I witnessed an Anglican-style conversion worked by God through Bill Countryman in a country church in Virginia. Bill, an Episcopal priest and scholar, is not a pyrotechnics preacher/teacher – quite the contrary. He is soft-spoken, and precise; full of humor, but not broad humor. You are asked, implicitly, to live up to your “better angels” when you are in his class or congregation. And there in Virginia a retired businessman, a trucking company owner, found himself undergoing a spiritual transformation as he listened to Bill talk about poetry, and the Bible, the Church and faith.
Bill has been helping many of us out over the years. One of his less-well-known books, The Mystical Way in the Fourth Gospel, was a text I used to teach the Gospel of John twenty-five years ago when I was first ordained. That book remains among the most insightful I’ve every read on that most insightful of gospels.
Now Bill Countryman has a new book out, Calling on the Spirit in Unsettling Times. It is a slender volume in a series, Canterbury Studies in Anglicanism. I recommend it to you. In it Bill explores some of the traces of the Spirit moving through what we all recognize as unsettling times. Some of the ways we may apprehend the Spirit’s presence among us include images of Jesus, and the communion of saints. Typical of Bill, both these categories of experience, so well-trodden as to seem ho-hum to some, get face lifts in this lively book.
With the images of Jesus, Bill take us on journeys through time and space, in sixth-century Ravenna, and medieval Florence, and ending up in Lucca. The bookends, Ravenna and Lucca, startle us with images of Jesus that are not meant to stir up gilt but rather awaken the sense of being loved.
The communion of saints is expanded to include not only angels like Yosemite and our redwood forests, but also – you and me. “…this more ordinary sainthood…this is nothing to be scoffed at. This is the warp and woof of the fabric of human community, the fabric of human life. This is where everyday human reality lives and breathes…The Spirit never stops breezing through us like the wind, never stops breathing new life through each of us into our neighbor.” (p. 69)
And if you and I are in this group of the “great haloes,” then we had better be ready to be called to action. “…the [Spirit] has no qualms at all about sending raw recruits out to the dirty work. So no matter how sure you are that you have nothing to offer to this task, do not imagine that you’re safe. You remember the Pentecost story. The Spirit descended upon the disciples. She made them behave strangely. She outed them in a hostile environment. She forced them into action.”
Bill, a poet and lover of poetry, frames this book with the prayers and poems of Christina Rossetti. He makes the point that she lived in unsettled times too (but who hasn’t, I wonder). It is a pleasure to be introduced to helpful prayers and poems from this person who wrote one of our most beautiful hymns, which I have deeply loved for years, “In the bleak midwinter.” The core of one of her prayers, that Bill gives us to meet these times, is “Rule all hearts by Thy Most Holy Spirit.” Use Bill’s book to both learn to recognize this elusive but always-available Spirit, and to ask her to rule in all our hearts.