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The beauty of holiness

A few days ago the Owl put up a squib entitled “In their own lands,” which brought interesting comments from two readers, -N- and Katherine. The Owl has grappled with the questions involved for years, and didn’t get around to a good reply in time. Hence this separate post, addressed to them and to all our readers, and which is still not final.

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Thank you for your comments, Katherine and -N-. I think you are reaching toward the same thing. -N- describes understanding the human spirit on a nonverbal, symbolic level. Katherine speaks of worship being both emotional and intellectual. Both know we are multi-layered creatures. I think you both know that inward gnawing St. Augustine described in his Confessions, which is never quiet until we find rest in God. Faith is neither one thing nor the other; neither an intellectual understanding nor an emotional state, though it is certainly something to know about, and have feelings about. Once that blessed dispensation has taken place, the beauty of holiness will take care of itself.

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In their own lands

By now readers will have seen that the Owl questions the relationship between faith and our ostensibly Christian culture. Most people: citizens, migrants, resident aliens, and dissenters of all kinds, participate in it comfortably enough to get along, if only by virtue of history, ancestry, and habit. When the Owl began his travels to foreign parts (1989), he carried his skepticism with him and tried to apply it in those unfamiliar places. A strange thing happened. He could not help admiring what he saw of churches, wherever he went. Not that his destinations were so exotic; at first we visited only the UK and Italy.

As it happened, the first worship service I ever attended outside the United States was Evensong at St. Paul’s Cathedral, London. There was a powerful modern organ prelude (though I wrote to ask, I could never find out the composer or name of the piece), followed by an aria of Mendelssohn sung by a boy soprano. That latter, a single voice resonating in the tremendous space was the most beautiful sound I had ever heard. I embarrassed myself and those around me by shedding copious tears.

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Helpers Gone Awry

I recall a scene that took place in my family around 1958. My aunt Joy was in some kind of trouble and unemployed. My parents were trying to help her get a job as a telephone operator. My mom loaned her a beige dress for the interview, and some lipstick that she hardly knew how to put on. Everything about her, down to the red lipstick, was sad and grotesque, as she tried to comply with expectations. Of course she didn’t get the job. How much that day must have cost her, who had so close to nothing that it’s frightening to contemplate.

Decades later I was in mid-career as a Rehabilitation counselor, providing job-related services, including interview clothes, for unemployed, mostly low- or semi-skilled, and painfully inarticulate. Like Joy, they were trying to cross a line from poor to working-class. They knew enough to say they wanted a job, but the word had little meaning to them, because it had no concrete referent in their personal experience. Still, they tried, sometimes valiantly, to say what they thought an employer wanted to hear.

Between the Rehab counselor and the client this cannot avoid being a patronizing relationship. The counselor probably has a Master’s degree, and gets a salary. The client gets pants, shirt, and shoes, and maybe a subsistence allowance equal to a few days’ panhandling proceeds. But more significant than any material benefits is that line he or she has to cross into the uncharted territory where others have all the important decisions in their hands and the rules are unknown.

As it happens, the Owl had experienced this situation from the inside. Although he attended and graduated from a renowned seminary, he did not learn until afterward how the various religious denominations groom candidates for ordination and employment in ministry. When he wrote to the chief pastor in the Methodist parish where he thought he was a member, the reply was a cursory note of congratulation with no further advice, as if we had never met. My parents had started their careers as a telephone cable splicer and a nurse’s aide, and had simply drifted away from church.

One could go on from this point to decry the social and economic causes and effects of unemployment, or social ills like drug addiction and family breakdown, or other barriers that confront poorly assimilated people. The verses and chorus of that song are well known and need not be rehearsed here.

What is more to the point here is the relentless patronizing and condescension we helpers visit on those with whom we think we are in sympathy. We don’t really know them at all, any more than my upwardly mobile parents actually knew their sister Joy—or I with my bodily comforts understood Rehab clients with their bad backs and educational failures. May God forgive me all the asinine things I said to them about pain before I knew anything about it.

Owl overhead

A few Owl readers have commented on these posts, saying it they are hard to understand; they’re not sure they got the idea. Part of that is this writer’s fault. (Dropping the Owl persona for a moment and reverting to the vertical pronoun) I used to be a lot worse, flailing away at the keys. If the reader cared, it would be worth it to plow through my tortured grammar. That flies against everything real writers say: Keep it clear and simple; you’re not here to be clever; you’re supposed to be communicating a message. To my readers at that time I apologize, and I probably owe fresh apologies to present followers too.

Sometimes, I say. Because part of the problem is in the nature of the message. That’s what necessitates the item “What the Owl I Trying to Say,” and the sequels on the nature of faith, “What Faith Is Not,” part I, Part II, and Part III. Here’s the rub. (I assure you I know it from the inside, because it kept me from understanding Karl Barth the first few times I tried him.) I thought I was already pretty well versed in Christianity—went all the way through seminary didn’t I? And I guess I was, if by Christianity we mean only the freight with which our so-called Christian culture has loaded our heads. But the Owl asks you to put all that in suspense, and that’s asking a lot.

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Ready for Worship

The most characteristic activity of a typical parish church is worship. A whole cadre of people swing into action: the altar guild, the flower guild, the chalice bearers, the ushers, the lay readers, the ushers, the coffee hour hosts, and more, down to those who count the offering and those who lock up the place when the service is done. All are devoted to making the sanctuary beautiful and comfortable, and seeing that everyone present is welcome. Their devotion is an end in itself, never to be discounted, but they would be the first to say something greater goes on; something greater than the sum of all their parts.

What is that something else? It is the worship of God, named in the first sentence above. —or is it? Is there not a still greater Something not yet mentioned? Thanks be to God, there is. It is His own self-offering. That is literally the substance of the Eucharist: the body and blood of Jesus Christ, given for you and for all of us. This is clearest in churches that celebrate the Eucharist, the Mass, at every worship service, but the truth is there in those where prayers and preaching are the “outward and visible sign of an inward and spiritual grace,” as the Book of Common Prayer defines Sacrament.

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Grace, Power, and Sentiment

There is a famous sermon by Paul Tillich, known by its tagline, “You are accepted.” Tillich’s intention was to preach of God’s grace to a world that badly needed assurance. God’s grace is absolute. If so, then Jaroslav Pelikan spoke truly in a sermon at Yale Divinity School ca. 1970, when he said God’s power is greater than all human sin, greater than that of even the greatest villains of history. Name whom you will, they have had their shriving before the throne of heaven. We might go on from there to say they are in a better position to pray for us than we are to pray for ourselves.

It would be a serious error to construe this as an expression of “cheap grace.” Yet we must never settle for tawdry grace, grace trivialized, so that the wonder of it becomes routine. I certainly did nothing to deserve Jesus’ sacrifice for me, but it would show a frightful misunderstanding, wouldn’t it, if I showed up at the crucifixion expecting people to hug me and tell me I needn’t be afraid or sad. The lover of souls is condemned and dead. It would be horribly grotesque to hold hands and skip in a ring.

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Climbing Into the light

Lately the Owl has written about the authentic humanity that thrives in eschatological consciousness; invulnerable to the political obsessions and commercial manipulations that are constantly thrown up to us by secular culture. This is the true freedom of which the Apostle Paul could speak only after he had been knocked down and blinded. It meant such a radical change to him that he likened to the death of the old man. He had discovered that his true life was hidden in God with Christ (Colossians 3:3). Nor was this some kind of mystical flash; rather it was the beginning of his worldly work, full of realities as concrete as prison chains. True freedom endures such rigors.

Coming out from under a dehumanizing secular culture, ordinary men and women who are not apostles or heroes can exercise a powerful order of freedom: making meaning out of history, replete as it is with terrors and frustrations. This is the unique human prerogative, the thing no other creature can do. We are likely to overlook this aspect of human freedom because we are so used to thinking individualistically, but this freedom we realize collectively, by living through and interpreting our past, present, and future. Every day we make innumerable decisions, many in conflict, by which we create those great works of imagination, cities and civilizations, overlapping and succeeding each other in time and space.

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On Prayer

It’s a cliché, maybe not a very helpful, to say that looking into the sky is a profound spiritual exercise, because it impresses the seeker with our planet’s smallness over against the vastness of space. We can scarcely imagine the distance to our own moon (about 240,000 miles) or sun (93 million), let alone light years or parsecs. Only yesterday, in the twentieth century, did we learn of uncounted galaxies beyond the one that contains our sun.

All true enough, but suppose we turn the insight around, and contemplate the Psalmist’s question: What is man, that thou art mindful of him? (Psalm 8:4) Now we are in the realm of theology not astronomy. Here we come up with a different insight—or the same insight with a different meaning. If we read back to former times, we find that our forebears confronted their smallness as clearly as we do. “What is man?” to them was a serious worry, which they carried with them to the New World. Why would the Creator God bother with such a vexatious creature; one who has disappointed him throughout their history together?

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The Owl On Obedience

Now we are ready to take up the fifth of the Owl’s principal terms: Obedience. This is probably the one least likely to find acceptance among our modern brothers and sisters, who seem to have a visceral reaction against anything resembling conventional moral precepts.

But that is not a scold. Fortunately, the meaning of obedience we have in mind comes from a completely different plane, not the one where the frumious bandersnach moralism stretches his jaws and claws. No, the obedience we have in mind flows from the last previous of our terms: freedom.

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