Saturday, January 12, 2013


There's an interesting discussion starting up at Derek's right now, based upon a blog post Christopher wrote a few days ago.  Here's Derek's complete post:
I’ve been pondering Christopher’s last post for a couple of days now. In it, he draws our attention to the nuance necessary around themes of baptism, discipleship and sanctification.

I’m of two minds on the topic at the moment.

On one hand, I appreciate the image of relaxing into the person of Christ. That connects with me on all sorts of levels. As one of my chief physical disciplines is tai chi, I resonate with the idea that relaxation is one of the ways that we return to a more natural state —as opposed to the tension which we manufacture as a defense mechanism against the world and which thereby distorts us muscularly from our proper shape and function. The idea of relaxing into the person of Christ as a way of understanding discipleship, as a form of the imitation of Christ, and as a way of reconnecting with the image of God woven into us at our beginnings makes a lot of sense.

On the other hand, Christopher writes with reference to the situation of the “terrified conscience” (as Luther termed it). There are now and always will be these consciences in our churches and our theology—particularly our ascetical theology—does need to recognize it. But (and you knew there’d be a “but”…) I can’t help but think that the dominant character of our time is not the “terrified conscience” but the “complacent conscience.” The complacent conscience doesn’t need to be told not to stress out about their salvation status—they’re not doing that anyway. The complacent conscience doesn’t need to be told that God’s grace is sufficient, they already assume it, and in doing so may even presume upon it. I suspect that what this conscience needs is to be reminded that a yet more excellent way awaits them—but that it will require effort and action on their part.

Does this mean we need to advocate for a return to works-righteousness? Of course not. And yet, as beautiful as I find the image of relaxing into the person of Christ and as much as it makes sense to me, I wonder if this image of (apparent) inaction speaks the needed word of the Gospel to those who need not fewer reasons but more to engage and to be transformed.

I’m still pondering…

Beth then wrote:
I’ve been musing on this post for a few days. I usually resonate strongly with Alison’s work and love the image of “relaxing” into Christ; I also absolutely agree with the further comment that Anglicanism, when lived robustly by a community, is “non-anxious, sacramental, and mystical in a personal-communal way” with that magnificent, ordinary “drip, drip, drip.” This is all quite powerful for *me.*

However, insofar as I can come up with data about Episcopal churchgoers *other than me* based on 18 years as a priest (and all our data are skewed, I’m sure, based on where we’ve been and so on), I tend to think Derek is right that the complacent conscience is far, far more common than the anxious one in contemporary society.

I’ve certainly dealt with anxious consciences — often converts from either the Roman church or an evangelical denomination — among people who come to me already desiring to grow in Christ, already convinced that the Christian enterprise is in and of itself a matter of great weight and import. But these are a minority. The majority, at least in my experience, don’t take the issue seriously enough to be anxious about it. They seem to translate much talk about grace into a vague sentiment that God always generically accepts everyone and everything anyway — a notion so flaccid that one could hardly blame them for not finding it transformative or grounding.

It also seems to me that, yes, the robust Anglican environment of texts and practices and time-markers and ethos, that ordinary, homely, yet profound drip-drip-drip, can be trusted to do a pretty significant work of quiet formation in a more serious vision of both the beauty and the cost of grace *when it’s there* — but that this environment is currently available in, again, a minority of parish communities. As I look around (and visit/supply at parishes, currently being non-parochial and looking for a call), I don’t see that system, to borrow a word from Martin Thornton, in operation particularly often. I see something that uses some Anglican materials as a resource for a more generic vision (to overgeneralize wildly!) and that cannot necessarily be counted on to do the work for us.

What Beth writes about " the Christian enterprise [being] in and of itself a matter of great weight and import" and "the system" are, to me, two key related points.  As I wrote over there, I don't think it's any accident that parishes at which I've found the system at peak operation have tended to be those that have a crucifix mounted on the wall.

Now, I am not saying - at all - that Anglo-Catholicism by itself has it all over every other practice.  And I'm definitely not saying that the act of nailing a crucifix to the wall will fix every problem.   Observance by itself can indeed be empty of meaning.

What I'm saying is this:  the crucifix is a potent wordless reminder of the actual facts of the human condition.  It can shock people out of their complacency, if we take just a few minutes to gaze at it and really see it and consider it; this, in fact, is exactly what happened to me.  It's why I went from off-and-on-attender to regular-at-worship to ardent believer.  It wasn't the music; it wasn't the worship by itself; it wasn't the "message" encoded in the liturgy (although these did make a major impression after my conversion, and some of this was why I decided to join the Episcopal Church).

In fact, I think the crucifix may be even more shocking today, because people aren't used to seeing it anymore.

When I first came around to the church, I sort of bounced around for a couple of years.  (I'd come directly as a result of 9/11 - but A.A. encourages people to get back to religious practice after getting sober, so I'd probably have come back at some point anyway.)

I didn't really know much about Christianity; had never heard of "the Trinity" or "the Nicene Creed" and knew the Bible only vaguely - mostly just the Christmas and Easter stories, and some of the great Old Testament ones.  For awhile, I went to Quaker meetings; later I came to an "experimental" Episcopal parish.  It was one of the few around that openly welcomed gay people, and I had a couple of friends there - and the parish wrote its own liturgies.  I liked the music a lot - Tallis' canon I found especially beautiful - but the liturgies did not move me in any way, and when I went to coffee hour only one person ever talked to me, so I definitely wasn't there for social reasons either.  Although baptized as an infant, I did not take part in Communion because I didn't really believe in any of it; I just sat in my seat during that time and was perfectly happy to do so.  I came and went; I meant to be a "regular," but really wasn't very interested in what was going on.  I eventually did do some service things, joined a couple of small groups, and sang in the choir.  Eventually I left that parish because I found another one that used the Prayer Book - Rite I at the early service was what drew me in, BTW! - and started going there instead.   It was much better liturgy (although I definitely wouldn't have put it in those words at that time).

But while still at the "experimental" parish - I think this is the right chronology, although it might actually have come after I'd started attending the Rite I 8 a.m. service - something happened that changed me permanently (and it all now sounds very strange and inexplicable, even to me!).  It wasn't the liturgy; it wasn't the music; it wasn't "service"; it wasn't "community."

It didn't even happen in the church; it happened via the web!  I was reading an online article by a conservative Canadian writer - a pretty vociferously anti-gay Christian, at that.  I can't remember his name, or what the article was about, exactly - but he wrote something along these lines (the wording may not be exact):  "Christianity is offensive; if you haven't understood this then you don't understand the faith itself."

That struck me as really odd - and stuck in my mind.  This was sometime around or during Lent, I do know that - and I believe the photo accompanying the article was Matthias Grunewald's  Isenheim Altarpiece:

I had never seen this image before, and I started looking at it - really looking at it.  Good Friday has always evoked powerful emotions in me - even in all those 35+ years I spent outside the church.   I'd always found it deeply affecting, and I definitely mean in a mysterium tremendum et fascinans sort of way; I'm completely clear that this is true.  The day has always evoked "fear and trembling" and "the wholly Other" for me; I've always found it spooky and scary (not in a negative way).  In the old days, BTW, this stuff was in air, so you would experience it even outside the church itself - perhaps even more powerfully outside the church, in fact, via The Movies!   In those days they showed all the Christian-themed films during Holy Week; "The Robe" and "Barabbas" were two very memorable ones that  included very powerful crucifixion scenes and riffs on the theme itself.  So Hollywood might be part of my conversion, too!

In addition:  I think gay people perhaps more than many others really get the crucifixion on a visceral level; I think that was probably  working in me, too.  Anybody in pain, in fact, can feel the crucifixion speaking directly to them, I'd bet.

Anyway:  at some point, while gazing at this image, I understood exactly what that writer was talking about; Christianity is "offensive."   This particular image plays up that "offensive" theme to the hilt; the hands and the feet here, in particular, are grotesque.   No more grotesque, of course, than crucifixion itself.  This is a religion that deals directly with offense, and honestly with pain; it tells the truth.

And that is what put me on the floor; I realized - I think this is what was going on - that the Crucifixion of God Himself said something monumentally powerful (and terrifying) about the state of the world.   All of that stuff in the mysterium tremendum article happened just as they describe it:   "numinous dread"; "the shudder"; "creature-consciousness and the simultaneous experiencing of the self as nothing"; "a sense of unworthiness and need for 'covering.'"  (I find the fact that these "symptoms" are all listed out this way really amazing, in fact!)

I realized that, as in Beth's phrase above,"the Christian enterprise is in and of itself a matter of great weight and import."  The greatest weight and import, in fact.

As Terry Eagleton - an atheist - has written, Christianity speaks plainly to the facts of the world - that
....the traumatic truth of human history is a tortured body. 

It speaks plainly to the human condition; as Rowan Williams has written:  
The cross as sacrifice? God knows, there are barbaric ways of putting this; but as a complex and apparently inescapable metaphor (which, in the Bible, is about far more than propitiation) it has always said something sobering about the fact that human liberation doesn’t come cheap, that the degree of human self-delusion is so colossal as to involve ‘some total gain or loss’ (in the words of Auden’s poem about Bonhoeffer) in the task of overcoming it. And that human beings compulsively deceive themselves about who and what they are is a belief to which Darwinism is completely immaterial.

And it speaks, as Francis Spufford recently wrote, frankly to "human self-delusion" as well:
The funny thing is that, to me, it's belief that involves the most uncompromising attention to the nature of things of which you are capable. Belief demands that you dispense with illusion after illusion, while contemporary common sense requires continual, fluffy pretending – pretending that might as well be systematic, it's so thoroughly incentivised by our culture.

And that's my thesis:  the crucifixion, just by itself, speaks - sometimes in a whisper, and sometimes in a shout - wordlessly, as witness to all that.  Notice that people these days who ridicule religion never point to this in their criticisms; it's always about "fairies at the bottom of the garden."  I think people understand this all too well, to be honest.  It doesn't require complex discussion; it doesn't require a defense of any particular theological position.   This one eloquently terrifying gesture says everything that needs to be said about the human situation.  And that's what I understood at that moment - and it's why I'm still here.

I wrote down a description of this whole experience down so I'd remember what had happened; I can't find that description now, of course!   So that's all from memory.  (This all is also a good reminder  - to myself as well - that people "should not try this at home," outside of any supporting community.  These are pretty powerful ideas and issues, and I think they could really affect some people in a highly negative way if they experience them outside the context of the entire faith - or outside a supportive community.  This is another excellent reason to firmly oppose "Communion Without Baptism," in fact.)

There were other, later developments; I've found formal Rite I Sung Morning Prayer to be a transporting experience.  I've been thrilled by the beauty of some of the music I've heard.  I was enchanted by the singing of the Lumen Christi at Easter Vigil; that, just by itself, was the reason I decided to get confirmed in the Episcopal Church.  (In fact, that particular celebration wasn't at night, but on Sunday morning, in a church full of flowers and drowning in their scent; it works really well in that environment, too, it turns out.)   When I went to my first Anglo-Catholic parish, I was rendered literally speechless at what I saw there; I actually got so choked up - and not from the incense! - that I couldn't say anything (this is a really funny thing to me now!).  I came into contact with some of the most exquisite spiritual literature:  St. John of the Cross, in particular - but St. Francis and Evelyn Underhill and Bianco da Siena, too.   I find the week-by-week experience of the feasts and fasts of the Great Church Year highly nourishing and refreshing; I have found a parish with a crucifix on the wall - one that publicly prays the Office daily and lists all the saints' days in its bulletin - and that is where I've starting going regularly again.  (I have to add that even while I stopped going for awhile for various reasons, writing about the chant propers and the Great Church Year also did this for me, just by itself - but it's true that it's much better to attend in person.)  Daily Prayer - sometimes the Office, sometimes extemporaneous - is more and more important to me. 

All of that provides so much of depth and beauty and welcome help and refreshment.  They are the gentle "drip, drip, drip" of formation - the very gentlest and most beautiful, in fact.  Anglicanism is "healthy faith" - good religion.  If this isn't happening everywhere, my purpose now is  - like Paul - to make my people jealous for it so they'll want to have it themselves.  Because it already exists; it's a gift from the past that we can have for ourselves, free for the taking - and completely unexpected.  (This is very much, BTW, like the serendipity that occurs over time in A.A.; when you first come, you stay sober out of fear.  Over time, you come to see that the way of life is a completely undeserved, unasked-for gift - a priceless treasure buried in a field that looks on the surface like any other.)

Well, this probably isn't very coherent, but I'm going to publish it now anyway and see what comes of it.  If I have more to say I'll say it later.....


aredstatemystic said...

Yes. YES. On so many levels. YES.

(This is why you're one of my favorites!)

bls said...

Aw, shucks, RSM. I'm speechless....


Lee said...

Someone needs to give you a book contract.

bls said...

Do you know anybody who might? I could definitely use the cash....


Anonymous said...

I am seeking to contact the author of this blog, but I don't find any information in the "profile" section. The purpose is to seek permission to publish an excerpt in an Episcopal publication. Please contact

Thank you!

bls said...

Thanks Solange.

I don't think I can really do that, because - as you see - I'm "anonymous" by design. This way I can freely talk about A.A. here. I can't see how you'd be able to quote me in print (if that's what you mean) under those conditions.

If you want to quote part of this on another blog, though, of course you can; that's the whole idea!

Thanks -

Beth said...

bls, just stumbled on this today and wanted to thank you both for your kind citation of my comment and your thoughtful and moving sharing of your experience.

bls said...

Thanks, Beth.