Vigil

I tell people that the Easter Vigil on Holy Saturday night is my favorite service of the year. This year, a friend invites me to put my money where my mouth is: why don’t I join him for the Easter Vigil with the Society of Saint John the Evangelist, the Episcopal monastery a few blocks from my apartment. The service starts at 4:30 am Easter Sunday, but, he tells me, the cool kids start gathering before 4.

I set an alarm, but I am keyed up, and find myself awake a few minutes before it goes off. I crawl out of bed, trying not to wake my husband, slip into last week’s jeans and a thick red sweater. I wonder, sleepily, what I am trying to prove here. Does it even work to do Easter Vigil twice? At what point do I reach liturgical overkill? My friend is a master of the virtue which my father terms “cheerful persistence.” While I am drinking that first, necessary, silent cup of milky Irish Breakfast, my phone rings. I assure him that I’m still coming, am almost out the door.

Heavy socks, sneakers, scarf and mittens: it may be April, but this is still Massachusetts. As I tie my shoes clumsily in the dark, I find myself humming, internally, the chant from a few hours before: Come ye, take light from the light that is never overtaken by night; come glorify the Christ, risen from the dead.

 


 

It is, as promised/threatened, a long service. We start in the emptiest dead end of the night, with a brazier of great leaping flames in the monastery garden. On the other side of the wall, an occasional car is heard rushing down Memorial Drive. We light candles from the Paschal candle, and hold them in our seats, watching the wax dwindle and spill onto our fingers and the cardboard holder, as we meander through scripture. The Creation. The Flood. The Aqedah. Through Ezekiel’s valley of dry bones, into Zephaniah’s promise. Our second tapers are burning low when we stand to chant the baptismal covenant, claiming anew what seem to me to be some awfully stark and uncompromising statements about who God is and how the world works. To my delight, the celebrant dips what looks like a paintbrush into water taken from the baptismal font and walks around the sanctuary, flicking it over our heads. The drops hit me, hard, in the forehead, and trickle down into my eyes. I love this about my tradition, that it loves words and also matter: stories and fire and water and song.

Meanwhile, the black circles of stained glass high on the walls have slowly turned to glowing blue; outside, the sun is rising. Finally, finally, it is Easter. The lights come up, the candles on the altar are lit, and we sing and say and sing again “Alleluia,” and ring bells, louder and louder. We are back in the familiar terrain of the Eucharist, and I love this, too, that the impossibly strange can be so familiar, such a comfort. (And yet there’s always something new: this morning my chunk of bread breaks off and falls into the chalice of wine. I look up at the deacon in panicked hilarity. He tells me, kindly, not to worry, “just reach in and fish it out.” I return to my seat and giggle through the ravishing first verse of “Now the Green Blade Riseth.”)

Slowly, the world is returning to normal: normal church time (Sunday morning); normal hymns–familiar tunes, polished phrases, played just a bit too slowly for my poor breath control; and the normal gentle hubbub as the congregation makes its cheerful way outside. But for me, at least, that glimpsed mystery adheres to all things, to the sung dismissal and the sunshine outside and the churchy chit-chat with friends over coffee afterward.

 


 

There is not a useful way to be detached or ironic about Easter. Like many people I know, I often cultivate a dryness, a deprecation, about matters of faith, born of the fear of sentimentality, or of fear that it will turn out not to be real, or that people will think that I’m deluded, or of fear of something else. There are so many shapes fear takes, and always with the result that I disavow my own deepest life. Here, though, there is no place for this fear. I am laughing immoderately, and weeping, and possessed by that rich solemnity of joy, in turns and then all at once. What can I say? Christ is risen. For me, it’s not about believing it; what I believe is that I don’t have to believe it for it to be true. The resurrection is the shape of the world. It just is. And sometimes—as this morning—it is given to me to experience.

 

 

You, too, are the Body of Christ (part one)

I’m sort of ashamed to admit it, but I grew up in a pretty serious Catholic bubble.  I went to Catholic schools my whole life and grew up in a heavily Irish neighborhood.  My Irish/Polish and Mexican families are teeming with Catholics.  I don’t think I knew anyone who wasn’t Catholic until I went to high school.  In college, I met a number of Muslims and Jews, thanks to an explicitly inter-religious campus ministry, but my exposure to non-Catholic Christianity was quite limited.  Before I met Mary, I didn’t know the difference between the terms “Episcopal” and “Episcopalian.”  This is all by way of introducing the slightly embarrassing fact that before this year, I had never attended a non-Catholic Christian worship service.

This limited exposure wasn’t by design; I chose to go to Catholic schools, but I didn’t realize that by choosing Catholic education I was also choosing an environment  predominantly populated by Catholics and thus, not by other Christians.  I didn’t really think about how myopic I was until my sister decided to get to know our neighborhood and began conducting what she called “theological field trips,” where she went around to the Protestant* Christian churches in the area to visit at a different worship service each week.  As she rattled off the list of churches within a few miles of our house, I realized that I had passed those addresses a million times, but never noticed them because I never had a reason to go in.  I could name 15 or 20 Catholic churches in a few miles radius (like I said, really Irish neighborhood), but couldn’t list a single non-Catholic church.

As I’ve said, I am ashamed of this bubble. I’m ashamed because it means that by explicit choice or not, I have surrounded myself with Catholics and failed to experience and learn about the other half of the Christian church.  Such a Catholic dominated environment is dangerous primarily because it can lead a person to see the Catholic perspective as the normative Christian perspective.  It reminds me, in a way, of Peggy McIntosh’s analysis of white privilege where she lists “arranging to be in the company of people of  [one’s] own race” as the first example of white privilege.  I’m certainly not saying that ecumenical relationships are nearly as complicated or oppressive as race relationships/racism, but like it or not, there is a power dynamic at play if I can choose to surround myself with Catholic friends, Catholic schools, Catholic churches, and Catholic theological perspectives with ease and rarely encounter the “other” voice of the Protestant Christian.

Coming to understand this “theological privilege” is difficult and surprising for me because I am someone who tries to constantly analyze the privilege and power at work in the world.  Racial and gendered privilege are especially poignant issues to me and I would never accept such a ignorance or lack of exposure in any other realm of my life.  So I decided a few months ago to simply attend a worship service at a church of a different denomination.  A few blocks from my apartment is an Episcopal church so I attended a low mass at 6pm on a Tuesday night.  (Imagine that!  A mass at a convenient time for people who work! Ok.  End of snark.)   I tried my very best not to make it a “museum visit,” where I looked at the service from a detached, analytic lens, but to experience it as it was–a spiritual and religious service.  I’m happy to report that my overwhelming reaction was the feeling of being welcomed, by the pastor, the community, and the fellowship following the service.

I’ll  use another post to reflect on the actual service itself, as this post is growing mammoth, but let me end with this point: not to make excuses, but I think, unfortunately, this Catho-centric experience is really common for Catholics.  Perhaps its the size of the Church, the extensive education system, or the Catholic pride some feel, but there are some undeniable power dynamics at work in the Christian Church.  I hope that both institutionally and individually, Catholics have the self awareness to analyze these power dynamics, but also that our Protestant brethren participate actively in that discussion.

To end, I’ll note that the title of this post comes from a phrase that a cheeky Jesuit I know uses.  He says the masses for a particular retreat I lead, a retreat that is populated by mostly Protestants.  When they approach him in the communion line, arms crossed for a blessing, instead of the usual “Bless you in the name of the Father…” or “May Jesus live in your heart,” he says “You, too, are the Body of Christ,” with particular emphasis on the “too.”  When I realized what he was saying, and how refreshing that blessing might sound to a person deliberately excluded from sharing the Eucharist, I was struck by its spirit of inclusion and I hope to keep that strike that same spirit throughout my studies and theological exchanges with all Christians.

*For lack of a better one, I’ll use the term “Protestant” to describe the half of the Christian Church that isn’t Catholic, even though it defines those Christians in terms of the Catholic Church, and I do so with the understanding that this term lumps in about a billion Christians with a great diversity of beliefs into one word.  If others have a suggestion to describe what I’m getting at, I’d love to hear it.

How do you get Catholics to sing at Mass?

Ah, the age old question.  I wish I had a punchier answer.

But the reality is that this is an extremely difficult question to consider.  In my Campus Ministry department, we are working on some evaluations and strategic planning for next year.  We are grappling with difficult questions like, “How does our programming contribute to the faith development of our students?” and “What leadership skills do we develop in our retreat leaders?” and even more pressing, “How much of our budget can go towards pizza parties next year?”  But in all seriousness, one of the questions that always comes up is how to get students to really connect with the Mass.

Discussion of school Masses always gets strangely tense in a Catholic school.  The reality is that most Catholic schools have significant non-Catholic populations among the students and the staff, so not only do school Masses have to engage disengaged Catholics, but another section of the population would rather not be there all together.   No matter how many arguments a campus minister might make on behalf of school Masses (“You get an hour to sit and reflect by yourself!”  “At least you’re not in class!” “If you were at a Jewish school you’d have to go to Jewish services!”), there are always loud voices that argue we shouldn’t have Masses at all or that non-Catholics should be exempt from going.  Beyond that, the engagement and participation varies so much from person to person and Mass to Mass that campus ministers seize on anything that might maximize liturgical participation and joy.  Music is usually the first target.

As I participate in these discussions, I am reminded of a liturgy class I took in grad school.  One of the professor’s favorite lines was “the liturgy is not a plaything.”  He belittled the idea that the externalities of liturgy (ie: quality of the music, banners, programs, lighting, homilies, etc) were what mattered and disparaged the attitudes of liturgists who “played around” with these things.

But these discussions invariably lead to a kind of chicken-egg reasoning–“Do Catholics sing because they’re engaged in the Mass, or do Catholics become engaged by singing?”  Should campus ministers focus on making music and lighting better, or should they argue that what brings people to Mass is out of the control of the liturgist?

I am comforted, somewhat, by the fact that this is not a problem our school alone faces.  Liturgists at schools and parishes throughout the Church deal with this problem.  Whenever I hear someone evaluate a parish or a Mass, s/he always begins by describing the music.  Fussy music directors and stagnant music abound in the Catholic Church and everyone has an opinion about it.  So it is hard to be the person on the front line, making the decisions about what 650 people are going to be doing for an hour, knowing many will simply disengage.

And it is this train of thought that leads me right to the siren song of self importance.  I have to consciously remind myself that sacraments do not depend on me, that the Mass is not subject to what I think is important that year, or what I think students would enjoy singing.  And this is where I get stuck–believing I can’t do everything, but wanting to do something.  Knowing that music matters, but failing at fixing the entire problem.  I love to tinker and try to make what is good even better, and I have to remind myself that the Kingdom is beyond our efforts AND our vision, and that I am a worker, not a master builder. 

But I have to disagree with my former professor.  Externalities do matter, a lot.  Anyone who has ever planned a Mass and had the barrage of comments/opinions/nitpicking afterwards knows that.  And if the Mass is the front lines–the place where the most people encounter Catholicism in motion, I have to do everything in my power to plan a smooth and meaningful liturgy.  But that doesn’t mean I should start tinkering with everything.  Just maybe–solid songs that everyone can sing, a homily that is brief and to the point, and a Sign of Peace and Communion procedure that is smooth and effective.  Maybe liturgists can just focus on those things.

I really wish I had the answer to getting Catholics to sing.  Until someone figures it out, I’ll be poring over music books and planning for next week.

Maybe “tumor” is the term?

What do you call a post that starts out as a comment on another blog, probably doesn’t make sense without the original post, but is also so long that you feel weird about basically hijacking someone else’s topic?

Anyway, that’s what happened. E Lawrence wrote a thoughtful article over at WIT entitled “Do we care about mental illness?” and then I basically replied with a novel.

Here is what I said, expanded (depressingly little) and with links cleaned up:

I have a LOT of thoughts about this topic. Thanks for this post! It opens up some exciting (wc? whatever) areas for discussion.

1) I appreciate and agree with your calling out the “we” versus “them” language when it comes to mental illness. I have many friends and family members in the academy. I have many friends and family members in the church. Put simply, most of us deal with mental illness. It is “we”; it is not “them.” When I tell friends about my depression, I’ve learned to expect the, “Um, yeah, me, too” reaction, because that’s almost always the reaction I get.

2) “I believe that we in the academy are perhaps in a position to evaluate mental illness with a social, structural lens in place, especially because these issues affect society as a whole beyond the academy.”

You gesture toward the falseness of claiming any “objective” viewpoint later, but I think you could and should go much, much farther. In my experience and those of my nearest and dearest, the academy is itself deeply sick. If we want to call attention to the social, structural aspects of mental illness, what exactly do we call the phenomenon of the prelim? What do we call adjunct positions? What do we call the tenure review? Within psych research, how would you classify Diederik Stapel? To put it harshly (perhaps too harshly), I think the academy is far too busy fostering and exploiting mental illness to be in any position to evaluate its social and structural aspects.

3) And if you made it past that rant, here’s some embarrassing self-disclosure. I was struck by the repeated phrases “contemporary psychological approaches to the human person” and “psychological insight into the human person.” I’ve dealt with debilitating depression for literally as long as I can remember, but only in the last year have I had to deal with feeling as though I had lost myself. I cycled through more than a dozen psychoactive drugs, some of which affected my personality (as described by a previous commenter); I left a job (academia) that had given my life meaning; and I underwent ECT, which led to extensive memory loss.

Here is an example. During or slightly before the ECT, I heard a beautiful and moving sermon about suffering and the incarnation. It helped me to crystallize my thoughts about God’s role in my own unbearable suffering, and to feel, for the first time ever, that I could accept the incarnation into my personal theology. Through Jesus, I came to believe, God does not take away my burden of pain. I mean, I knew that God doesn’t take the pain away, because the pain was still there. It was a fact. I had, and have, no use for the “all the suffering will be worth it in heaven” line. Even when I get well, the pain will still have been real, and it will never have been worth it. So God doesn’t take it away; but God, in Jesus, might perhaps choose to share it with me, fully. And that’s something.

This is approximately what I thought. Then, two months later, it was gone completely, vanished with so much else from my memory. Four months after that, I came across a description of the sermon while re-reading my journal (looking for precisely such lost things), and I reconstructed it as best I could. But, dude, this was a pretty big idea, pretty central to my spirituality and my construction of myself. My relationship with God, my prayer life, was really really different before the ECT vs. after.

I would describe myself as a well-read amateur in theology, so I have no idea what work might be out there on the malleability of self in the face of trauma. But in the past few months, all talk of “the soul” has left me cold, empty, slightly contemptuous. The model of personhood taught within mainstream Christianity is no longer adequate for me.

4) Perhaps “exciting” is the right word choice, after all. When I think about all these questions right now, there is sadness, anger, confusion, hope; but there’s also that spark of excitement, the catch of the breath that I rely on to tell me: this is a problem worth working on. This is something that could be really, really cool. Theologians, I think, should concern themselves with psychology and with contemporary models and experiences of mental illness, but not (just) because it would be the useful or the compassionate thing to do. You should work on this because it would be awesome. Because it would be interesting. Because it would open up new ways of thinking about people and about God and about people with God. And if awesome, interesting, novel ideas don’t beat back the darkness, then I don’t know what will.

Secularism and Biblical Studies

I think there’s a general perception that Biblical scholars have a secular worldview. I know that when I first began thinking about graduate programs, that was my expectation. My undergraduate experience was in a religious studies department at a public university, and while many or most of the students had a religious background that informed their studies, it was clear to me then that we were expected to check those at the door, so to speak, and approach a religion from the outside in. For me, with interests (at that time) in the formative periods of Judaism and Christianity, that wasn’t hard (perhaps surprisingly?). It was clear to me that even if we thought of the same texts as sacred, my religion was not the same as that of second Temple Jews, or even of the early Christian communities. My little cousin looks astoundingly like his grandfather but is clearly a different person.

[Now that I think about it, that was kind of a strange situation to be in—many public universities don’t have a religious studies department at all. I’d like to talk with my professors there about how their teaching is influenced by the type of program it is, whether they would teach from a different perspective in a different situation, and whether they have to tread carefully with the constant spectre of the state breathing down their necks. But I digress.]

I think that this perception becomes a stigma, even. The Bible is a career to you, and you spend your whole life picking it apart and de-sacralizing it, so to speak. How can you possibly take it seriously as a religious text? (Your mileage may vary, however—I’d be interested to know whether others have the same sense.) The question of how such a thing is possible is a great topic for another day. The point is that it is the case; the more I get to know others in my field, the more I realize that most of us do have some sort of faith commitment.

And yet– and yet—we’re still expected to check those at the door. It’s not that we pretend they’re not there; we just don’t really talk about them. We talk as if they didn’t inform our every thought; as if they didn’t matter. This is less true in theology departments, as I’ve since learned—there’s more of a space, in classrooms and conversations, to be more than a brain with legs. One of my great memories from [mystery program] is of the last ten minutes of a seminar class dealing with canon formation. We’d spent the past two and a half hours taking the canon apart, looking at how canonical choices were made, asking ourselves, “What is a canon, anyway?” and coming exhaustively to the conclusion that really, we had no idea. (That also is another post for another day.) Finally one man—an Episcopal priest, and a very good one, as it happened—sat back and said, “Okay. So what do I tell my congregations about this?” And suddenly everyone started talking at once. This was a fascinating intellectual question, but also a serious challenge to faith. What did it mean to be part of a “religion of the book” if we couldn’t decide on the nature or the content of the “book” in question? And we all really wanted to talk about that; and in that place at that time, we could.

Those kinds of conversations are rare in the classroom; and my experience so far has been that people want to have them in private but need a real atmosphere of trust before they’re possible. For me, this blog is a place to make that possible—hence the insistence (however illusory) on privacy; I want it to be very clear that these are not the things I am publishing or teaching. This is a separate space.

So, now we get to the question: is this a good thing? Isn’t this fragmenting of ourselves completely artificial? Isn’t this insistence on an “outside-in” attitude toward religion just a holdover from the Modern period? Aren’t we just placating the atheistic god of Science, trying to be a science (which we’re clearly not—don’t get me started on the “social sciences”) in a vacuum-sealed world cut off from our essential humanity?

And I would say: “Yes, it’s a good thing,” but with footnotes. Yes, we should check our beliefs at the door (but we should also realize that that’s impossible). Yes, we should insist on critical distance from the text for ourselves and for our students (but we need to have so much patience with students for whom that comes hard). Yes, we should keep the “public” conversations—the papers and the conferences—on the “secular” level (even though secularism doesn’t exist in the way it was originally conceived). And here’s why: that is the only way (that I can think of, anyway) we can all have a place at the table. That’s the only way I, the then-nonbelieving child of a low-church Episcopal priest, could have fallen in love with this field with the help of a Jewish convert professor and a deeply committed Catholic friend (who, incidentally, ended up studying Hinduism, in large part because he didn’t feel able to maintain that critical distance). There needs to be a safe space to talk about how your work informs your faith; but we also need the space in which we talk about the work itself to be safe. It can’t be okay, for example, for Jewish scholars to be the targets of proselytization at conferences. As I see it: for now, at least, secularism is like a language that’s foreign to all of us; but it’s the only language we all speak.

(That’s what I think these days, anyway. I’d like to know what you think.)

Context and Meaning

So Carmen responded to my post on Esther with the following:

But the deeper issue here is something I’ve thought about a lot as a witness to your career. What intimidates me most about the Old Testament is that it seems like you have to know *a lot* of history in order to understand its meaning properly (or even at all). (I would definitely say that’s true of the NT, but it’s simply more familiar to Christians, so learning the history seems less insurmountable). And even though I’ve attempted, my knowledge of OT history is woeful. I simply can’t learn everything you learn, so I remain intimidated by and ignorant of the OT–this is not a viable option, so how do I do a book like Esther justice?

To which I replied:

This is a really, really tough question for me. I believe two things pretty strongly: 1) Meaning depends on context. So you have to take the contexts of the biblical texts into account when you’re trying to figure out their meaning. 2) Everyone should be “allowed” to approach/deal with biblical texts. But I don’t quite know how to reconcile those.

And then I started to write a further comment, only to find it ballooning rapidly out of control (I start to sense a theme…). So I’m bringing it up here in a post all its own.

In terms of attaining a “proper” understanding of a text:

Yes, meaning depends on context. But each text has more than one context. There’s the context within which it was written—which I do think deserves a certain privileged status—but there’s also the context within which it is read. I do believe that a text actually means something different when it is read within a Christian context vs. a Jewish context vs. an academic context vs., I don’t know, an angry Marxist college student context.

This is the real challenge for historians: we can’t actually get back to the way the earliest readers would have experienced the text. We cannot truly access the world in which they lived. We can try, and we should try; but there is always a gulf there, and we know it. So what are we actually doing when we do history? In some ways, this is the challenge also for people of faith, as well: how do we reconcile the world we live in with the stories that we as a community call foundational? The way I am thinking about it at this moment (ask me tomorrow and you might get a different answer) is as a conversation. We as historians, perhaps, are using the Bible to talk with ancient cultures about who they are; perhaps we, as people of faith, are talking with ancient cultures about who we are. I don’t know whether that makes sense. I’m trying it out.

But then why do I believe so strongly that the way I read the text is better than the way (just to pick on them, but not to say that they’re the only people who read the Bible from an ahistorical perspective) fundamentalist Christians read it? This is also a troubling thought for me. If there are alternative truths and many meanings to be found within a text depending on where you’re standing, how can I possibly say that some readings are better than others? Why do I believe that there’s a core of meaning that remains the same, although we can only imperfectly reach it? In other words, why am I not a poststructuralist? (Caveat: I may be completely misunderstanding what poststructuralism is.)

I think that, for me, it has to do with the honesty with which one engages with the text. If I take this engagement as a conversation, then both sides have to be allowed to speak. My voice, my experiences, my needs count. But so do those of the original authors. Maybe I have the privilege of participating in the creation of meaning; but I don’t have the privilege of ignoring what my interlocutor says.

So yeah, it’s important to learn something about the context in which the Bible was written. We have to make assumptions about that context, no matter how much or little we know, and we’ll get closer to that core of meaning the more we know with whom we’re speaking. But that doesn’t mean I have any more of a right to the Bible than you do, or any less (this is nice to think about) than my teachers, who know so much more than I do and almost certainly more than I ever will. Compared with the impossible vastness of what remains to be known, we’re basically all in the same boat.

Finally, one of the things that I’ve been thinking about a lot recently is joy. For me, reading the Bible is a joy. Not all the time—I mean, no matter how hard I try, I just can’t seem to get excited about royal succession and the breakdown of the United Monarchy. But I study this entirely for the joy I find in it, and because the harder I look at a text the more fun it gets. (I’m looking at you, Leviticus.) It’s not like I’m going through a decade (or more) of grad school for the money or the prestige—for me the academic life is and has to be driven by joy. So I guess I’m saying that it really saddens me to see you feeling anxious and intimidated and burdened by the texts. I don’t think that’s the point at all. Honestly, I don’t think you have any obligation to read the Bible. If it doesn’t bring you joy, if it doesn’t teach you wonder, if it’s not a story that becomes part of who you are, why do you need it? How can it possibly make you a better Christian?