Today we continue with some reflections on a wonderful elder, Père M. D. Chenu, o.p., who modeled the Grandfather archetype of the Sacred Masculine in my life.

I recall a French journalist who did a series of interviews with theologians in the 1980’s. Chenu was twice as old as the other interviewees but the journalist drew this conclusion: “Chenu was the youngest person I interviewed.”

“Marie-Dominique Chenu” (Wikipedia)

Unlike the many professors and academic systems who then and even today demonstrate sado-masochistic relationships with their students, always one-upping them or putting them down, I never once witnessed such behavior from Père Chenu.  He encouraged our thinking, listened to our questions and ideas, uplifted and empowered us, yet challenged us continually.  After I returned home and started writing books I would send them to him and he invariably responded with a short note that would include this phrase: “We are in perfect communion of thought.”

In my essay for the book The Order of the Sacred Earth, I found myself citing Père Chenu alongside the important work of Naomi Klein because he was such an astute observer of the cultural influences on religion and spirituality (for example, he would bring art books to class of the Gothic Cathedrals of the Middle Ages and say, “you can’t study spirituality without studying the art and architecture of the period.”)  He did not see religion in a vacuum but very much an integral whole with the rest of society and in response to it. 

He called the twelfth century renaissance “the only renaissance that worked in the West” because it was not top down but from the bottom up.  The spiritual awakening of that time not only fueled the new University movement and the new Gothic architectural revolution but it insisted on “reading the signs of the times” rather than wallowing in past historical myths and exploits.  Feudal Christendom was challenged by gospel values organized into a “disruptive force.”

Yves-Marie-Joseph Congar, left, and Père Chenu, right. (Cardijn Research)

The last time I saw Chenu he was 91 years old and nearly blind.  He put his arm around me and said, wagging his finger: “Never forget that the greatest tragedy in theology of the last 300 years has been the divorce of the theologian from the dancer, the poet, the painter, the musician and the film maker.”  He saw the connection between art as meditation and justice-making—a connection we will be considering soon as we develop the theme of “Art as Meditation—the Way of the Prophets.” 

Chenu, who used to say, “I never did theology from an arm chair,” died at 95, the day Nelson Mandela was released from prison. He was the youngest man I knew.

Matthew Fox, Confessions: The Making of a Postdenominational Priest
Matthew Fox and Skylar Wilson and Jennifer Listug, Order of the Sacred Earth, pp. 47-49.
Banner image: “North Rose Window of Notre-Dame de Paris, Aug 2010,” Julie Anne Workman [CC BY-SA 3.0 (]

Queries for Contemplation

In prayerful meditation, sit with the following questions: what are the insights that they open within you?

  • What is your experience with elders? 
  • What is your experience as an elder? 
  • How are you reaching out to the younger generation if you are older; how are you reaching out to the older generation if you are younger? 
  • Can you listen to one another’s stories and presence as you do a Lectio Divina deep listening?

Recommended Reading

Matthew Fox’s stirring autobiography, Confessions, reveals his personal, intellectual, and spiritual journey from altar boy, to Dominican priest, to his eventual break with the Vatican. Five new chapters in this revised and updated edition bring added perspective in light of the author’s continued journey, and his reflections on the current changes taking place in church, society and the environment.

By Matthew Fox, Skylar Wilson, and Jen Listug
“The Order of the Sacred Earth not only calls us home to our true nature as Earth, but also offers us invaluable guidance and company on the way.” 
~~ Joanna Macy, environmental activist and author of Active Hope
“The creation of the Order of the Sacred Earth is a magnificent step forward for humanity.”  ~~ Andrew Harvey, author of Way of Passion and The Hope.

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9 thoughts on “M. D. Chenu and <br>the Sacred Masculine”

  1. Avatar

    Good morning Rev Fox,

    Thank you so much for the Daily Meditations. I enjoy connecting with your this way. I only recently started receiving you daily emails. I first heard of you years ago from an article in the Milwaukee Journal. I don’t recall exactly what the article was about, but you were making the mews ! 

    I was wondering if you know of Bishop John Shelby Spong. I have read many of his books and even met him and his wife Christine when they were at a conference in Milwaukee. He had a stroke but I have not heard anything about how he is doing. Perhaps you may know something.

    Margret Ollis

    1. Gail Ransom

      Dear Margret, Thank you for writing. We are glad to have you along our Daily Meditation journey, please continue to connect with us.

      Indeed, Matthew knows Bishop John Shelby Spong. They have commented on each other’s work often throughout their careers. Why not try a book by Matthew as well?
      Gail Sofia Ransom
      For the DM Team

  2. Avatar
    Beverly Mayne Kienzle

    Thank you for this beautiful meditation on M. D. Chenu. I never met him, but I treasure his works and still go back to his Nature, Man, and Society as a valued resource.

  3. Avatar

    Thank you for signing us up. Have heard of Mathew Fox for years. Have read only a bit but have always appreciated his bold and creative theology. Hopefully with a strong hue of Charin.
    Wife and i read and meditation daily and relie on Richard Rohr. His recent book: ‘The Universal Christ’ is magnificent. Hope Fox and Rohr follow one another. Looking forward to daily meditations.


    Morry Lindros

  4. Carol Kilby

    Such a powerful and probing reflection brought me back to an experience of an Uncle who was a grandfather archetype for me. He connected to me without judgement but rather at the heart. Also Matt has been for me the theological elder. And so I wish him happy Father’s Day with gratitude.

    1. Gail Ransom

      Dear Carol,
      It is good to hear from you and know that you are on this Daily Meditation with us! Thank you for the reminder of the role of theological grandfather that Matthew has played for so many of us. What an enormous extended family he has! Happy Father’s Day!

  5. Avatar

    I’ve been reading the DMs for a good while and appreciate them very much. There was an excerpt from Matthew’s book The Hidden Spirituality of Men that I was reading and I can’t seem to locate that link again.
    Can you provide it? Thank you!

    1. Richard Reich-Kuykendall
      Richard Reich-Kuykendall

      Sarah, if you can remember something of what the passage said, I will find it for you…

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