Archive for August, 2004
I don’t know what it’s like in your church but one of my bugbears as a catholic priest is the way people sit at the back. On a bad Sunday evening everyone is the length of a football pitch away and you feel like you are performing for empty pews and distant empty faces. I blame today’s gospel and others like it. … Take the worst seat, accept the least praise, think better of others than yourself. Downward mobility. Such ideas have been a charter for an odd piety of humility—a striving to be humbler and holier than thou. Is this what Jesus is after? That we don’t risk asserting ourselves or celebrating our gifts or making a stand?
There is something strange going on here. Jesus himself seems to have set us the example: defeated, humiliated and nailed to a cross—a death he freely accepted says the Eucharistic prayer. And there’s something gloriously upside down about that. An incomprehensible act of God that challenges the world’s perception of what is valuable and what is not, of what’s worth dying for, and what counts as victory. In a world of winners Jesus surely counts as the ultimate loser—even the victory of the resurrection which we celebrate at this table hasn’t made much difference to the degree of distress and violence and poverty in the wider world.
So is there a new Christian value-system with the poles reversed: to win is to lose, to lose is victory? Take the lowest seat because you will be raised up? Is this God’s preferential option for the poor? Is this the mighty cast from their thrones?
The catch is that, 2000 years on, we have substituted one scale of virtue with another, an old standard of achievement for a new one. We might like it better. It might still be as counter-cultural as ever. But it still functions to grade us, to draw lines that divide the sheep from the goats.
We still ask the question “who’s in and who’s out?” There’s a really daring, maybe even rude, Jesus asking that question tonight. Here he is, a dinner guest, commenting on the behaviour of his fellows at table and on his host, watching them draw the lines that divide, watching them battle to be in and not out. Watching and sticking the verbal boot in. Is he enjoying himself?
Did Jesus die to turn the scales upside down? No; he died to give the lie to the whole myth of exclusion. In God’s eyes there is no in or out; no scapegoats. We are the poor fools who do the grading. We are the idiots who would rather do away with Jesus than have him ruin our dinner party with his home truths. God has no favourites. Or rather God’s love for each of us makes the idea of favouritism silly. Jesus didn’t just turn the world upside-down, he did away with the illusion of insiders and outsiders altogether and he asks us to live in the light of that—to lobby and vote in the light of that. Think what a world that might be. Think what it would mean personally, to receive life as gift and not have to earn it. Think what it would mean politically, if all could receive life as gift and not have to struggle for it against those on the inside.
I think that is what Jesus is asking of us tonight, on retreat: to give up. To give up and stop self-judging, stop grading. To let God love us. Let ourselves know and feel how God loves us. To be without fear. Without effort. At peace. At ease.
August 25th, 2004
“Love God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind!” Tall order! “Love your neighbour as you love yourself!” Fat chance! I don’t have to know myself very well to know how far short I fall in the love department. The longer I love God the deeper I know how little my love is next to God’s extravagance, loyalty, passion. Knowing that is Hell some days.
The Hebrew name for Hell was Gehenna, after the valley outside Jerusalem where rubbish was tipped and fires burned and it was said that, once upon a time, children had been sacrificed. No wonder Ezekiel’s people had a terror of tombs and dead bodies. Not just our horror-film-fed squeamishness but a bone-deep, religious, aversion. Ezekiel is sent in his vision to walk in a valley of dead bones. Hell. Horror, waste, desolation. It speaks of death and hopelessness. It echoes with disgust and sheer god-forsakenness.
We each have our own Gehenna, our own half-ignored valley of death, and we all have God’s pledge that even these bones can live, even what we have given up for dead can be a home to God’s life-giving spirit.
If even hell can’t resist God’s life-giving love I find a seed of hope for my own love-resisting heart. I find God looking at me, knowing me bone-deep … and against all odds loving me, liking me into life.
August 20th, 2004
I remember being at a morning mass once in a strange church. Everything happened normally until the time for the prayers. The first: ‘for a personal intention … lord hear us’. The second: ‘for a personal intention …’ The third … no prizes for guessing. The ten-person congregation managed at least a dozen ‘personal intentions’. I remember finding it funny, then disturbing, then the perfect opportunity to congratulate myself for being more theologically with-it than my fellow mass-goers.
It came back today with the gospel’s strange combination of sayings: one about interpersonal disagreements and the other about prayer. I guess I’m disturbed at how the gospel treats both as public, communal matters rather than private ones. These days we don’t think lawsuits should be a matter for the local parish to decide. These days we don’t think God is only found in church.
The fact people come on retreat says something about the desire for personal relationship with God—and a retreat focuses there specifically. But even that isn’t done alone. We need company in the work of retreat, we need to be accompanied. God is found in agreement, in conversation, in lives shared.
The liturgy expresses that. Though our journeys are individual we make them together. Though we each know God in a uniquely personal way, the God we know is one … and in the knowing we are united.
Why do we speak our desires and hopes at Mass when we pray? God knows them anyway. Why do we speak to God in prayer at all? God knows us through and through. The trouble is we don’t know our own self until we speak, until we offer ourselves in words to one another. And it’s not just the speaking. Hearing is a sacrament too. Until we hear our brother’s or sister’s offering, until we echo our assent, they cannot come to be. Agreement the gospel is telling us is a holy thing. Not just because we ought to be nice. But because each one of us comes to be who God made us to be only in the web of words we share in community. That’s what community is for—to make us human. Even this small community of prayer has that sacred opportunity.
August 11th, 2004
Here’s an image I like. Paris. Ignatius 38 years old and struggling in studies, sharing a room with Pierre Favre just 23. Pierre wrote later:
“That year Inigo entered the College of Sainte-Barbe and lived in the same room with us, with the intention of following the course in arts. And it was our master who was in charge of this course. … After it had been set that I would teach this holy man, it followed that at first we had a rather casual relationship and then I became very close to him, and finally we led a life in common where the two of us had the same room, the same table, the same purse.”
The other room-mate was Francis Xavier whose exploits turned out to be altogether showier than Favre’s but it is to Favre that we owe the work we do here. Ignatius gave the Exercises to the young Favre and then set him to find others who would benefit from them. One of the people Favre gave them to was a man named Dominic, who gave them to another man who gave them to another man, or to a woman who gave them to another woman.
For all of these centuries, someone has been giving these Exercises in person to another person who has handed them on in turn. We find ourselves a living link in that tradition. We might not be fabled missionaries like Xavier but we bring our little loaves and few fish to be blessed and broken and shared, trusting that God will take care of the rest.
August 2nd, 2004