Tuesday, February 10, 2009
My grandmother always used to advise us to save our shoes or dresses that had suddenly gone out of style.
"It will come back," she said, "the good things always do."
Well, that may be true of fashion, but I'm not so sure about religion.
This morning's NY Times had this article about the return of The Plenary Indulgence. Well, for Roman Catholics, anyway.
Martin Luther must be rolling in his grave.
That was my first thought.
I mean, as I recall, the whole plenary indulgence scheme was the straw that broke his RC monk's back and sparked the Reformation.
My second thought was that the economy must be really bad. I don't know what they are charging for these indulgences, but I guess, when times are tough, ya gotta do what ya gotta do. A few scheckles here and there eventually add up.
I suppose this is no different than the eighth sacrament for RCs. That would be, BINGO, of course.
Hold that snide thought. We have our own. For Episcopalians, anyway, we have the Eighth Blessed Sacrament of Coffee Hour.
Once I got through my initial glib, dismissive response, I think this does speak to the free-floating anxiety we're all living with these days. I suspect it must be even more so for some Roman Catholic prelates who lost their campaign against Mr. Obama because of his stand on reproductive rights.
You know, to my former RC mind, this is all part of what I call the Roman Catholic version of the Levitical Code.
Nine novenas on the First Friday of the Month will also get you a Major Plenary Indulgence. No meat on Friday will do the same thing. Fasting from sundown Saturday until after Mass on Sunday used to be the requirement. And, no good RC of my youth would ever go to a funeral without a Mass cards for the deceased.
Not only do these rules and rituals give you a sense of identity as a Roman Catholic, it also gives you a sense of power over what you believe - and the institutional church will tell you in no uncertain terms - IS the wretchedness of the human condition.
But I grew up in the 60s, after the breath of fresh air that was Vatican II, and radical Roman Catholics like Daniel and Phillip Berrigan were building the Beloved Community, protesting the Viet Nam war and taking a swipe at the RC theology of 'faith by works' by saying things like, "Don't just do something, stand there."
I guess what really pulls at my last, poor, tired nerve about this, besides the very low doctrine of humanity, is the intrusion of the religious institution into our lives of faith - from here to eternity.
The arrogance of that assumption and that intrusion simply sends me over the edge.
Then again, I'm not Roman Catholic. I'm a reformed Anglo Catholic - and damn proud of it. Oh, once all that stuff was really important to me - to my faith - as an Episcopalian who was a former Roman Catholic.
I loved the ceremony and the incense. The relaxed precision of the liturgical dance steps. The chanting and the beautiful brocade vestments.
What was that May West used to say? "I used to be as pure as the driven snow - and then, I drifted."
While I still enjoy attending an occasional Anglo-Catholic mass, if I'm honest, it's not so much about the spirituality or solace I gain while I'm there. I find myself enjoying it, rather, as if I were in a liturgical museum. I watch the liturgical dance steps closely to see how the 'split T formation' before the altar is executed, and how many times I hear the "ching-ching" of the thuribel as the deacon incenses the bishop, priests, altar party and congregation, in exact hierarchical order.
If you concentrate only on the "outward and visible" however, you'll miss the inward and spiritual grace of Anglo-Catholicism - that it doesn't end at the Table. Indeed, it just begins. Like the Berrigan boys of my youth, a real 'catholic' is a radical catholic who understands that if you aren't out in the world, changing the oppressive, corrupt systems and working to help the in-breaking of the Realm of God, your religion is pretty empty - and, ultimately, so's your soul.
In the end, however, here's where I end up: If all of these things, Roman or Anglo, deepens your faith in God, well, who am I to say how you should pray or what you do in order to gain a sense of the promise of eternal life?
Go ahead. Indulge yourself.
Jesus was asked about that by a rich young lawyer. He didn't give him a list of rules to follow or a formulary of ritual to perform. Rather, he told him the story of the Good Samaritan.
That works for me.
Far be it from me to call to you from the other side of the aisle and tell you the exact opposite of what the institutional church is calling you to do. If I do that, I'm no better, really. I'm just the flip side of the same bad scheckle.
But, I suspect most Roman Catholics, or at least the ones I know and love, will simply sigh deeply and shake their heads. As Rev. Richard P. McBrien, a professor of theology at Notre Dame who supports the ordination of women and the right of priests to marry, is quoted as saying, “It’s like trying to put the toothpaste back in the tube of original thought. Most Catholics in this country, if you tell them they can get a plenary indulgence, will shrug their shoulders.”
Right, I think, as I shrug my shoulders and turn the page of the NY Times.
There will always be people whose personal piety will require someone to put 10 Rules of Life on the board and promise that if you follow all of these rules, you will not only live a better life here, but that you will have a better after life.
This is so for Christians of every persuasion - from Rome to Geneva, and Canterbury to Constantinople - as well as every other major religion in the world.
So, who am I to tell anyone that this way to pray is right or that way to honor God is wrong?
Some organized religion is more than happy to do that for you.
I have always loved this koan from Kurt Vonnegut's book, "Cat's Cradle":
"Tiger got to hunt, bird got to fly; Man got to sit and wonder, 'Why, why, why?' Tiger got to sleep, bird got to land; Man got to tell himself he understand."