Learning empathy from my autistic children

I like to think of myself as an empathetic person, but I am not. At least, I am not yet.

I do care about people. I worry about friends and family. I feel bad for people who are down on their luck. I sympathize with fictional characters in movies and cry at the drop of a hat.

But when I look inside of myself, what I find more than compassion is blatant self-centeredness. I want others to be happy, but their happiness comes second to my own. I feel bad for others in their suffering, but really I think they should feel bad for me because I have it so much worse. I deserve a break from the mean, cruel world that does not get how hard things are for me, but other people really ought to learn to suck it up and deal.

I need to learn empathy. Fortunately for me, the Lord has given me two able teachers in the form of my children.

I love my boys, but I do not understand them. Their autism frustrates their attempts to communicate and largely keeps them locked in a world to which I do not have access. I am happy when they laugh, but I almost never understand the joke – Was it some funny word I said? The way the light is falling on the floor? What’s so funny about that?

Even more distressing is that I rarely understand what is upsetting them. And something is always upsetting them. Rarely does a day go by without several major freak outs. These go far beyond the tantrums of typical children. They can be long and sustained, sometimes even violent, often lasting for hours on end. When my oldest gets upset enough, he will even bite his own arms, leaving massive bruises.

It is very tiring to live in this environment. It is like living in a war zone. You never know when the quiet will erupt into chaos. And even when things are stable, there is little I can do to connect with my children. I cannot have a conversation with them. I cannot share in their interests  because they largely do not have any. My nine-year-old son’s main interests are showering and baby toys that make noises. How do I connect with that?

So instead I go into my own head. It is surprisingly easy to do. I play on social media, or watch television, or when all else fails I simply turn ideas over in my mind. I become a self-contained unit. I do my best to survive the long afternoons, ignoring as best I can the behaviors of my children that I find most frustrating. I even have the nerve sometimes to accuse my children of lacking empathy because they interrupt my mind wandering with their demands!

What I do not do–what never even occurs to me–is to put myself in their shoes and imagine living in a scary world in which people are constantly talking but I cannot understand them, in which I have many needs and wants but no way to express them, in which the only things that are calming and make any sense are things like the droplets of water coming out of the shower head or the predictable sound effects made by a toy.

Fr. Michael Rennier recently wrote a piece about the great Edith Stein and her advice on cultivating empathy. Stein was a German Jew who became a Catholic nun in the 1930s, taking the name Sr. Teresa Benedicta of the Cross. She was sent to a concentration camp by the Nazis where she died in 1942. Today the Church recognizes her as a saint and a martyr. She was known for her great compassion and kindness even in the concentration camp. Earlier in life, she had written extensively about empathy.

Rennier says that one piece of advice on how to be more empathetic that can be gleaned from Stein’s writing is to get out of our own heads. “Empathy is, among other things, a way of learning to appreciate foreign experiences,” he says. “In the same way that travel broadens the mind, so too does looking at the face of another person and glimpsing another beautiful, mysterious, unique mind. The effort is always worth it.”

Is it worth the effort though? Sometimes it does not feel like it. As my wife says, “Sometimes the juice isn’t worth the squeeze.” Hours upon hours of behavioral therapy, trips out to places where they freak out or refuse the bathroom, controlled environments, medications, repetitive movements, attempts to teach things like simple play let alone something like brushing teeth or tying shoes, and the simplest spark of connection still feels elusive.

But then the tiniest victory in the world melts my heart. My nine-year-old manages to push the cart for a while at the supermarket. My five-year-old walks into a room, looks up at the Captain America action figure on the shelf, reaches out his hands and says clear as day, “I want Superman.” These are moments that are more precious than gold. They are moments when my children move just a bit into the world I inhabit, creating a slightly larger space in the center of the venn diagram in which our worlds overlap. When this happens, I realize for a moment how hard they are trying, how difficult it must be to be them. It is not all about my frustrations or what I hoped parenting might be. It is not about me at all. It is about them. They are the people God has given me to care for. They need me to help them to survive in a world that largely has no place for them. If the only thing I ever do in my whole life is to love, serve, and protect them, it will be a life well lived.

What my children have been teaching me without me realizing it is that my own mind is a closed and lonely place if I do not push past the borders of my comfort. Caring for my kids is not simply a matter of providing them with a roof and three square meals a day. It involves a deeper kind of work in which I make an effort to discover what it means to live in their worlds just as they struggle with how to navigate in mine. If I did not have severely autistic children, I do not know that it would ever occur to me to look at things this way, not just from another person’s perspective but from the vantage point of someone marked as radically other than “normal.” But my children constantly challenge me, which blesses me, because it makes me see that there are so many other people in this world than my limited scope of vision would like to let in. When I see the marginalized, the poor, the oppressed, I see something of my children in them and it opens my heart in a way it never did before.

I am not yet the empathetic and compassionate person I want to be, but with the help of Langston and Micah I am learning.

Why I am becoming Catholic

This August, I will be entering into full communion with the Roman Catholic Church. It is the culmination of many years of God working on my heart and at least two years of intense prayer and discernment.

I confess that this is how it feels for me right now: Beautiful but scary, a giant leap into the unknown, and in many ways very sad. I have spent my entire adult life in The Episcopal Church. It is in The Episcopal Church that I first came to believe in Jesus. The Episcopal Church is where I married my bride and baptized my children. I learned much of what I know about the Catholic faith from wonderful Anglo-Catholic friends and mentors, not to mention from the lives of great Anglican saints. Heck, I spent five years blogging about how totally awesome Anglicanism is. It is not easy for me to leave all that behind, especially when I know that there will be many people who will be disappointed by what I am doing.

About a year ago, I spoke with a friend and fellow Episcopal priest about the fact that I was considering becoming Catholic. In response, he asked me, “What’s the fatal flaw in Anglicanism then?” I was surprised by the question because that is not what this is about for me. I am not becoming Catholic because I want to reject Anglicanism. This is not about escaping the turbulence of life in the modern Episcopal Church or about some piece of doctrine or practice that got stuck in my craw. For me, this is about only one thing: Following the Lord Jesus Christ to where it is He is leading me.

When I first heard God calling me to the Catholic Church, it was during a period of fervent prayer. I was aware that there was something spiritually lacking in my life, but I could not put my finger on exactly what it was. Then one day, seemingly out of the blue, God revealed to my heart that I needed to be Catholic. And I objected rather strenuously, “But I’m already Catholic!” The Lord did not argue with me. He did not lay out a five or ten point plan to try to convince me of the error of my ways. He just quietly, insistently, repeated Himself. The more I struggled against this calling, the more calmly and consistently the Lord repeated it.

In the months that followed, I began to explore the Catholic Church in new ways. I already knew the work of many Catholic theologians, of course, but now I broadened my search to try to understand what it means not just to think Catholic thoughts but to live a Catholic life. Many of you are aware that I was baptized Catholic and spent a good portion of my childhood in the Catholic Church, but it was under a somewhat strange set of circumstances, in a place that did not stress Catholic identity, and so I never really understood what being Catholic really meant. It was only after I became an Episcopalian that I discovered things like sacramental theology, liturgy, Catholic spirituality, and the lives of the saints. I figured that these things were the common heritage of all Christians (as indeed they are, at least in a sense). But now, as I looked at the Church again as if for the first time, I realized what I had missed before. My wife and I watched Bishop Robert Barron’s Catholicism series, which shows in a lovely way not only the depth and history of Catholicism, but also the rich cultural landscape of how the faith is practiced all over the world. The breadth of the Catholic Church–from Africa to Calcutta, from medieval European cathedrals to the beautiful stone chapels of the new world, from the priest at the altar to the beggar at the mission door–is simply breathtaking. One night, after watching one of those videos, I turned to my wife and said, “It’s like I’ve spent my whole life in a pond and only just now realized that there is an ocean.”

It is hard to explain, but there is a difference between reading St. Thomas Aquinas and being in communion with St. Thomas Aquinas. There is a difference between knowing that a common Baptism unites us as brothers and sisters in Christ and actually seeing the footprint of that in history. There is a difference between loving the tradition of the Church, even trying very hard to apply that tradition to new circumstances, and recognizing my place as just one sailor on a sea of tradition that I cannot control but that will always carry me home.

St. Thomas Aquinas

Naturally, there were doctrinal and practical issues that I needed to work out before I could enter into the Church, though not as many of the former as I might have suspected. Perhaps some time in the future I will talk more about these. Or perhaps not. For the moment, all I can do is approach the cross with wonder and wait upon the word of the Lord.

One thing that struck me pretty heavily in the last two years of discernment is how much more ecumenical my thinking has become. As I have come to accept God’s calling for me to come into the full communion of the Catholic Church, I have become far less defensive of my own theological turf. As an Anglican, I have always felt that I needed to justify Anglicanism’s continued existence, which sometimes led me to feel the need to bash others. But as I prepare to become a Catholic, I don’t feel that same need. The Catholic Church does just fine without me. She doesn’t need me to make the case for why she should exist. I can relax and embrace the fact that Baptists and Methodists and others are my brothers and sisters through Baptism and the cross. It is not my job to figure out the mechanics of unity amongst all Christians. It is, rather, my job to be faithful to the teaching of the Church and to love my neighbor as myself.

There are many challenges that face my family in the months to come. It will be difficult and heartbreaking to lay down my priesthood and to leave behind my beloved parish where I have spent almost a decade as Rector. But it is not really my priesthood. It never really was. All priesthood belongs ultimately to the one true priest, Jesus Christ Himself, who this day is inviting me and my family into the richness of His sacrifice and the depths of His heart. May each and every one of us come to know His saving embrace.

The elusive freedom of Chris Cornell

Chris Cornell performing at the Montreux Jazz Festival in 2005. By Simon Jacquier from Vernayaz (near Martigny, Valais), Switzerland.

“If this doesn’t make you free, it doesn’t mean you’re tied,” sang Chris Cornell on the title track from Superunknown, Soundgarden’s 1994 breakthrough album. I have been listening to Soundgarden pretty constantly in the wake of Cornell’s apparent suicide two weeks ago. Superunknown is lyrically stream-of-consciousness, like James Joyce and Jackson Pollock had a musical baby. Yet listening to it again now, after many years of having it up on the shelf, it is clear to me that there is an emergent theme. These are songs about freedom. Or, to be more precise, these are songs about a longing for freedom that seems impossible to fulfill.

After a suicide, it is easy to read into everything someone ever did as a sign. This is particularly tempting with Superunknown, given the dark melancholy in much of the lyrics. The album ends with the song Like Suicide which is hard not to hear now as chillingly prescient. But this was an album that came out more than twenty years ago. It was neither Soundgarden’s first nor last record, and I would argue that it was not even their best. I did not know Cornell and I cannot even begin to understand what was going on inside of him on the night that he died. I certainly do not think I will discover the answer by reading the tea leaves of his discography.

Nevertheless, listening again to Superunknown has been its own reward. It hangs together as a whole surprisingly well, despite being a collection of disparate songs. It is reminiscent in some ways of the Beatles’ White Album. Like much of Soundgarden’s work, the songs on Superunknown have the intense energy and guitar work of hard rock and metal but with a deeply pleasing melodic core. Soundgarden spent the eighties pioneering the Seattle based sound that would later be referred to as grunge, and Superunknown displays that genre at its best.

“Let it go,” Cornell sings over and over again on the album’s opening song, Drown Me. “Won’t you let it drown me in you.” Over and over again, the album expresses this same elusive desire, to be released, unchained, allowed simply to be. My Wave, for instance, is about people feeling whatever they need to feel and doing whatever they have to do in order to get through the day, so long as they do not hold anyone else back in the process. It is a vision of libertarian individualism that is worthy of the postmodern world we live in.

Yet even as Cornell cries out for freedom, he is deeply vulnerable and realistic about the costs. In The Day I Tried to Live, he follows the advice of the voice in his head that tells him to “seize the day, pull the trigger, and watch the rolling blades,” but it does not give him the sense of strength or happiness he expects. “Words you say never seem to live up to the ones inside your head,” he sings. “The lives we make never seem to get us anywhere but dead.”

The tension that so much of Cornell’s music describes is not a new one. It is the human experience ever since the fall. We sense that we are not free, that there is an unseen force in this world that holds us captive. We rebel against it, hoping to shatter the chains and find the peace in our own skin that we have never been able to find. But then we discover that the real enemy oppressing us is not outside of us at all. It is our own brokenness, driving us both to long for deep union with others and simultaneously to push others away. Our own suffering hearts enslave us in patterns of self absorption and abuse that we cannot escape, no matter how many external threats to our freedom we eliminate.

The answer to this is found in Christ, but not in a glib way. I do not for a second think that Cornell’s life would have been all flowers and rainbows if he had followed Jesus (and if I did think that, I would be as guilty of self-deception and self-righteousness as the Christian interlocutor that Cornell describes in the song Jesus Christ Pose). For all I know, Cornell may have been a Christian. In most interviews, he said that he was a “spiritual free thinker” and refused to be pinned down, but he did become a member of the Greek Orthodox Church when he married his wife in 2004.

There are moments of deep spiritual insight in many of the songs that Cornell wrote over the years. The hound of heaven was certainly on his heels, and it seems that at least on some level he knew that. Cornell told Mark Maron in 2014 that he had no idea what Soundgarden’s major hit Black Hole Sun is really about, but it is hard for me to believe that all the snakes and masks that show up in that song, only to be thwarted by the coming of the dawn, are there at random. “Heaven send hell away / no one sings like you anymore.”

The freedom that so many of us long for, not only from external threats to our liberty but from the interior tyranny of our own hearts, is a freedom that can only be found in the cross. What Jesus offers the world is a hard sell. It is not freedom from suffering. It is, rather, freedom in and through suffering, or more precisely it is freedom that gives suffering a meaning and a purpose. What Jesus takes into His own body on the cross is not merely our rule-breaking but the very substance of our broken hearts. In a godless world, suffering would be meaningless and random, but in a world in which God has become man and died and risen, our own suffering becomes the means by which we enter into the mystery of God’s grace. As we allow our suffering to be united with Christ’s on the cross, it is transformed. No longer does it define us or contain us. Thanks to the miracle of Easter, even death itself becomes a doorway to the infinite rather than a looming curse.

Suicide is a very serious sin in as much as it is a rejection of God’s love, but more often than not it is motivated not by a conscious choice but by issues of mental health, addiction, depression, or any of a host of other factors beyond our control. I wish that Chris Cornell had not killed himself, both because I lament the loss of his musical genius and because I am sad for the loss to his family. Suicide is never the answer. It does not stop the pain. But I pray that God will be merciful to him and to those who love and miss him.

I am thankful for Superunknown and for all the other beautifully sad works of art that Chris Cornell put out into the world. Despite the temptation to hear everything he did now through the lens of his suicide, I still feel a giddy roar of life in these songs. The words are cryptic and often conflicted, but the music shimmers with the energy of new life and creative hope. And that is Easter too, that a suffering song can make you want to get up and dance, that an introspective and confessional lament can be turned outward and become the very stuff of love.

Sex is great

Everyone is interested in sex. That, to me, seems reasonable. Sex is interesting. But is it great?

I do not mean by that the now common usage of the word great – something that we really like – but the older sense of the word great: something that is larger than life, something that far surpasses the ordinary, something that is truly amazing and breathtaking, worth treating with a certain reverence and awe.

Throughout most of human history, this is how sex was understood, around the world, in various cultures and religions. Ancient pagans invented fertility cults that included ritualized sexual acts. Their approach was not what we might call virtuous today, but it was nevertheless predicated on an understanding that sex is powerful and that it somehow connects us with the divine.

The Bible elevates sex as well by elevating the whole institution of marriage. We see in the Scriptures not only a regulating of sex within marriage but an understanding that in the sexual act is an image of the relationship between God and humanity. The metaphor most often used in Scripture to describe God’s relationship with us is that of marriage. An entire book of the Bible—the Song of Solomon—is an exploration both of sexual love between a husband and a wife as well as the relationship between God and His covenant people. Ephesians 5 speaks plainly of the “mystery” of how Jesus relates to the Church as His “bride.” And of course, there’s this from the book of Revelation:

Let us rejoice and exult and give him the glory, for the marriage of the Lamb has come, and his Bride has made herself ready; it was granted her to clothe herself with fine linen, bright and pure”— for the fine linen is the righteous deeds of the saints. And the angel said to me, “Write this: Blessed are those who are invited to the marriage supper of the Lamb.” And he said to me, “These are the true words of God.” (Revelation 19:7-9)

The culmination of the whole of human history will be the union of Christ and His Church in marriage. This is not a sexless claim. Sex itself is the seal of the covenant. This is why, repeatedly in the Old Testament, the image of sexual infidelity is used as a metaphor for the infidelity of the people to God. Sex is seen as the ultimate act of joining. “Do you not know that he who is joined to a prostitute becomes one body with her?” says Paul, “for, as it is written, ‘the two will become one flesh’” (1 Corinthians 6:16, quoting Genesis 2).

There are certainly examples of Christian leaders and teachers throughout history who have said unfortunate things about sex and the body, but they are outweighed by both the Biblical witness and the far clearer tradition of depicting sex as something sacred and worth preserving as such. One of my favorite icons is that of St. Anna and St. Joachim, the parents of the Blessed Virgin Mary. While Jesus was conceived by the Holy Spirit, Our Lady was conceived in the usual way, through the marriage bed of her parents. The icon–shown above–depicts the two saints embracing in front of a bed. Herein we find the fulfillment of the doctrine of the immaculate conception, that no original sin was passed on to Mary in her conception, no hint of sin tied to the sexual union between her parents. What could be more of an endorsement of the greatness of sex than that?

Yet today, as our culture increases its march into a belligerent secularity, sex is not seen as great. It is still interesting to people, to be sure, as any beer commercial proves. Our culture is obsessed with sex and with the strange and ill defined concept of “sexual freedom.” But sex is not great anymore. It does not inspire awe, let alone reverence. It is ordinary, recreational, blasé. We treat it as if it is as casual as a handshake, something we should engage in “safely,” by which we mean through contraception, protecting ourselves from one of the main purposes of sex while keeping at arm’s length its power to unite us as one with each other and with God.

That this is so can be seen most clearly in the western cultural assumption that sex is a precursor to marriage. For thousands of years, across cultures, sex was understood to be the seal of marriage, the great beacon at its center that made marriage different from every other relationship. Of course, there has always been sex outside of marriage, viewed with varying degrees of stigma and shame, but the sex of the marriage bed was the apex of the marital relationship, the place where it went from simply human to divine.

Now, however, there is such a strong expectation that sex will happen before marriage that the very notion of “waiting” is ridiculed as a retrograde barbarism, when it is even addressed at all. The average sitcom today during prime television viewing hours has unmarried characters engaging in casual sex without even a nod towards some kind of discernment on their part over whether or not this is a good idea. That would not have been true even as recently as thirty years ago.

Marriage itself is still treated with a certain degree of awe, but it is at another level than sex. It is not uncommon for someone considering marriage to say, “The sex is great, but I don’t know if I’m ready for that level of commitment.” The very words of the second clause disprove the first, at least on a grammatical level. Sex that does not have a commitment of the binding together of two as one flesh is not great at all, even if it is pleasurable to the senses. In the modern west, sex is impotent.

The secular orthodoxy that says that sex must be fun and free of constraint is a major part of what keeps people today out of the Church. When people come to investigate the Christian faith, questions about sex are usually at the top of their list. The wise priest or pastor knows though that such questions cannot be quickly answered. The answers that the Christian tradition offers are not going to make sense to most people who have been brought up to think of sex more as a marker of identity and personal choice than as a sign of the love and faithfulness of God.

We have to learn what it means to be human beings again. Only then will we be able really to understand why sex is great. Like so much else of value that is being tossed into the fire in our age, the greatness of sex must be protected and preserved in the Church if nowhere else. We must become the custodians of the holiness of sex until the day finally comes when the world, exhausted by its ever-fruitless search for greater sexual freedom and expression, will once again wonder just what it was that made us think sex was so darned interesting in the first place.

Timing is everything

Clock in Zimmer Tower in Lier, Belgium showing time calculated in several ways, including cycles of the moon, seasons, zodiac, and tides. From Wikimedia Commons user Kneiphof.

About a year and a half ago, the Archbishop of Canterbury announced that he was in talks with the pope and leaders in the Orthodox Churches on regularizing the date of Easter. It was an enormous claim that would have indicated a tremendous breakthrough in ecumenical relations. Since that time, not much has happened or been said. At the time, though, I remember thinking that a fixed regular date, like the first Sunday in April for instance, would be a practical good and would end a lot of confusion. I was wrong. There is so much more at stake.

It is hard to figure out the date of Easter. It should not be, but it is. The dating takes into consideration ancient controversies going all the way back to Nicaea that few people remember anymore. It requires an understanding of moon cycles and the ancient Jewish calendar and something called the “golden number” which I am certain is associated in some way with Harry Potter and the game of Quidditch. If not for the chart in the back of the Book of Common Prayer showing the dates of Easter over the next few decades, I would be lost to figure it out. And, of course, the Orthodox figure it out in a different way than Christians in the west, meaning that most years we are celebrating on totally different schedules from one another.

Believe it or not, though, behind all that complication lies a simple and beautiful principle: Jesus Christ is the savior not only of humanity but of all creation. The whole of the cosmos finds its consummation in the Resurrection of Our Lord.

The entire framework of the Christian year is laid out to emphasize this, even the fixed days. It is no coincidence, for instance, that the Feast of the Annunciation, which marks the conception of Jesus, is on March 25, a date very close to the spring equinox. It occurs exactly nine months before we celebrate the Lord’s birth on Christmas, December 25, a date very close to the winter solstice. The rhythms of nature were taken into account by our ancient forbears when they put together the liturgical calendar. All the pieces are carefully put together so that they reveal Our Lord as the author of creation.

Easter is always on the first Sunday following the first full moon following the spring equinox. That may seem like an arbitrary arrangement, but it is not. It has to do in part with when Passover is celebrated since Jesus rose after Passover, but the connection between the moon cycle and the equinox is also vital because of its relation to light. On the equinox, day and night are of equal length. The moon affects not only the amount of reflected light that we see in the night but also the gravitational realities that affect the tides and therefore all the natural rhythms of life on this planet. Having Easter when we have it means that we are locating Our Lord’s triumph at the moment of greatest struggle between darkness and light, at the height of the transforming of the world from winter into spring, from death into new life.

But lunar cycles can be calculated in more than one way, hence the difference between eastern and western dating for Easter. The details of that difference are relatively unimportant. There is a scandal in it, as there is in all Christian division, in that it presents the world with a divided witness. If a great ecumenical consensus were to form between western and eastern Christians on just which method to use to calculate the date of Easter, that would be a great benefit and I would applaud it. But I sincerely hope no decision is ever made that simply makes the date arbitrary. What we would lose would outweigh what we would gain.

Holy Week can be a slog, especially for clergy who spend many hours planning and executing complicated liturgies that seem to attract fewer and fewer of the faithful each year. There is tremendous pressure to do it well, particularly the Easter sermon which may be the best evangelistic opportunity of the year. In the midst of this, I sometimes fool myself into thinking that I am in charge of making our worship beautiful and speaking just the right words at the right moment that will break through the ice around the unbelieving heart. It is not so. The liturgy is already beautiful because Jesus is at its center. On Saturday night, at the culmination of the Great Vigil of Easter, I will stand at the altar as bread and wine that come from creation, grown through the cycles of light and darkness, tide and moon, become the Body and Blood of Jesus Christ. The creator will become the creation as death is transformed into life, not just for us but for the whole created order. All of heaven and earth will sing in harmony with the one who sang it all into being in the first place. And it will all happen right as it should, right on time.

Jesus Christ is not merely the God of some small, self-referential sect called “Christians.” He is the one, true, living God in whom and through whom all things were made and have their being. On Easter, even light itself bows down to worship Him.

God in the noise

Photo of Ukranian orchestra, circa 1920. From Wikimedia Commons.

I am not the first and I will not be the last to observe just how noisy the world has become. There is very little silence in contemporary life and the spiritual effects of this are deleterious.

I have been reading Alexander Schmemann’s Great Lent this year. This book came out in 1969, yet the problem of noise was already apparent to Schmemann. He writes:

Everyone will no doubt agree that the whole style of family existence has been radically altered by radio and television. These media of “mass communication” permeate today our whole life. One does not have to “go out” in order to “be out.” The whole world is permanently here within my reach. And, little by little, the elementary experience of living in an inner world, of the beauty of that “interiority,” simply disappears from our modern culture… If the Christian of the past lived in great measure in a silent world, giving him ample opportunity for concentration and inner life, today’s Christian has to make a special effort to recover that essential dimension of silence which alone can put us in contact with higher realities.

The fact that Schmemann wrote this before the advent of the VCR, let alone the rise of social media, is instructive. In our own day, this deceptive sense that we are interacting with the world when we have not even left our couches has amplified to a proportion that Schmemann could never have imagined. Walk into a room filled with family and friends today and you will see four or five people staring at their phones, each in a separate virtual world, entirely disconnected from what or who is immediately around them. We imagine that “liking” someone’s post on Facebook is the same thing as maintaining a real relationship with them. In such a world, where everything we experience is constructed, curated, and constantly on, there is little space for an authentic encounter with the living God.

Schmemann’s solution is “that the use of TV and radio be drastically reduced during Lent.” It is likely that Schmemann would have approved of the practice of fasting from social media that many modern Christians adopt as a Lenten observance. Undoubtedly, there is some spiritual good to this. Reducing our dependance on anything is good if it is accompanied by prayer and greater devotion to God. I know that my own life of prayer improves when I reduce my interaction with the virtual world. The Lord speaks to us all the time, but we only hear Him if we are listening. The biblical analog would perhaps be 1 Kings 19 when Elijah encounters the Lord not in fire or earthquake but in a “still small voice” speaking out of the silence.

All of that said, I wonder if there is something overly romantic about Schmemann’s vision of a tranquil past in which Christians spent their silences contemplating the presence of God. Perhaps in monasteries it was so, but the average Christian still had to contend with quite a bit of noise. As any parent of young children will attest, there is a constant noise that accompanies the endless busyness of parenting. So too, the mindless work of maintaining a home or working for our daily bread is rarely if ever silent. Life has always been noisy.

What these electronic media offer us that our ancestors did not have is a way of distracting ourselves from the noise of the rest of life with a different kind of noise. For those of us who tend to be a bit introverted and therefore easily overwhelmed by the world, having our own personal electronic culture that we can dip into at the touch of a button is a way of restoring ourselves. For the mother or father who just needs a moment’s vacation from unending parental responsibility, scrolling mindlessly for a few moments through a Facebook feed can be a real relief.

When I was in seminary, the SSJE brothers would regularly visit with us. During Mass one time, one of the brothers preached — I no longer remember which one — and he observed that even in the monastery, it was often easy to lose track of God amidst the busyness of the daily routine. He likened the Christian life to learning to hear a single instrument even when a whole orchestra is playing. “If you listen carefully,” he said, “you can learn to pick out the oboe. And if you learn to know God’s voice, you can also hear Him, even in the middle of a flurry of activity.”

This, it seems to me, is the great challenge for Christians today. God speaks at the same patient, constant level He always has—entreating us, inviting us, calling us into His presence. If we have the opportunity to shut out all the noise and just listen to Him, we should take it. But many of us do not have that opportunity. Yet still, if we attune our ears properly, we can hear Him just as clearly. Accompanying our busyness and noise with prayer, fasting, the reading of Scripture, and the Sacraments orients us towards God. These things give us a feel for Him so that we know His voice anywhere, even when it seems faint.

So perhaps the biblical analog we need is not so much 1 Kings 19 as it is 1 Samuel 3. God calls to Samuel but Samuel does not realize that is what he is hearing. It is only after Eli coaches him and tells him what to say that Samuel is really able to listen to the voice of the Lord. God calls each of us, but most of us are frightfully bad at hearing Him. Even if we had silence, as Samuel did, it is not altogether certain we would notice God’s voice in the midst of it. We need more than silence. We need Elis in our lives to help us. We need to be taught what God sounds like so that we can tune in to hear Him, whether we are in a place of silence or a place of great noise. Even in silence, there is a noise in the rattling of thoughts through our brains that can be deafening. We need to learn the difference between God’s calling and the churning of our own minds.

What we need is not total silence, as ideal and desirable as that may be. What we need is to learn how to listen.

Evangelizing for beauty

Stained glass window at the Philadelphia Episcopal Cathedral. Photo by the author. All rights reserved.

“Evangelize through beauty!” is the clarion call of many Catholic Christians these days. It’s a phrase used quite a bit by folks like Bishop Robert Barron or the bloggers at New Liturgical Movement. And whether or not the exact phrase is used, it is a sentiment that comes up often in Orthodox and Anglican and even some Lutheran circles as well, especially among the younger, more traditional clergy. The point being that the more beautiful we allow our worship to be, the more people will be attracted to it.

Beauty comes from God. When we see something beautiful, we find ourselves in contact with some aspect of God’s own beauty. Yet the fact is, for as many people as I have seen converted to Christ or deepened in their faith by the beauty of traditional worship, I have seen just as many if not more who have been turned off by it. They see the historic liturgy as cold, overly formal, boring, or wasteful.

Much of this is due to a general lack of understanding of what beauty is. Thomas Aquinas said that beauty is “that which when perceived pleases.” For the modern west, this has morphed into “beauty is in the eye of the beholder,” a phrase which most people think means that beauty is entirely subjective. To call something beautiful is to state nothing more than a personal preference for it. If I think something is beautiful and you disagree, there is no right or wrong answer.

Yet what Thomas meant was not that whatever happens to please us is beautiful, but that when we perceive something—when we truly experience it through the senses in a way that we can contemplate it—we find it satisfying if it is beautiful. And the reason we find it satisfying is because it fulfills a deeper longing we have to come into contact with true being.

When is a dog beautiful? When it is the most perfect specimen of dogness that it can be. It fully and completely exudes the quality of dogness to the degree that when we look upon it, we see with absolute clarity the truth about what it is to be a dog. Substitute in whatever you like there for dog – a beautiful piece of music, a beautiful building, even a beautiful woman – they all shine through with the clarity of their own being, communicating in the simplest and fullest way their own nature. We are naturally attracted to this beauty because we are made for union with the true source of all being, He who is Being Itself. To the extent that dogness was created by God, a fully realized dog will reflect in its own being some small piece of the fullness of being that is God. Therefore, whenever we encounter anything that is truly beautiful, we encounter God.

For many modern western people though, the categories of being have become all mixed up. Postmodernism has so thoroughly eviscerated our ability to recognize objective truths that we fear and misunderstand beauty. We believe that we are the makers of our own destiny. We determine our own meaning through the twin demons of consumption and choice. We choose what we want and then we consume it. That is how we know who we are. That is the meaning of the now fraught word “identity.” We create our identities by amassing an ongoing list of personal preferences. If you are not sure who you are, just look back over your receipts for the last few months to see what you’ve chosen to consume, or better yet cycle through your Facebook “likes.”

Postmodernism has both encouraged us to make our own truth and made us skeptical of all truth claims. If somebody says something is true with absolute confidence, we scoff and reply, “Well, that’s just your opinion.” Objective beauty then is an affront to our senses because it forces us to grapple with something other than our preferences. Postmodernism tells us that dogness is not a thing. A dog can also be a cat if it wants to be. Objective beauty forces us to see that this is not so – a dog that looks and acts like a cat is ugly, even if we happen to like it.

When it comes to worship, there is a clear mandate given in Psalm 29 and repeated in the Book of Common Prayer: “Worship the Lord in the beauty of holiness.” Samuel Johnson made just this point in a sermon he gave at King’s College in 1761.“It is a common Mistake which hath too much prevailed in these Times,” he said, “and in this Country, and that even among some well-meaning People, that they seem to account the Hearing of sermons, to be the principal and most important and edifying Part of the public Worship of GOD.” In our own time, we might substitute for preaching any number of other shibboleths – “spirit filled” music (Read: Rock or Gospel band), a progressive or conservative political agenda, programs for kids, entertainment, social justice, etc. Johnson says that what we really need is already present in the historic liturgy. We need worship that is beautiful. And he claims that the liturgy of the prayer book is beautiful, not because he happens to like it, but because “Beauty consists in the Fitness, Proportion, Variety and Uniformity of Things with regard to the End designed in them” and the liturgy of the prayer book meets each of these criteria. A similar case could be made for most other historic rites of the Church.

I do not believe this means that every Mass must be set to Palestrina. It is possible to sing in the traditional tones of west Africa or the style of African American spirituals or even—God forbid—to sing hymns with a guitar and have it be beautiful. But we have to see beauty as more than a nice garnish on our worship. Beauty is an end unto itself. If our worship is not beautiful, we are failing at properly worshipping God.

As we plan for worship, evaluating not only the steps of our liturgies but also the vestments and music and images and even the design of the building itself, we need to ask some questions. Is this beautiful? Does it clearly reflect the truth and beauty and goodness of God? Does it make that beauty known to all the senses? Does it do so in a way that would be obvious not only in our own time and culture but universally? Given this set of criteria, we are best equipped to have beauty in our worship if we start with those things that we know are beautiful because they have been passed down through the generations, rather than starting from scratch and hoping for the best.

All of this is good and necessary, but will it fill the pews on a Sunday? I have to admit, I am skeptical. Certainly, there will be people who will be drawn to the faith simply because it is beautiful, but there will be many others for whom the very fact that our worship is beautiful will be a repellant. They will want to customize the liturgy and rearrange it to their liking. When they cannot, they will threaten to go to the church up the street where the pastor is much more open to “creativity.”

Evangelizing through beauty is good, but I think we need to evangelize for beauty as much as we do anything else. We need to gently but firmly begin to teach people what beauty is and why it matters. That will require a far broader witness to the world than just making our worship beautiful along classical lines. It will mean stepping out into the world, into the public square, and boldly pointing to the beautiful, inviting our friends and neighbors to open their eyes to it, insisting that we acknowledge the beautiful even if it shatters our carefully constructed identities to see it.