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Posts Tagged ‘t.s. eliot’

It’s been almost a year since I’ve posted here, I see. I’ve been busy elsewhere on the Internet, and somewhat busy with personal upheaval as well. Long story short, my spouse and I separated in January, and I’ve been living on my own for the first time in over twenty years, with the company of my faithful cockatiel Rembrandt (also known as Spanky).

In the past twelve months, I’ve been writing fanfiction, working slowly on an original novel, and holding forth with various opinions on Tumblr, in between reblogging pictures of cute parrots and cute British actors. What brings me back to this blog is that, for the second time in my own blogging tenure, I’ve recently seen someone who was a very prominent pagan blogger publicly return to the Church. And I’ve seen some, not all, of the pagan blogosphere’s reactions to that return, not all of which have been understanding or supportive.

What strikes me funny is that, at least in the most recent instance, I think I predicted this very thing several years ago. The blogger in question is a cradle Episcopalian, and one Episcopalian knows another. The Roman Catholic Church’s hold on its members is proverbial, but the Anglican tradition’s ability to print itself on the mind and heart and soul deeply and permanently is a well-kept secret. Anglicans rather famously go off to be New Agers or Theosophists or Revival Druids or ceremonial magicians, but they also never stop being Anglicans and going to church.

The thing is, in the past year I’ve done the same thing. I am once again a full-time, committed, practicing Christian, an active member of an Episcopal parish. On the Sunday after Christmas in 2012, I woke up and thought, “I’d like to go to church. I’d like to have a proper Sunday after Christmas liturgy.” The parish where my husband was working at the time always celebrated the Roman feast of the Holy Family on that day–a nineteenth-century invention, a celebration of the nuclear family that did not exist in Jesus’s time or for most of history, in most cultures, until the nineteenth century. I wanted something else.

I went to the principal service of the Episcopal church right across the street from our house. I found a new rector who preached engagingly, intelligently, and who invited all, even the non-baptized, to come to the altar for Communion, if they were “hungry for God”. And I realized that I was, indeed, very very hungry for God, and for the carols we sang, and for something in the liturgy, the preaching, the energy of the place that I recognized. As progressive as the liturgy was, a far cry from the old 1928 Prayerbook and 1940 Hymnal in the little church of my childhood, there was something going on in this church that I had first felt in that little church. It was the same current, to borrow a magical term. It was the first indication I had had in over a decade that the Anglican tradition I knew and loved was still alive and well in the Episcopal Church and had not been trampled to death by either extreme liberals or extreme conservatives.

I went back twice more, I think, before I officially changed my parish membership from my husband’s church to my new church, Emmanuel Episcopal in downtown Baltimore. And then my husband and I talked, on the MLK holiday, and acknowledged it was time to part.

The change in religion was not something I wanted to talk about, for a long time. I didn’t know how to write about it. I did not want to be seen as bashing paganism, or demonizing it. I have problems with parts of pagan culture, but I sure as hell have problems with large parts of Christianity, too. The problem with both paganism and Christianity is that human beings are involved, with all their fallibility and their baggage and the capacity for self-deceit. So I didn’t blog about it.

People grow up Christian, or Jewish, or atheist, and it doesn’t work for them. They need something more; they try something else. They become witches, pagans, druids, Buddhists, Muslims. Sometimes they find an alternative that works and stabilize in it; sometimes they don’t. Going back to the Church, for me, is largely a matter of acknowledging that all the other things I tried didn’t work, and the nourishment I thought was no longer available in my native tradition is actually still there, so I’m putting down all the things that didn’t work, with gratitude, and going back to the system that does. I make a pretty good Episcopalian and a pretty poor anything else.

At the time I spontaneously went to church last Christmastide, I had been experimenting with devotion to Antinous for a couple of months, with some positive results. I suspect that it was actually Antinous who realized I didn’t want him, really, I wanted that Jewish guy who became a god, and Antinous who prodded me to get up and go out that Sunday morning, and discover my people and my tradition once again. To the Bithynian god, I am grateful, un-Christian though it may seem. Ave Antinoe! Gratias ago tibi!

And so in my own weird way, I conclude this post on returning to Christianity with a thanksgiving to a pagan god, and hope that some of my readers will stick with me as I begin to write about what makes the Episcopal style of Christianity work for me.

“We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.”
― T.S. EliotFour Quartets

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I want to poke some more at something I quoted a couple of days ago: Leslie Keeney’s wise and funny statement that the Bible is more like The Lord of the Rings than The Collected Sayings of Gandalf. Evangelicals, she says, have a lot of trouble with that. Having been raised Anglican and not Evangelical, I don’t have trouble with it. It’s just the way things are.

Christianity inherited a body of texts from Judaism. The two religions soon distinguished themselves from one another by what texts they considered authoritative; Protestants later distinguished themselves from Catholics by rejecting some of the texts that had been accepted as authoritative for over a thousand years. The texts that Christians call the Old Testament and Jews call the Tanakh include prose and poetry. The Psalms, the Proverbs, and much of the writings of the Prophets is poetry, along with that little erotic poem that somehow sneaked in, the Song of Songs. Ecclesiastes is a pessimistic prose reflection on the brevity of life and the futility of human endeavor. Pretty much all the rest of those texts, from Genesis through Chronicles, then the books of Ezra and Nehemiah, of Ruth and Esther and Jonah, are narrative.

They are stories.

The four Gospels of the New Testament are stories. So is the Acts of the Apostles. So is the book of Revelation, albeit a rather trippy story. The remainder of the New Testament consists of letters, many of them written by one identifiable person (that guy Paul) to identifiable communities in different locations around the Mediterranean world. While Paul probably did not write everything that has his name on it, he did write quite a few of those letters, in each one addressing a different, specific congregation of believers.

We have these stories.

The closest the Bible comes to ethical precept is Ecclesiastes and the book of Proverbs. Those two books, known as wisdom literature because their main thrust is “Do what is wise” more than “Do what is right” have much in common with the wisdom literature of Egypt, Canaan, ancient Sumer, and other cultures contemporary with ancient Israel. The closest the Bible gets to a how-to manual of behavior is the book of Leviticus, which is about ninety percent directions on ritual, ritual propriety, ritual purity, how to build a portable sanctuary in a tent and how it is to be attended, and what to do if mold or mildew appears in your home. It is full of instructions that Christians have routinely ignored at least since the debates recorded in the Acts of the Apostles: don’t wear clothes of blended wool and linen, don’t boil a kid in its mother’s milk (or eat meat and dairy products together, as the laws of kosher still proscribe), don’t eat shellfish, men get circumcised, women take ritual baths after their menses.

The rest of it is stories.

I grew up with a religion of stories. The stories of Jesus and his disciples, of Paul and his journeys, of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and Joseph, of Ruth and Naomi, Esther and the king, Daniel and the lions, David and Goliath. Alongside the Bible stories, there were stories of Christian writers like C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien, Madeleine L’Engle, Dorothy Sayers. And there were stories about other gods, gods of Egypt and Greece, of the Norse and the Celts. As I read about other religions and other gods, I had no inclination to think they were evil or demonic or even untrue; they just weren’t mine. People used to worship Odin and Thor, Zeus and Apollo and Athena (I loved Athena), and now they didn’t. People in India still worshipped Shiva and Vishnu, but somehow that was okay.  It was my own tradition’s sacred stories that taught me to pay attention to all story; a story was worth paying attention to no matter where it came from.

Along with the stories came the poetry. Not just the Psalms but the hymns we sang in church were poetry (not always good poetry, but poetry). I still remember finding the Song of Songs in the Bible and poring over it furtively with exactly the same frisson I later got from my father’s badly hidden copy of Anais Nin‘s Delta of Venus; even as a precocious nine-year-old, I knew it was a poem about sex. What was it doing in the Bible? What were breasts doing in the Bible?

As a teenager I discovered not only Anais Nin’s erotica, but the poetry of John Donne, about equally obsessed with sex and with God; the Divine Comedy of Dante, about equally obsessed with God, romantic love, and politics; and Julian of Norwich, and T.S. Eliot, and a lot of other things that the poetry of the liturgy and the Bible had somehow prepared me for. If I wanted to write about God (and sex, romantic love, and creativity), I had models to follow.

Religion, for me, was never about ideas, or propositions. Even the great doctrines like Creation, Incarnation, the Trinity were not abstract concepts, but rather abstracts in the literary sense, shorthand summaries of longer descriptions, references to stories. That God created humans, gave us the divine power to name, and then actually became human and lived with us, was, and is, the most fascinating story I could imagine.

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We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.

I have been thinking a lot about where I am and how I got here: Being a Christian, being an Anglican, again, after having been a Christian Druid, a Druid, a Pagan Druid, a Tibetan Buddhist, a Buddhist Druid… and so on round back to Anglican. I could just feel like I’ve been going around in circles, but it helps me to think of my progress as a spiral, or a dance, or a labyrinth; it may not be progress in the sense of onward and upward motion forever and ever, but it is a pattern, and maybe even a pleasing and/or meaningful pattern.

What helps the most, though, is to think in terms of doing rather than being. An Episcopalian is what I am; all through the past ten years of exploring, my name has been on the rolls of the parish where my husband is the organist, where his parents have been members for decades. But what am I doing? Well, since around Christmas, what I have done is say the Daily Office. I have done this before, as a teenager, in my twenties, in my thirties; I come back to it when I’m at loose ends, just as I come back to writing in a notebook, keeping a journal. (Which, come to think of it, I also started to do as a teenager.)

I’ve come to think that the Daily Office is just What I Do; in Buddhist (and in some cases Pagan) terms, it is My Practice. I read Scripture; I say Psalms; I recite prayers. It is a training in Scripture, in the ground level of Christian tradition; it is a training in how to pray; it is devotion, offering, the necessity of petition for human needs, the duty of praise to the Divine Source. And I just do it. Sometimes I read it silently; I prefer to say it aloud; sometimes I even chant it.

The idea of a Practice, of religion as something To Do rather than simply a label for what one is, or a set of beliefs, a list of propositions that to be affirmed, is very strong in Buddhist traditions and in Neopagan ones. Being a (Druid, Hellenic Reconstructionist, member of the Troth, whatever) means primarily doing certain things, at certain times, in certain ways, usually with a group of people. It is less important that everyone has the same opinions or theories about the gods, for example, than that everyone shows up to ritual with an appropriate offering for the deity to be honored, and speaks respectfully to the deity if given the opportunity.

For a lot of American Protestants, this would be a very strange idea. Religion is about belief, and belief means assent to a description of the universe, which may or may not be called a creed. People seem able to conceive of themselves as quite acceptable Christians without going to church, taking communion, or following the teachings of Jesus–because they believe the right things.

But the idea of religion as right practice is not really foreign to an Anglican. The Anglican tradition, and later the Anglican Communion, crystallized around a book of prayers, a book of practice, rather than around a description of beliefs. Lutheran tradition, for example, produced a number of confessions, whereas Anglican traditions did not. The Thirty-Nine Articles have never had the mojo of an official confession or catechism (although Article Twenty-Six has often been a great comfort to me in my affliction).

Anglicans like to quote a saying from the early Church: Lex orandi, lex credendi. The rule of prayer is the rule of belief. What we pray, what we affirm in our liturgy, is what we believe. What I believe as a Christian is what I pray: The Psalms, the Apostles’ Creed, the prayers of the Office and the Eucharist. Liturgy in the church is older than the creeds, older even than the canon of Scripture; the Church is older than the Bible, that is, the Christian community is older than the list of texts that it defined as authoritative.

I am not at all certain that I believe what I say in the Apostles’ Creed, if by “believe” I mean “assent to it as a definitive map of reality”. I say it because it links me with the Church, because it reaffirms my baptism and confirmation. I am even less certain that I believe what I sing in the Nicene Creed, which is full of Greek philosophical jargon that ceased to be widely understood over 1000 years ago; it is less important that I assent to it than that I sing on pitch and at a brisk tempo.

What I do believe, and by “believe” I mean trust in and rely on, is that God is present; God is listening; Jesus is a revelation of God; the Gospels have something important to tell me; and the Anglican tradition is a source of wisdom and peace for me, because it is a tradition of music, poetry, and story.

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“A cold coming we had of it,
Just the worst time of the year
For a journey, and such a long journey:
The was deep and the weather sharp,
The very dead of winter.”
And the camels galled, sore-footed, refractory,
Lying down in the melting snow.
There were times we regretted
The summer palaces on slopes, the terraces,
And the silken girls bringing sherbet.
Then the camel men cursing and grumbling
And running away, and wanting their liquor and women,
And the night-fires gong out, and the lack of shelters,
And the cities hostile and the towns unfriendly
And the villages dirty, and charging high prices.:
A hard time we had of it.
At the end we preferred to travel all night,
Sleeping in snatches,
With the voices singing in our ears, saying
That this was all folly.

Then at dawn we came down to a temperate valley,
Wet, below the snow line, smelling of vegetation;
With a running stream and a water-mill beating the darkness,
And three trees on the low sky,
And an old white horse galloped away in the meadow.
Then we came to a tavern with vine-leaves over the lintel,
Six hands at an open door dicing for pieces of silver,
And feet kicking the empty wine-skins.
But there was no information, and so we continued
And arrived at evening, not a moment too soon
Finding the place; it was (you may say) satisfactory.

All this was a long time ago, I remember,
And I would do it again, but set down
This set down
This: were we lead all that way for
Birth or Death? There was a Birth, certainly,
We had evidence and no doubt. I have seen birth and death,
But had thought they were different; this Birth was
Hard and bitter agony for us, like Death, our death.
We returned to our places, these Kingdoms,
But no longer at ease here, in the old dispensation,
With an alien people clutching their gods.
I should be glad of another death.

–T.S. Eliot

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