Saturday, 16 September 2017

St Ninian, 16 September 2017

"The city which had taken the whole world has itself been taken."
So St Jerome wrote in AD 410 from the safety of Bethlehem, but even there the tremors could be felt from the fall of the greatest city in the known world; the city called 'eternal,' but proven by Alaric and his Visigoth hordes to be somewhat more ephemeral than her people thought. The centre of civilisation and the patriarchal see of the Western Church, reduced to rubble; leading St Jerome to plead, "If Rome can perish, what can be safe?"

And that is the milieu in which, almost equidistant from the epicentre from Bethlehem, on the other, western side, St Ninian was working to convert the native Picts of what is now southern Scotland. The shockwaves must have hit him hard: St Bede tells us that though a native Briton, it was in Rome that he learnt "the mystery of truth." Though he predates St Augustine's mission to Canterbury by some 200 hundred years, and represents that period of early British Christianity outwith the direct rule of Rome, that primal See of the Western Church was nonetheless his spiritual home. Yet he persevered right through the sacking of Rome, on the outermost frontiers of a fallen Empire to spread the Gospel among the natives.

At the fall of Rome, pagans blamed Christians for its collapse, as the heathen are wont to blame us for the ills of today's society. St Augustine responded by writing the City of God, and reminding Christians that our human-made megapoleis and civilisations can and must pass. We strive not for earth and stone but for the truly eternal city of the Heavenly Jerusalem; and I imagine it must have been the vision of this beautiful Kingdom which sustained Ninian even as the worldly empire crumbled.

Ninian may not have the fame of his contemporary Patrick, or the letters of Jerome, but perhaps when we think we live in difficult times, among people indifferent or hostile to the Gospel; when we think that civilisation is about to collapse; when we look at our church's failure to maintain the missionary zeal of Ninian and keep alive the faith that his labours won - we might ponder his example, ask his prayers, and even should Rome, or more likely Canterbury, perish, keep the vision of our eternal home firmly before our eyes.

Sunday, 16 July 2017

Trinity 5: Empty bell, good ground

“The one who sows on good ground is the one who hears the Word and understands it, and he is the one who bears fruit.”
A bell sounds because it is hollow. If it were a solid block, all you would get when you struck it would be a dull metallic clatter. It is the emptiness of the bell that gives it voice.
The bell is a metaphor for spiritual truth in Buddhism, and many other religious traditions attest to the need for inner emptiness as the ground which bears spiritual fruit.
Yet we do not need to go all the way to India to find this path of prayer. We find evidence of it weaving its way through our own sacred scriptures, the teachings of Our Lord, and the spiritual traditions of the Christian Church.
Only two Sundays ago, we heard from Jesus’s own lips that to find yourself, you have to lose yourself. The false self of the ego must be emptied to make way for the true self which is Christ. Last Sunday, he told us to take our rest in him, the Lord of the Sabbath rest, who has made resting and return the very purpose of creation.
And from its purpose, think back to where creation began. The orthodox tradition of the Church is that God created ex nihilo, from nothing, absolute emptiness. It was in this emptiness, like the hollow of the bell, that his Word found voice and resounded into being.
Later, we find this motif of the Word sounding out of emptiness repeated: in the emptiness of the Blessed Virgin’s womb and in the emptiness of the tomb, where the Word continues to be burst into ever creation. First, the Word becomes flesh and dwells among us; then, the Word Resurrected speaks into being a new creation, from the desolate bounds of death a new infinitude of life and being.
The seed of Jesus’ parable is, he explains, the Word. Now remember that the Word is not a word, or any number of words: it is not the Bible. It is the Logos, the divine principle of order and creation, the Word which according to St John is and always has been God from the very beginning, and is none other than the second Person of the Holy Trinity, the Word which came and dwelt among us not as a book but as a boy, the Word whose script is scribed by the Spirit not in letters but in a Jewish carpenter’s DNA. The Word that Jesus wants us to hear and understand is himself, the Word made flesh: he is the seed and we are the ground.
“You have not chosen me, but I have chosen you: and I have appointed you that you might bear fruit.” If we are to bear fruit, then we must make ourselves good ground. We must harrow and water before we can sow. And we must tear up the weeds that would hamper good growth.
The harrowing is repentance. We will achieve no peace and will be quite unready to welcome the Word if our mind and hearts are laden with the guilt of our sin. Repentance, then, is the first step. Sin is a sharp sword which pierces the heart, but Christ in his kindness has turned it to a ploughshare for us. That ploughshare is confession, the Sacrament of Reconciliation, whereby Our Lord furrows our hearts to fill them with his forgiveness.
I have seen the gift of tears that flow after a good confession soften many hearts, but the true water that fills those furrows is the Living Water of the Holy Spirit. This we drink by going to mass, by reading the Scriptures, by acts of loving kindness.
But while we are harrowing and irrigating, we must also clear the way of weeds. The weeds of nagging thoughts, of unconsidered instincts, of our own devices and desires detached from God. And I am persuaded by our own Christian monastic tradition and also by many non-Christian spiritual paths, that the way to do this is to cultivate an inner silence.
When my mind and heart are full of other things, they are like a bell filled with solid metal. Strike it as much you like, it will only give the dullest clang. The Word is muted, at best muttered, at worst even distorted.
But when I have spent time in silence and stilled my thoughts, I am like the hollow bell, and then a far more beautiful voice can ring out of me: it is no longer I who speak, but Christ who sings from within me. The Word is given space to reverberate, grow, sound clearly.
So I repeat my plea from last week. If you wish the Word to find its voice in you, then rest in him. Make some sabbath space each day for silence and stillness. Become the empty bell, the empty womb, the empty tomb, find the Word’s still small seed of a voice within, give it good ground to be reborn in you so that it is no longer you but Christ who sounds aloud the new song of the Resurrection from your heart.

Monday, 10 July 2017

Lord, remedy our unrest

Today’s sermon is brought to you by the number seven.

Seven branches of the Temple lamps. Seven Churches in Asia. Seven seals of divine judgment. Seven stars in Christ’s right hand. Seven angels with seven trumpets. Seven deacons of the early church in Rome. Seven gifts of the Spirit. Seven heavenly virtues. Seven deadly sins. Seven colours in a rainbow. Seven notes in a classical western scale.

Why does the number seven so permeate the Scriptures and tradition of the Church? Why has seven even influenced the way the West has categorised light and sound?

“And on the seventh day God ended his work which he had made; and he rested on the seventh day from all his work which he had made.”

Because God completed creation on the seventh day, seven is the biblical number for completion. So, the seven Churches in the Revelation to St John represent the completion of the Church, the whole Church; the seven seals of judgment the completion of divine judgment, and so on. But the Gospel draws our attention to today is exactly of what that completion consists:

God “rested on the seventh day from all his work which he had made.”

The completion, perfection, wholeness, the very purpose of creation represented by the seventh day is rest.

If you have ever lived in a Jewish area or are friends with any orthodox Jews, you will know how seriously they take the seventh, Sabbath day. For them the seventh day is Saturday - the Christian sabbath is different because it is the day of the Resurrection - but on their sabbath, the strictest of Jews will do absolutely nothing at all but study and pray. Gentiles like us sometimes find it baffling and bizarre that some very observant Jews will not even open a door or flick a light switch on the Sabbath: everything has to be prepared to enforce proper rest. But I think that their seriousness of purpose on the Sabbath is sign for us all, especially Christians, of God’s ultimate purpose for creation.

The respect of modern Jews for the sabbath also helps us to understand the magnitude of some of the claims made by the ancient Jewish man we worship: his claim to be Lord of the Sabbath, his claim to be allowed to break the Sabbath, and in the Gospel for the fourth Sunday of Trinity, this:

“Come unto me, all ye that labour and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest.”

Now just think about the implications of what Jesus is saying here. Think about the importance of rest as the entire purpose of creation. Then listen to what Jesus says: “not God will give you rest,” which his Jewish hearers would have expected - but “I will give you rest.” To Jewish hearers, Our Lord is putting himself in God’s place.

We tend to think of the Sabbath as a day off from work, and perhaps a chance to squeeze a bit of God into our otherwise busy schedules. Even the ancient pagan Romans had their priorities better sorted than ours: the Latin word for ‘business’ is negotium, which literally means ‘not at leisure’ - for the Romans, life was defined as rest which alas has to be interrupted some of the time for work. We and especially our brethren across the Atlantic seem to see life quite the other way around. There was a time not long ago when even in this country, Sunday was enforced as a day off for everybody so that they could go to church and spend time with their family and friends - and while it’s convenient for the shopping, I am not convinced that the flexibility of Sunday opening hours has been such a good thing for people, especially for workers in the service industry themselves. That battle is long lost, but it does leave us Christians with an even greater challenge to keep God’s purpose for us in mind and, even amid all the busyness, to live a life oriented primarily towards his rest.

So how? How do we come to Christ, rest in Him, take on his gentle yoke, when the list of tasks and chores and responsibilities keeps growing? To be honest, I’m not sure I’m the best person to answer that question at the moment. Being a rural Worcester boy, it has taken me some time to get used to the busyness and noise and crowds of London, and just as I am starting to find some equilibrium and make more space in my mind and heart for God I am moving on again. So you’ll forgive me if on this occasion, I preach something that I have been struggling to practice myself for the last year or so: but prayer really is fundamental. I don’t just mean a few minutes of intercession at the bedside each night, although interceding for others is vital work. What I mean is time set deliberately aside each day simply to rest in God. Perhaps a candle, an icon, some incense in the corner of your room, even time with the Blessed Sacrament in church if you can get here, and keeping that time just to sit or kneel in silence and drink in the presence of God. You can repeat the name of the Lord, or count your breaths out one to ten, or use something like the Jesus prayer, “Lord Jesus Christ, son of God, have mercy on me,” over and over again - anything to take your attention from the wanderings of your mind and rediscover the divine rest, stillness and stability which God has implanted at the core of your heart. It could be 15 minutes or a full hour, a daily mini-sabbath, calling us back to the purpose for which we are made.

“Physician, heal thyself!” you might rightly chastise, but prayer is my prescription: For “In returning and rest you shall be saved; in quietness and in trust shall be your strength.” Amid the earthquake and the fire, the terror all around, and even just the busyness of modern life, let us make some Sabbath rest to listen deep within for God’s still small voice of calm.

Sunday, 2 July 2017

What kind of nation do we want to be?

He who finds his life (psychē) will lose it, and he who loses his life for my sake will find it.
- Matthew 10:39

This paradoxical verse is a powerful summation of Christian teaching on self-realisation. The word ‘life’ here stands for the Greek psyche, which means the ‘breath of life,’ or the soul, and is of course the root of our modern word, ‘psychology.’ To find yourself, you have to put yourself to the Cross.

Our Lord lived in a philosophical milieu wherein the highest ideal was to “know yourself,” gnōthi seauton, as was famously inscribed on the Temple to Apollo at Delphi. Later Christian writers adopted and adapted this tenet to the Christian faith, notably St Augustine, for whom true knowledge of the self led to knowledge of the divine image in which the self is made, and so to God himself, ‘deeper than my innermost depth,’ Deus interior intimo meo, yet at the same time superior summo meo, ‘higher than my highest height.’ The 19th century American poet Ralph Waldo Emerson captures the paradox in his poem named after that same philosophical maxim, Gnōthi Seauton:
Give up to thy soul-----
Let it have its way-----
It is, I tell thee, God himself,
The selfsame One that rules the Whole...

More modern study of the psyche, a Jesuit priest told me at a recent conference for school chaplains, tells us that the most important question that adolescents need to answer for the sake of their later psychological wellbeing is “what kind of person do I want to be?” In other words, the question of self-definition, which can only really be answered with some degree of self-searching and self-knowledge. Failure to come up with any answer to this question apparently leaves people psychologically rootless, unstable and unmoored.

This led me to think about the political instability of Great Britain at the moment. I wonder to what extent the polarisation, the wild pendulum of public opinion and the anger we are seeing materialise into extremism and violent protest is to do with our collective failure of our nation to know itself and to answer the question of what sort of nation it really wants to be. And I want to suggest that the Christian paradox of finding the self in yielding the self – which in fact overlaps with the sensibility of other ancient religions and philosophies – might offer a corrective to modern Europe’s overwhelmingly materialistic mindset: a manifesto for a nation with a spiritual and not just an economic purpose.

“The Church has had 1800 years to improve the world and has done nothing. Now we must do it ourselves.” Over the last century, Karl Marx’s opinion has become so widespread in Europe as to become almost a defining doctrine of modern polity: the only ‘heaven’ will be the one we humans can make on earth. This worldview, widely propagated in schools, universities and the media, is generally expressed in evolutionary terms to lend a veneer of scientific respectability. Once upon a time, we were governed by an oppressive Church which kept people in their place and dictated the minutiae of their personal lives. Then, happily, the modern democratic state took control, and since then humanity has been evolving naturally towards an egalitarian utopia of our own making, where all will be given the highest possible freedom of choice to decide exactly who and what we want to be.

And yet this supposed evolution of secularism has not in fact come about naturally. It has been forced and contrived. In some cases, such as revolutionary France and Russia, it was far from gradual, but achieved by extreme violence and coercion. But even in Northern Europe, the eradication of Christianity from the fabric of the State and the popular conscience has been quite deliberate – and far more effective. Social reformers in the twentieth century purposely mined Christian tradition for ethical content when it was useful and reframed it in humanistic terms. The early Labour Movement has been described as a new ‘gospel of social amelioration,’ the ‘transference of religious enthusiasms to the secular sphere.’ If you have been to Walsingham, you will have the walls of the stately homes built from the rubble of monastery dissolved at the Reformation. Likewise you can see to this day purloined fragments of Christian ethical teaching in the modern creed of human rights, and even in the newfangled system of ‘British values’ taught in our schools, which bear only a passing relation to the meaning of the three crosses overlaid on our national flag.

Yet behind this was a will to destroy the Church. Marx, who called for the ‘abolition of religion as the illusory happiness of man,’ was a hero to Ramsay McDonald, whose government dismissed evidence given by Archbishop Cosmo Gordon Lang and Free Church leaders of the thousands of Christians sent to prison camps or summarily executed on Lenin and Stalin’s personal orders - much as Europe ignores the systematic extermination of Christians in Arab lands today. George Bernard Shaw, whose name adorns the council block next door to me, declared that a the state should remove children from parents who taught them the catechism of the Church – a policy now effected in a milder form by the refusal of social workers to allow families who do not profess the state orthodoxy on sexuality to adopt, and the closure of Catholic adoption agencies. The Proletarian Sunday Schools movement developed its own baby-naming ceremony and ten commandments, starting with the maxim ‘Thou shalt not be a patriot’ – and nowadays, the young are more likely to identify with the EU than the UK. None of these developments against the Church, the family and the nation, was natural or organic. Their ‘evolution’ has been planned by progressives.

Some good has come of these changes of attitude, such as abandoning the persecution of sexual minorities, for which the Church was and is much to blame. But other developments are more questionable. In the most recent survey of British attitudes, 70% say that an abortion should be allowed because a woman decides she does not want a child or a couple cannot afford one. 77% say that a person with an incurable disease should be able to ask a doctor to end their life. 75% say that sex before marriage is not at all wrong, and 41% believe that there is no such thing as a film too violent or too pornographic to be watched by adults. The Christian teaching of the sanctity of every human life, illumined by St Augustine’s ‘God within,’ has been garbled into the right to exercise the greatest possible individual choice.

The essence of the Christian God is what theologians call kenōsis, self-emptying: the emptying of God’s self in the gift of creation, of his divine power in becoming human, of his humanity in dying on the Cross. Utter self-gift freely given. This kind of altruism is anathema to the Marxist, for whom moral actions are not for the sake of others per se, but are entirely dictated by the interest of the working class. Even more moderate Socialism risks falling into seeing people as problems to solve, and the State as the means of solving then. But this leaves many taxpayers asking questions like, “why should I help the homeless, the poor, the sick, when I am paying for the State to do it for me?” And of course, those taxes are not voluntary contributions, they are levied on threat of imprisonment. Nor do the solutions always work, as anyone who has been passed through the sausage machines of state bureaucracy knows. The idea of the Camerados’ Living Room was to get away from reducing people to dependency on services and help them find themselves precisely by giving themselves to each other, helping each other, and that is why I supported it. Diminishing our moral responsibility for one another by systematising it can end up dehumanising people - especially the unborn, the disabled and the dying.

But if Socialism is stony ground for the seed of the Kingdom, consumerism does not offer any better soil: reducing life to a set of supermarket choices and calling this freedom. Adolescents had a tough enough job of working out what kind of person they wanted to be when the choices were limited. Nobody chooses to be born and nobody chooses their parents, but children are now offered the chance to choose their own religion, their own set of values, their ethnic or national loyalties – and even whether they are male or female cannot now be taken for granted. When everything except the fact of birth becomes a matter of choice, choice itself becomes a tyranny, a mere illusion of freedom.

No one political system is sufficient for true human flourishing and freedom. Capitalism and socialism are merely rival systems to ensure the greatest wealth for the greatest number. Any questions of higher purpose end up relegated to the realm of personal, private choice. And so no party dares ask that fundamental question: what kind of nation do we want to be? 

A Christian society would be one shaped by the Cross, one which finds itself in yielding itself for the sake of others. There are, thank God, still instances of this pattern repeating in our society. We can see it in the hundreds of council workers and emergency service personnel working unpaid hours for the sake of the people evicted from tower blocks nearby. We can see it in the institution of marriage, which for now is still two persons giving themselves unconditionally to one another. We can see it in the ethos of the Armed Forces of the Crown, and we can see it in the Monarch herself, who through no choice of her own but by the grace of God gives not just a few years but her entire life to the service of the nation. I would go so far as to say that we still have some hope of being a Christian country in more than just name as long as we have at the spiritual Head of our nation one chosen not by people but by God and anointed by his Church, a living icon of self-giving love.

In the end, the Christian manifesto for life cannot be contained in writing, not even in the Bible, because the Word has been made flesh, written in a person, Jesus Christ – God incarnate, crucified. It is through not just emulating but sacramentally joining with his self-emptying sacrifice that we find our true self and with it the freedom of God. This cannot be reduced down to sets of values or systematised into a state bureaucracy. It must be impressed into the very character of the self and so of the nation – and that is what the altar is for.

Sunday, 25 June 2017

Terror all around

Terror all around. Words from the prophet Jeremiah in today's first reading at Mass which resound with us in London: terror in Westminster, on London Bridge; terror at the hate crime on Finsbury Mosque; terror in the flames of Grenfall Tower. The prophet calls for vengeance, denunciation, and we are seeing plenty of that. The Psalmist, in our next reading, continues in this line, demanding a swift response from God: answer me, O Lord!

So what might God’s response to all this terror be? And what might our own? 
It goes without saying that terror is nothing new, nor man’s desperation for God’s voice in the midst of it. Scorsese’s recent film of Endo Shusaku’s novel Silence gives us one historic instance, the persecution of Christians of 17th century Japan. In the story, a young Jesuit priest goes there in search of his former master, rumoured to have apostatised. He finds hidden communities of Christians whom he tends until his inevitable capture, whereon the rumours about his master are confirmed to be true. He is determined to be a martyr to the faith, but the Japanese inquisitor is wise to his ways, and offers him that glory only with one formidable qualification: he will be allowed to die only after he has watched the execution of his flock. If he apostatises by trampling on an image of the virgin and child, they will be released. 

Every day the young priest prays for a solution to this dilemma, and every day the authorities execute more and more of his faithful. God’s response can be gleaned from the title of the film, until the moment comes when he is led out to trample. His foot hovers over the image, and then he hears a voice: “Trample.” And so he does. A cock crows.

The authorities keep their word, allowing the apostate priest to marry and giving him a job at the docks, sifting through foreign imports to make sure that no Christian literature or devotional artefacts make it through to the mainland. He dies a natural death. At this point, the film deviates from the book. We see the priest’s funeral. He is being cremated, the Japanese way. The camera zooms in on his casket, and then goes inside, to where the body is burning; and clutched in his hand, we see a little crucifix. In the film version, at least, it seems he kept some vestige of his faith, hidden away in his heart. 

So did he do the right thing? It’s tempting to believe so. He saved all those peasant converts, after all, and still kept the faith in his heart. Perhaps that was the most Christ-like thing to do. 

But are we not left with the cock’s crow echoing in our ears? That voice he heard: it might have been Christ’s. But it might equally have been his own. It might even have been the Devil’s. 

Yes, he saved the lives of many villagers, but what does his apostasy mean for the villagers he had already watched die for the faith he had taught them? What does it say about that faith, the faith in the film version he supposedly kept hidden to the end? It turns out to be exactly the kind of faith -  a private, inoffensive matter of conscience - which the Japanese authorities wanted. 
Make no mistake, this is the kind of faith so many of our modern authorities want to encourage, too. The Church on its better days can cope with a variety of opinion, but it seems that Tim Farron’s views are incompatible with the orthodoxy of public life. David Cameron’s ‘Radio 3 in the Chilterns,’ intermittent Anglicanism of the shires was just about tolerable to the press. The ideal view is that of Jeremy Corbyn, who would own everything publicly except faith, which he says is a purely private matter with no place in public discourse, which is why he wants to close church schools. I suspect his real answer to the question  of faith would cost him too much of the Labour Muslim vote to say out loud, but just in case he is a closet believer in something higher than himself and the proletariat, he is wise not to announce it: the Today Programme relishes ridiculing Christian politicians who let slip that prayer forms any part of their decision-making process, as though they were basing their policy on voices in their heads (Muslim MPs, I’ve noticed, are allowed use the ‘p’-word unchallenged, so we might want to make allies of them). The overall message is that in this country, you can believe whatever you want -  as long as it doesn’t get in the way. As long as it doesn’t challenge secular orthodoxies. In short, as long as it doesn’t actually do anything. 

The Gospel reading today does offer a response to the terror all around. It is not Jeremiah’s answer, calling for vengeance and denunciation. It is not to form a rabble and bay for blood on the streets, as John McDonnell demands. Nor is the Psalmist’s demand for answers. It is not to resort to scapegoating, the search for an instant solution, not to make political capital out of the tragedy of others. It is not to engage in juvenile political posturing, putting up abusive stickers in public places and waving banners, posting cartoons of the Prime Minister as though she were personally responsible for acts of terror and dangerous cladding. It is not to chant the platitudinous litany of instant answers expected from every politician, pundit and pulpit whenever disaster strikes: nothing to do with Islam, it’s Theresa May’s fault, London is not afraid, etc. Many of the people in Camden have been told to pack for four weeks and evacuated to sports centres, and other people living in tower blocks fear the same well happen to them. Of course we are afraid. We would be stupid not to be.

God's response is not silence, but the person of Jesus Christ, the Word made Flesh: a man who was executed for failing to comply with the prevailing orthodoxy and for speaking out. We are told in today's Gospel to proclaim him on the rooftops, the ancient Israelite equivalent of over the garden fence. And following his example, while we must seek justice, we are surely not to create new enemies, resorting to hatred of political opponents. Rather we must see where our real enemies are and take the truly radical and dangerous step of loving them - even if it means loving them to our detriment, or loving them to our death. 

Love your enemies. We are seeing precious little of that at present.