Chapter 2: Spirit & Flesh
I grew up in a church that radically eschewed Christian symbolism. We didn't have stained glass, altar, organ music (or musical accompaniment of any kind). We especially didn't have crosses or crucifixes, incense or candles.
But despite our attempts to live a strictly "spiritual" Christian life–we ended up inventing our own kinds of symbolism. The women wore headcoverings, the chairs were placed in a particular order, we read the same passage every week before the Lord's Table.
Howard's observations are correct: "It is difficult to eliminate symbolism…all Christian piety and worship is shot through with symbolism of either gesture or objects or both." (p.23)
Our intention was noble: we fled from anything smacking of idolatry, insisting that true worship takes place in the heart–a temple not made with hands. Which was true, but in all our earnestness to strip every last shred of symbolism from our meeting houses, we unintentionally proved the point: symbolism matters.
It matters because we are human and we see the unseen in the seen. Howard points out that what the commandment against idol worship actually forbids is: "the worshiping of anything manmade." (p.26)
The idea that a simple meeting hall is better because of its spare simplicity misses the point. It is possible to mistake one's own exalted feelings as true worship–but this can happen at a simple kitchen table or, as Howard remarks, in the cathedral at Chartres.
This is where the Incarnation becomes so important. In Christ we see the chasm between spirit and flesh knit back together. Physical is no longer pitted against spiritual. After all, "it is the demand for things that Christ sets us free from, not things themselves." (p.33)
Rather than shy away from symbolism, I find that these things lead me into deeper reflection and meditation with God. They do not distract, they act as arrows pointing the way. For a scatterbrain like myself, it is nothing short of sheer relief to have focal points.
"The principle of focusing and bringing to a point did not disappear with the New Covenant. We mortals are still the same creature. We cannot live with abstractions. We cannot nourish ourselves on generalities." (p.39)
Chapters 3: Christian Worship: Act or Experience? Chapter 4: Prayer: Random or Disciplined?
One thing that often troubles me about the contemporary evangelical church is the idea of worship as an experience. Howard remarks, "Worship, in the ancient tradition, was not thought of as an experience at all; it was an act…the people had come together to make the act of worship. They had come to do something, not to get something. They had not come to a meeting." (p.45)
I grew up going to meetings. Meeting after meeting. The idea was that I went to meeting "hear God's voice" and/or to "get something out of it." Which was fine–to a point. But the liturgical understanding of worship is quite different. It has nothing to do with personal feelings, or The Takeaway. It's not about us, at all.
The liturgy is a form of worship not reliant upon variety, fervor, spontaneous expressions of ecstasy. While some might argue that this kind of worship is "dead," I agree with Howard that "the discipline enables, the structure frees." (p.69) The disciplines of liturgy and praying in an ordered fashion "orders your life" "undergirds it" and "gives it rhythm." (p.69)
One of my favorite parts of liturgical worship is the praying of Psalms. The spare, simple melody of a chanted or sung Psalm is like "a very simple frame around a picture, or an almost invisible setting for a diamond, it sets the text up and permits it to speak, or rather, to sing. The Psalms, after all, were made for singing." (p.51)
I can't tell you how many times my soul has been pierced by the powerful combination of Scripture set to the simple melody of a sung Psalm. There is something almost unspeakably satisfying about joining in the prayers and responses that have been repeated by Christians for thousands of years. It feels like touching eternity.
Perhaps this is why I'm so troubled by the quintessentially individualistic approach to worship that I've seen in many Protestant, evangelical churches. I can see it because I used to believe the same way. I believed that if I couldn't find it in the Bible, then–as Howard states–"I could abjure it." (p.67)
Too often I relied solely on my own Bible reading, and indeed, allowed a prideful attitude fostered by "sola scriptura" to inform my understanding. Like Howard, "there was no such thing as 'the wisdom of the Church.' It did not matter that this divine Word had been read and pondered by sage and holy men and women for two thousand years before my arrival." (p.67)
I was my own authority, able to hash through any and all theological mysteries using my own critical thinking skills. I'm embarrassed by that now. It was like trying to become a skilled neurosurgeon without ever going to school. And honestly, enthusiasm and Christian fervor only go so far.
At some point, I realized I was on this Christian journey for a very long haul. I needed something more solid, deeper, infused with discipline and practice. A catchy little worship song sung by a hip worship band was not going to sustain me for the long journey of faith.
Chapter 5: Hail, Blessed Virgin Mary: What Did the Angel Mean?
If there is one thing that absolutely freaks out evangelicals it can be summed up in one word: Mary.
For myself, it was a casual disregard. I didn't put her on the same level as the disciples or St. Paul. I ignored her because I had inherited the evangelical misconception that Catholics "worshiped Mary." And I didn't want to have anything to do with that.
But I was wrong. Catholics don't worship Mary. Howard points out that Scripture and the Church teach "nothing may be worshiped but God alone. The ancient Church has always taught this, reserving for God alone the worship known as latria." (p.89) Worship of God alone does not preclude devotion to Mary anymore than many in the evangelical world admire and revere their own particular heroes of the faith: Martin Luther, DL Moody, Oswald Chambers, John Calvin.
Indeed, I had to ask myself: well, does it mean something special that Mary was chosen by God to bear His Son? Yes, it does. It means that "there is one whose dignity is shared by no other. She is a woman, the humblest of them all. No empress, prophetess, or conqueror she, only the handmaiden of the Lord." (p.88)
As an evangelical I used to say, "Well, she's just Jesus' mother." But isn't that it precisely?
Mary is Jesus' mother. That's no small honor.
God chose her and even the angel calls her "blessed among women." The least I could do is agree with them.
Howard points out that to the extent devotion to Mary attempts to place her above or equal to God, it has gone awry. But I realized that the errant practices of a few ought not dissuade me from acknowledging that, like all who have gone before us in the Faith, "Mary unquestionably stands in the place of preeminence by virtue of her unique role in the drama of Redemption. Whereas all these others bore witness to the Word, she bore the Word." (p.86)
Please feel free to share your own thoughts, feelings and/or questions about Chapters 2-5.
Next week we will discuss Chapters 6-10.