Saturday, 26 June 2010

...But the Lord kept sending me prophecies!...

No, I can assure you that the heading to this post does not refer to yours truly! In my case (and I'm not suggesting this approach is universal, though it is one I highly recommend), I have long been safe and secure in the banality of orthopraxy. Orthopraxy has held Judaism (and Christianity later) close to the Trinity for many millennia... and, if any one of my readers has inclinations towards becoming prophets (which I somehow am inclined to doubt), a look at the Hebrew Scriptures and the situations in which prophets found themselves should inspire caution.

Oh, I'll grant that, thirty-odd years ago, I was involved in some liturgical versions of "I Get High with a Little Help from my Friends" in which we could fall into being prophetic as all get out. For most of us, the caring, support, desire for union with the divine and such indeed was loving and sincere, but we had no concepts of discernment, wisdom, humility and other such trivia. It may seem odd that, around 1978 (after 5 years working in worship office and on various liturgical commissions), when I was writing my MA thesis on liturgical music, I still had my days of sitting on the floor singing Blowin' in the Wind and sharing kisses and the Eucharist with the others - and that even I was not immune to having some clip from scripture and vague insight popping into my head and proclaiming it with the mandatory, "My People!" God have mercy on us, what inflated little Gnostics we all were... Yet I think at least a few of you will understand why I am a stickler for the liturgy (including the Offices, of course), and why I find orthopraxy so comforting. Why we thought we could improve on the scriptures, or that God Himself needed us for some original mouthpiece, or why we so casually called on divine power (despite the loving desire to see healing), is beyond my description, but I couldn't have been alone in not realising I had an inflated view of my own holiness - and what, deep down, was a desire for magical power.

The heading for this post actually is a favourite line of two self-proclaimed prophets of my acquaintance. I must 'introduce' you to Helen first, because I could use a laugh today and sharing this little story (which happened long after the neo-Gnostic stage) will give me at least five. I used to play the organ on Tuesday evenings in a shrine, where there was a service comprised of the Eucharist, Exposition of the Sacrament (during which most in attendance recited the rosary), then Benediction - thankfully, just a little silence was there to be enjoyed during the exposition. Helen was a rather imposing sort who received periodic inspirations from the Holy Spirit, which led her to compose poetry. (Somehow, I feel using both terms is an insult to both the Third Person of the Trinity and true poetry, but I'll leave that for later.) Helen was not one to hide her light under a bushel, and would have a printer prepare copies of the poetry as light to the less inspired in her company. She would stand in the chapel during the time of silence, explain how the inspiration came to her, then recite the passage from Apocrypha Helena.

From the 'kids, don't try this at home' department: I shall caution anyone who might stumble on this blog without a sense of irony that Helen's example should not be taken to inspire one to further glory. To my knowledge, such behaviour would never be tolerated unless the 'prophet' had donated the building, which Helen indeed had. My cynical side is tempted to comment that, for a donation totalling seven or eight figures, one might get away with erecting an altar to Ba'al.

Those who applaud the demise of choir lofts never needed to stifle one's hysterical laughter behind the organ anywhere in which the following passage was part of the prophecy. (Helen's inspiration had come when she visited a bedridden, dying woman and was reminded of the suffering Christ. That strikes me as quite a good inspiration indeed - had she only left it at that...)

"I am your suffering Jesus, on my pillow, in my home,
Won't someone come and visit me or call me on the phone?"

I am also reminded of a religious Sister whom I knew from our having attended the same class in the History of Judaism, during which she was quick to interrupt the rabbi with questions about, perhaps, the political climate in El Salvador. She lived in a large convent, where Sisters were engaged in varied ministries, and their custom was to recite the Office of Readings together during the evening Eucharist. (The Office of Readings was freshly minted at the time, and was - is - a gem. It would be a little difficult to improve on the diverse, often highly powerful writings included. In case you are unfamiliar with this Office, besides the psalms it includes one reading from the scriptures, another from sources such as patristic writings, noted theologians, documents of ecumenical councils, and the like.) Apparently, in that house, each of the Sisters took a turn at leading the Office of Readings for a week - and, if she did not want to use those in the Liturgy of the Hours (...which probably took about ten thousand liturgical scholars thirty years to compile..), she could choose any combination of scriptural and 'second' readings.

Needless to say, this in itself could present a few problems, especially if that week's leader had an agenda (which nearly all of us had at the time. Judging from my Internet journeys, I'll take the ones we had over some which are popular now...) But Marilyn stood alone! She resisted the bid for conformity, and, rather than using any scriptural or patristic text at all, improvised because "The Lord kept sending her prophecies."

Perhaps one does not become the stickler I am about worship (if nothing else), or so sensitive about how little pursuits such as healing services, exorcisms, and the like (don't ask me why such matters as exorcism have become popular in the Internet age), require great respect for the authority Christ gave to his Church, unless one's cheeks have burnt at how very much we have the capability for exaggerating our own importance...

Note that I am not suggesting there is not extensive precedent for odd attitudes towards power and what one does in Christ's name. Here's a totally coincidental reading from the lectionary for tomorrow (Luke Chapter 9):

51 When the days drew near for him to be taken up, (Jesus) set his face to go to Jerusalem. 52 And he sent messengers ahead of him. On their way they entered a village of the Samaritans to make ready for him; 53 but they did not receive him, because his face was set toward Jerusalem. 54 When his disciples James and John saw it, they said, “Lord, do you want us to command fire to come down from heaven and consume them?” 55 But he turned and rebuked them.

Friday, 4 June 2010

Come to me, my melancholy baby :)

I've been keeping company with strange bedfellows once again this week. I've no idea why, since warmer weather tends to thaw my brain a bit, and the combination of Pentecost, Trinity Sunday, and Corpus Christi certainly inspires awe and exhilaration, but somehow I've had a touch of melancholy. For reasons which even I cannot explain fully (...just as I cannot tell you why I mistook my friend Doris's medallion of a "D" for a Latin numeral instead of her initial), I've been alternately dosing myself with Monty Python Sings (a CD that will make me laugh almost as much as underground copies of the medieval Feast of Fools - which isn't for mixed company if everyone understands Latin) and 17th century English (metaphysical) poets.

Sidetracking but for a reason: in my own case, melancholy is a distraction, a burden to be borne for as little time as possible - I endure it now and then, but never with enjoyment. By contrast, I've known a number of people throughout my life, many of whom were the 'life of the party' and enormously witty by nature, who seemed to need a healthy helping of misery just to keep fit. I'm thinking of when I was travelling to a new location, and my old friend Richard (a living leprechaun, and one whose motto could be 'leave them laughing') was happily telling me of his own experiences there. This was the early 1990s, when airline flights were far more fun that in these days when the crew wishes everyone would just sleep and no one was working on laptops. In the midst of going on about the fun of the flight itself, Richard suddenly got his "gnome grieves" expression and reminded me, "You know, at least one person on that flight will be going to claim a body."

Quite. Since loose associations are my speciality, I somehow am reminded of how only one as concurrently rational and imaginative as C. S. Lewis could fall through wardrobes into Narnia, speak with a detachment I find chilling (at least until Joy died) about the 'problem of suffering,' and think evil spirits caused natural disasters.

When I'm trying to get past a melancholy period, after liberal doses of my rock music collection and Monty Python, I often immerse myself in English literature, and so I did this week. I spent this afternoon with John Donne, for example - obviously, there were drastic differences in our early life experiences, but I think we could be kindred spirits when we meet in heaven - much of his poetry is delightful (including, if not especially, that which would pre-date what might be termed his conversion... I suppose some of my readers would take issue with that term), and I have many a question for him. (To the pedantic sorts who would shake their heads and say "but you're not going to meet him in heaven!", I'll drag out an old Irish joke, which I learnt from the same people who laugh for an hour then remember that at least one person on a pleasant flight is en route to claiming a body and retort, "Then you ask him!") That did not keep me from also giving attention to George Herbert (and the poetic quotes which follow are from his writings.)

I have no idea why I have affection for Herbert's work (for all of its literary merit.) I think my attitude is something like that which I have for Wagner operas - they have moments which are brilliant and uplifting, wedged between much that is ponderous. I am moved to silence (not something that happens too frequently in most parts of my life...) at such words as these:

How wide is all this long pretence!
There is in love a sweetnesse readie penn'd:
Copie out onely that, and save expense...

Or perhaps:

My joy, my life, my crown!
My heart was meaning all the day,
Somewhat it fain would say;
And still it runneth muttering up and down,
With onely this, My joy, my life, my crown.

Whereas if th'heart be moved,
Although the verse be somewhat scant,
God doth suppplie the want,
As when th'heart sayes (sighing to be approved)
Oh, could I love! and stops: God writeth, Loved.

That does not keep me from groaning through nine-tenths of, for example, "The Church Porch," where a few marvellous lines are wedged between a dour, severe, though admittedly wise treatment of human weakness. (Well, all right... when one pages through the poems at length, and I'll even admit I have a pocket edition, there are lots of great moments.) Aldous Huxley made a good point in comparing Herbert to the variable English weather. (Contrary to legend, I might add, it is not perpetually raining in England - and probably doesn't rain any more than in most places. What distinguishes English weather is that it can change very suddenly - hence the eternal need for the umbrella, which one finds later one left on the Tube because it rained for ten minutes a few hours ago and hasn't since. One discovers this on exiting the Tube, walking 300 m, and finding it has begun to rain again, briefly but intensely, whilst one's umbrella is heading to the next stop.)

From Love I:
Immortall Love, author of this great frame,
Sprung from that beautie which can never fade;
...Wit fancies beautie, beautie raiseth wit;
The world is theirs, they two play out the fame,
Thou standing by; and through thy glorious name
Wrought our deliverance from th'infernall pit,
Who sings thy praise; only a skarf or glove
Doth warm our hands, and make them write of love.

Richard Baxter was undoubtedly correct regarding George Herbert's works, in saying that Herbert "speaks to a God like one that really believeth a God, and whose business in the world is most with God." I believe that Herbert, however conflicted he was, always was faced with wanting to do God's will and struggling with what that might be. Commentator Helen Gardner provided a summary of the essence, I believe: "The conflicts of The Temple are conflicts of self-will. The pain of the frustration of hopes, in themselves laudable, of the loss of friends and continual ill health is given its full weight. The deepest pain is the pain of feeling useless, of having nothing to give where so much has been given; and this Herbert knows to be the real nerve-pain of egoism. He knows too what is its cure. If age and sickness take everything, the powers of the mind as well as those of the body and, most precious, the power to write poetry, Yet they have left me, Thou art still my God."

How should I praise Thee, Lord! how should my rymes
Gladly engrave thy love in steel,
If what my soul doth feel sometimes,
My soul might ever feel!

Not only in the case of George Herbert, of course, but as a general weakness within the Western Church for many centuries, I believe we do tend to place undue emphasis on 'fallen nature,' penance as atonement rather than removal of distractions to intimacy, the cross to the point where one would think the resurrection and our deification never quite happened. Still, one whose commitment was as sincere as Herbert's probably dealt with a struggle those of our more 'enlightened' age can wish to ignore. (Let's face it - we're embarrassed to admit that we even have a concept of personal sin, as if that showed bad self esteem, or fear facing the pain and guilt or even mentioning it because it might keep us from looking modern and welcoming.) All of us, if we have a shred of honesty not cancelled by seeking to be inoffensive to the trendy, know that our sinfulness indeed does block intimacy. I'm not referring to punishment, hell, a lack of divine forgiveness (and our asking for this is for our sake, not because He is offended). The fact remains that, even when our sins do not lead to grave (or any) natural consequences, the repentant sinner has to face the spiritual consequences - the pain, weakness, and struggles which are the aftermath. It's only then that we can embrace Truth. Those whose lives are as centred on God as were Herbert's cannot help but pine for the intimacy our weakness blocks. (Yes, I am aware that George Herbert lived with constant illness, and died at age 39.)

From Love II:
Immortal Heat, O let thy greater flame
Attract the lesser to it: let those fires,
Which shall consume the world, first make it tame;
And kindle in our hearts such true desires,
As may consume our lusts, and make thee way,
Then shall our hearts pant thee; then shall our brain
All her invention on thine Altar lay,
And there in hymnes send back thy fire again:
Our eies shall see thee, which before saw dust;
Dust blown by wit, till they both were blinde:
Thou shalt recover all thy goods in kinde,
Who wert disseized by usurping lust:
All knees shall bow to thee; all wits shall rise,
And praise him who did make and mend our eies.

All right... by now you can understand why even I have the pocket edition of Herbert... Even if he writes about asking God to spare the rod and wrath...

Perhaps the melancholy in which some indulge is there as a balance to make the joy more intense. It is difficult for me to imagine this, since, though I sing a chorus of "Hello, darkness, my old friend" (and then ten choruses of "Richard Cory" to get me through worries about my poverty...) now and then, melancholy is something from which I far prefer diversion. Still, I see an overlay of fear. Calvin and Jansen would infect Christian thinking with this to a degree that has yet to fade, but it long pre-dates their lifetime - focus on our being 'fallen,' as if our existence is somehow depraved, and our desires, even if they are far from sinful, just have to be tainted. (By contrast, even if the arguments he was commissioned to craft have a bit too much of 'atonement for sin' flavour, Thomas Aquinas focussed on all of creation as good, and saw us, even at our worst, as failing to fulfil potential.) Slipping in words of happiness (or, in Herbert's case, awe and devotion) between the woes is superstitious - as if we might be caught laughing and have another cross to bear, or might have pains to endure because we aren't regretting our weakness quite enough.

I've studied the Middle Ages extensively (and also can remember when it seemed the whole of popular Roman Catholic doctrine and practise was confined to offering things up for the poor souls), so I make many a joke about Purgatory... and indeed excesses on that topic would have made those post-Reformation shudder at the very term. I'm sorry the underlying treasure was lost - a positive view that admits to our weakness, our constant need for growth, God's endless creative activity. Joseph Ratzinger (now Pope Benedict), dangerous German liberal though he was thought to be in my youth, did not fear the topic - and, though George Herbert of all people wouldn't have used the word, I think I'll close with some references from Benedict's "Eschatology."

Benedict compares Christ's descending into Sheol to "the dark night." "Hope can take it on, only if one shares in the suffering of Hell's night by the side of One who came to transform our night by His suffering."

Moving on to Purgatory: Benedict notes that the anchoring of a person in the Church is not disrupted by death. We still bear each others' burdens. "We make our way through the judging fire of Christ's intimate presence in the companionable embrace of the family of the Church." Christ Himself is the judging fire, which transforms us and conforms us to his own glorified body.

He continues to describe humanity as a recipient of divine mercy - yet notes our continuous need for transformation. Fire (that is, Christ Himself, not some agonising, destructive torture) burns away the dross and reforms us to be vessels of eternal joy. "This insight would contradict the doctrine of grace only if penance were the antithesis of grace and not its form, the gift of a gracious possibility." Constant readiness for reform marks the forgiven sinner. The being of mankind is not a closed monad. It is related to others as love or hate, and, in these ways, has its colonies within them.

Heaven, according to Ratzinger, is Christologically determined. Christ, as God, is human, and makes space for human existence in the existence of God himself. It is the definitive completeness of human existence which comes through the perfect love towards which faith tends.

By now (if, indeed, anyone is still there), this hodgepodge must be utterly confusing. Where am I going with this? Well, bear with me - the days when I need both Monty Python and John Donne mean many struggles of my own. But I can see a common thread of deficiency in much thinking of Christians, including noted and sincere poets such as Herbert. We must not forget eschatology - nor ecclesiology. We need to face our pain to get our own lives in line with the gospels, yet even the 'next life' is one where we are a Church. I'm too lazy to look it up this minute, but I think Julian of Norwich would write that, whatever burdens we have, they are never too heavy for the Church.

(Wryness tag on... just a little.) Even when the melancholy saps my quickness, I'm a hopeless Romantic but hardly a fool - and my knowledge of history isn't all that deficient. I may giggle at Monty Python's song about poor King Charles, but would have thought it quite bad taste to play that selection in Herbert's time. Even I (in my earliest school days) was afraid of Oliver Cromwell - until I discovered that, yes, he was as dead as Julius Caesar - and I'm hardly turning a blind eye to what Donne or Herbert observed. I have an enormous fondness for the Caroline Divines, and know all too well what they were trying to piece together. Yet the 16-17th centuries illustrated trends that were not only related to the specific historical circumstances. (I know what some of the recusant faced, indeed - but those who'd like to place the entire blame on pragmatic Gloriana have to admit that both Pius V and the Jesuits had their parts in the backlash... Let's not be idealistic about how 'our being the Church' cancels what a crop of shites we all can be. What matters is that, in total, we're Christ's Church.)

There was and is a lack of emphasis on eschatology and ecclesiology - and, if the Church of England was forced into an uncomfortable "how do we keep worshippers from Rome or Geneva?" (sometimes being most excessive in that strategy...) , Rome erred (understandably, considering the Church was being torn to shreds) at Trent, for all the abuses that were corrected, at turning 'ecclesiology' into jurisdiction and authority, full stop. All camps shelved eschatology (without forgetting the 'four last things,' with presumably hell as the default destination) and continued a prevalent trend towards focussing, even in discussions of the Eucharist (and this was true even of the continental Reformers), on our need for forgiveness. Trent, for example, denied Communion to young children not because they could not understand, but because they did not yet have use of reason and will and didn't need forgiveness. So much for anamnesis of a rather larger Incarnation...

I just talked about our need to ask forgiveness - and, at the Offices and the Eucharist, it seems to me I do that about twice a day, so I am by no means minimising its importance (or that of facing the pain), only of its being the sole and primary idea. I'm sorry that, in the Church of England, whatever emphases the Caroline Divines considered, it would be the 20th century before Communion was generally a main Sunday service or sacramental confession was acceptable - and that, in the Roman Catholic Church, only the decree on frequent communion in the 20th century rescued the Host from being primarily an object of devotion, not reception. Yet we still need to recover such ideas regarding eschatology as were emphasised in the early Church - and to formulate ideas of ecclesiology that are based neither on "we are a Church - we're family, anything goes as long as you show up and bring your collection envelopes" or "obey - because I said so" or a lack of integrity that masquerades as tolerance.

There, I said it and I'm glad - and I know full well that, had I lived in the times of persecution, I would have so enraged both sides that I'd have been executed twice.

...Off I go... anyone who can include such glorious quotes in a post and still feel a bit unwell needs yet another dose of Monty Python... Blessings for Corpus Christi, my friends (...and may the very mention of that feast underline Christology, eschatology, and ecclesiology...) ;-)

Teach me thy love to know;
That this new light, which now I see,
May both the work and workman show;
Then by a sunne-beam I will climbe to thee.