Eucharistic Deprivation, Methodists and Clericalism

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This week, I’ve been attending the Methodist Conference on behalf of the Scottish Episcopal Church and I’ve enjoyed getting to know more about a tradition that may not have huge numbers in Scotland, but has played a very significant role in ecumenical life here for a long time. One of the themes that came to the fore in today’s discussion was the lack of access that many have to the Eucharist, both as a result of a shortage of presbyters to preside in scattered rural locations and, in a more widespread but more temporary sense, because of the lockdown to prevent the spread of the coronavirus.

On the latter, the Conference was urged to seek theological clarification about what might be possible with the use of digital media, echoing debates that have taken place in many churches. On the former, Methodists already have a remedy in the form of a permission that may be given to a lay person, with suitable preparation and for a limited time, to preside at the Eucharist. Such permission is not always granted and there is a careful process to consider such requests.

I was impressed by the care taken over this debate and by the pastoral commitment to provide access to the Eucharist for as many as possible. I also find myself uncomfortable with the thought of introducing such a measure in our own tradition. I should say that there is not a move towards such a thing in the SEC and that is not because we don’t value the Eucharist – we do, very much. However, with the longstanding provision of self-supporting priestly ministry, and with the possibility of communion from the reserved sacrament (there’s another piece to be written about that!) the issue does not seem to be quite as pressing.

So I am left with the question of why it is that I feel discomfort at the practice of lay presidency at the eucharistic Liturgy. Why do most churches with the historic episcopate (Catholic, Orthodox, Anglican) reserve the presidency of the Liturgy to bishops and presbyters without exception? Is this just a case of clerical protectionism? I think I would want to defend this practice not on the basis of any kind of special ‘power’ given to bishops and priests at their ordination that makes them alone capable of effecting the consecration of the Eucharistic elements (it’s the Holy Spirit who does that!) but on the basis of our understanding of the nature of the church.

For us, ministry is not primarily a matter of competence (thank God), training, power, function, management or special holiness. It is primarily a sacramental sign of the unity of the church founded upon the apostles and a means of serving that unity. It is also a sacramental sign the priestly character of the church and, indeed, of humanity as a whole in its ‘eucharistic’ relationship to the whole creation. By that I mean our calling to offer the sacrifice of praise, the Liturgy, on behalf of the whole creation, eschatalogically proclaiming its fulfillment in Christ. Seen in this way, the Eucharist is seen as more than the dispensing of spiritual nourishment to the faithful, though it is certainly that too. The Liturgy is primarily an act of Christ through his Church, a re-presentation of the whole paschal mystery. Each Liturgy is an act of the whole church, not just one local expression of it, as it participates in the one paschal act of Christ.

In order to express that unity, churches in our traditions see the bishop as the principal priestly minister of the mysteries of the new covenant, united with the ministry of the apostles. Presbyters preside by delegation, sharing in the priestly ministry of the bishop, as do deacons through their distinctive ministry (though not presiding at the Liturgy). It is this intimate connection with the apostolic ministry founded on the paschal mystery of Christ that lies at the heart of the paradigmatic priestly act of the church – the Eucharist – and is expressed symbolically through the uniting spiritual ministry of the bishop.

Of course, every Christian participates fully in the paschal mysteries of Christ through baptism and receives from that a priestly character, restoring that character to our humanity. And as the Liturgy is an act of the whole church, it includes all the baptised. The priestly ministry of all the baptised is at the heart of the life of the church as a Paschal mystery and is expressed every day in the life of prayer and in the living of a Christian life in the world. The baptised Christian is not simply a recipient of sacraments from the hands of a priest, but one who has priestly dignity as an icon of restored humanity in Christ and as a bearer of his transfiguring presence to the world. When, in the Byzantine rite, the Cherubic hymn is sung, its declaration that ‘we’ stand as mystic symbols of the cherubim, it means that the whole Eucharistic assembly is ministering together in the heavenly realm, offering a sacrifice of praise to God, not just the ordained priest who presides. Every icon of the divine is honoured with incense at the Liturgy – those painted to represent the saints as well as those who stand in flesh and blood.

I am conscious that I present only one theological perspective on this matter – and that as yet not fully formed – and I respect fully those traditions that take a different view. Indeed, the variety of views on the presidency of the Eucharist reflects the variety of emphases of its rich character that we find in different theological traditions. I offer this work-in-progress only as a perspective, not as a full or final word!

Sermon for Ss Peter and Paul

It’s tempting to make much of the differences of Ss Peter and Paul and it’s almost become the accepted wisdom to contrast the impetuous, flawed, human, big-hearted Peter with the less attractive preachy, high-ground-snatching, censorious and deeply prejudiced Paul. Like all caricatures, there may be a grain of truth in this, but I suspect it’s only a very small grain and not one that’s likely to sprout into something that truly nourishes or delights. So I intend today to mount a sort of charm offensive on behalf of our parish’s patron, not at the expense of Peter, but only to remind ourselves of the spiritual genius of that equally flawed and human, and equally compassionate (bear with me) apostle Paul.

St. Paul the Simple Greek Orthodox Icon

Now there are two good reasons to do this today. The first I’ve already mentioned, and that is that we are named after St Paul and I think that compels us to find in him, and to ask through his intercession some rich insights into this faith of ours that will stand us in good stead for this time of challenge and opportunity. The second is that our dear Father in Christ, Paul Burrows, who also shares his name, celebrates today the 40th anniversary of his ordination as a priest and this is a chance for us to cherish in him those charisms that reflect much of the same insights and gifts that we see in St Paul.

But first, I want to take a brief side-step and address some of the issues that often make people suspicious of St Paul. We just need to find a way of setting these aside in a reasonable way for now, so that we can get to the heart of his spiritual genius. The first thing I would want to say is that, as people with discernment, we have the necessary gifts and skills to know how to separate what is essential from what is conditional. In many cases, we can see from a mile off those issues that properly belong in a culturally conditioned context and need to be reinterpreted in the light of our own very different context, from those issues that express something timeless. Most notable in these culturally conditioned contexts might be St Paul’s apparent attitude to women in the church and to slavery. On both, I would simply say that St Paul adequately provides us with the seeds of a necessary reinterpretation of his own writings when he tells us that in Christ, there is neither male and female, Jew nor Greek, slave nor free. On the first, I would also point out the ease with which he gives precedence in the verse that follows today’s epistle to the teacher Prisca, whose husband Aquila is mentioned after her. [I urge postcard-writers from holding back on pointing out that the pastoral epistles are deutero-Pauline. I know that, but they speak from his tradition in some way and it suits my rhetorical purposes, so please give me the benefit of the doubt!] On more than one occasion, St Paul honours the women who led the church in many places in those early decades. Nonetheless, his writings which point in a contrary direction must be read in the context of a patriarchal society. Like the rest of us, he is conditioned by his times. On slavery, I would simply invite you to read Philemon with a supposition that St Paul writes with the arm of his correspondent twisted metaphorically a long way up his back. I truly believe that this is a letter designed to undermine the suppositions of a slave-master relationship and not uphold them.

The debate goes on about these matters, but please let’s not let them cloud our appreciation of the depths of St Paul’s teaching. I want to mention just two less appreciated aspects of his apostolic insight that are worth bringing to the fore today. The first is that St Paul is the father of Christian mysticism. It is he who gives us the sense of our identity as being hidden with God in Christ, he who speaks of being taken in spirit to the heavens, he who presents a compelling picture of the whole cosmos as awaiting its fulfilment in Christ. His is a universal vision, a vision that breaks down the dividing barriers of human invention, barriers of race and religion, of sex and education. And it is St Paul who points us to a wisdom that appears to be folly if we look superficially. The wisdom he presents to us is a wisdom born in humility and in love, a wisdom that sees beyond the surface to the heart. It is the wisdom of the cross, the wisdom of self-abandonment in love. It is the loving wisdom that is expressed in 2 Timothy as ‘being poured out as a libation’. This is sacrifice, not a maudlin wallowing in pain but a joyful act of self-abandonment in thanksgiving for the sheer delight of the life that is given to us.

The second flows from the first, and it is the life of loving compassion that characterises the Christian. This love is rhapsodised in that famous chapter of 1 Cor 13 – patient, kind, forgetful of wrong – but is also, and less famously, expressed in St Paul’s hard work of ensuring that those who are poor are not forgotten or left to fend for themselves. His long and difficult journeys to secure a collection for the poor in Jerusalem was both an act of practical compassion and a reminder to the church that we all belong together. There is only one body, and it is the Body of Christ.

These two charisms, mystical, loving wisdom, and untiring compassion, might well serve as a kind of manifesto for this church that bears the name of St Paul. What else does this world of ours – and the world on our doorstep – need but a deep sense of our connection to the Holy One and a whole lot of compassion? And at the risk of embarrassing him, I would also want to celebrate today these gifts in Fr Paul. Over 40 years of priesthood, he has remained close to these mysteries of Christ: the mystery of contemplative union with our loving creator in Christ, especially as expressed in the Carmelite mystics; and the mystery of self-giving compassion, love for God’s people, both those who gather at the altar and those who gather in the alleyways and soup kitchens. St Paul reminds us that God calls us to a joyful life of self-abandonment in Christ which, in the words of Thomas Merton, requires only that we ‘cast our awful solemnity to the winds and join in the general dance.’ Fr Paul, dance on!

On the Holiness of Church Buildings

We have a problem in normal English usage in having only one word – church – to describe both the holy people of God and the building in which they gather to offer the Eucharist. If, however, you are a French Protestant or a Greek Orthodox, you have another word for that building: it’s a temple. As we prepare to open up our churches once more for prayer, it’s not a bad time to think about why we are drawn to these holy places and whether we regard them as holy at all. What are they for and how do we describe them theologically? Does the language of the temple help?

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I have heard some familiar concerns being raised about identifying a church building as ‘holy’ by those who fear that, in doing so, we make a separation between that space and all others, between sacred and profane. Many would argue that the primary purpose of the church building is as a place of assembly, a convenient means of allowing the holy people of God to be in one place as they worship together, but that it does not in itself possess any special significance except, perhaps, as a place of memories and associations. But I suspect that more people have an intuition that there is something particular about the church building, something that invites a sense of the numinous, an apprehension of something of ultimate rather than simply utilitarian value.

In writing about the understanding of the temple in Orthodox thinking, John Chryssavgis writes;

Whether a small community chapel in Greece, or a tiny rock-cave church in Cappadocia, or an enormous imperial cathedral in Constantinople, the focus and function always has a single purpose: to reveal the fullness of divine glory and heavenly splendour in this world as God’s creation and abolish the man-made distinction between sacred and profane.

p.20, Light Through Darkness, DLT 2004

In other words, the temple is ‘an epiphany, an essential link between the heavenly and terrestrial, the the spiritual and material, soul and body.’ (ibid.) I recall one simple image of how this works in practice at Vespers in a church in Cyprus, with the faithful bringing food made at home to be blessed and shared in crumpled plastic bags underneath the great dome of the church bearing the image of the Patokrator. Heaven and earth are joined. In a similar way, the Royal Doors in the iconostasis become not a barrier but a portal, a place of entrance through which God comes among us in bread and wine.

The temple as a dwelling place of divine glory is not, then, an exception from the world but an indication of the coming fulfillment of the world which is already realised in the transfigurations we experience there. It is not that God’s presence is limited to that place, but that it is revealed there in a particular way, and what is revealed there is true for every place. We know God is everywhere because we experience God here. Architecture can help us out here, especially with the use of the dome as an icon of the sky and, in its circularity, of eternity. The temple is a microcosm. It is a place both of familiarity and awe, conviviality and reverence, luminosity and mystery. And I will be delighted to be able to open its doors once more!

Christian Mindfulness

Love of wisdom means always to be watchfully attentive in small, even the smallest actions. Such a person gains the treasure of great peace; he is unsleeping so that nothing adverse may befall him, and cuts off its causes beforehand; he suffers a little in small things, thus averting great suffering.

Dobrotolubiye page

These words, quoted from St Isaac, are in the edited Russian version of the Philokalia, the Dobrotolubiye. It was compiled in the 18th century by St Paissy Velichkovsky and translated into Russian by St Theophan the Recluse in the 19th. These words occur in a section of the ‘Directions to Hesychasts’ by the monks Callistus and Ignatius, from 14th century Constantinople, just after the Hesychast cause was so powerfully championed by St Gregory Palamas. I give these bits of background simply to make the point that this rich tradition of spirituality has a long pedigree, even if it was little known in the West until the 20th century. Indeed, the English translation from which I’ve quoted by Kadloubovsky and Palmer from 1951 did much to bring this fine tradition to the attention of the English speaking world. But to the substance!

Full of Grace and Truth: St. Paisius Velichkovsky the Righteous

Hesychasm, of course, means stillness and stillness means an inner as well as an outer disposition. Attentiveness, watchfulness, wakefulness, sobriety are all synonyms for what we now know as ‘mindfulness’ and it’s important for Christians to know that we have our own deep sources for this practice. The acquisition of inner peace is a wonderful thing in itself and needs no justification, but it is also both a sign of the indwelling Spirit of God and a preparation for a fuller apprehension of divine beauty: ‘What is more joyful than the thought of the splendour of God?’ ask Callistus and Ignatius.

Attention to small things allows for a fuller awareness of the arising of thoughts in our minds so that they may be ‘cut off’ as they arise. This is core teaching in the desert tradition of Christian monasticism and has very close similarities with some Buddhist teachings. These ‘thoughts’ – logismoi – are the first stirrings that lead to anger, anxiety, distraction or greed, all the poisons that threaten our inner peace. That inner peace does not need to be created – it is our natural state – but it can easily be disturbed by these thoughts when they spiral out of control. But how do we first spot their arising and how do we then cut them off?

The practice of giving our full attention to small things is cultivated through patient effort in concentrating on the thing we are doing and by setting aside times of quiet prayer or meditation where we focus on a single point – usually a word or short phrase and/or our breathing. In hesychast prayer, this is not simply a mind-body exercise (though it is also that) but a loving attention towards the God who is the source of all life. In this way, our attention is not on our own immediate concerns but on that which is ultimate, and yet is also more intimate than we could imagine. This cultivation of attentiveness allows us to be more alert to the arising thoughts. Cutting them off simply means refusing to entertain them or allow them to develop. It may also mean replacing those thoughts with an appropriate word or phrase to counter its intent – ‘peace’, ‘love’, ‘mercy’. Evagrius of Pontus developed a whole range of such counter-words in his AntirrhetikosBut the main tool in this practice is ‘attention’ itself, something like a spiritual muscle that we can train through repeated and simple actions. For many, the constant repetition of the Jesus Prayer is the greatest tool we have in this journey towards a restoration of the inner peace that is our divinely created nature.

Sermon for Pentecost 2

BLM Protest : Edinburgh

‘When he saw the crowds, he had compassion for them.’

After many weeks of quiet streets and social distancing, the recent sight of many thousands of people gathering together to protest against the brutal death of George Floyd 3 weeks ago, and against the unjust structures that maintain discrimination on the grounds of race, has been all the more powerful. As people of faith, we cannot fail to be moved by a global call for a conversion of heart to overcome racial injustice in response to this most appalling act of violence which showed how such injustice is both personal and systemic. The crowds that gathered to protest, and continue to do so, offer a picture of the determination, anger, fear, and solidarity provoked by this one act of brutality that stands for so many other acts of violence experienced by people of colour across the world. ‘When he saw the crowds, he had compassion for them.’

Jesus’ compassion for the crowds has so many resonances for the historical events we are witnessing. His compassion is evoked because they are people who have suffered harassment and because they are vulnerable. But it is also a compassion born of the awareness that they are like sheep in search of a shepherd. We should not hear these words as suggesting a desire for any kind of infantile dependency but with the echoes of prophetic speech which have a very specific target. When the prophets used this image, the shepherd they had in mind was a just and merciful leader. The absence of such a ruler was what made the people vulnerable to abuse and those who were already poor were, in the absence of justice, all the more susceptible to violence, illness and exploitation. Jesus’ compassionate response to these crowds was to send out labourers who would tend their wounds, gather in the excluded and proclaim that a new kind of kingdom was at hand, one founded on the very compassion and justice they lacked, a kingdom that was built on the foundation of renewed relationships, not executive orders. These labourers were to go into those situations that might well leave them vulnerable to abuse themselves, for this new kingdom undermines the lust for power that corrupts too many. They were to use every ounce of cunning they could muster, but always in the service of dove-like peace, always without guile, without violence, without clinging to possessions or power.

So what does Jesus’ compassionate response to a shepherdless crowd suggest to us as we seek to respond to the issues raised in our own day by so many crowds seeking justice? Well it seems to me that, for a start, the only kind of moral leadership that could be credible for the church today would be one based on people willing to ‘go out’ from the place of familiarity into the places where the wounded seek healing and the oppressed seek justice. It could only be credible if it begins with the rolling up of sleeves and the feeding of hungry bellies. In addition, Jesus’ instructions to those he sends out suggest some very specific characteristics.

Firstly, all the details about no bag, no cash, no spare clothes may seem unworkable and extreme to us, but what they are saying is that those who go out must do so with an attitude of complete openness. When we rely on the hospitality of others, we open ourselves to them in trust and with an open ear. This is surely the most important characteristic we must adopt if we have been born into a position of privilege in our society – the willingness to hear the voices of those who have not shared that privilege. Firstly, the voices of those with whom we share a community, but also the voices of those from our history, whose story is not proclaimed in stone on the top of plinths and pillars.

If this radical act of listening requires a kind of self-forgetfulness, a kind of dove-like innocence, then the next characteristic requires a full self-awareness, a serpent-like wisdom. The second characteristic required by those Jesus sends out is discernment. He tells his sent-out ones to be discerning about which houses they should stay in on their journeys. I think what this means is that the disciples should seek out those who share their values and are hospitable to the vision of the kingdom – fellow-travellers, allies. The reason this needs discernment is that these partners in the vision of the kingdom may not be that obvious, not necessarily those who might naturally be in their circle of friends and associates. That’s why self-knowledge is essential and superficial judgements dangerous. In practical terms, for those of us responding the call to racial justice in our societies, this means a prior commitment to understanding our own prejudices and preferences so that we do not simply end up reinforcing what we’ve always done and how we’ve always thought. The Christian spiritual life has plenty of resources for this kind of self-examination.

Finally, Jesus urges a revolutionary patience in those who would allow themselves to be sent out – the one who endures to the end will be saved. True changes of heart and mind take time and the willingness to carry on through setbacks and disappointments. For the life of the disciple is a whole life lived in the footsteps of Jesus.

Merton on St. Columba

Old Saint Paul's Church, Edinburgh - Tripadvisor

It may surprise you to learn that Thomas Merton had a bit of an interest in St Columba, though anyone who reads Merton will not be surprised that he might have picked up a copy of Adomnan’s Life of the saint (in Latin, of course) and will be even less surprised that he committed his thoughts to paper. Here’s the entry in his journal in full. It’s from the 12th of July 1964 (Dancing in the Water of Life p. 126):

Deeply moved by Adamnan’s life of St. Columba. A poetic work, full of powerful symbols, indescribably rich. Through the Latin (which is deceptive – and strange too) appears a completely non-Latin genius, and the prophecies and miracles are not signs of authority but signs of life, i.e., not signs of power conferred on a designated representative (juridically) – a “delegated” power from outside nature, but a sacramental power of a man of God who sees the divine in God’s creation. Then the miracles etc. are words of life spoken in the midst of life, not words breaking into life and silencing it, making it irrelevant, by the decree of absolute authority (replacing the authority of life which life has from its Creator).

Merton offers a really interesting take on sacramentality here, not as something external to creation but intrinsic to it, brought to light by those who have the purity of heart to see it. The miracles in the Life are truly fascinating and many are are deeply practical – a misplaced staff finds its way to its owner, the wind helpfully blows in two different directions to speed two monks on their separate ways, inedible fruit made sweet, protection from plague in places where his monasteries were founded. His intimate relationship with the creation was not all peaceful – he was happy for a charging wild boar to be struck dead, killed ‘by the power of his terrible word’ – but on the whole, the miracles associated with the saint are harmonious. I particularly like the story of a knife blessed by the saint which could do no harm to human or beast.

The other feature of Adomnan’s Life that particularly catches my attention is that holiness is indicated by luminosity, with light shining from the saint as a child, later as a priest ‘consecrating the holy oblation’ at the altar and shortly before his death. In this respect, as in many others in this account, we are reminded of the closeness of Columba’s mystical experiences with those of the desert monastics in Egypt (Admonan’s Life has a few deliberate echoes of Evagrius’ Latin version of St. Athanasius’ Life of St. Anthony).

Without trying to say too much about a supposed ‘Celtic’ nature-mysticism, and certainly avoiding any Celtic exceptionalism, I think Merton is right in identifying a more integrated view of how human beings are located in God’s creation than we often assume to be present in Christian theology. Holy lives are marked by the radiant transfiguration that is God’s telos for all creation, not by ‘dominion’ over that creation.

Speaking Truth to Power – Zen Style

There is a well-known legend of the meeting between the first Zen Patriarch, Bodhidharma, and the Chinese Emperor Wu of the Liang dynasty, part of which forms the first case in the koan collection, the Hekiganroku or Blue Cliff Record. Dogen includes the longer version of it in fascicle 31b, Gyoji Ge, of his Shobogenzo but the legend is many centuries older.

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Well known as a benefactor of Buddhist religious foundations, the Emperor begins his conversation with Bodhidharma by enumerating his many achievements in the promotion of Buddhism. He asks, ‘What is the merit of having done all this?’ Bodhidharma says, ‘There is no merit.’ When pressed further by the emperor, he goes on to describe such ‘minor achievements’ of humans as little more than a cause of desire. They’re not real. When asked what, then, is real merit, he says;

When pure wisdom is complete, the essence is empty and serene. Such merit cannot be attained through worldly actions.

The rest of the dialogue goes like this:

Emperor: ‘What is the foremost sacred truth?’

Bodhidharma: ‘Vast emptiness, nothing sacred.’

Emperor: ‘Who is it that faces me?’

Bodhidharma: ‘I don’t know.’

The emperor didn’t understand so Bodhidharma just went on his way.

Human power, at whatever level, desires credit, acclaim, recognition for its successes (‘no merit’, ‘vast emptiness’ is what Bodhidharma offers instead). It desires shrines which might serve as a suitable backdrop for staged political moments (‘nothing sacred’ is what Bodhidharma offers instead). It desires tame gurus to give affirmation and credibility (‘I don’t know’ is what Bodhidharma offers instead). But Bodhidharma’s responses are not mere nihilism – they are a challenge to the usefulness of the questions themselves. The path to an awakened life is not formed by might, and certainly not by casting aside any who might stand in the way with tear gas and rubber bullets. It is not ‘formed’ at all, but opens up in ‘vast emptiness’ of compassion, the boundless openness that is founded on ‘not-knowing’. ‘Not knowing’ is the wisdom that listens to all sounds, to all voices, in the way that the Bodhisattva Kannon does. ‘Not knowing’ is the refusal to assert dominance, the refusal to possess another in any way.

I wonder what would happen if a certain present-day emperor decided to spend an equal length of time in zazen as he spends on his Twitter feed…

Thomas Merton on Racism

Watching the events of the last few days unfold in the US has led me back to what Merton wrote about similar events in the 1960s. It’s not that Merton had the last or the best word to say on these matters but, as with so much else, his perspective as a contemplative monk and as a writer always offers an angle that doesn’t usually emerge from the less nuanced rhetoric of politicians and partisan commentators.

Thomas Merton, the problem of war and the character of Christian ...

His major contribution on the issues around racial justice in the US comes in his book, Seeds of Destruction with its ‘Letters to a White Liberal’. He begins the book with a persuasive rationale for a contemplative monk like him to be offering thoughts on a matter like race. His argument is that monks may ‘flee the world’ but what they shun is not the flow of history itself but ‘the accumulated inheritance of past untruth and past sin.’ It is not freedom from time but freedom in time that they seek. Monasteries are a kind of laboratory for the examination of human motivation, of delusion and of untruth, a place for clear sight firstly of oneself, but always of oneself as located in history, not in abstract. Furthermore, for a monk not to comment on the affairs of the world is to risk a complicity in its unexamined structures of sin. The monk or, indeed, any religious person, does not claim a privileged place from which to comment on the affairs of the world but the place from which they speak does, nonetheless, offer peculiar insights.

Merton was clear that the issue at hand was not merely one of insufficient tolerance in society but of structural injustice. This is why simply to say ‘I am not a racist’ is never enough. It’s not a question of individual attitudes alone but of deep-rooted economic and material injustices. And it is clear that these injustices benefit many and that is why they persist. Therefore, to overcome them requires not merely ‘acceptance’ but a significant revolution – a fundamental change in circumstances that will bring what may seem like material losses to those who currently benefit from the status quo. It was clear to Merton that racial injustice has a very particular character and a very specific history which has a name: colonialism. The systematic subjugation and exploitation of peoples regarded as inferior to feed the economic prosperity of the coloniser is the structural sin at the heart of racial injustice that continues to plague not only the USA but European nations – not least our own – whose wealth was equally built on such violent foundations. Merton suggested that, in many ways, the response of the political right wing to street protests mirrors this ‘original sin’: protection of property trumps protection of black lives and all in the name of ‘order’.

Merton saw the street demonstrations of his own time as a kairos, a time of opportunity to confront the sin at the heart of injustice, the sin of colonialism driven by greed and materialism, and to listen to the voices that are alone able to offer new ways of being together that overcome injustice, that is the voices of those who have suffered long. As a contemplative, he still has much to teach us about these most vital arts of self-examination and listening.

‘Writing Straight with Crooked Lines’ by Jim Forest – a Review

Writing Straight with Crooked Lines: A Memoir: Amazon.co.uk ...

I don’t often use this space for book reviews but felt that I wanted to give this one a special mention because it touched me deeply. Jim Forest is a writer and peacemaker, a man who, in his own words, ‘has looked for ways to overcome enmity.’ He has worked over the years with many peace organisations, beginning with the Catholic Worker movement, and continues to write and speak about this most crucial Christian calling.

His memoir – note that he doesn’t call it an ‘autobiography’ – takes us vividly through decades of racial discrimination, the Vietnam war, the Cold War with its constant nuclear threat and charts these events with a good journalist’s care for detail. His account of the trial of the Milwaukee Fourteen who were involved in burning draft records and of which he was one, is mesmerising. He writes with a direct and colourful mode of expression and paints a great many superb portraits of the people with he met along the way. Many of these people have a significant place in that bigger story and Jim Forest’s encounters with them are often at a deep and sustained level: Thomas Merton, Thich Nhat Hanh, Dorothy Day, Henri Nouwen, Dan Berrigan to name only a few (he could also, by the way, easily pick up the phone to Pete Seeger or Joan Baez). But if this sounds like name-dropping, it does not read that way. Indeed, the thing that impresses me most about this non-autobiography is the way in which Jim Forest manages to write an account that is deeply personal and unfailingly honest without being in slightest bit self-obsessed or self-important. It is not confessional and he wisely side-steps things that must remain private. I met Jim a year or two ago and he winced when told me that his next book was to be a memoir. He is a genuinely humble man.

Jim also writes books on the spirituality of the Orthodox church, of which he has been a part for over 30 years. His books on the Beatitudes, icons and confession are accessible yet profound meditations on the spiritual life. I would warmly recommend them. And it is his integration of spirituality and peacemaking that continues to offer a compelling vision of Christian life that is rooted in its tradition without being sectarian, profoundly prayerful and simultaneously outward-looking, humbly open to new things yet well-grounded. This book is an exceedingly well-told story of a rich life. It is also a prophetic reminder of the church’s calling to make peace and to make sure that the peace it offers comes from a peaceful heart. It is an urgent and welcome reminder. Thank you Jim.

Sermon for Pentecost

O Heavenly King, the Paraclete, the Spirit of Truth, who are present everywhere, filling all things, Treasury of Good and Giver of Life, come and dwell in us, cleanse us of every stain, and save our souls, O Good One.

Icon-Pentecost

Sometimes Pentecost is referred to as the birthday of the church, and no one could deny that this day is the one where we see the followers of the risen and ascended Jesus gathered in one place and enthused, empowered, equipped by the Spirit to continue his work of reconciliation and transformation. But the words of the prayer I have just said suggest that Pentecost has a somewhat wider reach than the life of the church in any narrow sense. These words, from an ancient prayer addressed to the Holy Spirit, point to the one who fills all things, who gives all life, who saves, cleanses, abides, is present far beyond the limits of the church in its institutional or communal reality, though all these things must surely be true of the church as well. But the work of the Holy Spirit, the life-giving life of the Holy Spirit, is free, boundless and generous; beyond our grasp and certainly beyond our control.

The traditional icon of this feast of Pentecost, which you can see on your screens now, tells us something about the realm of the Spirit’s operation. At first glance, this image seems to bring the focus very clearly onto the gathered church, seated here in a semi-circle, with the apostles receiving the gift of the Spirit in a tongue of fire. There are some very interesting features of this icon, which may not be obvious on first viewing. First of all, this is not a scene from history. There is no attempt to recreate the scene described in today’s reading from Acts because the 12 here are not just the disciples called by Jesus, but also the 4 Evangelists and Paul. This is not about mere events, but the eternal reality of the Spirit’s inspiration on all who follow in the way of Christ. Another key feature of this image is its central absence. Right in the place where we would expect to see an enthroned figure, the teacher, there is a gap. In the middle of the semi-circle is a space which is unoccupied, or, rather, a space that is occupied by Christ who is no longer present in historical form, but present now in his abundant openness, his cosmic reality filling all things.

But most curious of all is the strange figure right in the centre of the foreground. In a dark space at the heart of the image is an old king, wearied by time, holding out a sheet in which is held 12 scrolls, symbolic of the teaching of the 12 apostles seated around him. He is Cosmos, the world, eager to hear a word of life, desperate to be awakened into new life. He longs to hear words of release, of forgiveness, of healing. He longs to be freed from the darkness that surrounds him, animated by a new spirit of truth and enlightenment. He is the longing of every oppressed, weary, fearful or constrained creature who reaches out towards the light.

So what does the Holy Spirit offer to this Cosmos who holds out his hands and asks for a gift?

At Easter, you may have heard me complaining about the paucity of images of the resurrection in our churches and I’m tempted to complain once more about the relative lack of images of the Holy Spirit. But I don’t need to complain too much this time, because we have a very powerful image of the Spirit right here at the focal point of the church. Above my head are 7 oil lamps which symbolise the gifts of the Spirit of God. Traditionally, these are the gifts enumerated by St Paul in Galatians: love, joy, peace, long-suffering, gentleness, goodness, faith meekness, self-control. But the gifts of the Spirit are not restricted to this or any other list! God pours out gifts upon the whole earth, to be embraced by any who are open to receiving them, gifts beyond our imagining, beyond our limitations. And if the Pentecost icon depicts weary Cosmos holding out his hands to receive gifts for the better living of this life, what gifts might we seek today? What would bring life to this world of ours at this time?

These gifts may not be spectacular, and they may not be what we would normally think of as charismatic gifts, but they are the most precious gifts of all. Let me suggest just a few. First is the gift of wisdom, Sophia. This is insight into the true nature of things, which is their divine nature. This is the insight that refuses to consign anything to mere utility or, worse, expendability. Wisdom reveals the God-breathed nature of all things and demands that we see worth in everything that breathes.

Next, this wisdom leads to the gift of discernment. This is the subtle gift of knowing how best to decide, how to judge a situation and respond in such a way as to benefit the common good, how to choose a path that is godly, life-giving and generous. It is the gift of a courageous and constant commitment to truthfulness and is much needed in our times.

Then there is the gift of understanding. The gift to see life from other perspectives, to see beyond our prejudices and see that God is present beneath the surface of things, always at the heart of the matter.

Then there is the gift that allows these others to work freely – the gift of inner peace. This is the gift that dispels the clouds from our true heart, our true centre, so that we may see clearly. It is the gift of quiet, of simplicity, of stillness, of inner stability; the gift to go beyond the inner turmoil or anxiety that may prevent us from acting freely and truthfully. This is the spiritual gift that is granted to any who find a way to sit still and listen, just like those disciples seated in the Pentecost icon.

I am not suggesting that these spiritual gifts, so desperately needed by weary Cosmos, are only available from the church. The Spirit is not confined. But they are given to those who follow in the way of Christ and who are willing to receive them, not for their own edification, but for the sake of the world. Wisdom, discernment, understanding, peace – these are not badges of honour but gifts to be received humbly and offered humbly, to be nurtured patiently and exercised thoughtfully. They matter now more than ever, so let us seek them with all our hearts. May God the Holy Spirit grant them to us that we may live lives that are full, free and gracious.

O Heavenly King, the Paraclete, the Spirit of Truth, who are present everywhere, filing all things, Treasury of Good and Giver of Life, come and dwell in us, cleanse us of every stain, and save our souls, O Good One.