Suffrages for Ember Days

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Suffrages

(Ephesians 2:1, 4-10 and Colossians 1:9-14)

V. O God, who is rich in mercy;

R. Make us alive together with Christ.

V. By your grace, raise us up and save us;

R. In the age to come, show your kindness towards us.

V. For by your grace we have been saved by faith;

R. Not by works of our own doing, but as your gift so that none may boast.

V. Yet you, yourself, have made us – created us in Christ for good works;

R. Help us walk in the way which you have prepared for us.

V. Fill us with a knowledge of your will;

R. So that our lives may be worthy and pleasing before you.

V. Grant that our works may bear good fruit;

R. That we may grow in the knowledge and love of you.

V. May we be made strong;

R. And prepared to endure in patience,

V. Joyfully giving you thanks, O Lord;

R. Who have made us to share in the inheritance of the saints of light.

V. Rescue us from the power of darkness;

R. And bring us to the kingdom of your Son,

V. In whom we have plenteous redemption;

R. And the forgiveness of our sins.

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Love the Whole Self

Reflections on Chastity without Celibacy

Of course, the question comes up…often! Most recently, my new found digital friend C4bl3Fl4m3 asked what it means to be chaste without being celibate.

First, let me tell you. There are plenty of people I have encountered who are celibate and not chaste. And, of course, in my way of religious life, I experience people daily who are chaste but not celibate. So let’s take a look at two starting points that are integral in my life and my understanding of this dynamic.

The New Oxford American Dictionary defines Chastity in this way:

chaste

adjective

abstaining from extramarital, or from all, sexual intercourse.

• not having any sexual nature or intention: a chaste, consoling embrace.

• without unnecessary ornamentation; simple or restrained: the dark, chaste interior was lightened by tilework.

DERIVATIVES

chastely adverb,

chasteness noun

ORIGIN Middle English: from Old French, from Latin castus.

Looking at the Latin origin, castus means clean, pure, or guiltless.

For hundreds of years, the terms chastity and celibacy have been conflated with one another, largely due to the religious vow itself and its interpretation in traditional order as meaning celibacy.

In the brotherhood, we define Chastity as follows:

Chastity is the decision to live with all in love, with respect for each person’s integrity. It is not a denial of one’s sexuality and capacity for love, but a dedication of the whole self to God: free from indecency or offensiveness and restrained from all excess, in order to be free to love others without trying to possess or control. – The Rule of the Brotherhood of Saint Gregory

The Brotherhood’s interpretation of this vow allows for those who are gifted with the charism of celibacy… as some in fact are. We have brothers who are celibate. But Chastity is expansive enough to allow for fidelity in partnership as another interpretation. In order to understand how our community defines and lives Chastity in this way, let’s break down our understanding of this vow into some logical pieces:

Love that is respectful of each person’s integrity

Jesus said, “The first commandment is this: Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God is the only Lord. Love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your mind, and with all your strength. The second is this: Love your neighbor as yourself. There is no other commandment greater than these.” Mark 12:29-31

Integrity, the wholeness of the human person, is essential to our interpretation of this vow. Integrity is a state of being which is whole and undivided. People are integrated human beings: mind, spirit, and body! The fear of the body that has infused Christianity since the days of Augustine is unfortunate. The body has been seen as unclean (despite the Risen Christ’s teaching to the contrary), and any joy experienced with it has been seen as suspect at best and sinfully debauched at worst. This duality that crept into the Christian faith is contrary to Scripture and to God’s proclamation that the Creation was good! It is contrary to a faith that is Incarnational, believing as it does that God became flesh in Jesus Christ and that humanity – all of it – was redeemed as a result.

As Jesus pointed out, it is not the body that is unclean, but all manner of things that proceed from the human heart that makes us unclean. And Chastity is intended to act as a corrective to what comes from the human heart!

The knowledge of being whole and undivided begins with our own selves. We approach our lives in religious vows, recognizing that we are undivided, whole, complete as we are. Unified and unimpaired – in our totality, good and capable of being vessels of the Holy Spirit even in our bodies, and even in our capacity as sexual human beings.

In my relationship with my husband, the practice of Chastity begins with the knowledge of his integrity as a human being, of his wholeness and the fact that he is a unified and unimpaired person. Any relationship with any being must start from this place, lest we treat them as incomplete or broken people (or objects) in need of being fixed. This is the beginning of Chastity.

Not a denial of one’s sexuality or capacity for love

While love is certainly not just about attraction – sexual or otherwise – we would be foolish to start with an assumption that true love, especially the love we are called to in religious witness, always transcends such attraction. Love can be experienced deeply with or without sex, and sex can also be experienced with or without love. They can both be, and often are, experienced intensely as a logical extension of the other.

There are those for whom celibacy is a natural extension of their very selves, and as such it is what we call a “charism” – a gift. But, as is often the case, celibacy is taken on in the traditional understanding of the vow of Chastity, or imposed as a result of priestly vocation. We have seen the results of such imposition for those who are not called to such a charism. It results in people who are fundamentally divided from themselves. Their integrity is compromised. They become impaired.

Chastity, in a more expansive interpretation, recognizes that sexuality can be – and in most cases is – an integral part of the human person. It is not something to be easily denied or denigrated, but it can be included in the celebration of the whole human being in all of our glorious complexity. To reduce Chastity to bodily functions is an egregious form of idolatry that is fundamentally dangerous spiritually and psychologically.

There are those who say that, being freed from the attachment to the physicality of sexual relationships, Chastity as celibacy allows them to more deeply love God and neighbor without conflict. While this may be true for some, it denies God a rightful place in the healthy expression of love through sexual relationships. There are many who will tell you, myself included, that God can be found in the midst of the intimacy of the sexual act, and that the union of two people in sexual congress can allow for glimpses into the Divine Life that are not often experienced in other ways or with such intensity. But Chastity also requires that we refrain from making our spouse, partner, or any other person an object for my sexual use or gratification. To reduce another human being to an object is sinful. To view another human being as merely an occasion to temptation is to objectify them at the basest level. Without love or the intention to experience love as a natural and transcendent moment in the sexual encounter, true Chastity is violated.

The entire point is, as I have come to understand in my own relationship with my spouse, not to conflate love with sex, or sex with love. Either can include the other, and neither is necessarily contingent upon the other. Chastity is a corrective to pursuing sexual gratification without the intention of the experience of love. And while attraction, sexual activity, and romantic love wax and wane over the years dependent upon so many things, the love that is engendered by true Chastity grows and is nurtured by remaining undivided within oneself and recognizing that the other person is as well – and allowing God to be present in whatever expression of love, sexual or otherwise, that grows in the midst of your encounter with the other.

A dedication of the whole self to God

If we live, we live to the Lord, and if we die, we die to the Lord; so then, whether we live or whether we die, we are the Lord’s. – Romans 14:8

Having established that we are intended to live as wholly undivided and unified people – in our selves and as the Body of Christ – it is only natural that it is in this state that we offer ourselves to God. We too often compartmentalize which parts of ourselves are worthy of offering to God and which we hold back. Our vow of Chastity requires the dedication of this whole self to God, in all of its integrity, its completeness. This means not only spirit, mind and body – but our use of these things.

Note well! Chastity is about much more than sexual relations. It is about the way we treat our selves and others, not just sexually but in all the myriad ways in which we are tempted to use other human persons as means to an end. Every human person – and our relationship with them – are ends in and of themselves. They are the beloved in which we experience Christ. They are the answer to the question “who is my neighbor?” They are children of the Creator, dignified creatures of extraordinary beauty and complexity and integrity who are to be valued in and of themselves.

Chastity calls us to recognition of this fact and asks us to treat all others accordingly. How we do this is the subject of the remaining part of our understanding of the vow.

Free from indecency or offensiveness

Laying aside the issue of the physicality of sexuality for a moment. Jesus spoke of the things of the human heart that defile. How do we treat others from the heart? Do we objectify them? What of adultery of the heart – the ways in which we can sexualize individuals in our minds? This is more than an issue of lust. It is a question of covetousness. It is a question of idolatry. Do I fantasize about those whom it is inappropriate to sexualize? Do I fantasize about doing harm to someone who has wronged me? Do I incessantly try to win arguments in my head that I lost in person days, weeks, months ago? Do I ceaselessly compare myself to others in terms of appearance, status, or achievement rather than honoring myself where I am and honoring others where they are?

Indecency is not necessarily about obscenity. It is about appropriateness – appropriateness to the nature of ones relationship to another and fitting to the circumstances of the encounter with another. Decency is about propriety and conformity with the accepted standard of behavior in a given situation. For example – it is not decent for an employer to attempt to seduce an employee, or a priest his or her charge. It is not decent for me to expect my spouse to be my maid.

Offensiveness is about aggression. It is, by means of aggressive or passive-aggressive behavior to cause another to feel hurt. It is about provocation to anger or other ill feeling. To make someone feel guilt is an aggressive act, and so is to deliberately start an argument. Anyone who is married can tell you the nature of this dynamic.

Chastity calls this behavior out for exactly what it is – indecent and offensive. Or, inappropriate and aggressive. And it demands of us a recognition of these dynamics in our own behavior and makes imperative the need for a different approach. In this way, Chastity compels us to revisit how we handle conflict in our lives and in our relationships. Do we accept others as they are, or demand that they be someone else? Do we monitor the kinds of expectations that we bring to the table in our relationships? Do we have a healthy understanding of the difference between our needs in relationships and our wants – and can we negotiate the boundaries between those and the needs and wants of others with whom we are in relationship?

Restrained from all excess

The opposite of excess is moderation. Restraint is about oneself, and most definitely not about restraining the other. Self-restraint is the opposite of self-assertion. Chastity does not ask us to be doormats when it comes to the behavior of others with whom we are in relationship. But it does ask us to keep our needs in check. We do confuse needs with wants – and feel eminently entitled to have both fulfilled. Unfortunately, a good number of people enter into relationship only half full, expecting the spouse or partner to fill the other half.

This goes back to the issue of integrity and wholeness. The only way to cultivate healthy relationships is to come to the table from a place of wholeness. Chastity asks us to moderate our sense of entitlement and need. It asks us to have healthy relationships in a variety of contexts so that we do not require our partner to be the sole source of having our emotional needs met.

Chastity calls us to balance, self-awareness, and self-giving. It asks us to tame ourselves and our desires so that they can be met by the self-giving of our partner and not as a result of our demands. So, if all of this is about ourselves, what are we to reasonably expect from others?

Love that does not try to possess or control

Do as you would do, not as I would do – or – as I would have you do. This is what Chastity asks us to do for others. Cease trying to possess or control them. It is the hardest part of the practice of Chastity.

My spouse does not belong to me. He is the Lord’s possession. But he also belongs – in relationship – to others. He has friends, family, work colleagues – all of whom have their own claim on his time, energy, and attention. He gets to decide how to negotiate the complexity of his social relationships. My desires need to allow him the freedom to do that.

People are not possessions. As Martin Buber pointed out, our relationship to others is not one of “I” to “it,” but rather of “I” to “Thou.” This relationship is defined by love. It does not objectify the other, but understands that the relationship itself is a living thing. Chastity demands the recognition of all relationships as dynamic, life-giving moments or strings of moments in which God can be encountered. All relationships should be characterized as opportunities for self-giving, not as opportunities for demands to be met or needs and wishes fulfilled.

Chastity asks us to discern and understand the myriad ways in which we try to control others – usually to get them to do what we want. We must be diligent in thought, word, and deed not to manipulate those with whom we are in relationship. Control is about trying to determine the outcomes of any particular situation by manipulating them toward a desired ends. This not only doesn’t leave room for other people to exercise their freedom, it doesn’t leave much room for God – in whose hands all outcomes ultimately lay.

A Final Word

So, back to the question – how does one live Chastity without celibacy? Well, the question should be “does celibacy really mean Chastity?” Can one assume that merely by relinquishing sexual relationships with other people, it will lead to wholeness, restraint, decency and self-giving, an affirmation of ones capacity to love, or a diminishing desire to possess or control others? What is the point of Chastity, and does celibacy naturally lead to it?

Or, can one experience the beauty of Chastity in the context of any human relationship, even a sexual one? I would answer with a resounding “Yes!” If the point of Chastity is to love and honor God and other; if the point is to relinquish the debilitating behaviors that damage human relationships and to substitute those behaviors an appreciation of the grace and light of God in the other; then the answer is “Yes!” If the point of Chastity is to bring the whole self before God, offering our selves, our souls and bodies, to be a reasonable, holy, and living sacrifice to God; then the answer is “Yes!”

Chastity is about purity; it is about a love that is whole, unimpaired, simple and graciously restrained; it is about a love that is un-qualified, un-adorned, respectful and non-aggressive; and it is about a love that can be expressed in heart, mind, AND body in ways that are self-giving, utterly non-possessive, and open to the possibility that God can be encountered in the deep love between self and other.

Karekin, BSG

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Foundations

Delivered on September 17, 2011

Br. Karekin Madteos Yarian, BSG

On the occasion of a Foundation Day Retreat

Today we reflect on foundations. Our personal and our communal ones. Each of us comes into adulthood having certain foundations provided for us. Family, social mores and expectations, religious ones. These determine, largely, how we choose to interact with the world, what we choose to pursue as our work and with our personal time, and what kinds of relationships we cultivate to pursue these goals.

The Church, also, has its foundations. Built upon the testimony of Scripture and the apostles teachings, they can be distilled into neat summary packages such as the Nicene Creed or the words of our Memorial Acclamation: “Christ has died, Christ is Risen, Christ will come again.” Our aims and goals as “church” are, as in our personal lives, distilled from these foundations. How do we choose to interact with the world, what do we choose to pursue as our work and with our personal time, and what kinds of relationships do we cultivate to pursue these goals?

Religious life is no different. And today I want to speak to Gregorian religious life in particular. As we celebrate the forty-second year of our own founding, what are the foundations upon which we build our way of life? How do they inform the way we live in the world? And how can they inform the lives of those around us so that we might be true to our calling to be messengers of the light of Christ.

Here are some of the foundational statements about the Gregorian religious life, that perhaps may shed some insight into our way of being in the world. Our hope, as always, is that the religious life and the Gregorian Way in particular can inspire all Christians to take up the fullness of their calling to be children of God.

One – Baptism compels us to do something. More than just a rite of passage or incorporation into the church, Baptism changes our very nature in relationship to God. We become different creatures than we were before. The vows made by us, or on our behalf at Baptism, demand something of us. Gregorian religious life is one response to those demands. It is the manner in which we choose to live out the promises we have made and to live into our calling as children of God.

Two – Christian people cannot live into the vows we make in Baptism without other people. Community is the very way in which we are schooled in holy living. Church, more than just a place to worship on a Sunday, is intended to be one such community. But the Church alone cannot bring us to holiness. Religious communities that have developed over the centuries were founded with the intention of being just such a school of holiness, witnessing to the individual, the church, and the greater society just what it means to live into the promises of Baptism.

Three – Jesus calls us to be agents of healing and reconciliation, by first healing us. Jesus, having shown us the way to God, provides for us a template of a holy life. We are intended to follow the example of Jesus’ love for God, by doing all that God would have us do – even if it means losing our own life to find it. Gregorian religious life tries to discover through prayer, meditation, and service – the means of patterning our lives after the love of God and love of neighbor that, as Jesus shows us, is the whole meaning of the law that God provides for a holy life.

Four – Community is essential to help us discover and nourish our own gifts for ministry in the Kingdom of God. Without community to temper, teach, and guide – spiritual gifts can be neglected, undiscovered, or dangerous. Religious communities provide a framework of formation, discipline, and accountability that helps us discover our gifts and use them rightly.

Five – A vow is not a promise. Vows are made in the presence of God and in some cases to God and, unlike promises, they cannot be broken. In Baptism, we make, or have made for us, vows to conform to Christian life. In marriage, two parties make vows to each other invoking God as a witness. Ordination entails vows. And religious life does also. Gregorian vows do not supercede other vows, but they provide us with the context in which all of the other vows we have made in our lives can be carried out. Particularly our Baptismal vows.

Six – The Kingdom of God is very near. So near, in fact, that grace is available at every turn to witness and experience and proclaim. Religious life is about living the Kingdom of God here and now. It is about taking on the process of discovery of all that God intends for us, and being deliberate in answering God’s call. Gregorian religious life is about witnessing, experiencing, and proclaiming. In fact, religious life proclaims that our common life in love and service is the very image of the Kingdom of God.

Seven – The Creator of all that is, the author of all life, has reached right into the heart of each individual in the most extraordinarily intimate way. God seeks us, desires relationship with us, and wants our participation in the healing of the world. The impulse to Gregorian religious life arises from a response to the knowledge of God’s intimate self-giving love and concern in the heart of every individual.

Eight – All of our labor and work are equal in God’s eyes. All work can be holy. God calls us where we are, in whatever circumstances we find ourselves, to offer ourselves for the work of the Kingdom. Gregorian religious life calls us to make our work an offering of self-giving love to God’s glory. It calls us to bring a spirit of servanthood to even those seeming mundane tasks appointed to us.

Finally – One need not retreat from the world to serve God through a life of complete dedication. Religious can live fully in the world, while not being of the world. Gregorian religious life can be integrated completely with families, neighborhoods, and communities. In fact, it can sanctify all of these things. A life of prayer and service can bring new meaning to the many things we take for granted when lived fully in the presence of a suffering world in need of light and love and healing.

So – while Gregorian life is not necessarily for everyone to try on for size, we are here to witness to a way of living into a Kingdom life by honoring the vows of Baptism. We are here to love and serve you by offering a vision of what Christian life can be. We are here to be reconcilers and healers and servants of the servants of God. Not for our own glory, but to the glory of the God who created and sustains us.

As you ponder these things, here’s what I’d like for you to reflect on during your Emmaus walk this afternoon -

What do you want God to do for you? And what would you like to do for God?

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A Vow is not a promise

A vow is not a promise. A promise is between two individuals, and can be broken, and often is, with impunity and a mere apology to the offended party. A vow, on the other hand, usually has two defining characteristics. First, it invokes God as either party or witness, and second it involves a public proclamation, inviting the public’s support in helping the parties to uphold the vow once made. Vows are not to be broken but every effort must be expended to make the necessary adjustments to one’s needs or desires to ensure that the vow can be carried out. For all vows – ordination, marriage, baptismal, religious profession – life must be made to accommodate them, not the other way around. All of one’s life must be structured to support these vows once made. If a vow is to be set aside – unlike a promise, all parties must be in agreement about the laying aside. In religious vows, these are made to God. No human power, not even the Church, has the authority to lay them aside on God’s behalf. The moral of the story: don’t make a vow you aren’t prepared to keep.

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On Community

We seem to be in a place today where there is a great deal of renewed interest in religious life in the Church. These periods seem to wax and wane as the years go by, but the interest seems to peak when time are troubled and folks are looking for spiritual communities that offer a renewed sense of purpose and spiritual fulfillment.

Having just returned from the Brotherhood’s Chapter and Convocation, where we admitted three new postulants, clothed a novice, and had two first and two life professions, I was struck by the sentiment – look at what we offer the church! In this case, here were a group of men seeking spiritual companionship, and willing to undertake the promise of a community in which to nurture that journey – in some cases for the balance of their natural lives.

The church hungers for community – real, authentic, sustaining community. Too often, the church holds up the parish as the logical place where that is supposed to happen. And too often, it doesn’t – leaving people hungry. In the case of clergy, seminaries try to foster community by providing a semi-monastic experience of prayer and worship. But these communities are, by their very nature, temporary. As such, they do not work except to create a hunger for this type of spiritual nurture only to create disappointment when the newly graduated enter the world of parish life to find that there is no comparable sense of community available to them there.

Parish clergy spend too much time trying to recreate that experience in the parish only to be disappointed when the expected sense of community and commitment doesn’t materialize. We often hear from ordained folks coming to discern a religious vocation that they are hoping to find what they thought they were getting when becoming ordained.

Community in religious life is informed and shaped by the Rule and vows. Being bound to follow a Rule of Life naturally fosters a sense of common purpose among members of the community that informs every aspect of our lives. Parish communities cannot, by there very nature, do this. We come to the table with individual agendas, worship in common, and then return to those same agendas when we leave. Aside from the assertion of our Baptismal Covenant as a common Rule of Life, there is nothing to necessarily foster a sense of putting aside those parts of our lives that may be at odds with it. In religious life, however, this is the purpose of vows. The great evangelical counsels of Poverty, Chastity, and Obedience are intended to accomplish this.

Poverty is the great equalizer of power. Whether it asks us to relinquish personal possessions, or to live in simplicity, or to dedicate the fruit of our labor to the Church, it is less about possession than it is about power. The common pursuit of Poverty as an informing proposition in our lives is intended to reset the power dynamics of a community to equality rather than hierarchy.

Chastity is about relinquishing our desire to possess or control those with whom we are in relationship. It is about gracious restraint, individual value and integrity, and accountability for one anothers personal and spiritual growth and discernment of gifts for use in service. Chastity is an invitation to love rather than a barrier to it.

Obedience is about the relinquishment of personal agendas – not by letting them go completely, but by relegating them to lesser importance than the needs of the community as a whole. Without Obedience, a true spiritual community will fail. Obedience is about listening for needs, and being willing to meet them for the sake of others.

Is it any wonder that without a Rule and vows, true community can seem transient? The model of the parish is wonderful for so much goodness. But it cannot bear under the weight of expectations that it can provide true and lasting community for those who seek it. Parishes are about convenient community. As long as it is close by, the hours of worship are convenient to our busy lives, and the expectations on our time, talent, and treasure do not often exceed our own comfort levels – then it is fine.

Religious orders such as my own take great pleasure in offering a vision of community to the world. We offer a place where the true nature of community, with all of its joys and all of its messiness, can prove sustainable, nourishing and holy. It is the school where we, as individual members, learn what community truly looks like and then take and model it for others.

Our founder is fond of saying that “everyone who comes to us – changes us.” Isn’t that a vision!? Too many “communities” in the world are formed by a process of selection – where members are chosen based on their reinforcement of who we are, what we like (or don’t like), and where our comfort zones are. We choose people, speaking rather obviously in generalizations, who are like we are or who at the very least don’t necessarily challenge who we are. Religious life is not like this. When a new person comes to us, the dynamics of the community shift to accommodate this new presence. We do not mold them to be like us, but rather let ourselves flow around them, inviting them to bring their authentic personhood in all of its integrity. We provide them with a framework – by Rule and vows – to discern their gifts and to use them in the world with quietness, patience, humility, charity, courage and prayer. And it is only in authentic community where those gifts are learned.

This, for me, is what religious life offers the Church.

Br. Karekin, BSG

Minister Provincial VIII

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Falling Up(wards)

A sermon delivered on
the Feast Day of Adelaide Case
July 19th, 2011
at the Summer Convocation of
the Brotherhood of Saint Gregory
Mt. Alvernia Retreat Center
Wappingers Falls, New York

by Richard E. Helmer, p/BSG

Just under two weeks ago, a devoted member of a neighboring parish gave me a copy of Richard Rohr’s latest book. It was as timely a gift for me as it was gracious. In his new book, Rohr explores what he calls the two halves of our earthly pilgrimage: the first half being consumed with building up of self, of identity, of ego, of accumulating skills, goods, and achievements. The second half, and a half that not everyone undertakes, is of giving away, of turning our life over to service — of turning to what we could call the religious life, in whatever manifestation of that life God summons us into.

The process of engaging this second half of life is what Rohr calls “Falling Upwards,” hence the title of his new book. Seeing that title immediately took me back to the third grade in the small-town Midwest, sitting on the orange carpet with my classmates, listening with delight as Mrs. Klenda read to us Shel Silverstein’s poetry, which later included this little gem called Falling Up:

I tripped on my shoelace
And I fell up –
Up to the rooftops,
Up over the town,
Up past the treetops,
Up over the mountains,
Up where the colors
Blend into the sounds.
But it got me so dizzy
When I looked around,
I got sick to my stomach
And I threw down.

Now I ask you: What could be a better description of the journey of the religious life?

It has only just dawned on me that Shel Silverstein was in his own fashion the first philosopher, if not the first theologian, I encountered as a child. He offers more than mere milk for infants. He pens, in his earthy, humourous way, solid spiritual food for young stomachs being weaned by grace.

Tripping on our worldly shoelaces and falling up in the religious life can indeed give us a sense of spiritual vertigo, and at times it makes me queasy. Does it you? As in the gospel passage we just heard, the world can turn topsy-turvy when we take on religious disciplines and community: what is secret is revealed, gifts become demands for service, and inner light becomes the illumination for the outer darkness. When I joined this journey with all of you just over a year ago, I was warned to expect to lose everything. The prospect was as terrifying as it was compelling, and I can say that unpleasant expectation has been more than fulfilled! But in surprising ways. What was lost, what is being lost, either returns more vital and vibrant because it truly matters, or it is shed forever for being truly worthless. These days I find everything from my my marriage to my family life to my ministry in the parish to the community in which I’ve been planted looking, feeling, tasting, and smelling very different than it did a year ago. And there is yet so much further to fall….so much further, I hope and suppose, to fall upwards.

Falling has a long and hallowed history in our tradition. But it often is painted in a negative light, whether it’s popular notions of Augustine’s musings on Original Sin or good old threats of hellfire and brimstone. It is easier, truly, to imagine ourselves falling down into the hands of an angry God who is all about wrath and punishment, easier to obey the gravity of our worldly fears and failures projected onto the divine…than it is to consider falling upwards into the transformative grace of a counter-intuitive, loving Savior. God, it seems, is either our severe, judging and punishing über parent, which leaves us forever infants crying for our spiritual milk; or God is the faithful Father and wise Mother calling us to grow up, to live into the grace we have been offered, to take on the solid food that has been placed before us in the feast of the Kingdom. The distance between these two understandings of the divine may well be a measure of our faith, either a faith built on fear or a faith built on love.

So we all fall indeed, but how we fall matters, and falling upwards, defying the gravitational logic of a cynical world bent on self-referential ego and trappings of power, demands much more than passivity in the midst of our imperfections. It demands action, self-emptying self-offering, and a commitment of nothing less than everything we are. In short, falling down is easier than falling up. That’s why Christian vocation, however it manifests in our lives, is always the narrow, difficult road for each of us, and why we need community to pick us up, dust us off, and keep us on that road with grace leading the Way.

* * *

“In no area of life is it so true as in the area of religion that we are living suspended between two worlds — a past that has gone and a future that is yet to be.”

Adelaide Teague Case, whom we commemorate today, penned these words just over eighty years ago. She was a shining example, a light out from under a bushel, of what it means to fall up rather than down. After serving as a vibrant teacher at St. Faith’s school for girls barely a stone’s throw from here in Poukeepsie, she witnessed against the insipid sentimentality and Sunday morning sequestering of much of what passes as Christian education, and she soon ascended the ladder of brilliant secular academic achievement. But she, too, tripped on her worldly shoelaces and fell. She ultimately set aside an illustrious career as an esteemed professor and chair of religious education at Teacher’s College, Columbia, to answer a call to the less-well-endowed, male-clerical-dominated world of Episcopal theological education. At the Episcopal Theological School, she became the first woman to be made full professor at an Episcopal seminary, where her radical insistence on putting the students’ needs before professorial ambition and ego compounded her challenges in an institution more patriarchal than even early- to mid- twentieth-century secular academe. It is said students refused to take her classes at the seminary simply because she was a woman. But she was eventually recognized for her gifts to the Church, gifts which were almost uncountable as she served and taught all her life. From Women’s Auxiliary lectures to organizing for peace in the 1930’s and 1940’s, she reflected to her generation and generations to come the gifts of Lady Wisdom — that enigmatic, captivating figure in Proverbs, working constantly and often unassumingly in our midst — another image of Christ hinted at by mystics and theologians from Julian to Anselm: transformative grace undaunted by our often narrow vision and blighted hope.

For Adelaide Case, that fall up into the paths of Lady Wisdom first began with a young adult conversion to the religious life — she joined the Society of the Companions of the Holy Cross, a lay order of women committed to simplicity of life and social action. Maybe this move was initially provoked by chronic illness (she was diagnosed early with tuberculosis of the bones, which haunted her for much of her natural life), but it was ultimately nourished and sustained by the sacraments and a life devoted to prayer. By falling up, Dr. Adelaide, or Dr. A as she came to be lovingly known by some of her students, was long remembered — like many saints — not so much for her theology or academic writing, but by exhibiting a life deeply planted in Christ.

What remains striking to me about her writing, however, is how it continues to speak with prescience to our age today, and to us here and now gathered in religious community. In the same pages where she reflects on our being suspended in religion between two worlds, Adelaide Case opines that we generally in the Church talk about religious life just about as clearly and directly as we talk about sex — which, of course is to say not very clearly nor very directly at all. At best in much of our society we tend to be voyeuristic about both.

I needn’t begin you tell you, dear Brothers, about the way the religious often risk being treated as church ornaments. Romantic notions about the religious life projected on the vowed religious parallel the same sort of unfulfilled fantasies projected onto the characters in an episode of Desperate Housewives or The Tudors. In the past year, I’ve had to confront in people I serve odd but understandable fears, rumors hatched on golf courses even; worries that I might run off to the monastery, habit flapping in the wind, leaving my wife and son bereft at the side of the road. The apostolic religious, I’ve learned, make less sense to many of our sisters and brothers in Christ than the cloistered monastics, which I suppose makes us all the more dangerous: dangerous perhaps most of all to the voyeuristic approach to religion, an ever-present danger of the Anglican tradition. And yet that brings us back to the challenge of this afternoon’s Gospel. The grace we have been given and the call we have received can ill afford our hiding our light under a bushel. And for those to whom much has been given, Jesus warns us, much is expected.

But the greatest wisdom of the religious life, Adelaide Case reminds us, is found not so much in our thinking, skills, or knowledge, our sophistication and erudition, or our cleverness or projects of power and influence. Rather it is found in devoted, faithful, practice of the Gospel of grace. In 1948, while on her death bed and enveloped in prayer, Dr. A received the sacraments daily. Her last reported words were simply,

“What can I do for you?”

I reckon she would recognize the charisms of this community, and be at home this week with us in prayer and Eucharist. She would understand our shared vocation in learning to live a life of service, planted in our various callings, struggling frequently, challenging ourselves and others to stop hiding the light of Christ under bushels, and cultivating more than sentimental Sunday morning spirituality. She would appreciate our shared labor, and our yearning journey to fall. . .to fall up. . .to fall upwards into the life of our beloved Christ.

Bibliography:

“Falling Up” from Falling Up by Shel Silverstein. New York: HarperCollins, 1996.

Background on Adelaide Teague Case from Holy Women, Holy Men and the Talbot School of Theology website: http://www2.talbot.edu/ce20/educators/view.cfm?n=adelaide_case

“Religion and the child’s life” from Dorothy Canfield Fisher & Sidonie Matsner Gruenberg (Eds.) Our children: A handbook for parents. New York: The Viking Press (1932), pp. 307-317.

Atlas Shrugs. Jesus Weeps.

Originally published at Daily Episcopalian.

I find my recent ministry haunted by none other than Ayn Rand — a name I barely knew until a few years ago when she came up in a pastoral conversation. Since then, I’ve learned she was an inspiration at some point in a number of our parishioners’ life journeys. Something about her words captured youthful aspirations towards self-actualization and independence. When I at last started reading more about her, I realized in a profound sense that I did know her, or at least her ideas, from my own youthful ambitions as a concert pianist. Rand’s perspectives captured in many ways my hyper self-absorbed, rugged, rationalizing pursuit for success in a competitive world where my own mettle and skill — even in generating something as moving to the soul as beautiful music — mattered more to me than anything or anyone else.

While our nation’s body politic currently is filled with the stench of half-truths, shocking indifference, bureaucratic paralysis, and bitter hyper-partisanship, Rand, though long deceased, has suddenly appeared very close to the forefront of our discourse. I confess a pit forms in my stomach at the thought of paying to see the recently released movie of her wildly popular book, Atlas Shrugged. I can dine on most theatrical fare, but the idea of wallowing in hours’ worth of Rand’s philosophy — if it can rightly be called that — gives me enormous pause. Objectivism, the heart of Rand’s meandering corpus, eyes the world with a mirthless, cold stare. One of our parishioners, before she became a Christian as an adult, explored, amongst various philosophies and belief systems, Ayn Rand’s works. Recently, she reflected to me that she once met a thorough-going objectivist who said there was no such thing as a truly happy objectivist. When material reality and our perception of it is all there is, when reason is without divinity and intuition and inspiration are marginalized, when other human beings and the wider world are means to whatever selfish (and Rand used the word in a technical sense) means we devise for ourselves, when life is a race against time to achieve for me and mine alone, what room is there for old fashioned happiness?

In a recent excoriating commentary in Newsweek , Jonathan Chait notes how the new, smart-as-a-whip congressional budget leader, Wisconsin Representative Paul Ryan, openly brings to bear Rand’s economic philosophy on his political ideals and budget proposal. It’s easy at first to understand why Rand is the resurrected goddess of portions of the neo-conservative, libertarian, and tea party movements. Her strident support for laissez faire capitalism is matched only by the creeping social Darwinism of her attitudes. And her best-known protégé, Alan Greenspan, arguably is the most influential individual on the economic system we have inherited, more so even than any President or congressional leader.

But Donald Luskin in another recent editorial, this one in The Wall Street Journal, reflects how in other respects, Ayn Rand could be considered a liberal’s liberal. She was a fiercely independent woman who, by refusing to live in the shadow of any man and by paving her own career path, could be considered among the first wave of mid-century feminists (though she apparently publicly criticized feminism, and her relationship with the movement is conflicted at best). She deplored racism, supported integration of public schools, and staunchly opposed the war in Vietnam. Luskin notes how Atlas Shrugged casts almost as many aspersions on Big Business as it does on the bogey-man of Big Government. Rand, he writes, ultimately offers us a celebration — though that might not be the right word — of the innate dignity of the individual.

But for many conservatives and liberals alike, Rand poses considerable moral problems. Her infamously open marriage and her hyper-sexualized characters betray something deeper than simply a political philosophy that fits whatever contemporary agenda we’d like to inflict on her memory, whether governmental spending cuts or individual rights. Ayn Rand was an atheist of a sort that meant that the fiercely individualistic “I” was ultimately self-referential. The element of her conflicted popular philosophy that is mysteriously endearing to the American grassroots psyche is the rugged, no-holds-barred lack of accountability, an amoral construct that is truly all about the individual me. It captures our cultural navel-gazing and our simultaneous fascination with singular supermen and superwomen: our tragic obsession with pseudo-heroic egoism that, if unchecked, risks landing us with a Donald Trump as Commander in Chief, CEO of America, Inc.

The well-heeled intellectual elites of our society have too long dismissively pooh-poohed Rand, much to all our peril. The egoism she promoted, our rampant egoism she reflected in her work, makes for a slavery to self that wreaks havoc on the fabric of our relationships. Integrity, Rand seems to assert, is only internal and individual. But of course it isn’t, unless we are prepared to arrogantly chuck out the very heart of thousands of years of moral tradition that has weathered the storms of humanity in multiple cultures and spiritual traditions around the world. The current madness around Rand’s legacy is our collective madness, a reflection of our shared humanity wrecked on the rocky shoals of our hyper-protected egos now laid waste by crises too many to number.

The poor, the invalid, the destitute, the homeless: they all threaten our egos by reflecting our interdependence and vulnerability. No wonder we want to shrug them off. But we are not supermen or superwomen, we are frail, yearning creatures capable at times together and individually of awesome works and horrific acts. And sometimes we are plain down and out. We could conceal this messy, fleshy reality from ourselves when times were good. Now they’re not, and now we can’t anymore.

I am struck, along with many, that ostensibly Christian politicians openly embrace the sometimes ankle-deep and oft-tangled philosophical constructs of someone who once remarked that the Church is little more than “the best kindergarten of communism possible.” But I suppose Ayn Rand can be forgiven for this slight. The idea of living to serve others and something far greater than ourselves probably felt far too much like the autocratic threats to essential human dignity of the Soviet regime in her native Russia. And I suppose objectivist eyes cannot see anything but silliness in what I spend a lot of time these days doing: devotion to what a Rand fan I once met somewhat derisively called my “invisible best friend.”

The real irony for me is wondering whether or not Rand would welcome the mercy of Christian forgiveness. John Piper, a Baptist pastor in Minneapolis offers a succinct and compelling simultaneous appreciation and critique of Ayn Rand’s ideas, concluding that her Godless world view was most critically devoid of mercy: that foundational Christian virtue that understands an imminent and transcendent God loving us and all Creation into being and ultimately — not because we deserve it but because we need it — salvation. God shatters Rand’s ideal of relationships built on objective transaction, the philosophy of life structured around the quid pro quo. The God of faith, beyond all human logic, needs nothing from us, and yet offers us everything, from our first breath to our last, and beyond.

Our world right now seems littered with odd new juxtapositions. I am caught in this season of Resurrection reflecting on Ayn Rand outside the tomb of Lazarus — a strange juxtaposition indeed!

Martha notes that our body politic, like the body of her brother, stinks.

In reply, Ayn Rand’s Atlas shrugs.

For his part, our Jesus weeps, and then calls forth the dead into life.

- Richard Edward Helmer, p/BSG

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