Et omnia sepulcra aperta est…

I won’t be going to church this Easter.

Partly because over recent years the church has been more of a “Via Crucis” and a crown of thorns in my life than a sign and promise of resurrection (within ministry and outside it I have met many others who have a similar story to tell…).

However, when I say “church” I should at once clarify that I mean the institution; the structure of hierarchy, rules and tradition that always should, sometimes does but all too often fails to reflect the living, pulsating heart of faith at its core and that gives that structure its very life and meaning. THAT has failed me. But the real church, the “ecclèsia“, the community of believers and disciples – that is a different story. Constantly there, sometimes despite the “structures”, I have found genuine friendship, support, and compassion, and stories of ordinary women and men full of extraordinary courage, faith, commitment and love. People capable of seeing beyond the structures and the divisions they cause, beyond the constant continuing idolatry of form and rather glimpsing something – a vision – of the substance, of what really matters and what we are truly called to be as disciples of a God crucified and risen.

On Thursday, when I did go to church, we remembered one such person. A very “ordinary” simple lady, Margaret, who had lived a long life doing very ordinary (and therefore extraordinary) things. Things like working, raising a family, helping others. She had been my housekeeper for a while and an active member of her community. To the great and mighty, probably no-one special. And yet the church on Thursday was packed full of people who came to remember her, comfort her family and give thanks for her life.

And that’s the real reason I don’t need to go to church over Easter. Because it was all there, yesterday, in that simple, sombre Requiem, as a community gathered on a grey, rainy day to say goodbye to one of its own. The pain and loss of Good Friday; the agonising silence of the Saturday when it seems God can’t or won’t answer…But there too, almost hidden but no less real, a few notes (for now) in what was a greater symphony of loss; the weak and fragile light (for now) of what was still the Paschal flame burning – there was the hope and promise of Easter Day, too. In the smiles and the hugs and the memories and the tears and the giving of thanks and the breaking of the bread. Just a glimpse of a light about to shine brightly, of a song about to be sung, of a trumpet about to resound across the chasms of time and space and within each human heart. When every tomb will be opened – even the ones we would rather remained closed.

And so, this Easter, thank you, Margaret, for your presence and for your simple life and faith that have given me what the church, for now at least, cannot; a glimpse into that mystery of love that despite everything and beyond all things will always end in an empty tomb and a tenacious, resounding Alleluia.

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Of truth and beauty… 

People  seem surprised when I tell them I moved to Port Talbot. “Port Talbot!?” they say – eyebrows raised slightly in a quizzical or perhaps even slightly disapproving manner – “but didn’t you live in Cardiff? And in a nice area too!” Their disbelief is often audible. 

Yes, I did. And I worked in one of the most beautiful environments anyone could hope to work in; the beauty and Majesty of Llandaff Cathedral, stooped in history and surrounded by art and soaring, sublime symphonies.Now, on the other hand, I drive to work at an office in an old, dilapidated Victorian building in Taibach, on a grey, drab street silhouetted by the billowing smog and chimneys of the steelworks rumbling constantly in the background. 
Port Talbot is one of the poorest and most deprived areas of The United Kingdom; it has high rates of mortality and poverty,  and almost 20% of its areas fall in the 10% most deprived areas in Wales (and the majority are classed as more deprived than the Welsh average). 
So I sort of understand people’s surprise.

But there’s another way of looking at it. There usually is. It’s a way that struck me vividly, for no particular reason, one bright, stark, clear morning as I drove over the carriageway that links the grey winding all-embracing M4 to the train station and the town centre. It was something to do with beauty.

As a student of theology and philosophy, I was often challenged to reflect on the true nature of things, on what their universal truth might be as opposed to the contingencies of time, space, culture and the ever-inevitable cataracts of our own finite perception. Is there anything that is constant and unchanging; certain, in a world of uncertainty? A question and a quest as relevant today as ever. Thomas Aquinas, rooted in the thought of the great Greek thinkers before him, sought with mind and heart (two things not always in natural agreement) that which was “one, true, good, and beautiful”, and concluded that in fact the first three where they were present and pure then resulted in an objective beauty, present, he believed, ultimately in God and his absolute one-ness, truthfulness and goodness. In Christian thought the episode of the Transfiguration narrated by the gospel stories is often cited as an example of how when God is revealed the human spirit recognises naturally and almost inevitably the presence of perfection, prompting Peter’s exclamation “It is beautiful for us to be here”. Throughout the centuries, art and liturgy of the Christian tradition – but of many other cultural and religious traditions, as well – have strived to reach out and touch, or at least glimpse for the briefest of moments that beauty and the revelation (the unveiling and re-veiling) of truth which gives meaning to life and human struggle and sacred-ness. It’s something I saw often in Llandaff Cathedral, with its solemn liturgies and perfectly executed Evensongs; its incense and erudite sermons on humanity, society and God; its obsession (one might say) with form and ritual. 

An it’s all wonderful stuff. Except for one thing; one nagging, niggling question:  What if we’re wrong? What if beauty – and truth – is something very different, something to be found and perceived (if never possessed) somewhere else, far away from our cathedrals  and their perfect liturgies, or our citadels of culture and thought and even our centres of commercial wealth and political prestige? You see, between the lines of the remarkable story of the man Jesus of Nazareth I read something that is so disconcerting and…uncomfortable… that even the church, although if often pays lip service to it, usually then chooses to cover up and ignore. And perhaps this is why it is slowly becoming irrelevant even to itself. I’m not even sure his own disciples “got it”, all the time, caught up as they were (Peter’s words prove it) in the idea that beauty has something to do with aesthetics, and “feeling good”. But surely his message – the message of the Nazarene from the backwater of Galilee, the message of a man who spent his time “with tax collectors and sinners” (how the religious and political elite of the time hated that), the message of a man who spoke to whores and spent his time with peasants in their places of ill-repute, and – above all – the message of a man who died a heretic and an outcast on a slave’s cross dirty, bloodied, spat on and abandoned and yet THERE (and nowhere else like THERE) revealed the shocking and compelling and earth –shattering truth of God and how far his love would go; HIS message seems to be telling me something else about beauty and its very essence and nature. Maybe it in those very places we would rather avoid, in the very wounds we try (with oh so pious intentions) to cover up, in the cracks we try to cover over, in that inconvenient, noisy, messy, irksome, avoidable, unpleasant mass of the human story that is sacred and precious not in spite of all of that but because of it and through it.

What if somewhere beauty is in there, in the scarred and messy and bloodied story of so many women and men, in their struggle for survival despite being thrown out of their homes and their jobs, and having nothing to turn to but alcohol and drugs and no-one to help them but the soul-less dangerous empty promises of loan sharks. But who else do they have to turn to, and where else do they have to go? 

These are the stories I hear, and the people I pass, every day on my way to work and home again, in the old, weary terraced houses of Port Talbot and on its rain-washed streets; the people I speak to in its job centres and food banks or sit next to in Tesco’s having a coffee. They are wonderful, courageous, loyal, proud, beautiful people. Politicians may not tell them that, often the church has nothing to say to them any more (and yet, I wonder, would the man from Galilee still speak his beatitudes to their hopes and hearts?). But they are the sacred ones, and the liturgy of their lives and the incense of the smoke bellowing constantly towards the sky from the steelworks by the sea tells me more about life, and truth, and beauty, than anything I have seen, or touched, or heard before. 

“Tota pulchra es, amica mea / suavis et decora filae Ierusalem” (you are beautiful, my friend, noble and wondrous to behold, daughter of Jerusalem”) 

Et Lux in tenebris lucet…

  
NATIVITY 2015 
One of the things I promised myself I would NOT talk about or think about too much over the festive period was Star Wars! Although I couldn’t  resist the temptation to begin my Christmas sermon at the Cathedral on Christmas Eve with the line “A long time ago, in a Galilee far far away…”! 

In the midst of all the  fervour of activity and events, carol singing and present-buying which precede the “big day”, it is difficult to find the time to stop and reflect on the true significance of this time; to recognise beyond the bright lights of the high streets and Christmas jingles the silent coming-to-birth of God in a dark bare cave on the outskirts of Bethelehem; to hear a sacred but I suspect more subtle song of the Angelic hosts that proclaim him- again, to outsiders, men who were not wanted at the parties and in the homes of good respectable folk. 

So where is he? Where is this Emanu-el, God with us, that we come here to worship and adore, perhaps joyfully, perhaps reluctantly making a once-a-year pilgrimage without really knowing why but just feeling that without it this festive time would, indeed, be incomplete, be lacking a light around which all else orbits constantly. Can he be found today, this Word-become-Flesh, this Prince of Peace in a world torn by conflict, in all the suffering and discord we see played out around us or sadly sometimes much closer to home, in our communities and families. Has God perhaps quietly left the building like Elvis did; given up on his crazy plan to redeem humanity and quietly withdrawn into the glory of heaven, leaving the cold dark stable and this terrestrial orb bare once more? 

It would seem that way, at times. And  yet, we come, and search. And yet, with the obstinacy or those birthday candles that keep on relighting and cannot be blown out, hope and light and love are constantly rekindled are they not in our lives; and where the darkest sides of humanity are vented there, too, always, men and women come together to console, challenge, heal and re-build. Et lux in tenebris lucet …And the light shines in the darkness, and the darkness cannot overcome it. 

In his book “Secrets in the Dark”, Frederick Buechner writes: “To look at the last great self-portraits of Rembrandt or to read Pascal or hear Bach’s B-minor Mass is to know beyond the need for further evidence that if God is anywhere, he is with them, as he is also with the man behind the meat counter, the woman who scrubs floors at Roosevelt Memorial, the high-school math teacher who explains fractions to the bewildered child. And the step from “God with them” to Emmanuel, “God with us,” may not be as great as it seems. What keeps the wild hope of Christmas alive year after year in a world notorious for dashing all hopes is the haunting dream that the child who was born that day may yet be born again even in us and our own snowbound, snowblind longing for him.”
 “He is not here, he is Risen”, we are told is the message of the Angel to the bewildered disciples on Easter morning. As Christians we believe, of course – though sometimes forget- that without Easter Christmas and what we celebrate today is rather pointless, like a book where the last pages are missing. But I wonder if for us, today, the Angel throng would, rather than sing of God’s Glory and of peace on earth, address us with the same words as we gather outside the manger in Behtlehem. He is not here. He was, once. But now he is elsewhere. Perhaps he is waiting for us at home; or when we return to work or study. Perhaps he is there waiting to be unwrapped in that phone call we know we should make but don’t really want to; in that relationship going wrong that we know we can fix; in that part of us we know should be different; in that thing not done, those words unsaid, those wounds not yet healed. And perhaps he is waiting for us to take him to others who have yet to find or see him or know just what the gift of love really feels like at all. 

In the “Lord of the Rings“, Gandalf, the wise wizard, says to the hobbits as they are about to begin on their dangerous quest: “The world is indeed full of peril, and in it there are many dark places; but still there is much that is fair, and though in all lands love is now mingled with grief, it grows perhaps the greater.”  

Not Star Wars, but Tolkien too speaks of a battle between good and evil, right and wrong, darkness and light. It would seem that we cannot escape it; it captures our imagination and captivates our attention. Perhaps because we know, deep down, that it a a choice we too make and become constantly, a battle we wage in our hearts every day. THIS day, this Christmas Day, reminds us that however hopeless it may sometimes seem, there where the darkness seems greatest and the poverty of humankind most acute in fact God is already present, his word taking shape, his light shining in the void vortexes that we so often create around and inside us. Now, like then, humbly, silently, surely, in the little things that never make headlines and are often overlooked, unseen and unheard, on the peripheries of existence and in the sacred silence of the heart, Love makes its dwelling amongst us. And grows, perhaps, the greater. 

“In the darkness of night/ an expectant people wait/For the dawn’s rising in hearts and history./

Where there is darkness, light.And discord, peace of the One/who is PeaceRadiant and glorious, hidden and proclaimed,History and fulfilment/

Behold, the Bringer of Life, the Ancient of daysOn the clouds, behold, and in a manger laid.”

“Vous n’aurez pas ma haine”

image

 

Of the many tributes and stories circulating in the press and on social media in the wake of the terrorist attacks that took place in Paris just over a week ago, one struck me in particular and has remained embedded in my mind since. It’s the story of a young man, Antoine Leiris, whose wife, and the mother of their young son, was killed at the Bataclan Concert Hall along with so many others. A few days after the attack, Antoine wrote a post on Facebook that has since been read by millions. A man who could so easily – and indeed justifiably – been filled with loathing and anger for the people who took his wife’s life wrote these words to the terrorists:

Vous n’aurez pas ma haine. You will not have my hate. Friday night you took the life of an exceptional person. The love of my life and the mother of my son. But you will not have my hate. I don’t know who you are, I don’t wish to know it; you are dead souls. If the God in whose name you kill has made us in his image, then every bullet in every body was a wound in his heart, too. But I refuse to give you the gift of my hate. You seek it, but will not have it….there are just two of us now, me and my son. But life will go on for us, every day. And every day he will offend you with his happiness. Because you will not have his hate, either.”

Today, the last Sunday of the liturgical year, the church celebrates the Solemnity of Christ the King. We affirm that Christ is the king of history and the Lord of time, the beginning and end of all things. A courageous and one might say – in the light of events like those that occurred last week in Paris – an audacious and even naive profession of faith. “He has it all under control” the church proclaims; to which so many in the world, observing the reality of war, violence, poverty and injustice which scars our planet, respond “really? How? Where is he when men point Kalashnikovs at other men, women and children or drop bombs on their hospitals, homes and schools?”.

But I believe he is there. He is there in the many who, when the bullets stop and the bombs cease run to the rescue and to help, with no regard for their own safety. He is there in the emergency services who rush to the scene and do all that they can to save and preserve life. He is there is the queues who line up to give blood to strangers they will never meet. He is there in people like Antoine Leiris and his courageous and tenacious affirmation of life, hope, forgiveness and love.

“My Kingdom is not of this world” Jesus says to Pilate during the mock-trial that led to his condemnation. Pilate does not comprehend this; and if we are sincere it is a struggle for us too, at times, because once again it compels us to redefine our words and turn our inherent and innate logics on their heads. It is, indeed, a very different Kingdom, for a very different kind of king. One that spurns the trappings of prestige and power and that refuses to use might and force to achieve victory, but rather reaches it through the simple yet sacred acts of reconciliation, self-sacrifice and love; a kingdom that takes shape and sound in fact in our silences, when grief or disbelief, or sometimes, too, sheer joy and awe stop us in our tracks and leave us with nothing more to say. There, between the lines of history and in the non-sense of the human story, God writes his answers and defines the parameters of grace and salvation. Where we see the cross, he sees, already taking shape and power, the mystery of Resurrection. In our everyday acts of kindness, consideration and friendship, whenever we choose to turn away from that violence that lurks in each one of us and embrace peace and the absolute sacredness of each other. In the fragile reality of bread and wine and word. They are its true foundations, and here His Kingdom begins to take root and shape, and the fragrance of his grace spreads throughout a wounded and wondering world.

“Pwy fedr ddarllen y ddaear? Ond cawsom neges/ gan frenin i’w dwyn mewn dirfawr chwys.”: the opening line of the poem “Die Bibelforscher” dedicated to the memory of the Protestant Martyrs of the Third Reich by that profound welsh poet and mystic, Waldo Williams. In the translation of that poem by Rowan Williams, the poet continues:

“Earth is a hard text to read; but the King/ has put his message in our hands, for us to carry sweating, whether the trumpets of his court sound near or far. So for these men:/ they were the bearers of the Royal writ,/clinging to it through spite and hurts and wounding….they closed their eyes to doors that might have opened/arriving at the gates of heaven/their fists still clenched on what the King had written.”

“Vous n’aurez pas ma haine- you shall not have my hate”.The words of Antoine Leiris and many like him, known and forgotten, seen and unseen, resound from the cross, throughout the centuries of Christianity and should resound in our hearts today and every day in our endeavour to be bearers of God’s kingdom on earth.

(For the full text of Antoine’s post please go to http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-europe-34862437)

[This post is an amended text of a homily given at Llandaff Cathedral in November 2015]

 

 

 

 

 

In another light

Over the last week I’ve been in Italy where there is still a strong tradition of visiting cemeteries and leaving flowers on the graves of loved ones on All Saints and All Souls Day (November 1/2). As a country which still has a strong Catholic tradition often there will be services and masses held in churches or at the cemeteries themselves on these days, and I am often touched by the expression of a faith in life and hope even in places that inevitably evoke memories of loss and sadness. The stones may be silent, but their witness to a community’s belief in a life that transcends and transforms our human experience of it is very eloquent and real.

Cemetery Sunset

Nothing in our human experience is more difficult to understand and accept than the experience of loss and suffering, especially when it affects those close to us, or those whose lives are damaged or even taken far too early or unexpectedly. A few weeks ago in Wales we remembered the disaster that struck the mining village of Aberfan on October 21, 1966, when  116 young children and 28 adults  lost their lives when a coal slurry collapsed and engulfed their school early one morning. It was a tragedy that was – as they so often are – avoidable and pointless, and the grief of that day still resounds in the psyche of my nation and will do so for many many years to come. When these things happen there is anger, too, and a natural inclination to shout out “why?” to the world, and to God, as well.

What I was reminded of these last days in Italy seeing men and women, young and old, visit the local cemetery in a steady stream in the pale autumn sun, is that our Christian faith doesn’t give us easy answers when faced with the mystery of suffering and death. Probably because easy answers usually turn out to be empty ones. Theories about loss and suffering don’t help when, as one person put it “you feel as though you are in a dark night in a raging storm on a violent sea, an you don’t know if it’ll ever be over”. But what our faith does do is tell us the story of a God who rather than give us these answers chose to share our human experience. All of it. A God who knows what it means to suffer, to feel the loss of friends, to be wrongly accused and sentenced, to be misunderstood and abandoned. So that even these things become a part of his own being, a place where he can be present and give us – slowly, perhaps imperceptibly, but surely – his presence and peace.  And remind us that these things are never the last word on life or in it.

As I walked home from the cemetery the other morning the mist that so often covers these plains outside Venice this time of year was lifting and the sun began to shine on the rooftops and the red-gold leaves of the trees along the way. My mind went back to those words about the storm and the darkness and the feeling of helplessness that had been shared with me. And yet – I thought – the person who told me that was there, by the grave of their loved ones that day to pray and express their faith in a tenacious and enduring life that went beyond all that. Storms never last for ever. They end, the calm returns, and slowly the clouds part to reveal the light that was always there, if hidden, waiting to shine again on our journey. 

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Aberfan_disaster

Judgement days

When I was I young boy, I used to enjoy reading those Mystery Novels where at the bottom of every page you decided how the story should proceed. It was usually in the form of an answer that you had to reply to, such as “Do you want to open the treasure and look inside? If YES go to p.24, if NO go to p.93″… where YES might lead to fame and glory but NO  would see you die a horrible death at the bottom of a ravine or in a big pot as a tasty snack for a tribe of ruthless cannibals. That Indiana Jones sort of thing.

indiana-jones-and-the-temple-of-doom-poster

Of course the inevitable downside to the books was that after a while you got to know which answer was the right one, and so knew how to get the fame and the glory and the girl every time and avoid the collapsing caves, hungry natives and alligator-infested swamps. So the books gradually lost their appeal and were relegated to the bottom shelves of bookcases and eventually to the big black bag destined for the next trip to the Charity shop down the road.

But perhaps there was another reason for them losing their appeal, as well. As I grew older I began to realise something that was terrifying and wonderful at the same time: Life is the same as the books, and the stakes, if anything, are higher. Ok I’ve never been exploring for hidden Mayan treasure in the South American Jungles or uncovering sinister Nazi plots to steal ancient Jewish relics. Yet.  But I began to realise that it was up to me to make a success of my life, that I could only attribute blame to others for my wrong choices up to a certain (very limited) point, and that every choice, every day, defines how the story continues. Just like in the mystery books. Unlike them, however, we can’t start over. That’s scary, but awesome too, because it means that every day I define who I am, that I’m never a completed work, that it’s never too late to change if I realise I should, and can always do better to mould my existence according to those words of Polonius to his son Laertes in Hamlet: “To thine own self be true”. I decide the YES and NO and what page that means I turn to.

On this adventure-mystery of my life my faith helps me first of all because it reminds me that there is a purpose and a direction to my life even though sometimes I struggle to see it, and that although it’s natural and even nice sometimes to reminisce about what “might have been” (“What if I hadn’t gone to that University? What if I hadn’t seen that TV show? What if I’d stayed at home that day instead of going to the store where I met…?”) somehow I am where I should be and am helped in the choices that I make by a power of Love greater than myself and my mistakes. But my faith helps me because it constantly reminds me of my responsibility, too – that the “Yes” or “No” I say with my choices and priorities every day and many times a day are what ultimately define me and write my story. Time and time again in that wonderful Yes and No story of Jesus of Nazareth he would remind his listeners that for those of us who live another day and then another in paradise it’s the choices we make towards those less fortunate that really say who we are and reveal the words written on our hearts. Our judgement or salvation depends on how we have judged or saved others with out words and actions every day. We still get to choose how the story ends.

 

Joining the dots

Seurat, "Baigneurs a Asnières", 1884

Seurat, “Baigneurs a Asnières”, 1884

“Bathers at Asnières” is one of the best-known paintings by Georges-Pierre Seurat, a French post-impressionist painter who developed a technique known as Pointillism. The technique relies on the ability of the eye and mind of the viewer to blend the color spots into a fuller range of tones. Small, distinct dots of pure colour are applied in patterns to form an image. Seurat developed the technique in 1884, but the term Pointillism was first coined by critics in the late 1880s to ridicule his work and the work of other artists who had adopted it.

I remember seeing this painting for the first time and being bowled over by its luminosity and colour, but also that convincing and very real sense it conveyed of a simple but special day out, relaxing with family and friends, picknicking on the grass under the warm Parisian sun and taking a cool dip in the Seine afterwards to cool off. There’s something sacred about that, too, I reckon.

laurent-seurat

Seurat died when he was just 31 years old, without any real recognition for or appreciation of his work which – like so many other great artists before and after him – was treated with contempt by others because it didn’t conform to the established and accepted canons of the time. Perhaps in the face of such rejection and apparent “failure” he would have asked himself what the “point” of it all was; whether he had made the right decision dedicating his life to painting (and painting in his way), or perhaps should have done something completely different, but more conventional and “acceptable”.

I think it’s a question many men and women in history have had to ask themselves when faced with the choice of doing what they think is right, following their own path even in the face of opposition and misunderstanding, or rather giving up and giving in to the expectations of others, the pressure of a comfortable conformity. And yet what would our world be like today if the great men and women who have shaped our history had chosen the easy option? I am grateful that they did not, but rather chose to believe in themselves, in their vision, in that canvas of a better world that they found somehow imprinted inside them and that they could not have erased without in a way erasing themselves, as well.

Seurat, "Seated woman", 1883

Seurat, “Seated woman”, 1883

Maybe we’re all faced with that choice, sooner or later – between what is easy and what is true; between what others tell us we should be and what we want to become; between painting according to conventional, accepted criteria or finding our own way of filling the canvas entrusted to us. Sometimes we may never see the result of our actions, and yet I like to believe that when we step back and look from a distance we’ll see that all the dots have, in fact, just like in Seurat’s work, joined to form a wonderful masterpiece of beauty and of light.

“Let’s go and get drunk on light again – it has the power to console.” (Georges Seurat)