Wednesday, February 21, 2018

An Early Christian #MeToo and #TimesUp Movement

Reading Laura Swan’s The Forgotten Desert Mothers as the #MeToo movement against sexual harassment and the #TimesUp movement for equal employment for women were getting underway, I couldn’t help but notice the parallels with the women who, alongside the Desert Fathers, went out into the desert to pray, only to be overlooked and overshadowed by a patriarchal version of church history.

I am re-reading Swan’s book in preparation for co-leading a contemplative retreat with Columbia Seminary’s Spiritual Formation Program director Debra Weir, which I referenced  in last week’s post. It is one of two texts we selected for the course, the other being Thomas Merton’s Contemplative Prayer.

It does not in any way diminish their genuine religious devotion to be struck by how many of the women evaded sexual abuse, forced or arranged marriages, and culturally-expected duties of women in the fourth and fifth centuries by pursuing their callings/vocations. And though, like MeToo and TimesUp, it was often women of privilege and wealth and education who initiated the exodus from mistreatment and exploitation, the monastic communities they founded became refuges for the poor, the sick, the marginalized, orphaned, abandoned, mistreated, and homeless.

Meeting recently with Debra for planning our retreat, I told her I was in awe how much the women sacrificed to follow the Christian way of giving up their possessions, land, and financial resources to the poor, denying themselves even the simplest luxuries like beds, food, and other-than-simple clothing for the sake of their spirituality and their sense of justice.

Some of them cross-dressed to escape and avoid detection, joining male monastic communities as supposed eunuchs, or traveling to distant and unfamiliar places where they were unknown. Others simply resisted their family’s wishes and practiced their asceticism in the family home or on family-owned property. Many led their family members into Christian faith and practices themselves.

Unlike their male counterparts, fewer of their sayings have been preserved in the church’s memory, but what is preserved is their benevolence, their service to others, saintly attributes, and sincere devotion.

Quoting Joan M. Petersen, “Their delight was in self-control; their glory was to be unknown; their wealth was to possess nothing… Their work…consisted only of attention to the things of God, prayer without ceasing, and the uninterrupted chanting of the Psalms.” The “things of God” included the upbuilding of the Christian community and its ministry to the world in the name of Jesus, serving “the least of these.”

Decades ago John Boswell taught me that LGBT people of earlier times were drawn to monastic communities for similar reasons. These were places where they were not expected to marry, and where they could find opportunities to serve the greater good. Though Boswell recognized the church had a patriarchal bias in terms of its leadership and teachings and history, he questioned the impression that it was only men who shaped the church and its theology. Men who dominated the culture and religion, he observed, were reared by women, taught by women, related to women, influenced by women, sometimes married to women, and served in spiritual communities alongside women.

One of multiple examples of this was how Gregory of Nyssa, considered one of the early Christian theologians, was absolutely influenced and inspired by Macrina the Younger, his elder sister, who encouraged his baptism and his memorialization of her community’s monastic way of life in the Short and Long Rules. Macrina was following in her grandmother’s footsteps, Macrina the Elder, who worked closely with the local bishop. According to Swan, he and his brother Basil “acknowledged [Macrina the Younger] as the primary influence in their theological education, and each finally embraced ascetic and monastic observance.”

When the church became entwined, sometimes strangled, by the culture of the Roman empire, the Desert Mothers and Fathers sought to “re-member” the Christian community’s countercultural roots. After all, its teacher, Jesus, was executed by Rome; it faced accusations of “turning the world upside down” (Acts 17:6); its acts of compassion contradicted a worldview of self-interest; and it suffered persecution for refusing to bow to the gods of Rome, including the emperor, considered a god. Christians then were considered “atheistic” because they believed in only one God!

#MeToo and #TimesUp are countercultural movements that resist a world in which women are demeaned and exploited. In a church that has often followed the culture’s lead in the treatment of women, these movements should remind us of our own countercultural roots in which we are “no longer Jew or Greek, slave or free, male and female…for all of you are one… (Galatians 3:28).”

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Copyright © 2018 by Chris R. Glaser. Permission granted for non-profit use with attribution of author and blogsite. Other rights reserved.  

Wednesday, February 14, 2018

Beside Still Waters

This week marks the seventh anniversary of beginning this weekly blog!

 “Be unconstructively in the presence of the sacred.”

Try this on for Lent, the forty day period leading to Holy Week, which begins today, Ash Wednesday:

“Be unconstructively in the presence of the sacred.”

How long has it been since you allowed your Good Shepherd to give you rest in green pastures beside still waters, restoring your soul? The “still waters” of the 23rd Psalm are waters gentle enough to drink from to safely quench our thirst; the Hebrew means “waters of rest.”

To you, O Lord, I lift up my soul.
O my God, in you I trust.

Nothing compares to a contemplative retreat in a monastic setting, surrounded by fellow pilgrims and an authentic monastic community. Trying to capture that ethos once more, I read again the reflections I wrote after a men’s contemplative retreat at St. Bernard Abbey in Cullman, Alabama, and a Hildegard of Bingen retreat at Sacred Heart Monastery, also in Cullman.

The respective experiences elevated not only my spirit but my prose, and I’m certain this post will pale in comparison—both to the experience and to the poetry required to capture the rhythms of words, songs, and silence of a monastic community.

O Lord, open thou my lips.
And my mouth shall show forth thy praise.

Especially welcomed to join the sisters in the chancel area of the church at Sacred Heart, and given their gentle guidance in saying the offices that punctuate their day, helped us taste the pleasure and the power of reciting psalms and prayers together. We thus stepped carefully into a stream of a centuries-old tradition.

As I wrote in one of my papers, the contemplative retreat unveiled again for me how the multitude feeds the boy with the modest lunch, the reverse of the boy whose peasant’s lunch fed the multitude through the blessing of Jesus. I felt surrounded and nourished by “so great a cloud of witnesses.”

When we are listening, God speaks to us in a myriad of ways, and God was echoing all over the place at both monasteries and their grounds. Silence, scripture, songs, lectio divina, the Daily Office, readings, prayers, homilies, teachings, and conversations offered me voices from the past (memories, tradition, spiritual guides) as well as from the present (fellow pilgrims, colleagues, fellowship). Even the silence was deafening. And outside, the sounds, smells, sights, breezes, warmth of day, coolness of evening of the natural setting completed the feel of God’s embrace.

The afternoon that began our 24 hours of silence midway through the contemplative retreat, I spent much longer in the sanctuary of the church than I imagined I would. I pleasured in the profound silence. I started constructing my final paper in my mind, but then reminded myself that this was not what the silence was for.

The silence was simply to be unconstructively in the presence of the sacred. To be “useless.” To welcome the “schola” (“free time”) of “scholar.”

That silence unveiled a second kind of silence for me, the need for Sabbath, a time of no work, no activity, no planning, only recreating, allowing myself to be re-created and refreshed and renewed, hopefully in God’s presence. Since that experience, I’ve given myself some slack in my ever-present need for accomplishment, turning off my laptop to avoid work and the internet from time to time, relaxing my workouts and runs, reading more for fun than I’ve done in the past.

Peace! Be still!
Be still and know that I am God.

Come, join us beside the still waters of the Sacred Heart Monastery April 30-May 4, 2018. I will be co-leading a contemplative retreat with Debra Weir, Beside Still Waters, to which you are welcome. For more information, click on the title or copy and paste into your browser:

For previous posts to read for Lent, click on or copy into your browser:  (Scroll down for multiple posts. At the end of the collection you will find a couple of posts included simply because they used the word "lent"!)

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Copyright © 2018 by Chris R. Glaser. Permission granted for non-profit use with attribution of author and blogsite. Other rights reserved.  

Wednesday, February 7, 2018

The Fundamentalist Memory Hole

Aristarchus, in the third century B.C., clearly established a heliocentric picture of the solar system that was well understood and accepted by the Greeks. … Yet Ptolemy, five centuries later, turned this on its head and proposed a geocentric theory of almost Babylonian complexity. The Ptolemaic darkness, the scotoma, lasted 1,400 years, until a heliocentric theory was reestablished by Copernicus.
–Oliver Sacks, The River of Consciousness, p 204
Christian fundamentalism (which has parallels in other religions and ideologies) arose at the end of the 19th and beginning of the 20th century in America and Great Britain in reaction to liberal theology and modernism. One might say it is parallel to Oliver Sacks’s above description of the regression that misguided science for centuries, imagining a solar system with Earth rather than the Sun at its center.

My post last week described a scotoma simply as a blind spot, but it can be more than that. It can be what Orwell called a “memory hole” which sucks acquired knowledge out of the room, an amnesia of, in the case of fundamentalism, a spiritual tradition that experienced a diversity that recognized scripture as an element of faith but not its sole author. Biblical literalism was at odds with earlier and subsequent ways of interpreting scripture.

This is my beef with fundamentalism—not that it isn’t a useful way to reclaim the biblical story, but that it claims to be the ONLY way to read scripture, dismissive of our own progressive Christian interpretations.

I am glad to have been raised as a Christian fundamentalist and biblical literalist: it gave me a knowledge of the Bible and a certainty and guidance I needed as a child and youth. But I ultimately found it confining, not only of me personally as a gay man and a political liberal, but of me spiritually, bereft of much church tradition and teachings and reflections of the church doctors and saints, theologians and mystics.

That upbringing also resisted science and culture and other faiths, though more so today than when I was growing up. More than ever today, fundamentalism sucks acquired knowledge out of the room, even that of fellow Christians like myself who remain faithful to Jesus without fear of hell or certainty of heaven, without subscribing to all Christian doctrines, and while trying to welcome insights from science and other cultures and religions.

I know the pain that fundamentalists feel when challenged, or when disappointed in those who do not similarly “believe,” as I felt that as well. Unlike some progressive Christians, I try not to express animus toward fundamentalists or fundamentalism, save when they try to theocratize our politics and political institutions. I am truly a liberal in the classic sense, trying to welcome as many viewpoints and perspectives and knowledge as possible.

And I agree that scriptures have to be taken seriously, even authoritatively, but not literally. A literal interpretation, I believe, actually does a disservice to scripture. It can miss the depths and richness and complexity of the biblical conversation about the meaning of it all.

And, as Jesus said of the Sabbath and the fundamentalism of his day, the Bible was made for humankind, not humankind for the Bible.

For Black History Month in the U.S., I invite you to read and/or circulate Black Lives Matter and Black Museums Matter. For more such posts, use the search engine on my blogsite or click on the following words to search for “black” or “Civil Rights,” and scroll down for multiple posts. 

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Copyright © 2018 by Chris R. Glaser. Permission granted for non-profit use with attribution of author and blogsite. Other rights reserved.