Monday, July 26, 2010

Wonder, love, awe - the "spirit" of worship

Alexander Schmemann, in The Eucharist - Sacrament of the Kingdom, quoting Louis Bouyer:

"It is as though the liturgy alone knows the full meaning of this notion impenetrable to reason. In any event, the liturgy alone is able to transmit it and teach it . . . That religious trembling, that interior vertigo before the Pure, the Inaccessible, the wholly Other, and at the same time that sense of an invisible presence, the attraction of a love so infinite and yet so personal that, having tasted it, we know only that it surpasses all that we still call love: only the liturgy can communicate the unique and incommunicable experience of all this . . . In it, this experience somehow flows from every element - the words, the gestures, the lights, the perfume that fills the temple, as in the vision of Isaiah - coming from what is behind all this and yet not simply all this, but which communicates this, in the same way that the striking expression of a face permits us in an instant to discover a soul, without our knowing how."

Thus we have entered and stand now before the holy. We are sanctified by his presence, we are illumined by his light. And the trembling and the sweet feeling of the presence of God, the jou and peace, which has no equal on earth, is all expressed in the threefold, slow singing of the Trisagion: "Holy God, Holy Mighty, Holy Immortal" - the heavenly hymn, which is sung on earth but testifies to the accomplished reconciliation of earth and heaven, to the fact that God revealed himself to men and that it is given to us to "share in his holiness" (Heb 12:10).

And from Kenneth Graham's The Wind in the Willows:

Rat and Mole are rowing down the river and hear the sound of strange music. They follow the music to a place of "solemn stillness." Suddenly:

"Mole felt a great Awe fall upon him, an awe that turned his muscles to water, bowed his head and rooted his feet to the ground. It was no panic terror - indeed he felt wonderfully at peace and happy - but it was an awe that smote and held him, and, without seeing, he knew it could only mean that some august Presence was very very near. He raised his humble head; and then, in that utter clearness of the imminent dawn, while Nature, flushed with fullness and incredible colour, seemed to hold her breath for the event, he looked in the very eyes of the Friend and Helper . . . Rat! He found breath to whisper, shaking. Are you afraid? 'Afraid?' murmured the Rat, his eyes shining with unutterable love. 'Afraid! of Him O, never never! And yet and yet - O Mole, I am afraid!' Then the two animals, crouching to the earth, bowed their heads and did worship."

Thursday, July 22, 2010

S Mary Magdalen

One of the wittiest writers in the blogosphere is the provocative, amusing and thoroughly orthodox Anglo-Catholic Fr John Hunwicke of S Thomas' Oxford. His posts are full of devotion, real scholarship and delicious irony. Here is his little piece for today, in which both feminist theologians and trendy biblical scholars come off second best!

What a rich and varied life S Mary Magdalen had, according to writers recent and ancient. An associate of the Apostle Junia in the kipper trade, she met our Lord while he was working as a healer, during his Year Out, in the spa at Tiberias. These things are certainties. And let us not question her well-documented presence leaning upon the Lord's breast at his Last Supper. Nor be doubting spoilsports if some latter-day equivalent of Chaucer's Pardoner announces that she possesses, enclosed in a rich reliquary, the genuine Wedding Certificate of Mary of Magdala and Jesus of Nazareth. All this, in addition to the longer established claims of Sant Maissemin de la Bauma. Rarely can a figure have attracted so rich a mythopoeia: the needs of medieval Provence for a Patron; of modern feminists for a female hyperapostolos; of conspiracy theorists for a Mrs Christ; all fulfilled in the Magdalen. Whoever was it who said that imaginative and fertile hagiography came to an end with the demise of the Middle Ages! It continues to fulfil our every need, however bizarre. What a jocose lady Clio must be.

The Magdalen provides new certainties in Biblical Sudies, too. Back in the boring old days of Modern Scientific Biblical Criticism, when S John's Gospel was Late and Unhistorical, nobody would have bet a bent farthing on the veracity of the story about her meeting with Christ in Garden on Easter Morning. But now .... it would be more than anyone's life was worth to question the truth ... nay more, its centrality to the whole resurrection story ... of that pericope*. Just imagine the shrilling.

Personally, I feel we've lost a lot since the Western Church, guided by Bugnini, followed Byzantium in distinguishing between Mary of Magdala - who is now as pure as the driven snow of August 5 - and the Sinful Woman. We now no longer have access to the attractive typology of Gueranger, who sees in the Sinner of Magala a type of fallen humanity and of adulterous Israel, destined to become glorious in her repentance.

Feet feature large in Dom Gueranger's entry for today; naturally he makes much of S Mary Magdalen's attachment to the feet of Jesus (he quotes S Paulinus of Nola "I would rather be bound up in her hair at the feet of Christ ..."). And he seems to suggest that S Cyril of Alexandria admired the beauty of her own apostolic feet. There is no doubt that the image of the reformed but still entrancing courtesan stirred up sensuous images in the minds of many. And is there very much harm in that?


*Similarly, the conviction of many Experts, based upon negligible evidence, that the last two chapters of Romans are inauthentic, is rarely aired nowadays. The Apostle Junia has guaranteed the centrality of Romans 16 to the entire Gospel message.

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

The New Atheists' Questionable History

Some of the swipes Dawkins et al take at the historical foundations of the Christian faith sound convincing to a lot of people. But are they, really? Here Greg Clarke from the Australian Centre for Public Christianity checks them out. Make up your own mind!

The New Atheists questionable history part 1 from CPX on Vimeo.

The New Atheist's questionable history part 2 from CPX on Vimeo.

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Orthodoxy, a Vicar in Sunderland, and Pentecost

One of the interesting ecumenical developments of our time is a new kind of study of Church history that looks for similarities in traditions that might at first seem to have little in common. A very fruitful example of this is the scholarship emerging from Orthodox - Methodist dialogue. Another, especially leading up to the "official" centenary of the pentecostal movement a couple of years ago, is the cluster of studies demonstrating that the origins of the pentecostal/ charismatic movement were much more multifaceted than most of its participants have imagined.

On 6th January this year, Father Michael Harper died. He was one of the early leaders in the charismatic renewal. You can read my tribute to him HERE. In 2008, as an Archpriest of the Antiochan Orthodox Church he delivered a lecture for the Institute for Orthodox Christian Studies at Cambridge in which he looked at the relationship of Orthodoxy to successive movements of Christian renewal. The title of the lecture is:"THE WAVES KEEP COMING IN : THE EVANGELICAL, CHARISMATIC, ORTHODOX AXIS". It can be downloaded as a pdf document. Histories of British pentecostalism refer to Sunderland and the Reverend Alexander Boddy. Here is the section of Michael Harper's lecture dealing with that connection:

Alexander Boddy, the Vicar in Sunderland . . . had very unusual links with both Wesley and the Orthodox Church. He was actually distantly related to Wesley. His mother was Jane Vazeille Stocks, who was descended from Mary Vazeille, whose second husband was John Wesley. Her first husband was Antony Vazeille, a French Huguenot, and they had three sons and a daughter. The Boddys gave the name Vazeille to their son James and their two daughters, Mary and Jane.

But more important were the roots that he had in the Holiness Movement, particularly in the Keswick Convention, which he attended for the first time in 1876, the year after it was founded.

His contact with the Orthodox Church was also unusual, for at that time there were very few Orthodox Churches in western Europe. But Alexander Boddy was a keen traveller and twice visited Russia. According to Peter Lavin in his study of Alexander Boddy “he was attracted by aspects of Orthodoxy such as the devoted humility of its believers, its intense spirituality and the glowing beauty of its icons”.

He then describes his second visit in 1886, “he was to return to Holy Mother Russia escaping from the incredibly soulless western secularism to witness how in Orthodoxy, God came down to earth”.

This time he was to visit the great Solovetsk Monastery in the far north of Russia on the shores of the Arctic. One thing in particular impressed him – a depiction, painted in the dome of the great Cathedral, of the descent of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost on the whole church. He wrote about it “our traditional idea of the power from on high only falling on the Twelve Apostles does not seem to agree with Acts 1:14-15 and 2:6”. So did this experience in Russia set his mind thinking about a personal Pentecost for all?

In passing it is interesting that one of the strongest concentrations of Gulags in Stalinist Russia was around this Monastery, and Stalin established his programme to produce the atomic and nuclear bombs in Sarov, which still to this day is a forbidden city. One of the greatest saints of the Russian Orthodox Church is St Seraphim of Sarov, of all places.

Alexander Boddy witnessed the life and practices of the Orthodox Church in a variety of areas – one of which was Baptism. It is an Orthodox tradition to give a cross to a newly baptised child and hang it around their neck. Alexander Boddy was given one of these crosses when he was in Russia and hung it around the neck of his eldest daughter Mary when he baptised her in 1892. There is also an interesting reference to a towel used in the baptism, which makes one wonder if he had baptised her unclothed as is the Orthodox practice. He certainly baptised her by immersion – not triple in the Orthodox way, but seven-fold!

Alexander Boddy's second daughter Jane recalls that her father brought many icons back from Russia and displayed them prominently in their hall for all to see; he did the same when they moved later into their next parish. Also, if you look at the family photo reproduced in Peter Lavin‟s book, you will notice that Mrs. Boddy is wearing a Russian Orthodox cross around her neck.

In PERSONAL EXPERIENCE OF THE HOLY SPIRIT ACCORDING TO THE GREEK FATHERS, a paper presented at the European Pentecostal/Charismatic Research Conference held in Prague on 10-14 September 1997, Bishop Kallistos Ware also looks at the Orthodox influence on this early British pentecostal who remained an Anglican, but whose ministry launched a number of significant pentecostal leaders:

The Holy Spirit supplies all things:

He causes prophecies to spring up,

He sanctifies priests,

To the uninitiated He taught wisdom,The fishermen He turned into theologians.

He holds in unity the whole structure of the Church.

- From an Orthodox hymn on the Feast of Pentecost

Around the year 1890 an Anglican traveller from Sunderland, the Revd Alexander Boddy, Vicar of All Saints, Monkwearmouth, came as a pilgrim to the great Solovetsky Monastery on the White Sea in the far north of Russia. One thing in particular impressed him. It was a depiction of the descent of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost:

When, nearly two decades later, on the occasion of a famous visit from T.B. Barratt, there was an outpouring of the Holy Spirit in Boddy’s Sunderland parish on 31 August 1907, is it not likely that this ’striking representation’ of Pentecost that he had seen in Russia was still vividly present in his memory? A formative event in the history of British Pentecostalism turns out in this way to have, as one of its sources, the iconography of an Orthodox monastic church.

This unexpected connection between Orthodox Christianity and the origins of the twentieth-century Pentecostal movement in Britain naturally leads us to ask: can we discover other links, on a more specifically theological level, between Orthodoxy and Pentecostalism? How far is the Christian East sympathetic to a ‘charismatic’ understanding of the spiritual life? At first sight it might appear that there is but little affinity. Orthodoxy, it might be said, is liturgical and hierarchic, whereas Pentecostalism is grounded upon the free and spontaneous action of the Spirit; Orthodoxy appeals to Holy Tradition, whereas Pentecostalism assigns primacy to personal experience.

Anyone, however, who searches more deeply will soon realize that stark contrasts of this kind are one-sided and misleading. In actual fact, many of the Greek Fathers insist with great emphasis upon the need for all baptized Christians to attain in their own personal experience a direct and conscious awareness of the Holy Spirit. No one can be a Christian at second-hand: such is the frequently repeated teaching of the Fathers. Holy Tradition does not signify merely the mechanical and exterior acceptance of truths formulated in the distant past, but it is in the words of the Russian theologian Vladimir Lossky – nothing else than ‘the life of the Holy Spirit in the Church' here and now, at this present moment.

Click on the LINK to read the whole of Bishop Kallistos Ware's paper.

Sunday, July 18, 2010

Jesus & the Eucharist: Dugmore's Hymn

Among the more recent treasures of Anglican patrimony is this hymn on the Eucharist, which appears in both Hymns Ancient and Modern and the Mirfield Mission Hymn Book. There is nothing quite like it for turning the sweep of Eucharistic theology into a summary of the Gospel.

It was written by Ernest Edward Dugmore, who was born in 1843 at Bayswater, England, educated at Bruce Castle School, by private tutors, and at Wadham College, Oxford. Ordained in 1867, he was Curate at St Peter's, Vauxhall (1867-1872), Vicar of Parkstone (1872), and Canon of Sarum and Prebendary of Gillingham Major (1900). He died in 1925.

Because of the length of the hymn, and the fact that neither of the tunes provided really caught on, it never achieved the popularity it deserved (unlike some of the other great Anglo-Catholic Eucharistic hymns: "Let all mortal flesh keep silence", "Wherefore, O Father . . .", "Lord, enthroned in heavenly splendour", "And now, O Father, mindful of the love . . .")

Two parishes ago I resurrected Dugmore's hymn by having it sung to the tune Blanwearn. Of course, the second half of the tune needs to be repeated each time. But it became a wonderful processional hymn for Corpus Christi. (It's a bit long for ordinary use, and I, personally, couldn't bring myself to cut any verses out!)

Christians, sing the incarnation of th'eternal Son of God,
Who, to save us, took our nature, soul and body, flesh and blood;
God, he saw man's cruel bondage, who in death's dark dungeon lay;
Man, he came to fight man's battle, and for man he won the day.
Alleluia, Alleluia to th'incarnate Son of God,
Who for man as Man hath conquered in our own true flesh and blood.

King of kings and Lord of angels, he put off his glory-crown,
Had a stable-cave for palace, and a manger for his throne;
Helpless lay, to whom creation all its life and being owed,
And the lowly Hebrew maiden Was the mother of her God.
Alleluia, Alleluia to th'incarnate Son of God,
Who concealed his dazzling Godhead 'neath the veil of flesh and blood.

Through a life of lowly labour he on earth was pleased to dwell,
All our want and sorrow sharing; God with us, Emmanuel:
Yet, a dearer, closer union Jesus in his love would frame;
He, the Passover fulfilling, gave himself as paschal Lamb.
Alleluia, Alleluia to t h'incarnate Son of God,
Who the heav'nly gifts bequeathed us of his own true flesh and blood.

Then, by man refused and hated, God for man vouchsafed to die,
Love divine its depth revealing on the heights of Calvary;
Through his dying the dominion from the tyrant death was torn,
When its Victim rose its Victor on the resurrection morn.
Alleluia, Alleluia to th'incarnate Son of God,
Who through his eternal Spirit offers his own flesh and blood.

Forty days of mystic converse lived on earth the Risen One,
Speaking of his earthly kingdom, ere he sought his heav'nly throne:
Then, his latest words a blessing, he ascended up on high,
And through rank on rank of angels Captive led captivity.
Alleluia, Alleluia to th'incarnate Son of God,
Who the holiest place hath entered in our flesh and by his blood.

Now upon the golden altar, in the midst before the throne,
Incense of his intercession he is offering for his own.
And on earth at all his altars, his true presence we adore,
And his sacrifice is pleaded, yea, till time shall be no more.
Alleluia, Alleluia to th'incarnate Son of God,
Who, abiding Priest forever, still imparts his flesh and blood.

Then, adored in highest heaven, we shall see the virgin's Son,
All creation bowed before him, Man upon th'eternal throne:
Where, like sound of many waters in one ever rising flood,
Myriad voices hymn his triumph, Victim, Priest, incarnate God.
Worthy he all praise and blessing who, by dying, death o'ercame;
Glory be to God forever! Alleluia to the Lamb!

A Profile of Bishop John Broadhurst (BBC)

Go HERE to listen to yesterday's BBC program.

Here is the One Whose Breath We Breathe

More from Carlo Carretto:

The experience of God's presence in nature and in history for me is fundamental. It is the substance of faith.

Gradually I must arrive at living it, at feeling it by day and by night, being aware of it when I work and when I rest, enjoying it when I pray and when I love.


Twenty-four hours out of twenty-four! It is the path that leads me to live in the kingdom of God which is the union between heaven and earth, between God and humanity.

But let us understand each other: it is not a matter of establishing the Union with God on our side. Because the Union exists; it already existed before 1 was aware of it.

That is an absolute because nothing exists outside of God.

In God we live and move and have our being (Acts 17:28); this is the basis of all reality, the explanation of being, the very significance of Life, the enduring root of Love.

What matters on our side is to become aware of this union, to be attentive to it in faith, to deepen it in hope, to live in charity.

It is the story of the baby who gradually discovers its mother and father, of the woman who finds her husband, of the man who finds a friend. But the mother and father were there already the husband was there already, the friend was there already.

And God was there already. It is for us to discover him within ourselves, not to create him.

God's presence in ourselves, in the cosmos is the invisible, in everything, is basic. You will never be in any place, in any situation, where he is not.

“O Lord, thou has searched me and known me!
Thou knowest when I sit down and when I rise up,
Thou discoverest my thoughts from afar,
Thou searchest out my path and my lying down …
   (from Psalm 139)

And it is silly to think that he is in church and not in the street, that he is in the Sacrament and not in the crowd, that he is in happiness and not in sorrow, in bright, kind things and not on storms and earthquakes.

Friday, July 16, 2010


Carlo Carretto (1910 – 1988) was an Italian spiritual writer inspired by Charles de Foucauld and others who have sought God in simplicity and solitude. He was a school teacher, and a worker with Catholic Action. Between 1954 and 1964 he lived as a hermit in the Sahara desert, settling eventually in Spello, Italy, where he lived the rest of his life as a hermit and spiritual director. The English translations of his books became very popular in the 1970’s and 1980’s, and they helped me to grasp something of both the simplicity and the struggle of the Christian life. This post is much longer than usual, but if you haven’t read Carretto’s book “I SOUGHT AND I FOUND” (1984) from which it comes, I’m sure you will benefit from meditating your way through it!

If we could always remain children, little children in the Spirit, everything would be easier and faith in God would develop naturally, as a tree develops, containing the programme of its long future in its seed.

You see, there is something we must keep well in mind: It may be hard to believe, but it is a lot harder not to.

It is not easy to shrug off so colossal a thing as the whole universe with the simple phrase “I don’t believe”, and blithely refuse all response to the tremendous logic of things visible.

Like it or not, faced with the real, I have to find a plausible reason for it - a reason that will satisfy my thirst to know. After all, the real is there, right in front of me, with its life that I collide with, its light that envelops me, its love that seeks me out.

Saying “I don’t believe in God” ends up begging the question. 
What if God were to be everything that is real? 
Could I deny him then, saying that he does not exist while I am actually seeing him, touching him, experiencing him? 
Why not accept him? 
Why not say yes to all that is visible? 
Why not begin to fall in love with that? 
Why not go ahead and shout for joy at this reality clothed in light and flowers, and exult at its all-embracing might, and fall on my knees in ecstasy before its unutterable mystery? 
Why not? 
How many things it has to tell me, this All enfolding me, speaking to me through the alphabet of the stars, delighting me with its fantastic presence, always going before me and all but stifling me in the embrace of its infinitude and its all-enveloping unity! 
Have today’s human beings perhaps become more illogical then primitive man, who was so in love with the sun - adorable, fantastic thing that it is - that he made no bones about worshipping it? 
Do today’s human beings perhaps think they are “smarter” by saying no to everything with their wiseacre sarcasm, and looking at everything with a jaundiced eye?

This is the one way never to succeed in arriving at the truth. This is the tried and true way of becoming deaf, dumb and blind, and staying that way.

I too could decide to stay on the outside. But is certainly would not be very interesting.

It would be boring, to say the least.

And certainly joyless and uncreative . . .
And so I have often wondered: Can it really be such a difficult thing to accept so simple a notion as the idea of God?

What is at the basis of this difficulty I have in saying yes, a yes shouted out by all things? What makes it so difficult to accept a simple logic that rules all logic - to make myself available to so evident and so universal a love?

It was in this difficulty that I then discovered a terrifying, inexorable presence - a presence dominating the whole universe, and present in each of us, deep within our spirit, in the hidden recesses of our soul.

When I thought about this, I felt that this presence had something of the implausible about it and that it was precisely behind its implausibility that it chooses to hide, the more easily to prevail.

Nor do I know what name to give it, so as not to scandalize anyone or raise obstacles for anyone on the road to faith. When Paul VI made bold to refer to this presence, calling it Satan, many people were scandalized and accused him, the greatest and most prudent pope of our times, of reverting to the terrors and obscurantism of the Middle Ages.

Shall I call it the evil one, the Tempter? 
And why not call it Satan, as the gospel does (Matthew 12:26) 
Beelzebul, as Jesus himself does (Matthew 12:27) 
the devil (Matthew 4:5) 
the unclean spirit (Luke 11:24) 
the one who “possesses”, who takes over a person (John 8:48) 
the liar (John 8:44) 
the murderer, the one who brings death (John 8:44) 
the prince of this world (John 21:31) 
the reign of darkness (Luke 22:53) 
When Jesus challenged it to give its name, it replied: “My name is...legion, for there are many of us” (Mark 5:9)

There is nothing more mysterious than the evil one. 
But is God any less mysterious? 
We ought to have the guts to accept a little of darkness, while keeping the wondering eye of surprised childhood fixed that which is bright. 
I do not seek to understand him, I seek to believe. 
I have not arrived at God by understanding, I have arrived at him by faith. 
And Satan too. I do not understand him, I believe in him. 
And just as it is in experience that I have received the answer of the existence of God, so it has been in experience that I have received the answer of the existence of Satan.

Perhaps it would be better not to call him Satan for the moment. Too many things pop into our mind. We are too spoiled by our mania for conjuring up pictures of things that cannot be pictured.

After all, Deuteronomy says (4:15-18): 
“Take great care what you do, therefore . . . see that you do not act perversely, making yourselves a carved image in the shape of anything at all: whether it be in the likeness of many or of woman, or of any beast on the earth, or of any bird that flies in the heavens, or of any reptile that crawls on the ground, or of any fish in the waters under the earth.” 
“. . . you saw no shape on that day at Horeb when the Lord spoke to you from the midst of the fire...” (Deuteronomy 4:15)

I think the same goes for Satan, and I force myself to leave him behind a veil of mystery. Too readily have we drawn pictures of him, and in so doing have produced an irrational, distorted result.

Has he a face? 
Is he without a face? 
Has he a body? 
Is he a spirit? 
I do not know. 
But I have learned to feel him, to experience him, and I cannot deny him, and I am certainly not about to deny him.

I feel the presence as the Tempter. 
How does he act? 
I do not know. 
I only know that, as I look at human beings and their boundless abominations, it seems to me impossible for them to have managed to do such terrible things on their own.

Human beings are helped by someone else when they dig the abyss of sin in themselves, when they sink to the roots of despair.

There is someone behind them making suggestions when they deny truth and betray love. There is a sadistic spirit at hand, who stops at nothing when a tyrant starves a people. There is a planner when millions of people are gassed in extermination camps, and generations of children die of hunger under the indifferent eye of governments. 
There is, there is, there is! And there is one in us, too, when we no longer smile at life, when we have no more will to build, when we do not want a child, when we crowd the elderly into “homes”, when we hate our sister or our brother, when we are indifferent to someone’s suffering, or when we fling ourselves on the ground and refuse to keep hoping. 
And there is one in us when we stand before gleaming glaciers, or the trembling of the light upon the sea, and remain unmoved, empty of wonder. 
And there is one in us when we ask the Real One surrounding us for his identity papers, and shout in his face: 
“Who Are YOU?” 
“Have you come to disturb us?’ (cf. Mark 1:24)

After all, only I exist! I have no need of you! 
I do not want you, God, because your power destroys mine, your will limits mine. 
Yes, at bottom it is true, and the temptation of “If you exist, then I cannot exist.”

Can I still be surprised if I find it hard to believe in God?

If so many people cry out in their foolishness, “God does not exist?” 
If my night is dark, if my heart is dry and knows not how to love? 
If my hope droops and pales?

No, do not be astonished, my soul. 
Do not be astonished if, to your timid, feeble YES, with which you seek to affirm the existence of God, the deafening answer of the Evil One comes crashing back in echo, “NO!” 
No, He does not exist! 
Do not be astonished if, in the face of your effort to fulfill yourself in truth and love, you feel him throw you to the ground, vanquished for the umpteenth time. 
Do not be astonished if, in the face of your sincere promise to be faithful to man, you find yourself an hour later to be a two-faced traitor, a selfish, cruel, swaggering gangster and grafter. 
Do not be astonished! 
And do not be astonished either, when in prayer you hear the words of the Psalmist on your lips, “So longs my soul for you, my God” (Psalm 42:2), and immediately afterwards you hear in reply: 
“Where is your God?” 
“Where is your God?” 
“Where is your God?” (Psalm 42:4, 10)

Yes, the Evil One, the Tempter, is like the proliferation of a cancer inside me, spreading, developing wherever it possibly can, seeking to destroy everything within me, right to the roots.

There. Perhaps the comparison with a cancer is the most apt one, the most appropriate “sign” of evil personalized in Satan: of that tremendous reality that has impressed the generations, continuously being accepted or rejected, impossible to define in its mysterious, yet genuine and indisputable presence.

Yes, evil is within me and I cannot deny it. 
Sometimes it is so embedded in me, so identified with my own reality, that I can no longer distinguish it in its essence.

Am I a “cancer” unto myself? Or is it a cancer I can excise with a scalpel and get rid of?

Usually I perceive it as something other than myself, and I give it a name, as the gospel gives it a name, and I fight it as a mortal enemy.

It is a mysterious thing, and I prefer to take Jesusword for it and not discuss it too much. Otherwise I become lost in the maze of my own reasoning and fail to reach a conclusion. But there is one thing I do know about it, something I know from experience. I know that it always attacks me at my central part, at my relationship with God, trying to destroy what unites me with him . . . faith, hope, charity. 
It is a continual, life-and-death struggle, and I have never seen my poverty to be so real as in this combat.

This is why I feel pity for myself, and pity for all who claim not to believe or find it hard to believe. 
I know what that means.

I feel, too, that when the churches insist so much on moral codes and take so much interest in listing the various “legal” sins and getting them confessed, they do not realize they are putting a sticking-plaster over a wound, the deepest wound of all.

No, my friends, the real sin we should confess, and should confess everyday, especially today, is our
not believing, not hoping, not loving.

We have never sufficiently bewailed our weakness in faith, in hope and in charity, and we have never sufficiently noticed the presence of the Evil One in this struggle of ours.

Another thing that the spirit of evil seeks to do is to divide up my unity and to set me at odds with myself. 
This is why he is called the divider. 
When prophecy proclaims a truth about God to me, using the actual, real me, I immediately deny it. 
When I find myself with Abraham at the terebinth of Mamre, and the angel comes to say that Sarah will have a child, when I know that Sarah is sterile and old, I feel, rising within me, Sarah’s laughter behind the tent-flap as she thinks “It is not possible” (cf. Genesis 18). 
Woe to me if God were to hear and keep account of all the times that Sarah laughs within me! 
“...God created the heavens and the earth” (Genesis 1:1). 
And Sarah laughs, because it does not seem a likely thing to her. 
“The Word was made flesh” (John 1:14) 
And Sarah stands before the mystery of the God made visible on earth in Christ, and laughs. 
“...this is my body...this is my blood...” (Matthew 26:26,18), and the laughter goes on.

Here truly is the nature of evil, in the ability to say no to faith, to hope, to love. 
This is the sin in which we are immersed to the tops of our heads. 
This is the sin I confess everyday, and which everyday springs up in me anew. 
This is my poverty. 
This is our true poverty. 
this is our sorrow. 
This is our weakness.

An Inspiring Sermon on Mary and the Apocalypse

I always look forward to reading FORWARD IN CHRIST - THE ANGLO-CATHOLIC VOICE OF THE AMERICAS, the magazine of Forward in Faith North America (FiFNA). What a feast the May 2010 edition proved to be! They do have a WEB SITE on which a number of the articles appear. But this sermon, by Nashotah House seminarian Sam Keyes, was not there . . . so I scanned it in order to share it with you.

“l want you to be free from anxieties.” 1 Cor 7:32-40, Mark 6:1-13 

Driving in the eastern European countryside can be an anxious experience for Americans. In this blessed country, especially now in the 21st century, we are exceptionally good at signage. If, God help you, you want to go to a small town in the middle of Mississippi, you just follow the signs. There are signs with road numbers and names, signs saying what towns are ahead or to the side, signs with mileage, and signs for various landmarks. 

But say you’re trying to get to the Hungarian village of Villánykövesd. You’re driving along the motorway, and suddenly, a few meters before the exit, there’s a sign with the name of the place. No warning signs, just the one. You pull off onto the narrow country road. After a few miles of blank countryside you begin to wonder if you’re going in the right direction. After half an hour you begin to think that you’re going to end up in another country if you don’t turn around. And then, after you’ve long abandoned hope, you see a little sign with the name of the village, and you’re there. 

Sometimes, in my darker moments, I think the Christian life is something like that. Did 1 miss a sign somewhere? Shouldn’t 1 be there already? What if I’m headed in the wrong direction? 

This image is unavoidable if we look seriously at the apocalyptic implications of both of our readings tonight. In Mark the twelve are sent out with no provisions: just a staff and the clothes on their backs. The message of the kingdom is all they need, and their lack of concern for their own security only intensifies the urgency of that message. 

St Paul says it is better not to marry. Why? To a traditional Jew this should be scandalous. Isn’t the first human vocation to “be fruitful and multiply”? Is the world really ending so soon? 

And this is all well and good. But then we tell ourselves: surely we know now that St Paul’s apocalyptic expectation was wrong. The Lord didn’t return in his lifetime. Shouldn’t these apocalyptic ethics be abandoned? lt looks like we could be here for a while - shouldn’t we get on with planning for the future? 

Most of us have a hard time imagining that our lives have anything to do with the end times. We think of it in terms of grand battles between angels and demons: giant beasts and dragons, antichrists, desolation, and cataclysm. And we didn’t just make those images up: they come to us straight from Scripture-from the Revelation to St John and from Daniel, from our Lord’s own words in the gospels, and even from the kind of “signs and wonders” we see in our gospel this evening. 

So here’s what it comes down to: if I went to the beach for vacation and found a seven-headed beast crawling out of the sea, well, maybe I’d reconsider Paul’s instructions to live as if the world were ending. As it is, I’ll just get on with my life, thank you very much. 

But this is, 1 want to suggest, to misunderstand what the apocalypse looks like. We forget that the apocalypse didn’t begin with nuclear weapons or with dragons, but with the event that many of us remember three times a day: “The angel of the Lord announced unto Mary. And she conceived by the Holy Ghost.” 

The Lord of all creation, gestating in the Virgin’s womb for nine months. Then he goes and spends 90% of his earthly life in a carpenter’s shop. And we think that, because we lack dragons, we can get on with our preservation strategies, avoiding Paul’s reminder that this world is passing away. 

In an interview last year one philosopher said, “The end times will be very long and monotonous - so mediocre and uneventful from a religious and spiritual standpoint that the danger of dying spiritually, even for the best of us, will be very great” (Rene Girard in First Things).  

Nothing spectacular, just a long road, with very few signs. A road so tedious at times that we are tempted to doubt that there is anything very important about it, that anything especially interesting will come of it. The main sign on the motorway - let’s name that the Cross - seems a long way back, and it is hard to know if we’re on the right road. 

A friend of mine has devoted much of his life to working with kids in the inner-city neighborhoods of Richmond. He once confided to me that when he visits churches a lot of people tell him, “What you do must be so rewarding!” But in fact, he said, it is incredibly unrewarding, and at times he wonders if he does any good at all. Is living in witness to the kingdom rewarding? 

The assumption that our lives must be rewarding is another way of saying, with St. Paul, that they are full of anxiety. But, he says, “I want you to be free from anxieties.” Free from the need to live rewarding lives. Free from the need to live lives that are interesting. And here’s the key: free from the need to save the world. 

We live in a culture that prizes heroes, yet the Christian life isn’t designed to make us into heroes but to make us into saints. And the thing about saints is: they endure. Heroes either go down in flame and glory or they save the world - whether from terrorists or aliens or big business or popes (pick your Hollywood preference). But saints die unnoticed in monasteries after lives of silent prayer; they live simply with their families in fidelity to the gospel; they submit willingly and quietly to the hand of persecutors; they probably do not end up in Holy Women and Holy Men; and even when they do find themselves in the public spotlight - like Blessed Teresa of Calcutta - they point with trembling hands towards the Cross. 

What it means to live in the end times, then, is not that there are dragons or a rapture lurking around every corner: it is that there can be nothing more interesting, nothing more heroic, nothing more satanic or evil or world-shattering than the Cross. All battles that may come, whether fleshly or spiritual, pale in comparison to the victory that our Lord has already won. And this is both comforting and disturbing, for it means that our lives may appear to the world, and to ourselves at times, profoundly boring. We may very well be in danger of demonic attack, but equally often, perhaps more so, we are in danger of falling asleep at the wheel, of imagining that the dark, uneventful monotony means that we no longer need to cultivate virtue. 

Yet living in the apocalypse, after the Cross, also means that our perseverance on the long road has nothing to do with our own capacities for greatness but with the unending charity of Christ. 

We know that charity, as the prayer says, “by the message of an angel.” And Mary, full of grace, models for us the perfect way of discipleship: for she received that message and followed the road, not knowing where it would lead. Who knows how long it must have felt: thirty years of faith, without the benefit of many road signs. Most of us would have convinced ourselves, that we needed to take matters into our own hands, to chart an alternate route, to invent new virtues fitting for the times. But Mary “believed that there would be a fulfillment of what was spoken to her by the Lord.” 

Mary is Queen of Heaven not because she saved the world, but because she knew, more completely than any of us, that she couldn’t save the world. She was of all humanity the most “free from anxieties,” the most un-heroic, and so she is the first to share in our glorious inheritance. 

May her prayers bring us to the foot of the Cross, that we may know with her that the kingdom has come, and so be saved from all our anxieties. Amen. 

Tuesday, July 6, 2010

Gifted Individualism is NOT Leadership

How time flies! It doesn't seem all that long ago that Peter Jensen became Archbishop of Sydney (my home town). Well, I've just read the current issue of the Australian Church Record which indicates that in Sydney they are already thinking about who the NEXT Archbishop will be. The Editorial has some very useful remarks on leadership in general, and what leaders in the post-baby-boomer church need to be like:

One of the great privileges of being part of the Lord's people is rubbing shoulders with so many gifted people. Paul's image of 'the body' (1 Corinthians 12) displays such a beautiful picture of the organic unity that exists amongst God's people. Here we find the Spirit of God has baptized all of us into the body-life of the congregation, and God has richly gifted his people. This is so that the body-life can function well, with security and stability, thus promoting the movement towards 'growing up into the head (Christ)', our ultimate maturity (Ephesians 4).

At least two factors in the last half-century have placed 'giftedness' firmly on the agenda, especially when it comes to discussions of 'leadership'. The first is within 'Christian culture', namely, the influence of neo-pentecostalism. This has made it almost axiomatic for Christians to wonder about the gifts the Spirit may have distributed to them. The second (and related) factor comes from general culture, namely, the so-called 'sixties revolution', a phenomenon which simmered across the decade, came to a head in 1968, and then continued to bring massive cultural transformation across the seventies and beyond.

With a cry for freedom from all authority, individualism - arguably already lying under some constraint in western society - was catapulted to the forefront. And along with this - with some kind of strange amnesia for the tyrannical examples from just a decade or two previously - came the rise of 'charismatic leadership'. Whether dispensed by revolutionary figures, rock stars, or the gurus of the increasing number of new religious movements, 'leadership' was no longer connected to social position, or to any perceived 'authority' structure or social convention, but it was connected to a counter-cultural individual who managed to sway others by his/her personal charisma.

With sad predictability, Christian culture soon followed suit. Whether expressed publicly in the charismatic movement or in 'famous-preacher' cults; or behind the closed doors of scholarship, where Jesus began to be restyled as a charismatic leader, the ripple effects of this view of leadership continue to the present time.

But gifted individualism is not leadership. The ability to rule others by the persuasive force of personality is not leadership. The ability of a 'charismatic' personality to sway the crowds is not a sign of good leadership. The attractive power of decisive action and even impressive ability are not signs of beneficial leadership. Ability in rhetorical pulpiteering, whether inside or outside the Church, says nothing about whether the teaching is true leadership.

And what has any of this got to do with Christian leadership? Jesus came amongst us to serve. God gifts his people for their works of service, exercised in a spirit of love and desire for edification. Shepherding involves serving up the word of God to feed the flock. True and proper use of God's charismata will be corporately expressed for the common good of the body, building itself towards maturity. Spotting those gifted for Christian leadership is therefore a tricky task, for it involves spotting qualities of self-effacing service; other-person-centred motivations and actions; integrated relational connectedness already displayed; quiet godliness already in operation amongst God's people; faithfulness in teaching by which the people of God are already being nurtured towards maturity; and the like.

Unfortunately, those influenced by the sixties' destabilization (and at the moment, that must be most) may completely overlook such quiet achievers in the quest for 'charismatic leaders'. They may even express a disappointment at the absence of leadership in the next generation - but according to what criteria is this judgment being made?

Western society is on the brink of its next turning-point. The sixties generation are being forced to let go (not of their own will, but through thoroughly 'natural processes'). Presumably there will be sixties' disciples who continue to push forward the quest for the 'charismatic leader'. But, perhaps too the moment is ripe for a different form of 'leadership' to emerge from the next generation. Hopefully within Christian circles, this leadership might reflect more of the Master.