Priests in Black Gowns

October 29, 2011

Growing up in an evangelical church, the phrase “Seven Deadly Sins” was more of a cultural catch phrase than anything else. (I vividly remember watching an episode of America’s Next Top Model in which the seven sins were featured as a photo shoot theme…let’s just say gluttony as illustrated by a stick-thin model was a little hard to buy.) So I have to admit, when I saw “The Seven Deadly Sins” as a heading in our reading for Inquirer’s Class* last week, I was taken aback/weirded out/nervous. But I’m glad that didn’t stop me from reading, because I actually learned a lot.

For one, our priest explained that the point of identifying the seven sins is not to invoke guilt, but rather to provide a vocabulary for things that all of us struggle with. And though identification of sin is helpful and necessary, stopping there does little good; learning about the corresponding virtue is even more important. He reminded us of something I always forget: as a Christian (and a human), I will never be able to conquer sin by trying not to sin. Rather, I conquer sin by growing in virtue, which I must ask for and receive from God.

God, by His Spirit, offers me patience when I am angry. He offers me humility when I am proud, kindness when I am jealous, chastity when I am lustful, diligence when I am lazy, temperance when I am gluttonous, generosity when I am greedy.

It is grace in the first place that I might even see my sin, because, as Harriet Beecher Stowe reminds me in her book The Minister’s Wooing, I often see what I want to see:

Evil is never embraced undisguised, as evil, but under some fiction which the mind accepts and with which it has the singular power of blinding itself in the face of daylight.

And most of my willingness to disguise evil as good probably comes from a misunderstanding of the law. Do I really believe that fighting sin and asking for virtue is what’s best for me? Not just “best” meaning it’s what I should be doing because God tells me to, but “best” meaning it’s what I was created for, and what brings real fulfillment and lasting joy? Not always.

A few weeks ago in Torrey, we read and discussed the poems of William Blake. He’s a tough read, but a brilliant poet. And he was much easier to understand once we identified one of his foundational assumptions: Blake doesn’t believe the law brings about his good. Even though he loved much of the Bible, he found the 10 Commandments and many of Paul’s calls to virtue restrictive and even imprisoning.

Perhaps Blake’s least favorite virtue is chastity, and given his view of what chastity is—basically, the forced repression of natural and good passions—it’s no wonder the man wasn’t enthusiastic about it.

In his poem “The Garden of Love,” Blake writes:

“And priests in black gowns, were walking their rounds

And binding with briars, my joys and desires.”

Again, Blake’s dislike of the law makes a lot more sense given that he thinks it’s primary purpose is to stifle, not shape, desire.

For the past few weeks I have been reading bits and pieces of Kathleen Norris’ s The Cloister Walk in my free time, and I think she provides a compelling critique of Blake’s viewpoint (still pretty common in our culture today) in her reflections on celibacy. (Though celibacy isn’t commanded in the Bible and therefore shouldn’t be categorized under the “law” that Blake rails against, it’s obviously an example of religious restraint.)

Norris, a poet for whom “literature had seemed an adequate substitute for religion” most of her life, somehow ended up on two extended residencies among Benedictine monks. The Cloister Walk is a fragmented collection of her reflections on her residencies, tracing how she came to value and even love the Benedictine tradition.

Perhaps one of the most controversial topics Norris discusses is that of celibacy. The fact that she interacted with celibate men and women daily for months at a time, befriending them and asking them difficult questions, gives her more authority than most on the subject. She writes:

“That celibacy constitutes the hatred of sex seems to be a given in the popular mythology of contemporary America, and we need only look at newspaper accounts of sex abuse by priests to see evidence that celibacy isn’t working. One could well assume that this is celibacy, impure and simple. And this is unfortunate, because celibacy practiced rightly is not at all a hatred of sex; in fact it has the potential to address the sexual idolatry of our culture in a most helpful way.”

The end of celibacy, Norris argues, isn’t virginity (after all, these monks believe sex can be good and holy). Abstinence is rather a means to develop a new perspective towards the people you interact with:

“I’ve seen young monks astonish an obese and homely college student by listening to her with as much interest and respect as to her conventionally pretty roommate…They’ve learned how to listen without possessiveness, without imposing themselves… Celibacy, simply put, is a form of ministry—not an achievement one can put on a résumé but a simple form of service to others…In theological terms, it is a concept I find extremely hard to grasp. All I can do it catch a glimpse of people who are doing it, incarnating celibacy in a mysterious and gracious way.”

Like Norris, I think I can learn a lot from these Benedictine monks’ commitment to celibacy. They remind me that sacrifice can bring a hidden sort of freedom—freedom to serve neighbors wholeheartedly, and to love better. It’s not Blake’s freedom (doing what I want when I want to), but, unfortunately, I think I’ve tried that enough to know it’s not as great as it sounds.


*my church is offering a 10-week course on the history/practices/beliefs of the Anglican church. As part of a writing project, I am using this space to reflect on each week’s class.


October 19, 2011

Last Saturday ago morning I rode two hours in a car to reach a little bit of fall, and it was worth it. Tracy, Erin and I went to pick apples. Along the way, we picnicked in the shade, trampled over acorns, and wandered through sweet shops.

But almost the whole time we were there, I couldn’t get a stranger off my mind—a little boy who drowned in a river recently.

I had been thinking about him since I read the news, and my own reaction had surprised me. For some reason, the thought of someone drowning in a river just seemed absurd to me in that moment. And when I think about it enough, it still does.

How could a river, made of water that we can bend down and run our fingers through, take away a little boy’s breath, words, and smile? How could the rocks bruising his arms and the water rushing into his lungs—these material, tangible things—somehow leave him lifeless?

Of course, this is an old question. The relationship between body and soul is a mystery that we have wondered at for thousands of years. I have read about it, discussed it, written about it…but it became something more urgent when I learned about this little boy.

I am beginning to better understand a passage I read last semester in Crime and Punishment. Sonya, who has seen too much suffering for a girl her age, hesitates to speak of Jesus raising Lazarus from the dead:

“‘Now a certain man was sick, named Lazarus, of Bethany…’ she uttered at last, with effort, but suddenly, at the third word, her voice rose and broke like an overtightened string. Her breath failed, and her chest contracted.”

Sometimes resurrection seems too far removed from our daily experience, and too painful to speak out loud.

When, like Sonya, I can’t seem to get the words out, the Church Creeds help me. Saying the Creeds is a sort of submission, a participation in something beyond me. I recite these words that I do not quite understand:

“I look for the Resurrection of the dead: And the Life of the world to come.”

To deny the reality of death—to refuse to mourn a loss—is dangerous and usually impossible. Father Scarlett reminded us that funerals should be sad occasions. But, though we mourn, “we do not mourn as those who have no hope.” And our hope is not in flying away from this world to sit on a cloud all day, because death is not about escape, it is about renewal. In the end, all creation will be made new.

But until then, we wait. And as Harriet Beecher Stowe reflects in her book The Minister’s Wooing, waiting in the midst of sorrow can be strange. There seems to be a disconnect between the tasks we must keep doing and the truth of what has happened:

“How strange this external habit of living! One thinks how to stick in a pin, and how to tie a string,—one busies one’s self with folding robes, and putting away napkins, the day after some stroke that has cut the inner life in two, with the heart’s blood dropping quietly at every step.”

The Resurrection of the dead means a lot of things, but this week it was a reminder that bodies do matter. When the mother of the little boy who drowned asked to see her son’s lifeless body, her request was not foolish. And now, when what she wants more than anything is to hold him, she is simply being human.


“Then Jesus said to Thomas, ‘Put your finger here; see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it into my side. Stop doubting and believe.’” John 20:27