Monday, July 20, 2009

Nothing in Particular

Kathy and I attended mass with the Sisters of the Order of Saint Benedict in St. Joseph, MN, yesterday. (It's the sister monastery to St. John's Abbey, about which I will speak at great length if you but ask.) We were there for the Jubilee (50th anniversary of solemn profession of vows) of the sister of the husband of one of Kathy's second cousins. (It's a long story -- short version: Kathy's relatives are delighted about our interest in "things Catholic," which sparked an introduction to Sr. Cecelia, who was delighted to have at her celebration a couple of Protestants who shared her passion for ordered ministry.)

It was, by most standards, a pretty unremarkable event. It was a straightforward mass, although it was pretty much "run" (as Kathy said) by women, and not by men: The prioress preached the homily, only one man aside from the presiding priest served communion (and I guess he was a former president of the College of St. Benedict, which was established by this community), the prioress presided over the nuns' reaffirmation of their vows, and so on. The Sacred Heart Chapel has been brightened and modernized along Vatican II lines, with a centered chancel, very white walls, an utter impressive dome that now (what with the remodeling) sits over the altar as a kind of glorified baldachin. The music was familiar, with pipe organ supplemented with brass, violin, and for some numbers guitar (which was wonderful with the psalm and a canticle).

But despite the every-day appearance, it was a moving and inspiring event. Sister Prioress gave a precis of each "Jubilant"'s service over 50 years. And one -- well, I -- couldn't help wondering how the Roman Catholic Church could possible function without its nuns/sister and monks/brothers. Of course, I'm partial to Benedictines: When they remember their heritage/mission of hospitality, I can only shout "Amen," because I have been the recipient of that hospitality time and again. When they speak of praying the Psalms, I am humbled. When the schola sang the verses to the Psalm at mass, there was a sense of the familiarity of the texts that I never hear elsewhere. And I realize how important it is that they meet "three times daily" to speak, sing, recite, pray, praise the Psalms. When the sisters speak together or arrange for a luncheon for guests or (as Sr. Dorothy had to do) come fetch guests from the community cemetery in order to be included in a picture, there is something rooted and sound that is often missed by even the most evangelically driven pastor or lay person in my world.

There was an aura of sanctity that attached to the place -- to and through the individual sisters that I met, but also to and through the mere existence of the community (now over 150 years old). Even the chapel looked more modern than my church (and I love the English Gothic building we have!), I felt wrapped up in something big and old and durable. It was Church, with a capital "C".

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

More Fr Taft

Here are two more quotations from Robert Taft, this time from "'Eastern Presuppositions' and Western Liturgical Renewal":

Nothing is so foreign to the western mentality as the ancient prayers of the Assyro-Chaldean tradition which simply to God without asking him for anything, as in the beautiful Collect of the Lakumara Hymn: "For all your benefits and graces to us past recompense, Lord, we confess and glorify you without ceasing in your triumphant church full of all helps and all blessings: for you are the Lord and creator of all, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, forever."

And shortly thereafter Taft comments

Like the reply of George Leigh Mallory when asked why he climbed Mount Everest -- "Because it is there," he answered -- the Christian east prays to God simply because he is. One constantly hears in the west that people do not go to church because "they don't get anything out of it anymore." What one "gets out of it," let me repeat what I have said on other occasions, is the inestimably privilege of glorifying almighty God.

Res ipsa loquitur, in legal jargon: The thing speaks for itself.

And the people said, "Amen!"

Monday, July 13, 2009

So That Explains It

By Robert Taft's terms, I must be a Byzantine Christian. In an article on "The Spirit of Eastern Christian Worship," the Byzantine rite Catholic scholar of Eastern liturgy notes,

Latin Catholics often visit church to be alone with God; they have a feeling of emptiness in a Protestant church where the sacrament is not reserved. Not so the Byzantine Christians. On entering church they do not proceed to their private prayers without first going round to visit the icons, kissing them and lighting a candle before them, thus saluting the saints and joining in their communion.

That's my experience in church, too, although most of my "special" icons are alive and kicking. This past Sunday, I got to church early (not unusual for me because I enjoy what will happen next), and there were the greeters to greet and hug and share a joke with. (They had time for this, because the great last-minute Lutheran rush was some time off yet.) Then in to "my pew" (sorry, Kate: fourth pew, pulpit side), with a bow to the altar, sign of the cross, and a brief prayer. But across the aisle were Ro and Elaine, so it was out to hug and shake hands and share some excitement about the beautiful day -- and pets. (And then they scooted me up to adjust one of flower vases at the altar so that it was properly oriented. I'm not on altar guild, but I can handle turning a flower urn, I guess.) Then on to deliver an article I had saved for someone and to joke with another friend about the Cathars, for whom we both harbor some affection (if mostly as the source of humorous barbs). Back to the pew and hugs and kisses for the pewmates (among our closest friends) and the people behind us -- who usually sit farther back. And then "devotion" began in earnest -- or is that wrong?

My devotions don't begin when I cut out all the distractions of the people around me to be alone with God. (I have one friend who puts it almost exactly that way, and I can't begin to understand him.) I go to church to be with these very brothers and sisters, the Church. I can't imagine a liturgy without them. (At Mount Olive, we're a two-service church, except in summer. So some of these people I don't always see during the winter except at coffee hour. And so summer is special because I'm able to be with both "service" crowds.) To celebrate the liturgy, to receive the presence of the Lord, is for me entirely wrapped up the hopes and sadnesses of these folks. And not just them. There's the columbarium, where a few brothers share in our "mass" and await God's own good time to reunite them with us in bodily form. And then that great cloud of witnesses of which Paul speaks -- that's not just theoretical: Some of them are pictured in the windows; others we remember in prayers.

I felt that perhaps I wasn't being serious enough at church, even though we're a far-from-dour crowd. But now I get it: It's my Byzantine heart. With them, I take the "communion of saints" with utter seriousness. I'd like to see a more serious attempt to include the saints who have gone before in our prayer life at Mount Olive; it's better than it used to be. But for that to take hold, it seems to me, the kind of communing that occurs among the visible living forms the model for our including those whom we can't see.

And to think of worshiping without them is simply not something I can -- or want to -- get my mind around.

Friday, July 10, 2009

Loving Truth in "Caritas in Veritate"

Pope Benedict's newest encyclical is Caritas in Veritate and is meant to inform "all people of good will on integral human development in charity and truth" (caption). At the beginning of the letter he writes of the importance of holding truth and charity/love together. For while charity "is the synthesis of the entire Law ..." (par. 2), "[w]ithout truth, charity degenerates into sentimentality. ... Truth, in fact, is the logos which creates dia-logos, and hence communication and communion. Truth, by enabling men and women to let go of their subjective opinions and impressions, allows them to move beyond cultural and historical limitations and to come together in the assessment of the value and substance of things" (pars. 3,4).

That's gorgeous, isn't it? Charity, unhampered by truth, easily degenerates into subjectivism and sentimentality. [God is love] does not equate with [Love is god]. Love must have content, form, telos. Absent concern for that, which the Holy Father claims must be grounded in the dynamic of truth in the Gospel, we can't agree on whether something is loving or not. The current lack of consensus on what constitutes love results from "a social and cultural context which relativizes truth, often paying little heed to it and showing increasing reluctance to acknowledge its existence" (par. 2).

Yesterday, I was reading Miroslav Volf where he reflected on receiving his first adopted son from the hands of the boy's birth mother. That experience changed the way he looked at love (and specifically his views of birth mothers who give up their children for adoption, whom he didn't consider very loving), for the mother whispered to her newborn, just before giving him into the hands of the Volfs, that she was doing it for him, since she couldn't care for him. (I wish I had the book here, because the passage is just beautiful.) He says that he changed his view of mothers who give up their children for adoption, realizing now that those mothers' motives might be more loving, given the good things it makes possible for the child that otherwise might not be possible, than holding on to the child in satisfaction of some motherly instinct or whatever. In this case, it was not that the mother didn't love the child or didn't want to be encumbered or didn't want to have to change; it was that the mother didn't have the resources to care for the child and, consequently, arranged for the child to be placed in a loving home where he would have the kind of care that would allow him to flourish. Note: This is not just a consideration of who has more money or similar resources; it is about the ability to provide holistic --holy -- care for the child. Who could buy the neatest toys for the kid was not a consideration.

I think the two readings are related -- and I'm not sure I can articulate it. But there is a deep truth at work in the intersection of these two thoughts. My thinking looks something like this: Without "truth's" informing our views and actions of "love," it is easy to overlook that love is not just an emotion (e.g., all mothers must naturally love their children), but something of a policy (that the welfare of the other is the primary concern I have).The truth is in that parenthetical policy statement. And how do we know? By checking motives, feelings, actions against the witness of the Bible -- a kind of "what did [not: would] Jesus do" analysis -- and allowing our instincts, predispositions, ethics and ethos, principles, et. al. to flow from there.

Now I have to go back to reading the encyclical. Because the language to say all of this must be in there -- and I have a lot of pages to go. And I will read the Volf book (Free of Charge: Living and Forgiving in a Culture Stripped of Grace), too, in tandem with the Pontiff's encyclical. This is good stuff.

Thursday, July 09, 2009

God and Guns

You maybe can imagine my wanting to scream and rant about the pastor in Kentucky (home of Jack Daniels, for crying out loud) who invited people to bring guns to his church service in order to celebrate the Second Amendment and the propriety of guns in the hands of Christians. I hope that you appreciate my discretion in not entitling such a potential post "Too Stupid for Words." But along comes this post from the Marty Center's Sightings. It puts the matter in an interesting frame. And while I'm not sure that I am comfortable with Laycock's neutrality, he raises some interesting issues. (Incidentally, as I think I have noted before, you can subscribe to the twice-a-week email posts from the Marty Center -- one always by Martin Marty, the other by scholars and students in fields relating to theology and the body politic -- by connecting to the Marty Center's website.)

Sightings 7/9/09

Understanding the “Open Carry Celebration”

-- Joseph Laycock

On June 27th––one week before the 4th of July––New Bethel Church in Louisville, Kentucky held an “Open Carry Celebration” in which visitors and parishioners were invited to bring their firearms to church. Firearms could not be loaded, but celebrants licensed to carry concealed weapons would not be searched. This celebration of the Second Amendment also included a handgun raffle, patriotic music, and information on firearm safety. The event seemed poorly timed after the assassination of Dr. George Tiller in a Wichita church and James von Brunn’s assault on the Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington. However, the church’s pastor, former marine and handgun trainer Ken Pagano, had been planning the event prior to these high profile shootings.

The celebration has received wide media coverage. Many find the juxtaposition of firearms and religion perplexing. Even other gun owners have questioned the logic of inviting strangers to bring guns to church. Many articles have linked Pagano to gun lobby fears that the Obama administration is planning sweeping anti-gun legislation. However, Pagano’s sermons on Christian self-defense contain no references to current legislation or the reputation of president Barack Obama and Supreme Court nominee Sonia Sotomayor as being “gun-grabbers.” Instead, material on the New Bethel Church website indicates two factors behind the Open Carry Celebration. The first was the March 8th shooting of Pastor Fred Winters in First Baptist Church in Maryville, Illinois. In one of his sermons, Pagano read a statement by the Christian Anti-Defamation Commission that attributed Winters’ death to “anti-Christian hostility and a lack of guns in church.” Pagano thought the statement was “over the top” but said he supported the idea that Christianity is compatible with self-defense.

The second factor is a brand of muscular Christianity supported by a theology that seeks a “synthesis” of the Jesus of the Gospels with the divine wrath found in the Old Testament as well as the Book of Revelations. In his sermons Pagano criticizes the axiom What would Jesus do? as “crass commercialism.” He argues that the WWJD approach to life contributes to an overemphasis on the sayings of Jesus found in the Gospels, and undermines the doctrine that Jesus is one with the Father and the Holy Spirit. Pagano states in one of his sermons, “Many of the people who are raising the stink [about the Open Carry Celebration] are people who believe in a maudlin, sentimental view of Jesus Christ that really has nothing to do with the sacred texts of scripture.” He cites Luke 22:36, “He that hath no sword, let him sell his garment and buy one” and points out that at least two of Jesus’ disciples carried weapons. In one sermon he states that Jesus is, “not coming back as a limp-wristed, stamp-collecting preacher. He’s coming back as a navy seal, a force recon marine, or a green beret.”

At first blush, the Open Carry Celebration would seem to confirm the gaffe made by Obama during the primaries that a weak economy drives “bitter” working class voters to “cling to guns and religion.” However, it would be dismissive to read the event simply as a conservative church supporting a conservative political cause. Within Pagano’s theological framework, the Open Carry Celebration is not simply an affirmation of Second Amendment Rights. The idea that America’s gun culture is compatible with Christianity has become tied to a specific Christology. This is no longer a conflict over gun culture but over what scripture says about Christ. Pagano is not struggling with anti-gun legislation but with an image of Christ that many conservative Evangelicals see as feminized, commercialized, and inauthentic. Pastors seeking to “restore” a manly image of Christ have already brought us events like Mark Driscoll’s “Fighting with God” where Jesus is discussed by athletes from the Ultimate Fighting Championship. Within this culture, is a church celebration of firearms really so surprising?


A New York Times article on the Open Carry Celebration can be found here:

Audio clips of Ken Pagano’s sermons can be downloaded here:

Joseph Laycock is a PhD student studying religion and society at Boston University, and the author of Vampires Today: The Truth About Modern Vampires (Praeger Publishers, 2009).


Columns may be quoted or republished in full, with attribution to the author of the column, Sightings, and the Martin Marty Center at the University of Chicago Divinity School.