Friday, February 21, 2014

I is for Individualism

I made my usual last-minute decision last December to attend the local performance of Handel's Messiah. My husband, who would ordinarily have been happy to go with me, already had plans, as did the two or three other people I asked. I went by myself, enjoying both the concert and the venue, St. Joseph's Church, the new Roman Catholic church in nearby Fergus.

The parish must have needed this building for some time. The town of Fergus and the township of Centre Wellington, of which both Elora and Fergus are a part, have experienced rapid growth for at least a decade, and it is projected to continue. Fergus has outgrown much of its earlier infrastructure: it has new schools, a new swimming pool, new or expanded shopping amenities, police station, in-town bridge (which choked off the local traffic for a year), even a new liquor store (the liquor business in Ontario is mostly a government monopoly, and new buildings are coveted). Two of the area's historic Carnegie libraries are or have been renovated and enlarged. A new hospital —even harder to come by than the liquor store— is in the works.

So it is not surprising that our Catholic neighbors dreamed big. The resulting structure is a delight, both acoustically and aesthetically. I could only be sorry not to have visited before. The building is a successful marriage of the neo-Romanesque and Ontario rural vernacular architecture. The nave is designed for maximum participation. The Victorian stained glass from the old church is there, too, set off in much larger energy-efficient windows. While I have no idea how it all functions on a weekly basis, it is ideal for the casual visitor attending a concert.

There is no aesthetic overreach. Before I had time to consider the implications of the design and its function, I was pulled up short by the Latin inscription on the cornerstone: “NON NOBIS DOMINE” (Psalm 115:1 = Psalm 113:9 in the Clementine Vulgate), “Not to (or for) us, Lord.” It speaks volumes about my secular and work-addled brain as a Classicist, particularly in December, that I first thought of which chapters of Frederic Wheelock's elementary Latin grammar could be illustrated by this inscription. But then, almost immediately, came a more sober reflection. “Non nobis, Domine:” the building is successful in significant part because a large number of people, whether architects, engineers, or art-critic wannabees, clergy or parishioners, left their egos in the parking lot. 

St. Joseph's Catholic Church, Fergus, Ontario
photo taken February 19, 2014 ©Kristin Lord

The phrase  “Non nobis, Domine”  is from the verse, “Non nobis, Domine, non nobis,/Sed nomini tuo da gloriam,/Propter misericordiam tuam, propter fidelitatem tuam,” which reads in the Revised English Bible as, “Not to us, Lord, not to us,/but to your name give glory for your love, for your faithfulness!”  This Old Testament verse, especially as abbreviated on the cornerstone,  also encapsulates an important point about Catholic thought. While it is a truism to talk about how so much of Catholic theology results from St. Thomas Aquinas’s interpretation of Aristotle, whereas a lot of Protestant and specifically Quaker theology stems from the Platonic tradition (see Howard Brinton's The Religious Philosophy of Quakerism in particular), it is a truism precisely because of its importance. Aristotle and Aquinas thought deeply about ends and purposes; a parish church built around the idea of “Non nobis, Domine” is a not atypical illustration of their kind of reasoning.

The end or purpose of our worship is a good idea to keep in mind. (For those interested in the details of Latin grammar, the dative of indirect object, which we see in the psalm, and the dative of purpose, to which I have been alluding here, both fall under the broader heading of the dative of reference.) One of our favorite Quaker passages, that of Margaret Fell's convincement by George Fox, illustrates a fundamental difference between the phrase chosen for the cornerstone and much about the way unprogrammed Friends in particular approach religion. Margaret Fell (later Margaret Fox), wrote that George Fox said, “You will say, Christ saith this, and the apostles say this; but what canst thou say? Art thou a child of Light and hast walked in the Light, and what thou speakest is it inwardly from God?” (“The testimony of Margaret Fox concerning her late husband,” in George Fox, Journal, 1694, p. ii, bicent. edn., 1891, vol. 2, pp. 512-514; cited in Britain Yearly Meeting, Quaker Faith and Practice, 1995, 19.07). As a “liberal” Quaker, I am all too prone to forget the warning in the second half of that statement, as crucial as the “what canst thou say” is for progress in both religion and in society as a whole. Although the Ranters disappeared as a movement in the seventeenth century, the attraction to their modus vivendi is very much alive.

I expect my Catholic friends would turn the two parts of George Fox's statement around. The differences in motivation, while perhaps subtle, underlie a much greater discrepancy in the role of ecclesiastical authority and of the nature of those in authority. Indeed, as I write this post, a Roman Catholic nun, Sister Megan Rice, has just been sentenced to nearly three years in prison for her role in a break-in at the nuclear weapons complex in Oak Ridge, Tennessee. Her courageous actions, and those of her two companions, have won admiration among many Friends and others (and no small amount of concern for their well-being). She is nevertheless bound by holy orders in ways in which we Friends are not.

Whatever ecclesiastical differences we all have, and there are many, there has never been a more important time than now to learn from each other. Despite fears of a future environmental catastrophe that may jeopardize life on earth, governments and individuals are squandering resources on all types of weapons, and societies are increasingly structured for the benefit of the rich at the expense of the poor. Whatever may be said about our theology, our religious structure, and our rationale for action, our work is not about us, but rather for a higher purpose of which we as individuals and a Religious Society are but one small part.

A "selfie"with my cell phone (and a fresh haircut!),
February, 2011

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