Saturday, 27 August 2011

Seeking sacred spaces

Abbey at Lindisfarne
There are many holy places in the world I would like to visit and re-visit. Some I have; but in the main, at this time in my life,  I don't have the freedom, time or money to go on faraway pilgrimages or long retreats.

Also, I have ambivalent feelings about the need to travel or detach oneself from the world. The pilgrim in me understands completely the need to move out of the everyday; to take on the challenge of a journey; particularly to visit with and walk in the footsteps of the saints who have been an inspiration. The hermit in me agrees with the desert fathers and mothers  - stay in your cell and find God there or you won't find God anywhere. God is in the everyday; and the everyday is everyday.

St Melangell's

Jesus seems to do a bit of both; his wandering mission connects Jewish places with Gentile lands and sweeps back home to Capernaum or to to the place of trial, Jerusalem. When needed; there is the desert; probably only a few hundred yards from the trail  finds him in solitude - though the solitude brings him nearer to his Father.

Window at Walsingham, Anglican Shrine
A book on Sufi wisdom I am reading suggests that people can only be completely alone when they know they are not alone. I like that thought; that the love of those we gather around ourselves gives us the confidence for times of solitary living - not, as Richard Rhor once joked, that some enter seclusion because they just don't like people.

Before the summer break I had no plans and no plans for plans - my life is like that these days - then a friend offered me a weekend at Walsingham which was a gift and a blessing. A plan can be as complicated as it needs to be. Living in Britain I am surround by ancient places of prayer; some well known, some barely remembered. This summer I have visited some of them for an hour, a day, a few days.

St Patrick's Well

Having taken hundreds of photographs I thought I would share these with you over the next few weeks or so - in case you ever get to my part of the world.

I will keep you posted.


The Road is long

GospelMatthew 16:21-27 

Jesus began to make it clear to his disciples that he was destined to go to Jerusalem and suffer grievously at the hands of the elders and chief priests and scribes, to be put to death and to be raised up on the third day. Then, taking him aside, Peter started to remonstrate with him. ‘Heaven preserve you, Lord;’ he said ‘this must not happen to you.’ But he turned and said to Peter, ‘Get behind me, Satan! You are an obstacle in my path, because the way you think is not God’s way but man’s.’
  Then Jesus said to his disciples, ‘If anyone wants to be a follower of mine, let him renounce himself and take up his cross and follow me. For anyone who wants to save his life will lose it; but anyone who loses his life for my sake will find it. What, then, will a man gain if he wins the whole world and ruins his life? Or what has a man to offer in exchange for his life?
  ‘For the Son of Man is going to come in the glory of his Father with his angels, and, when he does, he will reward each one according to his behaviour.’

To think I never used to like Peter - but I was younger then and more certain of what was right and wrong - I was probably a lot like Peter; that's often the way it works.

I often wonder why John was called the Beloved. Maybe John was just easy to love; being younger; more impressionable; more expressive; being willing to follow.

Peter finds it hard to follow. Peter is a man; the head of a family; a business man and the captain of a fishing boat. Probably of a similar age to Jesus; he is the one who would have the greater standing in the community. There would be many who would regard Peter as an elder, someone who you would go to for advice and guidance.

Surely, no-one with this sense of responsibility is going to stand by and listen to their friend plan their death. Peter has made some challenging changes to his life; he has stepped out of his own boat long ago to walk with this man; he stepped out of yet another boat to risk his life to this man and now he is being asked to leave another boat behind  - the boat that puts him in control of 'what should happen next'. 

  Last week, Peter recognised his friend as the Son of God - this week he thinks he can decide what God can do with him. 

The Hebrew meaning for satan is to oppose or obstruct. As human beings it is a struggle to live out God's plan rather than following the material and accountable stepping stones of the world. 

We have to imagine that not everything the world offers is wrong  - the world is, after all, full of God - but then we have to ask ourselves if sometimes we are tempted by ideas that do obstruct our following of the Way, especially when the way is dark and uncomfortable. 

Peter was never Satan, but the request he made - in love - was. 

Jesus is beginning to give voice to the path he was destined to take; each word uttered out loud making it more realistic, more true. And then to have his closest friend say  - No, you can't do this to me, You mean too much to me. You can't leave me -   must have been an even greater temptation than those on the mountaintop.

Control and obstruction hides itself in human love. It is so difficult to give those you love their own freedom. 'If you love someone you let them go' - no wonder that was written by 'Anonymous' - how hard it is to do. Even harder to release them to the mystery of God's Will - why Peter struggles with the need to suffer, why we still do today. 

 Jesus doesn't turn his back on Peter, only the temptation and the show of ego that tried to put Peter in charge of Jesus' life; to second-guess God. 

Which is why he says to all of them that they must renounce themselves -not who they are in God's eyes - but who they are in their own eyes and the eyes of the world. The cross is heavy enough without trying to balance ego and ambition - one or the other will topple - which is up to you. 



Saturday, 20 August 2011

Fool for Christ

GospelMatthew 16:13-20

When Jesus came to the region of Caesarea Philippi he put this question to his disciples, ‘Who do people say the Son of Man is?’ And they said, ‘Some say he is John the Baptist, some Elijah, and others Jeremiah or one of the prophets.’ ‘But you,’ he said ‘who do you say I am?’ Then Simon Peter spoke up, ‘You are the Christ,’ he said, ‘the Son of the living God.’ Jesus replied, ‘Simon son of Jonah, you are a happy man! Because it was not flesh and blood that revealed this to you but my Father in heaven. So I now say to you: You are Peter and on this rock I will build my Church. And the gates of the underworld can never hold out against it. I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven: whatever you bind on earth shall be considered bound in heaven; whatever you loose on earth shall be considered loosed in heaven.’ Then he gave the disciples strict orders not to tell anyone that he was the Christ.

Strange to think that just out of thin air Jesus puts this question to his followers. It suggests that some sort of conversation was going on; a background noise; a distraction - cetainly enough of a distraction for Jesus to decide to have it out.

The region of Caesarea Philippi was also known as Panias - the place of the pagan god Pan - and the city was pretty impressive built on top of a high escarpment.

It could be imagined that the disciples had never spent any time in this area; or knew it only by hearsay. It could be imaged that it was a sight to behold - even if they never set foot in it. Imagine a high city like this, abundant with life, dedicated to a god of nature often imagined as a shepherd and here they were with their own shepherd walking through the dust and heat of the day possibly searching out one of the fresh springs that the area was known for.

Maybe they were comparing their faith to the pagans - there has been a long history of envy regarding the elaborate temples and idols that the pagans worshipped, or perhaps they were criticising the lack of true faith. Perhaps, given their love of status they were discussing what they would do with the city if it became theirs - but then that was unlikely to happen - look at them - just a band of wanderers.

Perhaps they were just wondering what they were doing there.

Then the question - and they are thrown - their replies incredulous. They surely can't believe what they saying? Searching back in their memories for great leaders in faith - not able to acknowledge that here, now was someone unique; here was the one they had been waiting for.

Simon gets the nudge from the Holy Spirit; he may be wrong but he has already played the fool out of love for Jesus more than once. Love enables him to imagine more that the evidence allows; only just but enough.

Enough is more than enough as Jesus pours authority upon him - you see this city built on a great rock? It is nothing - nothing compared to you - because you have heard the
Father's voice in your heart.

Simon, whose name means 'listening',  has heard and has believed. Now Simon Peter has taken the first step; has become the first stone, the foundation of believers - those who believe not because they see, not because they have been told to, not because it makes sense but because they love foolishly and undeniably.

This is the glimmer of faith that Jesus has been waiting for; Simon Peter has taken the leap, made the connection, entered into a relationship not only with his friend and brother but with the Father and with the Holy Spirit.

No wonder Jesus is delighted; now all he needs is more Peters.



Wednesday, 17 August 2011

Standing by

GospelMatthew 20:1-16 

Jesus said to his disciples, ‘The kingdom of heaven is like a landowner going out at daybreak to hire workers for his vineyard. He made an agreement with the workers for one denarius a day, and sent them to his vineyard. Going out at about the third hour he saw others standing idle in the market place and said to them, “You go to my vineyard too and I will give you a fair wage.” So they went. At about the sixth hour and again at about the ninth hour, he went out and did the same. Then at about the eleventh hour he went out and found more men standing round, and he said to them, “Why have you been standing here idle all day?” “Because no one has hired us” they answered. He said to them, “You go into my vineyard too.” In the evening, the owner of the vineyard said to his bailiff, “Call the workers and pay them their wages, starting with the last arrivals and ending with the first.” So those who were hired at about the eleventh hour came forward and received one denarius each. When the first came, they expected to get more, but they too received one denarius each. They took it, but grumbled at the landowner. “The men who came last” they said “have done only one hour, and you have treated them the same as us, though we have done a heavy day’s work in all the heat.” He answered one of them and said, “My friend, I am not being unjust to you; did we not agree on one denarius? Take your earnings and go. I choose to pay the last comer as much as I pay you. Have I no right to do what I like with my own? Why be envious because I am generous?” Thus the last will be first, and the first, last.’

If ever there was a Gospel which calls for righteous indignation, it is usually this one. The thought that a lifetime's commitment could rewarded in the same way as a deathbed confession leaves many people grumbling along with the earlier workers. It's just not fair.

But we all know that life isn't fair; especially when life seems to tipped in other people favour but we expect God to be fair - and we expect God's fairness to tip very much towards us. The truth is we need God's fairness to tip towards us.

Who knows why the others were still waiting in the market place? Idle doesn't mean lazy - it means able to but not actually working. The traditional telling of the parable would have had you believe that they were lazy - that it was the early birds who benefitted - the first 'Chosen'. Who knows why these people were not chosen - too old; too young; sickly or infirm; from the wrong side of the tracks or just off the hills. And if that's where you are, then one place may be very much like another; indeed the only relief may be to be with others who are like you.

The telling moment is that when the opportunity is given - they go and they work; probably work their hearts out hoping that today's half a day will give them the chance they've been looking for to make an impression; to show what they can do. Hoping that these few hours - whatever the pay- will show them worthy of another day.

It doesn't take God that long to know your worth. In 1 Timothy it says ; God wills that all will be saved. It is not up to us to make exceptions - we are meant to love as we love ourselves - as long as the work is done.


Saturday, 13 August 2011


GospelLuke 1:39-56 

Mary set out at that time and went as quickly as she could to a town in the hill country of Judah. She went into Zechariah’s house and greeted Elizabeth. Now as soon as Elizabeth heard Mary’s greeting, the child leapt in her womb and Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit. She gave a loud cry and said, ‘Of all women you are the most blessed, and blessed is the fruit of your womb. Why should I be honoured with a visit from the mother of my Lord? For the moment your greeting reached my ears, the child in my womb leapt for joy. Yes, blessed is she who believed that the promise made her by the Lord would be fulfilled.’
  And Mary said:
‘My soul proclaims the greatness of the Lord
and my spirit exults in God my saviour;
because he has looked upon his lowly handmaid.
Yes, from this day forward all generations will call me blessed,
for the Almighty has done great things for me.
Holy is his name,
and his mercy reaches from age to age for those who fear him.
He has shown the power of his arm,
he has routed the proud of heart.
He has pulled down princes from their thrones and exalted the lowly.
The hungry he has filled with good things, the rich sent empty away.
He has come to the help of Israel his servant, mindful of his mercy
– according to the promise he made to our ancestors –
of his mercy to Abraham and to his descendants for ever.’
Mary stayed with Elizabeth about three months and then went back home.

The Path of Love is like a bridge of hair over a chasm of fire 
(Irina Tweedie)

In this country we have moved the Assumption to this Sunday. With very little  to say about an unknown and 'assumed' Assumption the Church uses the moments that the Gospel tells us what little there is about Mary's life. 

This is her witness to Elizabeth - a barren world is being brought to life by God's question  and a woman's answer. 
That the world is saved by a perfect 'yes'  is what Mary is about - but her own perfection must surely be in the humanity of who she is - of how she lived her life - how she taught her son to live his.

Accepting God into your life does not make for a path of certainty - as Mother Theresa once said - 'I know God trusts me but sometimes I wish he didn't trust me so much'.

I understand the theory about how a Palestinian peasant girl can proclaim such fierce poetry as the Magnificat. If the Holy Spirit is with you then surely you would speak with certainty and majesty. 

But, maybe, later that night:

My soul proclaims
its nearness to the Lord
delighted and fulfilled.

But my heart aches
broken by the accusation of my own people
shattered by stones of mistrust and judgment
No angel's promise of comfort - rather 
Life's pathway set out in shards of flint.

A flinty gaze fills my eyes
and they widen, seeking the future road
staring into dark shadows;
welcoming the desert heat
that burns away the tears of hesitation
before they fall - 

They fall, regardless

Each breath a tightening 
a measured in and out 
words said and unsaid
considered, found wanting

But not 'yes'
Never 'yes'.

My heart aches with Love.
With Love too much to be contained
yet unrecognised.

With Love that will lie in my arms
bloody and helpless
more than once.

With Love that will live within me 
and without me
for more than Abraham;


Saturday, 6 August 2011

Walk this way

GospelMatthew 14:22-33 

Jesus made the disciples get into the boat and go on ahead to the other side while he would send the crowds away. After sending the crowds away he went up into the hills by himself to pray. When evening came, he was there alone, while the boat, by now far out on the lake, was battling with a heavy sea, for there was a head-wind. In the fourth watch of the night he went towards them, walking on the lake, and when the disciples saw him walking on the lake they were terrified. ‘It is a ghost’ they said, and cried out in fear. But at once Jesus called out to them, saying, ‘Courage! It is I! Do not be afraid.’ It was Peter who answered. ‘Lord,’ he said ‘if it is you, tell me to come to you across the water.’ ‘Come’ said Jesus. Then Peter got out of the boat and started walking towards Jesus across the water, but as soon as he felt the force of the wind, he took fright and began to sink. ‘Lord! Save me!’ he cried. Jesus put out his hand at once and held him. ‘Man of little faith,’ he said ‘why did you doubt?’ And as they got into the boat the wind dropped. The men in the boat bowed down before him and said, ‘Truly, you are the Son of God.

St John Vianney  - 4th August - Matthew 16:13-23 - Who do you say I am?

Dedication of the church of St Mary Major - 5th August - Matthew 16:24-28 - Whoever wants to be a follower of mine let him take up his cross...

Transfiguration of the Lord - 6th August - Matthew 17:1-9 - ‘Stand up,’ he said ‘do not be afraid.’

Relying on the Sunday Mass to teach you the Gospel is  not the best of ideas. The pattern of the readings does mean that you will receive a broad understanding of the ministry of Jesus the Sunday readings are obviously chosen to particularly focus our minds on the path that Jesus wants us to take. 

But they can still become, like family reminiscences, an event out of context - not really to do with everyday life - a miracle like this one can surely not mean a lot to us - we are certainly not surprised that Peter almost drowned (and if he had been a traditional fisherman,  he wouldn't have been a strong swimmer - it was considered bad luck to challenge the elements).
Ideally, I read the Sunday Gospel the week before and allow it to mull - but this week it wouldn't mull - it didn't even get warm. I remembered how much I used to dislike Peter and how that has changed; I remembered that I had never thought about the fact that none of the others even tried to get out of the boat and I thought about what dramatic devices Jesus used for these people and yet they still managed not to understand. But I have written all that before. 

It wasn't until Thursday, the feast of St John Vianney, patron saint of priests, that something spoke - and it took all the other readings of the day - including the Transfiguration to see a story emerge. A story of priests(ordained or otherwise), discipleship, vocation and Jesus.

It seems astonishing that John Vianney is the patron saint of priests; he certainly struggled with his vocation -  including being considered academically slow, suffering severe illness, enforced enlistment into Napoleon's army and nearly failing seminary because he was no good at Latin.  He criticised his parishioners for their love of drinking and dancing - even withholding Communion from partygoers - and ran away from the parish several times because of a desire for a more contemplative life.

Yet in his last ten years he became so famous as a confessor that thousands would visit his country parish and he would spend 12  to 16 hours a day hearing Confession and leading people closer to the Love of God.
John was not a perfect priest; he was not a perfect man; he didn't become who he was through his own ego, his own strength or his own ambition. He became who he was because his eyes were set on another. He loved Jesus.

One of John's prayers :-
I love You, O my God, and my only desire is to love You until the last breath of my life.
I love You, O my infinitely lovable God,
and I would rather die loving You, than live without loving You.
I love You, Lord, and the only grace I ask is to love You eternally
My God, if my tongue cannot say in every moment that I love You,
I want my heart to repeat it to You as often as I draw breath.                                                                   
I imagine if Peter was a poet he would write something like this (and then pretend it wasn't him).
Because being a Christian isn't a career move, something you enroll in or hope to qualify as.
Vocation, discipleship is not about duty or responsibility. You cannot live a life simply by following a rule or a expressing a desire to be good; that will not be enough when things go wrong and people turn away; that won't be enough when you feel alienated even by friends and family  and you are not in the place you want to be. That will not be enough when even God is not where you want God to be.
Vocation and discipleship is about love and longing; a heartfelt longing to belong - it is like hearing the undeniable song of a Siren which calls you out of safe harbours and friendly faces and personal plans for the future.
 It's even as you know you are doing the right thing you are still wondering if there is another, easier way.
It is about not being good enough but trying to be; running away and constantly coming back; saying the wrong thing but wanting the right thing; being childishly needy yet thinking you can walk on water - but knowing you cannot - not by yourself.
It is about seeing Jesus indescribably transfigured; far and beyond  the preconceptions and the controlling image that you ever had of him, into the realisation of Jesus as the Beloved - not only of the Father but your own Beloved.
And seeing the transformation that will happen within yourself - his beloved -  as Jesus calls across the water