Address given on 14 February 2013 by the Revd Stanley Monkhouse, Rector of the Portlaoise and Ballyfin Union, at an ecumenical Act of Worship in the Chapel of Saint Patrick’s Missionary Society, Kiltegan, Ireland
I have no great experience of ecumenism. I was born in 1950 into Methodism, defected to the Church of England for the music, and here I am now in the Church of Ireland in an overwhelmingly RC society. Going backwards from the present in Portlaoise, I was Rector of three parishes in Derbyshire, curate of ten parishes in Derbyshire, then before than for over 25 years I taught anatomy in medical schools in Dublin and Nottingham. Before that I was a hospital doctor in south London, then a student at medical school and university. Finally, so to speak, school and childhood in Cumberland, as it was then. Those are the lenses through which I see. I am married and Susan and I have three offspring in their 30s in Dublin and Texas.
I begin by recommending to the Cardinal electors for the next Holy Father someone who, should they heed my advice, would revolutionize ecumenism. There has never yet been one, but I urge them to elect Pope Stella I. Not only would that strike several blows including one for feminist theology, it would also enable her, strict vegetarian that she is, to attend to the current problem of horsemeat in so-called beefburgers.
Someone has been flogging dead horses. In addition to the readings tonight from Micah (do justly, love mercy, walk humbly) and Luke (Emmaus road), my supplementary text is the gospel story in which Jesus tells the disciples not to linger in houses that do not welcome him. In other words, don’t flog dead horses. I wonder if ecumenism in its present form is a dead horse. We have come miles, thousands of miles, from where we were decades ago when an act of Worship like this in a place like this with a speaker like this would have been unthinkable. But we need some imaginative thinking for the next steps, and I put it to you that such imaginative steps need to start with ourselves.
It’s the second day of Lent. Yesterday’s readings asked: do you say one thing and do another? do you show off so that others feel worse about themselves? do you let other people’s opinions stop you from doing what you know in your heart is right? We all do, I suspect. I know I have done, and doubtless will again. It seems to me that Our Lord condemned very little, but always, always always hypocrisy and complacency. We are inclined to think that the problems with ecumenism (and with everything else) as being with ‘them over there’. They are, of course, with ourselves in our own attitudes. It’s not ‘them out there’, but ‘us in here’ [our heads]. It’s not organisations like the house of Bishops or the Diocesan Synod or the Curia or the Vatican that we need to be besieging, but ‘me in here’ and ‘you in there’. ‘Heart talking to heart’.
We have all sorts of demons living inside our heads that splinter our spirituality and our intellects. They are a diabolical. Dia-bolism: they splinter our thinking, like the shards of glass at the beginning of the ‘Snow Queen’, they harden our hearts. They are indeed legion. At the end of Worship we will sing ‘For the healing of the nations’ as if somehow God will intervene in political processes. Well, God might, but only if He is allowed to act inside our heads first. The nations that need healing are inside our heads. Every act for good or ill starts as a thought.
In a society as tribal as this one—and believe me, you can’t get more tribal than the Church of Ireland—this is difficult stuff. We need to bring the past into the present, transform it and move on. Jesus at the transfiguration, not dwelling in the past on top of the hill with the patriarchs, but affirming them, coming down, moving on, setting his face to go to Jerusalem – to the crucifixion. Metamorphosis. The time, if you like, when he enters the chrysalis in order to burst out at resurrection/ascension.
When Moses came down from the mountain after conversing with YHWH his face was shining, a bit like a storage heater radiating glory. When Jesus came down, he too had a shining visage. The trouble is that we veil our faces, so don’t see clearly. Because of the veils, neither are we seen clearly. Is this why our view of the Divine is so difficult to glimpse? Veils of pride, of pretending we’re better than we are, or stronger than we are, or less vulnerable than we are; veils that make us appear to have no problems, no worries; veils that makes us hard-hearted as the Israelites were; veils that dull the glow of the shining divine face? Luke’s account of the Transfiguration tells that ‘Peter and his companions were weighed down with sleep’. Blessed are the poor in spirit – those who lack spiritedness. [The Message] When you’ve lost all you have, you’ve nothing else to lose, and you can stop pretending. When I’m tired, at the end of my tether, I have no energy to make veils of self, of me me me. then I might just glimpse the Divine.
‘And all of us, with unveiled faces, seeing the glory of the Lord as though reflected in a mirror, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another’. Imagine yourself with no clothes on looking into a full length mirror. What do you see? Do you see what others see? Do you see what God sees? Just occasionally I think I glimpse myself as God sees me, and it is frightening. Like Gerontius, I say, ‘take me away; I cannot bear the sight.’
Paul calls for transformation, metamorphoumetha. Pupation, maturation, caterpillar to butterfly, ‘ugly duckling’ to swan. From glory to glory. A becoming as William Blake says. Becoming what? Rabbi Zusya said, ‘When I come to die, God will not ask me why I was not Moses, he will ask me why I was not Zusya.’ Becoming the very best, as individuals, that the Lord made us to be. This is what we are to seek as Christian disciples. And we need to help others to be the best that they can be.
For this we need humility. This is not grovelling but – humus – earthedness, feet on the ground, aware of our own gifts and weaknesses, aware of our powerlessness. We need to let go of pretences that veil our faces so we cannot see clearly. Maybe this is what Lent can be about: not giving up things like gin—certainly not gin—but giving up those things that veil our view of the world. Giving up, perhaps, the idea that nobody else’s opinion matters as much as our own.
The picture of the Godhead that we hold is one in which God consists of a triangle of relationships: Father and Son, Father and Spirit, Son and Spirit – already a community within the Godhead. Can ecumenical relationships reflect the Holy, Blessed and Glorious Trinity? Why do we humans so often find relationships difficult? Relationships between family members, relationships between work colleagues, relationships in the church, relationships on Select Vestries? I think it comes down to the simple fact that we are humans, and we suffer to from pride in all its forms. Pride, ambition, hypocrisy – the opposites of what love should be. I suffer terribly from all this. It is even possible to have negative pride: continuous self-criticism, inverted pride, the notion that my sin is so bad that not even the Lord can forgive me.
In all our relationships we should remember that we are made in God’s image. Jesus is the perfect reflection of God—wisdom terminology. We have Christ within, as Paul and the church fathers tell us. And all of us will see the glory of the Lord as though reflected in a mirror. In order to approach Christlikeness in relationships, Our Lord tells us we need the openness of children – childlikeness. Not childishness that is so often a feature of committee meetings. We need to stop resisting God’s grace implanted in us.
We need to receive Divine love as gift – we do not need to earn it, just bask in it like whales basking in the sunshine. We don’t need to do things, we just need to stop resisting. If you have heard of Carmelite nun Ruth Burrows, you might know that her view of prayer is that it is God’s work, not ours. Relax into the Divine. ‘It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me’. We need to cooperate with the Christ within.
Life is full of difficulties that deflect us from the course, that sap our energy and that harden our hearts. Let this basking in the Divine recharge our energy stores (storage heaters again). Instead of resisting, let’s cooperate with the Christ within, exposing our inner selves to God’s healing grace. This might help us to know when to yield, and better enable us to put ourselves in the other person’s shoes, trying to see their point of view. And, of course, knowing when to call it a day: Christ was not one to flog a dead horse, and neither need we. I need to heed this advice as much as anyone. It’s through dealing with difficult experiences that we grow – tested in the refiner’s fire. When we enfold our past, when we absorb and learn from our experiences, we can allow them to help us to help others: our pain and joy can help create a source of healing for others. Micah’s call to do justly, love mercy and walk humbly will follow more easily when we have attended to the legions within. And we will find ourselves in good company on the road to Emmaus. We recognize the presence of the Lord in those around us—and in ourselves.
The battle for salvation, and for ecumenism, 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. Love your enemies—love your demons. There’s nothing like the light of love to dissolve these creatures. 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 we need to allow to fill us from the inside. It was written by a 20-year old Charles Sorley who died weeks later in 1915 at the Battle of Loos. Such wisdom from a 20-year old.
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.
To finish, I quote a poem that some of you may know as a hymn. It was written by Frederick Faber (‘Faith of our Fathers’), the son of a Church of England Priest, himself ordained into the Church of England, then received into the Church of Rome where he became an Oratorian and colleague of Newman. I can’t think of a better hymn for an ecumenical event.
There’s a wideness in God’s mercy
like the wideness of the sea;
there’s a kindness in his justice,
which is more than liberty.
For the love of God is broader
than the measure of man’s mind;
and the heart of the Eternal
is most wonderfully kind.
But we make his love too narrow
By false limits of our own
And we magnify his strictures
With a zeal He will not own.
If our love were but more simple,
we should take him at his word;
and our life would be all gladness
for the goodness of the Lord.