Homesickness for Alien Places

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“Homesickness” by Rene Margritte (1940). Used under Fair Use by Wikiart.

There are times when, after coming back from a sojourn overseas, we start pining for it. Sometimes, this pining can be the afterglow of a holiday destination after having to face the imminent return to the office.

At other times, however, this pining stems from something more than a mere reluctance to go back to the drudgery of work. This variant of the experience of pining for foreign places often takes the form of a kind of homesickness. This experience can be particularly visceral when one has lived in that foreign land, but they even come with respect to places that the person has not even visited. Regardless of context, these alien lands often stir our hearts, and we may often find ourselves whispering to ourselves that one’s home was not where you are now, but in these foreign lands. For those that go through such an experience, it becomes particularly poignant when that tug of the heart only goes stronger with each passing season.

The experience of homesickness for places other than one’s own can be a theologically rich moment of reflection. At one level, this experience can be an analogue of a much deeper longing within us, for a native land that is not only unvisited by us, but one that categorically transcends the whole cosmos. This experience of homesickness can be a reminder in the Letter to the Hebrews that we “are seeking the city that is to come” (13:14), and that until then, our hearts remain restless until we are restored to that place we have never been to, to borrow the beginning of Augustine’s Confessions. In other words, our experience of longing is but an analogue of a God given impulse to seek a more heavenly destination.

At the same time, however, precisely because this experience is only an analogy, there can also be a danger that our longing for other places can become an occasion for the operation of vice, particularly of the vice of acedia. As RJ Snell wrote in his Acedia and Its Discontents, this longing for another place can a vice-ridden restlessness when it becomes a longing for a utopia, and a neglect of where we are now. Those who have lived in the place that they long for may protest that the longing is anything but utopic, but as Michel de Certeau reminds us in his Practice of Everyday Life, our worlds always shift to such an extent that the place we thought was there never really remains. Thus, even when we have had a real contact with that other place, that longing can nonetheless still be the result of the vice of acedia, whispering to us to abandon all we have and where we are.

It may seem that those who harbour these longings are doomed to spend their lives with their longings unresolved and always at risk of predisposing ourselves to vice, and in many respects, that is true. We are however, also given in the Eucharistic Liturgy, a forum with which to reflect upon this longing. We are, in the Eucharistic Liturgy, not only abstractly engaging in a form of prayer, but also gathering a people who are acting upon their longing for a place we have never been – the eschaton. Yet, the vice of acedia is resisted precisely because of the incarnate nature of the Eucharistic lord, the Body of Christ compels us never to abandon our posts here on earth.

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Meaty Souls & the Death of Prince

 

People die everyday, sometimes in great numbers at a single time, from wars, genocides, domestic violence, stabbings, shootings, prenatal dismemberments and natural disasters. We are so bombarded by death and the notifications thereof that the avalanche of bodies cascading down into the meat-grinder of history has almost become a kind of cultural white noise, the backdrop to everyday lives punctuated by the beholding of more virtual deaths on television shows, games and movies.

In light of this, it seems somewhat jarring to read on social media that 2016 is only now being singled out as a year of death, following with the deaths of Prince (and the less noted death of the female wrestling star Chyna) earlier this week and David Bowie a couple of months before.

Putting to one side the asymmetry of ascribing greater significance to the deaths of a handful from the world of North American entertainment (compared to the hundreds of deaths of more ordinary folk in South America, Europe and the Middle East in the same period), what one senses from the recent lamentations is the idea that with the loss of these bodies, a certain spirit of the age has gone with them. We the fans of these entertainers feel that a part of our identity – childhoods, adolescences, key stages in our lives – has been lost with the disappearance of these bodies. There seemed to be something more to these bodies than mere flesh, and clearly gets a sense of this from the obituary to Prince by Rebecca Bratten Weiss.

What this sense of loss of a communal geist that accompanies the loss of these particular bodies demonstrates is a phenomenology of the body outlined by the likes of Maurice Merleau-Ponty, Graham Ward and St. John Paul II (and well before him, Thomas Aquinas and Aristotle before him still). We feel the sense of loss of a communal geist because, Ward tells us in his Christ and Culture, bodies are not mere flesh, isolated objects that are just there. Bodies are tied, sometimes biologically, to communal relations, and as such they are infused with the weight of the symbols that form and sustain that community. Lose that body, and you lose a node to those symbolic strings that were stretched and held taut across peoples, ages and places, held in place simply from that bodies presence.

What is more, bodies are not merely flesh because, as Aristotle once suggested, flesh is ensouled. Ward reminds us of the German designations of the word “body”, namely körper (to designate dead bodies) and leib (to designate living bodies). Ward notes that Leib was not just an expression of life as mere locomotion. Leib put the body as “the seat of the soul”. Put this way, soul and body are not the separable, independent categories that we imagine them to be. As Merleau-Ponty wrote in his The Structure of Behaviour, soul and body “can never be absolutely distinguished without each ceasing to be” since, as he noted elsewhere in his Phenomenology of Perception “man’s body and ‘soul’ are but two aspects of his way of being in the world”. The movements of the body, to paraphrase Aquinas’ de Veritate, are but movements of the soul, and the movements of the bodies of the entertainers that captured our collective imaginations, are simultaneously movements of their individual souls and the semiotics of the communities in which we belong.

Catholic Social Dispatches

 

With all the intense hypervigilence and dissection of the recent Apostolic Exhortation, Amoris Letitia, and equally intense online sabre-rattling over whether the Catholic faith has been transformed beyond recognition because of it, a lot of other stories in the Catholic social media landscape have received scant attention. Deliberately or otherwise, directly or indirectly, the theme of Catholic Social Teaching has figured rather prominently in these more marginal threads.

What jumps out is the way in which ecclesiology seems to undergird these seemingly diverse nods to Catholic Social Teaching. More specifically, these stories the attempts to position the Church as a crucial waypoint between the periphary and the centre, the hospital waiting room bridging the wounded and the well, the secular and the sacred and the ladder between the transcendent ideal and the less than ideal temporal situation.

Chief among these was the Pope’s recent visit to the island of Lesbos with the Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople, Bartholomew I. Both the Patriarch and the Pontiff focused their visit on those itinerant peoples who, for whatever reason, seek to relocate to Europe and found themselves stranded in that part of the European continent (other pockets of stranded are found in other parts of the Europe, mostly in the south and the east). Having concluded that visit, it was also announced that the Pontiff had also taken twelve individuals – those whose papers are in good order but remain stranded – onto the papal plane back to Italy. It is one of the more dramatic moves of a papacy characterised by highly symbolic moves.

While this story unfolded, it was also reported that the American Democratic presidential hopeful, Senator Bernie Sanders, addressed a conference at the Vatican at the invitation of the Pontifical Academy for Social Sciences. His paper, “The Urgency for a Moral Economy”, can be found in full here.

A third story can be found in a story (dated 14th April), in the Jesuit magazine America, which was a write up on Solidarity Hall, a group of writers who have converged in an online space started by Elias Crim, and has slowly evolved into a publishing venture under the management of Daniel Schwindt. Solidarity Hall now features its own contribution to the Patheos platform with The Dorothy Option. In the interview with one of its authors, Mark Gordon, the article spoke of the focus of the venture’s contribution to the development of the Catholic Social tradition by negotiating a “radically Christian life in the space between the state and the market” and the “polarities of left and right”, by reclaiming the “whole teaching of the church, unalloyed by the ideologies and false identities of party, class, even nation”. As a footnote, the article also mentioned by name the Divine Wedige‘s Matthew Tan, him being an Australian voice in an otherwise dominantly American project, contributing to the Solidarity Hall website on pop culture and total war, and a chapter on the migrant in their flagship publication Radically Catholic in the Age of Francis.

Catholic Social Teaching is not just about teaching or a space called the social, but also the bodies that occupy that space and live out the teaching. With this in mind the fourth item, a post from Rebecca Bratten Weiss of Franciscan University of Steubenville, deserves mention here. In it, Weiss draws our attention to the way in which a Church and a theology should not not only speak to and about the perfect or respectable bodies, but also those who enter its doors with bodies broken and violated from violence, illnesses or defects both intended and unintended, maladies that we try to shield our eyes from in our quest for the comfortable bourgeois Christianity. Weiss suggests that such imperfect bodies ought to be part of the story of the Body of Christ.

Crunchy-Conservatism, Migrants & Pope Francis

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Crunchy-conservatives” in the United States have started organising against the neoliberal and faux-conservative status-quo, and one outlet for this organisation is the online thinkerspace known as Solidarity Hall. Whilst having run a website for a number of years, the Folk at Solidarity Hall have launched their publishing arm, Solidarity Hall Press, with the release of their first book Radically Catholic in the Age of Francis, edited by Daniel Schwindt.
This book is an edited text with a number of short essays which, from a variety of perspectives and stations in life, the theme of what it means to be a radical and Catholic is explored and what the relatively new papacy of Francis would mean for this intersection. By extension, the contributions of the book explores possibilities for Catholics in America – outside the media-manufactured slogans – to relate to their nation, democracy and modernity.
Though not American, the Divine Wedgie is glad to be associated with the work of Solidarity Hall, with its blogger at large being invited to make an Australian contribution to Radically Catholic, in a chapter entitled “The Migrant and the Latin Church“. A contribution has also been made to the Solidarity Hall website with the online essay “Pop Culture and Total War“, which is a more condensed version of the conference paper presented in Germany for the Colloquium on Violence and Religion, entitled “War by Other Meangirls: Pop Culture as Total War“.
Radically Catholic in the Age of Francis is available in hard copy and on Kindle.

The Ecclesiology of the Trisagion Hymn

 

In the Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom, used in both the Catholic and Orthodox Churches, there is a part before the reading of the Epistle and the Gospel called the Trisagion, otherwise known as the “Thrice Holy” hymn, which the both the priest and the congregation say or sing
Holy God
Holy and Mighty
Holy and Immortal
Have Mercy on Us
 
A musical sample of this can be found in the Greek by clicking here.
It is incredibly easy to glibly go past these words in the liturgy without giving it any further thought. But the 14th century Orthodox Church Father St. Nicholas Cabasilas (pictured above) provides a very important corrective to this. Far from a repetitive hymn (apart from having three “holies”, it is also sung thrice), Cabasilas provides a short but powerful commentary on the ecclesiological, biblical and ultimately cosmological significance of the arrangement of these few words. For Cabasilas, this otherwise short passage is an encapsulation of the whole of Scripture, as well as the whole of the temporal and heavenly orders into a single entity which is the Church. To quote Cabasilas:
The Thrice-holy Hymn has been taken in part from the angels, and in part from Book of Psalms by the Prophet David; it was made into one hymn by the Church of Christ and dedicated to the Holy Trinity. The holy, which is sung three times, belongs to the angels (cf. Isa. 6:3), while God, mighty and immortal come from the blessed David, who says: My soul thirsts for God, the mighty, the living (Ps. 41:3). Our holy church received all this and joined the psalm with the angelic hymn and added the petition, Have mercy on us… in order to show both the harmony of the Old Testament with the New, and that angels and men form one Church and one choir.

Australian Launch: Justice, Unity & the Hidden Christ

Readers in the Sydney area might be interested to know that there will be an Australian launch of Justice, Unity and the Hidden Christ, authored by Matthew Tan and published by Pickwick Publications. This follows the successful launch of the book in the United States earlier this year.
The launch will be held at Gleebooks (49 Glebe Point Road, Glebe) on 24th October 2014 at 6pm for 6:30pm. The launch will feature two guest speakers in dialogue, Benjamin Myers of the United Theological College (and the reknowned Faith and Theology blog) and the internationally acclaimed biblical scholar Robert Tilley of the Catholic Institute of Sydney. 

Refreshments are provided and limited copies of the book are available. Please RSVP by 17th October by clicking here and following the prompts.

The Third Schism

Robin Parry, an editor in the theological publishing house, Wipf & Stock, and Andrew G. Walker, Canon Professor of Culture, Theology, and Education at King’s College in London, have this year published a highly important book entitled Deep Church Rising. Whilst aimed primarily at an Evangelical audience, the book should be of great importance for the universal Church for a number of reasons.
In the first instance, Deep Church Rising is important for being one of the few theological texts to have its own promotional video
Deep Church Rising is also important, for putting into words an intuition that many theologians have but have so far not yet articulated as baldly as Parry and Walker. The first claim that Parry and Walker make is twofold. The first element of this claim is one that has been traversed by authors such as John Milbank and Tracey Rowland. It is the claim that the Christian tradition, in its theology and ecclesial life, has given way to a lot of the philosophical pressure of the Enlightenment and the cultural pressure of its institutional bastard child, Post/Modernity. This familiar claim is taken further by Parry and Walker, for this trend towards bending the Gospel to the shape of Post/Modernity, even if it were done in the name of advancing the Gospel, is a trend that is cutting across denominational divides. From Anglicanism to Evangelicalism to Roman Catholicism, one finds peppered through their evangelical work calls for greater freedom defined as autonomy, the reduction of faith to ideas, a shift towards a purely social Gospel, greater bureaucratisation of the works of mercy, and so on. All these subtle moves, if analysed correctly, find their root not in Jesus of Nazareth, but in Locke and Descartes. 
What is more, argue Parry and Walker, these trends are more than a Modern adaptation of the Gospel. This new form of adaptation is one so severely inimical to the Gospel that it deserves the label of a “third schism”. For Parry and Walker, this schism is more severe than the Protestant Reformation and the Eastern Schism of 1054 because, whilst these two schisms were brought about by differences on how the Word of God is constituted, interpreted and lived both individually and ecclesially, this third schism operates on the basis of a denial of the Word of God altogether. In the words of Parry and Walker, the Post/Modern adaptation of the Gospel operates in such a way that it  “undermines the very basis of Christian faith in its denial of the Trinity, incarnation and the resurrection, and in its treating Scripture as an object of scientific inquiry rather than as a sacred text” (8). If one were to read this correctly, one is not seeing in this emerging schism the creation of a new denomination of Christianity, but a split within all Churches between those that continue to affirm the continuing salience for contemporary life of the Gospel’s primary sources and those that will opt to excise those sources in favour of the injunctions of contemporary life as a new Gospel. Because of the ubiquity of Post/Modernity’s influence within all Churches and the seriousness of the results of that influence, Parry and Walker have done the Church a service in demonstrating the gravity of an emerging problem within the universal Church.
Parry and Walker have also a service to the universal Church in not confining its response to a mere rejection of Post/Modernity and reassertion of “the Gospel” and sloganistic posturing, a trend that is all too common, and also more in keeping with the culture of Post/Modernity than the Gospel, and thus a trend that threatens to exacerbate the third schism. The response proposed by Parry and Walker is a return to what CS Lewis called the “Deep Church” in a letter to The Church Times in 1952. The contours of what Parry and Walker defend as the Deep Church will need to be outlined in later posts, but suffice to say it is a vision of Christianity and the Church that is post-secular, and one that Christians of all stripes can and arguably should take seriously, and reviews in major Christian outlets like First Things and Randal Rauser show that this book is one that is being taken seriously.