Well, so much for agendas. When Advent began, a couple of weeks ago, I had laid out a plan for Advent blogging, focusing on the readings for the Sundays of the season. Life intervened, and here we are. It is almost the Third Sunday and I have yet to complete the post for the Second Sunday, concerning the “Announcement” to the Blessed Virgin Mary, the Theotokos, or Mother of God, of the impending birth of the Messiah. I had also intended to write posts about St. Nicholas (December 6) and perhaps some other Saints and manifestations of Saints, such as Our Lady of Guadalupe, whose commemorations fall during the Advent season.
There is still hope for accomplishing some of this, but it is fading. In the meantime, a little book has come my way, something between a long short story and a novel, called The Shack, and it seems good to me to comment on it.
In The Shack, a middle-aged man, Mack, directly encounters the Triune God, who shows up in order to heal Mack of “The Great Sadness”, a chronic depression which has enveloped his life since his young daughter, Missy, was abducted and presumed killed while Mack and his children were on a camping trip a couple of years before. During this encounter with the Trinity, he experiences much that is healing, including being shown where his daughter’s body lies, and many of his questions are answered. In returning to his normal life, Mack, by revealing the location of his daughter’s body, is able to help the authorities catch the serial killer responsible for his daughter’s death, and he is also able to bring some measure of healing to his family, especially his older daughter, Kate, who feels responsible for Missy’s disappearance and death.
The author, William Paul Young, aka “Willie”, although somewhat younger than me, has a religious background similar to what I experienced as a young man, and some of the causes of pain in his life are apparently very similar to mine, in terms of both the consequences of his own behavior and the behavior of others; therefore, I strongly resonate with his practical understanding of God as Love, God as a Divine Community who always acts in love, even when that Community is angry at humans for the damage they are doing to themselves, each other, and the planet. And I actually know someone, a woman, who had a similar experience, not with the Triune God per se, but with Christ and His Blessed Mother. The results, for this woman, are also very similar to those in Mack’s life: positive both for herself and for those around her. So, even though this book is presented as fiction, this aspect is quite believable to me. There is also much about the theology which is very, well, Orthodox, concerning the nature of God and the Divine desire to be in relationship – communion – with all humans, for humans to share the Divine Life “face to face” and the role that Jesus, both fully God and fully human, plays in making this possible and actual. Given this, and given that this book can be a word of hope to people who are seriously hurting and may even be a salutary wake up call to people coming out of certain religious backgrounds, I am reluctant to critique in any way, but I feel I must.
The book, of course, is a story of an extraordinary encounter with God; thus, it might not be expected to deal so much with the ordinary means by which we experience the Divine. Unfortunately, however, words several times put into the mouths of the Divine Persons specifically reject the cornerstone of these ordinary means of encountering God: “no ritual”. Thus, for example, while there is an incident in the book in which Mack consumes bread and wine given him by the Divine Persons, it is explicitly stated that he eats and drinks “without ritual”. And, under other circumstances, things are purposely changed up, done differently than before, because there is “no ritual”.
For me, this is extremely problemmatic, and not just on an abstract level. You see, I do encounter the Triune God, the God "of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob," every time I celebrate the Eucharist, every time I participate in any way, and I know I am not alone in this. The Eucharist – and the other Christian Mysteries – have been healing forces – healing encounters – with “the Great I Am”, for me not only on a routine, theoretical basis, but especially when I have been at my lowest, when, frankly, suicide has presented itself as a viable option. Yes, I’ve been there: it is not simply that I have a professional interest in defending the Mysteries. If I had not encountered the Love which is God in these Mysteries, I would not have embraced the historic, Apostolic Christian Faith, let alone become a priest.
There IS ritual and, as it turns out, the reasons for this have a great deal to do with the way humans are created. Thus, since we are, after all, made in the image and likeness of God, this must also have something to do with the communal love which is the Divine Nature, the eternal dance of mutual submission – kenosis – which the book rightly highlights. We certainly see ritual in created nature which itself “declares the glory of God”. Consider the repetition: day succeeds day; month follows month; season follows season; year follows year. We could also multiply examples from human interaction: however, the basic point is simply that there is no relationship without ritual, and ritual is a means, an extremely basic means, by which we initiate and reinforce relationships. Therefore, I would invite Willie and all of his readers to begin experiencing relationship with the Divine in those rituals which God has given us precisely for that purpose, especially the ritual of the Eucharist, in the context of a Church, a Christian community, where the Apostolic “Rule of Prayer” has been preserved.