Weeks and Years

December 1, 2011

A few months ago, we had our annual Torrey Conference here at Biola, and this year’s theme was the Sabbath. I was really excited that they invited Lauren Winner to come speak (mostly because she’s an intellectual and a woman, two of my favorite things), and she did not disappoint. She spent her first lecture explaining the rise of the weekend: how and why America transitioned from a 6:1 pattern (a week and a Sabbath) to a 5:2 pattern (a week and a weekend). In brief, it had a lot to do with the Labor movement, Blue Laws, and good old separation of Church and State. Winner explained that overall, the switch to 5:2 was a good and appropriate change, but she also argued that something was lost in the switch.

The leaders of the French Revolution restarted the French calendar by changing 1792 to “Year One” (and so on). They knew that if you could change how people lived in time, you could change their imaginations. Winner explained how the transition from the Sabbath to the weekend in America has changed the way Christians Sabbath. She uses what she calls the “Capitalist Sabbath” and the “Women’s Magazine Sabbath” as good examples of this change. The Capitalist Sabbath is about resting now in order to be more productive later, and the Women’s Magazine Sabbath is about making yourself a bubble bath and relaxing. While neither of these things is bad, neither of them are Sabbath, because one’s end is productivity and the other’s end is relaxation. The Sabbath’s end is God.

I realize the truth of Winner’s words when I look at my own weekends, usually spent sleeping in and catching up on homework. Sure, I go to church for a few hours Sunday morning, but besides that my Sunday doesn’t look very different from my Saturday. And Winner has convinced me that I’m missing out on a pretty cool invitation to let how I spend my time remind me of who God is. (Speaking of “spending” time… Winner also had a lot to say about the language we use when we talk about time: spending time, saving time, wasting time, running out of time, investing time…all monetary terms! What if we thought about time as something we inhabit rather than something we own?)

Winner shared an excerpt from Holy Days, a book where a Jewish man explained why things like ripping paper and boiling water count as “work,” and therefore aren’t done on the Jewish Sabbath. He says, “If one day a week you have the opportunity to stop altering creation in even these small ways, you are reminded that you are not the Creator.”

I know that was a ton of regurgitation, but Winner’s lectures really opened up my eyes to how my views of time are affected by my environment (kind of a “duh” moment, I know). And since we are learning about the Church calendar these days in Inquirer’s Class, I have realized that it’s not just my view of the week that is affected; how I think of the year as a whole is shaped by culture as well.

Like The Book of Common Prayer and the liturgy, the Church calendar is something that’s pretty new to me. The church I went to growing up celebrates the season of Advent, and even though I remember thinking it was pretty strange when I was younger, I’m really thankful for it now looking back. Though I probably wasn’t listening very closely to what was going on during Advent season, I am thankful that I can recognize the truth in Kathleen Norris’ reflection on Advent when she says,

“I’ve learned how much the Advent season holds, how it breaks into our lives with images of light and dark, first and last things, watchfulness and longing, origin and destiny.”

As far as the rest of the calendar goes, besides Easter and some parts of Lent, I’m pretty ignorant. I’m just beginning to learn about the calendar: Advent, Christmas, Epiphany, Lent, Easter, Ascension, Pentecost and Trinity–an annual cycle that causes us to remember, to be grateful, and to wait. The Calendar is meant to let us experience time not just in terms of the school year or the weather, but in terms of the narrative of our redemption.

Though the calendar, like so many things in our lives, is at first glance circular, we come to each season having inhabited the others and been changed. The Messiah comes every year, but next Advent will be different than this Advent.

And since I really do believe in the power of narrative to shape and challenge and transform (that’s why I’m a writing major), this makes a lot of sense. A lot a lot… The Church calendar affirms the connection I feel (and a bunch of humans I know feel) to stories.

That’s a pretty consistent theme I’ve been noticing since learning more about Church tradition: I keep coming across rituals that really speak to parts of me that I didn’t know could inform my relationship with God. I know this “not knowing” stems from a simplistic, naïve view of who God is and where He can be found, but really, all that could help me get past it was actually finding Him in unexpected places.

This semester, and even this blog project for the past few months, has mostly just been me finding God where I didn’t think to look before. Not in the midst of extreme pain or suffering, but in the midst of my everyday. And this is an unspeakably exciting process. A lot of times I feel frustrated because I can’t communicate what is going on inside of me; I can say what I’m learning in Inquirer’s Class, but I know it is more than that. I think it’s the “aliveness” of God–a God who isn’t contained in a set of beliefs or a building or a denomination–that makes the words hard to choose.

And so this Advent, I can celebrate the incarnation, the “aliveness” of God in history, in a body, in a story. I can remember that the Word became flesh, I can be grateful that he held and touched and loved, and I can wait for all of creation to be restored to Him.


Falling in Love

November 23, 2011

“Their Liturgy of the Hours is, at root, a symbolic act, an emulation of and a joining with the choirs in heaven who sing the praise of God unceasingly. To most people even to think of such things seems foolish, and Benedictines are well aware that their motives are easily misinterpreted, labeled as romanticist or escapist.” – Kathleen Norris, The Cloister Walk

Anglican worship, like Benedictine worship (and Jewish temple worship in the old Testament), is meant to be a reflection of the worship in the heavenly temple. It reminds us that, in one sense, Christ lives with us on earth, but in another sense, we live with Christ in heaven.

As I have shared before, when we first started going to St. Matthews, Christian and I were intimidated by the, for lack of a better word, “other-ness” of the service. We weren’t sure when to stand, when to sit, when to kneel; the sermon was only fifteen minutes long (but extremely dense…when taking notes these days, I often find myself copying down the sermon word for word if I can keep up); the incense smelled strange; the order of the liturgy was hard to track with.

From the first Sunday, we knew we had a decision to make: either decide to conform to this somewhat-foreign way of doing things, or find a different church. And of course, conforming for conforming’s sake is no good; when we decided to go to St. Matthews, we knew we had a lot of work to do. We feel (and the church encourages) a responsibility to learn why the service is structured the way it is, and where its traditions came from. We’re just at the beginning of the process.

But in the mean time, we have been participating in the service. And while we still fumble around a lot (Christian usually says the liturgy a lot louder than I do, so his mess-ups always make for a good laugh…just a few weeks ago he accidentally chimed in on the priest-only section and it was a hoot), we find that we are learning just as much (if not more) by participating in the service as we are by going to Inquirer’s class.

One of the hardest parts of participating is learning the liturgy. Christian and I follow along in the Book of Common Prayer, and though we have a good idea of the order these days, we still get confused with page-turning every now and then. Learning when to pause and when to speed up has been really helpful in the memorization process; it reminds me a lot of reading poetry.  There is something so meaningful and life-giving in speaking the Creeds, the Confession, the Thanksgiving out loud in community.

Kathleen Norris says,

To say or sing the psalms out loud within a community is to recover religion as an oral tradition, restoring to our mouths words that have been snatched from our tongues and relegated to the page, words that have been privatized and effectively silenced.

Now, to be honest, I’m a big fan of  “privatization” when it comes to most things. For example, I would rather spend hours researching something on my own than have a discussion about it. Sure, this is partly because I’m introverted and love time alone, but it’s also because I’m impatient and proud. Similarly, I would rather sit back in a service taking notes (and inwardly analyzing every theological point within a sermon) than participate myself. And this is one of those preferences I have learned to deny, because I really think it is rooted in selfishness.

Learning to actively participate in a service–to say the words, to concentrate in the silence, to approach the altar–has been a rich, perspective-altering experience. Exactly how it is changing me is something hard to articulate.

Kathleen Norris (can you tell I like her? also, hers is really the only personal-preference-book I have time to read these days) talks about a conversation she had with a Benedictine woman who compared liturgy to falling in love, because

“You don’t enter knowing the depths. It’s a relationship you live with until you begin to understand it.

I have only touched the surface of liturgical worship, but I am already beginning to recognize the truth of this statement. I wish I was ready to write about the importance of liturgy, but right now it’s too abstract in my own mind. I know that it is good for my soul, but I can’t say much more than that yet.

Last week Father Scarlett compared liturgy to dancing: they are both highly scripted, but can become almost intuitive over time.

Well, let’s just say I’m not a natural dancer…the self-consciousness is still very present, though its gradually fading. I told Christian last week that every time he or I says the wrong thing a little to loudly or speaks at the wrong time in a service, I picture an over-eager runner wiping out and scraping his face on the track (in an America’s Funniest Home Videos way, not in a facial-reconstruction-surgery-required way). Hopefully some day the mistakes wont break my focus, but for now I’m working on stifling my giggles.

Absurd acts

November 2, 2011

Monks and poets both value image and symbol over utilitarian purpose or the bottom line; they recognize the transformative power hiding in the simplest things, and it leads them to commit absurd acts: the poem! the prayer! What nonsense! … Maybe monks and poets know, as Jesus did when a friend, in an extravagant, loving gesture, bathed his feet in nard, an expensive, fragrant oil, and wiped them with her hair, that the symbolic act matters.

-Kathleen Norris, The Cloister Walk

The symbolic act matters. I don’t know if I would have agreed with that statement 2 or 3 years ago. But more and more, I am learning that I need the symbolic act—the kneeling in worship, the eating of the bread and drinking of the wine—to help me see. My heart sometimes needs some nudging from my knees or my hands, and it is this connection between body and mind that I didn’t really used to buy. Maybe I thought I was beyond it? That these symbols—so tangible and obvious—were too blatant, or maybe too simple and child-like?

But now, I love these symbols—the Eucharist, the laying of hands and anointing with oil—and I need them. I know myself more…I know that I am easily distracted, that I need to be reminded, that I don’t understand yet. Sacraments are, in a sense, “extensions of the Incarnation into the present.” God communicates His invisible grace through visible symbols…grace  I receive regardless of how I feel, because I receive the bread with my hands, and the wine with my lips.

And when I learn to cherish the sacraments, to receive them with the wonder of a child, I start to see the world around me differently. I start to notice other visible signs of invisible grace, imperfect but still whispering Christ’s presence. And I know one reason Kathleen Norris compares the poet with the monk: both see life steeped in metaphor. If, as G.K. Chesterton suggests, “everything is stooping and hiding a face,” then metaphor is necessary.

This week in Inquirer’s class, Father Scarlett reminded us that, in the world to come, there will not be sacraments because the whole creation will, once again, be a perfect sacrament…including me.

When I am quiet enough to see well, I remember that, even now, “each Christian is a sacramental person, a sign of Christ’s presence and a mediator of grace.” If I let it, this can change my interactions with my housemates, my boyfriend, my teachers. I can recognize and receive grace from them, and pray that moments of frustration  become opportunities for me to give grace.

Of course, this hasn’t proved easy—its not one of those things that I can learn simply by praying one of those sweeping prayers in the morning (is anything?). It’s a moment by moment learning, a too-rushed prayer, and I choose anger more than I want to.

Transformation is a slow process and grace is hard to learn, but the sacraments are offered week after week, and grace is promised each moment.

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.