Friday, September 21, 2012

Vehicles of the Eternal Charity

The fully Christian life is a Eucharistic life: that is, a natural life conformed to the pattern of Jesus, given in its wholeness to God,laid on his altar as a sacrifice of love, and consequently transformed by his inpouring life, to be used to give life and food to other souls. It will be according to its measure and special call, adoring, declaratory, intercessory and redemptive: but always the vehicle of the Supernatural. The creative spirit of God is a redemptive and cherishing love; and and it is as friends and fellow-workers with the spirit, tools of the divine redemptive action, that Christians are required to live. 'You are the body of Christ,' said St. Augustine to his communicants. That is to say, in you and through you the method and work of the Incarnation must go forward. You are meant to incarnate in your life the theme of your adoration. You are to be taken, consecrated, broken and made means of grace; vehicles of the Eternal Charity.

– Evelyn Underhill

Monday, September 17, 2012

Why I am an Episcopalian – Liturgy

Every Christian communicant volunteers for translation into the supernatural order, and is self-offered for the supernatural purposes of God. The Liturgy leads us out toward Eternity, by way of the acts in which [we] express [our] need of God and relation to God. It commits every worshipper to the adventure of holiness, and has no meaning apart from that.
         – Evelyn Underhill

As has been the case with many others, one of the things that drew me into the Episcopal Church and the Anglican tradition was the liturgy.

I was taken with the beauty of the poetry and drama of it all. Here was worship in the beauty of holiness (Psalm 29:2).

There was a sense of majesty and mystery. There was room for wonder. There was a sense of being caught up in the glory of God who was transcendent yet incomprehensibly near.

Though I had grown up going to church and have much to be thankful for in that heritage, I remember feeling like I was worshiping for the first time.

The liturgy directed my attention away from myself – including my obsessive questioning – and focused it on the mystery and wonder of God. It wasn't about my felt needs or conscious concerns. It was about my need to get out of and beyond myself and into 'the bracing atmosphere of God' (Evelyn Underhill).

Related is the way the liturgy emphasized the communal over the individual. For one thing, it wasn't about whatever the pastor or worship team cooked up for a given Sunday, but something more enduring. Even more, it was about common worship–the people gathered together to offer petitions, thanksgiving, confession, and worship. I remember being struck by how different were the prayers of the people which called on the participation of the people from the pastor-centered prayers I had grown up with.

And because the liturgy is less pastor/preacher centered, there were multiple avenues for the Holy Spirit to get my attention. The sermon might be good or bad, the hymns might be wonderful or just OK, the receiving of Communion might be more or less profound, but generally the Spirit would break through somewhere. Or it might be at the recitation of the Creed, or the Confession/absolution, the passing of the peace, or some phrase or idea in the Eucharistic Prayer. Certainly, now that I am a regular preacher and celebrant, it is freeing to know that it doesn't all hang on whether I am 'on' as a preacher on any given Sunday.
Receiving the bread into my outstretched hands and sipping wine–wine!– from a common cup reinforced all of this. And wine. I remember feeling it infusing my chest as I swallowed. So different from the shot glass of communion grape juice I had grown up with. There was an awareness of its potency. And, indeed, the idea that Christ was somehow really present in the bread and wine was potent indeed. The mystery of God was made mysteriously tangible. The weekly Eucharist became and remains a central and essential aspect of my piety.

I appreciated the weekly recitation of the story of salvation contained in the Eucharistic Prayer.

I was moved by the history represented and the sense of worshiping with the Church of the ages.

I was also moved by the full-sensory aspect of worship which included sight, sound, smell, and taste.

Kneeling for confession and the Eucharist were profoundly instructive.

So was adopting the sign of the cross. Thomas Howard wrote, “By making the sign of the cross, on our head, breast, and shoulders, we acknowledge ourselves to be crucified with Christ, in our thinking, our affections, and our actions.”  I came to think of it as a sort of physical “Amen.” 

Liturgy does not guarantee holiness or spiritual vibrancy. Certainly one can find Episcopal churches (or Roman Catholic, Orthodox or Lutheran) that, on the surface at least, give little evidence of the presence of the Holy Spirit. And it would be misleading to claim that every time I participate in liturgical worship I am aware of a profound spiritual experience. But, then, the liturgy reminds me that it is not really about my experience anyway. I do know that over time I have been formed and transformed by participation in the liturgy.

Wednesday, September 5, 2012

Why I am an Episcopalian – Mentors

In an earlier post, I mentioned Anglicanism's classic comprehensiveness as one of the things that attracted me to that tradition. The last couple of posts (here and here) with thoughts from C. S. Lewis and Charles Williams have reminded me of another. My understanding of God, the world, and humanity has been formed and my imagination – which is another way of saying my capacity for faith, love, and wonder – has been expanded by several representatives of the Anglican way. Besides Lewis and Williams, and in no particular order, some others are:

Dorothy Sayers (greatly influenced by C. Williams and a friend of Lewis)
Charles Gore (who I recently learned was an influence on C. Williams)
Evelyn Underhill
William Temple
Austin Farrer (theologian who preached at Lewis' funeral)
E. L. Mascall
Madeleine L'Engle
Michael Ramsey
N. T. Wright
Rowan Williams (Archbishop of Canterbury who has recently written a book about Lewis' Narnia Chronicles)

To that list of mostly 20th century authors I would add these classic Anglican worthies:

Richard Hooker
Lancelot Andrewes
John Donne
George Herbert
Jeremy Taylor
Thomas Traherne
F. D. Maurice
Phillips Brooke

I have been inspired and informed by representatives from other traditions, but I feel most at home with these.

Each of them exhibits a commitment to what I've identified elsewhere as basic Anglican Values.

One way or another reading each of these authors evokes Christmas for me which is one of my basic tests for whether or not someone is onto something. They bear witness to the hope that now that Christmas has arrived in the coming of Jesus Christ there is the promise that we might be overcome by Christmas any time, any place even in the midst of whatever winters we endure as we await the final Advent of the King.

There is more to this sense of Christmas. There is in the writing of each an emphasis on the centrality of the Incarnation. The Incarnation, of course, includes the way of the cross and the crucifixion. But the Incarnation has rich purpose, meaning , and wonder in itself.

To varying degrees they each emphasize what Charles Williams calls the 'Way of Affirmation' which bears witness to the goodness of being human in the midst of the splendor of God's good creation. As Hooker wrote, "All things are of God (and only sin is not) have God in them and he them in himself likewise." There is goodness and beauty in humans and the all creation because God is Good and Beautiful.

Consequently, they tend to hold to a sacramental appreciation of all created reality as having the potential of mediating the divine Presence.

At the same time they do not minimize the deep reality of sin and our need of salvation.

Thus, in each is a serious engagement with spiritual disciplines that make for sanctification in the context of God's grace.

Each is more or less an exponent of what Evelyn Underhill called 'practical mysticism':

Therefore it is to a practical mysticism that the practical man is here invited: to a training of his latent faculties, a bracing and brightening of his languid consciousness, an emancipation from the fetters of appearance, a turning of his attention to new levels of the world. Thus he may become aware of the universe that the spiritual artist is always trying to disclose to the race. This amount of mystical perception–this 'ordinary contemplation', as the specialist call it,–is possible to all men: without it, they are not wholly alive. It is a natural human activity.

Nearly all of them represent a high church, catholic way of seeing things that draws abundantly from the deep well of Christian thought, practice, and worship.

For the most part they each express an expansive orthodoxy  solidly orthodox with an appreciative engagement with non-Christian ways of thinking and being (which is not the same thing as unChristian ways of thinking and being, though they are not shy about challenging those as well both within and without the church).

Each also holds to a typically Anglican reticence which is wary of claiming to know overmuch about God or God's ways. They accept that God has been revealed in Jesus Christ and the scriptures that bear witness to him, but each retains a posture of humility and awe in the presence of the untamed, wild God at the heart of it all who is, as Lewis says of Aslan, "Good, but not safe."

No doubt we could name other common themes, but these are the ones that occur to me at the moment. In any event, their themes and presentation of Christian faith resonate deeply and inspire me. I am an Episcopalian partly because of these 'Glorious Companions'.

Saturday, September 1, 2012

Engaging Enemies (and other opponents) with Humility

I read this piece from Stanley Hauwewas which reminded me of this letter of C. S Lewis' written to his brother on September 10, 1939 at the beginning of World War 2:

In the Litany this morning we had some extra petitions, one of which was, ‘Prosper, oh Lord, our righteous cause’. Assuming that it was the work of the bishop or someone higher up, when I met Bleiben [the vicar] in the porch, I ventured to protest against the audacity of informing God that our cause was righteous – a point on which he has his own views . . . I hope it is quite like ours, of course, but one never knows with him.
The Collected Letters of C.S. Lewis, Volume 2

And that reminded me of this by Charles Williams also written in the midst of WW2 (1942):

The conversion, where it is demanded, of the wild justice of revenge to the civil justice of the Divine City is the precise operation of the Holy Spirit towards Christ. All we need to do is attend to the goodwill, to the civility; the justice (in the personal relation) can be left to Christ. ‘Vengeance is mine; I will repay, sayeth the Lord.’ It is perhaps desirable to notice that the repayment is not limited to our enemy. We shall be unfortunate if we forget the trespasses, the debts, which our enemies desire to repay with their wild justice and are content to leave to his promise. It is important that we should be ready to forgive the Germans; it is not unimportant to recognize that many Germans (including Herr Hitler? Possibly; we do not very well know) may feel that they have much to forgive us. Many reconciliations have unfortunately broken down because both parties have come prepared to forgive but unprepared to be forgiven. Instruction is as badly needed in this as in many other less vital things; that holy light which we call humility has an exact power of illumination all its own.
The Forgiveness of Sins, p. 113

Can you imagine such things being said in the immediate aftermath of 9/11? Who in America dared to suggest that Osama bin Laden and al-Quaeda might have much to forgive us? That the attacks, however inexcusable, might be understood as an act of 'the wild justice of revenge'? Or, in the run-up to the invasion of Iraq, that God might have his own ideas about the righteousness of our cause? Would we be willing to say such things today about Afghanistan? Pakistan? Iran? China? Russia?

A couple of things strike me in the above quotes. Both Lewis and Williams refuse to get caught up in nationalistic rhetoric that assumes that 'God is with us' or that their country is particularly blessed by God. Even in the midst of war, they were compelled by their Christian convictions to accept the possibility that their nation was wrong and that their enemies might well have grievances of their own. If that is the faithful Christian attitude in the midst of war how much more so in times of (relative) peace? It raises questions about the ease with which Americans blend God-talk and patriotism which smacks of syncretism. It raises questions about the rhetoric of American exceptionalism.

I am also struck with the fundamental humility expressed by Lewis and Williams. Both demonstrate an admirable reticence to claim to know overmuch about God's mind or to assume their side is necessarily God's. Both recognize that all humans are fundamentally bound to one another in a relational web and all humans are caught in the sin that infects that web. We should thus be wary of presuming our own innocence or consigning blame to others – both are awe-full things to contemplate if we recognize that we are all live under the awesome gaze of God's love and judgment.

If all this could be said in the midst of WW 2 where the right and wrong seemed so clear, might such things be said in other contexts? For example, might it change our perspective if Episcopalians acknowledged that those who have left the Episcopal Church to form the Anglican Church in North America (ACNA) have 'much to forgive us' and their leaving represents a sort of 'wild justice'? And what if members of ACNA acknowledged that God might indeed have his own opinions about the issues over which they have left the Episcopal Church and whether those issues warranted schism? In the secular setting, if we adopted Lewis' and Williams' attitude would we engage our political opponents differently? What about in work, school, family, or other personal contexts? Are we willing to acknowledge that those who irritate or frustrate us might have as much or more cause for grievance against us?

I know enough of both Lewis and Williams to know that neither would advocate anything like a posture of moral equivalency. But, what both do seem to advocate is a deep humility and reticence to blame. And I find both refreshing.