The William Stringfellow Project: A Second Birthday

We are past the halfway point of The William Stringfellow Project where I read all of Stringfellow's books, in chronological order, in their first editions. The Project has fourteen titles and we've already gone through seven. The eighth book on the list is A Second Birthday, published by Doubleday in 1970. Original cover pictured here.

A Second Birthday is one of the theological memoirs of Stringfellow's oeuvre, a style he first used with My People is the Enemy and will use again. Specifically, A Second Birthday weaves in Stringfellow's theological observations as he tells the story of his puzzling illness, the precipitous decline in his health, his brush with death, surgery, and recuperation. As far as his life situation is concerned, Stringfellow was no longer living in Harlem but had moved to Block Island with the poet Anthony Towne.

In Part 1 of the book "Ordeal" as Stringfellow's health deteriorates, he dwells upon the experience and theology of pain. Here he observes how American Christianity has avoided a theology of pain, an avoidance that has produced a calloused indifference to suffering:
[G]iven the dignity of the mystery of pain, it is very surprising that so little has been uttered, since Job himself, concerning the theology of pain. American religiosity (as distinguished from biblical faith or theology), meanwhile, remains so hapless and absurd that, generally, it denies the reality of pain or else treats pain as a punishment for immorality. It is such religiose attitudes about pain that explain the profound, and primitive, indifference of institutional religion in America to human suffering occasioned by social injustice.
In Part 2 "Succor" Stringfellow meditates upon his decision to have surgery, a surgery that involved no small risk. In thinking about the theology of decision-making Stringfellow argues that "Decision is a vocational event." By this Stringfellow means that every decision we make, no matter how small or where we might make it, impacts the Christian calling. Every choice is a stone on the path of our vocation, our direction in life. And where should that path lead? What should all our decisions--big and small--be pointing toward? Stringfellow:
Vocation has to do with recognizing life as a gift and honoring the gift in living.
In Stringfellow's case the anxiety was about making the right decision regarding surgery so that he might live another day. But that anxiety, though legitimate, was interfering with his honoring the gift of living today:
In the Gospel, vocation means being a human being, now, and being neither more, nor less, than a human being now...And, thus, each and every decision, whether it seems great or small, whether obviously or subtly a moral problem, becomes and is a vocational event, secreting, as it were, the very issue of existence.
In short, our vocation is simply being a human being, now. Nothing more, nothing less. That's the only real decision we have to make. And we make it every moment of every day, over and over.

Later in Part 2 Stringfellow turns to the issue of prayer, describing the essence of prayer as "a confession of human creatureliness," a recognition of our limitations and ultimate reliance upon God. In describing this Stringfellow offers up this profound (and shocking if you are a delicate soul) meditation on the nature of prayer:
When I write that my own situation in those months of pain and decision can be described as prayer, I do not only recall that during that time I sometimes read the Psalms and they became my psalms, or that, as I have also mentioned, I occasionally cried "Jesus" and that name was my prayer, but I mean that I also at times would shout "Fuck!" and that was no obscenity, but a most earnest prayerful utterance.

In the final analysis, no matter what the vocabulary of prayer, or where muteness displaces words in prayer, the content--what is communicated by an individual in the world before God--in prayer is in each and every circumstance the same and it can be put plainly in one word: Help!
If you've ever suffered greatly (physically or emotionally) I'm sure you will identify with the observation that "Fuck!" can be, at times, the ultimate expression of prayer--an utterance of profound desolation, dependency, weakness, loss, pain, desperation, and vulnerability.

In Part 3 "Recall" Stringfellow reflects upon his decision to have have surgery and the fortuitous events that lead him to his surgeon. This "good luck" prompts Stringfellow to reflect on the nature of divine providence. He concludes that providence isn't God pulling the strings for us, making it all work out just right. Perhaps, Stringfellow argues, "everything is providential":
If everything is providential, then providence means the constant and continual renewal of God's grace in all situations for every person throughout time. If everything is providential then providence refers to God's capacity and His willingness to redeem all of life. It means that no circumstances ever arise which are beyond God's care or reach. It means that the power and reality of death at work concretely in the world is never so ascendant or successful that resurrection--the transcendence of death and the restoration of life--is either irrelevant or precluded. If everything is providential, then the issue in living is the patience and ingenuity of God's grace, and we need never live bereft of hope.
God's providence is the capacity to find life in the midst of the rubble of life. A capacity that requires "the patience and ingenuity of God's grace."

In the final part of the book "Hope" Stringfellow comes successfully through surgery. That he survived his illness and surgery is described by his friends as "a miracle." Stringfellow ends the book by reflecting on that word. He concludes that we use the word to convey our deep sense of gratitude for the gift of life: "I realized that what miracle signified to all who had invoked it about my survival was a gratitude for my recovery from death."

But Stringfellow goes on. A miracle did happen in his recovery and survival. And the miracle was this final realization:
[L]ife is a gift which death does not vitiate or void: faith is the acceptance, honoring, rejoicing in that gift. That being so, in my own story, it did not matter whether I died. Read no resignation or indifference into this confession. It is freedom from the moral bondage to death that enables us to live humanly and to die at any moment without concern.

Or, forsaking words, one can act, that is, anyway, a plainer way to speak.
This is the miracle of resurrection, the "freedom from the moral bondage to death that enables us to live humanly."

And to remind himself of that fact upon returning home Stringfellow named his house:
On Block Island, it is a custom for folk to name their homes. Sometime after immigrating to the Island, I had obtained a sign which I intended to put up for this purpose, but I had not done so. First thing, the morning after that second meal with Bengt and Anthony [a meal that starts off the book after Stringfellow returned home from surgery], I mounted the sign upon the gatepost...
What did Stringfellow name his home? This:


The name of his house is "a message," Stringfellow concludes, for his Block Island neighbors "and for everyone else."

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7 thoughts on “The William Stringfellow Project: A Second Birthday”

  1. Thanks so much for this exposition on Stringfellow, and especially for the insight that shouting “Fuck” can be counted as prayer. It turns out I have been praying without ceasing since my 10 year old grand son died. Obliged.

  2. I actually don't like the word "warfare." I prefer words like struggle or resistance. Spiritual struggle, spiritual resistance. Whatever the opposite of moral apathy or resignation might be. I think this entire series would improve by bringing in resources like Ganhdi's notion of satyagraha with its connotations of firmness, struggle, and insistence on holding onto the truth with love.

  3. I really appreciate "everything is providential." The old saw that coincidences are small miracles in which God chooses to remain anonymous gets at the same reality. And is a much needed corrective to magical thinking or the Santa God. Thanks for your continuing flow of such good food for becoming people-ly (Fr. William McNamara's equivalent to humanly) as possible.

  4. Insightful.

    Vocation as "simply being human now" puts the issue into the what and how of living at this moment.

    Life as a gift which is "freedom from the moral bondage to death that enables us to live humanly."

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