Then and now

1-langwathby-5891bI was in the village of my childhood recently. In the 1950s there were at least seven working farms, with tractors, yapping dogs, animals herded along the main road, and cow dung spattered where feet did not fear to tread. It was smelly, noisy and messy.

Not any more. There are now, I think, three working farms. It’s all very clean. No dogs barking, no cows mooing or sheep baa-ing. No cow pats or sheep dottles decorating the roads.

It’s been ‘Cotswoldized’: second homes, suburban warfare, Chelsea tractors. Sterile.

We’re too clean. No wonder allergic diseases are on the rise when our immune systems are not challenged enough. In our ridiculously risk averse culture, kids don’t eat dirt any more. And why is there this obsession with washing and showering? Water is bad for your skin, and soap is worse. Muck falls off eventually.

I like mess. I like the outskirts of towns with the randomness of buildings and telephone poles and wires. I like the scattering of car shops, tyre shops, furniture shops, bathroom shops, burger shops. It’s all so normal somehow.

Some people have a vision of heaven that’s clean and tidy. A Midsomer village without murders where one’s friends live in ochre-coloured cottages along the banks of the stream, behind Kentucky-fried Georgian doors. I hope not. I hope it’s much messier than that. And as for murders, well, I have a little list ….

Life is messy. Relationships don’t do what you expect. Things don’t work out. Actions, or inactions, have consequences. Like a row of skittles where one falls knocking over the next, and the next, and the next …. endless and uncontrollable. This is the glorious mess of being alive. Stuff happens: you can’t control it.

Do you want to get to the end of your life regretting what you haven’t done because you wanted always to be in control? Or do you want to be able to look back knowing it’s been one hell of a ride?

Wisdom sage?

Wisdom sage

Here are three helpful bits of advice that my mentor, Homer Simpson, gave to his son Bart:

I want to share something with you: The three little sentences that will get you through life. Number 1: Cover for me. Number 2: Oh, good idea, Boss! Number 3: It was like that when I got here.

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Chocolat the disturber

Holy Communion?

Holy Communion?

I’m not a huge fan of chocolate, but in Lent we’ve been watching the film Chocolat. It’s full of Easter messages. The wind (spirit) blows open the doors of the fusty church. Unhappiness is exposed behind a façade of pomposity. Hypocrisy is found lurking behind a judgmental personality. Power is used to oppress and abuse. God the disturber shows up dull complacency. Healing comes to the mayor only after he has been found in the metaphorical gutter having gorged on chocolate, that well known substance of Satan.

We see how “church” which at the beginning is an oppressor by the end has become a liberator. As the film runs, we see how heart-to-heart conversations result in smiles and colour and liberation. We see how eating together (com panis, bread together)—having a party—is sacramental.

Whether or not the novelist Joanne Harris had all this mind is neither here nor there: what matters is what we take from the story. For me, the film is about darkness to light, oppression to liberation, drowning to salvation, death to ascension, and the power of parties that include. As Père Henri in Chocolat said in his Easter sermon, “I think that we can’t go around … measuring our goodness by what we don’t do. By what we deny ourselves, what we resist, and who we exclude. I think … we’ve got to measure goodness by what we embrace, what we create … and who we include.”

In his novel The Power and the Glory, Graham Greene has one of his characters say “hate was just a failure of imagination”. The Holy Week and Easter story is about a group of people who were so threatened by new ideas that they put Jesus to death. A failure of imagination that resulted in hatred. Looking at the world today, we see the same forces at work. To take but one example, North Korea might be a long way away, but its threats have the power to destroy the world—and all because the governing clique lacks the ability to admit that new ideas could make things better. A failure of imagination.

Hatred is a failure of imagination. Love is the blossoming of the imagination. Love is expensive. Love demands letting go. Letting go is renewal. Letting go is resurrection. Letting go enables us to ascend.

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Egg timers, black holes, Mary Poppins

Curved space-time

Curved space-time

A homily for Passion Sunday

Picture an egg timer. The sand in the top chamber is time and space before the Christ event. People are reliant on ‘the law’ and on rules, ticking boxes to get details right. It’s a monochrome world where the punishment fits the crime, where earthquakes signify the anger of the God(s), where illness is viewed as a consequence of transgressions, where people use force to assume abusive positions of power and control.

The sand enters the part of the upper chamber with sloping sides. Imagine Gabriel’s visit to Mary—that is, the Incarnation—happening as the chamber narrows. Imagine that the Nativity, the life of Jesus, the Passion, as the chamber becomes more constricted.

Imagine that the orifice between the two chambers is the death on the cross. Imagine that the time spent by the sand passing through that orifice is Jesus in the tomb and the harrowing of hell.

The sand enters the lower chamber. As the chamber widens out we have Ascension and Pentecost. If at the moment of crucifixion Christ becomes unrestricted by locality, then at the Ascension he is unrestricted by space, and at Pentecost by time. Cosmic Christ. The lower chamber becomes infinitely big, multicoloured, completely unconstricted. A wide place.

Now turn the egg timer upside down, and instead of thinking of sand falling from top to bottom, think now of it passing from bottom to top. Ascending. At the Ascension our humanity is lifted to the Divine. Made like him, like him we rise (Charles Wesley). The ascension is the vital part of the story, the resurrection merely part of it. Through the Ascension, man approaches the Divine. ‘God the Logos became what we are, in order that we may become what he himself is’ (Irenaeus).

Incarnation to Pentecost, the Christ-event, is all one, indivisible into sections. Just as for any one of us birth, growth, adolescence, prime, maturity and senility merge inseparably into one another, so also for the Christ event.

Maybe this egg timer doesn’t work for you. Try a cosmic image with the universe contracting down into a black hole, Golgotha, then bursting forth into a new colourful glorious renewed and resurrected universe. Imagine everything before Christ being concentrated into him in the black hole, and taken at the moment of crucifixion into a new world. ‘When the eternal word assumed human existence at his Incarnation, he also assumed temporality. He drew time into the sphere of eternity. Christ is himself the bridge between time and eternity … In the Word incarnate, who remains forever, the presence of eternity with time becomes bodily and concrete’ (Ratzinger).

mary-poppins-jump1Or, if that doesn’t work either, then try bathos. Think of Julie Andrews and Dick van Dyke in Mary Poppins jumping through a dull London pavement into a brightly coloured new world where everything is supercalifragilisticexpialidocious. No, maybe not.

Is this true? Is it merely poetry, or myth, or allegory? It’s all these things—without the ‘merely’.

It’s not just something that happened 2000 years ago. It happens every day of our lives. It happens every time the penny drops about a situation that has troubled us. It happens every time we realize that we need to reassess priorities, to think again. it happens when circumstances force us to change direction, when we realize that we are at the end of a road, when we are at the end of our tether (Blessed are the poor in spirit), and that giving up what we once held dear will release us to possibilities as yet undreamed of. When we realize that the seed must die in order to flower. When, in psychological terms, we let egotistic self give way to selflessness. When I sacrifice ‘all the vain things that charm me most’, I move into new, more open, territory.

If we want to see Jesus then we must look this death full in the face. If we refuse to acknowledge the reality of death, we refuse to see Jesus. Confronting these deaths is some of the most difficult work we ever do. It is soul troubling. It is sweat inducing, headache making, wringing out Gethsemane work. But only then can the balloon begin to ascend, and the imagination take flight.

Resurrection as imagination. Compassion, enjoyment and fun begin to replace seriousness, separateness and superiority. Caterpillar to butterfly. Larva to imago.

What died on the cross? Self.

Union with God is a mystery that is worked out in human persons. The personal character of a human being who has entered on the way of union is never impaired, even though he renounces his own will and his natural inclinations. This is how the human personality comes to its full realization in grace. (St Isaac)

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Biology is a wonderful thing

dsc0142bI was scrabbling around under the bed trying to retrieve the computer when – ouch – a splinter made its way under my index finger nail. First thing in the morning is not a good time for me to deal with this: I’m peering through lacrimal secretions that are still like gobbets of purest mud, and I need an industrial strength magnifying glass these days. So I left it alone for the moment. It began to hurt.

By the time I’d done a school assembly my eyesight was more conducive to digital inspection so I had a look. I could see a couple of millimeters of wood poking out from the edge of the nail so I grabbed it with a pair of tweezers and yanked. Out it came: about 7 mm of splinter. ‘Good, that looks like all of it, so problem sorted.’

Or so I thought.

That evening, it was still sore. It was beginning to swell. In the middle of the night it was throbbing. In sleepy gloom I’d already been admitted to hospital with septicaemia, and they’d had to amputate my finger, then my hand, then my arm. How much of me would they have to amputate before I stopped being me? Clearly, there was still some wood under the nail.

In the morning the finger end was red, warm, swollen and exquisitely painful. Rubor, calor, tumor, dolor. As soon as I could see, I took a pair of scissors and poked around a bit under the nail. Hell’s teeth, it hurt. There was something dark. Clotted blood or wicked wood? Whatever, it was I dug it out.

Now here’s the wonderful thing.

Within seconds, and I mean seconds, the throbbing abated. Within 15 minutes the redness had all but gone and there was no more swelling. After an hour there was no sign that anything had ever been amiss. I even remarked to SWMBO how marvellous it was.

Isn’t it remarkable how the body is so good at recognizing foreign material? And isn’t it remarkable that having done so, it knows as soon as, but not a minute before, the foreign material is no longer there? Imagine how efficient and busy the cells of the immune system must be to detect, act, repel, contain and relax.

Some scientists want to know exactly how it all works, and good luck to them. I’m happy to know that it still does, after all these years.

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Where the wild things are

WTWSome years ago we went to the Holy Land. We stayed in Jerusalem and Tiberias. We visited Roman remains and Biblical sites. One of the most lasting images for me is the Judean wilderness – the desert. From Jerusalem to Jericho in the bottom of the Great Rift Valley, the desert road goes down, down, down, down. Sand, sand, sand, sand, dunes, caves. Maybe the occasional lizard. Not much else. Unrelenting sun or penetrating cold.

Christianity is a religion of the desert. Moses led his people through the desert from slavery to the Promised Land. John Baptist came from the desert to make way for the Messiah. Jesus began his work in the desert.

The silence is profound. Nothing comes between man and The Divine. No life thrives here except the inner life. Confront it or go mad.

Listen to the wild beasts that live inside us that incite us to put ourselves at the centre of our lives: to take more than we need, to pile up possessions, to seek approval from others. Confront these beasts.

Listen to the angels that live inside us encouraging us to put the common good – God – at the centre of our lives. Take heed.

I am caught between wild beasts and angels inside me. I do what I wish I didn’t and don’t do what I wish I did. I an caught between wild beasts and angels outside me. I find myself quite alone in a moral and spiritual wilderness, pulled this way and that by external forces that beguile and suborn me.

I suppose I have to face the desert, the barren place, the wilderness, the untamed place, the purgatory through which I must pass to reach that quality of life which is eternal.

A man that looks on glasse, On it may stay his eye; Or if he pleaseth, through it passe, And then the heav’n espie.  (Blessed George Herbert).

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Lent as relaxation

censer-incense-burner-01Welcome deare feast of Lent.

We had beautiful Ash Wednesday ceremonies yesterday evening. Unaccompanied plainsong, psalm and Merbecke, and three gentle hymns. Whoever observed that in the catholic tradition music aids devotion and calms the spirit, whereas in the reformed tradition it excites the emotions, knew a thing or two.

Ash Wednesday is a wonderful feast of being human. Since dust we are and to dust we shall return, we might as well stop trying to be what we’re not. Ditch the personae, shed the skins. Relax into ourselves.

Lent as relaxation. Yes, relaxation. Letting go, loosening up. Freeing from constraints.

Relaxation from the constraints that we tie ourselves up with, and the new clothes we wrap around ourselves to appear bigger, brighter and better than we are, to impress others. (Evagrios the Solitary, 4th century: Of the demons … there are three groups who fight in the front line: those entrusted with the appetites of gluttony, those who suggest avaricious thoughts, and those who incite us to seek the esteem of men.)

Relaxation from the constraints that constitute addictions. I’m not suggesting we indulge them but, as it were, put them on the table in front of us and look at them full in the face. Addictions to food, booze, complaining, finding fault, having to win … and so many more. Hold them up to yourself and the Lord. You can’t let go of something unless you look at it and know what it is you have to let go of.

Relaxation – moving to a wide place. If we are not constrained, if our view is not limited, we have freedom of action, we are farseeing.

Relaxation – not laziness—far from it—but freeing up so each one of us can give to the world what only each one of us can give.

Relaxation – abstinence from things that hold us back. Don’t give up what you enjoy: that’s just another constraint. Rather give up what you don’t need any more. Let go of ways of thinking that you once needed but that now constrain you. Let go of hurts, resentments, oughts and shoulds. Let go of prejudices and attitudes that restrict your view of the world. Start saying ‘no’ to the expectations of others, and begin to get to know someone you’ve hardly ever met—no, not your maker, but yourself (thanks to W R Inge, sometime Dean of London, for this nugget of gold).

This Lenten abstinence has nothing to do with hair shirts, but everything to do with freeing up yourself for delight you had forgotten was in you. It’s about losing your ego, and rediscovering the Divine within.

Welcome deare feast of Lent.

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A 604 to Kettering

Chesterton Road

Chesterton Road

There it is on a road sign. It’s 1969 and I’m cycling along Chesterton Road in Cambridge. The road number has changed now, but the memory is vivid, the feeling that there’s a big wide world outside this bubble, and the A 604 to Kettering is proof of it. A lovely word, Kettering, unfamiliar.

The bubble in those days was little more than the walk or ride from lodgings in Mill Road to Anatomy, Physiology and Pathology on the Downing site, and then on to Queens’. A detour on foot through Pembroke was a treat. This was a rather strung-out sort of bubble, perhaps, and one in those days whose walls were rarely penetrated. Kettering was a bit of magic.

There were signs to Ely, St Neots and Royston. There might even have been one to London. But it was Kettering that fired the imagination. I didn’t see the sign that often since that side of the Cam was ‘injun country’ until 1971 when daily trips to the boathouse became part of the routine. Maybe it was the novelty.

Lichfield has a similar effect. Such a rich sound. When I was young, we had relatives near Stratford-upon-Avon, and being obsessed with cathedrals as I then was, I plagued parents to stop there on the way past Birmingham. They did once. Later, I saw the three spires from Euston-Carlisle trains (not any more: too built up now). A world I only glimpsed. And here I am now living only 10 miles away.

Lichfield still sings a siren song. I’m off to waste a bit of money in the cathedral shop. Detached from the inconsequential Barchester politics, the cathedral close is a reminder that there are some places that lift the spirit, oases of beauty and memory. Even the A 604 to Kettering.

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