Tuesday, January 09, 2018

A (VERY) BRIEF INTRODUCTION TO THE BIBLE


The word ‘bible’ comes from the Greek word τὰ βιβλία (tà biblía) meaning ‘the books’. The Christian Bible, as we know it, is a collection of religious texts that were written over a period of some 1600 years, by more than forty authors in three different languages and across several continents. Because of such diversity, the context and purpose of each one of the individual books in the Bible varies. In the Christian tradition, we believe that the Bible has special value in our lives because it tells a story of God’s interaction with the world and of the people who follow God.

A list of books chosen to be part of the Bible is called a ‘biblical canon’, with the word ‘canon’ derived from the Greek word κανών (kanón), meaning ‘rule’, as in ‘an instrument by which to measure’, like a ruler. Different Christian traditions make use of different biblical canons, such as the Catholic Church (whose Bible includes 73 books) and the Greek Orthodox Church (whose Bible includes 76 books). The Church of England in Article VI of the Thirty-nine Articles: “Of the sufficiency of the holy scriptures for salvation” states that “… the other Books (as Hierome saith) the Church doth read for example of life and instruction of manners; but yet doth not apply them to establish any doctrine…’ thereby authorizing the use of the Apocryphal books. In the Protestant biblical canon, the Bible consists of 66 books, divided into the Old and New Testaments.

The Jewish (Hebrew) Scriptures
Many religions have a book or books which are considered holy or authoritative. They are often called 'Scripture', which simply means something that is written, but is usually used of sacred writings. Jews often divide their Scriptures into three parts: the Torah (the first five books (the ‘Pentateuch’ in Greek: Genesis to Deuteronomy, also known as the Teaching), the Prophets (Isaiah, Jeremiah etc…and the Writings (including the Psalms, Proverbs etc…). These Scriptures describe God's involvement in the lives of individuals as well as in world history. They relate how mankind's relationship with God has been broken and how God has started to restore this through a 'covenant' (which means a binding agreement) with Israel, which would one day extend to the whole world. The Hebrew Scriptures also contain prophecies of a coming Anointed One ('Messiah' in Hebrew and 'Christ' in Greek).

The Christian Scriptures
Christians believe that Jesus of Nazareth was the Messiah prophesied in the Hebrew Scriptures. Hence he is often described by his name and title: Jesus (var. Joshua) Christ (Messiah/Anointed One). Christians believe that Jesus came to fulfil the Hebrew Scriptures and to introduce a 'new covenant' which would include all people in a new relationship with God. Various accounts of the life of Jesus, and the activities of the early church were first spread by word of mouth (‘Oral Period’) and only later written by some of the very first Christians.  Some quickly came to be seen as holy Scripture by Christians, ranking alongside the Hebrew Scriptures.

An archaic word for covenant is 'Testament', which led to the Hebrew Scriptures being called the 'Old Testament' in contrast to the 'New Testament' of the Christian Scriptures, with both together forming the Christian Bible. Most Christians see the Bible as being authoritative for what they are to believe and how they are to live.

What's in the Bible?
The word 'Bible' comes from the Greek and Latin words for book or books. But within the set of covers that we call our Bible, there are collected together 66 individual books: 39 books in the Old Testament, 27 books in the New Testament plus 14 in the Apocrypha. The Old Testament is written mostly in Hebrew, the language of the Jewish people (with a few parts in Aramaic). The New Testament is written entirely in Greek, the common language of the time. The Books called the Apocrypha were originally attached to the Greek Old Testament that were not in the Hebrew-written Bible. That is because they were "first-written" in the Greek language. They were considered scripture and used as such by the Jews of the Dispersion (Jews living in foreign countries) at the time of Christ.

About 60 years after the crucifixion of Christ, a group of Rabbi's (survivors of the Roman annihilation of Jerusalem) met at Jamnia and canonized some Hebrew scriptures that were specifically devoid of Greek writings. Any work of scripture not originally written in Hebrew was discarded as unclean.

This codification of the Hebrew Bible by the Jewish Rabbi's cancelled for the Jews the authority, not only of the contested books we now call apocryphal, but also the popular Greek Old Testament itself that foreign Jews had been using for the previous 300 years. That work had earlier been authorized for publication by the Jewish Sanhedrin in Jerusalem for use by the Jews of the Dispersion whose language was primarily Greek. Jamnia was a seminal decision because it isolated Christians from Jews on the basis, not just of scripture, but of language as well. The early Christians stuck to the Greek Old Testament and the Jews concreted themselves on the Hebrew Old Testament decided on by the Rabbi's at Jamnia.

The Old Testament
The 39 Old Testament books were written over a long period of time, perhaps as much as 1000 years, from about 1500 BC to the middle of the fifth century BC. The books include historical accounts, lists of laws, poetry, songs, prophecy and other types of writing. These accounts were not collected together merely because they were thought to be of historical interest, but because they were believed to show how God was at work in and through his people Israel.

The New Testament
The 27 New Testament books were written over a period of about 50 years. The exact dates for all of them are not known, but the earliest probably dates from some time in the AD40’s. Before that came the ‘oral’ period when people simply passed on stories, accounts and the words of Jesus until the time came when these needed to be written down.  But ‘telling the story’ remained necessary for centuries as most people were unable to read.  Four books are effectively biographies of Jesus – called Gospels.  Three are similar (synoptic) whilst John’s is somewhat distinct.  The author of Luke also wrote an account of the early church and its preaching called the Acts of the Apostles. One book, called Revelation, is a highly symbolic account of the end of the world. The rest of the books are letters written to various Christian churches with encouragement, criticism and advice, many being written by Paul, who was one of the most important early Christian missionaries.

The Apocrypha
‘Apocrypha’ comes from a Greek word meaning ‘things that are hidden, secret.’ It refers to two collections of ancient Jewish and Christian writings that have certain affinities with the various books of the Old Testament and New Testament but were not canonized by Christians as a whole: the Old Testament Apocrypha (e.g. Tobit, Judith, the Additions to Esther, the Additions to Daniel (the Prayer of Azariah and the Three Young Men, Susanna, and Bel and the Dragon), the Wisdom of Solomon, Ecclesiasticus (also called Sirach), Baruch etc…), which are viewed as canonical by most Christians, and the New Testament Apocrypha (eg. Shepherd of Hermas, Third Epistle to the Corinthians, Epistles of Clement, etc…) which are not held as such by most – but not all – churches. These, and many more documents, witness to the way that Christianity spread throughout both east and west and began to assimilate with the other religions it encountered. There are, probably, many documents now lost that helped shape the church in lands now regarded as Islamic (eg. Persia, Iraq, Saudi Arabia) but which had churches under local bishops – including in China – but have lost their Christian heritage.

Who wrote the Bible?
Many different authors wrote or contributed to the books in the Bible. Many of the books do not explicitly name their author, although in some cases it is clear. In many other cases, the author is unknown or is known only from sources outside the Bible. Some of the books are edited works, collecting together or ordering older material, such as the Psalms which are attributed to a number of different authors, including King David. Whilst Muslims claim that the Koran is the ‘word of God’, for Christians that ‘Word’ is, obviously, revealed in Christ. Although the bible has an important place in the life of the Church it cannot have the same place for Christians as the Koran has for Muslims.

However, most Christians would agree that the Bible itself assumes that God chooses to reveal himself to us and to involve himself in our individual lives and wider histories. But as it was never ‘given’ to the Church in the same way that the Koran was given to Mohammed it cannot ‘teach’ although it does bear witness to certain teachings and is regarded as being inspired by God and, in places, containing the words of God. It needs to be remembered that the early Church decided which of the many writings could be accepted as ‘canonical’ at the Council of Rome (392). Most Orthodox Christians accept the canon agreed by the Second Council of Trullo of 692.  There was no one Bible before these Councils.

With the Old Testament Jews began to realise that certain books were authoritative, seeing these as inspired by God.  In the same way, Christians came to recognise the books that now form the New Testament as equally authoritative. This was more a realisation that these books were, in some way, special and different, rather than a specific decision as to which books to adopt as Scripture.  Hence most Christians recognise the Bible as actually written down by human beings, using their own knowledge, language and individual style, but equally inspired by God.

Where are the Original Documents?
We don’t have them! But they were copied – and copies made of those copies and so on until we have the documents that do still exist.  The originals wore out or were lost, but the various copies persisted.  Whenever a document is copied by hand (and that was the only way at the time) there is the possibility of errors creeping into the resulting text. Most of these are irrelevant to the meaning, but the issue needs to be considered. A whole area of study called 'Textual Criticism' attempts to study the different texts that remain and compare and contrast the differences to work out the most likely original. But in the vast majority of cases, we are not talking about huge differences that dramatically affect the overall meaning.

In the New Testament, about 80% of the differences between different manuscripts are found to be in spelling (remember that even during William Shakespeare's lifetime, his name was spelt in many different ways – even sometimes in the same document), while others use synonyms or give changes in word order (which in Greek makes less difference to meaning than in English). Most of these, in fact, make no difference to the resulting translation into English or other languages. Very few variations between documents affect the actual meaning or make any significant difference to what Christians believe.

As one example of the ability of those copying the Old Testament documents, we can look at the book of the prophet Isaiah. An almost complete copy was found in 1947 in the Dead Sea Scrolls, dating back to the first century BC. When compared to the earliest copy that was previously available, dating from a thousand years or so later, the translators of the Revised Standard Version of the Bible found it necessary to make only three changes to their updated translation. These changes were equivalent to the difference between spelling Saviour as Saviour (British and American spellings).

The original New Testament documents are also lost, but the copies we do have are very close to the date of writing – perhaps 50 to 100 years difference. Compared to most other works of ancient history, the validity of which are rarely questioned, this gap is minute. The works of Julius Caesar, for example, written in the first century BC, only survive in less than a dozen copies dating from about AD 800 – a gap of some 850 years. By contrast, there are many thousands of New Testament documents in the original Greek (not all of these give the whole of the New Testament, of course), as well as many more in translations into various languages, as well as quotations in other early writers.

(From various sources inc. Queens Park Govanhill Parish Church, Glasgow)

Thursday, January 04, 2018

PROVE GOD EXISTS

You ask,
‘Prove God exists’.

I ask,
where is the home of love,
the storehouse of beauty
or the source of music?

Tell me
where I can find the spring of joy
or the heart of wonder?

Show me 
where compassion can be found,
or where mercy and pity live.

God is the air I breathe,
the earth I touch,
the seas in which I swim.

God is the ocean of life
in whom we live and move and have our being,
whose offspring I am and without whom I cannot exist;
the One who is and was and ever shall be.

God is all that is most noble
seeking the nobility in me.
All that you and I can be
as we say our “yes” to that call.

What need I prove

– only that I am not deaf to that call.

John-Francis Friendship
January 4th, 2018

Tuesday, January 02, 2018

THE BLESSED SACRAMENT and the INCARNATION of DIVINE COMPASSION

After all the celebrations during the Christmas Octave I’m aware of having come to a period of peace when it’s possible to find time to listen more deeply to the Incarnation. The eye of the body has beheld Jesus within our Cribs and now the eye of the heart can begin to see the wonder of Emmanuel – God with us.

One of the books I’m reading at present is ‘The Drawing of This Love’ by Robert Fruewirth in which he explores aspects of the way Julian of Norwich realised how the compassion of God permeates Divine Love. In one chapter he quotes Julian saying: ‘Here I saw a great affinity between Christ and us … for when he was in pain, we were in pain.  And all creatures capable of suffering pain suffered with him … So was our Lord Jesus Christ set at nought for us, and we all remain in this way as if set at naught with him, and shall do until we come to his bliss…’ (Ch.18) This led me to consider the way we can always be present to His compassion when we come before Him in the Blessed Sacrament. I find there is something truly wonderful about being present to Him as He is present to us when the Sacrament is exposed on the altar and long for this practice – of placing the Host contained in a monstrance on an altar where anyone can sit or kneel in prayer – to be more and more common. Here we can talk with Him or just rest with Him and know that He is fully present to all who come to Him. And then we can take Him with us in the tabernacle of our own heart for, as St Francis of Assisi wrote in his Rule of 1221: ‘We should make a dwelling-place within ourselves where He can stay, He who is the Lord God Almighty, Father, Son and Holy Spirit.’ Dame Julian echoes this theme when she later writes: ‘The with a glad expression our Lord looked into his side and gazed, rejoicing and with his dear gaze he led his creature’s understanding through the same wound into his side within. And then he revealed a beautiful and delightful place, large enough for all mankind that shall be saved to rest there in peace and in love.’ (Ch.24)  As I read that I saw that ‘place’ as His Sacred Heart, a Heart large enough to contain all of us, enlarged by Compassion. This is the Sacrament of Love upon which we are invited to gaze, as Julian gazed on what was revealed to her. I find it a wonderful thing that we who have been made part of His Body can gaze on that Body which is lit up with Love – I see it as one might look on a building flooded with light both inside and out, throbbing with all the colours there are against the darkness that surround it – a darkness of both sin and a lack of recognition. This is what we are to realise as we gaze on His Incarnate Body shown to us in the monstrance.

So I love the idea of creating that inner-monstrance which is to be the dwelling-place for Jesus because I can then adore Him whenever I visit that place. I know few churches can offer perpetual adoration but He can always be with me and I can always adore Him whenever I choose to make this visit to my heart. But wouldn’t it be wonderful if more Anglican churches were able to offer this facility? Perhaps well-staffed cathedrals might offer this facility – I believe Southwark Cathedral contains the Tabernacle House from the Convent of the sisters of the Community of Reparation to Jesus in the Blessed Sacrament which was founded in 1869 and ended with the death of the last sister in the early years of this century. Sadly I never visited this community and would love to find a way of continuing their charism. It’s exquisitely beautiful to come to Jesus in this way and be able to just rest with Him – ‘be there’ with Him who is in all places and fills all things yet who left us this way to realise His presence. It’s a presence that doesn’t require any words and the only effort is to focus attention on Him and Him alone. To be able to do this in places like Westminster Cathedral and Tyburn Convent in Hyde Park Place is a joy and I am grateful to those who make this possible.


So I wonder, might it be possible for individual churches to offer Jesus to us in this way – maybe just for an hour or so at a time? I did this when I was a parish priest and although few came it was such a blessing for me to be able to place Christ there on the altar and spend an hour in His presence. Could we not begin to develop a list – a rota, maybe – of times and places where this happened and encourage people to come to Jesus in this way? What a wonderful appeal to renew and refresh the spiritual life this would offer.

Friday, December 29, 2017

CHRIST THE IMAGE OF THE INVISIBLE GOD - some thoughts on the Incarnation

I wonder if you have an image of God? Many people do, even if it’s one they can’t believe in – that old man with a long white beard, the heavenly schoolmaster, the dictator who rules the world. Maybe a doting father – or even a loving mother. Or perhaps a painting you saw has left an impression on you – a painting of an ancient figure elevated above Jesus with a white dove between them. With such a plethora of images, some highly questionable, no wonder all three great monotheistic faiths, Judaism, Christianity and Islam, forbid the depiction of God. “But”, you might say, “what about all the images of Christ in churches?” Well, in a sense, they’re not images of God; they represent the human form in which Christians believe he clothed himself and as Orthodox Christians know, if God chose to reveal invisible things in visible matter then we honour God by doing the same. 

In the end God remains a mystery beyond our comprehension so to say ‘I don’t believe in God’ begs the question – well, what is it exactly that you don’t believe in because it’s likely that the Church doesn’t believe in that either. Once you begin to define what God is then God, in a sense, slips through your fingers.  Nowhere in the Jewish scriptures (the ‘Old Testament’) is there a definition of God – the closest one gets is that remarkable statement when God said to Moses: “I am who I am” or “I will be who I will be” or whatever the original Hebrew words mean. Now that seems to suggest God is not so much a ‘thing’ as a state of existence that cannot be named. One might say that God is the is-ness of is, pure being or becoming. Some speak of God as an ‘ocean of love’ or the heart of a mystery and so on. But none of these expressions seek to define what, in the end, is and always has been beyond our understanding.  I know some object to saying that God is a mystery but that’s how it’s always been. It’s not a ‘cop-out’ but, as St Ephrem the Syrian back in the fourth century realised, only something greater than God could possibly define God and there can be nothing greater than God …  So perhaps we might say that 'God' is a useful three-letter word to identify what is unidentifiable but which men and women down the centuries and around the world have believed in. I know we like to name things as it gives us the ability to identify them but – whoever or whatever God is – it would seem God clearly doesn’t want to be identified because as the Little Prince in Antoine de Saint-Exupéry  beautiful little book of that name said: “What is essential is invisible to the eye.”

Yes, there have been other ways of trying to identify God – the Holy, Faithful or Wise One for example – but these are merely attributes people have used to speak of God. Then there are metaphors: God is the potter, we the clay; the nursing mother or loving Father; God is light and in Him there is no darkness etc. Two of the most common ways of speaking of God are as the 'most Compassionate' and 'all-Merciful' One or the Holy, Faithful or Wise One, attributes which lie at the heart of both Christianity and Islam. Then there are metaphors: God is the potter, we the clay; the nursing mother or loving Father; God is light and in Him there is no darkness etc.  But you cannot say God is this or that. God is not this baby any more than God is that old man. What you can say, and what the Church says, is that God clothed Himself in our flesh and wore the garments of this baby who grew into a 33 year-old Palestinian man. He on whom we gaze with the eye of faith is the image of the invisible God, the first-born of all creation. And then you would be able to say that what we see in Him reflects the nature of that which He contains leading Charles Wesley to sing:

            Jesu, thou art all-compassion,
            Pure unbounded love thou art.

But, more wonderful still, what we see in Him is a bright reflection of what lies within us.  We can reflect aspects of that diamond-studied divine compassion and love that dwells in Him; our being contains a reflection of the wonder He incarnates and which we are to reveal. If you behold glory in this child, that glory can be reflected in us, as the Turkish writer, Elif Shafak, has said: “How we see God is a direct reflection of how we see ourselves. If God brings to mind mostly fear and blame, it means there is too much fear and blame welled inside us. If we see God as full of love and compassion, so are we.” Perhaps, them, we might say that the aroma of 'God' invites us to seek the ultimate depth of all our being, the creative ground and meaning of all our existence. Maybe, then, it cannot be said that God ‘exists’ as you or I do, and that simple, three-lettered word offers the way we can express the inexpressibleness of life – that which painters and poets also struggle with. The great silence where a Word echoes; the expression of all that is, has been and will be. The silence of love.. The eternal darkness in which light shines.

If, then, the baby in the manger distracts you
from seeing what lies in the Cave of Bethlehem;
that reflection of the depth of human life,
then look beyond and realise the potential present in yourself,
the mystery that lies in the recesses of your own heart,
Perhaps, the importance of this Feast isn’t just that we celebrate God’s incarnation –

it is the Feast of what our humanity can become.

Tuesday, December 26, 2017

CAN IT BE TRUE ... ?

O come all ye faithful – and not so faithful
who enter walls made holy by prayer 
and praise. What draws us to these places, 
from our world of the known 
into the unknown? Warm memories 
of childhood security? Snatched recollections 
of hymns and carols sung to tunes stored 
safely in half-remembered recesses of the 
mind? A desire to touch the hem of mystery?
Or the need to connect with our hidden self 
– ignored for so long yet never leaving us.
‘God, you have made us for yourself 
and our heart are restless until they find their rest in Thee.’

Just the memory of a sentimental childhood tale?  But, suppose it were true?

Suppose divine love had entered our flesh.
Imagine we had been brought into being by the overflowing of love.
Dare - for a moment - to be open to the possibility that all 
that is most noble in our humanity
is but a dim reflection of a Great Beauty?

Suppose it were true that we had a great dignity, were
temples of wonder to that which we call – God.

Suppose, just for a moment, that we were not just 
dust, but dust destined for glory?  That God had entered
the centre of our being.
That, hidden within us, we had the ability to do great things - to be
godlike.  Then, maybe, we would reflect, just for a moment

and marvel at our self;
rejoice in and give thanks for that mystery, 
pause before the wonder of our being
and have the courage to say, “Father…”

Suppose, not just for this moment in time, but for all time
it were true ...

CHRISTMASS GIFT

Rooks ascending into the flat-grey sky;
proud lime trees raising their arms against this reredos
inviting all to join in a great oremus on this day.

Though bare of their vestments they rejoice in their being
they rejoice in their – treeness – and witness to the mystery of life
hidden within their gnarled frame.

The Mass ended and we left in shalom,
to warm greetings from our world-wide sisters and brothers 
gathered this day.
Ghana and Jamaica, Sri Lanka and the Philippines had nurtured them
who now enrich our common humanity
as we celebrate our unity.
‘And we have seen his glory' in this multi-coloured throng
This human diamond which flashes brightly 
from the blaze of a divine heart
– O come, let us adore Him, born this happy morning!

For most today is about the tinsel-wrapped bark of life, 
not its glory,
glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth.
Yet glory lights this ashen, wind-swept sky.
Behind the masque the mystery.
So adore the hidden beauty of these
oh so solid guardians – these angels who surround us
in the grey void.
We know that no-thing is there,
yet we wonder that the articifer of life
has loved it all into being and that love enfolds it all.
That we exist in a skywide ocean of love.

That’s what I want to celebrate!
This small garden of delights is where I can contemplate 
the wonder of heaven.
All that is best, the more-ness of life, its fecundity 
even in winter,
the mystery that lies beyond has entered into a tiny space
and infused all space with hidden glory.

So, yes, glory to God on earth as it is in heaven
– and shalom, justice, peace and goodwill to all.


Look long and relish this gift.

Sunday, December 24, 2017

DIVINE HUMILITY - reflections on the Grotto of the Nativity


Fragile life emerging from hidden
darkness, struggling to be free.

I have entered earth’s womb,
descended stone steps
to the Cave that reaches into the world's heart.
And in that warm, enfolding place given thanks
for the one miracle which embraced all.

To reach there you must abandon pride,
for only those who will bow low can enter
through the narrow cleft which
leads from a land of light into the
incense-laden, candle-burning, oiled darkness;
into the mystery of Nativity.

Here kings have knelt and warriors fearfully halted,
sheathing their swords that only the Virgin's blood is spil't.
It is only by way of humility that one may enter.
Beyond gold brocaded curtains,
down stone steps worn smooth by countless pilgrims,
eyes closed to the brightness of light to behold
the Other.
By way of awe you come
to the myrrh-starred place that only those who bow again
beneath the stone which shields the embryonic star
can encounter, kiss, venerate and adore.
For here life came to be remade in the image of its Maker.

I am glad to have encountered that place.

Eve of the Nativity, 2017

Saturday, December 23, 2017

THREE POEMS for CHRISTMASS by R. S. Thomas

R. S. Thomas (1913-2000) was a priest-poet noted for his deep love of Wales who spent much of his life and ministry on the Llyn Peninsula where he died.  It was the landscape of this isolated region, noted for its ancient pilgrimage paths to Bardsey Island, which nurtured his spirituality


Song
I choose white, but with
Red on it, like the snow
In winter with its few
Holly berries and the one
Robin, that is a fire
To warm by and like Christ
Comes to us in his weakness,
But with a sharp song.
[from H’m (1972).]

Blind Noel
Christmas; the themes are exhausted.
Yet there is always room
on the heart for another
snowflake to reveal a pattern.
Love knocks with such frosted fingers.
I look out.  In the shadow
of so vast a God I shiver, unable
to detect the child for the whiteness.
[from No Truce with the Furies (1995).]

Carol
What is Christmas without
snow?  We need it
as bread of a cold
climate, ermine to trim
our sins with, a brief
sleeve for charity’s
scarecrow to wear its heart
on, bold as a robin.
[from Later Poems (1983).]

Sunday, December 17, 2017

THE SCENT OF HIDDEN SPRINGS – Some Thoughts About Roots and Flourishing (Introduction)

THE SCENT OF HIDDEN SPRINGS
– Some Thoughts About Roots and Flourishing
_______________________



INTRODUCTION



“What’s it all about, Alfie?”

So sang Dionne Warwick in a famous song, which became a major hit for Cilla Black, by Burt Bacharach way back in 1966.  It was written for the film of the same name – Alfie – and she went on to ruminate about life, what was all about? A moment’s pleasure? Making more than you give? And then asked if it’s it foolish to be kind, wise to be cruel? Does life only belong to the strong? The turning point came when she admitted that she believed there was a heaven above, that there’s much more to life and that even non-believers can believe in love. In one poignant line she sang:

‘Without true love we just exist, Alfie. Until you find the love you've missed you're nothing, Alfie.’

            The song may have been written over fifty years ago but the question remains: what’s it all about? It’s the kind of question that we’re suddenly faced with at times of crisis. Teenagers, when they hit upon that existential phase, often stumble upon it. Lovers wonder at it. As we gaze on nature we find it can ask us – what meaning does life have …? Is it really all summed up as ‘eat, drink and be merry for tomorrow you die’?
            This book isn’t meant to be a deeply philosophical tome but a reflection – a meditation, an exploration – into some of the fundamental questions about life and death each of us can find ourselves facing. It’s come about because of the way many of these questions were dealt with in the past is no longer accessible to a generation cut off from its ancient roots, people who have lost interest in religion. Many of these fundamental questions of our being touch on the religious dimension of life and yet, equally, many of us have no time for religion. Of course there are some who will say “I’m spiritual, not religious” but the Christian faith doesn’t seem to have much appeal to the young. And no wonder when, so often, what is reported is the way Christians have abused others, exercised power for their own ends, denied people their sexual rights or refused to accept minorities. Christianity has become seen as homophobic, narrow-minded and bigoted offering simplistic answers to deep and complicated questions. Yet people of other faiths don’t seem ashamed to admit they’re Muslim or Hindu and are able to access the wisdom of their religions and young people aren’t afraid to claim that they are followers of Mohammed or devotees of Shiva, Krishna or Lakshmi. So this book will try to re-connect us with some of the roots of that faith which nurtured and nourished our society for two thousand years yet no longer seems relevant (what an over-used word!) to many. We’re detached from faith – or semi-detached at best – but the house in which we live has unsearched basements and cellars containing vast hordes of wisdom for us to explore. We’ve hidden springs for refreshment, caves containing treasures yet the doorway to these has often been forgotten, is covered in cobwebs or is ignored – “we don’t want to go there, what’s the point?” But if we lose touch with our roots we’re in danger of becoming de-stabilised, a shallow generation that is satisfied by superficialities.


In depth living
            One of the things I do is to sit and listen to people try to make sense of God in their life and explore all the movements that happen within them as they try to give attention to God – it’s called ‘spiritual direction’ and if you want to know more then there’s some notes at the back. Many of the issues that people want to explore and many which seem to be around in society, both sacred but mainly secular, concern matters that the great Traditions of Christianity, for want of a better term, have always addressed. Just because someone may have jettisoned religion, faith, God etc. the questions don't go away. Getting rid of God means we’ve blocked off a source of wisdom and insight and ignoring the Christianity might mean we don’t have to bother with it but it also means that we’ve lost the ability to access that ‘wisdom of the ages’ which has helped people to live and not just survive.  As someone wrote to me:

            ‘As you know I am one of your acquaintances who does not have a faith, is not a believer. Neither am I an intellectual in anyway shape or form. However, I do question where our humanity has gone, I love the wisdom of the ages from those spiritual leaders, be it religious or pagan. I think the past has so much to             teach us; so much in this modern age is being forgotten. Everything is so shallow and meaningless.’

So this book sets out to look at matters such as what it means to be human and why we’re here, why doesn’t God go away, what gives meaning and purpose to life, why we resonate with ‘spiritual’ things, why people suffer, how we can become more beautiful and, perhaps most poignant of all, aging and death. And throughout I’ll try to look at what the ‘wisdom of the ages’ might have to offer us for religion, down the ages, has looked at all these matters, and more, and tried to make sense of them. At its best religion doesn’t attempt to provide answers but to shine a light on the path that leads into the heart of our being where we can discover the truth of who we are and how we connect – and realise ourselves, with our unique wonder, as part of a vast whole which finds itself embraced in a mystery. You know, religion doesn’t just offer rules (and, when it does, they’re meant to be for human flourishing – like ‘do not murder’, ‘love your enemies’ ‘don’t put your trust in money’ etc.) but it offers wisdom that needs our attention, insights that require us to extract the gold that lies within and practices designed to help us be more fully human. Of course, there will always be times when we need to use our reasoning faculties to critique what has been passed down especially as advances in science occur.
            Now that many of us have not been brought up with the language and rhythms of faith we’ll find that some practices of prayer and worship may not seem natural but we need to be open to the potential they have to help us reach beyond the heights and depths of life. Sometimes, of course, these have an instant appeal (or not) but, at their best, worship invites us into another world of encounter. Perhaps you’ve walked into a cathedral or shrine and just had that sense of ‘otherness’ which has made you stop and sit down for a moment and relish the silence (hopefully the place hasn’t been too noisy) and savour the smells of old stone, incense and candle wax. Perhaps, for a moment, you’ve had a sneaking feeling that there’s another dimension to life. You may think you’d given up on worship – hymn singing etc. – but we will always have a propensity to worship something greater than ourselves and that can open us to immense possibilities some of which, unfortunately, can be quite dangerous. Perhaps holy places should have a sign at their entrance saying: ‘Danger, God at work’.  There’s a wonderful story of a French priest, St Jean-Marie Vianney, who often found an old farmer sitting in church gazing at the altar on which was a beautiful tabernacle (a sort of box) containing the presence of Christ under the form of bread. And when, in the end, St Jean-Marie asked what he was doing there the old farmer simply said: “I look at Him and He looks at me and we tells each other that we love each other.” I must admit that when I first heard that story it reduced me to tears. It can still do that.
            So it’s sad that many have simply given up on sacred religion (… they might not realise how secular religion – capitalism, communism or nationalism has its teeth in them) and simply live on the surface of life, content to be carried by whatever currents we encounter or unaware of anything deeper than the glints and flashes reflected from what the eye can see. But there’s always the distant rumble of something greater, the feeling that we may have had the experience but missed the meaning. And when something shocking happens, something that jolts us out of our easy living, where do we turn to find the resources we need to cope?

Has religious faith any appeal?
            Now it goes without saying that Christianity, like any religion, isn’t exempt from corruption, misuse or a fundamentalist interpretation. Something which offers a way of life which can unite us with that which is most noble and creative in our humanity can be, and has been, abused and used as a means of control over others. Yet its transcendental appeal remains and it still tugs at the hearts of many, in-spite of a chorus of cynical disapproval. It’s certainly not cool to be a Christian, or even to talk about Jesus, God, the Saints, prayer (spirituality is OK), worship and so on. But Christianity has rarely been popular; as G. K. Chesterton wrote: ‘The Christian ideal has not been tried and found wanting. It has been found difficult; and left untried.’ (‘What’s Wrong with the World’, Part I, Chapter 5) Yet the heroic lives of saintly men and women continue to have an appeal; they are like beacons shining in the dark. Of course, sportsman and women and ‘celebrities’ can have an instant and greater glow about them but, have you noticed that their appeal is often passing? The appeal of true holiness, that which takes us out of ourselves so that we are living in the light of the Other, lasts and we can continue to savour it long after a holy one has disappeared from this earth.

Religion re-invented    
            What I find so fascinating is the way that so much of our religious past hasn’t actually disappeared but has been taken over – Advent calendars now offer us chocolates rather than insights into waiting for the birth of the man who can lead us to life in all its fullness; All Saints now offers fashionable clothes rather than being men and women clothed in holiness; Halloween isn’t a way of lovingly remembering the dead but a chance to go a bit mad. Incense is now a costly perfume to enhance our bodies rather than a mystical aroma which announces the presence of holiness, of God; and the ability to make your Confession is now rewarded with a TV fee rather than the ability to find absolution. And we’ve drained the great mysteries of the Faith – the birth of Christ and his death and resurrection – into times of excess governed by the gods of commerce, holding out nothing more than a plastic Santa or chocolate bunny. Can these satisfy our real needs, our deepest needs? Or are they part of a culture which has to make us feel we need ever more and more to make us happy and find … contentment … but is basically about making a profit for shareholders? Yet all the while, dimly maybe, behind it all and almost masked by the deafening clamour of commerce and entertainment can you hear that quiet voice asking: ‘What do you seek? What do you seek?’
           
What do we seek – what’s it all about?
            Have you ever thought of that?  Isn’t it such an important question and doesn’t it often get ignored – what do I seek in life? It’s another way of wondering ‘what’s it all about’? Does my life have any meaning or purpose or am I just a creature of evolution waiting to disappear off the face of the earth to be forgotten in a generation or so (if that)? Those aren’t the sort of questions that often get aired on TV or discussed in the pages of the tabloids (or, come to that, the broadsheets) but aren’t they important questions to ponder? But where do I go to explore them? And do I want to?

‘The purpose of life is not to be happy. It is to be useful, to be honourable, to be compassionate, to have it make some difference that you have lived and lived well.’ (Ralph Waldo Emerson)
           
            It has been the task of religion to help us do that, to open us to those questions and explore the meaning and purpose of life. For some, that purpose is to be happy; no one, normally, wants to be un-happy. For others it might be to live with a close and loving family or find a satisfying career (which is OK until that comes to an end. Then what?) But, and here is the question again, is that all I seek? There's a famous affirmation by someone called St Augustine, who was born in what is now Algeria, north Africa in the 4th century AD which somehow seems to get at the nub of all this: “You have made us for yourself, O Lord, and our heart is restless until it rests in you.”
            Now as a general principle Christianity holds that we are made in the ‘image’ of God. In saying that it doesn’t mean that we’re all designed to look like an old man with a white beard but rather that we have about us, in the deepest part of our being, the potential for greatness, beauty and wonder. Of holiness. Just consider that for a moment. Close your eyes and, in a minute of silence, consider “I am made in the image of God – the image of divine beauty which is so much deeper than the eye can see. I have the potential to be – Godlike.”  Just be quiet and mull over that.

I am made for love and creativity;
I am part of the whole cosmos in which I have always existed.
I have something inside me that unites me with the past and present and future. I am part of – God.
           

Now it’s the task of religion to help each of us grow into this fullness of life but somethings got in the way and managed to palm us off with thinking all we need is a better car, bigger house or a win on the Lottery. That a make-over will, somehow, answer our needs. Tosh! Unless we’re re-making the heart of who we are anything else is like playing with the deckchairs on the Titanic.

"Love is a one-way street.  It always moves away from self in the direction of the other.  Love is the ultimate gift of our-selves to others.  When we stop giving we stop loving, when we stop loving we stop growing, and unless we grow we will never attain personal fulfilment; we will never open out to receive the life of God.  It is through love we encounter God.”  (Blessed Teresa of Calcutta, Where there is Love, there is God, p. 26)

 Do I realise that I am made for love and to be love for others? As one of Jesus’ closest friends said: ‘let us love one another, because love is from God; everyone who loves is born of God and knows God. Whoever does not love does not know God, for God is love.’ (I John 4.7) So, might love be the way whereby sacred and secular are joined? Might it be that it is as we learn more about love that we are drawn out of ourselves to encounter the mystery of the other – and of the Other (the greatest Other)? Well, there’s nothing new in that reflection: "We become what we love and who we love shapes what we become” declared St Clare of Assisi way back in the 13th century, “If we love things, we become a thing. If we love nothing, we become nothing. Imitation is not a literal mimicking of Christ, rather it means becoming the image of the beloved, an image disclosed through transformation. This means we are to become vessels of God´s compassionate love for others." And St Thomas à Kempis, who lived just over a hundred years later, wrote in his famous book ‘The Imitation of Christ’: ‘Nothing is sweeter than love, nothing stronger or higher or wider; nothing is more pleasant, nothing fuller, and nothing better in heaven or on earth, for love is born of God and cannot rest except in God, Who is above all created things.’  So we come to the point, I hope, where believer and unbeliever have arrived at common ground and can agree with what that remarkable woman Julian of Norwich, the first of her gender to write in the English language, said in her book, ‘Revelations of Divine Love’: ‘Understand (this) well: love was his meaning. Who showed it to you? Love. What did he show you? Love. Why did he show it? For love. Hold yourself in this truth and you shall understand and know more in the same vein.’ (Ch.86)

Friday, November 24, 2017

WHAT'S IT ALL ABOUT...

BEING HUMAN

An Introduction

I love trees.

Especially I love old ones. In the park near where I live there are some fine ancient oaks which, by the size of their trunks, must have taken root centuries ago. I love their gnarled, pocked surfaces with their massive branches, some of which have been blown off in gales and others fallen away with age. They have stood sentient there for centuries, witnesses to ages past; through the reigns of the Charles’ and George’s, William’s and Victoria and so many more they are silent witnesses to the passage of time.
            But what I admire about them is that they are simply there; they stand still, able to bend with the wind no matter how destructive it may be. They are just – being themselves – being trees. That’s all they can be yet in being what they are they have given pleasure to generations. Their innate beauty can be looked at or ignored for they do not need our gaze, just our respect. They are supported in the air by invisible roots thrust deep into the soil from where they draw their strength and energy, from which they are nurtured and nourished. No superficial, passing life for them. They know they need to be rooted for, if they are not, they will fall yet what is essential for them is invisible to the eye, as a little prince once observed.
            You can notice so many trees, but how often do we really see a tree? When was the last time you looked at one, really looked at one? I only ask because, like trees, we can easily notice people without really seeing them – what is essential to them is invisible to the eye – just as we can take ourselves for granted. How often do we stop to reflect on the wonder of our being? Really see and value who we are? This book is intended to help you stop for a moment and wonder at this matter of being human. Millenia ago, when someone did just that, they went on to declare:

I thank you for the wonder of my being, for the wonders of all your creation

And if you raise your eye past the topmost branches of the trees and, at night, gaze on the sky above and around you I wonder if your sense of marvel might be aroused as you look upon the myriad of stars? What might you want to say as you contemplate the heavens?  Possibly the same person who realised the wonder of their being all those years ago was also the one who wrote about the way that, when they considered the heavens, the moon and the stars which are set in their places, they then reflected on humanity and wondered – why. Are we, who make such a mess of things worth wondering at, worth being cared about? And the answer, of course, was ‘yes’.

            Sadly, trees die. Sometimes of old age and, sometimes, because their tap root gets broken. I wonder if our society has become separated from our tap-root, the one reaching deep into the past which has been nourished by faith? Having traveled in other cultures where faith and belief is strong it’s interesting to hear how we are viewed by some, and how strong the poorest can be when they are rooted in faith. I recall hearing someone complain to me that westerners were worse than animals because we had lost faith – had jettisoned God. For them, to be human meant being a person of faith and to abandon that made us more to be pitied than the brute beasts.

Seeing behind the mask
            But isn’t this business of being human about discovering a depth of being which connects us with the deepest streams of life? A few years ago, after a period of solitude, a person drove into their local town and noticed the people walking down the streets in a way he had not seen them before. Later he, wrote:

‘I have the immense joy of being man, a member of a race in which (I believe) God Himself became incarnate. As if the sorrows and stupidities of the human condition could overwhelm me, now I realize what we all are. And if only everybody could realize this! But it cannot be explained. There is no way of telling people that they are all walking around shining like the Sun.’

But how often do we let ourselves wonder at our being – and wonder, why? Why did I come into being? Am I just an accident, just the work of biological processes? Or am I the consequence of so much more – of all the care and attention, the love and compassion that has been shown me? Or not. Is my strength to be measured in how I live with weakness, my glory the way I own who I am ‘warts and all’? The wisdom of the ages tells us that to be fully human is to be able to accept myself just as I am, accept the truth of who I am when I am naked of whatever I clothe myself with and to know that I am loved with a passion that is greater than life.

What’s it all about?
            I want to explore why we’re here and of being loved; to look at brokenness and loss and the need for compassion, respect and worth. To consider the gods of our age, of bread and circuses, and what really makes us rich; what it means to have worth and the way that insecurity can cripple us. To consider pain and suffering, success and failure. In the past people have looked to religion for help but, for many in the West, the tap-root of faith has been rejected, God seems dead and religion is for dummies. But I want to look deeper and see if what religion once offered for human well-being might still have something to offer 21st century western society. And to look at how Jesus might picture God for us and how his story might be timeless, just as those oaks in the woods have so much to give if only we would look at them with the eye of the heart.


Late have I loved you,
O Beauty ever ancient, ever new,
late have I loved you!
You were within me, but I was outside,
and it was there that I searched for you.
In my unloveliness I plunged into the lovely things which you created.
You were with me, but I was not with you.
Created things kept me from you;
yet if they had not been in you they would have not been at all.
You called, you shouted, and you broke through my deafness.
You flashed, you shone, and you dispelled my blindness.
You breathed your fragrance on me;
I drew in breath and now I pant for you.
I have tasted you, now I hunger and thirst for more.
You touched me, and I burned for your peace.
(Augustine of Hippo)