St John the Theologian
“It is true that those we meet can change us, sometimes so profoundly that we are not the same afterwards, even unto our names.”
Yann Martel, “Life of Pi”
“Who’s gonna pay attention
To your dreams ?”
The words from the strangely enigmatic novel by Yann Martel, are quoted at the beginning of Robert Ellsberg’s newest book, “A Living Gospel : Reading God’s Story in Holy Lives.” I loved the book, “Life of Pi,” and I confess I watched Ang Lee’s adaptation on film every single night for two weeks, before I left Taos to move to Albuquerque in 2013. I have not watched it since that time, but it was a healing transition story, and as real art does, it got me through the wrenching move.
Visually, it’s one of the most beautiful movies ever made, but for me, all of Ang Lee’s movies are near perfect, without being so tight that they squeeze the life out of anything or anyone in the films. I think for instance, of that opening of “Brokeback Mountain.” You see the lights in the early morning darkness (signaling the spiritual desolation of isolated western lands) a large truck driving alone, dwarfed against an enormous mountain landscape, and you hear one note of a guitar, so poignant and lonely, it sets the mood for the entire needless tragedy which follows. Then you see obvious stark silhouette Crosses of telephone poles that prophesy innocent and brutal death to come.
For my 70th birthday, Robert gave me his book with a cover of a beautiful old icon, in the style of Simon Ushakov, similar to my icon of St John the Theologian. I was very blessed in so many ways, to visit Robert and Monica Ellsberg for my birthday, one I’ll never forget, because of their flowing, freely given hospitality, kindness and joy. So I decided to tell you a little about this wonderful book, and save my reflections on St John for another time. I love John and have so much I’d like to share of my growing understanding of him. In my 40’s I was able to read Adrienne von Speyr’s four volumes on John’s Gospel, which she claims were dictated by St. John himself. Those books are so rich with inspired insight, one paragraph is enough for a day.
I read almost all of Robert’s book on the plane ride home from New York, through Atlanta, and then home to Albuquerque. Most of the time in my life, (although like all of us I’ve had some pretty harrowing flights and lengthy bouts of purgatory in impossibly noisy airports) plane rides are natural spiritual experiences for me. They can be almost “brief retreats” where I’m literally lifted up and my attitude or heart, reaches for the Transcendent.
Although the book is only 157 pages, and written in a warm, personal and seemingly effortless way, anyone who struggles to live the vocation of an writer/artist and activist knows that this book took all of 64 years (Roberts age now) to write. It’s a book you want to read to someone you love, out loud, just like when someone read to you as a child. And in my opinion, someday another artist, will be writing such a book about Robert and Monica too. Robert has written at least 6 books about hundreds of saints and not yet canonized holy women and men, and edited at least 14. He is also editor of Orbis Books. I don’t know of any more fluent and gifted living hagiographer. He is capable of lengthy portraits and those in brilliant “Haiku-like -briefness” he writes for the daily Catholic missalette , published every month, “Give Us This Day.” Finally let me quote from Robert’s introduction and the very end of the book :
“It is a mistake to think that only officially canonized saints can open our hearts to the sacred, or inspire us to love our neighbors or stand up for a just cause. The power of great minds and souls is not restricted to those who pass the rigorous test of canonization. I find encouragement from no less a source than Pope Francis, who organized his talk before Congress in 2015 around ‘four great Americans’: Abraham Lincoln, Martin Luther King, Jr., Thomas Merton, and Dorothy Day herself - only two of them Catholics, only one of them an actual candidate for canonization. Such figures,he said, offer ‘a new way of seeing and interpreting reality.’ In those words, I dare say the pope has offered a new way of seeing and interpreting the function of saints.
But that wide perspective extends far beyond Pope Francis or Dorothy Day. We might trace it back to the gospels and see how often Jesus looked past the good religious people of his day to exalt those on the margins - whether outsiders, foreigners, or ‘sinners’ - as models of faith and charity. We should also recall how Jesus described the criteria of our salvation: ‘I was hungry and you fed me ... I was a stranger and you welcomed me... I have spent a large portion of my life reflecting on the saints, drawn not just by their heroic virtue and noble achievements but by the story that God tells us through their lives. By reading those stories,we may become more adept at discerning the presence of God in our own story...as Jean Pierre de Causadde wrote ,
‘Our lives become a parchment; our suffering and our actions are the ink. The workings of the Holy Spirit are the pen, and with it God writes a Living Gospel.’”
Robert Ellsberg - A Living Gospel
Fr Bill McNichols 17 July 2019 St Alexis Day