September 16, 2014

Visionary Woman

Hildegard of Bingen is one of those unique and challenging people from the distant past who seem to be in touch with something beyond time and space. She was a mystic and a scientist, testimony to the fact that a close observation of the things of this world need not occupy one interested in the next.

I commend Margarethe von Trotta’s film on the life of this wonderful character. I delayed watching it (on Netflix); perhaps I thought it would be a pious and tedious tract. On the contrary it is an absorbing and entertaining portrait of an extraordinary woman — extraordinary in her own day, and likely any day up until the present, and perhaps even now.

My "quick icon" is based on the actress who plays Hildegard, Barbara Sukowa. She captures the ambiguities and imperfections of this very real woman. 

One of the most fascinating things about Hildegard is her music. It inspired me to write my own setting of "Come, Holy Ghost" for the profession liturgy for some of the Sisters of Saint Gregory. No recording was made at the time, and it hasn't been performed since (as far as I know). So I offer a synthesized choir which sounds a bit like a group of (perhaps) Bulgarians for whom English is a second language. Nonetheless, I hope you enjoy... Here's to Hildegard!

Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG

MP3 File

September 10, 2014

Carts and Horses

I've held my tongue on the subject for a while now, but I find that proverbial fire burning within.

While there is much to commend in the TREC letter  (on the restructuring of The Episcopal Church) when it comes to practical streamlining and downsizing some of the superstructure of the Episcopal Church (including several proposals I've made myself over the years, such as trimming deputation sizes and retiring some CCABs) I still find myself wondering to what extent we are putting cart before horse — if the horse really exists and it isn't all cart, all form with no real handle on the function.

I raise this because it seems to me that the Great Unanswered Question is: What is this superstructure (PB, GC, EC, etc.) for? What are the ministries that can only, or best, be performed for the good of the church and the world by an [inter]national organ of the ecclesiastical body, so conceived and so constituted.

And I find I can think of precious few things that require or commend such an [inter]national structure: setting the law and liturgy of the church; engaging in formal interreligious and interfaith dialogue and work; [inter]national level mission programs and ministry. These are off the top of my head -- there is likely more; but however much is best or only done at this supreme level, it seems to me that the vast bulk of the work of the church is done in and by the parish, secondly by the diocesan and regional entities, and only thirdly at the national and international level.

And until it is manifestly clear just what work is best done at that level, arguing about how the workforce should be structured to accomplish it is premature — and very likely a waste of time and energy. “Form follows function” should apply to ecclesiastical structures as well as buildings.

Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG

September 5, 2014

Order in the Court

Richard Posner's opinion in the 7th Circuit Court of Appeals, striking down anti-marriage equality obstacles in Wisconsin and Indiana, is a fine piece of work, as others have noted. One thing that stood out for me was his citation of Supreme Court Justice Alito's dissent in Windsor, in which Alito refers favorably to the argument "that marriage is essentially the solemnizing of a comprehensive, exclusive, permanent union that is intrinsically ordered to producing new life, even if it does not always do so." (133 S. Ct. at 2718)

This thesis is one of those truthisms that mere repetition does not prove. It is absurd on the face of it, but that doesn't stop some people taking it seriously. The principle problem lies in the word intrinsically, which means essentially, necessarily, or inherently: something that is in the nature of a thing as and in itself, without which that thing would not be what it is. So, why does this not work for marriage? I can quickly come up with four reasons.

First, to attach a modifier like intrinsic to an action (such as marriage or sexual intercourse within marriage) is already philosophically questionable, since actions are by their nature not "substances" or "things" but the behavior or activity of things.

Second, the notion of an order is about intention or plan — even further removed from being intrinsic, since intent and plan necessarily involve a state not yet realized.

Third, the action in question, and the estate in which it takes place, is one involving more than one actor — two "things" if you will — and this also violates the notion of intrinsic as particular to a thing.

This is brought home in the final astounding admission that the desired result — assuming it to be desired, which it often isn't even when possible — does not always take place. So much for it being essential, inherent, or intrinsic — something which may not be possible can hardly be held to be essential.

It is fine to say that procreation ought to take place within marriage; but to attempt to reduce marriage to one of its possible outcomes — and one acknowledged not to be possible in many cases — is looking into the beautifully decorated wedding hall through a very narrow crack.

Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG


August 31, 2014

The Speed of God: Mainline Religion

Karl Marx famously observed that religion was the opiate of the masses, meaning that it provided an escape from the harsh realities of life. This may well be true, but looking at the conflicts arising in the Middle East these days, I’m inclined to observe that religion is the amphetamine of the masses.

Now, some will suggest that the conflicts between Arabs, Christians and Jews in Palestine/Israel, or between or among Islamists (Sunni and Shi’a) are simply proxy struggles for what is at base political conflict. I think this gets things wrong, and does a disservice to religion, as well as politics.

There may well be cynical non-believers who make use of the religions conflicts of our time to their own political ends. However, there are also true believers for whom the religious issues are the source and end of the conflict. A look at European history will show that this is not a new phenomenon. Look back to the European conflicts of the 15th through the 17th century — focus just on England if that makes it easier — and you will see people killing each other over things like vernacular liturgy and the theology of the Eucharist. There is nothing new about beheading or burning people over religious differences. As I said in an earlier post, if you want to understand the Muslim present, look to the Christian past.

It is also no use trying to play one Muslim off against another — or to accept with an easy nod the soothing reassurances of the “good Muslims” that the Islamists are in error and do not truly represent Islam. Who says? Council after council anathematized those it deemed “heretics”; the Pope said the same thing about Elizabeth I; American Baptists distance themselves from the folks in Westboro; the Global South Anglicans will condemn Episcopalians as apostates. These divisions of opinion do not mark the boundary between true and false religion — or if they do, who is to decide which side is right? One chooses one’s side based one’s own understanding of what is right and just and true — but so do they all, excepting the odd occasional cynic who might just be doing it all for political gain; and I think every side may have one or more such game-players.

So I hate to be the bearer of bad news to those who think that “good” religion will solve the problems of the current world crisis. Religion isn’t the solution; it is the problem. Christians trying to be sweet and reasonable by saying to Jews and Muslims, “We all worship the same God” is really a bit condescending, and ultimately false, since only some nominal Christians are willing to soft-pedal the orthodox notion that Jesus is God — so not really quite the same as the God of Judaism or Islam, at least from their point of view.

However, we nor they need not alter beliefs in order to work towards a pluralistic world in which people resolve not to kill each other over religious differences. What is needed is something like the Elizabethan settlement — which derives not so much from an act of will or resolve to peace as from a war-weariness in which all but the most zealous finally recognize that the continued fighting is getting them nowhere fast, and it is time to stop mainlining the speed of religion. Christianity more or less reached this detente a few centuries ago; we can only hope that Islam doesn’t take as long to reach its stasis point.

Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG


August 29, 2014

Heaven on Earth

Charles Chapman Grafton was an early member of the Society of Saint John the Evangelist, with a missional heart and soul for the Gospel nourished in the Anglo-Catholic spirit of Edward Bouverie Pusey: which is to say, one who understood both the beauty of holiness and the holiness of beauty. He served at Boston’s Church of the Advent, and later as Bishop of Fond du Lac. He was an active supporter of the revival of religious life in The Episcopal Church, and assisted in the foundation of the Sisters of the Holy Nativity. He also sought rapprochement with the Orthodox and Old Catholic church leaders of his day.

It would be a great mistake to reduce such a legacy to the “Fond of Lace” school of prettified and petrified worship of the means of worship. For people like Grafton, the smells and bells were not an end in themselves, but a mark of the singular dignity evoked by a lively awareness of the presence of God in our midst, and in our persons, a deeply incarnational faith.

May he and all who seek the glimmers of God's presence — in art and music and the human person — here on earth rejoice unto the ages of ages in the imperishable halls of heaven.

Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG
icon in wash and ink 2013

August 26, 2014

(No) Thanks for the Complement

One of the problems with the theory of gender complementarity is that it tends to reduce the human to the visually physical. Heterosexuality is held to be normative on the basis of gross anatomy — the fact that male and female bodies exist is taken uncritically to mean that they not only can join, but only can join. This biological determinism ignores that much (if not most) of sexuality is mental and emotional — and that these aspects of the human being are also just as much physical (in the brain and nervous system, in particular as acted upon by the endocrine system) as the gross anatomy of the external sexual characteristics. The “dishonorable members” cannot say to the brain, “I have no need of you.” Every member shares in the wholeness of the body.

The essence of sexuality, as in so much else about what it means to be human, lies in the inside, not the outside: it is content, not form alone, that constitutes the human person.

Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG

August 21, 2014

Living in Another's Skin

I have only ever once been accused of shoplifting, at a Pathmark in Yonkers, when the "security" attendant saw me put something in my pocket and failed to recognize it as a shopping list. (What of value in a supermarket he imagined I could put in my pocket, I can not tell, but suffice it to say the incident was embarrassing, angering, and put me off shopping at that store ever again.)

However, I also realize that what was a one-off unpleasantness for me is, for anyone born brown or black in this America, a daily possibility or worse, probability. I recall years ago hearing in shock from one of my African-American brothers in Christ of his experience being challenged as he opened the trunk of his own car as we gathered for an evening meeting in White Plains NY. That simply would never happen to me, in my own skin, which makes me both grateful and furious.

For I do not deserve this favor, nor did he deserve the hassle, nor does anyone deserve to be shot unarmed in the street, strangled on the sidewalk, or pummeled on the highway. The chances of my being challenged as I enter my own home or car are vanishingly small. The possibility I will be shot in the street, unarmed, is almost nonexistent. As a white male I have almost no basis for sympathy with my African-American brothers and sisters on the basis of my own experience, other than my being human, and being at the end of it all saddened and shocked and angry that I live in a racist nation.

There, I've said it. I live in a racist nation. Having a black president only goes so far; and I dare say if Barack Obama were wearing a jogging suit on a poorly lit street, not surrounded by Secret Service agents, he might well be challenged if he tried to open the trunk of a car one evening in the aptly named White Plains.

I just want to say, Stop it. Stop it, now. Train the police to use less lethal methods, and prosecute to the fullest extent those who don't. Put to rest the constant need to suspect on the basis of a profile all too aptly suited to fit the native prejudices. End the madness of the war on drugs that has nourished the vast bulk of this problem in the first place, like its pale ghost uncle Prohibition. End it all. Just stop!

Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG

August 20, 2014

Bernard's Song per Dante

In celebration of the feast of Bernard of Clairvaux, here is a rehearsal tape of the Hymn to the Virgin from the Celestial Rose, from Dante's Paradiso, Canto XXXIII. I composed this for St Luke in the Fields back in the 80s, for performance in Advent. I made a tape of the rehearsal, but the recorder died during the actual liturgy. Still, it gives an idea of what I was after. Bill Entriken is the organist, and the cellist is from the St Luke's Chamber Orchestra.

Bernard sings:

«Vergine Madre, figlia del tuo figlio,
umile e alta più che creatura,
termine fisso d’etterno consiglio,

tu se’ colei che l’umana natura
nobilitasti sì, che ’l suo fattore
non disdegnò di farsi sua fattura.

Nel ventre tuo si raccese l’amore,
per lo cui caldo ne l’etterna pace
così è germinato questo fiore.


Translation
Virgin Mother, daughter of you Son,
Humble and high beyond creature,
Fixed limit of the eternal counsel,

You are she who so ennobled human nature
that the Creator did not disdain
to make of it his maker.

Within your womb was rekindled
the love by whose heat, in eternal peace,
thus was germinated this flower.

(The Flower is the celestial rose which is constituted from the company of saints themselves...)

Pardon the poor quality of the tape.

Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG


MP3 File

August 13, 2014

Greater Love

Jonathan Myrick Daniels holds the honor of having fulfilled the greatest love attested by our Lord Jesus Christ himself: to lay down one's life for one's friends. The story of his self-sacrificial placement of himself between a bigot's arms and the body of a young African-American co-worker in the struggle for civil rights is well enough known to obviate the need for me to tell it once more here. Suffice this to be a moment to give honor to this honorable young man, fervent in faith, steady in resolve, and sudden in action to do what was right in the face of grievous wrong. May we all contribute a glimmer of such light by our own feeble candles.

Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG
ikon of Jonathan as the seminarian he was

August 11, 2014

The Butterfly

Taking a sabbatical on the bridge’s bannister
— a momentary flex or two of wings a major
interruption in your short life-span —
I notice that your dappled right-hand wing
has lost a section of the dexter chief
of your escutcheon, your family crest thus dis-
emblazoned by a proper relic of
some former battle with a spiderweb.

You rest — and when I move you flutter off,
but then return, to bask another moment,
to lengthen our unspoken consultation;
finally to flutter off and by — a Viceroy
or a Monarch (I too ignorant of
the heraldry of Lepidoptera to know) 
but rested, ready to reclaim the air
with wounded wing.

Envoi
You know my wounds, Lord; some of them you gave me,
some I gave myself. I still will fly —
but with your help, for you alone can save me.

Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG, 2006

August 8, 2014

In a Glass, Darkly

When religions of whatever sort have the power of armed forces at their disposal they will go to war with those they hold in contempt, eager to convert or expunge. That goes for Christians, Jews and Muslims alike, as well as most other sects. The larger Christian bodies lost their state-supported armies a few hundred years ago. A few insurgencies lasted until my own lifetime, in, say, Ireland; and there are fringe groups in the Pacific Northwest whose force of arms warrants our concern. 

That there is relative peace among Christians in our day has precious little to do with Christianity as a religion of peace, but more to do with the withering of state and popular support for Christian warfare, a pragmatic response summed up by Elizabeth I in her desire to keep her counselors’ heads upon their shoulders.  

For whenever Christians had the coercive power of arms at their disposal, they were just as likely to use them as anyone else. Imperialism, triumphalism, conquest and intersectarian bloodbaths are all a part of our Christian past — the Gospel notwithstanding. Look to that Christian past and you will see the Muslim present. It is not a pretty reflection, nor is it monolithic: there are islands of sanity amongst the chaos and crisis, but the theme is one of struggle rather than of settlement. Meanwhile, the God of peace weeps over his foolish children.

Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG

July 25, 2014

Good Earth

Joachim and Anna are remembered as the Parents of the Blessed Virgin Mary. I've chosen to portray them in this image as a rather earthy Jewish peasant couple, married, so the legend goes, for decades before being blessed with issue. I can only guess that the household in which Mary grew to marriageable age herself must have been a happy one, full of joy and love. Things like this run in the family, and what a family it is! Remember, we are adopted into it; so let joy abound!

Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG