For some, the road to conversion is quick, immediate, unmediated. Angels appear in the sky; a voice is spoken; if lucky, we hear.
But for some of us, the road has been less direct. There is also deconversion, a leaving behind and a reconsideration of the past; hesitations as we progress. We stumble. The signs along the road reveal themselves to have a multiplicity of meanings. Although we engage in the sacraments and practice the pieties, the conviction moves between disinterest and passion.
My own conversion, a slow turning into the tradition, came less though an immediate experience of the transcendent (although I’ve had a few). It was enhanced and guided through the steady reading of a rigorous literary tradition. Cultural critics such as Christopher Lasch, Marshall McCluhan, and Neil Postman; poets like Robert Browning and WH Auden; novelists Marilynne Robinson and Annie Dillard -are just a few writers who have led me to this well spring that I now inhabit. This, combined with the social gospel tradition, has kept my interest. And throughout my working life as a priest I’ve sought writers who wrote beyond the easy caricatures or archetypes of cast before us in culture, as this atheist author describes the work of Marilynne Robinson in the New Yorker.
Certainly I was primed in my house by combination of progressive politics, literature and poetry; and I was not hindered or overwhelmed by any sort of institutional abuse that rendered me unable to hear what was said. This journey as someone who trusts the tradition, as “a person of faith,” has sometimes seemed solitary. My family is content with the blessings of secularism, samsara and sensuality, and for them I am glad. They remain wary, for good reason, of American Christianity’s provinciality, a small-mindedness I’m eager to break.
In this context I recently participated in the Glen Workshop at Mount Holyoke College. It’s organized by Image Journal, a literary magazine that comes out of Seattle Pacific University. It’s focus: arts and faith in the tradition of Religious Humanism – especially as framed by an incarnational theology as traditionally described in the Orthodox, Catholic and Anglican traditions, but with a broad appeal across the ecumenical spectrum.
I took a class on memoir taught by Lauren Winner, who demonstrated generosity, depth and insight as a teacher. She explained how the practice of writing is a way of discerning the truth; of uncovering our self-deception; of challenging and owning our fragility. Seeming to address my own most immediate concern, she clarified how memoir is not autobiography. It’s a task, a story, written from a first person perspective. The narrator is a character; and not necessarily the protagonist. These short nuggets of wisdom are not exhaustive. Certainly each one deserves its own comment.
Of course, a good part of the course was listening to the wisdom and insight of the class. The workshop provided some space for us to explore difficult transitions and conflicts with people who were magnanimous. We took each other seriously – not that we didn’t share in laughter – but we knew that we were in a space of trust, where people could receive and speak criticism in order to sharpen our work.
Gregory Wolfe has gathered exceptional writers and teachers who are seriously engaged in the tradition of Christian Humanism. I would suggest to anyone active in the church and the arts consider the Glen Workshop. It’s one I will look forward to participating on a regular basis, even if not as a workshop, but as a retreat.
I mistakenly called it a “conference,” to an eight year old. My friend Katy’s daughter, Olivia, then asked me if the conference was boring. She then asked me if they had waterslides. Which they did not. Such a lack did not severely disengage me from the workshop and most likely I would have been to shy to try it out if they had them.
One of the poets mentioned in one of the lectures was Robert Browning. As I participated, I kept remembering the following poem, which seemed to describe the heart of the workshop’s work and theology. I was glad to be with people who were at home in this effervescent, magnanimous and joyous land of words and images within the broad swath of the tradition. Beyond the miserliness in the current climate, here are words of redemption.
The world is charged with the grandeur of God.
It will flame out, like shining from shook foil;
It gathers to a greatness, like the ooze of oil
Crushed. Why do men then now not reck his rod?
Generations have trod, have trod, have trod;
And all is seared with trade; bleared, smeared with toil;
And wears man’s smudge |&| shares man’s smell: the soil
Is bare now, nor can foot feel, being shod.
And for all this, nature is never spent;
There lives the dearest freshness deep down things;
And though the last lights off the black West went
Oh, morning, at the brown brink eastward, springs —
Because the Holy Ghost over the bent
World broods with warm breast |&| with ah! bright wings.