From the Syrian tradition
Holy is the holy Father,
Let the earth glorify the Lord, Glorify the Lord, O mountains and hills, and all that grows upon the earth, praise him and highly exalt him for ever.
- From the Benedicite, (Canticle 12 at Morning Prayer)
Most Mondays for the first dozen years or so of my ordained life, I woke early and headed out from a sleepy Forest Grove up into the Coast Range for an appointment: to celebrate the Holy Eucharist in the chapel of our Diocesan Anchoress, Sr. Marcia Hobart. [An Anchoress is a solitary monastic living under a Rule and in obedience to a Bishop.] When I was considering serving as Vicar of St. Bede’s, the Bishop told me part of accepting that call was to provide weekly sacramental support to Sr. Marcia. While I had done some reading on Eremitic spirituality, I had never before worked with an in-the-flesh hermit.
And so my faithful ’69 VW “Eggbert” and I came regularly to journey that 35 minutes up into the mountains, sometimes in the sun, many times in the rain, often in the fog. There were adventures in avoiding hitting various critters, negotiating washouts, tight quarters with log trucks, ice, and the other “opportunities of rural travel” along the way. When I arrived at the Anchorhold (Sr. Marcia’s residence, situated in a clearing in the woods), I would be greeted at the door with an embrace, vest for the liturgy, and then enter the tiny chapel of St. John the Baptist, where Sr. Marcia lived out so much of her vocation.
The chapel, though small, was complete in all its appointments. Perhaps best of all, though, was the large window above the altar looking out onto a glade in the forest. Here, in this remarkable and hidden spiritual jewel box, we entered week by week into the unchanging mystery of Redemption while the seasons passed before our eyes.
The glade went from the sodden barrenness of February to the explosive foliage of May in what seemed a heartbeat but was in fact Lent and Eastertide. We traced the record of the lives of the Saints on biting January mornings, with the hoarfrost hanging on every stiff stem and branch; we recalled those who had died in Christ at All Souls’ while the maples were turning their mellow gold. We praised the Holy Trinity while bathed in a summer morning’s rays, gave thanks for the ministry of angels while rain drummed on the roof, prayed for a good harvest cloaked in autumn fog, and mourned loved-ones to the doleful accompaniment of a “whistle punk” directing nearby logging. We celebrated the Incarnation, Atonement, Resurrection, and all the other mysteries of our Most Holy Faith as two tall trees in the distance (whom we named Peter and Paul) held silent vigil.
That long tutelage left its mark. No longer did I see any division between the natural world and the world of religious faith and practice. The altar had seamlessly merged with the glade, and both were holy places of encounter with the God who made all things. One of the central teachings of monasticism – that God is always and everywhere present and that the Christian lives with that conscious knowledge – gradually became the context for my life. For this I am profoundly grateful.
I also learned that being made in the image of the Holy Trinity meant that we are human beings, not human doings. It is for a restored and healed being that God has redeemed us. What we do is important, but it springs from who we are. This is all very hard to hold onto in our society and era, but it is a message a weary world desperately needs. When I am tempted to forget it, I recall those early morning Eucharists, when the forest, altar, and congregation became one with the God of all Being.
The liturgical color for the season after Pentecost is traditionally green, the color we associate with growth. Like plants, if our faith stops growing it is in fact dying. This time of year is not about taking a vacation from faith as we might from a job, but a season drawing the altar and the world together as Christ has drawn together heaven and earth. That is the challenge before us. When we live knowing that the present moment, the present encounter, the present place is on the threshold of eternity with God the Holy Trinity, then our praise is perfected and our lives, like the glorious Creation, shine with the light of God’s presence “as it was in the beginning, is now, and will be forever. Amen.”
(Photo: Rick Harper)
The Greek-speaking communities of Calabria, Italy (called the Grecanici) preserve an ancient Byzantine way of addressing anyone they meet: all are greeted and referred to as “Christiano,” a Christian. This is said of a person without regard to his or her faith or lack thereof. The Grecanici are fully aware that not all whom they meet are believing Christians. Some are agnostic, or even atheist. It does not matter to them. They hold the Early Church’s intense awareness that each person is made in the Image of God, and in spite of whatever has happened, is potentially capable of shining with the Light of Christ. It is up to the each of us to bear witness to the Gospel by uncovering the buried Image of God in the other – holding a deep reverence for the fundamental holiness of God, neighbor, and creation.
Such integrity! Such vision! Such faith, so serenely secure in the triumph of Christ! Contemporary Christianity, so scarred by divisions and scandals, and so bent on institutionalizing, commercializing, and intellectualizing the Gospel, hardly seems capable of such clear and radical vision. However, each renewal of the Church begins when disciples reclaim their calling to serve Christ in “spirit and in truth,” seeing the world through the eyes of Christ. That is what St. Timothy’s is called to be.
During the Great 50 days of Holy Eastertide, we are challenged to take what we have learned through repentance in Lent and see the world as God sees it: through the lens of the Resurrection. Rather than seeing only the limitations, the grumpiness, the half-heartedness of ourselves and others we are called to have that “Resurrection Vision” wherein the potential of each person, the potential of all created matter, is revealed. This is how God sees us: through the atonement of Christ on the Cross and in the light of his glorious Resurrection, God sees us as his unique children, reconciled to him and called to enter into his marvelous light. This is the message we share with all the Christianos we meeting – actual or potential.
But this is not for the faint of heart. It is profoundly difficult to see everyone – everyone – this way. We will wrestle with our own hard-heartedness, our own preferences and prejudices; and, we will fail often. Yet, as the Baptismal liturgy reminds us, whenever we “fall into sin” – in this case, seeing people as anonymous objects disconnected from us or God’s creating and redeeming work – we are to “repent and return to the Lord.” As we do this again and again in holy perseverance, the Lord gradually confronts us with the fact that our inability to see the inherent holiness of the other comes from a lack of seeing this holiness in our selves. We are told by Christ that we must love our neighbor as our self, but if we do not know the value of our own self, how can we love the neighbor aright?
It is a long-standing custom when we begin our daily prayers, to say “In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit” while making the Sign of the Cross. We invoke the Trinity in whose Name we have been baptized, and we sign ourselves with the life-giving Cross through which Eternal Life has come to us. Having some holy water available for this is very helpful. It’s application reminds us we are baptized persons, infinitely precious to God and capable of seeing the world through the eyes of Christ by his grace – if we will.
When we see the world with Resurrection Vision, we not only are able to be Christ’s eyes, hands, and feet – we proclaim the Resurrection as a living reality rather than an historical artifact. We become less anxious, less demanding, less judging. We are more and more open to the opportunities God gives to share New Life in the ordinary events of each day. We become more like Christ, more truly Christiano - Christians. When this happens, we are natural evangelists, inviting others into the Gospel life in ways beyondwords, ways which radiate from our very being.
When we meet people we don’t know, or people we feel we know all too well, we can ask ourselves this: “What do I see, in the very depths of this person? Another set of issues, another individual quite apart from me, or, a fellow-human in the Image of God, whom when I serve, Christ is served and glorified?”
Over the years I have served as a priest, one word continues to return again and again as a descriptor par excellence of this vocation: parson. It is the one word capturing the lived meaning of priesthood. This term, redolent to many of an idyllic pastoral churchliness of another era, holds a very specific – and non-romanticized – meaning for me.
William Blackstone, the eminent English jurist, wrote in his Commentaries on the Laws of England that the “parson, persona ecclesiae, is one that has full possession of all the rights of a parochial church. He is called parson, persona, because by his person the church, which is an invisible body, is represented.”
Blackstone, of course, goes on to develop this with regard to legal issues, but the meaning for me lies in that phrase: “by his person the church, which is an invisible body, is represented.”
This is, of course, ultimately true of each Christian. In a sense, the Church’s mission is represented in the person of each disciple. Yet, the clergy have a particular iconography, a distinct call to embody – imperfectly – the body of the Church to the world. This call is, at its deepest stratum, to become in the fullest sense a person. Indeed, Christ’s Incarnation and our participation in his fullness of being through baptism and the life of grace is a call to full personhood. The priest is meant to embody this by a lifetime of growing in the knowledge and love of God. The priest then shares that journey with others as parson, or a person who is open, accessible, vulnerable to others in their own response to Christ’s call: “Take up your cross and follow me.”
The parson’s greatest gift is that of time. Time to listen. Time to share. Time to reflect and synthesize. As the priest grows in parsonhood – personhood – that priest becomes one who has time in a world dominated by the scarcity of time. The parson’s luxury is to be a representative of Christ who is available when the organization, institution, or “system” is not.
The priest as parson is decidedly out-of-step with our times. The parson is not chiefly a means of delivering spiritual techniques, though the parson may know a good many stories and examples of the applied spiritual craft. The parson is not primarily concerned with delivering “products” or “tools that work,” though the parson does seek to assist others in their healing and growth in holy wisdom. The parson does not, in our celebrity culture, even seek to be emulated or “affirmed,” as the parson’s whole life and ministry is there to point to Christ who is the fountain of true human personhood.
Astoundingly in our day, this way of being is chiefly marked by having time yet being in some profound way timeless. It is a quiet form of revolution, a subtle protest, a whispered subversion of the “order of things” in a broken world.