‘Go at once to Ninevah…’ | Jonah and the Call of God

50b4d001eac9f80507037ee155c0faee.jpgThis morning the Church in Wales Morning Prayer Lectionary turned our attention towards the Book of the Prophet Jonah. It is such a joy to hear Jonah read aloud at the Offices for the next couple of days; it is one of the shortest books of the Bible and one of my favourites. The story is a surprising, funny, fascinating and deeply rewarding read. If you don’t say Morning Prayer, I would highly recommend taking 20 minutes and sitting to read the Book of Jonah – that’s all the time it will take and it is well worth doing. In this post, I’m going to run through the whole book and scratch the surface of its enriching message and the results of my lectio divina over the last week or so.

‘Now the word of the Lord came to Jonah son of Amittai, saying, ‘Go at once to Ninevah, that great city, and cry out against it; for their wickedness has come before me.’ (1.1,2)

There’s a lot going on in this first couple of verses. The first lesson of Jonah is one of its most important: the heroes of the Bible are always summoned, they are always, so to speak, in the passive voice. No great hero of scripture – or the Church for that matter – acts according to their own plan or design; they don’t cling to their own projects or ideas. The heroes of scripture are subject to a higher will; infused by a higher power. The Letter to the Ephesians tells us that there is a ‘power at work within us’ which ‘is able to accomplish abundantly more than all we can ask or imagine’. This is the way the Scriptural imagination understands what it is to be a hero – it’s nothing to do with your own power and plans and everything to do with how you let the Holy Spirit work through you. John Lennon famously said: ‘life is what happens while you are busy making other plans’. This is a pretty good summary of what the Scriptures are saying: while you’re making your plans, Life is happening within you – the Spirit who is ‘Lord and giver of life’ is active, even when our back is turned.

The call of Jonah teaches us another important lesson: no-one is ever called in an abstract or generic way. Blessed John Cardinal Newman (a person whose own journey of discipleship was certainly unique) understood this. He wrote a beautiful prayer, whose first verse is this:

‘God has created me to do him some definite service;
he has committed some work to me which he has not
committed to another.  I have my mission – I may never
know it in this life, but I shall be told it in the next.’

I love this prayer. God has created each one of us for ‘some definitive service’. Each of us, every human being, has a particular way to serve God and the human family and the drama and true joy of life is discovering your call and living it out. Of course, the vocation of all of us is to be channels of God’s grace in the world, but we each have a ‘definitive’ way of living out this mission. For me, it is as a priest in the Church in Wales; for some it is the religious life; for some it is as a teacher; a parent; a spouse; a care-giver – there are as many calls as there are human beings. And the fullness of our vocation will never be revealed to us in this life, we will only see it clearly when we are ‘told it in the next’.

The opposite statement then is that, as Rowan Williams powerfully articulates in Being Disciples, the central tragedy of human life is to miss your calling: to fail to live out the ‘definitive service’ God has prepared for you. Human success is not about power, money, status or good-looks – God doesn’t care about these human marks of success – the fundamental question is whether you followed the call of God or not. That’s all that matters. Rowan Williams in Being Disciples tells the compelling story of Thomas French:

‘Thomas French’, he says, was ‘a great missionary of the nineteenth century who spent much of his life as bishop in the Persian Gulf at a time when the number of Christians in the area was in single figures, and who died alone of fever on a beach in Muscat. What took him there? What else except the desire to be where Jesus was, the sense of Jesus waiting to come to birth, to come to visibility, in those souls whose lives he touched – even though, in the long years he worked in the Middle East he seems to have made no converts.’ Bishop Rowan goes on to say, ‘it’s the apparent failure, and the drama of that failure, so like the ‘failure’ of Jesus abandoned on the cross, that draws me to his story, because it demonstrates what a discipleship looks like that is concerned with being where Jesus is, regardless of the consequences.’

Bishop Thomas French failed. He failed on all the counts of human success. Yet, in the eyes of God, he flourished as a human creature because he heard the call to be with Jesus Christ amongst the people of the Persian Gulf. He heard the call; he performed that ‘definitive service’ which the Lord commanded him.

‘But Jonah set out to flee to Tarshish from the presence of the Lord’ (1.3)

Jonah ignores the call; he flees from the presence of God and the result is ‘a mighty storm’ so violent that Jonah and all the people onboard are put in great danger. The lesson here is simple and powerful: to refuse the divine mission leads to trouble. Jonah thought he could escape the presence of God, but the presence of the Lord is everywhere, even in Tarshish! If Jonah had read Psalm 139, perhaps he’d have thought twice:

‘Where can I go from your spirit?
Or when can I flee from your presence?
If I ascent to heaven, you are there;
if I make my bed in Sheol, you are there…’ (Psalm 139.7ff.)

But Jonah is not able to go far – he is thrown overboard and swallowed up by a great fish. We can learn something from this powerful metaphor – Jonah’s will, which was fleeing from God, is (literally) swallowed up and contextualised by a greater will than his own. It can feel like imprisonment; but it’s not – Jonah’s errant will is swallowed up by a greater will and the whale vomits him up exactly where God wants him to be. God’s ‘service is perfect freedom’ (St. Augustine).

It is powerful to remember that the darkest moment of Jonah’s life, the worst thing he has experienced, actually leads him where he wants to go. In this is great hope for us who are in the midst of a difficult time – trust in the Lord! Jonah’s prayer from the belly of the fish (2.1ff.) shows the depths of his despair (‘I called to the Lord out of my distress’) but also his radical trust that the Lord hears and answers his prayer (‘As my life was ebbing away, I remembered the Lord; and my prayer came to you, into your holy temple’).

The book goes on… ‘so Jonah set out and went to Ninevah, according to the word of the Lord’ (3.3)

Having tried to flee and failed, he arrives at the huge city of Ninevah. God brings him to this place and gives him the most unwelcome of messages – ‘forty days more, and Ninevah shall be overthrown!’ (3.4). Imagine going through Cardiff or Wrexham or St. Asaph with this message: repent or God will overthrow you! We would probably, like Jonah, flee as far from possible from this task! Yet God always calls us to self-sacrifice; calling us forward on the path of greater love and greater service. This is deeply rooted in Jesuit spirituality: semper meior, always greater! We are always spurred on to greater charity; greater sacrifice; greater love but, as we run the race, we have the promise of greater and greater life taking root in us.

Then, suddenly, Ninevah does the unbelievable – they repent. ‘The people of Ninevah believed God; they proclaimed a fast, and everyone, great and small, put on sackcloth’ (3.5). We can see here how much power is unleashed when we truly follow the will of God – the slightest cooperation with his grace can release the divine life into the world – the power always does infinitely more than we can ask or imagine. When God calls, however the great the task, if we cooperate with his Spirit, there is no telling how wonderful the results.

Then comes the most challenging reminder of this great book – Jonah’s reaction to the faith of the city. We read in the Scriptures:

‘When God saw what they did, how they turned from their evil ways, God changed his mind about the calamity that he had said he would bring upon them; and he did not do it. But this was very displeasing to Jonah and he came angry.’ (3.10, 4.1)

One of the greatest pitfalls of Christian discipleship is that sense of self-righteous superiority which infects Christian communities. Often we’d rather stay on our pedestal and can’t quite handle when God’s grace shows up and transforms lives around us. But we must remember that our call is to be a channel of the divine love and grace in the world! We can’t sulk when we succeed at that task. Our work is always to bring love, light and grace and not a sense of superiority that seeks to retain its own status, power and position. If you want to share in the divine life: give it away! Then, as you give it away, you will receive more and more! We receive God’s gifts, so to speak, on the fly!

So, what is God calling you to? Jonah ignored God’s call, but when he accepted the work he was given, enormous spiritual energy and power was unleashed into the world. What ‘definitive service’ are you called to? If I’m honest, I’m starting to thing that that is the only question in the world really worth asking – even if it will take all our lives, and the next, to find the answer.

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Kyrie Eleison | Lord, have mercy upon us.

Having studied in a Cambridge College, the words of the 1662 Book of Common Prayer, especially at Choral Evensong, remained central to our liturgical diet. One criticism I often heard applied to the BCP (and, to a lesser extent, to Common Worship services) was that the liturgy leaves us perpetually grovelling – making worms of us and never really lifting us up to our place as beloved, redeemed children of God. Even in the Gloria, the joyful song of the Church, we ask God to have mercy on us.

…And there is no health in us:
But thou, O Lord, have mercy upon us miserable offenders;
Spare thou them, O God,
which confess their faults,
Restore thou them that are penitent,
According to thy promises… (extract BCP Confession)

Personally, this has never caused me any sleepless nights – I am, as you may have realised from my last couple of blog posts, an Augustinian by nature and have a reasonably bleak view of human nature. However, having read a chapter of Bishop Rowan Williams’s excellent book on Marian Icons, Ponder These Things, my understanding of the cry ‘kyrie eleison’ (Lord have mercy) has been completely transformed.

In Ponder These Things, Rowan Williams presents a number of beautiful meditations on icons of Our Lady, which leads the reader deep into the various traditions of icons of the Blessed Virgin and, through these icons, calls us to ponder the great themes of Christian theology and spirituality. It’s a truly remarkable little book. One of these icon traditions which has been very significant personally, portrays the Lord, not in the usual dignified posture that befits the Son of God, but clutching at his mother as any toddler might. This tradition of icon has mother and son cheek to cheek, with the infant Christ scrambling to be as close to his mother as is physically possible.

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Our Lady of Vladimir

The revelation for me in Rowan’s book was the discovery of the Eastern name for this tradition. While, in the West, this style of icon is usually known as ‘the `Virgin of Tenderness’, the Eastern Church calls this icon the Eleousa (Ἐλεούσα). Usually, this is translated ‘loving kindness’ (hence, tenderness in the West) but it has the same root as the word that in our worship is translated ‘mercy’ (ελέησον, eleison).

Since reading Ponder These Things, whenever I ask God to have mercy on me, I no longer think exclusively about me and my unworthiness – like a defendant pleading mercy at the feet of the judge – but of Christ, drawing me in, holding me close, drawing me back to himself. As Bishop Rowan highlights in his reflections, and as anyone who has ever held a toddler knows, this is not always a comfortable experience but it is an important one, one worth weaving in to our liturgy and our prayer life.

With this insight, when we pray Kyrie eleison, Lord have mercy upon me, we are saying to Christ – ‘Lord, hold on to me and do not let me stray from you, remind me of your love, invade my space, even that locked room which I try to hide from you, and never forget me.’

This teaching further amplifies the threefold Kyrie which we say at the Eucharist –

Lord have mercy,
Christ have mercy,
Lord have mercy.

This is, fundamentally, an invocation of the Trinity: asking for mercy from the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. So, in saying this prayer, we are not grovelling at God’s feet – but praying that we may be swept up into the life of the eternal Trinity: into the life of the God who longs to be near to us.

With this observation and the image of Mary the Eleousa, the kyrie eleison becomes not only one of the oldest prayers in the Christian tradition but also one of its most radical – in truth, this prayer says almost all we need to say. Certainly, the Orthodox monks on Mount Athos who spend vast tracts of time saying the Jesus Prayer, ‘Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on us’, wold agree that this simple prayer is a central part of the Christian life. Yet, ‘Lord have mercy’ is not the grovelling cry of a worthless worm, but the sigh of a lover, the call of the lost sheep, the mute lifted hands of the child who longs to be closer to his mother:

Lord, have mercy upon us.

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This passionate and intimate closeness, cheek to cheek, is the inspiration behind the logo for the Jubilee Year of Mercy.

 

‘All you ever talk about is clothes and ritual’ | A response.

‘That’s not what religion is about’ – ‘It’s about faith and not all this ceremony’ – ‘All you talk about is clothes and ritual’

These are all sayings of my (previously Methodist) grandpa who has returned to Church in my “high” Church parish and who, by his own frequent admission, struggles against all the fuss and ceremony of the Sunday Mass. This is a criticism any church-goer is used to hearing: ‘Jesus didn’t come to found a religion’. In a sense, I understand the sentiment behind these sayings – they reflect a real desire to grow in, and to draw others towards, a deep and personal intimacy with the living Christ and to avoid the vestiges of a stale, dead faith. However, this aside, I must confess to rather liking my religion.

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Archbishop Rowan Williams elevates the Host at a celebration of the Eucharist in Canterbury Cathedral

I love walking into Church and gazing on crucifixes and crosses; seeing the dance of light in the stained glass; the statues of the Blessed Virgin; the flickering flames atop candles; the radiance of vestments which remind me that this isn’t just another meeting.

I also love what I get to do in Church: bowing and kneeling; genuflecting and singing; making the sign of the Cross and clasping my hands in prayer – I enjoy the choreography of public and private worship.

I like what I hear in the Eucharist: the comfort, challenge and promise of the Scriptures proclaimed aloud as the ‘Word of the Lord’; the calming, exacting, ancient sounding collects and prayers of the Church; the exultant, moving, beautiful words of the Eucharistic Prayer.

In essence, I love that the faith I have is not just an idea, a set of theories about the nature of reality, but is rather centred on an elaborate series of concrete rituals; actions that are entirely gratuitous, they have no purpose (in the sense of ‘utility’) but are designed purely to honour and worship the Almighty and to transform us who worship. I also love the rules for life which my religion provides – I need these rules. If I wanted to play football, I’d have to learn the rules. It’s just the same with the Christian life – if I want to live the Christian life, and not just a pattern of life I’m making up as I go along, then there are certain forms/rules which give that life shape and make it recognisably Christian. Some rules are negative (don’t lie, don’t lust, don’t covet), and others are positive (pray the prayers that Jesus and the Church teach us, fast, give alms, worship). Religion gives shape and meaning to my life; it provides form to the formless feelings of faith and anchors it in a set of commitments that have been shown – over two thousand years – to reliably provide a concrete context for my relationship with the living God.

This is why I don’t really understand the statement that Jesus didn’t come to found a religion – which leads to the appeal for us to leave all this ‘religion’ behind. The most common example of this is a call to leave our church buildings behind and go and meet people in the coffee shops and pubs etc. As I said before, I understand the desire for the Church to rediscover its place in Welsh culture: we can’t now, for example, assume our colleagues and neighbours are Christian and will just turn up to Church because of societal expectation. In order to fulfil our Lord’s commission, ‘Go and make disciples of all nations’, we need to be out in the communities and encourage people to join us.

However, the final result of this commission is precisely to bring people into ‘religion’ – a regularised form of life that includes at its heart:

  • Consistent times of daily prayer;
  • Commitment to charitable giving and action;
  • Weekly attendance (at the very least) at public worship.

This public worship requires a community of the faithful being gathered together in one place and, since Christianity values Beauty, this would hopefully be a place that is radiant with beauty and looks ‘otherworldly’ enough to remind people that the reality of the universe is not reducible to the blandness of the supermarket or office, where we send the other six days; a space that lifts us from the hospital ward where the worshipper received their most recent cancer treatment or have just said goodbye to an elderly relative. Of course, a beautiful building is not the priority – but the celebration of the Eucharist in a way that inspires ‘reverence and awe’ (Hebrews 12) is truly central to the Christian life.

Even if you don’t have a beautiful building or your Church’s liturgy seems far from awesome, the other anchors of the religious life are readily accessible. We need to be people who enjoy teaching others to pray the Daily Office, or say the rosary – people who get excited about the Church’s feasts and celebrate with joy the wonderful hotchpotch of people who make up the calendar of Saints. We need priests who throw holy water at everything and anyone as often as they can – on children’s backpacks for the first day of school, on the parishioners’ new homes, on the parishioners themselves!

The Church seems keen to bang on the ‘Jesus doesn’t like religion’ drum and I worry that we are sawing off the branch on which we stand. Religion, for Christians, just means the set of beliefs and practices that provide the context for our life and encounter with God. Of course these beliefs and practices can be stale, mechanical and fruitless – but they don’t need to be! Jesus fiercely criticised those religious leaders who ‘outwardly appear beautiful, but within are full of dead men’s bones and all uncleanness’ (Matt. 23:27). He rebuked their hypocrisy in ‘tithing mint and dill and cumin’ which ‘neglecting the weightier matters of the law, justice and mercy and faith.’ But he didn’t tell them to forget the tithing and the beauty and just focus on justice. Instead, he says, ‘these you ought to have done, without neglecting the others’ (23.23). Jesus was opposed to the religious leaders of his day not because religion is a bad thing, but because their use of it was corrupt. They didn’t allow the ways of God to penetrate their hearts and transform them.

By our own strength alone, we are no doubt just as bad as the Pharisees – hypocrites and purveyors of religious platitudes. But – and it’s a big but – this is the difference the living Christ has made by his death and resurrection. ‘This is the covenant that I will make with them after those days, says the Lord: I will put my laws on their hearts, and write them on their minds’ (Heb. 10). Jesus himself is our religion because he has made himself a ‘full, perfect, and sufficient sacrifice, oblation, and satisfaction for the sins of the whole world,’ and because, by this sacrifice, he has inscribed his own self-offering, his own perfect piety, his own religion, on our hearts. The best way to know him, therefore, is to follow his command and ‘do this in remembrance of me’.

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‘Do this in remembrance of me’

Silence and Honey Cakes: On Vocation and Pentecost

As we await the coming of the Spirit of God on Pentecost Sunday, I wanted to share another story from the desert fathers and mothers (from 5th century Egypt) – this one was taught to me by my spiritual director in a recent conversation on vocation.

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The wind and flame of Pentecost coming down on Our Lady and the Apostles

Abba Asenius was a monk in the Egyptian desert. Before he heard the call of the monastery he was a great civil servant in Constantinople and a tutor in the imperial household. As a monk he was highly educated and cultivated, renowned for his true humility. At the same time, in the same community in fact, there was another monk called Moses the Black. Before Abba Moses’ vocation to the monastic life, he was a highwayman.

One day, a visitor went to the community in which Abba Asenius and Moses were monks and asked to see Asenius ‘the foreigner’. After refusing food in his eagerness to visit Asenius, one of the brothers of the community agreed to take the visitor to the place in the hills where Asenius lived in isolation. When they arrived at the door of Abba Asenius, they were received in an awkward silence and no words were spoken – after a while, the brother who had accompanied our visitor left, and the visitor followed behind because he was uncomfortable.

The visitor then asked the brother, ‘Please take me to Abba Moses who was a highwayman’. And the brother agreed. When they arrived at the cell of Moses the Black, they were received with warmth and greeted with great delight by Abba Moses.

After their conversation had finished, the brother said to the visitor, ‘I’ve taken you to see Asenius and Moses, which do you prefer?’ he then added, ‘I prefer Abba Moses’. This conversation was overheard by an older brother, who was troubled by it and turned to prayer, asking, ‘Lord, explain this matter to me. For your sake, one brother flees human beings and for your sake the other receives human beings with open arms.’ In answer, the Lord showed him a vision:

Two large boats were shown to him floating on a river. In one, Abba Asenius sits with the Holy Spirit in silent contemplation. In the other boat, Moses the Black and the angels are singing and eating honey cakes.


Silence and honey cakes. Two distinct callings, two different responses to human contact and the wisdom of the desert affirms them both. Silence and honey cakes are both needed in the Church of God! There is a related story from the tradition of the desert fathers, which I love, which talks about Abba Anthony the Great. One day he was praying in his cell; after a lifetime of constant devotion, prayer, asceticism and solitude, he was told by an angel that there was an unknown man in the nearby city who was his spiritual equal. Abba Anthony was then shown a vision of a doctor who, unknown to everyone, gave his money to the poor and everyday in his simple private prayers he sung the Sanctus with the angels.

Silence and honey cakes are both needed in the Church of God!

St. Paul tells us ‘there are variety of gifts but the same Spirit’. These stories bear witness to this, they remind us that there is no standardised form or manner of holiness and I believe the Church has to relearn this ancient lesson. A man doing his job simply, with no visible signs of extraordinary holiness, nothing which would commend him to others, would be so easily dismissed by the Church – often this is because people like this refuse to blow their own trumpet and just go about quietly, singing with the angels, or it’s because, like Asenius, they may seem to be standoffish or rude. Since I began the process of discerning my vocation – first to the priesthood and, in recent times, the stirrings of a calling to the religious life – I have come across a ubiquitous attitude in the Church that these are in 11891224_10205974995032008_4875761879475083176_nsome ways higher vocations or, God forbid, that priesthood and religious life constitute all that God calls people to do and everyone else just passively sits in church! This is completely false; silence and honey cakes – the Church needs it all and, whatever people say, the Church needs all of its members equally. God desires the Lord Bishops as much as he desires that annoying person who talks during every Mass to be members of his Body. The Church is the Body of Christ, where every single person, by the grace of baptism, is an equal member of Him who fills ‘all in all’.

It is a source of some sadness that the Body of Christ is so often full of people make judgements about one another – do this much for the Church, why can’t so-and-so do more? She never really does anything, I’m not even sure why she’s here. He doesn’t even really believe, I don’t think, he’s just here because his wife drags him. Oh, it’s only really the priests who understand, the people in the pews just lap up what she says (I’ve actually heard an ordinand say this). The Desert Fathers and Mothers understood better than most how ridiculous these judgements are.

You can never know the inner workings of another person or how God is working in their life. In the face of another human face, we must keep silent before the mystery of the other – the imago Dei, a unique human person who God is calling to participate in his divine life. We are not the same, some of us have been created for silence, others for the revelry of honey cakes; some for the dignity of priesthood, some for the unsung joy of doing the flowers on a Saturday afternoon; a few are called to the holy habit of religion, others to the spiritual joy of family life. Only when we stand back before the mystery of the other, acknowledging that God calls and forms all his people, will we ever give enough room for others to grow as God wills.

On the Feast of Pentecost this Sunday, we await the final consummation of the Paschal mysteries – the Risen, Ascended Christ pours out the Holy Spirit of God to make the Church his body on Earth. In the silent spaces of our hearts, the Spirit works in all who participate in the Paschal mysteries through baptism and the Eucharist. Our job is to find space in our local churches and in the Universal Church for all people to grow as God wills.

This is all said with the brevity and spiritual insight of a desert father by Malcolm Guite in his sonnet, The Last Beatitude:

And blessèd are the ones we overlook;
The faithful servers on the coffee rota,
The ones who hold no candle, bell or book
But keep the books and tally up the quota,
The gentle souls who come to ‘do the flowers’,
The quiet ones who organise the fete,
Church sitters who give up their weekday hours,
Doorkeepers who may open heaven’s gate.
God knows the depths that often go unspoken
Amongst the shy, the quiet, and the kind,
Or the slow healing of a heart long broken
Placing each flower so for a year’s mind.
Invisible on earth, without a voice,
In heaven their angels glory and rejoice.

+ Pray for us Ss. Asenius, Moses and Anthony, that we might be made worthy of the promises of Christ! +