“We wish not to be unclothed but further clothed”

“We wish not to be unclothed but further clothed”

This time last week, our family was crowded in a hospice room watching as my mother-in-law lay dying.  She died in the early hours of Saturday morning, and we  celebrated her life at a funeral on Tuesday.  Here is the funeral homily I preached on the strange teaching from II Corinthians that in death “what is mortal may be swallowed up by life.”     For those of you who know our family and would like to read about Pat’s death, you can go to http://www.caringbridge.org/visit/patdelony  Now that we are back in Ft. Worth, I’ll be able to get back on track with my blog posting.

Funeral Homily for Patricia Reagan Delony, Trinity Episcopal Cathedral in Little Rock, Feb. 21, 2012

Last Friday I picked up our daughters early from their middle school, and we drove to Little Rock hoping to make it in time to say goodbye to their grandmother. In the evening, the family gathered around Pat’s hospice bed. 
As we kept watch, each of us – her husband Lawson, her sister, her children and her five grandchildren, went up close and talked to Pat, telling her how much we loved her.  She would open her eyes a little and lift her arm off the pillow as if to touch us.  She tried to talk but could make just one soft, little “o” sound.  We held hands in a circle around her bed and prayed. 

We sang a verse or two of old familiar hymns and then a few drinking songs that were favorites of her father. We told stories.  We laughed and cried.  A few hours later, in the middle of the night, Pat died with her daughter Diane there beside her. It was a beautiful death.

I’ve been thinking about deathbeds lately and not only Pat’s.  When my Great-Grandpa Miles was dying his last words came from our epistle reading for today.  He squeezed my Uncle Ivy’s hand and said, “Don’t worry about me son, I have a house not made with hands, eternal in the heavens.” Growing up with that story, I always thought he was talking about a house, like that “mansion just over the hilltop” that we sing about in the old song.  But really in this text the “house not made with hands” is not about a house but about our immortality. Our earthly bodies become clothed in a heavenly body, a heavenly dwelling.

The text that Abbey read for us earlier is very strange.  Let’s look at it more closely.  [II Corinthians 4 and 5]

“Even though our outer nature is wasting away, our inner nature is being renewed day by day. For this slight momentary affliction is preparing us for an eternal weight of glory beyond all measure.  [In other words, the difficulties and suffering in this life are getting us ready for something amazing, for glory, even the “eternal weight of glory.”]18because we look not at what can be seen but at what cannot be seen; for what can be seen is temporary, but what cannot be seen is eternal.

“For we know that if the earthly tent we live in [that is our body] is destroyed, we have a building from God, a house not made with hands, eternal in the heavens. 2  [The text is talking here not about a house like the ones we live in, but our heavenly body, an eternal body.] For in this tent we groan, longing to be clothed with our heavenly dwelling. For while we are still in this tent [this earthly body] we groan under our burden, because we wish not to be unclothed but to be further clothed, so that what is mortal may be swallowed up by life.  [Notice that our mortal bodies are not cast away here, but are clothed, swallowed by life, by immortality.]  He who has prepared us for this very thing is God, who has given us the Spirit as a guarantee.”

I teach theology for a living and spend much more time than is really healthy thinking about the teachings of the church.  And there are some doozies.  What does it mean that in death our mortal bodies are “swallowed up by life” and we are clothed with a heavenly dwelling?

Over the years, when I have thought about the contrast between our suffering in the flesh in this life and our new covering, this house not made with hands, I have most often thought of Pat.

Pat lived a life of tensions.  For almost 65 years, she suffered with chronic pain and with the distress that came in its wake.  And yet she was still filled with laughter.  In her final years, she experienced growing confusion and bewilderment but still there was that recurring laughter and joy.  For years it has pleased me to think about the restoration and health that Pat would have in eternity.

For Pat pain and joy were intermingled.  As a young girl, Pat got into mischief.  I would tell you a few stories of the things that she said and did, but it would just embarrass Lawson … not that that every stopped Pat!

She was a star basketball player in high school. She loved to jitterbug and go to parties.  She was and remained an enthusiastic supporter of her ball teams – the Razorbacks and the Danville Little Johns. She was a proud yellow dog Democrat. When she could no longer drive, she agreed to give her car to her grandson Nathan … on one condition – that he vote for Democrats in the next two presidential elections.  Pat was full of life and fun and love for her family and friends.

But she also had chronic pain that began in high school and grew over time.  And as the pain increased, so did her anxiety and distress.  For Pat the joy and celebration and love always went alongside distress and pain.

In the last week of Pat’s life, she was very ill.  We soon realized that she would likely die.  I was in a melancholy mood and went around the house muttering that line from Isaiah 40: “All flesh is like the grass. The grass withers and fades away.”

Our 11 year old Katherine finally stopped me, “Mom, that may be true for you, but my flesh is not like the grass. It is not withering and fading away.”  I was tempted to say, “You just wait, sweetheart.” But then I realized that she was right.  Of course, on the one hand, our flesh is like the grass in the sense that it is short-lived. But, if this II Corinthians text is to be believed, our flesh also matters.  In this text mortality is taken up into immortality, our flesh is clothed in an eternal covering.  In this transient life of the flesh, including its suffering and distress, we are being prepared for the eternal weight of glory.

Our daughters are 11 and 13, so they’ve known their grandmother only in these last difficult years.  I have been talking with them about what their grandmother was like in earlier years and about the life that has been restored to her in death.  She has a house not made with hands, eternal in the heavens.

A few days ago I found Anna drawing a picture of her grandmother playing basketball.  She was airborne and flying through the air with her legs tucked and her hand raised high slam-dunking the ball.  This image has stayed with me, as I think about the life Pat takes on after death, about the form that her immortal body might take.

Paintings of the physical resurrection will often reflect what was thought of at the time as the ideal body.  Some medieval paintings of the resurrection show whole fields of young, good-looking men rising from the ground.  In that era, this was considered the ideal form that, in the resurrection, would clothe the believers – male or female, young or old.  (I feel compelled to add this is sexist, of course. And almost as bad, for most of the men in the congregation, coming to life on resurrection morning and finding yourself surrounded only by other men could prove to be a great disappointment!)

What is this ideal form into which we are raised?  What might that be for Pat?

Might the ideal form be the basketball star, airborne and slam dunking the ball?  Might it be the young bride leaving the church on the arm of her new husband?  Might it be the young mother bringing her children for baptism at this very altar?  Might it be the grandmother sitting on her back porch with her grandchildren talking about everything and nothing?

What is the ideal form of beauty?  In what form might Pat’s new body appear?

St Augustine of Hippo talked about the resurrected body of the martyrs.  Perhaps the scars left from their wounds might be considered beautiful in eternity.  Perhaps their wounds were their adornment and their honor.

Maybe for Pat the ideal form would include the wounds she took in this life.  Our pain and suffering does not continue in eternity, but perhaps we still bear, as Augustine wrote, “the marks of our wounds.”

Might the ideal form for Pat include the ways that she was shaped by chronic pain, by the emotional wounds she took as she watched her teenage son suffer from cancer, and by the grief she felt at the loss of her parents and sisters?  Might the ideal form for Pat include even that frail woman in a hospice bed who could barely raise her arm from the pillow and could make only one small, soft sound?

Friday night, as Anna and I were leaving St Vincent’s hospital, I was telling her that the last time I was there was the night my grandmother died 22 years ago. I talked about Lawson and his sister Irene caring for their father at St. Vincent’s on his last night more than three decades ago. And now her father and her Aunt Diane were watching their mother die.  I talked my way through several other deaths, including my mother’s death three years ago, and then, still brooding, I said something to Anna that was perhaps not the wisest thing to say to any 13 year old:  “Well, sweetheart, that’s what it comes to. One generation after the next, we watch each other die.”

Anna looked at me for a long time and finally said, “Well, mom, that was awkward.”  Then we both started laughing and couldn’t stop.

At one level, I was right. That’s what it comes to; one generation to the next, we watch each other die.

But if this II Corinthians text is to be believed, there is more to it.  This, also, is what it comes to; one generation to the next, we take on new life.  One generation to the next, we are prepared for an eternal weight of glory.  One generation to the next, we are clothed with a heavenly dwelling, a house not made with hands, eternal in the heavens.

In the face of this truth and this hope, what can we say, we who love the Lord, but glory be to the Father and to the Son and to the Holy Spirit; as it was in the beginning is now and ever shall be, world without end. Amen.

Bringing God Home – Part II

Bringing God Home – Part II

In the last post, I wrote about something that has bothered me about living with ecstatic religious experiences — i.e., I don’t feel God’s presence most of the time. I realize that this is an obvious fact of human life, but it has bothered me still.

Here is another thing that is even more troubling – most of the time, I am no longer all that bothered by not feeling God’s presence.

When I first started having mystical experiences eight years ago, my spiritual director told me not to seek them or want them.  This is standard spiritual director advice; they teach this somewhere in the basic manual at spiritual director school. Don’t desire mystical experiences.  Detach.  Don’t want them.  That is good advice, at least in theory.

But once I started having them, not wanting them was beyond my power.  My desire could not be contained.  It wasn’t just a desire for some hallucinogenic experience, but for the felt presence of God.

I could discipline myself not to do strange things to seek them.  I could understand that they might not return.  Some days, I could even reconcile myself to that cheerless fact.  But not wanting them?  Not wanting that felt connection to God?  That was impossible.

After awhile I gave up on curbing my desire and went around, night and day, humming that old Diana Ross song, “Ain’t no mountain high enough, Ain’t no valley low enough, Ain’t no river wide enough to keep me from getting to you.”  And I meant every word.

Here’s the part that really bothers me these days.  After awhile, I didn’t just detach from my desire (which would have been a good thing); I slipped into outright apathy.

I’ve been thinking about Peter Mattheissen’s search for the snow leopard as a spiritual quest for the divine.  (See the last post.)  When the feelings were at their most intense, I would have gone to extraordinary measures for the most fleeting glimpse of the snow leopard.  And my enthusiasm knew no bounds – not even the bounds of common sense. As I wrote a few days ago, a part of me not only wanted to glimpse the snow leopard but to take the snow leopard home, to domesticate it.

But the truth is, lately I can’t get myself all that worked up about the snow leopard.  If somebody told me, Beka, look out your window and see the snow leopard, I would probably look. I would even walk out to the curb. I might even drive to the other side of town to the nature refuge.  But if it meant trekking through the wilderness of Nepal or crossing even a medium size river or mountain, I’m thinking I’ll pass.  I would rather stay home.  I’ve got a lot of stuff to do.

Just writing this makes me sad.  Really?  I can’t go on a quest for God because I have too much stuff on my to-do list.  Good God!

But maybe that’s not altogether bad.  I’ve read that in some traditions, people are not given access to mystical texts unless they are householders and have reached a certain age of maturity.  Maybe we need a strong anchor in ordinary, daily life to keep us from going off the mystical deep end.

And maybe, too, householders can turn out to be decent mystics, because God is present in the household.  You don’t have to go on a trek to another continent or climb high mountains or cross broad rivers.

In the last post I wrote about my desire to domesticate God.  OK, for the record, I know that is idolatrous and ridiculous and just plain silly.  But if I can’t domesticate God, it isn’t simply because it’s idolatrous.  It’s also because, at some level, God has already domesticated Godself.  As God comes into the world in Christ, God takes on all of our life, including the ordinary life of the household. I don’t need to bring god home; God is already there.

The task then is not about packing ourselves off to another continent. It’s not about going to a different place but about seeing with different eyes.  It’s not about the hard work of tracking something elusive but of seeing what is already there in front of us — at home, out the window, on the curb, or on the other side of town.


[Since I last wrote, my mother-in-law, Pat Delony has been moved to a hospice in Little Rock. If you know our families and would like to keep up, you can follow the caringbridge page at http://www.caringbridge.org/visit/patdelony/  I’ll be writing a regular post, letting friends and family know how things are going. We would appreciate prayers for peace and comfort for Pat and for the whole family.]

Bringing God Home – Part I: Snow Leopards, Ungrateful Whiners, and the Domesticated God

Bringing God Home – Part I:

Snow Leopards, Ungrateful Whiners, and the Domesticated God


Of the many things that bother me about living with ecstatic religious experiences, here is the one that bothers me most: I don’t feel God’s presence most of the time. How can God feel so near and then … nothing?  I hate that.  I realize this makes me sound like an ungrateful whiner … which is precisely what I am a fair percentage of the time.  And now that I think about it, the term “ungrateful whiner” describes a good portion of the figures in the Bible and in Christian history.  So, at least I’m in, if not good company, illustrious biblical company.


Anyway, I’ve been thinking about this desire — this admittedly idolatrous and whiny desire – to feel God’s presence all the time, to domesticate the almighty.  I’m not proud to admit this, but the truth is, I want to take God home and keep God there.  I don’t mind if God goes to your house, as long as God stays at my house too … and as long as God keeps in plain view.  Is that too much to ask?  Yes, probably so.


A friend who knows about this little problem of mine, recently sent me a devotional essay drawing on Peter Matthiessen’s book The Snow Leopard.  In 1973, Matthiessen, a travel writer and novelist, set out for Nepal with the naturalist George Schaller who was studying the rutting patterns of Himalayan Blue Sheep (which sounds like a great alternate career if I ever grow tired of theology!)  Matthiessen came along on the trip in the hope that he might catch a glimpse of the rare Himalayan snow leopard.  He had recently become a Buddhist and the trip, especially the search for the snow leopard, turned into a spiritual quest.


Along they way, they saw signs of the snow leopard, including tracks, but not the snow leopard itself.  Matthiessen wrote of the tension between his “longing” to see the animal and his growing detachment from the actual seeing. “If the snow leopard should manifest itself, then I am ready to see the snow leopard. If not, then somehow … I am not ready to perceive it … and in the not-seeing, I am content. . . . That the snow leopard is, that it is here . . . that is enough.”


Toward the end of the trip, Schaller tells Matthiessen, “You know something? We’ve seen so much, maybe it’s better if there are some things that we don’t see.”  Matthiessen notes that in the not-seeing, they “have been spared the desolation of success.”*


This is my problem.  I don’t want to be spared the desolation of success.  Please, Lord, desolate me! I deny that not seeing the snow leopard is better than seeing the snow leopard.  I want to see the snow leopard. I want to see the snow leopard over and over again.  Seeing the tracks is fine too. Yes, I definitely want to see the leopard tracks … and the leopard lair and the leopard scat and the leopard itself.


Yes, and I want to take the leopard home with me. I want to dress the snow leopard in cute seasonal outfits – a green jingle bell collar at Christmas and a little puffy red skirt for Valentines Day. I want the leopard to do tricks for visiting guests.  I want the snow leopard to be my dog. Come, little snow leopard.  Stay, little snow leopard. Roll over, little snow leopard.


Here is my problem: I want to bring God home.


I know that this is not happening.  I know that no matter how hard I try, God will not be domesticated. God will not do tricks. God will not dress in cute seasonal outfits. I hate that.


In my family, when we talk about God’s maddeningly habitual failure to stay within the bounds of our expectations and our control, we like to quote Mr. Beaver of C.S. Lewis’s The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe.   Mr. Beaver explains to the children that the great lion Aslan comes and goes as he will.  “He’ll often drop in. Only you musn’t press him. He’s wild, you know. Not like a tame lion.**


All this is true. Aslan is not tame; the snow leopard is not tame; God is not tame. I can’t drag God home and dress him in any kind of outfit at all, much less a sparkly or jingly one. I can’t put God on a leash. I can’t teach God tricks. I can’t domesticate God. That is a fact.  . . .



On other hand, although I certainly can’t domesticate God … maybe, in a sense, someone else already has.


(To be continued …)



*The Snow Leopard (Penguin Classics, revised edition 2008), 242 and 244 .  These quotations and page numbers are directly from Matthiessen’s book.  The devotional which sent me to The Snow Leopard uses the Schaller quotation above. See Brother Curtis Almquist, “Contentment,” The Society of Saint John the Evangelist, http://ssje.org/sermons/?p=2096  .



** C.S. Lewis, The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe (Harper Collins, 2005), 191.



Don’t know nothin’ bout nothin’: Grief, Oblivion and Armadillos

Don’t know nothin’ bout nothin’: Grief, Oblivion and Armadillos


“Sorrow makes us all children again —destroys all differences of intellect. The wisest knows nothing.” Ralph Waldo Emerson


[I’ve been left in a state of not knowing by these odd mystical experiences and also by grief.  After our mother’s death, three years ago, I blogged through my grief and then turned the blog posts into a book on grief. The essay is taken from that book which will be out in the spring with Abingdon Press.]


Don’t know nothin’ bout nothin’

            In 1842, Ralph Waldo Emerson lost his five-year-old son Waldo to scarlatina. Waldo died on January 27th, the date of our mother’s death. A few days later Emerson began journaling about his son’s death and his own grief. He wrote, “Sorrow makes us all children again —destroys all differences of intellect. The wisest knows nothing.”[i]

            Of all the things I have read about grief lately, those words ring the truest. As Dad likes to say lately, “We don’t know nothin’ ‘bout nothin’.” Maybe this is one of the greatest gifts of sorrow; it strips us of our ordinary and often wrong-headed confidence in our own knowledge. Grief doesn’t render us dimwitted; it helps us see at last what was true all along. Oddly, there may be no more “advantageous” position for the spiritual life than knowing nothing.

            This morning before school, the girls were yelling from the bathroom. They had spotted an armadillo digging in the dirt just outside the window. Len and I ran to the bathroom to watch this astonishingly dense armadillo shuffling around in the dead leaves and digging its little holes. If the window had been open, we could have touched it, but the armadillo did not notice us. We love armadillos, but they are stupid creatures. They have these tiny little heads and tiny brains without much room for activity. And, on top of that, their vision is lousy. There we all were with our faces pressed to the window just a few feet from this armadillo. But the armadillo noticed nothing. Nothing. Nada. Dense, stupid, near senseless armadillo.

            Maybe that’s us with our tiny little brains and astonishingly poor vision. God and the saints and the angels and the heavenly hosts are just an arms-length away, close enough to touch. We see and hear nothing, but just keep shuffling around in the leaves, digging our little holes. They look on, astonished that we could be so oblivious—and they love us still.


[from Miles, When the One You Love Is Gone: Finding Hope and Healing in the Pilgrimage of Grief (Abingdon Press, 2012).]


[i] Ralph Waldo Emerson, The Heart of Emerson’s Journals, ed. Bliss Perry (Riverside Press, 1926), 173. 

I Don’t Know

When I was 12, I had a friend who could say only three words: “I don’t know.” Riding my bike home from school, I would stop by the nursing home to visit Mrs. Feemster. She was always in her room because a stroke had not only wrecked her speech but also left her bedfast. I would tell her about my day, and she would listen sympathetically to anything I wanted to say for as long as I wanted to say it; this is the great advantage of bedfast friends.

Whatever I asked her, whatever I told her, she always replied, “I don’t know.” If I told her about the good things that had happened in my day, Mrs. Feemster would respond to me in a cheerful voice, “I don’t know.” When I told her about a bad day, Mrs. Feemster would still say “I don’t know,” but in a sad voice. And whether I said good things or bad things or nothing at all, she liked to pat my hand and watch my face with soft eyes. I counted her as a good friend

After a few months, my brother told me that I was a fool if I believed Mrs. Feemster was my friend; Mrs. Feemster didn’t even know who I was. It was a blow. So I went to talk with Mrs. Feemster about it. I told her what my brother had said and asked, “Mrs. Feemster do you know who I am? Are we friends?” I expected her to say, “I don’t know.” But Mrs. Feemster looked at me and said nothing for a long time. Then she smiled and said very slowly, each word separated by the effort it took to get them out, “I … love . . . you . . . Beka.” I was so excited. “Really?” I asked. She patted my hand and smiled again, “I don’t know.”

This is my life – as a mother, a wife, a professor, and a Christian. My words are inadequate. I can’t get things right. I don’t know. I muddle along. And, then, every now and again, by God’s grace or an opening in my heart or some other strange circumstance, I stumble on the right answer, the truth, the fitting thing to say. The rest of the time, it’s just an everyday slog through my own ignorance.

Like Mrs. Feemster, most days I just don’t have the words.

This is the problem of my life … and this blog, especially when I try to write about ecstatic religious experience. I’ve committed myself to write lots of words about something for which I have no words.

I’m not the first to discover this problem. Many first person accounts of ecstatic experiences open with the lament – “I have no words” – and then keep on going. Words don’t seem to be wanting.

Scholars of mysticism have claimed that ineffability (aka incommunicability or having no words) is a primary characteristic at the heart of ecstatic religious experience. We just don’t have words. Philosopher Peter Appleby calls this the “ineffability thesis” and goes on to say that it’s wrong. In the end he claims that the problem isn’t so much that mystics have no words, but that they have nothing to say.*

Well, that’s a comfort. I don’t have words or I have nothing to say. Either option leaves me in an awkward position … or maybe not. Maybe having no words and having nothing to say is a perfect place from which to start talking.

So, I begin this blog with the confession that anything I say here about religious experience – or about any other part of life– will be inadequate. And, really, that’s all right. This shared inadequacy puts all our words in the right light, a humbling light … a light that keeps on blinking over every last thing we say, “I’ve got it wrong. I have nothing to say. I don’t know.” But we keep on talking.

Isaac of Stella, a twelfth century British theologian who spent his life as a Cistercian monk in France, wrote about this problem with human language about God: “We say what we can when we want to speak about the Ineffable One about whom nothing can be said in the proper sense.”**

What?! We say what we can when we want to speak about the One about whom nothing can be said.

Is that going to be good enough?

I don’t know.


*Peter Appleby, “Mysticism and Ineffability,” International Journal for Philosophy of Religion, 11 (1980): 143-66.

**Quoted in Bernard and Patricia Ferris McGinn’s Early Christian Mystics: The Divine Vision of the Spiritual Masters (Crossroads, 2003), 11.