Tag Archives: Body of Christ

A Light in Time

Advent St. JIt is a season of renewal, a time when we review the old year and make resolutions for the new one. We judge our time, our spending of time, our use or abuse of the year 2015. Each year is a gift. It is a unique segment of our lives, a year we cannot retrieve and a year that will never be repeated. We are given only one chance with our lives, only one chance with the time given.

And so we look back and consider what habits to discard and what to keep, what to repent and what to repeat, what to affirm and what to deny. Sometimes confusion reigns even in hindsight, and the better path not obvious even from this vista point, perched as we are on the cliff at the end of the year, getting ready to jump into 2016, a new segment of time granted to us, this new year. 

“She had the time of her life.” We say this to emphasize a moment of great exuberance and joy, a peak time amidst the other valleys. But all time is of our lives. All time is holy.

As I look back on my year, I do indeed see confusion and chaos. A good friend and mentor left our earthly time and entered eternity, leaving us behind. Another friend is getting ready to leave, in hospice care. Her bags are nearly packed and she is peacefully waiting the chariot.

In the past year there have been many risings to occasions and putting best feet forward and keeping stiff upper lips. There have been duties and responsibilities not always heartfelt, actions ordered by God’s law of love. There have been dark times in shadowy valleys where answers could not be seen, where the fork in the road had no signpost, or the sign had been lost, thrown into the bushes.

And yet looking back at 2015 I also see clarity and order. My good friend and mentor in Heaven left me many gifts that live on bridging our separation, gifts of wisdom and love, ways to see and believe, the necessity of humility and its fruit, repentance. My friend waiting for her journey to Heaven continues to gift me in her last days, but I can see clearly now that her friendship itself was given to me to make sense of my own time.

The risings to occasions, the duties and responsibilities not eagerly engaged, rewove my own heart to be of stronger stuff, not so easily thwarted by dismay and danger, informing my soul again with God’s law of love. The dark times through the journey of 2015 led me to the altar of my local church, pushing me to my knees in penitence and prayer, and when I re-entered the world I found myself on the top of a mountain of light with a clear view of the surrounding countryside.

We do indeed live behind the veil of eternity. Some of us glimpse the brilliant color and catch the fragrance and sensory delight on the other side. Some of us hear the music, the choirs of angels and the songs of the saints. Some of us don’t know how to lift the curtain or even believe that it can be lifted or that it is there at all, thinking this world is all there is.

And so as I stepped through the dark days of Advent, those short wintry days, I watched and I prayed and I worshiped God in his Church, calling for Christ’s coming, singing with his people. Slowly, a light shined in the darkness, revealing my place in the world, my place in my moment of time. I observed the rituals and rites of Christmas with their sacramental signs, knowing they would lead me to the light to see again.

I garlanded the evergreen in our bowed window and strung twinkling lights through the branches. Ornaments from the years of my life were resurrected from tissue nests in boxes, where they had lived since last Christmas. The figurines and balls and tassels hanging from bits of wire released memories from the prison of my mind, giving them air, and a stained-glass gathering of family and children and loved ones crowded happily with one another in my heart.

In the days before Christmas – after the parish pageant on Advent IV – I set up our large crèche figures on the hearth and dangled a golden star from the mantel. Fresh white candles found holders in all the rooms so that I would not forget the great light coming soon to the world to banish the dark, the darkness of winter, the darkness of my soul.

So the confusion of life, after all, I learned once again, can be cleared. There is a way to lighten the darkness, as described by St. John whose feast we celebrate today:

“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God… All things were made by him; and without him was not any thing made that was made. In him was life; and the life was the light of men. And the light shineth in darkness; and the darkness comprehended it not… That was the true Light, which lighteth every man that cometh into the world. He was in the world, and the world was made by him, and the world knew him not. He came unto his own, and his own received him not. But as many as received him, to them gave he power to become the sons of God, even to them that believe on his name: which were born, not of blood, nor of the will of the flesh, nor of the will of man, but of God. And the Word was made flesh, and dwelt among us, (and we beheld his glory, the glory as of the only begotten of the Father,) full of grace and truth.”

John 1+, Gospel reading for Christmas Day

And in one of John’s letters to an early church:

“This then is the message which we have heard of him, and declare unto you, that God is light, and in him is no darkness at all. If we say that we have fellowship with him, and walk in darkness, we lie, and do not the truth: but if we walk in the light, as he is in the light, we have fellowship one with another, and the blood of Jesus Christ his Son cleanseth us from all sin. If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins, and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness. If we say that we have not sinned, we make him a liar, and his word is not in us.”             I John 1+

And so, as my good friend in Heaven taught me, one must walk in the light – that is, penitently – in order to see in the darkness. He also gave me the gift of the Church, the Body of Christ, that leads me to the light. For only by entering the doors of Christ’s Body can we experience clarity amidst confusion. Only by walking up the aisle to kneel at the altar can we know the love of God and his forgiveness. Only by observing our time, each day, hour, minute, within the seasons of the life of the Church, can we find our way forward into the New Year that awaits each of us.

I look back upon 2015 and see a map of love through time. I want to follow that path that journeys with Love incarnate. I look forward to 2016, every minute, every hour, every step of the way, lit by the light and love of Christmas, Emmanuel, God with us.

Requiem

APCK-Logo-10-03-2008It was as if Archbishop Morse of our Anglican Province of Christ the King were present among us, and perhaps he was, the sense was so palpable. 

My husband and I arrived early Saturday morning for Bishop Morse’s Requiem Mass at St. Peter’s Anglican Church in Oakland, near Berkeley in the historic residential neighborhood of Rockridge. The clergy were vesting in the Sunday School rooms (the sacristy being too small for such numbers) and as I checked on the nursery – lights on, toys set out, our young attendant waiting for the first arrivals with her sweet smile – I was greeted with the awesome anticipation I usually sense when dozens of clergy meet for a single Mass, whatever the occasion. 

But Saturday’s occasion was a serious one, an especially joyous one. These men knew this was a historical event, a meaningful time in all of their lives, in the life of the Church, in the world itself. This funeral was for no ordinary man, not your average priest. Bishop Morse had welcomed these men into the fold of the Anglican Province of Christ the King over the past thirty-seven years with the vision to continue traditional Anglican Christianity. Each man who had known  this bishop had differing and yet similar stories to tell of his love for them. 

A good shepherd, Bishop Morse had found these young men at miraculous moments in the millions of moments in their lives – at crossroads moments – and revealed the love of God in a compelling way. Saturday morning, as they robed in the Sunday School of St. Peter’s, pulling cassocks and cottas and stoles over their heads, chatting and catching up with one another’s lives since the last gathering, they were thankful for this man who had changed them forever. 

I had checked on the nursery and had watched the tide of clergy ripple through the Sunday School rooms. I now entered the nave of the church and joined my husband in our pew. I said my prayers of thanksgiving and looked about. Four large candles stood at the head of the central aisle, before the chancel steps, waiting for the casket. To the side of the chancel an acolyte entered from the sacristy. He lit tall candles on the altar. A large medieval crucifix hung over a tented tabernacle and marble altar. I thought how the steepled wooden ceilings and red-brick apse formed the bow of our ark. Stained glass windows, glittering along the side aisles, told stories of St. Peter. Behind and high above us rose the choir loft with St. Ann Chapel’s wondrous singers. Beyond them more stained glass burned bright with Pentecost crimsons, flaming to the eaves. 

As we waited in our pews, the choir sang softly, and I recognized Shall we gather by the river. Then the choir was suddenly silent, and in the silence a procession stepped up the aisle. Torchbearers held flaming candles, the thurifer swung clouds of incense, the crucifer held high the crucifix. Four young men, the bishop’s grandsons, rolled a closed casket to rest between the standing torches at the head of the aisle. 

I gazed at the draped casket, knowing that the spirit of this man was no longer there. He was alive, but where was he? Sleeping? Purgatory? Heaven? The body had become, now separated from the spirit, a symbol or memory, something tangible, and as sacramental Christians we honor the material of creation. We believe God  created us and our world from his great love. He even entered  our created order himself to walk among us, to die among us.

So in our liturgies, matter matters. Matter is our means of expression; matter is our vocabulary, our dialog with God. Hence, candles burn, incense billows, bells ring. We use our bodies to kneel and genuflect and make the Sign of the Cross over our heads and hearts. We process with our feet, we anoint with oil, we baptize with water, we mark foreheads with ash. We act the story, we celebrate the glories as we re-create Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, and Easter Sunday in every Eucharist. We receive the Son of God, uniting his body and blood with our own, taking, eating, and drinking the consecrated bread and wine at every Mass.

Words are one means of expression, but only one (and I do love words). We desire to express the profound love of God through the dance of the liturgy, through our bodies, through our living lives. 

So I gazed at the coffin, now anchoring our ark of a parish church, sitting in the heart of its cross. It was as though our ship had paused in its sailing through the rough weather of our world, and in this time of standing still we on board in the pews wove prayer and song around and over the body of the man who had fought for us all these years. 

Robert Sherwood Morse took a strong stand against the riptides and undertows of the seventies, eighties, nineties, and the first fifteen years of this millennium. He told the truth, unafraid, always listening to the voice of God spoken through scripture, sacrament, and tradition. Especially in the last few years, a time in which I was given the grace to work with him, I could see him listening, looking, feeling his way through choices, sometimes hard choices. In essence, he protected us from heresy, ensuring the ancient creeds would continue to be recited and, more importantly, believed. So, like Noah, he built an ark and welcomed us in. And like Moses, he led us through the desert to the promised land. He walked straight and tall, holding fast his shepherd’s crook. He watched out for hungry wolves. He protected us. He guided us. He loved us. 

And in that love he taught us how God loves. In that love he taught us how Christ loves, how to love one another. “Christianity is caught, not taught,” he often said. His exuberant witness was indeed catching, and the fire of God’s love spread from soul to soul in his congregations as his many arks set sail through the years. And we always knew it was Christ who acted through him. He was a vehicle, a way, a disciple who pointed to Christ, waving his hands in gentle arcs as he preached from the central aisle.

He loved the Holy Eucharist: “The purpose of the Church is to give humanity the Eucharist. The Church must clear the roads so that this can happen.” 

And so, as I gazed upon the draped casket surrounded by flaming candles, as I joined in the prayer-dance of liturgy and song, and as I stepped to the altar to receive Christ, our good bishop was present, with us. He heard us, he smiled upon us. His love wove between us, pulling us into Christ. For our bishop knew, and knows at this moment as I write this, that he formed a cross with his body, linking earth to heaven, a cross pointing to the true Cross, the way to life, to God, today and in eternity. 

As we sang, Yes, we’ll gather at the river,/The beautiful, the beautiful river;/Gather with the saints at the river/That flows by the throne of God, I could hear him singing with us, gathering us together in his love this first Saturday in June 2015, gathering us together in our mortality, so that we could gather later in eternity by the river that flows by the throne of God. 

Biography of Archbishop Morse

True Fatherhood

TRINITY.RUBLEVTrinity Sunday comes late this year, appropriately landing on Father’s Day and adding to the rich texture of June, a month that opens the door to a new season. So as we leave spring and slip into summer, we don the green of Trinitytide. The “extra-ordinary” time of Advent through Pentecost, celebrating the Son of God’s life on earth changes to “ordinary” time, a time of quiet growth and reflection on what that life means to each of us.

They say the Holy Trinity is a great mystery, how three persons can be one. And yet, as one grows in the faith, it seems natural. God the Father expresses himself as God the Son and later as God the Holy Spirit. It is said that love binds the three together, and no doubt this is true, but I would say that the three are all extraordinary expressions of love. Christ, the Son, is God’s loving incarnation, God’s healing and salvific sacrifice for us who brings us home to him. The Holy Spirit is God’s loving presence sent when the Son has ascended. God the Father provides for us, loves us, in all time, through all eternity. So we need never be lost. We need never be alone, afraid, unprotected.

Our culture celebrates Father’s Day to honor those who, on this earth, act to shelter us and love us in the same way our heavenly Father has done for his people since Adam and Eve. Our earthly fathers stumble, to be sure, for they are earthly, but their role as protectors and providers continues to be an ideal. We honor them for their hard work, their sacrifice of time and treasure, to provide for us. When they abandon us, we know they have wronged us. We know they are no longer fathers.  For true fathers, like our Heavenly Father, never leave us. They never stop loving us, never stop sacrificing.

Fathers, like our Father in Heaven, discipline us so that we may learn right from wrong. They teach standards of behavior in an effort to raise us up, transforming narcissistic children into responsible adults. It is no coincidence that crime rises when fathers abandon fathering. In American culture, since the rise of easy divorce and the artificial separation of sex and procreation, too many fathers have run away from their children. Too many mothers have been forced to be fathers as well, and somehow, mysteriously, they can never really be both. In this, American culture has been grievously wronged.

We call the great theologians of history, those men who formulated and protected the creeds and canons of Christianity, our Church Fathers. They too took care of their children, the faithful. They gave them, gave us, through interpretation of Scripture, the words to express the truth of God and his love for man. They protected us from untruth, lies, heresy. Like Saint Athanasius, who fought Arianism with the Nicene Creed, they explained the Trinity to us, the truth of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. The words of those Church Fathers, passed from generation to generation, continue to guide this Body of Christ, so that Christians have a great host of fathers to enlighten their dark and help them shoulder the perplexing dilemmas of living.

And, to be sure, the inheritors of those eminent Church Fathers, through Apostolic Succession, are the priestly fathers we know today. These men, through the Laying on of Hands, are consecrated to and with and by these creedal truths, vowing to unite God the Father with each of us through God the Son and by the power of God the Holy Spirit. These priestly fathers are, however, sons of Adam and earthly too, but they strive through grace and sanctification to give us a glimpse of heaven on earth.

The Epistle for Trinity Sunday for Anglicans is the fourth chapter of the Revelation of John. The passage recounts John’s vision of Heaven, and it is this vision that every Christian may glimpse from time to time. Hidden within moments of love, moments of sacrifice and suffering, we see God’s presence weave among us. We sense a glory close by, near enough to know. Angels hover about us, and if we can forget ourselves for a time, we can sense them. We need to be silent and listening, full of the words given to us by the Word, Christ, through Scripture, explained by the Church Fathers through the centuries. So we worship on Sunday, sing the Psalms and listen to the lessons. We hear our priestly father explain the great miraculous mysteries given to us. We meet God the Son at the altar and we sing God the Father’s praises as God the Holy Spirit moves among us.

This is the most Holy Trinity, the ultimate Fatherhood, when Love becomes one of us, dies for us, and gives us his Spirit to be with us always, even to the ends of the earth.

On Mothers

It’s crystal clear, the skies windswept and bluer than blue, here in the Bay Area this Mother’s Day, the second Sunday in May, Mary’s month of May. The proximity of the two celebrations each year always touches me, for it is a time to consider the very center of human life, the miracle of birth.

Mothers, like our mother Mary, have strong ties to their children. In some sense, after the season in the womb, after the dramatic entrance into our world, after the great first gasp of air, the cord is never cut, but holds fast throughout life. Some cords are stronger than others, some ties are formed in spite of little desire or intention, some are never formed through tragic circumstances. Some mothers early on have the sword of love pierce their hearts; some know that piercing later. Mothers who adopt, God bless them, may not have given birth, but in their hearts they did, and they swaddle that baby close, cheek against breast, nearly one flesh. Love is like that. It weaves a strong cord, entwining, holding, feeding, eyeing, singing.

We know that our mother Mary, the new Eve, grinds her heal on the ancient serpent, Satan, destroying him. She gives birth to the Son of God, incarnate in her womb. She loves, she suffers, and she watches her son die a cruel and humiliating death. She is full of grace and blessed among women. She prays for us just as we ask her to. She has appeared to many of her children through the centuries, sending them fountains and wells of healing waters. She loves us so; she is our mother.

As a mother I for a time housed my child within me. My body was his home, his very life blood. It is easy to think that he was literally a part of me, so close were we, but that is the great mysterious miracle. For the child was separate, a genetically unique human being, unique in all past, present, and future time, fully known only by God. When labor is accomplished, and the unborn is born, mothers know they have been part of the greatest miracle on earth. Gather any group of mothers together and mention the birth of a baby, and each will remember what happened to her on that day. She will recall the hugely important part she played in this great drama, for it is seared in her memory. Mothers tell their stories to one another as though reciting heroic ballads upon which the world depends – all history, all humanity, all love. The hours and minutes of giving birth are alive, fresh and real, eager to be shared.

The anguish and the pain are forgotten in the joy of new life. Circumstances may not have been perfect – perhaps the mother was alone. Perhaps she didn’t want the child. Perhaps she thought her life would be ruined or simply changed. Perhaps she gave birth in a back room, or in a cave, or in a stable. But with the telling, each mother chooses the joyous bits to remember. The infant placed in her arms. “Hello,” she says. “What shall I name you?” Then, “I love you… don’t worry, it will be all right.” She vows to protect that child forever; to feed, clothe, and teach this son or daughter to become loving and responsible. Of course her life is changed. How could it not be? She will never be the same. But she has no regrets. She is a mother now. She has learned how to love.

But most of all mothers remember how close we were at that moment to the heart of life, the beating heart of God, in this stunning miracle, how in that place at that time in each of our lives we touched eternity.

Today, as we drove to church this morning, my thoughts returned to a moment nearly forty-two years ago in Grace Hospital in Vancouver, Canada. My son was born, big and strong and healthy and a little pinched around the head. He was bald. He squinted up at me as I held him in the crook of my arm, neatly wrapped in cotton flannel. Today he is bigger and stronger and still healthy, a father of two. He shall always be my little boy, even at six foot three, and I shall always love him, always worry about him, always want to shelter him from life’s sufferings such a part of love. That’s what mothers do.

So on this Third Sunday of Easter when the preacher spoke of Mother Church holding us in her womb, gathering us all together, protected by her seamless cloak woven from the golden threads of sacraments, I understood what he was saying perhaps better than he did. The Church is many things – an ark in the sea of life, the Bride of Christ, the Body of Christ, Mother to her faithful children. I thought of icons depicting the Madonna holding the Church within her cloak, for Mary was the first Christian tabernacle, her body the home of God’s Son, and today, the home of His Body, the Church, the Body of Christ.

The images danced in my mind, weaving, joining, coming together again. Words cannot fully explain what is unexplainable. Mysteries are mysterious. But image and symbol and story and art and song can connect the dots of God’s love for us so that we begin to see a shape, an outline, for we recognize reality when we see it. And the Church nourishes and protects us just as mothers nourish and protect their unborn. The Church teaches us and shows us the way, just as mothers do their born children. We need only say yes to her. 

And when we do say yes, when we listen to her and worship within her and remain faithful to her, suddenly we see. We are no longer squinting; our eyes are opened. The skies are bluer than blue, the air windswept and crystal clear.

A Sunday Poem

Perhaps it was my vision of music heard in a forest, piano notes calling someone up the path through the front door of a historic mansion to a salon where a young man was playing Beethoven; perhaps it was my recent meditation on poetry and prose and what the difference was, my wondering as to what art was, what spirit was, what man was, thoughts triggered by Jacques Barzun’s The Culture We Deserve; perhaps it was the unique “audition” in church today, the listening and comparison of a new electronic organ and our old pipe organ, the latter long in need of repair.

Perhaps it was all these things, and even as well it might have been the smooth ride, flight, through the new Caldecott shiny silver tunnel, the spanking fourth bore, our wheels spinning along as though we passed through a bullet chamber and shot out on the other side; whatever the reasons, I sensed this morning in church a sudden coming together of beauty, goodness, and truth, a vivid moment of heaven as the priest said, approaching me along the altar rail with the golden chalice, “The Blood of our Lord Jesus Christ, which was shed for thee, preserve thy body and soul unto everlasting life…”

The sense of intense beauty could also have been our coming in from the cold outside, coming into the warm nave with its red carpet leading to the great marble altar with its medieval Christ above, the giant flaming candlesticks framing the tented tabernacle. It could have come from the shimmering images of red, green, and blue stained glass that filtered the outside light, pulling it, transformed, into the inside. I was in the beauty of all of it, part of it, for I was kneeling with the Host, His Body, in my ordinary fleshy open palm, waiting for the priest with the chalice.

Being a participant in a poem, particularly a real and true one, is no small thing. But it seems to me that we are all poets, that a poet is a person who sees life, or simply desires to. The desire itself opens the door to seeing, noticing. The expression of what is seen (felt, heard, even learned in sudden epiphanies) we call a poem if the words are arranged in a distilled fashion, a closely knit pattern of images sculpted with care, with love, images colorful, powerful, and perfectly chosen. The reader of poetry often says, “Yes!” or “Aha, that’s it!” or “I couldn’t have said it better, she has it! She gets it! She sees life. She has shown me myself.”

Simon Humphries, in his introduction to Christina Rossetti’s Poems and Prose, seems to separate her faith from her poetry, as though such a surgical operation were desired or necessary. He writes as though apologizing for her. He admits we really can’t separate these things, and of course he’s right. But more to the point, faith is poetry and poetry is faith. The spiritual impulse is the creative impulse. Believers are poets. Religious man is artistic man. A poem with Christian themes and symbols weaving through its stanzas is no different in this sense than a poem with agnostic or Muslim or Hindu themes and symbols. Every poet has many aspects that make up his or her character, his or her spirit. Everyone has a belief system of some sort, and if not Christian, then pantheistic or nihilistic or often despairing. These aspects are not separate layers informing the poems, to be peeled away, but are intrinsic to them.

So the more I work with words and writing and images and the creation of characters, the forming of human beings on pages, the more I realize that all of it is spiritual, all of it is poetic. Which is why all forms of art are spiritual expressions of some kind, expressions of the inner desires of man (and woman). We are spiritual beings. So I want to explore musical art in my writing a bit more, explore the sound on the ear, the enormous pull of the heart made by not just the melody, the beat, the instrument, but the words too. Hymns entrance me for they are poems set to music, and not just any music, but Beethoven, Hayden, Mozart.

And then there is the organ. Yes, I said with my eyes as I glanced at my husband sitting next to me, I can hear the difference between the pipe organ and the electronic one. But even so both sounded spectacular, filling our warm nave and sanctuary, bursting upon the rows of pews and the ears of each of us, the electronic notes bundled and funneled through the speakers, the pipe organ notes singing through each pipe and meeting in my ear. The Mass was over and it was serious listening time, serious comparison time. We listened. We compared. And we sat with one another together, the Body of Christ, bathed in this moment of glory, bathed in the creative and artistic love of God pouring through those notes.

Dorothy Sayers wrote a book called The Mind of the Maker, in which, as I recall, she describes the artist as being a creator as God creates, and in this sense, full of a inspire-ation.  I think we all have this seed in us, we all desire to create, to impact our world with ourselves. If we are Christians, we desire to create beauty, truth, goodness. If we are not Christians, we desire to create something else, something that might have these things or might not. If we are Christians we want to reflect the love of God, if not preach it; we desire to distill themes of selflessness and sacrifice; we seek to give order to the chaos around us, to provide meaning where confusion corrupts.

So my vision of a pianist playing Beethoven in a forest, the jeweled and poignant notes calling me to follow the path to the open door and into the salon of sounds, remains. In the meantime I shall enter the front doors of our parish church, kneel against the shiny oak pews, pray alongside the walls of shimmering stained glass, and fall into the color and song of worship, a beautifully real Sunday poem in which I can reside for an hour.

On Angels and Devils and Holy Confirmation

I recently finished a book called Raising a Modern Day Knight: A Father’s Role in Guiding His Son to Authentic Manhood, by Robert Lewis. One of the many valuable suggestions in this unique and compelling work is the creation of ceremonies that celebrate stages of maturity. These ceremonies are not merely for father and son, but for communities of fathers and sons. They serve to give the young man self-knowledge, ideals, and support.

Ceremonies marking rites of passages are not new to mankind, but with the disintegration of American culture, ceremonies are often overlooked. It seems that there was a time when the many cultures that formed our union melted into the pot we called America. Not so much anymore, as we shift to encourage multi-culturism, which whether intended or not, affirms division rather than union. It is true that our many ethnic threads strengthen us and richly texture our nation. But being a naturally inclusive and friendly people, we have chosen a celebration of division, so that what defines America – both internationally and domestically – has become increasingly difficult to state.

This morning when we celebrated Holy Confirmation in our parish church, I was thankful for this moment of definition. The bishop laid his hands upon the heads of the confirmands as they knelt on the steps leading to the altar. As Anglican-Catholics, we believe that Confirmation marks publicly the moment when children become adults in the Church. For adult confirmands it marks a new adulthood in the Church, as they witness to their beliefs. The younger confirmands are asked to confirm the promises that were made for them as infants in Baptism. They are of an age of reason, no longer children, and they can promise with understanding. “Do  you promise to follow Jesus Christ as your Lord and Saviour?” the bishop asks them. The bishop then prays that they be strengthened by the Holy Ghost, the Comforter, and that they be given the Holy Ghost’s gifts of grace: wisdom and understanding, counsel and ghostly strength, knowledge and godliness, and lastly, holy fear.

They will need these knightly gifts, I thought, as they live out their faith in a world often hostile to Christianity. They shall don the shield of faith and the armor of righteousness, and the Church, the Body of Christ, shall comfort and nurture them throughout their lives, through marriage, childbirth, sickness, even in their dying. God shall never abandon them. As a shepherd he shall lead them beside still waters. He shall restore their souls.

It was particularly fitting, on this bright Sunday morning as September gives way to October, that we celebrated these Confirmations, these confirmings of faith and receivings of the Holy Ghost, on the feast day of St. Michael and All Angels. As the lector read from Holy Scripture, we heard the account of the great war in heaven when Michael the Archangel threw out Lucifer and his angels. “The great dragon was cast out, that old serpent, called the Devil, and Satan, which deceiveth the whole world: he was cast out into the earth and his angels were cast out with him… And they overcame him by the blood of the Lamb, and by the word of their testimony… Woe to the inhabiters of the earth and of the sea! for the devil is come down unto you, having great wrath, because he knoweth that he hath but a short time.” (Revelation 12:7+)

Angels and devils are not common beliefs today. We might speak of angels whimsically as though reliving the fairy tales of our childhood. But devils are definitely not the stuff of acceptable conversation. Yet Scripture affirms their existence. Demons are said to be angels – pure spirits created separately from mankind – who have rebelled against God and now are given a span of time to scurry among the people of the earth, wreaking havoc where they can and undoing the good that is being done.

The good angels, however, are with us too, and we can call upon them. They are all around us, if welcome. And Confirmation – that affirmation of faith in Jesus Christ – welcomes them. These angels help us to be modern-day knights. They guide us on our journey on earth as we head to heaven. At times, I believe, they protect us from bodily harm. Dear friends of mine recently survived a rear-end collision, emerging from their totaled sedan shaken but, it turns out, having suffered only minor wounds. Angels were there, I am sure, as the drunk driver slammed into their car, stopped at a red light. Angels took some of the brunt of that crash.

So with ceremony and prayer and song, with ritual and the dance of the Eucharist, we re-affirm who we are, what we are, where we are going. We re-affirm to whom we belong, and with the company of the angelic host we are given our own wings to heaven. With the gifts of the Holy Ghost we are embraced by the Body of Christ.

On Flying Dancing Halls

It is a glorious and satisfying thing to discover an author who speaks to you in new and miraculous ways, an author sending you on a mission to read everything he has ever written. I have discovered authors like this over the years, with Lewis, Tolkien, Austen, Dostoevsky. I went through a Sherlock Holmes period, a Dickens period, and as a child I read every Nancy Drew that the library offered. On the other hand, I did not feel this way about Fitzgerald, Hemingway, Sartre, Camus, Woolf, Ibsen, or Henry James. I fear I gave Shakespeare no more attention than was required in my Literature major, having to work too hard on his poetic diction. These authors come to mind now, but there were dozens more – some who invited me on another leg of the journey, and some who didn’t.

So when I received the small used volume titled Father Malachy’s Miracle by Bruce Marshall in the mail, the book having been transported through the air from London, I opened it not knowing if it would challenge or change me. I’ve read it twice now, since I will be reviewing it on CatholicFiction.net. I’m sure I shall read it many more times, and be warned that I am cornering the market on any other books by Mr. Marshall that I can find. Alas, his books are out of print, something I hope to remedy one day.

But getting back to Father Malachy and his miracle, for he has become part of the peopled universe in my giddy brain. The book is, as the title implies, about miracles. The writing is dense, poetic, with rhythmically long sentences that flow like a sweet river to a welcoming sea. The metaphors stun me with their humorous and loving descriptions of ordinary people. God shines brightly through this lay-Catholic writer. When I am not sighing with authorial envy or jotting down ideas to use one day, I am nodding my head in agreement (aha, finally someone has written exactly what I think, and yes, that’s exactly how it is or was…), or I am laughing out loud.

One of many delicious passages is the author’s description of the Bishop’s Bad Brother (the “Bee Bee Bee”), a man of the world who enjoys dancing halls and wine bars:

The Bee Bee Bee was a simple soul who lived, as do many souls less simple than he, as though his sense perceptions were the only realities and as though arm-chairs and pork pies and pretty girls were exclusively and finally arm-chairs, pork pies and pretty girls.

We learn he has little interest in scientific mysteries or theological mysteries or angels dancing on the head of a pin. He lives for the moment, but he is a mystic:

Like most of his kind, he would have scorned the name of mystic even if he had known precisely what it meant. And yet that was what he was: a mystic, an inverted mystic who found in beer and dancing instructresses what tired business men found in golf, and worldly young women in lovemaking, and monks and nuns in prayer and contemplation: an escape from his own personality or rather a taking of it and plunging it in something bigger than and exterior to itself. 

An inverted mystic. He escapes from his own personality by plunging it in something bigger. I have often thought we are all mystics in this sense, that everyone has a desire to lose themselves in something or someone. We say we fall in love, we say we are swept away by a movie or a book. We want to jump on bandwagons because they are large and powerful and tell us what to think. When we say we are swept up or swept away we sigh with pleasure simply in the recollection. We plunge into work or play or fashion, fads, or Facebook. We lose ourselves in nature – beneath giant redwoods, beside a crashing sea, within a rose garden. We soar outside of time, killing it.

Perhaps this urge to lose ourselves in something bigger is an innate desire for God, a desire for our Creator, a desire for our Heavenly Father who calls us home, invites us to his table again and again, back to himself. I often think the Church is the messenger, the host of that invitation, or the invitation itself, to dine with God, dine on God in the Eucharist. Through his Church, God welcomes us into his own dancing hall, with his own family to love, sisters and brothers who return that love. We are brought inside his circle, made members of the Body of Christ, and we know we are  home, that we be-long, that we are longed-for.

We are mystics and we have found our heart’s desire. And oddly enough, in finding our Creator, we rediscover our true selves. For who knows me better than the one who made me?

The idea of the inverted mystic was one small miracle in this little book of miracles, a sweet novel set in Scotland in the 1930’s in which a dancing hall flies through the air (by power of the Holy Ghost) to land on an island called the Bass Rock. And as we consider the flying dancing hall we also consider other movements of electrons in our world, changes made to bread and wine, resurrections not governed by scientific theory, events we call supernatural. We consider miracles and the Creator of our world, the one who has power to change that world’s matter.

I must end this here, for I have just opened a small brown paper parcel containing Bruce Marshall’s The World, the Flesh, and Father Smith. The invitation is loud and compelling.

There may be echoes of Father Malachy in my next novel about a deserted chapel in a park in a suburb of San Francisco. Father Malachy, or his twin brother, may fly from Scotland and into my pages, flit across a great sea, and land in the present. But such is the stuff of miracles.

Meaningful Work

My sixty-seventh summer has passed. My sixty-seventh autumn is upon me. And linking summer and autumn is Labor Day. While instituted in 1887 to honor union labor, Labor Day has come to be a celebration of all kinds of work, whether organized into unions or not. 

I believe human beings are wired to work, to produce, to create in some fashion. The Midwest killing over the summer by someone who said he was bored reveals the despairing numbness that comes from lack of purpose, lack of work.

Purpose. Rick Warren speaks of The Purpose Driven Life. We ask one another, what is the purpose of man? What is the purpose of life? We seek meaning, and work is an expression of the meaning we have found.

Of course there are many jobs that seem mindless, meaningless. I filed and typed for long hours and longer days as I cobbled my may through college, and later, as a single parent, as I supported myself and my young son. Not all work is meaningful, but most work is productive, if at least for the boss or the company worked for. At the end of each day, the file cabinet was plump with the filings from my inbox, and my inbox was empty. I had been productive. And when I received my paycheck it felt good to have earned it.

And in a sense every job, including sitting here at my computer in the comfort of my office lined with icons and books, with my cat nearby and my husband’s ballgame heard in the distance, has long periods of routine work, of slugging along. But I have been blessed with meaning in my life, so that no matter what work I do, it is offered to God. I am secure in the knowledge that I have tried to listen to God’s voice, I have tried to understand the next step to take, the next turn in the next crossroads (no pun intended).

Christians are or should be purpose-driven people. They know who they are and why they are and how they came to be. They know where they are going and they know the way. Sometimes we take wrong turns, more than we confess, but God brings us back. Through his Church he gives us road signs and we finally get back on the main highway, the way to home.

This morning we witnessed two young adult baptisms in church. The young ladies, one finishing high school this coming year, the other in the middle of her college years, had been brought home to the Church by their grandparents. I thought how wonderful it was that at this moment in their lives, when so many crossroads would soon appear before them – choices of classes, schools, careers, dating, marriage, family – they would have the grace of God empowering them, nudging them along. They would see signs that would steer them in the right direction. And as they make these choices, they would have a reference point – God’s will, his design for them, as expressed through the Church.

We are forever wandering and forever coming home, every one of us. And the nature of what we do with our lives, how we spend our time each day – our work as children of God on Planet Earth – matters. It matters because everything matters, everything counts. We may not always get it right, but as a member of the Body of Christ, we have signposts helping us along, helping us choose. 

Many baby-boomers will be retiring in the next decade, and they will face these choices, how they will spend the rest of their lives, their hours, their days, their weeks, their years. Some will volunteer at local hospitals. Some will take another job to supplement their income. Some will spend precious time with children and grandchildren, or neighbors and friends. Some will volunteer at church or temple. Some will give their time to spas and saunas, fitness clubs and golf courses. Whatever the trade-off that is made for the remainder of their days, they will choose activity that brackets and organizes their time, and this choice will shape them in the last leg of their journey through time. 

For me, I have the Church, and through the Church I have God. With the Church as my home, with the family of God surrounding me, with the sacraments and hymns and joyful Sunday worship, I have signposts along the way. I need only watch for them. Without the Church I should wander aimlessly, bored, purposeless, without meaning to my work. With the Church I can see; I am given productive years as I travel the last leg of my journey to Heaven. In the Church I am home, and when I stray I know the way back. A good exchange for my working life.

In today’s Gospel, Christ tells of the ten lepers he healed, but only one returned to give thanks. Today, this Labor Day weekend, I give thanks for the meaningful work God offers us, and I return each Sunday to give thanks again and again.

New Israel Baptism

Our rector is Jewish. A number of years ago he converted to Christianity while a student at Cal Berkeley. Last year he accepted our call to become our parish priest. For us, he brings a rich Old Testament background to our community of faithful and we are grateful for his fiery and brilliant sermons. For him, I believe, he finds in our Anglican worship a rich liturgy flowering from Jewish roots in both word and action.

We have other Jewish converts in our midst, folks that came to believe the long awaited Messiah was indeed born in Bethlehem two thousand years ago, lived, died, and was resurrected so that we might be resurrected too. But they also are drawn here by incense, chants, bells, and soaring worship, by the beauty of holiness lauded in the singing of the Psalms.

I was thinking about this as I witnessed baby Joshua being baptized in church this morning. One of Joshua’s grandparents is Jewish, so his baptism added another Hebraic stream to our river of faithful. Through water and Spirit, through the words of the priest and the vows of the godparents, Joshua became one with the Body of Christ, our New Israel.

Our New Israel. For in spite of the horrific conflicts between Jews and Christians over two millennia, orthodox Christianity holds that Christ did not found a new church but was the fulfillment of the old, promised by God to Israel through the prophets. As Christians, we are an extension, as it were, of Judaism. And in baptism those outside the New Israel, outside the Church, are brought inside; those not a part of the Body become one with the Body of Christ. When Joshua is twelve (or so), he will be confirmed by the bishop. He will receive the Holy Eucharist and become one with Christ in an even deeper and more fulfilling way.

The Good Shepherd finds his sheep, no matter how scattered they may be. They may be from older traditions, different traditions, or no traditions at all. They may be clinging to a mountainside of doubt, fleeing a burning forest of anger, lost in a desert of despair and loneliness. The shepherd finds them and brings them home to safety, to love.

Our preacher said today that Christianity provides the map to Heaven, both in this life and the next. Some parents say they want their children to grow up with no faith so that they can choose when they are adults. But why wouldn’t we want to give our children maps to Heaven? our preacher asked. Why wouldn’t we want to give them directions, signposts, lights to light the path? If we know how to get there, shouldn’t we show them the way? 

God gave the Old Israel a map. God’s people journeyed from Abraham to Isaac to Jacob to Joseph to Moses to Joshua, from the kings through the prophets, through wars and persecutions and slavery. They drew close to God and drew away from God, but God always brought them back to him. His people were clearly chosen, clearly set apart. And Christians too, as the New Israel, are chosen. They are sanctified, set apart. This happens in baptism in the miracle of water and Spirit. This happens when the Children of Israel, or any of us who are wandering in the desert, are baptized into the Body of Christ, and we are set on the road to Heaven. We are given a map.

The Gospel today was the story of the Good Samaritan, a parable reaching beyond one’s own people, one’s own tradition. While the story is about love, about caring for a man beaten and robbed and left for dead on the side of the road, it is also about prejudice and fear. Two Jews – a priest and a Levite – pass by on the other side, ignoring the victim, whose blood would make them unclean. A Samaritan, considered outcast by the Jews, stops, binds his wounds, brings him to an inn, cares for him, and even pays the innkeeper to continue the care.

This morning, our Jewish priest poured water on the head of Joshua, saying, “In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost.”  Another sheep was brought into our fold. Another child of Israel was made one with God in the Body of Christ through water and Spirit.

And as for me, I am thankful that I too have a map to Heaven.

Transfiguration

Summer seems to end early these days, with schools starting mid-August. Gone are the Labor Day weekends devoted to shopping for school supplies and school shoes. Gone, too, are the last few weeks of August when our sleepy, lazy days stretched on forever. 

This ending of summer, coupled with a chilly few weeks in the Bay Area, pushes me to think of fall and going back to school, of endings and beginnings. Trained as a child that when summer ended school began, I still think in these terms, although my school days are long past. My children’s school days are long past as well (except for the fourth-grade teacher, I suppose), but my grandchildren certainly are ending their summer days and beginning their school days this month. 

For many years the scents of the season, the chilly mornings and hot afternoons, triggered within me anxious dreams bordering on fears – being on time for class, finding my locker, and the worst of all, arriving in my pajamas.  I haven’t had such dreams that I recall in a long time, which shows time does heal and repair. But I recall vividly the anticipation of that first school day, waiting for the school bus with my books cradled in my arm (no backpacks then), balancing a bag lunch somewhere, not sure where. Did I remember my dime for the orange-aid machine? (no cafeterias, no sodas)

I remember the sound of the school bells ringing, not really sounding like bells, but more like staccato notes strung tightly together, shrilly stinging through the air, slicing, horizontal. They were a happy sound for the most part, an it’s-time-to-come-on-in sound, but they also carried a warning note so that the fear of being marked tardy added wings to my feet. Was that the five minute bell? Or the final bell?

I slid into the desk, arranged my things, watched the teacher and the broad blackboard (really dark green). I prepared my attention for what was to come. Oral reports? Pop quiz? Did I complete the homework in time? Did I remember to bring it? I recall the smell of the metal-and-wood desks with their attached seats and their sloping surface that opened to a compartment in which to place things. I don’t recall what I put in there (eraser? pencil? ruler?) or if I always had the same desk… it surely varied from year to year, grade to grade. We all faced the same direction – toward the front and the board and the teacher and the teacher’s huge desk, heavy and sturdy like a barge and command center rolled into one – and perhaps this arrangement instilled a reverence for authority. 

I liked the way the room was arranged. It provided security. I liked that the teacher could give me knowledge, as though on a platter, and I could receive it, feed on it. And I could trust the person who served me. She or he was, after all, a Teacher. She would change my thought processes, rearrange my words and ideas, she would fill me with images and solutions to so many problems. Reading, writing, arithmetic. California history, U.S. History, World History. Civics – the three branches of government and who we are as Americans. What freedom meant and why we fought wars to protect our freedom. She would explain my world, give me the tools to cast my vote one day. She would transfigure my thought processes, the workings of my mind. 

Transfiguration. Change of a miraculous and mysterious nature. We celebrated the Transfiguration this week in our Church Kalendar, a stunning moment in the life of Christ on earth. Peter and James and John go with Jesus to a mountain to pray. As Jesus prays, they see his “countenance altered, and his raiment white and glistering”. Elijah and Moses appear and they speak of what was to come in Jerusalem. When the two ancient prophets leave, Peter doesn’t really understand – he wants to build altars to the three of them as though they were equals. It is then that a cloud covers the apostles and they are afraid. They hear God speak to them through the cloud, “This is my beloved son: hear him.” Jesus is not merely another prophet.

Christ’s transfiguration occurred as he prayed. He opened the door to heaven, he broke the chains of time. He was in both worlds. Just so, when we pray, we open the door to another dimension. And when we think and learn and allow words and phrases to re-figure our minds and hearts we open doors to change, to a kind of transfiguration. What we do matters. What we think matters. Who we pray to matters. Who we listen to matters. For we will be transfigured. Nothing is lost, not one second, not one minute is lost in eternity.

So we choose our teachers wisely. We choose our reading wisely. We even choose our entertainment – media and games and events – with the thought to how they will reshape us. We join in weekly worship, so that we will be transfigured rightly and not wrongly. We listen to Scripture and sermon with the knowledge that the changes made inside us will be good ones, Godly ones. We are transfigured, changed, by the holy.

And so, on this edge of seasons, I wait with anticipation to see what shall enter my hearing, my sight, my heart and mind. A new season is near, approaching steadily, I can see it coming, it is in my view. I watch and wait, just as I did for the yellow school bus so many years ago. Where will God lead me? What are his plans? How will I be transfigured in the days to come?

I am certain that, as a part of the Body of Christ, the Church, I will continue on this marvel-ous adventure, in an ongoing transfiguration, and of this I am glad.