Tuesday, July 17, 2007

July 17, 2007. 2nd Month of The last Sabbatical

Tomorrow we leave for England. For me it is a pilgrimage to places of sacred enchantment. I anticipate revisiting dreamscapes, “vast, domed space/So hollow, so intensely hollow…” (Beneath the Cathedral, 1988). I anticipate revisiting Muir Woods and Grace Cathedral, while remaining half a world away from California.

What I do not expect is to find anything like St. Gregory of Nyssa, San Francisco, because I have the impression that such vigorous community life is rare in the C of E. It is not so rare in the Episcopal Church here. What is rare is to find places where the “vigorous community life” coincides with “sacred enchantment”.

The most popular forms of religion in our culture are almost entirely devoid of sacred enchantment. They are correct in their perception that most people do not seek exposure to the mysterious, the unfamiliar, or the “sacred”. I suppose Pentecostalism is an exception.

What I mean by “sacred enchantment” is an interior awareness before it becomes a theology or a set of conscious beliefs. As I have said, it involves dreams, childhood memories, sexuality, feelings of belonging and rejection, safety and threat, love and repulsion, guilt and forgiveness, fascination and vulnerability, ecstasy and dread. It involves the awareness of death and oblivion, as well as powerlessness and dependence, and a primitive sense of justice and the appalling wrongness of much in the world. Finally, it involves a child-like awareness of gladness, gratitude, and wonder. For me, all this gets caught up in the gestures, rhythms, rituals, and “vast, domed spaces” of catholic Christianity.

But without a healthy community to cherish, sustain, manage, finance, and be transformed by “it”, the “sacred” quickly loses its power to enchant. It is ironic that the recurrent effort to maintain the Tradition requires us to risk it in perilous forms of Mission. In reality, we cannot bring ourselves to actually take such risks (any more than could the original disciples of Jesus), so the Mission comes and finds us, drags us “out of the oratories and into the streets”, as our Theology Professor at Nashotah House used to say.

As I say, most people do not want such a paradoxical form of religion or of community, so they shroud their practice of it under layers of familiarity: football stadiums, theater-style seating, soft-rock music, etc. Of course, “vast, domed spaces” can become “familiar” too, a caricature and even perversion of the Gospel. In secular culture, anything like sacred enchantment comes disguised under layers of either violence or satire. Nothing is less enchanting than bland sentimentality, just as nothing is less sacred than stiff, formalized worship with no healthy community behind it, or intimacy without trust.

This is where “sacred irreverence” comes in. To be real, worship and community must have the capacity to laugh at themselves, as well as weep.


For Herb Gunn

Where idols abound

Worship is common

Products are plentiful

But vision is rare.

Where idols abound

The landscape is littered

With discarded scraps

Of old vestments and prayers.

Out in the desert
The cities have crumbled
Discarded chemicals
Poison the sod.
Out in the rubble
Children are playing
On broken-down idols
And the bones of old gods.

Gross is the profit
Fat is the toy
Played with at markets
In Greece, or at Troy.

Wherever the desert
Wind blows it cleanses
The ruins of cities
That once there were found.
Blasted with insight
The prophets they wander
Like owls in the wilderness
Where idols abound.

High as the Spirit
They fly in their hunting
The word that escapes from from the
Cracks in the ground.
Blest with night vision
They write in the darkness
The wind is their weapon
Where idols abound.

Thursday, July 5, 2007

JULY 5, 2007 2nd Month of The Last Sabbatical

LECTIO DIVINA...Psalms 42 & 43

These two psalms actually form one unit, with three stanzas each followed the refrain, Why are you so full of heaviness, O my soul?* and why are you so disquieted within me?
Put your trust in God;* for I will yet give thanks to him, who is the help of
My countenance, and my God.

This psalm may have a special resonance for anyone who served as an altar-boy in the years prior to the Second Vatican Council, when the “Preparation at the Foot of the Altar”, including Psalm 43, was recited between the Celebrant and the Server at the very beginning of every Mass. The Preparation (which also included the dual recitation of a Roman Catholic devotion called the Confiteor) was murmured in conspiratorial tones barely audible to any congregation that might (or might not) have been present, and it contributed to a sense of strangeness and secretiveness, as if there were mysteries unfolding that were dangerous for the uninitiated.
This sort of obscurantism is why the “Preparation” mini-ritual was removed from the Roman Rite (and by those Anglicans who had sought to imitate it), along with most of the other devotional addenda that had latched onto the liturgy over the centuries. But these rhythmic verses continue to evoke the memory of intimate worship held in side chapels on weekday mornings, witnessed only by a pious few and the whole company of heaven.

Psalm 42
V 1.
As the deer longs for the water-brooks, *
so longs my soul for you, O God.

It is significant that the psalmist chooses a deer as an image of spiritual longing for God. Deer are graceful, beautiful, and possess an almost totemic fascination for a person like me, a hunter since my youth, and one whose dreams are haunted by elusive herds of deer that clearly represent the deepest longings of my own soul. Yet, like any animal, their grace and beauty are diminished as thirst increases. This Psalm reflects the basic Judeo-Christian experience that any relationship with God is going to include times of anguish and bitter desolation. Whether it is St. Paul, Martin Luther, St. John of the Cross, there is a common awareness that proximity to God is risky, painful, and terrifying, and that longing for the experience of God’s presence can become as all-consuming as the need for water in a dry place. By the same token, communion with God is like a cold drink of pure water that restores gracefulness and hope.
But the Psalmist is not there yet…
Vv 2& 3.

My soul is athirst for God, athirst for the living God; * when shall I come to appear before the presence of God?

My tears have been my food day and night,* while all day long they say to me, "Where now is your God?"

The commentaries point out that the Hebrew word translated as “to come before the presence of God” is a term used to describe the pilgrim’s passage through the doors of the Temple in Jerusalem. This Psalm is regarded as a lament uttered by exiles or prisoners of war, Jews prevented from making their accustomed pilgrimages and held captive at a distance from the sacred place of encounter with God.
The world today often seems this way: disenchanted; alienated; utilitarian; impersonal; indifferent. The natural thirst of animals has been replaced with an insatiable thirst for security, comfort, and convenience. This is not the longing of a deer for the water-brooks, but the thirst of a rich nation for more wealth, of a celebrity for more fame, and of an addict for more of whatever-it-is.
But who likes the the idea of “tears as daily (and nightly) food?” It is easier to dull the senses, focus upon the immediate and the superficial, and try to forget our longing. As one heroin-addict said to me years ago, “I’ve gotten to the point where I have to get high to feel normal.” In psychotherapy, emotional pain is often regarded as an early and positive sign of healing. As one therapist friend of mine says, “you can’t heal what you can’t feel.” Perhaps the closest some people can get to God is to experience the painful emptiness where the presence of God might fit. So mediocrity, depression, and cynicism are greater obstacles than suffering, desparation, and outrage.
It is a terrible experience to be mocked for one’s forlorn hopes. “Where is now your God?” is the taunt of the powerful, the succesful, and the smug, but it can also be an inner voice that taunts us, deriding any inclination toward naivite, vulnerability, or trust. This is a familiar voice to me: when vows are broken, trust betrayed, and old icons exposed as idols this voice can be heard within.
Of all the spiritual enemies, this one is the most potent, and most subtle. When a child suffers and dies as family, doctors, and priest watch helplessly, this voice repeats its litany of hopelessness: “Where now is your God?” There is a particular brand of cold-heartedness, emptiness, and helpless rage that can come to eclipse all else that lives within the heart. Over time, it shuts down all the emotions, stifles curiousity, and silences every song.
At such times the memory of past joyfulness can intensify the self-mockery. Psalm 42 speaks with particular force to an ordained person who is depressed or suffering through a time of spiritual darkness. “I didn’t just join in with the ‘voice of praise and thanksgiving’, I led the multitude into the house of God.” I was a role-model, a spiritual guide, a teacher. I was a star.

Vv 4 & 5.

I pour out my soul when I think on these things: * how I went with the multitude and led them into the house of God,

With the voice of praise and thanksgiving, * among those who keep holy-day.

So much for the narcissistic self-importance that afflicts most clergy to one degree or another. Exposing and acknowledging it can be healthy, but only if we can shed the heavy garments of victimhood and self-pity, only if we can acknowledge our vulnerability and woundedness and let humility and gratitude have a chance to emerge.

Vv 6 & 7

Why are you so full of heaviness, O my soul? * and why are you so disquieted within me?

Put your trust in God; * for I will yet give thanks to him, who is the help of my countenance, and my God.

Verse six could be a beginning-text for all psychotherapy. Why am I so unhappy? Why does everything seem so dull and meaningless? Why am I so restless and dissatisfied? Why am I so anxious?
By the same token, verse seven might provide inspiration for the provider of psychotherapy. I am not sure what Hebrew word has been translated “countenance” in the Book of Common Prayer, but it provides a rich image in English. The Shorter Oxford Dictionary defines the English word as having to do with “comportment, demeanour…appearance…the expression of a face… a sign, gesture… composure of face….” I Samuel 17:42 says that King David was, “…a youth, and ruddy, and of a faire countenance.”
In this way of speaking, a patient might come to a psychotherapist and complain: “my countenance hurts, Doc!” And the therapist might respond, “I can tell. We will have to repair your countenance from the inside out. But first, you must put your trust in the possibility of healing, in the the power of something greater than your present suffering.” In the Twelve Steps of AA it is stated thus: “we came to believe that only a power higher than ourselves could restore us to sanity.”
Or, as the Psalmist says, “put your trust in God… who is the help of my countenance, and my God.” For this ancient author, no fa├žade of cheerfulness, no carefully crafted public image could substitute for the serene countenance of one who has been healed from the inside out. Such healing can only come from a ruthless honesty regarding oneself, and a willingness to venture deeply into the unexamined regions of memory and the unconscious.

Vv 8 & 9

My soul is heavy within me; * therefore I will remember you from the land of Jordan, and from the peak of Mizar among the heights of Hermon.

One deep calls to another in the noise of your cataracts; * all your rapids and floods have gone over me.

Here the psalmist wanders into a specific geography, citing certain landmarks as launchpads for memory. Are these places the site of the author’s captivity? One commentator suggests that the Hebrew translated in the BCP as “the land of Jordan” may be intended to invoke the notion of “the land of descent”, or the “nether-world,” called Sheol in the Hebrew scriptures. That such ideas were common in the ancient Near East is well-documented.
If the poet intends to lead us from the banks of Jordan into Sheol, the imagery in verse 9 would reinforce it, for it could be understood to refer to both the actual Jordan River, in its precipitous descent from the mountains to the Dead Sea, and to the subteranean land of the dead as expressed in Egyptian and other ancient mythology. For us, it can lead us into the nether-world of our own unconscious minds, where parents morph into gods and demons, and “one deep calls to another.” Here, if our souls are to recover from their spiritual obesity, the “flood” must be allowed to drown the old and broken self, overwealmed as it is with heaviness from the past. This surrender to a higher power, this seeming loss of control, can be terrifying, and it is typical for human beings to fight it with all the resources at their disposal: denial; intellectualizing; blaming others; faking recovery; substance abuse. But death will come, one way or another, and the drowned soul is carried away down the Jordan rapids toward the Dead Sea.
It would be difficult for a Christian to ignore the baptismal imagery in these lines. The baptismal font, after all, is a branch of the Jordan River, and a portal into the nether-world of Sheol. In the water of baptism “…we are buried with Christ in his death… share in his resurrection… [and are] reborn by the Holy Spirit.” Having risen with Christ from the water, the reborn soul is ready for verse 10 of the Psalm:

The LORD grants his loving-kindness in the daytime; * in the night season his song is with me, a prayer to the God of my life.

In the season of darkness there is an unexpected moment of refreshment.
I wake up to the sound of music,
Mother Mary comes to me,
Speaking words of wisdom:
Let it be.”
This respite is brief, but exactly what is needed in order for the soul to persevere in its pilgrimage. Newly baptized and gleeming with the oil of chistening, the neophyte gasps for breath on the river bank, only to be driven back into the water, back towards the gates of Sheol and the thunderous waterfalls.
What is this? I thought I had finished this phase of my treatment! I want to register a complaint!

vv. 11 & 12
I will say to the God of my strength, “why have you forgotten me? * and why do I go so heavily while the enemy oppresses me?"
While my bones are being broken,* my enemies mock me to my face;

Broken bones? This has gotten out of hand! I demand to be treated in accordance with the Geneva Convention!

Szat so? Listen up…

Vv 13 -15

All day long they mock me * and say to me, "Where now is your God?"

Why are you so full of heaviness, O my soul? * and why are you so disquieted within me?

Put your trust in God;* for I will yet give thanks to him, who is the help of my countenance, and my God.

This heaviness that seems so burdensome, it has not gone away, but it is changing in significance, just as what was merely bread becomes sacramental body, and what was a dead Jesus becomes a Risen Lord, so what was “heaviness of soul” becomes the “weight of glory.” As St. Paul writes in 2 Corinthians 4:17: “For this slight momentary affliction is preparing us for an eternal weight of glory beyond all measure.” The “heaviness” that has dragged the soul down towards nothingness has been transfigured into a “weightiness”, a profundity, a gravitas that serves like a vestment cast over the presence of God. This heaviness contains strong medicine for the fallen countenance. The drowning swimmer becomes a fish, at home in its environment and giving thanks to God with every joyful flash of its silver sides.

Psalm 43

Give judgment for me, O God, and defend my cause against an ungodly people;
deliver me from the deceitful and the wicked.

For you are the God of my strength; why have you put me from you?
and why do I go so heavily while the enemy oppresses me?

Send out your light and your truth, that they may lead me,
and bring me to your holy hill and to your dwelling;

That I may go to the altar of God, to the God of my joy and gladness;
and on the harp I will give thanks to you, O God my God.

Why are you so full of heaviness, O my soul?
and why are you so disquieted within me?

Put your trust in God;
for I will yet give thanks to him who is the help of my countenance, and my God.

Sunday, July 1, 2007

July 1, 2007 Month 2 of the last sabbatical

JULY 1, 2007

Journal Entry: December 20, 2006

“What if we knew the effects of our intercessory prayers? What if we knew for certain our prayers could reverse someone’s cancer, or end a war? It’s a good thing we don’t , because if we did have such knowledge the burden of guilt would be too great for us. We would suffer from extreme guilt for every second we did not spend in prayer on behalf of some poor suffering soul, some person whose pain grew worse with every thought their intercessor had about baseball, or bacon, or bananas.
We don’t know the precise effect of our prayers, so we pray in uncertainty, sensing the justifying enormity of Christ who adopts our wayward, orphan prayers and makes them his own…”

JUNE 25, 2007

At St. Gregory’s Abbey in Three Rivers, MI.
While browsing in the monastery library I happened upon a ragged monograph that had been personally signed by Dom Gregory Dix, the English Benedictine liturgical scholar. It was dated 1947, at which time Gregory Dix would have been resident with the fledgling St. Gregory’s community. The monograph, with the title Catholicity hand-written on the cover, was a report written at the behest of then-Archbishop of Canterbury, Geoffrey Fisher, by a group of high-church English theologians. The Archbishop had asked these people (all men, of course) to consider “whether any synthesis between Catholicism and Protestantism was possible.” It appears that Archbishop Fisher was concerned that the Church of England might be on the verge of splitting in two, or even three!

I was amazed to find that the authors of this monograph included almost all of the writers and thinkers who had influenced my own theological formation. In addition to Gregory Dix there was Austin Farrer (an Oxford theologian who managed to achieve credibility in both biblical and systematic theology), Gabriel Hebert (who is most responsible for popularizing the Liturgical Movement in Anglicanism), Arthur Ramsey (later Archbishop of Canterbury), Ambrose Reeves (later expelled from South Africa for his activism against apartheid), Lionel Thornton (who, as I recall, applied sociology and ascetical theology to the dynamics of congregational life), and (most astonishingly), the poet T.S. Eliot. A veritable rogue’s gallery of Anglo-Catholic heavy-hitters!

In this obscure little booklet “catholicity” is defined as “wholeness”, as a capacity to hold in creative tension all the strands of Christian experience that have developed over the centuries from the primal experience of the apostolic church. According to the authors of Catholicity, “wholeness is not the wholeness of an ideal but of something that is.” Every Christian community partakes of this wholeness to some degree, but no one church or tradition can fully contain it. “The apostolic writers cling to the paradox that the Church is both the Body of Christ and also consists of sinful and fallible members…the glorious Church of the future… and the imperfect Church of the present are one thing…”. The authors quote a former Archbishop of Canterbury, Fredrick Temple:

“Men [this was the 40’s!...JCS] speak of Christianity as if Christians came first and the Church after: as if the origin of the Church was in the individual wills of the individuals who composed it. But, on the contrary, …it is the Church that comes first, and men [!!] are invited into it… .”

So we live in two worlds: on the one hand, we get up in the morning, have Carnation Instant Breakfast, pat the dog, and go about our business; on the other, the world has ended, and we are breaking bread with Mom, Dad, and Dom Gregory Dix in heaven. The future is already present, and the past is now. The church is an absurd and pretentious bunch of social drones; it is also the vanguard of a new and transfigured creation. This strange duality could be interpreted as a form of schizophrenia. To the authors of Catholicity, it is the wisdom of wholeness.
For these authors the Eucharist is the daily bread of catholicity. For them, everything was “contained” within this “action of God toward the Church…and the Church toward God.” This recalls for me how all my old Anglo-Catholic mentors were in love with the Mass. There was a serene objectivity about their Eucharistic piety. For them, there was no dilemma in heaven or earth that could not be made right by offering it to God at the altar and receiving it back transformed in communion. For my mentors (and for Gregory Dix, et al), this eucharistic transaction included the achievement of social and economic justice, racial equality, and international peace. On the more personal side, it included the reconciliation of broken friendships, recovery from addiction, and the prospect of reunion in heaven with departed loved ones.
It is true that this kind of objective catholicity can serve as an “opiate of the people,” and encourage an unbliblical and unchristian resignation to the status quo. After all, if the kingdom of God has already arrived at the eight o’clock Mass, why be anxious about the petty affairs of this miserable world? It is against such self-serving complacency that prophets and reformers have raved. Yet even an apparent complacency can, when counterbalanced by prophetic impatience, contribute to wholeness. Catholicity calls us to be both prophets and priests. It is not a matter of “either/or”, but of differing vocations, of different gifts bestowed by the same Spirit.
Much of that “objectivity” has been lost, a casualty (at least in part) to the effort to make liturgical worship intelligible to highly secularized people. It was a shock for clergy in the middle 1960’s to begin celebrating the Mass “facing the people” and discovering how bored, distracted, or just plain absent those people were. It was easier to maintain delusions about “realized eschatology” with our backs to congregations that had no clue. In recent years evangelicals have reminded us of what visionaries such as Gabriel Hebert knew from the beginning: without the Gospel the Eucharist becomes a more-or-less empty ritual. If no one is aware of any spectacularly Good News to celebrate, why bother with a celebration? “Catholicity” requires conversion, discernment, spirituality, authentic community, wisdom, and repentance just as much as it does reverent Eucharistic worship. More than anything else, it requires that we be real with each other.
As a result, members of our congregations know each other more deeply, give more sacrificially, disagree more vehemently, pray and study the Bible more intently, and expect more of themselves and each other than has been true since the time of Constantine. It costs more to be an Episcopalian than it used to, and those who may have sought a more casual sort of Christianity have gone away. It was this sort of strong spiritual intimacy and honesty that led the Diocese of New Hampshire to choose Gene Robinson as the Bishop. They could not do otherwise without denying the validity of their experience of the Gospel.
Ironically, their integrity has contributed to the stretching of the bonds of catholicity as far as the Episcopal Church and the Anglican Communion are concerned. In an effort to preserve a measure of unity, the current Archbishop of Canterbury has emphasized the role that consensus ought to play in the maintenance of wholeness. Yet building consensus is no more a guarantee of faithfulness than papal infallibility or protestant fundamentalism. What if the prophet Jeremiah had waited for legislative consensus to confirm his vision of God’s will? The same question applies to Athanasius, Martin Luther, and Martin Luther King. Catholicity ought not to be used as an excuse for complacency. At the same time, those who would challenge the status quo must be prepared to suffer the consequences, just as were the prophets of former times. Division and conflict, however, ought not to obscure the requirements of catholicity. Wholeness is not a reward for Christians who behave exactly as they should: it is a gift to be received humbly from God every time we approach the altar for communion. Excommunication and anathema have been the weapons of choice employed against each other by Christians in the past: they do not serve the interests of catholicity now.
The authors of Catholicity put it this way in 1947: “ [The] wholeness of the Church manifests itself in its outward order…the mutual submission of the members of the Church to each other in respect of their divine offices is a part of their submission to the rule of God.”