Day 5: John of Damascus: Advent Book Club 2017: Unearthly Beauty by Magdalen Smith

Once again Magdalen loses me by the line she chooses to follow. A self-confessed visual person who has studied Art History, icons hold deep meaning for her and I know they do for others. I find them flat, obscure, alienating. And I have tried… I simply don’t “get” them.

This book seems to be very church-oriented and as such very narrow in focus much of the time.

However, the subtitle of this section: “Matter matters” is something to which I can relate. It’s just such a shame that Magdalen chose to pursue such a narrow train of thought.

Matter matters – and the glory of God, of the Creator, shines out in a beautiful sunset, a tree silhouetted against the sky, the black-and-white of a snowscape, the face of every person we pass in the street. The provision of God is evident in every mouthful we eat, the yarns which form the clothes we wear, the choice in the supermarkets.

Matter matters – and how we interact with that matter matters.

As an example of the possible consequences of an unthinking interaction with matter, I refer  you to a recent episode of Blue Planet II which showed graphic scenes of the plastic choking our oceans and the creatures that live in it. Here is just one horrific image of what our unthinking throwing away of plastic waste can do: turtlesix-packs-so-sadHow many times do we throw something away without thinking about the consequences? How many times do we use plastic without considering the implications?

This issue of plastics use has come to a head for me. I’ve started to notice just how much I use without even thinking about it – bags to freeze the bread I bake, frozen vegetables and fruit, those flimsy little bags into which we put fruit and veg at the supermarket… I thought back to my childhood in an effort to work out how to manage without all this seemingly essential plastic. I recall going with my mum to the greengrocers (no supermarkets in those days) and she would hold open her bag (one for veg, one for fruit) and the greengrocer would weigh out the produce in his scales and then tip it into the bag. At home my job was to sort and put it away – veg into the veg rack (no fridge in those days) and fruit into the fruit bowl. And no plastic. So yesterday – after a lifetime of using plastic without thinking about it – I cycled to the supermarket 2 miles way instead of driving, put loose sprouts and potatoes in my basket, went to the self-checkout so no-one could insist that “regulations mean we have to put it in a bag for you”, weighed the produce and put it into my own cloth bag. Sorted! To continue with this I will need to think seriously about how to live my life differently. It will take time and effort – not least because our local supermarket doesn’t have a deli counter and cheese only comes in plastic vacuum pack – I’ll need to go a bit further to one which does have a counter and persuade them to weigh the cheese and put it into my own containers brought from home.  I will have to let some other things drop – or maybe not once I work it out. And some things may prove impossible at the moment to fix. But now I know the effect of my throwaway plastic usage I can’t in all conscience continue because Matter Matters. To use respectfully, in veneration, every scrap of Matter (and not to over-use or through my own use to abuse other creatures) is, in my experience, to draw near both to the heart of the Creator God who saw all that was made and behold, it was very good and to the Incarnate God who inhabits our flesh and 2000 years ago slept in scratchy hay amidst smelly animals and suckled at his mother’s breast in order to survive.

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Advent Book Club 2017: Unearthly Beauty by Magdalen Smith. Day 4: Francis Xavier

Francis Xavier: co-founder of the Jesuits.

Francis Xavier: a man who lived in simplicity and risked his life to take the gospel to other lands where it had never before been shared.

Francis Xavier: a man who, frustrated by the intransigence of many of the Goans and their unwillingness to embrace his spirituality and his idea of a discipline life, got permission from the King of Spain to set up an Inquisition which harrassed and tortured the Goan people for over 250 years…

Francis Xavier: a saint?

Surely not! surely he was the devil in disguise, led be demons rather than the Spirit of love. Surely we can not find anything good in the life of a man who could be instrumental in setting up an Inquisition…

And yet… up to that point, he had chosen always to being by being alongside the new people he encountered, by understanding their current situation. And even in the setting up of the Inquisition, it is just possible that his motive was love not hate. Because he will have believed deeply and passionately that the souls of the apostate were heading for eternal damnation and that therefore any means were justified if they led to repentance and therefore avoided the eternal suffering of hell.

So – to refer back to Graham’s point in his musings on Charles de Foucauld, we would do well to avoid pointing the one finger of criticism at Francis Xavier – or anyone else – because no doubt three fingers will point back at ourselves for the many, many moments when our own blinkeredness, our own theological conditioning lead us to behave in a way which others would see as antithetical to the Gospel – the message of love and acceptance which Jesus brought when he became the human face of God.

By that grace we do not stand condemned for our mistakes. We are all – to reiterate what is becoming a theme for me in my reading of this book – ordinary. We are all flawed. We all get it wrong. And supremely, we all are capable of and often demonstrate, albeit unwittingly, a boundless capacity for love, for forgiveness, for being a true friend rather than a benefactor, for being, in short, Jesus to those around us. Continue reading

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Advent Book Club 2017: Unearthly Beauty by Magdalen Smith Day 3: Charles de Foucauld

The contemplative in action.

Contemplative because his life was grounded in silent prayerful adoration of the Other (simply gazing in his mind’s eye on the Other), the Being who gives us all being, the I AM.

In action because, rooted in and energised by and informed by those hours of silent adoration  he lived simply alongside the touareg, a nomadic desert people, sharing their lifestyle and their work.

He then founded a religious Order to encourage others to do likewise – live in a community exactly as others in that community live in terms of environment, housing, labour but with one crucial difference. Members of the Order ground all that they do and are in hours of silent adoration of the I AM, the One who loves us into being. They are then able to draw on the deep wells of that love in order to reach out to those whose lives they share.

Not preaching the gospel – rather, living the gospel. Being Love to all those with whom they come into contact as Jesus did before them because they, as he was, are in tune with I AM.

So for us – the more in tune we are with I AM, the more we also can say I AM without self-judgement or self-criticism. We can then reach out to others and affirm to them that YOU ARE.

We do not know the name of God – the I AM – but as we too spend time in adoration we see His face turned in love towards us, we know ever more surely Her arms cradling us, steadying us. In that security we can then turn our faces outward and look in love on, reach out our arms to all whom we meet and offer them that same unconditional love.

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Advent Book Club 2017: Unearthly Beauty by Magdalen Smith Day 2: Andrew

She lost me when she said that being a disciple of John the Baptist was perhaps a hint of spiritual discipline already woven into Andrew’s life.

Historically my understanding is that John the Baptist was a radical revolutionary attempting to overthrow the Roman rule. Sure, he also called for repentance – a return to “traditional religious values” – but that meant something quite different then compared with now. Religion was part of the warp and weft of the nation, part of the identity of the Jews. State and faith couldn’t be separated – except that is what the Roman invasion had done (or attempted to do). But that call to repentance and return to allegiance to God will have been seen by the Romans as a call to insurrection – and his followers will have known that. So identity as a follower of John the Baptist marks Andrew out more as a man of courage and fire more than anything. And as for labelling him as an “ordinary bloke”… I reckon we are _all_ ordinary, whatever our status or role. To think otherwise is to subscribe (possibly unwittingly) to our celebrity culture. We are also all extraordinary in our potential and in our individuality.

I also struggle with the (inevitable in someone church-oriented?) linking by Magdalen of “vocation” to “ordained ministry”. Very few are called to that, and it is not the “highest calling” although so often presented that way by the church and viewed that way by laity.

Other examples could have been found:

  • The wife who faithfully loves, cares for and nurses her husband through a progressive illness which disables him over decades by cruel stages.
  • The man who sacrifices his own career prospects in order to be at home at a reasonable time every evening to spend time with his small children.
  • The child who cares for and supports a friend in the face of playground bullying.
  • The person on a low wage who doesn’t quite qualify for benefits and chooses to forgo a rare treat in order to put something in the food bank collection at the supermarket.

_These_ are examples of people following the call of Christ – even without knowing that is what they are doing.

 

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Topsy-turvy

Topsy-turvy kingdom rules –
Surely these were made for fools!
Things that Jesus says – though jewels, they
Turn things on their head.

‘Work for God’s kingdom night and day –
Don’t count the cost!’ we’ve heard Him say.
But now He’s said….. well, come what may, ‘twill
Turn things on their head.

Here today they turned us down –
Greeted with an angry frown! cried
‘He’s not welcome in this town – He’ll
Turn things on their head!’

Fire from heaven would destroy
His enemies – now that’s a ploy…
But no – He’ll not such means employ to
Turn things on their head!

And so he makes clear Kingdom rules,
Says ‘those who disobey are fools!
Life lived thus is filled with jewels – so
Turn things on their head!

‘My Kingdom rules say love your foe –
Never ever wish them woe.
Work for love and peace – yes, go now –
Turn things on their head!

‘I’m the vine – be grafted! See?
Then the fruit you’ll bear will be
All that’s in my heart’ said He –
‘Turn things on their head!

‘Love for hatred brings release.
Be done with strife – now work for peace.
Joy will flow tho’ tears ne’er cease – we’ll
Turn things on their head!

‘Patience ‘til the time is right –
Kindness fills dark souls with light.
Goodness leads you through the night – let’s
Turn things on their head!

‘Faithful to your final breath,
Gentleness won’t fail in death.
Self-control a golden thread to
Turn things on their head.

‘My will? That all will see My face
Full of love and endless grace.
Then all will rest in My embrace –
I turn things on their head.’

Inspired by lectionary readings for Trinity 5 2016: Luke 9:51-end & Galatians 5:1, 13-25

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Voices

Ceaseless whispers hissing in my soul,
Voices urging loss of self-control.
‘Hurt, destroy yourself! You don’t belong!
These people are too good for you! Be gone!’
Ceaseless whispers sending me away,
Away into dark tomb where light of day
No longer shines – I don’t deserve to live.
‘twere better were I dead. I’ve nought to give
To all those folk who try to keep me safe –
Me, ungrateful wretch, unwholesome waif
Who skulks around the graveyard breaking rules
Of clothing, housing – lifestyles made for fools
Who cannot see the hopelessness that reigns
Within my soul – and so they use their chains
To shackle me, to tie me to one place.
I see their fear….. I feel my deep disgrace…..
But I will not be bound! They’ll not hold me!
I’ll break their chains and run! I will be free,
Free to hide, freeze, starve – to run away.
I never should have seen the light of day!
‘twere better had my body lifeless lain
Still-born in crib, than that I live with pain
Of ceaseless whispers hissing in my brain
‘No good! Misfit! Your efforts are in vain’.

Then comes a man, a stranger in this place
Who walks right up to me, looks in my face…
No fear see I in him… and in my heart
A flame is kindled – just a tiny spark
Of hope… until the voices start again
Their ceaseless whispers, racking up the pain
Which drowns all other thought, all other sound
Until I hear his voice which echoes round:
‘Come out of him! Enough I say, be gone!
This man, this child of mine, he does belong!
I gave him life at birth, I set him free
To live in love, in joy, in peace – to be’

Suddenly the voices start to shout –
I have no power to stop them crying out
‘No! No! You, Son of God – don’t torture me!’
And yet my heart would say ‘please set me free’…
But voices stronger cry out louder still
‘Don’t make us leave! We’re happy here – don’t kill
Us, don’t send us away!’… He asks their name –
‘Legion, for we are many – and our game
Is to control, destroy!’… He says “no more!
Go, leave this man!’ suddenly, before
I’ve time to think, to feel – I know they’re gone!

I see my nakedness but feel no wrong –
For I’ve been victim here – there is no blame.
And now at last he calls me by my name –
My true name which at birth my father gave
The son he loved. That name which now will save
Me from disgrace. This man who set me free
Now clothes me, speaks to me – and we agree
That though I’d love to go with him, to leave
This place of pain and shame, yet that would grieve
His heart and so I stay, and will proclaim
To all who’ll listen that there is no shame
In pain or sorrow, sickness or dismay
For always there is hope that brightest day
Will dawn – because for certain sure, you see,
All that this man has done to set me free
He longs to do for all – his power holds true
For you, and you, and you, and you, and you.
For now I know his name – his name is love.
And that’s enough.

inspired by lectionary Gospel reading for Trinity 4 2016: Luke 8:26-39

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Driven by love

Burning like fire in the heart of the soul,
Jesus, the Son of God, comes to make whole
All those who lie dead in darkness and night –
Jesus, the Son of God, comes to bring light.
Reaching out, touching the dead one – no fear
Of ritual defilement stops Him drawing near.
The laws and traditions the people all kept,
This prophet called Jesus repeatedly swept
Away by His actions as, driven by love,
He showed them the heart of Our Father above.
Eyes once tight shut are now open to see
Jesus the Son of God loves even me.
Heart of stone melts in the heat of the day,
Rigid adherence to laws melts away.
Called to life, brought to life, now by His grace
I’m free to live, love, free to share His embrace
With all who still live lives of darkness and fear –
By His grace, in me Jesus still will draw near
To all who are sorrowing, all those in pain –
To touch the untouchable, bring life again

inspired by the lectionary readings for Trinity 2 2016: Luke 7:11-17 & Galatians 1:11-24

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