Saturday, December 22, 2007

When Half-Spent Was the Night

Antiphon. When all things were in quiet silence and night was in the midst of her swift course, thine almighty Word, O Lord, leaped down from heaven out of thy royal throne. [Wisdom of Solomon 18:14-15a]

Verse. The Lord is King, and hath put on glorious apparel; the Lord hath put on his apparel and girded himself with strength. [Psalm 93:1]
Glory be to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Ghost: As it was in the beginning, is now, and ever shall be, world without end. Amen.

Antiphon. When all things were in quiet silence and night was in the midst of her swift course, thine almighty Word, O Lord, leaped down from heaven out of thy royal throne. [Introit for the First Sunday after Christmas]

The Bible is sometimes quite specific about the time of day when an event occurred – for example, Acts tells us that the descent of the Holy Spirit took place at “the third hour” – i.e., mid-morning. But where the Scriptures offer less detail, Christian imagination has filled in the gaps in symbolically appropriate ways. Thus, we usually think of the Resurrection as happening at sunrise: It is consistent with what the Gospels do tell us, and it is fitting that the return of the Light of the World should coincide with the dawning of the new day.

It is customary to depict Jesus’ birth as occurring at midnight. This is consistent with Luke’s report that the angels appeared to the shepherds by night to announce Christ’s birth. But midnight is the appropriate time for symbolic reasons, as well. Midnight is a pivotal moment, neither part of the old day nor of the new, but a time out of time. For this reason, people in some cultures have believed that the doors between worlds are open at midnight – thus the idea of midnight as “the witching hour,” when spirits can cross into our world.

The midnight of the Nativity was the pivotal point in all of history, the moment between BC and AD, neither part of the new era nor of the old. A momentary lull enveloped all of creation in stillness. The door between heaven and earth stood open as the mystery of the Incarnation was accomplished in Bethlehem. Then the silence was broken as the hymn of the angelic choir in heaven came to shepherds on earth.

Wishing you all a joyful Christmas and a happy 2008,

Es ist ein Ros’ entsprungen

There is a rose-tree springing
forth from an ancient root,
as those of old were singing.
From Jesse came the shoot
that bore the blossom bright
amid the cold of winter,
when half-spent was the night.

This rose-tree, blossom-laden,
as spake Isaiah of yore,
is Mary, spotless Maiden,
for us this Flow’ret bore:
by God’s eternal will,
a little Babe she childeth,
yet Maid remaineth still.

This Flower, whose fragrance tender,
with sweetness fills the air,
dispels with glorious splendor
the darkness everywhere;
true Man yet very God,
from sin and death he saves us
and shares our every load.

With heartfelt prayer we ask thee,
O Mary, sweetest Rose,
by this thy Flow’ret’s sorrows
– as his he bare our woes –
to come unto our aid:
that for him, fine and ready,
a dwelling-place be made.

[Four verses of a 22-verse Rheinland Marienleid as given in a manuscript prayer book (Trier, ca. 1587), of the Brother Conrad, O. Cart., Procurator of the Charterhouse at Mainz; translated cento 1986 by John H. Uhrig, after translations and versions by Harriet Reynolds Krauth Spaeth, 1875; Theodore Baker, 1894; and George Ratcliffe Woodward, 1904.]

I’m recycling this from 2002. That was a slow year for me and I didn’t have any news to share in my annual Christmas letter, so I wrote this instead. It is based on earlier versions going all the way back to ca. 1985, when I first shared something like this orally with a few friends around All Saints’ Day.

Monday, December 17, 2007

Fred Sherrer, RIP

Tonight I received e-mail messages and phone calls from a number of friends to inform me of the death of Fred Sherrer. I knew Fred from my former parish, St. Paul’s, K Street, where he had been a member for many years. He was the sort of unique character that Anglo-Catholic parishes always seem to attract in far greater numbers than other churches, proof of both the inclusiveness and the pastoral nature of Anglo-Catholicism. Tonight at Evensong & Benediction, right after the Magnificat (Dyson in C Minor for you Anglican music aficionados), he lay down in the pew and became unresponsive. His doctor administered CPR and the curate administered the Last Rites before the paramedics arrived to take him to the hospital, where he was pronounced dead on arrival.

Fred’s life began with great misfortune: As an infant, he suffered brain damage in a car crash. Based on stories he told me of his childhood, I would surmise that he was quite a handful as a child and was lucky to have survived some of his dangerous experiments with electricity. Still, Fred continued to tinker with electrical and mechanical devices all his life. Somewhere along the line he learned to unplug electrical devices before tinkering with them!

For some reason, Fred was attracted to Catholicism as a child, even though his parents do not seem to have been Catholic. (When I knew Fred, his mother attended a United Methodist church.) But, because of his mental disability, probably exacerbated by a cantankerous streak, he faced continual rejection by the Catholic Church. One priest refused to confirm him. Later in life he looked into joining religious orders but, for obvious reasons, he was never accepted. He finally gave up on the Roman Catholic Church and became an Anglo-Catholic, which turned out to be a much better fit for him. He was often distressed by the Episcopal Church’s descent into heresy and weirdness, but as often as the subject came up he would announce his resolve to stay at St. Paul’s.

I think Fred always dreamed of being a priest. When in public, he always dressed in black. He never confessed this to me himself, but I am reliably informed that he would sometimes don a Roman collar and try to impersonate a priest!

Despite his condition, Fred managed to remain fairly independent. Between Social Security disability payments, other public subsidies, and help from his mother, he managed to live in an apartment by himself and travel a lot. He would often take the train to Philadelphia, where his mother lived, or to Richmond, where he had a number of friends, and stay for a month at a time. In the Washington area he had friends at a number of churches who welcomed him to Bible studies, concerts, and dinners.

But St. Paul’s was where he truly felt at home. While some parishioners gave him a wide berth and Fred himself avoided others of whom he had formed a negative opinion, he found many friends who would talk with him at coffee hours and receptions and occasionally give him a ride home after church. He would stay in touch with his friends from St. Paul’s and beyond by frequent phone calls, in which he would often ask for clarification about some bit of ecclesiastical news or gossip that he had heard or read but did not understand. Whenever he was reminded of a story about another priest or church or an episode from his childhood he would recount his experience in great detail – there was clearly nothing wrong with the part of his brain that governed memory!

At one point early in my relationship with Fred, I was beginning to resent his neediness and his demands on me. I thought, Why me? But it did not take me long to realize that he liked me because I had the patience to deal with him, whereas most others did not. I started to look at my friendship with Fred as a opportunity for ministry that I was being called upon to exercise in my parish. Here was a need, and God had given me the gifts to address it. After that, while Fred would occasionally try my patience, my resentment evaporated. When my phone would ring at 12:30 AM – Fred’s usual time to call, since he found by trial and error that was the time when I was most likely to answer the phone, night owl that I am – I would nearly always answer. And, unless I had to get up early the next morning to serve at Mass, I would usually listen for as long as he wanted to talk. I could sense that he was rationing the number and length of his phone calls to me and not abusing this privilege.

A visit to Fred’s apartment could be an adventure. Fred loved clocks, and he had several that went bong, ding-dong, or cuckoo every 15 minutes. Besides the clocks, his walls were filled with various religious pictures and calendars, and his shelves and coffee tables supported various statues, such as one of Our Lady of Walsingham. In the last few years, after his mother died, perhaps as a result of my influence, Fred also began to acquire icons, which displaced some of the previous art from his walls.

Fred was never particularly healthy, but he began to deteriorate markedly over the past few years. His emotional health declined first, after his mother died, followed closely by his aunt. They were the only living relatives he was at all close to, and he had depended heavily on his mother’s love and guidance. Then his arthritis worsened to the point where he could no longer walk around as he used to, and the reduction in exercise further weakened him.

When he began to need help for routine cleaning of his apartment, my spiritual director, Bill, suggested that we could take up that task ourselves. So every few months we would meet at Fred’s apartment, where I would pick up old papers and trash from the floor and vacuum, and Bill would clean the kitchen and the refrigerator. Occasionally we would do additional things, such as clean the bathroom or help him decorate for Christmas. As Fred’s needs increased, last year several young men from church, including Fred’s doctor, joined our team. Fred appreciated not only the things we did for him, but also our company and our attention.

A few months ago Fred was hospitalized following a heart attack. He told me last Saturday that he never felt he had recovered from that episode. The following morning at church, he passed out before Mass and was anointed for healing. At that time he told the curate that when he died he wanted to die at a service at St. Paul’s. Tonight he got his wish, and, in the rector’s words, he “left this life fortified by the sacraments of the church.”

May he rest in peace and rise in glory.

Monday, December 10, 2007

My New Pet Peeve about Orthodoxy

Since I have not written anything in nearly two months, I fear some of you might be wondering whether I still have anything to blog about after completing my transition to Orthodoxy. The answer is an emphatic yes, but I’ve been channeling my writing energies in other directions lately, leaving me with a growing backlog of bloggable topics that are stranded in my head, rather than flowing across your screens. I hope to resume my more-or-less weekly blogging pace soon, but I can’t make any promises about when.

I am finding Orthodox Christians, collectively, very odd in their consensus about which bits of Anglophone Christianity to embrace and which to reject. Many Orthodox, for instance, insist on saying Pascha, rather than Easter, as if these were two different, totally unconnected events. Or as if Easter somehow embodied the peculiarities of Western or Catholic or Protestant belief. Some claim to reject it because of its possible indirect connection to a putative ancient pagan goddess, Eostre. But the only testimony we have to the worship of a goddess of this name comes from the Venerable Bede, a 7th-century English monk, in his speculation about the etymology of the term Easter. Bede himself was, of course, an Orthodox Christian who called the feast by its English name when speaking English. It goes by similar names in other Germanic languages, all corresponding to their languages’ names for the month of April.

(In the early days of Anglo-Saxon Christianity, the speakers of Old English often avoided transliterating terms from Latin and Greek, instead preferring to coin new words rooted in their own language. This preference even persisted into the early modern period, resulting, for example, in the peculiarly English word atonement for reconciliation.)

Yet Orthodox Christians do not hesitate to call the Great Fast by its English name, Lent, which comes from the Anglo-Saxon name for the season of spring, corresponding to the lengthening of days at that time of year. Nor do they shrink from calling the morning office Matins, which is cognate with the name of Matuta, the Roman goddess of the dawn.

My newest pet peeve about Orthodoxy is its ubiquitous adoption of the Puritan practice of capitalizing divine pronouns, i.e., pronouns that refer to God. It seems that some people have actually been taught that this practice is a rule of English grammar! But if you look at the King James Version of the Bible or any edition of the Book of Common Prayer, you will find that the practice of official English-speaking Christianity (i.e., Anglicanism) has always been to treat divine pronouns like any other pronouns. Nor does this practice have precedent in the original Hebrew and Greek texts of Scripture. The use of mixed cases – i.e., uppercase and lowercase letters together in the same text – developed long after the Scriptures had been written and collected. No, this practice was first introduced by the Puritans, who published their own Bibles and devotional materials outside England, in defiance of the Established Church.

(I understand that those who capitalize divine pronouns intend thereby to “honor” God. I try to imagine what the prophets might say to them about the proper way to honor God. Perhaps, “This people honors me with its capital letters, but its heart is distant from me.” cf. Isaiah 29:13.)

My first objection to the capitalization of divine pronouns is practical and asesthetic: I find it hard to read a text cluttered with capitalized words that are not nouns and that do not begin a new sentence. Every time I run into Thou or Thee, I want to start reading a new sentence! But I object even more to the Protestant hermeneutic implicit in this capitalization. It assumes that one can always identify every pronoun as referring either to God or not to God. This, in turn, rests on assumptions that 1) the meaning of Scripture is transparent, and 2) Scripture is only to be read literally. These assumptions defy the Orthodox method of reading Scripture inherited from the Fathers. In addition to the literal level, we Orthodox read Scripture on a typological level. A person or event might be interpreted simultaneously on both levels. The entire book of Song of Solomon, for instance, has traditionally been read typologically as describing the relationship between Christ and the Church, yet the capitalizers do not capitalize any pronouns in this book of the Old Testament.

(If the Puritans were reading Song of Solomon literally, perhaps they were not as “puritanical” as is often supposed!)

In short, I object to the practice of capitalizing divine pronouns in texts intended for Orthodox use because 1) it is contrary to standard English usage; 2) it has no precedent in the original Greek texts of the Scriptures; and 3) it is inconstent with Orthodox readings of Scripture.

While most Orthodox Bibles and liturgical books continue to capitalize divine pronouns, I have found some exceptions, so I know I’m not alone. In the liturgical texts on the Anastasis Website, for instance, Archimandrite Ephrem’s translations follow the traditional English liturgical usage, which does not capitalize divine pronouns.