Tuesday 27 December 2011


The last few days of December are rich in important anniversaries. Apart from the popular one on the 25th on December 29 we recall the Tay Bridge Disaster of 1879 which provoked one of the most truly dreadful poems in the English language by William McGonagall. Of more significance to more people perhaps was the birth on 23 December 1805 of Joseph Smith Jr, the future prophet of Mormonism. It is something of a tribute to his impact upon the world that most articles about him and his religion can be written by numbers. The things his critics say being as awesomely predictable as the words of his defenders. It is with a sigh of relief that we can turn from such articles, pick up our Mormon Bingo card look at the below the line comments and quickly tick off  "polygamy", "sacred underpants", "Mountain Meadows Massacre" and so on and so forth.

Does there remain anything meaningful to say about this figure, who's influence upon America and the world has not been trivial, which goes beyond the boundaries of the preferred narratives used by those who have already made up their minds about him? I think there is. Discussions about his life confuse the two categories of saint and prophet as if they were interchangeable. In the commonly accepted sense of the word Joseph Smith was no saint. His critics harp on his failings and Mormons deny, minimise or ignore them. But so what if he was unreliable, sinful and flawed? The same could be said of most scriptural prophets. Balaam accepted money to curse the Hebrews but God used him to bless them instead. Jonah was a bad tempered old sod who tried to run away rather than prophesy something that never came to pass. And the greatest prophet of them all, Moses, was a runaway murderer who got his brother to do the talking for him. A prophet does not have to be full of virtue, he or she only has to be a channel of communication between God and man. They have to convey a spiritual or theological truth, they do not have to embody it.

In that sense a prophet is more like and artist than a saint. Caravaggio was a notorious street brawler and outlaw but his paintings convey something much greater than himself. Also it is rather beside the point to complain that his depiction of the Supper of Emmaus or the Ecce Homo were inaccurate because the actual participants in the original events would not have looked or dressed the way Caravaggio portrayed them. His painting allow the character of the persons and events to shine through the mere details of the canvas. Similarly it doesn't really matter that much if Joseph Smith really was guided by an angel and some seeing stones to reveal the Book of Mormon or whether those were just the canvas he painted upon to give a context to his work. It is the ultimate source of the inspiration not the technicalities of it that matter most.

How does one judge whether a work is part of God's revelation to man or a human invention? Ultimately the judgement is a subjective one. What impact does the work have upon ones heart and soul. Here perhaps the analogy is more with the poet than the artist. The words of the poet enter the mind and then percolate throughout the person. Byron was famously mad, bad and dangerous to know but his poetry changed lives because it spoke truth about life itself. The more deeply you enters upon the words and they upon you then the more impact they have. For Latter Day Saints the Book of Mormon conveys information not so much about the ancient history of America but about the relationship between people and God and that to them continues to speak to today's lives and relationships. The message is important the messenger less so. For non-Mormons, of course, the position is different. Those who feel the need to get beyond the articles by numbers realm and into reading the actual text make an uncomfortable discovery. If prophets are like poets then Moses is probably the Byron of prophecy and Joseph Smith Jr certainly the William McGonagall of the genre.

Tuesday 18 October 2011

The Annunciation

Here is a little soliloquy that I wrote some years ago-

First Joyful Mystery

Most Holy Mary, dear and blessed Mother of our dear Lord. When first you heard that heralds voice were you deep in your prayers as tradition loves to portray you? Were you pondering in your heart the things of God? Were you, the young handmaid of the Lord, busying yourself with the hundred and one daily tasks and duties that our flesh is heir to? We know for certain that at that time you were betrothed to Blessed Joseph and that you lived such a life as to find favour with the Lord. Beyond that we can only speculate.

Of this we can be certain though, before the Annunciation of St Gabriel you loved God with all your heart, with all your mind, with all your strength. You were such a one as responded to the Grace of God in a way that even before the Word took flesh in your virginal womb meant you could serve as a model and exemplar to those who love the Lord in all generations and seek to do His Most Holy Will. You, dear Mary, are a pioneer on the way of the Lord and our best and brightest guide towards Him in all ages and for all ages. There were things at this Annunciation that you did not fully understand, you were troubled, you pondered, you asked. To love Him and to serve Him it is not needful you showed us that we should fully understand Him, simply that we should wholly love Him and this you did then and still do today Mary Hope of Christians.

You showed us in this brief but world changing dialogue with the Archangel of the Most High that it is not great knowledge that is the key to great love and great service. No, it is humility that is the key and possessing that gift you alone of all the world had the highest Angel in the service of the Highest Power come down to you and salute you. You alone had Almighty God come down into your womb to take on flesh for your Divinely inspired creaturely humility proved a fitting home for the Divine humility that did not think equality with God a thing to be grasped but emptied Himself taking human form with your flesh and your blood Most Dear Mary.

And what is humility? Is it the false modesty that so often masquerades under that honourable title? God forbid. No, humility is the height of acute self analysis. When, by the grace of God, we understand ourselves truly to be what we are in relation to our Creator and to our neighbour then we are necessarily humble. And the more perfectly we understand ourselves then the more perfectly humble we shall be. It is a sign of your great wisdom, dear Lady, that you were so perfectly humble and by your prayers may we be brought to similar self-knowledge. God knows we greatly stand in need of it

Was it, perhaps, because of your humility that you were troubled by the angels greeting? Did you consider yourself all unworthy to stand high in God's favour? Surely, though all these thoughts would have been swiftly driven from your heart and mind by that stunning promise made to you by Gabriel. A Son! And what a Son, one who would reign on the throne of David forever. And you, Mary, to be the Mother of the Messiah, the highest dream and hope of the maidens of God's chosen people for generations.

The painting is The Annunciation by Dieric Bouts

Monday 17 October 2011

Decidedly Dead at Dinner

A Reflection on the Book of Tobit (1:19-2:8)
19 But a certain citizen of Nineveh informed the king that it was I who buried the dead. When I found out that the king knew all about me and wanted to put me to death, I went into hiding; then in my fear I took to flight.
20 Afterward, all my property was confiscated; I was left with nothing. All that I had was taken to the king's palace, except for my wife Anna and my son Tobiah.
21 But less than forty days later the king was assassinated by two of his sons, who then escaped into the mountains of Ararat. His son Esarhaddon, who succeeded him as king, placed Ahiqar, my brother Anael's son, in charge of all the accounts of his kingdom, so that he took control over the entire administration.
22 Then Ahiqar interceded on my behalf, and I was able to return to Nineveh. For under Sennacherib, king of Assyria, Ahiqar had been chief cupbearer, keeper of the seal, administrator, and treasurer; and Esarhaddon reappointed him. He was a close relative-in fact, my nephew.
1 Thus under King Esarhaddon I returned to my home, and my wife Anna and my son Tobiah were restored to me. Then on our festival of Pentecost, the feast of Weeks, a fine dinner was prepared for me, and I reclined to eat.
2 The table was set for me, and when many different dishes were placed before me, I said to my son Tobiah: "My son, go out and try to find a poor man from among our kinsmen exiled here in Nineveh. If he is a sincere worshiper of God, bring him back with you, so that he can share this meal with me. Indeed, son, I shall wait for you to come back."
3 Tobiah went out to look for some poor kinsman of ours. When he returned he exclaimed, "Father!" I said to him, "What is it, son?" He answered, "Father, one of our people has been murdered! His body lies in the market place where he was just strangled!"
4 I sprang to my feet, leaving the dinner untouched; and I carried the dead man from the street and put him in one of the rooms, so that I might bury him after sunset.
5 Returning to my own quarters, I washed myself and ate my food in sorrow.
6 I was reminded of the oracle pronounced by the prophet Amos against Bethel: "Your festivals shall be turned into mourning, And all your songs into lamentation."
7 And I wept. Then at sunset I went out, dug a grave, and buried him.
8 The neighbors mocked me, saying to one another: "Will this man never learn! Once before he was hunted down for execution because of this very thing; yet now that he has escaped, here he is again burying the dead!"
Gazing upon Christ crucified Catholics may be tempted to believe that the righteousness of the Jewish Law is symbolised by three bloody nails and one heart-piercing lance. In that scenario one can imagine that Jesus represents a spiritual fulfilment of the Law and the Pharisees a literalistic one. The picture that scripture paints of Tobit however is the antidote to such a view. Righteousness cannot be achieved through the way of Moses but neither is that way a necessary barrier to it. If, famously, the letter kills but the Spirit gives life is there not a way in which the Spirit can give life even to the letter? It is said of the Blessed Virgin Mary that with her Yes! to Gabriel she effectively conceived our Lord in her heart before doing so in her womb, perhaps the righteous children of Israel who said Yes to Yahweh before saying Yes to the Law achieved the purpose of the Law. The sin of the Pharisees consisted in saying Yes to the Law before saying the same thing to the Lord.

The narrative background to this is conventionally recorded in the Books of the Kings. The Northern tribes of Israel fell into the sin of idolatry and all that that entails. As a consequence God permitted them to be conquered by the Assyrians and taken into captivity and exile. Tobit himself was an Israelite in whom, to coin a phrase, there was no guile, he was faithful to the Lord but nonetheless shared in the captivity of his nation. Following their defeat in Judea the Assyrians appeared to take out their fury on random Israelites in Nineveh the Assyrian capital, leaving their bodies to rot in the open. This leads to a sequence of events in which Tobit effectively recapitulates the history of Israel in his own person. Moved by charity and possessing no little courage Tobit buries the dead himself. This leads to anger, betrayal, exile, destruction of the tyrant and return to home. It is probably no coincidence that his nephew Ahiqar who facilitates his return hold the same position, cupbearer, as Joseph had held under Pharoah.

The Pentecost events described here represent something of a foreshadowing of the first Christian Pentecost described in Acts 2. There, after the Resurrection and Ascension of our Lord the Holy Spirit descends and moves the Apostles to invite the devout Israelites outside the Cenacle to join them in the prayers, the breaking of the bread and the teaching of the Apostles. Here moved, no doubt, by the same Spirit Tobit issues an invitation for even one Israelite who sincerely worships God to join him in the breaking of bread. Whereas the first Christian Pentecost produced a harvest of three thousand souls this bitter exilic one produced but a single corpse.

The fact that Tobit cannot find a person outside his family to share this feast with him echo's his earlier experience back in Israel. We see in Chapter 1-

5All my kindred and our ancestral house of Naphtali sacrificed to the calf that King Jeroboam of Israel had erected in Dan and on all the mountains of Galilee.6But I alone went often to Jerusalem for the festivals, as it is prescribed for all Israel by an everlasting decree. I would hurry off to Jerusalem with the first fruits of the crops and the firstlings of the flock, the tithes of the cattle, and the first shearings of the sheep.

  The motivation that Tobit has to bury the dead and give alms to the poor springs from the same source as that which leads him to worship the Lord God and obey the precepts of the Law. When Jesus recommends His followers to a righteousness that exceeds the righteousness of the Pharisees (Matt 5:10) it is of people like Tobit that He is thinking as well as the Holy Family. Obedience is the key that sets Tobit free. He chooses to obey the Law, the Assyrians and his idolatrous kinsfolk are slaves to sin, he exercises choice and they do not hence he is freer than them. Since his obedience springs from his Yes to God it is prior to the Law and not dependent upon it, a fact which will become of crucial importance in the later Christian economy of salvation.

Upon hearing of the unburied Israelite our hero immediately sprang to his feet. This recalls that after the Annunciation our Lady "with great haste" went to her cousin St Elizabeth. This is another sign that the Holy Spirit was a key actor in this Pentecost event. It was the Holy Spirit that overshadowed Mary and if His first fruit was the conception of our Saviour the second was surely Mary's dash to the side of kinswoman in need. The root and source of all uncalculated, spontaneous acts of self forgetful love is always that same Spirit. We can also see in the untasted feast a type of Jesus who left the heavenly banquet in order to reclaim mankind murdered by sin. Tobit returns with the dead still dead, Jesus returns with death defeated in His train. Tobit eats his bread with tears Jesus resumes the heavenly meal with all the hosts of heaven and redeemed man rejoicing.

A significant added factor in the generosity of Tobits character is revealed when we consider that simply by touching a dead body he contracted a form of uncleaness under the Law(Numbers 19:11-13).  Which brings us straight to Jesus and His parable in Luke 10-

30Jesus replied, "A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, and fell into the hands of robbers, who stripped him, beat him, and went away, leaving him half dead.31Now by chance a priest was going down that road; and when he saw him, he passed by on the other side.32So likewise a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side.33But a Samaritan while travelling came near him; and when he saw him, he was moved with pity.34He went to him and bandaged his wounds, having poured oil and wine on them. Then he put him on his own animal, brought him to an inn, and took care of him.35The next day he took out two denarii, gave them to the innkeeper, and said, "Take care of him; and when I come back, I will repay you whatever more you spend.'
The Priest and the Levite considered the Law in relation to themselves. They would be unclean if they touched a dead man and unable to function in their positions until purified. They either thought that the man was dead or had a good chance of dying on their hands so they let them be not only because they were respecters of the Law but actually, as it were, employees of the Law. The Samaritan, who also valued the Books of Moses, considered the needs of the man prior to the legal implications for himself. Moses never, under God, prescribed regulations to prevent kindness to the distressed, selfishness is the sole author of any such decrees written or unwritten. Tobit was the good neighbour of whom Jesus might have said "go and do likewise".

When reading it is often easy to regard a sequence of events as just one single one but in the case of Tobits much delayed meal it is worthwhile to break it down into its component parts. Firstly he started to eat "in sorrow". Sorrow that one of his people had been murdered. Sorrow that there were none of his family at hand to openly take him home and do for him what a family should. Then he recalled the prophecy of Amos and that this was a great feast day to the Lord and that it was being celebrated in exile amidst an oppressor who placed no value on the lives of Jacobs descendants. And he wept. Surely he wept over the plight of his people and also over their continued estrangement from the God who could and would save them. Perhaps there was another reason. Jesus is recorded as weeping also and in this fashion, John 11

32When Mary came where Jesus was and saw him, she knelt at his feet and said to him, "Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died."33When Jesus saw her weeping, and the Jews who came with her also weeping, he was greatly disturbed in spirit and deeply moved.34He said, "Where have you laid him?" They said to him, "Lord, come and see."35Jesus began to weep.
Since he was about to turn their mourning into rejoicing why did our Lord shed tears? It was not the death of Lazarus that moved Him it was the sight of human distress occasioned by the fragility of life. All life is lived under the shadow of death. All joys pass. No festival is without its mourning no songs are wholly free from lamentation. Only love is stronger than death. We weep because their is a veil now between us and that unconquered, all conquering love. And until that veil is pierced by a divine heart piercing lance then we will always have cause to cry.

Tobit performs his self allotted task. His neighbours mock him. He gains nothing. He gets no thanks. Nonetheless he perseveres, in Medieval Catholic Europe Tobit became an icon for the virtue of patience. He teaches us, finally, that victory belongs not to those who can inflict the most but to those who can endure the most. Jesus and Mary came from a tradition which includes Tobit, like him they were Galileans, like him they were generous with a selfless love, like him they observed the Law. And like him they demonstrated that whatever the limitations of that Law might be the path the Pharisees trod was not its fulfilment and therefore the acme of Judaism but simply another way of misunderstanding God. We have discovered many others since, not the least of which is anti-Semitism.

Monday 10 October 2011

Death and Memory

This is the draught of an article I hope to submit to the Guardian. Open to comments on how it can be improved.

If religion did not speak to the deepest sighs and longings of the human heart then it would be as well not to speak at all. Of these sighs few are more profound than those offered up for the death of one we love. My father, William Hepburn, died earlier this year and since by tradition Catholics devote the month of November in particular to remembering our dead this November of 2011 becomes a special one for me . It is one of the examples in Catholic life where theological truths and natural human emotions combine in such a way as to produce the inner peace we all desire and the calm acceptance that what has happened has happened.

It is no coincidence that this time precedes Advent a liturgical season that prepares believers for light to appear in the midst of darkness. We move from the De Profundis of Psalm 129   "Out of the depths I have cried to thee, O Lord" to the anticipation of Isaiah 9  "The people that walked in darkness, have seen a great light: to them that dwelt in the region of the shadow of death, light is risen". Outside the Church we bereaved ones are insistently urged to move on, to reach closure, not to be morbid. Within our faith family we have this time of the year where parishes unite around prayer and remembrance for the dead. It is not considered gauche or uncool to bring to mind those whose passing made us weep. Death is placed in a context not only of eternity but of community. We pray for each of the dead not simply for our own ones. The theological truth we celebrate is the Communion of the Saints. The Church consists not merely of those now alive on earth but of those alive to God in heaven and in purgatory, something marked out by the twin feasts of All Saints and All Souls on 1 and 2 November. 

In particular the prayers we offer are for those souls still in purgatory. Whatever one may think of the theological basis for the doctrine of purgatory it offers a psychologically realistic parallel between those gone and those left behind. As we endure suffering after and because of their passing so to they suffer before reaching the goal of the beatific vision. We and they are in solidarity, a solidarity of both pain and hope. We have a promised land to reach but a desert to pass though before we arrive at it. And, again, it is a community event. We remember our dead together, we are on pilgrimage together and we shall rejoice together "They that sow in tears shall reap in joy. Going they went and wept, casting their seeds. But coming they shall come with joyfulness, carrying their sheaves." (Psalm 125  ).

We speak of those who have gone ahead as the "faithful departed". As a convert this raises an interesting not to say vital question. My dear father was not a Catholic. The customary alliance of hard line fundamentalists and militant new atheists will no doubt unite to suggest that the logical consequence of my belief system would thrust him into that third and much less popular destination of hell and so offering up prayers on his behalf represents either hypocrisy on my part or a lack of belief that any of this stuff is actually true. These are questions I faced and reflected deeply upon when my equally non-Catholic mother, Irena Hepburn, died in 1998. My instant response then was what it is now. My parents were always faithful to me and to virtue as they understood it. Selfless faithfulness is a product of love and, consciously or unconsciously, is therefore grounded upon God the faithful and loving. My prayers for them, and for any one else for whom I am asked to pray, are offered up in a perfect trust that love is never wasted and that He who is the fount of all love gladly receives back unto Himself each of His children who follow His model.  

Thursday 1 September 2011

Was Jesus judgemental

In response to this article in the Guardian I wrote this response which might be usefully re-posted here

when Jesus effectively calls a gentile woman a dog, we can try to imagine that he was smiling ironically, mocking the Jewish xenophobia of his day
Funnily enough I was meditating about this passage in the New Jerusalem Bible(Matthew 15:21-39) earlier this week. It was Monday in a pleasant little park between Torquay railway station and the waterfront to be precise (a little information to help future hagiographers there). Some of my thoughts might be relevant here.
The episode reminded me of the earlier event at Cana in Galilee where our Lord responded to our Lady's prayer "they have no wine" by saying My hour has not come yet and then going ahead and changing water into wine thus inaugurating His public ministry in response to His blessed mother's prayer. Here Jesus responds to the Canaanite woman's plea 'Lord, Son of David, take pity on me.' by saying I was sent only to the lost sheep of the House of Israel. As before He is laying out His game plan. He is the fulfilment of the Mosaic Law therefore His religious mission is only directly relevant to those people who embrace the Law or are embraced by it. Once the Law is fulfilled it becomes universal until then it is particular.
Undeterred the woman says 'Lord help me' which leads to the famous retort It is not fair to take the children's food and throw it to little dogs. Let us be clear. The Law points to a community which is pure and an outside world which is impure, unclean. Our Lord is correctly restating that perspective. The things of the world are at enmity with the things of God and the community of the Law was a visible (and deeply flawed) image of the purity of God in relation to which the world was an image (profoundly accurate) of those things and people which are impure. It would be an affront to give what is pure to those who would make it impure simply by touching it. First the receiver of the gift must be purified and then the gift can be given. And gentiles could only be purified by being washed in the Blood of the Lamb not yet shed at this point.
Once more the woman was undeterred. 'Ah yes, Lord; but even little dogs eat the scraps that fall from their masters' table.' Her persistence in prayer, her faith and the compassion of Jesus combine to produce the desired and expected result her daughter is cured. The cure consists of having a demon cast out of her which is symbolic in itself but I shall not dwell on that in this context. Now we have the next resonance with the Cana episode. After turning the water into wine there was no looking back. Our Lord went on to the full flowering of His Galilean ministry. After healing the Canaanite woman He goes on deeper into gentile territory.
29 Jesus went on from there and reached the shores of the Lake of Galilee, and he went up onto the mountain. He took his seat, 30 and large crowds came to him bringing the lame, the crippled, the blind, the dumb and many others; these they put down at his feet, and he cured them.
Proceeding from Tyre and Sidon, Gentile country, He goes over the mountains into the gentile lands at the top of the Sea of Tiberias. It is significant that throughout the Gospels when He heals like this He is also described as preaching and teaching but here He simply confines Himself to healing as teaching would not be appropriate here. Even so His audience recognises what is going on
31 The crowds were astonished to see the dumb speaking, the cripples whole again, the lame walking and the blind with their sight, and they praised the God of Israel.
When Jewish crowds praise God it is simply said "they praised God". Here it is said "they praised the God of Israel" to make clear that it was not their own tribal or local God they were praising but that of the charismatic Jewish healer in their midst. He goes on to perform His second feeding miracle and afterwards seven baskets of scraps are collected. I am told that the Greek word used for basket here is different to the one used for the earlier feeding of five thousand event. One word was used for the kind of baskets peculiar to the Jews and another for that peculiar to Gentiles. However that might be the numbers have significance. Twelve baskets are collected at the Jewish event and twelve is a number signifying the tribes of Israel. Seven baskets are collected at the gentile event and, as I have written elsewhere, seven is a number signifying fullness, completeness and signify's here that the gentiles will eventually form part of the completeness of the people of God.
So the disparaging reference to "dogs" at the beginning of this sequence is merely the trigger for a sequence of events displaying the power of prayer and the compassion of Jesus. 

Monday 29 August 2011

The Extravagance of Love

A reflection on Luke 15:11-32 by "Brother Placid"

There was a certain man who had two sons. And the younger of these said to his father, Father, give me that portion of the estate which falls to me. So he divided his property between them. Not many days afterwards, the younger son put together all that he had, and went on his travels to a far country, where he wasted his fortune in riotous living. Then, when all was spent, a great famine arose in that country, and he found himself in want; whereupon he went and attached himself to a citizen of that country, who put him on his farm, to feed swine. He would have been glad to fill his belly with husks, such as the swine used to eat; but none was ready to give them to him. Then he came to himself, and said, How many hired servants there are in my father's house, who have more bread than they can eat, and here am I perishing with hunger! I will arise and go to my father, and say to him, Father, I have sinned against heaven, and before you; I am not worthy, now, to be called your son; treat me as one of your hired servants. And he arose, and went on his way to his father. But, while he was still a long way off, his father saw him, and took pity on him; running up, he threw his arms round his neck and kissed him. And when the son said, Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; I am not worthy, now, to be called your son, the father gave orders to his servants, Bring out the best robe, and clothe him in it; put a ring on his hand, and shoes on his feet. Then bring out the calf that has been fattened, and kill it; let us eat, and make merry; for my son here was dead, and has come to life again, was lost, and is found. And so they began their merry-making. The elder son, meanwhile, was away on the farm; and on his way home, as he drew near the house, he heard music and dancing; whereupon he called one of the servants and asked what all this meant. He told him, Your brother has come back, and your father has killed the fattened calf, glad to have him restored safe and sound. At this he fell into a rage, and would not go in. When his father came out and tried to win him over, he answered his father thus, Think how many years I have lived as your servant, never transgressing your commands, and you have never made me a present of a kid, to make merry with my friends; and now, when this son of yours has come home, one that has swallowed up his patrimony in the company of harlots, you have killed the fattened calf in his honour. He said to him, My son, you are always at my side, and everything thing that I have is already yours; but for this merrymaking and rejoicing there was good reason; your brother here was dead, and has come to life again; was lost, and is found.

It was during my stay in the infirmary, one evening after Vespers, that Brother Maurus came to me. He was wrapped in smiles and looking beatific so a demon starting whispering in my ear "don't ask! don't ask!". This demon always makes his appearance on such occasions, this time I gave him short shrift. Would that I could always do so.
'Why are you looking so cheerful dear brother?'
'I have solved the problem of the physician and the anointing'
This was not, as you might suppose, a reference to my own experiences in the infirmary, about which I will write another time if God and the Prior spare me. No, Maurus was referring to an earlier conversation which we had had. Since I was lying sick at that time we had naturally enough fallen into discussion about St Luke the only doctor (Col 4:14) to write two books of scripture. We praised him greatly as the Evangelist who shows most clearly that our Lord was a man of prayer (cf Lk 3:21, 6:12, 9:18, 9:28) the sure basis for good health. Then we went on to compare one Gospel with another. Finally we became puzzled as to why it might be that St Luke was the only Evangelist not to mention the anointing of our Saviour by St Mary of Bethany shortly before His Passion. The other three have fully described this for us (Mk 14:3-10, Matt 26:6-16, Jn 12:1-8) and that for excellent reasons. Firstly because the Son of God Himself had said Wherever this Gospel is proclaimed in the whole world what she has done will be told in remembrance of her (Mk 14:9). And secondly since it was because our Lord praised St Mary for spending more than a years wages for an ordinary man on a single anointing that Judas allowed the devil to enter into his heart (Mk 14:10)
'You know why St Luke omitted the story of the anointing?' I asked
'On the contrary I know now how it was that he told the stories, for they were two one for Mary and one for Judas, but in a mystical fashion'
'Well, Brother Maurus if the Holy Spirit has enlightened you on the subject then it is your Christian duty to enlighten me also'
'And so I shall' he said, making himself as comfortable as the infirmary permitted as one anticipating a long tale.

'In the beginning of his Gospel account the good physician acknowledges not only that he is not the first Evangelist but that he has read his predecessors (Lk 1:13). The Doctors and professors of Holy Church, indeed, tell us that he wrote his account with those of St Matthew and St Mark at his hand and as his guides. He, therefore knew that our Lords prophecy concerning St Mary had already been fulfilled and that the origins of the traitors treachery had been laid bare.It was precisely because he was a physician that St Luke did not rest content with a physical description of the symptoms, as it were, of events but he desired to show their spiritual causes. Simply repeating what had already been well said did not fulfil his purpose so what he did instead was to recount two other stories which none of the other Evangelists describe in order to account for the one story they all tell but which he does not. And these stories reveal mystically why St Mary and the traitor behaved the way that they did.

'In the first episode St Luke tells us (Lk 10:38-42) of the occasion when our Saviour and His followers visited the house of Mary and her sister Martha in Bethany. While Martha quite properly and commendably busied herself in in order to the the needs of her guests Mary, as you know, behaved in a far different manner. Enraptured she sat at her Masters feet and drank so deeply the sweet wine of His words that she was oblivious to all else. In this complete surrender of herself, all that she was, all that she had, to Him alone we see foreshadowed her later pouring out of her substance over Him in an extravagant spending of the rich sweetness she possessed which, like all things, originally proceeded from Him over Whom she poured it. It may be also that because she alone of His disciples was so attentive to His words and Being that it was she alone of His disciples who understood the need for His anointing against the hour of His death. Martha however, like Judas later, complained to the Lord about this scandalous behaviour of her sister. This shows that the path of contemplation is difficult to understand for those not called to it, saint and sinner alike. Mark closely what follows though. Jesus defends Mary before Martha as He later did before Judas but O how differently they respond. Martha, because she is humble and sincerely loves our Saviour accepts His words and learns from them. She becomes a great disciple in her own right and is the only women of the Jews in all the Gospels who is recorded as recognising Jesus to be the Messiah when she says "You are the Christ, the Son of God" (Jn 11:27). Judas, hard hearted and proud does not accept any teaching he does not like even should it proceed from the lips of the Master Himself. And what a short step it is from judging oneself to be wiser than the Christ of God to betraying Him even to death.'

'Excellent, excellent, Brother Maurus' I exclaimed greatly impressed by his words and the wisdom and beauty they contained, 'you clearly show that what was later present in events was already present in  type. What is the second episode you mentioned though?'

'Ah yes' he said looking more thoughtful, 'the second is a somewhat more hidden prophecy although clear enough once to grasp the correct key. It is contained in the parable you in particular know so well Brother Placid. The one concerning the younger son who spends his inheritance in debauchery before coming to his senses'
'I know it very well indeed. So well that I can assert safely that it has nothing to do with the anointing by St Mary of Bethany'
'Does it not? Hmm. Listen and I will certainly show under a figure or type our Lord outlined all that was going to be important about the event He was mystically prophesying. The father in the parable is Christ Himself, the elder son Judas and the younger one Mary'
'How could it be that a woman would figure under the appearance of a man? It is not to be thought of. You cannot be right'
'You think so? In a single passage in the Letter to the Ephesians (Eph 5:25-33) the Apostle identifies Holy Church as both the Body of Christ and as His Bride. If it is suitable to consider Holy Church as both male and female since in their intimate union the two become one flesh then it is proper to consider such a great contemplative as St Mary to be one with the Lord and so both male and female hence her appearance in the parable as of a like nature to her father in that story, Christ Himself as I have already indicated'
'Well, if, if I say, I grant your argument Maurus what follows?'

'Judas is the elder since he was selected and appointed to his part before Mary was to hers and, of course man was created before woman. When it says "a far country" in Scripture what is meant is Egypt and that stands as a sign of sin and oppression far from the promised land of God. By saying that the younger one went to such a place we are to understand that Mary was for a long time sunk deeply into a life of sin and folly so placing her far away from the Lord. She was in such a state at a time when Judas by contrast was by the side of the Lord, carrying out His commands and proclaiming His Advent. We should not wonder at this life of Mary's, she was clearly a person of strong character and such persons, especially womenfolk, if they are not found foremost among the saints will certainly be found first among the doers of lascivious wickedness. After some time in this life the younger son found himself feeding swine. The Jews, you must recall, have a perfect horror of pigs regarding them as the most unclean of creatures. There is great meaning, therefore, to be found in this occupation of the one who was steeped in sin. You and I were both but boys when we entered the Religious life but we have often heard those vivid accounts of sin that are retold to us by those brethren who have fled here as refugees from evil later in life'
'Indeed we have. And I never hear them but that I thank the merciful God for moving my father Tertullus to place me in the care of that Blessed Abbott of holy memory so that I might escape such gross sin.'
'I, likewise, have much to be grateful for. One of the things that these escapees frequently report is that while they took gladly to the sins of the flesh in their youth they did not long persist in that gladness. The more sated they became with their unnatural sensual appetites the more they came to realise what ugly, dirty brutish things they were. Despite this realisation though they found themselves by long established habit compelled again and again to sate those appetites they now despised. They longed to break free from them but lacked the strength to do so. This is the meaning of the feeding of swine. Mary fed her own lusts and longed to do otherwise.
'Then, in telling this parable, the Lord says the younger son came to himself  and resolved to break free from his long service to the bellies of pigs. Sacred Scripture tells us that we, male and female, were created in the image and likeness of God (Ge 1:26,27). When we come to ourselves, that is to say, we really come to God. The younger son in the parable like Mary of Bethany in life was moved by the Holy Spirit to look within. What he saw there, his God and true Father, gave him the strength to leave swinishness behind and travel with all speed back to his earthly father. The distance from the far country to the Promised Land is a great one but this father, a figure for Christ Himself, shortens it by running to embrace the returning fallen one while he was yet a long way away. And not only to embrace but to kiss, to clothe, to feed with the best of foods and to rejoice with all His household of angels and saints.

'The Evangelists do not tell us that the anger of Judas was most directed at St Mary for her extravagance. No, his fury was most greatly stirred by the still greater extravagance of our Lords praise for her and His prophecy, which was actually a command, that this act of hers would be told in her honour throughout the whole world. Judas would have been enraged that no such command had been made to recount the tale of his faithful and hard working service while this whore fresh from her adulteries was to be praised for an action that did not involve her stepping outside her own front door.
'The behaviour of the elder son in the parable is a perfect foreshadowing of those deeds of the traitor that we now know so well. When he heard that his bother had been forgiven and that all the household was rejoicing about it he became furiously angry. He had returned from the fields after his days works and so we can infer that it was dark. His refusal to enter a house that was full of light and joy is a sign that he preferred the darkness of pride to the light of the presence of Christ. Does that not remind you Placid that St John tells us "and it was night" (Jn 13:30) as the betrayer went out to betray.

'As he had gone to meet his younger son so now the father came to meet his elder, but what a different meeting it was! The hard heart of the elder son was not softened. All that he had to do was to accept with joy that his brother had returned from the realm of sin and death into the kingdom of light and life. In the same way all that Judas had to do was to accept His Lord's words in regard to Mary, he did not have to understand them simply to accept them with the same docility that the other Apostles and Martha had done. In return he would have received a throne upon which he would have judged the twelve tribes of Israel You may think that I am myself being extravagant with this comparison. Consider though just this one thing which shows that in a mystical fashion these two stories were and are but one story. The elder son suffered no loss or harm at all because of his fathers love for the younger one. Likewise Judas was not in the slightest little bit harmed by Jesus heaping praise upon Mary. The two were prompted to anger not because the lost something but because they envied someone. Those who will not rejoice in the good experienced by others condemn themselves to a thousand torments within their heart for every single genuine joy that they experience.
'Dear Brother' I said 'you have clearly applied yourself with great intent to meditating upon this matter and then taking the trouble to explain it clearly to me. So much so, in fact, that you obviously failed to hear the bell for Compline that rang some minutes ago. Unless you wish to experience the punishment that our holy Prior reserves for the bad, the hard, the proud and the disobedient (Rule of Benedict 2) then you must be gone and that promptly'

By then, however, Brother Maurus had somehow disappeared leaving only the suggestion of a "Deo Gratias" in the night air behind him.

Sunday 21 August 2011

The Master Grills

A reflection on John 21:1-14 by a Carthusian Novice

  Jesus appeared to his disciples again afterwards, at the sea of Tiberias, and this is how he appeared to them. Simon Peter was there, and with him were Thomas, who is also called Didymus, and Nathanael, from Cana of Galilee, and the sons of Zebedee, and two more of his disciples. Simon Peter told them, I am going out fishing; and they went out and embarked on the boat, and all that night they caught nothing. But when morning came, there was Jesus standing on the shore; only the disciples did not know that it was Jesus. Have you caught anything, friends, Jesus asked them, to season your bread with? And when they answered No, he said to them, Cast to the right of the boat, and you will have a catch. So they cast the net, and found before long they had no strength to haul it in, such a shoal of fish was in it. Whereupon the disciple whom Jesus loved said to Peter, It is the Lord. And Simon Peter, hearing him say that it was the Lord, girded up the fisherman's coat, which was all he wore, and sprang into the sea. The other disciples followed in the boat (they were not far from land, only some hundred yards away), dragging their catch in the net behind them. So they went ashore, and found a charcoal fire made there, with fish and bread cooking on it. Bring some of the fish you have just caught, Jesus said to them: and Simon Peter, going on board, hauled in the net to land. It was loaded with great fish, a hundred and fifty-three of them; and with all that number the net had not broken. When Jesus said to them, Come and break your fast, none of the disciples ventured to ask him, Who are you? knowing well that it was the Lord. So Jesus came up and took bread, which he gave to them, and fish as well. Thus Jesus appeared to his disciples a third time after his rising from the dead.

Climbing over the hills the sun began to gentle the landscape teasing delicate tints and hues, hints of colour, out of the austere shadowland where they had been asleep. The see once more began to assume her living aspect as she responded ardently to the fingers of sunlight softly brushing across her undulating surface. With nothing but tiredness and aches to show for a long nights toil the Apostles would have sat in their dawn brightened boat reflecting wryly perhaps on the recent words their Master had spoken to them apart from me you can do nothing The beauty of watching day break across that Syrian Sea and their own beloved land perhaps provided some compensation for their strains strains and pains. It is of no moment just how often you have seen new day manifesting itself by land and sea. Each time seen it has a quality that entrances and enkindles hope in even the most cynical and world weary; amongst whose numbers the seven Apostles could never be counted. It may be that for a time they became wholly absorbed in watching the first dancing, sparkling encounters between cheerful sun and restless wave. If so they would have been oblivious to the man rising out of the shorelines shadows, leaving a small fire he had been tending and walking to where water and land were exchanging age old pleasantries.

Have you caught anything, friends?
 His voice effortlessly crossed the distance separating them. The same voice that had once been heard with ease by thousand upon thousands of eager pilgrims. Had the seven known who it was that spoke with them then they would have considered it a fulfilment of David's prophetic words The voice of the Lord is heard over the waters (Psalm 28/9:3).
"No" they chorused back to him.
Cast to the right of the boat, and you will have a catch
Others might have wondered who this stranger was to give them orders. Not the Apostles though, not even John the Theologian. Led by the indefatigable Peter they immediately went into action. In doing so they justified the words their Master had once uttered-
Believe me, unless you become like little children again, you shall not enter the kingdom of heaven (Matt 18:3)
How like children as yet unspoiled by the world it was to leap full tilt into deeds without thought or murmur simply because a stranger has asked them to. Even after they had recently seen of betrayal, abandonment, torture and death the seven were still the happy possessors of a guilelessness, an essential belief in the goodness of men, leading them on to trust and accept them. What a dreadful and truly evil thing it is to abuse such trustfulness freely offered by the innocent and childlike. One who does so walks thereafter in the shadow of the gates of Hell unless they should repent seeking forgiveness, reconciliation and conversion.

And now the net which had remained dispiritingly empty all night was overwhelmingly, unmanageably full. To the swift apprehensions of love that could mean only one thing.  It is the Lord breather His beloved disciple. At that, pausing only to clothe his nakedness, Peter plunged into the sea. His burning longing to be by the side of his Master unable to contemplate the possibility of even a moments delay. In his account of the event John the Theologian has, in a few brief words, clearly sketched out the profound differences between the contemplative and the active ways of attaining the fullness of the presence of Jesus the Christ. The beloved disciple, however busy he might be with the practical things of the everyday world, is always in the inmost chamber of his heart deeply immersed in loving remembrance off and communion with his sweet, divine, Lord. So it is that he is always the the first to discern by inspired intuition the Masters presence whether in the flesh, as here by the Syrian Sea, or in the spirit. Having discerned Him what follows? He is content simply to gaze adoringly upon Him. In the simple exchange of loving glances between Master and beloved disciple all that needs to be said and done is said and done through silence and non-action. By contrast Peter is first and foremost the man of action, he gets things done. Sometimes perhaps it happens that he is so busied with doing things that he lets the 'why' of his actions fade in importance before the 'what' and the 'how'. His love for his Master, however, is so great that the merest whisper of the name of the Lord will bring about an instant change of direction and no obstacle on earth, or out of it, can keep him from plunging into the action of union and reunion.

Elsewhere in his Gospel account the Theologian, in a way which is striking in its psychological realism, never fails to to display this contrast between his own personality as the beloved disciple and that of St Peter. In his account of the Last Supper, for example, after Jesus predicts  Believe me, he said, believe me, one of you is to betray me (John 13:21) Peter impelled by his need to do something motions to the beloved disciple, who was reclining next to the Lord, to to find out who the traitor is. Since the Christ of God can deny nothing to one who loves Him so much he indicates that Judas is to be his betrayer. Yet the beloved disciple is so absorbed in contemplating his Divine Master that he neither notices nor communicates this datum. When the son of Simon Iscariot went out into the darkness only he, Jesus and Satan knew why. Similarly during the Passion of the Lord once more impelled by the need to do something Peter rushes into enemy territory alone and unarmed. Once his impetuous urge has passed he finds himself standing by a charcoal fire surrounded by many who would gladly compass his death. Under the dominion of fear, understandable and very human fear, he then denies his Master three times. The beloved disciples way is very different, together with the mother of Jesus he stands at the foot of the cross sharing the agony beyond words of both the crucified one and Mary. As a consequence it was he and not Peter who was entrusted to the care of the women who was flesh of his Masters flesh and blood of his blood. For the one who can contemplate unflinchingly the rewards are great.

And now, on this Galilee morning, Peter's relentless activism carried him wet and shivering to the side of of the Risen Lord. There is no doubt that Jesus would have been touched by his disciples devotion, perhaps even a little amused. I imagine he would have smilingly urged Peter out of his wet things, perhaps covering him with his own cloak. And then the Prince of Apostles would find himself beside another charcoal fire, made by his Masters hands, to drive away the memory of that other charcoal fire made by the hands that crucified that same Master but could not destroy Him. To the other six Apostles remained the task of bringing the boat and its heavy laden nets to shore. They perhaps were not amused to lose their leader and moving spirit at precisely the time when his energy and drive would have been most useful. Being simple, kindly folk though it is likely enough that the mere sight of their delighted Master with his delighted disciple would have given them so much pleasure that unlike more sophisticated types they may have forgotten to grumble. Upon coming ashore they would immediately have seen and, more evocatively and inspiringly, smelt the breakfast that their Master was preparing for them. The scent of hot bread and grilling fish as it wafted over them would have been a cause of real joy, for they were hungry. It is a fact both real and symbolic that Jesus did not require the fish that the Apostles had caught in order to feed them. The Master feeds His own; Himself Alone, He feeds them. The fish already on land and the fish about to be hauled in also symbolise those who were already disciples and those who would become disciples through the labours of the Apostles obeying the words of Jesus.

There are some people, usually very learned and clever people, who maintain that facts can be either symbolic or they can be real but they cannot be both. Since the Christian scriptures contain many such symbolic facts these clever people go through them closely to separate the real from the symbolic as one separates sheep from goats. Having done this they can produce lists of 'things that might have really happened' and 'things that were made up by the authors to make a point'. They do not do this to prove people like John the Theologian liars, dear me no. What they want to suggest is that there are two kinds of truth, real truth about real things and 'faith truth' which people of faith use to describe their faith encounters. These faith events don't occur in real time and space but only within the heads of believers who then re-present them as if they were real time events as being the only way to explain them in a convincing fashion. The first category is unalterable objective fact, the second category is subjective, the experiences described as events are different for different people. This means that the 'faith truths' which are recorded in the Gospels which do not accord with the 'faith experiences' of the clever, list making people can be safely ignored. And that, very neatly, does away with the need to be crucified. You need to know that these clever, scholarly people could not be more wrong. And here is a real fact that you can stake your life on: Jesus is the Son of God, crucified in the flesh, died in the flesh, risen again in the flesh. If you believe in Him and on His name even though you should die yet will you live. Indeed there is none other name under heaven given to women and men whereby we must be saved.

To complete that morning breakfast the Lord asked for some of the fresh caught fish to be brought to him. Strange to relate this netted haul of fish which seven together could not haul into the boat was now brought ashore by Peter alone and unaided. Now, the scriptures to refer to food and its important effects quite often. For example in the history of the wars of Saul and David we see of Jonathan that
reaching forward and dipping the end of his staff into a honeycomb, took a mouthful from his hand; whereupon his eyesight grew clearer at once (1 Samuel/1 Kings 14:27) And in Genesis it is recorded that Esau sold his inheritance to Jacob in exchange for a rather nice vegetarian casserole. (Gen 25:29-34). This turned out to be an important transaction since God later renamed Jacob as Israel and his descendants, the nation of Israel, still to this day claim that inheritance as their own. The young prophet Daniel and his teenage companions when in captivity in Babylon insisted on a purely vegetarian diet instead of the one provided by the King And- the ten days trial began; when it was over, never a one of the king's pensioners shewed healthy and well nourished as they (Daniel 1:15). The point, however, that the Theologian was drawing our attention to was not the revitalising effects of a bread and fish breakfast. Rather we should understand that Peter alone was able to accomplish what seven together could not because of the strength that comes from an encounter with the Risen Lord. Another of those facts which are both real and symbolic.

This episode recalls another much earlier one involving Simon before he was called Peter and some of the Apostles before they were called to be Apostles. They were all fishing (Luke 5:4-11) and on the advice of Jesus let down their nets at a particular place. They caught so many fish that their nets began to break. And here is yet another symbolic fact. The net represents the Old Covenant of the Jewish people and the Apostles prior to their calling by Jesus its adherents. The net broke and they were unable to cope with the catch because the old Law and righteousness by adherence to it were unable to meet the desire of God to save all the races and peoples of the world from the ruinous consequences of sin. Everything was transformed by the salvific death and resurrection of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ. The net described by John the Theologian represents this Good News about Jesus. In the hands of the Apostles, the men chosen by Christ as leaders and ministers of His Church it is now the a net which is strong enough to contain every nation and tribe and tongue and people (Rev 14:6).

The Evangelist is not known as John the Theologian for nothing. His Gospel account is carefully crafted and every word serves a purpose. It is no accident that he lets us know from the outset that this appearance was seen by seven witnesses. Perhaps he was anticipating the objections of those people who are to clever to accept that God intervenes directly into human history and can bring about events which are both real and symbolic. In any event for Jews of that epoch seven was a number with special significance. It indicated wholeness or completeness, seven was the perfect number for a body of witnesses whose testimony can put a case beyond doubt. We see this number appear in the very first part of the very first part of Scripture when God completes His work of creation on the seventh day (Gen 2:2). This led the Jews into having a seven day week with a mandatory rest day, we take the fact for granted nowadays but int the ancient world it was not so and the Jews were much mocked for their day of rest. When atoning for sin the priests of the Old Covenant sprinkled blood seven times before the Lord (Lev 4:6). Every seven years debts were forgiven (Dt 15:1) and slaves set free (Dt 15:12). When the Jews first entered the promised land the first city they captured, Jericho, fell into their hands after a seven day siege ended with them marching seven times around the city walls behind seven priests with seven trumpets (Jos 6). And the women of Bethlehem told Naomi that her foreign daughter in law Ruth was more wealth to her than seven sons (Ru4:15) meaning by that the perfect number of sons. Incidentally in ancient Israel where daughters were considered inferior to sons and foreigners very much inferior to Israelites it was an extraordinarily powerful compliment to Ruth to put her value above that of seven Israelite boys. To see how she earned this honour you should read the beautiful Book of Ruth which is only four chapters long.

John, therefore, cited this perfect number of witnesses so that his readers might believe his testimony and theirs. If we do so then we will surely come to believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and through believing we will have life in and through His name.

Tuesday 9 August 2011

Not Burning Books

I heard a report about the riots in London last night. The journalist said that every single shop in a street had been broken into and looted; except Waterstones. This means that hundreds of young people were desperate to grab the things of the flesh as represented by clothes, shoes, jewellery, bits of technology, money, but were completely indifferent to the world of ideas and the imagination as represented by books. If we had a generation of teenagers that wanted to loot books and then cart them home to read then that would be a sign of hope. But we seem to have a generation or, to be more precise, a small group within a generation that is about taking and having and using and then throwing away. Children who do not have dreams about green fields and broad horizons but have urges for sports gear and blackberries are already lost, a lost generation and role models for another lost generation-in-waiting. What poverty of imagination and mind throws aside the opportunity to pick up free books in favour of breaking and burning and destroying things of metal and brick and extracting things of plastic and lycra? What goes on in those heads and in those hearts? Those who fail to long for beauty can only bring about ugliness.

Young people are responsible for their own actions but they are not responsible for the world in which they find themselves or the messages they have been given by those who are older and have had the power to create or to stifle imaginations. Whatever Fire Brigade methods are needed to deal with today's problems today we, as a society, have a responsibility to form the young people of that lost-generation-in-waiting. If we cannot stop them rioting in ten years time at least let us form in them the desire to steal books and not bling.

Wednesday 16 February 2011

After the event

My mother died twelve years ago and my father died last month. After the first event I had this poem published-

After the event
I saw my Father after mum died.
He looks smaller. He looks deserted.
He’s not the same man he used to be.
When I was a boy I thought he was
Best in the world. I used to boast
About him. “Best in the world my Dad.”
It feels wrong me being bigger than
Him, and not just in size. What can I do?
His pains too deep to touch and anyway Fathers
And sons just don’t talk like that. Besides
                                                              he’ s
Never watched Oprah and won’t know how to
Get the pain inside on the out. Poor man.
He does things he’s never done before.
He cooks and washes. He irons does the
And sits and cries, and cries and cries.
I was thirty-five before I saw Dad weeping.
Now he can’t stop and I can’t help.
To him however many of us are in the
House it’s always empty 'cos Mum’s not there.
He used to dream of this and hope to
Do that. Looked forward to retiring. He wishes
Now that he was dead, with Mum and what
Can I say? “Don’t go dad we need you too.”
Fathers and sons. If only we could communicate
If only I could make him see. For me he’s
Still the best in the world. Still.

Friday 11 February 2011

It's all about sex

One of the odd things about moving from being a hospital based nurse to being a Carthusian monk to being a hospital nurse again is the gender mix. From an overwhelmingly female environment to an exclusively male one back to an overwhelmingly female one. Apart from noting that men and women are not the same as each other is there anything more profound to be said about it all? I did see something of a group dynamic thing. In the monastery certain roles normally fulfilled by women are not left vacant but filled by men instead. That is to do with a willingness to expose personal vulnerabilities. Usually men will be reluctant to express fears or desires in a group situation but are secretly glad when women do it for them. In the absence of women you might expect these things to be unmentioned but apparently really felt needs are more important than maintaing a macho front. Conversely in more or less female only settings women are less inhibited about appearing decisive, assertive and willing to lead. Interesting.

Thursday 27 January 2011

Girl Power

When I was in the monastery I wrote a number of reflections on passages from the Gospels. This is what I wrote about Luke 20:1-8

1One day, as he was teaching the people in the temple and telling the good news, the chief priests and the scribes came with the elders2and said to him, "Tell us, by what authority are you doing these things? Who is it who gave you this authority?"3He answered them, "I will also ask you a question, and you tell me:4Did the baptism of John come from heaven, or was it of human origin?"5They discussed it with one another, saying, "If we say, "From heaven,' he will say, "Why did you not believe him?'6But if we say, "Of human origin,' all the people will stone us; for they are convinced that John was a prophet."7So they answered that they did not know where it came from.8Then Jesus said to them, "Neither will I tell you by what authority I am doing these things."
Back in the Middle Ages the inhabitants of Italian city-state Siena coined a brand new word to describe a strange phenomena that was happening in their town. Many talented, highly educated and extremely intelligent men; priests, friars, hospital administrators and others were putting promising careers on hold. Instead they were sitting at the feet of a frail illiterate young woman called Catherine Benincasa, a dyers daughter, and being taught by her. It wasn't only locals either. Many came from much further afield. Some professors and doctors of theology visited the city for the sole purpose of exposing the girl as some sort of hysterical fraud. Having heard young Ms Benincasa, or St Catherine of Siena as she is now known, they instead abandoned all their property and possessions in order to follow the poor Christ. In the local parlance they had been becatherined.

The new word had more than a hint of an old word, bewitched, about it but there could not be two more widely different phenomena. One has had been bewitched finds themselves unwillingly under the influence and power of another, through the manipulation of the lower spirits of the air. One is becatherined when one joyfully recognises the Holy Spirit of God himself at work in the person one is encountering. Then one willingly and gladly hears such a charismatic (i.e. a gifted person) because through such a person one can discern Gods will for us is today.

In the following century there was an even more spectacular example of becatherining to be seen in the life life and career of the teenage charismatic Joan of Arc. First of all she becatherined the French heah of state into putting her in charge of his army. Next she becatherined the officers and soldiers into obeying her orders, often against their own better judgement. The result was a series of victories which set in motion a process that led to the liberation of France from her wicked foreign oppressors (the English). Even in this modern world of gender equality it is rare to find seventeen year old girl generals, in Medieval Europe it was unique. The epoch is also known as "the Age of Belief" and here at least we can see why. Medieval Europeans knew that Gad still acted directly in the lives of his children and they were often willing to stake everything they had in the belief that they had discerned his presence among them.

The subsequent career path of Joan, she was burnt at the stake for witchcraft (there's that W word again), shows some of the limits of becatherining. Many people, often the most outwardly 'religious', will fiercely resist being becatherined because it forces them to change their own definition of what 'religious' means. Which may explain why it was priests who brought about the condemnation and execution of St Joan. All of which brings us, rather neatly, on to the figure of John the Baptist whose becatherining actions Jesus asked the chief priests and scribes about.

John had been very successful in his mission to becatherine the ordinary folk of Judea, Jerusalem and beyond but the official religious establishment had been, on the whole, much less impressed. The counter question that Jesus posed in the Temple was not some random piece of repartee plucked out of the air to confuse his opponents. It went to the very heart of his own mission. Merely by hesitating at all the scribes implicitly conceded that there was, after all, a legitimate source of authority independent of Temple, priest and scribe. The history of Israel and their sacred scriptures, beginning with the Law of Moses all testified to the authority of the inpired prophets of God. They could not then deny the possibility that prophets had again risen in Israel without also denying the very religion they professed to be guardians of. The problem is that in every age religious authorities are focussed, quite properly, in running a tight ship while prophets aim at rocking the boat. The two do not always get on well together.

Just before leaving the Baptist behind we should note another variant on a theme, the semi-becatherine. John was a prisoner of Herod who "feared John knowing that he was a righteous and holy man" (Mark 6:20). "When he heard him he was greatly perplexed and yet he liked to listen to him". The semi-becatherined are those who know that God is speaking to them but are afraid to act on what they know to be true. It is an unstable condition, faced with pressure from his wife Herodias and the bewitching charms of her daughter Salome, Herod had the Baptist beheaded.

The reason why the opponents of Jesus were bound to accept the arguments in favour of heeding charismatic voices was because they took their stand on the Law of Moses, itself named after the most influential charismatic leader in Jewish history. And he had received a mission statement from the Almighty which all subsequent becatheriners could lay claim to. "I have made thee a God to Pharaoh" (Exodus 7:1 KJV). Which sounds quite extreme but Jesus himself confirmed and made explicit this becatherining charter "it is not you who speak but the Spirit of your Father speaking through you" (Mark 10:19). So once it is granted that the person who is speaking is a genuine charismatic then it is also granted that it is not them that is being heard but the Creator of all that is, seen and unseen.

The Law itself foretold that one day a prophet would arise in Israel who would be as great as Moses himself (Deuteronomy 18:15-19). If therefore the chief priests and scribes had said "only if you have authority vested in you by ourselves or some other recognised human institution like the Rabbinic schools can you legitimately act in this manner" then they would have been explicitly denying the very scriptures they claimed to be defending. A similar kind of situation involving yet another girl charismatic occurred in the nineteenth century. The girl, a poor frail teenager, reported seeing visions of an extraordinarily beautiful woman near her home town. Although many common folk received her story gladly the authorities and the priests called her a "little liar" and tried to stop her reporting these things. What the priests, unlike the state police, could not do was deny the possibility the the girl might just possibly be telling the truth. Like those in the Temple nearly two thousand years earlier they also believed that God spoke the truth when he said "I will pour out my spirit on all flesh; your sons and daughters shall prophesy.Your old men shall dream dreams and your young men will see visions. Even on the male and female slaves, in those days, I will pour out my spirit"(Joel 2:28,29). The way the rest of the situation subsequently played out showed that, perhaps, they were premature to accuse St Bernadette of Lourdes of lying.

It is a fact, common to both the old religion of the Jews and the new one of the Christians, that God has, as it were, built in with the bricks of his revelation the concept of his Spirit at being at work-teaching, commanding, consoling. And so if a teacher or visionary arises in any generation of the People of God, becatherining here and becatherining there then the religious authorities of the day are unable to say outright "it is against our Law to do such things" because plainly it is not. Becatherining is a divinely instituted factor in the life of Gods people and always has been. All that the establishment can do is "test the spirits to see that they are from God" (1 John 4:1). By that test, in the time of the Gospels Jesus could not be faulted which is why his opponents could only produce false witnesses against him at his trial (Matthew 26:60).

There are a couple of features about charismatic authority worth highlighting at this point. One is that it can be exercised in ways apart from the spoken word. Our Lord hinted at this by asking his question about John's baptism rather than about John's preaching. It is quite common, in fact, to becatherine by actions, deeds, instead of, or as a companion to, words. St Francis of Assisi, who single handedly becatherined thousands of young men into becoming vagrants for Christ, is reputed to have said "preach the Gospel at all times, if absolutely necessary use words as well." Books are another becatherining tool. Many people have decided to change their lives after reading classics like "Pilgrims Progress", St Augustine's "Confessions" or "The Cross and the Switchblade". Little did they realise that they had been becatherined. Ms Benincasa herself wrote, or rather dictated, a book now known as "The Dialogues of St Catherine of Siena" and still today, seven hundred years later, people reading it find themselves like their medieval predecessors literally and metaphorically becatherined.

Another characteristic feature of charismatics is that they often precede their mission with a period, long or short, of of withdrawal from the world, fasting and prayer. John the Baptist lived long years in the wilderness until he appeared before Israel (Luke 1:80). Jesus spent 40 days in the desert without food (Mark 1:12,13). The compulsive becatheriner by letter St Paul was three years in Arabia before setting of on his travels. St Catherine herself also took three years although in her bedroom rather than in a desert. Many other teenagers have spent similar amounts of time in their bedrooms thus demonstrating that this conduct does not inevitably lead to sainthood. The very first Israelite, Jacob, did it all in a single night. He sent everybody he loved and everything he possessed away and then, as it were, naked spent the night wrestling with an angel. After it was done he received a new name, Israel, and was told "you have striven with God and with humans and have prevailed" (Genesis 32:22-28). Then he went of to becatherine his warlike brother Esau.

Possibly the most dramatic of becatherining episodes in scripture is that involving the normally shy girl charismatic Esther. The Book of Esther has come down to us in two forms, one originally Greek and one originally Hebrew. It is the Greek version that has the drama and the beauty of Esthers exploits most clearly displayed. Unfortunately because of an argument between Christian hundreds of years ago some Bibles only contain the Hebrew version. The classic King James Version (KJV) of the Bible contains the Greek parts under the title "the rest of the chapters of the Book of Esther" and uses vivid language of great power in translating them into English. One can only feel sad that despite the intentions of the original translators and indeed the wise King James himself so few modern editions of the KJV contain these chapters. Still they are there to be found if you search diligently enough.

Briefly the becatherining build-up is as follows. Esther, the favourite wife of the very bad tempered (and sexist) King Artaxerxes, is Jewish but prudently keeps quiet about it in the huge royal palace. The King's chief adviser Haman (or Aman) hates Jews and persuades Artaxerxes to put his name to an edict which will bring about a general massacre of Jewish people in his kingdom on a particular date. Esthers uncle Mordecai (or Mardocheus) urges her to visit the King in order to change his mind and save the Jews from destruction. The plan would be straightforward but for the fact that it is against the law to appear before the King without first being summoned. To do so usually leads to a swift but unpleasant execution, yes, he really was that bad tempered,

Queen Esther then went into pre-becatherine mode. A period of fasting and prayer was now begun, She "laid away her glorious apparel, and put on the garments of anguish and mourning: and instead of precious ointments, she covered her head with ashes and dung" (Esther 14:2) Not a girl who did things by halves obviously. While praying Esther specifically asked for the becatherining charism "Give me eloquent speech in my mouth before the lion: turn his heart to hate him that fighteth against us" (Esther 14:13)

Following those days of agony, alone before God, the Queen then spruced herself up being "gloriously adorned" as befits a beautiful talented young lady of Royal status. Looking cheerful but feeling absolutely dreadful she set of for her encounter with Artaxerxes. Very briefly scripture records "having passed through all the doors, she stood before the king" (Esther 15:6). It is worth pausing and putting yourself in Esthers, no doubt glamorous, shoes for a moment. Artaxerxes ruled over a mighty empire and had a palace to match. It was a very, very long walk from the woman's quarters to the audience chamber. As befitting a Queen Esther had two servants with her and still other servants would be required to open each door as she came to it. Door after door after door. Esther, remember, believed that she was going to meet almsot certain death and yet all along that terrible journey she maintained a cheerful countenance and a queenly manner to suit her "glorious apparel". What she did that day displayed greater courage than many a soldier advancing under enemy fire has been required to show.

The moment of truth "Then lifting up his countenance that shone with majesty, he looked very fiercely upon her"(Esther 15:7a). Providence decreed then that Esther was to work her becatherining by deed rather than word; and by the very deed that came most naturally to her under the circumstances "the queen fell down, and was pale, and fainted"(Esther 15:7b). "Then God changed the spirit of the king into mildness" (Esther 15:8). "The king said to her, "What is it, Queen Esther? What is your request? It shall be given you, even to the half of my kingdom."" (Esther 5:3). And, as the Jewish feast of Purim still to this day records, Esther saved the day for the Jews.

Words do not appear in scripture by accident. Many centuries after Artaxerxes another monarch promised the dancing girl Salome "Whatever you ask me I will give you, even half my kingdom". Herod's promise to a sensuous woman led to the execution of a charismatic man of prayer. Artaxerxes promise to a virtuous charismatic woman led to a whole people escaping from execution. There is a meaning and purpose behind these not quite parallel situations which repays meditating upon.

The question asked of Jesus was "by what authority"? Those asking it believed that as custodians of established religion they had God for their authority. Nor were they entirely wrong as the Lord said on another occasion. "the scribes and the Pharisees sit in Moses seat therefore do whatever they teach and follow it"(Matthew 23:2,3). On the other hand Jesus by his divine Sonship and the power of the Holy Spirit certainly had the authority of the living God for his words and actions. Then as now there was a constant tension in the People of God between being stewards of his historical self-revelation recorded in scriptures and his dynamic intervention into the affairs of today through charismatic agents. A prominent Italian Christian recently put it like this "There can, then, be no real opposition or conflict between the invisible mission of the Holy Spirit and the juridical commission of Ruler and Teacher received from Christ, since they mutually complement and perfect each other -- as do the body and soul in man -- and proceed from our one Redeemer "(Mystici Corporis Christi 65)

One of the signs of a genuine charismatic is that she (or sometime he) never contradicts the the revealed truth although they often force us to focus on those elements of it that make us feel most uncomfortable. The reason why they rock the boat is that it is the most potent way of getting Gods people to re-balance the cargo in the hold. Wise religious leaders recognise this. In her day Catherine of Siena wrote a stream of letters to the reigning Popes. In those letters she frankly bullied and hectored them demanding that they should act in particular ways. Whatever their other failings, and they had many, the Popes in question meekly accepted her letters and often sought to comply with her instructions. They, after all, were only Popes and Ms Benincasa was a becatheriner.