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Friday, June 21, 2013

What's your still point?


At the still point of the turning world. Neither flesh nor fleshless;
Neither from nor towards; at the still point, there the dance is,
But neither arrest nor movement. And do not call it fixity,
Where past and future are gathered. Neither movement from nor towards,
Neither ascent nor decline. Except for the point, the still point,
There would be no dance, and there is only the dance.
I can only say, there we have been: but I cannot say where.
And I cannot say, how long, for that is to place it in time.

(from T.S. Eliot, "Four Quartets")
Parish life can be crazy. Everyone may be of good will, but we're an alphabet soup of Myers-Briggs types, and an enneagram bouquet that makes a Fellini movie look like 1984. And that's just the staff! People come from all over the theological map, with needs and assumptions about what the parish should be and do for them, and we have all these expectations of ourselves, and inevitably there are collisions, "differences of opinion" that are usually expressed in terms that include the word "pastoral need." As in, "I know that this isn't legal, but it's pastoral." And you know that, as a rigid legalist, I'm going to be simmering in my office, chanting my mantra, and trying to remember that not only is the fifth commandment one of the Big Ones, it's also a class one felony.

Of course I'm exaggerating, and none of this would never happen in your parish, but it does lead me to wonder about myself. What’s my still point? When peoples’ issues like this come to me, where do I go, ultimately, to discern them? The grieving widow who wants "The Halls of Montezuma" at her husband's funeral; the bride who wants "Phantom of the Opera" for her wedding; the associate who wants to consecrate two paschal candles so that we don't have to move one from the church to the chapel for funerals. I was joking above, but somehow, over the last twenty years, I've gone from being perceived as a rebel in one parish to being perceived a legalist in this one, and I don't think I've changed that much. Some colleagues seem to view me as one who has no pastoral care for people but only wants to satisfy the man-made laws of the Church. I don’t see myself that way at all, but I suppose I can understand that, compared to an anarchist, I could seem legalistic by comparison. Is law the place one goes to make decisions? Or is it some version of love-as-accommodation that makes people as comfortable as possible, trusting that everything will work out in the end?

Part of the answer, I think, is the way we look at law. I believe, in my heart of hearts, that church law and pastoral care do not constitute a dialectic. They are a false dichotomy, they are meant to be aspects of the same reality. I certainly have a love-hate relationship with discipline. I have tended to rebel against all kinds of control for as long as I can remember, probably stemming from all kinds of childhood and adolescent repressions of the Catholic school, home, and seminary environments. I’m not, by nature, a legalist. But at some point, I suppose I came to realize that most church law, at least, was not meant to be oppressive but to prevent oppression. At its best, all law is like that. It’s set in a kind of minimalist language that attempts to protect the weak while limiting the power of the strong. We all know that there are exceptions to this, but I really believe this about most Church law. Some vestigial archetypes are taking a longer time dying than they should, like the all-male celibate priesthood, but they are clearly vestiges of culture and not likely at all to endure more than another generation or two. Not that that makes them any less painful, nor does it strengthen my argument, but I still generally find liturgical law at least to be protective of the ritual contract among the people of God.

Richard Fragomeni once talked about Catholic sacraments in a talk I heard him give as “anti-ritual ritual.” I think what he meant was something that lies in the shade of the scripture in which Jesus says “the Sabbath was made for people” and not the other way around, that if you were bringing your gift to the altar and remembered that you had an issue with another person, that it was important to reconcile before your prayer. More profoundly, he meant that the Eucharist was an unbloody sacrifice, which, in ritual terms, is oxymoronic. It is precisely in exposing sacrifice, and the scapegoating mechanism that engenders it, as bestial behaviors that the Eucharist is unbloody; the God of Jesus is a God of life, not of death. But for purposes of this reflection, the insight that community, hospitality, and connection precede ritual is important. Rite and life outside of rite are intimately connected. Ritual symbolizes life; it expresses the life of the community and intensifies it, sending it out ready to continue to face life with a more deeply recognized self-image, a little more perfectly conformed to the image of the divine Christ. As all of the church’s sacramental life is tied to the Eucharist, not least by far in the rites of initiation, this insight is important to this discussion. 

Since I’m wary of anarchy, and not sure I’m really capable of true “love” in any spiritual sense, I suppose that in my weakness I do revert to the liturgy itself, including the scripture it proclaims, the Lord whom it remembers, and yes, its law, as the still point of the turning world of parish life. I’d like to think that I’m open to the opinions of others as I try to do discernment, but I also find some comfort in the fact that the wisdom of the church, across nations and times, in collaboration and community when it’s at its best, is better wisdom than I could bring to the situation anyway.

It may be true, in a “quantum” church, that all dichotomies are false, that, like mass and energy which were once thought to be different things, grace and law are two different vibrations of the same string. That’s also comforting, if a little new agey. If I’m just a little patient, and try to discern things from a still point, even if it’s just law, I might learn to love by getting in through the back door. I’ll take it any way I can get it.