The priesthood: no other life?


Brian Moore, No Other Life, London: Flamingo 1994. Paperback 216 pages,
ISBN 9780006546924.

In W.A. Public Library system.

Reviewed by Ted Witham

Brian Moore (1921 – 1999) was a well-known writer of the 1980s and 1990s. He wrote the 1991 screenplay based on his novel, Black Robe, exploring the Jesuit missions with Native Americans in frontier Canada. Moore was short-listed three times for the Booker Prize.

In No Other Life, the black robes of Jesuits are exchanged for the white robes of the White Augustinians, and the cold places of Canada for the warmth of Ganae. a desperately poor Caribbean island.

The Augustinian Fathers run a school where the mulâtre (mixed-race) elite educate their children. The noirs, the blacks, are kept in wrenching poverty by corruption. The island has always been run by a mulâtre dictator backed by the army.

Father Paul Michel wants to increase the number of black children at the school. He rescues a talented boy, Jeannot, from abject poverty. Jeannot is a single-minded boy who declares he wants to be a priest like his mentor. He eventually joins the Augustinians but runs a parish for the poor rather than work in the Order’s school. Jeannot’s oratory raises the hopes of the poor and he is elected President. But the effects of his leadership are ambiguous: is he an old-style socialist rabble-rouser, or is he a saint? The locals think he is their Messiah.

When the Augustinians expel Jeannot, he turns to his mentor. He implies that he would rather give up everything than be stripped of his priesthood. There is ‘no other life’.

Father Paul finds himself at the heart of a dilemma: is a priest an educator of the rich, or the servant of the poor?  Is faith a pre-requisite for the priestly life, and what happens if a priest loses it? From the moment he meets Jeannot he feels a bond with him, but as their friendship grows, Father Paul learns how to love. When violence and chaos erupt from the actions of his friend Father Paul asks how far does loyal love extend?

This is a gripping and beautiful story, written with a sure touch. The events on the island of Ganae are presented in a fascinating manner, but the themes of ambition and identity resonate everywhere.

No Other Life is certainly a book for priests. What is the core of Christian priesthood, and by extension, Christian practice? Is there ‘no other life’ that we can imagine for ourselves? And if not, that goes to our vocation and identity.

But is also a novel that will draw in any person and open us to the love that is in our midst even when we feel it is absent.

Clare’s Constant Goodness


Clare’s Constant Goodness  – A Liturgical Sonnet

Jesus called her to bare wood poverty,
Assisi’s high-born childhood cast aside:
sisters named in equal community,
nobles, handmaids live, and love side by side.  

Jesus called her to upright integrity,
her constant goodness a daily friend,
choices crafted with brightest clarity,
look for consequences with loving end.  

Core eucharistic regularity –
sharing the cup of wine and blessing bread,
bring to this moment Christ’s life charity,
God’s sacred heart among the sisters spread.  

Joy of goodness, riches of poverty,
planned Eucharist: life-giving trinity.   

+ + + + 

Ted Witham, Feast of St Clare 2018

Feast of St Clare – readings for Morning Prayer 

Psalms 62, 63
Ecclesiasticus (Sirach) 2:1-9
Matthew 13:44-51 

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Last Things – and more Last Things


At church yesterday, it could easily have degenerated into a heated argument about the end times. ‘What did I think of Trump deciding that Jerusalem was the capital of Israel?’ was the question that initiated our discussion.

We quickly agreed that:

  1. Tel Aviv was of no importance in God’s plans.
  2. If God could work through Cyrus, I said (Isaiah 45:1-13), he can surely work through Trump. ‘And Darius,’ added my interlocutor quickly (Ezra 5-6).
  3. My interlocutor argued that making Jerusalem the capital put paid to the two-state solution. I replied that it is not beyond human ingenuity to have two states and a Jerusalem capital. One possibility was that Jerusalem could be capital of both Israel and Palestine. Surprisingly, he conceded this point.
  4. I learned from my friend that Mr Trump had spent time with African-American churches in the South. We agreed that it is easier to see the worldly influences on the President than the Christian ones.

I tried to argue that our modern idea of the nation-state was not the same as the Bible’s. I don’t think I won that point, even though it’s obvious to me that the ‘goyim’ (nations) in the Hebrew Scriptures (Old Testament) are more tribes than geographical locations delimited by boundaries.

As we talked, my companion revealed a belief that God’s plan included a battle, presumably on the plains near Jerusalem which some scholars identify as Armageddon. I agreed that this agenda could well have been pressed on Mr Trump by his evangelical supporters. It may even have been the reason that Trump’s ‘recognition’ of Jerusalem as the capital was precisely to hasten this outcome.

This is where I part company with my friend. Obviously, there is likely always to be violence in the background as God’s plans are played out – that’s human nature, sadly. It is unlikely, however, that God would intend violent collateral damage (such as the destruction of the Palestinians), or that God would choose violence to further God’s plans.

What made up my mind some years ago were the pleas of Palestinian Christians: wouldn’t you imagine that God had a better plan than their destruction? As I thought about that, I realised that God would not plan the destruction of any Palestinians, Christian, Muslim or Jewish. On the contrary, God wants all Palestinians to flourish.

I cannot countenance violence because in the Bible Jesus accomplishes his victories only by non-violent methods. Love your enemy, Jesus insists.

‘You have heard that it was said, love your neighbours and hate your enemies, but I say to you, love your enemies.’ (Matthew 5:43-44).

This non-violent love is for me the end of my searching the Scriptures; the point where I come to when I have exhausted all other possibilities for God’s plans.

My interlocutor of yesterday, however, at the end of his searching the scriptures, finds four points, including God’s use of violence, that indicate when the end of all things is at hand. I didn’t argue this point with him; I doubt I could change his mind.

I don’t spend energy searching for indicators of the end-time. I take seriously Jesus’ injunction that we ‘do not know the day our Lord is coming’ (Matthew 24:42). Why spend time on a search that will end up being fruitless?

The thing about God is not his timing at all. For God, all time is one. We are not to worry about when God is coming, we are to be concerned about whether we are ready today. We show our readiness by loving our enemies as well as those who love us (Matthew 5:46-47).

refugee_camp
Refugee Camp

Advent’s Four Last Things: HEAVEN II


A young mother, grieving for the death of a baby, asks the question, ‘Will I be reunited with my Olivia in heaven?’

An elderly widower expresses certainty that he will be with his bride in heaven.

It’s almost as though Christian faith depends on after-death reunions of loved ones. The guidance, however, that Scripture gives us on this is vague and contradictory.

So, the totally honest answer to this question, especially as no-one has returned to tell us, is that we don’t know. But when faced with the direct question, ‘Will we be reunited in heaven?’, I hesitate.

Of course, the temptation for us pastors is to give the easy answer, the answer that people want to hear. The reality, however, is that we understand so little about life after death: what does time mean in life and after we die? What does resurrection mean for us as individuals? Will there be a different experience for those who do not identify as Christians? How will we connect with those from whom we have been estranged in this life? Cynical Sadducees asked Jesus a similar question, ‘In the resurrection, whose wife will she be?’ (Matthew 22:28)

Many people believe firmly that the church teaches that we, as individuals, will be united after death with loved ones. Many clergy taking funerals, without directly endorsing this view, allow it to stand as an implication of their pastoral message. I understand this prevarication: we are motivated to tell good news. I am deeply uncomfortable, however, with its dishonesty. This teaching falls short. There is better news.

The idea that we will be united with loved ones after death springs from a good place: it is an idea that the best God has given us in this life is love, and the one thing that we should expect from the eternal God is ongoing love.

In this life, we love with our bodies: we make love with our spouse with our body; we are present in the body to our friends. When we are absent from our loved ones, we project our bodies through space to continue the contact – our image on FaceTime, our voice on the telephone, our hand-writing in a card. These symbols of our body tell our loved one that we yearn to be present in the body.

Death destroys the body. Dust we are, and to dust we return (v. Genesis 3:19). The body is then transformed in resurrection. We know almost nothing about what Saint Paul calls the ‘resurrection body’, only that we would be a ‘foolish person’ to imagine it to be the same as our current body. It is as different from the natural body as the wheat plant is from a grain (I Corinthians 15:36-37)!

Love, after death, will also be the same and categorically different. While our bodies can love gloriously, God promises a love after death that is different in degree and in expression:  a much better love. All bodily limitations to love will be removed and transformed. Who knows whether we will rise as individuals, or as love promises, somehow joined in love? Or something entirely different, and, as yet, unimagined?

My plea is that we settle for more than the idea that we will be reunited with loved ones, and that we take the Bible at its word (I Corinthians 2:9, quoting Isaiah 64:4), that God will exceed our imagination as to how wonderful love in the resurrection will be. It will be heaven!

allinone-banner

 

Breath on a Feather


A hymn for Epiphany

You Lord of grace, you’re breath on a feather,
You inspire us to care, adore;
Your breath helps us to praise you together,
Our song, just our song, can make us more.

You Lord of grace, you’re barbs of a feather,
Strengthen our spirits with love’s surprise;
Your longing heart helps us to tether
Ourselves to you, with you improvise.

You Lord of grace, you’re shaft of a feather,
You hold us tall whatever the storm;
You teach us to hold your standards to treasure,
And upright in virtue our lives may transform.

You Lord of grace, you are the whole vane,
You let us fly to love’s true height;
We feel your guidance your will ascertain
And our obedience makes you shine bright.

 

  • Ted Witham 2017
  • 9999 St Clement, O Waly Waly.

 

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Courtesy Wikipedia

Parts of a feather:

  1. Vane
  2. Rachis
  3. Barb
  4. Afterfeather
  5. Hollow shaft, calamus

 

 

Gift in love: Saint Francis


Our joy in fervent prayer and stately dances,
In full-sung hymns and full-heart confession,
in earnest emotional expression,
all diverse ways to celebrate St Francis.

Liturgical wealth but poverty deep,
In all, radical Godward dependence,
Tangled in matter we find transcendence;
The sole way integrity to keep.

More in story than godly abstraction:
The Pope gives the Order’s permission,
The lepers’ care and pairs for mission,
In mutual prize and always loving action.

Thank God for blessings and seeing all in joy,
Our gifting for love we hurry to employ.

 

 

Sermon: Ask, search, knock


Luke 11:9-10

I wrote this poem a few years ago, reflecting on Jesus’ teaching that our desire to love, when taken far enough, eventually leads us to see the world in ‘I-thou’ terms. 

– Ted Witham

I asked for a Mercedes, coupé 220, of course.
Received a mirror, 360, signed, with love, Yours.
Reflected… the shiny image that was my deep desire;
to climb up the world’s path, a higher flyer.

I searched for love in writing reviews,
Expecting my readers to walk in my shoes;
I searched for love, making Church work my life,
but found love closer in children and wife.

I knocked on the door of God, Father, King,
Insight opened: metaphor turns God to ‘thing’;
I opening saw God as all my ‘Thou’,
me to be present in the Eternal Now.

Asking, searching, knocking, all stones stepped
to draw near to the One so wind-swept,
Spirit-blown, tempest-tendered,
The ‘Thou’ who all my love has ended.