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With Eyes to See and Ears to Listen

Twenty years ago, I landed improbably in Minnesota. And just as improbably, I ended up doing an oral history project for an incredible institution within an amazing institution — the Collegeville Institute for Ecumenical and Cultural Research at St. John’s Abbey, the largest Benedictine community in the Western world. Patrick Henry was the director of the Institute, a small place that changed the world, quietly, by way of conversation and relationship.

My first five-day “summer consultation” at the Institute, hosted by Patrick, changed me.

There, a room full of soon-to-become beloved strangers began to answer a grand theological question through the stories of their lives. That way of beginning gave rise to an extraordinary breadth and depth of expression. It allowed us to see each other — to view ideas and entire traditions — with new eyes. In a very real way, that vision and approach has anchored my work ever since. I’ve just adapted it for radio.

Patrick writes in his lovely book, The Ironic Christian’s Companion:

“We are all explorers telling each other what new things we have seen and heard.”

When Patrick first published The Ironic Christian’s Companion in 1999 (which has just been released as an e-book), Christian voices had reached a fever pitch of toxicity in American public life, fueled by a media appetite for the entertaining and inflammatory. But the lens of Patrick’s large mind — his vast store of knowledge of poetry and literature alongside theology, the winsome connections he makes in every moment — these qualities are enduringly meaningful. They are relevant not just as antidotes to the problem of religious distortion and excess, but to the aspiration and calling of being a person of faith in the 21st century.

In introducing the digital release of his work, Patrick writes this:

“(A) Christian life lived with little certainty but boundlessly curious is not a second-best option for those who just can’t manage a no-loose-ends conviction and a no-second-thoughts commitment. The Ironic Christian’s Companion: Finding the Marks of God’s Grace in the World tries to convey the excitement, the tension, the mystery, the clarity, the growth, and above all the delight that I have found woven through my days lived with the God who can be trusted but not taken for granted. I wouldn’t want it any other way…

I’d like my book to broaden horizons and expand territory for the reader to move around in, and loosen up stiff spiritual joints so movement can be free and spontaneous.

Religious identity is itself now more fluid than the ecumenical pioneers of the 20th century could possibly have imagined, as this week’s latest Pew poll again confirms. But Patrick’s writing, and the life behind it, speak to my enduring intuition that, in losing rote affiliation, religiosity in general and Christianity in particular may have a chance to recover their deepest, wildest heart for the sake of the world.

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