Every day, it seems, I find myself looking up words and their etymologies, trying to get at the root of what something I've just read means. Sometimes it's a word in the Bible, and I end up wading my way through ancient languages I've never studied, searching for clues. Other times it's just words from daily life that suddenly pertain to some matter I'm struggling with or considering. Often the word has changed over the centuries; I find such words particularly fascinating—particularly when, as is often the case, the word's current meaning is at odds with what it once meant. Some of these word studies find their way into my writing projects. My goal is to post new words weekly, sometimes brand new material and sometimes excerpts from my books.

01 April 2007

Church, Again

This past week my university hosted a writer's festival. We invited three writers in from out of state, and I got to know them a little bit. The keynote speaker—a sweet-spirited husband and father and professor of English about my age—was a poet. He taught my poetry workshop, mainly reading poems with us, and he put me utterly to shame as a teacher. His most recent publication is a spiritual memoir, which I read most of in preparation for introducing him to students at a luncheon.

The memoir is about his search for a closer relationship with God following a spiritual crisis of sorts in his early forties. Toward this end, he sets out for the monsasteries of Mount Athos, in Greece, where he hopes to find a spiritual father who can, among other things, teach him how to go about the business of ceaseless prayer, which he is convinced will cause him to have a more constant sense of God's presence. He seems heartbreakingly young and innocent in this book—as young as I often feel among my age contemporaries who are lifelong Christians. As young, in fact, as I felt as I ate and chatted with him and the other two visting writers. I liked that about him and about his book. Curiously, I had recently been reading Julian of Norwich, who longed similarly for the ability to pray ceaselessly and thereby to sense God's presence more consistently. So, I paid more attention to him than the other two writers.

He is, as he kept referring to himself, "Orthodox," by which he means Eastern Orthodox, and there was much evidence of this tradition in his practices and writing. I was fascinated by his brand of faith, which I have always—rather stupidly, I admit—pretty much equated with the Roman Catholicism of my father's era, with which I am somewhat more familiar. Formal liturgy. Robed priests referred to as fathers. Monasteries. Incense. Fancy church buildings. A high value on church tradition. I have never quite understood why Eastern Orthodoxy is more or less embraced by evangelicals, whereas Roman Catholicism is not. From what little I know of them, both seem to be equally Christian in their essence and equally preoccupied with images and saints, intercessors and formal ritual as pathways to God.

In any case, during the poet's visit, he fasted from meat for Lent and wore a knotted prayer bracelet and a tiny lapel pin geaturing a cross with two additional crossbeams—the standard Orthodox cross, he told me when I asked, and he explained that the extra crossbeams represented the place where Jesus put his feet and the placard above his head. He seemed bemused, even slightly irritated, that I didn't already know these things and had to have them explained. I suppose I should know more about Eastern Orthodoxy. (Certainly I should know more about Roman Catholicism, the faith tradition in which I took my first steps in God's direction.) In any event, I didn't question him further about the Orthodox highlighting of these details of the crucifixion—the foot rest, the placard—although I wanted to. I was sure they had meaning.

All this to say that I was paying a good deal of attention to the man's particular brand of Christian faith, trying to sort it in my head and understand it and maybe understand my own faith a little better. His memoir was mystifying at points. Frequently, I found passages funny that I guessed were not intended so. A story of kissing the relic of a saint—her left foot—and immediately thereafter sensing her sweet presence. Another about feeling for the first time a fluttering about his heart that he knows is the presence of God he has so longed to experience, and then thinking he is having a heart attack. And, more than anything else, his repeatedly believing he has found the spiritual guide he is looking for only to be turned down when he asks. His story reminded me, for all the world, of all those wistful years of looking for love before I married Kris, wanting deeper relationships than I ever found. The same repeated mismatch of desire and commitment.

In the course of his visit, he spoke disparagingly of those—like me, I kept thinking—who don't value tradition or who pick and choose, as he described one community of believers, what they like from this church tradition or that. Although respectful of others' traditions, he had little use for the traditionless. At one point, picking up on my ignorance of church history and probably suspecting a deeper disinclination toward tradition as an element of faith—probably believing me to be someone who rejects old church practices outright as empty ritual, as many of my more conservative fellow Christians do—he pointed out to me that T. S. Eliot revered church history. As if that would convince me.

But what would convince me? I keep coming back to this place in my journey toward God—this landing on the stairway: What is the church? What value its traditions and habits of thinking? How essential is the church—not the global body of other believers, but the particular church one belongs to and its practices—to faith? Why does tradition attract me? Why does it repel me?

Once I read that Martin Luther kept on wearing his priestly robes even after he was excommunicated, and I find that intriguing. Was there something that drew him, too, back into the old habits, despite the impulse to cast them aside?

With all of this in my mind, I returned, this weekend, to two spiritual practices that I have neglected for some time. One was the garden, my thin place, where I turned the last remaining beds and pulled up weeds and planted a few plants I had bought and let the sun and wind and water and dirt do their godly work on me.

And, this morning, my daughters and I went to church. We have been inconstant in our attendance—same old problems of Kris's tax season and indecision about what church is right for us. But when I got them up—Charlotte and Lulu and their friend Kaitlyn, who had spent the night—they didn't protest, as they often do, and so we got dressed and went.

It was Palm Sunday. When the little children ran up to the front of the sanctuary waving their palm fronds, I remembered the Palm Sundays of my childhood—the smell and feel and specialness of those palm fronds, the excitement, the bigness of it—and I embarrassed the girls by crying. One boy—I think he was mentally retarded—was so thrilled by the palms and the noise and the movement that he jumped up and down, flinging out his arms, and his sister had to hold onto his waist to keep him from leaping from the stage. Another little boy stood in the front, his face blank with concentration, and held his frond straight up, like a flag, or like a candle he was afraid might drip or catch something on fire. Others without fronds did the hand movements of the song we were singing: "He came from heaven to earth, to show the way, from the earth to the cross, our debt to pay . . . !" Afterwards the girls commented that they had no idea that there were so many little kids in that church, and they were right. There were a lot of children. They filled the front of the sanctuary.

While I was crying, I had this vision of how it might have been when Jesus entered Jerusalem that last time. By then, the poor and the hungry and the sick, the widows, the rejected, the forgotten, were as excited as children, and it was they who tore branches from the trees and waved them in the air in jubilation. They took off their outer garments and threw them down before the Teacher on his colt. Those in power were, of course, not so excited, and things were just about to turn grim. But, for a moment, there was this joy that expressed itself in this precise way, this grabbing of palm fronds in recognition and worship, this throwing down of clothes, this jubilant singing, and it does seem fit to reenact and commemorate it, to feel its motions.

This is, I think, as far as I can get, today, on tradition: that it is the taking into ourselves of the responses of earlier believers. The followers of Jesus, who heard him and touched him and knew him. And those who gathered after his death around the eye witnesses and, with them, celebrated and suffered on his behalf. Tradition itself does not move me, I think. It has no real value, no notched place in my faith. And yet it seizes me at times, seizes everything in me, and wins—often when nothing else will—my notice.


Kiki said...

Tradition--I can empathize that sometimes the heart leaps at something traditional--for instance one of the great older hymns. But at the same time I recoil at what I have observed to be the unbelievable power of tradition to render intelligent people unable to process change in an intelligent way. I like the way you put it, "it is the taking into ourselves of the responses of earlier believers", so I feel a bit guilty for being so anti-tradition. I am biased from having worked within the western church society for over 20 years--but after 20 years I have even less respect for tradition than I did at the start. In fact, I am at a point where I would like to throw away all traditions because I think they often act like a wall and keep people from touching the essence of God. I could be wrong about this, but nonetheless it is what I have observed and where I'm at currently in my thinking, and I realize it is based on my particular experience. I know it is possible that to others the traditions of the church and faith act like a touchstone for them to interact with God, and I do not at all mean to sound harsh toward such a person....just blogging where I'm at. As usual, I have far more questions than answers!

Susan said...

Ummm, church traditions. Being 51 and raised Methodist, there are some traditions. This blog on Palm Sunday reminded me of one of our own. Where some adults (me included) participated in the palm parade around the church aisles. We adults were very aware of the significance of the palms and the dropping of robes before their King, yet feeling the Friday revelations to come. Knowing the feelings of the Palm Sunday parade from the actual people attending, how joyous they were that their King was riding into town to finally show his Lordship, and defeat any other Kings.
I must admit, until I was 40 I was also an amateur believer, as you have so titled this blog. Questioning the different denominations, which is better for me, traditional or the new contemporary style of praise and worship. I still have some questions regarding style, but I find traditional fits me best. When we sing an old hymn "Here I Am, Lord", I will always be in tears. Of course, "Amazing Grace" is my favorite, to the point that it my ringtone (with bagpipes) on my phone. The older traditions are what have brought us to the place where the main denominations are today. Newer contemporary services are geared toward the younger or possibly including amateur believers. At times the contemporary can be quiet moving for me with the newer songs, hitting that place in my heart where I feel true worship is being released, and the praise is abounding. Because of my one upbringing in church, I don't understand some the traditions of others such as Catholosim or the Eastern Orthodox, but I do feel a sense of God when I enter their churches. The Catholic Cathedrals, so elaborately built, the choir echoing through the church. Tradition can be a good thing if it signals to each attendee the purpose that brings us closer to our Lord. Contemporary, as I said earlier can also release a power especially when it is at a gathering of 10 - 20,000 all singing and praying and praising God for the gift of Grace and Mercy He has given to us.
However, this closeness to God can be felt sitting in the silence at sunset, or when the sun first rises upon another day as you sit and smell the flowers, with the light breeze upon your face. So, I guess I see tradition to help show us where we are from, whose we are; contemporary for our current days to sing and praise out loud as they did in the days of Moses; and to sit where we are with our Lord touching our face with His light breeze and the silence of Him passing as he did with Isaiah. God is everywhere, not that I have all the answers to all questions, but this is my answer to this blog from my corner of the world.