Wednesday, November 06, 2019

Putting the Puzzle Together

On Sunday, October 27, three churches and the pastors of six churches in Centralia, Illinois worshiped together under the vision of taking the reunion of the churches seriously. This was the sermon I preached on that occasion:

Imagine Jesus at the Last Supper; in John’s Gospel, he closes with prayer, the prayer recorded in the seventeenth chapter. A part of it was read this morning. Jesus does not pray about himself. He will do so not long afterwards, in the Garden of Gethsemane, for he knows that he will be dead and buried in less than 24 hours. The end of his earthly ministry is at hand. But at the Last Supper, in his prayer he shows that his vision is for the future, and he prays for his disciples and for the believers to come. He prays for us. He prays, “I do not ask for these only, but also for those who will believe in me through their word.” (verse 20) That is us.

And what does he pray? “That they may all be one, just as you Father, are in me, and I in you, that they also may be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me.” (verse 21) And “The glory that you have given me I have given to them, that they may be one even as we are one.” (verse 22)

This kind of oneness is amazing, and beyond our understanding; it is a union like that between the Father and the Son. It’s not a contract or a fellowship, but a loving and inseparable bonding like that in the divine life. And it is brought about by Jesus’ gift to us of glory, the same glory that the Father had given to the Son. 

What if Jesus really meant it? This is Jesus praying for us on the night of his passion. It must have been important to him. He prays that the believers to come might be one, and he prays it three times in that prayer. (verses 11, 21, and 22-23) This is the prayer of a man poised for death, the culmination of his presence on earth. It’s got to be important!

If he prayed for it, he must have seen the need for it, and if he saw the need for it, then the threat of the breakup of the community of believers was real. And evidently for good reason, for now we believers are indeed broken. And therefore we must recognize that we have violated the will of Jesus, whom all of us call Lord and Savior.

But in his mercy, God has blessed us even in our brokenness, for the glory he gave to us has remained, though diminished and disconnected. We might think of a puzzle. A puzzle, whether of twenty or a thousand pieces, begins with a single picture, usually complex, diverse, detailed, and beautiful. When it is cut into pieces, it remains obvious that the pieces are all made to fit together and therefore each piece, by its very shape, bears testimony that it is itself incomplete and finds its true identity in being assembled with the others. And each piece, even when it is alone, still bears a small part of the whole picture, a part that is unique to itself, and vital to all.

Paul had a similar image, but one far more powerful, when he described the Church as a body in 1 Corinthians 12. He did not use the word “family”—in fact, I don’t think the Church is anywhere described in the New Testament as a “family”—he uses the word Body. A family is a number of independent individuals linked by a shared heritage; but a body is a single entity made up of diverse parts—eye, hand, foot—under the head which is Christ. Each is a vital part for the wellbeing of all. “The eye cannot say to the hand, I have no need of you.” (1 Corinthians 12:21a). None of us can look at any other Christian and say, “I have no need of you.” The opposite must be true then: “I need you.”

The New Testament knows nothing of denominations. Where there is even the hint of such a thing, Paul leaps on it fiercely. “Each one of you says, ‘I follow Paul,’ or ‘I follow Apollos’, or ‘I follow Cephas,’ or ‘I follow Christ.’ Is Christ divided?” (1 Corinthians 1:12-13a) Note: he does not say, “Is the Church divided?” He says, “Is Christ divided?” The believers are the body of Christ, Christ himself being the head. Paul takes as a given the unity of believers Jesus prayed for.

When the Church divides, then, it is not a separation of parts, or the breaking of a fellowship; it is the dismemberment of Christ’s Body.

By this teaching, is it not clear that if we accept living with denominations, if we are complacent with how things are, that we are at variance with the teaching of Paul, not to mention the prayer of Jesus? Five hundred years ago, the Church was, without doubt, corrupt and in dire need of correction. The Reformation was needed. But was the breaking of the Church the best or right way to go about it? I don’t know. Did the Reformers do the right thing in the wrong way? I cannot answer that. But it is what happened, it is history, and we are the heirs of a broken Church. By God’s mercy, the gifts were retained, but scattered and divided, and therefore weakened. But they were preserved.

What was the Church like in the New Testament? The things that separate us now were all there, and belonged to all. The Church was structured and hierarchical and it was Spirit-filled; it was intellectual and it was emotional; its people prayed in a way that could shake people up; it knew miracles; and it had Tradition; it was liturgical and it was spontaneous; it baptized (by immersion), and it celebrated the Lord’s Supper often; its preaching was intense and challenging; it taught the Scriptures (it was what we call the Old Testament, but the principle of teaching and knowing Scripture was a given); it was prophetic; it was generous; it changed lives; it impacted its society; it rejected the world’s ways of doing things; it was the first (and still only) organization that anyone, anyone at all, could join—Jews and Gentiles, slaves and free, nobles and impoverished, educated and illiterate, young and old; it produced martyrs; it honored its heroes and heroines; and more.

And it had great variety. Look at it:
The church in Jerusalem was conservative, law-oriented, Jewish.
The church in Antioch was a very busy place, socially-oriented, mission-oriented, Gentile and Jewish, filled with people from different stations in society.
The churches in Galatia were not particularly well educated, most were first-generation pagan converts, they were off the beaten track.
The church in Ephesus was cosmopolitan, business-oriented, powerful and influential, successful, and shaped its individual members well.
The church in Colossae was small, had few resources but was eager to learn.
The church in Corinth was made up of people who were both wealthy and wanton, who were resistant to authority, and reluctant to leave their old life behind, but rich with spiritual gifts.
The churches in Thessalonica and Philippi were made up of blue-collar workers, eager to know Christ, generous with their limited resources of money and time, loving, and mission-oriented.
The church in Rome was sophisticated, made up of both Jews and Gentiles, and of all levels of society from slaves to members of the Emperor’s household, in constant threat of danger from persecution, but persevering and growing.
Each was unique, with a mix of strengths and weaknesses, but they were one Church. If a believer traveled from Crete to Rome to Galatia to Antioch, he was in that Body which Paul describes as one. The Philippian church was a blessing to Corinth, and all the Gentile churches helped the Jerusalem church during a famine. They were one.

And every Christian denomination today can find itself and its gifts in at least one of those churches of the age of the apostles. We are all, all Bible churches. But now that we are broken, none of us is fully a Bible church, not completely. Each one of us has a gift, but no one has them all.

Consider today: What are our gifts? What are the gifts of others that we need? Who are we in our denominations? I’m simplifying now, but bear with me:

There are churches that have the gift of converting people and families with impressive results—but with little sense of history or contemplative prayer.

There are churches that draw on emotions—but with little sense of intellectual depth. And there are churches with strong intellectual content—but they are often boring.

There are churches that bear prophetic witness to the world—but often without a clear definition of Christian belief and moral standards.

There are churches that manifest the gifts of the Spirit, and where miracles are found, and where prayer is immensely powerful—but with little understanding of the prayers of earlier generations who wrote their prayers into a book as a gift for future believers.

There are churches that have a beautiful, historic liturgy—but often depend too much on written words and repetitive patterns at the cost of direct inspiration, and with an unimpressive record of truly converting their own people.

You get the idea.

And, to speak boldly—we would be foolish if we considered this vision without recognized the place and the gifts of the Roman Catholic Church, without which none of us would be here. They stand firm against the world, they recognize the great heroes and heroines of the Christian generations, they honor the woman whom God himself chose and which the Gospel describes as “full of grace”, whom all generations are to call blessed. And the Pope is the only Christian in the world who can go anywhere and draw hundreds of thousands of people to worship. And yet… they themselves recognize that rarely do they truly convert their own people. They know Christian things, but often do not intimately know Jesus.

What, then? We are puzzle pieces, each with a part of the whole, a part unique to ourselves but needed by all. By putting the pieces together, each part remains its true self with its gift, but the great picture is assembled and each gains the gifts of the others. When a long-time friend of mine, a Roman Catholic priest, and I were talking about this very vision, he swelled up with emotion, envisioning a time when all might be one, and said fervently, “Not one storefront church would have to close!” All would be preserved, and all enriched! And we all, all, proclaim Jesus as Lord, and all claim that salvation is found in him alone, through faith and not by anything that we can do to earn it. The essence, the heart of Christianity, rediscovered and proclaimed by the churches of the Reformation, is now taken by all to be central, vital, and unquestionably true: Jesus first, Jesus always, Jesus only, Jesus all, and for all.

And what of Jesus’ prayer? There was a purpose in it: “…that the world may believe that you have sent me.” The unity of believers is a powerful evangelical witness. When we are broken, our ability to bear effective testimony to the world is compromised. We are hiding our light under a bushel.

Moreover, the unity greatly expands our ability to bear prophetic and effective witness in the world for the sake of the poor and those suffering from injustice. Pastor Johnnie saw this when he and I were planning this event, and he saw the potential for a powerful united force that could effectively address the problem of gun violence in our neighborhoods, of drug addiction, of abuse in families. For the neighborhoods right here are rich soil for the Gospel, but most of us, being separated from one another, are weak when it comes to sowing seed in that soil. And people are perishing. They are perishing in our own neighborhoods, people whom God loves, people for whom Christ died.

Paul wrote with triumph, “There is one Lord, one Faith, one Baptism, one God and Father of us all.” And one body of believers. And in his time from the power of that unity there was an eruption of goodness, victory, and the power of God. Within one generation, the Christian Faith spread throughout the entire Roman Empire. “You are the light of the world,” Jesus said, and “You are the salt of the earth.” By our brokenness, we have dimmed that light and diluted that salt. Making these things true again is the clear, uncompromising will of Jesus. So he prayed on the night he was betrayed.

What will come next? There is much that has been done in the past century, praise God, to bring the churches together again. Our authorities and official dialogues have borne much fruit. Recently, a Catholic blogger, a young woman, stated that of the 95 theses posted by Martin Luther just over five centuries ago, Roman Catholics now accept 91 of them. (I don’t know what the four remaining ones are, but still, it’s an amazing statement!)

“How pleasant it is when brothers live together in unity.” (Psalm 133:1) I, for one, think that it is the grass roots where the reality is going to gain its traction. It is essential to this vision of mine that my vision be incomplete; it requires the input of others to fortify and correct it under the Lordship of the Holy Spirit. What will come next? Maybe a meeting of pastors to take seriously what we have begun today, and pray and talk and love and seek to be faithful to the prayer of Jesus, “That they may all be one… so that the world may believe ...” I am convinced that when we do, none of us will lose anything of what is important to our identity or our tradition, but each one of us will provide a blessing to others, and receive blessings back from those others, within the will of God, and the empowerment of the Holy Spirit, and in answer to the prayer of Jesus.

Friday, April 26, 2019

The Golden Thread

When I was a young teenager in the early 1960s I became friends with a boy who lived a couple of doors down from me. We enjoyed many adventures in the fields and neighborhoods near our homes. In 1966, the year I graduated from high school, his family moved away. We determined to continue our friendship by writing letters; fifty-two years later, we continue to write, and our correspondence has amassed more than 1,500 pages. Our letters tell the stories of how I became a priest and he became a screenwriter for movies and television; of our marriages; and of our philosophies of life. We wrote the accounts of the deaths of parents and friends, of our moves, and of the many tragedies and joys of our lives. Both of us became published authors, and both of us were artistic and enjoyed illustrating our letters in pencil, pen and ink, and watercolor.

Letters produced on typewriters and now half a century old are fading, and the ink is slowly seeping into paper that is ever more drying out and becoming yellow and brittle. Last year for several months I spent two to three hours a day scanning the letters into my computer, improving the contrast, and editing them for general reading. Now the work is almost done. Soon they will become available in a 700-page volume through the print-on-demand industry.

As I was scanning, I read what I had written more than 45 years ago when I was in seminary, and described to my friend, who is not a Christian, the deep joy of knowing Jesus and how he was working in my life. I wrote, “This is a true continual natural high. I am a prisoner and a slave, but I am freer than I ever imagined, and it is forever.” I was in my early twenties then—idealistic and sensitive and definitely inexperienced, but the joy radiates to me off the pages I wrote so long ago.

Now I am approaching seventy-one and my career is mostly history. As I look back, I have lots of memories: being ordained with a noted television/movie actor who became a good friend; an emergency baptism of a newborn triplet who would not survive, leaving her sisters to be raised as twins; ministering to a newly-converted young woman who had been raised by parents who were Satanists; becoming friends with the author Kathryn Lindskoog, a friend and correspondent of C.S. Lewis, who was confirmed in her house since she was paralyzed with M.S.; being the instrument that converted an exotic dancer, who remains dedicated to Christ to this day; preaching at the funeral of a young murder victim in the presence of her murderer, who would not be arrested for about 15 years when technology caught up to the evidence; baptizing an old man on his deathbed; ministering seven years to a woman who had been described by the police as “one of the most savagely abused children in California history” so that she could become functional in society; walking down California coastal highway 1 with a priest-friend in formal clergy suits, tennis shoes, and Navy pea-coats while cars drove by honking greetings to us; performing a wedding for a “punker” couple with everyone in the congregation festooned with spikes, tattoos, and dyed hair and the bride seven-months pregnant; the amazing infusion of hundreds of college students into the Anglo-Catholic church of which I was Rector; and working with a forensic psychologist to track down the actual murderer of a woman whose husband, a member of my church, had been arrested for the murder—and who remains in prison 26 years later through the indifference of the legal system. These are just a few of the memories that come to the surface without much effort.

I have performed about 150 weddings and the same number of funerals, baptized at least 500 people, and heard about 800 confessions. I figure that I have said Mass about 6,000 times and preached at least that many sermons. Like all priests and ministers of the Gospel, I have my share of failures and successes, of sins of which I am greatly ashamed and saintly acts for which I am grateful to our God who guides and empowers—and in everything I see his always-reliable grace and mercy and beauty.

The immaturity so evident in the early letters to my friend is long gone. The world has changed and I have changed, and through the changes both the joys and sufferings of my ministry have been intense. Over the years I have been undeservedly loved by many people, and suffered grievously and equally undeservedly from the anger of a dozen or more others who projected on me fiery rage over hurt done to them by others. I have mental and emotional scars, and carry wounds that cannot ever heal in this life. I have learned what St. Paul meant when he wrote, “Let no one trouble me, for I bear on my body the marks of Jesus.” The marks are both evidence of deep suffering and tokens of the glory that ultimately triumphs.

From those heady days of seminary when I wrote naively to my friend of the all-encompassing joy of knowing Jesus, I can draw an unbroken line to my life today, and note surely that through the years there has always been the golden thread of that same all-encompassing joy that no one can take away. The priesthood is at the core of my calling and therefore of my identity for ever. Praise be to Jesus Christ!

Monday, July 30, 2018

How Terribly Strange...

In the spring of 1968, Simon and Garfunkel released their fourth album, “Bookends”. It had a song on it that caught my imagination right away: “Old Friends”. It was a reflection on old age, and described two old men who sit on a park bench like bookends. The lyrics of the hauntingly lovely song are, “Old friends sat their park bench like bookends. A newspaper blown through the grass falls on the round toes of the high shoes of the old friends. Old friends, winter companions, the old men lost in their overcoats waiting for the sun. The sounds of the city sifting through trees settle like dust on the shoulders of the old friends. Can you imagine us years from today sharing a park bench quietly? How terribly strange to be seventy. Old friends. Memory brushes the same years. Silently sharing the same fears.” An online commentary on the lyrics says that the song describes two old men who “ponder how strange it is to be nearing the end of their lifetime.”

I was 19 when the song came out, and Paul Simon and Art Garfunkel were both 26 when they recorded it. It was the time of the Viet Nam war. Martin Luther King and Bobby Kennedy would be assassinated in April and June of that year. Richard Nixon would be elected President in November. I was halfway through my undergraduate studies in mathematics at UCLA, and active on the university’s varsity gymnastics team.

Now fifty years have passed. Half a century. On this day I turn seventy. Is it “terribly strange to be seventy”? I rather think it might be. Simon and Garfunkel both turn 77 this year. I wonder what they think about it.

The Bible says, “The span of our life is seventy years, perhaps even eighty if we are strong” (Psalms 90:10). Apparently when this psalm was written, seventy was thought to be a full term of life. What does it mean to be “old”? I read a Nancy Drew book a few months ago. The Hidden Staircase, written in 1930 when the author was 25, described two sisters as “elderly”. The way they were described, you’d think they were at least eighty. But a few chapters later you discover that they were in their late forties. I laughed out loud when that became clear. When I was fifty-five, a college student prayed for me, and lovingly asked God to bless me “as I neared the end of my life.” I was teaching two or three karate classes a week at that time, and could do more pushups than any of the students including the young men in their twenties.

Maybe one can think “how terribly strange to be twenty” and not know much about growing old. What is “old”? Well, maybe I am. Even if I live to be a hundred, my life is more than two-thirds over. When one is twenty, one’s life stretches far ahead into mystery. But the older one gets, there is less and less future left to oneself, and the more memories one has. My memories go back to the 1950s. How terribly strange. How terribly strange to be seventy.

You can find “Old Friends” by Simon and Garfunkel on youtube, of course. When I listened to it just now, I cried. I don’t know why.

I plan to celebrate my seventieth birthday by going to the public pool and performing complex dives the way I used to do when I was twenty. I can still execute a few of them. But I have the chronic aches, sagging face, and age spots of the elderly. I stopped doing standing back flips on the ground when I was in my early fifties. I’m not sitting on a park bench yet, lost in an overcoat. But maybe I will be one day. By now I trust that I have learned the most important life lesson of all, found in that same psalm quoted above:

“So teach us to number our days that we may apply our hearts to wisdom” (Psalms 90:12). And as the Bible tells us in many places, “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom.” Life’s experiences teach the same thing. I should know. I am seventy.

Wednesday, July 04, 2018

The Mountaintop Experience

Note: I've tried everything I know how to eliminate the unwanted underlining in this post, and gotten no results. The underlining is not in my document and it doesn't show in the draft of the blogpost. I give up. Here is the post, underlining and all.

Many times in my young teen years a good friend and I set out to explore the mountains to the north of us. The youthful desire to discover, find adventure, break away from adult constrictions, and stake a claim on independence pressed us to go beyond the asphalt streets and manicured lawns into wild territory. “Wild” territory was just following a stream that somehow managed to survive the shackles of neighborhoods and shopping centers.

I noticed one day about 1964 that this stream flowed along its gentle course adjacent to my high school, that it came from the north, and that to the north was a ridge of mountains. I reasoned that the stream must have a source somewhere within a few miles of us, and I suggested to my friend that he and I follow the stream until we found the spring that brought its waters to the surface.

For a number of Saturdays we hiked alongside that stream, passing through neighborhoods we’d never otherwise have known, cutting through fields, passing underneath rows of eucalyptus, and eventually coming into the foothills. When we got far enough away, we had to depend on our mothers to drive us to the place where we’d left off the previous Saturday afternoon, and pick us up eight hours later.

As we had feared that we might, once we entered the mountains we came to places we couldn’t get through on foot—steep slopes with Gordian tangles of briars and the like. We had to go around and then guess where the stream, ever narrowing, picked up. I’m pretty sure we did find its source—somewhere on a slope. The stream burbled down the incline into a narrow dell, turned to follow the decline, and went off to the points south where we’d come from. And it was obvious that the water had to emerge from the mountain at some place veiled in the briars. We considered our quest achieved.

By that time, though, finding the spring was only one reason we were hiking; we’d found so many hidden, nearly inaccessible places that our pleasure was not limited to completing our goal. We pressed on until we came to the peak of the mountain. There were four old pepper trees near the summit. Under their shade we ate our sack lunch and looked out over the valley in which dozens of incorporated little cities lay and a million people had their homes—including us. We returned to that small grove near a mountaintop several times over our teen years. This photograph shows the view we had from near the top of the mountains.

There is a theological reason why Moses met God on a mountaintop, why Jesus was transfigured on a mountain, why even the crucifixion took place on “Mount Calvary”. The term “mountaintop experience” refers to some sort of revelatory experience with God. A mountaintop is a place removed from the rush of life and the surroundings of familiarity. For the same reason, encounters with life-changing experiences also take place in a desert, a forest, or other faraway place.

Many people need at some time in their lives to be at the top of a mountain, whether it is low or lofty. The vision they are afforded must be literal as well as internal. Sometimes people need to see for miles and miles in all directions. Human minds and souls need remote horizons, not compaction.

I will never forget those days, well over fifty years ago now, when my friend and I left our neighborhood behind and trekked into the foothills and walked through fields and dells and the slopes of the foothills, eventually coming to the mountaintop. Those hikes began and cemented a friendship that continues to this day, from our early teens to our late sixties.

Saturday, March 31, 2018

Calm Before the Storm

There is something undeniably rich and full about silence. On Holy Saturday especially, there is a feeling like a “calm before a storm”. Jesus’ crucifixion has been achieved and his body has been laid into the tomb. Notably, where before the cross there were three Marys (Jesus’ mother, the wife of Clopus, and the Magdalene), at the tomb there are only the latter two—along with a woman named Salome. Jesus’ mother by her absence shows that she knows that there is no need to go. Surely she is not at home prostrate with grief; she knows that the story isn’t over when everyone else thinks it is.

My earliest encounter with karate was watching an episode of an old western on television in about 1960. It was about an apparent sissy who appears in town; he wears nice suits and dressy cloth gloves on his hands. He is bullied and mocked by the he-men cowboys. He’s pushed around on the street and sneered at in the saloon. Finally, as the show nears its end, when he is mocked once again for wearing fancy gloves, he has had enough; he gets up from the table and takes off his gloves. His knuckles are enlarged with calluses. One of the punchers asks, “Wh—, whut happen to yo’ hands?” The newcomer smashes a table with his hands and then lights into the cowboys and lays them all out. Turns out he had recently returned from several years’ stay in the Orient where he had learned karate.

That was the time when karate was becoming known in the United States and schools were beginning to appear. A friend of mine became interested in karate in the late 1950s when a schoolmate said, “There’s this thing called karate [which he pronounced ‘kay-rate’], and the guys who do it can break boards with their hands.” Shortly after that my friend opportunely moved with his family to Korea for business and he earned a black belt in Tang Soo Do, a style of Korean karate, from the founder-master. (It was the same style as Chuck Norris’, who also first learned in Korea.) When my friend returned to the United States, he opened the first Tang Soo Do school in the nation.

The idea of an apparent weakling who humbly takes abuse from bullies until he finally turns the tables is one of the great stories of humanity. There are many such stories in our culture, in movies and books, many of which I could name.

Deep down, it is the story of Jesus—a fantasy which became fact. Betrayed by a disciple, Jesus was taken into custody by his enemies who were too cowardly to arrest him openly in public, put through a sham trial, and then taken to the secular authorities represented by Pontius Pilate who declared him innocent yet condemned him to death anyway as a savvy political move designed to keep the peace in a tense, politically fragile situation. All of them were bullies who abused their power to rid themselves of one seemingly weak and friendless man who threatened their security.

The week of political, legal, and official manipulation and self-protection finally culminated in an apparent triumph for the bullies. Jesus was executed and then buried in a borrowed tomb. Holy Saturday is the day after the crowd had done its worst to the apparent weakling, and think that they’ve won.

And then the weakling takes off his gloves.

There are many paintings by countless artists of the crucifixion, and a good number of the resurrection. But I think there is only one of the events of Holy Saturday. The day of rich quiet. The calm before the storm. It is this one. It is called “Easter morning”, and was painted by Caspar David Friedrich (1774-1840). It is housed in a private collection in Switzerland; the painting was rendered in the early 1830s but not made public until 1973. It shows the two Marys and Salome going to the tomb to anoint the body of Jesus. The bare trees are symbols of death, and the women are mourning like anyone else who'd had lost to death someone that they loved. Yet the full moon overhead symbolizes the resurrection of Jesus that has already happened, and which they are about to discover. The calm of Holy Saturday is already giving way to the storm of the resurrection. It is the Great Reversal. “Death is conquered, man is free, Christ has won the victory.”

Friday, March 02, 2018

The Four Marian Anthems

The four Marian anthems are hymns to the Virgin Mary used every evening during four seasons of the year. I have forgotten where I first heard of them, but for years they have been part of my personal devotions. Except for the first, their history is obscure and their authorship is unknown, but they have had their own music and have been used in the liturgy since 1239. Several texts are at least a century older than that, and the first goes back almost a thousand years.

They are the Alma Redemptoris Mater (Loving Mother of our Savior), the Ave Regina Caelorum (Hail, O Queen of heaven), the Regina Caeli (Queen of heaven), and the Salve Regina (Hail Queen). These are love poems of surpassing beauty, prayed devotedly by the faithful for many generations.

Just a day or two ago, while browsing Wikipedia I learned that the first, Alma Redemptoris Mater, was composed by a most unusual and impressive person named Hermann of Reichenau who lived in the eleventh century (July 18, 1013 to September 24, 1054). He was also known as Hermann the Cripple. He was beatified (the last stage before canonization as a Saint) in 1863, but has not been canonized. At least not yet. He was afflicted by a terrible disease from his earliest years. Scholarly guesses are that he may have suffered from Lou Gehrig’s Disease, but that is not certain; early descriptions of his deformity suggest that he may suffered from a cleft palate and spinal bifida. Whatever his affliction, he had great difficulty moving and could hardly speak. When he was seven, his parents could no longer take care of him adequately, and so placed him in a monastery, the Abbey of Reichenau in Germany. It is located on an island, and is now a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Hermann grew up there, became a professed monk when he was twenty, and died at the age of 41.

In spite of his physical disabilities, he had a brilliant mind and became proficient in musical theory and composition, geometry and mathematics, astronomy, history, poetry, and theology. He wrote on each of these subjects, and also built musical and astronomical instruments, including an astrolabe—one of the earliest in Europe. He was also proficient in several languages, including Arabic, Greek, and Latin. He is one of a few people called a scientist-cleric.

While many of his works have lasted to this day nearly a thousand years later, the one for which he is best known is the Alma Redemptoris Mater. I can never pray it again without thinking of Hermann and giving thanks to God for his life, genius, and especially his perseverance through his disabilities to excel in so many fields of endeavor.

Here is the text of the anthem he wrote, followed by the texts of the other three Marian anthems. (Hermann is traditionally considered to have composed the Salve Regina also, but most scholars doubt that attribution.) Various versions of their performance can be found on youtube.

Alma Redemptoris Mater
By Bl. Hermann of Reichenau
Gracious Mother of our Redeemer, for ever abiding Queen of heaven and Star of the sea, O pray for your children, who, though falling, strive to rise again. You, maiden, have borne your holy Creator to the wonder of all nature; ever-virgin, after as before you received that Ave from the mouth of Gabriel, intercede for us sinners.

Ave Regina Caelorum
This poetic text can be sung to Hymn 339, “Deck thyself, my soul, with gladness”
Hail, O Queen of heavenly regions,
Mistress of angelic legions,
Root of Jesse, heaven’s portal,
Whence has risen the Light immortal.
Joy to you, O Virgin bless├Ęd,
Fairest of our race confess├Ęd,
Hail, O ever-beauteous maiden,
Plead to Christ for souls sin-laden.

Regina Caeli
This poetic text can be sung to Hymn 207, “Jesus Christ is risen today”
Joy to you, O Queen of heaven, alleluia;
He whom you were meet to bear, alleluia,
As he promised, has arisen, alleluia;
Pour for us to him your prayer, alleluia.

Salve Regina
There are two versions printed below; the first is Anglican and the second is Roman Catholic.
Mary, we hail you, Mother and Queen compassionate; Mary, most holy, great, and pure, we hail you. To you your children, members of Christ, lift our voices. To you we sing praises, for by your obedience you brought forth to us the Savior. Pray for us now, O our intercessor, that the grace of earnest repentance be given to us sinners. And may we, when our earthly sojourn has been ended, joy in Jesus, the blessed fruit of your womb, O gentle, O tender, O gracious Virgin Mary.

Mary, we hail you, Mother and Queen compassionate; Mary, most holy, great, and pure, we hail you. To you we cry, the children of Eve; to you we send up our sighs, mourning and weeping in this land of exile. Turn, then, most gracious advocate, your eyes of mercy toward us; lead us home at last. And may we, when our earthly sojourn has been ended, joy in Jesus, the blessed fruit of your womb, O gentle, O tender, O gracious Virgin Mary.

Saturday, December 23, 2017

Miss Frouida Baker

“And now, a solo from Miss Frouida Baker.” I heard these words almost every week when I was seminarian assistant at St. Helen’s Anglican Church in Vancouver, British Columbia. I worked there for a full year, from the fall of 1971 through the summer of 1972. The Rector was the Rev. Canon J. Whinfield Robinson, a wonderful evangelical low churchman. He wore no vestments—just cassock, surplice, and stole; he was never called “Father”; people did not make the sign of the cross in the church and visitors who crossed themselves were corrected by the sidesmen (ushers). Canon Robinson influenced me greatly, and was always good to me. I learned a great deal from him, and remained in contact with him until he died on January 12, 1997, probably close to ninety years old.

It is the custom in many Anglican churches worldwide not only to have services on Sunday morning, but also to have Evensong on Sunday evening. There would be different lessons and a different sermon from what one had experienced in the morning. And many people came to both services. And so it was at St. Helen’s.

In St. Helen’s choir was an elderly single woman (many would say “old maid”) named Frouida Baker. She was always there, and very often, mostly in the evening I think, she sang a solo at some point in the service. Canon Robinson always introduced it with the same words: “And now, a solo from Miss Frouida Baker.” She was not a gifted singer. As I recall, her soprano voice was kind of warbly.

It has been 45 years since those days. Miss Baker is long gone from this world, as is Canon Robinson. But now that I am 69 and no longer 24, I look back on that year as one of those magic times in one’s life. I have known a few people over the decades who had no family. They either had never married or had been widowed; there were no children or siblings left alive; their parents were long gone and their cousins, if any, were also either departed or there had been no contact since childhood. I suspect that Miss Frouida Baker was one of these.

But she was the quintessential old maid who sang in her church choir week after week after week for years, probably without much reward, notice, or thanks. I can’t say that I ever talked to her even though I was in church with her just about every Sunday for a year. And I have no memory of what she looked like.

But somehow I have never forgotten her, and now that nearly half a century has gone by, I recognize her priceless gift. She made an unremarkable offering of song willingly without expectation of reward, notice, or thanks. She praised and served God humbly and dependably with what she had. She blessed and taught and changed me ever so subtly but powerfully and permanently. If only I could be so humble and so faithful.

Update, July 4, 2018: Intrigued by my memory of Frouida Baker, I looked her up on the internet and was gratified to find a little information about her. She was born in 1907 and died in 1997. She wrote and self-published a book in 1989 called An Airwoman Overseas, which appears to be unorderable. Her burial place is on Saltspring Island in British Columbia, apparently where such family as she had is also buried.