Pursuing God’s Presence

An annotated review of selected authors

by Nancy Sehested

My sermon this week is not on a particular biblical text but a review of other texts which have deeply influenced my personal formation as a follower of Jesus. My preparation involved lingering at my bookshelf, pulling out those books that were the most worn, the ones I return to again and again. It is not an exhaustive list, of course, but it offers a window into the writers who have become my companions for the inner journey. I spoke about them as God’s gardeners of my soul, people who have inspired me to live more fully and deeply. As you can see they are from a wide range of religions and from no particular religion at all. I have found them an encouragement to go more deeply into my own chosen path as a Christian. My hope is that this list will take you to your own reflection about the people who have deepened your soul.

Meditation by Eknath Easwaran (1910-1999)
In college and seminary I took courses on Eastern religions and Eastern mysticism. I was introduced to the Hindu teacher Eknath Easwaren. His 8-point program of meditation is a particularly helpful tool for someone like me who has difficulty quieting my mind. His method suggests meditating on sacred texts to begin your meditation. He thought memorizing St. Francis Prayer or the 23rd Psalm was ideal for beginners. His methods teach me still. He has many other books. Among them is an excellent biography of Gandhi, titled Gandhi the Man (1972).

Creative Prayer by Brigid E. Herman (1875-1923)
Brigid Herman was born in Prague and died in London at the age of 48. I was introduced to her tiny book by Sister Ellen, my spiritual director, who was a Roman Catholic sister. I’d never heard of a spiritual director until I met her. She came to me at a time in my early ministry when I was overwhelmed. I knew that I needed far more inner resources to survive the day to day work of pastoring. Sister Ellen was a wise and gentle guide. She walked me through lectio divina on the life of Christ. We met weekly for one year. She encouraged me to maintain a rigorous practice of one hour of centering prayer, lectio divina, and journaling 5 days a week. She introduced me to the rich, centuries-old history of Christian meditation and contemplative prayer. She gave me the book by Herman. It was written more than a century ago. Herman’s language is archaic, but then my language is often considered that way too. Yet her work is a basic primer on prayer, silence and contemplation. Sister Ellen taught me for one complete year. The day after we completed our one year commitment to meditative practices, she was killed in a car accident. I miss her still.

The Essential Rumi translated by Coleman Barks
Jelaluddin Balkhi, known as “Rumi, was born in 1207 in Afghanistan, which was then part of the Persian empire. His family emigrated to Turkey. Rumi was a Sufi mystic who wrote numerous poems. One snippet of his poetry:
      The morning wind spreads its fresh smell,
      We must get up and take that in, that wind that lets us live.
      Breathe before its gone

The Gift: Poems by Hafiz the Great Sufi Master translated by Daniel Ladinsky
Hafiz was a Sufi mystic who was born about 100 years after Rumi. He is considered the most beloved poet of Persia. He was born in Shiraz and lived from c.1320-1389.
      Some lines from his poetry:
      I am a hole in a flute that Christ’s breath moves through—Listen to this Music. Every Child has known God,
      not the God of names, not the God of don’ts, not the God who ever does anything weird, but the God who
      only knows four words and keeps repeating them, saying, “Come dance with Me.”

Rilke’s Book of Hours: Love Poems to God translated by Anita Barrows & Joanna Macy
Rainer Maria Rilke was born in Prague in 1875. He wrote this book of love poems to God in about 1900. One part of one of the poem prayers:
      I love you, gentlest of Ways, who ripened us as we wrestled with you. You the great homesickness
       we could never shake off, you the forest that always surrounded us….

Other poets that I love include works by Denise Levertov, Mary Oliver, Annie Dillard, and Naomi Shihad Nye.

The Long Loneliness by Dorothy Day
By Little and By Little: The Selected Writings of Dorothy Day edited by Robert Ellsberg

Dorothy Day (1897-1980) was a journalist and social activist. She was a founder of the Catholic Worker Movement that offered direct aid to people who were poor along with non-violent advocacy actions on their behalf. She was arrested numerous times for her civil disobedience. She lived in a small room in one of the Catholic Worker houses in New York City alongside the people who she served.  She did not think that works of mercy could be separated from works of peace. She wrote:
      Neither revolutions nor faith is won without keen suffering.

Messengers of God by Elie Wiesel
Eliezer "Elie" Wiesel is a Romanian-born Jewish-American professor and political activist. He is the author of 57 books, including perhaps his best known book Night, a work based on his experiences as a prisoner in the concentration camps. He was born in 1928. He won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1986. I took a class with him when I was in seminary. I was captivated with his depth, honesty, and humanity. As a preacher I have benefited greatly from his books, especially his books that focus on biblical portraits. In class he said again and again that the worst stance in times of terror and violence is indifference.
      The opposite of love is not hate, it's indifference. The opposite of art is not ugliness, it's indifference.
      The opposite of faith is not heresy, it's indifference. And the opposite of life is not death, it's

The Writings of Thich Nhat Hanh
Thich Nhat Hanh was born in 1926 in Vietnam. He is a Zen Buddhist monk, writer, teacher, poet, and social activist. He lives in Plum Village in France. I have gleaned from his wisdom for many, many years. I left most of my books by him at the prison for the Buddhist prisoners to read. One piece of his voluminous writings:
      We humans have lost the capacity of resting. We worry too much. We don’t allow our bodies to heal.
       We don’t allow our minds to heal. Our worries, stress, and fear make the situation worse.
      Meditation can help release the tension, help us embrace our worries, our fear, our anger; and that
      is very healing.

I Asked for Wonder by Abraham Joshua Heschel
Abraham Joshua Heschel was born in 1907 in Poland. He was a descendant of a long line of Hasidic rabbis. He was a theologian, poet, mystic, writer, teacher, social activist and historian. He arrived in America in 1939. He marched for civil rights with Martin Luther King, Jr. He gave himself to the social issues of his time, resisting racism, economic injustice and the Vietnam war. He taught for many years at Jewish Theological Seminary in New York City. The day before his death he insisted on going to the federal prison in Connecticut to wait for his friend, a Catholic priest, to be released after doing time for civil disobedience. He stood in the freezing snow. He died the next day on a Sabbath evening. A few years before his death in 1972 he prayed:
      I did not ask for success. I asked for wonder. And You gave it to me.

Three books by Howard Thurman:
Deep is the Hunger, Jesus and the Disinherited, and With Head and Heart

Howard Thurman was born in Daytona Beach in 1899 and died in San Francisco in 1981.  I heard him speak at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine in NYC in 1980. Dr. Thurman was a pastor, theologian, philosopher, professor, dean, writer, and mystic. It is said that during the times when Martin Luther King Jr. was jailed for his civil disobedience, he took with him two books. One was the bible and the other was Thurman’s book Jesus and the Disinherited. I kept that book within arm’s reach of my desk during my 13 years as a prison chaplain. It provided one of the best interpretations of the temptations of those who are in powerless situations. Thurman wrote about the ways in which oppressed people can be tempted to live out of fear, deception and hate. He offered the radical way of Jesus, naming the power of love to transform and heal. Some of his words on that topic:
      Jesus’ message focused on the urgency of a radical change in the inner attitude of the people. He
      recognized fully that out of the heart are the issues of life and that no external force, however great
      and overwhelming, can at long last destroy a people if it does not first win the victory of the spirit
      against them.

The Silent Cry: Mysticism and Resistance by Dorothee Soelle (1929-2003)
Dr. Soelle was a peace and environmental activist. She was a feminist theologian who was one of my seminary professors. Among her many books is this one that integrates her thoughts on resistance and mysticism. She was an interdisciplinary thinker with formal studies and degrees from her German homeland in philosophy, ancient languages, literature and theology.  She couldn’t sing worth a toot, but that never stopped her from belting out hymns with great gusto and joy. From this book:
      I am neither professionally anchored nor personally at home in the two institutions of religion, the
      church and academic theology. It is the mystical element that will not let go of me… I can simply say
      that what I want to live, understand, and make known is the love for God. And that seems to be in
      little demand in those two institutions.

An Interrupted Life: The Diaries of Etty Hillesum 1941-1943                                
Etty Hillesum died at Auschwitz at the age of 29. She was a Dutch Jew who began her diaries about the same time as a younger Dutch girl, Anne Frank, began her diaries. Anne Frank was hidden in a house only a few miles from Etty’s room in Amsterdam. Some of my friends who began reading this book never got past the first half of it. Etty was self-absorbed with many sexual escapades. To me that part of the story makes her very human. And if you keep reading you discover a young woman who went through a transformation. As her outer world became increasingly small, Etty’s inner world became increasingly large.
      The sky within is as wide as the one stretching out above my head.
She flung open every door of her heart, unafraid to explore all corners of her being. She searched the darkened rooms, with only her longings as light, and did not stop until she found where love was hiding. She refused to allow her enemies to control her spirit. She chose love of her enemies rather than hatred. Her writings came to me at a critical time in my journey when enemies surrounded me in the public struggle for women’s pastoral leadership in the church. Becoming just like my hateful enemies was easy to pull off. My heart went to war many times. But Etty urged me to choose a path of true freedom, a path of peace, a path of mercy. My book of her diaries is in shreds. Etty remains one of my most beloved teachers. Her heart beat with love in the ruins of hate. In one of her letters to God:
      Dear God, these are anxious times. Tonight I lay in the dark with burning eyes as scene after scene
      of human suffering passed before me….I shall try to help You, God, to stop my strength ebbing
      away, though I cannot vouch for it in advance. But one thing is becoming increasingly clear to me:
      that You cannot help us, that we must help You to help ourselves. And that is all we can manage
      these days and also all that really matters: that we safeguard that little piece of You, God, in
      ourselves. And perhaps in others as well…I shall bring You all the flowers I shall meet on my way…I
      shall try to make You at home always. Even if I should be locked up in a narrow cell and a cloud
      should drift past my small barred window, than I shall bring you that cloud, oh God, while there is
      still the strength in me to do so.

prayerandpolitiks.org. Nancy Sehested is co-pastor of Circle of Mercy Congregation in Asheville, NC. This sermon was preached in June 2014 at High Country United Church of Christ in Boone, NC.