Friday, April 08, 2005

The Old Masters

The Joan Chittister article put me in mind of Auden this morning:

About suffering they were never wrong,
The Old Masters: how well they understood
Its human position; how it takes place
While someone else is eating or opening a window

or just walking dully along;
How, when the aged are reverently, passionately waiting
For the miraculous birth, there always must be
Children who did not specially want it to happen, skating
On a pond at the edge of the wood:
They never forgot
That even the dreadful martyrdom must run its course
Anyhow in a corner, some untidy spot
Where the dogs go on with their doggy life and the torturer's horse
Scratches its innocent behind on a tree.
In Breughel's Icarus, for instance: how everything turns away
Quite leisurely from the disaster; the plowman may
Have heard the splash, the forsaken cry,
But for him it was not an important failure; the sun shone
As it had to on the white legs disappearing into the green
Water; and the expensive delicate ship that must have seen
Something amazing, a boy falling out of the sky,
Had somewhere to get to and sailed calmly on.

-- W. H. Auden

We are always inclined to worry when what matters most to us seems not to matter much to the world. And sometimes that is, indeed, the failing of the world. But all we can do is respond to it; and how we respond, is the question.

Perspectives change radically with position. Having been in the position of responsibility (usually with far less authority than is supposed), I've seen some things from at least two sides now, if not three or four. Institutions seem to run on their own initiative and energy; when, in fact, they run on the willingness of their constituents to follow the leadership. This is true of tyrannies no less than for pure democracies. Identity tends to lie at the root of the problem for institutions: who are we if we don't remain who we were? I'll go further, following up a speculation I mentioned in the comments below: identity often becomes a simpler issue still: "Who are if we are not sure to be different from them?"

Protestantism has a 500 year history of feeling like it is the tail on the dog of the Roman church, and accordingly has largely shaped its identity as being "not-Catholic." The younger the denomination, the more pronounced this tendency is. It is absurd to think the Roman Catholic church is not affected by the same concerns. Vatican II was widely regarded, at least in the non-RC world I live in, as being a step toward a more "Protestant" RC church. The steps away from that direction, are likewise regarded as a rejection of that position.

Much as the "liberal" '60's in America, became the conservative '80's of Ronald Reagan.

Sr. Chittister seems concerned that Rome is not responding to this event, that Romans are merely letting it happen around them, as if the matter should deeply affect them, too. That much of her observation puts me in mind of Auden, and Auden serves as a reminder of the place of humility. Sometimes the world is changed by what we do; but seldom does it change just when we want it to, or even pay attention to what is important to us.But here is the critical issue Sr. Chittister raises, and in this she is clearly right: "To have a transition going on in the church that does not also touch the world around it, is to have only public spectacle, not social transformation."

Transitions, especially in church, are points in which all parties (and the politics of such matters is enormous, be it a small congregation or an international institution; the knives are just as long and sharp in one as in the other, and for the person in the center, it doesn't matter how many there are) see their opportunity to seize power and redirect the ship of the institution. This, of course, is the power they imagine the leader to have: that he (it is almost always "he," isn't it, sadly enough) will be captain of the ship, and direct its voyage to new and profitable (spiritually; ideologically, what have you) ports of call. But the leader quickly comes to realize the truth of the old James Taylor song: "There's a man up here who claims/To have his hands upon the reins/But there are chains upon those hands/He is just riding on a train."

So how much could really be done in this transition; how much could another John XXIII do, even with the backing of another Vatican II? And how important is it that the church universal, do anything? How far does the church go to accomodate the world, and how far does the church go to remain true to its calling?

Which, in other words, do we seek to alter? And why? These are not idle questions, or pointlessly futile ones, directed only at the self-pleasure of the thinker with no real chance of bearing fruit. They are the sum and substance of theology: of ecclesiology, and soteriology, and even Christology and pneumatology. The world is paying attention: but paying attention to what? And why? And in this transition, for which the death of the Pope is merely a metaphor, finally, what does the Christian church do? And on what basis does it do it?

No comments:

Post a Comment