A while ago, I found myself thinking about my time teaching high school in Chicago. In part, I was thinking about the experience of being a classroom teacher but it was more than that. I was thinking about the community into which I was welcomed and which truly helped form me as a person, as a Christian, as a servant, and — ironically — as a man. I say “ironically” because the Mother McAuley Liberal Arts High School was a women’s school: a high school for women, led by women, which prided itself on raising up thoughtful, creative, faithful, strong, courageous women. And they did just that, in droves. Back then, I was one among, maybe, 9 or 10 male teachers. Most of the maintenance staff and a few of the administrative staff were also men. That made, oh, about 16 of us — on a good day. 16 amidst 1,800 students (all girls) and maybe 150 faculty and staff. It made finding a men’s bathroom, for instance, a bit of a challenge, but the good news is that once you found one the lines were always short!
It was, for me, a great experience to be in such a pronounced minority and, more so, to be part of a tradition which is, even today, counter-cultural, radical, different. It confirmed for me that those spiritualities which run against the grain of this world offer the greatest possibilities of new life.
I needed that, and I needed it (though I hardly knew I did) at that precise moment in my life. At 24 years young, I’d already experienced the odd faith formation of growing up in a Christian congregation which was in mourning that it was no longer at the center of the community and starting to die, and I’d just come out of three years of profoundly challenging, formative, but also spirit-numbing education at a predominately secular divinity school. I needed creativity, vitality, liveliness, and yet I couldn’t walk away from all that intellectual stuff I loved. I needed balance.
On a rainy afternoon in early June 2000, I went to an interview at a school which, I thought, wouldn’t even think to hire me to teach theology — a man, an Episcopalian, at that, and someone who’s never had any teaching experience, ever. I was so convinced they wouldn’t hire me that I didn’t even wear a tie. “I’m going there to get ‘interview experience,'” I told a friend. A few hours after I walked in and was given a tour and went through a round of interviews the Principal, Sr. Rose, offered me a job. I said I’d need to think about it. Walking out onto the circle drive which led to the school’s front doors, the morning rain had cleared and it was sunny and starting to get warm. I got in my car and knew I had to say yes. About 15 minutes later, I called back and accepted.
I’m forever grateful I said yes.
One reason, I suppose, I was thinking about all of that a while ago is because I was working on a sermon about women and Christianity. The New Testament lesson for an upcoming Sunday was from Acts of the Apostles chapter 16, in which Paul on one of his missionary journeys runs into Lydia, a “dealer in purple cloth.” Lydia gets baptized along with her whole house, and it’s surmised that Lydia not only became a Christian but also served as a patron and sponsor of early Christianity — she even founded a church in her own home. Obviously, I was thinking about early Christianity’s gender inclusivity which was, to them, nothing really to be thought about or discussed. They just did it. They welcomed men and women into leadership positions, because their Master and Lord had already done so. They didn’t practice inclusivity for a better marketing slant or to be more relevant or hip. That’s who they knew themselves to be, a new people in Christ, so to do anything different would be to defy their own nature.
One of my colleagues in the Theology Department, while I was teaching, used to reserve the Community Room — an expansive room down the hall from the theology classrooms. When the girls got to her classroom door, they noticed a sign which read something like: “Go to Lydia’s home (i.e., the Community Room).” There, they met their teacher dressed in beautiful, flowing purple fabric. She invited them to come in. They sat in a wide circle on the floor and lit candles and shared a meal and sang songs and read scripture and said prayers and reflected on their life. Then the bell would ring and off they’d go to their next class — geometry or chemistry or english or history or painting. Lydia was, to them, new, different, odd, unusual, counter-cultural.
Lydia was all those things to the secular communities in which early Christianity grew, too. Reading the New Testament, I’m often struck that so many of Jesus’ earliest followers were, in the eyes of their world, strange. And it’s not that they didn’t notice or didn’t care or get hurt — emotionally, perhaps, but I’m also thinking about the demands of physical persecution — but, rather, they simply couldn’t live differently than the way they knew to be in Christ. Spontaneity abounded. Wherever God the Holy Spirit was moving that’s where they went. Creativity pulsed through their message. They rejoiced when they could come together and wept when they parted, but they weren’t entirely tears of sadness. Conflict was rife. Because of which, I’ve always thought, they grew.
The Mother McAuley Liberal Arts High School in Chicago is named after the founder of the Sisters of Mercy, Catherine McAuley, who set out to do a new thing in nineteenth century Dublin. She set out to make that society a little bit more just and liveable, and her only viable option was to form a new religious order. From what I gather, reading a bit between the lines, Catherine wasn’t entirely thrilled about becoming in the world’s understanding a “nun.” This isn’t altogether clear from the history books which celebrate Catherine and the movement she started, but a lot of the treatment of Catherine McAuley and the Sisters of Mercy and the Mercy charism, I found, were somewhat hagiographic and romanticized.
I’ve often wondered if today Catherine would’ve been a social worker or a Christian radical, but I suspect she wouldn’t have become a politician or establish a think-tank: Catherine’s gift was clearly relational, and she inspired women and, through them, men to join a movement which was fundamentally egalitarian and missional, a movement focused solely on meeting the needs of society as those needs currently presented — and present — themselves. It was the Sisters of Mercy, nicknamed the ‘walking nuns’ because without hesitation they abandoned a cloistered lifestyle and quickly responded to the needs of the poor, who travelled in the early days alongside waves of second generation immigrants, most notably the Irish, to New York and Boston and Chicago. It was those same Sisters of Mercy who established the first hospital and initial schools in late-19th century Chicago, that wild west, frontier town. In part they were nurses and caregivers and teachers and servants. On another level they were radicals — teaching young women basic skills so they wouldn’t need to be dependent on men; affirming that a woman’s voice is just as clear as a man’s; forging a place for balance and mission in a church and world, in many ways, ordered against such values.
I think it’s important that we, Christians, put in some hard work to learn a language and re-brand a set of symbols that are, at their heart, counter-cultural, challenging, different, other and, in that, profoundly life-giving. The cross is the very definition of such a symbol, isn’t it? Talk about strange, ironic, challenging and life-giving. This is a kind of Lenten discipline we’d be wise to invest in, kindling once again the value of being ‘other.’
It’s already a part of our story. Look no further than Lydia or Catherine or any of those women — and men — doing a new thing today.
Anyone who’s ever served on a church search committee knows what I’m talking about. There’s such a gulf between our hopes, our expectations and the real qualities of real people who put their names forward. As Americans, we deal with the swell of expectation and inevitable dissapointment regularly — every four years, in fact. But we know in another four years we get to make a choice again. Churches are harder places for leadership shifts. In the church, we know we’ll be living with the consequence of our choice and, to be honest, living with what we didn’t know or expect at the time for a long, long time.
We don’t like to feel powerless. That’s why search committees worry about things which are so far beyond anyone’s capacity or comprehension, unless they actually have a crystal ball. It’s impossible to know how in the particular person of the Rev’d Mrs. Right or the Rev’d Mr. Wonderful (or, in the conclave, Cardinal So-and-so) our future hopes, past experience, and projected expectations will merge and find meaning. And which I should quickly add “…find meaning, for me.”
That’s just it. We like to be in control. We are in control of a whole lot of things: what words we use, whether we tell our children we love them, what groceries we buy, whether we go the gym, how we spend our money, and who we associate with.
And yet we are decidedly not in control of a number of other things: why bad things happen or, for that matter, why good things happen, why other people act the way they do, whatever happens in the stock market, and why we are unable to resist impulse buys in a checkout line.
The question is how we deal. Some among us, the Type A’s, exert such profound control over the things they can manage they never have to deal with the things they can’t. Others write poetry or songs. Some drink, others buy things. Still others, most notably youngest children such as myself, don’t really give a hoot because we actually suspect someone else is in charge. And still others are brilliant conspiracy theorists, and here I’m thinking not only of Oliver Stone but the folks who produce FoxNews and MSNBC.
We want to be in control and yet we know we’re not. We want to manage the big things and, to add insult to injury, we’re afraid we don’t know who’s in the back office and, even if we knew, we still couldn’t trust them. We are walking, talking contradictions. Our Lutheran friends have a great phrase for this: paradox, defined by Merriam-Webster as “a statement that is seemingly contradictory or opposed to common sense and yet is perhaps true.” That concept doesn’t solve anything (not for the Type A’s, at least) but it makes the conflict feel a bit more palatably holy. To me, it’s always seemed the healthiest, least dysfunctional, most honest stance to do what 12-steppers call Step One: admit it. Admit your human-ness, your frailty, powerlessness, lack of imagination, inability to control the future, and general anxiety about what’s coming next.
There’s good news and bad news.
The good news is that most of those who work in the institutional church, by and large, get this. Over the past several decades, we’ve started becoming honest. We’ve started to be unafraid of claiming our numerical decline, brokenness and powerlessness and laying that mess before God. A seminary professor once pointed out the irony that most churches house AA groups but treat them like tenants or, in some cases, nuisances. Too many churches, he remarked, fail to connect the transformative potential of 12-step spirituality to their actual functioning. Too many fail to see AA as a mission partner, maybe mission builder, not just a renter. (To be honest, the second “A” does have something to do with this.) Fortunately, over time, the institutional Christian church has become increasingly comfortable with admitting our powerlessness. Maybe being honest about, say, numerical decline is the first step towards actually seeking wisdom from a Higher Power.
Bad news: this still comes as a shock to lots of people. It vexes search committees and stymies personnel decisions in too many churches. Too often, we call institutional managers instead of pastors or, at least, expect those we call to be patient managers even though we might actually need what William Willimon called in a recent Christian Century article “impatient instigators”. The 2005 papal transition highlighted this gulf, as well. When the veritable definition of “institutional-manager”, Cardinal Ratzinger, became Benedict XVI, taking over after John Paul II, he not only followed a genuinely gregarious leader but — and this is no small point — took the reigns after his predecessor’s 27-year reign, over which time most of the world either became so comfortable with the ways J.P.2 filled the red shoes or, rather, never knew another Supreme Pontiff.
That’s why Benedict is, today, Benedicto!, a true blessing not only to the church but to the world. He’s handing off leadership in a public way without the, um, advantage of dying in office — a quick trip to sainthood for anyone in the church. It is a blessing — benedicto! — to finally be honest, and not only that but publicly so.
So let’s keep the spirit alive. Here’s the honest truth made public, church: most of those whom you call to lead these institutions have, through a long process of discernment, had to undergo fairly intense spiritual, emotional, psychological and, add to that, physical inspection and introspection, and we’re really serious about working on the inner life. We think there’s real value to doing that, and we also think it’s a blessing that people aren’t joining churches to get a job connection or “see and be seen”. Rather, we actually expect people who come to church to also want or at least want to want some intense spiritual and emotional introspection and hear a message about changing the way we live our lives.
Now that we’re being honest, we also want to admit we’ve been afraid of a lot of you who want us to act as managers and fit your prototypes and expectations. We’re afraid of rocking the boat too much because (a) we don’t want to come across as meanies — though we have spiritual directors who help us deal with that — and (b) we’re all too painfully aware that no small number of folks think of church as nothing more than a voluntary organization, no different than the Elks Lodge, so if things change too much too quickly a number of you might just revoke your pledge. We’ve been unsteadily trying to re-frame the conversation and talk more about God’s mission. We’ve been afraid and sheepish.
We haven’t been as clear as we need to be, but I think it’s time. I sense that it’s time.
In my experience, I’m touched by the ways in which the yearning for honesty spills across generational lines. I’ve been pleased that most people genuinely come to church for spiritual, life-changing reasons. I also think we’ve sold ourselves short. For me, it’s been argued too often that Baby Boomers have an inability to talk about the stuff of real life — stuff which may involve brokenness or powerlessness — because they remember with fondness the stable institutions of their youth, and they’re trying to recreate their childhood. That’s just not true. Most members of the Baby Boom generation I know have watched their children and, now, grandchildren grow up in an changed world and they’ve come to terms with uncertainty, disorder, and suffering. It’s also the case that the Boomers who wish for the 1950s all over again have already left churches because they sense we’re serious about steering into the wind, and those who’ve remained in our congregations are already doing that profound inner work. It’s also been said too much that young people, today, don’t have a moral bone in their body or they’ve just put their faith in Apple products — not Jesus like previous generations did. Youth and young adults have quite penetrating faith in God, and they also have a great ability to see what’s really there. Many young adults are looking for congregations to take that Lord who turned over tables in the Temple quite seriously, and act in their lives and in our society as a voice of change — a voice which gets its power because it comes from the margins, not the center. They just don’t find as much meaning in potlucks and old-fashioned dinners as did previous generations. This gulf is being bridged day after day in most parish churches across our nation. It’s refreshing to see someone in her 80s sit down over coffee with someone in his 20s and talk openly, truthfully, and meaningfully about life’s ups and downs, a conversation in which neither party is offering advice or trying to fix anything, both there as companions on the way.
This is good news, church. And it’s time to be honest, publicly honest, and celebrate the work we’ve been doing and which previous leaders have envisioned. It’s time to be a lot more bold about it, in fact, for if the Christian church can’t be the place in society in which people come from all walks of life and form community grounded in honesty and truth-telling, who will be?
Benedicto!, Benedict XVI or Pope Emeritus or Cardinal Ratzinger or whatever we’re supposed to call you these days. Maybe, in the spirit of all this refreshing honesty, we’ll just get back to basics, and remember the only name God knows you by – Joseph. Well done.
In the annals of the church of my youth there was a great pastor who served for nearly three decades. He was renowned in the community and his sermons, legend has it, filled the pews, so much so they needed to build a larger church. The new edifice went up next to the existing building. It was a grand space, a long nave with a skinny chancel and grand pulpit. With regard to the particular functioning of this pastor, the new building featured two notable elements – the first, an expansive pastor’s study replete with fireplace, leaded-glass windows and balcony, located high up in the tower and only accessible via a steep staircase, so high that, obviously, accessibility and pastoral calls were not highly regarded. The second was an idyllic courtyard carved out of the space between the two buildings and which the congregation came to call ‘the garth’, itself a lovely, archaic phrase. This pastor, Dr. McGee was his name, wrote poems, too. The only poem I can recall was about the Garth Garden, how much he loved the simple, solemn quietude of a space set apart which featured, in his time, a bubbling fountain in its midst.
To me, nowadays, his sermons aren’t particularly compelling — they express the best of 1920s liberal Protestantism with snippets of bible verses thrown in. His poems, even the one about the garth, weren’t altogether timeless either. But that didn’t matter, not at the time nor in the decades which followed. It wasn’t what he wrote or said. It was the feeling and, in particular, the associations folks added to those feelings which mattered, and which have made Dr. McGee’s words into phrases which seem to reside, for some among the congregation, among the classics.
Distortions can all too easily morph into delusions which, over time, become distractions. I don’t know when I first came across George Herbert, the seventeenth-century English priest and poet who truly belongs among the classics, but when I did I stayed or tried to stay, to breathe his air, to remain. There’s something that seems pure in The Country Parson, Herbert’s description of the life and character of a country priest, living out one’s vocation in a little village, taking pride in the routine acts of daily prayer, serving the common person, taking rest as the fire crackles in the vicarage hearth at the close of day. A poet as well, Herbert is responsible for a collection of penetrating verse, The Temple.
Beware the delusion, however. We draw too closely a connection between a quiet, country life and the ability to think deep thoughts, to write lasting words. We, the reader, make the link between Herbert’s verse and text back to Herbert’s life. This is as true for lovers of George Herbert or those fond of Dr. McGee as it is for the wider television audience of Downton Abbey or those who remember the Vicar of Dibley or wish for the simpler antics of Fr. Tim in the Mitford series. Of course, anyone who’s actually read Herbert’s Country Parson is aware that I’ve painted pictures of a simple, bucolic life which is, frankly, nowhere found in his actual text, a piece of writing, it should be added, which is something of a laborious list of duties and pietistic expectations. I’m sure life in Downton Castle, itself, wouldn’t have been as romantic as we’d like to think in our daydreaming.
Maybe it’s limited to Anglo-philes, not to mention the entirely strange caste called Episcopal clergy, but George Herbert has long exerted a real influence. In the summer of 2004, I closed the chapter on a life in Chicago, a life I had come to treasure and enjoy, taking pleasure in that great city’s many cosmopolitan offerings. Off I went to the Virginia Theological Seminary to do my one-year Anglican ‘dip’, as it’s been called. A part of me (or was it my bishop?) told me that I was coming back to Chicago at the end of that year. I could have a wonderful, formative time but I wasn’t there to plant roots. When the time came, early on, to choose which parish I’d work at as seminarian for the year, I resisted the advice of most folks who told me to go across the river to Washington, DC, find an urban congregation and connect there. That’s what I’ll be doing when I go back to Chicago, they reasoned. That’s what I’ll be doing when I go back to Chicago, I heard, so maybe there’s something else.
I had spent a week before the beginning of the academic year with my aunt and uncle in St. Mary’s County, Maryland, the birthplace of the colony, locals are quick to say, but which is known by anyone who knows of St. Mary’s as the southernmost tip of the rural portion of the state known as southern Maryland. For that week under the hot August sun, I helped my uncle harvest grapes in his vineyard and, as the day closed, we sat under a great shade tree and drank wine and ate figs, hardly a noise to be heard except the crickets, no such thing as a traffic light, only the lush colors of a sunset and the brilliant nighttime stars and moonlight. On Sunday, I ventured with them to the Episcopal chapel which has been their worshiping community as long as they lived there and which, together with its parish church up the road, has served that community for centuries, pretty much ever since Europeans stepped onto the shores of this part of the continent, back in 1634.
“That’s where I’d like to spend this year,” I told the seminary’s director of field education. He thought I was crazy, wanting to drive more than seventy miles one way to my field education site, but he let me do it nevertheless. And thus began a year of leaving the busy-ness of northern Virginia and the insularity of a seminary community and hopping in my car on Saturday mornings to drive down and spend a weekend in the country. It was election season, as I remember, and the Kerry/Edwards signs which populated northern Virginia turned, in time, to a greater preponderance of Bush/Cheney signs once you got past the Washington, DC metro area. What I found in St. Mary’s Chapel and Trinity Episcopal Church, St. Mary’s City, however, was in fact a wonderful cobbling together of diverse people – watermen and farmers worshiping next to professors and defense contractors, those who came here recently kneeling at the same altar rail as those who can trace their family’s lineage back to the original settlers, just as countless generations of people had done in a colonial parish which feels, to us Americans, almost ancient.
True to his word, the parish priest who was, for that year, my mentor (and is now my friend), let me do almost anything and everything I could think of, which is when I also learned the truth underneath George Herbert’s Country Parson – that in a country parish you do have the opportunity and, indeed, challenge of being involved in just about everything: you’re not only the chaplain and liturgical functionary who works in the church; you wear a lot of other hats. You’re the closest thing many families have to a commonly-agreed-upon counselor in times of dispute or need; you’re a fixture at family parties and reunions; you are known throughout the community, even when you don’t wear your collar; you have a public role and, in time, you’ll bless everything from pets to yachts to vineyards to fire trucks. You are a public person which is the very origin of the term parson. For me, it was a year rich in learning and formation, a profound and eye-opening year.
At the end of that academic year, not even nine months after I first stumbled upon St. Mary’s County, I packed my bags once again and headed back to Chicago. I’d been called to serve as curate at a large urban parish, a call I was not only looking forward to but, quite honestly, a type of vocation – curate, then rector of a city parish, then who knows what – I thought I was going to be engaged in for the rest of my life.
Looking backward on my life I may have a different perspective but back then, while a curate, I was enjoying a great mentoring program but I was, as I probably told people at the time, bored. My duties were primarily functional and limited (I was only a curate, after all) and, as is often the case, I was doted upon by some within the congregation and held up as one who could do no wrong (I wasn’t the rector, after all). I wanted more and, yet, I also wanted less. I felt disconnected from the ground of that place’s being, divorced from the ground of my own priestly being, too, so haughty did I become when first ordained. In the back of my mind, I kept returning to George Herbert or, in truth, what I thought was the call of a simple, peaceful, holy, country life. Thus it was that the celebration of my time as curate was also my sending forth to a little country parish, nestled within the hills and valleys of St. Mary’s County, Maryland.
The layers of associations we’ve lumped onto figures such as George Herbert are a palpable force and, on some level, a siren song. This needs to be admitted. This needs to be dealt with, along with some intense denominational therapy, I’d say. In his compelling 2009 book, If You Meet George Herbert on the Road, Kill Him, Justin Lewis-Anthony makes the point that we’ve vaulted an image, no less a graven image of George Herbert, not the real deal. “Herbert has been, and continues to be, used as an exemplar, the exemplar for the English parson,” Lewis-Anthony writes. “Whether you are High Church, Low Church, Evangelical, Charismatic, whatever, Herbert is portrayed as the prototype of the pastor, teacher, almoner, negotiator, gentleman, scholar. He is Ur-Vicar, the Echt-Rector.” Further, though he was relatively unpublished in his brief lifetime, George Herbert’s fame not only grew posthumously (Lewis-Anthony: “this has always been the fast-track to canonization in the folk religion of the Church of England”) but the myth of Herbert became established lore, most interestingly, when Anglicanism was trying to find its distinct voice. In times of conflict, uncertainty, distraction, confusion, and the feeling that we are far from the ground of our being, we yearn for simplicity, purity, holiness. Often, in such moments, we find George Herbert or, rather, who we’ve turned him into.
Having served as a country parson for nearly six years now, I can report there is no idyllic ‘Bemerton parish’. There’s hard work and struggle, with enough silver linings to remind me why God is calling me here. There’s confusion and disorder and uncertainty, graced by moments of pure bliss in which I have, literally, felt God’s presence. There’s frustration and ego and pride which sneaks in, more often than I care to admit, and, at the close of most days, a true delight in simplicity. I knew something was up when, following one particularly contentious Vestry meeting early in my time, I woke in the middle of the night and couldn’t get back to sleep, so nagging on my soul was that one person and her downright stubbornness. Never before moving here had I ever awoken in the middle of the night. Never.
When a friend asked about the differences between a large, urban congregation and this smaller, country parish, I shared what was, at the time, an astonishing realization – that the issues between the two contexts were eerily similar, if not entirely the same. “That’s probably true,” she said to me, adding: “I’d guess that when you went from a larger church to a smaller one what you really traded was quantity for intimacy.” Intimacy is a two-edged sword. When intimately connected, as we are in small communities and country parishes, you love deeply and you fight powerfully. In this place, I’ve suffered – and suffered publicly, out in the open, at that. I’ve experienced crushing defeat and loss and, along with it, piercing shame and guilt. In this place, too, I’ve celebrated growth and witnessed depth, such things which only point to the authorship of a vibrant, living God. Here, I’ve achieved things I only previously believed, hoped I was capable of and I’ve been surrounded by love and warmth to a depth and degree I never imagined existed, not the least of which through the gift of my daughter who was born here. This place has been my cross and the working-out of my redemption, my bitterness and my land of milk and honey. And yet it’s not so on the surface. Not at all. The thread which weaves my little story in and out of God’s greater one is intimacy; without it, this is just a place and these are just people and this is just a job and that struggle is no failure of mine and that success just another notch on my resume.
The point Justin Lewis-Anthony makes is not only that we’ve vaulted the wrong image, not only that there is no bucolic Bemerton parish (…add to that list Dibley, Mitford, or whatever parish Downton’s in, for that matter), but that these delusions mustn’t be searched for. I take his point as a good one: there’s a disease in our church-ness, convincing us that church is supposed to be entirely gentle and calm and peaceful and lovely. The provocative comedian Eddie Izzard described it in this way: “Nowadays, Church of England is much more ‘hello’, ‘how are you’, much more of a hobby-type. A lot of people in the Church of England have no muscles in their arms,” Izzard carried on in a routine, traipsing about on stage like a wimpy, dorky priest. This is ruining our churches. We really don’t know how to engage our world and get out there, get messy. (For Exhibit A, I’d introduce into evidence the line-drawing of Chicago’s Church of Our Saviour – that bustling urban parish where I served as curate – hanging in my office. The sketch doesn’t include the apartment buildings behind the church nor the ones across the street, from which vantage point the drawing is made, nor does it include any hint of cars and people on Fullerton Parkway, nor anything that might tell you it sits squarely in a densely populated section of a major city. No, in this drawing, there’s an expansive lawn, no neighboring flats and, most beguiling, trees are sketched in where the rest of the city would, otherwise, be.) This is ruining seminary formation, as well; too many folks are running from the demands of their busy, hectic, professional lives into what they think is a simple and peaceable job, that of a priest, and how nice it’d be to live and pray and eat in a seminary community for three blissful years. As it turns out this, too, is ruining our churches. In the absence of bold, entrepreneurial, faithful leadership, we know what to expect. Taking Lewis-Anthony’s words as an indictment of our failure to truly grow congregations and do evangelism – a consequence of our inability to re-thinking priestly ministry – we are guilty as charged.
And yet once the graven image of George Herbert is smashed to bits, as it surely must be, we have for the first time the opportunity to come close to the person, the lived experience of a man of God, to see what he did with his experience. This is a really hard thing, to take George Herbert down from the library shelf. I’m thinking in particular of one of T. S. Eliot’s last books, his 1962 contribution to the ‘Writers and their Work’ critical series, Eliot’s George Herbert. The bulk of this thin, three-chapter work is spent tracing the connections and distinctions between Herbert and his literary and spiritual mentor, John Donne. Comparing one of Donne’s most famous religious sonnets (“Batter my heart, three person’d God…”) with Herbert’s poem Prayer (I) (“Prayer the Churches banquet, Angels age…”) Eliot claims:
“The difference that I wish to emphasize is not that between the violence of Donne and the gentle imagery of Herbert, but rather a difference between the dominance of sensibility over intellect. Both men were highly intellectual, both men had very keen sensibility: but in Donne thought seems in control of feeling, and in Herbert feeling seems in control of thought. …[W]hereas Herbert, for all that he had been successful as Public Orator of Cambridge University, has a much more intimate tone of speech. We do not know what Herbert’s sermons were like; but we can conjecture that in addressing his little congregation of rustics, all of whom he knew personally, and many of whom must have received both spiritual and material comfort from him and from his wife, he adopted a more homely style.”
Eliot comes so close, let me say, to breathing George Herbert, describing his “intimate tone of speech”, picturing him surrounded by those “whom he knew personally.” Yet even in this there’s separation, a removal, the kindling of what becomes, in others, romanticization, delusion. Perhaps it was the Englishness which Eliot came to treasure and, in time, adopt or that he was commissioned to write a critical piece about Herbert but, nevertheless, it strikes me as odd that there’s such a remove from the real lived experience of George Herbert – analysis so devoid of intimacy that Eliot, in a sense, furthers the delusion, imagining “homely” homilies preached to “rustics.” Once vaulted there, Herbert resides permanently in the pantheon of the classics, rendering him as untouchable and statue-like as, to us Americans, George Washington is still.
What’s really standing in the way of growing the church is that we are downright afraid of the hard work involved in becoming the Body of Christ, the intimate and vulnerable work of becoming really human, really broken, really redeemed women and men who know themselves to be living out the story of God’s salvation. That description probably sums up the character of George Herbert, but we’ve become so distracted with the graven image, our own projected delusions. In his time Herbert took what he had – language – and used it in decidedly novel, penetrating ways. Language is what we all have, in fact; it’s the only thing we possess to express that which resides within. Of late, we’ve tried hiding behind the status quo and Christendom, but that’s falling apart. We’ve tried High Church or Low, chasubles and copes, ashes to go on street corners, but the world has said it doesn’t care about our wardrobes or churchmanship even while it may be amused by our gimmicks from time to time. What instead people seem to be searching is a lived story of redemption, experienced and expressed in the intimate truth-telling of real human persons.
This is vulnerable, frightening, new work. And yet this is Herbert’s life’s work and what he modeled for us, that is, until we meddled. Northwestern University’s Regina M. Schwartz offers, for the literary community, a new interpretation of George Herbert and, for the faith-based community, what I’d call a fitting method to renew focus. In her essay “From Ritual to Poetry: Herbert’s Mystical Eucharist,” Schwartz argues that “in an age when the sacraments were under fire and undergoing rapid revision,” George Herbert left behind the opportunities and worldly trappings he enjoyed as a university spokesman, took up a living in a little parish, and did a poignant thing. Boldly, he dug into his own life, warts and all, and drew connections to God’s life, which has no small amount of turbulence and pain but whose destination is always, already redemption. Herbert made the story of the interior life accessible and, most notably, sacramental. In the seventeenth century “poetry,” Schwartz maintains, “is called upon to carry the performative power of the liturgy.” This is a refreshingly different way to adopt the legacy of the Rector of Bemerton, considering Schwartz’s words:
“Unlike so many theologians, Herbert shows no interest in defining the meal served – in addressing the issue of the Eucharistic elements – instead, he attends to the process of conversation itself, the calling and answering. What is at the heart of Herbert’s mystery of the Eucharist is that an utterance could ever be heard, that a call could ever be answered, an offer ever received, an invitation ever be accepted, a conversation ever take place. For Herbert, then, an important aspect of this sacramental mystery is the mystery of language. …In [his] understanding of language, what is said and its relation to the referent – the sign to the signified – is less important than the activity of saying, than the conversation itself. …We have much to gain by framing the question as Herbert did: not economically but linguistically, in the context of conversation. For when we shift the trope from gift to conversation, we no longer imagine an exchange of goods; instead, we think of a response that evokes a further response. There is a world of difference.”
Realizing Herbert’s legacy should’ve been that of a man who knew, intimately, his own wretchedness and potential and one who knew, in turn, how to express with authenticity that place where God’s divinity meets our humanity, sans gimmicks, it’s all the more painful to admit that we’ve participated, we’ve directed the future of this particular illusion.
There is, indeed, a world of difference once we leave behind the graven images of cloistered garths and expansive studies; of bucolic parishes, whether Bemerton or Dibley or Mitford; of simple, blissful lives we’ll never be fortunate enough to have or find, though we may try and keep trying. There is a world of difference when we realize that the only possibility of resurrection is found in that kingdom planted within, and that the road to unmasking that mystery takes us straightaway through our humanity, indeed, demands that we become fully human, intimate with our joys and pain, our pride and anguish, our failures and achievements, our Crosses and our Easter Days. In this day in which none can hide behind pietistic pabulum, and which we, Jesus followers, ought no longer even if we may, no one wants our distorted signs and broken symbols, our treasured relics which speak confusion and, at times, pain to the world beyond. I won’t be so audacious as to stake a claim for what others want, but what the world certainly needs is our utterly true self, presented as a vulnerable and substantial offering, a sign of what new life looks like: intimately wedded, like the disciple whom Jesus loved, resting on the very heart of God. Again, for the first time in a long, long time, maybe ever, we’re coming to terms with this George Herbert, the only reason he’s made it through the ages.
Earlier today, I sat with a Baptist and ate breakfast prepared by Roman Catholic neighbors in an Episcopal church. All week long, I’ve shared community with Methodists, Catholics, Episcopalians, Baptists, Pentecostals, and folks from lots of other traditions I’m not even aware of. I’m talking about WARM, the intentional network of faith-based organizations who provide shelter and food to persons who are homeless, but it’s obviously bigger than that.
Today, Jan. 18, is the Feast of the Confession of St. Peter — when Simon Peter said, “You’re the Messiah;” to which Jesus said, “Righto! You are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church…” The week between now and next Friday – Jan. 25, the Confession (or Heavenly Knock-down) of St. Paul – is observed around the world as “the week of prayer for Christian unity.” If you count it up it’s actually eight days, that is, an octave. Begun by a Catholic priest in the early 20th century as the Octave of Prayer for Christian Unity, the celebration was blessed by Popes Pius (d. 1914) and Benedict XV (d. 1922) and soon caught on among Protestant churches, as well, such that by the middle of last century the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity was officially sanctioned by the World Council of Churches and is practiced today by 349 different Christian denominations around the world.
It’s fitting that it’s squeezed between celebrations of Peter and Paul, those two bright lights of early Christianity. They were bright and gifted and shining lights, no doubt, but they also struggled, both of them, with pride and power and position. Peter was with Jesus from the earliest days; he helped coordinate the disciples and became, in time, the spokesman for the original twelve and a key leader in the post-Ascension Jesus movement. He had presence and longevity and personal relationships and skill. Paul, on the other hand, was the brash, bold, new upstart. Paul didn’t know Jesus personally, and even if you set aside that whole bit about Saul/Paul persecuting early Christians, he was still the new kid. But that didn’t stop him from speaking his mind and following the Spirit where it led, even if it meant fights over what shape the Jesus movement was going to take. If Paul and Peter, in spite of their very human posturing, could be on the same team and work for the same mission, so can we. Hence, a week of prayer for Christian unity.
When I was in Chicago, serving as curate at the Episcopal church in the Lincoln Park neighborhood, we did a pulpit swap on the Sunday nearest this week. One block down the street there was a Presbyterian church, and two blocks down was the UCC congregation. Three blocks down and two streets over was the big Roman Catholic parish. The clergy got together around the first of the year and made a plan as to who was hopping over to which church at which service that weekend. It was really fun not only to get together, at least once a year, with other Christian ministers but also nice to celebrate and hear different preachers and expose ourselves to the rich diversity of Christian faith and practices.
We don’t do a pulpit swap like that in St. Mary’s County, and one logistical reason is that most of us don’t have multi-staff parishes so one priest can stay back in order to lead the service while the other can go and preach. But we do have WARM, which is, as I’ve said in a previous post, not only about helping people who are homeless but also about helping us, the so-called helpers. WARM, by intention, brings into relationship people who might otherwise not meet, let alone spend quality time together. Maybe it’s the way we set it up at St. George’s, Valley Lee, but from the very beginning (due to the fact that we were afraid we wouldn’t have enough help) we reached out to our partner Episcopal churches as well as our neighbor Methodist church and Catholic parish and Baptist congregation. And they not only help us in the work but they partner with us, such that they are known in this congregation and we are known in theirs, such that we are now more than neighbors, we’re brothers and sisters and, indeed, friends.
Christian unity is a gift, not only to us who follow Jesus but to the world we are called to serve. Christians model, by our very existence, a deep and real unity — not uniformity of belief or practice or custom, but unity in spirit, grounded in relationship, founded in God.
I’ve always thought that one of the greatest things about Christianity is the way in which we’ve preserved our disagreements – theological, doctrinal, liturgical, whatever. I mean, no one ever went back over the New Testament and tried to downplay or “clean up” the disagreement between Peter and Paul or the others. No, they left it all in, warts and blow-ups and screaming matches and all. And we don’t try to water down our worship or diminish our traditions in order to make our modern-day differences less obvious. Some of us handle snakes (yikes!) and some of us use incense. Some base everything on the bible, as it is written, others bring in the traditional writings. Some use the Apocrypha, some only use the Old and New Testaments. There are priests in some churches, pastors in others, parsons, prophets, bishops, evangelists, and whatever else in every which one. And that’s great.
And that’s how it should be, for if we’re not united on the outward things our unity must be deeper, much deeper within. That’s where the Kingdom of God has been, He said, all along.