A monk turns 90

A reflection by Jamie Howison

Over the past weekend, Jamie Howison traveled to St John’s Abbey in Collegeville, Minnesota, to take part in the celebrations marking the 90th birthday of Fr. Kilian McDonnell. Kilian is a monk of St John’s, and over his long teaching career he made a significant mark as a theologian. At the age of 75, he took up writing poetry, and has now published four volumes of his original work. Along with poetry and theology, he has also been deeply committed to the ecumenical enterprise, and is the founder of The Collegeville Institute for Ecumenical and Cultural Research.

As part of the celebrations, four panelists were invited to offer very personal reflections on the relationship between theology, ecumenism, and poetry; the the three passions which have marked Kilian McDonnell’s intellectual career. At the request of Donald Ottenhoff, the Collegeville Institute’s director, the panelists were invited to consider a “thought experiment:” “Theology, ecumenism, and poetry are seated, drinks in hand, and talking amicably around an Institute fireplace. What family resemblances do you (or do you not) see among them?” What follows here is panelist Jamie Howison’s contribution to the discussion.

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I want to begin with a consideration of Don Ottenhoff’s ‘Thought Experiment,” though for me, an interesting way to get at the question is to ask, “What are they drinking?”

Fifty years ago, you might have been hard-pressed to get these three to so informally sit down together, much less for drinks by the fireplace. Had you somehow managed to persuade the three to order beverages, Theology would have opted for a strong yet still very sensible German lager; Poetry might have asked for an appropriately existential and tragic absinthe; and afraid of giving offense to anyone, Ecumenism would have just asked for water.  Here in Collegeville in 2011 the story is quite different. Still leaning toward the artful and creative, Poetry is delighted to find available a traditional honey mead, brewed on the Holy Island of Lindisfarne. While still very much a beer drinker, Theology is no longer quite so attached to German lager. The order this time is for a Fat Tire Amber Ale brewed in Colorado by New Belgium, though Theology also has eye on a pint of English-made India Pale Ale. Ecumenism has stopped trying to please everyone, and has ordered a rather bracing and peaty Laphroig single malt whisky, cut with just a splash of spring water.

That’s not to say that the conversation is without its challenges, and, truth be told, because over the past decade Ecumenism has found itself a bit battered, there was this moment when rather than ordering that dram of single malt it almost lost nerve and asked for an altogether harmless peach and white wine sangria.  Yet emboldened by the orders placed by Theology and Poetry, and cheered by the hospitable atmosphere of St John’s Abbey and the Collegeville Institute, the single malt won out. And a good thing too.

In The Astonished Heart, Robert Farrar Capon makes the observation that the problem with the way in which the official church judicatories have typically driven ecumenical initiatives is that “everybody will get his or her favorite drink, but only at the price of swallowing something that tastes awful.” Yet if freed from the needs of the judicatories and carried out in a more collegial and conversational atmosphere, each partner can still have his or her drink of choice, without any one of them having to swallow anything for which they’ve not developed a taste. This conversation unfolds in good spirits—pun intended—and in the case of our thought experiment, these three are pretty sure that the evening won’t end until they’ve collectively put away a decent bottle of vintage port; something precious and rare, which all three are quite eager to savour.

Well, I’ve now stretched Don’s image to its breaking point, and I really should take up his invitation to offer a first-person account of how this trinity of theology, poetry, and ecumenism has worked its way out in my own faith and thought.

I have exercised ministry as a priest of the Anglican Church of Canada for just over twenty-three years now, and in that time I have found myself working and ministering across what seem to be increasingly fluid lines of denomination and tradition. This includes work as a chaplain to an adolescent treatment centre run by the Roman Catholic Sisters of the Good Shepherd, campus ministry, and six years as the pastor to a fully amalgamated Anglican and Lutheran congregation. My current ministry is as the pastoral leader of saint benedict’s table, an Anglican liturgical community filled with people formed in the Anabaptist and evangelical Protestant traditions. Along the way, I have lectured at the Canadian Mennonite University, led worship at a Salvationist college, preached in a Baptist church, and done two stints as a short-term scholar here at the Collegeville Institute.

At risk of oversimplification, I would say that the main reason that I’ve been able to live such a practical ecumenism has to do with the manner in which a poetic imagination has impressed upon my theology both an expansiveness and a kind of humility. As Amos Niven Wilder asserts in his remarkable little book Theopoetic, “When imagination fails doctrines become ossified, witness and proclamation wooden, doxologies and litanies empty, consolations hollow, and ethics legalistic.”  I have found that imagination keeps me theologically limber, and in a position to appreciate Robert Capon’s image of the theological task as being a hunt for the Divine Fox; for One who will remain always elusive and impossible to corner, yet in pursuit of whom the greatest joy is to be found.

Though I was raised in an upper-case “E” Evangelical church tradition—a tradition not generally associated with either a poetic imagination or a particularly generous ecumenism—in my own family household room was made for both. Imagination was something very highly valued, so unlike many raised in my tradition, as children we read fairy tales right alongside of bible stories, we went to movies, and believed in Santa Claus. At the age of ten, my appetite for the Hardy Boys gave way to a passion for Narnia (and later for Middle Earth), stories which lit my imagination on fire. In my family, that was considered a good thing.

We were also raised to see denominational lines as being in some sense meaningless; what mattered was whether or not you believed Jesus to be Lord. That even extended to Catholicsof all people, and I remember my grandfather telling us that we’ll all be surprised by how many Catholics we will meet in heaven. Though that now sounds a bit patronizing, it was quite a statement from someone shaped by the fundamentalism of the early and mid-1900s.

During high school I found myself increasingly restless in my church tradition, and so during my first year at university I set out to find my own spiritual home. At the invitation of a friend, I ended up at a fairly traditional Anglican parish where I quickly found myself caught up in the drama and poetry of the liturgy. Could I be an Anglican of all things? You see, in many ways I was a rather earnest young man, with most of my default settings set according to my upper-case “E” Evangelical roots. I arranged a series of appointments with the parish priest, to see what he could tell me about what this church really believed. I wasn’t entirely sure what I was hoping to find, but I did need to know that these Anglicans were real Christians. What do they believe anyways? I was looking for reading material—maybe an introduction to Anglicanism or some volume of theology—and he gave me novels. First it was War in Heaven and thenDescent into Hell by Charles Williams, later C.S. Lewis’s Till We Have Faces. He had me read a bit of T.S. Eliot and W.H. Auden, and when he finally did get me to read a more explicitly theological work, it was back to Charles Williams for his very literate and poetic book, TheDescent of the Dove: a History of the Holy Spirit in the Church.

This was brilliant pastoral move on the part of a canny spiritual director. He offered me the very thing that undergirds Wilder’s Theopoetic: “Before the message there must be the vision, before the sermon the hymn, before the prose the poem.” As I continued on my spiritual, intellectual and ultimately vocational formation, there were other teachers and mentors who sounded similar chords; a professor in my undergraduate program, who taught a remarkable course on modern literature and the quest for faith; Margaret O’Gara at St Michael’s College in Toronto, whose lectures on the Triune God were a demonstration of theology as doxology; Walter Brueggemann’s insistence in just about everything he’s ever written that imagination is at once liberating and subversive, and a means through which God will have God’s way with us. And I have soaked myself in music and literature, both of which continue to keep me theologically limber and generous.

In terms of vocation, I am first and foremost a priest of the church. My primary theological work is as a preacher, and my primary artistic and poetic work is carried out in the context of the liturgy. However, due in part to the support and encouragement of the Collegeville Institute, I have also come to understand writing to be a significant and even indispensible part of my priestly vocation. I am currently in the final stages of tidying up the final draft of a book titled God’s Mind in That Music: Theological Explorations Through the Music of John Coltrane,a project that would never have been conceived had this holy trinity of theology, poetry, and ecumenism not taken hold of my soul.

Back for just a minute to Don’s thought experiment, and then I’m done. The question that he asked, and that I never quite answered, is, What family resemblances do you (or do you not) see among them? To me, it is less a question of the blood ties of a family and more one of life in the Body of Christ. In this adventure that is the church, blood is trumped by the waters of baptism (in the case of the church, blood is not thicker than water!), and family resemblance becomes inconsequential. Theology, Poetry and Ecumenism need not bear any family resemblance, because when they are drawn together they are to be held in Christ in whom “there is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female.” I understand that to mean not that there are no differences, but that distinctionsbased on family lineage, social status, and birthright are declared void.

On the other hand, we should not be surprised if from time to time some family resemblance does begin to surface. As is sometimes observed of the husband and wife who have lived together for many years and seem to have begun to resemble one other, so with these conversation partners. And while Ecumenism might be a relatively recent addition to the dialogue (unless one considers the ecumenical councils of the ancient and undivided church…), certainly there is a long, long history of poetic theologians and theological poets; from Gregory of Nyssa, to Julian of Norwich and John of the Cross, through John Donne and George Herbert, to Eliot, Auden, and in our own day Scott Cairns, Luci Shaw and of course Kilian McDonnell.

This is not a new conversation, and while it has at times been submerged under the weight of the times, it is good to see it happening afresh in this place.

Jamie Howison

September 17, 2011

You can listen to our own liturgical reading of a cycle of Kilian’s poems built around the parable of the Prodigal by clicking here. The most recent collection is titled Wrestling with God, though Kilian assured us that his “brother monks won’t be digging my grave before I’m 92,” as he’s determined to publish his fifth collection of poems that year.

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