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.