The Sarabite: Towards an Aesthetic Christianity

There is a continuous attraction, beginning with God, going to the world, and ending at last with God, an attraction which returns to the same place where it began as though in a kind of circle. -Marsilio Ficino

Monday, April 24, 2006

Postcards from a Catholic-in-exile



Part III-

How to Swim the Tiber in the "Wrong" Direction


Easter Sunday. Sacred Heart Church. Hollister.

I started Easter Sunday as any good Christian would: I went for a jog. I don't think much when I am jogging. That's probably why I do it so often. We can go over things over and over in our heads and get nowhere. A lot of times, the only real way to deal with a problem is not to think about it.

I slept very well last night. Today, I would receive Communion for the first time since I left my Byzantine Catholic monastery. The only catch is, it would not be in a Catholic Church.

For such a profound step, at least for me, I was relatively calm and certain of what I was doing. Yes, I had been a Catholic (a Catholic Christian in communion with the Pope of Rome) all of my life. Even as a member of the Society of St. Pius X (SSPX), I had pretensions of being a Roman Catholic, and I still do not think to this day that I was doing anything wrong. But things had changed.

The more I know, the less I understand. I used to think that I am merely rebelling against my grandparents, who used to drag me to Mexican charismatic prayer meetings when I was a small boy. (Want to get your children hooked on Catholicism? Drag them to a woman who prays the rosary while speaking in tongues. It works wonders!) That was the whole "Lefebvrist" bent to my spiritual journey as it began seven years ago. Things were supposedly done right "back then", now they are getting done wrong, end of story. There is one way to do things, there is one way to understand things; if you are not with us, you are against us, etc., etc.

That lasted in its pure form around six months. After that, curiosity killed the integrist cat. I got very interested in the Orthodox Church and Byzantine liturgy. I went to the SSPX seminary anyway, but I think I had already sabotaged my vocation as a Lefebvrist cleric. I already knew there was more to life than just Econe's party line.

Nevertheless, my decision to depart from the Lefebvrist movement had almost little to do with theology. Just at the beginning of my second year of seminary, my spiritual director told me that he thought I had a vocation to the religious (i.e. monastic) life. This was an exciting prospect for me, but it was also an opportunity to sneak off after seminary into the Byzantine-rite Catholic Church, which I did do.

The next part of the story is too recent and raw for me to tell objectively, so I won't. Let me just say that in my experience with the Eastern Churches, I saw very definitively that there is more than just one way to "do things". Even in theology, I found that Truth is often never a neat, well set-out system of propositions, but rather a harmony between two very different aspects of revelation. This has been the case at least since the Arian controversy in the fourth century: God is one and many at the same time. And just when we think that we have it right, there is always a wrench thrown into the machinery of our syllogisms that will wreck our conceptions and make us start over again.

So when I first came back to Hollister, I decided to take a chance and go to a continuing Anglican congregation that meets in the old Catholic Church in town, no longer used on Sunday mornings. I really did not know what to expect. When the opening hymn to the Communion service was "All Things Bright and Beautiful", I just thought to myself, "Oh no! What the f#*k am I getting myself into now!?" Then, as the service progressed, I recognized many aspects of the Catholic tradition in the 1928 Book of Common Prayer: genuflections, signs of the Cross, kneeling for Communion etc. Not only that, but the service flowed, it told a story. It was an act of worship.

For all of the following Lent, I went to various Churches: from the Catholic Churches talked about earlier in this series, to Orthodox Churches, to an Old Catholic bishop who said Mass in his garage according to his own "wacky" rite. I just kept asking myself: "Do I really want to become an Anglican?" In the end, this little Anglican mission was the only place I really felt at home. It helped that it was done in the old Catholic Church where I grew up. I had never seen a traditional liturgy done in it before and it was comforting to see, particularly because of all that I had to suffer in it growing up.

I have received no theological closure in all of this. The one thing that I do know is the whole concept of "denomination" or "church" (small "c") is dying. Soon, traditional Roman Catholics will have more in common with traditional Orthodox or traditional Anglicans than they will with members of their own communion. Can we really afford to associate ourselves with those who believe and behave differently in church just because we want to keep our identity as the "true Church"? If I have any problems with the Roman Catholic system of belief, it is that it has since the Middle Ages made the institution of the visible Church a matter of infallible belief. I no longer believe that sinful man in a fallen world has any guarantees that such-and-such an institution will not fall into error. The Institution is not God. We cannot surrender our conscience at the church door.

If one thing can be said about the history of the Anglican Church, it is that it is not pretentious about these things. The closest I think they come is a joke I once heard. It goes that an Anglican clergyman was asked if there was salvation for those outside the Anglican Church. "There is," he replied, "but no gentleman would avail himself of it in those circumstances." I suppose, at this time of my life, that type of conservative tolerance is what I most need.

I arrived at the old Catholic church early in order to go to confession to the Anglican priest. (At least I think it was confession.) Afterwards, I offered to serve at the service. Having had experience serving as a traditional RC seminarian and the Byzantine rite, it wasn't very hard to do.

While I was kneeling there in my alb, I had memories of all of the hundreds of ceremonies and Masses I had served previously. This was just another one; there was nothing new I felt on that day. All I can really say is that Father went through the ceremony less rigidly than a traditonalist priest saying Mass and was much less confused than a Byzantine priest serving Divine Liturgy. There was as well a "via media" between the formality and informality of worship.

And no, there were no epiphanies after I took Communion. No tears and no levitation. This is not a conversion story after all. It was not "ex umbris et imaginibus in veritatem" (from the shadows and simulacra towards the truth: Cardinal Newman's epitaph). Tertullian once said that if someone says he is seeking the truth, don't listen to him because he doesn't have it. If that's the case, I'm screwed. My motto, for my consolation, I take from Origen, another early Church Father: "Go where the Word leads you." I didn't "come home" on that Easter Sunday during my "first communion" in the Anglican Church. Rather, another path was open to me. The only thing I did receive was strength for the journey.

In the sacristy, I joked with the priest asking, "Does this mean I'm a Protestant now?" We both laughed, since such distinctions are becoming more and more absurd.

Yes, it was a big step for me. I finally concluded that it was alright to throw myself in the water and swim away from St. Peter's Basilica. Whether or not God will still be with me, that is entirely up to me with the help of His grace.

14 Comments:

At 4:51 AM, Blogger The young fogey said...

We both laughed, since such distinctions are becoming more and more absurd.

Quite. Chances are the chaps in the official RC rectory are the Protestants and you're not.

Which brand of the Continuum have you joined?

 
At 10:22 AM, Blogger Pseudo-Iamblichus said...

Anglican Church in America (TAC)

 
At 12:50 PM, Blogger Rubrician said...

Definitely the right way to be swimming!

 
At 5:12 PM, Anonymous john said...

dude....i'm sorry....maybe i'm the only one that reads your post that is sorry...but i'm terribly sorry.

john

 
At 2:29 AM, Blogger Rubrician said...

Well decent liturgy, with accompanying decent theology and ecclesiology is virtually impossible with Latin Christianity.

I found Arturo's comments of great value. I tormented myself during the Western Triduum lamenting the absence of the ancient rites. I tried listening to Palestrina's setting of the Reproaches, Pange lingua and Vexilla regis but they made the pain worse. I thought of going to an Anglican Good Friday service advertised as 'trad' on Good Friday morning (the time of the Lord's Death) but then worried would the black vestments actually be folded chasubles could I cope with a black dalmatic or God forbid a black cope other than on a canon holding a shaft over the canopy above the Sacrament. So home alone.

I thought of the great rite of Sarum (I'm English) and the triumphant Raising of the Cross and Paschal Mattins. All the Latins now offer is the cobbled Papa Pacelli rubbish, or its slightly better worked out Pauline derivative, which at least gets the Baptism and Initiation focus right, but which is basically the wrong service at the wrong time.

What on earth are people who know about Western liturgy supposed to do. The Roman Rite has been in rapid decline since Trent, well actually before with the Franciscan interference ("meddlesome little Friars" as Dr. Wickham-Legg described them).

I had vowed if the SSPX had cut the much talked about deal with Benedict XVI that rumours said might be announced over Western Easter to re-join Anglicanism myself. At least it doesn't tie itself in knots.

 
At 5:05 AM, Blogger J. Gordon Anderson said...

Fascinating and compelling story, Arturo! Good point about how "denominaion" is becoming passe.

 
At 11:07 AM, Blogger James Ghiorsi said...

Well, I feel sorry too. But I have advice. Keep on jogging. Right past ALL the churches. Having left one church communion you're too hot to trot about joining up with another. You need to cool down and keep your own counsel for a while. Sort all this out before something that attracts you liturgically becomes something you can't live with morally as a very recent would-be Roman Catholic. "Flee to the mountains and don't stop for your cloak (liturgy?) etc..."

It's been my experience that on a strictly human level Anglican priests tend to be very smart, nice, fair, and wise people. I have a feeling that if you discussed my advice with any one of them he would agree. About waiting and reflecting on your own for a while since you're so conflicted about all this.

Good luck with whatever decision you come to.

 
At 1:16 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

How does a Roman Catholic like yourself answer up to the 39 articles of the Anglican Church? Why not just go back to the SSPX?

 
At 10:47 AM, Blogger Pseudo-Iamblichus said...

Thank you for the comments. As I said in the post, this is not about finding the true Church, nor am I about to enter a monastery or seminary tommorrow. The truth is, if you're a Christian, you have to go somewhere to church on Sunday. For me, it has been about breaking away from polemics and just letting your Faith be your Faith.
I am not going to become an Anglican cheerleader. That would be missing the point of what I have just written.

Also, it is about breaking away from the "Walmart" Roman Catholic mentality about where you go to church. This I would describe as, "It doesn't matter what it's like, as long as its Walmart." It doesn't matter if the priest is mumbling in Latin while his altar boy assiduously picks his nose and mumbles back, or if there is a nun giving out Holy Communion in a track suit, as long as it says "RC" on the front, it's all good. What a bunch of rubbish! If a church is going to claim that it is the true Church, it must act like the true Church, feel like the true Church, look like the true Church, and BE the true Church. Otherwise, it is all just a legal fiction.

As to the 39 Articles, I think I have demonstrated on this blog that the Roman Catholic Church has changed enough at least in its praxis that it shouldn't throw stones in glass houses. The 39 Articles don't claim to be infallible, nor was I asked to subscribe to them before I took Communion. In any event, at least the Anglican Church has historically been honest about its claims, while the RC Church has a creeping tendency to deify its own magisterium.

In any event, thank you very much for all of the comments.

 
At 8:35 PM, Blogger The young fogey said...

This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

 
At 8:37 PM, Blogger The young fogey said...

Thank you for your reply, Arturo. I've met Archbishop Hepworth. Fr Anderson (St James the Average), I've been thinking about that recently and what it means for Catholics. Back to Arturo: I remember going through contortions 20 years ago trying to swallow that Wal-Mart approach ('it calls itself Catholic but all my instincts and past experience tell me they're lying') and then the pain of unlearning all that. Sounds like you're doing something similar. As I wrote to a troubled young online acquaintance about a year ago, truth issues are important but there's something good about having the discipline and humility to get out of the house on Sunday and go to some kind of real congregation, helping out and putting some money in the collection plate. Looks like you've found a good one.

 
At 10:38 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Sounds like being a cafeteria catholic to the MAX!

 
At 11:43 AM, Blogger Pseudo-Iamblichus said...

I would rather think and then obey than have to obey and then think. The former is human, the latter is not.

 
At 12:45 PM, Blogger Paul Goings said...

Also, it is about breaking away from the "Walmart" Roman Catholic mentality about where you go to church. This I would describe as, "It doesn't matter what it's like, as long as its Walmart."

Well said!

From another commenter:

I tormented myself during the Western Triduum lamenting the absence of the ancient rites. I tried listening to Palestrina's setting of the Reproaches, Pange lingua and Vexilla regis but they made the pain worse. I thought of going to an Anglican Good Friday service advertised as 'trad' on Good Friday morning (the time of the Lord's Death) but then worried would the black vestments actually be folded chasubles could I cope with a black dalmatic or God forbid a black cope other than on a canon holding a shaft over the canopy above the Sacrament. So home alone.

The agony in this confession is palpable, and, as one of those who shares it, let me say that there are others who suffer with you.

 

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