A Surplice Tao

The Ordination of Bishop Asbury surplice

With music and dainties we may detain the passing guest. But if we open our mouths to speak of Tao he finds it tasteless and insipid
(The Sayings of Lao-Tzu)

This saying from the Tao Te Ching could be read in conjunction with the one attributed to Socrates that ‘the unexamined life is not worth living.‘ If we do so then we might conclude that most of the world’s population, distracted by dancing and chocolate, simply do not consider questions about meaning or purpose in life. That is, they live un-self-considered lives making no use of the faculty of introspection which is one of the few things which separate us from the other visible sentient creatures on this planet.

Alternatively we might suppose that the guests of Lao-Tzu, who was after all a renowned sage, were interested in the more profound philosophical questions. The problem with them was that they wanted philosophical answers with bells and whistles attached. By which I mean that they expected exciting questions to have exciting answers. Thus if the Way being enunciated is too deep to make music in the mind or to taste sweet on the palate then it is discounted as it does not satisfy the felt emotional need however adequately it meets the intellectual requirements of completeness.

Which brings us, perhaps rather surprisingly, the the recent (July 2017) decision of a Church of England Synod to abolish the requirement that celebrants wear liturgical vestments during the performance of cultic rituals. There were, no doubt, some hidden agendas at work here since the puritan wing of Anglicanism has been angling (no pun intended) for this policy since the 16th century. Nonetheless there was an ostensible reason proffered which is worth considering at face value. The UK’s Daily Telegraph quotes a vicar saying the changes would help the church by “reflecting the way society has gone in the way of informality” (an informality that extends to sentence construction seemingly, formalists would avoid two ‘ways’ so close together.)

Broadly the argument is that vestments are ‘not-normal’ and/or ‘weird’ in the eyes of young people and so create a barrier between them and the church in a way that the Christian call to crucify the self and its lusts apparently does not. These are, it must be recalled, the same young people which the CofE is constantly assured are so accepting of diversity that it must adjust its traditional teachings on sexuality and the like to be more in tune with their openness and inclusivity. We must assume then that such hypothetical young persons will gladly accept, say, a disabled transgender lesbian of Lithuanian origin unless she happens to be wearing a surplice in which case she has gone too far to be included in inclusiveness.

There is, though, a consistent thread of thought at work here. It is embodied in the word ‘traditional.’ For those who claim to speak on behalf of the young the dead past is a place which was dominated by ignorance and cruelty, the legacy it has left us is so thoroughly poisoned it must be rejected altogether. Back in the ages before diversity existed or before sex was invented (the 1960’s) or even before it was possible to call everyone who disagreed with you Hitler things were universally bad. Apart, that is, from some few visionary individuals who thought and spoke pretty much exactly as we do today. The past is something we must escape from not something we should cling to.

Lao-Tzu also said he who is enlightened by Tao seems wrapped in darkness.” To which the CofE Synod might add ‘she who is wearing a surplice is wrapped in tradition.‘ To me, however, it seems that although human history contains much that is wicked and foolish that is not all that it contains. The Tao Te Ching has wisdom, the Bhagavad Gita has wisdom the fourfold Gospel has wisdom, even St Paul has wisdom.

Such wisdoms may come from a dead past but they are not dead wisdoms. They are alive and they speak from and to the heart of the human condition. Those who think that the things of today and of tomorrow are all that matter are deeply, deeply mistaken. The music and dainties that detain them are the excitement of movement and noise and distraction. But these are not and never can be the answers to the questions which humans of every age have asked and will ask long after the internet has ceased to function (as it certainly will one day.)

To see this light we must turn our electronic devices off. To hear this wisdom we must immerse ourselves in silence. We cannot become truly informal until we have fully understood the essence and root of formality. When we discard the past we discard a part of ourselves. What we need is that wisdom, tasteless and insipid as it may appear from our perspective in the midst of the world, which is unchanging and yet always new, the same yesterday, today and forever.

thoughtfully detached has a Facebook page

My *other* blog is thoughtfully catholic

The picture is The Ordination of Bishop Asbury by Thomas Coke Ruckle


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