Tuesday, May 23, 2006

ediary: Writing as Spiritual Practice

Recently I attended a writing conference in Washington. It was clear very early on that there were many agendas around the table, many angry or rebellious voices, and folk who one way or the other are “past” church or doctrines or creeds, running as hard they can away from, working hard as they can to get out of the tradition, while I, and perhaps a few others, are seeking to go deeper, get closer.

One woman, Dean of an Episcopal Cathedral, went to great lengths to talk about how she is excising sections of the Gospel she finds offensive, is changing the Palm and Passion Sunday liturgy because it is anti-Semitic, she says, and because she considers it all too Triumphalist. I understand what she means but on the second night at supper, after about another 15 minutes of her condescending justifications, I took a chance and questioned her as to why it is that all other religious traditions are encouraged to tell their story in all its particularity and even its ugliness--calling out names as they go with regard to crusades and missionaries and such--but we Christians are shushed in corresponding proportion.

It actually led to decent discussion and I was gratified that Lauren Winner more or less agreed with me. She did say that she thought it important to repudiate, and immediately, how such scriptures have been used to foster anti-Semitism, etc., but she agreed with me (I think) that to excise portions of canon is presumptuous at the very least, and also that to name Caiaphas or Annas or THAT council at that time is not the same thing as saying ALL Jews are Christ-killers or anything heinous and ugly as that.

We have to be free to tell our story, too, it seems to me, or we cease to be a people of the Story.

Between the afternoon session and dinner I went to the Cathedral proper, into the Great Choir, for Evensong. I was absolutely amazed, blessed, astounded, humbled. The men’s choir of the Cathedral sang and chanted. Very gothic. Very cool in the enormous vaulted granite worship area, and yet in the Great Choir it almost felt cozy. We sat in rows facing each other across the terrazzo. It felt like heaven to me, really, or what I can imagine heaven might for someone like me be (perhaps that image is not such a blessing to everyone): those measured, melodic, harmonic voices singing ancient praise to God, a slight echo off the High Altar whose gold cross was draped entirely with purple something. All the crosses in the Cathedral were draped just so.

I was in tears much of the time. The windows, the architecture—I think I must have lived in the medieval period in another life. There is something about all of that that just speaks to me.
(The College, too, is so interesting in its architecture—is it Gothic? Baroque?—and its accouterments: all these famous Anglcan divines with their huge collars, prominent chins and tiny hands. All the people who work here, all the pictures on the wall, are so easily recognized as Anglican. Tall, sophisticated, noble in carriage, erudite.)

The organist for Evensong was, as you would expect, extraordinary—but very restrained. That is an important word here, or at least important to me as I reflect on this experience and my context—restrained. Liturgy restrains and writing restrains and faith restrains—they all liberate, of course, and amazingly so, but they also restrain.

That is a blessing, I am convinced, for God too is restrained and so some measure of restraint takes a part in the nature of God. Who could stand God’s unmitigated presence?

I found myself praying, once again, as John Chrysostom prayed,

“Fulfill now, O Lord, our desires and petitions as may be best for us, granting us in this world knowledge of your truth and in the age to come life everlasting. Amen.”

Eucharist in Bethlehem Chapel. We got off to an inauspicious beginning when somebody unseen from somewhere behind the altar dropped something BIG—something aluminum, maybe, which clattered till it sizzled, like an unending cymbal. Even during the service there was clatter, footsteps, hammering, maybe, a staccato interlude now and then throughout. And still…

It was amazing. Michael Wyatt, who is Canon Theologian of the Cathedral, was the celebrant. Watching him as he performed the Eucharistic Rite was almost enough to make me want to be Episcopalian. It was beautiful to watch. Just beautiful. But I was already impressed. In his brief meditation he spoke about two of the “healing” stories in John, the first that of the lame man at the pool of Bethzatha (John 5) and the second the healing of the man born blind (John 9). Of the first, he said, while it is a healing it is simultaneously a picture of each of us who are forever ready to abdicate responsibility for ourselves. “Do you want to be well?” Jesus asks the lame man. “I have no one to put me in the water,” the man replies. Jesus heals him, tells him to take up his mat and go his way. When the Jewish leaders confront him about carrying his mat on the Sabbath, the man replies, “The man who made me well told me to do it.” When they ask him who, he said, “I don’t know.” And then, later, when he discovered Jesus’ name, he went and told the Jewish authorities, betraying his healing, unable to claim the implicit invitation, never taking responsibility. God’s grace is deeper even that that, Canon Wyatt said, even when we abdicate, when we choose to remain ignorant, when we curse our blessing (not his words, but close).

The man born blind, on the other hand, knows himself: I was blind and now I see. He knows it so well he can claim his new identity on account of Christ and testify to it. People around him are not sure whether he is, still, who they thought he was—even his parents are paralyzed and confused—but he speaks for himself and teaches the teachers of the law. They say, “This man was born in utter sin.” The man says, “Well here is something unknown from the foundations of the world, a sinner who restores sight to the blind.” Claiming his healing, his identity in Christ, gives him courage and wisdom, light and life, sight and sense. The whole homily lasted maybe five minutes. It was wonderful!

And then he did the Eucharistic Prayer. It was beautiful, a holy dance, full of gesture and symbol and meaning. I just wanted to watch him do it again. Upon leaving Bethlehem chapel I saw robins flying around the tops of the columns. That, last night’s Evensong, this morning’s Eucharistic prayer and meditation, and wonder of this week made me think immediately of Psalm 84:

How lovely is your dwelling place,
O Lord of hosts!
My soul longs, indeed it faints,
for the courts of the Lord;
My heart and my flesh sing for joy
to the living God.
Even the sparrow finds a home,
and the swallow a nest for her young,
At your altars, O Lord of hosts,
my King and my God.
Happy are those who live in your house,
ever singing your praise.Happy are those whose strength is in you…

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