Sunday, February 24, 2019

2019.02.24 Epiphany Everlasting?

Once a long-lost Epiphany Collect, #8, saved my life.

Epiphany is the season of light and life. It leads us into Lent, a season that calls for self-reflection, which can be gloomy. Reflect honestly and you’re sure to discover something icky. The brightest light is Easter of course, but the more light you can attract on the way the better. Hence, the longer Epiphany lasts the better—not only for Lent-avoidance, but because more light in my winter heart reminds me that spiritual light does not start—or end— with Easter.

Few would care, but it’s amusing to eavesdrop on clergy crowing knowingly among themselves: “Hey, we have a long  Epiphany this year! We get to pray EIGHT Collects.” Who but parish clergy would think to think such a thing?

Q: But what happened to Collect #8—my lucky one?
A: Well, my child, my upstairs professor informed me, when Easter falls after April 22, which happens rarely, we get a full Epiphany season, and we pray #8. The last time we got to pray it was 2011. (Oh, how inauspicious! Poor little #8)
Q:When will #8 recur?
A: 2038. Check it out—a splendid prayer (BCP p. 216). Just because it’s rare doesn’t mean it should be neglected. Besides, you’ll be 99 and maybe in heaven by 2038.

Here begins the story of me and #8:  I was hired as a consultant for conflict resolution in a parish in which the leadership was sorely challenged by some malcontents. Chaos was spreading like a red tide into the wider community. Attempts at reconciliation had been ineffective.

Situations like this are not uncommon, but they are painful. Some people had left; some stayed to fight; others sank into anxiety and discontent. The leaders felt helpless and under attack. I was no miracle-worker but at least I had no big personal axe to grind. I listened to the principals, met separately with each, made no judgments, and soon felt as if I were sinking in quicksand, secretly losing my cool while looking cool. Only then did it occur to me to ask God for help. I had of course dutifully prayed at every meeting, but there is soul-deep prayer and token prayer. I had a great big Gethsemane-like ask: Get me outta this!

Out of nowhere, or maybe from the upstairs professor in my head, the esoteric, infrequently used #8 popped up. I thought it was no kind of answer, but then God didn’t really do exactly what Jesus asked in Gethsemane either. I wanted a brilliant self-generated solution that would please all parties and get me much kudos; I got a Collect of little note.

I copied #8, said it over and over, prayed it with my little group, by now stuck in a concrete impasse, then sent them off with the assignment to recite this prayer every single day until we met again in two weeks. Good God, how impotent I felt, but I prayed this Collect daily as if it were my last meal.

“Most loving Father [sic], whose will it is for us to give thanks for all things, to fear nothing but the loss of you, and to cast all our cares on you who care for us: Preserve us from faithless fears and worldly anxieties, that no clouds of this mortal life may hide from us the light of that love which is immortal, and which you have manifested to us in your Son Jesus Christ our Lord; who lives and reigns with you, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God now and forever. Amen.”

In two weeks we met again. I went in, fearing a mini Armageddon and my own self cast into outer darkness. The air in the room I noticed was not as stifling. I don’t know why. The complainers were as adamant as ever, but one cracked a tiny bit, as did the rector. Men close to tears? A deep honesty penetrated the icy standoff. I had no idea what would happen but sat silently with them for a bit, then announced that these meetings were over, and to go in peace. I wanted to add: “and sin no more” but tactfully refrained from doing a Jesus imitation. Everyone left. My consulting work hadn’t worked.

The “brats” continued to attend church. They contended that they were being “forced to leave”  by the rector. They sent me hostile emails to announce their eternal victimhood. The rector presided at the Eucharist as he always did. The complainants left two weeks later, never to return. I have no idea why. Rumor had it they went down the street to another church to try again. I kept on praying the Collect—a dash of necessary humility, laced with gratitude.

#8 just might have preserved us all from “faithless fears and worldly anxieties, that no clouds of this mortal life may hide from us the light of that love which is immortal”—and kept us humble.