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AN UNLIKELY APOSTLE

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I Corinthians 15:3-8; John 20:11-18

Mary Magdalene went and announced to the disciples, “I have seen the Lord.”

About twenty years ago I was a guest professor at Fuller Theological Seminary in Pasedena, California, where I taught a course on doing theology in context.  The term assignment I gave the students was to take an issue that concerned them, reflect theologically upon it, and decide on what action they should take in response.  One woman student was perplexed.  “I want to research the place of women in the ministry” she said, but in my denomination women are not ordained, they must remain silent in church.  She belonged, she told me, to “The Four Square Gospel Church,” one of the first Pentecostal Churches to be established in America.  So I suggested that she researched the origins of her church, how it started, and who were its leaders.  A week later she came to see me.  She was excited.  “I discovered,” she said “that my church was founded by a woman! Aimee Semple McPherson!”  She then went on to complain, “Why was I never told this?” 

The reason was obvious; it was because the voice of women had been silenced, not just in her denomination after its foundation, but from early on in the history of the church as a whole.  This is very strange, because women were prominent among Jesus’ disciples from the beginning to the end of his ministry.  Moreover, they stood by him at the cross when all the male disciples fled, and they were the first witnesses to the resurrection.  In fact, St. Paul made it very clear that in Christ and therefore in the church, there was no distinction between men and women, and there is plenty of evidence in the New Testament that there were women preachers and prophets in the early church, some of whom took a leading role in nurturing house churches.  Indeed, so much was this the case, that some early critics of Christianity argued that by making men and women equal in the church the stability of society was undermined, and they also claimed that the story of the resurrection was false because it was based on the testimony of hysterical women, Eventually the church capitulated to the criticism of culture.  And then,during the second century  Pope Clement decreed that women and men should be segregated in church as they were in the synagogue, and that the priesthood was for men only on the pretext that Jesus was a man, as were all the apostles, or so it was assumed.    

But who were the apostles and were they all men?  Were they only the twelve we normally think of when we hear the word?  According to early Christina tradition, an apostle was someone who had witnessed the resurrection and been sent by Christ to proclaim the good news, the word apostle meaning “one who is sent.”.  If that is so then the first apostle was Mary Magdalene, the person to whom the risen Christ first appeared and whom he sent to tell the good news.  But Mary Magdalene was, we might say, an unlikely apostle.  We don’t know for certain, but some have said she was a prostitute.  She certainly came from Magdala, a port town of ill-repute, she does not seem to have had a husband or any family, but she did have some wealth which she used to support Jesus and the other disciples.  She travelled freely around Galilee with a bunch of men, and was clearly the leader of the group of women who followed and served Jesus throughout his ministry.  And she was as close to him as any of the other disciples.  Jesus had, in fact, radically turned her life around.  She was someone who loved Jesus much because she had been forgiven so much.   

So it is not surprising that, on the first Easter morning, she was the first disciples to run to the Tomb and the first to whom the risen Christ appeared.  He then told Mary to go and tell his “brothers”, as the gospels put it, that he is risen.  So Mary goes and tells him “I have seen the Lord!”  They did not believe her at first, but it is precisely her testimony of faith and her being sent by Jesus that marks out Mary Magdalene as the first apostle, “the apostle to the apostles.” This being so, we can say that the Christian Church was founded as much on the testimony of a woman as on the confession of Peter. A fact that was pushed under the carpet and virtually forgotten for most of the subsequent history of the Church, just as for centuries women were prevented from being ordained.   

I am reminding you of this sorry saga not just to exalt the status of Mary Magdalene or stress the point that the leadership of women in the church goes back to the origins of Christianity, but to remind us that Christianity stands or falls on the witness of people whose lives have been changed by Jesus the risen Christ.  Yes, there are good reasons to believe in the resurrection of Jesus, but in the end faith in the risen Christ is based on the testimony of those who witnessed his resurrection, something St. Paul stresses in his first letter to the Corinthians (I Cor. 15).  Paul does not mention Mary Magdalene, or only the twelve we normally think of as “the apostles”, he also mentions the “more than five hundred brothers and sisters” to whom Christ appeared, and then, significantly he says that Christ also appeared to him “as one untimely born.”  Something that happened to him on the Damascus Road.  What is significant in all this, as it was in the case of Paul, is that seeing the risen Christ fundamentally changed the lives of people, and they in turn laid the foundation of the apostolic church. 

Our faith is founded on such testimony to the risen Christ.  Originally on the testimony of those who, like Mary, were first encountered by Christ.  But also by many others who have influenced our lives, people for whom Jesus is not a dead man in a Tomb but present to us as the risen Christ who, through the Spirit. gives us life, joy, hope, peace, and the strength to love and serve him in loving and serving others.  The story began that first Easter morning when Mary Magdalene ran to the disciples and said “I have seen the Lord!”  continues anew every day through the testimony of people who, like us, have experienced the transforming presence of the risen Christ.  The witness of Scripture is obviously the basis for such testimony and such faith, but if it were not for people who, over the centuries, have experienced its truth in their lives, faith in the risen Christ would have lost its power long ago. 

Wherever there is new life in Christ; wherever there is evidence of the fruit of his Spirit — love, joy, peace and hope; wherever there are people who love and serve Christ in the world through acts of compassion and justice, there is the risen Christ.   That, too, is our testimony of faith, a testimony that began when Mary of Magdala ran and told the other disciples who, fearfully, were in hiding, “I have seen the Lord!”

 John de Gruchy

Volmoed 20 April 2017

WASHING HANDS OR WASHING FEET?

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John 13:1-5

“He poured water into a basic and began to wash his disciples feet.”

The big news last week was, of course, the controversy in Britain about Easter Eggs.  Cadburys, the chocolate maker together with the National Trust had decided to drop the word Easter from their Easter Egg hunts. The decision incensed Theresa May the Prime Minister who attacked the decision as ridiculous.  It was as though the foundations of the Christian faith were threatened.  But the last time I searched the Scriptures I did not find any reference to Easter Eggs.  So I yawned, turned off my light, and went to sleep.  Lent, Holy Week and the mystery of the Passion of Jesus had been trivialised in the search for chocolate eggs and Easter, sorry, chocolate bunnies. 

But today, on this Maundy Thursday, which begins the final countdown to the Passion and the Darkness that precedes Easter, our thoughts turn to more serious things happening in the world.  There are no Easter Eggs in Aleppo, and no children able to search for them in the rubble if there were. There is only devastation as darkness covers the land, while the leaders of the nations whose, bombers and chemical weapons have wreaked the havoc, seek a solution that serves their interests best, and some are tempted to wash their hands of the whole sordid affair.

Holy Week began with a massive protest march against such ineptitude and evil, an event far more newsworthy than any debate about Easter Eggs.  After all, when a large crowd marches on the capital waving banners, the media gets excited, and those in power take notice and tremble in their boots.  On such occasions the police ensure that violence is prevented, for who knows what might happen on protest marches.  But on this occasion the crowd was peaceful, lining the streets with their banners.  Some of these read “Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord,” and others “Hosanna to the Son of David.”  There were also some that said “Long live Jesus of Nazareth, long live!”  Or “Pilate and the Pharisees must go!

But it was a non-violent protest march because its central figure was riding on a donkey.  Even so, this was a direct challenge to those in power: the Sanhedrin, Herod and his lackeys, and the Roman procurator Pilate.  Insurrection had long been in the air.  At that very moment, languishing in Jerusalem’s gaol was a revolutionary Zealot named Jesus Barabbas, who had made inflammatory speeches and tried to overthrow the authorities by violence.  Jerusalem was uneasy, under lock-down we would say today.  The problem was that people were calling this Jesus the Messiah, the one anointed by God to liberate them from oppression.  But where was his army?  All he had was a motley crew of disciples, and popular support from the lower classes.  What threat could this Jesus and his followers present to power?  But the people were enthusiastic.  Their hour had come: “Love live the Son of David! Long live.” 

We know the story well.  The crowd turned against the Man on a donkey, and even his disciples betrayed and denied him.  So he stood before Pilate and the baying mob silently and alone.  Pilate could find no fault in Jesus, but thought he had found a way out of his dilemma.  Let them have Jesus the Messiah and he would crucify the revolutionary Jesus Barabbas.  “Whom do you want me to release to you, Jesus Barabbas or Jesus who is called the Messiah?” But Pilate had not counted on the fickleness of the people who had decided that this Jesus neither would nor could liberate them.  That required an army led by a man wielding a sword and riding on a horse.  Give us Barabbas, they cried.  So Pilate washed his hands of the whole affair. This was not his responsibility.  He turned his back and went to lunch with his wife.

The dramatic week of Jesus’ passion, from Palm Sunday to Holy Saturday, keeps on playing out in world history.  False Messiahs arise to woo the crowds, only to disappoint them with failed promises and creating havoc in the process.  But the story of the man on a donkey presents us with an alternative, a Messiah whose way to the cross and promise of life through death, offers hope to the world.  Yet too often as we follow him on along that path, and as the cost becomes apparent and darkness covers the land in protest every crime against humanity, we are tempted to betray or deny him, wash our hands and search for Easter Eggs. But we know that our task is to stay the journey, to continue protesting against injustice and corruption, and as followers of Jesus to stand with him in solidarity with the suffering people of the world and in our own country. 

The choice Pilate presented to the crowd that day is thus a perennial choice.  What kind of leaders do we want, or better, do we need?  Or best of all, what kind of leaders does God anoint in order to establish peace and justice?  Those who come riding on a donkey or those in command of a fleet of tanks?  Those whose power is that of sacrificial service on behalf of the people, or those whose power is corrupt and maintained by force?  When the chips are down, do we choose the power of the sword or the power of humility, justice and peace?

But this choice is not just about the leaders we choose, it is also about us, we who make the choice.  For it is easy to blame leaders for what is wrong with the world, and wash our hands of their corruption and folly; it is relatively easy to go on protest marches waving banners.  It is much more difficult to follow Jesus to the cross and stand by him in his hour of need.  So it was that on the night in which he was betrayed and denied by his disciples, Jesus not only broke bread with them, he also washed their feet.  He then commanded them that they should do likewise as a commitment to service and love.  Jesus could have simply washed his hands of the world that was about to crucify him, but he chose instead to wash the feet of his followers.  After he had done so he returned to the table and said to them:

Do you know what I have done to you?  You call me teacher and Lord — and you are right, for that is what I am.  So if I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet.  For I have set you an example, that you should do as I have done to you.  Very truly, I tell you, servants are not greater than their master, nor are messengers greater than the one who sent them.  If you know these things you are blessed if you do them. (John 13:12-17) 

 John de Gruchy

Volmoed, Maundy Thursday 2017

MYSTIC ACTIVISTS

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Matthew 16;24-26

“What does it profit us if we gain the whole world and lose our souls?”

“In our era, the road to holiness passes through the world of action.”   (Dag Hammarskjöld)

“Something stronger than I was compelled me for the first time in my life to go down on my knees.” (Simone Weil)

Seeing that the mystics we have considered, from St. Augustine through to Brother Lawrence, were priests, recluses or monks, and lived a long time ago you might think that Christian mysticism is not something possible or helpful for  modern people like ourselves.  So today we meet two twentieth century mystics who were not cloistered in a monastery, nor were they what we might call religious types.  The first , Dag Hammarskjöld , was, in fact, a Swedish politician and diplomat, and the second, Simone Weil, was a Jewish French professor of philosophy and political activist. Let me tell you a little about their spiritual journeys, and why many, including a former Archbishop of Canterbury, regard them as Christian mystics.

I still remember the day in September 1961 when Dag Hammarskjöld was killed in a plane crash in Zambia at the age of 56.  Hammarskjöld was then the Secretary General of the United Nations,  and at the time he was trying to  negotiate a peace deal in the newly independent but war torn Congo. Foul play was suspected as the cause of the plane crash as there were powerful geo-political forces at work trying to prevent peace negotiations from succeeding.  Hammarskjöld never wrote any books, but he did keep a journal, and a few years after his death his journal was published.  Entitled Markings it was described by a distinguished theologian at the time as “perhaps the greatest testament of personal faith written.”

You will find virtually nothing in Markings about Hammarskjöld’s very busy life as a high-powered diplomat, but you will discover many profound insights into his spiritual journey.  Among them is perhaps his most famous statement: “In our era, the road to holiness passes through the world of action.”  In other words, to become a saint you don’t have to live in a monastery; you can be busily engaged in politics, for that, too, is where God is at work seeking to establish justice and peace.  For Hammarskjöld, we Christians cannot escape from our responsibility to join with God in doing the same.  But what brought Hammarskjöld political activist to this point of view that makes him a mystic?

Soon after he became the Secretary General of the United Nations in 1953,  Hammarskjöld said, in a radio interview, that he was deeply influenced by the great medieval mystics. He mentioned Meister Eckhart in particular who, he said, had taught him that that the path of “self-surrender” was the true path to discovering the self.   In an entry in Markings he refers back to the time when this began to dawn upon him:

Once I answered Yes to Someone — or Something. And from that hour I was certain that existence is meaningful and that, therefore, my life, in self-surrender, has a goal.

The “Someone” or what I think is badly translated as “Something,” refers, of course, to the mystery we call God, but who transcends all our categories and words.  For elsewhere Hammarskjöld refers to himself as only a vessel through in and through whom God is at work, and about his discovery that God was more real to himself than he was to himself; that God was no object that we can examine and control, but the subject or One who gives us life.  Although Secretary General of the United Nations, Hammarskjöld did not set out to gain the whole world with a lust for power and influence, for by doing so he would have lost his soul.  On the contrary, through surrendering himself to God Hammarskjöld discovered the meaning and purpose of life in serving the world.  This discovery, this sense of being encountered by God, Hammarskjöld  described as a “creative act,” something he experienced as “a thunderclap of … dazzling power.” Hammarskjöld the politician and activist was so overwhelmed by the mystery we call God, that he denied self, and followed Jesus to the cross.

This brings us to Simone Weil.  She was a Jewess by birth, a Marxist as a student, and deeply involved in the struggles in France prior to the Second World War,  but she called herself a follower of Jesus and believed that the Christian life was the one she was called to live.  This journey began when she visited the chapel in Assisi where St. Francis used to pray.  She writes: “Something stronger than I was compelled me for the first time in my life to go down on my knees.”  But she refused to be baptized and formally join the Catholic Church though she often worshipped there.  In her classic book Waiting for God,  she explains he reluctance to be baptised: “I cannot help still wondering whether in these days when so large a proportion of humanity is sunk in materialism, God does not want there to be some men and women who have given themselves to him and to Christ and who yet remain outside the Church.”  Like Jesus, Simone Weil wanted to identify fully with the outsider, those who felt excluded.

But place her among the mystics?  She gives us reason when she says that like St. John the mystical text The Cloud of Unknowing probably had the greatest influence on her life: “God can only be present in creation under the form of absence.”  This, for her, was the heart of the mystery of God.  That is why, as she insisted in Waiting for God, that if we think we can find God by searching for God we will never be successful.  On the contrary, it is God who comes searching for us in the dark moments of our lives.  Our task is to “wait for God,” to be open to the possibility that God will find us.

For Weil there is no prescribed mystic path to God, only the need to wait, to be open, to anticipate God’s coming to us, and to be receptive when God comes.  This is what happened to her when she visited the chapel in Assisi.  Something from beyond herself compelled her to her knees.  It is often so.  It happened to St. Paul on the Damascus Road, it happened to C.S. Lewis when he was “surprised by joy.”  And I am sure it is the experience of many of us.  We never went looking for God; we were found by God.  That is the  heart of the matter: for true mystics know that they will never find God no matter how hard they search unless it God is searching for them — for  us — before we even begin.  And from their experience they also know the moment will come  when Someone, the mystery we call God, will approach us and invite us to say “yes.”   True mysticism begins, as the Psalmist also knew, in waiting for God with expectancy, not least in times of darkness.

I wait for the Lord, my soul waits, and in his word I hope;

My soul waits for the Lord, more than those who watch for the morning. (Psalm 130:5-6)

John de Gruchy

Volmoed  March 30, 2017  Lent 5

 

PRACTICING THE PRESENCE

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Luke 10:38-42

“Martha, Martha you are worried and distracted by many things, there is need of only one thing.”

“We should establish ourselves in a sense of God’s Presence, by continually conversing with him.”

(Brother Lawrence, The Practice of the Presence of God)

St. Augustine was a theologian and bishop, Julian of Norwich was a visionary locked in her cell, and St. John of the Cross was a monastic reformer and poet but, you may be pleased to know, the fourth Christian mystic we will meet on this Lenten journey, was a cook.  He would have fitted well into Volmoed, so today without further ado or even waiting to check it out with the Trustees, I declare Brother Lawrence (1611-1691) our patron saint.

Born Nicholas Herman, Brother Lawrence was a soldier for eighteen years before he became a treasurer to the King of France.  But since the age of eighteen he had a great sense of God’s loving guidance in his life in all its aspects.  This, in turn, awoke in him a great love for God, which led him to make the love of God the end of all his actions.  That was the reason why he eventually decided to become  a monk because he thought he could then spend his days in prayer and contemplation.  So he joined a Carmelite monastery in Paris.  He did not want to be like Martha, distracted by the busyness of everyday life; he desired, rather,  to be like Mary and spend quality time with Jesus in quiet contemplation.

So you can imagine how annoyed he was at first when the Abbot decided that he was not to spend his days in quiet contemplation, but  to work amid the noise and clutter of the monastery kitchen.  Unlike Mary  whose example he craved, he had to become Martha and busy himself with ensuring that there was wine in the cellar and food on the table.  But it was precisely in that busy schedule of daily life, , that Brother Lawrence learnt to practice the presence of God irrespective of where he was or what he was doing.  And that is the heart of what mysticism is about: a deep awareness of the love of God in the midst of our daily lives despite its distractions and busyness.  You can be Martha and still choose the better part that Mary had.  In Brother Lawrence contemplation and daily work are brought together.  Contemplation is not an escape from reality and the daily round of necessary activity; it is a way of engagement with God in the midst of our inescapable responsibilities.

Brother Lawrence did not have the time to  write books or poetry like some of the other great mystics, but he did keep a notebook of his sayings and thoughts, and he also wrote many letters, all of which were found in his cell after his death.  These were collected by the Abbot of the monastery.  He  also collected notes of conversations that various people had had with Brother Lawrence, and published all of these in a very small book which he called The Practice of the Presence of God.  This slender volume has had a remarkable influence over the centuries, and continues to be published in a variety of languages.  You might call it “every person’s” guide to mysticism, for you don’t have to be a saint, priest or recluse to do what Brother Lawrence did.  The Christian life, Brother Lawrence is telling us, is an ongoing loving conversation with God.  What we simply have to do is daily practice the presence of God in our lives like a pianist who daily practices the piano.   Loving God requires daily practice.

Of course, this is not easy, and in some situations it might be difficult.  After all, as Bonhoeffer once said, you don’t normally think about God when you are cuddling up to your wife or husband in bed!  But even if you do, it is unlikely that a rugby player will be practising the presence of  God in the middle of a scrum even if a soldier might do so in the heat of battle facing possible death.  But in the normal round of life, in our relationships, in our daily work, and especially in times when life gets tough, or anger takes hold of us, or envy and greed, being mindful that God is present and loves us will make all the difference to what we say and do.  Difficult, of course, but that’s why we have to practice the presence,  or get into the habit as it were.

Like most of us, Brother Lawrence had periods of spiritual dryness when he found prayer difficult. But that did not mean that he stopped practising the presence of God, whether at daily prayer in the monastery chapel or at daily work in the monastery kitchen.  So he learnt, as he tell us, “doing little things for the love of God,” because God “regards not the greatness of the work, but the love with which it is performed.”  It did not matter that he had to peel potatoes while other monks were busy in the library or deep in contemplation.  What mattered was doing his work out of love for God. “The time of business,” he wrote, “does not … differ from the time of prayer; and in the noise and clutter of my kitchen… I possess God in as great tranquillity as if I were upon my knees at the Blessed Sacrament.”

Brother Lawrence did not follow any set method of prayer and contemplation, his method, he said,  was “simple attention…and a general passionate regard to God; to whom I find myself attached with greater sweetness and delight than that of an infant at a mother’s breast.”  Like an infant who cuddles up in the embrace of his mother, he sensed that he was continually being embraced in the warmth of an infinite love that nourished and gave him life.  In a letter to one of his friends who was a soldier, Brother Lawrence writes:

We have a God who is infinitely gracious, and knows all our wants…He will come in his own time and when you least expect it.  Hope in him more than ever; thank him for the favours he does you, particularly for the fortitude and patience which he gives you in our afflictions; it is a plain mark of the care he takes of you; comfort yourself then with him, and give thanks for all.

That is practicing the presence of God.  If God is the love that embraces then practicing the presence of God means daily giving thanks, daily placing our trust and hope in God, daily seeking to love others, not just those who are close to us, but all those we encounter.  Practicing the presence of God means learning to forgive, learning to serve the needs of others, learning to do what is right, learning to be compassionate and doing justice.  Like a pianist who daily practices in order to master his music, so the Christian who follows Brother Lawrence’s example, daily practices love for God through practicing love even in the kitchen.

 

John de Gruchy

Volmoed Lent 4  23 March 2017

THE SPIRAL OF LOVE

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John 19:16b- 19; 25b-30

“I was taught that love is our Lord’s meaning.,”

(Showings  Julian of Norwich)

Julian of Norwich is the second Christian mystic I have chosen for our Lenten meditations.  Thomas Merton regarded Julian was one of  the greatest English theologians.  She was certainly the first.  As she is also Isobel’s favourite, I have asked Isobel to write today’s meditation, with a little bit of editing from my side.  Julian’s character  is revealed through her writing, and both who she was and what she wrote have been very meaningful to Isobel since she first came across her in the 1980s.  Although her most famous saying is: “All shall be well, and all manner of things shall be well.” Her last words that have come down to us sum up what she discovered in contemplating Christ on the cross:  “I was taught that love is our Lord’s meaning,” An important reminded of the purpose of this Lenten journey to the cross.

Julian was a young woman, only thirty year old, living in Norwich in England in 1343 when she fell seriously ill. As she lay dying she had a series of visions in which she saw, as though she were present, Jesus being crucified, and other “showings“ as she called them. She recovered from her illness and entered a cell attached to the church of St Julian and became an anchorite, sealed in her cell for a life of contemplation, though frequently visited for counsel. She wrote down what she had seen in her visions and for the next twenty years meditated on their meaning, questioning what she had been shown, wrestling with the issues raised, and receiving other insights from God. These she recorded in a book in the language she spoke, the language of Chaucer, making her the first woman author in the English language.

The Medieval world Julian inhabited is not our world, and therefore it is sometimes difficult to relate to it, but once we break through that barrier, we discover a depth of spirituality that we often lack.  After all, her world was also much like our own.  It was a world of war and violence, of the plague, poverty and much suffering.  So keep that in mind as we listen to Julian speak.  She was a woman of her time, but she also speaks to our time.  Amid our busyness and noise, her contemplative life-style calls us to discover God in the silence.

Julian starts by telling us that she had three wishes or longings in her Christian life. In her own words,

My wish was for God to give me three graces: the first was to experience, as though I were present, Christ’s Passion; the second was a bodily sickness and the third was three wounds. I already felt deeply about Christ’s Passion but I longed for more. I wanted, by God’s grace, to feel as though I were actually there with Mary Magdalene and Jesus’ other friends – to see with my own eyes what he suffered for me. I wanted to suffer with him as others who loved him had done. (chap. 2)

 

The second grace she asked for strikes us today as very strange. She desired a ‘bodily sickness’, something just short of actual death. Being aware that even then this was unusual, she added that the first two graces should fall within God’s will for her.

 

On the eighth day of May in 1373, God granted Julian’s second ‘wish’ along with it the first. She fell seriously ill. When it seemed death was near, her curate was sent for; he gave her the Last Rites and held a crucifix in front of her. As she felt death closing in, she remembered her wish for the second wound – that Christ’s pains would be her pains – to lead her nearer to God. She then saw Christ on the cross as he hung in agony.  Her description is vivid and realistic, picturing Christ’s blood streaming down his face from the crown of thorns.  She writes:  “It came to me, truly and powerfully, that he, who is both God and a man, and who suffered for me, was now showing this to me without any intermediary.”  This is the first of Julian’s Showings.  She saw the crucifixion as though she was there but didn’t exaggerate it for the sake of morbid effect. She simply, longed to “experience the Passion as though she were present”.  The hideousness of the crucifixion, brought her real physical pain, yet she also experienced great joy.

 

 

For in this death there is life,

In this suffering, joy,

in this hideous act,

the turning point of history:

and Christ who is highest and noblest,

mightiest and most honourable,

is also lowest and humblest,

and graciously our friend.

 

Rejoice and delight in this

and live with his strength and grace.

 

 

 

The vision affected her deeply as she contemplated its meaning and saw more vividly Christ’s agony and the blood flowing for the redemption of humankind. She even began to regret that she had ever even thought of asking to be present. Then she was pained at the thought that she wanted to escape from it.               When it all became too much to bear Julian wanted to turn her gaze away from the cross towards heaven to find solace.  We would surely do the same.  Isobel writes:

 

 

There is so much suffering,

for so many, for so long:

it disturbs us, depresses us,

threatens to suck us into its black depths.

Julian felt the same,

for she saw the suffering of Christ

on the cross,

It became too much to bear,

and she wanted to look away,

 

 

 

to look to heaven

for there was safety

and an end to grief.

But she did not.

She chose to keep on looking at Christ,

staying with his suffering.

So she came to see that

Christ was her heaven,

and the joy that came later,

came only because she stayed her gaze

on the crucified Christ.

 

 

 

Julian’s language night not be everybody’s cup of tea, but she takes us deeply into the meaning of Christ’s passion as we struggle with our own pain.  She was a person full of good sense and warmth, whose vivid imagery expresses a gentle humanity.  Instead of the “spiral of violence” we encounter in the world, she offers us a “spiral of love.”  But it all began as she stood in contemplation with Mary at the foot of the cross and  expressed in her final words:  “I was taught that love is our Lord’s meaning.”

Isobel de Gruchy

Volmoed 9 March  Lent 2

See Isobel de Gruchy  Marking all things Well: Finding Spiritual strength with Julian of Norwich (Norwich: Canterbury Press, 2012)

A RESTLESS HEART FALLS IN LOVE

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Matthew 11:28-30

“Take my yoke upon you…and you will find rest for your souls.”

“Thou hast made us for thyself, O Lord, and our heart is restless until it finds its rest in thee.”

St. Augustine “Confessions”

On the Sunday before Lent some Christians celebrate the Feast of the Transfiguration.  You know the story well.  Jesus takes Peter, James and John up a high mountain where they experience Jesus together with Moses and Elijah transfigured before their eyes.  They are overwhelmed by the presence of God.  But the vision soon passes and they go with Jesus down the mountain to begin their journey to Jerusalem and the cross.  Some would call their mountain top experience mystical, an experience in which the disciples are caught up in the Spirit just as Moses was on Mountain Sinai or Elijah on Mount Carmel.  These were overwhelming experiences of God as Moses led the freed slaves on their journey to their land of promise, and before God sent Elijah  back into the political maelstrom to speak truth to power.  So, too, Jesus and the disciples are overwhelmed by God’s presence as they begin their journey to the cross.

I begin this promised Lenten series on the “Christian Mystics” on the Mount of Transfiguration in order to make it plain that Christian mysticism is not a way of escape from the world, but a profound sense of the presence of God that enables us to live life fully in the world.  It is not a religious experience that separates us from our fellows and our responsibilities, but an experience of God that enables us to live more compassionately, responsibly and justly.  Of course, mysticism means different things to different people and different traditions, but for Christians it is all about being overwhelmed by God in the midst of daily life, even though it may begin on a mountain top.  It is like falling in love.  It begins in ecstasy when we are overwhelmed by beauty, but being and remaining in love takes place in the daily, ordinary course of life with its hum-drum chores and inevitable suffering.  But that does not mean who have falled out of love, for it is that experience that sustains you over the long haul. This is the testimony of St. Augustine, the first of the “Christian mystics” whose journey into the mystery of the love of God  we will reflect on this first week in Lent.

Augustine was born in 354 in present day Algeria.  His father was a pagan and his mother, Monica, a devout Christian who ensured that he had a Christian education.  But soon after he went to university in Carthage , turned his back on Christianity and took a mistress to whom he was faithful for fifteen years.  Augustine was particularly interested in philosophy and became a member of the Manichaean religious sect.  But after nine years of seeking the truth he abandoned the sect and opened a school of philosophy in Rome.  Soon after he went north to Milan where he came under the influence of the bishop, St. Ambrose.  But it took a while before he himself was converted as he struggled with his intellectual doubts and  his carefree way of life.  He was a restless soul searching for true love and peace.  Eventually, while reading Paul’s letter to the Romans, he made his decision and on Easter Day 387 he was baptized.  He returned to North Africa and while visiting the city of Hippo (Annaba) he was suddenly seized by the people who presented him to the bishop for ordination!  Not too long after he himself became the bishop.  And thus began a remarkable career during which he wrote several books that have profoundly influenced the development of Christianity. Augustine died in 430 as the Vandals from the North were attacking Hippo, having already destroyed Rome.

As a bishop struggling to deal with powerful heresies that were dividing the church, and living in a time of tumultuous political change, Augustine was deeply engaged in the life of the world.  But his involvement was profoundly shaped by his deep mystical spirituality which he describes in the pages of his Confessions, one of the most significant books ever written in the history of Christianity.  It is a very personal book in which he tells us the story of  his search for truth over the thirty years before he finally decided to become a Christian.  But looking back over his life he discerns how it was the God in whom we “live and move and have our being” who was actually always seeking him!  “I should not have sought you unless you had already found me!” Augustine cries out.  He also comes to the realization that God’s truth is not to be found in the proudly wise, but in the humble of heart.  And, he confesses, his search for truth only came to fulfillment when his restless heart found rest in God. “You have made us for yourself, O Lord,” he says in his most often quoted words,  “and our hearts are restless until they finds their rest in you.”

Several times in his Confessions Augustine relates his experience to the words of Jesus: “Come to me, all you who are weary and are carrying heavy burdens and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls.  For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.”  This is precisely what Augustine discovered.  In taking up Jesus’ yoke, or the discipline of discipleship that we are reminded about each Lent, Augustine found that it fitted him perfectly, and in following Jesus he discovered that his restless heart was finally at peace, finally happy and filled with joy.  Such joy is not just the starting point of Christian mysticism, it characterizes it all the way on the journey ahead.  For it is all about falling in love with the one who first loves us, and loves us with the passion of Calvary.  We can’t explain it in carefully constructed words, only in poetry and praise; we cannot say precisely what has happened to us, because such love defies analysis.  But the first thing to learn about  Christian mysticism is that it is about falling in love with the source and fount of love.  Here is how Augustine describes it:

 

Late have I loved you, beauty so old and so new: late have I loved you. And see, you were within and I was in the external world and sought you there, and in my unlovely state I plunged into those lovely created things which you made. You were with me, and I was not with you. The lovely things kept me far from you, though if they did not have their existence in you, they had no existence at all. You called and cried out loud and shattered my deafness. You were radiant and resplendent, you put to flight my blindness. You were fragrant, and I drew in my breath and now pant after you. I tasted you, and I feel but hunger and thirst for you. You touched me, and I am set on fire to attain the peace which is yours.

 

John de Gruchy

Volmoed  1 March 2017.  First week in Lent:

 

TAKE COURAGE

Posted on

I Corinthians 16:13-14

John 16:32-33

Be courageous, be strong

But take courage, I have conquered the world

 In many respects, last year, 2016, was a very good year for Volmoed.   It was the year in which we celebrated the thirtieth anniversary of the beginning of our community in 1986 when Bernhard and Jane Turkstra came to live here, and the present day history of Volmoed began.  It was the year in which we began looking towards the future with new vigour, the year in which the first Volmoed Youth Leadership Training Programme course was held, and we had an injection of youthful enthusiasm and commitment into our daily life.  It was also a year in which an increasing number of people came to visit or stay on Volmoed, and in which Alyson Guy’s art programme gathered fresh momentum.

 

Last week I gave a talk at the Hermanus History Society on the ” Volmoed Journey.”  In preparing to give it, I was struck again by the fact that the story did not simply begin thirty years ago in 1986, it goes far back to the earliest beginnings of human habitation.   After all, the story of humanity, so we are told, probably began in the caves at Blombos further along the coast, and in all likelihood we can surmise that people migrated from there to here in those prehistoric times.  But even if that is something of a flight of my imagination,  we do know for sure that in the fourteenth century there were Khoi hunter gatherers living here alongside the Onrus river that runs through Volmoed.  We know this because this place was known as Volmoed, it was called Atta’s Kloof, and Atta was the well-known name of a Khoi chief of that period.  But what attracted Atta’s clan to this place?

 

Probably the same thing that attracts most people to Volmoed still today.  Its beauty and tranquillity, and the sense of well-being that people find here.  Even the rocks geologists tell us have a special magnetism that has healing properties. Maybe that was the reason why lepers also came to live here during the eighteenth century.  They came not just  because they were forced to live far away and apart from others, but presumably because they had found a place where their spirits and bodies could be sustained at a time when there was no cure for their horrible disease.

 

But then, in 1817, the story of Volmoed took a new turn.  That year, the governor of the Cape, Lord Charles Somerset, sent his medical superintendent, Dr. James Barrie, from Cape Town to find out how the lepers could be helped by the colonial government.  Those who know her story, yes she was a woman who had to masquerade as a man in order to practice as a doctor, will know what a remarkable person she was.  After all, she rode all the way here on horseback!  And she is key figure in the story of Volmoed for it was at her request that a Moravian missionary from Genadendal, Peter Leitner, was appointed the resident missionary to the lepers in 1825.  Leitner had been here before then.  In fact, in 1817 on his first visit  he evidently gave the name Hemel en Aarde to the Valley, and called this part of the Valley, Volmoed.  If that is so, then Volmoed — the place  full of courage and hope  known by this name is two-hundred years old this year!  So, what began here in 1986 when Bernhard and Jane arrived, was the continuation of a story that goes back over many centuries.  Volmoed, a place where God has renewed and healed people, restoring hope and giving them courage for the journey, is at least two hundred years old,  if not much, much older.  It is not we who have made Volmoed what it is, but rather, as we often say, Volmoed is a place God has set apart from the beginning for his ministry of healing and wholeness.

 

Volmoed is, in fact, a sacred space that over time has meant a great deal to many people, and continues to do so.  And that is why part the fundamental mission of the Volmoed Community is to ensure that this place called Volmoed remains a place set aside by God for God’s ministry of healing and wholeness.  We are caretakers not owners of God’s place of hospitality for all in need of God’s grace and renewal.  That is what Volmoed is all about, its core business.  It is not in the first instance, a conference centre, a place of retreat, a youth centre, a place for sabbatical reflection and writing, a wedding venue that we have built– it is all of these — but it is only these because it is foremost a place God has set aside for God’s ministry of healing and wholeness.

 

For two hundred years then, the name Volmoed has become linked to this sacred space and is now inseparable from it.  Volmoed is a place where people, where we ourselves, discover the truth of Jesus’ words to his disciples: “Take courage, I have conquered the world.” This courage is not the courage of Stoics who bravely face death without faith, nor is it the bravery of soldiers on the battle field who risk their lives without always knowing why, but the courage which comes through faith in the God of grace whose peace is present and at work in this place.  It is the courage to believe that God is at work in the world overcoming evil, bringing love where there is hatred, hope where there is despair, and reconciliation where there is division and brokenness.  It is the courage to believe that God is with us in Christ whether in life or death.  Such faith is itself an act of courage,  some would even say it is an act of folly.  It is certainly not an intellectual exercise, the clinging to a set of propositions come hell or high-water,  but the courage to live life as an adventure in trust, to live as those who accept that God’s has accepted and forgiven us.  Such faith gives us the courage to reach out to the stranger and the alien and invite them to share with us in God’s hospitality.  Such courage enables us to stand in solidarity with the oppressed and speak truth to power.  It is the courage to be truly human and become the people God wants us to be.

 

Yes, Volmoed is a place that God has set aside for God’s ministry of healing and wholeness, but it is, to add a necessary footnote, more than a place, it is a people that stretches back to Atta’s clan and the Lepers of old and their Moravian carers, to the Volmoed Community of today.  Without this community of people of courage and hope, without all of us who gather here week by week, without our many prayers partners around the world, without the wider Community of the Cross of Nails, there would be no Volmoed, only a farm, a beautiful flower farm no doubt, or a developer’s dream,  but not the place of courage in which God is at work.  And that defines our mission of hospitality and who we strive to be as the present day Volmoed community.  Helping each other to discover not only God’s healing and peace, but also God’s gift of hope and courage for our lives in a world that is broken, despairing and seeking a way to wholeness.  Courage for living even if we are often buffeted by disappointment, pain and grief.  “But take courage,” Jesus says, “I have conquered the world.” That is the word of the Lord for all who come and belong to Volmoed.

John de Gruchy

Volmoed  23 February 2017