptism of Desire.

I’d had lots of desire in my life, but this was the first time I’d ever experienced desire on the spiritual level.

In any case, I began to receive Catholic instruction at a parish a few blocks from my house. It was heady stuff and I found it glorious. I even stopped off at daily Mass in the early evenings on the way home from work. I could have faked it and received the Sacrament, but I treated myself like a Victorian bride approaching her wedding night. “Not until we’re married.” And I married the Church on April 11, 1998. No, I will not follow that metaphor any further, except that by the end I’d become like Irene Forsyte married to Soames.

I was “adopted” by a priest who made me feel dirty because I was involved with a woman without benefit of clergy, even if we both were civilly divorced. In my insane state of mind, I felt encumbered and horribly guilty for everything.

2. Enter the Episcopal Church

If you fool me twice, shame on me. And I was fooled a lot. The priest who became my confessor was tearing me apart. Call it Masochism 101. Eventually I “defected” to the Episcopal Church. Many Catholics call it “Catholic Lite,” but it’s not. Same difference with Lutheranism, another spin-off from Rome. In any blessed event, I’d had enough of the beatings that would continue until morale improved. My morale improved when I got out.

Of course, it was not a straight line. Few things in anyone’s life are. I went back and forth for years. Catholic, Episcopal, Episcopal, Catholic, etc., etc, ad my nauseum. Everything but B’ahai. I even went to Quaker meetings here and there. I was the Hamlet of religious affiliation. I could not make up my mind. When I did, in 2007, because of a wonderful Episcopal priest in Rumson, NJ, I became a lot happier and less filled with tensions. I’d quit drinking some time before, I was taking medication for my mental issues, and I wasn’t quite that prone to guilt anymore. Anyone’s guilt, including my own. And I didn’t have to fight the Catechism of the Catholic Church anymore.

3. T’shuvah?

I’ll spare you repeats of the story of homelessness, of utter ruin. If you want to read that, be prepared to pay me. (I accept PayPal. If you think I’m kidding, toss some money into my account as a tip. It’s rainermaria@comcast.net.) When I was rescued from homelessness at the end of 2013, even though I’d been going to Catholic Masses because the parish was near the shelter where I lived, I finally found an Episcopal parish near my new home. It was low-keyed and not at all stressful. No pressure, no drama. That’s novel just by itself.

Finally, there was a phone conversation with a friend. I’ve known her for years. She paid for me to have my cat checked over by a local vet after the beast ran away and returned through the window like the Demon Lover after four horrible days of fear. I said to her, “You know what I did, don’t you?” Guilt, thy name is Wolman. She informed me that yes, she knew, but that I never stopped being a Jew. An apostate, perhaps, a meshummed, marching under a borrowed flag: but the door was always open for return, no questions asked. And if the questions were asked, I was under no obligation to answer them. From Christian or Jew.

Amazingly, in North Adams, Massachusetts, the last place I’d have expected to find a Jewish community outside Boston, there I found one. A synagogue. A rabbi. A whole set of practices forgotten, or so different from what I thought I knew that I could scarcely believe the world into which I re-entered.

4. “Who Is a Jew?”

That was a real popular question to ask, one Jew to another. It was generally asked by ultra-Orthodox (either Chassidic, Mitnaged, or Haredi, and look it up in your Funk & Wagnall’s) to attack Jews who either entered the faith by a non-Orthodox path, or who observed it differently. It led to ugly confrontations, especially on Bitnet and Usenet message boards like soc.culture.jewish where, even in the 1980s, I was one of several compulsive posters who was treated like the goy I later became. It may have been good for honing argumentation skills, but it was a lousy way to practice one’s beliefs. And, apart from any other factors, it may have given me the last push toward the egress.

Well, I fit the classic formula: I was born of a Jewish mother. Actually, that may be a pretty lousy definition. Retrospective history has by now become offensive. The matrilineal model is one that Hitler used. This is a valid test? There are even some groups, especially among the Sephardim, who will not recognize as valid even the classic Orthodox conversion of a non-Jew. A man, for instance, undergoes instruction, followed by adult circumcision, so he can be treated like a piece of Hormel pepperoni? So the question arises: who cares what you say? Who are you to define who is a Jew? If Catholics have Baptisms of Desire, what stops Jews from having Yiddishkeit by Love and Need? In the old conversion method, if a person went to a rabbi and asked to convert, the rabbi was supposed to try three times to talk the prospective convert out of it. “Do you understand you are asking to throw in your lot with a despised people?” If the prospective convert persisted those three times, the actual process could begin.

I went through a far more informal version of this examen when I gravitated toward the Church in 1997. One priest, a friar at the Church of St. Francis of Assisi on West 32nd Street, told me that the best man he ever knew was his father, a lapsed Baptist. It was his mother’s influence that put him on the path to ordination as a priest of the Franciscan order, and to the Guardianship of this vital inner city parish that actually took seriously the Corporal Works of Mercy, specifically feeding the hungry. I was told to search my motives. I didn’t know what they were except that I was answering a call of some kind. I moved inertially. In the town where I lived, there was one stumbling Episcopal church where there wasn’t even a regular priest. There was one Missouri Synod Lutheran church. And there were four Catholic parishes. For a goy-in-training, this became a no-brainer.

And there was no synagogue between Rutherford to the north and Irvington to the south. Nothing. In nearby Kearny, a former synagogue had been turned into a Portuguese-language Pentecostal church. If I’d wanted to remain Jewish, I’d picked the wrong place to live: the Ridge Road and Kearny Avenue band known as Cancer Alley that extended from Rutherford to Newark.

When I moved after I determined that Western Massachusetts was the right spot at the only possible time (was life in a mens’ shelter better?), I accepted home where I found it. The late Russell Edson put it this way in one of his prose poems: “This may not be the best of all possible worlds, but it’s the only one that showed up.” But some form of providence got me here. Followed by the seemingly casual phone conversation that set the chain of my being back in motion.

Yes, I am compulsive joiner. Yes, I need to belong to something with a name. Yes, I need a framework that helps me express who I am at this late stage of my life. You don’t need to approve it. You don’t need to label me an apostate again. I am. I have been. I might even be a double-agent! You don’t have to ask me what I will be next week. All I know is that I have followed the promptings as they’ve come to me. I’ve picked up the Day-Glo bread crumbs where they fell. And I’ve fought my way through multiple levels of doubt to where I stand now: in doubt but in awareness of what happened, and perhaps even why.

5. Along the Way….

I’m not going to spell out thanks by name, though I perhaps should. People along the way guided and sometimes (in one case) bullied me. Everyone got me to where I am now. And I am grateful for the prods from all directions at once.

The good part is that I am the accumulation of every tradition in which I’ve tried to reside. That’s not some Dorothy-in-Oz thing about there being no place like home. It’s a deepening of who I have been and in what I am.

Tonight begins the Jewish New Year. Rosh Hashanah. This has been going on for a really long time by now as time is reckoned. It’s the year 5775. I went to my first Hebrew School class back in the Bronx in 5714, also known as 1953. Days have gone by. It’s been one hell of a trip. Is it over? I hope to God this part of it is, anyway. L’Shana Tova, folks. Happy New Year.

The Biblical birthday

Happy birthday to me. If this is February 23, I’ve made it. I’m threescore and ten. Also known as seventy. I’m a bit superstitious so I’m posting this a week early.

With God’s help, then, I’ve made it to seventy years old. There were a few times I didn’t think I’d make it. And there were more than a few times when I didn’t want to.

I got here anyway. Hier steht ich, ich kann nicht anders. Thank you, Martin Luther.

Something like that.

I suppose this is where I’m supposed to say something profound about all that I’ve learned. But I remember the last chapter of Thomas Pynchon’s V, still my personal contender for the Great American Novel. One of the principal characters, Benny Profane, is sitting with some girl in Valletta, Malta, trying to scheme his way into her pants. He’s less than thrilled with himself and the girl picks up on it. “But the experience, the experience!” she cries. You must have learned so much. “I’d say,” says Benny, with uncharacteristic introspection, “that the experience hasn’t taught me a damn thing.”

Thud.

I’m asking not so much about what we learn as about what I’ve learned. I can’t answer for a We. And I won’t be as dismissive as Benny about what I learned or didn’t. I’d say it comes down to very little, maybe to one maxim. Love wisely, love too well, love anyway. I’m starting to sound like the Beatles even when I feel like the Rolling Stones.

You will be hurt, you will be crushed. But love as though your life depends on it. Because, believe it or not, it does. And learn to trust only the right people. The problem is you will spend most of your life trusting the wrong people, one of whom will almost certainly be you. But you may eventually find the real pearls in the sand at the bottom of the sea. It may take you all your life.

You’ll be nipped at by sharks and stung by Portuguese men ‘o’ war. But you’ll keep moving. Believe there is a God. He’s out there, he’s in you. And you are not him. He likes to in-dwell. The Jesuit poet-priest Gerard Manley Hopkins understood this. God may be a pain in the ass but he’s all you’ve got at 4:30 on a cold, rainy night when it seems like death is a perfectly valid alternative to what you’re enduring. Sure–put your head in the stove and get it over with. Pick up that sharp knife and open your veins. Crack open a quart of vodka and pour it down your snout. God will know what’s in your heart, and he will know it’s not ill-intentioned, just desperate.

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The faith journey into Hell

I grew up with Fear as my God, found the Judaism of my birth in the late 1970s, and lost it again in the 1990s. For years I tried to practice my birth faith. Then, in 1997, it rejected me. I separated from my wife the weekend before Pesach and was living alone in an apartment in northern New Jersey. After years of willful exile, I needed to reconnect. I put out a desperate cry for help via email, the phone, and a mailing list because I needed to reunite with my spiritual center: or so I thought.

“Establishment” Judaism had no place for me at any table in New York or New Jersey. “Do not turn your back on the stranger because you were strangers in the land of Egypt.” How easily we forget!

I got one reply, from a rabbi (now deceased) in Pikesville, MD, who left a prepaid Metroliner ticket for me at Penn Station, along with an invitation to his home for the first Seder. “No Jew,” said Rabbi Mark Loeb to me, “should be alone on the first night of Pesach.” I went to what amounted to a glorious mustering-out party. When I returned to Jersey, “The long loneliness” described by the Servant of God Dorothy Day engulfed me again, worse than before. I began to get a sense that I was being drawn back to the attraction of The Cross, the same way it drew me in the 1970s. I did not want it. Separated or not, I had two children I had tried to raise as Jews. How could I do this? Better, how could I NOT? I could stay and shut up, become the same misery-ridden Jew as I was miserable husband. But that would not work either.

On a hot Sunday afternoon, June 15, 1997, I found myself praying aloud to Jesus with the promptings of a website called “Leaflets of Faith” (http://www.catholicmissionleaflets.org/). I was terrified and exhilarated at the same time. I began attending daily Masses in Manhattan, refusing to approach the railing for Communion even though nobody would know: God would and I would. I entered the Rite of Christian Initiation (RCIA) program at a local parish near my house.

People tried to talk me out of it. Someone I loved. Even a Franciscan priest who said the best man he ever met was his lapsed-Baptist father (yet he was now the Guardian of a vitally important Catholic parish in midtown Manhattan!). I persevered and was received into the Roman Catholic Church on April 11, 1998, at the Easter Vigil.

And I promptly ran into myself, a collection of disconnected synapses, neuroses, bipolar symptoms, and alcoholic behaviors. I was being torn apart by the same guilt that had driven me out of Judaism. Disloyal husband, indifferent father, out of control. Womanizer in the making and on the make. Short-cutting employee with a volatile temper. I made myself spiritually if not physically sick. I had a confessor who insisted I was violating God’s plan for me. But how could I know that? How could HE know that? A Jesuit I knew as a spiritual director tried to talk me off the ledge but he could not. I was bound on self-destruction with my soul if not via a weapon.

When I began to heal my alcoholism and manic-depression in late 1999 and early 2000, the guilt began to fade. So I changed denominations. Makes sense, right? You’re getting better so you allow yourself to relapse. Makes perfect sense. Yet…I was warmly received and warmly loved. I did not have to fight anymore.

And yet this was not about ME. Maybe there really was a plan and I was playing games around is margins by ignoring God’s requirements for me. Poverty (involuntary), chastity (not by choice, either), obedience–but to whom? Another Jesuit I met with several times suggested I was not supposed to get an easy ride into and through Faith, that it was supposed to be difficult. Well, it has been.

Every day since 1998 has been relentless pain. Oh, not because I abandoned Judaism–when I tried to go back in 2004 via the repentance of the mikveh, it did not take and I felt even worse than before. I have lived in lonely communion ever since. I fear I have sawed off the limb behind me and only now realize I have hit the ground head-first.

I present no definitive solutions for me or for anyone else. I know only that my defections and “flip-flops” made me more miserable than I ever imagined. My only hope is that there IS some hope.

I date my true fall into fear, into adherence to the Gospel of Wealth, and my subsequent fall into abject poverty, from that moment. Defiance? Recompense? Payback, I’ve heard, is Hell; and I’ve been in it now for years. I wonder daily why God has preserved my life, why he has allowed me sobriety regardless of this almost daily temptation to drink, why one day I am almost certain to relapse into the death of the spirit that I fear as much as I crave it as the end to this misery. The end to the fear of fear. The end of psychiatric hospitalization. The end of old age. The end of imprisonment.

I lost home, found home, abandoned home. Where am I now?

The Bottom, at last softly reached

Well, what does that mean?

A couple of months ago, the State of New Jersey halved my Unemployment compensation on the way to phasing it out entirely. The old fart with bad legs is supposed to go out and get a factory job or something like that. The amount I no longer get may not sound like a lot to many people, but to me it’s the line thin line between being able to eat and pay bills compared to what I’m facing now: food pantries. My checking account’s seriously overdrawn because I have “overdraft protection,” so the landlord cashed the rent check that was okay until I had to pay for other stuff–and yes, I do keep track, but all the bookkeeping on earth can’t help you conserve what isn’t there.

So yes, there’s still a meal left in the house for tonight. But tomorrow I’m going to have to go to a food pantry around the corner in Long Branch, one in fact where I used to go to church, to get food. I don’t even know how the system works. But I guess I’m going to find out.

The weird part is how I feel. I don’t feel mortified, embarrassed, or even particularly upset. I have no choice but to accept what’s become of my sub-poverty-line existence. I’ve long since run the gauntlet of shame, and that for things I actually did instead of for the termites that live in my head. Oh, I’d so love to go out and order a steak dinner tonight, but who’s kidding whom?–I didn’t budget steak even when I had the money.

So what I feel can best be expressed as a giant shrug.

There’s a wonderful Old English poem called “Deor” in which the speaker presumably has fallen from high social position to abject ruin recounts the other fallen figures who had shit dumped on them like they were characters in Monty Python and the Holy Grail. The last section is where the speaker, a former “scop” or court poet, gets personal about his own plight:

As for this singer, I will tell you
I once was the scop of Hoedeninga,
beloved of my Lord.  My name was Deor.
I spent many winters, gem of his retinue.
He valued my service, but now—Heorrenda—
master of poemcraft is gifted with landgift
my Lord and fair protector once gave to me.
That changed, this may too.

þæs ofereode,         þisses swa mæg!

Basically it means “That passed away so will this.”

There’s no self-pity in Deor and, I hope, none in me either.

This will pass away and the next thing will come up. And it too will pass.

Thoughts on bureaucratic terror

I called NJ Unemployment this morning to file my claim, only to discover that there are no more Extended Benefits even if there is money remaining in the claim.

Blam. Just like that. This is not a “Benefits Exhausted” announcement that leads to yet another tier of benefits. This appears to be the real deal this time. See, the employment situation has so improved in New Jersey (I was collecting from Jersey even when I was in Pennsylvania), that nobody needs extended benefits anymore. You can walk in to a company and have any job you want. Right.

I’m glad I filled my gasoline tank yesterday. I’m scared and getting a bit desperate. To answer the next question, no, I’m not having fun yet. The Housing Authority will reduce my rent, but then I have to buy food. Funny about that. Food is good.

I have to feed my cat. Funny about that, too. And no, I’ll be damned if I surrender him to the SPCA. It costs $100 to turn in an animal and I don’t have it–but he’s also my best friend, he’s 14 years old, and how could I do that to him by giving him a one-way ticket to euthanasia?

So I’ve started to reread The Book of Job. Don’t laugh too hard. This is an old building, after all. All I have left is desperation, trust, and as much prayer as I can muster.

I’m just plain scared.

Update: A day later I’m out of the woods, I think. I talked to a live person at Unemployment. Mistake or not, I’m not being turned out into the cold by the State. I can feed the cat and myself. I can gas up my car and go marketing. The whole situation remains scary and tenuous but it’s not an incipient disaster.

Last night I saw a guy at an AA meeting who turned my head around like I was the little girl in The Exorcist. He was from the visiting commitment and he led the meeting. He had no arms. Right. During an alcoholic episode years ago he fell under the wheels of a New Jersey Transit train and lost both arms. He holds a job now, using prosthetics. He may be the bravest man I’ve ever  met. Many people would just give up and die. This guy woke up and lived. He’s miraculous.

I don’t have much to complain about, do I?

Maybe Anne Frank was onto something

I lost my debit card last night. I didn’t realize it until I tried to pay for a meal I’d eaten in a local (to me) restaurant. The other card I carry was unacceptable because the processing system was down.

Thank God I had cash.

I immediately called the bank, killed the card, and requested a replacement. It would take a day or two and cost me money. Plus it would glom up a couple of outstanding business orders.

At 1:30 PM today I had to teach a class. I looked at the window on the door and there was a guy from MIS standing there holding my blue card. I was aghast.

Consideration and honesty always make me feel like that because I have a very low opinion of most human beings. Sad but true. The guy from MIS pointed at the young man who actually retrieved the card. I just shook my head like a bobblehead doll and said “Thank you” over and over.

Treacly, isn’t it?

What (or who) do I think of but Annelies Marie “Anne” Frank. “Despite everything, I believe that people are really good at heart.” I wonder if she thought that about the people who held her in terror and captivity in Amsterdam, Westerbork, Auschwitz, and Bergen-Belsen where she died.

Even now, more than sixty years after she died, the words bring tears. Some people act with selflessness and goodness, thereby defeating the oft-held assumption that people tend to be self-interested scum. I have to fight that belief every day.

Today someone taught me that Annelies Frank may have nailed it.

Now my confession: I have never read the book nor seen the movie. I’ve heard the movie is a real dog, but it’s time for me to read what I gather is one of the most profound and forgiving documents in any language.

Later for now.

Lent X: In Memoriam Dietrich Bonhoeffer. Grace, cheap perhaps.

bonhoefferI’m not used to this sort of thing. I like to hang around theological types but I don’t “get” theology because I have a terrible difficulty absorbing conceptual thought or reflection.

I’m aware the phrase “cheap grace” came from Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s The Cost of Discipleship. Dietrich Bonhoeffer happens to be one of my few heros because he had the courage to do something I could never do in a million years: as I heard it, he surrendered a tenured position at Union Theological Seminary in New York and returned to Germany to join the resistance against Hitler and the Nazis.

It is a total coincidence that I thought of Bonhoeffer this afternoon. That is to say, it was a coincidence if you believe such things are possible. I am far from sure about that.

Because on this day 64 years ago Dietrich Bonhoeffer was stripped naked and hanged from a gallows in the Flossenburg concentration camp, only weeks before the liberating armies of the U.S. and Great Britain. As much as I am certain he was not death obsessed and ripe for martyrdom, I think he knew he would not get out of the war alive.

I don’t entirely understand Bonhoeffer’s concept of grace, cheap or expensive. I am certain that cheap grace leaves us fundamentally unchanged, while authentic grace both changes us and exacts a heavy price. It required an amendment of life, or maybe, at the very least, a painful examination of where we are as opposed to where we should be.

The words of the Jesus Prayer that lives deeply inside the Orthodox Christian tradition: Jesus Christ, son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner. That’s all there is. You can say it with a prayer rope to aid the repetitions. You don’t need to. Because I suspect Bonhoeffer would agree with the fundamental premise: we are sinners. The best of us is sinful. Unless we confront it and own the totality of our errors, the harder it becomes to expiate those sins. They seem to keep piling up like spiritual dust bunnies that take over your house.

Cheap grace is obtained by perfunctory Confessions or Reconciliations. Maybe you cannot fool God but you can fool yourself and you can fool the priest hearing you. It is obtained by receiving the Host at the Eucharist and then going out and, having consumed the Body and Blood of Christ, and then returning to the round of personal and public betrayals, of screwing around and cheating others, of acting as though the sacrament alone would free us from the responsibility to behave morally. The Sacraments become freestanding and disconnected from our “real” lives which are of course infinitely more important than the dog and pony show that happens in church or in a reconciliation room. And so we indulge in the delusion that the grace we receive is the real deal when instead it’s a piece of dry wafer and a sip of wine. 

I am as much to blame as anyone. Why tonight I was sent these thoughts is beyond me. I suspect I am being enjoined to read Bonhoeffer. Not reread him, but actually surmount my learning disabilities and concept-phobic behavior and push through the unforgiving force of Bonhoeffer’s prose. In other words, start my spiritual practice or penance (we do we recoil at that word?) after Easter and start reading a theologian who greatly honored but I fear may go into unsettling territory.

Which only means he was doing his job. And maybe it’s time for me to help him.

May be the many Graces of this Easter–both pain and joy–be with all of us.