Wednesday, December 07, 2022

Let there be Light

 I cannot recall a time when I didn't believe that the material world was caused, and indeed kept in existence, by a mysterious and much greater reality than we can normally perceive.  I remember walking during my primary school years down Rattray Street beside a green corrugated-iron fence and feeling that if you just scratched its surface you might see the glory beneath which enabled the fence to exist in the first place.

This kind of insight was not a feature of my Sunday School education.  Fences green, corrugated or otherwise, had no part to play in that.  Instead, there was a picture on the wall of a blond blue-eyed Jesus sitting in a well-tended garden in the midst of a group of well-brought up children.  But I'm afraid that I didn't trust the central character.  

Jesus was the Saviour, of course, but he apparently had conditions, and it seemed that not everyone was likely to meet them. Not Hindus, Buddhists, Muslims, nor unbelievers, nor anyone who had never heard of him.  They had not been washed in the Blood of the Lamb, an so they were all going to spend eternity burning merrily down below.

It was a fate which I found impossible to reconcile with the wonders of nature, let alone the nature of God.  I was sure that if even one conscious being was destined for everlasting agony, God should have called the whole thing off before it began.  How could eternal agony, even for a mere earthworm (let alone a human being) be a part of the divine dispensation? 

Some years later I received a most unexpected answer.  The room in which I was standing suddenly disappeared, and all I could see was a great golden light which surrounded and enveloped me. As I remember it this light was present only for a split second.  There were no greetings, no profound revelations, no messages for me or for  anyone else.  The Light did not even identify itself. But this almost instantaneous event was, and has remained, the most important experience of my life. 

I spent the next thirty minutes or so in a kind of bliss, slowly becoming aware the the Light I had experienced so briefly was the Ultimate Reality, unchanging and eternal.  It was the source of all life, wisdom, power, beauty and love.  And it was entirely free from anger and wrath - righteous or otherwise.

I surmised then that the purpose of death and the meaning of life belong together.  Death is the gateway to an eternal and wonderful life with God and his creatures, probably including (as John Wesley had hoped, and as many Orthodox believe) the Lesser Brethren of the animal kingdom, raised to a higher level than they had known in this life - just as many human beings hope and believe that we shall be.

Here the crucifixion of God seemed to make sense. You cannot defeat evil by evil means without sharing in the evil yourself.  The sacrifice of the cross showed the infernal powers that they could not corrupt the Incarnate God even although he had deliberately made himself defenceless.  They could not make Christ embittered, vengeful and despairing like themselves.  Thus they were defeated - and thus we are saved.

If our human evil could not be overcome without our destruction there would be no hope for us.  Hence the unconditional love of God can be our only assurance.  Only such a love can turn us around and remake us, however long it takes, either in this world or the next.  This seems to me to be the only faith worth having.

Sunday, February 27, 2022

By Any Other Name

Today is Quinquagesima Sunday.  Or perhaps you don't agree.  Perhaps you think of it simply as the last Sunday after the Epiphany.  Or perhaps (heaven help you!) you think it should be 'The Eighth Sunday of the Year' as the Roman Rite followed by the great majority of Catholics in the western world call it - and as does the Anglican Church in these islands, I'm sorry to say.  

The more recent liturgical revisions of other Anglican Churches such as the Church of England fudge the issue with terms such as 'The Third Sunday before Lent.'  

None of this is particularly offensive - except perhaps for the remarkably banal and bleak 'Sundays of the Year' - but it is in my opinion still altogether wrong-headed. Not surprisingly it makes things sound matter-of-fact, simple and easily comprehensible - in other words just plain ordinary! 

But is Christianity ordinary?  Is is comprehensible?  I rather doubt it.  There has been no merely ordinary (let alone comprehensible) time since the birth, life, death and resurrection of God. Truly!   

We sometimes talk about the 'Mystery of Christ' but I wonder if we really begin to comprehend what that means.  I think it was Archbishop William Temple who claimed that we could only be saved by one thing: Worship.  But I believe we can only truly worship what we cannot control, let alone fully understand.

To my mind this is where somewhat elevated and perhaps unfamiliar language is both helpful and appropriate.  Its oddness and specialised use can be effective in speaking of the holiness and mystery of God.  But at least it doesn't have to be banal - and you can't say that 'Quinquagesima' is banal!   

Saturday, January 15, 2022

Sacred and Profane

The recent obliteration of HRH the Duke of York has not exactly been a surprise.  Ever since Randy Andy made the carelessness of his enthusiasms clear in his youth, I imagine the Lolita Express had just been waiting to bear him on plastic wings to the private islands of rich public figures such as (the late) Jeffrey Epstein.  The royal Icarus should have known better than to do what he did, and then get photographed with Ghislaine Maxwell - not to mention with the girl concerned as well.  But times have changed.  Not even the prime minister of the United Kingdom can have rowdy parties in the back garden of No.10 Downing Street during lockdowns, not to mention on the day just before Prince Philip's funeral as well.  

I have always thought that the monarchy was a specifically religious, indeed Christian, institution.  The colour film of the Coronation left a remarkable impression on me after I had seen it as a small boy, and a good deal of that impression remains with me still all these years later.  I also presume to think that the Queen herself would agree.  The anointing of the Sovereign is a sacramental act which imparts grace to the one anointed.  It is, in fact, much the same in that respect as the ordination of a bishop, priest, or deacon.
How strange that sounds now!  This is the age of Happy Holidays! it seems.  The sacred has been banished from much of our public life - or perhaps worse (if the various fundamentalisms of our time are anything to go by).  The Christian religion is about a transcendent reality from which the reality we know here and now derives its meaning and even its very existence.  An anointed sovereign should remind of this, and thus remind us that our secular life should be sacred too.  But don't hold your breath.  Jerusalem wasn't built in a day.


Friday, October 01, 2021

Full Circle

When I became an Antiochian Orthodox some nine and a half years ago I rather lost my nerve when it came to continuing with this blog, and eventually ceased publishing my views about anything altogether 

But now - as you can see - I have started again, and that is because the Bishop of Dunedin received me back into the Anglican Church in the middle of last month.  

By then the Antiochian Orthodox Archdiocese had been able to appoint a new priest, born and bred in Eastern Orthodoxy, who could also stand and walk, and even run: things which I had been becoming increasing unable to do for some time as the effects of my post-polio syndrome had become ever more debilitating.

I became the priest at St Michael's Orthodox Church in Fingal Street because the parish asked me to do so in the continuing absence of the the Real Thing after the death of Fr Ilian some years before.  Orthodox priests are not easy to find or support in New Zealand, because the congregations are often very small and do not have the resources to deal with the situation. I had no difficulty with a second ordination service because I knew that the archbishop had no choice - and that therefore neither did I.

As an Anglican High Churchman of the Lancelot Andrewes, William Laud, Jeremy Taylor and Thomas Ken (look them up!) variety, and an enthusiast for the writings of  such as Vladimir Lossky, John Meyendorf, Antony Bloom, and Kallistos Ware (look them up too!) I had few difficulties in carrying out what I firmly believed was God's will. But I never managed to believe that there is a One True Church under heaven, and I neither did overcame my love for the Anglican Church or the hope that I might be able to return to it one day - in accordance with the will of God.

I am now almost entirely house-bound, but that is much better than falling over much of the time - often with humiliating and physically painful results.

But the view from my study, through the trees and over the city and the harbour, is a great delight.  Better than yet more cracked ribs and black eyes any day! 

I go to the Sung Eucharist on Sunday mornings - at least for the present - but I would be quite incapable of taking services there (or anywhere else) even if I wanted to - which is just as well, I think.

I have received a wonderfully warm welcome since my return to St Peter's Caversham as a parishioner, and I am most grateful (not to say relieved) for that.  My twenty-five years as the their vicar seem not to have prejudiced the parishioners against me.

My Eastern Orthodox years have been a most remarkable journey for me and one which my life would be much poorer without. I am grateful to the priest and people of St Michael's Church in Fingal Street and to God for my time there.

Thursday, January 30, 2020

Crossing Over

In last Saturday's Otago Daily Times the column by Civis caught my attention.  It was entitled 'Reluctance to accept death a normal part of life.'   He was writing about the death of a German tourist, aged seventy-five, while he was walking the Tongariro Crossing with his son.  As one of those who were with him when he died said, "This man had the most beautiful death he could wish: doing what he loves with his son in a place of breath-taking beauty and without suffering."  I could not agree more, especially as the man himself was already suffering from cancer, and according to his son, "very, very sick".

Civis took to task those who subsequently called for emergency defibrillators to  be installed on the Tongariro Crossing at vast expense, believing that it would be virtually impossible to make use of any one of them before it was far too late to help anybody in the same dire straights  as the German tourist.  He also questioned the use of such phrases as 'passed away' instead of 'died' as being merely cosmetic, rather like the funeral home proprietor who took the bereaved into his viewing suite with the words, 'Mother will see you now.'

Although I would claim that I had become a believer in Orthodox teaching about death long before I became a member of the Eastern Orthodox Church, I must nevertheless confess that the Orthodox tradition concerning death and burial did come as something of a shock as soon as I experienced it being put into practice.

You are not spared the realities.  The body lies in an open coffin.  When I asked someone how this went down in a hot Greek summer,  I was told that this was where the use of incense could bring a certain relief to the mourners, since embalming is not always possible! At the end of the funeral, after olive oil from the church lamps, along with ashes from the censer, are poured over the body, the mourners are invited to come forward for one last kiss before the actual burial.  And burial it will be.  Cremation is most definitely not thought appropriate or even permissible except in exceptional circumstances.

And then there is the text of the service itself which is almost like a little play in which the body speaks on behalf of all humankind: 'O thou who of old didst honour me with thy divine image, but because I transgressed thy commandments hast returned me to the earth from which I was taken; bring me back to that likeness to be reshaped in that pristine beauty.'  And this: 'I am an image of thine ineffable glory, though I bear the wounds of my sins.  Show thy compassion on thy creature, O Lord, and purify me by thy loving-kindness; and grant unto me the home-country of my heart's desire, making me again a citizen of paradise.'

This rather strange appeal (to western ears) goes to the heart of the matter for the Orthodox.  The loss of the body has come about because in some sense the Creation has fallen away from God (who is the source of life and of existence itself) but it can be, and will be, reversed when God so decides.  And this applies to the whole of creation from galaxies to blades of grass, and especially to conscious beings, all of which survive into the world to come, and all of which will be completely and gloriously restored in God's good time.  One can only hope that female praying mantises will have improved their dining habits by then!

St Gregory of Nyssa (the Father of Fathers, a General Council called him) claimed that eternity is in reality a time of constant growth, change, and improvement without end.  God, he said, is infinite, and therefore there is no end to his wisdom, beauty, knowledge, goodness etc. etc.  And what that means for his creatures is increasing happiness and joy for ever and ever.  Not to mention a total absence of boredom!

And this involves the complete restoration of us all.  Nobody is claiming that your old arthritic knees will be returned to you in all their agonising glory, and anyway our bodies get a make-over about every seven years in any case.  But our identity will be restored in new and shining (and lasting!) form.  My knees are looking forward very much to that.  Me too.

Monday, January 13, 2020

Pans Plus

Although we don’t particularly want to admit it, the Church in the Western part of the world is not in a particularly healthy condition. There are are number of reasons for this, as you might expect, not all of them under our control. But there is at least one which I believe we could and should do something about. We seem, to me at least, to have lost our sense of direction.
I say this because it has become very clear that in the last half-century or so the Church has changed enormously, to the extent that it is in some ways almost unrecognisable. Much of this change has supposedly come about in order to enable our mission to the modern world, and here at least it has clearly not been a success. Parishes in most denominations which were flourishing even twenty years ago are now on their last legs, many have already passed into oblivion, and more will be following soon.
Numbers may not be everything, but without them there is nothing – certainly no viable parishes. People and money are essential to the life and work of the Church, and both are now in critically short supply. No doubt the rural downturn has contributed to the decline; the same with the movement of population – and especially the young – to the north, not to mention across the Tasman and further afield. Likewise the changes in our culture and in the way we live have been both very great and very fast. Television, different working hours, Sunday sport, consumerism, the debt economy, computers and the internet have created a world which could hardly have been imagined a generation ago.
And there is the intellectual climate in which we all live and breathe – for good and ill. I have thought for years that we have become quite hopeless at justifying, let alone recommending, the Christian faith to those who do not share it. For all our endless talk about mission, not to mention a ‘mission-shaped Church,’ we clearly haven’t a clue how to go about it. Indeed, it is obvious that often we have no real interest in mission at all – just in survival. We want to perpetuate the life of the institution, but what the purpose of the institution is in the first place, about that we have conflicting and not very clear ideas. Not only do we not know what we are selling – we have no real knowledge of the market either. Thus Professors Geering and Dawkins (to mention but two) can walk all over us, and when we dare to speak up at all, it is usually only to concede that they are making some good points, and that the free expression of opinions is a very good thing.
While acknowledging the importance of our changed circumstances, we have not really understood them. Most of all, we have not grasped a number of very important points:

1. Most people need meaning in their lives. They need to believe that the universe – and their place in it – make sense. Christianity provided this in the western world until the last couple of centuries or so. And it did so because it was believed to be in harmony with human experience. But once experience was thought to be at odds with theology, not surprisingly, problems arose. It became a question of one or the other, either Galileo or the Inquisition, either Darwin or Genesis. And when Galileo and Darwin turned out to be a lot kinder (i.e. Christian) than those who opposed them, then the damage was done. Furthermore, the sacredness of human life appeared to be badly undermined by Darwin, Marx and Freud and their disciples. Darwin desacralised the world, Marx desacralised the community, and Freud desacralised the human personality. Instead of being planned and inspired by God, all three became the products of blind and impersonal forces. Not a lot of meaning and significance was left to human existence after that!

2. Much of religion is often nothing more noble than magic, that is to say, a means of controlling life, of being useful. Christianity has been largely ousted from this role by science, and it is in the latter that most of our contemporaries in the west now put their faith. They have not lost faith as such, on the contrary their faith is flourishing, it’s just been transferred to another system of belief – witness their unquestioning acceptance of such things as quantum theory or general relativity, neither of which the vast majority of them can know anything about. It’s just that the ability to control life (such as it is) is now supplied by another set of presuppositions. Where some vestige of the magic is believed to linger – as in the healing activities (or otherwise) of people like Oral Roberts or Benny Hinn – then popular enthusiasm is more likely to follow. The same goes for the Crystal Cathedral and even Joyce Meyer, whose take on Christianity people clearly find useful in running their own lives.
3. And it’s not just that we have allowed God to be little more than a ghost of himself. We have done the same to ourselves. We are embarrassed by our immortality. We are hesitant to proclaim that we were designed and made for a glorious eternity beyond the grave. So the the very reason for the Gospel – the abolition of death by an Incarnate God who died and rose again – is no longer at the very heart of our proclamation and our public faith. As the Orthodox Liturgy says, Christ has died trampling down death by death. Before everything else, that is what Christianity is all about. I wonder if you agree?

(Written in 2011)

Wednesday, January 08, 2020

Our Lesser Brethren

I have a remarkably intimate relationship with my cat.  He is a sixteen-year old chocolate burmese called Claudio.  If the name sounds a little pretentious it is only because his immediate predecessor was called Claud, and no matter how hard I tried to remember to call the present incumbent Eddy (after HRH the late Duke of Clarence and Avondale, of course) I still called him Claud.  The io is meant to make the difference, but has no reference to any deity (polynesian or otherwise) since Claudio himself is an object of enthusiastic worship.

We sleep together, or rather, he sleeps and I do the best to follow his example.  The purring can be rather loud, and the claws (if not recently trimmed) can come as a bit of a shock at four o'clock in the morning (or at any other time, for that matter).  But our intimacy over the years has been very educational - perhaps for both of us.  For as far as I am concerned, Claudio is a person.  Not a human being, of course, but still a person.

A few years ago a friend gave me a book about the animal creation from a Christian perspective.  The thing that most got my attention was the emphasis that many seemed to place on The Fall with reference to our Lesser Brethren.  They can have no place in The Kingdom because they can't repent and be saved, and furthermore, they don't (we are assured) have a living faith in the Lord.

Well, I can't say I agree with that.  Much of it depends on Augustine of Hippo's faulty Greek which led him to believe that Adam's sin and its dire consequence of damnation has been inherited by all human beings - and (it would seem) cats.

Our holy Eastern Fathers (some of whom were very good at Greek) simply would not have agreed that the fall had such dire consequences even for cats.  Furthermore, like the Eastern Churches today they confidently looked forward to the Last Day when everything would be restored in glory, and God would be all in all. 

So when I think of the millions of sentient beings dying in agony in the Australian bushfires at the present time, I have some hope.  Thomas Aquinas held and taught dire Augustinian doctrines concerning the afterlife, even although he also said God loves all existing things.  I'm counting on the latter opinion - and so is Claudio.

The Noticeboards of two Churches in America, facing one another across the same street on nine consecutive Days.
Catholic.      All dogs go to heaven.

Protestant.   Only humans go to heaven.  Read your bible.

Catholic.      God loves all his creations, dogs included.

Protestant.   Dogs don’t have souls.  This is not open for debate.

Catholic.      Catholic dogs go to heaven.  Protestant dogs should talk to their pastor.

Protestant.   Converting to Catholicism does not grant your dog a soul.

Catholic.      Free dog souls with conversion.

Protestant.   Dogs are animals.  There aren’t any rocks in heaven either.

Catholic.      All rocks go to heaven.