Go, go, go, said the bird: human kind
Cannot bear very much reality.
Time past and time future
What might have been and what has been
Point to one end which is always present. (T.S. Eliot, Four Quartets, Burnt Norton)
Sitting in the parlour of Huron College, at Western, in January 1988, I heard this same message from a bishop whose visit was motivated in part by a desire to further probe and potentially derail this candidate for ministry. His military chaplain to candidates had summarily dismissed my person, and likely as an act of calming the room’s social freeze, invited me to share a coffee with him. I declined.
The moment, clearly preserved and resurrected many times in the intervening thirty-two years, continues to vibrate perplexity, ambiguity, ineffability and also, on reflection, portend many political, social and professional volcanic vomits.
Was the bishop’s warning an attempt to ward against any potential disturbance to his tenure, should one confront others with painful ‘truths’?
Was the bishop setting the scene ‘straight’ in order to pave the way for a more tolerable and tolerant excursion into ministry?
Was the bishop expressing a red flag in opposition to curiosity, intensity, spontaneity and unpredictability which had already emerged in a divided first-year class in theology?
Was the bishop straight-out telling me from his supervisory perch that too much truth-telling bode ill inside the church?
The conjunction of Eliot’s potentially bland, somewhat-open-to-interpretation injunction with its dark side, secret and invasive and manipulative investigation of the private lives of candidates, has forever haunted my experience and my vision of an ecclesial organization, dedicated both to worshipping God and to inspiring others to join in that discipline.
Which realities were/are intolerable to which people, when and why? And when and how does this question intervene in the many processes designed to martial the spiritual growth of parishioners including those charged with the ostensible mentoring of that growth?
Was another bishop driving his prominent thumb into my chest forbidding the publication of a thesis on the only known liturgical suicide in Canadian church history a clear indication of the nuclear nature of what the church “could tolerate”?
Was this same bishop’s inflamed charge of “evil” of a Lenten study session, in which “betrayal” was the central theme, and in which participants were invited to explore not only how they had been betrayed, but how they themselves had betrayed others another example of how and when intolerance of reality plagues the church?
Was the hegemonic presumption of a member of a founding parish family to be selected as ‘warden’ and then the blatant, yet secret and private revenge for the clergy’s refusal of the obvious pretention another sign of the deep penetration of Eliot’s insight?
Was the abrupt, arrogant, oligarchic and viscious announcement that a right-wing evangelical video would be shown “on Tuesday evening this week” in order to illustrate how evil were the homilies then being delivered by the neophyte cleric another example of how “reality was not able to be tolerated”?
Was the recorded phone message intoning contemptuously, “You are the antichrist because you read and recommend Scott Peck,” another example of how reality is intolerable to so-called devout parishioners?
Was banning the display of the black pastoral theologian’s work, “Becoming a Self Before God,” by the church bookstore another example of how racism secretly deployed infests the interiority of the church body politic and incarnates a profound contempt for reality?
Was the refusal to investigate the context of multiple conflicts between clergy and parish, especially given the obvious, yet ignored conflict of interest of the complainants, thereby defying any and all attempts to provide “due process” another series of examples in which “tolerance for the full display of the reality” is/was/and will continue to be beyond the tolerance of the church?
Was/Is the refusal/avoidance of any and all reasonable processes of orientation of new clergy to parishes in turbulence from previous tenures another blatant example of the church’s addiction to avoidance and denial of responsibility in its appointment, mentoring and support of those “thrown into the deep end of the pool”?
Was the blind and neurotic assessment by a primary teacher, of a friendly poke and Hi Rog’! as a friend passed by, worthy of the immediately delivered ‘strap’ justice or just another example of sheer intolerance of reality?
Was the primary teacher’s injunction, “The honeymoon’s over!” to a ten-year-old boy who, having witnessed the crushing death of his brother under a flat-bed’s hay-ride only days previously, and was now finding it difficult to concentrate, another scurrilous example of how that teacher could not stand ‘too much reality”?
While himself reeking of alcohol in the middle of a bishop’s committee meeting was the warden’s demand that the cleric visit, alone, with a woman who had previously misrepresented another encounter with the clergy, another example of how reality is unacceptable to many?
Was the injunction of a Canon to a bishop not to attend a city-wide healing service, comprising all faiths immediately following the Columbine massacre, ‘because it was only a public relations stunt of the Roman Catholics,” another dirty-laundry example of how the church leadership refuses to acknowledge its own blind hubris?
Was the order to attend a meeting with the bishop, by that same Canon, to a new clergy, “because I have been telling my story for nine years without being heard,” and then failing to inform the bishop of his intervention, just another bit of office politics, or more likely, another instance of how unacceptable reality is to people in positions of leadership?
Was the blind and overt omission by the faculty of theology at Trinity College to include a single lecture on “conflict resolution in parishes” while dedicating least a dozen hours to “holy hand-waving” over sacraments, another blind, and hubristic example of unwilling acknowledgment of parish turbulence?
Was the story of a woman parishioner’s attendance at a social gathering where and when racist humour was being displayed, to “walk away because I would not want anyone to think that I considered myself superior to them” another example of not tolerating the complex truth that she was offended but silently put her own reputation ahead of the reputation of those whose race was being decried?
Was the story of the clergy, feigning seasonal affective disorder, and requiring psychiatric treatment, while really struggling with his own homosexuality, another example of how the church’s rejection of his sexuality was making him “ill” while the church bore no responsibility for the deep and penetrating pain he was experiencing?
Was the prominent local politician who claimed that she was only attending church services in order to better assure herself of a happy landing in heaven another example of how the church envelops even the most banal and ironically ineffectual motive, without even pretending to confront such a motive, another example of how reality denied, in its simplest and often deceiving form, aborts truth and authentic relationships?
Was the history teacher’s answer to a question supplemental to the text’s verbiage, “We do not have time for that question; we have to prepare for the final examination?” another example of how the reality of the moment, including the question and the questioner, gave way to the anxiety of the pedagogue, and the vacuum of the potential teaching moment?
Was the educator’s laughing dictum, “I consider the meaning of confidentiality to be that I tell only one person at a time!” another overt example, unchallenged, of how reality, in this case, of trust, is too radioactive for his mature and authentic handing?
Was the bishop’s response to hearing, “You know she (a female clergy) hates men!”…”I have never seen that from her!” another example of how a supervisor, unchallenged, avoids having to consider the import and the implication of such a report of misandry?
Was/Is the church’s acquiescence to the pretensive appearance of aspiring politicians in the midst of a election campaign, in order to be observed taking the collection or serving at the altar, when those appearances occur only at such opportune times, another example of “avoiding conflict at all costs,” and thereby of effectively “tolerating too much offense”?
Are those churches, and their clergy, who build and then trumpet the size of their congregations, and the depth of their trust accounts, as examples of highly successful ministry merely acceding to the “extrinsic, capitalist, marketing, evangelizing” model of religion, without having to take account of the spiritual lives of those numbers of people?
Is the bishop who directed a priest to fill the coffers and the pews, only to discover that, although he knew how to fulfil that directive, he informed his secretary of his rejection of the admonition, and then took his owe life, in any way culpable in the drama? And, of course, is his directive even known to those who might have a need and a desire to know of it, and of its implications?
When misogyny is rampant in so many quarters of institutional
and corporate culture (especially in the Oval Office), is there any place and
opportunity for opening the eyes and ears and minds of the culture in North
America to the almost imperceptible, yet ubiquitous, misandry that has yet to
find a voice, and a receptive ear in a culture that oscillates from one extreme
to another, while finding the moderate and somewhat ‘grey’ middle BORING?
Our political leaders, while not being either required or expected to be paragons of virtue, are reflective of the ethos they represent. And that ethos, morphing ever more deeply and more speedily into a STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) mind-set, including, at the working level, a dependence on, even ingratiation towards, the binary, at the expense and even the denial of ambiguity, paradox, uncertainty, and the requisite humility and openness to others, and to others’ views, raises the spectre of a cultural denial of not only the observation of ambiguity, irony, paradox and uncertainty, but, more importantly, a rejection and a denial of the attitudes needed to appreciate those unknowns.
And yet, with Kierkegaarde especially, we acknowledge our incapacity to “know” the mind of God or even to speculate with certainty about the will of God. With the prevalence of denial, avoidance and even turning a blind eye and a deaf ear to those aspects of reality we find discomfiting, among the spiritual and the educational sectors of our culture, and even more among those whose lives depend on the elimination of ambiguity for profit and for votes, are we at risk of drowning in a cultural habit that, while easily rationalized, is also just as easily ameliorated.
If only we could/would summon the courage to “bring our truth to power” in our daily lives, at our kitchen tables, in our classrooms, and certainly in our social gatherings!
Our individual and collective failure to summon that courage not only empowers people like trump, and his cult, but paralyzes our capacity to deal honestly and effectively with those with whom we have a disagreement. And it is those same people who hold the key to our own new and unexpected insights and aha moments!