Archive for the ‘Spirituality’ Category

Bereavement is life’s second certainty. Death is the first, and it is only dying that will stop you becoming bereaved.  In this blog I reflect a little on the lived experience of bereavement.

I was bereaved in December when my mother died. It was hardly unexpected as by then she had advanced Alzheimer’s and in recent months had been subject to infections that were close to life-threatening.  And so in many ways her death was but the last step of loss in a path that began as the disease had first started to bite. It then took an especially doleful turn when she had to leave the house that had been built as the family home in 1964, and then took another one when, last summer, she had to leave the town where she had lived since 1957.

But the loss of death is undiminished by the parallel sense of relief that an inevitable and painful process has at last reached its conclusion. When death arrives it is as if all the earlier losses are renewed and compounded. All the amorphous sadnesses of the past are rolled into one, and, as they say, it hits you.

Yet this particular bereavement was for me not an isolated or isolating experience.  A close colleague had died three weeks before and this winter I have been close to several other recently bereaved people. Nothing connects these losses other than coincidences of timing and networks of relationships of which the various deceased could not have been aware, and this has caused me to reflect on the social and personal meaning of bereavement.  I can’t say that these reflections have yet matured into anything conclusive, but here are a few thoughts.

I have come to think of bereavement as a season rather than as a state.  It’s a time, a period, not some kind of status. I do not feel that I have changed into a ‘bereaved person’ but I know that I am passing through a time, a season, of bereavement.  I have never been impressed by objective theories of grief or the suggestion that there is process going from denial to acceptance via sadness and anger or whatever, and from within the bereavement season they seem to me to be especially unhelpful.

One reason for this is that it I feel that bereavement is as much about the person who has died and your relationship with them as it is about any process that you ‘the bereaved’ might be going through. It was my mother who died and this bereavement is, it seems to me, shaped by her life, my relationship with her and the community of people who share this bereavement with me – the other members of her and my family but others too, in fact all those who loved her in life. And this mother-bereavement is different to the father-bereavement that I recall from over a decade ago.  I am sure spouse-bereavement, sibling-bereavement, friend-bereavement and, should it ever tragically happen, child-bereavement all have their own particular aspects and emphases. And these too are different according to the details of the particular personalities and relationships.

While unenthusiastic for process theories of bereavement, I have come to realise that I am warmly positive about the idea that the recently bereaved have a great deal to offer each other. This is especially true for those who are grieving the same person, but also true for those who happen to find themselves in the season of bereavement at the same time. So there are commonalities, but I would see them as subtle commonalities of self-awareness regarding personal vulnerability, not those of inner psychology.

The bereaved, those passing through the valley of the shadow of death, do not help each other by being each other’s counsellors or guides, but by being good companions. The solidarity of the recently bereaved is not a talking-shop but a being-together-in-vulnerability-shop. That’s why those who officiate at funerals, often outsiders to this vulnerability, need to remember that precisely what you say matters less than how you say it and what is on your mind and heart as you share time with the bereaved and take care of a ritual for them. As ever, it is a sense of loneliness and isolation which is to be feared, not the objective reality of what has happened.

The recently bereaved know that their emotions are busy and somewhat out of control. I have learnt again the truth that try as we might to exercise self-control our emotions do not tell us in advance what they are going to do next. An unexpected reminder of the deceased may bring delight, warmth and joy or a surge of acute sadness.  The recently bereaved know this of each other and respect what is going on not because it is a aberration of mental health but as an awkward but strangely fitting testimony to lost love and ruptured relationship. It’s not normal to be this vulnerable; but under the circumstances it would be wrong not to be.

One puzzle that I have identified in this season of bereavement is that it is the saddest parts of someone’s life that, on reflection, cause the greatest sadness in bereavement. Put like that it sounds obvious, but it isn’t really because it is the actual loss that we assume to be the source of greatest sadness. However, when we are recently bereaved, part of what we grieve is that someone else’s life was not always as happy as it might have been. In the period after someone’s death we have an especially acute empathy for what we know of their suffering in life.  We wish that they could’ve had a better past, that they could’ve enjoyed an easier, less troubled life …

… and yet the person they became, the person as whom they died, was not the sum product of the good days and the happy blessings, but the sum of all that happened and all that was drawn from the depths of their character by misfortune and worse. And it is for that person, whose journey we shared, and whom we ultimately admired not for their good fortune but for their triumph over adversity, that we give thanks in death as we should have done more regularly in life.

Those who find themselves in the season of bereavement are, perhaps, those who look at life most realistically. They feel vulnerable and they see fragility.  They look with kinder and more loving eyes on others and appreciate small kindnesses greatly. On the other hand they know that their own tolerance for trivialities and pettiness is at an all-time low. Patience comes and goes. Sadness comes and goes. Sleep comes and goes.  And yet just as the depressed are sometimes the most realistic about life, it is those who are recently bereaved who appreciate most acutely the truth that we are probably far closer than we think either to our own death or to that of a loved one.

If the season of bereavement is indeed a season it is, perhaps, autumn.  The days are chilly, the nights are drawing in, the winds are unpredictable and winter is coming, but the leaves on the trees have never been more beautiful in the dying light of the late afternoon.

 

 

 

 

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This morning I preached about Jacob wrestling with an angel  – a  story from the opening book of the Bible (Genesis 32.22-31).  The first part of the sermon is really about the Psalms, but it does all hang together.  Regarding the Psalms, this is the most important paragraph.

The psalms have guts, emotional and spiritual guts, and if every now and then there are redolent with ‘blood and guts’ that is because life itself was often bloody; and if there are protests in the psalms it is because life was unfair, and if there are laments it’s because life was sometimes deeply unhappy. And for many people life is bloody, unfair and unhappy today. The book of psalms is not a book that would be out of place on a battlefield or in a psychiatric prison or a hospice or a refugee camp. Certainly we hear them sung here every day at our services but that doesn’t mean that they were crafted to entertain us at Evensong. We recite them because our tradition recognises the truth that pearls of wisdom are not found wrapped up in cellophane and sold in supermarkets but have to be prised out of oysters that themselves have to gathered by divers who risk their lungs and their lives with perilous plunges to unfathomable depths. The psalms remind us that holy truths are dangerous to get and priceless to own.

Here is the whole sermon:

In his powerful yet short book, ‘Praying the Psalms’ Thomas Merton, the Trappist monk who spoke so eloquently and loquaciously of spirituality to the baby-boomer generation, asks why the church is so very keen on the recitation of the psalms.  ‘Is it,’ he asks, ‘because they are ancient, venerable poems?’ Does our commitment to them ‘come out of conservative refusal to change?’  He also considers some other options but then says that the Church does indeed like what it is old but not because it is old but because it is ‘young’.  His point is that ancient texts such as the psalms matter to us because they are unrefined, unvarnished, and unpolished. They represent humanity’s relationship with God in a pre-theological, not yet over-thought, hyper-wordy and super-self-conscious form that is more typical of more recently written words that try to express something of spirituality. They are of value because they are primitive and raw; like the love letters that people used to write, they come from an early stage in the relationship. When the psalms were written God and humanity didn’t know each other very well – it was an era of courtship that saw the expression of lofty ideals but was defined by passionate feelings.

Moreover the psalms are words of exploration, experimentation and discovery. The poets who wrote the psalms did not sit down with either the end of their psalm in mind or a formula to hand. This is one reason why the psalms are not at all Mills and Boon and why even in their most emotional they do not descend into doggerel or sentimentality. This is also why the psalms are often far more robust, abrupt and uncompromising in what they want to say and how they say it than are hymns or contemporary worship songs.

The psalms have guts, emotional and spiritual guts, and if every now and then there are redolent with ‘blood and guts’ that is because life itself was often bloody; and if there are protests in the psalms it is because life was unfair and if there are laments it’s because life was sometimes deeply unhappy. And for many people life is bloody, unfair and unhappy today. The book of psalms is not a book that would be out of place on a battlefield or in a psychiatric prison or a hospice or a refugee camp. Certainly we hear them sung here every day at our services but that doesn’t mean that they were crafted to entertain us at Evensong. We recite them because our tradition recognises the truth that pearls of wisdom are not found wrapped up in cellophane and sold in supermarkets but have to be prised out of oysters that themselves have to gathered by divers who risk their lungs and their lives with perilous plunges to unfathomable depths. The psalms remind us that holy truths are dangerous to get and priceless to own. As Merton puts it,

‘In the Psalms we drink divine praise at its pure and stainless source, in all its primitive sincerity and perfection. We return to the youthful strength and directness with which the ancient psalmists voiced their adoration of the God of Israel. Their adoration was intensified by the ineffable accents of a new discovery: for the Psalms are songs of men (sic) who knew who God was.’

What Merton says here about the psalms can help us not only with understanding those extraordinary poems, but also when we read the first five books of the Bible, the Torah, not least the first among them, the book of Genesis from which our first lesson today was taken.

Here we find the patriarch, the old man, Jacob. A scoundrel if ever there was one, who tricked his brother Esau out of his inheritance and went on to rule the family roost. He was for many years a nomadic farmer, and fathered a long string of children by wives and slaves. Despite the fact that Jacob was famously a ‘smooth’ man (Genesis 27.11) the word ‘rough’ doesn’t come close when thinking about the habits or manners of a man like Jacob. Never mind the ethics. He was hated by his brother Esau (Genesis 27.41) and doubtless feared by many.  But like his youngest son Joseph Jacob was a dreamer. His first dream was at a place he called ‘Bethel’. It was here that he dreamt of, ‘a ladder set up on the earth, the top of it reaching to heaven; and the angels of God were ascending and descending on it.’ When he awoke Jacob said,

Surely the Lord is in this place—and I did not know it!’ And he was afraid, and said, ‘How awesome is this place! This is none other than the house of God, and this is the gate of heaven.

The stories of Jacob and his dysfunctional family are part of this early exploration of what it means for a human being to live in some sort of relationship with God. The story that was our first lesson today represents another phase in that relationship. Again it happens at night when the world is dark and mysterious and the human mind is not controlled by the boundaries that usually constrain our imaginations. It is a far less peaceful encounter than the one at Bethel. It is basically a fight – some kind of spiritual wrestling match.

Jacob was left alone; and a man wrestled with him until daybreak.When the man saw that he did not prevail against Jacob, he struck him on the hip socket; and Jacob’s hip was put out of joint as he wrestled with him.

It was a wounding fight and left Jacob with a limp; his inability to walk properly being a reminder of this encounter with the divine. But it was Jacob who was the better wrestler and it is the angelic visitor who asks to be released. But the tough old patriarch would not let the angel go just like that and asked for blessing.

It turns out that Jacob’s blessing was to have his name changed, a name change that recognized precisely his power and persistence as a fighter. Jacob responds to the experience as he did at Bethel by renaming the place. He called it ‘Peniel’. The final line perhaps reads as something of an anti-climax. Jacob says, ‘For I have seen God face to face, and yet my life is preserved.’ To summarise such a nocturnal scrap as seeing someone ‘face to face’ is to understate the physicality, intimacy and vulnerability of the encounter. But the point is basic. A human being faced God straight on, and yet lived to tell the tale, indeed to walk away, albeit with a limp.

In more modern times it’s unlikely that people would describe their spiritual experiences in any of these terms. The Wesleyan idea of having your heart strangely warmed is much closer to what people expect out of a divine encounter.  But the ancient scriptures are not polite or inwardly spiritual so much as raw and rough and basic and exploratory. Reading them we should be prompted to think that some of our more difficult, sustained and damaging life-struggles were in fact struggles with angels and that our encounters with God are evident not in the way we run, skip, jump or dance, but in the way we limp towards the future, wounded and yet strangely blessed by our encounters with God.

 

 

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Earlier today I preached at the beautiful and famous church of St Thomas, 5th Avenue, New York. It was a real privilege to do so and encouraging to receive many kind comments afterwards. I don’t think I have tried to preach happiness in Lenten sermon before, but the message was well received and several commented on how helpful it was to make a connection with Buddhist teaching. That paragraph (about ‘now’) follows as part of this introduction. My own view is that the instability section is also rather important too so I am highlighting that as well.

The ‘Now’ Paragraph

One of the reasons Buddhism is proving to be so attractive to western people today is its calm and peaceful acceptance of life in the present moment. Practices of mindfulness, which have proved to be so healing and life-enhancing to many, are derived from precisely this insight and conviction. But it isn’t just a Buddhist idea. What that tradition has called the ‘eternal now’ our own Christian tradition calls ‘The Sacrament of the Present Moment’. The past and the future are important – but you only ever get one chance to inhabit each present moment and discover its sacramental quality; its particular gift and grace.

The Insatiability Bit

An opinion piece in the Financial Times recently (‘The holy grail of just having enough’, by Janan Ganesh) explored the puzzle that while there is a correlation between happiness and wealth, that correlation stops once people become reasonably well off. If we think about this a bit it makes sense to us, and maybe we know people for whom excessive wealth is a burden. What’s odd is that this reality doesn’t stop some wealthy people doing all they can to become more and more wealthy.

This is an example of the spiritual sickness of insatiability – the inability to know when enough is enough; the desire to have more when you already have plenty. It’s a common malaise. We are so easily addicted to more: more food, more drink, more money, more treats, more gadgets at home, and all of us would like more time – more hours in the day, more days of the week, more years in our life. (A man aged eighty four was asked by acheeky boy, ‘but who wants to be eighty four?’ The old man paused and answered, ‘someone who’s eighty three’.)

Too many of us, perhaps all of us, are addicted to more. It would be too much to say that the word ‘more’ is the devil’s word, but it is certainly not Paul’s word from prison – why? – because he was living with a sense of the surpassing value of one thing. Knowing Christ Jesus as Lord was for him the pearl of great price. It was his spiritual treasure and it put all other ‘treasure’ in the shade, and delivered him deep joy and gladness.

The Sermon in Full 

The Readings: Philippians 3. 4b-14 and John 12.1-8.

There is something especially powerful about Paul’s letter to the Philippians. He wrote it from prison and yet it is full of joy and it brims over with happiness. This was not because prison life was soft in those days, but because happiness for Paul came from within. A changed man after his encounter with Christ, Paul no longer thought that happiness, fulfillment or peace of mind came as a result for what he did or achieved or earned. He knew that it came from within; that it was a gift of grace.

I wonder whether you have a feel for the improbable happiness to which Paul in prison is such an eloquent witness. And whether you do or not, I wonder whether you regard it as a spiritual matter – a subject fit for the pulpit? A subject fit for Lent?

It was there in the Psalm: (Ps 126 v1-2)

When the Lord restored the fortunes of Zion,
then were we like those who dream.

Then was our mouth filled with laughter,
and our tongue with shouts of joy.

There is a tinge of sadness about these verses, though, because they are not about happiness now but happiness then. Those bygone happy days now seem like a dream world, so the Psalmist confesses, and yet the memory is real: back in the day we were overflowing with laughter and joyful exuberance.

Our Eucharistic faith is in good part expressed in remembrance; but just as we remember the self-giving of Christ in order to make it present today, so we should remember the grace of God in order to bring joy into our hearts, and thence into our world, today.

In fact I’d suggest that this is a spiritual duty, though not always an easy one. Remembrance of happiness past can sometimes make us miserable about the disappointments or inconveniences of the present day. But nostalgia isn’t a virtue; nostalgia isn’t a strength. Certainly there are moments when we should grieve the passing of the past, but there are far more occasions when we should delight in the present-ness of the present.

One of the reasons Buddhism is proving to be so attractive to western people today is its calm and peaceful acceptance of life in the present moment. Practices of mindfulness, which have proved to be so healing and life-enhancing to many, are derived from precisely this insight and conviction. But it isn’t just a Buddhist idea. What that tradition has called the ‘eternal now’ our own Christian tradition calls ‘The Sacrament of the Present Moment’. The past and the future are important – but you only ever get one chance to inhabit each present moment and discover its sacramental quality; its particular gift and grace.

Let us return for a moment to Paul’s letter to the Philippians and note that the happiness that animates this letter is more than a jolly feeling. Paul is delightedly aware of the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus as his Lord. It’s this that puts everything else in perspective. Beside it, everything else is ‘rubbish’. He’s overstating things here, but I imagine him waving his arms dramatically as he makes the point, and perhaps smiling too. ‘Come on’, he might have written, ‘true faith puts a smile on your face because it clarifies how very little we have to be anxious about.’ And happiness is often the absence of anxiety.

An opinion piece in the Financial Times recently explored the puzzle that while there is a correlation between happiness and wealth, that correlation stops once people become reasonably well off. If we think about this a bit it makes sense to us, and maybe we know people for whom excessive wealth is a burden. What’s odd is that this reality doesn’t stop some wealthy people doing all they can to become more and more wealthy.

This is an example of the spiritual sickness of insatiability – the inability to know when enough is enough; the desire to have more when you already have plenty. It’s a common malaise. We are so easily addicted to more: more food, more drink, more money, more treats, more gadgets at home, and all of us would like more time – more hours in the day, more days of the week, more years in our life. (A man aged eighty four was asked by acheeky boy, ‘but who wants to be eighty four?’ The old man paused and answered, ‘someone who’s eighty three’.)

Too many of us, perhaps all of us, are addicted to more. It would be too much to say that the word ‘more’ is the devil’s word, but it is certainly not Paul’s word from prison – why? – because he was living with a sense of the surpassing value of one thing. Knowing Christ Jesus as Lord was for him the pearl of great price. It was his spiritual treasure and it put all other ‘treasure’ in the shade, and delivered him deep joy and gladness.

Mary – the sister of Martha and Lazarus – was in a similar zone, so to speak, when she cracked open that alabaster jar full of spikenard, and lavishly anointed Jesus with it. This essential oil is derived from Himalayan plants and traditionally has culinary, health-giving and sacred uses. Maybe the family had hidden the pot away, saving it for a special occasion – like that bottle of vintage champagne that’s been in your fridge for ages. It would have cost a bomb, and she blew it all in one go.

It’s so sad that Judas didn’t share the joy. It certainly was an outrageous thing to do, but it was too late to protest. That oil wasn’t going back in its shattered bottle. But this was too much for the treasurer. For Judas, it was the beginning of the end.

We remember them both, and most of us would prefer to be remembered as a Mary than as a Judas.

But we won’t be unless we are prepared to let happiness and joy emerge from the heart of our being and the heart of our faith; faith in the undeserved and un-earnable grace of God, and joy in the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus our Lord.

 

 

 

 

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As part of the Easter at King’s festival in Cambridge this year, we had a wonderful performance based on extracts from the diaries and letters of the young Jewish woman,  Etty Hillesum, interspersed with narration and music from the gypsy band, ZRI. We called it ‘Blazing Harmonies’ – a phrase coined by Etty herself.

It was an extremely powerful experience, and I am delighted to say that you can now listen to the whole thing on line, Blazing Harmonies

Embracing and Questioning

I had the idea for Blazing Harmonies when I first read Etty’s dairies in order to preach about her as part of our ‘Women of Spirit’ series of sermons a few years ago. They only span a couple of years ( 1941-3 ) but extend to eleven notebooks. The English translation runs to around 700 pages. Editing it down for Blazing Harmonies was quite a task and obviously much was missed out.

However, as an introduction to Etty as a person of engaging, honest and positive spirituality it seems to work. It’s clear that Etty is a deeply reflective person, often at odds with herself, and that her core drive is to both embrace and to question everything, including her both own perplexity and the suffering that inevitably unfolds for her, her family and her people under Nazi occupation.

Collaboration

One of the reasons Blazing Harmonies came across so powerfully in the Chapel was because of the skill of the performers, not least the actor Rosie Hilal who read from the diaries.  She had never heard of Etty before I contacted her to ask her to consider the role, but quickly found Etty to be a fascinating character with a compellingly interesting approach to life. Rosie and I spent a day working on the script together which certainly enriched my own understand of and feel for Etty’s writing.

Rosie Hilal’s website

Time spent with Jon Banks of ZRI was also very important in the preparation. We met a few times and, as I explained the idea and introduced him to Etty, he played me recordings of ZRI’s music that he felt might work.  I found Jon’s approach, and the approach of the other musicians in the band, deeply sympathetic.  The shared energy and respect within ZRI was an extremely enjoyable and inspiring part of the preparations, and an integral aspect of the whole evening; informing the audience’s response to the words read, the place and the occasion.

ZRI’s website

The narrator was Donald Macleod, presenter of ‘Composer of the Week’ on BBC Radio 3. Donald’s instantly recognisable voice added precision and colour to the words I had written to help the story along; not an easy task given the huge gaps that were obviously left. Donald also entered into the spirit of it, not only improving on the detail of my script but also, and quite rightly, blending well-known phrases from the Authorised Version with the more contemporary version I had used in reading 1 Corinthians 13 – to which Etty refers in a letter written to ‘two sisters in the Hague’ in December 1942

Looking Ahead

I plan to take Blazing Harmonies further. Invitations have come in to present it in Holland, and I certainly want to develop the script, and risk a slightly longer presentation.

For now, I hope that you enjoy the webcast and get drawn into reading Etty’s dairies yourself, and thinking, with her, through some of life’s deepest questions and perplexities. She inhabited a specific historical moment in a very particular way; but her courage, candour, questing and ultimate calm will shine out as long as people encounter her words.

Webcast of Blazing Harmonies

The Etty Hillesum Research Centre

 

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The recent British Social Attitudes Survey shows that more people now regard themselves as having no religion than being Christian.  The Guardian today offered a leading article on the subject saying, in essence, that the church has blown it.  Meanwhile an opinion piece has appeared on The Daily Telegraph’s website saying that it’s not too late, we just need more evangelism – understood as advertising the good news.

Let me offer another angle.

The Guardian is right to say that there are many good and liberal minded people who find the way in which the church has failed to move with the times in terms of gender equality and the acceptance of diversity in the area of sexuality to be deeply off-putting. It’s wrong to say that this is primarily a problem for the church’s reputation with the young. There are plenty of silver sceptics out there when it comes to religion.  Religion  – even ‘no religion’ – is not a subject to be ageist about.

The Telegraph is right to say that the church needs to wake up, but wrong to say that evangelism, based on the model of advertising, is the answer.  That could conceivably be the right answer if the church had a product. But it doesn’t. And it doesn’t have a product because God is not a thing. Theologians have been saying this for a very long time, and Rupert Shortt has summarised the argument and pointed out many of its implications admirably in his recent book, God is No Thing.

These are definitely difficult days for religion.  But the difficulty is not the one anticipated by just about everyone since the late ninetieth century. Namely that the tide of religion would flow out, and the tide of a new secular era would flood in. On the contrary, what has happened is that religion has had an extraordinary if very strange and skewed resurgence. So that today those who self-identify as religious are more or less forced to place themselves within a frame on which the horizontal boundaries are created by new atheism and the vertical ones by radical fundamentalism.

What new atheism and radical fundamentalism have in common is a good deal of historical amnesia, not to say selective memory. And the problem is that once you accept that this is the framework in which you must find yourself as a religious person, you are caught in the same, unforgiving trap. This is cruelly sad, as the real frame of reference for ‘religion’ has been created by centuries of subtle theological reflection, sacred ritual, charitable action, poetry, art and architecture –  all of which seek to help us grow wiser about our relationship with the transcendent, with each other and with ourselves.

But we have all but jettisoned any respect for this huge map of cultural treasure and replaced it by a fascinated focus on a very noisy and ill-tempered squabble.

 

It is this that makes the ‘no religion’ option such an attractive one, not only on a questionnaire, but also when thinking about how to describe one’s personal quest for meaning and purpose. It also lies behind the rise and rise in the number of people who self-identify as ‘spiritual but not religious’.

I wish all the SBNR folk well, but I am sorry if they exclude themselves from the kind of connections with religious practice that seem to me to be so integral to being serious about spirituality. That crucially includes commitments that are deeper than feelings, both when it comes to the company one keeps, and the time for which one adheres to practices which may, in the short or medium term, seem unrewarding or pointless. Indeed, true religion offers its rewards slowly, silently, socially, and often uncomfortably.

This is one reason why evangelism in the form of advertising is so definitley not the answer. Certainly the author of the Telegraph article refers to the importance of significant times of revival, but I don’t believe that the church ever moved from decline into growth by focusing on telling people things.  The first priority of the Wesleys was not ‘church growth’, for instance, but holiness. Now that’s not a word that works very well today, but it’s an important part of the mix – especially if you recognise that today the word ‘holiness’ is better rendered ‘spirituality’.

But whether you call our ineffable struggle with transcendent mystery ‘holiness’ or ‘spirituality’ the word still needs to be qualified. Let me suggest ‘ethical’ or, if that is too priggish, ‘engaged’ as possible adjectives. Or maybe we could have both.

It is only when religions  are truly understood by their practitioners, and those who observe them, as focused on engaged and ethical spirituality that they will have either credibility or integrity. If that tide turns, and I suspect it is already turning, the ‘no religion’ box will begin to lose its attraction. Until then more and more people will put their cross in the ‘no religion’ box, not really knowing what they do.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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I have become increasingly convinced that Julian of Norwich is a person whose writing deserves real attention, and that she has many lessons to teach us today – not least about what worthwhile theology might be like.  Here is the text of a sermon I preached about her a couple of weeks ago.

No one today underestimates the importance of childhood experiences on the way in which people’s inner and outer lives unfold. And yet when the story of Julian of Norwich is told it is not always remarked that she was a child when the city of Norwich was ravaged by the plague. The year was 1349. Little Julian was six years old. Norwich was the second largest city in England with a population of about 13,000 people. That summer, about half of that population died of the plague, known then as ‘The Great Pestilence’.

It must have been a wretched time to be a child. The very nasty symptoms of this terminal disease were there to be seen on the faces and bodies of people in the household and on the streets. Young Julian would never have been able to forget those dreadful days – and indeed she would have been reminded of them when subsequent waves of the disease erupted during the course of her life.

There are those who believe that when she grew up, Julian became a nun at the convent in Norwich, but recent scholarship suggests that it is more likely that she was married when about fifteen and had one or two children, of whom one or both died, and that she long outlived her husband. So here was a woman who lived an ordinary life at an unusually unpleasant time.

So – why do we even mention her today?

The main reason we know anything about Julian is because of her writing. She wrote two books. This is more remarkable than it sounds because they were the first to be written by a woman in English and also because they were just the sort of books that could get a writer into real trouble with the authorities – and by real trouble I mean possibly being subject to the death penalty. Because Julian wrote theology.

That anyone should write theology and not write in Latin, is itself a matter of significance. That the writer should be a domestic woman with no ecclesiastical authority and some startling ideas makes it quite remarkable. It is one of the puzzles of the history of English theology and religion that for centuries Julian’s books were of relatively little influence, or for that matter interest. In the twentieth century, however, her work was rediscovered and T.S. Eliot quoted some of it in his poem Little Gidding which became one of the most formative texts in English spirituality of the twentieth century. ‘Sin is behovely’ she wrote, and he quoted without translating the word behovely which means ‘necessary’ or ‘inevitable’ – ‘but all shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be well’. Little Gidding would not have had the power and influence it had if Julian’s words had not been included.

 

I have said that she wrote two books. However she did not write two different books. She wrote the same book twice – twenty years apart. The first, or short, book was written in about 1413, and it describes the experiences that Julian had when, at the age of 30, she was so critically ill that she and everyone else believed her to be on her deathbed and she was given the last rites.

In the first book she tells us about a series of visions that she experienced as she lay on that deathbed. This is not the place to list them all, but the first vision was of Christ’s head bleeding under the crown of thorns. And one of the more famous ones was of a hazelnut or, rather, ‘a little thing the quantity of a hazelnut lying in the palm of my hand’. Seeing this she is puzzled, as puzzled as you are, perhaps, in hearing the preacher suddenly move from a deathbed scene to talking about a hazelnut. And, being puzzled, she kept asking herself questions. She asked herself what this little thing might be, and the astonishing answer occurred to her, ‘it is all that is made’. Her reflection didn’t stop there, however, because she went on to wonder, ‘how it might last – for it seemed to me it might suddenly fall into nought for its littleness.’

Today we are very used to thinking of the huge scale of the universe. We are familiar with the view of planet earth from outer space. We are also able to pose sophisticated questions about ‘existential risk’, that is questions about the possibilities for the survival of our race or our planet. I think that Julian was in this sort of intellectual territory, you could call it ‘existential wonder’, as she lay on her deathbed thinking about something as insignificant as a hazelnut. And her thinking developed further – ‘It lasteth and ever shall, because God loveth it. And so hath all things being by the love of God’.

There are many ways in which Julian’s life and mind and soul can seem strange and alien to us today, not least the final phase, where she was walled up as an anchorite at the Church of St Julian – after which she has retrospectively been named. But the main reason that I wanted to include her in this series was because of her pioneering and exemplary audacity in writing her experiences and reflections down, and also to honour her place in our culture as the first woman author in English. But I also wanted to talk about her as superb example of a theologian.

 

Julian wrote in the aftermath of devastating social and personal experience, and in all she wrote she sought to be true to the realities of life and death as she has witnessed them as well as to her inner and spiritual experiences. She had a deep and intelligent and Christian curiosity. She was always seeking a better answer, a more satisfactory way of understanding. You could say that there was in her a holy restlessness. Such restlessness is an important part of our spiritual journey. And if we find restlessness in ourselves we might well wonder how to make it holy. The answer is – to formulate the best possible next question and to allow a wise answer to emerge over time.

Julian’s writing begins in suffering, embraces vulnerability, seeks truth and ends with a vision of love and hope. Who could ask for more? She was and is an exemplary theologian. But she didn’t see theology as something for the few but for the many – writing not for prestige or credit but to inform the ordinary people of her time.

We all have deathbeds to look forward to, and, while the plague may seem like a barbaric medieval memory, our cities could begin to look a little like that if bacteria continue to develop resistance to antibiotics at their current rate, or if an especially virulent form of influenza evolves. And if we think it far-fetched to imagine that a child of six could experience what Julian went through we need think no further than some of the children who are refuges from the devastation in Syria, or who, for no fault of their own, have found themselves in a city or village taken over by Isis. If the theology of the future is not actually written by some these children when they grow up, it must at least be credible to them, as it must be credible to us as we reflect on their circumstances.

For it is only after looking such realities in the eye, feeling them deeply and pondering them slowly that we might dare to say ‘Amen’ to Julian’s message of profound hope: ‘all shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be well.’

A sermon preached in King’s College Chapel, Sunday 1 May 2016.

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For three years I have been working on a book about sin, The Dark Side of the Soul. When I started on the project I had no idea just how much I would learn in the process, or just how intellectually, emotionally and spiritually engaging it would be. But now the job is done and I have a copy of the book with its stunning cover in front of me.

It’s an obvious and easy time for a moment of reverie – all that reading and thinking and writing and rewriting, and rewriting, and rewriting … (sigh), and editing and correcting. All that work and worry is now safely sealed between those covers.

So I look at my book I ask myself  ‘Why did I write it?’ and, ‘What does it say?’

Why did I write it?

People today tend to think of ‘sin’ either as an excuse for a laugh, or as an excuse for a guilt-trip. Yet the truth is that the idea is not only really interesting, it’s ethically and spiritually important.

To say that human beings are sinful is a genuine, helpful and liberating contribution for Christianity to make to the world today. But it’s a hugely difficult idea to put across because people are so defensive about the suggestion and so dismissive of the language.

One of the slippery things about sin is that it hides under the radar of self-awareness. So a book about sin has to be a bit tricky too. As I say at one point, the idea is to shine a light into the dark side of the soul to give the demons a bit of a fright. Clearly this book isn’t a textbook, thesis or monograph! It’s serious about its subject, but not super-serious.

The last chapter is called ‘Demon Wrestling: A Practical Guide’. Maybe I should have called it ‘demon frightening for beginners.’ One reason for writing the book was to name and startle a few demons. These cheeky monkeys strut around the place full of vanity and pride, pretending that they do no harm, and how easily we let them deceive us.

Not that I really believe in demons. But the idea of demons does point to something about the experience of sin. We often think of it as coming at us from outside. The truth, however, is that what we think of as ‘outside’ us is probably just a bit of the inside that we are not very aware of – the dark side of the soul.

What does it say?

Well, yes it says that we are all sinners. I go along with the original sin idea, and I don’t think that there’s much point in thinking about how bad very nasty people are. In fact my chapter on ‘malicious tendencies’ is one of the shortest. The truth, I argue, is that more trouble is created, more harm done, and more people get hurt when no one is intending it and everyone believes him or herself to be acting in a well intentioned, justified or even benevolent way. I don’t say anywhere in the book that the road to hell is paved with good intentions. But that’s just because I try to avoid cliches. The point is a good one. Hardly anyone sets out to be horrible. Even trolls think that their actions are justified or helpful. Yet its often when we are high minded that we are at our worst – and vice versa.

One of the things I do in the book is to mash up the seven deadly sins and to come up with a contemporary list of deadlies or vices. My list runs to 23 which I group together in 6 clusters. What all these things have in common is that they are attitudes, habits or actions that, pleasurable or otherwise positive as they may seem, ultimately hurt the person who practices them as well as others.

I don’t think that there is a short list of capital sins from which all the others flow. My image of how sins works is more like a net or web of tiny, almost invisible, filaments. No one filament is that important or that powerful, but between them they ensnare and trap us in such a way that our wriggling and struggling only makes matters worse.

The things I’m most interested in are apparently blameless practices, or even virtues, that go sour on us.  For instance, I’m fascinated by our obsession with the shortness of time these days, and while I think that some time management ideas are really smart, I still see expert time managers getting busier and busier. Indeed, despite my best efforts it’s constantly happening to me.

Busyness is one of my deadlies. It’s okay to be busy – sometimes – but as a way of life it’s bad.  And I add ‘certainty’ and ‘control’ to my list of deadlies too. We tend to believe that if we were only more certain, or if we only had more control, the world would be better place. This is sinful fantasy. The truth is that many things are unknown and mysterious and when we are dealing with anything other than the most crude and basic processes it’s not control but guidance, and companionship, and facilitating the best efforts of others that will bring us closest to happiness, peace and flourishing.

Honestly I don’t think we will get to anything like peace, justice and flourishing without dealing with sin, especially the sin that hides itself in virtue. That’s why I wrote The Dark Side of the Soul.

 

 

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