Sunday, November 21, 2010


When I was circuit-riding in my van (1982-85) below zero snowy nights like this week in Valier meant that I stayed in someone’s guest bedroom. That was always an adventure. But if the temp were above ten degrees, I slept in the van. A different kind of adventure, and despite the cold -- I have never been so cold, not even snow-camping while hunting -- I preferred it. I had a space blanket for a mattress pad which was pretty effective. Or I had a little heater and would park behind a mini-office-strip and run an extension cord out the window to the outlet where they plugged in the headbolt heaters on their cars. I would lie very still with legs out straight and arms at my sides, like an Egyptian mummy in a sarcophagus. It didn’t take long to warm up my body space and then I slept surprisingly well. Without moving. Sometimes now I dream I’m sleeping there again.

“Kenosis” is a religious concept based on the idea of emptying out. It recurs in many cultures and religious systems. Maybe because the ministry and probably in all of the Abramic religions (Judaism, Christianity, Islam) but -- most intensely -- Protestant denominations that closely associate prosperity with salvation, I was supposed to be in a growth and expansion mode. More people, more money, more influence, more status, more political power -- you get the idea. The contrast might be Quakers or Catholic religious orders like the Poor Clares. (They have a new retreat in Great Falls now, so what does that mean?) Anyway, “acquisition” to me doesn’t mean what it means to mainstream Americans. I acquire ideas and only pack around too many books because until the Internet, that’s how you got at ideas unless you were on a campus.

The concept of kenosis had a lot of popularity in the 16th century when capitalism and the very beginnings of the middle class were forming so that “stuff” began to mean more than just enough to eat and a shelter. I am not surprised that in these overloaded days of “stuff,” kenosis has come back in our modern way: through music. Three examples: "The French black metal band Deathspell Omega have a 2005 EP named Kénôse, whose lyrics reference theological themes of emptiness and more. The American post-rock band Hammock released an album in 2005 named Kenotic. The American post-hardcore band Designer released an album in October 2010 entitled Kenosis, which addresses spiritual themes such as this, amongst other things." I haven’t heard any of them. Yet. (I got the references off Wikipedia -- forgive me.)

In practical terms, my ministerial van life was simply transportation and bedroom, but in spiritual terms it was my Kenosis, especially in winter. The high prairie is “high” because it is north so it's high on the map page; because it is where the continent subtly folds and slants down from the Rockies to the Mississippi; and because it is a place with such extremes that one’s mind can be “high” in the sense of intoxicated. Driving a hundred miles (roughly the distances between my four fellowships: Bozeman, Great Falls, Helena and Missoula) was my “high church” experience as I shuttled from ragged mountains to sheltered valleys and flat land. My mantra has been “geology is almost theology” and this is where I learned it.

The role of minister is dualistic, not in terms of good/evil, but in terms of being the “primate” (the authority) versus being very aware of one’s limitations, ignorance, and weakness. I think of a Wallace Stegner quote (he grew up on the prairie not far away) about how even a person standing upright has the humility of being on one’s knees, and yet the very fact of being vertical in so much horizon means standing out. The nights in the van were my times of Kenosis, emptying out, becoming one with a huge night sky and taut endless land. They were the heart of my idea of being a minister, never addressed in seminary.

I did not know how to explain that to my parishioners. To them the congregation was an occasion of gathering. Only Missoula had a building where I stayed in the basement bedroom I have now learned was where Dirck Van Sickle wrote “Montana Gothic,” which could usefully be analyzed in terms of horror as Kenosis. Or maybe Kenosis as horror. Certainly, Missoula folks were the most into acquisition and status of any of the groups. They wanted me there, on-call, and significant in the community, which is a college town. Great Falls probably came the closest to being Kenotic since they were mostly scattered grain ranchers, accustomed to long long hours alone on the land. Bozeman was a mountain-climbing town as well as a university. In spite of being the state capital, Helena didn’t have many politicians. They were and are (I think) mostly professionals: shrinks, teachers, fish and game, ag regulators. But they saw themselves as a “get together.”

A bit of my thinking from those years is in my book of prairie sermons:“Sweetgrass and Cottonwood Smoke,” published by the Edmonton Unitarian Church and now only available as remaindered copies through Driftwillow Press.

Kenosis is bottomless. How deeply you go depends on your courage -- or maybe it’s recklessness. It requires the faith that however much you abandon, however much you let go, however much you fall, in the end there are forces that will gather you up and restore you, renewed. What you call those forces depends upon your culture, your experience.

Now this flimsy little old house, built in the BIG Depression, and plumbed, electrified and insulated haphazardly as afterthoughts, is the same as my van, is my anchorite refuge. Now the sky brings the humility down on me from the north or from the mountains. Now the wind pounds it into me. Now the sun and the blooming prairie lift me back, rising in grandeur like summer thunderheads. It’s not an intellectual sort of experience, though I insist on pursuing it that way. These concepts -- abyss, embrace -- are FELT concepts, whole body. And yes, probably best expressed in music and dance. Tim understands, way off on the blue ridges with the black bears and the red wolves. Seafarers have always understood. The Blackfeet know.

1 comment:

Art Durkee said...

Kenosis. the Void. the Abyss. My very good friend. Been there, done that. A lot. Written about it a lot, too.

The via negativa. I think that sums it up. It's an important aspect of the way. I think it's so important that those who deny it miss out on a rich deepening of their experience of spirituality. I have to wonder sometimes, without intending to be judgmental, just how shallow it's probable one will be without going into that dark night, at least sometimes, at least somehow.