Archive for November, 2005
“I could have been a contender” says Sylvester Stallone in the film “Rocky”. And most of us know what he means.Did you spot the ‘deliberate’ mistake? D’oh! I really meant Marlon Brando in ‘On the Waterfront’
One of our team, trained long ago as a zoologist, was reading the TV guide this afternoon and sighing wistfully at the thought of a new David Attenborough extravaganza about creepy crawlies—“That could have been me”, he muttered. I don’t think he meant the insects…
For my own part I remember as a teenager watching Jacob Bronowski’s “Ascent of Man” and thinking “that’s who I want to be”. Well I’m not. And the regret’s real—but so is the relief: I didn’t get to be a second Bronowski—I got to be me.
For most of us, life doesn’t turn out how our younger selves imagine it should. We lack the talent. We dodge the luck. We open door A and not B.
And then there’s disaster. I remember meeting a priest just back from a ten-year reunion with the students he’d been chaplain to at university. He was sad and shaken. “How come I didn’t prepare them for divorce, and unemployment, and disease?” That’s what he wanted to know.
And sometimes we get to follow our bliss and still it leads us places we neither imagine nor instinctively desire. I wonder how long into his ministry it was before Jesus realized his future held no grand reforms and no grandchildren for his knee?
Miguel Pro was exiled from his native Mexico and only returned because his doctors thought the air of home would cure his stomach problems. In a way it did. He got to be a martyr, someone else than he expected. His martyrdom is a strange thing because we have photographs of it. The regime wanted his death recorded as a warning. So we see him brought before the firing squad. We see him praying. And we see him arms outstretched crying “Viva Christo Rey!”—Long Live Christ the King. He found an eloquence and a wisdom that even the bullets couldn’t contradict.
The thing that moves me though is that—as Luke says today—he met a tragedy and took it as an opportunity. An opportunity not just to bear witness but to be a witness. He didn’t get to be the person his younger self imagined but he was surprised by something better.
Apparently he was something of a joker. Once, when the house was raided where he was saying mass, he managed to slip out in time, only to come back disguised as a police officer to berate the constables for not having caught him yet. I like that style!
The gospel says, “your endurance will win you your lives” but that seems far too serious. There’s something here about taking the opportunities life presents and living them … eloquently. And letting our lives surprise us and continue to surprise us—because we are unfinished as yet, the canvas not dry, the witness we bear still not fully born.
November 24th, 2005
I run the risk of appearing a groupie by offering a second“The long slow victory of gnostic over catholic christianity” link in a few months to an interview with John Dominic Crossan but it seems so relevant to our celebration of Christ the King. Here he is, comparing the imagery surrounding the Imperial cult with the titles and understanding the earliest followers used for Jesus.
Today, if you talked to most people and said there was a human being in the first century who was called Divine Son of God, God from God, Lord and Redeemer, and Liberator and Savior of the world, 99.9% of people would say it’s Jesus we are talking about. But Caesar Augustus was called all of those titles before Jesus was ever born. Those were his titles.
If you are talking to a Jew at that time, you might say Jesus is the Christ, and the Jew would understand that means the Messiah. But if you were talking to a pagan, Jesus Christ almost sounds like Mr. and Mrs. Christ’s little boy Jesus. But when you say Jesus Christ is Lord, than these pagans are going to understand what you’re saying. Whoever this Jesus Christ is, you’re claiming that person is supposed to be running the universe.When he says Jesus Christ is Lord, that is another way of saying, as Jesus did, that the Kingdom of God has already arrived on earth. One speaks directly to Jews and raises the issue of whether the world should be violent or non-violent. But Jesus Christ is Lord speaks to pagans–and it also raises the question of whether this is a violent or non-violent opposition to Caesar.
What we don’t catch is that the language of Paul is high treason, making a claim for Jesus that is ridiculous. Caesar was running the world, and he controlled the Roman Empire and brought peace to the Mediterranean–all of that at least makes sense because he is divine.
But Jesus? This nobody? Who was crucified on a Roman cross? He is actually the Lord of the universe? It’s either very stupid or you’re talking about a radically different type of world, a different type of God. You’re not doing fine-tuning–lowering the taxes, lessening the oppressive nature of the Roman Empire. Paul is saying that the whole system is not the will of God.
It’s not just long-forgotten empires that come under the Christian critique–it’s every way we apportion power, every way we subordinate peace to the violent pursuit of political ends, even when those ends are good.
November 20th, 2005
Both readings raise a question of purity: the purity of our worship, the purity of our worship spaces, the purity of our prayer.
Judas and his brothers set out to purify the sanctuary of Jerusalem from the defilement of their enemies. They make their sacrifices, re-dedicate their altars, offer their communion; they adore, they adorn, they sing, they feast.
But they take their whole army with them. Jerusalem is a contested space—always has been—but all sacred spaces are. Every place of worship is a battleground. Every Church a theatre of war. Because purity is always an issue. What keeps a space sacred and what defiles it?
And there always seems an element of violence about the purifying, whether it’s the armies of the Maccabees, or the anti-capitalist zeal of Jesus.
The Church is waging its own liturgy wars right now—a civil war I guess—over translations and texts, sanctuaries and servers, over sacrifice and communion, over mystery and what moves us. And as always the tussle for purity seems to bring out the violence in all sides, all greys sharpened against each other to blacks and whites.
But the violence should be a sign to us. The purifying, driven zeal of Jesus got him nowhere, got him killed. He couldn’t reform the Temple. All he could do was let it be destroyed in his own body in the hope it might be rebuilt, on the third day, from the roots up.
November 18th, 2005
At first sight there’s a contrast between the two readings today. The first reading is all full of haste and energy and speed. The Word coming to the rescue, saving the Israelites, giving them safe passage, re-making the world to make us free. And not just quietly let loose but light-hearted, skipping like lambs, singing like children. As the image goes it is God who takes the initiative and we who can only respond with songs of joy.
But the gospel good news sounds less promising: there’s not much singing and skipping going on. Just a promise that if we pester enough, if we threaten violence, if we are irritating enough then God might manage to right our wrongs. It sounds like the initiative has to be all ours and the labour unrelenting.
I reckon though we jump to conclusions if we put it that way around—if we see God as the harassed judge delaying the justice that we are nagging for. Isn’t it a cop-out to leave all the justice to God—aren’t the reins of righteousness in our own hands? Aren’t we the ones who make the laws and bend them? Aren’t we the ones who elect the politicians we deserve? Isn’t justice ours to make or break?
And if that’s even a little bit true aren’t we more like the judge than the widow? Careless of God and the little ones alike. Too comfortable to pay the price justice would cost.
And if we take the judge’s place in this parable that places God in the widow’s shoes. And isn’t that a good image for our God? She is the one pestering us for justice, not the other way round. She won’t let us sleep until she gets her way—until all captives are free, until the orphans are fed, until the blind see, the lame are skipping like lambs, until the poor know the good news and sing for joy.
November 12th, 2005
The war to end all wars didn’t.
by Siegfried Sassoon (1920)
HAVE you forgotten yet?…
For the world’s events have rumbled on since those gagged days,
Like traffic checked while at the crossing of city-ways:
And the haunted gap in your mind has filled with thoughts that flow
Like clouds in the lit heaven of life; and you’re a man reprieved to go,
Taking your peaceful share of Time, with joy to spare.
But the past is just the same–and War’s a bloody game…
Have you forgotten yet?…
Look down, and swear by the slain of the War that you’ll never forget.
Do you remember the dark months you held the sector at Mametz–
The nights you watched and wired and dug and piled sandbags on parapets?
Do you remember the rats; and the stench
Of corpses rotting in front of the front-line trench–
And dawn coming, dirty-white, and chill with a hopeless rain?
Do you ever stop and ask, ‘Is it all going to happen again?’
Do you remember that hour of din before the attack–
And the anger, the blind compassion that seized and shook you then
As you peered at the doomed and haggard faces of your men?
Do you remember the stretcher-cases lurching back
With dying eyes and lolling heads–those ashen-grey
Masks of the lads who once were keen and kind and gay?
Have you forgotten yet?…
Look up, and swear by the green of the spring that you’ll never forget.
November 11th, 2005
Another cracking piece from WaiterRant. Marvellous!
November 8th, 2005
I’ve just been wrapping up an article for the British Jesuit’s spirituality journal The Way. The paper is about spiritual direction and the choices a director makes to follow one thread and set aside others. It should appear in January 2006.
Some time back (October 2004) I published another paper in The Way, this time on a relatively neglected suggestion found in The Spiritual Exercises of St Ignatius Loyola. The suggestion in question is this:
A step or two in front of the place where I am to contemplate or meditate, I will stand for the length of an Our Father, raising my mind above and considering how God our Lord is looking at me, etc., and make an act of reverence or humility.
I try to show that buried in this rather dry injunction is a rich spirituality of personal relationship with God. You can download a PDF version or read on…
Continue Reading November 6th, 2005
Seems like dreams can go two ways. Ever had one of those nightmares where you are being chased down long corridors through tangled forests towards the ever receding safety of a half-open door? That door can go two ways: slam shut behind you with a flood or relief or slam shut in your face with whatever ravening monster ready to wake you up frantic and panting. Dreams can go two ways.
This parable isn’t quite a nightmare—though Matthew tries to make it one. You might be mortified if the door to the wedding feast slams shut but its not life or death—it’s only a party—though ‘I do not know you’ is ominous enough. And all because of a little oil. 50% of us consigned to oblivion over a little oil.
The door’s the problem here—not the oil, not the lamps, and not the bridesmaids. The sound of that door slamming is decisive; when that door closes you’re either in or out. Tough!
Is this the God we know? Tough on crime. No excuses. You had your chance? It’s certainly the God some people swear by. There’s a whole religious industry built around misreading our second reading, waiting for the door to slam shut so the righteous can be carried aloft to watch their unfortunate families and friends left behind and locked out of heaven. If that’s your God you don’t need to worry about global warming or waging war for oil—it’ll all be over soon anyway and before the dream becomes a nightmare you’ll be on the right side of the door.
But there’s many a poor soul living under the eye of that God, sadly certain the door has already closed them out. The millions who see themselves as beyond forgiveness, beyond healing, beyond the pale. Sinners in the hands of an angry God. Or maybe they just feel all the oil’s run out of their lives and left them lost and empty, nameless and aimless.
The door’s the problem. It shuts us out or it shuts us in—but either way we are captive.
The door’s the problem not oil or wisdom.
Wisdom is the solution. Not wisdom as pre-emptive strike; not stockpiling wisdom by the barrel load against the coming judgment. Wisdom we hear today plays an entirely different game. Wisdom doesn’t believe in doors. Wisdom doesn’t see herself in short supply. Wisdom is on the look out for ways to give herself away. She isn’t hiding. She isn’t setting tests. She doesn’t play hard to get. She never runs out. She never forgets our name.
When the earliest Christians were grappling to understand Jesus one of the first biblical images they turned to was Lady Wisdom. Jesus, they said, is Lady Wisdom alive among us: the one who danced at creation; the one who lived our life to the full; the one we still know in our hearts. They borrowed existing hymns to Wisdom and sang them about Jesus: ‘In the beginning was the Word and the Word was God and the Word was with God…’
A Jesus who doesn’t set tests, who isn’t in short supply, who doesn’t hide but comes to seek out anyone who needs him. A God without boundaries.
So who’s this bridegroom guy getting all huffy behind his door?
November 6th, 2005
They are all at it today. It’s an orgy of self-justification. The parable’s full of it. Paul’s full of it. And even our feast of Charles Borromeo hints of it. How do we do things right? How do we run our diocese, or live out our calling, or just make an easy living? If no one were watching it might all be easy. Who cares what a mess we make if we’re not caught out? Who’s bothered by the corners we cut if the boss is away?
But don’t we feel all the time that we are under scrutiny? There’s always someone to pick us up on what we’ve done, or done badly, or not done at all. And not just irate employers—there’s friends and family and community we live with. Don’t you wish they’d get off your back? Don’t you wish they’d let up? Don’t you wish you could have some peace and quiet?
Maybe that’s why you’ve come on retreat? To get away from it all. To leave the prying eye’s behind. To be left alone.
But then look what they do! They bring out crafty and dishonest stewards, apostles busy with their own self-assessment, and dead bishops who ran a tight ship.
Worst of all though is the all-seeing eye you bring along yourselves. The critical voice that will never quite quit. And I don’t mean God. I mean the personal inner tyrant that sounds like God, pretends to be God, but wears a disapproving frown.
If you want some peace and quiet, if you want to hear the real voice of the real God, you’re going to need to leave the inner critic at the front door and listen instead for the real God, the God who praises the strangest people for the damnedest things. If you opened your ears and relaxed your heart this evening what would you hear God praising you for … even you, even now.
November 4th, 2005