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.