One of my least favorite ploys in a discussion is this one:
Person A: “I think that using purple during Advent is more appropriate that using blue.”
Person B: “I can’t believe you’re wasting your time talking about this when [insert tragedy, injustice, or horror here] is happening!”
Person B’s response is also often followed up with a bonus round of sanctimony by asserting “Jesus never talked about [frivolous concern of Person A]. I just want to get back to Jesus.”
Now, I have had my fair share of annoyances with various people’s concerns. I tend to get disgusted by reality television, celebrity culture, and the like because I do think they distract us from deeper relationships and original thought. Yet my frustration with them is precisely that they undermine the processing of any number of issues that might capture our imaginations if those imaginations were not plugged into the sartorial, marital, or extra-marital concerns of celebrities and faux-celebrities.
If someone wants to tell me about the relative merits of one man over another for a singer’s long term prospects for compatibility – I really could not care less (and please note that the phrase is “could not care less” not “could care less”).
Where I might be drawn in to a discussion though is if the person is coming to me to say that this singer’s relationship challenges reflect a broader pattern in society of trend A and its intersection with trend B. That could be interesting and well worth pursuing. This happened all the time at Brooks Brothers where I worked in communications. Much of our conversation was not about fashion but about the changes in lifestyle and culture nor were our conversations about advertising but about people’s notions of leisure, fulfillment, and identity.
Now, back to my first dialogue example.
More than once, especially in matters of vestment, music, or other aesthetic concerns in churches, one will hear the “wasting time” canard thrown up. It was especially popular when I mentioned my dislike of cassock albs. The problem is that the trivial matters. Even when it could not possibly matter.
Trivia matters because it often points toward deeper truths than we want to readily admit. A friend of mine just posted a picture of the envelope from her place of study. It was addressed to “The Rev. and Mrs. His Name.” Now, a piece of postage, in and of itself, is a trivial matter. However, an alma mater’s perceived use of the norms of formal address as representative of a patriarchal system those norms perpetuate – that is an issue worth discussing and debating.
The thing on the surface points toward deeper realities. This is the essence of the Church – no thing is mundane nor frivolous when enacted, carried out, or lived in the Church. In a world of superficial concerns and casual causalities, of course a debate about a vestment or a color or a song is superficial because depth of meaning is found only in the eye or ear of the individual and each individual is tasked and empowered for the work of pattern-making and meaning seeking.
In a life of deepest relationships though, every choice has meaning. Tell me that the superficial chore of doing the dishes or changing a light bulb does not have deep and powerful meaning in a marriage! The context of love changes changes the superficial into the powerfully meaningful.
The challenge in a culture of rapid-fire content and commentary is that no thing is surveyed with an eye toward cohesion or deep narrative – each thing (and each person’s judgment) floats apart without reference or depth and is judged only by the reaction of the instant, the individual, and the moment.
In a world without meaningful connection nothing has meaningful value. No choice. No relationship. No story. No place. That meaningful connection is about the essential depth of something or someone – essence – connecting to the essential depth of something or someone else.
This is the Church’s construct –all things find depth and pattern in the heart of God within whom all things are created and have their being. The connection is there for us to discern if we have the patience to be trained to see the patterns. In this construct, the actions on the surface become not something to be judged or dismissed but to be prayed over and contemplated. These patterns become not simply something we do or don’t do – they become a symbolic connection of one to another. Of one person to another. Of one time to another. Of one place to another. Of one Altar to another.
Nothing and no one sits in isolation.
When there are debates over aesthetics or the seemingly frivolous – the debate is not about any one person’s choice. The debate is about that person’s relationship to those who came before and to those who will come.
Think of a beloved family recipe – it might not be the best, healthiest, or most inspired way of making the dish in question. It becomes a holy thing for us though in what it transmits about who we are and to whom we are related. Its merits are not found in its form but in its part of the pattern of love it represents. Its preparation is a ritual action precisely because it makes no sense in a rational context – its preparation is an irrational act of loving connection.
There are legitimate debates to be had that will seem wildly frivolous. When I listen to debates, for example, over whether the sub-deacon should or should not touch the paten with his or her bare hands in a Tridentine mass – I cringe a little. But I cringe because I know the debate seems esoteric and frustrating to those who have not been trained in the pattern – a pattern developed in the way and exquisite play or work of art is always developed – with care, attention, and precision.
I can only behold such things with wonder and then, gradually, be drawn into their deeper meaning. Think of ballet, poetry, calligraphy, competitive diving, gymnastics, Formula One racing, or the countless other disciplines and human endeavors that require imperceptible growth and development toward mastery. In each of these, the surface achievement is a moment that reflects patient, painstaking development. Any of us can say either “Wow!” or “That is such a stupid sport/hobby/endeavor.”
The surface of these kinds of endeavors is not the agility, power, or grace of any one person though. Look at the evolution of running times. Each generation of runners gets faster and faster not because people are getting faster but because our knowledge of running technique, technology, and more is growing – each generation builds on the love and passion of a previous one.
In the Church – each generation passes on to another things, ways of being, practices, and more that are ours to curate, care for, and pass along to those who come after us. My hope is that we will be careful with those gifts – even as we carefully set aside those no longer suitable for our times. Yet, let’s not dismiss them or throw them away casually.
Who ever thought we would enjoy quilting, canning, organic farming, or knitting – yet each of these is making a comeback. They are coming back not because they are needed, necessary, or efficient but because they connect us to something deeper – something that takes time and care to engage.
Sometimes our concern makes an idol of things and practices and distracts us from “the thing itself,” as James De Koven said. Yet, on the whole, I think these are discussions worth actually having. It is worth discussing the particulars and the patterns and discerning where we are called. What is unworthy of the Church, however, is to dismiss the patterns of connection, of one generation, people, and place to another, as frivolous or ridiculous because there are tragedies in the world.
There are always tragedies. The question becomes, for us, how do our deepest connections – symbolized and actualized by our traditions – empower us to meet tragedy? How does the pattern of holy connection carry us and connect us when much of the world seems to be coming apart?
Tim Dunbar said:
Good post, Robert. One thing that I find particularly frustrating about the “just get back to Jesus” comments is the underlying assumption that there is a Jesus that we can “just get back to” without or apart from the Church and the twenty centuries of Christianity that have passed. Too often, it is a Jesus made in our own image that we just want to get back to. Second, I often find that arguments like this take place in Church settings yet if they were placed in the context of a different vocation we would find them totally valid. I had a conversation recently in which a friend expressed displeasure with the thorough discernment process and subsequent training that takes place before a person can become an ordained minister in the Episcopal Church. Surely having a passion for Christ is enough and, besides, Jesus didn’t make his disciples go through all that. Yet if we examine the thorough vetting process and training that it takes for someone to become a firefighter, doctor or teacher, it seems to make sense. There are countless other examples I could provide and part of what underlies them is what I think you were getting at in your post but didn’t say explicitly – intellectual laziness.
Géo McLarney said:
As an Anglo-Catholic, I am certainly chagrined by the “Why wasn’t this perfume sold” attitude that so often crops up. (I was even a little crushed when Geraldine opted to divert the stained glass fund in “Dibley”). Even I, however, get worn out by the tedious perennial Advent wars over which shade to use of what historically (until the fairly recent, erm, advent of chemical dyes) was treated as equivalent to the same liturgical colour. (“Marian blue”, of course is a horse of another, ahh, colour).