For St Paul’s magazine May 2023
When I was ordained I vowed that I would only ever say from the pulpit what was true for me, personally. In this I am following the example of Anglican theologian and monk Harry Williams. I never met him but to read his writings is to get some idea of the man. You can glimpse his inner turmoil, his difficulties in finding God (his autobiography has the inspired title Some day I’ll find you), and his struggles with the conventions of society, with the conventions of religion, and with the conventions of church.
Maybe because of all this his joie de vivre shines through, effervescent and impish, pricking pomposity and getting to the heart of the matter. After a difficult time in a London parish he resolved he would never say anything that was not wrought from his own experience. I admired that when I first read it and I admire it still.
I will preach only homilies that are born from my experience. I will never preach sermons that demand merely, as so many do, that we worship Dear Leader, as if broadcast from loudspeakers in Pyongyang. My confession after the drama of Holy Week and Easter is that I’m left feeling drained. There are plenty that would condemn me for this honesty. Surely, they say, clergy should be on a high after Easter so “there must be something wrong with you”.
It’s in these struggles and this suffering that we get down to the real you and me. Not by hiding the difficulties, but by acknowledging them. You can’t cure an abscess by ignoring it: it needs lancing to let the pus out. The problem with hiding our problems is that we then put on a false front. We pretend that things are better than they are. Propaganda. Spin. This is familiar to us as we read and listen to the news.
Why do we give in to this temptation to ‘spin’, to big ourselves up?
Fear and insecurity certainly, which we think will be eased by having the approval of others. Human behaviour is much as it was 4000 years ago (to take a figure at random), and certainly 2000 years ago, and when I read early Christian authors, I’m struck by just how relevant are their little nuggets to me here and now, centuries later.
One such writer was Evagrios (AD 345-399) who maintained that the sins that most sap our strength are gluttony, avarice, and the need to seek the esteem of others—to suck up to them. Interpret gluttony more widely than just greed for food, and interpret avarice broadly as wanting what is not yours. These three “demons” are the root of pride.
Now, look at the world; look at the mess we’re in. The evil advertising industry is built upon our inability to resist gluttony and avarice for possessions. We are avaricious too for perfection. This is in part a noble longing: we ache for things to be better. The trouble is that we forget that perfection for us is likely to mean making things worse for someone else. Our latest fashions come at the price of people in sweatshops. Our quest for the perfect body, or the perfect anything, can lead us to neglect or harm our families, friends, and ourselves. And I write this knowing full well that I am afflicted. We are surrounded by the things that Evagrios warns us against.
Life on the planet is difficult. There are difficult decisions and hard choices to be made daily. Of course, things will never be just as we want them, and we have to live with this imperfection. But we also need to speak out and bring it into the open. This is prophecy, and the Hebrew root of the word is ‘to make things bear fruit’. It is revolutionary.
Jesus was a prophet, both spiritual and revolutionary—two sides of the same coin. Prophets ask painful and upsetting questions to reveal the true situation. Children are prophets by their openness and honesty. People who speak against governments are rarely thanked. Whistleblowers are often prosecuted. But healthy society needs loyal dissent. We need look no further back than the twentieth century to see what happens when prophets are silenced. When something is wrong, we need people to say so, and we can’t do this if we want the approval of the majority.
So what can we do about it?
As a minister I have only one message really, and it’s that we all have Christ within—the divine core like a pilot light on a gas stove. We begin to get glimpses of the Divine when we start to know ourselves through self-examination. This involves distressing internal turmoil as Harry Williams well knew. It involves soul-searching, the discarding of images from the past, discarding the expectations of others and the need to seek approval from them. It involves discarding the layers we use to big ourselves up, that cover up the Christ-within. My experience is that however far down into myself I go, I never seem to reach the bottom of the barrel: there’s always yet more muck hiding in a corner.
Letting the divine core within take over our whole selves makes us all divine. That’s what the two great festivals of the church coming up are all about. The Ascension is taking our human-ness into the realms of the divine, and Whitsuntide is about the divine being available to everyone, everywhere.
That’s something to look forward to as we struggle with the daily irritations and frustrations that life brings.
Let your light so shine before men, that they may see your good works, and glorify your Father which is in heaven.
Or as Dolly Parton might say, “if you’ve got it, flaunt it”.
Steve Chalke makes the point that the crucifixion without the resurrection is only half the story. To which I would add that resurrection without ascention is similarly inadequate – and without which there’s no Pentecost. You can’t take any one element out of the equation without damage to the whole, because they all hang together.
I’m not a professional theologian; just a very ordinary joe, but like you, I will / can only speak from my own personal experience of divine truth. And, yes, Easter is emotionally exhausting and draining – if indeed you relive the experience of the first disciples in your heart. The most moving portrait of Gethsemene which I’ve ever seen is in the Salvador Dali Museum at Rosas in Spain – incredibly simple, and all the more moving for that, it really conveys the reality of Christ’s isolation at that point in a way like no other painting I know. A tiny figure, alone in an otherwise empty space, with just a ring of poplars for audience. Heart-wrenchingly simple, so human, and yet so recognisably one with our own experiences.
Thank you for this lovely comment. Ascension is the greatest festival for me. “Made like him, like him we rise” as Charles Wesley wrote. You might like Mynheer’s painting of the two mothers. See https://ramblingrector.me/2021/04/01/even-my-own-familiar-friend-2/
Thank you, Stanley! I know exactly what you mean about post-Easter. If my memory is correct, Evagrius had 8 ‘deadly sins’, and I think the one you pick up on is often translated ‘vain-glory’ – a very apt description of what you write about.
With many other priests, I attended a requiem mass last week for a priest in which honesty about ourselves, especially as priests when the temptation may be to fit our own and others’ expectations, was one of the points that came across (to me at least) in the sermon. Honesty and vulnerability came up in conversations in the gathering afterwards.
thanks Mary. This is the relevant Evagrios quote:
Of the demons opposing us in the practice of the ascetic life, 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. All the other demons follow behind and in their turn attack those already wounded by the first three groups. For one does not fall into the power of the demon of unchastity, unless one has first fallen because of gluttony: nor is one’s anger aroused unless one is fighting for food or material possessions or the esteem of men. And one does not escape the demon of dejection, unless one no longer experiences suffering when deprived of these things. Nor will one escape pride, the first offspring of the devil, unless one has banished avarice, the root of all evil, since poverty makes a man humble, according to Solomon (cf. Prov. 10:4. LXX). In short, no one can fall into the power of any demon, unless he has been wounded by those of the front line. That is why the devil suggested these three thoughts to the Saviour:
Many thanks. So very true. I note with pleasure your acid comments about advertising. That it puts people on a self-defeating hedonic treadmill is well known: https://global.oup.com/academic/product/the-challenge-of-affluence-9780199216628?cc=gb&lang=en (Avner Offer, along with Martin Daunton, Jim Tomlinson and Martin Chick is arguably one of the best economic historians of modern Britain).
What is also often overlooked is the burden which advertising imposes upon the wider economy. See pages 31-34 here: https://desmarais-tremblay.com/Resources/Simons%20Henry%20C.%201934%20A%20Positive%20Program%20for%20Laissez%20Faire.pdf (unusual coming from a largely forgotten, but innovative, Chicago economist).
Many thanks, Mr F. I could perseverate at great length about advertising. Another time maybe.
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Good poem. I increasingly feel that the “church” bigged-up resurrection in times past as part of its mission to control hoi polloi and be an agent of imperial hypocrisy,. The critical event for me is the agony in the garden when Jesus sweated “clots of blood” as self (take this cup away) was replaced by selflessness (let it be as you say). The resurrection is a consequence of a consequence. People these days I suspect find it easier to see the authentic human psychology in this than to accept literal resurrection.
Interesting comment re your Easter experience. I came across this poem on Holy Saturday the effects of which on me lingered over into Easter Day.
I have no cause
to linger beside
this place of death,
to keep vigil
where life has left,
and yet I cannot go,
cannot bring myself
to cleave myself
can only pray
that this waiting
might yet be a blessing
and this grieving
yet a blessing
and this stone
yet a blessing
and this silence
yet a blessing