Who or what is transfigured?

Many people, if not most people, have had a moment when life came vividly alive and they have the sense of something beyond this life, of some presence. “Time stopped still,” they will say.  Or, “I just knew everything would be alright.”  Very often these experiences take place when we are alone and, yes, up a mountain, or in what is described as a “thin” place – somewhere which feels closer to God.  Whatever others may think of these experiences, the person who has had them knows them to be real for themselves.  You never forget such experiences and you seldom, if ever, speak of them.

As I was preparing my sermon for this Transfiguration Sunday, I happened to have a couple of conversations, as well as doing the usual reading preparation. In one conversation a fellow priest reminded me of what the Orthodox Church thinks of the Transfiguration.  For them, it is the disciples who are transfigured / transformed / metamorphosed.  Jesus has always been what they see on the mountain.  It is just that the disciples have not been able to see it before.  My fellow priest suggested that when the disciples and Jesus go down the mountain and Jesus heals the Epileptic boy, this is also a moment of transfiguration.  Where Jesus comes close and heals, our lives are transfigured.  Now the three disciples who went up the mountain see Jesus in a new way and see what he does in a new way, even if they do not yet understand the way of the cross that he will take.  Lifelong conversion is done a bit at a time.

The second conversation was with someone who came to talk to me about the place she finds herself in, which is pretty dismaying. Like so many other people she is a carer for a mother with dementia.  Someone in the home where her mother is challenged her as to why she bothered to go and visit when she is not recognised.  “I do it because I know who she is,” she said to me.  “I know what soap she likes.”

The transformation story really starts with the stay at Ceaserea Philippi eight days before when Jesus asks his disciples who people say he is. “But who do you say I am?”  asks Jesus, and Peter makes the great leap of comprehension and faith and recognises Jesus as the Messiah, the Christ.

Is the Transfiguration also about the question of identity? Thomas Merton asked the question, “Who am I?” and the answer he received was, “I am one whom Jesus loves.”

The lady who came to see me transfigures her mother life because she recognises who she is. God recognises who we are, despite our “dementia”, our muddle, our self-hatred, our sin.  God sees through and past all that.  He never forgets who we are.

On the mountain the disciples comprehend who Jesus is a little more. Because of what they see and experience they understand themselves differently.  The people down the mountain in their painful experience are transfigured by Jesus, even though they don’t recognise who he is.  And through his grace working in us, we are able to transfigure the lives of others, even in very small ways – like buying the right soap.

Reading Icons and Poetry

Writing some Christmas thank you letters this morning, I found myself falling into the trap of speaking of Christmas as a past event, which is not actually how I feel on this St John’s Day, 27th December.  What I was sharing, of course, was how Christmas Day was, and that day is past.  But the season of Christmas and the opportunity to engage deeply with the story, mystery and meaning of God’s self-emptying and becoming a tiny child in Jesus continues for another ten days.

There is a great temptation to rush into a new kind of frenzy immediately Christmas Day is over. But if we can just find a few minutes each day to pause, contemplate and reflect on the story of the Nativity, there is such treasure buried here, such spiritual food, that we will find ourselves nourished throughout the season; and we will be glad, so glad.

One way that I have found to support, direct and sustain me through all the seasons of the Christian year, is poetry, and particularly anthologies chosen and opened up to me by people who know a great deal more about the discipline than I do. You do not have to know anything about poetry to read and enjoy these books.  What poetry has the power to do is to link story and picture, imagination and meditation together so that we find ourselves approaching the old, old story of the Nativity, which we think we know so well, from a new and surprising angle.  The book I have been using this year is Malcolm Guite’s “Waiting on the Word: A poem a day for Advent, Christmas and Epiphany.”  Each morning in Advent was like opening a window of an Advent calendar but far better.  Who needs chocolates?  And now during Christmas we are unwrapping a variety of “takes” on the birth of Christ.

Today we had Nativity, by Scott Cairns, which is extraordinarily powerful, layer upon layer of words and plays on words, like rapt and wrapt.  Time also layered, so that we see the various visitors to the child before, during and after their visit.  How it changes them.  They are never the same again.  One is reminded of the end of T S Eliot’s poem, “The Journey of the Magi,” when the narrator, one of the Magi, says that this birth was more like a death than a birth.  He refers to the death mysteriously present in the birth of the child of Bethlehem: a life / death he cannot access.  But he also refers to the death he has now experienced, to his old self, his old way of life.  He cannot settle back into what he was.  Yet, he says,

I should be glad of another death

One of the images Cairn’s poem reminded me of, was of the medieval icon that would show the whole story of the nativity. So, for example, you see the shepherds in the fields, before and after the angels come; the Magi travelling and then arriving: different parts of the story in the same picture: the same characters but in different states.

When this wonderful and amazing story gets inside us; when we meet the Christ at his birth, at his cross or at his resurrection, or when we are given the gift of seeing that the life and death are all wrapped up in every stage of Jesus’ life, we too are changed. There is no going back. As Cairns puts it, the focussing star, directs all

slow pilgrims to the core

Where all journeys meet,

Appalling crux and hallowed cave and womb…

 

We begin to comprehend joy and power and the pain of this blessed season and the God who loves us more than anything.

Advent musings at Launde

Dark days, early mornings and the opportunity to reflect on this season of Advent go together.

We are all being told we need more exercise so every morning – well, strictly speaking, almost every morning – I take a short walk before I go to work. At present, it is still night when I go out and it seems to be getting darker and darker because we are a week off the shortest day of the year.  Today the cloud cover was very thick and without starlight or moonlight I couldn’t see the path at my feet until my eyes adjusted to the different densities of black, grey and silver, where overnight rain had gathered in puddles.  Once in front of the Abbey, however, the sharp profiles of the winter trees stood out against the sky, black upon grey-black.  A bird sloped soundlessly across the path and hid itself from me stealthily.  A plane droned high above and I wondered whether the passengers were enjoying a beautiful sunrise above the clouds or were caught up in the mist.

What is so amazing on these winter walks is not just what you see but what you don’t hear. Everything is silent.  As I already mentioned, one might see a bird: I often do.  But they are silent and hop about close to the ground as if safer there.  Every now and then there may be an owl’s hoot or my feet on the gravel may alarm some ducks or coots, but for the most part I walk through a deep and profound silence.  Mister Eckhart said, “There is nothing so much like God as silence,” and on these morning walks I feel he is absolutely right.  The silence is not empty but denotes presence.  It is full of….?

And the change comes as you walk. On a totally overcast day like today, you realise that as you have been walking, blackness has become different shades of grey.  Looking towards the east, you see bank upon bank, slice upon slice: hoary, ashen, steely, silvery, griseous, slate, pearl greys.  Despite the overcast sky, light comes.  As you look, as you walk, you know that everything you see belongs to you; that no one is seeing what you are seeing from your unique physical position on this day and at this moment.  This is God’s gift to you – and, of course, not just to you but to every person wherever they are who are looking upon this miracle from their unique angle.

And then the birds begin to sing.

It is a profound moment. The day may be overcast.  There may not be any sunshine today, but the light will come and we will walk in the light, even if it is not the full light from a cloudless sky.   And the time of waiting in the night is not wasted.  On the contrary, it is precious, for we find we are not alone in the dark.  There is a presence there with us in the silence, also waiting, biding his time, inviting us and full of grace.

The Three “W’s” of Advent

I feel before starting this blog that I must apologise for not having written it for three weeks.  Like other people sometimes the demands on time and energy are more than I can manage: something has to give.

Perhaps this is the way we go into Advent.  Life gets so busy and what gives is the spiritual side.  To begin with we determine that we are going to make this season very special: we are going to concentrate on the themes of Advent.  But then instead of preparing our hearts and souls for the birth of Christ we find ourselves yet again just thinking about Christmas Day and all the things we have to do to prepare practically – so that good wishes have been sent to everyone we should wish them for, presents are bought and wrapt and the turkey is on the table, cooked!

In a way the things that have demanded so much of my time lately are exactly the right opportunities for getting down to what Advent is about, Waiting, Watching and Wondering.  You see, I have been working on two retreats, both of them were dealing with Advent and incarnation.  There is nothing that helps make one as attentive to the subject in hand as either being on retreat or accompanying people on retreat.

These three “W” are God’s gifts to us in Advent.  The Waiting is not the kind of irritating waiting of the Post Office queue or the anxious consideration forward thinking, running out of time waiting.  This waiting is attention to the present moment, real attention to the gift of the present moment and all that is available to us in it.  As Dostoevsky said,

Love all that has been created by God, both the whole and every grain of sand. Love every leaf and every ray of light. Love the beasts and the birds, love the plants, love every separate fragment. If you love each separate fragment, you will understand the mystery of the whole resting in God.

You may be sitting in silence quietly waiting “for the God to speak” or out walking, but the important thing is that we wait attentively.

The second “W”, Watching, is to be alert to what God might share with us in any given moment.  Another way to put this is that we are invited to listen spiritually to God speaking to us through whatever medium God gives us.  This may be scripture, nature or an item of news.  It may be a sudden compassionate movement of the heart when we see an advertisement on the television asking for donations for a Syrian Child or Wateraid.  It may be that we receive a unexpected insight from the Holy Spirit or a deepening of faith.  To this end it is very helpful, I find, to have a special book to read for Advent or to look at paintings, listen to music or do whatever works for you.

The final “W” is for Wondering.  Of course we hope that all our waiting and watching will lead to a sense of wonder.  But this wondering can be of two kinds – the wondering which is about the state of the world, our own or others health, even, can I really believe this promise of the Child in the Manger?  Or it can be that heart bursting, breath taking “Ah” moment.  But instead of looking at it all out there, in the future, wishing that it may one day happen, perhaps the wonder is already here with us in the present moment; when we love “love each separate fragment, (and) understand the mystery of the whole resting in God.”  This is the sacrament of the present moment.  This is the moment when Jesus is born.  Potentially this moment is in every moment that God makes if only we can practice Waiting, Watching and wondering in Advent.

 

“There is no path to peace. Peace is the path.” (Mahatma Ghandi)

Today in preparing for our Remembrance Day service, I read about the man who wrote that famous First World War poem, “In Flanders Fields.” Named John MaCrea, a doctor, he was battalion surgeon to an artillery unit at Ypres.  For seventeen days he worked on wounded men in dug out holes in the canal banks.  He was in his mid-forties.  He didn’t have to enlist at his age.  Indeed, he had sworn never to go to war again after his experiences as a doctor in the Boer War.  There he had seen more men die of disease and the lack of care they got after being wounded then from the wounds themselves.

But when the call went out in 1914 John McCrea joined up again despite his fear because, he said, he was more afraid of his conscience. Later he describe the seventeen days at Ypres as being like Hades but it was the death of a young friend and former student of his, 22 year old Lieutenant Alexis Helmer, which led him to write the poem that has touched so many hearts.  Because there was no chaplain McCrae had to do the funeral rite. The next day he wrote the poem sitting on the step of the ambulance looking out over a landscape of makeshift crosses towards the one belonging to Helmer.  There were poppies everywhere and an East wind was gently blowing.

What struck me as I read McCrae’s biography was that here was an extraordinarily decent human being who found himself caught up in the most appalling horrors, not once but twice in his life, because he was a doctor. Here was a man who really saw, day by day, the utter cruelty and futility of war; who suffered his own losses and bereavements.  He didn’t die in battle but because he always had severe asthma he came down with pneumonia and meningitis and died before the war ended.  No doubt the time in the trenches did not help his already fragile health.

“There is no path to peace. Peace is the path,” said Mahatma Ghandi.  Every day ordinary human beings get caught up in war.  Every day they find themselves involved in something over which they have no control: another man’s quarrel, another man’s sin – but they are in the midst of it.  All anyone can do is try to keep their own sense of integrity, their own sense of what is a right way to behave.  They make peace in their own tents, among their own.  It is not much but to those round them, it makes a deal of difference.

Belonging

Love is one of those words that has become devalued over time. Today we tend to use it mainly to describe the feelings between a man and a woman.  We are almost embarrassed to talk about love between friends, especially when they are of the same gender.  Yet some of the most powerful love I have ever come across has been between those on the front line in war; soldier, for example and colleague soldier, who would literally give up their life for their friend; who when they are fighting are doing so more for the person to the right and left of them then for any family member back at home.  Shared experience brings people together and the more powerful the experience the more strongly the ties are often felt.

Long before I was ever old enough to be attracted to a boy, I knew what it was to experience love. I was loved by my parents and siblings and I loved them back.  I didn’t think about it.  It was just there.  I knew I cared about my friends in a way that I didn’t care about the other children.  I loved the community I lived in, thinking it was special because it was special to me.  I loved people and places because they gave me a sense of belonging.

Love is about belonging. When two people fall in love they experience a sense of belonging to each other, of being at home with each other, in, what I describe, as their “right” skin.  They also belong to themselves, are at home with themselves in a way that they may not have experienced before.  If their love leads to a permanent relationship they set up a home together where they can root and grow their sense of belonging.  But this belonging is not simply about two people falling in love.  It is the family; growing up I belonged to my family and they belonged to me.  My family gave me a sense of trust and security but also I realised as I grew older an obligation to care to them.  It was at this point that I realised that love is as much about will if you are a Christian, as it is about feeling.  This is why Jesus could commanded us to love one another.

Belonging means attachment to the wider community, my friends, my workplace and those I work with, my home town, my culture, my football team. But seen like this it can lead the wrong way, into exclusivity.  You don’t belong to me if you don’t support my football team or if you weren’t born in this country.  This exclusive belonging is not love.

We know love to be most truly love when it is inclusive, not exclusive. When I think that love is about what I receive, what belongs to me as of right, I am in danger of becoming exclusive.  When I feel that belonging to this group is what sets me apart from others; when I know myself as over and against others because I belong to a certain crowd, this is not love.  There is so much of this wrong-headed sort of belonging amongst us – even in basically decent people, and it is the opposite of love.

When I realise that I belong to the other, just as much as they belong to me, and when I begin to consider the wider and wider circles to which I belong I find that there is no end to them. All of nature belongs to me.  Every time I take a walk and enjoy the autumn trees, birdsong, the breeze in my face and the sheer enjoyment of walking, all I see belongs to me.  At the same time it belongs wonderfully to everyone else.  But I also belong to nature in my responsibility to it and in my love of it.

Right at the centre of all this belonging is that I belong to God and he belongs to me. I can say, “My God,” and not feel embarrassed about it because I am not claiming exclusive rights to his love and attention.  Rather, I am taking up the place in his worldwide family he has given me and realising that I belong to him and to others.  He has made a place for me to abide in and he invites me to dwell there with him and all that he has made and loves.  It is where I most truly belong.

Abandoned love

The gospel reading this morning was the story of Blind Bartimaeus (Mark 10: 46 – 52) and one word jumped out at me that I hadn’t really ever taken in before, although I must have read the story many, many times over the years. The little word was, “again”; Bartimaeus says, “My teacher, let me see again.”  What this means literally, of course, is that there must have been a time when Bartimaeus could see.  Unlike the man born blind in John 9, Bartimaeus must have lost his sight due to disease.  He knew what it was to see and what he had lost.  His longing enabled him to cry out to Jesus and he would not be silenced.

Reading this gospel made me wonder what I once ‘saw’ but ‘see’ no longer. What have I lost that once meant so much to me.  I was not thinking specifically of people who have died, broken love affairs or disappointed hopes.  Rather I was thinking of Revelation 2: 4 where the message to the church in Ephesus reads,

But I have this against you, that you have abandoned the love you had at first.

 Life hurts. We lose people we love.  Perhaps we don’t achieve what we hoped for.  The daily news is depressing and we feel powerless to change things.  Children grow up and leave home.  We age; our bodies ache and don’t do what they used to do.  We become cynical or cease to expect very much.  In fact, we are in danger of drying and shrivelling up if we don’t work quite consciously at remaining open and grateful.  And often our faith feels as though it is drying out, too.  We just go along with it and accept it.  It is this that Revelation challenges – our acceptance of the status quo.  The writer reminds us  that there was a time when everything seemed so vivid, life-giving and life enhancing and we don’t see that anymore.  The world vision has taken over.  It is as if we have lost our sight, our God sight.  The eyes through which we look out at the world have become veiled with disappointment.

I don’t think it has to be this way. One of the things I have experienced on occasions is very deep emotion: joy, love and sadness, in dreams.  It is as if it is all still there but can only be accessed when I let go of this tired, indifferent adult in sleep.  The waking times at which I can also experience life more intensely are when I am able to be awake to the present moment, aware of my senses, glad to appreciate all that is around me.  This can be practiced, and practiced over and over again.  Stop, pause, sense through sight, smell, touch, hearing and taste – stay with it, give thanks.  Jesus made a big thing out of saying thank you – gratitude.  Remember the story of the ten cured of leprosy and only one turns back to Jesus to give thanks?

But perhaps we also need to take a leaf out of Bartimaeus’ book and cry out with all our hearts to Jesus that we might see again because we, like Bartimaeus, cannot do this without Jesus.

Being Alive

“I know I can walk through the world, along the shore or under the trees, with my mind filled with things of little importance, in full self-attendance. A condition I can’t really call being alive.”  ― Mary OliverA Thousand Mornings

Today (Sunday morning) round about 7am, I received an alarm call and woke up. I was already up and about. The alarm came when I opened the door from Launde Chapel onto our little graveyard. My eye was caught and stayed on the largest stone cross for it was festooned in spiders’ webs. It was a misty morning but the sun was rising and one instinctively knew that there was a beautiful clear sky just beyond the gauzy mist. Caught by the low sun the extraordinary and intricate works of art that are spiders’ webs demanded attention. I had to pause, look and stay.

Moments like this go back into childhood. I remember stopping and looking at orb webs, the classic spider’s web shape, clustered with dew diamonds, on my walk to primary school; being transfixed by sheet webs, the type that lie like blankets on the grass in the very early morning. Today a beautiful orb web hung on one side of the cross and on the opposite was what I think was a cob web. It looked like a string basket but was flat, not a funnel – obviously a different design from a different member of the spider family.

I in my rather lazy way have used words laxly. I have often used the word “cob web” to denote any kind of spider’s web, not consciously taking on board the different types of spider even though the evidence was there before my eyes. Yet again I realise that I have not attended. I, like Mary Oliver, have walked through the world with my mind filled with things of little importance, “in full self-attendance.” I have often had what I know is the common human experience of walking automatically to a destination and realising when I got there that I had no conscious memory of what I walked passed at all. I simply wasn’t present.

But someone inside us does wake up sometimes, and the more we practice trying to wake up the more it happens. Often the moment of waking feels like a response to something other than ourselves, something outside, as in the case of the spiders’ webs and the rising sun this morning. At other times it feels as if we are jarred awake internally, and we are not sure what has woken us.

Rather late in the day I have come to believe that this trying to wake up is one of the most important tasks of being human; one that is very hard for us to do in our western culture with its dependence on constant distraction and speed. But wake up we must, if we do not want to sleepwalk to death.

“There is no place that does not see you”

The words above come from a poem by Rainer Maria Rilke called “Archaic Torso of Apollo,” and reading this poem the other day alongside some others reminded me of a part of Richard Attenborough maiden speech in the House of Lords. Not surprisingly he spoke of the Arts.

“The Arts are not a luxury. They are as crucial to our wellbeing as eating and breathing.”

At nineteen I was listening to all things “Pop.” Then my older sister introduced me to the last movement of Beethoven’s “Ninth” and “Nimrod” from Elgar’s “Enigma Variations” – and I was hooked. It was the beginning of a an idiosyncratic journey of discovery that I made and am still making. Friends introduced me to music they enjoyed and if I liked the pieces I would buy my own copy. I discovered the music my mother had always loved and played but which I hadn’t been ready for. It was a delight to come upon compositions that were so familiar and now moved me.

In my thirties my husband introduced me to paintings. I took him to the theatre and he, in turn, introduced me to what he loved. We went to art galleries. At first I felt intimidated. I felt as though there were things I should like and that the fact that some pictures or sculptures left me entirely unmoved was due to my lacking something. Then one day a painting spoke to me so deeply that my whole idea of God was challenged and I received something so precious that it has never left me. A little while later I realised that we had now been to so many exhibitions that I knew something about the subject. I knew, moreover, that I had to wait on a painting, give it time to speak to me. I knew what I liked, was open to learning from artist new to me and didn’t worry when something wasn’t for me.

Like most young people growing up in the fifties and sixties I did poetry at school. I am glad to say I still quote with relish poems I learnt from the age of ten, eleven and twelve. Others are not so easily remembered, and apart from falling for T S Eliot madly in my early twenties (a passion that has never left me) I didn’t really read much poetry until a few years ago. Advent and Lent books with a poem a day to consider alongside some thoughts about the poem have enriched the experience hugely. I have realised what so many have seen before me: there are some things so much too deep for words (as in logical, reasoned, and discursive) that only the words of poetry (paradoxical, imaginative, affective, mysterious and of the heart) can begin to touch them. We find our own complex experiences illuminated, penetrated and examined. Sometimes it makes me sad because in the reading of poetry I realise how much of my life I have not lived, not been engaged with – what I have allowed to pass me by.

The Arts do many things for us but one of the things they do is to “see” us. On occasions they reflect us to ourselves. We see our own limitations. Sometimes they help us make a step that we would never have made otherwise – I can remember plays that have changed my outlook on life. Always, they invite us to live life more fully, to be more deeply engaged with our own life in all its minutiae.

Meaning Christ?

“Who do you say I am?”

Jesus, asking this profound question of his disciples is the gospel reading for today (Mark 8: 27 – end.) It is a tipping point moment in the gospels and was one for me in my very early days as a grown up Christian. I remember the sermon when the preacher put that question to us, asking each of us individually how we would respond if Jesus stood in front of us today and questioned us. It was, I think, the first time anyone had put me on the spot like that and I am really glad they did. That was the moment when I first named Jesus to myself as Lord. In the gospels, it is the first time that any of the disciples calls Jesus, “the Christ.” Peter takes a huge step as he says this, but the next moment we see how limited his understanding is of Jesus’ mission, Jesus’ way of being Messiah, when he tells Jesus off for foretelling his future arrest and death.

I thought I knew this story pretty well until this last week when I was on the local diocesan clergy conference. We had a speaker from South India, a man who had grown up as a Dalit (meaning “oppressed” in Hindi and Marathi, the self-chosen political name of the castes in India who were formerly considered “untouchable” according to the Hindu varna system.) Our speaker came from a village which in the mid nineteenth century had converted as an entire community to Christianity and changed the name of their township to Nazareth.

“Who do you say I am?”

As we were invited to consider this question again we were invited to do so not through the eyes of white, largely middle class respectable and respected people from the Midlands, but through the eyes of the world Church. What had made a whole community of people change their faith allegiance in a country that didn’t know what the word “Christ” meant?

When we have to translate a word for someone we have to go back to its basic meaning. In translating Christ, our speaker told us, the early missionaries did not talked about a culture far away but put the story into their listeners’ experience. Christ was the answer to these peoples’ deepest desire in life and their deepest need for meaning. As Dalits, looked down upon by everyone and virtually enslaved by money lenders, their greatest need was to be respected and to be free. In the gospel of Christ, the Son of God, and in the human person of Jesus they found that God loved them, respected them and gave them freedom: an internal freedom of self-value they had never known before.

Having explored the image of Christ in the eyes of some people from South India, we then looked, through paintings and pictures, at how Christ is seen by all sorts of other cultures throughout our world. Not for them the blue-eyed Hollywood Jesus with the shoulder length oh-so-clean hair, but the Chinese and the West Indian, the Nigerian and South Korean.

We have turned the name ‘Christ’ into Jesus’ surname or we use it academically. But in a world that needs God so much but can’t cope with the God as presented by traditional religion, surely we need to ask what are we actually offering when we talk about Christ? Who do we say Christ is? Who do people need him to be? Surely, he is the answer to ours (and theirs) deepest desire and longing for meaning.