A Pearl from Dietrich Bonhoeffer

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Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s statue is one of ten to modern martyrs, unveiled in July 1998, which stand above the west entrance to Westminster Abbey. The sculptor was Tim Crawley.

On this day, 1945, Dietrich Bonhoeffer was martyred – aged 39. His life, teaching and death are constant reminders of the cost of discipleship and the need for political engagement. Here is one of his pearls:

God travels wonderful ways with human beings, but he does not comply with the views and opinions of people. God does not go the way that people want to prescribe for him; rather, his way is beyond all comprehension, free and self-determined beyond all proof.

Where reason is indignant, where our nature rebels, where our piety anxiously keeps us away: that is precisely where God loves to be. There he confounds the reason of the reasonable; there he aggravates our nature, our piety—that is where he wants to be, and no one can keep him from it.

Only the humble believe him and rejoice that God is so free and so marvelous that he does wonders where people despair, that he takes what is little and lowly and makes it marvelous. And that is the wonder of all wonders, that God loves the lowly…. God is not ashamed of the lowliness of human beings. God marches right in.

He chooses people as his instruments and performs his wonders where one would least expect them. God is near to lowliness; he loves the lost, the neglected, the unseemly, the excluded, the weak and broken.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer, God is in the Manger: Reflections on Advent and Christmas

A problem with individualism: the cost of privilege

Liberation comes through community. Everyone who has been oppressed, excluded, impoverished knows that according to poet Danez Smith. Yet so much of our discourse is about the individual. Could it be that those who shape that discourse are those who already have their rewards, already feeling entitled to the cream?

Here’s what Danez Smith has to say in an interview with Kate Kellaway:

You don’t have the luxury of being an individual. To be black, queer or poor – to be an individual has always meant death for us. To be a woman alone is dangerous – we teach our daughters that, we teach black people that. Our liberation comes through community, organising, collectivising. Individuality has meant death. Individuality has meant being marooned. Individuality is a privilege, right? The only people who can think of themselves as separate from the other people who have made their lives possible are straight white dudes

The Guardian January 28th 2018 https://www.theguardian.com/books/2018/jan/28/danez-smith-interview-poetry-dont-call-us-dead-dear-white-america?CMP=Share_iOSApp_Other

Reflecting All The Light We Cannot See

Light
Light
The visible reminder of Invisible Light.
T. S. Eliot

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What was intended to be a summer read turned out to be an early winter read – very appropriately because this is a book about light and darkness, perfect for Advent and the darkest time of the year. In All the Light We Cannot See we see the world through the hands of a blind woman, Marie-Laure. As a child she is given a model of her world which helps her to feel her way in spite of all the light she cannot see. In telling her story, Anthony Doerr, is putting a model into our hands to remind us how complex life is and to help us discover the light that can be hidden in the smallest detail.

Anthony Doerr has spun for us a hopeful story that is full of humanity. Besides the blind girl, there is an orphaned German boy who becomes a radio technician. The setting is the Second World War which so divided and devastated Europe. Their lives don’t cross till later but Doerr skillfully weaves their stories together in brief alternating chapters.

With the rise of populist politics as expressed in the Brexit referendum and elsewhere, it seems that we are again in a dark age (and the book is a startling reminder of the institutions that have grown up in post-war Europe which so far have preserved peace – it would be stupid and careless if this were to be unpicked). There is a lot of darkness as we don’t know where we are heading. There is a lot of light that we cannot see as we turn ourselves inwards.

There is so much light we cannot see – from the past and into the future. But in the hands of a blind girl the author has placed a model which can help us through to the light we cannot see. The model maker is her father – significantly a locksmith. I say significantly because of these lines by poet Malcolm Guite in response to one of the Advent antiphons:

Even in the darkness where I sit
And huddle in the midst of misery
I can remember freedom, but forget
That every lock must answer to a key,
That each dark clasp, sharp and intricate,
Must find a counter-clasp to meet its guard,
Particular, exact and intimate,
The clutch and catch that meshes with its ward.
I cry out for the key I threw away
That turned and over turned with certain touch
And with the lovely lifting of a latch
Opened my darkness to the light of day.
O come again, come quickly, set me free
Cut to the quick to fit, the master key.

Julia McGuinness has also written about this book. She captures the ideas of light within limited spaces which is so much part of this story set in the extremes of human existence.

Part of my work is to support newly ordained clergy. One of the cheesy things I do is write to those who have been recently ordained, just before Christmas. I say something like:

Happy first Christmas to you as a “priest”. I hope you enjoy your first Christmas celebrations. It is a wonderful moment – embracing strangers/visitors. One of the ideas that came to me (when I was struggling to find yet another homily in a busy Christmas season) was a play with the word “manger”. Pronounced the French way it’s about eating. Pronounced the Christmas way it’s where Jesus is born. Do we prepare a manger with the hands we offer for the bread? Is this when Jesus is born? As we place the bread in the hands of others, are we laying Jesus in their manger?

When we take the bread into our hands, into the manger we prepare, we take all the light we cannot see. This is the body of Christ, the light of the world. This is the faith we have as Christians, a faith that in the darkest times there is all the light we cannot see. The light that shines in the darkness, makes a difference as to how we recognise one another, how we see one another, how we see our past, how we see our future – as not so dark as maybe we once thought. This too, like Marie-Laure’s model, is something so small that is placed into our hands, to help us discover the light that can be hidden in the smallest detail, in places we would never look into because of their depth of darkness.

Besides preparing a manger with our hands, we often put our hands together to pray (like a candle flame), and we often close our eyes (as if a reminder of the darkness). There are all sorts of reasons for these customs – but in our heart of hearts we know that there is all the light that shines in darkness. By praying we witness to the true light that gives light to everyone.

At the end of his magnificent novel, Doerr imagines:

People walk the paths of the gardens below, and the wind sings anthems in the hedges, and the big old cedars at the entrance to the maze creak. Marie-Laure imagines the electro-magnetic waves travelling into and out of Michael’s (game) machine, bending around them, just as Etienne used to describe, except now a thousand times more criss cross the air than when he lived – maybe a million times more. Torrents of text conversations, tides of cell conversations, of television programmes, of emails, vast networks of fibre and wire interlaced above and beneath the city, passing through buildings, arcing between Metro tunnels, between antennas atop buildings, from transmitters with cellular transmitters in them, commercials … flashing into space and back to earth again, I’m gong to be late and maybe we should get reservations? and ten thousand I miss yours, fifty thousand I love yours, hate mail and appointment reminders and market updates, jewelry ads, coffee ads, furniture ads flying invisibly over the warrens of Paris, over the battlefields and tombs’ over the Ardennes, over the Rhine, over Belgium and Denmark, over the charred and ever-shifting landscapes we call nations.

And is it so hard to believe that souls might also travel those paths? That her father and Etienne and Madame Manec and the German boy named Werner Pfennig might harry the sky in flocks, like egrets, like terns, like starlings? That great shuttles of souls might fly about faded but audible if you listen closely enough? They flow above the chimneys, ride the sidewalks, slip through your jacket and shirt and breastbone and lungs and pass out through the other side, the air a library and the encore of every life lived, every sentence spoken, every word transmitted still reverberating within it.

I am imagining it. I am imagining the map Doerr has drawn of some of the light we cannot see. 

I can’t wait to read this again.

Gerry Hughes on encouraging the critical element

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Gerard Hughes SJ died last month – an obituary is here. He had much to say about Christian formation, including this from a chapter called “clearing the approaches” in God of Surprises.

The Church must encourage the critical element in its members. 

If it fails to do so, then the individual will not be able to integrate religious belief with everyday experience or, put in other words, God will be excluded from most of the individual’s life until religion comes to be considered a private but harmless eccentricity of a minority.

If the Church does encourage the critical element, then it must expect to be questioned and challenged by its members and it must be prepared to change its own ways on thinking and acting, submitting itself to the light of truth.  Such an attitude is only possible in a Church which has a strong faith in God’s presence in all things………….

Her teachings will never be delivered as the last word on any subject, but rather as signposts, encouraging her members to explore the route further for themselves.”

Gerard Hughes, God of Surprises, DLT 1985, p. 21

Thanks to Friday Mailing for bringing this to our attention. The “complete blank signpost” is a photo by Andrew Bowdon.

Celebrating eucharistic action: Dix’s purple passage

Fresco of a female figure holding a chalice from Catacomb of Saints Marcellinus & Peter in Rome
Fresco of a woman holding a chalice from Catacomb of Saints Marcellinus & Peter in Rome

“At the heart of it all is the eucharistic action, a thing of absolute simplicity—the taking, blessing, breaking and giving of bread and the taking, blessing and giving of a cup of wine and water, as these were first done with their new meaning by a young Jew before and after supper with His friends on the night before He died. He had told his friends to do this henceforward with the new meaning “for the anamnesis” of Him, and they have done it always since.

Was ever another command so obeyed? For century after century, spreading slowly to every continent and country and among every race on earth, this action has been done, in every conceivable human circumstance, for every conceivable human need from infancy and before it to extreme old age and after it, from the pinnacles of earthly greatness to the refuge of fugitives in the caves and dens of the earth.
People have found no better thing than this to do
  • for sovereigns at their crowning and for criminals going to the scaffold;
  • for armies in triumph or for a bride and bridegroom in a little country church;
  • for the proclamation of a dogma or for a good crop of wheat; 
  • for the wisdom of the Parliament of a mighty nation or for a sick old woman afraid to die; 
  • for a school child sitting an examination or for Columbus setting out to discover America;
  • for the famine of whole provinces or for the soul of a dead lover;
  • in thankfulness because my mother did not die of pneumonia;
  • for a village chief much tempted to return to fetish because the yams had failed; because the Turk was at the gates of Vienna;
  • for the repentance of Margaret; for the settlements of a strike;
  • for a child for a barren woman; for Captain so-and-so, wounded and prisoner of war;
  • while the lions roared in the nearby amphitheatre;
  • on the beach at Dunkirk; while the hiss of scythes in the thick June grass came faintly through the windows of the church;
  • tremulously, by an old monk on the fiftieth anniversary of his vows;
  • furtively, by an exiled bishop who had hewed timber all day in a prison camp near Murmansk;
  • gorgeously, for the canonisation of S. Joan of Arc—one could fill many pages with the reasons why people have done this, and not tell a hundredth part of them.
And best of all, week by week and month by month, on a hundred thousand successive Sundays, faithfully, unfailingly, across all parishes of Christendom, the pastors have done this just to make the plebs sancta Dei— the holy common people of God.”

Dom Gregory Dix, The Shape of the Liturgy, London, 1945, p. 743, with a few changes I’ve made for the sake of a more inclusive language.

Thinking Leadership with Dee Hock and Meg Wheatley

“True leaders are those who epitomise the general sense of the community – who symbolise, legitimise and strengthen behaviour in accordance with the sense of the community – who enable its conscious, shared values and beliefs to emerge, expand and be transmitted from generation to generation.”

Dee Hock in Birth of the Chaordic Age

Meg Wheatley, from a perspective of “new science” (quantum rather than Newtonian) sums up what leaders are for:

“People need a lot from their leaders. They need information, access, resources, trust and follow-through. Leaders are necessary to foster experimentation, to help create connections across the organisation, to feed the system with rich information from multiple sources.”