Friday 22 June 2012

Enter the Logos [Pt 1]

For many centuries the author of the fourth Gospel has been known to the Orthodox East as Saint John the Theologian. It is an apt title, his is the most highly structured of the Gospel accounts we possess. Each word, each incident serves a purpose and fits into a pattern. They signify themselves and beyond themselves. It is no surprise then to see that the first seven utterances of Jesus in the Gospel of St John, all contained in Chapter 1, constitute in a way an effective summary of our Lords mission and the life of the Church and the Christian. These are His seven first words-

“What are you looking for?”
“Come and see.”
“You are Simon, son of John, but you shall be called Cephas” (which means Rock).
“Follow me.”
“Here comes an Israelite, a true one; there is nothing false in him.”
 “Before Philip called you, you were under the fig tree and I saw you.”
 “You believe because I said: ‘I saw you under the fig tree.’ But you will see greater things than that.
 Truly, I say to you, you will see the heavens opened and the angels of God ascending and descending upon the Son of Man.”
(Christian Community Bible, Catholic Pastoral Edition)

His first words are directed to St Andrew and one other (possibly the Theologian himself) who follow after Him because He has been pointed to as the Lamb of God. Few people in the world today know nothing at all about Jesus. The disciples who left John the Baptist to find out more about the Lamb had no clear idea what this title meant and still less did they have an understanding of the One who bore that title. We also when we begin to walk after Jesus, not to obey Him but to question Him, have no clear idea whom it is we are behind or what power for us He carries within Himself. So He first questions us and not we Him. What are we looking for? Truth? Peace of heart and mind? Love? Rest of soul? Perhaps all of these things, maybe others beside. We do not need to know in detail what it is that we seek. All we need to know for certain is that we are restless and will never be at rest until we find that one thing we need. Nor, at the beginning of our journey, do we need to know or affirm that we will find that certain rest in Jesus. What we need is to acknowledge the reality of our permanent restlessness and express the hope and desire that in knowing Jesus we will come to know just what it is we are looking for. Something we can only really know in full at the moment when we see that we have found it.

"Come and see," it is an invitation to abide with Jesus. It is a journey from where you are now to some other place. It is the promise of a vision at journey's end of something unseen before by your eyes. How can we, thousands of years later, accept this invitation for ourselves and walk where St Andrew walked and see what he and one other, beloved of the Lord, saw? We must make the same decisions which they made, for then we shall be in an identical place with them. They first accepted the authority of St John the Baptist, they believed him when he pointed and said "Behold the Lamb of God". There are a cloud of witnesses before us who point in the same way, some famous some perhaps known to only a few within our own little circle. If we accept on the authority of the sanctity and purity of their live's, of the fruits they have borne, that they are a powerful testimony to the One who has changed them then we can seek to learn more about that One also. That is the first decision. The second is a twofold abandonment. Having heard John's witness the companions straightway abandoned him. Later he would say of Jesus  It is necessary that he increase but that I decrease. (John 3:30). In a purely human scale this has an inescapably sad ring to it but John himself gave this as a reason for him greatly to rejoice. Indeed, he said that his joy was now full. For if we abandon a truly faithful witness to fly to the heart of Jesus we will find, amidst other treasures, that same faithful witness only now we will understand them better and love them more.

Almost simultaneous with their abandonment of St John the companions abandoned themselves. The direction of travel they left to another. To another they gave the guidance of their eyes so that they would come to see what He put before them to gaze upon. On the apparently slender basis of John's brief witness and Jesus's brief invitation they struck out in a new direction, impelled by a divine restlessness and buoyed up by a divine hope. It has been the fate of many over the centuries deceived by charlatans, misguided by rogues, to set out on similar journeys only to end up bitter and crushed, robbed, deceived, betrayed and themselves abandoned. Indeed, a few short years later that seemed to be the experience of the companions themselves as they saw their beloved one dead upon a Cross. This was, ultimately, what Jesus was calling upon them, and us with them, to "come and see". If we abandon all and stumble at the Cross then we lose all. And if we, with Mary, stand firm at the Cross then we gain all. But for us, without the firmness of a perfect faith, it is always a gamble. If we make the same decisions as the companions then it is a promise that we could see what they saw and abide where they abide. It is not a guarantee that we will though. A journey is not itself an ending.

His first words to Simon are of an altogether different kind. He looks at him and immediately gives him a new title. He is to be the Rock. Almost at the beginning of the Gospel Peter becomes the Rock at the command of Jesus. Almost at the end he becomes the Shepherd “Feed my lambs.” “Look after my sheep.” “Feed my sheep" (John 21) The word reported by the Theologian  are never without significance or purpose. If he places Simon Peter in a special place then it is a sure sign that his Divine Master had done so before him. Each of us who seeks Jesus has a reason for doing so, we desire something or a something from Him. But it is a two way relationship, He desires something or a something from us also. And that something is different for each one of us. Some, and not the least important in the Kingdom, spend their lives and fulfil their purpose in obscure well doing, prayer, service, in solitude or in the midst of a bustling family. Others are called, not by themselves, to live prominently. To lead, to guide, to discipline, to exhort, to command. If the first word of Jesus was to call for followers his second was to establish a hierarchy amongst them. We cannot, if we are faithful to the words of Scripture, pretend that the Jesus Community consisted of one Saviour and an undifferentiated mass of followers. It consisted of first Jesus, then Peter. As it was so it now is in the Church He left established with His blood and upheld through His Spirit and that of the Father.

Wednesday 20 June 2012

Pointless Images

36 Bend my heart to your instructions, not to selfish gain.
37 Avert my eyes from pointless images, by your word give me life.
Psalm 118/9 (New Jerusalem Bible)

In an era where English was used in a more elegant fashion the translator might have written "incline my heart" or possibly "sway my heart". What is at issue here is a change of direction in our life's journey and our willing acceptance of a guiding force or power to be the focal point of our heart compass. To talk about a heart swaying is to acknowledge the always real possibility of first bending one way and then bending back upon oneself to return back whence we came, and beyond, upon the road we so need to abandon. To talk of an inclination is to consider that whatever weaving goes on the final destination towards which we aim remains constant. Simply to bend suggests the adoption of an awkward and difficult to retain posture. Which may not be entirely inappropriate for the plea that David is making here is for assistance in doing something that we cannot do ourselves alone.

The word "heart" is rich with meaning and evocative power in the context of Sacred Scripture and Christian tradition, the Orthodox talk of "prayer of the heart", the Catholics of the Sacred Heart of Jesus and the Immaculate Heart of Mary. Blessed John Henry, Cardinal, Newman chose as his motto cor ad cor loquitur, "heart speaks unto heart." The heart is the true centre of a person. It is their essence, that within them which points always towards the true, because it is always itself true. In fact, the mystics would say that it is God Himself since only He is ever true and pointing towards truth so that our own heart, the wellspring of our individual life, is God. He is within as well as without. This would mean that heart speaking to heart is not two hearts but one which nonetheless in a divine paradox is not a monologue but a fruitful dialogue. The mystery at work here is that of a unity of being containing a multiplicity of persons. We are each within God and He within us so that we are one. We are each created uniquely by the One to abide within Him in just the fashion that we are suited to and no other. Our individual personhood is not lost in unity, it is fulfilled.

When David, then, talks of our heart being bent by God towards God He is not referring to that in us which is always inclined in that direction. He is talking of the imagined heart, the simulacrum of a heart, that we create and establish as a pointless image for our eyes to gaze upon and our desires to follow. This is ever bent in an awkward posture since we have created it, however unconsciously, with the express purpose of turning ourselves away from the light which disturbs us and towards the gloom where all is cool and not at all challenging to our sensual desires. In a sense he is asking that we be un-bent.

To the contemporary mind bending to instructions conveys the unpleasant, apparently pointless, image of the individual exchanging freedom for servitude. Of all the illusions we cherish that of absolute individual autonomy is perhaps the most precious to us today. We demand our rights a hundred or a thousand times before we place the same pressure on ourselves to fulfil our obligations. Or, at least, we appear to since the world only functions as well as it does, and we within it, precisely because so many of us fulfil our obligations and discharge our duties a hundred or a thousand times more frequently than we evade them. In truth most of us most of the time do the right thing because it is what the heart impels us to do even while our head, our vain imaginings, pushes us in a different way. What David is praying for here is just this, to unite our thoughts and our imagination to our heart. The instructions we seek are the words which will express to our mind what the heart already knows to be true.

It is, nonetheless, the case that when we come under these divine instructions that we constrain our actions or potential actions and must do real violence to our desires for selfish gain. We embark upon a path of struggle. It is a commonplace of spiritual writers to say that in service is our real freedom but we cannot pretend that this is any other than a freedom which is experienced as a constraint, a gain which feels like a loss. The wound that Original Sin has made in our natures allows us to desire as good things that which harms us and to experience as harms those things which are good. This is why David calls upon the assistance of the good God to make this submission to instructions, without Him we cannot follow the path that leads to happiness. He it is that strengthens us to see that submission, service and self-forgetfulness, those paths that lead away from the pursuit of moment to moment pleasure, is the one road that leads to happiness.  If we seek pleasure alone we do not seek happiness, if we seek happiness who knows what pleasures we shall find along the way?

Among the distractions from that one road which assail our heart are those pointless images of which David speaks. It may be a metaphor for the things which blind the eyes of the heart, but, there are too very many actual images, pointless and aimless, which attract and hold the eyes in our head. It is an often used cliché, sometimes employed even by the fiercest of those partisans of absolute individual autonomy, that we are "bombarded with images". And it is true but not the whole truth. Frequently, daily, hourly, we choose many of those images with which to bombard ourselves. We choose what pictures will distract us. We choose what images will strengthen our resolve to commit actual sin and give us new and varied pleasures of selfish gain. It is not a wholly free choice but a choice it certainly is. Whether it be the Shopping Channel or the Pornography Channel it is a means to reinforce the inclinations we wish to reinforce and drown out the heart voice that calls for us to gaze upon that beyond images which contains all images as realities. The Children of Israel rebelled by creating out of their own resources a Golden Calf to worship. I heard an Anabaptist theologian defining worship is "giving your undivided allegiance to". Like the rebellious Israelites we also give our allegiance to what we produce out of ourselves which is a roundabout way of giving our allegiance to ourselves alone. They are pointless images because they are as insubstantial as our own ego's which a moments careless driving or a day's illness can destroy utterly.

So what we need is life and, moreover, a life which will endure the greatest of traumas and disasters and triumph even over the apparently final drama of death. David asks for that single word of God which is life itself. He did not know what that word was when he asked for it. He did know that there was just such a word and that God would one day speak it and liberate His people by it and through it. And He did. The word is Jesus and praised be His name.


Thursday 7 June 2012

Desire, the powerful enemy of the soul

Reflection on The Letter of James 1:13-16

13No one, when tempted, should say, ‘I am being tempted by God’; for God cannot be tempted by evil and he himself tempts no one. 
14But one is tempted by one’s own desire, being lured and enticed by it; 
15then, when that desire has conceived, it gives birth to sin, and that sin, when it is fully grown, gives birth to death. 
16Do not be deceived, my beloved.

There is a popular school of thought which suggests that the major world religions are basically moral codes, guides about how you should live your life, with supernatural bits more or less artificially tagged on in order to reinforce the point. Certainly history can show us examples of rulers of states or heads of families who, irreligious themselves, encourage religion in lesser mortals as a way to ensure their obedience and compliance with the rules. No doubt too there are many practitioners of religion, including religious leaders, who embrace their faith first and foremost out of a love of order, hierarchy, obedience. I think these all miss the point.

Virtue and morality are not burdens that we take upon ourselves to please a demanding and vengeful God. Vice and immorality are burdens that we shed in order to travel more easily towards a realm of perfect love and pure light. The desire for self satisfaction through possessing for oneself material objects or intense sensual experiences or other persons produce more fetters for our bodies and souls than any number of self sacrificing or self denying acts. Jealous anger, frustrated desire, contemptuous disregard for the needs of others these are the things that make of our days a torment and of our desires a prison. It is only when we leave them to one side that we can truly begin to experience a sense of freedom.

Religion, in the Christian sense, is primarily about a relationship of self giving love and the more freely and fully we can give it then the more fully, and fulfillingly, can we receive it. Each desire for selfish goods is narrow and circular, beginning and ending with ourselves, and so limits our potential to receive what is wide. It is not by taking on a moral code that we can come to know God, it is by knowing God that we can take on a moral code which aids us to know Him better and love Him more, a love primarily expressed through serving and loving our neighbours whom He also loves with a perfect love.

The mystical Theologia Germanica has this interesting passage  

If there were no self-will, there would be no proprietorship. There is no proprietorship in heaven; and this is why contentment, peace, and blessedness are there. If anyone in heaven were so bold as to call anything his own, he would immediately be cast out into hell, and become an evil spirit. But in hell everyone will have self-will, and therefore in hell is every kind of wretchedness and misery. And so it is also on earth. But if anyone in hell could rid himself of his self-will and call nothing his own, he would pass out of hell into heaven. And if a man, while here on earth, could be entirely rid of self-will and proprietorship, and stand up free and at liberty in the true light of God, and continue therein, he would be sure to inherit the kingdom of heaven. For he who has anything, or who desires to have anything of his own, is a slave; and he who has nothing of his own, nor desires to have anything, is free and at liberty, and is in bondage to no man.

This, I think, clearly makes the point that the primary cause of our spiritual sufferings is not that an unjust God forbids us to be gluttons or serial adulterers or possessors of unjustly acquired wealth. The primary cause is that we desire to possess when happiness, in truth, consists of letting go. This is the clear example that Jesus sets us, as laid out in Philippians 2 by St Paul-

 3Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility regard others as better than yourselves. 4Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others. 5Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus, 
6 who, though he was in the form of God,
   did not regard equality with God
   as something to be exploited, 
7 but emptied himself,
   taking the form of a slave,
   being born in human likeness.
And being found in human form, 
8   he humbled himself
   and became obedient to the point of death—
   even death on a cross. 

The image of God the Son leaving behind the glory of heaven to become not only a human but a human born into poverty is a sign that we too need to leave all to obtain all. A similar image is also, perhaps, contained in the story of  Prince Siddhartha leaving his palace and kingdom in order, eventually, to become the Buddha. The one desire that brings us happiness is the desire to love perfectly and to be perfectly loved. All other desires are lesser and will lead us not to lesser happinesses but to greater unhappinesses.

Note. The title of this piece is from a line spoken by Krishna in the Bhagavad Gita 3:43 "Know Him therefore who is above reason; and let his peace give thee peace. Be a warrior and kill desire, the powerful enemy of the soul."
All scripture quotes are from the New Revised Standard Version.