Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Something Unlike Stability

The Rev. Greg Syler
I had prepared and was set to lead the Prayers of the People. Such was my liturgical role that Palm Sunday, the year in Divinity School I was serving as intern.

Looking at the order of service, I saw that the prayers immediately followed an organ anthem, always a wonderful thing when played on Rockefeller Chapel’s tremendous E. M. Skinner organ.

I sat in the choir stall, text of the prayers on my lap, prayers I thought decently inspired and marked by themes I remembered from previous Palm Sundays: the expectant and joy-filled crowd, the promise of glory to come, a day of honest celebration. In my Congregationalist church growing up, Palm Sunday was really a prequel to Easter and had many, if not most, of the same themes as the Sunday to come. So were my prayers that day about hope, renewal, celebration and joy.

Then the anthem started.

The master organist began to play the first few measures of the third movement of Marcel Dupre’s Symphonie-Passion – long, heavy rolls of low notes and, in time, those jagged, what Dupre himself called “nail chords” over an impulsive rhythm, driving toward a crescendo which already stills your soul long before the piece ends in resignation, the musical equivalent of despair.

Or, at least that morning, it had already quieted mine, making the prepared sheet on my lap not only useless, but absurd. I don’t know how I mustered through, and the Chaplain was certainly very kind when her feedback was equal parts compliment and theological critique: “You showed a good job of editing while praying,” she said.

There’s something unsettling about Holy Week, deeply disturbing and raw.

And, to be honest, there’s something equally unsettling about the Easter season to come – these stories which were a scandal to Jesus’ earliest followers but which they told anyway, of women eyewitnesses at the tomb, of God dissolving formerly sacred dietary laws, of the Spirit pushing people out of their comfort zones in order that former enemies become friends, reconciliation where we least expect it.

In the middle, of course, is resurrection, which is obviously so much more than contentment or glee or re-assurance that, yes, we were right after all about that prophet from Nazareth. Resurrection, itself, is its own unsettling gift, equally raw and profoundly disorienting. That God, as Athanasius preached in the fourth century, would become human in order that humans could become God is not just a note about undeserved grace but, just as well, about the capacity of the human condition and the goodness we can achieve and the power we have always, already.

And yet still we sit, safely in our figurative choir stalls, clutching an order which is inspired and good and proper, even holy.

Precisely the opposite of tragedy and emptiness, those unsettling themes of Holy Week, Easter is its own indictment, but this time of glory, where we have settled for success; joy, where we have settled for happiness; forgiveness, where we have settled for getting along. An Easter church is constantly agitated towards greater holiness, unsettled with apparent success.

Truth be told, I’ve begun to re-think the importance and, frankly, the restrictions of that definitively Benedictine ideal of stability. Even Benedict, himself, only clearly articulates stability as an essential part of one’s vow near the end of his Rule, placing a greater emphasis in the earlier chapters on community building and relational norms and hospitality and prayer and ministry. That is, before we talk about stability we should figure out who we’re following and why and for what purpose. Perhaps we’ve too quickly turned stability into something like quaintness; a peace which is the absence of peace, actually.

Perhaps the relatively de-stabilizing themes of this current week and season to come are there on purpose, reminding us that ours’ is a much greater purpose, indeed, and that throwing caution to the wind is merely catching up to what God the Spirit’s already done in advance.

Greg Syler is the rector of St. George's, Valley Lee.