In my last blog post (‘A Tale of Three Priests, or, the Christian Life Embodied’), I spoke of the three elements of religion – the mystical, the institutional, and the intellectual – and the need for a proper cultivation and balance of all three in each Christian’s Spiritual Life if that life is to be healthy. I also argued that each parish’s health also depends upon the cultivation of these three elements, both individually and in common, and that each parish must have a balance of persons who excel in each one of them, if the community is to thrive.
I will begin this post with two short passages that, it seems to me, are mutually illuminative, and, when taken together, illustrate clearly the interrelation between two of these three elements — namely, the mystical and institutional — and the need for these two elements both for the spiritually healthy individual and the spiritually healthy parish.
The first is from the writings of Father Chauncey Kilmer Myers, an Anglo-Catholic priest who ministered in Manhatten’s Lower East Side in the ’50s of the last century, later Bishop of California:
“To follow the way of love,” Father tells us, “means to leave one’s self open to the hostility of the unloved. The parish Christian must be willing to submit to crucifixion at the hands of the angry.”1
The second is from a set of retreat addresses by the great Anglican spiritual theologian, Evelyn Underhill:
“St Teresa [of Avila],” she says, “makes an easy and prompt forgiveness, in all the ups and downs of daily life, the very test of prayer; and thinks contemplation of little worth if we come from it able to resent anything.”2
First off, I love Father Myers’s expression — ‘the parish Christian.’ For us — and for Anglicans generally — this is what we are. Most Anglicans are not, for example, Religious — we are not ‘monastery’ or ‘oratory’ or ‘friary Christians.’ For us, the concrete Body of Christ in our community — the ongoing incarnate Life of the eternal Son of God in our time and place — is the parish.
And it is the parish in two senses. First, it is the parish understood as the area within our parish bounds (and to some extent the immediately surrounding areas, where so many of our displaced Regent Park family, and others with deep ties to Regent Park, now live) and all the people who live in it; our primary pastoral responsibility is to these people because we are the Catholic Church for this place.
But second, the parish must also be understood as the the worshipping community of St Bartholomew’s: the Church exists primarily to worship God the Holy Trinity — in Mass and Daily Office, in Adoration and Contemplation — and only as part and parcel of that worship can we ever minister to the needs, either spiritual or temporal, of the people of our village.
So why does Father Myers make this assertion that we ‘must be willing to submit to crucifixion at the hands of the angry’? Well, it is solely and simply this: we exist as a parish because we are the Body of Christ in this place. And this has two sides. First, just as the personal Body of Christ suffered at the hands of the angry in our Lord’s personal Passion (betrayal, condemnation, torture, death) so we, who are the members of His mystical Body must expect to suffer. But secondly, the Body of Christ is ever expanding on earth — new people are constantly being called into the Body, called to this place to become what God wishes them to be — members of His Body, children of God by adoption and grace. But not everyone who will be called will be polite; not everyone will be well mannered. And for sure none will be perfect! Yet we are called to go through the ‘growing pains’ of receiving others — and receiving them in love! — with all the messiness, discomfort, and conflict that may arise! If we truly worship the God who is love, the God who wills to give infinitely of his infinite Goodness (as St Thomas Aquinas teaches us so clearly), then we must face the consequences of that Love and learn to love as He loves — without measure.
So what does contemplation (part of the mystical element of religion) have to do with this very practical matter of accepting others amongst us in all their brokenness? Well I think it’s just this: as I come to know God more fully, and myself more fully in relation to God, I learn this very important truth — that I am just as broken as those whom I wish to label ‘broken’. I am just as angry, in my own way, as the angry at whose hands I am called to be crucified. And others have just as surely been crucified at my hands as I have been at theirs. In contemplation — the silent and significant exchange between ourselves and our God — we come to see our own woundedness, and we learn not to be afraid of owning it; we come to see that, in spite of our brokenness, and of all that we hate about ourselves, we are loved by Infinite Love. And as we come to see that — truly to see that, in our hearts, and not just in our intellects — it becomes possible for us to love others, because we see that they are accepting us by coming to this place just as much as we are accepting them! We realise that this is their place just as much as it is ours, for we too were once called here from ‘outside’.
The community of the redeemed (who all remain, to some extent or other, sinners) cannot exist — or at least cannot exist well — without contemplation. For it is God who receives both us and others in this place, and it is only in contemplation that we discover just how truly we have been received by God. It is only in contemplation that we fully realise how that reception had nothing whatsoever to do with anything we could offer Him, for we have nothing to offer that He has not first given, for we are non-necessary, contingent beings, brought by God into being out of non-being. And only when we see that, can own that, can we ever learn to allow God to receive others at our hands; and only then will we have the strength to survive our own crucifixion at their hands, for their good and for our own, to the greater Glory of God.
1 Father C. Kilmer Myers, Light the Dark Streets (Greenwich, Conn.: Seabury Press, 1957), p. 24.
2 Evelyn Underhill, Abba (1940; London: Longans, Green, and Co., 1957), p. 68.
This is the second in a series of reflections on the spiritual aspects of parish renewal. Please check back for further posts. Father Hannam is available for spiritual direction and pastoral conversations by appointment.