Monday, January 15, 2007

Benedictine Cell

The Pharisee stood there and said this prayer to himself, "I thank you, God, that I am not grasping, unjust, adulterous like everyone else, and particularly that I am not like this tax collector here. I fast twice a week; I pay tithes on all I get." The tax collector stood some distance away, not daring even to raise his eyes to heaven; but he beat his breast and said, "God, be merciful to me, a sinner." - Luke 18:11-13

Thursday evening was my final Benedictine Cell meeting at St. Paul's. The cell has been meeting on the second Thursday of the month, eleven months a year, for four-and-a-half years now, and I've been a member since the beginning. Following Evening Prayer and Low Mass, we eat dinner, study a section of the Rule of St. Benedict (we're up to chapter 48), engage in a group form of lectio divina, and conclude with the office of Compline, after which everyone departs silently. We take turns providing food and drinks for supper, choosing the lectio passage, and leading Compline. Last night I brought the main dish for supper. As usual, I made something in my crock pot - in this instance brown rice and chicken.

As at the last meeting, I had to field many questions about my upcoming move to Eastern Orthodoxy. I had to assure everyone I would still come back to visit St. Paul's on special occasions, like Candlemas and Advent Lessons and Carols.

For lectio, Janet read Luke 18:9-14, the Parable of the Pharisee and the Tax Collector, which begins by providing the context: Jesus spoke this parable "to some people who prided themselves on being upright and despised everyone else." At an Anglo-Catholic shrine parish like St. Paul's, you can't swing a thurible without censing a dozen such upright people. "We thank thee, O God, that we are not like those Nonconformists, who lack the Prayerbook and decent church music. Or our fellow Anglicans of Latitudinarian churchmanship, who are lazy and indifferent in their practice of the faith."

But, of course, one finds the same sort of thing in Orthodoxy. "Thanks be to God that we are not like those Romanists and Protestants, suffering the inevitable consequences of their Western heresies. Or our fellow Orthodox who use the wrong calendar."

And now, by pointing out these instances of ecclesiastical pride in both the church I'm leaving and the one I'm joining, I am implicitly saying to myself, "Thank God I'm not like those immature, pride-besotted people praying next to me!"

The tax collector shows us the way out of this never-ending circle of pride when he beats his breast and prays, "God, be merciful to me, a sinner." Perhaps the need to counter religious pride is one reason why Orthodoxy, a tradition with much to be rightly proud of, so often commends recitation of the Jesus Prayer: "Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy upon me, a sinner."

With lectio completed, our
leader produced a gift-wrapped package with a bow on it and handed it to me. I quickly looked at the card, signed by my fellow cell members, and then opened the package to find . . . a Byzantine cross. I recalled Fr. Stephen's recounting of the Orthodox folklore that the proper way to collect icons is not to go looking for them, but to wait for them to come to us, and I thanked them for the thoughtful gift. We then concluded with Compline.

About two times out of three, we actually follow our rule and depart, more or less, in silence. But other times there is an unspoken consensus that the need for speech outweighs the rule of silence, and this was one of those times, as everyone wanted to say goodbye again. In my remaining two weeks at St. Paul's, I'm sure this ritual will be repeated several more times.


Mari said...

Are there any rules about praying with Romanist or Protestants stuck in heretical hierarchies? Well I guess some of us will have to bug you occasionally to make sure you show up for those special events.... at least before your new church saddles you with a ton of duties. Then once they do that we'll never see you again. *sniff*

Roland said...

As with most things in Orthodoxy, the rules are not explicit, and everyone disagrees about what the non-explicit rules mean. I know one Orthodox convert who won't set foot in a non-Orthodox church for any reason (I'm sure he could cite a canon or a father in support of his scruple), but this is extreme.

I think the more usual practice is not to pray "regularly" with other sorts of Christians - that's why I expect to limit myself to visiting on "special occasions." And, of course, I won't be able to receive communion when I visit.

The unfortunate fact is that the Orthodox churches are not in communion with any other church at this time, and I must take care not to behave in a way that would suggest otherwise.

Mari said...

So.... when I invite you over for dinner can you say grace with me or we do our own separate thing? I'm trying to figure out how do we (and any other orthodox I meet up with) relate to each other. There is absolutely nothing in Miss Manner's about it, so I'm at al loss and expect you to explain it.

Roland said...

I suppose I just need to memorize an Orthodox form of grace.

Anonymous said...

Baruch atah Adonai Elohenu melech ha alom, Ha motzi le chem min ha eretz. Amayn.