Tuesday, April 08, 2008

Slacker Priest

I feel like a slacker. This past Sunday I was not out-of-town, not contagious, well enough to stand up through the service, and didn't hold a public Eucharist service. Not only that, I won't be holding one for a couple of months.

To put this into context, I've served the SLC parish in increasing capacities since 1995. Serving at most services before moving to California in 1998. Even while living in California, I flew back to serve at high holy days, such as Epiphany and Holy Week. Upon returning to the area in 2001, I celebrated vespers and Sophia services, occasionally filling in for the parish priest by holding other services on Sundays. After ordination to the priesthood in 2002, I frequently served as celebrant. Since being designated as pastor in early 2006, I've offered services every Sunday that I've been physically able, with additional services offered throughout the year. I even held Sunday services while I was remodeling another part of the house to provide dedicated space for a chapel.

None of this is easy. It is work, but it is good and often fulfilling work. In spite of what some assume, I don't any make money doing this, despite help from donations it still costs money. Such costs do not include time and effort, nor the health consequences of living in poverty. Additionally, spiritual service requires a great deal of time and effort to be spent on inner work and development, with an unwavering commitment to continual self-transformation. If one wants to take a selfish point of view, I do this because the services, particularly the mystery of the Eucharist, are the core of my own spiritual practice and are of invaluable benefit to me personally, it is also my vocation, a realization of my own authenticity. It is certainly not without its benefits, they just aren't monetary or material.

There are different reasons for taking a break. One of the reasons is the difficulty in trying to get work done on the chapel, the stairs, and a separate chapel entrance, while having them ready each Sunday for services. For example, oil based paint takes days to dry and needs to be allowed to air out. Also, my recent illness has caused me to fall behind on other work, most notably school-related work. Not spending a good deal of Saturdays and most of Sundays involved with preparations and services will actually help.

However, aside from practical concerns I need some time to re-evaluate and regroup. Things looked very grim last December as far as mortality is concerned. Not only have I largely recovered, but what little that was determined by tests is that an unrelated condition isn't life-threatening either. So, not only have my horizons broadened beyond the next few months, but also beyond the next few years. When you do not seem likely to die in short order, sustainability becomes much more important.

In regards to ministry, after thirteen years it is safe to say that there is little interest locally in participation in the group spiritual practice of the Mysteries. While I certainly won't be giving such a valuable practice up due to external factors, it does mean re-considering how much effort to put into publicly providing these locally. Having a separate entrance and a remodeled stairway for the current basement chapel space is the most effort it makes sense to put into this aspect. Unless things change radically, building a chapel on the land that is available will not happen.

In academics, my own graduate studies have turned out to be much more rewarding and in tune with the Gnostic tradition than I ever imagined. There is so much to be excited about as a scholar, practitioner, and educator. The excitement of research runs the spectrum of my many interests of which I'll list what comes to mind: consciousness, spirituality, knowing, Gnosis, Gnostic practice and origins, Gnostic studies, psycho-spiritual development, mysticism, wisdom, transformational practices, spiritual exercises/practices, interrelations between philosophy and Gnosticism, philosophical origins and practices, Christian origins, ego development and transcendence, education and theories of knowledge, meta-cognitive systems and knowledge, nature of the ego and its transformations, comparative participatory studies of advanced spiritual practice, and on and on. For example, my research so far in psycho-spiritual development has already been invaluable for my own development, and I have a passion for sharing this insight, and many related research questions. Currently, I'm tackling a monograph on Gnosis in ancient and modern contexts, and developing a new theory of ego transformation, with a wide range of somewhat less intense research involved in developing programs and course curricula. Again, hard work, yet both good and fulfilling work.

The research relates back to providing liturgical services since such practices are integral to personal growth and transformation. Yet, even as I have accumulated research on the many benefits of spiritual practice, most of the seats in the chapel have remained empty. It may be possible to more effectively communicate the many benefits, and there is some hope of overcoming the prejudice against the Western forms of spiritual practice. Yet, the fundamental issue remains, spiritual practice is work: it takes time, patience, growth, commitment, engagement, etc. If people really were flocking to Eastern forms of practice locally, in a serious and committed way, then education on Western forms might work. But the problem seems more fundamental than that of form.

Another area of consideration that has grown more pressing with the lengthening of potential life-span, is the issue of making a living. Sure, I'd love to be able to not charge for my work: to offer courses, writing, counseling, and religious services without ever needing to even re-coup my own costs—but there is no trust fund nor expense account with my name on them. People are somehow able to assume that because you are dedicated to spiritual service that you don't need food and shelter, let alone access to scholarly books and articles, or the means of service such as indoor space, communications technology, and organizational structures. Yet it is very simple, in order to serve, you need the resources with which to serve—this includes your own life and health. As recent illness has demonstrated yet again, without one's own well-being, the rest isn't possible.

In this world we must work within limitations: limited time, effort, and lifespan in the best of circumstances, the factors that limit those better circumstances, and also limited resources in the sense of resources not existing (unless brought into being), or of limited access and ability. If it is a matter of access, the limitation can generally be summed up as money. In the case of ability, there are individual limitations such as skill, education, cognitive ability, integrated experience, and level of development; as well as, social limitations such as what can be shared with others, what can be collaborated on in a community co-practitioners, and issues of simply being allowed to work without outside hindrance.

So, a brief hiatus with few if any answers and many many questions to ponder. I don't know how much time I'll have to share the process here. The more long-term and serious work I engage in, the less time I have for things that may be useful for me to share and useful to the few who are interested, yet don't aid in sustainability. I'll keep working but more of it will be longer-term and not freely available. Yet, I'll keep posting when I can.

Tuesday, April 01, 2008

Questions Make Heretics ...Yet Again

It was true when (pseudo)Tertulian wrote it, and is still true today, questions make heretics. If you want to look at the real differences beyond issues of identity and doctrine between those considered "heretics" and those considered "orthodox" in any social grouping, not just religion, see who is asking the pertinent fundamental questions and who is trying to shut them up. And, yes, there are both stupid questions and pointless questions, in addition to many varieties of verbalizations in question form that are not really questions.

It is not formulating statements with question marks, but a fundamental and general attitude of inquiry unsatisfied with dismissive answers that is always the real heresy. Answers are much more comfortable, even "wrong" answers, there are no surprises, no open possibilities. To say that people in general, and the powers-that-be in particular, don't like questions is a truly subterranean understatement.

Even most people who identify with ancient movements declared heretical, such as Gnosticism, don't care for questions beyond the "how can I join your group?" or, "where can I buy your book?" variety. Sadly, common questions in academia such as, "how did you come to that conclusion?" and, "why don't you consider this alternative conclusion?" are somehow greeted as personal attacks by many people, and result in long-held animosities.

With this fear of questions, is it any wonder that those trying to dismiss the questioners do so by creating answers for them? What better way to avoid the questions, than by disputing a straw-man created from made up answers? This is species of the fallacy I've called assuming the argument (see this article), which is attributing an entire argument to someone without basis for doing so. For example, someone asks a question such as, “how did you come to that conclusion?” Rather than taking it at face value and answering the question, the respondent assumes that an argument is being made against the conclusion and attacks the imaginary argument. This type of interaction has become so common that answering questions directly or asking clarifying questions to see if an argument is intended, are now the exception.

What brought on this meditation is the forced resignation of Bible teacher Kent Dobson. Dobson was fired for hosting a documentary where his role was to literally pose questions in interviews with experts. He didn't state any conclusions himself. This doesn't seem to be because he was restraining himself, keeping his mouth shut to protect his job, but that the questions interested him because he didn't have answers and wasn't satisfied with dismissive ones either. There don't seem to be any “heretical” beliefs lurking beneath the surface, nor any reason to assume that there are. Yet, questions make heretics in the eyes of the school board, and Dobson is out of a job. I wish him well as a fellow questioner.

Teacher Ousted for Hosting Documentary