Mercy and Forgiveness — 3 (to be continued)

After our brief overview of the Old Testament background (post 1) and the different emphases of what might loosely be described as Latin and Greek ideas of sin (post 2), I’d like to continue by looking at some of the post-Resurrection gospels. What I don’t say is as important as what I do, so please don’t expect the argument of a whole book in a single paragraph!

There are some features common to all the post-Resurrection appearances of Jesus:

  • he appears suddenly;
  • he is the same, but different;
  • he urges his disciples to a deeper level of faith and understanding;
  • he speaks words of mercy and forgiveness (even if he does, at times, remind his hearers that they have been slow to believe);
  • he commissions his disciples to act — announce his Resurrection (Mary Magdalene); preach the Good News (disciples at Emmaus and at the Ascension); follow him (Peter); forgive sins (disciples in the Upper Room).

It is with the words of mercy and forgiveness and the commission to forgive sin that we shall principally be concerned here.

If we look at John 20. 19–23, a sequence of events the Fourth Gospel describes as having taken place in the evening of the first day of the week, the very day of the Resurrection, we note several interesting things. Jesus appears among the disciples without warning, greets them (probably with the word shalom, which means much more than ‘peace’ as we understand it: it is a blessing that confers life, fulfilment, perfection), invites them to look at his wounds, again bids them ‘peace’ and commissions them to share in the same work that he was assigned by the Father. He breathes on them, imparting his spirit, re-creating them as Adam was created when God first breathed the breath of life into his nostrils; and then, importantly, he speaks these words:
‘Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.’

I’ve never been convinced that we should see here an institutionalisation of the sacramental power to forgive sin. What I see first of all is a sharing in the life and mission of Christ given to the nascent Christian community. It is a participation first and foremost in Christ’s healing of us, restoring us to life and wholeness, and it is the whole community, not just part of it, that is entrusted with the mission. That is why Thomas’s absence is so significant. It is not just that he is one of the disciples closest to Jesus, one of the apostles, it is because the Christian community is incomplete without him and Christ’s charge is laid upon all. So what are we to make of that addition: ‘if you retain the sins of any, they are retained’? Does it mean that by sharing in the mission of Christ we also share in the power to give/withold life, or does it mean, rather more shockingly, that we shall be accountable for any failure of others to attain fullness of life? Not so much giving us the power to judge others but laying upon us the responsibility for others? I don’t have the answer to that question, but I think it is one we should ask ourselves because it takes us into the heart of the meaning of mercy and forgiveness and the purpose of Christ’s death and resurrection. (cf John 3.16–17)

This is made clearer by considering John 20. 26–30. Again it is evening, the first day of the week, but now we are at the octave day, the point where time and eternity intersect (see, for example, this post) , and Thomas is present. Jesus again appears suddenly and greets the disciples with ‘peace’. Then he invites Thomas to touch his wounds and urges him to believe. Thomas’s corresponding affirmation of faith immediately joins him with the other disciples, and John’s purpose in writing the gospel is fulfilled: ‘These things are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that believing you may have life in his name.’

In both gospel pericopes, the wounds of Jesus are significant. They have become channels of grace and healing. We are once more confronted with what the Exsultet dared to call the ‘happy fault’, the ‘necessary sin of Adam’. It is overcome because Christ has destroyed death for ever. Christ’s wounds do not disappear; they are transformed; and there is a lesson for all of us in that. Our humanity is not to be denied but allowed to become what it is meant to be. We are to become ‘sons in the Son.’

Thus I would argue that it is new life, not the repayment of a debt, that Christ bestows upon us and in which we rejoice at Easter. Sin cramps us, makes us sick and distant from the Father and one another; forgiveness frees us, restores us to new vigour and ends the ancient enmities that divide us, one from another. It is indeed the work of mercy, a wholly unmerited gift of God.

In my fourth and final post on the subject (tomorrow?), I hope to tease out a few implications and take into account some of the objections readers have raised.

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Ascension Sunday 2014

The Ascension of Christ

I would hazard a guess that most of us, most of the time, live with Christ’s apparent absence rather than the sense of his presence. The Ascension is therefore very much our kind of feast: Christ is taken from us into a mysterious realm we have not yet experienced, but —and it is an important but — we have his assurance that he is with us until the end of time. His mode of being with us is different. That means, of course, that our mode of being with him must be different, too. I think we often forget that, and feel a sense of failure that our faith is so lacklustre, coming and going rather than remaining steadfast through thick and thin. We want to be angels before we have learned how to be fully human!

If living by faith means anything at all, I think it means going on, as best we can, without the ‘sensible helps’ of a comforting presence we can summon up at will. It means persevering, without knowing that we have all the answers. In short, it means placing our trust in this shadowy, mysterious Presence we acknowledge as our Lord and God, certain only of his love, not of the way in which his love will be poured out upon us. The Ascension is an opportunity to reaffirm our trust and await the coming of the Holy Spirit, who will be tongued with purifying and strengthening fire. We may gaze blankly into heaven at times, but we can be sure that the merciful eye of the Lord is always on us. Let us give thanks for that.

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Thinking Aloud About Truth

‘”What is truth?” said jesting Pilate, and would not stay for an answer.’ Those words of Francis Bacon have always made me uncomfortable. Truth is often challenged by those who don’t want to accept its demands. Ridicule, impatience, sarcasm — they are all ways of avoiding that which unsettles us. They provide us with the illusion of power and control, but it is an illusion. Truth has a way of undermining the egotistical edifices we try to build. We cannot hide from truth for very long. When Jesus assures his followers that he will send another Advocate to be with them for ever, the Spirit of Truth whom the world cannot receive, he knows very well what he is doing. He is sending the Holy Spirit, tongued with fire, to cleanse, illumine and transform us, so that henceforth we may live in the light as truthful beings, freed from the fear that makes us hide away in darkness and subterfuges. He is promising us Truth himself, but that is not a promise many of us are very comfortable with. We actually prefer lurking in the shadows to being exposed to the light.

To many people, however, this idea of divine truth — all-powerful, transcendent, compelling — is utter nonsense. Truth is not an absolute but something that may be manipulated/adapted for other ends. We embrace just enough of it to obtain some advantage or avoid some unpleasantness. We have, in effect, privatised the concept of truth. It is not uncommon to hear someone talking about ‘my truth’ or ‘being true to myself’ when what they really mean, I think, is ‘that which I am prepared to accept as true, a highly personal and individual, possibly even individualistic, interpretation’. Granted, it is impossible for a human being to be completely objective (we still need our own brains to think with, our own senses to receive information from the world about us, no matter how hard we try to lay aside our prejudices and predilections) so, inevitably, our apprehension of truth must always be partial; but the fact that our apprehension is partial does not mean that truth itself is changed thereby.

Some of the current debate about being spiritual versus being religious and the idea that one can do what one likes provided it doesn’t hurt (or appear to hurt) anyone else is based on, or at any rate highly influenced by, this privatised idea of truth. A private truth, if such a thing can be said to exist, can make no public demands, cannot have a social consequence except in a very limited and imperfect way. The Christian understanding of truth as a moral imperative as well as a philosophical concept is, by contrast, very public and very social. We are obliged to act in certain ways. To do otherwise would be to deny not just a private conviction but God himself. It is that difference in understanding that makes it increasingly difficult for those who have no religion to understand where the religious are coming from. Sometimes it makes it difficult for the religious, too.

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From Nerses to Hilda and Back Again?

I love the way the liturgical calendar confronts us with contradictions. Today is the feast of two great saints, Nerses of Armenia and Hilda of Whitby. Nerses was a man of inflexible principle, sent into exile and eventually poisoned (or so it is alleged) for ‘speaking truth to power’. Hilda, by contrast, was a listener, a compromiser, who helped bring peace to the English Church by accepting the Roman date of Easter and all that it implied. The Church needs both her principles and her compromises; but above all she needs the wisdom to know when to stick to the one or yield to the other, that God may be glorified in all things.

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A Windy Night

Last night the wind tugged and pulled at the monastery, sending shivery blasts through every little crack and crevice. It was a powerful reminder that, no matter how much we like to think we are in control, no matter how much technology we have at our disposal, there are many things we cannot control. We are left like Job, putting a finger to his lips when questioned by God. But that does not stop us wanting to know, wanting to control.

The desire to control is one we all experience, to greater or lesser degree. At its best, it encourages us to explore, explain, understand; at its worst, it makes us seek to dominate or destroy. During this month of November, when we pray so often for the dead and remember particularly those who died in war, it may be helpful to reflect on those areas of our own lives where there is either too much or too little control, knowing that the consequences of untrammelled desires can be deadly. It may help, too, to go through the Bible looking at the ways in which wind is used as an image of God’s action in our lives, above all, as an image of the Holy Spirit.

A windy night may teach us more than we ever dreamed possible.

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A Tale of Two Tunics

An idle thought struck me at Mass this morning. In today’s gospel, Mark 6. 7–13, we hear the Lord sending the Twelve out on what we would now call missionary work. His instructions are precise: they are to take nothing for the journey — no bread, no haversack, no coppers for their purse; they are to wear sandals but not take a spare tunic. That absence of a spare tunic has always bothered me. It is often presented as an aspect of the ‘lean, mean, missionary machine’ idea, in which those who are to preach and teach in Christ’s name are to travel light, taking nothing that is not strictly necessary, depending rather on God to supply all their material needs. As a young girl, I concluded that the first missionaries were probably dreadfully smelly. Later, I began to think that those first missionary journeys were quite short, as though, until the institution of the Eucharist (‘no bread’) and the outpouring of the Holy Spirit (‘nothing for the journey’), the disciples were not fully equipped for their task. Even today, more commentaries than I care to remember later, I am still puzzling over the text.

St Benedict remarks, in the course of his chapter on the clothing and footwear of the brethren (RB 55), that when we go out of the monastery, our tunics and cowls should be better than the ones we normally wear. It is still our custom today to put on our ‘best’ habit when we have to go anywhere on monastery business. I think the reason we do so is so that, whatever the austerities practised within community, our public face should be like that of the faster, who no one should know is fasting. We represent our community best when we draw as little attention to ourselves as possible. Can the same be said of the missionary?

The life of a monk or nun is largely hidden, by its very nature; the life of a missionary, by contrast, is almost entirely public. For us, the habit preserves the privacy of the community — it may hide its penury; it certainly hides any excessive individualism. For the missionary, with just the clothes he stands up in, what we see is what we get: he or she must radiate Christ, allowing nothing to get in the way. Both missionary and monastic have the same end in view, but we approach it from different angles, so to say. My tale of two tunics may sound a bit far-fetched, but for me at least there is the germ of an idea there. Would someone like to take it further?

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The Promise is Fulfilled

‘The promise is fulfilled: all is made new.’ With those words we greet the Solemnity of Pentecost, birthday of the Church and the greatest feast of the Church year. Probably a few readers are thinking to themselves, ‘Surely Easter is the greatest feast?’ But please note where I put the emphasis, on the Church year. Pentecost marks the outpouring of the Holy Spirit on the whole Church, our commission to mission, so to say. It is a feast that combines transcendence and immanence, grandeur and lowliness, in a most remarkable way. The promise made to our ancestors is fulfilled: we live now the newness of life that Christ our Lord has made possible. The Church is a sign of his presence and action in the world: it is our vocation to be what he is.

For us here at Hendred the promise is fulfilled in another, more material way. Yesterday we collected the keys to our new monastery in Herefordshire and this week we shall be moving in. We shall be offline for a while, at least until BT fits a new telephone line, but prayer never ceases; and very soon Howton Grove Priory will resound to the praises of God as we sing the Lord’s song in a new land. To Him be the glory for ever and ever. Amen.

Bro Duncan inspects his new kennel: Howton Grove Priory
Bro Duncan inspects his new kennel: Howton Grove Priory
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Ascension Day: Word and Silence

Today Catholics in England and Wales (and many other countries, too) celebrate the Solemnity of the Ascension. It is also World Communications Day, the theme of which this year is Word and Silence. There are lots of connections between the two we might explore, but let me suggest just one.

When the Word of God was lifted up from the earth on the Cross of Calvary, He desired to draw all to himself; but he still had more words to speak after his Resurrection from the dead. Today the Word of God is lifted up into the heavens and we shall hear his voice no more. The Word has passed into the silence of union with the Father. In that silence, in that union, he is closer to us than ever — dare I say, more effective than ever, because he is no longer limited by earthly presence. Now, truly, he draws all to himself.

But what about us, left gazing up into the skies? Are we left high and dry, so to say? We have the Lord’s promise, that he will be with us always, to the end of time; but how are we to understand that if we no longer hear his voice? Perhaps our trouble is that we have not grasped this new mode of being that the Ascension marks. We have a new lesson to learn. If we would understand God’s Word, we must enter into his silence and await his coming. In the meantime, we must ask the Holy Spirit to illumine our understanding. Our prayer now is veni, illumina, confirma (come, enlighten, strengthen), for we too must communicate the Word of God to others, must take on ourselves the mission of the Church.

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Through Lent with St Benedict: 2

RB 49 continues with these lines:

During these days, therefore, let us add something to the usual measure of our service, such as private prayers and abstinence from food and drink, that each one, of his own free will and with the joy of the Holy Spirit, may offer God something over and above the measure appointed for him. That is to say, let him deny himself some food, drink, sleep, pointless conversation and banter, and look forward to Easter with joy and spiritual longing.

Notice that, after the general introduction he gave yesterday, Benedict offers some  practical guidance. He is an ‘adder on’ rather than a ‘giver up’. He assumes, correctly I hope, that our lives are already free from excess and focused upon God, for he is aware that ‘giving up’ can become a kind of ascetical contest, full of pride rather than humility.

So, the first thing he advocates adding is ‘private prayers’. This phrase has caused whole forests to be felled and oceans of ink to be expended in its elucidation. I think myself that its meaning is clear. It is a direct reference to the ‘prayer with tears’ and ‘compunction of heart’ he mentioned earlier. This gift of compunction is often misunderstood as though it were some strange mystical phenomenon reserved for the great saints alone. It is nothing of the sort and is found again and again in monastic tradition.

We are not all spirit; we have bodies, and they too respond to the nearness of God. As we grow in prayer, we see more keenly what a terrible thing sin is. The knowledge punctures us and our pride and causes us to weep, gently and in a way, joyously. It is an intensely painful experience, but it is also peaceful, for we are held by God. It is also, emphatically, not for display. Benedict is suspicious of any public manifestation of the workings of grace in the soul, knowing that they can be a source of pride and presumption.

Next Benedict gives us a motive and a context for our Lenten observance. We are to embrace our Lenten disciplines freely, with the joy of the Holy Spirit, looking forward to Easter with joy and spiritual longing. Could there be any clearer statement of what we are about? We run towards Easter as we run along the way of God’s commandments, with a love beyond telling. This note of joy occurs again and again in the Rule and, as you read on, you’ll find that everything is ordered in relation to the paschal feast, from the times of meals to the formularies for prayer. Easter is at the heart of all Benedict’s prescriptions for monastic living.

That is why when Benedict spells out the ‘giving up’ side of things he inserts two we might not have thought of: sleep, and what I have translated as ‘pointless conversation and banter’, the kind of conversation that is often just noise.

Sleep is, of course, the opposite of wakefulness. Spiritually, it implies sloth, indifference, self-indulgence. There is a long monastic tradition of prayer during the night so that we are awake to greet the Resurrection. Keeping vigil is part of what we do. Restraint from idle or needless speech is another common monastic theme. We keep silence so that we may hear the Word of God more clearly. Here Benedict is suggesting that both in our keeping vigil and in our silence we prepare for the explosion of joy and life that is Easter.

Long before Benedict wrote, one of the desert fathers remarked that a monk’s cell is like Easter night, it sees Christ rising. That is precisely what we are about this Lent: allowing Christ to take form in us that when Easter comes we may take our place in the Resurrection.

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Through Lent with St Benedict: 1

Over the next few days I shall be writing a series of posts about St Benedict’s teaching on Lent. Today’s is concerned with the first few sentences of RB 49, On the Observance of Lent, which read as follows:

The life of a monk ought always to have a Lenten quality; but since few are capable of that, we therefore urge the whole community during these days of Lent to lead lives of surpassing purity, and in this holy season wash away the negligences of other times. That may be properly done by abstaining from all sinful habits and devoting ourselves to prayer with tears, to reading, to compunction of heart and self-denial.

Let’s unpack that a little. Monastic life is a life of continual conversion, of turning back to the Lord, changing for the better, living a life of repentance in the sense of metanoia. Indeed one of our vows, conversatio morum, is precisely a vow to undertake this turning to the Lord every day of our lives. It is the dynamic of Benedictine life. What does Lent add to this? Surely it is the extra focus provided by a period of more concentrated effort.

Benedict accepts that we fall away from our ideals, that we become negligent. His remedy is to help us regain our initial fervour. The first thing he asks of us is a profound purity. It is sad that this beautiful word has come to be associated with sexual purity alone. In origin, it means much more: a focus upon God that is free from any contamination or distraction. It is concentrated energy, with a warmth and generosity about it that our narrower meaning does not really convey. So, Benedict asks us to focus on God and our search for him in community in a way that is truly joyous, and the tools he gives us are those we shall be exploring in more depth later this week

  • abstaining from sin
  • prayer with tears
  • reading
  • compunction of heart
  • self denial

Here I will just say a word about the first, abstaining from sin. We all know what sin is and how attractive we find it, despite our best intentions. The problem with sin is not only that it draws us away from God but that it quickly becomes habitual. Before we think about what we should ‘do’ for Lent in terms of what we should give up or take on, we need to look at our lives very honestly and ask ourselves if we have fallen into a habit of sin. If we have, it is there that our Lent should begin: with an attempt to root out sin from our lives. That is far more important than giving up sugar in our tea or saying one of the penitential psalms every day. It is the difference between life and death, but most of us are cowards when it comes to acknowledging our sins. That is why Benedict urges us elsewhere to begin every good act with prayer. To see our lives for what they are, to be able to bear the knowledge that act of seeing confers, we need the grace of the Holy Spirit. We can be sure that grace will never be withheld from anyone who asks. In other words, we can be sure that God will accompany us on every step of our Lenten journey.

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