Saturday, 13 October 2018

"Called upon or not, God will be there"


Last week I wrote about sitting on the Areopagus and thinking about St Paul's debate there with the Athenians. I want to return to Greece in this blog. A brief week among its classical antiquities is no more than a taster, but I have to admit that like so many other travellers before me, I've fallen under its spell. I ask myself, how can I never have visited the country before? I'm grateful that I've got there before I die.
If you ask me what the highlight was, I have to pause. How do you compare Athens, Olympia, Epidauros, Mycenae and Delphi? They are all magnificent, all utterly absorbing, all providing not just great beauty but so much food for thought. This includes many of their museums where the artistic heritage of these places is presented and interpreted in fascinating and exemplary ways. But for my wife and me, there was something special about Delphi. Let me try to say why.
 
We visited it on a grey, damp windswept day. It was the tail-end of the Mediterranean mini-cyclone Zorba that landed in Greece the same day that we did. As I wrote last time, for us who live by Hadrian's Wall in Northumberland, there's nothing odd about ancient sites in a storm. Indeed, so extraordinary is the site at Delphi on its steep valley-side below Mount Parnassus that the lowering skies only lent it greater dramatic force and sense of place. We stayed the night in the nearby village. It was a new experience to sleep on what felt like a cliff-edge.
 
Delphi was the centre of the Hellenic world, its navel or omphalos. The myth said that Zeus had sent two eagles to fly towards each other from the eastern and western edges of the world. Delphi was where they met. The site was dedicated to Apollo. Here, the prophetess or sibyl Pythia sat on a tripod set above a cleft or "chasm" where vapours emerged out of the ground. Intoxicated by the fumes, she dispensed wisdom to those who consulted her. She was famous for her enigmatic responses. The Lydian king Croesus asked her if he should attack the Persian king Cyrus. The Oracle replied that a great empire would fall if he did. Croesus did not ask which empire, assuming she meant the Persian. Of course it was his own. 

The landscape setting is incomparable. The Via Sacra or pilgrims' way snakes steeply up the hillside through ruins that date back to the sixth, fifth and fourth centuries BCE (the fifth was the "golden age" of Pericles' Athens). Highlights include the Temple of Apollo, treasuries built to house the spoils of battle offered to the gods, the Sibyl Rock where the oracle was said to preside, a theatre and right at the top, a stadium. From these heights you look down to the gymnasium and the famous, much-photographed circular Tholos of Athena. The museum houses a memorable display of sculptures, including the legendary Charioteer in bronze, one of the most famous statues from antiquity. (Hadrian is there too, by the way, the Roman emperor who fell in love with Greece and came to Delphi, an unexpected point of contact - in addition to the weather - with our distant Northumberland homeland and its Roman Wall.) 


But it was not for any of these reasons that we were especially touched by Delphi. For me, it was crystallised by a retired school teacher I was talking to about our Greek trip. She is a reader in her local cathedral. She told me she had taken many school groups to Greece and got them performing scenes from Greek drama (did she also mention Shakespeare?) in the ancient theatres they visited. Delphi was one of them. "Of course, the thing about Delphi" she remarked "is that it's a sacred place. Even after all these centuries, you feel something there, something in the stones that remember how mortals once went there to look beyond themselves, commune with the gods and seek their wisdom". I paraphrase but she put into words what I'd been sensing. When I checked it out with my wife, she said she had experienced it too.

She (my wife) is a psychotherapist with a particular interest in Carl Gustav Jung whose influence on analytic practice has been profound. Above the door of his practice in Kusnacht. Switzerland, he carved an inscription: vocatus atque non vocatus deus aderit. "Whether called upon or not, the god will be there." That saying is attributed to the Delphic oracle, said to be the answer the Spartans got when they consulted her about taking up arms against Athens. Jung elevated it into a universal principle about how urgent it is that humanity seeks a deeper wisdom than is attainable through reason alone. He once said that he had not encountered a problem or question in any of his patients that did not turn out to be religious in origin. The divine, always present in human life even when it is unacknowledged, is the source of hagia sophia, the holy wisdom that alone can grant mortals a new vision of our better selves, the potential we are called to realise if we are to become what we are meant to be - in his language, find individuation.


The Christian question is, of course: who is the deus in that saying, this god who is always present in our midst? This was precisely the matter St Paul addressed on the Areopagus when he observed the dedication on one of the altars he had seen, To an unknown god. I wrote about this last time. Christianity gives a name to this deus, says Paul, and tells us that he is the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ who was crucified and raised from the dead. In him, what is unknown becomes known, the hidden God is disclosed to us. This God invites us to know and to love him and, yes, vocatus atque non vocatus, always find him alive and present among us by the power of Hagia Sophia, his holy and life-giving Spirit.

Delphi bears witness to humanity's long search. It's one more in the long list of places remote from Christian revelation where I've unexpectedly glimpsed "the idea of the holy". In our own parish of Haydon Bridge you can find what is left of a Roman Mithraic temple standing alongside Hadrian's Wall. I quip with the vicar that we are one of very few parishes in rural Northumberland where there is a religious site belonging to another faith community. We shouldn't dismiss the spiritual potency of these places. It's a narrow view of Christianity that limits the ways in which God discloses himself, for there are many names by which he is perceived.

But for us Christians, there is a name that is above every name. Albert Schweitzer wrote at the end of his great book The Quest for the Historical Jesus: "He comes to us as One unknown, without a name, as of old, by the lakeside, he came to those men who knew him not. He speaks to us the same words, Follow me! and sets us to the tasks which he has to fulfil for our time. He commands. And to those who obey him, whether they be wise or simple, he will reveal himself in the toils, the conflicts, the sufferings which they shall pass through in his fellowship, and as an ineffable mystery, they shall learn in their own experience who he is."

Here is Christianity's answer to Delphi, the fulfilment of all that it reaches out for. Here is where our spiritual yearnings and hungers are met; where all our oracles and dreams are transcended; where we find our God-given selves at last.  
 

Monday, 8 October 2018

Musings on Mars Hill

Last week I stood on Mars Hill in the centre of Athens. Above me, the Acropolis stood proud, its Propylaea, Temple to Athens Nike and Erechtheion glowing in the afternoon sun. Below you could see the Ancient Agora with the Temple of Hephaestus an island of white marble amid a sea of foliage; and on the lower slopes of the Acropolis, the cluster of famous olives that echo the lone olive tree that stands on the rock by the Erechtheion, said to be the gift of the goddess Athene to her city. Far away was the glint of ocean, the “wine-dark sea” Homer called it, but on this luminous afternoon more like a golden frame surrounding a tableau of marble sculptures.

You can’t see the Parthenon itself from Mars Hill, but it is the unseen presence whose power permeates classical Athens. I had not visited it before, and was not prepared for its sheer immensity. It’s by no means the best-preserved of Greek temples, but it is one of the largest, and the one that is most freighted with symbolism. It is the emblem par excellence not only of ancient Greece, indeed of classical civilisation, but also of the modern nation as it emerged in the early nineteenth century from Ottoman rule. 

Last week I saw it twice close-to. On the first occasion, Greece was being deluged by torrents of rain thanks to a rare Mediterranean cyclone. The Acropolis was dark, brooding and windswept, somewhat forbidding, it has to be said, and not a place to linger. I doubt many tourists have seen it in those conditions though when you come from North East England you are perfectly used to visiting antiquities like Hadrian’s Wall in the pouring rain. We went back there at the end of our week in Greece. It was as the picture postcards said it should be. The Parthenon was ravishing and serene. You could understand its hold on the imagination of the romantics who came to Athens as part of the grand tour. And you could appreciate the sentiment that longs to see the Parthenon Marbles, removed by Lord Elgin and now in the British Museum, reinstated in the new Acropolis Museum just below the rock, one of the best museums I’ve ever visited.

But back to Mars Hill, the Areopagus or Hill of the god Ares. He was the god of war, and one thing you learn when you come to Greece is now bellicose classical Athens was. To succeed in warfare was everything. The defining myth of Ancient Greece was the Iliad and the Odyssey. I read some of Homer on my iPad while I was there, and was reminded how readily the blood flows in that great work. You are not spared the details of how good men and bad perish alike in war, thanks to the intervention of the gods who notoriously take sides in their support of either the Greeks or the Trojans in this decade-long conflict. At Delphi we saw a frieze depicting the Trojan War and the part played in it by the capricious deities whom the Greeks worshipped.

I had thought that the Areopagus was a proper hill with a ruined temple or two on top, and an open space for argument and debate. In fact it’s no more than a outcrop of the Acropolis, separated from it by a narrow fault. You clamber up a steep ancient stair cut out of the rock and emerge on an uneven plateau - perilously slippery for the marble has been worn smooth by twenty-five centuries of human footfall. I stumbled around for a few minutes until I decided that the least hazardous way of experiencing this place was to sit down for a while.

Up here climbed St Paul one day some time around 50AD. He was brought here by the Athenians, for Mars Hill was where philosophers had argued and debated since the days of Pericles five centuries before. Perhaps he had come down from visiting the temples of the Acropolis, or up from the Agora; either way, his mind was full of the vivid experiences this first and last visit to the city had given him. Athens has that effect on travellers. And the Athenians, who had learned curiosity from Socrates, wanted to know more about this strange doctrine Paul was propounding that seemed to point to new deities they had never heard of, “Jesus” and “Anastasis” (Resurrection). And of all the novelties the Athenians loved so much, nothing pleased them more than new ideas they could discuss among themselves on the marble Areopagus.

Then Paul stood in front of the Areopagus and said, Athenians, I see how extremely religious you are in every way. For as I went through the city and looked carefully at the objects of your worship, I found among them an altar with the inscription, ‘To an unknown god.’ What therefore you worship as unknown, this I proclaim to you. The God who made the world and everything in it, he who is Lord of heaven and earth, does not live in shrines made by human hands, nor is he served by
human hands, as though he needed anything, since he himself gives to all mortals life and breath and all things. From one ancestor he made all nations to inhabit the whole earth, and he allotted the times of their existence and the boundaries of the places where they would live, so that they would search for God and perhaps grope for him and find him—though indeed he is not far from each one of us. For ‘In him we live and move and have our being’; as even some of your own poets have said, ‘For we too are his offspring.’

Since we are God’s offspring, we ought not to think that the deity is like gold, or silver, or stone, an image formed by the art and imagination of mortals. While God has overlooked the times of human ignorance, now he commands all people everywhere to repent, because he has fixed a day on which he will have the world judged in righteousness by a man whom he has appointed, and of this he has given assurance to all by raising him from the dead.

I read these words from Acts 17 on my phone and wondered what Paul thought he was doing, according to St Luke’s account. Some think that this attempt to engage with Greek culture was a one-off experiment that failed. Brilliant rhetorician that he was, quoting poets and philosophers and winning intellectual arguments on the Areopagus was not the way to promote the gospel. From then on, it is suggested, the Apostle resolved not to tangle with Greeks who sought wisdom, any more than with Jews who looked for signs. His sole task was “to know nothing among you except Christ and him crucified”.

Except that his time on Mars Hill, whether it was an hour or a day, was not seen as a failure by St Luke. When they heard of the resurrection of the dead, some scoffed; but others said, “We will hear you again about this.” At that point Paul left them. But some of them joined him and became believers, including Dionysius the Areopagite and a woman named Damaris, and others with them. A street below the Acropolis is named after Dionysius the Areopagite, said to be the first bishop of Athens. There is a strong memory that Christianity began to take root in the city. After the collapse of Roman civilisation in the fifth century, Christians occupied part of the Parthenon and worshipped there. Movingly, at the foot of the steps up the Areopagus you will see a bronze tablet displaying the Greek text of this story of Paul’s visit.

On this Thursday afternoon, there were not many philosophers to be seen arguing about religion on the Areopagus. But it was still a crowded place animated by lively conversation. There were throngs of tourists taking selfies, of course. But there were also a great many young people, some enjoying lovers’ trysts, others talking among themselves and enjoying the warmth of an autumn afternoon. Everyone had their mobile phones and were sharing photos and social media posts and for all I knew, reading and discussing Acts 17. 

What would Paul do if he came there today? The same as he did on that day nearly two thousand years ago. He would engage with the culture of the day, contemporary wisdoms that clamour to be heard in the market-place of ideas, try to point out how they both cloak and yet give clues to our fascination with unknown gods. He would draw out of anyone prepared to listen how the universal human longing is for truth and reality and meaning in life. “To search for the God who is not far from any of us” - “closer to us than our own souls” says Mother Julian - “so that perhaps we might feel after him and find him”. And yes, speak plainly about Jesus and the resurrection, and about the reckoning we must all face because know it or not, we are all accountable to our Creator. 

These weren’t new insights to me, what we call “contextual theology”. But they took on a new significance as I sat on Mars Hill for a while. Being “missional” is, I think, a more sophisticated task than we sometimes imagine. Especially has this become true in our complex digital age, as Pope Benedict said when he described contemporary media as the Areopagus of our own day. The environment is as slippery as the polished marble on Mars Hill. It’s easy to put a foot wrong.

But it’s heartening that there’s a new energy for faith-sharing today, and that includes the project of helping people with no explicit religious background - worshippers of unknown gods? - make sense of Christianity and discover intelligent religion. If local churches can place themselves in mind and imagination on Mars Hill and ask what it means to bear Christian witness in this place and at this time, there’s every reason to be hopeful for the future of Christianity.

Monday, 24 September 2018

Brexit, Mountain Madness and Waiting for Angels

There's a lot of "magical thinking" around at the moment. The clock is ticking ominously towards Brexit-Day next March. The Prime Minister clings stubbornly on to her Chequers plan which politicians of all hues, not to mention EU leaders tell her has little hope of flying. Canada and Norway are back in the frame as possible Brexit models. There's talk about how a no-deal Brexit could do the nation a power of good. So much busking, so little planning, still no clarity - it isn’t looking good.  When was a modern nation as confused as this, as exposed to European ridicule, as diminished in its standing on the world stage? It's sad to watch any country agonise like this. It's tragic when it's your own.

Much of the Remain perspective on Brexit draws on metaphors of height. "Falling off a cliff edge" is a favourite. "Staring into the abyss" is another. To me, the government’s confusion is redolent of mountain madness. Above a certain height (is it 7000 metres?), your capacity to think clearly and make sound decisions is significantly lessened, which is why climbers die as a result of poor judgment. Your ability to calibrate risk, assess the weather conditions and the passing of time (how much daylight have you got left?), your physical and mental condition, your stamina levels can become dangerously skewed. Not to mention your ethical judgment when it comes to helping others who have got into trouble in high places. How many mountaineers have died because they didn't recognise the moment when they should and could have turned back?

A chance encounter on social media today got me thinking about this image of surviving at a dangerous height.  In H.G. Wells' famous short story, a traveller finds himself in a secret, enclosed mountainous land where because of some inherited genetic condition, everyone is blind. Ah, he tells himself, "in the country of the blind, the one-eyed man is king". It proves otherwise. He attempts to escape by climbing his way out of this kingdom where no-one can see except him. But the heights are fraught with danger and he doesn't have the equipment or the skill to scale them safely. He falls to his death. That seems like an eloquent image of our political leaders struggling to keep their heads clear when they are well above their safety zone, where the Brexit air is too thin and conditions too treacherous for them to keep their footing.

One image from the Bible stood out as I thought about it all today. It's the well-known story of Jesus' temptations. Two of them are about high places, as it happens, but here's the one that struck me forcibly.

Then the devil took Jesus to the holy city and placed him on the pinnacle of the temple, saying to him, 'if you are the Son of God, throw yourself down; for it is written, "He will command his angels concerning you", and "On their hands they will bear you up, so that you will not dash your foot against a stone."' 

Many people who are not in the least suicidal report that same irrational pull towards danger-at-a-height. They feel some strange, unaccountable instinct to do precisely what Jesus is tempted to do, throw themselves off. It's as if there is something enticing about the cliff-edge or mountain-top, the tower of a great building, a parapet of high bridge, the rim of some chasm in the ground. We can be seduced into thinking we are safer than we are. "Our interest's in the dangerous edge of things" says Robert Browning in one of his greatest poems, "Bishop Blougram's Apology". I sometimes wonder whether our leaders are increasingly finding themselves in this fraught terrain.

What strikes me in the gospels' temptation story is how uncannily accurate the devil is when he suggests what Jesus might do. "Throw yourself off, because you know the angels will come and rescue you." Really? How can he possibly know that, whether he is the Son of God or not? It's an absurd temptation, and yet Jesus takes it seriously. Is this because he knows himself, knows his demons (so to speak), knows that the absurd is exactly what so many of us find ourselves doing when we lose our ability to think clearly? Knows that blind faith is never reasonable, never makes any sense, despite the specious appeal that irrationalism of every kind always holds out for a life that is happy and painless and filled with certainty, and trouble-free.

That's to speculate, of course. But there's no speculation about how Jesus sees off this temptation to do what makes no sense. He focuses on where his own rationality and self-knowledge lead him, back to the God from whom he draws his identity and his sound mind. He answers the devil, 'Again it is written, "Do not put the Lord your God to the test."' In other words, let faith and trust in God be informed, not by idiocy or self-interest but by a reasoned discernment of what God requires of us. And if I read the gospels aright, among the ways God wants humanity to know him and serve him, thaumaturgy, overt dramatic displays of supernatural power are not among them. Rather, he wants us to be sound in mind so that as disciples ("learners"), we make good judgments about what is in our own interests, and even more important, what is in other people's. It's what the Bible calls wisdom.

I think there is a clear strain of irrationalism in a lot of the pro-Brexit rhetoric we are hearing. The increasing shrillness of it is evidence here - shout louder because the argument is weak. It's been abundantly clear from before the referendum that the EU as a rule-based organisation could not compromise its four freedoms, and that any credible Brexit proposal from the UK would have to honour them. Instead, there is still talk about unrealisable ways of managing the Northern Ireland border, some of them recklessly putting the Good Friday Agreement at risk. We were told during the referendum campaign that achieving trade deals with the EU would be straightforward when we knew that Canada's has taken a decade to be realised. No-one can tell us how this country is going to recruit people to the NHS, the hospitality and agricultural industries. Warnings against Brexit by those whose business it is to understand and manage the economy are contemptuously disregarded as fear-mongering. This wearisome litany could go on and on.

So I'm thinking: are our leaders perched on the high pinnacle of some building of the mind, an edifice they have imagined for themselves where the rules of real life don't apply, where they can step out into empty air and look forward to being rescued by the angels? Are they so locked into the Brexit group-think ("the will of the British people", "what's best for Britain", "no People's Vote") that they can no longer see the risks they are running? I think I can safely say that there is no angel waiting to bear us up, no divine intervention that will protect us from our own folly. Why should there be? The stones our nation may dash its feet against will be unforgiving and hard. God gives no command concerning us.

We are already on our own as a nation set on this course of action. Europe and the world don't owe Britain any favours. We have fewer friends abroad than we used have and that isn't likely to change soon - the hurt Brexit is inflicting on our partner EU nations will take a generation to heal as will the bafflement beyond Europe as to why the UK would want to walk away from hard-won alliances. Whatever judgment we make about Brexit, we are responsible for it and will have to bear the consequences not just for a few years but, if many are to be believed, for decades to come. And our children and grandchildren whose future we have robbed know all too well that they are the ones who will carry the sins of their fathers and mothers for much of their lives - sins not of Brexiters' bad intent (let's not judge motives here - no doubt they were sincere, they meant well and the idea was good) but of unreason and poor judgment.

So I call it mountain madness. I pray - but don't yet dare to hope - that we all get down to safer levels where we can breathe properly, see the hazards we've been facing, and think clearly again. Yes, of course nowhere in life is risk-free, but we shall be a lot better off where evidence and logic and realistic projection are leading us rather than up here among the perilously tempting eternal snows where the view may be magnificent but the dangers are very great. Even a small slip could cost us our lives. Better get back down while there's some daylight left. It's late in the day, but not too late - yet.

Friday, 21 September 2018

Brexit: The Prime Minister Speaks

So Mrs May has come back from Salzburg empty-handed.

Brexit-watchers can hardly be surprised. The Northern Ireland border was always going to be a tough challenge if the Good Friday Agreement was going to be honoured. As was finding a modus vivendi with the other 27 EU nations unless it was going to be on the basis of the Single Market and Customs Union. The impossibility of squaring the circle is the right metaphor. You can find as good a match as you want, and you can get closer and closer an infinite number of times. But you can never make the circumferences or areas exactly equal. It all comes down to π.

Salzburg is Mozart's birthplace. Its name literally means the Castle of Salt. Well, the EU leadership has certainly gone through the PM's Chequers proposals like a dose of salts. How she must have wished for some Mozartian Magic Flute to come to her rescue, confer wisdom, protect her against her foes, lead her into the right path! Instead, negotiations on these two critical points have reached an impasse. The EU is clearly in no mood to bend to her wishes. So she has no room to manoeuvre unless she compromises on both of them.  And as she keeps reminding us, there is no Plan B other than to crash out of the European Union with no deal.

The Prime Minister has just spoken to the nation. The robust tone was consistent throughout her short speech, the Leitmotif being "we cannot accept...". Some of her red lines will find ready agreement across the nation, such as "we cannot accept the break-up of the United Kingdom". Of course not. But as everyone can now see, this is a non-trivial risk for the Union, especially those who live and work in Northern Ireland. I don't suppose many people foresaw this when they voted Leave in 2016. Like the false prophets in Jeremiah, the cry was "peace, peace, where there is no peace". And the cavalier way some leading proponents of Brexit are ready to treat the Good Friday Agreement is both breathtaking, and desperately sad.

But what about her opening "we cannot accept"? She said today, "we cannot accept anything that does not respect the result of the referendum". This begs so many big questions, all of which have been fully rehearsed in the two years the nation has been debating the consequences of the vote. I don't want to plough in well-worn furrows. We were reminded ad nauseam by Brexiters that Parliament is sovereign, and this includes its powers to rescind what has been decided in the past - which is precisely why the referendum and Parliamentary endorsement of it was to reverse the decision first made by the nation in 1975 to confirm our membership of the EU (with the strong support of the Daily Mail - newspapers can change their minds too!).

Add to that the clear proviso that the referendum was advisory to Parliament, and it really won't do lamely to appeal to the referendum result as if it were set in stone like "the laws of the Medes and Persians that can never be revoked". This is immature politics that devalues the intelligence of voting people and infantilises them. In a democratic society, we are free to change our minds, and frequently do at general elections. As I've said, the second EU vote was itself a change of mind following the first.

There's one more issue here, and I recall writing about it in an earlier blog. We know that the majority of elected members in Parliament were for Remain. Not just by a margin of a few percent like the UK electors, but a really significant majority. The point is this. If these MPs believed in 2016 that it was in the interests of the UK to stay in the European Union, what changed with the referendum result? Remainer MPs should be principled enough not to sacrifice their convictions on the altar of a public vote, especially when it is as close as the result was two years ago. They are not delegates who must vote as instructed by their constituencies. They are independent representatives who, having regard for the views of their constituents, nevertheless are free to vote, and indeed must always vote, in accordance with what their conscience tells them is in the national interest, without fear or favour.

What has happened in Parliament that even our Prime Minister, who is undoubtedly a woman to whom principle and conscience are important, is enslaved to this theory that the referendum result is inviolable and sacrosanct? Yes of course, to act with integrity, to follow principle and your own conscience in the face of fierce and loud opposition does take courage. It is fatally easy to be compromised when the stakes are so high and the pressures very great. And who appreciates the demands that are placed upon political leaders in times like these? I'm not at all defending the PM's approach to Brexit when I say that we can all feel for her in these ordeals she faces, not only among her EU colleagues, but (especially, I think) the brutal EU-psychodramas that the Conservative Party has enjoyed acting out for so many decades now. "Bastards", John Major called the far-right Tories when it came to Maastricht. You get the point.

I'm not expecting the PM to read this. But if by chance she were to, here's what I'd want to say to her.

1. None of this fiasco was of your making. You were landed with this poisoned chalice by your predecessor. Having promised he would see the consequences of the referendum through, he promptly walked away from his duty. I wonder how he can sleep at night.

2. Most of us do not want Brexit to be a disaster for the nation. We want you to succeed in your negotiations, not just to get the best deal for Britain, but what is best for Europe too, in the spirit of friendship, understanding and peace-building that is why this EU family exists in the first place. We want to go on being friends, partners and allies of the EU27. To crash out would sour relationships that are immensely important not only to our immediate neighbours and ourselves, but geopolitically too.

3. Don't underestimate how big a loss the UK's leaving the EU will be to the twenty-seven. It's not just the four freedoms or our payments into its budget. It's about the real and deep partnerships that have been so carefully built up across areas such as security, science, culture, environmental care and medicine as well. EU leaders are not punishing Britain for leaving, but they are sad about it, and that helps to explain some of the tough rhetoric coming out of Brussels. The parting of friends is always painful, and we are seeing this being acted out as we watch.

4. Please don't make our nation the laughing-stock of Europe and the world. What happened at Salzburg was humiliating, not just for you personally but for all of us who love our country and count ourselves fortunate to be British. Negotiation is what grown-up people do when things get tough. Whatever comes of Brexit, it needs to be with our dignity intact. I'm very much afraid that we have lost stature in the world during these past two years. Maybe that's good for a nation, not to think of itself more highly than it ought to think. But if it's respect that we've forfeited, shouldn't that make us think carefully about the course we've embarked on? I hope so.

5. Please, please, consider it possible that you may be mistaken about a People's Vote. I am no enthusiast for referenda in a representative democracy, but once that genie is let out of the bottle, you can't put it back again. I think the cry for a third referendum (not the second - that's what 2016 was) will become unassailable in the coming months. Please, please, consider letting the nation, especially its young who were disenfranchised in 2016, speak once more, with the option of remaining in the EU on the same terms as we currently enjoy. After all, if Brexit is really what the UK wants, then Brexiters have nothing to fear from going round the tracks in the light of what we have all learned in the last two years. Minds change, not because people are fickle or wayward, but because circumstances change and new evidence emerges. Previously unknown information, newly assessed risks, clearer perceptions of what Brexit would actually mean, all this comes from the intensive scrutiny Brexit has been subjected to in the last 27 months. Such a triage is a good thing. I'm sure you welcome it. I believe you have the courage to ask the nation in a People's Vote what it now believes about its future in the light of what it now knows. Don't be afraid.

6. It may be small comfort, but I want to assure you that the prayers of people of all faiths are with you. And the thoughts of many more.

Tuesday, 18 September 2018

A Day of Wisdom

I've just got back from leading a study day for clergy and readers in Llandaff Diocese where my friend June Osborne is bishop. They had asked me to reflect with them on wisdom literature in the Hebrew Bible with the tasks of leadership, ministry and preaching in the church today especially in mind.

I wrote a book a decade ago on precisely this theme. Wisdom and Ministry (SPCK, 2008) was an elaboration of ordination retreat addresses I'd already given in the Diocese of Durham. My focus on wisdom in relation to public ministry had been prompted a few years earlier when the Church of England draft revised ordination rites were presented to the General Synod. I made a speech about the readings from the Hebrew Bible that were proposed for ordinations. All of them, I recall, were drawn from the Prophets: call-narratives like Isaiah's "Here am I: send me" (Isaiah 6. 1-8), and Jeremiah's "I have put my words in your mouth" (Jeremiah 1.4-12), or passages that affirm the prophet's vocation, like the Isaiah passage quoted by Jesus in St Luke, "The Spirit of the Lord God is upon me" (Isaiah 61.1-3).

Now these are all great texts, I told the Synod. But invariably to read passages such as these at ordinations suggested that the role of a Church of England vicar in the contemporary world was like being a Hebrew prophet in antiquity. I said that I seriously doubted that. And despite the importance of being able to speak "prophetically" on occasion, it would be seriously misleading to expect clergy to function as "prophets" all the time. Years ago Bishop John Habgood once spoke about the relentless call on church leaders to "speak prophetically". He said that it's very hard to do when you can see several sides of the same question. I guess that "being prophetic" is all the more effective if we don't attempt it too often.

But Habgood's seeing many sides to the same question is precisely what wisdom is about. So in my Synod speech I offered a model for public ministry that I believed was closer to our contemporary reality. This could be found among the wise of ancient Israel. Here were men and women whose role was to reflect on our human experience, help us find our place in creation, discern God's presence in ordinary life, foster our capacity to "see into the life of things" and find meaning there, explore the joyful and sorrowful mysteries of life such as purpose, destiny, suffering and love, handle the ambiguities and paradoxes of life, and above all to, be led by wisdom into reverencing and loving the God who is "not far from any one of us" as St Paul put it in his sermon at Athens (Acts 17.16-34).

So my ordination addresses were based on wisdom texts that I believed spoke straightforwardly to the privileges and demands of ministry today. Solomon's prayer for wisdom at the outset of his reign, for example (1 Kings 3.3-15), or precepts for living and leading wisely in the first nine chapters of Proverbs, or wisdom-influenced stories of leadership in action like those of Joseph (Genesis 37-50) and David (2 Samuel 9-20, 1 Kings 1-2, the so-called "Court History" or "Succession Narrative"). And I drew on other wisdom writings to suggest how in preaching and pastoral ministry we bear witness to the central issues of human life that are common to our human race: suffering (Job and some of the Psalms), meaning and purpose (Ecclesiastes), love (Song of Songs).

After the Cardiff day, someone tweeted about what I'd tried to share. Not the drama of the edgy + prophetic, or busyness of the big personality charismatic leader, but priest as humble servant of Holy Wisdom. Yes. Which put succinctly what I was on about. I could have spoken at length about the danger, as I see it, of the romantic idea of the minister-as-hero: always energetically engaged in some grand projet (and being remembered for it), fixated by strategic plans, smart objectives and measurable outputs. It plays into the excitable culture which it's easy for the church to emulate (as it already has in some quarters), like Paul's Athenians loving anything that is new and different and that arouses us from our unacknowledged boredom with religion. I caricature of course. I'm all for thinking and planning ambitiously for the sake of the gospel. My concern is how the big, the dramatic and the busy can be better grounded in a proper Christian humility, better rooted in a contemplative, ancient and holy wisdom. I want to ask how we all learn to become, as the good jargon has it, reflective practitioners in the spirit of our great Anglican forebears.

Hebrew wisdom is full of both encouragements and warnings to those who lead. In my session on David, I drew attention to how the story gives us what Robert Alter calls "the most unflinching insight into the cruel processes of history and into human behaviour warped by the pursuit of power. And nowhere is the Bible’s astringent narrative economy, its ability to define characters and etch revelatory dialogue in a few telling strokes, more brilliantly deployed.” It shows “an unblinking and abidingly instructive knowingness about man as a political animal in all his contradictions and venality and all his susceptibility to the brutalisation and the seductions of exercising power.” 

The beauty of the narrative is how it doesn't do the work for you of asking questions about your own leadership style and use (or abuse) of power. At the end of the session I set out the seven "Nolan Standards in Public Life" and invited my audience to lay it over the story of King David as a template by which to calibrate his performance. These are ethical values and virtues that should be required of anyone in a public role - monarchs, political leaders and elected representatives, educators, civil servants, business leaders and, yes, clergy and readers! Here's the list: selflessness, integrity, objectivity, accountability, openness, honesty, and leadership-by-example.

I'm pretty confident that the author of Proverbs or the stories of Joseph and David would endorse that list. So having begun to understand the successes and failures of David's reign, his virtues and his flaws, we as ministers need to apply the same wisdom/Nolan template to our own careers too. This should be one of the tasks of the Church of England's programme of Ministry Development Review (MDR). This isn't about reviewing attainment targets or dwelling on past achievements and future objectives for their own sake. It needs to focus on how to promote development and growth in ministry, how to address precisely the leadership challenges posed in the story of David. I measure that not by success or failure, but by how far our progress as ministers is being informed and motivated by an underlying God-given wisdom.

"Priest as humble servant of Holy Wisdom." In Greek, that is Hagia Sophia, elided by ancient Christian readers of the Hebrew Bible with the Holy Spirit who is the Comforter, Teacher and Advocate. I gave another set of ordination addresses last year on the hymn Veni Creator Spiritus that is sung at all ordinations of priests in the famous seventeenth century version of John Cosin in the Book of Common Prayer: Come Holy Ghost, our souls inspire. You can read that as a prayer to, and for, Hagia Sophia, Holy Wisdom. What better hymn to sing, what better prayer to offer as we serve God in this sacred vocation of bearing witness to grace and truth in the name of the church?

Monday, 10 September 2018

"Normal People"

Sometimes a book stays with you long after you've turned over the final page and put it down (or in this case, turned off my tablet). You know that through the miracle we call reading, something alive has burrowed deep inside you, or to change the metaphor, has laid down layers of memory and experience that you will go on quarrying in time to come.

I've just finished reading Normal People by the Irish novelist Sally Rooney. It was only published this month and I've read it already - it's oddly satisfying to be ahead of the curve for once. She is still only in her twenties, yet this novel which has received rave reviews flew straight on to this year's Man Booker longlist. It's a virtuoso performance by any standards: compelling, fluent and wise beyond the novelist's tender years. You feel she knows about human life, knows about the ups and downs of human relationships, knows about the complexity of every human heart.

Rooney's story concerns two school friends, Connell and Marianne. They are both bright. She is privileged, wealthy and mercurial, unsure of herself and un-streetwise. He is from a more modest background, is principled, good looking and confident. From school days in rural Ireland, the tale brings us to Trinity College Dublin and their lives as students. Their relationship eddies round love and sex (there is a lot of sex), then out again back to a "mere" friendship, yet suffused with post-romantic longings that are always pulling them back into each others' gravitational fields. You know that like satellites locked into a resonant orbit, they will always be facing each other. It's impossible that either of them will ever look away more than momentarily. The puzzlement and pain of never-quite-realised longings are familiar to anyone who's ever been in love. Perhaps I mean anyone who's ever lived.

That's it, really. There's not much plot. There doesn't need to be, for the drama lies in the emotional lives of the two principal protagonists. I mentioned the central part sex plays in the story. The other big theme is power. Other people are drawn into the circle of their relationship - their families, and friends, and they inevitably distort and at times upset the delicate emotional equilibrium that Marianne and Connell are unknowingly establishing for themselves. I use the continuous present tense there because the theme of the novel is that attaining the right balance of power between them is a work in progress. It always will be.

On a Kindle or tablet, you never quite know how much of the book you've read and how many pages are left (unless you obsess about the percentages, and the hours and minutes at the foot of the page). Last night I'd reached the end of what I'd assumed was a chapter. It turned out to be the end of the novel. I was stopped in my tracks and had to read the final page again. Here it is. I don't need to warn about spoilers because in this book, there is no risk of there being any.

She closes her eyes. He probably won't come back, she thinks. Or he will, differently. What they have now they can never have back again. But for her the pain of loneliness will be nothing to the pain that she used to feel, of being unworthy. He brought her goodness like a gift, and now it belongs to her. Meanwhile his life opens out before him in all directions at once. They've done a lot of good for each other. Really, she thinks, really. People can really change one another.

You should go, she says. I'll always be here. You know that.

All writers pay close attention to how their books begin and end. This last page reads as if it has been effortlessly written. But I know enough about writing to suspect that this kind of prose, this carefully imagined stream-of-consciousness, is hard-won. The unpretentious ordinariness of it is precisely what you marvel at. In the hands of someone who knows how to write, ordinary words are transmuted into the verbal equivalent of gold. It's as if each of them is a little sacrament of meaning that, taken together, accumulate into something precious and unforgettable. There are a few writers who can achieve this degree of purity, but not many. Chekhov comes to mind. In some ways, Rooney's writing reminded me of John Williams' beautiful novel Stoner that only achieved fame when it was reissued nearly forty years after it was written. For the sheer elegance of its writing, its capacity to do extraordinary things with ordinary language, it's a tour de force. But both books are so modest, so unassuming that you wouldn't suspect you were holding a masterpiece in your hands until you thought about it.

But the genius of Rooney's final page is that this is precisely that it isn't a last word. I spoke about a work in progress. You could say that this novel has been left unfinished, because that is the only way in which in this case, the novelist could lay down her pen and leave us with a sense of satisfaction that the narrative has to go on. It would be an easy trope to comment that it has to go on in us who read it (though all great literature has something of that imperative about it). It would be too calculated to say, in effect: "Right, dear reader. I've done my bit. Now over to you". But insofar as we genuinely care about the characters, always a good test, the novel does require us to do some "work" of our own if we are to come away enriched and rewarded. Perhaps what makes this novel one of those we won't forget is that it poses so many universal questions about life, love and longing. That final sentence, I'll always be here. You know that.  That's precisely not a full stop at the end. A whole lifetime of change and chance lies hidden in that tiny period. You close the book. But you go on pondering. And you find that what you're thinking about is not only them but us, you and me and the people we have loved.

The title Normal People is one way entirely accurate, for Marianne and Connell are ordinary people like us. In another way it's deceptive, no doubt in an intended way. For what the novel achieves is to open our eyes to how extraordinary even the "normal" becomes when it is lit up for us. I think this would be one of my theological responses to the novel. Yes, there is a lot in it about the nature of relationship, what happens between human beings, what is implicitly covenanted and endures, what is fleeting and belongs to the moment. The book cleverly plays with these two characteristics and through a skilful counterpoint between them, keeps you guessing (even beyond the final page?) what the true nature of this relationship will turn out to be.

One way of describing theology is as a lens to help us read human life in the light of faith in God. We learn to make connections, look beneath the surface, ask the right questions, live in a more reflective way. Normal People is one of those books whose very theological innocence unwittingly makes it profoundly theological, if that means being stimulated to ask fundamental questions of meaning, purpose and destiny. It's precisely in the alleged uneventfulness of ordinary life that dramas of ultimate significance get played out in every human heart. Which is why I unhesitatingly put this novel at the top of my "best books" of 2018 - so far....

Wednesday, 22 August 2018

The Wicker Man and Derby Cathedral

There's a bit of a brouhaha going on in Derby at the moment. The Cathedral is showing a series of films next month in collaboration with the local arts centre QUAD. Some are "for the whole family" such as The Greatest Showman. Others have raised eyebrows, like The Wicker Man, Don't Look Now and The Life of Brian.

In his statement, Dean Stephen Hance has set out the Chapter's thinking about this. First, the Cathedral wants to reach new audiences who, it is hoped, will be drawn in by an adventurous contribution in a unique environment to the city's arts programme. Secondly, film reflects the power of story to engage the imagination, face uncomfortable truths about our human condition, and be made to think. This, says the Dean, is central to the way Jesus taught and how faith is transmitted. And finally, there is the financial aspect. The Cathedral has to find new income streams to fund its mission in challenging times. To me, this all seems entirely uncontentious.

So why the fuss?

It's true that all three films I've mentioned as eyebrow-raising are, to quote the Dean, "edgy". But that's because they all belong to cinema's front rank, all speak powerfully by exploring the "faith, doubt, fear and obsession" (to quote the Dean again) that underlie so much of human attitudes and motives. Whether it's the corruption of a society that embraces outright paganism (The Wicker Man), the crazying effects of loss where the grieving process is distorted (Don't Look Now) or the strange capacity of parody to highlight aspects of truth (The Life of Brian), these films confront us and ask us to reflect on our identity as men and women, what we believe about our place in the world, what our ultimate aspirations and hopes really are. These are, of course, profoundly spiritual and theological questions. So alongside the films, Derby Cathedral will be offering events to "help people reflect theologically on these films", says the statement. That's as welcome as it is necessary (but of course the media don't mention this aspect of what they love to call an "unholy row").

Take The Wicker Man. (I presume it's the original 1973 version we're talking about, preferably the director's cut, not the 2006 remake which, judging by the reviews, I've no wish to see.) If you haven't seen it and intend to show up at the cathedral for the viewing, I won't let spoilers ruin it for you. Suffice to say that this intriguing film is entirely to do with religion, specifically, an island community that has embraced paganism and thrown itself heartily into its attendant myth-and-ritual. Why and how this has happened is part of the film's interest. And yes, of course the eroticism and violence of naked (excuse the word) nature-religion feature, not least live sacrifice. It's disturbing and it's meant to be.

On to this seemingly innocent island an unwary Christian policeman sets foot to investigate. The brilliance of The Wicker Man is that we the viewer are unwary too, not ready for what is to come. We are shocked by a climax that's as powerful as any I can think of in films I've seen. And central to it is the head-on encounter between Christianity and paganism, not least in the policeman's tenacious adherence to his faith and his bravery in bearing witness to it. You couldn't have a more overt faith-related film than this. That it should have become something of a cult film among cognoscenti says something about the perennial power of religion to fascinate us.

Films like those chosen for the Cathedral speak for themselves. They don't need interpretation, though they do call for interrogation and reflection. But if we are looking for an analogy to help us see the value of showing films in sacred spaces, I would suggest the morality play. Popular in the late middle ages and the early modern period, morality plays like Everyman brought home moral and spiritual truths to their audiences by personifying fundamental values and their opposites like good and evil, truth and falsehood, wisdom and folly, weakness and strength, life and death. Over all these God presided, weighing up the destiny of mortals in the light of the moral choices they made. This, I think, is akin to what is going on when religion encounters drama or film within the setting of the sacred.

Of course, it happens in ways that are subtle and nuanced, symbolic and metaphorical and not always obvious at the time. We must also understand how the setting in which a film or drama are presented makes a difference to our reading of it. A sacred space conditions us in key ways. When we are sitting in a church, the questions that come to us will often be different from those we would put in the theatre, the cinema or in front of our TV screens. And the performance will put different questions to us too. We shall often find that in sacred space, we are unconsciously pulled towards a theological and spiritual framing of our questions that is different from anywhere else. The "reader-response" is as much about our own setting and context as it is about the art itself.

I recall a performance of Mozart's Don Giovanni in Sheffield Cathedral. It was one of those cut down productions accompanied by a piano and small band. But it was sung in full. The actors deployed the spaces of the Cathedral brilliantly. As Dean I got to sit in the front row in my cassock. I was taken aback when the Don took up position in front of me, knelt down and sang the famous Catalogue Aria, that musical list in which he brazenly chronicles his seductions of vulnerable women across the continent. It was as if he was parodying the act of confession by singing that aria to a priest.

Beneath Mozart's ravishing music is a terrible tale of brutality, abuse and rape. And it was being acted out in my cathedral! But the whole point of the opera is that Don Giovanni gets what he deserves. At the brutal climax, the fires of hell open before him and swallow him up. Sin is punished, wickedness condemned, goodness vindicated, noble love honoured. Ethical order in the universe is restored. It's a pure morality play. And that's why it was good to perform it in a sacred space. It challenged its audience precisely because it was being staged in a church. It was an unforgettable spiritual experience as well as unforgettable opera. I could say the same of an unexpectedly powerful student production of Romeo and Juliet in Durham Cathedral during my time.

The church has always flourished when it has cultivated a close relationship with the arts, even if it can be tense at times. Earlier this month, nude paintings were removed from an art exhibition in Portsmouth Cathedral after complaints from worshippers. In Durham Cathedral in the 1990s, a video installation, The Messenger by Bill Viola, had to be screened off from open view on the advice of the police who thought it might cause public offence. When an episode of Inspector George Gently was filmed in the Cathedral in my time, I received letters from the public (interestingly, none from the North East) objecting to the firearms that were featured in that episode, though if ever a TV drama came close to a morality play where good and evil were clearly identified, this was it. Like the poor, offence-takers will always be with us.

So I don't think Derby Cathedral should be unduly worried that their film series has provoked debate. I'd say that was a good and healthy thing. Indeed, theology and film offer incredibly rich resources to each other, as a large and growing literature demonstrates. What matters is that when decisions of this kind are made, they are guided by the values the cathedral stands for, and the purposes it exists to fulfil. Does this proposal enhance our mission, or is at least consistent with it? Not everything is appropriate in a sacred space, even if it purports to be art. But the mission of the church would be severely compromised if it only said yes to art that was conventional and bland, that did not stretch horizons or provoke debate (in which case I doubt it would qualify to be called art at all).

What they are doing at Derby does push boundaries. That may have taken some courage. But as the Dean wittily said, they won't be showing God anything he hasn't seen before. This project is about engaging with what is real in life, both the light and the shadow. Cathedrals have always been good at that, delighting, stimulating, pioneering and provoking by turns. That's a gift we can be thankful for. It's one of the reasons we cherish them.

Monday, 13 August 2018

On Reading "The Diary of a Country Priest"

I've just finished reading this remarkable book. I've been deeply struck by it. I imagined I'd read it before, decades ago, but I now don't think I can have done.

For instance, I'd long imagined it was the real diary of a real country priest living in nineteenth century France. In fact it's a novel by the twentieth century writer Georges Bernanos who died seventy years ago this year. Its imagined depiction of parish life in the north of France between the wars won him the Grand Prix du roman de l'Académie française. In 1950 it was named one of the twelve best novels in French published between 1900 and 1950.

I guess the reason it's so famous is the sheer vividness with which the author enters into the life of an impoverished catholic priest. You would have to have been a fervent believer to have written it. Not so much for the passages of theological and philosophical speculation about, say, heaven and hell, or social hierarchy in the countryside, or the nature of sin, but for the light Bernanos shines on the everyday dealings of a priest with his parishioners, his parish and his fellow clergy. And for the inspired guesswork (or maybe I mean detective work?) with which he tries to get inside the mind and soul of a character you speculate he has become intensely fond of. Does the novel represent a vocation Bernanos might once have had? 

What I love about the book is its sense of parish. Early on, the country priest muses on the importance of loving your parish. Just three months today since my appointment to this parish. This morning I prayed hard for my parish, my poor parish, my first and perhaps my last. My parish! The words can't even be spoken without a kind of soaring love....I know that my parish is a reality, that we belong to each other for all eternity; it is not a mere administrative fiction but a living cell of the everlasting church. But if only the good God would open my eyes and unseal my ears so that I might behold the face of my parish and hear its voice....The look in its eyes would be the eyes of all Christianity, of all parishes - perhaps of the poor human race itself.

I found that an arresting passage, given our current preoccupations about the future of the parish system in the Church of England. The words seem chosen carefully. Bernanos could have said congregation or the faithful or the baptised. And maybe he's making all sorts of assumptions about his parish population (what Anglicans used to call "the charitable assumption" that presumes faith and principled motive on the part of those who seek the offices of the church). But I don't think he elides parish and the faithful. There's such a strong sense of sacred geography in the Diary, what Andrew Rumsey in his fine recent study Parish - an Anglican Theology of Place recognises as deeply embedded in our native traditions of public ministry.

Reading it, I was frequently reminded of a book I read in the 1980s while I was a parish priest in a rural market town. It's by Alan Ecclestone, A Staircase to Silence. A priest formed in the gritty realities of urban ministry, his remarkable books, all written in retirement, were the fruit of a rich lifelong experience of “parish” in just such worlds that Bernanos’ curé inhabited. It's not too much to say that Staircase turned round my entire attitude to parish ministry with the idea of which - I freely acknowledge - I was struggling at the time. His book is a study of another Frenchman and older contemporary of Bernanos, the poet and man of letters Charles Péguy. A chapter I recall being much influenced by was one entitled Mes Vieilles Paroisses Francaises. I need to read it again (was it there that I read about how, on a French parish festival, Péguy playfully imagined that Joan of Arc or Theresa of Lisieux had only just left the party a moment ago?). Péguy was writing about the corn fields of the Beauce across which you see the distant spires of Chartres Cathedral - but his spirit pervades Bernanos' world too. New bishops and incumbents could not do better than read all these books (Bernanos, Rumsey and Ecclestone) and ponder them at a time when the Church of England is putting every egg in the basket of growing congregations through project-based evangelism and at risk of starving traditional parochial ministry of sorely-needed funds in the process.

Back to the Diary. The central section focuses on a long and difficult pastoral encounter the priest has with an influential female parishioner. You feel for him as he tries to uncover the truth of her complex life, the courage it takes to "speak truth to power" in circumstances such as this. Most of us in public ministry have been there at one time or another. In the end, after what feels like a Herculean feat of theological and spiritual candour, he gets to an unexpected place of resolution. Here's how the diarist records the outcome. "Be at peace" I told her. And she had knelt to receive this peace. Oh miracle - thus to be able to give what we ourselves do not possess, sweet miracle of our empty hands! Hope which was shrivelling in my heart flowered again in hers; the spirit of prayer which I thought lost in me for ever, was given back to her by God and  - who can tell - perhaps in my name! Poor as I am, an insignificant little priest, looking upon this woman only yesterday so far my superior in age, birth, fortune, intellect, I still knew - yes I knew - what fatherhood means.

That remarkable passage, almost worthy of Dostoyesvsky, shows, I think, profound insight into the paradoxes of public ministry. But how many of us clergy are capable of scrutinising our ministry and ourselves with that degree of honesty? How many of us have sufficient self-knowledge even to understand the questions with which we need to interrogate ourselves? Bernanos writes elsewhere in the book, When writing of oneself one should show no mercy. Yet why at the first attempt to discover one's own truth does all inner strength seem to melt away in floods of self-pity and tenderness and rising tears? Diarists and bloggers, beware of being too kind to ourselves! Not to agonise in front of others necessarily, but to "tell all the truth", as far as we ever can, at least in private before God and ourselves. And even in a more public register, we need surely to be constant seekers after truth, even if we often have to "tell it slant".

I've often spoken to at ordinands' retreats on the importance of self-knowledge and self-awareness in any public role. I've found Bernanos to be a powerful impetus to try to practise better what I have been preaching for so long. Perhaps it's about the recovery of the joy and openness of our childhood, the kind of rapturous vision captured in William Blake's Songs of Innocence and Thomas Traherne's Centuries of Meditations. Bernanos says: God has entrusted the Church to keep [the soul of childhood] alive, to safeguard our candour and freshness... Joy is the gift of the Church, whatever joy is possible for this sad world to share... What would it profit you even to create life itself, when you have lost all sense of what life really is?” There have been times in my own ministry as a priest when I've needed to try to recapture what relentless public exposure had corroded. Bernanos understood that.

One last passage from the Diary. It concerns the prayer and spirituality, a matter of recurring concern in the book as we would expect. Again, the author writes with a keen sense of how paradoxical the spiritual life so often is. The usual notion of prayer is so absurd. How can those who know nothing about it, who pray little or not at all, dare speak so frivolously of prayer? A Carthusian, a Trappist will work for years to make of himself a man of prayer, and then any fool who comes along sets himself up as judge of this lifelong effort. If it were really what they suppose, a kind of chatter, the dialogue of a madman with his shadow, or even less—a vain and superstitious sort of petition to be given the good things of this world, how could innumerable people find until their dying day, I won't even say such great 'comfort'—since they put no faith in the solace of the senses—but sheer, robust, vigorous, abundant joy in prayer? Oh, of course—suggestion, say the scientists. Certainly they can never have known old monks, wise, shrewd, unerring in judgement, and yet aglow with passionate insight, so very tender in their humanity. What miracle enables these semi-lunatics, these prisoners of their own dreams, these sleepwalkers, apparently to enter more deeply each day into the pain of others? An odd sort of dream, an unusual opiate which, far from turning him back into himself and isolating him from his fellows, unites the individual with mankind in the spirit of universal charity!
 
If you haven't read the book, you won't know how it ends. No spoilers from me! But Bernanos gives us a profoundly moving and satisfying conclusion to the Diary. I won't say that it's a tidy ending - you wouldn't expect it to be from an author who understands better than many both the "mess" of the parish (his phrase, not mine) and the complexity of human life, not least his own. How could any ending be tidy? Having not long retired from a lifetime of public ministry as a priest, I know how untidy my laying aside that role was at the time, and even more in my subsequent memory of it. This is only one of many insights in The Diary of a Country Priest that I recognise from my own experience of ministry, that I dare to say we all recognise if we are sufficiently curious about God, humanity and our own selves to frame the questions he asks so bravely and follow them wherever they lead, however uncomfortable that may be. 


In the end, after a lot of pain and hardship, the Diary ends on a note of thankfulness. Tout est grâce is the conclusion, "everything is grace". That's the spirit that pervades the entire book. Despite everything, Bernanos' struggling, pain-ridden priest has emerged victorious. Which I think makes this marvellous book an inspiration for today's ministers, especially those travelling through dark times. "What will survive of us is love" says Philip Larkin in a famous poem. It could be the epigraph of this book. For everything is grace, and grace is everything.  

Wednesday, 8 August 2018

"The best things just happen to you."

It was the Viennese philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein who said that. I came across it while reading an intriguing book** by the child psychotherapist Adam Phillips. He is writing about how a lot of learning happens, not as a result of formal schooling but through hints and nudges. He means the things that "just happen" to us, inconsequential in themselves but for the fact that we remember them and find ourselves returning to them in our thoughts and reflections, even find that our lives were changed because of them.
He quotes a fellow philosopher who recalls a walk Wittgenstein and he were on. Wittgenstein "had seen a play, a third-rate, poor play, when he was twenty-two. One detail in that play had made a powerful impression on him.  It was a trifle. But here some peasant, some-ne'er-do well says in the play: 'Nothing can hurt me.' That remark went through him and now he remembers it. It started things you can't tell. The most important things just happen to you."
I stopped reading to think about that. Is it true, I asked myself? The most important things Wittgenstein says, not just happy conjunctions of events that please us but things that really matter, or as we might say, things of ultimate concern. Bishop Ian Ramsey of Durham, a philosopher of religion who was much influenced by Wittgenstein, spoke about disclosure experiences, "when the penny drops". Carl Gustav Jung would never use the language of coincidences. For him, the fact that we notice them at all, pay attention even fleetingly to how events have come together in a particular way, confers significance on them, gives them meaning. There are no coincidences. If they are important and matter to us, there are only synchronicities.
Personal experience has to be the test of Wittgenstein's dictum. What does my own memory tell me about this? How have the things that "just happen" been significant, touched my life in some way? Looking back over six years of blogging, I find I've mentioned some of them. For example: my love of maths that led me to read it at university; the part music has played in my life for as long as I can remember; the books in childhood that influenced me; my lifelong commitment to the continent of Europe that comes out of my having a British father and a German-Jewish mother; memories of Christmas past; and much more recently, the birth of my first grandson. In that last blog, I wrote about how I would always remember where I was and what I was doing when I heard that news. Most of us can tell similar stories about how certain events impinged on us: when our team won the Cup Final, say, or when we heard the news that someone close to us had died. Maybe that's one criterion by which we measure the importance that certain events hold for us, that in an instant, our lives as they were then seem captured as in a photograph.
But none of those can be described strictly speaking as "chance". They belong to contexts that up to a point were already shaped by upbringing or environment. What about the events that at the time seemed to "happen" out of the blue, unforeseen, unforeseeable, yet never forgotten? I've had to think about that today, but here are three I've come up with.
The first is a very archaic memory indeed, probably my earliest, but it's as clear as anything I can recall. We were in Germany where my mother needed to travel regularly to sort out her family's affairs after the war. My parents had found lodgings under the eaves in a back street of Düsseldorf, my mother's home town. My mother told me once that I could not have been more than just over two years old when we stayed there. What I remember was seeing the outline of a church tower and spire out of the window not far away. It was black, dramatically silhouetted against the sky. That evening, something awoke me. It was the sound of church bells being rung in that tower - not change-ringing as in England, but that random tolling of great heavy bells against one other that every European traveller has heard on a Sunday morning.

To me that sound seemed to penetrate my being from top to bottom. This primitive sound that seemed to batter my heart was deeply frightening, even dread-ful, yet somehow, in a way I didn't yet have words for, enticing as well. It felt as if it mattered. Was it my first encounter with that mysterium tremens et fascinans which is how some writers have characterised religion? That it was my earliest conscious religious experience I now don't doubt though I couldn't have described it in that way for many years. And while it was one of the most important experiences of my life, it did "just happen". It still colours the way I think about the Divine, that as the Letter to the Hebrews puts it, "it is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God". It taught me even at that tender age that religion is a serious business, not a plaything or a hobby.
The second event was altogether happier. I was in my early twenties, arriving at theological college to begin training for ordained ministry. This was a few days before term was due to start. My longsuffering parish priest in London had kindly agreed to transport my books and me to the college in his Mini-Traveller and help me settle into my room. We arrived and parked the car. No-one was around except for a young man of about my age who was busy painting a side door at the foot of a staircase that led up into the building. With the warmest of smiles he explained that he too had arrived early and was busy making himself useful. By the end of the afternoon I was established in a room next to his. Why is that day etched on my memory? Because the person concerned quickly became my closest friend and has remained so for the best part of half a century. We still talk about that day we met for the first time when our friendship was born: a time of gifts if ever there was one. The only detail that maddeningly escapes me is the colour of the paint on that door. I must ask him.
My third reminiscence is about my love of photography. By now I was in my fifties. My youngest daughter had asked for a camera for Christmas, so we had bought her a digital compact. I had no interest in photography at that stage (so much so that on a pilgrimage to Israel-Palestine a few years before, I was the only person not to bring a camera. When asked why not, I pompously replied that for me, images were best encapsulated in words, so I was keeping a journal instead.) I thought nothing more about my daughter's camera until she told us that she didn't want a digital after all, so would I buy it off her so that she could get a traditional film camera instead? I agreed. It lay around unused for a while. But then I got to thinking, I've paid good money for that instrument. Maybe it's time I started using it. Living as I did in Durham's world heritage site with one of the world's greatest buildings a few yards away across the garden, I began to realise what opportunities for photography were all around me. The rest as they say is history. I can't now imagine a life without photography, just as I can't imagine one without music. And if I'm asked where I learned what I've been able to grasp as a photographer, I always say: Durham Cathedral was my teacher.
I think I can say that all three of these stories are about what "just happened". None could have been foreseen or planned for. And all three have been amongst the most important experiences of my life. There are many more, not all of which it would be right to blog about. What matters is the spiritual exercise of asking the question in the first place. An earlier generation of spiritual guides like the great eighteenth century French priest Jean-Pierre de Caussade spoke about how we must reflect often on divine Providence, discerning how God comes to us in "the sacrament of the present moment". That's the theme of one of the best English hymns from the same century, William Cowper's God moves in a mysterious way. Maybe I'll blog about that one day. For now, enough to affirm that whether in light or in shadow, our experiences can convey gifts that transcend the circumstances themselves and, even if we don't know it at the time, prove with hindsight to have transformed us in some way.
Yes, "the best things just happen to you." But we must practise how to pay attention and notice them. Who knows what has passed unnoticed in front of us a thousand times a day with the potential to give us something wonderful, undreamed of, and we missed it? That's the question I find myself asking late in life. It's not about regrets but nurturing a thirst to be more alive, being as fully present to the gift that I am alive at all as it's possible to be. I am a slow learner, but I can now add Ludwig Wittgenstein (and Adam Phillips) to the lengthening list of wise teachers to whom to be grateful. 
 
PS The friend I wrote about above has just read this, and sent me some lines from Mary Oliver:
Let me
keep my mind on what matters, which is my work,
which is mostly standing still and learning to be astonished.
**Adam Phillips, The Beast in the Nursery, London (Faber), 1998, p70.