December 29, 2007

I recently received an e-mail from a long-time friend going back to my years in Kentucky (name withheld by request), who, concerned about this post and my seeming “drift” towards the Roman Catholic faith, writes the following:

Read your post the other day and have to say I’m disappointed and concerned by your seemingly chosen path (?) regarding the Faith. Lord knows (and I believe He DOES know) you and I have fought our own battles and have had our own quarrels with [the Episcopal Church] on a variety of fronts over time. But I also know you to be a lover of the Anglican tradition (as you know I am) [and a] long-time defender of the MANY VOICES our tradition has always tried to embrace (even if those voices might seem to us a little extreme at times).

It seems strange for me to be speaking on behalf of the very same institution we have shared so many frustrations with, but all I can say is: think carefully about what you are doing. It saddens me to think you no longer believe there is a place for you in [The Episcopal Church] after all these years. All I can say is be patient and wait to see how events play out in the next year (years?) – you’ll see there IS and WILL CONTINUE TO BE a place for you at the table!

There is a time and a place for everything and I can only hope you will come to see that this is not the time for doing anything rash…”

When you receive letters like this it’s hard to know exactly how to respond. After all, our religious faith and our own personal relationships with God touch upon so many aspects of our lives – especially when you’ve been raised in a particular tradition since birth as I have. In my case, the lines between church tradition, family traditions, and life experiences shared with loved ones and cherished friends over the years become blurred and tied up in emotional knots. In the end, I’m not sure how much (or even if) one’s walk with God should even be dependent on these kinds of things, but I can certainly understand why they do. It’s all part of the ties that bind us together over time, and anyone who knows me knows I don’t take those kinds of ties lightly.

It nevertheless remains that one’s religious faith and desire and motivations for intimacy with God is not just a matter of the soul, but of the heart as well. Over time, I’ve come to view my relationship with the Episcopal Church as a marriage of sorts: you have good times and not-so-good times, and when the latter come, it’s just one of those things where things get messy and, as easy as it would be to point fingers at one another, the fact is, no one’s solely to blame. Hence the term “irreconcilable differences”.

How many times have you had a discussion with someone about church and you’ve heard it said, “I didn’t leave the church, the church left me”? Certainly there’s a part of me that feels that way, and issues and criticisms I have with the EC would certainly appear to bear that out: without question, the EC of today is a far different church thsn the one I grew up in. (I would even argue it’s a different church than the one I sought ordination to the priesthood in!) But that, I think, is the case with just about everything these days: the world is a far different place than the one we grew up in. How, therefore, could one expect any institution (religious or not) to not change as well?

But there is also, I think (just as in a marriage), a case to be made by the EC whereby it says to those of us who have either left or are so disenchanted with it that they are considering leaving, “I didn’t leave you, you left me”. And in that case, I concede it may have a point there. But, just as institutions change with the times, isn’t it also true that people, their values, and the things they hold dear also change as well?

This, after all, is what makes life so interesting and something to cherish – after all, if we and the world around us remained constant and immune to the changing tides and times, life would end up being a rather drab affair after a while, don’t you think? And as much as we’d all like things to remain the same, nothing does; times change, people change, those we love and hold dear come and go, and in the end we’re left contemplating our own mortalities and wondering where the time went.

What’s the point in all this, you ask? Simply to assure my dear friend and others of a like mind that, if indeed there is a drift “towards the Tiber”, it’s not the result of some knee-jerk reaction or any one particular thing involving the Episcopal Church. After all, since my religious awakening thirteen years ago, I’ve always considered myself an Anglo-Catholic or “high church” Episcopalian more than anything else. This identity has been nurtured and reinforced through numerous monastic retreats, tons of reading from Roman Catholic writers (Thomas Merton, Henri Nouwen, Benedict Groeschel, etc.) and various Doctors of the Church (St. John of the Cross and others), and a comfort with praying to Mary and the Saints. Were I an Anglican back in the 19th century, I would have firmly placed myself with the tractarians of the Oxford Movement and wouldn’t have been surprised when its unofficial leader, John Henry Newman, defected to the Roman Catholic faith.

The bottom line in all of this, I guess, is that in the end all one can do is follow one’s heart. There was a time when I was being called to live out my faith in a particular way, and I followed that calling to the best of my ability and to the bitter end. Now the calling I feel is a far different one: this time it’s not a shout I hear, but a whisper. It’s not to be a priest or a “somebody” or “something” in my church, but simply to be a small child of God. Perhaps it’s God’s merciful way of allowing me a new start in my walk with Him – one without baggage, history, or memory. Perhaps it’s the freedom I now feel simply to be able to attend church without feeling guilt, remorse, or resentment. Perhaps it’s the desire to experience the theological and sacramental kinship I have always felt with the RC faith in a more intimate way. Perhaps it’s all of these.

But if this is something I or anyone else undertake, this is no tragedy or even something to apologize for. After all (especially when it comes to Episcopalians and Roman Catholics), we all worship the same God in more or less the same way. And my view has always been that anything that draws someone closer to God and brings them a sense of peace in doing so cannot be anything but of the Holy Spirit. Whether the EC has failed me, or I it, the feeling is that I am no longer adrift but once again listening to my heart and doing what I feel is best for my soul. Where this ultimately leads is anyone’s guess, but to my dear friends and loved ones I ask only for your prayers, your support, and your understanding in this continuing walk of the spirit.

Filed in: Religion & Culture by at 01:40 | Comments Off on Loosening The Ties That Bind
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