The Grail and the King

August 17, 2005

What follows is very long and is based on a pep talk I came up with for our community group when we had a retreat this past spring. The retreat took place here:
:a very cool place which I am grateful to have visited and learned from.

The Grail and the King

Quitting the Fortress

I want to start by telling you a story about some Catholics, in particular a priest named Jacques Van Ginneken, who lived in the Netherlands a hundred years ago. Imagine you’re a turn-of-the-century Dutch Catholic. You’re not in Italy, or France, where there are a lot of Roman Catholics – you’re in the Netherlands, where the Protestant Reformation was a big hit. Catholics have been taking a beating for several hundred years. So you tend to stick around mostly with people like yourself – when you have to deal with non-Catholics, you stay on the defensive. A fortress mentality.

Along comes Father Jacques. He’s a true believer – I mean, we’re the holy Catholic church, y’know, like in the Apostles’ Creed? God has dropped a precious handful of his grace in our hands and bid us spread it around. He calls the fortress mentality “fear Catholicism” – and he starts breaking down the walls of the fortress. He starts the Committee for the Conversion of the Netherlands, and he starts running retreats for non-Catholics. He has what you might call an external focus instead of an internal focus. He looks around and sees the Christian faith as an awesome party, and says, “Why isn’t everybody at this awesome party?”

Something else he does is mobilize the laypeople – not unlike what we call “the priesthood of all believers,” this idea. Specifically, lay women – because empowered women, he sees, are the x factor in the new century. Nuns, in those days, mostly worked with other nuns, but laywomen were out in the world, mingling with the masses. So he calls for volunteers, and here’s the goal, in his own words: “a society of unmarried Roman Catholic laywomen… at the disposal of the Church to help with the spreading of the Kingdom of God over the whole world.”

That’s the beginning of a story that ends with this house here in Cornwall on Hudson. The story is our story, not only because we’re sitting in this house, but because we are ourselves a society of laymen and laywomen, at the disposal of the church to help spread the Kingdom of God over the whole world.

Rebirth and the Visible Kingdom

Nicodemus goes to Jesus and says: I believe that you’re from God, because I can see the miracles you do, and seeing is believing. Jesus replies: You think seeing is believing? On the contrary: believing is seeing. He says: “No one can see the kingdom of God unless he is born from above… no one can enter the kingdom of God unless he is born of water and the Spirit.” Now the author of this gospel has already told us that Jesus has given to those who trust him “the right to become children of God – children born, not of natural descent, nor of human decision or a husband’s will, but born of God.” (John 1:12-13) We were taught to pray that God’s kingdom would come, on earth below as it is in heaven above – and apparently it’s necessary for the coming of the kingdom that those of us born into this earth be born again from above. The rebirth comes through water – baptism – and through the Holy Spirit. So it’s something that happens in the individual soul (where only the Spirit can reach) and yet with the participation of the whole Christian community (which baptizes those individuals into the covenant community). And once reborn, you can see – and actually enter into – the kingdom of God.

We are all born-again Christians. It’s not a matter of our particular intellectual convictions or how wild or well-behaved we are, it’s not a matter of how we feel today – this rebirth was not of human decision. Somehow we find ourselves, as if waking up from a dream, here in Cornwall, at a Christian retreat, probably baptized into some church community years ago while we weren’t really paying attention, and somehow knowing that the Holy Spirit has thrown our original birth, as intense as it may have been for our mothers, into the background in favor of this second birth that has left us hanging somewhere between earth and heaven.

Before Pentecost, which we celebrated this past Sunday, there was this amazing time when the Christian church was primarily eleven people and the risen Jesus on a month-long retreat. So they were eating together one time and Jesus said, “In a few days, you’ll be baptized with the Holy Spirit.” The disciples, quite rightly, thought this meant something tremendous was about to happen. So they asked him, “Are you at this time going to liberate Israel and restore it to power?” And he said, “Well, it’s not for you to know. But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you, and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.”

The disciples ask, in other words, when are you going to show us this kingdom? You’ve taken all this time to prepare us for it… are we going to see it now? Jesus rebukes them with a quick “none of your business,” but then he adds: Let me put it this way: when you’re baptized with the Holy Spirit, you’ll understand a lot more about the kingdom than you do now. Rebirth makes the kingdom visible. He could have said the same thing to the disciples he said to the Pharisees in Luke 17:21 – the kingdom is standing right here in your midst. Or, the kingdom is within your very souls. And he could say that to each of you, individually – maybe you’ll hear him saying it this weekend – you live in the kingdom of God.

Resurrection and the Tangible Kingdom

When Father Jacques van Ginneken was casting the vision for that society of Roman Catholic laywomen, interestingly enough, he didn’t only talk about converting the world to Roman Catholicism. He also said to these women, “What is your task? To counterbalance in the world all masculine hardness… all cruelty, all the results of alcoholism and prostitution and sin and capitalism… and to Christianize that with a womanly charity. What else is that but the conversion of the world?” So he also saw spreading the Kingdom of God in terms of transforming the world into a place of peace and justice.

That was in 1921 that Jacques Van Ginneken started the society, which was called at first the Women of Nazareth. Somewhere along the way they changed their name to the Grail. In 1940, the Archbishop of Chicago invited two Dutch women from the Grail to the United States. By 1944 the two women had found fourteen other women and established a center on a farm in Ohio. Through the 1950s and 1960s there were ten Grail communities in the US. Today the center at Cornwall is one of three that remain in this country – the Grail is still an international network of these kinds of communities.

Ginneken’s goal of spreading the kingdom of God has been left behind, in a way, by the Grail. The Grail went from being a community of specifically Catholic laywomen to being inclusive of other faiths.

The change of name is significant. Nazareth is a specific town when Jesus lived his ordinary life before starting his ministry. You can imagine the Women of Nazareth as people with a humble but personal connection to Christ the Lord. The Grail is a myth. It’s an ancient cup. One legend makes it the cup that Christ offered the disciples at the Last Supper – but it’s also associated with the legends of King Arthur, and for that matter it makes an appearance in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade. You won’t find any mention of it in the Bible. And even in the myths that feature the Grail, all you can say about it for sure is that it inspires heroes to go on adventures to find it – it’s very very hard to find – and what makes it so precious is wide open to interpretation. The Grail is a spiritual symbol whose meaning is not nailed down to a particular religion.

The cross is also a spiritual symbol. Its meaning is not so open to interpretation. It’s an instrument of torture and execution on which our Savior died as an enemy of the state. The meaning of the cross is nailed down to Christianity, because Christ was nailed to the cross. He told us to take up our own crosses and follow him, and then he died.

All of which is to say that we are a Christian community, and this is not a Christian retreat center. In one sense, we don’t belong here. As you might expect, I think there is another way in which we very much do belong here. When Father Jacques called the Women of Nazareth to spread the kingdom of God over the whole world, he wasn’t only talking about converting individual men and women to Christianity. He was also talking about a caring community that would transform the world into a place of peace and justice. And that is a goal that the Grail has embraced.

Grail communities have trained community organizers in urban South Africa, rural Brazil and Kenya, and the Bronx. The Grail center in San Jose, California helped build 35 units of low-income housing, then helped make services like cooperative childcare, ESL education, literacy and computer training classes, and health education available to the residents. They participate in international discussions by advocates for the poor about issues like immigration, global trade agreements, and community development. If that sounds all too pretty, don’t worry – in Loveland, Ohio, they maintain a swamp designed to clean sewage and treat wastewater on an energy-efficient basis. This house we’re staying in is called the Phoenix because it was refurbished after a bad fire in 1978, and then was made the home base of a multi-year project in leadership training, anti-racism education and spiritual study. And all this work is done by communities working together – there are no superstar ego trips – the only individual’s name I could find in connection with any of this, very nearly, was Jane O’Donnell, whose death of cancer in 1979 was part of the inspiration to use the Phoenix as a workshop for that variety of tasks.

The phoenix, of course, is another mythological symbol, but it has a clear meaning that is very relevant to this discussion. Beauty from ashes. Resurrection.

If rebirth makes the kingdom visible, resurrection makes the kingdom tangible. Our Lord said, You will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes upon you, and you will be my witnesses…This is the last reported teaching from the risen Jesus to his disciples before flying up into the sky. Jesus came back from the dead to deliver this message, and it wasn’t some kind of fancy flourish – just to do something spectacular for the sake of spectacle – the medium was the message. Only the risen Christ could talk about the kingdom of God in Pentecostal terms. In his suffering, he had bought for us a precious opportunity – kind of like the opportunity George Bailey got in It’s a Wonderful Life. George Bailey got to see what life would have been like if he had never been born. We get to see what life could be like if we had really been born – born the way God intended, not just as this broken world happened to spit us out.

This the apostle Paul writing about the resurrection of the dead in 1 Cor 15.

But someone may ask, “How are the dead raised? With what kind of body will they come?” How foolish! What you sow does not come to life unless it dies. When you sow, you do not plant the body that will be, but just a seed, perhaps of wheat or of something else. But God gives it a body as he has determined… So will it be with the resurrection of the dead. The body that is sown is perishable, it is raised imperishable; it is sown in dishonor, it is raised in glory; it is sown in weakness, it is raised in power… I declare to you, brothers, that flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God, nor does the perishable inherit the imperishable… When the perishable has been clothed with the imperishable, and the mortal with immortality, then the saying that is written will come true: “Death has been swallowed up in victory.”

“Where, O death, is your victory?
Where, O death, is your sting?”

The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law. But thanks be to God! He gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ. Therefore, my dear brothers, stand firm. Let nothing move you. Always give yourselves fully to the work of the Lord, because you know that your labor in the Lord is not in vain.

So this is the good news to which we are to bear witness: the victory of our Lord Jesus Christ over sin and death. We can respect the work of the Grail and still not want to abandon the other aspect of spreading the kingdom of God – that of bringing the gospel into individual lives. But the Scripture makes it clear that we will never spread the kingdom in either sense if we aren’t willing to devote ourselves to community in the way the women of the Grail have done. The resurrection of Jesus means not only that he came back in the flesh, but that he came back in the body, the body of Christ, the church. “That which our hands have touched, this we proclaim concerning the word of Life…” those words are for us as well. We’ve touched the body of Christ, and that’s why we proclaim the gospel. The kingdom is made tangible in us.

The Spirit and the Achievable Kingdom

It’s not courteous to criticize one’s hosts while sitting in their house. By what I’m about to say, I’m not trying to demean the Grail or dismiss their efforts. A great deal of what I see I admire. But I don’t wish to follow them along their path, where the community as a whole, in order to encompass people of diverse faiths, no longer serves as a witness to the gospel. Let’s take note that their inclusivity was not a slick strategy for increasing their numbers. Where there were ten centers in the U.S., there are now three. However many women have been involved in the Cornwall center, the core group is now only five strong – and all of them are nearing retirement.

This raises a question in my mind which I’ll verbalize so that I can reject it utterly. If they had maintained their exclusively Catholic identity, would they be more vital as an institution? Or, if they had let in the Protestant women but kept out the Jewish women, would they be better off today? These are dumb questions for me to ask, a little like “How many more years do we have before the judgment?” Jesus says sharply: none of your business. Not only is it none of my business, but it betrays a misunderstanding, the false notion that you can assess the faithfulness of a work by the degree of its success in the world.

Tim Hansel relates an incident in his book Holy Sweat, about a very Grail-like project, that’s relevant here.

In the 1940s, Clarence Jordan founded a farm in Americus, Georgia. Koinonia Farm was a community for poor whites and poor blacks. It met with constant resistance in the segregationist South. Finally, in 1954, the Klan tried to burn him out for good. They set fire to every building on Koinonia Farm but Clarence’s home, which they riddled with bullets. And they chased off all the families except one.

The next day, a reporter came out. The rubble still smoldered and the land was scorched, but he found Clarence in the field, hoeing and planting. “Well, Dr. Jordan,” he said,”you got two of them Ph.D.s and you’ve put fourteen years into this farm, and there’s nothing left of it at all. Just how successful do you think you’ve been?” Clarence said, “About as successful as the cross. Sir, I don’t think you understand us. What we are about is not success but faithfulness. We’re staying. Good day.”

I choose to live under the sign of the cross rather than the sign of the Grail. But I would say we belong here because the Grail stands for something we also stand for: the establishment and maintenance of a caring community that works for the shalom – the peace and justice – of the world. They’ve maintained this house and land for the purpose of nurturing communities that want to learn how to make a difference in the world, and that’s what we are. The Phoenix is only our schoolhouse. Jesus Christ is our teacher.

Think back to the risen Jesus eating with his disciples. He says: Holy Spirit, and what do the disciples hear? The kingdom is come. They made the right connection, even if they then asked the wrong question. The church community – made up of particular people who have each been born again, and together following the resurrected Jesus – is a work of the Holy Spirit. The fruit that keep the community from flying to pieces every day – the forgiveness, the loyalty, the tenderness, the joy – come from the Holy Spirit. And that community, as it endures and labors for the Lord, is a sign of the kingdom. Insofar as the Spirit is alive in the church, we know the kingdom is already here – insofar as the church resembles every other human venture in being perverted by greed and pride, we know that the kingdom is still to come.

In that encounter in Acts chapter one, the disciples get distracted by the images of a coming kingdom that will put them forever on the winning side. Jesus tries to keep them focused on the Holy Spirit. They ask him, is the kingdom coming? And Jesus says, never mind that, but know that you will receive power through the Holy Spirit. And then adds: and you’ll be my witnesses. Witnessing for the Lord is not, then, just a matter of talking to people about our beliefs. We’re his witnesses when his Holy Spirit empowers us for concrete deeds – not only proclaiming the gospel verbally, but making it manifest in acts of service and kindness.

It’s on us now to really hear what Jesus said and go seeking after the spiritual power he promised. Rebecca Pippert wrote:

Jesus’ ownership of our lives is not a control that manipulates us or takes away our dignity, He governs our lives… by being who he is without compromise and by insisting we become all we were meant to be. And this can only occur through following him, obeying him and maintaining a living, passionate kinship to him…

And Charles Taylor wrote:

When Paul said to be filled with the Spirit [Eph 5:18ff], he was not commanding us to sit around passively and wait for something to be poured into us. The Holy Spirit has already been poured in. If you are a believer, you have already been filled with the Holy Spirit the way the men and women in Acts were filled. He has taken up permanent residence in your heart. You have all of Him you are ever going to get. The question is, How much of you does He have?

Jesus told the Pharisees, and us, specifically, that the kingdom would not be a spectator sport. We see it through the rebirth, but we don’t watch it like a TV show – we see it so that we can enter into it. We can touch it with our hands because our resurrected Lord has called us into the church – but even there we don’t just soak in all the love. The Spirit makes the kingdom something we achieve, something for which we labor. Letting the Spirit fill us up is something Paul exhorts us to do in Ephesians 5. He tells us, give yourselves to the Spirit the way other people give themselves to alcohol or heroin. Let the Spirit take over your lives. And what will that look like? Encouraging one another in our faith, worshipping together, being thankful for each other’s presence, and submitting to one another our of reverence for Christ. It will look like this retreat. That’s what we came here to do.

Storming the Fortress

There’s still one part of the story left untold. The last link between the Grail and our community group is my friend Valerie Andrewlevich, who lived downstairs from Marlene and me in our last building, one block over on St. John’s Place. Somehow she learned about the Grail – ended up designing their website – and then she recommended this place to me, knowing that I was involved with a church.

I want to tell you about a particular evening when I was coming home and ran into Val. It was July of 2003 – we were studying the book the Sacred Romance in our community group – I had just turned thirty-three – Georgia was two months from what I hope will be only her first birth. On this particular evening I happened to be in a very good mood.

Val has a big pit bull named Kaya, and she was letting Kaya run around inside the iron fence that encloses a kind of lawn in front of 369 St. John’s Place – really, just a couple of mulberry trees and some bushes and a lot of dirt. Kaya would sort of circulate from one end to the other, sniffing and snorting. We started talking about work. When I’d first met Val she’d worked for a publishing house, then about a year ago she’d left that job and ended up doing IT at a non-profit called the Brooklyn Alliance, running a website for them called momsandkids – it’s oriented toward connecting Latino families with health care options.

I learned in this conversation that, since March, Val had been busy launching a project in which teenagers would learn how to build websites and would run their own website educating kids about health issues. She found all these resources throughout the city. She started with the Central Library at Grand Army Plaza. They didn’t know right away how they could help her, but (as Val put it) “because librarians rock and they will actually do these things for you,” they soon hooked her up with a computer lab for her kids, who didn’t yet exist. Some other helpful person hooked her up with an assistant principal at Clara Barton HS, and the AP pulled together ten young women who wanted to work with Val. And so this afterschool program got off the ground.

Val thought the students who came to her must have been in the same crew in school, because they got along so well. It turns out they just really bonded doing this project with her. Val had just received an email from one of the girls, a kind of thank-you note, acknowledging that yeah, learning was cool, and the laptops too, but she was most grateful for the opportunity to meet the other girls and get to know them. Val kind of leaned toward me and reached out her hand, in this unconscious gesture of wonder, while she told me about this email. “All that time I taught elementary school,” she said, “I never got a letter like that!”

Everything I heard on the stoop that evening was amazing. Val wrote a grant and got the laptops and funding to continue the program through the summer. The computer lab in the library became unavailable, but she asked a really well-connected friend and lo and behold, the friend knew about a brand-new lab at the YMCA that she could look into. Since the program is all about health, they’ve done cool stuff together like yoga and hiking, and then free golf lessons. Val found some foundation somewhere that wants urban teenagers to have opportunities to learn how to play golf. Val reenacted for me the scene where she told the kids what was in store. “Hey, guys!” – you could really see the elementary schoolteacher in Val at this moment – “how’d you like to – play golf?!? I know some of you are planning to be doctors and lawyers – well, let me tell you, if you want to find doctors and lawyers you can usually just look on the golf course. They all play golf…” She laid it on thick – which I happen to know is exactly what wanna-be-jaded young men and women need, and what they rarely get from their cynical elders. Of course, the girls had a blast.

The most extraordinary thing I heard that evening was this. I said that Val had a lot of reasons to celebrate the career move she’d made from the private to the public sector. And Val told me that when she was planning to leave the publishing house where she used to work, she recognized that she really wasn’t sure what she wanted to do. Normally, she said, she’s really painstaking and methodical and would send out a hundred resumes and follow up on all of them and weigh a bunch of different options. This time, she said, she waited for the job to come to her. She believed that you sort of attract the right options to yourself if you maintain the right sort of openness. “I trusted the universe,” she said. And the universe really came through.

I went upstairs to our apartment, full of joy.

Now if Val was a Christian, I’d have the perfect moral for this story: look what you can acheive if you believe in God. You, too, can be a hero. Of course, she’s an atheist. And we shouldn’t make a hero out of her – not because there’s no such thing as an atheist hero, but no one in their right mind wants to be glorified as a hero while being disregarded as a weak, vulnerable human being. You know, I always liked Val. What’s not to like? She’s attractive and funny. She loves her dog. She is a single woman who seems totally at home in her life. Her last name has my first name in it. Any number of cool things about this woman. But to make a hero out of her, sort of putting her on a pedestal, would be to do her a disservice.

But I know, from having been a high school teacher in Brooklyn, just how extraordinary Val’s achievement really is, the experience that she provided for those kids. And I know from living in this city for ten years how hard it is to make something happen the way she did – to pull together all those disparate resources. The way she found that job sounds like a fairy tale. If we think of her as a role model, it’s just going to make us angry – at ourselves, or at her for showing us up. So it’s not like that. Val’s no hero – but her achievements are heroic. So tell me: who is the hero? Whose hand do we see at work? Val says she trusted the universe, but we’re well aware that this universe is bent – it can’t be trusted. But it was created straight, and its creator has not abandoned it to the devil. So the creator became creature, and a true hero came on the scene.

Just before Jesus gives Peter the keys to the kingdom, he says, “Upon this rock I will build my church, and the gates of hell will not stand against it.” (Matt 16:18) The image is of hell as a fortress, with all the goodness and beauty of life locked away in dungeons behind its fortress walls. And the church is storming the castle, and the gates will not stand. And everything that was once held prisoner is going to be set free. That image comes to mind when I think about Valerie. God isn’t waiting on us to start bringing little points of light to a dark world. The Holy Spirit is always already at it, using whoever and whatever she pleases. If we’re wise, we’ll try to make ourselves available and interesting to her – maybe she’ll put us out in the field.

We call this a retreat, but we’re not retreating from anything. It’s the hectic craziness of our day to day lives, the drudgery, the grouchiness, the depression, those things are our retreat from the battle between heaven and hell. As soon as we stop and listen and become aware of the Holy Spirit at work in our lives, then the retreat is over, and we’re back in the action.