Monday, 9 September 2013

Robert Farrar Capon (1925-2013)

Father Capon went to be with the Lord this past Thursday.  The world just got a little less poetic...I'm not sure if Capon could write a dull sentence.  I confess, I haven't read widely from his works, and what I have read I haven't always agreed with.  In fact sometimes I have strongly disagreed.  But even in the areas where I believe him to be quite wrong, I am still edified to sit in his literary presence.  The things he got right, like grace, he got stunningly right.  When I read him, I often find myself in the seemingly paradoxical state of happy conviction, if that makes sense.  He reminds me that usually my besetting sin is that of not basking in the joy and peace and mercy of God's forgiveness of sin; of not drinking deeply enough from the rich wine of grace; of unwrapping my presents too slowly; of not going back for thirds. 

Some fine reflections on this gracious gourmand may be found here and here and here and here.

Below is an extended quote from his book, Party Spirit (1979), in which he further develops the themes from his more popular book, The Supper of the Lamb (1967).   Here he speaks of preparing for and having people into our homes for parties, which for him means gracious and lavish, food-centered hospitality, poured out in the company and for the enjoyment of others.  Capon sees entertaining (hospitality) as a sacramental foretaste of the great party God's people will one day enjoy and a far more potent taste of real grace than any case for the faith we might present.  The emphases below are mine.

"The Bible...actually ends with a party:  the marriage supper of the Lamb and his Bride - the celebration, after the stormiest of all courtships, of the wedding between God and his finally reconciled creation..."
"...since the end is always the best place to begin, look first at the image that speaks directly to the party as an act of faith:  the Book of Revelation's final picture of the consummation as a sit-down dinner for ten thousand times ten thousand.  Authors give themselves away in their last chapters, and the Holy Spirit is no exception.  If, for instance, a book ends with corpses, confusion and tears, we know that the writer's deepest belief - in spite of all the bright hours he contrived to crowd between his beginning and his end - is that life is a mess.  And if it ends with a party, it can only signify his conviction that, betrayals, crosses, and failures to the contrary notwithstanding, things were really peachy from the start.
Now, if you will add to that consideration the act that we are all authors - and that at every present moment each of us is invariably busy writing a last chapter to his history so far - you will see why a party is an act of faith.  For when we summon Irving, Dorothy and a dozen other assorted and consorted specimens to keep company with us for an evening, we are making a statement, not simply about us or them - few of our performances so far warrant three days in the kitchen on the off chance that sixteen of us will make it smoothly through a whole evening; rather, we are making a declaration of belief in a happier order which has somehow comprehended us all and under whose reconciling power every one of us is worth any amount of work.  We are offering, if you will, to refresh their history with a decisively hopeful last chapter, all on a Saturday night.
Notice, however, that that is precisely an act of faith and not an exercise in wishful thinking.  We remain fully aware that Irving and Dorothy could well break up next year, just as they broke up last with Celeste and Arthur.  We do not hide from ourselves the fact that Arlene becomes maudlin at ten, or that Grover moves to the right of Genghis Kahn after three martinis.  We carry with us the knowledge that Harold's hand is bandaged because he punched a doorframe instead of his daughter, and that Jennifer's frequent trips to the wine jug owe more to her husband's roving eye than to her own parched throat.
And we know all too well what those derelictions have cost them.  Our guests come to us - indeed we, but for our belief in the better order, come to ourselves - after a week of comfortless conclusions about our own acceptability.  Our histories from Monday to Friday have built up in us a wall of unbelief at the possibility of any order strong enough to countermand our chaos.  Harold, no doubt, feels condemned as a failed parent; Grover, no better off, finds himself condemning the rest of the world.  One way or another, the balm of a convincing absolution has been lost in the mundane shuffle and the search for Gilead given up as a hopeless cause.
But we as hosts know something more than that.  It is tempting to be bold and say that we know there is a Gilead after all and that we have cornered the market in balm.  But that is too bold.  Our party remains an act of faith, not of knowledge.  The most we can ever be sure of is the firmness of our decision to trust that there is a happier order on the other side of unbelief.  What we offer them, you see, are not proofs of a better order - all proofs are debatable, and a good headache can refute any of them; instead, we give them the tangible results of our faith:  in this case, an Armenian [he is writing of preparing an Armenian Easter dinner party] replica of the believed order in action.  We invite them to look, not at the necessary conclusions of their shortcomings, but at the unnecessary largesse of our acceptance.  And we ask them only to come and feel the power of its drawing.
That is why you and I sit now with Vivaldi and wine:  to be sure we appreciate the magnitude of what we have set in motion by our call.  It is all too easy to write off parties as mere adjuncts of life, diversions from the serious business of trying to find our way as we plod homeward to the future.  But the call of a party is precisely a sacrament - a representation with the same power as the original - of the homeward call that in fact is the only thing that keeps us going at all.  For one thing, it comes to us out of the future:  an invitation to Saturday at Five, issued and accepted, imposes a hope-filled shape on both the host and guest long before the time it sets.  Like the last day of the world, it says that reconciliation is already in the works and so begins to govern before it arrives.  For another, the happy shape it imposes by its grace can be grasped only by faith.  Luther once said that no man can know or feel that he is saved, he can only believe it.  So with a good party:  there is no way you can know for sure that it will come off; you can only hear the call and trust it."  (p. 12-15)
You might have noticed some places where Capon seems to be swerving a little too close to the shoulder.  Sure, we could come up with some caveats - people need to know they are lost before they see their need to be found - but Paul was never charged with teaching legalism and Jesus was not accused of being a dieter and a teetotaler. 

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