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Tuesday, June 3, 2014

Tiresome perfectionism

"Be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect." (Mt. 5: 48)

"Do not be offended by the imperfect, even as you strive for the perfect." (#27, Music in Catholic Worship, quoting Augustine.)

A few weeks ago I was writing about Lent, sin, and grace, in a post entitled "Do Our Best and Doing Right—Not Necessarily the Same Thing," which was intended to spell out this sense I have that sometimes we Americans (especially) allow ourselves to feel that doing our best in a particular situation is the same thing as "doing good," or "doing right," which is a huge mistake, and starts us down the road that leads us away from the possibility of repentance and actually being in the reign of God. Learning that when our best choices are still not "good" allows us to say "Kyrie eleison," and remember that God's law, and not ours, is the only good. I think, for instance, of those bumper stickers on cars at church that say, "Freedom isn't free," as though that were an excuse for drones, torture, and all the other violence that is warfare. Yes, sometimes war seems to be our best choice, especially in a diverse nation. But to imagine that war is good, or God's will, makes a mockery of Christ, who would not allow the sword to be taken up in his own defense.

But that's not really what I wanted to write about today. More to the point of my own life, I want to look at what is, in a way, the flip side of that same moral coin. I'm talking about the way I can get that rankles and sputters when things don't go "by the book," when diocesan and parish leaders embrace practices that aren't what I consider to be according to the letter or spirit of best liturgical practice or pastoral judgment (you can substitute your own discipline here.) We are trained in the tradition of the church, we've been taught by people we consider to be titans in their field and people genuinely full of spiritual authority (however crazy they might have been), and lesser lights come along and ignore or contravene all their wisdom, tradition, and law, and we are left in what seems to be the rubble.

I don't know if I'm creative enough to give you examples without seeming to point the finger at specific people or practices, and my point isn't about what they do anyway, it's about what I do. But there are enough events buried in the years I've been in the biz that I might be able to surface a few to just indicate to you the kind of thing I mean. I mean, for instance, the bishop who has everyone kneel for an extended penitential rite during the Eucharist, or the priest who hears confessions during the penitential rite, both confusing, one could argue, the meaning of the rite, and even clouding the role of the Eucharist as the ordinary sacrament of reconciliation. The music directors who won't allow, say, the "Bridal March" from Lohengrin to ordinary brides, but who will improvise pop music or sports themes for the weddings and funerals of the rich and famous on their Mohlers and Steinways. The strange practice of having family groups go to the sacrament of penance together, for first confession, say, as if anyone in such a cluster has the freedom to express his or her sin.

It has sometime felt, in my work over the years, that I'm pushing a rock uphill. And I'm aware of the fact that it has no doubt been the same for those who have tried to work with me, that I'm the one pushing back on their work. My light has been my intellect, I suppose, my trust that the gospel and the liturgy will do their work on us if we allow them to, and don't try to re-form them in our own image and likeness. I believe in adaptation, too, that we live in a big church, and that the ritual experience of Christians in other parts of Christendom, even in the Roman church, can be valid expression for my community as well. I believe that the liturgy is not monolithic, that it allows and invites adaptation, as can be uncovered by even a cursory reading of the rubrics of the Roman Missal,  and paragraph 35 of the RCIA.

But it's also true that there are limits to what can be adapted, what can be improvised. It is, after all, the tradition of the body that we are celebrating, and not the understanding of that tradition of an individual presider or even bishop, though again, a bishop might have the power to do a thing differently even if he lacks the actual authority to do so. Like all of us, just because a leader can do a thing, it doesn't mean that s/he should.

That's the source of my confusion at this strange juncture in my life. Maybe I'm just tired of pushing the rock uphill, or, more likely, maybe it would be better to find a different path for the rock, maybe one that isn't so steep? What occurs to me more and more are those words from Music in Catholic Worship quoted above, words that suggest that nothing that we ever do is going to be perfect, so, since imperfection is to be expected, go with the flow. Still, "while you strive for the perfect" is part of the equation. And that brings me around to what it means to "strive for the perfect," and I come face-to-face with agape (I Cor. 13) and forgiveness (Mt. 5:48), not with liturgical law and the minutiae of rubric. Christianity, one has to admit, has bigger fish to fry than preserving every yod and tittle of rubric.

Maybe you're thinking about that mean old joke about the difference between a liturgist and a terrorist, and thinking that it's about damn time I (and others like me) owned up to our ritual narcissism. You might be right. I'm still a bit confused by all this. For today, at least, I'm admitting I deserve to be the butt of that hyperbolic joke, and I'm trying to see my way to cultivating a more open heart. Still, I won't be advocating pizza and beer as candidates for the eucharistic species, or obsessive love songs from Phantom of the Opera and Jekyll and Hyde as appropriate choices for the sacrament of marriage, or readings from Kahlil Gibran or Marianne Williamson in the liturgy of the word. Call me old-fashioned, I guess. These 62-year-old bones can only bend so far, but at least they're trying to learn to bend.

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