My Father’s Garden: By the Rivers of Babylon

When my mentor left for Rome with his wife this past August, he asked me to care for their house for the month. It is a cozy little house that was built in the early 20th century with little historical stories, and like many older buildings that are still in use there are various little idiosyncrasies that mark the installation of newer elements. The most important task, and really the only thing that required any real attention, was tending to the flowers. I was responsible for cutting the grass, plucking the various weeds, watering the little platoon of hydrangea trees in the backyard, and give special care to the flowers in these four pots on the side. My mentor joked that he himself was a herbicide, and had killed many plants in the past that were left to his care, presumably to some annoyance for his wife. While I received some detailed instructions for the proper watering of the plants, I thought with worry: “But I too have killed every plant left in my care.” And to my horror, just a week after they left the beautiful flowers in the four pots were in dreadful condition. The petals began to rot, blossoms fell to the ground, and some of the stems were even dying entirely. I was alarmed. The following two weeks I studied about flower care for the first time, ever, and spent hours on my knees carefully pruning dead and dying stems and flowers with the sole hope that they will revive by the end of the month. Given that I had, literally, killed every single plant I was ever given, I felt like I was hoping for a miracle in vain.

The palpable dread I felt when I saw my mentor’s flowers wilted and rotting is a familiar feeling. It is a dread that many of the eclectic young Anglicans I come to know have felt about our Church constantly for most, if not our entire time as Anglicans. We were, perhaps primarily, united by this ubiquitous dread. And given how diversely rag-tag we were, hailing not only across the North American expanse but also across the Atlantic to the British Isles and even continental Europe, the sense of alarm was not an isolated affair reducible to a parish, diocesan, or even national level. And lest one might presume that we were an ideologically insular group like so many online groups tend to become, we contained pretty much the entire breadth of the so-called Anglican spectrum, be it in basic racial or sexual identity, theological or political beliefs, and even crossing the fractious lines of schism that North American Anglicanism currently suffers. Only a very small handful of us weren’t white, but given that Anglicanism in the West continues to be a prototypical WASP institution (with all its pretentious, genteel snobbery), that couldn’t really be helped. The vast majority of us were not cradle-Anglicans but converts from disparate origins (Mormon, Roman Catholic, Evangelical, Jewish, Muslim, atheist, etc.).

Despite all our differences, some of them being irreconcilable conflicts of the highest order, we were near-unanimously agreed that our Anglican house was in catastrophic ruin. And so we all, from an anti-ordination-of-women Anglo-Papalist to a transsexual anti-Anglo-Papalist, from a teenage ACNA l’enfant terrible (a true prodigy) to a newly ordained ECUSA clergyman, toiled together to understand what it even meant to be an Anglican today. For if there was no intelligible measure at all to Anglican identity, if there was no real overarching reason that actually tied all of us together in some cohesive way despite our diversity, Anglicanism could only be an incoherent and false church. And a false church must be extinguished for the good of the Church Catholic. That we took this fundamental question seriously, struggling to make sense of the decadent and balkanized Anglican Church that we have so unhappily inherited, was shown in the zeal with which we pored into our collective heritage, and how we discussed and argued vociferously over knotty questions. There were many competing visions among us, and we highly influenced each other in complex, agonistic ways. Indeed, we often realized that we misfired out of youthful impatience, and I frequently threw my hands up in the air out of frustration, mostly at myself. And our rag-tag group was only one of the many scattered gatherings of young Anglicans wrestling with similar questions at the same time, and many new ones continue these conversations. But for all our frustrations, for all our seething disdain for the obscene corruption we saw in our Church, we all held real love for her. As many saints have said before: the Church is a whore but she is our mother. And what can children do but to love their mother?

The friends (and enemies!) I made are precious to me, and I suspect that for many of us the invigoration we gave to each other was the main thing that sustained our often bone-achingly lonely sojourn as Anglicans. It is no secret that to be a young Anglican in the West, ranging anywhere from a grade school child to a young married couple, is to frequently be the only person of our generation in our parish. After all, it was this isolation that led many of us to reach into the internet and find each other. But despite all the spirited and often immensely fruitful discoveries of the forgotten jewels of the Anglican tradition in our eclectic group, sharing rich complexities of greater interest and verisimilitude than the cheap and shabby banalities we all found in popular contemporary Anglicanism, in my weaker moments I couldn’t help but wonder why we were all forced into such an unenviable situation at all to begin with. Was all this effort really worth it when so many of us constantly encounter soul-crushing disappointment and mind-numbing sacrilege in our parishes? Can anything really be done about an institution that is so deeply marred by ubiquitous liturgical anarchy, casual heresy, moral laxity, intellectual childishness (not childlikeness!), and spiritual desecration?

At my most resigned moments, when I am alone and it is quiet, I sometimes still wonder why God sent me, of all the most uninspiring places, to the Anglican Church of today. Despite all her lofty ideals, distinguished history, and truly, at its best, her unrivaled capacity for unparalleled beauty, the Anglican Church today is a withered and rotting husk. When one gazes upon the crumbling structure, once so proud, it is sometimes difficult not to despair and consider it hopeless, especially when its aging wardens and tenants are apparently happily content to live in the rubble as long as they die before the squalid edifice collapses on their heads. If only our hierarchy and elders had half the courage of the disgraced Samson.

A few days ago, a man who I hold in the highest regard, a most principled, honest, and deathly witty Christian, shared with me that he and his wife agreed to leave ECUSA to enter the Orthodox catechumenate for the sake of their soon-to-be-born child, to raise their family in a spiritually robust and vibrant environment. It was all too understandable, as I also had a deeply life-changing experience with an Orthodox church years ago.  That night I grieved his impending departure while also feeling joy for his family finding a green pasture. I laid down, and I wept.

Despite my deep reverence for and confidence in the Anglican tradition, my apprehension of Catholicity is of such a kind that the fortunes of Anglicanism is not a matter of life and death for my faith. I am an Anglican almost entirely because God brought me to him, this curious patristic scholar who I later learned to also be an Anglican priest, and he brought me to the parish I still attend. I would not be a Christian today if it was not for him, and I did not choose my Anglican parish as the site of my conversion. Consequently, my concern for the Anglican Church is largely animated by my desire to care for my father’s heritage, not a justification of my personal choices.

If I have a special love for the Anglican tradition, it is an epiphenomena of my love for my father. Although I came to immediately appreciate the matchless beauty and sober clarity of the Book of Common Prayer’s rite of Holy Communion when I first began to worship, and later commune, at an Anglican parish, I frankly never found a particularly compelling reason to devote myself to Anglicanism over and against the other Christian traditions I had encountered. It is out of my filial piety as an adopted son that I have immersed myself into the strange history of this distinctively English tradition and sought to discern its inner reason. It is out of this filial zeal that I have become a most stubborn advocate for the glorious English heirlooms the contemporary Anglos themselves have thrown away so dismissively and carelessly. That I, a Korean, have become such a passionate advocate for things like the Authorized Version of the Bible (KJV) and the tradition of the classical Book of Common Prayer is admittedly rather curious (although, the one person in the rag-tag group that loved the KJV even more than I was a young LGBTQ Chinese man!). But I love my father, and no loving son wishes to see his father’s heirlooms treated derisively. Every devoted son hopes to restore his father’s heritage to its authentic and timeless beauty, unapologetically and unabashedly, rather than reduce it to cheap kitsch.

Even still, I might ask: “Lord, I could not have asked for a better father–yet still, why of this house?” But to love my father is to take his mother’s house seriously, and if I truly do love, am I not to be on my knees tending my father’s garden that he himself inherited, desperately trying to prune the dead and rotting stems and blossoms? And if it is the Father’s will that my father’s garden is to wither and die, who am I to say otherwise? However it may fall, renewal or extinction, it will be the Lord’s work and it will be glorious in my eyes.

I toiled for days on end in my mentor’s garden in what appeared to be abject futility. The heat was unforgiving, and it rained in such strange intervals that I was constantly confused about how and when to water the flowers. I was resigned to the idea that I would be presenting to my mentor and his wife entirely ruined flower-pots. But the day before they returned from Rome, I entered the backyard and was greeted by a bouquet of fresh buds just beginning to bloom.

Will it be pleasing to our Father’s eyes that my father’s house offers a worthy sacrifice before the life of the world to come?

Glory be to God for all things.

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