Archive for January, 2006
Jesus has a wild streak – unruly and disturbing – and he seems to bring it out all about him. Especially when people are gathered for prayer.
I imagine every synagogue, every church, every gathering has its own hidden demons. I think we like them that way – hidden, silent, acceptable.
There are things we cannot talk about, issues that insist on silence, invisible line we won’t cross. And we limp along respectably because we couldn’t cope with the fire and the thunderstorm that might erupt if we did. It’s a compromise. A peaceful compromise Jesus disturbs. But look who actually breaks the silence! It takes an unclean spirit to speak for us – and what does it say? – ‘are you going to destroy us?’ The demon has more integrity than the congregation does – it tells it how it is – it sees the threat – the Holy One of God is here, here, and the silence cannot hold any longer – our hidden pact with silence is exposed and our dirty secrets are shrieking in our midst.
It’s age old. Listen to Moses. The people have had enough of God – they want silence – they can’t take any more of the fire and thunderstorm – they want their experience of God silent, seemly and sanitised. And God’s strange answer is to give them prophets – mouthpieces to humanise and tranquillise the voice of the boundless, wild God. But the prophets themselves turn out to be a pretty wild bunch, contriving all manner of means to shock the compromising community into hearing again the raw voice of God. God won’t be tamed. Contain God’s wildness one way and it’ll break out another.
Now am I cheating here? Should I really be praising the wildness like this? Is God’s wild unruliness what is on display in the synagogue today? Or is it something more sinister and divisive? That’s our problem I think. We have a job telling those two wild spirits apart. And this is the clue to Jesus’s authority – he doesn’t. He tells them apart and tells the unclean spirit to be silent. He restores silence. But it’s a different silence. It’s buzzing. Focused and full of God’s own wild unruly spirit. Honest. Open. Undefended.
And it asks us a question – if we each see ourselves as that synagogue for a moment and listen to the clamour and the compromise, the dirty secrets and wild hopes, the voices of blame and praise inside us – what would Jesus silence in us and what would he stir up?
January 29th, 2006
Outside the Youth Hostel in Venice at first light
Here’s the photo to accompany my most recent homily. Click to see it full size.
January 26th, 2006
He might have blinding lights and inaudible voices to bring him to his knees but I have something Paul doesn’t have—a photograph of my conversion.Photo might follow if I can get the scanner to work! Here it is, just after dawn, in Venice, the summer of 1980, waiting to get into the Youth Hostel. I was desperate, at my lowest, loneliest ebb, an ardent atheist, sick to the stomach, feeling utterly alone in an empty universe, not seeing a way to get through the day. I knew I had to take the shot. A few minutes later I was sitting on cold marble at the back of a church, emptying from its morning mass, praying, turning to a God I didn’t believe in, for I’m not sure what… help surely, hope maybe, peace? I was undone when I found all three.
Now of course, once I was feeling better I forgot all about the embarrassing lapse and got on with the day, with life. And that might have been that, were it not for the photograph and the next ebbing of the inner tide, and the one after that…
What I share with Paul, I suppose I share with each of you too. Conversion is only begun and never ended. It feels safe to look back on the darkness of that Venetian morning because that particular shadow no longer threatens in the same way… yet other obscurities have taken its place. There are different darknesses to turn away from but the turning away isn’t what makes the difference – it’s the turning to, the turning towards. I’m probably lying when I say that Venetian shadow no longer has a hold on my heart – the coldness of soul it signifies is always a tempting fix when the tide is going out.
Conversion, I’ve found, isn’t a clocking up of milestones, of faults fixed, human growth grasped, or sinfulness set aside. What we turn away from doesn’t go away. But then neither does what we turn to. And that ‘what’ is really a ‘who’: not an ideal, not a standard to meet, not even the beckoning of our best selves, but someone, someone real we turn to, who has always been turned towards us. Our turning towards life takes a lifetime… because our living takes a lifetime. But God’s turning to us is complete and constant. God’s gaze is always there to meet ours when we glance Godward, a gaze that intrigues, attracts, and defeats our defended hearts. And even when the tide is ebbing that makes all the difference.
January 26th, 2006
Turbulent Cleric has a post that echoes some of the sentiments in the discussion of my previous post.
January 22nd, 2006
Channel 4 has recently screened a two-part documentary by Professor Richard Dawkins vigorously making his case for the irrational and pernicious nature of religion. Judging by the reviews in UK national newspapers (e.g., Guardian) even sympathetic critics considered Dawkins’ style and argument to be over the top.
The British Jesuits’ web page has a couple of responses by two Jesuit philosophers, Gerard Hughes of Campion Hall, Oxford University and Louis Caruana of Heythrop College, University of London.
Dawkins is a fascinating man. I admire his creative and imaginative communication of scientific ideas, particularly that of evolution. He writes in his own field with a clarity and energy that is inspiring. On the subject of religion his evangelical fervour mightily undermines his credibility.
I had the interesting experience a few Mondays ago of watching, on DVD, a programme from Jacob Bronowski’s Ascent of Man, entitled ‘Knowledge and Certainty’, immediately followed by Richard Dawkins’ first programme. In his essay, Bronowski attacks many of the same targets Dawkins aims at — fanaticism, irrationality, intolerance, and certainty that goes beyond the evidence — but where Dawkins annoyed and alienated, Bronowski moved me to tears.
January 21st, 2006
George Bush is on the phone to Tony Blair — I wish I could do the accents: “Tony you wanted an exit strategy, we got an exit strategy. Forget all the democracy bullshit and rebuilding crap – what say we just duke it out mano a mano. One of them and one of us, hand to hand, clean fight, winner takes all. Work wonders for the budget deficit. Get the boys home early. Look good in the approval ratings. And think of what we could charge for the TV rights! Fight of the minell… fight of the milemiu … century.”
“George that’s a great idea. Wonderful! Trust you to come up with something so super. But who will we choose? We’d need the best. I can ask the SAS…”
“Tone, don’t you bother your pretty little head over it. I’ve got just the man.”
So the day comes and the world is watching – satellite, cable, internet (I’m afraid BBC lost out to Sky). Helicopters circle. The sun is at its height. Out steps the allied champion … trained in every martial art and killing technique, muscles on muscles, a dark look in his eyes and a swagger in his gait.
And no one to meet him. No opponent. Because of course it’s a fix, a foregone conclusion, who can stand against Sergeant Goliath and the world of power behind him. The band plays.
It’s the same the next day – the TV audience even larger, the marching bands louder, the hype at a fever pitch. Out steps Goliath, gleaming. No one to face him. No matter how much he taunts and insults the manhood of Iraq.
The pattern repeats itself … another day, another week, into another month. Until Day 40: the last chance. The audience, which had gotten bored and turned to Desperate Housewives, is back in force. This is the day. Out steps Goliath, from the security cordon bristling with guns. There’s George on one side, Tony on the other, dwarfed, exultant, holy in their military fatigues. Suddenly between them the hero is on his knees, then on his face. George and Tony gobsmacked. A hunk of rubble lying there, tossed by some scrawny Iraqi girl. The cameras even missed it.
In only a few chapters of Mark, Jesus has gone from hero mobbed by adoring crowds to wanted man with a tongue too sharp for his own good. Mark asks the question of power. Who holds it? And how far will it go in its own defence? But above all – how weak do you have to be to defeat it?
January 19th, 2006
I always get tripped up, this being the year of Mark’s gospel, when John sticks his nose in like today. Just as I’m beginning to get my head round Mark’s Jesus, John’s version pops up—and they could hardly be more different.
Next Sunday we’ll have Mark’s version of today’s events—the calling of disciples—and it’s all peremptory demand and prompt response. He says ‘follow’—right out of the blue—and, God help them, they do. And we wonder what kind of a person could command that kind of response, what kind of charisma he must have had? And what kind of a person could leave all behind on an instant’s command?
But John, John tells a different tale, equally enigmatic but altogether different. A tale of courtship not command. Subtler human interactions: looks and gazes, an often silent language of desire and hope, things heard and unheard. Oblique questions and offbeat answers. And all the little details that tie the scene to time and place—to this road, this home, just then at 4 o’clock.
John’s Jesus make’s no demands; he offers only an invitation—come and see, come and see where I live, where I linger. And they go, and they linger with him for the rest of the day … and the day turns into two, into a week, a month. Discipleship seems to just rub off on Andrew and co. And it seems to be catching too—Andrew to Simon; the next day, their neighbour Philip and Philip’s friend Nathaniel. Discipleship is almost caught by contact, by kinship, by relationship—and by time wasted, lingering.
John seems to be saying – linger, stay, abide, just stay with Jesus. Look at him and listen and you’ll catch it too, something will happen to you. And it’ll be something you’ve been looking for all your life, all your life.
But it’s not just looking at Jesus that does the trick of transformation—you could do that behind a barricade or from a telescope’s eye. It’s letting Jesus look at you, too. Andrew brings along Simon, his brother, and Jesus looks hard at him, gazes, beholds him … and sees him with a truth that changes him. Simon you are a Rock. You might not know it yet or for many years but Rock you are, Peter.
There’s the promise of these days of retreat. Look at Jesus—watch him, touch him, listen to him—and let him look at you—gaze at you, touch you, hear you—and he will tell you your truest name.
January 15th, 2006
More than the other gospels, Mark throws Jesus at us all of a sudden and all of a piece. Monday he appears from nowhere with his peremptory demands: repent, come, follow. Tuesday he is breaking Sabbath, silencing demons, impressing with an inner authority. And today, Wednesday, he heals, he silences and he seeks silence, and he prays. He prays and learns.
Who is this Jesus? If you only had these three days of Mark to go on who would you say he was?
I see him like Clint Eastwood, in all those spaghetti westerns—the man with no name—riding in out of the desert and bringing storm and stirring to all those settled lives. A mystery. An enigma. A force of nature. The eye of his own storm. Silent and secret at the core: with turmoil and tornado all around him.
We say of the Spirit, it blows where it will. But Jesus here is blown along and blows all in his path, only still in the night to feel out a dusty path in prayer. Following a hidden dream, a powerful imperative. From town to town. From farm to farm. Disturbing synagogues. Upsetting families. Troubling hearts and minds.
Speaking silence. Casting calm. Lonely but not alone.
And look how they look for him! Like they’ve been waiting lives-long to be so unsettled, so stirred up, so soul-thirsty.
Have we? … Speak Lord your servants are listening…
January 11th, 2006
The New Word is epistaxis — or plain old nose bleed to you and me. About 5pm on New Year’s Eve my nose decided to spring a leak and an hour later showed no signs of stopping so I and my Jesuit superior, Ian, spent the evening sitting in a selection of Casualties/A&Es/Emergency Rooms. He managed to get home just in time to see in 2006 (watching last summer’s cricket highlights on TV!) and I spent it with some friendly doctors and nurses. After much stuffing, tranquillising, sleeping, waiting, and eventually cauterising I made it back home this afternoon. Instructions to rest, not tie my shoe laces, take cold showers and eat cold food — well I exaggerate a little.
This was my first stay in hospital in my 47 years which is pretty good going. It would be even better if it were my last. Contrary to popular (UK) myth hospital food is edible, even quite nice.
A Happy and Healthy New Year to You All!
January 3rd, 2006