I am fortunate in having friends to remind me what it means to be a Christian, and in saying this I am not talking about friends from a particular denomination or even only my Christian friends; to the degree that they have held me up to the standard of the faith I claim to believe, atheists and agnostics have here served God’s purposes as well. And there can be no other response to this than thankfulness, a thankfulness I am very bad at expressing. But I do want here to take a moment to express it, particularly regarding my last post.
As Chinglican pointed out in an off-the-blog conversation, the tone I adopted in the last post was – well – not very catholic. Sometimes the words run away with me and I can speak in an off-the-cuff manner that wounds other Christians. I do continue to stand behind what I said, but I also apologize for the manner of delivery and whatever ungracious hurt might have been caused. I also request prayer.
To explain why I need prayer, I would like to post a response I gave to Chinglican privately in explanation of the tone of the post:
“I really hope [the post] did not come across as potshots; when I argue like this, my purpose is not so much to “shoot” at others as much as at the best form of a counter-argument that I can conjure up (drawn from comments of others, my own thoughts etc.). I want to see if what I am thinking can survive my own most devastating counter-argument. So I think that when I find myself arguing against myself like this I sometimes get carried away and permit some mockery. The points I will stand by, but you are right to remind me that when I talk about these things, I am saying things that are overheard by others and taken as directed at them. I will try to be more gracious, though it is sometimes hard with matters like this that reach to the very root of my heart and pluck all the strings of my being, still ungracious as it is this side of heaven.”
It is particularly this latter bit that I want to take up here and articulate further, that is, that though I speak in a fairly philosophical tone, these matters are quite close to my heart. Because I am good at hiding it, I don’t think anyone really quite understands how often and how close I come to utter despair. It is a little like this. Imagine you are on a desert island. And here and there you have found bottles, some more full, and some less full. And for a time you live off these, going from bottle to bottle. But soon you realize you are not getting enough water and eventually you will die of thirst. You keep drinking from the bottles – because what else can you do – but there is no longer the immediate joy and certainty of survival you had when you first found them. And then two things happen. You meet a friend, and a little later on, you discover a fountain. The friend is still fairly new to the desert island, and is happy living off the bits of water in the bottles. He still has hope in this water. But you are taking the long view of the bottles – what for him is hope has become prolonged despair. But the friend has also heard things about the fountain – that though it looks like water, it is really a deadly poison that will kill you certainly, though slowly. This does not entirely bother you because you know you are dying slowly anyway. But your new friend Is adamant and you are put in crisis; you look over at the fountain and are nearly driven mad by the sight of fresh water – you can almost taste it – but you do not want to move without further evidence. So you wait and watch. You see various animals drink from the spring, quite happily, but there is really no way to tell how it affects them – the poison, if it is poison, acts slowly. Finally, much to your amazement, another person comes along and takes a deep draught from the spring, and you ask him whether the water is poisonous. He laughs a little, and says, no, he hasn’t found it to be so. But you press further. What if he is a liar? What if he wants you dead? What if the poison just hasn’t had time to work on him and he doesn’t know? But he points to the stockpile of different bottles you and your friend have collected and tells you that the bottles you have been living off the whole time – variously empty and full – have in fact all been filled at this spring. You have no way of knowing with a hundred percent certainty, but if it is poison, it is a poison you have been drinking the whole time. In finding the fountain, you have not found something different, only the source.
The stranger leaves, and you turn to your friend very deeply hopeful about this, thinking that, with a fountain like this, you may be able to survive after all. But your friend’s reaction is completely different. He does not trust the stranger. But perhaps more irksomely, he is still elated at the fact of having water to begin with – the long-term plan is not in his mind. He is still very excited about the bottles of water, and thinks it is still a pretty good deal to be able to live off them, and he does not want to risk being poisoned when he can have more certainty in sticking to what he knows is safe (he does not in fact believe that the water from the fountain and the bottles are the same). He has not, like you, weathered years in the desert and seen that though the variously filled bottles will kind of get you by from day to day, eventually you start dying of thirst. You become parched.
And there you are, standing beside the fountain with your friend. You are nearly mad with thirst – the deep thirst only fresh water can quench – and at just the moment when you are about to take a drink, he decides you should sit down, share one of the bottles, and talk about the matter for three days, so as not to rush into anything. And you agree, because he is your friend. But you are still parched, and because you are parched, it is sometimes hard to tell where your words are coming from. Sometimes they are reasonable. Sometimes thirst takes over. And sometimes the annoyance at your friend’s reasonable pedantry is too much. You don’t understand how he can sit there and make a show of reasonableness when you are dying of thirst. And so, yes, you sometimes snap, and say things you don’t mean. You forget that, though the water in the bottles did not work for the long term, they did keep you alive up to this point. And they did, in fact, if the stranger was telling true, bring water from the spring. But because your friend is so bent on telling you over and over again how wonderful the bottles are – and wondering why in hell you would risk the poisonous fountain over the bottles – you snap and start badmouthing them. You start telling about the dirty dregs you found at the bottom of one bottle, or the tepid temperature of another, or the mosquito larvae you found in a third. And the more insistent your friend is, the louder is your protest. Not so much because you are arguing with your friend per se. No, it is because your friend has woken in you something that your heart very deeply fears – that he is right. But this for you is a fear where for him it is a hope, because, unlike him, you know that sticking with the scattered bottles means death. In this situation it is hard, to say the least, to speak objectively and without offense. There you are, and there is your friend. And there is the fountain, and there are the bottles. And your thirst is great.
My primary point in telling this story is to try to explain – though never excuse – the kind of uncharitable things that sometimes come through when I write about these matters. Evangelicalism and Anglicanism have indeed kept me alive thus far. And for that I can only be grateful. To return to the metaphor of the story, it cannot be denied that the water I drank from these bottles is real water. As Chinglican rightly points out, there are many things to be grateful for in the Anglican communion, and his examples hit home. I was blessed with the Alpha course when, just at the end of my time in the Evangelical church, its doctrinal stability had a calming effect on my more neurotic radicalist tendencies. The first Anglican church I went to – where my wife and I got married, and where my son was baptized – was and remains an amazing place spiritually – when I visit home, and go to St. Mary’s, the church too feels like home. And, as Chinglican also notes, there is Cursillo. My parents, who incidentally followed me into the Anglican church, have been deeply blessed by, and found ministry in, this movement. These are all things to be thankful for.
What one realizes though is that such things come and go. For instance (as in my case), one might find oneself in an Anglican diocese where the low church people cannot tell the difference between a lawsuit and Christian witness on the one hand, and the bishop can’t tell the difference between Christianity and his own political agenda on the other. And then again (having moved out of this diocese) one might find oneself in a fairly good Anglican church again. But as far as the primary experience of church goes, things can move and things can change yet again. And it is the same with other of the aforementioned spiritual things as well. They come and go, or, as my favorite author would say, “To everything there is a season…” And at some point you realize that these things sustain you for a time, but you cannot live off them. They are bottles of water, but they are not the source. And then you encounter Catholicism, where the deepest source of everything is Christ’s real presence in the sacraments. The positive and the negative experiences will still be there, the wheat along with the tares. But at the end of the day what one is called to drink from is not an experience here or a revival there, but the cup of Christ that is his blood. One of course never stops trying to bottle this water of truth and goodness and distribute it as far as possible among parched people. But the bottled water is not what you live on. The fountain is.
That is, if it is not poison. And there are so many people who want to tell one so. They are still excited about the spiritual experiences here, the liturgical order there, the intellectual rigor here, the ministry to the poor there, etc. And they should be, because it is right to be excited about these things – they are of God. But when they tell me there is no source – or rather that the source is in some kind of vague symbolism or ethereal spiritual experience or freedom to develop intellectually – I despair. And when I despair, I get just a little cranky, because I am thirsty, and have been for a long time. And I know this crankiness left to its own devices will turn into an ugly lack of charity. And so I request, whoever you are, wherever you are, whatever side you are on, pray for me and use me gently – I am deeply in need of love.