One of the books I am reading this Lent is Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander by Thomas Merton. The book is a collection of insights and observations and reflections of Thomas Merton that he complied from notebooks he had kept from 1956. He described the book in his introduction as ‘a personal and monastic meditation, a testimony of Christian reflection in the mid-twentieth century, a confrontation of twentieth century questions in the light of a monastic commitment, which inevitably makes one something of a bystander.’ I love reading Merton because he was very ‘real.’ He had no reservations about expressing his own excitement for God as well as his own struggles with faith.
Tonight as I read I found a short piece he wrote about having to listen to recorded sessions or lectures about the liturgy. He laments the speaker’s way of yelling the word – ca-ROSS, and how such a short but powerful word could be delivered in two syllables instead of one. But beyond just being annoyed with the over zealousness of the voice on the recorded lecture, he moves to remind himself and all of us that we can all be guilty of overly pious behaviour.
Pontiffs! Pontiffs! We are all pontiffs haranguing one another, brandishing our crosiers at one another, dogmatizing, threatening anathemas!
[I read of] a saint who, at the point of death, removed his pontifical vestments and got out of bed. He died on the floor, which is only right: but one hardly has time to be edified by it – one is still musing over the fact that he had pontifical vestments on in bed.
Let us examine our consciences. Do we wear our mitres even to bed? I am afraid we sometimes do.
[Let me pause here to say, I am pretty sure I have met clergy over the years who wear their collars to bed! – Kidding — It is entirely more likely that they have clerical PJs! ;-D]
But seriously – This is a powerful question, particularly for those of us who work in the church, where we love to argue and nitpick about what ‘right church’ looks like. This malady affects lay and ordained alike. One does not need to be Bishop of Rome to behave as if he/she is. I have certainly been on the wrong end of that crosier and have felt the threat of those who might not appreciate my approach to church. [Not that you would think as much, but I am not talking about my bishop here by the way.] I know how it feels to have clergy and/or lay people make you feel pretty small in the face of their superior ‘churchmanship.’
Do we wear our mitres to bed? Are we like the saint of whom Merton read who held so firmly to his clerical identity that he wore it to bed? Is it possible that we hold onto the ‘mitres’ that we wear in order to pontificate to others, that we can never take them off? We are all guilty of this from time to time.
I realize that it is hard remove the garments that cover the nakedness of our vulnerabilities! We feel protected and secure behind our fixed beliefs. ‘If everyone else would just believe the way I do and worship the way I do….’ Or take it away from the realm of church and apply it to other aspects of life. How do we wear mitres in our family? Taking away our own pontifical vestments and baring it all as it were, to sibling, parents, friends is vulnerable. It takes courage to lay aside that which is so important to me in order to take genuine interest to you. But I think we are called to take that risk. We are called to listen more and speak less.
I find that when we become most pontifical is when we compare the best of ourselves to the worst of someone else. In those moments we stand tall, mitre pointing to the heavens, and our very posture speaks our disdain. It might be time for us to take direction from Jesus who took the form of a servant. Jesus, whose posture spoke of vulnerability, servanthood, and brokeness. Jesus, who rather than impose himself on those he encountered, entered into relationship and taught others with acts of love. Knowing that Christ himself disrobed and washed the disciples feet, we might also lay down garments that mask our vulnerability and be present with God’s people in their complexity and diversity. What do
Now if you will excuse me, I have to go rest – Its hard work pontificating to the world on a blog what I believe we are called to do….
You know, I was just going to wear this stuff to bed…. but…..