Good Shepherd

I have an instinctive aversion to the image of Jesus as a Good Shepherd which is due entirely to the prevalence of those terrible 19th century images of which most Anglican churches seem to have at least one. They are terrible to me only because of their very sugary depiction of Jesus and the paternalism that they evoke. I should, of course, know better, having grown up in rural Aberdeenshire, but it took a rather adventurous trip to a hermitage on Crete to remind me that shepherds could be something other than a benevolent Victorian gentlemen.

The trip was adventurous thanks to Google Maps’ optimism about what constitutes a driveable road. Half way up the mountain, I had to abandon the very under-powered hire car and walk the remaining few kilometres to the stunningly located hermitage of Saint Euthymius. Here are some pictures:

And here’s one of the interior of the chapel with an icon of the eponymous saint:

Along the way, I passed a shepherd’s hut and here are some of his flock (you’ll have to look hard!):

The terrain is a long way away from the lush pastoral scene we might imagine from these damp Atlantic islands. The ground is rocky, the vegetation is hardy shrubs and aromatic mountain oregano, not sweet green grass. The shepherd’s rudimentary hut is remote, though he did have a slightly feral and over-curious hound to keep him company.

There was a wildness about the place and the hermitage was no more comfortable than the shepherd’s hut:

In this terrain, a shepherd is something like a hermit, one who knows something about life in rugged spaces, someone who can see far because there are few interruptions, inner or outer. Nothing much grows here, so it’s a good landscape for remembering that troubling thoughts will also wither if the conditions are right. The Good Shepherd is a guide through such places: a navigator of solitude; a rescuer of the stumbling; a life-giver when nourishment is scarce; a gatherer of the scattered.

Creative Liturgy

I always hesitate to write anything about liturgy because it’s ‘not my area’ (“You do not have an ‘area’, Crilly!’ as Bishop Brennan said to Fr Ted), by which I mean that I am not a liturgical scholar and don’t take an active interest in the history, development or creation of liturgical texts. However, every Christian is deeply invested in The Liturgy, the church’s offering of the Holy Eucharist, because it is who we are. I say it is ‘who we are’ rather than ‘what we do’ because the Liturgy is not simply one of the activities of an organisation called ‘the church’ but is, rather, the (at least) weekly expression of the entire Paschal mystery, the sacrifice of praise and thanksgiving made on behalf of the whole creation, the coming together of the Body of Christ to be immersed in the mystery of Christ’s self-giving for the life of the world. It is the proclamation of the Kingdom of God and our participation in the heavenly worship, so of course it is of the greatest importance to us.

It is unsurprising that, given this importance, ‘liturgy’ – the way in which we offer the Eucharist – can also be something of a battleground for competing understandings or emphases. This is another excellent reason to leave it well alone! But I do want to offer one thought about an assumption that can sometimes be heard about a perceived gulf between liturgical expressions that are thought to be ‘creative’ over against those that are seen, by contrast, as ‘traditional’. The assumption, I think, is that human creativity is primarily expressed in ‘making something new’. In liturgical terms, this might include new texts, new pieces of visual art, new music or new ways of using the space in which the Liturgy is celebrated. However, does this mean that every artist who performs an ancient piece of music or makes an icon following traditional forms is not being ‘creative’? And surely the word itself begs the question of whether or no the Liturgy itself requires ‘creativity’ in order to be worthwhile, and if so, what sort of creativity is required.

I would start by suggesting that the primary quality we bring to the Liturgy is attentiveness. It is our disposition of prayerful openness and steady attention that enables us to participate most fully in the Liturgy, whether or not one has a designated role in it. I think this quality is equally important for every style of liturgical expression. Secondly, I would suggest that, in the Liturgy, as in any sacrifice, there is both an offering and a receiving. We offer our best in an act of gratitude, we receive the transforming gifts of God in return, not as reward but as free gift. ‘Offering our best’, is the place where we might locate a desire to be as creative as possible in gratitude for what we receive. This may also be seen as in ‘missionary’ terms as a means to make the Liturgy as appealing as possible to those who do not yet participate in it, but I think these considerations are secondary to the primary concern, which is our faithful response to divine love. For some of us, ‘offering our best’ in a spirit of prayerful attentiveness is not well served by any focus on liturgical novelty that draws more attention to the Liturgy’s style or novel content than to its Godward direction. I am very conscious that this may be a matter of personal preference, but I would be reluctant to see an emphasis on familiarity and repetition as an aid to undistracted attentiveness as ‘less creative’ than the making of new things. By analogy, the Jesus Prayer would simply not ‘work’ if it were not repetitive. For me, the creativity in ‘traditional’ styles of liturgy lies precisely in its demand for fully attentive and embodied presence. This requires an active concentration as well as a certain passivity, for the truth is that the main creative act in the Liturgy is God’s work of creating us anew in the likeness of Jesus Christ.

Here are a few of the ways in which I believe that our embodied, attentive presence in the Liturgy is a creative act:

  • It calls forth from us qualities that exceed our normal patterns of casual interaction or being a passive spectator
  • It demands that we give careful consideration to the use of material things, not least our own bodies through posture or gesture, voice or gaze, but also in the handling of the holy gifts themselves and the vessels that contain them, along with other liturgical items – candles, crosses, iconography, fabrics etc
  • Although I do not think that interpretive mental activity is of primary importance in liturgy, there is a kind of imaginative reflection going on whereby we receive and consider non-visual images or metaphors
  • There is creativity involved in the way we interact with one another in liturgical space, attending to one another’s needs, taking our place alongside others in a harmonious chorus of voices and bodies – think even of the simple act of walking together in procession

These are simple, creative acts that are open to anyone who attends the Divine Liturgy, whatever their role. In performing them faithfully, prayerfully and with a joyful self-forgetting, we enter into the mystery of our theosis, ‘offering unto thee thine own of thine own, in all and for all.’

Our Place Among the Things

I’ve been reading three books recently which all, in different ways, ask the urgent question of how we, as human beings, relate to the other beings and objects with which we share this planet. James Bridle’s book, Ways of Being, asks how we might work alongside other forms of intelligence in our world in order to create more cooperative and less destructive patterns of interaction. He shows how limited we are when we see other intelligences only as versions of our own, whether that be the singling out of facial recognition as the preeminent sign of self-awareness in other animals, or the construction of forms of AI solely as competitive systems form maximising production, or the failure to recognise the profoundly social nature of the intelligence of plant systems.

Writing from a very different perspective, Metropolitan John (Zizioulas) asks, in a series of of essays edited by John Chryssavgis, whether our ecological crisis might be more than simply a moral one, for example a matter of over-consumption, greed or heedlessness, and may, in fact, be much more a problem of ontology. He suggests that our failure to understand ourselves as bodies and the strangely persistent notion of ourselves as having a body leads to the kind of dualism that places mind over matter, leaving matter itself as a lower form of being, ripe for exploitation and manipulation. Did we forget about the incarnation?

I might find time to explore these rich works in more depth at some point, but I want to focus on the third book I’ve been reading, one which has touched me deeply. Again, it’s in a completely different genre – fiction – but I think that Ruth Ozeki’s Book of Form and Emptiness helps us address the question of our place among the things in an imaginative way that engages the heart and moves us beyond the realm of ideas to the realm of relationships. The novel is multi-layered, but the narrative is primarily concerned with a woman and her son, and how they respond to the sudden death of their husband/father. The story is told with a depth of compassion and without judgement as it deals with Annabelle’s increasing tendency to hoard and Benny’s ability to hear the voices of objects around him, which becomes increasingly overwhelming. The objects tell their stories, many of which relate experiences of pain or exploitation.

Benny encounters two other characters, who offer different ways of interacting with the things and beings they come across. One is a young woman, an artist he meets on a pediatric psychiatric ward and with whom he reconnects when he finds refuge in a large public library. The Aleph, as she is known, makes art from materials found in dumpsters, including snow globes that portray images of environmental harm. She also makes trails of message for people to find and follow, inviting them to make connections through the world. The Bottleman is a Slovenian poet and philosopher who lives on the streets and is overlooked as a drunken down-and-out by many. However, he is one of the few to take Benny’s questions seriously and to enter his world, respecting his questions.

The mental health challenges of the main protagonists are treated neither romantically nor patronisingly but with patient understanding. Similarly, the running theme of a self-help book on decluttering by a Zen priest in Japan, which Annabelle dips into from time to time in an effort to deal with her hoarding, is taken seriously while also inviting a more subtle engagement with the Zen Buddhism which underlines so much of the book’s character (Ozeki is, herself, a Zen priest and the title refers to the Heart Sutra).

The book moves slowly towards different ways of relating to the material world, largely through the characters of the Aleph and Bottleman, who are both possessionless but hardly abstracted from the world. The Bottleman helps Annabelle redistribute many of her cluttering possessions to those who might enjoy them and the Aleph makes art from ‘trash’.

Finally, the book moves us to a place where the relationship between Benny and Annabelle is restored and deepened, enabling them to support each other in the loss that had previously driven them apart. There are many other layers to the book which I won’t explore here, but I want to emphasise the fundamental relationality of the characters to the material world around them. Objects have stories and voices but need to be kept on the move rather than possessed in a way that ends with us being possessed by them. Similarly, the voices of the marginalised are brought to the foreground of the narrative, inviting us to hear one another, and especially to hear voices that sit on the edges of the all-consuming world of ‘success’, ‘progress’ or ‘rationality’. Most wonderfully, though, the book does this not with the heavy-handed prose of the preacher or politician, but with humour, playfulness and delight.

An Urban Hesychast

The English-speaking Christian world has lost one of its most respected theological voices. Metropolitan Kallistos fell asleep in the Lord yesterday morning and, for many of us, his passing has caused us to give thanks for decades of his gentle teaching and thorough scholarship, bringing the texts and insights of the Philokalic tradition and of Byzantine liturgy to a wide audience. As for many others, my first encounter with his writings was his ‘The Orthodox Way’ (my copy is dated 1988) with its superb selection of apt quotations at the end of each chapter which offered a tantalising introductory taste of teachers as diverse as Isaac the Syrian, St Symeon the New Theologian, Paul Evdokimov and Mother Maria of Paris.

It is Metropolitan Kallistos’s teaching on the prayer of the heart that I still find most compelling. In an essay on hesychia originally published in 1973 but updated in his collection, The Inner Kingdom, in 2000, he gave a wide-ranging analysis on the meaning of this rich word. He reminded us that, although the outward context of our quest for inner stillness may be important – indeed, many monastic writers stress the vital importance of the cell in their practice – true stillness may be practised even by those whose lives are lived in the context where much speech and little solitude may be possible: ‘what matters is not our spatial position but our spiritual state.’ He thought that ‘the vocation of an urban hesychast was by no means an impossibility.’ Indeed, he may well have embodied that vocation himself as an academic living in a busy city who was drawn to the prayer of the heart.

I would go further and take his endorsement of such a vocation as an indication of its necessity in our cities. What greater gift could we give to our busy, noisy, challenging urban environments than the gift of the pursuit of true prayer? The rest, fulfillment, inner balance and spacious openness to the Father that is the fruit of the prayer of the heart is nothing less than the Kingdom of God. Kallistos quotes Met. Anthony: ‘At that moment, the eschatalogical moment is realized and, in the words of St. Paul, ‘God is all in all.’ The one who practises hesychia ‘can appreciate the value of each thing because he sees each in God and God in each.’ There is much more to say about the spiritual legacy of this great Father in God, but for now, I thank him for his insight into the urgent vocation of seeking God in the stillness of the heart, especially in the unstill heart of our cities.

George Mackay Brown on Poets


Yesterday was the centenary of GMB’s birth so to mark that occasion, here’s a poem he wrote about the art, craft, graft and spirituality of poetry:

Four Kinds of Poet


‘Here, now. A new time, a new place. Write something. This
is expected by publishers, readers. Try to render both actuality
and soul of the place, look, and write. Quick. Time passes. The
place is changing as I look and write. I wither. The place ingath-
ers in a mesh of words. Words, keep me, keep all, now: a poem.


‘This place is boring, like most places. There’s nothing I feel
inclined to say about it. When (out of boredom) I try to find
equivalent words, the place changes: a fog shifts, lifts. There are
the stones, piers, windows, chimneys, children of light and water
that once he saw in a good dream – long forgotten: a poem.


‘What happened here? congregate, ghosts, among the
weathered and cracked stones. Take my mouth, speak. dance.
There was nothing but ritual on earth once. I imagine cere-
monies. I will make masks: among those shadows buying and
selling: a poem.


‘Creation of a word, this place. What word? The word is
streaming across time, holding this place and all planets and all
grains of dust in a pattern, a strict equation. I am always trying
to imitate the sound and shape and power of the unknowable
word. Dry whisperings: a poem.’

While the last stanza reaches a mystical depth, the first three are not to be despised. For GMB, there was work, effort involved in the making of a poem. It did not only flow when the Muses stirred but was also the result of patient abiding, well-honed craft, willingness to attend to the particularities of place and the endurance of fabled memories.

For a Christian reader of this poet who was a Catholic Christian, this all makes perfect sense: ascesis yields to insight; patience paves the way to theoria, myth and ritual hold eternal meaning, and who could fail to see The Word in ‘the word’ of that last stanza?

Thank you, faithful interrogator of silence, for your many and beautiful imitations of the sound and shape and power of the unknowable W/word!

Heaven Underneath Your Hand

Little grebe - Wikipedia

Thomas of Celano tells of a moment in St Francis’s life when he is crossing the Lake of Rieti. A fisherman offers the saint a little water-bird ‘so that he might rejoice in the Lord over it.’ Francis took the bird gently in his hands and invited it to fly away freely. The bird was content to rest in the saint’s hand and Francis ‘remained in prayer’. Here is how Ann Wroe reflects on that story in her wonderful book of ‘songs’ about Francis:

A water bird, he says it is,
as he draws on
his slapping oar to get across
before day’s gone;
a water bird, light as a shell,
whose rainbow sheen
breathes heaven underneath your hand,
intact, serene;
a water bird whose opaque eye
half-closed in sleep
contains this lake, this mountainside,
snowed height, black deep.
trembling you guard this being now,
warm as coal,
just-held, as by the dipping prow
your life: your soul.

This moment of utter simplicity seems to me to be a perfect icon of Francis’s way of being in the world – a chosen fragility whose strength is compassion. It is Christ’s way of being in the world – as fragile and as nourishing as broken bread.

In its freedom, the bird chooses to rest rather than to fly, just as the contemplative chooses to sit with the reality of the world in clear-sighted trust rather than to turn away towards the lure of any distraction that offers its momentary sparkle. In contemplative awareness, the bird ‘contains’ the lake and the mountain – no separation, no distance.

If the church were to offer only one gift to humanity in its struggle to restore nature’s fragile balance, it might choose to offer this contemplative way: holding all of life gently; choosing to abide with all that challenges us; open-eyed in contemplative awareness; seeing ‘heaven in ordinarie’; seeking the way of peace and rest.

Having Nothing to Offer

What do people of faith have to offer to this world?


No technique.

No prescription.

No theory-of-everything.

No answer.

No blueprint.

No clever fix.

No solution.

No concept.

So what?

On having nothing, we offer only silence.

Only possibility.

Only space.

Only the emptiness that awaits fullness.

Only humility – the wisdom of the earth, of dust.

Only a heart broken open to receive.

Only a willingness to abide, not knowing.

Only longing.

Only a naked intent, reaching out.

Abiding in the True Vine – Easter 5

Last week, the winners of a food photography award were announced, and the overall winner was a stunning picture by a Chinese photographer called Li Huaifeng. It shows a mother and father with their daughter making dumplings in a vaulted front room, the sunlight pouring in smoky shafts through old and patched windows and the ill-fitting front door. The camera angle shows the family from above; the father on the left cooking over a very hot wok, heated from below with a simple wood stove; the mother seated on the rights folding dumplings which are being neatly arranged in their dozens on large trays. Her daughter looks at her with a smile of complete delight, lit by one of those sunrays. It is an arresting picture and its appeal lies in the combination of a location that is fascinating in its particularity and unfamiliarity to us, and the complete familiarity of a universal image of food preparation, with its promise of nourishment, taste, togetherness and sharing.

Food is always both universal and particular, global and local. Something as Scottish as haggis is also a staple food in Serbia and elsewhere, and what use would it be without a decent amount of pepper, a spice so familiar that we forget its distant origins and its need for the kind of sun we just don’t see here. And I think there is something of that universal and particular nature of food when St John the Theologian takes the Eucharistic elements of bread and wine, of grain and grape, and meditates on them in passages like the one we’ve just heard. Vines, of course, are famously responsive to their particular place, their terroir, as you’ll know if you’ve ever had a tour of a French vineyard and endured the long chat that separates you from the tasting session. But their fruit has a long reach, and the symbolism that St John employs also hints at the rich complex of meanings evoked by wine as a festive and ritual drink, the stuff of weddings and libations, of weekly shabbat and annual Pesach, of gladdened hearts and warmed faces.

But the universal dimension is also concerned with the very matter of the vine itself, root and fruit, branch and trunk, and here St John gives us one of his most enduring metaphors, which is that of abiding. I am glad that the NRSV retained this rich word, which is the same word asked by Jesus’s first disciples in chapter one when they ask him where he is staying, where he is abiding. In the light of the way the word is used in this passage, they might as well have been asking, ‘where are you rooted?’ or ‘what is your sphere of operation?’. It’s an existential question which is not restricted to a question of geographical origins – a first century equivalent of the deadly Edinburgh question, ‘what school did you go to’ – but is much more concerned with where we find our true centre of gravity, the place we are rooted and at home, secure and nourished, most freely and fully ourselves without the superficialities of status, achievement, wealth or exterior characteristics.

Where do you abide? Abiding is also, I think, a perfect word to describe contemplative prayer. I don’t mean the stuff we say to God, but the sense of being still in one place, of squarely facing reality with open eyes and hearts, of commitment to the discipline of remaining close to the source of our life, the True Vine, in silence and in trust. How do we abide in Christ? By choosing to remain in his presence, again and again, without expectations or theories, programmes or techniques, simply conscious of the miracle of being alive.

But I think there is also a particularity about this abiding, which mirrors the commitment to regular contemplative prayer, and that has to do with choosing to dwell fruitfully in our particular place. The story goes that a pilgrim asked an old monk, ‘what do you do?’. His reply was ‘I live here.’ In a time of ecological crisis, it has never been more vital to understand what it means to live here. And for a church community like ours, that means not only the locality where we live, but also the part of God’s creation where we choose to gather to celebrate the mysteries of our new life in Christ. This church, this holy temple, is a meeting place with the divine, a portal between earth and heaven, but it is also in one particular place. And our calling to abide here has specific implications. What is our impact on this part of God’s earth? What are we emitting into the atmosphere here? How do our lives touch those of the people who live in, work in and visit this part of our city? What are our most pressing concerns as a church community? Are they to do with our own needs and convenience, or those whose lives are rooted in this place?

As the sharp impacts of this pandemic begin to retreat for us, it may be time for us to take up this question with ever greater focus. And our experience of this last year has offered us insights into the many dimensions of our own abiding as a church community. As so many aspects of our church life have been constrained, we have been led to seek once more the place of our own deepest abiding. And as this cruel disease has shown us so much about our global connections and about our local inequalities, we have also been led to seek once more the practical implications of the life we choose to live in this place.

Jesus said, ‘My Father is glorified by this, that you bear much fruit and become my disciples.’ We are always becoming, always learning more fully how to abide in Christ, so we need not fear the scale of the challenge. We seek nothing more and nothing less than to live here, to be alive in this place, to be life for others, to become disciples, grafted onto the True Vine who is the source of all our strength and inspiration.

Easter Vigil Homily

File:Anastasis fresco (Chora Church).jpg - Wikimedia Commons

What is there to see in the darkness of this night? What does this rising look like, of which we have sung? Well the Gospel writers don’t give us much of a clue. They knew better than to try to describe what happens in a deep but dazzling darkness like the darkness of this most luminous night. There is no spectacle to see, no big reveal, no pyrotechnics. It’s almost as if to say that this resurrection, of which we have heard the first rumours, is something that takes place deep in the ground, shielded by a darkly bright cloud of unknowing. It’s as if the triumphant Lamb of God stands astride a chasm as deep as death, reaching down into that gloom to pull out those imprisoned there. It’s as if he stands upon shattered prison doors, doing the mighty, hidden work of liberation with his own bare hands, his own pierced hands, his own outstretched, searching hands with a grip as firm as love demands and as gentle as mercy’s soothing caress.

It’s as if he stands above the detritus of ruined captivity: burst bolts, shattered manacles, redundant locks, snapped chains, useless keys, deconstructed mechanisms. All the apparatus of our imprisonment lies futile, powerless against the might of one whose love does not rest until every constraint is unbound. Look carefully through the inky dark and see, amidst that pile of broken pieces, the dismantled shackles of our many imprisonments: destructive greed overcome by grateful generosity, discrimination undone by humble fraternity, resentment displaced by gracious forgiveness, fear neutralised by inner peace, pride replaced by joyful self-abandon, violence and abuse dispelled by the power of tenderness, falsehood withered in the face of truth’s steady light.

The Lamb of God, who on Friday was stripped naked in the face of death, is now dressed in white, as if for a banquet. That’s the whole purpose of this hard-won victory, to bring us to a feast, to share in the wedding banquet of a world united in love with its creator. So, in the words of St John Chrysostom, ‘Enter the joy of your Lord; and receive your reward, both the first and likewise the second. You rich and poor together, hold high festival. The table is full-laden; feast ye all sumptuously. Enjoy ye all the feast of faith: receive ye the riches of loving-kindness. For Christ is risen and life reigns!’

Tree of Life – Good Friday Sermon

This wooden Ethiopian hand cross is my most precious devotional object. It has many associations for me from my time in that beautiful land, with a Christian story that is both ancient and vibrant. And Ethiopians have a very deep intuition about the mystical connections between trees and the life of faith. Churches are often surrounded by sacred forestry and, in more recent years, these little forests have been rediscovered as having a key role in fostering biodiversity and topsoil protection. Of course they do: God’s creation is a wonderful and complex unity that exists in startlingly diverse forms. And this little cross speaks to me of that unity with a beautiful interlacing pattern with floral motifs formed of the wood of a tree. It speaks also of a unity in faith with its resemblances to the early Christian crosses of these islands, similarly organic and looping in form.

But on this day of all days, its greatest eloquence for me is in its resonances with the fertile paradoxes that come from the Christian language about the Cross as the Tree of Life, a thing of beauty and of ugliness, of glory and of shame, fashioned from the material of creation for the most cruel ends and yet also a tree whose leaves are for the healing of all. This language is abundant in the hymn, Vexilla Regis, which we will hear later, and in that other ancient song of praise to the wood of the Cross, Pange Lingua.

Even more striking is the language we hear in St John Chrysostom’s sermon for this most holy day: ‘This Tree is my eternal salvation. It is my nourishment and my banquet. Amidst its roots I cast my own roots deep; beneath its boughs I grow and expand; as it sighs around me in the breeze I am nourished with delight.’ For St John it is food, clothing, shelter, ladder, and ‘the foundation of the universe … the binding force of all creation.’ Extraordinary language with which to refer to one particular instrument of execution, one among very many thousands, whose footprint on the written histories of the empire under whose crushing boot this poor body was broken was barely visible. What can we make of this paradox? How do we claim as an event of cosmic importance this single instance of casual brutality of the powerful against the poor that has been repeated too many millions of times through history?

St John Chrysostom goes on to describe how, in St Matthew’s account, all things shuddered and were shaken when Jesus breathed forth His divine spirit on the Cross. The breaking of this fragile body is accompanied by the breaking of the very rock on which creation stands, the very rock in which the tree of the Cross is planted. All creation is ruptured. But as the Spirit of Jesus is commended to the Father, filling all things with life, the Creation stands firm once more.

We see this very same rupture all around us in polluted seas, melting ice, parched land, disappearing species. It is the same rupture we see in emaciated bodies, bomb-devastated apartment blocks, polarised communities. How does this singular tree offer healing to such deep wounds?

The reason St John could speak so warmly of this blood-stained wood is that the one whose life-creating death took place there opened a new way to life for all creation. Life is no longer a question of my survival which is sustained by what I can take for myself, but of genuine freedom gained through giving ourselves fully and joyfully in generous love. We look upon the crucified one and see on that tree one who is victor over death. Chrysostom sees him as stripped, not in humiliation, but in readiness for battle. He has defeated all the powers of destruction and greed by the one thing that is stronger than death: love – unbounded, unflinching, freely and lavishly given love.