Modern Existence and Christian Existence
6. Seeds of Hope amongst the Ruins
We declare to you what was from the beginning, what we have heard, what we have seen with our eyes, what we have looked at and touched with our hands, concerning the word of life— this life was revealed, and we have seen it and testify to it, and declare to you the eternal life that was with the Father and was revealed to us— we declare to you what we have seen and heard so that you also may have fellowship with us; and truly our fellowship is with the Father and with his Son Jesus Christ. We are writing these things so that our joy may be complete. 1 John 1:1-4
Well, I will come to that shortly, but first let us recap.
As i suggested, the roots of our dis-ease lay in the human desire for ‘power over’. As with the First Adam in the garden, the words of the serpent seem to ring down through the ages Now the serpent was more crafty than any other wild animal that the Lord God had made. He said to the woman, ‘Did God say, “You shall not eat from any tree in the garden”?’ The woman said to the serpent, ‘We may eat of the fruit of the trees in the garden; but God said, “You shall not eat of the fruit of the tree that is in the middle of the garden, nor shall you touch it, or you shall die.” ’ But the serpent said to the woman, ‘You will not die; for God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.’ So when the woman saw that the tree was good for food, and that it was a delight to the eyes, and that the tree was to be desired to make one wise, she took of its fruit and ate; and she also gave some to her husband, who was with her, and he ate.
Now what is it to ‘see and to take’? Except to exert power over – to make a life for yourself – to be like God – knowing good and evil – that is with the capacity, indeed the necessity to choose. And choice itself is a fruit of the Fall, and if history teaches us anything it is that by and large we do not choose well! To take – to grasp – is to see the world as Ours to do with as we see fit. And indeed this may be said to epitomise our approach to the world in which we live.
of course this is a very old story and as such it finds its way into all human existence and it is hardly surprising that it should show up in the church, so contests of power wormed their way in and The Great Schism may well be described as the fruit of such a conquest. Pope Leo IX asserting his will (and following this amongst other things ‘the will’ became very much the focus of human consideration of God and of what it meant to be human).
To assert our will over is rather than to understand ourselves in the place of Gift – of givenness – of Grace, as those who living in Trust and Hope receive (which we are reminded of in St Paul’s injunction to ‘give thanks in all circumstances’ ) – rather to see ourselves as those who take, and indeed make.
It is this perspective which I think reveals to us why we are so enamoured of Technology – for it is of our making and it gives us increasing power over. Let us be in no doubt, We have Great power over the rest of the Created order, and by We i mean especially those who inhabit ‘the Modern World’ – a world in which Power over has been increased beyond comprehension by the release of the Apocalyptic energy of fossil fuels, making us Powerful and wealthy beyond the dreams of the avarice of the most avaricious of our forebears.
A World marked by Power over evidenced in that we are those who Choose. We look out on the world as its Centre and pick from the things we see surrounding us. We choose what we will eat, what we will wear, where we will live, not only if we have a car but what model, we choose what work we shall do, we choose whom we shall marry – Stanley Hauerwas speaking of current debates on marriage in his provocative style says ‘The difficulty, therefore, is that Christians, when they approach this issue, no longer know what marriage is. For centuries, Christians married people who didn’t know one another until the marriage ceremony, and we knew they were going to have sex that night. They didn’t know one another. Where does all this love stuff come from?’, and our choices go right down to which church we shall worship in, whether or not it is to our taste, we even choose our own idea of God, having become like Gods.
On this last point I am reminded of the the now sadly retired theologian Marva Dawn’s fabulous retort to a parishioner who after a service told her ‘I didn’t like any of the hymns today’ – ‘Well that’s fine and not a problem, because we weren’t worshipping you’
What is more as technical choosers we think nothing of supposing that ‘building the Kingdom of God’ is ur business, for after all we have built everything else that we can see.
The dramatic conclusion of the Modern Story is precisely this, that we have turned everything inside out – and that we have made ourselves the centre of everything. And thus I suggest all but entirely abandoned the faith. I must briefly also say that to the obvious retort, ‘well its ok for the Vicar to say that – you have things as you want them’ I can only reply that of course there is a grain of truth to that, but also that were that true as much as my fallen desires would have it, then I would have emptied the church by now – fulling it full of icons and incense and liturgies that went on of hours – like a priest I heard of recently i would insist that no one could come to the Eucharist who had not come to evening prayer the night before . . . (just to give you an insight into what would suit me 🙂 )
For all the challenges we face in the church it is This Fatal inversion of our faith which is by far the most significant – for our Life is in God. The fact that almost all of what I have said seems in so many ways to be absolutely untroubling is only a symptom of our deep sleep with regard to the Living God in our midst
OK So having set out as clearly as I can the Bad News – here’s a wee cartoon . . .
Why so Optimistic?? Well in a sense we have been here before, although perhaps without the inversion of our faith – Alistair Macintyre in his most widely read work, After Virtue, (First published in 1981 . . . ) which looks how the choosing self and thus the Self that cannot grow has positioned itself at the Centre of things says ‘If the tradition of the virtues was able to survive the horrors of the last dark age, we are not entirely without grounds for hope. This time however, the barbarians are not waiting beyond the frontiers; they have already ben governing us for some time. And it is our lack of consciousness of this that constitutes part of our predicament. We are waiting, not for a Godot, but for another – doubtless very different – St Benedict.’ Benedict of course is famous for setting up monasteries, which he called ‘schools of the Lord’s Service’ Places where we learned through shared life and practices Christian existence, in much the same way that we might learn Life through engagement with others
So apart from setting up monasteries for formation in Christian Existence, what might we do? What are the seeds which we might plant? As we look out on this wasteland of ‘The Abolition of MAn’ how might we in our small way begin to plant some flowers?
First to note that planting flowers in the face of such a situation is precisely a Gospel move. Martin Luther famously said in response to the question, ‘what would you do if you knew the world was going to end tomorrow?’ said ‘Plant a tree’. Here in Holy week, we have an echo of the word of the LORD to Jeremiah – ‘buy a field’. And of course, Jesus’ words to us – ‘if you have faith the size of a mustard seed . . .’ Small things patiently done for their own sake are the heart of a way back.
So let us begin with One thing – and for a moment I want to return to Maximos and his saying which we have encountered each week and compare it with a familiar gospel story
‘He [Adam] moved contrary to his nature, madly (ανοητ0ς) and of his own initiative, making a bad use of the natural faculty which had been entrusted to him in his constitution with an eye to the unification of what was separated, so as rather to separate things united’ Maximos the Confessor. Quoted in ‘Therapy of Spiritual Illnesses’ Jean-Claud Larchet Volume I, p65
Now as they went on their way, he entered a certain village, where a woman named Martha welcomed him into her home. She had a sister named Mary, who sat at the Lord’s feet and listened to what he was saying. But Martha was distracted by her many tasks; so she came to him and asked, ‘Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me to do all the work by myself? Tell her then to help me.’ But the Lord answered her, ‘Martha, Martha, you are worried and distracted by many things; there is need of only one thing. Mary has chosen the better part, which will not be taken away from her.’
Now I have to say that the most kick back I ever get when I preach is when I preach on this text 🙂 And how unsurprising is this? For after all if we live in a world which we think requires us to be ‘bringing in the Kingdom of God’ then Martha rather than Mary is our patron . . . but notice the Lord’s words to Martha – you are worried and distracted by many things; there is need of only one thing . . . Our forebear Adam – rather than bringing all things into One, separated that which was united . . .
Well the ‘many things are but a symptom of the collapse of the Unity of the Cruciform human. it is the deep renewal of our humanity which is always and everywhere called for. FIRST in its vertical dimension – then in the horizontal. The Order of the great Commands is entirely necessary.
Martha we might say is distracted by the horizontal – pulled apart – Jesus counsels her to follow MAry’s example. First things first.
One of the great symptoms of this age is Martha’s distraction literally as we are distracted by many things we are pulled apart – the human disintegrates -— ‘Look at what is coming to us!’ False ‘Beholdings’. I would tend to say the first thing perhaps we might usefully do is a stop doing – a stop paying attention to news from afar. You and I are not going to influence it – ‘There will be wars and rumours of wars . . . ‘ Just the other day on FB I saw someone asking ‘So what would YOU do about Syria?’ It seemed to me to be the most ridiculous question.
In fact the What of Christian Action has never changed – Love the lord your God, with all your heart and all your soul and all your mind and all your strength’ the Unifying Vision.
As Science looks at things in separation, most fatally NOT looking at the World in and Through Christ, imagining we can know anything apart from the Creator and as we have grown up in a culture entirely informed and one might say ‘created’ by that way of seeing – it is hardly any surprise that Jesus words to Mary sound ridiculous. but what is she doing – she is utterly devoted, given over to God in Jesus Christ – This is the meaning of our baptism – we no longer live for ourselves. We LIVE by Loving God above all and through all and in all. So FIRST we need a renewal of our vision – we need to be converted, the renewal of our nous – that Eye of the heart needs to be cleared. And it is only through the simple yet demanding work of the contemplation of God that that clarity might come about. Maggie Ross in her work on Silence comes close to this – it is the Deep Perceiving ‘mind’ the Silent Mind which Beholds! Which is a possibility if our Desire is thus turned, to See, to Behold God.
So the first Thing apart from which all else is a counsel of yet more distraction is the renewal of Contemplative prayer in its deepest sense – that ‘Feleing’ [sic] after God, that groping towards him, which is LOVE. And perhaps to remember that the Hebrew has no word for ‘mind’ – so when we recite the first commandment, we need to put more emphasis on the ‘heart’ which is the seat of our perception Hebrew thought.
I think that in this regard the word son St Theresa of Avila are of great benefit – ‘I do not love God, I do not even want to love God, but I do want to want to love God’. Her refreshing honesty which is the hallmark of all Saints as they Behold God and thus See the poverty of their own hearts is I think an encouragement to us
Formation in Christian existence requires unremitting attention – it is not ‘a thing’ in the midst of busy lives – it is ‘the thing’ which must permeate every moment of our existence – in other words we seek in and through everything to obey the Great commands which call us to Life – PRECISELY as the Words of Jesus called Lazarus form Death to Life. As Jesus submit to the Cross, so we submit to the Work of loving God in and through all things and our neighbour as ourself – THIS is our Vocation – it is the calling of God to us
One of the great deceits of this present age is to cloud human existence in a fog of complexity – whereas it is Simple – simple but difficult. Difficult because we allow ourselves to be distracted from our End – which is our Life in God. The Great Commands are words which call us to life. As some have noted before me, as we seek to walk in the way of these commands, they become our way of life. Using the great gifts of the disciplines built into our tradition we start by refusing to covet, until such time as ‘you shall not covet’ move from being apprehended as command, to become prophetic words about our nature.
To return to Benedict, part of his genius was to See what it was that helped people to grow into maturity. To the vows of Charity and poverty and obedience, he added famously a fourth – Stabilitas. IF we are talking about how our lives might grow, then moving around will do nothing to help. If the reality of our existence is that the material and spiritual are interwoven then our geographical location, with its attendant people is vitally important to us. We cannot grow if we are constantly being uprooted. This is why, given the right care and attention, good old fashioned parishes can become the seedbed for formation in Christian Existence. If shopping around for a church harms us by further reinforcing ourselves as the Centre of existence end not GOd, so Staying put, in a world where thanks to the motor car and indeed the airplane we are always on the move, when faithfully practised can be the beginning of Growth towards God.
it seems to me that if we Anglicans in Dunedin merely moved to our nearest churches and put down roots there, the establishment of Christian Community might be a possibility. To quote Father Stephen in a very recent blog posting ‘we will make little headway [with formation in Christian existence] unless and until we recognize that the modern . . . life (in its many aspects) is a moral choice. Living a half-hour away from a parish, isolated from fellow believers, may very well be the most serious moral choice we make after Holy Baptism, despite how innocuous it may seem.
Closing small churches is no good – the people who are there have been there for years and years, they are the soil in which new life can spring forth, if people who are driving a long way to ‘get their own desires seen to’ (not needs met!!!) go to church locally – then MUCH can be done by way of revitalisation of the Church. My own reading of folk who move around is that they are poorly growing, they think themselves far more mature in faith than they are. Those who are mature in faith will put up with much, they will turn even inconvenience into means to grow deeper into God. For they realise the density of our existence – they are not moving around – they feel the grit and the sand of the soil, the struggle for life. In their weakness and vulnerability they are radical open to that which is.
Which brings me to another point that this growth requires others. Community is both means and End. As St Paul tells us in his letter to the Ephesians. Benedict Saw this also. He has no time for those who move around to find somewhere where they can be the centre and so wither spiritually, and he demands that no one is safe to be let out alone, to pass on to the life of a solitary, unless they are first grounded in the formation of Community. It is only in and through the trials and tribulations of shared life that we gradually are formed into people who PERHAPS might be safe on their own. Without commitment to the local church we will make no progress. Today there are so so many which think they have gifts but reject the challenge of community. They are utterly unsafe.
Unless we have had to forgive many many times we cannot begin to assume we know a thing about the Life of Jesus, who is forgiving Everyone for Everything
Community brings us to the next point – everything flows form the Eucharist. The practise of shared meals is one which reinforces community and is the outworking of the Eucharist. Sharing our tables at home, reinforces the Eucharistic community making it a place of Joy and Great Faith and Hope. Inviting people to dinner can be the most counter cultural thing to do. the Eucharist as the Central sacrament of our Life together is the source of our Light and Life
Humility – small seeds are the foundation of the life of moving mountains, there are mountains that undeniably need moving but our spiritual strength has been radically attenuated these past years. Jesus comes to us in humility. HIs Weakness is the path of true power – not power over but power in and through. It is to follow Jesus in allowing our existence be shaped by those around us. Submitting to one another out of reverence for Christ – in humility thinking of others as better than ourselves, but we need the constant encouragement, correction, the occasional rebuke of others to do this. This is must be said is entirely contrary to how church exists for us in these days where we are by and large isolated, the idea that another member of the church might rebuke us is alarming – we don’t come to church for THAT!! This by the way i not a license for us to rebuke others – for was we know we have logs in our own eyes, rather it is to welcome a word of correction or discipline for we know that our souls require it.
All of this – let us not forget is an old story – growing in the Virtues. Training in Love, Joy, Peace, Patience, kindness, gentleness, generosity and self control.
It is submitting to the simple business of always being with the Lord’s people on the Lord’s day. I have said it before and will say it again, apart from constant fellowship with God’s people, our faith becomes illusory. I suffer from time to time, people who only infrequently submit to the discipline of shared life with others, because of this or that or the other slight, or worse because they think they can teach others, living illusions about this or that or the other which they think they will accomplish for God.
i’m reminded of Ananias – the man sent to Saul of Tarsus to bring the gospel to him. We only hear of him once, All we know is he was in prayer.
Forbearance as a very necessary trait – we don’t hang around long enough with people we find difficult for the gift of that difficulty to bear fruit in us . . . Remember the story of Peter asking Jesus ‘how many times should I forgive my brother? seven times?? The Pharisees said three, but they assumed that forgiveness was something that came from their spiritual superiority. Peter needs to be woken up from this deathly way. Why no, says Jesus, Seventy times seven times – in other words . . . you keep on forgiving and forgiving, not because the other person needs it, but because you are being formed into the likeness of the one who forgives everyone for everything . . . In other words, Forgive seventy times seven Peter – go on forgiving until you forget the question – until the Image of God within you begins to bear the fruit of the likeness of God
And just simply BEING with others. our emphasis is so much on ‘ministry’ or doing things for people, that we lose the fabric of just being out of which any meaningful doing has its context. Church is not just a million and one ‘doings’ – if the only time we are with people is when we are doing things for them, then we have missed the point entirely and in this regard I think that clergy have much to learn, and those who ‘have a ministry’
A couple of further points. Firstly we must do everything in our power to uncouple ourselves from our reliance on technology which is fragmenting everything. If you only can manage to walk to the shops once a week, do it! The idolatry of technology is changing us in the words of CS Lewis into ‘Men with empty chests’ Computers have no heart, no way of perceiving God – spending time in their company is a drain on your Existence. Be with God, Be with people, Be alone. Before you ever try and ‘Be’ with a phone etc.
Secondly grow SOMETHING you eat – better grow something to SHARE. For Sharing is at the heart of our Life. koinonia. Jesus literally shares his life with us – SHARING is the heart of this Life in God. Share your table, share your food share everything God has entrusted to you. For God has shared everything he has with us.
And in every way possible go easy on the creation. As I said last time, our Power over has brought us to the point where we are on the edge of so destroying the Creation that we have no life. I am reminded that humility is a word which is all about Soil, humus, relatedness. Our basic relationship is with Creation – soil – dust you are and to dust you shall return. The loss of our humanity is paralleled by the destruction of the soil. Allow your mortal body to be food for the soil, and thereby recognise that you are part of the Creation
this earthiness, this connectedness, this koinonia is at the heart of God’s coming to us in Jesus and in every word he says – we flee from the Swmron in the Mount for it confronts us with the call to a radical vulnerability with one another. Yet it is only in such vulnerability that we discover our life, that we are open to that which is. That we might know God and thus Live.