Friday, August 22, 2008

Notice: The Irregularities, Explained

Illness, intermittent wi-fi access, a dismaying decline in public questions, and a variety of personal distractions have very recently prevented me from posting with the quality and consistency to which you have grown accustomed.

But never fear, dear readers! My head is cool, I'm currently downloading an entire Japanese anime, I'm thinking clearly, and I've decided that if I need to, I'll make up a few questions of my own. Also, the end of the Old School series will let me finish off at long last the valuable, verbose ghost of William James in short order, so I'll be starting a new series or two, announcements to follow.

Thank you for your continuing interest, and your comments.

Thursday, August 14, 2008

Old School: Rev. John Duke Eales

"And in the dream I knew that he was goin' on ahead. And he was fixin' to make a fire somewhere out there in all that dark and all that cold, and I knew that whenever I got there, he would be there..."

- No Country for Old Men

Reverend Eales became the twelfth rector of Gethsemane in September 1969 and oversaw massive changes to the church. The vestry no longer had to be male, and soon included its first woman. He reduced the number of services from three to two, and introduced Rite Two to one of them. Scholarships expanded the size of the choir. The Silent Night security system was installed.

Throughout all of this the church's financial woes continued, but so did the work of the church. A conference of Downtown Churches agreed that quality preaching and music on Sundays, and creative use of the church the rest of the week were vital to the health of a parish.

The second of the points became a springboard to action. Eales sought to reorganize the Downtown Foundation- and did so by partnering with Episcopal Community Services, with its focus on the elderly. Further, the women of Gethsemane started the Catacombs Coffee House in the gymnasium. Gethsemane also supported the Skyway 838, which offered Christian counseling services.

Eales himself began counseling; indeed Gethsemane hosted the Clinical Pastoral Training program. Traveler's Aid set up offices inside, and the Brotherhood took late-night calls.

On a different note, Gethsemane started a campaign to conserve energy throughout the Energy Crisis. Moreover, a new organ was purchased and installed, a new boiler put in, the roof finished, and the altar restored- all of which solidified Gethsemane's decision to remain, in spite of anxieties about falling attendance.

This concludes the Old School series. Any suggestions for another topic? Please write and let me know.

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Old School: Harlan Coykendall

And in the dream I knew that he was goin' on ahead. And he was fixin' to make a fire somewhere out there in all that dark and all that cold, and I knew that whenever I got there, he would be there..."

- No Country for Old Men

Coykendall gained the rectorship in October 1951, and parish life continued apace. Hospitality of the Downtown Foundation continued, averaging 140 youngsters a week. The church also opened its doors to the elderly, who regularly played cards and fellowshipped. 1955 the Council of Churches came to study the inspirational work the church was doing. The Optimist's Club continued its work, and the Volunteer Services Bureau provided oversight of the youth program.
Intra-diocesan work continued as well, with the establishment of a young unmarried club and a work crew, as well as the growth of the Mr. and Mrs. Club and the Women's Guild.

In 1956, the church celebrated its 100th anniversary, and the event was an astounding success.

Despite this, the times proved difficult for Gethsemane. The Downtown Foundation shifted its focus to the elderly, as more and more of the youth came to be classified as 'delinquents.' Worse, despite busing and door-to-door canvassing by the Brotherhood, church attendance declined generally, due to the intellectual climate of the times, the movement of young people into the suburbs, and the rise of women in the workforce detracting from church service. Women's ministries overall struggled to fill the ranks.

Nevertheless, the church continued its work, gathering clothes for Cuban refugees and remodeling the parish house. Such projects continued until June of 1968, when the ill health of both Coykendall and his wife forced him to resign the rectorship.

Notice: Rescheduled!

The first Wikicreedia Steering Committee meeting has been rescheduled for Sunday the 24th, immediately after the 10:00 service. Please post below or email if this needs to change.

Thank you!

Sunday, August 10, 2008

Editorial: What I Offer

"It is truly difficult to convince people that they go around shining like suns."
Thomas Merton

August is the stultifying month. August is to summer what February is to winter: the unvarying plateau of what a season has accomplished. Days go by without any real distinction. In August, a coworker once remarked that he didn't know what month it was, because it didn't really matter.

Not that I think we should do away with it. I only mean to say that the lack of dynamacy in the air means that you probably don't want to do much. So I bring you, gentle reader, an offering.

What offering? That, precisely, is the question. I'm participating in a downtown interfaith forum, and as a participant I said why I was there without a great deal of problem: the element of surprise.

That's the point of a transcendent God, really, the thing that all the Abrahamic faiths have in common. A voice comes out of nowhere: "Moses! Moses!" And we go on to make and break nations, all as more or less a complete surprise to us, and not really something we would have thought of on our own.

And never mind our surprise babies. Lesser gods wouldn't dare.

But what do I offer? This was the second question, and it stumped me. I thought of something, but couldn't articulate it. I thought of a moment. And that moment is why I'm in the interfaith forum. And it's why I'm doing this blog, and it's why I'm reading theology and religious history entirely for fun. It's why I do most everything, really, that moment and the larger significance behind it.

During college, I went to this Thursday-night praise and worship scene. If you've never been to one, and don't know what I'm talking about, well, you might well be better off. It's where a lot of young Christians get together and sing along to a lot of mediocre rock music with even more mediocre Christian lyrics.

But it's a Christian college, so there's not much else to do and it's a decent study break and all your friends go, so I went pretty consistently for about two years. And there's a lot of energy in there, so it's not all bad. But eventually, about halfway through the second year I went, I stopped singing. Stopped dead, because I didn't want to go through the same songs anymore, ever.

And I looked around for a while. And it was one of the most beautiful things I've ever seen. People singing full-throated, mouths open with all the joy they could not hold. Eyes shining, glowing in the dark, the most candid expressions of fervor and desire I could ever have imagined. And this was everyone, all together, all feeling, it seemed, subtle variations of the same electric charge, and not hiding any of it.

I almost fell over. And I went back, week after week. And I never stopped watching, though I was only seeing everything I myself could not feel.

So it's my fascination that I offer, really. People are all like gods to me. I never know what any of them will do. They are overfull of their surprises, and I can't help but watch. Secretly, I'm an incurable eavesdrop. At work, I shut my headphones down for the first and last half hour just so I can hear people talk about their days and plans, the helter-skelter minutiae of their lives.

I don't want to gossip. I have no interest in repeating any of it, or making any use of the information. I'm just riveted. Twenty-seven years old, and I'm still wonderstruck by an ordinary conversation. How does it happen? What does it mean? Why do people say the things they say?

As a writer, of course, I want to know everyone's secrets. But this is deeper than that.

My first and long-enduring conviction is that everyone is holy. That's what I offer you, dear reader: You are holy. And I know it. I've held eighteen different world views, but I know this. I've always known this. And I always will.

This is my gift to you. It is all I have, the first thing I have. I just woke up with it. I haven't earned it, it has nothing to do with me. Perhaps there is such a thing as soul-ular DNA, and your holiness is encoded in mine. All I can do is pass it on, and let you know that when I see you, you are blazing like the sun.

Now your holiness is not the result of any particular doctrine. It does not depend on what you or I believe. Though I remember being struck at a very early age by the Scripture that we are all made in the image of God, I cannot explain why it affected me that way. Even at the time, it seemed odd that I couldn't stop thinking about it.

And while, yes, the hero of my childhood Methodism, John Wesley, only believed in holiness for everyone, for communities of faith, I certainly didn't know that at the time. In fact, I didn't know this until last week. In between, I've spend a lot of time distracted by individual acts of righteousness.

And I say distracted because your holiness, dear reader, is absolute and unconditional. You certainly can't increase it, and I doubt that all the sins you could ever commit could subtract from the created and primal holiness of God.

The most that you can do is hide it, and I don't even know if you can do that for very long. You simply can't do anything about it. You are holy. Get used to it, accept it. And then I hope that you will let it be. Let it be your breath, as holiness ought to be.

Thank you.

Thursday, August 7, 2008

What is The Jesus Prayer?

The ancient prayer known as the Jesus Prayer runs, with some variations, as follows:

"Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner."

The Jesus Prayer is more popular in the East than in the West. And it is more common in the mystical strands of Orthodoxy than in the Eastern Church proper. Like other mystic prayers, the object of the Jesus Prayer is to pray it continually, until it becomes one's breath and a fiber of one's being. It almost certainly dates back to the Desert Fathers of the 5th Century, and its practice is now centered in the Monastic state of Mount Athos.

Early practicioners of the prayer associated it with purification of the soul and a sense of inner peace. It takes its place alongside the meditative chanting of Buddhism, Hinduism, and Islam. It has been recommended by Saint John Cassian and Saint John Climacus, and forms the core of the anonymous spiritual classic "The Way of the Pilgrim."

Theologically, the prayer holds two components, the first acknowledging the divinity of Christ, the second recognizing one's own sinfulness. Together, these parts plead mercy. The Jesus Prayer supports a way of prayer called Hesychiasm, or keeping stillness. In Hesychiastic prayer, one invokes the power of the name of God or Christ rather than imaging their presence, as is common in Western contemplation.

This makes the Jesus Prayer more in keeping with apophatic or negative theology, and less in accordance with the ontological theologies of the West. It is more concerned with God's transformative energies than specific doctrinal formulations. Similarly, it confesses no specific sin as in the theological courtrooms of the West, but confesses sin as illness in the spiritual houses of the East.

As a hesychastic practice, the Jesus Prayer demands setting the mind apart from rational activities and ignoring the physical senses for the experiential knowledge of God. It stands along with the regular expected actions of the believer (prayer, almsgiving, repentance, fasting etc.) as the response of the Orthodox Tradition to Pau's challenge to "pray without ceasing"

Tuesday, August 5, 2008

Cliff Notes: Mysticism

One might well remember this lecture as the one wherein we learn that William James snuffed chloroform. And possibly ether. For scientific purposes, but still.

At any rate, James devotes this lecture to the key of religious knowledge and individual religious experience: mystic encounters and the knowledge they impart through alternative states of consciousness. James notes, not surprisingly, four characteristics of mystic consciousness.
They are:

1. Ineffability. No adequate report of it can be given in words.
2. Noetic quality. They are illuminations, revelations, full of significance and importance.
3. Transiency. Mystical states cannot be sustained for long.
4. Passivity. The mystic feels as if his own will were in abeyance.

These four characteristic set mystic consciousness and set it apart from ordinary awareness. This is not to say that the resulting lines are sharp, or that there are not gradations within these qualities. One ordinary sort of mystic experience is that of being struck by the truth of a statement or proverb: the mysticism of poetics. A more powerful but only somewhat less common mystic experience would be the sensation of deja vu: it only has a minor noetic quality, a sense of importance without real content.

Next in experiential power would be a the type of experience depending on intoxicants. And James spends some time on detailing his experiences and that of others. And it is his own experience that leads him to privilege mystic consciousness:

"our normal waking consciousness, rational consciousness, as we call it, is but one especial type of consciousness, whilst all about it, parted from it by the filmiest of screens, there lie potential forms of consciousness entirely different...Looking back on my own experiences, they all converge towards a kind of insight to which I cannot help ascribing some metaphysical significance."

Further up the mystic ladder James finds those experiences more commonly religious: encounters with a cosmic consciousness, or, as one wrote of it, "I was aware that I was immersed in the infinite ocean of God." An overriding commonality of these is the sense of the lively order of the universe, the harmonious eternity of infinite vitality.

This is the encounter with the Absolute, remarkable in that it reaffirms both. By this time, of course, we are quite beyond the power of language to describe what happens. Of course this has not stopped the many mystic traditions of religion trying to do so, and James chronicles some of their various attempts.

James concludes by considering the value of mystic experience as knowledge, and of it he says this:

(1) Mystical states, when well developed, usually are, and have the right to be, absolutely authoritative over the individuals to whom they come.

(2) No authority emanates from them which should make it a duty for those who stand outside of them to accept their revelations uncritically.

(3) They break down the authority of the non-mystical or rationalistic consciousness. They show it to be only one kind of consciousness.

Indeed, James notes, mystic experience, while usually devoid of both doctrinal and theoretic content, may actually be the truest form of experience.

Monday, August 4, 2008

Cliff Notes: The Value of Saintliness

In this lecture, James, not surprisingly for the future founder of Pragmatism, looks to see in greater detail what are the common-sense, lived, practical fruits of saintly character- but not before noting that much religion is often more or less directly opposed to those who will become saints and spiritual geniuses.

Indeed, there is a rough but certain process by which religion deals with the spiritually brilliant outsider, those who like Christ and George Fox insist on wandering the wilderness:

1. heterodoxy to its witnesses, the prophet appearing as a mere lonely madman.

2. If his doctrine prove contagious enough to spread it becomes a heresy.

3. If it then still prove contagious enough to triumph over persecution, it becomes itself an orthodoxy.

4. The new church...can be henceforth counted on as a staunch ally in every attempt to stifle the spontaneous religious spirit.

This leaves a fairly negative account of religion and the saint, a criticism that James addresses at some length. (Though one might note, here, that the religious community also forms the saint in the first place, an argument James does not directly deal with-it's part of the short shrift James gives throughout to religious communities). Yet he does note that the sins of the community are the sins of its individuals writ large, and this is his argument.

These religious errors are not, James asserts, the fruit of evil intents or designs, but the corrupt and excessively ripe, rotten fruits of saintliness itself.

An excess of Devotion becomes what we might call "theophilia". Of the founder of the Sacred Heart order he records, "They tried her in the kitchen, but were forced to give it up as hopeless - everything dropped out of her hands. They put her in the school, where the little girls cherished her but she was too absorbed inwardly to pay the necessary attention. Poor dear sister."

Becoming distracted by the minutiae of internal religious fervor, she became useless to her fellows in her order, and to James himself, judging by his tone.

An excess of Purity likewise leads to a kind of revolting small-ness, as in St. Louis of Ganzaga, the patron saint of young people:

"Mary accepted the offering of his innocent heart. Thenceforward he never raised his eyes, either when walking in the streets, or when in society. Not only did he avoid all business with females, but he renounced all conversation and every kind of social recreation with them...Never was he seen to hold in his hand a flower or anything perfumed, that he might take pleasure in it. In the hospital, he used to seek whatever was most disgusting, and eagerly snatch the bandages of ulcers. He sought after false accusations and unjust reprimands as opportunities of humility. He died in 1591, in his twenty-ninth year."

Of the two virtues of Tenderness and Charity James has more generally positive things to say; this fruit does not seem quite so easily corruptible. They go against the grain of our society, they seem to, as in Nietzsche, foster the very existence of weak and undesirable people.

And here James seems willing to let the individual adopt however much fruit he or she will, because, as he says,

"You will agree to this in general, for in spite of the Gospel, in spite of Quakerism, in spite of Tolstoi, you believe in fighting fire with fire, in shooting down usurpers, locking up thieves, and freezing out vagabonds and swindlers. And yet you are sure, as I am sure, that were the world confined to these hard-headed, hard-hearted, and hard-fisted methods exclusively, were there no one prompt to help a brother first, and find out afterwards whether he were worthy; no one ready to be duped rather than live on suspicion; the world would be an infinitely worse place."

He goes on, marvelously, to compare us all to horses. Doesn't the world need more than one kind of horse? An he asserts that the better order, the order best to come, is the world proposed by tenderness and charity, so that the saints here broadcast the way we all ought ideally to live.

Lastly, James deals with the excesses of Asceticism, of which much could be written. But James here refrains, having dealt with as much earlier, and includes a suggestion for voluntary poverty, in some of the best language of the book:

"Is it not possible for us to discard most of these older forms of mortification, and yet find saner channels for the heroism which inspired them? What we now need to discover in the social realm is the moral equivalent of war: something heroic that will speak to men as universally as war does, and yet will be as compatible with their spiritual selves as war has proved itself to be incompatible. I have often thought that in the old monkish poverty-worship, in spite of the pedantry which infested it, there might be something like that moral equivalent of war which we are seeking.

We have grown literally afraid of being poor. We despise any one who elects to be poor in order to simplify and save his inner life. If he does not join in the general scramble and pant with the money making street, we deem him spiritless and lacking in is certain that the prevalent fear of poverty among the educated classes is the worst moral disease from which our civilization suffers.

Let us be saints, then, if we can, whether or not we succeed. But in our Father's house are many mansions, and each of us must discover for himself the kind of religion and the amount of saintship which best comports with what he believes to be his powers and feels to be his truest mission and vocation."