Last week, I noted how thugs vandalized a Glastonbury Thorn. Having the Thorn on my mind inspired me yesterday to seek out a clone that grows on the grounds of the National Cathedral. I have known that one grew in Washington for years, but I have never been able to find it.
I ended up going to Saint Sophia Greek Orthodox Cathedral for the divine liturgy, which is next door to the Anglican campus. Saint Sophia’s is a very beautiful temple, and the choir they have excels in Byzantine singing. Still, I always find Greek American services a bit odd. I intensely dislike the pews and kneelers. I find the usher crowd control so foreign to the Orthodox ethos that it is both uncomfortable and amusing. There were also some announcements after the liturgy that involved unpleasant parish politics. Saint Sophia’s was the “republican” Greek church in the city, while Saints Constantine and Helen was the “royalist” parish (regarding politics in Greece last century). The political unruliness of the republicans must remain with them. Nonetheless, I enjoyed the homily. The sermon involved a lengthy but engaging and accessible exposition of the story of Daniel and his three friends. The advantage of pews must be in the increased time a priest is willing to preach. Some parishes in the O.C.A., Russian Synod, and the Antiochian Archdiocese get around this by having people sit on the floor during sermons, but such a practice must be too barbaric for the cultured Greeks. For they were quite well dressed, as they usually are.
After the liturgy, I wandered over to our Protestant brethren’s expansive estate. I decided to visit the Joseph of Arimathea Chapel in the crypt before venturing into the gardens to look for the hawthorn. Helen Keller and Anne Sullivan are both interred in the chapel. I am not that fond of the chapel’s altar imagery. It has that turn of the century look epitomized by Abbott Handerson Thayer. I do not mind the style, but it does not look appropriate in a church, suggesting, as it does, Belle Époque decadence. Still, I appreciate that one of the cathedral’s main chapels is dedicated to my patron.
I had to walk through the cathedral’s gift shop in the basement to get to the crypt. It is more of an Anglican cum New Age merchandise mall rather than a church gift shop. It is very big. In it, I encountered some rather obnoxious items in the midst of traditionally tasteful W.A.S.P. refinement. As I have mentioned before, the rowdy underlings are pushing out the well bred Episcopalians. One of these items was a t-shirt, Top Ten Reasons for Being an Episcopalian. I know that the shirt is supposed to be funny, but it is rather pretentious. Evidently, the ten reasons are from one of Robin Williams’ stand up acts. That is fine for a comedy routine, but should a church shop embrace it? Here are the ten reasons:
10. No snake handling.
9. You can believe in dinosaurs.
8. Male and female, God created them; male and female, we ordain them.
7. You don’t have to check your brains at the door.
6. Pew aerobics.
5. Church year is color coded!
4. Free wine on Sunday.
3. All of the pageantry, none of the guilt.
2. You don’t have to know how to swim to get baptized.
1. No matter what you believe, there’s bound to be at least one other Episcopalian who agrees with you.
Some of them are cute, but the list just strikes me as typically smug, cluelessly stupid liturgical Leftism. Aren’t they proud of themselves? They should not be:
“As a Matter of Fact, He Is Anglican” from Bad Vestments
As I wrote in “Boozette the Anglican Priestess,” “If the Anglicans had anything going for them, they had good taste and discretion. The Episcopalian sect in America has lost its good manners and mongrelized into a prayer gathering for self congratulatory Leftists who think highly of their brave transgressiveness of traditional forms. Their Protestantization has become complete, and with that, the good humored, open minded, and beautiful W.A.S.P.‘s that made America have at last become ugly and ridiculous. As in an old fairy tale, there is a painful twist of justice in the story.”
My own personal experience at the cathedral yesterday, however, reminded me of why the Anglicans still remain my favorite Protestants. I was on a quest to find the Thorn, and a small platoon of ushers, docents, boys from Saint Alban’s School, and a school worker assisted me in my task. It was clear that these folks were proud of their establishment and hospitable to visitors. Anyway, I finally found the Glastonbury Thorn down the hill from the cathedral on the grounds of Saint Alban’s School. Here is the low quality picture that I took with my phone camera:
It was cold and rainy, and I did not bother much with aesthetic framing. Still, the scene has a very English quality to it. I was also happy to find a few clouts on the tree, which are pieces of cloth that the British tie to sacred trees and wells. How old habits die hard.
If you wish to plant a cutting of the Thorn in your area, a nursery in California propagates them from a tree cutting that they received from the cathedral. Visit Greenmantle Nursery to purchase a tree.
One of the arguments that Protestants, papists, and the Orthodox have involves the way we see doctrinal, canonical, liturgical, and practical development in the Church. Certain extreme Protestants reject the whole Christian experience outside (and thus after) scripture. Protestants of another stripe wish to reinvent their religion in every generation by following the passing fads of the world. Papists accuse the Orthodox of being stuck in antiquity, late antiquity, the Middle Ages, or whenever it suits them to locate us, thinking that the Orthodox emphasis on continuity stifles the Spirit (and not only the Zeitgeist). The Orthodox accuse Westerners of casually disregarding precedent and of exalting contemporary authority over the consensus of our forefathers who, in the Orthodox view, inherited and passed along the apostolic faith.
These are broad accusations, and all of them are somewhat unfair—although I have met several Protestants who fit the “reinvent your own personal wheel” caricature rather well. Should they even qualify as Protestants, though? There cannot be Christianity without truth claims. Yet, the rest are not wholly accurate. Even the most ardent sola scripturist holds onto much of the Christian tradition without admitting as much. He makes many unprincipled exceptions to his model of authority, though he remains ignorant of his inconsistency. Were he aware, he would be forced to entertain heresies that he cannot stand or to give up his rather unscriptural doctrine of sola scriptura. Moreover, there are many riches of Western and Eastern reflection on the history of the Holy Spirit’s presence and activity among the people of God. Cardinal Newman was not the only man to wonder what development means in the Church.
Orthodox doctrine and practice are quite ancient, and yet there have been changes. Most of the interesting changes involved great controversies that were the defining theological and political issues of their time. They came about because the challenge of heresy or misunderstanding became acute and the Church had to make explicit what Christians before held latent. An in depth discussion of Trinitarian theology did not occupy Christians’ attention due to philosophical musings at churchmen’s leisure. Rather, it happened because Arius explored a possible way of thinking about the Trinity within a certain philosophical world view, and it struck a significant number of Christians as wrong. The controversy ensued, mutating often through the years into one of ecclesial and imperial politics and of narrow personal interests of some figures involved. The result, however, was a deeper intellectual understanding of what the deposit of faith entails.
Other changes happened slowly and sometimes unnoticed. The development of monasticism institutionalized the prophetic witness of individual ascetics—a change that profoundly influenced world history. Yet, one could argue that the monastic, ascetic ethos goes back to the Hebrew prophets and never departed the Abrahamic tradition. The rise of female monastics probably led to the disappearance of deaconesses. Monasticism’s growth in importance surely contributed to the celibate episcopacy.
There are some changes, though, that occurred due to what I call existential logic. Sometimes, life lived—and the resulting culture of a community wherein life is lived in a certain way—embrace countless principles and values that people hold without necessarily reflecting upon them. Human beings, despite all their fallacies and convenient exceptions to principles, remain logical agents who like consistency and intelligibility in life. Men tend toward undoing contradictions in their thought, values, and actions; they also tend to assimilate new ideas and experiences into their overall understanding and experience of the world. This is existential logic.
A Christian community lives—or aspires to live—the gospel, and as such it tends to develop a Christian culture. Diversity exists across Christendom, but there are certain themes that become dominant in a culture of a converted people. The existential logic of those who live their life in the Church transforms their pagan, pre-Christian ways and leads toward the “baptism” of many practices. A good deal of popular piety expresses this transformative aspect of the faith.
Last week in the “Paradox of the Hebrews,” I suggested that the increase in Hebraic obedience to God that Gibbon considered might be due to group maturation. Eventually, the lessons of the people are going to sink in. I think that existential logic might be responsible for this, as well. The longer the Hebrews lived under the Mosaic law, the more they absorbed the lessons of that law and developed a complete culture in harmony with that law. During the forty years in the wilderness, the Hebrews may have had Moses and the visible presence of the Lord with them night and day, but they were still a rather paganized people whose way of life had been shaped by living among the Egyptians for generations. Long after the age of the prophets, Pharisees preached to what seemed a much more obedient and observant population. One may ask if the impressive work of rabbinical legal scholarship could have come to be in the desert. It is unlikely. The Hebrews had to mature. Of course, men always sin, err, and transgress their own principles, but they fall short less often when there are strong communal supports that nourish the beliefs and practices of their people.
Anyway, I think of existential logic when I hear primitivist challenges from certain “Bible Protestants.” These folks dismiss anything that is not mentioned explicitly, at least to a clarity and full elaboration sufficient for their liking, in Holy Writ. If these chaps stopped and considered existential logic, a lot of what they find objectionable would make sense to them. Why do we honor the Theotokos in the particular ways that we do? It is simple. Consider who she is and what she does in salvation history. Then, traditional Christian practice through the ages makes sense. Why do we revere the holy vessels that are used for the Eucharistic service? I do not know the history of such practice, but I doubt that there were many canons in the first and second centuries about those vessels. Yet, when you consider what the Eucharist is, these practices make sense. It is for this reason that the apostolic age in the first century should not be the definitive model in all ways for Christians today. A community must live its way of life for some time, and then changes occur that reflect the fundamental truths and values of that community.
Yesterday, Ross Douthat quoted Patrick Deneen on the centrality of the prolife movement in American Catholicism. I followed the link to read Deneen’s post, which I found to be insightful: “Abortion and the Catholic Culture.” Deneen writes:
In my view, the singular focus upon abortion as THE issue over which conservative Catholics will brook no divergence and around which we are called to rally reveals, to my mind, not evidence of robust Catholic culture as much as its absence. It seems to me that - along with the opposition to gay marriage - this issue represents the last stand, the inner-most wall barely keeping the hordes from overrunning the sanctum. The ferocity over this issue - and this issue almost to the exclusion of nearly every other issue that might be part of a rich fabric of Catholic culture - suggests to me that Catholic culture, where it existed, has been largely routed. And, in fact, it suggests further that it is precisely for this reason that this issue has become largely defined politically - and not culturally - with an emphasis on the way that the battle over abortion must be won or lost at the ballot box (and, by extension, Supreme Court appointments).
Most Catholics have long ago ceased to live in a Catholic culture, per se. I would go so far as to surmise that many of the most vociferous opponents of abortion - ones lined up in this particular battle - do not by and large live in particularly Catholic cultures, so much as occasionally gather with like-minded Catholics at various locations (Church, a conference, a retreat) and otherwise live suffused in a decidedly non-Catholic culture. Most of us - Catholic or non-Catholic - live by default in THIS culture, whatever we would call it - liberal, modern, American, global, polyglot, anti-culture. THIS culture is decisively a “culture of choice.” Even those who would seek to inhabit a Catholic culture do so as a matter of individual choice - a lifestyle option. But this is not a Catholic culture as we might historically and traditionally understand such a culture - where that culture (as with any culture) shapes and forms your worldview, largely unbeknownst to you and without prior consent or choice on your part.
Several years ago, I had a conversation with a German convert to Orthodoxy wherein she discussed her annoyance at the political activism of Roman Catholics. I objected by saying that we are supposed to be the leaven in society and to work for just laws. She did not deny that, but she found the political focus of Roman Catholicism disturbing as a sort of horizontal idolatry. She argued that when we are focused on Christ, everything else finds its proper priority. In hindsight, I think that she was right. Papists, Left and Right, tend to substitute their political ideology for their religion. Leftist papists interpret the gospel as “social justice,” and conservative papists invest an inordinate amount of energy into “building a culture of life.” I think that both camps might suffer starvation of transcendence. True Christian culture emanates from the Christian life, where we strive to follow God rather than lower goods and where we are gradually transformed through life in the Church into vessels of divine grace. Saint Seraphim famously said, “Acquire the spirit of peace and a thousand souls around you will be saved.” Similarly, the presence of Christian families living the life of Christ will transform their community and bring about positive social benefits. As good works flow from a grace filled life, so also true justice originates in the soul’s transformation by God.
Several weeks ago, Auster noted an interesting passage by Gibbon on the children of Jacob: “The paradox of the ancient Hebrews, who disobeyed God when he was in their face, and scrupulously obeyed him when he had become more distant.”
This inflexible perseverance, which appeared so odious or so ridiculous to the ancient world, assumes a more awful character, since Providence has deigned to reveal to us the mysterious history of the chosen people. But the devout and even scrupulous attachment to the Mosaic religion, so conspicuous among the Jews who lived under the second temple, becomes still more surprising, if it is compared with the stubborn incredulity of their forefathers. When the law was given in thunder from Mount Sinai, when the tides of the ocean and the course of the planets were suspended for the convenience of the Israelites, and when temporal rewards and punishments were the immediate consequences of their piety or disobedience, they perpetually relapsed into rebellion against the visible majesty of their Divine King, placed the idols of the nations in the sanctuary of Jehovah, and imitated every fantastic ceremony that was practised in the tents of the Arabs, or in the cities of Phoenicia. As the protection of Heaven was deservedly withdrawn from the ungrateful race, their faith acquired a proportionable degree of vigor and purity. The contemporaries of Moses and Joshua had beheld with careless indifference the most amazing miracles. Under the pressure of every calamity, the belief of those miracles has preserved the Jews of a later period from the universal contagion of idolatry; and in contradiction to every known principle of the human mind, that singular people seems to have yielded a stronger and more ready assent to the traditions of their remote ancestors, than to the evidence of their own senses.
It is, indeed, curious. Perhaps, there is something to be said for group maturation.