Monday, September 30, 2013

Michaelmas and the Renewal of Religious Imagination

Then I saw in the right hand of the one seated on the throne a scroll written on the inside and on the back, sealed with seven seals; and I saw a mighty angel proclaiming with a loud voice, ‘Who is worthy to open the scroll and break its seals?’ And no one in heaven or on earth or under the earth was able to open the scroll or to look into it. And I began to weep bitterly because no one was found worthy to open the scroll or to look into it. Then one of the elders said to me, ‘Do not weep. See, the Lion of the tribe of Judah, the Root of David, has conquered, so that he can open the scroll and its seven seals.’   
Then I saw between the throne and the four living creatures and among the elders a Lamb standing as if it had been slaughtered, having seven horns and seven eyes, which are the seven spirits of God sent out into all the earth. He went and took the scroll from the right hand of the one who was seated on the throne. When he had taken the scroll, the four living creatures and the twenty-four elders fell before the Lamb, each holding a harp and golden bowls full of incense, which are the prayers of the saints. They sing a new song:

‘You are worthy to take the scroll

   and to open its seals,

for you were slaughtered and by your blood you ransomed for God

   saints from every tribe and language and people and nation; 

you have made them to be a kingdom and priests serving our God,

   and they will reign on earth.’   
Then I looked, and I heard the voice of many angels surrounding the throne and the living creatures and the elders; they numbered myriads of myriads and thousands of thousands, singing with full voice,
‘Worthy is the Lamb that was slaughtered
to receive power and wealth and wisdom and might
and honor and glory and blessing!’ 
Then I heard every creature in heaven and on earth and under the earth and in the sea, and all that is in them, singing,
‘To the one seated on the throne and to the Lamb
be blessing and honor and glory and might
for ever and ever!’ 
And the four living creatures said, ‘Amen!’ And the elders fell down and worshipped.  
 Revelation 5:1-14 

A good friend of mine was telling me recently about growing up in a different form of Christianity, where the emphasis was on a very literal interpretation of the Sacred Scriptures. He remarked on a phrase occasionally heard in those years: the Bible is the textbook for Christian life.

What seemed puzzling to him was how much of the Bible was not like any textbook he had ever before encountered. In fact, he began to think—rather secretly—that God could have written a far better form of textbook for Christians, if that was the Bible’s purpose. He kept such thoughts to himself, but they lurked there, unspoken, until he entered Anglican Christianity and developed a different appreciation for Holy Writ.

This little story came to mind as I was offering the first Evensong (evening prayers) for the Feast of St. Michael and All Angels (a.k.a. Michaelmas) last night. The lessons, antiphons, and prayers all combined to create a glorious, mysterious, beautiful-but-also-somewhat-frightening-in-the-way-holy-things-are sort of picture. I found my imagination engaged in ways that stretch my mind, as well as deepen my experience of God and the Creation. They also deepen my sense of the purpose and significance of all human life, including my own.

Take the passage from Revelation found above. It calls us to visualize complex things and experiences: a throne-room, a scroll with seals, a lamb who has been slain yet lives, golden bowls of incense, heavenly worship outside of the confines of chronological time, and a cosmological song of victory at once ancient and yet eternally new—among other things! It touches our emotions and our hopes; it takes us out of anything familiar and sets us in the midst of a mystery not only to be viewed, but perceived, unwrapped, contemplated.

This is not textbook material.

This is visionary, imaginative language for realities straining our minds, let alone our words. It is a revelation of an encounter with Truth and Reality beyond what those words normally mean. It cannot be reduced to a formula or a step-by-step guide to anything. This is about being, much more than doing.

When I think seriously about it, my life as an Anglican-Catholic is profoundly subversive: a subversion of all the systems and techniques used by institutions (including the Institutional Church) to domesticate and control the often wild and always mysterious encounter with God the Holy Trinity.

Someone outside of my tradition might be tempted to say that the daily round of prayers and study in which I engage is itself a conformist, deadening routine. This would be true if the point was to turn the materials I work with into dead texts, meant only for use as tools for control or intellectual mastery. But this is not what my life as a Christian is about at all.

I read once that the mission of the Anglo-Catholic wing of the Anglican tradition was to help in the “re-enchantment of the world.” In other words, that the Western mind has become so disconnected from its spiritual self that it has sought to destroy the world as an icon of God. We are literally in the process of demonizing the earth through our economic, political, moral, and environmental efforts. Anglo-Catholics, by our insistence on sacramentality—the intrinsic holiness of Creation and its pointing to a restored and renewed Creation of which the risen life of Christ in the Church is the first-fruits—are laboring with God, the angels and the saints to reveal the truth about nature and humanity.

Part of this great ministry is the restoration of our religious imagination. Imagination here does not mean “making things up,” or escaping reality. It means the capacity to live in God’s presence and holiness, to allow the Divine Life to lift us up from mere materialism into the fullness of being itself. It means living in a state of wonder and humility, beyond any institutional objectives or controls.

Michaelmas is one of the better expressions of this sort of Christianity. The ministry of angels is both within and beyond the boundaries of this world. The psalms and readings from Sacred Scripture point us to a reality that is completely other, and yet also directly infused and pervasive in the Christian’s life. We live in a holy tension between the now and the “not-yet.” It is this productive, enchanted place that allows for God’s will to be manifested, grown into, and acted upon…not by ideologues (those who, self-sufficiently, know what is right) but by disciples (those who learn).

There are, sadly, many even in the Church who find this sort of religious imagination unappealing or unacceptable.

Some seem constitutionally challenged by this concept, and joining the culture's equation of imagination with entertainment, they tend to enforce their own limitations on the rest of us. They feast on textbooks while we crave poems. They deny access to anything before their era so as to clip off any wayward roots that might press into the mystery they themselves do not understand or like.

Others know all too well the power of a restored religious imagination; they also know that they are unable to completely control such imaginative persons. This they find intolerable (and this is true of  either the “conservative” or the “liberal” ends of the ideological spectrum). So, they marginalize the sacramental, replacing it with us/them politics and policies, “metrics for growth," "objectives," and “proven techniques.” Discussions of the deeper things of the spirit are threats; lectures on the law or what is currently in vogue are not only encouraged—but enforced. A deadening lethargy hangs above such religious communities.

But the human being has an inbuilt thirst for an imaginative encounter with God and Creation. While it is being suppressed and drowned out in us by the educational and economic clamor currently prevailing, it cannot be eradicated. Those of us who know the beautiful, complex-yet-simple truth of a living faith in a loving but utterly holy God may be marginalized by institutional objectives and obsessions, but like the holy angels who worship at the Throne of the Lamb in heaven, we will never be cut off from the source of our hope and joy.

It is this powerful and imaginative reality that I know to be reaffirmed on this Holy Day.

May the angels protect and defend all of us, and by their leading, may we all enter into the Divine Worship both on earth and—at the end of the ages—in heaven itself.

The Collect for the Feast of St. Michael and All Angels
Everlasting God, you have ordained and constituted in a wonderful order the ministries of angels and mortals: Mercifully grant that, as your holy angels always serve and worship you in heaven, so by your appointment they may help and defend us here on earth; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

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