Christian Community (5)

guestsNarthex1Unfortunately, I can’t discuss Church without saying something about institutions called churches. I also can’t overlook the unfortunate fact that although the word “church” has six letters in it, for some it is a four-letter word.

A common distinction is made between the visible Church and the invisible Church. The former is made up of people who wear clerical collars and vestments and those who sit or stand or kneel in pews and sing hymns or songs of praise. The latter is made up of those who actually have their hearts and minds conformed to Christ regardless of whether or not they place their bodies in buildings with a cross on it. In such a distinction, the invisible Church is the real Church, although people invested in the visible church (sorry about the pun!) hope that at least some of them are in the real, invisible Church as well. Of course, this invisible church isn’t really invisible. It is perfectly visible to God and it is visible to all people who have eyes to see. In my earlier posts on the subject of Church, I have suggested that the essence of Church is to be aligned with the forgiving love of Christ that brings us to the place of the victim in opposition to the principalities and powers that feast on victims. Acting out the role of Church in this way is quite visible, just as visible the people who sing hymns and preach in buildings that we call churches. Again, we hope there is at least some overlap between the two, but we all know that the two hardly coincide.

The Church is, then, visible in acts of worship and in charitable acts such as ministering to the poor. The disconnect between these two visibilities is a cause of dismay and downright confusion. Some people who are devoted to both might find that the people they worship with and the people they work with in ministry are very different. This problem becomes particularly acute when a “church” openly allies itself with Empire. To this day, there is concern that when the Roman Empire theoretically converted to Christianity, Christianity was actually converted to the Empire. The establishment of what was called “Christendom” tended to institutionalize the violent tactics of Empire. The Inquisition was a particularly notorious example of this. In more recent history, the Nazi government of Germany ordered the Evangelical (Lutheran) Church to expel all members of Jewish descent from leadership positions. Complying with this demand was a betrayal of their own members and of Christ. The Confessing Church which seceded in protest was a remnant of the Body of Christ.

The disunity and discord among Christians is a further cause of scandal to many. That there should be many ecclesiastical bodies with long or sometimes short traditions is not a problem to me. People are different and cultures are different. It is sad, however, that most churches, were founded in protest against the ecclesiastical body they left. Many of the long-standing debates have been resolved and many ecclesiastical bodies work together charitably in matters such as world relief. Many of the divisions, however, smack of emulating the disciples who argued about who is the greatest and/or the slogans in 1 Corinthians: “I am of Apollos!” “I am of Cephas!” Many of the theological debates in the early Christian centuries over the Trinity and the Natures of Christ could have been carried on with less rancor if church leaders had not been so afraid that God would eternally torture anyone who didn’t get the formulas just right. Getting the theology right just isn’t enough when we get the Love of God wrong.

The scandal of Church for so many of us tempts us to chuck it all and try to go it alone. If Girard’s theory of mimetic desire is true, that is simply not possible. We are affected by the desires and intentions of others whether we like it or not. If we set ourselves over against everybody else in defiance, that very defiance makes us totally dependent on the people we are defying. After all, if we aren’t defying people, we aren’t doing much in the way of defying. The deeper problem is that when we make ourselves that dependent on other people, we are easily sucked into the power of persecutory mechanisms when they occur. A lone individual can’t hold out against such a thing.

So there is need to connect with others. This is a point I illustrate in some of the stories I’ve written, most particularly in Merendael’s Gift. The protagonist can’t stand up to social pressures of the kids he hangs out with until he allies himself with other children who band together to befriend this strange visitor from another planet. This group becomes an analogy for the Church as the Body of Christ. In real life, we have to be alert to the people who are sincerely and humbly entering the place of the Victim. (I say “humbly” because some people pridefully use “victimhood” to manipulate others.) We can only hope that some of these people actually are in a church in the ecclesiastical sense.

Girard’s theory of mimetic desire and the rivalry and sacrificial violence it can lead to suggests that they greatest division among Christians is along the lines of a theology and practice that is sacrificial on the one hand and one that is grounded in Jesus the Forgiving Victim on the other. Girard’s theory shows us how easily followers of Jesus’ Kingdom could easily slide back into remnants of the primitive sacred. The Body of Christ looks like the Body of Christ when it is embodied by people who stand up to the persecutory mechanism whenever it occurs. Unfortunately, any of us can easily fall into embodying instead the Satan who is the Accuser. That is to say, this schism between sacrificial and forgiving members can split right down the middle our own selves. This is why we need to strengthen ourselves with the practices of Church such as worship and interior prayer and mutual encouragement.

Hospitality Initiative

WilliamGuestsChurch1On May 3-4 I will be attending the Hospitality Initiative hosted at Oakland University in Oakland, MI. The convener is Charles Mabee, a scholar who works with the thought of René Girard. This is a multi-faith gathering where papers from a wide variety of spiritual traditions will be represented by the presentation of papers. I will be presenting a brief paper called “Mimetic Hospitality: Guests and Community in the Rule of St. Benedict.” Some of the content overlaps with my blog post Cleaning up our Unclean Acts which introduces some of the thoughts I develop in this paper. You can read my paper here.

Kirkus Review for From Beyond to Here

9781475934588_COVER.inddI have just received an affirming review of From Beyond to Here from Kirkus. It starts out: “Marr’s collection comprises six short stories aimed at young readers interested in aliens and ghosts (which in turn comprises just about all young readers, one would imagine).” It goes on to say that I have “done a good job depicting the troubles and traumas that preteens and teenagers face and showing how they might be able to deal with life’s challenges.” At the end, it says that I “feel for kids who suffer the death of a sibling or the abandonment of divorce or just the general confusion of trying to grow up or of being afraid to grow up. There are morals to these stories, but they don’t hit the reader over the head. Marr is that wise and often witty uncle that every young person needs.” 

I would add for those of you interesting in mimetic theory that the story “Buyer of Hearts” is filled with mimetic issues in the junior high and the town beyond.  You can read this review in its entirety on the From Beyond to Here page. You can also read “The Ghost of Swiss Castle” as a sample of my writing. I hope this review encourages more readers to give my stories a try. For some comments on ghost stories in general see Chills and Salvation.

How I wrote “The Ghost of Swiss Castle”

Sometimes the first inspiration of a story comes from an unplanned, surprising source.Here is one of the more unlikely and unexpected inspirations.

While visiting a family in the Chicago area that I am very good friends with, the boys wanted to go to the neighborhood park, so their father and I took them. Among the play equipment there was a  cylinder-shaped piece shaped like a castle’s turret with large holes in it to facilitate climbing all up and around it. The boys told me they call it Swiss Castle because the holes made it look like Swiss Cheese.

I instantly realized that Swiss Castle had to be haunted. From there, I got the image of a hideous mansion on Lake Shore with huge round windows making the facade look like a hunk of Swiss cheese so the mansion was called “Swiss Castle” by its detractors. Why windows like that? Well, the first floor was abnormally high. Why? Because there was a pipe organ in the living room?

Like the Cheese Castle in the playground, this house had to be haunted. Would nice people live in a house like that? The woman who played the organ was a loving person but she had been dead for years and the couple who lived there were about as affectionate as a couple of posts. A couple like that needs to have a pair of children they don’t want come to visit them for a year because their parents don’t want them tagging along with them to Copenhagen.

Two hurt and angry children plus one hurt and angry ghost leads to some interesting situations with a hope of redemption. (See blog post Chills and Salvation) When it came to publishing the story in my collection From Beyond to Here, I decided to change the title to “The Ghost of Swiss Castle” because I thought calling it Cheese Castle was—well—too cheesy. If a fantasy story with a ghost might possibly interest you or somebody, young or old, whom you know, please give The Ghost of Swiss Castle a try.

Living with the Dead” Thoughts for Halloween

For many in North America, Halloween is a day for children to dress up, have fun, and get lots of candy from indulgent neighbors. Skeleton suits and witch’s makeup are all in fun. Not as fun is the background to Halloween that goes back to rites, such as the Celtic Samhain festival, designed to allay anxiety over blurring the distinction between the dead and the living and make sure the dead stay dead. This anxiety causes some people to try to suppress modern Halloween, although the people who sentenced witches to burning should be more horrifying than girls running about in black dresses with candy bags.

Blurring distinctions between the living and the dead raise horrifying issues. To begin with, it calls into question what life and death really are. Zombies and vampires are very popular today as creatures haunting us with this blurred distinction. The idea of being “undead” is a haunting but unattractive possibility.

Rites of and against the dead, encountered by anthropologists worldwide, express fear that the dead envy the living and, if they get a chance to break into the land of the living, they will destroy the life we cherish. That is, the dead are set up as rivals for life that has been made scarce. These anxieties project rivalry experienced with other living persons on those same persons when they are (hopefully) departed this life. Cf. “Human See, Human Want.”

The execution of Jesus followed by his Resurrection, where Jesus appeared not as a vengeful ghost but the forgiving victim, opened up a whole different paradigm of the dead. Christian martyrs who gave up their precious lives to witness to Christ were believed by the early church to be, not vengeful ghosts, but saints in Heaven actively seeking our good. Dante’s Divine Comedy is a particularly powerful vision of those living on earth and those living in Heaven supporting each other in prayer without resentment or rivalry. Cf. “Two Ways of Gathering.”

Many people like to have their spines titillated at Halloween. My stories “Ghost of Swiss Castle” and “The Dark Window” in Beyond to Here might chill the spine a little bit, but they also invite the reader to think of lending a ghost a helping hand and receiving some healing in this life as well.

The Failed Quarrel

The stories of the desert monastics of the fourth and fifth centuries in Egypt are the bedrock of monastic lore that continue to inspire all who attempt to live by monastic spirituality.

In one charming story, a monastic who has shared his cave with another, notes that they have never had a quarrel and proposes that they try to have one, like all other people. The other monastic says he doesn’t know how to start a quarrel. The first monastic puts a block of wood on the ground between them and says” “This block is mine. Now you say the same thing.” The second monastic said, “This block is mine.”  “No, this block is mine,” insists the first monastic. “Okay, it’s yours,” says the other. And so they failed to have a quarrel.

Would these monastics have quarreled if the first had put a gem between them instead of a block of wood? The story about the children and the balloons in “Human See, Human Want,” suggests that question is whether any article at all is given worth by the desire of the other. A block of wood can become as desirable as a gem if somebody else desires it and another person gets caught up in that desire.

If these two monastics were not quarreling, what were they doing? The desert literature tells us they would have spent large amounts of time in prayer, much of that in psalmody, and then the rest weaving baskets they would sell to give the money to the poor. That is, they were not focused on each other but were opening themselves to God’s Desire and to the needs of other people. Prayer and helping other people does not guarantee there will be no quarrelling, but the two combined surely help quite a lot.

My story “Haunted for a Time” in From Beyond to Here offers a counter-example to these two desert monastics. At the beginning of the story, Murray is so absorbed in his possessiveness of his comic books at the expense of others that he cannot see anything beyond that. Some unsettling apparitions from a ghostly figure challenge him to reconsider his ways.

My book Tools for Peace examines Benedict’s teachings on stewardship of material goods in the monastery that build on the insights of this simple story of the two desert monastics who failed to be movers and shakers in the world, but also failed to have a quarrel.

God Knows All About Unicorns

Early in my monastic life, when I wanted to know everything, I read the Summa Theologiae of St. Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274), a thinker who knew everything, or seemed to. Many of Thomas’ insights and speculations continue to nourish me. The insight that I dwell upon and dwell in more than any other comes in Question 14, article 9.

Thomas has been enumerating what God knows, which, not surprisingly turns out to be everything. In article 9, however, Thomas poses the question of whether God knows everything that has never existed, does not presently exist, and never will exist. One might think that this, at least would stump God, but Thomas blithely insists that God knows these things as well. Huh?

Basically, Thomas says that God knows everything that could exist. That includes everything which God does bring into being as well as everything which God does not bring into being. This is an important point. We take our own existence and the existence of the things in the world for granted. God takes nothing for granted. God chooses some things to exist out of an infinitude of possibilities.

So what about unicorns and all else that allegedly do not exist? What does God have against them that God did not bring them into being? The answer is God has nothing against anything. The deeper answer is that God leaves many things to our imaginations. We can’t imagine horses; they are already here. But we can imagine unicorns and dragons and creatures from other planets that may or may not exist. What I find so awesome about Thomas’ insight is that God invites us to enter into God’s imagination to glimpse a few of the infinite number of beings that will never exist. God encourages us to welcome into this life many creatures we otherwise would never see and get to know. Not only do we get to pet the cats who live at our monastery, but we get to ride dragons through the air!

It is because God has invited me into small visions of the divine  imagination that I can introduce you to Korniel, Pandara, Merendael, and many others. If you wish to meet them for yourself, you can read Creatures We Dream of Knowing and From Beyond to Here. Knowing them has enriched my life. I hope it will enrich yours as well.