Dietrich Bonhoeffer on Praying the Psalms

Bonhoeffer on PsalmsIn 1940 Dietrich Bonhoeffer published his little book about praying the Psalms, titled  Psalms: The Prayer Book of the Bible.  This emphasis on the value of the Hebrew scriptures offended the Nazi party and led to the closure of the underground seminary that Bonhoeffer led as well as imposition of a fine.  Just a few years later, Bonhoeffer would be arrested and eventually executed.

It’s interesting to consider how Bonhoeffer’s thoughts about praying the Psalms arose in the context of the intense communal environment of the underground seminary and the resistance to the rise of the Nazi movement in Germany.

Bonhoeffer begins this little volume with exploring the yearning to learn how to pray.  Prayer is not simply speaking:

“Prayer does not mean simply to pour out one’s heart. It means rather to find the way to God and speak with him, whether the heart is full or empty.  No man can do that by himself.  For that he needs Jesus Christ.”

He speaks of “the agony of prayerlessness” – having that yearning to speak to God, but not having words.  Christ teaches us the words through the Psalms.  Just as the child learns to speak by listening to his parents speak, so we learn to pray by listening to Christ pray through the psalms.  Bonhoeffer’s idea is that the psalms are all summed up in the Lord’s prayer, and, by extension, they are all commentary on what Christ taught in the Lord’s prayer:

“Whatever is included in the petitions of the Lord’s prayer is prayed aright: whatever is not included is no prayer.  All the prayers of Holy Scripture are summarized in the Lord’s Prayer.”

Bonhoeffer extends the idea by positing that Christ prays the psalms for all of us.  Christ suffered every weakness and temptation, yet without sin.  He presents humanity before God in the Psalms. When we pray the psalms, we are actually praying alongside Christ and he is presenting our prayers to the Father:

“Therefore it is the prayer of human nature assumed by him which comes here before God.  It is really our prayer, but since he knows us better than we know ourselves and since he himself was true man for our sakes, it is also really his prayer, and it can become our prayer only because it was his prayer.”

Bonhoeffer also encourages communal use of the Psalms.  He suggests daily usage and memorization of the Psalms.  The ancient church, he reminds us, was saturated in praying the Psalms.  Jerome’s introduction to the psalter was especially important all through the early church and into the medieval era.

“Whenever the Psalter is abandoned, an incomparable treasure vanishes from the Christian church.  With its recovery will come unsuspected power.”

Then, Bonhoeffer goes through different types of psalms, offering pity and useful comments about each of them.  Just a few examples to whet your appetite

On Psalms of Creation:

“The creation Psalms are not lyrical poems, but instruction for the people of God in which, coming to know the grace of salvation, they are led to know and honor the Creator of the world.”

On Psalms about the Law:

“It is grace to know God’s commands.  They release us from self-made plans and conflicts. They make our steps certain and our way joyful.”

On Psalms of Suffering:

“There is in the Psalms no quick and easy resignation to suffering.  There is always struggle, anxiety, doubt.”

On Psalms of Guilt:

“It is an abbreviation and endangering of Christian prayer if it revolves exclusively around the forgiveness of sins. There is such a thing as the confident leaving behind of sin for the sake of Jesus Christ.”

The book closes abruptly with a little exhortation to practice morning prayer:

“The morning prayer determines the day. Squandered time of which we are ashamed, temptations to which we succumb, weaknesses and lack of courage in work, disorganization and lack of discipline in our thoughts and in our conversation with other men, all have their origin most often in the neglect of morning prayer.”

While Bonhoeffer at times over-emphasizes a point here or there, overall, he presents for us a little treasure of practical Christian living.  This brief book could be easily read in an evening, but hopefully it ignites a lifetime of praying the psalms and encountering God through them.


Francis Lieber on the Preservation of Cultural Heritage


Francis Lieber - Brady-Handy.jpg

Photo By Mathew Brady – Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division. Brady-Handy Photograph Collection. CALL NUMBER: LC-BH82- 4591 C <P&P>[P&P], Public Domain, Link

One of the great unsung heroes of the West is philosopher, historian, and educator Francis Lieber.  He is most renowned for his work on the Lieber Code, which was a manual of conduct for Union soldiers during the Civil war.  In this Code, he advocated for humane treatment of prisoners of war, protection of emancipated slaves, and ethical treatment of civilian non-combatants.

Among the provisions of the Lieber Code was the instruction to take efforts to reserve artifacts of cultural heritage and importance:

“Classical works of art, libraries, scientific collections, or precious instruments, such as astronomical telescopes, as well as hospitals, must be secured against all avoidable injury, even when they are contained in fortified places whilst besieged or bombarded.”

Archaeology Magazine recounts how, 80 years later, Eisenhower reiterated the importance of preserving cultural heritage while Allied Armies marched toward Berlin:

“To-day we are fighting in a country which has contributed a great deal to our cultural inheritance, a country rich in monuments which by their creation helped and now in their old age illustrate the growth of the civilization which is ours. We are bound to respect those monuments so far as war allows.”

The film Monuments Men offers a historical fiction portrayal of the scholars and researchers that Eisenhower sent out to retrieve the cultural heritage that had been plundered by the Nazi elite.

All this is a beautiful illustration of how our cultural heritage passes along the values which have been bequeathed to us.  We preserve these things, even in war, because we recognize that there is great worth in preserving the wisdom, the artistry, and the perspectives of the past.





Simone Weil on Force

Simone Weil

By Unknown – website, Public Domain, Link

Alan Jacobs’ recent book The Year of Our Lord 1943 offers a rich tour through the thought of the great mid-20th century Christian Humanist thinkers.  Nestled in this volume is a discussion of Simone Weil’s essay on the Iliad, in which she outlines the basic human state as being subject to force:





“The true hero, the true subject, the center of the Iliad is force.  Force employed by man, force that enslaves man, force before which man’s flesh shrinks away.  In this work, at all times, the human spirit is shown as modified by its relations with force, as swept away, blinded by the very force it imagined it could handle, as deformed by the weight of the force it submits to.”

This struggle with the powers unleashed by force is at the root of the human condition.  She suggests that some will blithely think that progress moves force from human history.  Others with clarity see that force is “at the very center of human history.”

None of us are exempt from having to deal with force.  We have to learn to deal with it wisely and well.  This, I think, is at the heart of what Jordan Peterson talks about when he teaches about coming to grips with the shadow self.

And yet the wise use of force is a terrifying challenge:

“The moderate use of force, which would alone enable man to escape being enmeshed in its machinery, would require superhuman virtue, which is as rare as dignity in weakness.”

Perhaps this is why gentleness is pictured biblically as a fruit of the spirit – it is only by divine guidance that we can wisely learn to use strength, to not use force in a destructive, but rather a constructive manner.

Rudolf Otto on Music and Transcendence

RudolfOtto.jpgTheologian Rudolf Otto’s The Idea of the Holy is a masterful exploration of the religious emotions.   He makes the bold claim that religious feelings are unique, supra rational experiences that cannot be reduced to other human emotions.

In making his argument, he offers some analogies with other irreducible feelings – chief among them being the emotions evoked by music.

Otto offers this assessment of the effect of great music, for those who are open to experiencing it:

 “It releases a blissful rejoicing in us, and we are conscious of a glimmering, billowy agitation occupying our minds, without being able to express or explain in concepts what it really is that moves us so deeply.”

From this description, he addresses the idea that the music gets its power by calling to mind other human emotions like loss or joy:

“And to say that the music is mournful or exultant, that it incites or restrains, is merely to use signs by analogy, choosing them for their resemblance to the matter in hand out of other regions of our mental life; and at any rate we cannot say what the object or ground of this mourning or exulting may be.  Music, in short, arouses in us an experience and vibrations of mood that are quite specific in kind and must simply be called ‘musical’…”(48)

The experience of music, asserts Otto, is a thing in of itself.  We can draw analogies with other emotions.  And certainly we can blend the musical emotions with other emotions to increase the power of both (as in song, opera, musical theater, or incidental music).  However, Otto insists that music elicits within us a primal response unto itself:

“…the real content of music is not drawn from the ordinary human emotions at all, and that it is in no way merely a second language, alongside the usual one, by which these emotions find expression.  Musical feeling is rather … something ‘wholly other’, which, while it affords analogies and here and there will run parallel to the ordinary emotions of life, cannot be made to coincide with them by a detailed point-to-point correspondence…”(49)

To bolster his argument, Otto references how some people talk about music as enchanting, creating a spell that binds the audience to their seats.  Anyone who has been in a particularly effective concert knows this feeling of being spellbound by a masterful musician.  Otto makes use of this experience to further his argument:

 “… the spell of a composed song arises by a blending of verbal and musical expression.  But the very fact that we attribute to it a spell, an enchantment, points in itself to that ‘woof’ in the fabric of music of which we spoke, the woof of the unconcieved and non-rational.” (49)

Otto is quick, however, to point out that the experience of music and the experience of the presence of the transcendent God are two different experiences that should not be conflated:

“But we must beware of confounding in any way the non-rational of music and the non-rational of the numinous itself, as Schopenhauer, for example, does.  Each is something in its own right, independently of the other.” (49)

Otto is right here – I believe that God designed us to respond in particular ways to music and the arts.  These responses are not religious feelings in of themselves, but they prepare us for religious feelings.  They shape our hearts and minds to hunger for things that are beyond the material, things that are beyond the rational.

Otto’s discussion calls to mind Jose Abreu’s belief in the transformational power of music.  It also reminds me of the distinction of art as ideology vs art as experience.

Who has inspired you to think about music more deeply or experience God more richly through music or the arts?

Ed Wynn on Gratitude

Comedian Ed Wynn (1886-1966) was one of the great figures bridging the divide from vaudeville to the golden age of cinema.  Younger audiences remember him as the voice of the Mad Hatter in Disney’s Alice in Wonderland or as Uncle Albert in Mary Poppins.

In addition to delighting audiences with his buffoonery and verve, Wynn is well known for his quips about the nature of comedy:

A comedian is not a man who opens a funny door.  He opens a door funny.

I recently encountered Ed Wynn on an old episode of the Twilight Zone, titled “One for the Angels.”  In it, Wynn delivers a charming, heartfelt performance as an aged salesman with a soft spot in his heart for the children of his neighborhood.  It led me down a rabbit trail searching out information about Wynn’s life.

Of particular interest is his gravestone.   His ashes are interred in the Great Mausoleum in Forest Lawn cemetery in Glendale.   His memorial marker, fittingly reads

Dear God:  Thanks…..    Ed Wynn

Ed Wynn Grave.JPG
By Arthur DarkOwn work, CC BY-SA 4.0, Link

A marvelous message to go out with, isn’t it?

And a great reminder to be grateful all the days of our lives.


Helena, Mother of Constantine and imagining ourselves in the heroes of faith

Eleanor Parker, who writes A Clerk of Oxford blog put up a series of Tweets commemorating Helena, mother of Emperor Constantine.

Helena (c250-c330 AD) is a fascinating figure. When she was around 80, she led a team of archaeologists in excavation of many important sites in the Holy Land.  In her search for relics, she and her team relied heavily on local oral tradition to determine sites of import.  Among the many significant sites that she explored, the most significant is the site of Jesus Crucifixion, commemorated under today’s Church of the Holy Sepulcher.

A few decades after the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 AD, Emperor Hadrian ordered the construction of a pagan temple, which local tradition said was built over the site of the crucifixion/empty tomb.  Helena and her team excavated there and found topography that matched what is described in the Bible – an outcropping of rock, remnants of an ancient stone quarry, that lay outside the ancient city walls.

There, it is said, Helena discovered the relic of the true cross of Christ.   In Christian iconography, she is depicted holding the relic of cross.

I have long been intrigued by Helena because of a lovely painting that hangs in the Cincinnati Art Museum.  Painted by Lucas Cranach (1472-1553), a friend of Martin Luther and supporter of the Protestant Reformation, this depiction shows Helena in the lush garb of a 16th century German noblewoman.  I imagine this wardrobe anachronism would have invited the 16th viewers to consider Helena’s relevance to their lives.  Perhaps they could have envisioned themselves in Helena’s role, pursuing Helena’s quest.  It would be like depicting Helena in the garb of a contemporary wealthy adventurer.  I wonder what it would be like if we pictured Helena as Lara Croft, the contemporary heroine of the Tomb Raider franchise?

Helena Cropped Photo

St Helena with the Cross by Lucas Cranach the Elder.  Cincinnati Art Museum.  Photo by Russell Smith


This is where Eleanor Parker threw me for a loop.  In her Twitter thread, she informs us of the English Medieval legends about Helena.   Though Helena was likely actually from Turkey, the English have a legend that she was British, the daughter of the famed King Coel of Colchester, who is remembered in the nursery rhyme as a merry old soul.

Parker also introduces us to the Anglo-Saxon poem”Elene” which recounts Helena’s quest for the true cross.  It begins as pure Anglo-Saxon poetry with battles and blood and courage and bluster, and then it morphs into a detective story with Helena teasing out the riddle of where the cross could be found.  In this poem, she’s depicted as a stern and keenly intelligent “queen of warfare.”  It must be acknowledged that the poem also features some pretty serious anti-semitic elements that are common to medieval literature.  It seems that depictions of Helena reflect not just the aspirations of an era, but also the flaws.

If you’re interested in how iconography communicates hopes and longings, you might also check out the post about the Gemma Augustea   a lovely example of Roman imperial branding and iconography.   You might also follow up with the post about the Icons in the Church of St John the Baptist in Jerusalem.




Rudolf Otto on the Supra-Rational Aspect of Faith


Rudolf Otto

Rudolf Otto (25 September 1869 – 6 March 1937) published his masterpiece The Idea of the Holy in 1917.  It has been in print ever since.  Otto’s work gives us a vocabulary for understanding the experience of what the Bible calls “the fear of the Lord.”

He begins with a caution that before exploring the mystery of faith, we need a thorough grounding in the rationality rationality of faith.  Rationality is the realm of theology and orthodoxy.   Rationality is what sets apart belief from impulse, grouping belief upon data and objective content.

“… we count this the very mark and criterion of a religions’ high rank and superior value … that it should admit knowledge – the knowledge that comes by faith – of the transcendent in terms of conceptual thought…. Christianity not only possesses such conceptions but possesses them in unique clarity and abundance, and this is, though not the sole or even the chief, yet a very real sign of its superiority over religions of other forms and at other levels.  This must be asserted at the outset and with the most positive emphasis.” (1)

Otto cautions, however, that we must guard against the error of thinking that the essence of God can be given in completely and exhaustively rational terms.   Our communication about God’s character is in language and is subject to rational definition, however the very very existence of  language implies a subject that the language points to.  Our language about God is a result, a response, an attempt to summarize and systematize the great Subject which is (or rather, who is)  Supra-rational, pre-rational, and encompasses more than rationality.  In speaking about God, rationality is not to be despised, nor is it insufficient, but it is not comprehensive.  There is more to know about God than what can be rationally expressed.

Even so, there must be a way of talking about and expressing that which is beyond rationality:

“Yet, though it eludes the conceptual way of understanding, it must be in some way or other within our grasp, else absolutely nothing could be asserted of it.  And even mysticism, in speaking of it as … the ineffable, does not really mean to imply that absolutely nothing can be asserted of the object of the religious consciousness; otherwise mysticism could exist only in unbroken silence, whereas what has generally be a characteristic of the mystics is the copious eloquence.” (2)

In Otto’s understanding, rationalism is not the denial of the miraculous.  Rationalism can admit the miraculous does happen.  Indeed the rationalist Christian must explain his understanding of the miraculous in great detail.

Otto says of the contrast of rationalism and supra-rationalism:

“[it] resolves itself rather into a peculiar difference of quality in the mental attitude and emotional content of the religious life itself.  All depends upon this: in our idea of God is the non-rational overborne, perhaps wholly excluded, by the rational?  Or conversely, does the non rational itself preponderate over the rational?”  (3)

In trying to pin down a good vocabulary for this supra-rational experience in faith, Otto begins with the concept of holiness.  “Holy,” in all of its linguistic variants, has a moral component.  But Otto suggests that the term also implies something more than morality  Indeed, he asserts that the earliest usages of the word holy have focused on the “something more” and the moral component was a later addition.  This is not to say that the moral component is wrong, but rather that the moral component only comes on the heels of an experience of the qualitatively different nature of God’s character.

To convey the experience of this qualitative difference, Otto settles on the term “numinous.”  This, he suggests, is a primary mental state.  It is irreducible.  Like other qualities, it can be discussed, but it cannot be strictly defined.  One can be led to consider it, but one cannot be forced.

“We can co-operate in this process by bringing before his notice all that can be found in other regions of the mind, already known and familiar, to resemble, or again to afford some special contrast to, the particular experience we wish to elucidate….[It] cannot, strictly speaking, be taught, it can only be evoked, awakened in the mind; as everything that comes ‘of the spirit’ must be awakened.” (7)

I believe that Otto’s observations reflect the truth that the encounter with this “something other” is not an impersonal encounter, but a personal encounter with a personal divinity.

As Otto reaches for categories to describe what he means by the experience of the numinous, he directs the reader to think of a religious experience.  If you can’t do this, Otto says, then read no further, for this book will not be of use.  This, I think, is a fascinating request in an academic work.

The first aspect of the numinous experience is the what Otto calls the “creature feeling” or “creature consciousness”

“It is the emotion of a creature, submerged and overwhelmed by its own nothingness in contrast to that which is supreme above all creatures.” (10)

This creature conscious is as a response to being in the presence of something outside the self.  It is a response to an encounter, not a manufactured emotional state from within.   Otto labels the object to which the numinous is a response as the “Mysterium Tremendum”

We respond to this encounter with the Mysterium Tremendous with some of the deepest religious feelings: “faith until salvation, trust, love”

“But over and above these is an element which may also on occasion, quite apart from them, profoundly affect us and occupy the mind with a welling bewildering strength….The feeling of it may at times come sweeping like a gentle tide, pervading the mind with a tranquil mood of deepest worship.  It may pass over into a more set and lasting attitude of the soul, continuing, as it were, thrillingly vibrant and resonant, until at last it dies away and the soul resumes its ‘profane,’ non-religious mood of everyday experience.  It may burst in sudden eruption up from the depths of the soul with spasms and convulsions, or lead to the strangest excitements, to intoxicated frenzy, to transport, and to ecstasy….” (12)

Otto says that the concept of mysterium is a negative one – not identified by what can be known, but by the unknown – that which is beyond experience and understanding.  However this mysterium leaves traces in the form of positive feelings:

The feeling of awfulness:  The fear of the Lord in the OT is qualitatively different from fear of material things.  It reflects a deep inward shuddering.  It is a sense of the uncanny.

“It has something spectral in it … all ostensible explanations of the origin of religions in terms of animism or magic or folk-psychology are doomed from the outset to wander astray and miss the real goal of their inquiry, unless they recognize this fact of our nature – primary, unique, underivable from anything else – to be the basic factor and the basic impulse underlying the entire process of religious evolution.” (15)

Otto cite’s Luther’s statement that the natural man cannot fear God perfectly, and then adds:

“…we ought to go farther and add that the natural man is quite unable even to ‘shudder’ or feel horror in the real sense of the world.  For ‘shuddering’ is something more than ‘natural’ ordinary fear.  It implies that the mysterious is already beginning to loom before the mind, to touch the feelings.” (15)

Otto says that this inward shudder is found in the “Holy, Holy, Holy” of Revelation and in the hymn of Ltersteegen:  “God himself is present/Heart, be stilled before him:  Prostrate inwardly adore him.”    It reaches its perfection, Otto suggests, in a sense mystical awe.

The feeling of majestas: Here Otto conveys the idea of “absolute unapproachability.”   He describes this sense by calling attention to the difference between awareness of created-ness and awareness of creature hood.  The is awareness of being created.  The second is the feeling of general impotence in the face of divine might.  This is the consciousness of “the littleness of every creature in face of that which is above all creatures.” (22)

The feeling of “energy” or urgency:  Otto describes this as experiencing the living God who acts in history.  This is the assertion that God is dynamic and active rather than the Aristotelian great unmoved mover.

These are thoughts from the first five chapters of Otto’s great work.  Check it out yourself  for more.

You might complement these thoughts with Drew Bratcher’s thoughts on Marilynne Robinson and the pervasiveness of meaning.  Then follow up with Nicole Cliffe’s story of her spiritual experience.