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.