The Irvine Tartan • My monthly column in The New Brunswick Anglican
The distinctions we allow in life cause us heartache enough.
Distinctions rivet our attention like a piece out of place in a familiar setting. Oh, there’s nothing new in that, we muse; and our minds scan a host of pieces that appear out of place in our lives.
Oh, there are the obvious distinctions that we are more than aware of; but that’s not my point. The distinctions within the folds of history that surround us are numerous, true enough. Many of them have taken place over the past couple of decades. The ordination of women to the diaconate, the priesthood and the episcopate -- this is perhaps the starting point that many would reckon. Liturgical renewal, and the production of the Book of Alternative Services -- an event that has set a pattern that will be hard to suppress. And our praise! Common Praise has set a tone that has been welcomed and repudiated across our diocese and our Church.
But these are not the distinctions that make the heart ache.
No, here I am considering a much less obvious wedge that inflicts much more pain. I am considering the simple, beguiling conjunction familiar to us all -- the unobtrusive than.
Let me explain.
Issues press in on us from outside. They touch on the traditional pattern of our life. They are simply new patterns that have emerged along side of, and not as distinct from, the established order. These issues have arrested our attention, demanded our response, and drained us of quick wit and subtle debate in the councils of the church. It has been a safe arena. We have chosen to focus on events and issues that stand alone. While they may touch us in an indirect way, we have dealt with them while maintaining a degree of safety. Our personal safety. We never tire of revisiting old haunts. We find familiar ground safe. Safe for us.
But I am talking of the distinctions we make that bring heartache. There appears little opportunity to safeguard ourselves in the light of it.
Recently, I picked up a copy of Frank McCourt’s Angela’s Ashes. You may have read it. If, like me, you are of a nostalgic Irish bent, you will revel in the page turner that is descriptive of Brooklyn, yes, and Limerick too, but of North End Saint John where my Dad grew up as well. The poverty of the depression and the faithfulness of the community, in spite of the challenges surrounding them, were as real for Frankie McCourt as they were for Snookie Irvine.
“Oh, no, they want the nice boys with hair oil and new shoes that have fathers with suits and ties and steady jobs,” said Angela. “That’s what it is and ’tis hard to hold on to the Faith with the snobbery that’s in it.” (page 184)
The distinctions that cut to the heart, that make a Father clench his son’s hand in shame on his rejection by the Sacristan, are the never-ending judgments we pronounce regularly. And the insidious conjunction, than is the culpable villain that allows us to continue in our judgment of others unchallenged. We exalt ourselves at the cost and exclusion of others.
“I am more powerful,” we say, “than you.”
“I am more influential,” we suggest, “than you.”
“I am more faithful,” we say, “than you.”
“I am better,” we assert, “than you.”
“I am more spiritual,” we boast, “than you.”
“I am more right (read righteous),” we assert, “than you.”
And with our exclusion of others, we discover a disturbing truth: that hearts ache within the community of the faithful. Heartache inflicted unconsciously. At least I hope it is unconscious and not an exercise in malice.
We have all felt the exclusion at some time or other; and we have all been instrumental in excluding others. Angela speaks for the faithful who have felt set aside, diminished and lessened through the imposition of frightened men and women who no longer feel safe. The threat of Pentecost is that God’s Spirit falls not simply on the men Moses called around but on Eldad and Medad as well. But on more than them, and on more than the Apostles, but on the whole host and countless down through the passing of generations. Not on Peter more than Paul; not on Paul more than me; and not on me more than you. Or Frankie McCourt who learned the Mass but was rejected.
The hope of Easter faith graced by the Spirit of Pentecost is that we are a new creation. No longer need past insecurities seek props in the superficial standards of this world. Paul put it well -- he encouraged the Christians in Ephesus to measure themselves by nothing less than the full stature of Jesus. Not against him, Apostle though he was; and not against one another -- but against the one who invited men and women to follow him, to a cross and beyond. It’s as though with this new order no longer do we need this conjunction than. And perhaps, by God’s grace, it won’t be so “hard to hold on to the Faith,” as Angela observes!
Copyright © 2000 James T. Irvine
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