The feast of Saint Barnabas may make us think about the ‘saints of the church’. In the Calendar of the Book of Common Prayer, though it is a ‘Protestant’ payer book, there is a surprisingly long list of saints. They are called ‘black letter saints’, they don’t have special prayers unlike the ‘red letter saints’, like the apostles.
The Church of England, just like the main branches of Protestantism, was not terribly keen on the veneration of the Saints. The Lutheran Augsburg Confession decries their role as intercessors, yet encourages us to see in them, as an inspiration, what grace had done in their lives.
My point is not lamenting over the terrible loss, what has gone with the ceased veneration of saints. (Which was definitely a long-term own goal for the Protestant churches, and one of the key factors in their present inability to ‘reproduce their numbers spiritually’.)
Our focus of attention rather should be the amazing vitality of the early church, via their saints. Saint Barnabas, the apostle, was one of the ‘saints’. Of the fervent company of the early believers, one only is singled out by name, Joseph, a rich Levite from Cyprus. He, ‘having land, sold it and brought the price and laid it at the feet of the Apostles.’ They gave him a name, Barnabas, ‘the son of consolation’. He was chosen for an important mission to the rapidly growing church of Antioch.
Let us not overlook how inspired and motivated the early joiners were. The apostles imitated their Lord, and the impact of their Lord was inspiring, and visible; ‘flammable’ way. It seems that the early church is just one single vibrant web of imitation. Passionate people, burning for their cause, were encountered. And this ‘joyful and passionate’ conviction in the Lord called for followers who, in return, became infiltrated with their burning passion.
In our age of numeric decline of church attendance, it is worth giving a thought to this dimension of ‘passionate imitation’. It seems that a rediscovery of the saints as moral and faith examples is timing. Christianity is a religion of imitation. From the beginning, it was about picking up the passion and the joyful life-style from concrete people. Simply seeing them pray, being compassionate - passionately. Theology, leadership courses, theory (and particularly not complying with the demands of worldly politics and culture) are not sufficient by themselves. We need to find the missing link between Jesus’ passion for the Father, His compassionate imitation by the early church and saints, and our uninspired hearts.
Our culture is about weakening the ‘yes’ in us to revealed religion. As a consequence, the human self is so distracted and fragmented that it loses itself. We can no longer commit ourselves to the Word of God in a disciplined way. The person still might be interested in ‘spirituality’, but no longer capable of regular worship, and all the toiling it entails.
How did we get here? Why don’t we pay attention to understanding this fall? For this is a great fall indeed; that of ‘the European self’. What Saint Paul says in Hebrews, should be equally disturbing for the individual and culture as well. ‘For it is impossible for those who were once enlightened [in Christ], and have tasted of the heavenly gift, and were made partakers of the Holy Ghost, and have tasted the good word of God, and the powers of the world to come, if they shall fall away, to renew them again unto repentance; seeing they crucify to themselves the Son of God afresh, and put him to an open shame.’ (Hebrews 6,4-7) We should have no illusion, on a daily basis, through the sin of distraction, we are drifting away from our truer, redeemed, self.
That is why Ascension (the Lord’s return to Heaven) and Pentecost are so important. They posit a vertical axis, piercing through our permanent fall. This liberating direction can reverse our free fall in the sin of forgetting the God of revelation. ‘For the earth which drinketh in the rain that cometh oft upon it, and bringeth forth herbs for them by whom it is dressed, receiveth blessing from God.’ (v.7)
That is why the thought of the day on Radio4 was so consoling. There is an Exodus from the culture of distraction! David Wilkinson (Durham University) made us focus on the Eucharist as a powerful resource. John Wesley, the founder of Methodism, said something which was shocking to his environment. The communion bread and wine is available to all, not just to those who are already committed Christians. Many opposed this thought by saying that sinners first must repent. But Wesley believed that the grace of this meal could change anyone who is open to it.
There is an alternative to the unopposed forgetting of grace! Ascension and Pentecost is a powerful reminder that there is a sphere above our present sleep. The ‘axis of grace’, as our lost orientation, is there if we make an attempt to speak the truth.
The above said puts the ‘holy communion’ into a fresh light. Today, more than ever, eating the body and blood of Christ, is crucially important. As individuals and as a culture we must go to this table. We receive communion in order to the speak the truth. In order to be able to speak the Truth.
It is, highly probable, is a Wesleyan moment in culture. The Eucharist must be offered to all, marked by the culture of forgetting. For ‘that which beareth thorns and briers is rejected, and is nigh unto cursing; whose end is to be burned.’ (v.8) Without enabling the Christian self, our culture’s barrenness is perpetuated.
This is also a ‘monastic’ moment for the individual. Step by step, the moments of distraction, has to be switched off. Everyone can become a monastery. A place of prayer and desire for the power of the Communion which heals.
Guardini has a challenging insight into the Lord’s return to Heaven. ‘Perhaps we will experience that the Ascension was not simply a unique occurrence in the life of Jesus, but rather above all, the manner in which He is given to us: as one vanishing into heaven, into the Unconditional which is God.’ (Romano Guardini, The Picture of Jesus in the New Testament)
Thus, the Lord’s Ascension is neither a ‘miraculous event’, nor a mere departure from the disciples. Rather, Ascension - with Jesus - is the mode of existence, the way life for us Christians. It is Jesus’ work, continued work of Salvation. From our selfish point of view, Ascension is our being severed from his ‘tangible’ company. In remembering his Ascension, we tend to mourn the loss of his closeness.
The feast of Ascension, however, invites us to raise above this underlying narcissistic mourning. If we do so, the work of our faith, our efforts in prayer and charity, will be experienced as a precious journey. We, Christian disciples, are invited to join in our Lord’s Ascension. This return, again, is not a one-off trip. It is rather, just like that of Jesus, a joyful return: a joyful toiling for the Kingdom of God. It is not accidental that Ascension is followed by the outpouring of the Holy Spirit. This is the Spirit of a continuous journey, a continuous work - literally an opus Dei (work for God) in the progressive present.
So, when we see growth in our community, it is Ascension. When we experience joy, when we experience consolation and compassion, it is Ascension. When we work together, it is Ascension. His ascension.
Indeed, the Church is his continuous Ascension. It is through the toiling of the church that Jesus is visible again. His Ascension, through our participation in it, is a visible presence. Maybe we don’t see him as his contemporaries did, but we see his arrivals, as marked points of his Ascension. And these are these ‘arrivals’, like the intense moment of breaking the Bread with him, which are real encounters. Maybe we don’t see Him (as our innate narcissism desires it), but they show Jesus. Yes, the innate narcissism of the disciple yearns for a secure vision, but there is much more to mature faith.
This maturity is fully described in Paul’s letter to the Ephesians. Ephesians 4,1-16, to put it simply, shows the fruits of the Ascension of the Lord, if we make it ours. We can discover a fresh meaning in the enigmatic words: ‘Now that he ascended, what is it but that he also descended first into the lower parts of the earth?’ This fresh meaning is about the above ‘incarnation’ of his ascent. It refers to the joyful and fruitful works of our faith, here, in the Church-part of the Kingdom of God. ‘He that descended is the same also that ascended up far above all heavens, that he might fill all things.’
It is this Ascension (as the continued opus Dei on earth!) which produces ‘prophets, evangelists, pastors and teachers.’ ‘For the perfecting of the saints, for the work of the ministry, for the edifying of the body for Christ.’ Ascension is indeed our being - our mission, our vision.
And it is this new sight of Jesus that makes us ‘henceforth be no more children, tossed to and fro, and carried about with every wind of doctrine, by the sleight of men, and cunning craftiness, whereby they lie in wait to deceive; but speaking the truth in love.’
Jesus’ Ascension is a far firmer grip of existence than any external vision of the Lord.
T.S. Eliot’s, in his poem, from the Four Quartets, ‘Little Gidding’ points to the endpoint of all genuine pilgrimage: ‘where prayer has been valid’. When and where we pray, prayer has been valid, because it sums up all the Church. Prayer cannot take place outside the Christian community.
In the weeks following Easter, through the passages of the Acts of the Apostles, a special ‘epiclesis’, the inviting of the Holy Spirit, is taking place. As if through windows into history, we can follow, how the early church was spreading. More and more dots of light lit up in Asia, Africa, and Europe.
These Easter readings give us today a tremendous encouragement. We need this special consolation, when ‘praying Christianity’ disappears. Cultural Christianity, the remnants of the organising ethos of Europe, still remains with us. But ‘praying Christianity’, ‘where prayer has been valid’, where human existence has been valid and authentic is in the retreat. And the consolation is this: those first communities brought to life by the apostolic work of Peter, Paul, and the other apostles, have an extremely strong, valid presence. These passages make us realise that when the Eucharist is celebrated, the whole church, throughout history, including those earliest ‘dots of Christian light’ have been celebrating with us! Our churches are never empty − despite the painful numbers of attendance.
But is it a ‘spiritualisation’ of the situation, or, indeed, there is something more to it? I believe so. The presence of past Christian generations is a real strength, a real presence, and a warning sign. They tell us, enter that spirit ‘where prayer has been valid.’ Enter the single-minded quest for the Absolute which is the perennial characteristic of monasticism; of the early church, and of the first disciples.
If there is a new beginning for a declining Western Christianity it begins with the return to the discipleship, those early ‘dots’ on the map of Europe. Saint Benedict’s innovation, to frame our life with a Rule, and its discipline of prayer, work and charity is the simplest and only solution to begin anew in Christ. Everything starts from creating those places, ‘where Christ’s presence has been valid’. For our hearts have become valid, and pulsing in that validity.
21.05.2019, Edgware Abbey
Following the engulfing political ‘Brexit-chaos’ in the UK, a moral can be drawn for religion. The lack of political will is itself a major contributor to the crisis. Strong political will-power can be just as dangerous as its total disintegration. Directions and the sense of the common good, as a foundation, can be lost.
This disintegration of the political establishment (called by many as the ‘Westminster bubble’), quite possibly, is a serious warning sign for the Church of England itself. It is wise to read it so. An established church (in practice, totally dependent on Parliament, on a disintegrating political elite) should be scrutinising the signs of the times. A crisis hardly happens in isolation. In a complex system like ours, they rather run in parallel. If so, the CoE as if in a mirror can spot its own weakening ‘political willpower’. This willpower stands for the willpower ‘to the Gospel’, to orthodoxy, to mission, to reform; to Tradition itself.
It is the very independence of the Church what is at stake in a special sense. The recovery of her power to ‘will the Gospel’ is the very ground of its existence. There is no growth, there is no mission, there is no handing over Tradition if the ‘willpower to the Gospel’ is weak and not sought. Now when the Diocese of London is discerning its 2030 vision, it is worth thinking about the church’s unique call to strengthen the desire - and our will - for the Gospel. It is both a global and a local challenge to grapple with.
The ‘will of God’ seems to be an awfully antiquated thought to our ‘weakened mind’. However, if we believe in that God is the Lord of history, it can no longer be an excuse that discerning this will is a terribly dangerous business for humans so it is better not to try.
What are the genuine numbers of Church attendance? One would suspect a shocking statistic, perhaps that is why the numbers of individual churches are not public. A church over 40 attendants on a Sunday is regarded to be a flourishing church. In truth, it is a heart-breaking tragedy. That is why our willpower in the Spirit, and all that lies behind it, should be honestly scrutinised. With due respect to the cultural aggiornamento that the CoE is attempting, many of the leading (political?) agendas that dominate our synods might be turn out to be by-plots. For our 2030 vision, from the inferno of our numbers, it seems that failure in identifying the missing structures would be a deadly sin.
The local parish community should think about its ‘destiny’ as being part of powerful whirlpools in culture (and church politics). It is possible that no remedy will be found on higher levels. Remaining in the ‘Westminster bubble’ and its ecclesial version is a real danger. There is more chance for that the parallel declines of willpower in secular and church politics will continue.
If so, if there is no redemption from above (however much we desire), it can be a Benedictine moment for our struggling local communities. Indeed, a new Benedictine moment in history on the rise when ‘preserving the basic values of culture and the Gospel’ becomes vital. We might need ‘monasteries without walls’, which will do the work of Christian self-preservation. The Benedictine-moment, hopefully, can link the local sufferings over the numbers. It may create an alliance among churches, an undercurrent of desire, to ‘will’ grace in a more focused - and Catholic - way. As part of this emerging ‘willpower’, the expression of ‘what is missing’ and demanding ‘the missing structures’ also may emerge.
(It would be interesting to learn what is missing at grass-root level, in a particular local church. It might well prove a useful resource for the vision of 2030.)
So, why is it a Benedictine moment? The abbot of a Benedictine community was the guardian and interpreter of the Rule. We can apply this to the parish. The local church is the guardian and interpreter of the Rule of the Gospel. This role of interpretation and guarding locally will lead to the revaluation of the traditional ‘parish system’. As a result, local communities with strong (or growing) identities will emerge - perhaps as the cells for Christian survival.
As part of the Benedictine-moment, there is a further function related to this role. The fixed and written Rule that Saint Benedict prescribed for the local community was a novelty. A strategic one. This Rule (or contemporary equivalents of it), symbolically, needs to be created locally. Perhaps, we should start thinking locally about the governing principles and ‘schedules’ of the life of the local parish. This ‘fixed Rule’ functions as a structure of Christian life.
A further great lesson is that the ‘Rule’ is different from the living oral tradition, or the disciplina. These also organise the life of the community, they are the local customs, values, the images of the church and mission, spiritual and charitable practices, etc. The great strategic insight of Saint Benedict is that without ‘interpreting’ and implementing the Rule there is no disciplina, or practice. As the local parish community, without practicing our role as guardians and interpreters of the Gospel, as our ultimate Rule, we cannot speak of Christian identity. Without this toiling work, complementing the work of the bishop, there is no implementing or generating any vision.
Saint Benedict, in his Rule, gives a useful description of ‘a floating church’ ebbing away from its own centres. It can also serve as an apt description of a self-centred politics, hugely responsible for the Brexit-crisis; the cause of losing ‘willpower for the common good.’ In his Rule, he describes the Sarabaites, the living antithesis of his own monks. He repeatedly criticises their independence of any rule. ‘They have not been tested by any rule or by the lessons of experience… their law is their own good pleasure; whatever they think or choose to do, they call holy, but what they like not they regard as unlawful.’ (Daniel Rees: Consider Your Call, A Theology of Monastic Life Today, SPCK London 1978., p.47-)
Leaning over the Biblical Atlas of Palestine in New Testament time is a humbling experience. Lydda, Joppa, Caesarea - the footsteps of Apostle Peter in these days’ readings. What he covered between these cities is about 40 miles.
We are in the comfortable position of reading these pages through quickly. It is an effortless journey to the mind. Yet, we can sense looking at these distances what an effort lies behind what produced these chapter in the Acts (Chapters 10; 11). Even two brief passages, nay a single sentence, show these efforts and real encounters.
Toiling for the Kingdom of God is the medium of faith. Even more, joining these efforts of prayer, meetings, goings and comings, is the birth, is the entry into the fullness of times what the first disciples experienced. (That is why the daily liturgy and prayer life, struggling through the appointed readings as our work, is the precondition to enter the intensity of Biblical faith.)
The Acts of the Apostles show that the whole of Palestine was full of the presence of Jesus. As if the physical air was mingled with the active air of grace. Everything was transformed into the opportunity of recognising the Jesus.
This is the miracle of surveying the Biblical Atlas… Colours, names of towns, regions, rivers, and hills. As if every round dot of a settlement had preserved the lives of those people, the presence ‘of the saints.’
What if, when God’s angels leaning over our present maps see the same richness of real lives, the same unfolding story of awakening into Christ, our truer self, taking place right now?
NASA has put together a team of scientists to track down alien life on other planets. It is certain that there are other planets like Earth which host life, including intelligent life. This is a recurring news. Scientists say there must be life outside our solar system.
What if not? What if this desire is but a form of a collective guilt complex of an atheistic culture? The scientific elite of the atheistic Enlightenment tradition has killed God in their part of social consciousness. Now, as a denial of this suppression, this rationalist elite, in a utopian way, is yearning for ‘alien life’. It can easily turn out that these ‘heavenly visions’ are only projections, a form of mourning over their lost God? We can see how this compulsive denial leads to the compulsive colonisation of the surrounding cosmos. There is a desperate race to ‘mark’ the Moon, again and again, and the Mars, the Son, and everything which is beyond the physical borders of planet Earth. In the meantime, we tragically miss the point: the denied God (suppressed faith at the heart of human knowledge) and the dangerously wounded, almost dying ecosystem (global warming) are the two sides of the same coin.
It is against this painful void of denial (misplaced yearning) that we can read Moses’ apologetic prayer before God (Deuteronomy 9,11-end). While waiting for the aliens, or on board of our spaceship, this text should turn us back to our truer self. This is the sacred text, with a timing civilisational value, that can wake us up from a false, mistargeted Exodus.
‘…The Lord gave me the two tables of stone, even the tablets of the covenant. And the Lord said unto me, Arise, get thee down quickly from hence; for they people which thou hast brought forth out Egypt have corrupted themselves; they are quickly turned aside out of the way which I commanded them; they have made them a molten image [of their ‘extra-terrestrial yearning’]. So I turned and came down from the mount, and the mount burned with fire: and the two tablets of the covenant were in my two hands. And I looked, and, behold, ye had sinned against the Lord your God, and had made you molten calf: ye had turned aside quickly out of the way which the Lord had commanded you. And I took the two tables, and cast them out of my two hands, and brake them before your eyes.’
Is there something beyond the yearnings of a secular elite, is there life beyond the broken God and broken dreams?
We must make the effort to understand the motives of our faith. Why do we, why do I believe in Salvation? Without this effort (quality time for prayer, compassion, and learning about our faith) our faith remains only based on a basic fear. It is like a kind of Freudian fear for ‘being deprived of eternal life’. I would call it a kind of Freudian – selfish and primitive − fear. It is a version of the ‘castration-anxiety’. Here, however, one is afraid of being cut off from ‘life’. The person unconsciously, and narcissistically enough, simply does not want to die. We don’t want to lose our life. We don’t want to be dead. If we are honest with ourselves we can admit that we hardly ever think about ‘why do we believe’...
There is nothing wrong with this basic existential fear. It still keeps us praying and going to church.
However, and this is the importance of vigilant prayer (and compassionate charity), a hidden, but sure growth is induced by the extra effort put into them. We are assured by the existential experience of Scripture (and Sacraments) that our motive will be changed. From the basic ‘fear’ of a child or uncertain adult, we will arrive to joy as our motive to believe. Then we will say, I would like to be saved because I would like to build something really life giving with Jesus, our Risen Lord.
It is difficult to put into words, but the experience is waiting for us all when we say: we live in the company of Jesus. This is perhaps one of the best definition of both faith and its motive. To believe is to live and think in the company of Jesus. Simply, we are being caught up in his presence and friendship. Though unseen to the eye, he lives with us, he works with us, we work with him, we discuss things with him, and this communication is itself our life.Not a part of it, but a shared life. To put it simply: as if Jesus is in the other room, and he can enter any time.
Is it an impossible task to make the Eucharist ‘visible’ today when people are ‘religious without belonging’ (to any particular local church community)? The Church of England, in particular, is not in an easy situation. It was caught up in an ever changing culture so rapidly that it forgot to anchor in Tradition still time. Amidst these rapid changes we tend to forget the primary words of our faith.
So is it an archaism for Anglo-Catholics to develop a Eucharist-centered mission? Are we out of date without posh high-tech screens and plaza-feel modern worship places? I don’t think so.
I do not think so, despite the fact that the ‘Eucharist’, by virtue of its nature, goes against the very mindset of our culture. The Christian sacramental meal, the Eucharist comes from the Greek word, eucharistein, ‘thanksgiving’. The culture that surrounds us can be characterised as one which simply forgets thanksgiving. It consumes, it enjoys, it desires, it possesses – colonising all the senses for gratification. Sadly, all this is at the price of losing the ability to say ‘thank you’ for all these gifts.
Yet, the solution is precisely this. A culture which evacuated thanksgiving from its life is in a desperate need of recovering this lost ability.
But there are some unexpected good news in store. The CoE, with her almost compulsory obsession with mission, has a point for Anglo-Catholics. It is the people of God, through personal encounters and charity, which brings the good news to our environment.
So our task is to become personal ambassadors of our Tradition. The Eucharist as the joyful experience of healing and communal life with their doctrinal aspect need to be brought and made ‘visible’ to our neighbours.
We need to believe that there is an unknown grammar working in all those who yearn for a more authentic life. We need to act in the knowledge that this unknown ‘Eucharistic grammar’ connects everyone. Welcoming people’s lives, however distant they are from specific grammar of faith, one day we will start speaking this common language.
But it has one condition. Christians must name the source of their life, the very source of thanksgiving itself: the Risen Jesus Christ.
(It is so easy to overlook the introductory words of Acts 3,1-4,4, yet this is the key. Peter and John‘went up together into the temple at the hour of prayer, being the ninth hour.’ And then takes place the healing of the crippled man. Those who want to develop a mission through the Eucharist should remain faithful to the three major daily prayer time. This faithfulness, namely that we need ‘to go up together’ to pray, is the precondition of all miracles. This faithfulness predates all missions, all life, and all hoped growth. This is the Anglo Catholic witness.)
‘And the Lord our God delivered him (Sihon) before us; and we smote him, and his sons, and all his people. And we took all his cities at that time, and utterly destroyed the men, and the women, and the little ones, of every city, we left none to remain’ (Deuteronomy 2,26-3,5)
From the point of view of the Jewish people, who took possession of the promised land, via these fights, it is a glorious story. They won, they had their new country. Yet, what is striking, is the honesty of these accounts. God prompted the sacred writer to remember these brutal acts. We ‘utterly destroyed the men, and the women, and the little ones, every ones, of every city, we left no one to remain.’
There is guilt (bloodshed) attached even to what we call ‘sacred history’. Passages like this is like harsh sounding trumpets blown into our face. ‘Do not think that there is pure history.’ We must remember, and all victors or gainers in history, that communities and cultures are fallen, always, and marked by blood.
There is a strange echo of this acquiring of the promised land by Jewry, and our modern attempts of an exodus into the future. I just wonder, if we ever see similar stories of blood underlying the glorious trails of our satellites and spaceships? A Tesla car (the epitome of hubris) is floating freely in space. Humankind (the victorious part of it) is planning to set up mining colonies on the Moon and on Mars.
We, Christians, and Jews, just need to be aware of these new ‘digital storytelling’, which threaten to silence the Biblical story telling of our accountability. A new hubristic colonisation of all avaible resources is on its way. Without the biblical honesty about our fallenness, a shameful, new colonisation of the cosmos is taking place.
These are verbal Icons, expressions of how the world is seen from Saint Augustine's..