Cosmos

Second Sunday of Advent

Today is the second Sunday of Advent—the second Sunday of the Christian liturgical year, and also the second Sunday of my return to the fold after three decades’ absence from church—and it felt good, once again, to put on a nice dress, walk down to Runnymede United Church in the bleary December sunlight and sit in an already familiar pew in that beautiful sanctuary.

Celebration of the second Sunday of Advent¬† revolves around the theme of Peace, and I was quite curious to see how the Runnymede service would address this theme amid intersecting global crises, perhaps most pointedly the devastation and peril resulting this year from Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

The readings—Isaiah 11:1-10 and Matthew 3:1-12, both traditional for the second Sunday of Advent—offer meditations that not only seem a bit incongruous amid the celebratory lead-up to Christmas, they advance complex, even paradoxical notions of peace. Isaiah promises the deliverance of God’s people, Israelites and Gentiles alike, alongside a veritable litany of peaceful outcomes: wolves lying down with lambs; calves with lions; wild creatures lead by a child; etc. etc.. But the text also calls for a leader or ensign who will “smite the earth with the rod of his mouth, and with the breath of his lips shall he slay the wicked.” The passages from Matthew promise salvation through baptism, but demand repentance. Both readings bristle with urgency, evoking barren, broken, battle-scarred landscapes (not only of the soul) that must be traversed before peaceful rivers can be reached and good rootstock (the defining metaphor in both passages) nurtured. The promise of peace—a renewed Covenant; the Kingdom of Heaven; the presence of a Savior—seems very real but distant, and difficult to secure.

As a member of Generation X, who grew up simply assuming we would all be bombed to annihilation in a nuclear Armageddon, and who then saw the tremendous promise of genuine peace brought by the end of the Cold War turned rapidly to ruin, simplistic invocations of ‘peace’ strike me as profoundly empty. The notion that one can just “say no to war”—as if aggressors will then simply go away and stop their genocides—seems to require an ignorance of reality that risks becoming complicit in the very evil it purports to oppose.

I am the only churchgoer in my household because my husband, an avowed if open-minded atheist, is also the son of someone who survived the Romanian Holocaust only because her mother sent her as a five year-old, by train with a near stranger, away from Czernowitz (now called Chernivtsi and, due to movement of the border, located in Ukraine) being ‘liquidated’ of its Jews, most of whom perished in Transnistria. It didn’t matter that my husband’s relatives were well-educated, secular, German-speaking engineers, doctors, lawyers and business people: they were still marked for genocide. And if the rescue of what remained of Europe’s Jews during the latter part of the Second World War was somewhat incidental to Allied efforts to stop Hitler’s conquest of Europe, it was nonetheless the result of a belated but real understanding that “peace for our time” will invariably fail if it remains willfully blind to murderous reality.

In this morning’s service the arduous, aching, perilous effort involved in any quest for peace was underscored by the choir’s simply superb performance of the haunting, powerful anthem “Dona Nobis Pacem,” “Dona Nobis Pacem”—or ‘grant us peace’—is, at its core, a simple, heartfelt plea, a short lyric from the Agnus Dei of the traditional Latin mass, sung as a round or spoken as a call and answer (which is how I have heard it in my church-going). The arrangement the choir sang so powerfully this morning was a somewhat recent one, prepared by contemporary American composer Z. Randall Stroope. If, like me, you have a prejudice against contemporary arrangements, Stroope’s setting will blow your mind. Seriously: have a listen here. It’s simply astonishing.

Stroope’s arrangement of “Dona Nobis Pacem” was a brilliant choice for this morning’s service because it appears (I say ‘appears’ because I am terrible at discerning lyrics without a printed text in front of me) to incorporate the words from Isaiah 11: 1-10, which was, of course, one of the readings for today’s service emphasizing both the promise of peace and the grave difficulty of achieving (let alone maintaining) it.

The city of Czernowitz / Chernivtsi, from which my mother-in-law’s family was deported in 1941, currently attracts refugees fleeing the Russian invasion in eastern Ukraine. Many of the refugees are children, five or six years old, like my mother-in-law was when her mother sent her away in hopes of ensuring her survival. Many of these refugees are headed in the same direction—south, into present-day Romania, because missile strikes interrupt even the provisional peace of a city so far spared the worst of the invasion.

In this morning’s service one of the ministers invited worshippers to consider the spaces and circumstances that bring them peace, and I thought about how often, in my experience and in human affairs more broadly, peace is provisional; how sometimes it reduces to a moment of remission in the furious face of disaster. I thought about how often peace must be fought for and defended with vigilance, like space or the right to exist. I thought about peace as a kind of mercy.

I also thought, as always, about my secret garden, where even in times of sorrow I commune with the bumblebees and witness the miracle of life unfolding in flowers and fruit. In this domain, which holds itself as much as possible beyond human affairs, peace is ingrained in the relationships between living organisms and in the flows of energy throughout the vibrant cosmos.

I find peace, too, in the wind that roars in the trees, and in solitary progress through the woods, and in moiling for fossils on gravel bars, and in a kayak gliding through lilies in an oxbow lake. In these moments there is no urgency; there is no crisis; there are no demands. There is only the movement of light and shadow, the slow motion of the earth; the voice of Creation saying: listen.

In moments of peace I pray for Ukraine.

Take Me to Church

Sunday was the first Sunday of Advent—for Christians the start of the liturgical year, marking the formal beginning of the Christmas season—and so I did something I’ve meant to do for a very long time: I went to church.

I was raised in a faith community—the United Church of Canada, in which I was christened as a young child and confirmed at the age of 14—and grew up going to Sunday school, singing in the choir, and doing community volunteer work as part of the church. For many years my family’s life revolved around the churches we attended—first Riverdale United Church in Toronto’s Leslieville neighbourhood and, later, Pickering Village United Church in Ajax Ontario.

Riverdale United Church, at least from 1976-1981 when we lived nearby and attended regularly, was as serious about its annual theatre productions as it was about the liturgy. The church community was intelligent in its interpretation of the Gospel, lighthearted in its practice of faith, and earnest in its commitment to public service. In many ways it has remained my model of a healthy, engaged, active church. Sadly, Riverdale United Church closed in 2010 after what appears to have been a long period of slow decline as the neighbourhood changed and long-time parishioners died or moved away. In 2018 the building, whose title had been transferred to the WoodGreen community services agency, was torn down to build supportive housing for seniors. I was fortunate to receive an invitation to salvage material from the building in the days before it was demolished, and am grateful to have one of the church’s stained glass windows and a hymnal cabinet—both pried from the building’s studs with crowbars I’d brought across town on the streetcar—in my home.

Pickering Village United Church, which we attended from 1981 until 1988, was very suburban and, at least at the time, deeply stereotypically of various eighties excesses right down to the social cliques and rituals of conspicuous consumption. It was not a good fit for my parents, who were neither suburban nor middle class. Despite being treated as outsiders, my family contributed greatly to church activities—my father was a steward, my mother edited the church newsletter and served as choir secretary, we all sang in the choir (which was and probably still is excellent), volunteered for everything, and donated large sums of money my parents could really not afford—remaining active in the church until my father resigned us all from church membership over the at-the-time-divisive issue of gay ordination. This was a terrible pity, since my father, who had been reflexively homophobic like many of his generation, eventually came to support marriage equality because, perhaps above all, he was a romantic who believed in love. I don’t think he would, later on, have cared one whit about a minister’s sexual orientation or gender identity as long as they knew their theology and could slip a few ridiculous puns into a sermon.

As an adult I have, of course, gone to church / temple weddings and funerals and, sometimes, attended special services, but have never since belonged to a faith community. Most of the time this has seemed fine. Like my mother, I identify as a solitary Christian and have developed a deeply personal, rather unorthodox theology that remains principally Protestant in its structure but which seeks the divine (and divine revelation) in nature and natural processes—as, incidentally, do a great many deeply Christian hymns (more about one of my favourite hymns here). Since adolescence I have been agnostic about (even indifferent to) the divinity of Christ, while remaining committed to the Christian theology of sacrifice and redemption. In some quarters this would make me a heretic, but I’ve never had much patience for literalism. The God I believe in would appreciate it if humans thought more, not less, and would really like us to stop committing atrocities in His name. And along these lines, my favourite and most deeply valued para-religious texts include the anonymous fifteenth century lyric poem, “Adam lay I-bounden,” whose lines—“Ne hadde the apple take been, the apple taken been, / Ne hadde never our Lady aye been Heaven’s queen. / Blessed be the time that apple taken was, / Therefore we may singen, “Deo gracias.”—came as a revelation about knowledge and its gifts and responsibilities when I first encountered them in the good old Norton Anthology of Poetry in an undergraduate literature course; and Italian journalist Giovannino Guareschi’s book (made into a film) The Little World of Don Camillo, a series of interlinked stories in which a Catholic priest solves his village’s human problems in part by arguing with Christ on the Cross.

Sometimes, though, a solitary faith is a lonely faith and, as I’ve gotten older, I have longed to belong to a faith community. I’ve missed the rituals and fellowship and, perhaps above all, I’ve missed the hymns. Protestant hymns are, on the whole, joyful, rich in symbolism, and celebrate connections between the ordinary and the divine, and I miss hearing voices raised in song.

Photo of the Gothic Revival facade of Runnymede United Church in Toronto, Canada.
Image source: Runnymede United Church.

And so, on Sunday morning, on the first Sunday of Advent, I put on a nice dress and a good coat, and walked over to Runnymede United Church to attend my first Sunday morning service in more than three decades.

Runnymede United Church was established in 1925; the Gothic Revival building housing the congregation was completed in 1928. I’ve often admired the building while passing by—it’s right across the street from the elementary school my daughter attended for ten years, meaning that I’ve had plenty of opportunity to enjoy the architecture—and have noticed how often the building seemed abuzz with activity. In returning to worship, I have hoped to find a faith community neither too cliquey nor obviously in the process of dying out, and Runnymede seemed neither of these things. About a year ago I subscribed to the church’s email list, and was pleased to see a balance of traditional and contemporary interests represented in its regular communications. Because my church-going experiences are mainly from the 1970s and 1980s, I was hoping to find a church in which traditional elements of the liturgy had not entirely been discarded and, being quite familiar with the United Church’s longstanding practice of trying to be all things to all people (a thing seeded in its very inception), I was a bit worried there would be nothing familiar when I walked in the door.

And yet, when I walked in, there was familiar carpeting, and familiar dark woodwork, and a familiar smell of lemon and beeswax. The entry was busy with ushers, just as I remembered from childhood, and someone immediately handed me a printed copy of the Order of Service, which I was very pleased to take. Stepping into the sanctuary—a wonderful space, bright with carved woodwork and stained glass, the walls painted yellow and blue, the arches hung with Arts-and-Crafts-inspired banners—was like returning to a familiar and beloved home. I found an empty pew not far from the back, hung my umbrella, shrugged off my coat, and sat, just as I had done so many hundreds of times before. The organ—a pipe organ, it seems!—pealed the opening chords of ‘O Come, O Come Emmanuel,’ and as voices raised to sing the processional hymn, I stood there, choking out the familiar words, crying with longing and relief.

My first service in more than thirty years featured a baptism in which a delightful baby (who kept waving his arms as if to smite the minister) was welcomed into the family of the church. By this point I was no longer shedding tears, in part because the pre-Communion hymn, ‘O Jesus, Joy of Loving Hearts,’ included the ridiculous lines “We taste thee, O thou living bread, / and long to feast upon thee still,” which absolutely made me giggle—because the book in my purse happened to be Bill Schutt’s Cannibalism: A Perfectly Natural History (2017). Schutt’s book, of course, includes a chapter on Holy Communion, exploring the sometimes unholy history of the Eucharist and the, er, thorny theological issue of whether or not the sacramental bread and wine are meant to be consumed, literally, as the body and blood of Christ. Un/fortunately, I didn’t get a chance to partake in Communion—a ritual I had stopped participating in by the early nineties because, at the time, I could not square the Protestant principles of faith with any suggestion of literal Transubstantiation, and the Anglican service at which I last sat through Communion kind of hedged on the issue—because there was no pre-wrapped packet of Wine and Bread at my particular pew. Over the years I have grown satisfied that Communion, at least in mainstream Protestant churches, is understood to be a metaphor—Corinthians, at least as I have read it, makes it pretty clear that Communion is meant to be taken in remembrance of Christ, not as a sampler plate—so maybe next time I will partake.

The sermon was short, the choir lovely, the prayers familiar. A few things have changed–the Apostle’s Creed is a little different from the one I grew up with, and the hymnbook—Voices United—seems to have most of the familiar hymns, but in a completely different order. I didn’t think to note the version of the Bible the United Church now uses, but will probably bring my old copy of the King James anyway, as, for the most part, I prefer the poetry in its passages. I did note that, during the service, the Old Testament was called the Hebrew Bible, which seemed interesting and, really, preferable, considering that both Testaments are living texts.

After the service there was a fellowship hour, which sounded lovely although I did not attend as, frankly, I felt a bit overwhelmed and wanted to be alone with my thoughts on the rainy walk home. I’ll do so next time, because I think Runnymede may be my new church, and I’d like to start getting to know its community.

Full Beaver Moon Eclipse (and a few more thoughts on the education workers’ strike and on social media and the public sphere more generally *deep inhale*)

I awake as early as ever, and lie abed, cozy under the covers until remembering that the Beaver Moon is to be in full eclipse in the hour before dawn.

And there it is, hanging low above the western horizon, not long before setting: the Blood Moon.

I have not yet set up my new phone, and this one takes blurry shots in low light, but I go outside to capture what I can of it anyway. The moon: not cheese; not a man; not inhabited by a fox; not chased by wolves—just beautiful Selene, or perhaps just a trace of her chariot, wheeling across the Heavens.

An Update on the Education Workers’ Strike

[A follow-up to yesterday’s post, in which I commented on the unfolding situation with the Ontario education workers’ strike.]

Premier Ford blinked first, and promised to rescind his government’s short-lived legislation, including his threat to invoke the Notwithstanding Clause. And so ends this chapter of the 2022 education workers’ strike–all 55,000 library staff, early childhood educators, educational assistants, custodians and administrative staff returning to work this morning—meaning schools can reopen for learning. Reportedly contract negotiations will resume; perhaps, this time, they will be governed by something more akin to bargaining in good faith (another requirement of the Labour Relations Act).

I think it likely that the government was surprised by the level of public outrage, having banked on pandemic-weary parents turning against the first union to threaten a strike affecting Ontario’s schools. And this might even have become the case, had the Premier not announced his intention to invoke the Notwithstanding Clause to abrogate basic labour protections, thereby threatening a Constitutional crisis.

I have little patience for conspiracy claims of any kind, but do know very well how back-room politics work. I think it highly likely that Premier Ford—a gifted populist but not (surely the obvious can be said neutrally, which is how I intend it) the brightest politician in the country—received advice from within the federal Conservative Party, but bumbled the implementation of that guidance (certainly the timing but probably also some of the details). I think, too, that the Premier’s office had gotten myopic about the labour negotiations and the union(s) involved, as well as the public’s perceived opposition to further school shutdowns. This sort of political myopia tends to occur when politicians are surrounded by too many yes-men or too many behind-the-scenes Machiavellians. In the case of Ford, for whom Cronyism is not just a practice but a kind of ethic and who is really a middle player, placed between the back room fellows who tell him what to do and the people who do his (and the back room fellows’) bidding, it was probably both. And no amount of gee-shucks-I’m-just-a-guy-trying-to-keep-kids-in-school back-peddling (this is, in fact, the source of Ford’s greatest and most genuine appeal) is going to undo all the damage. His political handlers know he is likely to fumble the big stuff, and the public (and by this I mean the non-ideological public, including the large swaths of suburban southern Ontario who returned him to office) is unlikely to offer further forbearance.

I’d have to have slightly more tolerance for conspiracy claims to wonder whether the whole Notwithstanding Clause business was intended (by Ford’s handlers–it does not require any conspiracy thinking at all to understand that almost politicians have handlers and that even gifted operators—e.g., former Prime Minister Steven Harper, current Prime Minister Justin Trudeau—answer to their back rooms) to be a trial balloon for further staged Constitutional crises. But I do not think it an entirely outlandish notion. We are, after all, now in an era in which political ideologues and fundamentalists of all stripes, on both the right and left, are eager to break stuff.

It is my hope that people—and by “people” I mean decent-hearted, open-minded, thinking people capable of setting aside their ideological commitments in the face of real-world evidence of their cost—will understand what has gone on here. It is heartening to see that members of the public, who are understandably weary of public sector unions’ strike actions (sorry, union friends, but it’s true), recoiled against what cannot be called anything other than an authoritarian act of government overreach (it seems important to remember that Ford could have waited a couple of days to pass back-to-work legislation that would have ended the strike and sent outstanding bargaining issues to binding arbitration, fully within the rubric of the Labour Relations Act, and received wide public approval for doing so).

An important reason I’ve returned to blogging here (and, with my husband, at The Space Between Us) is because in the last decade or so I’ve watched civil discourse deteriorate to little more than narrow¬† ideological posturing, disciplined on social media ever more tightly by algorithms ‘curating’ what people see, and by self-styled propagandists running scripts via 240 character posts and mic drops. I’ve seen people forget how to think with any kind of complexity.

It is not a conspiracy claim to point out that foreign agents now routinely meddle in elections, that home countries attempt to exert coercive control over citizens living abroad, and that social media platforms have become (with the blessing of their owners) tools of political influence and control. At the same time, there has been, from these same agents, concerted attacks on both representative government and the legitimate press.

You might say, in response, that these things have always gone on. But when have they had such a disastrous effect, or such crushing effect on the collective capacity to think, act, or protect the vulnerable? The examples I can think of—Hitler’s Germany, say, or the US in the McCarthy era, or the Isaaq Genocide in Somalia, or Chi/na in the Zer0 C0/vid era–have had disastrous and vastly spiraling consequences.

You might say that maybe things aren’t so bad—or, in contrast, that they really are so bad we need to burn it all down.

Are you sure about that? Are you really sure?

And are you really sure your views are your own?

If you do not, say, read newspapers, or read only publications whose editorial positions you are sure you already agree with; if you glean your awareness of global issues from social media platforms, online influencers, and/or from your closed circle of friends; if you find yourself responding to social, political, economic and environmental issues in ideological, oppositional terms in which complex problems have simple either/or solutions and easy-to-identify allies and enemies—then it is possible you, like most of us, have spent the last decade or so being hijacked.

There is no shortage of gleeful reportage on the unfolding implosion of Twitter, recently purchased by Tesla (for now: apparently he has just sold a bunch more shares) owner and likely future Russian oligarch Elon Musk. Disenchanted Twitter users are reportedly deactivating their Twitter accounts in large numbers, many joining distributed social network Mastodon in droves (you can find me at Mastodon dot Cloud, username alharris, although I retain a dormant Twitter account too, at least for now).

I find this lateral lurching from one social platform to the next somewhat disquieting. It reflects a genuine, if seemingly increasingly desperate, search for connection, community and (in the era of so-called influencers, the source of this decade’s fifteen minutes of fame, visibility. But I guess I see it as evidence of a problem, not a solution.

It’s become my view that social media are strongly implicated in the decline of civil discourse and the rise of narrow, hysterical, anti-evidence ideologies and fundamentalisms in the west in the last decade or so. The core of the problem, I think, is that social media were meant to augment civil discourse, but instead they have largely replaced it. In the era of social media, the public sphere has withered. It has, in fact, been under concerted attack not only by agencies seeking explicitly to undermine the foundations of liberal democracy but, at times, by social media companies themselves. State-sponsored disinformation campaigns (sometimes running on established social media platforms with the blessing of their executives star-struck by dollar signs); claims by ideologues that even real, verifiable, fact-based news is ‘fake;’ attacks on so-called ‘mainstream media’ (‘mainstream’ here meaning subject to fact-checking and statutory requirements not to make stuff up) on both the left and right; attacks on elections and the democratic process more generally; the concerted targeting (again, on both the left and right) of the hated political middle (i.e., that large section of the non-ideological public still committed to reality); etc. etc. etc. have hastened the decline of the public sphere.

The public sphere still exists. It’s not on social media, though: it’s out here. Here on the actual internet—Tim Berners-Lee’s World Wide Web. It’s in the mainstream newspapers ideologues don’t want you to read. It’s in conversations with your neighbours, including that woman in the apartment down the hall who shouts at her kids (what’s going on with her, and is there something you should do or say?) and the neighbour down the street who shovels his snow onto the street (that jerk). It’s in the way you treat the other road users you encounter on your commute. It’s in and on the roads themselves. It’s in the election signs people put up in the weeks before every election–not only the signs for your preferred candidate, but for all the candidates doing the hard and exhausting work of seeking public office because they believe in something, no matter how ridiculous. It’s in international concern for miners trapped during a cave-in. It’s in concerns about inflation, interest rates, and the stuff the government does behind closed doors. It’s in each other and the social world we negotiate, not on a social media platform in which you are alternately a commodity or target.

If we want to un-hijack ourselves, I think we have to do it out here.

O Come, O Come Emmanuel

Today it is the first Sunday of Advent, and thus begins the Christian calendar. In the United Church of Canada, the Church I was Christened and Confirmed in, each Advent Sunday has a theme: on the first: Hope; the second: Peace; the third: Joy; and the fourth: Love.

It has been many years since I attended any church regularly, and I have always been more culturally Protestant than spiritually Christian, but my faith in Creation–the Creation of trees and the wind and soil and all the things that live and regenerate–persists. I remain ambivalent about the divinity of Christ, am indifferent to the Resurrection, and am not except in form a worshiper of the Holy Trinity–views that in some circles would make me a heretic–but my God, the God I speak to, and who hears my prayers, is the God embodied in the natural world, and I serve this God with steadfast conviction.

This morning the sky has the cast of twilight and the wind roars in the cedars. Sleet pellets the house, but we are warm and safe in the shelter of our Keep. The gardens have been put to bed, the compost banked for the winter. The trees we have planted this year–our major offering to the cosmos–are staked and mulched and protected. Little birds have taken shelter in the cedars, singing against the storm, and the fat squirrels nesting in the roof above my little office caper restlessly but remain under cover.

The first Sunday of Advent celebrates Hope. And today I find hope in the light that shines in the darkness, and have faith that the darkness shall not overcome it.