Cattle Drive, Fort Worth Stockyards, April 2010

Friday, May 28, 2010

Life in the Gray Zone

Recently, I saw a poll that pointed out where people are regarding moral issues in the US. I wasn't particularly surprised but it got me thinking that about where the root of the problem is and I think I might have stumbled onto something in my reflection. Let me know what you think.
   Our trouble is that we don't really believe in God. I'm not speaking about atheists, but Christians in general. We tend to believe in a great law giver, where everything is black or white, absolutely right or absolutely wrong. That's where our minds are, but our experience is more in the gray. This leads us to great difficulties with what we perceive as an absolutist position on anything, because we tend to experience everything in a haze… life is lived in the gray zone. And we make the gray even more hazy for ourselves because we bring our emotions into it and confuse things even more.
   You see, I think we believe in "right" and "wrong" in the same way we think of criminal law. I would suggest that we don't even have a grasp of criminal law anymore because we have lost what law is an outgrowth of in Christian lands.
   Let me explain. Right, truth, life, light, glory, etc. are personal attributes of God. We usually separate them from him in an abstracted way. They can't really be done that way though. To do right is always to choose to follow Christ as best we can in all circumstances. This requires us to recognize that the world is fallen and that sometimes we don't get to choose absolutes. We have to choose the best choice available and know that it is not perfect. But in doing so we still are choosing God. We are choosing him--although he is obscured from full view. We are trying to love him in all that we do.
   We also have to recognize that our fallenness keeps us from being able to see the truth with absolute clarity. So it is that we need to receive counsel from other Christians who are mature in their faith (not just Joe in the pew over from us, but from one who is spiritually advanced with the fruits of that showing forth). We need to seek to purify our minds and hearts so that we can see God more clearly. If we can't navigate our way through moral questions, then it may not be the issue that is the problem but our perception and understanding that needs enlightening. But repentance requires a complete trust in God. It requires faith because it is throwing oneself off a cliff into God's mercy. Repentance is to fly without the nets of our own comfort. God is a consuming fire... the fire of love.
   We also need to come to understand that all of the commandments that our Lord gives us (in the Old and New Testaments and through his Body the Church) are revelations of himself. God says, "Thou shalt not steal" because he has no avarice or kleptomania in himself. God says, "Thou shalt not commit adultery" because he is faithful. He wants us to be like him in all things. "Be ye perfect, even as your Father in heaven is perfect." Laws are a revelation of the goodness of God and a revelation of what we are to become as well.
   If we truly loved God, we would constantly seek his face in all that we do. We would desire to move towards him at every moment and every decision. Life in the gray zone is our potential to love God or despise him without any coercion at all. We are free to move to the Kingdom of God or away from it. This is why it is gray and not so easily deciphered. It is also why it represents the most critical struggle of our lives. Honestly, very few of our decisions are good vs. evil (though the consequences always are). Mostly we have to decide between two alternative goods and choose which one is the real good. What will be our basis of choice? Will we decide this one looks good because I will enjoy it more, or will we choose the other because there are fewer obstacles placed between it and our love of God?
   In the gray zone we find out if we really believe in God or not. Most of the time, I think we believe in ourselves and our own comfort, or, being compassionate people, we choose to make others comfortable rather than point them towards holiness. But the more I consider it, the more I recognize that the gray zone is a luminous haze that reveals more than it lets on.

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

The Essential Question: What is Truth?

While reading one of the blogs I check up on, I read a magnificent piece that describes the essential difference between the Protestant mind and the Catholic mind (we Orthodox think the same way as the Catholics here). It was written by a Roman Catholic priest, Fr. Seán Finnegan, as part of a post regarding the historical discussions between Anglicans and Roman Catholics and what has been at the root of the problem. He says, I think rightly, that it has to do with the essential definition of truth.

The most important issue that should have been examined first is the nature of truth, and how we are to arrive at it. For a Protestant, a Christian himself (or herself) reads the Bible, and, illuminated by the Holy Spirit, and helped by the witness of tradition (for some) and reason, discerns God’s truth for himself. Within this system, there has to be a fair degree of toleration of difference, because Protestants had discovered within a couple of years that two earnest Protestants are going to have two different interpretations of pretty fundamental doctrines, and if they aren’t going to end up killing each other (which some did), they are going to have to accept that there can be room for honest doubt. This, I would contend, has eventually given birth to doctrinal liberalism, though it would be a mistake to conclude from this that all Protestants are liberals, though Protestantism is particularly prone to liberalism on the one hand (for the nice people) and bigotry on the other (‘my privately held opinion is better than your privately held opinion’).
To a Catholic mind, our Lord did not come to write a book, but to found a Church through the wisdom of which, guided by the same Holy Spirit, he would continue to guide his Church into all truth. That Church would, inspired by the Holy Spirit, write a book, (the New Testament) but the Church precedes the book and therefore authoritatively interprets it (as the Bible interprets the tradition). It is the Apostles who are to be listened to as one would listen to Christ (Luke 10:16), and the Church holds that they continue to teach through tradition with scripture and through their successors.

    I think Fr. Finnegan clearly describes the foundation of the Church from the viewpoint of truth. It is also a description that we as Orthodox should "read, mark, learn and inwardly digest" as the old collect from the Second Sunday of Advent in the Book of Common Prayer used to say, because it gets to some of the great difficulties that we face as Orthodox Christians too.
    There seem to be about three different camps of Orthodox currently: (1) what we might call the "ethnic" camp [sometimes thought of as the "old guard'], (2) the middle camp [which includes converts and cradle Orthodox], and (3) the "fundamentalist" camp. There is a terrible battle occurring between the three groups that is tearing us apart. It is not a healthy place to be right now and if it is not healed, I fear that many will leave the Orthodox Church entirely. I classmate of mine in seminary wisely pointed out that, "sometimes it becomes necessary for some to leave the Church for their salvation." When there is little room for prayer, repentance and conversion of life, then one needs to find a place he can do that. If we aren't very careful, we'll see that day sooner rather than later.
    What are the battle lines? The first camp brought the Orthodox Church here from oversees. It struggled and sacrificed to plant the Church here. The vision oft times was not so clear, ranging from the vision of a real parish church to a religious social club for "our people." But this camp has always been in charge and run things. It has been generous and open to freely give the faith to those seeking it (at least in the Antiochian Archdiocese). But the Church has changed in the US now and is no longer populated by purely "ethnic" folks. About three-quarters of the clergy in our Archdiocese are converts (or "non-ethnics"). Some estimate that the number of convert laity is perhaps at least fifty percent to seventy percent. As the converts increase, as they give their money, their time, their lives to the Church, they also want to have a larger voice as well. These two groups represent the first big, and in some ways the most significant, clash going on.
   It is tremendously important because these two groups have entirely different values of propriety and rectitude. They have different senses of action as well. The great discomfort that we felt last summer largely comes from this collision of cultures. As long as both sides continue to entrench, we will have no peace and will be cast headlong into either a schism or dissolution, or both. This is the source of my great concern for the bishops' meeting that will begin in a couple of weeks. Will they strive to reinforce the "old guard" as the legitimate mind of the Church here? Will they recognize that the Holy Spirit is giving birth to a new ethnic Orthodox people that just happen to be Americans (which necessarily includes all of the groups of immigrants that have come here)? I'm not sure, but the signs are not promising.
   I have spoken to a few people who have traveled across the United States recently and visited several parishes. They have told me that the use of the "mother tongue" of the various groups is up, both liturgically and in the parish hall. Discussions have been much more stridently pro-ethnic across the board. My intuition is that this comes from some folks feeling very uneasy and threatened. Power is slipping away... and it must do so.
   The third wheel in this group is what has been characterized by the fundamentalist camp. This group has caused a lot of difficulties in our parishes across the board. There is always a tendency to legalism, but there is something else here that is at the heart of the problem I think. Fundamentalism has two sources. The first source is that many people who come into Orthodoxy have not left the Protestant notion of truth behind. They believe that they can define it themselves through a larger group of writings. Monastics become almost modern Apostles. I have had to work with some folks like this before and they are almost impossible to help. They insist that only a really pure monk can give them advise and counsel. They judge everything themselves, rather than accepting life from the Church. The Protestant mind cannot be brought into the Church if one is to be healthy.
   There is another source of fundamentalism though, and it is subtler. Many converts find it distressing to be asked, "What made you become a Greek (or Arab, or Russian, name your flavor)?" They didn't realize they were doing any such thing. After a while of having their own heritage pushed to the side, one of the choices for them is to reject a purely modern ethnicity in favor of one defined by an odd sort of fundamentalism. I don't think it works very well, because one ends up having to be some sort of fundamentalist--Greek or Russian or whatever. Either way, one loses himself.
   At the heart of the matter is the question of truth, which is why I think Fr. Finnegan's entry is so important. We must recognize that the Church comes before any of these groups. The Church itself is absolutely universal and that no ethnic group can lord it over the others. If any one group is to have the upper hand, in the long run it must be the local group, whatever that is. Otherwise the Church is nothing but a romantic enclave of what we knew "back there". (To the fundamentalist it would be a romantic enclave of what the Church is like "on Mount Athos" or 19th century Russia, or whatever their foundation is.)
   We are at a critical moment. We must pray that the Holy Spirit guides our fathers, the bishops, that they will be inspired and moved according to his will and not theirs. We must hope that the Church embraces the Universal reality with which she was created and not move to a backwards entrenchment--as comfortable as that might be to some.
   I don't know what the future will be for us. I can't even honestly say what the future will be for ME. Our salvation is all that matters. Our growth in Christ and in his Church are essential, nothing else is.

Friday, May 21, 2010

I've been a little negligent...

But I promise this weekend to get back in gear. I'll be posting more generalized content on PadreTex from now on. This will concern the Christian life in general. What I will no longer post here are items related to the Western Rite, not because anyone has been upset with my comments on these things or even said anything in the least bit negative. Rather, I am creating a new blog just for those issues. I am hopeful that this will make this blog more useful and helpful to the faithful of St. George (and others too).

The other blog, "PadreTex Born in the West" will allow me to make even more specific comments about the Western Rite, as well as suggestions and so forth. All who know me, know that I love that Rite and am committed to seeing it thrive, but it seems to be in some difficult times at the moment. Some will say that it has always seemed so, but that surely is an overstatement. Well, much of this is little post is more applicable to the new blog, so I'll cease.

I hope that you will feel welcome to drop in on the other one from time to time. I also hope this will allow me to better wear the right hat at the right time!

Thursday, May 6, 2010

I've been in a nostalgic mood lately...

And so I’ve been thinking about what I truly miss about the sort of Anglicanism that I knew and loved so deeply. It seems obvious that it no longer exists, but that’s not really the point… and I do think that there is a point somewhere that should reveal itself by the end of this post.
     First I suppose I ought to say what sort of Anglican I was since there seem to be a multitude of varieties, especially nowadays. I was an old-fashioned Anglo-Catholic, or perhaps even more pointed, an Anglo-Papalist. I "read, marked, learned and inwardly digested" Rev. Dr. Francis Hall’s ten volume series on Dogmatic Theology (and I still treasure my copy of these volumes). I studied and mastered Ritual Notes, 8th and 11th editions, and later began to learn Fortescue’s Ceremonies of the Roman Rite Described and other books that are referenced and footnoted in Ritual Notes. My heart treasured the 1940 Hymnal--which is arguably the best hymnal ever published. The simple Gregorian settings to the propers and ordinary of the Mass still give me great peace. It ought to be clear that I was not the ordinary sort of Episcopalian one finds in the U.S. It is true that as a child the parishes that I attended were certainly more from the mainstream of American Anglicanism, yet it was when I joined St. Timothy’s as a young adult that I was actually “formed” into my current spiritual shape.
     But I've not been particularly nostalgic about being an Episcopalian at all. That holds no attraction to me. It is rather the way the Christian life was lived and experienced in what I think of as my “home parish” that still has a profound and continuing influence on me. This is still my vision of Christian life. I cannot shake it. I will not even attempt to do so because I know that it is absolutely true and godly. So what are these irreducible foundation stones that I carry in my heart. (I know this is personal and perhaps too much so. My friends who know me well already know most of this. My parishioners should probably know more clearly “what makes me tick,” because it does effect them directly)
     First of all, I have to start with what must be called the Catholic vision. As an Anglo-Catholic, the Catholic vision was essential to our life. It focussed us on building authentic communities where we lived. They were often largely mixed groups of people who perhaps would never come together otherwise. My home parish was largely a group of blue-collar Texans. But we also had a few real academics (one whom was fluent in 47 languages, most of which were dead). We had a couple of doctors, maybe one attorney. We had policemen and almost any sort of worker you would care to mention. But we were also from a broad racial and ethnic grouping. We were white, black, hispanic, English, French, Irish, Scot, Slavic… What was critically important to us that when we entered the doors of the church and genuflected to Christ on the altar, we were one. We believed the same Faith. We shared a common liturgical experience. No group was more important than any other. The Catholic vision is that the Christian Faith is for all people, in all places, in all times. Each people will manifest this beautiful treasure in a way that is unique to them, but it will also be so profoundly the same as everywhere else. I long for the deep sense of diversity in (complete theological and sacramental) unity again. I'm not speaking of agreeing to get along. I really do mean complete unity on the essential theological and sacramental core. This is what I would call the Catholic vision, and it one that I learned at St. Timothy’s and that I still hold. It is the Apostolic experience and faith.
     It is natural that worship is another area that would move me to deep nostalgia. (The picture at right was taken at St. Timothy’s when my mentor retired--the late Fr. George M. Acker, S.S.C., he is doing the censing.) It is tragic to say that I'm not sure that I have prayed as deeply, as completely, or as regularly as I did then. I remember saying the offices (the Divine Hours) daily then. They were simple enough to say quietly by myself every day, whereas the Eastern Offices are far too complicated for me to do so. Maybe that’s a personal thing though, I know some who can, I’m just not one of them. I was present at Solemn High Mass every Sunday, every feast of Holy Obligation, and at least once a week in addition. I went to Stations of the Cross and Benediction during Lent, waited in line to make my confession on Saturdays (there really was a waiting line at that time!). There is something so gloriously practicable about the Western liturgical life. It truly can become something that is “daily”. A feast day liturgy in the Eastern rite takes a cast of thousands and it can sometimes mean a priest is busier than a one-armed paper hanger. That' not particularly prayerful for the priest.
     Music was also important to me. The hymns that we sang were solid old-fashioned hymns with the organ shaking the windows. The entire parish would take up their beloved 1940 Hymnal and belt out the hymns. One didn’t just show up at Mass and take a seat. One sang and responded! Oh my how I miss that. The entire congregation would sing the hymns that were assigned as well as the ordinary hymns that were sung week by week (like the Asperges me, the Kyrie, the Creed, etc.). We all largely had it memorized, so a sure sign that you were a visitor was if you picked up the service book. The choir would sing motets and anthems, often in Latin, at various points in the Mass. Our music was not the sort of dodgy, folksy, sentimental, contemporary drivel that one commonly hears nowadays. It was beautiful (often classical), theologically solid stuff. In music we were different from Roman Catholics because we didn't go in for folk masses, and the entire parish sang the music (except for the changing propers which the chanters sang). Worship was offered by us all. I heard it said that Anglicans were an odd mix, at least musically, of Methodists and Catholics. I'm not sure that’s entirely true. There is a unique “Anglican” sound. While reading about music in pre-Reformation England, I found that the English people were a very musical bunch. The parishioners did indeed sing out, and they expected the chant to be sung by the parish clerk and priest. This has been laudably inherited among all Anglicans I think. The Anglo-catholic used the hymnal but also used historic Gregorian chant too. I can't begin to tell you what a rich combination this was: hymns from the common period; Gregorian chant; Classical motets and anthems…
     Another element for me was beautiful language. If you couldn't tell, I love good English. I love elegant, hieratical prose. It is beyond dispute that the most beautiful English prayers ever composed in the English world come from the Book of Common Prayer (BCP). The BCP along with the King James Version of the Bible (or the Authorized Version, if you please) represent the height of liturgical language in English. If one adds the works of Shakespeare to the other two, one would have to acknowledge that these three form the basis of modern English. The graciousness and felicity of the English tongue is fecund in the pen of Cranmer those who translated the Scriptures. Contemporary liturgical language stops my heart cold. Some may not find contemporary language so halting, but surely none would disagree that one of the greatest blessings that Anglicans gave the world was “Prayer Book” English.
     There was also a tremendous love for pomp and ceremony. We were the inheritors of an English culture after all. At St. Timothy’s the greatest procession was on Palm Sunday (that should sound familiar to most of the Arabic Orthodox who find that to be the most wonderful day to show up if they don’t do so at any other time). But it was not a little affair. It started down the street from the church, it had a donkey under a canopy (representing Christ’s presence among us), a Roman soldier on horseback at the head of the procession, Roman soldiers on the roof of the church with pikes and shields, forty to fifty children bearing branches and several hundred faithful. The street had to be closed as the billowing incense of two thuribles (censers) were swung in the lovely “Queen Anne” pattern used for high days. Inside the church was a section of brass playing us down the aisle in our figure-eight procession indoors to the hymn, “All glory, laud and honour, to thee Redeemer King…” Pageant was enjoyed by all not as spectacle (and it was that--after all the local television stations usually came to film the procession each year for the evening news). It was thrilled to because it was our overflowing love for God. We did these things because it was the only way to approximate our joy and belief. The processions were joined by everyone. They weren't simply occasions for pictures as we “oooed and ahhhed” at the children. The children were part of the procession and so were all of the adults. I miss that too.
     But I would be remiss if I didn't point out another thing that is so essential to that life that I loved (and still love). It is silence, quiet. We didn't talk in the church, no, not a word. We didn't speak until we were outside the doors of the church. The church itself was a holy space filled with prayer and the palpable presence of God. We came to be in his presence. Socializing was kept for the church hall down the walk. To quietly enter the church during the week and go to the Mary shrine to pray, light a candle, then genuflect to Christ is so simple a thing that it seems too obvious to write down. But this simple little action personifies in a profound way part of the life we had. It was in fact, it's central core. It is an awareness of the presence of God and our homely approach to him. This makes for a deeply intimate life. But it can never come about without quiet first being developed by the entire community.
     What treasures! What riches: a Catholic vision of life of diversity in theological and sacramental unity; serious and dedicated worship; a “daily and practicable” quality of worship; a rich varied musical heritage wherein everyone participates with whole voice; elevated language that hints at the mystery and beauty of God; ceremonial that can unite the entire parish in pageantry and solemnity; and a quiet, recollected life. This is a tapestry that I'm not sure can ever be bettered… at least for me. It still directs my vision and actions. It still stirs my soul and heart. There are many who are currently asking and trying to figure out what the Anglican patrimony is because of the recent Anglicanorum coetibus promulgated by the Pope. For my part, anything that would diminish any of these elements would seem to miss the mark.