I and thou

img_1322If you know a second language, even a little, I highly recommend reading the Bible in it occasionally. Especially if you’ve read and re-read your first-language Bible so much that the words have grown stale, maybe even painfully so. A different language, with different grammatical structure and different vocabulary can make the stories seem new and fresh. And it can give you a glimpse of the cultural assumptions and biases that even the best Bible translations bear.

This morning I’m reading the Gospel of Matthew in my halting French, and then some poems in (even halting-er) German by Rainer Maria Rilke. “Du, Nachbar Gott, wenn ich dich manchesml.” Did you know that in German there is a formal “you” and an informal “you”? The first you use with your elders, professors, or acquaintances. The second is for close friends. This is the one Rilke uses here to address God: “Du.” “Du Nachbar Gott.” “You, neighbor God.”

Did you also know that English used to have a formal and informal “you”? But over time, for various reasons, the informal one fell out of use, till now we almost exclusively use the formal, which is “you.” The informal, which you use with close friends? — “Thou.” “Thou,” is the informal, the intimate address, the way you speak to someone close to you, when you have left the corporate gathering and are back at home with just a few friends. When you have loosened your ties and your belts and are sprawled out on couches, relaxing. “Thou,” is how lovers address each other, as in Edward FitzGerald’s translation of Omar Khayyam’s poem The Rubaiyat:

A Book of Verses underneath the Bough,
A Jug of Wine, a Loaf of Bread—and Thou
Beside me singing in the Wilderness—
Oh, Wilderness were Paradise enow!

“Thou” is the word that the those who produced the King James translation of the Bible chose to use when people address God, as in Psalm 23 when David says,

Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil: for thou art with me; thy rod and thy staff they comfort me.
Thou preparest a table before me in the presence of mine enemies: thou anointest my head with oil; my cup runneth over.

And it is the word that God and God’s angels use when they address people, such as in Matthew 1:20 when the angel says to Joseph,

Joseph, thou son of David, fear not to take unto thee Mary thy wife: for that which is conceived in her is of the Holy Ghost.

It is one of the ironies of the evolution of language that as “thou” fell out of use in English yet remained in the King James Bible, it began to be seen as not just archaic but formal, and even beyond formal — a special way of addressing God that made God seem distant, high up in heaven while we were on earth. The word that used to evoke an image of good friends relaxing together (shown vividly in the last supper, when the disciples were eating together and “the disciple that Jesus loved”, thought to be the author of the Gospel of John, was “leaning on Jesus’ bosom”) — that very word began to evoke a separation between us and God, we here on earth, kneeling on hard pews, begging for scraps from one high above us. Not Rilke’s neighbor God. Not David’s God who is beside him at his meal, anointing his head, filling his cup.

But the German and the French retain that distinction — in French the informal you is “tu”. I had to look up the word “crains” when I read it in La Bible in Matthew 1:20 this morning — “Joseph, descendant de David, ne crains pas” but I discovered not only that it is a conjugation of “craindre”, to fear, but that it is in the informal tense as well. “Joseph, close friend, descendant of David, do not be afraid.” (words in italics are mine)

Martin Buber, an Austrian-Jewish philosopher, wrote that everything in life is either an I-it relationship, distancing the other, or an I-thou (Ich-du), relationship — intimate, without distance between ourselves and the other, mirroring our relationship with the ultimate “thou” which is God.

“Thou, neighbor God,” says Rilke, or, as Anita Barrows and Joanna Macy translate it, “You, God who live next door” —

You, God, who live next door–

If at times, through the long night, I trouble you
with my urgent knocking–
this is why: I hear you breathe so seldom.
I know you’re all alone in that room.
If you should be thirsty, there’s no one
to get you a glass of water.
I wait listening, always. Just give me a sign!
I’m right here.

As it happens, the wall between us
is very thin. Why couldn’t a cry
from one of us
break it down? It would crumble easily

it would barely make a sound.

This morning I’m curled up on my couch with a cup of coffee. I haven’t had a shower yet, and to be honest, I really need one. But I’m not here with a distant God who I have to get dressed up for. I’m here with a close friend, one who knows me intimately, whom I address as “thou.” One who anoints my head, and maybe even leans over and pours me a second cup of coffee, or a glass of water. One who was on the other side of the wall, but the wall was thin, so we spoke the word — “thou” — and broke it down. There is no more wall. There is no more distance. Just I and thou, together.


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Then not just my feet, but my head and hands as well!

Jesus washing Peter's feet

Jesus washing Peter’s feet, by Sister Marie Boniface

It’s Maundy Thursday, and this is one of my favorite passages in the whole Bible. I am busy and tired and overwhelmed, and I don’t have more than a minute to post this morning, but I am taking that minute to imagine myself as Peter, intense, passionate, often bumbling Peter, who loves Jesus with his whole heart and mind and, one night after this exchange is going to deny Him three times.

It was just before the Passover Festival. Jesus knew that the hour had come for him to leave this world and go to the Father. Having loved his own who were in the world, he loved them to the end.

The evening meal was in progress, and the devil had already prompted Judas, the son of Simon Iscariot, to betray Jesus.  Jesus knew that the Father had put all things under his power, and that he had come from God and was returning to God;  so he got up from the meal, took off his outer clothing, and wrapped a towel around his waist.  After that, he poured water into a basin and began to wash his disciples’ feet, drying them with the towel that was wrapped around him.

He came to Simon Peter, who said to him, “Lord, are you going to wash my feet?”

Jesus replied, “You do not realize now what I am doing, but later you will understand.”

“No,” said Peter, “you shall never wash my feet.”

Jesus answered, “Unless I wash you, you have no part with me.”

“Then, Lord,” Simon Peter replied, “not just my feet but my hands and my head as well!”

Jesus answered, “Those who have had a bath need only to wash their feet; their whole body is clean.

And I read this poem by Rainer Marie Rilke last night, from the book The Book of Hours: Love Poems to God, and it seems to me to be the same thing.

I live my life in widening circles
that reach out across the world.
I may not complete this last one
but I give myself to it.

I circle around God, around the primordial tower.
I’ve been circling for thousands of years
and I still don’t know: am I a falcon,
a storm, or a great song?

God at the center, Jesus offering to wash our feet as we offer ourselves, bumbling, not knowing either exactly who we are or who God is, but moving ever around and through and for God, hoping that our life is what our Creator meant it to be, washed once and for all yet still tripping and falling in the mud, rising and soaring. And through it all, always talking to the One at the center of our being, shy but eager to know our role in the Passion. We want to wash our Lord’s feet but find Him, instead, knelt over ours as we throw up our hands in confusion and praise.


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The revelations of love

CandlePeople generally suppose that they don’t understand one another very well, and that is true; they don’t.  But some things they communicate easily and fully.  Anger and contempt and hatred leap from one heart to another like fire in dry grass.  The revelations of love are never complete or clear, not in this world.  Love is slow and accumulating, and no matter how large or high it grows, it falls short.  Love comprehends the world, though we don’t comprehend it.  But hate comes off in slices, clear and whole – self-explanatory, you might say.

From Jaybur Crow, by Wendell Berry


Why not indeed?

Abba Lot came to Abba Joseph and said: Father, according as I am able, I keep my little rule, and my little fast, my prayer, meditation and contemplative silence; and, according as I am able, I strive to cleanse my heart of thoughts: now what more should I do? The elder rose up in reply and stretched out his hands to heaven, and his fingers became like ten lamps of fire. He said: Why not be changed into fire?

~From The Desert Fathers

And how can we live in the bosom of the One who flung the flaming stars into space, and not burn white hot and sun-bright?

The Glory of God is Man Fully Alive

In looking for the context of this statement of Ireneus’s I discovered that it is actually used in the new Catholic catechism.  I like it there so much I will copy and paste it below.

As I suspected, the statement “The glory of God is man fully alive,” taken out of context can be deceiving.  It seems to imply that the way to glorify God is to just be yourself and follow your heart.  Now, being yourself is very important — just look at what happens when you try to be someone else — but it’s important to remember that the only way to truly be yourself, a created being, is through and for the One who created you. 

The glory of God is man fully alive, but man fully alive is man glorifying God.

But I have better words waiting in my clipboard.



Scripture and Tradition never cease to teach and celebrate this fundamental truth: “The world was made for the glory of God.” St. Bonaventure explains that God created all things “not to increase His glory, but to show it forth and to communicate it,” for God has no other reason for creating than His love and goodness: St. Thomas expresses it thusly. “Creatures came into existence when the key of love opened His hand.” The First Vatican Council explains:

This one, true God, of his own goodness and “almighty power,” not for increasing his own beatitude, nor for attaining his perfection, but in order to manifest this perfection through the benefits which he bestows on creatures, with absolute freedom of counsel “and from the beginning of time, made out of nothing both orders of creatures, the spiritual and the corporeal…”


The glory of God consists in the realization of this manifestation and communication of His goodness, for which the world was created. God made us “to be His sons through Jesus Christ, according to the purpose of His will, to the praise of His glorious grace,”(Eph. 1:5-6) for as St Irenaeus states; “the glory of God is man fully alive; moreover man’s life is the vision of god: if God’s revelation through creation has already obtained life for all the beings that dwell on earth, how much more will the Word’s manifestation of the Father obtain life for those who see God.” The ultimate purpose of creation is that God “who is the creator of all things may at last be all in all, thus simultaneously assuring His own glory and our beatitude.”(1 Cor.15: 28)