Sunday, March 30, 2014

Who's the Mummy?

Sermon preached at Our Lady of Walsingham and St Francis, Rochester on the Fourth Sunday in Lent

So, it’s Laetare Sunday, Rose Sunday, Refreshment Sunday, the Fourth in Lent, Mothering Sunday, Mother’s Day. “Mother’s Day!”

It always causes a bit of a wince to those of us who were brought up on “Mothering Sunday.” However, just think about it. Perhaps it’s just an amazing coincidence that Mother’s Day falls on Mothering Sunday every year. We may indeed complain that today is not Mother’s Day but Mothering Sunday. In a sense, we are absolutely right to do so. There should be a clear distinction between Mothering Sunday and Mother’s Day. Mother’s Day is a day in which we take the time and energy to pay attention to honouring our mothers. This is a perfectly reasonable application of the 5th Commandment. While we should always honour our parents, a day set aside to remind us to do just that is fitting, hence Mother’s Day and Father’s Day. So what is Mothering Sunday about, if it’s not principally about honouring our mothers?


There is a big problem in Galatia because there are many folk out there who say that to be a good Christian, you have to be a good Jew first and follow the Jewish Law. These folk are going around saying that you had to eat only clean foods and circumcise your baby boys in order to be a Christian. The Galatians have been taken in by this and the consequence is that St Paul has to them a very hard letter telling them how foolish they are because they have chosen the wrong mother.


Chosen the wrong mother? How can you choose your mother, or your father for that matter? St Paul reminds us of the importance of history.

Agar and Sarah are both wives of the great patriarch Abraham. Agar is a slave; Sarah is free. For St Paul, Agar represents a life in slavery to laws which cannot free the soul. To choose the motherhood of Agar is to choose a life of slavery to rules and regulations that can neither free a person from sin nor bring them nearer to God. Sarah, on the other hand, represents a life which is free from arbitrary laws and free to love according to God’s way of living. To choose the motherhood of Sarah is to choose freedom from the law controlled by men and to choose a family relationship with God in Christ Jesus. To choose Sarah is to choose the Church.

In fact, St Paul goes on to say, ”Cast out the bondwoman and her son: for the son of the bondwoman shall not be heir with the son of the freewoman. So then, brethren, we are not children of the bondwoman, but of the free.” The trouble is, this doesn’t sound very mothering, does it? Should the Church cast out those who are enslaved by the Law?


The key to understanding St Paul here is that he is not advocating casting out those in need, but rather those who not only refuse to receive the help of the Church but want to change the way that the Church operates in order to satisfy their way of living. Our Lord tells us that we cannot be the servant of two masters; St Paul tells us that we cannot be the sons of two mothers. We have to choose, one or the other.

The one we choose we cannot change to suit our whims.

It is our mother who tells us how to live, not the other way round. “Honour thy father and thy mother.” If we choose the Law, then we choose to live and die by the Law. The Law will condemn us when we are wrong, but it cannot lift a finger to save us. If we choose the Church, then we choose to live and move in the community of Christians in the way of life given to us by Our Lord and Saviour who does have the power to save us when we go wrong. St Paul bids us to reject utterly the teaching of all who would want us subject to Law rather than the grace, love and worship of God the Holy Trinity. We can only help those who are enslaved by the Law by showing them how to live according to the Love of God. If they cannot see the difference, then we’re not doing it right! They still have the love of God, and they still should have the love of the Church, but they cannot be allowed to convince members of the Church to become slaves to the Law.


We honour our mother and father by Love, not by fulfilling legal obligation. We love our parents because God has given them to us and us to them, and families suffer so much when that bond of love is compromised. It is, however, in the nature of love to suffer.

That is how we should see the Church and how the Church should see herself. Not as a legalistic body, not as a monarchy, but as a mother of a family. Mothering Sunday and Mother’s Day may coincide, but they are not the same. Father’s Day must have the same weight as Mother’s Day because fathers and mothers together bring forth families. How can the family work if there is no love? How can the Church work if it ceases to be the family of God?

Friday, March 28, 2014

An Eternity of Faith

What can an eternal viewpoint possibly look like?

It's a question that has struck me as I've been looking over St Paul's Missive to the Romans and it's a question that seems to be prevalent throughout the whole Bible. Everywhere we see God engaged in an activity or undergoing a process or setting something in motion. God has apparently predestined us before the world was made, and yet can be angry with us when we chose not to do His will. This doesn't sound like an Eternal Being for whom Time itself is, although not meaningless, certainly not a constraint.

Of course, we are temporal and temporary beings whose existence and understanding of our surroundings depend on process and development. We cannot go back in time and we can only go forward faster than one second a second if we are able to harness the powers of speed as predicted by the theory of Relativity. Even then, that is just a theory and thus subject to the limitations of the scientific method. It is quite clear that a God who wishes to communicate with us allows us some freedom of metaphor and language in order to communicate some very clear facts about Himself.

The great theologians, notably St Thomas Aquinas following Boethius, will say that the Wrath of God is a metaphor for the utter rejection of Sin that stems from the Eternal and Substantial goodness of God. God is good and where good is rejected, so is God. The Old Testament God of wrathful indignation is the same God of love because wrath is a metaphor and love is a substance. To read the Old Testament seeing God as a temporal being leads many a person to reject God as a "moral monster" precisely because they cannot understand that in God there is no process - at least not one that could ever be communicated to or understood by us.

Our temporality has coloured the language of our salvation and it does mean that we have to listen very carefully to what God is saying to us.

Of course, Our Lord Jesus Christ is God who subjected Himself to temporality. To be a human being means being limited by Time and Space. Thus Our Lord in being fully human could not live forever if he was to be like us. His Death and Resurrection, however opens the transcendence of Time to those who believe in Him. We will become like Him because we are promised that we shall see Him as he really is, and we can only see Him if we are like Him.

This really does pose some difficult questions of philosophy and physics and I do not pretend that I am anywhere near finding an understanding, primarily because I don't believe that the mere human brain can ever comprehend the working of God, though I'm not quite sure what "ever" means in this context.

Romans viii.30: "Moreover whom he did predestinate , them he also called : and whom he called , them he also justified : and whom he justified , them he also glorified ." We are indeed justified by faith, and glorified because we are justified. Thus in calling us, God gives us Faith in that call. The events we have presented here to us are meant to be understood that way. God has spoken through St Paul and this is what we are to understand. Predestination causes calling which causes justification which causes glorification. However, that is a very temporal way of looking at things. I've used the word "cause" here deliberately, and want to understand that word "cause" as St Thomas Aquinas would want, to wit "cause" means "reason why"

The Greek verbs (predestine, called, justified, glorified)  in the Aorist tense indicating a single action in its entirety, and St Paul shows us how each action of God depends on another and yet God doesn't have that dependence on Time. When does that predestination take place? Relativity tells us that it is possible for events to be simultaneous in one time-frame but one preceding the other in another. This lack of temporality doesn't affect the chain of "reason why",

So how are we to understand this? Well, we listen to St Paul, we are glorified because we are justified because we are called because we are predestined. Were we predestined in Time? No, because God predestined us "before the world began". As St Paul says to St Timothy:

We were given grace before the world began. Of course this is not entirely meaningful if by "world" we mean the Universe including Time. God created Time as well: we know that because God created all things visible and invisible. Thus, the causes of our salvation and glorification are not within Time, but are within God alone.

We know God because God presents Himself to us in our lifetimes by giving us the unwrapped present called Faith. We can choose to open it or not. If we do so, then we begin a journey of journeying in justification, glorification, redemption and salvation which we may abort at any time.

God sees our lives all at once from birth to death. He sees all our intentions and desires from birth to death, all our actions from birth to death. He does not control us, but knows us in the present tense of His Eternity, not in the chronologically causal network of Time. We are predestined in our entirety, chosen by God for salvation in our entirety, and that includes our free-will which is part of our substance as a human being. It is meaningless to say that the elect have already been chosen because that implies a temporal event and the choice is made by God from His Eternity. He wills all of us to be saved, but chooses those who choose to be saved, and chooses them from the present of Eternity. If we are predestined from eternity, then we are called from eternity, justified from eternity and glorified from eternity. The chain of causation is a chain from eternity.

This is a fascinating subject that I pray God will give me the time, inclination and understanding to explore. Even if we don't understand fully the mechanics of our salvation, we know that each of us can be saved by belief in God - actively holding, developing, and feeding the faith that God gives us to find Him. For then, we shall be called, justified, glorified, sanctified and caught up in His Eternity which we may only see darkly through the glass of our minds, but then face to face.

Friday, March 21, 2014

The Benedictine Verse

Today is the Solemnity of the passing of Holy Father St Benedict, the father of monks. It's one of the days in the year in which an Oblate reflects on the nature of St Benedict's legacy and spirituality.

One of the most important biblical verses for a Benedictine is Psalm cxix.116, "O stablish me according to Thy word, that I may live: and let me not be disappointed of my hope." It is in the rite of profession and the rite of oblation alike. The Benedictine way of life centres around stability, obedience and conversion of "mores" and this verse very clearly epitomises all three of these centres.

First we pray: this is part of our conversion. St Benedict reminds us that before we even begin to think about doing a task, we address God personally. The verse is addressed to God, just as the Benedictine life should be addressed to God and to God alone. Conversatio mores has at its heart the turning of the face to God regardless of its state, its fallenness and the marring of the image of God in us. Like Camus, we have to face reality head on. Unlike Camus, we see that reality directly in the face of Our Lord Jesus: the face of the Crucified Jesus, the face of the Risen Jesus, the face of the Ascended and Royal Jesus. In the Tenebrae readings from the Lamentations, we hear repeatedly - convertere ad Dominum, Deum Tuum.

Second, we pray for the gift of stability. We ask God to ground us, root us firmly in His existence and in the awareness of His existence. Our lives flit from one idea to the next, one fashion to another. We fall off one bandwagon and ascend another. St Benedict says "No!" and calls us all to commit ourselves to the choices that we make. The Benedictine sacrifices much of his freedom choice when he makes his commitment. Of course this is more relaxed for the Oblate whose life is influenced by factors other than the monastic cell. Yet, the Oblate too commits, and knows that, in making a commitment, his Oblation (i.e. self-offering and sacrifice) of his will directs him to see that commitment through to the end. This is why the conversatio is so important. All works must be begun continued and ended in God for them to bear the fruit which nourishes the world and brings Joy to the Eternal Godhead.

Third, we pray for the gift of stability in the word of God. The Benedictine recognises his superior and is obedient to that superior. The Abbot is so called because he stands as the representative of God's authority in the monastery, and yet more is written in the Rule about the need for Abbot to be unswervingly obedient to God than about the brethren. The Abbot carries the can for ALL the brethren under his authority and the authority he possesses must be completely compliant with the word of God. For the Oblate, obedience is no less important. Obedience must be directed to one's spiritual superior, namely the parish priest and especially the bishop even if these are not Benedictine themselves. Yet even if they are not Benedictine, the parish priest and bishop are under exactly the same commandment as any abbot as they have souls in their charge. A priest, bishop and abbot will fail - they are human after all - but their duty is to recognise that failure and ensure that their congregation is not scandalised or driven away by their failure. This responsibilty to be obedient to his laity is certainly drummed into an Oblate-priest, just as much as an Abbot is responsible to be obedient to his community.

These are the three aspects of Benedictinism and are central in the profession and oblation, yet the verse goes on to demonstrate that this is a two-sided deal, a covenant with God. God has an input here. The Oblate asks not to be disappointed in his hope. He offers his sacrifice to God, his conversation, his obedience, his stability and commitment and looks to God to uphold him in his new life. The Oblate offers himself for no less a reward than God Himself! This is the relationship of Created with Creator which draws the Oblate to make his oblation in order to find that satisfaction, happiness and fulfilment in God. His part of the covenant is to hold that Oblate dear in His heart, to supply the needs of the Oblate and to transfigure the life of that Oblate. And God is Faithful.

One verse really does say it all, though in ways that are deeper and more profound than we can ever explore. St Benedict recognised it, and God used the oblation of that man to show us that we will not be disappointed of our hope.

Wednesday, March 19, 2014

Springing into the English Lent or Lenting into the English Spring?

It's quite interesting to note that Spring starts in Lent, though I suspect for some folk, that's hardly a surprise since they regard Easter only as a glorified pagan festival of New Life. The word "Easter" could be seen as rather embarrassing really to the Christian as Eostre (after whom "Easter" is named) was a Saxon goddess of the spring. There is some debate, though, as to whether this is true or whether Eostre existed only in the writings of St Bede. Yet, the fact of the matter is, this was indeed the time of year when Christ's sacrifice for us took place whatever other festivals may have been taking place at the time. That sacrifice took place for Pagan and for Hebrew alike, indeed the sacrifice was for all people, and it happened in the Spring which was a prominent time also for both Pagan and Hebrew.

Spring in the U.K. is rather a strange affair, usually punctuated with bouts of meteorological instability. In an English Spring ( I haven't the experience to talk about the Welsh, Scots or Irish Spring) it's quite typical for the heavens to throw anything they like at you. I've known heatwaves in February and Snow in May. Yet, despite this, there is something fundamentally beautiful about the Spring. For the Pagans, this was the centre of their world. They saw the new life growing, budding and blossoming into action.

And Lent falls right at the beginning of Spring. The season of spiritual austerity comes at the time of this turbulence as the bitterness of winter thaws and yet the land has not become jaded by the summer heat. Of course, there is a big cultural difference between the Britain and the Israel of the first Century, yet both have a reliance on the Natural World around them. Whether English or Israeli, the opening chapters of Genesis hold true: forces beyond our understanding have shaped the world around us; seasons turn and turn again each with a colour and an air that is unique and proper to them. Spring in Israel was not like Spring in England.

Of course, the English Church has put aside false Pagan beliefs, yet there are glimmers of how the two religions correlate still within the English soul. Pagans and Christians mean different things by the word "God". For the Pagan, gods can be plural, for the Christian there is only one God because there can only be one source of what it means to be. However, Celtic Christians kept up the Pagan high doctrine of Creation which is a perfectly orthodox Christian belief, that the World created by God is a beautiful place despite the evil that happens in it. This is something that beats still in the heart of the English Church, that the Church herself is organic, living, growing, budding and shooting.

As I've said before, the word "Anglican" simply means "English". It's a word that predates the Reformation by 300 years. However, words do indeed change their meaning, organically so. The word "resent" once meant to have strong feelings about. King Charles the First is on record on having "resented" the loyalty of his troops. However one interprets the word, "Anglican" possesses that sense of "Englishness", and for me takes me back to wandering around the outside of a Kent church in the spring and soaking the atmosphere of the ages. There will often be an ancient yew tree inside the church yard which brings back memories of Yggdrasil or the Tree of Life, and this tree itself is a metaphor of the Church, a particularly English metaphor perhaps.

So, for an Englishman as myself, the coincidence of Lent and Spring has a unique flavour. Lent smells of wet grass or tree blossom and sounds like the buzz of an early bee or the scuffles of the March Hares. Yes, this is a bit of a romantic idyll and you'll have to forgive me for waxing lyrical, but the English Lent is not about austerity or aridity. It's more about what could be if we stripped away the artificial things we have tacked on to life and remembered our roots. The English Lent is borne of meteorological turbulence, just as our lives are set in the maelstrom of society. Our cares and anxieties are the turbulence that shroud our lives,like the February rain clouds scudding along on the high March winds, and yet we, like the Yew Tree and like the Church have roots that go deep into God Himself.

Our Lord said that Lent has absolutely nothing to do with appearances. It is to do with realities and seeing what those realities truly are. Take away the artificial artifacts, and one has the Natural world in which we have our being. That's not to say that the work of our hands is inherently evil, but rather that it more often than not obscures our vision of God. Nor am I saying that it's necessary to turn into Tom and Barbara Good, but rather that we remember that we are the Creation of God albeit fallen from Him. The cross of Christ is our way back to God. It is as organic as the yew tree and as the Church should be. Of course, the wood of the cross was broken and nailed by man to form the instrument of torture on which Our Lord was broken and hung in order to save man.

Other Christian cultures have their own views of Lent of course, each equally valid and yet none that can be communicated easily across cultures. The Church is organic and no machine that can be broken into parts, nor is it artificial. One has to live the English Lent just as one has to live the Greek Lent, Roman Lent, Russian Lent, et c and to appreciate that the others resonate just as naturally and musically throughout all of Holy Christendom.

Thursday, March 06, 2014

Dust thou art

Dust thou art.
From body part,
to cell,
to nucleus,
to chromosome,
to atom, proton, quark and string,
all reduced to proposition,
dust thou art.

Dust thou art.
All that Man can comprehend
is fragmentary,
partly veiled
beneath the dust,
by dust observed.
No humanity, just dust.
Dust thou art.

Dust thou art.
And to the realm of fragments,
thou must return.
From all asset strip't,
all mien and might,
wealth, wisdom, work
- all wrought for nothing
by nothing.
Dust thou art.

Dust thou art.
All pain that wracks,
each anguish suff'ring,
each cry into the dark,
by the unforgiving dust that circles,
weaving in the air,
blown by wind itself fragmentary
and with borrowed force
fights its own battle
to be where no real being is.
Dust thou art.

Dust thou art,
save in the eye of one
to Whom
that dust shows form
and thought
and feeling
and promise,
One from Whom
dust takes its very being,
its soul, expression,
One Irreducible
whose integrity of essence
passes essence on to the inessential
substance to the insubstantial
glory to the inglorious.
That the insubstantial, inessential, inglorious dust
transcends its own paucity in Him
and taking on His mantle
and rejoices with the greatest joy
knowing that the thumb upon the brow
with ashen grittiness
brings faith, hope and love
with the holy and divine proclamation,
"Dust thou art."

Sunday, March 02, 2014

How deep is your love? (without the Bee Gees)

Sermon preached at Our Lady of Walsingham and St Francis on Quinquagesima 2014.

St. Valentine’s Day has come and gone.

Heart shaped balloons lie
deflating in the rubbish bin.

The gym is full of people
frantic to work off the extra pounds
that a thoughtful box of chocolates
has added to the waistline.

The teddy bear
with “I wuv you” written on its chest
has fallen irretrievably under the bed.

Does love really last for ever,
because whatever St. Valentine’s Day stands for
doesn’t seem to!

“And now abideth faith, hope, charity,
these three;
but the greatest of these is charity.”

Modern translations of course say “faith, hope, love… but the greatest of these is love.”

Is love really the same as charity,
or are we being misled?


C.S. Lewis points out
that we can easily confuse different meanings
of the word “love”.

“I love Paris in the spring”,

“I love my cat.”

“I love my wife.”

“God so loved the world”.

The first three ideas make sense to us,
but does the fourth?

Do we know what it means
when we hear about the love of God?

Is it at all like human love?

St John tells us that God is Love.

This same word is also used in the commandments
“Thou shalt love the Lord thy God,”
and “Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself”.

Clearly we are meant to love each other in the same way.
That poses a bit of a problem for us.

God is love,
and we know that God is beyond anything
we human beings can even begin to understand.

How on earth are we meant to love
in the same way that God does?


Since God is Eternal,
 His love for us cannot have
any conditions attached.

He loves us for who we really are,
regardless of what we do.

That love has been there
since before we were born,
or even thought of.

 Our existence has been planned by God
from outside our understanding of Time or Space.

The things that we do
simply do not affect
the love that God has for us.

St Paul tells us that it doesn’t matter
whether we can communicate great ideas,
it doesn’t matter whether we are wise,
 it doesn’t matter whether we are able
to make sacrifices of our possessions
or our very self.

These things are not Eternal,
they will all pass away,
rot or be forgotten about.

Our best deeds,
our greatest achievements,
our wealth and acquisitions
– all will die with our bodies.

They do not possess the character of Eternity.

If what we have means anything at all,
it has to have love
– unconditional love,
 the love that comes from Eternity.


Human beings don’t do unconditional love very well.

“I love Paris in the spring!”
But what about the winter?

“I love my cat!”
But what if that cat then kills your pet budgie?

“I love my wife”
But many marriages end in divorce these days.

There always seem to be conditions.

St Paul knows that this unconditional love
 is both very near us,
but always just out of our capability.

So he tells us what this love, this charity, is like.

“Charity suffereth long, and is kind;

charity envieth not;

charity vaunteth not itself,
is not puffed up,

Doth not behave itself unseemly,
seeketh not her own,
is not easily provoked,
thinketh no evil;

Rejoiceth not in iniquity,
but rejoiceth in the truth;

Beareth all things,
believeth all things,
hopeth all things,
endureth all things.

Charity never faileth:”

Notice that we can replace
the word “charity”
with the word “God”
and the whole thing still makes sense.

We know that an action is godly because
it is patient, kind,
without envy,
without pride and arrogance and lewdness.

An action is filled with that unconditional love
if it is selfless, tolerant,
 thinks the best of people
but doesn’t give wickedness the time of day.

It is honest,
hopes for the best and puts up
with whatever is thrown at it.

This is the love that God is,
but are we completely incapable of showing this love?


God has made us in His own image
and He commands us to love.

 This means that Love is part of our existence,
part of our being,
part of our creation.

We haven’t just been created because God loves us,
we have been created to be love
and to extend that love into the world.

We may indeed have marred the image of God in us
through our sins,
but it is not obliterated.

God is part of our existence
and so love is still there
beneath the scratches and darkness of the glass.

We can indeed love
and love well if we follow St Paul’s advice.

We may not get it perfectly,
but we can make a big difference
 if we learn to marry our actions
with the love which is in us by our creation.

Lent should be our time for taking stock.
Perhaps it might pay us
 to learn those qualities of love off by heart
so that we can measure our actions against them,
more easily.

If we say that we are human,
but have no love,
then we are truly nothing at all.