The Unuttered Prayer: Whitterings, December 2009


I recently had an e-mail correspondence about prayer with Gordon Livingston, the famous American psychiatrist and author of the bestselling books Too Soon Old, Too Late Smart and Never Stop Dancing. We were discussing the pastoral damage which is caused by unreflective ways of talking about the effects of prayer.

There are several types of prayer: worship or praise, repentance, contemplation, thanksgiving and intercession. We were only discussing intercessory or petitionary prayer. Intercessory prayer is the natural response that comes from our loving people. Love is primarily seen in this world by the act of paying attention to one another. The love of God was shown to us because he came to live among us, to spend time with us. We pray for people because we are paying attention to them and spend time on them. This type of prayer expands our minds and our hearts beyond our normal selfish focus and reminds us that all human beings are our brothers and sisters. We pray especially for those who are sick or in need (we are also supposed to pray for our enemies although I seldom hear this in church). We want what is best for them so as an act of love we hold them up to God and pray that His will be done. I have spoken at length in previous columns about the idea that prayer without action is only half a prayer and lacks the incarnational aspect of Christianity. The effect of the individual and the community paying attention to those in need can be mighty and powerful. It can change the world. It is only when we pay attention to something or someone that we are able to then act as agents of Christ in the world.

Unfortunately we often speak recklessly of the effects of such prayers. When people recover from extreme illnesses or have miraculous healings (the effects of prayer on the body’s immune system have been well documented by science) we often claim they have been healed because we have prayed for them or because God has taken a particular action because of our prayer. This is true in the way I have already described, but this is seldom what people mean.

I recently receive an e-mail from a protestant minister in British Columbia whom I know whose son had been in a terrible car accident. He wrote to his congregation and friends that he was thankful that God had heard his prayers and saved his son. He claimed that his son’s survival was a sign that God loved him, had a plan for him and would always protect him. He said that God had intervened and slowed the impact of the car and kept him alive at the hospital. Although I felt for this minister in his time of fear and stress I was also horrified by the theology he used when communicating with his people. Over 44 thousand people are killed in automobile accidents in North America every year. My first thought was what will this minister say when the child of one of his parishioners in killed in a car accident? He has already said publicly that God intervened in the case of his own son and slowed the impact of the car. He already said that God responded to his prayers and ensured his son did not die after the accident. He also said that this was because God loved his son and had a plan for him and would protect him. It follows that for the 44 thousand who did die God intentionally did not intervene, did not heed the prayers of the family and friends of the victims, did not love them, and did not have a plan for them and would not protect them . I certainly would not want to hear that funeral sermon! I also wonder what would happen to this man’s faith if his son had another accident and did die. Of course this minister would be horrified if someone though he believed all this. He just did not think out the implications of his original statement.

To be blunt about it, do you really think that God does not love or take pity on the innocent children who are victimised, abused and killed in this world? Is his heart not moved by the lonely cries of a frightened and dying child? Did he not hear the cries of those in the Death Camps of the third reich? Did they just not know how to pray properly? Is he really so arbitrary that he will intervene and save one person from cancer and leave the next door neighbour to suffer and die of the same disease? If any of these things were true about God then I would refuse to worship Him.

I do not think that most people who attribute divine intervention to petitionary prayer are aware of the ‘other side’ of their prayer. Again they just have not though through the implications. However some intercessory prayers are just obscene, especially when coupled with patriotism. Dr Livingston, in his book And Never Stop Dancing, spoke about his experience of the Chaplains in Vietnam.

“It was customary to close each evening’s briefings with a prayer. One night, our commanding office, Col. George S. Patton III, turned to the chaplain and asked him, ‘What shall we pray for tonight, Chaplain? How about a big body count?’ The chaplain obliged as follows: ‘Help us, O Lord, to fulfil the standing order of the regiment. Let us find the bastards, then pile on.’”

Mark Twain wrote a beautiful short piece about the ‘other side of prayer’ in his work The War Prayer. In it he describes the patriotic gathering of a new battalion and the town from which they were raised in the village church to be blessed before going off to war. The preacher offers up a passionate prayer for the victory of the troops and the whole congregation gets carried away in his patriotic fervour and eloquence. Then a stranger in a white robe silently enters the church and moves to the pulpit where he gently nudges the preacher aside. He then speaks:

From ‘The War Prayer’, by Mark Twain

"I come from the Throne - bearing a message from Almighty God!" The words smote the house with a shock; if the stranger perceived it he gave no attention. "He has heard the prayer of His servant your shepherd, and will grant it if such shall be your desire after I, His messenger, shall have explained to you its import - that is to say, its full import. For it is like unto many of the prayers of men, in that it asks for more than he who utters it is aware of - except he pause and think.

"God's servant and yours has prayed his prayer. Has he paused and taken thought? Is it one prayer? No, it is two - one uttered, the other not. Both have reached the ear of Him Who heareth all supplications, the spoken and the unspoken. Ponder this - keep it in mind. If you would beseech a blessing upon yourself, beware! lest without intent you invoke a curse upon a neighbor at the same time. If you pray for the blessing of rain upon your crop which needs it, by that act you are possibly praying for a curse upon some neighbor's crop which may not need rain and can be injured by it.

"You have heard your servant's prayer - the uttered part of it. I am commissioned of God to put into words the other part of it - that part which the pastor - and also you in your hearts - fervently prayed silently. And ignorantly and unthinkingly? God grant that it was so! You heard these words: 'Grant us the victory, O Lord our God!' That is sufficient. The whole of the uttered prayer is compact into those pregnant words. Elaborations were not necessary. When you have prayed for victory you have prayed for many unmentioned results which follow victory-must follow it, cannot help but follow it. Upon the listening spirit of God fell also the unspoken part of the prayer. He commandeth me to put it into words. Listen!

"O Lord our Father, our young patriots, idols of our hearts, go forth to battle - be Thou near them! With them - in spirit - we also go forth from the sweet peace of our beloved firesides to smite the foe. O Lord our God, help us to tear their soldiers to bloody shreds with our shells; help us to cover their smiling fields with the pale forms of their patriot dead; help us to drown the thunder of the guns with the shrieks of their wounded, writhing in pain; help us to lay waste their humble homes with a hurricane of fire; help us to wring the hearts of their unoffending widows with unavailing grief; help us to turn them out roofless with little children to wander unfriended the wastes of their desolated land in rags and hunger and thirst, sports of the sun flames of summer and the icy winds of winter, broken in spirit, worn with travail, imploring Thee for the refuge of the grave and denied it - for our sakes who adore Thee, Lord, blast their hopes, blight their lives, protract their bitter pilgrimage, make heavy their steps, water their way with their tears, stain the white snow with the blood of their wounded feet! We ask it, in the spirit of love, of Him Who is the Source of Love, and Who is the ever-faithful refuge and friend of all that are sore beset and seek His aid with humble and contrite hearts. Amen. (After a pause) "Ye have prayed it; if ye still desire it, speak! The messenger of the Most High waits!"

It was believed afterward that the man was a lunatic, because there was no sense in what he said.

Twain apparently dictated this around 1904-05; it was rejected by his publisher, and was found after his death among his unpublished manuscripts. It was first published in 1923 in Albert Bigelow Paine's anthology, Europe and Elsewhere. The story is in response to a particular war, namely the Philippine-American War of 1899-1902, which Twain opposed.

A moving but graphic animation of this story may be found on YouTube.



The Man of Sorrows, William Dyce, 1860, National Galleries of Scotland

The Outward Sign of the Ministers of God: Whitterings November 2009


I have put off writing about clerical attire for almost five years and feel, in the light of the sexual scandal of Bishop Lahey, it is now appropriate to throw in my two cents worth. In our modern, secular culture, especially in Quebec, it has become rarer and rarer to find priests wearing clerical collars. I find this disturbing for theological reasons. Before I wade in too deeply I want to clarify that my position is not about clerical collars per se but about a recognisable uniform for the clergy. In France priests do not normally wear collars but have adopted a particular form of dress that is easily identified in their culture. The Orthodox still wear full cassocks as their uniform and do not rely on a clerical collar as much as the western clergy. If there was another easily identifiable clerical uniform besides the clerical collar I would be more than happy with it. However, I am unaware of anything that is as easily identifiable as the collar and so I confine my position to its use.

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Ordination, as a sacrament of the church, is a sign of God’s grace to the world. The clergy are the gift of God for the people of God. They are a sign of God’s love and presence in the world. I was taught that I did not have the right to hide this because of personal preference.

“When you wear a clerical collar is says to people that the Kingdom of God is open for business.”

Theologically, the outward and visible sign of ordination is the laying on of hands. Pragmatically, the collar is the outward and visible sign of the ordained. A uniform has many obvious benefits. The first is that uniforms do not imply a particular class. Someone in a uniform, such as a police officer, can interact with people from all socio-economic and educational backgrounds. A priest who wears secular clothes is immediately identifiable as belonging to one particular group with all of that group’s values visibly implied. In our culture this is usually middle class. This limits the practice of ministry.

I am reminded of the joke about the young nun in New York City who was walking home late to her Convent. It was after Vatican II and she was dressed in normal secular clothes. A strange man began to follow her through the deserted streets. She became more and more frightened until at last, with great relief, she spotted a policeman. She ran up to him and said” Officer, I am Sister Martha from St Agnes’s Convent and there is a man following me, I need help!” The policeman stared at her for a few seconds before responding “And tell me, Sister, how did you know I was a policeman?”

The second is that it makes the clergy easily identifiable in an emergency. When the shooting happened at Dawson College there were clergy present. However, only a couple were wearing collars and were thus immediately identifiable. Although other clergy were still there no one recognised them as such and so they were unable to provide much ministry to those who were afraid and traumatised. For all practical purposes they might as well have not been there.

I remember one evening when walking back to the Rectory after Mass in my habit I was passed by an angry looking biker who glared at me rather pointedly. As I approached the Rectory gates I noticed that he had pulled over on the side of the road and was staring back at me. I hurried my gate but was unable to reach my door before he had roared up the driveway on his motorcycle, jumped off and rapidly approached me. He was a large, tattooed, leather clad rough looking young man. I thought I was in for it and imagined he had had some sort of horrific experience with a priest when younger and now I was the one who was going to pay for it. He almost yelled at me “Are you a real priest!?” When I said that I was, he stared at me and then began to cry uncontrollably to the point of actually falling on his knees. After bringing him in, letting him cry, and trying to comfort him he told me what was going on. He was a heroin addict and had been in prison for several years. When he got out he had gone clean and tried to maintain his relationship with his former girlfriend. Things had not gone well and only an hour before she had finally left him. When he passed me on the road he was on his way to buy heroin with the purpose of overdosing. That is when he saw me on the sidewalk. He, of course, did not see ‘me’ he simply saw a priest and something deep inside of him knew that it meant something. I saw that man several more times over the next two years as he stopped off for a few minutes at the Rectory when he was in the region. I have a note that he left in my door one day that says “Thank God I saw you. You saved my life.” He is right; God saved his life that day by using one of his priests as a sign that there is still hope in the world. If I had not been in my habit or in a clerical collar he might very well have died that night.

The ordained ministry is a lifelong vocation. It is not an identity you can take on and off like changing in and out of your McDonald’s work uniform; ‘I am now on duty and now I am off duty’. We are all aware of the creeping tide of professionalism amongst the clergy: the 9-5 job with office hours; and answering messages that do not give emergency home numbers for off hour pastoral needs. I see the lack of wearing the uniform when not ‘on duty’ as another sign of this alien professionalism.

“You are not your own for you have been bought with a price” 1 Corn.6:19-20

Some seem to think that clerics that wear the uniform take themselves too seriously. I would argue that the opposite is actually the case. The uniform takes the pressure off of your own unique personality and allows you to be seen as belonging to something larger than yourself. This is hardly taking yourself too seriously. Those who rely on their own personal charisma for ministry are the ones in danger of putting too much emphasis on themselves instead of God. After the sacrament of marriage people happily wear their wedding bands to show their sacramental status in the world. The collar is simply the clerics’ wedding band (albeit a neck is a little more prominent than a finger).

There are several other reasons that a clerical collar is useful. It helps remind the actual cleric that they are always on duty and held to a high moral standard. One is less likely to get drunk in a bar while dressed in clericals. The wearing of a clerical collar is also a perpetual vocations advertisement. It reminds people, who otherwise tend to forget, that the church is still here and that ordained ministry is always a possible vocation. Most of all, every time someone sees a cleric in a uniform, they are reminded that the church remains here in the midst of life, whatever connotation that has for them. For many it will simply remind them of God. Is that not a good definition of a priest: one who by their life points beyond themselves to God?

Wearing a collar does forfeit a cleric’s anonymity and this can be uncomfortable. My own experience has been that some of the best conversations in pubs, airplanes, and waiting rooms have come about because of the collar. I can count on two hands the number of times I have been spit at or harassed. These incidents pale in comparison to what seems to still be seen as a positive or at least mysterious association with clerical life. I am not convinced that the public associates us all with deviance as much as many of the clergy fear they do.

I also understand why in today’s culture the clergy are reluctant to be associated with the public’s views of the priesthood. We live in an age of anticlericalism mostly derived from the sexual abuse scandals in the church. In Quebec the association of the clerical collar with the theocratic rule of the Roman Church is equally as palpable. If a priest is a sign of the love of God in the world and of His care and protection then a priest should be the safest person in a community. The priest is the one who should go out of their way to protect the weak and give a voice to the voiceless. So the idea of sexual abuse of a vulnerable child by a priest is one of the most horrific disconnects I can imagine. I understand why these cases have shaken the society’s trust in priests to the very core.

However, we must be honest about what is actually going on. The sexual abuse in the Roman Catholic Church and the Residential Schools Scandal has been rightfully traumatic and scandalous. Yet the deep emotions associated with this abuse have seriously distorted the image of priests in western culture. The John Jay report, the in-depth report on the sexual abuse allegations in the United States, gives actual numbers and details about the trend. Although the numbers of those abused in the US over a 52 year period were high at 6,700 allegations against 4392 priests, the percentage of the 109,694 priests serving during the time was 4%. All the cases in the Roman Catholic Church throughout the world were just less than 5000 with over 500,000 priests serving. The priests accused were less than 1%. It also became clear that the sexual abuse scandals began to rise in the 1960s, peaked in the 1970s, declined in the 1980s and returned to 1950s levels in the 1990s. It turned out that the sexual predation on children (under 10 years of age) was 22% and older adolescents was 78%. The persistent claim is that most of the victims were 15-17 years of age. Although sexual contact with 15-17 year olds is sexual abuse and predation it is not the same as actual paedophilia as defined by psychology. 70% of all the abusive clergy were educated pre Vatican II. The Roman Catholic Church in Canada has had less than 20 priests accused of sexual abuse against the young. Unfortunately, although the Anglican Church of Australia has provided a comprehensive report on the issue the Anglican Church of Canada has not. I have begun enquiries with the national church to address this lack of statistics.

I pass these statistics along not in any way to minimise the horror of what has occurred but rather to emphasise that the number of priests who have brought the entire ministry into disrepute and subjected it to mistrust is infinitesimally low. Although the media has used the scandal to make all priests suspect it does not do so in other fields. In the US 4392 out of 109,694 Roman priests were found to have molested youth over a 52 year period. In contrast 2570 out of 3 million teachers (almost 1%) were found to have done the same things but only over a 5 year period. Yet there is no huge public outcry against teachers and fear about sending children to school. Merited cases of police brutality in the United States for 2002 were 2000. Considering that there are about 800,000 police officers in the US, the percentage of officers charged is as low as 0.25%. Yet public opinion and media coverage on police brutality in the US is hardly in keeping with the reality.

My point is that I choose to associate the priesthood with the 105,302 priests who were NOT child abusers instead of the 4392 who were. If we allow the criminal and blasphemous actions of these men to completely undermine the high nature of the priesthood so that we are embarrassed and afraid to be seen as priests then we have made a serious mistake. I believe it is even more important that the clergy wear the uniform today so that we can witness by our actions that the church is still at work in the world and that priests are still agents of God’s love and reconciliation in a fallen world. If we desert the field how will people learn that most priests are compassionate representatives of a Gracious God? Surely the witness and good work of the 99% can provide damage control for the 1% that betrayed their calling and those they abused. This is especially true if the main generation that is responsible for this scandal is passing away.

Having said that, I ask your prayers for those of us who have given our whole lives to God in this public way and now find ourselves the object of fear and distrust. We will live through this, but in the meantime it takes courage to be exposed to the public on a daily basis. Although we do not risk our lives, as many of our colleagues throughout the world do, it is still our duty to witness to the honour of the ordained life and the goodness of the Church by courageously continuing to wear the collar around our necks.


Deification or The 'Firstfruits of His creatures’: Whitterings, October 2009


As improbable as it may sound, I believe I may have discovered a new interpretation of the doctrine of the Dormition, or Assumption, of the Blessed Virgin Mary. I have investigated widely, and have not found a similar commentary in either Roman Catholic, Orthodox or Anglican writings.

First let’s being with the background; the Feast of the Dormition, which means the ‘The Falling Asleep’, of the BVM is the title used for the doctrine by the Orthodox and Anglicans while the Roman Catholics refer to it as the Assumption. The ancient tradition states that the BVM at her death was assumed body and soul into heavenly glory. The feast has been celebrated since the 5th century. The Emperor Maurice (539-602) finally confirmed August the 15th as the set date for the feast in the 6th century. The doctrine was first formulated in the West by St Gregory of Tours (d. 594). In the East a passage by Dionysius the Pseudo Areopagagite (c. 500) was taken by St Andrew of Crete (d. 740) to confirm the teaching. The doctrine was first upheld by St Augustine (354-430) and later defended by St Albertus Magnus (d. 1280), St Thomas Aquinas (c.1225-74) and St Bonaventure (c. 1217-74).

The Church of England dropped the feast in the first Prayer Book in 1549 but restored it in 1928 and it is currently in the Calendar of Common Worship. The Scottish Episcopal Church kept the feast. The Canadian Church contains the feast in the Book of Common Prayer as ‘The Falling Asleep of the BVM” and in the BAS it is kept as the principal Marian Feast but as just ‘The BVM’. The Orthodox, along with the Anglicans, consider the doctrine to be an aspect of traditional piety. In neither church is the doctrine precisely defined.

In the Roman Catholic Church the doctrine of the Assumption became a formal doctrine in 1950.With all due respect to my Roman Catholic brothers and sisters, I am uncomfortable with the formal RC doctrine of the Assumption. My discomfort has more with the focus of the theological underpinnings of the doctrine than with the doctrine itself. The language used seems very ‘scientific’ and focuses on the ontological status of the BVM rather than on the personal spiritual significance of that status. For example, a RC argument for the doctrine states that as the BVM was immaculately conceived then she was not tainted with original sin and thus she did not have to suffer death as death is the direct result of original sin. Another argument is that as the BVM stood at the foot of the Cross at Our Lord’s Passion then, and as she loved him so much as she was his mother, then she partook in his death and thus did not have to die a bodily death herself. Very logical, but very A Priori (A fact proved within a closed system by reference to other facts with the same system, from Immanuel Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason published in 1781). There is little reference to how this effects us except that as the BVM did not have to die and undergo judgement she has already entered into glory and thus her intercessions for us are more powerful than any other Saint.

My position takes as its starting point the significance of the Dormition for individual Christians. What does it say to us? What is it a sign ‘of’? To understand my position, one more piece of the puzzle needs to be added. This is the doctrine of Deification. Deification is the normative term for the transforming effect of Grace on the Christian soul. The term was used primarily by the Greek Fathers (Patrisitcs) and in Eastern Orthodox liturgy. The scriptural evidence is found in the Second Letter of St Peter, Chapter 1, verse 4:

“that you may be partakers of the Divine nature.”

However, the idea is clearly similar to the idea found in the 8th Chapter of St Pauls Letter to the Romans that we are sons of God through the working of the Holy Spirit. In chapters 14-17 of St John’s Gospel we find the same idea in the ‘Indwelling of the Holy Trinity’. St Irenaeus (c. 130-200) argued that as God shared in our humanity in the Incarnation so we are destined to share in his Divinity. St Clement of Alexandria (c.150-215) understood this idea as being the same as the Platonic ideal of assimilation to God. They all believed that through the power of Grace man can overcome the effects of original sin and acquire ‘Divine’ attributes, especially incorruptibility and immortality. The main point is that the Incarnation of Christ has called mankind to share in the Divine life in Christ. St Athanasius (c.296-373) said:

“The Word became flesh...that we, partaking of His Spirit, might be deified.” De Decretis, 14

St Cyril of Alexandria (d. 444) wrote:

“For we have all become partakers of Him in ourselves through the Spirit. For this reason we have become partakers of the Divine nature and are called sons”. In Joan. 9


In the East this doctrine received its definitive formulation in the writings of St Gregory Palamas (c.1296-1359) who argued that man can become united with the Divine energies rather than with the Divine essence. In the West this language became rarer although was still found in the writings of the Mystics of the church. The Patristic revival of the Oxford Movement in Anglicanism stimulated renewed interest in the doctrine of Deification by the Western church.

Jean Vanier often uses the phrase “The Word became flesh so that flesh may become Word” to emphasise the resulting acts of Christ’s grace working in us for the benefit of others that results from our acceptance of the Divine will. St Teresa of Avila emphasised the same charitable and missionary result of Deification.

I hold that the power of doctrine lies not in the conceptualisation of ontological (the nature of being) statements but rather in teleological (the nature of becoming) and soeteriological (the nature of salvation) understanding. Thus the importance of the Annunciation of the Angel Gabriel to the BVM does not lie in the ‘fact’ of the encounter but rather what it says to us as Christians along the road to salvation. If the BVM’s acceptance of the total Will of God ,“Be it unto me according to Thy Word” (Luke 1.38), was the act of cooperation by the human race to participate in the salvitic plan of God then she is the model of every individual Christian who is called to do exactly the same thing. If by her acceptance of God’s will she was able to give birth to the Christ, then our acceptance of God’s will also allows for Christ to become manifest in the world as St Paul teaches us:

“For through the law I died to the law, so that I might live to God. I have been crucified with Christ; and it is no longer I who live, but it is Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.” Galatians 2. 19-20

Thus the Annunciation of the BVM and the resulting Incarnation of Christ becomes the model of Christian salvation for all people.

Having laid the groundwork for my commentary, I am now ready to state the simple notion that has come to me: IF by her submission to the Divine Will the BVM became the model of the Christian life and, IF her acceptance and participation in both the joys and sorrows of the Incarnation showed her continued acceptance of the Divine Will, THEN her Assumption into the Divine Glory of God is also the model, sign, and hope of the fulfilment of the Christian life as understood by the doctrine of Deification.

She has become the ‘Firstfruits of His creatures’ as the Epistle of St James speaks. She has ‘finished the race’ and stands at the end of each Christian’s life as a sign of the eternal promise of God to mankind. From her unique vantage point she offers us hope, encouragement and strength to persevere. She stands, so to speak, at the finish line beckoning to those of us still in the race the way home.

It is our relationships that give meaning to our lives. To have our hearts stirred they must first be touched through relationships. So in conclusion I contend that what is more important to us than ‘what state’ the BVM is in is ‘what’ she has to say to us from that position. It is our relationship with her as the forerunner of every individual Christian that allows us to love her.


Now I need to make a disclaimer. After having finished this article I found the following quote by the great Orthodox writer Vladimir Lossky (1903-1958):

“The glorification of the Mother is a direct result of the voluntary humiliation of the Son: the Son of God is incarnate of the Virgin Mary and is made ‘Son of Man’, capable of dying, while Mary, becoming Mother of God, receives the ‘Glory which belongs to God’ and is the first among human beings to participate in the final deification of the creature.”

Well, so much for thinking I had stumbled across a totally new take on the Dormition. As the Preacher saith “There is no new thing under the sun.” Ecclesiastes 1.9



The first, third and last photograph is taken from the Roman Catholic Church of the Dormition on Mount Zion in Jerusalem. There may have been a church here as early as the 4th century and by the 6th century a large Basilica was built. The Roman Church claims this as the site of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin.

The second and fourth photograph is taken from the Orthodox Church of the Tomb of the BVM at the base of the Mount of Olives. This is one of the most atmospheric holy sites in Jerusalem. It is carved out of the rock of the mountain and descends 47 steps into the earth. The first tomb was made in the 1st century and was expanded in the 3rd and 4th century. It was destroyed by the Persians in 614, rebuilt by the Crusaders and destroyed again by Saladin in 1187. However the site is also holy to Muslims as legend says that the Prophet Muhammad saw a ‘light over the tomb of his sister Mary’ during his Night Journey. There is a mihrab in the tomb added by Saladin. The burial place of St Anne and St Joachim are here as well as the graves of many of the Latin Kings and Queens of Jerusalem. Services are held here by the Greek, Armenian, Coptic and Syrian Orthodox Churches.

I visited both churches recently while on pilgrimage to the Holy Land.

Der Untergang des Abendlandes: Whitterings, September 2009

Der Untergang des Abendlandes

In 1776 Edward Gibbon (1737-1794) published the first volume of his six part Magnus Opus The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. In this seminal work Gibbon emphasises the loss of Civic Virtue as one of the main causes of the collapse of Rome. The concept of Civic Virtue occupies a central place in the foundation of Western Civilisation. Plato and Aristotle considered it essential for any form of republic and a difference in civic vision led to the trial and death of Socrates. Basic Civil Virtues include: Civic Conversation - which entails listening to others, trying to reach an agreement, and keeping yourself informed so that one can make a relevant contribution; Civic Behaviour - which entails the control of feelings and needs in balance with the feelings and needs of others; and Civic Work - which entails the necessity of work which makes a useful contribution to society as a whole. The Civic Virtues are a secular parallel to St Paul’s description of the duties we have to one another because we are all part of the same body.

Constant vigilance is necessary to keep a civilised society from falling into decay. An anecdote has a woman asking Benjamin Franklin “Well, Doctor what have we got a Republic, a Democracy or a Monarchy?”He famously responded “A Republic, if you can keep it.” According to Gibbon once a society loses the love of the society over the love of the individual it begins to decay. Cicero spent his later years lamenting that this had happened to Rome.

In 1918 Oswald Spengler (1880-1936) published another seminal work on the causes of the collapse of a civilisation specifically focusing on our current historical period. He called it Der Untergang des Abendlandes which roughly translates as the ‘the going under of the evening land’ and known in English as The Decline of the West. Spengler classes modern Western Civilisation as being Faustian in that it has a proud but tragic character. This is because although it strives for the unattainable it secretly knows that it will never reach its goal. He breaks the rise and fall of a civilisation into four periods corresponding to the seasons. Winter, the last phase of a civilisation, is marked by an exhaustion of creative mental strength and organisation. In Winter: religion will be marked by Materialism and the Cult of Science, the dominance of Ethical-Social ideals over Mystical-Soteriological ideals, Scepticism, the decline of Abstract Thought, and the rise of Specialised Academic Philosophies that look inward to their own systems. Politics will be marked by Democracy, the Rule of the Rich and an advanced Bureaucracy. Art will be marked by the end of Symbolism and the deterioration of Aesthetics into Fashion. He saw the emergence of pure Democracy, the rule of the majority, over Republicanism, Rule by Law, as a sign of decay because without law to hold the majority vote in check mediocrity and short term vision will prevail. He believed that an economically driven media and the rise of consumer capitalism to be another sign of the advanced decay of civilisation.

Spengler emphasises the importance of cultures that imbue the widest sense of historical knowledge and involvement. People in these cultures see themselves as part of a greater design and not in an inward looking self contained manner. He believed that only these people are capable of ‘building’ the future of a culture. He contrasted Culture, as the process of creativity in ‘becoming’ (which corresponds to the theological term teleology), and Civilisation, as the process of rigidity that sets in after the idealism of the culture is lost – the ‘being’ (which corresponds to the theological term ontology). He summed up his world view like this:

“Plato and Goethe stand for the philosophy of Becoming, Aristotle and Kant the philosophy of Being. The following saying of Goethe must be regarded as the expression of a perfect definite metaphysical doctrine. I would not have a single word of it changed: ‘The Godhead is effective in the living and not the dead, in the becoming and the changing, not in the ‘become’ and set-fast; and therefore, similarly, the reason is concerned only to strive towards the divine through the becoming and the living, and the understanding only to make use of the ‘become’ and the set-fast.’ This sentence comprises my entire philosophy.”

In 1961 Arnold Toynbee (1889-1975) finished the publication of his twelve volume work on civilisation entitled A Study of History. He theorised that the breakdown of civilisations occurs when the ‘Creative Minority’ grows tired and degenerates into a ‘Dominant Minority’. This occurs when they cease to be forward looking and proactive in seeking solutions to the problems that lie ahead but instead ‘rest on their laurels’ and idealise their past achievements and become prideful. This trend reaches its zenith in the Universal State. Within such a state abandonment of self control and discipline replace creativity and Civic Virtue. Such a state will be characterised by archaism (the idealisation of the past), futurism (idealisation of the future), and most of all detachment (the removal of oneself from the realities of a decaying world by the use of escapism via entertainment, sports, acquisition of goods, and the reckless pursuit of the sexual and bodily appetites). On the positive side he believed that the advanced state of decay brings about new vision of transcendence that will emerge from the old church that will become the kernel from which a new culture can emerge.

The last thinker I will reference is Harold Adams Innis (1894-1952), a Professor of Political Economy at the University of Toronto, who many believe to be one of Canada’s most significant and original thinkers. He warned us that Western Civilisation is deeply imperilled by a powerful advertising-driven media obsessed by ‘present-mindedness’ and the ‘continuous, systematic, ruthless destruction of elements of permanence essential to cultural activity’.

If you have made it thus far in this month’s column, you will be wondering why I have spent so much time summarising these theories about the fall of empires and especially the fall of our own. I do so to add some very basic background to my continual claim that we are living in a Dark Age – an age filled with ever increasing signs of the collapse of the ‘Western Empire’. The technological and telecommunication revolution, the existence of a global capitalistic economic system, and mass migration mean that it is hard to know how long it will take us to decay or even if this is an irreversible process. Regardless, the decay is only too real, even if it is only a long downtrend before renewal. I am not necessarily being apocalyptic.


It took Rome almost 250 years to fall. Of the men who could see the writing on the wall (Mene, Mene, Tekel u-Pharsin) there were two types. The first stayed in the centre to fight against the inevitable decay so that civilisation could remain intact as long as possible. These men’s lives were often cut brutally short as they were caught in the crosshairs of rapidly changing, and increasingly unsophisticated, short sighted, incompetent, and violent Emperors. The second type also tried to save civilisation. They did this by fleeing Rome to the Provinces and living simple agrarian lives with their families. They used the peacefulness of their lives to read and write and think. They used their lives to be examples of civilisation simply by living civilised lives. This happened again during the dark ages when some men tried to blow flames on the dying embers of civilisation in the beginnings of feudal Europe and others retreated to the monasteries to keep civilisation alive by imitating Noah and the Ark. I understand the motivation of both sorts of men and I admire them both.

I have already gone on at length in other columns about the decline of our own civilisation and the effect this has on the Church. Thus, the overlap with this column is so significant that I feel the need only to point out again that the church is showing parallel signs of decay as those found in society at large. We are not immune.

I am getting to the age when I need to discern and make some significant decisions about what path my ministry should take. I have always ministered in rural or semi-rural areas away from the city and the central administrative offices of the Diocese. I have done my duty to the centre by travelling in on a regular basis but I relish the fact that I can always return to the countryside where I can see the stars at night. I often think that I can best preserve the faith by living a quiet life in which I have ample time for prayer, meditation and study. I can best ‘save’ the essence of Christianity in this generation simply by trying to be Christian away from the collapse. The fact that I am a Religious only adds to the appeal of this path. In previous columns I have explored the concern of the Archbishop of Canterbury about the decline in vocations to the religious life. He believes that the monasteries provide the ‘heartbeat’ of the faith. He considers their weakening as a sign of disease – the proverbial canary in the mine.

Yet I find I am not able to really settle. I feel guilty, as if I am letting the side down. I am continually thwarted from any kind of deep peace by my anxiety about the future of the church. It is not the ‘C’hurch about which I worry as I am convinced that we will survive the fall of this Empire just as we have survived the fall of all of the others. Rather it is the ‘c’hurch about which I worry. The day to day existence of this branch of Catholicism we lovingly call ‘our church’. When I read the biographies and autobiographies of Anglican clerics I am amazed at the passion and anxiety over the ecclesiastical issues of their day which we have all but forgotten. I suspect the zeal of our wrestles today will also pale into insignificant when looked at in hindsight. However, although I do not want to be drawn into the drama and the conflict, I feel the duty to participate.

The Kingdom of God lies within us and the pursuit of holiness of life makes real in time the eternal existence of the Kingdom. In this then is our peace. There is a well known story in which Neil Swanson records:

“A Russian youth who had become a conscientious objector to war through the reading of Tolstoy and the New Testament was brought before a magistrate. With the strength of conviction he told the judge of the life which loves its enemies, which does good to those who despitefully use it, which overcomes evil with good, and which refuses war. ‘Yes,’ said the judge, ‘I understand. But you must be realistic. These laws you are talking about are the laws of the kingdom of God; and it has not come yet.’ The young man straightened, and said, ‘Sir, I recognise that it has not come for you, nor yet for Russia or the world. But the kingdom of God has come for me! I cannot go on hating and killing as though it had not come.’”

I wish I were like that youth and had already come home in the midst of this darkening world. However I often feel more like Dylan Thomas and want to “Rage, Rage Against the Dying of the Light!” I believe this makes me spiritually immature. I do not yet have the balance right. I almost wish I could feel the freedom and detachment that comes from knowing that it is all coming down no matter what I do. Noel Coward captures the irony of this in his description of a party on the French Rivera. He knows the decadence is part of the great decay but he enjoys the decadence anyway.

You know, if you have any mind at all,
Gibbon's divine "Decline and Fall”
Well, it sounds pretty flimsy
No more than a whimsy...
By way of contrast,
On Wednesday last
I went to a marvellous party
We didn't sit down 'til ten
You know, young Bobby Carr
Did a stunt at the bar
With a lot of extraordinary men!
And then Freda arrived with a turtle,
(Which shattered us all to the core)
And then the duchess passed out at a quarter to three
And suddenly Cyril cried "Fiddle-de-dee!",
Then he ripped off his trousers
And jumped in the sea!
And I couldn't have liked it more!

I Went to a Marvellous Party, 1938, Noel Coward

However I am unable to pretend that it does not matter when I know it does. As a Christian I also do not have the luxury of pessimism and must work perpetually with hope. So here I sit firmly on the fence. Do I stay in the ‘provinces’ patiently keeping the flame alive for the reminder of my days and hope that the anxiety will fade with the passing years? Do I turn my face back towards Rome and abandon a life of peace so I can ‘fight’ in the ‘city’? I wish I knew. When He is ready I am sure He will let me know.

“Should I stay or should I go? Bum, bum, bum, bum bum, bum ba.”

The Clash

A Letter To a Young Person Drifting Away From the Church: Whitterings, June 2009

A Letter To a Young Person Drifting Away From the Church

I have known you since you were a child and have watched you to grow up. I have seen you grow from a baby comfortable and safe within our church community; to a toddler taking their first steps down the centre aisle; to an enthusiastic member of the Sunday School, First Communion Class, Youth Group and Confirmation Class; to a young person ready to set out and begin their own life on their own.

I know that you are beginning to leave us. I have seen how you have explored new ideas and new ways of living. I know you no longer find the services or sermons vibrant or especially relevant. I also know that you have grown tired of being surrounded by surrogate grandmothers and grandfathers whose lives seem to you more and more old fashioned. You have begun to explore another world inhabited by your peers which is much more interesting to you than ours and which makes you feel alive and free. These worlds seem to you disconnected and it is clear which one is more attractive. I know this is natural and I am not surprised.

Sometimes at your age the love of adults can seem burdensome and unwelcome. You want to connect with your peers and be respected and loved by them. Of what use to you is the love of a community like ours? Yet we do love you. We have known you since before you were even born and have helped care for you these many years. We feel you are part of us and that we know you. So, yes, we do discuss what you are doing, how you are doing at college, and whether you are ok at coffee hour on Sundays. You would be surprised how much we wish the best for you and pray for you. You would also be surprised at how much we miss your presence. We always feel the loss when someone leaves us. Yet it is more poignant when we lose a young person whom we have known their whole lives.

You know all that I have to teach you. I have prepared you for First Communion and Confirmation and trained you as a server. You were with me week by week for years during Youth Group. Much of what I have taught you takes years to integrate and your generation is most attracted by what is most immediately accessible. I know this. We have been through all of the arguments and discussions about the Gospel and the Christian Faith and I do not repeat them again here. We have spoken at length these many years about the modern world and what we believe are its dangers. I know you no longer find these views as compelling as you once did.

Remember what I shared with you from Father Zosima about the modern state of man.
“Look at the worldly and all who set themselves up above the people of God; has not God's image and His truth been distorted in them? They have science; but in science there is nothing but what is the object of sense. The spiritual world, the higher part of man's being is rejected altogether, dismissed with a sort of triumph, even with hatred. The world has proclaimed the reign of freedom, especially of late, but what do we see in this freedom of theirs? Nothing but slavery and self-destruction! For the world says: ‘You have desires and so satisfy them, for you have the same rights as the most rich and powerful. Don't be afraid of satisfying them and even multiply your desires.’ That is the modern doctrine of the world. In that they see freedom. And what follows from this right of multiplication of desires? In the rich, isolation and spiritual suicide; in the poor, envy and murder; for they have been given rights, but have not been shown the means of satisfying their wants.

How can such a one fight? What is he fit for? He is capable perhaps of some action quickly over, but he cannot hold out long. And it's no wonder that instead of gaining freedom they have sunk into slavery, and instead of serving, the cause of brotherly love and the union of humanity have fallen, on the contrary, into dissension and isolation, as my mysterious visitor and teacher said to me in my youth. And therefore the idea of the service of humanity, of brotherly love and the solidarity of mankind, is more and more dying out in the world, and indeed this idea is sometimes treated with derision. For how can a man shake off his habits? What can become of him if he is in such bondage to the habit of satisfying the innumerable desires he has created for himself? He is isolated, and what concern has he with the rest of humanity? They have succeeded in accumulating a greater mass of objects, but the joy in the world has grown less.

The monastic way is very different. Obedience, fasting, and prayer are laughed at, yet only through them lies the way to real, true freedom. I cut off my superfluous and unnecessary desires, I subdue my proud and wanton will and chastise it with obedience, and with God's help I attain freedom of spirit and with it spiritual joy. Which is most capable of conceiving a great idea and serving it -- the rich in his isolation or the man who has freed himself from the tyranny of material things and habits? The monk is reproached for his solitude, "You have secluded yourself within the walls of the monastery for your own salvation, and have forgotten the brotherly service of humanity!" But we shall see which will be most zealous in the cause of brotherly love. For it is not we, but they, who are in isolation, though they don't see that.”

The Brothers Karamazov. Fyodor Dostoyevsky, Part Two: Book VI, Chapter Three.

I also ask that you remember what I taught you about Socrates and the core message of the Gospel:

“The unexamined life is not worth leading.”
“Any man who would save his life with lose it but any man who would lose his life for my sake shall gain it.”

The adventure to discover who we are underneath our individuality is the great adventure. As Christians we believe that this is only revealed when we move out of ourselves towards others and the world, which we call love. It is through love that truth is revealed. The path to becoming open to reality is first taken through discipline. We set a goal and then begin the journey through duty, trust in those who we believe to be good, and most of all with hope that the path will eventually take us to our goal. Along the path we are transformed and what we once set out to do by an act of will becomes natural as our hearts open more and more to others and the world. Saints have no need for morality for all their actions are acts of love. In the end the goal we thought we were heading for mysteriously changes and we find that the goal was with us the whole time. We, as T.S. Eliot says, “Return home and know it for the first time.”

“What you thought mattered-what you thought was truest to the real you-often turns out to be empty and dishonest. You have to keep asking and keep looking; no wonder we hate it and find every excuse for not getting on with it. There is a faint echo of T.S. Eliot’s ‘What you thought you came for / is only a shell, a husk of meaning’ or Rilke’s ‘archaic statue’ in his poem of that name, telling you that there are no places to hide and instead ‘you must change your life’. Your surface ideas have to go, and so does the notion that you can produce something by an act of the will. In fact, as a famous sculptor once said to his students, will has no part in the creative process. The use of the will is simply to keep you at it-but it doesn’t deliver the product, because you don’t yet know what you moist truthfully want.”
Rowan Williams, Where God Happens, p. 45-46

Most of us are still on the path to transformation and as such need the goal, the discipline and the hope. What I do know is that without the goal we often head in the wrong direction and who knows where we will end up. If we do not have a goal we will not cross rivers and mountains to get to it but will rather follow the contours of the landscape taking the path of least resistance. We may be lucky to escape the shadows but many do not. At the end it does not really matter what sort of career we choose as the Saints have come from all walks of life. What they have in common was the goal, the commitment. It is not so much about ‘What You Do” but about ‘Why You Do It”. You already know all of this and you once, and I believe, still believe it deep down. I remind you that this goal is not just grounded upon the Gospel of Christ but also upon modern psychology. In this religion and science agree. Thus I think it would be hard to find a better starting point.

Most importantly take your time. Do not rush things. This letter is NOT meant to be pressuring you to hurry up and make decisions or figure everything out or make you return to the church. We have already been through all of that. Simply to point you in the way I believe is the right direction to start walking if you have not already started to do so.

“It is alright to take time. Only in taking time can you realise how much more you are than the individual. By taking time you are built by the character of the world you are in and the people around you...God alone will tell me who I ‘really’ am, and he will do so only in the lifelong process of bringing my thoughts and longings into his presence without fear and deception.”

Rowan Williams, Where God Happens, p. 53 & 50

The Archbishop of Canterbury’s has a short guide to making decisions found on page 61-62 of Where God Happens. He is wiser and holier than I will ever be. I trust him and so I offer you his words as you continue to make important life decisions.
“...God leaves the question about his will to a process of discernment of our free will. The discernment goes like this: We have to choose between a number of courses of action. What course of action more fully resonates with the kind of life Christ lived and lives? What sort of action opens up more possibilities for God to work? Now, these are not questions that immediately yield an answer. But they are the stuff, the raw material of reflection. What course of action might be (even a little) more in tune with the life of Christ? And what opens, rather than closes, doors for God’s healing, reconciling, forgiving, and creating work to go on? It may well be that in any given situation there simply is not a clear answer to those questions. But if they are the questions we are asking, then the very process of reflecting and discerning makes space in ourselves for the life of Christ and the creative movement of God. To the extent to which we truthfully and sincerely make that space, we are already in tune with the will of God. Even if we go on to make a mistake, we have not done it by shutting the door on God. We have done our best to leave room for God in the decisions we made. To the degree we manage that, we really do (in some measure) God’s will. We must simply leave God room and freedom to salvage our life from whatever mess our decision may bring with it.”

I trust that you are capable of being an open and loving person. I trust you already have all of the tools you need to make decisions for yourself. I believe, if you give yourself the time for reflection and discernment, you will make the right ones. I also do not believe there is anything ‘wrong’ with you except for the fact that you are a human being and alive and that in itself (obviously) is the reason we always have problems with ourselves and with the world. We are all lost in a way and are also all found in a way. Life is complicated and you are in the same boat as the rest of us. The fact that you have particular weaknesses and desires and fears does not make you a bad person. It just makes you human. Do not fall into the illusion that everyone else is alright and except you. “Go and pray for me a sinner also”.

I am aware that you do not see a future for yourself as a regular churchgoer. I will ask you to not give up entirely. Keep the door open. Remember your childhood and youth with us and return to us when you can even if only to see us and not for the religious side of things. As you get older keep an open mind to what we have taught you about goodness, forgiveness, meaning, and love. Please do not forget us. If you are ever ready to come back please know that we will be waiting and will rejoice to have you with us again. They say that ‘home’ is where they have to take you in. We consider ourselves your home and you have the right to be here. Even if we are long dead, we will still be a part of the church and we will still rejoice. If you ever find yourself afraid or confused, sad or lonely, or in danger or need please come to us. We will do everything we can for you. You may come to feel that you are no longer part of us but we will always consider you one of us no matter how much you change. We care what happens to you and we will love and pray for you all of our days and beyond.

I write this to you as an act of love not as an act of manipulation or guilt or judgement. Thus it is here for you to reread, read again, or in a month or in many years - whenever you are ready. I want you to be happy, healthy, and free. I want you to have an adventurous life free from fear and anxiety with someone you love and with a life you will find real. I want you to be able to love yourself, trust yourself and respect yourself. I offer you my reflections, the fruit of much prayer and thought, with this in mind.

"Furthermore, we have not only to risk the adventure alone; for the heroes of all time have gone before us; the labyrinth is thoroughly known; we have only to follow the thread of the hero-path. And where we had thought to find an abomination; we shall find a god; and where we had thought to slay another, we shall slay ourselves. Where we had thought to travel outward, we shall come to the centre of our own existence; where we had thought to be alone, we shall be with all the world."

Joseph Campbell

This Letter is not to a Real Person but an imaginary one who is a combination of the many young people I have ministered to and have subsequently left the Church.

Become All Flame: Whitterings, May 2009

Rowan William’s book ‘Where God Happens’ is an exploration of Christian community using the wisdom of the Desert Fathers. The Deseret Fathers were the first generation of Christian Monks who fled from civilisation into the Egyptian desert to pursue what they considered the ideal Christian life. These communities of hermits thrived for over a hundred years beginning in the second half of the second century. The most famous Desert Father was St Anthony the Great who died in the year 356.

The stories of the Desert Fathers are rather Zen-like in character in that they teach by example rather than by preaching. These communities emphasised lives of humility, silence, mutual love and simplicity. In time these ideals would form the basis of the Rule of St Benedict and as such the foundation of Western Monasticism. These men and, to a lesser extent, women felt that the church in their day was becoming secularised and losing the focus of the Gospel and they wanted to experiment to find out what the church could really be like.

Archbishop Williams explores the themes of fleeing and staying in the last two chapters of the book. Fleeing is often a misunderstood idea. The Fathers were not fleeing from creation but from ‘the world’
“For this battle the Apostle arms us, saying, "We are not contending against flesh and blood," that is, not against human beings whom we see, "but against the principalities, against the powers, against the rulers of the darkness of this world." So that you may not think that demons are the rulers of heaven and earth, he says, "of the darkness of this world." He says, "of the world," meaning the lovers of the world— of the "world," meaning the ungodly and wicked— the "world" of which the Gospel says. "And the world knew him not."
A Reading from the Treatise of Saint Augustine on the Psalms. [Vulgate Psalm 54. Prayer Book Psalm 55]

They were trying to flee from false images of themselves and others. They believed the individual was different from the person. The person was the unique created child of God that exists behind all self definitions whilst the individual is just those definitions of self with which we perceive and define ourselves . I am ‘this’ and am not ‘that’. Thus through deep introspection and silence and humility they identified with humanity as a whole and not just their own experience of it.

A brother sinned and the presbyter ordered him to go out of church. But Abba Bessarion got up and went out with him, saying “I too am a sinner”.

They fled from anything that might possibly emphasise their individuality at the cost of the nurturing of their person and its relationship with its creator.
“And the call to flee from privilege, safety, speech, (and Bishops), is a call to put some distance between yourself and the less than personal pressures of the soul, temptations that stunt your growth, which the Greek Christian tradition calls pathe, “passions” – or pressures on the soul to pull it out of its centeredness in God.” Rowan Williams, Where God Happens, pg. 91
I believe that it is in this light that we can start to understand that strange saying of Soren Kierkegaard about the self satisfied clergy of his day:
“The punishment I should like the clergy to have is a tenfold increase in salary. I am afraid that neither the world not the clergy would understand this punishment.”

The other side of the coin of fleeing is the importance of staying. Staying is the hardest of the spiritual disciplines. Benedictines take a vow of stability and poverty and celibacy do not even come close to vying with the first vow in difficulty. Staying is a radical commitment to look beyond self dramatisation and fantasy. Without the distractions of the world to keep us occupied the discipline of staying in the moment is soon met with the harshest of the spiritual attacks – boredom. The Greeks called this akedia. St John Cassian identified it as one of the eight great temptations on the soul. Akedia
“has to do with frustration, helplessness, lack of motivation, the displacement of stresses and difficulties from the inner to the outer world." Rowan Williams, Where God Happens, pg. 96
It is the temptation that comes when the ego is cut off from its nourishment and it begins to whine and complain and panic. With akedia we believe that “we can’t start from here!” that we could do better somewhere else with different people.
“We are easily persuaded that the problems of growing up in the life of the spirit can be located outside of ourselves. Somewhere else I could be nicer, holier, more balanced, more detached about criticism, more disciplined, able to sing in tune, and probably thinner as well. Somewhere there is a saintly person who really understands me (and so won’t make life difficult for me).” Rowan Williams, Where God Happens, pg. 99

Staying takes it as faith that God can be found anywhere and that if one is patient and perseveres then in time one’s whole personal life will become pervaded with an awareness of God’s presence. Holiness is simply maturity in the life of staying committed.

Another important element is the discipline of staying is that one must always “start from where you are”. Do not look ahead to the future too much or you will get discouraged.
“If I did not suffer minute by minute, it would be impossible for me to be patient, but I see only the present moment, I forget the past and take good care not to anticipate the future. If we grow disheartened, if we sometimes despair, it is because we have been dwelling on the past or the future.” St Teresa of Lisieux

The final defeat of akedia is found not in how to not be bored but about how to face the fear of boredom without fleeing and to continue with perseverance and not stop the journey.
“A brother fell when he was tempted, and in his distress he stopped practicing his monastic rule. He really longed to take it up again, but his own misery prevented him. He would say to himself, “When shall I be able to be holy in the way I used to be before?” He went to see one of the old men and told him all about himself. And when the old man learned of his distress, he said: :There was a man who had a plot of land, but it got neglected and turned into waste ground, full of weeds and brambles. So he said to his son, ‘Go and weed the ground.’ The son went off to weed it, saw all the brambles, and despaired. He said to himself, ‘How long will it take before I have uprooted and reclaimed all of that?’ So he lay down and went to sleep for several days. His father came to see how he was getting on and found he had done nothing at all. ‘Why have you done nothing?’ he said. The son replied, ‘Father, when I started to look at this and saw how many weeds and brambles there were, I was so depressed that I could do nothing but lie down on the ground.’ His father said, ‘Child, just go over the surface of the plot every day and you will make some progress.’ So he did, and before long the whole plot was weeded. The same is true for you brother: work just a little bit without getting discouraged, and God by his grace will re-establish you."

The church already recognises the importance of this fidelity in the way it celebrates the lifelong commitment found in marriage, ordination, and the taking of religious vows. Many people relate strongly to the presence of Christ in the Sacrament reserved in many churches as a pledge of His promise to be with us “Even to the end of the Age.” She enshrines the strategy against akedia trough the discipline of regular meditation and the daily recitation of the offices and the weekly gathering of the Christian community around the Altar. These habits are our lifeblood.
“The desert community tells the church, then and now, that its job is to be a fearless community, and it shows us some of the habits we need to develop in order to become fearless, habits of self-awareness and attention to each other, grounded in the pervasive awareness of God that comes from constant exposure to God in Bible reading and prayer." Rowan Williams, Where God Happens, pg 28

Once she also celebrated this spiritual practice through the tradition of long incumbencies for parish priests. The work of the Alban Institute has once again emphasised this approach by showing through its research that it takes many years to integrate into a community and that the incarnational presence of the priest only filters through after living in the community for a long period. They suggest that incumbencies of shorter durations are seriously hampered in their effectiveness.

I might also suggest that the spirit of akedia may be one of the chief diseases of the modern clergy (as it has been many, many times in our history) as well as one of the main reasons for the dramatic and disastrous drop in vocations to the religious life. The Anglican Church of Canada is even more seriously effected in this regard. In the Directory of Anglican Religious Communities (Anglican Religious Life 2008-2009) it lists only 45 people in religious vows in Canada: 2 Holy Cross Fathers , 31 Sisters of St John the Divine, 7 Sisters of the Church and 5 Oratorians.

Archbishop William’s reflections on fleeing and staying are only briefly outlined here and I would strongly recommend this small book to you for deeper reflection. In the end he reminds us that the end of all of our journeying in the life of religious discipline is to discover who we have really been all along: beloved, transfigured and holy children of God
“Lot went to Abba Joseph and said, “Abba, as far as I can, I keep a moderate rule, with a little fasting, and prayer and meditation, and quiet, and as far as I can, I try to cleanse my heart of evil thoughts. What else should I do?” Then the hermit stood up and spread out his hands to heaven, and his fingers shone like ten flames of fire, and he said, “If you will, you can become all flame.”

Lazare Veni Foras: Whitterings, April 2009

Lazare Veni Foras

On the last day of the diocesan pilgrimage to the Holy Land we had a free day in Jerusalem. Although I was suffering from pneumonia I was determined to make the most of it. It turned out to be one of the better days of my life.

I rose at three in the morning and made my way through the darkened streets of the Muslim Quarter of the old city to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre to be there when it opened at four when the different Christian communities begin their morning services. The Church of the Holy Sepulchre was first built in the year 363 and is the traditional site of the death, burial, and Resurrection of Jesus Christ. The holiest parts of the church are the rock of Golgotha and the Tomb of the Resurrection. The ‘Status Quo” refers to the agreement of the various ancient Christian faiths that share custody of the Church: The Armenian Orthodox (under the Patriarch and Catholicos of Armenia); the Ethiopian Orthodox (under the Patriarch of Alexandria); the Coptic Orthodox (under the Patriarch of Alexandria); The Greek Orthodox (under the Patriarch of Constantinople); the Syrian Orthodox (under the Patriarch of Antioch); and the Roman Catholic Church (under the Patriarch ‘Pope” of Rome). These ancient Churches, along with the Assyrian Orthodox (Chaldeans) and the Malankara Orthodox (Thomists), represent the oldest continuing representatives of Christianity in the world. Except for the Roman Catholic Church, we in the West tend to know very little about these ancient churches. This is a shame not only because it shields us from the realisation that Christianity is an oriental (eastern) religion with its culture and origins in the Middle East, but also because it blinds us to the massive persecution of these fellow Christians in the modern world.

The various traditions and languages of these churches blend together in the Holy Sepulchre every morning when the different traditions begin to sing their morning services. The first to begin are the Copts chanting the morning Mass in Arabic. The eerie echoing strains of this ancient chant sound to an unattuned ear just like the Arabic chanting from Mosques. Then the Greek Orthodox chanting begins, blending its rich cadences with that of the ancient Arabic. The Armenian Orthodox chant in Armenian while the Syrians chant in Aramaic, the language of Christ Himself. Midway through the early morning hours the Franciscan friars file into their chapel to begin the chanting of Mattins in Latin to the beautiful strains of Gregorian Chant. The rise and fall of these different languages and musical chants echoing from various locations throughout the church is one of the most haunting and moving things I have ever heard.

Except for the various priests and monks and friars performing the services I was alone in the Church with only four nuns and a Sister of the Community founded by Mother Teresa. I positioned myself outside of the Tomb of Christ looking into the place of the Resurrection. I was unable to go inside as various priests and their servers say Mass continually inside until seven in the morning. I stood in silence listening, almost hypnotised, to the various strains of praise to the Resurrected Christ. Yet, although the beauty was overwhelming, I still felt alone, isolated. I could not participate in any of the services and although I had come so close, I could not enter into the ‘Holiest of Holies’. Then a young Roman Catholic priest passed by with his server heading inside to the tomb to say Mass and as he passed he suddenly reached out and took the hand of the Sister of the Missionaries of Charity and with his other hand grabbed mine and drew both of us along with him into the tomb. He did not ask - he simply acted. One moment I was outside looking in and in the next, through an act of generosity and grace from another Christian, I was inside the tomb kneeling at the very centre of the world. The four of us were cramped together so tightly there was no room to turn around and when kneeling one had to lean on the tomb of Christ itself. When it came time for the Epistle the priest handed me the book and just nodded at me. The reading was from the third chapter of the Letter of Paul to the Colossians:
“So if you have been raised with Christ, seek the things that are above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God. Set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth, for you have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God.”

The feeling of isolation that had existed only moments before being replaced by total inclusion, the smallness of the tomb, and the sense of the overwhelming vastness of the faith that centres here made the last words of the Epistle reverberate in my heart as I read them. I am not ashamed to say that tears came to my eyes. How simple it is to be a vehicle for the grace of God and yet how seldom it occurs.

By seven in the morning I had joined the Armenians in their great Cathedral of St James (only open during the morning and evening offices) and had the honour of standing next to the Tombs of St James the Great, Brother of the Lord, and St James the Less, the first Bishop of Jerusalem who called the Council of Jerusalem recorded in the Book of Acts, as the sun rose and illuminated the gloom of the interior previously lit only by hundreds of hanging oil lamps. At eight I joined the Syrian Orthodox in their Cathedral for a third service of Mattins. After breakfast in the Jewish Quarter and praying at the Western Wall, I went to the very top of the Mount of Olives to the Mosque of the Ascension. As the ancient traditional spot of the Ascension is in Muslim hands, very few Christian Pilgrims ever visit it. I spent the next hour with a handful of Muslims lighting candles and venerating the last place on earth that Jesus had stood. After visiting the Church of the Lord’s Prayer, I continued down the Mount of Olives stopping at the Church of Dominus Flevit (Jesus Wept) and attending a Greek Orthodox Mass in the subterranean church of the Dormition of the Blessed Virgin Mary and visiting the Cave of the Betrayal of Christ at the bottom of the hill.

While drinking thick Turkish coffee in a small cafe outside the Garden of Gethsemane, I was seized by a sudden desire to visit the Tomb of Lazarus. A few years ago it would have been a half hours walk from the top of the Mount of Olives. Now Bethany is in occupied territory on the West Bank and a great wall now separates the Mount of Olives from the home of Jesus’ friends Mary and Martha and Lazarus. After some negotiating with local Palestinians I found a guide who was willing to drive me the thirty miles around the hill to take me to the tomb. When we finally arrived at the church, the Friday services at the Mosques were in full flow and all around the town one could hear the echoes of the Imams’ sermons, broadcast by loudspeaker, interlaced with Muslim chant. My guide told me he needed to go to the Mosque to pray and that if I finished in the church before he finished at the Mosque I should just wait in the car for him. He then casually handed me the key to his car, his livelihood, and sauntered off. The Palestinian priest at the church of Mary and Martha told me the church compound was being closed for the middle of the day but that I should feel free to take my time inside, told me how to get out by a back gate which would self lock behind me, and then locked me into the compound by myself. This left me an hour to stroll around the beautiful gardens and the remains of the fourth and sixth century church and pray in the modern Roman Catholic Church before exiting to find the Tomb of Lazarus.

In the sixteenth century the Muslims built a Mosque directly over the Tomb of Lazarus blocking the traditional access to the Tomb from the church. To get to the tomb now one must walk up the hill to the small entrance the Franciscans carved into the rock some five hundred years ago. This meant my walking through crowds of Muslims gathered outside of the Mosque who guided me to the entrance where a severely handicapped Palestinian keeps the key. After telling me to be careful on the roughly carved steps he shut the door behind me and locked me in, again all alone. Access to the Tomb of Lazarus is via an immensely long, worn flight of steps that descends from the top of the hill into the very bowels of the earth. Every time I thought I must be getting to the bottom the stairway would wind around a corner and continue down into the gloom. As I descended further and further into the earth the sounds of the Imam’s sermon and the chant of Muslim prayer from the Mosque above me grew fainter and fainter. Just when I thought that the stairs would go on forever I reached the atrium outside of the tomb – the place where Jesus would have stood looking down into the tomb to call out to Lazarus “Lazarus Come Forth!”.

To get into the place where Lazarus had lain, I had to walk down another few steps, get on my hands and knees and crawl through a dark tunnel into the tomb where I could see a votive candle burning in the gloom. When I emerged into the tomb itself, it felt as though I were in the heart of the earth. I turned around in the gloom of this place of death and looked up and out to the lighted place where Jesus had stood. In the gloom inside the tomb I read the lines over the door:
“O Grave Where is Thy Victory!
O Death Where is Thy Sting!”

There kneeling in the grave of Lazarus I was overcome with emotion. I understood why the Orthodox chant throughout Holy Week the great Anthem:
“By Raiding Lazarus from the Tomb,
Before thy Passion,
Thou didst Proclaim
The Universal Resurrection of Christ – God.”

The last time I wrote this column I shared with you the fact that I could not grieve for the several friends I have recently lost. When I read those words my heart opened to my loss. The grief was not only for my losing them but equally for my own wretchedness, my own lacklustre life, the death in which I already live in my weakness and sin. Staring up and out of the place of death to the hope of Resurrection my heart longed for the mercy and love of God in a terrible way. I prayed, not consciously or deliberately but with genuine expression, that I too may hear the words “Come Forth!” I prayed that He would also be able to give me new life. I remembered the words of the Anglican priest and poet George Herbert from his poem The Flower:

“Who would have thought my shriveled heart
could have recovered greenness? It was gone
quite under ground; as flowers depart
to see their mother-root, when they have blown;
where they together
all the hard weather,
dead to the world, keep house unknown.

And now in age I bud again,
after so many deaths I live and write;
I once more smell the dew and rain,
and relish versing: O my only light,
it cannot be
that I am he
on whom thy tempests fell all night.”

It really was one of the most extraordinary days of my life.

Ecclesiastes, the Slave Pits of Zanzibar and the Laetoli Footprints or 'He that Increaseth Knowledge Increaseth Sorrow': Whitterings, February 2009

"Vanity of vanities, saith the Preacher, vanity of vanities; all is vanity. What profit hath a man of all his labour which he taketh under the sun? One generation passeth away, and another generation cometh: but the earth abideth for ever. The sun also ariseth, and the sun goeth down, and hasteth to his place where he arose. The wind goeth toward the south, and turneth about unto the north; it whirleth about continually, and the wind returneth again according to his circuits. All the rivers run into the sea; yet the sea is not full; unto the place from whence the rivers come, thither they return again. All things are full of labour; man cannot utter it: the eye is not satisfied with seeing, nor the ear filled with hearing. The thing that hath been, it is that which shall be; and that which is done is that which shall be done: and there is no new thing under the sun. Is there any thing whereof it may be said, See, this is new? it hath been already of old time, which was before us. There is no remembrance of former things; neither shall there be any remembrance of things that are to come with those that shall come after."
Ecclesiastes 2-11

The words of the Preacher have been at the forefront of my mind recently. In the space of three months eight friends of mine from across the seas have died and I have lost one of my closest friends. My grief has not followed the straight line of: Denial, Anger, Bargaining, Depression and Acceptance. Rather the stages have jumped around my heart all higgledy piggledy; some days one, some days another. The stark reality of finality, however, seems to be the universal note being struck.

“The pain within the millstones’ pitiless turning is real, for our love for each other – for world and all the products of extension – is real, vaulting, insofar as it is love, beyond the plane of the stones’ sickening churn and arcing to the realm of spirit bare. And you get caught holding one end of a love, when your father drops, and your mother; when a land is lost, or a time, and your friend blotted out, gone, your brother’s body spoiled, and cold, your infant dead, and you dying: you reel out love’s long line alone, stripped like a live wire loosing its sparks to a cloud, like a live wire loosed in space to longing and grief everlasting.”
From ‘The Holy the Firm’ by Annie Dillard

During my trip to Africa in the autumn I took some holiday time to go on safari and made a significant detour to visit Olduvai Gorge. Olduvai Gorge is a narrow gorge in the eastern Serengeti Plain that is commonly referred to as the ‘Cradle of Mankind’ or ‘The Garden of Eden’. Here Mary and Louis Leaky discovered hominid remains going back 2.5 million years: Homo Habilis, Homo Erectus and Australopithecus Boisei. It is also here that the earliest hominid footprints, known as the Laetoli Footprints, were discovered. They date from the Pliocene age, roughly 3.6 million years ago. The cast of these prints are found in a small museum on the edge of the gorge. To look at they seem insignificant. When I slowly came to realise both their age and their huge anthropological importance I experienced a strange feeling. I was awed by the vast amount of time conveyed by these fossil remains and these small almost four million year old footprints of our ancestors. The beauty and breadth of our journey through time speaks of our strength and determination. At the same time I was troubled by the ‘unknowableness’ of almost all of those who have gone before us. Their lives and personalities are completely hidden from us by the fog of time and death. It seemed so futile. Two different feelings at once: Awe at our perseverance and melancholy at the fact that almost everybody is forgotten, no matter how strong they were or what they accomplished with their strength.
I had a similar experience at the slave pits of Zanzibar. After the British Empire outlawed the Slave Trade, Bishop Edward Steer (a fervent abolitionist who spent his own money to purchase the slaves of Zanzibar and lead them inland to found the Diocese of Masasi) bought the former slave pits in Zanzibar and in 1873 built the Anglican Cathedral on top of them. The high Altar is built directly over the spot where the ‘whipping tree’ had stood. It was to this post that slaves were tied and whipped to show, by the amount of blood they could lose and the amount of pain they could bear, how strong they were as the strong fetched a much higher price. Sloping grooves were cut into the stones at the base of the ‘tree’ to allow the blood to drain away. The remaining slave pits are now found in the basement of the cathedral hall. This profound symbol to Resurrection and Redemption that Bishop Steere built was humbling.

The vision it represents is an example of man at his very highest level of love and compassion. However the reality of the cruelty of man that made such a statement necessary and the countless unsung and forgotten lives of the slaves that passed though that market made one realise how often the darkness overcomes the light.

You would think that it would be depressing and disheartening to see how slowly the deep message of the Gospel has radiated outwards into the world. Yet I do not believe that this would be an appropriate response. First one makes the mistake of stopping in time and looking backwards in history with no reference to the path ahead and how far we have travelled. Secondly we often miss what is obvious from a wider perspective. When the Gospel was first preached the world had no need of a loving god and no desire for one. Gods were valued for their strength and power. One did not need love instead one needed an advantage over one’s neighbour. A god of weakness, a god of Compassion was unheard of as well as one to be despised. Yet in only 2000 years humanity has come to pay at least lip service that love is the greatest of all values and should underlie all of our actions. We could no more tolerate the behaviour of society 200 years ago let alone 500, 1000, or 2000. Slavery has been abolished over most of the world and is being fought in the few parts of the world where it remains (there are still an estimated 27 million slaves left in the world). All of this in only 175 years. When placed against the timeline of the Latore footprints not even a half a second has passed.

I call this column ‘Whitterings’ (A Scottish Word for Ramblings) for a reason. Every now and then what you get is simply this: Musings that do not seek a resolution partially because I do not think there is one. Life is often like this. I am in the state of mind of the preacher. I look at the people in my life leaving; I see the obliteration of the memory of those who have gone before and the senseless cruelty of man. At the same time I am thankful of the love I have known and am confident that all love is worth having even if it passes away, I know that even if the lives of our ancestors is forgotten by us it is held in the everlasting memory of God and has worth, and I see that man is capable of rising above his baser instincts to reach out to touch the hem of glory. It is like the verse from the Leonard Cohen song Hallelujah that describes faith that can sing even in its defeat:

Your faith was strong but you needed proof
You saw her bathing on the roof
Her beauty and the moonlight overthrew you
She tied youTo a kitchen chair
She broke your throne, and she cut your hair
And from your lips she drew the Hallelujah

Baby I have been here before
I know this room, I've walked this floor
I used to live alone before I knew you.
I've seen your flag on the marble arch
Love is not a victory march
It's a cold and it's a broken Hallelujah
Hallelujah, Hallelujah, Hallelujah, Hallelujah

So although I am sad I am not depressed and although I am weighed down I am not looking down. The fact that the Preacher exists to give words to my heart and knowledge that I am not the first to walk this path is a comfort and a blessing. He did not have the last word on the matter, that would come later, but he gives voice to something profound and real in human existence.

"I the Preacher was king over Israel in Jerusalem. And I gave my heart to seek and search out by wisdom concerning all things that are done under heaven: this sore travail hath God given to the sons of man to be exercised therewith. I have seen all the works that are done under the sun; and, behold, all is vanity and vexation of spirit. That which is crooked cannot be made straight: and that which is wanting cannot be numbered. I communed with mine own heart, saying, Lo, I am come to great estate, and have gotten more wisdom than all they that have been before me in Jerusalem: yea, my heart had great experience of wisdom and knowledge. And I gave my heart to know wisdom, and to know madness and folly: I perceived that this also is vexation of spirit. For in much wisdom is much grief: and he that increaseth knowledge increaseth sorrow."
Ecclesiastes 12-18