Monday, April 18, 2011

Lavabo inter innocentes

One of my favourite characters in the Passion story is Pontius Pilate. Perhaps it's because I spent a long rehearsal period studying him for a Passion play in which I took the role. As we were taught, I tried to step into this mysterious man, to understand him and, ultimately, to become a man who would act as he did.

At first, I had the image of Jack Thring, who played Pilate in Ben Hur: the curl of the lip, the perfect hair, the cynical imperial administrator. But, when I read and re-read the Gospel accounts, it seemed to me that there was a different side to the man as he is depicted there. So I turned to the historical Pilate. As ever, I ran into confusion and controversy, the usual tohu-bohu that seems to accompany all the academic and quasi-academic study of biblical history, historicity and historiography.

In the end, Pilate became another element in my hermeneutic: we are invited, as all through the Gospels, to look at him through Jesus' eyes and to look at Jesus with his. Jesus embodies forgiveness and compassion: who did he see when he looked at Pilate? Did he see him with the eyes of a member of an occupied land? with the eyes of the orthodox Jew who is polluted by contact with the goyim? I really doubt it.

Was I going to play Pilate as detached,. bored, annoyed, cowardly,even corrupt or venal? All these images have been peddled as explaining him. In my attempt to get inside the man, I wanted to find something different, something more, something to admire. And then two moments arrested me.

The first is 'my' question about truth. As I said it, learning my lines, my own experiences of asking it rose in memory. Back and back I went, until I came to realise that 'my' Pilate was asking a philosopher's question. Pilate the philosopher? Of course, as an educated Roman on the cursus honorum (thank you, Lindsey Davis), he would speak and read Greek, may have spent time in Athens and was addressing a Galilean. For years I have known that the Galilee was, at that period, at least as hellenised as jewish (cf. Burton L. Mack The Lost Gospel). Was Pilate addressing another educated man with a standard Socratic question? And is this why the evangelist gives us the incident?

And then, today, as I was washing my hands, I found myself reciting Psalm 25, from the Mass, Lavabo inter innocentes manus meas (how often the memories of my days as an altar boy come back to me!) and thought of Pilate again. He washed his hands. Among the innocent? Pilate the innocent, not Pilate the hypocrite. Pilate the beloved of Jesus, not Pilate the weak.

When I did play Pilate, I tried to bring something of that humanity to the role, alongside, too, with the vanity and self-regard which would be the natural attitude of the Emperor's representative. Reactions were good, I'm glad to say, although my silent clowning as Zachary got more laughs in Foxes Have Holes, our later Nativity play.

My thanks and love go out to Lisa Done who directed the passion play at Holy Trinity. She may have disappeared into the Antipodes but she stays in my prayers and the hope that all goes well with her.

Friday, April 15, 2011

We are loved - unconditionally

A friend gave me this extract by the late Father Herbert McCabe, O.P.

It presents us with the fundamental paradox of the Gospel message:

"God is helplessly and hopelessly in love with us. He is unconditionally in love with us. His love for us doesn 't depend on what we do or what we are like. He doesn't care if we are sinners or not. It makes no difference to Him. He is just waiting to welcome us with joy and love.

Sin does not alter God's attitude to us; it alters our attitude to Him, so that we change him from the God who is simple love and nothing else, into this punitive ogre, this Satan.

Sin matters enormously to us if we are sinners; it doesn't matter at all to God. In a fairly literal sense he doesn't give a damn about our sin. It is we who give the damn. We damn ourselves because we would rather justify and excuse ourselves, and look on our self-flattering images or ourselves, than be taken out of ourselves
by the infinite love of God.

Contrition, or forgiveness,  is-self-knowledge, the terribly painful business of seeing ourselves as what and who we are: how mean, selfish, cruel and indifferent and infantile we are.

Never be deluded into thinking that if you have contrition, if you are sorry for your sins, God will come and forgive you — that he will be touched by your appeal, change his mind about you and forgive you. Not a bit of it. God never changes his mind about you. He is simply in love with you. What he does again and again
is change your mind about him.

Being contrite, self-aware, about your sin is the same as believing in the love of God, smashing the punitive satanic God and having faith in the real God who is sheer unconditional love for you. You could say that it is your faith in God's undeviating love for you that lets you risk looking at your sins for what they are.

It's OK, you can admit the truth about yourself.

It doesn't matter: God loves you anyway.

[Herbert McCabe OP (1926-2001) - Faith Within Reason.]


Why do I say that it is a paradox? Just consider that my aunt who dies in Auschwitz and the murderers are - by this measure - loved equally.

Not just a paradox but a challenge to us too.

Sunday, March 20, 2011

When LeonBasin posted this link on New Buddhist, there was some suggestion that s/he was 'wasting' their time and distracting themselves from something more important.

Personally, I loved it - and hated it at the same time. Thanks for posting it, LeonBasin. I certainly can't get too worked up about something so cobbled together, but I can see that some people might get riled by the scare-mongering. I hope that most will draw back from the "Crusades" rhetoric.

I was taught that the Arabic word kismet denoted that all is pre-ordained, 'written'. Am I not right that there are Buddhist 'prophecies' about a period of desolation? The millenarian Christian mythos is far from unique. Each generation has used its 'cutting edge' technology to elaborate on it and to see their own prophecies revealed, o quelle surprise!, to be apparent here and now.  To be followed, of course, by a time of great joy for the Chosen or the Enlightened or the Lucky, according to which elite you want to belong to, usually ushered in by some saviour or returning hero - male on almost every occasion, I notice. It is either "Wait till your father gets home!" or Jenny Agutter running aloing that platform shouting "Daddy! My Daddy!"

If we had never been told stories and taught to tell the difference between 'true' and 'made up', we could, I suppose, believe in just about anything.

Another thing is that I don't think that time can be 'wasted', in the great scheme of things, nor is it entirely a bad thing to distract the surface 'I' from time to time. Even sitting in meditation is a distraction from the dukkha which we confront moment by moment. Alongside the bread of betterment, we do need the chocolate cake of entertainment

"All, in the end, is harvest" or Harry Williams' words:
"There is nothing in this world or the next, absolutely nothing, which cannot, and will not, be turned into the valid currency we need to buy the one pearl of great price. That is what is meant when we say that we are redeemed."
(H.A.Williams, The True Wilderness)

Watching the trailer for that straight-to-discount-bin dvd makes me realise that we really haven't progressed very far out of the cave and into the wider savannah, away from superstition and into reality. We do try. That will, perhaps, be our saving grace. The elitist and the authoritarian, the patriarchy in all its variety of forms, would like to control and direct the stories we tell our children and our grandchildren. We mustn't 'send out the wrong message'. All for the best possible reasons too.

I remember a conversation between Thomas More and Richard Roper, his son-in-law, in A Man For All Seasons:

"What would you do? Cut a great road through the law to get after the Devil? ... And when the last law was down, and the Devil turned round on you – where would you hide, Roper, the laws all being flat? This country is planted thick with laws from coast to coast, Man's laws, not God's, and if you cut them down -- and you're just the man to do it -- do you really think you could stand upright in the winds that would blow then? Yes, I give the Devil benefit of law, for my own safety's sake!"

I feel the same about stories, myths and legends because, without them we would not have a chance of challenging our own myths and assumptions, our presuppositions and our prejudices, or of realising that 'real' may be just as 'made up' as the fairy-tale ones .

Friday, November 19, 2010

Is the Cross the victory of love over justice?

I'm sure that most Christians would answer "Yes" to the question. I wonder, however, whether we always grasp what it means.

Somewhere I came across the description of the Crucifixion as a "family matter" within the Trinity. Not having found the original reference, in Moltmann I think, I have spent years coming back to the image: father and son at odds with Sophia mediating - a family like our own so often. On the cross, Jesus continues to be human, to represent the powerless child confronted by the all-powerful father, asserting his freedom. It is the freedom to forgive, against all the dictates of 'natural' justice.

Legend tells us that when Clovis, the king of the Franks, heard for the first time, from Saint Eloi, about the arrest of Jesus in the garden, he drew his sword and call his house knights to ride with him to Jesus' rescue. When we heard this story at school, we knew, even then, that Clovis had got more wrong than simple confusion that the event was long over We may not have articulated it then but the arrest is necessary to the story, to the evolutionary event of the Passion. As Vanstone  outlines in The Stature of Waiting (Darton Longman & Todd. London. 1982. ISBN 0-232-51573-5), Jesus choses to become the object of action rather than the actor - he "hands himself over", joins the victims, the prisoners, the bed-ridden.

The processes that the evangelists describe suggest to me that, purely in legal terms, Pilate was obliged to find Jesus guilty, thus he experiences hearing a verdict which is deserved - if only under the secular law. He is again handed over, to be flogged and to the people's verdict. He was, indeed, rejected and despised.

In the justice of his father, he can claim redress. He does not. He goes against all logic and demands that the Righteous Judge forgive. Traditional sermons present Jesus' "Forgive them" as a challenge to us to forgive but the text is clear: he is challenging the Father. He is going against the judicial view, not simply the legalistic. He even challenges the ethical.

What then do I make of his final 'handing over', his consigning himself to the Father? This, for me, is the most touching moment and the one which truly marks the victory. The 'beloved Son' trusts, unreservedly, the Father's love and, thereby, becomes a channel for that love into all of Creation as its representative.

There is no question of 'substitution', nor of 'paying the price of our indebtedness'. It is love, pure and simple, transformative and, thereby, salvific.

If we, then, are to try share in this transformation for ourselves, which is, surely, the promise of the Resurrection, we have to let go of justice in favour of love. When Saint Paul instructs us not to resort to the courts to settle our disputes, the meaning goes far beyond breaches of contract or, even, retribution for law-breaking. I hear a challenge to forgive and forgive and forgive. After all, seventy times seven may not even be enough times.

Tuesday, November 02, 2010

Life as Pilgrimage - 1

Have you ever been on a pilgrimage? Not the organised trip to the Holy Land or the annual trek to Walsingham in the company of fellow-pilgrims. I mean the sort that takes you into the unknown. Your destination may seem clear but the way there is across seas and plains in those areas of the map marked "Here be dragons". Perhaps you are the sort of person who has done all the research and sets out, all preparations made, with confidence, light-hearted. Or perhaps, like me, your mind has been so dazzled by the goal that the way there has rather slipped your notice. And coming to the days before departure, we desperately try to foresee all the eventualities of such an undertaking.

This was how it was in the closing days of March 2001. It could so easily have been a well-planned expedition. There had been quite enough time. Particularly when it is realised how many years had led me to the moment when we were sitting in the Kuwait Air 'plane, waiting to take off for Kuwait City and New Delhi at the start of our pilgrimage to meet the Dalai Lama.

All the threads of life appear to weave together as I look through my memories to try and find the first moment that I became aware of the Dalai Lama. It must have been during the 1950s. Probably the first time that I came across any mention of Tibet was in Hergé's Tintin Au Tibet. The occasion of our decision to go to India was a film, Kundun, half a century later and one of the first questions that I asked Dorje, our guide in Dharamshala, was whether it was true that Tibetans stuck out their tongues in greeting: it was almost all that I remembered from Tintin. And, of course, there was Sam Jaffe in Lost Horizon and the lama in Kim.

Another memory is of the cover of another book, Lobsang Rampa's The Third Eye.

I have learned not to mention this book in the company of serious-minded people, particularly Buddhists. To most people, "Lobsang Rampa" was no more than a fraud and perhaps he was. But, to me, at about 14, even with my growing scepticism, I was entranced and not a little horrified. Some years later a girlfriend's father who was a Zen Jew gave me a more measured picture.

It wasn't until the late '70s and early '80s that I began to take meditation seriously. I can clearly remember the first time I experienced 'non-experience', the silence the other side of the inner (and outer) chatter, although I cannot be sure of the year, around 1978, I think. It was as if all the previous experiences of retreats and, particularly the Ignatian 30 days a decade earlier, had burst into blossom.

After that and especially during the times I was working with CF and people with AIDS, I became increasingly aware of both the power and the limitations of a meditation practice.

Buddhism came back into my life from counselling clients. One in particular was a Zen practitioner. It was my habit to discover as much as I could about clients' 'context': their reading, beliefs, musical preferences and so on. I would get them to tell me about them, particularly if they were unknown to me. I would read up and listen in so that I learned their language. As a result, I began to look at Buddhist texts and anything else I could lay my hands on. I was hooked.

During my training as a Spiritual Director, we were invited to find an image for our spiritual journey. My own was a sort of Monopoly board where the squares were people who have influenced or marked me. The dice take me in an apparently random order, from person to person, each with a gift - some good, some less good. In the past 20 years the number of 'random', 'coincidental' encounters with Buddhism and Buddhists has increased. They have reshaped my pilgrim's journey and have been a source of great comfort and challenge.

Monday, November 01, 2010

The Field of Reeds

One of the attractions of the Egyptian afterlife was the Field of Reeds (Aaru), the place of bliss if one's heart is no heavier than Ma'at's feather. To get there, the soul has to go through trial and judgment.

In the Book of Exodus, Yhwh parts the Yam Suf to allow the Children of Israel to go forward towards the Promised Land by escaping Pharaoh, his slavery and his 'false gods'. And Yam Suf means "sea of reeds", not Red Sea.

Noticing this coincidence, I am led to reflect that modern archaeology now suggests very strongly that there was no 'exodus' as described in the Bible and that Israel was progressively settled by waves of immigrants from Egypt and elsewhere across centuries, and that there was no single War of Conquest. If this is the historical fact, what, I wonder, do we make of the Exodus story?

If the original writer knew the facts, there must be a subtext and I would suggest that it was written simply to demonstrate Yhwh's victory over 'false gods', not as history. And there is a subtext for Christians too: not about power but about Christ's setting all of humanity free from slavery.

Even the Buddhist mind can find an allegorical lesson about going beyond.

Friday, October 29, 2010

What is 'spirituality'?

Spirituality is a process rather than a state or accumulation of beliefs and practices.

It starts with a collection of concepts and convictions. In Buddhism, for example, the Four Noble Truths and how we understand them Other concepts may also be present, along with presuppositions and prejudices about, say, Ultimate Reality (God, liberation, and so on). Included in this concatenation are beliefs about who 'I' am, how this 'I' relates to others and the world around me and the purpose, if any, of these convictions.

This ensemble lead us to make choices about values, likes and dislikes and our life-style and plan. These choices are then underpinned by supportive practices, leading to our individual response experiences. What is often described as 'spirituality' refers to these practices and experiences. These do not, however, stand alone; they are contingent and dependent on the other loci.

It is these experiences strengthen or challenge our concepts and conviction, to maintain them or to change.

When I was first shown this model, I realised that it can be applied far beyond what is normally deemed 'spiritual'. Indeed, it may be seen as a description of scientific method with experiment and supportive evidence as the supportive practice locus

I am grateful for this model to Sister Ishpriya. Below is the schema she gave us on a study retreat. Whilst it refers specifically to the religious practice and experience, I believe that it has a much wider application.

It is particularly useful when we want to change (or help another to change) because we can see very quickly where we are likely to meet the strongest resistance to change and where the least