Thursday, 13 April 2017

I thirst (Maundy Thursday 2017)

He has sweat blood, he has been betrayed, tried, and scourged. He has carried his cross, fallen, been nailed hand & foot, and been raised up to die in one of the most excruciating ways possible.

He has forgiven his murderers, promised a thief paradise, given the care of His mother to a beloved disciple. And he has, in these last moments, felt the loss of that presence which has been closer than His nearest human breath throughout his ministry.  

Utterly alone. Forsaken. And now, ‘I thirst.’

There is a primal need to thirst, a yearning, a desperation. We are, after all, creatures that are 2/3 water. What those of us who have done a Ramadan fast – especially in the summer – remember is not the hunger, but the desperate need for water. That is why what I call ‘intermediate forms’ of fasting allow liquid as they deny – or curb - our food.

Think about the words we use when we have nothing left: our tank is empty; we are spiritually dry; someone is ‘dried up’. It is no coincidence, I think, that early Fathers sold everything and fled to the driest place on Earth, the place that would keep them right on the edge of death, to face their demons and strip right back to the essence of their relationship with G-d.

Thirst is bone deep; thirst is need; thirst is a desire for life – even from the cross. And Our Lord’s thirst isn’t a passive thing: it is not ‘I am soooo thirsty,’ or the Spanish ‘Tengo sed’ – ‘I have thirst.’ He thirsts – it is active; it is a desire on the hunt.

But for what? He physically thirsts, clearly – Jesus was fully human, and it had been…rather a tough day so far, with the words of the Psalmist to fulfil before it was accomplished.  Thus, the vinegar on a sponge. But, as always with Our Lord, there is so much more.

Just as we use thirst figuratively: we thirst for knowledge, thirst for righteousness, thirst for justice, so does He. But again, for what? Augustine offers us a possible answer in a phrase I saw every year during Lent when I regularly attended the Oratory: sitit sitiri – G-d thirsts to be thirsted for. Perhaps. But there is something unsatisfactory in this – this mutual longing feels incomplete; it lacks connection; it smacks of unfulfilled relationship – and no little emotional manipulation. Thirst for G-d or else YOU are dehydrating Him!

But if we flip back to earlier in the gospel of John, we get a glimmering. Picture the scene: a hot day in Samaria, a well, and a woman approaching it to draw water for her family. A young man sitting there commands her, “Give me to drink.” Left unsaid, “I thirst.” We all know her response, “Seriously? You, a Jew asking me, a Samaritan, for a drink?” (Not quite KJV, but still.) His response is an unexpected one: If thou knewest the gift of God, and who it is that saith to thee, Give me to drink; thou wouldst have asked of him, and he would have given thee living water. Whosoever drinketh of this water shall thirst again: but whosoever drinketh of the water that I shall give him shall never thirst.

The therapist in me loves this line, because when someone tells you what they would give you, more often than not, they are telling you what they want from you. Jesus will give us living water, and there is a not-so-faint echo of the later And he took the cup, and gave thanks, and gave it to them saying, Drink ye all of it; For this is my blood of the new testament. 

Our Lord doesn't just thirst for us to thirst for him. He thirsts for us.

The us He knit together in our mother’s womb, the us He dreamt we would be when He created us. The us that not one of us could create, but that these fragile bodies of ours contain. As Dag Hammarskjold said, “I am the vessel. The draught is G-d’s. And it is G-d who thirsts.”

Ah, we may think, great! The draught is G-d’s, I am the vessel, there’s this whole pour your life out as a libation thing. All I have to do is be like the guy in the parable of the talents who puts the talent in the ground and gives it back to the Master unchanged – conveniently forgetting just how well that worked for him.

But there’s a catch. We have this treasure of G-d’s draught in earthen vessels. And earthen vessels have a habit of leaching and changing that which they contain. Every choice we make through the free will granted us changes the draught of G-d’s contained within us for better or for worse, makes it bitter or sweet.

Oh, we think, I’ll ignore the niggle of my conscience just that one time. I can’t forgive him, so I won’t try. I’ll miss out that little kindness. I’ll tell that little lie. I’ll keep quiet about that wrong I know is happening, someone else will take care of it. But those ‘slips’ become habit, and many littles soon become a tsunami of sin. Or, as @absurdistwords once noted in a Twitter thread, you can only play Devil's advocate for so long before you realize that the Devil actually has you on retainer.

And so often, it is more subtle than that, isn’t it, especially when you’re working for the Church? Of course twisting that person’s arm was the right thing to do, it was for G-d. Of course I know what THEIR spiritual path should be, all the while ignoring how far I’ve come off course. I was right to ostracise them, they’re a heretic. The obsession with bums in pews whilst neglecting the souls of those sitting in them. I was right to offer fraternal correction in public, his humiliation is G-d’s will. The creeping spiritual arrogance, the pride that we, at least, are doing G-d’s work. We would do well to remember Hammarskjold’s admonition: It was when Lucifer first congratulated himself upon his angelic behaviour that he became the tool of evil.

Or, to put it in Holy Week terms: Where in our journey do we avoid reaching Golgotha, refusing to get up the first, second, or third time we fall? Where do we demand the resurrection without the crucifixion, or, playing the martyr, refuse to allow G-d to take us down off our cross, so He can move us from crucifixion to resurrection?

So now what? Are we to despair? Is it impossible for us to sweeten this draught? Will we forever embitter it? Again – can you tell I’m currently reading Markings? – Hammarskjold points the way through the prayer Our Lord taught us:

Hallowed be thy name 
Thy kingdom come
Thy will be done 
Give us peace with thee
Peace with men 
Peace with ourselves
And free us from all fear.

Free us from fear? Ah, now that might be a way forward, since all sin is, somewhere, based in fear. But how, in these darkest of times? 1st John tells us: perfect love casteth out fear. But how do we poor humans find perfect love? By falling into the arms of the one who spread them on the cross for us.

Relying on our own meagre human resources, we will soon make the draught undrinkable. But through surrender to Divine will, we become the finest vintage imaginable, the one He intended us to be. And then, He can lift up our vessel and quench His thirst: not by drinking as we drink, but by putting it to the lips of our thirsty neighbour – the sick, the poor, the refugee - those lives He means us to touch & heal, pouring out our lives as a libation until it is accomplished. 

Sunday, 8 January 2017

Reflections on a high school commencement address & today's politics, or, where a Republican senator hands me a guiding principle for life

I woke up this morning thinking about someone I haven't thought about in decades - John Danforth, retired Republican senator from Missouri. As the morning went on, I thought of him more, not less.

Weird, huh? Maybe not so much, since he was the father of D.D. Danforth, who was in my year at school - so yeah, my dirty little secret, for those of you who might not have guessed, is that I went to a posh private school, alongside the daughters of senators and kings (Hussein of Jordan).

I'll never forget seeing him come to school, taking the steps 2 and 3 at a time from car park to the main door of the school. My 'Hello, Senator!' always met with a smile and gracious 'hello' back, no matter how much of a hurry he was in. I liked him; even in our brief encounters, you could feel the integrity and the calm around him, the exact opposite of my father; I often wondered what he'd be like as a dad.

Those occasional brief encounters occurred for years - then, he spoke at our graduation...and it changed my life. I had that commencement speech on my wall for years, with sections underlined and starred, until it fell apart; I'd love to have it again now. I'm pretty sure he began with congratulating us, telling us how we were all being applauded, and rightly so, graduating was quite an achievement. But then.


He told us that we would be applauded throughout our lives, but our real job was not to seek that applause. *Our real job was to go out and GIVE it - to everyone around us: our friends, lovers, children, colleagues.* His last line was for us to go out there and 'Start clapping. Never stop.' I can't speak for anyone else at our graduation, but I could feel the electricity of truth run through me and, in that moment, I swore I would do that; that I would hold up those around me however I could. That principle was diametrically opposed to my parents' 'People are commodities to be used for your benefit,' but John Danforth's speech spoke to MY integrity; it pointed due North and let me find my way.

This morning, it struck me: *one of the guiding principles of my life was handed to me by a Republican senator*.

And I finally understood - I'm not just incandescent with rage, I am grieving. I am grieving the loss of men like John Danforth from our political scene. The loss of the Republican party that could be home to men like him. The loss of our common vision for a better nation and world, even if we disagree on the how. The loss of our ability to trust and talk to each other, to reach the compromises we need to go forward.

I am a diehard Dem - but had John Danforth run in 2000, I can't say whom I'd have voted for. And had he run and won, my heart would have been happy - because I would have known I could entrust my country to the hands of this man who understood the meaning of service - not just as a senator, but as a priest.

That is what we all need to move back towards, whatever our calling in life - a sense of service, an orientation towards the greater good. Haven't our decades of obsession with ourselves shown us that selfishness leaves us empty and brings disaster upon our heads? That connection and service bring us joy? That we need the balance of turning inward for contemplation and self-examination, then turning back outward to offer the fruits of that contemplation as service to others, to pour out our lives as a libation, and in doing so, move the world towards wholeness?

And where is that sense of service more needed than in those who serve our communities and nations? Even if they differ in the how, the why - the greater good of humanity - must be the same. So let us commit ourselves to unseating those obsessed with exalting themselves and oppressing others and seating those committed to the greater good - whatever their party affiliation.