Stations of the Cross

These reflections on some of the Stations of the Cross are by priests of Old St Paul’s.

First Station: Jesus Before Pilate

Rembrandt Jesus before Pilate

PILATE

Cool water over my fingers flowing.

The upstart

Had ruined a night and a morning for me.
I thrust that stone face from my door.

I was told later he measured his length
Between the cupid and the rose bush.
The gardener told me that later, laughing.
And that a woman hung about him like a fountain.

Another woman stood between him and the sun,
A tree, sifting light and shadow across his face.

Outside the tavern
It was down with him once more, knees and elbows,
Four holes in the dust.

More women then, a gale of them,
His face like a scald
And they moving about him, a tumult of shadows and breezes.

He hung close to the curve of the world.

The king had gone out in a purple coat.
Now the king
Wore only rags of flesh about the bone.

(I examined cornstalks in the store at Joppa
And discovered a black kernel.

Of the seven vats shipped from Rhodes
Two had leaked in the hold,
One fell from the sling and was broken.)

And tell this Arimathean
He can do what he likes with the less-than-shadow.

No more today. That business is over. Pass the seal.

George Mackay Brown, from his Stations of the Cross

 

Pilate’s callous dismissal of Jesus and his casual mockery of his sufferings comes from a place of expedience and business-like ruthlessness. The body of Jesus, so pitifully evoked here – ‘four holes in the ground’, ‘rags of flesh about the bone’ – is, by contrast, guarded and shielded by the women, treasured. Pilate is more concerned about his precious grain consignment than this broken body. Before Pilate, Jesus seems utterly defenceless. And yet, ‘He hung close to the curve of the world’. For me, this depicts not only his falls under the weight of the cross but his choice to remain close to the earth, close to the poorest and weakest, close to those regarded as dispensable or acceptable collateral damage. It is, I think, not by accident that the characteristically laconic GMB hints at resurrection by mentioning grain. Jesus is the grain of seed that falls into the ground, the ground he abides close to, and dies so that it may bear much fruit. Against such fragility, the ‘seal’ Pilate affixes to the tomb will prove insubstantial, less than a shadow. What abides is this risen, broken body.

Station 2: Jesus Takes up the Cross

el greco jesus cross

‘Lord, it is time. Take our yoke
And sunwards turn.’

George Mackay Brown’s sequence, Stations of the Cross, begins with fourteen beautifully concise mini-poems, one for each station. For this one, he manages to hint at several scriptural allusions in two short sentences. ‘It is time’ evokes St John’s ‘the hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified’ (Jn 12.23), a turning point in the narrative that points to the cross and leads immediately into his words about the grain of wheat falling into the ground. This long reflection then concludes in chapter 17 with Jesus’ prayer, ‘Father, the hour has come; glorify thy Son’ (Jn 17.1) and, ultimately, with ‘It is finished’ (Jn 19.30). This is not chronological time but the consummation of all time in the One who makes all things new.

‘Taking the yoke’ evokes a different scriptural tradition. Matthew 11.29 speaks of a light burden, an easy yoke. Surely the cross is no light burden! And it is light for us only because it has been borne by another. Nevertheless, El Greco’s painting of Jesus bearing the cross does have light about it, albeit light from a stormy sky. His face is not contorted with pain but at peace, trusting, tender. The cross is not merely carried but embraced, as if it were something to give life, as if it were a tree planted in the primordial garden, as if it were a sign of hope.

‘And sunwards turn.’ Face the rising sun. Face the dawn. Face Jerusalem’s empty tomb and find warmth, light and hope.

Station 3: Jesus falls for the first time

rapahael Jesus falls

Raphael’s painting of c.1514-16 both depicts the current scene of the sequence – the first fall of Jesus – and sets up the next two by including both Mary and Simon of Cyrene. In the far distance are crosses already erected with crowds surrounding one – this is no exceptional moment for the ruthless machine of imperial control but just one more example to be made to hammer home the supremacy of might. Spears, armour, horses, banners, batons; military strength is arrayed above Jesus as if to show just how much he is subjected to it. But Simon stands strong and faces it down, suggesting that it is not absolute, for beneath the cross he shows to us that there is another story. Here, by contrast, is tenderness, love, devotion and pain. Here is the face of Christ which shows, in the face of brute force, only mercy, only pity. ‘Those who live by the sword die by the sword’. ‘But I say to you, love your enemies.’ And Mary’s face shows the same pained tenderness:

Illos tuos misericordes oculos ad nos converte

Turn those merciful eyes towards us.

Station 6: The face of Jesus is wiped by Veronica

veronica

Who walked between the violet and the violet
Who walked between
The various ranks of varied green
Going in white and blue, in Mary’s colour,
Talking of trivial things
In ignorance and knowledge of eternal dolour
Who moved among the others as they walked,
Who then made strong the fountains and made fresh the springs

Made cool the dry rock and made firm the sand
In blue of larkspur, blue of Mary’s colour,
Sovegna vos

Here are the years that walk between, bearing
Away the fiddles and the flutes, restoring
One who moves in the time between sleep and waking, wearing

White light folded, sheathing about her, folded.
The new years walk, restoring
Through a bright cloud of tears, the years, restoring
With a new verse the ancient rhyme. Redeem
The time. Redeem
The unread vision in the higher dream
While jewelled unicorns draw by the gilded hearse.

The silent sister veiled in white and blue
Between the yews, behind the garden god,
Whose flute is breathless, bent her head and signed but spoke
no word

But the fountain sprang up and the bird sang down
Redeem the time, redeem the dream
The token of the word unheard, unspoken

Till the wind shake a thousand whispers from the yew

And after this our exile

T. S. Eliot ‘Ash Wednesday’

An anonymous woman is watching as Jesus is led out to the place of crucifixion and, moved by this young man burdened by the instrument of his execution, pushes her way through the gawping crowd, and taking out a cloth, possibly the head scarf she was wearing, wipes the sweat from his face. Why does she do this? Is this a statement? Does she recognise the Son of God? Is she simply protesting against the barbarity of this penalty? Or is this the response of a human heart to the suffering of another? Whatever her motive her act of compassion has earned her a place in the history of our redemption. She is an example to us how we are to respond to suffering wherever we find it. “In that you did it to the least of these you did it to me’” says Jesus and here we see this acted out on the way of the Cross. We can see the actions of Veronica all around us in the response to COVID-19, in the heroic act of our front line workers in the NHS, support services, and in the kindness of strangers in making deliveries and telephone calls.

Fr Paul Burrows

Station 8: Jesus meets the women of Jerusalem Luke 23.27 – 31

VIII-Jesus-women-Pietro-Lorenzetti-Assisi

Here, in the longest utterance by Jesus in any of the gospel accounts of his passion, he addresses a group of women among the crowd following him.
Who are these women of Jerusalem? Given the many women disciples Luke features in his version of the Jesus story, it’s highly likely they are among his followers, perhaps quite recent ones. The response of Jesus to them could seem unnecessarily harsh. But that is perhaps to misunderstand Luke’s point here; in line with his focus on Jesus’ prophetic ministry, Jesus is responding to their pain and sorrow with words of prophetic warning. Thus the focus shifts from Jesus, and what is about to befall him, to events lying in the future, to the Jewish/Roman wars and the destruction of the temple and city of Jerusalem.
Where does this take us? I cannot help thinking of the increasingly urgent warnings about climate change and its likely impact on all of us, especially on poorer countries around the world – and of the apparent ignoring of those warnings by so many. But in this present time of pandemic, Jesus’ words also bring sharply to mind how unprepared our developed societies have been for something that many scientists in the field of virology have been warning about for some years.
Jesus’ prophetic words, like the Hebrew prophets of old, were meant to call the people to ‘repentance’, that is ‘to return to the ways of justice and compassion’. So, as we offer prayer for all who are suffering from the virus, let us also pray that leaders and people of every nation will work for the common good and for all that builds human community.
Lord Jesus, the women of Jerusalem wept for you: move us to tears at the plight of the broken in our world, especially all those currently suffering with the coronavirus. Teach us the ways of justice and compassion, and give us a heart to love our neighbour at this time, whether near or far away. Amen.

Fr Tony Bryer

Station 10: Jesus is stripped of his clothes

gil station 11

At least since the stories of Genesis, nakedness has been a symbol of shame and humiliation. Tormenters know that, and history is replete with ritual humiliations or degradations involving forcibly stripping clothes from captives. Enslaved people were stripped and displayed as merchandise in both antiquity and in more recent times. Concentration camps developed elaborate systems of stripping people that combined terrifying demonstrations of power and the dispassionate redistribution of seized possessions.

And so it is at this Station of the Cross: Jesus is violated by stripping his garments in actions meant to dehumanize him, to terrorize him, and to provide an economic prize for his captors.

An extraordinary depiction of this is found in Eric Gill’s 1914 carving for Westminster Cathedral, where the sculptor captures the leering privilege of mercenaries given complete control of a prisoner.  The violation they intend is menacingly ambiguous, while their anticipated reward is foretold in their chiseled hands and eyes, as well as in the waiting dice.  The inscription behind them connects this violation with prophecy. This station is about the apparent triumph of power intent on objectifying and commodifying the Human One.

It didn’t succeed; even such absolute, humiliating, violating power succeeded only in dehumanizing itself, and a portent of Jesus’ exquisite endurance and eventual triumph can be seen in Gill’s portrayal of Jesus’ face. Eyes closed in defiance, Jesus embodies the truth that nothing is so powerful that it can separate us from the dignity born with each of us.

Forces of power may try to strip us of our dignity or even our humanity, but it cannot succeed: our identity was forged in the love of God, and nothing can separate us from that love, or from the One who made us in the Divine image.

For I am persuaded,
that neither death,
nor life, nor angels,
nor principalities,
nor powers, nor things
present, nor things to come,

Nor height, nor depth,
nor any other creature,
shall be able to separate us
from the love of God,
which is in Christ Jesus our Lord.

(Romans 8:38-39, Authorised Version)

Fr Michael Barlowe

Station 12: Jesus Dies upon the Cross

Cimabue Crucifix

The Killing

That was the day they killed the Son of God
On a squat hill-top by Jerusalem.
Zion was bare, her children from their maze
Sucked by the dream of curiosity
Clean through the gates. The very halt and blind
Had somehow got themselves up to the hill.
After the ceremonial preparation,
The scourging, nailing, nailing against the wood,
Erection of the main-trees with their burden,
While from the hill rose an orchestral wailing,
They were there at last, high up in the soft spring day.
We watched the writhings, heard the moanings, saw
The three heads turning on their separate axles
Like broken wheels left spinning. Round his head
Was loosely bound a crown of plaited thorn
That hurt at random, stinging temple and brow
As the pain swung into its envious circle.
In front the wreath was gathered in a knot
That as he gazed looked like the last stump left
Of a death-wounded deer’s great antlers. Some
Who came to stare grew silent as they looked,
Indignant or sorry. But the hardened old
And the hard-hearted young, although at odds
From the first morning, cursed him with one curse,
Having prayed for a Rabbi or an armed Messiah
And found the Son of God. What use to them
Was a God or a Son of God? Of what avail
For purposes such as theirs? Beside the cross-foot,
Alone, four women stood and did not move
All day. The sun revolved, the shadows wheeled,
The evening fell. His head lay on his breast,
But in his breast they watched his heart move on
By itself alone, accomplishing its journey.
Their taunts grew louder, sharpened by the knowledge
That he was walking in the park of death,
Far from their rage. Yet all grew stale at last,
Spite, curiosity, envy, hate itself.
They waited only for death and death was slow
And came so quietly they scarce could mark it.
They were angry then with death and death’s deceit.

I was a stranger, could not read these people
Or this outlandish deity. Did a God
Indeed in dying cross my life that day
By chance, he on his road and I on mine?

Edwin Muir

Fr Malcolm Richardson

And It Was Night

For those of us who live in Edinburgh, we have the enormous privilege of (normally) being able to visit Nicolas Poussin’s Seven Sacraments in the National Gallery. I’ve always been intrigued by the similarities and dissimilarities between the images for Penance and Eucharist. Both are in a darkened dining room, both are centred on a table where guests are reclining, both have bronze vessels for the washing of feet. And the theological connections are equally clear – both have at their heart two of the central tenets of Christian faith: love and forgiveness. The love in the Eucharist picture comes in many ways; in the New Commandment of Jesus to love one another, in the loving gift of himself to all. In the Penance picture, the love is shown lavishly by the woman who washes and anoints Jesus’ feet. The forgiveness in the Eucharist is pronounced in the Dominical Words.

https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/f/fe/Sacrament_of_Penance_II_%281647%29_Nicolas_Poussin.jpg

The dissimilarities are also vital. In the Eucharist, the table is completely enclosed. There is no need for the open end of the triclinium because there is no need for access by servants. The servants are at the table. There is also a striking simplicity about the Eucharist image, unlike the more lavish setting for Penance. The festal character of the Mystical Supper is hidden, not ostentatious, for this bridegroom comes in humility and suffering even as he feasts in the New Kingdom. There is also, the Eucharist, much more of a focus on Jesus. Almost all eyes are fixed on him, save those of one disciple who watches Judas as he departs. This further creates a sense that this group gathered fully around the table are united in one Body, despite the rupture in that Body caused by betrayal. For even such a betrayal does not undo the overwhelming love and forgiveness embodied at that table.

Even more than ever this year, our unity in the One Body is mystical – it belongs to the realm of what is beyond plain sight. We are not less united because we are unable to encircle the one physical table; we are no less loved and no less forgiven because we cannot share from the same chalice. Indeed, this year more than ever, we are invited to discover how the command to love one another is ‘new’. What new ways of loving are we being called to as we all share mystically in the one bread?

Watchfulness – Mindfulness

When I wrote a little yesterday about the Bridegroom services of Orthodox Holy Week, I touched on the theme of watchfulness which comes from Jesus’ parable of the wise and foolish bridesmaids in Matthew 25:1-13. The above illustration is from the 6th century Rossano Gospels. It is, of course, a parable about keeping watch, being alert, ‘for you know neither the day nor the hour.’ Conventionally, we may imagine this exhortation to refer to a specific future event but I think that the earlier Christian insights into watchfulness are nearer the mark, as they see watchfulness as a state of being which relates to all of life rather than a single eschatological moment.

You see this theme most strongly in the desert tradition, with an entire section of the thematic collection of the Sayings focusing on ‘being ever watchful’. One of the most vivid and pithy of these sayings was from Abba Bessarion:

The monk ought to be all eyes, like the cherubim and seraphim.

Several phrases and metaphors give a flavour of what the desert mothers and fathers meant by ‘watchfulness’: keeping guard over the heart, the remembrance of God, being sober, being mindful, avoiding distraction, stillness, avoiding contempt for others or pride of self. Indeed, this whole body of monastic literature is often described as ‘niptic’, referring to the notion of sober watchfulness.

For these monastic writers, the main things of which one ought to be aware are the thoughts [logismoi] of our minds/hearts. These can be good, bad or neutral. What matters is to keep watch over them so that the bad ones don’t take root and so that their multitude does not distract. Abba Macarius offers a lovely image of the soul being like a mother gathering her wandering and boisterous children together into the house so that she may instruct them. The soul should;

gather up her logismoi constantly (to the best of her ability) and to await the Lord in firm faith so that, when he comes to her, he may teach her true, undistracted prayer.

Watchfulness is, then, the opposite of distraction, the opposite of dissipation or ‘being all over the place.’

What deep wisdom this is! Prayer is simply a matter of being ‘gathered’ rather than ‘scattered’. I say ‘simply’, but it is a difficult art which requires practice and care. One way to practice is through ‘monologistic’ prayer – the prayer of a single word repeated with full attention repeatedly and gently, though the wisdom of the desert shows that all of life is an opportunity to practice watchfulness.

The days of Holy Week are an invitation to practice that watchfulness as, indeed, are these days of isolation. So I hope Abba Macarius’ words about being gathered into the house ring true for you today!

 

Quotations are from The Book of the Elders, translated by John Wortley; Cistercian Publications 2012

Watching for the Bridegroom

The distinctive image for Orthodox Christians in this first part of Holy Week is of Christ, the Bridegroom, the one for whom we await, watchful, sober, alert. But he is not depicted in iconography as you might expect. He is not robed in festal garments but in the mocking kingly attire forced on him by his tormentors, bound and humiliated:

bridegroom

The texts that accompany the first appearance of the Bridegroom, on Monday in Holy Week, richly juxtapose scriptural images and give us that tone of ‘bright sadness’ that is so prevalent in Byzantine hymnography for this season. Here is one of the texts from Mattins:

The first-fruits of the Lord’s Passion fill this present day with light. Come then, all who love to keep the feast, and let us welcome it with songs. For the Creator draws near to undergo the Cross; He is questioned, beaten, and brought to Pilate for judgement; a servant strikes Him on the face, and all this He endures that He may save humankind. Therefore let us cry aloud to Him: O Christ our God who lovest humankind, grant remission of sins to those who venerate in faith Thy Holy Passion.

In the Western tradition, we are not so used to thinking of these days as being festal and light-filled, but these Orthodox texts are bold in the way they hold together deeply paradoxical moods of bitterness and joy, exaltation and humiliation, servanthood and glorification. In the same office, we see Joseph, whose loss is lamented by Jacob but who is later ‘enthroned’ on a chariot as a king, offered as a type of Jesus, who humbled himself and was then raised. Christ’s self-emptying in the incarnation is carried right through to his Passover.

I find this paradox to be powerfully appropriate in Holy Week this year. There is, indeed, a great and bitter sadness in these days of pandemic, but the light of hopeful prayer shines brightly, and so does the humble service of so many who are working to relieve the sufferings of others.

Be at peace with one another and with all people; think humbly of yourselves and ye shall be exalted.

 

Texts from the Lenten Triodion, translated by Mother Mary and Metropolitan Kallistos; Faber and Faber 1978

Sermon for Palm Sunday

As we heard again the account of the Lord’s Passion, I wonder what image came to your mind? The thing is, there are so many images of the crucified Christ that our memories are overwhelmed with them. Back in November at the Feast of Christ the King, I suggested just a few. Those were different days and we feel the pain of not being able to gather in this place to reflect on another aspect of Christ’s execution the hands of religious and political pragmatism. At this point in time, we might naturally feel drawn to what is the most common depiction of Christ on the cross, and that is of his suffering. Indeed, in other times of widespread disease, the image of Christ suffering in solidarity with the sick was a source of strength and comfort, and I’m sure your mind’s eye is taking you straight to Grunewald’s Isenheim altarpiece as stunning example of that. Christ’s agony is surely at the front of our minds as we consider the widespread suffering of this present pandemic.

But that’s not where I felt drawn this morning. Instead, I couldn’t get away from another very well known, indeed, almost certainly better known image of the crucified one, and that is the iconographic crucifix that once hung in the little church of San Damiano in the valley below Assisi where St Francis heard, three times, the call from Christ to rebuild his church. It’s such a familiar image that we might have stopped noticing how strange it is. I don’t know about you, but these last few weeks have caused me to look again at many things in the light of a deeply unfamiliar set of circumstances. And this particular image has been with me for a long time, as I’m sure it has for many of you, especially those who have a connection with the Franciscan family. My first real acquaintance with the San Damiano Crucifix was as a student, visiting Alnmouth Friary regularly in my late teens and early 20s.

For those who are less familiar with it, I’ve posted it on my blog or you can easily find it online, but let me briefly describe it and its oddness. It is a large piece, painted in an iconographic style that shows how close early Italian ecclesiastical art was to Byzantine art. It is full of detail, but I don’t want to get into that. Instead, I want to focus on the image of Christ himself. Unlike earlier depictions, which focused on his regal triumph over suffering and death, and later ones that showed his suffering and pain, the San Damiano cross shows Christ in attentive stillness. His body is not contorted in pain, as Cimabue would begin to show a few decades later; his eyes are open though not looking directly at us, and his face shows no hint of agony. How would you describe that expression? It’s neither resigned nor submissive; not exactly serene and not in any kind of ecstasy. Two words suggest themselves to me: still and open.

The stillness is a sort of unflinching steadiness, a total presence. Jesus is present to the reality he faces and present to those who look upon him. He bears with his circumstances and refuses to flee. It is something more powerful than resolve; it is an abiding presence and I find that very comforting in these difficult times.

The openness is an invitation to meet with him. It’s no surprise that Francis heard a voice speak from that face and many after him have found a deep encounter with Christ in contemplating this image. It’s an invitation and it’s a boundless openness that is willing and able to embrace not only the circumstances he faces but the circumstances of all who come to him. Nothing is excluded from that gaze.

We might protest that images like this do not do justice to the real human suffering of Christ or to the historical realities of a crucified man. But historical retelling, even if it were fully available to us, would not exhaust the meaning of the cross. Icons like this unfold the mystery of Christ. They present us with the inner meanings of his paschal self-offering and they are many. Each of the days in the coming week will offer us a particular facet on the paschal mystery. We are doing more than recounting history. We are delving deep into the truths that lie beneath the surface.

And the truth that the San Damiano cross unfolds to us is that died as he lived – in boundlessly open love towards all. This is the same Christ who entered into mystical union with the Father in prayer by night and on deserted hills and who entered into the mystery of human lives every time he encountered one who was prepared truly to meet with him: the Samaritan woman, Nicodemus by night, Mary and Martha in their grief, Peter in his shame, his Mother in her agony by the cross, Mary Magdalene in the garden. In this face we see the love of one who will abide close to us, unflinching, no matter what we face. We see the love of one who will not flee the direst circumstances. We see the stillness of one whose word to us will always be one of peace. We see the forsaken one who will not forsake us.

The coming days will offer us the chance to encounter the stillness and openness of Christ in new ways. We won’t have everything we’re used to but perhaps that will allow us fresh insights into the meaning beneath the surface of the events we recall. Holy Week is not a re-enactment, but an encounter that comes alive when we too keep still for long enough to allow our hearts to open up in loving response to Christ.

Image for Palm Sunday

I will be referring to this well-known image in tomorrow’s sermon. It’s the crucifix from the church of San Damiano that spoke to St Francis of Assisi and is now in the Basilica of St Clare in Assisi.

San Damiano Crucifix

Online Eucharist?

I really shouldn’t venture into the field of liturgical theology because I know next to nothing about it! However, as priest I do, of course, care deeply about the Eucharist because it is at the heart of my life. Indeed, it is at the heart of every Christian’s life because it is the joyful celebration of the Wedding Banquet of the Lamb, foretaste of heaven where we are united and transformed with Christ through the offering his ‘single, holy, living sacrifice’. In these current circumstances, we are all struggling to find the best way to continue to place the Divine Liturgy at the heart of our life of faith. Do we continue to celebrate it with the priest being the only person present in the building as we pray the Liturgy together? Does the impossibility of assembling in one physical space and receiving the life-giving Gifts in the way we usually do make the whole celebration a long-distance spectacle? These concerns are very real, but I have a strong sense, having served the Liturgy a couple of times now online as the only person present in the church building, that I was not alone. Furthermore, those who joined with me in offering the Liturgy either as active participants (pre-recorded) or as equally active online pray-ers, also report that they sense that they are not alone. More than that, they tell me that they feel profoundly connected to the Liturgy being celebrated and to the Body of Christ gathered in this way.

I am not going to attempt a metaphysical justification for this because I do not have the intellectual equipment to do so, but I will offer some words by one of the few liturgical theologians I actually read as a way of explaining why it seems right to me to keep on doing what we’re doing:

Genuine faith lives not by curiosity but by thirst. The “simple” believer goes to church in order primarily to “touch other worlds” (Dostoevsky). “And almost free, the soul breathes heaven unhindered” (Vladislav Khodasevich). In a sense, he is not “interested” in worship, in the way in which “experts” and connoisseurs of all liturgical details are interested in it. And he is not interested because “standing in the temple” he receives all that for which he thirsts and seeks: the light, the joy and the comfort of the Kingdom of God.

I don’t know what Fr Schmemann would have made of our current situation, but his words provide all the reason we need to continue to offer the Liturgy – our thirst compels us.

 

The quotation is from Alexander Schmemann’s The Eucharist, pp. 46f; SVS Press 1987

The World is not a Cake That I Have to Eat

One of the things that we might be learning as we live through the restrictions of the pandemic is that our primary identity in this world is not as consumers. We find, instead, that our lives consist in many small acts of care and attention. When there are no places to go, thrills to seek or sprees to be undertaken, we see that our day consists in rest, time together, contacts with others, food to be made, messes to be tidied, quiet to be savoured,  life to be lived. It is unspectacular and undramatic. At times, it may be intense, especially where there is sickness and loss, and there is nowhere to go to flee that intensity. So we learn how to abide with it, to sit with it, to go through it rather than round it.

bio silence

The title of this post comes from a wonderful little book by the Spanish priest and novelist, Pablo d’Ors. His Biography of Silence is an account of his attempt to do what I have just outlined – to learn how to live. And his constant teacher in this school is silent meditation.

Meditation – or should I simply say maturity? – has taught me to appreciate the ordinary, the elemental. I will live for these things according to an ethics of attention and care.

Attention is the practice of a steady gaze, unflinching and unjudging. Care is the practice of compassion for all things, breathing or not. Compassion for weakest and also care for the material world; compassion for ourselves and also care taken over the words we speak and thoughts we allow to grow. All of these things are practised in silent meditation where we attend to our breath and our posture, our prayer words and our emerging thoughts, where we learn to open our hearts in compassion. I don’t think this practice is any easier in this time of confinement, but I do think it is more urgent.

Patience – The Faithful Doctor

One of Kierkegaard’s least know works is his Upbuilding Discourses, presented as a series of sermons and, unusually, published under his own name.

Søren <>

I was involved a few years ago in a book which presented these discourses in the form of dialogues. They were reworked by George Pattison, a theologian and Kierkegaard specialist, and Helle Moller Jensen, a Danish Lutheran priest and theologian. George’s own version of the original discourses can be found here. One of the dialogues was title ‘Learning Patience’ and it seems rather relevant at the moment. My own contribution to the book was to offer a pastoral response to the dialogues and I summarised the main images of patience from ‘Learning Patience’ as these:

  • The weapon of the weak. For many people in constrained circumstances, the exercise of patience can be a way of gaining some autonomy in the face of apparent powerlessness – putting up a bit of resistance, as it were.
  • Finding the eternal in us. When we are put in a position where we have to settle in for the long haul, how do we find a lasting awareness of what it is that endures beyond the circumstances we are currently in?
  • The Faithful Doctor. This is a lovely expression of Kierkegaard’s. He personifies patience as one who has ministered to others and can minister to us. Personification of virtues or skills is a way of recognising that they have a life beyond our own abilities to master them – they have served others well and we can borrow them for a while.
  • An Angel guarding the borders of human experience. Another personification of a ‘strong one’, an angelic helper who patrols the borderlands of what we can manage and, perhaps, one who can bear witness to our struggles, giving them recognition and honouring them.

Here’s one section of ‘Learning Patience’ to finish with:

When it comes to being who you are, it’s no good rushing at it or battling your way forward, and even if you’re living through a time of crisis when big decisions and heroic actions are being called for, you can only every find your self quietly and patiently. In fact, the quieter you are about it the better!