To control or embrace?
Last Sunday was the Feast of Christ the King. It marks, I am reliably informed, the end of the cycle of the church’s year. I knew nothing of this growing up, having only heard of Christmas and Easter. And in my very different liturgical landscape now, we have worked our way through all the seasons to wash up thankfully once more on the shore of Advent. I say ‘thankfully’ this year, because 2020 has thrown such a curve ball at us that the world is in a sort of collective PTSD.
Nothing has been predictable.
Except for the church’s year. That has rolled on regardless even if it has meant priests donning the green of Ordinary Time in their studies and presiding from the hall table elevated to the status of altar for the foreseeable.
I can’t say that church festivals featured largely in my early years, perched on my hard upright chair in the freezing little wooden hut which was all I knew of church. The faithful there would have detested any reference to festivals, even Advent. They hated any ceremony, any statues and crosses (do not make for yourself any graven image), any ringing of bells, any singing of responses, psalms and canticles, any reverence, formality and bowing. They would have been especially derisory of any lack of spontaneity.
And some wounded part of me loves the fact that they would have hated it.
It’s not that easy to be free, although, trust me I’m working on it. It’s not that easy to say, that was then, and this is now. It’s not that easy to begin to think that the God I grew up with isn’t all there is of God. Or even isn’t God at all. And I know that however much I sing in my church choir, however far I climb the candle (and I’m still climbing), however much now I love rites and rituals, part of me is still terrified and is waiting for the clouds to part and that long pointy finger to accuse me of wilful idolatry.
I am – oh – nine or ten years old and while away the interminable sermons in our meetings by flicking through our hymn book and reading the words. I am a good little reader and will read anything I can find. This is the kind of thing I read…
‘Almost persuaded: harvest is past! / Almost persuaded: doom comes at last! / Almost cannot avail; / Almost is but to fail: / Sad, sad, that bitter wail -/ Almost – but lost!’
You can only be safe if you are saved. I never know if I am saved. It dogs my childhood, it is a gripping, griping terror in the pit of my stomach. I live in daily expectation of the Rapture and wonder if I will be left behind. I think the chances are that I will be, standing alone on the pavement, or abandoned in bed in the middle of the night as everyone else being blameless is caught up into heaven.
To be honest, I was sick of trying to be a good Christian and aimed to avoid catching the eye of God at all times in case I was noticed and struck down. It was a bit of an unequal struggle, but I became adept at hiding in corners and keeping quiet. Especially in church.
But singing in my church choir now, I’m not afraid. I know that nothing is going to happen that I won’t be able to handle. I know that no-one is expecting anything of me at all except to hold my second soprano part. The service is set out in black and white and the clergy are as likely to deviate from it as they are to suggest a rousing chorus of ‘Shine Jesus Shine’. The scariest thing that is looming is hitting that A in the first chord of Stanford’s ‘I heard a voice from heaven.’ That’s scary enough.
Now some people who are walking the journey with me are rather baffled by my acceptance of the requirements of the Third Order. Am I not just exchanging one straitjacket for another, they wonder? Don’t I want to be rid of any form of constraint?
There is a difference. One is a controlling structure and one is an embracing structure. The church I grew up in left no room for questioning, for debate, for growth for opportunity to be who you wanted to be. The Third Order offers a structure in which I can breathe, I can move around, I can experiment and discover who I am within it. It’s a community and no community is perfect but there is room to work out your place, even if it means rattling on the perimeter fence.
It is an embracing structure.
It is the difference between religion and spirituality. One, to quote Dolly Parton was “the holy roller of hellfire and damnation”. The other wants to believe in “something good and wonderful”.
Now we are all different. I say ‘tomato’, you say tomato. What fits for me may rankle with you. But all I can say is I am discovering a spirituality that feels authentic in my life right now when all before had seemed empty religion for the sake of it. And I feel embraced and not controlled.
So bring on Advent with its wreath, its purple and pink candles, its Antiphons, its light.
I’m signing up.