Sunday 23 December 2012

Season to be jolly?

In a secular NHS can a Christian nurse, without proselytising, deliver something unique to her or his patients over the Christmas season? At first sight the answer to that would seem to be a clear No. There are no uniquely Christian virtues, anything a bad Christian can do a good Atheist/Jew/Muslim could do better. And even if such virtues did exist they would be for life and not just for Christmas. A virtue only spanning twelve days of the year would be a curious thing indeed.

To answer the question we need to start, as we always should, with the patient and what they need and can rightfully expect from those caring for them. As Christmas approaches the loved ones of patients and NHS staff at all levels make detailed and sometimes quite heroic plans to ensure that people can spend all or part of the big day where they want to be, at home or with those dear to them outside of a clinical setting. Left behind are the very sick, those with unmanageable symptoms, such as nausea or pain, the dying, the very poor who are better off in hospital, those whose nearest and dearest are nearly as frail as themselves and those with no one nearby who cares enough to take them out. The last two categories, in my experience over the last quarter of a century or so, has grown noticeably. It used to be the case often that nurses outnumbered patients on Christmas day. No more.

And here the category difference between those who celebrate "the big day" as a time of family, friends, giving, receiving and jollity and those who mark the birth of the Christ child comes into effect. Christians are not averse to all these convivial things, far from it, but for us the "big day" is Easter. Christmas is the necessary prelude to Passion Week. The shadow of the Cross always lies across the crib. The insight that suffering and death is intrinsic to life is not unique to Christianity, Buddhism has it at least as fully. What Christianity uniquely brings to the feast is that not only is there an inevitable shadow but that it is this very thing which is the sign of hope, of resurrection from affliction. Christians are Easter people and Alleluia is our song, as St Augustine put it.

The philosopher Simone Weil made a distinction between affliction and suffering In the realm of suffering, affliction is something apart, specific, and irreducible. It is quite a different thing from simple suffering. It takes possession of the soul and marks it through and through with its own particular mark Those who remain in hospital or hospice on 25 December are almost inevitably bearers of this mark.Be it pain Affliction is an uprooting of life, a more or less attenuated equivalent of death, made irresistibly present to the soul by the attack or immediate apprehension of physical pain. other symptoms or persistent and inescapable loneliness and the spiritual desolation which it bears. Affliction is a state which only the afflicted inhabits. Not even the most empathetic nurse or carer, not even one marked by affliction themselves, can enter into an individuals own Golgotha. They are in the valley of the shadow of death even, perhaps especially, when they can expect to live for many more years yet.

To the task of caring for such people in the Christmas season nurses bring as many different skills as there are different nurses. The season can be a burden for those who have an expectation that it is a season to be jolly, to be with loved ones, to be happy the livelong day. Expectations which they are unable to meet in any single respect. Christian nurses do not have any special gifts aof sympathy or sensitivity that others do not. At this time of the year though what we can bring, as Easter people is the sense that the outward and visible signs of the celebrating world mask more than they reveal of the Christmas message. One does not fail to mark Christmas rightly if jolliness is beyond our grasp. Christmas, indeed, is one test that no one can fail. In practical terms that means not, as a nurse, feeling the need to console a patient for "missing out". It is a case, perhaps, where doing less can achieve more.

Or, to say the same thing in seventeen syllables-

Valley of death. Grim
Shadow. Skulking dog in gloom.
Sunlight shaft piercing. 

Monday 17 December 2012

The real meaning of Christmas haiku

           Valley of death. Grim
          Shadow. Skulking dog in gloom.
         Sunlight shaft piercing. 

Saturday 15 December 2012

The Logos in sight.

 40 For this is the will of my Father, that everyone who looks on the Son and believes in him should have eternal life, and I will raise him up on the last day.

John 6 

For St John the Theologian seeing or looking upon Jesus is an important part of the Good News. It can be seen as a running theme through much of his Gospel account. Almost the first words he reports our Lord saying are "come and see", words which St Philip echoes on his first evangelical mission to St Nathaniel. Our Lords final reported words. to St Thomas, in what was probably the originally planned final chapter (20) are “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.” John 20 John does not use words without a purpose nor does he write without a schema in mind. At one level he appears to be saying that with the Ascension one mode of access to the Saviour, with the eyes, is closed and henceforth the believer is less richly gifted than the Apostolic generation of His followers. Indeed the opening of his first letter points clearly to this theme   1:1 That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we looked upon and have touched with our hands, concerning the word of life— 2 the life was made manifest, and we have seen it, and testify to it and proclaim to you the eternal life, which was with the Father and was made manifest to us— 3 that which we have seen and heard we proclaim also to you, so that you too may have fellowship with us; and indeed our fellowship is with the Father and with his Son Jesus Christ. 4 And we are writing these things so that our joy may be complete. 1 John 1

St John can believe firmly, fully and truly because he has seen. Is he calling upon us to believe in the same way simply because we trust implicitly in his witness and the testimony of the other Apostles? Perhaps he is, but he is also more subtle than that. Different kinds of people will believe the same thing for different kinds of reasons. The words of the Evangelists carry conviction for those who find good cause to believe them reliable reporters. Others will approach from the opposite angle and seek to establish the reports accuracy before crediting the reporters (and who nowadays trusts a reporter?). For these St John provides pointers to the sort of direct experience of Jesus which will have the power to convince. In the chapter containing my opening quote there is guidance to experiencing the Incarnated Christ in the Eucharist, but this is about taste, touch and sensation as a form of the Divine encounter it does not address the experience of looking on the Son.

Does the Theologian provide such pointers to the experience of seeing Jesus as well? I think he does in two ways, via the fullness of the Incarnation and via the absence, as it were, of the Incarnation. Firstly, St John gives a vivid account of the Passion. Pilate displaying the scourged Saviour says "Behold the man" and again "Behold your King" (John 19) and then he delivers Him over to be crucified. And as He is taken down from the Cross the Theologian concludes his account with the words “They will look on him whom they have pierced.” There are different ways of reading the Gospels. One, perhaps the most widespread, is to study them for meaning. Another is to inhabit them, to enter into their life with our own lives. For the first generation of Christians, mostly illiterate perhaps, the Gospels were heard spoken by those deeply moved and convinced by them. Sometimes, indeed, spoken by eyewitnesses to the events described or fellows of the Apostles. For those hearers those accounts were inhabited. They almost literally saw them. As they took them away in their minds and hearts and meditated upon them in the days and hours after they could experience a good deal of what it meant to look on the Son, broken, bruised and bleeding, and so believe in Him, entering thus upon eternal life.

For me, however, the clearest description of the Son and the most direct way I have found to look on Him is to be found in these words that the Theologian addresses to us-

 1:1 In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. 2 He was in the beginning with God. 3 All things were made through him, and without him was not any thing made that was made. 4 In him was life, and the life was the light of men. 5 The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it. 1 John
What form could the Son have before there was form at all? Before there were forms there were Persons. One Person, who later could be described "he had no form or majesty that we should look at him, and no beauty that we should desire him." Isaiah 53, was first the Logos. Heraclitus, the ancient Greek philosopher spoke, long before Christianity, of the Logos in this way All things come out of the One and the One out of all things. ... I see nothing but Becoming. Be not deceived! It is the fault of your limited outlook and not the fault of the essence of things if you believe that you see firm land anywhere in the ocean of Becoming and Passing. You need names for things, just as if they had a rigid permanence, but the very river in which you bathe a second time is no longer the same one which you entered before. The Son is the rational principle underlying God's creation because He was first of all a Divine Person of the Blessed Trinity. To look on the Son and believe in Him means to look upon the self giving principle that empties Himself that we may be full. Who empties Himself for love, in love and through love. Who uses love to render hate void and weakness to overcome strength. Whom darkness can neither overcome nor comprehend. To look upon all this with thankfulness is to do all that is required to see the Son and enter in upon His promises.

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Joyful Mysteries haiku

The Annunciation 

Hail full of grace. Hail
pure chosen one. Mystical blue rose.
Bud fills with Life's source.

The Visitation 

Heart, babe leaps, Spirit
Descends, Inspires. Mary's voice.
Bearing God. Visits.

The Nativity

Struggle to find place.
Indifferent city. Poor child
Born. Mother smiles

The Presentation 

Temple sacrifice 
Lamb, first and last. Jesus. Law
Fulfilled. Bless Him.

Finding in the Temple

Lost, not lost. Sought where
He was not. Found where He was
Always. Fathers House.

Thursday 13 December 2012

Advent 5 haiku

Slightly out of sequence I know

Jesus light of life.
Mary Stella Maris. Your time
near. First Christmas dawns.

Warm hope nestles in
Welcoming womb. Life stirs. Born
to cold world. Bells ring.

Borne in womb through cold
dark way. Born as joy. Mary's Son
Among us, Saviour

Seasons crown. Year's end. Christmas
draws close. Child chuckles.

Winter born babe. Child
with promise. Gift of hope. As we
rejoice heartsongs rise

Christmas haiku

Blackbird, white cold snow
Bleakness  Wind bites. Night now
Here. Mary gives birth