Vocation

No time for a long post this week, as I have three shows at two different schools on the Eastern Shore tomorrow, and have a 6 am call. I should have hit the hay half an hour ago. I do children’s theatre with Children’s Theater Association, and tomorrow is Maryland, My Maryland, our show about Maryland history.

I finished Thomas Merton‘s The Seven Storey Mountain today. I absolutely loved it. It got me thinking about the topic of vocation. A vocation, or “calling,” is part of the life we are each given to lead. It’s similar to the idea of one’s purpose in life. But in secular American culture, when we think about our purpose, we generally think of something we have chosen ourselves, the one thing we want to do above all else – “following our dream,” “following our bliss.”

But the idea of vocation presented in Merton’s book is not a purpose we have claimed for ourselves. It is a purpose that has been chosen for us, by Another. The only way to find “bliss” in this life is to die to our own ideas of what we want our vocation to be, and instead submit totally to the vocation to which God calls us. There may be significant overlap; there may be no overlap.

Merton at first wanted to be a writer, and wrote to satisfy his own ambitions. Who knows anything much about those writings? Later, he wanted to be a contemplative, and writes in the final pages of the book about how Merton the writer, like a “Judas,” shadows and betrays Merton the monk, who wanted nothing so much as to retreat completely from the world. “And the worst of it is,” he writes, “he has my superiors on his side.” I thank his superiors for encouraging Merton the writer, who could only come to full fruition and redemption after Merton the monk had died to his own desires. And now we are able to know Thomas Merton, Frater Louis, the writer-monk whose books and life have borne much fruit. God only knows how fruitful his prayers have been.

Now that I’ve finished the book, I’ve e-mailed the priest who recommended it to me to see when we can meet to talk about it. I’m sure the subject of vocation will come up. I’ve been thinking (and worrying, I admit) the last couple years, ever since I left grad school and for the first time did not have a clear path laid out for my life, about what I want to do with my life. Merton’s book has reminded me that that’s not the proper question.

The proper question is: Who is God calling me to be in this life? And how does He want me to serve Him today?

That’s the hardest question for any Christian, because we have to give up everything we want to find that out.

“A Zoo of Lusts”

I’ve fallen behind in my reading plans for Oxford, but that’s okay, because none of them are required. I’ve finished re-reading the Gospels, and will move on to re-reading the rest of the New Testament. I haven’t read any new theology books on my list, but next up is Davies’ and Rogerson’s The Old Testament World. I plan to start in on my Greek textbook exercises this week. Chapter 1 is learning the Greek alphabet.

My current reading is not academic, but rather spiritual. On the suggestion of a priest I talked to last week, I’m reading Thomas Merton’s The Seven Storey Mountain. I fell in love immediately. As a friend of the author writes in the Introduction, Merton is a born writer. I’m at the point now where he is at Columbia College and becoming a Communist. His descriptions of his soul, looking back at himself, remind me of one of Lewis’ statements in his own spiritual autobiography, Surprised by Joy. Lewis writes:

For the first time I examined myself with a seriously practical purpose. And there I found what appalled me: a zoo of lusts, a bedlam of ambitions, a nursery of fears, a harem of fondled hatreds. My name was legion.

Merton, too, speaks of examining himself after leaving Cambridge, and finding “the same old story of greed and lust and self-love, of the three concupiscences bred in the rich, rotted undergrowth of what is technically called ‘the world,’ in every age, in every class.” But he didn’t yet recognize these festering abcesses in his soul as such, and blamed his flaws on his upbringing in a relatively well-off socioeconomic class and in a capitalist society. It was only later that he was to recognize them as spiritual failings, and submit himself to God for their remedy.

At church the other week, we were discussing how every time we feel as if we have finally conquered some sinful inclination, God allows us little to no time to revel in the victory before revealing to us another deeper and harder battle yet to be fought within our own souls. If we take the time to examine ourselves truly and fully, asking for the grace to see with God’s sight into the depths of our hearts, what zoo of lusts will we find there? I know I’m terrified to make a full inventory of my particular menagerie. Spiritual autobiographies like those of Lewis and Merton are comforting, I think, because we realize that, alone as we feel in our sins, there are others who have been just as terribly ashamed – and yet how completely were they redeemed when they gave themselves up to God, for Him to do as He would with them!

We will never know what good we gave up each time we sinned, but thankfully, God can make each sin a felix peccatum that is the occasion for grace, and that can be used for both our good and for the good of our neighbor. Merton says that the selfish rebellion into which he descended as a youth ended up being good for him, because God let him see what a mess he made of his life when left to his own devices. It enabled him to see how much he needed God. And Lewis’ atheism helped him immensely as a Christian apologist. Besides giving him credibility with many outside Christianity, it also enabled him to understand how someone could not believe in God, and how to speak to that person. Don’t get me wrong, it would have been better for Merton, Lewis, and us if they and we had never sinned, but since they and we have, the only remedy is to let God use the sin for good. And that means submitting to His will for our lives, and living with the consequences of the sin. And that, I think, is the most difficult part. I know it is for me.

I really didn’t mean to write a sermon when I started, I promise! I meant to write a paragraph or two on Merton’s book. But as you can see, The Seven Storey Mountain inspires spiritual self-examination, which I’ve only touched on at a shallow level. I’m going to sign off so I can get back to reading it.

Btw, I’ve linked to a few books in this post. If you’re interested in purchasing them, especially Surprised by Joy, please consider doing so through the C.S. Lewis Foundation’s online bookstore, run through Amazon.com. That way, a percentage of your purchase will go to support the Foundation’s activities.

Also, Diana Pavlac Glyer, whom I mentioned in a previous post, has now written her own post about her two-week sabbatical at the Kilns. Read it here! You can also get her book, The Company They Keep, at the Foundation’s bookstore. It examines the Inklings (especially focusing on Lewis and Tolkien) as “writers in community,” and the different kinds of influence they had on each other as members of a writing group. I read it last year, and highly recommend it, especially if you’re a writer, or are interested in the Inklings’ creative process.

Towards a Christian Theatre Tribe

I’ve been feeling an excitement over the past few days about theatre that I haven’t since the early months of my life at NYU. Mainly it’s come from this site, which talks about forming a different kind of theatre company – a Theatre Tribe. Essentially, a Theatre Tribe is a group of theatre artists who not only produce theatre as a community, but work as a community, live as a community, and engage with their neighbors as a community. As I understand it, a Tribe should:

1. Consist of a variety of artists – actors, directors, designers, playwrights, stage managers, dramaturgs, arts administrators, etc. A theatre company is generally going to consist mostly of actors, but the Tribe should have at least one person who either specializes in or can take on each of these other roles.

2. Be self-supporting. This doesn’t necessarily mean making all of its money through ticket sales. As in this vision statement by Scott Walters, the Theatre Tribe wiki’s author, members of the Tribe could grow and sell produce, or teach classes for the community at the theatre. The goal is to get away from being part-time artists who have to work a day job, and instead letting all one’s energy be focused on the theatre and its community.

3. Have a single financial pool. This means that all the money earned from the theatre, and that the individual artists earn from teaching their own classes, or from outside acting jobs they get, goes into one pot. Once expenses are covered, the remaining income can be divided up equally among the artists. Alternatively, they could each receive according to their needs. For example, if one of the tribe members is in need of a doctor visit, the tribe would cover that extra cost, while everyone else foregoes some Starbucks that month. However they decide to divide up the income, nobody has a completely independent revenue stream.

4. Make educational activities a commitment. And as Scott says, this doesn’t just mean doing a free student performance of one of the theatre’s productions. It means actively engaging with the community in terms of workshops, classes, dramaturgical work, visiting schools, having talkbacks, and participating in a dialogue with the community. Which brings me to the all-important…

5. Be active in the Tribe’s community. This means that Tribe members do not withdraw into their theatre, but rather make themselves and their theatre part of the community. As in Scott’s vision statement, they could allow local community organizations to use space in the theatre for free during dark nights. Tribe members should be involved in their local churches, civic organizations, clubs, charities, and volunteer organizations.  And they shouldn’t do this just to bring more people to their shows, but because theatre and its makers should be rooted in its community’s soil.

I’ve been thinking about what I want to do with my Theology degree. I know I want to do grad school, mainly to use the time to write a book on the moral responsibility of the Christian artist – a call-to-arms on how to live our lives as Christian theatre and non-theatre artists. My original plan was to do a D.Phil. from the Institute of Theology, Imagination, and the Arts at the University of St Andrews in Scotland, but since I don’t feel called to academia, their planned new M.Litt. might be a better degree for my purposes.

Afterwards, I want to put the principles I write about into practice, through a Christian theatre or film company. I think I’m more likely to choose theatre, because that’s what I know better, and I love the theatre community, and the ritualized magic that an exceptional dramatic moment can tap into. (For example, see a good production of August Wilson’s Gem of the Ocean, like the production that Everyman Theatre did locally last season. The City of Bones sequence will electrify your spirit.)

The idea of a Christian Theatre Tribe – a blend of monasticism and theatre collective – sounds right up my alley. I’m not sure it’s my calling, but I believe it will be a calling for somebody, and whoever it is, I will support them.  If you’re out there, let me know.

NB: As part of the C.S. Lewis Foundation‘s mission of “advancing the renewal of Christian thought and creative expression throughout the world of learning and the culture at large,” they plan to found C.S. Lewis College, a Great Books college with a School of the Visual and Performing Arts. When I was applying to colleges for my first degree, I was unable to find a Christian college that had both strong academics and strong professional actor training. I believe and hope that C.S. Lewis College can be this type of college, and I am determined to help it succeed. Its mission to renew Christian creative expression in the culture at large is in lines with the vision of a Christian Theatre Tribe, and if this idea kindles even a small flame in you, please let both me and the Foundation know. I just received a letter this week informing me that the Foundation has had to let go of half their paid staff. As someone who also works for a non-profit that is feeling a dire financial pinch, I ask that you prayerfully consider making a small tax-deductible donation to the Foundation. I’ve sent mine in already. Both the people and the mission are worthy, and they do good work.

Winter at the Kilns

Kilns Warden Donna McDaniel has posted about activities at the Kilns over the past few winter months. Visiting scholars included Diana Pavlac Glyer (author of The Company They Keep, about the Inklings as a writing group, which won this past year’s Mythopoeic Scholarship Award in Inklings Studies), theologian/academic/poet/musician/priest Malcolm Guite (whom I met at the Kilns seminar), and Michael Ward (author of the controversial new book Planet Narnia, soon to be a BBC documentary called The Narnia Code – whom I also met). Donna also talks about local families coming to play with their children in the C.S. Lewis Nature Reserve during a beautiful winter’s snow. Donna and company were wonderful hostesses during the seminar, and I look forward to spending more time with her and the rest of the Kilns community in the next year.

Read Donna’s post here

Choice of college

I’ve been thinking a lot this week about my Oxford application process, particularly in regards to my choice of Oxford college. When you apply, you apply to a particular college, not to the University itself. I was overwhelmed by my choices. In addition to the dozen or so colleges that offered Philosophy and Theology, the course for which I was applying, there are several Permanent Private Halls (PPHs), which are religious institutions each based in a particular Christian tradition. After looking at each college and hall’s website, I decided to apply to St Stephen’s House, which is the Anglo-Catholic Hall. I chose St Stephen’s because when I attended a week-long seminar at the Kilns last July, I was introduced to the Oxford Movement, which created a renaissance of Catholic practice in the Anglican Church. I wanted to learn more about Anglo-Catholicism, and enjoyed the several services of that kind I attended while in the U.K. I have been increasingly drawn over the past couple of years – ever since attending graduate school for a time at a Jesuit college – to actions of reverence in worship, such as the sign of the cross and genuflecting. As a clad-in-the-plaid, bagpipe-tuned, baptized-under-the-cross-of-St-Andrew Presbyterian boy, I’m sure Calvin must be rolling in his grave. However, I think that those Protestant churches that place almost sole focus on reading Scripture and very little on the nature of the Sacraments are missing something very important about the Christian life. Don’t get me wrong, reading Scripture is vital, and I don’t mean to diminish its importance. However, there is something miraculous about the nature of the Sacraments, in which the Supernatural is made visible to us through the natural elements of bread and wine, oil and water. As much as I love the Church in which I was raised, I’ve come to realize I don’t believe in T.U.L.I.P, sola Scriptura, or the theological desirability of a bare sanctuary. I’m even re-thinking consubstantiation vs. transubstantiation.

O.K., back to colleges. I chose St Stephen’s because it seemed to best fit my changing theological beliefs (which are tending toward Catholicism, but aren’t all the way to Rome yet), my liturgical comfort level, and my academic interest in the Oxford Movement, out of which the House sprang. Also, St Stephen’s is located in the former home of the Society of St John the Evangelist (a.k.a. the Cowley Fathers), which is where C.S. Lewis made his confession every week. (How many American Evangelical Lewis fans know that Lewis went to confession?) Finally, I wanted to be part of an academic community that studied Christianity as believers.

However, I asked the advice of a friend of a friend, who is a staff member at an Oxford college. He recommended I not attend a Permanent Private Hall, as I would not get the typical undergraduate Oxford experience, especially at a small Hall like St Stephen’s which focuses primarily on training candidates for ordination (which I am not seeking). Instead, he recommended I apply to Keble College, which also came out of the Oxford Movement. He also recommended I add Harris Manchester, the college for mature students (i.e. students over 21), as my second choice.

I therefore applied to Keble. Shortly thereafter, Oxford e-mailed me to let me know that I could add a PPH (but not a college) as my second choice. I immediately added St Stephen’s. I received a reply e-mail from Oxford informing me that, while adding a PPH should not affect my chances at gaining a place at Oxford, it could take me out of the running for consideration by another Oxford college should neither my first-choice college nor the PPH offer me a place. I read this statement as saying that while my chances probably wouldn’t be affected, there was a chance they could  be, so in the interest of maximizing my chances at my greater goal – a place at Oxford – I dropped St Stephen’s from my application. I thought Oxford was a longshot anyway.

Keble was oversubscribed for my course (i.e. they had quite a lot of applicants), so they pooled my application to Harris Manchester, which is the college that offered me an interview. The interview consisted of a 1-hour philosophy test (critical thinking, not knowledge-based) and a 1/2-hour phone interview (since I couldn’t afford to fly to England for the interview days). Unlike a typical American college interview, this interview was not primarily about my background and interest in the University and the course (although they did spend a couple minutes on that). Oxford interviews are a test of your on-your-feet reasoning ability. 20 minutes before the start of the interview, the Harris Manchester Admissions Tutor e-mailed me my interview passage: the story of Christ stilling the storm, with the version from each of the three Synoptic Gospels side-by-side. The first half of the interview was with the Theology tutor, Dr Eric Eve, who grilled me on the differences in language between the three Evangelists. The second half of the interview was with Dr Sophie Allen, a Philosophy tutor. We discussed how I could know whether I was really sitting on a chair, and other questions of epistemology.

At the end of the interview, Dr Eve asked me two standard questions. Since I had already received my first undergraduate degree, I was applying for Senior Status, which meant I would skip the first year of the three-year course, as well as Preliminary Examinations, and go straight to the second year and Final Honours Course. Dr Eve asked if, should the College judge it prudent, I would be willing to take the full three-year course. I said yes. He also asked if they were to offer me a place to study the single subject of Theology (instead of both Philosophy and Theology), I would accept. I again said yes. Of course!

A few days after Christmas, I started hearing online that other applicants had started receiving their decisions. I had been visiting family and friends out-of-state for two weeks, so I called my roommate and asked if any letters from England had come for me. Sure enough, one had. As he read my acceptance letter – for a place reading Theology at Harris Manchester with Senior Status – I leaped into the air, literally jumping for joy. The odds were roughly 1 in 3 that I would get a place, so I had already started mentally preparing myself for a rejection. I was ecstatic.

Of course, a week or so later, my anxiety hit. What if I didn’t like Harris Manchester? After all, I had never been there. It also didn’t have the tradition I was seeking, being heavily influenced by the Unitarians. I was concerned that I would be learning Theology with a Unitarian bent, and that I wouldn’t feel at home in my college. Numerous students online reassured me that everyone comes to love their college, and I was looking forward to being in the smallest college (only 150 students total), albeit the poorest. Apparently HMC also had a reputation for serving the best food in Hall. I also liked the fact that HMC had Formal Hall twice a week, in which students are required to wear gowns. (The pomp and circumstance of Oxford academic dress and tradition was one of the draws for me.) But what if I hated it?

I got so anxious that last week I almost e-mailed the head of St Stephen’s House to see if I could transfer, what’s called “migrating” at Oxford. Migration is almost never allowed, and is generally reserved for students whose colleges have decided not to offer their course any longer, or students who have become handicapped and whose current college is not accessible, or for similar reasons. Migration is not approved for the sole reason that a student thinks a different college would be a better fit.

Thankfully, though, my family, friends, and other students talked me out of it. I realized that there were aspects of “typical undergraduate Oxford” that I did want to experience, and if I feel the need to be a part of an academic Anglo-Catholic community, there are several around, like Pusey House. Plus, I will be living in an academic Christian community at the Kilns. Being part of a College in a different tradition will help ensure I don’t develop tunnel vision in my study of Theology. Most importantly, though, Harris Manchester has been good to me. I enjoyed talking with Dr Eve, who has already helped me with a list of basic readings in New Testament Greek and general theology to get me started before I come up. I’m looking forward to studying under him. And Harris Manchester has a reputation as one of the friendliest colleges at Oxford, another definite advantage to me.

As I thought about it, I realized I had made the decisions on my application that I did based on three criteria:

1) My own areas of interest

2) Advice from a dependable source

3) Prudent focus on my larger goal

All in all, I think those criteria are quite reliable ones. And then you have Providence – trusting where the movement of God places me. Trusting in Providence has placed me in pretty good stead in the past, and since Providence has guided me to Harris Manchester, I’m quite excited to discover what the Lord has waiting for me there.

The Fellowship Movie Website Now Live!

I shot a concept poster for the upcoming independent feature film The Fellowship, which follows a small band of Lord of the Rings gamers on a quest that teaches them there’s a little bit of geek – and hero – in all of us. I modeled as Squirrelly, the Samwise Gamgee character. Check out the website, where you can download the movie poster (I’m the guy on the right with the black geek glasses), check out behind-the-scenes video of the shoot, and learn about how you can get involved with the film. Ringers unite!

The Fellowship Movie Concept Poster