Thursday, 30 January 2014

Christian Names

The eminently sensible Bosco Peters posted this piece a day or two ago about the titles we clergy give each other and the preposterous getups we wear to distinguish ourselves one from the other. I agree with Bosco completely on this one, though I must say that in our diocese the issue isn't as huge as it is some other places.  The word hierarchy means "rule by priests" and the fact that it has entered the English language with the particular meaning we now give it is testimony to the development of the finely graded and nuanced pecking order developed in the church over the past millennium or so.

In the olden days, when the act of professing Christ meant inviting your neighbours to burn your shop and the government to burn your body, baptism was a brave and significant act. The new Christians were schooled in the ways of Jesus, then, before entering the waters of rebirth, removed all clothing. They were immersed into the death of Christ and raised to new life whereupon they were given a new set of white clothing and a new name signifying that the old had indeed passed away and the new had indeed come. As a baptised member of the household of God the new Christian had a new identity and they were known by the name given at the font: the name by which Jesus called them.

The old ways linger. We still give baptised infants a Christian name and this is the only name that matters within the Church. Sometimes we might name a role or a relationship in the church the way we might in any family, but our Christian name is the only name that needs to be used.

We still use the white baptismal garments, though these days not everybody gets to wear them. The clothing which marked new life in Christ have morphed into the albs and surplices and rochets which now proclaim not so much entry into the community of saints as authority within it. Now this is not a bad thing as the task performed by the clothing is still an important one.

As one of the Church's functionaries I must continually live with the question, by what right do I presume to stand up in front of people and speak to them? Why should anybody pay any attention to me? And of course the brief answer is that in my own right I have no basis for such a presumption and there is no reason at all that people should take a blind bit of notice of anything I have to say. But I don't stand up in front of people in my own right. I do it in the name of the church, which has, for better or worse, decided that I am a suitable person to perform acts of ministry  on the church's behalf. And in token of this, I am vested; that is, my own identity is masked. It is hidden within the garments which represent to the congregation the church's history and the Gospel out of which that history has grown. Take, as an example of ministry, the absolution that I pronounce most Sundays. I, obviously, have no ability to forgive anybody's sins. What I do have is the authority to pronounce the truth of God's forgiveness, given by Jesus to the apostles One of the signs that I am not speaking on my own behalf is the clothing I wear.

There are a number of things which have undermined the intention of vestments. One is the fact that after Constantine the Church became an instrument of state and the church's functionaries became important social figures. Vestments, while retaining their "masking" function became also badges of rank and prestige. Another is the tendency of clergy to personalise their vestments, so that they start to represent not so much the church's tradition and expression as the clergy's tastes and personal spiritual history. When this latter happens, vestments are working directly in opposition to their intended purpose. Another still is the expression of the emotional programs for happiness unconsciously invested in by all of us.

We clergy are as human as anyone else. We have our own unconscious needs and we are called by the Holy Spirit to recognise these and bring them to the cross, just as is any other Christian. It is a process which takes a lifetime, so most of our lives as priests, deacons and bishops is lived within the reality of these drives and we tend to shape our theology, order our churches, and vest ourselves in ways which are hugely influenced by our striving for safety and security, affection and esteem, power and control, just as you might expect. Recognising this tendency in ourselves is important. More important is subverting our unconscious motives in favour of the Gospel of absolute forgiveness, radical equality and conscious servanthood. So fancy titles and the subtly nuanced power games of  ecclesiastical costumery?  Well, perhaps occasionally, but only as a joke.

Friday, 24 January 2014

A Letter to Fr. Thomas

1 Glenfinnan Place,
Anderson's Bay,
Dunedin 9013
New Zealand.

Fr. Thomas Keating,
St. Benedict's Monastary,
1012 Monastery Rd,
CO 81654,
United States.

24 January 2014

Dear Father Thomas,

I have been reading your books for a long time now, and also listening to conferences given by you as I drive about my diocese. I have heard all 24 CDs of your The Contemplative Journey series at least twice, so I think I have a reasonable grasp of your teaching. I have found your words enormously encouraging and informative; you are without a doubt the wisest man I've never met. But you know how these things go: you hear something and it makes perfect sense and you understand it completely, but somehow it doesn't quite make that 18 inch journey from the head to the heart. There is a depth of knowing, a deep interior understanding that comes sporadically if it comes at all.

This week has been for me a time of such deep knowing. I have been reading your little book Invitation to Love. Of course there is nothing in the book that is new to me. You outline again the workings of the false self and in particular the emotional programs for happiness with which we are all wired. You talk of these hopeless schemes we all have, to find happiness through the relentless pursuit of security and survival, esteem and affection, power and control. I know this. But somehow I didn't know this until last night, and I'm not sure what made the difference.

Perhaps it was one sentence in your book: The emotions faithfully respond to what our value system is - not what we would like it to be or what we think it is. This has been a week where for one reason or another my emotions have been fairly fully engaged, and the thought that they might give a sort of a topographic map of the false self system lying beneath them was revelatory. Perhaps it was my temporary suspension of Centering Prayer (sorry) in favour of walking the streets of my lovely little city while saying the Jesus Prayer: allowing the ancient prayer of the staretz to enter on my inbreath and allowing my acknowledgement of Jesus as Lord and redeemer to be proclaimed on my outbreath. Perhaps it is just that this time has arrived.

I went to sleep last night thinking of my emotional responses to the events of the week and woke at 2 am. No, I was awakened at 2 am. I lay, totally alert, in the dark with the sound of the wind outside and my wife softly sleeping beside me. And I saw myself. With astonishing clarity and detail I saw myself in all my ridiculousness and absurdity. I was like Dorothy looking behind the screen and seeing what really lay behind Oz the Magnificent. It was as though I saw the coin in the palm of the magician and in an instant realised not only how the trick was done, but also what a wonderful and clever trick it was. I lay there astonished at my own ingenuity and absurdity and foolishness, but this wasn't in any sense self pitying or self deprecatory. It was uproariously funny. It was as though I was being let in on a fine joke, and I wanted to laugh as the angels were laughing. I saw my emotional programs for happiness - well, one of them anyway - laid out in all their glory. There was a magnificent, ornate, gilded superstructure which I had spent a lifetime building and polishing and protecting and I peeped underneath it to see the cheap clockwork mechanism with which it worked, all held together with string and bits of chewing gum. I am absurd! And I felt overwhelming gratitude for my absurdity. I  drifted back to sleep, one arm around my oldest and dearest friend, cocooned in goosedown and joy and liberation .

So Father Thomas, I wanted to write. Often in your conferences I have heard you chortling away at the great cosmic joke of your own absurdity. I wanted, in a virtual way, to wink at you and nudge you in the ribs and acknowledge conspirationally to you, Oh! So THIS is what you meant!

I woke in joy. I walked 7 km in about an hour and breathed Jesus in and out. I went for a blood test, then headed for a cafe for breakfast (bacon and eggs but for goodness sake keep that to yourself. My wife and daughters would skin me alive if they knew). I have been a pilgrim for long enough to know the dynamic: I haven't actually arrived anywhere. There will be a day or two's euphoria while this new learning is consolidated before the Holy Spirit urges me to shoulder my pack and follow along the road to tackle the next obstacle I have erected between myself and God's love.

I will be in Snowmass, God willing, in about a year to undertake a Centering Prayer Intensive, but of course I wouldn't presume to be able to see you. But I just needed to write today and thank you for the gift of Christ, and the gift of myself.

With love and gratitude,
your son in Christ,

Thursday, 16 January 2014

Holiday Reading

What with the weather and all, this has been a holiday for sitting indoors, with a mellow and warming beverage to hand, an Albinoni Oboe concerto wafting richly past the lit fire and a book with still hundreds of pages to go resting lightly on the knee.
This year's reading began with two simply astonishing novels and one that was merely brilliant.
Haruki Murakami's 1Q84 is the first Japanese novel I have ever read, and it is breathtaking. It is a big work in every sense, weighing in at just under 1,000 pages divided into three books, and full of big ideas: time, God, religion, fate, alternative universes, morality, sexuality, mythology, love, death, loneliness, sacrifice... I found it compelling and absorbing even if the translation meant the style is patchy in places. Murikami produces exquisitely drawn characters and makes a fantastic - in the true sense of the word - plot utterly convincing.
Donna Tartt's The Goldfinch is also a big novel, telling the story of a boy whose mother is killed in a terrorist attack. It is centred on Fabritius' 17th Century painting which becomes a key element in the development of the plot as well as an icon of the book's powerful themes: death, love, morality, sexuality, art, loneliness, sacrifice, God, religion... and where have I seen a list like that before? It seems that the novelists and the film makers have largely taken over from the priests as purveyors of meaning in our culture. The book is a kind of coming of age piece, but as it progresses it becomes a fast moving adventure story centred on the decline, Damascus Road experience and redemption of the central character.
A S Byatt's The Children's Book is a novel I began earlier in the year but put aside. I am a long time admirer of Byatt's intelligence and erudition. She writes complex novels with multilayered plots and finely nuanced characters. Her treatment of universal themes (see the lists above) is provocative and mind expanding and her observation of the minute details of human life acute. This work is quite typical of her, but after the first couple of hundred pages, I  found it quite heavy going. The plot (unlike those of her great works, The Virgin in the Garden series and Possession) seems just a little too slender for the relentless weight of intellectual, moral and symbolic material laid on it.I  resumed it this holidays but, again, wasn't gripped by it and moved on.
I also read Anthony Beevor's The Battle for Spain. We will be returning to Spain in 2015, and just as it is impossible to understand contemporary Scotland without an awareness of the fraught history of the last few centuries, so there are undercurrents lying not far beneath the surface for many Spaniards, which it is necessary to know. I have read several of Beevor's other books, and this one has been well received in Spain, so it seemed a good way for me to open the subject of the Spanish Civil War. After a few bewildering chapters in which Beevor sketches the confusing array of political relationships in early 20th Century Spanish society, he settles into his usual genius for relating a many faceted process of social history in a coherent, well paced and gripping narrative. Absorbing, horrifying, and sad in equal measure.

I treat books in much the same way as I do my dinner: my eyes are generally too big for my belly. That is to say, I bought home a couple of unread books: Eleanor Catton's The Luminaries, Beevor's The Second World War and David Bentley Hart's The Experience of God. But, look! It's still raining! Excellent.

Saturday, 11 January 2014

There and Back

Lake Hauroko, Fiordland National Park
Catherine, my daughter, had, until recently, two criteria by which you could distinguish a genuine holiday from an ordinary run of the mill road trip. To qualify as a holiday, at some stage it was necessary to a) dig a slop hole and b) eat at least one meal cooked over an open fire. She's changed a bit, and so have we, although there is one holiday preference that we still adhere to, and that is the one of backing the car out of the driveway with only the vaguest idea of where we might be going.  Over the last couple of weeks we went South, intending to drive to the end of the road and see what was there and I didn't take a shovel or for that matter a box of matches. Instead we took a gas stove and a fridge and a bed with an innerspring mattress and a shower and toilet all swaying gently behind the car in a big white box.

It rained a lot; nearly every day in fact, but who cares? We also took a pile of books and a DVD player and a scrabble set and a couple of Kindles. On three nights we pulled up beside little country churches and ran an electric cable through the window but mostly we were parked up by water, surrounded by lots of trees and by hardly any people.
We travelled perhaps 200km on gravel roads, but mostly it was over the wide empty Southland tarseal. The furthest we got from home was Lake Hauroko, which might well be the most remote place you can drive to on a public road in New Zealand. It is the deepest lake in the country, with a jetty and a few picnic tables as the only visible signs that anything has changed in the last few thousand years. The forest comes down to the waterline, giving a hint of what its more famous siblings - Wakatipu, Wanaka, Manapouri - might have looked like once. It is a beautiful place and an eerily, powerfully spiritual one. Hauroko is sacred to Ngai Tahu and there are local legends about curses and hauntings, and it's easy to see why.

We slept overnight, just a little uneasily, in the car park a few metres from the water and left early next morning in the rain for Lake Monowai. Monowai is another of the little visited Southern lakes. It has an earth dam built across one end and there are long straight gravel roads leading up to it and power pylons leading away from it, so beautiful as it is, it can't be called unspoiled in the way that Hauroko can. We didn't stop, but drove instead through Manapouri and Te Anau to the Mavora Lakes.

The two Mavora Lakes are where some of the Lord of the Rings trilogy was shot, and it's easy, wandering around the shoreline and the forest which creeps up on the tussockland, to imagine your way into Middle Earth. We looked out of the caravan window at the Silverlode, to the spot where Frodo pulled Sam from the river, and we wandered through the edge of Fangorn, listening for Ents. The rain thundered on the roof (and on one or two occasions so did the thunder), but I had a mellow old scotch and Clemency a bottle of tawny port, and it just added to the sense of cosiness as we turned our respective pages.

We stayed also at Piano Flat which is very like 8 acres, a favourite spot from years ago in the Urewera National Park. Both have a gently flowing river full of swimming holes, a large and empty piece of grass for camping on, and a nearby forest for walking in. So, no, Catherine we didn't light a fire, and there was no need to trench the boundaries even though the rain was almost as heavy as that time in Kaiaua on the East Cape. But it was a holiday. On day two my watch broke and fell off, and on day three we ran out of cell phone (and therefore internet) coverage. I forgot what day it was. We had no idea where we might head next or when we might do it. Perfect.