St. Stephen and Our Vocation

‘No-one has ever seen God, the only begotten God, the one being in the heart of the Father, he has narrated him’ (John 1.18 own translation)

This verse from the Prologue of St. John’s Gospel takes us to the very heart of the Trinitarian mystery and ‘the great and mighty wonder’ of Christmas. The Son, who is born in that stable is no ordinary human being endowed with great power; nor is he a superman – he is the second person of the Trinity incarnate: ‘He is the reflection of God’s glory and the exact imprint of God’s very being, and he sustains all things by his powerful word.’ (Heb. 1.3). When the Son is born in the stable, the limitless creative love and power of God is poured into a human life so that the ineffable beauty of the eternal Source is known for a time in human form. The result of this event is an expansion of human potential beyond all imagining – we are given access to the place where the Son stands, which is nearest to the heart of the Father. We are given a home; a hope; a destiny greater than we could ever imagine – ‘we shall be like him’, says the writer of 1 John (3.2). The incarnation is not a superficial thing: neither is he a human being who taught us about God or God pretending to be a human being: instead, we believe that God, in Christ, entered the totality of human experience – gestation, birth, death and everything in between.

The descent of God the Word into our flesh was total and complete. Our rejoicing this season is in our Saviour’s willingness to become totally human and to suffer and die for those who were far off.  All this must be borne in mind when we recall that the day following the great solemnity of Christ’s nativity is the feast of St. Stephen’s death, the first Christian martyr.

Stephen is a martyr of the earliest Church and, as such is rightly known as one of the great witnesses to what faith in the Word made flesh really entails. Our faith is not in a series of propositions or a particular moral code, but in Jesus Christ himself – our faith, our act of trust in him, is that in him is a power that transcends suffering and is more powerful than death. His death is a testimony to his firm conviction that those ‘in Christ’ – in whom works the same power that raised the Lord from the dead – will experience death not as the end of something but as the route of access into the very life of God himself.

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But the manner of his death has other lessons to teach us because we begin to glimpse the human potential unleashed by the incarnation. Treated unjustly and with abject cruelty, Stephen was willing to forgive those who persecuted him – and it is this other worldly ability to forgive that displays how faith in Christ transforms us and how the disciples of the Infant King live in the world but are not of the world. Those who bear the name of the incarnate Lord are called to resist evil, to bear witness to truth in a post-truth world and to protect the vulnerable and the oppressed – but we do so not with vengeance, rhetoric or retribution – but by choosing the path of forgiveness, humility and love.

In the order of Christian funerals we pray that the Lord Jesus ‘will transform our frail bodies that they may be conformed to his glorious body’ – this is the final destiny of the Christian; to be like Christ in the heart of the Father. But our decision to be conformed to him begins today – Stephen’s death mirrored the forgiveness and non-violence of his Master’s death –  may our whole lives be conformed to the image of him who came not to be served but to serve.

Stephen ora pro nobis.

‘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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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! +