Autumn/Winter 2017 (Vol. 45, Nos. 3 & 4)

Autumn Winter 2017


The Way of the Still, Small Voice by Wendy McDowell


All Flesh Must Once Again Become Fire: Origen’s Untamed Thinking
by Charles M. Stang
For Origen, our souls and bodies are simply our fiery minds in different states, and our goal is transformation.
The Secular Religion of Plotinus by Margaret R. Miles
Plotinus focused on embodied life and envisioned an intricate, complex, interconnected universe.
Zhu Xi’s Breakthrough by Stephen C. Angle
Zhu Xi proposed that each of us must cultivate “reverential attention” so that together we might create more harmonious communities.
The Advice of Mencius by Jin Li
The central focus of Mencius’s thinking was how to let our goodness blossom and how to prevent ourselves from falling prey to immorality.


The Politics of Preaching by Matthew L. Potts
To tell a congregation the truth, to condemn our world while admitting that we cannot see our way clear of it, is a political and prophetic act.
Teffi, Rasputin, and the Revolution by Randy Rosenthal
Teffi’s writings and the story of Rasputin illuminate the role of belief and rumor in the fall of the Romanovs.
‘Every Little Pine Needle’ by Richard Higgins
Thoreau had a deeply religious cast of mind, but he experienced revelation in nature, and trees were his guides.
Can the Women Do Something? by Leymah Gbowee
An inspiring call to action from the Nobel laureate who brought women together across religious, ethnic, and political differences to restore peace in Liberia.
‘They Needed to be Heard’
Text, quotes, and images from an exhibit that breathes new life into ancient ocarinas, clay instruments which played a significant role in the Mesoamerican world.

In Review

Where Silence Lives by Timothy L. Gallati
The documentary In Pursuit of Silence creates a space for a long overdue conversation about the nuanced subject of silence.
Syllabus: Buddhist Ethics.
A selected reading list from Charles Hallisey’s course.
Facing the Fierce Land of I by Eliza Griswold
Gandhi’s translation of a verse from the Bhagavad Gita invites and commands us to return to what’s essential before taking action.
‘Restitching’ America under Trumpism by Robert Israel
A Q&A with E. J. Dionne, Jr., on the book he co-authored with Norman J. Ornstein and Thomas E. Mann, One Nation After Trump.
Challenging Binaries, Crossing Boundaries by Ousmane Kane
A review of four books on Islamic reform in contemporary Africa.


Modes of Travel  by Callie Siskel
At Prayer by Yehoshua November

See also: Past Issue

All Flesh Must Once Again Become Fire: Origen’s Untamed Thinking

Charles M. Stang

Fire illustration

Illustration by Andrew Zbihlyj

Origen was born in Alexandria in the late second century to Christian parents who gave him a pagan name: Ôrigenês, “child of Horus,” the falcon-headed sky god of the Egyptian pantheon. His was a life bookended by persecution: his father, killed for his faith when Origen was only sixteen years old, and Origen himself died from tortures suffered under the persecution of the emperor Decius in the year 253 or 254. His tormenters wanted him to yield so that they would have a prominent apostate with which to embarrass the church. That he did not yield, or die in their custody, but expired only later from his wounds meant that he was not, strictly speaking, like his father, a “martyr”—a witness to his faith unto death—but only a “confessor.”

Nicknamed “Adamantius,” he was the first “man of steel”—although it is perhaps better to think of the etymology of this title, “untamable” (adamas), for there is indeed something wild about his thinking.

Between these violent bookends, Origen led a life of learning. Nicknamed “Adamantius,” he was the first “man of steel”—although it is perhaps better to think of the etymology of this title, “untamable” (adamas), for there is indeed something wild about his thinking. He was a scholar, a teacher, and a daring thinker. Was he also a philosopher? If philosophy is the loving pursuit of wisdom, then yes, unquestionably. The wisdom he pursued, however, was divine Wisdom: the personified Wisdom in the book of Proverbs; that “Wisdom” which, along with the “Word,” is the preeminent title of the second person of the Trinity, God the Son.

To worldly wisdom Origen had a more complicated relationship—as have all Christians after the apostle Paul. He had, as it were, dual degrees in secular and religious education: a deep immersion in the traditional subjects of Hellenic paideia and, among his contemporaries, an unrivaled knowledge of the scriptures, Old and New Testaments. When as a young man he was entrusted by his bishop with teaching the faithful at a catechetical school, he renounced his secular education and teaching career and sold his library. But his ancient biographer Eusebius of Caesarea describes this very abandonment of secular learning as itself a “philosophic way of life,” that is, a life of renunciation (of sex, food, sleep, wealth, comfort, and status).1 This serves as a reminder that, in the third and fourth centuries at least, a life of philosophy was just as much, if not more, about what you did (or did not do) with your body as with your mind.

Later, Origen split the school in two, entrusting the introductory students to a former pupil, now colleague, and reserving his own efforts for the education of the advanced students. With this move he reversed his earlier abandonment of secular studies and taught philosophy to worthy students. If, according to Eusebius, he had all along been living as a philosopher, now he returned to teaching as one. The study of philosophy promised to help inoculate his students against teachers who would lead them astray, but, more importantly, it gave them tools to dive ever deeper into the mysteries contained in the scriptures.

In order to appreciate what Origen offers us today, we must first enter the landscape of his mind, and it is in many ways alien territory. A good place to begin is the book of Genesis, and its first two chapters. Origen was not the first ancient reader to notice that Genesis seemed to have two creation stories, not one: in the first, God creates the world and all that is in it, including humankind, over the course of six days; in the second, God creates Adam “from the dust of the ground,” then Eve from Adam’s rib, and then the two of them run afoul of a serpent in the garden and are banished by God from this Eden. Origen noticed that the two verbs used to describe the creation of humankind in each story are different. In the first story, God is said to have “made” humankind—the verb is poieô, from whence we get “poetry.” In the second story, God “formed” the first human from the dust of the earth—the verb is plassô, from whence we get “plastic.”

Certain that every detail and difference in the scriptures is significant, Origen insisted that these two verbs, and these two stories, tell us of two distinct creations. God first made minds or intellects whose sole purpose was to contemplate their creator. Something distracted them, however, some movement within themselves, some force eating away at their powers of attention. All of the minds, except one, turned away from God to varying degrees, and God formed these fallen minds into angels, humans, and demons, depending on the degree of their distraction. Around them all he formed a world in which to house them, to heal them, to restore them.

Minds were made of fire. Or perhaps they were like irons in the great fire of God: as long as they were plunged into the fire, they were aflame. But just like irons, when they removed themselves from God’s fire, they cooled and became ever more solid and slow. This is “The Fall” for Origen: minds falling into this world like lava cooling into black rock.

As therefore God is “fire” and the angels “a flame of fire” and the saints are all “fervent in spirit,” so on the contrary those who have fallen away from the love of God must undoubtedly be said to have cooled in their affection for him and to have become cold. . . . we must ask whether perhaps even the word soul, which in Greek is psyche, was not formed from psychesthai, with the idea of growing cold after having been in a diviner and better state, and whether it was not derived from thence because the soul seems to have grown cold by the loss of its first and natural divine warmth and on that account to have been placed in its present state with its present designation.2

We are not minds trapped in our souls and our bodies; rather, our souls and bodies are simply our fiery minds in different states.

We are not minds trapped in our souls and our bodies; rather, our souls and bodies are simply our fiery minds in different states. Just as water exists as a solid, liquid, and gas, so too do we. The goal, then, is not escape, but transformation. We began as God’s poetry and have descended into plasticity; all flesh must once again become fire.

For Origen, this is of God’s design. Our fall into flesh is in fact our opportunity for rehabilitation. The fiery mind moves quickly, too quickly, and so is easily distracted. The descent into this world slows the mind down, now encumbered by a soul and a body, and trains it over many lifetimes to pay steady attention. Whenever we successfully pay steady attention to this or that, we inch closer to contemplation, and we blaze just a little brighter.

Rehabilitation is a goal we share with angels and demons. They too are fire; they too have fallen. Angels help us along the way, and demons hinder us. The transformation from flesh to fire must be free, and thus it will take a long, long time. In order that “God may be all in all,” as the apostle Paul promises God will be (1 Corinthians 15:28), Origen insisted that all the fallen minds must eventually be restored. He believed the apostle Peter foretold of this when he spoke in the Acts of the Apostles of a “restoration of all things” (apokatastasis pantôn).3 Origen took Peter at his word: all things, all the fallen minds, including Satan, must be restored. That will take an especially long time, of course, because Satan is the name we give to the mind that fell furthest, and the one most stubbornly entrenched in his sin and ignorance.

Not everyone in his day, or since, has appreciated Origen’s insistence on universal salvation, that God will not cease until all the fallen minds are gathered once again around their creator. If pressed, Origen could even acknowledge that, strictly speaking, “Satan” will never be saved, because by the time that fallen mind we now call “Satan” is slowly and painfully rehabilitated, it will no longer bear that name. Clever as it is, this move has never seemed to satisfy those critics who are certain that God intends eternal torment for the damned, that divine punishment is without end.

Remember that, according to Origen, one of the minds did not fall: we know this mind by the name “Christ.” Although it is the only mind that did not deserve to descend into a soul and body, it freely did so, out of love for us, its lost siblings. This is why the apostle Paul calls the Incarnation an act of philanthrôpia, or “love of humanity.”4 The mind of Christ took on our human condition, not in the abstract but in the concrete: it became Jesus of Nazareth. Burdened and buffeted in a Jewish body living under brutal oppression, Jesus still managed to model loving contemplation of the creator. His death on the cross was not some substitutionary sacrifice that expiated our primordial sins; rather, it was a servant showing the way of obedience to God “even unto death,” modelling such obedience to fallen minds who are defined and differentiated by their disobedience.

As the only unfallen mind, Christ is fully open to the Word of God: he receives it as any mind was created to do. The Gospel according to John says of God’s Word: “He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being.”5 All of creation, then, is in, of, and through God’s Word; creation is Worded. And the Word made flesh, Jesus of Nazareth, the mind we name “Christ,” taught us then and teaches us now how to read that worded world. We read creation for signs of God’s providence, which is also working in and around us to restore us. And we read the scriptures, the two testaments, old and new. For Origen, they provide all that we will ever need to know, and they heal every spiritual ailment from which we will ever suffer.

It is no exaggeration to say that Origen spent his life reading, teaching, and preaching. What survives of his enormous corpus is mostly commentaries and homilies. Reading the scriptures was no pastime for Origen. To read the scriptures was to be slowly restored, to inch closer to the apokatastasis. He insisted that just as we are made up of body, soul, and spirit (which was for him equivalent to mind), so is scripture: the body of scripture is its literal meaning; the soul and the spirit are its deeper meanings. Clunky applications of Origen’s interpretive lens tend to try to identify three discrete meanings: a bodily, a soulful, and a spiritual. But Origen insisted that some passages in scripture have no bodily sense, no literal meaning. Since the scriptures are not really authored by humans but by the Holy Spirit, every detail—every word, phrase, and seeming infelicity—has spiritual meaning.

The literal meaning of the scriptures is like a smooth surface over which we glide.

The saving significance of the scriptures lies in these spiritual meanings, and, crucially, there is no end to them, at least no end until the end of all ends, the “restoration of all things.” Until then, there is no end to our understanding of the scriptures, and so no end to our reading and rereading the scriptures. The literal meaning of the scriptures is like a smooth surface over which we glide. We read along, and then suddenly we trip over an oddity, an infelicity, or an absurdity in the narrative. If we are lucky, we do not regain our footing, but we fall flat on our faces, and we examine up close whatever it was that broke our stride. But when we do so, we see that the bulging crack reveals an infinite depth beneath our feet, an abyss of meaning over which we have been skating with false confidence. For Origen, to read the scriptures is to be initiated into that abyss, to begin to spelunk ever deeper.

Christ has taught us to read the scriptures and, by his coming, has transformed the whole of scripture into gospel, or “good news.” But even this gospel is but a “shadow of the mysteries of Christ.”6 Lest we come to worship the words on the page as we would a false god, Origen directs our eyes to the gospel in order to direct them beyond the gospel, or to another gospel. If our gospel is the text whose words we can read on a page, then there is another “spiritual” or “eternal” gospel always on the horizon of our reading. He writes, “our task is to change the sensible gospel into the spiritual gospel.”7 The task is to transform the bodily sense to the spiritual sense, the flesh of the word to the fire of the word. We can set each letter of a book aflame. The gospel of fire always exists out in front of us, leading us through many dark nights, like a fiery pillar in the desert. As we follow it, as we change the word’s flesh to fire, so too are we changed.

Our individual rehabilitation is imagined as a single step in the long and communal choreography of universal salvation, the restoration of all things, human and nonhuman.

What does Origen offer us today? With him, we enter a Christian imaginary where every detail of our incarnation, our becoming flesh, is an opportunity for progress toward rehabilitation. Our individual rehabilitation is imagined as a single step in the long and communal choreography of universal salvation, the restoration of all things, human and nonhuman. With Origen, we understand our body not as the mind’s antagonist, but as the mind’s longing to be once again an iron in the fire of God. He teaches us to see ourselves reflected on the page of the scriptures as if in a mirror: just as letters long to be spirit, so flesh longs to burn. To free the letter is to free ourselves: all flesh must once again become fire. And to stare into the mirror of the scriptures is to stare at a mise en abyme: there will be an end to our many transformations, our many, ever deeper, readings of the scriptures, but thankfully—mercifully—that end is not yet in sight. What does Origen offer us today? Time, and longing: time in which to long, and long more.



  1. Eusebius, Ecclesiastical History, 6.3.9.
  2. Origen, Peri Archôn, 2.8.2.
  3. Acts 3:19–21 (NRSV): “Repent therefore, and turn to God so that your sins may be wiped out, so that times of refreshing may come from the presence of the Lord, and that he may send the Messiah appointed for you, that is, Jesus, who must remain in heaven until the time of universal restoration that God announced long ago through his holy prophets.”
  4. For example, Titus 3:4: “But when the goodness and loving kindness [philanthrôpia] of God our Savior appeared” (NRSV); strictly speaking, Titus is a “deutero-Pauline” epistle, but Origen believed it to be authored by the apostle himself.
  5. John 1:2–3 (NRSV).
  6. Origen, Commentary on the Gospel of John, 1.39.
  7. Ibid., 1.45.

Charles M. Stang is Professor of Early Christian Thought and director of the Center for the Study of World Religions at Harvard Divinity School. His most recent book, Our Divine Double, was published in 2016 by Harvard University Press.


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At Prayer

By Yehoshua November

And I saw what must have been a camp
for young female Jewish artists
carrying canvases and paints,
wading, in long skirts,
into a field past the community college library.
And when I looked up again from my reading,
they were praying in the high grass,
arms extended before their bodies,
prayer books held toward the sky.


In the final hour of daylight, young women
at the Jewish night college in Brooklyn
recite the Afternoon Service—
rocking back and forth in dim-lit stairwells, in alcoves,
in the aisles between library stacks,
in empty chemistry labs. A pause
between day job and evening class.
On their lips, prayers for a good marriage, an A
on an exam.


Once, at dawn, decades ago,
I slipped out the yeshiva side door,
descended the steps to the Wailing Wall,
and joined a quorum of men at prayer.
From the room where Bibles and prayer books
are stored when rain cascades
on the Western Wall Plaza,
we could hear a woman’s weeping.
How uncomfortable
her true faith made us feel.



Yehoshua November is the author of two poetry collections, Two Worlds Exist (a finalist for the National Jewish Book Award and the Paterson Poetry Prize) and God’s Optimism (a finalist for the Los Angeles Times Book Prize). November teaches writing at Rutgers University and Touro College.

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See also: Poetry

Buddhist Ethics

A selected reading list from Charles Hallisey's course.

Buddhadhamma book cover

Phra Prayudh Payutto, trans. Grant A. Olson (SUNY Press, 1995).
This modern distillation of pivotal doctrines found in the Pali Buddhist canon is written by a highly regarded monk-scholar from Southeast Asia.

Oneself as Another book cover Oneself as Another
Paul Ricoeur (University of Chicago Press, 1995).
Focusing on the concept of personal identity, Ricoeur develops a hermeneutics of the self and lays the groundwork for a metaphysics of morals.

Love and Honor in the Himalayas book cover Love and Honor in the Himalayas
Ernestine McHugh (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2001).
A gripping ethnographic memoir based on McHugh’s long relationship with a Gurung family in Nepal. In mundane and dramatic rituals, the Gurungs emphasize the importance of love and honor in everyday life. 
The Bodhicaryavatara: A Guide to the Bodhisattva Way of Life book cover The Bodhicaryavatara: A Guide to the Bodhisattva Way of Life
Santideva, trans. Kate Crosby and Andrew Skilton (Oxford University Press, 2008).
Written in India in the early eighth century, this important manual of training among Mahayana Buddhists continues to be used by modern Buddhist teachers.
Tannisho (A Record in Lament of Divergences) book cover Tannisho (A Record in Lament of Divergences)
Shinran Shonin (Hongwanji Press, 1995).
A compilation of key sayings by the medieval Japanese Buddhist teacher who first promulgated the Pure Land sect of Shin Buddhism.

Zen Action: Zen Person book cover Zen Action: Zen Person
T. P. Kasulis (University of Hawaii Press, 1987).
An American philosopher trained in East Asian languages and Zen practice explores the full range of Asian philosophies that led to the development of Japanese Zen Buddhism.

Edicts of Asoka book cover Edicts of Asoka
Ed. and trans. N. A. Nikam and Richard McKeon (University of Chicago Press, 1978).
The remarkable Indian ruler Asoka (304–232 BCE) renounced the warlike policies of his early career and left this record of his moral teachings inscribed on stone. 
Imagining Karma: Ethical Transformation in Amerindian, Buddhist, and Greek Rebirth book cover Imagining Karma: Ethical Transformation in Amerindian, Buddhist, and Greek Rebirth
Gananath Obeyesekere (University of California Press, 2002).
Through independent invention or borrowing, diverse societies have come to believe in reincarnation as an integral part of their cosmological systems, as this comprehensive inquiry reveals. 
The Just King: The Tibetan Buddhist Classic on Leading an Ethical Life book cover The Just King: The Tibetan Buddhist Classic on Leading an Ethical Life
Jamgön Mipham, trans. José Ignacio Cabezón (Snow Lion, 2017).
A Buddhist monk’s letter to the king of Dergé, this historic contribution to ethics and governance teaches us the value of protecting life, fair taxation, environmental sustainability, aiding the poor, and freedom of religion.

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Can the Women Do Something?

To become catalysts for peace, start small and bring others along.

Leymah Gbowee

Leymah Gbowee speaking at Harvard Divinity School

Leymah Gbowee at Harvard Divinity School. Photo: Laura Krueger.


We women in international congress assembled, protest against the madness and the horror of war, involving as it does a reckless sacrifice of human life and the destruction of so much that humanity has labored through centuries to build up.

This International Congress of Women opposes the assumption that women can be protected under the conditions of modern warfare. It protests vehemently against the odious wrongs of which women are the victims in time of war, and especially against the horrible violation of women which attends all war.

This International Congress of Women of different nations, classes, creeds and parties is united in expressing sympathy with the suffering of all, whatever their nationality, who are fighting for their country or laboring under the burden of war.


The women who gathered at The Hague in 1915 expressed these sentiments. Yet these same words, from the end resolution after the International Congress of Women, could be written today. Our world includes similar or even worse atrocities. Activism has increased, but so have militarism and war economies. Peace seems elusive.1

In Africa today, there are 29 countries currently in conflict, with approximately 214 militia or insurgent groups. In Asia, there are 16 countries in conflict and 167 militia or insurgent groups. In Europe, 10 countries have 80 militia, insurgent, or terrorist groups. In the Middle East, there are only 7 countries, but the region has the highest number of military/insurgent groups: 241. In the Americas, 26 drug cartel organizations and terrorist groups are operating in 6 countries. In total, globally, there are 67 countries involved in war, with at least 729 insurgent or militia groups.

If you look at the images from all of these conflicts, you see that women and children bear the greatest brunt of the violence. For example, in renewed fighting in South Sudan in July 2016, soldiers from the presidential palace opened fire on the convoy of the deputy U.S. ambassador who was coming from a reception in Juba. Fortunately, he was in a bulletproof van, and many of the U.S. Marines with him returned fire, so he escaped unharmed. But women who were in Juba working with eight aid organizations and living in a hotel nearby, did not escape. They have told commissions of inquiries about a terrible attack during which they were raped and assaulted—as many as fifteen soldiers raped one woman. These were people who were in South Sudan to provide protection for others, and rape and assault were used against them.

In my home country of Liberia, the situation was no different several years ago. We went to war between 1989 and 2003. Reports from different organizations suggest that about 60 percent of the population of Liberian women were raped during the war. Sixty percent! It was a difficult period for us. Many initiatives came about. Groups of women worked at the local level in different ways to bring an end to the civil war. However, the peace processes—like many other well-meaning processes—were disconnected, and they perpetuated the divisions that separated the country. At the end of the day, nothing changed.

I was seventeen years old when the war started, so thirteen years later, I was thirty years old. There I was in my thirties and looking at the war—I’ve read King, I’ve read Gandhi, I know about nonviolent activism—and I would see activists who could really express themselves elegantly, and I would think: “Oh, this should be our Gandhi!” Or: “Who should be our Mandela?” I was always looking at different individuals and, in my head, rationalizing that the eloquence and the intellectual ability that they possessed qualified them for the work of being an activist who would save the country.

I knew that the war would come to an end only if people used nonviolent means. Because when the war started, like many conflicts, it was just the government and the insurgents. But over time, people began to take up arms. The more atrocities that were committed, the more arms came into the country. If you look at Syria at the start of the conflict, it was just the government and the protestors. Today, there are over twenty-eight insurgent and militia groups operating within Syria. Every time a community is hit, people arm themselves as a means of fighting back.

So I’m looking at my country and telling myself: We will never get to peace as long as we continue to use violence as a means of solving the problem.

I carried this thought for so long, and one day I had a strange dream. My kids had moved out of Liberia. I was in Monrovia working with the church, doing trauma work. I was so depressed, because I started having my children at twenty-one. They were my world. I was very frustrated, so I put myself into my work. I did not own a laptop, so I would write. I wrote everything down; I still do.

One night I wrote this account of my dream: I am lying on the floor in the forest, asleep. A cold wind hits me, and I’m in between sleep and waking, and it’s like someone is telling me: “Wake up and gather the women to pray for peace.”

After I woke up, it seemed so unreal. I looked around and there was no forest; I lived in a house! In the morning, I went to work, where my boss was a pastor. I approached him and said, “Revy, I had this strange dream last night.”

He said, “Come and sit and talk to me about it.”

I said, “In my dream, I heard this voice telling me, ‘Leymah, wake up and gather the women together to pray for peace.’ ” And then I said, “So I am telling you because, as a pastor, you need to go and tell the women in the churches to pray.”

And he looked at me and smiled. He said, “Leymah, the dream-bearer is always the dream-carrier. You have to do this yourself.”

I tried to rationalize with him. I said, “Revy, have you seen my social life? I drink like a fish. I have an alcohol problem. I’m in a relationship with a man that I’m not married to; according to biblical standards, I’m a fornicator. Revy, have you seen that I have children with a man that I did not marry? So I am an adulterous woman. Revy . . .”

He just kept looking at me. He said, “You know what, if you don’t bear this dream, then the next time you see it, you will not recognize it. That’s why it’s important for the dream-bearer to always be the dream-carrier. So I will invite the women from the church to come—but I will insist that you sit with them, and that you drive your dream.”

So we started something called the Christian Women’s Peace Initiative. We were just women from the Lutheran Church, which was my religious background. Our first meeting was basically just prayers all day, prayers and prayers and beseeching God. I never tried to rationalize in my head what was happening. I felt that if this was the message, then I shouldn’t move beyond it.

After the first week, someone said, “For this to be effective, we need to invite women from other churches.” So we sent out the word. Women of other churches came. Still, it was just prayer, and more prayer.

Then one day, a delegation from the World Council of Churches came to Liberia. We went to the church, and they asked us to present a statement. We presented this statement: That we were tired of war. That we were going to continue to seek the face of God. But that we were challenging our religious leaders, because warlords were affiliated with every faith background. You had those who went to the mosques, and Taylor went to church. We were challenging them to use the pulpit to speak for peace.

In my head, I was still thinking: Some of these great men are the Gandhis and Mandelas of our time. They need to use their pulpit as a place for advocating for peace and calling their members to order.

Other, non-Christian women came to this World Council of Churches meeting. I witnessed two women stand up and say, “I’m challenged by the Christian women using their faith as a means of ending the war. I’m going back to my Muslim sisters, and we will start a group of Muslim Women for Peace.”

Once the Muslim women came together, they sent for me and said, “Can you guide us? Can you mentor us? Can you do what you did with the women of your church?”

After Friday prayers, they would stay back in a special room, either in the mosque or in a nearby school, where they spent time praying and talking about how to strategically engage. They took the first step of inviting an imam to their meeting, saying to him: “We’re calling you to say this is what we know: in our faith tradition, people always say that women are not supposed to do this.”

This man, an Islamic scholar, said: “People speak out of ignorance. Nowhere in the Qu’ran is it written that women should not do any work for peace. As a matter of fact, it is the contrary.” His statement empowered those women. That one imam became a person who would journey with those Muslim women as they began to do their work.

Leymah Gbowee at the March for Hope

Leymah Gbowee met with women at the 2016 March for Hope, organized by Women Wage Peace, when the marchers reached Jerusalem. Photo: Reem Shmulevich/Wikimedia Commons.


The core purpose of our work was to bring Christian and Muslim women together to pray for peace, to use our spirituality first and foremost. Eventually, we decided that we would forge an alliance beyond our individual groups. Many of us recognized that other groups had worked separately, and they had not succeeded in effecting change. We asked each other, “How can we extinguish a blazing fire with drops of water?” Because if you have separate work for peace building, that’s what you are doing.

So we formed the Women of Liberia Mass Action for Peace, which was a consortium of Christian and Muslim women coming together to take action. This marriage of Christian and Muslim women was not easy. It was challenging. People brought different spiritual traditions and experiences—and sometimes instead of using their spirituality to build the group up, they used it to break the group apart. Many Christian women, especially, would say things like: what fellowship does darkness have with light? Those are the kinds of scriptural references that people referred to with the aim of fostering divisions.

It got very intense, to the point that we had to say to some of the women, “If you are not satisfied with working together, leave! If we are only five consistently doing this work, we are sure we will succeed.”

Meanwhile, our President Taylor had taken a second wife who was a Muslim. Once she knew that this work was gaining traction, she went on the radio calling on the imams in the country to advise Muslim women not to go to protests, because it was not their place spiritually to protest for peace. Some pastors from within Taylor’s network were saying the same things to Christian women.

One day, the archbishop of the Roman Catholic Church and an Islamic scholar decided to join forces. They came to where we were protesting and brought a whole bunch of media people with them, and they spoke publicly. The archbishop said, “If you are a true Christian, and you fail to join this group, then you are not exercising what Christianity is, because Christianity is a religion of peace.” And the imam put the challenge out there, that every God-loving Muslim woman should come and join us, too.

The next day, our numbers tripled.

Once all of these women came, we continued to do our work. But though we did the strategic planning, having daily meetings to discuss where we would target next for our picketing and our other activities, we never abandoned the spiritual part.

When I was being interviewed before I came here [to HDS], I was asked, “What are some of the spiritual rituals that you all did?”

I replied: “In all the years I have done this work, this is the first time that anyone has asked me about my spiritual rituals. I’m honestly shocked that you asked this question.”

The first thing we did every morning at 6 am, with the earliest group that gathered on that airfield, was that we started a time of praise and prayer. We would sing Christian songs and pray, and then the Muslims would pray. It was a collective time of prayer. We did not separate anything.

Sometimes we had vigils. I remember there was one night when we had a candlelight vigil in front of the city hall, from 7 pm to 6 am the next morning. As we sat there with our candles praying for peace, we had one pastor and this Islamist scholar with us. The pastor came and strengthened us with a word from the Bible, and the following hour the Islamic scholar would come and strengthen us. We would break out in songs, either Christian or Muslim, and this is how we spent the entire night.

We decided that the act of being heroes—or “she-roes” or whatever you want to call us—was a test of our consciences.

I have a vivid memory of that night, because at around 5:30 am—the vigil was supposed to end at 6—this heavy downpour of rain came. And we just sat there. The Islamic scholar was in the middle of his exhortation. I remember seeing this man standing there, and the pouring rain came on him, but it was like he was standing in the sun because he did not even miss a beat in what he was saying. He continued to encourage us.

Beyond the vigils, one of the things the women did was look for leaders in the group. Of course, I was still looking for a way to get out of this dream thing. So I said to them: “I am the one who has read King, Gandhi, everything; I will write for the group, so go find your leader.” The other women, both Christian and Muslim, looked at me and said, “You are the leader.”

I said: “No, no, no. Can’t you people see that this is a public thing, and my life is not good? I don’t want it in the public eye.”

One of the older women turned to me and said, “God uses the foolish things of this world to confront the wise.”

I’m looking at these women and saying to myself, Oh my God, they’ve missed it, they’ve really missed it.

They said, “Let’s pray about it,” and they kept praying. For the next week, every morning they went into the Bible for an exhortation. They picked a character who was weak and told the story of how God used this person. At the end of this period, they came to me with oil. They said to me, “We want you in the circle.” And they said to the group, “If there is anyone in this group who is against her being a leader, we are giving you an opportunity to leave.”

This was the first time I was not in charge—they were telling me what to do! Some women got up and left. Then the rest said, “Let’s hold hands.” Christian, Muslim, everyone held hands and declared, “We’re going to anoint you the leader of this group.” They took the oil and anointed my head, my hands, and the bottoms of my feet. They prayed—Christian and Muslim prayers—and afterward they said to me, “You’re good to go.”

It was a difficult task. But this is the point that I want to drive home here: People in this world today tend to want to separate the spiritual part and rationalize in their heads that this is just a coincidence, that everything we did was because we were strategic. It’s true; we were very strategic in everything we did. But given the conditions and situations that we lived and worked in, had we not had that spiritual part, we probably would not have made it. It was our deeply rooted sense of our faith that kept us together when everything else failed us. When we could not get money, when there were days we would just sit and cry and look at each other and say, This is not working, someone would take a scriptural verse or a Qur’anic text and use it to edify the entire group.

Another thing we did sometimes, to show a sense of sisterhood and collectivity and togetherness, was to wash each other’s feet, regardless of ethnicity.


One day, we were sitting on the airfield after we had prayed, just keeping each other company. I would often go around asking the women: “So, why are you here? Why are you doing this?” The idea was that I would write a book that told their stories.

One of the women said: “I’m here because my son was killed. My son was killed, and he was butchered. They made me buy every single piece of his body before I could bury him. And you know who did it?”

And I said, “Who?”

And she turned and pointed and said, “This woman’s nephew.”

And another woman sitting there said, “Yes, it’s true. And that is the reason why I’m here. Because I don’t know how to apologize. I don’t know how to say sorry, but maybe if I put myself in front of all this, and if by some accident I get killed, maybe it will be good enough to make amends for all of the people that my nephew killed in that village.”

Some of the women sitting there had brothers who were key warlords. These men would say to their female siblings, “You join that group, and we will decide to shoot in that group . . .”

One of the girls who came with us every morning lived with Taylor’s wife.

So we were women who came together across ethnicity, political diversity, however you want to describe it. But we had one thing in common: our common humanity, held together by our faith in that higher power.

We continued to do our work strategically. We understood that we could not separate our sense of patriotism from our personal welfare from national politics. This is what people also miss in today’s world. They see churches and religious institutions as spaces where people should not be politically involved. But the opportunity to change the tide is so great in these institutions. For us, coming together as a holistic group, these religious spaces were important. We decided that the act of being heroes—or “she-roes” or whatever you want to call us—was a test of our consciences.

We were able to bring peace to Liberia. All of the narratives of the end of Liberia’s war tell this story about the women’s involvement. All of the media say: “Had these women not put aside their differences and used their faith to come together, we don’t think we would have been here.”

Let me tell you a funny story. Sometimes, we used to carry on fasts. Some of the women would say—I don’t know where they got they story from, don’t ask me—but they would say we should lie on our backs and face the sun. I remember the first time we did that. People stopped and parked their cars to look. According to the story, someone called President Taylor and said, “The women are facing the sun.” And the question he asked was, “Do you think they are cursing me?”

But it was far from that. “This is the god of the sun” is the explanation the women gave. And if looking to you, god of the sun, would give us some semblance of peace, we will look to you. We would lie in that position for hours, praying, facing up to the sun; no umbrellas, no shade, nothing. Because throughout the entire process of peacebuilding, we used the brokenness of our bodies, the pains we had gone through, to confront those who had done all of the wrongs to us.

When the women went to The Hague a hundred years ago, it was a journey of risks. When we protested, it was a journey of risks. When they went to The Hague, it was a moral venture. When we protested, it was a moral venture. At The Hague, even women who did not come from countries that were involved in the war said that the cries of soldiers on their deathbeds asking, “Can the women do something about this?” haunted them and drew them to the protests.

More than a hundred years later, the question is the same: Can the women do something? Can the women do something in this world in which we have all of this horrific violence—in South Sudan, in Central African Republic, in Syria, Yemen, Iraq, Afghanistan? In places and spaces where it is more dangerous to be a woman than a soldier? Can the women rise up and challenge governments that spend millions on wars while their citizens die from the lack of resources to meet basic needs? Can the women do something about the thousands of girls and young women who are trafficked and forced into prostitution in very wealthy nations? Can the women do something about the rising wave of fundamentalism in this country and many other parts of the world? Can the women do something about the wave of unarmed killings of civilians by law enforcement officers? Can the women do something about the degradation of our environment? Can the women do something about the rising wave of hate politics that we see in the United States and other parts of the world?

My answer is, yes. Yes we can, yes we are, and yes we will continue to do something.

On a daily basis, despite the dreadful stories and statistics of how difficult it is for women to function in countries where there are conflicts, you hear stories of heroism. Stories of women who are challenging the status quo.

A few years ago, I found myself in DR Congo, within an active war zone. There we met Julienne Lusenge, who had set up a free hospital for victims of rape, men and women. She had established a buffer zone where people could come after they had run away from whatever abduction they had suffered, and women were there to welcome them to this clinic. Not only did she provide medical care for them, but she provided small amounts of money so they could start a life.

I sat in a room with one hundred women, and each of them told their story of rape. At the end of my trip, I described these stories as “the beauty in the middle.” Because as these women told their stories, they would come to the middle, and it was: “And the women came. And I moved from disappointment, I moved from sadness, to hope. They gave me new clothes, they gave me new underwear, and they gave me hope. Today, I am standing up for another woman who will get free.”

This is what women are doing. They are acting as catalysts for peace in places where rape is the order of the day.

Here is the question I bring to you: Is there a dream that you have to transform a situation? It doesn’t have to be an all-out war. It doesn’t have to be AK-47s shooting all over the place. Sometimes that dream, that whisper in your ear is just, Mentor a child. And in mentoring that one child, you are saving him from prison, or from killing people. Maybe the whisper in your ear is just, Go to a homeless shelter and serve a hot meal.

How many times have you heard that voice in your ear as you walk past someone homeless? Next time, stop and say hi. Sometimes when we talk about being catalysts for change, or agents of peace, or being strategic for peace, people think it’s a huge thing that you need to do. But everyone who has made a great impact on our world today started small. Those who are great in the eyes of the world as change makers or change agents started small. And the challenge to you who are already involved is to bring others along. Spread your crazy with other crazies. Don’t keep your crazy to yourself.

It is important for all of us to use whatever is within our power to change the tide. It is important for us to stand up when it’s time to stand up. Expect that it will be difficult, because you know what? It can be a very lonely place.

I used to have tons of friends. A few weeks ago, a friend of mine and I were talking. She said, “Leymah, you know what I realized? You have no friends anymore.”

I said, “Yes, I know. The word came four years ago. But you know the one assurance that I have? That the Lord said he’s got my back. And I trust that.”

One day I was in New York, and I was feeling depressed and discouraged about the trends in my personal and work lives, trends like the loneliness. I was walking to a meeting, and I saw three black boys go into a nail salon. For some reason, I stopped to look at them. They came outside with a pair of flip-flops. Instead of going to my meeting, I followed them in the opposite direction. I walked behind these young men until they got to a place where there was an old white man, bent over, struggling to walk from one place to another because his flip-flops were broken. These were three black boys, and this is the time of Black Lives Matter. This is the time when the conversation around racism is very high, when some people think there cannot be any good between black and white. But these three young men walked over to this old man and handed him the pair of flip-flops.

My heart went out to them. I didn’t know them, but I ran to these young children and started hugging them. Of course their first instinct was, “Whoa, back off.” But I said to them, “I’m your aunty. And I want you to tell your mother that she’s raised very good boys.”

Afterward, I was walking to my meeting that I was now late for, and asking God, What are you teaching me? And the answer was: Your work is not in vain. There are people out there who are looking and seeing not just you, but other good people who are doing work for peace.

The challenge to all of us, including myself, is that we need to stand up to be catalysts for peace. The women in The Hague did it. The Liberian women stood on their faith, persevered, and they made history. You and I may not make history in the global sense. But to a girl or boy, a man or a woman or a community, you could be that catalyst for peace and for great change. 



  1. This is a lightly edited transcript of the Bicentennial Religions and the Practice of Peace (RPP) Keynote Address Leymah Gbowee delivered at Harvard Divinity School on October 6, 2016, as part of the RPP Colloquium Dinner Series. This monthly public series is convened by HDS Dean David N. Hempton and brings together a cross-disciplinary working group of faculty, experts, graduate students, and alumni from across Harvard University and the local area to explore topics and cases in religions and the practice of peace. The event was co-sponsored by the Women’s Studies in Religion Program (WSRP) and received generous support from the Provostial Fund for the Arts and Humanities at Harvard University; the Susan Shallcross Swartz Endowment for Christian Studies; Karen Vickers Budney, MDiv ’91, and Albert J. Budney, Jr., MBA ’74; and the El-Hibri Foundation.

A 2011 Nobel Peace Prize laureate, Lleymah Gbowee is a Liberian peace activist, trained social worker, and women’s rights advocate. Her leadership of the Women of Liberia Mass Action for Peace is chronicled in her memoir, Mighty Be Our Powers (2011), and in the award-winning documentary, Pray the Devil Back to Hell (2008). She is founder and current president of the Gbowee Peace Foundation Africa.

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Challenging Binaries, Crossing Boundaries

Ousmane Kane

In Review | Required Reading A review of four books on Islamic reform in contemporary Africa.

The Making of Salafism: Islamic Reform in the Twentieth Century, by Henri Lauzière. Columbia University Press, 328 pages, $55

Boko Haram:The History of an African Jihadist Movement, by Alexander Thurston. Princeton University Press, 352 pages, $29.95.

Living Knowledge in West African Islam: The Sufi Community of Ibrāhīm Niasse, by Zachary Valentine Wright. Islam in Africa Series, 18, E. J. Brill, 334 pages, $152.

Islamic Reform in Twentieth-Century Africa, by Roman Loimeier. Edinburgh University Press, 560 pages, $130.

Tijaniyya Brotherhood photo

A member of the Tijaniyya Brotherhood prays as he takes part in a remembrance for Sheikh Sidi Ahmed al-Tijani on May 14, 2014, in the Moroccan city of Fez. Photo: Fadel Senna/AFP/Getty Images

The story of Islam in Africa has always been one of a dual process. The first part of the story was the spread of Islam as a religion in African societies (the Islamization of Africa), and the second part was its adaptation to accommodate the already existing African traditions and cultures (the Africanization of Islam).1 Thus, throughout the second millennium, African Muslims were faced with the problem not only of how to spread the faith, but also how to improve its local practice.

A prime example of this is the Almoravid movement, one of the oldest and most influential reform movements in Africa, which started its odyssey in the south of present-day Mauritania. At its zenith, the Almoravids had conquered most of the Sahara, North Africa, and Muslim Spain. They eradicated Shiite and Ibadi influences and imposed a Sunni Maliki Islam in most of the Maghreb and in West Africa. From the rise of the Almoravids in the eleventh century until the establishment of European colonial rule at the turn of the twentieth century, many reformers attempted to rectify what they viewed as the corruption of the Islamic faith over time.

But it was in the twentieth century that Islamic reform had the strongest impact, for two reasons. The first is that Islam spread more rapidly and more widely in West Africa (where most Muslims south of the Sahara live) during the twentieth century than in the preceding nine centuries.2 The second is that the twentieth century witnessed the colonization and decolonization of Africa, as well as the globalization of Muslim movements. These developments created all sorts of challenges and prompted many Muslims to renegotiate their relations with their faith.

Four books have been published recently that considerably enrich our understanding of Islamic reform in Africa in the twentieth century. Because they deal with different regions of Africa and with a wide range of groups, together they offer rich material for instructors teaching modern Islam, but also for policy makers, journalists, and the larger public. In his work, Henri Lauzière analyzes reform movements in North Africa and beyond, clarifying the meaning of reform in different contexts. Alexander Thurston addresses the Boko Haram movement, a splinter group of the Izala movement, one of the largest Salafi reform movements in twentieth-century Africa. In his historical ethnography of the Sufi community of Ibrahim

Niasse (1900–1975), Zachary Wright discusses the influential Tijaniyya Sufi movement and the important contributions Niasse made to Islamic reform. And Roman Loimeier provides a comprehensive study of twentieth-century reform movements (Sufi and Salafi) in Africa south of the Sahara.

These books certainly deepen our knowledge about Islamic reform in Africa, past and present. They also reveal and push up against longstanding academic binaries and territorialism, such as the Sufi/Salafi distinction and the North African/sub-Saharan divide, which I think are hampering our understanding of these important movements. To discuss these four books is to celebrate how far we’ve come in the field of Islamic studies in Africa, but it is also to encourage those of us who work in this field to go farther. We must rethink our categories and expand our disciplinary worlds so that we can do justice to these dynamic, influential, global religious movements.

But what is Islamic reform? Two words are used in the Arabic literature to describe it: Islah and Salafi. But, as Henri Lauzière reveals in The Making of Salafism: Islamic Reform in the Twentieth Century, there has been a great deal of confusion between the two terms among scholars and activists in the past hundred years. Lauzière unpacks the concepts in his work and provides us with a more robust conceptualization of the ideology of reform.

Muslim Women

Muslim women pose for photographs after the Eid al-Fitr prayers at the International Centre for Islamic Culture and Education in Abuja August 8, 2013. The Eid al-Fitr festival marks the end of the holy month of Ramadan. Photo: Reuters/Afolabi Sotunde


Generations of Middle Eastern and Islamic studies students have been taught that a modernist movement named Salafiyya, spearheaded by Jamal al-Din al-Afghani (1838–1897), Muhammad ‘Abduh (1849–1905), and Rashid Rida (1865–1935) appeared in the late nineteenth-century East. Founded at the height of European imperialism, this movement aimed to bridge the gap between the Islamic world and the West. It identified religious “superstitions” and imitation (taqlid) as the main cause of stagnation and advocated a return to the teachings of the pious forefathers (madhhab al-salaf). It also championed the acceptance of scientific and technological achievements of the West to strengthen Muslim societies. Students have been taught that this modernist Salafiyya movement is not to be confused with a classical Salafiyya based on the teachings of Ibn Taymiyya (1263–1328) and revived by the Najd theologian Muhammad Ibn ‘Abd al-Wahhab (1703–1792), which also advocated a return to the teachings of the Salaf, but which was an anti-innovative strain that has persisted through the purist strains of Wahabbism that we see today.

In The Making of Salafism, Lauzière argues quite convincingly that this narrative is wrong and that the purist concept of Salafi methodology, as applicable to law, theology, and all aspects of the human experience, is not as pristine as its contemporary adherents believe. Rather, Salafism was shaped during the colonial and decolonization periods and by the “cross-pollination between indigenous and nonindigenous ways of thinking about Islam” that took place during this period (236). As such, this reform movement was strongly influenced by modern understandings of religion and ideology and, indeed, was a direct result of decolonization. He stresses:

To say that it dates from the time of Ibn Taymiyya or Muhammad ibn ‘Abd al-Wahhab not only is anachronistic but also obfuscates the development of modern Islamic thought. Although many of the ingredients of purist Salafism are old, the recipe and the final product (including the term Salafism) are not. (236)

Lauzière explains that the mere presence of the words “Salaf,” “Salafi,” and “Salafiyya” in Arabic sources in general, and in the writings of ‘Abduh and Rida in particular, is not evidence of a religious orientation dating back either to the medieval period or to the nineteenth century. From the medieval period until the beginning of the twentieth century, Muslim scholars referred to themselves and others as affiliates to the madhhab al-salaf only to signal their adherence to Hanbali theology with regard to the names and attributes of God (20–21). Al-Afghani and Muhammad ‘Abduh never claimed to be Salafi in the first place.3 Instead, the buzzword for their movement is “Islah,” which means comprehensive reform that encompasses the religious, social, educational, and political spheres (40).

One of the most important contributions of this book is that it clarifies the difference between the reform movement (Islah) that al-Afghani, ‘Abduh, Rida, and others championed and the Salafi theological creed. Muhammad ‘Abduh, for example, was Ash‘ari in creed, while Rida was Salafi (or Hanbali), but they were both partisans of the Islah movement (41). The Islah movement had a widespread appeal to many Muslims at the turn of the twentieth century and later. Some of them were Hanbali in creed (thus, Salafi), and others were not.

Lauzière traces the construction of the idea of Salafiyya as a comprehensive movement to 1917, when ‘Abd al-Fattah Qatlan, a Syrian associate of Rashid Rida, founded a journal he named al-Majalla al-Salafiyya, in order to promote his Cairo bookstore. A copy of the journal was sent to the Revue du monde musulman, a top Islamic studies journal in France. To make sense of this new journal, the French Arabist Louis Massignon presented Salafiyya as an intellectual movement that had emerged in early nineteenth-century India and from there spread by al-Afghani and ‘Abduh to establish itself in Baghdad, Damascus, Cairo, the Maghreb, Indonesia, and elsewhere (37–38).4 As Lauzière points out:

Massignon was not conveying the indigenous history and meaning of an already existing Islamic concept. He was rather constructing a new category as he went along, juxtaposing available historical facts and observations to produce a seemingly credible analytical tool. (38)

Massignon was misled because he had traveled to Ottoman Iraq at the beginning of the twentieth century, and he had befriended or exchanged letters with leading reformers.5 So, when the al-Majalla al-Salafiyya reached him in Paris, he made inaccurate connections between a word (Salafi), a series of Muslim reformers, and their ideas (39).

Emile Dermenghem, a French Islamicist who also was acquainted with Muslim activists in the Maghreb, embraced this narrative. Through such interactions between orientalists and Muslim activists, the flawed narrative of Massignon came to have a life of its own. Moroccan nationalist and reformist ‘Allal al-Fasi (1910–1974) was among those who embraced and indigenized Massignon’s understanding.6 This new understanding of Salafiyya became widespread among Muslim Salafis and orientalists, both in sources in European languages and in sources in the Arabic language. Thus, Lauzière shows, “indigenous and exogenous sources ended up validating each other’s claim in a circular way” (133).

This book shows how the struggle over this concept’s meaning leads to the ultimate triumph of those Lauzière calls “purist Salafis.” By analyzing in great detail the lives and work of Rashid Rida, ‘Allal al-Fasi, Taqi al-Din al-Hilali (1894–1987), Nasir al-Din al-Albani, and Mustafa Hilmi, he proves that advocates of reform disagreed on a number of important issues. Moroccan reformer ‘Allal al-Fasi’s writings are replete with references to rationalism, humanism, democracy, freedom of religion, and gender justice. He was a nationalist who conceived of Morocco as a nation that included all those who lived in it, and in particular the Jewish minority. This was in contrast to those the author calls “purist Salafis,” who had difficulty accepting the principle that a modern nation-state, not Islam, should be the locus of a Muslim’s identity and allegiance (134).

Despite their disagreements, leading activists who were Salafi in creed modified their understanding of Islamic reform to build strong alliances and increase the likelihood of achieving political independence (24). Decolonization transformed the situation by removing the common goal that had until then united advocates of Islah of all persuasions (25). It wasn’t until the last three decades of the twentieth century that Salafiyya became a worldview (manhaj al-salaf). This shift occurred in Saudi Arabia, after it opened its universities to Muslim activists worldwide. Thousands of Muslim brothers from Egypt, Syria, and Iraq, as well as purist Salafis, settled in the Saudi kingdom. As purist Salafis began to distinguish themselves from Islamists, who they thought were obsessed with politics and guilty of some theological errors, the notion of Salafi methodology gained ground.

Lauzière identifies Egyptian professor of philosophy Mustafa Hilmi (born in 1932) as being pivotal in provoking this shift. Hilmi yearned for an Islamic state, insisted on Islamic culture, and strongly opposed both Zionism and Western cultural influence and secularism. He saw Islam as a sociopolitical system and sought to identify the method by which Muslim scholars arrived at the truth about this system and its implementation (218). Lauzière describes his importance:

Hilmi did for Salafi thought what Sayyid Qutb had done for Islamist thought. . . . Hilmi adopted the Muslim Brothers’ combative intellectual attitude and totalizing critique of Western civilization to reframe Salafism as an all-encompassing religious ideology comparable to Islamism. The key to this transformation was the notion of Salafi manhaj, which had both theoretical and practical implications. Hilmi described it as a method of investigation that provided irrefutable knowledge for all aspects of life. . . . (219)

The financial might of Saudi Arabia contributed to the wide dissemination of this new understanding of Salafiyya as manhaj, and not always peacefully. At the height of the Cold War, Saudi Arabia helped fund a military jihad in Afghanistan.

In his book Good Muslim, Bad Muslim, Mahmood Mamdani traces the origins of modern jihadi movements to the Afghan war, where Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, and the United States collaborated to recruit tens of thousands of Islamist radicals to fight the Soviet invaders.7 At the end of the war, veterans, some of whom were called Arab Afghans, returned home to spread the jihadi ideology. They linked up with other Islamist groups and began to organize military jihads against their states. Now, in the early twenty-first century, jihadi groups have taken root in all countries of Muslim Africa. One such group is the subject of Alexander Thurston’s new book, Boko Haram: The History of an African Jihadist Movement.

The Boko Haram movement originated in Nigeria, the seventh-largest Muslim country in the world, with a population of more than eighty million Muslims. Thurston, who has done fieldwork in northern Nigeria, provides an in-depth history of this group, drawing from multiple sources.8 Reading this book after Lauziere’s is illuminating, since Thurston carefully examines the different channels that led to the growth of this “mobile jihadist gang,” starting with the Nigerian Islamic leaders who studied under Salafi scholars in Saudi Arabia in the 1980s. Thurston then traces the movement from its beginning as a small religious study group in Maiduguri to a militarized political group that has separated itself from the mainstream of northern Nigerian Salafi thought.

From the colonial conquest of West Africa in the early twentieth century until the beginning of the twenty-first century, no single Islamic group has successfully challenged the monopoly of West African states (either colonial or postcolonial) on the exercise of violence. Nor has any religious group (Islamic or non-Islamic) raised a standing army. Yet things have been changing in the last few years and, more than any other group, Boko Haram must be credited for this shift. The Nigerian army, one of the most powerful on the African continent, has still not been able to completely defeat this powerful and destructive insurgency, even with international support. Thurston’s book helps to explain why this is so, by revealing how Boko Haram has been reactive and adaptable; even its core doctrine has been repeatedly restated in response to external events.

Thurston argues convincingly that Boko Haram is the outcome of dynamic and locally grounded interactions between religion and politics. He divides its history into five phases. In the first chapter, Thurston analyzes the political sociology of Islam in northern Nigeria from the 1970s to the 1990s, addressing the fragmentation of sacred authority and the rise of Salafism in the context of political uncertainty, disruptive urbanization, and the widespread debate about Islam in politics.9 During these decades, resentment built among ordinary people toward Borno State local governments, which were not able to fulfill expectations in an “increasingly diverse, but also poor and vulnerable” context that reflected “the intersection of immigration, unplanned urban sprawl, inadequate infrastructural development, and rising social tensions” (48). It was in this milieu that Muhammad Yusuf, credited as the founder of Boko Haram, grew up and became a charismatic preacher.

In chapter two, “Preaching Exclusivism, Playing Politics,” Thurston covers 2001 to 2009, a period of open preaching ending with the rebellion of 2009. At first, Boko Haram was a Muslim group attempting to reform the local practice of Islam in Nigeria—especially with regard to the education of children—and it remained essentially a movement of religious reform between its founding in 2002–2003 and 2009.10 In this section, Thurston suggests that the relationship between Yusuf and hard-liners was much “messier” than has usually been characterized, and that Yusuf’s own “stated views on politics continued to fluctuate” during these years (96).

Mohammed Yusuf
Muhammad Yusuf

According to Thurston, Yusuf had a set of core beliefs rooted in Salafi Islam, but his message hardened over time under the pressure of three main forces. The first was that of hard-liners around him whom he did not control and who recruited radicals to the movement. The second was a group of mainstream northern Nigerian Salafi scholars who mentored him at an earlier stage of his career. The third was the political establishment of Borno State in northeastern Nigeria, and most notably its former state governor, Ali Modu Sheriff, to whom Yusuf was tied by a patron-client relationship.

Yusuf strove to sustain a balance among these three interlocutors by telling different stories to each of them about his intentions and beliefs. But, ultimately, he alienated both the mainstream Salafis and Borno State political authorities. Thurston explains:

As mainstream Salafis condemned him and politicians forgot him, Yusuf increasingly made the hardliners’ positions his own. He condemned democracy, Western-style education, and secular constitutionalism. By the time his conflict with authorities came to a head in 2009, Yusuf was advocating a confrontational, uncompromising religious activism. Although he was killed and his movement was suppressed, . . . the final incarnation of his message would become the core doctrine of the resurgent Boko Haram starting in 2010—a movement that now openly aligned itself with jihadism. (141)

After Yusuf’s extrajudicial execution by Nigerian law enforcement agencies in 2009, the group went underground and reemerged as a guerilla group in 2010.

Abubakar Shekau led Boko Haram in its third phase, from 2010 to 2013, when it conducted major attacks in Nigerian cities, including the capital, Abuja. The group perpetuated hold-ups, assassinations, and raids in the northeast. Thurston titles this chapter “Chaos Is Worse Than Killing”—reportedly Shekau’s favorite Qur’anic verse (Qur’an 2:192)—to capture this era during which “Boko Haram evolved . . . into a hardened jihadist organization” (195). Here, Thurston questions some of the typical ways of describing the movement’s growth and character. For example, he suggests that “one should question the very category of ‘recruitment’ itself,” since the drawing in of young men seems to involve a “gradual process of collaborating with Boko Haram’s cells” that includes “inducements (financial, peer based, and religious) for involvement and disincentives (threats of exposure and violence) for backsliding” (193).11

In a fourth phase, from 2013 to 2015—Thurston titles this chapter “Total War in Northeastern Nigeria”—Boko Haram controlled large tracts of territories and forced civilians to join the movement or be killed. He argues that the Nigerian government’s actions in northeastern Nigeria tended to contribute to a situation of “spiraling violence”:

Perhaps out of frustration at Boko Haram’s elusiveness, the Nigerian military’s Joint Task Force (JTF) became even harsher toward civilians. . . . Researchers documented systematic abuses of civilians by the security forces . . . [that] “have contravened international human rights standards and fueled further attacks.” (199–200)

The escalation into war actually “boosted Boko Haram,” according to Thurston, because it provided the group “with access to more arms,” and it “made civilians more isolated and vulnerable,” which “discouraged them from sharing important information with authorities” (204–205).

A fifth phase, 2015–2017, has been characterized by the creation of a multistate coalition to combat the group, while Boko Haram has lost its territories and resorted to guerilla warfare. Its own violence “became systematically regional” during this time and included attacks in Cameroon, Niger, and Chad (252). In March 2015, Boko Haram pledged allegiance to the Islamic State, though Thurston reads the timing of this affiliation as a reflection of Boko Haram’s weakness (272). Thurston calls this chapter “Same War, New Actors,” and argues that “the War on Terror context has helped to ensure that a military approach remains the dominant element of the international and Nigerian domestic response to Boko Haram” (283). Meanwhile, Boko Haram has led to “a complex humanitarian emergency that spans the Lake Chad basin,” one that involves “not only massive displacement of ordinary people, but also a hunger crisis and severe disruption of planting and harvest cycles” (290, 291).

Because of what Thurston calls “the interplay of doctrine and events,” he concludes that “there is no easy way out of the crisis” (301). Conventional wisdom seems to call for “a combination of military operations and socioeconomic development” to solve the problem, but Thurston suggests these efforts have often backfired. “No durable solution can be found to Boko Haram . . . until politics is brought back into view and confronted” (301–302), he writes. This means “trying to talk to Boko Haram,” because “dialogue could peel away some less hardened members of the group, allow for negotiations on prisoner exchanges, or bring to light new, and actionable, paths to decreasing the violence” (303). This book counsels that a long-term perspective, and approach, is needed.

Whether in their moderate or violent forms, Salafi movements do not have the monopoly on reform. Sufi movements also have deployed considerable efforts to reform African Islam and to adapt Islam to colonial and postcolonial modernity. This leads me to Zachary Wright’s Living Knowledge in West African Islam, which discusses the Tijaniyya Sufi order, one of the most influential Sufi movements in the modern world. Wright focuses on the Sufi community established by Ibrahim Niasse (1900–1975), who, his biographer Rüdiger Seesemann has argued, is one of the most influential and versatile Sufi authors of the twentieth century.12 Niasse has millions of followers in Africa throughout the entire Sahelian belt, from Senegal to the Republic of Sudan, and especially in Nigeria.

Wright’s historical ethnography of Niasse’s community is interwoven with an analysis of the development of Islamic scholarship and the formation of clerical communities in West Africa over the past several centuries. Islamic scholarship in West Africa is focused on four main disciplines: the study of the Qur’an, Maliki jurisprudence, esoteric sciences, and Sufism. All of these subjects are taught among Niasse’s disciples, just like in other scholarly communities of West Africa. But what sets this community apart is not so much discursive knowledge as the emphasis on experiential knowledge of the Divine (ma‘rifa). According to Wright, the emphasis on ma‘rifa is unprecedented in West African Islamic history, though “seminal elements of the practice—initiatory personal transmission and the knowledge of sacred texts inscribed in the being of the practitioner—were present earlier in the development of Islam in West Africa” (32).

Wright’s discussion of the shaykh/disciple relationship is richly illustrated through extensive documentation of the long companionship between Ibrahim Niasse and his deputy, ‘Ali Cisse. Wright explains the historical importance of this “paradigmatic discipleship”:

Most Sufi shaykhs of renown had one disciple who surpassed all others in his proximity to the master. Significantly, such disciples are usually portrayed in the mold of Abū Bakr or ‘Alī, companions of the Prophet Muḥammad whom the Prophet particularly loved. . . . Given the emergence of new saintly authority in twentieth-century West Africa, the relationship between Ibrāhīm Niasse and ‘Alī Cissé provides unique insight into the logic and potential of shaykh-disciple relationships at a crucial juncture in the development of new scholarly communities. (121–22)

Historic photo of Niasse and Cisse

Ibrahaim Niasse and Sayyid ’Ali Cisse. Photo: Abdou Karim Cissé


Like Rudolph Ware,13 Wright shows that West African Muslim societies, long considered by Western scholars and other Muslims to be inconsistent, have succeeded in reviving the Islamic habitus of an earlier time. Indeed, in their companionship with Ibrahim Niasse, disciples strove to reenact the personalized transmission of the Prophet and his companions, thereby making themselves exemplary Muslims. Despite the unprecedented growth of schools based on Western pedagogy in colonial and postcolonial Africa, scholars like Wright remind us that this mode of personalized transmission is alive and well in Madina Baye, and among disciples of Niasse throughout Africa. Wright articulates the political implications of Niasse’s teachings:

Ibrāhīm Niasse criticized Islamist trends in modern Muslim societies for their failure to understand the meaning of the texts they used to justify their divisive reform objectives. The primary reason for this failure was their inability to acquire good character in the presence of teachers who personified the Islamic religion. Modern Islamist reformers were people without the disposition and manners transmitted in the Prophet’s sunna: they were a people without adab. (284)

Through his creation of a transnational movement, Wright suggests, Niasse also “succeeded in decentering Islamic orthodoxy from the Arab heartlands” because his “vision of Islamic solidarity . . . created conceptual space for African leadership.”

Thus, a major lesson that Wright’s work teaches students of modern Islam is that Sufi revivalism is just as much an articulation of global Islam as some of the other movements that get more attention and press. In his conclusion, Wright advises scholars of Islam to avoid certain pitfalls:

Unlike an earlier generation of orientalist scholars who tended to associate anti-Sufi reformists with religious orthodoxy, academics today should recognize the inappropriateness of entering a debate on Islamic authenticity. But the other extreme—the claim that there is no one Islam, only innumerable “islams”—also represents an external misreading of certain recognizable orthodoxies. Indeed, there has been wide consensus on basic understandings of Islam across broad expanses of space and time. The solution is rather to recognize a spectrum of modalities, divergent ways of knowing (epistemologies), or even alternative ways of being (ontologies) within the religion. (289)

Wright’s caution is helpful, and yet most books—including the three I have reviewed so far—tend to address either Salafi or Sufi aspects of reform. What has been missing is a study of reform that transcends the Sufi/Salafi boundary, which is why I am grateful for Roman Loimeier’s 2016 book, Islamic Reform in Twentieth-Century Africa.

With notable exceptions,14 most of the literature on Islam in Africa tends to use the label “reformist” to describe Salafi- or Wahhabi-like movements. In contrast, Loimeier looks at efforts of reform within both the Salafi- and the Sufi-oriented movements. The book opens with two theoretical chapters conceptualizing the idea of reform in a way that is inclusive of Sufi orders and their Salafi opponents. Indeed, he argues that these two movements should be seen as “complementary” rather than “in stark contrast” to each other. This understanding leads Loimeier to “avoid terms that have often been used to explicitly label Salafi-oriented movements of reform as ‘fundamentalist’ or ‘Islamist,’ ” since Sufi-oriented movements of reform “can also be seen in [these] terminological terms” (34).

Loimeier’s definition of reform includes “the process of translation, contestation, negotiation and reinterpretation of a specific interpretation of the canon in different geographic, social, political and religious contexts” (23). He further suggests that “such reform movements have synchronic and diachronic dimensions that require careful examination.” Above all, he argues, to look at specific reform movements and their generational dynamics necessarily leads to “attest[ing] to the pluralistic character of reform in Muslim contexts” (25). Thus, Loimeier strives to analyze the complex interactions between reform movements and their interactions with state, society, and the global Muslim community (ummah). He draws attention to the continual changes in structure and strategy within these movements, and to their reformulations of central Islamic doctrines.

Loimeier distinguishes between two “major orientations” within Salafi reform movements. The first group seeks political power, or at least to play a major role in politics, in order to eventually build an Islamic state.15 The second group regards doctrinal purity and the purification of the faith as being more important than political power, and consequently focuses on education, tarbiya (34–35). Loimeier also discusses the rise of what he calls “a jihad-oriented group of Salafis,” which, according to him, “do not care much about doctrine and . . . are also not willing to cultivate paths of accommodation with the state” (35).16 Finally, he identifies a fourth group of Muslims that abandoned politically oriented courses of action to stress the value of individual religiosity.17

The rest of the book consists of five regional case studies that effectively illustrate these theoretical points: 1) Senegal and Mali in West Africa; 2) Niger and Nigeria in mid-Western Africa; 3) Chad, Sudan, Ethiopia, and Somalia in Central and Eastern Africa; 4) Tanganika/Tanzania and Kenya in coastal East Africa; and 5) Zanzibar and the Comoros among the islands of the Indian Ocean. These detailed accounts prime the reader for Loimeier’s conclusion, in which he draws out some comparative implications about the patterns and particularities of Islamic reform in Africa.

Loimeier argues that “the competition between different families of reform has led to an opening of the market offering religious and social options in the different countries” (457, 458). He discusses both Sufi- and Salafi-oriented “chains of reform,” as he calls them, stressing “that Sufi-oriented movements of reform preceded Salafi-oriented movements of reform in each of the countries discussed” (458). He notes that “Salafi-oriented movements of reform have so far not been able to achieve hegemony of interpretation with respect to issues of reform in their respective countries and societies, despite their success in some regions and among some social strata,” and he suggests that Sufi movements in these regions “have sometimes represented a more vibrant approach to reform.” Yet, it is precisely the Salafi-oriented movements that “have stimulated the rejuvenation of Sufi movements and have contributed to the reemergence of modern forms of Sufi-oriented reform” (465).

Challenging the Salafi/Sufi binary, as Loimeier does, is extremely illuminating and allows for a deeper, dialectical understanding of Islamic reform in Africa. However, his previous book offered a thorough coverage of African Muslim societies, including North Africa, West Africa, East Africa, and even southern Africa.18 That work also analyzed the Sahara as a connective space, providing a valuable heuristic model for studying African Muslim societies. So, I find it unfortunate that Loimeier fails to adopt the same model in this important synthesis. He focuses on sub-Saharan Africa only, which leads me back to the limitations of methodological territorialism.19

To fully understand the dynamics of reform, it is imperative to pay close attention to the translocal networks of shared ideas that tie together various Muslim groups in the entire northern half of the African continent above the equator. This overwhelmingly Muslim area includes North Africa, the Sahara, and large parts of sub-Saharan Africa. The Tijaniyya Sufi order, the focus of Zachary Wright’s book, originated in Algeria, while the majority of its followers live in the Sahara or south of the Sahara. Movements of Tijanis between North, Saharan, and sub-Saharan Africa have been uninterrupted since the nineteenth century. Pilgrimages to the shrine of Ahmed al-Tijani in Fez Morocco and to the city of his birth—Aynou Madi in Algeria—have been institutionalized. Thousands of sub-Saharan pilgrims visit Tijani sites in Algeria and Morocco every year. Many descendants of Ahmed al-Tijani are now based in sub-Saharan Africa and have intermarried with local black populations.

Likewise, jihadi ideology, which is the focus of Thurston’s book, is shared by groups moving across the Sahara, including Al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), Movement for the Unity and Jihad in West Africa (MUJAO), Boko Haram, and, last but not least, the Shabab in Somalia. The leadership of AQIM is Algerian, but its membership includes those from various African countries, as well as nationals of Western European countries who joined jihadi networks. The military brigades that identify with AQIM are spread across North Africa and the Sahel.

Given the intensification of global interconnectedness, an understanding of Islamic dynamics requires that we transcend methodological territorialism.Western universities typically divide up the study of Africa so that North Africa (Morocco, Libya, Tunisia, Algeria, and Egypt) falls within the realm of Middle Eastern studies, while the area south of the Sahara, considered Africa proper, is studied within the field of African studies. Such a division and its underlying assumptions overlook the fact that Muslims have maintained close interactions in Africa for centuries. Throughout the second millennium, and even more so now, African Muslims have a long history of shared ideas. They have always crossed boundaries, and we scholars must do the same. To fully understand Islamic dynamics, especially dynamics of reform, we have to look at Muslim Africa—North Africa, the Sahara, and large parts of sub-Saharan Africa—as one single and unified discursive space. 



  1. See chapters three and four of David Robinson’s Muslim Societies in African History (Cambridge University Press, 2004).
  2. Mervyn Hiskett, The Development of Islam in West Africa (Longman, 1984), 281.
  3. Rida did identify with some of the teachings of al-Afghani and ‘Abduh, but he never used the Salafi label to designate his mentors’ school of thought.
  4. Between 1920 and 1925, Massignon dropped the reference to colonial India and began linking the term more intimately to al-Afghani and ‘Abduh (38).
  5. Among them, Mahmud Shukri al-‘Alusi, Hajj ‘Ali al-Alusi, al-Nu‘man al-‘Alusi, and Jamal Din Qasimi of Damascus.
  6. Ignoring the theological origins of the label “Salafi,” al-Fasi argued that Salafiyya was a movement in Islamic history and emphasized that al-Afghani and ‘Abduh were the chief makers of its modern iteration.
  7. Mahmood Mamdani, Good Muslim, Bad Muslim: America, the Cold War, and the Roots of Terror (Pantheon Books, 2004).
  8. To my knowledge, no scholar has been able to do serious ethnographic fieldwork on Boko Haram since it went underground in 2010, because of the associated risks. Thurston produced this coherent history by drawing from a variety of sources, including: academic books/articles on the sociology of Islam in Nigeria, secondary materials on Salafi jihadism, works on the political economy of violence in the Middle East and Africa, releases and recordings of Boko Haram, interviews with Nigerian scholars, confidential memos of Western diplomats available through Wikileaks, and theological writings in Arabic and Hausa.
  9. This chapter builds on Thurston’s earlier work, Salafism in Nigeria: Islam, Preaching, and Politics (Cambridge University Press, 2016).
  10. Hard-liners in the group were suspected of attacking selected targets during those years, such as police stations.
  11. He also suggests that “the group often seems to function more as a collection of loosely linked cells and bands than as a tightly disciplined, hierarchical army” (194).
  12. Rüdiger Seesemann, The Divine Flood: Ibrāhīm Niasse and the Roots of a Twentieth-Century Sufi Revival (Oxford University Press, 2011), 7.
  13. Rudolph Ware, The Walking Qur’an: Islamic Education, Embodied Knowledge, and History in West Africa (University of North Carolina Press, 2014).
  14. John Paden’s Religion and Political Culture in Kano (University of California Press, 1973) is one.
  15. The Islamic movement led by Ibrahim El Zakzaky in Nigeria fits this model.
  16. The Harakat Shabab al-Mujahidin in Somalia, known as the Shabab, and Boko Haram in the Lake Chad region, are cases in point.
  17. These groups include Jamaatou Ibadourahmane in Senegal and the Society for the Removal of Innovation and Reinstatement of Tradition, known as Yan Izala, in Nigeria and Niger.
  18. Roman Loimeier, Muslim Societies in Africa: A Historical Anthropology (Indiana University Press, 2013).
  19. By methodological territorialism, I mean that scholars engage in “formulating concepts and questions, constructing hypotheses, gathering and interpreting empirical evidence, and drawing conclusions all in a territorial spatial framework.” Jan Aart Scholte, “What Is Global about Globalization?” in The Global Transformations Reader: An Introduction to the Globalization Debate, ed. David Held and Anthony McGrew (Blackwell, 2003), 89.

Ousmane Kane is Prince Alwaleed Bin Talal Professor of Contemporary Islamic Religion and Society at HDS and Professor of Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations in the Faculty of Arts and Sciences. His most recent book is Beyond Timbuktu: An Intellectual History of Muslim West Africa (Harvard University Press, 2016).

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Facing the Fierce Land of I

Eliza Griswold

In Review | In Scripture The Bhagavad Gita According to Gandhi, by Mohandas K. Gandhi, ed. John Strohmeier, Berkeley Hills Books, 246 pages.

Eliza Griswold
Eliza Griswold.

Act . . . without attachment, steadfast in yoga, evenminded in success and failure. Evenmindedness is yoga.1  —The Bhagavad Gita, chapter 2, verse 48

I wandered into the Quaker meeting house off of Brattle Street in Cambridge, Massachusetts. The doors were open, and I slipped inside to meditate. Through the large windows, the butter-yellow light of early fall clattered off the trees outside, their leaves still unfallen. The spare panes invited nothing but reflection.

And yet I resisted.

The kind of meditation I practice, Vedic meditation, is pleasurable and easy. I call it meditation for dummies, in that it requires nothing but the repetition of a single sound—a seed syllable, or mantra—for twenty minutes or so, with closed eyes. For no seeming reason, I was afraid to close my eyes and to begin.

The problem wasn’t me, it was I.

I is a troublesome character in my life. She grasps for gold stars and achievement with a relentlessness that I believes the modern world demands. Driven by a desire for success and fear of failure, I often refuses to sit still. She refuses to do anything in which the gains and goals aren’t stunningly clear. I is often told that her definitions of success and failure are outmoded, inherited relics of another culture. She may agree intellectually, but ask her to give up her personal hierarchy of prizes and publications, and she balks. She relishes the crossing off of items on any To-Do list. She’s very, very busy and that, of course, means she’s very, very important. Oh, poor put-upon I, how does she possibly do it all?

In the meeting house, I was being asked to do nothing, and she didn’t like it. It wasn’t that I feared closing her eyes and finding emptiness. Just the opposite. I feared closing her eyes and finding fullness, purpose that would require her to renounce attachment to the world she so covets.

Moreover, since I exists only in motion, to ask her to sit still can be quite challenging. She fights and squirms and rolls her eyes around. She is a human doing, not a human being. And I is very, very tired. She has run for a long time on the hybrid fuels of self and fear. The good news about these toxic forms of energy is that they’re not renewable, and even she understands they are running out, leaving her ego-driven engine coughing and sputtering toward a shallow grave.

Faced with obsolescence, I had a stroke of luck: David Hempton, Dean of Harvard Divinity School, invited her to apply for a Berggruen Fellowship. Although her chosen course of study includes data mapping of Syrian artists and poets fleeing a ruined country, it also involves the quieter tasks of puzzling through Sanskrit with Frank Clooney, a Jesuit and renowned scholar of Hindu scriptures, as well as writing her own poems. This year is designed to be laden with the one resource that often eludes her: time.

Yet here I was in the meeting house with nothing to do. None of her usual selves were in demand. There was no deadline of the moment, no reporter’s visa to a war zone to procure, no class to rush off and teach, and no three-year-old to whom to attend. (The latter was safely ensconced in New York City.)

Given this gift of a fellowship, she’d designed this year to contain exactly the kind of quiet in which she found herself sitting. Now inside it, I was terrified.

The verse above from the Bhagavad Gita is both an invitation and a command to live a different kind of life. It is an intensely modern call, and yet it comes from a piece of scripture at least two thousand years old. The Bhagavad Gita, which in Sanskrit means “The Song of the Lord,” is part of the larger Hindu epic, the Mahabharata, ten times the length of The Iliad.

The story of the Gita, as it’s often called, unfolds on a battlefield in the form of a conversation between Lord Krishna, an incarnation of the Hindu god Vishnu, and the hero, Prince Arjuna.

As the two stand poised on the verge of the bloodiest war of succession of all time, Krishna, who is driving Arjuna’s chariot, instructs the hero as to why it is his duty to fight and kill his own family in the coming war. This, in itself, is a radical command. How can it be right to shed blood, let alone the blood of one’s family? In this, the Gita asks, and answers, the most challenging questions of existence.

But the answers aren’t exactly straight ones. They tend to be circular. There are 700 verses in the Gita; each is a couplet called a shloka. Many function from line to line as a form of call and response, not unlike the Psalms of the Hebrew Bible. Like Zen koans, many verses defy the intellect. They are puzzles, spiritual conundrums. Their circular nature is such that the mind must return to the start. This isn’t an intellectual exercise; it’s the nature of practice. This verse, like others, bends the mind to reach the soul. Yet to call them riddles would be like calling Chaucer a drunken singer of bawdy verses.

In many of these couplets, including verse 48 of chapter two, Krishna defines right action for Arjuna by laying out a challenge of how to achieve what Mahatma Gandhi translates as evenmindedness. This evenmindedness has many names—equipoise; equanimity, for followers of St. Ignatius of Loyola; indifference. The interpretation I prefer belongs to my meditation teacher: being.

To read a bit more closely, let’s begin where the verse does: yoga-stha kuru karmani. Word for word, this phrase translates: standing in yoga perform actions.

As interpreters, our first challenge is to define yoga.

Discerning the meaning of yoga is a tricky task for a worldly reader steeped in the image of sweaty postmodern rear-ends engaged in what a friend calls “competitive bending.”

The rest of the verse is dedicated to defining what this yoga is, and how exactly we are to stand in it.

Let’s continue, phrase by phrase:

sangam tyaktva dhanamjaya / Having abandoned attachment, O Winner of Wealth (one of Krishna’s many names for Arjuna)

siddhy-asiddhyoh samo bhutva / Accepting success and failure with sameness (Gandhi’s evenmindedness)

samatvam yoga ucyate. / This sameness is yoga.

Let’s explore this a bit. This sameness, this equanimity, is the ability to face success and failure with detachment. My meditation teacher, Thom Knoles, interprets this profoundly unruffled and openhearted indifference simply as “being.” The way to stand in yoga is to meditate, to dip below the relative world—the land of I—and connect with an underlying and universal field of consciousness. Meditation becomes the means of returning to—marinating in—one’s essence.

Now let’s run the whole together, in a slightly more plainspoken variant than Gandhi’s translation above, in order to stick as closely to the original as possible:

Standing in yoga perform actions.

Having abandoned attachment, O Winner of Wealth,

having accepted success and failure with sameness. This sameness is yoga.

Now that we know what the verse means, let’s confront its central question, which is nothing less than, How shall we live?

To answer, let’s consider how it is to stand in yoga. Or, more clearly put, how do we ground ourselves in what matters? How do we ground ourselves in being in the midst of our contemporary lives? Apparently, this isn’t a new question.

For me, the answer lies in dipping the small self into the vast underlying field of consciousness. It lies in meditation for dummies. Yet there are myriad forms of practice, endless doorways, and the only ones to watch out for are those guarded by keepers who argue an exclusive claim on The Way.

A walk in the woods, prayer (whatever that may mean), service to others—there are endless ways by which we return to what’s essential before we take action.

One useful analogy for this experience of grounding in being—one that even a chronic doer like I can accept—is that of the bow and its arrow.

The bow is just a stick unless one knows how to bend it.

Then, the farther back one draws the string, the straighter and more forcefully the arrow flies.

Grounding in being is pulling back that string. Acknowledging the value of the divine pause before taking action requires I to undergo a fundamental shift. She no longer runs the show.

I got very freaked out once in India when invited to bow to an ancient photograph of her teacher’s teacher’s teacher. A voice within shouted, with the brimstone of the Old Testament—Thou Shalt Have No Idols before Me! She wandered away with her yellow chrysanthemum and made her offering elsewhere. It was only later that a friend suggested that perhaps the act of bowing had nothing to do with some kind of freaky culty guru business. Maybe bowing was about placing the head below the heart—a reordering of the role of the intellect, the fierce land of I, by acknowledging that it is not supreme.

On that recent afternoon at Cambridge Friends Meeting House, I nearly won. A bellyful of caffeine and the phony restorative promises of her recently consumed smoothie stoked the fires of self-importance. In the end, however, the practical aspects of meditation got her. She hates to admit it, but she knows that even she sleeps and works better after divine pause. Whenever she can bend her mind below her heart, she drops below the harried nonsense by which she defines herself.

I has clung to troublesome terms of success and failure since the third grade, probably, when she played both George Washington and the Hessian general in the school play. She also did the lights—every scene was a virulent blue. Even now, when asked to step into the spotlight, her fear comes up. Who am I, and what is my value, she asks us, if I don’t strive after the shiny things of this world?

Oh, she’s young, this one—a factor too easily forgotten when she believes she’s in charge. To grow quiet, she must be reassured that she has a place within, just perhaps a smaller part in the play. And, yes, she can still work the lights. And she calms down, of course, when we tell her she’s doing the work she’s intended to do this year, on this generous fellowship, and at Harvard, no less. Let her have a gold star!

There’s a line from Wallace Stevens that reads, “the life of the poem in the mind has not yet begun.”

The Gita invites us to just such a beginning—a means to practice being human. 



  1. In Sanskrit: yoga-stha kuru karmani sangam tyaktva dhanamjaya /siddhy-asiddhyoh samo bhutva. samatvam yoga ucyate.

Eliza Griswold is a poet and reporter whose work has appeared in The New Yorker, The Atlantic, The New York Times Magazine, Harper’s, and the New Republic. Her books include The Tenth Parallel: Dispatches from the Fault Line Between Christianity and Islam (FSG, 2010), and I Am the Beggar of the World: Landays from Contemporary Afghanistan (FSG, 2015). Her new book, Amity and Prosperity: A Story of Energy in Two American Towns, about how fracking destroyed a rural Pennsylvania town, is due out in 2018.

See also: Books, Hinduism

Modes of Travel

by Callie Siskel

Like an undressed Torah, the sea
scrolls back layers.
Nothing is kept
secret. We unfurl
the past with every intention
of finding
unity in fragments
as variable as sails. Where wind
blowing from six countries
in a single basin,
the water
is so weighted it’s like a deadfall trap,
a churning
green chamber.

Floating in the sea with you
left no impression,
nor should it have,
only the aftertaste of salt
and a correlation: we are lighter
than its archives.


Callie Siskel is the author of Arctic Revival, selected by Elizabeth Alexander for a 2014 Poetry Society of America Chapbook Fellowship. Her poems have appeared or are forthcoming in A Public Space, Yale Review, Ninth Letter, Poetry Northwest, Passages North, and other journals.

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Teffi, Rasputin, and the Revolution

Searching for the Russian soul, a century later.

Randy Rosenthal

Photo of Suzdal churches

The Nativity Cathedral and the Wooden Church of St. Nicholas, Suzdal, Russia. Photo: Randy Rosenthal


In early 1905, a mysterious peasant from Siberia arrived in St. Petersburg. It was said he could tell your past and future simply by looking at your face. Many believed his words could heal and give protection. There was something about his eyes, everyone agreed, that pierced like needles. He spoke of God and love. His name was Grigory Rasputin, and he is one of the most fascinating characters in history.

The Russian gentry of the time were mad about peasant holy men and the occult, and Rasputin was brought to the city’s salons and introduced to the noblest families. Within a year, he went from the bottom of society to the top. He won the trust of the tsar and tsarina—by mysteriously healing their hemophiliac son, Alexei—and began making regular visits to the imperial palace, becoming their spiritual adviser. The royal couple referred to him as a starets—an elder of a Russian Orthodox monastery—even though he was only thirty-six, married, and had never taken holy orders. But most husbands and members of the clergy hated Rasputin, who had a peculiar habit of giving women big hugs and wet kisses, something that was just not done in Petersburg circles. And he addressed everyone, regardless of social status, using the informal ty. By 1910, when the press broke the first scandals about him, everyone in Russia knew his name. By 1915, there were signs above dining room fireplaces that read: “In this house we do not talk about Rasputin.”

In the years leading up to the revolution, Rasputin so dominated Russian culture that members of the press reported his daily comings and goings as if he were the tsar. They spread rumors that people repeated as fact: As a youth Rasputin stole horses and set fires. He had raped nuns in a convent. He was spying for the Germans. He was in league with the masons. He was working for “international Jewry” in their secret plot to destroy Christian Russia. He was raiding the royal treasury through theft and graft and corruption. He was a khlyst—a member of an extreme religious sect said to sing and whirl about in circles and then cut off the breast of a naked virgin and collectively eat it, before falling to the ground and engaging in group sex. He could keep an erection for hours, pleasuring one woman after another with his enormous member. He was screwing the tsarina. He was the actual father of the tsarevich. He controlled the tsar with oriental drugs. They said Rasputin was a sorcerer. That he was the antichrist. The very incarnation of evil.

Nobody knew if these rumors were true, but nearly everybody believed them. And because the Russian people believed Tsar Nicholas II allowed a depraved peasant to run their country, they lost faith in the divine authority of the royal family—and the five-hundred-year-old system collapsed. So, to me, Rasputin played as big a role in the Russian Revolution as Lenin. 

About a hundred years after the Bolsheviks seized power, I went to Russia and brought along Douglas Smith’s bible-sized biography Rasputin: Faith, Power, and the Twilight of the Romanovs, as well as a couple of books by a Russian author I’d never heard of before, but who was a celebrity at the time of the revolution: Nadezhda Lokhvitskaya, better known by her pen name Teffi.

When people asked why I was going to Russia, I wasn’t sure what to say. Yes, I knew Russians had the reputation of being homophobic xenophobes who don’t respect human rights or the international rule of law. But I was feeling the travel itch, and I’m interested in holy places. So when my Russian friend Galina offered to guide me around Russia’s Golden Ring and then the Crimea, I said, why not.


Rasputin, ca. 1914


The golden ring is a group of eight old cities northeast of Moscow that played a crucial role both in the formation of the Russian Orthodox Church and of Russia itself. They were cultural centers and trading capitals when Moscow was just a bunch of cowsheds. They’re called a ring because, geographically, they form an oval, and golden because they’re crowded with a ridiculous number of golden-domed churches, cathedrals, kremlins, and monasteries.

Some of these fairytale towns, like Suzdal, are referred to as “open-air museums” for their abundance of unspoiled, medieval Russian architecture. Others, like Vladimir, were swallowed up by industrial Soviet sprawl. With its Trinity Lavra of St. Sergius—the large monastery and spiritual home of Russian Orthodoxy—Sergiyev Posad remains the most important Golden Ring city, and Rostov Velikiy is the oldest. On the train from the former to the latter, I read Teffi’s collection of autobiographical stories, Tolstoy, Rasputin, Others, and Me.

When Teffi was thirteen, she met Tolstoy. She had been reading War and Peace and became very upset when Prince Andrei died. So she decided to go and see Tolstoy at his house in Moscow to ask him to save Prince Andrei’s life. She worked out where Tolstoy lived by asking around and got a photograph of the author for him to sign, as a pretense for her visit. Then, when her household was distracted with visitors, she had her elderly nanny walk her over to Tolstoy’s house.

Because she was from a respectable family, they were let inside. But once in the count’s foyer, Teffi panicked. All she wanted was to leave. When Tolstoy appeared—he was shorter than she expected—she meekly held out her photograph and in a little girl’s voice she asked, “Would you pwease sign your photogwaph?”1 This was in 1885, when Tolstoy was fifty-seven and had already written his masterpieces. He was probably working on The Death of Ivan Ilyich when Teffi interrupted him. But Tolstoy, the good sport, took the photograph to his office and she, unbearably ashamed, realized she couldn’t possibly ask him for anything else. Unable to admit why she had actually come, she only curtsied when he handed her back the signed photo. Tolstoy then turned to the nanny and asked what he could do for her. But the old maid replied she was just there with the young lady. In bed later than night, Teffi cried into her pillow, remembering her “pwease” and “photogwaph.” That was that. Her meeting with the great author was a failure, though it’s lovely to think that at one time a girl could simply walk over to Tolstoy’s house and ask him for an autograph.

Years later, when Teffi was a relatively famous writer herself, a young actress in one of her plays approached during rehearsal and asked if Teffi could prevent a poor boy in the story from being fired. Why did Teffi have to be so cruel to the boy? Couldn’t she change it and put things right? She’s the author, after all. But by then Teffi knew that writers have no choice in the matter. “I don’t know,” Teffi replied, “I can’t. It’s not me who decides.”2 If the thirteen-year-old Teffi had managed to ask Tolstoy to save Prince Andrei, he might have answered similarly. It’s not authors who decide.

Teffi also met Rasputin, twice. This was during the First World War, when all kinds of crazy rumors were circulating about him. “In that atmosphere of hysteria,” Teffi wrote, “even the most idiotic flight of fancy seemed plausible,” such as people believing that Rasputin was directing the country’s military strategy through prayer and hypnotic suggestion. An editor invited Teffi to a dinner that Rasputin would attend, with the hope that she’d get him to talk about “erotic matters.” She was hesitant, but also curious to meet him. To her, Rasputin wasn’t just someone who would be in the history books but was “unique, one of a kind, like a character out of a novel,” someone who “lived in legend.”3

So she went to the dinner, and I’m glad she did. I feel I’ve come to know Rasputin more from reading Teffi’s little chapter than through the seven hundred pages of Smith’s biography. Such is the power of literary talent. Not only did Teffi see Rasputin in action, she saw through him. He was simply posturing, she thought. Playing the role of the holy peasant. Distracted and twitchy, he was drinking a great deal, and very quickly. He tried to get her drunk, telling her that God would forgive her for drinking. She said she didn’t care for wine. “Nonsense!” Rasputin replied. “Drink. I’m telling you: God will forgive you,” he said. “God will forgive you many things. Drink!”

He also wanted her to come to his house after dinner. Despite his insistent invitations, she said she wouldn’t go. She wouldn’t play his game. Calling her “a stubborn one,” he quickly and quietly reached out and touched her shoulder, “like a hypnotist using touch to direct the current of his will.” But, with Teffi, his will met resistance. It couldn’t penetrate her, and so it shot back to him. Every time he touched her, his body shook with a spasm and he uttered a groan of physical pain. He was unable to dominate her, as he did the tsarina and so many ladies-in-waiting. Teffi even laughed at him. “You may be laughing,” he told her. “But do you know what your eyes are saying? Your eyes are sad.” This got her attention. “Don’t you know we all love sweet tears,” he continued, “a woman’s sweet tears?”

“I know everything,” he told her. She asked him what he knew. “I know how love can make one person force another to suffer. And I know how necessary it can be to make someone suffer. But I don’t want you to suffer. Understand?”

She didn’t understand. She thought much of what he said was delirious babble. “God . . . prayer . . . wine,” he kept repeating. But she admitted Rasputin was truly out of the ordinary, and she agreed to go to a second dinner where he’d be. By the end of that evening, Teffi knew this wasn’t a straightforward business at all. Rasputin wasn’t what people said he was, neither the haters nor the lovers. “Howling inside him was a black beast,” Teffi observed. Someone started playing music and Rasputin got up to dance. And when he danced, circling round and round, his face tense and bewildered, his movement frenzied, “the spectacle was so weird, so wild, that it made you want to let out a howl and hurl yourself into the circle, to leap and whirl alongside him for as long as you had the strength.” Such was his power, his intoxicating personality. For a moment she was a believer.

But when he stopped dancing, Teffi said Rasputin appeared completely mad. He stood still in the middle of the room “thin and black—a gnarled tree, withered and scorched.”4 His death would be the end of Russia, he told her. Before they parted, he prophesized he would be killed and said his murder would bring the downfall of the empire. And it did.

But was it the end of Russia? Yes, and no. Because Rasputin not only symbolizes what Russia was, but what it still is: its passion and obsession with mysticism, its irrationality and disregard for logic, its deep superstitions, its religion without morality, its faith without works, its surrender to sud’ba—fate.

To Teffi’s friend Vasily Rozanov, the writer and philosopher who joined her at these dinners, Rasputin represented “an incarnation of Old Rus’, pre-Petrine Russia, before the adoption of European ideas, habits, technology,” what Rozanov called shtunda—the German discipline, self-control, and cleanliness that Peter the Great introduced in the early eighteenth century. The neat and tidy and boring and dead. To Rozanov, Rasputin’s “mysterious electricity” embodied the essence of religion. He was holiness manifested in its ancient Slavic form.5


Photo of Teffi holding a guitar

Teffi in Petersburg, 1915. Courtesy of Columbia University’s Rare Book and Manuscripts Library, Bakhmeteff Archive, the Nadezhda Teffi papers.


Teffi got married when she was eighteen. She had a child soon after. Less than a decade later, she abandoned her family to pursue a writing career in St. Petersburg. When he arrived in Petersburg, Rasputin, too, had left a wife and three children back in Siberia. And like any peasant, he had a farm and livestock to take care of. But when he was twenty-eight and had been married for ten years, Rasputin left all of his responsibilities behind and became a strannik, a holy wanderer.

Throughout the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, undertaking pilgrimages to holy places was seen as a way to salvation, and stranniki were a common sight in old Russia. There were about a million of them in 1900, wandering from one holy place to another, living off the generosity of strangers, and repeating the Jesus Prayer: “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.”

As a pilgrim, Rasputin walked thirty miles a day in all kinds of weather. He went days without food or water. For six months he wandered without changing his underclothes. For three years he traveled in fetters, the chains of the Holy Fool. When bandits robbed him, he surprised them by giving them everything he had. “It’s not mine,” he told them, “it’s God’s.”6 By the time he decided to go to Petersburg, it was said that Rasputin had acquired his gift of prophecy through his years of fasting and prayer. Many people said Rasputin was illiterate, but, while wandering, he learned to read and write, albeit with difficulty and atrocious spelling. He published a few books during his lifetime, and it’s his own words that offer the best glimpse into his mind.

He mostly thought of love. While visiting Jerusalem’s Church of the Holy Sepulcher, Rasputin wrote in a notebook: “I felt that the Sepulcher is the tomb of love and this was such a strong feeling that I was ready to hug everyone and felt such love toward people that everyone seemed to be a holy man because love does not allow you to see people’s weaknesses.”7 He wasn’t talking about the easy love one has for God, but the difficult, messy love one person has for another: “Love is great suffering, it doesn’t let you eat, it doesn’t let you sleep. It is mixed with sin. Still it is better to love. A person makes mistakes in love and suffers from them, and his suffering purges his mistakes.”

“Love is everything,” Rasputin wrote, “love will protect you from a bullet.”8 And, according to legend, Rasputin was poisoned and shot three times—but poison and bullets didn’t kill him. He only died when he was thrown into the icy Neva, and drowned.9

Once St. Petersburg fell to the Bolsheviks in October 1917, everyone knew it was only a matter of time before the revolutionaries reached Moscow, where Teffi was living. So when she was offered an opportunity to travel to Kiev and Odessa, she took it. The plan was to stay in Ukraine for a month and give public readings and then return to Russia. She never went back.

As she traveled from Moscow to the Black Sea, she stayed one step ahead of the Reds, and reading her memoir, Memories, entirely changed my understanding of the situation. Teffi’s experience makes it clear that the Bolshevik Revolution wasn’t an ideological struggle about Marxism. Sure, Lenin and Trotsky and some of the intelligentsia might have been motivated by ideology. But it’s not the intelligentsia who make a revolution, it’s the people. And by Teffi’s account, the people were motivated by envy, resentment, and revenge.

By the time I left the Crimea, I understood that the allure of Rasputin lies in the mystery surrounding him.

On the train leaving Moscow, passengers looked at Teffi and her traveling companions with “real fury—the intelligentsia suspecting we might be from the Cheka while the workers and peasants saw us as capitalist landlords still drinking their blood.” Members of the bourgeoisie fled with diamonds stuffed into hollowed-out sticks and teapots with false bottoms. One lady even tried to smuggle a diamond in a hard-boiled egg, only to see a Red Army soldier snatch the egg and wolf it down. Teffi’s friend was harassed by two “malicious-looking peasant women,” who loudly exclaimed: “Lynch every one of ’em! . . . Poke out their eyes, rip out their tongues, cut off their ears, and then tie a stone round their necks and—into the water with ’em!” Everywhere she felt the “people’s wrath.”10

In her essay “The Gadarene Swine,” Teffi writes that everybody, rich and poor, was running from the “men possessed by demons who came out from the tombs.”11 The rich “swine” were running in order to save Russian culture—and obviously their money. But the meek “sheep” were also running, which embarrassed the Bolsheviks. Because why would the poor run from those who profess to be serving the poor? “The crazed swine are escaping the Bolshevik truth, from socialist principles, from equality and justice,” Teffi writes, “while the meek and frightened are escaping from untruth, from Bolshevism’s black reality, from terror, injustice and violence.”12

At the makeshift border between Russia and Ukraine, a twenty-five-mile zone of bribery, robbery, and chaos, Teffi and crew were forced to stay in a Bolshevik-controlled village and put on a play for soldiers of the Red Army. (Teffi was so famous she was loved by both Lenin and the tsar.) The self-proclaimed “arts commissioner” of the village wore a long beaver coat with a small round hole in the back; the hole was surrounded by the dried blood of whomever he stole the coat from. Everywhere, there was talk of people being strangled and shot, of robbery and looting. That’s what the revolution was to Teffi—an excuse for theft. (Around this time, even Lenin was robbed at gunpoint in Petersburg, by comrades who didn’t recognize him.) As Teffi escaped into Ukraine, it seemed to her that the “Red Army” was controlled by thug brigands—riffraff coming to power, after centuries of being exploited.

For a while, Teffi enjoyed a cultural explosion in Kiev. Occupied by the Germans, the city was a haven for Russian artists and intellectuals. There, she felt the peace of mind that comes from having an abundance of food, of being “confident that nobody—nobody whatsoever—was intending to have us shot.”13 But the Germans withdrew, and an armed band of peasants led by Ukrainian nationalist Symon Petliura chased the refugees out of the city. Teffi moved on to French-occupied Odessa, where gangs had taken over the abandoned quarries that formed catacombs under the city. They slowly robbed the exiles of all they had. Notorious gangsters like “Mishka the Japanese” stopped cabs on the way home from theaters and clubs, stealing watches hidden in shoes and rings hidden in cheeks. But it was the gangs from within Moldavanka—the Jewish ghetto of Odessa, which Isaac Babel made famous in his Odessa Tales—who began outright looting the bourgeoisie and foreigners. Once the French troops left the city, these “bolsheviks” came out of hiding and chased Teffi further “down the map” and into the Black Sea.

By then, she was tired of it all. “Everything had become boring, boring to the point of revulsion. It was all just coarse, dirty, and stupid.”14 The cold, the hunger, the darkness, the rifle butts banging on floors. She was tired of hearing screams, weeping, and gunshots. She was tired of the death of others—that’s what she was most afraid of, not her own death, not death itself, but of “blind mindless rage.” And so, pushed by “a groundswell of tension—ripples and echoes from a storm that was raging more fiercely elsewhere,” she boarded a ship with a motor that only ran in reverse, and was tugged into the Black Sea, her “new road into the unknown, dark and calm.”15

After eight days at sea—or ten, who knew?—Teffi arrived in the Crimea. She found Sevastopol “dusty, dismal, shabby.” (I could say the same for Simferopol, where I landed while reading about Teffi’s journey.) She couldn’t complain too much, since the city was still held by the anti-Bolshevik White Army. She quickly moved on to Novorossiysk and the White capital of Yekaterinodar, where she stayed a while before finally saying goodbye to Russia and going abroad, first to Constantinople and then to Paris, where she’d live for the rest of her life, writing about the past—frozen, like Lot’s wife, for looking back, “turned into a pillar of salt forever.”16

Rasputin, too, was forced to the Black Sea. In February 1911, as the first wave of scandals against him were reaching their crest in the press, the tsar ordered Rasputin to go on a pilgrimage to the Holy Land. And so, like Teffi would do seven years later, Rasputin journeyed to Kiev and then to Odessa, where he joined some six hundred other Russian pilgrims on a steamer bound for Constantinople, and on to Jerusalem. It was Rasputin’s first time at sea, and he found the experience amazing. In his journal he wrote:

The sea consoles you without any effort. When you wake up in the morning, the waves are talking and splashing and making you happy. And the sun shines in the sea, and slowly rises, and the human soul forgets everything at that moment and looks at the glimmering sun and the soul starts rejoicing and the person feels like he is reading the book of life—an indescribable picture! The sea wakes you from the sleep of vanities. . . . we look at God’s nature and praise God and his Creation and the beauty of nature, which cannot be described by any human mind or philosophy.17

I read these words on the beach in the ancient Crimean city of Sudak, before going for a swim in the Black Sea. And by the time I left the Crimea, I understood that the allure of Rasputin lies in the mystery surrounding him—the mythology that enshrouds the truth of his story. Yes, Rasputin was a big drinker, and he did take lovers and visit prostitutes. He did have the habit of publicly kissing women on the mouth, and stroking their arms and shoulders, if not more of their bodies—his “creepy petting,” as Smith calls it. But otherwise, nearly nothing that was said about Rasputin was true.

Despite great effort to find proof that he was a spy, a traitor, a khlyst, a thief, a hypnotist, and that he was screwing the empress, no proof was ever found. All that was found were blatant lies and rumors. To the narod—the Russian people—“Rasputin had become the symbol of an omnipotent and irresponsible government that led Russia to ruin.”18 The people lost faith in the divine authority of the monarchy because of a fantasy created by the press. Because one thing was beyond doubt: Rasputin sold newspapers.

And to the educated, Western-leaning aristocrats, Rasputin was not only a symbol of absurd Russian mysticism and irrationality, of Russia’s “backwardness,” but of the imminent loss of their social privilege. To them, he was just a peasant. And to have a peasant in the midst of high-society—not to mention fondling aristocratic women in the salons of the imperial capital—was, as Smith writes, “an outrage, an inversion of the natural order of things, a sign of utter social collapse.”19 By getting rid of Rasputin, they thought they would prevent the oncoming revolution and save Russia. So, early on the morning of December 17, 1916, when Rasputin was forty-seven years old, a few aristocrats got together and murdered him.

Yet to the intelligentsia, Rasputin symbolized every reason why there needed to be a revolution. The Russian Word wrote that Rasputin was “a characteristic leftover of the ‘old order’ of the state when politics was practiced not in state institutions, not under the control of civil rights, but through personal schemes.” In July 1916, Our Workers’ Newspaper wrote that behind Rasputin “hid those secret forces that, given our lack of true European freedom and our lack of a constitution, carry out their work behind the scenes, secretly running the state and directing its ministers, removing them and putting others in their place, and preparing all sorts of reactionary surprises for the country. These secret forces are capable of anything. . . .”20

Here, it’s hard not to see a parallel to Putin’s Russia, where secret forces still carry out their work behind the scenes, and politics is practiced not under the control of civil rights but through personal schemes. The difference is that while the decidedly weak-willed Tsar Nicholas II respected the freedom of press granted in the October Manifesto of 1905, Putin makes no such gestures. And while Nicholas allowed opposition to spread like forest fire, Putin has—so far—successfully put all fires out. Whereas Nicholas wanted to be loved, Putin knows the only thing that matters is to be feared. He understands what Pyotr Stolypin, prime minister of Russia from 1906 through 1911, meant when he warned Nicholas: “In Russia, nothing is more dangerous than the appearance of weakness.”21

To those who believed the rumors about Rasputin, the tsar appeared weak. Russians felt betrayed and abandoned a century ago, and so the Romanovs had to go—regardless of the chaos that would come next.



  1. Tolstoy, Rasputin, Others, and Me: The Best of Teffi, ed. Robert Chandler and Anne Marie Jackson (New York Review of Books Classics, 2016), 168.
  2. Teffi, Memories: From Moscow to the Black Sea, ed. Edythe Haber (New York Review Books Classics, 2016), 16.
  3. Tolstoy, Rasputin, Others, and Me, 132, 110.
  4. Ibid., 125–142.
  5. Douglas Smith, Rasputin: Faith, Power, and the Twilight of the Romanovs (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2016), 402, 404.
  6. Ibid., 23.
  7. The notebook was later published as a book, titled My Thoughts and Reflections.
  8. Ibid., cited in Smith, Rasputin, 204, 208.
  9. Smith’s biography disproves the myth surrounding Rasputin’s death: autopsy reports determined he died from a point-blank gunshot to the forehead. There was no water in his lungs. Ibid., 610–611.
  10. Teffi, Memories, 73.
  11. Alluding to the exorcism in chapter 8 of the Gospel according to Matthew.
  12. Tolstoy, Rasputin, Others, and Me, 157.
  13. Teffi, Memories, 68.
  14. Ibid., 143.
  15. Ibid., 139.
  16. Ibid., 230.
  17. Smith, Rasputin, 203.
  18. Ibid., 633.
  19. Ibid., 391.
  20. Ibid., 334, 339.
  21. Ibid., 218.

Randy Rosenthal is the co-founding editor of the literary journals The Coffin Factory and Tweed’s Magazine of Literature & Art. His work has appeared in The Washington Post, The Los Angeles Review of Books, Bookforum, Paris Review Daily, and The New York Journal of Books, among other publications. He is currently studying religion and literature at Harvard Divinity School, is an assistant editor at Harvard Divinity Bulletin, and is a graduate student associate at Harvard’s Davis Center for Russian and Eurasian Studies.

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The Advice of Mencius

Jin Li

Next to Confucius, the most famous Confucian philosopher is Mencius, who lived between 372 and 289 BCE. This was smack in the middle of China’s Warring States period, when rulers were waging brutal, endless wars to enlarge their territories. Everything was up for grabs, and thinkers of the time fiercely debated the best systems of politics, social and family structures, and the meaning of art and life. Mencius lived in the state of Qi, one of the most powerful in China—and the last the Qin state conquered before the unification of China in 221 BCE. Along with Legalism, Mohism, and Daoism, Confucianism was only one of the “Hundred Schools of Thought” at the time, but Mencius wanted to make it the state philosophy.

After studying under Master Zisi, Confucius’s grandson and reputed author of The Doctrine of the Mean, Mencius became particularly attracted to the Confucian concept of self-cultivation. The idea is based on the human potential to better oneself. In short, it says that an individual should embark on a life-long effort to develop a set of cardinal virtues, including consummate virtue (also translated as benevolence), rightness (or righteousness), ritual propriety, wisdom, and trustworthiness (or fidelity). Integrity and a sense of shame are also important. Cultivated persons will create a harmonious family, and harmonious families are the foundation for a harmonious society. Mencius recognized that Confucius’s comprehensive philosophy thoroughly addressed the root causes of immorality, reordered priorities of life, and showed specific ways to reach human excellence. But he also saw that Confucius embodied his teaching himself, walking the principles he espoused. Mencius found Confucius’s personal life to be the most convincing reflection of his philosophy, and he revered Confucius as a singular, unmatched sage. Even so, Mencius was greatly challenged by the prevailing reality of the time, when people were greedy and cruel and generally displayed anything but moral and virtuous traits.

To tackle this critical problem, Mencius probed the fundamental goodness of human nature. Are humans doomed from the beginning by immoral tendencies? Or do we have the ability to truly lead moral lives? If the former, then there is not much we can do but surrender to immorality. But if the latter is true, and we can become moral beings, why do we also commit immoral acts? The central focus of Mencius’s thinking became the question of how to let our goodness blossom, and how to prevent ourselves from falling prey to immorality. To answer, he presented three related arguments.

Mencius first observed people, including rulers, in daily life. After doing so, he concluded that human nature is inherently good. He repudiated his fellow Confucian Xunzi, who thought that people were innately bad, and only could achieve goodness through cultivation. In a conversation with his student Gongsun Chou, Mencius presented the proposition that all humans have a good heart and are unable to bear the sight of human suffering. He offered the following famous example: “Suppose a man were, all of a sudden, to see a young child on the verge of falling into a well. He would certainly be moved to compassion, not because he wanted to get in the good graces of the parents, nor because he wished to win the praise of his fellow villagers or friends, not yet because he disliked the cry of the child. From this it can be seen that whoever is devoid of the heart of compassion is not human. . . .” It is our inherent moral sense, Mencius realized, our gut-level empathy, without the aid of language and social norms, that makes us spontaneously respond to the suffering of others. During the mass killing and moral callousness of the Warring States period, this claim was bold.

Second, being endowed with the capacity for compassion does not mean we can automatically achieve moral excellence. Mencius called such a capacity “the germ of benevolence,” which is only the very beginning—a sprout, and no more. Mencius presented an analogy: When people see Ox Mountain without much vegetation, they believe being mostly bare is the mountain’s nature. He argued that the mountain originally had plenty of growing capacity, but because cattle graze there and people cut down the trees, no matter how much the mountain’s vegetation grows, it cannot outgrow the damage. This damage, however, is not evidence of the mountain’s lack of vitality.

Human nature is similar. All are endowed with goodness. But if left unattended, it may not end up maturing into full-fledged moral sensibility. It might wither and rot. The real difference between humans and nonhuman animals, according to Mencius, is that humans have the capacity to self-cultivate. That is, only a human being can intentionally try to achieve perfection. A hostile environment may stifle the ability for the germination to grow and mature, but Mencius was confident that the endowed potential never fully dies. He stated, “given the right nourishment there is nothing that will not grow, and deprived of it there is nothing that will not wither away.”

By realizing that humans mistake a lack of growth as a lack of capacity, he explained how we can possess this germination and yet also engage in immoral acts. Human moral achievement is a matter of recognizing our moral potential, holding on to it, and growing it effortfully. He cited Confucius: “Hold on to it and it will remain; let go of it and it will disappear.” Once we come to this understanding and engage in this developmental process, we can gain the moral strength needed to defend ourselves against the luring sirens of moral decay. Then, as Mencius says, we will withstand “being led into excesses when wealthy and honored, deflected from our purpose when poor and obscure, and made to bend before superior force.”

Mencius also recognized that a supportive environment is critical for fostering this growth in children. Because life is full of distractions and challenges, children initially need parental modeling and, later, guidance from other social agents, such as teachers, to deepen their self-cultivation. Modern developmental science confirms that humans are born with the capacity to empathize with the suffering of others. Our empathetic capacity initially sets us on the right track. But the next stage is to develop the ability to put aside one’s emotional arousal for empathy, and take action to actually do something about the suffering person. Otherwise, those who are overwhelmed by empathy may be rendered incapable of being able to help those in need. It is remarkable that Mencius had the insight into this developmental process over two millennia ago.

The third and final argument Mencius advanced is that, given our innate capacity toward goodness, and given that we are able to self-cultivate with social support, we must refuse to let our empathy, sympathy, and compassion wither. In other words, Mencius expressed firm confidence in our resilience to rekindle our goodness, even when we have been damaged. He believed this applied to everyone, including our leaders. He stated that “for a man possessing [this germ] to deny his own potentialit[y] is for him to cripple himself; for him to deny the potentialit[y] of his prince is for him to cripple his prince.” For this reason, Mencius tirelessly tutored King Xuan of Qi. Mencius thought that if he could convince the king to adopt Confucianism as the state philosophy, and to govern with the moral principles of righteousness and benevolence, then the need for war would be eliminated altogether.

King Xuan of Qi is best known for going to Mencius for advice. Once, King Xuan asked Mencius how he could achieve his grand ambition of conquering Qin and Chu and ruling over the entire Middle Kingdom. Mencius replied that he had nothing to offer on the subject—but he did have much to say about how one could become “a true king.” The king’s interest was piqued, and he asked to hear more. Mencius knew that during a previous ceremony, the king had been disturbed by seeing a massive ox being led to a sacrifice. As if aware of its fate, the ox shook and struggled. Agonized, King Xuan said the ox looked like an innocent man going to execution. Unable to bear it, he commanded that the sacrifice be stopped. But rather than abandon the ceremony altogether, the king decreed a lamb be sacrificed instead. Because of this incident, Mencius told King Xuan he possessed the innate and undying ability to feel compassion.

Guiding the king through a step-by-step analysis, Mencius explained that there is no difference between an ox and a lamb. The difference was in experience. “You’d seen the ox, but not the sheep,” Mencius told the king. “And when noble-minded people see birds and animals alive, they can’t bear to see them die. Hearing them cry out, they can’t bear to eat their meat. That’s why the noble-minded stay clear of their kitchens.” The reason the king could not bear to see the ox slaughtered was that he witnessed the trembling ox—but he did not see the lamb. Mencius then turned the discussion to the armies King Xuan was sending out, causing death for his own people and his neighbors.

The king claimed he did not take delight in causing war, but that he only waged it to in order to reach his dream. He was incapable of doing otherwise. “When feathers can’t be lifted, someone isn’t using their strength,” Mencius responded. “And when the people aren’t watched over, someone isn’t using their compassion.” Here, Mencius was distinguishing between the unwilling and the incapable. If the king could feel compassion for an animal and save its life, he could feel compassion for people, give up military aggression, and find another way to rule. “If you aren’t a true king, it’s only because you’re unwilling, not because you’re incapable.” He must refuse to let his moral sense wither, Mencius said, and bring his virtue to full fruition. Only then would he be a true king.

Unfortunately, King Xuan of Qi didn’t see the benefit of embracing Confucian philosophy during the period of Warring States. He ignored Mencius’s advice, and continued to engage in wars, only to meet his fatal defeat. In the end, King Xuan was ashamed to face Mencius and lamented his choices. Although he plunged ahead with trying to rule by aggression, I think his admission of shame still attests to Mencius’s philosophy of human innate goodness, our capacity for compassion that never dies.


Jin Li is Professor of Education and Human Development at Brown University. She was one of the six inaugural fellows selected by the Berggruen Philosophy and Culture Center at the Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences, Stanford University, in 2015–16, and at Tsinghua University, China,
in 2016–17.

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The Politics of Preaching

Matthew L. Potts

Politics of Preaching illustration

Illustration by Edel Rodriguez


On november 13, 2016, the Sunday after the election of Donald Trump, I stepped into the pulpit of St. Barnabas Memorial Church in Falmouth, Massachusetts, to preach. I do this two or three times a month, but it’s fair to say I approached my homiletical responsibility differently that Sunday. The months since November 2016 have buffeted us with report after report of scandal, violence, injustice, and deceit, so it may be worth remembering just what those five days between Tuesday, November 8, and Sunday, November 13, looked and felt like in the United States. At DeWitt Junior High, in my home state of Michigan, white students formed a wall outside the school and barred entry to any student of color. The white students said they were making America great again. A toy doll with brown skin had string tied around its neck and was hanged inside an elevator at Canisius College in Buffalo, New York. At Wellesley College in Massachusetts, students of color were spat upon while entering and exiting the multicultural student center. At San Diego State, a Muslim student was assaulted and her hijab torn from her head. There are many other examples.

These things saddened and frightened me, and as I climbed to the pulpit, I knew I must address them. The question, of course, was not if I should preach about politics, but how, and that question persists months later. Since early 2016 we have been told over and again by pundits and historians alike that our (continuing, unending) political moment is one of absolute singularity, one entirely without precedent. No one has ever campaigned like this, governed like this, spoken like this, lied like this, boasted like this, tweeted like this. So how should one preach in response to all this? What should political preaching look like in the age of Donald Trump? That is one question. But I want to ask a different, related, and perhaps more important one. In the age of Donald Trump, I do not want to ask how one should preach about politics. I want to ask: what will the politics of preaching itself be?

Preaching, in our present political moment, is not, or not just, about being on the right side of issues, about returning some moral authority to the pulpit. This is crucial, of course, but the responsibility for this did not commence or recommence on November 8, 2016. If we preachers lacked some moral or political urgency in past years, this indicates a record of our failings rather than the rise of some new obligation. And, indeed, in the months prior to the election, my own preaching had become decidedly more concerned with contemporary events. I told fewer folksy stories and referenced the news more. I didn’t become more partisan in my preaching, I don’t think (though a few of my parishioners might tell you otherwise). On the contrary, the issues I tended to focus on in my preaching in 2015 and 2016—the Syrian crisis and our stance toward international refugees; gun violence, especially mass shootings and the police killings of unarmed black men and boys; mass incarceration; immigration detention and policy—are ones I consider wholly bipartisan failures. There’s blame enough to go around, and too much partisanship in our preaching around these issues might obscure the depth and reach of all our sins.

How might we understand preaching to be a public practice that can critique the political strife we have found ourselves enduring these last long months?

So I did not tend to shy from the news in my sermons. In the conventional sense, my preaching had long been political, so my congregation no doubt expected me to say something about the election when I rose into the pulpit last November. But again, what I’m wondering about here is not strictly the question of whether and how preaching should take sides on contemporary issues. Preaching should. The question of its execution, however, seems to me largely a matter of craft, perspective, and practice, and as such, technical answers to these questions will vary greatly from preacher to preacher and from congregation to congregation. I’m less concerned here about the mechanics or strategies of any single sermon than I am with the politics of preaching itself. In other words, for me, for now, the question of how to convince or persuade people that they should share my preached opinions is less important than what this peculiar form of public speech stands for as a religious and political practice in our world today. What is this strange form of discourse, this singular sort of address, and how might we understand preaching itself to be a public practice that can critique the political strife we have found ourselves enduring these last long months?

When I came into the pulpit on November 13, 2016, I looked to my congregation and told them about DeWitt Junior High. I told them about Canisius College and Wellesley College and San Diego State. I also told them about my mom in Michigan who is not a U.S. citizen and my sister-in-law from Michigan who is South Asian, and how each feared walking around their midwestern neighborhoods back home. I told them I was sad and scared and ashamed. And then I told my congregation that I loved them, and believed that they loved me, and that people who love each other should be able to say hard things to one another. I told them I had some hard things I wanted to say. And then I preached.

If one shouldn’t speak about religion or politics in polite company, then political preaching starts with two strikes against it. Most preachers have a story they can tell you about the time someone walked out of their sermon, or accosted them about a sermon, or withdrew their pledge due to a sermon, or resigned from the congregation after a sermon. These stories will be true, and the anxiety they arouse among preachers is real. No one hopes their words will be poorly received, or worse, that their words will impair or even ruin a relationship. But to dwell upon these occasional examples is perhaps to overstate the case. In all honesty, political preaching is not so perilous or delicate a task as it is made out to be by us preachers, not in today’s religious landscape.

Our churches and denominations have sorted themselves in much the same way as the rest of American society. Our echo chambers still surround us Sunday mornings.

Of course, there are always some subtleties to consider when preaching about politics—congregational realities that will demand a discerning rhetorical response of the preacher. The truth can be told many ways, and one of the preacher’s tasks is to figure out how to tell the truth in a way that her congregation is willing and able to hear. In politics, this is called spin, and, as in politics, spin can wander into untruth or avoidance if not handled with faithfulness and care. But apart from that, the reality is that our churches and denominations have sorted themselves in much the same way as the rest of American society. Our echo chambers still surround us Sunday mornings. Though there are certainly exceptions at the congregational and individual level, Episcopalians like me (for example) are a fairly progressive bunch. There’s simply not much risk in preaching a largely progressive politics to a largely progressive congregation. There are more diverse denominations than us Episcopalians, of course, but I dare say that most pastors align with the politics of our congregations rather closely. Otherwise, they wouldn’t have been invited into the pulpit in the first place, or they won’t remain there long.

Prophecy is one of the traditional tasks of preaching, but the reality of our political sorting against the chaos of our political moment has led me to wonder about the prophetic potential of sermonizing. When Michael Brown was murdered, I preached about his death and about structural sin and racism. My church, like most mainline Protestant churches, is largely white; my family is one of only a handful of families of color in the parish. And so, after my sermon landed hard upon my congregants, I waited for white blowback that never came. A bit surprised, a bit more emboldened, I preached repeatedly about issues of political concern in the following weeks, about race and immigration and bigotry, and I continued, generally, to receive positive responses. This has remained true up to and after the election of Donald Trump, as events each week have demanded a homiletical address. On that Sunday after the election, for example, the church burst into applause when I finished my sermon. That was a nice affirmation, but I must confess some ambivalence about the response. On many Sundays, I enter the pulpit with a prophet’s spirit, incensed at the injustice of the world, ready to be laid bare by the scripture we have been given, ready to speak truth to power, to comfort the afflicted and to afflict the comfortable, ready to recognize the power of my prophecy in the way the congregation squirms at my rough word. But it never happens. They listen or nod or tear up a bit sometimes or even applaud, but these do not seem the proper emotional responses to a prophecy. A part of me would rather they rise up and shout me down, would rather they storm out and cause a scene. If they rejected me, I could feel my words were having some impact. Instead, my impassioned sermons float lightly down from the pulpit upon a people most agreeable, and then we shake hands in the narthex and agree to return a week later and do it all again.

To take an example: after three-year-old Syrian refugee Alain Kurdi washed ashore dead in Turkey, and that heartbreaking photo of him with his little well-fitted shoes and new haircut circulated in the media, I was horrified and angry and inspired. I preached with passion and disbelief at the injustice of our refugee policy. I told my congregation we had to do better, that the Syrian children washing ashore in the Mediterranean were our responsibility. After the service, a woman who had been deeply moved by the homily pulled me aside and told me as much. But then she also asked me a question to which I had no answer: So what do we do? How do we help? Standing in a pulpit and shouting about it isn’t enough, nor is simply listening to the person shouting. Prophecy has its limits.

I think we should admit that there is a helplessness to preaching, and I think it’s one we preachers should embrace.

So, what do we do? I think we should admit that there is a helplessness to preaching, and I think it’s one we preachers should embrace. The fact that we cannot bend the world to our articulated will does not mean we should be silent about its injustice and its tragedy. Preachers have this responsibility at least: to tell the truth; to describe the world as it is, even if it is not usually described in that way. This means accepting the limits of our words, recognizing that to describe injustice and to speak about it frankly does nothing directly to mitigate that injustice and may not much hasten its end. But perhaps this is a responsibility the preacher should assume as well: to accept what he cannot do. We should not mistake prophecy for advocacy, otherwise we might believe we have done enough while coming down from the pulpit after a particularly fiery speech.

Preaching cannot do everything, but I would like to suggest that may be part of its religious and political posture, its uniquely devotional and prophetic restraint. A toddler dies in Turkey; a teen is gunned down by police. What should we do? Apart from the unsatisfyingly obvious (donate to the International Rescue Committee; call your senator; go to a rally; support Black Lives Matter), we will not fix the world’s sins with a sermon and a song. Preaching has its limits. But perhaps testing those limits is part of preaching’s prophetic task. We tend, I think, to associate prophecy with prediction, with the articulation of a world restored, but to condemn the world, to declare that it should be other than it is, is already an act of prophecy, even if we have no words yet to describe how things might change. To declare, “it should not be thus,” is to imply “it should be otherwise,” and so already to embark upon a work of prophetic imagining.

It does no good to tell our congregations that the lamb will lie down with the lion if we’re not first willing to tell them about the toddlers lying dead on Turkish shores, or about the black teens lying dead in American streets, and about the lions roving all around who would feast on their holy, human remains. Indeed, to fancy some pacific realm without a frank and cold assessment of how cruel this real world is and how callous its Christians often are will itself be a dread failure of imagination, a hollow prophecy. Prophecy is judgment, and judgment is an act of the imagination because it speaks of that which it cannot yet see: the world made wholly just. Unless we are willing to see clearly our own world and to condemn it, we cannot rightly imagine what the world to come might be. By this I mean not only that we will not correctly envision the justice of a redeemed world, but also that we will not have earned the right to picture what that world or justice looks like.

It is difficult to lament, but necessary, honest, and sometimes prophetic.

This is part of what I mean about the politics of preaching, a politics which stands somewhat apart from the narrower question of how we might manage the political tone or content of our preaching. Show me the politician who is willing to stand up and say to his crowds: “Things look bad. I don’t have all the answers. White supremacy seems intractable. Automation has permanently altered our economy. Climate change will cause unimaginable destruction. There is no cure for cancer.” People sometimes believe in answers before they have even asked the appropriate questions or recognized the scale of their problem. The answers are alluring and win fast friends. It is difficult to lament, but necessary, honest, and sometimes prophetic. To stand before a congregation, to tell them the truth and despair of any simple solution, to have the courage to condemn our world while admitting that we cannot see our way clear of it, is itself a political act. It is also an act of prophecy, and of faith.

In my first year in ministry at St. Barnabas, the rector and I buried thirty-one people. We had a funeral every ten days, two every three weeks. This is perhaps not an astonishing number to those who are part of large congregations, but for a church like mine which averages about two hundred souls in attendance each Sunday, it was a pastoral challenge, to say the least. It was also a surprise. When I had envisioned my future ministry as a seminarian, I had imagined myself performing weddings and doing baptisms, I had pictured myself preaching and celebrating Eucharist. As it turns out, funeral preparation and performance make up a large part of my ministry.

I’d like to say that in that first year I got to be good at preaching funeral sermons, but that’s not quite true. I did gain some familiarity and facility with the funeral sermon, so it became easier for me to prepare for and preach at funerals, but at times this worked against the goodness of my sermons. I remember once meeting with the bereaved husband of a women who had died of Huntington’s disease. They were not members of the parish, just mourners in search of a church, and we were honored to oblige them and provide funeral rites. Huntington’s is an incurable genetic disease of the nervous system that typically arises in adulthood and quickly leads to chorea, dementia, and nearly complete incapacitation. In the late stages of the disease, sufferers can neither move nor speak and most die by age fifty, after several years of full-time care. It is a cruel diagnosis, to say the least. I met the man and talked about the service and about his wife; a few days later, we held the funeral and I preached a sermon. I did not know the couple, of course, so I pulled out some of my most versatile chestnuts and spoke with the book of Lamentations about the faithfulness of God and with the Gospel of John about the love of God, and then I spoke of the family’s faithfulness and love for the deceased. And then I sat down.

What we can always say, as pastors, is the truth: that the world is as bad as it seems, and that we have met the limits of our powers.

Preachers can tell when their sermons fail, and I knew this one had, though I wasn’t quite sure why. At the end of the service, when the deceased’s husband came to shake my hand and thank me for the service, I noticed that the woman who had been sitting beside him during the funeral had now taken up his arm quite intimately. It dawned upon me, in that moment, a few hours too late, that I knew nothing whatsoever about this family and its grief these last long years. I realized that the loss this family had endured was unlike any other I had encountered, that their wife and mother had long since been taken from them, and that this funeral could not accommodate cliché. My reliable old chestnuts had profoundly misapprehended the manner of their mourning, and my pastoral and homiletical response to their bereavement was widely and wildly misplaced. The surviving husband thanked me for the service, shook my hand, and drove home with his partner. I haven’t seen them again.

Believing that you have the answer, that you know the right word, will be a hindrance to your ministry as often as it will be a help. Anyone who has had the good fortune to go through Clinical Pastoral Education (CPE), or the bad fortune to suffer great loss, knows that the absolute worst thing to say to a human being in crisis is: Everything will be all right, God has his purposes, your loved one is in a better place. Because when your child is killed in a car accident, the world may never be right again. And God’s purposes have no purchase on your pain. And your child doesn’t belong in a better place, he belongs in your arms. Ministers are caretakers, and many of us want instinctively to help those who are suffering. We’re fixers, and the temptation for us in moments of great loss is to feel we ought to fix what has been broken, even if we know we can’t. The moment we succumb to the futile urge to say that one right thing, we imply the thing can be righted, and we have obscured the pain and scale of the wrong before us. The pastoral challenge in these moments, of course, is to allow the world to remain broken, to sit speechless with another in her loss and misery, to offer no solutions, to express only sorrow, using words only when necessary. It is only in the acceptance of our own finitude and failure that we will have reckoned with the real magnitude of the other’s loss.

This does not mean we cannot or should not ever speak. We can still tell the truth, if we are willing to do so and can do so with care. I remember my worst night of CPE. A teenager had been shot in the head and I was in the chapel with his family. I knew the child would die, but the doctor was responsible for relating this news, so I sat with the family and waited for the surgeon to arrive. When he came into the chapel he pulled a chair up to the boy’s mother and leaned forward and told her, with gentleness and genuine regret, that her son would not survive the night. She flailed and screamed: “Don’t tell me that! It’s not true! It’s not true!” Firmly, the doctor caught her hand as it thrashed around and he put his two hands around hers and then he found her eyes with his own and he said slowly and kindly: “I have to tell you that. It is true. I am so sorry. I’ve done all I can. I am so sorry.” Then she collapsed into his arms and he said nothing more for ten minutes. He just held her while she cried.

What we can always say, as pastors, is the truth: that the world is as bad as it seems, and that we have met the limits of our powers. To say anything else would be a lie. But to say only that much, to yearn for more to say, to hold a grieving woman in your arms and wish you had more words, is also to judge the world and our words for all their failures, and this is to declare in our silence that it should somehow be otherwise, that some word should remain, even if we cannot speak it, even if the language does not exist. To remain in that tragic place, having spoken a grim truth, is also to suggest in the aftermath of loss, however futile and fallible our language, that human connections—clumsy ones facilitated by limited language—do mean something. To name the way of things, to tell the truth, is at once to respect the limits of our language as well as to honor language’s quiet power to hold us together, each of us frailly clinging to another, even as things fall apart.

All of which is to suggest that what I have written above about the prophetic function of preaching is intimately related to its pastoral function, as well.

Readers familiar with a 1977 essay by Rowan Williams titled “Poetic and Religious Imagination” will recognize some of that essay in this one.1 There, Williams looks to the biblical book of Job to draw a line between the poetic and religious impulse toward imagination. “Job,” Williams writes, “with savage persistence has demanded justice . . . but he has not looked for it in the world, in the language of men [sic].” Job “refuses both resignation to the world as it is, and facile justification of the world as it is, because his instinctive and most basic conviction is that ‘the world is not enough.’ ” For Job, mere “resignation is a betrayal; structuring and explanation is a blasphemy. What is left, then, if the world is neither to be accepted nor to be rationalized? What remains is Job’s protest.”2 This protest is an exercise of the prophetic imagination, because it judges the world and, in so doing, implies that another world should be. It is an exercise of the pastoral imagination, too, because it recognizes that our words are not enough, that there are losses we cannot rightly speak to. But in speaking protest despite these limitations, Job also wagers something else: that his words do yet carry some meaning, however fallible and finite, however much in demand of critique and eventual correction. To speak—to speak within our limits, to speak with humility and restraint, to speak at all—is still to endeavor some significance to our speech, and significance itself “is a venture into the public sphere.”3 That our speech will carry human meaning and in so doing bid human response: this involves what Williams calls the poetic imagination. Because it is public, because it is protest, I would like to call it political as well.

Preaching’s politics should not be about affirming our opinions, but about broadening and challenging them.

This is what our congregations need, even our highly sorted, politically homogenous congregations. This is what can undermine even the deafening resonance of our echo chambers. Preaching’s politics should not be about affirming our opinions but about broadening and challenging them. We must tell the truth, judge the world, let our words fall and fail as they will, because to do anything other would be either a betrayal or a blasphemy or both. If we would be preachers; if we would answer the prophetic and pastoral demands of our call; if we would speak protest: then we must become not politicians but poets.

I write this the week after a white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, which emboldened hate groups, led to the deaths of two police officers in a helicopter crash, and left several nonviolent protesters injured and one, Heather Heyer, dead. It may be the grossest understatement to declare here that President Trump’s comments in response to the brazen racist horrors of these events lack poetry. But they do. They lack any poetry at all. But when I write that the president’s words are unpoetic, I do not mean only that they are singularly inelegant or clumsy or stupid, though they are certainly all those things. What I mean is that they lack imagination, that in refusing to condemn the present, they also fail to envision a future, a new day in which something of equity and peace may be achieved. Instead, they marshal forth an oversimplified past and consecrate all its injustice with false memory. When I say the president lacks poetry, I mean that his words lack any sense of openness, restraint, or humility, that they refuse to admit of any limitation or invite any further discussion. In the wake of death and violence, before the real terror of our racism and real anguish of our history, the president’s words ignore the future for the sake of a false past. They reject uncertainty’s openness in order to remain confined by baseless confidence. They admit neither imagination nor mystery.

American political speech has perhaps never been more in need of some humility, never more lacked a bit of imagination.

For all his buffoonish bluster and stupid inelegance, however, President Trump is only the most highly placed offender against poetry and protest’s better habits. Failure of imagination seems to be the grammar of politics in our country these days; refusal of mystery is a familiar discursive habit in our debates. In these respects, most political speech in the United States today is profoundly unpoetic. American political speech has perhaps never been more in need of some humility, never more lacking in imagination. But I am willing to wager that the poetic and the homiletical imaginations have much they share in common, and that these mutual habits of mind and speech present a unique opportunity for the concerned Christian pastor and her parishioners. What preachers need, I believe, is not only a political preaching but also to recognize the politics of words preached from pulpit or podium or press conference. We need a public speech which honestly addresses the violence and injustice of the world, even if only to condemn it; a form of discourse which admits its own shortcomings, even if only to invite a relationship of response, a homiletics of judgment and humility, of imagination and mystery, of pastoral wisdom and prophetic protest. If the American preacher would find a way to speak of and to our distressing political moment, then let her rise into the pulpit with some poetry.



  1. Rowan Williams, “Poetic and Religious Imagination,” Theology 80 (1977): 178–187.
  2. Ibid., 179. Italics in original.
  3. Ibid., 180.

Matthew L. Potts is Associate Professor of Religion and Literature and of Ministry Studies at Harvard Divinity School and is an ordained priest in the Episcopal Church. His book Cormac McCarthy and the Signs of Sacrament: Literature, Theology, and the Moral of Stories was published by Bloomsbury Academic in 2015. His current book project examines the problems and possibilities of forgiveness.

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The Secular Religion of Plotinus

Margaret R. Miles

A philosopher once described to me her interpretation of the difference between philosophy and religion: Philosophy, she said, is about a clear-eyed acceptance of whatever there is; religion is about “special pleading.” Yet there are some perennial human questions that cross the arbitrary boundaries we have drawn between philosophy and religion, questions that every person must answer: How should we live? How shall we find a satisfactory orientation to a bewildering and dazzling universe? How can we create a lifestyle that effectively embodies that orientation?

Other questions are more personal: How can I accept and gracefully adjust to this constantly changing and vulnerable body? Why do human beings suffer and die? An increasing number of Americans do not find religious answers to these questions persuasive.1 You may be surprised to know that Plotinus (205–270 CE) thought about these questions intentionally and rigorously, exploring in depth what I call “the religious choice of secularity.”2

Plotinus described an integrated worldview that does not depend on belief in a god or gods, rituals, or holy texts, places, or practices. Instead of an authorizing deity, he focused on values, ethics, and attitudes that together articulate a philosophy of life. His philosophy required acceptance of the “richly varied” universe and included a commitment to values and actions consistent with this generous and inclusive worldview. His thoughts can be useful to contemporary people who reject supernatural beings, explanations, and prayers addressed to a deity, yet who feel a lack of “at-home-ness” in the world without a comprehensive conceptual structure.

Plotinus’s teachings and writings respond to the following questions: What is the source of life and the nature of the universe? How can we train ourselves to appreciate beauty? Should we take responsibility for the care of the earth and its living beings? Does suffering have meaning? Finally, how can we think of our bodies most fruitfully? Is it more accurate and beneficial to think of body as friend, as enemy, or simply as an instrument? Or do we inevitably think of body differently at different times and in the midst of different experiences?3

Plotinus was preoccupied with body, and he engaged in heated conversations with other philosophers of his time who disagreed with him about the value of bodies. He was especially struck by the simultaneous fragility and preciousness of our bodies. This focus, along with his insistence on a secular religiosity, is remarkably in tune with many of our twenty-first-century obsessions.

According to reports, Plotinus was one of the most eccentric and thoughtful people of his time. His student, friend, and biographer Porphyry gave this account:

  • Plotinus was born in Lycopolis, Egypt;
  • He nursed at the breast until he was eight years old and someone teased him about it, whereupon he gave up his nurse’s breast;
  • He came to Rome to teach when he was forty and began his only written work, the Enneads, at fifty;
  • He never bathed, but had himself massaged every day at home;
  • He had a disease of the bowels, but would not submit to enemas, saying (in effect) that enemas were beneath his dignity;
  • He would not sit for a portrait painter, so his friends smuggled a famous portrait painter into the school to observe him as he taught and to paint his portrait later;
  • He had poor eyesight, so he did not review or revise his manuscripts;
  • He practiced vegetarianism;
  • He rejected astrology;
  • He had both male and female students and taught several physicians, senators, and a rhetorician who became a philosopher;
  • He was able to reverse magical attacks against him;
  • He took orphaned children into his home, taught them, and took care of their resources until they came of age.

According to Porphyry, Plotinus was a marvelous teacher. Porphyry writes:

There was always a charm about his appearance, but [when he was teaching] he was still more attractive to look at: he sweated gently, and kindliness shone out from him, and in answering questions he made clear both his benevolence to the questioner and his intellectual vigor. (Porphyry’s Life, 2)4

Apparently Plotinus also possessed a remarkable ability to concentrate; he was able, Porphyry reported, “to be present at once to himself and to others.”

Before getting to his focus on body, it’s important to start with Plotinus’s ideas on beauty. Plotinus taught that no one can understand the world who has not been startled and instructed by its beauty. Beauty’s message, he said, is the unity of all life, a gift of the impersonal source he called the “great beauty.” Recognizing beauty is a transformative experience. A person can recognize beauty by her kinship with it, for her life is one with universal life. He wrote:

There must be those who see this beauty . . . and when they see it they must be delighted and overwhelmed and excited. . . . These experiences must occur whenever there is contact with any sort of beautiful thing, wonder, and a shock of delight and longing and passion and a happy excitement . . . you feel like this when you see, in yourself or in someone else, greatness of soul, a righteous life, a pure morality, courage . . . he who sees them cannot say anything except that they are what really exists. What does “really exist” mean? That they exist as beauties. (Ennead 1.6.4–5)

Yet beauty was not, for Plotinus, an aesthetic category. To notice beauty is not to make an intellectual judgment about a quality of a particular object; it occurs at the level of perception. Plotinus insisted that the recognition of beauty is a physical experience. To perceive beauty is to see an object in its life, to grasp the interconnections that give it existence.

According to Plotinus, no one is born with a natural capacity for perceiving beauty; it is not inherited in the genes or automatically acquired in the process of socialization and education. The perception of beauty is not due to a mystical experience, either. Rather, it can—and must—be trained by the practice of contemplation, a practice that Plotinus describes in some detail. In short, what you (can) see is what you get—either broken shards, randomly scattered, or the unity of “richly varied” life.

Plotinus described an intricate and complex universe in which life circulates from a source he usually called “the one.” The name points to an impersonal energy that Plotinus also, on occasion, called the great beauty, the father, the self-sufficient, the good, or even god. He alternated between impersonal and personal terms for the source of life, but he insisted that “the one” has no attributes and no intentions. Life is the fundamental element of the universe, intimately connecting all who share it. And he thought of life very inclusively; even rocks and soil have life. Rocks, he said, if left in their native soil, grow, but they grow very slowly; their growth cannot be measured in a human lifetime.

For Plotinus, this interconnectedness directly relates to his ethics. Plotinus taught that “if my soul and your soul come from the soul of the All, and that soul is one, these souls must also be one, allowing us to feel one another’s feelings” (Ennead 4.9.8). In his view, one of the most important human capacities is empathy. He wrote:

We do share each other’s experiences when we suffer with others from seeing their pain and feel happy and relaxed [with others] and are naturally drawn to love them: for without a sharing of experience there could not be love. (Ennead 4.9.3)

Contemplation reveals the bond between living beings. Although bodies are separate, Plotinus believed that all human beings share the same soul. This is demonstrated, he said, by the fact that we cannot feel one another’s physical pain as we can feel one another’s emotional pain. Strengthening one’s identity with soul, the bearer of life, results in intensified identification with universal life.

Yet the basis for Plotinus’s teachings on suffering and his sense of responsibility for all living beings are his thoughts about embodied life. The good news and the bad news about body—its goodness and its limitations—are crucial to his conceptual constructs. Though one of the most often-quoted lines in Porphyry’s Life claims that Plotinus was “ashamed of being in a body,” this statement directly contradicts Plotinus’s many nuanced discussions of body.

Philosophers usually work on a concept when the lack of an adequate conceptualization becomes apparent and problematic. Several circumstances provoked Plotinus to give serious and sustained philosophical consideration to body. He had friends who died in the mid-third-century plague,5 and he suffered from painful, distressing diseases; his thought was provoked by the popular colosseum culture in which bodies were spectacle;6 and he argued with other philosophers who disagreed with him about the value of bodies.

Plotinus opposed the religious and philosophical currents in his society that considered bodies worthless. He wrote his only polemical tract against Gnostics, who believed the world of the senses to be the evil creation of a demiurge.7 Scornful of bodies and claiming to be eager to be disencumbered of them, Gnostics cited the pesky and painful things in the world—mosquitoes, snakes, mice, and disease—as evidence for their belief that the world is a hostile environment for living beings.

Plotinus disagreed; he used the strongest language of his entire corpus in arguing against Gnostics’ denigration of bodies. He argued that as long as we do not expect bodies to be flawless and permanent, they are wonderful. Gnostics’ hatred of body, he said, is like

two people living in the same fine house, one of whom reviles the structure and the builder, but stays there none the less, while the other does not revile, but says the builder has built it with the utmost skill, and waits for the time to come in which he will go away, when he will not need a house any longer: the first might think he was wiser and readier to depart because he knows how to say that the walls are built of soulless stones and timber and are far inferior to the true dwelling place. (Ennead 2.9.18)

Plotinus’s statements about bodies have confused generations of scholars. He sometimes praised bodies—human, animal, plant, and celestial bodies—as perfectly and beautifully what they are. However, in the context of urging his students to pay attention to the cultivation of their souls, he sometimes spoke quite disparagingly of bodies and the world of the senses. And in his last treatises, suffering from the disease he would die from at the age of 66, he understandably thought of death—release from body—as a great good.

When the subject is as variable as bodies, statements that seem to oppose one another may match the inconsistency of their subject. Bodies are the source of both the greatest pleasures and the greatest pains of human life. When we dance, lie in the sun, or listen to music, we are immensely grateful for our bodies. In the hospital with an undiagnosed and painful disease, during dental surgery, or struggling to walk on crutches, we might be inclined to feel that body is not an unmitigated boon.

Bodies have limitations; they are always vulnerable, and they eventually and inevitably die. Plotinus instructed his students not to make the mistake of identifying self with body. Contemplative exercises demonstrate, he said, that there is more to human beings than body. To be sure, soul’s first duty is animation of, and care for, body. But in contemplation, Plotinus wrote, we can “lift ourselves up by the part that is not submerged in body and by this join ourselves at our own centers to something like the center of all things” (Ennead 6.9.8). According to Plotinus, this does not prevent us from suffering, but it allows us to experience empathy and to bond with our fellow beings in their suffering and in their joy.

As Bob Dylan sings in “Dear Landlord”: “I know you’ve suffered much, but in this you are not so unique.” Why does one person suffer while another seems to enjoy a carefree life? We try to explain this: Does an all-seeing deity know what each person can bear and assign just that precise amount of suffering? Or has the person done something that “asks for” her suffering? Plotinus’s answer is that pain is inevitable in a universe in which living beings struggle to grip and hold life. Both joys and pains circulate without plan or design. And each person, gracefully or gracelessly—the choice is ours—inherits pain and death when life goes on to other bodies, other forms. As Plotinus’s mentor, Plato, asked: Why is it surprising that mortals die?

In Plotinus’s view, some of the circumstances we might assign to fate or providence are the result of choices we make. But even when chance intervenes in a person’s life—people “must fall sick if they have bodies”—Plotinus said that the choice of how one will respond to the circumstance still exists. Human life supplies a rich and complex mixture of choice and chance. We can accept the universe’s exuberant and ambiguous provisions and create a good life. By contrast, Plotinus said, “in the bad, life limps” (Ennead 1.7.3).

Is it possible to align ourselves with the universe’s gifts in a way that maximizes benefits and minimizes pain? Yes, to some extent, Plotinus said. He gave an example:

[It is] as if when a great company of dancers was moving in order a tortoise was caught in the middle of its advance and trampled because it was not able to get out of the way of the ordered movement of the dancers: yet if it had ranged itself with that movement, even it would have taken no harm from them. (Ennead 2.9.7)

Even though we can dance with the universe for a while, eventually, inevitably, life will lift off from a used-up body and go on to animate other forms. When a person dies, her life is not destroyed, Plotinus said, “it is simply no longer there” (Ennead 4.5.7).

Plotinus insisted that there is providential care. But it is addressed to the whole universe, not to individuals; “the universe lies in safety” (Ennead 3.4.4; 6.4.5). Individuals are parts of the whole. A person can enjoy the safety of the universe only if she accepts that these gifts, including the gift of life, will sooner or later pass on. But, Plotinus said, isn’t this what there is? So why not acknowledge and accept it? Why all this special pleading, why all this me, me, me? Why not recognize that I am not singled out for special treatment no matter what I believe or how virtuously I act, or—for that matter—how carefully I eat or exercise? If we understand the nature of the universe, we will enjoy and bear what is provided uncomplainingly, for “the life of the universe does not serve the purposes of each individual but of the whole” (Ennead 4.4.39; 4.4.45). If my choices have not determined my sufferings, I suffer by chance, and I can choose how to respond. The “provision” is ambiguous—evil and good, pain and gift. We can, however, cultivate a perspective from which the universe is seen as dazzling and trustworthy beauty, as “perfect safety.”

No person living in the third century could have predicted our current concerns over polluted air and water, endangered species, vanishing rain forests, and a threatened ozone layer. Now, it is possible to identify and map with scientific precision the effects living beings have on one another even across long distances.8 Plotinus’s description of an interdependent web of living beings was intuited, and his suggestions about how to live resulted from his vision of the universe as an intimately interconnected whole. Knowing what we do now, this vision seems prescient rather than “soft-headed” or “romantic”:

The All is a single living being which encompasses all the living beings within it. . . . This one universe is all bound together in shared experience and is like one living creature, and that which is far is really near. . . . And since it is one living thing and all belongs to a unity nothing is so distant in space that it is not close enough to the one living thing to share experience. (Ennead 4.4.32)

Such a worldview has obvious implications for practices that damage the natural world and that sicken and kill people and animals. Indeed, it can inspire action based on the awareness that the community of human responsibility extends to all living beings.

Who are we really? A human being, Plotinus said, is double; we are what you see. Bodies R Us. Bodies capture and contain the life circulated by the source of all life, but bodies are not all of what it means to be “us.” We also exist simultaneously “there,” at the heart of the universe. And this is most essentially who we are. In our self-imposed isolation, senses fatigue, boredom dulls vision; we constantly long for some new stimulus to freshen our lives. We fall in love; we seek entertainment; we forget to look at one another, and, above all, we forget ourselves. When we do, we miss out on the amazing glory of the life we share with the company of living beings. Plotinus urged his readers to do the daily, disciplined, and rewarding work of remembering who we are.

To this end, Plotinus advocated prayer. Plotinian prayer is not petition, however, but contemplation that redirects a person’s attention from personal concerns toward the whole. He gives instructions in the practice of contemplation by which a person imagines the real, the whole that we seldom recognize due to our fascination with our own bit part. For although life itself is trustworthy, utterly safe, the particular configuration that coagulates as my life will eventually lose focus and slide into the ocean of life. I do not have the luxury of banqueting at ease on Olympus with the “blessed immortals.” To wish, to imagine, or to act as if we do, Plotinus said, or to be shocked when confronted by old age or death—whichever comes first—is to miss the greatest opportunity we have: realizing our connection to the all, of training ourselves through contemplation to see the great beauty of the whole circulation of life. 



  1. A 2014 poll from the Pew Research Center showed a 23% increase in persons who claim no religious affiliation—“nones”—over the 2007 poll (16%). This amounts to roughly 56 million adult Americans.
  2. Although seventeenth-century authors called Plotinus a “NeoPlatonist,” he thought of himself simply as a follower of Plato who endeavored to elucidate matters that Plato had left obscure. Plotinus did not found a church or a philosophical school.
  3. I do not refer to “the body;” the phrase implies a generic human body that no one has ever seen or touched. “Bodyness,” the condition of being body is a universal human trait, but bodies are always gendered. They are also young or old; they have a social location, race, and ethnicity; they are healthy or ill, along with many other factors that intimately affect the experience of body. In short, “the body” does not exist. But bodies do.
  4. Unless otherwise noted, all translations are from Plotinus, trans. A. H. Armstrong (Harvard University Press, Loeb Classical Library, 1966–1988).
  5. In the mid-third century, the Roman world experienced a severe and exceedingly contagious plague—probably a form of bubonic plague. The ancient historian Dio Cassius reported 2,000 deaths a day in Rome alone. Though Plotinus didn’t catch the plague himself, he lost friends to it.
  6. The Roman colosseum, built in the first century CE, seated fifty thousand people, and the gladiatorial and animal shows were popular events. These free shows featured entertainment in which bodies were publicly torn, mauled by wild beasts, sliced, stabbed, and killed. Roman entertainment was central to the political agenda of the empire. See Alison Futrell, Blood in the Arena: The Spectacle of Roman Power (University of Texas Press, 1997).
  7. Gnostics pictured a world in which the souls of all living beings were painfully trapped in bodies but redeemable through knowledge of their true home in the kingdom of light and through ritual and ascetic practices.
  8. Since the second half of the twentieth century, scientists can and have measured and proved the tangible effects of environmental crises.

Margaret R. Miles is an emerita professor of historical theology at the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley, California. Among her recent books are The Long Goodbye: Dementia Diaries (2017) and Augustine and the Fundamentalist’s Daughter (2011), both published by Cascade Books. This essay is based on her book Plotinus on Body and Beauty (Blackwell, 1999).

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The Way of the Still, Small Voice

Wendy McDowell

And behold, the Lord passed by, and a great and strong wind rent the mountains, and broke in pieces the rocks before the Lord, but the Lord was not in the wind; and after the wind an earth-quake, but the Lord was not in the earthquake; and after the earthquake a fire, but the Lord was not in the fire; and after the fire, a still small voice (1 Kings 19: 11–12, RSV).

Elijah at Horeb has been one of my favorite bible passages since I was a child, and this story continues to unfold and unfurl itself to me.

Who can deny how poetically pleasing these verses are (even in translation)? The anaphora achieves its intensifying effect—“and after the wind,” “and after the earthquake,” “and after the fire”—followed by the simple phrase “a still, small voice,” lovely in its consonance but powerful in its percussiveness.1 Like a soft drumbeat, the phrase arrests us as readers or hearers, so we are sympathetic to Elijah, who is stopped and reoriented by the voice he hears.

The narrative is equally compelling. Elijah has just vanquished his foes, but he is at a crisis point physically, spiritually, and vocationally. Who is he, and what is he to do now that Jezebel has ordered his arrest? Enervated, afraid, and down on himself, he asks for death. An angel restores him with food and drink, enabling him to travel to “the mount of God.” We expect Elijah to be rewarded and celebrated at Horeb, so we are as surprised as he is when God asks, “What are you doing here, Elijah?”

Elijah states his proud case, caught up in his fears and in blaming the people of Israel for their unrighteousness. God tells him to “stand upon the mount,” where he witnesses whirlwind, earthquake, and fire. God’s voice is not in any of these disasters, though. It comes after the storm and fury, in “the voice of fragile silence.”2

We have been living through a time of destructive winds, earthquakes, and fires: Puerto Rico and Texas, Mexico City, California. As I write this, news is pouring in about a powerful earthquake on the Iran/Iraq border that has killed hundreds and injured thousands. We shudder to hear of entire families being swept away, burned, or buried alive.

Meanwhile, we have been experiencing a political whirlwind in the U.S., with seemingly daily scandals and what E. J. Dionne, Jr., calls a “cold civil war.” It certainly has been the noisiest, most fractious time in my adult life.

It’s easy to get caught up in the clamor. I’m not alone in suspecting this is a deliberate strategy: if we spend all of our time ratcheted up about the constant, outrageous insults and threats, we might miss the unjust things being done. The small voice is silenced.

But Elijah only hears God once he listens to a sound that is so fragile, it could easily go unheard. After Elijah hears this voice, he stops being a zealot and warrior. He hands over his power and becomes a fatherly mentor to the younger prophet Elisha.

In an online Jonathan Sacks commentary, the British rabbi and author describes what this textual moment means to him:

The supreme power cares for the powerless. The creator of life loves life. The voice that summoned the universe into being is still and small, hardly louder than a whisper. To hear God you have to listen.3

Elsewhere, Sacks interprets God’s actions in 1 Kings 19 as supporting a model of the compassionate prophet. He calls this “the way of the still, small voice.”4

This is the way proposed by many authors here. Leymah Gbowee listens to a voice that comes to her in that liminal state between sleep and waking. It says: “Wake up and gather the women to pray for peace.” Her minister assures her that “the dream-bearer is always the dream-carrier,” and this reluctant leader is set on a path of mentoring an interreligious group of women in Liberia who pray and protest for peace until it is realized.

At the heart of Matthew Potts’s reflection on preaching, “this peculiar form of public speech” is a call to listen. As a pastor, Potts has learned that to comfort another in a moment of great suffering is “to allow the world to remain broken, to sit speechless with another in her loss and misery, to offer no solutions, to express only sorrow, using words only when necessary.” This doesn’t mean we shouldn’t speak or act, he stresses—we can and must—but that we should accept “our own finitude and failure,” recognize the limits of our language, and strive for poetry.

The dialogue section, on four enduring philosophers, also counsels empathy, humility, and attentiveness. Jin Li details how important “empathetic capacity” was for Mencius, as was the ability “to put aside one’s emotional arousal for empathy, and take action to actually do something about the suffering person.” Likewise, Margaret R. Miles describes Plotinus’s teaching that “one of the most important human capacities is empathy,” which “strengthens one’s identity with soul, the bearer of life, resulting in intensified identification with universal life.”

In Origen’s thought, Charles M. Stang explains, “Whenever we successfully pay steady attention to this or that, we inch closer to contemplation, and we blaze just a little brighter.” Similarly, Stephen C. Angle relates Zhu Xi’s advice to cultivate “reverential attention” in our daily lives so “we can eventually ensure that the emotions we experience tally with their life-affirming source.”

A beloved example of this is Thoreau, who found “all the motions of nature” to be the “circulations of God,” as Richard Higgins illustrates. José Cuellar also engages in reverential attention. In learning to play a collection of ancient ocarinas, he immediately recognizes each instrument as a sacred, spiritual entity worthy of his respect and care. “I learned that you can’t overblow on some or it hurts them,” he shares.

The still, small voice is alive in the review section, too. Timothy L. Gallati explores what it means to pay attention to silence and to allow that attention to change our orientation in the world. And Eliza Griswold’s close reading of a verse from the Bhagavad Gita describes a “reordering” in which she learns to “bend her mind below her heart” and thereby to “drop below the harried nonsense by which she defines herself.”5

My seven-year-old son likes to ask me, “Guess what instrument is my favorite?” I play along and guess: “Your violin?” “No!” A trumpet? “NO!” “A glockenspiel?” “NO!!” Finally he bursts out, “My voice!” He tells me each time, “Your voice is an instrument, and it’s always inside!”

May we listen to the still, small voices in our midst and sound our own instruments in response to them.



  1. All three words, “still,” “small” and “voice,” are accented, an example of spondaic meter. One purpose of spondaic meter in poetry is to stir an emotional response—e.g., the Keats line “And no birds sing.”
  2. I borrow this “metaphorical but grammatically strict translation” from “A Desert Reading,” by Michael Comins, CCAR Journal, Spring 2001.
  3. Elijah, and the Prophetic Truth of the Still, Small Voice,” July 7, 2017,
  4. Elijah and the Still, Small Voice (Pinchas 5775),” July 6, 2015, Here, he proposes that “the midrash and Maimonides set before us another model, . . . a prophet [who] hears not one imperative but two: guidance and compassion, a love of truth and an abiding solidarity with those for whom that truth has become eclipsed.”
  5. This is the inaugural essay in a new review category we’ve titled “In Scripture,” meant to be one author’s reflection on or appreciation of a scriptural passage.

Wendy McDowell is senior editor of the Bulletin.

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See also: Editor's Note

Where Silence Lives

Timothy L. Gallati

In Review | Film In Pursuit of Silence, directed by Patrick Shen, 81 minutes.

Illustration for 'Where Silence Lives'

Illustration by Matt Chase.


People wanted a reason for the silence, an explanation. I felt that it is self-explanatory. I tried to explain that we can come up with reasons for doing anything, but only in doing it can we really understand it. My intuition was that it was a good thing to do, that silence is important in many ways and should be explored, not explained.
—Greg Hindy, handwritten note, walked cross-country in silence, July 2013–July 2014

One reason I became a librarian, after working in the tech industry for eight years, was the allure of spending my days in a quiet place. My decision to take the initial steps to become a monk also arose from a deeper call to silence.1 This call led to my graduate research on silence, including long-term residencies at two Trappist monasteries; a five-week backpacking trip for extended periods of listening in One Square Inch of Silence, a sanctuary for silence in Olympic National Park; and a thesis-driven sound recording project in Haleakala, a volcano on the eastern side of Maui where sound levels average 5 to 10 dB, just above the threshold of human hearing. Pursuing silence has become a north star in my life.

This topical affinity for silence is seen as an artistic reaction to the wordy styles of Aaron Sorkin and Quentin Tarantino, as well as a pushback to our social and political landscapes, dominated as they are by talking heads and newsfeeds.

Lately, it seems I’m not alone in this quest for quiet. There’s been much attention given to the topic of silence, including articles in Vogue, Vice, The Guardian, The Atlantic, and other popular publications. Steven Zeitchik recently wrote a piece for the Los Angeles Times, “Silence Is Golden? In the Age of Noise, Filmmakers Are Suddenly Embracing the Quiet,” pointing to an emerging trend in movies toward a more “silent” experience—i.e., less dialogue and score.2 This topical affinity for silence is seen both as an artistic reaction to the wordy styles of Aaron Sorkin and Quentin Tarantino and a pushback to our social and political landscapes, dominated as they are by talking heads and newsfeeds. As Zeitchik’s piece suggests, “Movie theaters are now a refuge from the yammering.” Patrick Shen’s documentary film In Pursuit of Silence steps into this space. By combining dialogue-free meditative sequences and interviews, the film offers moments of experiential reflection on the nature of silence in the twenty-first century.

What is silence? Definitions frequently begin in the negative. They are, in their most basic forms, more often corrective than instructive. For Gordon Hempton, an acoustic ecologist and founder of One Square Inch of Silence, “Silence is not the absence of something, but the presence of everything.”3 Similarly, Benedictine nun Elisabeth-Paule Labat wrote: “At first sight, silence appears to be characterized by the absence of sound and thus to be something negative. Yet on a higher level we sense that there is a positive silence, a silence which indicates not absence but presence, not emptiness but fullness.”4 And sound artist and theorist Salomé Voegelin suggests: “When there is nothing to hear, so much starts to sound. Silence is not the absence of sound but the beginning of listening.”5

The opening sequence of In Pursuit of Silence speaks to this approach. The film begins with a blank screen accompanied by the sound of wind and crickets. This is soon joined by visuals of a cornfield, and a lone tree shimmering in the distance. A series of beautifully composed vignettes of quiet places, all with sounds, follows suit. We hear: Wind rustling through cornstalks in an open field; water trickling down a stream cast against reflections of a tree; crickets creaking all around a small gas station in the dead of night; steel groaning to support hundreds of people during a moment of silence in a stock exchange. We quickly begin to sense that silence is not a vacuum. Silence is a listener’s experience of sound in a place. But how are these sounds and places experienced as silence? As such questions arise, a contrast is immediately drawn to the problem of “noise.”

In Pursuit Of Silence is not set to define silence—especially in the face of its many idioms, some being several millennia in the making.

A bell sounds, ushering in frenetic movement in a stock exchange, followed by commuting automobiles, and airplanes flying disturbingly low overhead. This transition sounds a key point: silence is usually understood in relation to something. In this case, it is noise, or, more broadly, noise writ large as the experience of too much: too much volume, too much movement, too many people. And here lies the heart of the project: In Pursuit of Silence is not set to define silence—especially in the face of its many idioms, some several millennia in the making. Rather, this documentary aims to explore a relational experience between silence and noise in our current milieu. And so the film begins with audiovisual sound- and landscapes, walking us into this relationship of an experiential discourse between the two.



Hoh Rain Forest
Hoh Rain Forest at Olympic National Park, Oregon.
Following the opening sequences, Shen brings in human voices to talk about silence and noise. Through a series of interviews and archival footage, a set of fascinating dialectic juxtapositions occurs. The film moves across space and time, curating conversations between multiple idioms of silence. We listen to Roshi Gensho Hozumi talk about silence in Zen, followed by John Cage speaking of his experiences in the anechoic chamber, followed by a quiet exterior of Tallman State Park in New York.

In Pursuit of Silence also shows practices that depict ways in which silence is alive in the world, and how it may be cultivated and appreciated. We listen to the chanting of a Zen community in Kameoka, Japan, and watch a monk wash dishes in the quiet of the kitchen. In the Urasenke “Toin-Seki” Tea House in Kyoto, Sokyu Narai (deputy tea master) describes the relationship the tea ceremony has to silence: “The participants concentrate on the moment, finding awareness of how each of them is contributing to this singular, living experience. That is what’s being experienced amidst the silence of the tea ceremony.” In Iowa, an anonymous Trappist monk listens to the natural quiet landscape of New Melleray Abbey; as he walks through the open fields, we detect the faint sound of the monks singing the Psalms.

These people live in traditional religious communities, yet the film is also keen to trace certain historical roots of silence and to bring them into dialogue with present-day practices and understandings. There are fascinating juxtapositions here, but there is a danger of muddling the discourse. I detected a note of self-awareness of this in the film. After all, the very first voice we hear is that of author and educator Helen Lees, who asks, “So how do you talk coherently about silence?” It’s a good, and perhaps paradoxical, question, especially as we come across a variety of understandings that become more specialized:

Pico Iyer (author): “Silence is where we hear something deeper than our chatter. And silence is where we speak something deeper than our words. . . . Silence is the resting place of everything essential.”

Roshi Gensho Hozumi (Zen monk): “Through Zen, you need to feel the silence with your body, experience it every day, and then it becomes part of you.”

George Prochnik (author, on two etymological roots of “silence”): “One has to do with wind dying down. And the other has to do with a kind of stopping of motion. Both are to do with an interruption not just of sound . . . with the imposition of our own egos on the world.”

Davyd Betchkal (soundscape technician, Denali National Park): “As the background [decibel] level decreases, your listening area increases . . . [In] a really still environment you’ve got this situation where you are very large acoustically, you can detect these very minute sounds from far away and it gives you an incredible sense of space. This openness.”

How are we to take these impassioned descriptions of silence? Are they all talking about the same thing? Is it a disservice to bring in such “experts” and expect a coherent conversation? And is this a popularization of silence, wrapping it up in a neat package for a consumer culture?

Writing for a monastic audience, Michael Casey of the Order of Cistercians of the Strict Observance (OCSO) warns that silence “is not a commodity to be admired with a view to easy acquisition. . . . Silence is a quality to be acquired by personal discipline, not an external asset whose absence is bewailed and blamed on others.”6 Critics may fixate on certain contradictions between these “experts” and their depictions of silence. At the end of the film we hear a voiceover comment that silence is not “a rich man’s plaything.” We also hear about the idea of purchasing soundscapes to improve the experience of our modern environment. One can certainly question to what degree these ideas belong together.

Any event that publicly brings together educators, monks, researchers, scientists, sound artists, designers, and others to talk about silence as they do in this film is another step toward greater engagement.

Yet I am inclined to argue that these critiques—all with valid concerns—miss a more important point: rarely are such varied expressions of silence integrated in one place. Any event that publicly brings together educators, monks, researchers, scientists, sound artists, designers, and others to talk about silence as they do in this film is another step toward greater engagement. Yes, everyone in the film is responding to a particular set of concerns echoed in their respective fields, and all have their own approach to and understanding of silence. And yes, there are organizations that address specific concerns related to silence and noise.7 Some who are passionate about silence may find their sensibilities put off by a film that combines such diversities of experience. I would reply that In Pursuit of Silence is an important step toward creating a space for a long overdue larger conversation about silence. And for those new to silence, it is a superb introduction to a highly nuanced subject.

The stylistic approach that weaves these voices and experiences together includes a number of mini-arcs within the film; interviews are juxtaposed with cinematic moments curating experiences of silence or noise, all taking place within the framework of one large narrative arc that begins and ends the film in the quiet of a cornfield. So we begin with silence, in a series of experiences and conversations, and then we move into noise. This transition is well played. Following the soft touch of intimate sounds in quiet places, In Pursuit of Silence throws us into the grip of cable news talking heads, thunderous jet engines, squealing and screeching subway cars, Mumbai’s decibel-breaking festivals, and so forth.

We don’t just listen with our ears, we listen with our whole bodies.

In this transition from silence to noise another key point emerges: We don’t just listen with our ears, we listen with our whole bodies. Our very bones are rattled by these sounds. It’s no wonder that educators, public health researchers, activists, and others are investigating the effects of noise. A 2014 meta-review of epidemiologic studies on the effects of noise published in the European Heart Journal concluded: “environmental noise is associated with an increased incidence of arterial hypertension, myocardial infarction, and stroke.”8 Individual studies bear this out with specifics. One study of 4,861 adults concluded that: “A 10 dB increase in the continuous night-time noise level was found to be significantly associated with a 14% increase in the probability of being diagnosed with hypertension.”9 Recently, a joint study between Harvard Medical School and University of California, Berkeley, demonstrated the social dimensions to noise and found that, “like air pollution, noise exposure may follow a similar social gradient,” with noise pollution being the worst in poor and minority neighborhoods.10 Erica Walker of Harvard’s Chan School of Public Health produced the website Noise and the City, which identifies noise as an “overlooked community health issue,” and researches the issue through surveys, sound mapping, and soundscape recordings, even providing report cards of noise in Boston.

In Pursuit of Silence introduces a child who tells us about a New York City subway train that rockets past her elementary school classroom every few minutes. A woman bemoans a life lived directly underneath an airplane flight path. An activist shares a tragic story of a ten-year-old girl who was raped during a festival in Mumbai because her screams could not be heard above the noise, which reached over 100 dB. We feel these assaults to our sensibilities, in our bodies and in our hearts.

Are these extreme cases? Perhaps. But such examples in the discussion of noise are easier for us to grasp, compared with abstract descriptions of silence. Noise is more immediate: a neighbor’s loud music, a police car siren, an airplane, a concert, even a page turning in the library. At varying decibels, noise instantly holds our attention captive. As George Prochnik suggests:

I came to feel that one way of articulating the presence of noise is to think about sound that gets inside of you and for the time it’s there it dominates all of your perceptual apparata. It might be bad or it might be good, you might be in the mood for it or not, it might be taking over your heartbeat or at least taking over your attention.

Silence takes time to descend upon us, to enfold in and through our being. We are reminded of the need for silence after experiencing a certain amount of noise. The film introduces the work of Yoshifumi Miyazaki and a study he undertook of seven hundred urban dwellers who were brought to forests for walks, which found that “after the second day walk in the local forest, NK [anti-cancer cell activity] was enhanced by 56%.” Daniel Gross recently published a terrific piece in Nautilus, “This Is Your Brain on Silence,” highlighting studies from 2006 to 2013. One study focused on the effects of music on participants. It was found that the music had a direct impact on the bloodstream, based on recorded changes in “blood pressure, carbon dioxide, and circulation in the brain,” but with the surprising finding that randomly inserted silence between the songs produced a more relaxed state in the listener than did “relaxing” music, or the long silences before the experiment. Another study conducted at Duke University involved playing a variety of sounds for mice, with the expectation that the sound of baby mouse calls would increase the development of new brain cells. Silence was introduced as a control, but it turned out that the absence of sound stimuli led to greater cell development.11

The striking parallel in these cases is that silence was a control, not the original object of study. Silence is a very difficult variable to isolate. But these studies tell us something of the benefits of rest and restoration, measured in minute and hour-long intervals. In this respect, silence could be respites from a culture that incessantly sounds for our attention.

I remember arriving at St. Joseph's Abbey for a three-month residency. The monk directing the program took me on a tour that concluded in his office. He offered a seat beside his desk, we sat down, and he gestured to two large framed pictures on his wall. One he described as an image of consolation, a painting of St. Bernard of Clairvaux resting his head on the lap of Jesus in spiritual solace. The second was an image of trial, with St. Antony motionless while being torn apart by demons. The monk gestured to these images, and said that they are dual aspects of monastic life, and that I should expect to encounter them both during an extended stay. “Residents are here just long enough to get a taste of the night,” he said, referring to St. John of the Cross’s Dark Night of the Soul. And over the course of the summer, I experienced such consolation and trial, in the quiet of the monastery.

Praying in chapel, walking in the forest, reading in the Scriptorium, all in the quiet, I never knew what to expect.

The quiet of the monastery was quieting. Somewhere in the first month, the monk directing the program noticed signs of change in me. “You’re no longer Tim Gallati running all around here,” he told me. “No, you’re here now.” The exterior silence of the monastery was settling in me. The mornings were the times of greatest quiet. Waking up at 3 AM and attending vigils before dawn, the abiding silence became the locus of my experience, home to deep inner solace and conflicts—and periods of boredom, too. Praying in chapel, walking in the forest, reading in the scriptorium, all in the quiet, I never knew what to expect. I saw things in myself that I didn’t like, and I was gifted with moments of peace. The spiritual life became less about certitudes of what to expect in prayer, meditation, and daily life and more about living relationships with God, community, family, friends, myself, and everything.

Over time, as the noise I still held from Cambridge subsided, and the silence of the monastery pervaded my being, I was opened to graces I could never have imagined looking for—especially the little things, which echoed in these halls of shared silence, those tiny traces of events that noise covers over and hides from view. And in this moment, as I write about that summer, I recall something Roshi Gensho Hozumi said in the documentary: “Modern people don’t feel moved or impressed just by living. In order to do so, we need to keep the silence and examine ourselves.”

All this brings me to a deeper question. “What is it that we want to hear?” Listening, in its most material sense, is a process of objectification, wherein we classify (a priori) the sounds we hear in an effort to name our environment: the meow of a cat, the roar of a police siren, the brush of pages turning in a journal, and the clicking of keys on a keyboard. We are constantly consulting our internalized database of sounds to objectify and pattern our sonic experience. Rarely are we in touch with the subjective nature of sound—the part of us that is continuously forming this experience. And here lies the opportunity In Pursuit of Silence offers: to bring us into subjective contact with the ways in which we pattern our listening experience, outside of our intellectual sensibilities.

What happens to the act of listening when we set aside our expectations of what we are hearing and focus on the affective experience of forests, cities, gas stations, freeways, and cornfields? Sounds that we typically set in the background—because they are familiar to us—may come to the foreground. The experience of silence and noise may change, and there may be ambiguities in this space. In the documentary Soundtracker, Gordon Hempton is inspired to record the sound of a bird singing while a roaring train passes with its whistle blowing. Not as irony but as a duet. Hempton, a noted enthusiast of silence, got a lot of flack over that. In an interview for On Being, he responded, “I don’t have to answer for the contradictions in my life.” And so it goes with exploring the subjectivities of sound and listening—there are times we will have to live with paradoxes.

The room may suddenly become spacious; the turning wheels of a truck down the road may become a marvel; the scrape of a dress shoe on the street may be uplifting.

Listening to new sounds requires attention. It may also provoke anxiety, because we don’t know what we are hearing. But listening to the places in which we find ourselves, without favoring any particular sounds, may foster new experiences of silence and noise. Not as the unheard, but as the previously unmentioned. And these new experiences can be immensely rewarding. The room may suddenly become spacious; the turning wheels of a truck down the road may become a marvel; the scrape of a dress shoe on the street may be uplifting. We don’t know what we will discover when expectations are dashed. Here, silence opens us up to the minutiae of sonic nuance, when noise can have our attention without a struggle. It’s a practice that takes time, as does all work with sound.

To this point, In Pursuit of Silence offers many listening opportunities, but I was hoping for more extended scenes of quiet places, without narration, to let quiet settle in more deeply and do its work. Following beautifully composed sequences of scenes in quiet places, a voice would inevitably interject to talk about silence, and I sometimes experienced this as an intrusion. But Shen seems keenly aware of this. One of the movie’s trailers is entirely without words, a slow, deliberate presentation of quiet places, perhaps pointing to Shen’s desire to explore silence on its own. And later in the film, we get a touching sequence where we share moments of quiet with each individual interviewee, without any speaking. Standing in a monastic choir. Sitting in an office chair. Eyes open, looking into the distance. Eyes closed, turning inward. Wordless moments that resonate after a shared journey into silence.

This kind of respite is just the beginning of our coming into a deeper relationship with silence, noise, and listening. We experience something of this in the film’s conclusion, when the audience returns to the opening scene, a cornfield brushed with gentle breezes, the same place that established a sense of calm at the start of the film, a moment of rest and repose. Now, the cornfield becomes something more precious: a site for deeper exploration. By meeting silence in this way, with less expectation of understanding and more of a sense of curiosity, we may learn something more of what silence is for us, in the quiet of a dark movie theater or elsewhere, shielded from the yammering of the day.

Over the five weeks I spent camping in the Hoh River valley, I came to see that silence lives within us and can be instilled by such a place, given time—seconds, minutes, hours, days, weeks, longer. Like my stay at St. Joseph’s, the experience has left a resonant mark within me that resounds the particular note of silence struck by the place. There is a variety of notes in this silent symphony played across the world. In Pursuit of Silence strikes its own note in accord with this symphony, touching something of the tuning forks in our bones, the longing for sounds that gather us in rather than scatter us out.



  1. Discernment is a process of determining if one is called to a Catholic monastic vocation that can take five to seven years or even longer. I decided it wasn’t for me, but learned much from the process.
  2. The article was published in the Los Angeles Times, September 21, 2017.
  3. Gordon Hempton, One Square Inch of Silence: One Man’s Search for Natural Silence in a Noisy World (Free Press, 2009), 263.
  4. Elisabeth-Paule Labat, The Song That I Am: On the Mystery of Music (Liturgical Press, 2014), 112.
  5. Salomé Voegelin, Listening to Noise and Silence: Towards a Philosophy of Sound Art (Continuum, 2010), 83.
  6. Michael Casey, A Guide to Living in the Truth: Saint Benedict’s Teaching on Humility (Liguori/Triumph, 2001), 212.
  7. Among them: the World Health Organization, the Natural Sounds and Night Skies (U.S. National Park Service), and even the newly formed exploratory session “Sound as Religion,” convening at the 2017 American Academy of Religion conference in Boston.
  8. Thomas Münzel, et al., “Cardiovascular Effects of Environmental Noise Exposure,” European Heart Journal 35, no. 13 (April 1, 2014): 829–836.
  9. Martin Kaltenbach, Christian Maschke, and Rainer Klinke, “Health Consequences of Aircraft Noise,” Deutsches Ärzteblatt International 105, no. 31–32 (August 2008): 548–556.
  10. Joan A Casey, Peter James, and Rachel Morello-Forsch, “Urban Noise Pollution Is Worst in Poor and Minority Neighborhoods and Segregated Cities,” The Conversation, October 5, 2017.
  11. As Gross describes, the study found that “two hours of silence per day prompted cell development in the hippocampus, the brain region related to the formation of memory, involving the senses.”

Timothy L. Gallati is a master of divinity student at Harvard Divinity School studying experiences of “silence” in nature and contemplative practice, with applications in virtual and augmented realities. His research focuses on accounts of listening to “silence” in sound art, poetry, and Catholic monastic theology. 

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Zhu Xi’s Breakthrough

Stephen C. Angle

Creators illustration

Illustration by Andrew Zbihlyj


There was plenty of room when I stepped onto the train. I put in my earbuds and got to work on my laptop as the train trundled off. Sometime later, I happened to look up and was surprised to see how crowded the car had become. An older man scanned for a place and then shuffled on, followed by a nervous-looking teenager on her own. With indignation, I noted the way that veteran commuters around me were hoarding seats and avoiding eye contact . . . until I realized that my briefcase occupied the aisle seat next to me. I was just as culpable! Hurriedly, I jammed my bag between my feet and tried to look welcoming, but the moment had passed.

As moral failings go, inconveniencing others on the train may not seem like much. Even those who consciously look away or feign sleep are unlikely to be numbered among the worst sinners. According to one of the world’s most influential philosophers, though, the failure to cultivate the right skills of attention actually goes a long way toward explaining why the world and our communities so consistently fall short of being the happy and harmonious environments we would like them to be. The philosopher is the Chinese Neo-Confucian thinker Zhu Xi. Here, I will focus on insights he expressed in a famous letter written in 1169 CE, which include remarkably astute observations about human psychology and behavior and suggestions about how we might orient ourselves differently to cultivate our best selves, thereby helping the world achieve its full potential.

Zhu Xi was born into turbulent times. In 1127, northern China was conquered. Zhu’s father was among many who protested the humiliating peace treaty that China was forced to accept, and he was demoted to a rural position far from the capital, where Zhu was born in 1130. Zhu took up his father’s politics as he matured, committing himself to the hawkish group that wanted to take back the north. Partly out of disenchantment with the regime’s failure to follow such policies, Zhu never played a significant role in the national bureaucracy, despite having excelled in his education and passing the highest-level civil service exam at age nineteen.

Instead, Zhu devoted himself to the intellectual and spiritual questions that preoccupied many in his day: What is humanity’s place in the cosmos, and why? How can someone become the best kind of person, which in the Confucian tradition was the “sage”? The kinds of answers that Zhu gave to these questions helped to form what we now call “Neo-Confucianism,” the broad revival of Confucian thinking and practice that took place in China and elsewhere in East Asia from the eleventh through the eighteenth centuries.

I have called Zhu Xi a philosopher, which seems an apt designation for anyone seeking reasoned answers to the kinds of questions he asked, but Zhu was not interested in scholarship for its own sake. I would say that Zhu saw “philosophy as a way of life,” just as many other philosophers around the world have.1 Zhu wanted to know what he should do in order to live better and, ultimately, to help transform his society. He read widely in the Chinese classics and histories, in Buddhist and Daoist teachings, and in the diverse writings of other philosophers of his day, and he corresponded and even debated in person with many leading thinkers. For all of them, the issues at stake were of the utmost practical and theoretical significance.

The goal toward which Zhu worked was to become a sage. A sage is a real, flesh-and-blood person who, thanks to dedicated self-cultivation, is able to respond perfectly to virtually every situation he or she encounters.2 What does it mean to respond “perfectly”? It means to do just the right thing, in the right manner, and with the appropriate attitude, and to do so effortlessly, without hesitation. For example, perhaps when you last visited your parents, you stood as dinner was ending, gently encouraging them to stay seated and relax while you cleared the table, put the coffee on, and did the dishes. Your manner conveyed what you really felt: your love and gratitude, your pleasure at being able to help out. The closer one comes to being a sage, Confucians believe, the more regularly one experiences the world in this way—even when faced with more complicated or less familiar situations than a family dinner.

There are many different ways to understand what is going on when someone acts in a sagely manner, and just as many explanations of what is going wrong when someone does not. To make sense of what I am calling “Zhu Xi’s breakthrough,” I first need to explain the basic picture of human psychology with which he and his fellow Neo-Confucians worked. As they saw it, humans have the capacity to feel various emotional responses, all of which can be appropriate if felt in the right way and to the right degree. There are no intrinsically bad emotions. Neo-Confucians also believed that human nature has an implicit structure to it: a deep-seated orientation toward a balanced, never-ending embrace of life. Their reasons for believing we humans have such a “nature” are complex, and too nuanced to unpack here, but they lead Neo-Confucians to another dimension of their conceptual world: our specific endowment of “vital stuff.”3

“Vital stuff” is a fascinating, inclusive category that makes up all the things in the cosmos and refers to both their material states and their tendencies. Is someone tall? That is explained by her vital stuff. Growing is a matter of vital stuff changing. Does she tend to feel awkward in social situations? Or perhaps she is irascible, feeling angry at the slightest provocation? All these are the result of the particular configurations of her vital stuff. Today, we understand human temperament and health to involve complicated interactions between our material and mental selves—and the relation between matter and energy, according to physicists, has also been shown to be extraordinarily intricate—so it does not seem like too much of a stretch to use a category like “vital stuff.”

The basic Neo-Confucian picture of human functioning, then, looks like this: We have a nature that, independent of any actual interactions, is oriented toward life; we have emotions, which are our responses (emerging out of our nature) to stimuli in the world; and we have vital stuff that influences how our emotions manifest in the world. As Zhu Xi wrote: “Nature is similar to water. If it flows through a clear channel, it remains clear; if it flows through a filthy channel, it becomes turbid [and unbalanced].”4

There were two common ways that Zhu’s contemporaries thought it was possible to approach sagehood, but Zhu came to believe that an alternative method of self-improvement was superior. The first approach I call “extending tranquility.” Its basic idea is that since a person’s “nature” is already perfect and balanced, the way to make yourself better is by more fully discovering and becoming one with this tranquil goodness at the core of your very being. Many philosophers who advocated extending tranquility believed that, by quietly sitting in meditation, you can peel away the layers of vital stuff obscuring your nature and come to experience nature directly. One challenge for these thinkers is to explain how someone is supposed to retain this tranquil equilibrium when no longer meditating, although Zhu Xi’s own critique was rather different.

The other popular approach to cultivation seems simple: to control yourself by suppressing bad emotions as they arise. Remember that any emotional response can be good or bad, depending on the situation in which someone experiences the emotion, the degree to which someone experiences it, and so on. This approach calls for constant self-monitoring and effort to squash problematic feelings as they arise. Whether or not you have ever tried meditation or other forms of careful introspection, we all have experience with trying to tamp down a runaway emotion. Let’s say it’s a perfectly appropriate response (say, a feeling of angry indignation at an injustice visited upon a co-worker by your mutual boss) that spills over into other aspects of your life (your anger lingers on, leading you to respond harshly to a spouse’s small foible). As soon as we notice the spillover, most of us can begin to deflate the misplaced emotion, before too much damage has been done, we hope. The problem, of course, is that often damage has already taken place. Even just a grimace or a chuckle at the wrong time can be seriously problematic in a relationship.

Zhu Xi struggled to see how either of these approaches could genuinely lead a person to sagehood. He studied the ideas of his teachers and of his other contemporaries, and in his thirties he gathered together the scattered writings of two of the most innovative philosophers of the prior century, the brothers Cheng Hao and Cheng Yi. In 1168, he finished compiling what would become an authoritative edition of their works, and this intensive effort sparked him to see the challenge of moral improvement in a new light. As he put it in a famous letter from the very next year, if we are limited to either extending tranquility or controlling oneself, we face a dilemma, because: “the state before the emotions are aroused cannot be sought and the state after they are aroused cannot be thoroughly arranged.”5

That is, Zhu denies the possibility of extending tranquility, because it faces a conceptual problem, basing itself on the possibility of experiencing the unexperienceable. Any sense of calmness that one experiences during meditation is still experienced, it is still an emotion responding to some sort of stimulus. It is impossible to do an end run around the very meaning of “nature,” to access it without experiencing it. As for controlling oneself, we have already seen the problem. Even initially appropriate emotions will too often leak out or spill over; no after-the-fact effort to control them can be thoroughly successful.

In the same letter, Zhu proposes his solution, building on ideas from the younger Cheng brother: we must each cultivate “reverential attention” in our daily lives. His idea is that by properly altering the vital stuff that shapes how we perceive and react to the world, we can eventually ensure that the emotions we experience tally with their life-affirming source—that is, our nature.

Zhu believes that a fundamentally positive commitment to life can be found in everyone. We can see this in the ways that we care for one another, even including strangers—so long as we notice them. The mutual dependence and mutual concern that are easiest to see within the intimate relationships of a family in fact pervade the cosmos, Zhu says. This should spark our reverence. Zhu’s cosmos has no creator or deity other than itself, and each of us is a part of the cosmos, each of us a co-creator of each new day. Just look, he says, and you will see. Or rather, once you start to attend to the ways in which we together create the living cosmos, you will feel (as well as see) the interconnections.

Reverential attention, then, means to attend to all that we encounter in daily life and to do so from a stance of reverence for interconnected life. We all know people who pay careful attention to their surroundings, but they do so in order to seek out flaws, to nitpick, to undermine. Reverential attention is to attend to, and to reinforce, care for life, care for others, and care for the self. (This is not a self-abnegating doctrine.)

Zhu Xi’s prolific writings lay out many ways in which we can do this. For example, he writes about the ways in which one should carry oneself, dress, behave in public and at home: all of these things influence what we can notice, and how we can be attentive, and over time they can also shape our vital stuff. He writes: “‘Sit as though you were impersonating an ancestor, stand as though you were performing a sacrifice.’ The head should be upright, the eyes looking straight ahead, the feet steady, the hands respectful, the mouth quiet and composed, the bearing solemn—these are all aspects of reverential attention.”6

He also writes about how we should study: the ancient classics are great sources of inspiration, but only if we read deeply rather than shallowly, always looking for ways in which the experiences described in the texts relate to our own world and own life, today. Zhu says: “In reading, we must first become intimately familiar with the text so that its words seem to come from our own mouths. We should then continue to reflect on it so that its ideas seem to come from our own minds. . . . Still, once our intimate reading of it and careful reflection on it have led to clear understanding of it, we must continue to question. . . . If we cease questioning, in the end there’ll be no additional progress.”7 Again, Zhu believes that this kind of studying can gradually alter our vital stuff, which is to say that as we learn to see ourselves in other situations, or to imagine others in our own shoes, our tendencies and temperament change. Modern therapists would agree.

Zhu Xi’s breakthrough is seeing that we have considerable control over how we experience the world, which can greatly affect how we react to it. In his letter, he suggests that other techniques (like self-control) are also important for us non-sages. When we do err, it is better to force ourselves back on track than to give in to selfishness. Still, there is no principled reason why a regimen of reverential attention cannot ultimately succeed, and thus there is no limit to the number of people who can approach sagehood.

Perhaps reverential attention sounds to some of you like naive optimism. In one sense, this is true: Zhu believes that our reverent sense of awe for the interconnected life thrumming throughout the cosmos should be powerful enough to keep us oriented toward it, even in the face of great trials. But this does not mean we can be naively unaware of suffering. Awareness of and concern for suffering is a central part of the care for one and all that reverential attention enables.

However, when we notice a problem from a standpoint of reverential attention, our orientation toward interconnected life helps to direct our emotional and behavioral reactions in fruitful directions, rather than leaving us despondent. Concern is not enough: we need wisdom and experience, and often patience, to respond in constructive ways. Zhu Xi and his fellow Neo-Confucians write with great insight about the ways in which these and other virtues support one another, all eventually contributing to the achievement of sagehood. A family meal, a train ride, or any of a thousand other daily experiences can serve as opportunities to cultivate ourselves and to help the world better realize its potential.

A little more than a century after his death, Zhu Xi’s interpretation of the ancient classics was adopted by the state as definitive, for purposes of the civil service examination system. This meant that from 1315 until 1905, Zhu’s works were read and even memorized by all educated Chinese, which surely makes him one of the most influential philosophers in human history. I have only touched on one corner of his sprawling philosophical system here, though it is one on which he himself placed special emphasis.8

Though Zhu was writing 850 years ago, reverential attention is an idea that we can understand—perhaps I should say, that we need to understand—in our present world. My experience is that technology cuts us off from one another at least as much as it connects us, so we need guidance on how to go about our daily lives in ways that will make us and our shared world better. I believe that Zhu Xi is right: reverential attention can help. Try it and see.



  1. See Pierre Hadot, Philosophy as a Way of Life: Spiritual Exercises from Socrates to Foucault, ed. Arnold I. Davidson (Blackwell, 1995).
  2. Zhu never faced the question of whether women could be sages. Most Confucians in his day were thoroughly patriarchal and thought women’s opportunities for moral development were different and lesser than those for men, though a few exceptions disagreed—and provide inspiration for modern Confucians to embrace feminism. See the discussion of Li Zhi in Pauline Lee, “Li Zhi and John Stuart Mill: A Confucian Feminist Critique of Liberal Feminism,” in The Sage and the Second Sex: Confucianism, Ethics, and Gender, ed. Chenyang Li (Open Court, 2000); and the discussion of Luo Rufang in Stephen C. Angle and Justin Tiwald, Neo-Confucianism: A Philosophical Introduction (Polity, 2017), 170–179.
  3. This is also translated as “vital energy” and “vital force.” I like to use the term “vital stuff” because it simultaneously captures the materiality and life-affirming dynamism of the Confucian understanding of the cosmos.
  4. Translation from Learning to Be a Sage: Selections from the Conversations of Master Chu, ed. Daniel K. Gardner (University of California Press, 1990), 98.
  5. Translation from A Sourcebook in Chinese Philosophy, ed. Wing-tsit Chan (Princeton University Press, 1963), 601, modified.
  6. Translation from Stephen C. Angle, Sagehood: The Contemporary Significance of Neo-Confucian Philosophy (Oxford University Press, 2009), 151. The internal quotation is from the Book of Rites.
  7. Translation from Learning to Be a Sage, 135.
  8. For a more wide-ranging account of Zhu Xi’s philosophy, see Angle and Tiwald, Neo-Confucianism.

Stephen C. Angle is Mansfield Freeman Professor of East Asian Studies and Professor of Philosophy at Wesleyan University. He is currently at work on a book called “Confucianism as a Way of Life” and blogs on Chinese and comparative philosophy at

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‘Every Little Pine Needle’

For Thoreau, trees bear witness to the holy and are images of the divine.

Richard Higgins

White pines over Thoreau's grave

White pines tower over Thoreau’s grave at Sleepy Hollow Cemetery, Concord, Massachusetts. Photo: Richard Higgins


Thoreau and god. For many people, that is an oxymoron, and not without some justification. I think it is better understood, however, as a riddle. Given the head-scratching things Thoreau wrote about religion—as well as the contrast between what he said (whatever that was), and what he did—it seems that a puzzle is what he intended it to be.

The standard view is that he was spiritual but not religious. I don’t fully dispute that viewpoint, but I do wonder if it isn’t a projection of the predominant secularism of our society and of the academic world and Thoreau studies in particular.

I ask because it omits the palpable, undeniable presence of a loving, benign, immanent God in his writing.

I’m not talking about his few overt theological pronouncements about the nature of divinity or the errors of organized religion. I mean his occasional, but not infrequent, affectionate or emotional comments in his journal and letters about God and sometimes to God in the second person voice of the Psalms. These are moments when, despite the poison darts he threw at churches, clerics, and creeds, Thoreau reveals his deep religious instinct.

Emerson said that despite Thoreau’s “petulance” toward churches, he was “a person of a rare, tender and absolute religion.”1

I think that is true, and here I’d like to consider how Thoreau’s response to trees bears that out.

Thoreau wrote about trees for a quarter century. He observed them closely, knew them well, and described them in detail, but he did not presume to fully explain them. He respected a mysterious quality about trees, a way in which they point beyond themselves. For Thoreau, trees bore witness to the holy, and they emerge in his writings as special emblems and images of the divine.

They were spires, he said, that lifted his vision to “heaven.” Just what that word meant to him is unclear—it was, he said, under our feet as well as over our heads—but he used “heaven” often, including, in all its forms, forty-eight times in Walden. Thoreau frequently linked heaven and trees. By fall, an industrious red maple has grown “nearer heaven than it was in the spring.”2 Elms “take a firmer hold on earth that they may rise higher into the heavens.”3 Loggers felled a majestic pine that for two centuries had been “rising by slow stages into the heavens.”4 He writes a prayer on a leaf and “the bough springs up the scrawl to heaven” (Journal 1:207). An oak sapling is “driven back to earth again twenty times, as often as it aspires to the heavens” (Journal 14:121).

When he used that and similar metaphors, Thoreau revealed a part of him that is easily misunderstood. It’s true that he railed at the “bigotry and ignorance” of organized religion. He found its doctrines despairing, its clergy torpid, and its rituals as superstitious as those of the pagan Roman temple. “Men run after the husk”5 of Christianity and forget about the seed. He thought the stern God of the meetinghouse has “perhaps too many of the attributes of a Scandinavian deity” (Writings 1:326).

Despite these views, Thoreau was, in fact, religious to the bone. He had a deeply religious cast of mind and a profound sense of the holy. He rejected the meetinghouse not because it represented religion, but because it profaned it. It killed a true religious impulse. “We check and repress the divinity that stirs within us to fall down and worship the divinity that is dead without” (Writings 3:119). After writing that men seek but the husk of Christianity, he goes on: “The kernel is still the very least and rarest of all things. There is not a single church founded on it.”6

Formal religion, with its doctrines, exclusivist claims, and sectarian squabbling, was peripheral to the religion he sought in nature—a religion by revelation, as Emerson called it, or a newer testament, as Thoreau put it, the Gospel according to this moment.

He was not interested in defining it. Experiencing it was all he cared about, and trees often led him to it. They were his “shrines” and “burning bushes,” the forest his cathedral. Its spires inspired him more than the white-washed village steeple. Alone in a distant wood, he got “what others get from churchgoing” (Journal 9:208). “A forest is in all mythologies a sacred place,” Thoreau wrote, and that would include his own (Writings 1:298).


Looking up at pine trees

Photo: Richard Higgins


Before looking at his direct religious experience, I want to briefly mention two other ways trees drew out Thoreau’s religiosity. As a writer, he conveyed the sanctity of trees in emphatically religious terms. He said it was senseless, for example, that Puritan meeting houses had caused the “desecration” of “far grander temples not made with hands.”7

In the fall, Thoreau collected dead branches, logs, and driftwood for his winter fuel, and he saw his act of splitting and burning them as a religious exercise. “These old stumps stand like anchorites and yogees,” he wrote on October, 21, 1857, “putting off their earthly garments, more and more sublimed from year to year, ready to be translated, and then they are ripe for my fire. I administer the last sacrament and purification” (Journal 10:116).

In his essay “Autumnal Tints,” the autumn leaves contentedly “return to dust again and are laid low, resigned to lie and decay at the foot of the tree,”8 echoing both Genesis 3:19, “for dust thou art, and unto dust shalt thou return,” and “the tree,” a traditional Christian cipher for the cross. In Christian typology, “the fall” stands for man’s enslavement to sin and to death. In “Autumnal Tints,” it heralds rebirth—just as spring did in Walden.

One metaphor Thoreau used for trees over and over again was that of the “spire.” A majestic tree that rose like a column and brushed the sky moved him. Unlike a church steeple, which sat on a building, a tree’s roots reached down into the earth, while its crown “pierced the Empyrean,” or highest heaven, connecting both. Spiring upward was deeply meaningful to Thoreau. Aspiration to a higher life was at the core of his being. A man who doesn’t believe “that each day contains an earlier, more sacred, and auroral hour has despaired of life,” he wrote in Walden, adding, “I believe it is my power this very hour to elevate myself above the common level of my life.”9 He asked, in a letter to H. G. O. Blake, “If a man constantly aspires, is he not elevated?”10 And in “Walking”: “My desire to bathe my head in atmospheres unknown to my feet is perennial and constant.”11 The spiring of trees symbolized this quality. “See how the pines spire without end higher and higher, and make a graceful fringe to the earth,” he writes in A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers.12 In Maine, majestic firs, spruce, and pines steepled the forests. “I was struck by this universal spiring upward of the forest evergreens. . . . All spire upwards, lifting a dense spear-head of cones to the light and air.”13

The winter woods held mysteries for him, and he walked in them more as supplicant than naturalist, alert to the mystical.

Trees also symbolized the religious idea of resurrection to Thoreau. His masterpiece, initially Walden; or Life in the Woods, ends with a parable of life in the wood—the bug entombed in “the dry leaf” of a table made from an apple tree. The larva lay dormant sixty years, then, hatched by the heat of an urn, gnawed its way out to enjoy “its perfect summer life.” Whose “faith in a resurrection and immortality,” he asks, “is not strengthened by hearing of this story?”14

Thoreau’s immersion as a naturalist in the dynamics of the forest deepened this association. Leaves die in autumn only to rise again, he wrote. The fallen leaves “still live in the soil, whose fertility and bulk they increase, and in the forests that spring from it. They stoop to rise, to mount higher in coming years, by subtle chemistry, climbing by the sap in the trees.”15

On November 25, 1860, Thoreau saw young pines and birches filling an abandoned pasture that, fifteen years earlier, he personally remembered, had lacked a single tree. “I confess I love to be convinced of this inextinguishable vitality in Nature,” he wrote in his journal. “I would rather that my body be buried in a soil thus wide awake than in a mere inert and dead earth” (Journal 14:268).

And in The Maine Woods, he proclaimed the immortal spirit of the white pine, after first skewering the loggers, tanners, and turpentine makers who see only its lower uses. “It is the living spirit of the tree, not its spirit of turpentine, with which I sympathize. It is as immortal as I am, and perchance will go to as high a heaven, there to tower above me still.”16

But the most important way trees touched Thoreau’s religiosity was that they renewed his spirit. “When I would recreate myself,” he wrote in “Walking,” “I seek the darkest wood, the thickest and most interminable swamp and enter it as a sacred place—a sanctum sanctorum.”17

The forest was a spiritual elixir to him. The penetrating, aromatic smell of the pine restored him. At the sound of the wind in the woods, “my heart leaps into my mouth,” he wrote on August 17, 1851. “I suddenly recover my spirits, my spirituality, through my hearing.” The sight of the pines below Fairhaven Cliffs shining in a clear ethereal light awakened him inwardly. Seeing this, he wrote, “my spirit is like a lit tree” (Journal 10:305).

The winter woods held mysteries for him, and he walked in them more as supplicant than naturalist, alert to the mystical. “Is there no trace of intelligence there, whether in the snow or the earth, or in ourselves? No other trail but such as a dog can smell? Is there none which an angel can detect and follow? None to guide a man on his pilgrimage?” (Journal 6:44).

Thoreau thought that institutional Christianity fostered resignation, despair, and hopelessness. Trees conveyed the opposite to him. They expressed “a naked confidence” and stirred a joy and gratitude that was at the heart of his spirituality. “The spruce, the hemlock and the pine will not countenance despair,” he wrote. “The winter of their discontent never comes.”18 The riotous autumn colors of trees suggested to him that life’s routine should be interrupted “by an analogous expression of joy and hilarity,” that our “spirits should rise as high as Nature’s.”19 Loggers and lawyers with their “saws and laws” do not know how glad a man can be in the woods—glad “with an entire gladness” (Journal 4:445).

The God Thoreau described was not that of the Christianity of his day, swooping down from on high, but a God woven into every twig, trunk, and blade.

“Nature,” Thoreau said, “is full of genius, full of the divinity” (Writings 8:88). Yet how he spoke of that divinity changed with his rhetorical purpose or mood. In his more formal, philosophical view, it was generally an impersonal, ineffable divine principle—and the more polemical and defiant he was, the more it sounds like pantheism. Yet in his more private speech, when writing about his experience of the sacred in letters or his journal, it is surprising how often Thoreau turns to more conventional religious terms and speaks more tenderly, vulnerably, and reverentially.

All the motions of nature—“the running stream, the waving tree, the roving wind”—must be the “circulations of God,” he wrote (Writings 1:302). Exhilarated by a sail, he felt “blown on by God’s breath,” like his very body was fluttering and filling out gently with the breeze (Journal 1:155).

On September 7, 1851, a day on which some scholars believe he crystallized his life’s mission, Thoreau pledged to find God in nature. “If by watching all day and all night I may detect some trace of the Ineffable, then will it not be worth the while to watch?” he wrote, alluding to the motif in the Psalms of the watchman who calls out the morning light. “To watch for, describe, all the divine features which I detect in Nature. My profession is to be always on the alert to find God in nature.”20

Out in the woods after a snowstorm, Thoreau heard the bells of First Parish. “Men obey their call and go to the stove-warmed church, though God exhibits himself to the walker in a frosted bush today, as much as in a burning one to Moses of old” (Writings 4:442).

The God Thoreau described was not that of the Christianity of his day, swooping down from on high, but a God woven into every twig, trunk, and blade. It was a benign, loving, and, above all, familiar presence to Thoreau—a presence like the one that dispelled a moment of loneliness a few weeks after moving to Walden. He suddenly became “aware of the presence of something kindred to me,” an “infinite and unaccountable friendliness” all around him. “Every little pine needle expanded and swelled with sympathy and befriended me.”21

I don’t know if that meets your definition of a spiritual encounter, but it was good enough for William James to cite in The Varieties of Religious Experience.

Thoreau also spoke in Walden of “occasional visits” on long winter evenings “from an old settler and original proprietor who is reported to have dug Walden Pond, and stoned it, and fringed it with pine woods; who tells me stories of old time and of new eternity; and between us we manage to pass a cheerful evening with social mirth and pleasant views of things—a most wise and humorous friend, whom I love much.”22

And at times Thoreau spoke affectionately to God, as he did in that passage I cited from August 17, 1851, about his being renewed by hearing the wind in the trees:

Ah, if I could so live that there should be no desultory moment in all my life! . . . I would walk, I would sit and sleep, with natural piety! . . . I thank you, God. I do not deserve anything, I am unworthy of the least regard; and yet I am made to rejoice. I am impure and worthless, and yet the world is gilded for my delight.

At the same time, Thoreau did not claim to know the exact nature or the source of the divine stirrings he experienced in nature. They were unfathomable. The trees knew things that he did not and would never know. “You are never so far in them as they are far before you,” he wrote. “Their secret is where you are not and where your feet can never carry you” (Writings 1:239).


Tree shadow on the snow

Photo: Richard Higgins


How to piece together the puzzle? We can look historically and see a number of influences, including: the Huguenots, French Protestants from whom Thoreau descended and who worshipped in the woods to avoid persecution; the Quaker George Fox; the antinomian Puritans like Anne Hutchinson, who prized personal revelation over scripture; Jonathan Edwards, who wrote of finding a divine rapture in nature; and the Hindu texts Thoreau read with such reverence after Harvard.

Thoreau may have been speaking of his cultural identity when he described himself as a Protestant in “A Yankee in Canada,” but I think he spoke a great truth. He was deeply Protestant in his religious worldview—Emerson, in his eulogy, called him both “a born protestant” and “a protestant à outrance,” or in the extreme—and deeply reformist.23

The divine principle for Thoreau was ever new, never finished, always taking new forms, making “a new impression every instant” (Journal 1:260), and thus could not be reduced to one formulation or contained in one religion. “The perfect God,” he wrote (not merely men’s projection of God), “has never got to the length” of one creedal proposition of the church. For every book, no matter how recently printed, there is always a later, newer edition.24

Thoreau asks in A Week: “May we not see God?”25 This is often taken as a rejection of Emersonian idealism. But I think that over the rest of his life he answered, no.

In 1854, he sees a beautiful cardinal and imagines that the deeper woods holds a redder, wilder, truer, more vibrant one. But after looking some time, he concludes that the bird of his imagination cannot be matched, is never to be found. “The redbird which is the last of Nature is but the first of God” (Writings 8:146).

This, too, is a very Protestant notion, the idea that the human imagination and yearning for God stirred by the Bible exceeds whatever can be attained of God through material religion. Sola scriptura, by scripture alone are we saved. Thoreau thought along the same lines but did Calvin one better, omitting not only the priest, but also Christ and the Bible. One could know God, he believed, sola natura, by nature alone.

It must also be said, however, that perhaps no religious frame does justice to Thoreau’s search for a truth beyond all religions.

Thoreau does not help. “What is religion?” he asked. And he answered, “That which is never spoken.”26

When he did speak, he would not toe the line. “I know that some will have hard thoughts of me, when they hear their Christ named beside my Buddha,” he wrote in A Week, “yet I am sure that I am willing they should love their Christ more than my Buddha, for the love is the main thing, and I like him too.”27

Love was indeed the main thing for Thoreau. He made that clear in one of the few times he did offer a definition, in a letter September 8, 1841, to Isaiah Williams, a friend of Emerson’s interested in Transcendentalism. “Our religion is where our love is,” he wrote.28



  1. Emerson’s eulogy, The Works of Ralph Waldo Emerson, vol. 10, Biographical Sketches (Houghton Mifflin, 1883), 445.
  2. “Autumnal Tints,” in The Writings of Henry D. Thoreau: Excursions, ed. Joseph J. Moldenhauer (Princeton University Press, 1975), 233.
  3. The Journal of Henry David Thoreau, ed. Bradford Torrey and F. H. Allen (Houghton Mifflin, 1906), 8:140 (hereafter cited within the text as Journal).
  4. The Writings of Henry D. Thoreau: Journal, 8 vols. (Princeton University Press, 1981–2009), 3:164 (hereafter cited within the text as Writings).
  5. Faith in a Seed: The Dispersion of Seeds and Other Late Natural History Writings, ed. Bradley Dean (Island Press, 1993), 179.
  6. Ibid.
  7. Wild Fruits: Thoreau’s Rediscovered Last Manuscript, ed. Bradley Dean (W. W. Norton, 1999), 236.
  8. “Autumnal Tints,” 241.
  9. The Writings of Henry D. Thoreau: Walden, ed. J. Lyndon Shanley (Princeton University Press, 1971), 89, 90.
  10. Letters to a Spiritual Seeker, ed. Bradley Dean (W. W. Norton, 2004), 37.
  11. “Walking,” in The Writings of Henry D. Thoreau: Excursions, 215.
  12. The Writings of Henry D. Thoreau: A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers, ed. Carl Hovde, William Howarth, and Elizabeth Witherell (Princeton University Press, 2004), 159.
  13. The Maine Woods, ed. Joseph J. Moldenhauer (Princeton University Press, 1972), 109.
  14. Walden, 333.
  15. “Autumnal Tints,” 241.
  16. Maine Woods, 121–122.
  17. “Walking,” 205.
  18. “Natural History of Mass.,” in The Writings of Henry D. Thoreau: Excursions, 5, 23.
  19. “Autumnal Tints,” 246.
  20. Psalms 119, 127, 129, and 130 all allude to the watchman who waits to call out the morning light.
  21. Walden, 132.
  22. Ibid., 137.
  23. Works of Ralph Waldo Emerson, 422, 424.
  24. A Week, 70.
  25. Ibid., 382.
  26. Spiritual Seeker, 16.
  27. A Week, 67.
  28. The Correspondence of Henry D. Thoreau, Vol. 1: 1834–1848, ed. Robert Hudspath (Princeton University Press, 2013), 89.

Richard Higgins, MTS ’97, is a writer and editor in Concord, Massachusetts, and the author of Thoreau and the Language of Trees (University of California Press, 2017). He was co-editor, with Mary Jo Bane and Brent Coffin, of Taking Faith Seriously (Harvard University Press, 2006). This talk was part of a panel discussion held at Harvard Divinity School on September 14, 2017, to celebrate the bicentennial of Thoreau’s birth (July 12, 1817).

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See also: Nature, Spirituality

‘Restitching’ America under Trumpism

An interview with E. J. Dionne, Jr.

E. J. Dionne, Jr.
E. J. Dionne, Jr.

E. J. Dionne, Jr., is the William Bloomberg Visiting Professor for 2017–18, a joint appointment between Harvard Divinity School, the Kennedy School, and the Faculty of Arts and Sciences. A syndicated columnist for The Washington Post and a university professor at Georgetown University, Dionne grew up in Fall River, Massachusetts, and earned his undergraduate degree from Harvard in 1973. This fall, Dionne has been teaching two courses at HDS. He sat down in his Divinity Hall office with Bulletin contributor Robert Israel to discuss his new book.

The subtitle of One Nation After Trump—“a guide for the perplexed”—calls to mind the book by the same title written by Jewish philosopher Maimonides in the twelfth century. How do you and your co-authors hope to similarly enlighten readers who are perplexed—indeed, deeply troubled—by Donald Trump’s presidency?

We were very much inspired by Maimonides. Norman Ornstein, my co-author, is responsible for giving the book that subtitle. We do not wish to imply that we are reaching Maimonides’s level by any means. Rather, we discuss how we, as a nation, can get on a better path now that Trump is president.

We see the Trump presidency as a threat that goes beyond the normal situation that arises from a president you might disagree with. We see Trump posing a fundamental threat to our constitutional government and the norms of how our government operates. Trump has broken these norms one after the other. Examples include his financial conflicts of interest [not divesting himself of business interests while serving as president] and his pardon of Joe Arpaio [the Arizona sheriff who illegally profiled Latinos]. He is a threat because of his autocratic tendencies. And while the American system is strong, it is only as strong as the people who occupy important places in it. We think it is important to resist those tendencies that we find in Trump.

By autocratic tendencies, we refer to numerous instances when Trump declared [at the 2016 Republican national convention], “I alone can fix it.” That is not fundamentally a democratic way of fixing things. Historically, when you see autocratic regimes like Trump’s take over, they go after the courts, the media, and they try to render the opposition illegitimate. Trump has done this repeatedly—there is a long list—and he has demonized not only Democrats but also members of his own party.

In the first part of the book, we examine why Trump’s presidency happened and how much of his election reflected the developments in the Republican Party during the last fifteen to twenty years. We also discuss the racial/immigration divide, on the one hand, and the real economic difficulties faced by a lot of people in this country, on the other, and how these factors contributed to make Trump’s election possible. In the second part of the book, we offer a way forward for those who are perplexed by these disturbing trends.

What factors paved the way for Trump’s win?

Early on in his candidacy, Trump was never challenged when it came to claims he made, for example, that President Obama was not born in the U.S., referred to as “birthism.” Trump also made false statements that President Obama was a Muslim. The way Trump delivered these two fundamental untruths—and the fact that the Republican Party, other than Senator John McCain in 2008, did not call him out on these untrue statements—paved the way for more of the same.

There have been a lot of dog-whistle controversies around the issue of race in politics for many years, and Trump has turned these dog-whistles into a bullhorn. Once you start down roads like that, particularly with the issue of race, it gets very dangerous. Former President John F. Kennedy once said, “Those who foolishly sought power by riding the back of the tiger ended up inside.” The fact that the Republican Party did not call Trump out on these and other statements he made gave rise to his election.

How do these factors apply to the issue of voter suppression?

It’s interesting that when you look, historically, at the Voting Rights Act, it could not have passed without the support of the Republican Party. So their abandonment of that act is disturbing. It takes us back to the pre–civil rights era, when such things as false literacy tests were mandated and respondents were asked to answer questions that no one could answer, and the example of poll taxes, which we got rid of. But now we have Trump’s false charge of voter fraud, for example, which was, once again, found to be untrue, and other examples of suppressed voting. We decided, as a nation, that keeping people away from the ballot box was fundamentally un-American when we passed the Voting Rights Act. Weakening that act also gave rise to Trumpism.

In a chapter titled “Our Little Platoons,” you discuss actions taken against Trump by religious leaders, such as being “at the forefront in battling Trump’s immigration policies” (230). Can you reflect on this?

In my Divinity School course, “Religion in America’s Political Conscience and at the Ballot Box,” I argue that you cannot look at the long American story without seeing how religious groups intervened again and again, at critical moments, on behalf of justice.

In recent years, we have tended to focus on the role of religious conservatives in American politics, which is not to say that they are not deserving of it, but, as a result of that intense focus, we have lost sight of what religious people historically did at other important points, including in the movement against slavery in this country. We’ve lost sight of what religious people did to form the original progressive movement. We’ve lost sight of the letter by U.S. Catholic bishops in 1919 on social reconstruction. We’ve overlooked the long history of Jewish groups and the role they’ve played in social justice. We’ve overlooked the civil rights movement itself, headed by Martin Luther King, Jr., who led this movement by quoting Isaiah, Moses, Jesus, and by citing the U.S. Constitution.

In the wake of the Charlottesville tragedy, four Jewish rabbinic groups protested President Trump’s lack of moral leadership by canceling their annual High Holiday conference call with the president.1 Are you seeing more examples of religious groups speaking out against Trump?

Yes, there’s greater clarity among religious groups to speak as one voice—for example, when the issue of immigration and deportation came up and the pope spoke out against that. And I think the example of Jewish and Muslim groups working together on behalf of justice is heartening for this country, too, by joining forces to work against prejudice. We’ve seen that when a Muslim site has been desecrated, Jews in many communities have stood up for the Muslims. It’s very heartening and very American. We will look back at this time in our history and ask, “When did people stand up?” or “Did they stand up at the right moment and for the right things?” In many instances, religious groups and leaders are leading by standing up against Trumpism.

What other instances can you cite in which citizens are coming together as a way forward against Trumpism?

During the town hall meetings that took place nationally during Congressional attempts to repeal Obamacare, many people came together to speak out against the Republican leadership, and many of these people voted for Trump, but they saw Obamacare as helping, not hurting, many people.

We see a coming together around the nation, for example here at Harvard, when the leadership spoke out against Trump’s decision to do away with DACA and voiced support to protect students brought here by immigrant parents from being deported.

In another example, we look at how corporate America, often reluctant to go against a Republican president, is speaking out. After Charlottesville, many corporate leaders said they could not identify with Trump’s lack of moral leadership. They did not say that Trump is not a good fiscal conservative, which obviously benefits them, but, rather, they stated that he is threatening the very foundations of American government. Many are even reaching out to the political center.

In the closing chapters of your book, you discuss a “restitching” of America—a word that evokes your hometown of Fall River, once a mill town. Do you believe we, as a nation, can “restitch” the gap that has widened under President Trump?

I like to describe myself as hopeful, despite the fact that there are many reasons now to be pessimistic.

We are divided as a country in many ways. There are times when it feels like we’re in a cold civil war with each other. In politics we are seeing that we are increasingly in opposing camps, more than we’ve been in a very long time. Economically, we’ve been pulled apart. There are some communities that are really hurting as a result. We almost look like a different country, depending on what community you look at. There is a lot of anger in politics, and I’m not talking about just our disagreements with one another politically, but increased anger against elected officials.

We can, as a nation, come together. In our book, we argue for a new economy, a new democracy, a new civil society, and a new patriotism. We explore some of the economic reforms we need to end this sharp division by region in the country over economics. We also insist that progressives should stand up for the whole working class and how we should worry about the white working class, but also we should worry about the Latino and the African American and the Asian working class and how we could bring those concerns together.

What signs are you seeing that this vision is taking shape in our nation today?

What gives me hope is that the Trump experience is so extreme that it is pulling people back and reminding them that norms in government really matter. It’s reminding people that when they say, “All politicians are crooks,” they are actually enabling the most corrupt politicians to succeed.

I see people coming together around the issue of immigrants, around issues of racial justice, and, in significant parts of the country, I see people reaching out to one another. I see these as positive signs. There is more willingness now than there was twenty years ago to deal with issues of economic inequality. In the wake of the Black Lives Matter movement, a new civil rights movement is gaining ground. There’s more of a willingness to face real problems that exist in our country today.

And, last, because liberals tend to be more uneasy with patriotism, I see a re-embracing of patriotic ideas, rooted in our American values. This new patriotism that we call for in our book could be a way of getting excited again about the American idea.

Joni Mitchell once said, “You don’t know what you’ve got ’til it’s gone.” I think we are becoming more mindful now that we are under threat to lose what we have in our country. We’re realizing how important it is to preserve and advance certain American liberties. Under Trumpism, we are not taking these values for granted. 



  1. The four groups who took this action are the Central Conference of American Rabbis, the Rabbinical Assembly, the Reconstructionist Rabbinical Association, and the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism.

Robert Israel’s last piece for the Bulletin (Spring/Summer 2017) was a review of an exhibit of Syrian art through the ages at the Aga Khan Museum in Toronto. He is a Boston-based writer and editor.

‘They Needed to Be Heard’

Breathing Life into Ancient Ocarinas

Display case of Ocarinas

Ocarinas of the Americas exhibit at the Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology at Harvard University. Photo: Kristie Welsh


An ocarina is a type of wind instrument, or aerophone, in which sound is produced by the vibration of air. Unlike flutes, ocarinas are not tubes but consist of one or more enclosed, rounded chambers. They produce sound when air vibrates within the enclosure and exits through a hole near the mouthpiece.

Central America is an ancient home of the ocarina, where it has been crafted and played for more than 4,500 years. Ocarinas were an integral part of the musical traditions of cultures from Mexico through the Andes until European colonization. Fashioned from clay into an array of intricate shapes and complex designs, these ocarinas reflect both expert craft and age-old belief. Today, their form and sounds continue to inspire invention and capture the modern imagination.

“The material world—of earth, of trees, of stone, of clay—is reshaped by the human world,” explains Davíd Carrasco, Neil L. Rudenstine Professor of the Study of Latin America at Harvard Divinity School. “And out of that comes a third thing, which is music and sound and culture.”

“So what we have here are a number of sort of miniatures—small, musical instruments—things made out of the earth,” Carrasco continues. “Music has a sacred power, and in some ways, it is timeless. People can hear ancient music thousands of years old, and yet it will resonate with them today. So it is with this collection of ocarinas.”

The anthropologist and musician José Cuellar (aka “Dr. Loco”), professor emeritus at San Francisco State University, was invited as a Hrdy fellow in 2012 to research and record over two hundred of the Peabody Museum’s ocarinas. “My primary objective was to breathe life into these instruments, to bring them to life,” Cuellar says.

David Carrasco discussing the Ocarina exhibit with undergraduate students

Davíd Carrasco showing the ocarina exhibit to an undergraduate seminar class. Photo: Kristie Welsh

     In recent decades, anthropologists have begun to explore the unity of the senses and how it is that the human organism can be understood to have some sort of integrity or integration. One of the things we’re learning is that through ceremonial performances, especially through musical sound, human beings come not only to hear, they come to move, they come to feel, they come to see; they come to feel themselves to be integrated beings.
     I think that more research on music, and on the kind of collection we have here, raises a kind of hope for the human community: Can our music be used to integrate, rather than to divide?
     —Davíd Carrasco

Mayan Procession

This is Mesoamerican artist Antonio Tejeda’s reproduction of a section of a wall mural painted 1,300 years ago at the Maya site of Bonampak in southern Mexico. It shows a musician playing a small whistle-like ocarina as part of a procession. The murals of Bonampak provide a window into Mayan life, including how ocarinas, and music generally, contributed to public ceremonies and rituals. Ocarinas are immortalized in both pre-Columbian art and in postcolonial manuscripts. Spanish colonists noted the use of special shrines for musical wind instruments and the playing of ocarina-like whistles and flutes to announce ritual dancing and chanting among the Aztec.

Reproduction of Mayan mural

Chiapas, Mexico. pm# 48-63-20/17559. Photo: President and Fellows of Harvard College, Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology



Reconstructing Musical Worlds and Traditions

Four hole ocarina
Four hole ocarina, kneeling male figure, Costa Rica, PM# 52-26-20/18980.2. Photo: President and Fellows of Harvard College, Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology

One of the things that is important to understand about Mesoamerica is that it was not only the place of the primary urban life—the place where the first cities were created—but it also was the place where there was a great collision between European cultures and indigenous cultures. What this did was to destroy an awful lot of indigenous culture.

However, what anthropologists, and especially archaeologists, can do today is to use what I call the “ensemble approach.” To understand the musical world of ancient peoples in Mexico, you have to look, first of all, at pictorial manuscripts that have survived, both pre-Columbian and some colonial manuscripts painted by indigenous people, which portray music, dances, and ceremonies. These actually can show us quite a bit. We combine these with eyewitness accounts. And then you have all of the objects that archaeologists have found. Here you have, in a sense, the most powerful record, because it’s material, it comes out of the ground—and some of them are preserved beautifully.

The fourth kind of resource comes from contemporary ethnographers, people like Professor José Cuellar and others, who are able to go into indigenous communities today, or mestizo communities, where they see and hear—and actually play sometimes—with people who are carrying on some of the ancient traditions. Using all of these resources, we’re on pretty interesting and pretty good grounds when we try to reconstruct some of the ancient musical practices from Mexico and ancient Mesoamerica.

—Davíd Carrasco



Jose Cuellar playing an ocarina

José Cuellar playing an ocarina in Diversity in Form and Song. President and Fellows of Harvard College, Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology.

     I used to think being a musician was about me playing an instrument the way I want to, but after my experience getting to know these ocarinas, I began to relate to instruments according to how they want to be played. Entering the room, I could feel their spiritual energy, and I realized I needed to respect and honor that spiritual aspect. Before I would go to the museum, I would smudge myself with white sage at home. I brought offerings of three different kinds of fine tobacco. In these and other ways I tried to convey to them: “I’m here with good intentions, to understand and to learn.” Since there is no method book on how to play them, I had to develop a relationship with each instrument, to ask it: “Teach me how to play you. Guide me.”
     I felt a calling by them to be played. My sense was that they needed to be heard. They wanted their voice out there! For me, in many ways, these instruments express love—love or connection with the spiritual, and love or connection with the social.
     —José Cuellar

Diversity and Delight

An interview with José Cuellar

Animal effigy ocarina
Animal effigy ocarina, Costa Rica, PM# 976-59-20/24969. Photo: President and Fellows of Harvard College, Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology

I had no idea of the range, variety, and diversity of these instruments until I explored playing them. I slowly discovered the musical potential and limitation of each one: its range, pitch, sound, harmonics. Can it blow OK? How does it feel? I learned that you can’t overblow on some or it hurts them. And no two are alike. If you take two that are the same size and the same number of holes, their pitch and scale will be different. Yet there are very few in-depth studies of whistles, flutes, and ocarinas from Mesoamerican cultures. They’re so prevalent on the ground but so absent in the literature. I think we’re only at the tip of the iceberg in studying and understanding these ancient instrument



Quadriped ocarina
Four hole ocarina, quadruped, PM# 17-3-20/c8064. Photo: President and Fellows of Harvard College, Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology
The bigger ones, because of their size, and their low pitch, were probably used in home altars or in ceremonies. One of my favorites was this huge dove that had such a rich sound—it sounded like dark chocolate—but its resonance would have been lost outdoors. The smaller ones were probably used in parades and military operations because of the brightness and the power of the sound—they actually sound like whistles, and some are pendants. Many were pleasing to me aesthetically, like one that is an octopus, which has several tubes to it. And they are a delight to play. Because there are no “wrong notes,” you’re always in a space of delight and discovery when you play one. On my saxophone, it’s about improvisation, but on ocarinas, it’s inspiration!



Pair of monkeys ocarina
Two hole ocarina, pair of monkeys, Honduras, PM# 47-2-20/17359. Photo: President and Fellows of Harvard College, Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology
Each object has at least a dual purpose: on the one hand it’s a musical instrument, on the other hand an iconography is present—it is representative of a spiritual entity. Jaguars, turtles, owls, eagles, frogs, and many other animals are represented. There are twins, which is appropriate since everything is at least dual. Many of the ocarinas look one way if you observe one side of them, but if you turn them around, there are different faces on the other side. Some are also meant to be disguises. So they’re often not what they appear to be, and they’re more than one thing. This suggested to me that in this Mesoamerican context, and among Mesoamerican peoples, there was an appreciation for—and an intentional emphasis on—difference and diversity.



Seated figure ocarina
No-hole seated human figure with headdress ocarina. Yucatan, Mexico. PM# 53-25-20/19347. Photo: President and Fellows of Harvard College, Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology

I started thinking about their creation—who were the original molders and makers of these instruments? They had to be multidisciplinarians, because someone needs to know pottery, music, and spiritual iconographic significance to create these. The maker molds the instrument from clay; he or she uses water and earth, then fires it up, and finally blows wind into it. All four elements are needed, so it’s an interesting metaphor for creation. I’ve come to think it was probably a group who made them—either a group of women or a family group. I’ve noticed when I play ocarinas for others that they can have a meditative, calming effect. I played one for a friend who had just had triple bypass surgery, and I’ve started playing them before teaching a class. Might that have been one of their uses? Perhaps families played them after dinner to get into a meditative state and offer their prayers.





Ocarinas of the Americas will remain on view at the Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology at Harvard University through summer 2018. This bilingual, multisensory exhibit features nearly eighty examples of ocarinas from the museum’s collection. Visitors can hear soundscapes that feature the varied tones and melodies produced by these ancient instruments. Videos and additional images from the exhibit can be viewed online at

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