Not in Our House: Why the National Cathedral Should Refuse the Inaugural Prayer Service

St. Ambrose barring Theodosius from Milan Cathedral, Anthony van Dyck (1619-20), National Gallery, London

St. Ambrose barring Theodosius from Milan Cathedral, Anthony van Dyck (1619-20), National Gallery, London

Where once Thy churches prayed and sang
Thy foes profanely rage…

– The Sacred Harp

In the year 390 the populace of Thessalonica rose up in revolt against the local Roman authorities to protest the arrest of a popular charioteer. The Roman emperor Theodosius, known for his thin skin and quick temper, was swift to respond. He sent a letter ordering troops to punish the inhabitants, which they did by means of a terrible ruse. They invited the whole town to attend a special sporting event. Once the stadium was packed, the soldiers locked the exits and slaughtered the entire crowd. The notoriously erratic Theodosius, meanwhile, had cooled off and changed his mind, sending another letter to contradict his original order, but it was too late. Seven thousand Thessalonicans were already dead.

Bishop Ambrose of Milan, where the emperor had his official residence, condemned the massacre, refusing to say mass in the presence of Theodosius until he repented his crime. Van Dyck’s painting (above) depicts the bishop barring the emperor from entering the cathedral. It was an unprecedented example of the Church speaking truth to power. The bishop explained his position in writing:

“What could I do? Should I not hear?… Should I remain silent? But then the worst thing would happen as my conscience would be bound and my words taken away. And where would they be then? When a priest does not talk to a sinner, then the sinner will die in his sin, and the priest will be guilty because he failed to correct him.”

Sadly, there will be no bishop to bar the Father of Lies and his minions from the National Cathedral in Washington this Saturday. The inaugural prayer service, a tradition since FDR’s inauguration in 1933, will go on as usual despite fierce protests from the many Episcopalians who regard such normalization of the president-elect to be at best a foolish mistake and at worst a desecration of sacred space.

The diocesan bishop, Mariann Budde, has cited two “spiritual principles” to justify the cathedral’s decision. The first is inclusiveness: Episcopal churches, she says, “welcome all people into our house of prayer.” She is aware that Trump is not a model citizen. “Welcoming does not mean condoning offensive speech or behavior; it does not mean we agree with or seek to legitimize.” But I think she fails to acknowledge the critical difference between opening our doors to notorious sinners and letting them dictate the content and flavor of our worship.

Bishop Budde’s second principle is that “in times of national division, the Episcopal Church is called to be a place where those who disagree can gather for prayer and learning and to work for the good of all.” This reflects the noble Anglican ideal of church as family. We may not always agree or get along, but we don’t stop gathering or trying to love each other anyway. We recognize truth not as the fixed possession of a single faction, but the product of a dialectic exchange, where we each contribute our incomplete perspectives to a process of mutual listening and collective discernment. This process is ongoing and never finished.

But a commitment to communal harmony has its price. At the time of the Civil War, the Episcopal Church maintained its structural unity by declining to make an official condemnation of slavery. As a result, it was spared the North-South splits of other denominations. While many individual preachers, parishes and dioceses spoke out against slavery, the church at a national level remained silent on the gravest moral crisis of the 19th century, lest they endanger the principle of welcoming all people.

The Bishop of Washington hopes that the inaugural prayer service will, at a time of intense national conflict, “offer a few moments of spiritual solace and the healing gift of transcendent beauty.” As a priest, liturgist and artist, I am a great believer in the value and necessity of providing sacred space and time, where sin and strife are hushed and we may encounter the world of God, not only in our minds and hearts but also with our senses. However, that should not mean losing touch with the imperatives of justice and love. Worship isn’t just to soothe and bless. It must also challenge, unsettle and transform.

As I understand it, the inaugural service will do none of these things. Preaching (always a risk) has been forbidden by Trump’s people, who are tightly controlling the whole order of “worship.” Judging from everything the president-elect has said and done over the years, we may expect no prayers of repentance for racism, misogyny, or xenophobia, or petitions that God may frustrate the designs of evil tyrants. Trump is no more submitting to the norms of Christian worship than he is to the norms of our democracy. He is essentially renting the spectacular Gothic edifice to bathe his authoritarian persona in a faux-religious glow. To allow such a charade threatens the integrity of the cathedral’s essential mission while abetting the fascist tendencies of Trumpworld. All glory be to the Leader.

At least one member of the Mormon Tabernacle Choir has bravely refused to sing at the inauguration. “It would be like throwing roses to Hitler,” she says. The National Cathedral choir, however, has agreed to participate. As the cathedral dean explains, “We do not pray or sing to bless a political ideology or partisan agenda…We sing to honor the nation.” But is it really the church’s business to honor the nation?

Despite our roots in the Church of England, the Episcopal Church is not a state church. It is time to shed all pretensions of being an indispensable cornerstone of civil religion. Our job is not to bless the status quo or national interests, but to proclaim and embody the gospel. Instead of praying for the president as if the soon-to-be-degraded office earns him any special attention, let us pray for everyone in the world who wields power, that they may do no harm and nurture the common good. Let us pray not just for the leaders of the nations and economies of the world, but for the prophets who speak to power and the activists who work for change. Less elitism, more democracy in our prayer life. Less nationalism, more globalism as well. Such an expanded range of attention retains the Anglican commitment to engage public affairs rather than flee them, while rejecting the fiction of American exceptionalism.

Concurrent with the controversy over the inaugural prayer service is a lively debate over prayers for the president at any public worship. Are we praying for the man, the office, or good governance? For those of us who may be his victims, are we praying for an enemy? If so, what is the aim of such prayer? And if we mention him by name, do we risk polluting worship with a rush of negative associations?

All this bears close consideration, but it is not really pertinent to the question of whether the National Cathedral should host the inaugural prayer service, to which the answer should be an unequivocal no. It is one thing to pray for our enemies. It is quite another to let them dictate what happens within our sacred spaces. Bishop Ambrose regrets that he cannot attend on Saturday. Is there anyone who will take his place at the cathedral door?

 

Related posts

Top Ten Reasons to Stop Trump Now

Can This Be Happening? – Donald Trump and the Rise of Authoritarianism

Dreading and Hoping All: Thoughts about Halloween

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Nor dread nor hope attend
A dying animal;
A man awaits his end
Dreading and hoping all.

— William Butler Yeats[i]

The Lord is my light and my rescue.
Whom then should I fear?

— Psalm 27:1

 

When children assume alternative identities to roam the streets on All Hallows Eve (Halloween), they are performing an ancient ritual of interaction between the realms of the seen and the unseen, the living and the dead. The proliferation of characters from pop culture may have diluted the otherworldly explicitness of the more traditional ghosts, monsters and witches, but the strangeness remains. Whatever the costumes may be, for one night an entire generation disappears into a procession of fantastic and otherworldly beings, disturbing the settled normality of our neighborhoods.

The American Halloween traces its origins to Samhain (“summer’s end”), the Celtic New Year marking the end of harvest and the onset of winter. As the zero point between an exhausted past and time’s renewal, Samhain (pronounced SAH-win) was considered a critical moment for both nature and humanity. Life itself hung in the balance (would Spring ever return?), and the boundary between the visible world and whatever lay beyond it grew thin and porous. Spirits, fairies, and even the human dead were thought to be abroad at such a time, because everything was at stake and everyone wanted a vote in whatever happened.

The ancient Celts were ambivalent about the disruptive presence of so many immigrants from the Other Side. They lit fires and carried jack-o-lanterns to guide and warm the spirits in the autumnal night, but also to ward them off. They set out food and drink not just for hospitality but also for appeasement. They wore masks and costumes to imitate and honor the uncanny beings, but also to scare them away, or prevent them from recognizing and harming the vulnerable humans behind the masks.

In their uneasy relationship with the mysteries of death and transcendence, were the Celts so unlike ourselves? We sense in otherness both threat and gift. It stirs both dread and hope.

I know that some Christians, both past and present, have fretted about the “paganism” of seasonal rituals, as though deep attention to the rhythms and patterns of cosmos and psyche will deform rather than enrich our collective wisdom. But I think we would do well to consider the gifts of ancestral experience in the matter of living harmoniously with time and nature. How might we use pre-Christian dimensions of All Hallows Eve, for example, to take us deeper into an authentic spiritual practice of embodied, earthly existence?

Many years ago, as liturgical artist-in-residence at St. John’s Episcopal Church in Los Angeles, I designed an All Hallows Eve ritual incorporating the Halloween themes of mortality, anxiety and the otherworldly into a eucharistic celebration for All Saints’ Day. The luminosity of saintly lives would shine even brighter, I thought, against the deepest black of our mortal uncertainty and fear.

Our publicity described the event as “an autumnal ritual to mark the season of darkening with ancient customs, wherein life and light are reaffirmed. We will conclude with a festival eucharist for All Saints’ Day.”

Many participants came dressed as their favorite saint (broadly defined to include such non-canonical moderns as John Muir, Emily Dickinson, Mark Rothko, Martin Luther King and Dorothy Day). Those without costumes were provided with a symbol to carry, such as a lantern (truth-seeker), book (theologian or writer), musical instrument (musician), or protest sign (activist). Everyone wore a mask to help us disappear for the moment into an anonymous collectivity.

Some 200 strong, with drums, kazoos and other noisemakers, we processed outside, around the block, behind a large papier-maché sun, which would soon enact for us the season’s decline into winter. When we finally made our way into the church, our only light was the flickering glow of a few dozen jack-o-lanterns scattered around the interior.

Once everyone was inside, with the sun symbol lifted high at the head of the nave, the presider said:

As the sun departs from us, depriving us of light and warmth, call to mind the things which make you afraid or anxious, the things which darken your own lives and turn your hearts cold. Consider as well all the forces and follies which threaten the health of this planet and the well-being of God’s creatures.

And when the sun has gone, take off your mask, and face the darkness with all the trust and faith that is in you. We are not alone. The true Light of the world remains, hidden within the deepest night.

Audio of flowing electronic drones began the fill the vast Romanesque space as the sun made its slow way back down the nave and out the door. Once it had disappeared, the music faded out, and with thoughtful solemnity we all began to remove our masks. Our true faces revealed at last, we simply waited in the quiet darkness with prayerful attention.

Several minutes passed.
Then an unaccompanied singer, somewhere in the dark, broke the silence:

For all the saints,
who from their labors rest,
who thee, by faith, before the world confessed.
Thy name, O Jesus, be forever blessed.
Alleluia, alleluia.[ii]

This initiated a series of theatrical blackouts depicting the saints. A spotlight would come on to show a performer employing words, music or movement to represent a particular saint. When the spot switched off, another saint was illumined in a different part of the church. There were nine saints in all.

After the final blackout, all these saints, now robed in white and carrying candles, converged toward the altar as an unseen narrator read from Revelation 7:

After that I saw a huge number, impossible to count,
from every nation, tribe, people and language,
standing before the throne and before the Lamb . . .

The saints were all standing together at the altar when the reader concluded:

They will hunger no more, and thirst no more . . .
and God will wipe away every tear from their eyes.

Then the saints all raised their candles high and shouted with one voice: “Free at last! Free at last! Thank God Almighty, I’m free at last!” The organ began to play variations on Vaughan Williams’ great hymn for All Saints as our own hand candles were lit by the saints moving among us, until everyone was joined in a luminous refutation of eternal darkness.

The eucharistic feast of the redeemed had begun,

and God, as promised,
proves to be mercy clothed in light.[iii]

 

 

 

 

[i] “Death,” q. in Sandra M. Gilbert, Death’s Door: Modern Dying and the Ways We Grieve (New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 2006), 127

[ii] Text by William Walsham How (1823-1897), in The Hymnal 1982 (New York: The Church Hymnal Corporation), 287

[iii] Jane Kenyon, “Notes from the Other Side,” in Collected Poems (St. Paul, MN: Graywolf Press, 2005), 267

The O Antiphons: “Drenched in the speech of God”

Giovanni Bellini, Madonna and Child with Saints Catherine and Magdalene (detail), c. 1500, Accademia, Venice

Giovanni Bellini, Madonna and Child with Saints Catherine and Magdalene (detail), c. 1500, Accademia, Venice

When belief in God is the matter to be decided, the central question is whether you can and should allow yourself to retain or be drawn into the patterns of thought that make the believer’s world what it is.

– David M. Holley

Pierced by the light of God…drenched in the speech of God,
your body bloomed, swelling with the breath of God.

– Hildegard of Bingen

One of the joys of Advent’s final days is the praying of the O Antiphons, seven eloquent supplications based on biblical images or attributes of the divine. Liturgically, they begin and end the Magnificat at Vespers from December 17th to December 23rd, but they can also be a rich resource for personal prayer as Christ-mass draws near. I tape each day’s particular antiphon to the mirror where I begin and end my day. Doors, dashboards and desks would also be good places to encounter these compelling texts, letting them awaken our attention over and over throughout the day.

Today’s antiphon, in my free paraphrase:

O Sophia, you are the truth of harmonious form,
the pattern of existence, the shapeliness of love.
Come: illumine us, enable us, empower us
to live in your Wisdom, your Torah, your Way.

The best-known version of the O Antiphons is the hymn, “O Come, O Come Emmanuel.” You can find my own variations on the seven antiphons here.

In my December 17 post last year, I wrote:

Each antiphon is both greeting and supplication to the God who comes to save us:

O Sapientia, O Adonai, O Radix Jesse, O Clavis David,
O Oriens, O Rex Gentium, O Emmanuel … O … O … O …

O is such an evocative word. We use it when we come upone something outside ourselves, often unexpected, something that engages us face to face.

 “O” can be an inhalation, a gasp, the cry of astonishment at the heart of every encounter with the Holy. If our place of prayer were suddenly filled with smoke and angels, or if the Holy called us out of a burning bush, our first response might well be “O!”

 There is also the O of understanding, or recognition: “O, now I see, now I get it.” Or even, “O, it’s you!”

 And then there is the ecstatic O, expressing delight, wonder, the sigh of surrender: Ohhhhhhh!

 Each of these is a fitting response when we meet the divine:

 Astonishment
Recognition
Surrender

As the Antiphons return this year, I happen to be reading David M. Holley’s illuminating book, Meaning and Mystery: What it Means to Believe in God. In fresh and thoughtful ways, he suggests that God is not a hypothesis to be tested or a puzzle to be solved by detached observers, but an experience to be encountered by receptive participants, those who know how to say “O!”

Thinking of God as a hypothesis to be inferred from specifiable data means starting from an understanding of a world that does not presuppose God, but belief in God is not a matter of moving from such a world to a reality in which God is included. It is a matter of finding yourself within the kind of world where God is implicit already.[i]

In other words, the truth of belief isn’t something that can be decided from a position outside of the patterns of life and thought that constitute a religious view of the world. If you want to experience God, learn to genuflect, learn to pray, learn to sing and dance in the presence of the Holy.

Astonishment. Recognition. Surrender.

It is certainly possible to live inside an alternative story, where God is absent or nonexistent. But I find that a bleak and unpromising account of reality. This old world, beset by human folly, massive violence, economic injustice, and dispiriting politics, needs divine imagination more than ever.

The prophet Zephaniah responded to his own dark times with a profound hope in God’s Advent as a redemptive rewrite of the human story. Amid the current proliferation of hateful speech, faithless fear and violent bluster, how we long with Zephaniah for a new story, a better language.

At that time I will change the speech of the peoples to a pure speech, that all of them may call on the holy Name and serve God with one accord.[ii]

May that day come when we are all “drenched in the speech of God,” whose language is justice, peace, mercy, forgiveness, compassion, communion.

O Desire of all nations and peoples,
you are the strong force that draws us toward you,
the pattern which choreographs creation
to Love’s bright music.
Come: teach us the steps
that we may dance with you.

 

Related posts

Praying the O Antiphons

Ten Ways to Keep a Holy Advent

[i] David M. Holley, Meaning and Mystery: What it Means to Believe in God (Malden, MA: Wiley-Blackwell, 2010), 47-48 [the epigraph is also Holley, p. 48]

[ii] Zephaniah 3:9

We are the singers of life, not of death

A Choir of Angels (detail), Simon Marmion, 1459

A Choir of Angels (detail), Simon Marmion, 1459

“The great truth that is too often forgotten is that it is in the nature of people to do good to one another.”

– Marilynne Robinson[i]

Gonna rise up, burning black holes in dark memories,
Gonna rise up, turning mistakes into gold.

– Eddie Vedder[ii]

One of my favorite stories by the naturalist Loren Eiseley recalls a moment of awakening. He was napping in a forest glade when a sudden commotion of birds roused him from sleep. They were circling a raven which clutched their small nestling in its beak. It was not only the nestling’s parents crying in protest. Birds of half a dozen other species also began to join in. “No one dared attack the raven. But they cried there in some instinctive common misery, the bereaved and the unbereaved. The glade filled with their soft rustling and their cries.” The raven sat unperturbed on its perch, a perfect symbol of pitiless mortality – “the bird of death,” Eiseley called it.

It was then I saw the judgment. It was the judgment of life against death … For in the midst of protest, [the birds] forgot the violence. There, in that clearing, the crystal note of a song sparrow lifted hesitantly in the hush. And finally, after painful fluttering, another took the song, and then another, the song passing from one bird to another, doubtfully at first, as though some evil thing were being slowly forgotten. Till suddenly they took heart and sang from many throats joyously together as birds are known to sing. They sang because life is sweet and sunlight beautiful. They sang under the brooding shadow of the raven. In simple truth they had forgotten the raven, for they were the singers of life, and not of death.[iii]

On Sunday night I experienced a similar miracle of transcendent exultation in a new musical at the Seattle Repertory Theater, Come From Away. A musical about 9/11 might sound like a dubious idea, but it succeeds brilliantly in turning the darkness into a song of unconquerable life and resilient spirit.

Like the birds in the glade, Come From Away shifts its focus away from the familiar 9/11 narrative of horror and death to tell a powerful counter-story in which the bonds of community and kindness prove stronger than the forces that divide and destroy. Like the utopian “no-places” of Renaissance romance – say the forest of Arden or Prospero’s island – the small town of Gander in New-Found-Land is on “the edge of the world,” a liminal space where both individuals and social groups, free from conventional and habitual constraints, can explore alternative ways of being and being-together.

An island town of 9000 people, Gander had once been a key refueling station for transatlantic flights, and its remote airport is still relied on for emergency situations. When all North American airspace was closed on 9/11, 38 planes were rerouted there, bringing nearly 7000 people who needed to be housed and fed for six days. The logistical challenges were enormous, but the emotional ones were even greater – so many people from different cultures, stranded far from home in those surreal days of uncertainty, shock and anxiety. Their planes had found a place to land, but what about their hearts?

Over those six days, remarkable bonds formed among both Newfoundlanders and passengers. It was an experience of love and goodness which none of them would ever forget. Ten years later, many of the “plane people” returned to Gander for an anniversary reunion to re-collect that extraordinary experiment in community. Two Canadian playwrights, Irene Sankoff and David Hein, went there as well, spending a month listening to thousands of stories. In four-hour interviews with hundreds of people, Sankoff and Hein compiled a remarkable record of the human spirit.

The play’s title is a Newfoundland colloquialism for “immigrant.” In a time when many are bashing immigrants as “them,” such a powerful reminder that we have all “come from away” feels like a well-timed gift of grace. As the Bible puts it, we are all strangers and pilgrims on this earth[iv], and the essential human project is the overcoming of fear and division to make connections and create community.

Sankoff and Hein were fascinated to learn that Newfoundland is where all the continents crashed together eons ago. “So, geologically,” they said, “there are pieces of Africa, Europe and America all right there. It’s this wonderful metaphor for the world coming together.”[v] The theologians say that we are made in the image of a God whose essence is relationality, and that human nature is most fully realized in communion. What happened in Gander was a test of that thesis.

The stories collected in 2011 were gradually consolidated into a coherent musical drama, with 12 actors representing nearly a hundred characters. There are no flawless heroes, exempt from the fears, frailties and foolishness common to all of us. There are no villains either. They are just people making their way through an unknown land without a map, exhibiting an innate desire to do good to one another. Both recognizable and sympathetic, these characters stood in for all of us, and what we might become.

And how brilliant to make it a musical. The driving Celtic rock score by a nine-piece onstage band was irresistible, and the songs made you want to shout and dance, even as tears streamed down your face. Beautifully crafted by Sankoff and Hein, the infectious music made us all believe in our common vocation as the singers of life against all odds.

In her book on the musical genre, Jane Feuer observes that “musicals are unparalleled in presenting a vision of human liberation … Part of the reason some of us love musicals so passionately is that they give us a glimpse of what it would be like to be free.” But she cautions that the genre can also fall into the trap of being about nothing more than its own energy. “In its endless reflexivity the musical can offer only itself, only entertainment, as its picture of utopia.” In such a case, the musical remains self-enclosed fantasy, untranslatable into daily reality.[vi]

But Come From Away, grounded in remembered stories of real goodness, offers something more than a temporary escape into fantasy. It proposes the richness of human community as an authentic prospect, however imperfectly realized in actual practice. The merging of Christian, Jewish and Muslim prayers into a single song was but one of many scenes in which the characters discovered that their best selves were grounded in the interrelatedness of mutual belonging.

And to the extent that this play manifested an ideal by which our failures to love one another might be measured and found wanting, it was not unlike liturgy. Neither theater nor liturgy are “real” life, but they can still exert a transformative power. Through symbol and metaphor, song and story, they can suggest a hypothetical alternative to our tired old stories of decline and fall, luring us toward a higher vision of human becoming. When we rose to our feet at play’s end for a prolonged ovation, we were not just thanking the company for a good time. We were, at least for the moment, subscribing to its vision. Whatever it was they showed us, we wanted to be part of it. As Marilynne Robinson puts it, human community is “a work of the imagination”[vii] – a life-giving story we tell as we strive to make it real, in ourselves and in our world.

When the house lights come up, we all go our separate ways, and the vision weakens in the glare of ordinary time. The same thing happens after a liturgy. Yet something of the dream remains. The intuition of a better way of being lodges deep within us, and over time, if properly nourished, it may produce real outcomes.

 

 

Related posts

 

Remember

No Place like Home

After Paris and Beirut, what kind of story shall we tell?

 

 

[i] Marilynne Robinson, “Imagination and Community,” in When I Was a Child I Read Books (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2012), 33

[ii] Eddie Vedder, “Rise”, from the film, Into the Wild (2007)

[iii] Loren Eiseley, The Immense Journey (New York: Random House, 1957), 174-5

[iv] I Peter 2:11

[v] Interview with Shirley Fishman, Come From Away program notes (Seattle: Encore Arts Programs, Seattle Repertory Theater, Nov. 2015), 15

[vi] Jane Feuer, The Hollywood Musical (Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 1982), 84

[vii] Robinson, 29

God is a dance we do

Elaine Friedrich and friends, c. 1933

Elaine Friedrich and friends, c. 1933

At the end of last Sunday’s eucharist, we sang “You shall go out with joy,” a contemporary hymn with the infectious rhythm of Mediterranean dance.[i] The words, the tune, and the smiling worshippers all seemed to say the same thing: the Spirit really wanted to move in that place. So before we went our separate ways, I invited the congregation to repeat the song, while all who wished stepped into the open space before the altar for an impromptu circle dance. With joined hands, we circled round, spiraled inward, wove in and out of the arches and tunnels of upraised arms, manifesting with our bodies the divine fullness attributed to the Holy Trinity: an “interdependence of equally present but diverse energies … in a state of circumvolving multiplicity.”[ii] Or as St. Athanasius said more simply of the triune God, we were participating in the divine reality of “reciprocal delight.”

Communal dance is an early Christian image for the divine reality, due in part to a pun on the Greek word, perechoresis. This term (from peri = “around,” and chorein = “make room for,” “contain”) was appropriated in the fourth century to express the Trinitarian unity-in-diversity. Perechoresis implies a shared existence, a being-in-one-another where each Person, while remaining uniquely distinct, penetrates the others as each and all become the subject, not the object, of one another.

The Trinity is not a simple, static substance but an event of relationships. It is why we can say that God is love. “To be” has no ontological reality apart from “to be in relationship.” In the words of Anglican priest John Mbiti of Kenya, expressing the strongly communal mindset of African theology, “I am because we are, and since we are, therefore I am.”[iii]

Each Person contains the others and is contained by them in a shared communion of self-offering and self-surrender. But that continuous self-offering is never a one-way transaction, either one of self-emptying or one of being filled. It is always both at once – giving and receiving – as we ourselves know from our own mutual experience of love at its best. As Jesus said, “losing” yourself and “finding” yourself are equivalent and simultaneous. In giving ourselves away, we receive ourselves back. This may be counterintuitive to the modernist mindset of autonomous individual self-possession, but it is the essence of communion: “a giving of oneself that can only come from the ongoing and endless reception of the other.”[iv] This “being in communion” is explored more fully in Part 1: God is relational.

Now here’s the Greek pun: perechoresis also can mean “to dance around,” and the ancient theologians quickly seized on that image as an accessibly concrete description of a complex process. Trinity is a dance, with Creator, Christ and Spirit in a continuous movement of giving and receiving, initiating and responding, weaving and mingling, going out and coming in. And while our attention may focus at times on a particular dancer, we must never lose sight of the larger choreography to which each dancer belongs: the eternal perichoresis of Three in One, One in Three.

“I am the dance and I still go on” (Dancers at Elaine Friedrich’s Requiem)

Wallace Stevens made a poem about the process of giving ourselves over to a larger whole, “the intensest rendezvous” where we find ourselves drawn out of isolation “into one thing.” He wasn’t writing about dance or the Trinity, but his words come as close as any to describing their essential motion:

Here, now, we forget each other and ourselves.
We feel the obscurity of an order, a whole,
A knowledge, that which arranged the rendezvous.[v]

My mother Elaine knew the joy of the “intensest rendezvous” of perechoresis. She started dancing as a little girl, and as a teenager in the 1920’s she taught dance to younger children for ten cents a lesson. While studying at Northwestern she took workshops in Chicago with some of the great pioneers of modern dance, Doris Humphrey and José Limón. Her teachers encouraged her to apply to Martha Graham’s company. But then she met my father, and a career in dance was set aside for a more domestic life. I owe my own existence to that sacrificial act. Still, she remained a dancer in her heart, and later in life became a great advocate of sacred dance. Whatever I learned from her about the divine dimensions of “dancing around,” of giving yourself over to the cosmic “Love that moves the sun and all the other stars,”[vi] remains a vital part of my theological education.

There are no spectators in the Trinitarian dance, which is always extending outward to draw us and all creation into its motions. As Jürgen Moltmann said, “to know God means to participate in the fullness of the divine life.”[vii] It’s not a matter of our trying to imitate the relational being of the loving, dancing God, as if we were inferior knock-offs of the real thing. God wants us to become ourselves the real thing. God wants to gather us into the divine perechoresis as full participants in the endless offering and receiving, pouring out and being filled, which is the dance of God and the life of heaven.

And while our dance with God has its mystical, mysterious, transcendent dimensions, it is also very concrete and specific to our historical life on this earth, in this present time. As Miroslav Volf has said, “The Trinity is our social program.”[viii] We are called to make God not just an inner experience but a public truth. When Love’s dance becomes our way of being in the world – as believers, as church – the Trinity is no longer just doctrine. It is a practice, begetting justice, peace, joy, kindness, compassion, reconciliation, holiness, humility, wisdom, healing and countless other gifts.

Liberation theologian Justo L. Gonzales puts it well: “If the Trinity is the doctrine of a God whose very life is a life of sharing, its clear consequence is that those who claim belief in such a God must live a similar life … for if God is love, life without love is life without God; and if this is a sharing love, such as we see in the Trinity, then life without sharing is life without God…”[ix] So, in the immortal words of Lewis Carroll’s Mock Turtle: Will you, won’t you, will you, won’t you, won’t you join the dance?[x]

My mother was still dancing in her nineties, mostly in the gentle motions of Tai Chi. A year before her death at 96, she was asked to lead a dance prayer in her retirement community’s chapel. It was no longer easy for her to stand, so she performed the prayer seated, while the elderly congregation echoed her gestures with their own frail bodies. The prayer was Daniel Schutte’s well-known anthem, “Here I am, Lord.”[xi] In this video you can only see Elaine, but I’m pretty sure she was dancing with the whole company of heaven.

[This is the final post of a 3-part series on the Trinity. Part 1 was “God is relational,” and Part 2, on the experiential foundations of Trinitarian belief, was “You can’t make this stuff up.”]

[i] Words by Steffi Geiser Rubin, music by Stuart Dauermann (© 1975 Lillenas Publishing Company)

[ii] David Bentley Hart, The Beauty of the Infinite: The Aesthetics of Christian Truth (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans 2003), 114

[iii] q. in Veli-Matti Kärkkäinen, The Trinity: Global Perspectives (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2007), 352

[iv] Graham Ward, “The Schizoid Christ,” in The Radical Orthodoxy Reader, ed. John Milbank and Simon Oliver (NY: Routledge, 2009), 241

[v] Wallace Stevens, “Final Soliloquy of the Interior Paramour,” Collected Poetry and Prose (NY: Library of America, 1997), 444

[vi] Dante, Paradiso xxxiii, 145, trans. Robert & Jean Hollander (NY: Doubleday, 2007), 827

[vii] Jürgen Moltmann, The Trinity and the Kingdom: The Doctrine of God, trans. Margaret Kohl (San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1981), 152

[viii] Miroslav Volf, “‘The Trinity is Our Social Program’: The Doctrine of the Trinity and the Shape of Social Engagement,” Modern Theology 14, no. 3 (July 1998)

[ix] The Trinity: Global Perspectives, 301

[x] From the Mock Turtle’s song in Alice in Wonderland by Anglican cleric Charles Dodgson (Lewis Carroll)

[xi] Daniel Schutte, © OCP Publications 1981

Cave of the Apocalypse

Katholikon of the Holy Monastery of St. John the Theologian

Katholikon of the Holy Monastery of St. John the Theologian


I, John … was on the island called Patmos because of the word of God and the testimony of Jesus. I was in the spirit on the Lord’s day, and I heard behind me a loud voice saying, ‘Write in a book what you see …’    (Rev. 1:9-11)

Patmos is one of the smaller Dodecanese Islands, a grueling 8-hour middle-of-the-night ferry ride east of Athens. It has gorgeous bays and quiet beaches, superb mountain views, charming villages and, at least not in summer’s high season, a tranquil predominance of locals over tourists. The outsiders I have met are themselves “regulars,” returning again and again because they love it. Yesterday a man from the Netherlands told me this was his 23rd straight year of month-long visits.

Patmos is also a place of pilgrimage, where St. John the Theologian (or “the Divine,” as we say in the western church), fell into a swoon and saw things which have intrigued, puzzled, disturbed and inspired readers ever since. The Book of Revelation has, regretfully, provided horrific weapons of mass destruction for hellfire preachers, but it is also the source for many sublime hymns and prayers in my own Anglican tradition.

Most scholars think that the book’s author is not the same person who wrote the Fourth Gospel. Language, style and themes are too different in the two works. But “tradition” has always preferred to link the Galilean fisherman “whom Jesus loved” with both the mystical composer of the Fourth Gospel and the visionary exiled to Patmos. It exemplifies the arc of discipleship as potentially a long, strange trip. As we sang in a hymn at my own ordination years ago, “the peace of God, it is no peace … Young John, who trimmed the flapping sail, homeless in Patmos died; Peter, who hauled the teeming net, headdown was crucified.”

So the Christian can’t come to Patmos and simply lie on the beach or relax in the taverna. The Holy Monastery of St. John the Theologian beckons from the high ridge above the  port. Its dark-hued fortress of lion-colored stone makes somber contrast with the whitewashed village around it, as if to say that the ascent of this hill is serious business.

The monastery rises above the village of Chora.

The monastery rises above the village of Chora.

If you rise early, you can experience the awesome richness of the monastery’s Katholikon (main church) in solitude. The brilliant wall paintings, recently cleaned, immerse you in holy images. Along with the intricately carved iconostasis, hanging oil lamps, and numerous icons, they effect a ceaseless engagement of the eye. Some might find this distracting for prayer, but for me the sense that there is always more than I can take in – the visual inexhaustibility of Orthodox interiors – can lead to a kind of surrender, overwhelming and transcending the subjectivity of my own thoughts and perceptions. Here is Mystery. Give over to it. Lose yourself in it.

The monastery museum holds an eclectic assortment of treasures, including a 6th century gospel book, a 1499 Venetian collection of Aristophanes’ comedies, a 6th century BC bust of Dionysus (god of wine and ecstasy), the largest Orthodox collection of 5th-6th century Coptic textiles, preserved by the dryness of Egyptian tombs, and a police blotter in Arabic from the late 15th century, when Byzantine territories had fallen under Muslim control (“The Cadi [Judge] of the Palace is ordered to find three Patmians who were kidnapped by pirates.”).

Below the monastery, halfway up the hill from the sea, is the Cave of the Apocalypse. Here, according to tradition, John lay on the stone floor for several days while the vision unfolded. The cave is not large, but the insertion of a wooden iconostasis into its contours, along with icons and hanging lamps, has made it a compelling place for worship, prayer and veneration. John’s private ecstasy has been reimagined through specific features of the cave. Here is the cleft from which the Voice spoke. Here is the corner when he laid his head to rest between revelations. Here are the fissures where the Trinitarian God divided the rock into three parts with an earthquake.

Literal belief in the details of the cave’s legends is not required to make the site holy. It is holy because centuries of believers have given a particular kind of attention here to a Reality which yearns to make itself known in the innermost heart, for which a sheltering, enclosing cave is a tangible, sensory analogy.

Another mystical theologian, St. Bonaventure, said, “When you pray, gather up your whole self, enter with your Beloved into the chamber of your heart, and there remain alone with your Beloved, forgetting all exterior concerns.” The Cave, for the attentive, can mirror the chamber of the heart.

I entered it three times during my week here. The first time was the Sunday liturgy, full of incense and chanting voices. It was beautiful, but I had no revelations, or even deep feelings. God was present, but I was a bit absent. I was tired from a long, sleepless ferry ride. And I knew that whatever the Cave offered was not a tourist experience you can just walk in and collect.

So I went back a few days later. The voices I heard then were those of tour guides. Most just reeled off the legends uncritically as if they were prosaic facts. Here this and that happened, blah blah blah, now let’s go back to the bus. But one guide, a Greek woman speaking both in English and German, really got into it.

“People think that the Book of Revelation is about judgment and punishment. That is there, of course, but by the time you get to Chapter 21, you find what it is really about: a new world, a new heaven, a new earth, where we will be with God, and God with us.

“John’s message is trying to wake us up, to make us see that we are all one because God is with us and in us. Our original condition of oneness will be restored in the end. We lost that unity in the beginning because we had free will, and we chose to have our own experience, and forgot our connection with one another.

“If a bomb falls on someone in Syria, we think, ‘Thank God that didn’t happen to me.’ But what happens to others happens to all of us. John is trying to wake us up to this. And when he talks about the destruction of the earth, we have to think about how much closer we ourselves are to bringing that about today, unless we remember what we were made for and what we are a part of.”

When I thanked her afterward for her ‘preaching,’ she said, “I want to tell people what they don’t know, what they don’t hear in the schools, what the priests won’t tell you.” She was pretty sour on the institutional church. “I was baptized Greek Orthodox. I believe in Christ and the power of the sacraments, but I don’t belong to any church. I’m kind of a revolutionary.” I asked her name. “Vera,” she said. “Like veritas– the truth.”

This morning, my last on Patmos, I returned to the Cave for a third time. Two cantors and a priest were chanting the Divine Liturgy. I was the only other person present. This time, the spirit of prayer came easily, like a morning breeze. I received no visions, heard no voices except the beautiful earthly ones I stood among. But it was more than enough. When the priest handed out the holy bread at the end, I was aware of my outsider status as non-Orthodox. But the priest, who had the face of a Baroque Apostle, turned to me with a slight nod. And so I ate the bread of heaven, and departed well satisfied.

Just a dream? – Reflections on the Easter Vigil

Byz Res mosaic

On Holy Saturday in Jerusalem, an hour past sunset 26 years ago, I greeted the Resurrection with the Ethiopian community in their courtyard on the roof above the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. Processing around a small cupola representing the empty tomb, they sang and danced with torches and umbrellas. Their graceful, white-robed bodies and joyful faces were vivid icons of the risen life, producing in me a state of dreamlike wonder. As I later made my way through the deserted stone passages of the old city in search of the midnight liturgy at the Russian church, I fell into an apocryphal reverie.

I imagined the risen Jesus quietly reversing the steps of his Via Dolorosa, away from the cross, away from the mindless crowd now sleeping off its orgiastic fury, away from the city of betrayals and farewells, away from the awful time of trial. Going home. To Galilee.

Of course we don’t know how the Resurrection actually happened, nor do we grasp the concept of passing out of existence only to return the same yet different. Perhaps the closest we come is our daily rising from sleep, when it may take a moment before we remember who we are and reconnect with the continuity of personal identity that somehow survives the abyss of unconsciousness. Even so, there sometimes remains a strange sense that we have crossed over into a new space and time full of unimagined possibilities. We are not quite the same person who closed his or her eyes the night before. Behold, says Jesus, I make all things new.

The sublime intensity of Holy Week, culminating in the Triduum, or Great Three Days of Maundy Thursday, Good Friday and the Easter Vigil, can produce a similar effect on the faithful who make the long journey from the Last Supper to the first Alleluia. We not only learn something along the Way of the Cross to the place of Resurrection, we become something as well. When it’s over, we are somebody else. Forgiven. Set free. Made new.

As I said in the Vigil homily on Saturday night, “we have made an exodus from our tired old stories of death and loss into God’s new story of possibility and promise.” Any Vigil worth its salt will enable us to dwell for a few hours in the light of that new story, the light that penetrates our shadows with the bright splendor of God’s future. And when it’s over, we may wonder: What just happened? Was it only a dream?

One of the striking things about the Easter Vigil is that there is no single representation of the Resurrection. The gospel reading might describe dazzling messengers announcing it after the fact, but the event itself is never described in the text. The closest the liturgy gets to a specific resurrection moment is when the Presider launches the eucharist with a shout of Christ is risen, and a holy tumult is made with chimes, bells and drums while all the lights switch on to banish the darkness. But the victory of Life and Love is actually manifested repeatedly throughout the liturgy in symbol, word and sacrament, as well as in the faces and gestures of the assembly. The liturgy as a whole is an experiential analog of the Paschal Mystery.

Here are a few of this year’s many resonant manifestations for me:

  • The New Fire: It is always moving, after we have all been scattered from the bare and mournful church interior of Good Friday, to see how many return the next night to gather outside around the New Fire with expectant faces. Death has done its worst, and we have come to make our reply: Love wins anyway. I especially rejoiced to see the children, already dressed for the Ark story in their animal costumes, standing right up front with their floppy ears and shaggy coats. As St. Paul said, not just humanity, but the whole creation, eagerly awaits the day of renewal.
  • The Creation: “Once upon a time, human beings had no story. Only the gods did things worth telling.” So began the Prologue to our sacred stories, concluding with the discovery, by an ancient “tribe of nobodies” that their own lives were, in fact, part of something much, much larger. “Human beings had become a story told by God.” Then out of the darkness a voice said, “Let there be light!” Projected on a 15’ screen, we saw the first light of the creation, from Terence Malick’s film, Tree of Life, continuing with spectacular cinematic images of earth’s evolution up through the arrival of the birds. Then the film switched off and a monkey and frog entered to cavort among the assembly, until a flute sounded, and the musical “breath of God” turned them into the first humans. They straightened up, removed their wooden Indonesian masks, and became suddenly conscious of their own humanity. “Adam and Eve” were played by pre-teens, but when they cautiously crossed the gap between them to touch hands and connect with the strange and unknown “other,” they gave us a transcendent image far beyond their years.
  • The Red Sea: This central metaphor for the Paschal Mystery of “crossing over” from death to life was a complex interplay of live actors, projected images (documentary-looking Exodus images from DeMille’s 1927 silent, The Ten Commandments, plus Civil Rights footage from the Selma to Birmingham march of 1965), soundscapes (6 separate cues to mark different stages of the story), and dramatic theatrical lighting. After the Red Sea had been crossed, the narrator concluded by saying, “When the world says no, the power of God is …”. The Israelites, all played by children, completed the sentence by shouting, “YES!” The brave sound of those young voices will long stay with me.
  • “Hallelujah”: After each story, we sang a song and said a prayer to reflect the story’s themes. The last story, The Valley of Dry Bones, was followed by Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah,” with powerful Easter lyrics by Scott Lawrence. Our hand candles were relit as we sang: “no darkness can conceal the light within you … hallelujah, hallelujah…” All those candlelit faces, all those beautiful voices raised in song, said Resurrection as powerfully as anything else we did that night.
  • The Dance: At the end, following communion, we invited people to come out of their seats to gather in a great circle to dance. I had been warned to expect only a half-hearted response. Episcopalians are reserved, I was told. Dancing in church might be outside some people’s comfort level. But as we sang a couple of choruses of “I will raise them up” from the Bread of Life hymn, everyone did in fact rise up and come out of their pews. We joined hands, and off we went, circling and spiraling as we sang the Easter Troparion (“Christ is risen from the dead, trampling down death by death”) and “Jesus Christ is risen today.” Resurrection wasn’t just something we heard about or thought about, it was something we embodied, something we danced. As Christ shows us every Easter, “I am the Dance and I still go on.” Amen to that! We proved it with our bodies.

When the Vigil was over, we each went our separate ways. The Vigil “set” was struck, like a circus tent, leaving behind little trace of what had taken place. Had it all – not just the Vigil but the entire Triduum – been just a dream, soon to fade in the glare of everyday life and ordinary time? Or had our extraordinary journey together, soaked in Paschal images, revealed something essential, enduring and profoundly transformative?

Whether in this year’s Triduum, in my Jerusalem Holy Week long ago, or in many other memorable traverses of the Paschal Mystery, I do believe I have encountered, embodied, and imbibed the core of our faith: Christ lives. Love wins. We shall be changed.

The resonant images and experiences of the Triduum have been planted deep within me, year by year. They may still have to struggle in my poor soil or compete with the choking thorns of my world, but as the collect-prayer for Thursday of Easter Week asks, “Grant that all who have been reborn into the fellowship of Christ’s Body may show forth in their lives what they profess by their faith.”

God, bring that day closer!