Shape and Substance

meditations on faith and church

Category: Uncategorized

Of Revivals and Awakenings

15 February 2023

As I write these words, students at Asbury University in Wilmore, KY, are participating in an event that is labeled by some a “revival” and by others an “awakening.” For the last week, students and faculty (and others) have been engaged in a round-the-clock religious catharsis leading to weeping, reconcilation, and a sense of that “God is moving.” According to persons familiar with what is taking place in various buildings on the campus, there is an “outpouring” similar to an “outpouring” that took place on the same campus in February 1970. 

An outpouring of what, exactly?

Those participating in and sympathetic to these events would answer that it is an outpouring of the Holy Spirit, prompting those who are its beneficiaries to greater religious fervor, deeper awareness of their own sin and culpability, more powerful experiences of forgiveness and mercy, and a broadening sense of love for brothers and sisters and, indeed, for the whole of creation. On the whole, not a bad set of benefits.

Those less sympathetic might suggest an outpouring of pent-up emotion, resulting from the societal frustrations and general malaise, public health restrictions on human-to-human contact, nervous economic forecasts of recessional woes, and unbreakable political gridlock, wars and rumors of wars—all of which have gripped this nation for the last decade or more. Depending on their receptivity to religious truth-claims, these respondents may or may not be willing to grant any role to the Holy in motivating the outpouring or vouchsafing its consequences. 

I don’t know. I am not and haven’t been there. 

In the interests of honesty about theological and social location, I acknowledge my general reluctance to credit claims of divinely inspired, emotionally cathartic changes of heart. I am a Presbyterian, a member of that ostensibly “frozen” body of Protestant believers who have historically relied on reason over emotion in assessing the validity of religious experience. My theology professor in seminary once cautioned our class about religions that rely too heavily on the role of the Spirit, a reliance (he claimed) that led to “inappropriate enthusiasms.” I heard those words nearly fifty years ago, but their resonance in my mind has never completely quieted. I am not generally sympathetic to evangelical emphases on individual righteousness and having a “personal relationship with Jesus as my savior.” I’m not individually (or corporately, for that matter) righteous and I don’t know what a “personal relationship with Jesus” is, at least in any sense that corresponds to the accepted definitions of “personal” and “relationship.” 

That said, I am also aware that reason and post-Enlightenment rationalism have not served the religious mind well. Reducing all spiritual experience to the movement of electrons along neuro-biological highways has a way of disenchanting the world, robbing it of its capacity for wonder and awe. If we think we can explain all phenomena through available means, even if those means are not immediately ready to hand, what is the point of faith? What is the point of poetry, or art, or music? The world is in need, as philosopher Charles Taylor has observed, of a theology of re-enchantment.

If I had to guess, I would say that the students of Asbury are our avatars in a quest for theological re-enchantment. There is something in the human—I hesitate over the choice of the next word: brain? mind? heart? spirit? soul?—that yearns for mystery, for encounter with that which defies all explanation and dwells in realms unreachable by reason. There is something in us that yearns to know—by whatever means such knowledge is attained—that we are not alone here, that we are in fact accompanied and gathered up in an ultimate reality that is infinite and timeless and vaster than imagination (to say nothing of language) can capture. Call that ultimate reality “Holy” or “Mystery” or “the Infinite” or even “God”; it is the grail of every spiritual quest.

The students of Asbury University are not the first to venture on (or, perhaps, be conscripted into) such a quest, whether in 1970 or now. The gathered believers on Azuza Street in Los Angeles in 1910, the Sioux and Cheyenne at Wounded Knee who were caught up in the Ghost Dance in 1890, the revivalists at Cane Ridge, KY, in 1801 (is there something about Kentucky soil that gives rise to revivalism?), the evangelistic preachers of the First Great Awakening in the 1730s and 1740s, and on and on through history—all of these are the spiritual ancestors of the students at Asbury. Some of those revivals ended in the institutionalization of their insights. Some resulted in church schisms that took generations to heal. Some ended cataclysmically, in slaughter and genocide born of fear and misunderstanding.

It’s too early to say which of these paths (or some other) the present outpouring at Asbury will take. But perhaps it’s not too early to offer a perspective on the great spiritual quest for the Holy, one drawn from the manuals of medieval spirituality. 

Perhaps the most famous of those manuals is The Cloud of Unknowing, written by an anonymous author in the late fourteenth century. Written in the form of advice from a wiser older teacher to a younger, more enthusiastic student, The Cloud provides a discipline for approaching the Divine. Using the story of Moses ascending into a thick, dark cloud on Mt Sinai (Ex 19:16-25; 24:1-18), The Cloud counsels that one approached God only in a “cloud of forgetting,” into which one consigns all presumed knowledge or thought, all conclusions or previously formed notions of God, so that one knows nothing and thinks nothing that might obstruct the truth of God. Such an approach requires “unsaying” all that has been said, “unknowing” all that has been known of God, because all things said and known are of human construction. Theologians call this “apophatic” theology, from a Greek word that means “to deny.”

In truth, of course, no theology and no approach to the Infinite can be truly, radically apophatic. Language itself constructs and represents reality with fixed, agreed-upon signs and symbols that have communicability. Such communication is the opposite of “apophatic” denial; it is “cataphatic” affirmation. We think in language, and so our thoughts are cataphatic. Our understanding of our experience can only be expressed in cataphatic terminology. 

The Cloud, and indeed the great body of medieval spiritual texts, would teach us not that we abandon cataphasis, but that we consistently pair it with apophasis. The would remind us that every affirmation of our experience of the divine must be accompanied with a negation; every “knowing” must also be “un-known.” All theology, all human experience of the Holy, is frail and limited and needs to be questioned, precisely because it is human. Even the experience of students in revivals at Asbury. Only by pairing cataphatic experience with apophatic skepticism can we begin to put any weight on that experience and use it as a foundation for growth. 

It is too early yet to assess Asbury’s latest revival. But in assessing it, I will be looking for the ability and willingness of those who experience it to critique and probe it, to “unsay” what the moment has led them to say, to “unknow” that which they believe, in light of this experience, they know. I am not asking them to deny the validity of the experience. I am looking for humility in conclusions and openness in interpretations. I am looking for them to help me—help all of us—grow. Maybe, I am hoping, those students may have a new thing or two to teach even an old dog like me.


By blood and by choice, we make our ghosts; we haunt ourselves.
				—Diana Gabaldon, Drums of Autumn.

You are not alone here.

The mirror cracks and shatters
In myriad tinkling falling slivers
That whisper like a Judas kiss.
A thousand eyes, framed by a thousand faces
Accuse, forgive, dissect and reassemble.
But the parts don’t match, and symmetry
Is vanity’s vision. 
Did you think your secrets would survive this?

Your name, too, lies 
Shattered among the shards. 
It is not so much that you pretended
But that you trusted the pretending.
It is not so much that you dreamed
But that you thought you were worthy 
of a dream.

No surprise, then, that this mirror broke,
But that it was one piece so long,
So many years allowing the impression
Of one face, one well-considered spirit,
Serenity, solidity, self-control.
But behind the eyes, so many. 
So very many.

Too shattered now for re-collection,
Too many razored reasons,
Too many jagged memories, 
Cut deep the fingers given to repair.
The fissured faces speak with single voice;
From a thousand mouths, they tell
The truth:
No glue can mend the fragments of a shattered soul.

Mirrors are haunted houses.

Matins, Christmas Morning*

O magnum mysterium …
		-Fourth Responsory for Matins on Christmas Day

Mystery needs no consecration.
It sighs in the wind, 
crackles in the hoarfrost,
burrows earthworm tunnels in the loam,
eddies in the water where trout hold, unheard, unseen—
deep writ into the warp and weft of things.
…et admirabile sacramentum… 

I wake before the house,
stand on the back porch in the wintry air 
of the not-yet-dawn of day. 
Cold flash-freezes sleep within my brain. 
The dog is attending to his urges,
aware, I imagine, that the brittle grass he sniffs
and the wisps exhalant from his nose
are pregnant with Mystery.
It waits to be born. 
Or no—
it is already here, has always been here,
before we began these daily offices
of field and forage. 
He knows.
He knows because he is Mystery. 
He clothes Mystery in the soft swaddling of his fur. 
…ut animalia viderunt…

Borrowed Question: Why is this night different from all others?
Answer 1: It is the same as every other.
Answer 2: There has never been another like it. 
Answer 3: It is the womb of a new creation.

Dawn breaks, a birthing mother.
Fluid light soaks the horizon.
Mystery is being born. Again. 
Each morning is birth, 
each evening is death,
…dominum natum iacentem in praesepio…

Sanguine and pure,
Mystery pulses in the veins of creation, 
coursing with the nourishment of life—
or spills, pouring out onto the land,
a death that does not die
but seeps between the living rocks 
into light-starved caverns of creation,
an aquifer recharged by wonder,
semen come at last 
to the womb’s dark heart.
It gestates there, in night-bound silence, waiting...
O beata virgo, cuius viscera meruerunt portare dominum Iesum Christum…

The dog has finished his oblations.
I cinch my robe against the cold
and reach behind me for the doorknob. 
Inside is warmth, and food, and she, asleep.
the stuff of today, each day.

Why is this day different from all other days?
It is no different.
There will never be another like it.
Mystery is born this day. Again.

*slightly edited from the version published 12/25/22


We stand on evening’s verge
Where laps the night at daylight’s shore 
And wonder at time’s dwindling store
Of light, while light and darkness merge,
And life, against death’s whelming surge.

The heart would take to flight
And soar above the reach of fear,
The anguished cry, the baleful tear,
The dark’ning dread of deep’ning night—
O lift our hearts; O raise our sight!

To evening’s edge we bear
Both day and night, still torn in twain.
But distant whispers Love’s refrain:
Be not afraid: my peace I share;
Let not your heart be troubled there.

Then watch ‘til night is done,
And o’er the soul’s horizon, see
That Day that Love shall cause to be,
That Dawn of time’s eternal sun,
That Light where light and dark are one. 


Standin’ at the crossroads, I b’lieve I’m sinkin’ down.—Robert Johnson

Somewhere down a Delta road, a cross
Stark and white against the greenleaf, raised 
By some fervent Baptist, otherwise at loss
To understand why some souls are saved

And others lost. Robert Johnson, tale is told,
Met the devil at the crossroads south of Rosedale
And the devil wrapped his hand ‘round Robert’s soul
And squeezed ‘til every song was a blues-y wail. 

The one chord digs the hole where the soul should be;
The four’s the soul’s last struggle, though in vain.
The five’s the height from which the soul can see 
The one again, like a long black train

Arriving at the graveyard. Could we choose,
We all would sell our souls to sing the blues. 

Driving through the Mississippi Delta not long ago, I saw a sight. Made me think about the blues. This sonnet has been knocking on the inside door of my brain ever since, trying to get out. 

Parting Words

For Ted*

Here at time’s edge, we seek those words that know
What time portends within its spinning gyre,
What path to other hearths, to other fires,
That passes on the flame you’ve sought to grow.
We would assume the task to fuel the glow
And nurture what your labors yet inspire
Until such time as time itself acquires
That holy place whence Fire itself must flow.

Yet ‘tis only in that Fire that hearts perceive—
And not by human art but by divine—
The greatest treasure: not what we achieve
But what is giv’n: the long eternal line
That binds together hearts in heaven’s weave
Where minutes measure not, nor words define. 

*In honor and on the occasion of Rev. Dr. Theodore J Wardlaw as president of Austin Presbyterian Theological Seminary.

The Tree at the Edge of the World

A juniper tree grows at the edge of the world.
Bony-fingered roots claw at the face
of limestone, white-knuckled with the pain;
tenacious, they clutch the fragile hope
of strength to grip the ledge in howling wind,
of one more day to gaze into the void. 

Gnarled and twisted limbs lean toward the void,
silent hands outstretched reach to the world.
What the tree gives up to scouring wind
it keeps in tortured lines etched on its face.
This stony perch the last outpost of hope,
last station in the dolorous path of pain.

What hand would plant you here to bear such pain,
such silent, lonely vigil in the void?
What mind create you testament to hope,
a stele at the frontier of the world?
What heart inscribe its suffering on your face?
What voice cry Eli, Eli to the wind?

No answer. The eternal moaning wind 
soon or late will bring an end to pain,
will pry your grip from off the stony face
of life and send you spinning in the void.
Nothing so strong lives in this windswept world
As wind that wearies of the hope of hope.

And yet. You have been centuries of hope.
Half a thousand years lived in this wind
have shown you stubborn to the world,
inured to hardship, resilient in pain,
rooted in the rock before the void,
the suffering of joy writ on your face.

I have not the courage of that face
nor have I the reservoir of hope
to brave the emptiness, the void,
and cling to rocky ledges in the wind.
What I offer is my share of pain
To mingle with your joy before the world.

So shall we stand at edge of void to face
The world—the sun, the rocks—and dare to hope?
Who knows? The wind may yet bring joy in pain.
		--Paul Hooker, 2022

photo credit: Paul K Hooker, 2022.

What I Believe

She asked, in substance if not in these words, “What do you believe?” 

It may be easier to start with what I do not believe. 

I do not believe in believing, at least not the way most people define that term. For most people most of the time, “believe” is a synonym for “think” or perhaps “agree with.” As in, “I believe it will rain this afternoon.” Or perhaps, to say, “I believe in the Virgin Birth” is to some the religious equivalent of “I pledge allegiance to the flag.” As though believing were a matter of acquiescing to a creed, be it religious or political. If that is what it means to believe, then I do not believe in much of anything at all. 

But that is not what believing means to me. Rather, I think believing is a far deeper, non-logical, reflexive response to something outside my control, like falling love or withdrawing my fingers from a hot stove. Better yet, believing is the constriction that tightens my throat and the tears that flood my eyes when I hear the second movement of Bernstein’s Chichester Psalms, and the trusting, unadorned voice of a boy soprano singing Adonai ro’i lo’ echsar (“The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want”) above the roiling, angry chorus of male voices grumbling lama rag’shu goyim, lama rag’shu (“Why do the nations rage?”)Believing rises from the same place as the stunned silence to which I am reduced when I watch the rising sun set fire to the clouds at dawn above the lake as I take my morning walk. Believing is what happens when a fourteen-inch brown trout, just released from the hook, arches its muscular back, leaps free from my grasp, and returns to its own sovereign universe in a spray of watery gold and light. I do not choose to believe. Believing happens.

Once, when I was a Boy Scout, my troop took a trip to Cumberland Caverns, near McMinnville, TN. We were led through the cave by the guides, who ushered our group into a large chamber lit by bare electric light bulbs, deep in bowels of the earth. My troop was among the first to enter the chamber, and we were instructed to move all the way across and sit down on the floor along the far side of the room. I did as I was told, sitting next to the chamber wall, within arm’s reach of rocks so unimaginably old and massive that they must surely have been among the pillars that held up the world. Once we were settled, the guides told us they were going to turn out the lights.” We live in a world where there is almost always at least some light,” said one young man, wiser than his years would have suggested. “Very few of us experience what total darkness actually feels like. You’re about to find out.” And with that, he turned out the lights, and my world abruptly ended. 

To say that darkness fell on the chamber is like describing a Category 5 hurricane as a gentle breeze. Darkness opened its gigantic maw and consumed me like some hungering cosmic beast, swallowed me whole, sucked me down beneath the surface of some great demonic flood that obliterated everything I hoped for or understood or relied on. It was a darkness so complete as to engulf all creation and leave nothing left over, not even dreams. It was a darkness utterly indifferent to my existence. In the instant that it took that darkness to chase away the light and possess the chamber, I experienced what I can only describe as the dissolution of my personality. My friends, my scout leaders, the tour guides—and beyond them, my parents, my sister, my teachers in school, my church—my world were gone, vanished, obliterated in the ravening dark. I would say that I became completely confined within my own mind except that I was not sure that my mind any longer existed. I remember deciding to raise my hand to my face as a way of establishing that I still existed in the flesh, and then being startled to the core by the sudden, alien touch of my own fingers against my own nose. 

I remember feeling dizzy and disoriented, as though up and down had lost meaning as directional verities of the universe, as though I was tumbling, wildly pitching and yawing, through an endless, lightless void. I reached out reflexively, blindly, for something—anything—to arrest my fall. My hand struck that solid, immovable, unimaginably ancient rock wall, the foundation on which rested the weight of creation. 

Immediately everything changed. As suddenly as the vertiginous darkness had deprived my senses of orientation, so suddenly did the world right itself and cease its nauseating, rolling tumble. I knew where I was. More important, I knew who I was. I was a child of a family who lived on a street in a neighborhood and went to school and was a member of a scout troop on a tour of a cave. I knew up from down, right from left, good from evil. My hand touching the rock was the essential connection to the foundations of creation that gave my life meaning and purpose and self. 

I did not know it—and could not have said it—at the time, but in that moment, I learned what it means to believe. Believing is the reflexive reaching out to touch the Foundation of Things. It is not a decision one makes. It is not a set of ideas one either agrees to or rejects. It is not a body of doctrine one uses or a canon of stories one recounts to construct a worldview. It is not a choice between competing ideologies. All those things may come later, when the lights come back on, and the cave tour moves out of the chamber and back to the surface. In the darkness, though, none of them matter. 

“God is Three in One and One in Three.” “The Word became flesh and dwelled among us.” “Jesus is fully human and fully divine.” Born of a virgin. Raised from the dead. Savior of the world. For me, these and other such theological truth-claims are only metaphors for truth, and not the Truth in themselves. They are tiny lights by which I grope my way in the eternal darkness and give imaginative shape to mysteries I do not understand and cannot explain. Their value is not in themselves, but in the unseeable, unknowable, unsayable mystery that they, if only partially, illumine. I use them to give broken, halting language to what I do believe. If I lift them up for a time, it is only for the purpose of dispelling for a few more steps the gloom that forever hovers at the edges of their feeble light. Inevitably, though, they burn out or grow dim and must be abandoned and replaced. I do not believe them. In the end, believing is the involuntary response to the crisis of existence that makes all these metaphors possible, and without which none of those metaphors means anything at all. Believing is trust that somewhere in the darkling existential tumble of human life, there is a rock.

So, what do I believe? 

I believe in the rock in the darkness. 



Norma Porter Hooker
12 April 1925 - 5 August 2021 
Requiescat in pace

Sometimes death is a thief
who in dark of night gains entry 
through the soul’s unlocked windows
and steals that most precious of all treasure—
Or else a pickpocket in a surging crowd
who with deftest sleight of hand
snatches a wallet full of hope and expectation,
dissolves into the teeming throng, and 

Sometimes death is an enemy
whose ruthless forces, blades in sunlight glinting,
banners waving to declare the fight,
deny the living even one more day, one hour, of
Or else a judge, benched in darkling robes
and somber, grim-faced and dispassionate,
pronouncing sentence upon one standing 
in the well, innocent or guilty, who comes to

But not today. 

Today death is a faithful, trusted servant
late on his quotidian rounds, and hastening
to match his quota of souls who with overdue accounts
must wait, arms akimbo, foot tapping, for promised
Better still, today death is a friend, long lost 
and long loved if also long delayed, who arriving, 
taps quiet at the door to make us turn and, 
with warming smiles, greet her as she enters, just in

The Hole in the Heart of God

Pleased to announce that my new book, The Hole in the Heart of God: Stories of Creation and Redemption, is now available for purchase. The book consists of two parts: Part One is a series of poems and poetic prayers arranged for use as an Easter vigil, but also simply for reading and reflection. Part Two is a series of “ruminations” in prose form on themes and ideas arising from the poetry. In both, I’ve sought to lay alongside each other the mythic retellings of the story of the creation and redemption of the world that play through both Jewish and Christian mysticism.

If you’re interested, the book is available from or directly from the publisher at In either case, type my name in the search line and the book will come up. Cost is $13.00.

I would love to hear from you about your reactions. Please leave a comment and let me know what you think.

— Paul