Saturday, June 19, 2010

Meditation on Mark 4:35-41

I must have been seven years old
the first time I heard the story
of Jesus calming the storm.

Being young and credulous,
I accepted it simply. The fishermen’s
amazement came to me

later in life. I, too, learned to question,
“Who then is this that even
the wind and the sea obey him?”

I also learned to question why
doesn’t he do it now. I watch
on TV the oil creep up the shore

of south Florida and I wonder
what the word of authority
would command and through

which channel the command
would flow. I guess I’m asking
how to pray to the One who is the same

yesterday today and forever. With what
words and to whom should I ask him to direct
them? To the ooze floating on the surface,

“Peace! Be dissolved!”?
To the breach on the ocean floor,
“Peace! Be closed!”?

Oh, Lord of the wind and the sea,
of the minerals and the gasses, of the fish,
the pelicans and the marshlands, say something

now. I strain to hear your voice
as the stench of our sin and the silence
of your people begin to overwhelm.

Monday, June 14, 2010

Beyond sacrament

The comments on last week’s blog lead me to the university library next door and one of my favorite books, The Oxford English Dictionary. The article on “sacrament” gave three root meanings of this word that has wiggled its way through Latin and French into the English language: 1) oath; 2) something holy, dedicated, set apart; and 3) mystery (this latter being the 3rd century translation of the Greek mysterium, mirrored in the Eastern Orthodox view of the sacraments). In reference to ecclesiology across denominations, the word has become “the common name for certain solemn ceremonies of the Christian church…belonging to the institutions of the Christian church.”

I even found a reference to the controversy between the words “sacrament” and “ordinance”: “By some of the English Puritans and Nonconformists, the word was avoided as being associated with opinions regarded by them as superstitious; the usual term applied by them to baptism and the Lord’s Supper was ordinance.”

The OED gives the wider connotation of the word as “something likened to the recognized sacraments, as having a sacred character or function; a sacred seal set upon some part of a man’s life”, “a sign of grace.” As an example of usage (I love how the OED does this!) the Book of Common Prayer is cited (1604):

“Q: What meanest thou by this word Sacrament?
“A: I mean an outward and visible sign of an inward and spiritual grace given unto us.”

In the same vein, the OED cites W.R. Inge (1899): “To the true mystic, life itself is a sacrament,” along with a reference to a 1921 English translation of De Caussades’ classic, Abandonment to Divine Providence and its concept “the sacrament of the present moment.” We Quakers would add a reference to Thomas Kelley’s A Testament of Devotion and our testimony to the sacramentality of life.

But as meaningful as these definitions are, they still don’t address the issue of Christ’s command to “do this in remembrance of me,” as pointed out by my conversation partners last week. While embracing the Quaker perspective, I struggle with this aspect. And I love it when I visit other faith communities and can participate in the Lord’s Supper. On the other hand, afterwards I always think how nice it would have been to have followed up the experience with some gathered silence.

It’s usually in the waiting, receptive stillness that I best hear the voice of Jesus. That’s where communion with the crucified and risen Lord happens. And that’s what this is really all about.

Saturday, June 5, 2010

A monk speaks out on Friends and the sacraments

I recently read an excellent essay entitled, “The Essentials of Orthodox Spirituality,” by an anonymous author who simply calls himself “a monk of the Eastern church.” This reading is in part preparation for a course on Christian spirituality that I teach, and in part from a genuine interest in the subject.

I found the monk’s section on the sacraments especially enlightening. The subtitle is “The Holy Mysteries,” and the monk contrasts the Orthodox emphasis on the mystery of these means of grace with the Catholic familiarity and openness in regards to the sacraments.

But it was the monk’s comment on Quakers that most surprised and delighted me. Let me quote:

“There is ‘one greater than the Temple' (Matt. 12:6), and greater than the Holy Mysteries. The scholastic axiom ‘Deus non alligator sacramentis’—‘God is not bound to the sacraments’—may have a Western origin, but expresses quite well the Eastern mind. What Orthodox would dare to assert that the members of the Society of Friends are deprived of the graces that the sacraments represent? The angel went down at regular times into the pool, and whosoever stepped in first after the troubling of the waters was made whole; but our Lord directly healed the paralytic who could not step in (John 5). This does not mean that a man could disregard, or slight, or despise, the channels of grace offered by the Church without endangering his soul. It means that no externals, however useful, are necessary to God, in the absolute sense of this word, and that there is no institution, however sacred, which God cannot dispense with” (in Exploring Christian Spirituality: An Ecumenical Reader, edited by Kenneth J. Collins, Baker, 2000, p. 115).

I feel affirmed in my own faith and renewed in the conviction that one of the callings of Friends is to give witness to the truth of the spiritual reality of the sacraments and God’s ultimate independence of any external means.