Becoming who you are

Esther de Waal writes in reflection on the rule of St. Benedict. The prologue to the Rule presents us with the image of God in the marketplace “is there anyone who yearns for life and desires to see good days?”  Mind, Body and Spirit is in effect what the rule reflects. An holistic view of life, with the goal of Christian life as in the title of Thomas Merton’s book – becoming who you are.

The rule wasn’t original to Benedict, the first of its kind, not a definitive guide for christian community living, but it can be continually re-forming as it brings together the ‘rhythmic alternation which governs the whole of life’.

That the mind is to be active in learning, the body active in work and the spirit connected to God, sisters and brothers in community, those monastic, or otherwise.  Chapters are devoted to the right outworking of community, knowing ourselves and our weaknesses and our propensity for failure, not because we need censure, but because each of us are deeply loved and particularly in the Benedictine way, ‘accepted, received’ for who we are.  Being in community is to offer the self up to the other and to God.

We are challenged in our “daily, weekly, yearly pattern of life, inextricably bound up in the alternation of day and night, of the ebb and flow of the seasons, the changing shape of the liturgical year.  This way of life brings us into touch with the rhythm inherent in all things, in the holding together of the contradiction of growth and decline, of light and dark, of dying and rising again.” My own community, has a somewhat simpler written rule of life, no less challenging in its outworking of the common life.  It can be reflected in the following.

Work and Worship.  Prayer and Politics.  Sacred and Secular.

Work and Worship.  Because all that we do ought to give worth to God, rather than distinct times set apart where we behave and act differently. Our time of worship is sunrise to sunset, more properly from birth until death, the hours of prayer refocusing us when our practical tasks take us far from the common life.

Prayer and Politics.  Because to pray is to engage the heart and soul with a situation to enable our better outworking of community life rather than to pass on a list of requests to an elusive benefactor.  Our prayers enable us to listen closely to God caught up in the reality of daily living and to respond in faith.

Sacred and Secular.  Because all of life is caught up in the general dance and there is no place that is not deeply loved by God, there is no-where that God has not set apart for a purpose. Even when our actions stray from the path of those purposes, still in all things and through all things comes the divine image, though we might struggle to find it.  In all of this we are asked to walk besides our neighbour whoever that might be that the journey might reflect the kingdom.

Take off your shoes and walk a mile in mine.

Walk in step unknowing beside our companions.

Walk slowly alongside those we nurture

Walk with an offer of hospitality and sanctuary to those we meet.

Walk with the inspiration to take a lighter journey

Walk with joy in every season.

Walk on a wide path with those we meet but rarely.

Walk on to catch but a glimpse of those far off.

Walk with kindred spirits from other islands.

Walk with souls connected at the deep down.

Walk on with a shared past, a story of struggle or pain.

Walk offering gifts, or a generous word.

Walk with a conversation picked up from the last journey.

Walk with poets whose words become our path.

Walk with a protest on our lips and a banner in our heart.

Walk with those who hold us in prayer, with those for whom we must pray.

Walk with those who offer us a new challenge

Walk close to those who are a challenge and those who find us the same.

Walk with a shared chance encounter.

Walk with those who sing,

Walk gently with those who we wish would not sing.

Walk as artists gathering the colours of nature

Walk with those we have carried and allow them to carry us in their turn.

Walk with the gentle ones, and those who could learn to be gentle

Walk with a vision to go further than we can go

Walk, lives connected, weaving in and out

On a woven path with the friends of friends of friends

Walk with those who make us laugh at ourselves

Walk in the company of strangers who at journeys end become friends.

Walk with those whose words will carry us until our walking days are done.

Walking in the Garden

I’ve found a magic money tree.  Really.  It’s on the Llanberis path just past halfway house on the way up Yr Wyddfa.  This picture doesn’t do it justice, you’ll have to go and see for yourself, though you’ll be hard pushed to find a space to press a coin into it.  (There are plenty of others around here, often on mountain paths.  I’ll come back to that image in a minute.)  I wonder what this story from Genesis means to us?  It begins: 

“They heard the sound of the Lord God walking in the garden at the time of the evening breeze, and the man and his wife hid themselves from the presence of the Lord God among the trees of the garden. But the Lord God called to the man, and said to him, ‘Where are you?’ Genesis 3:8-9

For it to make any sense at all we have to understand that those who wrote it lived in a different world to our own.  The same earth, but a different time and culture perhaps as much as 3500 years ago for this text – comparatively recently, compared to the life of the earth itself some 4.5 billion years old.  Therefore very relevant to our culture and time too.  How many of us have heard the call, ‘Where are you?’  We talk often about going in search of a ‘spiritual experience’ or seeking the divine.  We have built churches, temples, mosques, sacred meeting halls even suggesting that these are the ‘house’ of God, so we can come in and find God here, as if God might be sitting, waiting for us to show up.  This all reminds me of the poem ‘The Empty Church by R.S. Thomas, “They set this stone trap for him, like a moth to a flame, he will come no more to our lure.”  Have we lost the innocence of life which allows us to walk through the garden and hear the sound of God calling to us.  Where are you?  It requires a different mind to be open to listen, rather than to go out and to search, almost knowing before hand the experience that we seek.  And if we continue with that genesis reading a little, to be in the presence of God without feeling embarrassed.  For now we have been ‘enlightened’ by the age of reason.  Not only that we are naked, but that our whole life has been enlightened, (well some of it).  No longer do we need ‘God’ for we have become able to understand everything for ourselves.  The Sun and the other stars move not around the Earth as once was believed, (typical of the human to believe that we are at the centre.)  But still now folk out walking feel it is sensible and appropriate to press coins into a tree or a stump.  For what purpose? In order perhaps to be blessed or feel safe on a journey or even as once was the custom to ‘pay the spirits’ of a place for safe passage through their domain.  That’s something worth keeping in mind, for it almost suggests that there is still an undercurrent of understanding that  considers the whole earth itself to be a spiritual place, one in which we might hear the call, ‘Where are you?’  When was the last time we stopped trying to go to God and allowed God to come to us.  I was walking through fields with friends this last week and was reminded of the point of Zen which is to let all thought pass away, to allow yourself to be consciously in a moment of not thinking.  The call ‘Where are you?’ Is necessary because the man and the woman realised that they had been naked.  They hid not because anyone took their clothes, but because they had realised.  Let’s change what we feel about this passage by moving the genre of writing from history to poetic response to an experience. It then stops being a description of events, but a description of an experience of being in the presence of God and a confession that something has got in the way of our ability to experience God.  In the case of this man and woman, it was their shame at being naked.  What gets in the way for us?  To the call, ‘Where are you?’ We could reply, (if we heard it at all) we’re here, behind all this stuff, wait a moment whilst we move a few things out of the way and then we will probably get distracted again by something needing our attention.  Jesus asks those who seek him,  Who are my brothers and my sisters? – I’m with them he says, they are all around, so to can be our experience, if only we would listen out for the call.

Seeing Jesus

If your mind were to work in the strange way that mine does, you might imagine the Gospel passage John 12.20 set for today finding its way into the letters page of a respectable newspaper: Sir, we wish to see Jesus. Yours, etc. The Greeks. I suppose then the challenge to the editor would be to reply with another quotation from this passage, ‘Where I am, there will my servant be also’: referenced by page numbers relating to articles in said newspaper depicting in image or in prose where one might see Jesus, if one were to look. And so, assuming that editors have better things to do, I’ve done the hard work for them and read through the paper. Unfortunately, save for the 83 year old lady from Maine who renamed herself ‘Jesus Christ’ and wrote to Oprah Winfrey urging her to be president, and for a review of Magdalene the Movie, references were in short supply. Odd? Perhaps not. A closer look is required, as at the image here in order to really see to catch a glimpse of the story behind the headlines. For to see Jesus, is to recognise something beyond the obvious. Why is Jesus depicted here as a homeless person? Because often we walk on by suggesting we never saw a child hungry or naked, forgetting the words ‘when you did it to the least of these, you did it to me.’ So digging deeper into the stories through the paper, there we will find Jesus the refugee, the abandoned child, the one fleeing from conflict, the accused and the wrongly accused. And on the other side of the coin, we find those offering shelter, those preparing a place of welcome and hospitality, those seeking justice for others. And then there are the (all too) few places where we find the celebration, yes, Jesus was here too, at the party, in the background, telling stories. Sir, we wish to see Jesus. Well then, the stories are there, beneath the surface of the headline where all those images of Jesus are present. If we want to truly see Jesus, we will need to look into the eyes of each of those who are in these stories to hear and feel their pain, join in their suffering, begin to understand where they have been let down and pushed aside. To have their empathy and care. To join in their celebrating. In response to the letter then: ‘Sir, We wish to see Jesus.’ The response perhaps ought to be ‘then, open your eyes.’ For we might, rather than just see Jesus, be able to see as Jesus sees – that within every one of these stories there are ordinary folk struggling to make a life worth living, those who are in need of hope, warmth, support and love. And there are those struggling to make a life worth living for others. And there are those for whom someone has succeeded in helping them and create a better place. And then, when all these things are done, we too will be able to say to the request, ‘We want to see Jesus.’ Look, then where Jesus’ servants are, for there he will be also.