Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Falling Up(wards)

A sermon delivered on
the Feast Day of Adelaide Case
July 19th, 2011
at the Summer Convocation of
the Brotherhood of Saint Gregory
Mt. Alvernia Retreat Center
Wappingers Falls, New York

by Richard E. Helmer, p/BSG

Just under two weeks ago, a devoted member of a neighboring parish gave me a copy of Richard Rohr's latest book. It was as timely a gift for me as it was gracious. In his new book, Rohr explores what he calls the two halves of our earthly pilgrimage: the first half being consumed with building up of self, of identity, of ego, of accumulating skills, goods, and achievements. The second half, and a half that not everyone undertakes, is of giving away, of turning our life over to service -- of turning to what we could call the religious life, in whatever manifestation of that life God summons us into.

The process of engaging this second half of life is what Rohr calls "Falling Upwards," hence the title of his new book. Seeing that title immediately took me back to the third grade in the small-town Midwest, sitting on the orange carpet with my classmates, listening with delight as Mrs. Klenda read to us Shel Silverstein's poetry, which later included this little gem called Falling Up:

I tripped on my shoelace
And I fell up --
Up to the rooftops,
Up over the town,
Up past the treetops,
Up over the mountains,
Up where the colors
Blend into the sounds.
But it got me so dizzy
When I looked around,
I got sick to my stomach
And I threw down.

Now I ask you: What could be a better description of the journey of the religious life?

It has only just dawned on me that Shel Silverstein was in his own fashion the first philosopher, if not the first theologian, I encountered as a child. He offers more than mere milk for infants. He pens, in his earthy, humourous way, solid spiritual food for young stomachs being weaned by grace.

Tripping on our worldly shoelaces and falling up in the religious life can indeed give us a sense of spiritual vertigo, and at times it makes me queasy. Does it you? As in the gospel passage we just heard, the world can turn topsy-turvy when we take on religious disciplines and community: what is secret is revealed, gifts become demands for service, and inner light becomes the illumination for the outer darkness. When I joined this journey with all of you just over a year ago, I was warned to expect to lose everything. The prospect was as terrifying as it was compelling, and I can say that unpleasant expectation has been more than fulfilled! But in surprising ways. What was lost, what is being lost, either returns more vital and vibrant because it truly matters, or it is shed forever for being truly worthless. These days I find everything from my my marriage to my family life to my ministry in the parish to the community in which I've been planted looking, feeling, tasting, and smelling very different than it did a year ago. And there is yet so much further to fall....so much further, I hope and suppose, to fall upwards.

Falling has a long and hallowed history in our tradition. But it often is painted in a negative light, whether it's popular notions of Augustine's musings on Original Sin or good old threats of hellfire and brimstone. It is easier, truly, to imagine ourselves falling down into the hands of an angry God who is all about wrath and punishment, easier to obey the gravity of our worldly fears and failures projected onto the divine...than it is to consider falling upwards into the transformative grace of a counter-intuitive, loving Savior. God, it seems, is either our severe, judging and punishing über parent, which leaves us forever infants crying for our spiritual milk; or God is the faithful Father and wise Mother calling us to grow up, to live into the grace we have been offered, to take on the solid food that has been placed before us in the feast of the Kingdom. The distance between these two understandings of the divine may well be a measure of our faith, either a faith built on fear or a faith built on love.

So we all fall indeed, but how we fall matters, and falling upwards, defying the gravitational logic of a cynical world bent on self-referential ego and trappings of power, demands much more than passivity in the midst of our imperfections. It demands action, self-emptying self-offering, and a commitment of nothing less than everything we are. In short, falling down is easier than falling up. That's why Christian vocation, however it manifests in our lives, is always the narrow, difficult road for each of us, and why we need community to pick us up, dust us off, and keep us on that road with grace leading the Way.

* * *

"In no area of life is it so true as in the area of religion that we are living suspended between two worlds -- a past that has gone and a future that is yet to be."

Adelaide Teague Case, whom we commemorate today, penned these words just over eighty years ago. She was a shining example, a light out from under a bushel, of what it means to fall up rather than down. After serving as a vibrant teacher at St. Faith's school for girls barely a stone's throw from here in Poukeepsie, she witnessed against the insipid sentimentality and Sunday morning sequestering of much of what passes as Christian education, and she soon ascended the ladder of brilliant secular academic achievement. But she, too, tripped on her worldly shoelaces and fell. She ultimately set aside an illustrious career as an esteemed professor and chair of religious education at Teacher's College, Columbia, to answer a call to the less-well-endowed, male-clerical-dominated world of Episcopal theological education. At the Episcopal Theological School, she became the first woman to be made full professor at an Episcopal seminary, where her radical insistence on putting the students' needs before professorial ambition and ego compounded her challenges in an institution more patriarchal than even early- to mid- twentieth-century secular academe. It is said students refused to take her classes at the seminary simply because she was a woman. But she was eventually recognized for her gifts to the Church, gifts which were almost uncountable as she served and taught all her life. From Women's Auxiliary lectures to organizing for peace in the 1930's and 1940's, she reflected to her generation and generations to come the gifts of Lady Wisdom -- that enigmatic, captivating figure in Proverbs, working constantly and often unassumingly in our midst -- another image of Christ hinted at by mystics and theologians from Julian to Anselm: transformative grace undaunted by our often narrow vision and blighted hope.

For Adelaide Case, that fall up into the paths of Lady Wisdom first began with a young adult conversion to the religious life -- she joined the Society of the Companions of the Holy Cross, a lay order of women committed to simplicity of life and social action. Maybe this move was initially provoked by chronic illness (she was diagnosed early with tuberculosis of the bones, which haunted her for much of her natural life), but it was ultimately nourished and sustained by the sacraments and a life devoted to prayer. By falling up, Dr. Adelaide, or Dr. A as she came to be lovingly known by some of her students, was long remembered -- like many saints -- not so much for her theology or academic writing, but by exhibiting a life deeply planted in Christ.

What remains striking to me about her writing, however, is how it continues to speak with prescience to our age today, and to us here and now gathered in religious community. In the same pages where she reflects on our being suspended in religion between two worlds, Adelaide Case opines that we generally in the Church talk about religious life just about as clearly and directly as we talk about sex -- which, of course is to say not very clearly nor very directly at all. At best in much of our society we tend to be voyeuristic about both.

I needn't begin you tell you, dear Brothers, about the way the religious often risk being treated as church ornaments. Romantic notions about the religious life projected on the vowed religious parallel the same sort of unfulfilled fantasies projected onto the characters in an episode of Desperate Housewives or The Tudors. In the past year, I've had to confront in people I serve odd but understandable fears, rumors hatched on golf courses even; worries that I might run off to the monastery, habit flapping in the wind, leaving my wife and son bereft at the side of the road. The apostolic religious, I've learned, make less sense to many of our sisters and brothers in Christ than the cloistered monastics, which I suppose makes us all the more dangerous: dangerous perhaps most of all to the voyeuristic approach to religion, an ever-present danger of the Anglican tradition. And yet that brings us back to the challenge of this afternoon's Gospel. The grace we have been given and the call we have received can ill afford our hiding our light under a bushel. And for those to whom much has been given, Jesus warns us, much is expected.

But the greatest wisdom of the religious life, Adelaide Case reminds us, is found not so much in our thinking, skills, or knowledge, our sophistication and erudition, or our cleverness or projects of power and influence. Rather it is found in devoted, faithful, practice of the Gospel of grace. In 1948, while on her death bed and enveloped in prayer, Dr. A received the sacraments daily. Her last reported words were simply,

"What can I do for you?"

I reckon she would recognize the charisms of this community, and be at home this week with us in prayer and Eucharist. She would understand our shared vocation in learning to live a life of service, planted in our various callings, struggling frequently, challenging ourselves and others to stop hiding the light of Christ under bushels, and cultivating more than sentimental Sunday morning spirituality. She would appreciate our shared labor, and our yearning journey to fall. . .to fall up. . .to fall upwards into the life of our beloved Christ.


"Falling Up" from Falling Up by Shel Silverstein. New York: HarperCollins, 1996.

Background on Adelaide Teague Case from Holy Women, Holy Men and the Talbot School of Theology website: http://www2.talbot.edu/ce20/educators/view.cfm?n=adelaide_case

"Religion and the child's life" from Dorothy Canfield Fisher & Sidonie Matsner Gruenberg (Eds.) Our children: A handbook for parents. New York: The Viking Press (1932), pp. 307-317.