Micro-ecologies of kindness: Sermon for St John the Evangelist

Sermon 27 12 20

Christ Church Cathedral

St John the Evangelist 

1 John 1

John 21: 19b – end

St John writes: We declare to you what we have seen and heard so that you also may have fellowship with us; and truly our fellowship is with the Father and with his Son Jesus Christ. 

In the name of the Father, and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Christmas in a time of pandemic.  Christmas when the world seems dark and the news full of shadow. Christmas when we hear as we did in this church just two days ago the great prologue to John’s Gospel, “In the beginning was the Word …” and the good news that the darkness does not overcome the light.

And the first Chapter of the first letter of John deliberately echoes that prologue, with its themes of light and dark. Its mention of the beginning.

This Christmas I’ve been re-reading Lord of the Rings where the themes of light and darkness, and the struggle between good and evil is so strong.

It is, of course, a deeply consoling book. Good does triumph, the One Ring is destroyed, Sauron is vanquished.

There is consolation in the elves, the ancient ones, even in the Ents, those slow moving trees. And homely wisdom in the Hobbits. Not least in the grounded Samwise Gamgee, Frodo’s friend. Describing the darkness of their time Samwise says:

“In the end it’s only a passing thing, this shadow; even darkness must pass.” 

But I want to think about another theme in 1 John 1 which we have just heard and which finds a strong echo in the title of the first volume of Tolkien’s story: “The Fellowship of the Ring”.

We know the word fellowship well. We use it here in this church every day at the end of Evensong when we pray the grace: the fellowship of the Holy Spirit.

It has a more technical meaning in this House  and in academic life generally. But in the New Testament this is one of those occasions when we have to go back to the Greek to really understand how crucial, how significant this word is.

It translates, of course, the Greek KOINONIA.

It’s not a word that appears much in the Gospels, just a cognate once each in Matthew, Luke and Acts. But Paul uses it extensively and intensely to describe the relationship between Christians and between Christian churches.

Here in 1 John there is something really quite extraordinary. The use of koinonia to describe the internal relationships of the Trinity. That of the Father and of the Son and the participation of the author and his readers in that koinonia.

The word can be translated in many ways. The Latin communio  is often used, and in the current translation of the Roman Catholic Mass where the Grace may be used as a greeting at the beginning of Mass it is that Latinisation which is given. koinonia means a sharing in, participation, a partnership.

Nicholas King a Jesuit across the road at Campion House uses communion in his excellent translation of the New Testament, but suggests in his notes that it can also be translated as fellowship, union, partnership, community and solidarity.

I’ve been struck by the number of people who were deeply moved by the Queen’s speech this Christmas day. One phrase has been much quoted on Twitter: you are not alone.

This is the heart of the meaning of the word koinonia. By our baptism we participate in the life of the Trinity; we have a share in the divine life. And our relationships with each other as Christians are made of the same stuff as the relationship between the Divine persons. 

Think about how radical that is. When I chat with members of the congregation here on Zoom, or talk outside the porch on Tom Quad, when I meet with my fellow Chapter members, the nature of the relationship is the same as the nature of my relationship with God, and even more startlingly the same as the relationship between the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit.

Now this presents us with two problems. The first is that we human beings are difficult; we fall out with each other; we irritate one another; we fall out and disagree. That’s not how we want to relate to God and not, surely, what the life of the Trinity is like.

But there is a second problem that I think is even more fundamental, more serious for us in our mission to the world, our ability to tell people the good news of Jesus Christ. It is the existentialist lie. The untruth that we are somehow individuals, that we are alone. This untruth undermines all Christian doctrine, most fundamentally the incarnation and redemption. Which simply lose all meaning if we are not all intimately connected by our common human-ness which God in Jesus has come to share in. His death and resurrection have an effect on me because we share in common humanity.

And this common stuff, this human-ness of which we are made precedes, of course, the incarnation. It exists because of creation, “In the beginning” as St John says, “without him, was nothing made that was made”.

I have been teaching the practice of Mindfulness meditation to children for over 20 years. Over and over again children report common experiences: a feeling of kindness; a feeling of connectedness, of belonging, at-homeness, and a feeling of Presence, that there ‘is somebody there’.

None of that should surprise us Christians. We are created in the image and likeness of God. We are hard-wired for God and the pattern of his being is reproduced in ours.

At the Eucharist when a little water is poured into the chalice with the wine many priests pray:

“By the mystery of this water and wine may we come to share in the divinity of Christ who humbled himself to share in our humanity.”

Just as Jesus shares in our human-ness, so do we share in his God-ness. And remember that koinonia has that meaning of sharing, participating in.

In the Queen’s speech she powerfully states a simple truth, we are not alone, we can never be alone; we are always part of something more than ourselves. 

This is just as true of Jesus as it is of each one of us. Yes, in his divinity, but also in his, in our humanity. That is why it is so important that John who we celebrate today is loved by Jesus. It is Jesus that is doing the loving.  Our ability to love is part of the God-given pattern in our very beings that draws us out of ourselves. It is why the church in these days after Christmas celebrates the saints: St Stephen yesterday, St John today, the Holy Innocents tomorrow. These are the comites Christi, the companions of Christ. When we celebrate the incarnation we are celebrating connectedness and Jesus is the ultimate connected one.

This connectedness is not just an abstract concept. I’ve been thinking about that connectedness a lot in my first four months here at Christ Church. In this building I have felt deeply connected with those whose memorials surround us. The dead who live in Christ.

Deeply connected to those living and working on this site in a time of pandemic.

And deeply connected to the hundreds of people who are part of the Cathedral’s community but who can’t be here. In some ways the grief at not being able to be here makes that connection all the more real. Absence, strangely, can be as much a presence as presence itself.

On Christmas Day Canon Graham organised Mulled Wine and members of Chapter made cakes for some of the international students who have been stranded here at Christ Church this Christmas. The gathering in the marquee in the Master’s Garden covered Egypt, New Zealand, France, Italy, Germany, Poland and probably more.  It was a reminder to me of the profound significance of this joint foundation, our being both cathedral and college; and the gratitude of the students a reminder that simple gestures can reflect profound truths. “Micro-ecologies of kindness.” As Canon Graham put it just before the service today.

We don’t know how much longer lockdowns are going to continue, what it is going to be like living with this virus as part of our world. There are certainly going to be many weeks, months in which absence continues to be a reality. But that absence is not disconnection. As our Queen said: we are not alone.

UPDATED A Rosary for the Year of Saint Joseph with Poems by Fr Steven Shakespeare SMMS

Source

UPDATE 12 noon 11 December – Please see the second version of the booklet above; this includes a very beautiful poem for each mystery by Fr Steven Shakespeare SMMS. I am very grateful to Fr Steven for writing these and to Fr Nevsky for updating the booklet with these and other material.

When I was appointed Head teacher in 2008 I immediately dedicated my work to the patronage of St Joseph the Worker. The ‘worker priest’ movement had always appealed to me. There is also something appealing about St Jospeh as the silent one, the one who dreams dreams but does not speak. Perhaps, for someone like me who uses a lot of words there is a strong element of ‘opposites attract’. The popularisation of the statues of St Joseph the Sleeper also speak powerfully to me. Although I like to think of them more as St Jospeh the Dreamer. Sleep has always been important to me, but as much because I dream vividly as because of the need for rest. Dreams are a way I process things and in which I often hear God speaking – although rarely in ways in which it is easy to understand at the time. The Sleeping Buddha statues of the Thai tradition have also been significant to me in prayer life – at Amaravati in north London behind the main shrine particularly.

Appointed as Sub Dean at Christ Church, Oxford earlier this year I consecrated my work here too to the patronage of St Joseph. This was a community, I knew, that had suffered much over recent years and the still, contemplative, dreaming presence of St Joseph, as well as the craftsman taking great care in his work seemed significant to me. This was re-inforced when a friend said he had rescued a large statue of St Jospeh from a night club in Blackburn and did I want it? Another friend, a sister in the Sodality and priest who lives near Taizé offered to buy me a beautiful icon of St Joseph to be the principle image of the saint above the altar in my domestic Oratory.

When I was offered the job I hadn’t seen the house (all the interviews were Zoomed). A few months later as my predecessor showed me around the Sub Dean’s Lodgings I felt slight apprehension that I would have to use one of the bedrooms as an Oratory – complete with carpet, fireplace and wash-basin! But then he took me down to see the (extensive) cellars and I knew at once this was meant to be. The niches, many rooms and ancient walls – possibly the foundations to the huge chapel Cardinal Wolsey intended to, but never did, build -resonated immediately. On the day we moved in I celebrated Mass for the first time below the house (itself built in about 1670). The presence of Our Lord ever since has had a profound spiritual effect on the house and my work. The chapel is full of heating pipes, electric cables, remains of the internal workings of the house in other ages. Post-industrial chic barely does justice to it. The large (and expensive to run!) boiler keeps the whole space warm and cosy even in these December nights. Th staff here have kindly added additional sockets, sorted out sticking doors and even added a wi-fi point.

Although I call the whole space the Sacro Speco – named after St Benedict’s sacred cave; the Oratory itself is dedicated to St Joseph the Worker. Each day I pray a Vigils office here in the early hours as the dark of night prepares for dawn and at the end I sing the Daily Commemoration of St Jospeh found below. Each Wednesday I offer a Votive Mass of St Joseph and pray the Joseph Mysteries of the Rosary which I conceived of a few year ago.

I am delighted that my friend and brother Sodalist Fr Nevsky, chaplain up the road at Keble College, has extended the brief work I did, and his extended text is posted above as a PDF.

In this year of St Joseph may we all be blessed in our work. May those without work be blessed with work. May those whose work makes them miserable be liberated from their unhappiness. May we all see the spiritual life, our progress towards holiness as the greatest work of our lives and may St Joseph help us to dream dreams, sleep well, and imagine the impossible. May the holy craftsman pray for us as we craft our lives.

My post of a few years ago about the Jospeh mysteries together with the daily commemoration is re-produced below and is available here as a PDF.

Meanwhile here are photos of St Joseph in the sacro speco in Oxford.

Here’s a set of Joseph mysteries that I use and find helpful. I use them with the traditional prayers of the Rosary, but others could be prayed instead. One of the reasons for my own devotion to St Joseph is that we have such a negative attitude to work in our culture and to ‘craftsmanship’; I don’t think we can really educate children if they don’t believe that work is a good thing and that happiness in life might consist of more than winning Pop Idol, the Lottery or becoming a footballer. Joseph’s ‘hiddeness’ is a good counter-cultural symbol. As is his chastity in a society where being ‘a man’ is so coarsely associated with ‘having sex’.
Joseph is also a good patron for those who, as teachers or in other roles, look after children who are not their own. Finally, just using the word husband – and I always commemorate ‘Joseph, husband of Mary’ in the Eucharistic Prayer  – is good in raising the profile of marriage.

Mysteries of Saint Joseph

1 Joseph descended from David
2 Joseph the Just Man
3 Joseph following a dream takes Mary as his wife
4 Joseph warned in a dream takes Mary and Jesus into Egypt
5 Joseph the Carpenter

Here is a daily commemoration of Saint Joseph that can be prayed after the Office each working day:

Hymn to Saint Joseph
Joseph true servant, trusted by the Father,
from whom Christ learnt a human Father’s kindness,
pray we may know and reverence God at all times
in the defenceless.
Joseph, true workman, teaching Word incarnate
patience and pride in honest labour finished,
show us who work, God’s plan for skill and service
in every calling

Joseph true saint, your Sanctity unsought for
won in you doubt and suffering and struggle,
pray we keep faith in every tribulation
till God shines clearly.

V. This is a wise and faithful servant.
R. Whom the master placed in charge of his household.

God our Father,
you willed that your Son,
under Joseph’s authority,
should experience daily life and human work.
By the prayers of Saint Joseph,
help us to sanctify the present moment,
to be concerned for our neighbour
and be faithful to the tasks of every day.
hear us, through Christ our Lord.

Saint Joseph, husband of Mary: Pray for us.
Saint Joseph, patron of workers: Pray for us.
Saint Joseph, the craftsman: Pray for us.

Alternative hymns of Saint Joseph from New Camaldoli, Lauds and Vespers:
                      – A –
O hidden saint of silent ways,
we do not know a word you spoke;
but deeds not words were all your strength
when to your calling you awoke.

Come as it might, you heard God’s word
and never stopped to count the cost
content to be his instrument,
and count your reputation lost.

Incarnate Lord, who came to save,
show us by Joseph’s prayer anew
the secrets of your darker ways;
keep us in life and dying true.

-B-
We have so little word of you;
how hidden, Joseph was your life.
yet what you chose to do speaks much,
in taking Mary as your wife.

The dreams you honoured led your soul;
you never stopped to count the cost,
content to listen and to act
than fear your reputation lost.

How often had you thought you’d failed
the flight by night, the life-long fears?
Yet quietly you stood your ground,
and, faithful, laboured through the years.

Lord Jesus, formed and fathered well
by one so faithful and so free;
may we not flee life’s darker days,
but live them fully, trustingly.

The Rosary: Jesus Centred, Spirit Filled, Bible Based

Talk to the Sodality at the Admission of new members and Aspirants, Solemnity of the Immaculate Conception 2020, Fr Richard Peers, Superior

Last summer, my brother, sister and I sat around the bed in St Gemma’s Hospice in Leeds where our mum was dying. Over the weeks she had been there we had the great gift of being able to visit her daily, and for me the great gift of praying the Rosary with her. No matter how tired or exhausted she became she would push at the beads on the hospital table and I would pray a set of mysteries. Initially praying strongly with me, as she weakened I would hardly be able to hear her say the second half of each prayer until I needed to say the whole prayer for her. Summoned by the staff early on a Friday as we gathered for her last few hours I started on the Rosary. There was no sound, her lips moved to the prayers and Brideshead-like she raised her hand slightly from the sheets as I made the sign of the cross at the start. A couple of hours later her lips stopped moving and soon we noticed that she had stopped breathing. The Rosary was deeply embedded in Mum’s consciousness and, as it became clear her sub-conscious too. When so much else in her memory had fallen away the Rosary remained.

The Rosary has always been part of my life. I remember my grandmother – who I lived with for part of my childhood – praying the Rosary each evening. Sometimes tuning in to Vatican Radio to pray it in Latin. Rosary with her before weekday Masses in her church in Bolsover. Rosary at home with mum. Rosary on camps as a teenager, Rosary at theological College in the chapel and with friends in our rooms; Rosary in the parishes I’ve served in. Rosary with the brothers of the Jerusalem Community in the car driving through the French countryside back to the centre of Paris after their retreat day.  Rosary at Lourdes, and Rosary at Walsingham, in the Holy House, and, of course, through the loud speakers at the national pilgrimage.

I’m only going to speak briefly today but I want to do so with some intensity, some considerable conviction because as I get older I find the Rosary is becoming increasingly important as part of my prayer life. Not least because like many others of us it is almost the only form of prayer (with microphone and camera switched off) that I can bear on Zoom and really feel enriched not drained by.

Like many others I probably read too much mystical literature as an adolescent and young man. I imagined that I would attain to the height of Mount Carmel, pass through the Mansions of prayer and by the time I got to my age now be a master of the contemplative life!

Well, it ain’t like that. I am content now to paddle in the shallows of the spiritual life; to enjoy the playful waves not of a crashing sea but of a quiet day on the beach. My prayer life is definitely of the bucket and spade variety with an occasional ice-cream. I am more than happy to leave the depths to others or until such a time that God calls me.

I want to do two things today. To make some simple suggestions for the way we pray the Rosary as a community and as individuals and to do so by recommending we all read a short text, an Apostolic Letter of Pope St John Paul II: Rosarium Virginis Mariae. I have put a PDF version of the whole text in the files on our Facebook group and also a shortened version with some key phrases highlighted by me.

My Twitter profile at the moment includes three two word phrases that have appealed to me for some time as I consider my Christian life and seek to be:

Jesus- centred

Spirit-filled

Bible-based

I believe the Rosary is all these things.

Near the end of his letter John Paul II writes:

“The centre of gravity in the Hail Mary, the hinge as it were which joins its two parts, is the name of Jesus.”

The Rosary is hinged on Jesus, centred on Jesus. The opening prayers and each Mystery include the prayer that Jesus taught. And to be Jesus-centred is to be profoundly a person of the church,

“The Our Father,” Pope John Paul writes, “makes meditation upon the mystery, even when carried out in solitude, an ecclesial experience.”

And, beautifully, he describes the beads themselves, as physical objects that illustrate this Jesus-centred, ecclesial spirituality. “the beads converge on the Crucifix”.

And “the beads remind us of our many relationships, of the bond of communion and fraternity which unites us all in Christ.”

This is such a beautiful thing for us in the Sodality. Our bonds are in many ways not very substantial, but we are a chain of relationships, now across the world, that I hold on to day in day out as I pray my beads.

The Rosary is Jesus Centred.

The Rosary is Spirit filled because it is contemplative prayer. In it we follow the example of Mary who “pondered these things in her heart”. As we ponder the mysteries of the Rosary it becomes a “way of assimilating the mystery”. It is an act of remembering that creates us as people who are formed in the likeness of Christ because we are what we remember. This is why we can’t pray the Rosary too often. It is a constant work of conversion as it shapes our minds and identities.  As its “quiet rhythm and lingering pace” become a “training in holiness”, that phrase alone make sit a suitable prayer for us as Sodalists with our single aim of “growing in holiness because the world needs holy priests.”

As you know charismatic renewal is an important part of my life. The gifts of the Spirit are real and necessary for me. But the Spirit’s gifts are not all fireworks, they include the gift of contemplation, of stillness, of “attentive listening”.

By its rhythms and its concreteness I find the Rosary can bring me to a place of stillness even in times of great stress and anxiety.

The Rosary is Spirit-filled.

The Rosary is bible-based because it feeds into our memories, our identities the great mysteries of the Christian faith, beginning with the creed and extending into meditation on the individual mysteries. The prayers of the Rosary are the “warp into which is woven contemplation of the mysteries.” I really like this image from the Apostolic letter because sometimes, especially when people start praying the Rosary, it can feel like there is too much to do, too much going on. But if we imagine ourselves weaving a strong, and beautiful, fabric using the warp and weft of prayer and contemplation it may help us to see what we are doing. Pope John Paul also addresses the use of the imagination, specifically mentioning the Ignation method of ‘composing the scene’, picturing in as much detail as possible the scene of the Mystery. We can become very words in our prayer and should not be afraid of using our visual memories as much as our verbal minds.

The Rosary is bible-based.

So from these reflections based on Rosarium Virginis Mariae, I want to make some practical suggestions for the way we pray the Rosary together.

In particular I want to reflect on the place of specific intercession – which is so important. Those of us who are familiar with praying the Rosary at Walsingham stood or sat around the Holy House will know what a major part intercession and the lists of those to be prayed for plays in that devotion. But as I hope I have shown intercession needs to be balanced with the biblical-contemplative dimension of the gospel. “No other words can ever match the efficacy of the inspired word.” Pope John Paul II writes of the Rosary.

I also notice that in our Zoom Rosaries we can have a good deal of intercession at each mystery and then requests for prayer at the end of the meeting which means both a good deal of intercessory material and also that we end with material without being able to process it or talk around it. So I suggest that we remove requests for intercession from the end of our meetings entirely and we end with the Hail  Mary and Sodality Prayer. At the beginning of the Rosary having made the sign of the cross and recited the creed the leader then ask for any prayer requests. 

We hold these in silence before moving to the mysteries.Individual intentions for each decade are still possible on occasion thus combining the specific intercessions of our community and the intentions offered by the leader of the Rosary. But while there may not always be intercession for each mystery there ought always to be Scripture and silence.

It may also be appropriate at the end of the Salve Regina before the versicle (Pray for us Holy Mother of God etc) that a time of silence be punctuated by anyone calling out names of those to be prayed for as they wish. I think this can work quite powerfully on Zoom. That way the time after the Rosary is for conversation and news and does not end on too undigested a heavy note.

There are other elements that John Paul II suggests which used judiciously might enhance our praying of the Rosary:

Scripture

Every praying of the Rosary should involve some reading of Scripture; there are lots of Rosary books around with shorter and longer suggestions, and these can be found online as well and can be used before each mystery.

Silence

Each of these Scripture readings could profitably be followed by a period of silence, not just a moment but a minute or two.

Prayers

Additional prayers often in Collect format can enrich our understanding of the mystery and usefully follow the Glory be …

There are also many other short meditations that can be used without adding huge amounts of time to the Rosary. Fr Steven Shakespeare and I are hoping to work on some of these, he is writing poems and I am compiling other material – I hope that now the first few months of the new job are done I can find time to work on that. I often mention Bishop David Konstant’s Mysteries of the Rosary as a great source of material.

I don’t want to suggest overwhelming the Rosary or extending our time too long but I think some light tweaking of our prayer would be helpful. Pope John Paul II talks of the ‘sobriety’ of the Rosary and the ‘noble simplicity’ of Latin Christianity should be respected. But I do want to encourage some light creativity!

Most of all I want to thank the 20 or so new members admitted today and next week (in Australia and New Zealand) and all Sodalists for committing to this community in which the Rosary has found such a natural home, or rather in which we as a community have found our natural home.

“If ever I come to the end of a day without having said the Rosary,” Blessed Columba Marmion declared, “I confess that I feel disappointed.”

I hope that each of us will find deep joy and satisfaction in being faithful pray-ers of the Rosary.