Renaissance

pupa-3978412_960_720Church Magazine, March 2019

Spring-cleaning brings to mind memories of carpets being draped over washing lines and beaten to within an inch of their lives. It’s a happy coincidence that for us in the northern hemisphere, spring means more hours of sunlight, animals and plants waking from hibernation, caterpillars becoming butterflies, and a general feeling of renaissance. A good time of year for an inward spring-clean—Lent.

Between caterpillar and butterfly there is the intermediate stage of pupa, chrysalis, cocoon. It looks from the outside as if nothing is happening. Such is far from the truth. Inside, all sorts of things are happening as some bits die, new bits develop, and things rearrange themselves before the adult form forces its way out with a great deal of effort.

In our lives we often reach a point where all that has gone before is cluttering up our heads to the extent that we are paralyzed, not knowing what to do next. We enter a kind of pupa. If we are willing, we can mirror the biological metamorphosis with a psychological metamorphosis as we let some bits die, new bits develop, and allow other things to rearrange themselves.

This is hard work. It’s painful. It takes a lot of energy to chip through the crust that develops around us so that the beautiful butterfly can emerge and take wing. You can easily extend these images into those of passion, crucifixion, and resurrection/ascension—and I leave you to ponder this.

In biology, the term for the adult form is imago. Image. Even the adult form is just an image, an illusion, a mask, a persona. So the question is: what is the adult an image of? How far do you have to delve into yourself in order to find the real you, if there is such a thing?

I doubt that there is such a thing. I find my own “self” so often at the mercy of events, emotions, sensations, and feelings. I’m certain that much of what we do is governed not by “free will” but by circulating chemicals in our bloodstream: testosterone, oestrogen, insulin, thyroxine, and countless more. There are the neurotransmitters – sometimes not enough of them, sometimes too much. All these substances affect our moods, our inclinations, our actions, and our perspective of life on the planet. And then there are things we shove into ourselves. Be in no doubt: food is a drug. Too much carbohydrate can make you sleepy. Too much caffeine makes you jittery. Too much booze makes some people aggressive, others stupid, others comatose.

Given all this, what room is there for any kind of “real” you? I suppose in order to find it you would need to deprive yourself of all food and drink and sit in an entirely stimulus-free environment in the hope that you would be able to find the real you. Trouble is, before you even began to get there, you’d be dead through boredom and inanition—like in Deanery Synod.

Nevertheless, Lent is a great opportunity to take stock of where you are, where you want to be, and what you might do to get there—in particular, what you need to get rid of in order to make the journey easier. To use an analogy I’ve often used before, what do you need to chuck out of the basket so that the balloon can ascend to the heights?

Ash Wednesday is one of the truly great festivals of the year. It reminds us that we’re human, that we are going to die, and that we need to get a grip on our lives before it’s too late.

Interregnum

A reassessment will be forced on the churches in a few months’ time. By the end of 2019 I shall have retired. It’s unreasonable to expect Phillip to become effectively the vicar as he did in the last interregnum: he is seven years older and neither his health nor I suspect his marriage would stand for it. It’s unreasonable to expect Robin to become effectively the vicar, for he is not paid and, like all unpaid clergy he will do only what he is willing to do—you must not impose on his good nature. It may not be too difficult to find cover for Sunday services but you need to give serious thought to the future of midweek masses. In my retirement I don’t want to be tied down to any particular midweek service schedule, even if I thought it worthwhile turning up for a mass with one other person present—which I don’t. I don’t know any retired cleric who would.

I wonder how long the interregnum will be. It’s difficult to attract clerics to apply for jobs in the Midlands and North of England. Burton is not viewed as particularly attractive. This job is odd in combining different churchmanships, different social profiles, and civic responsibilities. The latter would repel some clergy, though I enjoy them.

Whatever else you do, remember that you need to present yourself as attractive. The interview is as much about letting applicants vet you as it is about letting you vet applicants. The interview team needs to be pleasant, positive, and interested in the applicant. Such is often not the case. You must be sure that other people the applicants meet on the day are not subverting the process by trying to impose their view of what the church needs, as happened for me.

You also need to do some work together beforehand, and I don’t just mean one meeting, in which you come to a common view of what you want. I recall in my interview in 2014 a point when, after two interviewers had been rather curmudgeonly, I realized I wasn’t going to be offered the job, so I went on the attack and said “you lot need to decide what you want, because it’s clear to me that you all want different things. It just ain’t gonna happen.” It was the best thing I did.

It’s not too early to think about these things. You must be assertive when dealing with the diocese and the deanery. You must not assume that bishops, archdeacons, rural deans and deanery apparatchiks know better than you what you need. They don’t. But you must be realistic. You must be forward-looking. You must accept that returning to how things used to be will never happen.

There’s a lot of reassessment to be done. Happy Lent.

Addendum to complete the story of my appointment to Burton

When they did get round to offering me the job after Fr Young had turned it down, I said I would take it only if all six assessors promised me their total support. I was assured that this was so. Three of the six kept their word. I suppose 50% aint bad.

Prophecy

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The absent centre

In Dublin I worked with surgeons who in retirement taught anatomy two days a week to medical students. They’d found a comfortable home in part of the trench that they had spent years digging for themselves. Here, I work with retired clergy who’ve found an agreeable church community with which they can develop a pastoral relationship, without the hassle of being the Vicar. They’ve found a comfortable home in part of the trench that they had spent years digging for themselves.

Now my retirement beckons: I have to go before my 70th birthday on 6 June 2020. Can I survive that long? I’ve been looking at an outline plan for 2019 liturgical events, civic events, meetings, administration. My heart sinks, especially since I have no administrator: it’s all up to me. I dread the prospect of the reigning monarch and/or her consort dying—not only because of the extra work entailed as Vicar of the civic church, but also because she just about holds together the nation in a way that nobody else does, and that I suspect her successors will not. But that’s another story.

I am incredibly tired—mentally, not physically. I look at the prospect of another Lent course, another Easter, another set of Harvests (ugh!), another set of Christingles (ugh, ugh!) with gloom. I feel as if I’m keeping the show on the road merely to give those whose hobby it is to attend church on a Sunday morning the illusion that things are more or less as they were when they were children, a few of whom resist with every ounce of their being anything that challenges that view. I am thus complicit in perpetuating a land of make-believe. I am complicit in keeping people infantilized. It doesn’t help that my vision of ministry is sneered at by the Lambeth politburo. I wonder how many of them were in multi-church ministry with no administrative help.

Church people have expectations of what a Vicar should be. I don’t meet them, thankfully. Church people are rarely open and honest with the Vicar: they tell him what they think he wants to hear—or should want to hear. Exchanges are therefore guarded and sometimes dishonest. I want to give them hugs and suggest that they relax. Sometimes I do, no doubt at the risk of being accused of inappropriate touching. I try to liberate them by being human and outrageous so as to give them permission to do likewise. It sometimes works.

Conversations with non-church people are something else altogether: open, honest, and often astonishingly revealing. They find it refreshing that the Vicar does not meet their expectations. It opens all sorts of doors. They say they like what they hear, for he is not institutionalized and doesn’t talk in Christian-speak jargon.

The volunteers that serve the YMCA night shelter at St Paul’s are by no means all church people. Many of them find it hard to articulate why they do it, but they restore my faith in humanity in a way that some church people with “a proud look and high stomach” do not. Such generosity seems to me to be Christianity in action. I don’t get that same feeling at the weekday masses attended by a handful of people.

I look forward with apprehension. I grieve the loss of plans, hope, prospects. It doesn’t matter that they may not have been well-formed, I’m aware that something is being lost, that things are slipping through my fingers. More than likely they were never actually in my fingers—but I thought they were. I thought I was beginning to get a grip on them, but when I look at my hands, I see they are evaporating. And it’s not principally a matter of deteriorating eyesight and hearing.

I could help occasionally with services at other churches. We’re staying in Burton, but many of its churches are not to my taste. They tend to be conservative theologically and undisciplined liturgically, whereas I’m for radical theology and traditional liturgy. For entirely understandable reasons, I’m not allowed to set foot in the churches I currently serve..

Music? My addiction to music developed in my teens as sublimation for erotic and sexual impulses driven by increasing circulating testosterone. Given the culture and family in which I grew up, that was pretty revolutionary. Music still brings me to heights and depths of emotion and I will enjoy it as long as my senses allow. I could play for services, but the number of clergy who want organists is rapidly decreasing as muzak replaces music. I am thankful for Rolleston Choral Society.

Writing? Who cares what I think? I’ve read again some of my recent blogs and have deleted them—exercises in self-indulgence and hubris. I suppose this is another.

Volunteering? Burton YMCA might be able to use me. I’m deeply concerned about the mental health of young men.

“Might be able to use me”: that phrase is a bit of a give-away. What does the real Stanley want? Is there such a thing?

His Holiness Archimandrite Phillip Jefferies

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A good vicar

October 2018 St Paul’s mag

By the time you read this, the Jefferies extravaganza will be over. As someone ordained priest only 11 years ago, I find it difficult to imagine what it must be like having been a priest for 50 years. How has he not been bored, year in year out? How has he managed to keep his patience? How has he managed to cope with the increasingly bureaucratic, meddling and managerial Church of England? I can’t answer for him so I’ll ask him to write something for next month’s magazine on half a century of priesthood.

It’s also half a century of marriage. Ye Gods, how has Rose managed to cope with him? I would be interested to read Rose’s reflections. I shall ask her to dish the dirt too. Behind every successful man is an astonished mother-in-law, but I guess it’s too late to ask her.

There are some terrible gobshites amongst the clergy. Phillip is not one of them. You might expect someone who has had a ministry like his, someone who has been (and is) as respected as he is, to be difficult to work with as a retired colleague. You might imagine that he would be telling me how he did things, and how I’m doing it all wrong, and generally waving it around to try and make me feel inferior.

Phillip does none of that. I hope he won’t disagree with me when I say that we have a great time. We exchange views. He gives advice when I ask for it, which is often. He answers questions honestly. I have no sense that he tells me only what he thinks I want to hear. He encourages me to take more risks than I do because, I sense, he feels he didn’t himself take enough. And thanks be to God, he is eye-twinklingly intelligent—which puts him in a tiny minority of clergy, I can tell you: him and me, in fact.

In short, I couldn’t wish for a better colleague. He had to retire when he was 65 under the terms of his appointment as Team Rector of Stafford, and here he is working with someone who’s 68. But he doesn’t take it out on me.

He will soon be submitting to the surgeon’s knife—if, that is, a heart lurks somewhere in Phillip’s thorax. I hope that his personality and inherent naughtiness will survive surgery intact, or even be enhanced, so that he and I can egg each other on to further heights of mischief.

Thank you Phillip: you’re a darling.

What will you become?

6a00d83454b21e69e20168e9543645970c-800wiHomily for Nativity of John Baptist

In the “proper” Church Kalendar (BCP), there are only three births celebrated: Jesus, Mary and John Baptist. John is important. You can tell this because his mother was well past childbearing age.

It’s a well-known literary device in myths that heroes are born to such women or to virgins. Think Greek myths. In Scripture, when the Lord had a special task for someone, there was something unusual about the birth. There’s Sarah, there’s Samuel’s mother, there’s Samson’s mother. In the New Testament we have, today, Elizabeth, and of course Mary. The device is still alive and well: read North Korean propaganda about Kim Jong-Il’s birth.

John Baptist is the bridge from Old to New. He’s the last of the straight talkin’, John Wayne, shootin’ from the hip Old Testament Prophets, and the first of the New. And his straight talkin’, shootin’ from the hip message is REPENT—that is, reassess your priorities.

Repent—not to please God the finger-wagging headmaster so that you can get more celestial Nectar points for a club class seat in the afterlife. No!

Repent—to free yourself from lumber that weighs down the ship of life, and prevents you from living. Lumber like pride, prejudice, expectations, envy.

Repent—to be free from self, free from me, me, me, free from the lust for power, from the certainty that you are right and everyone else is wrong, and to tell them so, constantly. Free from self-righteousness.

Repent—so that you can live abundantly, not constrained by ego, but flying free. Hot air balloons ascending, to use an analogy that I like.

We see the need for this every day of our lives—and don’t imagine that I’m any better at this than you are. We see self-righteousness. We see commitment to control. We see commitment to cause hurt and division. Division arises when people who want to retain power exclude others by gossip, or anonymous messages, or Facebook, or whatever. This kind of division has been part of human experience since time immemorial: the hissing serpent of the Garden of Eden with its forked, divided tongue.

These are some of the things that John Baptist calls us to repent of—to acknowledge that we have strayed and that we can revise our course by working for togetherness, community and cooperation.

When we divide person from person, or exclude others, we become the devil. Consider the word diabolic: anabolic means building up, catabolic means breaking down, and diabolic means dividing, splintering. The Kingdom of God is about anabolism. It’s as far removed from diabolical gossip as it is possible to get. It’s about being undivided, integrated, It’s about being anabolic agents without the side effects.

What do we really need? We need food sufficient for the day, we need shelter, somewhere to sleep, and some form of activity that gives a sense of accomplishment. And since it is not good for us to be alone, companionship. That’s all. But we are brainwashed by capitalism and the diabolical advertising industry to let ourselves be trapped by payments, mortgages, fashion, preposterous gadgetry, and storing money in the bank. This is idiocy. As the years pass, our hopes and dreams are corroded by caution and fear. And then we die, having never truly lived.

What do we need to do to prepare the way? Do we give in to diabolic division, or do we work for anabolic integration?  Here are some suggestions

  • accept yourself in your glorious humanity: go easy on yourself.
  • accept others in their glorious humanity; go easy on others.
  • forgive yourself; don’t harbour resentments.
  • forgive others; you’ll eat yourself up if you don’t.
  • welcome each other; don’t exclude.
  • care for each other; don’t gossip.
  • bless each other, especially those you find difficult, and those that find you utterly impossible.

In my homily two weeks ago I asked: “Who am I? Who are you? Is there anything underneath all the onion skins, or the layers of the Matryushka doll? Are you, as I so often feel, like a Polo mint with nothing in the middle?”

Today’s Gospel asks a different question: ‘What, then, will this child become?’

What will you become?

The ship in which we sail the voyage of life, like any ship, doesn’t do well overloaded with lumber. It sinks. It does best when carrying only the essentials. If you set out on a venture, first of all preparing something to fall back on in case you fail, you can be sure that you’ll fail. If you risk all and have nothing to fall back on, you’ve no choice but to KBO.

To be truly challenging, the voyage of life must rest on a firm foundation of risk.

There is a tide in the affairs of men, which, taken at the flood, leads on to fortune, said Shakespeare. The Vicar, stealing from Mrs Emmeline Lucas, says, There comes a tide in the affairs of men, which, if you don’t nip it in the bud, leads on to boredom. The purpose of life is not to be bored, boring and cautious. Sin is life unlived. The purpose of life is to lie on your deathbed and say, ‘Ye Gods, that was some ride’.

That’s life abundant. That’s eternal life.

Tuesday in Holy Week: love your enemies

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The welcome

Isaiah 49:1-6. John 13:21-33, 36-38

I suspect all church people have heard ‘I’m not coming to church: you’re all a bunch of hypocrites.’ The usual response is ‘well, there’s always room for one more, so you’d be in good company.’

We hear a lot about Judas in Holy Week, and Judas is, amongst other things, accused of being a hypocrite. Judas wasn’t a particularly bad man, just weak. His weakness is part of the story, just as are Peter’s denials. Maybe if Judas hadn’t killed himself he’d be a saint like Peter—maybe he should be, since he was the agent of Jesus’ liberation from earthly form. Yesterday we heard him say that money used to buy oil should be given to the poor, whereas in fact he wanted to filch it for himself. And tomorrow there’s an element of ‘it wasn’t me, guv, honest’ in the Judas story.

It all puts me in mind of Homer Simpson’s advice to Bart. Homer says: 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.

As it happens I think Homer’s a great guy. For all his faults, he’s a kind of innocent, and he certainly loves his family. But enough of these insights into my depraved televiewing habits. I want to talk tonight about demons—the kind of demons that assailed Judas, and because there’s Judas in us all, in our human nature. Once again, biology plays its part.

We left Jesus on Sunday standing at the gates of the city, facing death in the city of wrong. Jesus faces his demons. As we go with him, we must face our demons, our fears. These demons are the enemies within, enemies of spiritual growth, enemies of resurrection, enemies of imagination. Jesus tells us to love our enemies, but we can’t love these demons until we see them, and we can’t see them until we look them full in the face.

What are our demons? Let’s look at the demons in the Passion narratives. Three are obvious:

  • Denials. Peter’s denials saved his skin—but only for that moment. Later, he wept, overcome with remorse. It’s hard to hear today’s news without being confronted by denials. How can a head of state deny his part in a situation that sees three quarters of his people starve while he lives in luxury? How can a politician say what is self-evidently not the case? Is anyone guilt-free? Who has not tried to get something for nothing, or used work time for personal business?
  • Mob justice. There are so many stories that illustrate this. Children attacking other children. One from 2007 sticks in my mind. In March of that year, The Times reported, a young man was surrounded by a gang with wooden sticks. Witnesses say that teenage girls egged on the attack with shouts of “Kill him, kill him.”
  • Evasion of responsibility. Judas said ‘it wasn’t me’. Pilate wriggled out of responsibility and washed his hands. Pilate needed to please his superiors. It’s easy to pick on politicians because they set themselves up for it. Look at bankers evading responsibility. Now, we all make mistakes. We all are greedy. We all want the advantages of investment dividends if we are lucky enough to have money invested, and our pensions depend on them. In this regard, we are all complicit in the problems that afflict us, and our children and grandchildren will have to bear the burden of the mistakes our generation has made. I accept all that, and I can’t and don’t condemn anyone for faults that also afflict me. However, the arrogance and lack of remorse that we see in public life is staggering. According to the Gospels, Jesus was censorious about very little, but always, always, always about hypocrisy and complacency.

So three headings, but in truth they can be compressed into one: the sin of Adam—trying to be what we are not. The fig leaf has nothing to do with covering up our genitals, but is about covering up our naked selves by putting on a mask, a persona to hide our true faces. We deny the truth because of our need to save face, but it’s not the face that suffers. It is the inner self that I harm when I deny what is evident to others. This inner self that is, in my theology, the Christ within, the Divine within. When we harm others, we wound the Christ within as surely as any nail on the cross.

I want to give you some biological basis for the Christ within. I begin with a prayer from the Liturgy of S Basil, addressed to Our Lady.

Because of you, O full of grace, all creation rejoices, the ranks of angels and the human race; hallowed temple and spiritual paradise, pride of virgins; From you God was incarnate and he, who is our God before the ages, became a little child. For he made your womb a throne and caused it to become wider than the heavens.

Mary is the means by which logos, word, wisdom becomes human. She is God-bearer, QeotokoV. Now, just listen to this reproductive biology.

  • When an embryo is growing in the uterus, some of its cells invade maternal tissue. Some of these destroy maternal tissue and allow the embryo to exchange things with the mother.
  • Some of these embryonic cells also find their way into mother’s blood vessels and are carried throughout the mother’s body.
  • The invading embryonic cells are very unusual, in that they lose their individual boundaries and become a community without boundaries – individuals give way to a cooperative.
  • Embryonic cells remain within the mother up to and after she gives birth, so the woman is changed by the embryo growing in her uterus. After giving birth, the woman is no longer the same: embryonic cells have been incorporated into her. The mother is changed by this, and it happens within a week of fertilization – before she knows she’s pregnant.

All this is biology. Now put this in theological terms. During pregnancy,

  • Jesus’ cells invade Mary.
  • Mary does not reject Jesus.
  • Jesus and Mary exchange material.
  • Some of Jesus’ cells are left behind in Mary after Jesus has been born, and by this means Mary has been changed, transformed by the 9-month Christ-pregnancy.

But Mary is the representative of humanity, she’s one of us. So by spiritual extension, the Christ-event that began with Mary’s pregnancy and transforms her, also transforms you and me.

Jesus’ divine cells invade Mary. Jesus invades us – the divine spark within, like a divine radioactive core, ready to saturate all our cells, all our being, if only we will let it. As embryonic cells devour maternal tissue to enable exchange, so the divine core within can, if we allow it, devour our less salubrious parts, to enable exchange with God. Bishop Lancelot Andrewes in 1614 wrote: ‘He was not idle all the time He was an embryo — all the nine months He was in the womb; but then and there He even eat out the core of corruption that cleft to our nature and us …. [We] were by this means made beloved in Him … this the good by Christ an embryo.’ This is astonishing for 1614, without knowledge of reproductive biology.

Exchange. The embryonic Christ and Mary exchange things through Jesus’ placenta. So we exchange with God: God sustains us, and we offer the sacrificial gifts of worship and compassion. I call this the doctrine of mystical intermingling, and I have patented it!

Then there is community. Embryonic cells that invade the mother lose self-identity and become a community. This is a wonderful example of the mystical body of Christ where we lose our self-hood in community. In cooperation we can be so much more effective than if we act singly. The light in a glow-worm comes from millions of luminescent bacteria – one alone is invisible, but when they act together it is a different story.

Given that we have this divine core within, why do we do rotten things like Peter, like Judas, like Pilate? Why, as Paul said, do we do what we know we shouldn’t, and don’t do what we know we should? Where do the demons come from? I look at newborn babies and see no evidence of them. But as Satan—however we choose to interpret that—entered into Judas, so Satan enters into us sometime during our exposure to life on this planet. There are spiritual battles going on in us all the time with demons that we need to guard against. There is a whole subject opening up as I speak: our biological urge to reproduce, our biological need of sustenance, the need to survive at the expense of competitors—all this set against community and common good. This is for another day.

Using my image of God implanted within, how do we allow this divine core to transform us?

  • Mary listened. We need to listen to God. We do this by listening to God within, the still small voice. This is the implanted word. Conscience.
  • Mary did not resist. Honest self-examination is a key to this. It’s not so much that we have to do something actively, it’s that we have to stop doing something, and the thing we need to stop doing is resisting.
  • Thus we let the divine core within expand to fill our skins and suffuse all our tissues and thoughts. The pilot light flares within. This is salvation, redemption, deification, theosis.

God became man so that man might become God, said St Irenaeus.

Self-examination melts away the demons, allowing the divine spark within to fill our skins. It is painful when the light shines in our souls and we see ourselves starkly illuminated. But as Isaac the Syrian said, it is a spiritual gift from God for a man to perceive his sins. Only then can we repent. Isaac talks of three stages in the way of union: penitence, purification and perfection – that is to say, conversion of the will, liberation from the passions (detachment), and the acquisition of that perfect love which is the fullness of grace.

Mary is suffused with divine cells, she is divinized. She is a co-redemptrix. But remember, Mary is one of us, so we all share in this redemptive power if we choose to: we can all light the way for others. As the Divine within suffuses all our tissues, so we have the new creation happening in and around our cells. We are transformed from one degree of glory to another.

Charles Wesley was thoroughly grounded in this theology. His most astonishing hymn is Let earth and heaven combine. Here are some lines from it:

He deigns in flesh to appear, Widest extremes to join; To bring our vileness near, And make us all divine: And we the life of God shall know, For God is manifest below. … His love shall then be fully showed, And man shall all be lost in God.

Mary enables this mystical intermingling of human and divine. It is based on sound theology and, amazingly, on sound biology. In the words of Mother Julian of Norwich, the Saviour ‘began his work very humbly and very gently in the Virgin’s womb.’

My point is that the battle for salvation is not about doing stuff and ticking boxes, but rather about relaxing so that the Divine core can expand to fill our skins, pushing out the demons. Imagine these demons as imps when you recognise one, and send it on its way. There’s nothing like the light of day to make these creatures dissolve. But there is a never-ending supply of them, and they keep us in exile from that inner sanctuary. Here is a poem that talks of this inner kingdom, the holy of holies within that I suggest needs to fill us from the inside. It was written by a 20-year old C H Sorley who died weeks later in 1915 at the Battle of Loos.

From morn to midnight, all day through,

I laugh and play as others do,

I sin and chatter, just the same

As others with a different name.

 

And all year long upon the stage,

I dance and tumble and do rage

So vehemently, I scarcely see

The inner and eternal me.

 

I have a temple I do not

Visit, a heart I have forgot,

A self that I have never met,

A secret shrine—and yet, and yet

 

This sanctuary of my soul

Unwitting I keep white and whole,

Unlatched and lit, if Thou should’st care

To enter or to tarry there.

 

With parted lips and outstretched hands

And listening ears Thy servant stands,

Call Thou early, call Thou late,

To Thy great service dedicate.

 

We left Jesus standing at the gates of the city and confronting reality. We are standing at the gates of the inner kingdom. Let us love our enemies, our demons. Let us embrace them and expose them to Divine light and watch them dissolve.