"Send out Your light and Your truth, that they may lead me, and bring me to Your holy hill and to Your dwelling." Psalm 43:3

Thursday, November 29, 2012

"The Monk is Not an Anachronism"

I just recently began reading The Rule of Saint Benedict, the fifth century classic of Western monasticism.  I'm kind of surprised it's taken me this long to get around to it, since I've been fairly enthralled with the idea of the monastic life since I was a kid.  During my most recent excursion to Eighth Day Books, I bought an edition published by Vintage Spiritual Classics, and the following is from the preface by Thomas Moore.
"The emphasis in The Rule on contemplative practices gives it its exceptional value and, of course, over the centuries has inspired many reformers, organizations, and individuals to create fresh ways of being contemplative.  The Rule refers to the chanting of the psalms as the Opus Dei, or Work of God, and for the monk it is certainly true that common prayer, carried out in a spirit of contemplation and with beauty, is his or her central work ...
"The combination of being aware of the divine presence everywhere, chanting the Divine Office with special care to art, praying briefly but devotionally, reading contemplatively, and treating manual labor for the community as a part of spiritual practice -- all these five daily give life a special quality, a tranquility and calm that are difficult or impossible to find in the non-monastic world.  It seems true that ours is still an age of anxiety, not a psychological problem but an existential condition created by the busy, productive, and unthoughtful style of modern work, play, and home life. ...
"The monk is not an anachronism, nor is The Rule of Saint Benedict antique and irrelevant.  It is modern life, rather, that is not in accord with the fundamental needs of the human heart.  From the viewpoint of the human soul, our modern style of living is the irrelevancy.  By not enjoying a genuine common life and by not giving ourselves a degree of contemplation, we wound our need for emotional quiet and for meaning.  And so it is appropriate to return to this ancient sketch of an alternative life, to reread it and discuss it, and, with imagination and reflection, bring its spirit into the workplace, the home, and the city, where it could transform a culture of anxiety into a community of peace and mutual regard."
To that I say a hearty "amen."  And as Moore suggests, I hope occasionally to "discuss" The Rule here on this blog, insofar as I'm given grace for some insight, or simply to voice questions.  A happy Saint Andrew's eve!

Sunday, November 25, 2012

An Anecdote

Not too long ago, my parish was in the process of searching for a rector.  One of the individuals who we invited to come for an interview and introduction to the church and community was a middle aged, single man.  To be honest, he struck me as kind of weird.  He was socially awkward, not in a shy way, but in a forthright, not especially tactful sort of way.  His mannerisms were unusual, and he seemed to have some slight "ticks" (for lack of a better word).  He also held, in my opinion, some rather unconventional views about religion and society generally.  I'm sure all that sounds horribly judgmental, and I think probably most people who live lives of great devotion to God don't come across as "normal"; nevertheless, such was my perception of him.  A number of parishioners had gathered at the church for dinner and introductions, with a formal interview to follow the meal.  During the course of the evening, he related to us a period in which he had experienced something of a crisis of faith.  He had felt unsure of his vocation as a priest, and so he went and spoke with his bishop.  He told his bishop that he felt he was "part Christian, part Buddhist, and part agnostic" or something like that.  His bishop's response was, "Well, that sounds Episcopalian to me."

The next morning, I was one of several parishioners who met with our guest at a local diner for breakfast.  I happened to sit next to him, and he inquired about my background.  I told him that I grew up in the Episcopal Church, in a generally conservative atmosphere.  My parents, as well as many members of the parish in which I was raised, are fairly evangelical.  His quick response was, "Wow.  That's really unusual" or words to that effect.  Needless to say, I was a little piqued, but I didn't say anything.  Inwardly, I was defensively thinking, "Well, you obviously don't know what you're talking about.  The Episcopal Church is a very diverse body.  You've just spent too much time on the West Coast (a native Californian).  You need to get out more."  That was my thought at the time.  Now, over a year later, well ... I don't know.  I feel I've learned quite a bit since then (as I've been actively seeking to learn) about TEC, and it's self-proclaimed diversity.  Certainly my reaction to his comment was presumptuous for a twenty-something whose firsthand experience of the Episcopal Church has been almost entirely confined to a single Midwestern diocese.  Maybe the circumstances in which I was raised were, in fact, unusual.  Maybe I'm the one who needs to get out more.

Monday, November 19, 2012

Unity, Grief, and Hope

Oh, how good and pleasant it is,
     when brethren live together in unity!
It is like fine oil upon the head
     that runs down upon the beard,
Upon the beard of Aaron,
     and runs down upon the collar of his robe.
It is like the dew of Hermon
     that falls upon the hills of Mount Zion.
For there the LORD has ordained the blessing:
     life for evermore.
~Psalm 133

I haven't really wanted to write about South Carolina.  I've been pretty downhearted every time I've thought about it.  It's kind of shaken my faith.  I haven't really wanted to write about anything for the last few days, but it's this that continues to occupy my thoughts, so I'm going to get them out here.  (Disclaimer: the disillusioned, long-winded rambling will now commence.)

I'm grieved.  I'm not really surprised, but that doesn't mean I'm not still confused.  I'm grieved that the church I love is continuing to tear itself apart.  It is a church that, I believe, has historically had a fairly unique calling to be a church of restoration and reunion, a church with a truly comprehensive vision, that embraces mystery and diversity in certain matters of faith because it believes that to do anything less would be dishonest and  would ultimately miss God, the incomprehensible mystery who yet lived with us as one of us, and lives also within us.  Clearly, we don't have God figured out, and we don't have all the answers (that should be obvious enough, despite the strident righteousness on display by both "sides").  As Archbishop Rowan Williams has said, "It takes the whole Church to know the whole truth."  I believe that strongly.  And so I'm grieved, because I'm watching that comprehensive vision fade farther into the background with each new schism.

I'm angry that this entire debacle has become one of opposing "sides".  I don't want to be a part of either side.  I don't want to be part of a church that is so confident in the rightness of its orthodoxy in the face of "heresy" that it feels justified in committing the sin of schism (surely one of the greatest heresies of all), and celebrates the fact that it will no longer have to be constantly battling to uphold the pure faith in the midst of all these liberal Christians, so-called, since most of them are apostate anyway and have chosen to lead TEC down a path that can only end in extinction.  "We're moving into a new and brighter future.  We don't need them."  I don't want to be part of a church that is so intent upon being a "prophetic witness" (and is so confident that it cannot but be so), that it is increasingly willing to set aside 2,000 years of Church tradition, and even the Holy Scriptures themselves, in order to "listen to what the Holy Spirit is telling us today" (or is that my own heart I hear?), a church that only tolerates a diversity of beliefs until one becomes too insistent on taking seriously that old idea of Scripture as truly foundational, even over and against the prevailing winds of the times in which we live, in which case we won't really be too sorry to see you leave, just so long as you don't try to steal our property as you go.  "We're moving into a new and brighter future.  We don't need them" (or much of the global Anglican Communion, it would seem).  But now there are many members, but one body.  And the eye cannot say to the hand, "I have no need of you"; or again the head to the feet, "I have no need of you."

I want to be part of a church that truly welcomes all types and conditions of people: Catholic, Evangelical, and Liberal; male and female; black and white; single and married; gay and straight; young and old; left, right, and every point in between.  I believe that Christ's one, holy, catholic, and apostolic Church is indeed catholic: proclaiming God's whole truth, to all people, everywhere and at all times.  How can we fail to  recognize the breadth, height, and depth that Church must comprise?  Obviously, such a Church will have more than enough opportunities for disagreement on any number of issues.  But such a Church will consist of members who all find unity in Christ, who gather at the Eucharist to be nourished with spiritual food in the sacrament of Christ's body and blood, who, whatever differences they may have, still look at one another in love and recognize and affirm a brother or sister in the Lord.  My fear is that such a Church is ceasing to exist in North America today.  I still pray that it is not too late to preserve such a vision of the Church, but these last few days have not been encouraging.
The whole thing is a ghastly horrible witness.  As some have rightly pointed out, the church is reflecting the very worst of the partisanship of the current secular culture, when it should be witnessing to the bankruptcy of such power politics by showing a better way.  And sadly, I suppose we can expect the litigation battles over property to soon get underway.  I know what the canons say, and I don't care; it's uncharitable to the point of spite.  I say this to your shame.  Is it so, that there is not among you one wise man who will be able to decide before his brethren, but brother goes to law with brother, and that before unbelievers?  Actually, then it is already a defeat for you, that you have lawsuits with one another.  Why not rather be wronged?  Why not rather be defrauded?  And yet, I wonder: who cares?  I mean, how many people are even at all aware of what has recently transpired in South Carolina?  For all the church's seeming desire to be "relevant", on the cutting-edge of social justice, interfaith dialogue, biblical criticism, or whatever, we seem to be becoming more and more irrelevant.  Approach the man on the street and ask him what he thinks of the Episcopal Church, and it's a safe bet you'll get a blank stare (also likely he wouldn't even know how to pronounce the word "Episcopalian" if you showed it to him).  So, does all this even much matter?  I don't know; maybe it doesn't, at least as regards our witness, or lack thereof.  But it sure as hell grieves me.  And I'll be presumptuous and say that it grieves our Lord as well, and so, by extension, should grieve all His followers.  Would that some among our leaders would step down from the righteousness grandstand and issue a call for some intentional humility among all our people.  Blow a trumpet in Zion, consecrate a fast, proclaim a solemn assembly, gather the people, sanctify the congregation ... Let the priests, the LORD's ministers, weep between the porch and the altar, and let them say, "Spare Thy people, O LORD, and do not make Thine inheritance a reproach, a byword among the nations."    

It's times like these that almost make me wish I could relapse into the "personal relationship", individualist Christianity that has become so prevalent in the American church: just me and Jesus; what do I care about South Carolina and the nasty politico-theological battles of TEC?  But I can't do that.  I would be deceiving myself, and I know it.  Give me Jesus, yes, but I can't pretend that I can just leave this whole church thing alone, as if it were optional, there as a help for those who want it.  No, I was baptized into Christ, and made a member of the household of God.  For by one Spirit we were all baptized into one body, whether Jews or Greeks, whether slaves or free, and we were all made to drink of one Spirit.  Well, we're having some domestic turmoil, but I don't intend to leave the household, and I certainly won't close my eyes and imagine that the household itself doesn't exist.

I've read somewhere that the Church itself is a sacrament, even and especially in its brokenness.  In its brokenness, the Church points continually to the One who can make us whole.  Our institutions, both ecclesial and secular, will fail us; we ourselves, as individual humans, will fail.  All the more reason to lift our eyes to that One; in Jesus Christ alone is our hope.  I believe this.  And maybe it's foolish of me to choose to be still hopeful.  Maybe I need to take off the blinders and stop the wishful thinking.  I honestly don't know.  But I do choose to live in hope.  Not just the hope that all will ultimately be made well in God, regardless of whether or not the Episcopal Church continues as a faithful witness to the gospel, for I believe that is a point indisputable.  No, I choose also to hope and pray that this tradition in which I have been raised in Christ will indeed continue, and will yet experience healing and renewal.  If we are faithless, He remains faithful, for He cannot deny Himself.   May it be so.

Show us your mercy. O LORD,
     and grant us your salvation.
I will listen to what the LORD God is saying,
     for he is speaking peace to his faithful people
     and to those who turn their heart to him.
Truly, his salvation is very near to those who fear him,
     that his glory may dwell in our land.
Mercy and truth have met together,
     righteousness and peace have kissed each other.
Truth shall spring up from the earth,
     and righteousness shall look down from heaven.
The Lord will indeed grant prosperity,
     and our land will yield its increase.
Righteousness shall go before him,
     and peace shall be a pathway for his feet.
~Psalm 85

O God, the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, our only Savior, the Prince of Peace: Give us grace seriously to lay to heart the great dangers we are in by our unhappy divisions; take away all hatred and prejudice, and whatever else may hinder us from godly union and concord; that, as there is but one Body and one Spirit, one hope of our calling, one Lord, one Faith, one Baptism, one God and Father of us all, so we may be all of one heart and of one soul, united in one holy bond of truth and peace, of faith and charity, and may with one mind and one mouth glorify you; through Jesus Christ our Lord.  Amen.
~ no. 14, a prayer For the Unity of the Church        

Sunday, November 11, 2012

Wm. Temple: "There is the Church"

This past Tuesday was not only Election Day, but also the feast day of William Temple in many Anglican Church calendars.  This is a happy coincidence, given Temple's advocacy for a truly Christian social vision (there is an excellent post over at the blog Catholicity and Covenant that contrasts the broadness of his vision with the poverty of our current political discourse).

William Temple was Archbishop of Canterbury from 1942 until his death in 1944.  A gifted teacher with an infectious laugh and an encyclopedic knowledge, he seemed to be a respected authority in nearly everything.  He was also one of the principal leaders of the early ecumenical movement, a fact for which I find him  particularly interesting.  This is because I claim the title of ecumenist as integral to my identity.  I think the same may be said of Temple. Here he is from a sermon given at the opening of the ecumenical Edinburgh Conference of 1937 on Faith and Order (which he chaired):
"But I know that our division at this point is the greatest of all scandals in the face of the world; I know that we can only consent to it or maintain it without the guilt of unfaithfulness to the unity of the Gospel and of God himself, if it is a source to us of spiritual pain, and if we are striving to the utmost to remove the occasions which now bind us, as we think, to that perpetuation of disunion."
That disunion was obviously a source of "spiritual pain" to Temple, laboring as he did to bring about greater understanding and genuine union among the various scattered branches of the Church.  In typically Anglican fashion, he viewed his own tradition as having a special vocation to this ecumenical calling.  The Anglican church has long sought to provide a via media, a middle way of being the Church which claims the best of both Protestant and Catholic tradition in a comprehensive vision.  This is difficult (as the present troubles of the global Anglican Communion readily testify), and often the Anglican way devolves into mere compromise for the sake of peace, rather than comprehensiveness for the sake of truth in all its richness.  Even in such a state, however, Temple responded to critics thus: "We have learnt from a full experience that nearly always peace is the best way to truth."  And given the vision before us (i.e. humanity in all its diversity made one in Christ's holy, catholic Church), should we not expect this way to be difficult?

I find my own ecumenism well summarized below.  In one of his essays on the subject, Temple wrote:
"The unity of the Church of God is a perpetual fact; our task is not to create it but to exhibit it.  Where Christ is in men's hearts, there is the Church; where his spirit is active, there is His Body.    The Church is not an association of men, each of whom has chosen Christ as his Lord; it is a fellowship of men, each of whom Christ has united with Himself. ... We could not seek union if we did not already possess unity.  Those who have nothing in common do not deplore their estrangement.  It is because we are one in allegiance to one Lord that we seek and hope for the way of manifesting that unity in our witness to Him before the world. ... It is not by contrivance and adjustment that we can unite the Church of God.  It is only by coming close to Him that we can come nearer to one another."
Here is wisdom.  Ours is to exhibit the unity which already exists but is hidden beneath the internal and secondary disputes which we so love to magnify.  Temple certainly did not seek to whitewash or brush aside the significant differences in practice and theology held by the various churches; his was not a "lowest common denominator" vision of the Church.  But even those differences pale in significance with the real unity we possess in Christ.  It is there; we must find ways to embrace it, for ourselves and the world.


(Incidentally, I've so far mostly read about William Temple.  I'd like to read the man himself, but I'm not sure where to start.  Any suggestions would be appreciated.)  


Friday, November 2, 2012

I Believe in the Communion of Saints

These were all commended for their faith, yet none of them received what had been promised.  God had planned something better for us so that only together with us would they be made perfect.  Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us throw off everything that hinders, and the sin that so easily entangles, and let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us.  Let us fix our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy set before Him endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God.     ~Hebrews 11:39-12:2

Almighty God, you have knit together your elect in one communion and fellowship in the mystical body of your Son Christ our Lord: Give us grace so to follow your blessed saints in all virtuous and godly living, that we may come to those ineffable joys that you have prepared for those who truly love you; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who with you and the Holy Spirit lives and reigns, one God, in glory everlasting.  Amen.
~Collect for All Saints' Day

As Christians, we do not pilgrimage through this world alone.  Indeed, the writer to the Hebrews implies that we cannot walk alone.  "Only together with us would they be made perfect."  We are all bound together, saints on earth and in heaven; ours is not a gospel of rugged individualism, far from it.  It is in Christ that we find true freedom, yet paradoxically this new life is one in which we are bound, not only to Christ, but to one another.  We cannot separate ourselves from those saints who have gone before us, even if we would sometimes wish to do so.

On All Saints' Day, we do more than simply remember those saints of old.  To sit and "remember"  someone (in the popular understanding of the word) may indeed be very edifying, but one does not commune with another by simply thinking about them.  On All Saints' Day, the Church on earth is called to remember the reality of this true communion, this fellowship, which we are prone to neglect because it extends beyond our limits of time and space.  This does not make it any less real; indeed, we might say it makes it more real.  We are "bound together in Christ by sacrament, prayer, and praise," as the catechism in The Book of Common Prayer reminds us.

The writer to the Hebrews continues to expound this truth with the famous words about the "great cloud of witnesses" that surrounds us.  In one sense, we are not the primary actors here; it is they, the saints who have gone before us, who are watching us, encouraging us, and aiding us by their intercession, we who have still our race to run and so need the assistance.  Incidentally, I increasingly find odd the Protestant antipathy towards praying for the intercession of the saints.  Yes, prayers to the saints can be overemphasized to the point of distraction and even harm (we must remember to "fix our eyes on Jesus"), and I think the Protestant stance is ultimately a reactionary one against such overemphasis.  But unless one is inclined to deny the very concept of the communion of saints (which would be odd, indeed), how is asking for the intercession of the saints in heaven so different from asking for the intercession of my brothers and sisters now on earth?  Well, in one respect at least, it is different: we might logically expect the prayers of those who "are before the throne of God" to be particularly efficacious.

The reality of the communion of all saints of the Church is beautifully summed up in the following prayer, one of the collects "Of a Saint" from The Book of Common Prayer.  It draws heavily on the language of the Epistle to the Hebrews.      Peace.

Almighty God, by your Holy Spirit you have made us one with your saints in heaven and on earth: Grant that in our earthly pilgrimage we may always be supported by this fellowship of love and prayer, and know ourselves to be surrounded by their witness to your power and mercy.  We ask this for the sake of Jesus Christ, in whom all our intercessions are acceptable through the Spirit, and who lives and reigns for ever and ever.  Amen.