July 9, 2018

On Inclusive and Expansive Language

Words are not what they represent. That is the whole point of the gracious untruth of metaphor — not actually true but pointing to some truth — that is true of all language. Words are like actors playing a part, whether they strut and fret their hour on the stage, or move the hearts and minds of those who behold to share the emotion or the idea the author intends. But actors are not the character they portray, except in those rare instances when billed as Himself or Herself. They are playing a part, a role that points away from themselves towards a character, historically real or fantastically fictional. Bad actors are the ones who constantly remind you who they are. Acting, like metaphor, is deception that tells a truth.

The form of that deception is the issue at hand. There was a time when it was considered normal for an actor playing Othello to “black up” for the part, though even by the time Laurence Olivier did so it was challenged as unnecessary. In our time we barely blink at Adams, Burr, and Hamilton portrayed by Latino, African-American, or Asian actors — tacit permission being given for the members of formerly appropriated cultures to have some payback, and to raise our consciousness to the fact that these secondary characteristics are not at the heart of the characters portrayed. Perhaps a time will come when actors will once again be free to emulate these secondary characteristics without fear of offense.

It is the same with our language about God and humanity: we are now in a time where people are acutely aware of how jarring it sounds to speak of God only in masculine terms, and to insist that man includes women — sometimes jarringly so as in the old definition, “Man is a mammal having large external breasts for nursing its young.” Perhaps after a time of exposure to the wealth of expansive language that can point us in a Godward direction, we will once again be free to speak of God as “King” without particularly calling the usual gender of kings to mind.

All of these words, like actors, serve until they retire gracefully from the stage; as all must. The time will come when words of prophecy will fall silent, and tongues will cease. We will some day, as Prospero did, deeper than ever plummet sounded, drown our books — even the Book of Common Prayer and the Bible — for we will be in the presence of the Word, before whom all other words, and we ourselves, must bow.

—Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG

June 23, 2018

Lost Liberty



We never learned what woke her from her slumber,
what caused her to awake and look around
confused, demented, lost, not knowing where
she was. Wide-eyed, she climbed down gingerly
from the perch she'd held these many years,
to creep down off the base, then  step into 
the blue-black water, shoulders shrugged against
the cold, a little gasp, a wrinkled brow.
She waded to the so-familiar shore,
unplaceable and strangely foreign now,
and clambered up the bank, her spikey crown
atilt, its sharp points catching in the branches.
She hasn't got a clue now, where she is.
She wanders on these lonely streets, eyes wide
but vacant, recognizing nothing, feeling
that she ought to know this place. Her copper
gown is stained and ragged. She had dropped
the torch and book in getting off her perch;
they rolled into the water, sank, and dis-
appeared. The passersby avoid her, feel 
ashamed, as in, “How shameful that a poor
demented woman should be on the streets 
like this. Someone should do something.”
None does. They cut the budget. It's too late.

She shuffles on, head down, eyes up, as if
by looking hard she might still find her way. 

—Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG

February 24, 2018

Celebrate the Feast

Mount Calvary, Camp Hill PA • Feb 24 2018
The Funeral of Br Luke Anthony Nowicki BSG
Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG
Death has been swallowed up in victory.+
Anyone who knew Brother Luke Anthony knows that he liked to eat. I knew Luke Anthony for almost forty years, and shared many a meal with him during that time, in many different settings. In part because of this familiarity, I noticed one of the first signs that he might be dealing with a serious illness late last December. He was with a group of us Gregorians at Lin’s Buffet, one of his favorite restaurants. But not only did Luke not make his normal second trip to the buffet, he didn’t finish what was on his plate from the first trip. Now, Lin’s Buffet was Brother Luke’s idea of something close to paradise. Whenever he talked about going there for lunch, he would get a gleam of anticipation in his eye, such as a mystic might when speaking of heaven. And Luke Anthony got that same look in his eye when he spoke of the Holy Eucharist — another feast that meant so much to him. So I am confident that Luke’s choice of the Old Testament passage from Isaiah has something to do with a vision of heaven as a bit like Lin’s Buffet; as Isaiah says, God’s provision of “a feast of rich food” for all peoples, a truly international buffet.

As that passage from Isaiah reveals, Luke was far from the first to associate an abundance of food in rich variety with a vision of paradise. More importantly, Christians have long associated the earthly celebration of the Holy Eucharist with the heavenly banquet. Now some might be tempted to think that bread and wine are insufficient provision for a banquet, providing only a limited buffet hardly worth the name. So it is good to recall the old legend of the Holy Grail and of the knights dedicated to its service: for the Grail was the cup of the Last Supper, and the knights devoted to its service lived entirely and solely on Eucharistic Bread and Wine as their only food and drink, and yet each who partook of those simple elements experienced them, so say the legends, as “whatever food each liked best, containing all variety.” In, with, and under those two simple elements of the oblation, an infinity of perfect satisfaction was to be found and tasted.

So it is that simplicity can convey complexity, a single promise realize an infinity of fulfillment. In the same way, there is more to Isaiah’s vision than merely an abundance of food. This is no ordinary meal, not even an ordinary feast, but a banquet set for a purpose, a feast with a reason. It is a celebration feast, a way to mark and rejoice in deliverance. And as with so much in Isaiah, it is not about deliverance just for the children of Israel, but for all the peoples of the world. It is not merely deliverance from hunger or sorrow or disgrace — though it is that — but deliverance from an old enemy. Isaiah pictures him as a funeral shroud or winding sheet, the old enemy Death, dressed in the tattered old sheet of a Hallowe’en costume. Death is the one whom the Lord God, at his coming, will sweep away and swallow up, whipped out of sight and mind much as a magician might pull the tablecloth away from the dining table in a flash, leaving the banquet standing still and undisturbed.

As Saint Paul observes, continuing the image deployed by Isaiah, “Death has been swallowed up in victory.” Death — the thing we feared, the thing that led us to weeping and sorrow, the enemy that each of us mourns in others and dreads for ourselves, turns out to be perishable goods. Death itself dies, swallowed up in the victory of life. All of its pretended power and might is swallowed up, to serve as little more than an hors d’oeuvre, a mere appetizer, a first course before the feast of life begins.

That feast of life is spread for us today, as it has been spread for nigh on 2,000 years, beginning in that upper room amidst a band of disciples with their master. It has been celebrated since in every conceivable circumstance and situation. And it is common to speak of this Eucharistic feast as a foretaste of the heavenly banquet. But I would like to affirm to you today that it is not merely a foretaste or anticipation: it is participation in the heavenly banquet itself, the Real Presence of the Promise. It derives its power as a promise assured by the One who made the promise, and gave the command: “Do this!”

We don’t always take him at his word, so he gently reassures us. Look at Jesus gently correcting Martha when she thinks he is referring to some far off future resurrection of the dead yet to come: He assures her that the resurrection life was — and is — present to all who believe, who though they die, will live, and that life will come to her dead brother in mere minutes. Such are his promises, such his reassurance. And just as the power of the resurrection cuts through time and space and makes its real presence felt not only in the there and then of a distant past or distant future, but in the here and now of every instant in a Christian life, so too the heavenly banquet is not merely set in heaven, but set here and now before us, and before every gathering of Christians when they follow the command, and “do this.” Whether at a simple table set in an upper room, a grand marble altar in a great cathedral, or a cart on wheels at a hospital bedside in intensive care, it isn’t the table that matters, but the meal.

Jesus had shared the table fellowship and graced the home of Mary and Martha and Lazarus many times. He sat at the table in Bethany as starry-eyed Mary listened to his teaching, while practical Martha busied herself with her pots and pans — and Lazarus perhaps looked on with some amusement, though the Gospel gives us no explicit witness. Lazarus would be the first — even before Jesus — to taste the power of the resurrection. But he could not, would not enjoy that resurrection before he had tasted death — any more than Christ himself could pass that first course by.

Death: Lazarus’ death, Luke Anthony’s death, your death, my death, are in this feast and banquet bound together and tied up with the death of Jesus Christ our Lord. He has swallowed up death, as did Lazarus and Luke, as I will and as you will, that piquant palate cleanser before we sit to dine for ever at the feast of resurrection in the heavenly kingdom. But remember — remember as our Lord and Savior bids us do — that our Eucharist today is not just a foretaste of that heavenly banquet. It is participation in the banquet itself. Lazarus and Luke are seated even now — in that timeless Now of God’s good time — seated even now on the other side of the table from us, together with all who have gone before, all our loved ones, all the saints; and all the sinners too, redeemed by the one in whom they put their trust. It is one banquet, however often and wherever it is celebrated, one banquet for our one Lord, in whom we all are one through one baptism: baptized into his death that we may share in his life. Death has been swallowed up in victory. Therefore let us celebrate the feast.+

February 9, 2018

On Prayer Book Revision (Satire)

Image result for book of common prayer

Word has it that the topic of Prayer Book Revision is back on the front burner for The Episcopal Church's decision makers. I do not wish to intrude myself in the debates, but I would like to suggest that the revision process be fully informed by changes in the world that might have some impact on the usefulness of the liturgical texts for the next several decades. It may well be worth considering including some or all of the following new forms of prayer and worship, just to keep up with the times:

  • Prayers for the Imperial Family
  • An Office in Time of Nuclear War
  • An Extraordinary Form for Celebration of the Holy Eucharist with Elements other than Bread and Wine Should They No Longer Exist
  • Dedication of a Mass Grave
  • Burial of Neighborhoods by Sea (together with A Form for the Submersion of Dedicated Churches)
Also helpful would be the reintroduction of two Offices from 1892 and earlier that were unaccountably excised in the optimistic world of 1928; given the climate (atmospheric and political) both seem timely for the years to come:

  • Forms of Prayer to be Used at Sea, and
  • A Form of Prayer for the Visitation of Prisoners (including the special form for Persons under sentence of death)

I'm sure you can think of other useful liturgical items. Please make suggestions in the comments below.

Tobias

February 7, 2018

God without Sex

The biblical texts portray God as Father because God is the creative source of all life. In the era in which the biblical texts were composed, the male was believed to be the active, creative contributor to human (and animal) reproduction; the female was understood to be passive, contributing the substance from which the creative force shaped offspring. So while biblical authors may well have conceived of God as male, they did so not on the basis of revelation, but due to their misunderstanding of the reproductive process. Pinning theology to this misunderstanding of biology is as pointless as pinning our understanding of the universe to a mistaken cosmology.

Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG