Tuesday, April 15, 2008

Snow on the Dome at St. Paul's Cathedral

On Sunday of our Europe trip my wife and I woke up to the surprising sight of large flakes of snow flooding the sky and caking the London street in white. For a second I thought I was back in Canada. I imagine it happens often enough in April over there but to me it felt a little eerie and/or magical, especially since this was the morning we'd be heading to St. Paul's Cathedral.

In my favourite novel the man known as Thursday is involved in a nightmarish flight from the apparently decrepit but now speedy Professor de Worms, and in that bizarre chase scene the snow begins to fall freakishly on the streets of London. Thursday stops to ponder the appearance of snow on the dome and is motivated by the sight of the ball and the cross. This morning I would have the same treat. Kind of cool if you are a Chesterton nerd like me.

Besides that little peice of literary novelty, Sunday morning at St. Paul's was a wonderful experience. My wife and I happened to make it there for the first service of the day and were pleased to be allowed to participate. We were a wee bit late, and when I saw the order of service I hoped we hadn't missed the reciting of the Apostle's Creed. I was delighted to learn we hadn't.

It was awesome to sit there in that centuries-old church and speak aloud the ancient confession of our faith in a room where the sounds of the congregation not only echoed off the awesome ceilings and artwork but also echoed through the ages. It just felt like I was a part of something timeless, worshiping and confessing faith in the same room as countless others from the past whom I admire and owe so much. Then to say the Lord's Prayer there only deepened the experience. It was a highlight of the trip.

When the Reverend got up for the homily, being a Protestant I was curious what I'd hear. There is much I have in common with the Catholics (as alluded to obviously already), but some that I dispute. I wondered what the topic would be for the day. Interestingly, he spoke about a man who had read The God Delusion and asked the church to have his baptism revoked. He talked about how in Catholic canon law there are concessions allowing for the annullment of marriage, and the revoking of a few other things I can't remember, but he said that there was no provision for the revoking of baptism. What was most interesting to me were the reasons he gave.

First of all, he said, baptism is not ours alone. As Catholics we offer the sacrament of baptism but we do so along with many other churches, from Anglicans to Methodists to Anabaptists. We don't have sole authority over it. However, he went on, even if they were the only church (and it was refreshing to hear him say they weren't), baptism still would not be theirs to revoke. Baptism belongs to God. It is not a glorious act of salvation earned by the person's strength of will or faith, it is a gift of God.

Although I don't think it is the best practice, I must admit that this is what is so powerful about baptizing infants (and as long as there is a knowing confirmation later in life I don't have a huge problem with it actually). In infant baptism the helplessness of the recipient before the grace of God is true and beautiful. Too often in Protestant circles we can get the idea that baptism is all about us and our great faith. Not so. It is about the faithfulness of God in Jesus Christ, which we align ourselves with and recieve as a gift by faith.

So this preacher reminded us that he could neither revoke this man's baptism any more than he could judge the man's place before God in time or eternity. That would be for God to know. Certainly the man could choose not to live in the ramifications of his baptism, but the church was not going to take it upon itself to take back something it thought God had given in good faith.

There are some things there I might quarrel with, but my only point here is that I was overcome with a feeling of gratefulness and awe at the magnitude of the faith story in which I am not ashamed to say I've found my place (be it ever so small). Even in one of the most historic and massive churches of our time it was proclaimed that humans are but a breath and God is the giver of life and redemption.

To participate in such a service of worship, and to lift my voice to the ceiling along with all those saints, past and present, and feel myself enfolded in that great cloud of witnesses who boast not in themselve but the grace of God---that was an experience I'll never forget.


Tony Tanti said...

Wow, great post. What a refreshing perspective.

That is really cool about the snow and the Thursday similarities. Must have been a cool moment for you.

jon said...

it was!

Tony Tanti said...

Our differing taste in movies is showing today on your sidebar. There Will Be Blood, while brilliant at times, bored me and Pan's Labrynth is one of the best I've seen in a long time. I've watched it 4 times now and I like it more each time. 3 stars? Lower than your rating of Die Hard the 4th?

jon said...

i'll admit i'm not sure yet if i'm final on my rating of pan's labyrinth. i wasn't sure what to make of it. it was so much more subtle than i expected and i think i need to watch it again. so you may see my rating of it go up in the future once i've seen it again, and reflected on it. why did you love it so much?

as for there will be blood, at first i thought it was 4 star material but as i pondered all the amazing scenes and the storytelling and acting and the power struggles and dynamics it depicted so excellently i just had to recognizae its stature as an all time great.

Matthew A. Wilkinson said...

Sounds like a great church service. I miss that. There is no secular equivalent to that kind of gorgeous ritual, sense of awe, and blatant expression of community (especially on such an international level). Or at least, nothing I've encountered so far.

If I was ever somehow persuaded back into Christianity, it would DEFINITELY be as a Catholic. In Ingmar Bergman's autobiography there is a great passage where he talks about how the bells of Catholic churches are merry, while the Protestant churches either don't have bells at all, or their music is hard and severe. That encapsulates my feelings about the two churches pretty well.


The St. Paul's snow thing... spooky :-). When I was there a few years ago Thursday and Chesterton rarely left my thoughts. That chase scene came to life in a whole new way.

Tony Tanti said...

nice comments Matt.

I hear you on There Will Be Blood Jon, it will get a recommendation from me when I get around to reviewing it, but I won't go too high with the rating due to it's slowness. Great acting though.

Pan's really impacted me. I loved the look of it and the fantasy side was so well done and subtle as you said. I also thought the war time real life side of it was good enough that it could have stood alone as a good movie. The characters were real and believable and it all came together for me in a sad but beautiful way. Loved it!

matthew a. wilkinson said...

Tony Tanti:

It's interesting to hear you call There Will Be Blood "slow." Maybe I've been watching too many Tarkovsky films lately, but I thought it was pretty fast-paced, and when the credits rolled I thought, "That was a short movie," only to find out later that it's almost 3 hours long.

For me I appreciate when a director allows me to luxuriate in a shot for a while and decide what I want to look at. I get to take in the landscape (even if the landscape is a face, or an empty room) fully. That sort of pacing forces me to be a more active participant in the film. Plus, with the remarkable cinematography of TWBB each shot was so beautiful that I was sad every time they cut to something new. One treasure after another.

Also, Daniel Plainview is such an enormous character that I think he needed an equally large canvas to play on, or else he would have burst the seams of the film. It had to be paced slowly or the fury of Day-Lewis's performance would have literally burned through the celluloid. The camera had to back way up, and the editing had to slow down just to give Plainview room to breathe.

But then, I'm a hopeless PT Anderson geek, so...

Those're my two cents.

jon said...

Great comments!

I am at the place where I totally appreciate the difference between cinema that calls you to participate and consider each frame, even as it slows down to allow you and force you do so. However, I recognize that I need to be trained to slow down and appreciate in such a way. And to enjoy it.

I think I am fully trained to want to jump from image to image and speed through a story. I like films that don't feed that impulse. But I must admit that many times I can't handle it. I can't slow down like that. Or if I do I fall asleep.

So I understand when people find such films hard to watch or sleepy, and I recognize the place for the pop film and the fast paced story. I am not always ready for a Tokyo Story. But they are so worth getting trained on and used to and more and more exposed to. It takes film to a whole 'nother level. I think it makes it something that can really impact your life.

I'm not saying pop film can't do so, but I'm not sure it does as much. I think pop film is like giving a person a fish, and this other kind of cinema teaches a person to fish (to use a tired analogy).

Appreciate these thoughts from each of you.

Regarding Catholocism and worship and so on, I hear ya Matt. I hear ya.

matthew a. wilkinson said...

My favourite quote about movies:

Film-maker Abbas Kiarostami once said (I'm paraphrasing):

"I like movies that put me to sleep in the theater, but then keep me up at night."

I too find slow-paced films heavy slogging sometimes. Absolutely.

And I do still love fast-paced pop movies. Always will. Hitchcock films for example. Or this year's '3:10 to Yuma.'

Tony Tanti said...

Matt and Jon, great points. My wife and I had this whole discussion about TWBB afterwards, basically we couldn't decide if it was epic or paced poorly. I leaned toward epic but I'd be lying if I said I wasn't bored at times.

Matt, you're right on about Plainview's character.

It's not the slow parts or long shots that bored me though. I liked a lot of the pulled back shots, in fact at times it had a 2001 feel to it though that might have just been an impression caused by the wildly out of place music at times.

The jury is still out on TWBB for me and part of my experience being mixed is likely that I didn't know what to expect from it. I like all kinds of movies, film, cinema and pop movies alike, and I might have been better prepared for TWBB if I knew what I was getting into.

No doubt Matt that you are conditioned for this type of movie though if you found it fast.