25 March 2011


I am glad Flannery O'Connor was born this day, the Feast of the Annunciation; so I read again "A Temple of the Holy Ghost." Brilliant. Tantum ergo Sacramentum Veneremur Cernui.

15 March 2011


With sadness in our hearts, and with horrifying images of devastated Japan still in our minds, many of us began the First Sunday of Lent with a plaintive series of prayers called “The Great Litany.” Here at the Cathedral, we sang it in procession, walking completely around the Cathedral nave, twice, before entering the altar. From The Book of Common Prayer, page 149:

“From lightning and tempest; from earthquake, fire, and flood;
from plague, pestilence, and famine;
Good Lord, deliver us.

….From dying suddenly and unprepared;
Good Lord, deliver us.

The earthquake, then the tsunami, then the loss of power and water, then the nuclear radiation emergency have rolled across Japan just like one earthquake itself, with wave after wave of tremor and terror. As I write these words, and a few days later as you read them, still another emergency may have developed.

We keep the people of Japan in our prayers. We keep the people of the Middle East in our prayers. We keep in our prayers all those threatened by natural disaster and political disaster. Lent is a season for prayer. And Lent is a season for self-examination.

The news media, meanwhile, peddles both news and anxiety; and their tradition goes back a long way. It was George Bernard Shaw who said, “Newspapers are unable, seemingly, to discriminate between a bicycle accident and the collapse of civilization” (see The Week magazine, March 11, 2011, page 23).

Obviously, news such as the earthquake in Japan is serious and anxiety provoking enough; it is certainly a collapse. Still, after a few days of reviewing the destruction, one headline on the television caught my eye. “Are We Prepared?” it asked. The newscasters had begun to turn their eye to the United States of America, and, especially to our earthquake preparedness and nuclear emergency preparedness. I knew, immediately, what they would conclude. “No,” they would say, “in many ways, we are not prepared.”

To which I respond, “Of course we are not fully prepared.” There is no way, in this complicated and mysterious world to be fully prepared for every possible disastrous scenario. When we believe we have fully protected ourselves from one sort of calamity, a completely different one will surprise us. Of course, I fully support all our material efforts at protection. I believe in the work of scientists and good politicians who truly seek the common good. It is good to think and to prepare.

But there are other ways of being prepared, than simply scrambling aimlessly to avoid physical death. I notice, for instance, the amazing sense of order and collective good in the Japanese people. I have heard little about looting and opportunistic violence there; on the contrary, people are caring for one another with amazing good will. Such behavior indicates that their spirits have, indeed, been prepared.

“Are we prepared?” True preparation involves much more than just spending on physical infrastructure and stocking food and water in our basements. True preparation involves knowing how to care for other people in the midst of tragedy, even in the most unexpected kinds of tragedy. True preparation involves knowing how to live with grace and honor even in the midst of death.

True preparation is a matter of our spirit, and the Church has been in the business of preparing our spirit for a long time. Our prayer, our coming together for nourishment and service, our spiritual disciplines, are all ways of preparing ourselves. Our Lenten self-examination is a way of preparing ourselves.

Sadly, we will all die. We admitted as much on Ash Wednesday, when the priest touched us and said, “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.” But “from dying suddenly and unprepared…..Good Lord, deliver us.”

09 March 2011


We burned up some fat last night. Actually, we did not exactly burn it up. We fried batter in it, made pancakes with it, and then ate the result. We consumed it, lavishly and wildly. Pancake suppers, with lively children of all ages, with beads and costumes and craziness, are one of the highlights of fat parish life. “Mardi Gras” means Fat Tuesday, and we were phat last night.

A few hours after our pancake supper, we went to church, for Ash Wednesday. There, of course, the mood changed. The priest said, “I invite you, therefore, in the name of Church, to the observance of a holy Lent, by self-examination…”

“I invite you to self examination,” the priest said. Yes, I know there were other Lenten disciplines mentioned, but “self-examination” may actually be one the hardest. Ever since our weekly tests of school days, few of us enjoy examinations. To take an exam is to submit ourselves to some test. A true test is rarely easy; when one “tests” metal, one refines it and burns off the impurities. It can be a fiery and dangerous process, like burning off fat.

A further etymology reveals that the word “examine” evolved from the same root as the word “to exact,” which means “to drive out.” Again, “to exact” something is to drive out impurities, to refine. The season of Lent, then, is said to be a season of examination, a season of driving something out, a process which can be painful. We rarely submit ourselves to a voluntary examination.

But the Church asks us to do something even harder. It is not merely “examination” that we are asked to observe, but “self-examination.” Who in the world has the power to test oneself, to voluntarily drive out elements from one’s own character or set of habits?

It’s not just the willpower of self-examination that I lack. It is the actual ability. Consider self-examination of our own bodies. Do you realize how much of our bodies we cannot actually see?

We cannot see our backs, of course. And more importantly, we cannot see our heads, except during those fleeting moments in a mirror a few times a day. We cannot actually see how our eyes and facial muscles reveal our souls.

Thus, a full self-examination of our bodies is close to impossible. The same impossibility probably exists for our souls. A full self-examination of our souls is close to impossible. I, for one, will need help even in performing self-examination. I will need the perspective and wisdom of others.

Without others, I am like one of church children who waltzes into the parish hall with his name proudly scrawled on his name tag, but with the tag upside down on his shirt. He can read it fine, but no one else can. (Actually, some adults do this on occasion, too.) Self-examination is not complete and accurate, unless other people can read me, too. Self-examination is not complete and accurate unless I am reading what other people are saying, too. In short, we need other people in order to perform self-examination.

I was glad to have lots of others around me in the parish hall on Fat Tuesday, when we were burning up fat. We joked and sang and made merry. In doing so, we were burning off some of those outer layers, some of that fat, some of that other stuff which was not really us. Revelling, we were also revealing our inner selves.

So, Fat Tuesday and Ash Wednesday belong together. The discipline of self-examination is a discipline of burning off that which is does not need to be a part of us. We cannot perform the complete exam, the complete test, alone; so we gather in community on both days. We start on Fat Tuesday; but the fat on Fat Tuesday becomes the ashes on Ash Wednesday. For the next forty days, we might find a way to repeat the process daily. Self-examination, and the burning off of fat, might lead to new life, and Easter self-revelation!