Wednesday, 31 October 2012


Death and Life
A Wisdom Story of Hope 

From a tale I heard once

In a place that is not this place, there is night; the longest of nights. This place has been abandoned by the day; by the light; by all that has comfort and warmth.

The land is coal and ebony on obsidian. Raven clouds streak across a stygian sky – starless, moonless.  You may stare; but it is your heart that sees, not your eyes.

The night is relentless; arctic winds slice the landscape raw. Tops of hills reveal skeletal trees, heads bowed before the ruthless zephyrs. Their silhouettes, clawed hands imploring, seeking to escape an early grave. Seeking, but all too late; life has gone.

Yet, the heart sees…what? A rhythm moving against death’s surge; but slow…so slow.
The heart sees… a being, a creature, a man. An old man, as black and as dark as pitch; rough carved from slate; a semblance of a body; ancient bones as spare and as twisted as the branches he clings to; eyes rheumy, clouded, barely open.  Surely near death? Near, but not dead.

Will… from where?

Strength…from where? 

A heartbeat forces a breath, persuades the hand to reach forward; to grasp the next branch; to pull forward; to rest; to breathe; to begin again. Slowly, so slowly, he achingly drags himself from branch to branch, tree to tree. Gasps of life defying the banshee moans.  Heartbeat by heartbeat the old man creeps through the landscape.

At the top of a hill, he stops, anchors himself against the body of a stunted tree and lifts his head. The eyelids barely open any wider, he seems to be scenting the air as much as seeking, but perhaps it is his heart that sees, for there, far, far in the distance - not black. A shade; a gleam; a light; a hope. The old man gathers the hope and places it carefully in his heart. And begins again; a heartbeat; a breath; the hand reaches forward. No faster, for the old man is exhausted through to the marrow of his bones; but, with hope, the heart is determined not to fail.

Time creeps; breath follows breath, grasp follows grasp. Hope grows. The glimmer becomes a glow held steady – a window? Closer, closer; a child’s cutting of a house, imagined against the slate sky.  The tree line fails and now he must crawl, digging bony fingers into dead grasses, razor edged, tearing into the creases of his palms. No matter, all he has is given to the light, believing that, even from here, he can feel the warmth of a fire, the welcome of a hearth.

Finally, his hand touches stone, the doorstep; the boundary between death and life. Without the strength to haul himself to his feet, he scratches against the door, for all the world like an aged tomcat seeking a home. The wind carrying the sounds away into the night.  Scratch, scratch, scratch – there is no more.

The door opens; a dragon’s breath of heat and light blinds the night; a woman, not young, not very old, peers quizzically into the dark then down to her feet. ‘There’ she says, ‘There, there.’

She gathers the old man easily into her arms, just like an old tomcat, skin and bone, skin and bone; and takes him to her rocking chair near the warmth of the fire, the welcome of the hearth. She settles herself into the chair with the old man in her arms, gathered in, gathered in and she begins to rock. She gifts the warmth of her body against the frozen chill of skin and bone. She rocks; to and fro, to and fro. And every now and again she murmurs a woman’s healing;

‘There, there….there, there’.

Time passes; it seems the wind does not howl so defiantly now. The man in the woman’s arms no longer seems so old; an aged warrior perhaps, battle-torn and scarred but not bowed.

‘There, there…there, there’

The wind quietens to a whisper, a lullaby to accompany the woman’s words. The man is now younger, lean muscled limbs, a strong, handsome face relaxed in sleep. The woman smiles now but does not let him go.

‘There, there…there, there.’

Hours have gone by; the man has become a young boy, wavy hair, long eyelashes – beautiful. He fidgets in his sleep but holds on to the woman as closely as she holds him. The sky seems to have shaded from darkest slate to a dove grey but there are still no stars, no moon, no light other than the hearth fire.

‘There, there…there, there.’

The longest of times and the woman now cradles a strong baby boy, plump as a puppy with golden curls and the pout of a cherub. She gazes at him with pride and love and a great deal of satisfaction.  The grey of the sky has now become a dusky pink streaked with indigo. So nearly dawn but not quite.

‘There, there…there, there.’

And for hours the sky remains unaltered and the baby boy stays fast asleep. The woman sighs, a woman’s sigh, she has done all she can. She tickles his feet and the palms of his hands but he does not wake. She pinches his cheeks and his nose but he merely brushes her hand away and settles into the crook of her elbow. Finally, between finger and thumb, she takes three hairs from a curl on top of his head and plucks them out.

The baby’s eyes blaze open – fire bright, furnace bright; astonished, indignant.

‘There,’ the woman says, ‘you are.’

She carries the baby to the doorstep and shows him the nearly dawn.

‘And there…’ she points ‘…is where you should be.’

Without hesitation, as a hawk is released from the glove, the baby soars into the sky, golden bright, star bright, sun bright; the herald of new life, new beginnings, the Spring Son.


Inspired by a tale told by Clarissa Pinkola Estes

Saturday, 27 October 2012

The healing of Bartimaeus

Sunday GospelMark 10:46-52 

As Jesus left Jericho with his disciples and a large crowd, Bartimaeus (that is, the son of Timaeus), a blind beggar, was sitting at the side of the road. When he heard that it was Jesus of Nazareth, he began to shout and to say, ‘Son of David, Jesus, have pity on me.’ And many of them scolded him and told him to keep quiet, but he only shouted all the louder, ‘Son of David, have pity on me.’ Jesus stopped and said, ‘Call him here.’ So they called the blind man. ‘Courage,’ they said ‘get up; he is calling you.’ So throwing off his cloak, he jumped up and went to Jesus. Then Jesus spoke, ‘What do you want me to do for you?’ ‘Rabbuni,’ the blind man said to him ‘Master, let me see again.’ Jesus said to him, ‘Go; your faith has saved you.’ And immediately his sight returned and he followed him along the road.

Mark's plainness often works as an invitation to simply see the message as it is - to read the Red Letters as some versions of the Bible portray the words of Jesus -  to read and follow; to read and do; to read and believe.

The focus seems always to be on Jesus; the witness of a witness to his life. Mark rarely names or even describes people in great detail - so it's worth paying attention when he does.

Mark, not only names, but explains the name Bartimaeus as the 'son of Timaeus'. Is this a person now known to the listeners? Someone to raise an eyebrow and say 'a-ha' about?

Others have linked the naming of this blind man in particular to Plato's dialogue where Timaeus describes the creation of the world as being in the hands of a single god, a Father and Craftsman. This vision is based on an understanding of science, mathematical proportions and elemental relationships that existed at the time. Timaeus references the unity of a circle and even the balance of  trinity in his dialogue.

A suggestion of someone who has tried to make sense of the unimaginable.

What had happened to faith? It set me wondering.

Jericho had more than it's fair share of priests and religious; hence the irony of the Good Samaritan. Despite it's falling battlements and sparse landscape now, Jericho means 'place of the palms' and was a summer retreat and not only for Jews. The trade routes brought many faiths; many cultures; many societies together - 'trade' was not just about goods.

Unlike the healing of the man born blind. Bartimaeus asks for his sight to be restored. What has he done to earn God's wrath?

I wonder if this 'son' had once been a true son of Abraham; a priest; a scribe? Crying out into the darkness of a silence that seemed to have lasted forever, and, finding no answer, looked elsewhere? Studying the minutae of scripture; the whispers of prophecy; following the line of David across generations and finding -hopelessness.

To a wise man; an academic; a scribe, the Timaeus discourse would have made so much sense; dovetailing into the days of creation; the world in balance; the interaction of this and that. Logical,  mathematical - complete and of itself; no waiting required; no one to appease.

And a numbing of the pain; no need to kneel in hope; to raise arms in prayers; no need to watch blood sacrifices drain into the silent earth. The cloak of human authority and certainty held tightly around him against a world of empty promises; his eyes closed against the scarlet sunrises chasing shadows across the desert; closed to clouds of swallows dancing against deep blue skies; against angelic smiles in brown eyed, golden children until his eyes closed for the last time and he lay fallen by the wayside, petrified by denial,  whilst others made their pilgrimages and pleasure trips. 


A uncharted star... a wise child in the temple...something 'good' out of Nazareth...a line of David long forgotten...Isaiah's words spoken with tales of healing, forgiveness, unrolling in a path of destiny to this moment.

Could it be? Did he have the courage? To shout out his litany - Jesus, Nazarene, Son of David, Messiah, Rabbuni, beloved teacher, Master - and to hear the question 'What do you want me to do for you?'

'Let me see again.'

Both Plato and Jesus use human sight as a metaphor for something else.

For Plato- it was to see the world as it is.

For Jesus - to see beyond the world to the Kingdom.

'Give me back my faith.'

And Jesus does. Jesus dives into his soul and brings back the mystery, the hope and the promise. Then he fulfills the promise with himself. 

Some scholars place Bartimaeus with the apostles, he gives away all he has, the cloak that has been home and certainty and, for a beggar, survival, is cast aside and he follows - he takes the road into Jerusalem. 

Maybe, in a few weeks time, he is one of those who will witness; one that lives to tell the tale; one of whom the Followers of the Way would have said 'A-ha'.

In Jesus' name


Sunday, 21 October 2012

Turn the world upside down

GospelMark 10:35-45 

James and John, the sons of Zebedee, approached Jesus. ‘Master,’ they said to him ‘we want you to do us a favour.’ He said to them, ‘What is it you want me to do for you?’ They said to him, ‘Allow us to sit one at your right hand and the other at your left in your glory.’ ‘You do not know what you are asking’ Jesus said to them. ‘Can you drink the cup that I must drink, or be baptised with the baptism with which I must be baptised?’ They replied, ‘We can.’ Jesus said to them, ‘The cup that I must drink you shall drink, and with the baptism with which I must be baptised you shall be baptised, but as for seats at my right hand or my left, these are not mine to grant; they belong to those to whom they have been allotted.’
  When the other ten heard this they began to feel indignant with James and John, so Jesus called them to him and said to them, ‘You know that among the pagans their so-called rulers lord it over them, and their great men make their authority felt. This is not to happen among you. No; anyone who wants to become great among you must be your servant, and anyone who wants to be first among you must be slave to all. For the Son of Man himself did not come to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.’

As a mother, I am quite grateful that in Mark's Gospel the brothers take on the responsibility of asking for their request; in Matthew their mother is blamed for wanting the best for them. 

You notice the 'Master' title again from last week? The brothers are being as naive and as worldly minded as the Rich young man. For all the time they have been with Jesus, they have learnt very little and are expecting to negotiate for very much. They have spent too many years believing in the world view of success.

They don't know what they are asking.

But at least, unlike the Rich young man, they are prepared to say 'Yes'; to take a chance; to imagine that they could come close to Jesus.

Discipleship asks us to take that leap of faith. How often, in a moment of conversion, do we start off imagining that, yes, we are the answer; the one who will change people's hearts; the one who will open people's eyes; the one who can 'fix' the world. 

Jesus accepts our self-assuredness as childlike as it is; knowing that our sacrifices are worthy; our feet in his footprints are discipleship; our hearts are full of grace.

Jesus also knows that wherever our discipleship will take us; he must go there first. He must be our example otherwise there will be no humility, only ego. 

We are reminded of the most topsy-turvy, radical, challenging and, often, unacceptable element of following Jesus. We set our sights on Heaven and Jesus tells us the only way to get there is to fall; to the position of the servant; to the attitude of a slave. To be God-like is something quite unexpected.

In Jesus' name


Monday, 15 October 2012

Teresa of Avila

First readingGalatians 4:22-24,26-27,31-5:1 

The Law says, if you remember, that Abraham had two sons, one by the slave-girl, and one by his free-born wife. The child of the slave-girl was born in the ordinary way; the child of the free woman was born as the result of a promise. This can be regarded as an allegory: the women stand for the two covenants. The first who comes from Mount Sinai, and whose children are slaves, is Hagar – The Jerusalem above, however, is free and is our mother, since scripture says: Shout for joy, you barren women who bore no children! Break into shouts of joy and gladness, you who were never in labour. For there are more sons of the forsaken one than sons of the wedded wife. So, my brothers, we are the children, not of the slave-girl, but of the free-born wife.
  When Christ freed us, he meant us to remain free. Stand firm, therefore, and do not submit again to the yoke of slavery.

Today we celebrate the feast of one of my patron saints - Teresa of Avila - Virgin and Doctor of the Church.

A mystic; she delighted in, and taught a openness to the experience of God's presence as a deep, personal relationship. And having had that experience she was even able to identify the loss of an awareness of God as proof of His Presence (if He wasn't there how could you miss him?)Something we still have difficulties with even now.

Paul writes of a new convenant that is a promise, not of independence but of interdependence; of a relationship bound tightly and so deeply in love that fulfills everything that we could hope for. Yet the world continues to suggest otherwise. Teresa turns away from the yoke of slavery that meant other people had the right to decide what her life would be; what her future would be. She turns away from her own desire to be part of the world - discovering that she would likely be too 'prone' to sin. In a growing faith, that seems as much seduction as anything else, Jesus drew her to him with his need for good friends and her desire to be a true lover of Christ. 

In her teaching of Contemplative prayer she says; "it is nothing else than an intimate sharing between friends; it means taking time frequently to be alone with him who we know loves us. The important thing is not to think much but to love much and so do that which best stirs you to love. Love is not great delight but desire to please God in everything."

And in this we find freedom.

I feel your eyes, Lady.
Your indulgent smile
Graced upon a child,
A novice of your Way,
A pilgrim to the heart of Love.
You hear my exclamations of faith,
My delight in His glorious presence,
And, teacher that you are,
You speak your warning,
A whispered, ‘Beware’
For with the highs there is always…

Desolation, Lady?
I have also been a pilgrim along that road.
Life’s story unwinding, unheard
Neither written nor read by me.
Life once removed from love,
Purposefully drained empty,
I have lived the dread-filled nightmare
When there is no hope of sunrise.
I have lain submerged in despair
Listening to life move on around me.
Cowered in the dark from
Night stalkers that suck hope dry,
Borne days when life was merely an option.
I have sunk, sick to the stomach and
Screamed into the darkness,
To the lonely echo of my own voice.


And so, my consolation.
He found me then
And he has me now.
And, Mistress, you know as well as I,
That that is more than enough.


Saturday, 13 October 2012

Snakes and Ladders

GospelMark 10:17-30 

Jesus was setting out on a journey when a man ran up, knelt before him and put this question to him, ‘Good master, what must I do to inherit eternal life?’ Jesus said to him, ‘Why do you call me good? No one is good but God alone. You know the commandments: You must not kill; You must not commit adultery; You must not steal; You must not bring false witness; You must not defraud; Honour your father and mother.’ And he said to him, ‘Master, I have kept all these from my earliest days.’ Jesus looked steadily at him and loved him, and he said, ‘There is one thing you lack. Go and sell everything you own and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.’ But his face fell at these words and he went away sad, for he was a man of great wealth.
  Jesus looked round and said to his disciples, ‘How hard it is for those who have riches to enter the kingdom of God!’ The disciples were astounded by these words, but Jesus insisted, ‘My children,’ he said to them ‘how hard it is to enter the kingdom of God! It is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God.’ They were more astonished than ever. ‘In that case’ they said to one another ‘who can be saved?’ Jesus gazed at them. ‘For men’ he said ‘it is impossible, but not for God: because everything is possible for God.’
  Peter took this up. ‘What about us?’ he asked him. ‘We have left everything and followed you.’ Jesus said, ‘I tell you solemnly, there is no one who has left house, brothers, sisters, father, children or land for my sake and for the sake of the gospel who will not be repaid a hundred times over, houses, brothers, sisters, mothers, children and land – not without persecutions – now in this present time and, in the world to come, eternal life.’

 “Face the first death and the second death can do you no harm.'  Francis of Assisi

The sparseness of Mark doesn't offer Matthew's title of the Rich Young Man nor is Jesus is acknowledged as a teacher. 

In Mark, whilst the man may be on his knees; this is not the position of a Rabbi and student. The title of 'master' suggests that the man feels he is here to strike a bargain;  the gesture of subservience is the etiquette of diplomatic negotiation; a role to be acted out with both players understanding what the outcome should be. But Jesus isn't playing.

The man's wealth is, of course, revealed later in the passage. Perhaps an inheritance; a legacy of business, property and position? A wealth that, it seems, has been easy to come by and now is impossible to let go of. 

That he is young is suggested by the look of love Jesus gives him. A similar request by one of the elders would have deserved a different response. Surely, only the young; those who have been untouched by the challenge of life; would believe that it was really so simple; would believe that it was no more than a game of strategy. The man wants to be guided to the next ladder; Jesus points him towards the snake. 

It seems that, whenever we believe we have an answer; whenever the path we are on seems like the right one; whenever we start to get that feeling of righteousness - we have, in fact, come to a standstill. 

We cannot feel justified by anything we have done ourselves. Even good things fill us up with a sense, like this young man, of our own entitlement to God's favour. Filling ourselves with ourselves - what place is there for God; for grace; for that look of love from Jesus?

A friend wrote to me today -

'Turn everything into prayer .

Abandon everything even the most humble and simple task to God'

When we consider ourselves 'spiritual' - the man did keep all the Commandments - we can be overly rich in more ways than one. 

If the spiritual life feeds only us; gives only ourselves peace; leads only to our informed understanding; then we can be as rich as Midas, and as cursed, parted from the world by that which should have given him the world. If it is so precious we must give it away.

In following him, Jesus asks us to live a life of self-emptying; of restlessness; of seeking to fulfil the Father's will. In following his Father's will, Jesus lives for others; Jesus dies for others; and his resurrection is, not for himself, but for others.

The sacrifice that this entails is not meant to bring us sorrow or denial. We are here to love others; for the mothers, fathers, brothers and sisters that we gather through love rather than blood. For the land that is given by the Father and cared for for all generations; for the houses that will be built from the treasure of a living community rather than a storehouse of cold stone. 

For the Kingdom that is now here.

Thursday, 4 October 2012

Let no-one put asunder

GospelMark 10:2-16 
Some Pharisees approached Jesus and asked, ‘Is it against the law for a man to divorce his wife?’ They were testing him. He answered them, ‘What did Moses command you?’ ‘Moses allowed us’ they said ‘to draw up a writ of dismissal and so to divorce.’ Then Jesus said to them, ‘It was because you were so unteachable that he wrote this commandment for you. But from the beginning of creation God made them male and female. This is why a man must leave father and mother, and the two become one body. They are no longer two, therefore, but one body. So then, what God has united, man must not divide.’ Back in the house the disciples questioned him again about this, and he said to them, ‘The man who divorces his wife and marries another is guilty of adultery against her. And if a woman divorces her husband and marries another she is guilty of adultery too.’
  People were bringing little children to him, for him to touch them. The disciples turned them away, but when Jesus saw this he was indignant and said to them, ‘Let the little children come to me; do not stop them; for it is to such as these that the kingdom of God belongs. I tell you solemnly, anyone who does not welcome the kingdom of God like a little child will never enter it.’ Then he put his arms round them, laid his hands on them and gave them his blessing.

When the Pharisees decide to ask Jesus on the matter of divorce they are testing him, again.  They are asking a question to which they certainly know the answer - men often 'dismissed' their wives  - and the Pharisees knew it.  So why ask it? 
Rather than reply, Jesus takes this question a step further - to a common claim of the early prophets - that the relationship of man and woman is an echo of the covenant between God and humanity. A relationship that is as full of desire and longing as the Song of Songs suggests. However, one that, unfortunately,  does not always live up to the dream of that song. 

 'I belong to my beloved, and his desire is for me.'

 And further, Jesus suggests that the faults in that relationship are as one-sided and self serving as the divorces of that time; the oral tradition of the Talmud allowed a man to divorce his wife for any reason or for no reason. Whilst the approval of the Rabbi would be required; it was generally understood that the wishes of the man were uppermost.

Since the beginning of time we have been in a relationship where God, having  chosen us as his own,  is unfailingly and eternally faithful in both love and commitment. Whereas, we humans are so easily distracted by a golden calf, promise of wealth or fear of being the odd one out that, all too often,  we rush to accuse God of 'not understanding' our needs or meeting our desires.  

We look for ways of marginalising that love and reject the responsibility it places on us. Love, it seems, expects too much. What God has united; humanity does seek to divide.

It's interesting that by using divorce as his reference; Jesus puts God in the place of the woman - the one who is put aside; who had no control over her future; whose 'belonging' is conditional. 

And then, Jesus sees the children and there is the relationship that his Father desires; in the smallest of children. In those who - before that sense of value, of judgement, of desire, of prejudice or of competition  has time to form - can see who is good and can, quite simply and unconditionally, love.  

'Our Father, who art in Heaven..'

in Jesus' name


Feast of St Francis of Assisi

A fair amount of information about Francis is found here.  Francis is one of those saints that many people feel close to and comfortable with; especially through his dedication as patron Faint of animals and the fondness that many people have for members of the Franciscan order. The deeper truth of Francis is much more challenging and a willingness to follow after Francis asks for a sacrifice of desire of everything except the desire for God. I have been blessed to walk the streets and lanes of Assisi and the countryside where he found his refuge and his inspiration. The faith of the followers of Francis and Clare has soaked into the land and left their mark. Even the olive trees have a story to tell. The blessings of the Feast:- 

Assisi - Walk from San Damiano to Rivo Torto

The afternoon sun raises a shimmering heat haze through the parched olive groves. Conspiring old hags, the ancient groves reveal their own vision in answer at my musings.

Ancient? Indeed we are ancient; twisted arthritic creatures, old even when Francis walked this way with his brothers; old when Chiara left through the door of the dead for a life much less ordinary.

Some of us kin to the groves of Gethsemane; to that garden where the Christ found a refuge for his tears; where the treachery began; in faith, our lives spanning your faith. And in our lives  -a parable.

Across the ages, from Christ to Francis to the moment we rest in – we have been a birthplace for life; for sunlit  sustenance; for the food of angels, Olives, a treasure and a fundamental part of  life in this place; food and drink; a bowl of olives, good bread – virgin oil – a feast for the senses.

 Each year, this harvest comes again - a new birth -  a new gift. For us new life comes from the newly alive. The olives ripen only on this season’s wood. And we are mad with the power of fertility. Left to ourselves in the delight of sun and rain; we sprout and shoot and become a riot of fecundity, overgrown, entangled, unmanageable – until our branches collapse from lack of water and weight of the fruit – until the winter winds tear our hearts out.

It is through need that we submit to the shears and pruning knife; branches that are cut hard, cut back into our lichen covered, ancient, seemingly decrepit torsos, wherein lies the taproot of memory, of truth, of rebirth. And there we begin again.

And here is the crux of our tale.

Your faith, childlike, seeks attention, new experience. Prosperity puts authority before service. You are meant to be poor but desire riches; you are meant to be vulnerable but want power. You become blinded by the immediacy and desire of the flesh. You think 'if there was only another path' but there is only one path.  

That is why you need this place; like us you need the sharp reminder of the knife; to stir the roots ; to be taken back to the Word; to loose the trappings of the world; to begin again.  As Chiara and Francis did, as your Celtic brothers and sisters did. To rebuild a church of souls. Our words to you – return to the source, walk in their footsteps, follow the Way.