In a Monastery Garden

One of the things that has delighted me since coming here are the birds. They are everywhere: sparrows, thrushes, finches and, over the way, larks and the occasional buzzard. The garden is filled with birdsong from morning till night. There are oak trees and apple trees and the rich red earth of Herefordshire peeping through long green grasses. In the local churchyard the graves are marked with the names not only of the person who lies there but also of the farm from which he or she came. There is a rootedness, a closeness to the soil, that is no longer the familiar experience of the majority of British citizens.

Does this affect how other things are viewed? That I have yet to learn, but I suspect it makes one aspect of the Gospels easier to grasp. The allusions to the natural world, to seed time and harvest, to digging and trenching, the building of wine presses and barns, need no interpretation here. Indeed, I look out of my window at the old cider press in the garden and it takes no great leap of imagination to see, not an old horse trundling round and round, but one who comes from Edom, his garments stained red as from a wine press.

We must connect life and faith or there is a terrible disjunction in our lives, leading either to total disbelief or an equally total fanaticism — not, perhaps, what Ketèlby had in mind when he composed his eponymous piece!

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God’s Laughter

Yesterday my friend Richard Littledale and I had a brief Twittervation (conversation on Twitter) about the Book of Jonah (Richard is writing a book on Jonah, which I’m sure will be well worth reading). I mentioned the humour in Jonah as an echo of God’s laughter, and that has inspired today’s post.

God teases Jonah from start to finish, but it is the loving, gentle teasing of one who wants to rescue Jonah from his own stupidity. Jonah’s attempt to flee God was never going to succeed, but being swallowed by a big fish then vomited on the seashore must have wounded his dignity. All the same, his preaching must have been effective, because even the animals in Nineveh don sackcloth in response to his warning! Only, the Lord does not destroy Nineveh as he has forewarned, so Jonah goes off in a huff then has a misunderstanding about the castor oil plant which gives him shade from the sun. Finally God questions him about his right to be compassionate to all those people ‘who do not know their left hand from their right’. God’s laughter is gentle, but it is very, very eloquent.

There are other passages in the Bible where we catch the sound of God laughing. When God and Moses argue about the backslidings of the Israelites, there is a distinct touch of argy bargy: ‘your people whom you led out of Egypt’; ‘your people whom you led out of Egypt.’ It sounds like two parents disowning their offspring to one another. And in the gospels we find Jesus teasing his disciples again and again, especially poor Peter who is always misunderstanding (thank God for Peter, he gives us hope!) Jesus responded to humour in others: the Syro-Phoenician woman won him over by her quick-witted rejoinder about house-dogs eating scraps from the table.

Perhaps we have made religion in England too serious and not allowed God’s laughter to prick our self-importance as we should. There is a laughter that is destructive. We need to avoid that, but as we get closer to Holy Week, it does not hurt to remember that it is the whole person who is redeemed, not just the ‘religious’ bits.  Our antics must make God smile. It may be too anthropomorphic for some, but I trust that when we reach our final destination, purified by purgatory, we shall be greeted with a huge smile and, quite possibly, a great laugh.

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Assumptions

Recently I was a little taken aback to be told that I know nothing about Benedictine monasticism. It wasn’t put quite like that, of course, it never is; but I was left in no doubt that my interlocutor (not himself a monk) thought he knew better than I. He may be right; indeed, deep down, I think he is right, for I feel know less and less the longer I try to live this kind of life; but neither of us can claim absolute certainty. Yet isn’t that precisely what we all do much of the time? We haven’t time for qualifications and nuance so we make assumptions instead, even though it means we make assumptions that can be cruelly wrong at times. (Just think of all those people who dress differently from us and whom we avoid on the grounds that they ‘may’ be dangerous . . .)

I was thinking about this in connection with the Jesus portrayed in the gospels. The number of times someone gets him ‘wrong’, assumes that this inspiring teacher is a mere rabble-rouser, intent on destroying everything that first century Judaism held precious! We still get him ‘wrong’ today, wanting him to be the Jesus we would like him to be rather than the person he is. That is one reason prayer is so essential. Without that regular laying aside of our own ideas and opening ourselves up to the reality of God, we can become too complacent that we have got him ‘sorted’, confined his immensity in our own littleness.

Our assumptions about others, their motives especially, can be just as wide of the mark, as I indicated earlier. Perhaps a useful Lenten exercise would be to examine some of our assumptions about the people closest to us and the way in which those assumptions work for their good — or not.

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