Monday, August 31, 2009

Reader Query III

Perhaps of all these words "ministry" is the most odious. These days it often means that self-aggrandizing people become licensed to inflict their so-called gifts on long-suffering friends and associates, and persecuted strangers. When I see one of these people coming, I turn and run. Even when there are actual gifts, the giving is polluted by the self-consciousness of the giver, who is often eager, smug, patronizing, monomaniacal, obsessive.

"Ministers," especially lay ministers, tend to define themselves by their "ministry" and thus avoid any possibility of spiritual growth and maturity. They become clericalized, interposing yet another layer between themselves and God, the people and the sanctuary. Often they are certified by a self-certifying religious institution to lead liturgy or perform some other function. Who has not cringed as a "liturgical leader" gyrates in a corner, trying to get the embarrassed congregation to join in unsingable, trite, pious ditties, while an officious cleric smirks at the altar?

The certification process attracts the inadequate, the attention seekers, the inept. [1] Thus there are lay readers who make nonsense of the texts, eucharistic ministers who clutch the chalice as if each communicant is a potential thief. [2]

The clergy, of course, are the worst offenders in this regard. I was recently at a conference center that was hosting the faculty of a local seminary. The faculty members were rude to the administrative staff and arrogant with other guests. They clearly thought themselves—to use the inelegant phrase of a farmer who lived nearby—to be shit on a stick. I couldn't help but think of them as the fatuous fatties, for it was not only their egos that were inflated. They were pompous, loud, obnoxious and exclusive, all the more so after the many wine bottles were emptied. They took over the chapel for evening prayer, but woe betide you if you stuck your head inside the door in the hope of being allowed to pray with them.

Like most seminary faculty I have met, they treated everyone not in their group like idiots; they could hardly bear to bring themselves to be civil to anyone outside their little circle. They seemed never to have heard of ordinary life, much less the holiness of it (if indeed the word "holy" figured in their vocabulary), while they schmoozed each other behind their invisible wall.

They utterly ignored, and most certainly did not thank the dedicated people who were unobtrusively preparing and serving their food, making their beds, creating an atmosphere of welcome, peace and tolerance; it would be blasphemy to apply the word "ministry" to this wonderful and unobtrusive hospitality. Is there any wonder our seminaries are in financial trouble? Who would want to support such attitudes? And God knows when it comes to finding clergy for churches there is precious little to choose from; it is not hard to see why.

The ordination process is a perfect path for committing spiritual suicide, for creating an abyss between oneself and the human race. It guarantees adding so many layers of self-consciousness that self-knowledge, much less authentic spiritual growth, much less the ability to relate normally, much less creatively, with other human beings becomes impossible. A series of templates is imposed, each more ridiculous than the last. "Just be nice and priestly" is the usual response when one cleric asks another how to deal with a problem.

Clergy get training in all sorts of fantasy disciplines—fantasy in that the "problems" being addressed (often as an exercise in self-preservation and job security) have little to do with the reality of the human tragedy. As one traumatized seminary graduate said to me, "The only thing I learned there was how to lie." Clergy are engaged in a kind of performance art, which is becoming increasingly absurd in its irrelevance; they seem utterly oblivious to this fact. As William Johnston puts it in his autobiography, "Buddhists and Hindus teach meditation, Moslems teach prayer, and we teach catechism." [Mystical Journey: An Autobiography, Orbis Books, 2006, p. 14] No wonder the churches are dying.

Furthermore, those who insist on words such as "ministry" would like to convey the impression that only ministers have the key to life. Wisdom is least likely to be found in those who insist on their "ministry." Rather, they keep us from seeking wisdom where it hides—most often in people who are usually ignored; in people who wouldn't know how to begin to promote themselves; in people who suffer the horrific yet often mundane tragedies that are part of the fabric of life. Wisdom is more likely to be found during a walk in the woods, or overhearing a conversation in the mall; it can never, ever, be found, except perhaps negatively, in "blind guides." [Mt. 23:16-end]

Along with presumption, the basic problem with "ministry," as with all these words, is the element of self-consciousness. The gospel commands can be fulfilled only by self-forgetfulness, by putting on the mind of Christ (Phil. 2:5-11); by becoming human first. Action—or refraining from action (and the ability to discern which is appropriate)—must be a function of being. Our right hand should not know what our left hand is doing. People "make a difference" by who they are far more than by what they do. And if what we do does not issue from contemplation, then it is more often than not patronizing, exploitive and destructive.

"Ministry" kills generosity in those who have the most to give. The first and hardest lesson the institution teaches—if you can get someone's attention in the first place—is that it doesn't want your gifts unless you submit them to its sanitizing and domestication, which will destroy them, and you.

We need to get rid of the word "ministry" along with the assumptions that underlie it.


[1] The PhD has become meaningless. It is no longer recognition of meticulous research, original thinking and deep reflection. It is rather a certificate that the holder has added a brick of questionable coherence to the tottering edifice of what is often pseudo-scholarship; that the author of the thesis has cited the fashionable authors (even though the insight may have come from an unfashionable source), flattered all the right professors, osculated the requisite number of posteriors and paid hefty fees. A PhD is far too often a sign that the holder has acquired tunnel vision. Many PhD theses are so poorly written that they are unreadable; some take 100,000 words to say what could be expressed in a single sentence. Their subject matter is often so trivial that one weeps to think of the waste of resources used to produce them.

[2] I was once receiving communion in St Mary the Virgin in New York City, about to intinct, when the chalice-bearer literally snatched the host from my hand, insisting on dipping it herself and sticking it unsanitarily on my tongue. If I'd had my wits about me I would have said "keep it" and gone back to my pew.

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Reader Query II

[Sorry for the late post. This week and next I am in transition. Finding time to write is difficult.]

A reader writes: "Write a blog [post] on what you mean when you say you dislike the terms "ministry", "spiritual direction", "formation", and "mysticism" What you would use in their place."

One of the traditional interpretations of the sin against the Holy Spirit is despair. But as Olivier Clément points out, we fall through despair into the hand of God.

Rather I think the sin against the Holy Spirit is presumption, in the English sense of an arrogant imposed ignorance that is passed off as knowledge, particularly in regard to the mystery of the human person; an example would be a non-writer who presumes to tell an established writer when, how and in what context to write; or again, a person who has never prayed to tell another about contemplation.

The presumption attached to "ministry," "spiritual direction," "formation," and "mysticism," is in the first place this presumption of knowing, and it extremely destructive, both to the participating persons and to the life of community. In what follows, I will only be able to scratch the surface.

All of these words presume in the worst sense. They presume to know what or who God is; they presume to know what a human being is and what or who he or she ought to become. They presume that there is one who acts and one who is acted upon, a superior and an inferior. They presume that there is one who knows and one who is clueless.

[To be continued.]

Monday, August 17, 2009

Reader Query

A reader suggests: "Write a blog [post] on what you mean when you say you dislike the terms "ministry", "spiritual direction", "formation", and "mysticism" What you would use in their place."

I will address the last term first, as it leads into the others.

The word "mysticism" has been spoiled beyond reclamation. It has been used with a wide variety of meanings, many of them contradictory. It has been associated not only with a realization of the desire for God but also with exotic states of consciousness, schizophrenia, and feel-good self-affirmation that resembles mistaking contentment after a good meal for divine favors.

"Mysticism" these days has a subtext of hierarchy, privilege, elitism and the spiritual marketplace, with its own brand, its own self-certifying celebrities, and its bazaar (bizarre) of trinkets. Worst of all, the word as it is used today often encourages people to watch themselves attempt to be "mystics," an effort that is entirely self-defeating.

Even Bernard McGinn's attempt to define the word in his useful multivolume series is problematic because of his use of "experience." All experience is interpretation, which reduces "mysticism" to subjective feeling and personal claims. Writing about such feelings puts the interpretation at yet another remove, or even two or three, because of the absolute abyss that lies between the interior life and the language in which it is described. Because this abyss is ignored, and understanding of the work of silence and its role in texts has been lost, a lot of time, paper and ink have been wasted on analyzing so-called mystical texts for what they might reveal about the psychological states of their authors, a process which has been about as useful as analyzing a metaphor about a flower for its DNA.

Associating the word "experience" with "mysticism" encourages people to seek experience about which they can make claims (much of Sara Maitland's recent book on silence is a good example), which is a process opposite to that of the spiritual life, which is about giving up experience and its claims. Maitland's book is not without its insights, however, the main one being that contemplation causes boundaries to crumble so that narrative becomes difficult, if not impossible.

Contemporary scholars are dropping the word "mysticism" and substituting the word "contemplation," which again, has a variety of meanings. When this word has been ruined it is hard to think of what we shall use next.

Monday, August 10, 2009

Life Imitating Cartoons

A few weeks ago I went to visit an elderly sister, who was in hospital with a broken hip. The monastery chaplain went with me. He has a weakness for hamburgers, so we went to a fast food joint. It may seem difficult to believe, but before that day I had never eaten in such a place. It was something out of a nightmare.

The entire interior was molded plastic in cream and nursery blue, like something out of a badly made television cartoon. Life now imitates cartoons. The ropes demarking lines guided customers, like cattle, gently towards the slaughter. Although there was no background music, I could hear frozen screaming. I came close to having a panic attack, or a fit of wild weeping, neither of which I am prone to. I tried to hide my distress from my companion, but the memory would not go away. I reflected for days on why the place had upset me.

I tried to think of positive aspects of fast food eateries. Yes, they employ poor people. Yes they sell cheap protein. But at what cost? I tried to discuss it with a sister who has an MBA, who defended business. "It's marketing," she said.

The following week on the way back to the hospital, this time alone, I reflected that it is precisely the marketing that is the problem: it pretends to offer freedom but takes it away; it pretends to give you choice, but narrows your vision; it pretends to give you potential while slamming the door; it pretends to offer you the chance to become a bigger and better person, while reducing you to an obese and robotic infant.

Worst of all, the plastic box in which you sit pretends to offer you a haven while in reality it assaults you, removing all possibility of silence, thought or reflection. "I'll have a triple Vacuity, a medium Frozen Scream and a large order of Lies, please." It offers a blasphemous parody of what a meal should be, even alone with oneself. The only option is to shut down, order, pay, munch (huddled and hunched) and depart.

Monday, August 03, 2009

XII The Seven Devils of Women's Ordination, or, She Who Lie Down With Dogs Catch Fleas—Addenda

Text of footnote 38

Julian Barnes provides a parable:

Like many, I used to think that the official saturation of the country with market values was a reversible phenomenon; a little skin cancer perhaps, but no irradiation of the soul. I abandoned this belief—or hope—a few Christmases ago, and when I want an image of what Mrs. Thatcher has done to Britain I think of the carol singers. At the time she came to power, they would, as they always had, stand outside your house, sing a carol or two, then ring the bell and, if you answered, sing some more. Halfway through the rule of Thatch, I began noticing that they wouldn’t bother to start singing until they had first rung the bell and checked that you were there to listen and pay up. After she had been in power for about ten years, I opened the door one Christmas and peered out. There were two small boys some distance from the house already, unwilling to waste their time if they got a negative response. ‘Carols?’ one of them asked, spreading his hands in a businesslike gesture, as if he had just acquired a job lot of tunes off the back of a lorry and could perhaps be persuaded to cut me in. [1]

Text cut from section on Religious Orders, originally after the ‘spirituality’ section.

Religious Orders

Clericalism can be held primarily responsible for the decline of religious life. Anglican religious orders share some problems with their Roman Catholic counterparts but have others peculiar to themselves. Some Anglican problems are historical. Many communities were founded in the Victorian era and still confuse Victorian manners with monastic decorum. The one is imposed from without, the latter arises from a deep listening to the Holy Spirit. They were founded, often, by the most clericalised of clerics. They were founded, often, as a function of class, the wealthy upper class. They were founded, often, even when there was a foundress, even if they were unaware of it, to fulfil male clerical romantic fantasies about a tridentine ‘catholic’ church that has never existed.

This fantasy persists in the imagination of the Anglo-Catholic wing of the Anglican Communion, although they now regard many religious as ‘unreliable’ because of their distressing tendencies to act and think for themselves—even getting so above themselves as to speak in Synod!—and in need of further and tighter control. And while many communities have distanced themselves from the political wing of Anglo-Catholicism, fear of ‘what will Fawtha think’ is the source of terror many women religious feel about change. In consequence, Anglican religious women have been slow to exercise the freedom they already have. One sister from another community asked another, ‘who allowed you to go without veils?’ Roman Catholic women have greater cause for fear, as they are enslaved by canon law.

Romantic fantasy has spawned another problem. To the many layers of self-consciousness already present, another has been added (two more if the order is Anglo-maniac American, where eyes are additionally fixed on Mother Church at Canterbury): one eye, full of self-doubt (which is really doubting the ability of the Holy Spirit to do her work), is always fixed on Rome, and the underlying question whispers, ‘Are we real religious’? Whether they are aware of it or not, this question affects everything Anglican communities do or think. Roman Catholic religious are unfailingly polite about Anglican religious, but when pressed they will admit that this attitude is sad, and that it often seems to have made Anglican religious ‘strange’ or ‘quaint’. For all of that, one can only give thanks that the preparatory documents for the forthcoming Synod in Rome on the Religious Life urge ‘communio’ with Anglican, Protestant and Catholic communities, for ‘experience shows that a religious order has limited power to renew itself’. [2] For many of us, this is old news, but it is good to see it officially acknowledged, whatever other failings the Synod preparations may have.

But for Anglican communities, what the Roman Catholics ‘think’ (as opposed to communio) is precisely not the point. As long as a religious life is lived as a lifestyle as opposed to a way of life (the distinction is critical), as long as it is so utterly self-conscious, it cannot be authentic religious life, because it is not possible simultaneously to be self-conscious in this way and to be receptive to God. Thus the question that compares is self-defeating. [3]

One has only to read the guidelines issued by the Bishops’ Advisory Council on the Religious Life to see why Anglican communities are dying. It is evident that the most fundamental issues, the most trenchant of modern insights about the human person have not been incorporated, or, one suspects, even addressed. The attitudes this booklet contains are out of date by half a century. And there is a subtext of competitive envy that seems to say, ‘If you don’t do it this way, our way, you’re not authentic.’ Never mind that ‘our way’ leads to death. Even more telling, while Anglican religious were more than happy to quote from the 1917 Roman Catholic Code of Canon Law, 1983 code seems for them not to exist, especially Canons 603 and 604 which allow for solitary vocations and recognise them as religious.

This is not to say that the Roman Catholic Code of Canon Law is anything to admire: in general, it, too, has failed to reexamine its fundamental assumptions about the human person, evidenced in the most radical ways today, particularly in sexual scandals. Such scandals are not prevented by an overload of canon law that tries to allow for every eventuality, as any Anglican can (but probably won’t) tell you. In the event, I have yet to meet a British person who can talk in a matter-of-fact way about sex, and it is increasingly difficult to find Americans who can—for the same reason in an opposite expression: it’s hard to get Americans to shut up about their sexual obsessions.

The situation for religious is little different in the United States. The 1987 meeting of the Council on the Religious Life illustrates the degree of pathology that is at work. At this meeting the older, established communities were trying to resolve the bad blood between themselves and the newer communities, some of them non-traditional. The question, as always, was ‘who among is a real religious?’ As if this could be known to anyone but God. And as if religious were somehow a different class, a special species.

In a typical move, without consulting anyone—no solitary was at this meeting, nor any of their bishops—this group found unity by identifying a common enemy. They too it upon themselves to issue a resolution that said (I quote from memory) that they, the religious communities, ought to ‘control the solitaries to keep them from aberrations and bizarre behaviour’ and that solitaries should be centrally registered. One is tempted to ask, why not issue them yellow stars while you’re at it? This resolution has now been hardened into a set of ‘guidelines’ taken mostly from the anachronistic British guidelines. They are designed to kill any genuine solitary vocation that might emerge, should any bishop be foolish enough to pay attention to them. Fortunately there are still a few bishops with their eyes open. [2009: judging from the recent debate over union with God vs. blood atonement, there are no American bishops who have a clue.]

And any solitary in England, America or South Africa will tell you that the most frequently asked question, which usually is asked immediately after ‘how do you do’, is, ‘Who controls you?’ The assumption seems to be that solitaries have taken leave of their dignity and maturity as human beings simply because they have vowed themselves to God. And most of them are solitaries precisely because of the ‘aberrations and bizarre behaviour’ they have encountered in community. No one I know who has contemplative vocations in their care would send them to any community extant, in either the Anglican or Roman Catholic church. [4]

The plight of women has been and continues to be particularly poignant. Women’s communities still suffer from male control and the ancient male idea that womens’ minds are too weak for pure contemplation. In consequence, they have been herded into ever-smaller groups and their contemplative space and time crowded with busy-work, with many offices and recreations in common (the ‘Protestant’ work ethic is not news to contemplative nuns). Having been treated like this, women often so devalue and mistrust each other that they are unable to give one another the freedom that men seem to, or to leave one another alone at any level, an ingrained attitude that is exceedingly hard to change. Male oppression and devaluation of women, in religious life as in life in the world, also creates physical and mental disease, as has been repeatedly demonstrated.

Just to give an example: Carmelites who want more solitude, to return to an earlier rule are afraid to do so for fear of being accused of ‘not being Teresian’ by other Carmelites. Teresa would be appalled by such an accusation. Roman Catholic nuns in solemn vows (of whom the Carmelites are but one order) are required to keep papal enclosure and are subject to the local bishop, while men of the same order with identical vows are not subject to papal enclosure and are responsible only to Rome. The list of such disparities is endless. Although harder to specify, the same mentality exists among Anglican communities.

This situation has been compounded by the fact that women have a greater need for physical space than men, and have usually had less of it, due historically to having had less money and land to work with, generally speaking. [5]

We need also to remember that conditions for monasticism are completely different than they were when the cenobium appeared in the West. In a sparsely populated world, community takes on a very different meaning, as it still does in areas where there are fewer than two people per square mile. In an overpopulated world, the most valuable spiritual gifts community can provide for its members is silence, peace, and solitude.

The attitude that female religious are mindless ninnies, decorative religious objects for men to project off of and act out on, who need to be controlled, the idea that maturity vanishes with profession, must change. But the religious orders themselves must also change, so that they do not invite these attitudes. And they must listen to what the Spirit is saying in the churches and be willing to relinquish what is not essential. But they must be careful not to throw the baby out with the bathwater as has so often been true in the past, particularly not to lose the context of beauty, however simple, that can enhance a life of prayer. [6]


[1] ‘Letter from London: The Maggie Years’ in The New Yorker, 15 November, 1993.
[2] Towards the 1994 Synod, ed. Austin Flannery, OP, Dominican Publications, 1993.
[3] To illustrate, take a long piece of paper about two inches wide. Draw a line the length of one side. Bend the ends and join them into a circle (like Christmas paper chains). This is a closed loop. Note that the line is always either inside or outside. There are two surfaces and two edges. The inside communicates only with the inside and the outside with the outside. This is the closed loop of self-consciousness; it is a closed system.
Now separate the ends, give one of them a half turn and join them again. This is a möbius loop. It has no ‘inside’ nor ‘outside’ (it should be imagined to be spinning); it is a model of perichoresis.
[4] There is a desperate need for an English-speaking, ecumenical Charterhouse in England. It does not work to send English-speaking women to the Continent, and the continental houses are in transition. [added note in 2009: The Carthusian order is closing novitiates and houses because they cannot break out of the illusion of believing their own mythology.]
[5] Sometimes the nuns have in fact had some money but have been forced to entrust it to men who have then appropriated it. Just ask the Benedictine nuns at St. Joseph, Minnesota.
[6] See the work of Robert J. McAllister, M.D., especially Living the Vows, Harper and Row, 1986, p. 225. It is significant that many men’s communities have come to easy terms with questions such as when and where it is appropriate to wear the habit, including individual discretion about the matter, which is still a vexed question that causes painful divisions in women’s communities, because habits have been used by men as a sign of oppression. A simple habit or cowl, appropriately used, can be an aid to prayer and many other things, but it can also be used to hide behind and to put people in slots. If we never get out of the habit, it is all too easy to lose our humanity. If we never wear it, we tend to lose a sense of the transcendent. The Cistercians, for example, sometimes refer to their voluminous cowl as ‘a prayer-tent to get lost in’.