Saturday, 30 March 2013

Seeing in the Dark

It is perhaps seven or eight hours until the sun rises on Easter morning, and I am thinking about two things. One is Anthony De Mello, who in talking of our enemies says, "Given the background, the life experience, and the unawareness of this person, he (sic) cannot help behaving the way he does. It has been so well said that to understand all is to forgive all. If you really understood this person you would see him as crippled and not blameworthy..."
The other is Jesus being nailed to his cross and praying, "Forgive them for they know not what they do."

I don't think Jesus was praying just for the drunken louts who were doing what the procurator paid them to do. He was praying also for the procurator and the High Priest, and the Sanhedrin and the countless, nameless ones who worked the machinery of power. He was praying for his friend Judas who had thought that the best course of action was to give the authorities what they wanted. All of them were not so much evil as ignorant; unaware of who they were dealing with and unaware of why they themselves thought and acted as they did. All of them, I suspect, were working with the best of motives and thought at the time that they  were doing what was true and good.

This is a hard truth that Jesus' absolute forgiveness faces us with. How much easier to have  a couple of separate categories, the bad guys and the good guys into which to sort people. With those simple labels we can, with very little mental sleight of hand, imagine that we are in the group that wears the white hats and  consign all those who make us uncomfortable into the group that wears the black hats. By keeping a few simple rules, or by adhering to the right  few easily understood doctrines we can give ourselves the comforting knowledge that we are on the right side of the line. We have the added pleasure of being able to pity, or loathe, or fear or vilify those on the wrong side of the line. We have done this for centuries to the principal villains of the Easter story, to Judas and Pilate and Caiaphas, and at times our loathing and fear has spilled out onto groups of others whom we have imagined share some of the guilt of these three.

But Jesus lies with his lacerated back on grey splintered wood and watches as someone puts a nail against his wrist and in his anguish and terror he yet forgives. And in forgiving he tells us that there is no line; we are all there with the soldiers and priests and deserters and cowards, each one of us. We cannot look to others for blame, but only to ourselves.

This is a harder call. Judas is crippled and not blameworthy, but if this is true, then so am I. And it's so much easier to find a reprehensible other to hate and fear than it is to acknowledge the partiality and error of my own awareness. But as the admission of the dullness of my own sight is the harder call, so is the remedy more glorious; for as the villains of  Good Friday are forgiven, absolutely and unconditionally, then so am I. And I am invited to participate in a resurrection which Judas, tragically, never saw. I am invited to allow the Holy Spirit to lead me to a new awareness of myself and my motives which, though at times is excruciatingly and humiliatingly painful, enables me to live the life into which Jesus calls me. 

Judas Iscariot

Judas has always fascinated and puzzled me. Years ago I wrote a series of seven meditations for Good Friday, Witnesses of the Cross, in which I tried to enter, Ignatian style, into the minds of some of those who witnessed the crucifixion. Here is Judas. It is my attempt to imagine why someone might in good faith, betray a friend to death. The piece is designed to be read aloud in a 3 hour service, so the punctuation may seem a little strange. 


I didn’t always hate the Romans. When I was a little boy I loved them. My mother and father would warn me about them, and at mealtimes, when my parents and my sisters and I gathered to eat, with the door of our tiny house firmly shut,  my father would talk strongly about overthrowing them and establishing the old ways again. But I would note that even as my mother complained about the taxes, she still went to the new aqueduct to fill the water jars. I noted that my father might speak strongly at home, but in the presence of even the lowliest legionary he would smile and grovel and give the imperial salute. And every day he went to work, building the new Roman amphitheatre and every day bring home the coin stamped with the likeness of the emperor with which to buy the food we ate. As for me, I saw them march past with their armour and their helmets and weapons and with the flags flying. I would hear the sound of the trumpets and the loud drums and the tramping of a thousand feet and I would be filled with awe and wonder and envy. I would watch them pass and think to myself that the old ways could never be as wonderful as the might of Rome in all her glory. Until I was fifteen I wanted nothing more than to be a legionary myself; to wear the scarlet tunic and carry the locking shield and a broad Roman sword. Until I was fifteen.

The day it all changed was a Tuesday. My mother asked me to go with my eldest sister Sarah to fetch water. It was the middle of the day, and we wouldn’t normally need water, but earlier that morning a jar had toppled over and spilled most of the day’s supply. I didn’t want to of course; water carrying is girls work, and I was nearly a man. But I went for the sake of Sarah whom I loved as much as my own mother. She was five years older than me, and was by far the prettiest girl in the village. Ever since I was tiny she had cared for me. I can remember being carried on her hip, although I have no memory of being carried by my mother. She was the one who sang me to sleep when I was sick and who chased away the big boys if I got into a fight. I knew that in a few months she was to be married to Simeon the son of Malachi, the stonemason and that she would leave our house for ever. I knew that Simeon wanted to move to Nazareth where there was a lot of work for stonemasons and that when she was married I might not see her again. I guess I wanted to spend every moment with her that I could. So I went.

We walked to the pool that is filled by the aqueduct and filled two jars. Sarah acknowledged my manhood by asking me to carry the bigger of the two jars, but I couldn’t help noticing that her jar, though smaller, held the most water. That’s how she was. We carried our jars past the new courthouse and down the alley between the butcher’s and the carpenter’s shop, when they appeared, seemingly out of nowhere. There were five of them, standing across the end of the alley, dressed in their legionnaire’s tunics but without armour or weapons. They made insulting remarks about Sarah, who ignored them and tried to push past. One of them grabbed her by the wrist and pulled her to himself. Her water jar fell to the ground and broke. He tried to kiss her and she pulled away from him. I put my jar down and rushed forward to try and help her. I could smell the wine on their breath. I found my self hitting one of them, shouting at them to let her go, kicking, lashing out in any way I could. Then one of them grabbed me from behind. I remember a crushing pain on the side of my face. And then I was on the ground. I remember the kicking and then nothing. I don’t know how long I was unconscious. When I came to, it was to see my sister lying beside me, weeping and crying out. No-one came to help us. No one. We walked home and Sarah would not let me touch her not even to give her my arm in support. I remember two things about the rest of that day. One is Sarah standing in the river crying and scrubbing herself until she bled. The other is my parents’ silence.

I could do nothing to save her. To whom could I go for justice? My own powerlessness was the greatest burden of all.

My wounds healed in a week or two. Sarah’s never did. From that day onwards the demons entered her. She was fearful and silent. She would not let any man come near her, not Simeon, and not even me whom she had carried on her hip and sung to sleep. My once lovely sister, grew silent and old before her time, drinking wine and always washing herself and talking to no one. One day they found her dead in the river. She was naked and the blood and scratches on her body told us she had been scrubbing, scrubbing, scrubbing herself again

From the time of the water jars I have hated the Romans. All the admiration and excitement I once felt seemed instantly to be turned on its head and I found whatever way I could to harm them. I had never been much of a scholar, but since that day, I began with a vengeance to learn the scriptures and to keep the law and I discovered the power and beauty and dignity of my Jewishness. I found companions amongst others whom the Romans had hurt. I met with those who dreamed of the end of the oppression. I rediscovered the powerful words The Lord himself had given our ancestors: justice. Righteousness. I learned that we are truly the chosen people and that The Lord himself will cause us to triumph over the ungodly Gentiles. I learned from our people’s history that the righteous saviour will come and lead us to freedom as Moses lead our ancestors out of the tyranny of Egypt.

About three years ago my friend, another Simeon, who had recently left the Zealot party to become one of Jesus’ disciples took me to hear him speak in the synagogue in Capurnaum. Jesus read one of my favourite passages, the chapter in Isaiah in which the blessed prophet speaks so movingly of the coming reign of Justice. But just before he got to my favourite verse of all, the part where the prophet promises the day of vengeance for the hated oppressors of our people, Jesus rolled up the scroll and sat down. He finished his reading not at the appointed place, and not even at the end of a verse, but in the middle of a sentence. The congregation was stunned, and we all sat in awkward silence, wondering what on earth he was doing. Then he stood up, turned to us and said, “today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” There was uproar, as it dawned on us what he was saying: that he was the fulfilment of scripture. The crowd surged forward, ready to drag him to the city gates and stone him, or perhaps to cast him off the brow of a hill. But he stood tall and walked calmly, quietly out through the middle of the crowd. And no one, not even the most outraged of us lifted a finger to stop him. It was such an exhibition of personal power and charisma that I knew right then that even if he wasn’t the one promised in the prophesy, he had such authority that he could make the prophecy be true. I left and followed. And I have followed ever since.

It has been a strange three years. Sometimes exhilarating and exciting. He has shown me great love and in his presence I find a release from the anger which constantly gnaws like a rat within me. But increasingly, it has been frustrating and disappointing. You have no idea how powerful Jesus is. You could not possibly imagine, unless you had seen it with your own eyes, the effect he had on people.

Like Mary, for instance. One day we were passing through a town in Judea when we came across a demoniac, a woman. She was dressed in rags and her hair was uncombed. She looked to be about 50. The front of her tunic was stained with her woman’s uncleanness and even from twenty paces away the smell of her was appalling. One of the people of that town told us that she had been abused by the soldiers and that she had been possessed of demons ever since. When I heard those words, my heart stopped. All of me stopped. I felt as if part of me wanted to go to her and do some small kindness. But she was so unclean, so dangerous. I was terrified of her and she brought such memories to me that I just wanted her gone. I looked at the master. He had stopped still in his tracks and he looked at her with tears rolling down his cheeks. She saw him staring at her and she came towards us, running,  screaming,

“Men! Men! I know you, despoilers and thieves! All of you! I know you!”

We, all of us pulled back, fearful lest she should touch us, but not the master. He stood as still as ever. “Don’t think I don’t I know you”, she screamed. The master stepped towards her.

“I know you”, he said

She stopped only a foot in front of him and she was quiet. You could see her, puzzled and uncertain as if trying to recall something she had long forgotten. And then the master did something that astonished us all. He touched her. He took her hands and he smiled at her. 
"Mary," he said. 
And at that moment I saw the demons depart. She stood there, still filthy, still dressed in rags, but now I could see she was a young woman, not much older than me. She was pretty, and there was softness, humour and grace and huge relief in her eyes. She looked down at her dirty hand and at Jesus’ hand holding it, and as if suddenly remembering that this was not allowed for a man she was not related to she said, “Do I know you?” 
We all laughed, her, us disciples, the master.

Then he said “You will”, and he took her filthy face in his hands and kissed her forehead.

And he said, “Blessed are you Mary. Beautiful virgin daughter of Israel.”

From that time forward she has followed him, walking with us as closely as any of his other disciples. It causes some problems, but the master never seems concerned about them. For me she is a constant reminder of Sarah, which brings me joy but also reminds me daily of my own and my parents and our nations’ failure to stand for what is right.

I could tell you a thousand other stories. For a while it was intoxicating. I could see how the crowds responded. I could see how the priests and the other lackeys of the Romans feared him. I could feel the power he exerted over everyone he met. But all the while I also saw that the might of Rome continued. The soldiers still stood on every street corner. The insults to our nation and our God went unanswered. The abuse of our women continued. And Jesus talked and taught and told stories. But that’s all he did. I have argued with him, pleaded with him begged him to take his rightful place. And he answers with words. With meaningless answers about the Kingdom of God, which once filled me with hope, but which now I see, cannot come unless someone actually does something to make it happen

Several times the crowds around him would be inspired by his teaching and would be ready, under his leadership, to rise and do what was right. Twice that I know of, they rose to the point of proclaiming him king. And with him at our head and in the power of our God there is nothing that could have stopped us. We would have smashed the power of Rome, and I would have delivered to my Sarah the only recompense that would have been worthwhile: the same dowry that David paid for Michal dumped at her feet.

Just this last week there was another opportunity. After he had taught and performed an astonishing feat of power at Bethany, and when the whole city was abuzz with the rumour of his name, the master rode into Jerusalem on the back of a donkey. All true Jews who know the words of the prophets could not miss what he was saying:

”Behold your king comes, meek riding on a donkey and on a colt, the foal of a donkey.”

He was not a hundred yards into the city when the crowds recognised him and what he was saying. They broke palm branches from the trees and laid them at his feet. They took the very cloaks from their backs and laid them under the hooves of the donkey. They cried out with one voice, “Behold the son of David!. Behold the King of the Jews! Blessed is he that comes in the name of The Lord!” I knew from watching it that our time had come. At Passover there are so many Jews in Jerusalem that all the Romans in the East could not have stopped us if we had him at our head. This was the moment when Justice would roll down like thunder and Righteousness like a mighty stream. All it would take was a word: one word from him. And he did nothing. And he does nothing.

But I know it is not too late. The crowd is still excited and speaks of nothing but Jesus. The authorities are confused and frightened. All it will take is one small act to force Jesus’ hand and get him to do, finally, what God is calling him to: to grow beyond his words; to give himself for our people. It is time for us to rise from our cowardice and stop the rape of our beloved country.

So I have done it. 
For Israel. 
For Mary. 
For Sarah. 
No more running away. 
No More silence

Thursday, 28 March 2013


Fog on the harbour, and time for a short drive before dark, looking to see if there were any photos lying about.

Not many. It was a nice little cruise anyway. 


St. Mary's Riverton. The buttresses make it appear to be leaning. Beside it is the old assay office, now used as some sort of holistic healing centre.

On a good day there can't be many towns in New Zealand prettier than Riverton, and yesterday was a good one. St. Mary's church was pleasantly full for a chrism Eucharist   We renewed baptismal and ordination vows and licensed Aaron Galey-Young as a deacon in Gladstone parish, blessed James and Barbara's engagement ring and commissioned a small team  to work with special needs people in Kenya. Leaving the church after the service at about 8.30 pm the sun was going down  and some children were setting a flounder  net. I sat in the church for a while afterwards then slept in my caravan parked beside it through a warm Southland night.

Wednesday, 27 March 2013

A Walk on the Beach

Some photographs from this morning on St. Clair beach

Back to Basics

It's Holy Week, and today I drive to Riverton to renew my ordination vows in company with the clergy of Southland. As part of my Holy Week discipline, I have been going back to the future, revisiting the basic concepts of Centering Prayer. The first of these is to choose a symbol, a word or gesture or action or thought which will act as a non verbal reminder of what CP holds at its core: giving assent to the action of God in my life. This is what I was told to do when I was first converted: "give my life to Jesus", but of course it took about 24 hours for me to discover that this is something more easily said than done. I give my life to Jesus and then immediately try and take back the bits I think would be better under my own management, i.e. all those bits which don't fill an hour or two on Sunday and a few other daily minutes of wrestling with the Bible.  The Christian life is really an exercise in trying to live up to a promise I once made and finding myself subverted on a minute by minute basis by myself. The big trick is to get myself out of the way, and this takes practice. Which is where Centering Prayer comes in.

Every day I sit still for a while. I don't try to enter into any hi-falutin trance or special state of spiritual receptivity. I don't endeavour to think anything special or feel anything or have anything that might remotely be described as a spiritual experience. I don't try and shut myself down. I use my symbol, in my case a word, as a reminder of my own intention to consent to God. And I let God do what God wants to do. What stops God's action is the continual stream of nonsense occurring between my ears in the form of thoughts and sensations and strokes of brilliance and long stretches of pointless reverie. I don't try and resist these or try, Canute like, to stop the tide of them; but neither do I let them carry me off anywhere. By gently, effortlessly coming back to my symbol, I observe them and let them go on their (usually pointless) way.

Centering Prayer is a method of practicing saying yes to God's action and learning to step aside while God does what God has been asked to do. Like all methods though, it can become a bit jaded. Doing it a couple of times a day make make it into a routine, a chore to be done. And, genius procrastinator that I am, I come up with thousands of ingenious ways of undermining my own best efforts, usually by deploying some sort of achievement standard How am I doing today? Boy, aren't I getting good at this? Oh no! A surfeit of daydreams today, you lazy schmuck! So, as in all things, it's good to periodically go back to basics and revisit first principles. And Giving consent to God is the first of theses. I do this in the few minutes before I sit down. I do it be reminding myself of this principle at odd times during the day.

I did it this morning by breaking my routine; by taking a walk on the beach as the sun rose, my normal time for sitting still. I walked in a place I knew well and retook a picture that I had taken years ago, and which I once used as a header for this blog. I took it carefully, thinking of first principles, of observation and exposure and composition. I thought of the day ahead, and of commitments I have made. I tried, again, to consent to God.And then I returned home to stillness.

Friday, 22 March 2013

Dazzling Darkness

This little memoir by Rachel Mann is not an easy read; but  not for the usual reasons. It is only 135 pages long and the author is poet in residence at Manchester cathedral so she knows how to handle words. She has lived a full, some may even say sensational, life so it is never dull. Her initial academic training was in philosophy but she doesn't tie her readers up in complex philosophical knots. I found it slow going because it engaged me so deeply that I had to pause every chapter or two to think about what she was telling me, and let it sit with me for a couple of days.

Rachel Mann was born Nick Mann and this is the story of her journey across gender. It is also the story of her battles with debilitating, painful, life threatening disease. It is the story of her conversion to Christianity and of her call to priesthood in the Anglican Church. It is a raw, visceral piece of writing but despite the plethora of edgy material in her life history it never invites the prurient or voyeuristic impulses of her audience. It is in fact written with a great deal of discretion but she does lay her soul bare, for this is her account of entering and being transformed by darkness. It is, in other words, a story of crucifixion and resurrection albeit one which avoids the twee triumphalism of most apologetic confessions.

Another reason for my slow digestion of this book was my stopping to relish some of her turns of phrase and throw away lines:

"[being ordained] is like being a celebrity for people who set their sights very low."

"In order to lose ones life, one must have one to begin with."

"One of the most dreadful and yet wonderful truths about the Christian life is that it is not so much about being built up as stripped away. It is about exposure. It is about nakedness. It is about getting naked with God. And not being ashamed. Being in the company of God is not, in any conventional sense, about being safe, consoled or blessed."

Some of her experience mirrors some of my own: her account of her rumbustious boyhood and self doubting adolescence; her struggle with the realities of disease;  her story of charismatic/evangelical conversion, of her gratitude for that  and her growth through it all resonated strongly with me, as did her reflections on ordination. Some of her life - her wrestling with gender identity particularly - is well out of my immediate experience but I was moved by the deeply reflective accounts of her search for self which grew from that. I was also grateful for the depth of her insight into the issues of gender and sexuality which are so convulsing our church at present.

This is not really an autobiography; there are huge and important areas of her life which are hardly mentioned, or glossed over entirely. This is, in the sense used by St. Augustine, a confession. It is the story of a soul and of that soul's encounter with the Living God. It is a raw and real book which I might not press on those who were not yet strong enough for it. But it is nonetheless a powerful book which promises meaning for those who struggle in the dark -that is, eventually, all of us.

Sunday, 10 March 2013

Relay for Life

Photo courtesy
Yesterday I took part in the Relay for Life, the cancer society's annual fundraising and consciousness raising event. I arrived early, saw the teams from the Diocese of Dunedin, and from Anglican Family Care, and went to the official tent to collect the purple sash which marked me as a cancer survivor. Clemency wore a green one, given to those who have supported loved ones through cancer. The event this year was held in the Forsyth Barr stadium, so it was weatherproof. It's a great event with a sort of carnival atmosphere. Organisations and businesses raise teams who commit themselves to walking for 24 hours in relay. A small entrance fee is paid and the teams raise money through sponsorship, so a considerable sum is accumulated to pay for cancer research and for the excellent supportive work of the cancer society. Each team sets up a little headquarters and the members are inclined to deck themselves out in some sort of uniform or dress to a theme. There are balloons and food stalls and quirkily dressed people and a sound stage with continuous live music and hundereds of people walking happily round a running track.

A very moving part of any Relay for Life is the candlelight parade, when the walking track is ringed with lanterns, each one commemorating someone who has died from cancer. I missed it this year but I was there for the opening when all of us in the sashes walked the first lap of the track. It was great to be one of the elite, but given the qualifying requirement, I kind of wish I wasn't.

It's been five years since I was diagnosed, and I'm still here so I've defied some of the odds that were laid against me early in the piece. Which raises the question of why I am still here, when 7 out of 10 men with my original set of parameters aren't. Some of the answer to that is quite conventional. I have a good urologist. I had timely surgery and I had radiotherapy, and all these helped turn the statistics in my favour. But there's more to it than that.

When I was at the Gawler Institute we had a very interesting address from a researcher at Monash University's medical school. He told us that several  meta studies, that is a studies of studies of cancer showed that across all cancers, chemotherapy increased five year survival rates (that is the percentage of people left alive five years after diagnosis)  by 2%. Chemo is very effective against some cancers so the implication is that for some others it has no effect at all. By contrast, lifestyle change (that is, changes in diet, exercise patterns, spiritual practice, relaxation, stress management etc) increased 5 year survival rates by 30%. Strangely, not much hard research has gone into these phenomena. Which lifestyle changes make a difference and why? Why do "spontaneous remissions" occur? As the researcher pointed out, discover a new form of chemo that increased survival rates by 30% and you would win the Nobel prize; it's bizarre that so very little research is carried out into the whys and wherefores of lifestyle change but even more odd that very little emphasis is placed on it in the training of doctors. The result is that for those of us wearing the purple sashes, getting reliable information and sifting out the crackpot theories from the helpful stratagems is really down to us. For my own part I am certain that the diet I have been keeping for the last five years and, especially, my daily practice of meditation have kept me on the planet.

I couldn't help wondering as I circled the track how much of the money raised yesterday will be going into further chemotherapy research. Don't get me wrong, I'm glad that the research is being done, and one day I may well need to take advantage of it. But there are promising, demonstrably working treatments for cancer already to hand and some of them could be effected very cheaply indeed. It doesn't cost much to teach someone to meditate or walk or change their diet. You'd think that having someone run a critical scientific eye over some of  the alternatives to radio and chemo might be really, really helpful.

Saturday, 2 March 2013

And Still it Moves

This past week was the anniversary of the trial of Galileo, and time for a predictable plethora of commentary all over the place along the good scientist bad prelates line. I have myself written about this in the past, here and here, and don't really want to do it again, but the pseudo argument sat jarringly with other happenings in my world. Particularly, I have been thinking about illusions. About lying, falsehood, deception, prevarications, elaboration of the truth, strategic silences and all the other devices behind which we hide from the light.

In the olden days we believed that the world was a big stillish thing, and that the sun was a much smaller moving thing. Why should we not believe that? It was painfully bleedin' obvious to anybody with eyes and more than two brain cells to rub together. Except of course it isn't true. And the realisation that it isn't true began for us Europeans in the late 15th Century with Nicholas Copernicus sitting on the roof of a Polish cathedral every night for year after year, observing the movement of the stars and the planets and saying to himself, "hang on a minute, something doesn't quite stack up here". He speculated that a mathematical model which placed the sun, rather than the earth, at the centre of the universe gave a better explanation of his observations, and in 1514 published his ideas. Nobody much read the book except pointy heads from Paris and Padua, but then why should they? It was just some crackpot theory from a bloke with obviously too much time on his hands and equally obviously not the common sense to see what was absolutely plain and clear to everybody else on the planet. Then, a hundred or so years later, Galileo armed with a new fangled invention, the telescope, which few people had ever heard of let alone seen, made Copernicus' theories available to a wider audience. Galileo couldn't make Copernicus' observations or his own ones fit with his (Galileo's) ideas on how the universe worked,  so he simply adjusted the geometry. He wrote his theory in the form of a hypothetical conversation between two blokes, one supporting the common sense view and the other the odd mathematical theory. It seemed obvious to most readers that the new theory character was a cypher for Galileo.  The dunderhead supporting the status quo had a habit of quoting Galileo's former friend, Pope Urban VIII, who, on reading the book, was not well pleased. It was all bound to end in tears.

So with the luxury of 400 years of hindsight, we look back and click our tongues at the princes of the church and fondly imagine that if we had been alive in 1614 we would have been on the side of truth and light. Hardly likely. Our growth into truth, as individuals and as a species, progresses partly through learning new ideas but mostly through us letting go of old ones, and what makes us think we would have sat any more comfortably with that than anybody else? Even Copernicus and Galileo were still informed by their own illusions: neither the Earth nor the Sun is actually the centre of the universe, and the universe is turning out to be a far different place than either of them imagined. And, no doubt, a far different place than any of us imagine either. This process of divesting ourselves of our illusions is not easy because some of the illusions (that the sun revolves around the earth for instance; or that matter is solid; or that time moves at the same speed everywhere; or that our personality exists) are so well supported by what we think we see every day of our lives.

Jesus said You shall know the truth and the truth shall set you free. Knowing the truth is another of those things which is simple but not easy, because to do it we must first divest ourselves of our illusions, and they simply don't want to go.We all of us, I think, desire to move into the healing light. But the cost of giving up our comforting illusory shadows is too much for most of us to bear