Archives for category: History

Receiving mercy lies beyond my capababilities. It is always initiated by another. I am subject to their determination. Where justice is quite literally to receive my just deserts, mercy is an act of compassionate forgiveness in place of just punishment. Usually born of love, mercy has the capacity to change my perspective about myself, the world and ‘the other’, who extends mercy to me.

In a world that prefers to celebrate a ‘pull yourself up by your bootstraps’ attitude to life, mercy can appear a weak and unhelpful intervention. It is often represented as a failure to punish misbehaviour appropriately. It never seeks to look beyond the act of misbehaviour to the reasons that gave rise to it.

The essence and power of mercy is illustrated in the oft quoted parable of the Good Samaritan. Jesus’ encouragement to all of us is that the human response is to follow the example of this Samaritan. Perhaps, as the world struggles to address this global pandemic, it’s a time to remind ourselves that we are global citizens. This was something we were reminded about in the, ‘One World: Together At Home concert‘ last night.

Not to confuse matters, but as disciples of Jesus we are truly global citizens, for our citizenship, as St. Paul reminds us, is in heaven, and so the world is our stage. St. Paul also explains that material, sexual and ethnic distinctives are subsumed through are being joined to the resurrected Christ and thereby drawn into the company of heaven. This is often not our experience as our feet and fears remain rooted within our localised space; our experienced reality.

Within the Roman Catholic church, today is ‘Divine Mercy Sunday‘. A relatively recent addition to the church’s calender and one born of the revelations to a Polish nun, Saint Faustina. She had a short but impactful life, dying aged 33 in 1938. You may have natural suspicions over

Faustina Kowalska

revelations, yet I like this whole story for it is diarised conversations with Jesus and talked through with a spiritual director at the time. The whole account available on the public record.

The nub of the revelations is that Jesus is merciful and desires that we actively and practically consider those both known and unknown to us and bring them to God in prayer. This is so that they might enjoy God’s mercy; For the sake of His sorrowful Passion, have mercy on us and on the whole world. I like both the simplicity and the inclusiveness of this prayer.

It has proved really helpful to Jayne and me here in the Oratory. This is a home of prayer, whose routines are ordered around our daily rhythm of prayer. For quite some time I was struggling with how to respond to God’s request that we carry the world at the heart of our Oratory life. This discovery opened the way. Now I say the Chaplet of divine mercy every day in my attempt to ‘Go and do likewise’, as Jesus directed.

Prayer softens the heart, breaks the stranglehold of both cynicism and despondency, and consequently gives birth to a lifestyle that seeks to act out mercy in practical ways everyday. It demolishes self centredness brick by brick and generates a servant heart, where, again to quote St. Paul, we are able to put others interests above our own.

Mercy

The purpose of mercy is never to ‘let someone off lightly‘ but to open their eyes to a realm of social interaction within which the sacredness of life is revealed. Unlike material goods there is no objective price that can be placed upon a human life, something a pandemic brings home with a stark reality. Each life is priceless. It’s value set through the death and resurrection of Jesus, a costly and personal sacrificial act.

Perhaps in this season of anxiety we can take some moments to remind ourselves that we are no more nor less valuable than our neighbour. That the geatest demonstration of my humanity is when I live with others in mind, or as Ron Sider said in his 1978 classic, ‘Rich Christians in an Age of Hunger’, we are to live, ‘totally available to and with unlimited liability for one another’. Perhaps it takes a pandemic to bring the truth of this message home to us. So let’s not lose it going forward. Start with a simple, easily memorised, prayer;

For the sake of His sorrowful Passion, have mercy on us and on the whole world.

And then, as Lockdown lifts, lets act out that prayer in our interactions with, as well as in our thoughts towards, others.

As media and others press government over when to loosen the Lockdown Rules, how is God reshaping our understanding of how we, the colony of heaven on earth, emerge?

Clement of Rome

Walk like a Christian

I, together with my friend Stuart, am looking at the Pre Constantinian church in some detail. Form the few surviving texts, it’s encouraging and challenging to discern how those first Christian comunities lived. Let me quote from St. Clement of Rome writing to the church in Corinth, perhaps as early as 65 CE.

‘…a complete absence of self assertion were common to you all…giving was dearer to your hearts than receiving…you paid careful heed to His words, treasured them in your hearts, and kept his sufferings constantly before your eyes.The reward was a deep and shining peace, a quenchless ardour for well-doing, and a rich outpouring of the Holy Spirit upon you all.You were full of aspirations to holiness…you harboured no resentments; any kind of faction or schism was an abomination to you. You mourned for a neighbour’s faults, and regarded their failings as your own. Never did you grudge a kindly action; always you were ready for any deed of goodness. In the beauty of a pure and lovely citizenship, whatever you did was done in the fear of God, and the statutes and judgements of the Lord were engraved on the tablets of your hearts.’

In the economic ‘crisis’ introduced through the Lockdown, many churches, charities and Christian events have been looking to find some safe economic harbour to secure their future. Yet, this is an opportunity to take stock. The future will require a people of faith who have the courage and the conviction to return to living after the pattern of those early Christians.

‘It’s no longer I who live…’

These first followers knew no earthly security. They banked upon Christ’s message of hope alone. They lived to illustrate the truths they gave voice to. They enjoyed no earthly security. I ask myself can I dare to live in that way? If not what do I truly believe of the Christian message I espouse and claim to practice? As Bonheoffer stated in his ‘Letters and Papers from Prison‘,

We must learn to regard people less in the light of what they do or omit to do, and more in the light of what they suffer.”

A message for those on the front line

So it was that I was struck by what Pope Francis wrote to all those working in popular movements and organisations in encouragement and support of those on the margins of our society. That number may greatly increase following the economic hit of Lockdown. I quote,

If the struggle against COVID-19 is a war, then you are truly an invisible army, fighting in the most dangerous trenches; an army whose only weapons are solidarity, hope, and community spirit, all revitalizing at a time when no one can save themselves alone. As I told you in our meetings, to me you are social poets because, from the forgotten peripheries where you live, you create admirable solutions for the most pressing problems afflicting the marginalised“.

Is this not the same ‘invisble army’ that St Clement describes? Is it not the same ‘invisible army’ that you and I, as disciples, are members of?

As Pope Francie goes on to say,

I hope that this time of danger will free us from operating on automatic pilot, shake our sleepy consciences and allow a humanist and ecological conversion that puts an end to the idolatry of money and places human life and dignity at the centre. Our civilization — so competitive, so individualistic, with its frenetic rhythms of production and consumption, its extravagant luxuries, its disproportionate profits for just a few — needs to downshift, take stock, and renew itself.

Practical response

Perhaps the best we can do during Lockdown is to engage in a serious audit of our lives with God. Here we can determine our lifestyle choices, how best we might live in service of the belief we hold, once we emerge from Lockdown. There will be enormous pressure to resume business as usual. There will be a great temptation to turn a blind eye to the many casualties who stumble out of Lockdown. A significant opportunity will present itself to recalibrate the life and message we as church present to a troubled post pandemic world.

I’m remeinded, in this American Presidential election year, of the ianaugral address of President John F. Kennedy,

Ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country‘.

This is the very moment when we, the church, we who have chosen to shoulder the cross of discipleship, to carry the reputation of God upon our shoulders, must decide how we might live if we are to make any sense in the world and become something other than a clanging cymbal of futile sounds with no impact upon the eveils of our world.

I have included the full text of the Pope’s address, which I commend for a reflective reading and a provocation to prayer. Do let me know, stcuthbertsoratory@gmail.com, how you are arising from the ashes of the pandemic lockdown, and be assured we are praying here in the Oratory for a bright and blessed future.

Pope Francis’ Easter Sunday Letter, 12 April 2020

To our brothers and sisters of popular movements and organizations 

Dear Friends,
I often recall our previous meetings: two at the Vatican and one in Santa Cruz de la Sierra, and I must tell you that this “souvenir” warms my heart. It brings me closer to you, and helps me re-live so many dialogues we had during those times. I think of all the beautiful projects that emerged from those conversations and took shape and have become reality. Now, in the midst of this pandemic, I think of you in a special way and wish to express my closeness to you.

In these days of great anxiety and hardship, many have used war-like metaphors to refer to the pandemic we are experiencing. If the struggle against COVID-19 is a war, then you are truly an invisible army, fighting in the most dangerous trenches; an army whose only weapons are
solidarity, hope, and community spirit, all revitalizing at a time when no one can save themselves alone. As I told you in our meetings, to me you are social poets because, from the forgotten peripheries where you live, you create admirable solutions for the most pressing
problems afflicting the marginalized.

I know that you nearly never receive the recognition that you deserve, because you are truly invisible to the system. Market solutions do not reach the peripheries, and State protection is hardly visible there. Nor do you have the resources to substitute for its functioning. You are looked upon with suspicion when through community organization you try to move beyond philanthropy or when, instead of resigning and hoping to catch some crumbs that fall from the table of economic power, you claim your rights. You often feel rage and powerlessness at the sight of persistent inequalities and when any excuse at all is sufficient for maintaining those privileges. Nevertheless, you do not resign yourselves to complaining: you roll up your sleeves and keep working for your families, your communities, and the common good. Your resilience helps me, challenges me, and teaches me a great deal.

I think of all the people, especially women, who multiply loaves of bread in soup kitchens: two onions and a package of rice make up a delicious stew for hundreds of children. I think of the sick, I think of the elderly. They never appear in the news, nor do small farmers and their
families who work hard to produce healthy food without destroying nature, without hoarding, without exploiting people’s needs. I want you to know that our Heavenly Father watches over you, values you, appreciates you, and supports you in your commitment.

How difficult it is to stay at home for those who live in tiny, ramshackle dwellings, or for the homeless! How difficult it is for migrants, those who are deprived of freedom, and those in rehabilitation from an addiction. You are there shoulder to shoulder with them, helping them to make things less difficult, less painful. I congratulate and thank you with all my heart.

My hope is that governments understand that technocratic paradigms (whether state-centred or market-driven) are not enough to address this crisis or the other great problems affecting humankind. Now more than ever, persons, communities and peoples must be put at the centre, united to heal, to care and to share. I know that you have been excluded from the benefits of globalization. You do not enjoy the superficial pleasures that anesthetize so many consciences, yet you always suffer from the harm they produce. The ills that afflict everyone hit you twice as hard. Many of you live from day to day, without any type of legal guarantee to protect you. Street vendors, recyclers, carnies, small farmers, construction workers, dressmakers, the different kinds of caregivers: you who are informal, working on your own or in the grassroots economy, you have no steady
income to get you through this hard time … and the lockdowns are becoming unbearable. This may be the time to consider a universal basic wage which would acknowledge and dignify the noble, essential tasks you carry out. It would ensure and concretely achieve the ideal, at once
so human and so Christian, of no worker without rights.

Moreover, I urge you to reflect on “life after the pandemic,” for while this storm shall pass, its grave consequences are already being felt. You are not helpless. You have the culture, the method, and most of all, the wisdom that are kneaded with the leaven of feeling the suffering
of others as your own. I want all of us to think about the project of integral human development that we long for and that is based on the central role and initiative of the people in all their diversity, as well as on universal access to those three Ts that you defend: Trabajo (work), Techo (housing), and Tierra (land and food).

I hope that this time of danger will free us from operating on automatic pilot, shake our sleepy consciences and allow a humanist and ecological conversion that puts an end to the idolatry of money and places human life and dignity at the centre. Our civilization — so competitive, so
individualistic, with its frenetic rhythms of production and consumption, its extravagant luxuries, its disproportionate profits for just a few — needs to downshift, take stock, and renew itself.

You are the indispensable builders of this change that can no longer be put off. Moreover, when you testify that to change is possible, your voice is authoritative. You have known crises and hardships … that you manage to transform — with modesty, dignity, commitment, hard work and solidarity — into a promise of life for your families and your communities. Stand firm in your struggle and care for each other as brothers and sisters. I pray for you, I pray with you. I want to ask God our Father to bless you, to fill you with his love, and to defend you on this path, giving you the strength that keeps us standing tall and that never disappoints: hope. Please pray for me, because I need it too. Fraternally,

Vatican City, Easter Sunday, 12 April 2020

 

 

Easter Sunday is a day of decision. ‘The women‘, so scripture tells us, decided to go an annoint Jesus’ body with ‘perfumes and ointments‘. Their Sabbath of rest provoked a decision and an action. The purpose of stillness and rest is that we determine to make our way to Jesus. Perhaps it is with a heart heavy with disappointment like these women. What we had imagined was true about God we can no longer believe in. Yet, our fondness for the memory means that we treat it with respect, even in its death and disappearance from our world of apprehension.

Yet, what they expected to find, a sealed tomb, was not what they saw. The entrance stone was rolled away. They confronted a whole new reality. Questions flooded in. Where was the body? Who had taken it? Who had broken the Sabbath rules and ‘worked’ to remove both stone and body, breaking the religious law and rythm of rest and stillness?

Such questions created the threshold upon which fresh opportunity is always born. They rightly resisted a search for immediate answers to satisfy their questioning minds. Rather, they chose to wonder what this might mean. They pondered, they contemplated, they meditated; the best way to live within the space born of stillness, silence and solitude. The characteristics we are invited to explore in this period of lockdown.

Returning to the eleven disciples they told their story, which was met with incredulity, disbelief. So some of them rushed to the tomb to satisfy themselves. Doubt can prove the necessary stimulus to awakening fresh faith. Doubt and disbelief are the friends of faith seekers who face an uncertain future. They are the compost and the fertiliser for fresh growth. The first shoots of which are wonder, astonishment and awe.

It is only as the circles of our certainties are breached that we stand any chance of finding fresh understaning. An understanding that has the capacity to carry us through the day that lies before us. It is the reason Jesus so strongly demanded that NOW is the only moment that natters. Yesterday, with its fond memories and sad regrets, is long past. Whilst tomorrow, with its imagined fears, has yet to arrive. I, and you are marooned within the present moment alone. So our thoughts, constructed by memories of our past and fears for our futures, conspire to distract us from this present moment.

The discovery of an empty tomb was a present reality. It’s meaning or consequences unknown. Yet, Jesus’ erstwhile followers responded from their hearts, with wonder, amazement and astonishment. Something with unknown consequences is always best pondered.

Had a twenty first century media circus arrived upon the scene the good people of Jerusalem and beyond would have been subjected to the views and analysis of endless experts, whose credentials, albeit flashed across TV screens, offer little by way of reassurance that they know anything more than the facts themselves tell me. The noise created by so many voices, disperses the stillness and drowns out any sense of wonder.  Such media easily steals my imagination and populates it with ideas, no doubt well meant, but which have their own irrevocable logic. They bind me and restrict my movement and action.

Today, I personally choose to stand before that open tomb, with the women and the disciples, in an attitude of wonder. The stone rolled away challenges all my assumptions of what I might expect. I can decide to settle for a logic born of the wisdom of others. I can decide to weave my own coherent narrative joining the past, which I’ve observed, with the evidence before me in the present with a proposal about the future, born of my reason. But I choose not to do so.

I gaze upon the the open tomb and allow my imagination to consider that this is a door into an as yet unknown future. One in which I do not seek to satisfy my own need for answers, but one in which I decide to continue asking questions. For if the one who was dead is alive, how can he die again? And if alive, must the imagination draw any line as to what is now possible? I find myself pondering a range of possibilities, none of which I can apprehend until and unless I choose to decide to set out in pursuit of them.

Easter Sunday is the day in history when the world changed. It became different. I too am invited to change. To exchange my spectacles, through which I view life and determine shapes and identities, for a new pair. To consider exchanging the life I’ve known for a different, if quite similar one. To become altogether different in the way I will live from now on. All change requires my decision. No one and nothing changes me. I alone have the capacity to make changes in the way I think and perceive.

I believe it was only because the disciples chose to wonder and to ponder that they were enabled to meet the risen Jesus. Whilst Mary initially perceived Jesus as the gardener, and assumed he might have removed Jesus’ body, it was only as she recognised and responded to a familiar voice that she was able to perceive Jesus. For many of us we all too easily embrace the logic of misbelief and unbelief. In so doing we dismiss the sounds that awaken new neural pathways within our understanding and, in dismissing such sounds, fail to perceive the risen Christ.

The stone has been rolled away; the tomb is empty. Today suggests that we have everything to play for in an as yet unrealised tomorrow.

I wait for the Lord, my whole being waits,
    and in his word I put my hope.
 I wait for the Lord
    more than watchmen wait for the morning,
    more than watchmen wait for the morning.

Easter Saturday probably best equates to the lockdown in which we, like many other nations, find ourselves. There is an unnatural silence due to an absence of what we’d assumed until very recently were the actual sounds of normal life. We are left wondering if those sounds will ever return. Or has covid-19 ended once and for all the busy life we’d become so familiar with and habitualised? Now, as never before in our life experience, we have both time and space and it’s a luxury we’re not sure we want or can effectively utilise.

Time has been too easily squeezed into a narrow definition; that of ‘utility’. What can I achieve in the time that I have? How many ‘widgets’ might I produce? How much money might I accumulate? How far can I progress my career? All the while adding more demands, and with each demand increaed pressure, upon what can only ever be a finite quantity; 24 hours in any day.

This misunderstanding of time as utility confuses our rational mind. Now that we have the time many of us have longed for, we discover we are all too easily bored. At a loss of knowing what to do with boundless, albeit finite, time. This is because even our so called ‘free time’ we treated as utility. Whilst we longed for ‘vacation time’ and days off, we couldn’t help but rush to fill such space and time with holidays, theatre visits, bingeing on streamed TV series and the like.

There was never sufficient time to give any thought to consider investing time in doing nothing. This was after all  to waste a utility; nothing gives rise to nothing, which, by virtue of its ‘nothingness’, cannot be objectively measured and therefore enjoyed. Must enjoyment always relate to objective criteria? Nothing appears to give little useful sensual feedback for my empty selfhood struggling to find and express itself.

Living as a contemplative, committed to prayer here in St. Cuthbert’s Oratory, I have many times had to wrestle with the anxiety that my life amounts to at best very little, at worst nothing whatsoever. For where can I locate the objective measure for my value? ‘Oh’, I hear my imagined critics saying with some disdain, critics who I’m sure include members of my own family, ‘what a waste of a life. Such a promising start; Oxford and national Christian leadership. Now all squandared by simply doing nothing‘.

I fight back against all such tormentors of the mind, for if they take hold, and resistence is a perennial struggle, then I am cast into the deepest depths of despondency. My self confidence drains away. My focus is entirely upon myself rather than remaining fixed upon Jesus. Like Peter I slip beneath the cold, tempestuous waters of a Galileean lake out of fear that my life decision has left me to drown in the arrogance of my own presumption.

Yet, all those who treat time as utility can also all too often remove their gaze from God in their quest to find how they might make the most of time as utility. Many are convinced they are furthering God’s cause. However, scripture is clear, God’s cause is in no need of any help; never has been and never will be. Surely Easter, the consummation of God’s incarnate sojourn, is evidence, if any were required, that God’s cause remains entirely at God’s discretion. There is and never was any need to look for human encouragement or involvement.

That’s why nothing is perhaps the best response once one has made one’s peace with God. The ‘lending God a hand‘ mentality reveals to me an all too human need to fill my time with some worthy cause from which I might draw down some sense of my own purpose and value. Yet, my ultimate value has been disclosed by the ends to which God went to woo and win my heart. I contributed nothing to God’s decision to do so, nor to God’s strategy and method in accomplishing this great redemptive miracle.

So, why does Easter Saturday resonate so closely with our current lockdown staus? It is beacuse for this one day all of creation holds its breath. God, in the expression of Jesus, has died and is gone. The whole universe is teetering on the edge of the abyss of despair and destruction. Satan is already making plans for his coronation and entering into his assumed kingship. This can ony be to the detriment of all humanity. For one whole day the promise remains just that; a promise! Only Easter Sunday will provoke a galactic sigh of relief. It will reveal that God remains true to God’s word, even though not to do so is an impossibility for God by God’s own admission. Yet, it’s Saturday, and Sunday has not yet arrived; nor has Jesus.

Whilst Jesus is in the tomb, or visiting Hades with a message of Good News, there is nothing humanity can do. It is indeed the very essence of Sabbath. A period of looking to and waiting upon God. Waiting with the bated breath of uncertainty. We can only contemplate our complete impotence to change our circumstances, however much we hope and dream we might. We remain dependent upon the intervention of God alone. Yet, this is forever true, even when not facing a life changing pandemic. It’s simply that now the volume of the silence has been turned up.

So today, let us reflect upon how we can make peace with our doing nothing. That is the nothing that opens the cavernous space, an opportunity, to contemplate God and yearn for the fulfilment of God’s promise. The scale of that promise exceeds my ability to enter any comprehensive description save that it is the fulfilment of all things; it is the total fulfiment of myself.

My today will involve morning prayer, consideration of the mercy of God, the silent contemplation of Jesus, all those things whose utility is non-measurable this side of eternity. Yet also all those things that provide the heartbeat for any healthy Christian disciple. Like the disciples hidden somewhere in Jeruslaem, fearing their discovery and destruction, we too must wrestle with the promise of God and fight to maintain our prayer of hope for the resurrection of life beyond Covid-19, a life I pray that, just as the disciples and the emergent Christian church dscovered, can never go back to what it had been prior to that first Easter weekend.

Lord grant me to greet the coming day in peace.

Help me in all things to rely upon your holy will.

In unforseen events let me not forget that all things are under your care. Amen

It’s now clear that COVID-19 is a deadly serious global pandemic, and all necessary precautions should be taken. Still, C. S. Lewis’s words—written 72 years ago—ring with some relevance for us. Just replace “atomic bomb” with “coronavirus.”

In one way we think a great deal too much of the atomic bomb. “How are we to live in an atomic age?” I am tempted to reply: “Why, as you would have lived in the sixteenth century when the plague visited London almost every year, or as you would have lived in a Viking age when raiders from Scandinavia might land and cut your throat any night; or indeed, as you are already living in an age of cancer, an age of syphilis, an age of paralysis, an age of air raids, an age of railway accidents, an age of motor accidents.”

In other words, do not let us begin by exaggerating the novelty of our situation. Believe me, dear sir or madam, you and all whom you love were already sentenced to death before the atomic bomb was invented: and quite a high percentage of us were going to die in unpleasant ways. We had, indeed, one very great advantage over our ancestors—anesthetics; but we have that still. It is perfectly ridiculous to go about whimpering and drawing long faces because the scientists have added one more chance of painful and premature death to a world which already bristled with such chances and in which death itself was not a chance at all, but a certainty.

This is the first point to be made: and the first action to be taken is to pull ourselves together. If we are all going to be destroyed by an atomic bomb, let that bomb when it comes find us doing sensible and human things—praying, working, teaching, reading, listening to music, bathing the children, playing tennis, chatting to our friends over a pint and a game of darts—not huddled together like frightened sheep and thinking about bombs. They may break our bodies (a microbe can do that) but they need not dominate our minds.

%d bloggers like this: