Tuesday, April 8, 2008

Frail children of dust


I grew up singing "O Worship the King," a 200-year-old hymn written by Robert Grant, a British MP and social reformer. It includes this concise description of the post-Edenic human condition:
Frail children of dust, and feeble as frail . . .

Now, I don't think we're frail because we are dust--Adam and Eve and Jesus were dust too. Nor do I think that our frailty is limited to our dust component--fallen spirit does every bit as much damage as fallen dust. But frail we certainly are, and our feebleness is especially distressing when it shows up in church.

Like, for example, when religious leaders (not always Catholic, by the way) sexually abuse children, or when they wage their internal wars ("We're more scriptural!" "We're more loving!") in the press and courts of law, or when they fleece their followers to support their own lavish lifestyles.

Is this the church against which "the gates of hell shall not prevail" (Matthew 16:18)?

Well, yes. We're a mess, as imperfect dust-spirit creatures are bound to be, but we're not nearly as messy as we once were. Consider the state of church leadership in the tenth century:

In 904, Sergius III had his two rivals, Leo V and Christopher I, incarcerated and killed. He had come to power with the support of one of the most powerful families of Italy. This family was headed by Theophylact and his wife Theodora, whose daughter, Marozia, was Sergius' lover. Shortly after the death of Sergius, Marozia and her husband Guido of Tuscia captured the Lateran palace and made John X their prisoner, subsequently suffocating him with a pillow. After the brief pontificates of Leo VI and Stephen VII, Marozia placed on the papal throne, with the name of John XI, the son whom she had had from her union with Sergius III. Thirty years after the death of John XI, that papacy was in the hands of John XII, a grandson of Marozia. Later, her nephew became John XIII. His successor, Benedict VI, was overthrown and strangled by Crescentius, a brother of John XIII. John XIV died of either poison or starvation in the dungeon where he had been thrown by Boniface VII, who in turn was poisoned.
--Justo González, The Story of Christianity, Vol. 1: 275

One might read such horrors and conclude that religion does more harm than good. However, despots such as Stalin, Pol Pot, and Mao do not raise one's trust in atheistic benevolence. Here are some ideas I draw from our frail and feeble church:

  • The Catholic reform movement Call to Action is right in emphasizing that "we are the church, the people of God." We are not defined by our leaders. Jesus said our leaders are our servants, not our lords (see Mark 10:42-45).
  • At the same time, we must keep in mind that we too are feeble and frail. "Not the preacher, not the deacon, but it's me, O Lord / Standin' in the need of prayer."
  • People who want an authoritative church to decide, legislate, direct, and control should read more history.
  • People who think John-Paul II and Benedict XVI are going to destroy the church should read more history.
  • Justo Gonz├ílez's two-volume set, The Story of Christianity, is a good place to start.
Robert Grant does not leave his frail dusty hymn singers quivering under the bed. His next line puts the emphasis where it should be, especially when the messy church threatens to block our view of the horizon:
In Thee do we trust, nor find Thee to fail.


1 comment:

Isaac said...

I read your blog and I whole heartedly agree. With the last bit we as mortal dust beings do seek some one to guide us and that is not in and of itself a bad thing but we often forget that our leaders need someone to follow as well.

Also about that song another part I like is the imagery of the "... whose robes are the light, and canopy space... his chariots of wrath the deep thunder clouds form and dark is his path on the wings of the storm.

I have always loved to watch the night sky and a night I am more alive then I have ever been I rejoice in the stars and there maker. but it strikes me as wonderful to think that every thing that we would not think of as alive like dirt or the mountains or even the waters of the oceans themselves is alive. the live and grow and are subject to the judgement of God as well.