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With Brother Damian SSF Vicar of Holy Island Lindisfarne:
I bring greetings in Christ from the Island of Lindisfarne. I'm not a Celtic monk of course, nor a Benedictine. I'm not a Roman Catholic, I'm not dressed up - just a Franciscan Vicar of Holy Island, an anomaly perhaps, but think of my Community's problem of what to do with an ex-Provincial Minister. Their answer was to put me on an off-shore Island two miles into the North Sea from the coast of Northumberland!
Celtic monks from Ireland and Iona only lived on Lindisfarne for 29 years. The boys Cedd and Chad were English pupils in our school with their two brothers - and Aidan taught them to Journey with a Vision - which they did with outstanding zeal, Godly determination and singleness of mind. Mission was their fuel for the journeys, the love of Christ and the embracing of a Gospel life, to be accepted, shared and enjoyed, following the traditions of their fathers, Patrick, Ninian and Columba.
My concern with you this afternoon is firstly to recognise that the Vision, so strong and clear-cut and lived by those earliest English converts that propelled Cedd to Bradwell, has now virtually gone, disappeared from general view, overtaken by this, another wonderful age in which we live today. And I say wonderful because in many effective ways it really is. Science and technology have produced a wonderful selection of blessings. The science-fiction of a generation back is the reality of our modern world today - at least, that is, if you are among the 1% of the world's population who own a computer. But this wonderful new world of today has at the same time disposed of any clear vision, because it is being threatened, removed, by some very simple, subtle alternatives, changes at almost every level of society - how we are taught, how we shop and eat and travel, how we become an item,- it all has changed and continues to change how we think. We don't know quite what to expect any more. Change has certainly blurred our vision.
So too, choice is now held up as a good thing - but choice is becoming a nightmare - because it begs us then to make decisions. But then we don't want to miss out, so we keep our options open, in case something better turns up. And in that process any vision we had disappears and is probably replaced by debt. So we read the adverts promising happiness, success, and the chance of a lottery win to solve our problems, and satisfy our insecurities -yes, let's acquire as much money as we can and as soon as possible. Ask a teenager what his ambitions are and most will reply, to get rich quick. Fair enough - we no longer live in an either/or world. We want both, so we now live in a both/and world. And there are tasters and samples as we seek to experience new things. Then rather predictably I think, we end up with a lot of half-tried ideas and half-used materials, and we throw away an awful lot.
Accuse me of over-generalising, but the fact is there is very little vision in our culture today. And that also means there is less recognition of God, and even our own relationship with God is becoming undermined by our adventures and the pace by which we have to live our lives. That is why I asked for Isaiah's vision to be read today: for according to some statistics, people, many people have had an experience of God in their lives. So, what about the journey that should follow? Come across and help us, shouted the Macedonians to St Paul in a vision in the night.
So I want to peg up what I see - staring us in the face, yet so illusive, a plain and simple Vision, that will help us on our journey to retain or restore our vision of life's purpose and meaning. These are convictions uttered by some prophets who have inspired me. The first is vital and fundamental, true for all time, a word spoken by Dr Elizabeth Kubler-Ross, the person who wrote about dying at the time when Hospices began to appear in our communities. She said, human beings, whether rich or poor, Arab or Christian or atheist, all have similar needs, wants, concerns. In fact, she said, I have never met a person whose greatest need was anything other than for love.
The truth is, we all have an enormous capacity for love, to be loved and to love. The most balances people in the world are those who are cherished and are able to love others. It is the command of Christ, the theme of John's letters, the journey into Christian living is surely the pursuit of an understanding of the power of love. It is the beam that points up our vision for the purpose of life. It is the heart of the matter. But as I once found myself saying to my brothers, even you and I are going sometime to let one another down; we aren't able to match that reliable love that Christ will always have for us. Our way has to be through penitence, because Jesus' way is through forgiveness. That's why we must not only share a vision of love but the vision of Christ's love, because his love is dependable, his love is unconditional. Our challenge is to grow towards that.
My second prophet of our time is Jonathan Sacks. He's the Chief Rabbi and his testimonies are often very Christian. He illustrates another massively important fact of life when he talks about the two seas in Israel: the Dead Sea and the Sea of Galilee. The Sea of Galilee is full of life, fish, birds, vegetation. The Dead Sea has no life. Both are fed by the River Jordan, but while the Sea of Galilee receives water at one end and gives out water at the other, the Dead Sea only receives, it does not give: the Jordan ends there. To receive and not give is a kind of death. Giving creates life. To live is to give. Paul said that many deeds of loving kindness cancels much sin. Do we really understand the fundamental importance of giving? It is what we are made for, it provides life, gives meaning to living, it energises, satisfies. The action of giving takes away any sense of threat or danger. It has the effect of transforming rather than spending. Our faith is a transforming experience of course. The symbol of our Christian faith was made when 2 arms were outstretched.
St Aidan was given a very beautiful, chestnut stallion by his friend, Oswald, King of Northumbria. It would aid him on his missionary journeys, he would be less exhausted, more up to the mark when he preached the Gospel to the local folk. But no, it was an encumbrance to him, and he enjoyed giving the horse away. He was then left free to pursue his missionary vision with the finest God-given accompaniments: his legs because he discovered it was better to walk at the pace of the people, his ears because he first wanted to show a concern and to learn about them and their needs, and lastly he used his tongue as he engaged with folk who had by then already begun to be interested in what he wanted to say to them in sharing the Good News. It was authentic stuff, and he was seen to be genuinely concerned. If a member of the church today wants to have any effect, he or she probably has to be tested to see if they are what they say they are. Wasn't the secret behind those monks at Worth Abbey, who were the subject of that BBC programme last autumn, that it gave a rare insight into a monastery where their six questioning visitors were drawn into a completely sincere, indisputable context of brotherly concern and Godward worship. The impact was immeasurable, the motivation aroused little question. It was a rare insight into human beings who were very close to God. I know the Poor Clares at Arundel deserve to make a similar witness. Living close to God as a monk like Cedd or Father Christopher, or like a dedicated doctor or nurse or primary school teacher, or a fisherman or a farmer, or like such a one as yourself, you know what an enormous privilege it is to be walking close to God, especially God who is suffering or holding on with patience, or who longs to find his lost sheep. Oh that the body of Christ would believe enough in itself as to wipe out scepticism and simply be found to be genuine. Here is nothing more attractive, more hopeful, more life-giving.
I have only one more prophet to share with you this afternoon, to build up a Godly vision for your on-going journey: Roger, of Taizé, who died, madly, when attacked with a knife at the age of 91 last August. The very afternoon of his death he spoke these words: To the extent to which our Community can create possible ways within the human family, to widen…. He didn't finish that sentence, already exhausted by the routine of the day. To widen…… The Community at Taizé asks each of us to try to find ways of completing that sentence by the life we live together. There is a call there towards recognising we are most creative when we are together, act together, work together, respond together, to journey together, to pray together, thence to widen the Christian vision - and particularly in the knowledge that we all carry an inner need to be loved and to love, to give ourselves to bring us fully alive, to behave authentically with pure motive and genuine concern, to widen, broaden, deepen the Christian experience of salvation, peace, justice, hope, and one final point: after such a horrific slaughter of a godly man, the calm with which the Taizé Community dealt with the situation was amazing. Their interviews, newsletters and postings on their website, as well as what I have learned personally from volunteers and a visit by a Brother who came to Holy Island for a rest. All spoke in similar tones.
There were no strong words, nor recriminations, nor talk of revenge or blame against the person who took such inappropriate action. That, surely, is the real stuff of a wonderful world, with a redemptive reminder of how God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son.
Br Roger's message is the message St Cedd brought to this corner of England, the same Gospel message of God's love, to accompany God's people on their life's journey, and which must be urgently passed on and shared with the next generation.
You are writing a Gospel, a chapter a day
By the deeds that you do and the words you say.
Others read what you write, whether faultless or true:
Well, what is the Gospel according to you?
With The Reverend David Bryant.
‘Renewing our Spiritual Roots’ by The Reverend David Bryant, Vicar of Lastingham:
"Welcome from Lastingham, heart of the North Yorkshire Moors and burial place of St Cedd. My admiration for that holy man grows by the minute. Six hours of hard driving it took me to come from his shrine 330 miles north. Cedd did the journey in a little sailing ship and sometimes on foot, time and time again. Amazing. So - welcome fellow pilgrims of St Cedd.
But let me take you a far cry from the Essex marshes. Spain in high summer. The remote village nestled on a sun-baked hill. Beneath, the brown undulating landscape quivered in the heat. Then I saw it. A tiny village church. Sunlight splintered off its whitewashed walls. There, inside that sacred place, I would surely find the quiet murmur of angels' voices and the brooding holiness of God.
How wrong I was. Sprawled in the front pews was a party of young tourists, swigging beer, chewing sandwiches and exploding with laughter. They were clad in baseball caps and sported bare chests. The Virgin Mary smiled down as if unseeing. Christ on a crucifix bowed his head.
The experience jarred like a wailing police siren on a Sunday afternoon. Long ago, Jacob had exclaimed, "How holy is this place!" But this time Isaiah had it right. The church was a place of nettles and thistles, the haunt of jackals, an abode of ostriches. You could shrug it all off. "It's only a party of lads and lasses having a laugh. No big deal." But, to me, the incident symbolised a malaise that is ripping the world open at the seams. And the sickness is the death of holiness, the decline of respect.
Moments later, a black-cassocked priest supported by a bevy of furious villagers kicked the intruders out. And perhaps they were right, you know. For every evil in the world has its genesis in the loss of holiness. Go through the whole grim list - torture, exploitation, violence, abuse, racism, forced labour and international greed - all spring from a lack of respect for persons, a failure to see the holy in our neighbour. After all, you don't hit a person you respect. You don't harm children if you see the holiness in them. Nor are you brutal in the street if you descry the Holy Spirit in other pedestrians.
The principal holds true for all creation. You don't saturate land with chemicals if you hold it sacred. You don't ravage forests and pillage other countries if you see them as dwelling places of the Holy One.
So, have I got an answer? Cedd certainly had. Before setting a single stone in place at Lastingham, he prayed, fasted and blessed the land, making it holy. Christ did the same. When he discovered that the Jerusalem temple was a thieves' kitchen, he kicked out the crowd and re-established holiness. So, that's it then. We must unearth holiness from its hiding place before the world dissolves into waste. But how?
The first step is to take stock of our past. What a superb heritage we have on which to build. North Yorkshire is saturated with spiritual energy: Fountains, Rievaulx, Jervaulx, Mount Grace, Rosedale Abbey, Lastingham - the names resonate with holiness. And here you have St Peters-on-the-Wall. Holiness is written into our history. The stones exude it. So, take heart as you seek to build a future and a present.
And that's the next port of call. The present. We can't hide in the past, for that is an escape. So where on earth do we look for holiness now? Francis Thompson, Victorian poet and mystic, answers that question. "Look," he says. "The holiness is all around you, but you're so busy staring at the secular that you don't see it." "The angels keep their ancient places, Turn but a stone and start a wing! 'Tis ye, 'tis your estranged faces, that miss the many splendoured thing." Just like the beer drinkers in the Spanish church.
Let's follow Francis Thompson's advice and start searching. And what better place to begin than the A1 which I traversed yesterday. Unbeknown to you, as you hurtle down the fast lane, holy voices are all around. Hidden churches and chapels lie behind the roadside hedges where worship flows out in a healing stream. Your gear changed merge with unseen, quiet locations where monks and nuns pray daily creating pockets of holiness amongst diesel fumes. You accelerate past schools, kitchens, offices, bedrooms and factories where an unseen throng keep holiness swirling with kind acts, generous thoughts and concern for the world. So the holy nestles behind the secular.
Try turning more of Francis Thompson's stones. The creation story in Genesis leaps out from the pages with an outrageous claim. "God created man from dust and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life." If we are all filled with the Holy Spirit we should search faces in our quest for holiness. And sometimes it springs out so that we laugh for sheer joy. Look at the smile of a baby. Watch a child spontaneously kissing mother or father. Search the faces of proud new grandparents. Gaze at two lovers as they touch and kiss. There's no mistaking the holiness.
Oddly enough, I've always found a supermarket packed with holiness. Watch the face of the check-out girl. Clearly she's been weeping. She hasn't patched her eye shadow properly. Too little money and harassment at home, poor lass. Watch the gnarled face of the old man pushing a pathetic trolley of baked beans and pork pies. So lonely since his wife died. And she made such good apple crumbles too. Watch the furtive face of the shoplifter. Not really a criminal. Just one who has succumbed to intolerable temptation or need.
Don't forget yourself as you search for holiness. When you empty your pocket for a beggar - that's holiness. When you make that comforting phone call - that's holiness. Let a neighbour unwind on your shoulder - that's holiness. When you boost somebody's broken morale - that's holiness. When you show sympathy - that's holiness.
None of this is as odd as you might think. Look where Jesus Christ found holiness. In an adulterous woman about to have rocks hurled at her. In a band of disintegrating lepers. In a Roman centurion who was a dab hand at crucifixions. In a couple of housewives at loggerheads, Mary and Martha. In a band of dodgy fishermen. Extraordinary!
Talking of the unlikely, I once found holiness in a top security prison whilst visiting a double murderer and rapist. He had to be beyond redemption, beyond human love, I thought. Wrong. There in the waiting room was a young woman who had travelled six hours from Plymouth on a hard-earned ticket to see him. The train was late and the governor adamant. Too late for a visit. Broken in spirit she bent over her hard wooden chair like a foetus returning to the womb, sodden with weeping. So palpable was her grief, love and need that it brought more than a fleeting holiness to that hopeless place, which I have never forgotten. So don't give up the search. Surprises lie in wait for you.
Of course, there will always be unholy happenings in our sometimes harsh, cruel, cold world. But that's not the end of the story.
Like artists we wake each morning with an empty canvas and a jar of paintbrushes. We are free to paint ugliness or holiness. We can leave the beauty unrealised or brush it on with bright, enriching colours, uncovering the hidden holiness of the world.
Go for the holiness, I say. Go for it. And remember fellow pilgrim. You have Cedd and God on your side."
|Carols by Candlelight|