The Siren Song Of Easy Religion
Episcopal seminarian Win Bassett sends along an op-ed by Episcopal priest Fr. Tom Ehrich, in which the priest argues that “religion shouldn’t be so hard.” Excerpt:
Church should be a safe place — safe to be oneself, safe to make one’s confession, safe to love whoever one feels called to love, safe to imagine more, safe to fail. Instead, church often is a dangerous place, where people feel guarded, self-protective, hemmed in by tradition and expectation, required to obey rules.
Church should be different from society. Instead, it plays by the same rules: get mine, be first, be right, punish the weak, exclude the different, reward the wealthy.
Yes, “Church should be different from society,” but I don’t think he makes a strong enough distinction between “But the institution whose sole justifiable purpose is to help us deal with those difficulties shouldn’t be making matters worse,” and “Faith should be difficult, yes.”
Rod here. Beneath this irenic language, I suspect, is a standard liberal Protestant agenda. But I can’t know that for sure. What I want to contest here, though, is the idea that religion shouldn’t be hard.
I appreciate the comment. Ehrich has one thing right: church ideally should be a community that dwells in love, and in which we help bear each other’s burdens. The problem with Ehrich’s definition is that he doesn’t seem to believe church should have a purpose. Church becomes an end in itself, rather than a means to an end, which is transformation. Church is not a destination, but the means by which we reach our destination, and help others get there too.
This is hard. Because our hearts are so hard, the religious life has to be hard as well. Oh, it should be comforting too, in season, but any authentic religion will, at times, be hard. Dying to oneself is hard, but in a Christian sense, if you’re not dying, you’re not living. The saying goes, “The Church is not a museum of saints, but a hospital for sinners.” True! But a hospital treats the sick, and helps restore them to health. It doesn’t confirm the sick in their sickness. If a man comes to church with racism in his heart, he is not helped by a church that refuses to help him confront it. If a businesswoman comes to church, feeling guilty for having cheated her clients by cutting corners, the church doesn’t make her healthy by confirming her in her okayness. Church does you no good if it confirms you in your liberal 21st century American prejudices, or your conservative 21st century American prejudices. Even though Pope Francis sometimes drives me crazy, I am grateful for how some of his pronouncements challenge even non-Catholic Christians like me to rethink my approach to life. Lust, greed, anger, lying — we are all guilty, more of less, of these and other sins. Every person who comes through the doors of the church — men, women, old, young, rich, poor, gay, straight, every single person — is a sinner who needs to change, to become more like God. If we are comfortable in our faith, we are doing something wrong. If it’s not hard, we’re missing the point.
When Dante the pilgrim enters the gates of Purgatory, the grey-clad Angel traces seven Ps on his forehead (“P” for “peccato,” sin); he will have each one removed when he has been purged of it on the proper terrace of the mountain of Purgatory. It’s not that Dante is equally guilty of all those sins, but he is somewhat guilty of all of them. As are we. Purgatory is not a place of rest. It is a place where the penitent are zealous for God, and eager to purge themselves of that which separates them from the love of God. Purgatory is a place where people embrace their suffering because they are assured that through it, they are being made ready to see God, and to experience Divine Love in its fullness.
In Canto XIX of Purgatorio, the Pilgrim has a dream in which an ugly, deformed woman comes to him, and when he sees her, she transforms into a beautiful woman, with hot blood “gradually suffusing her wan face/with just the color Love would have desired.”
And once her tongue was loosened by my gaze,
she started singing, and the way she sang
captured my mind — it could not free itself.
“I am,” she sang, “the sweet Siren, I am,
whose song beguiles the sailors in mid-sea,
enticing them, inviting them to joy!
My singing made Ulysses turn away
from his desired course; who dwells with me
seldom departs, I satisfy so well.”
Virgil rushes to the Pilgrim’s side and exposes the woman for who she really is. Later, we find out that she represents the sins of the flesh: Avarice, Gluttony, and Lust. As the two move on in this canto, an angel greets them and reminds them of Christ’s words in the Beatitudes: “Blessed are they who mourn, for they shall be comforted.” The Pilgrim shortly thereafter meets a former pope, bound motionless to the earth of the terrace of Avarice, because he allowed greed to dominate his earthly life. The two converse, and then the penitent pope tells Dante:
Do not stay any longer. Leave me now;
your presence here prevents the flow of tears
that ripens what you spoke about before.
In other words, he tells Dante to leave, because his remaining interferes with his repentance, his purification. The longer Dante stays to make him feel better here in Purgatory, the more Dante delays his ultimate reception into heaven. This is a constant theme of Purgatorio: that we cannot get comfortable in this state of being, because the purpose is overcoming our sins and moving toward God. Dante’s Purgatory, of course, is an allegory for our mortal lives, and how we should approach it: with a spirit of constant repentance, because our very salvation depends on constant self-examination and turning away from all that separates us from the love of God.
The danger the Siren poses is that she makes herself look like Love, for the sake of distracting pilgrims from their journey, and shipwrecking them on the shoals of self-love. This, it seems to me, is the kind of religion Ehrich extols in his column.
Here’s an aside on my experience as an Orthodox Christian. I was talking to a friend after church this past Sunday, a pal who recently started attending our parish. She is not Orthodox. I asked her if the liturgy was starting to make sense to her, and she said no, not really. Don’t be discouraged, I told her; it took a long time for me to understand what was going on. It all seemed so strange and chaotic at first. But keep at it, open your heart and your mind to it, and it will change you. It won’t be quick, and it won’t be painless, but it will be, if you trust the Church’s medicine, and keep moving forward, even when you’re not sure where you’re going. Looking back, I can see how much my own spiritual growth since I’ve been Orthodox has been delayed in large part by my own laziness, manifesting itself in a slothful attitude toward prayer, fasting, and not showing up for vespers. To paraphrase Woody Allen, 90 percent of Orthodox life is just showing up — showing up for services, and showing up within your daily life to say your prayers.
Orthodoxy is not immediately accessible to the modern American. This is not a weakness, but a strength, not a bug, but a feature. The liturgy and the chanting is so beautiful you can’t help seeing that something profound is happening around you, even if you can’t fully understand it. It invites you into its mysteries. You can always resist, but if you take the invitation to the journey, you will be changed. You really will be. What seemed so difficult at the start will become easier … but you will find other difficulties, because that’s how the spiritual life works. If you want to be made holy without having to inconvenience yourself, to examine yourself, to confront yourself and to change yourself, you will be disappointed. If your happiness depends on avoiding pain and anxiety, instead of defeating it through asceticism and love, it will always be tenuous, because it won’t be real. The false gospel sung by the Siren satisfies so well.