Monthly Archives: May 2011

Narrow Beams of Light

I sat alone in the small country church looking through the East window to the tree beyond. It was mid-morning and the light was turning to come in from the South. But some light still found its way through the East window. The glazing is thick and old, and the light dappled as it came through, inconsequential, not hard and bright, but soft and questioning, posing a question gently yet insistently.

I am here. Rest calm and just watch the changing light.

I did. A narrow beam fell on the snowy white of the altar cloth, as if to say: I am here.

Little Living Robin

For hours it seemed I was attempting to cut down with my axe a huge branch in my garden. In this quiet place, the axe’s sound, a great thud, would reverberate around the silent valley. It was raining steadily and the drops were falling drip drip from my hat. After an hour of very slow progress I was tired and happy but the task seem endless.

Suddenly I stopped.

At the foot of the bank a robin was pecking and skipping for the pure joy of being alive. I stood entranced hoping he would not go away.

But he did.

A few minutes later the great branch fell with a crash.

As I write this I am listening to Thomas Tallis’ ‘O Salutaris Hostia’ but, as sublime as the music is, the spiritual experience cannot compare with watching the robin living for the present moment.

Rounding up the Easter Season

It is sad that we are coming to the end of the Easter season, because we have been ploughing slowly through the readings from the Acts of the Apostles. What extraordinary faith these men had; but what an extraordinary opportunity they were given too. If you could be transported back in time to any time or place, where would you choose to go? I know that I would want to be taken to that Upper Room on the first Easter Sunday, because I would THEN know the truth without any doubt. The answer to the greatest question ever posed. Did he really rise from the dead?

Strangely, without any proof at all, I think I know the answer. Yes, he would have walked though those doors.

But then I would have demanded to see with my own eyes that he had actually died.

Never satisfied!

Venerating the Blessed Sacrament

A complete contrast. Gabriel was now in a Catholic church for veneration of the Blessed Sacrament.

No words.

Just the Host displayed.

And he confronted his ambitions and his failures and was comforted.

Morning Prayer

And now it was morning. And Gabriel did the same with Morning Prayer from the Anglican prayer book.

O LORD, our heavenly Father, Almighty and everlasting God, who hast safely brought us to the beginning of this day: Defend us in the same with thy mighty power; and grant that this day we fall into no sin, neither run into any kind of danger; but that all our doings may be ordered by thy governance, to do always that is righteous in thy sight; through Jesus Christ our Lord.

The Mighty Poetical English of the Book of Common Prayer

Gabriel was walking along a path in the English countryside. The words “and then?” repeating inside his head.

The church was alone, cool, and open.

So far away, in the depths of the countryside, there was no chance now of Mass. But he picked up the Book of Common Prayer and read slowly through the words of evening prayer, saying silently the words of the priest and aloud the words of the congregation.

Here then was a sublime and mighty poetical English. No outward fury or entrenched belief in some mystical presence, only the word.

The Magnificat, the Nunc Dimittis came and went and finally the Collects, an ocean lapping quietly in his presence and he sat still and felt a great peace.

“And then?”

Gabriel was walking the streets of sixteenth-century Rome. He was hot. Nowhere were there magnificent buildings, only decay. But there was activity, building, movement, heat arising from the rubble of the long-fallen empire.

He longed for greatness, the echoes of which he could see all around him.

He came across a great procession. A cardinal was walking to St John Lateran, all glory and pomp. Horses, carriages, servants, red and other strong colours predominated. Awed, yes but also of course he was depressed by the sight. He could never attain such heights though he believed he had the restless ability.

Now as the dust literally settled he came across a shabby priest.

But a priest with an eager eye and smiling countenance.

Gabriel recounted his ambitions.

A job.
“E poi? – And then?” said the priest.

A house.
“E poi?”

A wife.
“E poi?”

A greater job.
“E poi?”

Titles, wealth, fame.
“E poi?”

Always Gabriel came to the end and the priest asked “And then?”

And then of course was the end. All that mattered was the encounter then and a deeper understanding and relationship with God.

The priest was Philip.

This story of the encounter between St Philip Neri is not my own.

I went to a Mass at my son’s school and the Provost of the Birmingham Oratory recounted this true story of how St Philip used to convert young people. It struck me most forcibly. The question endlessly repeated – “And then?” All this life, all this egocentricity we take so seriously and are so upset by its setbacks is a series of little dots between two full stops.

The only really worthwhile question is “and what then?” The question occurred to me when I sat in Westminster Hall and listened to the President of the United States later that day.

For all the pomp and glory and adulation, colleagues craning their necks struggling to shake the hand of supposed greatness, but… “and then?”

The Stoning of an Apostle

They stoned Paul and dragged him outside the town, thinking he was dead.
(Acts of the Apostles 14-19-28)

Gabriel stooped now and picked up a stone. It was hard, small, and would be a delight to throw. He would not throw it but for a moment Paul was all that irritated him, all his anger was in that stone. Taking flight it would carry his anger and failure with it. He fingered the stone and it dropped to the lifeless ground from his nerveless fingers.

Men, his friends, were now crowding round Paul. Gabriel walked forward to help too but he was shy and afraid and he went back to his patch by the fallen stone.

The men, the disciples, the stone-throwers moved off. He was alone.

Hearing Paul

Gabriel’s dream led him to a dusty path in Lystra and Derbe in first-century Palestine. A man was preaching and another man was sitting in the dust listening: He had never walked in his life, but his attention was rapt and he had been carried here. The man preaching was Paul. Time passed. There were many there, but eventually staring hard at the man. His feet crippled from birth, unmoving, pressed on all sides, caught the eye of Paul. With all his heart the man knew he had faith and Paul knew it too and cried out in a loud voice:

“Get to your feet – stand up.”

Instantly the crippled man was on his feet and, to his amazement, walking.

The people were amazed, thinking Paul was a god – Hermes.

Gabriel was less sure. Who was he? But he looked into his own crippled soul and for that moment only he too was cured. For in that one moment, he too had faith.

The Way, the Truth, and the Life

Now those readings of the week before were collected for Sunday Mass.

I am the way, the truth, and the life.

Gabriel was still treading the way. It would take him to many places yet before he could believe that this way was the truth and the life. The way seemed endless. Narrowing to a point so distant and so shrouded in mist that he could not even perceive the horizon or even where it was. There in the future was no physical shape. He could not even fathom if the future was not part of it. He himself was real. He had eyes to see and ears to hear. But his inner essence: where was it?

Speeding through the Hedgerows

Gabriel was bored now with his slow progress, so he bought a car. It sped now through the lanes. No longer did he have time for the hedgerows. The sky was a moving dome. The trees a flashing blur but still the sheepfold eluded him. The faster he drove, the faster it accelerated away.

He stopped and drew breath.


‘Companion’ was there also. A comely person. “Why do you fret?” he asked. “Is not this wood enough?”

But to Gabriel, the charm of his companion, the food filling his stomach, the easy feeling after his long walk – all pleasant – were not enough.

And once again, the path parted. “Where is the way?” he cried aloud.

“I am the way, the truth, and the life.”

But like Thomas, Gabriel cried aloud “How can I tell the way if I do not know where I am going?”

He searched still for the sheepfold because beyond that, he knew, lay the heavenly mountains.

But there were so many ways. Was not companion enough? Because companion was company, but Gabriel sought more: He sought truth.

The Path

Gabriel took the path through the forest. It was narrow and sometimes boggy ground blocked the way. The path veered off through the clinging undergrowth but someone or some people had been before him. He was not alone.

Would this person know the truth? Would he lead him down treacherous paths? Could he trust him? But this at least was a path. The trees were shady. But was it all an illusion: the woodland plants and herbs, the cool water – for he pondered on today’s words:

I know the ones I have chosen… someone who shares my table rebels against me.

Gabriel was tired now and he sat down to eat his sandwich.


Gabriel was still sitting there and he met teacher.

How can I reach the sheepfold? All the others seem to be able to find it, he asked.
But teacher lived in the twenty-first century.

There’s no one way. There are many guardians if the ways all are equally valid. There is Buddha, Muhammad, Jesus, Abraham. There is your conscience. Seek your faith no longer in one faith.

Indeed, now Gabriel saw that his road had come to a junction. Many roads now veered to left and to right, to north, south, east, and west. Some broad, flat, and easy, some narrow, sunny, and winding, rising, it seemed, into barren hills.

Teacher was still talking “But realise that what matters is to understand all people. All thoughts to trust in all.”

But Gabriel still thought on the words he had read for today:

The light have come into the world, so that whoever believes in me need not stay in the dark anymore.

Now it was indeed growing dark. What was the way?

Under the Great Beeches

Under the great beeches, it was warm. Gabriel gazed down at the small stream pottering through the woods. He longed to paddle in its cool waters.

He knew now why the gate was so far away.

He looked at the book he carried in his rucksack.

The works I do in my father’s name are my witness.
But you do not believe.
Because you are no sheep of mine.
(John 10:22-30)

So that was the problem. He could not yet enter the sheepfold promised on Sunday because he lacked faith.

But how could he acquire it?

Did it come with reading? He read.
Did it come with walking? He walked.
Did it come with praying? He tried to pray.
And he walked forward.

The Good Shepherd

Gabriel was still walking towards the sheepfold. The sheep too were walking towards it. Once he entered into that sheepfold he would be safe. But as fast as he walked, so the fold sank away. He ran. It ran away. He walked. It walked away.

But the words he carried in his book for today were so clear:

I am the good shepherd
I know my own.
As my own know me.
(John 10:11-18)

But because the gate grew no nearer, Gabriel felt sure he was not known. Was the gate real? A mirage?

Surely not. In that green English valley. The green was now so bright it hurt his eyes. Great trees, birches, now enveloped his path.

They towered up beautifully arching the road.

Of this world, of nature, but the gate was now obscured totally.

The Gate

Gabriel looked across the narrow valley at the sheep grazing quietly. His small cottage lay dozing in the sun as it had done for over 100 years. He was content, but wanted to find out more. So he walked down his path and closed the gate. All he had was his knapsack. He was thinking of these words of today that he had read earlier:

I am the gate
Anyone who enters through me will be saved.
(John 10:1-10)

But where was the gate?
He could see no gate.
It could only be in his mind.
But was it a real gate? If he could not see it, how could it exist?
He resolved to search for the gate.
There was something on the horizon. Small, black, almost indistinct.

Watercolour at the Tate

I went to the English watercolour exhibition at the Tate Britain. Two pictures caught my eye.

The first was Edward Burra’s “Mexican Church”. It is all in black and gold with despairing, black-clad women around a suffering crucified Christ.

My kind of religion is summed up by another picture in the exhibition. It is Samuel Palmer’s “A Dream in the Apennines”. The colours are warm. A beautiful girl looks across a darkening valley to a sunlit city.

The watercolours give the picture a dreamlike quality.

The Mysterious God Gene

A major study at universities this week concludes that the brain is hard-wired into believing in God. It is ingrained in us. We tend to follow a belief in the supernatural if we can.

But who or what put this urge into our brain? Was it God or nature? But if nature, is it in the interests of the survival of the fittest to encourage faith in anything other than the real and the immediate?

If you are walking down a jungle path and dreaming about God in the dawn of time instead of thinking what might be behind the next bush aren’t you more likely to be eaten by a lion?

So perhaps God did put the thought there.

The Complexity (and Duplicity) of the Mind

I had another dream and it illustrates the mind’s complexity and its duplicity. My dream was that, for some unaccountable reason, I was trying to repair a laser beam and it caused me a nasty injury in my eye. I woke up to find my eye irritated by the pillow it was lying on. But why did the brain create such a complicated and wrong story to explain something that was wrong?

Do our brains and thoughts always delude us?

Is belief in God a complex delusion?

Todays reading struck me in this context

Everybody who believes has eternal life.
(John 6:44-51)

In England’s Green & Pleasant Land

The Lincolnshire W.I. came to the House of Commons today and I spoke to them in Committee Room 11.

Then something happened which again I had never seen before in this place. At the end of the meeting they asked if they could sing “Jerusalem” and they did so beautifully. Forty lusty voices singing these immortal lines in this grand committee room were a lot more inspiring than my last visit there on Monday when I had been chairing a meeting of the European Scrutiny Committee!

Stephen’s Martyrdom

The reading from the Acts of the Apostles is a violent one of the stoning of Stephen. But one line always strikes me.

With these words he fell asleep

It seems a gentle way of dying.

I had a dream tonight that I was dead or thought that I was dead. Apparently one cannot actually dream that one is dead or killed. It was quite a pleasant experience. I wasn’t alone and everyone else in the room seemed quite content but on waking therefore I almost felt lonely. Perhaps death is like that. Like Stephen we just fall asleep and we are not alone.

Saying Grace

We had a Cornerstone dinner for Conservative MPs today and for the first time ever at a Conservative dinner — and I have been to countless ones over the last forty years — someone, not me, suggested that we say grace. No one minded, we just stood up and said it.

Third Sunday of Easter

The readings of Easter are coming to a head. They are like a wave or swiftly running water, wearing away our disbelief, lapping insistently at our worldlinesss, asking, confronting the uncertainty of history with real people, with wounds being touched and food grilled and eaten before our eyes.

So we wonder at our questioning and then as the readings draw to a close question again. Appropriately, today’s reading is the walk from Emmaus and the blindness of the followers until their eyes are opened.

Body and Spirit

Seve Ballesteros, the golfer has died. There were wonderful pictures of him on television, a kind of God, good looking, smiling, doing the most amazing shots, winning, then rarely but movingly shown of him in hospital at the end, desperately weak, a huge horrible tumour on the side of his bald head.

It comes to us all, however strong.

That night, pleasantly exhausted, after a nine-mile walk from Market Rasen, I thought again of these mysteries.

I still don’t believe utterly, but where do all our notions of a mighty cosmos lead us? Just to an inflexible pitiless and unknowing machine governed by the laws of physics. But at least religion brings us art, beauty, hope, and ultimately – if we are lucky – belief.

Do I believe that Jesus walked the earth, died and subsequently showed himself to his friends? Yes, I think I do. But do I believe that he made personally these billions of stars? That I do not know, but I will go trying to believe and assume belief.

But secondly, exhausted, I felt again even more strongly, especially after watching the fate of Ballesteros, the difference between body and spirit.

That the body was slipping away, a useless envelope, much posted and soiled, but the letter inside, the inner message remained as yet barely read.