Sermon for Lent V

It may seem odd to us that, as we turn our attention towards the cross on this first day of Passiontide, we have two accounts of being raised from the dead. But this shouldn’t be too strange for us. People of faith, over many millennia, have discovered that the presence of life in the midst of death is not unusual. Indeed, we have discovered that the only way to life is through a kind of death; dying to self, relinquishing our ideas about what we had thought to constitute life, learning to live with constraints, learning to find freedom where choice is limited. I might go so far as to say that the discovery of life through dying is the heart not only of our religion, but of human experience at its deepest. There is no way to life that does not require a radical letting go; and if we do not find a true understanding of the constraints that face us, we will not find a way through to a fuller life. Christianity is, I believe, not idealistic, but utterly realistic in facing human reality as the only way to realise its transformation. That is what these days of Passiontide invite us to. That is what these days of pandemic crisis ask of us. They ask of us that we do not find paralysis in this difficult time, but hope and love. Nothing can defeat love. And if today’s account of the raising of Lazarus is about anything, it is about love. Jesus wept over his lost friend and they said, ‘see how much he loved him.’

Our two images from today’s two readings challenge us to confront the reality of what we face in this current crisis and three images from the world of art help us to see these realities in their specific detail. I’ve put them on my blog, which you can access from the OSP website if you’d like to see them for yourself. In the Ezekiel reading, we see an image of lifeless, desiccated fragments of what were once human bodies. In a rare example of Jewish representational art, a fresco from the 3rd century synagogue of Dura-Europos in modern-day Syria depicts this scene and shows the dry bones not as skeletal remains but as disconnected body parts. On one level, it is gruesome but on another it is profoundly moving. It shows that the real trauma for us human beings is in separation, in dismemberment. We do not thrive, we do not live when we are not connected to one another. Fragmentation is a major source of suffering for us and there is a risk that our necessary isolation in this current situation could lead to some degree of fragmentation. There is a risk that our anxiety could lead to a focus on our narrow concerns for our own wellbeing and lead us away from a commitment to the common good. In Ezekiel’s prophecy, however, life returns when fragmentation is replaced by connection, when there is a re-membering of the parts that have been severed. In the current situation that means contact, compassion, awareness of each other, selfless love.

Turning to our Gospel story, let me describe the scene as depicted by the early 14th century Italian master, Duccio. His painting of the raising of Lazarus shows him standing erect in the opening of a tomb but bound very tightly by his grave clothes, like a mummified body. A crowd stands to the left of the scene. One man is embracing the stone that had sealed the tomb. Most turn to face the risen Lazarus with astonishment and some with disgust. Mary and Martha, however, face Jesus. It is entirely faithful to the fourth evangelist’s account and leads us to the threshold of the moment of true liberation when Jesus, having already called Lazarus to come forth, now calls for him to be unbound, to be set free from his constraints. His life is not just about breathing again, but about being released from all that diminishes him.

Again, this rings true for us who currently face considerable constraints on our normal activities. We feel as if we are in the position of Lazarus, waiting for a word of release to let us step free of our limitations. But we are in the place of Lazarus in Duccio’s painting, alive but restricted. But I wonder if Duccio has not found something profound in choosing to freeze his image at this moment in time. Lazarus is not yet unbound, but he is alive. We can find freedom even when severe constraints appear to limit our choices. In Duccio’s image, I see that freedom in the face of Lazarus, who looks out on the whole scene with a steady gaze which meets the gaze of Jesus. He connects, even while he is still bound. We, too, are free to look upon the world with loving connection, even from the four walls of our living room.

I want to mention one final depiction of this scene, which is by a later Italian painter, Sebastiano del Piombo. His Lazarus is not emerging from a rock-hewn tomb, but from the ground. He is not bound but in the very process of wriggling free from his bandages. His muscular body is shedding its bonds and even his big toe is doing its bit in peeling off the restraining cloths. Where Duccio showed a moment of freedom in the midst of constriction, del Piombo shows a surge of strength and an assertion of vitality. For me, at this point in time, this painting hints at a future hope of resurrection. It suggests an irrepressible life-force which cannot be contained. But something is amiss. No one in the large crowd can look at Lazarus, not even those helping him to undo his bandages. Not one. Except Jesus. He alone can bear to look in the eye one who was dead and see in him the vigour of life, for he is the one who knows that he, too, must undergo the darkest of days before he can embrace the eternal light.

In him is our life, our hope, our consolation and our strength. In him is the promise that the full vigour of life will not be destroyed. In him is the willingness to look upon that which seems unbearable and see it through to the light of Easter’s dawn.

Images for Lent V

In tomorrow’s sermon, I’ll be referring to three images that derive from the readings from Ezekiel 37 and John 11. I’ve chosen images that appear on The Visual Commentary on Scripture, which is a wonderful website for anyone interested in how art and faith interact. I won’t comment on them for now as I’ll post the sermon here after preaching it tomorrow but you can enjoy the commentary in VCS by Piers Baker-Bates.

The first is a depiction of the Valley of Dry Bones from Ezekiel and is a fresco from the 3rd century CE synagogue at Dura Europos in present-day Syria.

One of Oldest Known Synagogues Seized by ISIS - Middle East ...

Next are two images of the raising of Lazarus, which has a rich iconographic tradition in the Christian East, where Lazarus Saturday occurs the day before Palm Sunday. The first is closer to that tradition, not least in the positioning of Lazarus and is by Duccio, from the early 14th century. Eamonn Duffy makes good use of images by Duccio in his excellent prayer book, The Heart in Pilgrimage.

File:'The Raising of Lazarus', tempera and gold on panel by Duccio di Buoninsegna, 1310–11, Kimbell Art Museum.jpg

The second is a Renaissance work by Sebastiano del Piombo, incorporating figures by Michelangelo.

I hope the sermon will make sense without having seen the pictures, but thought it would be good to offer them in advance! For now, I’ll let them speak for themselves.

Muted Tranquility over the North Sea

Something a little different today. I’m a sucker for Dutch Golden Age landscapes and I rather like this one which is on display in the Kelvingrove Gallery in Glasgow. It’s by Jacob van Ruisdael and depicts the village of Egmond aan Zee, looking out over the North Sea:

File:Jacob van Ruisdael - A View of Egmond aan Zee - Kelvingrove Art Gallery.jpg

There are two main reasons I like this painting. The first is that when my newborn son was in intensive care in the Yorkhill Children’s Hospital, just over the road from the gallery, I would find a few moments of peacefulness in front of this scene from time to time. The second reason, which explains why I find it peaceful, is that it reminds me of growing up in house in a village on the North East coast of Scotland which had a view of the same sea, albeit a bit further north. My bedroom looked out over the sea’s expanse and I always found peace in this view, which opened up an awareness of boundlessness.

Van Ruisdael gets the muted colours so well. There is sunshine in the picture, but it’s not glaring. The vegetation and the village’s buildings are also in muted tones and I find tranquility in their subtlety. I also find some kind of reassurance in the simple depiction of life going on unspectacularly, coolly, modestly. I look at the painting again (alas not in the flesh) at this moment in time and find the same kind of reassurance, the same kind of willingness to find light, which even in this clouded, indirect manner can offer hope in the everyday.

Sitting Still

I spoke the other day about one of the three key elements of meditation practice – attention to the breath, a healing breath. One of the others is sitting still. This seems like an easy enough thing to do, and in the current circumstances, there seems like little else we can do, but it does need some practice for most of us! There’s an excellent little mediation book for kids called ‘Sitting Still Like a Frog’, but I’ve always found encouragement in stillness from another water-loving creature – the heron.

Image result for heron standing in water

Of course, they stand rather than sit but the stillness they achieve is stunning. The stillness is preparation for action – specifically hunting in the case of the heron – and for the meditator, the action that flows from stillness is simply our daily life, which, the more we practice, is not really separable from stillness. It’s rather like the ‘praying without ceasing’ so sought after by the Russian pilgrim in The Way of a Pilgrim – one’s whole life becomes prayer because it is thoroughly embodied.

Back to the business of sitting still. The first thing it needs is stability, which is why a cross-legged position has such a lot to commend it. It provides a stable tripod for the body and, as long as you’re raised a little on a cushion, allows for diaphragmatic breathing. It pays to sway around a little before you start so that you find a balanced point and so that you eliminate any potential cramps early on. I use quite a thick mat below the cushion, which I find gives more support to ankles. If you’re sitting on a chair, it’s best not to rest your back on the chair back and you can use a cushion or wedge to get the height right. Having a straight back and neck allows for freer breathing.

Another element of traditional zazen is to keep one’s eyes open. I found this difficult at first, having been used to meditating with closed eyes, but as time has gone on, I find it less distracting – fewer spiralling thoughts take hold when I’m not turned inwards. The important thing is to be looking around but resting the eyes downwards at a point not too far in front of you. Many Soto Zen practitioners face a blank wall and that can help to reduce distractions too.

There is also a tradition of standing to pray contemplatively and this is often the posture used by those who pray the Jesus Prayer together. The same principles apply – balance, stability and stillness. It really is true that stability of body is connected to stability of mind and mental agitation can be addressed by bodily stillness.

I conclude with Norman Fischer’s excellent rendering of Psalm 131 – the contemplative’s psalm par excellence:

YOU KNOW THAT MY HEART is not haughty
nor my eyes lofty
Neither have I reached for things
too great and too wonderful for me

But I have calmed and settled my heart
And it is contented

Like a child surfeited on a mother’s breast
Like a suckling child is my heart

Let those who question and struggle
Wait quiet like this for you
From this day forth
And always

Isolation? No Separation!

Isolation and distancing are cold words that have entered our vocabulary of late, but are they truthful words? In keeping behind our own doors do we really find ourselves to be separate from others? Does the silence of these days speak of how we are apart, or does it rather invite us to discover how true it is that we are not separate from each other?

In many ways, this period of staying at home underlines the truth of our connectedness. Indeed, the only reason we are doing this is because we are connected to each other, because our actions have an impact on others. This time invites us to realise ever more fully what it means to overcome our sense of division, to realise our interdependence. Christianity speaks of communion, Zen Buddhism of non-dualism. The Jesuit Robert Kennedy, in his recently revised book, Zen Spirit, Christian Spirit, quotes a couple of sentences from John Wu’s The Golden Age of Zen:

When all things return to the One, even gold loses its value.
But when the One returns to all things, even the pebbles sparkle.

Kennedy goes on to say that ‘the One is contained whole and entire in each fragment of all things’ and shows how, for the Christian, this is manifested in the Eucharistic presence of Jesus, whose presence is not diminished by being divided at the fraction of the bread. This realisation has profound implications for us at this time. It reminds us that we are present to each other because we are united in the One. It reminds us that our service to the hungry, sick and imprisoned is a service to Christ himself. And it reminds us that when one offers the Eucharistic sacrifice, all are in communion because all are present. Of course we want to be back in the place where our physical closeness expresses our fundamental non-separation, but for now we express our non-separation through our physical distance.

One of the ways we collapse that distance most effectively, or rather, we collapse the illusion of our distance, is by sitting in silent meditation. We can do this simultaneously – why not agree a time with some friends? – and our rapid education in online contact also aids this shared practice. I’ll be offering more such opportunities in due course so please watch this space!

Zen Psalms

Norman Fischer is a Zen teacher of Jewish heritage who wrote a thoughtful and poetic version of 93 of the Psalms called Opening to You.

Image result for opening to you fischer

The ‘you’ of the title is his way of getting round the heavily freighted nouns that are often used to refer to God in scripture – all his psalms invoke God directly in the second person and thus have an intimate feel. I have a second-hand version in which Fischer wrote an inscription to the original owners. He wrote a quotation; ‘Your unsayable name is glorious’, a verse from one of his translations.

He wrote this collection after a visit to Thomas Merton’s old monastery of Gethsemani almost 20 years ago. In a monastery, one cannot escape the Psalms – they form the backbone of every monastic office – but their language can be strange to us. Sometimes angry, sometimes vengeful, sometimes intense, sometimes remorseful but often glorious, personal and richly coloured, these ancient songs will stand a great deal of re-imagining. Fischer’s versions are faithful to the text but just occasionally angle the meaning towards the insights that have come to him from years of seated zen meditation, insights that delve deep into the nature of consciousness as it manifests itself in the sitter and reveals the nature of all that is. Here is his version of Psalm 23, which feels very recognisable but has some lovely turns of phrase that introduce some less familiar thoughts:

You lead me to rest in the sweet grasses
To lie down by the quiet waters
And I am refreshed

You lead me down the right path
The path that unwinds in the pattern of your name

And even if I walk through the valley of the shadow of death
I will not fear
For you are with me
Comforting me with your rod and your staff
Showing me each step

You prepare a table for me
In the midst of my adversity
And moisten my head with oil

Surely my cup is overflowing
And goodness and kindness will follow me
All the days of my life
And in the long days beyond
I will always live within your house

I am struck by that phrase, ‘the path that unwinds in the pattern of your name’ in place of the more familiar ‘he leads me in right paths for his name’s sake’. For it is the unfolding pattern of our footsteps that reveals Truth to us – this life and not some other, imagined, idealised life that is our true teacher, manifesting our nature as eternal, made in the image and likeness of the Creator. There is great refreshment in choosing simply to walk the path that unwinds before us and not to crave some other. Even in adversity there is a table set for us.

Lent 4 Sermon

I’ve never been in the Apostolic Palace in the Vatican (though I remain open to invitations in due course) but I understand that part of the experience of visiting is to walk through a corridor that would once have been open to the outside world on one side – the loggias – and is decorated with some wonderful frescoes painted by Raphael’s team of willing accomplices. If you take your time in your saunter through these corridors, you can look around and up and see some marvels of renaissance art. At one point in that hypothetical saunter, you may look up and see four scenes from the life of David, the King of Israel whose exceptional gifts and exceedingly normal humanity stand as a pivotal moment in the development of religious faith that leads to where we are now as a Christian community founded on the witness of many generations of Jewish ancestors. In one of these scenes, David is being anointed by the prophet Samuel. We heard that story just a few minutes ago. He was not the obvious choice – not the tallest, not the oldest, not the natural heir, but something about him compelled the prophet to see in him the promise of reinvigorated life for the nation, the promise of a deepened faith and a renewed national identity. There was a depth and a potential in him that exceeded all superficial assessments. He is a handsome young man, but that’s not it. There’s something about the quality of his inward life that catches the eye. He has something that is not visible at first but is there for those who want to see it.

In the fresco, he is turned inwards, not asserting his place as the brightest or best, but concerned with greater things. He does not look up with a confident assertion of his rightful place as the successor to a failing king, but looks inwards with the urgent desire of one whose sense of the world will find expression in songs that we still sing, psalms that speak of loss, anger, hope and faith. This, I think, is what the text means when it urges a concentration on the heart rather than on outward appearance. David, for all the human frailty that we will soon encounter in him, is one who understands that true value in life does not consist in success or prowess but in insight and awareness.

In Raphael’s fresco, David is depicted in the moment of receiving an anointing that is nothing less than the gift of the Spirit of God. Samuel holds aloft the horn of oil, which occupies a physical space between the outside world and the room in which the encounter occurs, right on the edge of the window that opens out into the world beyond, and suggests a bridging of that gap between seen and unseen, known and unknown. It’s as if to say that the things of God, the things of ultimate value, are here held in a poise, available to those who are able to see, obscure to those who seek only the power dynamics of conventional political discourse. David does not offer only a word of strong political leadership, but a word of deep insight into the human condition; loss, hatred, hope, trust, rescue, fragility, promise. David here is the shepherd-poet as much as the warrior-king.

In a similar way, today’s Gospel reading offers a chance to see one who transgresses the boundaries between what is seen and what is known in a deeper way. The man born blind is pitched into a verbal tussle with the Pharisees, religious sticklers who cannot see beyond the set roles of a binary contest between the observant religious practitioners and those who claim to have encountered the living God. They cannot see what is in front of their eyes – a man who has experienced liberation and acceptance. All they can see is a man who is prepared to accept the ministrations of an unauthorised teacher who sits light to the ritual dimensions of the law. They cannot see the insight of the once-blind man because he does not fit the pattern of religious conformity. But the healed man is straightforward in his insistence that he knows what he is speaking of – his eyes have been opened, he has received a life-giving gift. God’s goodness is not constrained by theological presuppositions. The healed man does not see in terms of a judging mind that sees only what it expects to see. His vision is far greater than that. He sees life when others see only transgression.

For this fourth Sunday in a series of planned discussions, I suggested a theme of vocation – the question of what it is we are called to be as a church and as individuals. The anonymous man in today’s Gospel and David’s anointing in our first reading offer a unanimous response to that question. We are called to be those who see things differently, who do not judge by limited standards but see clearly what is life-giving. We are called to be those who look out on the world without any preconception of what we might find there, but are open to the possibilities of goodness and truth. We are called to see value in those who do not measure up to standards of excellence or achievement. We are called to see beauty in those who don’t fit. We are called to see possibility in those who have already been written off. We are called to see eternity in lives that barely register on the scale of human accomplishment. We are called to see God in the experiences of those who despair or are lost.

What does this calling ask of us in the circumstances we face at this time? It asks that we look and see lives that might otherwise be ignored. It asks that we forget status and see Christ in the lowliest. It asks that we set our scales by a measure of vulnerability, not invincibility. It asks that we find value in caring rather than in winning. It also asks that we nurture the interior, hidden life that will sustain us through this challenging time. May God bless us with insight and compassion in these days.

David’s Anointing


Loggia di raffaello, 11, 01.jpg

Raphael’s fresco of this scene from 1 Samuel 16, which is tomorrow’s first reading at Mass, is in the loggias of the Apostolic Palace of the Vatican and dates from around 1519. It’s actually on the ceiling along with three other scenes from the life of David and this may account for the slightly awkward perspective on the image above. Here it is in context, at the bottom of the square:

One or two things puzzle me about this picture. First is the ram off to the left awaiting sacrifice. Samuel is indeed about to offer a sacrifice in the text, but it is a heifer, not a ram. I wonder if this is a reference to David as shepherd. Another puzzle is the little pyramid on the table right in the centre of the composition. Is this a symbol of death and immortality? If so, does it point forward to Christ, the Davidic Messiah? And what of the box carried by one of the seven brothers – is this suggestive of the Ark of the Covenant? I’m also struck by the positioning of the horn of oil which bisects the window edge so that it joins the inside and outside worlds. The anointing is explicitly linked in the text to the descent of the Spirit, so this uniting of heavenly and earthly realms by the mediation of the Spirit is entirely appropriate.

There’s another inner-outer dimension of the scene, which is the contrast between human assessment based on outward appearance and the divine gaze, which looks inward, to the heart. The text is puzzling on this: is David an unlikely candidate because of his age? or his stature? He is, after all, described physically in approving terms; ‘he was ruddy, and had beautiful eyes, and was handsome.’ (1 Sam. 16:12 RSV). Raphael certainly depicts him as youthful (he was the youngest brother) but also strong and fine-featured. But he is also somewhat turned inwards as he receives the anointing – a gesture of humility perhaps, or of reflective interiority. After all, this shepherd and future warrior is also the poet of the Psalter and the musician who soothed Saul’s raging temper. Perhaps it is this that makes David the one favoured by the Lord – that he has, in his heart, a depth of prayer that is not yet apparent to the senses but is there for any who have the eyes to see.