Monday, July 29, 2019

BREXIT, DESOLATION AND WARFARE

Over the last few days I've heard a couple of people talk of feeling utterly defeated by the way the government is pursuing a 'hard' Brexit. They seem to have become exhausted and disoriented in an existential way.

What they describe is close to 'desolation', which St. Ignatius Loyola described as the consequence of 'evil spirits'. Sadly, that term has become associated with fundamentalists, but the loss of such an insight into the way we are influenced - for good and ill - by the movements of spiritual forces beyond our control means we can easily become affected - subjected - by those which are not life-giving. I hope we might reclaim the term, but at least don't let it put us off.

Unfortunately I'm also aware of the way the church is increasingly ignoring the spiritual dimension of life. Rather than being advised and encouraged to give priority to their spiritual development, clergy are often encouraged to consider 'well-being' divorced from any religious or spiritual teaching and which ignores their relationship with God. But if clergy are not being told to give this priority in their lives, if courses neglect this essential dimension, no amount of secular 'well-being' courses can touch or address our deepest needs. In spite of the way I pleaded in 'Enfolded in Christ' for the church to take seriously and give priority to the spiritual life of priests, I keep hearing that this is ignored as diocese's grasp for secular answers to what are, at heart, spiritual needs.

No wonder, then, that at a time when we are faced with such an existential malaise ordinary Christians don't look at the spiritual roots of such desolation. Unless priests are relearning the basics of being rooted in Christ it's likely they won't be helping the laity in this vital task.

There's a spiritual warfare going on which is easily ignored or denied, which no amount of well-meaning therapy can address. That warfare requires us (as it always has) to embrace faith in the power of the Incarnate, crucified and Transcendent Christ. We need faith that those dark forces have ultimately been overcome. And then to face life with the compassionate love of God - with faith and hope and love. To deepen our prayer, meditate on the scriptures and realise the need for regular Retreat. To find a spiritual director, believe in the grace of the Sacraments, and practice spiritual warfare.

That's why I developed the Spiritual Association of the Compassionate Hearts of Jesus and Mary - to try and offer some on-line resources to address desolation. And why I have started offering retreats for clergy. Now is the time for the Church of England to remember the importance of the spiritual tools that are turning rusty and to reclaim its spiritual heritage.

Thursday, July 18, 2019

BLIND GUIDES - FALSE PROPHETS




THE SECOND READING at Morning Prayer today (July 18th) told the story of Jesus' giving sight to a blind beggar sitting at a roadside near Jericho (Luke 18.35f).  This theme of blindness needing healing occurs at other times in the gospels and not only in relation to individuals seeking healing; there are occasions when it concerns those exercising power.  For such people can be blind to all that does not serve their ends: they can be people blinded by the 'gods of this world' to 'keep them from seeing the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ, who is the image of God.' (2 Corinthians 4.4f)

Light is a universal symbol of life and when we are blinded or light is extinguished - when we can no longer 'see' what is happening - then fear will stalk the streets with increasing impunity.  Because of the way we all need light in order to exist and know our way, we love the light and are suspicious of those who prefer darkness (John 3.19).  So St John would write: ‘In (Christ) was life and that life was the light of the world’ (John 1.4).  In a similar way darkness has become synonymous with death and ‘blindness’ with not seeing, something Jesus pointed out as he said that we should walk in the light of life (1 John 1.5).  John went so far as to point out that if we say that we are one with the Light but walk in darkness (and tell others to walk in the same way) 'we lie and do not do what is true'. Christianity has gone further and recognised that such darkness isn't just a matter of not seeing but it also allows something deeper and more corrosive to spread - something that has been named as 'evil'.

From time immemorial it has been realised that light can become corrupted, so one of the names of Satan – the ‘deceiver’ who rebelled against God – is ‘Lucifer’, which means ‘Light Bringer’.  Whatever the origins of that mythology it resonates with the way in which good can become poisoned. Jesus told us to beware of ‘blind guides’ (Matthew 15) who lead people astray, and in a similar way said we could recognise such guides (false prophets) by the fruit they produced (Matthew 7.15f).

From the time when Rome began to exert power over Israel (around 140 BC), this understanding of the way in which nations can also be corrupted led to the notion that ‘false-messiahs’ would arise, those who claim they can lead their followers to a ‘promised land’. Such ‘pseudo-christs’, or anti-christs, appear from time to time, especially when people cease believing in the goodness of God and lose their faith or when they have begun to place their faith in something other than the light of Christ.  Then ‘false-prophets’ can appear and fill the void left by the absence of God, something history repeatedly shows and of which there are too many recent examples - Hitler, Stalin, Pol Pot etc.  The demagogue, whose  love is for money and power, can easily become the dictator and the dictator is always the child of Satan, the deceiver, and Satan has always been understood to always be recruiting new disciples.  Sometimes it is not difficult to recognise them (but we may not like to name them) and they will always have a great appeal - they will want to attract people to them.  But it is by their fruits we can tell recognise them - not least how they treat God's 'little one's'.  Which is why the Beatitudes have been understood as the guide to walking in the light (Matthew 5.1-16)

How long shall my enemy triumph over me? 
Look upon me and answer, O Lord my God;
lighten my eyes, lest I sleep in death;
Lest my enemy say, ‘I have prevailed against him,’
and my foes rejoice that I have fallen. (Psalm 13.3f)

Sunday, June 23, 2019

SERMON for the 12th SUNDAY in ORDINARY

Preached at the Church of All Saints, Blackheath
at Parish Mass on June 23rd, 2019
______________________________

Readings: Isaiah 65.1-9, Galatians 3.23-29 and Luke 8.26-39
______________________________________________      



‘As many of you as were baptised into Christ 
have clothed yourself with Christ.’ (Gal.3.27)

X

INTRODUCTION
I always feel sorry for the pigs …  After all, they’d done nothing wrong, just that they are unclean in Jewish – and Muslim – eyes so were an appropriate means of disposing of those tormenting demons.  Poor pigs. 
              But after I'd stopped worrying about them my attention was caught by the way the man they had plagued suddenly ceases to be naked and becomes ‘clothed and in his right mind’ –  it recalled, for me, the way in which Paul wrote to those Galatians of the importance of being ‘clothed in Christ’.  Today we might say that the man was suffering from a mental illness and have him committed to a psychiatric unit to stop him from self-harming.  ‘There’s something wrong with his head’, as my mother might have said.  But then he was diagnosed as being possessed by demons – something affecting us at a far deeper level than the head.  
              These days we’re suspicious about such claims and regard the mind as controlling much of our behaviour.  We like to consider that we live in a rational society yet it’s clear we’re driven by far more visceral things.  You only have to look at the way the world reacts to so many issues to know that such re-actions have nothing to do with the rational but are driven by far deeper conflicts – conflicts centred in what we call the ‘heart’ – not the beating organ in our chest, nor simply the feelings we have, but that indefinable place within which is the centre of our being – where our thoughts, emotions and beliefs meet and from where we – unthinkingly – respond and react.  The society in which Jesus lived realised that only too well, and the scriptures are full of reminders of the need to create a ‘new heart’.  So, in the Book of Proverbs we read:

                        ‘Above all else, guard your heart, for everything you do flows from it.’ (Prov.4.23)

And “Blessed are the pure in heart”, said Jesus, “for they will see God.” (Matt.5.23)  Sadly it’s clear that, for many people, rational appeals don’t work – you have to appeal to the heart – which can easily become corrupted – ‘create in me a clean heart, O God, and renew a right spirit within me.’  That’s why Christ – who descended from the Heart of God and reached into the world’s heart – speaks into that place, rather than the head – to that place where, if we ‘sit’ there, we can learn the deepest truths.

CHRISTI AND SACRED HEART
I mention all this because today lies between two of the great, but often neglected, feasts of the Church, Corpus Christi and the Sacred Heart.  Both speak into the consequence of being ‘clothed in Christ’, which happens at our Baptism, for they invite us to give attention to the real presence of Christ – Christ before our eyes in the Blessed Sacrament and Christ reaching out into our hearts from His own Most Sacred Heart.  It’s one thing to take on the mantle of being a Christian, to say ’I believe’, but what we then need to do is to ask to be drawn deeper into Him.  

THE SACRED HEART AND ANGLICAN DEVOTION
We all know the importance of the image of the heart – from those printed on Valentine’s cards to one’s made with your fingers to express a feeling:


In spite of that, the Church of England ignores the great Feast of the Sacred Heart even though it’s been the object of inspiration and devotion for centuries, not least in medieval English devotion.  Back in the early 11th century St. Aelred of Rievaulx, the great Cistercian, wrote extensively about ‘Spiritual Friendship’ and maintained that the highest kind of friendship, that friendship which God invites us into, is a selfless communion of hearts (1.45)  Later, in the 14th century, Julian of Norwich – who lived in a cell attached to a church in that city and the first woman to write a book in English – described, in ‘Revelations of Divine Love’, how Jesus showed her, through his pierced side:
              ‘a fair, delectable place,
              and large enough for all mankind that shall be saved
              to rest in peace and in love.’ (Rev. 10) 

              And that place is His Heart.  That’s what makes this week’s Feast so important for it concerns the way in which the heart of each of us needs to be re-made, re-shaped and re-focussed into the Heart of God.  That’s where we are called to live out of – God’s compassionate, loving heart.

THE STORY OF THE SACRED HEART
Devotion to the Sacred Heart began to flourish more widely when, in 1673, a young French sister of the Visitation Order, St Margaret Mary Alacoque, received a number of revelations concerning Christ’s love.  In a vision she was invited to rest her head on the Heart of Jesus and, in so doing, gave fresh impetus to that devotion which quickly swept the world, a devotion to which this month of June is dedicated.  Yet for many all this talk about Sacred Hearts and the art often associated with it seems very flamboyant, distasteful even.  We don’t do emotion.  And that was a particular problem after the Reformation until some began to realise that in ignoring the heart, Christianity was suffering.  Then along came John Wesley. 
              It was consequent to his heart being “strangely warmed” that the Evangelical Revival could be said to have blossomed.  That ‘warming’ occurred when he heard a description of the change God works in the heart through faith in Christ.  There’s evidence that Wesley was drawn to devotion to the Heart of Jesus, not least because he arranged for the re-printing of a book about the Sacred Heart by Thomas Goodwin, a famous 17th cent. puritan (well, famous in the 17th century …).  Fifty years later one of the most popular hymns we sing was published which contain these lines:

ALL ye who seek a comfort sure
In trouble and distress,
Whatever sorrow vex the mind,
Or guilt the soul oppress,

Jesus, who gave himself for you
Upon the cross to die,
Opens to you his sacred heart;
O to that heart draw nigh.

These words help inspire the first, lasting community for women in the Church of England to be dedicated to the Sacred Heart.  From their members Florence Nightingale chose four sisters to nurse in the Crimea – but the name proved too controversial and was eventually changed. Fifty years later, in 1897, a group of men, under the inspiration of St Francis, dedicated their community to the Divine Compassion, which is another way of speaking about the Sacred Heart, but one which is far more acceptable to some Anglicans!

One of its members was Fr. Arthur Shearly Cripps who became a mission priest in what is now Zimbabwe.  He had such a deep sense of compassion for the black Africans amongst whom he lived that he became known as the ‘S. Francis of the African Countryside’ and wrote this moving devotion to the Sacred Heart:

O Heart of Jesus, Sacred, Compassionate,
Anguish it was, yet anguish that was bliss,
To love them heart to heart, each selfish heart,
To clasp them close, and pray in utter truth –
‘Father, forgive, they know not what they do.


COMPASSIONATE HEART OF JESUS
Recently someone wrote to me about the way she realised her heart was growing harder: 

              ‘About six years ago’ she said, ‘I became troubled that my heart was becoming like stone, and I made a conscious choice to change this situation.  I knew that   only God could help me on this one, and He did.’  She went on to observe: ‘I’ve noticed that, as some people get older, they become increasingly bitter and resentful about what life hurls at them.  They may even choose to  have hatred running in their lives.  It sort of energises them and keeps them going.’

              I had noticed something similar in some people’s attitudes towards those of other nationalities – and especially towards refugees and immigrants – following Brexit, so was heartened to read Pope Francis assertion that:

“Jesus’ only judgement is one filled with mercy and compassion.”

              Yet re-making one’s heart isn’t easy, which is why the need to do so lies at the heart of our faith and why, for example, St Benedict made ‘conversion of life’ one of the Vows of his Order.  You and I can find we have a stubborn heart which can refuse such a conversion until we simply say – I abandon myself to you, my God. 

CONCLUSION
In the end devotion to the Sacred Heart is simply about making my heart – the centre of my being – like Christ’s, nurturing within oneself His love and compassion.  I’ve sometimes heard people speak in a rather smug and disparagingly way about the bright red image of the Sacred Heart.  But crowned by the cross, surrounded by fire and encircled with the Crown of Thorns it offers an image of costly, Divine Love quite at odds with Valentine’s hearts.  Yet some people say: how tasteless! Too explicit; too graphic – especially when Jesus is shown holding it out for our gaze.   Even so it clearly touches and provokes a response in hearts that are simpler and unbiased. When, for example, during a school retreat a child was asked why Jesus’ heart should be shown outside His body he simply replied: “Because he loves us so much, he can’t keep it in.” 
              Ours isn’t a faith primarily determined by logic or rationality, but by Godly love: ‘By love can He be gotten and holden,’ wrote the author of the important 14th century English work, The Cloud of Unknowing, ‘but by thought, never.’  You and I are called to ‘stand before God with the mind in the heart and to go on standing before him unceasingly day and night until the end of life’ (Theophan the Recluse: 1815-1894)
              Stand in the mystery of our heart and the Heart of Christ, something we ignore at our peril.  We may not celebrate the Feast, but we need to be centred in the Heart of Christ, the Heart of God, if we’re to have ours re-made.  If we are to be the men and women we have the potential to become, a potential that’s like a seed in the ground, then we need to cultivate the heart, the heart of our being, and not just our brains!  I wish there were a Shrine to the Sacred Heart here and in every church!  An image to which children – people – could be taken and told: Behold, our Faith!  An image that would challenge us to ask ourselves – what would it be like to have a heart like His?  How can my heart become more “sacred”?  For, in the end, the Sacred Heart is about understanding Jesus’s love for me and all people and inviting me to love others as He did. 

O dearest Lord, thy Sacred Heart
with spear was pierced for me; 

O pour thy Spirit in my heart

that I may live for thee.

Sunday, June 02, 2019

MAKE … US … GREAT AGAIN



So the cry goes out, and so others are drawn to join in the chorus – make us great again!  And I, like others, wonder what it actually means, what attracts people about that cry?  Make America, France, Britain, Israel, Germany … great again!  Is it that people don’t feel great, or that they want others to think that their country is great, or that they look back to some mythical ‘golden age’ when it seemed everything was ‘great’?  What does it mean to be ‘great’?  Is it linked to memories of a time when standards of living for most (white) Americans were reasonably high; when (white) people knew they were special because other ethnic groups were side-lined; when Coca-Cola culture ruled the (air)waves? When we could project the dark side of our persona onto ‘communism’?

In 2018 research showed that roughly 70% of white evangelicals in the US supported Trump (the percentage had fallen over the previous two years and was much was lower amongst other Christian churches).  ‘Social scientists have proposed a variety of explanations, including economic dissatisfaction, sexism, racism, Islamophobia, and xenophobia. The current study establishes that, independent of these influences, voting for Trump was, at least for many Americans, a symbolic defense of the United States’ perceived Christian heritage.’ (Sociology of Religion: A Quarterly Review January 2018)   So is the cry, ‘Make America Great Again’ a veiled call to make America (here slot in any other nation) economically wealthy, white, Protestant-Christian with men in control and looked up to and feared by others?  In view of all that it seems appropriate to ask how Christ might respond to the cry – make us great again.  Here are some thoughts.

When it seemed Jesus might be the one to lead the Jews to freedom (Matthew 11.2ff) he responded to two of John’s disciples by saying: “Go and tell John what you hear and see: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them. And blessed is anyone who takes no offense at me.”  This reflects what Jesus taught about how to live in the Reign of God in the Beatitudes:

              “Blessed are you who are poor,
                             for yours is the kingdom of God.
              “Blessed are you who are hungry now,
                             for you will be filled.
              “Blessed are you who weep now,
                             for you will laugh.
              “Blessed are you when people hate you, and when they exclude you, revile you, and defame      you on account of the Son of Man. Rejoice in that day and leap for joy, for surely your reward is  
              great in heaven, for that is what their ancestors did to the prophets.
              “But woe to you who are rich,
                             for you have received your consolation.
              “Woe to you who are full now,
                             for you will be hungry.
              “Woe to you who are laughing now,
                             for you will mourn and weep.
              “Woe to you when all speak well of you, for that is what their ancestors did to the false
                 prophets.   (Luke 6.16ff)

That was echoed by the Mother of Jesus when she sang her Magnificat:
              “His mercy is for those who fear him
                             from generation to generation.
              He has shown strength with his arm;
                             he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts.
              He has brought down the powerful from their thrones,
                             and lifted up the lowly;
              he has filled the hungry with good things,
                             and sent the rich away empty.” (Luke 1.50ff)

Mary does tell of the greatness she experienced, and why?  Because she was chosen to bear Christ.  So the first thing we can say is that those who bear Christ in the womb of the heart need to realise their greatness.  The second thing is a consequence, that any society which seeks to incarnate – give expression to – the Beatitudes needs to realise the greatness of how it seeks to live. 
              The kind of ‘greatness’ shown by Trump often seems accompanied by acts of bullying, denigrating others, using lies and fabrications, nurturing a culture of hatred towards any who hold different views (especially if they are in the media) and disregard for any concern for Mother Nature.  It seems to me that, just as Christ was quick to condemn certain powerful Jews:

              ‘Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you are like whitewashed tombs, which on the outside look beautiful, but inside they are full of the bones of the dead and of all kinds of filth. So you also on the outside look righteous to others, but inside you are full of hypocrisy and lawlessness.’ (Matthew 23.27f)

he would have been quick to condemn these views and actions.

Christians can only be great to the extent they are prepared to put themselves aside, take the lowest place and wash the feet of others.  Our greatness comes from recognising that we are to live in this way, knowing that we are loved by God and precious in his sight; that in the eyes of the One who made us in his image and likeness, we have immense value.  Our greatness cannot come from something outside of us, it comes from knowing and believing that I am loved and precious in the sight of God.  It comes from knowing that God gazes on me, loves me and believes that I have all the potential he has given to me.  It is something we have to realise; it happens when we know that our Maker sees the wonder of our being. Then we are to live in the light of that realisation and know, as Jesus said, that our greatness is connected to the way we are to be the servant of all (Mark 9.35) and see the image of God’s greatness hidden in all things. 

Greatness is humility, the humility that comes from putting the other first, from knowing that I am dust, but dust destined for glory.  When our ego demands recognition, it will never find peace; Christ teaches us to set our ego-self aside and follow him.  There is great danger in tempting others to seek greatness, a temptation relished by Satan for it opens the way of corruption and the only weapon that Satan cannot defend himself against is the weapon of humility.

“If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it. For what will it profit them if they gain the whole world but forfeit their life? Or what will they give in return for their life? For the Son of Man is to come with his angels in the glory of his Father, and then he will repay everyone for what has been done. Truly I tell you, there are some standing here who will not taste death before they see the Son of Man coming in his kingdom.”  (Matthew 16.24ff)

Friday, May 31, 2019

ATONEMENT – THE ANGER OF GOD?



‘They who suppose the wrath and anger of God upon fallen man to be a state of mind in God himself … hold the doctrine of the necessity of Christ’s atoning life and death in a mistaken sense.  That many good souls may hold this doctrine in this simplicity of belief I make no manner of doubt.  But when books are written to impose and require this belief of others as the only saving faith in the life and death of Christ, it is then an error that ceases to be innocent.’

The Rev. William Law (1686-1791), An Appeal to All That Doubt, Ch.3, para.4

Sunday, May 19, 2019

PRAYER FOR VOCATIONS TO RELIGIOUS LIFE



In 2018 the Archbishop of Canterbury wrote, in connection with the founding of the new Community of St Anselm at Lambeth Palace: ‘Unless swift action was taken, some feared that the religious life could vanish from the Church of England for ever.’ 

The Roman Catholic Church makes it clear that prayer for vocations to the Religious Life is central to Vocations Sunday, which is observed on the 4th Sunday in Easter, Good Shepherd Sunday:  ‘The purpose of the World Day of Prayer for Vocations is to publicly fulfil the Lord's instruction to, "Pray the Lord of the harvest to send laborers into his harvest" (Mt 9:38; Lk 10:2). As a climax to a prayer that is continually offered throughout the Church, it affirms the primacy of faith and grace in all that concerns vocations to the priesthood and to the consecrated life.  While appreciating all vocations, the Church concentrates its attention this day on vocations to the ordained ministries (priesthood and diaconate), to the Religious life in all its forms (male and female, contemplative and apostolic), to societies of apostolic life, to secular institutes in their diversity of services and membership, and to the missionary life, in the particular sense of mission "ad gentes".’  (United States Conference of Catholic Bishops)

Excellent resources can be found here:
and here:

Vocation was the subject of the sermon at the church I attended on Easter 4 and, quite rightly, the preacher made the point that vocation isn’t limited to ordained ministry.  Whilst I agree it was lamentably noticeable that no mention was made of a calling to Religious Life, and I expect that was the same elsewhere.

It does not appear that such prayer receives any prominence in the Church of England and I wonder why this is so?  If the Archbishop’s statement is taken seriously, then prayer for vocations to Religious Life is urgent and should be at the heart of what we pray for each year. 

At one time there was a Prayer for Vocations to Religious Life, but I cannot find a copy.  Do you know of such a Prayer?

Friday, May 17, 2019

‘BEAR ONE ANOTHER'S BURDENS AND SO FULFILL THE LAW OF CHRIST.’ (Gal 6.2)


Christ comes to us in every disguise and encounters us when we’re unprepared. Often he comes in those who we would not chose – or expect – him to be clothed in, yet still he comes. What does one do with the constant stream of those asking for help, for money, for a listening ear. I have turned from him so many times, yet still he comes. What matters is that we don’t allow our hearts to turn to stone, that each encounter might move us along the way to greater compassion and an openness to his voice. That can be hard when he speaks to us in public and we might feel embarrassed, or in the person to whom we find it hard to show mercy. It can be hard when our attention is give to ourselves, our needs and desires, and blind to the other, unless they have an appeal. But Christ comes, asking us to share his burden.

Wednesday, May 15, 2019

MINDFULNESS AND THE PRAYER OF RECOLLECTION


‘The practice of Christian meditative Recollection eventually shifts into what (Evelyn) Underhill calls the prayer of Quiet, as the subject eventually stops the willed concentration on the object of Recollection and simply rests passively within this deep inner consciousness, free of all sensory and cognitive attachments.  Although Underhill speaks theologically of this condition as an awareness of the soul’s unity with its ground or ‘Pure Being’, she describes it as ‘an  almost complete suspension of the reflective powers’ that leads to a  radically passive condition that mystics have called in negatively descriptive language ‘ecstatic deprivation’, ‘nothingness’, ‘utter stillness’, ‘Interior Silence’, or ‘emptiness’. This altered state of consciousness is a kind of consciousness-purity that is not properly describable and is best characterized by silence. Although quite positively affective, mystics speak of the ‘naked orison’ or ‘divine dark’ of this state of consciousness purity, in contrast to the normal busy activities of the sensory-cognitive intentional mind.’

 From: EXPLORING PROCESSES AND DYNAMICS OF MYSTICAL CONTEMPLATIVE MEDITATION:
SOME CHRISTIAN-BUDDHIST PARALLELS

Thursday, April 25, 2019

TURN AND TURN AGAIN




In his account of the resurrection, St John records that Mary Magdalene, after peering into the tomb and conversing with two angels (20.11ff) 'turned' and saw Jesus, although she did not recognise him. A few verses on, after talking with him, John says she again ‘turned’ and said: “Rabbouni”.

This double turn is interesting - surely she didn't need to turn again as she is already facing him? Or does John want to underline the movement required to recognise who she was speaking with? This failure at first to see the risen Christ occurs at other times in the resurrection stories and emphasises that we need to really look in order to properly 'see' Jesus. A cursory glance will not reveal who he is - this 'seeing' need to penetrate the heart.

One of the motifs in this gospel is the need to ‘see’ who Jesus is – see beneath the outer appearance into the heart. This seems similar to the concept of ‘metanoia’, that turning which is needed to enable the heart to respond to the call of Jesus. How can we help people 'see' Jesus?

Saturday, April 20, 2019

‘RELIGION IS JUST A CRUTCH…’



It’s not uncommon for someone objecting to their partner going to church or attending Mass or say that those who do so are looking for a ‘crutch’ or that religion is a way of avoiding relationships.  It can be very painful to hear that said and can cause real difficulties for anyone who wants to grow in their faith and begins to sense that, to do so, they need the company of others. 

Like the Judaism from which it emerged, Christianity isn’t a solitary religion.  As with many other animals we’re designed to be relational beings – we live in societies; grow through relationships and discover who we are as we encounter others.  But like other religions Christianity goes further, it points out that in order to be fully human we need to be in relationship with something greater than ourselves – with God.  Our need to ‘go to church’ is an aspect of the realisation that, in order to grow, we desire to be with others as they seek God – is that a ‘crutch’?  If it is, then it’s one most of us need, for in order to be myself I need to be in relationship with you, or as one philosopher maintained 1 – every ‘I’ needs a ‘Thou’ in order to find meaning.  We need to be in ever-deepening relationship.

Some use the church, the People of God, as a means of developing those meaningful relationships when, for good reasons, no other way seems possible and Christians are found to be welcoming, accepting and inclusive.  Sadly, a few look to certain churches to support their prejudices.  Some partners might feel ‘church’ is a threat to their relationship and there are, indeed, those who become too involved and distant from their partner.  But in a similar way, friendships, even hobbies, can either be nurturing of a relationship – we enjoy the company of friends and need to have our own independently of partners – or they can become an escape. 

I need a crutch
I don’t mind admitting that I need a crutch.  I know I’m broken, not whole – are any of us?  I know I need people to help me become the person I’m meant to be; need people who love me, people who will encourage and enable me to grow.   In so many ways life wounds all of us and we need those who will help us heal and become whole.  No one is perfect.  Many are prepared to accept that they are enslaved and need a rescuer – a saviour, a Power greater than themselves to whom they can turn for help in this matter of becoming whole and growing into the fullness of our potential.  Christianity says that we have a godly identity that needs nurturing so we can grow beyond the limits of the self.

In all this the individual seeker, wanting to grow in their faith, beginning to sense that they need to do so in company with others, will need to be sensitive to the feelings of their partner, making sure that they are giving enough ‘quality time’ to them.  For growth in relationship with the God we have not seen is tested by our relationship with those amongst whom we live (1 John 4.20f). 

Growing beyond the church
But this need to be part of the church is only one step along the way and we are not to get stuck.  The point of ‘church’ is not, in the end, to provide friends but to belong to a community of those on a journey into God.  The journey we’re called to make can be hard to undertake alone and we can cease exploring and settle down into a comfortable place and take the eye of our heart off the goal.  ‘Church’ is where we gather to encounter the mystery of God, the Body of Christ on earth – and in heaven.  To be baptised into that Body is to be one with saints and angels ‘standing around the throne of God’. 

Perhaps we might give attention to going to Mass rather than ‘going to church’ – going to that celebration in which we seek to be open to the activity of God in word, sacrament and through the body of believers both seen and unseen.  As with the first Christians, we’re called into relationship with God in Christ through attending the Eucharist – and then living out of that relationship and seeking to deepen it through our personal daily prayer, acts of loving kindness, listening to God’s constant call that our heart might reflect His – and deepening our love for those to whom we are committed.

Imprisoned but not alone
There will always be those who, for whatever reason, cannot ‘go to church’.  The housebound through sickness or age; those unable to feel they can ‘belong’; those denied the opportunity because of their circumstances or because they are forbidden.  And there will be those imprisoned.  Back in the 16th century the great Carmelite mystic, S. John of the Cross 2, was cast into a tiny prison cell by his brothers because they objected to the reforms he wanted to make to their Order.  He spent eight months in appalling conditions, yet this was the means for him to compose some of the greatest mystical poetry.  Instead of making him bitter and angry the very privations he experienced were the means for him to escape by way of love.  Drawing on the biblical Song of Songs his heart sang in the darkness as he sought the One he loved:

                          Upon a gloomy night,
                                    With all my cares to loving ardours flushed,
                                    (O venture of delight!)
                                    With nobody in sight
                                    I went abroad when all my house was hushed. 3

Even when denied the company of others, he found a way of reading the Divine Office and, in the darkness, meditating on the love of God so that his heart was open to the movement of the Spirit and he was united with his beloved.  Today we have Apps to help us! 4

We must pray for our partners, that they will also be open to God; show that our faith is deepening our love for them, and be prepared to explain that ‘going to church’ helps us develop our desire to be more fully human – more fully the person I am meant to be – and then pray that our hearts might be open to that Love which gives life to the world.

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1  “That you need God more than anything, you know at all times in your heart. But don’t you know also that God needs you—in the fullness of his eternity, you? How would man exist if God did not need him, and how would you exist? You need God in order to be, and God needs you—for that which is the meaning of your life.”  (Martin BuberI and Thou, Simon and Schustner, 2000)
2  A sketch of Christ, made by St John of the Cross, was shown to Salvador Dali in 1949 moving him to paint his great work Christ of St John of the Cross.  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rfN67C9XLCM
3    Roy Campbell, Poems of St John of the Cross, The Harvill Press Ltd., 1951
4 Pray as You Go; https://pray-as-you-go.org/; Laudate, Prayers, Daily Readings and Various Devotions: https://itunes.apple.com/us/app/laudate-1-catholic-app/id499428207?mt=8


Monday, April 15, 2019

JOHN OF THE CROSS and the call to seek Christ



THE MYSTICAL POETRY of St John of the Cross is a constant reminder that, even when it feels as if we’re imprisoned in a dark and gloomy cell – the prison of parish or church life, of the humdrum daily round, or the desolate surroundings where we live, where people torment us or colleagues goad us, where it seems as if there’s no escape, or all we can see is the cold darkness that seems to enfold us  – and re-focus into the light of Christ burning in the darkness.  Reach out to him in love and escape those surroundings which can ensnare and enfold us.  We’ve to redirect our attention, re-focus our heart, towards our Divine Lover:

Upon a gloomy night,
With all my cares to loving ardours flushed,
(O venture of delight!)
With nobody in sight
I went abroad when all my house was hushed.


In safety, in disguise,
In darkness up the secret stair I crept,
(O happy enterprise)
Concealed from other eyes
When all my house at length in silence slept.
Oh night that was my guide! 

Oh darkness dearer than the morning’s pride,
Oh night that joined the lover
To the beloved bride
Transfiguring them each into the other.
Within my flowering breast 

Lost to myself I stayed
My face upon my lover having laid
From all endeavour ceasing:
And all my cares releasing
Threw them amongst the lilies there to fade.

This is what St Benedict, less poetically, committed himself and his brethren to do as he sought for conversatio morum – that ‘conversion of life’ which has to be our daily concern.  Is your attention often taken by the weariness of life?  Set yourself free by cultivating that ’indifference’ taught by St Ignatius.  Don’t become trapped by thoughts and feelings that are life-denying, but, instead, take hold of Christ and ask him to let you abide in his Heart.

Sunday, April 14, 2019

SPIRITUAL DIRECTION AND CLERICAL MINISTRY - some reflections




From time to time the suggestion is made that clergy should not only encourage members of their congregations to seek a spiritual director but offer themselves in that role.  As someone said: ‘There is no magic, no expertise, just sister and brother sinners on the Way.'  However, there is a long tradition that clergy should not act as director to parishioners: as Madeleine de Saint-Joseph wrote to ‘A Cleric’:

‘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 …’ 1

Whilst it’s true that clergy need to help parishioners deepen their relationship with God, there are dangers and pitfalls in directing them.  It’s one thing to be asked to preach and another to be a preacher – most benefit from proper training, and a few are simply not gifted in that way.  Just so with Spiritual Direction.  To offer that ministry requires a certain calling and the humility to seek 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.  It’s also clear that some should not be offering this ministry, and several bishops are rightly concerned when they learn of directors who are not supervised in what they do.  

This ministry needs approaching with great sensitivity, for one is involved in dealing with another’s soul: 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.  Whoever offers direction must come to terms with the:

•  temptation to want to ‘rescue’ people or to focus into ‘problem solving’;
•  urge to be too directive;
•  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 complex – unlike the boundaried relationship between confessor and penitent, this relationship can confuse matters.  Spiritual Direction requires both to feel they are free to bring to the relationship what needs addressing, and there needs to be a certain distance between director and directee.  But the proximity between priest and parishioner in weekly services etc. leave both vulnerable to becoming inappropriately close in a variety of ways, and this can be a problem where, consciously or not, levels of attraction begin to emerge.  

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.
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 1  William M. Thomson, ed, Berulle and the French School, The Classics of Western Spirituality, Paulist Press, 1989, p.208