Tuesday, July 8, 2008

Accidie and Running from Whales

Sometimes I feel itchy inside—in heart and soul—and when that happens, I know I’m entering into a period of what early Christian monks of the desert called accidie. They defined this state of soul as a kind of dryness in which it seems that no matter what you attempt, you fall short. And so you slide into a state of not caring . . . .

For me, the spiritual malady of accidie presents as more of an inner itchiness. I can’t focus. I have ideas, but they lead me nowhere. Everything seems too much—too much bother, too much busy-ness.

In this spiritual-psychological state, prayer becomes . . . gruesome. Not that I have ever been much of a pray-er, in the formal sense of the word. I do say my prayers, knowing full well as I do so that words are not ultimately what praying is all about. Praying at its best is disposing our whole selves—mind, heart, soul—to be receptive to God’s influence in our lives. We can (and should) pray, no matter what we’re doing. And we often do it best when we aren’t even mouthing the pious words—when we’re hoeing in the garden or stirring the pot of beans.

Accidie makes you not even want to try. It’s about giving up, succumbing to distraction in a way that you know is all about fragmentation: of concentration, of that disposing of self to be available to God.

I’ve learned to live through these periods. They always do teach me something—about myself, about the very different rhythms by which the world I try to place at my own disposal lives independently of me, and about God. If nothing else, they teach me to be less certain that I know something, that I can control anything, that God is at my disposal rather than vice versa.

They teach me to be careful even about using the name God, which we profane by overuse. When G-d becomes a word we speak oh so glibly, rather than the Word that calls us to life, we have lost all sense of what that word means. When we’ve begun to think that we know what the word G-d means, we’ve lost contact with the Word.

So what’s all this high-falutin’ theological theorizing about, ultimately? In my case, these days, I have a fairly good grasp of what the accidie is about.

First, I’m on information overload. When there’s too much information to take in, process, run by heart and soul so that I can internalize it and mull it over, I go into a kind of shut-down process. Can’t take more in, won’t take more in, don’t ask me to process . . . .

Things are happening fast and furious these days in some of the worlds I feel compelled to follow. Right on the heels of the GAFCON conference, there’s been high drama in the Anglican church as (the English media report) the Vatican has been holding secret meetings with some high Anglican officials who are ill-disposed to allowing women to be bishops.

A significant number of bishops and clergy are seeking to hold the Anglican communion hostage, just after GAFCON fired its volleys at the same communion. In the case of GAFCON, the “presenting issue” (to echo the less than scintillating archbishop of Sydney, Peter Jensen) is the gay issue: gay people. Our existence. Our expectation to be at the table of the Lord. The choice of the Episcopal Church USA to make one of us a bishop—one of us not hiding his/her identity, that is, but one of us who is out and proud. As Katherine Jefferts Schori, the presiding bishop of the ECUSA, said some time ago, it’s no secret at all that the ranks of the episcopacy in the Anglican communion have always contained a significant number of closeted gay men.

For the group now pressuring Rowan Williams on the heels of GAFCON, the presenting issue is the choice to make women bishops. The Anglican communion is faced today with a two-pronged, overlapping set of threats to divide the communion—one group pressing the gay issue, the other the women’s issue.

Though the two groups are not entirely coterminous with each other, and though one is low-church evangelical (GAFCON) and the other high-church Catholic (the anti-women bishops group), they share a certain set of theological and political predispositions. And these theological-political predispositions are being gleefully exploited by right-wing interest groups in the U.S., Canada, Europe, and Australia.

The bottom line is bullying. These right-wing interest groups want to de-fang the mainline churches, to eliminate their political influence within the global North, to reduce that influence to frippery. They’d far rather have “their” churches foaming at the mouth about the length of lace to be worn on an episcopal gown than preaching about the sins of capitalism, exploitation of the environment. Or about the sins of racism and homophobia.

To its credit, the Anglican communion has just chosen to stand up to these bullies. Yesterday evening, a synod gathered in York voted to move ahead with ordaining women bishops in the Church of England (the U.S., Canada, and Australia are already ahead of the curve here).

The Anglican communion will pay a price for its courage here, as the ECUSA has been paying a price for making Gene Robinson a bishop. And this news comes on the heels of a recent decision by the Presbyterian Church USA to overturn its ban on (openly) gay clergy and to move towards blessing gay marriages.

That decision now has to be confirmed by the presbyteries of the church, and in all likelihood, will not be confirmed by many of the presbyteries—particularly in the last big stronghold of ecclesial misogyny and homophobia, my homeland, the American Southeast.

Nonetheless, these are important decisions. They indicate that the power of the religious right (and, above all, of its right-wing puppet masters) to control the conversation of mainline churches is waning. They suggest that the religious right will be less capable of manipulating the consciousness of American voters in future, by playing anti-gay and anti-women cards.

The interaction between the group threatening to leave the Anglican church over ordination of women bishops and the Vatican also points to the continuing ugliness of many ecclesial and political stands taken by the current pope and his cronies. And that recognition (the recognition of the ugliness at the center of my church) in turn points to the growing divisions between the Vatican and many Catholic people, particularly in the U.S. On his return to Australia from his recent American tour, Bishop Geoffrey Robinson recently noted that he was shocked at the amount of discontent he found among American Catholics, and at the corruption of church officials that is producing this discontent.

Indeed. The American Catholic church is a mell of a hess, as my aunt likes to say. And that hess is not likely to be resolved anytime soon—not until a significant number of American Catholics get as mad as hell and determined not to take it anymore. And until those who continue to affiliate publicly with the hess start withholding money from the church, from their church . . . .

And through it all, the United Methodist Church remains, as I predicted it would, once delegates to General Conference had gone home, bafflingly silent about the issues it so hotly debated at General Conference—about the issue, the gay issue, the place of gay human beings in the church and at its table. It appears that, as with previous General Conferences, the United Methodist Church will continue to get away with the claim that it opposes discrimination against gay people, while its own institutions discriminate freely and unapologetically against gay people.

It appears that not even the most recent statement of General Conference deploring discrimination on grounds of sexual orientation will provide some UMC-sponsored institutions to adopt policies stating flatly that they will not discriminate on grounds of sexual orientation. As a blogger on the gay-inclusive UMC Reconciling Ministries website noted recently, while Presbyterians are debating gay ordination and gay marriage, Methodists are still stuck over whether even to admit gay members.

John Wesley must be hanging his head in shame.

So, accidie: all of this quick shifting and turning and buzzing within various churches today, regarding significant issues, leaves me overloaded with information. I need to get a feel for what is going on—at a spiritual level; at a deeper level than that fathomed by media soundbytes. I need some “away” time to take it all in.

I’m feeling accidie as well because, out of the blue, I have a delightful invitation to publish something in a venue I admire. And, again out of the blue, in quick succession, I have received hard shoves recently to publish a book I have long outlined in my head. And have been hesitant to publish.

For all kinds of reasons. The book touches on stories that in turn touch on the lives of people still living, and I want to be careful to do justice (and practice charity) if I do publish anything about those lives.

I’m also plain frightened to try to write this book. Not sure I have it in me. Not sure that what I think is an important story to tell will turn out to be important, once I have done the research necessary to gather narrative detail. Not sure I have the ability to work narrative detail into clean, compelling narrative line.

But aware, at some level, that whatever or Whoever is pushing me in this direction is beyond my own control, and that resisting some Whoevers can be more than a tad dangerous, as witness one Jonah. It’s easier to shut down and scratch my itch, than to go ahead and grasp the live wire of this vocational nudge.

Perhaps there’s a nice quite monastery somewhere that needs a lay gardener? Or a placid little Quaker community that wants a live-in cook to assist the Friends to whom it offers retreats?

But I suspect a whale can swallow a body even in the hills of Pennsylvania or Kentucky—or wherever those refuges are to be found. Particularly when that body is running away from what’s really worth doing in his own life?

And I'm surely not any Jonah. But I suspect that all of us end up getting chased by his whale every now and again, when we try to divert our lives to a direction other than the path set before us . . . .

* Another nudge: I'm intrigued that, in the past day or so, as the Anglican synod gathers in York, my counter for hits on this blogsite shows several log-ins from York. I do not intend to be self-promoting in noting this. I note it because it's another nudge to me not to let the accidie stop me from trying to put word after word, as I gather thoughts and seek with millions of other Christians to hear what the Lord says to the churches today.

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