Wednesday, April 25, 2007

Heaven Can't Wait

[From a book of 23 essays called "Heaven", edited by Roger Ferlo, Seabury Books, April, 2007. See link to Church Publishing.]

"What do you think happens when we die?"

My eighty-year-old mother had the pedal to the metal. We were hurtling through spring sunshine and green hills, past the long sparkling lakes that mark the San Andreas fault just south of San Francisco. I was careful, very careful, not to express surprise at her question. Religion was an unmentionable subject in our family, a topic loaded with dangerous intimacy.

Her Edwardian outlook, capacity for denial, and inability ever to let go of anything were hallmarks of her life, yet she had grown old with unusual grace. Paradox was her métier: when facing a difficult choice she would worry and fret, twist and turn, her anxiety levels skyrocketing. But when the dreaded task could be avoided no longer, she would walk serenely through the jaws of whatever it was she had feared as if she were going to a garden party at the Palace of the Legion of Honor.

She liked to present herself as a grande dame but she had a wild streak, which I encouraged whenever it peeked out of its elegant shell. The car we were riding in was the consequence of one of these glimpses. Little did I know that it was a mild flutter compared to the escapades her envious, more conventional friends would recount after her death.

"What do you think happens when we die?" Her question was costly; how long had she been waiting for the right moment to ask it? What had provoked it? She was not requesting a story or a discussion but demanding a naked truth that would bridge the abyss between our conflicting perspectives. Underneath my mother's studied nonchalance lay barely controlled terror; for me, death was as familiar as my own face.

I shifted slightly, as far as the bucket seat, restraints, and g-forces would allow, trying to respond as casually as she had asked the question, laughing a little at the existential and cosmic incongruities.

"My views on this subject are mindlessly simple. I think the universe is made of love and that when we die we are somehow drawn deeper into that love."

Having obtained the information she desired, Mother withdrew into her own thoughts, and we traveled the rest of the way to Palo Alto in silence. I have no idea what she thought about heaven. She was an obsessively private person and not an abstract thinker. Until the last four nights of her life, when she had no other choice, this single exchange was as close as she would ever allow me to come. To ask for comfort would have been, for her, a serious moral lapse.

Tuesday, April 17, 2007

Why the Church is Dying V

[A report requested by a diocese at the end of a Theologian in Residence programme.]

Growth into God is primarily a solitary journey but it is a solitude undertaken also for the sake of community, for as you have heard over and over in the last few weeks, the community is only as healthy as the solitudes that make it up. The role of the community is to be a place where the journey into God is encouraged by creating an environment where silence is more and more preferred, where people do not interfere with one another but help one another by each keeping their own focus on God, and a profound respect for the mystery of God at work in one another. It should also be a place where people can feel safe to be as vulnerable as a life deepening into God will make them.

Each year when I leave the United States I think that the cultural situation cannot possibly get worse, and each year when I return it is worse, much worse. In the last ten years the country has changed beyond recognition and not for the better. Each year I think American culture cannot become more superficial, more artificial, more aggressive, more frightened, more conformist, and, dare I say it, more fascist, yet each year it is, each year it becomes more and more a spiritual wasteland. And unfortunately, instead of being counter to this culture of commercialization, commodification and consumerism, the institutional church imitates it ever more closely, is in fact indistinguishable from it.

Real human choice, real human freedom, is the freedom to be only who we are, the ever-evolving truth of our selves. It is not the false freedom of trying on personalities like Halloween costumes, fed by the illusion of choice in the supermarket when faced with 154 kinds of breakfast cereal. What is most alarming in the culture is the rise in the levels of fear and insecurity exploited by advertising and consumerism: buy more so you’ll anaesthetize your fear, don’t buck the system and buy more insurance, otherwise you might lose everything you have bought and sold your soul in the first place to have the money to buy. Then buy yet more consumer goods to allay your fears about losing what you have. It is a vicious cycle, and the multinationals are exploiting it, creating a new feudal serfdom based on the fear of death, the death of this pseudo-life, which, as the second chapter of the letter to the Hebrews tells us, is the devil which enslaves us.

The church must be countercultural. It must deconstruct the business-career model that is destroying it. It must effect profound and permanent changes of fundamental attitudes. It must keep its gaze fixed on the Lamb who was slain, and the light from the Lamb, so that the vision of the city of God may become a reality. But without the vision of the Lamb and that light, the city is dark and lifeless, and what we do is merely self-serving and exploitive of those whom we seek to serve. As a church, as individuals, we must renounce what the culture holds dear: self-display, self-pity, self-aggrandizement, self-image, self, self, self, summed up by that revolting word, "personal", which of course is not the truth of our self at all but rather a narcissistic construct of our distorted self-consciousness, our unlikeness to God, which mistakes individualism for its opposite, authenticity, which can arise only from self-forgetfulness.

We fear the word "renounce" but if our hungry hearts are open to the Love that is beyond our knowing, if we are allowing this Love to change us as we dwell in the silence of its infinite tenderness and pardon, the word of renunciation loses all its sting, for the things on the list to be renounced fall away of their own insignificance. Our gaze, our focus, is elsewhere, and anything that interferes with or distracts from that gaze is allowed to lapse. If the church is to bear the light of the Lamb, it must be a true sacred sign, and once again, as we have seen over and over and over again in the last five weeks, every true sacred sign effaces itself, even the self-outpouring of the Father, even the person of Jesus, even the Word into silence, even the Eucharist itself. And this effacement is the distinguishing sign of the Holy Spirit and as such, of our deepening life in God.

It is also the model of authority and power: Christian authority has validity only if it is kenotic, and the corollary of this is that the only legitimate Christian obedience is also kenotic, called forth as a free response from the subject by the example of self-forgetful kenosis of the person in authority.

Once again, life in God is so simple, and that is precisely why it is so difficult: because it is so much easier to focus on the complexities of the pseudo-life of our self-consciousness, our own personal soap-opera; on the distractions that are resistance offered by our sloth; on the pressures of the culture; our pretentiousness, our grandiosity, our vanity, our narcissism. Life in God is so simple. And it thus is so difficult, all the more so in a diocese like this one, where there is all that money.

What will your response as a diocese be in this critical moment of your history? Will you answer the call of Christ to plunge ever more deeply into the self-outpouring love of God which is beyond every self-conscious human perception? Or will you be like the rich young man who goes away sad because he can see only what is immediately and sensibly gratifying and can’t bear to give it up? Riches that are not so much the money and possessions as vanity, control, flattery and fawning of sycophants, who cynically decorate their own egos by association with wealth and power.

It should be clear that everything I have written here about this particular diocese is also true of the whole church. To make such fundamental and profound changes in attitude and focus is not an impossible task, but it must be accomplished in the solitude of each heart, in the searing light of God, person by person, heart by heart, with a searching, even a ruthless honesty. To encourage us, we have the example of South Africa: apartheid was defeated like this, heart by heart. It was a more blatant evil and so perhaps simpler to deal with, but the example of its defeat can still help us, we who are trapped in a more subtle but very similar situation, a career- and issue-driven, clerical apartheid that obscures the vision of God and oppresses the people who would seek this vision.

To be true sacred signs that point only to God, both transcendent and indwelling our neighbour, each of us, clergy and laity alike, must un-grasp, unclutch the fingers of the control-freak that is our terrified self-consciousness and pretentious self-regard, relinquish our pseudo-lives to the silence. We must pray to be changed, to be transfigured—how, into what, we cannot know. And we must not presume to know, for what God will give, if we will allow it, if we open our hearts, will be far more than anything we can ask or imagine.

What will result if we are willing to relinquish our lives to this transfiguring Love may well be unrecognizable as the church of today, but it will be far more recognizable as the Body of Christ.

Maggie Ross

Theologian in Residence, 1995

Tuesday, April 10, 2007

Why the Church is Dying IV

[A reported requested by a diocese at the end of a Theologian in Residence programme]

Religion, even Christian religion, is something that is innate in us. It develops from our primal roots in the wilderness. The role of the church is to provide a context, a wealth of metaphors, images, symbols, sacraments and, most of all, the context of silence from which these emerge and disappear, to convey the worshipper to the threshold and even beyond the threshold of the silence, into the beholding where God dwells. We must remember that the most profound evocations of presence are in absence, and we need to take a hard look at the clutter of people and things in our sanctuaries .

The altar should be central and allowed to speak for itself in the silence, like the mercy seat that it is. The space around it and the sightlines to it should be empty and undistracting. With a little imagination this can be effected even in older churches with eastward facing altars. People should have a sense of being alone before God even as they are together in community, for the quality of community is dependent on the quality of the solitudes that make it up. But like our sanctuaries, our times of worship are hurried and assault us with noise. They have become entertainment, self-reflexive opportunities for dressing up and showing off.

I hear clergy say that people are busy and won’t put up with a longer worship service, but that is because the worship itself has become just another thing to do in a busy day and does not feed them. If the leader of a liturgy is a person of silence and peace, the people will relax into the silence and not want to come out of it.

The liturgies I attended that expressed most accurately what is wrong were those at the cathedral in Y_______ and at Z_______, and it was evident from the discussion in both venues that this sort of noisy, rushed cluttered liturgy was not a vehicle for prayer and was not what the majority of laity wanted; they were seeking something deeper that would effect reciprocity with the divine, a vehicle of transfiguration. But, once again, they were inhibited by their clergy and the abyss created by the clergy who think they know it all and do not want either to hear the laity or take them seriously.

On every occasion on this tour where there has been a chance for quiet, people have relaxed into the silence, and their sighs of relief have been audible. In a number of places, unannounced, we did two-hour catechetical liturgies such as the one at R________, which consisted mostly of silence, and it was here that the hunger of the people began to be fed and their innate liturgical and spiritual gifts began to have a chance to emerge, not by what was said or done, but by the space of opportunity created by an appropriate environment, that is to say, the attitude towards silence of the people who were unobtrusively creating that environment and their creation of an appropriate context.

We should teach each baptized person how to celebrate the Eucharist and when this might be appropriate, which means that while most people might never preside. However, if we looked at one another as potential presiders, we at least would treat one another entirely differently, and perhaps with more respect for the mystery of God who indwells each one of us. It is also probable that if the church is to survive we will need to abolish ordination in its present form.

If the committee and the diocese have any thoughts of following up the opportunities of the last five weeks, of getting serious about making contemplation the number one priority of this diocese—and to even have to say that points to how far gone the churches are—then I would suggest that you create a full-time position and hire someone to fill it who has a proven record of encouraging the laity and getting out of the way, but who would also be able to undertake the arduous task of keeping the clergy at bay, minimally to keep them from destroying the movement of the laity that is now poised to take off, perhaps more optimistically even being able to penetrate their encapsulation to provide them with encouragement to change their hearts and put on the kenotic mind of Christ. It is sad and again symptomatic of the destructiveness of the present system that such a position would have to be filled by an ordained person, but a lay person would simply be shoved aside and ignored.

This position would be answerable to an advisory committee. It is absolutely vital that no one be included on this team who thinks themselves to be "expert" or a "spiritual director" because without exception the people I have met in the diocese, both clergy and laity, who think of themselves in this way are the least qualified to be engaged in such matters and are in profound self-delusion.

The sort of facilitating of the laity I am talking about was demonstrated by M________ at R________. The success of that day was largely due to his immersion in what was going on and bringing to bear an immense sensitivity as to what was needed both in terms of the aesthetics of the lighting of the church and vessels on the altar, his wearing civvies, the balance of staying out of sight and finally, unobtrusively, providing the minimal words of consecration to complete the day’s silent liturgical action. It was effective because he gave himself to what we were trying to do as one of us, without intruding himself or his ideas, without setting himself apart, without judgement or preconception or stereotype, and most of all without patronizing or giving people the feeling that they were breaching some protocol written in stone.

On that day the Eucharist, in its divine reciprocity, was returned to the people. Although we need a variety of eucharistic liturgies, each one must contain in it the invitation to go more deeply into silence, and we need more and more to discover how to unclutter our sanctuaries so that the people have the sense of being alone in community before the altar of God where they offer the sacrifice of their lives in union with Christ.

It is important that spiritual development, which is the transfiguration of perception by grace, be low-key, and geared to living the ordinary and to ordinary people, for this is where Christ becomes incarnate, not in so-called "spiritual" fireworks or in co-dependent relationships with self-certified gurus whose egos get off by watching themselves condescend to their "disciples", or by "disciples" whose egos get off by watching themselves bask in the reflected glory of the self-certified guru, and who chatter endlessly about their relationship with the narcissitic idol they have substituted for God.

We must never forget that the work of deepening prayer, of deepening life in God, is the work of the Holy Spirit. It is most emphatically not our work. It is primarily inarticulate, takes place out of our sight, and is communicated by intuition and contemplation (they are not the same). It is fed by regular silent prayer and regular exposure to scripture and sacrament, and the right kind of liturgy. The wrong kind of liturgy can be destructive, and people who are growing spiritually quite rightly become uncomfortable in pretentious, noisy, perfunctory liturgies that are more opportunites for showing off, dressing up and entertainment than worship of God. In consequence, they drop out.

Life in God cannot be communicated or fed by the distortions of self-conscious language, programs, courses, and exercises, although these things may occasionally have a minor function. But they are secondary, not primary, if not merely displacement behaviour to avoid the utterly simple but difficult work of sitting in the silence with a heart open to the cleansing, healing and purifying fire of God’s love. Too often such exercises are used as displacement activity or as an ego-decorating exercise.

And the energy from the relinquishing of words and images into silence, into the work of God that is done in us out of our sight, must not be dissipated and distorted by talking about it. There is a very good reason for the seal of the confessional, which is not simply to guarantee the secrecy of the material of the confession. Far more important is that sin, which is inarticulate in a destructive way,trapped in a narcissistic sealed-off silence that is the opposite of the open vastness of the silence of God, has been set free and brought to the light to be relinquished, remembered in order to be forgotten, and this process deepens the life of those involved and inadvertently the lives of those around them by opening their hearts more and more to the love of God to what is beyond all knowing, all self-consciousness, and all language, which is forgetting so that God may be remembered more deeply. It is for this reason also that any good therapist will warn the person in therapy not to talk about the therapy outside the session.

In some instances support groups have their place, but the spiritual life is not one of them, for the temptations to the wrong kind of self-reflection and self-display are too subtle and too ubiquitous, and it is only when all our supports are pulled away and we are in the still free-fall of faith, that God can work in us most deeply and effectively. This may frighten some people, but the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom. We have spent too many decades trivializing and domesticating the transfiguring fire of divine Love.

Sunday, April 08, 2007

Easter With Rumi 2007

We're friends with one who kills us,
who gives us to the ocean waves. We

love this death. Only ignorance says,
Put it off a while, day after tomorrow.

Don't avoid the knife. This friend
only seems fierce, bringing your soul

more range, perching your falcon on a
cliff of the wind. Jesus on his cross,

Hallaj on his—those absurd killings
hold a secret. Cautious cynics know

what they're doing every moment and why.
Submit to love without thinking, as

the sun this morning rose recklessly
extinguishing our star-candle minds.

—Translated by Coleman Barks

Friday, April 06, 2007

Good Friday 2007: War Requiem

From the libretto; poetry by Wilfred Owen:


Sanctus, sanctus, sanctus
Dominus Deus Sabaoth
Pleni sunt coeli et terra gloria tua,
Hosanna in excelsis.
Benedictus qui venit in nomine Domini
Hosanna in excelsis

After the blast of lighting from the East,
The flourish of loud clouds, the Chariot Throne;
After the drums of Time have rolled and ceased,
And by the bronze west long retreat is blown,
Shall life renew these bodies? Of a truth
All death will He annul, all tears assuage?—
Fill the void veins of Life again with youth,

And wash, with an immortal water, Age?
When I do ask white Age he saith not so:

"My head hangs weighed with snow"
And when I hearken to the Earth, she saith:
"My fiery heart shrinks, aching. It is death.
Mine ancient scars shall not be glorified,
Nor my titanic tears, the sea, be dried."

Agnus Dei

One ever hangs where shelled roads part.

In this war He too lost a limb,

But His disciples hide apart;
And now the Soldiers bear with Him.

Agnus Dei, qui tollis peccata mundi,
dona eis requiem.

Near Golgotha strolls many a priest,
And in their faces there is pride
That they were flesh-marked by the Beast
By whom the gentle Christ's denied.

Agnus Dei, qui tollis peccata mundi,
dona eis requiem.

The scribes on all the people shove
and bawl allegiance to the state,

Agnus Dei, qui tollis peccata mundi. . . .

But they who love the greater love
Lay down their life, they do not hate.

. . . Dona eis requiem sempiternam
Dona nobis pacem.

Holy Trinity Fire—Insurance Settlement and Appeal

[Why the Church Is Dying IV will be posted next week]

Holy Trinity Church and its insurers have finally come to a settlement of 70% of the estimated costs of fire cleanup and replacement.

The estimated total was 4.9 million dollars
The insurnace company will pay 3.7 million dollars.
After fire cleanup costs, the church is left with 2.9 million dollars.

The church realistically can raise only 200,000-300,000 dollars, and that is stretching it.

It will now have to downsize its architectural plans considerably because of the reduced amount of money available, including the Hall, central to the life of Juneau's Arts and Humanities.

Holy Trinity is more than a church: it is the Arts hub of the community.

If you can make a donation to help rebuild, please email

May you have a blessed Triduum.

Maggie Ross

Tuesday, April 03, 2007

Why the Church is Dying III

[A report requested by a diocese at the end of a Theologian in Residence programme]

By contrast, at St. X_______ parish one memorable Saturday morning, the clergy were invisible even while they were creating the right kind of context. Until the last minute the vicar remained in the back of the church, allowing the innate spiritual and liturgical sense that inhabits each human being to have a chance to emerge in a way I have never before seen. I doubt that there is anyone among the 55 people who were there who will ever forget that liturgy. [See the Rite for Contemplative Eucharist archived under January 2006 in this blog.]

The best shepherds know that their sheep are smarter than they are, and this is why they lead from behind. Most shepherds let the sheep go where instinct takes them and are there only to save the flock from pitfalls or marauding wolves. Unfortunately, in the parishes I visited, most clergy consistently and destructively underestimate the abilities of the people in their congregations, acting as inhibiting and quashing influences; for as everyone knows, people tend to produce the behavior that is expected of them. If someone treats you as stupid and inept, you will tend to find yourself feeling stupid and inept. Or if you feel you are being trained to perform and will be humiliated if you deviate, you will perform. If this diocese is to reorient itself around the contemplative vision of God, this reorientation necessarily will be laity-driven; the clergy must stand aside, get out of their costumes and take a back seat, opening doors but not presuming to impose themselves, their ideas, or their stereotypes.

Many of these problems are, of course, the consequence of the worst mistake the Episcopal Church ever made, which was self-consciously to adopt a business model for itself back in the Fifties. What is interesting is that this collapsing centralized power is loath to look at what is now going on in the business world, possibly because it means sacrificing personal power and influence, and attention-getting mechanisms, always props for weak personalities. In business today the news from the shop floor is far more important than the news from the board room. In fact, the former influences the latter. Executives spend time on the shop floor, and they realise that the people on the ground have far better ideas of how to make the nuts and bolts aspect of the business run more efficiently that the managers do.

Of course you can’t push this analogy too far because the business model is the problem in the first place. It is antithetical to the Gospel. But in the Episcopal Church today the gulf, nay, the abyss between the clergy and the laity is virtually unbridgeable: the language, values and goals of the two groups are in complete, contradictory opposition, and people are being hurt because they are still under the delusion that the institution wants their gifts, which it does not.

The clergy are far too interested in their status as clergy, their status in their peer group and in running or, rather, controlling their parishes, to realise that they presume in the British sense of the word of an arrogantly imposed ignorance, that is to say, that most of what they do and their attitude towards their people and their ordination is entirely presumptuous. They appear to have little or no reverence for God at work in the mystery of the human person, particularly in the humble laity, forgetting, or perhaps these clergy never knew, that humility is divinity. In some cases the clergy attitude seems to be that laity are necessary nuisances. Clergy are so concerned with self-image that they have become caricatures of themselves, as anyone can witness at the renewal of ordination vows service during Holy Week. It is also true that those clergy who think they are ‘different’ from the rest as regards politics and control, self-image, etc., are often those who are most profoundly in denial and self-delusion.

In addition, attempts to clericalize the laity with ‘ministries’ courses and ‘licensing’ of various kinds simply compounds this problem and creates yet another self-conscious clerical layer between the people and God, and yet another set of rampant egos finding their peers and falling on each other with glad cries while those more self-effacing are ignored or marginalized, if not overtly persecuted and ostracized if they do not ‘affirm’ the egoists and perform as expected. The colonial word "ministry" should be banned; it is condescending, bearing negative nuances that attach to clergy in particular but also to laity who are going to insist on imposing themselves and their self-certifying "authority" on you. The term and process called "spiritual direction" and all it implies is particularly pernicious in this regard and should be banned. Next to fundamentalism, it is perhaps the most destructive force at work in the churches today and has absolutely nothing to do with the ancient tradition, of which it is a blasphemous counterfeit.

These presumptuous ideas of so-called ministry also go way back to the beginnings of the institutional church, of course, which by the third century of its existence had reestablished the very same religious system that Jesus spent most of his ministry trying to overthrow for precisely the reasons presented to this diocese in the last five weeks. If the institutional church is to survive, the clergy are going to have to eat a lot of humble pie and the biggest slice of that humble pie is going to be in revised attitudes towards ordination in particular and the clerical role in general. Among other things, clerics should stop using the word "priest": there is only one priest, and that is Christ.

Otherwise the clergy and para-clergy are going to find that they are chiefs without Indians. And of course that image is also ironic, because Christ came as a servant. It is important to remember that Jesus can be the high priest only because he is not a Levite or a priest: he is a layman. And if we are to be like him, then an awful lot of the pretentions about so-called ordained priesthood are going to have to fall by the wayside, because as the New Testament tries to teach us, and as every great spiritual writer since has reminded us, we can only possess Christ by non-possession, to use John of the Cross’s phrase.

If Christ did not claim equality with God, no more should we. And the degree to which we have this mind of Christ, his humility, the degree to which we stop making claims, particularly about our selves and our offices, is the degree to which we will be effective in communicating the Christian religion, and this will happen primarily by who we are, by our being as opposed to our doing; It will be effective primarily in ways of which we are not aware and which we should not want to know. [See "Whatever Happened to Discretion" and "The Space of Prayer" forthcoming in the journal, Weavings, in the May/June, July/August 2007 issues respectively.]

The Holy Spirit works primarily and necessarily out of our sight. And we become sacred signs by deepening our lives of silent prayer and living in beholding of the vision of God. Everyone on the Faith and Life Committee has been to one of the presentations of the last five weeks, so I won’t belabour the point about the destructiveness of the closed and tiny world of our unredeemed and tyrannical self-consciousness. But it cannot be emphasized enough that the sort of change we are talking about is not that of having the odd prayer group or meditative Eucharist; it is a fundamental change of fundamental attitudes that is called for, and a reversal of the present order.