You want it darker? I’m ready, my lord

Leonard Cohen, tenant of the Tower of Song, born with the gift of a golden voice wanted it even darker on his last album. Darkness is keenly felt by many, particularly at this time of year when the darkness reinforces experiences of isolation and grief. The fairy lights that bedeck so many houses is an act of defiance against the darkness. Nowadays these artificial lights double up as Halloween and Christmas lights, intended to brighten our winter days and to jolly up the darkness.

But there is a sense in which we need it to be darker. Advent is a season to be rescued from the light-hearted. It is a time of year to get serious about the darkness that is part of our lives in our relationships, in our despair, in our anxiety, in our jealousy. It is a time to get real about the suffering so many endure, the millions forced from their homes, the many who suffer the consequences of economic austerity.

Those for whom this is too serious, those who are afraid of the dark, do us no favours when they say “lighten up”. Their merriment is like the fairy lights which don’t diminish the darkness but only pollute the night sky. We need it darker to realise that we are not all sweetness and light wherever, whatever and whoever we are.

Vincent van Gogh lived through some dark times. He wrote to his brother Theo: “I am so angry with myself because I cannot do what I should like to do, and at such a moment one feels as if one were lying bound hand and foot at the bottom of a deep dark well, utterly helpless”. Like Leonard, Vincent did dark. And yet, in another letter to Theo, he wrote:

“It is true that I am often in the greatest misery, but still there is within me a calm, pure harmony and music. In the poorest huts, in the dirtiest corner, I see drawings and pictures. And with irresistible force my mind is drawn towards these things. Believe me that sometimes I laugh heartily because people suspect me of all kinds of malignity and absurdity, of which not a hair of my head is guilty — I, who am really no one but a friend of nature, of study, of work, and especially of people.”

In his darkness he saw the most beautiful stars, some of which he painted and gifted to us. (Do see Loving Vincent if you get the chance.)

1280px-Van_Gogh_-_Starry_Night_-_Google_Art_Project

In ancient times the stars were guides to the wise and inspiration to the faithful. These days it’s Cowell-made stars that draw us. Stellar constellations are lost on most of us, mainly because we can no longer see them. The light in which we trust is artificial. We need it darker for a time.

PS You may be interested in Jenny Bridgman’s Advent blog exploring Dark Spaces

Reflecting All The Light We Cannot See

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

all_the_light_we_cannot_see_doerr_novel

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.

Opening Advent Doors

advent-door

Advent is a time for praying for the coming of Emmanuel, that God may be with us, and for each of the evenings of the week before Christmas there is an “O” antiphon. Each of the seven antiphons is prefaced by “O” and addressed to the Messiah according to the names for him found in Isaiah. The “O” expresses our longing. The seven antiphons are addressed to Wisdom, Lord, Root of Jesse, Key of David, Dayspring, King and Emmanuel.

Doors are very much a theme of Advent. Doors are both barriers and openings. We open a “door” a day on our Advent calendar to signify our willingness to open our hearts to the coming of Christ. Many decorate their front doors in a way that invites the stranger, in a way that begs to be opened (as in the door of one of our neighbours pictured above). Some doors are hard to shift and many are locked behind them.

Malcolm Guite has written a beautiful poem in response to the O Clavis antiphon (based on Isaiah 22:22):

O Key of David and sceptre of the House of Israel;
you open and no one can shut;
you shut and no one can open:
Come and lead the prisoners from the prison house,
those who dwell in darkness and the shadow of death.

This is Malcolm’s response (which is set in a beautiful image by Linda Richardson):

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.

The poem senses despair but also senses freedom, if only we could find “the key  I threw away”, that “turned and over turned with certain touch and … opened my darkness to the light of day”. I love the sense of freedom because “every lock must answer to its key” and “each dark clasp … must find a counter-clasp to meet its guard”.

There are so many locks to spring. Back in the 14th century, Hafiz wrote about the sort of people who lock others up, and the sort of people who work in the darkness to set people free. They “drop keys all night long”:

The small person
builds cages for everyone
he
sees.

Instead, the sage,
who needs to duck his head,
when the moon is low
can be found dropping keys, all night long
for the beautiful
rowdy,
prisoners.

What are the cages, catches, vices, locks and blocks that bind us? What needs to be undone for peace to be declared on earth?

You may be interested in the Jesus Doors by Cheshire artist Ali Hutchison and the Advent Haikus Jim Bridgman has written for every day of Advent as part of his blog which is Really Nothing but which is in fact, quite something. You might also be interested in The Advent Door by Jan Richardson.

O come, Wisdom

This is what wisdom looks like. It is not as we have come to know wisdom which so often comes dressed in cap and gown. Wisdom so often looks serious, powerful and distant. But here, wisdom looks personal, merciful, charitable and child-like. This icon of Our Lady, Seat of Wisdom is by Slovenian artist and theologian Marko Rupnek, and was commissioned by Pope Paul II. This is what wisdom looks like for those who feel betrayed by those who have impersonated Wisdom and for those whose only hope is in a Wisdom, the likes of which we have never seen before.

The prayer for Wisdom is the first of the Advent Antiphons. They are for those who live in lamentable times. There are seven of them, and they are part of Common Worship Daily Prayer for the seven days starting today.

The prayer goes:

O Wisdom, coming forth from the mouth of the Most High,
reaching from one end to the other mightily,
and sweetly ordering all things:
Come and teach us the way of prudence.

Malcolm Guite has composed an appeal for Wisdom as part of his reflections on the Advent Antiphons. This is part of his collection of Sonnets, Sounding the Seasons.

O Sapientia

I cannot think unless I have been thought,
Nor can I speak unless I have been spoken.
I cannot teach except as I am taught,
or break the bread except as I  am broken.
O mind behind the mind through which I seek,
O light within the light by which I see,
O Word beneath the words with which I speak,
O founding, unfound Wisdom, finding me,
O sounding Song whose depth is sounding me,
O Memory of time, reminding me,
My Ground of Being always grounding me,
My Maker’s Bounding Line, defining me,
Come, hidden Wisdom, come with all you bring,
Come to me now, disguised as everything.

When we pray for Wisdom we recognise that we are still seeking her. We know Folly sure enough, but Wisdom is yet to be found. In Matthew’s story of Jesus’ birth we are reminded just how elusive Wisdom is. There, the so-called Wise Men got their directions so wrong that they travelled to Jerusalem before realising their mistake. Worldly wise they expected the special birth to be at the seat of power, and not in a stable. As Brueggemann says, they were nine miles wide of the mark.

But we act as if we are “spot on”.

I am heartened by the attention being given to how we can share concerns about how we are failing (the Harvard Business Review has published its Failure Issue). We tend to protect ourselves by saying what a good job we are doing, and how we are meeting our targets, like Little Jack Horner sat in his corner. Too often we just list our successes to promote ourselves and our organisation. This is hiding the truth. This is foolish. Further questions need asking such as “in what ways are we (am I) failing to do what we feel we should be doing?” That question is far more likely to uncover the truth. Realising the lamentable truth of our lives is the start of our quest for Wisdom. Wisdom’s absence makes our hearts grow fonder for her.

Here is a link to a general post I wrote about the Advent Antiphons which you may like to read.

Ero Cras

The Antiphons are one of the cool features of Advent prayer as Christians look forward to the coming of the Kingdom of God. There are seven Antiphons. They all begin with “O”, which is then followed by a title or attribute of Christ. There is one antiphon for each day of the week from December 17th. The Christian faith is spelled out in the initials of the Latin titles in the antiphons. Each title is drawn from Isaiah’s prophecy. Here’s the list (thank you wikipedia), together with reference to Isaiah:

  1. December 17th: O Sapientia (O Wisdom) – Isaiah 11:2f; 28:29
  2. December 18th: O Adonai (O Lord) – Isaiah 11:4-5; 33:22
  3. December 19th: O Radix Jesse (O Root of Jesse) – Isaiah 11:1 and 10
  4. December 20th: O Clavis David (O Key of David) – Isaiah 22:22, 9:7 and 42:7
  5. December 21st: O Oriens (O Dayspring) – Isaiah 9:2
  6. December 22nd: O Rex Gentium (O King of the nations) – Isaiah 9:6 ; 2:4
  7. December 23rd: O Emmanuel (O God who is with us) – Isaiah :14

The initials read backwards from the 7th to the 1st antiphon. They spell out ERO CRAS which means “Tomorrow, I will be there.”  This faith in tomorrow is borne out of the compassionate response to the realities of the present tense/tensions which are rightly seen as lamentable. Richard Beck, in an Advent meditation, describes Advent as  “sort of like a lament. Advent is being the slave in Egypt, sitting with the experience of exile. Advent is about looking for God and hoping for God in a situation where God’s promises are outstanding and yet to be fulfilled.” In a world where everything is “now”, we sometimes lose patience and sight of the fact that now was never intended to be the time, when our churches were to be full, when kingdom was to come in all its fullness. Now is a time of exile, a time of alienation, a time for not being at home in the world, a time of waiting for tomorrow, a time of lament, a time for hope.

Enya captures the spirit of waiting and the hope of tomorrow as she sings the 7th of the antiphons – part of the hymn O come, O come Emmanuel .which paraphrases the seven antiphons.

You may be interested to read about the long now.

>h.r.l. – his royal lowliness

>

this stone marks the lowest point on earth

Jesus starts at the bottom – and stays there.

Ten days ago we were rounding off the church’s year by celebrating Christ the King – it has to remain a private awards ceremony because so many in the world choose to disagree – and Jesus would never impose himself. He’s King only to those who want him as such. Humility is his middle name.

We start the new year with clues that it is not “Highness” to describe his position, but low(li)ness. It is his royal lowliness (no capitals please) that according to the Advent hymn O come, o come Emmanuel “from depths of hell thy people save”. Jesus’s ministry begins at the lowest point on the surface of the earth – in the River Jordan. His life proceeds along the same low level of altitude – the wrong side of the fault line – to his death on the cross.

Jude Simpson has a wonderful Advent Reflection called Broken Open which takes us along this low line. She traces Jesus’s movements through the lowest points of people’s lives.

>between hope and optimism

>

Between optimism and hope there is a huge credibility gap. Optimism can be foolish or a realistic prediction based on evidence. Is life getting any better? There are grounds for both optimism and pessimism depending on your point of view – but a well rounded maturity would find it difficult to call one way or another because the evidence is so complex. The folly of liberal optimism shows itself in  the advent of Holocaust and economic meltdown. The only ground for optimism seems to be forgetfulness – when we forget our history and our nature: or arrogance, when we think of ourselves superior to either.

Optimism trusts human progress. The opposite of optimism isn’t pessimism but hope. Miroslav Volf (in Against the Tide: love in a time of petty dreams and persisting enmities) reminds his readers of Moltmann’s wonderful work on helping us to think about “hope”. Moltmann distinguished between two ways in which the future is related to us. There are two Latin words for “future” – futurum and adventus. “Future in the sense of futurum developes out of the past and present inasmuch as these hold within themselves the potentiality of becoming and are “pregnant with future”.” But future, expressed as adventus is the future “that comes not form the realm of what is or what was, but from the realm of what is not yet, from outside, from God.”

Advent is about the future that bursts in on our darkness. There is nothing in the data of our existence that gives us grounds for optimism. It is just faith. There is no optimism in W H Auden’s Christmas Oratorio “For the Time Being”. There is no sense of “what shall we get for Christmas?” that we have to endure in the commercialised Christmas. How could there be? Auden was writing in the 40’s where the overwhelming “grinning evidence” is that the “Pilgrim Way has led to the Abyss”. There is only one option left for us “who must die”. Auden writes:

We who must die demand a miracle.
How could the Eternal do a temporal act,
the Infinite become a finite fact?
Nothing can save us that is possible:
We who must die, demand a miracle.

And Volf writes:

“Every year in the Advent season we read the prophet Isaiah: “The people who wlaked in darkness haveseen a great light; those who lived in a land of deep darkness – on them light has shined.” (Isaiah 9:2) This is what Christmas is all about – something radically new that cannot be gernerated out of the conditions of this world. It does not emerge. It comes…. God promises it”

The Kingdom

>I have listened to two sermons from +Robert Atwell in two days. Today I get a day off!The first sermon was at the induction of friend Kathy Kirby as Vicar of St Paul’s Macclesfield. Kathy is a special person who is immensely generous in her appreciation of others. She will offer a very special ministry of affirmation and encouragement. The second sermon was to our Committee for Ministry in which he quoted “the Kingdom” by R.S.Thomas:

It’s a long way off but inside it
There are quite different things going on:
Festivals at which the poor man
Is king and the consumptive is
Healed; mirrors in which the blind look
At themselves and love looks at them
Back; and industry is for mending
The bent bones and the minds fractured
By life. It’s a long way off, but to get
There takes no time and admission
Is free, if you purge yourself
Of desire, and present yourself with
Your need only and the simple offering
Of your faith, green as a leaf.
R.S. Thomas, Collected Poems 1945-1990

I am playing round with ideas on supervision at the moment. Where many minds are bent on specifying, my mind is bent on generalising. I am told that if supervision becomes too general it loses its meaning. I counter that if supervision is too specific it doesn’t mean so much. If the kingdom is “mirrors in which the blind look at themselves and love looks at them back” I dare the word to bear such meaning and defy those who say I go too far.

Twelfth Night

Today is Epiphany – January 6th. Twelfth Night – down with that tree and away with that tinsel. Highlight of the season has been reading The First Christmas by Marcus Borg and Dominic Crossan. This has given spiritual direction for this wonderful season. Borg and Crossan describe the birth stories of Matthew and Luke’s gospels as “parabolic overtures” for their whole gospel of joy and conflict – personal and political.

Today, Epiphany, focus is on the story of the visit of the Magi who travel one road and then return by another road. The road they travel is to the palace of Jerusalem. Of course, they would go that way. The way of the worldy wise is to the palace and the court. They discover how wrong they are. In Breugemann’s phrase, they finish “9 miles wide”, and discover their journey’s end (and their beginning – TS Eliot) to be not at the court of Herod but in the outbuildings of an inn in Bethlehem. Their return “by another road” signifies repentance – a change of mind – demanded by the Jesus of the Gospel. “They no longer walked the same path, but followed another way.”

Messrs Borg and Crossan wonder whether I am “like the Magi who follow the light and refuse to comply with the ruler’s plot to destroy it.” Or whether I am like Herod “filled with fear and willing to use whatever means necessary to maintain power, even violence and slaughter.” Am I among those “who yearn for the coming of the kingdom of justice and peace, who seek peace through justice”, or am I among those “advocates of imperial theology who seek peace through victory?”

Borg and Crossan refer to the three tenses of Christmas. Past, present and future – as retold by Charles Dickens in the Christmas Carol. Of the future tense they refer to three different understandings:
One is called “interventionist eschatology” – in which only God can bring about the new world.
The second is called “participatory eschatology” in which we are to participate with God in bringing about the world promised by Christmas.
The third involves letting go of eschatology altogether in which Christian hope is not about the transformation of this world.
Only the second is affirmed by Borg and Crossan – thankfully. “We who have seen the star and heard the angels sing are called to participate in the new birth and new world proclaimed by these stories.” They quote Augustine’s aphorism: “God without us will not; we without God cannot.”