Ambition and Anger

I like St James, whose feast we keep today. I like the fact that he and his brother are Sons of Boanerges (Sons of Thunder) and that whenever he pops up in the New Testament in propria persona, the dust flies. In my mind’s eye, I can see him looking dark and dangerous, glittering with ambition, and not too scrupulous about how many toes he treads on. He gets his mother to ask for a seat at Jesus’ right hand in the kingdom, because, of course, he’s worth it; he helpfully suggests raining fire and lightning down on recalcitrant villages because he knows he can; he alone among the apostles is recorded as having been martyred by Herod Agrippa — he was just too much of a nuisance to go unpunished. He is, I think, a wonderful patron for those of us who have problems with ambition and anger.

I’m quite sure that some of my readers will protest that they are not ambitious or that they are not angry persons. They should stop reading now. This post is for those of us who are both. St James is a fine example of how qualities many regard as ‘unChristian’ can be transformed by grace so that they become not merely neutral qualities but positive helps to salvation. Without his ambition and drive, St James would have been a lacklustre servant of the Church; without his anger and the energy it gave him, he would have been much less courageous. It is worth thinking about that. The very qualities that we might fear in ourselves or others were, in him, vehicles of grace.

That doesn’t mean that, as far as we are concerned, anything goes. On the contrary, and using St James as an example again, I think it was his close friendship with Jesus that transformed natural ambition and anger into something gracious and grace-giving. Can we say the same of our own anger and ambition? Are we ‘friends’ with Jesus? The Christian life is sometimes presented as a war against everything that comes to us naturally and humanly. That is, in fact, an enormous heresy. The Christian life involves struggle, of course it does, but we start with what God gave us — this body, this intelligence, these emotions, these circumstances — and we allow God to make of them, and us, what he wills. Co-operation with grace is the key point, and that co-operation can only be achieved if we become close to God — friends with Jesus, if you like — through prayer.

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Marking Time

For longer than I care to remember, I have been marking time, as it were: waiting for the ‘non-essential’ surgery that, when it finally came, relieved a difficulty I had had for a couple of years but unfortunately disclosed sarcoma; the further waits for additional surgery and now radiotherapy and the scans that will establish whether the suspected secondaries are growing or not. To myself it seems as though during all this time I have done nothing of any consequence. I haven’t even waited with patience as a good Benedictine should! Today’s feast reminds us, however, that an anxiety to be up and doing can be a form of pride or even avoidance of what is really asked of us. Activity is not in itself a guarantee that we are doing God’s work: it is simply activity. Sometimes we are asked to do less than we want to do or think ourselves capable of doing — humbling, but the only way to be a true disciple. It was the glory of Philip to lead others to Christ then stand aside, his work done; it was the glory of James to serve the Jerusalem Church then stand aside, that Peter might fulfil his universal role. If that is what the Lord asked of his closest friends, why should he not ask something similar of us?

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Death in Spain

Today is the feast of St James, patron of Spain. Every loyal Spaniard will tell you that the apostle’s head is kept in a beautiful reliquary above the high altar of the cathedral at Santiago de Compostela. It is as certain as the fact that Spain is the land of lands, and intense though local patriotism always is, there are times when my tierra is identified with the whole country. Today that must surely be the case. The bagpipes which blare out the apostle’s triumph before the cathedral will be silent because Spain is mourning the loss of all those killed or injured in yesterday’s rail accident near Santiago.

Why does God allow such things? Why does he not intervene to save his children from such a terrible fate? That is a question asked in every generation, and the only answer that to me makes any sense at all is that it is the price we pay for free will. We are not pieces of clockwork, wound up, set running, and kept to pre-determined tracks. God respects our freedom, allows us to use or abuse it, to make mistakes. But that is only a partial answer. Ultimately, we do not know why God allows such tragedies. We must live with the pain of not knowing, of feeling loss. That is the price we pay for being human; and the only consolation is knowing that God has shared that being human and himself paid the price along with us.

Requiescant in pace. Amen.

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SS Philip and James

The feast of SS Philip and James is graced with a beautiful piece of of plainchant, Tanto tempore. I do not mean to slight the apostles when I say that great art isn’t always inspired by great people or great events. Philip and James appear at various points in the New Testament but never, I think, in a way that makes one think of them as heroes or larger-than-life characters. They are good men, not great ones — a wonderful encouragement to those of us who know ourselves to be rather run-of-the-mill people, trying to live good Christian lives but frequently failing. Yet at some time in the past an unknown musician took the words of Jesus, ‘Have I been with you so long, Philip’ and turned them into a musical masterpiece we sing each year on this feast. It is a reminder that God can take the most humdrum of materials — us — and transform them beyond our wildest imaginings.

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