Reflections on St. Mark’s

March 23 2014

Levon Bond

My mother often tells of a story about me when I was a baby that I think is illustrative of my upbringing, my personality and my generation. When I was born in the mid-1970s, my parents were still teenagers, and as is often the case with teenagers, they liked to have their friends over for the occasional party. Sometimes their friends would thoughtfully advise my parents to turn the music down after I was put to bed. My mother would aptly reply, “When we turn it down he wakes up crying. He sleeps better when the music is loud.” I was quite literally raised on rock n’ roll. The Rolling Stones, the Beatles, and Led Zeppelin were the sounds that first impressed my soul in its infancy.
I mention this because it speaks of my experience growing up in a secular household, but it also speaks of my generation of Canadians. My parents belonged to the generation that is often referred to as the baby boomers. This was the generation of the cultural upheaval that dramatically altered the social and spiritual landscape of the Western world. My parents were the first generation of Canadians to have grown up going to church and then rejected it on a broad scale when they became adults. I was of the first generation that was raised not regularly attending church, as most of my classmates at school did not attend Christian worship. Thankfully, my determined grandmother managed to encourage me to attend her Lutheran Church for a couple of years while I was an early teen and to attend confirmation courses for a couple of years. In that church’s parish hall there are photos of all the confirmation classes and the generational decline is evident as during my mother’s time there were dozens of youths being confirmed and now they have barely enough to run annual courses.
I have included these anecdotes as a part of my testimonial on “why I attend St. Mark’s” because before I can answer that question I will need to explain first – Why God and monotheism, why Christianity, why Anglicanism and then I will be able to speak of why St. Mark’s.
When I entered university in my late teens, I was moodier than most teenagers and my inclination towards philosophy left me vulnerable to the pernicious influence of existentialism and the rejection of organized religion and theism. As such, I entered a period of depression and spiritual darkness, and it wasn’t until I rejected existentialism and the belief in nothingness and turned towards a higher power that I was able to accept that there is goodness in life and that joy was possible. My spiritual rebirth, however, didn’t direct me towards Christianity, because I was still awash in misperception and ignorance. I did, however, begin to explore all manner of exotic, exciting and foreign forms of spirituality. My first mentor was a lapsed Tibetan Buddhist monk who introduced me to Buddhism, Taoism and all forms of contemporary new age metaphysics. I went to native sweat lodges for a year after I moved to Winnipeg in 1996. I also began a daily Tai Chi and Chi Kung meditation practice that lasted for nearly 10 years. I studied the mystical teachings of G. I, Gurdjieff, P.D. Ouspensky and what they called the Fourth Way. I immersed myself in Sufi poetry, was deeply influenced by Zen Buddhism, and I lived as an aesthetic for a period of time. Yet all the while, I wholly rejected Christianity as misguided and antiquated, an opinion that I shared with all those in my peer group at the time.
In my mid-twenties I returned to University to complete my philosophy degree and began a second period of examination of my fundamental beliefs and assumptions. It became quickly apparent to me that many of my assumptions about Christianity were misguided, and that in order to fully understand the Christianity that I had rejected that I was going to need to learn more about Christianity and clarify my misunderstandings. At this time I befriended a group of Mennonite students who met regularly for a weekly Bible study. I was deeply impressed by their virtuous and clean living, as well as by their profound learning. Shortly thereafter I met an Orthodox priest and an Orthodox convert and started to attended regular Orthodox services in English. I was immediately spellbound by the Orthodox form of worship and the deep mysticism of the Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom. Its mystical form of worship was familiar to me as I was already drawn to mysticism and meditation from other religious traditions. I also found the Orthodox theology very profound and well rooted in the teachings of the Church Fathers, giving a lot of weight to their claim of professing to be the preservers of the original Christian faith, a foundation that I often found lacking in most Protestant denominations. I finally accepted Christ as my saviour and was chrismated into the Orthodox faith in January 2004.
Concurrent to my entry into Orthodoxy, many of my Mennonite friends had converted to Anglicanism and were attending an Anglican Church called St. Margaret’s. There was a Sunday evening service at this parish that included longer and more theologically robust sermons, as well as some of the best choral music in a city renowned for its choirs. I also attended this service on a regular basis and participated in the life of this parish even though I officially belonged to St. George’s Orthodox Church.
I still love the Orthodox way of worship and the rich spiritual life that has been preserved by this community. Nevertheless, as much as I was drawn to the mysticism and the heritage of Orthodoxy, I never felt completely at home; I always felt a little like an outsider, especially as many in the parish that I attended were members of a couple of founding families, and in most of the other parishes I have visited over the years the services were often in the native tongue of the founders, and their ethnicity was inexorably intertwined with their worship.
Anglicanism, on the other hand has always felt like home. It is a very comfortable way of worship for me and my family. So after Amber and I got married in 2009, we decided to make the Anglican Church our family church.
So I have talked about my personal journey from atheism, to theism, to monotheism, to Christianity, and finally to Anglicanism; but why St. Mark’s, especially when there are so many other Anglican Churches in Kingston, many of which are closer to our home in the West end. Aside from the aesthetic appeal of the church – its stain glass, woodwork and august location on the top of the hill – we found it friendly and inviting. It felt like it was a place that we could make a spiritual home where we would be welcome and where there would be a place for us to contribute and to make a difference in the lives of our community, and this is what we have experienced in our worship here.
I have shared a good deal about my own personal history and journey not specifically so that you could get to know me better, but so that I could use my story as an illustration of the spiritual journeys’ of those of my generation. You will find that many people who are my age do not know much about Christianity, and few have read the Bible or other works of Christian thought. We hold prejudices and misperceptions about the church, and in many cases are deeply hostile to the church even though we may not be able to articulate why. In many cases, people of my generation know more about other religions, such as Buddhism or Hinduism than we do about Christianity. We largely believe that science cannot be reconciled with faith, and that in most cases, those of my generation couldn’t be bothered to attend a weekly church service because we are too busy enjoying the leisure that our wealth and prosperity have afforded us as a society.
But there are those who still hunger and who still seek the truth. I have known them. We must be ready to greet them and welcome them to Christ’s table as I was welcomed many years ago.

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St. Mark’s Anglican Church

October 20, 2013

Duncan McDowall

Good morning to you all. Let me first thank Father Haynes for this unique opportunity. He is, of course, taking a considerable chance asking a college professor to compress his thoughts into the brief span of ten minutes. We university types are genetically predisposed to deliver our thoughts in one hour and sometimes three hour wedges. Let me therefore assure him that this morning my eye is on my watch and, more importantly, my mind and my heart are on the question of what brings us to church on Sunday mornings.

I am not a theologian. I cannot divine the scriptures or relate God`s purpose for us on earth with the clarity or erudition of a trained minister. That is why it is so crucial that Father Haynes rather than the likes of me should stand before you most Sundays. But I have long believed that every one of us sitting in our pews each Sunday is in fact a kind of personal theologian — a theologian who tries to work out, each in his or her own way, some sort of spiritual rationale for our journey through life. This may entail the conscious, repetitive act of simply coming to church each Sunday or, perhaps, a more contemplative reflection of what it is that brings us to this collective demonstration of our faith. For me, perhaps the most introspective moment of any service comes in the lulls in the rhythm of the service – as we wait for the service to commence and the sun streams through the stained glass windows or as we sit after receiving communion or listening to the organ postlude. I would suggest that for most of us the hour or so in church each week constitutes one of the very few interludes afforded us in this hectic world when we can actually look inside ourselves and connect with or reaffirm the values that we pray will guide us in a Christian way through life. No cell phone calls, no pressing appointments, no truck or trade with commerce – we are left suspended from these transitory things to sort out just what brought us through these doors. This is what I mean when I suggest that we are all personal theologians when we sit in these pews.

So what exactly can I tell you that sitting in a pew at St. Mark`s confirms in me? I wish I could impart to you some profound insight into the grand meaning of it all – some understanding of the ultimate implication of life and death and inner meaning of leading “the good life.” I do, perhaps like many of you, wrestle with these deep, existential issues constantly, and can only report that we must take certain things solely on the basis of our faith – “through a glass darkly,” as it were . Beyond this greatest spiritual mystery, I can tell you that two abiding aspects of church-going have sustained me through much of my life. Two wonderful aspects of the Anglican faith have steadfastly sustained me in my faith: the majesty of its liturgy and ritual and the abiding strength and universal applicability of its ethical values.

First, the ritual. Since I first attended Christ Church Cathedral in Victoria with my parents, through years at an English public school and at various churches in adulthood across Canada, the language and ritual of the Anglican service have etched themselves indelibly into my spiritual life. In particular, the beauty of the King James Bible has been one of the most formative influences on my view of humanity. The cadence, vocabulary and imagery of the King James version of the scriptures has never left me. I recall those many evenings at my school when the Evensong – Compline – service helped us to see the day out. From the words of the beautiful Song of Simeon in Luke 2, we recited the Nunc Dimitis: “Lord, now lettest thy servant depart in peace: according to thy word. For mine eyes have seen thy Salvation…” In recent years, my wife and I have been privileged to revisit this soothing religious service in such beautiful settings as Yorkminister and St.Patrick’s Cathedral, Dublin. At other times, I recall  the glorious exclamation that begins the Magnificat: “My soul doth magnify the Lord and my spirit hath rejoiced in God my Saviour…” The majestic language of our faith permeates our belief.

Now I do not consider this liturgy as just pretty words and the services in which they are embedded little more than lovely aesthetic performances. No, I regard them as evidence of how the Holy Spirit can move humans to extraordinary creative artistry. I believe that the hand of God is evident in these words. Did you know that Handel wrote the music of that most magnificent oratorio Messiah in just twelve days? Yes, he had the King James Bible as his reservoir for the libretto and Charles Jennens to put it into singable form. But a sweeping act of artistic creation such as Messiah must surely speak to the power of God acting through man. For over forty years now my wife Sandy and I have gone to Messiah every Christmas in places as varied as Carnegie Hall and tiny town concert halls and churches. Why? Because its spiritual beauty never ever dims. Amid a Christmas season, its spiritual clarity pushes aside all the commercial pollution that has come to debase Christmas. The beauty of the music and the liturgy reconnects us with our faith, much as the service and the choir here at St. Mark’s does every week. So, it is this power of words and music that has attached me to the church for so long. Yes, the King James version of our service now lives in the shadows – I sad thing, I must say, from my perspective – but its language still echoes in my weekly passage through the Anglican service.

That same service carries the other essential ingredient of Anglicanism for me – the blueprint of ethical values that Christianity has challenged us to abide by since Moses brought the Ten Commandments off the mountain. In these days when we are exhorted to accept and accommodate innumerable other religions and ways of life, I have no shame or embarrassment in believing that the ethical values at the heart of the Judeo-Christian tradition provide probably the best code for life available to man. Christianity’s dedication to loving one’s neighbour and doing unto others as you would have them do unto you must surely be universal in their application. Coming to church serves regularly replenishes these values and resets the moral compass. Most weeks,  Father Haynes uses his sermon to direct our energy to this central purpose of loving each other and abiding by the central tenets of our faith.

We live in an increasingly secular world. I remark with sadness that in slipping away from Christianity many of those now living a secular existence have also lost touch with these deeply humanistic values. My wife and I have taught university for many, many years and one of the most depressing trends we have witnessed has been the arrival in our classrooms of students who appear to have no moral or ethical compass, no innate way of knowing right from wrong. No code guiding their behaviour towards those around them. The tip-off is that many of these students have absolutely no inkling of the rich way in which the Judeo-Christian tradition has framed and informed our culture and history. The same is often the case with students who come out of other religious backgrounds – no awareness of a code that can anchor their behaviour in life. Can you imagine trying to teach T.S. Eliot’s great poem on the coming of the Magi when your students have no idea what the “magi” are? How many Canadians know where the “Dominion” in the Dominion of Canada came from? More disturbingly, those who have never had had the Ten Commandments set before them are often condemned to live in a moral vacuum. It would be nice to think that what is often called “secular humanism” might fill the void. For a handful it might well provide guidance for an anchored, moral life, but for most I fear that secular humanism is just an excuse for moral drift.

I have hardly lived a morally unblemished life, but I have always been both conscious and grateful for the moral gyroscope with which Anglicanism has provided me and, I am sure, all of you here today. Far be it for me to put words in Father Haynes’ mouth, but my impression is that he sends us out of here most Sundays with a mission: to reconnect our brothers in the community beyond St. Mark’s with the daily guidance provided by Judeo-Christian values. We might, to take a line from Handel’s Messiah, leave here every Sunday inspired by our own theological contemplation in the knowledge that we know our redeemer liveth.

Thank you for your attention and God be with you through the week ahead.

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ST MARK’S TALK — 8 DECEMBER 2013 by Pierre du Prey

Most of you in the congregation will not recognize me. That is because I generally attend the 8:30 communion which is one of the reasons I have been coming to St. Mark’s. Let me begin by trying to answer the following question. Why get out of bed that early on a Sunday morning? Part of my answer lies in the tranquility of the village and of the service at that hour, and the language of the Book of Common Prayer which resonates strongly with me. I was raised in that tradition by my Canadian Anglican mother. She had the somewhat reluctant agreement of my French Agnostic father, who nonetheless had a hard-to-explain secret admiration for the miracle working powers of Saint Theresa of Lisieux. I attended the Church of the Advent on Long Island, New York, and graduated from playing a shepherd boy in the Christmas pageant to impersonating one of the Three Kings. During a high school year spent in England I was confirmed by the retired Anglican bishop of Korea in the little parish of Forest Row in Sussex. Unbeknownst to me my future wife had spent the previous year attending the same school – fate works in mysterious ways. A second reason for my fondness for St. Mark’s, you see, is that it resembles for all the world a stone-built medieval church. Julie and I live here in Barriefield, and one of our favourite walks passes around the church and out onto the former school grounds – just like some English village green – long may it remain so unspoiled and serve some worthy future purpose like a much needed community centre for us here in the East End. After what I have said it may come to you as no surprise to find out that I am by profession an historian of architecture. So no wonder I love St. Mark’s inside and out. But a couple of weeks ago the Gospel reading from St. Luke, chapter 21 beginning at verse 5 reminded me forcefully not to put too much faith in architecture. In the words of Luke:

When some were speaking about the Temple, how it was adorned with beautiful stones and gifts dedicated to God, Jesus said “As for these things that you see, the days will come when not one stone will be left upon another.”

I like the King James version’s phrase “goodly stones and gifts” better, but either way we get the warning message clearly. Mark chapter 13, verse 7, repeats the same story. Master, it has the disciples say, “see what manner of stones and what buildings are here.” Thumbing through a tiny copy of the New Testament given to me on my 10th birthday I found that I had marked a saying of St. Paul’s in Acts, 17 according to which QUOTE “God that made the world … dweleth not in temples made with hands.” UNQUOTE All three New Testament passages refer directly or indirectly to the celebrated Temple of Jerusalem. Begun by King Solomon under divine inspiration the Temple was completed in its final form under King Herod, but the Romans burned it down in 70 AD. The famous west wall, or so-called wailing wall, alone remains above ground, so in this respect Jesus made a prophetic warning of the destruction to come. The three passages I have mentioned date from years after the Temple’s destruction and they draw attention to this really earth shattering event in Judeo Christian history. We should not overlook the absolutely central position that the Temple held for the Jews, for Jesus, and for his followers the early Christians. To the Jews the Temple represented quite literally the abode of God, and as such they spared no degree of expense in adorning it. This Old Testament precedent became the justification for adorning Christian houses of worship thereafter. Does this account for the biblical phrase “the beauty of holiness”? In an attempt to answer that question let me digress a bit to consider the meaning of those words. Beauty of course could simply translate into the sonorous language of the King James version of the Bible, or the equally sonorous words and music of our hymns. Naturally to a greater or lesser extent Anglican churches reflect physical beauty in our liturgy, vestments, buildings, furnishing like this lectern, or the wonderful stucco figure of an angel in the chancel which I like to contemplate during those early morning services sitting up in the choir stalls. But I suspect that the beauty of holiness goes deeper than these visual delights of St. Mark’s.

The words Beauty of holiness come up several places in the Old Testament, notably in psalm 29 verse 2 and again in psalm 96 verse 9, the one that begins so memorably “O, sing unto the Lord a new song, sing unto the Lord, all the earth.” In each of these psalms the implication seems to be that there is a beauty in the act of giving an offering of oneself to God. In this sense perhaps the words refer to a beautiful state of holiness, that is to say a state of mind and spirit in which we try to meet and follow in the teachings of God. So in that sense the beauty of holiness brings me back to what I find so satisfying about worship here at St. Mark’s. It’s a combination of all those physical things I mentioned but in addition and more importantly the chance to meditate quietly, to look inwardly and to find what the end of the communion service proclaims as the “peace that passeth all understanding.” The peace that passeth all understanding. Where in this hectic world, especially in the pre-Christmas Advent season, do any of us get such an invitation to stop, think, pray, and reflect on the mystery of faith? For a few precious moments the whirl of activities and spin of commercialism cease, everything slows down, we remember loved ones and those who we have not loved enough or even loved at all. It is a sobering yet nourishing way to bring the past week around full circle and to try to prepare inwardly for the days ahead. Where better to do this than worshipping at St. Mark’s, isolated from the hustle and bustle amid the fields and the rock on which and out of which it is constructed. Give it a try some Sunday morning and join our small but happy band at 8:30.