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THE DIVINE MIRROR

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II Corinthians 3:17-18

“All of us, with unveiled faces, seeing the glory of the Lord as though reflected in a mirror, are being transformed into the same image (icon).”

Last week there was an Icon Writing course on Volmoed.  The first such course was held ten years ago, also led by our friend and highly regarded icon writing teacher Ana-Marie Bands.  Icons, the Greek NT word for images, are an integral part of the spirituality of the Eastern Orthodox Churches, but have become widely appreciated by many other Christians as an aid to contemplative prayer,  even among some Dutch Reformed and Pentecostal congregations in South Africa, due to the teaching of Ana-Marie.

Icons are neither idols nor works of art, they are another way of writing the gospel, which is why some call them the “fifth gospel,” calling to mind the words of the first letter of John that “what we have heard” we have also “seen with our eyes” concerning the word of life. “(I John 1:1-4)   Or Paul’s words in Colossians that Christ “is the icon of the invisible God,” (1:15), or in his second letter to the Corinthians,  that God’s light “has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ.” (2 Cor.4:6)   Jesus is the “human face of God,” the one in whom we have seen God’s grace, beauty and truth revealed.

Fans of Richard Rohr, the well-known Catholic teacher on matters spiritual, and the author of many books, recently wrote one called “The Divine Dance”.  On its cover is a copy of Andre Rublev’s icon of the Holy Trinity, the same icon that stands in front of us today.  Significantly the subtitle of the book is “the trinity and your transformation.”  I am not an avid fan of Rohr’s writings, though he says many good things, but I am enthusiastic about “The Divine Dance” because in his chatty kind of way he helps us understand why the Christian doctrine of God as Trinity is so fundamental to Christianity, and so important for our daily lives as a transforming symbol.

Rublev wrote his icon of the Holy Trinity  in fifteenth century Russia when the country was being torn apart by war and violence, not unlike our world today, and he did so in order to provide a focus for prayers and conversations for peace and reconciliation.  That is, to facilitate transformation in society.  The icon is based on the OT story of the three strangers who visit Abraham and Sarah in Mamre, and to whom they give hospitality.(Gen. 18:1-8)  Afterwards the strangers announce that the aged Sarah will give birth to a son in fulfilment of God’s promise.   But Rublev also had in that intriguing verse in the letter to the Hebrews where we are told to show hospitality to strangers, for in doing so we may well entertain angels unaware! (13: 2)   And finally, the story becomes a symbol of the Holy Trinity, the Father, Son and Spirit.  It is not we who offer hospitality to strangers or entertain angels unaware, but God who shows us hospitality by  welcoming us into communion with him, and embracing us in the transforming love that unites the Father, Son and Holy Spirit.  This is what is meant by the “divine dance,” a dance of transforming love, which is an ancient Christian metaphor for our participation in the dynamic life of God.

 

Icons are often referred to as windows.  They help us see beyond ourselves in order to see reality differently and so be drawn into the  mystery of the love of God.  Like stained glass windows in churches  they enable us to see the light filtered through the story of the gospel, bringing us as it were face to face with the crucified and risen Christ.  I have studied Rublev’s icon for a long time, but Rohr has told me something I never knew before.  If “you look on the front of the table,” he says, “there appears to be a little rectangular hole painted there” which you can hardly notice. So many people, Rohr says, “just pass right over it, but art historians say that …there was perhaps once a mirror glued onto the front of the table!”  If so, then maybe Rublev had in mind the words of St. Paul: “All of us, with unveiled faces, seeing the glory of the Lord as though reflected in a mirror, are being transformed into the same image (icon).” Those who looked at the icon when it was first written would have seen themselves reflected in the icon.  They would not just be looking at an icon, or looking beyond it as through a window, but they would see themselves being invited  to join those already gathered around the table.  It was an invitation to a dance, a dance of transforming love.

 

Imagine a group of people from warring factions, or an estranged husband and wife, or anyone people who in need of being reconciled, standing before this icon.  Imagine them sitting at the negotiating table or the kitchen table trying to overcome their enmity and find a solution to their strife.  Imagine them now looking at this icon and seeing themselves in the mirror.  Suddenly the table around which they are sitting becomes an altar, God’s table of reconciliation, and they are being invited  to join God together at God’s table, no longer trying to try and overcome their problems on their own, but by participating with God in his dance of reconciling love. 

When we come to this table we first share the peace with each other.  This is not just a moment in the eucharist when we catch up on each other’s news, it is a moment when we join the divine dance around the altar in order to be reconciled to each other through participating in God’s reconciling love.  In this way, this table becomes the place where broken relationships are healed within the embrace of God’s love, the love of the Father for Son in the unity of the Spirit.  To participate in the divine dance around the altar is to participate in the transforming love of God revealed in the face of Christ and experienced in the fellowship of the Spirit.  In doing so we discover one another no longer as enemies but as brothers and sisters, participants together in the life and love of God and, in the process being transformed..

“All of us, with unveiled faces, seeing the glory of the Lord as though reflected in a mirror, are being transformed into the same image.”

 

John de Gruchy

Volmoed,  15 June 2017

 

EARTH IS OUR MOTHER

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“We know that the whole creation has been groaning in labour pains until now, and not only the creation, but we ourselves…”Romans 8:18-27

Last Friday I woke up with a miserable head cold made worse by the insane decision of Donald Trump to renege on the Paris Environmental Accord.  The words that came to mind were “those whom the gods wish to destroy they first make mad.” Then I opened up Facebook and discovered that many others, including leading politicians in the United States, also thought Trump’s decision was insane.  I also read on Facebook, that Trump said that planet earth was a loser, a real loser, and that there were many better planets around the universe.  To which Angela Merkel apparently responded that she could not wait for Trump to go to one of them. Maybe that is fake news. but it reminds me that there are many Christians who think the earth is in such a mess that they can’t wait to get to heaven.  Earth is not our home, they declare.  But that is not what the Bible says.  The earth is created by God to be our home, and we need to care for the earth as its stewards.

This has been the theme that we have been exploring this past week in the Volmoed Youth Leadership Training Programme, but the message is reinforced by the devastating storms we have had during the past 24 hours, and the even more devastating fire that has ravished much of Knysna.  Earth is our home. But fierce winds, hailstorms, earthquakes, fire and flood, remind us that the earth is not always human friendly.  Yet without rain we have no water, without fire we have no warmth — nature’s fierce side is necessary for life to exist.  Death, as some say, may take us to a better place, but during our life-span we have nowhere else to go, and even if we did we might find that President Trump has already got there.  That is why we have to learn to love and cherish this earth.  Dietrich Bonhoeffer once said:

The earth remains our mother just as God remains our father, and only those who are true to the mother are placed by her into the father’s arms.  Earth and its distress — that is the Christian’s Song of Songs.

The distress of the earth to which Bonhoeffer refers is the painful longing of a lover for her beloved.  The desire of the earth to be loved and nurtured, by us.  To take care of the earth as God’s garden, and to protect the birds of the air and the beasts of the field is central to being human.  So for us to abuse the earth and its creatures is a sign that we do not love God.

Last week I referred to the language of nature, the language of the wind, of birds and animals, of the sea.  But the language of nature in response to human arrogance  is a painful groan and sometimes the sound of angry tsunami or howling gale.   St. Paul spoke to this in his letter to the Romans. “We know that the whole creation has been groaning in labour pains until now…”  The earth longs to bring forth new life as a woman in labour, but is continually abused by human stupidity.  The Paris Accord is not perfect, but it is a sign that we are  globally responding to the earth’s cry of distress, and affirmingits ability to bring forth life not death.  The problem is that there are still  too many people who believe that humans have a right to exploit the earth for their own selfish gain,  and too many Christians who believe  that God’s command in Genesis “to fill the earth and subdue it, and have dominion…over every living thing” is a licence for us to do what we like to the earth instead of being its stewards.

What gives us hope is the fact that there has been such a universal rejection of Trump’s decision, such a widespread anger within the United States and the global community at such madness.  Trump and his supporters have, in fact, been isolated by virtually all world leaders and countries, and also by many of the cities and federal states in America.  All of which indicates that the environmental cause has gained considerable traction around the world, even though there is still an enormous amount to be done to save planet earth.  And that is surely part of our Christian witness and responsibility.

Mother Earth, I recently read, “is being crucified and has to experience resurrection.” (Rom 8:22).  Which  helps us understand what Paul means when he says that creation is “groaning in labour pains until now?”  That is, the coming of Christ has given new hope not just to us humans but also to the world as a whole, for Christ did not simply come to save the human race, but to redeem creation and set it free from its bondage to human abuse.  If this is so, then those who have the Spirit of Christ should not only care for creation, but also be the agents of creation’s liberation, renewal and redemption.  In other words, caring for the earth is not just good environmental policy, it is central to Christian existence and witness.  Jesus does not tell us that we should neglect the earth and long for heaven, but to pray and work so that God’s kingdom will “come on earth as it is in heaven.”  That is what it means to love the earth as our Mother, for as long as we live it is the only home we have.

John de Gruchy

Volmoed   8 June 2017

THE ANSWER IS BLOWING IN THE WIND

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I Corinthians 12:27-13:7

If I speak in the tongues of mortals or of angels, but do not have love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal.

While travelling in England I read a remarkable book by Robert Macfarlane titled Landmarks.  It is about the language spoken by nature, a language not usually recognised by most of us even though we speak about the whistling of the wind, the roar of the ocean,  the honk of a pig, the humming of a bee, or the raucous cry of the hadida.  Anyone who has read The Elephant Whisperer in which Lawrence Anthony tells the story of his learning to communicate with elephants, will know what I am talking about. This is the language of nature. The problem is that  most of us have lost the ability to understand this language just as many of us find it difficult to learn the languages of other people on our own door step.

Symptomatic of this loss, so Macfarlane tells us, is that the new Oxford Junior Dictionary has excluded a large number of words that have to do nature in favour of technological terms and computer language.  There is no longer any mention of heather or kingfishers, but lots about blog, broadband and voice-mail.  It is not a question of whether technological terms should be excluded says Macfarlane, but it is a sad day when the compilers of a children’s dictionary don’t think they should know about acorns, berries or trees.  Soon we will have a generation that is incapable of relating to the natural world, and therefore unable to care for it.  If we don’t and understand the language. we cannot relate to nature any more than we can relate to people who speak a different language to us.  If only we could all communicate to each other in each other’s mother tongue.

But at Pentecost, which we celebrate this coming Sunday, God speaks to us through the Wind which is a metaphor for the Spirit,  we are reminded of Bob Dylan’s folk song

 

… how many times must the cannon balls fly, Before they’re forever banned? … how many years can some people exist Before they’re allowed to be free? …how many ears must one man have Before he can hear people cry? … how many deaths will it take till he knows, That too many people have died? The answer my friend is blowin’ in the wind The answer is blowin’ in the wind.

 

 

At Pentecost language of nature, of the Wind, and the language of grace,  the Holy Spirit, become one language, that enables each of us not only to understand the good news about Jesus in our own language, but also about how to relate to others.  If the story of the Tower of Babel is about the failure of human beings to understand each other, the story of Pentecost is about a new language, the language of grace, which enables us to understand one another in the Spirit. This is what so amazed those who witnessed that first Pentecost.  They not only heard the mighty sound of the Wind but they could all speak the language of God’s grace.

To celebrate Africa Day last week, a young Congolese poet.  Philomène Luyindula Lasoen,who lives in Cape Town, wrote a poem on Facebook which speaks directly to this Pentecostal miracle:

 

 

Grace is sometimes found in tongues

When our words fail but we sing the same songs

My Swahili meets your Bemba

The Luba echoes the Shona

IsiXhosa beautifies Chichewa

And Igbo is the Chorus

It is call and answer

Ancient tradition of matching lines

Working synchronicity of past and present

Clapping our spirits rising

We pause the tribes and hues

Arrest external markers

We lose ourselves in spoken word

In the sounds that end all strife.

 

 

 

Ever since that first day of Pentecost there has been much debate about the phenomenon of “speaking in tongues,”  something that St. Paul wrote about in his first letter to the Corinthians.  He did not disparage the gift of tongues , but he was scathing in his criticism of its abuse when it created division instead of building community and overcoming strife and enmity .  He put this in memorable words: “If I speak in the tongues of men or of angels, but do not have love, I am only a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal.” Pentecost is about  God’s language of grace that enables us to sing from the same song sheet irrespective of our language, and so, as Philomène puts it, discover each other “in the sounds that end all strife.”

We speak many languages, and our mother-tongue is important for each of us.  But given the fact that we simply cannot learn every language we encounter, we have to find ways to relate to and communicate with others that are universal.  That is why the Pentecostal solution to the problem is so important.  For even if we can speak in different tongues, Zulu or German, Chinese or Afrikaans, but do not love each other,  it is, says Paul, no more than the sound of clanging gongs. After all, not all people who speak the same language really understand each other even if they understand the words.  For there is more to relating to other people, more to communicating with others, than the words we utter.  Communication is as much about body language as it is about words spoken; it is as much about our actions as it is about our speech.  We can speak the truth in clear tones, but if we do not speak the truth in love, then it can be destructive and unhelpful.  For the language of love is not a matter of words; it is a matter of deeds, of attitude, of embrace, of respect, of compassion and caring.  Love, says Paul, has to do with patience and kindness, with fairness and justice.  Everybody understands this language, for it is the language of the Spirit, the language of grace.

Everybody understands this language irrespective of the tongue we speak, for it communicates love not hatred, respect not disrespect, inclusion not exclusion. It is the language that transcends boundaries, overcomes enmity and builds community, it is the language that heals memories, it is the language that brings down injustice and gives hope to those who are downtrodden or in despair.  No matter where you travel in this world, this language is universal because it is Pentecostal, the language of the Spirit. It is also the language of nature, the God-given sounds that surround us on Volmoed, which help us to understand and care for the world God has given us to enjoy.  Listen to the wind, for God’s love is blowing in the wind, my friend, it’s blowing in the wind..

John de Gruchy,

Volmoed

4 June 2017

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