Heidi’s chapter “Solitude as Resistance” this week was my favorite yet. She wrote about Howard Thurman, who encouraged “solitary brooding” for Martin Luther King Jr.; Catherine of Siena, who emerged from her solitude to care for others; and Charles de Foucauld, a new-to-me saint. I am getting so much out of Holy Solitude during this season of Lent, and am sad that it is almost over. I intend to use it again in future Lents. Reflecting on Heidi’s excellent questions, I can revisit chapters and learn new things about the saints and my own spirituality.
I hope that I will read it again so that next time perhaps I can think about something other than John the Baptist. If you are a member of my church, St. David’s, you know that I. Am. Obsessed. So obsessed that my second Christmas at St. David’s, a parishioner made me a John the Baptist nutcracker. So obsessed that once Heidi mentioned JBap I could hardly pay attention to anything or anyone else.
This week I focused on Heidi’s question, “Have you known leaders who were both great contemplatives and great activists? What did you most admire about them?” My answer was John, John, John. But why? What do I admire most about him? This became a topic for Gary and my “rock walks” (I explained rock walks two weeks ago here) this week. I talked about how much I admire JBap’s authenticity. I admire that he is so hardcore.
One day on our walk I told Gary about a poem I had just read, “Instructions on Not Giving Up” by Ava Limón. Someone on Twitter had posted this poem on the first day of spring and said they read it every year. I had not read it before and was immediately captivated, especially because last year I felt like I missed spring: a friend had just died unexpectedly, the world shut down due to the pandemic, and a mass was found on my lungs, diagnosed as lung cancer, leading to a life-changing surgery and then chemo, all during spring. I wasn’t watching forsythia and daffodils and azaleas and hydrangeas the way I normally did. So this poem, about the greening of the trees, about not giving up, a slick leaf unfurling like a fist saying fine then, I’ll take it all: I felt like she wrote it just for me.
I told Gary about this and he said, “That’s why you love John the Baptist: he is like spring.”
Now, I’ve told you before that my natural reaction to anything Gary says is “no.” So I thought, no, John the Baptist is not like spring. He is dark and brooding and would probably be a lot less fun to hang out with than Jesus.
“His message is simple,” Gary said. “Let’s face it: sometimes Jesus can be turgid and dense with all of those parables. John just says, repent.”
“Repent you brood of vipers,” I said.
“Still simple,” he pointed out.
“And make the paths straight,” I said. And yes, that is simple.
Gary’s right: I love that John the Baptist’s message is easy to explain. I love how John the Baptist prepares for Jesus. Even though I associate John with Advent, he is something like spring and new life, and I am feeling spring this year like never before. I am learning, in the words of that poem, “a return of the strange idea of continuous living despite the mess of us, the hurt, the empty.” All of my surgeries and radiation and chemo of the past year led to this new life for me. Continuous living out of the mess. When I graduated virtually from an MFA program in November, I felt strange, since it had been decades since I had first dreamed of earning an MFA. One of my fellow graduates, Holly Beck, sent me a keychain that reads “My story is just beginning.” That sentiment continues to touch me. I’ve lived a lot and been through a lot and have a 65% chance of being dead in four years, yet like spring, my story is just beginning.
I love not only the springtime JBap but the wintry one too: the one in prison. JBap seemed so clear about who Jesus was back when they were both babies and John leapt in Elizabeth’s womb. Back at the Jordan River, John had been clear about who John was and was not (i.e., John was not the Messiah) as well as who Jesus was. But then in the Gospel of Luke, after John had languished in prison, he sent his disciples to ask Jesus, “Are you the one who is to come?”
I love John the Baptist because he was so committed and everything was so clear for him, and I love that he wavered later. Spiritually strong people who spend serious time in solitude can still waver, can have their faith shaken. That gives me hope.
Heidi kicked off her Solitude as Resistance chapter with Jesus withdrawing regularly to rest and pray, and she wondered if being a “PK” (priest’s kid) caused JBap to withdraw to the desert to pray. I had never considered this about John the Baptist before and have enjoyed ruminating on his reasons for withdrawal. (Thanks, Heidi!) I also can’t help but think of other biblical beloveds. This week I wrote about Miriam for a project and found myself thinking about the time she was shut out of the camp for seven days in Numbers 12. What was that time of solitude in the wilderness like for Miriam? Did she wonder why she was being punished while Aaron was not? Did she worry that the people would resume their desert wandering without her?
I’ll write again on Good Friday. I know we will be in good hands with Heidi until then.
What I’m Writing:
Last Sunday’s sermon was about some Greeks wanting to see Jesus and God’s teaching being written on the people’s hearts.
What I’m Reading:
Ackerman, Susan. Warrior, Dancer, Seductress, Queen: Women in the Book of Judges. I read pieces of this book this week for a project. Fascinating.
Gafney, Wilda. Womanist Midrash: A Reintroduction to the Women of the Torah. Same as the title above. Lots of good Miriam material.
Haverkamp, Heidi. Holy Solitude: Lenten Reflections with Saints, Hermits, Prophets, and Rebels. This book has been the focus of this newsletter.
Fentress-Williams, Judy. Holy Imagination: A Literary and Theological Introduction to the Whole Bible. Dr. Fentress-Williams was my MDiv thesis advisor years ago in seminary, and this book makes me feel like I’m learning in her classroom again. She was instrumental in teaching me to love the Old Testament.
Frymer-Kensky, Tikva. Reading the Women of the Old Testament: A New Interpretation of Their Stories. Again, this is helping me with a particular writing project. I’ve had it for a long time, and it’s a keeper.
Limón, Ada. The Carrying: Poems. My new favorite poem (linked above) is in this collection.
Miller, Reuben Jonathan. Halfway Home: Race, Punishment, and the Afterlife of Mass Incarceration. I started reading this book last weekend and was excited to hear the author being interviewed on NPR while driving home one afternoon this week. Now I can hear the book in his voice. Tough topic beautifully written. I woke up thinking about this book today.
Wharton, Edith. The Mother’s Recompense My MFA thesis advisor, Dr. Elaine Neil Orr, recommended this book last week on Twitter, so of course I had to pick it up.