Monday, September 23, 2013

Pilgrimage Itinerary August 28-September 18, 2013

August 29/30-at Heathrow Marriott.
   *Took Picadilly Underground to Portabello Road 

and st. Mary's Church Bourne St. Emerging from the subway I got completely disoriented, which was annoying at the time, but a necessary phase in any pilgrimage.

August 31- Sept. 1-

·         Flew to Edinburgh and stayed at Marriott there. Spent evening w Katie Lester.

·         Rented car. Took bus to city centre and Old St. Paul's for High Mass. Drove to Duns.
Sept. 1-4 in Duns w Michael's parents and sister Amy. Visited historic Scottish churches, towers, manors, monastic ruins and authentic eating places and pubs. Crossed the River Tweed numerous times, and experienced  traditional "Fish Tea" in the  charming sea side village of Eyemouth.

Sept. 5-8
*drove to Holy Island of Lindisfarne, about an hour south of Duns, located about a mile off the Northumbrian coast, and connected to the mainland by a causeway that is submerged twice a day at high tide. We stayed at The Ship Inn, a quintessential English pub.

The island fills up with visitors at low tide, and empties rapidly as the tide comes in. One quickly becomes acclimatized to a different rhythm, a tidal consciousness, a Celtic way of seeing.

*we visited St. Mary's Anglican Church often, and inspected the ruins of the medieval priory next door to it; walked the beach and collected shells; watched the antics of the numerous seals, and were enchanted by their nocturnal group singing...a mass mammalian choir, crying out in the dark.

* made the walk out to Lindisfarne Castle, a former fortress turned into an imaginative dwelling place in the early part of the last century. Grand views of the mighty surf and the Farne Islands.

* had a setback when Nancy found herself alone and stuck in knee deep tidal mud, from which she extracted herself by removing her shoes and crawling to drier ground. These exertions resulted in numerous cuts and bruises to her feet and legs, caused by the sharp edges of shells and the sandpaper-like character of the mud. A scary experience, a reminder of the raw power of this austere place, and the vulnerability we share with the rugged old monks who first chose to live here.

September 9-10
* made a long stop at Aynwick Castle, notorious as the site where some of the "Harry Potter" films were shot. It turns out it is the ancient seat of the Percy family, mentioned often by Shakespeare. We ate a leisurely and elegant meal at the world's largest Treehouse restaurant.

* drove to the City of York, intending to visit the famous cathedral and walk the streets of this (originally Roman) city, but were deterred (and delayed one day) by Nancy's painful feet, an unsuccessful effort to find a self-service launderette, and a flat tire on our rental car. It was very liberating to finally surrender to the reality that God didn't need me at Evensong at York Minster that day. Maybe next time.

September 11-12

* drove about 4 hours south to the village of Walsingham in Norfolk. Along the way through Lincolnshire we were astounded to see the tall spires of medieval churches sprouting from every tiny village. St. Helen's, in a tiny settlement just off the highway, is a massive stone structure containing one of the most colorful and awe-inspiring interiors I have ever entered. On first glance the exterior seemed so weathered that I concluded the church had been abandoned, but Nancy, to her everlasting credit, insisted upon investigating further. Amazing.

* The Anglican Shrine of Our Lady of Walsingham is not like any other place. It is located in a village so small it does not appear on highway maps, and consists of a complex of connected buildings surrounding a quadrangle about the size of an American city block. There is a constant influx of pilgrims and visitors, many of whom stay in rooms at the shrine and take meals in its cafeteria (i.e. “refectory”). To call the shrine “high church" would be an understatement, yet it definitely claims a place for itself within The Church of England. We stayed two nights in a newly remodeled room overlooking a walled garden. We were also given the use of the Shrine's washer and drier, and a grander gesture of Christian hospitality would be hard to envision! Each day there is a somewhat hectic cycle of Masses, processions, and other devotions at the shrine and its many tiny chapels, and we were glad for the opportunity to light candles for our children, friends, and those whose generosity made this pilgrimage possible. We also availed ourselves of the opportunity to buy gifts from the many purveyors of religious paraphernalia found in the village.
The focal point of the shrine is the “Holy House”, a recreation of the house where Joseph and Mary lived with Jesus in Nazareth. While this represents a very “domestic” window into the mystery of the Incarnation, the shrine carries out what could be described as an industrial strength ministry of prayer. It is a strangely alluring and sacred place, but not for those whose Protestant sensibilities are easily aroused.

* as we left the village we quite accidentally found ourselves at the Walsingham village church, another Church of England edifice of considerable proportions and medieval origins. This church burned almost to the ground in 1961, and was refurnished inside in a fashion reminiscent of Roman Catholic Churches built in the USA in the 1950's. 

September 13
     * after leaving Walsingham we drove north a few miles to the Village of Wells-by-the-Sea, where we strolled among the throngs of English vacationers and bought an inexpensive duffle bag in which to transport our purchases from Walsingham (and elsewhere).
* drove south about an hour to the cathedral city of Ely, and stayed at a pub in the village of Little Downham. Most comfortable and hospitable, and also newly refurbished.

* visited the vast cathedral in Ely, where Evensong was sung in an open, austere stone room, resulting in amazing acoustics. The reverberant chant of six male voices in the choir provided a marked contrast to

the  hyper-devotional environment of Walsingham. God can speak from many different directions, it seems.
* Ely cathedral is vast and humbling, but also houses many intimate nooks and crannies and down-home touches, especially with regard to thenumerous monuments and tombs scattered about the interior. One chapel is dedicated in memory of "all the tortured", and another houses remains from different monasteries suppressed by Henry the 8th and neglected since. The variety and quantity of dazzling stained glass is astonishing.

* as much as we liked Ely cathedral, there have been attempts to introduce contemporary religious art that struck us as less than successful. We are not purists when it comes to high culture, but some of this new stuff just seemed lame.
* whilst in Ely Nancy surprised me with the gift of a magnificent Harris Tweed jacket and cap, which I will wear every day September to May until I die, and probably thereafter as well. A splendid garment from a grand place.


*We turned in our little rental car at Stansted Airport, and made our way to the terminal thereof, where a high speed train carried us to Liverpool Station in east London. To ride on such a train was an eye opener for this American, for it seems to glide over the rails, and at an astonishing speed. They run every 15 minutes between that minor airport and London, and are heavily patronized. What’s wrong with us in the USA that we can’t do this?

*At Liverpool Station we were graced with the services of Eddie, a loquacious and knowledgeable London cabdriver, who provided historical context to everything we saw from his cab, as well as insight into the daily life and challenges faced by working people in England. Having discovered that I was a priest, he asked for a blessing before we parted, which was gladly bestowed, along with a generous tip.
·         Our hotel was in the posh Mayfair district of London, across from Hyde Park and just down the street from the Marble Arch. This part of London is full of visiting foreigners with lots of money to spend, and I supposed we contributed our bit, shopping for gifts along Oxford Street, the most intensely commercial street I have ever beheld in all my travels, such as they are. Across the street from our hotel we discovered a monument to "Animals in War," and found it quite moving.

·         Behind our hotel I discovered the Grosvenor Chapel, an oddly-named Anglican Church that looks like it could be located in Massachusetts. A small group there recites the Daily Office much as we do at Christ Church Cranbrook, a small gesture toward the sacred in the midst of unrestrained adoration of status and wealth.  

·         Another London expedition took us to Covent Garden, where street performers are active rain or shine, including this footless Yoda, to whom pilgrims flocked for advice in greater numbers than Abba Jonathan could ever hope for.
·         On our last Sunday we attended All Saints’ Margaret Street, a church famous for its unique architecture as well as its liturgical excellence. Its colorful interior makes extensive use of geometric designs and patterns, which, it occurs to me now, make it seem somewhat mosque-like.

·         The sermon on this occasion was an intelligent, theologically astute exposition of Luke’s Parable of the Lost Coin. “Who would want to come looking for me?” inquired the preacher. Our pilgrimage has been engaged in a search for an answer to this very thing.
·         * On our last day I made my way to “The City”, where, in the shadow of St. Paul’s Cathedral, the Moot Community carries out its version of what at Christ Church Cranbrook is called “Lex Orandi”. It is an intensely prayerful effort to make the gospel accessible to a generation that seems immune to it, at least in its overly-familiar packaging. As at Holy Island and Grosvenor Chapel, there is a group committed to maintaining a distinctly Christian spiritual practice under the very noses, so to speak, of a disenchanted and seemingly preoccupied public. Does it make any difference? It has made a difference to me…
·         The Moot runs a coffee shop in their church. I was there before the rush.
·         Our last evening was spent going to Westminster Abbey for Evensong, sung by the choir of men and boys. At least 500 people attended this event, perhaps because it is an occasion for which one does not have to pay an admission fee. In any event, we were gifted with a transcendent liturgical performance, and taken by surprise when the First lesson ended with this quotation from the Book of Ruth: “The women of the neighborhood gave [Ruth’s son] a name…They named him Obed; he became the father of Jesse, the father of David.”
·         As we have pursued our pilgrimage, we ourselves have been searched for, and accompanied by a relentless searcher and pilgrim, whose name is love.   

Tuesday, September 17, 2013

Lost coins and theological baristas

In the sermon today the preacher at All Saints' Margaret Street said that it is God's nature to come looking for us, just as the woman in today's gospel persevered in looking for the coin she had lost. God's love for is also foolish and reckless, like the shepherd who leaves 99 perfectly normal sheep to go looking for the one stupid one. "Who would want to look for me?" The preacher asked. 
       Today Nancy and I got separated for awhile amidst the seething masses on Oxford Street. It was no crises, but being separated from my only personal connection in this sprawling city contributed to any feelings of "lostness" I may have had, as well as any sense of being a "loser". If the gospel is to be believed, then this was the closest to God that Nancy and I have been so far on the pilgrimage, and the experience of practically running into each other on the crowded sidewalk was an example of the kingdom coming on earth as it does in heaven. 
       I think it was Albert Camus who wrote so poignantly about the "forlorn ness" of the human condition, about our status as aliens in the cosmose, bereft of the companionship that accompanies membership in a natural species by virtue of humanity's god-like capacity for self-creation. For Camus and his existentialist comrades, there is no cure for such cosmic loneliness, only the bittersweet consolation of fleeting solidarity with other defiant souls.
     And what if it is God who is lost? In the London Times today an article and an Op Ed piece each described the success of the "Sunday Assembly", a Sunday morning event for people who want to reflect on the meaning of life, engage in good works, and generally be encouraged and inspired without any reference to God. This project is the brainchild of a professional comedian who is described as "blonde and charismatic" and about to depart on a world tour to promote his vision. The Times article concluded with a quote from one of the Sunday Assembly's satisfied customers, to the effect that "the coffee and tea were good, and the cakes and cookies every bit as good as you'd get at a real church."
     A real church? How about a "real" God? Today at "The Moot" Community I spoke with members of that "Emergent Church" about the poverty of the "God" most "Sunday Assembly" customers may find an obstacle. Matt, one of the Moot members,  observed that "modernity" is tied to the Cartesian idea of the sovereign individual (Camus also, to an extent), which results in a "God" who is a "projection of an individual's identity out into the cosmos." Along with Descartes, there used to be an attitude of CERTITUDE about this projection that accompanied certainty about the thinking self. When contemporary physics and our awareness of the magnitude of suffering in the world cast doubt on this misguided need for certitude, it seemed that "god" had to go. 
       What about an INCARNATE God? What about a God who addresses us from "outside" our self-consciousness? What about a God who is the NEGATION of certitude? What about a God who proceeds from "religio" in its original meaning, that involves being "bound to one's neighbour" in community? 
      When I complained of the "museum like" quality of many English churches, Matt the Barista added this thought: "the concept of a 'museum' comes from the idea of a place where one comes to consult 'The Muses', those pre-Christian spirits who were thought to inspire creative activity of all sorts. And what is God but the One Who, unexpectedly and by surprise, ambushes us with kindred spirits in a strange city, with bread in the wilderness, with the sudden appearance of a beloved face in a faceless crowd?
     The more lost we become, the more akin to the lost God we become. The more lost God gets, the more akin to us God is. 
      How about that? A customer comes into the Moot Coffee house, listens for a moment, and says: "you guys haven't been getting enough sleep." 

Thursday, September 12, 2013

Containers for God?

 Holy Island is raw, natural, and exposed to the elements. In contrast, the Anglican shrine of Our Lady of Walsingham is enclosed, confined, and  sequestered from the world around it. Holy Island earned its status as a pilgrimage destination through the rough edged  sanctity of its monastic founders, Aidan and Cuthbert, whose  reputation for wisdom and holiness was good while they lived, but went ballistic after they died and were buried (like any member of their monastery) on the island where they had lived and laboured. The Walsingham shrine was founded specifically to be what it is, the result of a vision afforded to a Norman gentlewoman in the 1100's. 
     Both are thin places, inviting pilgrims to suspend disbelief, however tentatively, and see the world through the eyes of a less skeptical age. At Holy Island, it is a wild and potentially dangerous spirit that assaults the wall separating us from the world of the "Island Saints". At Walsingham, God is domesticated, contained within the walls of the "Holy House" (a recreation of the house where Jesus lived with his parents in Nazareth). Yet the God of Lindisfarne and the God of Walsingham are the same: incarnate; accessible; contained; uncontainable.

Wednesday, September 11, 2013

Enclosed Enclosures

Today Nancy commented on how British people seem to relish enclosed gardens and courtyards, walled -in spaces where they can grow their flowers, drink their tea, and otherwise appreciate their unique existences. The villages in Scotland and England are honeycombed with such enclosures, and it seems to indicate something within their national "character", if there is such a thing.
         The Anglican Shrine of Our Lady of Walsingham is also honeycombed with  walled enclosures, passageways, sunken walkways, and multiple paths leading to the same destinations. Just finding the place is difficult, because the village of Walsingham, Brigadoon-like, does not appear on road maps, and the shrine itself, though occupying an area roughly equivalent to an American city block, consists of a ring of village buildings cobbled together to present an ordinary facade to the world. The shrine church, constructed of brick, lies entirely within the enclosure.
       The effect is of an enclosure within an enclosure within an enclosure, etc., like an infinite regress, or a maze. So many small chapels and altars in such a confined space creates an effect of miniaturising one's perception of the world, reminiscent of childhood dreams. The effect of this kind of psychic shrinkage is the reverse of what one experiences in the great cathedrals, with their soaring light-filled spaces. Yet both are somehow primal, like the contrast between a redwood forest and a cave. 

Tuesday, September 10, 2013

Authentic Spiritual Practice: reflections on a Cam Miller Blog

Cam Miller writes about the commodification of things that once conveyed a sacred power. He speaks of numinous landscapes that once constituted "an impenetrable mystery, revealing a hint of the Creator." For us, however, such landscapes have become "Real Estate to buy or sell, a safe haven for when the market is down or volatile." Similarly, the image of a serene Buddha becomes "a mere souvenir of a trip to Thailand," and a crucifix becomes a fashion statement. 
     But what if the marketing of such things may serve as "souvenirs"of a less disenchanted time, as symbolic of a "second naïveté" as described by Paul Ricour? Has there not always been an impulse to commercialise the holy? 
 Jesus' followers were often described as encouraging him to use his gifts to better economic advantage (...and Peter said, "Lord, let us make three booths..."). On the Holy Island of Lindisfarne, from whence I have just come, the presence of TWO sets of holy relics, the tombs of both St. Aidan and St. Cuthbert, was directly responsible for the surging prosperity of the place, and also the cause of its being pillaged and burned by the Vikings, who seemed inclined to leave it alone when its saintly founders lived there in simplicity. 
    I am wondering if the modern phenomenon of "12 step spirituality" might provide something of a model for those seeking an alternative to the prevailing commercialism. The 12 Steps is based on the renunciation of the illusion of CONTROL. As Cam points out, our obsession with comfort and entertainment is linked to the use of technology to control our environment. A recovering addict experiences first hand the inability of technology, or of any human contrivance, to control the effects of addiction. Paradoxically, recovery begins at the point where powerlessness is acknowledged. "Power is made perfect in weakness." Finally, the 12 Step Methodology maintains a curious immunity to commodification. There is a "Recovery Industry" to be sure, but its  most utilised, successful, and accessible treatment resource is free.
    The "island saints" were responding to their own essential powerlessness when they established their little island of sanity on Lindisfarne. Defended only by the regular appearance of tides, their spiritual practice released an energy into the world that has not entirely worn off today. 
Cam is right about the omnivorous appetite our culture has for anything that can be rendered profitable. He is right also in his prescription for "awareness, watchfulness, sensitivity, and attention in order to be open to the holy that is within us and around us at every moment." 

Sunday, September 8, 2013

St. Cuthbert's Isle

St. Cuthbert's Isle is where the saint had a hermitage, to which he could retreat whenever life at the monastery got too hectic. In a way, St. Cuthbert's is a miniature of its larger neighbor, for it sits but a few hundred yards off the beach below where the monastery was, and can be accessed on foot at low tide.
This morning at low tide we walked in Cuthbert's footsteps to his personal place of refuge, but not because we found the island too hectic.  Even if this had been the case, St. Cuthbert's Isle would not have provided much respite, because it is a popular place for Island visitors and pilgrims to watch seals and sea birds and borrow something from the residue of sacred energy left behind by the saint and his followers, ancient and modern. 

One can, as I say, walk to St. Cuthbert's, but not like the children of Israel, who reputedly "past dry-shod through the Red Sea." I discovered this for myself when the time for church drew near and I took a shortcut across the tidal flat toward the main island, and found there were just enough puddles and just enough mud to soak my shoes and socks. I confess that this caused me to mutter a long list of profanities under my breath, which in turn brought the image of Cuthbert into my mind. Most o f the time, I think of monastic saints from former times as frowning killjoys who roll their ascetic eyeballs at my easygoing version of Christian  faith and practice. This time, standing as I was in Cuthbert's soggy footsteps, I felt a spontaneous kinship with him. "This had to happen to you once in awhile., " I wondered, "did it piss you off as much as it does me?" I wondered. "You bet," I imagined  him saying, "one minute it's mystical union with God, the next it's soggy sandals." 
      Tidal mudflats can be more than an inconvenience. Shortly after my imaginary conversation with Cuthbert, Nancy found herself up to her knees in mud and had a real struggle getting to drier ground. This was actually quite scary, and closer to the conditions of Cuthbert's harsh times than a pair of wet socks. 
         May grace of God preserve us from the perils of mud and tides; may Cuthbert's foot steps show us the secret way; may the playful seals teach us to laugh at ourselves; and may  the wisdom of islands keep us sane.

Saturday, September 7, 2013

An Island Prayer for Benefactors

An Island Prayer for my Benefactors Holy and Living God, I bring before you all those whose generosity has enabled this island pilgrimage. Remember the people of St. Stephen's,who supported me in our ministry together for 20 years. May they know the benign influence of angels, the unearthly swinging of seals,the cry of sea birds, and the surging power of tides. Lord Jesus Christ, defend them from demonic spirits,the seductions of idolatry, and every form of self deception. Spirit of God,guide and strengthen them for all that lies ahead. I commend them, and my colleagues in ministry at ChristChurch Cranbrook,.to the prayers of Aidan and Cuthbert, the island saints I also commend to your eternal care those who encouraged this pilgrimage and have departed this life,particularly Mike O'Neall and Mary Alice Heaton. Finally, I thank you for Nancy's companionship and love, and for the measure of health that has enabled us to make this pilgrimage. Henceforth,let our lives reflect the blessings bestowed upon us here on this island, this [planet, and this life. Amen. for

Friday, September 6, 2013

Today, being rainy and windy, we postponed our planned walk along the beach in favor of visiting the Lindesfarne Priory Museum, a very up-to-date facility frequented by tourists and pilgrims who want to learn about the history of monasticism in Britain. To Americans that might seem like a lot of attention squandered on a minor aspect of the past, but the more one wanders about Northumbria and Scotland the more apparent it seems that without monks and monasteries, there would be no "past" for historians to investigate. On Holy Island, this statement is even more apparently true than at Melrose and other abandoned monastic sites. The first monkly presence on the island was that of Aidan , a member of another island monastic community , this one at Iona off the west coast of Scotland. Aidan's group was of the Celtic tradition, a form of catholic tradition that preceded any formal obedience to Rome, and that had evolved under conditions of social upheaval accompanying the collapse of Roman political and military authority. Under such conditions monasteries provided islands of stability and places of refuge from the harsh conditions of the times. No wonder such places were popular with the surrounding population and well-supplied with monastic recruits! No wonder they were the recipients of generous benefactions from the bloodstained hands of the local nobility, to the extent that, over time, they were in a position to build the kind of elaborate stone structures that survive to this day as museums and tourist attractions. No wonder their life style intrigues those who are seeking ways to navigate the confusion of our own times. Along with those who call themselves "new monastics", and the "emerging church", I wonder if Aidan and his companions have something to teach us. Not long after Aidan the leadership of the Lindesfarne community passed to a Saxon monk named Cuthbert. Among other saintly exploits, Cuthbert was known for his advocacy on behalf of ducks and his companionship with sea otters, establishing his credentials as a prototypical "green" saint. After Cuthbert's death in 687 his burial alongside Aidan on Holy Island created a magnetism for pilgrimage that people of those times could not resist. If the monastic life had its appeal, monastic death had even more. A double-barreled dose of spiritual power, accessible to any pilgrim willing to cross to Lindesfarne at low tide.

Wednesday, September 4, 2013

Abbey Ruins

Well, there's a fine how-do-you-do. I had forgotten that Wordsworth's poem, "Tintern Abbey", has nothing whatsoever to do with abbeys. it is a fine hymn to the Natural World, but not a commentary upon ruined cloisters and monastic choirs. As one who lives like a Benedictine for about 1 1/2 hrs a day, and who has been blessed and formed by exposure to the rythms of life in at least 6 different monastic communities, it troubles me to behold the demise of such an impressive monastic institution. Was its community forced to dissolve against its will, the monks driven away from their prayers by Puritans with pikes? Or did its energy fizzle out over a period of years, its observances become perfunctory, its monks come to function merely as landlords in religious garb? What was it like in those first days and weeks after the last office had been chanted, the last bell rung? Did the monks gather furtively to recite their prayers? Did they climb the nearby hill in hopes to catch a glimpse of the beloved stones below? Or did they toss their habits in a ditch and wander off to seek wives and jobs? Did they watch from behind hedge-rows as the King's representatives hauled off stone and furniture and other valuables? Did the empty buildings just sit there as the walls sagged and ultimately fell? These are historical questions that could be answered by a few hours on the web or in a library. But my real issue is with the life of God, and how people may or may not gain access to it. Obviously, God can get by without the monks at Melrose, just as God can get by without a Davidic dynasty ruling Israel from Jerusalem. Whatever those old monks were chanting about and to in the past is just as real, or unreal, now as it was then. Was it worth the bother to construct that vast building, for those men to live out their vowed lives within it? I guess "bother" is what it's all about, whether you are a monk living at Melrose Abbey or a pilgrim from Michigan brooding over its ruins. So I guess the answer is "yes", it is worth the bother. Or, as that other guy put it: "...with an eye made quiet by the power Of harmony, and the deep power of joy, We see into the heart of things." Wm. Wordsworth

Tuesday, September 3, 2013

Cool picture

What's all this about owls?

It seems Andy and Kate had not had a fire in the fireplace for awhile, and when Kate tried to get one started one cool evening it just couldn't seem to get going, so she called her husband to see what might be blocking the chimney. When telling this story Kate hastens to explain that her husband is very brave and a gallant defender in all instances except when it comes to birds. "It's all that flapping about that I dislike," he explains, and then goes on to tell how he moved the smoking kindling over so as to allow him to peer up the chimney, and, seeing nothing amiss, began prodding into the chimney's interior with an iron poker. At that point a large tawny owl tumbled down into the fireplace, apparently having been dislodged by Andy's vigorous poking. At about the same time Kate came back into the room,just in time to see the owl take off and crash right into her living room wall. The bird fell stunned to the floor, whereupon Kate sprang forward and picked it up by the feet. "Fortunately," she reports, "I had thought to put on gloves, so when the owl fastened its claws around my wrist it did no harm" Fortunately? I should rather think it was a piece of brilliant foresightedness. I'm not sure where Andy was during all this, but he makes no claim to have been searching for a pair of heavy gloves! Nor does he deny having used his most extreme expressions of displeasure at their loudest possible pitch. The disgruntled bird was quickly deposited outside in his natural element, and very shortly flew off, apparently none the worse for having fallen into a fireplace. So what's all this about owls? It does not seem ominous to me that they have popped into my awareness often in recent memory...owls have served as harbingers of rebirth for me in the past, and if that requires some form of death in order to occur, oh well! Tomorrow Nancy and I will observe our 14th wedding anniversary, and I recall, when we were first dating, being in Alabama on a hunting trip and listening to the Bard Owls calling to each other in the night. They did not call my name, but their love songs did reveal the nature of my life since then. So I appreciate owls, whether carved on the walls of churches or hooting in the Alabama woods, but prefer that they stay out of the chimney.

Monday, September 2, 2013

Old words about old st. Paul's

From my first visit in August, 2007

Old St. Paul's conveys an..."impression of a clandestine meeting-place, a catacomb, or cave-dwelling...built as it is into the side of a cliff..
On the walls of European caves such as at Lascaux are prehistoric paintings of animals that are regarded as the oldest evidence of religion among human beings. It is supposed that ancient hunters created these icon-like images to express gratitude, wonder, and hope with regard to the animals that sustained their lives. Like all hunters, they spent a lot more time story-telling than they did hunting, and the cave paintings were probably the result of winter nights made shorter by tales and songs of wooly mammoths slain and eaten, and of the miraculous renewal of their numbers that occurred each spring. This sense of gratitude t o whatever it is that provides such abundance is the primal source of religion and (I am convinced) is with us still.
To my imagination, Old St. Paul's bears a resemblance to those old hunting camp cave dwellings, and had it's stained glass contained imagery of hairy bisons and wooly mammoths I would not have been surprised. Those who worship in this place are delving deep into the primal elements of religion and community, and when the congregation emerges from its prayers into Sunday morning sunshine it is re enacting a Navajo creation myth wherein human beings emerge into the world from a crack in the surface. That was in Arizona, however, and Old St. Paul's is in Scotland, so you might have to forget about the sunshine. But cosmic rebirth can occur anywhere, right?

Sunday, September 1, 2013

The liturgy at Old St. Paul's this morning was presided over by a charming, soft-spoken, and articulate young female priest. Her command of liturgical gestures, symbolic movements, and the traditional choreography of High Mass was flawless, but not fussy. Her sermon moved me, unexpectedly, to tears, especially when she said "it is through love of the strange that we encounter Christ." And, in conclusion, she quoted the poet R.S. Thomas, to the effect that the kingdom of God is entered through "the simple offering of your faith, green as a leaf."
    Green as a leaf is how I left the church onto the streets of that busy stone town. I had entered brown and withered, blown there by an old wind out of the past, drawn by a memory of a cave-like place, a place where one might expect to see crudely-rendered drawings of mastodons and wooly mammoths along side the icons and shrines. There in that cave, that womb, the wind found me once again, and turned me green.