2015 Lenten Reflection – Beverly

Lenten meditation 2015 Beverly Haviland

I want to thank Rebecca for inviting me to share some thoughts about my faith journey—I really like this metaphor—and how I got to be here today with you. I also want to thank Diane Hoffman-Kim, who so kindly offered to play for us and to learn a new hymn, which we’ll sing later.

I’m going to begin with an autobiographical sketch and then move on to the issues that concern me today.

After my parents were divorced, I went to a school that was Episcopalian, probably more because it fit in with my now single mother’s work schedule than because of her beliefs. It was very High Church. We went to chapel every morning; communion happened every Wednesday; and I was confirmed when I was eight without really knowing what that was about. It did involve, however, going to confession and that was eventually my breaking point with organized religion for a very long time.

This was a hard break because I loved so much of what we did together. The head minister of the church had been involved in drama before he heard his calling to serve Christ and his sense of the power of performance was very compelling. We had May festivals to celebrate Mary. I think it was a big pagan, actually, with a Maypole dance among other things.

I was baptized and confirmed in the Episcopal Church. This was my father’s choice. My mother had been raised as a Presbyterian growing up in Topeka, Kansas, but she accepted this realignment.

We did very elaborate Christmas pageants, much as we do here at Central. Although I don’t remember any jokes about frankincense and embalming.

But for some reason the ceremony that has stuck with me was the Maundy Thursday service. It was, as we called it, High Communion. All the girls and boys from the school were there in our white dresses and white shirts and trousers. We sat through the service, took communion, and then processed down the central aisle singing the hymn that is printed on the sheet I’ve given you and that we will sing at the end of my remarks. I don’t know if it was the melody or the exquisite words that moved me so much that they have stayed with me through these decades. The end of this performance is indelible: we children arrived in the Lady Chapel that had been beautifully decorated as the Garden of Gethsemane, and we solemnly placed our daffodils before the closed doors of the altar, doors that would open again on Easter morning. The priests stripped from their white ceremonial robes down to black cassocks. Into the profound silence following the end of this hymn, the chief priest cried out: “My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?” The priests and the boys serving them went back into the main altar, stripped it of its white and gold ceremonial cloth, recessed down the stairs, fell face down to the floor, remaining there while the congregation departed in silence. It was awesome.

My crisis happened shortly before the last time I participated in that ceremony. We?went to confession at the end of Lent to prepare ourselves for Easter. I was eleven years old,?and becoming self-conscious as kids do at that age. When called upon to confess my sins to a priest whom I adored, I could not speak what was really on my mind. I felt that I was more sinned against than sinning. I still believe that. But the ritual of confession gave me no chance to ask for help in my hour of need. I confessed to some petty sin–of envy, perhaps, or a little lie. I was assigned my penance. And I then I walked out of the confessional and was struck blind.

I stood still, terrified. Maybe seconds, maybe a minute. And then I could see again and went to kneel down in a pew. I don’t remember if I did my penance. Eventually, I made it to my class. And my friends turned to me and one asked: “What happened? You look like you’ve seen a ghost.” Whatever had happened terrified me.

That was the end of my connection with organized religion for many decades. There were other ways in which I sought and found help for my troubles. I found ways to think and feel through the challenges life presented me with. I was glad to be introduced to psychoanalysis and to transcendental meditation, both of which are still parts of my life. And to the practices of my modern orthodox Jewish friends who focused on what one did rather than what one believed.

But I never really stopped thinking about how Christianity worked through the problems of suffering and uncertainty that life presents. In graduate school, I studied the theology of the early Congregationalists, a.k.a., Puritans, and remember particularly being impressed with the idea that despair was a sin of presumption or pride because you should never assume that you knew better than God that all was lost. I still teach texts that address the issues of predestination and scriptural authority that have changed radically since the 17th century. But a more enduring connection to a rather eccentric strand of Christianity came by way of my involvement with the work of Henry James.

For my present purposes, I won’t dwell on what I love about his fiction and will just point to the peculiarity of his father’s connection to Swedenborg. I will spare all of you the details of this intricate and eccentric theology, especially his reading of the story of Creation. But I’ll return to a part of it in a few minutes.

I returned to the church, to this church, by serendipity. We were friends with Sarah Kidwell and her Borghesani children. Will encouraged Jack to come to sing in the children’s choir. We’d come to a few services before—at the time we lived around the corner. But we began coming regularly. Then religiously, as they say.

I confess that I felt guilty at first because I enjoyed the beauty of the sanctuary and of the music and of the ritual so much that I thought this was really not what one was supposed to be here for. But my sense of the worship service changed bit by bit.

The sermons offered by Rebecca and Claudia engage my questions rather than propose answers. Church became a place and time to devote to those reflections and to try to outgrow childhood conceptions of what is meant by God. Worship became a more complicated notion.?I remember saying to Rebecca at one of those exploratory meetings that I liked best the statement at the end of the order of service that said: “Witness and Service begin.” I worried later a bit that she might have thought that I meant I did not enjoy worship service and was glad it was over. On the contrary. What I appreciated was that worship was defined as only one part of one’s life as a Christian.

It has been a great gift to me and my family to become members of this community. Like many of you, we do not have family close by, and many church members individually and collectively have played very important roles for us. I can only begin to tell you how grateful I am for the youth ministry. Jack is not here today because he’s on the road with the high school jazz band. I will speak only for myself when I say that I believe that Jack’s associations with church and with the practice of religion are wonderful, and I hope that they will be a resource for him throughout his life, however his relations to the Church might vary at different times.

I haven’t said much about Lent yet other than the Maunday Thursday service that so gripped my imagination as a child. In my High Episcopal church, we also did the Stations of the Cross every week, and I’m sure I gave up something I liked. I don’t feel compelled to do that now so much. I think of Lent now as the hard version of Advent. We know something is coming.

The anticipation of a birth, even the unique birth of Jesus, is something we can look forward to by analogy to our own life experiences, celebrating the birth, be it of our own child or that of someone we love. I have to say that I have never received so much social support in my life as when I was pregnant with Jack. It’s an amazing personal and collective experience anticipating a new life.

We can also anticipate death, sometimes with dread and horror, but death can be, sometimes, a mercy that ends suffering as we know it.

But the Resurrection. That is what was not anticipated. That was a surprise. A shock. The women expected to find the body of Jesus in the tomb. And this is exactly where I get stuck.

I don’t know really how to think about a return from death in a way that makes enough sense to my current self. Is one really a Christian without this piece having found its place in a set of beliefs? I can think about some kind of eternal life after the death of the individual body because of the law of the conservation of energy. But a return to life in the same body? Obviously, this is what makes Jesus different from you and me. A miracle. Something beyond our understanding, and yet something that was witnessed.

One part of me says that this is just one of many mysteries in the universe that we do not understand and may not even need to understand to make the best possible life we can while on this earth. It’s like looking at pictures of outer space. The universe is awesomely beautiful to us. That beauty is meaningful, even if we cannot fully understand or express it.

But another part of me is just too curious about how meaning is made, and that’s why I read and teach and write about literary texts and come to church.

As much as I am uncertain as to how to think about the Resurrection of Christ, I am very sympathetic to the notion of the Trinity. These uncertainties don’t make me want to be a Unitarian, and that’s not just because I would miss the beauty and the ritual of our church and our service.

I’m not quite sure how to explain what I understand as the necessity of three terms for the making of meaning without becoming rather obscure by trying to explain the semiotic theory of Charles Sanders Peirce or the psychospiritual reading of Genesis proposed by Henry James Senior. But let me try to say something about how I might understand Christ as the necessary second term in the trinity. Peirce’s father was also a Swedengorgian, and Peirce himself was quite explicit about his Christianity even if that part of his legacy is not at all what carried over into the role his theory of semiotics plays in contemporary theories and methods of interpretation in the fields of literature and film and philosophy.

Peirce’s theory of signs is structured by three categories and triangles of various kinds define the process of making meaning. For my present purposes, I’ll try to explain the three categories and then say something about Peirce’s three theories of causality for reasons that I hope will become clear enough.

What Peirce characterizes as Firstness is quality. It is being in itself. It is simple. One could say God as absolute Being is Firstness.

Secondness is a relation to something outside. It is in encounter with otherness, perhaps best thought of as a shock in relation to an object that creates the division in consciousness that is self-conscious awareness. Secondness is the awareness of some object outside of ourself. We collide with that otherness. But the encounter is not meaningful until a third term enters.

Thirdness is mediation and representation by means of signs to our own and other consciousnesses. Thirdness is the consciousness of how the immediacy of an encounter with otherness becomes a symbol of a kind of thing, an instance of a pattern, a law that governs our understanding of our experience and that can only become a source of meaning when it is shared with other consciousnesses engaged in the same task of seeking the meaning of our relations with that which is not ourselves. Such a quest is by necessity social because the systems of representation that we use—language being of particular importance—are not our original creations but are inherited from the past that we share with other people in the present. Mediation and representation are what make sympathy—the imagination of otherness—possible. Sympathy and love are not direct encounters with the other but are mediated by symbolic forms, by thirdness.

In this schema, and I’m not alone in tracing this trinity in Peirce’s thought, it is the otherness of Christ, it is the shock of the Resurrection that is necessary for the development of our consciousness of otherness that we can understand only by mediation in relation to other human beings. Another way to say this is that the shock of Christ’s Resurrection precipitates the possibility of humans loving each other.

Hold that thought and let me sketch even more briefly Peirce’s theories of causality. The first is tychasm—pure chance; the second is anachasm—pure determinism; and the third— and this is the only one you have to remember is agapasm. That may sound more familiar since we speak of “agape” as the love of God for human beings sometimes commemorated, as Aiden has recently done with the youth groups, with a dinner, a love feast.

One side of the handout I gave you has a table I’ve reproduced from the great book by Anders Nygren, Agape and Eros, which I read in graduate school and was essential for my understanding of Henry James, both Junior and Senior, and later of Peirce. I can almost understand Peirce’s essay on “Evolutionary Love” because of this framework, whereas I confess that I will never understand what his existential graphs do.

The notion that Agape is the kind of love that creates value in its object seems to me a, if not the, crux of Christ’s message. As I understand it for now, it is only by participation in the processes of mediation characteristic of human consciousness that the figure of Christ can be encountered necessarily in his Otherness. The Resurrection can stand as both a mystery and a necessity; it shows us what it means to accept fully the otherness of each other. I think that kind of acceptance is what is meant by spontaneously and generously creating value in the object.?To be able to live and love in that way would be to live gracefully and gratefully.

I’m still working on this. But now let us sing together of this mystery.

Eros is acquisitive and longing Agape is sacrificial giving.
Eros is an upward movement Agape comes down.
Eros is man’s way to God. Agape is God’s way to man.
Eros is man’s effort:it assumes that man’s salvation is his work. Agape is God’s grace;?salvation is the work of Divine love.
Eros is egocentric love, a form of self- assertion of the highest, noblest, sublimest kind. Agape is unselfish love,it “seeketh not its own”, it gives itself away.
Eros seeks to gain its life, a life divine, immortalised. Agape lives the life of God, therefore dares to “lose it.”
Eros is the will to get and possess which depends on want and need. Agape is freedom in giving,?which depends on wealth and plenty.
Eros is primarily man’s love;?God is the object of Eros.?Even when it is attributed to God, Eros is patterned on human love. Agape is primarily God’s love; “God is Agape”.? Even when it is attributed to man, Agape is patterned on Divine love.
Eros is determined by the quality, the beauty and worth, of its object;it is not spontaneous, but “evoked’, “motivated”. Agape is sovereign in relation to its object, and is directed to both “the evil and the good”;it is spontaneous, “overflowing”, unmotivated”.
Eros recognizes value in its object— and loves it. Agape loves—?And creates value in its object.

Anders Nygren, Agape and Eros: The Christian Idea of Love, trans. Philip S. Watson, (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1982) 210.

Posted in 2015 Lenten Reflections, Lenten Reflections.