In the dark


In the dark  – the night of Christian faith

I didn’t expect, at age 70, to have to contend again with the dark. Not the dark of my childhood, when I feared a dressing gown draped over the door was an alien axe-wielding murderer, but the darkness of not knowing the God of my Christian faith. 

Each time the darkness comes, I find it is easy to forget all I have been taught. Each time the darkness comes, I feel shame; shame as if the relationship with God I thought I had was sham; shame as if the faith I have taught I no longer experience; shame at the thought of having to profess publicly that I was wrong. 

Along with the shame comes fear. At age 70, my thoughts turn healthily to my coming death and whatever follows. What if there is no “life after death”? What if there is no “beatific vision”? What if there is nothing? What value then do I have? 

So it is good to be reminded by French Franciscan Thaddée Matura, in his essay An Ardent Absence, that darkness in Christian life is the norm, that grand encounters with God are infrequent and fleeting. Matura recalls us to the teaching that God is a fiery furnace, and if we were to encounter him as he is, we would immediately be burnt to nothing. It is his grace that we do not see him face-to-face in this lifetime. 

Father Matura also reminds us that despite the darkness, we can continue to follow the paths to God to which we are committed. We are to prepare for the beatific vision, for the great meeting that will raise us to God’s presence. 

The darkness is hard. As we pass through it, we do not know what we are doing. We experience both fear and boredom. We may encounter the ‘plague that destroys at noonday’ (Psalm 91), the acedie of the desert fathers and mothers, as we question the whole of Christian life; we wonder if this darkness is the normal, then why? Why? 

But I hang on to those fleeting moments of revelation, those traces, hints of reality. A realisation grew through 1969, the year of the Leighton Ford crusade, that friendship with Christ is the heart of Christian living. I remind myself of the dove I saw [in my mind] flying up and expanding its wings over the congregation after we had received communion one Sunday in 1974 in St Mark’s, Fitzroy. I revisit my tears when, meditating in the hard seats in the chapel in Perth’s Wollaston College, I felt enveloped by love. I feel my heart jump when the icon of St Francis behind the chapel of the Franciscan Missionaries of Mary in Brisbane appeared to move and gaze back at me. 

And I can simply be affirmed by Thaddée Matura, as I am by St John of the Cross, by St Francis, by St Richard of Victor, by a lengthy list of Christian teachers, that we make our way through this world blind, in darkness, and our joy is real — but anticipatory.  

George Appleton, the prayerful Archbishop of Perth during the 1960s, once wrote, ‘I go on in cold faith only because you push me.’ That push from an-Other keeps me going. 

Christ’s Body is my body


Poem by Symeon the New Theologian(949-1022), Hymn 15 in his Hymns of Divine Love

We awaken in Christ’’s body,
As Christ awakens our bodies
There I look down and my poor hand is Christ,
He enters my foot and is infinitely me.
I move my hand and wonderfully
My hand becomes Christ,
Becomes all of Him
I move my foot and at once
He appears in a flash of lightning.

Do my words seem blasphemous to you?
— Then open your heart to him.
And let yourself receive the one
Who is opening to you so deeply.
For if we genuinely love Him,
We wake up inside Christ’’s body
Where all our body all over,
Every most hidden part of it,
Is realized in joy as Him,
And He makes us utterly real.
And everything that is hurt, everything
That seemed to us dark, harsh, shameful,
maimed, ugly, irreparably damaged
Is in Him transformed.
And in Him, recognized as whole, as lovely,
And radiant in His light,
We awaken as the beloved
In every last part of our body.

 

Quoted by Richard Rohr, pp. 219-20 in Things Hidden

Psalm 114 for Noongar country


When Israel came into the Great South Land:
and the People of God among a people of an alien tongue.

Torndirrup became his sanctuary:
and Walyunga his domain.

The sea saw that, and fled:
Derbal Yiragan was driven back.

Pualaar Miial skipped like a ram:
and the foothills like young sheep.

What ailed you, O sea, that you fled:
O Yiragan, that you were driven back?

O Bluff Knoll, that you skipped like a ram?:
O little hills like young sheep?

Tremble, O Noongar country, at the Lord’s presence:
at the presence of the God of gods.

Who turned the rock into a billabong:
and threw sand into the waterhole to make it safe.

***

(Acknowledging Professor David Frost’s version of Psalm 114 in A Prayer Book for Australia)

 Torndirrup – the National Park on the south coast at Albany with the Gap and Natural Bridge.

Walyunga – National Park on the Darling Range near Perth with many sacred places associated with the Waagyl.

Derbal Yiragan – Swan River

Pualar Miial – Bluff Knoll (tallest peak in the Stirling Ranges)

Throwing sand – When Noongars arrive at a water-hole or river, they throw sand into the water so as not to disturb the Waagyl and make the water safe for drinking and swimming.

The Gap, Torndirrup National Park, courtesy pleasetakemeto.com

Archbishop of Canterbury’s Lent Book Renews Engagement


Looking through the Cross

Graham Tomlin, Looking Through the Cross: The Archbishop of Canterbury’s Lent Book 2014, Bloomsbury Academic (2014), Paperback, 240 pages.

Good stocks at St John’s Books, Fremantle. $19.95
Kindle edition available from Amazon for $10.88

Reviewed by Ted Witham. First published in Anglican Messenger, February 2014

Being a Christian requires personal engagement – with God, with Jesus Christ, with neighbour and stranger, with truth, with good and evil. For most of us, being a Christian can be complex and demanding, but we remain committed because we believe that God is eternally committed to us.

A good Lent book refreshes this sense of personal engagement with Christian living. It should encourage, inspire and inform by taking readers both back to when they fell in love with the faith and forward by challenging readers to grow spiritually. Good Lent books are often about the Cross and Resurrection clueing us into the liturgical movement of Lent and the Paschal mystery at its climax.

Graham Tomlin’s Looking through the Cross is a very good Lent book. It is about the Cross. Tomlin tells us that his early chapters are looking at the cross, trying to understand more deeply its meaning for us, and the later chapters are looking through the cross, using the cross as a lens on the world.

In the chapter headings, ‘The Cross and Wisdom’, ‘The Cross and Evil’, ‘The Cross and Power’, ‘The Cross and Identity’, ‘The Cross and Suffering’, ‘The Cross and Ambition’, ‘The Cross and Failure’, ‘The Cross and Reconciliation’, and ‘The Cross and Life’, it is not entirely clear when we change from looking at to looking through. I am sure that ambiguity is deliberate: the cross always both teaches us about itself and reveals how it has changed God’s world.

Graham Tomlin writes clearly. Reading his book is like sitting with the most patient teacher, sharing with us his understanding of how the cross comes alive for him. His explanation of the connection between the cross of Christ and our personal sin is the clearest I’ve encountered in 40 years of reading books about Christianity. ‘Those who have perpetrated evil must be held to account,’ he writes. ‘The evil that has disrupted the world cannot simply be ignored or glossed over: it must be banished, dealt with, put right. Restoration is possible, but only when sin is somehow atoned for.’

Archbishop Rowan Williams commissioned The Reverend Dr Graham Tomlin to write this year’s Lent book. His successor in Canterbury, Justin Welby, ‘could not be more pleased’ with the choice. Centred in scripture, scholarship and pastoral experience, this book seems to me to bridge some of the divides in contemporary Anglican thinking.

The cross demands that we clearly separate Christian faith from the surrounding culture. In the powerful chapter on identity, Tomlin describes how our experience of family christenings obscures the radical change God makes in us in baptism when God gives us a new identity. Using the image of a protected witness or juvenile criminal with a new identity, he reminds us how hard it is to live out of a new identity, and how the old identity will continue to exert a pull on our lives.

But the cross is ultimately the path to life. We are made not to end in death, but in life. Tomlin reminds us of the leap in imagination we need in order to lay hold of this reality, but also rallies us with the knowledge that the new life of the cross and resurrection is ultimately God’s work and not only ours.

It is helpful if a Lent book has some guidance for its use: questions to provoke reflection or small group discussion, suggestions for art response, even a reading program. Looking through the Cross has none. This is a significant drawback in a book promoted for Lenten reading. Even without this, individual laity, clergy and groups will find Dr Tomlin’s book refreshing, challenging and clear. At the end of Lent, the book will help readers emerge at Eastertide re-engaged with their Christian faith.

Orationes matutinae – rusty Latin


Morning in the Great Sandy Desert

I have been scraping the rust off my Latin this morning, translating parts of APBA Morning Prayer. My efforts are in bold. If you can suggest any improvements or corrections, I would be grateful.

OPENING PRAYER

The night has passed and the day lies open before us.
Let us pray with one heart and mind.

Silence may be kept.

As we rejoice in the gift of this new day,
so may the light of your presence
set our hearts on fire with love for you
now and for ever.

ORATIO ORDIENS

Nox fugata est diesque patet pro nobis.
Oremus unitate cordis mentisque.

Silentium potuit sequi

Cum jubilo nostro in dono huius dieis novi,
lux praesentiae tuae amore corda nostra incendat
Et nunc et semper.

***

AFTER THE READING(S)

 

May Your Word live in us
And bear much fruit to your glory.

 

 SECUNDUS LECTIONES

Verbum Tuum vivet in nobis.
Ferat multum fructum ad gloriam Tuam.

 

As At The Dawn


As At the Dawn

 

Because you love them free as they are
They say you have nothing to say

 

Because you put on a human face
They say you’ve hidden yourself

 

Because you’re all heart God
They say you’ve gone to sleep

 

Because your Spirit cannot be grasped
They say everything has gone wrong

 

Because you refuse to collude with evil
They say you’re good for nothing

 

Because you don’t crush people
They say they haven’t called on you

 

Because you’re not just any God
They say you’re just anything

 

Because you made me in your image
You are also everything they say

 

Dear God won’t you take pity on me?

 

Original French P. Fertin “Comme à l’aurore”, Paris: Desclée, 1974, p. 17
Translated by Ted Witham 2013

 

Moving Stories


REVIEW:  Robert Béla Wilhelm, Perfect Joy in Holy Week: Walking with St Francis of Assisi in the Footsteps of Our Lord, Storyfest Productions 2013 (Volume 3 of the Collected Works of Robert Béla Wilhelm).

Reviewed by Ted Witham

Dr Robert Béla Wilhelm was our keynote presenter in the Third Order Conference in Perth in 2006. People warmed to Bob and his gentle style of telling stories about St Francis.  Quite a few Tertiaries have kept in touch with Bob since then.

Bob’s style of story-telling moves me, sometimes to tears. I sometimes find them hard to read to others without tearing up. His story-telling evokes an emotional depth to help the listener connect with the richness of his stories.

Perfect Joy in Holy Week is a series of six stories about St Francis for the six days of Holy Week. Each story has a short version and a long version, and each story is introduced by the Scripture readings set for the Eucharist of the day and concluded with provocative reflections.  These stories are accessible to anyone and speak strongly into anyone’s life.

The stories can be used in worship, particularly at an appropriate Eucharist, at an Area/Region meeting or in your private devotions. You can read or tell the story yourself, or, in the iBook version, hear Dr Wilhelm himself bringing these stories to life.

Bob is also an icon writer. Perfect Joy includes traditional icons and paintings as well as some of Bob’s own. So prayerfully are they written I find I have to look carefully to see which are the traditional icons and which are Bob’s.

The attention to detail in this book is obvious. He includes not only the lections for his home Roman Catholic tradition, but also the Anglican and ecumenical lections where they differ. Design values are high even in the E-book versions. The pages were lightly textured and the layout easy to use, colourful and easy on the eye.

While they follow the great events of Holy Week, the stories and reflections can still be enjoyed at any time of the year. Rae and I didn’t get around (typically) to using these stories until Easter week, but we still found them to be fresh, inspiring and encouraging.

The easiest way to obtain either a print or electronic book is by visiting the Storyfest bookstore at http://www.sacredstorytelling.org.

***

Review first published in the Pentecost 2013 Newsletter of the Third Order, Society of Saint Francis, Australian Provinnce.