Thursday, August 9, 2012

Sarabites, Schisms, and Finding Fellowship in the ISM

The third and worst kind of monks is that of the Sarabites, who have not been tried under any Rule nor schooled by an experienced master, as gold is proved in the furnace, but soft as is lead and still in their works cleaving to the world, are known to lie to God by their tonsure. These in twos or threes, or more frequently singly, are shut up, without a shepherd; not in our Lord's fold, but in their own. The pleasure of carrying out their particular desires is their law, and whatever they dream of or choose this they call holy; but what they like not, that they account unlawful.

These words from the prologue of the Rule of St. Benedict might serve as a compendium of the charges and dismissals most often laid against those of us who are members of the ISM, sometimes with justice, sometimes from guilt by association, and, most often, with no more justice than they can be laid against the members of any other religious body.

A plethora of preening prelates.
Though the days of solo operators with grand titles and grander aspirations are fading, a certain ambivalence about authority and accountability remains.  Many of us have had unpleasant experiences of the exercise of authority.  Some look for greater formal union to bring order out of chaos and do their best to distance themselves from colorful figures past and present.  Others look to the example of Christian Anarchism and advocate radical autonomy.

Whatever the approach, accountability remains a problem.  To whom are we accountable beyond ourselves or our small communities, not only in terms of doctrine, but in discipline and basic decency?

As I began to think about public ministry, one of my consecrators jokingly asked whether it wouldn’t be wise to make it clear that Facebook binds me in the bonds of charity and gossip with a number of other bishops and actually I think there is something to that.  When asked about the latest scheme of union, one of my other consecrators, with whom I speak at least once a week, is fond of saying, “Why don’t we all just get together and pray and get to know each other and see what happens?”  (He’s a far smarter fellow than I let on that he is.) 

Since coming back to the Ozarks, I’ve assisted at Mass most weeks in a community with a theology quite different than my own and to which I have no formal ties, but it is the place where I have found friendship and welcome, and a community of prayer.  That often goes much further than position papers on abstract principles.  I know a great deal about the spouses, cats, and dogs of people in the movement with whom I have never discussed the filioque. 

Do these bonds of friendship override the need for theological discussion?  Certainly not, but they are an element of stability that has been underemphasized in the movement’s history.  The era of maverick metropolitans and personal patriarchates may be coming to an end as a new generation looks for ways to build community, but far too much of the furniture of the old era of squabbles and schisms remains to be cleared away.

C. S. Lewis said that hell was ultimately a destination for those whose self-love grew until it could not tolerate the presence of any other being.  In the Screwtape Letters he described this vision of hell succinctly:

We must picture Hell as a state where everyone is perpetually concerned about his own dignity and advancement, where everyone has a grievance, and where everyone lives the deadly serious passions of envy, self-importance, and resentment.

Lewis’s hell sounds more than a bit familiar to those of us in the Independent Sacramental Movement, where schisms over who shall be the greatest in the kingdom have been all too common, no matter how small a kingdom.  We might do well to remember Schopenhauer’s fable of the porcupines:

A number of porcupines huddled together for warmth on a cold day in winter; but, as they began to prick one another with their quills, they were obliged to disperse. However the cold drove them together again, when just the same thing happened. At last, after many turns of huddling and dispersing, they discovered that they would be best off by remaining at a little distance from one another. In the same way the need of society drives the human porcupines together, only to be mutually repelled by the many prickly and disagreeable qualities of their nature. The moderate distance which they at last discover to be the only tolerable condition of intercourse, is the code of politeness and fine manners…

We all need to do a better job of negotiating our prickliness and of having a bit less concern for our individual dignity, validity, and our being “real” churches, as opposed to some other group or groups we deem to be less valid or real.  Learning to be good porcupines will not likely bring the sedevacantists into communion with the contemporary catholics among us, but it is a necessary first step toward whatever degrees of unity are possible among various groups.  I am left with my old friend’s question.  “Why don’t we all just get together and pray and get to know each other and see what happens?” 

(With thanks to the friends with whom I’ve been discussing this topic for the last year.  This piece comes from discussion among a pretty diverse group of folks.  If there is something you find useful in it, it is probably not my idea.)