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“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
“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
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)
“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:
I Corinthians 16:13-14
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
“He even makes the deaf to hear and the dumb to speak.”
The Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, recently said that the best thing that had happened to him in his life was meeting Jesus. I am sure many, many others down the years and still today, would say the same, though I suspect that on St. Valentine’s Day this week the rhetoric might have been different. I am not sure exactly why the Archbishop said what he did, but for many of us meeting Jesus was a life changing experience. This was certainly true for the mute man we read about in the gospel today.
Meeting Jesus must surely have been the best thing that happened to him. It was the day he began to hear for the first time, and began to speak without the impediment with which he had been born. When Jesus put his fingers in the man’s ears and touched his tongue, so the story tells us, the man’s “eyes were opened, his tongue was released, and he spoke plainly.”
Jesus was undoubtedly a healer who, time and again, brought physical healing to people. The gospel stories are full of such stories. But this story, like many others, can be understood in an allegorical as well as a literal way. In meeting Jesus many people who had normal hearing and speaking ability often began to hear in a new way and speak with a new voice, and to speak plainly. The physical healing, as it so often does, points us to a deeper meaning that is relevant for all of us, not just for those who are literally deaf and dumb. When we meet Jesus we begin to hear differently, and speak in a new way.
Tim Stones, one of my former students whom some of you may remember from a visit he made to Volmoed some years ago with his wife and children, works with the deaf and dumb in Worcester. He is exercising a great ministry there helping them excel at sport. I am sure Tim would tells us that those who are deaf or who have difficulty speaking are often people who listen at a deeper level than some of us who have no hearing disability, and they may also communicate with others at a deeper level than we often do. Because hearing is not just a matter of hearing, it is a matter of listening and discerning, of hearing more than the words that are spoken — reading body language, listening to the tone in which the words are expressed, listening intently rather than with half our attention. And speaking is not just about saying things, but communicating with people — speaking plainly, not speaking down to people, but speaking appropriately, finding the right words whether of challenge or comfort..
The Old Testament prophets kept on telling us the people of Israel that they “hear, hear” but buty do not grasp what is being said to them. Jesus said the same. In a story that soon follows the one we read about the healing of the mute man, the disciples misunderstand something he tells them. So Jesus says to them:
Do you still not perceive or understand? Are your hearts hardened? Do you have eyes and fail to see? Do you have ears, and fail to hear? (Mark 817-18)
The disciples had already been journeying with Jesus for some time, they had often listened to his teaching and observed his actions. Yet they so often did not get the point of what he was saying and doing. It was as though they were hearing but not listening, something Isobel tells meI do far too often. But I suspect this is probably true for most of us. How often we don’t really hear, and too often we therefore fail to get what others are trying to tell us or misunderstand what they are saying! And then when we speak we actually pass on what we think we heared rather than what was actually spoken to us. It’s much like that game we used to play when, sitting in a circle, someone whispered something to the person next to her, and he in turn passed it on. And so the message went round the circle. But when the last person reported it, it was significantly different from what was originally said. Despite everyone having ears and the ability to hear, not everyone actually heard the message or communicated it accurately. This is how gossip turns into slander, and how truth becomes half-true and eventually turns into lies. And that in turn will affect attitudes and actions. Listening to debates in Parliament, and often in conferences of one kind or another, I am certain that many members or participants simply do not listen to others most of the time, and when they speak, they don’t always speak the truth about what they have heard. They might as well be deaf and dumb, except that I think the deaf and dumb people are much better than they are.
The fact is, hearing is about more than just hearing, it is about listening in order to understand what is being spoken, and speaking is about more than uttering words, it is communicating what has actually been said and speaking truthfully and honestly. Misunderstanding, whether wilful or not, not only distorts or subverts the truth, when passed on whether through education or gossip, whether through the media or in passing conversation, breaks down communication and reinforces the lie. That is why hearing rightly is so important, and therefore listening intently in order to hear rightly, is so important; and that is why communicating accurately and speaking the truth is so fundamental to human relations and well-being. There is far too much fake news circulating today, far too many lies being spread. But those of us who have met Jesus should know better. We should have ears that truly hear and lips that speak the truth.
The only way to truly hear what Jesus is saying to us in the gospel and through other people is to develop the habit of listening carefully. Let’s not assume that because we may have been a Christian for a long time, and journeyed with him as a disciple, we have actually understood what he has been trying to tell us. That is why ongoing meditation and reflection on the gospel is so important if we are going to truly follow Jesus. Our ears have to be opened through the practice of listening. That is why when we meet Jesus and begin to follow him he touches our ears and our lips so that we may truly listen and plainly speak.
John de Gruchy
Volmoed 16 February 2017
Jeremiah 17:7-9; II Corinthians 4:7-12
The heart is devious above all else; it is perverse– who can understand it?
We are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not driven to despair.
It is May 1943. The Allies are bombing Berlin. Bonhoeffer has been arrested by the Gestapo and is in prison awaiting trial. He takes up his pen and writes a letter to his parents, Karl and Paula Bonhoeffer:
it is of course difficult on the outside to imagine realistically what being in prison is like. The situation … is in fact often not so different from being someplace else. I read, reflect, work, write, pace the room – and I really do so without rubbing myself sore on the wall like a polar bear. What matters is being focused on what one still has |and what can be done … and on restraining within oneself the rising thoughts about what one cannot do, and the inner restlessness and resentment about the entire situation.
Bonhoeffer then goes on to write about something that bothered him, something you often find in the writings of saints, people you would expect to be full of joy, without a doubt, never tempted to despair. This is what he says to his parents:
I have never understood as clearly as I have here what the Bible and Luther mean by “temptation” [Anfechtung]. The peace and serenity by which one had been carried is suddenly shaken without any apparent physical or psychological reason, and the heart becomes, as Jeremiah very aptly put it, an obstinate and anxious thing that one is unable to fathom. One experiences this as an attack from the outside, as evil powers that seek to rob one of what is most essential.
Jeremiah’s words Bonhoeffer has in mind are those we read this morning: “The heart is devious above all else; it is perverse– who can understand it?” What was Bonhoeffer thinking about? A clue comes l in another letter he wrote to his friend Eberhard Bethge:
You are the only person who knows that “acedia” (resignation) -“tristitia” (despair) with its ominous consequences has often haunted me, and you perhaps worried about me in this respect – so I feared at the time. .
Acedia is a sadness of the heart which makes us feel that life is no longer worth living, and tristitia refers to becoming depressed, even to the point that it led Bonhoeffer to contemplate suicide.
There are times when most of us feel that life has lost its purpose. All joy and meaning has departed. It is a feeling many have as we grow older, hear about the death of close friends, or accidents and illness that have afflicted others. It is the feeling we get when our children are far from us whether physically or in spirit. It is the feeling of loneliness, of being confined in some claustrophobic prison, maybe even one of our own making. It is the feeling we get as we read the news or watch it on TV and start despairing of the state of the world or the nation.
For some people, this deep, dark mood is diagnosed as “clinical depression” needing medical help, but for most of us, even though it only afflicts us from time to time, it is still a disconcerting experience. It is as though our heart, the seat of our affections, is deceiving us. You can no longer trust your feelings for they are tearing you apart. Note how Bonhoeffer speaks of this as a “temptation,” the temptation to let the joy of living and gratitude for our many blessings be sucked out of our lives, the temptation to lose hope and resign ourselves to fate. Isobel has captured this mood in a poem:
Poured over us like a disfiguring acid,
Is the pain of the world,
To intermingle with our own pain.
How easy to fall into despair,
To think, God, that you have left us,
Left us because we will not listen.
Are you still present in everything you have made?
Still care about it?
Still direct it towards your purpose?
Julian saw that you do indeed,
But felt greatly tested by this insight,
and so do I.
for her world showed a different reality,,
It was god-forsaken, like ours.
In a leap of faith, she believed
And so do I, but….
Help me Lord!
Help me not to be sucked into darkness and despair,
Help me to see that you are indeed in everything;
That you will triumph in the end.
Unless our depression is diagnosed as clinical, we need to understand that it is a very normal, part of being human. Jesus despaired of the world and his disciples, as does every saint worthy the name if you read their diaries, letters or meditations. Like St. Paul they did not let these moods destroy them: “We are afflicted in every way,” writes Paul, “but not crushed; perplexed, but not driven to despair.”
Or, as Bonhoeffer wrote in his letter to Bethge, we can regard “even these experiences” as “good and necessary in order to learn to understand human life better.” We can also begin to learn again what it means to trust God and discover afresh that God’s grace is sufficient for us in our hour of need. For even when we descend into the depths of despair, says the Psalmist, “You are there!”
There are some practical ways to deal with our times of despair. Archbishop Tutu and the Dalai Lama provide many suggestions on how to do this in their Book of Joy. No wonder it is high up on the best seller books list of the New York Times. I commend it to you. Spending some minutes each day in meditation, slowly reading a favourite Psalm, coming to Holy Communion, visiting a friend, sharing a cup of coffee, or doing something to help someone in need — these become means of God’s grace that help us negotiate our depression and prevent us from being sucked into darkness and despair. But remember, you are not alone. You are with Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane, you are with Job when his while world collapses around him, you are with Paul on his journeys, despairing of the churches he has helped to established, Mother Theresa as she is overwhelmed by the suffering around her, and with Dietrich Bonhoeffer in prison and many others like him, cut off from friends and loved ones, uncertain about the future. You are with all for whom life has lost its purpose and joy. And you are with the Psalmist many times over,
Why are you cast down, O My soul,
and why are you disquieted within me?
Hope in God, for I shall again praise him,
my help and my God. (Psalm 42:1-5)
“John de Gruchy
Volmoed 9 February 2017