Chocolate, Frogs, Plastic, and the Precious Blood

What could be more of a rejection of what He did for us than to make quibbles about the plate matter more than the substance of the gift or the reality of the relationship with the giver?

1280px-axolotl_ganz
Actually, this is an axolotl, a type of salamander. Photo source: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Axolotl_ganz.jpg

 

If a woman said that her husband had given her a luxury box of chocolates on Valentine’s day, it would not be considered with much surprise.

On the other hand, if a woman said she had been given a frog, it might create some puzzlement.

The gift of a box of chocolates could in practice be anything from the most devoted tribute of heart and mind, to part of a positively abusive relationship – an abusive spouse trying to make out that they are the good one and the other is the more guilty party.

Similarly, the gift of a frog could be anything from a seriously nasty joke, to mutually appreciated fun, to the best gift ever for the keen amphibian hobbyist.

And given the scrutiny given to the unconventional, it might reasonably be suggested that the frog is less likely to be an insincere gift, though in most cases, I would assume the chocolates would be entirely genuine too.

Reverence in church cannot be reduced to mere conventions, nor can actions be considered something separate from the state of the heart (understood not in the sense of mere feeling, but as a sort of conjunction of commitment, feeling, mind and intention).

A certain degree of convention is necessary for the functioning of community.  My Church culture generally expresses reverence for the Eucharist with stillness and music.  I would imagine that in some places the greatest reverence would actually be to dance down the aisle to receive dancing and clapping.  It isn’t possible, however, to do both these things in the same space.

It is also necessary as a language to pray in.  We do receive language from others, and the meaning of language is to some extent a convention (massive oversimplification!).  However, the meaning expressed in action is not determined entirely by ourselves, but will take on some meaning from our life experience.  I associate tartan rugs with picnics, for instance.  I would find it disconcerting if someone was to replace the rugs that lie before the altars in the local church with tartan rugs.  But that is not because there is anything wrongful about tartan rugs, just that in my subculture they convey a message of fun rather than one of joy and solemnity.

There is, moreover, a matter of situation.  I once had reason to acquire a pyx (i.e. the container people carry the Host to the sick in).  I was quite bothered to realise how difficult it was to find one without a plastic inside.  The conventions of reverence as I know them require the inside of a pyx to be gilded, so what actually touches the Host is the gold.

On the other hand, I would not consider it the slightest bit irreverent if those ministering in the slums of a poor city Church in a less economically developed country took Communion to the sick in upcycled Vaseline tins for want of anything else.  Saying that the complete impossibility of maintaining an particular convention of reverence should prevent the sick receiving Communion makes a priority of the wrong set of things – human conventions before the command.

This is, I would guess, an incredible headache for church authorities in countries where most people are better off but there are some very poor areas, as it would be difficult to know when to accept a different standard, and where to insist on a particular standard on the grounds that the sense of what is being done is being lost.  However, I would say that I think it is unlikely that it is not possible in this country to provide parishes that cannot afford basic standard pyxes (which are of the order of £10-£20, at least second-hand) with them at wider church expense.

I was quite horrified to be told some months ago that some Churches are too poor to afford wine for the whole congregation at the Eucharist, thus meaning that their congregations always have to receive in one kind: I find it extraordinary that such a need could be known and not assisted by the wider church*.  If we were told to value spiritual food before earthly bread, then we should regard that as more important than running food banks.  Food banks matter – we were told to care for each others’ physical needs – but we may be in danger of becoming an organisation which justifies itself as good for social welfare, rather than a church which preaches and enables the living of the Gospel.  Living the Gospel doesn’t mean being merely moral as the secular world would understand it, though ordinary justice and consideration and truthfulness are part of it, but means opening heart and mind to grace, and that is normally done through conscious engagement with worship (God is not limited to this, but we are bound to seek through the channels He has shown us).

I prefer the use of gilt Communion sets where possible, as I tend to prefer the idea that the use of the best we can provide with reasonable (but not ostentatious or officious) effort is appropriate.  What Christ gave us is precious beyond all thought, and using the most precious earthly things we have in token of our value for that seems to me to make sense.  This would equally mean that the use of silver or glass or the one teacup with only three cracks would fit the same criteria if those things were the best available.

Having said this, if a priest and congregation who could use a gold plated-chalice decided that using a pottery cup as similar as possible to the sort used in Israel in the second temple period, was more appropriate in their celebrations, as the best way of connecting with the reality of every Eucharist’s participation in the Last Supper – from which, 2000 years later and in a very different society and with the story very familiar, it is easy to get detached – then I would argue that is perfectly reverent.  Because it is being done in order to communicate the reality better, and enable people to engage more, I’d argue that accepting this sort of decision is allowing the substance to take priority over conventions which are becoming less than helpful.  A considered decision, however, that it is the best way of enabling a particular congregation to deepen their faith is not at all the same thing as simply not bothering.

Using the most precious things that you have in order to honour the preciousness of the gift is similar to the sincere gift of a box of chocolates.  Using a pottery cup for the right reasons is more like the gift of a new type of frog to an amphibian lover.  Not bothering is like not bothering with any sort of gift (or gift-equivalent attention if you have love languages other than presents).  And that’s not a good idea.

I have heard a lot of marriage advice which is very insistent about the need to carry on with courting attentions in order to preserve the relationship and commitment: sometimes the gift is given sky high in love, sometimes it is given in conscious decision to be true to the commitment and get through the rough patch.  I am not married, but if I understand rightly, it’s important as a signal to the other person that you still love and are still committed (whether or not you are currently “in love”, which is a rather different thing from loving).  And I think worship and the relationship with God is like that too.  But the monetary value of the box of chocolates is not relevant absolutely, only comparatively to the circumstances, and the monetary value of the frog – as opposed to its appropriateness as a gift – is not relevant at all.

The point of all this is to try to explore what it is that we should mean by reverence, what it is for, and how it fits in as a reason for doing or not doing something.

Firstly, though it is not meaningful to take a Humpty Dumpty attitude to language and decide a word – or in this case an action – means whatever you choose it to mean – there is a formation and a sense to what we do – language is fluid to some extent.  If there was a fashion for putting tartan rugs in churches, I would probably ultimately build a new sense of association of that item with worship.

Secondly, and following partly from this, almost all normal church reverence is a human tradition.  This does not mean it is bad, on the contrary, we need conventions so it is not simply chaos, and we need conventions to reinforce our understanding that the Eucharist is something we take seriously.  But it does mean we need to be careful what we are putting our current conventions in front of.  Our Lord did not say – or at least, it is not recorded and it is a reasonable assumption that He did not say – “Do this in remembrance of me, but only if you have a gilded chalice to honour me in.”  If we use such things with the right spirit, as an acknowledgement of Him and a way of engaging more deeply, they are a worthwhile custom.  But when these things stop being an orientation to Him and become burdens getting in the way of fulfilling and engaging with those things actually commanded, they should be laid aside.  They should always be the things open to review.  Otherwise we are committing the fault of nullifying the word of God for the sake of our tradition.

Finally, what is or isn’t reverent is going to depend heavily on circumstances, and on the particular reasons we have for doing or not doing a particular thing.  The principle of using the best we have to honour the Eucharist will look very different in different circumstances.  There may be reasons sometimes to use objects which aren’t the best possible, because those things point more strongly to the substance in some other way.

With regard to the refusal of the Precious Blood to the majority of the People of God in response to an epidemic, on the grounds that it would be irreverent to allow the people to do other than to share chalices, I would suggest that the reasoning is extremely flawed.  It’s rather like a parent insisting that a wife has to refuse her husband’s Valentine’s day chocolates – or indeed, more like them actually taking those chocolates off her – because the sort of gold plate the family traditionally displays them on as they are eaten in acknowledgement of the gift, runs the risk of spreading COVID-19.  The notion that the gift should be refused, rather than it being mutually accepted that while the problem remains you’ll eat them out of the box instead, is an extreme failure of correct priority.  (Of course we have no right to the gift – but the clergy have even less right to deprive us of what was given by God, to us as much as to them.  Should not the shepherds feed their flocks?)

Under normal circumstances, I would have my hair standing on end at the notion of receiving the Precious Blood in tiny disposable plastic cups, one for each member of the congregation**.  With more force than something like tartan rugs, it feels to me like a picnic outing not a Eucharist.  In fact, I think there are better safe ways of doing it – but if the option is between individual plastic cups, and refusing to allow Christ to be with those He loves in the way He chose, then plastic cups hands down.   If the reason for doing that is to protect and save life, made in the image of God, it is not irreverent, but a respect for the life that God has given.  And it is not anything like as irreverent as refusing to allow people to receive at all.  If reverence is about engaging with Him through what He has given us, refusing to let people receive or engage at all is much worse than losing, for good reason, some of the things used under non-crisis circumstances to express respect and aid engagement.

How can we wound the giver more, than by treating their costly gift as if it did not matter?  What could be more of a rejection of what He did for us than to make quibbles about the plate matter more than the substance of the gift or the reality of the relationship with the giver?  We are not being denied to protect life (whether that would be right or not) we are being denied reception rather than alter the conventional manner of receiving.  The common cup is scriptural, but as it is not a common cup if only the priest receives from it, the common cup cannot be defended by refusing to allow the congregation to receive.  In any case, we do not scruple to use 20 chalices or more at large celebrations for practical reasons.  What’s the difference between using eight chalices for a congregation of eight, and eight chalices for a congregation of eighty – other than that the one is conventional and the other is not?  If there really are numbers of laity who don’t know how to be reverent with a cup after receiving then it is a wonderful opportunity for teaching them***.  The rest of it is entirely our own accretion, good if it helps and bad if it does not.  Nothing could be more unhelpful than not being allowed to receive in fullness.  If some people don’t choose to, that is between them and God, but the priests should not be standing between God and the way He has chosen to relate to us.  No relationship can function if others will not give it the space it needs to do so.

In fact, my suggestion for reception if people are worried about sharing chalices, would be intinction by the priest.  The priest should have scrubbed his hands anyway, so it should not be a risk from that point of view, and it means both the use of a normal chalice and no extra risk of spills (as far as I can make out, this does seem to be the case – it might well actually be safer from that point of view than a hundred people trying to drink from a cup held rather awkwardly by someone else while trying to negotiate an obstacle course!).  We would continue to receive from a common cup, though not literally drink from it.

Cherry Foster

 

 

*It is necessary to avoid treating the middle class congregations as mere milk cows to be squeezed for poorer churches, but that is another subject: the rightness of giving assistance, and the social attitudes which cause me to think the middle class congregations have a point in resenting the way they are regarded, are different issues.

**Which is not to say that those whose churches do it like that are being irreverent: it could be irreverent, or it could be a different language of reverence.

***In any case, the obvious thing to do if using separate cups in the context of an epidemic, in a church usually set up to receive from common cups, is probably to have each person put their own cup in a bowl of clean water as they leave the altar.  It is difficult to see how that holds more risk of accident than sharing the chalice.  If fear of an accident is to prevent reception of Communion, where do you stop?  I’ve heard Tridentine Catholics say that congregations should never receive the Precious Blood for fear of accidents.  If we never celebrated at all, there would never be any risk of an accident.  To be careful is entirely right – it is respect – but to disobey the command (worse, to prevent other people obeying it) in the name of that care does not make sense.

 

N.B. I should say that what I am objecting to is the church institution denying people the Precious Blood.  If an individual has made the decision to receive only in one kind for whatever reason, that is between them and God, and those who advise them: it is not my problem to judge that, though there might be academic discussion about the sense or otherwise of the reasons people might give.  Space for relationship has to mean that – the freedom to receive, and the decisions a particular child of God makes about reception, are not the same thing, and are subject to different processes of thought even if some of the technical reasoning is common to both issues.  Assuming respect for the other person’s relationship with God as one would the internal dynamics of a marriage seems to me about right (though no analogy is perfect).  If someone was saying “It doesn’t affect my marriage if I commit adultery,” then we would be right, at the least, to say that someone was not talking about Christian marriage, but we would not rightly start telling someone that their not bothering with Valentine’s day could not possibly matter: it would depend on their own relationship.  Similarly, we cannot say that serious sin is not affecting our relationship with God, but we are wrong to start saying that it cannot be important to another person’s relationship with God to receive the Precious Blood.

Thy Mistletoe

I am a flea that sucks another's blood,
A mistletoe all planted on the Cross,
A cuckoo chick, in known nurture-fraud
That feedeth on the pelican to its loss.

What myst'ry? That Thou Thyself didst graft
Thy parasites to Thee by Thine own will,
Whom on Thine own hands found the flea repast
And 'neath Thy wings the cuckoo sheltered still.

O Love and paradox most wonderous strange,
To nurture as Thine own to Thine own grief,
But wherefore hast Thine heart now so much changed,
That we are cut from Thee by disbelief?

If in Thy mistletoe Thou tookst such strange delight,
It wilts for want of Thee - O, aid its bitter plight!

Cherry Foster

 

Note: this has been edited several times - mostly the third line.  I was initially unsatisfied with it, changed it, and didn't realise till reading it later that the change couldn't be spoken with the correct rhythm it looked as if the words had!  I think the rhythm is right now, but whether it can be understood is another matter.  "Pelican" is still slightly off but I suppose the odd anapaest is usually ok in iambic verse... >< Oh well, I suppose this is how learning happens.

Let us Participate: Language, Laity, and Loss of Life

We are not infant children demanding more sweets than are good for us.  We are adults asking of the stewards of the household, that the Food appointed by God to be given to us as members of His household to sustain us in His Life not be withheld.  This is not about legal quibbling, it is about tending and feeding Christ’s flock.

Some griefs are so deep they are difficult to acknowledge or express, particularly when others are trying to insist they cannot be real.

The grief that I am currently experiencing over the denial at Communion of the Precious Blood is that sort of grief.  The probable lengthening of the refusal of the Precious Blood, the refusal to allow universal reception of His most Precious gift of Himself, the denial of the full participation of the non-ordained in the offering of the Eucharistic liturgy, is the deepest and most significant cause of my distress.  I do not exaggerate when I say that not being able to receive the Precious Blood is a severe and intense bereavement, which goes on being renewed in full intensity as long as it lasts.

I believe there has been at attempt by a lay member of synod to do something about this, and I was saddened to find that all that seems to come back is an insistence on quibbles about legal precedent, and the apparent assumption that the laity are just inherently irreverent, and cannot be trusted with the technical aspects a different manner of reception.

One of the things I’ve most noticed with this, is the obliteration of what is really being done in denying the laity full participation, by the use of language which doesn’t describe what is actually happening.  

That is, people talk of not sharing the Chalice.  In reality, we have been denied the Precious Blood.  Not sharing the Chalice is (potentially*) a completely sensible measure.  But not sharing the Chalice is not a synonym for allowing no-one but the celebrant to receive the Precious Blood. 

The priest can intinct the Host for the laity – this is something which I know is done widely enough in other circumstances to believe it is probably straightforwardly permitted – but for some reason people are not doing it.  Individual cups are forbidden for the laity, while the celebrant receives from an individual cup at every Mass!  Using spoons – separate spoons – in a version of the Eastern Orthodox way of doing it would also not carry the infection risk.  And as far as I can see we could use higher alcohol wine and carry on as normal.  There does not seem to be any doubt that alcohol kills this particular virus.

This is why I say that we are treating the Precious Blood as if it was of no importance.  It is quite true that to say saving lives is more important than X is not to deny X’s general importance, but it is a red herring in this situation.  The chalice has been withdrawn because it is thought that doing so will save lives.  We are refused the Precious Blood not to save lives**, but because ideas of reverence and propriety are considered more important than the full participation of Christ’s people in Christ’s gift – by people who are able to receive Him fully whenever they celebrate.  Surely the anger and grief felt by people like myself against the way the Church authorities seem to regard non-ordained participation and spirituality as inherently failed and incomplete is at least understandable?

While I’m much more inclined to suggest intinction via priest as the best way forward in such circumstances in the Anglican Church, the point that the refusal of the Precious Blood isn’t about infection control is clearest in the insistence on forbidding individual cups for the laity.  It seems to be regarded as more important to protect Him from us than to let Him be with us as He chose.

Reverence is a state of heart and mind.  Yes, it is played out in what we do, but the form of that playing out depends on the outward circumstances.  That is, it would be horrifying if a priest causally celebrated high Mass wearing only a swimming costume on an ordinary Sunday.  The vestments are there: it is reasonable to feel it is appropriate reverence to use them.  But if among a group of people stripped to enter the gas chambers there was a priest and, by some miracle, the bread and wine to celebrate – no-one would criticise as irreverent the lack of clothing or the fact that there was nothing but a broken tea-cup and part of an old plant saucer on which to honour the Host and Precious Blood.  At least, I hope they would not.  Perhaps I am wrong.

I’m not casual about spilling the Precious Blood in Church.  Thankfully it doesn’t happen very often, but last time someone spilled the Precious Blood on my clothes a year or so ago, I ended up soaking the clothing several times, pouring the water onto the ground (which is what you are supposed to do) and then still fussing over letting the clothes drip dry onto the ground, and – if I remember rightly – washing them again by hand and pouring the water on the ground in the same way after they had dried the first time.  I thought I’d probably got to the point of overreacting by the time I’d finished – but – well, to paraphrase Therese of the Child Jesus, one does silly things when one is in love! 

However, in the end it is necessary to accept that He didn’t give us these things in the belief we could handle them infallibly.  It matters to say I’m not arguing for irreverence.  It matters that we should be careful.  I actually like receiving by the intinction of the Host by the priest because it is much easier and less stressful than trying to handle the chalice.  However, I would not dream of disobeying His command to receive the Precious Blood, on the grounds that it might be spilt.  It’s more important to obey.

Who chooses to be irreverent will be irreverent.  Those who are not being irreverent will not be irreverent no matter in what manner they receive.  To receive the Precious Blood reverently from separate cups in order to save lives is not irreverent.  To say “you may not receive His gift” is extremely irreverent, far more than any mistake or accident in an unfamiliar circumstance could be (excuse me: I hate saying this to people, but I think the point is important).  It suggests that He doesn’t really matter, that His gift – and by the nature of what it is, His shedding of His Blood for us – is not really important, that our ideas of reverence come before His command (1 Samuel 15:22?).  Validity – the metaphysical sameness of the substance we receive – does not negate the importance of the fact that He gave the Bread and the Wine with different words and different reflections on the significance of what He was doing and giving.  We are supposed to come to know Him through what He gave.  We are not supposed to go mechanically through the motions of doing the minimum a human theory has defined as necessary.  Such a theory is necessary to the practical functioning of church life, but when it becomes a ceiling and not a baseline, it is being wrongly used.

As a woman with an internal vocation who nevertheless chooses not to go forward for ordination on the grounds of principle, I am particularly troubled by the inconsistency of principle inherent in the exclusion of the laity from Eucharistic worship***, either partly or fully, as my wing of the Church has made so much of the equality of lay participation.  The priests still celebrate and when they celebrate, even if that is not every day, they can receive fully.  The idea that it is somehow the same for the priests because they don’t receive in both kinds when they attend in the congregation is not correct or helpful.  Those aid workers who eat the same food as starving refugees at lunch, but go home in the evening to a good meal, are (usually) not doing anything inherently wrong, but they cannot claim to share the lot of the refugees.

The non-ordained have been completely excluded by the Church’s decisions from Communion, and remain partially excluded from the offering and from Communion – indefinitely, with no hope or change in view.  We are not being permitted to obey His command fully.  This is a very far cry from the insistence on non-ordained vocations being equally valid that has been made for years from the pulpit, and it compromises (again, excuse me) my wing of the Church’s witness to the correctness of traditional Catholic order, as the protest that no woman can worship fully and equally is currently quite justifiably levelled at FiF.  I think the ordination of women compounds the problem of clericalism rather than solving it – it affirms, justifies, and re-enforces the notion that the only way to participate fully in Christian life and worship is to be ordained.  It then sort of follows that all who are fully committed should be ordained, so the laity are squidged out of the Church even more.  However, to defend Catholic Order rests on truly equal value for full lay reception of Communion (among a lot of other similar things) otherwise we cannot say we believe in equal participation of both sexes in God’s word and work – and we are not living that as things stand.  

There may be good reason not to share the Chalice.  Denying the Precious Blood to God’s people is not the same thing.  And it is the latter, not the former, which is being done.

We too are the people of God.  We too are those to whom the gift of the Eucharist was given.  We too are part of the Church. We are not infant children demanding more sweets than are good for us.  We are adults asking of the stewards of the household, that the food appointed by God to be given to us as members of His household to sustain us in the Life that cannot be destroyed by plague or disaster not be withheld.

For the sake of our mutual commission, clergy and people, to live and preach the Gospel: let us the non-ordained be fully participating members of the Eucharistic Sacrifice, for the glory of His Name, for our good, and the good of all, whom God in His loving mercy calls to know Him.

Cherry Foster

 

*If there is evidence that it is risky.  I tend to concede the assumption that it is dangerous in these theological arguments because it is being universally assumed, I don’t really know, and I don’t think it matters to the points I’m making about the situation.  However, I think it is important for other reasons to note occasionally that it requires investigation to establish that any particular thing is dangerous.  It is sometimes very surprising what is and isn’t. 

I concede danger because this aspect of things is not relevant to what I am saying about the theological, spiritual, and pastoral issues, but I reserve judgement on the matter itself in as far as it is a scientific question.

**Whether it would be justified to do it for that reason or not is not important here, as it is not being done for that reason.

***While I appreciate not everyone would actually find this in practice, all else but the sacraments can be done by a lay person on their own, allowing that one can’t sing the office in four parts without a four part choir!  As a solitary I have almost always read the office on my own: most of my prayer has normally taken place out of Church, and this is mostly fine.  I would have liked it to be otherwise, but it genuinely isn’t that important.  However, God has always dealt with me through the Sacraments alone, and Communion (plus Confession and in a more limited way the Anointing of the Sick) are the only things in my practice that restore spiritual energy and resources rather than draining them.  For a contemplative, prayer is work, not a refreshment from that work.  It’s rather like looking after young children full time: it’s done in love and joy but it is incredibly difficult. 

How is it a common cup if only the celebrant is allowed to drink from it?

How did protecting Christ from the laity – or the laity from Christ – become more important than allowing Him to be with us according to His command?!

Anyone would think that Christ had said at the Last Supper: “Take this, and make sure there is no risk at all of your spilling it, or catching anything from it, by whatever means,” rather than, “Take this, all of you, and drink from it.”

In what possible manner can it be regarded obedience of that command for the celebrant to receive and refuse to allow anyone else to do so?

Would it have been a greater disobedience if Peter had taken the cup and poured a little into John’s cup etc., or if he had taken the cup, refused to allow any other present to receive anything from it, and washed it out carefully so as for there to be no possibility of any spilling?

I care a lot about reverence towards the Eucharist.  It is the Living God.  But I keep thinking of  Samuel 15:22.  Is our idea of what constitutes reverence towards Him, or our obedience of His actual command, more important?

How is the cup a common cup if only the celebrant is permitted to receive the Precious Blood?

So – no separate cups are allowed – except for the separate cup from which the celebrant receives?

Obviously, that’s not clericalism!  Oh, no, the C of E doesn’t do clericalism!  The non-ordained are just as much the people of God, just as much the Church, just as much Christians with a vocation…

Except when something spooks the clergy.

In fact, I think we are so clericalist that we don’t even notice most of the time.  We keep talking of “the same for everyone,” and don’t even realise we’re excluding the priest ><.  Someone has (for theological reasons) to receive in Both Kinds, so the only way it can be the same for everyone is for everyone to be allowed to receive in Both Kinds.  Otherwise – it is not the same for everyone.  In any way, shape, or form.  The celebrating priest is supposed to have a different role, not the spiritual privilege of a fuller participation denied to the congregation.

How are the priests stewards for and shepherds to the laity, when they ignore their spiritual agony, insisting instead on human conventions regarding how services are carried out?

Why is it that we insist on the convention of never receiving other than by sharing chalices, but didn’t insist on the convention of holding public services and allowing all baptized Communicants of Trinitarian Churches to receive Communion if they wished to do so?

How can we defend the participation of the laity as equal to that of the clergy (which my wing of the Church, at least, makes a lot of) and then refuse the laity Communion, either in its entirety, or in the sign of the Covenant, the outpoured and Precious Blood of Christ, which He died to give us?

How can the laity come to maturity of faith, if we are not allowed to make our own decisions, in conscience, with prayer and advice, as adult Christians answering to God for our decisions, rather than “being kept safe” by the clergy as if we were infant children?

Is it really more respectful to the Giver to treat the gift He died to give us as if it was not important to us, than to receive it in a slightly different manner?

How can we read the Martyrs’ stories year by year, and yet suppose it more important to obey the state than worship and witness to God?  Or more important to have safety than to have Christ’s Presence?

How can we profess the Resurrection, and yet appeal to the risk of earthly death as if preventing such death was an irrefutable argument for anything?

Have we reduced the Living God to validity and reverence?

Have we sought safety in rejecting Him?

Seriously, we have got our priorities wrong.

It would be tragic if anyone caught COVID in church and died from it, or if anyone came to harm from catching it from someone who had caught it in church.  But it is far more tragic that people are not allowed to be in church, that they are not permitted to receive Christ fully according to His word, that we are not being true to the faith which, while acknowledging the horror of earthly death, does not regard it as the ultimate evil or the end of hope.

Christ died.  He knew what it meant to die.  He died and rose that we might share that Life which knows no fear of death, that we might see and be with God.  We do not need to be afraid – of anything except being unfaithful to Him.

Cherry Foster

Why doesn’t God heal you?

I should, I think, warn people that this post has a sort of PG (personal guidance :-P) rating.  It’s a bit of an elephant in the room one way and another -despite social insensitivity, it is actually a question I’ve never been asked.  Answering it involves the exploration of questions like how one sees the healings of Jesus in the context of modern ideas of disability (somewhat unconventionally from both sides, I would guess), and of the metaphysical as well as the social nature of disability.  It won’t challenge or upset everyone, but I would recommend people use their judgement as to reading on, because I am writing about things which are raw and controversial and emotional, and the post could be quite upsetting to people in a different place in the various journeys involved from me.

Having said which, it is from both the academic and spiritual point of view, a quite unavoidable question.  It touches on the problem of evil, it touches on  – believing as I do that God is sovereign and could and does heal – the apparent arbitrariness of where he does or not.  And I would guess that most of those of us who do have chronic illness or disability and are or become Christians, do find the illness/disability affects our relationship with God (as most other things do).  In churches that tend to set a much greater value on doing than on being, and which don’t have many disabled ministers (becoming “elderly” is, as far as I can make out, a rather different experience), I suspect that people rarely see into this aspect of that can of worms.  What I’m elucidating here is a spiritual struggle as well as a process of thought, and one which I’m not anywhere near the end of.

Firstly, the pieces of the jigsaw.  I have an unconventional philosophical view on the subject of disability for modern times: though I insist that being blind does not make me less of a person, I am among those who would say that the human body is supposed to be able to see.  It is how we are adapted and created to function. 

I don’t think the mistake is in supposing that loss of sight, or hearing, or the capacity to walk, is a lack: I think the mistake lies in supposing that the fact that it is a lack makes the person with it less valid as a person.  Indeed, the fact that people are not of less worth because of any attribute, as they are equally loved by God, is an important one in Christianity. 

I see my lack of vision as a loss on the metaphysical plane, and I see it as something that is something wrong with my body on the medical plane, but I don’t see these things as rendering me an inferior person who is less morally significant, for I don’t think moral worth is based on capacity or attributes in the way our society generally does.  For example, children with disabilities are aborted on the grounds of those disabilities, including at an age where any other child would have the protection of law.  Try suggesting it’s ok to abort a child because they are black, or set the legal gestational-age-limits for abortion differently according to the colour of a unborn child’s skin, and see what people say!*.  God does not love me less because I have a disability: I can believe my disability is a loss/lack without believing my life is lessened in worth by it. 

I regard my blindness both as a feature of who I am (at the moment), something which should be accepted and accommodated and treated matter-of-factly on a day-to-day basis, and also as something which is a genuine and potentially tragic loss of full human functionality.  I don’t regard the two as mutually contradictory.  They’re to do with different aspects of life.  This is, I suppose, one of the things I’m most uncomfortable with in the way a lot of people advocate for disability: that it has to be one or the other, and cannot be both.  The social model of disability is correct socially, but I don’t think it gives the full picture of the experience and reality in other ways.  I’m not broken and somehow unfit to live, but I do have an affliction.  If functional adjustments lessen the actual effect of that affliction so it doesn’t have much effect on my life, wonderful.  But that doesn’t make it somehow not an affliction. 

This is important, because the way in which disability is understood is a massive part of the way in which the question itself has to be understood.  That is, if disability is a purely social matter, one would have to accept that Jesus shouldn’t have healed the blind and sick and so on, but should have rounded on the crowd and given them a lecture about including them as they were!**  As a Christian, I’m very much in favour of asking questions and exploring the uncomfortable bits of scripture properly, and I wish to avoid crude readings which don’t hold it together as a whole.  However, I do believe that it makes no sense within Christianity to put culture above scripture.  To believe is to believe that it is true.   If my culture really does conflict with the sources of faith, I believe it is my culture that’s wrong and the sources of faith which are right, and that I need to adjust myself from accepting my culture to accepting the sources of faith.

Having said which, if you actually read the accounts in the Gospels, there’s an awful lot of sensitivity shown to the people who ask for healing as they are.  Jesus sees that the paralytic is actually more in need of absolution than of being made able to walk (Luke 5:17-26 and analogs).  He responds to the blind man calling to him, he stops, and he talks to him and asks what he wants (no assumptions… Mark 10:46-32), and he takes the deaf man aside and uses a lot of sight and touch (Mark 31:31-37).  The case of the paralytic in particular can reasonably be viewed as a paradigmatic case of not-assuming-someone’s-visible-disablity-must-be-their-worst-or-only-problem!

Finally, there is the whole Christian paradox of life coming out of death, of a remedy being fashioned from the horror of mortality, of the fact that to come to the Resurrection, we first have to die.  This is significant because greater gifts come out of loss and weakness, than from strength.  Human strength is created by God, human gifts and powers should be used to His glory – if we don’t do that, we aren’t honouring him properly as creator.  We cannot force God’s hand by deliberately failing.  But it tends to be in the failure of human power that God most acts.  And it should follow from that that a real weakness or lack is as honourable a gift to him as any other: it seems to be a matter of bringing what you are given to bring.  God is not being arbitrary in granting healing to one and not another: rather, we are not yet able to fully see what He is aiming at in doing so.

So having drawn together the pieces of the puzzle, in terms of what I think disability is, means, and doesn’t mean, and several relevant bits of theology: what is the answer to the actual question: why does God not heal me?

The answer is: I don’t know; the most I could do at this point is speculate.  What I am sure of, within this framework, is that He has a purpose to it, and His grace keeping me faithful to Him, there will come a point of healing.  It may not look quite as we would expect.  My assumption would be that it will probably come in the life to come not this one, and as we know almost nothing about that, I’d rather no one said crudely at my funeral that, “she can now see”!

People do do that, apparently.  I’d hesitate to say that it is always inappropriate: it would depend on the personal experience of the person being buried.  But in the abstract, it does come across rather as: “this person is better off dead; because they were blind, this life wasn’t really a gift worth having.”  Thank-you so much!  There’s a sort of implication (at least out of context) that the disabled person has been healed and transformed while those who are not disabled won’t need that.  Which is actually theologically problematic in other ways as well.   

The notion of healing in the world to come is one I’m perfectly happy with slightly more metaphorically – one of my favourite lines from hymns is “ye blind behold your Saviour come” – the limitations will be taken away.  I tend to express this of the Resurrection by saying: “the deaf shall see music, the blind shall hear light, the lame shall soar on eagles’ wings.”  This is not rejecting the notion of healing suggested in Isaiah (35:5-6), but is an attempt to put the concept in a way which can be understood in our culture as also accepting the validity of our current life and experience.

Having said this, there is a slight complication, which is that I do sometimes wonder if the ongoing fact of the affliction is His doing or mine: that is, whether it is a result of my lack of faith rather than being His will for me at the moment.  Of course, that is still something one has to commit to His mercy, but it is another real part of my experience of this question.  As is the fact that it is actually incredibly difficult, having accepted a lifelong condition which nothing can be done about, to come to terms with the fact that this is not literally speaking true.  There’s something very different about living with no possibility of a cure, and living with that possibility, but in a context where whether or not it happens sooner rather than later is not really my own problem or business.  It’s different from living with the possibility of a medical cure, which is much more about me personally, and about things that are my business and decision.

Trusting that He has a good purpose is not the same as not being angry.  The Christian tradition does not involve having to be pleased with God for doing things in the way He does!  It is perfectly legitimate – indeed, it seems likely that it is a healthy part of growth in the relationship and coming to a deeper trust for many people – to be angry with God and to express it.  It doesn’t help to say “Thy will be done” if what is really going on in my heart and mind is grief and anger rather than trust.  In trying to acknowledge the reality of that grief and anger, I am opening my heart to be given that trust.  And my journey in learning trust on this point is by no means over and may never really be over.

Finally: one of my friends has a lovely analogy about the disabled in the Life to come, which also reflects on how our attitude to disability in this life should work.  If you have two acorns, one of which is smooth and perfect, and the other of which is lumpy and cracked: have they a different potential?  Can you tell which is which when they have both grown into oak trees?

Cherry Foster

 

*Yes, I am completely pro-life: that is, I don’t think abortion defined as deliberately killing or deliberately preventing the nurture of the unborn is ever justified.  However, the point I’m trying to make here is that a society that forbids the killing of a non-disabled unborn and 24 weeks gestation, but allows the killing of a disabled unborn because they are disabled up to the day of birth, is treating the life of the disabled unborn as being of less value, and that is prejudice in the classic sense.  Many people have been aborted on the grounds of much lower levels of disability than I have.  Being part of a society that allows that isn’t easy.

**The same would apply to charities raising money for medical help for reversible causes of sight loss in LEDCs – that is, they should focus entirely on social change and not try to offer the means of healing.  I think people should aim to do both.  It isn’t wrong to focus on one or the other, but there could be more care on the part of those charities focusing on healing in respecting the human dignity of those currently living with a disability (advertising often leaves that to be desired), and I don’t think anyone who is seeking social change should try to prevent access to medical help (not that I’m aware of anyone who does).

Answering the Objections

I’ve argued at length that the Church has made the wrong decision in choosing to close down and deny people the Sacraments during the COVID-19 crisis. Here, I want to explain why I’m not convinced by the arguments people make in favour of the closure.

People getting as far as bothering with arguments is actually quite an achievement. There is a bit of a tendency to assume that anyone opposing any lockdown policy simply has no sense of reality and doesn’t understand what is going on, rather than that they have a coherent reason for opposing it!  This is a bit dangerous.  If people can’t oppose something and be taken seriously, we are liable to act without examining what we are doing, and that isn’t a good idea.

As an INFJ, and someone studying Christian Spirituality, I tend to mix the abstract logical and the witness and conclusions of personal experience. This can be confusing for people who wouldn’t, but it is genuinely how I think: I do tend to switch from one to the other like this.

I’d also comment that I am not simply taking my experience and rationalising it: I do use both. I defend some of my spiritual experiences as sound, like the response I have to the loss of the Precious Blood. But I also have real spiritual experiences that I don’t defend: most notably, my tendency to emotional despair (believing salvation impossible), which I refuse as a lie and a temptation. I tend to feel people will dismiss what I say logically on the grounds that I’m emotionally engaged: actually, being emotional does not prevent someone from also thinking.  Indeed, when it comes to Christian Life, some way of attempting to distinguish impulses that come from God and those that come from our fallen nature is necessary, though exactly what is likely to vary between different people.

I am speaking from a particular Church background and place and charism, and the solutions I suggest regarding the limits on legitimate precautions against disease (i.e. stopping gathering but taking Communion to people) reflect this. I am aware that some of this is about our particular internal consistency, rather than being a general thing: for instance, much of what I say would not apply to the response of a Church that didn’t believe in the Real Presence. Nevertheless, I hope the underlying points may be more widely useful.

I am aware of the limitation in what I’ve written in not quoting much more widely from Scripture. However, to write a post rather than a book, this was necessary. I will perhaps come back to them individually and do this. Do comment if you’d particularly like me to do this to any particular point, and I’ll focus on that first.

If anyone has any other arguments that I haven’t covered in favour of the decisions made, please comment, and I shall, um, be most delighted to demolish them! 😛 ><

Actually, I wouldn’t like to say that I would never change my mind in response to an argument, because I cannot possibly be sure that I have heard every counterargument, so some new counterargument might cause me to rethink. But it would have to be a new counterargument, and it would have to be an argument against what I am actually saying. The reason I am comparatively confident of my position is that I have tried to consider it from as many angles and directions as possible. It isn’t an answer I like. I have the natural tendency to want to save my earthly life and that of others at any cost, and thinking like this about these things is bringing me dramatically up against my own failures of faith.

800px-Jean-Léon_Gérôme_-_The_Christian_Martyrs'_Last_Prayer_-_Walters_37113 no copyright
Jean Leon Gerome, The Christian Martyrs’ last prayer. Source: Wikimedia Commons; Photo Credit: Unknown.

Anyway: here is my elucidation of why I don’t agree with the justifications I’ve heard for the church to act as it has during the COVID-19 lockdown in shutting its doors and refusing to allow most of its people any access to the Sacraments.

But it’s to save lives!

Yes, exactly.  Safety – for ourselves or others – cannot logically be the priority within Christianity.  We read the Gospels and the martyrs’ stories year by year.  It isn’t that earthly life doesn’t matter – it does (to argue otherwise is to be Gnostic). It is simply that it doesn’t have absolute priority.

I’d argue we should take precautions in a situation like this.  Resorting to putting services online and sending people around to give the congregation an Intincted Host through a just-enough open window, would, I would personally argue, have been a completely appropriate response to the situation.  But earthly life is not a final, be-all, end-all appeal in Christianity.  It matters, but God, His commands, and people’s Divine Life, should all take priority if directly opposed to it.

Jesus would have had compassion!

Yes.  That is completely true.  The trouble is that this assumes that the right form of compassion is respecting earthly life as the most fundamental good.  I don’t think this is right.  The truest compassion we could have had on a world dramatically reminded* of its mortality, is to witness to the fact that Christ has defeated death, and that dreadful though this is, it does not have to be final.  Doing that means rejecting earthly death’s claim to absolute priority.

We accept what you believe, and that would be fine if you put no one else at risk, but you can’t take risks to practice your religion in this situation because that would be a lack of respect for people who don’t believe – if you catch it you are putting them at risk too.

This is based on secular justifications for religious tolerance, which are somewhat problematic within Christianity, because they basically require one to believe in, and act to, its actual subjectivity, (true-if-you-believe-but-not-if-you-don’t), which is not compatible with Christ dying for the Life of the World, and being Lord of that World.  If that is true, it is true.  It no more becomes untrue because someone doesn’t believe it, than a table ceases to exist and allows me to walk through it because I had forgotten it was there.

I believe in religious tolerance, but this is because (a) one cannot defend the Kingdom of the Cross with the Sword**, (b) I agree with Hooker’s arguments that the state has a right to exist separately from the Church as a part of the natural law, (c) to come truly to God is to come freely.

I don’t believe that religion is a private subjective matter that must only be believed or acted on in as far as it doesn’t affect others.  I rightly leave others free to act differently if they so choose, but I cannot rightly act as if I did not believe, on the grounds that my actions affect people who don’t believe if I don’t act as they would on the grounds of their different beliefs.  If I act like that, it’s a lack of integrity and a lived denial of Christ, not an act of compassion.

Everything we do affects others, and freedom to act despite that effect is universally a very thorny problem.

I’d add, for other Christians, that falling from the Divine Life is catching too.  If people are left without the spiritual support of actually being able to receive the Sacraments, they may be under immense temptations against faith.  Certainly this has been my own experience.  The loss of companionship and witness and support to others when someone loses their faith is likely to be significant.  It isn’t a personal matter.  When one falls, all are wounded.

People have to obey the law!

I have already written about this here.  For non-Christians, my comment would be: surely you also have reserves about where you would obey the State?  If you were ordered to go about the streets of London and gun down all ethnic minorities, for instance?  This is not to argue that the two are morally equivalent – that’s not what I’m getting at.  It’s simply to point out that it is almost never argued in the West that people must obey the law no matter what.  Granted, this doesn’t defend any particular issue of disobedience.  But it does point up the fact that the argument here is more about whether freedom of worship is a legitimate thing to make illegal, not that the law is to be obeyed no matter what.

The other comment I would make on this, is that I’m not clear that it has ever actually been against the law in the UK, even in our severest lockdown, for a priest or lay minister to give someone Communion (or hear their Confession) over a garden gate, or while walking by way of taking exercise.  I believe gatherings of two were always acceptable.  And given remote deliveries have never stopped, putting a table with a corporeal covering it just inside or outside a door or window for a priest to put a pyx containing the sacrament down on for people, would probably have been perfectly legitimate.  We were allowed delivery of items like pencils and lace and books and computer game equipment all the way through.

You can’t expect the priests to take the risk of being fined if it isn’t clear whether it is legal to take people the Sacraments or not!

Yes, I can.  I would expect my priests to take the risk of being killed, to take the sacrament to people, if that was how things were.  And I would probably fail myself.  But failing, and arguing that it is right to refuse people, are different things.  (It is deeply ironic that I, who undoubtedly struggle a lot with failures of faith in my own life, should end up trying to draw attention to what I believe to be an institutional failure of faith.  Though possibly it is the fact that I spend a lot of time thinking “I can’t help my emotional doubts – they are a temptation, not a sin.  What would I do if I did believe?” which has caused me to think the position through like this).

Having said which, I do appreciate that the parish priests are in a very bad position between the Church authorities on the one side and the non-ordained on the other, with infinite differing demands and dreadful confusion and not much support.

While I would point-blank argue that priests should regard themselves morally obliged to disobey any law forbidding them to give people Communion, I would also say that they should have been confident that their people would rally round regarding the consequences.  That is, that we would pay any fines as a community, that we would assist families if someone was arrested, that we would offer aid and succour within the legal system.  I don’t know if they would in fact feel able to have such confidence.  And the poor relationships between clergy and people are by no means entirely the fault of the clergy.

Priests care about people’s welfare: you can’t expect them to do something that might harm people!

This seems to me to come out of the same upside-down sense of priority as the first issue: i.e. it is supposing that risk to earthly life is more fundamental than risk to the Divine Life, that earthly concerns should come before loyalty to Christ.  If due precautions are taken, any bad consequences are not the priest’s moral responsibility, but come into the category of double effect.  And, also, if the Divine Life is understood as more fundamental, true harm is more likely to be done to people as a consequence of refusing, than is done in letting people receive.

Few would argue that an NHS nurse who, despite taking all precautions, caught COVID and became the centre of a local epidemic, should have left the sick without care due to that risk.  Few would argue that someone who goes to prepare food for a helpless person, who would otherwise starve, and becomes the centre of an epidemic due to that, despite taking all recommended precautions, should not have done it.  They themselves, though they might regret the circumstance, would not be likely to believe that they were wrong to do as they had.  If we believe the Eucharist is Christ, and that Christ is who He said He was, we should be willing to go to more risk to take Him to people than to take earthly food to them (labour not for the bread that perishes…).  I don’t know what has happened, but seriously, we are underestimating and undervaluing Him.  We cannot consistently say “this is Christ, the Way, the Truth, and the Life,” and add, “but you can’t receive Him according to His word because it is too risky”.

I’d also say, very seriously, that people should not underestimate the health consequences of temptation, sin, lack of spiritual support, lack of reassurance of God, etc.  I had a serious depressive crisis during lockdown.  A major part of that was the loss of Sacramental support.  And because I have a lot of other health conditions, which I can’t manage so well when I’m depressed, it damages my health in other ways as well.  I don’t think it is right to think only in terms of health.  But even in those terms it is not simple.  We are psychosomatic.  I had the impression from hearing various talks, that it is well known among hospital chaplains that spiritual distress can be a major issue for someone’s wider health.  Spiritual and physical healing are probably not as far asunder as people are supposing.

Moreover, it would have been a lot less contact with others for me personally to receive Communion, than to end up in A and E (which I did at one point with the depression). Even if people were right to make a priority of safety, it is not as simple as people are making out, with “risk” on one side and “safety” on the other.

It’s all very well for the people who understand the situation and have a certain level of maturity of faith to make their own decision about balancing the spiritual and practical risks of receiving or not, but it is a problem if others who don’t understand copy them and take that risk without making an informed decision. Therefore, it is right for priests to refuse to let the laity receive in order to protect those who are less competent.

Ultimately, I do feel that this is still upside-down thinking: again, it is regarding the risk to earthly life as more fundamental, the thing which we ought to resort to protecting before all else. I would argue that it should be a personal decision for each individual: it might be, for instance, that a nurse or carer, with a much more active vocation, who found God was assisting them without the sacraments, would make a perfectly legitimate decision not to take the risk of receiving for a time. But that is completely different from the clergy taking the decision from the non-ordained and making it themselves.

I also think that to take the decision as to whether or not to receive Communion from the lay people of God, on the grounds that some of them are immature, is to reduce or remove the capacity of anyone to grow into such maturity. People who are prevented from exercising responsibility tend to become incapable of taking responsibility. I would argue that it is crippling the Church if most of their people are held in a childlike state spiritually and in the practical things of Church life, by not being allowed to make their own decisions about their personal practice. (Listening to the advice of people you trust and respect is part of making a good decision. But “advice” is exactly that: it involves people being free to weigh it in the balance and make a different decision).

The priests would be wrong to disobey the Bishop/Ordinary.

This is an argument as to whom has moral responsibility, not an argument about whether or not the overall way of thinking and decisions based on it are right.

I would give a more qualified answer to this, as the theory here is extremely complicated, and it is outside my knowledge.  I don’t know what authority the Bishop has to forbid priests to exercise their ministry, and upon what grounds, except that they don’t have a universal authority to do so on any grounds whatever.  The only comment I can really make is that to plead obedience as a justification, requires consistency, in believing that the Bishop should be obeyed on all similar matters, regardless of whether or not the person obeying agrees with the decision or not.  I would completely accept this when it came to a priest who was consistent (I’d stop arguing with them and write to the Ordinary instead!).

However, I would observe that the traditionalist Anglo-Catholics, at least, do not have a universal, um, habit of obeying Bishops when they disagree with them on matters concerning the Sacraments!  😛  Perpetual reservation, Confirmation age limits, admitting to Communion before Confirmation, the legitimacy of auricular Confession, the use of Roman liturgies of the Eucharist – I’d be surprised if there were not plenty of other examples I didn’t know about.  In general, I have the impression that these have mostly been treated as legitimate moral dilemmas, and that traditionalist Anglo-Catholic priests have gone both ways as to whether or not the Bishop should be obeyed or not.  But it is, at least, not a simple matter.

Everyone has to be treated the same

This is generally cited as justifying that the priest should not go to anyone (bar, perhaps the seriously sick and dying) on the grounds that he would have contact with too many people if he went to everyone.

My first comment would be to say that I am arguing that everyone should be treated the same: I am arguing that the Sacraments should be taken to everyone who asks it except where it is actually physically impossible (e.g. the medical profession have physically locked the priest out of the ward).  It seems to me that the right response to the issue of numbers is to deploy as many lay ministers of Communion as possible, and to make sure those who go to those who might have COVID don’t go to those who are particularly vulnerable.  (To problem-solve like everyone else is having to).  But ultimately, if arguing from a position which says “earthly life matters, but the Divine Life, as given through the Sacraments, is more fundamental,” it is logical to say “whatever risk cannot be negated, should be taken. It is more important to do this.”

However, the reason that I feel this specific argument is seriously problematic in context, is that in saying it, the clergy seem to be excluding themselves and their families from that “everyone,” apparently so automatically, that they don’t even realising they are doing it.  I don’t advocate their not celebrating in solidarity.  I have no desire whatever that those not being killed should be killed, only that those being killed should be given the means of Life.  But even if they don’t celebrate, it would still not be the same for them as it is for those who are not ordained, because they would have the choice.  This is not their doing or their fault in any way.  Given the nature of Ordination, nothing except physical force or lack of the elements can take the choice to celebrate away from the clergy.  In not receiving, they would still be making a sacrifice rather than being sacrificed.

The only way in which everyone can be treated the same is for the priests to allow everyone to participate fully.

(I should acknowledge that to the best of my knowledge most of the clergy have not had access to Confession, for that requires another priest, and I don’t wish to underestimate the potential burden of that for anyone).

Worship hasn’t stopped; the priests are still celebrating privately in their kitchens

The laity are fully the people of God.  It isn’t that I would refuse the principle of vicarious worship: indeed, it is a major part of my own vocation.  But it is a gift given to assist others with different vocations to participate more fully, not a way of replacing their worship with my own, thus pushing them away from God’s presence and grace.  Vicarious worship should always be an addition for people, not advocated as a replacement for their capacity to participate in worship.

We’ve put the services online; you can watch them and make an act of spiritual Communion.  You can receive grace that way just as much.

Spiritual Communion is probably a praiseworthy practice when used as an addition to receiving, but to suggest that it can be put in place of receiving the Eucharist is probably both Gnostic and Docetic.  Christ came in the flesh.  He comes to us physically, to transform the physical as much as the spiritual.  To suggest that the matter of the Sacrament can be replaced with the words of a prayer should surely be indisputably problematic?  It ought, on the face of it, be obviously contrary to Sacramental theology? I am really bemused as to the thinking behind this one.

Regarding the “receive grace that way,” God is not bound by the Sacraments.  If He chooses to work outside them, He can.  But we cannot rightly act in a manner that demands He should.  I was getting quite distressed initially by the extent in which I was struggling and finding Spiritual Communion no help at all, until I realised that neither I nor anyone else has the power to require God to answer that prayer with a particular type of assistance.

Finally, I’d argue that the element of grace in the Sacraments is overemphasised, in reflection of an over-emphasis in the West on the Fall-Redemption arc, which should be contained within a Creation-Theosis arc.  Presence is actually more fundamental than grace.  Grace is necessary because we could not bear or benefit from that Presence without it, but it is given as a means to an end, not as an end in itself.  I think that this is another manner in which we try to reduce the Eucharist, rather than letting it Be in its overwhelming fullness.  (Trying to reduce participation to what is necessary for validity, rather than valuing it whole and complete – i.e. insisting that people should receive only the Host and not the Precious Blood – seems to me to be another element of this tendency).

You can still watch the services online (implied: this is the same as attending non-Communicating).

I’d be inclined to suppose that this helps with liturgies of the word (and I seriously hope people will go on doing it with them, though with due care for the privacy of attendees), but is not a substitute for taking people Communion. Christ said “Take and eat,” “Drink from it all of you,” (Matt 26:39), not “look and gaze, but don’t touch it”! The notion that Anglicans are prepared to advocate looking instead of receiving is extremely worrying with regard to our wider theological integrity.

In any case, I never attend non-Communicating: with the occasional exception of having too troubled a conscience – and as I would fairly readily simply make my Confession in such circumstances now, this hasn’t happened for years.  It doesn’t work for me, or make sense to me, to be in Church and to refuse the gift He has given at such cost for our joy and His.  “O, how my heart abhors to hear Him named and may not come to Him”.  (This is a matter where I would reject any theoretical argument which would say that people ought attend non-communicating, but would accept that God works with different people in different ways).

Having said which, I would add these two points. A video link is a picture, i.e. it is a reproduced pattern of light, recreated and joined to the sound using several electronic devices and a lot of numbers and electrical impulses to preserve and reproduce a facsimile. It is not in any way a view of the real thing***. This means that one could honour the Real Presence in the Eucharist only as an Icon, not as if He was physically present.

Secondly, to anyone who argues that to attend online that is same as attendance in Church non-Communicating, I would put this question. Would it not follow from this that a priest can celebrate validly over video link? If sight through a camera is considered adequately equivalent for lay participation, should it not be considered equivalent for intent? Could the bread and wine consecrated not be in other places which the Priest can see through a camera? For if that was the case, the solution is simple: people can provide their own supplies of bread and wine, and the priest can consecrate it over a Zoom call (or similar) for them to receive.  No contact at all. (Yes, everyone would have to be instructed in the ablutions, but they aren’t complicated. It would make a wonderful teaching aid).

You can catch things from the Consecrated Elements

This is somewhat missing the point. If the argument is that the Divine Life ought to be the priority, etc. then it makes no difference whether you can actually catch things from the consecrated elements or not. I think our faith involves believing, that, from the eternal perspective that we are trying to learn and grow into, receiving the Eucharist might bring about contingent death, but would still bring about Life in a more fundamental way, in the Resurrection and in the New Heaven and Earth.

To treat the Host and the Precious Blood themselves as a source of death is either to deny the Real Presence or to deny that Christ was who he said he was. I cannot see any way out of that. But it doesn’t follow that this life and death should be interpreted in a purely earthly sense, by saying that it must mean one cannot catch anything from the Body and Blood of Christ according to normal earthly patterns of infection. Earthly life and Divine Life are both linked and divided in Scripture: on the one hand, physical healings are made a sign of the Divine Life, on the other, we were given that Life through death, and we only fully come to it by dying.

With regard to catching things actually from the consecrated elements, as opposed to, say, eating out of unwashed hands or being coughed over in Church, I personally would be inclined to assume that you probably can. They do still seem to be part of this world, in terms of going mouldy, provoking allergies, etc. This also seems to make more sense from the point of view of Incarnational and Creational theology. God tends to transform what already is, not to alter it into something completely other than its original nature. However, the whole nature of the Divine Inbreaking in the Eucharist is a mystery. Which is why I am only prepared to go as far as “probably”.

I am not arguing from a position of believing the Eucharist must be safe in earthly terms, rather, I believe that safe or not in earthly terms, it is the means of Life, along the lines of the who loses their life shall gain it paradox.

The clergy have worked their socks off to keep people safe and to try to support them spiritually nevertheless, and all that people do is complain at them

In fact, this is quite a complicated comment, involving several different issues.

Firstly, I do want to acknowledge that although I can’t possibly understand what this has been like for the clergy, I am aware that it has been extremely difficult, at least for some of them. But this doesn’t justify the decisions made from the theological point of view (claiming it does would be fallacious), or alter the fact that we too are human beings, with a real experience of the situation that is not altered by other people’s intentions.

To plead for repentance**** of the decision and the reasons behind it, is sort of a complaint, and sort of not.  It does not come of a wish to harm, but of a desire that harm should be resolved and opened up for healing.  For things which I have said to individuals which don’t come into this category, I can only apologise.  I should like – alas for fallen human nature – to put all the involved clergy to the most painful death possible, after keeping them several years in a damp dungeon without so much as access to a prayer book!  That what is said and done in acting towards this impulse rather against it also needs forgiveness, I am well aware.  But it is not going to work to pretend that I have not been hurt that much, or that I do not believe we have betrayed God utterly and completely, in making the decision to act to a secular understanding of life and death.

It is possible to appreciate people’s efforts and suffering, and nevertheless to think their policy decisions were misguided in ways that matter.

As far as the “keep people safe” goes, I’m afraid I can only say: upside-down priorities again! Safety is not what we should be regarding as most fundamental. Christ – our Lord – the Way, the Truth, and the Life, is more fundamental. It is to Him that we should be primarily turning, He who gives the Life that disease can’t destroy, He who is the primary source of help and healing. For the fact that science will reduce the earthly deaths within the current creation, we can be grateful, and we can give such loyalty to that as is legitimate. But it is not our primary Hope. That is in the Incarnation, Death, and Resurrection of Christ, a Resurrection in which we and all the world are called to share. To stay with Him and to witness to Him is much more important.

Cherry Foster

 

*This is a Western point of view. We are able to ignore death a lot of the time. I am aware that in a lot of countries, this is still not the case, and I think it is appropriate to acknowledge that. Where most people lose a child, “reminded” is hardly an appropriate way of putting it. But I am in the West and our subjective experience of the situation is valid too.

**N. T. Wright’s phrasing and argument, I think.

***This is something I did not spot in my former post on providing for young children without abandoning the important spiritual concept of silence, when I suggested a children’s chapel could be serviced by video link if a window was impossible. This would not do for the Consecration, though it might work at other points in the service and for other services.

**** I believe that wrong has been done, but I cannot assign abstract blame to individuals.  That is between people and their God.  Wrong and moral responsibility for it are different things.  Even when it is possible to say in the abstract that someone is morally responsible – which one has to do in certain types of moral dilemma to judge how one should act oneself – it is not possible to know the intentions of their heart.

Colour, context, and rejecting racial categories

Does the “black lives matter” slogan-approach to the probable murder of George Floyd actually reinforce the race-dictates-value categories we’re trying to reject? “Remember George Floyd! Stop Police Brutality!” might in fact be a more effective protest against defining people’s worth according to race.

On the 25th of May 2020, a man named George Floyd died in the U.S.A. as a result of a police officer kneeling on his neck while he repeatedly told them that he could not breathe.  If the facts are as stated I think the charge of murder against those who did this is reasonable – though I wish to be a bit cautious because it is important that the accused are fairly tried (hence my rather restrained tone).

Yes.  It is possible to state the basic facts of his death without mentioning racism at all.  Racism is evil: it is an affront to the dignity of people made in the image of God, of people for whom Christ died, of our neighbour whom we ought to love as ourselves, and where racism is what is happening, we need to find ways of talking about it.  But hidden under the fact that the first thing that people say about this is that George Floyd was black while the policeman who knelt on his neck was white seems a tragic acceptance of the inevitability of the categories of colour, which in itself perpetuates the idea that there is a potential difference in someone’s moral value based on race.  And it seems to me that we should in fact regard these categories as the thing that should be rejected.

I am English, and I think it is probably true that I’ll never really understand the American experience.  If it is true that it is still within living memory in parts of America that if a white person killed a black person they would get a small fine and if a black person killed a white person they would be burned to death, then, well, I can understand – sort of – why people are reacting in the way they do.  It isn’t that we are in any sense free from racism, but we have a different history and a different experience.  But this is another issue that can be a problem with talk about these things: context.

What I mean is that if people were to start shouting “white lives matter” in response to a similar incident of police brutality in the other direction, people would instantly – and not at all unreasonably – feel threatened because they would suppose it was racist.  Such a slogan would be seen as an attempt to restore exactly the fine/burning situation described above (and it could be used that way, and probably has been).  But people who have not that history and experience, who have in their lives perhaps encountered black supremacy but not white supremacy, are surely equally reasonable in feeling threatened by people shouting something like “black lives matter”, and in fearing that what is being said is that the group of people with whom they are lumped as defined by racial categories should be the ones on the receiving end of such treatment?  It seems to me that we stand at risk of creating a situation – if we have not done so already – where both sides, quite reasonably, are complaining of prejudice: the one in the existing experience of suffering disproportionately from police brutality, the other in being regarded as those who inevitably deal out such brutality, regardless of whether they do or not, and whose lives are therefore regarded less worthy of protection.

I think it is easy to underestimate the incredible diversity of personal experience worldwide on points such as prejudices. I have never to my knowledge suffered prejudice due to the colour of my skin, (which is, in reality, pink with undertones of green), or as a result of my gender.  I’ve suffered plenty of prejudice and other inappropriate treatment due to my disability, which is fairly standard.  This ironically includes being accused viciously of prejudice due to hearing-processing difficulties which make it disproportionately hard for me to comprehend foreign accents.  It also seems likely that, as a middle class girl, I suffered badly from (probably unconscious) prejudice among the working class teachers at primary school, though it is difficult to be certain.  Prejudice can be from anyone to anyone based on any feature of that person.  Some prejudices are more common than others, but no-one is immune.

While it is impossible to be sure of this without a lot of research, in my time, my place, resulting from what I hear said – my real context – (and I can’t, sadly, reject the categories in my language here and be clear) I have reason to be concerned that a white man would not stand in fair competition with a black woman for a university post in something like physics (that is, that there would be prejudice against the white man and that he would not get a fair interview), and to be concerned that a white patient justly complaining of sexual abuse or harassment against a black doctor would not be dealt with fairly – if she dared make a complaint in the first place, for fear of the counter-accusations of racism.

If this is so, it is because prejudice in the other direction has previously been normal, and probably still is in some places, confounding the issue further.  I have no trouble believing that the notion of being concerned about prejudices in these directions may sound completely crazy to others who have a different context and different experiences.  But what I hear from where I live and where I stand – from my real experience – fear of these consequences – supposing the world I live in can be prejudiced in these directions – is perfectly reasonable: the more so, because of the way I’ve heard this sort of concern blanked out when suggested.  If people won’t consider the issue, how can they tell it isn’t happening?

This is because, while the people who speak probably don’t mean it this way, things are said which make it sound as if the success, hard work, and achievement of a white middle class boy in succeeding in getting a good place at university to study physics, is actually a negative thing and not something to be celebrated.  That is what I was hearing when I was in my late teens.  And that too is wrong.  I appreciate that one is sometimes stuck, when there has been a bad problem in the past, with the fact that the next step on the way out of it is an affirmative action programme, or a particular-racial-group ballet company, or other form of attempt to consciously discriminate in favour of the group that has recently been discriminated against.  But I’d argue that it is very important that this is considered a temporary stage that should be dropped as soon as possible, and that we should be very aware of the dangers of going on assuming that prejudice in this generation is against the group of people whom it was against in the last generation.

I had a very interesting experience with generational shifts of attitude in a matter that I do (as a Christian) regard as a real moral one rather than a matter of prejudice, when it came to trying to get through to people of my parents’ generation, that I had grown up not in a situation where you were regarded as having broken social rules if you had sexual relations with your fiancé/e, but in a situation where promiscuity was regarded as normal, and to choose even temporary celibacy regarded as peculiar – so peculiar that it was off the map of possible choices (it didn’t occur to the adults to mention that you could avoid sexually transmitted diseases by choosing not to have sex!).  Being rather sensitive, I suffered a lot from this.  I don’t think it was ever intended.  I think it was simply that it never occurred to the adults of that generation that by never mentioning the possibility of choosing not to have sex, they had invalidated that choice.  They didn’t realise it needed validating because in their own context it was taken for granted.  I think a similar thing may be happening with racism and prejudice.  It has become so deep in the history and consciousness of some people that it happens in a particular direction, that it is often forgotten that it can happen to anyone.

An example of this forgetting that I remember is a college website talking about relations between “those who have a protected characteristic and those who do not”.  Given that protected characteristics are supposed to include race, gender, and sexuality, it is actually impossible not to have at least three protected characteristics!  Again, when I was at university, there was an equalities office which was supposed to represent all students in case of prejudice.  While I was there, there was an attempt – which I believe succeeded – to abolish the men’s officer, meaning that an English, non-disabled, heterosexual, white male had no representation in case of suffering prejudice.  I remember older people saying to me that there should be a men’s officer but that they wouldn’t have much work, and I remember being thoroughly sceptical of that notion.  In the world I grew up in, white men were the only people who could be lampooned.  And if disproportionately portraying members of any perceived grouping as stupid has a real effect on social attitudes – which no one seems to have any doubt of when it comes to any other group – it must be true of white men as well.

It worries me that we may fight to overturn the last generation’s categories in a manner that is so over the top, that we end up with the next generation being startled and hostile when they find a white man sitting as a judge and a black woman working as a babysitter!  I think in fact it is unlikely: I think there is too much varied cultural material for children for this to happen readily.  But it is a danger of which we should be aware of in overdoing political correctness and social censorship.

Ultimately, the trouble with context is that, though completely valid as a part of communication, it is something that is different throughout the world, and something which changes, sometimes quite fast.  Trying to make things context neutral is almost certainly impossible, but we can try to be aware that what people hear is not necessarily what we are trying to say, and that the reason for protest against them may be that they do not have the same background, and do not take things for granted that can be taken for granted in the context from which we speak.

And as far as rejecting the categories goes: how does one talk of the problem of racism without perpetuating the categories of race?  I don’t entirely know, except that I feel that it would be worth saying first and concentrating on “a person was murdered in the context of police brutality” (if that is indeed the case – innocent till proved guilty by due process) and then talking, in a more muted way about the fact that racism was a contributor.  This acknowledges the fact that the categories are there and are a problem which needs to be dealt with, while making something of a move to reject them as valid categories and focus on the crime rather than the motive.

What concerns me is that human lives should not continue to be lost to the type of police brutality alleged – anywhere in the world, for any reason whatever – and what matters to me and grieves me is that a person – George Floyd – was killed, a human life ended.

May God have mercy on us all, and may he rest in peace and rise in glory.

 Cherry Foster

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Obedience?

In response to being told that the sacrificing of the laity in the COVID-19 crisis was not the responsibility of people in authority within the Church. 

Of old in fierce barbaric times,

The Christian maiden stood,

Stoned, flogged, raped, and crucified,

Confessing Christ her God.

When with rotting flesh and skin,

Cursed and dehumanised,

Lepers needed help and prayer,

Priests went to them – and died.

And hiding in a musty hole,

Cramped in by brick and rock,

They risked a ling’ring, tortured death,

To bring Christ to their flock.

And we, in stark but gentler times,

Refuse to disobey,

“The law,” we say, though in the street,

Protesters hold true sway.

(“We must protect – we must preserve

“The life that none can keep.”

At cost of Him who is that Life,

That all may glorious reap?)

We have done this – it is our fault,

We cannot shift the blame,

We cannot cite the state and then

Recall the Martyrs’ fame.

In witness or in charity,

While Satan did his worst,

In grief and fear, in pain and loss,

They still obeyed God first.

O pray for us – O plead to Him,

From whom we turn our face,

That we may hold Him true once more,

Through His own loving grace.

Cherry Foster

As always, I cannot assign personal blame, and I’m not trying to.  That is between people and their God – and I am convinced I probably would have failed if circumstances had put me to this particular test.  I’m explaining why I don’t see “the state told us to” as a legitimate way of denying accountability.

I am working on the premises of “if you raise my hand and force me to offer to your idol, my will giving no consent, it is not my doing, but if you threaten me, and I do it, then it is.”  (Is this one of the legends of St. Lucy?)

I do also appreciate that obedience is a very thorny problem when it comes to moral responsibility.  I’m inclined to think that one of the most complicated questions in the whole mess is how far priests are obliged or entitled to obey a Bishop who forbids them to exercise their sacramental ministry in such circumstances, and how far they can say that the Bishop is answerable to God for the flock rather than themselves.  (I have no contribution to make to that debate except to suggest personal consistency is appropriate).  But when it comes to the state forbidding Christian worship (as opposed to pronouncing on things within their remit, like parking and the registering of legal marriages), I don’t think we, within the integrity of our tradition, can justify obedience qua obedience.

The Good Samaritan: a reason for arguing the Christian response to COVID-19 was correct?

Aime-Morot-Le-bon-Samaritain Source wikimedia commons photo credit unknown no copyright
The Good Samaritan, by Aime Morot. Source: Wikimedia Commons; Photo credit unknown.

Studying philosophy means trying to look at questions from every angle, and attempting to test conclusions against everything relevant.  Preferably one stops short of actually going mad, but as most of my friends will tell you, I personally didn’t succeed!  😛

In this case, particularly, when everyone else is telling me my conclusion must be wrong, and I have struggled with it myself (it’s hardly an easy answer), I have kept questioning and considering.

And I still come out with the same answer: that is, that we have got it wrong, and that in locking Churches and denying people the Sacraments, we have betrayed three times: God, the people of the Church, and the people of the world: the former in treating Him as if He was not the primary means of Life; the people of the Church in excluding their part in the work of God, and in showing a lack of reciprocal commitment to them; and the world in not bearing witness to the fact of a more fundamental life than that which a disease can destroy.

The good Samaritan (Luke 10:25-37) logically comes in for some real scrutiny in this context – something that could be used to argue that I have in fact got the priorities wrong – and I think it is an interesting one to examine, as it may be that it is often read at present by way of putting the second commandment before the first.  (I am referring to Matt. 22:37-40 and its analogues in reference to the first and second commandments, by the way – not to the Old Testament ten).

I should be clear that the case for using it to defend the response of shutting Churches and denying the sacraments is my own, as is my conclusion that this case should be rejected.  I haven’t yet heard anyone try to use this parable to justify what has been done, but, again, considering what might speak against your conclusions by way of testing them is part of doing philosophy well.

I do not find the Good Samaritan convincing as a argument for denying the Sacraments on the grounds that there remains some risk of infection that cannot be negated even from the perspective of receiving an intincted Host at arm’s length through a window while both parties wear a mask.

The argument for saying that it should justify this, is the argument that this indicates that a person should be willing to sacrifice even their worship to the corporeal good of others.  I think it is probably problematic, however, for several reasons – both to do with the parable, to do with what is the truest service to neighbour, and to do with its lack of real analogy to the situation (sacrificing others, as opposed to sacrificing yourself).

The position of the debate in the Gospel can be read against taking even the straightforward reading as a exultation of the second commandment over the first.  That is, both the questioner and Jesus seem to have have agreed about the first commandment “You shall love the Lord you God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your strength and with all your mind” and are debating a particular detail of the second “and your neighbour as yourself.”

Though the subversive overturning of “who is my neighbour?” is probably straightforward in itself – “go and do likewise” – the nature of the text suggests a symbolic reading which actually points to, rather than away from, the Sacraments.  The “likewise” may point beyond the original “love your neighbour as yourself” towards “love each other as I have loved you”.

The man who is set on by thieves is going from Jerusalem to Jericho: this probably has a symbolism rather like that of the prodigal son going to a far country and feeding the pigs: i.e. he has sinned, and the result of this sin is disaster.

It is not clear if we are told which direction anyone except the man is going in: however, in the translation I have here, both the man and the priest are said to be going “down” the road, which would suggest the priest would also have been going towards Jericho.  This may be significant, as it suggests that while the notion that too great an emphasis on ritual purity may be relevant (avoiding a possible corpse), the specific priority of the temple worship probably does not come into it if the priest is going towards Jericho (i.e. away from the temple).

The bandages, the oil and the wine may be sacramental images (the Baptismal garment, the oil of anointing, the Precious Blood), the ass may represent Christ’s bearing our sins and their consequences in His Body, the Inn may represent the Church in which Christ’s care (that He has paid for) is received*.

I am never sure what to make of these extremely symbolic readings; however, when it is a matter of considering a deeper meaning (a lot of powerful narratives can be meaningfully read on both a straightforward and a symbolic/allusion level: it is part of their power), and not standing outside the general tenor of the Gospel narrative, I think there is some reason to at least take them seriously.  And if so, it can actually be brought in to argue that the Divine Life and care for (and witness to) the Divine Life is more fundamental (rather than arguing that it shows that we should systematically sacrifice even our worship to the corporeal good of others).  Christ died for the Life of all: I don’t think we see the reality of the Divine Life given in the Eucharist if we regard it as opposed to our neighbour’s welfare, instead of regarding it as part of how we care for our neighbour, accompanied by the corporeal works of mercy.  Both can be distorted into selfishness, but neither are selfish in themselves,** and it is reasonable to say that neither can stand without the other.

This in itself, while I think it does matter and is significant, in that it would suggest the reading of the parable may not be as simply focused only on the corporeal works of mercy as it looks at first glance, seems to only confuse the issue.  This may be partly because I am not a theologian, and cannot write with much confidence when it comes to scriptural interpretation (there’s a lot of difference between knowing about a subject, and understanding how to apply the processes which are used in it).

I’ve written at length already (see quite a lot of previous posts in the same categories) on the second reason: that is, that our primary service to the world should not be adopting its priorities but witnessing to the Life of God.

The final reason I’d suggest that the parable of the Good Samaritan does not justify the decisions made is impossible to put with real tact.  What I would say instead to people is simply: I write as a sinner and conscious of my own failings of faith, and I do not write to accuse, but to seek reconciliation.  That cannot be done except in acknowledging the reality of the situation and the experience as it has actually been for me.  Trying to ask people to understand why their sympathy is upsetting and does not mean much is always difficult, but it is the only way through when it is the reality.

The reason is this: the Good Samaritan sacrifices himself, not other people.  He has compassion, he puts the man on his animal, he takes him to an inn and he pays the innkeeper for his care.  The COVID-19 decisions, involving the refusal of the Sacraments to all but clergy households, has involved one group of people sacrificing another for the purported good of third parties***.  It’s more equivalent to a situation where the Samaritan was journeying with a severely wounded relative on his donkey, and assisting another wounded friend along by foot.  Upon meeting the man set on by thieves, this Samaritan pushes the wounded person off the donkey to abandon them to death and the powers of darkness in the road, puts the person set on by robbers on the donkey, and forces the other wounded person to take them to an inn and pay for their care.  He then carries on alone, missing their company, lamenting their difficulties, and praying for them, but quite confident he has done the right thing in saving the man lying by the roadside at their cost!  It is not surprising that such sympathy is not likely to make much difference to what the person left to die in the road thinks or feels about the situation…

Of course, within Catholic order, which I do still hold despite all this, it is not the priests’ fault that they cannot share the fate of the non-ordained in enforced excommunication, for even if they were to decline to celebrate the Eucharist and receive (which personally, I would not advocate), they have the choice, while we do not.  This is among my reasons for suggesting that we can only be consistent by point-blank refusing to go along with secular orders that people should be actually deprived of the Sacraments (as opposed to changing what we are doing to take a lot of extra precautions).  If the non-ordained are equally the people of God, it follows that the duty of stewardship from the clergy in taking them the Sacraments has to be fairly absolute.

So, for various different reasons, my mind on this point is not changed by the contemplation of the parable of the Good Samaritan.

Having talked about the issue with regard to the clergy-laity relationship, however, I would like to finish by re-emphasising that I do believe that our primary betrayal is of God, not of the people.  That is, it is in turning from Christ, truly present in the Eucharist, to seek life chiefly in “professors’ models“.

Cherry Foster

 

*Except for the comment on ritual purity (I’ll find a reference if anyone wants to ask me for one) and the comment on possibly pointing to the New Commandment (which is my own), this all comes from The Orthodox Study Bible; St Athanasius Academy of Orthodox Theology 2008.

**It could be argued that we have become infected by a tendency to regard religion as a private matter: it would make more sense from the Christian tradition of thought to defend religious freedom by emphasising that all must come freely to God, than by making out that what we do in worship, we do entirely for our own benefit.

*** And our own supposed protection, which I would argue is a worse argument, because (a) the notion that someone can be done good by being denied Christ – the Way, the Truth, and the Life; the one thing necessary – is absurd, and (b) we are grown up.  It should be up to us, as individuals in conjunction with our own spiritual advisors, in our own circumstances, with our own knowledge of our strengths and weaknesses, our particular calling, and the way God works with us, to make decisions as to whether to receive the Sacraments in such a situation or not.  To systematically deny us that capacity to choose on such grounds is to deny our capacity to come to maturity in faith.

 

N.B.  If the use of “we/our” in this text, as in “our primary betrayal” is confusing, given that I am speaking primarily as someone who has suffered the situation rather than being part of doing it, this “we/our” is a collective use, which I feel to be appropriate in context.  I am not ordained.  I have to date been left completely without the Sacraments for more than 14 weeks, despite (to the best of my knowledge) repeated requests to the contrary made on my behalf, so my experience is that of a lay person who was previously a daily communicant.

However, I am part of the whole mess of faithlessness that created the situation where such decisions could be made, and there is a manner in which it is meaningful to use “we” even when there can be no personal responsibility (as in “we [the British] were involved in the slave trade in 1700”).  The question of collective/non-personal responsibility is a very complex one – some linguistic confusion is perhaps accurately reflective of this?!

Equivalent to “caused by the intervention of aliens?” A philosophy graduate’s ramble on “psychosomatic” as encountered in Western Medicine

Equus_quagga_boehmi wikimedia commons photo credit Hans Hillewaert, copyright attribution
Source: Wikimedia commons; photo credit: Hans Hillewaert

I lay alone on the narrow trolley in a side room in a doctor’s surgery, the door partly open, half fainting, dizzy, sick, frightened, more unable to see than usual.  I couldn’t sit up, and when I tried to wriggle – the necessary technique for raising blood pressure – I felt worse and kept kicking things, and was afraid of falling off the trolley.

Outside, I vaguely heard a voice say, “Is she all right?”

And another voice, cheerful, scornful, “Yeah, she’s just mental.”

How do you know?  You haven’t checked.

Besides, “mental” is most certainly not “all right.”

To this day, I remain puzzled by my reaction to blood tests.  Orthostatic hypotension?  Granted, I spend my life trying not to faint, but I’ve never been found to have that particular problem in any other circumstance.  However, while the mild symptoms of pre-syncope can be difficult to distinguish from other conditions, there is no mistaking it when it gets that bad.  When they finally got me up into a wheelchair, I pretty much fainted again, and had to put my head down: a typical and particularly annoying part of the reaction is that when I am finally able to get up I usually have serious problems again a few minutes later.

Whatever the reason for my body reacting to blood tests like that, it consistently has done so to a greater or lesser extent through several years.  To assume a disorder is psychological, because it is not immediately obvious what the physical cause is, is like attributing every medical problem that isn’t comprehended to the intervention of aliens.

Most people with complex problems have had them dismissed as psychosomatic at some point.  And when I say dismissed, I do not mean the doctor saying, “look, one possibility is that this is caused by something going wrong with things in the brain you don’t have voluntary control over.  I think it is worth referring you to a psychiatrist to see if that’s right and if it can be treated.”  I mean people behaving as if you were doing it on purpose and deliberately wasting their time, doctors blanking you out without answers, assuming what you say about the symptoms isn’t really true, assuming that if you have any sort of mental health condition any physical symptoms without obvious cause must be caused by it, assuming that if what you say doesn’t make sense to them it must be psychological – and therefore, not worth any medical effort.

For instance, I have a sight problem which behaves bizarrely and has no obvious cause.  Nothing is wrong with my eyes (fairly conclusively) and nothing shows up on an ordinary MRI (this doesn’t prove either a positive or a negative when it comes to the possibility of a neurological cause).  However, there are at least seven contraindications to hysteria: (1) age of onset too young (by current medical orthodoxy at least), (2) lack of sudden onset, (3) unintelligibility (conversion disorder usually mimics a socially understood condition), (4) failure of treatment for underlying mental health problems to affect the condition, (5) the experience is wrong – if it was conversion disorder, I’d expect to be able to see but not able to make use of my vision for any conscious task: it’s actually closer to being the other way around, with more wrong with the unconscious use of vision than conscious awareness, (6) this experience fits the pattern of a particular type of neurological fault, and I did not know this until I described it to a researcher into vision, who did not find it odd at all, and (7) I flinch when someone unexpectedly touches my face when I should have seen them coming.  On balance of probability the primary condition is neurological.

The same lack of obvious cause goes for most of my symptoms, and I find it extremely difficult to communicate with doctors as a result – because among other things I am often talking to people who don’t seem to believe what I’m saying is possible.  That is, I spend most of the time expecting people to switch off, assume I’m not really telling the truth, and as a result of this, it isn’t easy to actually tell the truth.  It isn’t easy to say, “yes, my wrist hurts, and so does pretty much every other joint in my body.  Oh, I can walk ten miles – it’s just that everything really hurts afterwards.  Especially my shoulder.  And I also find it difficult and uncomfortable to eat, and keep making myself really sick on tuna sandwiches.  And I keep falling over when I try to turn round.  And I keep losing my balance when I’m standing up.  And my feet won’t come up properly when I walk but if you press down on the top of them they are completely sound.  And I can’t tell properly when I’m thirsty.  And my vision is like looking through a waterfall anyway, but I keep getting things which look a bit like an migraine aura, such as little flashes of light.  Oh, and I can’t comprehend anyone speaking when there is background noise.  And I can’t control my voice properly.  I never get the volume right and either I’m inaudible or I shout.  But they tested my hearing and there isn’t anything wrong with it.  And this shoulder is going really crazy and hurts twice as much as usual but there is no loss of flexibility.  Yesterday it was my right hip that was doing that.  Though I did lose flexibility that time: I couldn’t actually put my toe in my mouth as a result.  And I have short term memory problems and I’m really struggling with that.  And mild tinnitus.  And noise hypersensitivity.  But only to some types of noise.  And mild photophobia.  And I have all these weird hayfever/skin allergies.  I used to be able to detect feathers in a duvet by my physical reaction to it, but that one seems to have gone off.  And I keep getting these random sensations – like stabbing pains, and pins and needles, and like insects walking all over me.  And I tend to sit with my feet turned in and they’re rather an odd shape (they are, but probably nothing pathological – though it worries me because they hurt).  And I seem to have a fatigue problem – I seem to be exhausted after doing nothing very much.  I get really tired trying to sit up.  I can’t maintain a good posture at all.  And I usually get presyncope when I stand up.  Or if I roll over to sleep on my back.  And I have chest pain.  On both sides in slightly different places.  And everything that doesn’t actually hurt is really uncomfortable.  Oh, and surprise, surprise, I’m rather depressed and anxious.”

Kudos to my current doctors: they did ultimately work it out.  HSD/hEDS or similar.  A genetic fault in a protein that’s found all over the body resulting in complex multi-systematic issues.  And the fact that they thought (probably rightly) that I have problems which are psychosomatic didn’t cause them to stop looking for a physical cause for some of the other issues.  But most doctors have completely switched off before I get to the tuna sandwiches.

It seems to me that there is a set of layered problems when it comes to “psychosomatic” and its kindred phrases.  The first is the way people tend to attribute anything they don’t understand to “psychosomatic” problems, by which they often really mean “unreal”.  This was very apparent with the episode I had after that blood test, where the nurses kept going on about how they needed the room for another clinic.  Um, yes, what do you expect me to do about it?  Get up and faint properly on the floor so you have an excuse to call an ambulance?!  This attitude leads to a failure to investigate symptoms properly.

Secondly, “psychosomatic” is a sort of wastebasket taxon.  It isn’t something that is diagnosed because there are symptoms characteristic of it and none that aren’t.  It is something that is assumed whenever what the patient says doesn’t make immediate sense, doesn’t fit the patterns of the common causes of such symptoms.  The more so if you are depressed or have a history of mental health problems.  It tends to be assumed that the mental problems are causing the physical ones, not the physical ones the mental ones, and this is further confused by the fact that with something like HSD/hEDS, there may actually be structural differences in the brain that give you more of a tendency to depression.

For example, I do actually have seizures, distinct from the fainting, which probably are caused by complex post traumatic stress disorder.  It is impossible to be completely certain that it isn’t atypical epilepsy or one of the rarer causes of fits.  But, in this case, contrary to my visual problem, there is positive reason to think this phenomenon has a psychiatric cause.  (1) I have a clearly diagnosed condition which is well known to cause catatonic seizures.  (2) The seizures match the biologically expected pattern: i.e. they are rigid, wavy flexibility, locked-in fits, which usually happen only when I’m both emotionally stressed and also trying not to faint.  A lot of vertebrates have a last resort predator defence of some form of catatonic state.  It seems to be a way of avoiding eliciting a further hunting response from the predator, and of causing the predator to release their grip, allowing escape.  In CPTSD, the threat response system in the brain misfunctions (for instance, memories do not process properly out of the amygdala), and this seems sometimes to result in this catatonic state triggering in a disordered way.  Because low blood pressure is something that could also result from having been significantly wounded by a predator, it is logical that it should be part of the set of conditions that caused this mistaken response.  (3)  Doing things that should help, such as getting up and walking gently about, and reassuring myself that I’m safe, and trying to control any other symptoms like flashbacks, or simply leaving the situation, does seem to help.  As does treatment for the underlying disorder.

However, this is the same logic that would be applied to any other health condition.  It isn’t, as I said before of most things attributed to psychosomatic problems, like attributing what is not understood to the intervention of aliens.  It is using the same process of scientific logic as is usually used on illness to work out what it is wrong with the body.

Psychosomatic illness?  Yes, in that the cause of the problem is psychiatric.  Physical illness?  Yes too.  My body is misfunctioning on the mechanical level in a tangible way.

The third problem with the way in which psychosomatic is used in modern Western medicine is that it tends to be “diagnosed” by doctors who are not sufficiently expert in the field to tell the difference between a physical problem they don’t understand and the real physical symptoms caused by a psychiatric illness.  This is in part due to the extent to which mental health is not really treated with sympathy or given its fair share of resources.  Conversion disorder should only be diagnosed by doctors with the right expertise, just as much as something like EDS, heart conditions, or rare forms of throat cancer.

By the time I was agitating for a diagnosis of what was wrong, I was sure I had problems over and above the CPTSD.  This is mostly because the problems were getting worse while the CPTSD was, in its clearer manifestations, getting better.  It no longer made sense as an explanation.

I went to the appointments regarding the possibility of connective tissue disorder prepared to deal with the dismissive response that I’d previously had from a neurologist, which fortunately I didn’t get.  There are at least a lot more things that can actually be observed than there are with neurological problems: for example, that I am hypermobile can be seen by anyone who knows what they are looking at.  They don’t have to rely on my description of the experience.

My plan in case of blank dismissal was to say as calmly as possible: “does this mean you think that what I have actually got is conversion disorder?”  And if the answer was affirmative, to ask why they thought that.  And if they gave an answer amounting to “because I don’t understand it” to protest that this was not really an adequate reason.  Then, if I could not persuade them to look more deeply, or if they did have a positive reason to suspect a psychiatric cause, to finish with, “then could you refer me to a psychiatrist?  Or at least strongly recommend that the GP does?”  This would prevent the situation stagnating, of carrying on with a vague dismissal, but no clear knowledge of the real problem.  Whether I would have got anywhere, given the lack of resources for mental health, I have no idea.  I’ve also come across quite a few people saying that they were still having their physical symptoms dismissed despite a psychiatrist saying they didn’t have conversion disorder.

However, it would have been an attempt to put whatever the illness was back on the map of scientific medicine, taking it out of the realm of aliens.

Cherry Foster