Saturday, 15 December 2012

"Never give up hope!" - a rabbi's tale

I'm writing this on the eve of Gaudete Sunday. Many of my Facebook Friends are clergy in the United States, and a number of them, in their status updates, have mentioned either needing to revise their sermons for tomorrow, or feeling they could not use those they had prepared. They feel they cannot speak of hope and joy, in view of that, just yesterday, a gunman of 20 entered a Connecticut school, and murdered his own mother (a kindergarten teacher) and 18 little children.

I have always been enormously sensitive to violence, and my heart grieves for those killed, for their families, and for everyone affected in any way. However, here speaking of sermons and worship in general, I believe that what has sustained both the Hebrews and their Christian cousins is orthopraxy. Amidst all the evil in this world, for which there is no explanation, somehow going through the prayers (and sacraments),observing the feasts even if there is great sorrow in one's own life, keeping the fasts even if one is in a time of joy, sustains us in faith and hope. (Charity indeed requires outward reaching as well - but I don't want to be diverted for the moment.) Were one to refrain from speaking of hope and joy because others have suffered a horrid loss, they could never be mentioned at all.

My 'regulars' will remember how my understanding was enriched by studying the Hebrew scriptures and commentaries. Yahweh was a most puzzling God - demonstrating none of the 'powers' expected by followers of other, more 'successful' gods - keeping us ignorant of his identity lest we turn him into an idol. Genesis itself is a chronicle of fratricide, trickery, hatred, violence, then slavery. Yahweh is worshipped where the 'other gods' are long forgotten, though the history of the Israelites is a chronicle of pain, oppression, exile, and, so recently, the Holocaust.

I am privileged to belong to a 'senior centre,' with much on offer, which is located in an Orthodox synagogue. I occasionally have the treat of hearing young rabbis and students, who have been studying Torah nearly from infancy, share their wisdom. (Don't let the beards and side curls divert you - most of them could be my sons.) :) This past week, amongst all the fun of a Hanukkah party, a young rabbi presented a tale with the theme, constantly repeated, of "Never give up hope!" Rabbi Byers tells a magnificent story, and I could not possibly do justice to his presentation here. His gestures, inflections, and explanations (understandable even to the little children, but intriguing to even the eldest and wisest there) captured more than can be reproduced on a page. His description of a train en route to Auschwitz had me 'seeing' the passengers. His imitating the mocking laughter of the SS, who greeted arriving prisoners with 'today is Hanukkah - here is your fire!' as they gestured towards the smoke from the death chambers, was amazing.

In short, the tale was of a group of Jews transported to Auschwitz, arriving on Hanukkah. Naturally, some of their number had immediately been 'sorted' to be sent to death. The others, among them a noted rabbi, improvised a Menorah, using pieces of bread and some margarine to light the fire. I wish I could capture the entire story here, but, with that impossible, I shall say that Rabbi Byers had me caught in wonder as he kept repeating the words of the rabbi whom he referenced: "Never give up hope!"

Judaism and Christianity are faiths of endless 'watching and waiting.' We admit to divine revelation / epiphanies, and to a God always involved with his creation - but nothing ever seems to improve. We don't know for what we are waiting specifically, though we believe in a cosmic redemption. We have no answers for evil, but we do not see this as meaning God is not a constant creator and redeemer.

How I wish I could be witty, insightful, or wise today! It cannot be summoned on demand. :) Yet I did wish to share this tale to remind my Christian friends that we mustn't avoid joy and hope to dignify grief. Sorrow is plentiful and always will be so. Yet we must seek joy where we can - and "Never give up hope!"

The prophets and evangelists (many of whom were executed or tortured) were no strangers to sorrow! Many notable religious figures were martyred. In any era, those who were especially close to God wanted to seek to share holiness - but had no illusions that the world was not a very dark place, indeed. We Christians have an image of an Incarnate Lord - whose Father must understand our pain, since His own son was scourged and crucified.

John Paul II saw the horrors of the Holocaust, of Stalin and his concentration camps, of war and "Iron Curtain" oppression. One must bear this in mind in reading this quotation from him: "The human heart has depths from which schemes of unheard-of ferocity sometimes emerge, capable of destroying in a moment the normal daily life of a people. But faith comes to our aid at these times when words seem to fail. Christ’s word is the only one that can give a response to the questions which trouble our spirit. Even if the forces of darkness appear to prevail, those who believe in God know that evil and death do not have the final say. Christian hope is based on this truth; at this time our prayerful trust draws strength from it."

Monday, 19 November 2012

Theology of consecrated life... in 2313, perhaps

There are particular disadvantages in having been a student in a Catholic (women's) college, a church professional, and an attendee at many a 'workshop' (everything there from early pop psychology to distorted theology to pointed agendas) by the 1970s. There was far more zeal than prudence. A 'go with the crowd' flavoured sense of democracy was mistaken for the rare gift of discernment. To this day, though (as regulars may have noticed) I indeed am one to speak my mind, I am hampered not only by the influences of that period but the recognition that, thirty-odd years later, excessive political correctness and a culture of taking offence makes anything one might say very liable to lead to weird detours of logic.

There are major difficulties in writing of consecrated life without extending it to book length. :) The history of how vowed life was lived, manner in which is was approach, what specific vows were taken, is massive. From the earliest years of the Church, the holy solitaries were outnumbered by unscrupulous 'confessors' (those who had managed to escape martyrdom... or who signed documents with names of those killed) selling 'pardons for sin' during persecution. Benedict, Francis, Dominic, Ignatius, Vincent de Paul, all had distinctive elements in their approaches.

During the past week (and this on a theology forum), there was some discussion of vowed life. (I prefer 'consecrated life,' but the RC legalists would say that applies exclusively to those who make vows in a congregation constituted under this or that provision - so the Daughters of Charity, Filippini Sisters, solitaries, hermits, whatever, would seem to be excluded. I am referring specifically to vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience - and not 'according to state of life.') For all my years of study, I've seen only one book on the topic written during the past 40 years, and, though it contained various fine quotes from the writings of Pope John Paul II and the Second Vatican Council, it had a huge stress on accountability and hierarchy. (...such as who can be considered in 'consecrated life.')

I'll never live to see this (my estimate of the concept's being recovered three centuries from now is highly optimistic), but I regret both that there seems to be no solid theology of vowed life, and I doubt that (yes, even before 'the changes') many religious had a clear picture of it in the first place.

Emphasis on work, service, obeying superiors, sacrifice, reparation - replaced by being 'community minded,' 'professional women,' non-judgemental, committed to social justice - there was in abundance. It is unfortunate that centuries of Roman Catholic tradition (the focus I shall use here), which brought forth a huge richness of diverse forms of vowed life, seems to have lost much of this.

Please bear in mind that this is just a blog entry - reflections, not a scholarly work, and some based on personal contact I had with various Religious, not on the many documents that I'm not going to look up for the moment (lest my next blog entry be published three hundred years from now...) What I see as lacking is a proper understanding and valuing of eschatological emphasis, ecclesiology (in a sense that goes beyond hierarchy or obedience), and a genuine asceticism (aimed, as Margaret Funk explains very well in her books, at removing distractions from prayer and service, not fashioning some figurative or literal hair-shirt, whether in the old style of 'atonement' or the new one of 'we're too comfortable....")

I referenced elsewhere how Pope Benedict XVI, in his brilliant work "Eschatology," accurately showed how the "Marantha" of the early Christians sadly gave way to the "Dies Irae" by the early mediaeval period. I often wonder if the concept of eschatology (and the Incarnation in its fullness - where Jesus did not merely get born then manage to go to the Cross) wasn't neglected all the more in my own adult years because, with its having been focussed on an after-life (I won't even get into avoiding hell), the valuable idea of social justice made the thought of an after-life a vague embarrassment.

Those who criticised religion, and some in the social sciences, disliked the idea of after-life as a carrot to dangle before the poor, as indeed it often was. In my own youth, I myself was uncomfortable with the idea of this 'vale of tears,' and a God who seemed only concerned with our happiness after we died (eternal notwithstanding... and He was only inclined to perform miracles either to prove his own divinity when on earth or to show who should be raised to the altars.)

Vowed chastity (as opposed to the virtue of chastity, to which all are called - and this distinguished the Hebrews from pagan neighbours centuries before Christ) was not valued in Jewish tradition. It was only in light of the resurrection, and the recognition that, beyond a sense of an ultimate resurrection, there is more than just this life - more than living through one's children, but an eye to deification and the parousia towards which the new Maranatha would look - that Paul could speak of celibacy as a charism.

By the 1970s, as I well remember, eschatology not only was in the closet overall, but ecclesiology on the 'grass roots level' was flawed. We are one Church - it is not a competition. The emphasis on the universal call to holiness (hardly new - holiness was the topic of many disputes in the early Church) unfortunately was often presented as if it were newly minted, and as if the only vocation is baptism, rather than as if our worship, sacraments, and states of life were not expressions and extensions of baptism. I doubt that the 'new theology of marriage' would come as a surprise to any couple in history, but it was over-emphasised as well, the more by many authors in magazines who were laicised priests. Our individual value is not compromised by recognition that all vocations enrich the Church, but those in vowed life often acted as if it were an embarrassment - not to be mentioned, lest the idea of the 'universal call to holiness' be compromised.

Many Religious hesitated to speak of anything except their work, and (though I'm not suggesting they were unfaithful to vows) were likely to reduce any sense of commitment beyond baptism to commitment to their congregations and corporate identity. As more liturgical ministries became open to those who were not ordained (and this led to further conflict, over whether distributing communion or serving as lector 'clericalised' laity who were supposed to 'sanctify the marketplace,' another topic for another post), there were more complications.

I worked in a parish staffed by Franciscan friars for some time. Though the parishioners indeed seemed to value the priests and Brothers, those avid about the age of the laity (particularly some Secular Franciscans) seemed to take it as a personal insult if, for example, a young man from the parish sought to join the Order as a vowed member. Ideas of vocation could become very confused amongst those who were especially involved in things parochial.

Ironically for a time of wonderful emphasis on liturgical reform, worship made some of the devout uncomfortable - what a tiresome business it was dealing with those who insisted that the Church previously 'sacramentalised instead of evangelised,' as if this somehow set goals at odds. Here and there, prayer, even in Religious life, could be seen as selfish - a distraction from time for service. As well, many Religious congregations became exceedingly secular, while married people (members of third orders or associations) could insist that they were the 'Franciscans of today.' (May I add that I am not suggesting this was universal. I am speaking of much that I personally witnessed, amongst those known to me.) Certainly, the third Order was active even in Francis' time, but the distinction with vowed life was ignored or deplored. Vowed chastity (if not 'according to state') was equally seen negatively, as if it were a denial of the value of sex in marriage.

The mass exodus from religious life during the same period was greeted with joy by many of the married, who'd thought entering a religious congregation was insane from time immemorial. Yet it is seldom explored that Religious were not only faced with the 'new theology of marriage,' or larger professional opportunities overall. The misinterpretation of the universal call to holiness, and extension of this to mean there was no vocation except baptism, had a dimension of giving the message that those in consecrated life were of no particular value to the Church. Religious had long been amazing in their assumption of professions in which one found few women at the time - but, depending on what workshops one attended, one could receive a dose of distorted feminism, wherein the oppressed women hadn't realised the selfish men were using them as indentured servants. Sisters and Brothers who had served in missions in very deprived areas were confronted with everything from an idea that their nursing the lepers took responsibility away from the government to that it deprived tribes of their culture with the many conversions to Christianity.

Human minds instinctively simplify! Nearly all religious had learnt that 'the voice of the superior is the voice of God,' and that admission to vows was the only indicator of a vocation to the life (back when the only vocation wasn't baptism...) With Religious exiting in droves, many to marry, had God changed his mind? Was religious life obsolete? (Indeed, there were the workshops here and there that gave the impression that religious who remained would ultimately be forced out by its demise.)

Genuine asceticism is about removal of distractions to love of God and neighbour (in the fullest sense - I am certainly including prayer and sacrament in this, and see our prayer lives, however suited a means to this is in an individual case, as the cultivation of love of God that allows one to serve those created in His image.) As I've mentioned elsewhere, Margaret Funk explains this impeccably in recent books. Those in religious life too often had a distorted view of 'sacrifice' for its own sake - not that which comes naturally out of fulfilling responsibility or practising virtue. Occasionally, one could meet a former Sister who left to marry thinking that God might be asking her to sacrifice her vowed life to take on motherhood!

There needs to be a respect for distinction in vocation. "Chastity according to state of life" already is a commandment (...not that this is generally recognised nowadays.... violation of that commandment has been just as common as violating the others from time immemorial, but it used to be more discreet.) Poverty according to state of life is nothing new to those faced with the responsibilities (and natural, not self-imposed, sacrifices) of marriage and parenthood. True asceticism disposes one to the intimacy with God, the 'listening,' that makes worship a dialogue - and I think it no accident that the root of the word obedience refers to listening. Yet we must not lose the value of vowed life in an attempt to produce a quasi-version for married third order members - or in an embarrassed effort from the few remaining religious to not seem different and therefore insult the married.

There is far more I can write on this topic - in fact, I once considered using a theology of consecrated life as the substance for a dissertation. I shall not live to see this, but I believe that the eschatological dimension of the vows, respect for ecclesiology and our redemption as Church (not a competition), healthy and humble asceticism, and service to others in light of the dignity all of humanity has in the Incarnation, would need to be faced without a blush before the value can be recovered.

Thursday, 5 April 2012

Do this in memory of me

Christianity is very simple. All it requires is a memory and a vision; and, if you can get them, some bread, and wine, and water. - Kenneth Leech

Simplicity is hardly my strong point - yet bread, wine, water, vision, and memory are the universal factors which have united the Christian Church since its earliest days. (I can develop an idea of the Church's going back to Adam... but let us save that for another day.) Looking back to a romantic, fictional 'golden age' is a favourite pastime in every era.

The Last Supper was not the Eucharist - there can be no anamnesis of what has not yet happened. :) But I provide this 'annual reflection,' which I reserve for Holy Week, right now because I'm weeping my way through the liturgy. Today at the Eucharist, for example, though I've heard the words literally thousands of times, I shed a tear when I heard "on the night he was betrayed..." (When I view the intellectually deficient film "King of Kings," I still cry when Lucius says to
Barabbas, "Go! Look upon him who is dying for you!") I wept through "All glory, laud, and honour" on Palm Sunday (not as much as I shall when we cry out "He is risen indeed" a few days hence). It thrills me thrill that those Hosannas to the
Son of David have echoed for 2,000 years. (I was a student for a century - original ideas are rare, and I think Einstein was the last to have one. :)

One wonders what the apostles were like. (I am also a peasant, yet the intellectual snob in me turns up her nose at the thought of their not being able to grasp the simplest parables and that most of them smelled of fish...) Luke's gospel shows how, to the end, the apostles were arguing over who would have the highest place in the kingdom. Ah, yes, arguments about authority...

Scriptural epics and "Lives of Christ", plus the 'see how these Christians love one another' myth (a situation neither Paul nor Clement found in Corinth), can lead us to picture twelve intense young men, in awe at the first sight of the ritual which would sustain the Church until the parousia. The Last Supper was a prototype of another sort. :) I am sure that at least one traditionalist was frowning that Jesus had changed the form for the Pesach meal with this "cup of my blood" business. Those who were simple or highly observant would question why the Passover was anticipated. (At least, they were spared the vegetarian's protests about the lamb, and no one offered the cup would have irately commented, "Wine is a drug!") Judas was on verge of betraying the Master. Matthew was sensitive about why Judas held the purse, considering his own experience as a tax collector. The disciples were conflicted about who would be the kingpins (I suppose when the Messiah toppled Roman rule.) "The Rock," who had learnt insufficient humility from attempting to
walk on water, was making bold promises he'd soon find were beyond him. (I've no doubt Peter made sure he was prominent during the "Hosanna" procession... why he hung out in the court of Caiaphas later on Thursday night still puzzles me... Perhaps it was poetic justice, since wonderfully fallible Peter of Rome would live to see what has endured - the sort of priests foreshadowed by Annas and Caiaphas also would exist till the parousia...) The lot of them would scatter in fear before the night was out.

Ladies and gentlemen, I give you the Church.

Whenever I hear the words of consecration at the Eucharist, it moves me that the perpetual memorial has endured

for two millennia. For all the conflict, persecution, quarrels, heresy, whatever, which the early Church faced, that bread, wine, and water were the catholic element. Common worship kept the Church from crumbling when many a reform
movement of the time would die out quickly enough. Jerusalem would fall - the Word would spread to Alexandria, Antioch, Rome, Gaul, etc.

All that was common, then or now, was worship - praise and thanksgiving - water, bread, and wine (and oil, and incense... forgive me, since I am so High Church) - the memory and vision, and the scriptures. Till the end, I'm sure that those of us who are avid believers will think that an ideal of unity and love will prevail. Yes, at the name of Jesus every knee shall bow... but not everyone will be happy and grateful at that gesture. :)

Lord, you are holy indeed, and all creation rightly gives you praise. All life, all holiness, comes from you, through your Son, Jesus Christ Our Lord, by the working of the Holy Spirit. From age to age, you gather a people to yourself,
so that from East to West a perfect offering may be made to the glory of your name...

...out of error into truth, out of sin into righteousness, out of death into life...

Sunday, 5 February 2012

Elementary transcendence and immanence :)

I'm breaking a rule today in sharing a personal struggle of my own - this only because I'm sure I'm not alone, but those of us trained to set a 'good example' are ever so hesitant in mentioning such points. Remember the old jokes about the 'good angel' and 'bad angel' (both being oneself, and arguing - cartoonists used to enjoy those images immensely)? My 'angels' certainly are having a sparring match! The one with the louder voice at the moment is saying, 'why did you give away so much? Had you banked what you gave away - sometimes to people who were swindlers - and invested what you were stupid enough to tithe, maybe you wouldn't be struggling so today. Had you not thought your particular form of vocation meant endless hours with the homeless, mentally ill, criminal, all this on top of the charity sector job and political petitions, you might have close friends - people who'd be there in a crisis, love you, socialise with you, share your interests, laugh. Loser, loser, loser! And just do a Google search for some psycho-babble site - you'll learn you only did those things either because of some weird sense of guilt or because you hoped people would love you."

The other voice, of course, is saying, "I was hungry, and you gave me to eat...." I've written elsewhere about how we mortals, created in God's image and likeness, are icons of the transcendent, unknowable God - and this vocation was given to His people from the first chapters of Genesis. I'm not suggesting that any one of us should smugly imagine "well, I'm the sheep, not the goat - come blessed of my Father meant me," but those of us feeling utterly discouraged, fearing our efforts to live the gospel were foolish or harmful to us, aren't likely to claim any sheep status beyond that of wanting a kinship with the Good Shepherd. ('the most abject of men... no place to rest his head..') We who came full circle - where we had hard times and had to go from 'server' to beggar - can easily forget that Jesus Himself was very dependent on others.

I could divert myself writing some theological exposition on the differences between virtue and vice, what's morally good, virtuous, or indifferent - but I'm not doing so today. I'll add an aside, whether it is heresy or not. :) It's true that I am one among many (fools?... see how that 'bad angel' can creep?) who sought to feed the hungry, campaign for the needy, whatever, in a commitment to living the gospel. For others, it is not explicitly so. Yet I believe that we are the 'icons' in our love for each other (the reflection of that divine image) when we are creative and loving - and that this share in creative power and communication (again which hearkens back to Genesis) is so part of our humanity that one who is not a believer at all is no less God's instrument.

A few weeks ago, I was joking (on Facebook) with a priest-friend (who shares my commitment to the 'Christ of the slums,' though I don't believe his family is as close to that status as was mine any time recently, but who also loves everything very High Church.) Someone who didn't understand our 'inside humour' was insulted by his saying (and my responding) 'isn't it fun playing church?' It is indeed!

I have no idea how widespread this is, but, in my own case, I need beauty, dignity, and formality in worship. I love quiet services, but also love gold vestments, incense, 1549 or 1662 English (in what period was our language more glorious?), or Latin for the timeless, unchangeable, universal qualities. (Oh, please - don't comment that this is because it is dead! Greek is even more precise and has a longer liturgical precedent, but I started too late and never caught on.) Those of us who see the transcendent God as unknowable still need expressions of awe, majesty and the like. I think this may be all the more true when we have a strong dedication to 'the least of my brethren' (...or we currently are members of that set.)

Others have vastly differently liturgical tastes, and indeed some craft their common worship to use popular music, include many petitions, carefully cut out whatever can be considered out of date, 'sexist,' or make someone feel guilty (...though that can be a grace, but that's another topic for another day.) In my case, I need to go beyond just 'the people,' whom I already do care for deeply. I cannot stay entirely focussed on the icons, important though 'whatsoever you do...' remains. My formal worship must be in a category where it not only is appealing to the artist and literature nut that I am, but where it is beyond the norm of my life - has a transcendent quality that captures, somehow, the transcendence of the God I cannot know. (Awkward expression, I know... but I did enough medieval studies to know that stained glass can make for enduring catechesis...)

My act of humility for the season is in admitting that this post would never meet any scholarly standard - but that I'm trying to soothe my winter-ruffled emotions with 'you did it for me... and, when you are the one who is needy, if anyone helped you they did it for me - whether they knew this or had the specific intention or not.' I cannot know if anything I did trying to live the gospel benefited anyone else, the more if some of them were lying. Even those who seemed appreciative have long forgotten me. I indeed am struggling, and wish I'd developed social as well as ministerial contacts all those years, because I'm happily retired and would love the bit of fun for which I finally have some time. Yet if I did this by divine grace, responding to the humanity created in his image in love for others, somehow 'doing this for Me' just has to work out in the end... (I hope I don't have to wait for the next life...)