Tuesday, February 17, 2015

The Monstrance & the Dark
(The Nightmare that Shook Me Awake)

This past Friday morning - in early pre-dawn hours - I had a couple of old-fashioned, shake-you-awake, bedlam-and-terror nightmares. I woke up, both times, in the typical way: utterly disoriented, sweating, panting, having had what I thought was the best of my courage completely exposed, flailing my arms out to each side, grasping for something - anything - that/who might comfort or console or understand. I hadn't had dreams like these in years.

Both dreams involved the church.

Looking back, it's not that strange, I guess, that both nightmares involved the church: since becoming a priest, "church" had always held a shadow side of fear for me, one that regularly touches the realms of dreams. At the start, it was the embarrassingly predictable and recurring dream that plagued me for my ministry's first few early years; the dream in which the procession begins and I, the preacher, continue to rationalize the time I have left for sermon preparation, until I am there, at the pulpit, and time has run out. Now, very often, I preach without notes, which helps me laugh more at myself and those early dreams.

Of course, it is not a surprise to me that laughter, even at nightmares, comes easily, after the fact. Most of the time, the dread that seizes the dreamer is only tangentially connected to the details of the dream. So I don't expect you to find my Friday morning nightmares frightening.

Even so, I do want to share one of them with you.


I was there, in a church. Not sure which one. Familiar, but strange. I was under the strong impression I was presiding, but also that I did not know for sure. There were a bunch of us. Clergy and acolytes. An elevated altar, a good-sized congregation, strong light flooding the windows into the nave,  beautifully brightening the colors of the gathered assembly, as well as that of the space. No stained glass needed. Smoke, some incense. A crowded bottleneck caused by liturgical furniture at the base of the stairs leading up to the altar, where most of the clergy and others in vestments were gathered.

At the appropriate time, I went down the stairs, let by the acolytes, to read from the Gospel. I remember being frustrated by the bottleneck. Each of us was in the other's way, it seemed, no matter which way we turned. While it looked like a mess, it was how excruciatingly long the mess made the procession that bothered me most. I blamed myself and went up to the altar, after the reading, with a renewed sense of focus and resolve toward the Eucharist. Didn't matter. Minutes later, the bottleneck was still not alleviated, even by the absence of any liturgical activity in the space. It was nobody's fault. Or everybody's fault. Perpetual chaos.

Later, I stepped out to the sacristy, I think, for some water. It was crowded there, too. Clergy and acolytes. Altar guild. Back and forth from the sanctuary. Changing vestments. Checking mirrors. Rehanging frontals. Replacing flowers. In the middle of the service.

It was at this point that I felt my panic start. I was trapped in the sacristy.

Some minutes later, the traffic eased, and I had a clear path back to the sanctuary. But by then, I was starting to despair that the service was really headed anywhere. Before I took the clear path back into the church, I looked to my friend and colleague, Gary, and confessed my suspicion that this was a dream. "And if it's a dream," I said, "my subconscious will have discovered that more than anything else I want to share the Eucharist. Having discovered this - if it's a dream - my subconscious will, of course, never allow the Eucharist to be celebrated. Quick: hit me twice in the face, so that I can be glad that this is not a dream and that the patience I'm being asked to show is the ordinary patience of human process and not that of a tortured dream." Gary was all too happy to oblige, and I smiled a relief, soon lifted, as I woke up from the dream.

That was it. All of us, gathered for a Eucharist that would never be celebrated. Because, on some level, we didn't want to celebrate it. Or we wanted the other stuff more. Or we thought the other stuff was what made the Eucharist possible. Like we'd forgotten how it worked. Too damn distracted or detailed or whatever else to discern the Body of Christ in our midst.

Or maybe we weren't too distracted at all, but I was only impatient. Another possibility, I thought. That Eucharist, though, was never going to happen.

I freaked.

All good bad dreams have their daytime inspirations. Like late night bad pizza. Looking back, mine was, I think, the morning prayer I attended the previous day at the Catholic student center. I joined the student community for fifteen minutes of an hour long time of mental prayer in front of the blessed sacrament before participating in morning prayer, the solemn exposition, and benediction. It was a time of both holy patience and discernment of the Body. If was a quiet time in fierce contrast to the bustle of the dream.

Later, at coffee with a friend who is also an intern for the Catholic community, we asked each other about the gifts we see in the other's tradition. He mentioned the prayer book and hymns. The Episcopal heart for social justice and action. C.S. Lewis!

I mentioned the silence. The deep grounding in prayer. The theology that comes from the prayer.

The naming of gifts in the other's tradition was a personal expression of a corporate intention toward reconciliation and friendship: my friend and I are inviting our communities to join in each other's times of prayer throughout the season of Lent. "Of course you all can come to morning prayer," my friend said. "Maybe on the other days, though. We only do the solemn exposition on Thursdays. I wonder if your community wouldn't find that too strange."

"Huh," I said. "Maybe. I hadn't thought about that."

My friend's concern was that it would seem like idolatry, "if you don't believe the bread has been changed, I mean," he said.

We talked eucharistic theology for a bit, before circling back.

"It's not the monstrance that would make it idolatry," I said. "(And I don't think your exposition is idolatry.) For Episcopalians, idolatry would be to discern the presence of God in the sacrament and not find in that encounter the resources and imperative to discern and serve Christ in our sister and brother, our neighbor. For us, that's a primary work of our baptism: to seek and serve Christ in all persons. Time spent in front of the Eucharist is time learning to discern the presence of Christ. Before the eucharistic elements, I am reminded that nothing else in this life is more important than the presence of God before me. I can rest in God's 'enough.' The patience we learn there becomes patience out here - a conviction I heard this morning in your tradition's morning prayer."

We went on to talk about Sam Wells and the instincts and imagination with which the liturgy gifts and equips God's people for faithful improvisation as a part of God's story in and for and alongside the world. And, remembering my friend's equal appreciation for and amusement at C.S. Lewis' popularity among Catholics, I shared Lewis' observation from The Weight of Glory that
Next to the Blessed Sacrament itself, your neighbour is the holiest object presented to your senses. If [that person] is your Christian neighbor [she/he] is holy in almost the same way, for in [her/him] also Christ vere Latitat [Latin, “truly hides”]—the glorifier and the glorified, Glory Himself, is truly hidden.

Just today, it struck me how squarely that conversation with my Catholic friend intersected the St. Francis House community's ongoing exploration of the relationship between prayer and love and action, the focus of our Wednesday night conversations this semester. Unsurprisingly, our community has borrowed from our Catholic sisters and brothers along the way, looking closely at the life and witness of Dorothy Day and also at the heritage we share through the desert mothers and fathers of the early church. I am glad for the nearness of a tradition that can at the same time name the gifts of my own and put flesh and blood on practices from which my tradition can continue to learn.

If does not surprise me when Catholics and Episcopalians end up needing each other to discern the Body in our respective midsts. Indeed, I would be surprised if the discernment can be rightly done with only the Catholics and Episcopalians present. After all, in the other - says Lewis - Christ is.

As my nightmare laid bare but did not explain, to live - to abide - where Christ is requires attention and work. But mostly, it requires remembering that Christ is there to be discerned. God, give us the patience and impatience and whatever else we may need - the holy desire - to prioritize the good work of discerning the Body - on the altar and in each other.

And God, thank you for holy friends and the love that casts out fear.

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