“Be silent, still, aware,
for there, within your heart,
the Spirit is at prayer.
Open and receive,
for there, within your heart,
the Spirit is at prayer.
Open and receive,
There can be few people (especially readers of the Daily Mail) who are unaware, and probably have a view about, the fiasco that has enveloped the BBC this past week. The broadcast of Jonathan Ross and Russell Brand’s phone call, closely followed by the disgusting comments about the Queen on ‘Mock the Week’, has had enormous repercussions and raised serious issues about ‘taste and decency’ in the media. What are the boundaries that broadcasters should not cross? Just because a Radio 2 audience might be younger than those who listen to Radio 4, or those who listen to ‘Mock the Week’ are assumed to like outrageous content, does that mean broadcasters should pander to our least reputable instincts? Maybe. As one member of the public said when asked to comment, “I try to teach my children not to swear, to be respectful to others and so on, but my efforts are undermined by what they are exposed to by some of the programmes to which they listen.”
Our society is exposed to a vast range of communicators and I realise it is hard for many parents to know how they can nurture their children with decent values. Clearly, for some, the church provides one means to help support their efforts.
I mention all this because our readings today touch on questions of standards of behaviour for Christians as we seek to help create a civilised society. St. Paul, in his letter to Christians in the Thessalonica, reminds them that he has sought to live a ‘blameless’ life. Jesus, in a different context, satirizes the Pharisees and warns people not to look up to people who cannot be trusted, reminding them that the only person to look to – the only ‘father’ who matters – is our Father in heaven.
Now I always blush with a sense of embarrassment when I hear Jesus’ words: You must call no one on earth father. OK. In Jesus’ time no one did call clergy Father. Called them Rabbi, or Teacher. So does that mean we can’t call anyone ‘father’, or ‘dad’. And what about ‘Mother’?
Why did Jesus make such a sweeping statement?
One way to approach a particular passage of scripture is by asking ourselves two questions.
Firstly, “What’s going on here?” That would mean delving a little deeper. And, secondly, “What does this mean for us?” What’s the good news for us? So, firstly, what’s going on here?
Once again, Jesus expresses his anger at the Pharisees, that group of pious Jews who put great emphasis on traditional beliefs and practices. But they also sought to make the love of God and love of neighbor the chief commandments. However, many Pharisees of Jesus’ time went further and sought to make their way of life even more distinctive. The Pharisees whom Jesus satirizes attempted to keep themselves in a state of purity at all times. They were scrupulous in their behavior and took great care not to come in contact with any source of defilement.
In today’s gospel lesson, Jesus is not criticizing those who try faithfully to keep the Law. He is speaking about those who forget what really mattered in the Law – not just keeping the rules but loving God and neighbor by seeking to exercise justice and mercy and faithfulness. And he is speaking to those who work hard at keeping the letter of the law while forgetting about the spirit of the law. Jesus criticizes the Pharisees because they don’t practice what they preach; and, in so doing, Jesus, and others like him, reminds us all of the need to practice what we preach. So, the next question is ‘What does this mean for us?’
Well, it’s a challenge to rethink our primary relationship. Yet again he is pressing home the need all human beings have of getting their relationship with God right so that all other relationships will flow from that.
THE SPIRITUALITY OF HOLINESS
In the wake of the controversy about standards in the BBC, we are also in the midst of the great season of the saints. Yesterday we celebrated All Saints and tomorrow we will commemorate the Holy Souls. These two great celebrations of all who rest and rejoice in the Love of God are annual reminders that we belong to another world as well as this one – to the world of God’s kingdom which we are invited to enter.
Yesterday at Mass I read out some words of the late, great Cistercian, Thomas Merton: ‘For me to be a saint means to be myself. The problem with sanctity is, in fact, the problem of finding out who I am and of discovering my true self.’
This is what it means to be a Christian. To want to discover my true identity. Are we not more than so-called comedy programmes reflect us as being? People whose humour is susceptible to mockery, jibe, insult and humiliation. If so, we have cause to be ashamed.
But religion reminds us that we were created to overcome our lower nature and discover the beauty of our true selves. As Merton went on to say: ‘God leaves us free to be whatever we like. … We may be true or false, the choice is ours. We may wear now one mask and now another, and never, if we so desire, appear with our true face. But we cannot make these choices with impunity. Causes have effects, and if we lie to ourselves and to others, then we cannot expect to find truth and reality whenever we happen to want them. If we have chosen the way of falsity we must not be surprised that truth eludes us when we finally come to need it!’
The Saints are those men and women – sometimes quite awkward and difficult people – who, realising the hollowness of their lives, seek to be real before God. They aren’t simpering, holier-than-thou people of no earthly use. They are women and men who have realised their ‘hollowness’ and want to let God be God in their lives. People who are not necessarily ‘good’ or ‘nice’ but people who, realising their earthiness and shallowness who want to be touched and filled by God.
As someone once said, ‘The test of Catholic Christianity is not whether it can make good men better, but whether it can make bad men holy.’
In coming to Mass and sharing in the celebration of these mysteries, we are invited to enter into the communion of saints who are constantly present to us as we seek to draw closer to the mystery of God. We may not always realise that this is the edge of the Mystery we call God, but it is a fact. And only he who sees, with the inner eye of the soul, will open his heart to be filled with the glory of this God-mystery. The Holy Gifts that are offered, the Bread of Christ’s Body and the Wine of His Blood, are offered to fill our open mouths and empty hearts with a taste of the glory that is ours for the asking. Our spiritual being needs nurturing and caring for, else it will lie dormant and be prone to the myriad influences that shape us but will never grow to the fullness for which we have the potential.
And it is the duty of your priests – your ‘Fathers’ and ‘Mothers’ in God – to encourage you to deepen your being-in-God.
These final days of the Christian Year, from All Saints to Advent, are full of reminders of this and present us with the opportunity of saying a deeper ‘yes’ to God. This House of Prayer is filled with his presence: there is nothing, now, to separate you from the love of God in Jesus Christ and His saints.