Friday, September 28, 2012

Alan Watts

It may seem odd to find a fellow on the Friday list who was "defrocked" after only six years as an Episcopal deacon/priest, but Alan Watts was very much a product of his time who, sometimes indirectly, taught us much of what prayer and meditation could do in the contemporary age.

As with many of those whom I admire in the Episcopal Church [such as Muhlenberg, who was originally a German-speaking Lutheran, and Schereschewsky, a German-speaking European Jew], Watts came to the Church through a rather un-conventional route. Although, as far as I know, he wasn't German-speaking.

Alan Watts was born in London, England during the First World War and was baptized in the Church of England. As a boy, he loved the "Dr. Fu Manchu" stories by the writer Sax Rohmer [as did I when a boy, although I can't admit that too publicly as the Episco-cats now consider those works "racist"] which encouraged a fascination with Eastern religion and the occult, a fascination that became his life's work as Watts' intellect matured.

While still an adolescent, he published an essay in a reputable journal of Buddhist studies. After moving to New York City in the late 1930's, he continued his studies in Eastern thought while reading the works of Lafcadio Hearn, among others, and even sitting in counsel with Joseph Campbell, the well-known scholar of archetype.

He was ordained to the Holy Order of Priests in the Episcopal Church in 1945 and served for five years as the chaplain for Northwestern University just outside of Chicago.

Why, you might wonder, did a man of intellect with specific interest in Asian religion and philosophy seek ordination as a Christian, not to mention an Episcopalian? Well, that's the interesting part.

Clearly, having been raised in the Church of England, Watts was comfortable with Anglican/Episcopal theology and worship. That's one portion of the answer. Another is that the Anglican/Episcopal tradition has always been one of scholarship and academic orientation. To be ordained in the Episcopal Church, one must have at least a master's degree or its equivalent; have a working knowledge of at least one Biblical language, and a familiarity with the lively arts. Certainly, anyone who reads the "Heroes" postings or those concerning the Anglicans/Episcopalians who make up the lesser feast days will note the overtone of academic achievement. A parish may see its rector as that person who fixes the toilet, re-sets the parish house door, and rakes the yard, but he/she is also someone who has published academic and other articles and earned at least one, and perhaps multiple, graduate and post-graduate degrees.

But, there is another reason, and that's what makes Watts story interesting to me, as it also displays something that may be lacking in the contemporary church; something that might explain its current lassitude.

Watts' fascination was with ritual, Eastern or otherwise. While he was living in New York, he worshiped at the Church of St. Mary the Virgin in the Times Square area. It is still there, and the place where I worship on those stray Sundays off when I happen to be in the city. St. Mary's, which is also known as "Smokey Mary's" due to its famous use of great amounts of incense, is an Episcopal Church that upholds like no other the "high church" tradition of Anglicanism. During worship, the lections are chanted, as is the liturgy itself, the music is of a lofty and very traditional standard, and the liturgical action coordinated to bring a sense of spiritual mystery and wonder to every aspect. It is not for those who find church attendance a distraction on their way to their kids' soccer game.

Watts had never experienced the like in a Western religious setting and realized that there were common elements to human spiritual expression that need not be constrained by cultural barriers or labels such as "East" or "West". This realization lead him to continue his studies within the Episcopal Church and to serve as a very interesting university chaplain. He was deposed [the actual canon law term for the vulgar "defrocked"] as his wife left him and sued for divorce. Yes, in Watts' day, Episcopal clergy could not be divorced. For personal reasons, I find that notion amusing.

His time as an Episcopal priest did produce a very interesting work, Myth and Ritual in Christianity; a book that explains in an uncommon manner the intention behind the things we do in church. It's one of my favorites.

After being liberated from the Episcopal Church, Watts' became the first scholar to effectively present Eastern philosophy to Western audiences. He wrote seemingly countless books and articles.  He was published in everything from scholarly journals to Redbook and Playboy.  He rubbed shoulders with everyone from the composer John Cage to the psychiatric icon C.G. Jung. He met Jack Kerouac and is a character in one of his novels. He still has an eponymous website, found here, where much more may be read.