Thursday, February 28, 2008

I Remember Mama

This coming Sunday, the fourth in Lent, is Mothering Sunday. To some it is Refreshment Sunay or Midlenting Sunday, but I prefer the title of Mothering Sunday. I am told and have read that in medieval England it was the custom to go back to the Church of your baptism on this Sunday with the reference being to 'our mother, the church." That would make it also a day on which we went back to our mother's house. This title would appear to come from the epistle which is taken from Galatians, "But Jerusalem, which is above is free, which is the mother of us all." Paul's reference is to the heavenly Jerusalem as in the previous sentence he states that the "Jerusalem which now is" is "in bondage with her children." And the Jerusalem of his time was indeed in bondage to Rome.

So what we are interested in is the Jerusalem "which is above," the heavenly Jerusalem. This always brings back memories of a talk by Dom Anthony James, OSB, given in San Francisco many, many long years ago. In it he referenced a book by the French Benedictine, Dom Jean LeClercq, part of whose thesis was that the Benedictines of the middle ages intended to make their monastaries a little incarnation of the heavenly Jerusalem by the liturgy, the keeping of the rule and by their life in common. To Dom Anthony this had some as bit of surprise because he had always believed that Benedictines had no special purpose as he felt the case was with the later monastic orders of the middle ages. Fortunately, I had read LeClercq's book, The Love of Learning and the Desire for God, when I was a teenager and always felt that this purpose was always carried over into the faithful Anglican prayer book parish. In a church or mission where the offices of daily morning and evening prayer were recited and the eucharist was celebrated on all those days for which the prayer book provided propers or indicated in the rubrics that a celebration was appropriate, it seems that there is indeed a sacramental touch of the heavenly Jerusalem.

In such a setting the chief way in which Holy Scripture touches us and in which we touch Holy Scripture is in the readings from the liturgy as in Anglican liturgy is indicated by the collect for the second Sunday in Advent. There the phrase "hear them" which comes before the much more remembered "read, mark, learn and inwardly digest" should remind us that our liturgy was introduced into a world in which books were rare and the ability to read and write far from usual. The result was that the average Englishman heard and understood the Bible first from having it read to him long before he was able to read it for himself. But, having heard it and in a language which he understood, the desire, indeed, the necessity of being able to read it for himself was born and nurtured. And it came with a revolutionary excitement which we, in our age, can hardly understand and appreciate. We, I think, have nothing which is its equivalent with the possible exception of the exchange of information which we find in the internet.

On the other hand, it must be admitted that the Benedictine liturgy does have an advantage over common usage among Anglicans in that their liturgy is generally sung rather than merely said. Given what we now know about the human brain that anything which is sung goes much deeper into the memory and is much more likely to be remembered, the ancient practise of the sung office has a great deal to recommend it. But I was extremely fortunate in my first parish, the parish of my 'baptism' into Anglicanism - if you will - in that the daily seclection from the psalms was always sung during the Sunday liturgy to Anglican chant. Up until that time it had never occured to me that the psalms could be sung and especially not by an average congregation. But there, smack dab in almost the very middle of the country, what seemed a very ordinary gathering of Americans was singing the psalter as if it was the most ordinary and unexceptional thing a Christian could and should be expected to do. And for us then, it was!

The result was that we actually learned the psalter without even noticing. At the point at which we were doing it, we were much more concerned with singing it properly, hardly paying attention to the words which we sang. But the content went deep into our hearts and memory. I first realized this when as an Air Force cadet one of our pilot instructers told a class that he had been forced to park his airplane "out where God left his shoes." I knew immediately he was an Anglican from the reference to the psalter. And he was.

If we can with Jesus cry "Abba," Daddy to the eternal other which is God, then we should be able to remember our holy mother the church with the same familiarity. We are not a set of public school educated English aristocrats who refer to their parents with the Latin formality of "Mater" and "Pater," but prayer book Anglicans who with "full homely divinity' find not only in the parish church of our baptism, of our being brought into the full mystery of Catholic Christianity, but also in whole church universal a mother at whose knee we have learned our faith and begun to practise it. And having given us in the fullness of prayer book Anglicanism an adult Christianity, she has made us free. Further she has made the countries which at one time fully embraced their Anglican faith the freest countries in the world as an extenstion of their bringing this "Jerusalem which is above" into their lives by their worship.

So this Sunday I will remember just how I came to be what I am, remembering the parish and the Church which by use of the prayer book made me so. I will also remember sadly what that parish has forgotten and destroyed by the embrace of something which is not the old religion of the prayer book and classical Anglicanism. And in doing so with great fondness, I will remember Mama.

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