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.


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