spirituality


Yesterday, December 8th, was the beginning of the Year of Mercy called by Pope Francis. It was also a day of prayer and vigil for refugees, organised by the Churches’ Refugee Network and generously hosted by St Margaret’s Westminster. The Vigil was entitled 20,000 Welcomes – alluding both to the traditional Irish greeting, and to the 20,000 Syrian refugees that the UK government has decided to allow to resettle here. During the vigil, the following reading was read, and I offered the meditation that follows

When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on the throne of his glory. All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats, and he will put the sheep at his right hand and the goats at the left. Then the king will say to those at his right hand, ‘Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.’ Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink? And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing? And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?’ And the king will answer them, ‘Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.’ Then he will say to those at his left hand, ‘You that are accursed, depart from me into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels; for I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not give me clothing, sick and in prison and you did not visit me.’ Then they also will answer, ‘Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not take care of you?’ Then he will answer them, ‘Truly I tell you, just as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.’ And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.

Matthew 25:31-46

Jesus comes to judge the world, and he doesn’t ask people how religious they were – at least not in the sense of going to church a lot, reading their Bible, even praying. Those whom Jesus praises are those who lived lives given to serving others – particularly those who were despised or ignored by everybody else. They visited prisoners, cared for the sick, looked after the people who were at the bottom of the heap. In fact, they did exactly the sort of things that Jesus did. I can’t imagine that any of them managed to do all that without having lives that were radically dependent on God: but the proof of all that was in lives which were lived in love for the world. They receive their reward through being the sort of people who didn’t look for it. They weren’t aware that they were serving Jesus when they helped people in trouble; they weren’t doing it in order to tot up spiritual points. They just did what needed doing.

These, along with providing burial for the dead, are six of the seven corporal (bodily and physical) acts of mercy, and they all flow from this parable:

To feed the hungry

To give drink to the thirsty

To clothe the naked

To shelter the homeless

To visit the sick

To visit the imprisoned

Today has begun the Roman Catholic Church’s Year of Mercy – a year of receiving, and also giving and living, the boundless mercy of God. As Pope Francis put it in his letter setting out his vision for the year

I have asked the Church in this Jubilee Year to rediscover the richness encompassed by the spiritual and corporal works of mercy. The experience of mercy, indeed, becomes visible in the witness of concrete signs as Jesus himself taught us. Each time that one of the faithful personally performs one or more of these actions, he or she shall surely obtain the Jubilee Indulgence

Whether or not we are Roman Catholic, the Pope’s call should have resonance for us. We will connect most readily, many of us, with that encouragement to continue in the practice of mercy, and to encourage others to join with us in offering 20,000 welcomes. But we should also hear that other side of the Pope’s call – that we should be ready to receive the mercy of God in our own lives as well.

That action will take different forms for us according to our own traditions and spiritualities. For some the Pope’s call to renew the sacrament of confession will be a gateway to God’s grace and freedom; for others there will be other ways – the grace of God is confined only by our willingness or not to receive it. But receive it we must, if we are to have grace and mercy to share. The commitment to continue in the acts of mercy is demanding and sometimes draining. We have all met, and probably all sometimes been, those people who are still giving when they have nothing left to give – and we know that that is not sustainable, or healthy, or good.

We need to allow ourselves to receive acts of mercy as well as to give them, if we are to live out the spirit of the gospel reading. It is not for nothing that the corporal acts of mercy are linked with the spiritual acts – traditionally they are

To instruct the ignorant.

To counsel the doubtful.

To admonish sinners.

To bear wrongs patiently.

To forgive offences willingly.

To comfort the afflicted.

To pray for the living and the dead

The spiritual and the bodily do not live in separate compartments – they are dimensions of the whole human beings that we all are. In the giving and receiving which is the breathing in and out of the grace of God, may we be open doors of mercy in ourselves – doors that open in gratitude and thankfulness who come bringing gifts to us, and doors that open in hospitality and generosity to those who need our shelter, so that we are indeed able to offer 20,000, 50,000, any number of welcomes.

The Memorial in Hiroshima's Peace Park, with the Atomic Dome in the background.

The Memorial in Hiroshima’s Peace Park, with the Atomic Dome in the background.

And a very interesting lively city it is too – with the slight oddity that nothing in the central area is older than 1945. It’s hard to hold in your head that this place is also that place – even when visiting the Peace Museum and seeing the before and after pictures of the city.

Maybe that sums up the problem – how to reconcile the creativity, resourcefulness and co-operation which brought Hiroshima back to life, with the cruelty and inhumanity of war, of the war which led to the atomic bombing, and the horror of the bomb itself. What odd beings we are that we can demonstrate such love and such hatred.

Hiroshima is not a sign of resurrection, but of resuscitation. That’s a miracle enough (as Lazarus would testify). Hiroshima reminds me that we human beings need more, we need resurrection. We need to step off our treadmill of the human cycle, with its evil and even its good, and step into something completely different.

Easter is the eighth day of week – the beginning of a new creation. All our best instincts yearn for that, our best endeavours point towards it, but it can only be given to us, not achieved.

Grant, Lord, that we who are baptized into the death of your Son our Saviour Jesus Christ may continually put to death our evil desires and be buried with him; and that through the grave and gate of death we may pass to our joyful resurrection; through his merits, who died and was buried and rose again for us, your Son Jesus Christ our Lord.

That is the collect for today, Easter Eve, Holy Saturday – the empty day in the church’s calendar. A day mostly ignored, because there is nothing to do, liturgically at least. On this one day of the year there is no Holy Communion, the church is dark and empty. The struggle and agony of Good Friday is over, the disciples are scattered and defeated, Christ’s body lies in the tomb.

Holy Saturday is of course, on another level a day of huge busy-ness: all the preparations need to be made for Easter Day. There may be no liturgy, but churches are full of people arranging flowers, cleaning, making ready for the celebration to come. And all of that is right and proper, but … it can also serve to distract us from that deepest mystery of the church’s life, the mystery of death and resurrection.

Because it is only resurrection hope which makes grief possible; resurrection provides a floor to what otherwise can feel like a bottomless abyss, in which we fall constantly, further into despair. Therefore we can, and should dwell with the emptiness and grief of Holy Saturday, not rush too quickly to Easter. Christ’s suffering and death is our assurance that God is with us in our darkest places; his resurrection is our promise that those dark places are not, in the most literal sense, a dead end. Death and ending are both a grave and a gate.

When Jesus was confronted by the Sadducees, who did not believe in resurrection, he responded by taking them back to the roots of Jewish faith, to the burning bush which was consumed by fire and yet lives, and the words which God spoke then

that the dead are raised Moses himself showed, in the story about the bush, where he speaks of the Lord as the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob. Now he is God not of the dead, but of the living; for to him all of them are alive.’

That is the resurrection promise – that all that has lived and been of God still lives in God.

I’ve got a problem, and it’s caused by you – you, reading my blog (immediate family excepted, of course). The problem is that you pay attention to what I’ve got to say, and remember it, and might even quote it back at me. So what’s the problem, you might say – surely in your job you would hope to have people listen in. And you’d be quite right; part of a bishop’s job is to teach the faith, and to speak out about issues in contemporary life. That’s not where the problem lies.

The problem is that another part of my role is to help the church deal with change, and to lead in mission. As well as being at the centre of the church, a focus for unity, I should be at the edge, an innovator – or at least be promoting and inspiring creativity in the people of God. There is a prophetic part of my calling.

(Incidentally, I’m not claiming that it’s only bishops who have these callings in the church. But that’s another discussion.)

The reason why the co-existence of those two things is a problem, is that it’s very difficult to do both well, and it would seem impossible to do them at the same time. At least, if you accept that there’s a direct link between the prophetic, edgy part of ministry, and creativity. There’s certainly a very strong link between being a public figure, and (in most cases) thinking more carefully about what you say. As a bishop, people do tend to weigh your words; I remember doing it to bishops myself before I was one. So as you become aware of that, you slow down, you check over what you’re about to say. And it would seem that you can’t do that, and be creative, at the same time.

The evidence? That great BBC institution Horizon. The recent episode on brain science showed how knowledge is developing about the areas of the brain which light up when creative activity is happening. The research shows that in moments of creativity, the ‘self-censoring’ parts of the brain are turned down several notches. It’s perhaps the neurological equivalent of that ground rule of brain storming sessions – no one is allowed to criticise anyone’s idea while the brainstorm is happening.

So, if I’m to be creative, I have to switch off my caution. But if I’m to exercise my role with proper care, I have to make sure I don’t say things that can be misunderstood or misinterpreted. So now I hope you see why there’s a problem.

And if there’s a problem for the Bishop of Croydon, think how much more difficult it must be for a Prime Minister, or an Archbishop, or a Pope. Both demands are accentuated to a far greater degree than I will ever have to experience. The bodies you lead need creativity, flair and imagination. But no-one allows you to brainstorm. As soon as you say anything, it’s analysed to death for its significances; as soon as you say anything different, it’s a u-turn, or a defeat. You certainly can’t float an idea – as soon it passes your lips it’s a policy.

And finally, it looks like it’s not easy to switch between the two. Caution is habit-forming, creativity likewise. Maybe that’s why I can’t end this post with a solution; maybe I’m losing the knack of creativity. But there’s always the verse from Proverbs which makes the title of this post: the verse runs in full: Where there is no vision, the people perish: but he that keepeth the law, happy is he.

An interesting parallelism there, if we allow ourselves a creative re-interpretation of the text. (Paying no attention to original context, accuracy of the translation, etc.) The first half sounds to modern ears like creativity and innovation; the second half like conformity and caution. Maybe there are ways of holding both – and another part of the Horizon episode might illustrate the way. We can open the path to creativity by consciously relaxing those parts of the brain that act as self-censors; and meditation is one of the ways to do it. Taking time out from the public eye can be the space in which creativity can begin to flow. The heart of this contradiction is that paradoxical activity, prayer.

So I think the remainder of my thoughts this evening will, with all due courtesy to my patient readers, remain my own.

pax

Morning Prayer with Cat

Unfortunately I can’t play you the purring sound track, but this morning’s company at Morning Prayer reminded me of D H Lawrence’s poem, Pax:

All that matters is to be at one with the living God
to be a creature in the house of the God of Life.

Like a cat asleep on a chair
at peace, in peace
and at one with the master of the house, with the mistress,
at home, at home in the house of the living,
sleeping on the hearth, and yawning before the fire.

Sleeping on the hearth of the living world
yawning at home before the fire of life
feeling the presence of the living God
like a great reassurance
a deep calm in the heart
a presence
as of the master sitting at the board
in his own and greater being,
in the house of life.

It’s really dark in the Orkney Islands, this time of year. Once when Alison and I were there at new Year, we saw the sun come up one day, rising over the sea and the islands, at 9am exactly. It was dark by 3:30. It was really quite difficult to get used to. You wake up, thinking you’ve had a long night’s sleep, and it’s still dark. Then you realise it’s 8 o’clock already. But when the light does come, there’s an amazing quality to it. The sunshine flows like butter, all day from such a low angle, sometimes bathing the island so that it seems to glow, sometimes shining up and off the bottom of the clouds to create an eerie, beautiful light. There’s so much sea and loch surface that there’s always a reflection of the sky wherever you look, so you feel as if you’re caught in between two mirrors reflecting light to each other.

One night it was completely clear, so we walked out beyond the street lights to see the stars – not the dozen or so which are strong enough to shine through the London glow, but the sky full of stars, thousands of them making you realise quite how small we are on this planet of ours.

Epiphany is a season of light – as the year begins to turn and the nights get a little shorter, we celebrate Epiphany, the coming of the light of Christ into the world. We are lucky enough that we don’t have to think about light in the way that our ancestors did: we have it at the flick of a switch. I think my only real experience of living without plentiful light was the three day week of the early 70s – I remember the strangeness of sitting in the living room with no light (as well as no television). But the lack of light was normal – for most people until our present age, and in our part of the world, when it got dark, that was about it. Candles wouldn’t light up much; there would always be far more darkness than light.

It’s into that sort of darkness that the light of Christ shines, not as just another neon sign competing for our attention in a brightly lit world. The Epiphany – the manifestation, the revealing of Jesus – lightens us at the point of our deepest darkness. Placing the festival at this point in the year is supposed to create an instant connection, a reality we can feel in our bones, between the darkness in our physical lives, and the spiritual darkness in which we walk without Christ.

George Mackay Brown is one of the greatest poets of the twentieth century (in my opinion) – and he was an Orkneyman. This is his Epiphany poem:

The red king
Came to a great water. He said,
Here the journey ends.
No keel or skipper on this shore.

The yellow king
Halted under a hill. He said,
Turn the camels round.
Beyond, ice summits only.

The black king
Knocked on a city gate. He said,
All roads stop here.
These are gravestones, no inn.

The three kings
Met under a dry star.
There, at midnight,
The star began its singing.

The three kings
Suffered salt, snow, skulls.
They suffered the silence
Before the first word.

The three kings (well, not in the Bible story, but never mind) are already on a quest before the star shines on them – a quest which has proved fruitless, leading them only to impassable barriers. It is the star which gives them a new path by which to travel. What John describes in cosmic terms – the light of the world – Matthew shows in the language of story: a star which leads the wise men to Jesus. The meaning is the same: Jesus is the one in whom the world becomes more than Matthew Arnold’s dismal vision at the end of ‘Dover Beach’:

                    the world, which seems
To lie before us like a land of dreams,
So various, so beautiful, so new,
Hath really neither joy, nor love, nor light,
Nor certitude, nor peace, nor help for pain;
And we are here as on a darkling plain
Swept with confused alarms of struggle and flight,
Where ignorant armies clash by night.

It’s not insignificant I think that Arnold’s poem, which is largely about the loss of faith, ends on a note of darkness. The wise men come out of the furthest dark place that Matthew can conceive. They come from beyond the boundaries of the Roman Empire, in the darkness of barbarian lands (as the empire thought of them); they come from the darkness of being Gentiles, those who had not been given the gift of the Law, who did not know how to obey God; and they come from the darkness of sin: ‘magi’ almost certainly means something less complimentary than ‘wise men’: astrologers, probably. Out of this triple darkness, travelling in the dangerous night (if they are following a star) come these three to find and worship the light.

Their gifts, we all know from ‘We three kings’ demonstrate the depth of their insight into the mystery of Christ. Gold crowns him as king; incense is offered by a priest in worship; myrrh anoints a body for burial. These magi haven’t just struck lucky, or come wondering after a star to see what it might lead to; they know whom they are seeking, and understand that his light also will pass through the darkness of death.

When we switch off the lights, we realise that the darkness still exists. We can cover it up with light entertainment, but there are parts of each of us that we do not understand, parts we fear. There are areas of our lives of which we are ashamed. We do not live in as certain and untroubled a world as we would like.

The Epiphany reminds us that the light of Christ shines in all those dark places – whether we’d like it to or not. The places we would like to hide are not hidden from God. The places we do not know in ourselves are no secret to God. The star which led the magi to Jesus was bright enough to lead them: and Matthew wants us to know that if it could attract them, it can attract anybody. But there are also those who were not attracted, Herod and the priests in Jerusalem, the ones who didn’t wish to acknowledge the presence of another king. The star over Bethlehem is easily ignored; we can switch on the lights and live by our own resources instead. The Epiphany is Christ’s manifestation to the world, but the world did not receive him. The choice is always ours, whether to follow the way of Christ, to offer to him the gifts that we have to honour him with, or to keep them for ourselves.

Unless a fast-free period has been declared, Orthodox Christians are to keep a strict fast every Wednesday and Friday.
abbamoses.com

Canon 1251 Abstinence from eating meat or another food according to the prescriptions of the conference of bishops is to be observed on Fridays throughout the year unless they are solemnities; abstinence and fast are to be observed on Ash Wednesday and on the Friday of the Passion and Death of Our Lord Jesus Christ.
http://www.catholic.org/clife/lent/abfast.php

Michael Mosley’s interesting discovery of the 5:2 diet – which at first blush looks like a much more sustainable and healthy way of keeping weight down than any other I’ve heard of – isn’t all that much of a discovery. In an age when only scientific evidence counts, though, it might help us to appreciate again the wisdom of the ancient Christian, Jewish and Islamic traditions of abstinence.

As the quotation above shows, Christianity has a long tradition of abstinence – two days a week originally. The Christian community probably inherited it from contemporary pious Jewish practice (though it was never a requirement of the Law), though they changed the days because it made sense for one fast day to be Friday, the day of the crucifixion. Islam continued to recommend abstinence on Mondays and Thursdays, probably the same days as Jewish practice.

And what is fasting / abstinence in this context? In the Christian tradition, not an absolute prohibition on food, certainly. catholic.org again: ‘The Church defines this as one meal a day, and two smaller meals which if added together would not exceed the main meal in quantity.’ And abbamoses.com agrees: ‘When fasting, we should eat simply and modestly. Monastics eat only one full meal a day on strict fast days’. That’s awfully close to the 500/600 calories suggested for the abstinence days on the 5:2 diet.

Confession time: I’ve become aware that as a bishop, you get lots of opportunities to eat very fattening food. There’s definitely more of me than there used to be. So why is it that it took an article in the Daily Telegraph (not my normal paper, you will understand) to remind me of the resources in my own tradition? I just hadn’t made the connection between what I knew as a part of church tradition, and my own life.

Of course in the faith traditions, abstinence isn’t about weight loss: that’s a phenomenon of modern times, for most of us. Much more deeply, it’s about discipline: living the best life for you, not the easiest. So, yes I am going to try to adopt the Christian pattern of abstinence. If I turn down your lovely sponge cake, please try not to be too offended. And I am (more importantly) going to try to pay more attention to the wisdom of the church’s tradition, without having to have it filtered through popular science first.

Next Page »