There is a very important question, for me, about the teaching and traditions of the Crucifixion. I wonder if there is more about sinful man than about the love of God? Humans have such an agenda about inadequacy, failure, and downright wickedness that this underlying sense of never being good enough becomes more important than the love that wants them to feel loved – “No I refuse to be ok, I am wicked, dreadful and look I am so bad I crucified the Son of God.”
Is there is a kind of inverse arrogance here where man’s sin takes the centre of the stage that is meant to be starring the Divine Love? Because of this inversion the Crucifixion is treated as though it is the most important event (thus enabling the human side of the equation to be the operative) whereas it is the means to the most important event, which is the Resurrection. If the Cross is the most significant ‘man’ can be at the centre of the action, if the Resurrection is then clearly humankind can only be the recipients.
Sacrificing to the gods for sins, for appeasement, for favours was a constant theme in the evolution of human consciousness. That the Crucifixion of Jesus should come to be understood in sacrificial terms is entirely explicable given the world view into which it occurred. However, perhaps we need to question whether we are stuck with that view as eternal truth or whether the whole Passiontide – Resurrection Event can be legitimately explored and interpreted in ways that make sense to our understanding of the universe.
I am not convinced that the New Testament writers shared a common understanding of the Crucifixion - Resurrection events. I think they were too profound; they struggled to find a way of explaining what had happened to this Man they had known, loved or heard about. Paul was amazing in his grasp of it and his explications have stood the test of time, but I still have this double query, one, whether the interpretation in terms of sacrifice is the only possible explanation and two, whether, perhaps the Resurrection was ‘what it was all about’.
Humanity, universally has had one big insoluble fear, problem, unavoidable truth which religion was invented to solve in various ways, and that is the inevitable fact of death. Anthropologists commonly date the beginning of human consciousness from the point that creatures became aware of death, and among the oldest human artifacts are things pertaining to death and the appeasement of the gods.
Perhaps the whole point of the Life, Death and Resurrection was directed to this end, that humanity should come to know that death is not the end, that this life is the gateway to something infinitely greater. The appalling reality is that even when the teaching that death is not the end has been uppermost only a few happy souls seem to have got the point. Once the flush of martyrdom had run its course and Christianity had become the settled religion in what was called ‘the known world’ the teaching was used not primarily for comfort but for instilling fear, for controlling the populace, and for enriching the church. Think of the amazing art works depicting the frightful punishments awaiting the unwary after death. Think of the sale of Indulgences which were designed to pave the way to an easy time post mortem. It was this practice that most prominently urged Luther to the action that kicked off the Reformation. Troubling the populace by activating their fear of life after death used to be the simplest and most effective way of control and a ready source of income for the church.
The manipulation of humanity’s anxiety about death and mankind’s obsession with unworthiness, sin and punishment together obscure the reality of Divine Love and make the preaching of that Love sound somewhat hollow and most certainly not unconditional. (And I mean mankind’s obsession because the accepted definitions of what is sin have been entirely constructed in patriarchal societies with masculine views on what is right and what is wrong.)
When I was reading academic feminism, I came across something which made a great impression on me. I doubt if I could find the quote now but I remember the story. It seems to me that it is pertinent to this discussion. It was an account by a female anthropologist from those not so far off days when such a thing was odd and rare. She was an early example, and that meant she went into places where only men anthropologists had gone before. These men had collected the data and learned of the religious significance of various tribal events from which women were excluded. They gave their accounts of the religious lives of the people, seemingly not to realise that they were giving a very one-sided story. When the woman anthropologist went in, she spoke to the women and discovered a delightful, somewhat maternal tolerance for the blokes who went off and did their thing from time to time, it kept them happy and gave their women a bit of down-time! There was certainly no sense among the women that these activities of the men were of a significance that had much to do with them.
I feel a bit this way about the church. Yes, we have women priests and ministers in some churches but they are initiates into the men’s religion. However much in recent times women’s reality and possible contribution to other than tea-making and fund-raising has been taken into account women are still inevitably being incorporated into what is at root a patriarchal religion.
The rules and the doctrine were laid down long long ago by men taking men’s reality as The reality, any other point of view was not seriously questioned until around 100 years ago. The fundamentals are still not questioned and remain true to the definitions men made about 1700 years ago. For me this is very important when I come to try to understand the meaning of the Pre-existent Christ, the Passion-Resurrection Event, the Eucharist, or life after life. This is why I ask the questions that I do, not from an avid stridently feminist anti-men perspective but from a very real desire that the church should find resurrection and fulfil its true mission in the world. That sounds a wee bit pompous but I actually am passionate about the church even though my criticisms might seem to suggest otherwise.
We keep hearing about how vastly the world is changing and daily we experience the changes, both for good and ill. The scientific, quantum world is turning traditional views of reality upside-down and it is making actual and available experiences otherwise known only to mystics and advanced souls of various faiths. Neuro-science is putting foundations under and normalizing a wide variety of human experiences which have formerly been either inexplicable miracles or seen in the ’woo-woo’ category believed only by people a bit way out or cranky. These explorations border on the religious or spiritual. Even to talk about ‘the spiritual’ in medical or scientific contexts has only very recently become respectable. Surely with all this exciting foment around us it is time to re-evaluate and re-interpret our understanding of those things that pertain to the faith. It is time to find language which honours both the traditions and the world two thousand years on, and even to catch up with the many people outside of the church who are ready to talk about things divine and the Love which contains and infuses the whole without commitment to an ancient world view and a fourth century interpretations of God.
A Commentary on the Second Epistle to the Corinthians
As I typed those words, I was reminded of a conversation with a daughter years ago when she was an enquiring teen-ager. Being required to recite the creed she commented “For us men and for our salvation” then it has nothing to do with me! In a very particular way, the comment raises one of the issues with which this paper is concerned.
Another recollection that goes back, very much further, is of myself, in Sunday School, arguing with the venerable parish priest about his statement that I had crucified Jesus. In theological college, I had virtually the same argument with the principal, who reflected that it was no wonder I was such a bane in Sunday School! Neither in the intervening years nor in the decades since has anyone offered an explanation of the sacrifice of Christ that I have found convincing. I’ve read lots of the right books, even read St. Paul in the original but still there is something that simply does not work for me. It has always been a conundrum in the back of my mind for which I have never said, “Face it, I must be wrong.”
This issue came to the fore again while writing the material for my Lenten Project this year. For Lent IV the set reading for the Epistle was II Cor 5 :16 – 21 which is one of the texts where Paul sets out his theology of the Cross. The Gospel reading was Luke 11 :15-32 The Parable of The Prodigal Son, my considerations led to the following question: Does the image Jesus gives us of the father of the prodigal son match up to the image of God in Paul’s theology of the justification of Christ and the Cross?
Is this, in fact, central to the problem of Christianity today?
Barrett’s commentary on the Pauline text which heads this paper is as clear an explication as one can get and it does a great job of highlighting different aspects of the problem which I shall attempt to set out.
In a previous Lenten paper, I raised the question:
Has it ever occurred to you that the concept of sin is hard to maintain straight and clear since Freud?
That is one way of introducing a discussion about sin and attitudes to human behaviours which have altered enormously under the influence of clinical psychological investigation. Within the Judaeo/Christian tradition wrong and right, black and white, good and bad, have been fairly clear definitions from the earliest times, allowing for some variations in interpretation and the influence of Christianity. Preparation manuals for confession could give you a pretty comprehensive list of sins you might want (no not want) to confess. In the general run of daily life people knew what was right and what was wrong.
Things have changed. For example, in today’s world, sins of the flesh, specifically sexual practices, unless they involve harm to the young and defenseless, are no longer seen generally as bad, wicked or sinful. There are, of course, people whose faith rests in the literal authority of the bible for whom such leniency does not apply. Sex aside, and I guess, even criminality, what has changed so dramatically is the understanding of what motivates bahaviours. We now comprehend so much more of what makes for wrong-doing, harm to self and others, selfishness etc. and, while we may deplore, be scared by, or horrified by what has been done, we are inclined to go deeper and have a better grip on the motivation and its causes. Such in-depth investigation is a new thing in human history.
As I write I am aware of thinking in terms of ‘ordinary people’ going about doing ordinary things and committing ‘ordinary sins’, the questions that arise when one thinks in terms of national or global decisions seem like a different discussion but, I wonder, are they or are they the same problems writ large?
That’s a discussion for another time. Here we are more interested in exploring the meaning of the justice of God rather than the problems that justice encounters on a global scale.
If we as finite human beings can grasp something of the wider context for hurtful, wicked, mean, or sinful behaviour and maybe even have some compassion for the perpetrator, surely God must do more. “To understand all is to forgive all”. From the divine perspective all is known, not only what is but what has been and what will or could come in any situation.
We cannot understand the justice of God any more than we can understand the love and so the life of Jesus was meant to make that love more deliberately apparent and available. The parable of the Prodigal Son seems central to this intention. It is meant to be an illustration of the overwhelming and accepting love of the Father. One notices that the father didn’t say, “Well now that you’ve had your dinner and we’ve made a fuss of you it is time for you to account for all the miseries, pain and anxieties you have caused me.” In fact, the only aspect of injustice is that which the elder brother feels and it is marked out as being unworthy behaviour. In Pauline terms it would seem that the father’s justice has been overwhelmed by the father’s love not sitting parallel to it.
It leaves one with a strong feeling that this idea of God and justice, that the Father needed the sacrifice of His Son in order that the heavenly books should balance, is a case of man making God in his own image. The concept made perfect sense to Paul in his thought world and that of which he was a part and has continued to be preached in a patriarchal church ever since.
I would insert a proviso here in case I seem to be doing Paul a dis-service. I have accented one part of Paul’s theology of the Cross to emphasize the ways in which it has shaped the teaching of the churches. His thinking was much bigger, richer and more comprehensive than might appear from what I have written. The Pre-existence and the Resurrection were central to his doctrine, the imminent return of Christ was the motivation for his missionary endeavours. Trying to probe the mind of Paul is a lifetime occupation and, of course, can only be done via the mind of the researcher which will have its own biases and pre-conceived notions. This bias of course has been operative in commentators down the centuries who have had such trouble explicating Paul’s theology, even when they were quite sure that they knew what Paul was really about. Paul’s thought world and those that followed down the centuries didn’t always match; today they are poles apart. The whole practice, intention and performance of sacrifice was integral to religion in the ancient world, to us it is alien.
Furthermore, the teaching is that the unconditional love as per the father of the prodigal is because Jesus died for us, and is dependent on our believing in that. This suggests that God must have changed quite a lot in the period before and after the Crucifixion. It suggests that all those millions of people who lived prior were outside of the love of God. And those today who do not subscribe to the belief are likewise in hot water. The church has certainly taught that those who lived before Christ were not entitled to a place in heaven. That is so far removed from the image of the father on the road longing for a sight of his son returning, and weeping with joy as he welcomes him.
On the subject of parenthood, I do not believe that a woman, especially a woman who has given birth, could have dreamed up anything like Paul’s theology of sacrifice, nor to have agreed with it outright, though being ‘properly taught’ many women have and will consent to the teaching of those in authority who know.
I guess I just do not get how in unconditional love, there is any room for wrath when you know the whole setting, the disabilities, distortions and deprivations etc. that background the act that has caused the trouble. When you know the circumstances of a person’s childhood of pain and neglect that motivated the behaviour, surely the wrath should be at the parents who were neglectful, but then if you know all, you know what made them so inadequate at the job and so it would go on. Clearly unconditional love is the only hope.
Finally, there is the point that the son has to wake up to himself and make the call. It is consistent with the love of God, or, for that matter, a parent working from a place of awareness, that adult off-spring must be sufficiently self-decisive to make the move. There are some things that love will not do for us, it will not rob us of our personal responsibility, but that does not entail placing conditions on love. It is evidence of love to allow the beloved free choice.
Candlemass or The Presentation
(Luke 2 : 22-24)
As I have said before, I believe that there is value in understanding our past, the models and motivations that formed where we are now. There were ways of understanding the human situation, interpreting what was necessary and good which have changed so much that only the older generation know that they were ever ‘normal life’. There are patterns, concepts which are no longer necessary and certainly not good, but as we do not come into this world as a blank slate there is always a residual element it serves us well to acknowledge in order to clear.
This Feast Day is one such; until very recent times, it was known as The Feast of the Purification. The purification of who or what you may ask? Well, it was the purification of Mary. According to the Law she was deemed to be unclean for having given birth. As she had produced a son, she was only unclean for 7 days, the cleansing period for giving birth to a girl child was twice as long! Isn’t this a fascinating idea? We may think it amazing, quaint, obscene or just very, very strange but it is ‘where we have come from’ in terms of the concepts that governed society down the Christian centuries, long after Jesus was said to have ‘fulfilled the law’.
Grand-mothers, especially English grand-mothers, may remember the practice of The Churching of Women, or The Thanksgiving for Childbirth. Both titles are given in the Book of Common Prayer but generally the rite was known as ‘The Churching’. Here is a quote from a book of instructions about keeping the fasts and festivals of the church, published in 1962,
I remember my mother being horrified at a woman who had just given birth, within a week or so, being out shopping. The horror was not because she should have been at home looking after herself but because she was out before she had been churched. This of course entailed the idea of uncleanliness, not to mix with people until the rites had been administered. (A bit how people who choose not to receive vaccination are treated these days). Some ideas have a very long history. What was the danger? It was about the fear of contamination, a woman’s menstrual blood was something impure. One can sense the depth of the primitive fear around the mystique of life and death. At that basic gut level what we don’t rightly understand we are disposed to see as a potential threat and treat with caution, we put boundaries around and apply to our gods for protection, whatever gods they may be.
Keeping the feast under the title of Candlemass comes from the song of Simeon, he was the old priest whose job it was to conduct the rite of purification. On seeing the Christ child, he is said to have declared Him to be the light to lighten the gentiles. Candle-light processions became a popular means of celebrating the festival. At the Mass the first candle was lit then the light was passed from one to another until all were alight, then the faithful processed around the church by the light only of their candles. On this day too, the beeswax candles for use in the church for the coming year were blessed. We don’t use beeswax anymore.
In 542 the Emperor Justinian (he who caused the building of the Church of St. Sophia in Constantinople) declared the Feast of Candles, February 2nd, as a special day of thanksgiving for the cessation of the plague. What a great idea! In the Oratory of S. Sophia Candlemass always marked the start of a New Year, when the holiday period was over and before the beginning of Lent. It was a joyful date celebrated with Mass, chocolates and champagne. Another very good idea!
The Feast of the Epiphany
(Matthew 2: 1-12)
There is a language barrier in Christianity that I find myself pondering at this time of year. To start from the obvious, common Christian discourse and in much of the teaching heard in the churches the language is of an earlier cosmology. It is equally obvious that the language encasing that ancient cosmology simply does not work for people who are constantly exposed to scientific evidence of a universe more vast than most of us can imagine.
In the cosmology of the New Testament world, and for a millennium and a half beyond, it was comparatively easy to believe in a God up in Heaven, who was not just the Governor and Creator of all but who also kept an eye on everything going on on the planet. In other words, a personal God whom the people believed knew the secrets of their hearts, “to whom all hearts are open”, and knew all their “sins, negligences and ignorances”.
In the universe we inhabit it is much, much harder to believe in such a personal God. It really is. The gap between the archaic images and language and our world view is too wide and on the whole the church does not do much to bridge it. Making the language of the liturgy simpler and more ‘every day’ isn’t the answer when the sermon, say at Christmas, is about choirs of angels appearing to shepherds and wise men following a star, as though these are historic truths. Anyone with an ounce of theological training, or a dollop of common sense, suspects these stories are constructs for teaching purposes. And if they were ever proved to be true in our sense of the word it doesn’t invalidate the idea that using them as teaching models adapted to this century is still a better idea.
The idea of ‘truth’ in the ancient world was more fulsome than ours is today. There were, to the ancients, different kinds of truth, at least five, and they were all valid in their spheres. Clearly, ‘mythical truth’ is a different kind of creature to the ‘what actually happened’ kind of truth which is the only one contemporary thinking seems to value. To construct a story for teaching purposes, a story whose essence is eternal truth, was not ‘cheating’, it was a perfectly valid model to get the important message across, because the message was the enduring truth. Like the parables of Jesus, e.g. there never was, and didn’t have to be, an actual, real, live Samaritan who went down from Jerusalem to Jericho and had an adventure, which illustrated the eternal point that being loving, kind, generous and ignoring racial boundaries is the most rewarding way to live. We accept this method of teaching but when it comes to the shepherds et al. we seem to take a different approach, granting them an historical validity the Samaritan man never had (or needed).
We all know this kind of truth in our experience but still the preaching, especially at this time of year, persists along the traditional lines. It is taken as read that shepherds, a sky filled with angels, a special star, and the wise men are all undeniable historical facts. The vast difference in 1st century cosmology is not mentioned and no interpretation is given for the use of these stories in the evangelical pursuits of their authors. Thus, by people generally, they are relegated to the realm of fairy stories and like fairy stories, don’t get told much even to children these days. So it is that the opportunity for preaching the message of the stories is hugely diminished and only the people who know them off by heart are around to hear them. How interesting and refreshing it would be to have some intellectual input and to have the stories presented as teaching models for our own time in our own language! The faith might recover some vitality!
The story of wise men following a star is a good example. The magi were the scientists of their day, and it is in the nature of scientists to ask big questions about life. They looked to the stars for answers; we might do it differently, with more sophisticated equipment but the fascination with the stars in relation to Planet Earth is a perennial and is so much on the agenda now. There are great opportunities here for the message. The magi, like us, were seeking the meaning of life. One eternal truth in the story is something about finding that the essential meaning of life ultimately lies in the divinity of a seemingly ordinary human birth. As T. S. Eliot said so beautifully:
No story of this kind has one single, solitary message, the images revolve around and each time one looks one finds a new aspect of the truth. There are various messages contained in the ‘true story’ of the wise men visiting the Holy Family; one could have a great time with the Herod episode for example, or the significance of taking notice of our dreams, but none of them has to be dependent on the story being historically true.
Finally, whatever way the story is accented, maybe the really important point is in the teaching that in order to belong to the Christian community one does not have to give intellectual assent to a body of stories that were not ever intended to measure up to a 21st century criterion of truth.
I realise that this kind of thinking can be very threatening because it raises the question of “Well, if what you say is true, what of the Bible can we believe as true in the common usage of the term?” That is a really big question but the one that lies behind it is even more interesting, “On what does faith rest, in a collection of written words or in one’s lived experience and personal integrity?”
If I were in a pulpit on Christmas Day this is what I would want to say. First of all, what I would not want to say would be anything about virgins, stables, shepherds or angels. In this I would be taking the lead of Ss. Mark, John and Paul all of whom did not refer to the birth or early life of Jesus in any way whatsoever. These significant New Testament writers were into what they were sure the gospel was all really about. That’s how I feel and that’s what I would like to talk about. What was the Jesus story really all about?
This is a point of view and a very twenty-first century point of view at that. If the gospel is for all time, then re-interpreting it in the light of present understanding of what it means to be human is the need and the right of each generation. To quote T.S.Eliot “We cannot revive old factions/We cannot restore old policies/Or follow an antique drum.” If we are to explore, enjoy, be enriched by faith then it must speak to us where we are, not require that we put our intelligence, knowledge and experience on hold for the duration. The pulpit is one place of opportunity, to develop some new understandings of the message.
The text for my sermon would come from Meister Eckhart who got it from Augustine of Hippo and it went something like this:
Isn’t that a fabulous question? Unpacking it gives us a clue to what the whole show is about. Let me ask you to imagine with me, but this does require taking an evolutionary view rather than a creationist one, though for both the Author is God. Imagine, through countless centuries, the human was evolving and developing in many and various ways, definitely a forward movement if not a straight line. It is a common view that, world-wide, in the centuries before the coming of Christ, a new and unprecedented aspect of humanity came into being and prominence, a kind of spiritual awareness. I am thumb-nailing here. What I am asking us to imagine is, as the Bible has it, “In the fullness of time God…” Surely that means that this was, in evolutionary terms, just the right time to introduce into the mix, the Exemplary Human. What humanity had been struggling towards since the beginning of time could now be seen, known, loved, touched in the flesh. As though God, (or The Universe) were saying, “Look at this. This is what it means to be fully human.”
At this point I must insert a proviso for those people who are likely to find that statement somewhat sexist, believe me, not so. If it was ‘just the right time’ the example had to be male because a woman, society being what it was, would have been ignored. His life clarifies what it means to be human, not male, the gender bit is necessarily time conditioned. (And then there is always the back story that He was the Incarnation of the feminine face of God so the essential human carries the full complement of male and female characteristics, in perfect balance.)
The question of His divine nature came later and countless words were spoken, and written, until through argument, hostility, bloodshed even, the meaning of the divine nature of Christ was thrashed out and orthodoxy was defined for all time in the language and thought world of fourth century philosophy. But before all of that there was the experience of the Man. Those who followed Him, listened to Him and preached the gospel He spoke encountered His humanity; that is the starting point for these present considerations.
It is not easy to get back to the Man because everything that was written about Him came after the Resurrection and no matter how hard one might have tried it was impossible to write about His life before that event, uncoloured by the magnitude of the event.
If the incarnation is to ‘take place in us’ i.e., If we are to be open to the divine life pouring out through our ordinary human life, we have to get to some idea of what made that human life so particular, humanly speaking. Our answers must be of the Now, not reliant on ancient models if they are to be of any practical use. For example, The Imitation of Christ used to be understood as the ideal, that the faithful should copy the pattern of Jesus’ life as far as within them lay. Jung’s view of the Imitatio was that Christ lived the fullness of His vocation, (in modern parlance, lived to His highest values) and our job is to live the fulness of ours, “Jesus and Paul made their experiments, we have to make our own.”
This thinking comes much nearer to our own models, but still there is the question, what was it that Jesus had that made Him so certain of His vocation? If one answers that in terms of His divinity all is lost. And it is not in terms of what He did that will yield up the answer because the service to God and to those who came for His kindness were the outcome of His inner state; what He did and said were expressions of that inner attitude. What was that attitude, that knowing that made for perfection of life? Safety, the knowledge of being uniquely valuable; to have that knowledge in abundance makes everything possible. If one knows one is valuable, precious, uniquely special one has a solid, reliable and ineradicable basis for all that life brings.
Being at one with God in the core of His being was the source of that knowing and that at-one-ness was part of His humanity, not a sign of His divinity. He may have had it to the nth degree, while we can only strive in that direction but surely this is the point of the Incarnation, to demonstrate in a human life the fullness of what human life can be. This is the secret of our calling, to incarnate the divine just as He did. Ultimately it is not a matter of getting everything right, not sinning, etc. It is in knowing that one is loved, that one is precious, that everything is possible and one can manifest all sorts of great and wondrous things. The model does not demonstrate a serene and trouble-free life but it does provide a guide for meeting troubles, however great or small, and carries with it the promise of a very satisfying conclusion to this our earthly life.
Jesus came to demonstrate the love of God to and for humanity, that is straight orthodox theology. Supposing ‘the fulness of time’ was the time to introduce the reality of the love of God into human consciousness. Prior to His coming religious attitudes were dominated by belief in the wickedness of humanity and the need to placate an angry God, justly angry because of human disobedience. Sacrifice, fasting, deprivation, long, long agonised prayers of contrition these were the means of trying to get God on side and to avoid the deserved punishment. The accent, you see, was on the human action; being so wicked it was impossible to comprehend being loved. God’s love had to be deserved, earned, striven for.
Jesus comes and says the dead opposite, the ‘New Wine’ of His example was to place the accent on God’s action. He knew that, right through to His middle, no matter what, He was loved by God. What made Him different, was this profound unshakeable knowledge that He was precious, uniquely valuable, because He was human. Repeat, because He was human, NOT because He was in some inexplicable way different from everyone else. If He had been working from that presupposition then He was not fully human, but Something Else which makes nonsense of the whole show.
The addiction to belief in human unworthiness before God proved too strong to be overcome by the message of love, so very quickly after the Jesus event the ‘same ole, same ole’ religious way of being took over and has been in place ever since. It was G.K. Chesterton who said that the problem about Christianity was that it had never really been tried. Supposing the point of Christianity was meant to be the reversal of the existing relationship of human to the divine. From one of fear, anxiety, self-loathing on the human side and threat, anger, disappointment and demand on the divine to one in which love was indeed the dominant on both sides.
The human motion towards God was fired by a need to placate. In the Jesus model the motion towards God was fired by the acceptance of love. In His Way we don’t do good work of any kind to earn the love of God, whatever we do ‘for God’, goodness, kindness, comes from a heart brimming over with gratitude and joy because we are loved.
I believe this is the heart of the of Incarnation but religion has always preferred to concentrate on the sinfulness of humanity rather than on the overwhelming love of God. If we are to understand what Incarnation means, to grasp the astonishing truth, we have to get over ourselves and realise that the love of God is more important than the sins, lacks and shortcomings over which we spend so much of our time agonising.
As this agonising over our deficiencies rather than embracing the love seems to have been a religious staple, we might ask why this should be so. Somehow it isn’t good enough just to put it down to cussedness. It is, rather, what Dom Sebastian Moore calls, “the Great Refusal” i.e., the refusal to be all that we are capable of being. Maybe we have not yet evolved far enough to embrace the fullness of love, terrestrial or celestial; absolute love is too much for us.
This fear of such love was beautifully articulated by the late Fr. Harry Williams CR, in his book Becoming What I Am:
The wondrous thing is that being able to accept this explanation instead of simply wallowing in our sense of inadequacy brings us into a new place of both humility and maturity as we are re-aligned to ourselves, our world and to God.
Mary visits her cousin Elizabeth
Luke 1: 39-45
Here we have a story that really confronts us with our difference from the world of the New Testament. At first sight it can be a simple story of two cousins meeting to spend time together as they await the birth of their babes. To have such a story, however simple, in the New Testament is rather lovely, a rare glimpse into the real life of women, affirming not confrontative. We could leave it there and enjoy it but clearly, that is not Luke’s intention. Elizabeth is post-menopausal; Mary is probably in her early teens, (do those facts startle you?) There are apparently no witnesses to the encounter yet the author gives it prominence at the start of his gospel account. What is he doing? What’s the point?
He expected his audience to know their Bible, Old Testament and the books we call ‘the Intertestamental Literature’ (all scripture for them). Everything about the account of this meeting and the hymn we call The Magnificat, have echoes and resonances with the sacred texts, pointing to the One who was to come. The purpose, therefore, of this story is to prepare the reader for what is to follow. Reading these words, informed by their back references, the reader gets clued in to the story that is to unfold. In other words, these early stories are verbal icons, in the true meaning of the word, that at which we gaze and through the visible become aware of the invisible, through the temporal and material we connect to the imperishable and eternal. Today, we do not know the back story, do not have access (without scholarly aid) to all that lies behind and so we are constrained to take the event at face value, and thereby are immeasurably deprived of the richness that lies within.
Not having this literary foundation, we can only apply our familiar criteria for truth and this is where the difference I mentioned at the start becomes apparent. When someone recounts an event to us, in detail, unless they have signaled that it is ‘a story’ or ‘a joke’ we expect them to be telling the truth, by which we mean that the events, the words, the acts all actually, in real time, happened. We would be uncomfortable if the story was told, in order to convey an overwhelming truth, by means of recognised motifs, echoes of earlier times, emblems and symbols which carried great meaning for the listeners. At the end we would still be saying, “Yes, but is it true?” That would have been a non- question for Luke and his converts, for whom what mattered was that people accepted the gift of God in the person of Jesus of Nazareth, rejoiced in the Resurrection to new life and awaited His return with joy.
Two thousand and more years on we are struggling to make sense of texts that were not written for such distant generations of Christians, nevertheless, until fairly recent times, the question of truth would have been blasphemous. Even today there are some who are uncomfortable with its implications. That’s fine. Belief in the literal, historic truth of the gospel stories has this long history, it is only in the last hundred or so years that different questions have been asked. Some will say those questions cast doubt on the faith, others will say they immeasurably enrich it, our stand point will depend on many, mostly non-rational, cues. Our early training, our emotional commitments, needs, desires and especially our sense of safety all play a part in how we express our soul’s needs. For all the people who remain faithful to the church and to the literal truth there are many who find the stories unlikely, improbable, mythic in the worst sense, comparable to fairy stories and totally irrelevant to life today. To be able to offer these people a perfectly valid, historically authentic interpretation which does not do violence to their intellect seems to me to be a worthwhile quest. Maybe the real question is: Does one’s faith rest in the verbal accounts of events that happened in another world many, many years ago, or does it rest in relationship to Ever-Present Divinity, though founded in and informed by those far off events?
John the Baptist preaching
Does one do good to avoid punishment or does one do it from the fullness of the heart of love? St. Paul’s message seemed to be that we do good not to earn favour but to express our gratitude, i.e. we are loved by God and, knowing that love, makes us want to be loving to others. The message from the old-style prophets, here, in the person of John Baptist, is rather that we are all wicked and the only way to avoid damnation is to stop being wicked and do good instead. This is the style of motivation known as “way from negative”, its opposite is being motivated by the desire ‘towards positive’. While we may agree that there is no such thing as genuine altruism there are different starting points, subtle but significant. You do something good and a reward follows, you’d have done the good deed anyway, the reward feels like a bonus; doing something good when you know you are going to get something out of it is not quite the same.
This kind of attitude is noticeable in a good deal of secular teaching these days, especially around the area of gratitude. Gratitude is seen to be a primary source of well-being, and it is admirable that, along with generosity, it is being so extensively marketed. Frequently one hears how good a thing it is to be grateful; how The Universe responds to our attitude of thankfulness for all that we have (however great or small). The response of The Universe to this state of being is to give us more for which to be grateful. This may be true, but the same problem arises, being grateful because it is a proven way to receive abundance is not the same thing as giving thanks from an overflowing heart.
You may say I am splitting hairs, and maybe I am, coming out of a period of unprecedented selfishness to have people doing good, generous acts, even if they do have a background agenda has got to be an improvement. And of course, it is catching and it is addictive. The chemicals that race through the body when we are kind are those lovely feel-good chemicals, and the more of them we have the more we desire them. To begin and end each day feeling grateful has got to be good for us, for our friends and relations and for the planet, whether or not we are certain of an even more abundant tomorrow.
Preparing for Christmas is a great time to be thinking about gratitude. What a super way to think about the gifts we want or need to give; to start from “How can I express how glad I am that you are in my life?” might be a very different way to go from “What on earth can I get….”
Being grateful for those people you ’have to’ see at Christmas may be a hard call but the festivities will go better if you remember beforehand the good bits in the past that bonded you to the relations that now bore you to sobs, or whatever your particular grouse is. Do something different, that is how change happens; not better, not worse, just different.
.This is Luke’s introduction of John Baptist as a typical prophet, preaching the need for repentance. John is what everyone, then and now, recognises as a ‘real prophet’ and how dreary is it? Nothing separates the old world view and the new so much as the cluster “sin, repentance and forgiveness”.
Sin is what ‘separates us from God’, repentance means turning around and forgiveness is what God graciously bestows, (in theory unconditionally but the teaching strongly implies a different view).
If God is God, then it is impossible for anything to separate us, or indeed any part of creation, from God. We might, and emphasize might, displease God, but history shows that what does or does not please God, according to His ministers down the years, is a very moveable thing, as with children who can displease daddy by being noisy when he wants peace and quiet and another day be as noisy as they like and have fun with him. Present uses of the Bible and the laws therein attest to the way that we play fast and loose with divine commands. As a very simple example, being in church on Sunday reciting “Remember that you keep holy the Sabbath day, six days you shall labour etc.” I watch and wonder how many other people are thinking about all the work they want to get on with once they get home, or when it comes to the prohibition against adultery how many of the congregation stick to that rule! We are very fluid in our understanding of what is sin.
Repentance means turning around, or away. If we turn around from what is displeasing, we turn towards what is pleasing but the inference is that groveling, self-denial and a lack of delight is what we are called to turn towards. Such a turning does not make for joy, kindness or happy healthy humans. What does make for a healthy, happy human? A sense of self-worth, being appreciated, feeling safe, these being firmly rooted in the psyche promotes, gratitude, generosity, kindness; the sense of self-worth is imperative. The teaching of the prophets emphasized human worthlessness in the face of the divine mercy, Jesus, on the other hand, had a very strong sense of His own worth, and He is the model we are meant to emulate. His sense of self-worth was grounded in the knowledge of the love of God. For us from very early on, we are given the message of the love of God so strongly mingled with divine displeasure if we don’t get things right that we have a perpetual confusion that prevents the real knowledge of self as always ‘acceptable in the Beloved”.
The preaching of the prophets of any age has two hugely significant deficiencies, it lacks joy and it lacks kindness. This is where the teaching of Jesus is the New Wine, and is so different from what everyone expects from a religious preacher. The centuries have proved that human nature, perversely, prefers the grim, joyless religious model of the old wine. The language of much church worship still lays heavy accent on our sinfulness and need for forgiveness, demonstrating that the concept of God as a loving father has not kept up with the evolution of human consciousness. The average ordinary dad, these days, is a better model of parenting than the Father God promoted by the traditions, which has never really, consistently, taken Jesus’s way of knowing God on board.
It is fascinating that patriarchal religion has such an agenda about sin. I recall meeting a very prominent Christian writer, an Episcopalian priest, a lovely man whose writings were very sound and influential in the seventies. He stunned me by saying,” I have no right to be happy while any one of my brothers or sisters on earth is unhappy”. What earthly use is that? I cannot believe in a God who would approve of that. “God is happy and wants us to join in”. Really happy people make such a grand contribution to daily life on the planet, happiness is the point of the Incarnation. Being happier, more grateful, more generous is our best Advent preparation for the coming of the Christ Child.
If there is one season of the churches year that no woman could ever have dreamed up it is Advent. Not that a woman could not have thought about keeping a time of preparation for the coming of the Christ-Child but the topics chosen to be considered by the faithful in this time of preparation? No. sorry, couldn’t happen. By tradition, these four Sundays before Christmas are dedicated to the consideration of death judgement, heaven and hell which are not healthy topics for a woman in the later stages of pregnancy to be thinking about, nor are they where people want to go who are preparing for a joyous birth.
This year in the Anglican Calendar the gospel readings are taken from Luke, so that is where my thinking is tending.
The reading set for Advent Sunday was Luke 21: 25-38, one of those texts of which it is seemingly impossible for us to make any sense; a long teaching about the tribulations that will be visited upon the earth before the imminent End Time. It is with such texts that we are most confronted with the questions of interpretation, of the evolution of the message and of the context for which each gospel account was written. Luke wrote a good 50 years after the Jesus events, after the death of Paul and after the fall of Jerusalem. Symbolically Paul’s death signified that the mission to the gentiles, i.e., to the world, was accomplished, therefore the work of salvation was done in the sense that ‘the world’ had now been admitted into the Kingdom. It is impossible for us, so far removed from their world view, to imagine how they understood the Resurrection and its cosmological significance.
We cannot ‘shrink’ our universe to theirs, we cannot see planet Earth as the centre of a universe designed entirely for the benefit of that one planet; sun, moon and stars there for our light. In such a universe heaven and earth are more nearly entwined, God is much closer and more intimately involved with His people. Until this time His people had been one seemingly insignificant race, now His care had been extended to encompass the whole world. We can barely imagine what that meant either to Jews or to Gentiles; the changes in our understanding and acceptance of different races and cultures are the best clues we have.
Our understanding is further removed from the ancient world because we are more inclined to hold a strict view of truthful reporting, (well we believe in it even if we don’t always get it). To state that someone said this that or the other we expect it to be verifiable that they did say it. It is a different statement from “This is what they meant” or “This is what they would have said if they’d been around at the time”. To believe you knew the mind of the original speaker well enough to speak for them was not an exceptional or peculiar thing to do in that world. We do not accept such an approach as valid but it made sense in the archaic world view, where there were different kinds of truth, symbolic, poetic etc. We tend to be hooked on the (questionable) notion of verifiable historic truth. Taking an alternative view of truth into account we can see these End Time saying of Jesus contextually, and interpret them symbolically – or leave them alone in the too hard basket!
Here is one commentator’s exposition that could apply even up to the present:
This is interpretation allows us to skirt around the very uncomfortable question of whether Jesus got it wrong, which leads into another, far reaching enquiry. In ordinary, mundane matters did Jesus of Nazareth have the consciousness, world view and understanding consistent with a man of His time or was He in everything transcendent in His point of view? This is an important question for today. In matters spiritual, advanced souls in every age have shown a wider, transcendent understanding of spirituality while their language and their earthly comprehension is still bounded by the consciousness of their time. If this were not true of Jesus, can He still be considered truly human – this takes us back to the Monophysite heresy, which claimed Jesus only had one nature, not two. Orthodoxy claims “He was like us in everything save only in sin”. This in turn brings us once again to the subject of sin, what it is and how does our understanding differ from that of the ancient or Medieval world?
Can a human being grow and develop to full maturity if they never make a mistake? If someone never makes a mistake, can they be considered fully human? My blog on Jesus cursing the fig tree goes into this problem at greater depth, but now the consideration leads us into the topic for Advent II.
.Meditation, a word that once was unfamiliar is now common currency, and as is the way with words that become ‘everyday’, they become a kind of blanket term where individual differences are obscured. We think we know what other people mean when they use the word but our interpretation may not match theirs at all. If we consider Christian practices, Eastern religious practices and the newer art of Transcendental Meditation (T.M.) which is derived from Eastern models, and the use of meditative practices in medical settings, we have four quite distinct broad categories which each have their own variants.
The commonalities to all models are relaxation, stillness and focused attention; the purpose of the practice is different in each setting. The end result, as experience, may indeed be very similar, though the meaning we give to our experience will resonate with our purpose. For example, if we find ourselves being calmer in our daily life, managing stress and feeling more at ease our interpretation of the changes will be consistent with our initial purpose.
A Christian woman may interpret this new found serenity as God working within her, answering prayer, giving her grace; a Buddhist might describe the calmer life in terms of greater freedom from illusion and a medical patient might simply rejoice in feeling better.
These three examples illustrate some difference of purpose of meditation and also bear on the various methods used in the diverse settings. Although one may lay out the theories behind the practice the average person engaging with meditation may well not be interested in the finer details and if, as a Christian, a Buddhist method works for them, so be it.
Likewise a Christian suffering from hypertension may be recommended to take up meditation, never having heard of it in their church situation so they will not necessarily use a Christian form to gain the specific benefits they are after. And many people probably try anything that comes their way and take from each what feels right and ‘do-able’.
In broad terms the methods used for stilling the mind are similar in that there is an object on which one focuses attention. It may be, for a Christian, a verse from the bible, an icon, a candle or a crucifix, a visualisation or something of a similar religious nature. It may also be the simple definite attention on the breath. This concentration on the breath is the most common object in all forms of meditation. Christians often use a text from the bible or a brief prayer, the Jesus prayer, for example, to hold the attention.
Eastern meditation often makes use of mantras, words or phrases repeated slowly, with attention, to concentrate the mind. These phrases are not usually words with common or rational meaning because they are designed to take one’s mind away from rational thought. It has been proposed that to sit quietly focused on ‘Mary had a little lamb’ will do as well as any other more esoteric phrase; the point being that stilling the mind is the essential purpose.
There are differences as well as similarities in the various models; some of these, of course, arise from the cultural backgrounds from which they derive. In formal Christian teaching meditation is a way of preparing the mind for prayer and bringing one closer to God. Eastern meditation is a way to freedom from illusion which is freedom from suffering.
Medical meditation is a means to improve one’s physical and mental health. In the latter three forms going beyond discursive thought to a state of ‘mindlessness’ is the aim, but in the traditional Christian form, though this empty- mindedness may be the result, it is not the conscious aim. In this model meditation is the name given to practices used to still the mind and bring it into a more centred state in order to pray with greater concentration and less distraction. For the Christian, meditation is indivisible from prayer and a thoroughly ‘satisfactory’ prayer-time can be had without any transcendent experience or diminishment of rationality; in other words an empty mind is not the primary aim.
Indeed, historically, for the lay-person keeping the mind attending to something godly was seen as less risky than an open-ended meditation or silent prayer where there is the possibility of the mind straying outside the bounds of orthodoxy. The church has traditionally discouraged the faithful from meditative or contemplative practice without the guidance of someone of experience and authority, just in case the lay person came to unorthodox, erroneous or (horror) heretical conclusions.
Seriously, it was long held that meditation for the laity, without proper control, could endanger the soul. (In some Christian circles meditation has always been seen as the work of the devil.) On the one hand there is the element of church domination in this stricture but on the other it is also true that in all the great faiths people who would be adepts in the spiritual life have always been advised to be under the direction of a wise and experienced guide, lest they get lost in illusion. (We might say ‘overwhelmed by the Unconscious’.)
Under the influence of Eastern religions meditation as the practice of silent attention in and of itself has become for us the more familiar usage. For the dedicated Christian this sometimes raises the awkward question of whether it is really prayer. If you find this method of spiritual attention works for you and you are bothered about it being ‘proper prayer’ you can refer back to the traditional model and see the stilling of the mind as the preparation for prayer.
When you have had your time of meditation, with a still, quiet mind you can remember those people or concerns for which you want to pray. Frequently the establishment of quiet will lead naturally into a contemplative state where any form of discursive thought is unnecessary and intrusive; one is simply resting in the Divine and then you know beyond any words the truth of your experience. Resisting the urge to analyse, grade or make any judgement at all is obviously the best way to go. Concluding with gratitude, or Thanksgiving, is always a good idea no matter how comfortable or not you feel with the time spent.
To meditate and not ‘take’ it anywhere else; to spend 20 or 30 minutes in silent stillness, attending to the breath, without necessarily giving God a thought may not seem like prayer. One solution to that, if it troubles you, is consciously to call to mind before you begin that no matter what, you are in the Presence of the Divine. Another variant is to place yourself in the vast continuum of people the world over who are engaging in similar practice and feel the sense of silent, unseen community of which you are a part then spend your time thoughtlessly, and be grateful. That is enough. Trusting in the process will bring you to new and precious insights you might otherwise never have received.
If you brain works best with images, you might enjoy using natural images such as a tributary stream running into the sea; reaching the sea it cannot be distinguished or separated. Likewise, with light streaming through several windows, the room is full of light, not differentiated, but absorbing. One is within the light. These are classical kinds of images used by St Teresa, for example, and she was a great womanly teacher of the spiritual arts.
Many people want to engage with the practice of meditation and many people find it too difficult to focus in the prescribed ways. If you cannot reach stillness of the mind by the usual recommended methods you might find questions such as these help to clear your way a little:
Are you thinking too much about getting it right?
Do you have some ideas about what you should, could or wish to experience?
What are your expectations about meditating?
If you do not have any sense of the Divine do you take that to mean you are not getting it right?
What is your purpose in meditating?
Are there other ways to achieve that purpose?
Of course there are no right and wrong answers to these questions they are simply to help you open up to what is going on for you.
In the beginning the art of meditation was developed for and taught by men, to men, in various religious milieux. Speaking within Christianity, women took up the practice and, outside of the Religious Orders, prove to be more devoted to it than the laymen. As with so many tenets of religion, the basic teaching is designed for men, to meet men’s way of being in the world and to correct men’s types of self-will. When women adopt the practices they are in danger of going against the grain of their nature in ways that are not necessarily conducive to spiritual progress.
When we consider what the current brain sciences have to tell us about the difference between men’s and women’s brains this begins to make sense. Much of the data from recent scientific studies of meditators tend to read as though there is only one gender; one is struck by the assumption that meditation is a ‘boy thing’. Generally in the tests quoted there is no indication whether the subjects are men or women and there is no evidence that the researchers have considered that the gender of the subject might alter the findings. The more refined studies take on subjects who are proficient in the art, which is the only sensible way to go, and often use Buddhist monks, with telling and impressive results. Only occasionally are women subjects observed.
The capacity to think of one thing at a time is natural to the male brain; multi-tasking is famously what women do. It would seem obvious from this that men will accept the discipline of focused attention with far greater ease than women, not out of virtue but simply because their brains are made that way. A woman may not get to a regular routine of genuine ‘one-pointedness’, though she may sometimes be highly focused, likewise this is not inadequacy but because of the way her brain is structured.
This could mean that women need to discover a different way of meditating that is not dependent on the male model, but I question whether we have the ability to step so far out of our cultural milieu. Are we like goldfish? How can we imagine something completely outside of the known environment in which we swim? Maybe it is a sign of my embedded culture but I cannot imagine not having that silent awareness as part of the fabric of my life. On the whole I think it more likely that the silent meditative attention is a human need and desire, though the way it is promulgated may owe much to masculine bias.
Women can be too self-critical about the paucity of their efforts and their constant lack of concentration. Accepting the difference of brain structure may let them off the hook to some extent but there are other factors to take into account. The writers of the classical tradition, East and West, were predominantly men, monks. They had nothing else to do. In the monasteries there were lay brothers to do the daily tasks, while the monks were about the Opus Dei, God’s business. They were living this life for years before they had the wisdom or the discipline to write a treatise on prayer or meditation.
Think about that as you are juggling your life to take half an hour to yourself. Given the conditions of their lives it was a pretty poor show if they did not become adepts. St Teresa led a very full and busy life but still had the benefit of ordinary daily tasks being someone else’s problem so she could immerse herself in ‘higher’ pursuits. She did not have to fit in the washing, thinking about what to have for tea then shopping for it and cooking it. Nor did she nurse cut knees, check that the homework is done, double as a taxi driver and all the rest that goes with bringing up a family.
Perhaps, to encompass the contingencies and ease the way in we need to extend the meaning of the word, ‘meditation’. Since Eastern practices have become part of the Western way of life ‘meditation’ has already expanded beyond its home-grown Christian terms of reference, so it might not be stretching language too far to include other practices and describe the whole bunch under the general heading of meditation time. I would say that for a woman to take half an hour a day and make it sacrosanct, for her own well-being, call it what you will, it will be life enhancing, and for some women, life-changing.
A big problem is the self-doubt and criticism that women put themselves through. Even if you can imagine or experiment with something that feels very different to the regular methods as taught there is the horror of self-doubt that ‘knows’ this must be ‘wrong’ because I am not doing it the ‘right’ way. For women who have been solidly indoctrinated in the church, the highest hurdle to jump can be to have faith in themselves.
To find this faith may take an extraordinary leap but without it one labours under a serious disability; with it it is not hard to find other ways of attaining inner peace. The first step is to make the decision, for your own good, to engage with activities that are calming and beneficial. This is the choice women seem to find so hard to make, the word ‘selfish’ seems to come too easily to mind.
When you make this choice for your own well-being whatever route you take, traditional ways of meditation or following your own path, spending time regularly, alone and in quiet stillness is going to be good for your health, your work and your family. Giving yourself half an hour a day, as a priority in your life, is ‘getting it right’ and you will only know that is true when you do it regularly for while.
In that time you might meditate according to your lights; you might consciously pray for yourself and others; you might do some journal writing; you might ponder your own troublesome or delightful feeling responses; you might read something inspiring and helpful and you might explore new and different ways in which to manage the difficult bits of life. It is best, as I’ve said before, to include gratitude. In these ways you will be nurturing your womanly soul, becoming a more rounded person and growing in love and wisdom; you will feel more ‘together’ and have a sound basis on which to meet the issues life throws up. This is a womanly way to go and it does not have to match up to any other standard or any formal language.
There are some aids to help you on the way, like finding inspiring books, articles or CD’s. You have to spend a bit of time on this, it takes exposure to become discerning. Sometimes other people’s recommendations are a help, but have a care that you don’t choose them because you think the other person knows better than you. Another great help is having a soul-friend, spiritual mentor or guide; this can be a really good choice then recommendation or advise from the guide should be carefully considered.
Keeping a journal, for many people, is a great aid. There are various ways of doing this, some people sketch rather than write, or pen poems; it doesn’t matter, what works for you is the rule. The great thing is to be able to read it back from time to time, so of course, dating your entries makes good sense. Traditional or non-traditional kinds of retreats give you a great lift. They are a fantastic restorative and the presence of other like-minded, silent women creates a wonderful sense of communion and companionship.
The thought of the communion of other people, known and unknown, the world over is a great incentive; to know that you are not alone, however solitary your time may seem. Actually you are part of a ‘great cloud of witnesses’ whose quiet, constant times of recollection are doing so much for the peace of the world and the well-being of the planet.
In conclusion, do not be dismayed or disturbed if focused attention eludes you. Remember that when the sea is stormy, there may be turmoil and noise on the surface but underneath all remains calm. It is a bit like that for us! You are a woman with a womanly mind; be still, refrain from judgement. Continue in your times of quiet and you will find a new, expanded awareness creeps up on you, peace descends more frequently and love, or Love, becomes your dominant theme.
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