Monthly Archives: August 2011

A walk beneath the star-clad sky

I walked back home over the Wolds in the twilight evening about ten – a vast sky over my head was alive with stars. The North Star reaching from the plough. The last afternoon I did the same walk down over the edge of the Wolds to the station. This time a great expanse of lands for twenty or thirty miles opened up before me. The train journey was horribly delayed, taking seven hours to get to London! But I took the opportunity of an enforced stay in Lincoln to attend as much of Evensong as I could. What an experience to enter that great cathedral in the midst of a long journey and hear the psalm being sung and then the Magnificat and Nunc Dimmitis.

To me, the journey explains much. If ever the problems of the world encumber us we need to look up to the stars – billions upon billions of them – and sooth our troubled perspectives. If ever the problems of our life overwhelm us we should look to acknowledge and calm our disordered perspective.

And overwhelmed, all we need to remember and seek to believe. Whatever our place in the journey, the source of it all, the beginning and the ending.

All this walking and thinking on the insignificance of our worries against the wonder of the stars and nature stood me in good stead, or should have done, in a meeting with the bank manager to manage debts. No matter what, bills have to be paid.

The Synagogue at Capernaum

In today’s reading, Jesus helps a possessed man in the synagogue at Capernaum. Apparently the foundation stones of the original synagogue that Jesus taught in are still there. Two thousand years later. A remarkable exhibition of the staying power of stones.

Against wind and tide

We were trying to enter harbour against wind and tide and unsteady for twenty minutes our boat made no progress at all. In that time I suppose a score of yachts and large motor boats passed us. Not one of them offered any help. Finally the friendly harbour patrol rescued us.

One moment calm, the next: disaster

An object lesson in staying awake. I was motoring along the coast – going slowly against wind and tide, looking at a fisherman a hundred yards off and suddenly there was an enormous crash: the boat had hit an undersea obstacle and came to a shuddering halt. I flew forward badly bruising my chin on the side of the cockpit. If it had been a hand or an eye or someone had been on the forecastle it could have been serious. One moment placid calm; the next disaster.

We just do not know when the time will come.

Windy passage

I was journeying down to my small boat.

We were trying to get there before low tide cut us off and we had to get six people and their tent and two bicycles in the car. We made it just then. A windy passage with sails reefed and finding a camp site for half of us on the island. No time to think of anything else, neither the problems of today nor tomorrow.

Friday, 21st Week in Ordinary Time

Gabriel again dwelt in his mind on the words of today’s reading and the story of the bridesmaids, five of whom do not put enough oil in their lamps and missed the wedding.

The same courage. Stay awake.

Stay awake

Gabriel was in a church in London. He was studying this reading:

“Stay awake, because you do not know the day when your master is coming.” (Matthew 24:92-95)

The monastery door

Gabriel visited once again the great abbey church. He could only be there a short time.

His dream the night before had been explicit.

He was inside the door of a monastery he had visited abroad. Again he had only been there once in the midst of a journey. But the message in the dream was clear. He should persevere in his journey and in his writing about it.

I shall see the Lord’s goodness…

Daniel was still worrying about work. The Psalm comforted him.

“With night heaviness endures, with morning joy returneth.”

Despite all his doubts and worries, perhaps he would have been reassured by today’s psalm:

“I am sure I shall see the Lord’s goodness in the land of the living.”

But joy comes in the morning

“Heavyness may endure for a night
But joy comes in the morning.” (Psalm 30)

Gabriel had had a weary night of worrying. He opened the Book of Common Prayer at the first place his finger fell and found Psalm 30. Despite his fumbling doubts, he felt that he should do no more nor less than the psalm commanded him to do.

Sunday, 21st Week in Ordinary Time

The question today in the gospel has a resonance for all our characters and for ourselves.

“Who do you say the Son of Man is?
But you, who do you say I am.”

Gabriel thinks he knows or is prepared for peace of mind to assume that he is God.

Thomas doubts it but is open-minded and searches.

Anna believes he is earth, sky, and God in all, but God is in all.

Daniel is so overburdened with troubles of his own that he is too busy to enquire.

Antony knows he is just a great moral teacher and a good man. But you, who do you think he is?

Is any question more important? We actively need no learning to know the answer. Peter has none and he knows the answer.

“You are the Christ, the Son of the Living God.”

We enquire too much perhaps.

Ruth and Naomi

Gabriel had a dream. He dreamt that a dog was doing all the work in the house and the office but strangely the working dog was locked inside the dozing dog. The dozing dog was loved and pampered. The working dog was paddling furiously in the dark.

Gabriel for some reason in a dream was allowed to open up the outer loving dog and find the working dog fill of dirt. Was this dream an allegory for the rarity of love and regard and a pleas for those who do all the work anyway?

In today’s readings, Naomi returns to Israel with her daughter in law Ruth who gives up her husband to remain loyal to her mother in law. Her husband has died. She is rewarded with a new husband Boaz and progeny. A simple loyal woman who founded a dynasty.

Over the hills

Gabriel looked up from the hills over a great plain of wood and distant towns and nearby houses. And he could not pray, even though distant clouds brought soft rain and an extraordinary grey whiteness to the whole landscape.

That night he stared in the wood fire, flames leaping, smoke rising and listened to Bruckner’s Ave Maria on the radio and he could not pray.

Then later he went out and stared over the moonlit landscape, with a full moon.

Sometimes he had sat alive in the great dark abbey church and an extraordinary prayerfulness had come over him.

Now the whole moonlit courtyard, black shadowed, rearing up was a great abbey church and the distant star the tabernacle light and he could pray.

Jephthah’s Daughter

Anna was walking along a beach. To her right extended great expanses of marsh and flat land where the harvest was being gathered. She was walking clay dunes covered in wild flowers. To her left were great mudflats and beaches only covered at extreme high tide so the sea was up to a mile away. A distant line of blue.

Over her head was a vast bowl of blue sky with bright wispy clouds sweeping gently on their way.

Anna was neither a believer, not a doubter, nor in essence a questioner but she wondered at the very reality of the individual. To her, all humans, animals, nature were in a sense a unity, particularly humans, past, present, and to come. That mankind was observed with individuality but should embrace collectivity.

Than even the worst disasters of our existence can be taken as part of a whole.

In today’s reading from the book of Judges 11:29-39 there is a desperately sad passage where Jephthah promises God that if he is granted victory over the Ammonites he will sacrifice the first person who comes out of his tent on his return.

To his horror it is his only child, his daughter.

“O my daughter, what sorrow you are bringing me! Must it be you, the cause of my ill fortune! I have given a promise to the Lord and I cannot unsay what I have said.”

She accepts her fate and he carries out his promise.

Is Anna then father or daughter or are all of us in history father or daughter, once brother and keeper, happy and sad, dead or alive, here, there, now and in the past just are.

The last will be first, and the first last

Daniel had worked for many years in the office. He was hard working, loyal, and conscientious. Sometimes the work, often the work was dull. But the salary had been offered and he accepted it. He could not revive his jealousy, if a younger colleague who had arrived in the office long after him but had now risen way above him in position and salary. Why him? Why not me? And if indeed he is more able than me, what about those who earn the same with far less experience?

Gabriel just pointed to today’s reading.

“Take your earnings and go, choose to pay the last comer as much as I pay you. Why be envious because I am generous? Then the last will be first and the first last.”

Absurd notions

Thomas merely questioned. Anthony just knew it was absurd, all of it.

It was a wet August day, great drops of water spill onto the beach where they were sitting.

Jesus says apparently to his disciples:

“You will yourselves sit on twelve thrones to judge the twelve tribes of Israel.”

How absurd a notion for a modern man to swallow. You can’t really accept expect me believe that somewhere at this moment in a heaven there are twelve apostles sitting on a cloud judging the twelve tribes: Gabriel said read the rest, let it enter slowly into your heart. Do you agree with this idea then?

“It is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of Heaven.”

Daniel knew the answer. Only if his riches are not in his heart.

Go and sell what you own

Daniel asked this question of Gabriel: What does this passage mean “If you want to be perfect, go and sell what you own and give the money to the poor.”

They were travelling with Daniel’s children.

Am I supposed to sell my home where my children live? The car that takes me to work? Can I not save and work hard to give my children the best, including education.

Gabriel smiled. Keep the home and the car and the furniture. But sell them in your heart. That shirt you are wearing: will you shed a single tear in a year or two when it becomes too shabby to wear to the office?

In your heart, it is already given away. Think the same of everything else.

The Assumption of the Blessed Virgin

Another Country
A New Series: Gabriel’s Travels

Gabriel was talking to Thomas about the Feast of the Assumption, reminding him that it was a doctrine of the Church that Mary, at the end of her earthly life, was assumed bodily into Heaven.

Thomas was unconvinced.

“Where did she go? Was she taken up like a rocket into the sky? Where is Heaven? Is it above that cloud over there? Where is it on a cloudless day?”

Gabriel answered it is everywhere. It is like a curtain drawn across a room. With one hand one can reach across and part the curtain. Indeed, that is what we do at death.

But, asked Thomas, If it is everywhere, in this room, where is Mary’s body complete and living?

You cannot see her: She is here. In this very room.

In God there is no past or present

In the film “Into the Great Silence” there is an interview with an elderly blind monk. He says

“For God, there is no past or present. He sees our whole life in one moment. Therefore we have nothing to fear.”

He welcomes his blindness for drawing him closer to God. That night, lying awake, I thought then of that old man and was comforted.

A Rationalist’s Question

I was talking to a friend who said he had asked a priest acquaintance “Do you really believe in the Virgin Birth?”

This is a rationalist’s question but the delight of religion is not really a rational thing.

I was watching again the film “Into the Great Silence” about La Grande Chartreuse. What is important is the love of silence and thereby opening the door to joy. I remembered leaving the monastery Le Gugue, south of Poitiers, a few days before and seeing the door close behind me and my sadness. For a few moments in a busy journey, there was tranquillity.

A Lead Balloon

I divided the day between going twice to Heathrow to pick up the boys from the World Scout Jamboree and debating the riots in the House of Commons.

My question went down like a lead balloon. I asked the Prime Minister when he was going to implement his policy of a Married Persons Tax Allowance. Of course such a thing is only symbolic, it won’t of itself change attitudes, but it is a symbol that stability is what matters. For me, marriage is something else, our first tentative steps into the joy-giving community of God’s love.

Great White Beach

I was in the sea, swimming on the north coast of France: on the way back to England. There was a great white beach, huge at low tide and a heavy sea, pounding the shore. Again and again I stood, swam, was pushed down in a kind of rhythm. This is an alternative to religious feeling, the power of nature and we are all children before it, living for our present interaction with it.

“I tell you solemnly, unless you change and become like little children you will never enter the Kingdom of Heaven.”

Matthew 18:3 (Tuesday, 19th Week in Ordinary Time)

Out and on

One last push to Tours.

After Châtellerault we motored and cycled together up to Tours. At Saint Catherine de Fineduis there is a most beautiful, perfectly constructed fifteenth-century church, here in 1429. St Jeanne d’Arc stayed for a night on the way to demand of Charles, Dauphin of France an army to expel the English. Here in front of the statue of St Catherine, she knelt and heard three masses.

The statue of St Catherine was preserved during the Revolution by a resourceful maire who stopped it being burned and many years later it emerged from the earth unharmed.

How wonderful to kneel in the same place as Jeanne d’Arc, nearly six-hundred years before. Here one feels the power of history.

We sat in a shelter having our bread. I heard tinkling above my head and it was St Jacques shells strung around the roof.

We finished our pilgrimage in the magnificent cathedral at Tours. Here I lit a candle in front of the great thirteenth century stained glass window of the covenant above the high altar. Lit a two-euro candle and walked out and on.

Air heavy with prayer

This was out last day cycling the chemin St Jacques and it was appropriate that our last stop was at Ligugé, the oldest monastery in the West. Southwest of Poitiers, founded by St Martin in the fourth century, and with, apart from two periods of anticlericalism, a continuous history of 1,600 years.

I cycled through the woods from the old Catenian monastery of Fontaine le Compe, past the old monastic fish ponds and there in the valley below me in the midst of the small farm were the sheep and cows of the monastery. We were just too late for vespers but when I got into the monastery church, there were still some monks and people praying quietly. Perhaps I have thought in the past that an atmosphere of prayer was caused by beautiful music or liturgy but here now there was just silence.

But it was as if the air was heavy with prayer, one could hardly move through it. I sat down, thought quietly, and went to sleep.

Later in Châtellerault, I was surprised that one of the churches, Eglise St Jacques, was still open at near eleven at night. I went in. At the back is a beautiful wooden statue of a Compostela pilgrim complete with shells on his hat.

It was nearly dark inside, the great stone vaults reaching up into the murk and my thoughts and prayers seemed to rise with them into something inconsequential above my head, something vague, undefined, but almost heavenly.