Seductive power

I think it was Henry Kissinger (but maybe it was one of his girlfriends, or maybe I’m all wet) who said “power is the ultimate aphrodisiac.” Modulate that up a few steps and I’ve experienced it recently.

I sing in a very good amateur chorus. Our Fall program, for which we’re in final rehearsals, is Verdi’s magnificent Requiem. Our own forces are not large enough to do justice to things like the Dies Irae, so we’re joining forces with the choir from Second Presbyterian Church in Indianapolis, to which we travelled Sunday for our first combined rehearsal.

If you’ve traveled Meridian Street in Indianapolis North from Monument Circle to I-465, you’ve passed it, and unless you’re oblivious, you’ve noticed it. But if you’ve never been inside, you “don’t know the half of it.” We entered last night into the northernmost part, quite a bit lower than the sanctuary to the south. It felt like the lobby of a luxury hotel, complete with a glass elevator — until you looked up and saw the interior of a great stone cathedral. “Aha! This is the sanctuary they outgrew,” I thought. “No,” someone nearby replied. The cornerstone says 2007.

Yes, this apparently was built in 2007, and was not an adaptive re-use. They just built it that way because they could, and it blends with the rest of the building. I will see the sanctuary at tomorrow’s rehearsal. There wasn’t time. This place is hundreds of thousands of square feet, by feel at least.

Wandering around at break revealed an utterly gracious, very upscale operation in every way. The cleanliness would put Disney World to shame. There were no crudely hand-printed notices; everything appeared professionally prepared. This is, if memory serves, the Church of which former Indianapolis Mayor William Hudnut was Pastor before he was Mayor. I believe Governor Mitch Daniels is a member there, though I’m much less confident of that.

In any event, this is a Church with influence! Power!

It is seductive — disconcertingly so.

I left the Protestant world 13 years ago in favor of ancient, Eastern, Orthodoxy. On every point of disagreement — and there are very many — I believe what the Orthodox Church believes and rejects what the Presbyterians believe. It would require an act of what amounts to apostasy (for me, at least; I can speak for nobody else) to affiliate with Second Presbyterian.

But … but … but, it’s so beautiful. The lure of being in an institution so influential is sooo strong. And they do good stuff, like the Verdi Requiem, and spending 21% of their budget for “missions.”

My point isn’t that evil can be seductive. I have no particular reason to think that “Second” (as they call themselves for short) is evil. But the message running through my head was more like “Holy Smokes! How cool is this?!” than “Glory to Jesus Christ!”

The point, which is uncomfortably close to the bone, is that this Intellectualoid is not immune to the powers of great packaging.

Second Presbyterian has terrific packaging. Its kind of soft Calvinism is a powerful component of our Civil Religion. Does doctrine really matter that much? Apostolic succession? The sacraments in their fullness? The Faith in it’s fullness? Can’t you just “bracket” that stuff?

(The Sirens Sing so sweetly and subliminally: “Think of all the good you could do with that ring, Frodo!”)

I guess it’s healthy to get smacked up in the side of the head periodically with reminders that I haven’t arrived at sanctity yet. Yesterday (figuratively speaking), it’s an attractive, vulnerable woman who captures my imagination momentarily and reminds me that lust (or worse) has not yet utterly fled from this aging body. Today, it’s handsome “Second,” reminding me that lust for power and respectability — a manifestation of pride, the deadliest of the deadly sins, may retain more power over me than plain old lusty lust.

And I’m not, superficially at least, a power-hungry guy. But … WHAM!

“O wretched man that I am! who shall deliver me from the body of this death? I thank God through Jesus Christ our Lord.”

8 thoughts on “Seductive power

  1. You know my position on religion generally; but I have personal experience with Presbyterianism. That’s how I was raised. Maybe Richmond Presbyterianism isn’t a representative sample of the denomination as a whole, but my sense of it was as a bland, dry, flavorless thing. Soft Calvinism really captures it, I think.

    My memory was of a bunch of old, white people in nice clothes, gathering in the sanctuary, mostly sitting, either listening politely or reciting things in rote, mechanical voices before gathering for coffee after the service.

    I was much more taken by the Jewish services I went to – some, but less formality, very much a warm feeling that the group was a family; the Pentecostal services – lots of energy and deep feeling; or the Catholic services – you could feel the deep tradition. I have no experience with the Orthodox Church, but I have to think you’re on a much better path there.

  2. My last experience in a synagogue is nearly 50 years ago, when my confirmation class attended a Bar Mitzvah. but I am told, both secondhand (Fr. James Bernstein, who wrote a book) and first-hand (a Jewish friend, converted to Roman Catholicism decades ago, now birth out of considering Orthodoxy), that our liturgy is reminiscent of synagogue.
    And that is no accident. Protestants generally may not underline these passages, but the Church started out in synagogues until they made themselves personae non grata with insistent claims Judaism has never been able to accept en masse. It stands to reason, therefore, that the original Christian worship was essentially synagogue worship with a twist.
    It probably helps in the warmth department that many Orthodox Churches have no pews – just a few seats around the perimeter for the infirm, moms with infants, etc., Come the homily, the people who’ve been standing typically plop down on the floor. In many parishes (I don’t want to make unfounded generalizations), even the youngest children remain in the liturgy (whereupon there’s not a chance in the world of things being too sedate) and are communed with everyone else.

    1. …the russian orthodox church ive attended a couple of times is exactly as you describe..its no place for the weary .. …..i just learned that it is taboo to cross ones legs if sitting in certain orthodox circles as well as having “cross’s on the tread of ones boots…WOW

  3. The Presbyterians of my experience definitely favored the “cry room” approach. Children are to be (at appropriate times) seen but not heard.

  4. …interesting post..and very true…ive often pondered this phenomena myself…the hagia sophia comes immediately to mind..how can a beautiful building produce the presence of God?..of course..it cant..just ask any blind man…but something seductive mysteriously changes us within as we “feel” through our eyes and then imagination takes over reality….we’re being influenced in one way or another by what we see every day…wheather its a beautiful church.beautiful woman or beautiful sunrise…..Hollywood gets it..

  5. Mike:
    I probably would drive crazy the Russians you’re talking about. I’m just a dumb convert who loves the Church and can sing. So I’m up there 3 hours on Sunday, standing and singing, and I’m forever slipping my sandals off, leaning on the Cliros (chanter stand), etc. I probably cross my legs, too, though maybe that doesn’t count if you’re standing up.

  6. Postscript: We sang the Requiem last night to about 500 people who rose in the 14th Century French Gothic Church for a standing ovation.
    I could tell from the start that they had good taste.

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