the holiness of the Lord

(from the second Sunday in Lent: I am catching up…)

Isaiah6

The scene that follows the announcement ‘holy, holy, holy’ is dramatic: ‘the foundations of the thresholds shook at the voice of him who called, and the house was filled with smoke’. Isaiah’s response is not worship, as we might expect. Instead, he exclaims, ‘Woe is me!’ Seeing the holiness of the Lord makes Isaiah aware of his own lack of holiness, and fearful: ‘a man of unclean lips’ should not (he thinks) behold ‘the King, the Lord of hosts’. God’s glory shows up all that is unworthy about us. Similarly Peter, in the gospel reading from a few weeks ago, responds to the miraculous catch of fish: ‘Depart from me, O Lord, for I am a sinful man’. Beholding the greatness of the Lord brings about a new, and unsettling, revelation of our own lack of sanctity. The response from on high is not judgment, however, but comfort. One of the seraphim brings a burning coal from the altar, touches Isaiah’s lips with it, and announces, ‘Behold…your guilt has been taken away, and your sin forgiven’. Likewise Jesus reassures Peter (in the same words the angel used to put Mary at ease): ‘Do not be afraid.’

Contemplating the holiness of God ought to make us mindful of the ways we have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God. This is not the way into condemnation, though, but the door to forgiveness and new life. For both Isaiah and Peter, the recognition of his own unworthiness marks the beginning of a career (if we may call it that) in the service of God. Isaiah accepts the invitation to take God’s word to the people of Israel, and Peter becomes that rock on which the Church is built. Our own careers of discipleship may be less dramatic, but God nevertheless promises to draw us near and involve us in the real drama—the drama of our redemption and that of the whole world. We need not ask whether we are worthy; we need only allow God to make us so.

the Lady Chapel

At the far right of the image above, a corner of a postcard is just visible, showing a bit of stone floor. Not just any stone floor, though: the floor of the Lady Chapel at Minster Abbey. I’d never heard of ‘thin places’ before the first time I went to Minster, but it is thin all over, and the Lady Chapel particularly so.

I always knew I would appreciate Benedictine spirituality. Before I had ever visited a monastery, I thought one day I would want to be an oblate. (Still hasn’t happened yet.) Nothing I imagined even came close to the reality of being there. The train journey from my home in the north of England takes about 5 hours and involves at least 2 changes, one of which happens in London (between Kings Cross and St Pancras). So when I arrived in Minster the first time, I felt like I was a long way from home (especially because the journey took a couple of extra finding-my-way hours).

And so I was: a long way from anything I had ever experienced before. The daily office–the rhythm of Benedictine prayer–was new to me. Nuns were new to me. Yet somehow the place felt like home almost immediately. Because I was on an individual retreat, I had no schedule other than the appointed times for prayer, and no ‘input’ apart from the daily office and Mass. In my little room, there was a Bible and a small copy of the Rule of Benedict.

Little did I know that reading Benedict’s Rule would change my life as much as anything ever has. That weekend, I was a woman adrift, looking for a spiritual beacon. That little book–hardly more than a pamphlet–convinced me that the spiritual life was for me. Not that I really doubted; it’s just that I had wondered since college whether I would ever recover the sense of purpose that I had as a member of an evangelical (and I mean that in the telling-people-about-Jesus sense, not the Christian brand-name sense) community. Being a mother of (then) three children and holding down a job as a lecturer didn’t leave much time for the intensive Bible study or hour-long quiet times I’d had all those years ago. But that was when it all seemed so vibrant and essential.

Benedict’s Rule is for monastic communities, true. But it is about how daily life is spiritual, and how to live it in a way that makes each seemingly insignificant task an act of Christian discipleship. That weekend, I learned a Latin phrase: ‘fratres non contristet.’ It comes from the instructions to the cellarer. If a brother comes to you with an unreasonable request, Benedict counsels, refuse him gently, so as not to upset (contristet) the brethren (fratres). Being a mother involves refusing countless unreasonable demands on a daily basis, at least in my house. The challenge was, and is, to make every response–yes, no, or maybe–an act of love.

That is what Benedict taught me that weekend: fratres non contristet. Every time I go into the Lady Chapel at Minster, I recommit myself to the goal of gentleness in daily life. Even with those words in large letters on my refrigerator, I forget. I forget that discipleship happens in the little things, as we do them with love. I forget that Jesus taught us more on the cross than in all the words he said. I love that saying floating around the internet at the moment: ‘if you have to chose between being right and being kind, be kind.’ Indeed. That is, to me, what gentleness is all about. But it is a lot harder than it seems! So back to the monastery I go, to find myself again in the Lady Chapel, to be in peace and grace and regulated quiet long enough to accept the fact that I have to begin again.

fratres non contristet.

Notes for the 22nd of January

The 22nd of January (in the US) and that Sunday in October designated ‘pro-life’ (ditto) always get under my skin a bit. Why? My suspicion is that beneath my frustration and anger, there is a point about Christian faith and practice. Too often, Christianity is reduced to a program or an issue. The checklist of what to do and what to believe is a lot easier than the command of Jesus to be perfect, or the command to love God completely, and your neighbour as yourself. It is easier, that is, to slap a pro-life sticker on your bumper, participate in the relevant activities every January (and October), and think that you are pro-life.

But being for life, if it is to be a true expression of Catholic faith, must involve a whole lot more than that. It goes without saying that abortion is a tragedy in every case, and more often than not, an avoidable tragedy. Abortion is not, however, the sum of all evil. It is rather, a symptom of the corruption of our hearts–all of our hearts–and of a world in which scarcity and death threaten us. I wonder sometimes whether the energy expended to protect the unborn is really an effort to protect ourselves. Babies are loveable; it is not difficult to evoke sympathy for the children who are threatened by the practice of abortion. it is hard to imagine a person in our culture (or any culture, really) who wouldn’t mourn at the suffering of an infant, wouldn’t extend him- or herself on that child’s behalf. And so it should be.

I wonder, though, whether that isn’t like loving those who love you. The point there seems to be that loving those who love you is not terribly difficult. There is a reciprocity that makes the love you give less costly. What does it cost you to love those who love you? What does it cost you to be concerned for the unborn? Time, perhaps, and prayer–and that isn’t a bad thing. But if the heart of Christian love is forgiveness (see Matthew 18 and John 20: 22-23, e.g.), how can protesting abortion take center stage?

Abortion is an evil that happens in a world in which evil things happen all the time. Is it a worse evil than child abuse? than malnutrition? than the soul-destroying conditions in which thousands of children live? I’m not convinced it is. I think there is a peculiarly self-serving form of human sinfulness that operates when the choice to terminate a pregnancy is made for convenience, or because of disabling conditions. In such cases, I think the word ‘murder’ is not too strong, and I would rank those decisions at the top of the list of godless human judgments. (I say I think.)

What it boils down to, for me, is this: (1) I firmly believe abortion is wrong. (2) At the same time, I view the law legalising abortion in a similar light to the law permitting divorce; Jesus qualified that law as having been given because of our ‘hardness of heart’–though I appreciate the differences between the two. (3) I look around the world and see sin and need and lack of love everywhere. There are children who live in conditions of abject poverty and desperate need–of material goods and also of the love and affirmation they need to grow up healthy and strong. (4) I see plenty of grown-ups with the same sorts of needs. (5) I am concerned that focusing so narrowly on one evil–abortion–allows us to avoid evils more difficult to confront, and commands more difficult to obey. ‘Love your enemies…’; ‘forgive…seventy times seven’; ‘feed my sheep’; ‘make disciples…’; ‘love the Lord your God with all your heart, mind and strength, and your neighbour as yourself.’ Obeying these commands requires us to be pro-life until it hurts us, to extend ourselves for life, to confess our faith in the Giver of Life in all that we think, say, and do. We have to be conscious of the darkness and sin in our own hearts that prevents us from being the bearers of God’s light and life to others. We have to oppose practices that threaten, demean, or undermine life–like torture, slavery, the death penalty, the drug trade. We have to resist hatred, fear, indifference, unforgiveness and the temptation to leave undone the good we can do. We have to put on love and humility, letting our pride and self-sufficiency be crucified with Christ.

Being pro-life is being for Jesus–the Way, the Truth, and the Life–always and consistently. To follow Jesus, to be his disciples, and to be about the business of making disciples, that is what it means to be pro-life. Praying with others for the unborn is good; mourning the loss of those children who never will be because of abortion is good; protesting a practice that allows us to exercise heartless power over the most vulnerable is right and proper. But if we stop there, we cannot call ourselves pro-life. Unless we get up on the morning of January 23rd ready to reach out to the poor, the unwanted, the unloved, the seemingly unlovable and unforgivable, unless we take seriously the call to be witnesses and make disciples, we have missed the point. Jesus came that we might have life abundantly, and to follow him means bearing that life and giving it away every day of every year, in all that we say and do.

So I get angry when the topic of abortion is the litmus test for Christian faithfulness. Of course we ought to oppose abortion–but that isn’t the cutting edge of our faith. If we are growing into the likeness of Christ, we have to have bigger hearts and a broader vision. Jesus was not speaking about ‘the issues’; he was declaring ‘the kingdom of God is at hand’. Jesus came bearing love, and forgiveness, and grace, and life, and he was and is the light that shines in the darkness–and our hope is and will ever be that the darkness cannot overcome Him.

nice guys finish last

IMG_0001A few ordinary things: my miraculous medal, and my St Damian cross; the icon of the Holy Family I brought back from a very good weekend retreat in Minster…and the ‘peace prayer’ attributed to St Francis of Assisi.

Last September, I was on retreat in Minster with other parents of children with special needs. At the beginning of the retreat, we each received a word and a picture. My word seemed perfect: hope. But the picture, not so much–a photo of an arctic scene, icebergs in a dark blue sea, and two deer standing nose-to-nose on the frozen shore. Although the scene itself was austerely beautiful, I would have liked it better without the deer. Really. It’s the sort of thing meant to make you say, ‘Awwww…’ Cute. Not spiritually substantial. Still, I don’t believe in coincidence, so I hung onto my photo and filed the image in the back of my mind.

The next afternoon, feeling a bit directionless, I wandered into the library, and the name Manning leapt out at me. ‘Ah, Brennan Manning,’ I thought. ‘This ought to be good. Gritty, spiritually rich without being lofty or sweet.’ I read through to a lovely bit about the Christian journey. ‘Living in the wisdom of accepted tenderness is an unending adventure in trust and dependence!’ That’s my spirituality all right–it’s the inner journey that marks our deeds as having been ‘wrought in God.’

Encouraged, I skimmed on. During the retreat I was reminded of the rule I felt I needed to take on the last time I had been to the monastery: ‘never speak a harsh word to or about anyone, even internally.’ As you might imagine, I had failed miserably, and prior to the retreat had even failed to keep it in mind, much less obey it. Still, a wise priest once said in a homily that such commitments to God are not like New Year’s resolutions, which go forgotten once we’ve failed to keep them up. No, these promises we make to the Lord are meant to try us, and so we are likely to slip up, even to fail completely, as I had done.

The wisdom of accepted tenderness thus appealed to me. Tenderness is the opposite of harshness. I was resolving to take this up, this tenderness, as I read. The Lord is tender and compassionate, full of compassion and bottomless forgiveness. Discipleship means nothing less to me than the imitation of the Lord’s own tenderness.

Then I came across this passage:

‘Before finishing this book, the Christian who is serious about growing in the wisdom of accepted tenderness might do well to take the peace prayer of St Francis off the wall and hang it in [her] heart, make it the wisdom by which [she] lives:

Lord, make me an instrument of your peace. / Where there is injury, let me bring pardon; / where there is hatred, love; / where there is doubt, faith; /  where there is despair, hope; /  where there is darkness, light; / where there is sadness, joy. /    O divine Master, grant that I may not seek so much to be consoled as to console,  / to be understood as to understand,  / to be loved as to love;  / for it is in giving that we receive, / in pardoning that we are pardoned,  / and it is in dying that we are born again to eternal life.’

The peace prayer of St Francis? That saying that crops up everywhere?

Then two things clicked in my head, and the penny dropped. First, I already have a mini-devotion to St Francis, so more St Francis makes perfect sense. Each morning, as I put on my cross, I ask, ‘St Francis, pray for us.’ Well, this is his prayer. Maybe I ought to pray it with him. And I also–the second thing–remembered my photo: those cute deer, in what looks like a tender moment. Ah, well, yes. I was dismissive of the cute, of the ordinary, of the common. And the Lord is reminding me that it is in the ordinary and the common that my ‘rich spirituality’ is to be lived.

I confess that I do not always receive this well. I know that humility and obedience are the marks of Christian discipleship, but that always sounds so much better as an idea than it feels in lived experience. I can’t stop wanting to be someone, you know, significant. To be satisfied with the significance I have, to those in my little circle of family and friends, seems so small. And to go on in tenderness in daily life, well, it doesn’t really get you any respect, does it? I struggle with this. So one morning recently, I was struggling with exactly this, thinking about being not-harsh, about being nice, and something a friend used to say all the time came to mind: ‘Nice guys finish last.’

Yeah, I thought. See? See where it gets you? And then I did see, finally: that’s where you’re supposed to be. For many that are first will be last, and the last first. It’s a hard word. But I am grateful for it, anyway: Deo gratias.

 

Saturday of the first week in Lent

Today’s reflection is another from the manuscript of my Lenten devotional. It hasn’t been the best of all possible Saturdays, with little time away from the noise and commotion. So it was good to read these words again, and remember that God is faithful, even when we falter. 

Deo gratias.

It’s all good

Having read the thoughtful post from The Accidental Missionary, I considered the way I use ‘feeling blessed’. I don’t use it, actually. Not that I have objections; it just isn’t one of my stock phrases. The accidental missionary is absolutely right to point out that Jesus calls ‘blessed’ those to whom we might not apply the term as it is often used in Christian-speak; that is, it is when things go well that we are likely to say we’re ‘feeling blessed.’ We are less likely to say, ‘I was mugged this evening on the way to the bus stop, and the thief took all my money, my watch, and my mobile phone, leaving me with a bruised cheek and no way home: feeling blessed.’ But that seems more in line with the ‘meek’ and ‘persecuted’ that Jesus calls ‘blessed.’

My instinct, though, isn’t to refrain from using the language. Maybe, even, I should start considering myself ‘blessed’ a whole lot more. Pope Francis has been talking us through the the epistle of St James recently, in daily homilies and weekly audiences. James begins (following his greetings) rather disconcertingly, ‘Consider it all joy…when you encounter various trials.’ Trials and tribulations are to be welcomed, because the fruit of endurance is to ‘be perfect and complete, lacking nothing.’ That’s blessed–and here I am in complete agreement with the accidental missionary: the good stuff is not what makes us good. It’s not even evidence that we are on the right track.

In the middle of the book of Acts, Paul sets out to check on his church plants in Lystra, Iconium, and Antioch, where Christians have been experiencing some fairly intense persecution. Acts 14:22 reports on the content of Paul’s message to the fledgling communities. Paul and company ‘[strengthened] the souls of the disciples, encouraging them in the faith, and saying, “through many tribulations we must enter the kingdom of God.”‘ Not goodwill or success or growth, but tribulations are the evidence that the communities are on the way to the kingdom. (I have something more to say about this in the last chapter of my book, Rethinking Christian Identity, if you’re at all interested.)

That’s not, of course, to say that only tribulations are blessings: this morning’s invitatory Psalm (66 [67]) reads ‘the earth has yielded its produce’ as evidence that ‘God, our God, blesses us.’ Such logic is common in the Old Testament, though there are clues (see Job, for example!) that it is more complicated than that. So the way forward, I think, is rather to regard it all as blessing. One of my mentors, who has spent a lifetime as a Christian priest and theologian at the intersection of Jewish, Muslim and Christian thought, is very fond of the phrase alhamdulillah. Whether the news is welcome or unwelcome, God be praised! If we encounter challenges or enjoy success, thanks be to God!

It’s all good. Now, we don’t always know how it’s good, but that is a question of a different kind (see Wisdom 8.1 and Romans 8.28).

Deo gratias.

the saintly ordinary

stmartindetours I enjoyed reading the article about St Martin of Tours in the Catholic encyclopaedia online. Not only is his life story interesting and full of the vignettes that make hagiography what it is; he is also the patron saint of soldiers, appropriate for today. If I were cleverer, I might say something about that. 

What struck me, however, is a phrase near the end of the article: ‘recover your ordinary firmness’, says the angel to a brooding St Martin. He regretted bitterly a mistake he had made, and the angel warned him not to dwell on it. So you got that wrong, and you are rightly sorry for it. Move on. ‘Recover your ordinary firmness.’

I’m afraid I can be a bit like the brooding St Martin, in need of an angel to remind me not to dwell on those things for which I am rightly sorry. Unlike St Martin, though, I have no history of ‘ordinary firmness’ to recover. My life story is not one of courageous stands, self-sacrifice, and miracles. Just a girl-grown-up, having meandered from childhood and somehow ended up here. A theologian. A Roman Catholic. A mother and wife. A teacher, a writer, a friend. Not, I am sad to say, a saint.

I can learn something, though, from St Martin’s mistake and the angel’s counsel. The heart and soul of St Martin’s story is his quest for Christ-likeness. His ordinary firmness is not as a worker of miracles or a doer of extravagantly self-sacrificial deeds. His ordinary firmness comes from his being in Christ, and the stuff that makes his story so interesting is just details. The details attest to the saintliness, but they are not its substance. Recover your faith in the One who saves you, who covers over all your blunders, however stupid you feel about them.

It is the firmness, I think, of knowing a ‘blameless way’, not because one has never missed a step, but because the way has been made blameless:

…who is a rock, except our God?                                                                                           the God who girds me with strength,                                                                                     and makes my way blameless.                                                                                           He makes my feet like hinds’ feet,                                                                                       and sets me upon my high places.                                                                                      Psalm 18: 31-33 (NASB)

Earlier in the psalm, the psalmist seems to boast of his blamelessness. ‘I was also blameless with him’ (23), he says: with clean hands; without iniquity. Like God, whose ‘way is blameless'(30). And just when I feared I would never be able to pray this psalm, along comes verse 33: the blameless way, the firm ground, is made so by God (the One who has prepared those good works for us to walk in!).

The secret to imitating the saints in their imitato Christi is an imitation of the heart. It is not a backward-looking, self-reproaching endeavour, but a forgiveness-receiving and moving-forward adventure. All right, a journey, anyway! The path of discipleship is the ‘blameless way’, the way of ‘ordinary firmness’ made so by Christ’s own footsteps. The history on which I can look back and recover that strength of soul is Christ’s history, not my own.

Deo gratias.

 

All the angels and saints

Late last night, I received a text message from a friend, asking whether I had a meditation for All Saints' Day. No, I had to reply, I didn't. But I felt I should. The saints are essential to my Christian life, and in one way or another always have been. One way or another, I say, because there was a time when I would not have been so eager to ask, as we do when we say the confiteor, for the prayers of 'all the angels and saints'. When I was small, it was the 'ordinary' saints, the living company of the faithful, who guided me. At least they pointed me in the right direction; I didn't always follow their lead. In college, I began to appreciate the 'saints' in Hebrews 11, especially as they form the 'cloud of witnesses' who surround us as we follow Jesus.
 
But the picture is bigger than that. The saints–those who have gone before us and stand before the throne of grace–play a vital role in the spirituality of my everyday life. There they are, on the mantelpiece beside my bed: the Blessed Virgin and child, the Holy Family, St Michael the Archangel; there is my San Damiano cross, which I wear everyday to remind myself of St Francis's holy life. When I say 'all the angels and saints' in the confiteor, I mean it. I mean that I need their prayers. And often the invocation of the saints reminds me that I am not alone. There is a whole company on this road, and the company keeps pressing on.
 
The fact that it doesn't depend on me, that the saints are already the church triumphant, liberates me to pray, to worship, to receive forgiveness and to hope that I can live the life of a disciple of Jesus. The life of the church is carried forward by the saints and saints-in-the-making, and all the saints share one vital characteristic (if you can call it that): being made holy by the Spirit of Holiness. Saints don't shine because they're polished; they shine because somehow they let the light of God show through them. I want to be like that, and I realize that there is no formula for getting there. There is no recipe for saint-making, just a Spirit who blows where he wills. 'Fixing our eyes on Jesus' (Hebrews 12) is the main thing. The church depends on him, he is the vine; he is the author and perfecter of our faith; he is the one in whom all things–perhaps most especially the communion of saints–hold together.
 
But that's not all. The communion of saints, the universal church, covers me when I go astray. 'Look not on our sins, but on the faith of your church', the priest prays, and the words always come as such a tonic to my soul. The faith of the church is the faith to which I cling. It is no product of my own heart or my own mind, but it belongs to the communion of saints. In the words of Rich Mullins, 'I did not make it…it is making me.' The faith of the church is something strong, lasting, and perfect.
 
It would be wrong to think, though, that the strength of the church's faith means I can just take a seat and wait for heaven to come to me. No: clinging to the church's creed is sometimes hard work. That's where 'taking every thought captive to the obedience of Christ' and 'working our your salvation' and all those passages in the New Testament that make the Christian life seem like such hard work come into play. It is easy to forget–at least it is easy for me to forget–that holding onto what the gospel says to us in Scripture and tradition does not come naturally to those of us trained and formed by a world that doesn't believe any of it, and hopes in very different directions.
 
Whatever it is that seems to threaten my Christian life, it's not new. The challenges, temptations, and doubts that come my way are not unique to me. Whether I think I have done well or badly, I haven't done anything totally unprecedented. The saints have already been there.
 
And this is a good day on which to be grateful for that.

What worries me

Well, honestly, a lot of things worry me. Stupid things and little things and big things and almost impossible things. But Rowan Williams names precisely what worries me about what I do as a theologian: “[the desert fathers and mothers] seem very well aware that one of the great temptations of religious living is to intrude between God and other people. We love to think that we know more of God than other people…” (Silence and Honey Cakes).

That worries me. It probably worries me more because I am not the smartest theologian I know. Not nearly. (Since you asked, I would certainly rank Rowan Williams as one of the two or three smartest theologians I know.) I spent an awfully long time trying to write a Very Clever conclusion to my book, Rethinking Christian Identity, and eventually realized that in trying to write a sexy and theoretical finale, I was trying to be someone I am not. Yes, I read the necessary books by de Certeau. But in the end I didn't write about that stuff. I wrote about discipleship, because that's what seemed to me to be the heart of Christian identity. It's about following Jesus. This is not a Clever and Original idea. It's a commonplace in Christian theology from the gospels onward.
 
So where does that leave me, as a teacher of theology? Well, the book was published, and the only review I have seen so far didn't write it off as just repeating stuff everyone already knows. I'm grateful for that, and for the reviewer's practical response to the book, which was to read Gregory of Nyssa. But I am never going to be a person who trades in cleverness. I know how much I don't know, and I would far rather start with cards on the table. I know what I do know, and I have confidence that I can teach the subject. I also know that I am not going to win arguments with John Milbank about Plato or political theory. (By the way, he's in that small group with Rowan Williams.)
 
I would, however, be perfectly happy talking with John, even arguing, about Jesus. Not about Christology, certainly, but about Jesus. And that's what worries me. Because not trading in cleverness all these years, first as a graduate student, and then as a teacher, has meant that I put a great deal of emphasis on faithfulness to the gospel and on spiritual discipline; I say that it is more important to be faithful than clever, if you are a theologian. It isn't knowing about God that makes good theology; it's knowing God. (It is both, of course, and you can't just have one or the other, as Andrew Louth suggested a great many years ago in an essay about theology and spirituality. And he's another theologian I would place on the top of the smart list.)
 
But do I thereby imply that I know God better than my students or my colleagues? Good heavens, no. Teaching theology to people who are training for ministry is an awesome privilege and a serious charge. What qualifies me to stand in front is formal and academic knowledge; it's having practiced talking about the God we all know in particular ways, ways that are faithful to the Bible and the Church's memory of Jesus preserved through the ages in its sacred doctrine. I certainly can make no claim to “know more of God” than my students. Faithfulness is a shared enterprise, and spiritual discipline is for the Church and not solely (or even primarily) for individuals.
 
A lot of the things that worry me are petty, even ridiculous. But not this one. I take Rowan Williams' words to heart. This should worry me. I don't have any formula for getting it right, for teaching sound doctrine intelligently to intelligent people, and simultaneously bearing in mind that it's not all about intelligence; or for bearing in mind that in the classroom faith does actively seek understanding, that the exercise of the intellect is a part of faithful discipleship. It is enough that I worry about it, I think, so long as the 'worry' always becomes 'pray.' This work I do is like the rest of my life before God: possible only by his grace.