Friday, August 28, 2009

Except for the Exceptions

“I have a question,” I interjected once during week two of Greek boot camp.

“Yes?” the instructor asked, looking up from the textbook.

“So we just learned the ‘regular’ way to construct the future tense. But then you added an exception when the stem ends in α, ε, or ο, which strikes me as most of the vowels.”

“Yes...” he began, and I jumped back in lest he should think my question were finished.

“And then you added another exception for verbs that end in β, π, πτ, or φ. And then there’s the exception for verbs that end in γ, κ, σκ, or χ. Not to mention the exception for verbs that end in δ, ζ, θ, or τ. That was all... until you added another exception for verbs that end in λ, μ, ν, or ρ. Of course, as it turns out, the exception also applies to those that end in ιζ. This strikes me as most of the consonants.”

The class started chuckling, and the young teacher shuffled his feet nervously as the unspoken vibes of mutiny flowed through the room.

“So my question is...” I paused, looking helplessly at my notes that had become quite unintelligible and I began longing for the good old days when Latin seemed complicated, “how regular is a regular verb, really? It feels like this rule for the ‘regular’ formation of the future tense applies to any verb as long as it does not end in a vowel or a consonant.”

The above anecdote doesn’t have anything to do with this post really. But as I continue to pray the Divine Office, it continues to remind me of Greek. The complex system I labored to learn with the Dominican and seminarian friends over the summer applies to regular days in Ordinary Time, as long as they are not feast days.


I guess I could think of worse vices of which the Catholic Church has been charged than too high a frequency of feasting, but I sometimes wish I could have a normal morning prayer time, since I worked so hard to learn how to do it. Are any days not feast days, I want to ask?

Not today, at least. Today is the feast of St. Augustine, and the antiphons in morning and evening prayers were excepts of his writings. In honor of his feast day, I thought I’d post them for those out there who are not gluttons for punishment enough to learn to Divine Office, but who enjoy a good feast anyway. Enjoy, and I’ll let you know if I ever stumble upon a regular Greek verb or a regular day on the liturgical calendar.
You inspire us, O Lord, to delight in praising you, because you made us for yourself; our hearts are restless until they rest in you.

Late have I loved you, O Beauty ever ancient, ever new, late have I loved you. You called, you shouted and you shattered my deafness.

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

The Patron Saint of Cynicism

He’s not of none, nor worst, that seeks the best.
To adore, or scorn an image, or protest,
May all be bad; doubt wisely, in strange way
To stand inquiring right is not to stray;
To sleep, or run wrong is: on a huge hill,
Cragg’d, and steep, Truth stands, and he that will
Reach her, about must, and about must go;
And what the hill’s suddenness resists, win so.
-John Donne, Satire III, ll. 75-82
I hit the ground running when I returned to the US last weekend, and now, in the middle of researching PhD programs for the ominous application season ahead of me, I stumbled upon an old friend, John Donne’s Satire III.

I first encountered the poem in the fall semester of 2004, a few months before leaving non-denominational Evangelical churches in frustration that would eventually lead me to the Anglican church. It was the right time for the satire: since I was already conscious that I was interested in giving Catholicism a fair hearing (or, in my brother’s words, since I was already “threatening to become Catholic”), I connected with Donne’s portrayal of the difficulty of the quest to “Seek true religion” (43) in seventeenth-century England; and since the rigor of campus organizations had left me a weary and jaded senior, I connected with his cynicism.

Five years later, I happened to be reading some articles about the satire yesterday in my efforts to familiarize myself with scholars in some of the universities I’m investigating. While I am going to shy away from criticizing Donne himself (him being a genius and all), it struck me that we postmodern critics have turned him into our patron saint of cynicism. “Doubt wisely” could be the mantra of the culture at large, sending the idealistic youths away to universities where we can learn principles to champion for a few years until we exhaust ourselves and realize we cannot change the world and finally leave as jaded adults.

I’ve heard it said that Postmodernism (as its name implies) is best understood as a critique of Modernism, which seems healthy enough; Lord knows there is plenty to criticize in Modernism. But in this Postmodern era, it seems, we have turned criticism into a worldview, as if Donne’s commitment “To stand inquiring right” were in itself a right stance. But not only is criticism in itself not a stance; it is cheap, and, despite the plethora of Colbert/Stewart-2008 bumper stickers back during the primaries, there is nothing innately virtuous in knowing how to spot vice.

A seminarian once suggested to me that I had become somewhat of a relativist or an agnostic within the Faith, sure of some basic principles but despairing of knowing anything else beyond. Take heart, Donne might tell me; “though Truth and Falsehood be / Near twins, yet truth a little elder is” (72-3). After years of becoming a well-trained cynic, the words resound like hope in my ears.

I do hope I became jaded and cynical young enough that there’s still time to grow out of it.

Sunday, August 16, 2009

Praying in the Aorist

I’ve watched it many times from my corner in the cathedral downtown:

An old lady will hobble into the church, rowing the marble tile with her cane to pull herself to the front. When she gets to the end of the center isle, she will bow at the altar as much as the cane allows, and then pull herself back up and continue to the tea candles in front of my favorite crucifix. She’ll rest her purse on the railing and fish out some change that echoes like slow metallic thunder as she empties each coin individually into the slot. Then she will pull out a candle from the box, light it with another candle already lit before the crucifix, and place it in its own candle stand. Finished with the task, she will hobble away with another belabored bow toward the altar, and exit the cathedral without further errands.

Other times it is not an old woman. It is a middle-aged man, walking briskly as if his lunch break is almost over. His kneel will take him down to his knees and keep him there a little longer, and his change will echo in the cathedral more quickly, like a deep applause. He will likewise light his candle, or maybe two or three, and exit the cathedral with another low kneel before the altar.

In any case, whatever the stature of the supplicant, I realize that their prayers for the unspoken requests that bring them to the cathedral are different from my typical prayers. At my most prayerful, I plead with God in tears and walk away wishing he was better at listening to me. At my least, I shoot up a thought in passing to the effect of, “Hey God, you should do that sometime.”

The supplicants at the cathedral, on the other hand, for the most part do not linger and weep. Nevertheless they have come, perhaps on their lunch breaks or on their way to the grocery store, perhaps even for a special trip. They make their prayers tangibly definitive, and they make their prayers generally brief.

As another esoteric analogy as I prepare for my last Greek exam, they seem to pray in the aorist imperative. Greek has two different tenses for commands: there is the present imperative which is used for ongoing actions that don’t have a fixed end-point (“Study English literature”), and the aorist imperative which is used for one-time actions or actions that have fixed end-points (“Clean your room”).

Initially I was upset to learn that the Kyrie Eleison (“Lord have mercy; Christ have mercy; Lord have mercy”), a regular part of church liturgy often said in conjunction with confession and absolution, was in the aorist imperative, as if we ask God for mercy as a one-time request with a fixed end-point: “Lord, have mercy right now and be done with it.” I almost never pray for anything like that; my prayers are more to the effect of, “Lord, be having mercy during this long and weary road of life.” I don’t want God to wave the mercy baton and walk away; I want him to be in the posture of mercy.

At any rate, whatever the reason for the tense of the Kyrie Eleison, it strikes me that my faith could use a little praying in the aorist, as if God were going to hear and do and say “It is finished” afterwards. Whether in confession or in supplication, even if the supplication is for something that seems indefinite, I would do better to pray as if God would hear and act and be done. I certainly want God to be a posture of mercy too, but maybe he already is, and maybe that posture makes him ready to respond immediately to prayers that we make definitively like a trip to the cathedral and walk away from like tea candles.

Don’t worry, readers. My grammar posts should stop coming soon...

Thursday, August 13, 2009

The Middle Voice of Faith

“It just seems weird to me,” I said about some theological point (we’ll just say it’s irrelevant for now; context would be distracting). “It’s not that it’s offensive or that I know it’s wrong per se, but it certainly doesn’t make sense, and it feels strange.”

The Catholic seminarian listened to my qualms patiently for a while, and then said what might prove to be one of the most helpful things I’ve ever heard about faith.

“I understand it sounding strange to you,” he agreed, “and truth be told, it might always sound strange to you. But it might be helpful for you to remember that the majority of Christians throughout the centuries have been in agreement about this. It might be helpful to remember that your misgivings are a minority opinion, and your inability to understand it could be somewhat of a deficiency on your part, rather than on the part of the theology.”

Aside from the specific theological point we were discussing, it strikes me as a radically different way of approaching faith than I am accustomed to, an approach that directly meets some of my doubts from this spring when I didn’t even know if I believed in God’s redemption anymore.

I grew up in circles that considered faith a matter of the heart. Faith meant a feeling of God’s presence, a sense of his spirit and an experience of his power that would overflow into our lives. In some ways, then, to believe was to feel.

I matured in circles that considered faith a matter of the mind. Faith meant a grappling with the reasons behind what we believed and delving into the nuances of an overarching view of the world. In a powerful way, then, to believe was to understand.

I rebelled from both these a bit in college, and pursued an alternative idea that faith was a matter of action. Faith was the incarnation of ideas or emotions into the tactile grit of life. Perhaps, the idealistic college student pondered, to believe was to do.

And what struck me in conversation with my seminarian friend the other day was that faith to him seemed to mean none of those things. He did not seem frazzled by the fact that I did not feel comfortable with the theology. He did not try to explain the point to me so that I could understand it. He did not suggest an action I could take to produce faith. He allowed that I may never have the feelings or the understanding of faith.

Faith, he suggested to me later, is a gift, a thing that we receive from God rather than something we can produce. On our part, it involves receiving, a surrender of our right to reject what does not feel right or does not make sense. But (and believe you me, this is good news for me!), if our senses and our understanding do not ever manage to join in, it does not mean there is no faith. Faith, after all, is not something we are called to form; it is something that forms us.

Faith then may not be the absence of doubt or despair; it may rather sit in the presence of doubt and despair, acknowledging that the doubt and despair are one’s own deficiencies, and not be threatened by them.

As a completely esoteric analogy from the throes of Greek boot camp, faith may be the middle voice. Greek, in addition to having an active voice (The boy ate the banana) and a passive voice (The boy was eaten by the banana) also has a strange thing called a middle voice that I cannot for the life of me explain: it takes mostly passive endings and has an active-ish meaning, sometimes reflexively (The boy ate himself) or some other self-centered sort of emphasis (The boy ate for his own benefit). But the important thing for the analogy is that it looks passive, and it is indeed not active; it is somehow neither or both. English does not have a way to express this. Neither does my theology.

But the next time I feel alone and cannot understand God’s presence, the next time I feel outraged at injustice and cannot understand God’s redemption, the next time I feel weary and cannot understand God’s goodness, it may be helpful to receive the faith that can sit with my doubt and despair rather than assuming that they are mutually exclusive. It may be helpful to consider my doubt and despair to be my own deficiencies, not God's deficiencies but also not my sins, deficiencies that he is welcome to tend to as he will. That seems a whole lot more passive than I thought I would ever hear myself suggest, but only because it is clearly not active, and my theology has never had to make room for a middle voice.

Sunday, August 9, 2009

Come, Peter.

‘Lord, bid me to come to you on the waters.’ Jesus reached out his hand and took hold of Peter. He said, “Man of little faith, why did you doubt?’
With a few odd exceptions, my first experience of a Catholic mass was in Ireland last summer, at the local Augustinian Church whose mass card office I mentioned in a previous post. I cried for an hour afterwards.

There I was, someone who was accustomed to going in and out of different cultures, a Christian who had spent enough of her life going between Pentecostal and Presbyterian and non-denominational and Baptist and Anglican circles to be pretty familiar with rethinking her approach to the faith, who had been pondering an exploration of the Catholic church for the past four years and who in some ways was closer to the Church theologically than most Catholics she knew, and my experience of mass felt so jarringly foreign. Combined with the fact that Irish Catholicism is, I learned only months later to my great relief, particularly quirky, and that I spent time going back and forth between my passionate seminarian friends and a delightfully loving Protestant family who took me in that summer, my crash course in Latin merged with quite a crash course in the Catholic church and the need for reconciliation.

If mass felt that foreign to me, I pondered as I wept in the Augustinian church, Church unity was nowhere on the trajectory.

Last night I went to another mass at the same Augustinian church, my first time back this summer. My classmate Hector was singing, so I had wanted to come support him and possibly redeem my time there. My classmates and I had taken a trip to the coast to celebrate our last grammar exam that morning, and made sure to be back in time. Though we had come at different times and were in various corners of the sanctuary, we congregated afterwards to congratulate Hector who was beaming to see his friends at his church.

It’s hard to describe what I felt as the group slowly converged and I realized how many people had come in that room that had felt so foreign and distant last summer. There were seminarians, friars, Evangelicals, atheists, agnostics, and whatever places in-between people might have been. There were eleven people from our class of seventeen, plus one of my friends from the Protestant family I’m staying with. I was shocked by the crowd.

Hector invited us up to the priory for tea afterwards, and we stayed much later than our sleep-deprived bodies wanted after a day of climbing over rocks along the coast. As we lingered in the priory of the first Catholic church I ever attended enjoying one another’s presence, a group who delighted in each other enough to spend Saturday night in a church where most of us could not participate, I realized something smelled of the kind of story that ends in the Church unity which had seemed an impossibility to me in that very building one year earlier.

After we finally left to allow Hector to clean up and we all began our weary pilgrimages to our various corners of Cork, I crawled into bed to do my evening prayers. The Magnificat Antiphon (bookends around a regular prayer said every evening) for that particular Sunday happened to say,
‘Lord, bid me to come to you on the waters.’ Jesus reached out his hand and took hold of Peter. He said, “Man of little faith, why did you doubt?’

Friday, August 7, 2009

Lead, kindly Light

As I struggle to finish what may be the most mentally exhausting week of my life (I've been fighting strange random letters that emerge from my fingers when I try to type or write in English, to say nothing of Greek!), I've been appreciating the prayer book as a way to pray when I cannot think. The compline prayers open with a song or a poem, and this one struck me the other day.
Lead, kindly Light, amid the encircling gloom,
Lead thou me on;
The night is dark, and I am far from home,
Lead thou me on.
Keep thou my feet; I do not ask to see
The distant scene; one step enough for me.

I was not ever thus, nor prayed that thou
Shouldst lead me on;
I loved to choose and see my path; but now
Lead thou me on.
I loved the garish day, and, spite of fears,
Pride ruled my will: remember not past years.

So long thy power hath blest me, sure it still
Will lead me on
O’er moor and fen, o’er crag and torrent, till
The night is gone,
And with the morn those Angel faces smile,
Which I have loved long since, and lost awhile.

J. H. Newman

Sunday, August 2, 2009

Teach us to Pray

Now Jesus was praying in a certain place, and when he finished, one of his disciple said to him, “Lord, teach us to pray...”
Prayer has been a recurring theme over the summer; I don’t know when I started realizing it, but at some point it became clear that the topic of prayer has characterized my entire time in Ireland.

Maybe it was because I spent the first week here traveling around the country in my own make-shift pilgrimage to St. Patrick sites, traveling alone and camping along the way.

Maybe it was because of a conversation in a Bible study that consisted of people from various corners of the Church in which we ended up coming around to the same conclusion that the writers of the liturgy came to when they wrote, “Jesus taught us to call God our Father, so with confidence we now pray, Our Father, who art in Heaven...”

Maybe it was because my Dominican friend likes to say, “Prayer is like spending time with my family: I always look forward to it, often do not enjoy it, and constantly miss it when I am away.”

Maybe it was because someone I hardly knew contacted me one morning from the US with an intense personal crisis, and I had to go through the day with nothing to do for him but pray regarding a situation I knew almost nothing about.

Maybe it was because an Augustinian friar had been wearing an Eastern Orthodox Rosary to class, and in answer to my questions about it he loaned me a book about the Jesus Prayer (“Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner”).

Maybe it was because the cathedral downtown is always open for prayer, and in the bustle of the city I often take advantage of the refuge.

Maybe it was because one of the regular blogs I check posted an entry about praying through the psalms during a time in a religious commune which sounded familiar to me.

One way or another, when my Dominican friend asked me last week if I’d be interested in learning to pray the Divine Office, the Liturgy of the Hours, I knew I certainly was. He and a seminarian came over after class on Friday to teach me the ropes to navigate a prayer book that to a beginner seemed almost as complicated as Greek grammar (the three of us made many a joke about how the Divine Office was “easy” and “relatively straight-forward” as our grammar teacher keeps trying to say of Greek).

“So is this like the Catholic equivalent of a Protestant quiet-time?” I asked early on.

“Not quite,” the seminarian pondered. “It would be better to think of it as an entirely different way of praying.”

“It certainly is different,” I agreed, flipping through the giant prayer book, wondering if the complex system would ever feel meditative.

“Part of the difference is that, even if you are praying it alone, you are praying it together with the Church,” the Dominican explained. “Christ himself would have prayed with these very psalms, and the practice of praying the Liturgy of the Hours has been around for centuries. Part of the idea of praying the same words is that the entire Bride of Christ is united and speaking to her Groom with one voice.”

“And it is a different experience of prayer,” the seminarian continued. “It is not as conversational as what you may be used to, not the kind of prayer where you discuss with God what has happened throughout the day, though there is certainly a need for that kind of prayer as well. But in the Divine Office, you are praying by listening, adjusting your soul to a prayer that does not come out of your experience.”

“So is it like,” I struggled to understand, “instead of God coming down to your level, the psalms set the bar for your prayers to reach?”

“Well, I don’t think I’d describe it as a bar,” he answered. “The main difference I think is finding the prayer outside yourself instead of within yourself, adjusting your soul to a rhythm you didn’t set.”

“So it’s like,” I tried again, “learning the posture of prayer by sitting with the Psalmists?” English majors need analogies, I suppose.

“Yeah,” he agreed.

“And what you may find,” the Dominican continued, “is that as you sit with the Psalmists, their prayers do indeed become your own, and you identify your own experience in their words and respond as they do, and that you acquire a repertoire of familiar prayers that come to mind outside your regular times of prayer. The Divine Office is ideally the first step in learning to pray without ceasing, and in doing so uniting your soul with Christ.”

“I hope it can be a refreshing time for you to pray without needing to come up with your own words,” the seminarian concluded as they left to study for the looming exam the next day, reminding me of some conversations with his peers last summer. “Enjoy it.”

We’ll see. One way or another, after the last blog entry, I could not help but be struck when I read this morning in my prayers, “let us rise with you to walk in the light of Easter.”
Let us thank our Saviour, who came into this world that God might be with us. We praise you, O Lord, and we thank you.
We welcome you with praise, you are the Daystar, the first fruits from the dead: let us rise with you to walk in the light of Easter.
Help us on this day of rest to see the goodness in all your creatures: open our eyes and our hearts to your love in the world.
Lord, we meet around your table as your family: help us to see that our bitterness is forgotten, our discord is resolved, and our sins are forgiven.
We pray for all Christian families: may your Spirit deepen their unity in faith and love.
Our Father...