The old man carried the child, but the child governs the old man

dionysiusmonastery_athosEaster is early so Lent is upon us almost before the last of the Christmas chocolate cherry liqueurs disappear ‘down the little red lane’. We turn from crib to cross at the last great feast of Incarnation/Epiphany/childlikeness: Candlemas, or Presentation, or Purification, or whatever you want to call it.

Simeon holds the divine child and says ‘this is enough, I need no more’. Ich habe genug—if you have not heard Bach’s Cantata of the same name, it’s not too late. Find the first movement on YouTube here sung by the glorious Dietrich Fischer-Dishcloth as at least one member of my family calls him. Words can hardly express the satisfied gently swaying longing that Bach conjures up. Come unto me, all ye that labour and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest.

euston 030-1The old man carried the child, but the child governs the old man: you might reflect on how spot-on that is psychologically. The child is the father of the man. We are governed by thought patterns laid down in childhood. Childhood innocence, willingness to explore and ability to have fun are, as we grow up, so easily perverted by the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune that life throws at us. The supermarket trolley of the psyche becomes more and more wayward, and less and less inclined to head for the target we once thought we were aiming for.

We need the 3Rs: repent, recall and recover the childlikeness we’ve lost. Is the child you once were proud of the adult you have become? Examining that question is worth the Lenten discipline of spiritual spring-cleaning. If the answer is no (and I doubt that anyone can truthfully answer otherwise), what are you going to do about it?

The Orthodox call this great festival The Meeting – Simeon meets the infant that changes everything. We meet again the child we once were in order to change what we are. We are changed by encounters.

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Seeing clearly now the rain has gone

 

quote-i-can-see-clearly-now-that-the-rain-is-gone-i-can-see-all-obstacles-in-my-way-gone-are-johnny-nash-106-43-93-1For Paul’s and Aidan’s magazines, January 2016

Christmas is Emmanuel: God with us. Or rather, God within us.

We cannot attain the presence of God because God is already in us. We just don’t realize it. We have nothing new to learn, but an awful lot of things to unlearn, and we need to learn again to see clearly (clair-voyant).

Think about Christmas in our culture. All about more, bigger, better, faster, further, longer, more expensive. We’re hypnotized, sleep-walking, our greed and avarice fed by the narcotics of the evil advertising industry. Have a look at the film They Live! (YouTube again).

“If your eye offend you, pluck it out”, and replace it with one that sees clearly. “If your eye is healthy, your whole body is full of light”. Re-learn to see clearly, as a child. Re-connect with reality. Re-connect in Latin: re ligere. That is what religion is about. Not keeping rules, or gathering brownie points for club class in an afterlife, or asking God to cure your arthritis, or make events suit you, or some other entirely self-obsessed request. But reconnecting with reality. Be awake. Stay watchful. The advent call.

All spiritual disciplines have one purpose: to get rid of illusions so that we can see clearly what is, who we are, and what’s happening. What’s happening is that God is in us. Prayer is not about saying words or thinking thoughts. It is about becoming aware of this: God within and around. The contemplative is not just aware of God’s Loving Presence, but trusts, allows, and delights in it. Let go of trying to control.

When the disciples start jostling for power, Jesus plonks a child in front of them. The only people who can recognize and be ready for what he’s talking about are those who come with the mind and heart of a child—a “beginner’s mind”. The older we grow, the more we’ve been betrayed and hurt and disappointed, the more layers we wrap around ourselves to cover the vulnerable clarity of the childlike mind. Think Russian dolls with all the layers. Or onion skins. We must always be ready to recognize the layers, peel them away and begin to see afresh. To let new life grow in us.

This is the only new year resolution that is worth keeping. Be born in us today and every day and every minute of every day.

Incarnation is the beginning of real-ization.

(Much of this is stolen from that great source of wisdom, Richard Rohr)

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Requiem aeternam Burton Burbles

55430_largeNo, no, not Hugh. He’s had his requiem.

But his death is causing me to reassess my priorities. No more pussyfooting around. No more wasting time on trivia. And no more Burton Burbles.

It first appeared as Rambling Rector in 2008 as a kind of 3-church benefice leaflet in Derbyshire. In 2011 it moved across the Irish Sea and served the same function for three churches in Ireland. Then I started my blog http://ramblingrector.me so when I came to Burton I changed the name of the leaflet to Burton Burbles to reduce confusion.

S Paul’s and S Aidan’s have their own magazines; S Modwen’s does not. S Paul’s and S Modwen’s have weekly news sheets, S Aidan’s does not. I thought there was a need for a vehicle common to all three churches and tried, singlehandedly, to make it such.

At a meeting last night it became clear that I was alone in this view—indeed, there was more than a smidgeon of hostility to the notion that each church might need to know what others were doing. I must therefore be wrong.

Burton Burbles could only serve the intended purpose if information were passed to me, since along with most Vicars who are not seriously deranged I don’t know stuff unless I’m told it. Or it’s written down and handed to me. As it is, or rather was, I wasn’t told it and yet some people still were offended that I hadn’t appropriately stroked their egos.

If people want theological whimsy and provocation, and/or to know what’s in my mind, they can come to church, or log on here to the blog – I write something most weeks. Occasionally there are pieces by me in The Burton Mail, the local daily.

So finally, and not in homage to a writer that does not appeal to me,  IF

If you can start the day without caffeine or pills; If you can wait when loved ones are too busy to give you time; If you can take criticism and blame without resentment; If you can face the world without lies and deceit; If you can relax without booze; If you can sleep without the aid of drugs; If you can love without imposing conditions; If you can do all these things;

… you’re a dog.

Posted in A great future behind me, Ecclesiology | 2 Comments

I came to bear witness to the truth

15tue_hhdl-adt_12x8

Faces of the Divine

Homily for the Feast of Christ the King 2015

The Archbishop of Canterbury’s recent statement that the Paris attacks caused him to doubt the presence (or was it existence?) of God gave me cause in yesterday’s sermon to lay into the intellectual poverty of our leadership. The implication that God is a European; the blindness to the fact that Islamic fundamentalists were originally recruited and equipped by the US for fighting Russians in Afghanistan; the lack of acknowledgement that the UK and US fawn over the ISIS-connected House of Saud. Is the former oil executive blind?

Look at the West’s involvement in the middle East over the last century: the partitioning of the Arabian peninsula, the partition of Palestine, the formation of Jordan and Iraq, the military campaigns that are seen as Christian wars, modern Crusades. And people wonder ‘why Paris?’

I wonder what His Grace’s musings say about his notion of God. That God is ready to jump in and solve problems for ‘people like us’ in a city that is such a nice place to live? He said something like that too.

The Gospels tell us that the Pharisees were afraid to go after Jesus because people hung on his every word. Where is there a Christian leader of whom that might be said? Pope Francis perhaps? Certainly no Anglican now that Desmond Tutu has left the main stage. Nobody in the Church of Ireland says anything at all for fear of the brain dead eejits in the North, and in the Church of England all we get is ignorant bluster.

At least Dalai Lama has balls: “We cannot solve [the attacks in Paris] problem only through prayers. I am a Buddhist and I believe in praying. But humans have created this problem, and now we are asking God to solve it. It is illogical. God would say, solve it yourself because you created it in the first place.”

I ‘came out’ in the pulpit yesterday. I said that Jesus was a Buddhist in everything he said and did; that all he asks is that we follow his example; that arguments about atonement are piffling; that what matters are compassion and the death of self.

I said that we were now witnessing the oozing into place of the third world war and that the future is bleak. Of course, none of this absolves the evil perpetrators of evil deeds, but we might at least recognize our complicity in the sin of the world through our own ego and pride.

I said that there is no hope until people realize that the Kingdom of God is not about life after death or about an ideal political system to be gained by bashing people over the head until they agree with us. My kingdom is not of this world.

It is an inner kingdom, here and now. It is certainly not a kingdom of control, It is a kingdom of beauty. I came to witness to the truth – that is, beauty and imagination in all their manifestations. Beauty and imagination do not conquer by forcing, but by freeing.

Conquering kings their titles take, from the lands they captive make; Jesus, by a nobler deed, from the thousands he hath freed.

It was St Cecilia’s day yesterday, so we sang:

When in our music God is glorified, and adoration leaves no room for pride, it is as though the whole creation cried Alleluia!

How often, making music, we have found a new dimension in the world of sound, as worship moved us to a more profound Alleluia!

Beauty and truth seem pretty interchangeable to me. I came to bear witness to the truth. I said I’d probably be sacked after a sermon like this.

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I love all beauteous things

CarlBoss

Eyes that see shall never grow old

At last, Herbert Howells speaks to the sanctuary of my soul. Or, more truthfully, at last his music has penetrated the fat inclosing it.

Over the years, I’ve thought and said some dismissive things about Howells. That when you’d heard one of his Evensong settings, you’d heard them all (like Haydn String Quartets, and Palestrina Masses). That his organ compositions were little more than quiet-loud-quiet or loud-quiet-loud. That—ye Gods, how I am ashamed of this—he never let go of the death of his son. Mea culpa, mea culpa, mea maxima culpa.

It’s tempting to say that his loss released energy in his work that speaks to my loss. But the Requiem that I now find so poignant was written in 1932, three years before his bereavement. Howells certainly channelled his grief into creativity, but early compositions speak to me just as powerfully, so there is something more than the outworking of his grief that penetrates to my Holy of Holies.

I wonder what it is. Is it perhaps no more and no less than the pursuit of beauty?

I found beauty in the early 1960s in Carlisle.

The biology teacher shouts “don’t you know which side your bread’s buttered?” when I bare my soul about music or medicine. The organ teacher borrows money from my parents, so can hardly encourage me to go against their wishes. I finally let hold of my grip in 1972 when I went to medical school. I don’t think I’ve ever recovered from that loss. I’ve been chasing and mourning it ever since. Is my addiction to the church merely a vain attempt to cling to that first love?

Today I’ve discovered Howells’ I Love all Beauteous Things written in 1977. Like the anatomist’s knife it slices open my insides in one stroke. It exposes my soul to the world. An unprotected soul is mortally vulnerable, but better wounded than icy, for the wounds do the work. Gerda and Kay in The Snow Queen, different parts of me, tears of love melting heart of ice.

We see events in the world that demonstrate, yet again, the three groups of demons (addictions in modern parlance) that Evagrios in the fourth century AD identified as responsible for the ills of the world: “those entrusted with the appetites of gluttony, those that suggest avaricious thoughts, and those that incite us to seek the esteem of others. All the other demons follow behind and in their turn attack those already wounded by the first three groups.”

“We cannot solve [the attacks in Paris] problem only through prayers. I am a Buddhist and I believe in praying. But humans have created this problem, and now we are asking God to solve it. It is illogical. God would say, solve it yourself because you created it in the first place.” These words of Dalai Lama shout at me.

Take responsibility for your actions: your overeating, your overuse of antibiotics, your exploitation of other people, your consumption of natural resources … Face your grief for your sins, and for the hurts done by others. Then your tears will flow. Tears that come from the heart: herzwasser. The woman’s herzwasser that washes Jesus’ feet. Herzwasser that flows when we are forgiven, and when we forgive. Herzwasser that flows in the presence of beauty in all its manifestations: sounds, sights, smells, handiwork, openheartedness, and above all else sacrificial love: “O my son, my son, my son! would God I had died instead of thee, O my son, my son!”

The Kingdom of God is not about life after death. It is not about an ideal political system. My kingdom is not of this world: it is an inner kingdom, here and now.

It is certainly not a kingdom of control. It is a kingdom of liberating beauty in its protean manifestations. Beauty does not conquer by forcing, but by freeing.

I love all beauteous things,

      I seek and adore them;

God hath no better praise,

And man in his hasty days

      Is honoured for them.

I too will something make

      And joy in the making;

Altho’ to-morrow it seem

Like the empty words of a dream

      Remembered on waking.

Robert Bridges, 1844–1930

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Comfortable words

1We’re not the first and won’t be the last, but I don’t know what I think until I write it down, and writing is therapeutic, so …

We need to lick our wounds. We’re not straying from the nest.

I find solace in liturgy and the offices of the church. A funeral visit yesterday was truly moving, and I heard and saw that the family found it so too. Officiating at Evensong sung by Lichfield Cathedral choristers was like being wrapped in a sucky-rug woven by strands from Carlisle, Southwell, Ripon and Dublin. Mostly Carlisle: great east window, celestial ceiling, mediaeval misericords, organ. Emotional certainly, but good emotional not bad emotional. This kind of professional activity is somehow real. It’s just about all that matters at present other than family and close friends. Come unto me, all ye that travail and are heavy laden, and I will refresh you.  

Anything that requires a response from me is out of the question. I should be at two coffee mornings today. There’s no chance. I can’t face any sort of social interaction except with those who know the value of silence. This is nothing new, but what is new is the pain of being talked at. Pious platitudes provoke an only just resisted thrusting of index and middle fingers into the speaker’s eyes. They may mean well, but that doesn’t make it any better. Wise people say “there’s nothing I can say.” Even some clergy have responded thus. If in doubt, say nowt.

Some people say they will pray for us. A few years back while driving up the M1 I heard a radio play in which Almighty God, overwhelmed by prayer requests flooding in by heavenly fax, asked his secretary to hand him the next in line for action. It was—a bit of a backlog—from someone whose family had been wiped out by the Black Death. I doubt that any fax about us would make it to the top pretty soon. My notion of the impassible Divine isn’t that of a celestial GP doling out analgesic pastilles on demand.

The new dog entertains despite sharp baby teeth. It’s impossible not to be amused at a Boxer pup, though I suspect amusement will soon become tarsomeness and irritation. Irritation: yes, the rawness of grief makes me even more intolerant. I can hardly bear to engage with arguments about trivia, and let’s face it, it’s all pretty trivial. I know that people like the Vicar to make decisions so that they can blame him when stuff goes wrong, but Hugh’s death has made me determined not to engage with this kind of childishness. Is this intolerance of trivia temporary? I sure hope not.

I’ve been taken aback by some people’s responses in two ways. First, some persistently ask prurient questions. Ed pointed out that what they really want to know is: was it suicide? (Hugh “died suddenly”). That had not occurred to me. Now when people do this, I say “it wasn’t”. Second, a few people who’ve made precious little effort for decades to keep in touch with Hugh or us suddenly become very “caring”. Perhaps they are sincerely trying to help, but I can’t help feeling it’s just guilt.

It’s a lovely day: cold, sunny, my favourite. The sort of day for a train journey down the Rhine to a Christmas Market. Mainz perhaps, or Limburg (that was good). The Germans know how to do Advent.

Posted in A great future behind me, Pastoralia | 2 Comments

A rare privilege

North Bend, WA, 2004

North Bend, WA, 2004

Three weeks ago I never imagined that I would say this, but — it’s a rare privilege for a father to speak at the obsequies of his son. It’s rare for obvious reasons. It’s a privilege because over the last three weeks I’ve come to know Hugh as never before, from hearing and reading what his colleagues and friends have said about him.

It’s customary not to speak ill of the dead so that what is said about them bears little relation to the truth – de mortuis nil nisi bunkum. I shan’t fall into that trap: I am more familiar than most with the anatomy of the gonads, so am well able to recognize balls. But I know what I saw in Houston when I visited Hugh’s work place. I know the shock, the glazed expressions, the crumpled faces of his workmates. I heard what they said. I read what they, and others, wrote. Those manifestations of grief were so very moving because of their patent sincerity. You can read some of them in the US funeral leaflet.

Boys in Moscow, 1987

Boys in Moscow, 1987

At the funerals of both my parents thirty years ago I was struck by how little I knew them, and how little they knew me as anything other than their grown up child. Thankfully, over the last fifteen years, I came to know Hugh as a man, a fellow explorer, not just a son. Now in the last three weeks, as in a whirlwind, I’ve had the privilege of seeing him as a teacher, an example, a beacon. It’s taken my relationship with him to quite a different plane. I wish, O how I wish, that it were not so. Like King David when his son Absalom was killed, I have wept, “O my son, my son, my son! would God I had died instead of thee, O my son, my son!” But it is so, and I must live with that.

It is a truth universally acknowledged that people can be divided into two categories—not sheep and goats, but drains and radiators. In pastoral ministry – and as a medical school teacher, which is a form of pastoral ministry – one comes across a lot of drains. Churches are full of them. They suck the life force from you as they enjoy ill health, or enjoy finding fault. They try to draw you into their jaundiced world view. They think that because you drink tea with them you give your and the church’s approval to their prejudices. They are, in short, full of crap.

About 1980

About 1980

Hugh was no drain.

He radiated mischief. Eyes were open and alert minutes after birth. He prized open Susan’s eyes, “wake up mummy” as she was taking a nap between ministrations to a 4 year old, a 2 year old (him), and a newborn. “Don’t sit on the bike – you’ll fall off into the pit and break your arm”. So he did, and he did. And then “don’t go swimming with your arm in plaster, or the cast will fall off” – so there’s a memory of Hugh running up to the pool at a campsite in the Dordogne, and jumping in with his plastered arm held high. There’s a photo somewhere.

He radiated cheek: not many Wesley College second formers would say to a huge sixth form rugby jock—Leinster triallist—who collided with him in the corridor, “watch where you’re going, you fat fecker”. Hugh’s alliterative skill was not enough to protect him from retribution.

Eton Choral Course about 2000. Guess which is Hugh

The man in the white suit. Eton Choral Course about 2000

He radiated energy. He loved an argument. He had a profound sense of justice that made him provocative, dogged, and protective. He was intellectually quick so did not make himself popular with pedestrian Wesley College staff: he agreed with the psalmist “I have more understanding than my teachers”. He did not make it easy for his parents. But I comfort myself with the knowledge that there is nothing worse for an adolescent boy than to have a father who understands him. Hugh had no time for people who should know better, and he told them so. He was utterly intolerant of humbuggery. He comforted the disturbed and disturbed the comfortable. I am so very proud to be his father.

Asleep

2005

It’s the job of a priest in a funeral homily to put a life into a theological context. I recall something said by the Archdeacon of Chesterfield as we chatted before my ordination as priest 8 years ago. We were talking about “sin”. He said, “quite simply, sin is life unlived”.

Sin is life unlived.

You are sinning if you don’t make the best of what life throws at you. You are sinning if you don’t use your gifts and skills to increase delight. You are sinning if you don’t use your personality to put a smile on people’s faces. You are sinning if you sit in the corner and wait for other people to serve you. I could go on.

2014

2014

Hugh was never a sinner! You just had to mention his name and faces would light up. And if you found him irritating, you deserved to be irritated. St Irenaeus had it spot on 2000 years ago: The Glory of God is a human being fully alive. Hugh was fully alive. I could go on with other learned quotes, but one more will do the trick: Jesus said I came that all may have life and have it in abundance.

Hugh had it in abundance. He shared it with the world. He helped people who received him convert old wine to new. He packed more into 38 years than some people pack into twice that time. I’m sad to think that maybe in the last 10 years he was worn out as he valiantly and sacrificially endured a series of hardships for the sake of his daughter and wife, but I’m so grateful to the people of Independence Oilfield Chemicals that with them for the last year Hugh found a place where he was appreciated and cherished. It’s not everyone who finds a music degree to be the perfect entrée into lab work in the Texas oilfields. Talk about charm.

Bahamas

Bahamas 2015

I shall wrap up as I always do at funerals with an admonition. It’s particularly apt in this case because Hugh’s death was so unexpected. Remember, all of you, every one of you, that you will one day go the same way. And it might be tomorrow. So please, please use Hugh as your example: live your life to bring delight to others; live it so that when your time is up you leave behind as few regrets and as little unfinished business as possible.

Hugh. I am so desperately sad you’ve gone. I miss you every minute of every day, but thank you for letting your light so shine that we may glorify your Father which is in heaven. You are for ever with me.

Hugh Stanley Robson Monkhouse RIP. 20.10.1977 – 23.10.2015

Posted in A great future behind me, Theology | 17 Comments