Wednesday, October 29, 2008

A Riddle

What has two legs, no head, can’t talk but speaks volumes?

Well, for St. James’, I would offer: The Sign.

For something relatively benign, excepting its digital chest, The Sign has been a flashpoint for controversy. Described as vulgar and ugly, objectively one cannot agree. For the most part, The Sign is not indecent, obscene, or lewd as vulgar is defined and perhaps intended by those using vulgar to describe The Sign.

However, given that vulgar does also mean current, popular or common, The Sign is that. Signage of this nature is very popular, current and commonplace. Just drive around this small city and count the number of signs that are now endowed with digital display. For that matter, just drive around any city and consciously absorb the signage. Signage and its advertising messages ‘now surround us everywhere on everything’. It is overwhelming. And perhaps, with respect to The Sign, that is the elephant in the room.

A market research firm called Yankelovich confirmed that people living in cities now see around 5000 advertisements everyday (Communications Revolutions 2007). Today’s consumers are reaching the marketing saturation point, as they grow a distinctive resistance and negativity towards advertisements (Greenspan 2004). Advertising is not working as well as it used to. We’ve entered the age of stimuli bombardment, visual saturation, sound bites and microscopic attention spans. The number of images and voices shouting for our attention has accelerated beyond critical mass, and the resulting explosion has fragmented the public mind. These mental filters are clearly the result of being bombarded with too many advertisements in such short periods of time. Perhaps it is also our lifestyles and pace that has brought these filters on as well; internet browsing can be thought to have trained users to quickly disregard uninteresting information and empty words. (Williams 2006).

Companies (read corporate bodies, of which the church is one) trying to market themselves and their products in today’s advertising saturated-environment are dealing with an absolute sensory overload. Companies are continually pushing their products harder in order to make them stand out; as each company continues to compete, the environment continues to swell with overload. This idea of information dumping or extreme repetition (which has resulted in this suffocating advertising environment) feels as if it is used by thousands of companies (Wettering 2004).

Consumer negativity towards advertising is growing at a rapid pace. Four years ago studies revealed that 65 % of people felt that they were suffocated by marketing messages and 61% felt that the volume of marketing messages in society was out of control. These results were significantly more negative a few years prior. So, today, another 4 years on, surely our disapproval towards the way we are constantly bombarded with advertisements is even more extreme. People even went so far as to say that they would be willing to lower their living standards or to pay for free media in order to escape all marketing and advertising. (Greenspan 2004).

And hence, I must surmise, the question by one of the more vocal objectors to The Sign: "If they’re allowed to have a digital sign, who’s next?” The local newspaper found this to be a curious question. However, within the context of the research stated above, the elephant moves in the room.

I wondered if the opponents to The Sign have truly searched their rooms for the elephant; their truth in this controversy. Having only identified a commonplace sign as the problem seems to indicate that their position is one of emotional reactivity.

The recent newspaper editorial states: “No doubt the committee that decided on the sign was looking for ways to ensure the church remains current and that parishioners and members of the public are aware of upcoming events that keep the church vital, spiritually and physically.” If there is truth in this statement, a troubling image of ‘the emperor’s new clothes’ is conjured. Given the current research on this type of advertising, revealing the concern with the visual pollution created by the level of saturation intruding into daily life, one would wonder about the return on this type of investment. The U.S. Advertising Foundation has stated: “At the end of the day, the ability of the average consumer to even remember advertising 24 hours later is at the lowest level in the history of advertising.”

Unfortunately, The Sign passes the ‘duck test’ of advertising. It does not simply name the sacred place whereon it stands. Its proud chest apparently thrusts itself into the realm that, within our neighbours’ subconscious and in their truth, smacks of more visual pollution, clutter, intrusiveness, stimuli bombardment and the ‘commercialization’ of their surroundings.

I strongly disagree with the local newspaper editor. He states: "Much closer to home, the Anglican Church has its own fairly serious problems, which the editor seems to fixate on as the same-gender blessing motion. The challenge that the church, the body of Christ on the earth (not the bricks and mortar, not the denominations but you and me), faces today remains unchanged since ancient times. The challenge, we are reminded by the Book of Common Prayer, is:

Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind, and with all thy strength. This is the first and great commandment. And the second is like unto it: Thou shalt love the neighbour as thyself. On these two commandments hang all the Law and the Prophets.

We are so focussed on the administration of the church, how to market it, how to get it out there and how to ‘get those numbers up and get those dollars in’ that I wonder if we have losing sight of the challenge. Through meeting the challenge of honouring these two great commandments, the ‘earned advertising’ is qualitatively superior.

Nicola Adair,

Web Scribe

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Spirituality Is Where You Find It

Joan Chittester describes spirituality as "unlike theology and all its explanations, what shows when no one is asking academic questions. Spirituality is the very fabric and texture of the soul. It does not explain religion, it demonstrates the presence of the sacred in life. In spirituality, we see awareness, reverence for life, globalism in miniature and the shadow of the magnetized heart. Spirituality is a holy search and in the searching, the way to conscience, to commitment and to nothing but the pursuit of truth is travelled." David Howard writes about his bittersweet last pilgrimage to an unlikely location:

“Down the highway through the cradle of the civil war; I'm going to Graceland, Graceland in Memphis Tennessee.” Paul Simon croons his tune of pilgrimage to the iconic former digs of Elvis. Not a likely destination for this pilgrim – but I do find myself in Lawrence Kansas; and for me the spiritual equivalent of Graceland. A longtime annual visitor to this storied town in eastern Kansas, I find myself here for potentially the last time. Home to a man I can easily call my principal mentor, I attend a bimonthly group he has facilitated for over twenty years (although for reasons of distance, I’m rarely here more than once a year). Without fear of exaggeration, it is this man’s guidance and gentle suggestion, teachings and wisdom, provision of opportunity to explore the truly difficult, conflicted and challenging issues that plague us all, insights, encouragement to cultivate a contemplative and meditative practice, that has sculpted the spiritual framework that has occupied for me mid-life to ‘young’ old age. And this is his last group.

To make the connection with Paul’s tune a little clearer, having visited Lawrence for some thirteen years and happening upon Ride with the Devil, TVO’s Saturday night film a few weeks back, I was a little taken aback by Nicola’s question (in response to the mention of the Lawrence Massacre – an 1863 retaliatory attack by Confederate sympathizers on the pro-Union Lawrence population by Quantrill’s Raiders among many others): “Is that your Lawrence?” and my lame reply: “I don’t know!” Indeed it is my Lawrence! A little research revealed that, in many ways this town was a cradle of the civil war – underscored in my morning run, bloody butt of Quantrill’s assault. And this is my pilgrimage.

Like many spiritual opportunities, while they can be experienced and appreciated anywhere, they are facilitated by certain venues, ‘sacred spaces’ if you will, and a community of like-minded folk. It always takes me a day or two to enter into a sufficiently receptive frame of mind; to distance from the routine that preoccupies and consumes the day-to-day in less conducive environments – nothing at all wrong with these spots, just a little difficult to extricate for less material concerns. The metaphor that floated up through my runner’s consciousness this morning was that of a flower’s gradual opening. (Well, I suppose technically that’s a simile – but only Marcus B and a few English profs would quibble over that one.) I arrive a tightly closed little pod, insulated from but also largely unaware of my surround. With opportunity to reflect in the presence of others similarly engaged, the petals start to unfold, first to the external beauties around me, then to dreams (like many I tend to see myself as ‘not dreaming’; when it’s more likely that I simply don’t take the time to attend), and finally to deeper connections, awarenesses, understandings. I suppose I could do this at Yonge and Bloor – but I not likely would. And so you might begin to see why the annual trek to this pretty little university town (in case one forgets, there are ample reminders that the Jayhawks took the NCAA basketball championship this year) on the banks of the Kaw River to sit with a group of now quite old, but ever so vital cronies – who have never shied away from making themselves and their truths available for all to consider, as they patiently and supportively listen to your’s.

This year’s trip is tinged with the sadness and uncertainty that must always accompany a transition, indeed a closing – especially one that will be hard pressed to find equal; and certainly never be replaced. The ten of us in attendance for this final act are some of the old guard, drawn from all corners of the US, from Florida to Texas to Virginia; with Rick and I the ‘Canadian reps’ – although our numbers could easily have been tripled if all who’d wished to come could have been accommodated. We sit around the group circle, ‘old style’ – pillows on the floor (no mean trick for a group with an average age of somewhere in the low 60’s). All bound by a few simple rules: tell one’s truth (or as much of it as feels safe); remain present; and above all, ‘trust the process’. This last bit, cryptic and succinct as it may seem, to my mind is the essence of personal and ultimately spiritual growth. It presumes a community that may be relied upon to place each other’s respective interests in a non-judgmental, supportive, receptive, and respectful light. It presumes a set of expectations that does not include ‘getting answers’ – only being granted a full opportunity to ask one’s questions, a forum to be fully heard (not judged, corrected, or advised). And it presumes that speaking aloud one’s dilemmas and enthusiasms, regrets and successes, witnessed in such a community, will advance and clarify, will provide direction, and, most importantly, be listened to – a rare occurrence in today’s world where many speak and few hear. I have found these elements to be in such short supply and indeed are so poorly understood by most conventional ‘communities’ that a 1600 km. ‘field trip’ once a year has been a small price to pay.

Neither is talk the only medium. Equally important is the silence. If I may appropriate: ‘Be still and know . . ; be still; be’ is something of a maxim easily adopted by this group. Morning sessions open with ten minutes of meditation – an opportunity to ‘stretch time’, slow down, in many ways honoring the Sabbath. And reflection is not limited to the group floor; morning runs along a stunningly beautiful levy, constructed against a not always so placid Kaw, offer the opportunity to the individual to open, to raise awareness, to see things more clearly, to find some gem that sets up the day, enriched – and not always solemn, without a twinkle. Yesterday, two foxes running along the path ahead of me; today a sign proclaiming the annual fund-raiser for breast cancer: “Bras Across the Kaw” – and stretching out before me, linked ‘hand in hand’ as it were and spanning the significant width of the river bridge were 408 bras. (Now I wouldn’t want one to presume that I was ‘running’ so slowly as to allow for such a careful count. I merely tallied the cups – and divided by 2!) Consciousness may be raised in any number of ways – and I daresay this display does get peoples’ attention.

As expected, the sub-text, the ‘elephant in the room’ of this final group is a sense of loss, dislocation, anxiety around ‘where to from here’ – as we say our goodbyes to a group of friends, to a community that has, without exaggeration, been the touchstone, the anchor, the home that this incredibly diverse group of sometime strangers has come to rely upon for all of the above gifts. Equally evident, and somewhat less expectedly is a profound sense of gratitude for having had the opportunity to live in community, separated by thousands of kilometers and time – but bound nonetheless.

Spirituality is indeed where you find it. But you have to look.
David Howard

Thursday, October 9, 2008

Of Bullwinkle, Borg and Bardolph

News flash: Marcus Borg’s mentor revealed! Left to muse idly, mid-adult study group last Tuesday evening, I was struck by the eerie parallels between Dr. Borg’s scholarly re-visitation of the Bible (Reading the Bible Again for the First Time) and a long-dusty favorite of mine, Mr. Peabody’s Improbable History. For those readers over fifty, this may twig flashbacks to those Saturday morning beauties, the precursors to ‘adult cartoons’, long scooping the Simpsons and South Park: Dudley Do-right, Rocky and Bullwinkle, and of course, Mr. Peabody and Sherman.

Borg’s contention – and probably the most significant point of suasion fostering my return from the wilderness – is that the Bible is an ‘historical – metaphorical’ document. Loosely interpreted, he (and many others of us) would opt to have these manuscripts read as quasi-historical accounts (on one level) and carefully crafted messages with a meaning (on another). Most adamantly, the Book is not intended to be experienced in any literal way. Hence the fundamentalist’s reactivity to his writings.

Epiphany had (the aforesaid parallel), a bit of buffing up on Marcus’ cartoon doppelganger (thanks to Andy’s Anachronisms, if you’re interested) confirmed what I’d suspected: Mr. Peabody and Dr. Borg are one in the same. In both cartoon and academic versions, our commonly accepted accounts of history, while ‘objectively accurate’, are shown to have been in great peril of turning out otherwise – without the intervention of some Johnny-come-lately’s (in one case Peabody and Sherman; in the other, some script writers penning the various Gospels).

To prevent the myopic William Tell from splitting son’s head instead of apple, Peabody inserts a magnet in said fruit attracting the (lethal) arrow, and ta-da, history is preserved (along with son’s skull). Matthew trots out Isaiah 7:14, “Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign: The virgin will be with child and will give birth to a son, and will call him Immanuel”, and presto, Mary’s a virgin. True – I wonder? With truth and meaning – probably. To quote Mr. Andy: “Peabody and Sherman would discover that the reality of the past was not what the history books had made it out to be . . . and take it upon themselves to . . . set things right (ed note: and here’s the kicker) to keep history on the right track”.

With Tuesday’s session focusing on both a metaphorical as well as an historical appraisal of text, a task became reading various passages ‘for their deeper meaning’. Again Peabody anticipates: no episode would be complete without the sage puppy’s (always ostensibly for the studious Sherman’s benefit) pronouncement of the importance behind the ‘historical’ event, inevitably framed as a pun. (In Tell’s episode, Peabody notes that history has honored the poorly sighted dad by christening an ophthalmological disorder after him: television.) How close is this to Borg’s plea for a more lyrical, less literal meaning behind and supplementing the historic!

OK, OK, it’s a stretch – but it got me through Tuesday.

With tongue slightly removed from cheek, a second awareness for me flowed from Borg’s commentary on the ways in which parables are received – even by our fundamentalist brethren. No one reads these so-oft cited stories as literal truth. They’re seen as allegorical references, teaching points, metaphors. We sit in our lovely theatres in Stratford, engrossed in Hamlet, watching ‘the Mousetrap’ – a play within a play, designed to ‘catch the conscience of the king’. No one argues for an instant that this contrivance, orchestrated and manipulated by Hamlet to ‘make his point’ to the guilty Claudius, is ‘true’. Neither, however, do we, as members of the audience, removed not only from Hamlet’s little drama, but also the larger play staged before us – and despite having read of the ‘historical origins’ of the tragedy – see the Shakespearean production, its ‘container’ as ‘true’. This is entertainment; this is someone’s fictional account (based loosely on historic events) designed to make a point, to comment on cultural truths, to foster our self-examination, and on and on. But it is not ‘true’; it is not history.

Why then is it so easy to look at Good Samaritans, Mustard Seeds, or Prodigal Sons and see them as fables with a moral, metaphors for our edification. And yet so difficult to look at the Biblical text that contains these stories (the gospel writers’ accounts / playwrights’ drama) as something other than historic, literal ‘fact’. How different is the task and the product of a man, some eighty years removed from an event and its players (as was Matthew), writing, recalling, researching and with an agenda from that talented Elizabethan attempting to prick our consciences, proscribing and pronouncing in his own time. Perhaps we need to consider the parallels here as well: parables to plays-within-plays; Biblical ‘casts’ to actors on a stage, speaking lines pregnant with meaning; and always we, the audience, observers of the play and seekers of the deeper truth these stories (at both levels) carry.

Postscript: The ever-vigilant webscribe, in search of picture to accompany this piece, provides a bit of support for the ‘stretch’ of linking Peabody and things ecclesiastic: cf. (
David Howard

Saturday, October 4, 2008

What I Did On My Summer Vacation

For the past several years, the first ten days in August has found me in England; as a choir groupie. I’ve had the good fortune to explore Winchester, Salisbury, Gloucester and, this year, Truro with the Cathedral Singers of Ontario. The choir’s focus is to sing daily evensong at an English cathedral for a week. Being in situ for a week gives one a good sense of the ethos of a community.

The choir has an axiom: The first cathedral that you visit is the one with which you will be most smitten. So, with a small amount of coercion, I convinced my pair of travel companions that we should make a brief stopover in Winchester en route to Truro. The sun was brilliant, the air warm, the gardens still beautiful, the refectory welcoming and the cathedral, well...yep, still in love with Winchester.

Using our onboard GPS (with newly purchased European maps uploaded prior to departure), we hustle down to Truro. I am excited about the opportunity to explore Truro and the surrounding areas’ gardens in this glorious weather!

By midweek, it was becoming obvious that venturing out without one’s umbrella and a rain jacket was plumb silly. By week’s end, I was convinced that moss was starting to grow on me; not because I was slow-moving, I was just always damp.

I had decided prior to the tour that I would attempt to attend the daily 8 a.m. Eucharist at the cathedral, along with the daily evensong. And, when the tour moved onto Buckfast Abbey, a Benedictine monastery in Devon, I had also decided to attend as many of the hours of the daily office as time would permit.

The morning services at the cathedral were held in a different chapel each day. They were sparsely attended. There were two officiants. The morning service was a most peaceful, intimate way to start the day. The evensong, with gowned choir, elegant music accompanied by organ, and the beauty of the quire, was an exuberant and compelling end for the day. Meaningful bookends for the day were created by these services.

At Buckfast Abbey, the daily office consists of Vigils at 5:45 a.m., Lauds at 6:45 a.m., Eucharist at 8 a.m., Midday prayer at 1 p.m., 6:30 p.m. Vespers and finally Compline at 8:40 p.m.

I have to admit that, at that very first Vigils service, I wondered what was I doing there. I couldn’t discern what the barely-awake monks were saying, I could barely see them in the shallowly-lit quire and I had no idea when I should kneel, stand or otherwise. Not very many people sing well at that time of day; so we weren’t there for beautiful music either.

Nevertheless, I carried on with my personal commitment to attendance. By Compline, I was physically tired but absolutely smitten with Buckfast. I entered the darkened sanctuary for the last time of the day. It was easy to surrender my body to the pew and my mind to the quietness, because of the fatigue. The service was performed in darkness except for two candles in the quire. Again, I had no idea about the liturgy; I knew however that it was a very mystical experience for me. At the end, out of our pews we filed towards the Lady Chapel, following the monks. In the brilliantly-lit chapel, the monks sang a Marian antiphon, Salve Regina. Leaving in silence, Day 1 of honouring the daily office was complete; the sights and sounds of the day were whirling in my head in a confused but satisfying dance.

The bells signalled the call to each service. The next day found me frequently galloping to chapel, caught up in the busyness of being a tourist. Catching my breath, I found myself being thankful for the break from the secular. It felt centering and calming to stop the day to reflect on my relationship with God.

Back in Canada, shortly after our return, we ventured into Toronto and attended a Vespers service at the Oratory of St Philip Neri . Located on King St. West, it stands on a corner in a rough-around-the-edges section. We carefully put things away in our car; even more carefully tried to decipher the parking signage and made our way to the church.

Unlike Truro Cathedral or Buckfast Abbey, the interior of the oratory is bathed in light, even in late-summer, late-afternoon. The sanctuary is quietly filling with worshippers. The most diverse collection of parishioners that I’ve seen gathered anywhere. Caucasians, Asians, Afro-Americans, well-heeled, down-on-the-heels...just being in such a gathering was inspiration enough.

The Oratory prides itself on its liturgy (Latin Catholic) and its music (paid singers and glorious repertoire). The choreography is precise, even before the service starts. Priests and seminarians carefully prepare the chancel with well-rehearsed movement, all appearing calculated but in a reverential way.

The service has no English, no carefully worded worship guide and no direction from the officiants. Yet, everyone in the pews seems to know exactly where to go in the pew books or what to do. For us, it wasn’t a problem-we simply peered over the pew in front of us, or sat and knelt with the regulars or sometimes we did nothing...simply absorbed by the liturgy. It didn’t matter: it wasn’t a test. As we re-entered the Toronto streetscape, somehow, everything seemed softer, softened.

And then, this Wednesday morning, in the St James’ chapel, the mid-week Eucharist; Malcolm Wilson is presiding. Malcolm treats every aspect of this service with a joy, a gentleness and an appreciation, that causes simple gestures to become graceful but not contrived; words are spoken as if they were wee, tiny babes-to be carefully and gently cradled. At several points, he is required to kneel at the altar. I always watch this gesture with deepest respect: when Malcolm’s knees hit the floor, their thud is a clear ‘Amen’. I’m not sure what I feel most blessed by with his closing benediction: his smile or his beautiful expression of the words. Needless to say, by the time I walk through the chapel doors and into the waiting world, I feel as though I have been in the mystery and mystic space that liturgy can create.

So what?

For me, I had my summer vacation confirm for me, once again, a few things. One: that regular worship is worth making space for. And by regular worship, I mean more than Sunday worship. The cathedral, abbey and oratory that I visited all have daily services. The liturgy is not re-invented for each service; it follows century-old order. There doesn’t have to be a Eucharist at every service; there doesn’t have to be singing. Truth be told, there doesn’t have to be anything, really, just access to the space and quiet contemplative time.

It also reminded me that we spend so much time following the worship guide, caught up in the page that we should be on, that perhaps, we lose sight of the fact that what matters more is not where the page is but where the heart and mind are in the liturgy. It’s not a test. For me, the lack of a worship guide, is maybe a good thing...I can’t be distracted by it.

What I did on my summer vacation was to spend a fair amount of time mindfully exploring how we worship. The more that I did, the more satisfied, calm and peaceful I felt. In my mind’s eye, I can see early morning Eucharist in the Jesus Chapel in Truro Cathedral, I can hear the monks chanting in Buckfast Abbey; I can see the young priest setting the altar in the Oratory and I can hear Malcolm’s knees thump the floor: Soli Deo Gloria.
The Web Scribe