Sunday, December 28, 2008

The One True Light...

Beholding His Glory is only half our job. In our souls too the mysteries must be brought forth; we are not really Christians till that has been done. "The Eternal Birth," says Eckhart, "must take place in you." And another mystic says human nature is like a stable inhabited by the ox of passion and the ass of prejudice; animals which take up a lot of room and which I suppose most of us are feeding on the quiet. And it is there between them, pushing them out, that Christ must be born and in their very manger He must be laid—and they will be the first to fall on their knees before Him. Sometimes Christians seem far nearer to those animals than to Christ in His simple poverty, self-abandoned to God.

The birth of Christ in our souls is for a purpose beyond ourselves: it is because His manifestation in the world must be through us. Every Christian is, as it were, part of the dust-laden air which shall radiate the glowing Epiphany of God, catch and reflect His golden Light. Ye are the light of the world - but only because you are enkindled, made radiant by the One Light of the World. And being kindled, we have got to get on with it, be useful. As Christ said in one of His ironical flashes, "Do not light a candle in order to stick it under the bed!" Some people make a virtue of religious skulking.

From Light of Christ by Evelyn Underhill, quoted in Advent with Evelyn Underhill, edited by Christopher L. Webber. Copyright © 2006. Used by permission of Morehouse Publishing, Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. With thanks to Vicki K Black.

Evelyn Underhill still amazes me with her imagery. The picture of the Church as innumerable dust-motes floating in the glorious light of Christ, each one reflecting his glory in infinitesimal radiance is so full of resonance for me. The house I grew up in, in Felpham on the Sussex coast, had a marvellous stained-glass window on the stairs, just abstract shapes and roundels of coloured glass, through which the sun used to stream in the late afternoon. As a little boy I used to sit on the stairs for what seemed like hours, just watching the dust-motes drifting in the beams of coloured light, changing colour themselves as they moved, each one a tiny reflection of the glory of the low sun as it came through that window. I wonder - suppose that sun were the light of Christ, and the colours scraps of glass were our traditions, Catholic, Orthodox, Lutheran, Anglican, the different shades of free church, emerging church, home church... each one of us would be ourselves, our own speck of dust, coloured by our church background, true, but each reflecting the one true Light streaming into the world... 

Saturday, December 27, 2008

St. John's Day

It is God who calls; human beings answer. The vocation of John and his brother James is stated very simply in the Gospels, along with that of Peter and his brother Andrew: Jesus called them; they followed. The absoluteness of their response is indicated by the account. James and John "were in a boat, with their father Zebedee, mending their nets. He called them, and immediately they left their boat and their father and followed him" (Matthew 4:21b-22).

For the three former fishermen - Peter, James and John - that faith was to be rewarded by a special friendship with Jesus. They alone were privileged to be present at the Transfiguration, the raising of the daughter of Jairus and the agony in Gethsemane…

John's own Gospel refers to him as "the disciple whom Jesus loved" (see John 13:23; 19:26; 20:2), the one who reclined next to Jesus at the Last Supper, and the one to whom he gave the exquisite honour, as he stood beneath the cross, of caring for his mother. "Woman, behold your son… Behold, your mother" (John 19:26b, 27b).

Because of the depth of his Gospel, John is usually thought of as the eagle of theology, soaring in high regions that other writers did not enter. But the ever-frank Gospels reveal some very human traits. Jesus gave James and John the nickname, "sons of thunder." While it is difficult to know exactly what this meant, a clue is given in two incidents.

In the first, as Matthew tells it, their mother asked that they might sit in the places of honour in Jesus' kingdom - one on his right hand, one on his left. When Jesus asked them if they could drink the cup he would drink and be baptized with his baptism of pain, they blithely answered, "We can!" Jesus said that they would indeed share his cup, but that sitting at his right hand was not his to give. It was for those to whom it had been reserved by the Father. The other apostles were indignant at the mistaken ambition of the brothers, and Jesus took the occasion to teach them the true nature of authority: "…whoever wishes to be first among you shall be your slave. Just so, the Son of Man did not come to be served but to serve and to give his life as a ransom for many" (Matthew 20:27-28).

On another occasion the "sons of thunder" asked Jesus if they should not call down fire from heaven upon the inhospitable Samaritans, who would not welcome Jesus because he was on his way to Jerusalem. But Jesus "turned and rebuked them" (see Luke 9:51-55).

On the first Easter, Mary Magdalene "ran and went to Simon Peter and to the other disciple whom Jesus loved, and told them, 'They have taken the Lord from the tomb, and we don't know where they put him'" (John 20:2). John recalls, perhaps with a smile, that he and Peter ran side by side, but then "the other disciple ran faster than Peter and arrived at the tomb first" (John 20:4b). He did not enter, but waited for Peter and let him go in first. "Then the other disciple also went in, the one who had arrived at the tomb first, and he saw and believed" (John 20:8).

John was with Peter when the first great miracle after the Resurrection took place - the cure of the man crippled from birth - which led to their spending the night in jail together. The mysterious experience of the Resurrection is perhaps best contained in the words of Acts: "Observing the boldness of Peter and John and perceiving them to be uneducated, ordinary men, they [the questioners] were amazed, and they recognized them as the companions of Jesus" (Acts 4:13).

The evangelist wrote the great Gospel, the letters and the Book of Revelation. His Gospel is a very personal account. He sees the glorious and divine Jesus already in the incidents of his mortal life. At the Last Supper, John’s Jesus speaks as if he were already in heaven. It is the Gospel of Jesus’ glory.

A persistent story has it that John's "parishioners" grew tired of his one sermon, which relentlessly emphasized: "Love one another." Whether the story is true or not, it has basis in John's writing. He wrote what may be called a summary of the Bible: "We have come to know and to believe in the love God has for us. God is love, and whoever remains in love remains in God and God in him" (1 John 4:16).

(Slightly edited from the entry for 27th December at Saint of the Day.)

Friday, December 26, 2008

On the Feast of Stephen…

This Christmas season finds us a rather bewildered human race. We have neither peace within nor peace without. Everywhere paralyzing fears harrow people by day and haunt them by night. Our world is sick with war; everywhere we turn we see its ominous possibilities. And yet, my friends, the Christmas hope for peace and good will toward all men can no longer be dismissed as a kind of pious dream of some utopian. If we don't have good will toward men in this world, we will destroy ourselves by the misuse of our own instruments and our own power…

Now let me suggest first that if we are to have peace on earth, our loyalties must become ecumenical rather than sectional. Our loyalties must transcend our race, our tribe, our class, and our nation; and this means we must develop a world perspective. No individual can live alone; no nation can live alone, and as long as we try, the more we are going to have war in this world. Now the judgment of God is upon us, and we must either learn to live together as brothers or we are going to perish together as fools…

Somehow we must be able to stand up before our most bitter opponents and say: "We shall match your capacity to inflict suffering by our capacity to endure suffering. We will meet your physical force with soul force. Do to us what you will and we will still love you… Be assured that we'll wear you down by our capacity to suffer, and one day we will win our freedom. We will not only win freedom for ourselves; we will so appeal to your heart and conscience that we will win you in the process, and our victory will be a double victory…" With this faith we will be able to speed up the day when there will be peace on earth and good will toward men. It will be a glorious day; the morning stars will sing together, and the sons of God will shout for joy.

From "A Christmas Sermon on Peace" by the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., in The Wisdom of the Word Love: Great African-American Sermons, edited by Rhinold Ponder and Michele Tuck-Ponder (New York: Crown Publishers, 1997) with thanks to Vicki K Black.

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Happy Christmas!

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.

 There was a man sent from God, whose name was John. He came as a witness to testify to the light, so that all might believe through him. He himself was not the light, but he came to testify to the light. The true light, which enlightens everyone, was coming into the world.

 He was in the world, and the world came into being through him; yet the world did not know him. He came to what was his own, and his own people did not accept him. But to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God, who were born, not of blood or of the will of the flesh or of the will of man, but of God.

 And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth. (John testified to him and cried out, 'This was he of whom I said, "He who comes after me ranks ahead of me because he was before me."') From his fullness we have all received, grace upon grace. The law indeed was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ. No one has ever seen God. It is God the only Son, who is close to the Father’s heart, who has made him known.

John 1.1-18

from a lithograph by Jon McNaughton

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

O Emmanuel

O Emmanuel, Rex et legifer noster,
exspectatio Gentium, et Salvator earum:
veni ad salvandum nos, Domine, Deus noster.

O Emmanuel, our king and our lawgiver,
the hope of the nations and their Saviour:
Come to save us, O Lord our God.


O Virgo virginum, quomodo fiet istud?
Quia nec primam similem visa es nec habere sequentem.
Filiae Jerusalem, quid me admiramini?
Divinum est mysterium hoc quod cernitis.

O Virgin of virgins, how shall this be?
For neither before thee was any like thee, nor shall there be after.
Daughters of Jerusalem, why marvel ye at me?
The thing which ye behold is a divine mystery.

(Alternative Antiphon in English Medieval usage, up to and including the New English Hymnal)


Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign. Look, the young woman is with child and shall bear a son, and shall name him Immanuel. (Isaiah 7.14)

Come quickly, Lord, and save all that you have made!

Monday, December 22, 2008

O Rex Gentium

O Rex Gentium, et desideratus earum,
lapisque angularis, qui facis utraque unum:
veni, et salva hominem,
quem de limo formasti.

O King of the nations, and their desire,
the cornerstone making both one:
Come and save the human race,
which you fashioned from clay.


Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign. Look, the young woman is with child and shall bear a son, and shall name him Immanuel. (Isaiah 7.14)

I am all at once what Christ is, since he was what I am, and
This Jack, joke, poor potsherd, patch, matchwood, immortal diamond,
              Is immortal diamond.

('That Nature is...' Gerard Manley Hopkins)

Don't say goodbye (I know you can save us)
Don't wave goodbye (and nothing can break us)

Don't say goodbye (I know you can save us)

You can bring us back again
You can bring us back again

('Save Us', Feeder)

Sunday, December 21, 2008

O Oriens

O Oriens,
splendor lucis aeternae, et sol justitiae:
veni, et illumina sedentes in tenebris, et umbra mortis.

O Morning Star,
splendour of light eternal and sun of righteousness:
Come and enlighten those who dwell in darkness and the shadow of death.


The people who walked in darkness
have seen a great light;
those who lived in a land of deep darkness -
on them light has shined.

(Isaiah 9.2)

Arise, shine; for your light has come,
and the glory of the Lord has risen upon you.
For darkness shall cover the earth,
and thick darkness the peoples;
but the Lord will arise upon you,
and his glory will appear over you.

(Isaiah 60.1-2)

But for you who revere my name the sun of righteousness shall rise, with healing in its wings. You shall go out leaping like calves from the stall.

(Malachi 4:2)

"Free at last! Free at last! Thank God Almighty, we are free at last!" - the final line of Martin Luther King's 'I Have a Dream' speech.

Saturday, December 20, 2008

O Clavis David

O Clavis David, et sceptrum domus Israel;
qui aperis, et nemo claudit;
claudis, et nemo aperit:
veni, et educ vinctum de domo carceris,
sedentem in tenebris, et umbra mortis.

O Key of David and sceptre of the House of Israel;
you open and no one can shut;
you shut and no one can open:
Come and lead the prisoners from the prison house,
those who dwell in darkness and the shadow of death.


I will place on his shoulder the key of the house of David;
he shall open, and no one shall shut;
he shall shut, and no one shall open.

(Isaiah 22.22)

His authority shall grow continually,
   and there shall be endless peace
for the throne of David and his kingdom.
   He will establish and uphold it
with justice and with righteousness
   from this time onwards and for evermore.
The zeal of the Lord of hosts will do this.

(Isaiah 9.7)

I am the Lord, I have called you in righteousness,
   I have taken you by the hand and kept you;
I have given you as a covenant to the people,
   a light to the nations,
   to open the eyes that are blind,
to bring out the prisoners from the dungeon,
   from the prison those who sit in darkness.

(Isaiah 42.6-7)

Come, Lord Jesus, Holy and Anointed One, and lead us out from darkness into your everlasting light…

Friday, December 19, 2008

O Radix Jesse

O Radix Jesse, qui stas in signum populorum,
super quem continebunt reges os suum,
quem Gentes deprecabuntur:
veni ad liberandum nos, jam noli tardare.

O Root of Jesse, standing as a sign among the peoples;
before whom kings will shut their mouths,
whom the nations will implore:
Come to deliver us, and do not now delay.

Jesus is the fulfilment of the prophecies of Isaiah (11.1,10) and Micah (5.1), the one who was to come, as Paul explains in Romans 15.12. But he is the one who is still to come, to bring healing and restoration to all of Creation – which is why we still pray, "Come to deliver us, and do not now delay."

The one who testifies to these things says, "Surely I am coming soon." (Revelation 22.20)

Even so, come, Lord Jesus!

Thursday, December 18, 2008

Evelyn Underhill…

Brother Christopher John SSF has a good post on his (highly recommended!) blog Friar's Balsam. I'll take the liberty of reproducing it whole here, since it has such sane and profound advice for us all:

Sensible Evelyn Underhill

That great Anglican spiritual guide Evelyn Underhill may have been an expert on mysticism but she was also very practical. In The Mount of Purification (our edition here is the Longmans' 1960 reprint) she writes about the three chief factors in developing the life of prayer in the parish. The first is a parish priest who prays:

The priest who prays often in his own church, for whom it is a spiritual home, a place where he meets God, is the only one who has any chance of persuading his people to pray in their church. True devotion can only be taught by the direct method.
The second factor is:
the parish church, considered not as a convenient place for Sunday worship, but as a House of Prayer, a home of the Spirit, a place set apart for the exclusive purpose of communion with God; and therefore an abiding witness to His reality, His attraction, His demand.
The third is:
the formation of the praying group. I do not mean by this a hot-housy association of pious ladies, whose extreme exhibition of fervour too often tends to put everyone else off. This should be avoided at all costs. But there is surely no parish where it is quite impossible to find a few people, preferably quite simple and ordinary people, who care for their religion, and, if asked to do a bit of real spiritual work for it will respond.

She was one of the spiritual giants of the earlier 20th century.

O Adonai

O Adonai, et Dux domus Israel,
qui Moysi in igne flammae rubi apparuisti,
et ei in Sina legem dedisti:
veni ad redimendum nos in brachio extento.

O Adonai, and leader of the House of Israel,
who appeared to Moses in the fire of the burning bush
and gave him the law on Sinai:
Come to redeem us with an outstretched arm.


Jesus came in the fullness of time. He will come again in the fullness of time. Wherever Jesus, the Christ, is the time is brought to its fullness.

We often experience our time as empty. We hope that tomorrow, next week, next month or next year the real things will happen. But sometimes we experience the fullness of time. That is when it seems that time stands still, that past, present, and future become one; that everything is present where we are; and that God, we, and all that is have come together in total unity. This is the experience of God's time. "When the completion of the time came [that is: in the fullness of time], God sent his Son, born of a woman" (Galatians 4:4), and in the fullness of time God will "bring everything together under Christ, as head, everything in the heavens and everything on earth" (Ephesians 1:10). It is in the fullness of time that we meet God.

Henri Nouwen, from Bread for the Journey

In the NRSV, these two passages expand as:

But when the fullness of time had come, God sent his Son, born of a woman, born under the law, in order to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as children. And because you are children, God has sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, crying, 'Abba! Father!' (Galatians 4.4-6)

With all wisdom and insight he has made known to us the mystery of his will, according to his good pleasure that he set forth in Christ, as a plan for the fullness of time, to gather up all things in him, things in heaven and things on earth. (Ephesians 1.8b-10)

I love this phrase, the "fullness of time" - pleroma tou chronos. Jesus is the Word, and where the Word is, all things are brought to wholeness, healing, completeness, fullness. All things come into being through him (John 1.3) and through him will all things be made whole (Revelation 21, Romans 8.18ff).

Christ is the mercy of God come among us, limitless and everlasting. "All shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of things shall be well." (Julian of Norwich)

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

O Sapientia

The best blogging on the Advent "O" Antiphons is to be found on Bosco Peters' Liturgy blog. I can't hope to match his erudition, but I can't resist making some mention of these most beautiful prayers, that form the basis of the carol "O Come O Come Emmanuel".

So we begin:

O Sapientia, quae ex ore Altissimi prodiisti,
attingens a fine usque ad finem,
fortiter suaviterque disponens omnia:
veni ad docendum nos viam prudentiae.

O Wisdom, coming forth from the mouth of the Most High,
reaching from one end to the other,
mightily and sweetly ordering all things:
Come to teach us the way of prudence.

Saturday, December 13, 2008

St. Lucy's Day

St. Lucy, whose day it is, is patron saint of the blind, which strikes me as somehow appropriate, given a time of year when, as Tom Wright wrote, "All language about the future… is simply a set of signposts pointing into a fog." (Preface to Surprised by Hope)

Maggie Ross has written, at Voice in the Wilderness, another of those posts which you really should go and read in full. I can't do it justice here, but her opening paragraphs will give a feel of why it seem so important to me, this year of all years:

It has been a difficult Advent at so many levels for so many people, yet the human spirit is indomitable.

Here in the UK after weeks of depression a kind of blitz mentality seems to be emerging. Yes, we're poor; yes, there is nothing but uncertainty; yes, the weather's miserable—cold, abysmally dark, wet with a stinging wind—on this day when we celebrate the return of the light (St Lucy's day used to fall at the solstice until the calendar correction of 1582), but there is an irrepressible mirth in the air.

The crowds are out looking and rejoicing, if not buying, and in the covered market holly and tinsel adorn every nook and cranny. The butchers there are in full holiday fig, with every kind of game hanging in the cold air—red deer, pheasant, geese, turkey, duck—and, today, a wild boar. The weather forecasters are becoming increasingly literary and it won't be long until one of them uses "light squibs" in his or her forecast (see below).

Today I came into the library as usual on opening, and as I sat down at my desk under the coffered and brightly painted ceiling of Duke Humfrey's, a brass choir started playing carols out in the Broad. As I write, at this very moment, the skies have opened and the rain has changed from a light drizzle to a torrent, yet the brass choir plays on undeterred, surely a metaphor for our times.

She ends with John Donne's wonderful poem, "A Nocturnal upon St. Lucy's Day, Being the Shortest Day" – it opens:

'TIS the year's midnight, and it is the day's,
Lucy's, who scarce seven hours herself unmasks ;
The sun is spent, and now his flasks
Send forth light squibs, no constant rays ;
The world's whole sap is sunk ;
The general balm th' hydroptic earth hath drunk,
Whither, as to the bed's-feet, life is shrunk,
Dead and interr'd ; yet all these seem to laugh,
Compared with me, who am their epitaph.

She was right – it is the poem for this year, somehow… But Tom Wright went on to write, later in the same preface I quoted above, "And – supposing someone came forwards out of the fog to meet us?"

All we can do is wait, and pray, in the fallow time, the between time, when the earth rests on the pivot of the year; of all the years.

Friday, December 12, 2008

Not an easy patience…

An elder was once asked, "What is a merciful heart?" He replied:

"It is a heart on fire for the whole of creation, for humanity, for the birds, for the animals, for demons, and for all that exists. By the recollection of them the eyes of a merciful person pour forth tears in abundance. By the strong and vehement mercy that grips such a person’s heart, and by such great compassion, the heart is humbled and one cannot bear to hear or to see any injury or slight sorrow in any in creation.

For this reason, such a person offers up tearful prayer continually even for irrational beasts, for the enemies of the truth, and for those who harm her or him, that they be protected and receive mercy. And in like manner such a person prays for the family of reptiles because of the great compassion that burns with without measure in a heart that is in the likeness of God."

St. Isaac of Nineveh (7th century)

I keep thinking that this has to do with this Advent, somehow. The coming of Christ is the coming of God's mercy, and our waiting is the waiting of which Paul speaks in Romans 8.18-25:

I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory about to be revealed to us. For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the children of God; for the creation was subjected to futility, not of its own will but by the will of the one who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to decay and will obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God. We know that the whole creation has been groaning in labour pains until now; and not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the first fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly while we wait for adoption, the redemption of our bodies. For in hope we were saved. Now hope that is seen is not hope. For who hopes for what is seen? But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience.

But it's not an easy patience, this waiting of ours. We wait, but we don't even have the words to pray. The Spirit prays in our place, yet even he prays "with sighs to deep for words." (vv 26-27) We know nothing, and in knowing nothing, we come close to knowing God, whose coming is not anything we could frame in words, or thoughts, come to that.

Even so, come, Lord Jesus. Please.


One of the classical themes of Advent is patience, the virtue ascribed to Mary and urged by the prophets upon Israel. But patience comes to me as easily as vegetarianism to a lion. From the looks of our lives, I seem to have abundant company. We are all busy, laboring diligently, noisily, impatiently to usher in a new and presumably improved life on earth. . . .

Among the derivations of the word "patience" is the Latin word paene, "almost." There is an "almost" quality to patience that bears attention, precisely because it challenges our drive to achieve perfection, fulfillment. Learning to live with the "almost." That doesn't come easily. . . .

Struggling to achieve what we believe to be true and noble, locked in combat against time and decay, we rush to accomplish all things and savor few. Yet in Advent we are called to sit quietly in the dark and peer into deepest night, abiding in the almost, looking for the light. But it does not come easily, and we do not usually go there willingly. It usually comes by force of sheer exhaustion, when energy is gone, no option remaining.

When I survey the greatest gifts of my life, I must admit they were not found in the busy rush of accomplishment. The greatest gifts, like the call to serve as a priest, the wonderful people with whom I have shared life and ministry, the profound love freely offered by others - these all came quietly, in the almost. Exhaustive activity, insistence on my own will and accomplishment, these have been barriers between me and the God who loves me, the people in whom God loves me. The gifts have come unbidden, in the darkness, sitting sometimes alone, sometimes with others, in the almost, searching the void for a sliver of light, a glimpse of the whole - closer to God, and one another, when we are sharing a vision than when we are fighting for one.

From Daysprings: Meditations for the Weekdays of Advent, Lent, and Easter by Sam Portaro (Cambridge, Mass.: Cowley Publications, 2001).

With thanks to Vicki K Black

Thursday, December 11, 2008

Riding it out…

"Where there is patience and humility,
there is neither anger nor disturbance."

(Francis of Assisi, The Admonitions)

Lord, being a Christian means that I am called to live a life that involves a degree of uncertainty. Like Mary, I am unsure what your call will require of me in the recent moment, tomorrow, or many years from now. Strengthen my trust in you so that I may be your faithful servant in the world. Lord of all longing, in our society of instant gratification, patience is not a cultivated virtue. Remind me that I do not need to immediately have all the things I long for and all the answers to my questions.

In the waiting, we often learn much about ourselves, come to a greater awareness of what is truly important in life, and gain a better appreciation for the things we must await. When someone or some circumstance causes you to wait today, slow down and view that person or circumstance as a blessing. Is it really that important that you immediately have what you want? What do you learn about yourself as you wait? What do you notice around you when you slow down to wait?

From Advent and Christmas Wisdom from Saint Francis of Assisi by John V. Kruse (Liguori, 2008).

With thanks to Vicki K Black


It seems to me this year that Advent is all about waiting…

The waiting our forebears underwent is no different from that of our own. We wait in pain and in anguish, we wait in ignorance and powerlessness, we wait in darkness and with hope. We do not see where our lives are going, what all the humdrum means. We wait that, one day, things will all make sense. Chances are good that we won't live long enough to see it. This is not for the impatient. This is not for the weak. This is not for the faith-less. This is Advent, darn it.

Barbara, Barefoot toward the Light.

I have to confess that this is how Advent seems to be for me, too, this year. It's partly the unusually cold weather (-5 Celsius in the back garden this morning) and partly the news from all over the world, but it's also what God is doing with me. I don't seem to be able to settle to anything, really to begin anything. I have all sorts of projects half-begun, but nothing I can settle into. I keep fiddling around with things, but in my heart of hearts I know it's no good. I just have to wait, with the waiting that Advent is. As Barbara say, this is not for the faint-hearted. But I feel faint-hearted, even as I know all I can do is face into the time-storm, and wait it out, riding to nothing more than the sea-anchor of my faith. Advent. Hmm.

Saturday, December 06, 2008

Free at last!

Jesus legitimated what John was doing, saying it's OK to pour water over people and tell them their sins are forgiven. That's revolutionary. Jews were supposed to follow the Law of Holiness in Leviticus, and suddenly John is making it far too easy to get God to love us, to get God to forgive us. God becomes as available as Jordan River water. And, of course, the irony is that the water is in the desert where water isn't supposed to be.

You can find God everywhere, in other words – outside of institutions, official priesthood or formal observance. One wonders if the churches today even catch John's dangerous corrective.

Richard Rohr, from Jesus' Plan for a New World

Sometimes, as Rohr suggests, the churches just don't get it. Especially among churches that think of themselves as pillars of orthodoxy, it seems to be felt that in order to receive God's grace and mercy in Christ, certain technical hoops need to be jumped through. Whether it's requiring submission to church leadership, signing up for some kind of "recovery" programme, or some specific piece of ceremonial, before we can be "restored to fellowship", it's all bollocks, according to John. God's mercy and forgiveness, in Christ, are as freely available as the waters of a great river, flowing in the arid desert of hypocrisy and jobsworthery and lovelessness.

You think I'm uncharacteristically angry, that maybe I shouldn't use words like "bollocks"? Read Matthew 23! Jesus used some pretty immoderate language on just this subject…

Now, I'm not using this passage from Rohr to argue for withdrawing from all organised church life, slamming the door behind us, and shaking off the dust from our feet. This wasn't Francis' way when dealing with a church at the very least as compromised and corrupt and superstitious and rule-ridden as anything we see today. Christ's call to him was to "repair my house" – not to abandon it. His preaching, and even more, his life, and the lives of the sisters and brothers who followed him, called the church to set its own house in order – and it did, in what must count as one of the greatest revivals in its long history.

It may be necessary to step from one stream of the Church (big 'C') to another, in a way that wasn't open to Francis in his own time, but we need to be clear why we are stepping, and we need to make that clear to the both the church we are joining and the church we are leaving. There is no room for prevarication, uncomfortable though that may be. Or else we may be called to remain where we are, but always to be prepared to speak the truth in love, as it says in our own Third Order Principles, "cheerfully facing any scorn or persecution to which this may lead." ((9) – where it applies to any form of social injustice, but see (7))

I am extraordinarily blessed in the church where I'm serving, and none of what I've just said applies there! But I'm very clearly aware of the facts laid out in Dr Barb Orlowski's original research, to name but one source, and of my own past supporting experience.

The Good News of Advent is that Christ is coming with mercy and judgement, and he will set his people free. Free at last! Praise him, praise him, praise Jesus our Redeemer!

Friday, December 05, 2008

Sorrow, not blame…

Two people commented, on yesterday's post, that my words reminded them of Julian of Norwich. I thought I'd remind myself what she said about these wounds that are glorified as Christ's wounds remain in glory:

God brought into my mind that I should sin, and because of the joy I had in looking on him, I was reluctant to look on this Showing. But our Lord was patient with me, and gave me the grace to listen…

For in every soul that shall be saved there is a godly will that never agreed to sin, and never shall. Just as there is a beastly will in our lower nature that cannot will any good – so there is a godly will our higher nature…

And all our troubles come because our own love fails us…

Also God showed that sin shall not be a shame to man, but a glory. For just as every sin brings its own suffering, by truth, so every soul that sins earns a blessing by love. And just as many sins are punished with much suffering, because they are so bad, even so they shall be rewarded by many joys in heaven because of the suffering and sorrow they have caused here on earth.

For the soul that comes to heaven is so precious to God, and the place so holy, that God in his goodness never allows a soul that shall finally reach there to sin, unless the sin is rewarded – and made known for ever, and blessedly restored by overwhelming worship

And so our courteous Lord showed them as an example of how it is in part here on earth, and shall be fully in heaven. For there, the mark of sin is turned to honour

Our Lord holds us so tenderly when it seems to us that we are nearly forsaken and cast away because of our sin – and that we deserve to be.

And, because we are made humble by this, we are raised high in God's sight, by his grace – and also by repentance, and compassion, and true yearning for God. Then sinners are suddenly delivered from sin and from pain, and are taken up to heaven – and even made high saints.

Repentance makes us clean. Compassion makes us ready, and yearning for God makes us worthy.

Though the soul is healed, God still sees the wounds – and sees them not as scars but as honours…

For he looks on sin as sorrow and anguish to those who love him and, because he loves them, does not blame them for it…

Julian of Norwich, Showings (Long Text) Chapters 37-39, tr. Sheila Upjohn (emphases mine)

Oh how true I have found these words! God is merciful and compassionate beyond anything we can imagine. Don't believe me? Don't believe Julian? You only have to do as she did: look to the Cross.

Thursday, December 04, 2008

Signs of glory…

The resurrection of Jesus is the basis of our faith in the resurrection of our bodies. Often we hear the suggestion that our bodies are the prisons of our souls and that the spiritual life is the way out of these prisons. But by our faith in the resurrection of the body we proclaim that the spiritual life and the life in the body cannot be separated. Our bodies, as Paul says, are temples of the Holy Spirit (see 1 Corinthians 6:19) and, therefore, sacred. The resurrection of the body means that what we have lived in the body will not go to waste but will be lifted in our eternal life with God. As Christ bears the marks of his suffering in his risen body, our bodies in the resurrection will bear the marks of our suffering. Our wounds will become signs of glory in the resurrection.

Henri Nouwen, from Bread for the Journey

I've been off the radar for a week or so – sorry! The week leading up to Advent Sunday was appallingly busy here, and it's after such a week that I realise I'm not 100% well, despite pretending otherwise. The early part of this week I was pretty useless – too tired to sleep properly, which is a nasty vicious circle to get caught in…

I've been thinking a lot about Nouwen's words here, which tie in with an earlier post: Christ, in glory, still bears the wounds of his crucifixion; the Lamb stands like one slain (Revelation 5.6) even as he is worshipped. But our sufferings are only in part physical. As those who have survived capture, imprisonment, even rape or torture, confirm, the worst sufferings are not the physical ones. Somehow, in the life to come, we will bear the spiritual and emotional wounds we have suffered in this vale of tears, and we will bear them as "signs of glory". Even so, come, Lord Jesus!

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

The secret of prayer…

This is the secret of prayer: to allow oneself to be led by the Spirit. Prayer must not be cast as a struggle to think only of God or to create void and discard distractions. In the poverty of dryness and distraction one must remain before the divine Friend with all one's life exposed, all the whirling thoughts and images that are there. Prayer must be truthful corresponding to the reality one carries within oneself, however miserable. If we satisfy ourselves with nice thoughts about God and believe that we are achieving something, we may be deceiving ourselves. Our concerns and concrete life are not what sets us apart from God, but our not knowing how to place our lives in God's hands and behold them with God's eyes. This is not just another method of concentration, but something necessary for prayer to be Christian. Anyone who reaches total interior silence knows that it is but the consequence of an effort to live only for God and to place all one's life in God's hands.

Kieran Cavanaugh: John of the Cross: Doctor of Light and Love, with thanks to Barbara

Painful experience has shown me that this is true. How often I used to put off prayer till I was "in the right frame of mind", or until I had "some quality time to spend with God". All that happened, of course, was that I put off praying, and when I felt really bad, say if Jan and I had had a row, or I had received some bad news, then I had nowhere to turn except the self-referential spiral of my own inner bitterness.

For me, this brings one of the enormous benefits of praying the hours. No matter how I am feeling, I pray when (or approximately when!) I have scheduled time for the next Office. Four times a day, I come to God in the silence, in the wonderful words of the Daily Office, in the Jesus Prayer, no matter how I am feeling, no matter what has been happening. There isn't really time for prevarication, for generating "nice thoughts about God", and the me God gets is the me that happens to be around at the time. This he can deal with – he is the God of love, and truth, not the God of the brave face, or the God of the pious attitude.

The times when I have most truly encountered God, when I really have met Christ in his mercy and his grace and his indefatigable love, have most often been the times when I have had least to give, when I was dry, and empty of everything but lust and grief, and so so tired. Then I knew it was him – there was nothing left of my pretend piety with which to generate illusions.

I often think we only know our Lord when we are at the end of ourselves. It's not an easy way to have to find him; but he did say himself that "the gate is narrow and the road is hard that leads to life" (Matthew 7.14) so I suppose it shouldn't come as too much of a surprise…


The resurrection of Jesus was a hidden event. Jesus didn't rise from the grave to baffle his opponents, to make a victory statement, or to prove to those who crucified him that he was right after all. Jesus rose as a sign to those who had loved him and followed him that God's divine love is stronger than death. To the women and men who had committed themselves to him, he revealed that his mission had been fulfilled. To those who shared in his ministry, he gave the sacred task to call all people into the new life with him.

The world didn't take notice. Only those whom he called by name, with whom he broke bread, and to whom he spoke words of peace were aware of what happened. Still, it was this hidden event that freed humanity from the shackles of death.

Henri Nouwen, from Bread for the Journey

Sometimes it's we Christians who are baffled. Baffled that the world goes on as always, broken and compromised; that it didn't listen, didn't change forever, at the resurrection. We are hurt and confused that our prayers, and the prayers of all those who went before us, haven't already produced a glorious vindication of Christ, and the confounding of all those who spoke against him, who have spoken against us.

But we are in the Kingdom, and the Kingdom is among us, invisible from outside, and yet gloriously alive within the communion of those who have been saved by that resurrection(Luke 17.20-21), lifted up with Jesus from the darkness of the grave (Romans 8.11).

I love this hiddenness, actually. I know it somehow fits with the way I am, so you might say I was bound to like it, and yet there is more to it than that. No-one can enter the Kingdom by being impressed, by taking the side of the playground bully, as might be the case if the Kingdom were to come in power as we wish it would, like the Jews hoping to see the Romans' backsides well and truly kicked. We only enter the Kingdom, which is "a Kingdom of truth and life, a Kingdom of holiness and grace, a Kingdom of justice, love, and peace" (Preface for the Feast of Christ the King) through love, through loving the Christ who was raised in glory, yes, but in hiddenness and gentleness, whose first contact with humanity was with a frightened girl in the early morning mist, in a quiet garden, calling her name softly into her panic and her tears (John 20.14-18). That is the King of this strange Kingdom, that is the nature of the event whose power changed everything, forever. That is what the gate looks like (John 10.9) that leads into the Kingdom. That is the Christ I love.


Willingness and wilfulness*

To enable God we must become willing: that is all we have to do. God will do the rest. In fact, it is very important that we do nothing but become willing. And this willingness is not quietism. It requires every effort; it costs not less than everything. Willingness is not passivity: it is readiness.

Willing for what? Willing to be powerless, willing to limit our seeming power so that God's real power can become active in us, most especially in relation to those things we would like to do for God. Because, as André Louf has pointed out, frequently echoing ancient desert wisdom, the works of asceticism we do by our own effort are entirely pagan: it is only when we run up against the wall of despair at the failure of our efforts, only when we are willing to acknowledge our powerlessness and thus enable God's power to be active in us that our service becomes Christian.

Powerlessness, willing or unwilling, and its associated sense of loss, has long been recognised by modern psychologists as being related to tears of every variety. Perhaps if we had not lost the insight bestowed in the Christian tradition of tears, we might not have needed to invent modern psychology to help us recover it.

Psychology helps us to distinguish between kinds of tears: holy tears are not the same as tears of bereavement, whether this bereavement is for the loss of a person or some other option or thing, although holy tears may permeate other kinds of tears. The grief of bereavement is a response to a more or less unwilling loss; whereas the grief of the way of tears, of repentance, is related to willing loss. The grief of bereavement has a beginning, a middle, and what currently is known as 'closure', a time when the active passage of bereavement ends.

The grief associated with penitence, with the metanoia of being turned inside out is continuous because, as the trust towards God continues and becomes more powerful, the process of being organically transformed, the process of divinisation, also continues. More and more illusion is lost. More and more sense of counterfeit power and control is lost, and tears are an appropriate accompaniment. These tears are the sign both of the Holy Spirit at work in a willing person, and of the willingness itself. They signify a kenotic exchange of love between God and the person. They have nothing to do with melancholy or masochism.

Maggie Ross, Tears and Fire: Recovering a Neglected Tradition VIII 

*see Gerald May, Will and Spirit: A Contemplative Psychology, (San Francisco 1982)

Monday, November 24, 2008

The heart of prayer…

The great commandment is not "thou shalt be right." The great commandment is to be "in love." Be inside the great compassion, the great stream, the great river. As others have rightly said, all that is needed is surrender and gratitude. Our job is simply to thank God for being part of it all. All the burdens we carry are not just ours. The sin that comes up in us is not just our sin; it is the sin of the world. The joy that comes up in us is not just our personal joy; it is the joy of all creation. All we can do is accept and give thanks.

Richard Rohr, Everything Belongs, p. 89

For me, this is the very heart of prayer. If we prayed just as ourselves, however much we thought of ourselves as praying for others, we would still only be like pagans making supplication to their deities. But we are in Christ. We do not pray as isolated individuals sending in applications to head office. We pray in the Name of Jesus – as Henri Nouwen said, "To act in the Name of Jesus, however, doesn't mean to act as a representative of Jesus or his spokesperson. It means to act in an intimate communion with him. The Name is like a house, a tent, a dwelling. To act in the Name of Jesus, therefore, means to act from the place where we are united with Jesus in love."

Not only are we in Jesus, but if we are in him, then like him, all of creation is in some sense in us. We are stardust, finding our way back to the Garden, taking all that is with us in our hearts. Compassion, suffering-with, is not just some soppy sympathy: it is a literal identification. We do carry the burdens of others, just as Christ did on the Cross; we are tempted with the sin of the world, just as Christ was in the wilderness, but in our little way, under the great cloak of his mercy and grace, and in the power of the Spirit, who prays in us as we cannot ourselves pray, being little, and weak (Romans 8.26-27). We do this spiritually, of course. I am not suggesting we attempt to physically suffer the injuries or sickness of others: that would be sympathetic magic, not prayer.

This is what Jesus meant when he said, "I will do whatever you ask in my name, so that the Father may be glorified in the Son. If in my name you ask me for anything, I will do it." (John 14.13-14) It is this vast and terrifying identification that is involved, that we can only bear because it is done in his strength, his Spirit. As Br. Ramon SSF once said, "We can say that such prayer contains within itself a new theology of intercession. It is not that we are continually naming names before God, and repeating stories of pain, suffering and bereavement on an individual and corporate level, but rather that we are able to carry the sorrows and pains of the world with us into [prayer]."

We carry all creation's joys and beauties, too, in thanksgiving and in joy! Praying like this, with our hearts lost in Christ's heart (Colossians 3) we live in a joy and a strength that is not our own. The Principles TSSF state (28, 29): "We as Tertiaries, rejoicing in the Lord always, show in our lives the grace and beauty of divine joy… We carry within us an inner peace and happiness which others may perceive, even if they do not know its source. This joy is a divine gift, coming from union with God in Christ. It is still there even in times of darkness and difficulty, giving cheerful courage in the face of disappointment, and an inward serenity and confidence through sickness and suffering. Those who possess it can rejoice in weakness, insults, hardships, and persecutions for Christ’s sake; for when they are weak, then they are strong."

Sunday, November 23, 2008

In my deepest wound…

Give me your failure; he says I will make life out of it. Give me your broken, disfigured, rejected, betrayed body, like the body you see hanging on the cross, and I will make life out of it. It is the divine pattern of transformation, and it never seems to change.

We'll still be handicapped and terribly aware of our wound, but as St. Augustine says, "In my deepest wound I see your glory and it dazzles me." Our wound is our way through. Or as Julian (of Norwich) also put it, at the risk of shocking us, "God sees the wounds, and sees them not as scars but as honours… For he holds sin as a sorrow and pain to his lovers. He does not blame us for them." (Chapter 39, Showing 13, Revelations of Divine Love) We might eventually thank God for our wounds, but usually not until the second half of life.

Richard Rohr, from Everything Belongs

Somehow for me this meditation of Rohr's does fit in with today, with the celebration of Christ the King. As Rhona pointed out in her sermon today, Christ enthroned in glory still bears on his hands and feet, and in his side, the wounds of crucifixion. When we are welcomed ourselves into his Kingdom, we will be glorified, for sure, and our entire beings will be remade imperishable; but we will still bear the wounds of our sins, and the sins done to us. But glorified! If we were to catch a glimpse of those wounds now, with out mortal eyes, they would indeed dazzle us.

Rhona recounted this morning, too, an old story of two monks, one young, a novice maybe, and the other perhaps his Prior, or certainly a monk with years of prayer and thought behind him.

The younger says, one summer morning, "When I think of Christ's wonderful mercy, I cannot imagine that he would willingly consign anyone to an eternity outside his glorious Kingdom."

The elder replies, "Why do you keep turning your head aside from the sunlight, and screwing up your eyes?"

"The light is too bright - it hurts my eyes."

"And so it is with Christ, brother. Christ does not turn anyone away; but unless we repent, and receive his forgiveness, we sinners cannot bear his light."

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

In the Name of Jesus…

Ministry is acting in the Name of Jesus. When all our actions are in the Name, they will bear fruit for eternal life. To act in the Name of Jesus, however, doesn't mean to act as a representative of Jesus or his spokesperson. It means to act in an intimate communion with him. The Name is like a house, a tent, a dwelling. To act in the Name of Jesus, therefore, means to act from the place where we are united with Jesus in love. To the question "Where are you?" we should be able to answer, "I am in the Name." Then, whatever we do cannot be other than ministry because it will always be Jesus himself who acts in and through us. The final question for all who minister is "Are you in the Name of Jesus?" When we can say yes to that, all of our lives will be ministry.

Henri Nouwen, from Bread for the Journey

I've been a bit remiss with the blog this past week – been busy with things here – but this I thought I ought to pass on whole, as it were. Nouwen pulls together in these few words so much that we need to know when we are sent, as we are at the end of every Mass, into the world as bits of the Body, to carry his life and his power into all we do and everywhere we go. It is in a sense the outer side of our prayer, where all we ask is in the Name of Jesus, and all our prayer is for the mercy that is his Name.

Thursday, November 13, 2008

Our littleness…

“Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for justice: they shall have their fill” (Matthew 5:6)

The concept of justice is exactly halfway through the Beatitudes and at the very end again. It’s a couplet saying, This is the point: To live a just life in this world is to have identified with the longing and hungers of the poor, the meek and those who weep.

This identification and solidarity is already a profound form of social justice. This Beatitude is surely both spiritual and social.

Richard Rohr, from Jesus’ Plan for the New World

This is so much what I was saying yesterday: our “identification and solidarity”—our being present to, or refusing to be absent to, the longings and hungers of the created, all the created, human and otherwise—is prayer. I’d go so far as to say that it is our most powerful prayer, since in it we are making ourselves open, submitted, available, to the love and mercy of God in Christ. In this we take our little share in our Lady’s submission, that small and immense “yes” by which our Saviour came into the world. As Rohr says elsewhere:

Mary tells us about the difference between attainment and grace. Grace is everything and everywhere, as she proclaims in the Magnificat.

Because God is everything to Mary, she is not afraid to boast of her own beauty and greatness.

Humanity is God’s miracle by God’s grace, not by our merit.

Mary is the perfect yes to Jesus.

Therefore she is totally fruitful and victorious, and bears Jesus to the world. Mary will always be the most orthodox image of how holiness works in humanity.

This changes everything for me, and brings what I am sure is the point of all this discussion on my part: We must not be mislead by the littleness of our act of surrender. It is through such tiny acts that God redeems the world.

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

The weeping class…

“Blessed are those who mourn: they shall be comforted” (Matthew 5:5)

In this Beatitude, Jesus praises the weeping class, those who can enter into solidarity with the pain of the world and not try to extract themselves from it.

The weeping mode, if I can call it that, allows one to carry the dark side, to bear the pain of the world without looking for perpetrators or victims, but instead recognizing the tragic reality that both sides are caught up in. Tears from God are always for everybody, for our universal exile from home.

Richard Rohr, from Jesus’ Plan for the New World


It is difficult to speak of the aim or goal of [contemplative] prayer, for there is a sense in which it is a process of union which is as infinite as it is intimate... The meaning and design of the Jesus Prayer is an ever deepening union with God, within the communion of saints. It is personal, corporate and eternal, and the great mystics, in the Biblical tradition, come to an end of words. They say that "eye has not seen nor ear heard", they speak of “joy unspeakable” and “groanings unutterable” and “peace that passes understanding”.

But there are some things which we can say, which are derivative of that central core of ineffable experience. We can say that such prayer contains within itself a new theology of intercession. It is not that we are continually naming names before God, and repeating stories of pain, suffering and bereavement on an individual and corporate level, but rather that we are able to carry the sorrows and pains of the world with us into such contemplative prayer as opens before us in the use of the Jesus Prayer. God knows, loves and understands more than we do, and he carries us into the dimension of contemplative prayer and love, and effects salvation, reconciliation and healing in his own way, using us as the instruments of his peace, pity and compassion.

Thus we can say that the “prayer of the heart” unites us with the whole order of creation, and imparts to us a cosmic awareness of the glory of God in both the beauty and the sadness of the world. The process of transfiguration for the whole world has begun in the Gospel, but it will not be completed until the coming of Christ in glory. And until that time we are invited, through prayer, to participate in the healing of the world's ills by the love of God. And if we participate at such a level, then we shall know both pain and glory. The life and ministry of Jesus in the gospels reveal this dimension, for Jesus was at one and the same time the “man of sorrows, acquainted with grief”, and the transfigured healer, manifesting the glory of the Father upon the holy mountain.

Brother Ramon SSF Praying the Jesus Prayer Marshall Pickering 1988 (now unfortunately out of print)

As intercessors, all God asks of us is broken hearts—we do not need to find solutions to the prayers we pray, nor just the right words to frame them. God knows what is on our hearts (Romans 8:26-27)—we need only be honest and courageous enough to feel: feel the pain and the grief and the confusion and betrayal and despair the world feels, and to come before our Lord and Saviour with them on our hearts, and ask for God's mercy in the holy name of Jesus.

I suppose this more or less sums up all that God has shown me about prayer over the years. There really aren’t words for anything else I might want, or be able, to say about it. These few will have to do for the moment…

Monday, November 10, 2008

Only the poor are free…

"How blessed are the poor in spirit: the kingdom of Heaven is theirs." (Matthew 5:3)

What an opening line! I always say it's the opener of Jesus' inaugural address. "How happy are the poor in spirit." It's crucial, a key to everything Jesus is teaching.

Poor in spirit means to live without a need for your own righteousness. It's inner emptiness; no outer need for your own reputation. If you're poor in spirit it won't be long before you're poor. In other words, you won't waste the rest of your life trying to get rich because you'll know better.

Richard Rohr, from Jesus' Plan for the New World

I think this openness to poverty is surprisingly crucial to being a Christian in a world concerned, now as in the New Testament era, with getting and spending. As Wordsworth said, in those pursuits we lay waste our time.

St. Francis was right when he took Lady Poverty for his bride. Only in her arms will we find solace for the hunger of the world, and only when we are free from that hunger will we be free to follow Jesus wherever he may be leading us (Matthew 19.16ff). We'll never know (John 1:37-39) until we are free, and are prepared to get up, leave everything, and go with our Lord.

Only the poor are free to know the truth.

Sunday, November 09, 2008

This is true… (for Remembrance Day)

This is entitled Advent Credo, but it makes a perfect affirmation for Remembrance Day, as Kathryn at Good in Parts has noted.

Advent Credo

It is not true that creation and the human family are doomed to destruction and loss -
This is true: For God so loved the world that He gave his only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him shall not perish but have everlasting life;

It is not true that we must accept inhumanity and discrimination, hunger and poverty, death and destruction -
This is true: I have come that they may have life, and that abundantly.

It is not true that violence and hatred should have the last word, and that war and destruction rule forever -
This is true: Unto us a child is born, unto us a Son is given, and the government shall be upon his shoulder, his name shall be called wonderful counsellor, mighty God, the Everlasting, the Prince of peace.

It is not true that we are simply victims of the powers of evil who seek to rule the world -
This is true: To me is given authority in heaven and on earth, and lo I am with you, even until the end of the world.

It is not true that we have to wait for those who are specially gifted, who are the prophets of the Church before we can be peacemakers -
This is true: I will pour out my spirit on all flesh and your sons and daughters shall prophesy, your young men shall see visions and your old men shall have dreams.

It is not true that our hopes for liberation of humankind, of justice, of human dignity of peace are not meant for this earth and for this history -
This is true: The hour comes, and it is now, that the true worshipers shall worship God in spirit and in truth.

So let us enter Advent in hope, even hope against hope. Let us see visions of love and peace and justice. Let us affirm with humility, with joy, with faith, with courage: Jesus Christ - the life of the world.


From Testimony: The Word Made Flesh, by Daniel Berrigan, S.J. Orbis Books, 2004.

Saturday, November 08, 2008

A witness to Christ in the world...

Kathryn, at Good in Parts, calls this "a mission statement to follow to the ends of the earth." I can quite see what she's getting at:

How does the Church witness to Christ in the world? First and foremost by giving visibility to Jesus' love for the poor and the weak. In a world so hungry for healing, forgiveness, reconciliation, and most of all unconditional love, the Church must alleviate that hunger through its ministry. Wherever we feed the hungry, clothe the naked, visit the lonely, listen to those who are rejected, and bring unity and peace to
those who are divided, we proclaim the living Christ, whether we speak about him or not.

It is important that whatever we do and wherever we go, we remain in the Name of Jesus, who sent us. Outside his Name our ministry will lose its divine energy.

Henri Nouwen, from Bread for the Journey

Our witness to Christ cannot be other than this, to follow in his footsteps, to take, like him (see Luke 4.18) Isaiah 61 as our job description:

The spirit of the Lord God is upon me,
because the Lord has anointed me;
he has sent me to bring good news to the oppressed,
to bind up the broken-hearted,
to proclaim liberty to the captives,
and release to the prisoners;
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour,
and the day of vengeance of our God;
to comfort all who mourn;
to provide for those who mourn in Zion—
to give them a garland instead of ashes,
the oil of gladness instead of mourning,
the mantle of praise instead of a faint spirit...

Wednesday, November 05, 2008

Can I get a witness?

There are more people on this planet outside the Church than inside it. Millions have been baptised, millions have not. Millions participate in the celebration of the Lord's Supper, but millions do not.

The Church as the body of Christ, as Christ living in the world, has a larger task than to support, nurture, and guide its own members. It is also called to be a witness for the love of God made visible in Jesus. Before his death Jesus prayed for his followers, "As you sent me into the world, I have sent them into the world" (John 17:18). Part of the essence of being the Church is being a living witness for Christ in the world.

Henri Nouwen, from Bread for the Journey

We are all witnesses - it's just a matter of to what, or to whom, our lives bear witness.

Holy God,
Holy and mighty,
Holy and immortal,
Have mercy on us…

Yes, you did!

Congratulations, America!

If there is anyone out there who still doubts that America is a place where all things are possible; who still wonders if the dream of our founders is alive in our time; who still questions the power of our democracy, tonight is your answer.

It's the answer told by lines that stretched around schools and churches in numbers this nation has never seen; by people who waited three hours and four hours, many for the very first time in their lives, because they believed that this time must be different; that their voices could be that difference.

It's the answer spoken by young and old, rich and poor, Democrat and Republican, black, white, Hispanic, Asian, Native American, gay, straight, disabled and not disabled - Americans who sent a message to the world that we have never been just a collection of individuals or a collection of Red States and Blue States: we are, and always will be, the United States of America.

It's the answer that led those who have been told for so long by so many to be cynical, and fearful, and doubtful of what we can achieve to put their hands on the arc of history and bend it once more toward the hope of a better day.

It's been a long time coming, but tonight, because of what we did on this day, in this election, at this defining moment, change has come to America...

What a man!

Tuesday, November 04, 2008

Who are the poor?

The poor are the centre of the Church. But who are the poor? At first we might think of people who are not like us: people who live in slums, people who go to soup kitchens, people who sleep on the streets, people in prisons, mental hospitals, and nursing homes. But the poor can be very close. They can be in our own families, churches or workplaces. Even closer, the poor can be ourselves, who feel unloved, rejected, ignored, or abused.

It is precisely when we see and experience poverty - whether far away, close by, or in our own hearts - that we need to become the Church; that is hold hands as brothers and sisters, confess our own brokenness and need, forgive one another, heal one another's wounds, and gather around the table of Jesus for the breaking of the bread. Thus, as the poor we recognise Jesus, who became poor for us…

When we claim our own poverty and connect our poverty with the poverty of our brothers and sisters, we become the Church of the poor, which is the Church of Jesus. Solidarity is essential for the Church of the poor . Both pain and joy must be shared. As one body we will experience deeply one another's agonies as well as one another's ecstasies. As Paul says: "If one part is hurt, all the parts share its pain. And if one part is honoured, all the parts share its joy" (1 Corinthians 12:26).

Often we might prefer not to be part of the body because it makes us feel the pain of others so intensely. Every time we love others deeply we feel their pain deeply. However, joy is hidden in the pain. When we share the pain we also will share the joy.

Henri Nouwen, from Bread for the Journey

This point about preferring to remain aloof from the body lies at the heart of my concern for those who choose to remain outside the church. I know that in most cases they are not doing so in order to escape their obligations to the poor: far from it, in so many cases they are the poor, according to Nouwen's definition here. But holding ourselves back from the daily, often far from inspiring, life of the church represents to some extent a withholding of surrender, a withholding of some part of ourselves from our sisters and brothers, or so it seems to me.

There is a tendency to think about poverty, suffering, and pain as realities that happen primarily or even exclusively at the bottom of our Church. We seldom think of our leaders as poor. Still, there is great poverty, deep loneliness, painful isolation, real depression, and much emotional suffering at the top of our Church.

We need the courage to acknowledge the suffering of the leaders of our Church - its ministers, priests, bishops, and popes - and include them in this fellowship of the weak. When we are not distracted by the power, wealth, and success of those who offer leadership, we will soon discover their powerlessness, poverty, and failures and feel free to reach out to them with the same compassion we want to give to those at the bottom. In God's eyes there is no distance between bottom and top. There shouldn't be in our eyes either.

Nouwen, ibid.

Many of those outside the church, those who yet know themselves as Christians, are there outside the doors precisely because of the weakness of leaders within the church. I wonder if they, the hurt and the dispossessed, have a vocation special to themselves? I wonder if God is not calling those who know the problems and the dangers most intimately, to pray for those whom they have all too often come to know as their enemies?

Saturday, November 01, 2008

The marginal are the centre of the Church...

Those who are marginal in the world are central in the Church, and that is how it is supposed to be! Thus we are called as members of the Church to keep going to the margins of our society. The homeless, the starving, parentless children, people with AIDS, our emotionally disturbed brothers and sisters - they require our first attention.

We can trust that when we reach out with all our energy to the margins of our society we will discover that petty disagreements, fruitless debates, and paralysing rivalries will recede and gradually vanish. The Church will always be renewed when our attention shifts from ourselves to those who need our care. The blessing of Jesus always comes to us through the poor. The most remarkable experience of those who work with the poor is that, in the end, the poor give more than they receive. They give food to us.

Henri Nouwen, from Bread for the Journey
Following on from yesterday's post, Nouwen underlines what seems to me to lie at the heart of being church, in the sense of being the body of Christ in the world. It seems to me that there are two sides to this, but they are two sides of the one thing. There is the mystical side, the unity of the Church in the Eucharist - "though we are many, we are one body, because we all share in the one bread..." - and there is the unity of the Church in mercy, in being Christ to the world, and that brings us straight to the poor. As St. Teresa of Avila said:
Christ has no body now, but yours.
No hands, no feet on earth, but yours.
Yours are the eyes through which
Christ looks compassion into the world.
Yours are the feet
with which Christ walks to do good.
Yours are the hands
with which Christ blesses the world.
Jesus' own job description from Isaiah 61, quoted in Luke 4.18, leaves us in no doubt:
The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
because he has anointed me
to bring good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives
and recovery of sight to the blind,
to let the oppressed go free...

Friday, October 31, 2008

The poor are given to the Church…

Like every human organization the Church is constantly in danger of corruption. As soon as power and wealth come to the Church, manipulation, exploitation, misuse of influence, and outright corruption are not far away.

How do we prevent corruption in the Church? The answer is clear: by focusing on the poor. The poor make the Church faithful to its vocation. When the Church is no longer a church for the poor, it loses its spiritual identity. It gets caught up in disagreements, jealousy, power games, and pettiness. Paul says, "God has composed the body so that greater dignity is given to the parts which were without it, and so that there may not be disagreements inside the body but each part may be equally concerned for all the others" (1 Corinthians 12:24-25). This is the true vision. The poor are given to the Church so that the Church as the body of Christ can be and remain a place of mutual concern, love, and peace.

Henri Nouwen, from Bread for the Journey

I've been thinking about what we've been saying about poverty recently - see my last few posts, and the links and comments - and what Nouwen says here seems profound far beyond the present discussion. It seems to go the root of revival and renewal in the Church: there seems to be a cycle, almost, whereby the church grows fat and worldly, and people have to go back to the poverty of Christ, and standing there, call out to the rest of us, "And what does the Lord require of you? To act justly, and to love mercy, and to walk humbly with your God." (Micah 6.8 NIV) It happened with the Desert Fathers, with St. Francis, with the Wesleys, with the Catholic Worker Movement, with the Sojourners, and with many many others throughout the history of the Church, quiet workers of renewal as much as, or more than (usually unwilling!) founders of new denominations.

The poor are not objects of "charity" for the Church; they are not projects or statistics, still less embarrassments: they are its heart and its purpose - just as Christ's poverty, his emptiness (Philippians 2.7-8) is not the result of accident or chance, but lies at the very centre of his work of salvation: his becoming obedient to the point of death - even death on a cross.

Monday, October 27, 2008

Night Prayer

Now that the sun has set,
I sit and rest, and think of you.
Give my weary body peace.
Let my legs and arms stop aching.
Let my nose stop sneezing.
Let my head stop thinking.
Let me sleep in your arms.

Traditional Dinka prayer (Sudan)
(Found in Phil Cousineau, ed., Prayers at 3 A.M. Quoted in Jane Redmont, When in Doubt, Sing.)
With thanks to Jane's blog Acts of Hope

Back to the Cross…

When you see a poor man, you must consider the one in whose name he comes, namely, Christ, who took upon himself our poverty and weakness. The poverty and sickness of this man are, therefore, a mirror in which we ought to contemplate lovingly the poverty and weakness which our Lord Jesus Christ suffered in his body to save the human race.

Saint Francis of Assisi, from the Legend of Perugia - 89

Thinking about my last post here, it occurs to me that there is slightly more to this statement of St. Francis' than meets the eye. In our love for the poor, and in all we do to find them justice, we must not neglect the demands that justice itself makes on us, that we treat all human beings as equal in the eyes of God, and so equal in our eyes too.

Francis' love for the poor did not mean that he despised the rich. Indeed, Francis cautioned his friars not to look down on those "wearing soft or gaudy clothes and enjoying luxuries in food or drink" (RegB c.2). All the members of the brotherhood were equal, no matter what their social or economic background; no one was to cling to office within the brotherhood (LP 83).

The OFM JPIC Resource Book Part 2, 1: Option for the Poor, p. 4

Our hands must never be too full to reach out to whoever needs us, female or male, human or animal. We must open wide our arms to them all. There must be nothing to separate us: not education or possessions, nor detachment from them. In a comment on my last post, Barbara said, tellingly, "Voluntary poverty, I guess, can become something one clings to instead of God. Simplicity, on the other hand, leaves room for God. Without justice, it is hollow."

We must "Let the same mind be in [us] that was in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death - even death on a cross." (Philippians 2.5-8)

Somehow it seems to me that all this talk of poverty comes back to the Cross.

Thursday, October 23, 2008

Poverty and simplicity…

In an excellent post at St. Edward's Parish Blog today, Fran asks, "How do you define poverty?"

"We are very quick to equate poverty with money. Perhaps we need to reflect more deeply", she says, and goes on to ask, "Ultimately how can we examine the poverty in our own lives and use that to both transform and be transformed?"

Thinking about this, I was reminded of Rowan Clare Williams' words in A Condition of Complete Simplicity, where she writes,

To be poor, sadly, is still to be without a voice and without power… Arguably, 'the poor', wherever they are, are still less than people. The very phrase, 'the poor', lumps together and depersonalizes billions of individuals with different unique stories and voices which are seldom heard, because the rich and powerful shout more loudly.

It can be tempting for those attracted by Franciscan simplicity to rhapsodize about the ennobling properties of poverty. This is dangerously patronizing. It is important to understand that there is an essential difference between poverty as a chosen, life-giving option and the poverty which denies and dehumanizes. Living in un-chosen poverty does not ennoble. Instead of freeing the mind from 'distractions' about food and clothes and other material concerns, they become an obsession. Far from being set free to live abundantly, this kind of poverty concentrates the mind on the mechanics of blind survival. A poor people are not necessarily any freer from materialism than the rich; they merely have less opportunity to indulge their desires. For the sake of clarity, then, it is necessary to draw a distinction between involuntary poverty, and a choice (or vocation) to live in simplicity in defiance of a world which defines us by what we have.

Over at Inward/Outward, there is a quote from Bill Moyers' foreword to Jim Willis' Faith Works: Lessons From the Life of an Activist Preacher:

Charity is commendable; everyone should be charitable. But justice aims to create a social order in which if individuals choose not to be charitable, people will not go hungry, unschooled or sick without care. Charity depends on the vicissitudes of whim and personal wealth; justice depends on commitment instead of circumstance. Faith-based charity provides crumbs from the table; faith-based justice offers a place at the table.

Where does this take us?

Poverty, unsought, crushes the heart and dulls the mind; simplicity, chosen, whether the absolute poverty of St. Francis and his contemporary followers, or the simplicity enjoined on members of the Third Order, to "live simply and to share with others… accept[ing] that we avoid luxury and waste, and regard our possessions as being held in trust for God" (The Principles, 11), sets the heart free and clears the mind.

We who choose simplicity, whether the circumstances of our natural lives have provided us with much, as St. Francis' had, or little, as with many of the early Tertiaries, must put ourselves either personally at the service of of those whose poverty in un-chosen, or at the service of finding for them justice, and a place, by right of simply being human, at the table. As The Principles state (7), "Our Order sets out, in the name of Christ, to break down barriers between people and to seek equality for all. We accept as our second aim the spreading of a spirit of love and harmony among all people. We are pledged to fight against the ignorance, pride, and prejudice that breed injustice or partiality of any kind."

It seems to me that these thoughts may have relevance beyond the Third Order Society of St. Francis in these days of economic insecurity and environmental concern. You don't need to be a Franciscan to choose a life of simplicity and justice - but St. Francis may still have things you can learn from, and his beautiful and Christ-like heart may strengthen and comfort you as you try to work out your calling.

Monday, October 20, 2008

We ourselves are words of His…

Contemplation is life itself, fully awake, fully active, fully aware that it is alive. It is spiritual wonder. It is spontaneous awe at the sacredness of life, of being. It is gratitude for life, for awareness, and for being. It is a vivid realization of the fact that life and being in us proceed from an invisible, transcendent, and infinitely abundant Source. Contemplation is, above all, awareness of the reality of that Source. It knows the Source, obscurely, inexplicably, but with a certitude that goes beyond reason and beyond simple faith… It is a more profound depth of faith, a knowledge too deep to be grasped in images, in words, or even in clear concepts.

Contemplation is also the response to a call: a call from Him Who has no voice, and yet Who speaks in everything that is, and Who, most of all, speaks in the depths of our own being; for we ourselves are words of His. But we are words that are meant to respond to Him, to answer to Him, to echo Him, and even in some way to contain Him and signify Him. Contemplation is this echo. It is a deep resonance in the inmost center of our spirit in which our very life loses its separate voice and re-sounds with the majesty and the mercy of the Hidden and Living One…

…contemplation is more than a consideration of abstract truths about God, more even than affective meditation on the things we believe. It is awakening, enlightenment and the amazing intuitive grasp by which love gains certitude of God's creative and dynamic intervention in our daily life.

Thomas Merton, New Seeds of Contemplation, New York: New Directions Press, 1962

May the Force be with you…

The word healing comes from a word meaning "entire" or "complete," and signifies a restoration to wholeness. For that reason it is a more "holistic" word than therapy. While many people are helped by psychotherapy, I suspect that there are also many like me who have benefited from occasional counselling but have received more help from spiritual practices such as prayer and lectio divina, or holy reading. Perhaps the most radical aspect of the psychology of the desert monastics is the extent to which they believed that Scripture itself had the power to heal. In The Word in the Desert, his study of how thoroughly the early monks integrated Scripture into their lives, Douglas Burton-Christie notes that they regarded these "sacred texts [as] inherently powerful, a source of holiness, with a capacity to transform their lives."

Appreciating this monastic perspective on the Bible means abandoning the modern tendency to regard it as primarily an object of intellectual study, or as a handy adjunct to our ideology, be it conservative or liberal. The desert father who expounds on the inherent value of meditating on Scripture by observing, "Even if we do not understand the meaning of the words we are saying, when the demons hear them, they take fright and go away," insults our intelligence. What is left to us, if we relinquish our intellectual comprehension? Isn't it necessary to retain more control than that? Maybe not, if we want to experience the Word of God as these monks did, as "a living force within them."

From Acedia & me: A Marriage, Monks, and a Writer's Life by Kathleen Norris (Riverhead Books, 2008), with thanks to Vicki K Black

I just love this. I love it. I love it. I love it. I have for so long felt that there was a force, which I couldn't exactly name, in Scripture as you read it in the Daily Office, unvarnished, free from commentary or sermon, short of devotional notes. Just the Word of God, standing there before us, rather as Jesus stood before Pilate. We are changed merely by being in its presence. Healed. Made whole. And we do not need to know the mechanism behind our healing. There words of Norris' are such liberation: to read someone else describing just what I've been feeling is - for me at any rate, full of self-doubt as I am - healing in itself!

Sunday, October 19, 2008

Unmerciful servants?

Unless and until you understand the biblical concept of God's unmerited favour, God's unaccountable love, most of the biblical text cannot be interpreted or tied together in any positive way.

It is the key and the code to everything transformative in the Bible.

In fact, people who have not experienced the radical character of grace will always misinterpret the meanings and the direction of the Bible. The Bible will become a burden and obligation more than a gift.

Richard Rohr, from Things Hidden: Scripture as Spirituality

I think what Rohr is writing about here may well lie at the root of the abuse Christians sometimes suffer, disastrously, in church situations, and which I touched on in passing yesterday. I don't think abuse within churches, often referred to as "spiritual abuse", arises from any one denomination, or even from any one strand of churchmanship, more vulnerable though some may be to it than others. I think the problem lies just where Rohr explains it, when people, pastors especially, fail truly to grasp the depth, the essential nature, of God's mercy in Christ, and of the limitless grace that pours out from it. It may be that, as Rohr says, they have not experienced it; or it may be that, having experienced it they have failed to appropriate it for themselves, and thus they cannot pass it on. Or they may, horrifically, have actually forgotten it. Like the people in the parable of the sower (Matthew 13:1-23) they may have known Christ's mercy, but the daily responsibility of their positions, and the continual friction of church life, and perhaps most importantly the lack of support - who is pastoring the pastor? - have strangled the memory of grace, and they find themselves hanging onto the mere framework of the word.

This is an immense tragedy for the one who finds themselves in such a position, but it can be equally a tragedy for those for whose souls they are responsible. Harsh though it may sound, Jesus has a word for those who have received mercy, yet fail to pass it on (Matthew 18.21-35). But what of those who have allowed them to come to such a place: those who have failed to take care of their pastors, failed to watch out for signs of weariness and pain, failed even to pray for them? None of us can risk complacency, I think…