People of the Books: The Devils of Loudun by Aldous Huxley

I truly did not mean to stay away for a month, my apologies.  Every time I think I have a handle on this semester, something else comes along—however, now that we’re in midterms (can you believe it?) I think I might be finding a rhythm.  This is a semester where I spent A LOT of time actually in class, which is unusual for graduate school.  I’m hoping this is not the case next semester; be patient with me, Reader, and stick around.

I have a great many books that have been piling up and it’s been some time since I did a review, so I present The Devils of Loudun by Aldous Huxley.  I don’t remember where or when I got this, but I do remember picking it up solely because Huxley (of Brave New World fame) wrote it and I was fascinated to see what he’d do with devils.

It is, I discovered, a historical overview of a spate of supposed possessions in a convent in Loudun, France, in the 17th century.  Or it’s an indictment of 17th century Church corruption.  Or it’s a showcase of what happens when you tell people sexuality is bad but then make it enticing.  Or it’s religious theory.  Or it’s psychology.  Or it’s poetry.  Or it’s comparative religion, drawing on Taoism and Buddhism as well as Christianity and Judaism.

Or it’s all of that.  Huxley isn’t writing a novel (which is what I originally thought this was, especially having read The Devils by John Whiting, which is a play based on these same possessions.)  It reminded me a lot of The Cheese and the Worms in terms of taking a historical event/text and extrapolating with stories and theories about the personalities and relationships involved.  And Huxley has a lot to work with:  as I mentioned, it’s about possessions at a convent in France.  A priest named Urbain Grandier was accused of bringing a whole slew of devils to torment (mostly via impure thoughts and some flopping about and such) a nunnery; he was eventually convicted and burned to death as a sorcerer.  Along the way, though, Huxley goes through how the politics of religious France allowed this, what relationships Grandier was having that would have set him up for such a claim, what the abbess of the nunnery was doing in claiming such possession, and whether or not the entire affair had any grounding.

Huxley comes down hard on the side of this whole thing being a frame-up because the nuns were sexually frustrated and Grandier slept with all the wrong gals, but fortunately he doesn’t dismiss the reality of the situation for the people involved.  He’s pretty good about not judging the actors through 20th century eyes, which not every historian can pull off.

Be warned:  there are a lot of times when Huxley will quote from some document or other in French or Latin and just move on without translating.  That can be frustrating if you don’t quite know what’s being said, but fortunately it’s never anything on which the argument turns.  And there are sparse citations in this book; there are a few footnotes, but they’re as random as the choices to translate.

Huxley goes through so many tunnels to get at his objective of totally dismantling this entire mess and tearing apart the politics of the Church and the fear of evil, especially as it manifests in sexuality.  I found myself feeling awful for pretty much all of the characters because they got caught in this machine they’d foolishly started and then couldn’t stop, ground in its gears without mercy or tempered judgment.

Let me share some quotes with you that I found particularly of note:

“A Church divided by intestine hatreds cannot systematically practise love and cannot, without manifest hypocrisy, preach it.”  (27; oh modern Church, do you hear?)

“Christ delights in the lilies precisely because they are not prudent, because they neither toil nor spin and yet are incomparably lovelier than the most gorgeous of Hebrew kings…[they] enjoy a glory which has this in common with the Order of the Garter—that ‘there’s no damned merit about it.’  That, precisely, is their point; that is why, for us human beings, they are so refreshing and, on a level much deeper than that of morality, so profoundly instructive.”  (85-86)

“Such was the atmosphere in a convent of demoniac nuns, and such the persons with whom, in an intimacy that was a compound of the intimacies existing between gynaecologist and patient, trainer and animal, adored psychiatrist and loquacious neurotic, the officiating priest passed many hours of every day and night…The long-drawn debauch took place in the imagination and was never physical.”  (121, on the weird sexual tension between the possessed nuns and the exorcists brought in to cure them)

“[A]ll the evils of religion can flourish without any belief in the supernatural…Few people now believe in the devil; but very many enjoy behaving as their ancestors behaved when the Fiend was a reality as unquestionable as his Opposite Number.  In order to justify their behaviour, they turn their theories into dogmas, their by-laws into First Principles, their political bosses into Gods and all those who disagree with them into incarnate devils.”  (125; oh, that doesn’t sound familiar at all here in 2016…)

“And Montaigne concludes with one of those golden sentences which deserve to be inscribed over the altar of every church, above the bench of every magistrate, on the walls of every lecture hall, every senate and parliament, every government office and council chamber…’After all, it is rating one’s conjectures at a very high price to roast a man alive on the strength of them.'”  (133)

“For the first time in his life he knew the meaning of contrition—not doctrinally, not by scholastic definition, but from within, as an anguish of regret and self-condemnation…Father Ambrose pronounced the formula of absolution…and spoke a little about the will of God.  Nothing was to be asked for, he said, and nothing refused.  Except for sin, all that might happen to one was not merely to be accepted with resignation; it was to be willed, moment by moment, as God’s will for that particular moment.  Suffering was to be willed, affliction was to be willed…And in the act of being willed they would be understood.  And in the act of being understood they would be transfigured, would be seen, not with the eyes of the natural man, but as God saw them.”  (203)

“At Saintes, for the first time in ten years, Surin found himself treated with sympathy and consideration—as a sick man undergoing a spiritual ordeal, not as a kind of criminal undergoing punishment at the hands of God and therefore deserving of yet more punishment at the hands of men.  It was still all but impossible for him to leave his prison and communicate with the world; but now the world was moving in and trying to communicate with him.”  (297)

 

Rating:  3.5/5 stars  3-5-stars

People of the Books: Quo Vadis by Henryk Sienkiewicz

Hullo, Reader!  Thanks for your patience with me in my not warning you I’d be dropping off the radar last week; I had a conference last weekend (and also confirmation at church), so I wasn’t able to get to this.  But I’m back now (albeit a day late)—happy Saturday!  Have a book review!

Quo Vadis (which has apparently been made into a movie that I’m going to have to see now) is another of those books that somehow magically made it into my library when I wasn’t paying attention.  I have no memory of buying this or being given it, but I know I’ve moved it from at least one place to another with me.  In my great I Have to Read All These Books Before I Move Them Again project (yeah, it’s not going well; Reader, I own a lot of books) I finally decided to sit down with this one.

I must say, it was slow going at first.  Sienkiewicz doesn’t pull punches in how he sets up the story; he expects you to keep up as he throws you into 60s A.D. Rome under the craziness of Nero’s rule.  But stick with it; once you get situated in the overwhelming city (fortunately, my version had a map at the back so I could follow Sienkiewicz’s characters talking about where things were), you realize this is a pretty epic story.

The basic premise is that Marcus Vinicius, a nobleman of one of the ancient families and a decorated soldier now hanging about in Rome, falls in love with a gal named Ligia.  Add in the complication—Ligia is a Christian.  This is a time when Christianity was kept on the downlow because it wasn’t outright illegal but it definitely wasn’t liked, so Ligia’s faith is already questionable but also it’s a totally foreign idea to Vinicius.  He has all the power and wealth he could want; why on earth would someone want to follow a faith that tells you to give up stuff like that?  Foolishness.

So with this very simple plot, off we go.  Of course it gets more complicated; it’s set against the backdrop of Nero, who was batshit crazy and a half.  Petronius, Vinicius’s uncle, is one of Nero’s advisors (of a sort) and through his eyes we get to see the court falling apart as Nero loses touch with reality more and more.  The main punch of the book is when Rome gets set on fire, which Sienkiewicz described brilliantly, hauntingly, and horrifyingly.  For a city that large and that flammable to catch fire would indeed have been a sight for the ages, but the amount of people it displaced for the whims of a mad emperor is just staggering.

And then Nero blames it on the Christians—cue lions, torture, gore, and all of the awful debauchery that Rome could offer.  We of the 21st century are scary good at causing pain, but we have nothing on Rome.  They were terrifying in the amounts of ways they concocted to kill people; it’s even reflected in the language.  There are over thirty different verbs for “to kill” in ancient Latin.

I do try to correct folks when they think everything from Jesus to Constantine was lions eating Christians because that isn’t true.  Wide-scale persecution was relatively rare; most of the time Christians were mistrusted and ignored or simply thrown in jail for a while.  But sometimes they became scapegoats of epic proportions, and Sienkiewicz does a fantastic job of capturing how frightening and overwhelming that would be.  And one of the best parts about this book is that it makes you look at Christianity itself all over again.

Christianity is so completely embedded in modern Western culture we simply can’t look around without seeing it.  But when it was new and weird and secretive and still being ironed out—I don’t want to romanticize that at all, but I do love reading stories that make me remember it.  This is a time where there aren’t written stories but instead you would hear the Gospel from Peter himself (yeah, Peter and Paul have bit parts in this; it’s pretty awesome because I’m always ready to have them be ornery humans with their own doubts and fears, not knowing how much they would become pillars of the Church).  This is a time when there are the earliest of hymns, when people were still using the fish (ichthus) to identify each other, when books like Revelation make sense because people really did think Jesus was coming back any day because surely the world was tearing itself apart at the seams.

Sienkiewicz definitely has an angle—Nero bad, Christians good—but this isn’t at all a religion pitch.  He returns over and over again to how hard it is to be part of this faith and how different the early version of it was compared to what we know.  And the remarkable thing is that he was writing at the turn of the 20th century yet you can tell his heart is in the history of this rather than any attempts to convert the reader (of course, he would likely have assumed all of his readers would have been Christian already anyway).  Some of the characters don’t get Christianity and end the book still not getting it and yet being fully themselves, and five million points to an author who respects his/her characters enough not to try and force them into conversion moments.  My only real problem with characterization is in how Sienkiewicz talks about Ursus, Ligia’s bodyguard; a lot of the language there is very much about how this barbarian (they’re political hostages from a northern kingdom) is so very slow and more brawn than brains.  That caught me up several times because it’s so bald, but Ursus was still a real and marvelous character who actually stands in for the reader sometimes when we’re trying to understand what’s going on.  He also becomes a paradigm of loyalty and an example to be followed.

There is violence and sex and this is not for the faint of heart, Reader, but it is well worth the time, especially in this more modern translation (mad props to W. S. Kuniczak).  It’s a great story as well as a really well-written imagining of the early days of Christianity. I’ll definitely be keeping this on hand.

 

Rating:  4.5/5 stars  People of the Books:  Why I Am a Catholic by Garry Wills

 

Lent, Week One: Holy Orders

Welcome to Lent, Reader.  I sort of have to say this to welcome myself; I’m having a hard time situating myself in days and times lately.  I think it’s because I have a few too many things going on (well, always, but now in particular) that bleed into each other and cross the days and seasons without care for anything but their own deadlines.

Choosing schools is rough, yo.

But we persevere, and despite the fact that I forgot both that today is Friday and that it’s the first Friday of Lent (hello, innocent turkey sandwich that totally triggered all of my childhood Catholicism but only AFTER I’d eaten it…sigh) it is indeed Friday in Lent.

I think part of the reason (besides the Million and One Things) I’m so disoriented is that both Mardi Gras and Ash Wednesday were super weird for me this year.  Normally Mardi Gras is a festive gathering with a few friends eating muffalettas and listening to crazy swing jazz and then Ash Wednesday is a whole drawing in of myself, almost literally preparing for the wilderness.  Both days had those usual elements, but in entirely new ways.

Mardi Gras was a kids musical and a pancake dinner at my church (I know, we’re getting all Episcopalian up in here).  It was great, but it was a day of so much people and meetings and class and craziness.  It was also somewhat unhelped by the fact that people kept coming up to me after the show to ask what my part had been, utterly flabbergasted that there would be a church event in which I was just another congregant.  I’m not terribly comfortable with the idea that this expectation has been created that I’m essentially staff; I don’t like that church, in many ways, has become somewhere I cannot simply be.  I realize that’s the direction I’m headed with the career, but I hadn’t intended to arrive there quite yet.

It was an evening of all sorts of unexpected ministry moments, really, which is what I bring to you.  I like doing a loose series for Lent, if only to keep myself from wandering too far into the desert (but sure, also to learn to see thematic connections for when I’ll be doing sermon series.  You have to know I’ve been practicing on you, Reader, and that I appreciate you letting me).  So this Lent I’m taking the awareness that I’ve been walking away from the sacred in favor of focusing only on the profane (in the sense of mortal, earthly) aspect of things and I’m using this series to walk through the sacraments.

I’m going to have to cross denominational lines for this (no, say it ain’t so!) because we United Methodists only recognize two sacraments and there are a few more than two Fridays in Lent.  So I’m reaching back to my Catholic days (or, more likely, my medieval theology semesters) to pull forth the seven sacraments of the Catholic Church.

Still with me?  Good, because I want you to understand that I’m not going to give you a lecture on the sacraments for forty days.  I’ll let you know what’s what, for sure, but I want to see where I see these holy things in my own life—outside of the box, as it were.  So what even is a sacrament?  It’s a ritual of the Church considered to be of enough significance to be seen as a foundational aspect of charting holiness—literally “a sign of the sacred,” sacramentum.  You don’t have to do all seven to be faithful, of course, but they’re sort of the compass points of the thin places where we brush against God.  Steer by these.

So, week one?  Holy orders.  Of course, right?  This takes on a different shine as the Catholic sacrament because it means only the official, professional ministry within the Church, so only baptized, unmarried males can make it to this sacrament.

But I am no longer Catholic, so I can broaden this.  Although I lose track of it a lot, I do firmly believe in the concept of the ministry of all believers—yep, you sign on to the Jesus train, you too are a minister.  (Don’t worry, I won’t make you come to seminary with me.)  And this shows up in the most quotidian places; I spent almost half an hour talking with a teenager friend of mine on Mardi Gras because she is freaking out about becoming an adult and she needed someone to say that’s okay, you’re not wrong to do so, God will be with you in adulthood too even though you’re going to make the wrong choices sometimes (a lot).  It was incredibly humbling, that unexpected pastoral moment, but it reminded me quite forcefully that ministry doesn’t wait for official sanction.

I will not be in ministry after I finish school; I will not be in ministry after I can wear an elder’s stole (although I’m not gonna lie, I’m pretty excited about building that collection some day); I will not be in ministry after the United Methodist Church has a bishop lay hands on me; I will not be in ministry after I am appointed to my first church.  I am in ministry right now, because God is not bound by our rules.  Holy orders are a sacrament, a sacred thing because they are indeed orders that are holy; they are an invitation to us as the people of God to get involved in this Kingdom-building nonsense, to get our sleeves and stoles dirty in the day-to-day honesty of ministry.  We are all of us called to this, to these holy orders; we are all of us called to this place of the sacred wrapping its arms around the profane.

So holy orders for me are talking with that teen.  They are a young woman opening several sets of doors for me and learning my name.  They are me buying doughnuts for my office mates.  They are Magister empowering a friend to stand on his own in teaching the faith.  They are that friend teaching the faith.  They are the friends who stand with Hopeful in the tempestuousness of having a newborn.  And they are all the many ways, Reader, that you shine the reflected Light in your world.

Sacred indeed.

 

 

And [you] yourselves, as living stones, are being built up [as] a spiritual house for a holy priesthood, to offer up spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ.  (1 Peter 2:5, LEB)

Go, It Is Sent

At the end of the Catholic mass back when it was in Latin (pre Vatican II), the second-to-last phrase was “ite, missa est.”  This became “go, the Mass is ended” when churches switched to English, but that’s not actually what it means.  In Latin, the verb missio means “I send;” to add “est,” the third person present form of esse (to be), makes it passive—“it is sent” rather than “it sent.”  There is much debate as to what, exactly, is sent—is it the congregation?  the Eucharist?  the coffee tray for the folks waiting in the narthex?—but there’s no agreed-upon concept of the noun, only of the verb.  To be part of the Body of Christ is to be, of necessity, someone who is sent out into the world; this is why the Church talks a lot about mission (yep, also a derivative of missio).

Last week I went on my first-ever mission trip.  And not only was it my first, I went as an adult leader for a group of high schoolers.  Hah!  This is one of the many things that convinces me God exists; surely I wouldn’t be stupid enough to volunteer to take vacation time and do this sort of stuff of my own volition.

It was, I think, a success, to whatever extent that sort of language can be used about mission trips.  Most people didn’t get sunburned, no one was bitten by snakes, and we delivered to their parents the same number of kids we took with us.  Many of the folks from my congregation as they were sending us (which was a whole other kettle of fish, that service of them sending us with their prayers and support and all; it’s still a hell of a thing for me to brush against the holy like that.  It’s somewhat like getting a static shock; not unpleasant, but it definitely causes you to draw back for a second) told me that it would be a life-changing experience, and perhaps it’s just that I’m truly a curmudgeon, but it wasn’t.  I didn’t have any shocking OH WOW GOD moments, and I wasn’t totally thrown out of my understanding of the world to come back enlightened.  It helps (or doesn’t) that the area where we were working is close to where some of my family grew up, so it was actually a kind of coming home for me.

But a big realization I had to work on all week and am still working on is that really, it wasn’t my mission trip.  Technically, yes, I was sent to work with these folks and I most certainly did the work of painting, building, sanding, cutting, sorting, hanging, etc.  But my primary role was to make sure the kids could work with these folks; I was there to make sure the trip happened without one of them cutting his hand off or something.  They were my mission field.

Reader, I am having such a hard time wrapping my head around that, not least because it still makes me laugh that people put me in charge of anything at all.  Surely they know I’m actually an irresponsible 15-year-old, not an adult.  My life is so often that dog meme that I have no idea what I’m doing, although I think that’s adulting in a nutshell.  It’s the epitome of “fake it ’till you make it,” but even still it’s really weird for the kids to look to me to get things done or tell them what to do or even to make sure they turn the lights out at night and then sing them awake in the mornings (yes, I did that).  I had one gal tell me at the end of the week that I was an imposter, I was actually a teen pretending to be an adult because I could talk Internet trends with them and I knew most of their music.  It was a hilarious moment of both being found out and being a little horrified that they should think it shocking for me to be “in the know” when I’m only a decade or so ahead of them.

I loved the opportunity to get out of the office and use power tools and tear stuff apart and build things—that ever-delightful concept of a task you can see with a beginning and an end—and also I got to know my fellow adult leaders who are some seriously neat people.  I have finally arrived at the place where I get to know all the secret back-door stuff adults do when the kids are otherwise occupied, and I don’t even care that it’s mundane, it’s still awesome.  My childhood self is vindicated.

I also got to see my kids going.  Part of this is the literal going, in the sense that freaking none of them had “off” buttons holy crow how did they never stop AT ALL, but some of it is also that I got to see them truly taking on this sense of mission, of being sent, of reaching out to places and people that scared them and about which they were totally unsure and then growing into these new spaces.  I got to co-lead devotionals every night and it was basically the best thing ever; sometimes my kids said incredibly stupid things, but more often than not they took me to school and taught me so much about grace and hope and the bigness that is God.

It was, actually, awesome.  And the best thing was that it wasn’t earth-shattering, but it was totally life-affirming.  I want this, even this, even though I came back home and slept for 14 or so hours the next day.  I don’t want to be a youth minister, necessarily, but let’s get this minister train on the tracks.  Even the hard days are totally worth it.

Maybe it’s that passion that is sent.  Or maybe it’s just me.

“Get up, for this is your duty, but we will be with you. Have strength of heart and do it.”  (Ezra 10:4, NLV)

A Brief Explanation

My apologies, Reader, for my unexpected absence last week.  I would love to tell you that it was just because I was tired (which is true) or that I was too busy (that too), but frankly I got slammed by a helluva one-two punch of events and this fell pretty hard off of the To Do list.  Friday I got caught in a church management mess, and Saturday and Sunday I went batshit crazy.

The management mess was simply a whole heap of miscommunications that all intersected at once, leaving me very frustrated.  If you’ve ever worked on a collaborative event, Reader, you’ll be able to sympathize.  But the batshit crazy part is connected to a whole host of things I’ve been attempting to manage for a while now.  The short of it is that I’ve created a divide between my mental and physical self so deep that I sometimes feel claustrophobic in my own body.  This, as you may be able to imagine, doesn’t often end well, considering you can’t really leave your own body to take a deep breath in an open space before going back in.  (Well, I can’t, since I’m not so much into astral projection.  Perhaps you are.)  It also makes relating to others very difficult, as the natural tendency of affection is things like hugs or pats on the back or whatever.  If I have trouble with my own physical self, it is exponentially harder to bear the touch of others, now matter how unthreatening and well-meaning.

It’s a mess, really.

I do want to assure you that I’m working on it, but it’s a long, exhausting, and utterly painful process.  I was trying to take a step forward on Saturday, but it backfired so badly that it took me two days to reestablish any kind of equilibrium.  The mind is a powerful thing.

I say all of this partly to apologize for missing my post last week week but also to once more and always ask for your prayers.  I would like to get better, sure, but even more than that I would like to be able to face this and work through it without forgetting that God walks in the dark valley with me.  The scariest thing about diving off the deep end last weekend wasn’t the actual diving but the fact that I felt utterly alone in doing so.  It wasn’t that God deserted me—I was just so wrapped up in freaking out that I completely stopped paying attention to Him being there.

I’m not asking to never doubt, and I’m not asking that you ask God on my behalf that I never doubt.  That would be counterproductive for both of us.   I have tattooed on my stomach “quoniam tu mecum es,” “for you are with me,” and I believe that.  But this is never going to get better if, every time the needle drops, I essentially tell God, “Hang on, I got this, I’ll come back for You in a sec.”  Just as I have to let my friends hold me accountable to the various things I should and shouldn’t be doing, I have to let God stand in the gap with me and, well, be God.  I pray (not often enough) for the faith to trust that God can handle this even better than I can.

That’s a hell of a thing, really, and that’s not something I’m going to figure out tomorrow or next Thursday or when I graduate seminary.  That’s something that’s going to take a lifetime of faith and wrestling.  I know that.

I also know that I’ll take any help I can get.  It was not so much a good weekend.

 

One thing I asked of the Lord,
    that will I seek after:
to live in the house of the Lord
    all the days of my life,
to behold the beauty of the Lord,
    and to inquire in his temple.

 For he will hide me in his shelter
    in the day of trouble;
he will conceal me under the cover of his tent;
    he will set me high on a rock.  (Psalm 27:4-5, NRSV)

Lent, Week Five: Sprechen Sie Gebet?

Of all the languages I’ve dabbled in (and trust me, there are many; I’m terrible at actually becoming fluent in languages, so I’ve become excellent at the introductory basics of lots), I’ve actually never formally studied German.  However, it was the one to come to mind when I was thinking about this post—the title, if you also don’t speak German, asks, “Do you speak prayer?”

I work in a department of languages at a university, which means that I can hear some four different languages outside my office door at any given time; in partnership with another department, the professors I work with teach nine and speak about thirteen among themselves.  It’s pretty cool, actually, to be daily reminded that the world is a lot bigger than my community.  And it’s also really cool to be reminded that God not only knows all of those languages but hundreds of others.  He hears prayer in every possible language—even the made-up ones.  Try praying to God in Klingon; I’m willing to bet He’d hear that.

As I mentioned, I’m not fluent in anything other than English.  I have, at various times, taken Spanish, Latin, French, Old English, Middle English, and ancient Greek.  I know a handful of things in Romanian and Japanese and American Sign Language and Elvish (Sindarin, in case you’re as nerdy as I am), and what I forget sometimes is that I can use any and every part of all of those things to try to talk to God.  I remember standing on the edge of a hill in college and shouting Latin at the night sky when I was angry enough at God that English simply didn’t do it justice.  (Latin and Spanish are the languages in which I have spent the most time, so they’re my go-tos for prayer.)  But I have also prayed in Gaelic when there was no softness soft enough for the gratitude I felt in English, and I’ve never taken an ounce of Gaelic in my life.

I saw a production once of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” done by a troupe out of India.  It was beautiful, but one of the coolest things was that the directors had decided that each actor should learn his or her lines in whatever language or dialect was most comfortable.  This meant that a goodly chunk of the play was in Hindi, but also English bits with Kashmiri and Punjabi and Tamil and Sindhi and a whole host of others I couldn’t even try to understand.  I had to know the play, because I sure wasn’t going to figure out what was going on by the lines.  It was disorienting at first, and it took a while to learn to let the occasional English pieces act as signposts rather than life rafts.  But I got there, and then I realized I did know the play, and I didn’t actually need to know what was being literally said to figure out what was going on.  And if I got lost, I got lost, and I waited for the next signpost while I listened to how gorgeous it was to hear all of these people speaking their native tongues.

One thing I know well is the Lord’s Prayer.  I used to have it memorized in both English and Latin; about half of the Latin is gone these days.  But I’m thinking it would be good to sit with it in languages I know and languages I don’t and listen to the thousand tongues of God; for languages I can’t read, I can hear others.  And in that, I can listen (in a sense) to the prayers of others, knowing that God hears no matter what language feels most comfortable—and when no language feels comfortable at all.

What a marvelous thought, that God is that big.  And when we need them, Deus verba providebit—hopefully.  Vaya con Dios, Lector.

 

Let the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be acceptable in your sight, O Lord, my rock and my redeemer.  (Psalm 19:14, ESV)

One Body: The Roman Catholic Church

If you want to get anywhere near understanding Christianity, you have to acknowledge the Roman Catholic Church.  You just do:  it’s the largest slice of the Christian faith on the planet, and it argues an unbroken line of papal succession back to Peter the Impetuous himself (not that claim is true, of course, but they do argue it).

Disclaimer:  I grew up with more than a foot in the Catholic Church, as my mother’s family was as Catholic as you can get.  I discovered, after his death, that my grandfather had originally wanted to be a priest.  He settled for having a seriously Catholic family of 5 kids instead, nearly all of whom now hate the Church.  So it goes.

So Catholicism is definitely in the mix of my roots, even more so than the general “out of this came most of the Protestant denominations” rootedness.  It is, for the West, the Mother Church, and it may be seriously screwed up, but it’s heritage.  Much of our understanding of Christianity is shaped by the Catholic Church—from them we get the idea of sacraments (acts that are set apart as holy), of saints (one for every day of the year and then some), of so much that shapes the worship experience of Western Christianity.  There’s also the history aspect of it:  the Catholic Church basically made Europe over the Middle Ages and the Renaissance.  It was there when the governments crumbled, it kept education going when nothing else would, it pushed the kings and queens to strategic ends of its own gain.

I was at Mass this past Sunday, then, at the church where my mother and her mother have gone for years on end.  If you’ve never been to Mass, understand that it is not spontaneous.  There is a layout to the service that is far more rigid than the Protestant structures—this is what you’re hearing if you listen to a Mass at a concert or something.  It’s so incredibly prevalent in Western culture:  the structure of kyrie, gloria, credo, sanctus, benedictus, agnus dei is sort of burned into my understanding, at least.  What this means is that there aren’t really cheat sheets for the Mass.  There is a book that gives some of the pieces according to the lectionary of the Church, and since Pope Benedict changed a lot of the wording for the greetings and such there are a little placards that have things like the Creed on them.  Other than that, you’re kind of on your own—like I said, the Church was very much molded in the Middle Ages, during which time not many people could read Latin (which was the language of the Church and all “educated” folks.  Mass has been de-Latinized since Vatican II in 1959).  You went to church at least once a week (more likely more often) and simply memorized the rhythm and words.

And that kind of works.  Yes, it’s frustrating now that I’ve been apart from the Catholic Church for so long that I still say “and also with you” instead of “and with your spirit,” which instantly marks me as an outsider.  But I’ve been to a full-on Latin wedding mass before, and let me tell you, there’s a lot of power in knowing something so well you don’t actually listen to the words anymore, you just get sucked into the guts of it.

That may sound like heresy or purgatory (another Catholic invention) or outright hell to you, Reader, but don’t judge too harshly.  The Catholic Church is a rock—a very human, often blind rock—in a world that shifts constantly.  It was very odd at this particular Mass to see the piano accompanied by guitars; however hip the Church might be trying to be, that isn’t it.  Mass is grand and triumphant and the perfect place for organs and choirs and such.  (Or it’s small and intimate and lifted by the power of voice alone, which is also gorgeous.)  It’s not a swing-y praise band kind of place.

And just what is Mass, really?  The whole point of it is the Eucharist, the blessing of the bread and cup to sustain Christ’s followers until His return.  That’s it.  If you don’t have communion, you haven’t really been to Mass.

The unfortunate snag of that for a Protestant like me is that you can’t take communion (also called the host) if you’re not part of the Catholic Church.  A Catholic friend of mine in college explained this to me—see, Catholics believe in transubstantiation, which is a really poorly borrowed Latin phrase that means they believe fully (at least, doctrinally) that when the priest presents the bread and cup to God, He actually changes it into body and blood.  As in literally.  Sure, it still looks like bread and wine (they use wine, not grape juice), but it’s not.  It’s pieces of Christ.  So, according to my Catholic friend, if you don’t believe that’s happening, you really shouldn’t be taking it anyway.

I personally am not down with transubstantiation, not least because the concept of eating actual and not symbolic flesh creeps me out a bit.  And I get not trampling on someone else’s sacred moment.  But what I noticed more strongly than I ever have was that it bothered me to be cut out.  The whole thing of communion—like, Bible communion, the Last Supper communion—is that it was friends eating together and cementing themselves in the curious way that eating together does.  Communion is about, surprisingly, community.  And leading up to the Eucharist in this Mass were all of these songs about how we are one and Christ calls us all, right after a homily on Matthew 13 on how God speaks to each of us and God’s Word always has purpose and power.

Then I curled into the pew to let my family go past me to receive the bread and cup (cup is apparently optional, which also throws me; sorry ’bout ya, Jan Hus) while I tried to figure out what song we’re singing.

What?  That’s not one holy, catholic church.  That’s not one body.  That’s a way to tell non-Catholics that God doesn’t want our unclean hands on His body.  I have all the love and respect in the world for Catholicism, but somewhere along the line that became not okay for me.

Perhaps I’ve been Methodist too long.

 

There are different ways to serve but the same Lord to serve.  And there are different ways that God works through people but the same God. God works in all of us in everything we do.   (1 Cor. 12:5-6)