Thursday, 24 March 2016

Truly, I tell you, today you will be with me in Paradise - Maundy Thursday reflection 2016

Truly, I say to you, today you shall be with Me in Paradise. 

Huh, I thought, as I considered what to say today. Unexpected words to an unlikely person – Our Lord speaks to a thief, to a man who had nothing to do with him until that moment, either for or against. Not a disciple, not an apostle, not a Pharisee. An unknown thief who admits his own sins, understands their consequences, and speaks out for an innocent man at the last possible minute receives eternal life. 

Betwixt the stirrup and the ground, I mercy asked, and mercy found. 

Sobering, isn’t it? Because that exchange turns everything we so often believe about salvation upside down. 

Oh, we pay lip service to the ‘anyone can be saved right up to the last moment’ – unless you’re a diehard Calvinist, of course – but that isn’t what we practise. Just watch and listen to how often we claim to know whether or not someone is saved and will go to Paradise, or, even more egregiously, how often we put ourselves in the Lord’s place, claiming that we know exactly what they need to do to be in Paradise with Him – as if G-d wasn’t at work in their lives already. 

How often that ‘knowing’ has to do with their lives looking exactly like ours: same denominational team shirt, going to our church as often as we do, praying like we do, sharing our political ideology, hating the same people we do. 

My most recent experience of someone else’s certainty about my spiritual life was Ash Wednesday, when, after a couple of months’ absence, I went to mass down the road. Just as I sat down at my computer, less than 30 minutes after the end of mass, an email from one of the priests hit my inbox: 

Dear Irim, 
 As you know, Holy Communion is – amongst other things – a celebration of union with all who believe the same Faith, both across the globe and across history. You, yourself, have told us that you frequently attend a non-Catholic church on Sundays. If this is the case, then I must ask you not to present yourself for Holy Communion in a Catholic Church. If, on the other hand, you no longer attend non-Catholic churches on Sundays and Holy Days then, like anyone else who has returned to the Faith, you are of course most welcome.

May G-d bless you during this holy season. 

Suffice it to say, G-d blessing HIM wasn’t what first came to my mind. But once I could see past the shock and ensuing anger, my first thought – and almost the first sentence in my written response to him - was, You can’t make that judgment; you have no idea what my spiritual life has been for the last two months. 

 But more critically, as a Catholic who believes in the Real Presence - that communion IS the body and blood of Christ, I saw that with his request that I accept myself as excommunicated latae sententiae, he was literally placing himself as a barrier between me and G-d

In that moment, I understood that every time we judge someone’s faith journey, every time we insist it look like ours, every time we try to force theirs into a shape that WE think is right, we place ourselves as a barrier between another and G-d. Can there be any greater sin than that? 

 As with all sin, it is born out of fear and ignorance: fear that our own journey may not be the right one or that we are faltering, and ignorance of how G-d is working in their – and our - lives. We tend to forget that salvation is a relationship, a process…not a fixed point.

But this Maundy Thursday, which coincides with the Jewish holiday of Purim, when nothing is as it seems and G-d delights in turning all things on their heads, let’s turn that fear and ignorance upside down. 

 First, let us focus on the one journey to G-d we truly have any business conducting – our own. Let’s face our fear, destroy our ignorance by taking that hard look in the mirror, shining the light in dark corners, build our relationship with G-d rather than stand in the way of someone else’s. Christian, convert thyself. 

 Then, let’s turn our way of encountering others upside down – instead of trying to bring them where we are, let’s do as Our Lord does from the Temple to the well to the cross next to Him: meet them where they are. Let us listen deeply, hear their story, hold space for them to discover how G-d is speaking in their lives. Let us help them find their path to G-d rather than have them walk ours. 

Because the G-d who created a dynamic, interconnected universe containing supernovas, plankton, and everything in between is hardly likely to be found waiting at the end of a single path for a certain type. Instead, a G-d so profligate, so extravagant, will be found everywhere, unfolding in everything, delighting in surprising us. 

 Just as He did a few weeks after Ash Wednesday, when, after said priest saw me in the Lady Chapel whilst I was praying, I received an email from him. Having a no-holds-barred draft left over from our earlier correspondence, I rolled up my sleeves as I opened the email, ready to go all in – then read: 

After you had finished your devotions I looked for you in church and in the lodge to say hello but I couldn’t find you. I hope you are well. 

 And I knew I had a choice: stand between him and G-d, or give up my chance to show him what’s what – and let me tell you, that draft email WAS a masterpiece - and walk beside him. No, he had no idea how G-d was working in my life. But then, I had no idea how G-d was working in his. What I do know is the conversation that emerged from his two sentence email, the child of correspondence fraught with hurt and anger, moved us both towards G-d, not away.

 V’nahafoch hu – it was turned upside down. But that uncertainty, that flipping, is nothing to fear. On the contrary, as the Maccabeats remind us, it is cause for celebration: 

So raise your glass if you see G-d in hidden places, 
He's right in front of you… 

…emerging all the time to say those unexpected words to unlikely people: Truly, I tell you, today you will be with me in Paradise. May we be among them.

Wednesday, 10 February 2016

Hypocrisy, or, Ash Wednesday Chapel Talk 2016

One of the great things about having a Greek housemate is the unlimited opportunity for etymological discussion. ‘Hey, George, I know you’re checking out the female lead in Blindspot right now, but what IS the real plural of octopus?’ Of course, our most recent discussion (after my amused explanation of polyamory – he got the poly part, of course) revolved around the word ‘hypocrite’ as found in today’s gospel, derived from the Greek ὑπο, meaning ‘under’ and κρίνειν, which seems to have several meanings: to investigate, to discern, to accuse, to judge, to separate.

The common explanation for the derivation of hypocrite is that hypokrites was the term for taking part in a stage production – and that wasn’t always a good thing. It is said that Demosthenes ridiculed his archrival, Aeschines, for having been an actor, reflecting the general belief at the time that because actors were skilled at putting on and taking off various personas, they could not be trusted as politicians. Certainly, this is borne out by the 1980 American election and the fallout across the ensuing decades.

But I’m more inclined to play with the possibilities offered by ὑπο and, using the first person present, κρίνω. In the interest of time, I’ll only mention a couple: if we put ‘under’ (as in beneath, e.g., hypodermic) together with ‘I separate’, the implication is that ‘I separate what is under from what is above,’ – the essence of hypocrisy. But equally interesting is the idea of ‘under’ (as in lacking, deficient – e.g., hypothyroid) and ‘investigate or inquire’, meaning that ‘I under-investigate’: i.e., I do not investigate enough – bringing in the idea that a hypocrite does not explore his beliefs or motives as he should, leaving him lacking in self-awareness, unable to discern properly.

So hypocrisy is the separation of what is below from what is above driven by the lack of self-awareness created by not investigating deeply enough, leaving us unable to discern clearly.

In Matthew’s gospel, it seems we are being told to give, to pray, to fast in secret. At first glance, we may think, ‘Wait, what? What about proclaiming the gospel, going out and sharing the good news? Aren’t we meant to be a missionary people? What’s wrong with going public?’ Let us not be like the hypocrites: let us take the time to investigate and discern.

What is actually said?

  • So when you give alms, do not have it trumpeted before you; this is what the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets to win men’s admiration.
  • Do not imitate the hypocrites: they love to say their prayers standing up in the synagogues and at the street corners for people to see them.
  • When you fast do not put on a gloomy look as the hypocrites do: they pull long faces to let men know they are fasting.

In other words, the problem isn’t public observance, but the underlying motive for such observance: winning the approval of others; being seen as good; showing one’s spiritual superiority. Here, religious observance becomes a hypokrisis, a public performance for applause (later ‘play acting’); it is not what is true – and therefore, not part of the faith Our Lord gave us.

It is what we do away from the public eye, what we do when we are (or think we are) alone that speaks our truth: it is where we sob out our grief when we tell everyone we are ok; where we feel our loneliness despite living a desperately active social life; it is the 3am wakefulness where our true fears and anxieties find us, no matter how we keep them at bay in daylight. 

Therefore, give in private – when you mean it, pray in private – when you will tell G-d the truth, fast in private – when it symbolises something to you: because it is when you are most real that you will truly give, truly pray, truly fast. Like all things, true faith and its observance must begin from the inside out…it cannot be created from the outside in.

We are all hypocrites, because somewhere, whether we are aware of it or not, what we profess and what we actually believe are not congruent. We may not be a Bernard Law or a Jimmy Swaggart, but somewhere, we’re not telling the truth, even to ourselves.

And you know what? That’s utterly human. We are wired for connection, for approval, for love – and early on, most of us learn that being ourselves may not bring us the connection we need, but being something else will – so we split, become that which brings us what we think we can’t live without and learn to hide that which we think would deny it to us. Hypocrisy arises because we live in a world polarised: this or that, good or bad, insider or outsider. Our world isn’t one that holds the opposites and paradoxes inherent in and threaded through the wholeness of Creation; it is one that mistakes reductionism for elegant simplicity.

In the end, hypocrisy leaves us living lives divided, out of integrity with ourselves, with G-d, and with the world, disconnected and alone, because despite our hope, it is not we who are loved, it is the persona we have created – the one that at first seems our liberation, but then becomes our prison.

So how, then, do we move towards the truth that will set us free? Like the Boston Globe Spotlight team, featured in a recent film, we investigate tirelessly, digging for the truth, leaving no story buried in Metro, even when it seems unbearable. We come to G-d, our hearts broken, not our garments torn – knowing that a broken and contrite heart, He will not despise.

Behold, You desire truth in the innermost being/And in the hidden part You will make me know wisdom. 

And what might that truth look like? In the Blue Peter tradition of ‘here’s one I did earlier,’ I offer Sara Bareilles’ song written for Waitress, soon to open on Broadway, as an example (and, of course, as appropriate, swap ‘boy’ for ‘girl’, and ‘he’ for ‘she’):

It's not simple to say
That most days I don't recognize me
That these shoes and this apron
That place and its patrons
Have taken more than I gave them
It's not easy to know
I'm not anything like I used to be
Although it's true
I was never attention's sweet centre
I still remember that girl 

She's imperfect but she tries
She is good but she lies
She is hard on herself
She is broken and won't ask for help
She is messy but she's kind
She is lonely most of the time
She is all of this mixed up
And baked in a beautiful pie
She is gone but she used to be mine 

It's not what I asked for
Sometimes life just slips in through a back door
And carves out a person
And makes you believe it's all true
And now I've got you
And you're not what I asked for
If I'm honest I know I would give it all back
For a chance to start over 
And rewrite an ending or two
For the girl that I knew 

Who'll be reckless just enough
Who'll get hurt but
Who learns how to toughen up when she's bruised
And then she'll get stuck and be scared
Of the life that's inside her
Growing stronger each day
'Til it finally reminds her
To fight just a little
To bring back the fire in her eyes
That's been gone but it used to be mine 

Used to be mine
She is messy but she's kind
She is lonely most of the time
She is all of this mixed up and baked in a beautiful pie
She is gone but she used to be mine

Whatever your shoes, apron, place, and patron, whatever your ‘X but Y’, whatever you feel is lost - you are not either/or but both/and: melancholy and joyful; regretful and grateful; angry and compassionate; tough and gentle - all of these mixed up and baked in a beautiful pie: whether it’s cherry, pumpkin, pecan, apple and blackberry, shepherd’s, steak and kidney.

Sound messy, uncertain, uncomfortable? It is. But G-d has always been in the mess – as Terry noted a few weeks ago, we’re not meant to simply be neatly immersed in G-d, separate as a swimmer is from the water, but infused with Him, as water is with tea or chicken with a marinade.

Hypocrisy, like all sin, is slavery born of fear – fear of being unloved, fear of lack, fear of being hurt, fear of not being enough - and rooted in division. So let us stop separating and start investigating the whole, replacing fear with curiosity, bringing G-d all of us, allowing Him to infuse it. Only then can we fully be in a relationship of love with Him, and then, with others.

This Lent, let us take our first steps from slavery into the unknown, into the desert – worrying, complaining, afraid, with all our belongings and mess - knowing that we won’t be led by a seraph, an archangel, or a messenger – but by G-d Himself:

Why does G-d come Himself, Grandpa?

Ah, Neshume-leh, many people have puzzled over this question and have thought many different things. What I think is that the struggle toward freedom is too important for G-d to leave to others. And this is so because only those who become free can serve G-d’s holy purposes and restore the world. Only those who are not enslaved by something else can follow the goodness in them.

(excerpted from 'The Real Story', in My Grandfather’s Blessings by Rachel Remen – read the whole story for the background to the last paragraph)

This Lent, let’s go home.

Saturday, 11 July 2015

Setting off on an Ignatian Prayer Adventure

A couple of months ago, I picked up The Ignatian Adventure by Kevin O'Brien. I read the opening chapters, then put it down to pick up a couple of other books, finish a report, and have just sat down with it again to begin the Ignatian exercises.

Right now, I'm on week 1, day 1. The process is as follows: begin with a prayer, read the Scripture passage or imagine the scene, pray, then review the prayer

Today's focus was Who is G-d for you? How does G-d see me?

I thought, Jesu, I have no idea. But that's the point, I guess.

The Scripture to pray over slowly and really feel was Isaiah 43:1-7.

Unexpectedly, I found myself shaken:

I have called you by name: you are mine.

When you pass through waters, I will be with you;

through rivers, you shall not be swept away.

When you walk through fire, you shall not be burned,

nor will flames consume you.

For I, the LORD, am your God,

the Holy One of Israel, your saviour.

I give Egypt as ransom for you,

Ethiopia and Seba* in exchange for you.

Because you are precious in my eyes

and honored, and I love you,

I give people in return for you

and nations in exchange for your life.

Fear not, for I am with you;

from the east I will bring back your offspring,

from the west I will gather you.

I will say to the north: Give them up!

and to the south: Do not hold them!

Bring back my sons from afar,

and my daughters from the ends of the earth:

All who are called by my name

I created for my glory;

I formed them, made them.

You are mine. Something said to me over and over again by my parents, a statement of ownership, of my duty to them, not love - a claustrophobic phrase. But somehow, when I read this, it was like being held. You are mine: a shoulder to rest my head against, arms to be held in, somewhere to belong, sanctuary. Home.

Then: For me? You would do that for me? Walk with me through water and fire; give anything in exchange for me; gather what was scattered; demand my freedom from whom and whatever enslaves me? You love ME that much?

I don't get it. I can't even begin to comprehend it. To me, love has been duty, chains that bind, relentless taking on the part of others (witness those who show up only when they need to bend my ear about something or just vomit their stuff as if I'm a bucket, then go), dysfunction, needing to chase for crumbs of connection (witness no small proportion of my guy friends and EVERY man I've been romantically interested in).

But this? I don't understand this. I get DOING it, yes. But I don't understand it being done for me. No one does this. No one is there like this. There's always something to pay, usually the demand, conscious or not, that I am there, endlessly caring, giving, non-judgmental, non-human - no grumpiness, anger, darkness, needs of my own, just relentless compassion and giving of my gifts. Yet You would care enough to be with me through everything, to do anything for me, without my having to run after it or earn it?

I'm not sure I can relax into this. 

As I prayed, I fell asleep, because I really can't do a concentrated 40 minutes of prayer yet; I tend to do 5 min stints during the day, or keep it as an ongoing background conversation and that may be how I structure these exercises - I'm sure Ignatius would understand. 

As I always do, I dreamt.

I dreamt that I ran into a guy friend of mine who was being reserved - fitting the pattern I have (taking after my father, of course) - of guy friends who give intermittently, so you really have to stretch the connection in the same way you stretch that last bit of butter or jam to cover your bread. He was holding a little one, and I played with her, then put my hand on his arm and he stepped back. I was hurt by it, a bit angry, but curious too. 

Then the scene changed and we were at a party. The scene above was repeated, except this time, he stepped well away, into a dark alcove. My arm, still outstretched, was suddenly held reverently, as if it were the most precious thing in the world, and my hand kissed with the utmost love. The look on my friend's face was a mixture of WTF, anger/affront - almost possessiveness - and a sudden realisation that if someone valued me that much, maybe he valued me more than he thought. The man who had kissed my arm stepped in front of me - South Asian, turban, proper moustache and all - saluted me with his talwar and bowed. My first reaction was to recoil; my second, one of gratitude and affection. I curtsied in return. 

I have no doubt this - and other dreams - will be part of the exercises for me. There is much to unpack here, but at the moment, my reaction of recoiling is what's holding my interest: recoiling at the fact that he was South Asian, and thus too close to my father for comfort; recoiling because of discomfort at being publicly treated with such love; recoiling at the lavish expression of cherishing me

It also feels tied to this song that I rediscovered yesterday - one of a lover going to his beloved, expressing his love with abandon, the lover's only goal being to reach the beloved:

mahabuuba main aa rahaa huun
Beloved, I am coming.

jo khwaab dekha hai tujhko dikhaane
The dream I've seen I mean to show you

voh khwaab main laa rahaa huun
That dream, I'm bringing to you

chup kyon main rahuun ab kyon na kahuun
Why should I remain silent? Why shouldn't I tell you?

mere dil ka sukuun tu hai
You are my heart's peace.

Id quod volo?

To be that to someone and for them to be that to me.

I need and desire that in physical form, with another human being, and I will not apologise for or diminish that. Neither would He - marriage is a sacrament where each lover sanctifies their beloved, after all - an earthly witness to G-d's love for us.

But also, to the One who would walk through the waters and the fire with me,

Who would exchange anything to free me,

Who would bring me home from the ends of the earth,

Who would gather the scattered,

Who loves me with abandon, 

And whose I will always be...

to You I say:

Mera dil meri jaan mera saara jahaan
My heart, my soul, my whole world,
Saara armaan tu hai
All my desire is you.

Mere dil ka sukuun tu hai
You are my heart's peace.

That is who You, my G-d, are to me.

Thursday, 2 April 2015

It is finished: Τετέλεσται

It is finished. Consummatum est, as proclaimed on status after status of Catholic students finishing their exams. Or the single word in the Greek – Τετέλεσται, ‘It is finished,’ which also has echoes of fulfilment. The verb tense is significant – the perfect tense in Greek, meaning that a completed action has continuing consequences – in this moment, this word, the sacrifice of Our Lord, now completed, continues to redeem humanity today.

The perfect tense applies to our lives as well. All that ends in our life - school, jobs, relationships, ways of being - has continuing consequences in the present, finding a way to new beginnings in the future.

But in this moment, beneath a darkened sky, as G-d hangs on the cross, speaking a word of utter finality, no new beginning seems possible – simply an endless, bleak emptiness into eternity. But even so, this end must come.

Our endings must come too: we lose people we love. We lose jobs in a world that identifies us by what we do, rather than who we are. We can no longer live in a way, in a story, that is now far too small for us: ‘I was abused.’ ‘Nothing good ever happens to me.’ ‘I am a Christian, so the world will always persecute me.’ Those stories may no longer suit us, but they have become our identity, the only way we know ourselves. And so, even though we know the ending must come, we hold on tightly to what we know, fists clenched, arms wrapped around ourselves, keeping the known old in and the mysterious, frightening new out – frozen like Lot’s wife: desperately unable to hold on to what must – or wants to - leave, and with closed hands, desperately unable to receive the grace we need, to trust that a new beginning will come.

We are in good company: in Gethsemane, Jesus too, tries to hold on, depicted vividly in Jesus Christ Superstar:

I only want to say if there is a way
Take this cup away from me
For I don't want to taste its poison
Feel it burn me, I have changed
I'm not as sure as when we started

In Our Lord’s agony, we find echoes of our own journey when endings come upon us: betrayal, anger, doubt as He bargains for things to remain as they are: 

Listen, surely I've exceeded expectations
Tried for three years, seems like thirty
Could you ask as much from any other man? 

As he progresses to contemplating the ending – ‘BUT if I die’ – he begs for the certainty that we seek in our lives:

Can you show me now that I would not be killed in vain?
Show me just a little of your omnipresent brain
Show me there's a reason for your wanting me to die
You're far too keen on where and how and not so hot on why

Before finally accepting the ending that is coming:

Why then am I scared to finish what I started?
What You started, I didn't start it

God, Thy will is hard, but You hold every card
I will drink Your cup of poison

Or as we know the more traditional, acquiescent line from the gospel, not my will, but thine be done. Our Lord, fully human as we are, wants to cling to what He knows: bargaining, raging, grieving, but finally accepting, because He knows that to do more, to carry on when it is time to move on, will have grave consequences for the future. This sacrifice does not just end something: it consummates a marriage between Him and His bride, the Church, consummatum est – ending one story in preparation for a new, larger one. It is not just finished, it is fulfilled: Τετέλεσται.

For us too, in ways large and small, Τετέλεσται – though we so often cannot see the seeds of fulfilment through our devastation at the finishing – and the fulfilment may be some way in the future. We may resist finishing because we are afraid that the end means that the love, the joy, even the difficulties of the situation will vanish from our lives – but the perfect tense reminds us that life is not so; even if the situation is ended, its essence has woven itself into our being. Or we may try to make an ending sharp, short, surgical, denying it matters, pretending it never happened, locking it away. Both keep us bound, but Our Lord shows us the way to live an ending that sets us free: a way of grieving, of unfolding our arms and opening our hands through intimacy with the Father, sharing with Him our darkest, deepest, most uncomfortable feelings at this loss, from resistance to rage to abandonment, asking ‘Why hast thou forsaken me?’

After the storm, in that barren, uncertain place where we thirst, when we finally know the truth, accepting that it is finished – even feel ourselves unravelling as we open our arms on the Cross with Our Lord and let go – let us remember that though the relationship, job, time that is ending may be the stuff of our lives, it is not our lives – it did not form us in our mother’s womb, breathe life into us, it does not know the number of hairs on our head. Our lives are elsewhere, and every single one of these smaller acts of letting go prepares us for the ultimate act of surrender, where we give up our lives – Τετέλεσται - so that we may truly live, through the words Into thy hands, O Lord, I commend my spirit.

Wednesday, 18 February 2015

Ash Wednesday chapel reflection

A sermon given at OCMS (my work) chapel on Ash Wednesday, 18 February 2015

As a Catholic working in an evangelical Protestant institution, I’ve often wondered how my Catholicism is seen when it becomes visible at work, as it does this morning. My suspicion has always been that most of you think that last night, decadent papist that I am, I looked like this: 

and that today, I’m going around looking like and thinking this

The first is somewhat wide of the mark, the second, less so.

There’s little doubt that Grumpy Cat could be considered what many these days might refer to as ‘my spirit animal’, especially if anyone has heard my delicate opinions on religious observance and behaviour: from the stiff high church my-rubrics-are-better-than-your-rubrics ‘More lace is grace’ crowd to the oft zealous bonhomie and non-ritual of many a low megachurch, few have escaped my lifelong tendency to snark.

So it may come as a surprise when I say ‘Ritual matters.’ One might wonder how someone who believes that can relentlessly mock those who take ritual so seriously? On the surface, holding both positions may seem untenable. Look beneath the surface, and it begins to make sense.

Ritual is utterly human; we all engage in it – for those who would claim that low churches don’t, just observe the unspoken rules of when and how to react within the ‘unstructured’ service, or ask them to change the Bible Study time by 15 minutes. But we often forget that ritual is a vehicle, not a destination. When we obsess about its appearance or form, or proudly deny its necessity, we have made ritual a destination, an end in itself, where it becomes meaningless, even destructive – the latter being seen most starkly in the lives of those with Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder, or OCD, where an anxious need for ritual for its own sake, to ward off some deeply felt impending catastrophe, can make it impossible to live in the world.

But ritual as a vehicle is something else altogether: it leads us to something larger, to a deeper reality, even if on the surface, it may seem trivial. For example, every morning when I come in, I ask Rachel if she wants me to put some water in the kettle for her. 9 times out of 10, the answer is ‘no’, but the point of asking is NOT to get a ‘yes’– it is something larger – a way of connecting at the beginning of the day.

If the small rituals – ‘Do you want coffee?’, the goodbye kiss for a loved one, the lighting of a pipe – matter, how much more the large ones that mark the moments where we cross thresholds, caught in that liminal space where we have one foot in each of two worlds, unsure how to leave one and enter the other? Moments where we make the choice to die to our old lives to be resurrected into a new – baptism; coming of age; marriage; ordination?

Ritual as a vehicle leads us into new, necessary, often difficult places – but they are needed, and what unfolds there is holy. Here, ritual becomes an outward sign of inward process, of inward grace, even though that process may not unfold as we expect, or even as we hope. Less dramatically, ritual guides us through liminal liturgical days of the year: Jewish Yom Kippur; the Muslim Lailat il Qadr; and yes, today, our Ash Wednesday. Ritual matters. Ritual is sacred.

It is for that reason that every year, on this liminal day when I take my first step into Lenten twilight, I wake up an hour early, travelling down the road, entering the dark, pre-7.30 mass hush of the Oratory to the faint, ever-present smell of incense, so still that the rustle of the brethren’s thin breviary pages can be heard through church. The confessional door opens and shuts, doing brisk trade for a weekday morning, the church slowly filling as those of us ready for work in this world make time for the other. After a while, several distinctive treads converge on the sacristy from favourite pews, and out of the silence, we move into the rhythm of the mass: collects, responses, readings, the imposition of ashes with the stark words, ‘Remember that thou art dust and to dust thou shalt return,’ communion, then out into a world where Ash Wednesday is just another work day, where one no longer quite belongs. Tonight, I will attend the longer solemn mass, allowing me to re-enter and anchor in the Lenten world.

‘But why?’ you may ask. What matters about Ash Wednesday, about Lent? If I had 50p for every time I’ve heard, ‘I don’t do Lent,’ I’d never have to work again. Given the post-mass coffee conversation in January, which sounds like parrots echoing, ‘What are you giving up for Lent?’ – my usual response being, ‘Church or being nice to people, not sure which’ – anti-Lent sentiment is easy to understand. Too often, Lenten abstinence becomes a matter of secular goals and pride – I should know, I still brag about the year I gave up curry – rather than spiritual practice.

If not with giving up teaspoons of sugar, or sweets, or even curry, where do we begin? As with all ritual, by going back to its roots, to what it is meant to symbolise or re-present: Our Lord’s 40 days fasting in the desert before beginning his public ministry, where He was tempted by Satan. Here is where we begin.

How then, do we model our Lent on our Lord’s time in the desert? What can show us the way? First, from the story of Jesus’ temptation, we learn that He was led by the Spirit– this withdrawal was no capricious decision of his, but divinely mandated and led, and so should ours be, through praying that G-d’s will be done and by making space for the Spirit to lead us.

He was led into the desert: that starkest of environments where nothing can be hidden, where all things are stripped back to their essentials, where resources must be drawn up from hidden depths, places that may not even be known to exist. Too often, we build our identity and our faith from the outside in: based on how we think it should look; on what others, particularly the given culture, see as ‘good’ or as ‘success’; our need for approval, which we mistake for love. So our Lent must be about stripping this false identity back and rebuilding it properly from the inside out: connecting with and coming right with ourselves and with G-d, allowing that to emanate outward to permeate the world, stripping back the barriers that keep us from fully being in our life in Christ: our defences, our need to control, our need for approval, our desire for power, our need to grasp – all the things that arise from fear which drive out our ability to live in perfect love.

He was tempted by and engaged with the devil. Giving something up or a glib 'I'm not going to be negative' is often a way of avoiding engaging with anything of substance, an avoidance of looking at ourselves unflinchingly and confronting our demons head on. We cannot ignore Satan when he tempts us: we, like Jesus, must answer. To truly enter Lent, we must search every corner of ourselves, opening every door, entering our darkest places. If we note where he tempts us, engaging him there with Christ, who has also been tempted, beside us, Satan cannot help but live out his angelic name, Lucifer – bringing light to bear on what was once in darkness, which can then be brought before G-d to be transformed.

Afterwards, Our Lord was ministered to by angels. G-d is always with us, offering support in many forms: through prayer, friends, Scripture, even through things we may consider our weaknesses. Even when He seems absent, because we must find our way to Him in free will, we must have faith that He is with us and allow Him to be with and minister to us in the ways He chooses to do so.

Our Lord's temptation in the desert is an initiation – a dying to the old and rising to the new, foreshadowing his crucifixion and resurrection in Holy Week and Easter. He was led to the desert, fasted, was tempted by Satan, and ministered to by angels – and when He emerged, he was no longer the private man He had been, but the Son of Man who was to heal, preach, and die on the Cross for our sins. So too must Lent be an initiation for us: a dying to that which keeps us from G-d and rising to new life in Him.

In this desert time, this Lenten twilight, let us not mistake stripping back to the heart of things, following in Christ's footsteps, for becoming less human. Too often we see our humanity as something to struggle against and excise rather than something to grow into and make whole. In few places is this mindset clearer than in the ubiquitous Christian question: "What would Jesus do?" – a purported attempt to help, but really a spiritual bypass to cut off another's very human mess so it doesn't bring us too close to our own. It’s not a question that makes any sense, at least not in the answers we offer. If you’d asked my father what I would do when he suggested an arranged marriage, he’d have said, "She’ll be upset, she’ll fight, but she’ll do it.” Never would he have dreamt of saying, “She’ll fill two bin bags with clothes, leave us a note on the fridge, and move out, never to spend another night under our roof.” I couldn’t have said that. And if we don’t know what those nearest us – or even we - would do, how much less do we know what our Lord & G-d would do? As I like to remind people when they ask that question,

Jesus got angry and...

...Jesus gave into doubt, agony, and fear in Gethsemane.

As our creed states, Christ was fully human as well as fully divine: in becoming man, He sanctified every aspect of our humanity: our hunger, our thirst, our joy, our love, our pain, our rage, our doubt – and therein lies the real answer to WWJD: Jesus would live the mess and help others live theirs. To follow Him, we must do the same: we must become more human, not less. To do otherwise is to deny the Incarnation and the goodness of G-d's creation, to make the grave error of mistaking wounded for evil. Our humanity needs inhabiting, not avoiding; healing, not destroying. Lent is about stripping back down to and coming into right relationship with our humanity and with G-d.

So often, I find that literature pulls everything I want to say together in a beautifully succinct, layered narrative, and today is no exception. I close with a passage from The Summer Tree, the first book in Guy Gavriel Kay's Fionavar Tapestry. In this trilogy, 5 Canadian university students are suddenly transported to the first world from which all others were born, Fionavar, each finding their vocation as the story unfolds. 

In this moment, Paul Schafer has offered himself as sacrifice in place of the High King of Brennin, whose refusal to undertake the required three days hanging on the Summer Tree has brought drought to the land: showing that when we refuse to carry our cross, refuse to become more human, we are not the only ones who suffer. Paul offers himself as a way to punish himself for the car crash in which his girlfriend, Rachel, died. We join him on the third day, after many trials, a divine visitation, and support from a mysterious grey dog who has stayed with and fought a battle for him:

And he understood then, finally: understood that it had to be naked, truly so, that one went to [G-d]. It was the Tree, stripping him down, layer by layer, down to what he was hiding from...

He was the Arrow now. The Arrow on the Tree, and he was to be given naked or not at all.

And so, on the third night, Paul Schafer came to the last test, the one that was always failed, the opening. Where the Kings of Brennin or those coming in their name, found that the courage to be there, the strength to endure, even love of their land were none of them enough. On the Tree, one could no longer hide from the living or the dead, from one's own soul. Naked or not at all, one went to [G-d]. And oh, that was too much for them, too hard to be forced to go into the darkest places then, so weak, so impossibly vulnerable.

And they would let go, brave Kings of the sword, wise ones, gallant Princes, all would turn away from so much nakedness and die too soon.

But not that night. Because of pride, of pure stubbornness, and because, most surely, of the dog, Paul Schafer found the courage not to turn. Down he went. Arrow of the G-d. So open the wind could pass, light shine through him. Last door.

As Paul's heart finally broke, as his tears for Rachel finally fell, so too did the drought of Brennin break and rain fall, bringing promise of new growth to a land long barren. When we choose to carry our cross, enter fully into our humanity, engaging with both our light and our deepest darkness, we are not the only ones who are blessed.

May we who step into the desert this Ash Wednesday, following in Our Lord's footsteps, find the courage to be led by the Spirit, rending our hearts and not our garments, allowing ourselves to be stripped down, coming before G-d naked and vulnerable through that last door: so open that the Spirit's breath passes and G-d’s light shines through us, emerging into new life with Christ, Our Lord, on Easter Day. Amen.

Monday, 15 December 2014

San Juan de la Cruz, meet Gaudete Sunday

Last week, I was on Facebook chat with a friend when this happened:

Clerical friend: The Czech church impressed me immensely. The archbishop is a hugely impressive man - spent time in prison under Communism but still full of joy.

Me, thoughtfully: But you know, sometimes I think that only people who have been through really hard things can experience joy. Everyone can experience happiness, but joy is too deep, too much a creature of light AND shadow, to be part of the life that has had no darkness in it.

Clerical friend: I think there is some truth in that. He was just full of joy. He reminded me in that respect of your great clerical crush... :-P

Me: Because joy has to underpin everything we go through. Denis Hurley, THAT clerical crush? Or Oscar Romero? Or our current pope who I am totally in love with? :-P

Clerical friend: Tutu.


Clerical friend: I forget you have so many. :-D

There it was. Not the bit about clerical crushes, we all know that. No, the part where I finally articulated something I've felt for a long time about joy out loud outside of a very small circle (say, 2) that I don't believe that people who haven't suffered deeply are capable of joy.

And so today's meeting of the feast day of San Juan de la Cruz, the mystic saint of the dark night of the soul, and Gaudete Sunday, that Advent Sunday of joyful expectation in the midst of a penitent season, felt like the perfect marriage to me.

It doesn't seem a likely pairing, does it? The dark night, the night of 'darkness and concealment', and the Sunday in Advent that gives us a glimpse of that day which is 'like the dawning of the morning on the mountain's golden heights'.

But that's just it, isn't it? There would be no dawning without the darkness from which it emerges, no joy without sorrow. We may be able to see that, but we may still feel the tension of apparent opposites. Reading San Juan's La Noche Oscura (preferably in the Spanish, but if not, there are plenty of wonderful English translations) helps us bridge it:

ni yo miraba cosa, 

sin otra luz ni guía 
sino la que en el corazón ardía. 
Aquésta me guïaba 
más cierta que la luz del mediodía.

And I saw nothing,
With no other light to guide me,
but the one that in my heart burned.
It guided me,
More surely than midday light.

When it is dark, when nothing lights us from without, we suddenly realise we are lit from within by a flame that that may blaze brightly or be banked, but is ever present. Then, it is the light burning deep within us, the one placed in us - our light - that must guide us, burning away the dross, the masks, the non-essential, leading us to do what we would would never imagine ourselves capable of in the comfort of daylight.

That inner light, not lit by us, but burning within us since our birth? Our joy. It is often the dark night of the soul that brings us to it.

San Juan de la Cruz, meet Gaudete Sunday.

Why is this? Because joy, unlike happiness (or at least the current understanding of happiness as pleasure), resides at depth. Think about how we express our sense of it: 'I am brimming with joy,' 'I am full of joy,' as if joy were something welling up from deep within us, from a spring we were not aware of until it overflowed into our consciousness and onto those around us. And so the foundation of joy must be sought in the depths, not the turbulent shallows, not the noisy sunlit topside, but in places of stillness, of light and shadow, in the place where we feel most deeply, the place that often only shows when life rips our outer persona from us through catastrophe, sorrow, the dark night of the soul.

Perhaps Gibran expresses it best:

Your joy is your sorrow unmasked.
And the selfsame well from which your laughter rises was oftentimes filled with your tears.
And how else can it be?
The deeper that sorrow carves into your being, the more joy you can contain.
Is not the cup that holds your wine the very cup that was burned in the potter's oven?

And is not the lute that soothes your spirit, the very wood that was hollowed with knives?

As we approach Christmas, we get a hint of that understanding of joy as something deeper in one of my favourite carols, The Seven Joys of Mary. We glide through it until we hit the dissonance of the penultimate verse:

The next great joy that Mary had, 
It was the joy of six.
To see her own son Jesus Christ 
Upon the crucifix.

Wait, WHAT? Excuse me, songwriting dude, but are you on the medieval equivalent of CRACK? 

Perhaps. But perhaps too, he had an understanding of joy that we have lost. Perhaps he understood that Our Lady remembered that she had been told that a sword would pierce her soul also, and that she had been pondering it in her heart ever since her son was in swaddling clothes. Perhaps he knew, too, that as she looked up at Him on the cross, the depth of her pain was equalled by the depth of her joy in having been His mother, having had that closest of relationships with Him, as Gibran reminds us:

When you are sorrowful look again in your heart, and you shall see that in truth you are weeping for that which has been your delight.

If that last example was too theological, let's look at a secular one from a fortnight ago - Michael Clarke's eulogy for one of his closest friends, Phil Hughes:

He'd definitely be calling me a 'sook' now, that's for sure.


I walked to the middle of the SCG on Thursday night and I felt those same blades of grass beneath my feet, where he and I and so many of his mates here today have built partnerships, taken chances and played out the dreams we had in our heads as boys.

The same stands where the crowds rose to their feet to cheer him on and that same fence he sent the ball to time and time again.

And it’s now forever the place where he fell.

I stood there at the wicket, I knelt down to touch the grass. I swear he was there with me, picking me up off my feet to check if I was OK. Telling me we just needed to dig in and get through to tea.

Telling me off for that loose shot I played. Chatting about what movie we might watch that night, and then passing on a useless fact about cows.

Only those closest to you, those who take the greatest joy in your presence and whose hearts will break into a million pieces when you go, know exactly when you'll be calling them a sook and that you pass on useless facts about cows. 

In the midst of his deepest sorrow, Michael Clarke remembered and spoke of his deepest joy.

Joy is that light in us anchored in authenticity, intimacy, connection - with ourselves, with G-d, with others.

In the end, joy is rooted in that deepest & truest of all things: love. 

Whilst joy is constant, its form is not: it can be the quiet contentment of a sleeping babe in arms; the fierce exultation in a friend's accomplishment; the gratefulness for the chance to sit with a friend in their darkness; the sense of rightness about our current path; being unexpectedly brought alive by beauty whilst gripped by the most ferocious depression.

Joy is not external trappings, though it can be expressed by them: candles, vestments, incense (which always takes me back to childhood summers at Anarkali bazaar),  jumping up and down, squees, song, fizzy happiness. The touchstone is this: are those external trappings a way to hide, a way to maintain external order over internal chaos, to keep a death grip on the sunny topside, desperately avoiding the descent to the depths you can feel coming by the increasingly strong tug on your ankles? Or are they in consonance, in harmony, in order, with who you are and what you are feeling and how you want to express it?

As you wear those beautiful trappings and gravely celebrate or loudly dance and proclaim your happiness about G-d and saviour, do you ignore those who reach out to you in pain because it provokes panic and anxiety, fear that their pain will drag you under?  Do you desperately hope that they will take the hint from your silence and never come to you again? Or, if you find yourself able, do you go up to them and say, 'I'm sorry I didn't say anything, I didn't know what to say,' - the reaction that will make me want to cup your face in my hands, look you in the eye, and say, 'I know. You can't even be with your own pain, how could I expect you to sit with me in mine?'

If you're avoiding sitting with pain, honest connection, even though you paint a beautiful picture, hug everyone around you, dance and sing, smile and laugh, tell everyone how happy the good news makes you, that's not joy.

If, no matter what you wear, how you celebrate, you come towards me when I express my pain, reaching for connection, if you have the courage to stand up and talk about the dark night of the soul you experienced as a curate in a sermon on Gaudete Sunday, that is joy.

Joy insists that we go where we would often rather not - to our deepest places, where our oldest, most essential pain, sorrow, and darkness reside. But amongst these sit our truest essence, our brightest light, our surest guide - because all these things: light and shadow, joy and sorrow, woundedness and healing are true. And all of them are born of love: lost, rejected, given, and received. Joy will always insist on our truth and, like the chrysalis forcing the butterfly to beat its wings against it, on our growth.

Joy doesn't promise us ease - those days that we can only take one breath at a time because the pain is so intense will still come. But it does promise us the light that will guide us step by step, more certain than the light of midday, until...

and from the darkness we have light,
which make the angels sing this night

And if you think the angels will sing one iota less joyously for your step into love and freedom than they did for the birth of the saviour, I suspect you have another think coming. I think San Juan might agree.

May you ever hear them sing as you follow your light through the night to join with your Beloved.


Wednesday, 10 December 2014

Advent, or, Prepare ye the way of the Lord

I was scrolling through my facebook feed when I noticed that a clerical friend had liked a picture of the sacrament of penance/confession with the caption, 'Shopping is fun. But there's a better way to prepare for Christmas.' Hated the caption, loved the sentiment, not keen on saccharine Victorian depictions (though I did like that one). So here I am, blogging for the first time in a quarter, echoing it in my own way.

It is rare that I allow anyone to glimpse my true religious sensibilities: I use either humour to deflect or I have others, such as Pope Francis, speak for me. Both are defences to shield that which is incredibly precious and tender, needing protection, not exposure to ridicule, cynicism, or harshness. That soul essence is meant to suffuse me, so that indelibly intertwined with my light and shadow, imbued by my humour, stubbornness, and strength, it can then meet the world.

Part of that sensibility is the deep awareness closer than my breath, for as long as I can remember, of Advent being an approach to something deeply sacred, momentous, breathtaking. As is the hard truth that I have barely felt it - and Christmas - for years. I long for the sense I had as a Muslim child looking out my window on Christmas Eve night, waiting for midnight with baited breath, knowing something was coming, coming - then finally going to bed just after midnight in the certainty It was here and all was well. Somewhere, that got lost, and as magical as Midnight Mass is, it only ever brings a light brush with that feeling - during the Genealogy, It came upon a midnight clear, the odd moment during mass. Perhaps there is too much sensation, too much light, too much movement - and that awareness, that feeling, needs stillness, darkness, aloneness, and stretched senses beyond the usual five.

But that moment of wonder and knowledge also needs openness, clarity, the emptiness of a vessel meant to have something poured into it. Much as I'd like to imagine I am that, I'm too committed to telling myself the truth to believe it. I know better, and though I've worked at becoming that empty vessel, diligently addressing issues, leaving places that haven't worked, telling myself 'I can get through this event that has made it hard for me to breathe, bringing up so much emotion I feel like I'm drowning: G-d is always with me,' it has been, in internet language, an epic fail. Usually rather self-aware, I've been at a loss as to why nothing was helping.

As is the way of all things, if you wait long enough, if you listen hard enough, the answer will find you. And it was choking up whilst reciting a couple of Rachel Remen's stories over a week ago that made me finally understand what was going on.

In the first story, Rachel speaks of ER doctors who had come to her, wondering what had happened to their humanity because they would watch horrible things happen before them and feel nothing. We would recognise that as burnout, as does Rachel. But whereas most of us would put it down to mental weakness/breakdown, she nails the numbness as emotional overload: if we do not process our feelings, we eventually become so full that we can no longer feel. If ER doctors don't process their emotions at what they see and experience, at the patients they save and lose, then they will watch horrible things happen before them and feel nothing, because they are so full of undifferentiated and unprocessed feeling, they can't feel any more.

In short, we burn out because we refuse to feel, to grieve, to let go.

I completely choked up as I told John and Liz the second story about Rachel's transformation during her training: from crying with parents when they lost their baby to delivering the news of the death of a child so stoically that the father looked at her and apologised for crying. She said she thought back on that moment with shame, wondering when she became a person to whom a newly bereaved father had to apologise to for crying over the loss of his child.

My intense reaction to simply relaying both those stories, which I had told many times before without the same emotional charge, hinted that they held the cure to what ailed me: my loss of that sense of the sacred, that hushed expectancy, that magic I knew of Christmas as a child. Not that alone - also the sense of G-d's presence I have taken for granted and now struggle to find. I let it sit, too weary to worry at it.

I didn't need to worry at it. I knew how hard this year had been, how much had been rent open. How I'd walked through the most breath-stealing revelation and betrayal about someone who had been close to me, unsure of how to let anyone near to comfort me, to listen, unsure of how to completely collapse so I could rebuild. But G-d was with me, right? I could do this. I could walk through this - and not only WALK through it, but be there for others in crisis as well - so THERE. How I'd stood, week after week, watching the tableau unfolding, pushed beyond feeling by a sense of betrayal, feeling like an idiot for having given so much, knowing it was time to walk away. Sitting month after month, untangling so much pain from the past that whole weeks went by in a haze, my presence barely touching the world I walked through or those I listened to.

As the week went on, apparently unrelated issues arose: my resentment at having my sleeve figuratively tugged by those who seemed endlessly in need, only speaking when they wanted something, their 'How are you?' nothing more than a token awaiting 'Fine' so they could start; my rage at those who seemed to have no sense that they weren't the only ones in need/pain;  my unwillingness to socialise; my increasing irritability and unwillingness to give anyone leeway; my desperation to perpetually cocoon.

Like a jigsaw puzzle, the 'unrelated' pieces proved they were the ones essential in filling out the whole picture. The answer was blindingly obvious and crystal clear: I was burned out because I hadn't processed my own emotions. I'd insisted that, even helped, others process theirs, but as is often the case, I hadn't practised what I'd preached. My emotions, and those of others I'd worked with, had set like cement throughout my emotional being. I hadn't just lost my sense of joy and the sacred; I too had become someone to whom a newly bereaved father would apologise.

That is why that picture of the confessional my friend liked, with its horrid caption, struck home when it normally would have produced an 'Oy vey, how tacky': because stepping into that most vulnerable space, the confessional - both the sacrament & the emotional space - is my answer, how I am to prepare a way for the Lord. An honest, deep, unflinching confession will break open and loosen the cement, allowing me space to talk further and process that tsunami of emotions, emptying me so I can be that vessel capable of being filled with the awe and wonder of those long ago Christmas Eve nights, of feeling G-d's presence in every place and every breath.

We all need our cement loosened and our vessels emptied.

For me, going deep, taking unflinching stock, then going to confession is not a joyless duty or an occasion for fear. It is, as in the picture above, being the Samaritan woman sitting at the feet of Our Lord, having emptied myself to Him, in turn receiving the water that will become in me the spring of water welling up to eternal life, allowing G-d's love to fill not just me, but all around me, as it flows through and where He will.

It is a way of coming back into my right place in the order of things, of coming into harmony.

Shopping IS fun, and I'll be doing some of that - I know I won't be alone. But even as I fill up my shopping cart, I'll be preparing for Advent by emptying my vessel.

I hope I won't be alone in that either.