Friday, May 01, 2020

PRIESTLY PONDERING'S (2) - Prayer, the heartbeat of life

(These 'Ponderings' are available via YouTube:

‘I said to my soul, be still, and let the darkness come upon you
Which shall be the darkness of God.’ (East Coker, III)

In the first of these ‘Ponderings’ I quoted those lines by T. S. Eliot in connection with the way this pandemic is forcing many of us into a place of loss.  That’s been made worse, for some clergy, by the absence of ‘real time’ pastoral contact compounded by that instruction from the hierarchy about not entering churches. This seminal crisis is causing some to experience an existential darkness seeping through their vocation; the very things priests were identified as possessing and ordained to express – an ability to care, an empathic nature, praying the Divine Office in church – all that and more, has been denied.  And, despite valiant efforts to nurture their calling, some are feeling let down, lost and fearful. 

In that first ‘Pondering’ I said that this period reminds me of the way Christ entered the darkness on Holy Saturday with the light of the Resurrection. I touched on this in my second book, ‘The Mystery of Faith’ when, in Chapter 6, I wrote about Christ’s descent into this darkness, a darkness he allowed to overwhelm him but which, in the end, didn’t overcome him;

‘There’s something of deep significance in Christ’s journey into the realm of Death, for the effect of his redemption works at both a conscious and unconscious level, affecting the whole cosmic order. Carl Jung said it also represents the ego’s deliberate descent into the unconscious where it emerges reborn.

This great event, celebrated in the – neglected – Liturgy of the Burial of Christ, is portrayed in orthodox icons by the image of his descent into that darkness.  He breaks into the prison-house of death and drags Adam and Eve, our archetypal ancestors, from sleep into the light of his Divinity.  This, arguably, is the great moment of salvation – his victory which redeems all humankind, even back to the beginning.  And our ceaseless task is to open ourselves more and more deeply to Christ’s gracious, compassionate invitation to be set free.’  (p.61f)

As both theology and psychology agree in the importance of this event, it’s clearly of primary importance.  God needs to descend into our depths and illuminate them with resurrection light, something the icon of the Anastasis reveals.  It also reveals just how hard it was for our archetypal parents, Adam and Eve, to receive that light into which Christ had to drag them.  It’s in that darkness we encounter our vulnerability, the place where we realise the need for humility, where we open ourselves to the reality of our human frailty.  It’s a darkness which we proclaim Christ entered; he has broken open that place by the light of the resurrection, and where Christ has gone, we need to follow despite any fear we may have; for our gospel is that the darkness cannot overcome us.  Isn’t that what we should be proclaiming and every parish celebrating? 

This year the Paschal Triumph has an importance that we need to take to heart.  We may not be able to be with people in their sickness, their suffering or their dying, but we can seek to be in that place of dazzling darkness.  Christ invites priests, in particular, to be open to that for, as part of the Holy People of God, we need to lead where all must go.  Isn’t our vocation to show the way, no matter how hard, how very hard, it can be?  Whatever Christ meant when John records him as saying in the gospel for Good Shepherd Sunday: “I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly”, it’s clear the life he offers comes as a consequence of passing through suffering and death.  People won’t hear about that on the TV News – they’ll only hear it if we tell them what we’re discovering.

Death and life are, of course, the twin foundations of our faith – and the former isn’t pleasant!  For a priest, at this time, it can be experienced in a variety of ways.  Yet, through it all, there is one thing that matters, and that’s our faithfulness to our calling.  Not to what we do, for we are denied much of that, but to the call of Christ ‘who was faithful to the one who appointed him, just as Moses also was faithful’ (Heb.3.2).  As I said in Enfolded, Christ didn’t save us by his ability but through his disability (p.109). Our faithfulness is, primarily, to the God who calls us and that must mean faithfulness to be open to that call – to prayer.  About that, one enclosed sister wrote to me:

‘I think as a monastic I am aware how beneficial the rhythm and routine of the life we live is.  ... Unfortunately, it is much easier to form a rhythm when things are normal, so that it is there to fall back on when they aren't’.

So, maybe this is the time to look at your Rule of Life and check what norm you have created in relation to praying, and not simply saying, the Divine Office each day.  Occasions when we enter the wonder of Christ’s prayer to the Father through the Spirit not just twice, but maybe four or more times a day.  But any prayer – especially meditation – can become boring, especially when it doesn't seem there's any consolation in it. But Christian meditation – or contemplation – isn’t passive ‘quietism’ but desiring to be where Christ is; and whether that’s in the joy of heaven or the darkness of hell, we’re called to be there.  Whatever we experience (and it’s not the experience we’re to desire, but God) we’re called to be faithful to the way that leads to divine union.  As sister pointed out:

“Learning to inhabit boredom when it is around is important; not easy, but we get into patterns of distracting ourselves when things are not very exciting.  If we can sit with boredom and restlessness when they are there and realise that they are normal – we don't need to feel a failure or guilty, just sit with the discomfort.  We are being pushed to realise that our value is in being and not doing – doing flows from being – and it is uncomfortable for people.  On the whole we take our identity and value from what we can do, and for lots of people having the usual opportunities for doing taken away is very uncomfortable!  We don't really know how to be alone and unoccupied.  We will face an apparent void we think, nothing there, if we are not 'doing'.”

That clearly speaks of the way our life is united with Christ’s oblation ‘of himself once offered’ – and an oblation isn’t a pleasant thing!  It’s bloody and involves the apparent loss of everything that makes life meaningful but, as I said in Enfolded, ‘We follow one who was a failure in the sight of most of his contemporaries, yet who could never have been a failure in the sight of his Father.  Jesus wasn't formed for success but for faithfulness’ (p.57).  It’s the way of the saints: of Theresa of Lisieux who wrote in ‘Autobiography of a Soul’:

‘He allowed my own soul to be plunged into the thickest gloom. The thought of heaven which had been so sweet from my earliest years became for me a subject of torture.  The trial did not merely last for days or weeks.  As I write, it has gone on for months and still I am waiting for relief.  I wish I could explain what I feel, but it is beyond my power.  One must have passed through the tunnel to understand how black its darkness is.’

She had wanted to be a priest and now God allowed her a share in Christ’s passion whereby she had to live by faith – and love – alone.  It’s the way of St John of the Cross who, thrown into a dungeon by his Carmelite confreres because they didn’t approve his reforms, produced from that place of deprivation some of the greatest poetry ever written.  Who said:

“Never give up prayer, and should you find dryness and difficulty, persevere in it for this very reason. God often desires to see what love your soul has, and love is not tried by ease and satisfaction.” – St. John of the Cross, Special Counsels: Degrees of Perfection #9

Perhaps this pandemic is forcing us to face what lies beneath the surface of our lives, inviting us to consider where we look for our primal meaning.  Without so many of the norms of ministry we might experience a sense of being overwhelmed by darkness.  One of the reasons why it’s important to continue to offer Christ’s oblation is that it’s concerned with overcoming the darkness of death – it unlocks the gates of Hades and, with great tenderness, sets prisoners free.  Unfortunately – and misleadingly – some say of that day that it’s when Christ ‘rested’, a day of “dead silence” (Pastoral Letter, Archbishops of Canterbury and York, 2018) when nothing happened.  But, lying at the heart of the Paschal Mystery, it’s the greatest day of salvation, the day when what is most important occurs. 

Feelings of loss and confusion can drive us away from our calling, yet it’s precisely at this moment we need to be present to prayer.  Present to the Spirit moving within us as we open our heart – with all its messy emotions – to God whose ongoing work of salvation will be occurring at the deepest levels.  Prayer which isn’t just the words we utter but what happens in a heart inclined to God; which goes on gently even when we’re unconscious of it.  We have to set up the rhythm – like the rhythm of breathing – because prayer is the heartbeat of life. 

It may be that this pandemic is forcing us into places we would never enter by our own efforts.  Now, like the contemplative, God invites us to enter the worlds lostness with the flickering light of Christ.  Not our flame but his, carried in our heart.  We may fail at times, fall flat on our faces or even run from this calling, but it’s fundamental to the nature of priesthood.  All we need to do is be there, in the darkness and despair with the light of Christ’s love.  He does the work.  

John-Francis Friendship
April 30th 2020

Thursday, April 30, 2020

THE MYSTERY OF FAITH (copy of review appearing in the ‘franciscan’, May 2020)

'The Mystery of Faith is a worthy successor to (John-Francis’) highly acclaimed previous book, Enfolded in Christ.  This book explores a wide range of topics to do with how we grow in the understanding of our relationship with God.  It addresses head on many of the issues of Christian discipleship that can puzzle both newcomers to the faith and believers of many years standing.  Bp. Nicholas Holtam sums up the scope of the book very well in his foreword, by quoting St. Augustine: ‘People travel to see the world and pass over the mystery of themselves without a thought.’  (p.xvi).  This book is a chance to start to redress the balance.  

The Mystery of Faith is intended for anyone interested to know more about the Christian faith and how it relates to them.  A glance at the list of chapters gives an idea of the sheer range of topics covered, though the length may prove a little daunting to some. (John-Francis) is constantly calling us back from our daily occupations to consider how these affect our inner life.  An example is when he says: ‘We begin to retreat behind barriers rather than learning how to reach out to the other who requires respect because they too are made in God’s likeness.’  Fortunately, each chapter is divided into small, manageable sections, and the author draws on an impressive range of writers from the early days of the church up to the present day to support his arguments.  These quotations are often supplemented by prayers.  At the end of each chapter or group of chapters there are some practical suggestions for taking the topic's further. 

The book is written from an Anglo-Catholic perspective then some evangelical and non-conformist readers may feel uncomfortable with or struggle to engage with some of the  concepts raised.  For example, the chapter on the Seven Sacraments or the one on the Virgin Mary. 

This is a book that could be used as Lent reading, as a basis for group discussion or for private devotion and will provide opportunities to expand the readers experience of and thinking about their Christian faith.'

Beatrice King

Saturday, April 18, 2020

PRIESTLY PONDERING'S (1) - Being beneath the role

This is also available via YouTube:

In 2018 I wrote Enfolded in Christ: the inner life of a priest, and it’s been suggested I might offer some further thoughts arising from that, or from my second: The Mystery of Faith: Exploring Christian belief.  So, as we’re in a world-wide crisis at present, I thought I’d go back to something I wrote in chapter nine of ‘Enfolded’ because I think it speaks into something a number of priests might be experiencing.  It’s headed: Beneath the Role and is part of a section on ‘Being in Christ’:

‘While (the) desire for union with Christ is at the heart of our (priestly) calling, I’ve noticed, in directing clergy, that many find it easier to talk about roles and responsibilities. Although ministry may form the expression of our vocation, it’s not its essence, for that can only be found as ‘Cor ad cor loquitur’ – heart speaks to heart.  Vocation concerns the heart of being which our actions express. The demands of ministry can overbalance the call to intimacy and relationship just as doing can easily replace being in our desire for meaning. And while this isn’t unique to priesthood, unless our vocation is rooted in the desire for union with Christ, sooner or later it will wither – and may die.’

Now I’m not suggesting that your spiritual life has died or even withered, but I’ve noticed the way the present coronavirus crisis is causing some clergy to feel a bit lost – or depressed.  Many of the norms which accompany ministry have gone: ‘no church and no congregation’ is causing them to wonder what they’re meant to be doing.  We look at what the media focuses on – doctors and nurses caring for the sick and dying, food banks providing help for those in poverty and people hard at work raising funds for charities and we can easily begin to feel inadequate, or even guilty.  Many people have begun living in ‘virtual reality’ offering online parties and games, and some clergy are turning to the internet to broadcast services.  And whilst much of what’s appearing is helpful, I wonder – I just wonder – if we might be missing something…  If every crisis provides an opportunity, what might this one offer?  What might God be saying to us through it?

One of the reasons, as I mentioned, for writing Enfolded was because I sensed that many clergy live out of their role, something which can easily begin to take over from our vocation.   Many have become very proficient in what they do; they work hard, and their ministry is greatly valued.  But now much of that role seems to have been side-lined.  A century or so ago it was clergy and religious who nursed the sick – Florence Nightingale turned to the emerging Anglican Religious Orders to work in the Crimea, and priests cared for victims of cholera in the slums of 19th cent. cities, gaining for them the name, ‘Father’.  Now it can feel as if we’re not needed. Yet, many are doing valiant, if hidden, work supporting congregations, helping organise Food Banks and so on.  But the fact that the Archbishops have ‘banned’ clergy from entering their churches to live-stream liturgies feels as if it’s undermined something of great importance and has hit many hard.

I’m one of those who no longer have a parish, or any ‘official’ ministry, and recall the way I, like others, suddenly felt an utter sense of lostness when that came to an end.  My identity as a parish priest had gone, and I suddenly had no idea what meaning life had for me. T. S. Eliot words, in his Four Quartets, captures something of the feeling I had:

‘ … as, when an underground train, in the tube, 
stops too long between stations
And the conversation rises and slowly fades into silence
And you see behind every face the mental emptiness deeper
Leaving only the growing terror of nothing to think about … ‘ (East Coker, III)

That, of course, can be a feeling anyone can have when their job comes to an end – as has happened to thousands of people as a result of the ‘lockdown’ we’re going through.  So, my first reflection is that priests may be sharing the same feelings as many of their parishioners: this loss means we can identify with millions of others.  Like Christ, some of us have suddenly descended into the experience of many – have entered a wilderness that seems endless.  Into a darkness that can be depressive.

Now one of the things I notice about the account of Christ in the Desert is that the first Temptation which came his way was to turn stones into bread; and I then hear his response: “One does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God” (Matt. 4.4).  What might that be saying to the noble attempts of many to offer ‘virtual’ liturgies replicating, as best we can, what happens in church?  If every crisis offers opportunities, what might this crisis offer those who have a responsibility to nurture the spiritual lives of people?  Those who stand at the threshold of heaven?  Of course, many find satisfaction through the familiar and some, consequently, will encounter ‘church’ via the internet for the first time.  But are we missing something? 

In what we call the ‘spiritual life’ there’s a clear correlation between the wilderness and the monastic cell.  You probably know that saying of the 4th cent. Desert Father, Abba Moses: “Go, sit in your cell, and your cell will teach you everything.”  In a world where many feel lost, might the most important thing we have to share be that simple piece of teaching?  If you’re finding life difficult at present, don’t go looking for distractions – virtual games and sports, chat rooms and so on.  Simply stay in that place of emptiness and listen to what it might teach you – you may never have another opportunity to learn what this solitude, this enforced ‘retreat’ might offer.  And that, of course, means clergy need to do just that.  As Eliot said:

                            ‘I said to my soul, be still, 
                            and let the darkness come upon you
                            Which shall be the darkness of God.’ (East Coker, III)

That darkness, of course, can feel very dark – a darkness which can feel hellish.  And I’m reminded that Christ entered that darkness on Holy Saturday with the light of the Resurrection – and I want to consider that on another occasion because it is of such importance, yet often ignored.  For now, let’s consider the difference between that feeling of loneliness and the awareness of being alone.  Feeling lonely is about isolation, whereas being alone concerns realising in in-depth at-one-ness with all things.  Just listen to these words of Mother Mary Clare of the Sisters of the Love of God at Fairacres from their pamphlet, Aloneness Not Loneliness:

‘Like the solitary sailor, we deliberately choose our aloneness as part of a personal quest.  We are people engaged on a search.  It is always a search for God, but it is also a quest that brings us to a place of exposure to a deep, heart-searching, listening awareness of the fundamental, crying need of the world.  This is precisely the monk’s or nun’s chief service to humanity.  In aloneness we learn to share in a basic way in the emptiness and lostness that people today often know but also often tried to block out and ignore. … It is essential that we realise the intensely positive use and value of being alone and trying to stop being frightened at the very negative reaction or feeling lonely.’  (Fairacres Pubs. FP002)

I wonder if one of the most important things clergy can do at this time – at any time – is not only to be open to and aware of that basic emptiness and lost-ness, but to encourage people not to run from that primary human condition, the calling to and of God deep within their deepest self – the soul.  Rather than offering people religious ‘distractions’ isn’t one of our primary tasks to enable people to realise they’re called to enter the depths of their being?  Instead of just streaming services, might we also address this primary experience which so many are having but can’t make sense of or seek to avoid – aloneness?  Only the church can do that – the media have no understanding of the deeper reaches of our common humanity.  Doesn’t this crisis offer an opportunity – hopefully, one that won’t be repeated for a long time, but one we need to grasp – the opportunity to encounter ourselves in a creative way.  And to encounter God.   

So, use this time to create a fresh rhythm of prayer.  Make sure you’re having a day offline from time to time – now’s a wonderful opportunity to take an at-home Quiet Day where you can focus on prayer and meditation, a solitary walk and a little light reading. And, if you haven’t already, make sure the Blessed Sacrament is kept in a worthy place at home, a place you can ‘visit’ each day where you can be still before the Lord.  Let’s discover what this time has to offer so we can share with others from our experience.

Do you remember the way, also in 2018, that a group of boys became trapped in a cave system in Thailand for over a fortnight?  Their leader, a former Buddhist monk, led them in various meditation practices which helped them cope with their enforced isolation and kept them sane.  It’s clear many people at present are experiencing great anxiety, and whilst Christian meditation is primarily concerned with opening the eye of the heart to God, it has also been shown to be of great help in addressing anxiety and stress which can lead to depression.  I realise meditation might be difficult if you sense you’re extraverted – you may be finding the loss of human interaction really painful.  But, maybe, this is an opportunity to give attention to your inner life – and to teach others the importance of these practices.  

In a society which judges the church by what it can be seen to do, its actions, might God be offering us an opportunity to reach out to others from the hidden wisdom of our tradition – of the contemplative way?  Might this be a time when we remind the world it has a forgotten soul which needs nurturing?  Isn’t that the meaning behind our role?  Rather than this being a time when the church hardly seems needed, maybe it’s a time when we’re needed even more – we just need to realise what we have and find ways of sharing it with others. 

I said to my soul be still, and wait without hope
For hope would be hope for the wrong thing;
wait without love
For love would be love of the wrong thing;
there is yet faith
But the faith and the love and the hope 
       are all in the waiting.
Wait without thought, 
       for you are not ready for thought:
So the darkness shall be the light, 
       and the stillness the dancing.  (East Coker III)

John-Francis Friendship
April 17th, 2020

Friday, April 10, 2020


FROM TIME TO TIME I am aware that questions are raised about the advisability of clergy offering Spiritual Direction.  Like many priest-directors, whilst recommending such a ministry to my parishioners, I made it a rule of thumb never to offer myself in that role: as Sr. Madeleine de Saint-Joseph wrote to ‘A Cleric’ (Berulle and the French School):

‘First, then, I tell you this, sir, about the direction of souls.  It is very dangerous to meddle in it.  One  must be constrained and called to it by God …’ (p.208)

Her observation points out that which it is natural to want to help another, such help – especially when concerned with matters of the Spirit – needs to be approached with humility and a willingness to not only recognise we’re all ‘sinners on the way’, but that we all need to be learners in the kingdom.   

My own experience of offering direction began as a lay Franciscan (Society of St. Francis), but it took me some time to recognise that there’s as much difference between offering a listening ear, reflective advice and spiritual direction, as there is between offering to nurse someone when they are ill and being a nurse.  For that reason, I sought training on the Ignatian Spirituality Course, during which I was invited to assist in the formation of spiritual directors, something that lasted for over 12 years. 

In their important book, The Practice of Spiritual Direction, Fr’s Barry and Connelly SJ define Christian spiritual direction as: ‘… help given by one Christian to another which enables that person to pay attention to God’s personal communication to him or her, to respond to this personally communicating God, to grow in intimacy with this God, and to live out the consequences of that relationship’.  Another Jesuit, James Keegan, said it is ‘the contemplative practice of helping another person or group to awaken to the mystery called God in all of life, and to respond to that discovery in a growing relationship of freedom and commitment.’  Do all clergy have that contemplative call?  Does it come automatically through the grace given in Ordination?  Or is it, surely, a separate, distinctive charism, not limited to ordination?

“Priests may have that gift but that gift needs to be developed, like any talent we have.  Somebody could be a born athlete but they would still have to practice and become good at the sport that they play, and its like that with the priesthood as well.” (Fr. Greg Cleveland, Obl. BVM)

Whilst it’s true that clergy need to help parishioners deepen their relationship with God, there are dangers and pitfalls in so doing.  It’s one thing to be asked to preach and another to be a preacher – unfortunately there are many who don’t really have that calling or would benefit from proper training.  Just so with spiritual direction.  Many of us who are deeply involved in the ministry realise that, if you’re going to offer the ministry of Spiritual Direction, you need a calling to do so and the humility to know you need some formation – it doesn’t come as part of the grace of ordination, any more than does the ability to be an effective preacher or teacher.  

Nor is the ministry to be confused with the Sacrament of Confession (Reconciliation). In the latter, penitence is required, and the seal is inviolate as the penitent calls to mind their sins. That is not the case with spiritual direction; it may be that the directee might be advised to taker a matter top confession and a penitent to explore a matter in Direction for both have their proper ambit.

Over the years I’ve had to acknowledge that some people should not be offering this ministry, and I know some bishops who are deeply concerned with the way many directors are not supervised in what they do: their naïve approach can be a danger to others.  Much sensitivity is involved in dealing with another’s soul, for the place where we stand is holy ground.  Whoever is prepared to offer this ministry needs to realise the primary importance of their own conversatio morum though their ongoing, deepening relationship with God. 

In all the time I’ve given direction, taught its arts and supervised many, I’ve come to recognise that there is much we need to come to terms with, not least the –

                urge to be too directive;
                temptation to want to ‘rescue’ people or to focus into ‘problem solving’;
                need for a broad understanding of the Christian spiritual tradition;
                need to trust in the ‘slow work of God’ in a directee’s life;
                importance of insights from other therapeutic disciplines, especially in the areas of             transference, counter-transference and projection and the dangers of rejecting these insights;
                legal issues surrounding the ministry (aspects of confidentiality, safeguarding etc…);
                importance of knowing how to listen contemplatively, and the danger of not properly listening;
                temptation to ‘go it alone’ and think we don’t need help (supervision).
The dynamic between priest and parishioner can be quite complex.  Unlike the boundaried relationship between confessor and penitent, or director and directee, this relationship can complicate matters further.  Spiritual Direction requires both involved to feel they are free to bring to the relationship what needs addressing and there needs to be a certain distance between them.

But the proximity between priest and parishioner in weekly services, meetings etc. leave both vulnerable to becoming inappropriately close in many ways, which can be a problem where, consciously or not, levels of attraction begin to emerge, issues of confidentiality are involved or any of the host of personality issues occurring in parishes begin to impinge.  It’s for all these reasons, not least the many psycho-spiritual dynamics involved, it’s held that clergy ought not to direct members of their congregations.

Monday, April 06, 2020

HOLY SATURDAY 2020 - Sermon for All Saints, Blackheath

Let him Easter in us,
be a dayspring to the dimness of us.”


So wrote Gerard Manly Hopkins in his epic poem, The Wreck of the Deutschland, a ship that, in 1875, floundered off the coast of Harwich and in which five Franciscan nuns, fleeing persecution in Germany, were drowned.   Let him Easter in us’

It is such an odd use of the word; surely ‘Easter’ is an event, not an experience; a noun not a verb?  Yet, here is Hopkins inviting us to let Christ ‘Easter in us’.   But it’s a great way to look at the truth, the transforming reality of Easter.  For Easter is about an activity that does not apply to something we do but something ‘he’ does in us.  Let Easter get into us.  Let Easter come and live where we live.  Let Easter permeate our souls.  Let him Easter in us; be as a new day to the darkness in us.  

Tonight we normally gather, after the long rigours of Lent and Holy Week, to do just that.  To let Christ ‘Easter’ in us.  Not to wistfully recall a long-ago episode, affirm our faith or even to worship at a powerful and moving Liturgy.  But to be present before the One who can Easter in our lives; we gather because we want to be transformed, given new life, find meaning and purpose.  Isn’t that what each of us longs for?  What we really want?  To know Easter in us.

Poetry, of course, takes us to places that prose cannot.  It is a way of painting with words and, like any painting it looses something when you try to explain its meaning.  Its power lies in the way the words effect the soul.  It’s the difference between the women described in tonight’s gospel reading from Matthew (28.1f) as running from the tomb with great fear and joy, and the description of Mary Magdalene, in the gospel for Easter Day (John 20.11), standing alone and encountering the risen Christ who forbade her to touch him: she needed to take that encounter to heart, not to make sense of it.

St. Paul in his Letter to the Romans hints at something similar: ‘For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we will certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his’ (6:5).  Hopkins, on the other hand, reflects that same faith in fewer words: ‘Let Him … be a dayspring to the dimness in us.’

So here we are, like Mary Magdalene, before the mystery at the heart of our Faith, a Faith that is not focussed on the way we should live, or on the quality of life; not on creating a particular social order or helping people deal with pain and sickness, though it involves all of that and more.  Rather, ours is a faith that is centred on the death and resurrection of Christ.  It asks you and I to stand before that one event (for the two are one, though separated in time) and gaze upon it with loving eyes in the belief that that which you desire, that upon which you set your heart, will change you.  ‘Let him Easter in us.’

This year we’re unable to celebrate this mystery with symbols that speak to us about life: fire and light; bread and wine.   We can’t encounter these sacramentals, as Mary Magdalene encountered Christ, material things which don’t speak into our understanding, but into our heart.  Although there is one symbol we can use – water.   If you can, go now and fill a glass bowl with water … 

We use water to wash and cleanse, to drink and enjoy.  But water also ends life, as it ended the lives of those Franciscans – and it can restore to life.  It is the ocean of birth and the river of death.  Hopkins was moved by the drowning of those five sisters, but he understood their death to be the fulfilment of baptism into new life, their rebirth into Christ, so concludes his poem:

Now burn, new born to the world,
                                                Doubled-naturèd name,
                        The heaven-flung, heart-fleshed, maiden-furled
Mid-numbered He in three of the thunder-throne!

Hopkins saw in this wrecked ship the lot of a world gone astray.  He compares it with the ark of salvation, the barque in which we’re saved.  He saw in the water the womb of Mary and the birth of Christ, and beneath the waters of death saw the ground of our being – what he called the ‘granite of God’.   Tonight, we can affirm our own faith in the granite – the Christ-rock: just dip your fingers into the water and make the sign of the cross over yourself …

None of us are immune to the ravages of existence; all of us are at risk of infection.  Sometimes it can feel as if we, too, are drowning beneath the terror of it all.  There will be moments, maybe days or weeks, when we seem to be existing beneath a dark pall, when it seems as if the storms of life will never pass.  That is when we need to hold fast in Christ. 

Eventually the storm will pass and calm will come; it’s then we need to make sure that that which holds and carries us, the faith which we profess, the hope which we have and the love which holds us in his hands, lies at the heart of our attention.  And there will be moments when we just need to bask in the sun of God: ‘Let Him Easter in us, be a dayspring to the dimness in us.’

So, let’s live as Easter people!  Live the faith we profess tonight: Christ is risen. For “… if we have been united with him in a death like his, we will certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his.” (Roms. 8:5)

This is the night when first you saved our fathers:
you freed the people of Israel from their slavery
and led them dry-shod through the sea.
This is the night when Christians everywhere,
washed clean of sin and freed from all defilement,
are restored to grace and grow together in holiness.
This is the night when Jesus Christ broke the chains of death
and rose triumphant from the grave.

Christ is risen, and hell is cast down!
Christ is risen, and the demons are fallen!
Christ is risen, and the angels rejoice!
Christ is risen, and life reigns in freedom!
Christ is risen, and the grave is emptied of the dead!

Let him Easter in us as we gaze upon him, not seeking to hold him but, rather, to be held in him who is our life and who offers us Easter.


GOOD FRIDAY 2020 - Sermon for All Saints, Blackheath

let this mind be in us which was in Christ Jesus:
that as He from His loftiness stooped
to the death of the Cross,
so we in our lowliness may humble ourselves,
believing, obeying, living and dying
to the glory of the Father
and in the power of the Holy Spirit,
for the same Jesus Christ’s sake.  Amen
(Christina Rossetti)

At the end of the 14th cent there lived a Recluse – or Anchoress – in a cell attached to a tiny church on the outskirts of Norwich.  She had grown up during a time when the Black Death had ravaged the city and, on the 8th of May, 1373, received a number of revelations which, for the next 20 years, she meditated upon until finally setting down her ‘shewings’ – her revelations – in a book.  The name of the hermit was never recorded, but she’s now known to millions by the name of the church where she lived: Julian of Norwich.   Her book, the Revelations of Divine Love, has become world-famous and what she reveals is especially relevant at a time when we’ve been affected by another plague.

There were sixteen shewings in all and they concerned the love of God realised through the crucifixion of Jesus.  She received them sometime after asking God to grant her three favours: to understand Christ’s passion; to share in his sufferings; and to have as God’s gift three wounds.  Ultimately all her wishes were granted; and, because of the depth and profundity of her desires, we are the richer.  The second of these, to share in the sufferings of Christ, was realised when, at the age of 31, she suffered from an illness that brought her close to death and received the Last Rites of the Church. 

Three days afterwards, whilst lingering between life and death, her parish priest was again sent for.  He held a crucifix before her eyes with the words, “I have brought you the image of your Maker and Saviour.  Look at it and be strengthened.”  It’s an image that any of us might benefit from gazing on when we’re suffering – why not find a crucifix now and spend some time in contemplation.  What happened when Julian did that, she records in these words…

“And at once I saw the red blood trickling down from the crown of thorns, hot, fresh and plentiful, … At the same moment the Trinity filled me full of heartfelt joy, and I knew that all eternity was like this for those who attain heaven.  For the Trinity is God, and God the Trinity; the Trinity is our Maker and keeper, our eternal lover, joy and bliss – all through our Lord Jesus Christ”

What do we see when we look on the figure of the Crucified?  What did Mary and the disciples see when they stood before his Cross?  And the centurion, and the crowd of onlookers?   I imagine all saw something different: a suffering son; a dying friend; a terrorist rightly punished; yet another victim of foreign invaders.  Just another criminal.

A vulnerable human being. 

And what did God see? 

I pose that question because it was God-in-Jesus who was dying on the Cross.  We can believe that God ‘saw’ his own suffering and death; indeed, if he did not, then he could not have fully shared in this world-changing moment.   I believe he saw the love of his friends and the anguish of his Mother; the lack of insight in some, the superficiality of others.  The lack of interest in the onlookers and the fear of his disciples that they might get too involved. 

He saw it all, and more.  He saw the weakness and vulnerability of those around him: those who were scared and frightened of the consequences of being labelled his followers and friends. 

And he saw the depth of his own heart.  He saw love.  He saw his own fear yet, beneath that and stronger than that, he saw love.   And that’s why we come to the foot of the Cross on Good Friday; why we open ourselves to the love of God known through the death of Christ.

These Revelations occurred after three bouts of plague had ravaged East Anglia, yet nowhere in her writing does one get the impression that Julian doubted the love and mercy of God, became angry or disillusioned.  Quite the contrary.  What is evident is that she, like so many at that and other times, looked at the Crucified and gained immense re-assurance and comfort that God shared their sufferings. 

At one point in her contemplation she had a conversation with Jesus in which he told her that if he could have suffered more for her he would willingly have done so.  As she marvelled at this, she realised that – in her words – “though the dear humanity of Christ could only suffer once, his goodness would always make him do so – every day if need be.  If he were to say that for love of me he would make a new heaven and earth, this would be a comparatively simple matter; something he could do every day if he wanted, with no great effort.  But for love of me to be willing to die times without number – beyond human capacity to compute – is, to my mind, the greatest gesture our Lord God could make to the human soul.  This is his meaning: ‘How could I not, out of love for you, do all I can for you?’.” (‘Revelations of Divine Love’ Ch. 22: Ninth Revelation)

‘How could I not, out of love for you, do all I can for you?’  That is the truth of this moment in time, a truth upon which we’re invited to dwell.  Not how terrible is the suffering, yet that is true.  Nor how sad the fact that few will gather at the Cross, and that is true also; perhaps, if more did, they would realise why these three holy days, this Sacred Triduum is of such profound importance, for they teach us all there is to know about being human.  Why, then, are so many of our church’s normally half-empty today?  For the truth Julian discovered, and in which we need to share, is this: how could God not, out of love for us, do all he can for us.  For … me.   Not take away the suffering – for to live involves suffering – but to share in that suffering with us. 

Most didn’t see that; many standing there had come because they’d heard that this man had done great things – the man they’d welcomed with such enthusiasm into Jerusalem just five days before – might he do something spectacular and make something ‘happen’?  But, no: this healer (he may have healed them), teacher and popular leader was now hanging there on a cross, like a common criminal.  Perhaps he wasn’t such a great figure after all.  Just another Johnny-come-lately.  So, with a shrug, they’re off.  And God must see all that, too. 

Could he who made heaven and earth not have ended it differently?  Snapped his divine fingers, waved a majestic hand and sorted it – and himself – out?  If there is a God, why doesn’t he zap the virus?  Surely, that’s what gods are meant to do – to save us from trouble and not get too involved.  But this God got involved.  What nonsense, the reasonable ones say.  It’s all nonsense or, at best, just a story.  And, in a way, they would be right.  As St. Paul would later come to realise:  ‘Jews demand signs, Greeks look for wisdom, but we proclaim Christ nailed to the cross; and through this is an offence to Jews and folly to Gentiles, yet to those who are called, Jews and Greeks alike, he is the power of God and the wisdom of God.’ 

The God who hangs before us on the Cross is not some all-mighty, ever-powerful Lord but a naked, vulnerable human being.  That is the uniqueness of our faith and the terrible consequence of the Incarnation.  For the God in whom we believe, the maker of heaven and earth, was prepared to know what it is like to be en-fleshed – to be weak, frightened and lonely.  That is why women and men down the ages have been drawn to and by this moment.  That is what has inspired the greatest artists, musicians and writers.  That is what moulded our culture, this insight into God-made-man hanging, dying, on the cross who unites himself with all who suffer and die.  That is what spoke to Julian.  And we?  We recognise the nonsense of it all yet are drawn by the vulnerability of this man. 

So those who have the eyes to see recognise in sweating, bruised, torn flesh; in fear and loneliness, vulnerability and passion, a glimpse of themselves.  We identify with our God, not in his majesty but in his broken humanity.  That’s why God had to do this.  Julian of Norwich, like every other saint, wanted to know Christ.  Not just to be one who, like the bystanders, came along, gazed around and went home.  Nor one who wanted God to do something.  But to know Christ in the depth of her heart.  “And at once I saw the red blood trickling down from the crown of thorns, hot, fresh and plentiful.”  This moment which seemed to be ending in death was, in fact, the moment of glory.  For it was at this moment that the truth of God was revealed.  This is the moment which reveals the paradox – that out of suffering comes new life.  As we live through an immense pandemic that is what we’re, even now, seeing, as people reach out with compassion; break down barriers that have restricted them; find reservoirs of creative living, and – after a period when we seemed to have become a broken, divided nation, experience a unity forgotten by many.

“At the same moment the Trinity filled me full of heartfelt joy, and I knew that all eternity was like this for those who attain heaven.  For the Trinity is God, and God the Trinity; the Trinity is our Maker and keeper, our eternal lover, joy and bliss – all through our Lord Jesus Christ.”