Review: Remaining faithful to fragile gifts

Cardinal Pietro Parolin, Vatican secretary of state, celebrates a Mass for peace for the Korean peninsula in St. Peter's Basilica at the Vatican Oct. 17.  (CNS photo/Paul Haring) 

There is a passage of exceptional courage in the decree issued by the most recent General Congregation of the Society of Jesus. “The question that confronts the Society today,” the delegates wrote, “is why the Exercises do not change us as deeply as we would hope.” Why, in other words, does the holiest practice the Jesuits have to offer, the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius, fail to fully convert even its own members to Christ?

The Dangers of Christian Practiceby Lauren F. Winner

Yale University Press, 240p $28 

The question itself is all too familiar. Regardless of our tradition, we know well that gap, that black hole that stretches between what we hope our holiest religious practices will produce in us and what they do in fact produce. The Exercises, for example, aim to make us into persons moved by mortified, magnanimous desires; into women and men who are moved by the Spirit and are able to, in freedom, “upon Christ throw all away.” But all of us who have made them are well aware that even afterward we miss the mark.

In her beautifully written new book, the Episcopal priest and Duke University professor Lauren Winner trains her attention on this same gap, albeit from another perspective. Instead of asking about our personal incapacity—what Augustine called our “concupiscence”—in The Dangers of Christian Practice Winner shows that even our holiest religious practices create characteristic distortions. Our most prized Christian practices, like the Eucharist or baptism, she insists, must be understood not only in terms of the goods at which they aim, or their sad failure to produce those goods; they must also be understood in terms of the way they are “characteristically damaged.” Damaged, that is, not by external influences but in “ways having to do with the practice itself.” Her attention is trained, in other words, upon the ways that the very things that we humans have built to help us turn our recalcitrant hearts back to God are deformed and, as a result, deform we who engage in them.

Lauren Winner argues that our most prized Christian practices, like the Eucharist or baptism, must be understood not only in terms of the goods at which they aim but also in terms of the way they are “characteristically damaged.”

Take, as Winner does, the prayers for patience and restraint made by Keziah Brevard, a slave-owning woman in 19th-century South Carolina. A proper account of the practice of prayer, Winner argues, must not only account for St. Ignatius’ “Suscipe” prayer but also for Brevard’s prayers that her slaves will be obedient and that she will have “better feelings” toward them. That such prayers exist, prayers that ask God to reconcile her to the irreconcilable situation of being a slave owner, show that prayer is not a pristine practice but a damaged one. Even more, it shows that this damage emerges not because of some malicious external influence but because of what prayer itself is—because it requires the one praying to share with God her desires, malformed though those desires may be.

The characteristic deformation of prayer, in other words, lies in the fact that we human beings are continually forgetting to ask whether the things we want are the things we ought to want. Keziah Brevard ought not to want to be reconciled to being a slave owner, and yet that is the thing for which she prays.

This attention to the way practices themselves, not just their practitioners, are damaged is particularly important because, over the past few decades, postliberal theologians have attempted to turn away from thin definitions of religion—religion as a set of beliefs or a structure of meaning, for example—and toward the thicker category of religious practice. Taking their cue from Alasdair MacIntyre (or Duke’s own Stanley Hauerwas), they have proposed that it is not beliefs but practices (or liturgies, or collective rituals) that compose the body of the church. This has been an important argument because it is these practices, the theologians contend, that give the church the resources it needs to resist the ideologies of nationalism, militarism, or moralistic therapeutic deism that attempt to infect the body of Christ. It is Winner’s contention that such postliberal theologians have, however, painted too rosy a picture of Christian practices, and in so doing have failed to acknowledge the ways that the practices themselves tend to cause damage.

But perhaps such diagnoses of the intractable brokenness of human institutions and the practices that compose them seem rote these days. Certainly we know by heart the playbook of castigation and condemnation, of departure and destruction, that is run daily in these United States. (The voice in our heads repeats some version of “Why be a part of such a broken institution as X?,” where X can be our church, our political party, our civic organization, our workplace and on and on.)

Instead of denouncing the Eucharist or prayer or baptism as irredeemable, Winner aims to alert us to the pattern of predictable distortions in order to help us lessen and minimize the kind of damage they cause.

It is to Winner’s credit that she does not join this chorus. Her aim in pointing out the characteristic damage caused by Christian practices is not so that we will abandon them, but so that we might “depristinate” them—stop pretending that any of them, either guitar liturgies or ad orientem Eucharists—are pristine, somehow preserved from characteristic deformations. Instead of denouncing the Eucharist or prayer or baptism as irredeemable, Winner aims to alert us to the pattern of predictable distortions in order to help us lessen and minimize the kind of damage they cause. “An account of characteristic damage,” she writes, “can help the community be alert to the kinds of damage its hallmark practices are likely to extend.”

Provocatively, the clue Winner offers to help us pursue this task of depristination comes not from outside our Christian tradition but from within it: lament and confession. Turning again to the practice of prayer, for example, Winner raises up the Our Father as paradigmatic. There she notices that Jesus’ plea that the Father “take this cup from me”—the very words by which he gives voice to his own deep desires—is tied to another request, that “thy will be done.” Winner argues that depristinating prayer does not mean refusing to state our desires. Instead, it means both stating our desires and submitting them to the Father, whose desires are truly right and just. “Part of what we ought to bewail in confession,” she concludes, “is our inability to discern what is good for us.”

Even more fundamentally, however, Winner holds that we ought to remain faithful to the fragile practices that have been handed on to us not only for pragmatic reasons but because (although broken) they remain gifts given to us by God. In a moment of exceptional courage of her own near the close of her book, Winner asks and answers the one question that remains. “What kind of God,” she poses, “gives gifts we can’t use well? The God who gives felix’d gifts.” The one who makes all things, even broken practices, new.

By this she does not mean that, say, the horror of slavery is anything other than a horror. Instead, Winner means that it is in our practice of acknowledging, lamenting and repenting the damage our broken gifts have caused that we contribute to God’s transformation of each gift into a felix culpa, one of those happy faults by which our wounds are woven into new Exultets sung in praise at the wonder of our salvation.

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Tom Poelker
3 months ago

It is an excellent point that, "The characteristic deformation of prayer, in other words, lies in the fact that we human beings are continually forgetting to ask whether the things we want are the things we ought to want. " Similarly, we focus on doing our rituals instead of seeking the purposes of the gatherings which we have ritualized. We have so thoroughly imported our cultures into our Christianity that we can no longer distinguish the two. In the liturgy, for example, it becomes most important to do the ritual well, completely losing tract that the purpose of gathering is to built up, through community suport, the strength of individuals to live a Christian life of love in a world of competition. Our self-centered prayers miss the basic concept of opening our hearts and minds to God, to discern God's will for us, not bend God to what we think is good for us. We compartmentalize our lives, tucking religion into an assigned niche, instead having a complete change of heart and following Jesus in loving our neighbors in every phase of our lives. Nothing is just business, just politics. Everything is to be driven by the teaching of Jesus to love all, do good, avoid evil.

Donna Paulson
2 months 3 weeks ago

I love this post. Thanks for starting it. Loved the thought that was put behind writing this. I'm glad. :)

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