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Posts Tagged ‘julian of norwich’

I’m starting to feel like a hipster Christian, some days. Everybody suddenly seems to be talking about having a Rule of Life, saying the Office, reading Julian of Norwich. I was into all those things decades ago… before they were cool.

*dons ugly square glasses*

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The other day I had a nice long blab with my rector, a thing I like to do once in a while. At one point I got round to saying that I was beginning to deal with the concept of sin, repentance, and forgiveness in ways I never had before: I find myself moving from the old laundry list approach, in which sins were ticky-boxes that I never ticked because I never felt like I’d committed them, to a realization that sin means I screwed up; I sincerely fucked up my relationship with God.

Sometime later that day, I realized that I actually do believe in original sin.

I didn’t use to. I’m an Episcopalian, after all; being a Pelagian comes with the territory. Not believing in original sin seemed a lot better than believing people came into the world flawed, believing that there was nothing good about human nature, believing that things like total depravity and predestination to condemnation were an accurate description of human nature and Divine love. Not believing in original sin meant that no matter how much human beings screwed up, we weren’t born losers who were somehow contaminated by the mere fact of being conceived in sexual intercourse and born a hybrid of spirit and matter.

Augustine’s teachings on original sin always sound to me like bad biology leading to bad genetics: Sex is sinful, so being created through sex fucks us up (pun intended). I’m not sure how he thought humans were supposed to reproduce in their pure, unfallen state. Maybe they’d just spit in their palms and shake hands, and that would have been enough.

But as I look at the world around me now, at the age of forty-seven, on the verge of a divorce, very tired and achey some days, I see sin. I see individual sin, and corporate sin, and social sin. I see sexual, commercial, judicial, and environmental sin. I see sin as bigger than any one individual, bigger even than our corrupt institutions. It’s like a warp in the fabric of things.

I see original sin in terms of an environmental metaphor rather than a genetic one, a flaw in nurture rather than nature. Every child born is a naive player walking into a rigged game. Every child born enters a pre-existing structure of racism, sexism, classism, injustice. Every human being enters a world that will reward wrong choices, will warp him or her away from following his true nature, and will tell her that the most fundamental mistake the human mind makes, the decision to see the Self and the Other as separate, not related, is the absolute truth. And individual sinfulness, sinful mindsets, sinful acts, acts that separate the self from the feared Other, from its true nature, and from God, will flow from that context. Because the game is rigged before you place your bet.

Julian of Norwich writes that God told her sin is behovely, or in another manuscript, behovabil.  That’s the least translatable word in all her writings. It might be related to the verb “behoove”. In some way, sin is inevitable; appropriate; an intrinsic part of the picture. Yet she also writes, further along in her book, that sin is unnatural. We were not created under a curse; we were not set up to fail. We are, in fact, created to be the template through which the Second Person of the Trinity expresses itself in creation. And even the fall, the rupture in our consciousness, the crack in the universe, is not without its benefits: Ne hadde the appel taken ben, ne hadde never oure Ladye ben heavene quene. And had not this lovely text been written and preserved, Boris Ord had not written the lovely setting of it which I listen to every year in Advent, smiling.

Therefore we moun singen, “Deo gracias”.

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I am an Episcopalian, which means I belong (for the time being) to the Anglican Communion, the world-wide association of churches that looks to the See of Canterbury in England and to the tradition of Christianity that started when the Romanised Britons who were already Christian converted the heathen Saxons and that became juridically independent at the Reformation, when the Pope gave Henry VIII an unacceptable answer about his marriage to Katherine of Aragon. Now, if you ask an Episcopalian or any other Anglican what’s the most important doctrine of the Church, chances are very, very good that the answer will be, “The Incarnation”.

The Incarnation, simply put, is the teaching that God became a human being in Jesus of Nazareth. All of the divine reality became humanly embodied in one particular person, a man, with parents and relations, living in a particular place and time, in a backwater occupied country under the boots of the biggest Empire west of India. Jesus was really God, but he was also really human–not just a deity wearing a temporary human suit, like Zeus in some of the Greek myths, but human all through. And also God.

The Incarnation means that Anglicans take being human seriously. We think human nature is basically good. We think human love (including sexual love), human work and creativity, human societies, human dignities (and that includes human rights or the lack thereof) are important, not just to humans but to God. They are precisely where God shows up in our lives. If you’ve read the Narnia books by C.S. Lewis, or any of Madeleine L’Engle’s books, you’ve got a good taste of how Anglicans think and what the Incarnation means for us.

The thing that I find myself thinking about every so often is Why? why the Incarnation? Why did God become a human being? What was that all about?

A lot of Christians would tell you that God became human in order to get us out of the mess we had caused by sin. Adam and Eve sinned, Cain screwed things up even worse, and eventually we bottomed out and Jesus was born, lived, did some preaching and healing for a couple years, and then “suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, died, and was buried. On the third day he rose again,” as the creeds say. Why did God became incarnate? Well, it was a fix for sin. If Adam and Eve had never screwed up, the Incarnation would not have been necessary. The gruesome and unjust judicial murder of Jesus the incarnate Lord would not have been necessary. We’d all still be living in the garden, eating fruits and nuts and not wearing clothes, or something.

A Protestant of the Evangelical variety, somebody off to the right of Episcopalians, Lutherans, Methodists, etc., will probably tell you in great detail and with great vehemence that it was absolutely necessary for Jesus to undergo all the terrible and just punishments that we wretched sinful humans deserved at the hands of God, that he atoned for our sin by substituting for us in the sight of God. Jesus was our whipping boy; God had to punish somebody in order to satisfy his divine justice–if you can call that justice–so Jesus, who is also somehow God (Evangelicals are not real strong on the Incarnation), took that punishment instead of us.

Well, I don’t buy it.

That’s the Plan B Theory. The Incarnation is a fix for sin; it’s the divine back-up plan, the play he’ll run if the first play doesn’t get a touchdown (pardon the American sports metaphor). If we had all been good obedient little slaves in the garden, then none of that painful, messy (interesting, dramatic, awe-inspiring) Incarnational stuff would have been necessary.

Ever since I was a teenager, when I independently formulated the idea for myself without realizing I was not the first, I have held the Plan A Theory of the Incarnation. The Incarnation is why we’re all here; it’s why anything is here, why creation exists, let alone human beings. God creates everything so he can include human beings so he can become a human being. Humans can know God as one of us; God can know humans as we know one another; humans can become like God, as one of the early Church Fathers said (I can never remember if it was Irenaeus or Athanasius): “God became man that man might become God.”

It’s hinted at in the Scriptures, when one of the letters of Peter calls us “partakers in the divine nature”; in the theologies of the early Church, as I have just mentioned; in the Revelations of Julian of Norwich, where she says that human nature was first created for Christ, the Wisdom of God, the Second Person of the Trinity. It might even be mentioned in the Young Wizards series: “Those who serve the Powers/ themselves become the Powers.”. God becoming human was the plan all along. Sin made the Incarnation look different than it might have; sin meant that the appearance of Divine Love as a man among men was met by fear and hatred and eventually cruelty and violence, not wonder and joy and reciprocal love. But sin did not make God do something previously unplanned. God sharing life and being with his mortal, finite creatures was the plan all along, Plan A. Sin did not change that.

There is no room in my theology for a God who insists on punishment, who must have his pound of flesh, who cannot be appeased unless somebody suffers.  Divine love created us to be partners, beloveds, not slaves or even servants, and offered itself to us in complete vulnerability. We are the ones who punished, who executed, who tortured, who drew blood. That is what I will remember tomorrow, on Good Friday. Love came down and we condemned him, treated him like the prisoners at Abu Ghraib, and gave him a public execution. But Love had planned to dwell in the midst of us all along.

Here endeth the lesson.

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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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I first read T.S. Eliot as a precocious teenager already in college; I must have been thirteen or fourteen. I didn’t like his poetry, but it made a deep impression on me all the same. I remember writing at least one long rambling poem full of Biblical and liturgical allusions that was, consciously or no, an imitation of him.

When I re-discovered Eliot on my own, in my late teens and early twenties, I had read Dante’s Divine Comedy and the Revelations of Julian of Norwich, entirely on my own. Now Eliot made sense; I felt that I hadn’t had the tools to grasp him before, especially to grasp something like “Little Gidding” where Julian and Dante are his twin muses and their words interweave with his own from first to last. I had appropriated Julian and Dante for myself, out of a genuine attraction and not because I was required to read them; having done that, I was ready to appropriate Eliot for myself as well. I still love him; I also love the joke that Raissa (or was it Jacques?) Maritain made, when asked if they thought Eliot might become a Roman Catholic: “Oh no, Eliot exhausted his capacity for conversion when he became an Englishman.”

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The Virgin of Vladimir by Andrei Rublev

The Virgin of Vladimir by Andrei Rublev

Today is our neighborhood’s annual community yard sale, situated in the park that divides the main street into north and south (or, more precisely, northwest and southeast).  My husband went out around nine a.m. to get a cup of coffee and browse the offerings; he came back around ten-thirty with a buttered bagel for me (I stayed in and nursed a strained back) and a beautiful beaded wall hanging of vaguely Indian provenance, for which he had paid a mere ten dollars.  The desire to hang it inspired him to clear some space on the walls of our hallway and rearrange all the decorations there; it’s now surrounded by reproductions of Christian icons.  “I had an important realization the other day,” he said, putting up a small antique icon of St. George.  “Becoming Buddhist doesn’t have to mean giving up art you love, even if that art has content from some other religion.”

We have a fair number of thangkas, statues, and other forms of Buddhist art now, on shrines and elsewhere.  I wouldn’t have become Buddhist if I didn’t like the aesthetic; Medicine Buddha’s vibrant blue radiance and Green Tara’s elegant rainbow-striped stockings were as much of an inducement to the Dharma as the books I read and the people I met.  I realize that’s my inner Anglican talking; she will always insist that the beauty of holiness implies the holiness of beauty, and that Keats (whom she otherwise does not care for) was right when he declared “beauty is truth, truth beauty”.

Where I see beauty, I find truth, that is, Dharma.  Where I find truth and goodness, I expect to behold them expressed in beauty.  Now the prayer flags that stretch down our hall waft above images of the Christ of Sinai, the Virgin of Vladimir, Julian of Norwich, Hildegard of Bingen, St. Benedict.

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I had nothing profound to say about Earth Day, though it has been in my thoughts; one can only quote Mary Oliver so many times. *g*

Then William Harryman gave me the perfect image, with a modicum of words: This is our Earth.

I can also quote Julian of Norwich: “And he showed me a little thing, about the size of a hazelnut, as round as any ball, so frail that it seemed it might fall into nothing…. It was all that is made.” I forget which writer, among the many books on Julian that I own, pointed out that her image of the hazelnut has special poignancy for us, the first humans to have seen the whole of the Earth, from space. From now on let us not forget how small it actually is, our broad-bosomed Mother.

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