Monday, October 26, 2009

Another Reader's Query II

'I would like to hear your take on the distinction/relation between solitude and silence—and silence-experienced-in-community and silence-experienced-in-solitude. Please substitute a word of your own choosing for 'experienced'—known?? done??'

In the initial response to this query, I wrote: 'The word experience is particularly problematic in the present cultural climate that exalts fashionable subjectivity that objectifies the world."

There is a curious paradox here. The present culture's exaltation of "experience" objectifies the world, thereby distorting it to serve our prejudices and reinforce our consumer-oriented (especially spiritual consumer-oriented) feedback loops, not to mention greed. At the same time there is an insidious message conveyed by current use of the word ("banking experience, eating experience, religious experience etc.") that implies that our "experience" somehow gives us an "objective" platform from which to judge, when the opposite is in fact true: to rely on "experience" is entirely subjective. This subjectivity, curiously, eliminates the subject who would be present in a genuine "I-You" engagement (Buber again), from which we would receive a far more objective (as opposed to objectified) impression than "how-I-experienced-you" claims would give us, although this impression would be impossible to articulate except from its traces, due to the self-forgetfulness of I-You.

Monday, October 19, 2009

The Princess and the Pigpen

Sermon for the Solemnity of St Frideswide, All Saints Convent, October 19, 2009 [Ephesians 3:14-19]

Frideswide belongs to that group of women saints who seem to inspire veneration from men by defying them. I use gendered language advisedly, for much of her life and her legacy are fraught with such issues. A multi-paneled window in the Latin chapel at Christ Church depicts the life of this 7th century Ango-Saxon woman, who preferred to contemplate God in her priory rather than live as consort in the court of Algar, the Mercian king.

Even so, his relentless importunings forced her to flee the monastery for a time to take refuge in the muck and mud of a pigsty. But she was without rancour, for when Algar was struck blind, she caused him to be healed by water from the well at Binsey that miraculously appeared in response to her prayerful compassion.

These days we have an uneasy relationship with hagiography in general, and it has to be said that the church, and Christ Church in particular, which is built on the site of Frideswide's foundation, appear to have had a vexed relationship with her from the beginning. This history makes her patronage of Oxford all the more remarkable in a post-Christian era.

In the Middle Ages, Frideswide's nuns were kicked out of their priory to make room for some Austin canons, who in turn were evicted so Cardinal Wolsey—and subsequently his overlord—could establish a college in a university whose foundation, in spite of its motto—Dominus illuminatio mea—was not prayer but dialectic.

It is unsurprising, then, that during the Reformation, the medieval shrine was smashed, and her bones, so legend has it, thrown on the midden. Sometime later, a bag made of cloth of silver containing some bones was found in the cathedral. For years, wishful thinking suggested these bones were hers, a speculation that now has been disproved. However, Jim Godfrey, the verger at the cathedral, says it is thought that the bones are somewhere in the building, but no one is quite sure where.

When I first came to Oxford twenty-five years ago, a dignified, polished black stone with Frideswide's name beautifully carved was set apart by a low railing on the floor of the Lady chapel. The fragments of the old shrine and the watching loft rested in the background. At the time, I was living in college and had a set a keys to the cathedral. On her feast I used to go in very early to put a lily on her stone—anonymously I hoped—a gesture that I realize in retrospect very likely irritated the somewhat erastian dean and all-male canons of the day.

It wasn't the bones I sought to honour—I never assumed they were there. It was rather to keep alive the memory of an intransigently holy woman in an excessively male world—both her world of the 7th century and mine of the cathedral in the late 1980s. Since then, the parameters of the shrine and the legend have continued to shift: recently the entire Lady chapel area was altered yet again. The medieval shrine has been relocated to the Latin chapel, and the stone with Frideswide's name on it is covered with chairs and appears to be more or less ignored.

My attention to Frideswide while I lived at Christ Church was something of a departure as I have never been much of one for shrines or relics except to appreciate the great art that was often lavished upon them. [2] But Christ Church is an ancient place, and the communion of the particular saints who are buried or remembered there is vibrantly living and active, as anyone who prays in that building morning after early morning comes to realize.

Whether or not the person or persons who decided to make Frideswide patron saint of the county, city, and university—of government, commerce, and argument—were aware of her vital presence is not relevant here. It was a good idea for the simple reason that is proclaimed in today's epistle, that following her we might "will with all the saints have strength to grasp the breadth and the length, the eight and the depth; until, knowing the love of Christ which is beyond all knowledge, you are filled with the utter fullness of God.."

But there is a problem in the translation of this passage, for the word "grasp" seems to contradict its meaning that the love of Christ is limitless. "Grasp" implies that the saints have subjected this love to the constraints of dialectic, when in fact they have refused to make any claim, intellectual or otherwise, that might put limits on it. They revel in un-grasping so that they might instead be claimed by that which surpasses knowledge; as one lexicon puts it, "Christ by his holy power and influence laying hold of the human mind and will, in order to prompt and govern it." The saints are set on fire by this limitless vision of outpouring love, which they mirror, as opposed to domesticating it into a manageable commodity.

I would like to suggest that the particular grace Frideswide has to give us is that of an overarching vision, a glimpse of our share in the divine nature to which the rest of life may become subject, even if we are reduced to seeking refuge in a pigpen. We might say that Frideswide came into the fullness of her princely status in that porcine context, the self-emptying that is royal priesthood made manifest through putting on the mind of Christ.

Unfortunately, this way of knowing and the exalted view of the human person that is its consequence, is almost entirely absent from our relativistic and fragmented consumer culture. How many people today have a sense of vocation at all, much less one that is willing to put up with muck and mud and persecution?

Yet an overarching vision is not an exotic notion. Blackberry picking provides a homely analogy. It's simple cause and effect: if you want berries in any useful quantity, you're going to get scratched, no matter how carefully you prune the canes or protect your arms. You either can just get on with it and plunge in, testing each berry for ripeness, pulling it off or leaving it, so focused that you don't notice the thorns, and pick a gallon in an hour. Or you can cringe and whinge and shrink from the task, in which case it will take an hour to fill a small pummet, while every encounter with the slightest thorn will feel like an injection and an affront.

These days it seems as though people spend an awful lot of time kicking against the pricks, no matter how tasty or life-enhancing the feast set before them for the taking. We seem to rank what is important to us by how easy it is to obtain; we persuade ourselves that we have a right to immediate gratification without effort or discomfort, without having serious demands made on us.

We are thus conditioned to compete for status, to defend our imagined territories, to look out for Number One, no matter how destructive to the common good, to charity or hospitality, to the making of peace, much less our souls. Worst of all, these attitudes destroy any notion of what used to be called integrity, a word we hardly hear any longer, which is the opposite of narcissism. We are left floundering in a quicksand of shifting loyalties and appetites that bubble in and out of fashion.

Frideswide's gift is celebrated every year in a grand Evensong held on the Tuesday closest to her feast. [1] This service reminds the officials who attend that while governments may come and go, commerce may fail, and dialectic cease, our life together in all its diversity is sustained by an overarching vision. We may not need to endure tempest and pigsty as Frideswide did, but to survive as a human community in this complex and dangerous world requires a motivation that drives us beyond our selfish short-term interests and discomfort.

For those of us gathered here in this chapel where the communion of All Saints is lively and active, Frideswide's grace questions each of us daily and directly: What is my overarching vision? What do I really want? What price am I willing to pay? What goal would strengthen me to suffer anything in pursuit of it so that I may contribute to the common good?

What will enable me, along with Frideswide and all the saints, to catch fire, to become part of the conflagration that extends throughout the breadth and length and height and depth; to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge, that fills us with the utter fullness of God?


[1] The Lord Lieutenant, the Lord or Lady Mayor along with all the other invited guests, dressed in full regalia, are seated in the choir; many religions are represented among them. At the climax of the service, the choir leads these officials in a procession to her symbolic resting place where a motet is sung, after which all return to place. It is English civil religion at its best; it is at once deeply moving, yet laced with barely-suppressed merriment, the eutrapelia of divine-human play.

[2] When a few weeks ago I heard that the bones of St Thérèse were coming to town, all I could think of was the story of St. Hugh of Lincoln, who took a bite out of a relic of the supposed arm of Mary Magdalene when he was visiting her shrine at Fécamp. Simon Jenkins' article in the September 17 Guardian, recounts this story among others, and is well worth reading for an account of the some of the more outrageous practices religions get up to.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Silence vs Silencing

Dfish left this comment which I have not posted until now because I don't understand what address he/she is referring to (in the first paragraph), or the sentence, "Silence being loosely used . . . your address [what address?] appear [sic] to be damaging. . . ." I asked Dfish to expand but so far no reply. However, the comment is worth some analysis.

"In the face of the "problem" of priests' shortage, this article from the magazine America, struggling to balance its views on the idea of priesthood, defines silence as the absence of a "perfect, legitimate discussion" on the issue. Silence being loosely used, and after reading your address before a group of Carmelite nuns, appear to be damaging of its profound,transformative uses:

"Silence and fervent prayer for vocations are no longer adequate responses to the priest shortage in the United States."

"Will the priest shortage impose a eucharistic famine on the Catholic people?"

"We hope that the upcoming Year of the Priest will lead to a broader discussion of the priesthood in the contemporary world and, in particular, will open examination of the various ways the shortage of priests can be addressed honestly and with imagination." - A Modest Proposal"

First of all, there is a profound difference between the sort of interior silence ("the work of silence") I write about and the Vatican's attempts at silencing the discussion about priesthood, the role of women and a good many other subjects. Everything has a shadow side, and silencing, which attempts to put the lid on thought or discussion (but always has the opposite effect) has no place in anything I have written.

Having said that, the subject of priesthood, especially in the RC church, is huge. Readers may be interested in my book Pillars of Flame: Power, Priesthood and Spiritual Maturity, which addresses many of the issues raised (or not raised) in the supposedly suppressed discussion in the RC church. See also my article in Weavings, "Liturgy in Truth" and the catechetical rite for contemplative eucharist in January 2006 in this blog.

There are many, many issues here, and I can only point to a few. First, there is the aura of magic by which the RC church surrounds the Eucharist and ordination. It is the ultimate in presumption, if not simply blasphemous. I have elsewhere called this "magic cookie theology", because it trivializes, reduces and domesticates the sacrament and the divine it supposedly represents (read "controls").

Secondly, no one who knows anything about church history still believes that ecclesial systems are sacro-sanct in any of the denominational expressions. Jesus never founded a church; the institution is man (emphasis on the male gender) made and man-maintained (sterile males attempting to self-perpetuate themselves but successful only in reductionism), although women have sometimes, somehow managed to exert subversive pressure. There is no reason that the churches can't be dismantled and reorganized and they should be. Within the present system I'm all for women's ordination even though I hate what ordination does to women who have to be part of this system. It's the system that's the problem and if we want to be Christians it has to go.

One of the reasons there is a shortage of vocations in the RC church is that people don't want to be part of a pernicious system that infantilizes its constituency and glorifies clericalism, whose advocates are interested only in their own self-advancement and regard everyone else as idiots. Not to mention all the dressing up, the sycophancy, and the need always to watch your back. The RC church today (and don't kid yourself that the church regards anyone as the "real" church except the clergy), as it has been for centuries, is all about power and control, especially mind control. Has anyone actually read the oath that teachers and active nuns have to take? It says, more or less, "I promise not even to think anything not approved by the Magesterium," much less say or teach it.

As to the Eucharist in RC parishes (or any parish, especially remote ones), the real solution is to have lay presidency of the Eucharist with appropriately trained laypeople who are selected because they will not succumb to becoming para-clerics like so many RC deacons who are even more oppressive and controlling than their superiors, often out of fear (covering their asses seems their first priority). At the time of confirmation everyone should be taught to celebrate the Eucharist and when it might be appropriate to do so. The sacrament needs to be returned to the people.

Volumes could be written on this subject alone but I will close by saying only that I have spent considerable time in RC communities in various roles and it is often like the schizophrenic living associated with Soviet Russia: a limited range of language and behaviors are allowed; they become knee-jerk and ritualized, resembling the dysfunctional behavior of caged animals in an old-fashioned zoo; any creative theology and spiritual maturity that manage to escape being stifled by the system can operate only in secret, often in fear, anxiety and guilt, to be brought out for discussion/affirmation on very rare occasions, and then only in the company of a few tried and trusted friends who will not rat to the authorities. This is outrageous in a church that claims to have a corner on the "truth." When is the Curia going to wake up to the fact that it (and the present pope in particular) is making itself an increasingly absurd irrelevancy, and that there is absolutely no justification whatsoever for the way it conducts the church's business?

Satan is known as "the accuser" and he seems to be the chief minister in far too many religious institutions. Has anyone read "The Grand Inquisitor" lately?

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Another Reader's Query

'I would like to hear your take on the distinction/relation between solitude and silence—and silence-experienced-in-community and silence-experienced-in-solitude. Please substitute a word of your own choosing for 'experienced'—known?? done??'

Here is another huge topic to which I can't possibly do justice. I will post random thoughts as they occur.

The reader's question refers to interior silence. He is quite right in understanding the word "experience" to be problematic, as experience is always interpretation, filtered through a lens that contains elements of projection, wishful thinking and all the other baggage we carry with us. If silence becomes integrated into a person's life, interpretation takes on a different character and can be useful in terms of metaphor, but this is another topic.

The word 'experience' is particularly problematic in the present cultural climate that exalts fashionable subjectivity that objectifies the world. For example, it is no longer possible to go to the bank; a 'banking experience' (one most of us would rather not have) is forced on us. It doesn't take much imagination to think of the disgusting limits to which this sort of marketing of experience can take us. Worse, it means that self-reflection and self-indulgence trump engagement with life and/or inhabiting it; instead we are caught in feedback loops of our prejudices, neuroses and the physiological effects of what we ate for breakfast. In Martin Buber's terms, as long as we are seeking "experience", the intimacy (and courtesy, in the medieval sense) of "thou" is impossible.

In the same way, people make the mistake of going to look for an 'experience' of silence, as if silence were a commodity, a thing, or a state induced by certain environmental conditions. Looking for experience of silence entails certain assumptions about silence, what it is or isn't, how it ought to feel; it also assumes that silence can be grasped and controlled, when in fact silence is a gift, and an essential role in receiving it is to let go of all claims to experience.

[to be continued]

Monday, October 05, 2009

Obedience and Dependence Are Opposites

A community is only as healthy as the solitudes that make it up.

One reason for the widespread dysfunctionality in many communities, especially women's religious communities, is a confusion between obedience and dependence.

To put this more bluntly, dependence, along with sycophancy, obsequious behaviour and language limited to pat, pious phrases, are often demanded in the name of obedience by superiors who are often mentally unbalanced and/or power-mad, who have inflated ideas of themselves and their office. For them the servant role is completely lost, as is any notion of collegiality, or the goal of Christian life, which is beholding (union with God).

Dependence and the tyranny that demands it, constitute a sickness that has come very close to destroying religious life for women; it is the elephant in the community room, the chapel, the superior's office. Some superiors are so caught in maintaining their own inflation that the welfare of the community and the maintenance of the plant are completely forgotten.

The fact that many women's communities are required to be dependent on men for the sacraments and for validation simply compounds the problem. In addition, late medieval and tridentine writings on the spiritual life, especially those aimed at women, exaggerate the role and power of the superior. This has led to violations of boundaries, especially those of conscience, breaching of confidentiality (if it exists at all), and confessionals that are so leaky that there might as well be a speakerphone line to the superior's office.

In fact, obedience can be licit only when it is freely chosen and freely given, and if people are dependent, they are not free. Dependence is a hindrance to obedience and a stumbling block in spiritual growth. The only legitimate dependence is on no-thing, the free-fall of faith and the security found in the depths of silence. The goal of Christian maturity is autonomy for the sake of community; a person who is growing into this maturity can give freely, can obey joyfully and completely, but can never be coerced.