St. Brigid’s “lake of ale”

It was about ten years ago that my friend Rob Kirby introduced me to this wonderful, ancient poem. I had forgotten about it until a few days ago when I ran across it again in Thomas Cahill’s How the Irish Saved Civilization. St. Brigid, probably consecrated a bishop “by accident” (according to various sources, including Cogitosus), lived in Ireland during the 5th & 6th centuries. (Cahill, 172-179) Cheers!

I should like a great lake of the finest ale
For the King of kings.
I should like a table of the choicest food
For the family of heaven.
Let the ale be made from the fruits of faith,
And the food be forgiving love.

I should welcome the poor to my feast,
For they are God’s children.
I should welcome the sick to my feast,
For they are God’s joy.
Let the poor sit with Jesus at the highest place,
And the sick dance with the angels.

God bless the poor,
God bless the sick,
And bless our human race.
God bless our food,
God bless our drink,
All homes, O God, embrace.

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The Church of 80% Sincerity

I should have posted this a long time ago. I mentioned it to a friend / fellow Starbucks partner a while back, and I decided today to print it out and give it to her. “Sincere Meditations,” a chapter in Anne Lamott’s Plan B:

Sometimes, if you are lucky and brave, you can watch someone who’s met with serious illness or loss do the kind of restoration that I suspect we are here on earth to do. If you’ve ever seen David Roche, the monologist and pastor of the Church of 80% Sincerity, you may have already witnessed this process.

David and I met years ago through a friend we had in common. The first time we spoke was on the phone, and we talked about God for half an hour. He mentioned that he had some facial deformity, and I thought, Well, whatever, and we talked some more. Then he came to my church, and it turned out he had one of the most severe facial deformities I’ve ever seen.

He was born with a huge benign tumor on the bottom left side of his face; surgeons had tried to remove it when he was very young. In the process, they removed his lower lip, and then gave him such extensive radiation that the lower part of his face stopped growing, and he was covered with plum-colored burns.

He is fifty-five now, with silvery hair and bright blue eyes.

I first saw him perform at a local community center, at a benefit for refugees in Kosovo. He was wearing a plum-purple dress shirt, which exemplifies the tender and jaunty bravery I have come to associate with him. He stepped out onstage before a hundred grown-ups and a dozen children, and stood smiling while people got a good look. Then he suggested we ask him, in a conversational toe and in unison, “David, what happened to your face?” When we did, he explained about the tumor, the surgery, and all those radiation burns.

He told of wanting to form a gang of the coolest disfigured people in the world, like the Phantom of the Opera, the Beast from Beauty and the Beast, Freddie Krueger, and Michael Jackson. They’d go places as a group-bowling, or to a makeover counter at Macy’s.

“People assume I had an awful childhood,” he continued. “But I didn’t. I was loved and esteemed by my parents. My face may be unique, but my experiences aren’t. I believe they are universal.”

Wouldn’t you think that having a face like his totally messed with his adolescent sex life? Of course it did, he said. And he was stocky, too, a chubby little disfigured guy. But these things were not nearly as detrimental as having been raised Catholic, having been, as he put it, an incense survivor.

As he told his stories through a crazy mouth, a jumble of teeth, only one lip and a too-large tongue, David’s voice did not sound garbled but strangely like a burr, that of a Scottish person who just had a shot of novocaine.

“We with facial deformities are children of the dark,” he said. “Our shadow is on the outside. And we can see in the dark: we can see you, we see you turn away, but one day we finally understand that you turn away not from our faces but from your own fears. From those things inside you that you think mark you as someone unlovable to your family, and society and even to God.

“All those years, I kept my bad stories in the dark, but not anymore. Now I am stepping out into the light. And this face has turned out to be an elaborately disguised gift from God.” David spoke of the hidden scary scarred parts inside us all, the soul disfigurement, the fear deep within us that we’re unacceptable; and while he spoke, his hands moved fluidly in expressions that his face can’t make. His hands are beautiful, fair, light as air, light as a ballet dancer’s.

He described his first game of spin-the-bottle, when the girl who was chosen to kiss him recoiled in horror, and he said to her, debonairly, “You know you want me.” Then he admitted sheepishly that he didn’t actually say that for twenty years, but that in soul time, it’s never too late. He told of loving a teenage girl named Carol, of how it took months to ask her out, and then when he did, she accepted. They went to the movies and then afterward sat on his front porch; he kept trying to put his arm around her but couldn’t quite do it, so they talked and talked and talked. He wanted to kiss her but was too shy to ask; he was afraid it was like asking her to kiss a monster. Finally she said, “I need to go home now,” and he said, “Carol, I want to kiss you,” and she said, “David, I thought you’d never ask.”

That was a moment of true grace, and from this experience, he built a church inside of himself. There is no physical church, but his own life: both his performances and his work teaching people to tell their stories, their marvelous, screwed-up and often hilarious resurrection stories. Voilà: a church.

“We in the Church of Eighty Percent Sincerity do not believe in miracles,” he said. “But we do believe that you have to stay alert, because good things happen. When God opens the door, you’ve got to put your foot in.

“Eighty percent sincerity is about as good as it’s going to get. So is eighty percent compassion. Eighty percent celibacy. So twenty percent of the time, you just get to be yourself.”

It’s such subversive material, so contrary to everything society leads us to believe-that if you look good, you’ll be happy, and have it all together, and you’ll be successful and nothing will go wrong and you won’t have to die, and the rot won’t get in.

In the Church of 80% Sincerity, you definitely don’t have to look good, but you are supposed to meditate. According to David’s instructions, you sit quietly with your eyes closed and you follow your breath in and out of your body, gently watching your mind. Your mantra should go like this: “Why am I doing this? This is such a waste! I have so much to do! My butt itches…” And if you stick to it, he promised, from time to time calmness and peace of mind will intrude. After some practice with this basic mediation, you will be able to graduate to panic meditations, and then sex fantasy meditations. And meditations on what to do when you win the lotto.

When David insists you are fine exactly the way you are, you find yourself almost believing him. When he talks about unconditional love, he gives you a new lease on life, because the way he explains it, you may, for the first time, believe that even you could taste of this. As he explains it, in the Church of 80% Sincerity, everyone has come to understand that unconditional love is a reality, but with a shelf life of about eight to ten seconds. Instead of beating yourself up because you feel it only fleetingly, you should savor those moments when it appears. As David puts it, “We might say to our beloved, ‘Honey, I’ve been having these feelings of unconditional love for you for the last eight to ten seconds.’ Or, ‘Darling, I’ll love you till the very end of dinner.'”

David has been married to a beautiful woman named Marlena for the last few years. After listening to his lovely words, his magic, this doesn’t seem at all strange. There he is, standing in front of a crowd, and everyone can see that just about the worse thing that could happen to a person physically has happened to him. Yet he’s enjoying himself immensely, talking about the ten seconds of grace he felt here, the ten seconds he felt there, how those moments filled him and how he makes them last a little longer. Everyone watching gets happy because he’s secretly giving instruction on how this could happen for them, too, this militant self-acceptance. He lost the great big outward thing, the good-looking package, and the real parts endured. They shine through like crazy, the brilliant mind and humor, the depth of generosity, the intense blue eyes, those beautiful hands.

The children, sitting in the front rows, get him right away. Maybe they don’t have so many other overlays yet, of armor and prejudice so Spirit can reach out and grab them faster. Maybe it’s partly that they’re sitting so close, but whatever the reason, they gaze up at him as if he were a rock star. “I look different to you now, right?” he asked the kids that first time I saw him, when he was almost finished, and they nodded, especially the teenagers. To be in adolescence is, for most of us, to be facially deformed. David makes you want to help him build a fort under the table with blankets, because it looks like such fun when he does it. He builds the fort, and then lets you lift the blankets and peek in, at him and at you. You laugh with recognition, with relief that your baggage and flaws are not vile, unmentionable. It’s like soul aerobics.

“I’ve been forced to find my inner beauty,” he said in closing. “Doing that gave me a deep faith in myself. Eighty percent of the time. And that faith has been a window, so I can see the beauty in you, too. The light in your eyes. Your warmth. So thank you.” There was thunderous applause, and he bowed shyly, ducking his head and then looking up, beaming at us all. He holds his palms up as if about to give a benediction. His hands caught the light like those of the youngest child there.”

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Myth, Time, Feast, & Eucharist

Demeter’s hair was yellow as the ripe corn of which she was mistress, for she was the Harvest Spirit, goddess of farmed fields and growing grain. The threshing floor was her sacred space. Women, the world’s first farmers (while men still ran off to the bloody howling of hunt and battle), were her natural worshippers, praying: ‘May it be our part to separate wheat from chaff in a rush of wind, digging the great winnowing fan through Demeter’s heaped-up mounds of corn while she stands among us, smiling, her brown arms heavy with sheaves, her ample breasts adorned in flowers of the field.’ Demeter had but one daughter, and she needed no other, for Persephone was the Spirit of Spring. The Lord of Shadows and Death, Hades himself, the Unseen One, carried her off in his jet-black chariot, driven by coal-black steeds, through a crevice in the surface of Earth, down to the realms of the dead. For nine days, Demeter wondered sorrowing over land, sea, and sky in search of her daughter, but no one dared tell her what had happened till she reached the Sun, who had seen it all. With Zeus’ help, the mother retrieved her daughter, but Persephone had already eaten a pomegranate seed, food of the dead, at Hades’ insistence, which meant she must come back to him. In the end, a sort of truce was arranged. Persephone could return to her sorrowing mother but must spend a third of each year with her dark Lord. Thus, by the four-month death each year of the goddess in springtime in her descent to the underworld, did winter enter the world. And when she returns from the dark realms she always strikes earthly beings with awe and smells somewhat of the grave.” – Thomas Cahill, Sailing the Wine Dark Sea: Why the Greeks Matter, 3.

A few pages later in this same book, Cahill draws a connection between this Greek myth of Demeter and the “myth become fact” of the Gospel story, and how God’s people, the Church, have understood that story:

In Demeter’s story … the attentive reader may catch dark prefigurings of the Christian Mother of Sorrows and the novenas – penitential nine-day cycles – commemorating her pain at the loss of her magical Child, who rises from the grave in late March or early April.

Now, we could take this insight of Cahill’s and launch off from it in many different directions (for example, we could discuss the nature of “Christianity and culture” and why so many puritan-like or “evangelical” views of “synchretism” are wrong), but when I read this passage in Cahill this morning, I immediately thought of passage in Alexander Schmemann’s For the Life of the World (pages 52 – 59) in which he discusses the Christian understanding of time, and how the Church has used feasting as a way to redeem created time (and creation with it).

This is particularly relevant in our postmodern, nihilistic world, a world which Schmemann calls “serious,” in contrast to the life of joyful feasting which the Gospel brings about for us who are in Christ.

“Through the Cross,” Schmemann quotes the liturgy, “joy came into the whole world.”

[The Jewish feasts of Passover and Pentecost] were – to use another image – the “material” of a sacrament of time to be performed by the Church. We know that both feasts originated as the annual celebration of spring and the first fruits of nature. In this respect they were the very expression of feast as man’s joy about life. They celebrated the world coming back to life again after the death of winter, becoming again the food and life of man. And it is very significant that this most “natural,” all-embracing and universal feast – that of life itself – became the starting point, and indeed the foundation of the long transformation of the idea and experience of feast. It is equally significant that in this transformation each new stage did not abolish and simply replace the previous one, but fulfilled it in an even deeper and greater meaning until the whole process was consummated in Christ himself. The mystery of natural time, the bondage to winter and release in spring, was fulfilled in the mystery of time as history – the bondage to Egypt and the release into the Promised Land. And the mystery of historical time was transformed into the mystery of eschatological time….” — Schmemann, For the Life of the World, 56

This entire transformation – of pagan feast to Jewish feast to Christian feast, of natural time to historical time to eschatological time – culminates, argues Schmemann, in Easter, when the Church says,

Enter ye all into the joy of your Lord,
You who are rich and you the poor, come to the feast,
Receive all the riches of loving-kindness …
And let no one bewail his poverty,
For the universal Kingdom has been revealed.

And again:

The Pascha of the Lord,
From death unto life,
And from earth unto heaven
Has Christ our God brought us….

Now are all things filled with light,
Heaven and earth and the places under the earth.
All Creation does celebrate the Resurrection of Christ the King

On whom it is founded….

We celebrate the death of Death,
The annihilation of Hell,
The beginning of a life new and everlasting.
And with ecstasy we sing praises to the author thereof….

This is the chosen and holy Day,
The one King and Lord of Sabbaths,
The Feast of Feasts and the Triumph of Triumphs….

O Christ, the Passover great and most holy!
O Wisdom, Word and Power of God!
Grant that we may more perfectly partake of Thee
In the day of Thy Kingdom which knoweth no night.

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++Rowan Williams on Gay Clergy

From an interview with the Archbishop of Canterbury, posted on the American Anglican Council website (in which he reaffirms, in addition to the following, his staunch opposition to virtually all forms of abortion), dated Dec. 12, 2007:

Asked about his support for gay clergy, he replied: “I have no problem with gay clergy who aren’t in relationships, although there are savage arguments about the issue you might have heard about. Our jobs mean we have to adhere to the Bible. Gay clergy who don’t act upon their sexual preferences do, clergy in practising homo-sexual relationships don’t. This major question doesn’t have a quick-fix solution and I imagine will be debated for many years to come.”

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The Threefold Manner of the Body of Christ (a.k.a., the Triform Body)

In his subsection on the sacraments, “Communion with the Mystical Body” (Catholicism 93 – 101), de Lubac explains the historical understanding of the “threefold manner of the body of Christ:”

When, with St. Augustine, [our ancient forbears] heard Christ say to them: “I am your food, but instead of my being changed into you, it is you who shall be transformed into me,” they unhesitatingly understood that by their reception of the Eucharist they would be incorporated the more in the Church. They could see a profound identity between the mysteries of the “real presence” and of the “mystical body.” And this identity was taken for granted in all their – frequently lively – discussions on the question of the corpus triforme or the triplex modus corporis Christi.”

The three forms of the body of Christ, as de Lubac describes them, are:

  • the soma typicon (coined by Origen, the “typical” body, ie, the individual body of the man Jesus),
  • the corpus mysticum (the mystical body, which, as William Cavanaugh in Torture and Eucharist and others elsewhere point out, and which de Lubac confirms, originally referred to the eucharistic body, ie, the communion bread, but then was later exalted to refer to the corpus Christi quod est Ecclesia, the body of Christ which is the church),
  • the corpus verum (the true body, which originally referred to the body of Christ which is the church, but then was demoted to refer to the communion bread).
De Lubac briefly refers to (what Radical Orthodox theologians call) the scansion change of the Latin Mass. And Although he seems to agree with, for example, Cavanaugh and Pickstock that this reversal of the corpus mysticum and the corpus vere was somewhat unfortunate, he also says (perhaps under political pressure from Rome?) that this shift did not really have any “essential change in doctrine.” (100)
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Pickstock on medieval social economy: bonds of kinship, not bonds of contract

It is no secret that Radical Orthodoxy, in concert with many other intellectual historians (including Pope Benedict), sees a radical intellectual, cultural, and spiritual shift taking place in the thirteenth century with emergence of the thought of Duns Scotus.

In her book After Writing, Catherine Pickstock attempts to trace some of the ways in which this shift led to pervasive decline in the economic and political realms. Her overarching theme is that there came a shift from the bonds of kinship – displayed, for example, in the high middle ages’ approach to godparenthood and marriage – to the bonds of contract. This older web of kinship, Pickstock wants to demonstrate, is loosely bound to a sacramentality which “[structures] all forms of social interaction.” (152)

In the economic realm, lay fraternities and craft guilds provided the bonds of kinship and linked economic practice to liturgical practice. The bonds of friendship – beyond just the norm, for example, that disputes be settled through internal arbitration, to the more important informal exchange of gifts in the sense of caritas – were never formalized into contract, but rather embodied in social expectations and ritualized practices.

With the decline of the fraternities (a bi-product of the Scotist revolution), however, two pernicious developments ensue: the notion of charity is depersonalized into an abstract notion of philanthropy, which, like modern “charitable giving,” does nothing to bind giver and receiver, and, as social networks of lay fraternities and guilds decline, power shifts to a class of newly aggrandized priests / ministers. (Pickstock shows how, as usual, late medieval Catholicism and the emerging Protestant societies are mere variations on the same pernicious theme.)

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_Catholicism_ (VI): The Hope of Christ

If it is true, as I have summarized de Lubac’s argument in my last post on his book Catholicism, that the beatific vision will be enjoyed only by the community as a whole, then this has implications for Christ himself, who, after all, is a member of this community. (He is the head of the body, and the chief cornerstone of the temple of living stones, and our elder brother.) This is de Lubac’s point in this section.

Writes Origen (de Lubac’s primary theological mentor), commenting on Ezekiel’s vision of dry bones:

When shall come the resurrection of the real, whole body of Christ, then the members of Christ shall be knitted together, joint to joint, each one in its place, and the multitude of members will form at last, completely and in one full reality, one single body.”

Until that time, argues de Lubac, there is a certain sense in which Christ remains imcomplete. De Lubac quotes from a 1934 article in Revue Nouvelle theologique:

Christ, the Word Incarnate, was not our Redeemer by a sort of accident; it was his sole office, it governed everything else. Can it be allowed that the Redeemer’s hope is fully satisfied, independently of the outcome of his work? Has the hope of the Shepherd nothing to do with the fate of his flock? Is it enough for him to have kept clear of the wolf’s jaws that he may peacefully contemplate his sheep from afar, watching over them merely with pity as if they were not his own? As long as God’s work is not complete, as long as there are petitions of the Pater unfulfilled, can it be admitted that hope has not room in heaven, that its object is found wanting? The happiness of the individual is not substitute for that of the community. The same steadfast longing, the same desire, the same rhythm of life run through both the church militant and the church triumphant until that day when Christ shall be complete, that is, until he shall come again in glory.”

We may, writes de Lubac, conclude with Bossuet: “Jesus Christ will not be whole until the number of saints in complete. Our gaze must ever be fixed on the consummation of God’s work.” (133)

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Must-reads in Political Theology

Berry, Wendell. Sex, Economy, Freedom, and Community

Cavanaugh, William. Torture and Eucharist

Cavanaugh, William. Theopolitcal Imagination

Gornik, Mark. To Live in Peace

Jordan, James. Sociology of the Church

Leithart, Peter. Against Christianity

Liethart, Peter. The Kingdom and the Power

MacIntyre, Alistair. After Virtue

Milbank, John. Theology and Social Theory

O’Donnovan, Oliver. The Desire of the Nations

Pickstock, Catherine. After Writing

Volf, Miroslav. Exclusion and Embrace

Wright, N.T. Bringing the Church to the World

Ward, Graham. Cities of God

William, Rowan. On Christian Theology

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_Catholicism_ (V): Awaiting Vision

In this section de Lubac rehearses yet another exhibit in his argument for the Christian faith as primarily social. Here again he argues from patristic history combined with Scripture (and the Fathers’ reading of it).

In the first several decades of the Church it was easy for Christians to conclude, on the basis of such passages as Mt 25, 2 Tim 4:8, and Heb 11:39-40, that final consummation of Christian joy and reward would take place only at the time of judgment at the end of the world. After all, the Faith was new enough that it was easy for them to recall every Christian generation which had passed before them.

What is interesting, however, is that, even when many generations had passed and the Church finally became aware that perhaps the return of Christ was not quite so imminent as it had previously seemed, Christians – more or less universally – still clung to the idea that all would experience final joy, or the beatific vision, together, as one community.

So much so that in the fourteenth century Benedict XII had to censor the view that departed saints had to wait until the final resurrection to enjoy the beatific vision. Now, the point here is not that Benedict XII was wrong to censure this view: he was in fact right to do so, correctly condemning this “transposition into the order of time a genuine causal dependence.” (123)

The point is this: why did the Church so doggedly insist that the beatific vision will be enjoyed by the community as a whole? The answer is that she understood deep in her bones the social nature of the Church and her salvation.

To this end de Lubac quotes St. Thomas:

The end of a reasonable creature is to attain to beatitude, and that can consist only in the Kingdom of God, which in turn is nothing other than the well-ordered society of those who enjoy the vision of God.” (Contra Gentes lib. 4, c. 50, quoted on 130)

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