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It is not the Church that ‘has’ a mission, but the reverse; Christ’s mission creates itself a Church. The mission should not be understood from the perspective of the Church, but the other way round.

Jürgen Moltmann (via azspot)

This is very similar to what my rector preached this morning.

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The word “heresy” comes from the Greek word for choice. A heretic, according to the Christians who considered themselves Catholic and Orthodox, was someone who didn’t accept the whole body of Christian faith and doctrine, who didn’t take the system as a whole; they chose bits they liked, according to their own lights, rejected what they didn’t like, made up bits to fill in the gaps. They were somewhere between the “cafeteria Catholic” who agrees with the magisterium on the rights of workers but not on the sinfulness of homosexuality and the New Age self-help guru who invents a system that will make him money and win him followers, especially attractive, available female followers.

Not that one has to agree with this characterization of much of the early Christian movement. Definitions, as well as histories, are written by the victors.

What has caught my attention over the past couple of days, however, is the necessity for a kind of picking and choosing in one’s spiritual life that is not heresy, just accepting human limitations. It’s the same sort of picking and choosing that a poet does in order to write a sestina, which requires a pattern of six words shifting in position across six stanzas of six lines each. The poet has to choose six words on which the changes of the poem will be rung. It’s a highly complex form of a game all humans, until recently, have known how to play, the game at the root of all games: Limitation for the Sake of Freedom.

I have come back to the Church, specifically the Episcopal Church, and to Christianity generally, after some ten years of experimenting with alternatives. I would be lying if I said that I have not learned a great deal from exploring Tibetan Buddhism, ceremonial magic, Wicca, Druidry, and various kinds of Neopaganism. I have, and I’m starting to see how much of what I’ve learned can illuminate the tradition I grew up with and have come home to. But on a practical level, I can’t really be a Wiccan-Buddhist-Anglican-Druid-Magician (with a full-time day job), any more than you can write a sestina with ten key words instead of six. There aren’t enough hours in the day, and besides, I’d be evading the rules of the game.

The game of limitation says that a sonnet has fourteen lines, a sestina six key words, a musical scale eight notes, four bases on the diamond, no touching the ball with your hands. If you don’t accept the seemingly arbitrary limitations, you aren’t playing the game. And the object of the game is to see what you can do within the limitations. Think of Shakespeare, Mozart, and your own personal heroes in the arts or sport or science and what they did with freely accepted limitations like blank verse, sonnet form, and the Western musical scale. On the other hand, anyone with a minimum competence can pick up those rules and play with them, write poems, compose songs, practice shooting hoops.

I can view being an Episcopalian, an Anglican Christian in the U.S.A., as a happenstance derived from my place and time of birth and the events of my childhood, or I can view it as a freely accepted creative limitation. Within that structure, I can dabble in all manner of theory and practice across the spectrum of Christian tradition–labyrinths or Ignatian meditation, centering prayer and the Rosary, the Rhineland mystics, the desert fathers and mothers, Henri Nouwen or Thomas Merton–or I can accept another creative limitation. I can accept that I don’t have time, energy, or brain cells to learn everything there is to know about every Christian tradition and practice, and I can stick to those that have resonated with me consistently for decades: The Showings of Julian of Norwich. The Rule of St. Benedict. The medieval mystics of England, Julian’s contemporaries, such as the author of The Cloud of Unknowing. Saying the Daily Office. Keeping a journal as a form of meditation. Writing in general, fiction, poetry, journal, or public blogging, as a form of meditation, digestion, lectio divina.

I shall string up my net across the court, pick up my racket, and wait for God to serve the ball.

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When I was about eight years old, my mother ordained that I should go to the little Episcopal church that was only a block away from our house. In former days I had gone to a Lutheran church with my sister, but since getting married she had ceased to go to church at all, let alone to be available to take her little sister along. So my mother talked to an elderly neighbor of ours and arranged that she would pick me up on Sundays and take me to church, the Church of the Advent. You might notice two things about this arrangement: I didn’t have any particular say in the matter, and my mother did not go to church herself.

Fortunately for all parties, I soon decided that I liked going to an Episcopal church. Everything about the weekly high-church communion service, which was called a Mass, took hold on my imagination: The candles and incense, the flowing silk vestments of the priest, the stately language of the prayers, and the music, bravely sung by a small all-female volunteer choir. Two years later, I joined that choir and continued to sing for most of the next decade.

I am old enough that the Prayerbook and Hymnal which were to form my spirituality indelibly were the 1928 Book of Common Prayer and the Hymnal 1940, the products of a church that still called itself “Protestant Episcopal”. I have often said, only half-jokingly, that the Prayerbook taught me to use subordinate clauses, punctuate, and conjugate the English verb in both singular and plural. Almost all of those traits can be seen in the Collect for Purity which began every Mass, and which I can easily type from memory:

Almighty God, unto whom all hearts are open, all desires known, and from whom no secrets are hid: Cleanse the thoughts of our hearts by the inspiration of thy Holy Spirit, that we may perfectly love thee, and worthily magnify thy holy Name; through Christ our Lord. Amen.

I learned about language from the Prayerbook, about the beauty and flexibility of the English language. When I encountered Donne, Herbert, and Milton as a precociously young college student, I was more prepared for them than I might otherwise have been because the Prayerbook had made their language mine.

The Prayerbook taught me how to read, how to write, and how to pray. The 1928 book gave me the collect, a literary form as tight and succinct as a sonnet or a haiku; the 1979 book, which was introduced into our parish when I was a teenager, gave me the Psalms. The Hymnal 1940 taught me how to listen and how to sing. It was and is an amazing compendium of Western church music, from Sarum plainsong to Negro spirituals, from Lutheran chorales harmonized by Bach to sentimental nineteenth-century tunes whose composers are justly forgotten, with a generous selection of the great composers and hymn-writers of the Anglican tradition: Thomas Tallis, Orlando Gibbons, William Croft, Charles Wesley, Isaac Watts. We sang Gibbons and Tallis, “O sacred head” and “Were you there?” in my little church. I learned to hear and understand modal music, and to this day my ear is basically modal. I learned to stand up straight, hold up my hymnal, and sing over my music, not into it.

Thanks to the Hymnal 1940, and to friends at church who had a passion for English cathedral choirs and their repertoire, when I met my husband by auditioning for a choir he directed, I had exactly the sort of voice and training he wanted: A soprano who understand modal tuning and sang with a straight tone. I was an English choirboy in the body of a twenty-four-year old American girl. (To this day, if you ask my husband how we met, he will smirk and reply, “She auditioned”.) But there was one more book in my childhood that had a huge formative influence on me spiritually. It happened to be a book about Roman Catholic nuns.

Rumer Godden is best known for a novel about nuns in India, Black Narcissus, but that wasn’t the book I read. It was her other novel, about an abbey of Benedictine nuns in England, In This House of Brede. Inspired by the memoirs of Dame Laurentia McLachlan of Stanbrook Abbey, this remarkable novel tells the story of Philippa Talbot, a widow with a high post in government who gives it up, at the age of forty, to become a cloistered contemplative nun. The reader is plunged along with her into the ancient rhythms of monastic life as laid down by St. Benedict some fourteen hundred years ago: Short sleep, plain food, hard dull work, and hours and hours of prayer, both in private and in the great sung daily offices which Benedict called the opus Dei, the work of God.

My first introduction to the book was through that strange artifact, a Reader’s Digest Condensed Book. The volume you see on the left contained not only Godden’s novel, but The King’s Pleasure by Norah Lofts, about Katherine of Aragon, Coretta Scott King’s memoir of her life with her husband, and a couple of other “condensed” titles. I read Mrs. King’s book and Lofts’ novel, but I read about Dame Philippa and her sister nuns over and over.

Then one day I discovered the original, unaltered version of the book on the shelves of my local library branch. My tolerant and wonderful librarians had no problem with my checking out adult books, and that was just one of many books which I borrowed repeatedly to read and re-read. Decades later, working at the central library of the system, I came upon the book on the discards-for-sale shelf; I bought it immediately, took it home, and discovered it was, in fact, one of the two copies formerly owned by my old branch. I have it to this day.

I am happy to say that the book is still in print and can be purchased through Amazon.com. Godden’s account of a community of women, engaged in singing prayers and loving God while also eating, cleaning up, taking care of their sick, and running a print shop and weaving vestments for sale left me with a lifelong love of the monastic life, of daily prayer based on the Psalms, and of the delicious trivia of Latin words, parts of the habit, Gregorian chant. The most important thing I learned, however, was simply that one could be a deeply religious person without being a fanatic or a freak. Philippa and her sisters, committed to their odd lifestyle in the midst of a modest English town, are neither saints nor neurotics; they hide secrets, bear grudges, struggle, fall and get up again. And they relate to one another, and to the small circle of men who contact their enclosed world, with love, honesty, forgiveness, integrity.

Another thing I learned, which has never been clear to me until very recently, is that In This House of Brede showed me that a book about women, a book about female characters, could be as interesting as any book about men. And while a book about women who style themselves brides of Christ might not exactly pass the Bechdel test, it’s a book about women that doesn’t revolve around sex, romance, attempts to get married, attempts to get divorced, having children, or even going shopping. Godden even handles the tricky issue of inappropriate bonds between the nuns, portraying a sensual yet not quite erotic attachment between Dame Maura, in charge of the abbey’s music, and young Sister Cecily, a brilliantly gifted singer. When Dame Maura oversteps good boundaries and her feelings frighten the younger nun, she accepts the Abbess’s suggestion that she go to a sister house in Canada where the nuns need help restoring their practice of the chant, returning five years later to a mature and stable Cecily who can handle their feelings wisely.

Another thing I love about this novel is that the male characters, while few in number, both stand up to the women as characters and relate to them with respect. Philippa, the protagonist, is supported by the friendship of a former male co-worker; Abbess Catherine is refreshed by her encounter with a famous sculptor who creates a new altar and a statue of Our Lady for the abbey. It’s no surprise that the reviews on Amazon are hugely enthusiastic; the only negative one is a critique of the current edition rather than of the book itself. One reviewer actually says that if he or she lived in the world of Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451, they would memorize and preserve this novel.

Spiritual guidance from books is not, as I would learn later, an exclusively Anglican or even exclusively Christian experience. But the formative influences of these three books is probably why, after trying many other spiritual paths, I am an Anglican again, today.

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Little Gidding Church in winter

Little Gidding Church in winter

Midwinter spring is its own season
Sempiternal though sodden towards sundown,
Suspended in time, between pole and tropic.
When the short day is brightest, with frost and fire,
The brief sun flames the ice, on pond and ditches,
In windless cold that is the heart’s heat,
Reflecting in a watery mirror
A glare that is blindness in the early afternoon.
And glow more intense than blaze of branch, or brazier,
Stirs the dumb spirit: no wind, but pentecostal fire
In the dark time of the year. Between melting and freezing
The soul’s sap quivers. There is no earth smell
Or smell of living thing. This is the spring time
But not in time’s covenant. Now the hedgerow
Is blanched for an hour with transitory blossom
Of snow, a bloom more sudden
Than that of summer, neither budding nor fading,
Not in the scheme of generation.
Where is the summer, the unimaginable
Zero summer?

Eliot’s “Little Gidding” from Four Quartets is a poem I come back to again and again.  I read Eliot in college, under requirement and before I was ready for him, and I got neither pleasure nor understanding from him.  I read Eliot again after I’d absorbed Dante and Julian of Norwich and discovered that I had the keys to his language, and that I understood what he was writing about.

Americans may not know that “Little Gidding” is named after a place: an English village and its church.  There, in the seventeenth century, a deacon of the Church named Nicholas Ferrar established something not unlike a monastic community, except that celibacy was not a requirement, something that we might call an intentional community today.  Ferrar and his associates distinguished themselves in works of charity and mercy to their neighbors and in a regimen of daily prayer that included, over and above the usual Morning and Evening Prayer, the recitation of the entire Book of Psalms every single day.  King Charles I visited there shortly before he was defeated by Cromwell, and Eliot alludes to this in his poem.  The triumphant Puritans forcibly dissolved the community a few years later.

By the time I learned about Little Gidding, I had already been enchanted by a novel I discovered as a girl, Rumer Godden’s In This House of Brede. Godden’s book is the story of Philippa Talbot, who gives up a high post in government to become a cloistered Benedictine nun at Brede Abbey, and of her sister nuns, the men in their lives, and a community life devoted to God.  Godden’s portraits of women who were deeply committed to the Divine, and of a group life ordered to that end, primed me to appreciate the romance of Little Gidding, a monasticism without the celibacy, a religious order both active in good works and contemplative in constant prayer.

I know I am not alone among Neopagans in wishing that there might be some sort of pagan equivalent to the Little Gidding experience.  I am not alone among Christians, either, as interest in daily prayer, Benedictine spirituality, and disciplines once relegated to priests and monks has risen steadily in the past forty years.  Cauldron Farm has created a pagan Breviary with two rituals for every day of the year, available online or in print.  The Grand ArchDruid of my Order has kicked around the idea of Druid Chapterhouses, small intentional communities or druid households that would teach druidry as well as celebrate the holy days together.  More and more people, Christian and Pagan, have been moving toward the idea of a spirituality that is centered where one lives and takes place in daily practice, rather than being an occasional activity in a place one visits, and I suspect that more and more Pagans as well as Christians are turning over ideas like meditation, contemplation, stillness, and silence and finding ways to weave them into pagan contexts.

If you came this way,
Taking any route, starting from anywhere,
At any time or at any season,
It would always be the same: you would have to put off
Sense and notion. You are not here to verify,
Instruct yourself, or inform curiosity
Or carry report. You are here to kneel
Where prayer has been valid. And prayer is more
Than an order of words, the conscious occupation
Of the praying mind, or the sound of the voice praying.
And what the dead had no speech for, when living,
They can tell you, being dead: the communication
Of the dead is tongued with fire beyond the language of the living.
Here, the intersection of the timeless moment
Is England and nowhere. Never and always.

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