Monday, 7 August 2017

Will the real angel come forward ...

The Bible mentions angels fairly often. God chose to speak through angels because he is holy and could not let himself be ‘dirtied’ by physical things such as our physical world. The first theme concerning angels is the way God uses them as a kind of go-between, so the word ‘angel’ is Greek for ‘messenger’.
       A second common theme in the Bible is the way angels act as God’s representatives, offering help and protection. There are vast numbers of references of this type. Perhaps the classic New Testament verse here involves Jesus warning us not to harm children. He says, “See that you despise not one of these little ones; for I say to you that their angels in Heaven always see the face of My Father in Heaven” (Matthew 18:10).
      Thirdly, God made many different kinds (or ‘orders’) of angels just as an army has different grades of officer from Lieutenant through to General. St Paul points to this idea in his letter to the Greek Church in Colossi, in which he says, “In him [Jesus] all things were created: things in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or powers or rulers or authorities; all things have been created through him and for him’ (Colossians 1:16) or again, Christ is raised up ‘above all principality, and power, and virtue, and dominion’ (Ephesians 1:21).
      In this thinking, there were nine different grades of angel. The least important of these angels were called just ‘angels’. Next were the archangels, of which there are four in the Bible and Apocrypha: Gabriel, Michael, Uriel and Raphael. (The actual term archangel itself only occurs in St Jude and 1 Thessalonians 4:15.)
      Contrary to popular conceptions, the Bible never mentions an angel having wings. The classical image of a heavenly being with wings occurs in Isaiah 6, when a seraph flies before the prophet:

In the year that King Uzziah died, I saw the Lord, high and exalted, seated on a throne; and the train of his robe filled the temple. Above him were seraphim, each with six wings: with two wings they covered their faces, with two they covered their feet, and with two they were flying. And they were calling to one another: ‘Holy, holy, holy is the Lord Almighty; the whole earth is full of his glory.’ At the sound of their voices the doorposts and thresholds shook and the temple was filled with smoke (Isaiah 6:1–4)

O God, whose beauty is beyond our imagining

O God, whose beauty is beyond our imagining
and whose power we cannot comprehend:
show us your glory as far as we can grasp it,
and shield us from knowing more than we can bear
until we may look upon you without fear;
through Jesus Christ our Saviour.
     Ann Lewin
(and used in Common Worship as the Post-Communion Prayer for Trinity 3)

How to describe the indescribable

We can’t! It’s impossible to describe God because he is so much greater than we are. It is impossible to fit something big into something smaller, so it is not possible for a human mind to fully comprehend God. We are sadly mistaken if we think we have understood him fully.
     It’s important to appreciate how the original culture of people in Old Testament times was so strongly dominated by men (we say it was ‘patriarchal’) so everyone’s references to God were expressed in terms of a male figure. For simplicity, the Church still employs this tradition, even though our own society has moved on since then. But although we call God ‘him,’ we do so knowing that God is beyond gender.
It is difficult to describe God because He is so totally different from us. For this reason, a variety of different ideas, models, images and metaphors have grown up to describe Him. The Bible uses a large number: most are straight­forward, but some are shockingly different from what many people expect. The following is a tiny selection:
  • God is spirit (John 4:24).
  • God is truth (John 4:24).
  • God is light (1 John 1:5).
  • God is mercy (Deuteronomy 4:31).
  • God is a consuming fire (Exodus 24:17; Deuteronomy 4:24; Hebrews 12:29).
  • God is love (1 John 4:16).

None of these metaphors is particularly useful on its own though, together, they can offer an approximate idea of who He is.
      It’s impossible to accurately describe God’s nature and character. The usual ‘definitions’ that seek to describe Him fall into two broad categories. First are the definitions which emphasise how God is so large that he overwhelms any description relying on words alone:
  • God is everywhere (he is ‘omnipresent’).
  • God is all powerful (he is ‘omnipotent’).
  • God knows everything (he is ‘omniscient’).

In each of these example, the first four letters omni– is a Latin root meaning ‘all’ or ‘every.’ 
     By contrast, we sometimes need negative (and complicated) sounding definitions to emphasise how we cannot really know or understand God. In other words, we say what God is not:
  • God was not born and will not die (he is ‘immortal’ i.e. not mortal).
  • God cannot be seen by physical means (he is not visible; he is ‘invisible’).
  • God exists outside of time (he is ‘eternal’).
  • God cannot be described (he is ‘ineffable’).
  • God’s majesty and glory are beyond our wildest imaginings (he is ‘infinite’, meaning literally that he is beyond being finite. It also means we cannot measure him and therefore limit him in any way).
  • God cannot change or be changed (he is ‘impassable’).

The idea that God is so different we cannot describe him leads directly to another concept. God: he is holy

Christianity always teaches that God
is ultimately unknowable. He is
therefore indescribable. But if we
start by enfolding our ideas
about God with an honest
description of what we don’t
know about him, then we have
at least excluded what is untrue.
What is left must have some truth.


Introducing Thomas Merton

Thomas Merton was born in Prades, France. His New Zealand-born father, Owen Merton, and his American-born mother, Ruth Jenkins, were both artists. They had met at a painting school in Paris, married at St Anne’s Church in Soho, and returned to France where Merton was born on 31 January 1915.
     After a troubled and raucous adolescence in England, he emigrated to the United States and converted to Roman Catholicism while at Columbia University. On 10 December 1941, he entered a community of Trappist monks at the Abbey of Gethsemani in Kentucky. The Trappists are, arguably, the most ascetic of all Roman Catholic monastic orders.
Merton spent twenty-seven years in Gethsemani. He kept several journals and read extensively. His superior noticed Merton’s talent for writing and intellectual gifts so, in 1943, Merton was tasked to translate religious texts and write biographies on the saints for the monastery. He took this assignment seriously. In 1948, he published his spiritual autobiography, The Seven Storey Mountain, which describes the quest for faith in God that led to his conversion to Catholicism.
      During his time as a monk, Merton published more than 70 books, 2,000 poems, and numerous essays, lectures and reviews. He wrote over sixty books, hundreds of poems and articles on topics ranging from monastic spirituality to civil rights, non-violence, and the nuclear arms race. Merton endured severe criticism for his social activism, from Catholics and non-Catholics alike, who said his political writings were ‘unbecoming of a monk’.

A life is either all spiritual or not spiritual at all. No man can serve two masters. Your life is shaped by the end you live for. You are made in the image of what you desire.

A principal theme of Merton’s writing was ‘free dom’: how is it possible for a person to become the child of God they were born to be? After years of trying, in 1965, the Abbey permitted Merton to live as a solitary in a hermitage in the grounds of the monastery.
      Being a hermit gave him greater solitude and allowed him more time to pray and write. He became perhaps the foremost spiritual writer of the later twentieth century. His classics include Thoughts in Solitude, No Man is an Island, Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander, Seeds of Contemplation and Solitude and Love of the World.

We are not at peace with others because we are not at peace with ourselves, and we are not at peace with ourselves because we are not at peace with God.
During his last years, he became interested in Asian religions such as Zen Buddhism. The Dalai Lama visited him in 1968. It was during this trip to a conference on East–West monastic dialogue that Merton was accidentally electrocuted in Bangkok on 10 December 1968 — the twenty-seventh anniversary of his entrance to Gethsemani.
    Since his untimely death, Merton has been widely recognised as a prophet and one of our century’s most significant writers on the spiritual life

We all need a time to learn to travel

We all need a time to learn to travel
Light, to clear the clutter
From our crowded lives, and
Find a space, a desert.
Deserts are bleak: no creature
Comforts, only a vast expanse of
Stillness, sharpening awareness of
Ourselves and God.
Uncomfortable places, deserts.
Most of the time we’re tempted to
Avoid them, finding good reasons to
Live lives of ease, cushioned by
Noise from self-discovery,
Clutching at world’s success
To stave off fear.
But if we dare to trust the silence
To strip away our false security,
God can begin to grow his wholeness in us,
Fill up our emptiness, destroy our fears,
Give us new vision, courage for the journey,
And make our desert blossom like a rose.
Ann Lewin

Summer holiday

Our summer holiday this year was good. We spent a week in the West Country experiencing sun, enjoying time together as a family, and relaxing. It’s impossible to say what was the best bit because so much was genuinely good. But one of the most important aspects was the way I couldn't access my emails. I only used my phone as a camera. It was bliss to minimise all the usual distractions.
    The growth of electronic communication gives the impression we should be available all the time. It feels disloyal to friends or work to wait before responding. In fact, we now know the profound damage caused when a person feels constantly ‘on call’. We almost feel a sense of being hunted. We feel drained. The symptoms can be very similar to post-traumatic stress. Prayer and spirituality can seem like ‘just another thing to do’.
       So we need time to go away. That ‘away’ can involve a physical retreat, or maybe just time spent with God after deliberately walking away from the TV and phone, and switching off the computer.
Taking time away from ordinary life gives greater scope for spending time with God because (for most of us) spending quality time with God is one of the first casualties of busyness. Perhaps that’s why Jesus tells us to go into a quiet room and close the door before praying (Matthew 6).
       If we feel like this about the frantic pace of modern life (and all the surveys suggest that most of do), then we need to take time out and with deliberation carve out time from our busy lives to pray. God loves us and wants our attentive love.

Sunday, 23 July 2017

Robert Runcie, by Humphrey Carpenter

Probably one of the best biographies I’ve read this year
     This is a strange book in some ways, because of the way Humphrey Carpenter wrote it as a sort of diary. It was Runcie himself who commissioned the book, or at least gave free access to the archives in Canterbury to Carpenter. The biographer clearly found the situation of analysing a live person different from his other, celebrated studies of dead heroes. In the end he resorted to describing the way his impressions changed and developed. In this way, the experience of reading the book is much like any growth into a relationship.
     The picture that develops is intimate. It also comes across as honest and reliable, insofar as the author himself admits to confusion in the complexity he finds in his subject.
     Runcie himself comes across as a warm and intelligent man. He was brave enough to be vilified without wanting to run or return fire. He was also probably bored much of the time, as any sane, intelligent person would be at the head of such a vast and antiquated bureaucracy.
     The book describes a lonely man with many regrets. He also comes across as a man of somewhat ambivalent spirituality. That spirituality was also stunted. He would have been much happier - and probably safer - had he been an RE teacher in a good school rather than a priest.
     To those who lived through his tenure, it will come as no surprise that Runcie never really believed that he was archbishop, hence his inertia and occasional crass decisions. Had he had more self-awareness, he would have dealt with e.g. Margaret Thatcher, the media, and Bishop Graham Leonard with more vigour and wisdom.
     Overall, a beautifully written book (albeit with a surprising number of typos) describing an important man.