Journey across the desert

 — Jan. 25, 199725 janv. 1997

When the theologian Charles Davis left the Catholic Church shortly after the Second Vatican Council, he shocked a generation. He called it going into ‘the desert’. Thirty years later, his daughter pays tribute to what she has learned from her parents, as she has found her own way into Christian faith and practice.

Thirty years ago, my father, Charles Davis, then a secular priest and considered by many the leading Catholic theologian in Britain, publicly denounced the Roman Catholic Church as corrupt, and left. It was a move which sent shock waves around the Catholic world. At the same time he married my mother, then Florence Henderson, a long-standing member of the international Catholic lay women’s organisation, the Grail. They had become friends through their joint work in the ecumenical movement in Britain. She followed him in his decision to leave the Church and together they went into a form of exile, which my father, in different contexts, has often referred to as the desert. It was in the desert that my brother and I were born and raised.

After leaving the Church, my parents went to Canada, where my father began a distinguished academic career and my mother worked towards a master’s degree and then a doctorate in the philosophy of religion. But for many who had known, or known of, them in their previous incarnations in Britain, they were effectively wiped off the face of the earth. From the beginning, they had no intention of joining another Church. Their witness was one of protest, not of defection. Their desire was to find a way to live as Christians outside the domination and corruption of out-of-date institutional structures.

The crisis of how to conduct this new Christian life, however, did not come into sharp focus until they began to consider how to raise my brother and me as Christians — within the faith but outside the institution. In their leap of faith, my parents knew far more about what they were leaving than about where that leaving would take them. The result was, at first, a fragmented and chaotic approach which only gradually began to show signs of a new pattern.

My parents are about to celebrate their thirtieth wedding anniversary. The choices which led them to a common vocation in marriage affected the lives of many, but their decision has in a particular way shaped the character of my life, not simply as a product of their union, but as a Christian and a participant in the vision of a new Church to which they have borne witness, and which I also have come to share.

As my parents mark this milestone in their married lives, I would like to offer in love and gratitude a picture of this witness as I have lived and understood it. We never belonged in any normal sense to a parish and I never considered going to church on Sunday to be the central activity of the Christian faith. Our religious observances were plural, diverse and ecumenical.

For most of my life at home, we belonged to some form of house church. This did not necessarily involve the Eucharist, but often did, although at a later stage without a priest. At different times we attended the Catholic chaplaincy at my father’s university, the Anglican cathedral, and an Anglican parish church. I received the Catholic sacraments of initiation — baptism and first communion from my father, first confession and confirmation through one of the Catholic schools which I attended.

But our commitment to the Christian faith was not limited to explicitly devotional activities, or to a particular sphere of life; rather, it involved faithfulness to a path which encompassed the whole of our lives and which brought with it very real and tangible consequences. Predominant among these was the ministry of hospitality. I can, without exaggeration, say that I hardly ever remember eating a meal at home which did not include someone from outside the family. Intellectuals and students, individuals suffering mental breakdown and psychotic states, the lonely, the bereaved, and the confused all ate together at our table. My grandmother also lived with us for the last ten years of her life, requiring considerable nursing care which we provided as best we could. All manner of events and celebrations took place in our house, which was a centre of uproarious and chaotic life.

This ministry, however, also brought with it a form of poverty — the poverty which comes from allowing one’s life to be deeply open to and touched by others, and the inevitable participation in the suffering of others which this openness brings. One is continually confronted with one’s own limitations and needs, and the utter inadequacy of one’s resources in relation to the task at hand. It is in this state of poverty that one cannot but become deeply and constantly aware of an absolute dependence on the mercy and love of God.

In 1986 my father was on sabbatical and we went to Jerusalem, to Tantur — an ecumenical institute for theological research set up after the Second Vatican Council. Up to this point, I had thought very little about the differences between Christians of different denominations, and had not realised the extent to which I inhabited a very Catholic world. Here, however, the majority of the institute’s inhabitants were Protestant. To my surprise, I was continually asked which Church I belonged to and was in this way forced to consider my denominational allegiance. Through our common worship at the institute, it became clear to me that I was not a Protestant. But how could I be a Catholic? Up to this point, my religious identity, so far as I consciously had one, was defined in terms of its dissent from the Catholic Church. Furthermore, in what could my Catholic identity consist?

A couple of years later, my mother and I visited the offices of the Catholic Worker in New York during the course of research for her doctorate. It was here that I began to get some answers. The Catholic Worker is a movement that was founded by Dorothy Day — a Communist journalist who became a Catholic — and Peter Maurin — a French itinerant intellectual with a radical vision of Christian hospitality. Together they began a newspaper, The Catholic Worker, which in turn spawned houses of hospitality where Christians live and work together in solidarity with the poor, without formal institutional structure or authority.

I was deeply impressed by the Worker and returned the following summer. What struck me so forcefully was the sense of freedom that pervades the work of the community, combined with an unswerving commitment to the Christian life. This freedom allows for an astonishing diversity of opinion because it does not depend on an ideological consensus, but rather on the sharing of a common way of life described in terms of the corporal works of mercy: to feed the hungry, give drink to the thirsty, clothe the naked, shelter the homeless, welcome the stranger, visit the sick and the imprisoned, ransom the captive, and bury the dead. Here was the Church that I recognised.

I suspect that, if asked, many Catholics would identify the Eucharist as the central if not defining feature of Catholic life, even if they do not find most eucharistic celebrations particularly meaningful, or even when they have ceased participating in the Eucharist altogether. The Eucharist somehow remains a sign of Catholic life. Every time we celebrate the Eucharist we tell the Christian story once again and reaffirm our role as participants in this story — the narrative of our salvation, the account of God coming into the world to save us. In the Eucharist we receive the sacrament of Christ’s body and blood. But the Eucharist also ends with the dismissal, in which we are sent forth into the world to be Christ’s body, to go in peace to love and serve the Lord. And it is in the world that the drama of our salvation is played out.

In the progression of a narrative, one step is not a repetition of the previous one, but a development. It somehow makes sense in the context of prior happenings while at the same time carrying the story forward. If we think of ourselves as participants in the Christian story, as the agents of this narrative, then this role carries with it both risk and responsibility because we do not know in advance what the outcome will be, yet at the same time the outcome depends on us.

My parents’ path involved leaving everything familiar and safe behind and going forth into a complex, uncertain and changing world to discover how to be a Christian in the present day. This pilgrimage has often been through barren land, but it has always remained a journey of openness and encounter. Leaving behind their certainties, my parents never abandoned their faith, and it is this faith that has sustained them and nurtured my brother and me and many others who have accompanied us, however briefly, along the road. Worship has indeed been central to this journey, but the form of this worship has arisen out of the pattern of our living, and has corresponded to the different communities with whom we have broken bread.

The liturgy is a sign of the Church’s life, but an exclusive concern with liturgical forms, without a corresponding concern with Christian witness in the day-to-day, sounds to me like people who have ceased to walk complaining about the decline of the dance. Our pilgrimage has included experimentation, discovery, and an engagement with contemporary forms as well as an appropriation of traditional forms and the observance of feasts and holidays of the Church’s liturgical year. Our worship has comprised all of these: the offering up of ourselves and of the fruits of our labour. Is this not in the end our task, to make this offering: This is my body, given for you? If I find myself made in the image of God — a Christian body in the body of Christ — it is because this image has been reflected to me in the lives of my parents, not in great learning or in feats of social transformation, but in an everyday faithfulness to doing the will of God, as it could be discerned, whatever the cost.

I grew up in a community dedicated to building the Kingdom. Our partners in this task have for the most part been surprising and unexpected. Faith as I have known it has not been something expressed in pious or edifying words, but simply the context and currency of daily living, mediated via the sacrament of the world itself. Just as children must leave their parents, so Christians must take upon themselves the responsibility of the Christian life. Just as a family would be considered pathological which forced its offspring to remain in a childlike role, so too will the Church remain unhealthy as long as it refuses to acknowledge the authority of its mature members.

For the first time in my life I am a member of a Catholic parish — the Dominican parish of St Albert the Great in Edinburgh. It is, I am sure, no accident that I have found a home with the Dominicans. They embody a breadth of vision, a degree of tolerance, a level of intellectual inquiry, and a democratic and decentralised structure of authority which I recognise and in which I feel accepted.

Still, there remains an overarching authority which, even if often ignored, nevertheless limits the character and extent of my participation in the Church. I have learned through many painful years on the outside, not belonging anywhere, to accept that one cannot give an uncritical allegiance to any human institution, no matter how great the desire to find a safe home in an uncertain world. The task of discerning one’s vocation is one which leads into places impossible to anticipate, not confined by parameters laid down by the Vatican or any other legislating body. There is a danger implicit here — the danger of being wrong, of falling into error, of failing. The risk of failure, however, can only be eliminated at the expense of history itself.

In June of this past year I turned 26. A few days after my birthday I went down from Edinburgh to visit my parents in Cambridge, where they are now retired. Arriving hot and breathless from the train, I found them seated at the table, which was carefully laid for a meal but had, in addition, a dish of oil and one of salt, a specially decorated candle, and a white embroidered cloth. They were, they told me, going to celebrate with me a renewal of my baptismal vows. This was not a suggestion or an offer, it was the recognition that a threshold had been reached in my life and in my relationship with them — one that we would mark together. I joined them at table. My mother at first presided and we began with the litany from the old breviary to which my father and I made response. We then proceeded into the baptismal rite.

Six years ago my father was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease, and the gradual progression of this disease which attacks all aspects of one’s motor skills has taken its toll. He now requires considerable assistance in dressing, bathing, and eating. I am always, however, at a loss when asked how he is. The question seems to bring with it the assumption that somehow his personhood is now entirely defined by this condition, whereas I can only see it as a new and mysterious aspect of his vocation. This is not to trivialise the struggle, but simply to put it within the greater context which gives it sense, and therefore which even now makes it relative to a greater task in which he still participates. When it came to the appropriate moment, my father stood, put his thumb into the dish of oil and anointed my forehead, mouth, chest, and hands. He then took the salt and placed it on my tongue. This was the second time we had participated in this rite together, but on this occasion it marked, not the initiation of a child, but the anointing of one priest by another.

Posted: Jan. 25, 1997 • Permanent link:
Categories: Opinion, TabletIn this article: Christian, Christianity, church, church reform, theology
Transmis : 25 janv. 1997 • Lien permanente :
Catégorie : Opinion, TabletDans cet article : Christian, Christianity, church, church reform, theology

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