Archive for July, 2006
Retreat directors are a sneaky bunch—they often give today’s gospel to people coming on a retreat as an invitation to ‘come away to a quiet place by yourself and rest for a while’—and they completely leave out the bit about not actually getting any peace or quiet when you get there. All the clamouring crowds have worked out where you are going and they’ve got here ahead of you—asking, needing, occupying, bothering. Retreat directors don’t mention that bit. We wouldn’t want you emulating Jesus paying attention to the crowding distractions.
But Jesus does—pay attention—you get the sense almost against his better judgment. Despite his plans he is moved to pity. He can’t ignore the crowd because he sees them like sheep without a shepherd.
I don’t know much about sheep. I don’t much care to meditate on sheep after a lunch of lamb. And I’m allergic to wool. But here goes.
What does that mean—like sheep without a shepherd? Jeremiah has some hints at an answer and the psalmist helps. Sheep without a shepherd, they say, scatter, they wander. Maybe that’s how Jesus saw them all trailing after him, following anything that moves. What else? Sheep without a shepherd miss the best grazing, they fail to thrive, and the undernourished flock dwindles. Finally—and Jeremiah seems to underline this—without a shepherd the sheep are afraid, in terror. Scattered, neglected, afraid.
There’s the pastoral role in a nutshell—to gather, to care, to protect. Now, back at the shore, Jesus sees the crowd and takes pity on them because they are like sheep without a shepherd and he does what? Gather them, care, protect? No! He sets himself to teach them at some length. It’s a strange shepherd teaches sheep to be sheep?
Isn’t that a little odd?
Perhaps we are like sheep without a shepherd. But here’s the question: is Jesus offering himself to us as a shepherd; or is he teaching us that we need not be sheep?
July 23rd, 2006
Time to come out of the closet: I’m a CSI fan. (only the original of course…) Last time a scene struck me and stuck with me. A cop was talking about his wayward daughter. He’d been watching her on a street corner, drugged up, plying her trade as a prostitute. But he said all he could really see was the five-year old, her tongue sticking from the corner of her mouth with the effort of drawing a picture, sitting there colouring, absorbed, humming a bright tuneless song.
‘Let your peace come back to you’ – I like that phrase from the gospel – ‘if the house deserves it, let your peace descend on it; if it does not, let your peace come back to you’… Let your peace come back to you.
Am I that in control of my peace? Can I call it and recall it at will? I realise that much of the time I squander my peace, make it hostage to other’s fortunes, or watch it wander aimlessly away to leave me unquiet or bored or sad.
What would it be like to husband my peace? To cultivate it? To let it come back to me? I’m not talking about selfish, lazy contentment but the honest kind of consolation God made us for in the first place. A deep peace in knowing what I am and what I am made for. The kind of peace that gives us a choice. A peace I can spend or waste.
Take Hosea. He’s given us yet another in a string of metaphors for sinfulness: today, with Israel, we are fractious toddlers or maybe stroppy teenagers—whatever. But he’s also given us yet another image of God’s steadfast love: a devoted mother, a doting new father. A God to hold us. A God to name us and call us. A God to guide our tottering first steps. A God to lift us up, just to place his cheek to ours. A God to gaze on us with love.
Where is my peace? So often that boils down to asking where my attention is going. Where am I looking? Into the centre of my own fractious, stroppy, wayward self, or into the eyes of the God who sees me so differently? Sees the five-year old at her colouring. Sees the innocence. Sees the potential and possibility for beautiful things… Even now.
July 13th, 2006
I was ordained a priest 10 years ago today.
It hasn’t been the ten years I imagined it would be — marked more by failure than success, more by sickness than health — but, I realise reflecting on it, still good, very good.
I chose a phrase from St Ignatius and a fragment of a poem for my ordination card. In the Spiritual Exercises, Ignatius writes:
Love ought to manifest itself more by deeds than by words
To be honest my ministry for the last ten years has been more words than deeds, more silence than words, but I do hope the words and silence have been an expression of love — at least sometimes! Ignatius has a second thing to say about love:
Love consists in a mutual communication between two persons. That is, the one who loves gives and communicates to the beloved what he or she has … and the beloved in return does the same for the lover. Thus, if one has knowledge, one gives it to the other who does not; and similarly in regard to honours or riches. Each shares with the other.
I give what I have — words, silence.
The poem is by Adrienne Rich. By a happy coincidence, she was on BBC radio yesterday morning talking about poetry and politics, and I dug out my ordination card. Ten years ago I chose the lines:
My heart is moved by all I cannot save:
So much has been destroyed
I have to cast my lot with those
who age after age, perversely,
with no extraordinary power
re-constitute the world.
Somewhere in there — in that casting of lots — I know that Jesus has cast his lot in with me too. Ten years has seen me painfully learning about love, about limits, about life. And though I have known loss upon loss in these years one thing has been constant, the ready presence of Jesus. I have fought him, ignored him, cherished him, blamed him, loved him — been all over the place — but he has been nothing but here.
Even when I cannot pray I have met him in words and silence — in preaching and presiding at Mass; in giving, receiving, and teaching spiritual direction. He turns up. Sometimes it feels like he performs for me, shows off his creative ingenuity, to catch my eye and hold it like a juggler moved to ever wilder, fiercer antics to wow his watcher. I haven’t been the best audience.
With hindsight, Rich’s words seem more apt than I ever hoped they would be. My heart has been moved by all I cannot save. You give what you have. You do what you can. Perversely and with no extraordinary power. And pray that God can outdo you.
July 13th, 2006
‘I will betroth you to myself for ever, betroth you with integrity and justice, with tenderness and love. I will betroth myself to you faithfully and you will come to know the Lord.’
For years now I haven’t been able to call Jesus ‘Lord’. The word worms uneasy in my mouth and in my heart I always know that when I call him Lord, our Lord, the Lord, I am evading something. Jesus is not Lord to me. Once he was. But at some point he slipped in closer, ducked under my guard, and planted himself beside me. Since then calling him Lord has felt like a diversionary tactic, a way of keeping him at arms length—not that it stops me, from time to time, from doing just that.
He hasn’t asked me to call him ‘husband’ yet, the way God, through Hosea, asks Israel but sometimes it seems it’s heading that way.
Ursula LeGuin has a utopian novel called The Dispossessed with an ideal, if not idyllic, society speaking an invented language, Pravic, a language without kinship ties or possessive pronouns but with one word I love: ammar. It means brother—or sister—not brother by biology but brother by humanity, brother among the living. For a while that’s what I called Jesus—ammar, brother of my heart. I liked it, I was moved by it, and so was he at first but I slowly woke to the sense that he was never completely content with being ammar. He still heard me keeping a distance. Ammar was too non-specific for his liking, too un-possessive, in the end too safe. So ammar has had to go. And I’ve had to learn again the language of love. What do you call the one who is closer to your heart than you thought was possible? You end up babbling. Borrowing embarrassingly from silly love songs. You end up saying, ‘Hey you!’ You end up in silence, gazing.
Well, I do. What about you?
July 10th, 2006
‘When I am weak, I am strong’. Isn’t that a lie, a sweet lie? It sounds good, sounds holy, but it hides the fact that this world is run by the strong for the strong—and the weak, the weak have to get by with the crumbs from the strong man’s table.
Who bears the brunt of global warming but the starving poor of Africa? Who carries the cost of storm and hurricane but the weak that can’t get out of the way? Who pays the price of heat and cold but the old and neglected?
In this world to be weak is to be out of the game. In this world to be weak is to be collateral damage. In this world to be weak is to be inadvertent victim.
And in this world when God becomes human God goes all the way. If God is in this world God is where the weak are. That’s the scandal of our belief: when God comes to make terms with us God doesn’t come in strength, in show, in shock and awe, God comes in weakness. God knows no other way.
And I for one wish God would change his mind – because Paul is telling the truth after all. Whose side am I on? If I am going to be alongside God I can only be weak no matter how stupid it is, no matter how I hate it. And that’s what it means to be prophetic – content with weakness and insults and hardships and persecutions and agonies because God is too. It’s prophetic because it scares the strong to the bottom of their souls. What if our politics put the poor first not last? What if our business gave back more than it took? What if our advertising told the truth? What if our religion made the outcast at home?
What a stupid way to live! What a stupid way for God to live!
Part of me is thinking – ‘well, it’s alright for God, playing at weakness and getting away scot-free… that God doesn’t have to really feel the pain and defeat and damage of being weak.’ But that is what we celebrate here every time we eat this bread and drink this cup – that God knows the pain and the defeat and the damage from the inside, to the end, the way we do. And still God chooses it. And still God chooses us.
July 9th, 2006
While Lectio Divina seems naturally suited to praying with texts where words and their resonances are uppermost, other pieces of scripture engage us primarily as stories.
Stories have the capacity to draw us in. Almost without effort we find ourselves imagining the place and the people and the better the story the more we find ourselves moved by what we imagine. This natural capacity is the basis of the way of praying called imaginative, or Ignatian, contemplation.
Some people avoid this kind of prayer because they say they ‘have no imagination’ but everyone does–it is just that it seems to work differently in different people. We often think that we should see pictures in our imagination, but, just as commonly, people seem to hear their way into a story while others enter the imagination through a vague but significant sense of where things are.
Imagination is related to memory: if you can call up a memory in some way you can use your imagination in prayer. Think of someone you love or a place where you have been happy and you will find yourself spontaneously using your imagination in the way that works for you.
People also differ in how much work it takes to imagine. Some find their imagination more passive–events unfold before them without effort–while others have a more active imagination–they are more aware of the work that goes into ‘building’ an experience.
However you approach it though, imaginative prayer is a powerful way to enter into a gospel story. The details of the story and the work of your imagination shape a temporary world for you to experience in a real way.
Choose your scripture passage and become comfortable with it. Read it over a few times until you know what happens and are able to set the words aside.
Find a quiet inner place—as quiet as you have available right now. Begin to remember the story and its setting, letting it take shape, and letting yourself settle there.
Use your imagination to enter into the story in some of the ways below:
- Watch what happens: listen to what is being said; feel the action with your body.
- Become part of the story either by being yourself or by becoming one of the other people in the story.
- Listen, taste, smell, feel, and watch what happens. Allow yourself to interact with the others in the event: enter into conversation with them, listen to what they have to say to you and to each other, etc.
- Allow the event to unfold through your imagination, taking as long as you want, following the narrative wherever it seems to want to go.
- Respond spontaneously in conversation with God, with Jesus or with one of the other persons in the story.
When you are ready, mark the end of your time of prayer with some closing gesture or words of prayer.
Afterwards you might want to make a note of anything that seemed significant.
July 2nd, 2006