Thursday, October 09, 2008

Thomas Howard at his best

"Christian imagination differs over details, but all Christian imagination attaches importance to symbols. Whether it is a matter of lowering one's voice in the building where the church meets, or of refusing to use make-up, or of wearing or not wearing a crucifix, or of kneeling, or bowing one's head to say grace or bowing at the holy name, or folding one's hands or crossing oneself, all Christian piety and worship is shot through with the symbolism of either gesture or objects or both. We see the unseen in the seen. The surface of things bespeaks what lies beneath. Our postures, our dress, our gestures, and the artefacts with which we surround ourselves - the very way we bind and gild our Bibles - all cry out that we are creatures whose approach to the Most High, since it cannot be direct like the seraphim’s, must be set about and assisted with symbols.

"None of us is a bare intellect. Our eyes see colors; our noses smell fragrances; our fingers feel textures....

"Some religions beckon us away from all of this. Some even abominate it all.... These religions drive a wedge between us mortals and all that we know of life. They tell us to be spiritual, by which they mean that we must strive to become disembodied; ghosts; souls.

"Historic Christianity, on the other hand, cries "Benedicite!" It calls out "Glory be to God for dappled things!" It lauds and extols the One who is the fountainhead of all shapes, colors, textures, sounds, and smells. The Most High did not create a charade or a trap when He made all of this. The Creation rushes from His superabundant freedom and love and cries out in exultation to Him. No least thing is silent. The timid and beady eye of a field mouse, the fife of the winter wren, the bubbling of water falling over rocks or boiling in a kettle, roars of laughter from a room full of friends, the murmur of a loved one's voice: what does it all say but "Hosanna!"...

"Using Saint Paul's language about flesh and spirit...piety has often spoken as though to be holy ('spiritual') is to be more or less disembodied. Since that is obviously not possible, we will do our best to keep spiritual things distinct from physical things. There will be 'the spiritual life' and 'the ordinary life.' There will be sacred activities and secular activities. When we are praying, we are closer to the center of things than when we are washing dishes, changing diapers, driving in a traffic jam, or sitting in a committee meeting: thus would run this piety....

"Our flesh, having been worn by the Most High Himself, is the most noble mantle of all. The Manichaeans and Buddhists and Platonists on the other hand, who belittle this flesh, and the gluttons and lechers and egoists on the other, who are slaves to it, are still living in division. Only in the Incarnation may we find the knitting back together of the fabric into its true integrity.

"If our religion draws us away from the plain fabric of life, and if it encourages in us the notion that Monday through Saturday are mostly secular, and if it crimps our freedom to join hilariously in all that is good in life, then, be we Bible-believing to the core, something is askew. If piety suggests to a musician that to play his violin or his trumpet in a church service is somehow more Christian than to play it in Carnegie Hall, then it is heresy. If it makes him timorous about being a creature of flesh and blood and pinches him into hesitancy about everything, then it has done him a disservice....

"It is in the physical world that the intangible meets us. A kiss seals a courtship. The sexual act seals a marriage. A ring betokens the marriage. A diploma crowns years of schooling. A doctoral robe bespeaks intellectual achievement. A uniform and stripes announce a recruit's training. A crown girds the brow that rules England. This symbolism bespeaks the sort of creature we are. To excise all of this from piety and worship is to suggest that the gospel beckons us away from our humanity into a disembodied realm. It is to turn the Incarnation into a mere doctrine.

"The Incarnation took all the properly belongs to our humanity and delivered it back to us, redeemed. All of our inculcations and appetites and capacities and yearnings and proclivities are purified and gathered up and glorified by Christ. He did not come to thin out human life He came to set it free. All the dancing and feasting and processing and singing and building and sculpting and baking and merrymaking that belong to us, and that were stolen away into the service of false gods, are turned to us in the gospel.

"The worship of God, surely, should be the place where men, angels, and devils may see human flesh once more set free into all that it was created to be. To restrict that worship to sitting in pews and listening to words spoken is to narrow things down in a manner strange to the gospel. We are creatures who are made to bow, not just spiritually (angels can do that) but with knee bones and neck muscles. We are creatures who cry out to surge in great procession, "ad altare Dei," not just in our hearts (disembodied spirits can do that) but with our feet, singing great hymns with our tongues, our nostrils full of the smoke of incense.

"Is it objected that this is too physical, too low down on the scale for the gospel? Noses indeed! If the objection carries the day, then we must jettison the stable and the manger, and the winepots at Cana, and the tired feet anointed with nard, and the splinters of the cross, not to say the womb of the mother who bore God when He came to us. Too physical? What do we celebrate in our worship? It is Buddhism and Platonism and Manichaeanism that tell us to disavow our flesh and expunge everything but thoughts. The gospel brings back all of our faculties with a rush....

"The religion that attempts to drive a wedge between the whole realm of Faith and the actual textures of physical life is a religion that has perhaps not granted to the Incarnation the full extent of the mysteries that attach to it and flow from it, and that make our mortal life fruitful once more." Thomas Howard, Evangelical Is Not Enough: Worship of God in Liturgy and Sacrament (Ignatius Press), chapter 2.

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