FAMILIARITY WITHOUT CONTEMPT
More than most parsons I am a nomad, a wanderer, a rootless, homeless person. Born into a country Staffordshire vicarage, I grew into consciousness in another. Then three and a half years in a wind-battered, wooden-walled South Atlantic vicarage. Then a pebble-dash Derbyshire suburban home. Then an African Mission Station house and boarding schools. Then a tumble-down farm house followed by a new house on a new Mission Station built by my father. Then a suburban Rhodesian rectory. Then digs in Chiswick, a bed-sitter in South Kensington, a cottage in Chelsea. Then a spartan room in a theological college. Then a flat in the heart of a pulsating African city. Then an African country town rectory. Then a glorious St Helenian vicarage. Then a flat in Bournemouth, a pre-fab house in Ararat, a rectory in Skipton, a rectory in Ararat.
"A wandering Aramaean was my father," recited the ancient Hebrews. Well, a wandering Neaum was mine. A bald, outspoken country parson if ever there was one. Twice the man and priest that I am.
Perhaps because of this rootlessness I love geographic strangeness and novelty. Familiarity bores me. All my life I seem to have revelled in strange places, strange gardens, houses, and rooms. Above all, I think, in strange churches, in strange sanctuaries, strange vestries, strange sacristies. There is something marvellous to me in the smell and strangeness of a church sacristy or vestry that I don't know. Robes hanging here, candlesticks standing there, tongs, charcoal blocks, little prayers for priests on the walls, crucifixes, uneconomical corners filled with sanctuary bric a brac, the smell of the paraphernalia of worship. And what pleasure too in exploring a dark medieval church or cathedral, with little chapels, mysterious doors and stairwells, dark corners, mysteries everywhere.
Lose Your Heart to the Strange
And so, of course, wrap up the liturgy in 17th century English or Latin. Push the priest and servers up to the far distant east end, etherealise them in clouds of incense and candlelight, enfold them and lose them in 16th century polyphony. Genuflect, lose your heart, to the strange, the unfamiliar, the mysterious, the other, the unknown, God the transcendent, to whom be praise, glory and worship forever.
But become a parish priest and all that is gone. The cloud of incense is pierced for you are at the centre of it. Sixteenth century polyphony is unravelled, sacred vessels, vestments, every corner of the sanctuary, every word, every gesture of the divine liturgy becomes known, familiar, commonplace. Instead of mystery in the uneconomical corners of the sacristy you see only cobwebs. Instead of order and beauty in the serving, you see only faults. It is the curse of familiarity. Familiarity with the paraphernalia of worship, familiarity with the buildings of worship, familiarity with the liturgy, with the people who worship, with prayer, with God. All becomes hum drum, hum drum, hum drum. The excitement of strangeness is gone.
And so, perhaps: Move on Father, move on.... Be a nomad. Remain hooked on the strange and on change, on the unfamiliar. Flit from church to church, parish to parish, new liturgy to new liturgy, new fashion to new fashion, new gimmick to new gimmick. Be hooked on change, on the new. Mistake it for God, and dump, for that god's sake, the hum drum. Be like the liberated 20th century man who moves from compliant partner to compliant partner and then from spouse to spouse in divorce, because excitement cannot be found in the boringly familiar. It is strangeness that turns you on. And yet the whole purpose and goal of spirituality and religion is, in a sense, familiarity. To know God. To see God face to face. To pierce the veil and gaze in love upon the lineaments of his countenance. Familiarity is of the very essence of sanctity. Hence, perhaps, the outrage among the faithful at the unfamiliarity of new liturgies. Familiarity is of the essence. And parish priests above all need to remember this.
Familiarity with the paraphernalia of worship, with forms of prayer, with liturgy, sacred vessels, the sanctuary, with the consecrated host, day by day lying there so white, quiet and unremarkable on its paten on the altar. Familiarity with the consecrated wine, day by day so still, heavy and reflective gathered in the golden hollow of the chalice. Familiarity with the things of God, with the people of God, with their foibles, idiosyncrasies, weaknesses and strengths. This unavoidable, inevitable familiarity must never be allowed to breed contempt, it has to be embraced, welcomed and taken as a sweet and lovely parallel, a sign, a pointer to the delights of familiarity with God himself.
Clamour for change in the Church can be heroic and courageous. It can too be ennui, boredom. Boredom with what is, an inability to cope with and appreciate the cloud of strangeness pierced, the veil of otherness lifted. In an inability to embrace God in the familiar. When such it is not of the Spirit.
How does a priest learn to delight in his inevitable familiarity with the holy? The answer for me, inveterate nomad that I am, is unoriginal and old fashioned, but effective. It lies in the chapel before the daily office and Eucharist. There, day in, day out, I attempt converse with God, attempt to grow into a familiarity with him in private prayer, to parallel and complement the required and inevitable familiarity of public prayer. And as a part of that private prayer there has to be, for me, I find, a systematic and disciplined thanking of God for what is. For the circumstances of my life. Thank you for wife, children, home. Thank you for friends, relatives, acquaintances, for vocation. Ruminative gratitude that dwells upon and lingers over the gift given. Gratitude above all for parishioners, each and everyone of them, especially those who oppose my every proposal for change, for they, in loving what is familiar and ordinary to them, may well be closer to the heart of Mystery than I.
Andrew Neaum 1995