Did you manage to listen carefully all the way through?
Or did you think, ‘Oh yes, the parable of the Good Samaritan’ and stop listening.
It must be the most famous of Jesus’ parables. It’s given its name to multiple organisations not least the Samaritans who help those in despair or pondering suicide and who have saved so many lives.
Phrases from the story have entered the English language. We talk about those who ‘pass by on the other side’ and we thank people who have acted as ‘Good Samaritans’.
My favourite film is Wim Wenders 1987 film Wings of Desire. I must have watched it dozens of times, but its only when I can persuade somebody else to watch it with me, usually for them the first time (it’s a niche sort of film) that I notice new things about it.
The parable of the Good Samaritan is a bit like that. I, we, need someone to help us look at it afresh. What I want to say about the parable has benefited enormously from the blog of Scripture Scholar and priest Ian Paul, he writes a commentary on the readings each week. I throughly recommend it.
There are three things I want to do. Firstly, look at the context of this passage, then think about two ways of reading this story prayerfully. I hope you will take your service sheets with you or look up Luke Chapter 10 in your bibles at home and spend some time with this scripture during the week ahead.
It is worth noting that this story occurs in only one of the gospels. St Luke.
There has, of course, been much scholarly activity around the relationship of the four gospels to each other and the knowledge they may or may not have had of the other texts. But it is not surprising that after preaching publicly for three years (as the Fourth Gospel suggests) Jesus would have used similar material on more than one occasion but in slightly different ways. I never preach a sermon more than once, but the stories and images I preach are repeated many times. I must have mentioned Wim Wenders’ film at least a dozen times over the years.
Nor is it surprising that gospel writers wouldn’t try to include every story, saying or variant on a saying in their gospels.
So although the story of the Good Samaritan occurs only in Luke, the passage that introduces the story, the account of a lawyer questioning Jesus occurs in Matthew 22 and Mark 12 as well as Luke 10.
Jesus’ answer to the lawyer is very important because he quotes from Deuteronomy 6, the sh’ma, the great Jewish declaration of faith that begins (and only Mark’s gospel includes this) “Hear, O Israel, the Lord is God the Lord is One.”
So Jesus is doing exactly what those who questioned him are doing. I often point out that Jesus is quite good at not answering questions head-on, he comes at a tangent, but in this passage he is involved in the same task as his questioners.
This is important in challenging what can sometimes be an underlying anti-semitism in Christian readings of Scripture. Jesus is a Jew engaged in dialogue with his fellow Jews. This is an internal discussion. We should remember this in our reading of the parable too. The mention of the priest passing by on the other side of the road can too easily be read as a criticism of Judaism.
So Jesus’ reaction to the questioning from the lawyer is to direct his listeners to their Judaism, to the Hebrew Scriptures and to one of the most important passages in the Torah, the law. This is not Jesus contrasting legalism with compassion, but Jesus telling his hearers that the basis of the Torah is love of God and love of neighbour. It’s a bit unhelpful that our word law is used to translate Torah. ‘Law’ make us think of rules and regulations but Torah is much richer and broader.
So that is, partly, the context in which Jesus tells the story. How can we read it in a way that helps us hear it again and understand what Jesus is trying to say.
The first method of doing which I am suggesting this is imaginative. The sort of thing suggested by Saint Ignatius of Loyola.
I get rather cross when I am looking for a novel to read and I open the first few pages and the author gives a list of the characters with little descriptions of who each character is. I know I am probably being unreasonable but it makes me feel that the author hasn’t done his or her job properly. That if the book was well written such a dramatis personae would be unnecessary.
Jesus’ stories are generally very short and don’t contain too many people. But I actually think writing a list of characters for this story might be quite helpful.
Try it at home make a list:
the man on a journey
the robbers (number unknown)
You might want to try and imagine those people in a bit more detail.
then take each of those people in turn and imagine yourself as them.
Perhaps because we are so used to interpreting this story as Jesus telling us to be like the Samaritan and not pass by, it is probably easier to imagine ourselves as him, all be it beating ourselves up for not being like him in much of our lives.
So why not start off by imagining yourself as one of the robbers. then each of the other characters. Really use your visual imagination to do this and your empathy to imagine what they were thinking and feeling. Look at the details, in your imagination smell the olive oil and the wine poured on the man’s wounds. Hear the clink of the coins as they are handed over to the innkeeper. To be honest I would leave the Samaritan til last. I think you will get much more out of it that way.
You’ll probably need more than one sitting to do this. There are conveniently six characters in our story so you could do one each day of the week ahead.
There’s a second way you could think about the story. That is allegorically. Many writers in the first centuries of the church did this. Often pushing it quite a long way. The man is Adam, the first man, Jerusalem is Paradise where he is heading and so on.
The church has always read Scripture allegorically and it is clear that Jesus meant his stories to be understood that way.
Luke when he wrote his gospel did so with much precision. Look closely at the text and you’ll see that the turning point comes when the Samaritan sees the man and is ‘moved with pity’. The Greek means literally that ‘his bowels were moved’, its is visceral,
]tf m`acompassion is felt in our very depths. This is the key to the story, St Luke arranged his text so that this verb is at the very centre, numerically. There are the same number of words before as afterwards in this story.
It’s a word that only occurs in three places in Luke’s gospel, chapter 7 – the raising of the widow’s son, chapter 15 the parable of the Prodigal son, and today’s passage. In each case this verb is at the numerical centre.
In each of the other two cases it is clear that it is Jesus himself who is moved to compassion. So it seems likely that Jesus intends that we see the Samaritan as the Jesus figure in the story.
We are bruised and beaten, by life, by sin, and Jesus saves us.
The story has moral purpose, of course. But we should not lose sight of the fact that put simply Jesus saves us.
We don’t share from our wealth, we share from our poverty.
As St John says “ We love because he first loved us.”
The parable we know as the Good Samaritan is not about what WE do, it’s about what GOD does.
St Luke teaches us in this parable and throughout his gospel that we are those in need of a Saviour.
Jesus doesn’t teach morality tales, although they may be moral.
Jesus us shows us that we need a Saviour, that we need salvation, that we need him.
At the very heart of the good news is Jesus Christ our the only true Good Samaritan.
Discerning the Mystery, Andrew Louth, Clarendon Press 1983
Praise Seeking Understanding, Jason Byassee, Eerdmans, 2007
I will make your name to be remembered
through all generations :
therefore shall the peoples praise you for ever and ever.
In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
In just over two weeks time I will, God willing, be staying in Burgundy just a few miles from the Taizé Community in France. Taizé is a community of brothers, monks, founded in the second world war, drawn from both Roman Catholic and Protestant churches. There are now dozens of brothers in the community and every year, Covid notwithstanding, thousands of young people gather to pray, live and work with the brothers.
It is an extraordinary, life-changing place.
I have visited almost every year of my adult life. As a Headteacher in Lewisham we always took a group of Year 10 pupils, fourteen and fifteen year olds, for a week’s pilgrimage to Taizé.
In the community church there are many large icons. In 2012 the pupils I had taken asked me if we could commission an artist to paint an icon for our school. When the new school year began we consulted with the School Council and Governing Body and a small group of pupils was selected to oversee the project.
We found a well known iconographer, Helen McIldowie-Jenkins, and invited her to come and visit us. The pupils liked her at once and she set about showing them many icons and talking about what they wanted. The school was a majority black school and Helen showed the pupils pictures of some of the world’s famous black Madonna statues and images, they immediately noticed something about these figures. Most of them may have dark skin but the features were European not African. Occasionally a Madonna with dark skin would be accompanied by a distinctly Caucasian looking Jesus.
The pupils were determined that both Mary and Jesus should be properly African, in shape of face, skin colour and hair.
This is a reproduction of the original icon which is about twice as big and covered in much gold leaf. I think it is very beautiful.
Jesus’ afro hair is clear, as are Mary’s braids emerging from her head covering. The cloth of Mary’s clothing reproduces west African Kente fabric but using the school logo. The four medallions at the top represent the four archangels the school’s Houses were named after. Mary is seated on the throne of wisdom, the teacher’s seat, and points to Jesus. At the foot of the icon are two rivers representing the two rivers running through Lewisham, the Quaggy and the Ravensbourne. At the centre of the foot is a well, illustrating the holy well that had been a feature of medieval devotion to Mary, Our Lady, in Lewisham and giving its name to the area known as Ladywell to this day.
In today’s gospel Mary in her great hymn of praise sings of overthrowing powers, of the lowly being lifted up.
I don’t want to reflect this morning on the significance of the Magnificat in issues relating to race.
Rather I want to apply this overthrowing of the powerful to the academic world of biblical studies which has so dominated the way Christians read our Scriptures.
I suggest, quite strongly, that we need to overthrow the model of biblical studies that has been dominant for over a century and a half and raise up the church’s traditional way of reading Scripture that has been treated as the lowly cousin of true academic study for too long.
Historical-critical methods of reading Scripture have dominated not only the academic community but clergy training and seminaries, bible studies and popular reading on Scripture. Our life, the life of the church has been diminished by this dominance, we have been starved of our connection to the christians of the early centuries, our imaginations have been blighted, our connection to Jesus in the Old Testament severed and our understanding of the way that the biblical writers themselves read Scripture left rudderless.
Look at the icon of Our Lady of Lewisham. Of course Mary, the woman of Nazareth, Miriam married to Joseph, was not a black African, she didn’t have braided hair or wear Kente cloth, Jesus did not have Afro hair.
But that is to miss the point entirely.
When you look at the icon of our Lady of Lewisham you are looking at an allegory in picture form. Mary, the first believer shows us all the way of faith in Jesus. Her ‘yes’ is the ‘yes’ that every human being, black women, black men, white women, whoever we are we can say ‘yes’ to Jesus.
We all have human biology, it is not that which makes Mary the one, who as Psalm 45 put it, will be “remembered through all generations”.
And of course, whoever wrote Psalm 45, however many centuries ago could not possibly have any idea that these verses would be sung, in a twenty first century cathedral in Oxford about a first century woman in Nazareth. Thank you to Amici Coro for singing this psalm so beautifully this morning.
To put it bluntly and, no doubt simplistically, the historical critical method of reading Scripture asks only one question: “What was the original author’s intended meaning?”
This is not an unimportant question, and the answer for the various genres of Scripture is certainly not in itself uninteresting or unhelpful, but it is not enough. Not nearly enough to sustain our Christian lives, to enable us to meet Jesus in all of Scripture, not enough to deepen our prayer, to convert us ever more to the holy living that is God’s intention for each of us.
It would not be enough if we were talking about literature of any place or time. Yes, it is great to see productions of Shakespeare that seek to reproduce how a play might have been originally performed. But how much more wonderful to see as I did in the Cathedral Garden two weeks ago a production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream in 70’s disco gear and woven in with ABBA hits.
Now just in case you are worried that the Sub Dean has taken leave of his senses, which, after all might be perfectly understandable, what I am calling for is nothing original to me. I think that the theologian Andrew Louth is responsible for the phrase, back in 1983. It is nothing less than a “return to allegory”.
Louth describes allegory “as a way of entering the ‘margin of silence’ that surrounds the articulate message of the scriptures”.
A recent writer, Jason Byasee, goes so far as to say that “Christianity is an inherently allegorical faith”.
It is when we abandon allegory that we end up with fundamentalisms of all kinds. It is simply a myth that there is any such thing as “the plain meaning of Scripture”, or that it would desirable that there were.
Life is complex. The world is complex. Simplistic explanations are the fake narratives that lead to Donald Trump being elected President of the United States.
For the complexity of Scripture let’s think for a moment about the psalms. the psalms are the essential element of Christian prayer. Psalm 45 which we have just heard is a good example. Historical criticism tells us that it is a “royal psalm” possibly used as a wedding song for the marriage of a king of Judah. Some think that it may date to the time of Solomon.
All of that is good to know. But for us as Christians, this psalm is chosen for this feast of Mary, we read it in relation to her, think of her a syou hear these words:
10 Hear, O daughter; consider and incline your ear :
forget your own people and your father’s house.
11 So shall the king have pleasure in your beauty :
he is your lord, so do him honour.
12 The people of Tyre shall bring you gifts :
the richest of the people shall seek your favour.
13 The king’s daughter is all glorious within :
her clothing is embroidered cloth of gold.
14 She shall be brought to the king in raiment of needlework :
after her the virgins that are her companions.
15 With joy and gladness shall they be brought :
and enter into the palace of the king.
16 ‘Instead of your fathers you shall have sons :
whom you shall make princes over all the land.
17 ‘I will make your name to be remembered
through all generations :
therefore shall the peoples praise you for ever and ever.’
To return to Jason Byasee, he places Scripture and Creed at the heart of our Christian faith, indeed we shall recite the Nicene Creed in just a moment, that Creed is from the heart of the Patristic faith, faith of our fathers and mothers, the faith hammered out in the early centuries of the church.
Byassee states “You cannot have patristic dogma without patristic exegesis; you cannot have creed without allegory … the theological heritage treasured in common by Protestants and Catholics alike rests upon a “foundation” of allegory.”.
So my plea on this feast of Mary, is that we embrace complexity and reject simple falsehoods. That we use our imaginations to read Scripture multi-vocally, to hear many voices. To allow the Word of God to speak to our own complex selves. To meet Jesus in the psalms, to recognise him as the living Word at the very beginning of creation.
As I think of Mary, I have never, even as a child, been able to imagine her as a demure and obedient maiden. That didn’t match any actual girl or woman I knew.
Now, in later life I imagine her rather like those older women you see in Malta, or Greece or southern Italy. Women dried out by the sun and by life, but with eyes as sharp as ravens. Women about whom it could so easily be said ‘takes no prisoners’. I love those women. I love Mary and I love having her in my life.
When we commissioned the icon of Our Lady of Lewisham the school chaplain, Mother Juliet wrote a prayer for her.
source and fountain of life,
in Mary, Mother of us all,
we see courage, boldness and strength
risking all to welcome your Son Jesus.
As we celebrate our diversity
grant that her ferocious love may well up with us
to bring justice and establish your peace.
May Our Lady of Lewisham, pray for us, may we know her in all her complexity, may we experience her ferocious love.
Towards the mercy-seat: the psalms in Christian life
Two years ago my mother died.
It was wonderful to be able to be around her bed as she breathed her last breath.
I am even more conscious of that privilege now that most people are not able to have their loved with them as they die. This is very real for you and also for my family, news of my dad dying coming on Palm Sunday afternoon.
As my mother died my brother and sister and I prayed the Rosary together and it was very beautiful to see her lips move with the prayers, so familiar to her, even though she could not make any sound.
Last words are rightly important. Jesus’s final words, the famous ‘seven last words’ are rightly treasured and meditated on by Christians. the fact that he chose words from the psalms My God, my God why have you forsaken me. is not insignificant.
Jesus in his dying breath gifts us the book of psalms as the very foundation of Christian prayer.
The apostolic church when it met together prayed with ‘hymns and psalms’.
Christians at all times and in all places have prayed the psalms, sanctifying time with the daily round of psalmody.
Psalms are, of course, the bread and butter of all Christian prayer but especially of the monastic life which is, after all. just an intensification, a living out of the Christian, the baptised life.
In my three talks this week I am going to reflect on the psalms. Today on praying Jesus in the psalms, tomorrow on the place of mercy in the psalms and on Wednesday a close reading of one psalm, psalm 28, from which, in the Coverdale, Book of Common Prayer version we get this lovely phrase: “towards the mercy seat” which is the overall title for my talks.
I love the psalms. I hope that i communicate something to you of how rich, delightful and lasting the psalms are for prayer; how much they delight me every single day with their complexity and density. I have been praying the psalms seriously for over 40 years and I never tire of them; I endlessly find new things in them; they constantly speak in me and for me in new ways. Most of all, I find Jesus in them. Over and over again I hear him speaking; over and over again they speak of Jesus.
Of course, that might seem odd. The psalms were written some many centuries before Jesus.
Finding Jesus in the psalms , praying Jesus in the psalms is essential to our Christian praying of the psalms. these are not simply ancient texts hallowed by use over the centuries. they are living prayers which give us the words to pray; which pray in Jesus, of Jesus and to Jesus.
The psalms are not simple. If they were they would become dull very quickly. We need to work at them. they are serious stuff. I always have a commentary by my prayer stall. John Eaton on the psalms is excellent. But if I could recommend one thing to read on the psalms it is Rowan Williams book ‘On Augustine’ and only one Chapter in that book, the second chapter on Augustin’;e reading of the psalms. I have sent M. Katherine a series of extracts from that chapter which pick up the key themes.
Here are two of the most significant things that Rowan has to say about Augustine’s reading of the psalms:
“Singing the Psalms … becomes a means of learning what it is to inhabit the Body of Christ and to be caught up in Christ’s prayer. Just as Christ makes his own our lament, our penitence and our fear by adopting the human condition in all its tragic fullness as the material of his Body, so we are inevitably identified with what he says to his Father as God (e.g. en.Ps. 30 (ii) 3–4; 74.4; 142.3). Our relation to Christ is manifested as multi-layered: ‘He prays for us as our priest, he prays in us as our Head, he is prayed to by us as our God’ (en.Ps. 85.1). The meaning of our salvation is that we are included in his life, given the right to speak with his divine voice, reassured that what our human voices say out of darkness and suffering has been owned by him as his voice, so that it may in some way be opened to the life of God for healing or forgiveness.”
Listen to that key sentence again:
‘He prays for us as our priest, he prays in us as our Head, he is prayed to by us as our God.’
When we pray as Christians we pray as Christ. We are the body of Christ, every baptised person prays in persona Christi.
And Rowan goes on:
“The church’s worship … is not accidental or marginal to the church’s very being. Obviously Augustine has much to say about the Eucharist as the prime locus for discovering ourselves as the Body; nevertheless, the singing of the Psalms becomes the most immediate routine means of identifying with the voice of Christ.”
Listen to that final sentence again:
“the singing of the Psalms becomes the most immediate routine means of identifying with the voice of Christ.”
Our praying of the psalms is the most immediate routine means. Our daily bread.
So, let’s look at one psalm together now. If you have your Office book or a Bible in front of you turn to the book of psalms and find Psalm 119.
Until a reform of the liturgy in 1910 Psalm 119 was prayed in its entirety every day at the Little Hours of the Office: prime, terce, Sext and None. by all who used the Roman Breviary. Many Anglican religious communities did this and continued to do so in to the 1960s and beyond. In the Rule of St Benedict this was the pattern on Sundays but on other days the psalms of Ascent were used.
Psalm 119 is the longest psalm with 176 verses. It is an alphabet acrostic with every verse of each section beginning with the same letter of the Hebrew alphabet.
Evert verse except one (122) also contains a synonym for the Torah, the law.
But we should not think of the ;aw as a set of regulations. Torah is a much richer word than that. If you have ever seen Jews dancing with the Torah scrolls in the synagogue or reaching out to touch and kiss the scrolls you will know the passionate devotion and love felt for Torah.
And this is key to a Christian praying of the psalms.
Jesus said I am the way the truth and the life John 14:16.
In Psalm 119 Torah is described as the Way: nine times; the truth 7 times and as life 12 times.
When Jesus says this he is saying that he is the living Torah; Torah made flesh if you like.
And this is how we can pray this psalm. Richard Meux Benson reviver of the religious life in the Church of England and former student of Christ Church where I am writing from now suggests that a form of devotion we could use is pray this psalm replacing the synonyms for Torah with the holy Name of Jesus.
Here is an example secion:
153Under affliction see me and rescue me,
for I have not forgotten Jesus.
154Uphold my cause, and deliver me;
true to Jesus, grant me life.
155Unknown your mercy to the sinner
who do not study Jesus.
156Unnumbered, Lord, are your blessings;
according to Jesus grant me life.
157Under all the assaults of my oppressors,
I keep true to Jesus.
158Unhappy I looked at the faithless
because they did not keep Jesus.
159Up, Lord, and witness the love I bear Jesus;
in your kindness preserve my life.
160Unchanging truth is your Word’s fountain-head,
Jesus is just.
One of my favourite short commentaries on Psalm 119 is by Jonathan Graham who was a monk at Mirfield.
In this quotation he captures something profoundly special for me about the praying of this psalm.
“Psalm 119 is a love song.
Not a passionate love song; certainly not.
It is not the song of love at first sight,
nor of the bitter sweet of emotion and desire.
It is the song of happy married life.
That is not to say that it is, literally, the song of a poet happily wedded; but it breathes all the way through
the charmed monotony of a life vowed to another;
it repeats with endless variety and sweet restraint
the simple inexpressible truth that can never grow weary or stale
– I love thee. Thou, thee, thine;
every verse of the poem, except the three which introduce it,
contains thou, thee or thine.
And a very large number of them echo: I, me, mine.
Well might its author find the sum total of his song in the high priestly prayer of Jesus:
All mine are thine and thine are mine.”
May the praying of the psalms teach us this charmed monotony of a life vowed to Jesus in the vows of baptism, in the vows of religious life.
As we know well, the psalms contain the whole of human experience: lament and praise; passion and longing; victory and defeat; depression and ecstasy. An even, as we say in yesterday’s talk, in Psalm 119 the gentle and charmed monotony of daily life.
The psalms are compendium of human experience; an encyclopedia of our human-ness. By praying the psalms day by day we are giving prayerful voice to the sentiment that “nothing human is alien to me”.
In the proclamation of the Christian faith in our time we face an enormous hurdle in what I like to think of as the existentialist fallacy; the myth that we are merely accidental organisms existing in isolation from one another. Christianity relies on our having a shared, common humanity; that the stuff, the material of which we are made is something that we have in common with every human being that has ever and will ver exist. This is important because without it the incarnation is unnecessary and the redemption wrought by the cross and resurrection can have no possible effect on us.
We are saved only because our common human-ness is saved.
That human-ness has its roots in the biblical account of creation where God creates us in our own image and likeness. Again, this is really important because it both means that God’s first revelation of God-ness is in our own being but also that when God became man in Jesus the gulf is at the same time immense and yet not impossible. God could become human because it was always going to be a good fit, to use clumsy language. When mystical theology speaks of our becoming divine, our divinisation, the gulf is not impossible to bridge because we are already God shaped.
So when we recite the psalms they both help us to realise our human-ness and remind us that there is something in that which correlates closely to divine nature.
For many years i have taught mindfulness meditation to children and adults. Simple mindfulness of breathing and occasional loving-kindness visualisations. Adults are always rather self-conscious about describing their experience but children speak very powerfully about it. Over and over again i have heard children say two things: It is like there is someone there.” and “Its’s like coming home, like I belong.”.
This is exactly right, our busy-ness the many things which we pass the time and fill our days all too easily alienate us from ourselves. So that we experience the nausea that the existentialists identify.
Yet when we sit in stillness we can ‘come home’ to our basic humanity. And we can find that there is someone there.
The psalms function like that too. By repeating them over and over again we come home to being human and we find in their narration that Someone who is the constant in the story: God.
That recitation of the psalms either in order, as in the Prayer Book Office, or in some other arrangement has an objectivity to it that is important. Our common human-ness is not based on any individual’s ability to empathise with others. Nor is based on feeling that feelings that are expressed. The psalms simply reflect a human experience that is real, that exists, that is.
So I have described how the events that we are celebrating in this Holy Week rely on our common humanity to be efficacious, to have any effect. They also rely on another aspect of our human nature that is essential to make redemption not only possible, that is, of course, sin.
Sin is why we need saving. It is what makes salvation necessary.
In our world sin is not very fashionable. We prefer a more therapeutic understanding human nature. I believe therapies of many kinds are important and helpful, but if we don’t recognise sin in ourselves we will find it impossible to understand the Christian faith let alone participate in salvation.
The psalms of course are full of sins. The psalms of repentance; the penitential psalms; psalms that express anger and hatred and wish destruction on our enemies. I very much recommend that you pray those psalms too and don’t omit them as many modern arrangements of psalms for worship do. If we whitewash over human nature we are missing out on a crucial part of the picture.
When we think of sin we have a tendency to think of it in a legalistic kind of ways; as lists of rule-breaking; particular individual things that we wrong. This is, of course, true. We all commit sins; we all do break the rules.
But sin is more like the fundamental orientation of our lives. A picture that I find helpful is of a bicycle on which the front wheel is not properly aligned with the handle-bar. If you have ever tried to ride a bike in that state you will know how difficult it is. It is impossible to cycle in a straight line no matter how hard we try.
We are sinners.
That is who we are and who we will remain as long as we live.
The psalms show us how God reacts to the fact our sinfulness. It is in a simple Hebrew word, hesed (pronounced with a soft ‘ch’ at the start like Scottish loch).
It occurs an amazing 127 times in the book of Psalms in contrast to the next books where it occurs most often 1 Samuel and Genesis where it occurs a mere 11 times each.
hesed is translated a variety of ways. Most often in the Prayer Book-Coverdale psalms, as loving-kindness, but sometimes just as kindness, or mercy or goodness.
The problem with mercy is that it can all too easily sound like God’s reaction to that list of sins, a ticking off in the sense not of telling off but of forgiving each sin individually.
In fact God’s loving-kindness is much deeper and more significant than that. It embraces the whole of us, it embraces us as sinners.
Because of our culture people often come to the Confessional with deep seated self hatred. shame and loathing. I occasionally as a penance propose using a praise psalm for the sin. Praising God for the fact of sin which has brought us to the means of grace; brought us to repentance and which reveals our need for God, our need for Jesus.
I love the Jesus prayer:
Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me a sinner.
It contains that hesed, that mercy which is God’s reaction to us.
It acknowledges that I am a sinner, and I find that tremendously liberating.
I am a sinner, I always will be a sinner, I will always need Jesus.
I don’t know if you have been able to make your confession this Lent, this Holy Week.
Allow me to set you a penance.
Read Psalm 135.
It is a great litany of hesed.
The refrain Great is his love, love without end.
His mercy endures for ever.
His hesed will never end.
Towards the mercy-seat
Read psalm 28 in the Coverdale/BCP version:
. PSALM XXVIII. Ad te, Domine.
1 Unto thee will I cry, O Lord my strength :
think no scorn of me; lest, if thou make as though thou hearest not,
I become like them that go down into the pit.
2 Hear the voice of my humble petitions, when I cry unto thee :
when I hold up my hands towards the mercy-seat of thy holy temple.
3. O pluck me not away, neither destroy me with the ungodly and wicked doers :
which speak friendly to their neighbours, but imagine mischief in their hearts.
4. Reward them according to their deeds :
and according to the wickedness of their own inventions.
5. Recompense them after the work of their hands :
pay them that they have deserved.
6. For they regard not in their mind the works of the Lord, nor the operation of his hands :
therefore shall he break them down, and not build them up.
7. Praised be the Lord :
for he hath heard the voice of my humble petitions.
8. The Lord is my strength, and my shield; my heart hath trusted in him, and I am helped :
therefore my heart danceth for joy, and in my song will I praise him.
9. The Lord is my strength :
and he is the wholesome defence of his Anointed.
10. O save thy people, and give thy blessing unto thine inheritance :
feed them, and set them up for ever.
Biblical scholars on the psalms have spent much energy identifying different types or genres of psalm. Psalm 28 is agreed by all scholars to be a lament of an individual. There may also be a royal element to this with the voice of the speaker being identified with that of the king; we know that the psalms are traditionally ascribed to David and this one even includes the word Anointed in verse 9. As Christians we know that Jesus is the descendant of David and the anointed messiah, so we should always sit up when we notice the word in Scripture.
It is in fact a rather nicely constructed psalm and typical of psalms of lament that move from woe to praise. This is, of course true of Psalm 22 which Jesus prayed from the cross and moves from the desolation in the opening to praise at the end, a movement frequently commented on in devotional writing about the crucifixion.
I am going to comment on two features of the psalm.
The first is the passage that forms verses 4 – 6 (read them again). In the current form of the Roman Catholic Daily Office these verses are omitted as being unsuitable for public worship. I imagine this entire psalm does not appear in Common Worship provision either.
As I said earlier in the week I think it is a shame to omit this important part of human life.
One of my favourite psalms is psalm 93. It is a psalm I have often used in school assemblies.
When I was Headteacher of a rage comprehensive school in south London almost all of the children were black. The older boys would quite often be stopped by the police and sometimes searched, the controversial stop and search policy; if the young men reacted badly they might find themselves taken done to the local police station. On one occasion our Head Boy thus found himself under arrest and his mother rang me to meet her there to take him home. I had often spoken to the school about the importance of good manners and how we are more likely to get what we want by speaking politely. By the time his mum and I got there he had calmed down and was being extremely polite. He was soon released and we were on our way out.
As we walked out of the station this young man bent down (he is very tall) and whispered to me the opening lines of Psalm 93. Do you know them?
Here is the Grail version:
O Lord, avengingGod, avenging God draw near.
I was thrilled. He understood that his anger was appropriate, but he also understood that there was an appropriate time and place and means of expressing it.
These psalms, these verses are important. We might like to think ourselves incapable of wanting revenge, or even victory, or even of having enemies. But that is probably unlikely. What is certain is that these are common human feelings. Acknowledging the reality of them is essential if we are to be fully human and if we are to allow that full humanity to be redeemed.
The second element in this psalm that I want to draw your attention to is in the second half verse 2 when the psalmist talks of the mercy-seat.
Mercy-seat has now become an established part of the English language. Even some modern translations use it.
When Miles Coverdale was translating the psalms in the early sixteenth century he consulted the German translation of the Bible that Martin Luther had produced. In that text this word gnadenstuhl appears. Mercy-seat, is a translation of the Hebrew word kaporet. It doesn’t really mean seat at all. It refers to the lid on the box or container in which the tablets of the law were stored. The lid, the kaporet had a statue of an angel, a cherubim at each side. If you google this you will find some images. On the Day of Atonement (Yom Kippur – kippur having the same root as kaporet) the High Priest would sprinkle the blood of the sacrificed ram on the kaporet.
I like the translation mercy-seat because it captures the sense of something concrete, is not an abstract concept or even a place it is a thing. I haven’t found any modern translation that does better; most do worse by turning it into something abstract.
In my first two talks I have reflected on the Christian use of the psalms, this word kaporet is a good example of that.
In the century before Jesus the Hebrew bible was translated, allegedly by 70 scholars, into Greek. These seventy led to the translation being called the Septuagint, often in books indicated by the Roman numerals for 70, LXX. It is this version of the Hebrew Bible that St Paul quotes from.
The Septuagint translates our word kaporet by the Greek word Hilasterion. This word occurs just twice in the New Testament, both in St Paul’s writing at Romans 3:25 and Hebrews 9:5.
In Romans this verse is key to understanding what Jesus does.
[Christ] whom God put forward as a propitiation by his blood, to be received by faith. This was to show God’s righteousness, because in his divine forbearance he had passed over former sins. [ESV]
I have already spoken about the importance of sin in Christian life and the necessity of our common humanity for Jesus’ saving work to be possible, to be effective.
the hilasterion, the kaporet, the mercy seat is the propitation, the offering of Jesus himself.
Reading the psalms, reciting them day by day as Christians takes us to the heart of our biblical, Christian faith. The Old and New Testaments as we call them are not in any way separate. They are a continuum; the new is foreshadowed in the old because they are simply the single story of salvation history; of God’s plan for humanity. Just as our very humanity, our own beings reveals God to us because we are created in his image and likeness.
This Holy Week, we are on pilgrimage to the mercy-seat. Not to the container of the tablets of the Law but to the living Torah, Jesus himself who is the way, the truth and the life.
There is such intensity about Lenten observance and particularly about Holy Week and the Triduum that it is possible to mis the great eight days, the Easter Octave that follows. The liturgy which has seen such variety for three days suddenly becomes very repetitive. Partly that’s necessary, and the first simple celebration of the Eucharist on Easter Monday is a necessary tonic after the rich diet of the preceding week.
This year in our isolation I am going to be meditating on some of my ‘heroes and heroines’ in the Hebrew Scriptures. For the first time on Sunday morning before dawn I was able to read all nine readings at the Paschal Vigil, slowly and with plenty of time for reflection between them, I did this by a fire in the garden as pictured. I found it profoundly moving. From Common Worship: Times and Seasons I chose the ‘Women in Salvation’ series. Given that women are under-represented in our lectionaries I would value doing that every year. I used the Anselm canticle (from Common Worship Daily Prayer) with the ‘mother reading’ from Isaiah 66 and found that especially moving.
I am not going to reflect simply on women this Easter week but on a variety of figures:
Monday – Isaac
Tuesday – Sarah
Wednesday – Ruth
Thursday – Nehemiah
Friday – Deborah
I will Livestream these meditations each day 6:30 – 7pm BST and they will consist of poems and prayers with short reflections in the way of a monologue with the character by me, one sung responsorial text and silence. At 7pm I will sing Compline, in English in this version:
Update 1: Thank you to Mary Hawes for this set of resources for worship at home: here.
17 March 2020 Thank you to Facebook friends for providing links to some of these. This is not a polished response but a quick list, please send me any other links to add or resources you have made. I will keep updating at the top of this post. Our Archbishops urge us to maintain the disciple of daily prayer and Eucharist. This is more important than ever. Reducing stress and anxiety will come when we have solid patterns of praying in our lives and model that for others. For all of us this is an opportunity to deepen our prayer and pray in new and old ways. As the Bishop of Liverpool writes to the diocese:
You will see that [the Archbishops] encourage us all to find new ways of being the Church in these days. As they say: “Public worship will have to stop for a season. Our usual pattern of Sunday services and other mid week gatherings must be put on hold. But this does not mean that the Church of England has shut up shop. Far from it.” Church is changing, and we all need to be part of that change.
I particularly urge us to explore the serious Christian tradition of praying 7 times a day; even if only briefly. The use of Psalm 119 divided over the day is very powerful with its gentle rhythm and constancy. Nothing dramatic just the simple love of the Lord who is the Way, the Truth and the Life.
Sermon at St John’s, Fulham for the meeting of the Sodality of Mary, Mother of Priests on 13 February 2020
My dearest friends, Mothers and Fathers. One of the the many things I love about our very own Church Of England is the variety of streams of tradition within it. While I think it best to drink deeply from a single stream. To be formed in one tradition. To know who we are so that we can be fully ourselves with others who are different to us is vitally important.
It is no less vitally important that we drink at other wells and learn from others. To realise that our differences never negate our common humanity, let alone our common baptism.
One of the elements of the evangelical tradition that I have come to love is the preaching of a series of sermons. If you look at well known evangelical parish websites you will find many sermons to listen to and even, sometimes watch.
On many occasions these will be based on individuals in the Old Testament. Nehemiah often comes up – and indeed I have led a number of study sessions on Nehemiah myself, including last October, for the Conference of Leaders of Anglican Religious Communities, our traditional, vowed monastic communities. Nehemiah is a great role model for Christian leadership, especially in a time when institutions seem to be in decline and some rebuilding of the walls is needed.
I imagine, perhaps I am guilty of stereotyping us! But I imagine that we are perhaps not as familiar with the liturgical book New Patterns for Worship, as we might be of certain other official liturgical publications.
Perhaps I am wrong, I hope so, because NPW includes some really excellent material. Not least among these are a series of modules of readings that can be used outside the seasons of the church’s year in place of the official lectionary. I recommend you get to know them and make use of them. Many feature significant individuals from the Old Testament such as Noah.
If you read my blog you will know that for pedagogical, educational reasons, I have become something of a fan of the traditional one year lectionary. I can imagine Sunday worship in which the ante-communion, the liturgy of the Word makes use of one of these series of readings for a first reading, followed by a sermon and then continues with the two short readings of the historic lectionary and on into the Eucharistic rite. In one church where I served we even broke for coffee after the liturgy of the Word so that some people could leave at that point and those who wanted to remained for the rest. It was very effective and worked well.
That is a somewhat long, and homiletically poor, introduction to looking at today’s first reading.
There is no series of readings in NPW on Solomon, which is a shame.
Solomon is best known, of course for being wise. But if that is all we know about him we have a rather weak and uninteresting character. Today’s reading fills that out a bit. We have to be a little careful that there is not some gender bias going on, the wise man led astray by his wives. But the important thing is not who leads who astray, but that Solomon exhibits some considerable foolishness.
Personally I find that quite helpful. We all, yes we do, all of us, do foolish things. We are all, yes all of us, unwise at times, perhaps very often. Tragedy appeals to us because deep down we know that at any point our foolishness might undo our lives.
I am glad to say that I do not have a number of pagan wives leading me astray. But I do know that I do not love the Lord wholeheartedly. I love God very much. Jesus is the centre of my life. But I know that I also am very attached to my nice middle class lifestyle. When I pray “do with me what you will”, when I say multiple times a day in the Lord’s Prayer: “Thy will be done.” I really don’t mean it wholeheartedly …
We Anglo Catholics like to remind ourselves of our glorious past. The slum priests who gave up everything to serve the poor. But when I was a priest in Grangetown in Middlesbrough or Portsea where Fr Dolling had been a priest, or Lewisham. All areas of considerable deprivation (and how proud we can all be of our very own deprivation index!) I lived the same middle class life I could have lived anywhere. Yet in my work as Spiritual Director/Adviser to emerging new communities I meet young evangelicals, Anglicans and others, who give up everything to take their families and children into places of dire poverty, who open up their homes to live with recovering alcoholics, gang members and the generally socially inept. For whom dinner is a simple shared meal with strangers not a dinner party with too much gin and four crystal glasses.
Changing the way we live. The choices we have made and make is tough. But what is conversion if it is not that? In the story we have just heard in the gospel I imagine Jesus smiling when the Syro-Phoenician woman tells him that even the dogs deserve crumbs. He knows she is right. He changes his mind. And that is wisdom indeed.
Solomon, like the rest of us was both wise and foolish.
I am not especially keen n formal dinner parties so it’s easy for me to critique them. I know what my idols are. Thy will be done? I suspect in a month’s time there will be just as many Amazon parcels arriving as there have ever been …
In the last fifteen years or so I’ve enjoyed working with Christians from Pentecostal churches and introducing them to elements of my own tradition that are new to them, just as they have challenged and encouraged me in my understanding and experience of the faith. Among the greatest gifts I have received from them is the gift of fasting as a serious discipline of prayer. I wrote about this on my previous blog and will move that post to this blog in due course: for now, it is here.
One of the elements in my own practice that I am often asked about is retreats. Where should I go? What do you do?
Below is a a long piece in three parts. In the first I make some observations about retreats. It is not a “How To” guide to retreats, jut some random thoughts I have had while being on retreat this week (the week of Advent 3, 2019). The second part is a rambling, stream of consciousness note-book of this retreat. I have been making retreats since I was fifteen. For many of the retreats I’ve made I have kept a notebook. I have twenty-seven of them, some more complete than others. They are not really journals, often consisting of not much more than a series of quotes on whatever I have been reading or reflecting on. I’m not sure they show much ‘progress’ as such but they do show change. They are very useful sources of quotes, thoughts and research over the years.
I am not expecting anyone to read every word of the notebook below. Scan it and it will give you the pattern of what I do and the way I keep a notebook. I have edited for publication, omitting some of the self-reflection on my life at the moment and my experiences in prayer as well as mentions of the living. Occasionally I have added rather more explanation than I would for myself.
I decided that the best way to answer “What do you do on retreat?” is the format here, a sort of timetable with notes. I realise that I probably learned this style from the journals of Thomas Merton, of which this is a pale imitation.
I have removed references to intercessory prayer although that is a big part of what I do on retreat. The formal prayer elements of the retreat (Office, Mass, Meditation, Rosary, lectio) should be understood within the opportunity this intense Christian living gives for spontaneous praise and, especially important for me, expressing this in tongues. This is an important part of retreat for me. The opportunity retreat provides to pay attention more closely is always a spark for praise.
I read a lot in an ordinary week so a retreat is a chance to read intensely too. Often I have picked a book (part of the Philokalia, Camus’ The Rebel, Julian of Norwich, The Imitation Of Christ, Wesley’s Hymns, The Rule of the Jerusalem Community, Herbert’s poetry, have all been topics in the past). Sometimes I choose a biblical book, Romans, Revelation, the Gospel of John, the Psalms have all been retreat topics.
This year has been Isaiah – all 66 chapters. But the length hasn’t seemed to matter using Robert Alter’s beautiful translation, Hebrew Scriptures (an essential translation). On retreat I have read multiple chapters in place of the lectionary readings at each Office and used in-between time for study.
I also generally have a fiction book on the go for reading just before sleep. Oh, and the ever present in my life: poetry.
“It is quite cogent how psalms in choir, how prophecy and gospel, how all great poetry, nurtures prayer; equally cogent are prayer and poetry. They can do without one another, and often do, but not as well. Like kissing cousins, you have to keep them apart sometimes or they will get to scrapping, get in each other’s way, get to too much kissing.”
Paul Quenon (In Praise of the Useless Life)
That is, I realise, quite a lot of words. I try and make sure that my retreat reading is not new, first-time, reading, but going deeper with stuff I have read previously. I didn’t quite manage that this year with some of the commentary on Isaiah but, of course, Isaiah is not new to me!
Please don’t read anything here (apart from one or two comments, notably on alcohol) as my saying this is how you should do your retreat. It’s how I do it, some of the ideas might work for you some not.
Finally, I end with a section of photographs of the books I have used on Isaiah for those who are interested.
There are various ‘retreat houses’, generally these are best for led retreats where there will be talks each day and a set fee. I have enjoyed leading this style of retreat very much but I prefer a bit more solitude when I am on retreat.
Most of my retreats have been made at monasteries of one sort or another. Most have guest houses. It is good to have worship going on to join in with. Some guest houses are pretty sociable places so that they may not suit everyone.
I have made my retreat at the Shrine of Walsingham four times. Always off season in November. It actually works quite well. Meals will involve talking in the refectory and some other chatting around the place, the Bull has to be resisted but the accommodation is good, there are plenty of walks nearby and a pattern of worship to join in with.
Borrowing, or if you have the money, renting a cottage somewhere is another option. I quite like self-catering, a balance to the reading, and being in the middle of nowhere. I’ve done this a few times as well and it has worked.
– Monastery of the Holy Trinity at Crawley Down
This is where I have made most retreats although with a. gap of a few years at one stage. There is a guest wing with shared bathrooms that works well although the walls are paper thin so chanting or praying out loud wouldn’t go down well. The community’s worship has Orthodox influences and is very prayerful, there are very many walks in the neighbourhood. They also have hermitages in the woods which are perfect in every way. As described below.
As I write I am staying in one of the three hermitages at the Monastery of the Holy Trinity, Crawley Down in West Sussex. I have been visiting the monastery since I was eighteen. Usually staying in the guest wing but occasionally in one of these hermitages in the woods. They are self-contained with a little kitchen, shower room and one room with a bed for everything else. They overlook the largest of the ponds in these woods, created for the iron smelting works that was here in the sixteenth century. Now the only disturbances in the woods are the dog walkers from the nearby housing estates.
Food is provided for residents of the hermitages in Red Riding Hood style baskets just before lunch each day. A hot lunch and enough food for an evening meal and breakfast.
I am self-catering, mainly because I am trying to sort out some food allergies that have been bothering me for the last few weeks. But it has the advantage of allowing fasting without fuss.
The monastic community, the Community of the Servants of the Will of God, pray Vigils, Lauds, Eucharist, Sext, Vespers each day and shared Jesus Prayer several evenings a week. Sometimes I join them for some or all of that. This time I am doing my own thing liturgically.
Some people make retreats at home. Sometimes there is no choice. I don’t think it is as ideal as being away from home but there could be ways of turning off the phone and internet and making space.
When / how long?
The pressure to cut away a retreat time is enormous. I really think six or more days are needed. But just before I came away I was persuaded to do Sunday cover on what had been due to be the last day of my retreat. It is hard. Even more so for those with families and children. Obviously any time, even a few hours or one day is better than nothing, but generally I think the longer the better. There is a rhythm to a week or more that doesn’t seem to work for shorter periods. That rhythm includes a squirming point when I wonder why I am wasting my time and just want to go home.
Some writers on retreats suggest that only the Bible, or a single devotional book should be allowed. Catherine de Hueck Doherty, author of the brilliant Poustinia, is a great advocate of this approach. But I am a disciple of Thomas Merton. Reading his journals it is hard to imagine him without a pile of books. Perhaps this love of books stems from the Benedictine influence on my teenage years.
A little like my changing ideas about education I think the more content-rich retreats have borne more fruit than the more ‘sit and do nothing’ retreats. Anyway, even with a lot of reading there is still plenty of time for sitting and being still (see notes on times below).
I am, however, increasingly cautious about all the reading so many of us do in the great mystics as if we are going to achieve such heights or depths. Better that we spend as much time digesting the words of Scripture and leave spiritual experiences for God to decide. Pursuing such experiences is certainly very much against the tradition. Even contemplative prayer is a gift from God, a grace, for Christians. Not a technique to be developed. The New Testament is full of the wonderful gifts of the Spirit that we can expect to receive in prayer and as a normal part of our Christian lives. The ‘dark night of the soul’, is not something we should seek and is very different to the ordinary sadnesses, depressions and low moods of everybody’s life.
It won’t always be possible to fast on retreat, probably only if you are self-catering. I have written about the importance of fasting before. For the Bible fasting and prayer are almost inseparable. If you can fast for part of the time on retreat it really is worth trying. This year (see below) I did two one day total fasts. I think it really changes and intensifies the experience of prayer and creates a certain spaciousness, as well as time. It adds to the sense of seriousness and that this is not a holiday.
“August 14, 1967. Vigil of the Assumption Said Mass quietly at the hermitage and fasted in the morning. (In the evening made too much rice and creole and am weighted down with it.”
“Fasting clears the head and lessens the angustia, also brings order into one’s life.”
Sleep deprivation is never a good idea. I need seven hours sleep a night, with, ideally one lie-in (9-10 hours) a week. I normally get this on a Saturday, so leave Morning Prayer, often even til after breakfast. On Saturdays I only pray one day-time Hour.
I usually get up at 5am so need to be in bed by 9:30 for sleep at 10 to get my full quota. On retreat this week I am getting up at 3:30 and aiming to get to bed at 8.
The reason I am doing that is the quality of time in the early hours and my energy in it. If I stayed up later in the evening instead it would be an extended preparation for sleep, my energy would be low. In the morning my energy is higher, there is a feeling of a whole day beginning, of movement into light that makes the prayer and quiet powerful. I was so excited for that on the first morning this week like a child on Christmas Day I was awake by 2:20.
While I am here I am also getting a nap in the afternoon, just 30 minutes or so gives me extra sleep.
“February 7, 1966. F[east] of St. Romuald I don’t know what happens to time in the hermitage. Three and four hours in the pre-dawn go by like half an hour. Reading, meditation, a few notes, some coffee and toast–there is not much to show for it, but it is probably the most fruitful part of the day.”
There is a scene in the TV series Rev where the hero goes on retreat. I don’t remember the details, but there is a priest-friend with him and I think they both open their cases to reveal the bottle of gin or whiskey they have with them. For many of us what makes this funny is its truth. In the guest wing of the very monastery I am writing in I have drunk the pre-mixed gin and tonics another priest guest had brought with him.
I find that even two glasses of alcohol interfere with my prayer – I can tell the difference and, as Herbert says and I have so often ignored, “take not the third glass.”
If we can’t do without alcohol on retreat we have to ask ourselves some serious questions.
I take a break from Twitter and Facebook on retreat. But I do phone home daily and check texts and FB Messenger. This week I have heard two pieces of bad news which have been a cause for intercession, I am glad I heard them when I did. The internet has aided my study of Isaiah. It’s a tool. The test for me is to the extent that something enhances my prayer, or lessens the peace of my prayer.
Retreats are not …
Read Chaucer. I don’t think I have always got this right myself. I was looking at the pack for a pilgrimage I led from StAndrew, Earlsfield a few years ago. It is pretty full on liturgically. I wouldn’t put so much into a pilgrimage now. A pilgrimage is a social occasion and there should be plenty of time and space for that.
When we started our Sodality we called our annual three-day get together a retreat. We are now calling it our Annual Residential. If there is an intention to socialise, build community, talk, it is probably not really a retreat but a Spiritual Conference.
– Holidays / Time off
I often hear people say they need a retreat because they need rest. Only you can decide how much rest you need. But I would offer a challenge. That rest should be built into our weekly, monthly and yearly patterns separate to retreat time. The weekly sabbath rest is an important biblical principle. Holidays should not be missed. If you are so exhausted that you are desperate for rest probably time off is needed not a retreat. I would draw a subtle difference where there is spiritual exhaustion and renewal of the spirit is needed not total rest. Of course, if you need rest and genuinely the only way you are going to get it is to call it a retreat, then do so.
In the Notebook section below I refer to ‘Meditation’. I don’t especially like this word, or even ‘Mindfulness’ (despite spending much of my life teaching it). They both sound too much like a method, a technique.
In this time, I just sit. I sit in the lotus or half-lotus position on a zafu (meditation cushion) because it is the most stable posture I know. I can easily sit like this for 45 minutes and on retreat with massaging of my legs for an hour or more. The posture gives it a sort of intentionality, energy; it is not just sitting doing nothing. I like the Japanese term shikantaza “just sitting”, to describe this “methodless method”. As I sit, the breathing naturally deepens but the breath is not the object. Neither is God, as if he is to be sought. He is present. What he chooses to do or not do is his business, not mine. I offer him this time as free gift.
“I am inclined to think that the more a thing is a “practice,” the less it is a prayer. You cannot do without practice, of course, but the better you get at it the more you forget practice and go beyond.”
I also sit on the zafu for the Office, but use a prayer stool for the Eucharist and Adoration of the Blessed Sacrament, this enables me to prostrate more easily. When using the Jesus Prayer I sometimes stand and bow deeply to touch the floor at each invocation and prostrate with my forehead on the ground every 25 invocations. That helps my energy levels and keeps my body loose when I have been sitting for a long time. I often pray the Rosary while walking.
So all of this is quite a physical business!
Well, I have probably put you off completely if you are new to this. If this all seems too much like hard work, I suppose yes, I am saying this is hard work. Paul Quenon, monk of Gethsemane in his brilliant book, In Praise of the Useless Life (quoted often here, as also his collections of poetry) comments on his following of the Rule of Saint Benedict:
“I follow—or stumble along—the “Benedictine way,” which approaches life mostly in terms of prayer, work, and reading. To follow all three of these essential principles to the fullest is real work, and indeed at times a hard battle! Key phrases found in the Rule of St. Benedict are “the labor of obedience,” “the strong, bright weapons of obedience,” “the instruments of good works.” It is only when the work of obedience is advanced and matured that we “run the way of God’s commandments in the unspeakable sweetness of God’s love.”
But he also goes on to talk about the ‘Holy Game’ and the element of play. I often say that liturgy, worship, is a rehearsal for the way God wants the world to be. A retreat is a bit like that too. It is liturgical time. God’s playground for us. Hard work can, of course, be relaxing and rewarding. I have ended this week’s retreat invigorated and energised. Making a good retreat, like doing anything ‘well’ can be deeply satisfying and very far from exhausting
Not Just for Clergy
While working with the leaders of the Anglican Religious Communities earlier this year I had an interesting conversation with the Abbot of Mucknell about the many guests they welcome there. 95%, he said, are clergy. And this is a complete reversal to the situation twenty years ago. I checked with other community leaders where there are significant guest facilitates. They all confirmed that the vast majority of guests are now clergy. There may, of course, be many explanations for this. The pressures of work. People being too busy to visit for weekends. But I wonder if those of us who preach and teach do so about retreats often enough?
ADVENT RETREAT 2019
“In the hermitage, one must pray or go to seed. The pretense of prayer will not suffice. Just sitting will not suffice. It has to be real–yet what can one do? Solitude puts you with your back to the wall (or your face to it!) and this is good. One prays to pray. And the reality of death.”
PART TWO – RETREAT JOURNAL
It’s a long drive from the north-west to West Sussex, but the lane to the monastery takes the retreatant through a half mile or so of woodland before arriving. That last stretch is always a powerful letting go. Once I’d arrived and received the warm welcome I got on with unpacking and setting up the hermitage.
4:15 Eucharist –
Mass said, the Eucharistic presence. It is you, Jesus, it is you present as gently as you can be, like the hand on the shoulder, not imposing. You are the guest as so often you were, invited here by words and signs.
Next to you. I place mum’s picture. She is not here, but she is present. In my breathing that she gave me. As you are, Jesus. breathing in: Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God. Breathing out: have mercy on me a sinner.
5:15 Evening Prayer Isaiah 1 -2
Followed by reading of the commentaries on the reading
Learn to do good,
Make the oppressed happy,
Defend the orphan,
argue the widow’s case.
1:29ff is the opposite of Psalm 1: a garden without water, a tree whose leaves wither.
6:30 Supper – soup and cheese
7:00 Reading (on Isaiah)
7:45 Compline – Isaiah 3-4
Followed by reading the commentaries
Chapter 4 unlike most translators Alter has this as poetry
5And the LORD shall create over all the sanctuary of Mount Zion
and over its solemn assemblies
a cloud by day
and an effulgence of flaming fire by night,
for over all the glory there shall be a canopy.
6And a shelter it shall be
as a shade by day from heat
and a covert and refuge from pelting rain.
8:30 lectio divina on tomorrow’s Gospel Reading and first draft of my ‘todaysgospel’ tweet.
3:30 Rise, two cups of tea
Jesus Prayer with prostrations 20 minutes or so
“On me a sinner”: words that don’t make me feel shame, but human. Knowing the stupid things I have done. Love never diminished by any of them. There is a stage in friendship when you do or say something stupid, when your friend knows you for a fool, a sinner: and it matters but makes no difference. Or rather it does. It deepens. Then we can be undefended.
4:00. Vigils Isaiah 5 – 6
Opening parts of CWDP Morning Prayer
With the history psalms (104/105) forming two nocturns
“Here I am, send me.”
Not a happy message:
“Go and say to this people:
‘Indeed you must hear but you will not understand,
indeed you must see but you will not know.’
10 Make the heart of this people obtuse
and block its ears and seal its eyes.
Lest it see with its eyes
and with its ears hear
and its heart understand
and it turn back and be healed.”
Reading the commentaries.
A walk in the woods (20 minutes or so)
I put my cloak on. Envying Jewish friends their prayer shawls. “He shall cover you with his wings.” (Ps 91:4) I am immersed in dark. Wrapped in light.
Suddenly I remember. thirty six years ago. My friend Danny (long since dead). Staying over, in the morning he passed me his talit to put on. Hugging me as the wool embraced me with its black bands and titzit. I pulled the crown together and kissed it as I had seen him do. Then we prayed. He in his tefillin, me in his talit. Shacharit and Matins simultaneously. Psalms we shared, melodies different. A cacophony for sure. When he died we had lost touch. I didn’t hear about it for months. Yet now I feel as close to him as when he put the talit around me and breathed on my face, his breath rich from the cheap wine we’d stayed up drinking. I wrap my cloak around me and weep. Strange how our little griefs can stand in for all our griefs.
Meditation – 45 minutes
Jesus Prayer with Prostrations
Blessed Sacrament Exposed – Adoration 30 minutes or so
7:45 Lauds / Morning Prayer Isaiah Chapters 7-8
Reading the commentaries
10:00 Terce Isaiah Chapters 9-10
12:00 Sext Isaiah Chapters 11-12
Reading the commentaries
Rosary – walking up and down outside in my cloak.
“The presence of Our Lady is important to me. Elusive but I think a reality in this hermitage. Here, though I do not agree with the medieval idea of Mediatrix apud Mediatorem [the Mediatrix with the Mediator] (without prejudice to her motherhood which is a much better statement and truth). Her influence is a demand of love, and no amount of talking will explain it. I need her and she is there. I should perhaps think of it more explicitly more often.”
Meditation – 30 minutes
Lunch – main meal of the day
Snooze – walk
2:30 None Isaiah 13-14
5:00 Evening Prayer Isaiah Chapters 15-17
Supper – soup and cheese
7:00 Compline Isaiah Chapters 18-21
lectio on the following day’s gospel
Part way through Vigils, about 4:30, a cock starts crowing on the farm next door. It continues for about 15 minutes.
The rain is falling hard. Rain in the woods always seem louder, deeper than anywhere else.
Merton’s festival of rain:
“What a thing it is to sit absolutely alone, in the forest, at night, cherished by this wonderful, unintelligible, perfectly innocent speech, the most comforting speech in the world, the talk that rain makes by itself all over the ridges, and the talk of the watercourses everywhere in the hollows! Nobody started it, nobody is going to stop it. It will talk as long as it wants, this rain. As long as it talks I am going to listen.”
The hermitage is cosy and very warm from the night storage heaters.
I open the large glass doors. It’s not that cold but it feels a shock.
I put my cassock and cloak on, the warmest clothes I have. Take the umbrella provided and walk in the woods. Enjoying the rain.
It is pitch black but I walk slowly on paths I know pretty well, barely needing to use the torch. I get to the little weir at the end of the pond. Although it is not a large fall of water it makes a suitably crashing noise in the dark and quiet – the thunder of waters.
Two pieces of advice are really helping me read Isaiah. The first is in Leslie Hoppe’s New Collegeville Bible Commentary volume on Isaiah. Like scholarship on the Psalms, the academic world has moved on from the granular source-critical stance. It is easy to get hung up on which sections are first, second or third Isaiah. Hoppe takes the canonical, final form seriously and identifies five sections of relatively similar length. She doesn’t mention it but, of course the psalms are also in five books, Matthew’s Gospel is sometimes seen as being in a pattern of five. Do all these reflect the final form of the Five Books of Moses, the Torah?
Each of Hoppe’s five sections relate to Jerusalem, making that the dominant motif.
Chapters 1 -12 Jerusalem’s Future
Chapters 13 – 27 Jerusalem and the Nations
Chapters 28 – 39
Judgement and Salvation for Jerusalem
Chapters 40 – 55 Jerusalem’s Liberation
Chapters 56 – 66 The New Jerusalem
Each section begins with an oracle of judgement and ends with a word of salvation.
Although the salvific endings are balanced by the final verse of the book which is dark indeed. Alter points out that when this section is read as the Haggadah (the second reading following the Torah) in the synagogue, verse 23 with it message of hope is repeated after verse 24 to end on a positive note.
Hoppe also identifies the two main motifs of the book as firstly, the typically Isaianic phrase for God “the Holy One of Israel”, what is so very clear is that this holiness consists not just or only in the being of God but in the justice he requires of his people. It is all too easy to think of social justice as something we read into Scripture. In fact justice is woven deeply into it.
The second motif is that of Jerusalem/Zion.
Hoppe recommends reading the text straight through without commentary.
This is a recommendation also made by Nicholas King in his Bible (which is a translation of the Septuagint). King makes ten recommendations which I won’t repeat in full here. However some key phrases:
Concentrate on the beauty of the prophet’s language
The entire scroll belongs together and should be read as a whole
In the text consolation only comes in the Exile, when Israel is recalling in a mess
Don’t sit on the fence or remain uninvolved
Allow your unhealthy images of God to be systematically demolished
Motyer in his The Prophecy of Isaiah, also divides the book other than by source critical means. His reading of Isaiah is profoundly Christological, he sees three themes:
1 The Book of the King Chapters 1-37
2 The Book of the Servant Chapters 38-55
3 The Book of the Anointed Conqueror Chapters 56 – 66
Although this christological reading is helpful it does feel imposed on the book contrasting with the way in which Hoppe’s analysis emerges from the actual text.
Hoppe on Chapters 3 and 4: the wealthy are to blame for Israel’s fate. Strong portrait of the bejewelled rich.
SERAPHIM: are serpents, angelic tradition is post-biblical
At Vigils chapters 5 and 6. Six is the first real revelation to the prophet and includes the burning al image. I am so used to that image, and to thinking of it metaphorically that I think of it as painless.
Alter does this brilliantly, I like his “Woe to me, for I am undone” so much stronger than NRSV “I am lost”. Alter also refers to Alexander Pushkin’s poem “The Prophet” based on this chapter. It is stunning, here it is.
7am I return from my walk. My cloak is soaking wet. I am breathless. Partly the fear: is there a mad axe-man in the woods? Standing on the bridge over the weir is breath-taking too. There are lights on in the next door hermitage and in the monastery in the distance. I am grateful for these companions in prayer. The monks too have prayed Vigils and are now back in their cells before Lauds.
I am grateful that I found this place when I was eighteen, for the times I have spent here. For the lives lived here. Later I will go to the monastery cemetery and pray for the dead. Gruff but loving Brother Mark, provider of tea and digestives. Charles the friend of the community who spent many years living and praying here. Fr Brian, the sweetest and warmest of smiles but brightly intelligent. My memories of him are mainly from his days at the monastery at Hove. And Fr Gregory, so long Superior. About him complicated memories and feelings. On all the things that divide our church he and I disagreed. But he in many ways created the life here and all the gospel that it holds. As Isaiah knew it is a messy world. As today’s gospel (Matthew’s genealogy) makes clear:
Wife of Uriah
Jeconiah and his brothers
After the walk I still need exercise, that helps with the sugar-hunger too. So 20 minutes of prostrations with Jesus Prayer works up a sweat.
Light comes late on this dull December day. The dawn chorus just penetrates the sound of the rain. But as the trees emerge I am singing the Canticle from Baruch at Morning Prayer:
“The woods and every fragrant tree
Have shaded them at God’s command.”
Interesting essay by Torsten Uhlig in Interpreting Isaiah ed David G Firth et al
On the motif of ‘hardening’ of the heart in Is 6 (and elsewhere).
Brueggemann on Isaiah Chapters 7 and 8:
Two possible readings: historical or christological (virgin birth etc) but he offers a third;
The offer of faith
“Faith is to resist circumstances and to continue ‘a more excellent way’ a way with no guarantees beyond promises and the One who makes those promises.”
“The non-negotiable verdict of the prophet still lingers: No faith … no future.”
‘If you do not make yourself firm [in the Lord]
You will not be affirmed.’
Same Hebrew root as ‘mn from which we derive Amen
Isaiah 65:6 literally translated is that the Lord is “the God of Amen” [Alter makes the same point, notes]
Revelation 3:14: Jesus is “the Amen”
7:14, 8:8 and 10
Even here in the hermitage news comes in. One of my dearest friends is taken into hospital with a suspected stroke. The new Archbishop of York is announced; Stephen Cottrell. The very best of news.
Perhaps I should turn my phone off completely but somehow it seems better to have the world in here too.
Lunch: avocado, tuna fish, mayonnaise – beef Bologna’s and peas – cheese – Brazil nuts, coconut and chocolate
RSV: his delight shall be in the fear of the Lord
Alter: his very BREATH is in the fear of the Lord
Chapter 12 a short hymn of praise which is Canticle 27 on CWDP. Although with the first verse omitted:
“I acclaim, You, O Lord, though you raged against me,
“Your wrath has withdrawn and You comforted me.”
How we sanitise it all!
None: Isaiah 13 – 14
Ch 13: 6 Shaddai
14:4b ceases Heb. = Shabbat / rest
The oppressor is overturned
Brueggemann “The reception committee of impotence is already gathering to greet the next oppressor. And so Jews maintain by such poetry the capacity to wait, to resist, and not to give in.”
Reflection on all the wrath in Isaiah: what might God be angry with me about?
The sort of anger we feel for those we love.
Vespers: Isaiah 15-18
Supper Chicken soup
Containing, appropriately for the time of day:
Watchman, what of the night.
Beautiful Hebrew (Alter)
Shomer mah milaylah
Shomer mah mileyl
“One must concede that this entire short prophecy is far too fragmentary to allow us to guess what it is about.” !
3:30 an owl outside, somewhere very close
I open the curtains, important to be surrounded by the dark as I pray
But aware as I do so that my light is polluting it
Vigils Isaiah 22–27
(speeding up my reading so that there is more time to reflect on the whole thing at the end of the week)
Reading aloud from Alter’s translation which works very well,
I also brought AV with me and thought I might read that at the liturgy, but that doesn’t seem to be needed
Fasting today, just water, first food Thursday lunchtime, my fasts have been inconsistent since Lent, I need to get back on this. It intensifies the prayer, creates a space for it and an energy.
With my life-breath I desired you by night,
With my spirit within me I sought you.
There is nothing quite like praying in the night. Tonight is still and dark. Not even the sound of rain. Just animals moving, the occasional bird.
These chapters from Isaiah this morning and yesterday afternoon have been especially challenging to understand.
Briggs is very comforting on this:
“First, you cannot study everything. Much of chapters 13–33 is obscure. I rather like Walter Brueggemann’s comment regarding chapter 21, that it is ‘extraordinarily enigmatic and elusive and, given our present understandings, almost completely beyond comprehension. I take comfort in the surmise that likely the only people who attend to this poem are those, like myself, who attempt to write a commentary that does not permit skipping over the material.’ So we take comfort in that too, and skip over large sections.”
Key chapters demanding study:
6, 7 (especially 7.14), 9, 40, 53, 61,
And would require inclusion in a bible study, sermon series
“The Lord commissions Isaiah in v 3, and gives him an oracle to take to King Ahaz in vv 7–9. This includes the striking word-play, which translates rather nicely into English: ‘If you do not stand firm in faith, you shall not stand at all’ (v9:‘imlo’ta’aminu/kilo’te’amenu) or, as NT Wright has suggested rather more idiomatically, ‘Trust or bust.’ In fact, when this Hebrew text was translated into Greek (in the Septuagint version as used by the early church), this line became, ‘If you do not believe, neither shall you understand.’ As such, it was often cited by Augustine in his famous description of Christian faith as the pursuit of the mysteries of God, captured in the Latin phrase, fides quaerens intellectum (faith seeking understanding).”
Read 2 Kings 16.5–20, on Ahaz’s reaction to Isaiah (he tries to make a deal with the Assyrians)
See Is 36-37 for where the historical events come to a head
See also 2 Chronicles 32 and 2 Kings 19
Briggs: chapter 6 does not function (whatever some commentaries suggest) as the opening call, chapters 1-4 prepare the way for it:
First, 5.7b carries a careful word-play, literally: He expected justice (mishpat) but behold: bloodshed (mispach) Righteousness (tsedaqah) but behold: a cry! (tse’aqah)
In ch 5 the NRSV ‘ah’ is inadequate ‘woe’ is better
6:11 ‘Till, when, O Master?’ How long, O Lord.
Is highly significant.
[isn’t this what we all say in the midst of uncertainty / suffering]
And the answer is “until …:
And the gloom only rises in chapter 40
Briggs thinks of the putative three authors as three movements in a symphony
40 marks a shift to the servant, answering who will answer God’s call (ch 6) but mostly this is plural (except see 53)
55 – 66 ‘Unspectacular postscript’
61 a return to the anointed servant
Briggs: “It has always struck me as a relatively neglected aspect of the book of Isaiah that it wants to offer us such a broad range of visions of the life of faith among the people of God. The difficult bit today is holding on to the whole range and, even more, it is rightly discerning where in this vast narrative we find our own situations illuminated”
“It is, I suspect, easier to be visionary when you are heading somewhere or about to engage in some dramatic new project than it is when you are back home, working with the long-term issues of faithful living in the same old place. But it is dangerous to lift the Second Isaiah emphasis on vision and newness and transpose it to today without recognizing that a lot of our Christian living is about faithfulness in the place where God has put us, and that this kind of long-term and comparatively unspectacular faithfulness is just as important for many people much of the time.“
Corporate nature of the text:
“When preaching on ‘the armour of the Lord’ from Isaiah 59.15b–20, for example, I was struck by the way in which God’s armour is appropriated for the church as a whole community in Ephesians 6 rather than each individual wearing the full armour of God: it is as a whole church that we are corporately engaged in the mission of God as it is pictured in the book of Isaiah.”
In Firth et al Lyndsay Wilson on Wisdom in Isaiah: Proverbs 25:1 locates the collection of wisdom sayings in the time of Isaiah, some scholars even think Isaiah may have been among the wisdom school before entering the prophetic school; Isaiah certainly seems to inc some wisdom language, and a wisdom approach to Torah.
Vigils reading: 24-27 the apocalyptic
Strong movement 24 25
24 full of desolation yet even in the middle of the destruction some praise:
“It is they who shall raise their voice, sing gladly,
In God’s grandeur they shall shout from the sea”
And then trust emerges in ch 25:
God’s steadfast faithfulness
The Lord shall prepare a banquet
He swallows up the mantle (shroud)
He wipes away tears
Look! This is our God!
In whom we hoped and he has rescued us
More Trust in ch 26:
“a steadfast nature You guard in peace”
Jenni Williams (‘The Kingdom of our God’)
“Essentially, this is what trust looks like: it is not so much a state of mind as a choice about how to act.”
Brueggemann has it as:
(26:12) Those of steadfast mind you keep in peace:
In peace because they trust in you.
Jenni Williams draws attention to 26:12
“O Lord, grant peace to us,
For our every act you have wrought for us.”
How does God do our acts?
Is it all working out as God intended? Despite our need for repentance?
Keep coming back to this idea of God’s wrath (so strong in much of Isaiah) what might God be angry with me for/about?
Anger is what we feel for those we love and care about; it is easiest to show those we are close to. God being angry does not diminish his love for us!
Lauds Isaiah 28 – 30
The first antiphon for today:
My soul has yearned for you in the night,
And as the morning breaks, I watch for your coming.
As the night vigil moves to daylight.
The first psalm 88 with all its darkness
“in a palace of darkness in the mighty deeps
Will your wonders be known in the darkness
But as for me, Lord, I cry to you;
Even in the dawn my prayer comes early before you.
My best companion is now the darkness.”
I love that last line. “My best companion is darkness”. Grail has it as “my only companion”. Sadly CWDP has an alternate reading: “hid my companions out of my sight.” Which seems to be from Coverdale.
S29:11-12 “Pray, read this.”
Ambrose recommended Augustine read Isaiah first when he was close to coming to faith; is this the origin/inspiration for tolle, lege must look up the Vulgate.
[Just done so, lege, but not tolle]
In quietness and stillness you shall be rescued,
In calm and trust shall your valour be,
But you did not want it.
The final phrase is often omitted when quoting this!
A brighter day. Jesus P and prostrations outside as the sun breaks through the trees.
Early yet but hunger not too bad. The sugar high of the weekend was over after two days normal diet.
The perfect thing about praying outside is the sound of the water from the air. Pretty small scale really but definitely a torrent in sound.
On Is 28 Williams points out the wisdom language: pay attention, hear, instructed, teachers, counsel, wisdom: final words His Wisdom is great.
10am Terce Isaiah 31-32
Long walk in the sunshine.
Over the bridge across the weir the first house is interesting. Now a significant mansion with extensive grounds (it sold recently for £3m), it was once two labourers cottages.
The woodland is called Furnace Wood and the house just Furnace. In the mid sixteenth century for about 75 years the area was the site of an iron foundry and blast furnace; latter in the eighteenth century bronze smelting was added for a short time. The woodland provided the fuel and there is evidence of coppiced chestnut still in some of the gardens of the houses that now occupy part of the site. The pond is man-made for the furnace and at some later date there may have been a water mill. The dam decayed and the pond drained towards the end of the nineteenth century. In the early twentieth century the dam was re-built after the land had been sold with the invitation to create a trout pond, and indeed it is now used by a local fishing club.
On the side of the house a small plaque has appeared since I last walked this way. It commemorates Alfred Towes who died in the First World War and had previously lived in the house.
With very little googling it is easy to discover a little more about him. Born in about 1880 he was one of probably 10 children. His family lived in the house for just a few years before moving on. At some point he and his wife, Alice, moved to New South Wales, where address is available, when he signed up in 1917 he was listed as a gardener. Travelling back to Europe he lasted only a week at the front before being killed. At some point, by 1921 his wife (and children?) moved back to England to a house that still stands, the Laurels at Copthorne, just a couple of miles from the house where Alfred had lived.
I check the phone directories and there are still Towes’s listed, perhaps his direct descendants or those of his brothers.
Of such dreams and tragedies are our human lives made.
The town of Mosman where Alive and Alfred lives is close to Sydney harbour. The plot they lived at looks very beautiful, even if it didn’t then have the swimming pool it has now. Was it a dream come true to them? In contrast to the nightmare of war he returned to Europe for? When Alice moves back to England did it seem like she had left her dream?
Reading Isaiah this week and getting my head around the shifts of Empires 2700 years ago I note that not much has changed. Those armies sweeping the Middle East in Isaiah’s time were made up of Alfreds with their dreams and tragedies too.
It doesn’t make me sad. Just glad to have located a human story. And as I walk in the woods, despite the aircraft flying over from Gatwick, they are idyllic, I image the sounds and smells of a blast furnace here half a millennium ago.
Prose passage beginning Isaiah 36 see 2 K 18:13 to 2 K 20:19
Slept for 40 minutes: I wondered whether I would be able to make on an empty stomach; but no problem!
None Isaiah 37 – 40
38:10ff is one of the Canticles in the Roman Office (Tuesday II) and is rather fine “I said in the noon time of my days …” but it doesn’t appear in CWDP
ch 40 Comfort, comfort marks the beginning of what many call second or Deutero Isaiah
Hoppe makes an important point that Isaiah is using two images for Jerusalem’s future, one male and one female. The servant is male; Jerusalem is female. From here to 66 the “reader hears the story of a woman’s life from her abandonment by her husband and consequent childlessness to their recon isolation and the birth of many children.”
Going through the Canticles in CWDP and marking up a Bible with the verses used; they are quite chopped about; obviously any imprecation stuff omitted, but also anything particularly related to judgement. It gives a slightly swayed view of Isaiah, and indeed, of God.
There are 15 Canticles from Isaiah in CWDP, 16 in the Roman Office, 9 of them are similar texts but most not identical. CWDP chops the verses around much more and is much freer in creating Canticles by doing this. Both remove or don’t include texts about God’s wrath or judgement. It is a rather sanitised version of the prophet.
I hadn’t realised that in the Extended Vigil Office in the Roman rite several of the Isaiah canticles are repeats of those found at Morning Prayer.
Vespers Isaiah 41 – 42
11 Look, they shall be shamed and disgraced,
all who are incensed against you,
they shall be as naught and shall perish,
those who contend with you.
12You shall seek them and shall not find them,
those who battle with you.
They shall be as naught and as nothing,
those who war against you.
13For I am the LORD your God,
holding your right hand,
saying to you,
Do not fear, I am helping you.
Hoppe makes an important point about 42:14
God in feminine role:
Now, I cry out like a woman in labour,
Gasping and panting.
Compline Isaiah 43 – 44
Do not fear, for I have redeemed you.
I have called you by name, you are Mine.
2Should you pass through water, I am with you,
and through rivers—they shall not overwhelm you.
Should you walk through fire, you shall not be singed,
and flames shall not burn you.
3For I am the LORD, your God,
Very tired after not eating at all. It will be hard to get through to tomorrow lunchtime. But it does create a kind of spaciousness/lightness about the prayer.
3:30 Rise. A deep sleep but my head is pounding. It is always difficult to drink enough water when fasting.
Finish lectio and tweet todaysgospel. Read Rachel Mann’s Rossetti book for today and tweet sentence from that.
Hunger strikes and sudden feeling of despair. Why am I wasting my life like this? Six days away from home, fasting, getting up in the middle of the night, when I get back I have four services on Sunday. On Monday I shall spend the day seeing sorcerers for Spiritual Direction. I could be with the people I love. Relaxing, enjoying the build up to Christmas.
I start Vigils heavily, unwillingly. But immediately the words strike.
In the darkness (very dark and rain outside) I pray “Reveal among us the light of your presence.”
And the psalms (104, 105) the story of creation and salvation speak.
Then the magnificent power of Isaiah, especially in the translation by Alter which reads aloud so well. In fact it makes RSV/NRSV/CWDP seem very flat indeed.
Vigils Isaiah 45-49
So many powerful lines and sections. This second movement of the book (‘second Isaiah’) really does contain the greatest poetry.
I will set before you treasures of darkness
And hidden store,
So that you may know I am the Lord.
Treasures of darkness is such a beautiful phrase. It will stay with me. Darkness will be the strong memory of this retreat. The long December nights. And they have produced treasures. Just as the darkness of our lives can.
Indeed, You are a God who hides
God of Israel, Rescuer.
Sit mute and come into darkness.
Another powerful line. Sit in silence.
15Does a woman forget her babe,
have no mercy on the child of her womb?
Though she forget, I will not forget you.
16Why, on My palms I have inscribed you,
Hoppe on 49:15: “It is difficult to find a more touching image of God’s love anywhere else in the Bible.”
Wow. So by the end of Vigils I feel the exact opposite of the emptiness I felt an hour ago. There is fullness. Perhaps I should give up everything and live as a hermit!
Such are the whims of our feelings. So taking that advice and after all those words I will take the prophets advice. Silence. Lights out. The Blessed Sacrament with a single candle. Adoration.
Sit mute and come into darkness. Invites the Holy One who sets before me the treasures of darkness from his hidden store, the God who hide.
Walk. In the dark and rain in the woods. To the weir. The thunder of mighty waters.
While I am out the day arrives. Sheep and geese emerge in the middle of the field next to my hermitage. On the wooden bridge I wallow in the all-consuming sound of water.
Walking in the woods I am also wallowing in the deep mud. Even though it is quite short the bottom 12” of my cloak are mud spattered. Memories of funerals. Once dry it will brush clean.
Back at the hermitage I had thought when I woke up hungry that I would break my fast at breakfast time. But now, praying and walking, I am enjoying the lightness. I will eat at lunchtime. I’ll fast again tomorrow, Friday, but will break my fast first thing on Saturday. Food will make me sleepy and I don’t need that for the drive north on Saturday afternoon.
Home stretch now on Isaiah. I will finish the read aloud at the Offices today, making tomorrow lighter liturgically. And also finish the verse by verse commentaries (Brueggemann, Williams, Hoppe) and begin to think about the bigger picture. The idea of Isaiah as a symphony with movements has really helped me, as has the five-fold division, rather than the somewhat artificial constructions of Deutero – Trito – Isaiah and as one writer put it the obvious need for Quarto- and Quinto- !
Strong themes from Isaiah so far:
Sin/judgement – God’s anger
Morning Prayer (later than planned, my walk it turns out was 45 minutes, glad I didn’t have a clock/phone with me).
Reading: Isaiah 50 – 52
Strongest verse: 51:17
Rise up, Jerusalem,
You who have drunk from the hand of the LORD
The cup of his wrath
We are so phobic to the idea of God’s wrath, this must be something we have to reckon with. Isaiah is full of it!
The Suffering Servant in 51 -53
Terce Isaiah 53–55
53: the first of the songs of the suffering servant, powerful reminder of how these passages fit into the wider prophecy and record of rescue/salvation. These would make good canticles, a shame they are not used as such anywhere.
3Despised and shunned by people,
a man of sorrows and visited by illness.
And like one from whom the gaze is averted,
despised, and we reckoned him naught.
4Indeed, he has borne our illness,
and our sorrows he has carried.
But we had reckoned him plagued,
God-stricken and tormented.
5Yet he was wounded for our crimes,
crushed for our transgressions.
The chastisement that restored our well-being he bore,
and through his bruising we were healed.
Hoppe: about 40 allusions or citations of this text in the NT
Sitting in these woods that would have been alive with the sound of a blast furnace a few centuries ago 54:16 is pertinent:
It is I who created the smith,
Who fans the charcoal fire ….
Up to All Saints’ Church in Crawley Down, sadly locked but in the churchyard there is a Towes grave. Frederick. Local history sites suggest this is / could be Alfred’s cousin. He died in 1921 but it is a military grave, so perhaps he died of injuries sustained in the war. No sign of a grave for Alfred’s wife. I may look in the church yard at St. John’s Copthorne on the way home. A find a grave search finds nothing for here other, so perhaps she remarried?
Sext Isaiah 56 – 58
56:3 following the foreigner and eunuch accepted into Israel, no opposition between Jesus and the Hebrew Scriptures here
Fasting: is not this the fast I choose
Good corrective balance on a day I am indeed fasting:
Do I give my bread to the hungry?
Clothe the makes?
Lunch: Avocado, tuna, cream cheese, boiled egg; chilli con carne and peas – cheese and fig jam – Brazil nuts, coconut and dark chocolate
and the immediate effect of lunch after 42 hours total fast: Sleep.
3pm None Isaiah 59 – 61
Partly CW Canticle 34
Alter: “Rise, O Shine for your light has come. Often thought of with the next two chapters, as the core of Truro Isaiah, this poem picks up the motif of transcendent light from Second Isaiah and transforms it into an enthralling poetic vision of Zion magnificently restored. This vision is dramatically developed in the next two verses, in which the whole earth is imagined engulfed in darkness, and Zion’s brilliant dawn offers light for humankind.”
1Rise, O shine, for your light has come,
and the glory of the LORD
has dawned over you.
2For, look, darkness covers the earth,
and thick mist, the peoples,
3but nations shall walk by your light,
and kings by your dawning radiance.
19No more shall the sun be your light by day,
nor the moon’s radiance shine for you,
but the LORD shall be your everlasting light
and your God become your splendour.
20No more shall your sun set,
your moon shall not go down.
But the LORD shall be your everlasting light,
and your mourning days shall be done.
See Rev 22:4-5
And night will be no more. They will need no light of lamp or sun, for the Lord God will be their light, and they will reign forever and ever. Revelation 22:5
A day of vengeance for our God
The start of 61 forms CW Canticle 35
But This half verse is omitted:
Which is such a shame:
Lord, avenging God
Avenging God appear.
Psalm 93 (Grail)
The end of ch 61, verse 11, is, unusually used in two CW Canticles nos 35 and 36
Hoppe calls this ‘the priesthood of the poor’
Then listening to Bach. Really listening, not doing anything else. As Chrysogonus Waddell advised me in 1992. He took me to see Merton’s hermitage when I was at Gethsemane and so somehow Bach is always associated with hermit times in my mind. I listen to settings of Isaiah, one I don’t remember listening to before of the Do not be afraid text. Fürchte dich nicht. Very beautiful.
And then Goldberg.
4:30 To revive me and getting the energy flowing Jesus Prayer and prostrations, then Adoration
Raining hard outside.
“January 2, 1966. Feast of Holy Name of Jesus It has been raining steadily for almost 36 hours. This morning toward the end of my meditation the rain was pouring down on the roof of the hermitage with great force and the woods resounded with tons of water falling out of the sky.”
6pm Vespers Is 62 – 64
62: 4b ff
Part of CW Canticle 36, some very unCW language in Alter:
And your land shall be bedded
As a young man beds a virgin,
Your sons shall bed you …
Alter’s note says:
“The One Bedded. Again, the transliteration, Beulah, became an English name. Most translations render it as “espoused,” but that is too formal and too decorous. This passive form of the verb baʿal does indicate a woman who has a husband (the noun baʿal), but it has a sexual connotation: Zion, the woman who has been forsaken, will now enjoy consummation again. The sexual implication of the term is clearly suggested in verse 5: “and a bridegroom’s rejoicing over the bride / shall your God rejoice over you.” 5. your sons shall bed you. This sounds inadvertently like incest (in the next line of poetry, it is rather God’s relationship with Israel that is analogous to the bridegroom’s relationship with the bride), but the intended idea is that the desolate land, personified as a woman, will be plowed and cultivated by its sons, as a young man is intimate with a virgin and makes her fruitful.”
In ensanguined garments (Alter): nice play on words
Alter: “the association between wine and blood is not only because of the colour red but also because a kenning for wine in biblical poetry, inherited from the Ugaritic is ‘blood of the grape’ (see Gen 49:1)”
And of course Eucharistic for Christians
Supper: Soup, cheese and Piccalilli, Brazil nuts, coconut and dark chocolate.
Short walk in the dark, wind and rain. Which at least ensures there are no dog walkers about. Pretty much had the woods to myself in this weather.
9pm Compline Isaiah 65-66
And so Isaiah finished, at least the read aloud through is. And just wonderful it has been, never wearisome. Alter’s poetic sense is perfect, there is a lovely sharpness to his English and a sense of rhythm and metre. The language is spare.
And here to end with a koan from 65:1-2
I yielded oracles
when they did not inquire,
I was found
when they did not seek Me.
I said, “Here I am, here I am”
to a nation not called by My name.
I spread out My hands
all day long
Alter’s note: “2. I spread out My hands. This phrase continues the paradox of the previous verse because spreading out the hands is a gesture of prayer, and it is as though God, not the people, were praying.”
I didn’t expect this theme of darkness and hiddenness in Isaiah. He is a mystic – more than a visionary.
I shall chew on this.
Look, My servants shall eat
and you shall hunger.
Look, My servants shall drink
and you shall thirst. Look,
My servants shall rejoice
and you shall be shamed.
14Look, My servants shall sing gladly
with a cheerful heart,
and you shall cry out for heart’s pain
and from a broken spirit howl.
This is a piece of great poetry, brilliantly tr by Alter. But also harsh.
A lot of Isaiah seems to be about consequences. And we don’t like that, we don’t want to be rejoicing while others mourn. Yet the end of the book precisely describes that contrast.
Chapter 66 v10ff provides CW Canticle 38 (and Divine Office Vigil canticle for Christmas and the Presentation), entirely suitable for this with its mention of babies and mothers.
And it is still raining. People often comment on the ubiquity of rain in Merton’s journals. One reason must surely be quite simple: when you live in a one storey building the sound of the rain on the roof is significant, magnified by trees and making a difference to the possibility of a walk getting out of a small building.
Strangely, despite the restrictions it imposes the rain feels like a friend. Comforting, consoling, protecting. A barrier to others coming into the woods.
in monotone Ordinary
poured down massive chant.
soon slacked off
in soft diminuendo,
soaking into mute,
Two cups of tea.
Fasting day today. Which I will break after Morning Prayer tomorrow.
Jesus Prayer with Prostrations
Then I can’t resist it. I go straight out before Vigils to walk in the dark “fired by love’s urgent longing”. Walking straight to the weir without torch.
Dark and thundering sound. God gives treasures of darkness.
I am wearing my cloak for the walk.
solemn as chant,
one sweep of fabric
from head to foot.
on a row of pegs–
tall disembodied spirits
deep in the folds
waiting for light,
for light to shift
waiting for a bell
for the reach
of my hand
to spread out
the slow wings,
release the shadows
my prayer-hungry body
Whoever dwells in the shelter of the Most High
and abides under the shadow of the Almighty,
Shall say to the Lord, ‘My refuge and my strong-hold,
my God, in whom I put my trust.’
When I get back to the hermitage it is nearly 6am. No Vigils. The water has prayed all the words I need. Rain and weir. Darkness absorbing them.
In the morning I come before you
watching and waiting
tired of watching
When I waited
When watch and wait
are not enough
I disregard enough
for You are
When You are
when I am
that You are
watching and waiting
watching and waiting
watching and waiting.
7:15 Morning Prayer
“fasting is more of a celebration for me. There is an interior silence, a clear-headedness you do not get except by fasting. We are a society of gluttons.”
“fasting is excellent and clarifies the mind.”
Today feels lighter, clearer. The Office shorter without long chunks of Isaiah.
Final day before leaving tomorrow gives it a poignancy. Could I live like this for a month, a year ? Who knows. I don’t see any way of that happening.
“To come into solitude to discard both illusions, public and private, and to seek God, and to have no (exterior) self and no aims or claims, or pretensions, this is “right” (if the word means anything here)–it is what solitude means. But the problem is precisely that I still tend to come into solitude with an impure love, that is to say with “aims.” And with the “I” that can have aims. Time and quiet do much to dispel all this nonsense.”
Jesus Prayer with prostrations
More tea. I must be careful how much I drink.
“July 13, 1967 Fasting again but this time drank some tea, which makes all the difference in so far as keeping one’s mind alive goes.”
In the afternoons Turmeric tea is best, or Mint. They feel like food!
The fasting is so helpful. But the question is how to do it on a Friday when Ftiday evening is normally a sociable time? Doing it on another day would break the link with the crucifixion. I could eat just lunch on a Thursday but with a Wednesday fast that doesn’t give time to recover and often lunch is hard at work. Fasting is kind of nakedness. It leaves everything bare. It also reveals the shallowness and unreality of ‘moods’.
12 noon Sext and Eucharist
The total fast before receiving Communion makes a very beautiful offering. Eating nothing until receiving.
In today’s Gospel Mary says here I am.
That’s what Isaiah says (6:8), that is abandonment.
With those two key prayers:
My Lord God,
I have no idea where I am going.
I do not see the road ahead of me.
I cannot know for certain where it will end.
nor do I really know myself,
and the fact that I think I am following your will
does not mean that I am actually doing so.
But I believe that the desire to please you
does in fact please you.
And I hope I have that desire in all that I am doing.
I hope that I will never do anything apart from that desire.
And I know that if I do this you will lead me by the right road,
though I may know nothing about it.
Therefore will I trust you always though
I may seem to be lost and in the shadow of death.
I will not fear, for you are ever with me,
and you will never leave me to face my perils alone.
Father, I abandon myself into your hands; do with me what you will. Whatever you may do, I thank you: I am ready for all, I accept all.
Let only your will be done in me, and in all your creatures – I wish no more than this, O Lord.
Into your hands I commend my soul: I offer it to you with all the love of my heart, for I love you, Lord, and so need to give myself, to surrender myself into your hands without reserve, and with boundless confidence, for you are my Father.
Je m’abandonne à toi,
fais de moi ce qu’il te plaira.
Quoi que tu fasses moi, je te remercie.
Je suis prêt à tout, j’accepte tout.
Pourvu que ta volonté se fasse en moi,
en toutes tes créatures,
je ne désire rien d’autre, mon Dieu.
Je remets mon âme entre tes mains.
Je te la donne, mon Dieu, avec tout l’amour de mon coeur,
parce que je t’aime, et que ce m’est un besoin d’amour de me donner,
de me remettre entre tes mains sans mesure,
avec infinie confiance
car tu es mon Père.
Charles de Foucauld
Ending with Jesus Prayer with prostrations
Walk: past Furnace into the two private roads that grew up there in the pre WW2 period. Many grand houses but still some wooden framed bungalows that used to be weekend homes. The simple bungalow that is the heart of the monastery buildings would have fitted in well. That makeshift quality is always something that has attracted me to the monastic community here. Nothing is picturesque. Even in my little hermitage the crockery is the sort of stuff that would be thrown out after the jumble sale. No earthenware monastic look!
Charles de Foucauld wrote:
“I no longer want a monastery which is too secure, I want a small monastery, like the house of a poor workman who is not sure if tomorrow he will find work and bread, who with all his being shares the suffering of the world.”
Final few hours now. Reading Isaiah unadorned. Reflecting on the dark. So strong a theme as the solstice arrives just as my retreat ends. It is so appropriate after a dark year to look forward to days growing longer, light to strengthen.
THE NIGHT OF DESTINY
In my ending
is my meaning
Says the season.
Only the heart’s blood
Only the word.
Weak friend In the knowing night!
O tongue of flame
Under the heart
For love is black
Says the season.
The red and sable letters
On the solemn page
Fill the small circle of seeing.
And the weak life
Who holds the homeless light secure
In the deep heart’s room?
Kissed with flame!
My love is darkness!
Only in the Void
Are all ways one:
Only in the night
Are all the lost Found.
In my ending is my meaning.
Rosary and Adoration
As a Friday evening entertainment I watched Seeking God: the Way of the Monk a 1995 film about Christ in the Desert Monastery. It is wonderful but very dated. The community is much more traditional now with normal habits and Latin chant. But shows a certain phase in their life Abbot Philip as wise then as he is now. Distrustful of mystical experiences. Yes indeed!
No alarm set
Woke at 3:30 exactly. Rain still thundering down.
Today’s gospel is Mary hastening to Elizabeth.
Finishing my retreat what do I need to do immediately?
5:30 Morning Prayer
It was Paul Bayes’ book that made me start saying the creed daily at Matins and Evensong. Saying these words in the dark is very powerful. Against the face of dark we say the words. Against all evidence. We trust. Just as Jerusalem’s citizens seeing the destruction of everything they held dear must have felt. God’s judgement is clear.
I can’t stay. The days will get longer. The night will retreat.
There is no war that will not obey this cup of Blood.
Yet in the middle of this murderous season
Great Christ, my fingers touch Thy wheat
And hold Thee hidden in the compass of Thy paper sun.
There is no war will not obey this cup of Blood,
This wine in which I sink Thy words, in the anonymous dawn!
I hear a Sovereign talking in my arteries
Reversing, with His Promises, all things
That now go on with fire and thunder.
His Truth is greater than disaster.
His Peace imposes silence on the evidence against us.
from SENESCENTE MUNDO
I prayed the whole of the poem as the invitation to communion and the line:
“Here in my hands I hold that secret Easter.”
After each of the words of consecration.
The whole poem is in the collection In the Dark Before Dawn.
Breakfast : breaking the fast: avocado with Piccalilli. Cheese omelette, cheese with fig pickle, Brazil nuts, coconut and dark chocolate
Preparing to leave
Sheets and linens swapped
Monastic life is always detail and routine. These packages of sheets, linens, towels and cloths carefully labelled:
10:30 prayer in the community chapel
11am Monastery Mass
Surprise: How much Merton / Gethsemane there has been this week. Hermitage, rain and dark are pretty much central to his stuff I suppose.
Immersing myself in Isaiah has been total joy. I shall do some more of this between now and Epiphany. But it is so central to the gospel that having a clearer picture of it is already making a difference to my praying of the liturgy.
What I fantasise about taking away with me from this retreat:
getting up in the night, wallowing in darkness, aloneness
The rhythm of the double Wednesday-Friday fast
Total immersion in Scripture
The sound of the weir
What I can take away with me:
Isaiah, I think of him, whatever some scholars say, as one man, speaking with different voices. Passionate. Poet. But matter of fact about God’s wrath. It is the consequence of human actions. God bears no grudge. Is not malicious.
Isaiah as mystic. Lover of the night and darkness. Chewer on koans.
Something about how Jesus as suffering servant / rescuer (Saviour) is so intimately related to Jerusalem, even in this ancient prophecy. Church/Jerusalem are Jesus.
God’s wrath so important. This is a koan for me.
Fasting: going to try Mondays and Wednesdays and fast til the evening on Fridays.