Wednesday, 26 October 2011

Sacred Space -Assisi

I have only been to Assisi twice; but somehow - as often is the case with sacred places- a part of me has always been there.  A part of me, I hope, still remains so if I never get there again in person then I can be there in spirit.

Particularly for the second visit which seemed like a comedy of errors including driving (for the first time ever on the 'wrong' side of the road) across Italy, by myself, without a map having been diverted off the autoroute by roadworks and then, having arrived in one piece, finding my credit card deactivated - it's amazing how far 50 euros can go when that's all there is. Francis continuing to teach through example :)

Undeniably, one of the most beautiful places on earth. Medieval buildings of pink granite, turned golden in the sun. Hot red geraniums, bold against the dark blue of a Northern Italian sky: the scent of olive groves, rosemary and lavender, and good coffee. 

Magical, an inspired setting, worthy of the romance of ‘Romeo and Juliet’.

And if you had only a passing awareness of Francis and Chiara you would well imagine a romantic union between them; two young noble people in love.

And they were; but not with each other; or rather, yes, with each other, but with the vision of Christ that they saw in each other’s eyes.

A love for a Christ who is both Romeo and Juliet. Whose love is so all-consuming that he would sacrifice his life rather than live without us. 
A love for a Christ whose love is 
undeniable and eternal. 
Chiara and Francis, 
lovesick in their desire to live 
in the shadow of that love.
Assisi – a sacred space of love, 
un-possessing yet all-encompassing.

Roadside shrine
San Damiano - first home of the Poor Ladies (Poor Clares)
The entrance to the House of the Poor Ladies was guarded by the most formidable of the Sisters and could only be reached by a ladder. Imagine having to make such an effort, to actually need, actually want to climb a ladder to reach a place of such poverty and sacrifice.

Not the sort of ladder we would usually be interested in.

Because we do know about ladders; the ladders of success, of promotion, of fortune. The rungs that mean the move from second-hand car to shiny 4x4; from two-up two-down to two bathrooms and a second home; from punch card to platinum card; from GCSE to PhD. We need to know that we are on our way up; vertically challenged is not good enough; we want our heads in the clouds.

The Refectory - San Damiano 
And it isn’t just how we measure ourselves, we survey everyone else on our horizon – are they higher or lower than us? Envy or ridicule makes us dizzy as we not only strive to raise our own position but to keep tabs on those around us. Top or bottom, way up or way down, high or low – this is what matters. Our place in society; our place in the grand scheme of things; our point of balance flimsy and tottering; always on the brink.

wall carving San Damiano
If this is important, if this is what matters, then how could we measure our Christ, our Lord who started at the bottom, climbed a couple of rungs then fell off into the ditch where he died? If we are ladder people then we have to consider what that says about Christ – what that says about us – and why we still don’t get it.

The Hermitage

view of the Hermitage -
still 30 minutes walk to go

Who knows how long a walk?

Wrong shoes, no directions, no water in the middle of the day- the faith of a fool.

But there is an intent for this walk - a journey towards a leaving behind. The ego, the little I, the needy needing to be needed; and for what?

To prove that I am ‘good for something’; 
that I have a right to exist?
God’s been doing the hard work again –waiting - waiting for me to recognise myself in Him.
To realise that I may be an outsider but I am not outcast –
not from God’s Love, not from Christ’s Body.
To know that being ‘useless’ means being available to the Spirit’s desire. 
To understand that I can only be ‘useful’ to God by being empty, by being vulnerable.

And. Lord, seeing this, knowing this, does not make it easy. Not for a Martha like me.
left behind

But in this sacred space filled with the humility and devotion of Chiara and Francis may I find my own place at your table.
So I thank you, Lord, for the challenges and errors that got me here.
For showing me that nothing is impossible; 
that I am braver than I thought I was;
that I have  friends; that I have You.
Take my life Lord, fill it with Yourself.


Tuesday, 18 October 2011

Sacred Space - Another Place

Not all sacred spaces are contained; not all are typically holy. Not all are holy to those that visit - one of the reasons I love Lindisfarne is the mix of people who visit the same space for many reasons. 

Crosby beach is not so far - 40 minutes as opposed to 4 hours drive away; on the opposite bank of the Mersey river. This side of the river mirrors the commercial sea trade that has sustained Liverpool for hundreds of years. The docks stretch north to the Bar where the river meets the sea in a turbulent exchange of fresh and salty waters; blue and orange cranes stand on tip-toes, spiderly graceful above the squat corridors of metal containers waiting for their boat to come in. Out to sea the air currents are harvested by 200ft tall wind turbines; their size only realised by the passing of a Mersey ferry. 

In the shadow of all this marine industrialisation a few acres of tidal land has been declared of Special Scientific Interest and is a nature reserve attracting fishermen and birdwatchers. This gap allows the natural seascape to take over. The beach is flat; made up of a dark gritty sand that stains the water a dirty brown (despite appearances and following years of industrial and negligent pollution, the river is now 'European-ly' clean and home to all manner of wildlife). 

This stretch of the river is inhabited by the art installation 'Another Place' by Anthony Gormley.  This art piece consists of 100 cast-iron, life-size figures spread out along three kilometers of the foreshore, stretching almost one kilometre out to sea. 
The Another Place figures - each one weighing 650 kilos - are made from casts of the artist's own body and are positioned along the shore -  all of them looking out to sea, staring at the horizon in silent expectation.

They have been previously been seen in Cruxhaven in Germany, Stavanger in Norway and De Panne in Belgium.The work is meant to be seen as a poetic response to the individual and universal sentiments associated with emigration - sadness at leaving, but the hope of a new future in another place.

In November 2006 the statues were expected to move to New York but after a successful appeal by the Merseyside public they have, paradoxically, made their home here.

Almost immediately the locals complained - some that their peace and quiet was being disturbed by the daily visitors; some that they were not able to sail their boats and ski-boats so close to the shore for fear of coming into contact with cast iron mermen - the tide covers about half of them at different times of the day. Their friends include them in their seaside fun - dressing them in baseball caps; fancy dress at Halloween and even as shepherds, angels and wise men at Christmas- time.  

When they first arrived they were all, understandably, remarkably similar in appearance but they are not the same; they are made from the same body but not from the same mould. The six years (and more) have shown on their faces - and everywhere else. 

Each of them wears an identity bracelet with a number etched on it. Each figure has a place marked on some marine map - but they have not stayed where they were put; despite their weight they have wandered and sometimes need to be 'reclaimed'. Depending on where they are, their contact with the sea or the winds, they have aged in different ways; their features sandblown smooth or gnarled with barnacles and seaweed. Some are coloured  a deep golden brown - with wrinkled layers of salty rust.  whilst those near the top of the sands remain a smooth gun metal grey.   

Even in the busiest of seasons it is only a matter of a few hundred yards to find yourself making solitary encounters with the men; looking out to sea to imagine what has caught their fascination. Wondering at their impassive nature as they stand resolute against the rising tide; Canutes with nothing to prove. 

There is something about the fact that they are casts of a human being - a sense that something of the artist is there within them; what must it feel like to leave vestiges of yourself all over the world?  What must it feel like to squint into the sunset from a hundred pairs of eyes; to feel the sand blowing against the body or the fish nibbling between your toes. Or maybe that's just me.

Sometimes I envy them their stillness and their belonging. I imagine them as desert fathers and mothers - each in their little cell of sand, sea and air - all with their hearts set on the Other Place we all hope to be, God willing. 


Saturday, 15 October 2011

Pay it forward

Gospel  Matthew 22:15-21 

The Pharisees went away to work out between them how to trap Jesus in what he said. And they sent their disciples to him, together with the Herodians, to say, ‘Master, we know that you are an honest man and teach the way of God in an honest way, and that you are not afraid of anyone, because a man’s rank means nothing to you. Tell us your opinion, then. Is it permissible to pay taxes to Caesar or not?’ But Jesus was aware of their malice and replied, ‘You hypocrites! Why do you set this trap for me? Let me see the money you pay the tax with.’ They handed him a denarius, and he said, ‘Whose head is this? Whose name?’ ‘Caesar’s’ they replied. He then said to them, ‘Very well, give back to Caesar what belongs to Caesar – and to God what belongs to God.’

I guess it's hard for people who are so used to things the way they are - even if they're bad - to change. 'Cause they kind of give up. And when they do, everybody kind of loses.(Pay it forward)

Matthew again showing his bitterness towards the Temple and perhaps, this time, with some justification. That the Pharisees seek to trap Jesus into a no-win situation seems obvious. The flowery compliments tell us that much - strange words from people who value rank and hierarchy and see fear as a good thing - for it keeps others in their place. And Jesus does not know his place.

Jesus is acknowledged not so much as fearless preacher but as something of an anarchist; that we have a choice to pay or not pay taxes is not one most of us have ever considered and in Roman times the wrong decision would have resulted in something more final that fines or imprisonment. For Jesus to suggest that taxes should not be paid would have been outrageous; those bent on stirring the pot of political and civil unrest would have had a field day.

The Pharisees perhaps are trying to make links between Jesus and the tax collectors - remembering that he had friends and Apostles in this occupation. No-one would have considered a tax collector honest or unafraid; working with the Romans made tax collectors willing collaborators in the exploitation of their own people. Most Jews lived on or below the poverty line but there was always Caesar needing to be paid and the tax collector's own commission on top of that; they were not popular with anyone.

Nothing for the Temple to sneer at though. Caesar's money wasn't welcome near the Temple; but the Law stated that sacrifices had to be bought and sold; so they had their own Temple money which could be exchanged - with commission of course - at the Temple gates (part of the trade that angers Jesus later on). It seems money, no matter whose head is on it, has its own agenda and it rarely brings out the best in people.

For some of us the realisation comes that money is not the answer. When we grow in our spiritual life the material world can seem less important. There are times when there is a real temptation to draw back from the world; to believe we are not part of that 'scene' anymore; we have moved on.

There is a danger in seeing Jesus' statement as a confirmation that we can exclude ourselves from what goes on around us because we are 'God's people'. That we can look out at the rest of the world and accuse others of living in 'Caesar's pocket' - full of the colourful temptations and ambitions that money, hierarchy and rank can bring with them.

Notice that Jesus tells us to do both - to give to Caesar and to give to God. To ensure that what Caesar gets is no more than is called for; that God gets all that He gives. To see what our vocation as God's people asks of us.

And what is that?

Our 'selves'? Our Love? To love God with all our might and our neighbour as ourselves?
To be the Sheep of the parable; feeding, clothing, loving the least of all.

That would mean not drawing back from the world; not judging, excluding or accusing; but giving. Being blessed for being meek and poor of spirit; for hungering for what is right and becoming peacemakers; for mourning what is not right and being persecuted because of it.

Giving God what is God's will will cost you. It will cost you your life.




Saturday, 1 October 2011

Serve the Truth

GospelMatthew 21:33-43 

Jesus said to the chief priests and the elders of the people, ‘Listen to another parable. There was a man, a landowner, who planted a vineyard; he fenced it round, dug a winepress in it and built a tower; then he leased it to tenants and went abroad. When vintage time drew near he sent his servants to the tenants to collect his produce. But the tenants seized his servants, thrashed one, killed another and stoned a third. Next he sent some more servants, this time a larger number, and they dealt with them in the same way. Finally he sent his son to them. “They will respect my son” he said. But when the tenants saw the son, they said to each other, “This is the heir. Come on, let us kill him and take over his inheritance.” So they seized him and threw him out of the vineyard and killed him. Now when the owner of the vineyard comes, what will he do to those tenants?’ They answered, ‘He will bring those wretches to a wretched end and lease the vineyard to other tenants who will deliver the produce to him when the season arrives.’ Jesus said to them, ‘Have you never read in the scriptures:
It was the stone rejected by the builders
that became the keystone.
This was the Lord’s doing
and it is wonderful to see?
‘I tell you, then, that the kingdom of God will be taken from you and given to a people who will produce its fruit.’

If I was in the mood to beat myself up, this would have been a post about how often we are the tenants- abusing, rejecting, even destroying anyone or anything which distracts us from the wages of worldly endeavour.

When we feel challenged by what we think are God's expectations of us it can be easy to let the ego tell us that we are really the ones doing the work; the ones who are in control.

But there are times when we are, genuinely and to the best of our abilities,  doing our best to do some Kingdom building. We may not be the Son but we are trying to be servants and still it all goes wrong. We are criticised; condemned or belittled in our faith. Sometimes the situation we are in is so painful, hostile or political that simply being there is hard enough. Yet we know we have to be there.

Who said being a Christian was ever going to be easy? This Gospel certainly doesn't.

The Church is many people, as Paul says to the Phillipians 'united in conviction and united in love, with a common purpose and a common mind' - when it's at it's best.  We should all be keystones; trying to hold together many situations and relationships.

Like Mother Teresa; we may worry that God trusts us too much. We may even be pleased at our achievements - but it is rejection which will alway prove to be our real strength because rejection teaches us that we are not the ones in control; we do not make the decisions; we cannot 'fix' things or people.

We learn to live, knowing that God lives in us, and that is enough.

No-one else has power over us - not even ourselves. Losing our personal expectations we can lose our expectations of others. We are asked, simply, to plant ourselves in the moment; the person or the situation and allow God to blossom.