Edited transcript: Brian Allain interviews Patrick Henry on “Writing for Your Life,” May 10, 2022 (the video is at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=00z-popSF40)
BA: I’m here today with Patrick Henry. He was professor of religion at Swarthmore College from 1967 to 1984, and executive director of the Collegeville Institute for Ecumenical and Cultural Research from to 1984 to 2004. In retirement he’s a monthly columnist for the St. Cloud Times in Minnesota, where he writes about the renewal of human community.
Patrick has two new books that we’re going to discuss today. The first is Flashes of Grace: 33 Encounters with God; the second is Benedictine Options: Learning to Live from the Sons and Daughters of Saints Benedict and Scholastica. His other books include The Ironic Christian’s Companion: Finding the Marks of God’s Grace in the World. You can learn more about all of his work at www.ironicchristian.org.
Before we get into the books maybe you could tell us just a little bit more about your background and some of the things that you got to do.
PH: I had an extraordinarily privileged background – white, Protestant, American male, brought up in the can-do Texas of the Eisenhower 50s. I knew the agenda of the world and I was on top of everything. Part of my life journey has been learning to give up some of that privilege, or at least acknowledge it and try to turn it to something good rather than simply turn it to my advantage.
I grew up in Texas but have been away from there since I went away to college. I’ve had an extraordinarily privileged education – Harvard, Oxford, and Yale – so I should know something. I’ve often thought that that kind of privilege puts on me a great obligation to try to give back and to be of use.
I’ll leave it at that for now, but as you mentioned, the jobs I’ve had were two of the best anybody could have. At Swarthmore my students made me smarter every day, and at the Collegeville Institute I got to know and work with extraordinary scholars from all over the world, who were really concerned not just to contribute to their fields but to help those fields contribute to the welfare of the world. So, I have been lucky beyond anybody’s right to claim.
BA: I can totally relate with a lot of things that you just said, and I feel very similarly about my own kind of journey and obligation to be a good steward of the privilege and gifts I’ve been given. Before we talk about the new books, tell us about the previous ones, including The Ironic Christian’s Companion: Finding the Marks of God’s Grace in the World.
PH: The Ironic Christian’s Companion, published in 1999, is maybe a prequel to Flashes of Grace: 33 Encounters with God, or Flashes of Grace is a sequel to the Companion. Once the Companion was published, I thought maybe I’ve said all that I have to say, but in the years since then I discovered that I had a good deal more to say on the whole question of how God’s grace impacts my life. I don’t ever claim to know what grace is; I know how I encounter it, what it means to me.
Prior to that, early in my career (1979) I did a book called New Directions in New Testament Study that grew out of my teaching in Bible courses at Swarthmore. In 1989, a Swarthmore colleague, Donald Swearer, one of the world’s leading experts on Buddhism, and I together wrote a book called For the Sake of the World: The Spirit of Buddhist and Christian Monasticism, which in various ways led to my being involved in the 1996 Gethsemani Encounter that brought Buddhist and Christian monastic people together. In the course of that conference, I recommended to Monastic Interreligious Dialogue that they commission some of the Buddhists to write reflections on the Rule of Saint Benedict. I ended up editing the book, Benedict’s Dharma: Buddhists Reflect on the Rule of Saint Benedict (2001), a model of what I hope will be people in one tradition reflecting on central books or texts in another tradition, rather than having people simply come together and talk. So those are some of the books that have my name on them.
BA: Very cool. I don’t know if you’re familiar with the book that Barbara Brown Taylor came out with recently, called Holy Envy.
PH: Absolutely. She’s depending on that wonderful remark of Krister Stendahl, talking about the experience of seeing something in another tradition that you would love to have but know that you really can’t – you can’t ever have it the way they do – but taking envy, one of the deadly sins, and turning it holy. That is one of the neatest tricks ever; I’ve read Barbara’s book and wish I’d written it.
BA: Her book is very much in alignment with what you’ve done. Let’s talk about the first of your two books I mentioned, Flashes of Grace. First, I want to ask about the title – I mean, is the book literally about different encounters with God, and were they all your encounters or does it include experiences of others?
PH: They are my encounters. I was once asked why 33? Someone was thinking there must be some numerological significance to that. My answer: I simply wrote the encounters and then added them up and there were 33. If I had chosen a number in advance, it would have been 42, the number which Douglas Adams famously said, in The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, is the answer to the ultimate question of life, the universe, and everything. So, mine are just 78% (33/42) of the answer to everything, but they are all mine, though many of them are my encounters with the encounters of others. There are lots and lots of endnotes that indicate where I encountered this or that, but in every case I’m not hiding behind them. Each of these is a conversation partner; other people frequently are the agents of my encounter with God, so to that extent it’s not just mine, but every one of these is an account from me of what my engagement with somebody else meant.
BA: Wow! Did you keep a journal when these were occurring or not?
PH: No, I didn’t. There are various references in the book to things that I published before, but some of them came from emails, and one came from a sort of next-day memo I gave to myself about a dream I’d had in which I was late to a Shakespeare exam and I saw Shakespeare – or I thought it was Shakespeare – who explained to me that he was not a thoroughgoing existentialist, who would say everything is invented from scratch all the time, but rather each of his plays has a different context – that is, the world of each of the plays is a world, but it has its own structure which may be different from the others. So, being something of a packrat, at an age when I’m going through stuff and trying to scan things that somebody sometime might want to see so that nobody has to go through reams and reams of paper, I came across this note that I had completely forgotten – and there was this dream that reminded me of an encounter that was in effect a moment of grace for me. So: the encounters are mine but they’re a wide variety of types of encounters.
BA: It sounds like they took place over a period of years.
PH: They took place over a lifetime – I don’t remember whether I referred to anything in high school but certainly from college on – so it’s taking me from the 1950s to the 2360s.
BA: Tell us about the Starship Enterprise and what role that played in the creation of the book.
PH: To explain that, I have to set a context that goes back almost half a century, to the era of the typewriter, before word processors automatically inserted dates in letters. I’m typing a letter, March 26, 1975, and my finger slips – I hit another 6 so it says March 26, 19756. I didn’t immediately correct it. I sat transfixed, because I had suddenly catapulted myself into the 198th century, and I’m almost certain that this is what occurred to me at that moment: I’m now in the 198th century, which means that those of us in the first 2000 years of the history of the church are no greater a part of the story to them than those of the first 200 years are to us – and it follows that we in the 20th century have as much responsibility and authority for the tradition as those in the first 200 years. Why are we so fixated on the first few centuries and say everything got settled then and all we’re doing is living off of that?
So I then get immersed in “Star Trek: The Next Generation” (commonly abbreviated TNG), which of course takes us only to the 24th century. Still, it seems very remote from us, and I find myself feeling much more at home in the company of Captain Picard and his crew than I do in the company of many Christians of my own time who are very sure about everything – who insist that the Christians have everything figured out and everybody else is all in darkness. I began to wonder what is it about my experience of the 24th century that means I can think back to my own 20th century and see how what characteristics of the Christian tradition now are compatible with the world of Captain Picard and his crew – because there is virtually no reference to Christianity at all in TNG.
The word “church” appears twice in the 178 episodes – in one, “church” is put in a category with knickknacks, in the other the crew are in 19th-century San Francisco and a woman they meet says, “Oh, I was in a church play once” – and that’s it, that’s the only record. But still, I felt very much at home there, so what did I learn from that? I learned that certain features of Christianity in our time need to be lifted up and utilized.
My friend Richard Mouw, a leading conservative evangelical and long-time president of Fuller Seminary, was asked by a reporter, “What do you make of these discoveries of the Hubble Space Telescope about how vast the universe is? Doesn’t that call into question your Christian identity?” and Rich simply quoted to him the hymn “How great Thou art,” and added, “We Christians have no difficulty taking into account the vastness of the universe because that’s the God we know.”
One of the most compelling episodes of TNG for me is one in which some of the members of the crew are transported into another dimension which is just a very tiny distance off from the dimension that the ship is in, so those who have been transported can see their colleagues but the others can’t see them. Eventually they figure out how to make the dimensions accessible to each other – and so I think that that clued me in that the world of the spirit and the world of matter are very close. In the other book (Benedictine Options) I quote this wonderful remark of Emily Dickinson in a letter: “I noticed that the ‘Supernatural,’ was only the Natural, disclosed.” There’s a sense in which TNG, in a whole variety of ways, illustrates that for me.
The book that came out to be Flashes of Grace was at least a dozen years in gestation. It started out as Left Behind with The Da Vinci Code - which became one of the chapters. Then it went through a long period of being Remembering Forwards, taken from Through the Looking Glass where the White Queen says to Alice, “It’s a poor sort of memory that only works backwards.” I was talking about remembering forwards to the 24th century, and each chapter had a link to TNG – but then an editor said, “That’s a little artificial, and you’ve got to remember, TNG ended in 1994, and there are a whole lot of people alive today for whom that’s ancient history.” So, I condensed Star Trek into a chapter, but TNG served its purpose by, in a sense, planting the seed for the whole book.
BA: That’s just amazing! Talk about you know some things that cause a person to think out of the box.
PH: I really appreciate a recent column by Tom Friedman in which he quotes a friend of his who said it’s not just thinking inside the box, it’s not just thinking outside the box, it’s thinking without a box. I would like to think that Flashes of Grace at least in moments is thinking without a box.
BA: Very cool! I’d like to read a a quick review of one of the books. This is from Publishers Weekly. It says, “Any Christian will find inspiration in this glowing testament to living a God-infused life.” Can you tell us how you think that this instills a God-infused life for folks?
PH: I don’t think it instills it. I hope it sparks it or ignites it. I’m not suggesting that people have the same story I do, but I do hope that as they read these chapters they will uncover or unveil memories of their own that have the same kind of effect. I’m hoping to ignite an experience such as I had when reading Peter Brown’s biography of Augustine. He says in effect that Augustine opted for Christianity rather than all the other options that he tried – he tried nearly everything that was available to him – because all those others closed things off; the church gave him the most room to move around. That absolutely electrified me, and became both a kind of description of my sense of what the Christian tradition is for me and an aspiration for what it could continue to be and always be more. So, what I would dream of is somebody reading my book and somewhere something leaps off the page and does for them what that sentence or two of Peter Brown’s book did for me.
The other phrase that worked like that for me was John Keats’s “Negative Capability,” in a letter he wrote to his brothers in which he says that it occurred to him that what Shakespeare had to the nth degree was “negative capability,” the ability to be in “uncertainties, mysteries, and doubts without any irritable reaching after fact and reason.” He’s not dismissing fact and reason – he just doesn’t want them to be irritable – and living in doubts, mysteries, uncertainties for me is room to move around in, not a pit to try to climb out of.
So, between John Keats and Peter Brown I can report experiences of breakthrough, of rugs getting pulled out from under me – whatever metaphor you want to use. That’s what I hope this book might do for people. As I say at the end, I hope that it will loosen stiff spiritual joints and allow for movement to be more spontaneous and free. That’s what I hope happens.
BA: Wow! very cool. Let’s move on to the second book: Benedictine Options: Learning to Live from the Sons and Daughters of Saints Benedict and Scholastica. How did that book come about?
PH: I don’t remember when it was after it was published in 2017 that I read Rod Dreher’s book The Benedict Option: A Strategy for Christians in a Post-Christian Nation, but seldom have I been so annoyed by a book, seldom have I felt that a book was so wrong-headed. I sort of left it at that then. But as I was sorting through things that I have written, some of which are published and many of which are unpublished, I began to realize that I had written a lot about Benedictinism from the time I was first a resident scholar in Collegeville in 1975 until now. I have lived very close to Benedictines – the Benedictine men of Saint John’s Abbey the Benedictine women of Saint Benedict’s Monastery here in Central Minnesota – and I hadn’t realized how much I had reflected on what my engagement with them had meant. As I was reading these things I began to think: Lurking in here is a response to Rod Dreher. I put some of those things together and made a proposal to Liturgical Press, where I sit on the Acquisitions Committee – so there’s maybe a kind of conflict of interest here – but I withdrew from discussion of my proposal, and my colleagues there did me a wonderful service. They said, “What you want to say is something more positive about Benedictinism rather than a contradiction of Dreher, so keep your argument with him in there but set it on the side in a sense and make the book an account of what you have come to appreciate about Benedictinism.”
So, as I said earlier, Flashes of Grace took about twelve years, Benedictine Options took about six months, partly because I was revved up, partly because some of it, though not all of it by any means, is based on some things I had already written, and I wanted to do it because I believed that Rod Dreher had hijacked friends of mine – that is, he had taken the tradition that friends of mine have committed their lives to and turned it into something that I believe is radically different from – even antithetical to – what my Benedictine friends are all about. I read that The Benedict Option has sold 77,000 copies, which means a whole lot of people have their impression of Benedictinism shaped by a view that says what we learned from Benedict is to separate ourselves off from this cold, dead, dark world – “cold, dead, and dark” is Dreher’s phrase used over and over again in the book. Not any Benedictine whom I know believes that the world is cold, dead and dark. For them, Benedict helps to understand the blessings, the light, the glories in the world rather than separating off from a world that is cold, dead, and dark.
I wanted to retrieve what I believe is the genius of the Benedictine tradition from what I consider the terrible distortion of it that is in Dreher’s book. He had taken my friends hostage, and I wanted to rescue them from this captivity.
My book was originally called The Benedictine Options, but at some point I suddenly realized that the definite article got it all wrong – it is not The Benediction Options – Benedictine options are always in process, there are always new ones bubbling up, sort of like virtual particles coming up out of the vacuum – you can’t predict what they will be. So, the very title itself, Benedictine Options, is a kind of riposte to The Benedict Option.
BA: Interesting, interesting! Well, it sounds like you were really driven.
PH: I was driven as much as I have been by anything I’ve ever undertaken to write, and there was a kind of intensity. It did happen very fast, not only because some of it was already done but also because I needed to speak for my friends, these people I have come to know and love through close association over nearly half a century.
BA: Speaking of which, let me read this endorsement from Kathleen Norris about the book. She says, “Patrick Henry, who has lived and worked among Benedictine men and women for many years, is offering us a refreshing and realistic look at the way that ancient Benedictine values are lived in the world today, at a time when so many societies are damaged by divisive ideology, naked greed, and lust for power. This book helps us to see there is another way. In these pages we find monastics – ordinary people living an extraordinary life of prayer and community – who make us realize that grounding oneself in love and hospitality is not ancient but always new, and more relevant than ever.” So, what that you know from studying these saints and the friends you know has helped ground you in love and hospitality?
PH: Let me sidle up to that. I will get to it, but I want to say first that for me maybe the most essential insight I have about Benedictinism is what I call the distinction between experiment and experimental. Frequently in college courses on utopias monasticism will be part of the syllabus, but monasticism does not belong in a syllabus on utopia at all. A utopia is an experiment in which the person in charge knows what the ideal is, whether it’s B. F. Skinner’s Walden Two or any of the other kinds of utopias that have been tried over the years, all of which disappear pretty quickly. Each of them is grounded in a visionary’s sense of what the human being should be and “I will construct a framework in which that will be developed and be fixed” – almost like fixing in amber – and that is exactly what the Rule of Benedict is not.
What Benedict managed to do was to write a charter for an experimental community. The abbot is to pay particular attention to the young, and, most important, the abbot has to pay special attention to every individual’s idiosyncrasies – and Benedict says at the end of the Rule that “this is just a little rule for beginners.” You get to the end of your career as a Benedictine and the most you can claim is to have made a good beginning; you cannot claim to have figured it out; you cannot claim to have lived perfectly the life you were created to live – so the whole notion of “God has a plan for your life” is somewhat askew from the Benedictine view, where the plan is that you enter a community in which, along with others, you discover in a lifetime a little bit about how you should live. But along with its just being a beginning there is the statement early in the rule that we run on the path of God’s commandments until they become natural, and we live with the inexpressible delight of love. “Inexpressible” there is the key – you don’t express it in some rules, nobody has in their head what that expression is. You ask how this has helped me? I think it has extricated me from the notion that I have to get it all figured out and that there is some set of rules, some model out there of the human being that I’m supposed to be, and has loosened me up to experiment and to learn from others.
I hope that in the book I have explained the distinction between experiment and experimental in a way that grabs people, because I do think if I am remembered for anything, I would like it to be that I figured out that the genius of the Rule of Benedict is it’s being experimental rather than an experiment. That just makes a whole lot of sense to me. It has been revolutionary, evolutionary, enlightening, freeing, joy engendering, all kinds of things I could say about it, but that’s at the heart of what the Benedictines have meant to me.
BA: I love that distinction between an experiment, a predefined experiment with a defined goal, and experimental, which is basically learning with the recognition that even by the end of your life there will still be more to learn, you haven’t got it all figured out.
PH: For me, that’s just logic. We’re humans; how can we presuppose that we’re going to figure it all out? Some people would say we can figure it out because God has us already told us all in the Bible. Well, in my study of the Bible there is hardly any position you can’t support from somewhere in the Bible. To me, the Bible is marvelous because it’s a handbook rather than a tourist guidebook.
One of the things that I began to think about as I was imagining our conversation is whether there’s anything that ties these two books together. I think what does tie them together is related to this whole notion of experimental.
I don’t know that there has been any moment in my life when I was so thunderstruck as I was by a moment that I mention in Chapter 2 of Flashes of Grace called “Perspective.” I was in Milwaukee at a conference at Marquette University. One of the other participants in this was Sir Henry Chadwick, one of the greatest church history scholars of the 20th century, who had been a teacher of mine at Oxford. He and I were the only two people from out of town who were there and we were staying in a hotel, so I got to have dinner and breakfast with Henry Chadwick alone – there are a whole lot of people in my line of work who would have given at least one arm if not both for the privilege of those two times with Chadwick. At breakfast I asked, “What are you working on now?” “Oxford University Press has been after me for years to do an updated version of The Early Church,” his book that was the standard text for anybody in that field, “and I have finally decided to respond positively to them.” I innocently and obviously asked, “Well, how does one do an updated version of a book that has become the standard in the field?” I assumed that he would say, “I’m adding a new preface and changing one or two things, adding one or two things I’ve changed my mind about, and maybe adding to the bibliography.” But what he said – I’m getting goosebumps now again all these years later just remembering it – he said, “I’m re-reading all the sources.” And Chadwick is one of very few people who could say all and honestly mean it.
What just overwhelmed me – and “thunderstruck” is the right word – was to see this great archetypal scholar saying, “Here I am in my eighth decade” – he was in his70s – “and I have read all this stuff and I’ve said what I had to say about it, but I’m going to read it all again to see what it says to me now, basically research everything, rethink it – and not just rethink but re-encounter it.” That is, he’s not just saying, when he reads the Shepherd of Hermas or Irenaeus or Augustine again, “Has what I used to think changed?” but it’s as if he’s reading it for the first time, he’s not prejudging it by what he had already thought about it. At least that’s the way I heard him. In 2001, at age 81, Chadwick published From Galilee to Gregory the Great: The Church in Ancient Society, a much bigger book than the first one, but it is not The Early Church “revised and expanded.” It is what all the sources said to Henry Chadwick in his eighth-going-on-ninth decade.
I was hoping that as I wrote about the encounters in Flashes of Grace – what do they say to me now? – I was re-reading the sources of my life in my ninth decade, and in Benedictine Options, triggered by Rod Dreher, what do I now want to say, what do I now see, about my engagement with my friends and my debt to these Benedictines – what do I see that I maybe had not seen before?
What holds the books together is the terror, the excitement, the exhilaration, the sense of obligation that I had in trying to re-read all the sources. I said at the beginning of our interview that I’ve been privileged beyond just about anybody’s ability to imagine and have for much of my life felt that I have a special responsibility to give back whatever I can. I hope I’ve got a lot yet to do.
BA: You’ve just published two amazing books, but I have to ask you what do you think is next?
PH: At the moment, I don’t know. I don’t know whether there’s another book in me. I’m in my fifteenth year as a monthly columnist for our local newspaper. I think both of these books reflect something that I’ve learned there: be fairly brief, so the chapters in Flashes of Grace are short; try to avoid polysyllables whenever possible; and the importance of wrapping things up at the end with something memorable, so at the end of each chapter of Flashes of Grace there’s called “In a word” where I try to summarize. I’ve learned from writing a newspaper column to compose short paragraphs and avoid run-on sentences. In response to your question, what I have learned is that when I started writing for the paper I figured I’d probably compose maybe a dozen columns, put them in a file folder, and pull them out as the months progressed. It doesn’t work that way at all. Once I have finished a column, I have absolutely no idea what the next month’s column is going to be; that’s partly because the newspaper wants it to be tied to the news, but I’ve learned that I am thinking things through without being aware of it, and when it comes time to write a column it’s already there, even though I wasn’t consciously thinking about it.
I do have my website (www.IronicChristian.org) – I call it “a place to eavesdrop” – where I periodically blog, and I discover that many of my blogs are reflections on other books I’ve been reading. So I can tell you right now there is not another book waiting in the computer or even in my head, or it may be waiting in my head but I don’t know it. It’s certainly not in the computer – yet I would never have predicted that in 2021 I would publish even one book, much less two. There’s never a way to know.
BA: I really encourage people to consider these two books. The first one again is Flashes of Grace: 33 Encounters with God and the second is Benedictine Options: Learning to Live from the Sons and Daughters of Saints Benedict and Scholastica. You can learn about both of those as well as everything else that Patrick does at www.IronicChristian.org. So, Patrick, thanks so much for joining us and thank you so much for all of these contributions that you’ve made – just incredibly impressive and inspiring.
PH: And thank you, Brian, for your questions. They have themselves prompted me to say things that I am mostly fairly glad to have said.