Monday, March 2, 2009

Lent, part four

"I am mistaken if you do not make a strange and proper jumble of the sublime and the ridiculous, the lofty and the low. I have looked at the world, for my part, and come to the conclusion that I know not which is which."

W.M.Thackery, from Catherine: A Story

Having gone through all that self revelation regarding last Lent, I must now discuss this Lent.

Before I consider this years resolution I want to relate something that took place on Sunday Morning. A member of the theology discussion group I belong to- the very generous and passionate member who gives us her house to meet in, often claims to not believe in God. This is very Episcopalian. Rev. Werntz repeated in a recent sermon the statement that there were many things that Episcopalians can believe,"none of which we actually do." On the surface this seems odd, I suppose, but in fact it reflects the wisdom of Elizabeth I who saw a society, a nation, and a church ravaged by conflicting contention about things no one could prove, and she managed to construct a church which could unite through society and ritual people who were divergent in belief. This was not a bad idea, both realistic and truly, well, Christian.

Back to my friend, and her disbelief, which I disbelieve in. She gave as illustration of her impatience with the concept of God the "Great Litany." I have managed to miss that ritual, until this past Sunday.

People today live in, what shall I say, the promise, or the illusion, of a stable healthy comfortable, and a safe life. I agree, that in my past I often would chuckle about such quaint phrases as "from the crafts and assaults of the devil" or "By Thine agony and bloody sweat."

She, my friend, would seem to think that these graphic and morbid phrases were irrelevant and meaningless in our lives today, and spoke of a God she couldn't relate too.

On Sunday I listened with different ears than I would have in the past. The years of sickness, loss, despair, fragility and uncertainty have changed my view of life's context. It often seems to me that I now occupy a space different from the one my contemporaries do, a space much more like that of the sixteenth century, when life had no certainties, when death and loss were constant companions to the individual life.

The service started with the litany, being chanted, as the procession of cross, candles, choir, deacon and priest moved in slow cadence around the nave of the church. My fellow parishioners complain of the nave being dark. It is, it is a little mysterious and a hundred years of wear have left it feeling like the gothic parish church it imitates. We chanted for mercy, for deliverance. "Remember not, Lord Christ, our offenses..." "Spare us, good Lord"

"From all blindness of heart, from pride, from vain glory and hypocrisy; from envy, hatred and malice; and from all want of charity, Good lord deliver us"

"From lightning and tempests; from earthquake, fire and flood; from plague, pestilence, and famine, Good Lord deliver us."

There was nothing self conscious, or showy about all this. perhaps because of that it became a very moving, a very transporting experience, and it spoke to my heart with an unexpected force.

During Gay pride in 1992 I walked onto Boston Common and looked around the 100,000 gay people who were celebrating. I could see no one my own age. Every one was ten years older, or ten years younger. The AIDS epidemic had reached it's height, but "cocktails" were not yet available to combat it. It was a chilling experience, and I am left with almost no one who shared it. I now have that plague, and have spent years in despair. The condition of my health is so fragile that I view each spring as the last. Dr Choi would say I'm being overly dramatic, and perhaps I am, but my point is that now I hear the litany from a place in which all these odd and archaic concerns seem very real and pertinent to my life. I was moved to tears by the solemn chanting procession as it wound it way through the congregation. The liturgy of the church speaks from a place that we all like to think is irrelevant to our 21st century lives. I am here to tell you not to be so sure! Later, the tears came again. this time thinking about the musicians, and the church and the people who attend there; how lovely they are, how really beautiful. That beauty causes me to start to think once again of passing on as being a loss.

But lest I leave my dear Mr. Thackeray all alone up there at the top of this post I will make some comments about what I should give up for lent!

I was dressed in a Paul Smith shirt with a Dolce and Gabanna tie, both in the perfect ecclesiastical purple. I had been saving them for the season; I was wondering what to follow with on subsequent Sundays- black shirts, off course.

I've been thinking perhaps I should give up ice cream, I am accumulating a little fat, which is not something I've had to worry about since my little periods of wasting disease, and I really am vain about my flat stomach... A friend and I were discussing this this other day- he loves vegetarian food, and considered giving up wine, but is leaning toward giving up meat. I myself have seriously considered giving up long sentences. A friend who sings in choir was talking about giving up joking, but I rather thought increasing joking was a better idea. I was thinking about a wise friend who once spoke in terms of doing challenging things rather than not abstaining from pleasures.

All this is a delemna, and I suppose if I were sincere I would start going to church in jeans and a "Tee" shirt during lent... but then that would be disrespectful, wouldn't it? or so said Mom in the years when it would have been a preference!

I will revert to Mr. Thackeray, this time from "The Newcomes"

For in the majority of cases conscience is an elastic and very flexible article, which will bear a deal of stretching, and will adapt itself to a great variety of circumstances.


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