Wednesday, 20 November 2013

The King of paradox

In my school assemblies at Victoria and Thomas Coram schools on Wednesday, a round of questions to the children quickly established what a king should be. He should be born in a palace or castle, to rich parents who were themselves king and queen, and should learn martial skills, such as riding, so that he could eventually lead his armies to glorious victory over enemy nations. 

I then asked what kind of king Jesus was. The children got the point. A very different sort of king, born not in a palace, but in a cave behind a pub, and not of noble parents, but to a poor woman. A king who spent his younger years doing the quite ordinary job of a carpenter. A king who rode into Jerusalem not on a warhorse, but on a donkey. A king who, when His disciple Peter took up arms on His behalf in the garden of Gethsemane, told him to sheathe his sword. 

Jesus is a king of paradox: the paradox first of the Word made flesh, God beyond all being entering into being, the creator walking among his creation. But surely more paradoxical even than His birth is His death; for by dying He conquered death, and gave us eternal life. His is a victory won not by force of arms, but by loving self-sacrifice, and a victory worth celebrating, as we do this Sunday and every time we offer His body and blood in the Eucharistic Sacrifice. 

Monday, 11 November 2013

Imagine: a Sadducee Remembrance Day?

It's just as well the Sadducees didn't win the intellectual argument in ancient Jewish thought. As Luke tells us, they didn't believe in the Resurrection, you see. As far as they were concerned, there was nothing more to "eternal life" than going forth and multiplying: you lived after death in your children, and your children's children, and your children's children's children - you get the message. I suppose, were it not for the more pharisaical strand of Jewish thought, the one that did insist on a resurrection and an afterlife, the Son of God would have had to be born to some other race. But "what ifs" don't get us very far in discerning the economy of salvation. As it happened, there was such a tradition, and it was this tradition that Jesus inherited, expanded and ultimately fulfilled. And for Christians, "as it happened" is more important than "as it might have happened but didn't." Ours is an historically rooted faith. 

Still, it makes me wonder. I don't think there could be such thing as a Sadducee Christianity - Christianity without the Resurrection would be a pretty dismal affair - but the Sadducee denial of eternal life has certainly not gone away. There are Christians who fondly imagine that we can strip away all the supernatural elements, the virgin birth, the angels, the miracles and so on, and still have something worth keeping and worth calling "christian" at the end of it, I know; and there are those who don't think that the truth of Christian claims matters - even about, say, the existence of God - as long as they can continue to espouse that rather nebulous code they call "Christian values." I don't (and really, as a priest, I don't think I can) hold much truck with such views, but I can grudgingly tolerate them up to a certain point: and that point is the Resurrection. Whatever you strip away, whatever you find it impossible to belief, I just don't think Christianity without the Resurrection is worthy of the name. 

To give you a "for instance," as Victoria Wood likes to say: just try imagining a Sadducee Remembrance Day - a Remembrance Day with no promise of the Resurrection. It's possible, and not entirely useless. It would be a matter of "remembering" in the purely secular sense, calling to mind those who have died for their country and thinking about their acts, and this has its value, let there be no doubt of that. But "remembering" for a Christian has quite a different meaning. A more profound meaning, I would say. 

"Do this in remembrance of me." Our Lord's words at the Last Supper. Jesus wasn't talking about just thinking of Him, calling Him to mind. He was pointing forward to His death on the Cross and to His Resurrection. And when the priest repeats His words in the Eucharistic prayer, by "remember," we mean quite literally "re-member:" re-constitute His body, the body of His Church of which He is the head, bring us, all of us, His scattered members, back together into unity, just as the scattered grain makes one bread and the grapes make one wine. We, the many members of the body of Christ, are re-membered back into the primal unity of the godhead from which we all derive. 

And so it is with the dead. When we "remember" them in prayer at the Christian altar, we are united with them, re-membered with them, because they are still members of the Body of Christ beyond the grave and they feast in heaven at the same mystical table we feast at here on earth. We feast together, the living and the dead, the joint Kingdom of heaven and earth, with all the saints and angels, all our faithful brethren who have died for what is right and good. 

And why? Because of the Resurrection. Because of the promise of eternity won for us by Christ crucified, risen and ascended. Because He has gone before us and shown us the Way and because we walk it. Today, at this altar, we make no insipid memorial, but full and true remembrance of the real, historic sacrifice made for us by Christ, and shared in by the real, historic sacrifice of our war dead; and remembrance of the hope in which they died, the hope of unity with Him, re-membrance in glorious Resurrection. 

Monday, 21 October 2013

The Ten Lepers

Today's story is partly 
about taboos and boundaries broken. 
By law, Jewish biblical Law, 
the lepers are supposed to be outside the village and stay there, 
but they come in to see Jesus. 
They are supposed to go about in rags 
ringing bells 
and shouting unclean, 
to announce their presence 
so that the clean can get out of their way, 
but they come to speak to Jesus. 

But they're too scared to break the taboos completely. 
They are still imprisoned by the law, 
all but one of them. 
They stand "some way off," 
a respectable, lawful distance from the clean folk. 
And when they are healed, 
they won't come to Jesus, 
because lepers had to go to the priests to be proclaimed clean 
before they could mix with the rest of us again. 
Of course, you know, lepers never actually get clean, 
so whatever they had was probably not leprosy as we know it, 
but something else, 
because it was something that was curable: 
when you were cured, 
you had to go by law to the priests 
to be pronounced healed. 
And to be fair, this is what Jesus tells them to do. 
They couldn't go back to Jesus, 
the Law forbade it, 
until they had been pronounced clean, 
so it's no surprise 
they didn't come back to Him. 
Except one. 

Today's story is partly 
about thankfulness. 
The thankfulness of the one who would even break God's Law 
to give a God thanks. 
The one to whom God's Law, the Jewish Law, 
did not even really apply. 
And Jesus, the Son of God, 
does He chastise this foreigner, 
this Samaritan, 
this lawbreaker 
for crossing the boundary - 
for coming to Him even while, 
to the world, 
he was still a leper, 
still ritually unclean? 
No: he praises him. 
He praises him 
above the good Jewish lepers 
who have kept the Law 
and gone to be called clean in the Temple. 
Jesus praises the foreigner, 
the infidel, 
the lawbreaker 
above these - 
because that man is the only one who is truly thankful to God, 
the only one who is free to be thankful to God, 
free from the lethal letter of the Law.

Today's story is partly 
about courage. 
The foreigner's courage 
to break ranks with the native law-abiding majority 
and do what he knows is right. 
For it is, says Jesus, the Samaritan's faith 
in God 
that saved him from his curse, 
his faith in God, 
not adherence to the laws and ritual of the Temple. 
Taboos are broken, 
boundaries crossed, 
God is given the thanks He is due 
by the Samaritan 
in his courage. 

So why did Jesus send the lepers to the priests anyway? 
To give them assurance and protection, perhaps, 
to spare them from rejection by the crowds. 
But what impresses Him 
is the man who cares little about such things, 
or less than he cares about giving thanks and praise to God. 
The man who is unconcerned about respectability 
as long as his life honours its maker. 
And Jesus salutes this, 
even though to do so makes Jesus Himself complicit, 
makes Jesus Himself a lawbreaker,  
for which He will pay the greatest price. 

Who are the lepers among us? 
Who are the Samaritans? 
It is too easy to point to the obviously dispossessed. 
We know who they are.
It's too easy to list all those who have some claim to feel rejected. 
So many groups have claimed a leper status of their own, 
sometimes justly and other times less so. 
But the truth is, at some time, 
every one of us at some time 
is outcast and excluded from something, 
every one of us at some time 
has something to give thanks for like the Samaritan, 
every one of us at some time 
has the chance to look, 
like Jesus, 
for laws that must be broken, 
and not just the chance, 
but the Gospel duty. 

The Eucharist means thanksgiving 
and is thanksgiving. 
It is also taboo, double taboo: 
the symbolic eating and drinking of the flesh and blood 
not just of a man, but even of our God, 
and the fruit of ancient deicide, 
the meat of a God hooked up on a Cross. 
One of the most persistent grounds for persecution 
of early Christians 
was the accusation of cannibalism, 
and indeed ritual cannibalism is what we engage in here, 
distasteful though it may sound. 
Which it should. 
If it becomes tasteful genteel, respectable, heaven forfend, nice (!), 
how can it give us the courage we need, 
the courage Jesus demands, 
to overthrow the Prince of this world - 
with all his precious rules? 
The rule that might is right, 
the rule of survival of the fittest, 
the rules of know your place and stick to your own kind? 
Like the lepers. 

Brothers and sisters, our king is the living law, 
the double law 
of love The Lord your God 
and love your neighbour as yourself. 
Let us take courage and eat of this living Law 
that He may dwell in our hearts and we may dwell in Him 
Let the supernatural God 
breaks the laws of nature and convention that bind us in sin. 
Let us take courage to stand against division and exclusion 
that all things may be one in Christ Jesus Our Lord. 

Monday, 30 September 2013

The perfectly practical discipline of angelology

I've got to admit, and perhaps this is the wrong way to start a sermon on St Michael's day, but to be honest, not much place was given in my training at seminary for angelology. In fact, when I see a new picture book of angels in the gift shop window, or hear someone on the radio talk about their daughter as 'my angel,' the truth is I'm probably suppressing a bit of an inward sneer. And I don't think it's just me: angels don't seem to feature much nowadays in 'respectable' Christian discourse. They sound too abstract, too much like a game for theologians discussing how many of them will fit on a pin.

I suppose a fairly typical modern Christian worldview is that there's God in heaven and there's the created universe, but not much, if anything really, in between. But - don't we say in the Creed at Mattins and Evensong, "I believe in one God the Father Almighty, Maker of heaven and earth, And of all things visible and invisible?" May I suggest that it's the 'things invisible' that tend to get exorcised from our modern imaginations. We can conceive of a creator God and the visible, tangible creation we live in; so far so good. But an invisible creation, a created realm beyond the possibilities of scientific exploration and understanding? A bit more tricky. What might such an invisible realm of things be? St Paul gives us what seems to be the consensus of his times. He starts, "by Him were all things created, that are in heaven, and that are in earth, visible and invisible" and then he goes on to list what those invisible things are: "whether they be thrones, or dominions, or principalities, or powers; all things were created by Him and for Him." (Colossians 1:16) Anyone who has ever sung 'Ye Watchers and Ye Holy Ones' will instantly recognise these strange titles as the ranks of angels.

St Paul's belief in angels was completely mainstream among the Jews of his time, although they were given various interpretations. They feature quite prominently in the Old Testament: you'll remember the cherub with the flaming sword guarding Eden, the angel going before Abraham, Jacob's dreams of the ladder and the angelic hosts, Isaiah's and Ezekiel's visions of the seraphim worshipping God. But let's not dismiss them as primitive fantasies: they feature quite heavily in the New Testament, too, and not just in bit parts. They announce the birth of Our Lord and John the Baptist, appearing to Mary, Elizabeth, Joseph, the shepherds and the Magi - and that's all coming from Luke, not a Jew, but a gentile writer, so we can't just dismiss it as some Jewish superstition. They release Peter from prison, they minister to Our Lord in his temptations in the desert, appear to Him in Gethsemane, announce His resurrection to the women at the tomb, proclaim His second coming at the Ascension. And of course, the entire Revelation of St John, that mindbending final book of the New Testament, is based on his vision of the angels. The Christian story would be rather shorter without them.

So what could they be? Well, today's Gospel, which harks back to the vision of Jacob's ladder, describes them ascending and descending between heaven and earth, as some sort of spiritual agents of God. And that is pretty much how the writer of the Letter to the Hebrews describes them: as "ministering spirits, sent forth to minister for them who shall be heirs of salvation" (Heb. 1:14). Saint Gregory the Great builds on this and gives a helpful description: "the word 'angel' denotes a function rather than a nature. Those holy spirits of heaven have indeed always been spirits. They can only be called angels when they deliver some message." We may have learnt at school that 'angel' means 'messenger,' form the Greek 'angelos.' What Gregory is saying here, is that there are spiritual, created beings, whom we call angels when they take on this function of bringing us a message from God, revealing something about Him. We cannot see God face to face and live, our created minds cannot contain the sheer unspeakable vastness of the uncreated God, so He sends created beings, spiritual intelligences, which take on a form we can - just about - cope with. I say 'just about': pretty much the first thing these spirits say when mortals encounter them is 'do not be afraid.' And afterwards, when those who have seen them try to describe them, they come out with gobbledigook, creatures with six wings, or the heads of lions, or just indescribable light. They push people's powers of description to the limit, as though they can be described only in poetic terms, because prose is too blunt an instrument.

The angels are pictured as God's messengers, His Hosts, or armies, in warfare against the fallen spirits, a choir of worshippers around His throne. But they are not meant to be just an object of theological curiosity. We've got to do more than just describe them: we've got to join them. We've got to find our place in the heavenly harmony as we sing their song: Holy, Holy, Holy. We've got to join in their warfare against sin, taking our place in the ranks of the Lord God's Hosts. By doing so, we can help them in their work as messengers, angels, bearers of the Good News that heaven and earth are full of God's glory.

Monday, 2 September 2013

Jesus on the pecking order: equality and human rights

"All people are born equal:" so runs the Gospel according to certain followers of Karl Marx (Groucho's less funny European cousin). To which we might reply with the question: "equal - in what?" We're obviously not born equal in body weight or eye colour, so in what, exactly, are we born equal? In wealth? In social class? In life expectancy? In intellect, in talents, in mental or physical health?

It doesn't take much thinking to work out that in fact, we are not born equal at all. There is simply no sense, in any of these terms, in which a baby born of a drug-addicted single mother with AIDS in the filthy hospital of a south African slum can be called 'equal' to most babies born in this country, for example. It's not just that they are born physically unequal, their prospects are utterly unequal, too, which is what Marx rightly protested: but to say that they are born equal is an idealistic fiction. It is more realistic, surely, to say with William Blake that:

Every night and every morn
Some to misery are born,
Every morn and every night
Some are born to sweet delight.

Some are born to sweet delight,
Some are born to endless night.

Not in the frankly wicked Calvinist sense, I hasten to clarify, that God chooses before people are born whether they are destined for heaven or hell: that is a grotesque distortion of the Gospel, making God responsible for sin and so an agent of evil Himself, which He cannot be. But in the simple and real sense that children are born every day into the endless night of pretty much inescapable circumstances; children are born every day into slavery, the slavery of their genetic makeup, their physical and mental limitations, not to mention the slavery of poverty, malnuourishment, disease, the product of oppressive social constructs stacked against them. We cannot say in any worldly sense that everyone is born equal.

In any worldly sense. Marx was famously an atheist and his philosophy is famously materialistic: for him, the world is really all there is. And on those grounds, as I've said, I don't think there is any way we can say that everyone is equal. The worldly obsession with equality has no real foundation. In particular, the human rights mantra that somehow we are born with natural liberties earned simply by emerging from the womb is quite evidently untrue. It's a helpful legal fiction which we can maintain by mutual consent, and even as such it can do a lot of good. If we all signed up to it, it could save thousands of lives, not least in Syria at the moment. But it only stands up as long as everyone plays along, as long as we all engage in an act of collective makebelieve. And the bare fact of the matter is that not everyone does play along. Governments of entire nations – Syria, Egypt, Turkey, China, Iran to name but a few - refuse to play the game, so that only a minority actually enjoy the benefits of this ideal. The majority continue to live in the terrifying reality, the truth, that they have no rights to anything at all. And as long as the blessed minority that does share and apply the doctrine of human rights fails, as we do now, to articulate it in anything more than worldly terms, those powers which reject our ideology can quite legitimately protest: why should we agree with you? Why should we consent to a moral system made up by a committee of mid-twentieth century Europeans? Why should we accept that humans have fundamental rights just because you people say so, when the evidence in front of us says so clearly that this just is not so? You've got to admit, they've got a point: in worldly terms.

There's the problem. Wordly terms. The world isn't the way we fondly imagine it, and no amount of wishful thinking will make it so. If we want to insist that yes, really, humans are all equal, we've got to ground it in more than a collective fiction. We've got to ground it in truth, in reality.

The idea is grounded in a reality, albeit a reality that our political masters find embarrassing and would prefer to forget. You see, it's no coincidence that the prevalent ideas of human rights and equality, and even Marx's thinking, came out of Europe and not somewhere else. It's fashionable to suppose that such modern ideas emerged despite the influence of the Church rather than because of it, but history tells a different tale. It is because Europe is made up of Christian nations that we have these ideas which we take for granted as being universal. But the truth is, they're not universal. They're Christian, an embarrassing little fact that secularists like to ignore. But as soon as you cut these ideas off from their Christian foundation, from the reality of God, they're nothing but a house built on sand.

We can shout as loudly as we like that human equality is an inalienable, natural right, but it isn't. It is a Christian doctrine. The reason Jesus is so harsh on pecking orders, on social stratification, on picking and choosing your company is because humans truly are equal. Equal not in worldly terms, of wealth or health or prosperity, because that is clearly not true; no, rather, equal in the eyes of God. Equal because we are all made in the image of God, we all share in His divine glory, however tarnished the image in us may be, however deeply the light may be hid.

We are called, as Christians, to let God open the eyes of our souls with His Spirit so that we can see this, so that we can see things as they really and truly are, see the image of God, the face of Christ in all people, and so treat them as what they really are, which is Christ. Christ is the truth, God is the reality which underlies and binds all things, and makes a mockery of our petty social divisions. This is the Kingdom of God: the unity of all things in God's love, and it's not just makebelieve. Seeing this truth really does make it true. I really do think that if we truly saw the face of Christ in other people, we would find it far harder to drop bombs on them, to abort their lives in the womb, to leave them wallowing in poverty.

The human rights advocates are right, but for very, very wrong reasons. As far as I can make out, there is no credible atheist justification for the belief in human equality, a helpful fantasy though it may be – and, indeed, a fantasy with which we Christians may find it expedient to collude. But we are here today to see truth. To see and so to know Christ's body and blood in mere bread and wine. To see and so to know our unity with Him and one other, despite our difference from Him and one other. But it's not enough just to see the truth here. We must keep wearing these spectacles of faith once we are outside the church doors. We must train our inner vision to see Him in all things, and show Him due reverence wherever we find Him, but particularly in those whom we would never dream of inviting to dinner. 

Friday, 30 August 2013

A feast of the poor and the lame

Jesus' parable this Sunday (Luke 14.7014) is about seating plans. One could, I suppose, take his command quite literally and throw parties at your house for the very poor, though to do so might seem rather Victorian, in the 'let them have soap' sort of sense, and I doubt whether many would want to come along. But this is, after all, a parable: so perhaps we can find a wider meaning.

First, it obviously says something about the pecking order, and our own perceptions of where we belong in it. Put yourself at the bottom so you won't be embarrassed when someone else puts you where you belong - sound advice, no doubt. But I think we need to go deeper, and question the whole nature of this order. What does it mean, and frankly, what does it matter where I belong in it?

Secondly, it says something about choice. A good host spends time deciding who should sit where: who will get on with whom, who really won't, who shall we land with the notorious bore? Such considerations are surely necessary at any normal dinner party. But Jesus is not just talking about a dinner party. He's drawing attention to our wider tendencies to pick and choose our company, to avoid those who tire us or try us, to form comfortable cliques and shun the outsider.

So, third, this necessarily has implications for us as a church and, indeed, the Church. It is no coincidence that Jesus chooses the context of a feast to make his point. The feast at which absolutely all are called to, without qualification (as Fr Michael preached last week), is the heavenly feast and its prefigurement in the Eucharist, the eternal feast which the Church exists to perpetuate.
Clique churches - churches for enthusiasts of one particular thing, whether it's skateboarding (yes, such churches exist), a specific genre of music, a certain kind of person, or a prized liturgical formula - are quite contrary to the spirit of the Gospel. We become private interest groups at our peril.

Let us renew our efforts to welcome as many and varied people to our table as we can. Perhaps before we chat to our friends after Mass this Sunday, we might each find someone new to talk to? That would be a start.

Sunday, 18 August 2013

"I came not to bring peace, but a sword"

The peace of God which passeth all understanding. So begins the traditional blessing. But what is this peace of Christ? 

From Jesus' words today, it seems a rather strange sort of peace: the peace that is born of fire and the sword, distress, division of families and communities. Is that what I am wishing on you when I bless you at the end of Mass?If that is indeed the peace of Christ, then no one can say that Jesus did not practice what he preached. Look at his own family. His mother was promised, earlier on in Luke's infancy narrative, that her heart would be pierced by the sword. And so it surely would be, when she stood and watched only son die on the cross. 

This, I think, is part of the rationale of the great Christian feast celebrated last Thursday, of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary. Very ancient tradition has said that Our Lady did not die, but rather passed without death straight into heaven. The idea is, I think, that as a mother watching her own child's die, she had already in some way died herself. A second death would be superfluous.

And how Jesus treated her in life was not always what we would nowadays consider exemplary: remember him ordering her around at the wedding at Cana, or the time when she tried to come to his door and he asked "who is my mother?" And just before he died, he handed Mary over to John, to become the mother of the new Church he left behind. Putting it mildly, biological families seem to be a fairly low priority for Jesus. The peace of Christ is not about complicity with inherited mores, not about loyalty to ones blood at all costs.

I suppose Jesus' attitude towards peace must have been coloured by the famous peace of the Empire He lived in: the famous "Pax Romana" of Emperor Augustus, a peace won by crushing freedoms and rival kingdoms. Even political peace is not something that should be maintained at all costs. Within the peace of Christ, there is room for resistance, room for disobedience, and that means room too for strife and suffering.

A saint whose feast we kept last Wednesday knew this all too well. Maximilian Kolbe was born at the end of the 19th century in Poland under German occupation. I suppose you could say that there was a sort of Augustinian peace there, too: the peace guaranteed by the oppressor through crushing resistance. Poland was restored to independence in Kolbe's lifetime, only of course to lose it again later to the same oppressors. It is said that in his youth he had a vision or a dream in which he was offered a choice of purity or martyrdom. He chose both. In his lifetime, he became a Franciscan friar, and set up a community which eventually numbered over 600. He was dedicated to waging spiritual warfare against the oppressive forces of materialism and worldly empire, and was keen to make use of every modern means of communication at his disposal to do so. He set up radio stations and magazines, not only at home, but even in Nagasaki in Japan, to spread the gospel of Christ. He knew by bitter experience that true peace has to be fought for.

The purity of his life was enough to make him a saint, but it was crowned by his death as a martyr. Interred in a Nazi concentration camp, he befriended several Jews. A sort of decimation was taking place, where people were randomly selected to be executed. A Jewish man with a family was chosen. Maximilian Kolbe offered his life in exchange, and it was taken. He gave it not for the protection of his blood family, nor even for the protection of one of his Christian family in the church, but for someone who was not in any conventional sense related to him at all. Did he give it peacefully, with a calm mind, an untroubled countenance? I don't know. I rather doubt it. But that's not the point. Because surely what today's gospel shows us is that, whatever the peace Christ brings is, is not that sort of peace. It's a peace that comes with the fire and the sword.

Christians used to talk rather more about fire than we do now. Hellfire especially. Is this the kind of fire that Jesus is talking about? In a way, I think yes. The baptism of fire that Jesus is to undergo is a dipping into suffering a dipping into despair, a dipping into Godforsakenness. That is what the Crucifixion is: God knowing really and truly utter Godlessness. The source of everything being swallowed into the nothing. Or as we put it in our Creed, the Son of God descending into Hell. But it is a fire that Jesus descends into only to rise out of it again, and to pull out its denizens with him. It is a purifying fire, made so because Jesus by passing through it has purified it for us. And so we have nothing to fear from the fire or the sword, however deeply both may pierce us.

Jesus's words today are challenging. And we can see in the Blessed Virgin Mary and in St Maximilian Kolbe how we are to respond to His challenge. With Mary, we are to stand by the Cross, to stand with the suffering, those we love and those we don't, and yet love Jesus still. With St Maximilian, the important thing is not so much his martyr's death, as the person he has become to die it. God willing, we will never face his fate, but we can still become the sort of person he became. We do so by prayer, with hope and courage, and with acceptance of the fire that purifies and the sword that pierces us.

The peace of Christ that we Christians are called to is not some sense of inner calm, although we may enjoy that sometimes. Rather, it is a state of heartfelt gratitude for Crucifixion: not just Jesus', but our own; gratitude for the fires which purge and make us clean; willingness to offer up ourselves as part of Christ's sacrifice, knowing well that what is not crucified cannot be resurrected.

Sunday, 4 August 2013

Avarice and attachment

Have you heard the one about why don't Buddhists don't hoover under their sofas? It's because they've got rid of all their attachments.

Of course, in Buddhism, 'attachments' doesn't really refer to a vacuum cleaner's nozzles. According to the Buddha, we exist in a state of suffering, and this is because we crave things, because we are always wanting. The remedy he taught is to get rid of those cravings, to sever all attachments. "He who has a thousand loves has a thousand sufferings," as one Buddhist saying goes.

Jesus sounds quite Buddhist today when he warns us about our tendency to get attached to things we shouldn't. Things of the world. In the parable, it's a bigger storeroom, to stock up more and more food the rich man will never eat. I suppose a modern analogue would be a bigger garage or a house with a bigger attic to store up all the stuff we want to keep but never use. But there's far more to it than that, of course. Jesus condemns 'avarice of every kind,' and in his letter to the Colossians, St Paul marks out greed particularly as 'the equivalent of worshipping a false god.' Attachment to things on earth is a kind of idolatry, putting stuff where only God belongs.

Buddhists, whose religion is probably more wary of idolatry than any other, are not meant to be attached to anything (basically). But I wonder, is there anything that a Christian can properly crave for? Looking at some of the things that Jesus said, you'd think maybe not. After all, when Mary Magdalene saw Him Resurrected, His words to her were the famous 'noli me tangere' you see in so many church windows: 'do not touch me' or 'do not cling to me.' And we are told in Philippians 2:5-11, an ancient hymn dating from even before the time of St Paul, that 'though He (Jesus) was God, He did not think of equality with God as something to cling to.' The Divinity emptied itself into a man, but that man would not even cling to His divinity. It seems that clinging, grasping, wanting, desiring are not good things even, maybe, when their object is God. So can it ever be right to be greedy for God?

I think the answer to that question has to be yes and no. Yes, because there is something that Christians can and should be attached to, be greedy for, even crave. And no, because the nature of what we are trying to grasp makes it impossible, like trying to grasp an eel, or as Jacob found, like trying to wrestle with an angel.

Love is what we must crave for, since we are shown in Jesus Christ that God is love, and we must always seek God. There is the 'yes,' then. The difficult thing about grasping it, though, is that the nature of that love is absolute, unconditional self-giving, epitomised in the Incarnation - God giving Himself to become human - and the Crucifixion - the God-man giving Himself for humans to become one with God. Absolutely self-giving love.

And this is where the 'No' comes in: if we ever do grasp it, get attached to it, then we haven't really grasped it at all. We are trying to grasp the ungraspable, that which by its very nature is to be given away. It is what it is because you pass it on, let go of it, let it slip away: you could say that Christ-like love is the ultimate in non-attachment. It is exactly the opposite of grasping and craving and unhealthy attachment, fixation. Take our love for people, for example. It has to be open-ended. You say you love someone for who they are right now: well that's okay, as long as it doesn't stop you loving them for what they will be tomorrow. But if we love someone only because they fit a fixed idea in our minds, then it is not really love at all. If we say, "I love you, because you're just this sort of person, or just that sort of person," then we are constraining that person, not allowing them to grow and change, and that is not love at all. It is self-oriented instead of oriented towards the beloved. And in fact, it is a kind idolatry: an act of possession and ownership, rather than of the absolute giving which true, Christ-like love demands.

Exactly the same principle applies to our love of God. If we think we love God because He fits some notion of ours, or because we get some emotional high or feeling, say, of inner peace out of Him, then again, we're constraining Him and making an idol of our own invention. We're replacing His inconceivable mystery with a banal certainty, a clergyman's platitude. But St Augustine said, "if you understand it, it is not God." I'm afraid that if love is unconditional, then it must be uncertain. Our love for God must be a voluntary blindness, an utter trust, a total self-giving of our selves into His hands so that He can make us an instrument of His self-giving in the world.

This uncertainty in love has the unfortunate side-effect of suffering. The infinite depth of Christ's love is that He gave His life with the deep desire - craving, even? - that all beings would be saved through Him. Until that is fully realised, and as long as Christ loves, He must suffer. If we live in his love as His Body the Church, truly giving ourselves into the flow of the sacrifice He made on the Cross, yes, that means we will suffer. He suffered once for us; now He suffers in us and with us.

We do have a proper yearning, craving, desire as Christians: to sacrifice ourselves into the eternal flow of God's love, with all the suffering that entails. A thousand loves bring a thousand sufferings? Bring them on. We must love and take the suffering that comes with it, and offer up that suffering freely, and let ourselves be drawn into Jesus' self-giving sacrifice. We must attached to non-attachment, greedy to give: ourselves as a living sacrifice, as we pray at every Mass.

In a word, the Christian's proper craving is for Crucifixion; and our only attachment is to the Cross.

Tuesday, 30 July 2013

White bits burn

What is Hell, what are the fires of which Jesus speaks? The Church teaches that it is a created place. But even if so, creation is underpinned by its Creator and expresses, no matter how diffusely, something of His nature. So what of Him, we might ask, does Hell express?

Well: fire and searing light. But this is surely rather ambiguous. We associate just these qualities with God the Holy Spirit, and tend to see them as positive things.

Maybe Hell is a matter of perspective. We have the chance now, in the this world, to look upon the light of God shining in Christ, albeit through a glass darkly, as though we are wearing sunglasses to shield us from the full, searing light of the sun. We have the chance to enjoy His heat, so that it becomes something that warms us and kindles our spiritual energy.

But, there are parts of ourselves that we try to hide from its glare. Shrivelled, white, grub-like parts which we fondly imagine we can keep secret from God. Shameful bits of ourselves which we do not let be crucified and so which will not be resurrected. When we see God face-to-face and the parts of us that we have acclimatised to the flames are exposed to the full glare of God's fiery gaze, they will know it as eternal life-giving warmth and a source of joy. But when those grub-like, grubby bits are finally exposed to the full flames, they will be seared, purged out, in something which we can only imagine now as pain.

Sadly, for some of us, the white and grubby parts will far outweigh the healthy tanned ones, and in some cases, almost the entire delusional, contrived, false self that has accrued over a lifetime will need to be purged. But I do say, "almost:" because no matter how congealed and how broken it may be, the image of God is still somewhere deep even in the most hardened heart.

So what is Hell? Is there an eternal torment? I would not presume to answer the question for fear of contradicting the words of Our Lord, but it does, I think, prompt further questions. Can it be that even one lost sheep will remain forever outside the fold when such a Good Shepherd walks among us? Can it be that the sacrifice made on the Cross for the salvation of all humanity, the sacrifice of a God who forgave even the people who nailed Him there, will be in vain? Can it be that God's plan, for all things to be all in Christ, will ultimately fail?

Monday, 29 July 2013

How the Devil wants us to pray (Trinity 9)

"Your Affectionate Uncle..."
As with the parable of the Good Samaritan we heard in last week's Gospel, it is all too easy to think that we know this week's passage so well that we don't need to bother with it. The Lord's Prayer, after all, is something most of us have had drilled into us since our earliest years. But we must beware allowing familiarity to lead to contempt.

When I was training for the priesthood, I fondly imagined that parishioners would often come to me asking me how to pray, perhaps because it's not something that just came very naturally to me. In fact, I don't think anyone has asked me even once, which presumably means that everyone is already a master of the art, so I've got nothing to worry about. Hurrah. Anwyay, during these fantasies, I sometimes wondered what book I might recommend to the earnest seeker of ways of prayer. The Spirit of St Francis de Sales, perhaps, with its wonderful discourse on praying even in times of spiritual dryness? Or maybe the Imitation of Christ, or the Cloud of Unknowing, or St Ignatius' Spiritual Exercises? 

Well actually, while these are all admirable primers on prayer, today's Gospel shows that it doesn't hurt to get back to basics. And one of the best warnings for us to do just that comes not from the pen of any saint or mystic, but from a quite unexpected spiritual guide: a devil. OK, a fictional devil, created by C.S Lewis: one Screwtape, whom Lewis has write letters to his nephew, Wormwood, a junior devil and novice in the ways of temptation. I've been listening to John Cleese reading them on tape in my car lately, and this week, given today's Gospel, Letter 4 particularly stood out. I couldn't get John Cleese to come in today, sadly, but let me read you an excerpt and you should get the idea. Screwtape is advising his nephew on the 'treatment' of one of his many 'patients:' 

"The best thing, where it is possible, is to keep the patient from the serious intention of praying altogether. When the patient is an adult recently re-converted to the Enemy's party, like your man, this is best done by encouraging him to remember, or to think he remembers, the parrot-like nature of his prayers in childhood. In reaction against that, he may be persuaded to aim at something entirely spontaneous, inward, informal, and unregularised; and what this will actually mean to a beginner will be an effort to produce in himself a vaguely devotional mood in which real concentration of will and intelligence have no part. One of their poets, Coleridge, has recorded that he did not pray "with moving lips and bended knees" but merely "composed his spirit to love" and indulged "a sense of supplication". That is exactly the sort of prayer we want; and since it bears a superficial resemblance to the prayer of silence as practised by those who are very far advanced in the Enemy's service, clever and lazy patients can be taken in by it for quite a long time."

So - what the Devil wants is for us to feel superior about our childhood prayers, above the simple discipline of rote repetition, and better still, for us to leave our brains out of prayer altogether. But prayer is the work of the intellect as much as of the imagination, and certainly more so than the feelings or emotions it may generate in us. And so the prayer which Jesus taught us is worthy of our intellectual attention, worthy of a lifetime chewing over it as we pray it. Think as you pray it, and you can find a different emphasis every time. 

For example, how often when we pray "Our Father, who art in Heaven" do we take time to focus our attention on God as our heavenly parent, to give thanks to Him for creating us? 

How often when we say His name is hallowed do we think about what that name is - what is the 'name' of the God who responded to Moses only with the words, 'I am who I am?' What does it mean for God to be beyond naming and imagination? 

When we ask that God's Kingdom come, what do we mean? Isn't it, in some way, here already among us? What will it be like when the heavenly Kingdom is fully realised on earth, when it not just partially but totally pierces through, so that all things are all in Christ? How fervently are we praying for this to happen - or would we really just rather carry along as we are now, thank you very much? 

And then there's the 'daily' bread. The word 'daily' is not used in the Greek of the Bible text, you know. The actual word is 'epiousion,' a word that appears only in the Bible, nowhere else in Greek literature, and means something like 'supersubstantial' or 'beyond substance.' The earliest theologians linked it to that bread which endures to eternal life, the living bread of Jesus' body given to us as a foretaste of the Kingdom. St Jerome, who wrote the greatest translation of the Bible yet produced, thought that it really means not our bread for today, but our bread for tomorrow: that is, for the eternal tomorrow, the end of days, the coming of the Kingdom. “This day” we ask to receive it, and so we do: in the bread of the Eucharist, the body of Our Lord, We get a heavenly foretaste of the future Kingdom, the Kingdom here among us and yet still to come. 

The next word in the Lord's Prayer is "and": "and forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us." So, the forgiveness of sins is linked to the bread we have just asked to receive. And this is connected again with another "and" - "and lead us not into temptation but deliver us from evil." So, you see, the receiving of the Eucharistic bread, the forgiveness of our sins so that we can forgive those of others, and the ending of temptation to evil are all linked to each other and to the coming of the Kingdom. 

So much food for the mind in this little prayer of our childhood! Even if it's the only prayer you know by heart, a little intellectual probing can yield quite a harvest of spiritual fruits. 

But if the Lord's Prayer gives us such a feast for the mind, this is only a preparation for the feast of the soul which we are about to receive in the Eucharist: because now, through the offering of bread and wine, and of ourselves as a living sacrifice, we are drawn into that sacrifice which Jesus made on the Cross, to overcome the rule of sin and overthrow the tyranny of the Devil forever. Such a simple child's prayer, such a simple act of blessing and sharing bread and wine: yet as long as we do this, the Screwtapes of the universe tremble. 

Sunday, 14 July 2013

You're not the Samaritan, you're the dying man

The good Samaritan: a story drummed into our heads from primary school days, perhaps familiar even to the primary school children of this secular age. So maybe you've heard it all before. And with good reason: there's quite a lot you can do with it.

At its most basic, it makes a good moral tale. If you're around my age, maybe you remember at school singing the song "would you walk by on the other side?" The idea being, of course, if you see someone in need over the road, as it were, maybe someone upset in the playground, or whatever, you shouldn't just walk by, you should cross over that road, you should do the right thing and go to help them. So, at this basic moral level, we all know that story and we all know that we're supposed to identify with the Samaritan, as a guide for how we should behave as good Christians.

And then If you go into it a little bit deeper, you can get a delightfully right-on message out of it about how nice foreigners are, a sort of paean to multiculturalism, the New Labour version of the parable, if you like. You shouldn't judge people by what they look like or where they come from, you should get over your prejudices, because even those nasty Samaritans can be nice too. And again, you've probably heard all that before.

So let's take it one little step deeper. Perhaps you've heard from the pulpit the significance of the priest and the Levite who passed by: the priest is on his way to Jerusalem to offer sacrifice at the Temple, so he can't touch the bloodied body because that would make him ritually unclean. Similarly the Levites, a representative of that old hereditary priestly family which Jesus supersedes by offering a priesthood to be shared by all who come to Him. And here comes another moral for us to take home: we can beat ourselves up about being too concerned with our Churchly rituals, (whether that means ringing the bells at the right moments in the Eucharistic prayer, or being obsessed with the spoons being put back in the right place after coffee) when really, we should be looking out for our neighbours, whoever they are, and trying to serve them like Jesus did. Alternatively, we can congratulate ourselves on how little we pay attention to such rituals (certain kinds of Protestant love to congratulate themselves about that) and how wonderfully unlike the priests and the Levites (or the Catholics?) we are. Although, this interpretation does rather conflict with Moral 2, where we're supposed to be nice to people who aren't, you know, like us.

Well, so be it. There are lessons to be learned from identifying with the priest, or the Levite, or trying to be like the Samaritan. But maybe this is missing a more important point. You see:

We are not the priests. We're not the Levites. We're not even the Samaritans.

We are the man dying at the side of the road.

I think Jesus has laid a subtle trap for us in this parable. As soon as we've told ourselves not to be like the priests on the Levites, we can then move on to thinking that we can be the Samaritan. And we like to leave things there. We like to think that our actions, our decisions, the way we behave, are what count in the building of the Kingdom of God. We like to think that we can earn our salvation. But the good Samaritan is not us: he is Jesus. The same Jesus who washed the feet of his disciples, the same Jesus who told St Peter off for trying to wash His feet. The same Jesus who told us that we must let Him serve us. We are the dying man at the side of the road who must rely completely on Jesus to save us.

We tend, in the West in particular, to view independence as a very good thing. But as Christians, we cannot afford to live in this delusion. Everything we are, everything we have, is the gift and work of God. Even the good that we think we are doing is done only insofar as we dependend on God. It is He who works through us if we let go of our supposed independent selves and let Him rise up through us to live in us: so that, as St Paul says, it is no longer I live, but Christ who lives in me.

"My yoke is easy and my burden is light," says the Lord. So, shouldn't it be the easiest thing just to take up this yoke, just to stop working for our own salvation, just to let Jesus do the hard work for us? Shouldn't it be the easiest thing just to depend completely? Sadly not. Jesus' easy way, the easiest way, is also the hardest way, the Narrow gate. All the voices which encourage us from such a young age to stand up by ourselves - even the Girl Guides, who just removed God from their oath and replaced him with self-development - all the voices which discourage us from recognising our proper dependence on others, friends, families, neighbours, Church and ultimately God, are barriers to our salvation, hardening our hearts. Allowing the illusion of self-containment to slip can be a painful process. But truly, no man is an island.

We talk about the Eucharist as an "offering." And this is absolutely right and proper, as long as we always recognise that everything we have to offer ultimately comes from God; we give to him of his own. We offer him bread and wine which he has given us from wheat and vines. We offer the Father the body and blood of His Son which He has already, once-and-for-all given and shed for us. And because we, the Church, are ourselves the body of Christ, still in a strange and scattered way incarnate in this world, animated by the Holy Spirit, we become a part of the self-offering of Jesus to His Father. It is never my work: it is always our work and it is always Christ's work, bound in harmony by the Holy Spirit. In this Eucharist today, we are drawn into the spiralling vortex of Trinitarian love. Of ourselves, we have nothing to offer, nothing we can do. The only good is the good given us by God, and the only offering we can make is the offering that Christ makes: we become His own broken body lying at the roadside, which only He, the eternal priest, the Good Samaritan, can pick up and raise up to the Father.

Wednesday, 3 July 2013

6 after Trinity: Lambs among Wolves

"I am sending you out like lambs among wolves," said the Lord to the seventy-two; and we know that the wolves are still prowling all around us, even now. Yet we are called to believe that, through the Cross, Christ's victory over evil has already been won. C.S. Lewis explains this paradox by saying that we Christians are like soldiers trapped behind enemy lines. Even though the war is over, we are still in occupied territory. 

One man who was in such occupied territory not just spiritually, but literally too, is remembered by the Church this week. Born in 1912 in Melanesia, Peter To Rot was part of the second generation of Christian converts in the area. A man of great faith, he became a catechist. During the war, the Japanese occupied his island and enclosed all missionaries in camps, Peter among them. There, he organised services, baptised children, and tended the sick and dying. All this he did in a church he made himself out of branches, since the occupiers had destroyed all Christian buildings. When the Japanese eventually banned Christianity altogether, they arrested Peter and sentenced him to gaol. There, he was injected with poison, had his nose and ears stuffed with cotton wool, and was finally smothered to death. Sunday is the anniversary of his death, marked with great fervour by Christians in Melanesia to this day.

Yet in Sunday's Gospel reading, Jesus did not send His disciples out alone and unsupported. They went out to places where Jesus Himself later intended to follow. They were just the reconnaissance party. So was Peter To Rot, and so are we. Every drop of the martyrs' blood fertilises strong new roots and branches of that Kingdom which cannot be crushed by any empire, because it has been won deeply in the battlefield of the human heart. We are sent to hold the ground until the banner of the Cross comes and dispels its occupying sins. Then the torturers, the gaolers and the despots will be no more.

Saturday, 22 June 2013

4th Sunday after Trinity: who do you say that I am?

"Who do you say that I am, asks the Lord?"

Some wonder: could He be a prophet like John the Baptist? But if Jesus was a prophet, then we are just worshipping a dead prophet.

Could He be Elijah? Elijah supposedly ascended bodily into the heavens, so perhaps Jesus is Elijah, returning to the world. But if so, then all we have left is a dead Elijah.

Could He be the Christ, as Peter finally says? "Christ" is Greek for Messiah, meaning the "anointed one," the person for whom the Jews had been waiting to liberate them from their oppressors. And of course, Jesus is the Christ. But He does not indicate in this passage of Luke that this is the right answer. He simply stops the questioning at that point, perhaps because Peter's is the best answer so far, and it begins a dialogue which Jesus will complete next week on St Peter's day.

But it is still not enough - because if Jesus were just a messiah, then all we would have left is a dead messiah.

That is why Jesus gives an answer which confounds all their expectations. He is destined not, like the awaited Messiah, to conquer, but to die and - most importantly - to be raised up on the third day. What's more, He promises that those who follow Him in that Crucifixion by renouncing their lives, their selves, will join Him through the Resurrection in eternal life. Jesus is exercising the judgment of our souls which belongs to God alone.

So, as the Pharisees asked last Sunday - who is this, who even forgives sins?

The options, to paraphrase C.S. Lewis, are either that Jesus was deluded - a madman - or, that He was God. And as we worship Him, either we are proclaiming Him as God, or we are idolaters. The stakes are high.

So, who do you say that He is?

Wednesday, 19 June 2013

3rd Sunday after Trinity: what is worth your tears?

Cave church, Göreme

Pharisees and prostitutes: perhaps the 1st century Palestinian equivalent of a vicars and tarts party? Or perhaps not. Nonetheless, that is how the anonymous woman in Luke 7 has traditionally been portrayed, despite the Greek of the Bible calling her no more than a "sinful woman." Though, I suppose, the rather spiteful exaggeration does spice up the story: a woman who is a renowned sinner offers Jesus her kissing and weeping, in hotblooded contrast to the cold moral legalism of Simon and friends.

We English get a bit embarrassed by kissing, don't we? It's only recently that we've adopted the continental custom of pecking each other on the cheeks in greeting. And I wonder whether that is linked in some way to our unpleasant national tendency to anti-Catholicism, our distaste for its exuberant pomp, or its "detestable enormities," as our Reformers unfortunately put it. Perhaps there are even one or two of us who find some of what we do in this church a bit over the top, even a bit, dare I say it - vulgar? Perhaps not quite English, not quite our sort of thing? And maybe one of the most suspiciously foreign-looking moments is when we clergy kiss the altar at the beginning and the end of the Mass. It's all a bit effusive for our English taste. 

Well, speaking of foreignness, my wife, Nao, and I just spent a wonderful week on holiday in Turkey. We explored glorious cave churches dating from the 8th century, we had gorgeous weather and delicious food, but best of all, the family whose B&B we stayed in treated us as though we were their own. Wonderful people. And also devout, or the parents were, at least. Every time the muezzin called from the minaret, five times a day, the mother, Tulai, would stop in her tracks and raise her hands to her ears in prayer. The father, Omar, went to the small town's main mosque every night. On Fridays, at their services throughout the day, they'd get 4000 worshippers, his son reckoned. And even if that's an exaggeration, it still means a lot of people for a town smaller than Berkhamsted. 

Now this was all super. But what, from my point of view, was rather less super, was that while there were some 400 ancient churches within walking distance, not a single one of them had been in use since 1925. In fact, there wasn't a single active Christian church within hundreds of miles. Under increasingly Islamic governments, churches have been transformed into mosques, museums, in one case even a library, or just left to rot. And there's no likelihood of that changing under Prime Minister Erdoğan's premiership. Anyway, the long and short of it was that, for the first time since I was baptised, I found myself unable to get to Mass on Sunday. And now we get back to the point: because when I got back to England and served at the little Tuesday Mass we have at All Saints, I tell you, I have never kissed the altar with more gratitude. And yes, there were tears in my eyes. 

Well, if you think I'm appealing to emotion, letting the stiff upper lip wobble a bit, so be it. Mea culpa. But it did set me thinking. 

We Christians risk getting a bit smug about us worshipping in the Spirit rather than according to the "letter that kills," as St Paul puts it. We like to think of ourselves as more like the prostitute than the Pharisee, more like lovers than lawyers. And when we're looking for a convenient scapegoat, a really Pharisaical religion obsessed with law and therefore so very different from ours, I wonder which religion comes to mind? 

And yet. 

Thousands of worshippers at Friday prayers in a small town in Turkey. 

The muezzin chanting out over the rooftops five times a day, when our compatriots complain about the noise of our church bells. The loving treatment Nao and I received, and the clear devotion to God, five times a day, that we saw in the people there. 

Surely they've got something right? For all we may write them off as Pharisees, actually they're the ones prostrating themselves five times a day, they're the ones grounding their heads at the feet of God. While the people of our nation are far too sophisticated for such devotion, above such distasteful displays. 

So, a question. 

What matters enough to us - that we would debase ourselves for it? Weep with our faces in the dirt, like the prostitute at Jesus' feet? What matters enough? 

You know, it would be hard, very hard, to be a Christian in Turkey, out on your own with no church, no sacraments, unable to confess your faith for fear of discrimination and recrimination. I remember a conversation with a woman last year whose grandparents were Greek. She quietly carried on thinking of herself as Christian, but there was no way she could admit it publicly. She told me only because she knew I was a deacon of the Church. And believe me, I do not blame her for hiding. It must be hard to be a Christian in Turkey. 

And it's getting hard here, I know: it's hard for nurses to wear crosses, it's hard for councils to give parking exemptions to Christians on Sundays. And it's hard for young people, because they don't want to be the odd ones out, they don't want to have to justify their belief to condescending peers who once read something written by someone who had once read something by Richard Dawkins. On Twitter. I don't blame them for conforming: it's for self-preservation. But coming back to Turkey, in Taksim square right now, You can also see people, mostly young, who think that there is something worth rebelling for, worth sticking two fingers up for, even if it means getting tear-gassed or losing an eye. Something worth those tears.

[Well we've got a chance, right here, to help our young people find out Whether our Christian faith is worth something. We've got a team of three young people coming from Walsingham this Tuesday, 6.30-7.30 in the Courthouse, to run some activities and tell us a bit about this year's national youth pilgrimage for young people aged 11+. Parents, you're welcome to the meeting, too. It could be just the chance to give our children a glimpse of faith that they'll never want to lose.]

But this isn't just about the "kids." We're all guilty of Pharisaical Christianity from time to time, of lip service Christianity. But unless we dare to give the full kiss of the sinful woman our faith is just a house built on sand. It's good to follow Jesus' call to get busy and to work hard for the Kingdom, like we did yesterday at the Petertide fair. But we also need to hear His call to depend on Him, to fall to our knees and weep at His feet. Now the major feasts of the church year are over and we're back into ordinary time, we can all afford to think a bit more about our patterns of prayer; about how we can submit to God daily with the devotion and discipline of the Muslim family I met; about how we can offer, with the sinner woman, the sacrifice of a contrite heart and a broken spirit. You don't love with laws. You love with your heart, your lips, your tears. It is only once we have fallen at Our Lord's feet that we can know with what great love He lifts us back up into His embrace. 

Wednesday, 8 May 2013

The Ascension and Our Lady of Walsingham

The parish pilgrimage was only a fortnight ago, but it already seems so distant. Dear Walsingham is one of my favourite places in England, and very much my spiritual home. One of the things I exult in is its sheer outlandishness. It is an odd place, and not just because of the crowds gathering to dance and drink around my rector's pianola as he pedals out tracks from Abba and the Rocky Horror Picture Show. Nor just because of the clergy and religious who flock the place in their exotic apparel. No, even the Shrine itself is exotic and more than a little eccentric. Strange images and statues lurk around every shadowy corner, inviting you to contemplate some more or less obscure figure or element of the Christian faith a little more carefully. There is no room there for spiritual boredom.

 One of the more curious side-chapels in the Shrine of Our Lady is that of the Ascension. At first sight, you wonder why it is so called, given that the painting over the altar is of the Virgin and Child. But then, if you manage to force the tough light switch on, you notice what you've been missing: a pair of alabaster feet vanishing up into the ceiling, replete with bloody wounds and all.

The juxtaposition of the Madonna and the vanishing feet is a clever one. It tells us what the Ascension is about: not just God paying the world a visit then going back home, like an episode of Mork and Mindy, but God taking on our humanity and lifting it up into union with Him. In the Ascension, God takes our fallen humanity and makes it divine. He restores us to what He always meant us to be. Gratia non tollit naturam, sed perficit.

Saturday, 13 April 2013

There is no such thing as - Church? Jn 21.1-14 (Easter 3)

"There is no such thing as Church." What would we make of a statement like that? You don't need a degree in political science to realise that I am referring to the controversial words of the late Baroness Thatcher, which she never herself denied saying, that "there is no such thing as society." Perhaps an unfortunate turn of phrase, but to be fair, she did say it in the attempt to urge us to recognise that society is made up of real, individual people, so that we cannot use it as a scapegoat for human failure. I suppose there are times when it might be a helpful corrective to apply the idea to the Church: for example, if I got home and realised that I'd left the church heating on for the night, but didn't bother to go back and turn it off again because 'the Church' would pay - forgetting that it's you, the indivuals in the pews, who put your money into the collection plate to keep the place going. Or, maybe, if the wider Church did or taught something I thought was wrong (surely not?), but I shrugged it off as the 'Church's fault,' forgetting that I am a part of that Church and have my role to play in it. There are times when I've had to explain to a gay couple that the institution that I represent does indeed teach that their relationship is sinful, while I smile and shrug apologetically, and try to get myself off the hook by blaming it on 'the Church.' But that's not good enough. The Church is made up of its members, and we as individuals have to take our responsibility, whether it is fiscal, moral or any other kind. In that very limited context, the context of responsibilities, then, we could say 'there is no such thing as Church' per se: it exists only as a collection of real, individual people.

But it still exists. To say that there is no such thing as Church or society might, as I say, be a useful corrective against our tendencies to defer responsibility for our own actions, but it overstates the case. Try extending the logic to any other corporate organisation, and you'll see what I mean. The bridge club, the trade union, the regiment, even the nation - none of these 'exists' apart from the existence of its members. But it would be very strange  to suggest that because of that, your club or organisation does not 'exist' at all. Even though it exists as a collection of its members, it still exists.

And so, back to my first question. What would we make of the idea that 'there is no such thing as Church'? Well, some Protestant thinkers do maintain that the Church is no more than a holy society made up of individual believers; one that exists by our individual consent, our individual decision to share the faith. But this has never been the understanding of the ancient Church. As we so often say at Mass, "although we are many, we are one body, because we all share in one bread." And not just any body, not just any bread - otherwise, we would be nothing but a rather oddball dining club. The body that we are a part of and the bread that we share are none other than the Body of Christ Himself, the body of our God, not just on earth but in heaven, like our Lord both human and divine. The Church is a fundamental part of God's creation, foreshadowed in the people of Israel, founded by the words and actions of Jesus, fulfilled by His redeeming Cross and Resurrection, manifested in the world by the outpouring of the Holy Spirit. Yes, it is a gathering of individuals, but it is a gathering in to the unity of God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, whose existence does not depend on ours. Unlike merely human society or societies, the Church's whole is logically prior to the sum of its parts.

You don't have to take my word for all this, because it's all there in today's Gospel. St John is harking back to that pre-Resurrection miracle where Jesus met the disciples, disappointed with their catch, and had them haul a vast number of fish into their boat. This time, after the Resurrection, Jesus goes further: they haul in an even vaster number of fish, and yet the net used to haul them in does not strain or break. Not a single fish is lost, and they all make it right to the shore where Jesus is waiting. John uses the same word for 'hauling in' as he used when Jesus made the disciples fishers of men, now so long ago. The Church is that net, made by God to haul people in to the shore of His Kingdom.

What's more, no matter how many fish it catches, the net will not break, and none need slip away. The number of fish supposedly caught, 153, makes this point, albeit rather obliquely. First, at the time when John wrote, it was widely supposed (thanks to Aristotle) that there was a total of 153 different species of fish - so, there's a theme of universality here. But more important is the strange phenomenon of 'numerology.' You may have heard of this: the Hebrews did not have numerals like we do, which are a much later invention of the Arabs. Instead, they used letters of the alphabet to represent certain numbers. And so, in the Bible, you find certain numbers used as codes for words. It so happens that the number 153 is related to the place names 'En Gedi' and 'En-Eglaim,' mentioned in Ezekiel's vision of the river of life flowing from the restored temple in the heavenly Jerusalem. "Wherever the river goes," Ezekiel writes, "every living creature that swarms will live, and there will be very many fish, once these waters reach there ... People will stand fishing beside the sea from En-gedi to En-eglaim; it will be a place for the spreading of nets; its fish will be of a great many kinds, like the fish of the Great Sea." So, the Church is more than just a boat that we can choose to jump into to sail together to the heavenly shore; it is a net which by the grace of God will drag us there, and not just us, but every kind of being.

Jesus leaves His disciples with the gift of broken bread, and this is when they realise who He is. And even now, He offers us His living body under the form of bread and wine, as our connection to God, the interface between the Church on earth and the Church in heaven. It is to each of us, individually, that Christ gives Himself in bread today, and we must be aware of our individual responsibilities and individual debt to Him, and be grateful. But there is also such a thing as the Church, regardless of our responsibilities, regardless of our gratitude. Through the Church, Jesus raises us back up to the unity of the Godhead from which He and all things came. The Church is not just some accident of history, a collection of like-minded individuals, but an essential part of God's pre-existent plan to restore creation to the glory of its divine image.

CROSSWALK: Sunday Munch 14 April

CROSSWALK: Sunday Munch 14 April: 1100-1230 in the Courthouse, St Peter's church, Berkhamsted. Two groups, one for 9-11s and one for 12-16s. The theme is "why beli...

Tuesday, 9 April 2013

Pope kisses the feet of prisoners

To distract us from present bitterness, something that everyone can agree is a good thing!

Monday, 18 March 2013

Mothering Sunday 2013

Obesity. Alcoholism. Depression. Just some of the symptoms of sick Britain, identified last week as the unhealthiest country in Europe. And so, the government wants to hike taxes to change our behaviour.

We love to think that we are free. Perhaps you get angry when the government sets its mind on curtailing our freedoms. I know I do, when they raise the price of beer to stop us from drinking as much of it. But I always know that actually, however expensive they make it, I'm still going to drink just as much. I'm not saying I'm addicted or anything, but it does raise the question: actually, how free am I, really, when it comes to drinking beer? My freedom is limited, I suppose, by how much money I have in my wallet to spend on the stuff, but if I get as far as four pints, that never seems to matter so much. I'm probably going to carry on, anyway. So in a way, maybe the limits that the government tries to set on my freedom, the external limits to my freedom, are a bit of a red herring. Actually, it's the decision I've made on my own to have four pints that is going to limit my freedom and push me into having a fifth and a couple of whiskey chasers. By making choices, I limit my own freedom.

Part of the problem, I think, is confusing 'freedom' with 'choice.' The fact that we can make choices does not necessarily mean we have freedom, and in fact, many of the choices we make end up imprisoning us. We think we are free to choose what to eat, how much to drink, how much exercise to take, how much TV to watch, how much time to invest in our work - but the freedom is all too often just an illusion. Our continued choices end up as habits, even at worst addictions. So true freedom cannot just be a matter of choice.

Looking at it a different way, there are choices that we simply can't make, but we don't think of them as limits on our freedom. We cannot choose to grow wings or breathe underwater. A man cannot choose to give birth. A woman cannot give birth to an owl. But we don't, unless we're a bit mad, view these limitations of choice as restrictions of our freedom. So again, freedom cannot just be about choices.

So what is true freedom? Well, the Church has traditionally thought about this question by looking to Mary. It is Mary, after all, saying "yes" to God's angel, "be it unto me according to Thy word," who brought God into the world as the Christ child. And we say that Mary responded freely to God's command: after all, what kind of God would He be if He forced her? What kind of "love" could God be if the love were not freely given and freely received? If Mary were not free in the matter, God would not be a lover, but a rapist.

That said, we have to be careful not to make Mary's freedom simply a matter of choice - as though she might have said "no," so that Christ would not have born and the world would not have been saved. We must not make the Gospel into a novel or a soap opera. It was part of God's eternal plan that Christ must be born, the world must be saved. Mary had to be the mother of God. And there's the rub. Somehow we have to reconcile the fact that God planned Christ's birth and chose Mary, with the fact that Mary freely obeyed God's command.

The traditional answer to this conundrum takes us back to the distinction between freedom and choice.

First, there is the matter of habits. Mary, formed by the community of the Jewish faith, a member of the race of Israel, was inculcated in good habits, habits of prayer and godly living. She was, as we all are, the product of her upbringing, in her case, upbringing within God's chosen people.

Secondly, and because of this, Mary's nature was to obey God. Just as we cannot choose to breathe underwater or fly, it was simply not in her nature to disobey God. But this is not a limit on her freedom, any more than our freedom is limited by our lack of gills or wings. Rather, her true freedom was to follow her true nature.

There's a lot of talk today about 'being yourself,' and maybe there is something to it. What I don't think it means for a Christian, though, is the sort of 'being yourself' in the sense of 'take me as I am,' 'like me or lump me,' which is basically just an excuse for rudeness. The problem with that sort of 'being yourself' is that it rests on a false understanding of what the 'self' really is. The Church teaches that we are made in the image of God; that our true self is naturally good and godly. We sin when we fall for the false freedom of choices, choices that pull us away from that good nature, away from our true selves. True freedom is found in following our true divine nature, being our true divine selves.

As the handmaiden or servant of the Lord, obeying His command, Mary was being totally authentic to herself and so totally free. But she was also being just as authentically herself as Mother of God. Many things may stand in the way, but the love of a mother for her child is something fundamentally natural, as is the love the child returns to the mother. I have read one theologian saying that as soon as a baby knows a mother's love, the baby knows God. In that loving bond, there is complete authenticity - it is true love, and almost automatic, but surely no one would say it was 'forced.' It is naturally free. And that love is the model Mary, Mother of God, gives us for our natural, true and free relationship with God, through which we can be ourselves, Our true selves, as He made us to be.

So as we give thanks to God today for our mothers, let us remember the naturally free love that they have given us, that Mary gave Jesus, and Jesus gave us; and so seek to live our lives not by the false freedom of choices but going with God's flow of self-giving love. For only when we are slaves to divine love will we be truly free.

Sunday, 3 March 2013

Faith-Experience as Spiritual Encounter: Shin Buddhist-Christian Dialogue

Response to Professor Kemmyo Taira Sato, Delivered at Three Wheels Temple, Monday 4 March 2013

First, may I thank Professor Sato for inviting us to the Three Wheels Temple and offering such a concise exposition of True Pure Land teaching. Thanks, too, to Dr Wharton, for making today's conversation possible. I pray that we all, Christians and Buddhists together, may approach the day in a spirit of openness and eagerness to learn from one another, vigilant for rays of truth wherever they might shine.

Professor Sato has very helpfully outlined the key events of Shinran's 親鸞 life and his tutelage under Hōnen 法然, their exile together, and the fundamental basis of their Buddhism: the need for absolute entrusting in the Primal Vow 本願 of Amida Buddha 阿弥陀仏 for the Birth 往生 in the Pure Land 浄土 of all sentient beings, expressed as 'faith' or shinjin 信心. If you have studied other schools of Buddhism, this probably sounds quite different from what you are used to, and I think it might be helpful to take a quick look at the historical conditions which moved Hōnen and Shinran's thought in such a direction.

Kamakura period 鎌倉時代 Kyoto was not a happy place. A contemporary chronicler, Kamo no Chōmei 鴨長明, despairingly describes how a series of natural disasters, combined with the city's loss of status as the national capital, conspire to reduce her denizens to squalor, disease and corruption. The city quite literally stank as the number of bodies dead from starvation littered the streets. He writes, “because no one even tried to clear away those corpses, the odour of the putrefaction became offensive throughout Heian-kyo [i.e. Kyoto], and people could not even stand to look at them. The city was permeated by the smell, and the mountain of corpses accumulated along the Kamo river bed until there were places where horses and carriages could not pass."

In circumstances like these, it was rather hard for people to see, as Mahāyāna Buddhism classically taught, the fundamental non-duality of samsara and nirvana, all things shining with their innate Buddha-nature. And the clergy did not help: their drunken carousing and corruption which Kamo no Chōmei depicts was hardly an example of the bodhisattva ideal, that Mahāyāna teaching that enlightened beings sacrifice their own attainment of buddhahood to assist others along the path. Clearly, there was something amiss.

The Buddhist masters of the time needed to explain why things were going so wrong, and they unanimously seized on the doctrine of Mappō 末法, the 'end of the dharma age.' By this they meant that the age of the 'historic' Buddha, Śākyamuni Gautama's influence on the world was coming to an end. Kamo no Chōmei's solution to this was to retreat to his hermitage, but other masters had different ideas.

Three of these masters founded schools of Buddhism which last in Japan to this day. One of them was Dōgen 道元, founder of the Zen school in Japan, whose solution was to rediscover the 'secret,' authentic teachings of Śākyamuni: for him, Mappō was the result of debased practice. The Zen school is undoubtedly the most famous outside Japan, and perhaps the most widespread internationally, but remains very small in Japan itself. The other two great Kamakura period masters founded schools with far greater and more lasting popular appeal. One of these, Nichiren 日蓮, Professor Sato has already mentioned. In the West, Nichiren Buddhism is not widely known, but its evangelical offshoot, the Sōka Gakkai 創価学会 has a vast international presence. Nichiren's solution to Mappō was again to return to what he considered the pristine teachings of the historical Buddha, to be found, he thought, in the Lotus Sutra.

But it was Shinran who founded what remains the largest school of Buddhism by far in Japan today, despite its relative obscurity abroad, and this is of course True Pure Land 浄土真宗 Buddhism. For Shinran, following his master Hōnen, the solution to Mappō could not be found in the propagation of techniques which, looking around at mediaeval Kyoto, they saw were quite obviously failing. Self-power 自力 techniques had passed their expiry date. What was needed now was complete reliance on the other-power 他力 of Amida Buddha, as taught in the various Pure Land sutras. Hōnen found this in the nembutsu 念仏 practice, the saying of the Name of Amida, which he and Shinran had learnt as one technique among many at their Tendai 天台宗 school monastery. Radically, he began to take the nembutsu not as just one practice among many, but the exclusive practice for the inculcation of true entrusting or faith, 信心. All other practice was 自力, 'self-power,' and thus ultimately useless. You can see why his fellow monks were not particularly pleased with this: hence Hōnen and Shinran's exile.

Although Shinran himself maintained that he was teaching nothing other than his master taught, he took Hōnen's teaching to its extreme conclusion: even the saying of the nembutsu is an act of self-power unless it is said with 'faith' 信心. Even one sincerely said nembutsu was sufficient for birth 往生 in the Pure Land, which meant for Shinran not just an intermediary stop, one rebirth on the way to complete enlightenment, but synonymous with nirvana itself. For him, shinjin truly expressed in the nembutsu was the guarantee of perfect enlightenment, the final severance of all karmic ties, the realisation of things as they truly are.

A note for all students of Buddhism – forgive me if this is obvious, but to many people it is not, and perhaps I can say it more readily than Professor Sato because I do not have the sort of commitment to Shinran's teaching as he does! It is incredibly important not to see Shin Buddhism as some kind of folk religion, an all-too-common assumption in much Western scholarship. Forgive me if this gets a little technical for a moment, but Shinran's thought is in complete continuity with Mahāyāna 大乗仏教 thought in general. You could even argue that it represents the culmination of Mahāyāna thought: in Amida's Vow not to attain buddhahood until all sentient beings receive Birth, the bodhisattva 菩薩 ideal which so typifies Mahāyāna Buddhism is taken to its ultimate limits, such that even Buddha itself, in all its fulness, cedes or 'postpones' its buddhahood for the salvation of all beings. It can be seen as the ultimate expression of no-self doctrine, of Great Compassion 大慈悲, and of merit transference 廻向, and so as entirely consistent with Mahāyāna Buddhist thought.

But there is a distinction of Shin Buddhist thought from the rest, I think, and one which is particularly pertinent in Buddhist-Christian dialogue. It is very hard to deny, though many have strenuously tried, that there is a dualistic slant, at least, to the language of Shin Buddhism. What is unusual is the emphasis on the otherness of Amida Buddha, the need to rely on other-power. In fact, for most of the history of True Pure Land Buddhism, to deny the dualism of Buddha and sentient beings was considered heresy. So much so, that certain professors and clerics at Shin Buddhist universities in Kyoto were removed from their posts for teaching, in common with other Buddhist schools, the strict nonduality of Buddha and sentient beings. The consensus has swung very much the other way in Shin Buddhist circles these days, but to me, what makes Shinran so fascinating is his reconciliation of dualistic and nondualistic relationships between Buddha and beings. I would say that the unique angle that Shin Buddhism offers to Buddhist-Christian dialogue is that language expressing the otherness of Buddha and sentient beings does not preclude their fundamental non-duality. This means in turn that Christian theological dualisms of God and being do not necessarily fall foul of the usual Buddhist criticisms. It also means that Christians cannot necessarily write Buddhism off as pantheism or monism. I would like now to look at this more specifically, with reference to Professor Sato's points.

Professor Sato alluded to Shinran's teaching, of simply entrusting in Amida's Vow 弥陀の本願, as being simultaneously an easy and a difficult way. Shinran himself cites Shandao to this effect in the sixth chapter of the Kyōgyōshinshō 教行信証, and writes in a hymn of his own:

一代諸教の信よりも [いちだいしょきょう]
  弘願の信楽なほかたし [こうがん]
  難中之難とときたまひ [なんじゅうのなん]
  無過此難とのべたまふ [むかひなん]
More difficult even than trust in the teachings of Śākyamuni's lifetime
 Is the true entrusting of the universal Vow;
 The sutra teaches that it is "the most difficult of all difficulties,"
 That "nothing surpasses this difficulty." 
 (Hymns of the Pure Land 浄土和算 70, SBTS 344)
For me, this brings to mind the words of the prayer I say every day as I don my final vestment for Mass:
Domine qui dixisti, iugum meum suave est et onus meum leve,
fac ut istud portare sic valeam quod consequar tuam gratiam.
Lord, who said, “my yoke is easy and my burden is light,”
let me be worthy enough to wear this that I might merit your grace.

According to this paraphrase of Jesus' words in Matthew 11.28-30, His way is easy because He has borne the burden of our evils for us. Yet at the same time, Jesus can say: 'Enter through the narrow gate; … for the gate is narrow and the road is hard that leads to life, and there are few who find it' (Matthew 7.13).

The Christian way, like the way Shinran describes, is both the easiest and the hardest. And, I think we can safely say, it is so for the same reason: that the ease of complete reliance on another, abandonment of autonomy, is in fact extremely hard. You'll know what I mean if you spend much time visiting the elderly, watching them struggle to come to terms with the fact that they must rely so much on other people. Or perhaps you have attended some management seminar with that 'trust-building exercise' where you are expected to close your eyes and let yourself fall backwards into the arms of a colleague behind you. If so, you'll know how counter-instinctive it is – which is precisely what makes it so hard.

But this is, I think, something like the self-abandonment that St Paul has in mind when he writes in his letter to the Galatians (2.20): 'I have been crucified with Christ; and it is no longer I who live, but it is Christ who lives in me.' By incorporation into the self-sacrifice of Christ, it is paradoxically no longer the Christian per se who lives; but Christ, in His self-sacrificial mould of living, lives through and in the Christian. And this, I think, gives Christians cause to join Professor Sato in questioning the notion of 'faith' as having something to do with 'information,' 'belief' or 'intellectual assent.' There are some Christians who would maintain that Christian faith, the faith of St Paul, amounts to a faith that the Christian narrative of Jesus' Birth, Crucifixion and Resurrection happened; this may be true of certain Protestants and, at times, more scholastically-oriented Catholics. But much of the Church would agree that the more profound faith is the faith in Christ, rather than the faith that He did certain things, or that He has certain attributes.

Professor Sato mentions Kierkegaard, and we might also bear in mind Schleiermacher's concept of faith as 'a feeling of absolute dependence,' as another Protestant exemplar of faith as something rather more than intellectual assent. And certainly, plenty of Protestant comparisons with Shinran have been made, drawn as they are to the idea of 'salvation by faith alone.' Yet I would argue that Catholic sacramental theology can offer at least as relevant a point of comparison, particularly insofar as it involves the incorporation of human beings into Christ, through participation in Christ's own self-sacrificial activity. This is the position I want to sketch out in the remainder of this talk.

Catholic ideas of participation or cooperation with God depend on the concept of freedom of will, which Professor Sato mentioned: Shinran wrote that 'it is up to you to choose whether to believe in the nembutsu or reject it.' Now, I know that the question of freedom of will has been hotly contested among Shin Buddhists, and it has among Christians, too. Protestant positions vary, but to Catholic theology, freedom of will is vital. Primarily this is because we believe, with 1 John 4.8, that God is love, and that love which is not freely chosen is not worthy of the name. The veneration of Mary, Mother of God, brings this into sharp focus: it is because of her freely willed 'yes' to God – the fiat of assent she gave God to bear Christ in her womb when His angel visited her – that Christ could be born. It took reciprocity, the mutual loving action of God and human, for God to be incarnate and the salvation of the world to be effected. We venerate Mary not just because God chose her, but also because she chose Him.

I should point out that this is seen by many Protestant thinkers as outrageously presumptuous. Karl Barth, arguably the greatest Protestant theologian of the twentieth century, regarded the idea that there is any analogy between humanity and God as the doctrine of the Antichrist and the main reason he could never be Catholic. Our will is as nothing before the sovereign will of God. To suggest otherwise, he thought, compromises the absolute freedom God enjoys and by which God creates and redeems us.

Here, it can help us to look to Shinran and his place within Buddhist tradition. He proclaims the absolute alterity of Buddha and sentient being – the absolute reliance that we must have on Amida's other-power – and yet does not regard this as compromising the fundamental non-duality between the two. This works, I think, because according to Shinran, Amida Buddha is nirvana, is the Pure Land, and even is the Vow: the compassionate Vow that all beings will be saved. Amida is, in a way, more verb than noun, more process than object. The Vow itself is the expression of the true reality of things, things as they really are: which is to say, already and always saved by the compassion of the Buddha, if only they could open their eyes to see it.

In Christ, God reveals something comparable: namely, 'the mystery of His will … to gather up all things in [Christ], things in heaven and things on earth' (Eph 1.10). He does this by His own self-giving, in Creation, in His self-emptying into the person of Christ, and in His self-sacrificial death at human hands on the Cross. It does not compromise God's freedom to say that He freely surrenders Himself for our creation and redemption: insofar as we can say anything of God at all, that is simply the sort of God He is, the sort of God He has revealed Himself to be. The true nature of reality which Christians are called not just to see, but to live, is that God is love; and this love is revealed in His absolute self-giving for others, with the intent that all things be ultimately united.

According to Shinran, our self-power avails nothing because Amida's compassionate Vow is already achieved. So is Christ's Crucifixion: according to Paul (Eph 2.8-9) it is not 'our own doing,' but 'the gift of God' which saves us. We are saved by His sacrifice, not by our self-powered deeds. Yet, as Shinran and St Paul both knew, although we are already saved, we remain evil. For the Catholic theologian, we cannot be fundamentally evil because we are made in the Image of God and so share in His basic goodness. And for Shinran, surely, our true nature is Buddha-nature, beyond our conceptions of good and evil, if only we could see it. St Paul prays for the Ephesians (1.17) that 'the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of glory, may give you a spirit of wisdom and revelation as you come to know him, so that, with the eyes of your heart enlightened, you may know what is the hope to which he has called you.' Seeing with the eyes of compassion, entirely at the gift of God, leads to a knowledge of salvation. It seems that for St Paul, as for Shinran, seeing is believing: seeing things as the self-giving love that they really are. Our unity with God is already achieved in Christ: we have only to respond to His invitation, and we will gaze upon His glory forever.

I realise that I am jumping about, just offering some snapshots of commonality. But a more encompassing tie between the two ways of thinking I have outlined is a logic of paradox. Paradox is perhaps more famous in Buddhism, especially through the renown of the Zen kōan 公案, and it is certainly there in the notion that samsara is nirvana, or that Buddha is sentient being. But there is plenty of paradox in Christianity, too: fundamentally, the paradox of Christ, 100% God and 100% man, all-powerful God made suffering servant, the immortal who is killed by His own creatures.

As another example for comparison, that paradox runs through Jesus' teaching about the Kingdom of Heaven, which at some times seems like a distant place beyond our conception of space and time, and at others like something within us, among us, here and now. It is a mustard seed growing among us, it is yeast fomenting us, it is, Jesus says several times, 'at hand'; yet He talks also of who will enter it, who will be first and last there, when the Kingdom comes. Compare the Pure Land 浄土, in which one can guarantee birth in this life as the 'equivalent of enlightenment' 等正覚, but where perfect enlightenment awaits only after passing from this life.

To sum up: we Christians are left with an easy path through a narrow gate, a life that we are not meant ourselves to live, an all-powerful God whom we have killed, a God absolutely beyond us, yet who has achieved through His sacrifice the union of all things with Him, in a Kingdom which has already been won, but which is somehow yet to come. Our Shin Buddhist brethren have an easy way which is also the most difficult, a remedy in the nembutsu which they must say without themselves saying it, a Buddha who is absolutely one with them yet absolutely other, a true reality depicted as a Pure Land in which all are already saved, but which nonetheless cannot be fully realised in this lifetime. No wonder people think we religious types are a bit mad. But such are the paradoxes under which we labour. So, to conclude, what are their resolutions?

Well, to some extent, there is no resolution, only deepening of the mystery. For the Shin Buddhist, the vehicle of salvation is the nembutsu said in shinjin, such that it is not in fact the practitioner who says the nembutsu at all, but Amida Buddha himself. The Buddha effects his own salvation and that of all (the distinction becomes tenuous) by the saying of his Name through all. And the, I think, is where a comparison of the Christian sacramental principle comes in, at last. For in the offering at the Eucharist of the gifts which God Himself has given us – both the body and blood of Christ under the form of bread and wine, and our souls and bodies 'to be a living sacrifice' – we are merely participants in the one, cosmic sacrifice of God Himself, rendered both in Creation and on the Cross. Thus through the Church, we believe Christ continues to offer Himself and all Creation into that process of self-giving love which He, God, is. The Eucharist acts analogously to the nembutsu in that we see it as the salvific vehicle for all things, effected by an 'Other' to simultaneously reveal and effect the process of loving unity: better still, 'comm-unity,' in 'Comm-union,' whereby the absolute oneness of humans with each other, with all things, and with the Divine, is effected - yet, paradoxically, without compromising their absolute Otherness.