by Lewis Carroll (1832-1898)

`Twas brillig, and the slithy toves
  Did gyre and gimble in the wabe:
All mimsy were the borogoves,
  And the mome raths outgrabe.

“Beware the Jabberwock, my son!
  The jaws that bite, the claws that catch!
Beware the Jubjub bird, and shun
  The frumious Bandersnatch!”

He took his vorpal sword in hand:
  Long time the manxome foe he sought —
So rested he by the Tumtum tree,
  And stood awhile in thought.

And, as in uffish thought he stood,
  The Jabberwock, with eyes of flame,
Came whiffling through the tulgey wood,
  And burbled as it came!

One, two! One, two! And through and through
  The vorpal blade went snicker-snack!
He left it dead, and with its head
  He went galumphing back.

“And, has thou slain the Jabberwock?
  Come to my arms, my beamish boy!
O frabjous day! Callooh! Callay!’
  He chortled in his joy.

`Twas brillig, and the slithy toves
  Did gyre and gimble in the wabe:
All mimsy were the borogoves,
  And the mome raths outgrabe.

~ from Through the Looking-Glass and What Alice Found There, found online here. To hear it sung, click here.

I love this poem, and, indeed, most literary nonsense. Alice responds to this poem by saying, “Somehow it seems to fill my head with ideas–only I don’t exactly know what they are!” What an amazing art, to inspire worlds without describing any real world or creatures or actions.

I think the parables of Jesus did this.

The parables seem to be referencing real worlds, actual events, historical people, but in fact, we are supplying all these images in response to vague, but tantalizing fictions. The sparsity of description in the parables, the focus on action, allows us to fill in the visual blanks. Perhaps Carroll’s “Jabberwocky” takes the opposite tack, offering only nonsensical adjectives and fanciful-sounding creatures for us to imagine, but the result is the same: we are transported into a world we are not a part of, but wholly participate in.

Yom Kippur

Last night marked the beginning of the Jewish holiday Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement. This is the “Easter” of the Jewish religious calendar. This is the day that concludes “the Ten Days of Awe” after Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year. During the Ten Days of Awe, Jews confess to their family and neighbors all the ways they’ve wronged them over the past year, and forgive those that confess to them. On the Day of Atonement, Jews gather at the synagogue for a service of communal confession to God and to plead for “atonement” or reconciliation in preparation for the next year. The liturgical reading for Yom Kippur is the book of Jonah.


What does Jonah have to do with atonement? With communal confession and reconciliation? With hearing God’s merciful pardon? Everything, actually. But not the way we expect.

Jonah shows us that no one is beyond God’s reach.

Jonah, opposed to bringing God’s word to his nation’s enemies, the Ninevites, turns the opposite direction, boards a ship, and heads for Tarshish. In the ancient world, Tarshish is off the edge of the map. “Here there be monsters.” Even there, Jonah could not flee God’s presence, or God’s calling. Neither can we.

Jonah shows us that no one is beyond God’s mercy.

Jonah insists that Ninevah, the capital city of Israel’s greatest enemy, is a lost cause, a “wretched hive of scum and villainy.” Far from it. God’s word cuts through Ninevah’s pride and excess and prompts true repentance. Even the worst sinners are capable of true change. So are we.

I’m beginning to sense more and more that confession is a posture I am being called to. No one is naturally comfortable in this posture. This discomfort is liturgically emphasized in Yom Kippur by the grating texture of sackcloth and the restlessness of sitting on the floor. Growing up in a Protestant tradition, confession is not an assumed part of the Christian life as it is in the Catholic or Orthodox traditions, but it is no less important for my spiritual health.

Jonah will be good company as I enter into a season of reflecting on and participating in the discipline of confession.


A prayer for a day of classes

I came across the small paperback on the seminary’s free book table, well-worn and beckoning. After opening its pages, I was quickly captured by The Cloud of Unknowing’s passionate plea for the work of contemplative “unknowing.”

The prayer from the first pages was particularly inspiring as I prepare for today’s classes:

O God unto whom all hearts lie open

unto whom desire is eloquent

and from whom no secret thing is hidden;

purify the thoughts of my heart

by the outpouring of your Spirit

that I may love you with a perfect love

and praise you as you deserve.


~ The opening prayer from The Cloud of Unknowing

Entering the Cloud

This past Friday I picked up The Cloud of Unknowing from my church bookshelf of spiritual classics, looking for a quote to add to next Sunday’s spiritual formation bulletin insert. I was met with these words:

Whoever you are possessing this book, know that I charge you with a serious responsibility, to which I attach the sternest sanctions that the bonds of love can bear. It does not matter whether this book belongs to you, whether you are keeping it for someone else, whether you are taking it to someone, or borrowing it; you are not to read it, write or speak of it, nor allow another to do so, unless you really believe that he is a person deeply committed to follow Christ perfectly. I have in mind a person who, over and above the good works of the active life, has resolved to follow Christ (as far as is humanly possible with God’s grace) into the inmost depths of contemplation.

I put the book down.

I was arrested by the serious charge given me by an anonymous author; I could not cut and paste an inspirational quote from a book that I felt I was not prepared to consider myself.

I have since started reading this book seriously. I have found in the first few chapters (which are very concise, focused units) more spiritual direction than I have ever encountered before. I am repeatedly haunted by the charge to “Over and above the good works of the active life…follow Christ (as far as is humanly possible with God’s grace) into the inmost depths of contemplation.” 

This is the journey to which I have been called, and which I have just begun.