Thursday, April 24, 2014

Priest a Barista?

Continued reflections on Living on the Border of the Holy: Renewing the Priesthood of All by L. William Countryman (New York: Morehouse Publishing, 1999) and The Christian Moral Life: Practices of Piety by Timothy F. Sedgwick (New York: Seabury Books, 2008).

Between services for Good Friday and the Saturday night Easter Vigil, I had to retreat to Starbuck's to read William Countryman's Living on the Border of the Holy.  I'd grown drowsy and hungry during a drizzly cold spring afternoon, and beloved old dog Luis had been amorous all day long, nudging my highlighter,  interposing paws and nose between my face and the book. I needed a break.

While Countryman elaborated his idea of "priesthood for all," the young man behind the counter was demonstrating the concept.  With a mild voice, he ministered to our needs not just for coffee but for civility, attention, the pre-packaged ambience of a hangout for introverts and cozy small groups.  Efficient mixing coffees and cleaning up, informative ("The Mocha Chip flavor hasn't come back yet, but you might try..."),  patient, able to commiserate with the harried delivery guy from the Domino's Pizza next door -- he single-handedly made the experience everything we lucky customers needed, including the younger guy who scowled at his laptop in the corner the whole time I was there.

Is this what Countryman means?  If so, I wonder if we need a church at all.  I imagine that Starbuck's company policies encourage all that same behavior.  Maybe it gets him a bonus.  With this barista, it didn't feel forced, and it was good.  But was it priesthood?

Yes, and no.  Countryman suggests that the best candidates for ordination to priesthood will be ones who already act as priests in their communities, in this more general way.  Then they can be ordained priests, meaning that they are trained to play a role in the sacramental rites of the church..  Theatrical metaphors abound in Countryman, especially in a discussion of sacraments pp.137-139.  Priests are visible signs of certain aspects of a ministry that we all share.  He opposes the notion of "priest" as set apart from "laity."   What is "laity," he asks, but an empty word defined entirely by the absence of ordination (142)?

By mid-book, having cautioned us against many ways in which clergy have been idolized; seen as parents, strict or indulgent; treated as "professionals" with "clients"; or otherwise removed from collegial conversation with the laity; Countryman admits that he appears to reverse course (133).   We do need experts educated in theology to avoid "unreflective" fundamentalism that devolves into "stony rigidity" or "spineless sentimentality" (91). We need someone in the "role" of administering sacraments, including confession and baptism, and also teaching and preaching. 

A discussion of how priests should be educated shows just how many roles are piled onto the curriculum.  They should know Scripture, and Church History, and Theologians; but also counseling, finances, sociology, etc. etc. etc.

Countryman envisions a church where the clergy empower parishioners to do the Church's jobs, including pastoral care.

This is precisely the direction our Rector, now in his second year, has been nudging the church.  He meets resistance from some whose model of the church is more clergy-centric.  But, for goodness' sake, the whole church is Christ's incarnation in today's world: We've all got to do His work. 

Countryman is right to see that God can work through others, whether they're in Church or not.  That idea certainly stretches back to the Old Testament -- where a gentile priest named Melchizedeck represented God, and Cyrus of Persia is praised as an instrument of God, rescuing the hapless Israelites from exile. 

Now, for some more coffee.

Monday, April 14, 2014

Sculptors in Smoke: Notes on Contemporary Theology Books

Reflections on Living on the Border of the Holy: Renewing the Priesthood of All by L. William Countryman (New York: Morehouse Publishing, 1999) and The Christian Moral Life: Practices of Piety by Timothy F. Sedgwick (New York: Seabury Books, 2008).

Reading books of theology, I'm uneasy.  I teach seventh graders to support every statement they make with quotations from authoritative sources, or else with real-life examples.  When I read page after page lacking citations or even anecdotes, I grow almost resentful.  Who are these authors to tell me what God is, what we must do, what life is?  

Still, as participant in the program Education for Ministry (EfM) headquartered at the school of theology at The University of the South, Sewanee TN., read these books I must.

To be fair, I know enough to understand that the Bible is not a book but a library of articles by poets, propagandists, administrators, storytellers, and lawyers.  I know that even historically based stories take on significance as metaphor, and some metaphor is presented in Scripture as literal reality.  Interpretations of interpretations, metaphors to explain metaphors:  theologians are sculptors in smoke. 

Countryman's Living on the Border of the Holy: Renewing the Priesthood of All
I'm only halfway through this book, and I like the main thrust of it, expressed clearly in the title.  A chapter on "the priesthood of humanity" develops the title's metaphor:  We're close enough to see the Holy, but we're not there.

"The Priesthood of Religion" takes the metaphor a step further:  If GOD is a land, then religion is our map; sanctuaries and rituals are models.  In this chapter, Countryman answers a question we hear in EfM, "Why do we study the Old Testament anyway?"  The ancient stories and rites live on at least as metaphor, from a time "before they were reduced to writing" (38).  Countryman highlights the Jewish tradition's "two minds" about the sacrificial altar:  it could be anywhere, tended by elders of a "nation of priests", as in early nomadic Jewish culture. Then again, to approach the temple in Jerusalem was to approach God. 

Countryman's writing suggests that ritual is a kind of theatre.  Props such as blood and water took on new meaning against the "backdrop"(44) of the temple;  rites of purification heightened the effect.   He later (and elsewhere) suggests that some of what Mike Huckabee and his ilk would call essential Christian morality is leftover from those old purification ideas.  Countryman condemns the "idolatry" of making the HOLY a mere backdrop to the ritual, when the ritual is to be a sign of the HOLY.  Ditto, scripture.  "The map is not the territory."

By the third chapter, Countryman has warmed us up to the idea that Jesus was a priest not of his "religion."  Outside of the norms of temple priests and of rabbis, Jesus showed the way to be priest outside of "religion" "in the order of Melchizidek" (from Hebrews).  He cut across the "purity boundaries" by touching a bleeding woman, touching a dead girl, eating with Gentiles, touching a leper.  He showed "indifference" to those things that had come to define the holy (49).

In this third chapter, Countryman also examines what we might mean by "sacrifice."  Paul's followers emphasized the death of Jesus, but gospels give us a broader picture.  Christians originally saw the resurrection as a "conquering" of death or a ransom paid to the evil powers, not as later Medieval scholars saw it: payment to God for our sins.  That "reduced" the whole relationship of God to humanity to "the metaphor of debt," and, making the crucifixion the "payment," it reduced resurrection to an afterthought (55).  Countryman refers to Hebrews and Jesus as our equal and mediator. 

The first half of the book ends with a chapter called "The Priesthood of the Christian People."  Here, it's almost funny how Countryman pulls back from all the high-minded ideas to acknowledge that, no matter what "holy" experiences we may have, we still have to live our own lives in this sticky, busy world where we are "overwhelmed" (67).  Even our "engagement" with the holy is defensive -- e.g., a yoga class.  The renewal of interest in spirituality, he writes, is often conceived of as a private matter, something set aside, not to affect the way we live (68).  He attributes this to our loss of the idea of universal priesthood -- and "table fellowship, reconciliation, love, and integrity" (71). 

The old idea of monasticism as an escape from this being "overwhelmed" is a fallacy (67). 

Last week, I completed reading several chapters of Sedgwick's book.  He hits that "table fellowship" theme hard, reiterating our ministry of "hospitality."  He, too, warns that worship itself can become an "idol."   While I accept that idea pretty easily, I got annoyed when Sedgwick piled statement on statement without apparent basis:  "The religious bear witness to the call of God that life is not a matter of wolrd maintenance.  Instead, we know God in our poverty, in the abandoning of our dearest possessions,  [God is present] in the embrace of the other.  In other words, at the foundation of life is the covenant of hospitality" (131).  

I've more to read.  I may get back with more comments, for my own benefit when we discuss the readings at EfM. 

Magician at Work: Robertson Davies and his novel Fifth Business

Friends recommended Robertson Davies to me in 1985. Before his death a few years later, I managed to catch up on all his other trilogies (for he always wrote in sets of three), and books of his essays, and even a collection of ghost stories he wrote for faculty Christmas parties.

One tidbit of one interview interests me to this day. He was constantly curious, and researched any- and every- thing that struck his fancy, accumulating piles of note cards on such subjects as magicians' tricks, restoration of antique violins, gypsies, psychology, counterfeit art, whatever. When the piles overran his desk, he would concoct a story that could encompass all the cards. Naturally, his novels are like crowded flea markets, filled with unexpected and obscure erudition.

He wrote three trilogies, each set in a different town of Canada. He never completed his fourth one, though the last book felt like a benediction, set in the Afterlife, which turns out to be a vast movie theatre where the late film critic sits through a festival of films about his own life on earth.

An earlier set of three novels introduced me to the idea of "personal mythology."   The trilogy revolves around an eccentric art collector in a university setting. In What's Bred in the Bone, an art forger uses an old-fashioned style and ancient symbols to express his own "personal mythology," incorporating characters and ideas from his long life. Davies uses this plot to explore an interesting question: If experts are fooled by a new work of art in an old style, then why is it worth less than the originals on which it's modeled?

His first trilogy, written in the 1950s, was more conventional in style, less cluttered, and very rich and entertaining, concentrated around a small town called Salterton, comprising The Leaven of Malice about consequences of a rumor printed in the local newspaper, Tempest - Tost about loves and high jinx during rehearsals for an amateur Shakespeare play, and Mixture of Frailties about the worldly education of a talented soprano selected from a family Gospel band to study voice (and life) in Europe.

Still, it was the Deptford Trilogy that brought Davies to the attention of US readers and the Times Bestseller List in the late 70s. I began with Rebel Angels from his 80s trilogy, having been promised that there was one scene in the story that was so bizarre, so violent, and so funny that I would never forget it. "How will I know if it's the scene?" I asked. Everyone assured me, "You'll know." They were right: I remember the hotel room in Saratoga NY where I sat twenty years ago and read, incredulously, as the scene unfolded.

But that's not what I'm writing about here. Here follows the review I wrote of the first novel of the Deptford trilogy, Fifth Business: (page references are to the paperback edition published around 1980):

Fifth Business achieves something I'd like to achieve. It is frankly concerned with religion without being heavy-handed. Its narrator Dunstable (later Dunstan) Ramsay is a hagiologist (i.e., scholar of saints) of Presbyterian background who discovers a more sacramental Catholic-Anglican view of the world.

The novel follows his life chronologically but also topically. All threads begin in a boyhood incident: he ducks a rock-filled snowball hurled at him by spoiled rich rival Peter Boyd Staunton [using roots, that translates as "rock-boy of standing"] in small Canadian town Deptford, and it hits the wife of grim Baptist preacher Amasa Dempster, causing her to give premature birth to son Paul and also to "go simple." From guilt, Dunstable serves this family of social outcasts, even after Mrs. Dempster becomes the town's greatest scandal, having been found in an "adult situation" with a hobo in the town's quarry. Forbidden to visit her, and she being literally tied to her house, Dunstable nevertheless remains devoted to her, and runs to her in panic when his very ill older brother dies, and everyone else is at the fair. She comes to the boy's bedside and restores him to life. Dunstable tells the town that it's a miracle, performed by a saint, and he becomes the town's joke, as Dr. Staunton laughs that the boy must not have truly been dead. To escape derision, Dunstable runs away to fight in the first great war. He's the second to run away: Paul Dempster ran away with the circus to escape the ridicule of Boyd Staunton and his gang for having such a mother.

After this set-up, the rest of the story follows how each deals with his demons (and, in Dunstable's case, his saint) and re-connect in the decades that follow.

One theme plays throughout the novel. It's wrapped up in something Dunstan teaches his students about "the mythic view of history," as opposed to the scientific view (13, 15). Again, he says that atheists "miss metaphor," (54) which Davies uses as a near-synonym for "psychological truth" (71). The idea of depth to reality [would "Deptford" be "deep river" -- suggesting more under its surface?] comes across in such passages as this description of the "saint" Mrs. Deptford:
When she had seemed to be laughing at things her husband took very seriously, she had been laughing at the disproportion of his seriousness. . . [She was] wholly religious. I do not say "deeply religious" because that was what people said about her husband, and apparently they meant that he imposed religion as he understood it on everything he knew or encountered. But she. . . seemed to live in a world of trust. . . . It was as though she were an exile from a world that saw things her way . . . . [T]he queerest thing about her was that she had no fear.
Her son's becoming a magician seems to relate to this idea that nothing is "to be trusted in a strange world that showed very little of itself on the surface" (36). Also, Dunstan is surprised when others are surprised that he has two sides to him: "I cannot remember a time when I did not take it as understood that everybody has at least two, if not twenty-two sides to him" (72). In a description of Boy (a.k.a. Boyd Staunton), Dunstan says, "To him, the reality of life lay in external things, whereas for me the only reality was of the spirit -- of the mind, as I then thought, not having understood yet what a cruel joker and mean master the intellect can be" (114). Davies seems to be suggesting that both views are incomplete, and reconciled by the third boy in the middle, the one who finds "magic" in material.

Another theme resonates with "The Beast in the Jungle" by Henry James, a story that was key to the mythology of my own life. In Fifth Business, a German amazon from the circus named Liesl confronts Dunstan: "You despise almost everybody except Paul's mother. No wonder she seems like a saint to you; you have made her carry the affection you should have spread among fifty people. . ... Well it is not too late for you to enjoy a few years of almost normal humanity" (216). Later she adds, "Life is a spectator sport to you. Now you have taken a tumble and found yourself in the middle of the fight and you are whimpering because it is rough"(222). She assaults him and he twists her nose (an obscure reference to St. Dunstan who twisted Satan's nose with tongs) but later becomes her lover. She then says,
 [Calvinist religion] is a cruel way of life, even if you forget the religion and call it ethics or decent behavior or something else that pushes God out of it. . . . [Calvinists] have the cruelty of doctrine without the poetic grace of myth. ....Why don't you shake hands with your devil, Ramsay, and change this foolish life of yours? Why don't you, just for once, do something inexplicable, irrational, at the devil's bidding...? You would be a different man. (226)
 She says he fits into Myth as "Fifth Business," stage slang for the supporting actor in stage dramas who plays confidant and plot catalyst.

One more savory idea: an old monk in the story says he's much older than Jesus ever lived to be, and therefore knows what Jesus never knew. He searches for a God who'll teach him to grow old. He says "I have found Him, and He is the very best of company. Very calm, very quiet, but gloriously alive; we do, but He is. Not in the least a proselytizer or a careerist, like His sons."

A few surprises, elegantly written. Most enjoyable for its enunciation of a worldview I'm coming to assume. - June 1985; edited April 2006

-reprinted from my personal web site  This blog includes reflections on the other two books of the trilogy. 

Monday, April 07, 2014

The Mind Plays Tricks: Appreciation of Novelist Iris Murdoch

[Portrait, 1986, by Tom Phillips.]
Iris Murdoch was a full-time professor of philosophy at Oxford, author of philosophical treatises. In her spare time, she wrote long novels at the rate of about one every year between 1955 and 1995. These all share elements of British comedy of manners and Shaw's comedies of ideas. They share with Midsummer Night's Dream and The Tempest such traits as huge casts of noble and low classes, infatuations that begin suddenly as if by magic, and hints of spirits and fairies.

Experiencing some difficulty remembering details while she composed her final novel Jackson's Dilemma, Murdoch took tests and was diagnosed with Alzheimer's. Her husband reports that a doctor, examining her, asked if she could name the current prime minister. She hesitated, then tartly replied, "Does it ever matter?"

I have to guess that she wrote fiction to say something that did matter. But what?

I suppose that her message is not a philosophy or religion easily put into words. One of her novels, A Message to the Planet, involves a philosopher who fails to find the words to write his life's work. I tried to read her philosophy book Metaphysics and Morality and gave up midway, unable to grasp the connection between any paragraph and any other.

So, I'm not expecting to distill a creed from her novels. Several characters in several novels do try to do that. A philosopher, a mathematician, an artist -- they all think that they're on the brink of expressing a truth about life in direct language, unmediated by metaphors and particulars. They all fail.

Instead, Murdoch must be imparting some kind of feeling, experience, an "emanation" from all the books.

First, her books express Murdoch's love for the world and its people. She lovingly details the natural beauty of her locations, no less when it's the violent beauty of a storm or the sea. Her books, like operettas or Shakespeare plays, have huge casts. Yet all characters get the full Murdoch treatment. We learn their life stories, their daily routines, and their religious views. There's always a bit of ironic detachment, here: no character is ever so pure or smart as he or she thinks, and Murdoch makes sure that we figure that out before they do.

While she can be very particular about lives, she omits most particulars of their times.  There's no background noise from the media, no mention of the Cold War, the Beatles, television, wars, computers. Her stories seem to take place outside of current events and history. From all her novels, I remember only two events that couldn't have happened in a Dickens novel: one character watches a weather report, and another character is exploded by a terrorist bomb in an airport.

Second, her stories often begin in the Garden of Eden. That is, we see a family gathering, a reunion of friends, a happy occasion. We see all the characters who, if not happy, are at least comfortable in their routines and views of themselves. This includes not only those who are wealthy, healthy, and happily married, but also others who are comfortable in their self-sacrifices as monks or Marxist agitators or social workers.

Third, as in Genesis, it takes just one character giving into one temptation to launch a chain reaction that destroys all the characters' personal Edens. Often in Murdoch, the temptation is carnal, but sometimes it's envy or some other base emotion that starts the disintegration. Religious, atheistic, pagan, Marxist, whatever: routines, relationships, and cherished beliefs crumble.

Then, what happens? To continue the comparison with Genesis, all are expelled from paradise, and everyone has to learn how to get along in the scary new world. In Murdoch, almost all characters try to be unselfish and to speak with honesty, saying exactly what they feel with all the precision that novelist Murdoch can muster. The thing is, nothing goes right in spite of all this good will and eloquence. There is sometimes forgiveness, reconciliation, restoration, but it's never the way it used to be, and no one goes back to what they believed before.

So it's funny to see these educated, self-important, self-satisfied people scurrying about and slipping on some banana peel in the plot, and it's also sad, and it also seems inevitable. Is this a religious feeling? An anti-religious message?

I'm not sure I'd ask the question, except for the fact that I first heard of Murdoch in a book about religious writers. The book compared Murdoch to two Roman Catholic writers that I admire, Flannery O'Connor and Walker Percy. The author concluded that Murdoch, the professed agnostic, succeeded at convincingly expressing a religious view of life where the other two failed.

In style, every page of Murdoch's entire oeuvre is involving, brilliant, and maddening. John Updike, quoting someone else, wrote that you can thoroughly enjoy a novel by Murdoch and then be unable to remember anything about it. It's a fact that I read one book twice, recognizing the story only at a particularly memorable calamity involving a dog and a storm drain that occurs four-fifths of the way through the story. I hesitate to buy her books now, for fear of making the same mistake.

Still, she stays with me. Forget the particulars, remember the joy. It's all about the joy of being alive, and everything in her stories feeds that: inanimate objects, friendship, art, pets, and infatuations. Her characters cry excessively, and we readers may cringe, but we can also enjoy the fun she's having manipulating them into outrageous situations.

Two of her darkest novels seem to explore qualities of her own writing. In A Fairly Honorable Defeat, a cruel and clever man, motivated solely by the challenge, engineers the destruction of a long and fruitful marriage through the unwitting agency of close friends who all adore the couple. Like Prospero in The Tempest, clearly a basis for this novel, the cruel man sets the characters in motion and sits back to watch the results, and that's the novel.

The other book, most unusual of them all, is Bruno's Dream, and it's about a repulsively spider-like old invalid whose bed sits at the center of a web of plot. His mind is going, and his perceptions of present and past merge. He frets to a wise nurse that his days now seem to take place just in his head, and she replies matter-of-factly, "we all do that." Do all the other elements of the novel also take place in his head? She wrote it thirty years before Alzheimer's hit her. I wonder if the real experience was as she had imagined it?

Others that I remember most fondly:
  • The Book and the Brotherhood has the most potential to hit adults hard. We read of a group of left-leaning college students who pledge a portion of their incomes to support the work of their most brilliant friend as he writes a searing book that will certainly change the world. When Murdoch's novel begins, it's years later, their views have changed, and they have families and careers of their own. They meet happily at a midsummer dance at the old college, when they get word from their old friend for the first time in years. His book -- in which they no longer believe -- is almost finished, unless he's lying and sponging off their generosity. Did their old beliefs mean nothing? What of their old commitment? Were they fools then, or have they now sold out? Of course, Murdoch throws in some extra-marital complications to the mix. It's a funny book and moving, too.
  • Nuns and Soldiers has that unforgettable scene involving a storm drain and a little dog in rural France. The title refers to the sort of people who dedicate their whole lives to a mission - religious, political, personal - while the plot dwells on the others hurt by the missionaries' good intentions.
  • A Word Child stands out because its narrator is a brown-skinned, intense, strapping young man of Indian descent wreaking havoc on people around him. He does in fact love words, too. I can think of no other important character in Murdoch who isn't Anglo-Saxon or Anglo-Irish, and no other one characterized by great physical strength or such intense contempt for himself and for others. Even though I remember few particulars of the story, I remember the man's anger, energy, love, dismay at the changes that love makes in him, and guilt. This is also the one novel that seemed to come closest to being a thriller, highly focused through that one character's perceptions.
  • The Good Apprentice was the first of her books that I read, and it set the pattern. On the very first page, a charismatic young man, taking LSD for the first time, plummets to his death from a dormitory window. His best friend, the one who tricked him into taking the drug, desperately seeks relief from his intense guilt. He consults a guru, gets entangled in criss-crossed love affairs. A weekend in the country reminded me of romantic farces and Noel Coward-y comedies of manners.

[Reprinted from my personal web site, dated April 2006, at]

Tuesday, April 01, 2014

It's Lent: Bon Appetit!

Meditation on Scripture assigned for today, written for a parish meditation booklet, sponsored by The Pilgrimage at Saint James' Episcopal Church, Marietta GA.

1 Corinthians 11.22  What!  Do you not have houses to eat and drink in?

Isn't it funny?  For April Fool’s Day, in a season of fasting, two readings draw attention to the stomach, our body's practical joker.  My stomach's prompting me right now to stop meditating and fix breakfast.  He loves parties.   At work, he nudges us to get out with others for a bite. He emits funny sounds before meals. What he emits after meals gets big laughs at school, suppressed reactions at church committee meetings.

Paul isn’t laughing.  He scolds Christians for arriving at church hungry to scarf up bread and wine.  He says to eat at home and to observe proper restraint at the Lord’s table.

We at Saint James’ are more like Jesus in today’s Gospel, the convivial host who won’t send 4000 people away hungry.  I know long-time parishioners who came to us first for a meal – a reception, or our famous breakfast, “the best deal in town.”  Our Sunday morning worship feeds all our senses, and our minds.       

Despite Paul’s admonition, we ought to consider coming to church hungry. Lent is our season for remembering the edge to our faith that may have dulled with self-satisfaction, for acknowledging that we may stuff our days with matters that don’t matter.       

A hunger for something draws me sometimes to our Sunday evensong.  The empty nave echoes the chants and prayers of worshippers who fit comfortably in the choir.  With no organ, no sermon, sometimes no clergy, this and our daily morning prayer are our most austere services.  Yet they somehow feed us.  With what?  Silence that sharpens awareness of God?  Comfort in ritual?  Being with others while alone with our thoughts?  For whatever reason, those who show up, even now and then, feel a pang when they miss it.Paul should consider how a church can be stronger for hosting those who hunger for something they can’t get at home.

Psalm  97, 99, [100]   94, [95]
Gen. 49:29-50:14        
1 Cor. 11:17-34           
Mark 8:1-10