No Dialogue Without Conversion

Today is the anniversary of the death of Charles de Foucauld who, in many ways, opened up the path to the possibility of dialogue between Christianity and Islam. On the face of it, Charles’ life was not one marked by success: in his lifetime he saw no new monastic foundations and no new followers, and his death, though in many ways a martyrdom, remains something of a mystery. But after his lifetime, his example did inspire many to follow in his way of utter simplicity, universal fraternity and faithful ‘hiddenness’. Indeed, his influence extends to Pope Francis, whose latest encyclical, Fratelli Tutti, owes much to the spirituality of Charles.

In the realm of dialogue with Islam, which is surely one of the most vital works of inter-faith understanding in our day, Charles’ influence on one of this dialogue’s most significant pioneers, Louis Massignon, is immense. Charles’ approach was one built on fraternity, but also on the fundamental necessity of conversion. Indeed, his own conversion to a fuller embrace of the Christianity of his birth was directly a result of his encounter with Muslims. Although his desire in living among the Tuareg of Algeria was to bear, for them, the presence of Christ, his desire was to understand, not to make converts. He lived without any European or Christian companions and sought simply to be present among the people as a hermit whose simple dwelling was known as a place of hospitality as well as brotherhood.

Although not seeking to make converts, Charles embodied the truth that dialogue depends on conversion – one’s own. We cannot enter into a truthful dialogue unless we are committed to allowing ourselves to be changed by it, probably in ways we cannot anticipate. The same could, of course, be said of all Christian life, that it is a constant process of growth, of conversion, of being conformed ever more closely to the image of Christ. But there is something particular about inter-faith dialogue, which brings us face to face with God through language and practices that are not our own, challenging our assumptions and revealing to us new insights that might not have been shown to us if we had chosen to remain with what is familiar.

In dialogue, do we also seek the conversion of the one with whom we are in dialogue? No, but it is likely that they have also entered into this transformative space with the same commitments as we have. Our responsibility, however, is only ever towards our own attitude and our own readiness to be converted by the God we will meet in new ways through our sister or brother.

Lev Gillet’s Spiritual Ecumenism

In a remarkable introduction to his enduringly attractive Orthodox Spirituality, The Monk of the Eastern Church rehearses an appreciative litany of great mystic saints of the Church, East and West, ancient and modern, institutional and marginal. He does not neglect the ‘deeply Christian, and therefore Orthodox’ insights of such ‘Evangelical’ Christians as George Fox, Nicholas Zinzendorf, John Wesley, William Booth and Sadhu Sundar Singh. He speaks with approval of the early Anglican Franciscan, ‘Father William, the saintly hermit of Glasshampton’ as an ‘Eastern spiritual type’.

Albion Awakening: William of Glasshampton
Fr William SDC

His deeply inclusive vision of spiritual unity across traditions is matched in the Anglican world by another quietly remarkable spiritual teacher of the 20th century, Canon Donald Allchin. I’ll say more about him some other time.

Gillet succinctly summarises his approach to spiritual ecumenism thus:

A genuine and intense spiritual life is the shortest and safest way to re-union.

Always balancing scripture, theology, liturgy and the practice of contemplation, Gillet offered a view of ecumenism which was ahead of its time and is perhaps only now beginning to come to the fore. His was a deeply evangelical mysticism, a deeply mystical gospel-based spirituality. He was well-known for his reflections on Gospel texts, delivered simply, directly and from a place of contemplative stillness (he advised preachers to say one thing only – take heed!). It is from shared silence and shared reflection on the Gospels that ecumenism must not only begin but always return. Gillet used to advise inquirers to remain in their own church because Christ was to be found there.

If, as Gillet insists, the aim of human life is union with God and deification, then our union as churches separated by the events of history must flow from this primary aim. Surely, those who are drawn closer into union with God are thereby drawn closer into union with one another and with all.

A Monk of the Eastern Church

Over these last few months, I’ve found myself revisiting writers whose works on prayer and faith have been a constant inspiration to me throughout my adult life. There are relatively few of these, and it won’t surprise those who know me to hear that Thomas Merton is one of them, along with William Johnston. But perhaps the most constant of these constant companions is Lev Gillet, who wrote under the pseudonym, A Monk of the Eastern Church, and this is for one very simple reason. He wrote a short book called, On the Invocation of the Name of Jesus which was and is for me a concentrated, practical, scriptural and wise guide to the practice of the Jesus Prayer, a prayer which has also been a constant companion since my early 20s. Of course, Gillet wrote many more books, and among the ones I cherish most are his commentary on the Christian Year; The Year of Grace of the Lord, his excellent introduction to Orthodox Spirituality and his reflections on priestly ministry; Serve the Lord with Gladness.

Archimandrite Lev Gillet | Citydesert

But I knew only the outlines of his life until I recently began to read the excellent biography by Elisabeth Behr-Sigel, who knew him well. She introduces us to the fertile milieu of the community of Russian exiles in Paris in the ’20s and ’30s which produced so many remarkable figures – Lossky, Bulgakov, Evdokimov, Schmemann, Mother Maria – and to the rich ecumenical context of Gillet’s own ministry. Of course, his writings show his continued appreciation of the Western Catholic tradition of his birth and early ministry, but I was less familiar with his contact with radical Protestant figures like Wilfred Monod, founder of the Fraternité spirituelle des Veilleurs. He was also deeply shaped by his contact with the early psycholanalytical movement and his appreciation of the wider intellectual landscape of the time. His embrace of Orthodoxy was not a retreat into an exotic enclave but an expression of his profoundly ecumenical and evangelical calling, a calling to find in Christianity’s common early roots a revitalisation based on an encounter with the living Christ within the spirit-filled life of the liturgical community. He found there a warmth and an authentic voice of a Christianity that was at once scriptural and mystical, ritually patterned and free.

Gillet also engaged very closely with Anglicans, not least through the Fellowship of St Alban and St Sergius, and his quiet influence is still palpable among those Anglicans who treasure their contact with the Eastern churches.

In this uncertain time of lockdowns and restrictions, Gillet’s teaching on the Jesus Prayer offers hope and substance – a means of continuing the church’s Eucharistic offering internally: ‘We shall present the Holy Name to God as though it were bread and wine’ (On the Invocation para. 48) and ‘Jesus always remains the bread of life which we can receive as food, even when we do not partake of any sacramental elements’ (para. 50). It is a means whereby we invoke ‘the breaking-in of Christ into our earthly existence’ (para. 51). I thank him for his wisdom and encouragement in these hard times. Memory Eternal!

Do Not Enter the Hall Smelling of Onions! Or, should Liturgy be stimulating?

In Dogen’s instructions on conduct in the meditation hall, from which the above quotation comes, he is keen to protect practitioners from an excess of stimulation. Interestingly, he also considers the possibility of someone entering the hall while intoxicated with wine accidentally! His better known ‘Rules for Zazen’ (Zazen Gi) underline the need for a space that is calm and quiet and this is because zazen is quite the opposite of seeking an intense ‘spiritual’ experience. It is a matter of living one’s life fully even when it does not present us with anything of very great interest – ie most of the time! If one chases any sort of ‘experience’ at all as a goal in life, there is a very strong danger that we will constantly imagine that fulfillment lies elsewhere, and that is a sure-fire route towards disappointment. Zazen is nothing more or less than the living of life itself – fully, consciously, openly.

Dōgen - Wikipedia

What, then, of Christian worship? What is its primary purpose? Is it even wise to talk about worship as having a purpose at all? There is a real risk that we see liturgy as a kind of spiritual stimulation, a ‘high’ to keep us going through the drudge of the week until the next boost comes along. We might see that in terms of a mental insight, an aesthetic experience, a sense of community, an extraordinary encounter with the divine. None of these things is bad, but what if they don’t come our way?

It seems to be against everything that we imagine to be necessary for church growth to suggest that worship should understimulate rather than overstimulate us, but I think I’m going to try now to make a case for just that!

I think that our patterns of prayer and ritual can have a very positive role in forming our approach to life as a whole, and if they are to do that well, they need to be capable of seeing us through monotonous, unappealing and uncomfortable aspects of life as well as joyful and exciting ones. To do that, they need to school us in the art of finding equilibrium and stability, of staying put and paying attention, of receptiveness and subtle awareness. If our liturgical or ritual life aims only to provide us with excitement, stimuli or points of interest, we might end up seeking these rather than giving ourselves fully to the longer and slower work of patient attentiveness.

So what might the ritual practices be that can nurture this quality of balance?

First of all, repetition is our friend in this approach to ritual prayer. Repeated texts and gestures instill in us habits of attention and focus. And it’s not as if these things are devoid of content – what more theology do we need than that contained in the Jesus Prayer?

Secondly, the use of liturgical chant provides a steady pulse to our prayer, aids memory and reduces the temptation of over-expression, which is another kind of stimulus. I would love to see the chanting of liturgical texts become the norm once more for most of our liturgical services, even small-scale ones (and it really is no less virus-emitting than speech!).

Thirdly, the use of aesthetics that promote focus will help us with our attentive stillness. I strongly believe that church buildings should be beautiful, not to provide sensory stimulation alone but to enhance the sense of harmony and attention. This might suggest a simpler aesthetic with clean lines and few points of distraction but I think that other approaches can offer the same thing. For example, I do not find a Greek church with icons everywhere to be over-stimulating and I think this is because the form of the building itself is usually very simple, with a focal point on the apse, emphasised by the Royal Doors in front of it. There is only one altar and usually a minimum of furniture. And the icons themselves are an invitation to attentiveness – they do not provide drama and ‘interesting detail’ but stillness and presence.

Finally, all ritual prayer should be offered with care; not hurried or sloppy but measured and unfussy. There is a particular onus on the one presiding to embody that sense of collected presence and careful attention, not getting in the way of the community’s prayer and in no way self-promoting. This does not mean that clergy and worship leaders need to leave their personality at the door, but simply remember that they are not the focus of attention. That’s one of the reasons our church strongly favours the use of liturgical vestments – they are not my clothes expressing my personality. Each person praying also might pay attention to how they are present in the liturgy, perhaps even if they are participating from home through a screen.

I want to be clear that I am not rejecting any aspect of liturgy that is emotionally uplifting, simply suggesting that this should not be sought out as the highest expression of our prayer and that we would do well to nurture habits that sustain us through every moment of life rather than offering an escape from it.

Joyful Banquets – Sermon for Pentecost 19

parable-of-the-wedding-feast-icon - Catholic Stewardship Consultants, Inc.

I guess that if we were each asked to describe our perfect paradise, we would all come up with something slightly different. Depending on our temperament, we might go for peaceful seclusion or bustling conviviality, warm Mediterranean climes or cool northern skies, music to dance to or silence to soothe us. So if we are more disposed towards something a little quieter, we might be put off by the recurring image in the gospels of the Kingdom of God as a wedding feast. To those so inclined, I would simply offer the observation that, even at the noisiest wedding, there’s always a quiet corner where you can find others taking a break from the inevitable carnage of an Orcadian Strip the Willow.

Whatever our preferences, I think there are fundamental truths in the image of the wedding feast which are enduring. The first is that the image of our ultimate destiny as a thoroughly communal affair rings true. We are made to interact with each other; we are made to learn the art of living a good life in the company of others; we are made to find ourselves when we move beyond self-concern and into love for our neighbours; and we are made in the image of God who is not solitary but relational. And in this time of restriction, we crave our vital social connections more than ever. But I’m intrigued that Jesus chose the image of a wedding feast as his basic paradigm of the Kingdom of God. Why not a family or a community or a nation? Well, apart from the fact that these social realities are fraught with complexities of their own and each risks a sort of exclusive or restrictive dimension, there is something about a wedding feast that these other groupings doesn’t quite capture. Above all, the wedding feast introduces a note of unrestricted joy that is not necessarily present in these other examples.

I don’t think we talk enough about joy in the spiritual life. We seem more disposed towards thinking of the sterner virtues, or the instructive possibilities we find in hardship, or the notion of heroic sacrifice and we can dismiss joy as frivolous in comparison. But joy is also a kind of sacrifice in the sense that it is a giving up of po-faced self-control in favour of self-forgetting delight. It is a letting go of self-importance so that we may truly and simply enjoy the gifts that someone else brings to the party. It replaces the anxiety that can so diminish our spiritual wellbeing with light-heartedness and delight.

I think there’s something almost comic in today’s parable when it recounts the terribly worthy excuses given by those who not only refuse the first invitation but even continue their joyless sulk when the messengers draw their attention to the smell of the best food being prepared under their very noses. Enough with your partying, they say – we’ve got work to do. We are people of substance and have no time for your trivial interruptions to the serious business of commerce. Where the wedding feast speaks of abundance for all, a time out of the grind of daily life, those who refuse to come are concerned only with their own gain. One of the miserable so-and-sos who does turn up even refuses to put on a festal garment in an act of self-righteous reproach to the celebrating partygoers.

But for all its comic impact, the parable sets before us a rather stark reminder of the choices we must make day by day. As with all parables, it is not intended to make a single point but confronts each one of us with a deeply existential question. In this case, the question is about what we truly value. Are we too concerned with our own security or self-image to let ourselves go for the sake of another? Are we so much invested in our own advancement that we shun the gifts offered to us by someone else? Does our own little world take precedence over the much bigger reality that opens up before us when we allow the stranger to take a place at the table alongside us?

In these difficult days of constraint and anxiety, there is always a risk that our world will shrink in the way it did for those who refused the invitation to the wedding banquet. There is a risk that we prioritise our own nation or tribe over the greater family of humanity. There is a risk that faith becomes a private matter rather than a fundamentally communal reality. And there is a risk that our bigger vision takes second place to our more immediate concerns.

In the face of these constraints, Christians continue to offer participation in a wedding feast. Every day, we set a table in the face of our fears and place there bread to strengthen our bodies and wine to cheer our hearts. For now, the feast may not be as sumptuous as we would like, but it is a feast nonetheless. It bids us rejoice; it invites us to set aside self-concern in order to meet one another and, in doing so, to meet the God who is our bounteous host. Whatever else we do, we must continue to offer this joyful sacrifice because, in doing so, we offer a foretaste of the coming kingdom and we learn the art of being together at a table where none is left behind. This Holy Table points simultaneously in two directions: it draws us away from self-concern and towards the heavenly banquet; and it draws us away from self-concern towards those who are hungry here and now. It is, at the same time, the gate of heaven and the serving counter of the Steps to Hope van that parks outside our door. The Liturgy here and the Liturgy after the Liturgy are one joyful sacrifice. How could we resist an invitation to such a feast?

Anti-Siesta!

Sleep specialists recommend that short naps of no more than 15 minutes can have a beneficial effect on our energy levels and alertness. Any longer than that sees us getting into a deeper level of sleep which makes it harder to wake up without feeling drowsy.

But I would like to propose a different, or perhaps complementary practice. Why not spend 15 minutes each day being awake? I mean really awake. The practice of zazen, of seated meditation, is not an exercise in relaxation as such, and is certainly not some kind of dream-like state. It is simply the practice of being awake, of being alert to the world around us, of being receptive to everything without devouring it, of open-eyed stillness in the face of whatever is around us. It is not the shutting-off of thoughts and not a retreat from the world but a simple exercise of attention. As such, it is, at the very least, a way of expressing our capacity for wakefulness and a way of strengthening that capacity.

The term wakefulness has synonyms in the religious vocabulary of Christianity and Buddhism, and probably others too. In Christianity, the desert tradition gave us nepsis – watchfulness or sobriety – and in Buddhism, the experience of enlightenment is an experience of awakening. In fact, in the latter, I think that Soto Zen would prefer to speak of being-awake so as not to suggest a movement from one state to another – enlightenment is not a goal to attain but a present reality to express. In Christian experience, watchfulness is also a constant invitation – ‘today, if only you would hear his voice…’ – and the vivid words of Compline come to mind:

Be sober, be vigilant, for your adversary the devil as a roaring lion walketh about, seeking whom he may devour: whom resist, steadfast in the faith.

We needn’t get too into the question of ‘external’ diabolical threats to see the wisdom of these words. The fact is that we are vulnerable when we are not awake and our lack of watchfulness closes us off from others.

So don’t give up the siestas, but do think about having a time to be fully awake each day!

‘Do Not Squander Your Life!’

These words end each of the sessions of zazen we undertake in the tradition Zen that I follow. The full text of the Evening Gatha is:

Let me respectfully remind you,
Life and death are of supreme importance –
Time swiftly passes by and opportunity is lost.
Each of us should strive to awaken. Awaken!
Take heed. Do not squander your life.

Don't Waste Your Life! | Treetop Zen Center

I wonder if we always take the spiritual life this seriously. I think we are in danger at times of thinking of our spiritual life as a sort of hobby. I remember someone saying to me once that they had a number of projects for their retirement, including learning Norwegian, baking bread and joining a church. It’s one of the things we do among others. Now, I’m perfectly aware that attending worship and being a member of a church is not coterminous with one’s spiritual life, but you would hope that the church is in the business of addressing the Great Matter of life and death, even if many choose to do just that outside the life of the church.

I hesitate to say what I’m about to say next, because I really am not criticising anyone in these very difficult days: we really are all trying our best to make the best of these trying circumstances and I have no doubt whatsoever that I have not handled things as well as I could have over these last 6 months. But I do fear that some of the ways we (the church in its corporate expression, and I include myself!) have tried to navigate these difficult waters have fed a perception that the church is in a similar category to leisure activities of various sorts – a take-it-or-leave it activity for those who are into that sort of thing. I wonder if, at times, we have given the impression that the Liturgy is a needless luxury, pastoral care a merely social interaction (except in extremis), prayer a private matter, faith a personal opinion rather than our fundamental disposition towards life. If we have mistakenly given that impression, then we are storing up for ourselves significant challenges if we want to be taken seriously in the future.

I am deeply impressed by the way churches have taken care in opening their doors and welcoming people in a way that is safe as well as creative and no one wants to put anyone at risk of infection. At the same time, we must seek ways of balancing the imperative of safety with the urgency – indeed, the heightened urgency – of addressing the Great Matter through our prayer and our mind-to-mind, heart-to-heart encounters with one another. This is a monstrously difficult balancing act, and I welcome any ideas that help to create genuine opportunities for spiritual growth and wellbeing in these times (I really mean that – please do share them!!). But I do want us all to be a little more courageous in insisting that we are about a serious business. Faith is not a nice-to-have and we are not being immodest if we claim that we are concerned with that which is of supreme importance. It is also, inextricably and simultaneously, an exercise in care, in compassion and in healing. Our wellbeing is not only a matter of microbiology but also of spirituality, of the heart.

From Crisis to Continuity – Navigating the ‘New Normal’

A beginners guide to the compass | OS GetOutside

The title of this piece might wrongly give the impression that I’m about to offer a range of excellent ideas to manage the change from an emergency phase of dealing with COVID-19 and its fallout to a more sustained phase of adjustment to longer term realities. What I really want to do, however, is simply to recognise the fact that this newer phase is, in many ways, more difficult than the first, and to seek a conversation about the spiritual challenges of this strange in-between territory. The first weeks and months of our response to the COVID crisis felt challenging, but there was a certain sense of solidarity in the face of a new threat and a degree of energy that comes from problem-solving. I think that, at the time, many of us were unaware of the likely duration of the measures we need to put in place to reduce the risks from the virus, and even if we were more realistic about that timescale, the actual experience of living without many of our usual social support systems is new to us and brings unexpected challenges, and it’s difficult to find adequate alternatives. I suspect I’m not alone in finding that I have more ‘extrovert’ tendencies than I had imagined!

Here are a few of the things I think are quite challenging:

  • The loss of the dozens of ‘casual contacts’ we have each week with colleagues, friends, congregation members and acquaintances. So much happens in these brief encounters that is hard to replicate with more time-consuming and formal arranged meetings.
  • In addition to this lack, there are also constraints that come with forms of communication that we can use. I don’t need to say anything more about the ‘zoom fatigue’ we have all come to recongise well, but I think that the loss of body language, eye contact and the sense of the ‘atmosphere’ of a room also add to the narrowing of our range of communication tools.
  • The sense that we are living with significant constraints and have no idea of when it may be safe to do without these measures. This also means that we can be reluctant to make a complete adjustment to different ways of doing things as we live in hope that the situation is temporary. Mentally, we may be living with a constant sense that this is less-than-ideal and that’s rather tiring.
  • The sense that there is a threat ‘out there’ is also demanding on our psychic energy. And if we have any level of suspicion or censoriousness of one another, that places further burdens on out ability to live and relate normally.
  • There are, of course, additional challenges facing church congregations in this current phase, such as the difficulty of offering a liturgy that feels like it’s including those who are virtually or physically attending. But perhaps the biggest question of all is how we find the right balance between individual and corporate dimensions of religious expression. The latter faces the constraints we’ve already mentioned and the former may be struggling as a result of a certain neglect in nurturing a mature inner life that could be said to characterise a religious culture that has placed so much emphasis on the gathered community of faith.

This suggests to me that, as well as continuing to nurture the faith community in novel and demanding ways, churches might do well to address some of that neglect of the inner life. I don’t think that liturgical worship alone (or any other kind for that matter!) can address this lack. Part of what’s needed is a shift in spiritual culture and part is a fuller awareness of the practices and insights of lived spirituality. Here are one or two suggestions:

  • It seems important to me that we begin with the presumption that we are each fully responsible for our own life of faith. Along with this presumption is the assurance that we each have all that we need to fulfill this responsibility. This is not an arrogant assertion of the primacy of the individual – we all know the immeasurable value of drawing on the wisdom of others – but a realisation that no one else can live our lives for us. Indeed, when we take that full responsibility, we realise ever more fully the impact of our choices and decisions on others. A deep exploration of the inner life always turns us outwards because it can only ever be undertaken in an attitude of deliberate self-forgetfulness.
  • None of this is to say that any of us should do without the help of others, and my second suggestion would be that the company of an experienced guide is vital. What it does mean, though, is that we take responsibility for seeking that help. An experienced guide is not necessarily one who has particular ‘credentials’, but one who practises the inner life with both seriousness and a lightness of heart.
  • A spirituality to sustain us in these times will be one that nurtures patience and one that concentrates on the ordinary, non-spectacular, everyday miracle of simply being alive. Stillness, breathing, imageless contemplation, one-pointedness and regularity of practice are key components of such a spirituality.
  • We should all feel confident in reading and interpreting the texts that belong to our spiritual tradition and, perhaps, also those of other traditions. One of the main responsibilities of those who are regarded as teachers within a faith community is to nurture such confidence and encourage regular, reflective reading as an individual and shared practice. For Christians who are unable to join in regular communal worship at the moment, the reading of scripture and the classic ‘canon’ of spiritual texts connects us with the living stream of wisdom.

Although these modest suggestions are offered as ideas for sustaining spiritual life in this time of constraint, I would hope they are of value at any time. I am also conscious that the list is not exhaustive so please do share ideas!

Labouring in Vain? Mt 20:1-16

Harvest Field with Reapers, Haywood, Herefordshire', George Robert Lewis,  1815 | Tate

Last week, I started to make my case for seeing parables not as clear-cut stories with a simple, single point to make, but as complex dramas that draw us in in order to unsettle our expectations and cajole us into a fresh way of seeing. I don’t think they are there to make a point but to point us away from themselves towards something deeper. They are not preachy stories that say ‘look at me! I’ve got something sound to teach you!’ but mischievous little stories that say ‘don’t look at me for any answers! I’m not that kind of story!’ They draw us in, mess with our heads, spin us around and say; ‘look again. What is really there?’.

I had a bit of a moan last week about biblical scholars who get rather tied up in details and this week I’ve got more to say about that! Today’s parable is another rather complicated story that we might think we know well. We might think that it has something to do with fairness and benevolence. If we imagine that this is a story that intends to tell us about how generous God is, I’m not sure it does a very good job. The landowner seems to be playing around with the good hearted labourers and when it comes to paying them for their work, he gets his manager to do his dirty work and builds up the hopes of those hired first that they will be payed more than expected since the workers hired late on were paid the originally agreed daily rate. (none of their fault, by the way – their idleness was a result of being overlooked. They would have jumped at the chance of a good day’s work but no one responded to their application).

One way of seeing this parable, if taken at face value on its own terms, would be to say that God is more generous than your average employer, but perhaps not by much. Everyone gets their daily wage, but no more, while the landowner retires to count the profit he builds on the backs of the desperate. I’d rather not have too much to do with a God like that.

Coming back to the interpretations of some biblical scholars, I’ve read some who take great care to investigate the true value of the denarius offered as a daily wage. Was it one kind of denarius or another, a generous sort of minimum wage or a more ordinary sort? Is this a picture of a reasonably bountiful God or one who simply makes sure that we have more or less enough to get by on?

I have a feeling that they’re barking up the wrong tree. I think this parable is not about the fine details of just how generous God might be towards those who might or might not deserve what he has to offer. I think it’s a parable about how completely absurd it is to imagine that the kingdom of Heaven has anything to do with pay and reward at all! The kingdom of Heaven is not something to be earned. It is not a commodity, not a transaction, not a prize for the successful, not an achievement for the productive, not a feather the cap of the spiritually able. What, then, is it?

One kind of answer to that question might be to say that it is a gift, something given freely and lavishly by a God whose nature is mercy and grace. This has been a strong theme in Christian thinking from the days of St Paul onwards and it has much to commend it. It bids us relax and understand that, having nothing to offer God that God might ever want, we need simply recognise our weakness before him and receive what it is that he has to give us, a gift to make up the unmeasurable deficit that we human beings have in relation to the almighty God. This approach puts us all on the same footing as humble recipients of divine mercy, empty until we are filled from above.

But I want to suggest something rather different, something that insinuates itself on us if we see this kind of parable as a radical unravelling of the whole basis of faith as a sort of transaction between a demanding God and a worthless human race, however benevolent a transaction that might be. What if the whole business of faith is not about closing a deficit at all? What if the truth is that there is nothing to earn, nothing to receive, nothing to acquire, nothing to grasp for? What of the business of faith is of a different order entirely?

Let’s imagine a different sort of landowner, who comes along the line of those eagerly awaiting their reward and says; ‘I have nothing to give you. You already have all you need. You didn’t need to strive for the prize because there’s no prize to attain. It’s already there! The kingdom of heaven is within you! Perhaps it needed the futile effort of a hard day’s work to realise it, but maybe now you can see that the Kingdom of Heaven does not lie somewhere else, in the gift of one who might or might not give it to you. It is right there for you, if only you would see it!’

God has given us all we need: we have the capacity for love. We have the capacity to transcend our self-interest. We have the gift of freedom if we’re prepared to realise it. And the only work needed to realise it is the work of letting go of the pernicious lie that says we’re only worth what we gain, we are measured by what we possess, we are only the sum of our successes. For many of us, that might feel like hard work because we’ve been fed another line for so long, but the work is only ever a work of subtraction, not addition, of shedding, not of acquiring. And what does that leave us with? It leaves us with a mind like that of Jesus, who did not cling, did not grasp, but emptied himself in order to share the ultimate prize: a life made whole in the freedom of love.

Hagia Sophia and the Stoudios Monastery

Hagia Sophia Mars 2013.jpg

It’s impossible to forget your first encounter with the vast and numinous interior of Hagia Sophia in Istanbul. It is quite literally breath-taking. Even the scaffolding that was in place when I visited a decade ago could not detract from the sheer sense of space and the magical weightlessness of the dome. Then there is the rich detail of marble capitals and vivid mosaic icons to savour. But I cannot be alone in trying, above all, to imagine in my mind’s eye what it would have been like to witness the building being put to its intended use – the celebration of the Divine Liturgy. There is no altar in the apse any more but it’s easy enough to imagine it. A recent recording of chant from the Byzantine period with the addition of the acoustics of Hagia Sophia helps to give a sense of how the liturgy would have sounded.

But the visitor to Hagia Sophia is also struck immediately by the presence of other reminders of past prayer. The vast roundels bearing Arabic texts point to the building’s more recent use as a mosque, a use to which President Erdogan is determined to restore the building. It is hard to hear this news without a deep sadness at a move which is designed to assert a victor’s view of history and a clear religious nationalism. One passerby interviewed by the BBC claimed that it was obvious to anyone looking at the building that it was a mosque. I think he primarily meant the dome, an architectural form that was presumably borrowed by Islam from Christianity. A little historical awareness wouldn’t go amiss here. The Ecumenical Patriarch’s comments about this move have been irenic and measured. He wants the building to be a place of meeting and mutual respect rather than partisan identity, and its current status as a museum allows this. The World Council of Churches has echoed this position.

There is a part of me that welcomes the use of a sacred space for prayer in any faith tradition, but in the case of a building that held such an important place in the Christian world for most of its history, it would surely be more appropriate for the Christian Liturgy to be allowed there in addition to Islamic prayer. But given the complexities and politics of this situation, surely the wisest course is to allow the building to continue to speak of its histories as a museum open to all on an equal basis.

Hagia Sophia is not alone in telling the story of a significant and flourishing Christian past in Istanbul. The remains of the Monastery of Stoudios are far less well-known than Hagia Sophia, but they represent many vital centuries of monastic and intellectual life. The monastery that gave birth to the Athonite movement and nurtured many of the greatest spiritual teachers, including St Symeon the New Theologian, is physically present now only in a ghostly fragment. It would surely be appropriate for the civic authorities to celebrate and preserve remains like these as a visible reminder of a history worth cherishing.

Whatever happens to these buildings, however, is ultimately less important than the continuation of what they represent: the celebration of the Divine Liturgy in which heaven and earth are joined; and the prayer of the heart, in which the same mystery is enacted within us.