Good Old  Obadiah – or “What’s in Your  Canon?”


In The Curse of Cain Regina Schwartz offers some stimulating reflections on the way the people of Israel, and the Christian church that grew out of it, gradually wove together what we call the canon of Scripture. She describes a process by which the stories of significant events in the life of the people were told and, more pointedly, re-told across the centuries. The re-telling occurred under new social and political conditions, and as a result the salient features of the story would shift in their relative importance, leading to a different emphasis and meaning. Re-telling was inevitably re-interpretation.


As she points out, it’s all about shared memory and its relationship to community formation. Certain events in the life of a group are lifted out of the group’s global consciousness simply by being re-told (I would add: re-prayed), over and over. The very repetition contributes to fixing them as decisive or paradigmatic of the group. And in that process other events that might have seemed equally preoccupying at the time retreat into the background. In many instances they fade so much that when they are referred to at a later date we can scarcely identify the reference. As Schwartz notes:


If, in theory, canonization was an effort to fix the boundaries of the community, in practice both the community and its memories resisted such fixity. Furthermore, the very process of canonization was at odds with the way even so-called canonized narratives assumed shape: with their multiple and conflicting versions of memories, they mock the notion of a single authoritative one. (p. 148)


Canons. Canon-ization. Shared memories. Her train of reflection got me to thinking of the canonizing process at work in different circles within the contemporary church. Canonizing of heroes and heroines, and canonizing of prayer forms and texts. When we engage, over extended periods, with people whom we value, it inevitably shapes our consciousness. Some themes become more central while others retreat into the background.


I wonder how much of the attitudes of Catholics who reached adulthood before Vatican II might be attributed to the fact that in the Sunday liturgies for centuries they heard passages solely from the Gospel of Matthew? Of course Mark, Luke, and John remained part of the official biblical canon through all that period. But just think of all the works and words of Jesus they weren’t being exposed to. In some instances, perhaps only a small nuance was left unspoken; in others, entire events of significance for understanding, and challenging our grasp of Jesus and his mission went unheard. What? No Samaritan woman at the well?


Much has been written about a generation gap on a variety of religious issues within today’s church. Young Catholics put a different valence on particular aspects of our religion than their elders. It might be fruitful to consider the possibility that much of the gap might have deeper roots than mere chronological age. The differences might be based in what we could call an operative canon gap. The official canon always remains the word of the Lord: for all of us, to be sure. It is always a reliable source one can turn to with the assurance of divine guidance. But within that official guide some readings are more ‘operative’ than others: they recur more frequently, particularly in the church’s liturgical rituals or its preaching or its catechetical materials. Or in the consciousness and prayer of the faithful in the pews.


Truth to tell, we each have our own personal operative ‘canon.’ It includes the texts we find personally engaging or comforting or challenging. And leaves out whole other globs of biblical material. It gets formed whether the fact is acknowledged or not. And necessarily so.


For one reason, the scope of the biblical writings is too vast to hold all of it equally in one’s consciousness. And that’s quite apart from the arcane nature of some of its contents. After all, the author of 2 Peter, in a phrase that is scripturally inspired but also surely droll in intent, admitted that “brother” Paul’s letters contain “some things hard to understand” (2 Peter 3:16). Each person’s spiritual needs, the reason we turn to the texts, are different. And more importantly, the single mystery that the biblical texts are attempting to communicate infinitely transcends the capacity of even inspired human speech. Each phrase, or even each book in its entirety, offers but an infinitesimal peek into a light that is too blinding for our finite spirits.


Then beyond our individual predilections we become like the communities we pray with. And each of those communities has its own canon. A canon of prayer formulas and a canon of ‘saints’ looked up to as models to be emulated. It’s not – or at least shouldn’t be – a competition, one cast of characters and scripts ‘better’ than the other. It’s just that we’re faced with a rich array of attractions, each drawing some people and not others. All are inspired by the same Spirit which still blows wherever it wills, sometimes to the chagrin of official – or semi-official – boundary-makers.


So welcome to a tour of the midway. Over there you will find a circle gathered around Merton and his seeds of contemplation. The lode-star for some others of that era might be  Teilhard’s Hymn of the Universe. Then invoke the name Nouwen and you show you’ll join a group that finds rich food for prayer in the brokenness of all healers. Off on one side there’s a blissful group luxuriating in the contemplations of Juliana of Norwich or Hildegard of Bingen. While another group (who might never have heard of those two spiritual giants) finds the strength to confront the principalities and powers of this world in the prayer of Archbishop Romero. John Paul II gathered many with the inspirations of Faustina and the celebration of divine mercy, while the Ignatian cohort mines the implications of the Suscipe. A more cosmopolitan, if smaller, group draws life from the well of Thich Nhat Hanh, as others ponder the galaxies with Thomas Berry. And go anywhere in the world and you will hear the peace prayer of that fellow from Assisi: “and let it begin with me.” Meanwhile millions (but fewer today) find the rosary quite adequate for their spirits, thank you. And then, almost lost in the midst of the stars, are the unassuming members of the addiction world, for whom the Serenity Prayer is not a spiritual luxury but rather the only thin life-line that gets them from Tuesday to Wednesday.


I apologize if I have, quite unintentionally, overlooked a key element in your canon. Oh, there’s a group gathered around that oddly named Breastplate of St. Patrick, with its powerful evocation of an all-pervasive Christ: within and without, before and behind and under and over. And a cluster of our Eastern brothers and sisters inviting us to join them in the powerful Jesus prayer. And perhaps you will allow me to offer my own personal candidate, from the Didache:  Remember, Lord, Thy Church, to deliver it from all evil and to make it perfect in Thy love, and gather it from the four winds, sanctified for Thy kingdom which Thou have prepared for it; for Thine is the power and the glory for ever.


Elements in our operative canons wax and wane, whether as individual believers or even as a church.  Just consider good old Obadiah. You’ll find him in the official canon of Scripture, wedged in between Amos and Jonah. At a mere 21 verses long and made up of some pretty rough fulminations against the Edomites, I doubt that you have ever looked to him for spiritual nourishment or guidance. But at some point along the way, when other nominees for inclusion in the canon were being screened out, Obadiah’s words must have struck a chord with the screeners. The Lord was saying something the people needed to hear. Not exactly a soft rain gently soaking the earth but water for that particular time’s thirst.  


Now he enjoys a dubious, sad distinction. Out of the whole biblical canon he’s the only author whose words are never cited in the official prayer of the church. I can only imagine him as the walk-on who made the team and scrimmaged every day to help hone the skills of the scholarship guys. And then never got into a real game. His jersey doesn’t hang from the rafters. But hey, he got his letter.


The journey from Abraham to the Kingdom is a long and winding road. Let’s shower appropriate acclaim on the five-star prophets who light our ways for long stretches. But then not forget the occasional Obadiah who helped us to get from Wednesday to Thursday. And then faded into the mist.



George B. Wilson, S.J., is a retired church consultant in Cincinnati, Ohio. E-mail: