Everything here is just like a simile, and almost completely alliterative.

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Reflections on Cranmer's Daily Office

On this day in 1556, Hugh Latimer, Bishop of Worcester, was burned at the stake. However one feels about his theology, I’m pretty sure everyone agrees that tying a 78-year-old man to a stick and setting him on fire falls under “things your Sunday school teacher warned you against,” but this was the sixteenth century, and religion was England’s favorite competitive bloodsport.

In tussles between competing views of what it means to be Christian, “martyr” is an intentionally loaded word. Latimer made plenty of martyrs himself, before you go all soft around the edges for him – most famously, he preached during the burning of a Franciscan friar whose pyre was stoked by the wooden statue of St. Derfel, from a shrine in North Wales. (No matter where you turn in English history, somebody is screwing the Welsh.) That friar, John Forest, was later named a martyr by the Catholic Church, and Latimer, along with his fellow bishops Cranmer and Ridley, is an official martyr of the Anglican Church. You can’t kick a rock in sixteenth-century England without turning up a martyr for somebody’s faith, and I don't say that to minimize or dismiss any faith: these were deeply held, deeply significant differences of opinion, with real world consequences for people’s lives, and they were right to argue and dispute and hold their ground. I just wish they had confined it to shouting and throwing scones at each other, but history would have to wait another few centuries (and another continent) before it could conceive of a place where the John Forests and the Hugh Latimers of this world could live side-by-contentious-side.

Before he went up in a puff of smoke, one of the things Cranmer managed to do was write a new daily office for the Church. (Okay, to be fair he wrote an entirely new way of worship for the Church, and say what you will, but Jesus that man could write.) Those with time on their hands could examine all of Cranmer’s re-structuring of English worship, but I think just looking at Morning and Evening Prayer, as he re-imagined them, is a perfect microcosm of what it was Cranmer was aiming at.

Catholic Daily Office today
Episcopal Daily Office today
Opening versicle
Invitatory psalm with antiphon
Daily psalms with antiphons
Canticle with antiphon
Short Biblical Reading
Gospel Canticle with antiphon
Intercessory prayers
Our Father
Concluding collect

Opening versicle
Invitatory psalm with antiphon
Daily Psalms
Extended Biblical Reading One
Canticle One
Extended Biblical Reading Two
Canticle Two
Apostles’ Creed
Daily collects
Intercessory prayers
Concluding collect

 You might notice these columns are largely the same – sure, there are differences in the order of stuff (Anglican office reserves the hymn to the end), some of the stuff might get switched out (the Anglicans change out the Our Father for the Creed, fewer collects in the Catholic office), and some of the padding might get removed (no antiphons on the psalms in the Episcopal office), but pretty much it’s all the same basic idea: you chant a few psalms, a few canticles, a few short prayers, and on you go with your day, please try not to burn anybody at the stake.

However, if you were to spend some time actually praying both these offices, you would immediately be struck by how differently they “pray.” See that bolded stuff above? Yeah, the Reformers were not messing around about their Bible. For centuries—since the time of St. Benedict in the sixth century, really—the structure of the daily office had not significantly changed. What Cranmer did was to drop a huge lot of Bible reading in there—not just one or two verses, but entire long passages, from the Old Testament, from the Epistles, and from the Gospels. Here is what happens when one or more of these selections are read: everybody sits down, a reader stands up, and everybody follows quietly along as the reader reads the passage. Then you stand up, another canticle, and when that’s over you sit back down again for the reader to have another go. (It’s fairly common to have the Old Testament and Gospel readings at Morning Prayer, and the Epistle reading at Evening Prayer, making the latter significantly shorter.)

In other words, Cranmer shifted the focus of the daily office from the praise of God, to the instruction of man. The single most time-consuming part of the office was no longer the chanting of psalms and canticles to God’s honor and praise, but the didactic Bible-reading. And by the way, those readings are long enough that there is no comfortable way to chant them, as one can in the Catholic office, so a “sung office” is really Bible reading with intervals of song: what had been an opera becomes a musical.

To many Reform-minded and evangelical Christians, this is all to the good. Plenty of people prefer musicals to operas, and both definitely have their place. You can also manipulate one of these offices into looking more like the other: if you are praying the Catholic office in Lent or Advent, for instance, and you want to combine some lectio divina with your daily prayers, you can tote along your Bible and expand what the office supplies. Or, if you are praying the Anglican office, you can (as I have often done) simply omit the clunky Biblical inserts altogether, and glide from Psalms to Canticles to Creed.

But of course, in doing that, I am de-Cranmerizing the office, and arguably undoing what he would have thought of as the entire point. (I’m pretty sure Cranmer’s issues with me would not end with my mangling of his lovely office, but we could maybe start the conversation there.) I have found the Scriptural inserts unwieldy and beside the point – if I want to read the Bible I’ll do it when it’s not smack in the middle of my prayers, thank you – and I tend to toss them out like the shrink-wrapping on a lampshade, but for many others, reading is a form of prayer, and the office works as a seamless whole. For me, reading is a form of reading.

Cranmer is not taking my calls, really at all. 

 A final quibble with the Anglican office is its lack of propers outside of a collect for saints’ days. A daily office is unbeatable for those of us with attention-deficit issues (ooh! a saint’s day! ooh! new psalms! and antiphons! different hymns! different collects!) and the Anglican office does not bend in all the places I would like it to bend, with a supple acknowledgement of the wind-and-tide shifts on the Kalendar. For instance, Catholics on this day are not stuck commemorating the sticky and complicated legacy of the Oxford Martyrs – they get St. Margaret Mary Alacoque, visionary of the Sacred Heart and founder of that devotion, so for someone like me with a devotion to the Sacred Heart, it’s great to spend your office focusing on something of interest to you. But of course, that lack of flexibility comes from strict use of the Prayer Book, and I know for a fact many Anglican monastic communities use variations of the Prayer Book Office that do supply saints’ offices and antiphons.

This discussion avoids entirely the other two forms of daily prayer I am familiar with: the Orthodox Christian daily office (as contained in the Horologion) and the Jewish daily prayers (meaning Shema and Shemoneh Esrei, at a minimum). However, neither of those allow for much (if any) variation, so I will be honest and say I have had trouble mining spiritual fruit from them, and sticking with them long-term. I would be curious to hear the experiences of other regular office-prayers, and what they have found to work or not work over the years.

Tuesday, October 9, 2012

Chosen of the Lord, and Precious

Corduroy: official fabric of white people. 
Two years ago a student of mine took to hanging about my room to talk colleges. My room was often host to a nest of strange birds: the queer kids, the artsy kids, the theater kids, and the newspaper kids, for the same reason all the neighborhood kids congregate at that run-down house down the street – it’s got an absent-minded mom too busy watching her soaps and smoking her cigs to care if you happen to light one up too, or to notice if you say “fuck” too loudly. Benign neglect is a great way to attract a following, it turns out.

Anyway, Emily kept bringing the conversation around to Sewanee, and I kept gently deflecting it. I didn’t think much of those teachers who pushed the glories of their alma mater on their students, and I didn’t want her to sense approval from me that might have influenced her choice. And also, if I’m being honest, I’m not sure I would have had much approval to emanate. My own relationship with Sewanee is complicated, less straightforward than the feelings a lot of alums have for their school, and I’m the last person to tell a ferociously smart, extravagantly quirky young woman that Sewanee is the best place for her. I kept nosing her north, in our conversations, and she kept swinging back as resolutely south.

And then finally she wouldn’t be nudged any more. “I really fell in love with it,” she confessed. “I love Sewanee.” Well then God help you, I wanted to say, because naturally there was nothing more to be done for her. There never is, once it gets to that stage.

Today I had the privilege of gowning her at Convocation, with my gown. A sophomore gownsman, no less! It’s ridiculous how proud that made me. It’s ridiculous how happy it makes me to see Sewanee through her eyes, instead of my jaded ones. It’s the same kind of happy I feel when I see Sewanee through my kids’ eyes—my kids who have been spending their summers romping around Sewanee since they were little, and whose memories of it are decidedly uncomplicated. Last year I mentioned to my oldest that if she wanted, she could think about going to college there. “For real, there’s a school up there?” she asked. “Where is it?” Because of course for her the landmarks of Sewanee are lakes to swim in and woods to explore and people to visit and gardens to weed-torch; all those buildings are only large things you bike past on your way to Horace’s market.

They have no clue that's a library behind them.
But for many of us, it’s not quite possible to bike past the things we don’t want to see. At Convocation today, I was shocked to see how white the place still is. I’ve seen more diversity at a family reunion, Lisa Rung is fond of saying, and she’s not wrong. My years living in larger cities make me wince at Sewanee’s whiteness. It’s the price you pay; if you’re going to have the audacity to call yourself the University of the South, you’re going to be taking on all the wretched, complex freight of that word “South,” and you can’t expect other people not to know what that freight is. They know. People of color just don’t apply in large numbers, and it ain’t no mystery why.

It’s still a place without any women in upper administration, or at least, not any visible today. Everyone who conferred degrees or had anything to do with the ceremonial was white and male: chancellor and bishops and chaplain and vice-chancellor and provost and deans, and if that ever seemed normal to my diffident 18-year-old-eyes, it shocks me today.

You’d think, once you know all those things, once you’ve lived there and seen behind  the curtain, that Sewanee has lost its power over you. That’s where you’d be wrong, of course. Refusing to be charmed by Sewanee is like ignoring your ex-wife’s calls in the middle of the night, when you know she is drunk and calling you from a bar and everything she says is going to be a lie, but you know just as surely that you are going to pick up that phone, goddammit, and you’re going to get your keys and stumble out the door and drive to wherever she is, and yes, probably sleep on her sofa too once you get her home safely, just to make sure she’s all right in the morning. You can know all the stuff you know, and all the people you know it about, and by the time the choir hits the soaring descant on “Christ Is Made The Sure Foundation,” it will not matter. You can’t stand there and sing All that dedicated city, dearly loved of God on high and not feel that clench in your throat, that tightness in your chest.

Sewanee will never not be the place I met and fell in love with my husband, and the place we bought our first house, and the place I lived for seven years. But also, Sewanee will never not be the place that viciously screwed the person I love most in the world, and the place where some friendships are buried forever because of that. It will never not be the place I tasted my first beer, got laid by a guy, got laid by a girl, bit into a tomato right off the vine and hot from the sun, and learned that the word for my kind of conservative was in fact liberal.

Sewanee will never not be a tough place to be a woman, to be queer, to be non-white, to be non-Christian. It will also never not be a wonderful place to be all or one or several of those things.

But all that was too long to say to Emily today, so I just hugged her. “I’m so proud of you,” I said. She will figure out the rest. 

Thursday, October 4, 2012

Days When God Hates The World

AJ enjoying her Fourth of July this year.
Some things we avoid looking at because they’re too painful. A dog run over on the side of the road; a tearful couple fighting in the Wal-Mart parking lot; the pile of unfolded laundry next to the dryer. I’m a huge avoider of pain in life, just on general principle. Other people’s pain squicks me. If there were a name for my personality type, it would be The Eye Averter.

No one warned me that when you have kids, the part of you that could avert your eyes from a child’s pain – any child’s pain – would be broken forever.

Sixteen months ago, a friend of mine named Kelly-Erin Kilmartin, a newly-licensed foster mom, took in a foster child. A foster baby, really, since she was just a few days old. It was what they call an emergency placement, which is DCYF-speak for “help dear God what the hell do we do.” Kelly is an obstetrical nursing student, a woman of extraordinary drive and discipline who left her lucrative first career as a lawyer to pursue her dream of nursing—basically, the sort of person that foster agencies fall all over themselves to get.

So Kelly took in this baby, and the weeks turned into months, and the months turned into a year and a half. The birth mom’s family went through periods of on-again off-again interest in the baby, but no one ever came to visit her. Meanwhile, little AJ (that was her nickname) turned into a healthy and exuberantly happy little girl. She chased the “ki-ki” around the house, she went on trips, she laughed and learned and played and splashed in her bath and noshed on turkey meatballs and gave tight hugs with her sturdy little arms, and above all else she loved her foster mommy, because of course sixteen-month-olds don’t know from foster mommy, or any qualification to that noun: there was only one mommy, and it was Kelly.

And just when it looked like yes, at last, the slowly-grinding wheels of DCYF were going to move in the direction that finally allowed Kelly to adopt, and make her relationship with her foster daughter a legally recognized one, distant relatives of the birth-family swooped in and took the child. From the only home she had ever known, AJ was taken early this morning. This morning, for the last time, Kelly held her. She had to write down a list of all her daughter’s likes and dislikes. Where would you start with such a list? What would you write, if you had only hours to compose such a list, knowing your child’s future well-being perhaps depended on it? Could you write through your tears and with a steady hand? God knows I could not. God knows Kelly did. God knows it, and part of me hates Him for it.

See, the thing is, family court judges have to follow the law, and the law says that basically, children are our possessions. They are an extension of our property; we can’t beat or damage them in obvious ways, but they do belong to us, and from a legal standpoint we no more care about their feelings that we worry about the emotional welfare of our cars. A child’s feelings are not considered, or if they are, only when they are older and speak in a language that a judge considers human and civilized. A sixteen-month-old’s terrified hug of her mommy is not a language the law is obliged to consider. The damage done to a child whose maternal attachment is destroyed—the law is not obliged to consider that, either. It is not obliged to consider the terror of a child who cries in the night for a mommy she will never see again. It is only obliged to consider the feelings of adults, and their “rights” to their “property.”

I believe, because I am an unrepentant optimist, that one day we will look back at this period of family law like we look back at the Dred Scott decision, and all other court decisions that dehumanized and made legally worthless the lives of living, breathing people. But sadly, that day was not this morning.

This was Kelly and AJ about a year ago, at a wedding. Look long and hard at their joy.

Don’t look away.

If you'd like to have a hand in ending stories like this one, consider becoming a Court Appointed Special Advocate. CASA volunteers oversee foster care cases, help gather information, and are a reliable, steady influence in a child's life during a difficult time. No legal or social work background is necessary to become a CASA. A good heart and a good head are the only requirements. To find out more about CASAs, and the specific requirements in your area, go to the National CASA site (casaforchildren.org), and learn how to become one of the good guys.