Monday, February 22, 2010

Rite for the Day of Cremation

A funeral was held here on Friday after a particularly difficult death. Fortunately the family is surrounded by friends who are with them in the best possible way, and the funeral was packed out.

Yesterday one of the friends mentioned that the cremation would be this morning at 8 AM while we were having Morning Prayer and that some of them would attend our service to help them through it.

The Chaplain and I put our heads together and came up with the following rite: it seems unbelievable that the Church has not provided for this event, which is surely one of the most difficult days in the entire grieving process. Two of the prayers and the blessing were adapted from the New Zealand Prayer Book. And thanks to Susan (see comments) for helping us to clarify.


Rite for the Day of Cremation

This simple rite can be incorporated into Morning or Evening Prayer
on the day of cremation.

The thurible is prepared (charcoal lit) ahead of the Office.

Before the Office, all present stand before the altar. Each person is invited to put a few grains of incense into the thurible. All face the altar; the Leader holds the thurible in stillness for a time and then prays:

Lord of Creation, our sister
N's body was the altar
on which she made the sacrifice of her life.
May it rise before you today as sweet incense.

The thurible is placed on the altar until the end of the Office.

The opening of the Office as usual.

The Psalm is 27 on page 617.

The reading is taken from an adaptation of Wisdom 3:1-9. It is read without announcement or closing declaration.

But the soul of our beloved is in the hand of God,
and no torment will ever touch her.
In the sight of the unwise she seems to have died
her departing thought to be an affliction,
her going to be our destruction
but she is at peace.
For though in our sight she seemed to be punished,
her hope is full of immortality.
Having been tried a little, she has received great good,
because God tested her and found her worthy
of divine love;
like gold in the furnace she was tried,
like a sacrificial burnt offering she is accepted.

In the time of her visitation she will shine forth,
and will run like a spark through the stubble.
She will govern nations and rule over peoples,
and the Lord will reign forever.
Those who trust in God will understand truth,
and the faithful will abide in love,
because grace and mercy are upon them,
and they are cherished as God's holy ones.

The reading is followed by five minutes of silence.

The Canticle is taken from the Kontakion.

You only are immortal, O God,
the creator and maker of mankind;
and we are mortal, formed of the earth
and to earth shall we return.
For so you did ordain
when you created me, saying,
"You are dust, and to dust you shall return."

All of us go down to dust;
yet even at the grave we make our song:
Alleluia, alleluia, alleluia.
Alleluia, allelluia, alleluia.

The Office continues with "The Lord be with you. . ." and the Lord's Prayer. The usual suffrages and other prayers are omitted and the following are said.

Lord Christ, you have taught us that our God is a consuming fire;
even now as our sister's body is being returned
to the elements from which it was formed,
so may we know that she gazes unveiled upon your face,
aflame with the fire of your love. Amen.

Merciful God,
we bring you our grief in the loss of N.
and ask for courage to bear it.
We thank you for all she has given us,
and we pray for peace of heart,
and knowledge of your mercy and love,
in Christ Jesus. Amen.

God of all that lives and dies,
we thank you that in the resurrection of Jesus
we have hope of new life and the assurance
that nothing can separate us from your love,
which unites us now with N.,
whom we mourn. Amen.

Let us bless the Lord.
Thanks be to God


Loving God,
be with us as we face the mystery of life and death.
Strengthen the bonds of N's friends and family
as they bear their loss.

Help them to go forth
with courage and confidence in your care and love,
through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

Silence is kept, the members of the congregation remaining in silence or leaving as they wish.

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

New and Contrite Words

It's been a very long time since I used the 1979 BCP but my "in residence" at Bishop's Ranch requires me to use it every day. I used to think it wasn't too awful; now, for the most part, I can't bear it. It's out of date, its theology is full of the trumped up language of sacrifice wished on us by Radbertus and Hincmar after Charlemagne's slaughter of the Saxons. No one knows what "penitence" means any longer, and being berated about "sin"—the word more than the concept—is enough to make anyone weep, far more because of the notion of God that is implied by its context than the word itself. I am sick of this book; I am sick of the hyperverbosity of the thing. I have slashed the Offices. We have half an hour's silence before them; say only the opening sentences and canticle, the psalms and one lesson. Then five more minutes of silence. Then one more canticle, the Lord's Prayer, often omitting the suffrages and only two collects; then another ten minutes of silence. Even this seems like too much noise. I'm thinking of cutting to one canticle and one collect. Evening Prayer is the most difficult as I love both the Phos Hilaron and the Magnificat, but not this translation, which seems clumsy and poorly cadenced.

Before my colleague and I had a chance to talk about Lent and Holy Week, and before I had taken a horrified look at the 1979 BCP's language, we'd agreed to do the Litany this coming Sunday. But that's the only cry from Sheol there's going to be—at least in the old breast-beating language that seems rather more in the style of professional mourners than those seeking simplicity and purity of heart. As Isaac of Nineveh pointed out, God went to all this trouble simply to show the extent of his love—nothing about appeasement, or blood guilt, or any of the rest of the voyeuristic sado-masochism of the late Christian West. The following quotation is from Book II, translated by Sebastian Brock and quoted in The Fountain and the Furnace, pp. 316-317.

"I myself say that God did all this for no other reason, but only in order to make known to the world the love that He has, His aim being that, as a result of our greater love arising out of an awareness of this, we might be captivated by His love [or into love of Him], when He provided the occasion of [this manifestation] of the kingdom of heaven's great potency—which consists in love—by means of the death of His Son.

"The whole purpose of our Lord's death was not to deliver us from sins, or for any other reason, but solely in order that the world might perceive/become aware of the love God had for creation. Had all this astounding affair taken place solely for the purpose of forgiveness of sins, it would have been sufficient to deliver/redeem [us] by some other means. For who would have made an objection if He had done what he did by means of an ordinary death? But He did not make His death at all ordinary—in order that you might realise the nature of this mystery. Rather, He tasted death in the cruel sufferings of the Cross. What was the need for the outrage done to Him and the spitting? Just death and in particular His death, without any of these other things which took place, would have sufficed for our salvation/redemption. What wisdom, filled with life is God's!"

We are going to radically redo the liturgies for this Lent and Holy Week, and to that end, here are some draft collects. Your comments/contributions/suggestions are very welcome.

Ash Wednesday

Merciful God, you hate nothing you have made, and enfold in your love all who turn to you: Create and make in us new and truthful hearts, that our guilt and wretchedness may open us to your forgiveness which brings us new life; through Jesus Christ our Lord who suffered shame and death to show us the extent of your love. Amen.

I Lent [after Olivier Clément]

God of strength, you led Jesus into the desert to be exposed to the seduction of demonic power: come quickly to help us in the wasteland of our selfishness; and grant us the knowledge that even as we fall through despair your hand is ever there to save us, for your love's sake. Amen.

II Lent [after Irenaeus]

Lord of Light, you have shown us that your glory rejoices to give us fullness of life; help us to know that our glory is the steadfast beholding of you, from whom all healing flows through Jesus Christ. Amen.

III Lent

O Lord, our refuge and strength, grant us clarity in this noisy and toxic world to make choices that protect our bodies from physical harm and our minds from dehumanizing images. Help us listen to the body's wisdom that less is more, so that our souls may share in your self-outpouring glory revealed to us in Jesus Christ. Amen.

IV Lent

Gracious God, your blessèd Son Jesus Christ emptied himself to become the bread of life for us: evermore help us to open ourselves to your indwelling life, that we may behold you in one another; who lives and reigns through the Holy Spirit now and for ever. Amen.

V Lent

Almighty God, as we approach the celebration of the unfathomable mystery of your crucified love; help us to follow the way of the cross, mindful that 'in returning and rest we shall be saved,' and that 'in quietness and trust shall be our strength;' through him who was raised up to draw the eyes of our hearts, and heal us from the poison of self-regard; and who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, now and for ever. Amen.


And just for good measure, here are a few of the saints:

Thomas Bray

O living Word, we remember with joy Thomas Bray
whose humble love of knowledge expanded literacy in the New World. Help us, like him, to listen with attention and receptivity to the wisdom of which language is but a gesture, for your love's sake. Amen.

Absalom Jones

O God, whose service is perfect freedom, we thank you for the life of Absalom Jones whose vision of the unfettered dignity of every human being remained steadfast in the face of bigotry and persecution. Grant that we may grow in humility and respect before the mystery of each and every person, through Jesus Christ, our Lord, in whom you consented to die the death of a slave for our sake. Amen.

Martin Luther

God of Mercy, your Word spoke to Martin Luther in the midst of his anguish, showing him the boundless love of your grace freely given; and you bestowed on him the courage to speak truth to power. Grant that we may ever be vigilant for the human tendency to reduce religion to magic; to earn what is freely given; to substitute experience for beholding; and give us the strength to expose corruption wherever we may find it, through Jesus your Son who came into the world to witness to the truth. Amen

Monday, February 08, 2010

Practical Adoration IV


Having lost the plot, the churches have undertaken researches that, while fascinating from an historical point of view, are blown entirely out of proportion. However else the life and teachings of Jesus—his ethics, his parables, his purpose—may be interpreted, they unfold the process of going into the silence of adoration and its transfiguring effects on ordinary life. To go deliberately into silence, any silence, with religious intent or for simple relaxation, one must set aside judgment, law, and what one thinks one knows. Hierarchy has no meaning, nor do space and time. To be silent, as anyone who has meditated will confirm, we must become self-emptying—that is, we must let go all thoughts, even those by which we constitute what we think of as our selves. The layers of self peel back and fall away. If we are proud, we might see this loss as humiliation; if we are fearful of what we may find in the silence, we may think of this effacement as a kind of death, as our attention is stretched beyond all our noisy complexity.

The sort of person we become and the sort of belief we develop are largely dependent on the relationship we choose to have with silence. It is in silence alone that we come to the intransitive, open-ended faith that John writes about in his Gospel. [9] What happens in the silence, whether we are immediately aware of it or not, is literally transfiguring: all the signs by which we live our lives—words, images, ideas—are mutated, shuffled, and reintegrated. We emerge from each journey into silence a new creation. [10] And it was a new creation, not heaven, that the first Christians were looking for. Early Christianity was not philosophically complex: it was the religion of the poor and uneducated. Jesus is the Way into the silence where we are en-Christed, and from which we are resurrected into the new creation that permeates each moment. Read the New Testament with silence in mind; you may be astonished at what it reveals.

Ask anyone who practices silence: it is liberation from the often cruel and noisy stereotypes of cultural context, especially the religious context. Perhaps one reason Christianity was a scandal in its day was that its emphasis on “forgetting” and silence was contrary to those of the surrounding cultures, which were based on a collective social memory ritually and nosily reenacted. [11] Christianity should still be a scandal in our day.

The habitual trajectory of religion seems to go something like this: the founder has an insight derived from silence. Perhaps two percent of his or her disciples actually practice; the rest latch onto language about the practice as a substitute. The next generation begins to fossilize this language without understanding the process it refers to. Some of the people still practice silence, while the lazy majority continues to concentrate on the language, deluding itself that language is the same as practice, often literalizing what can only be metaphorical. The two (or more) groups come into conflict, which makes them vulnerable to hierarchy, legalism, and ritual. The majority welcomes these chains and becomes dependent, sacrificing salvation for safety. Inevitably the usual distortions of money, power, and persecution come into play, and practice becomes limited to a hidden, often persecuted few.

Cultures that co-opt religion to serve as social glue have lost the balance of silence necessary to a healthy and humane mind, and with it, the possibility of realizing our shared nature with God. Those who try to restore this balance, like Socrates, are frequently killed for their efforts. In 1310 Marguerite Porete was burned because in her logophasis she transgressed the clichéd vocabulary of her day, which some clerics sought to make legally binding. She refused to defend herself—how do you explain the process of silence to someone who has never practiced it?—and in silence went to the stake.

If institutional churches are to halt their rapid decline, those who direct them must actively and intentionally return to adoration as their primary goal. Rules have no meaning without a vision of God (Prov. 29:18). Church officials need to examine every word and gesture of liturgy, the education of clergy and laity alike in the light of the vision of God. They need to realize that their present hierarchical structures are infantilizing and untenable. [12]

The rest of us need not wait for the institutions. If we seek to make adoration the pole star of our lives, then we must accept that we are forced to sit very lightly to organized religion even while engaged in trying to wake it up, to heal the damage, to turn sorrow into joy. It is not easy to swim against the cultural stream, but if we bear the name of Christ, it is our vocation and the logophasis of our adoration.


[9] This insight into John's use of the pistis-words for "faith" is from an unpublished paper by Judith Lieu, given at the Oxford Classics Seminar on Faith in the Ancient World, Autumn, 2006, Oxford, England. Paul promotes the same idea using the word “hope” in Romans 8:24–25.

[10] The hymn in Philippians 2:5–11, however else it may be interpreted, describes this process.

[11] See, for example, Joan Breton Connelly, Portrait of a Priestess: Women and Ritual in Ancient Greece (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 2007).

[12] See Garry Wills’s excellent book, What Jesus Meant (New York: Viking, 2006).

Monday, February 01, 2010

Practical Adoration III


The primary role of the institutional church is to provide a context for adoration—at least in theory. People come to church hoping for encouragement to inhabit this prayer without ceasing so that it may inform all their activity. But these days, increasing numbers of such people go sadly away, for they soon learn that if adoration is not the source of its every act, the church becomes merely one more dysfunctional group.

Contemplative union is not the private property of a sophisticated elite; it is most certainly not the preserve of clergy or so-called spiritual directors. It is a realization of our shared nature with God inscribed in us at birth, through which we receive the risen life that animates all the rest of what we do, including the impetus for serving others. If adoration is not the foundation of our service, then that service becomes predatory and degrading to those we hope to serve.

The church—in theory—is here to help us make our home in the silence of adoration and the holy, to give us courage to carry it into ordinary life, into the kingdom of noise—that is, what ancient writers have called “the world”—so that it, too, may be transfigured. “The world” in this context does not mean the creation, which is good, but rather the arena of illusion, of power struggles and conspicuous consumption, imagined in the mind but acted out in the suffering of the material creation and the body. It is this shadowy and contentious world of avidity, not the body, which Paul refers to as “the flesh.” This phantasmagorical world cannot bear silence, for silence reveals it for the delusion it is. It adores only what it can consume and lives for the adrenaline rush of power over people and things. It is this noisy world of delusion and lies that the humble Christ defeats by self-emptying silence.

The tragedy of contemporary institutional religion, preoccupied as it is with the power struggles of the clergy, is that it seems to have forgotten this task of bringing the transfiguring silence of adoration into the static world of noise. Clergy are no longer trained for lives of holiness but for career trajectories. One shattered deacon said to me, “The only thing I learned in seminary was how to lie.” If the institutional church has become part of the kingdom of noise, then it should not be surprised when those who come to worship in spirit and in truth, who seek support for living their adoration in the world, turn away.

Most of the great texts of the Judeo-Christian tradition, including the Bible, were written to conform to the criteria for “the reading of hearts.” Silence is so much a part of their world that these texts rarely mention it. The author of the story of Jacob's wrestling with an angel assumes that the reader will know that it takes place in silence, and does not think to use the word (see Gen. 32:24-32).

But our culture does not operate by the same criteria; silence is so alien to its analyses that it needs special mention. For this reason, it is not surprising that the essential nature of logophatic texts is opaque to modern people, scholars especially, and to religious institutions. The authors of these texts were trained in silence; in their educational system, silence was as essential as the alphabet. [7] By contrast, we are preoccupied with words and argument; our educational system is based on dialectic. Yet the logophatic texts we seek to understand have silence as their source, subtext, and end. Their sole criterion and goal is to help us to realize the vision of God, a goal institutional religion once had but now seems to have forgotten or abandoned.

Having lost these basic insights about the process of silence in the service of adoration, churches are no longer able to understand the metaphorical language of their own foundational texts. In consequence, they have frequently promoted life-denying, psychologically damaging practices, imposing rules and behavioral strictures that have little relevance to the essential. These proscriptions are often meaningless, if not frankly destructive to spiritual maturity. Holy Communion, for example, is reduced from the medicine of life for the brokenhearted to hors d’oeuvres for the ritually pure. Virginity is degraded from its meaning of purity of heart, a heart suffused with adoration, to mere genital intactness. [8]


[7] Georges Duby and Philippe Braunstein, “The Emergence of the Individual” in A History of Private Life, vol. II, Revelations of the Medieval World, ed. Georges Duby, trans. Arthur Goldhammer (Cambridge, Mass. and London: Belknap Press, 1988), 619.

[8] For further reading on such metaphors, see, for example, Sebastian Brock, The Luminous Eye: The Spiritual World Vision of Saint Ephrem, Cistercian Studies, no. 124 (Kalamazoo, Mich.: Cistercian Publications, 1992).