Thursday, October 6, 2011

The more things change…

A group of Plymouth Creekers, on September 23, had lunch with a monk. We were spending the day at St. John’s University- looking at their world-famous Bible, worshipping with the monastic community- and our tour guide, Brother John, joined us for a meal. We didn’t expect it; we figured he had better things to do. But he said, “I don’t mean to presume…but do you mind if I dine with you?” Absolutely!, we responded, and were very glad he did.

After all, how often do you hang out with a member of a monastery? For much of Christian history, monks were folk whom non-professional Christians encountered regularly. And that’s still the case in some Catholic or Orthodox communities. But at least since the Protestant Reformation, certainly in America, those who’ve undertaken this unique vocation have receded to the periphery of many Christians’ consciousness. Some even wonder, “Why would someone ever become a monk? Isn’t that just…running away from life?”

Well, as we discovered, that answer is No. At least, for Brother John. I think the entire group found him approachable, charming, and well informed about issues Christian communities face. We discussed the always sensitive topic of music in church. He talked about how many monks from his monastery once served small Minnesota parishes. But that ministry has diminished in recent decades as both monastery and churches struggled with lower numbers. Sound familiar?!

But the conversation that sticks with me was when he taught us Protestants about the Catholic doctrine of Purgatory. You’ve heard about that, right? According to Roman church teaching, the afterlife isn’t simply a one-time decision about Heaven or Hell. Rather, in the Middle Ages especially, theologians began postulating that God created a middle option, a holding cell, where folk who didn’t deserve damnation, but hadn’t yet merited Paradise, would reside after death. There- in Purgatory- the soul would abide, sometimes performing penance for sins in life, hopefully receiving the prayers of still-alive family or friends. And at some point, God would likely relent, saying, “Alright, now you’re in!”

I used to think this a funny idea. But the more I’ve learned, the more I’ve understood how compassionate it was. Christians used to look at great saints as the models for Christian behavior. Which is cool, since saints often performed remarkable, courageous acts of charity and faith. The problem is, well, most of us aren’t saints! So if being a saint was the goal, what about the masses who fell short?

Purgatory. And notice, that’s much better than Hell! Put differently, the church taught that even if you weren’t an exemplar of virtue or revered martyr, nevertheless through your everyday goodness, willingness to atone for your mistakes, and the continued love people gave you after death, you could still receive the ultimate reward- Eternal Paradise. Effectively, this meant we weren’t powerless; that everyday people mattered to God, and crucially, what we did could make a difference. In the days the Purgatory doctrine developed, most people lived quite un-empowered lives. Typically serfs (slaves) on some lord’s lands, often at the mercy of merciless armies. Still, the church taught, when it comes to eternity, you had something to work for.

Whether I believe in Purgatory or not, I like the notion of viewing normal people with dignity and respect. And in the Purgatory idea, as originally intended, that’s what transpired. Of course, as Brother John pointed out, most good ideas get misused, and Purgatory is no exception. Still, for the time when it arose, Purgatory enriched the faith and lives of everyday Christians, and thus, served a need that others in society denied them. Indeed, he continued, all good church doctrine should have exactly such life-giving, practical implications.

Which brings up an interesting question, that I’ll simply leave for you to answer for yourselves, or in a reply email to me if you wish: If positive, this-worldly impact on our everyday lives is the standard for good doctrine- and, therefore, not Eternal Truth or Tradition- what beliefs remain good for our church today, and which, while meaningful long ago, might be jettisoned, for no longer helping people?

Grace and Peace,
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