Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Too many typos

This morning's New York Times includes an opinion piece by Virginia Heffernan on "The Price of Typos" in book and online publishing, which is available here. She explains that the move to digital publishing has pushed editors in the big publishing houses to abandon the scores of copyeditors and proofreaders that they used to employ to ensure orthographic perfection. Heffernan notes that, although online mistakes can be corrected within a matter of seconds, even minor spelling errors can lead to a huge decline in online revenue, inferior ranking in Google and other search engines, and the loss of respect among discerning advertisers, consumers, bibliophiles, and others that have come to expect the professional polish that used to characterize the publishing industry.

I couldn't agree more with Heffernan's call for a more attentive attitude toward spelling (and I would add, grammar), whether online or on paper. Maybe it's my training as a word nerd that has made me so intolerant of poor orthography. I have both a bachelor's and a master's degree in French language and literatures (yes, literatures plural), and I have often felt that if I have to sort out the quagmire of words that end in -ence and -ance in both languages, it certainly cannot be too much to ask other Anglophones to just get it right in English. In fact, I used to despair when correcting undergraduate papers or reviewing resumes from prospective employees that were simply awash in spelling atrocities. These mistakes communicated to me that the author was too sloppy, too careless, or insufficiently professional to get it right. My partner, who is a terrible speller, thinks I'm just being overly punctilious and fussy. He often says that on the issue of spelling, I'm just like Hermione Granger in Harry Potter, whom Professor Snape calls "an insufferable know-it-all". He's probably right.

Yet I would argue that poor spelling is hardly a trivial matter, because it is symptomatic of a much larger problem in our fast-paced, disposable, consumerist culture. I often feel that in the postmodern era we care more about cranking out any old garbage as quickly as possible, than about producing a high-quality product by exerting a little extra effort to apply a professional polish to our work. To give things the attentive care they deserve is a reflection of our values, of our very selves. It shows that we care; it shows that we believe that what we have produced has value. Of course, spelling is but the tip of the proverbial iceberg. Consumerist carelessness can also be perceived in the paucity of correspondents who still send hand-written thank-you notes for a gift, a lovely evening in someone's home, or a thoughtful visit during a hospitalization. I have also encountered it in the inability of a person to remember my name, even though I've met him or her several times. I don't buy the argument of the naysayers in Heffernan's article that claim that spelling errors display one's humanity, making the author seem more accessible and down-to-earth. How many of us feel an individual is more accessible when he forgets our name for the eighth time?

Now, before I am condemned for being too harsh, I must confess that I am as susceptible to the same foibles as everyone else, not usually in spelling, but certainly for other sins, especially remembering the countless names of people I meet through my work in the Church (about which I feel quite guilty) and in neglecting the niceties that make living in human society an edifying experience. Heffernan's article reminded me that contemporary culture can be a nasty business, making living more about the expeditious production and consumption of goods and services, than about the quality of our relationships, our efforts, and our creative potential. So, to the poor spellers out there, let's begin by putting just a little more effort into spelling things right. Dust off that thick bound volume on your shelf called a dictionary, particularly if you don't feel confident in your computer's spell-check. If you're just not sure, ask a nit-picky friend to cast an eye over your work. And as for the preceding rant, if you find any nistakes, just send them to the pubilsher.

Sunday, July 10, 2011

War and Peace

Yesterday, after years of civil war, bloody disputes over oil fields, and sectarian enmity between Christians and Muslims, the Republic of South Sudan became a sovereign nation. This should certainly be news for rejoicing, to see peace emerge in a decisive way in one of the most violent regions of the globe. More locally, in the last several weeks, the Lakeview neighborhood of Chicago in which I live has been shaken by a wave of violence and mob action that has generated much fear and racially charged invective.

These two events have preoccupied my thinking, making me wonder how to move forward toward peace in an atmosphere of such rancor and mistrust. In both the Sudanese and American situations, violence has constellated as it always does around the central question of power: who has it and who doesn't. Control over the rich oil fields of Abyei has been a critical (and still unresolved) sticking point in the struggle between north and south in Sudan. In Lakeview, we have seen fear bring to the surface unresolved issues of race and economics that pit white and black Americans against each other.

I am not, of course, going to offer a tidy, simplistic solution to the complex dynamics of either situation. I am convinced, however, that peace is the product of a long, painful and sacrificial process that requires us to attend to the undergirding issues of power that drive violence. It is very easy to caricature and "other" those on the opposite side of the issue, whether Arab or black, Muslim or Christian, gay or straight, black or white, wealthy or poor. To resort, for example, to racial or ethnic stereotypes is to ignore the deeper systems of oppression that drive American society. To talk about religion without talking about oil or history or ethnicity is to oversimplify the Sudanese situation. Expanding the discussion does not mean a denial of the violence that is being committed, or exoneration of those committing it--far from it--but doing justice to the complexity of human society.

Peace cannot emerge from violence by merely skimming the surface of the issues at play in conflict. Peace requires a commitment to going deeply into the intricate network of drivers and systems that undergird violence. And, lest I be accused of Pollyannaish optimism, I admit that in doing such work, one may well discover that there are some for whom violence, chaos, and retribution serve their self-interest. These people may want no part in establishing peace. That is a sad reality. But despite such obstacles, it is only through both sides working in solidarity with each other, through painful perseverance and listening to difficult truths, that peace can be achieved. Today is indeed a day of celebration for The Republic of South Sudan, but it would be naive to regard peace as a fixed state. It must be an ongoing commitment, ongoing labor. There is no doubt much work ahead for the South Sudanese, as it is for us in Lakeview.

As we live into this difficult work may we ground our vision for the future in the words of St. Paul's Letter to the Philippians: "And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus." Lord Jesus, guard our hearts and minds, that your peace may prevail in South Sudan, in Lakeview, in all the broken corners of the world.

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Apprentice priests: abide in the essentials

I just arrived home this evening after attending a beautiful service at St. James Cathedral, Chicago to receive a Roman Catholic priest into the clergy of the Episcopal Church, what might in Roman parlance be called "incardination." As I approach my own ordination and first call as a priest, I think about how I have been prepared for the priesthood and the many gaps in my formation that will affect how well I practice my vocation.

Many may not know that I have spent the last four years as a member of our diocesan Congregational Development Commission, which has been an incredible formation experience, schooling me in a wide range of models for congregational growth and vitality. It has also brought me into contact with congregations and clergy that have struggled to survive under some very trying circumstances, many not of their own making. Although we in the Episcopal Church continually stress the ministry of all the baptized, I have witnessed congregations rise and fall on the strengths and weaknesses of the priests that lead them. That is a terribly unsettling thought: that a congregation's future depends so much on my abilities, my gifts, my pathologies. To have that kind of responsibility is unnerving, to say the least.

Lack of financial and administrative skills in a priest can bring a parish to the brink of disaster, but I have also met priests, who are excellent bureaucrats that lack pastoral sensitivity and spiritual depth. Unfortunately, seminaries don't teach us everything we need to know. They can teach us Greek and biblical exegesis, Church history and liturgy, and yet nearly every day I encounter some skill set or ability that I know would make me a better priest: Web development skills, training in accounting and marketing, community organizing, Jungian analysis, new spiritual disciplines and devotions, and the list goes on and on. The range is mind-boggling. So, how is a new priest to wrangle with this unending litany of demands?

In some ways, seminary education has missed the mark. "Why is it," I would often muse, "that seminary doesn't teach me what I want to know?" Recently I have been thinking that the old apprenticeship model of priestly formation has a lot to recommend it. As Seminarian-in-Residence at the Church of the Atonement in Chicago, I have been blessed to be surrounded by about a dozen priests, many of whom are retired, who have offered me insights on saying mass or transferring a feast or hearing confession or doing a funeral that I would never have learned in seminary even if I had thought to ask. And there was a time, moreover, when a priest's first curacy was designed to give him--at that time, it was always a him--indispensable on-the-job training to fill in the gaps left by the seminary. Comments from fellow seminarians have helped me to appreciate that few people nowadays receive this good old-fashioned apprenticeship. Last Sunday in the sacristy, a seasoned priest, Fr. Dunkerley, said to me with great passion that he was so glad that I would learn to celebrate the old Tridentine Mass in my first curacy, because it had shaped his entire spirituality and priesthood forever. Needless to say, I was surprised and awed by this statement.

And I was deeply grateful. How wonderful it is to sense one's own inadequacy for the challenges of the priesthood in this day and age and then be surrounded by mentoring priests who are willing to support the apprentice with their collective wisdom and experience. I realized that as much as the world calls us to develop new skills and stretch ourselves, we must be grounded in something solid. As usual, I had been making things too complicated, and my mentors guided me back to what was important: saying the Daily Office, going to Confession, attending early morning masses, proclaiming the Word of God, theological study, and listening empathetically to peoples' stories of joy and anguish. These are among the anchors of our faith.

One particularly powerful moment of my apprenticeship emerged on a cold January day at Seabury-Western Theological Seminary. After listening to one of my rather fervid rants about some theological fine point that was distressing me, my Anglican theology professor, Fr. McMichael, looked at me bemused and said simply, "Ethan, abide in the essentials." I was stunned by the pure simplicity of it, and yet it made sense and brought me so much comfort. I heaved a great sigh of relief. Stressing myself out by doing too much and never getting caught up with everything on my to-do list had caused me to lose sight of what was really important. Faithfulness, not perfection, as a priest. "Ethan, abide in the essentials," he said. Here endeth the Lesson.

Friday, July 1, 2011

A candle before the limitless ocean of God

"We can know God in the same way a man can see a limitless ocean when he is standing by the shore with a candle during the night. Do you think he can see very much? Nothing much, scarcely anything. And yet, he can see the water well, he knows that in front of him is the ocean, and that this ocean is enormous and that he cannot contain it all in his gaze. So it is with our knowledge of God." -St. Symeon the New Theologian.

I stumbled upon this quote from St. Symeon the New Theologian recently while reading a book on contemplative prayer, and I was instantly struck by the Byzantine mystic's great humility before the immensity and elusiveness of God. (I should marginally note, however, that despite his appellation of "new," Symeon lived from AD 949 to 1022, which makes him rather old to those of us in the Western Church, and yet relatively recent within the Greek Orthodox theological tradition.)

In any event, Symeon's words cut me to the quick during a period when I encountered a lot of polarizing language from several quarters about orthodox belief, right doctrine, and base heresy. It issued from the mouths of Catholics and Protestants, conservatives and liberals, women and men. I heard it in the pulpit, saw it on Facebook, and witnessed it in casual moments in the sacristy. And I blush to admit that I even had my own moments of theological rigidity. Mea culpa. There was much invective about who was right and who was wrong, and I noticed that rather than bringing people together, this language alienated fellow brothers and sisters in Christ. More than the content of the claims, it was the meanspiritedness with which some of these denunciations and differences of opinion were delivered that disturbed and saddened me.

Now, I consider myself to hold quite orthodox beliefs--the Trinity, the divinity of Jesus, bodily resurrection from the dead, the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist--and yet I must still acknowledge that doctrine is but an imperfect human description of God's reality. We often treat doctrine as if it were empirically provable according to modern standards of scientific evidence, rather than as a signpost that points to a mystery we explore through stumbling and groping in the dark. Symeon rightly describes our limited human faculties as a candle flickering weakly before the immense mystery of God.

I am not, of course, suggesting that our inability to comprehend the fullness of God through doctrine should lead us to discard what the Church teaches. Doctrine is an important starting place for discovery, and it reflects centuries of the Church's collective wisdom and insight that merits preservation. That great Archbishop of Canterbury, Michael Ramsey, described the traditions of the Church, including doctrine, as the "divine paradosis--which is the Greek word for something that has been 'handed over' or 'passed on.'" Ramsey explains the value of our theological patrimony in the opening pages of The Anglican Spirit:

For when we Christians speak of tradition, we mean the experience of the Christian community lying authentically within that which God through Christ has handed over for the revelation of himself and the salvation of men and women everywhere.

Ramsey is pointing to the truth--not the fact--embedded in tradition, and yet recognizing that paradosis involves authentically engaging with something that is beyond our full understanding. I am cautioning us, therefore, to model Symeon's posture of humility in both the experience of and speaking about God. Those that assert with such confidence that they know exactly what God is about and treat with contempt those that differ in their religious convictions are falling short of God's call to humility and erring dangerously into idolatry by constructing God in man's image, rather than the other way around.

In the midst of this divisive talk, a very wise priest and friend stepped into the fray and gently counseled those who labeled themselves as "faithful Catholics" (being one himself) to be faithful by practicing another Catholic virtue, generosity, to acknowledge that others might have a piece of this truth of God that they did not possess. Perhaps their candles before the immensity of God reveals some detail that has escaped us. Generosity and humility cohere well with the Church's notion of its catholicity or universality. To be generous, without being rigid or supercilious, can be helpful in engaging with people at various places along the theological spectrum. One may be a faithful Catholic, or a faithful Protestant, or a faithful evangelical, or whatever, by acknowledging our own limitations before the limitless ocean. Generosity brings us closer to realizing the four marks of the Church, what we call the esse or essence of the Church: one, holy, catholic, and apostolic.