Thursday, February 23, 2006

Life Cycle

An anglican (episcopalian) priest friend of mine once told me about an anglican nun he'd once met, one of the very last ones in Canada. I guess it's no secret: nuns are a dying breed, even in the more nun-friendly catholic church. But anglicans didn't have many to begin with.

He chatted with this woman for a while and then asked her how she felt about her order dying.

She answered that anything that is truly alive has to die some day. The death of a religious institution is just proof that it was alive. It means it has lived out its purpose in life and now must make room for other purposes. She had no regrets, no fears about it.

Her response is not what we would expect. We expect institutions to rage against the dying of the light, to do anything to stop a downward spiral. Death of a religious institution is Bad. It's a sign of failure. There's institutional panic, lots of sermons (and blogs), a mad groping for Solutions. Anything but death.

In the Faustian sense, we could instead sell our souls to become immortal. And many religions do: they give up their faith and replace it with belief and strictures and rules. They place limits on love and compassion, draw careful circles around Jesus' teachings, nail things to the floor with doctrines and books. They allow nothing to be fluid or to flow freely from the spirit; everything mystic is suspect; the past is holy, the present is defiled.

At a certain point, rigor mortis sets in. IMHO some religions are walking cadavres. But never on all levels. I suspect the Spirit has a way of working despite our institutions, rather than because of them.

But maybe there are other options than death and soul-selling. I'm willing to consider that religions could die and be reborn. We let the old, tired-out ways of the religion fall into meaninglessness, then from the ashes find something to create a new thing. It ends up keeping the same name, but it's really something entirely different.

Maybe death and rebirth can overlap - such that at any time, someone could always say "This kind of Quakerism/Christianity is dying," when really, just a part of it is -- and maybe for a good reason. Something is always dying, something else is always growing. Some people focus on the dying bits, others focus on the growing bits.

I'm thinking about what this all means for Quakerism.

8 Comments:

At 9:03 PM, Blogger Zach A said...

We talked for some time during a meeting at the Food for fire retreat about this very question -- are we right to take it as a given that Quakerism should keep existing?

I like the Faust metaphor.

Personally, I don't think we will die for a long time, but perhaps we will need to be reinvented/reborn...

Blessings,
Zach.

 
At 9:28 PM, Blogger david said...

Unless a seed fall to earth and ie it cannot bear fruit.

I like this posting. It makes me think of the little United Church I'm attending and in which Colleen sings each Sunday morning and how oh so very important it is for some there to try and save the critter when maybe the more faithful thing to do would be to start discussing end of life care.

 
At 9:15 PM, Blogger Larry said...

Years ago a big Methodist church at Winston-Salem had a terrible row: the youth ministry had proven outstandingly successful and at the weekly 'coffee house' 500 high schoolers were coming.

This was threatening to some of the old heads. They complained about beer cans being thrown onto the church lawn.

There was a crisis meeting where they tried to figure out what to do. One women said, 'this church needs to die'.
Unfortunately it didn't work out like that.

Jesus died, and look what happened.
You're absolutely right: quakerism is an institution; they come and go, but God continues to work through all of them.

We shouldn't have our first loyalty to Quakers; that's idolatry. Our first loyalty has to be to God.

 
At 12:44 AM, Anonymous Robin M. said...

I think the image of pruning is also helpful. Each year, the gardener has to cut back the dead parts that will not bear fruit again, in order that the living parts of the tree can grow strong and healthy.

 
At 1:56 PM, Blogger Joe G. said...

Robin seems to hit somehing here with her allusion to pruning. Is the plant one is concerned about dying or in need of a good pruning? There lies some discernment when it comes to a community or even organization.

My sense: we Friends are not necessarily dying in total, but in need of some good pruning here and there.

OTH, when something isn't pruned as needed this then leads to the thing's dying. Hmm.

 
At 9:44 PM, Blogger Nancy A said...

I like this pruning metaphor. But it doesn't fully account for the dying-and-rebirth phenomenon, when the religion fades away to nothing, then comes back as something completely new. When you prune a blueberry bush, it doesn't grow back as a gooseberry.

There is something of a discernment process involved in deciding whether to let this or that about a religion die, taking the chance on what new thing will sprout in its absence, or whether to prune it to keep it going.

 
At 9:11 AM, Blogger Liz Opp said...

Nice conversation here.

Nancy, you write in part:

But maybe there are other options than death and soul-selling. I'm willing to consider that religions could die and be reborn. We let the old, tired-out ways of the religion fall into meaninglessness, then from the ashes find something to create a new thing. It ends up keeping the same name, but it's really something entirely different.

Even before reading the comments, this made me think of a part of a wonderful tiny book on Quaker community and spirituality. In it is a brief description of the life cycle of a faith community, as I recall.

And it included that groups have at least 3 options as they mature:

1. to die.
2. to exist but not grow.
3. to grow and transform into its next form.

(Don't quote me on that; I don't recall the way it is put in the book.)

I also appreciate the comments about the value of pruning. And while it's true as again Nancy puts it, when we prune a blackberry bush, it doesn't come back as a gooseberry bush. But with Quakerism, by pruning away what is dead, I would hope that more Light would "grow back."

The form of the shrub is what has changed, not the Root or Seed itself.

Blessings,
Liz, The Good Raised Up

 
At 7:10 AM, Blogger Joe G. said...

Liz wrote:
The form of the shrub is what has changed, not the Root or Seed itself.

Exactly! In fact, pruning is a sort of way of cutting away the "dross" to get closer to the root of the plant so that it can grow more healthily. Thanks for that clarification.

 

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