Thursday, October 30, 2008

Does Social Service conflict with Social Justice?

In a speech I heard today by Julian Bond, the chairman of the NAACP, Bond responded to a question about the rates of volunteerism among the younger generation (contextually, everyone considered a youth vote-that is, everyone 18- 30).

He concluded that, while extraordinary and commendable, the high rates of volunteering among our nation's youth end up in hours almost entirely in social service-Habitat for Humanity and similar organizations. This was not true in the 50's and 60's, when America's young people worked stridently for social justice- social change in civic centers.

"If you had social justice," he concluded, "you would not need social service."

That, I've decided, was a deliberately provocative statement. And because this is not an editorial but something different, I'm establishing some rules: first, let's set aside the issue of generational difference. There's not much we can do about it at any rate. And let's set aside the conflicts of the 60's, which I've never considered particularly interesting; this includes the question of ennabling dependency vs. addressing need. And, to be monkish about it, let's put it in a Gospel context- what advances the Kingdom of God?

So, all of that being said, does social service conflict with social justice? Obviously, we should and must do both. But, given a limited lifetime and finite resources, is my generation's propensity for ladling soup and spackling the homeless itself a sort of injustice by ommission? Or is the act of giving of oneself for the sake of others the most justice one can ever do, whatever comes of it? Obviously, pace Paul, we must answer individual callings- but should we consider our broader social context when doing so?

This is usually when I yell at myself about being abstract. But we're talking about real people acting toward other real people in very real ways. It would behoove us to know if we're better off going down to People Serving People or applying to work for the Bureau of Indian Affairs. And the real decline of talent in civic service is a hugely lamentable thing- but the Church's role as the hub of charity to millions cannot be overlooked, and it's on the decline, too.

Perhaps it's the split, not of ideology, but of people, that buggered us.

I'd be curious, too, about where liberation theology would come down on the question. What would the poor themselves think about this? What can we learn in the faces of the poor in this regard?

Well, this is your chance to editorialize! I haven't decided yet myself, so I'd like to know what you think! It is not good, after all, for Curious Monk to be alone.

I look forward to your comments below.

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Daily Prayer: Tuesday Dawn

We are what we love. If we love God, in whose image we were created, we discover ourselves in him and we cannot help being happy: we have already achieved something of the fullness of being for which we are destined in our creation. If we love everything else but God, we contradict the image born in our very essence, and we cannot help being unhappy, because we are living in a caricature of what we were meant to be.

Monday, October 27, 2008

Daily Prayer: Monday Day


Perhaps I am stronger than I think.
Perhaps I am even afraid of my strength, and turn it against
myself, thus making myself weak.
Making myself secure. Making myself guilty.
Perhaps I am most afraid of the strength of God in me.
Perhaps I would rather be guilty and weak in myself,
than strong in Him who I cannot understand.


And lo! God my God!
Look! Look! I travel in Thy strength.
I swing in the grasp of They love, Thy great Love's
One Strength.
I run Thy swift ways, Thy straightest rails
Until my life become Thy Life and sails or rides
Like an express!

Friday, October 24, 2008

Editorial: God is in the Cheez-Itz

Since the original purpose of this blog was a specific kind of journalism, I suppose it would behoove me to write occasionally about an actual event. So, that being said, the recent Interfaith Church Crawl was a rousing, if rather extended epic, success. A group of over 20 people listened to a short talk in each of three sacred spaces: Masjid An-Nur, Temple Israel, and St. Mark's Episcopal Cathedral.

What made it worth going, though, was when the Jewish organizer of the event said, "We really don't need any more Christians" regard to that faith's over- representation in the program.

Beyond that, the three talks, each by a member of the downtown clergy, described the sacred space each Abrahamic faith incorporates into religious life.

The Islamic faith creates a sacred space around each of its adherents. The worship area denotes a small space around each person specifically for prayer and standing, bowing, and prostrating. To my idiotically small understanding of Islam, this makes sense as the five pillars center around individual practice and individual devotion.

This is not to say that Islam cannot generate communities of faith- quite the opposite, the nation of Islam considering- but it is to say that its theological intention of Islam is the submission of the individual before God. Prayer may be stronger in groups, teaching and instruction occur in groups, but the basic building unit of Islam is the individual believer.

Temple Israel, alternatively, denotes sacred space in a different fashion, and for a different reason. That is to say that it does not center on the person at all. Everything in the sanctuary of the Temple- yep, they use the word sanctuary, too- orients one not toward the practice of prayer but to the center of the service: which is, of course, the five scrolls of the Torah.

A hint to what I mean: because the scrolls are all that matter, anyone can read them. There are no clergy among the (reformed) Jews, we learn. There are only professional Jews. Faithful Jewish observers emphasize the text so much that memorization takes second seat to reading one's marriage vows aloud.

Christian sacred space seemed a bit harder to describe, but I believe that we got there anyway. Because we got into an extended discourse on the apostolic succession and the communion between Anglican and Catholic bishops. Now this may seem a pedantic point, and, as I said to the Vicar, "but it's quintessentially Christian to exaggerate trivial distinctions to the point of absurdity."

Morever, it only matter because nothing matters more to Christianity that the body of its believers. The building block of Christianity is not now and never has been the individual but has always been the ecclesia, the body of believers per the example of Paul's letters. So disputes about who is holy and who is allowed to do what end up mattering a very great deal.

As I said in an aside, "There is no holier space than the space between us." In other words, Christians sit in pews. All in a row, all in the same overturned boat. "Wherever two or more are gathered in my name, there am I..." We could just as easily have gone to Chipotle and broken out our Bibles, though this might be harder to do with some Episcopalians than others.

I've said it before, I'll say it again: Imagine two friends sitting on a couch. They're watching a DVD, maybe it's the Incredibles. They have a snack on the cushion between them: bright red box, little yellow crackers. At the same time, they both reach in. Their hands touch. There is a frisson, a shiver, a moment of unexpected connection.

That's Christianity. God is in the Cheez-itz. The most sacred space of all.

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Cliff Notes: The First Urban Christians

Change in social status was a factor in the growth of early Christianity. However, status itself is never simple and is a composite of several economic, cultural, and political factors.

For instance, trademen could rank quite high in Roman culture economically, but would not rank as high culturally, not being tied in to Greco-Roman arts and tastes. And someone as socially low in status as a slave could become a philosopher or a successful business owner, but would always carry the social stigma of slavery.

What is true of Christianity in its early days is that is set about equalizing the social status of key groups of individuals. That is to say that a slave or former slave carried no social stigma in Christian belief- one can see where this would be compelling for a freed slave trying to make his or her way in a Roman world and never quite getting there.

Similarly, though women could be wealthy and manage households under Roman custom it is only in Christianity that their sex carried no social disregard- and it precisely the women who brought Christianity into the Roman upper classes.

And though the army would only later become an engine for the spread of Christianity, it was key as another place where social status could be leveled out- Roman soldiers could earn high respect but never be wealthy; Christian communal practice of sharing wealth and seeing great wealth as an impediment to spirit might have done well to help their conversion along.

So it is not surprising that Christianity spread in precisely the places where these status inconsistencies proliferated: in the Roman household, in the Greco-Roman club, and in the tradehouses and places of work in Roman cities. Rather we should only note that it spread as swiftly and freely as an illness or contagion of those existing Roman institutions.

These were the places of relationship in Roman society, and Paul went there if he failed to succeed in the initial Jewish synagogues. Indeed, the most significant thing about Roman cities is their lack of private space. Extremely dense even by modern standards, every urban place was public or semi-public. Word- of anything- thus spread rapidly. Initial contacts spread the word- to everyone, including those who most wanted to hear.

Another key factor in spreading the contagion of early Christianity would have been an ethnic community internal to each Roman city- especially the Jewish sections. A new convert would thus be even more immediately connected to members of club, broader family and fellow practitioners of his trade.

Friday, October 17, 2008

Cliff Notes: The First Urban Christians

Paul was a city person. Where Christ's language rings with rural Aramaic, Paul writes fluent urban Greek. He uses Greek rhetorical devices from gymnasium, stadium, and work- his own work of tentmaking being itself an urban trade. He was such an urban person that he only ever describes the city, the wilderness, and the sea. He lacks the language for the productive Roman countryside. He seems not to see it.

Thus the Christian mission he embarked on seems an urban trend. He preached in flourishing Hellenistic cities. He was not alone in doing so; every city boasted a large and vigorous Jewish community- the country rarely had them. What we call Pauline Christianity was the urban trend of a broader religious movement, and just as city Judaism was, urban Christianity was the largest and most developed flavor of its faith.

In moving from rural Jesus-ism to urban Christianity, the following of Christ had to pass the most fundamental divide of its time- the breach between city and country, polis and province- and changed irrevocably as a result.

It did so at perhaps the most turbulent time of the Roman empire: at its beginning. As they transformed their domain from republic to empire, Rome's rulers used the city as an instrument of imperial power- as modeled by their hero Alexander. Each of their cities contained a citizen body, a governing council, and a gymnasium, all in good Greek fashion.

The Pax Romana occurred as part and parcel of this movement. Octavian's commonwealth of partially self-governing cities meant stability, security, and consistent justice. It allowed the hope for any justice at all. As the Roman empire spread east into provinces such as Judea, it shifted the relationships among persons and classes; Augustus put the system of patronage to good and full use.

Cities brought the chance, however slim, of economic and social mobility. Urban society became more complex. Cities attracted large groups of foreigners insistent on maintaing ethnic identity through religious cults and voluntary associations.

All of these changes happened in reaction to Roman authority and power. And they did not happen simply: not all rich supported Rome, anymore than all the poor opposed it. But cities were the places where everything happened, especially new cities which offered the most chances for new life.

The shared Greek language of urbanity meant to some degree a common Greek culture, the unity in the expanding Rome's diversity. Common culture meant shared commerce, especially maritime trade. Cities were the hubs of Roman travel, easier then than until the nineteenth century.

Travellers brought Christianity with them, just at they transmitted Rome's many pagan cults.

Next: four modes of social change in Roman cities

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Daily Prayer: Wednesday Dawn


Although we know no hills, no country rivers,
Here in the jungles of our waterpipes and iron ladders,
Our thoughts are quieter than rivers,
Our loves are simpler than the trees,
Our prayers deeper than the sea.


We have found, we have found,
the places where the rain is deep and silent.
We have found the fountains of the spring,
where the Lord emerges refreshed every morning!
He has laid His hand upon our shoulders
and our heart, like a bird, has spoken!

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

What are the Different Kinds of Monks?

Other than the curious? There are indeed several different sorts, depending on what they practice.

Cenobitic monks live in community. They believe in communal life, and they live together with other monks in a religious order, under a religious rule, or set of orders. They meet more than occasionally for prayer, and may or may not have contact with lay believers and the outside world. They began to live in communities because of the hardship and possible damage of the extremely isolated hermit life.

Most commonly cenobitic monks have lived in cells, which originally had much in common with the cells of Roman army barracks. St. Pachomius originated this monastic form, and inspired many others to follow after the 4th century of the common era.

The aforementioned hermits were the first monks, taking to the Egyptian desert during the Roman occupation of the Holy Land. Formally, they are called eremetic. Originally, these men and women sought to emulate the Hebrews wandering in the wilderness and Christ's time of trials. Eremetic monks seek to praise God and- through penance and prayer- lovingly serve humanity. They often live in natural caves or humble huts of their own construction.

Paul of Thebes was the first hermit in Egypt, and likely the first Christian hermit ever. He soon began the eremtic tradition of taking on followers and disciples; the practice later allowed some monks to become so honored that they lacked any physical solitude at all. Historically, their role has been flexible, with many of the early monks weaving baskets in exchange for bread, with medieval monks serving as gatekeepers or ferrymen, and with today's ermetic monks living under broader monastic orders.

Moreover, ermitic life is no longer necessarily a lifelong occupation- many monks seek a hermitage only for a period. Many others now serve under the direction of their local bishop.

This leads to the final variety of monk, the one living in skete. The Christian hermits who make up a skete worship in isolation, but come together for mutual support and safety. Typically, a skete consists of a common house of worship surrounded by individual hovels for its members. The skete has largely vanished in the West, but has more support in the Orthodox church.

I am not yet any kind of literal monk, though I've long held wishes.

Next question?

Sunday, October 12, 2008

Daily Prayer: Sunday Dusk

Justify my soul, O God,
from your fountains fill my will with fire.

Shine on my mind, "be darkness to my experience,"
occupy my heart with your tremendous Life.

Let my eyes see nothing in the world but Your glory,
and let my hands touch nothing that is not for Your service.

Let my tongue taste no bread that does not strengthen me
to praise Your great mercy.

I will hear Your voice and I will hear all harmonies You
have created,

singing Your hymns to find joy in giving You glory.

Thursday, October 9, 2008

Daily Prayer: Thursday Dawn


The fire of a wild white sun has eaten up the distance between
hope and despair.

Dance in this sun, you tepid idiot. Wake up and dance in the
clarity of perfect contradiction.


There is a silent self within us whose presence is disturbing precisely because it is is silent; it can't be spoken. It has to remain silent. To articulate it, to verbalize it, is to tamper with it and in some ways destroy it.

Now let us frankly face the fact that our culture is one which is geared in many ways to help us evade any need to face this inner, silent self. We live in a state of constant semiattention to the sound of voices, music, traffic, or the generalized noise of what goes on around us all the time.

This keeps us immersed in a flood of racket and words, a diffuse medium in which our consciousness is half diluted: we are not quite "thinking," not entirely responding, but we are more or less there. We are not fully present and note entirely absent; not fully withdrawn, yet not completely available.

It cannot be said that we are really participating in anything and we may, in fact, be half conscious of our alienation and resentment. Yet we derive a certain comfort from the vague sense that we are "part of something"- although we are not able to define what that something is...we just float along in the general noise.

Wednesday, October 8, 2008

Cliff Notes: The Historical Jesus

The starting point of a liberating Jesus is the historical Jesus of Nazarath, his life, mission, and fate. This Jesus consists of both a historical element (Jesus) and a transcendental element (Christ). The recognition of this in faith is a gift from God. That is, one cannot simply accept that Jesus Christ was God; one must contemplate the details of the reality and its process.

That we must do so in the language of faith is difficult, as these limit-terms address transcendent processes that we must go through; faith is both word and walk, and one interprets the other. This is true for freedom, love, and life itself. For example, God became a liberator after leading the Hebrews out of Egypt- the term makes little sense before this.

So too did the first believers address the historical facts of Jesus's life- before they confessed him as Christ. Jesus is the way to Christ.

Yet the New Testament is not interested in portraying the historical Jesus, but only the Christ in Jesus. They are always already christologies, and not the materials for a study of Jesus Christ. That they themselves study Christ by going back to the historical Jesus is precisely our starting point as well.

And it has always been the starting point; early Christianity struggled above all else with the scandal of a human Christ. This is possibly because even the term Jesus Christ implies a split; Christ is an adjective, Jesus a noun. It has always been possible to worship a Christ that no longer describes the fact of Jesus of Nazareth.

We should not be surprised that this has happened because christology is, as is all else, a human process, and there exists in the very notion of Jesus Christ an unthinkable and scandalous novelty.

Yet we must make a crucial choice in talking about Jesus Christ, to say "Jesus Christ" or "Christ? He's Jesus." The New Testament says the latter. Thus, the best protection of Christ is to do what the Gospels do and return to the historical Jesus.

This concludes, under protest, this Cliff Notes series. Next I will be summarizing, in much more abbreviated form, a work on the formation of the early church.

Monday, October 6, 2008

Editorial: Upon My Trin-iversary

One warm May night more than five years ago, I sat around with my closest friends talking into the very small hours. We were graduating the next day. For the most part, we talked about how not to, how we could not possibly end this and go our separate ways. We talked about we could live together, intentionally, working as and when we needed to. Furthering our dreams. We planned. This could actually happen, we said. We can really do this. We can buy a house. We can pool our money for a property.

And we could have. All of it could actually have happened, down to the goat cropping grass in the lawn. But it didn't.

I don't doubt that I would have been happier in the intervening years, between 2003 and now, possibly excluding the last, when I have been well enough. I would have by neccesity grown closer to, and not further from, most of the friends that college gave me. I probably wouldn't have been fired twice and had half a dozen jobs in thee years, because I wouldn't have taken jobs I didn't want or need. I wouldn't live a thousand miles away from my family, a fate which seems more and more ambiguous. And above all else, a lonely soul might have lived, for a charmed longer while, a less supremely isolated life.

I would have lived in constant daily contact with other human beings, a fate which seems to me now so remote I can scarcely imagine it.

My solace, the only sense that I can make of this grand not-happening, this supremely pangy non-event, is that it wasn't meant to be. By that I mean that it would have been good, but it would have been a limited good. It would have been a good for me. It might even have been a good for all the rest of us. But I don't think it would have been good for everyone. It wouldn't have been good for France and China and Connecticut and New Jersey and D.C and Tennessee, all the places we eventually went. It wouldn't have been good for Minnesota.

And it wouldn't have been good for Gethsemane. I mean that. I cannot, fortunately I think, see whatever good that I actually do, but I can see that I am here. And that if I were not doing good, I would not be here, and would not be feeling good myself. There certainly have been plenty of opportunities for me to leave, and I certainly have considered them in my three years now, of living here.

But all of this is silly. I only mean that I was afraid that night, talking. I was afraid of everything that was about to end, all the best days of my-little-life-so-far running out like sand. I was afraid of my promise and my indirection and all the opportunities I'd missed so far. I was afraid, not of the future that would happen, whatever that was, but the future that might not happen, all the wants that would not come true, of the things I might not be able to pick up again.

I was not wrong to fear those things. The years since have seen several of them realized. And my motives, all our motives, were pure and good and based on the good we already had. There was nothing wrong with any of that.

But it was not entirely in our hands. It was certainly not in mine. And just because something was not wrong, was not in error, does not mean there is nothing to be learned. And I've learned that I am not my own, not my joy, not my sorrow, not my solace and not my grief. My treasures and time and talents are not mine to hold, anymore than the people I know are my possessions.

We, right now, are choosing our chuch. We are choosing what will happen to Gethsemane. Our future is no more certain now that mine was five years ago. We too face dissolution, not to put too fine a point on it.

What I'm writing to tell you is that you do not need to be afraid. This is a grand and august church, with a far longer history and with a far broader reach than my small group of friends. But no part of it is our posession. It is God's. We are stewards not only of the things we've spent the last month talking aboout, our resources and talents and opportunities.

Rather, we are stewards of this church, of this garden, of this idea of Gethsemane. Each and every one of us.

So it is not enough that we choose how to keep the doors open. It is not enough that we decide how to keep money flowing in and out of our accounts. It is not enough to consider our survival, anymore than it was enough for my friends and I to consider how to stay together.

Rather we must ask how we can be worthy of survival. God has far more options than Gethsemane. And we are only as good to God as we are good to this community. We must think more broadly, as I might have considered the good my friends and I could create wherever we decided to go. The work with the Drake Hotel is an excellent start, but it can only be a start.

Gethsemane Episcopal has a fine tradition. But it does not have a tradition of preserving its tradition. Rather it has a history of being part of Minneapolis, of being tethered to a hospital and an orphanage and Indian communities, of hosting a school and youth programs and counseling centers.

We confuse these things, I think, to say that these things were only possible when we were larger. Rather, I say that we were only larger because we said that these things were possible.

And then we did them.

That's why I decided to stay, about two years ago, when I got the chance to possibly go live with my friends again. Because I already see these things happening at Gethsemane, and I want to see them done.

Thank you.

Sunday, October 5, 2008

Daily Prayer: Sunday Day

It is a glorious thing to be a member of the human race, though it is a race dedicated to many absurdities and one what which makes many terrible mistakes: yet, with all that, God Himself gloried in becoming in becoming a member of the human race. A member of the human race! To think that such a commonplace realization should suddenly seem like news that one hold the winning ticket in a cosmic sweepstake.

I have the immense joy of being a member of a race in which God became incarnate. As if the sorrows and stupidities of the human condition could overwhelm me, now I realize what we all are. And if only everybody could realize this! But it cannot be explained. There is no way of telling people that they are all walking around shining like the sun.

It was as if I suddenly saw the secret beauty of their hearts, the depths of their hearts where neither sin nor desire nor self-knowledge can reach, the core of their reality, the person that each is in God's eyes. If only they could all see themselves as they really are. If only we could see each other that way all the time. There would be no more war, no more hatred, no more cruelty, no more greed. I suppose the big problem would be that we would fall down and worship each other. But this cannot be seen, only believed and understood by a particular gift.

-Thomas Merton

Thursday, October 2, 2008

What is Mount Athos?

Mount Athos, also known as the Autonomous Monastic State of the Holy Mountain, is a self-governed monastic state within the Hellenistic Republic. It is situated entirely on one mountain and consists of 20 Eastern Orthodox Monastaries under the patriarchate of Constantinople. It is only accessible by boat. Only males can visit, and only Orthodox males over the age of 18 can reside there.

Also called "the holy mountain," it was legendarily established by the Mary the mother of Christ during a trip with John the Evangelist to visit Lazarus. Nearly shipwrecked, Mary asked Christ for it to be her garden, and Jesus blessed it from the heavens. Historically, the community's origins are less clear. Both pagans and Christians lived there during the 4th Century reign of Constantine I; Christians fled there from persecution both during the Roman reign of Julian the Apostate and the later conquests of the desert regions by Islamists.

Since then, despite greatly varying political and religious climes, Mount Athos has been a nearly constant refuge for contemplative monks and scholars. And as more monasteries arose, the population naturally became more Christian overall.

In modern times, through Greece, it has become a member of the European Union.

Each of the 20 monasteries of the autonomous state is itself self-governing, led by an Abbott. The whole community is administered by a group of four abbots, elected by all the monasteries of the island and subject to the Patriarch of Constantinople.

Except for cats, there are no female animals permitted on the island.

Wednesday, October 1, 2008

Daily Prayer: Wednesday Dark

There should be at least a room, or some corner where no one will find you and disturb you or notice you. You should be able to untether yourself from the world and set yourself free, loosing all the fine strings and strands of tension that bind you, by sight, by sound, by thought, to the presence of other men.

"But though, when thou shalt pray, enter into thy chamber, and having shut the door, pray to thy Father in secret..." Once you have found such a place, be content with it, and do not be disturbed if a good reason takes you out of it. Love it, and return to it as soon as you can, and do not be quick to change it for another.

-Thomas Merton