Sunday, 1 August 2010

The Holy Fire of Jerusalem

The ceremony, which awes the souls of Christians, takes place in the Church of the Resurrection in Jerusalem. The date for Pascha  is determined anew for every year. It must be a first Sunday after the spring equinox and Jewish Passover. Therefore, most of the time it differs from the date of Catholic and Protestant Easter, which is determined using different criteria. The Holy Fire is the most renowned miracle in the world of Eastern Orthodoxy. IIt has taken place at the same time, in the same manner, in the same place every single year for centuries.  No other miracle is known to occur so regularly and so steadily over time. No other miracle is known to occur so regularly and so steadily over time. It happens in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem, the holiest place on earth[2], where Christ was crucified, entombed, and where He finally rose from the dead.

In order to be as close to the Sepulchre as possible, pilgrims camp next to it. The Sepulchre is located in the small chapel called Holy Ciborium, which is inside the Church of the Resurrection. Typically they wait from the afternoon of Holy Friday in anticipation of the miracle on Holy Saturday. Beginning at around 11:00 in the morning the Christian Arabs chant traditional hymns in a loud voice. These chants date back to the Turkish occupation of Jerusalem in the 13th century, a period in which the Christians were not allowed to chant anywhere but in the churches. "We are the Christians, we have been Christians for centuries, and we shall be forever and ever. Amen!" - they chant at the top of their voices accompanied by the sound of drums. The drummers sit on the shoulders of others who dance vigorously around the Holy Ciborium. But at 1:00 pm the chants fade out, and then there is a silence. A tense silence, charged from the anticipation of the great demonstration of God's power for all to witness.

Shortly thereafter, a delegation from the local authorities elbows its way through the crowd. At the time of the Turkish occupation of Palestine they were Muslim Turks; today they are Israelis. Their function is to represent the Romans at the time of Jesus. The Gospels speak of the Romans that went to seal the tomb of Jesus, so that his disciples would not steal his body and claim he had risen. In the same way the Israeli authorities on this Holy Saturday come and seal the tomb with wax. Before they seal the door, they follow a custom to enter the tomb, and to check for any hidden source of fire, which would make a fraud of the miracle.

"I enter the tomb and kneel in holy fear in front of the place where Christ lay after His death and where He rose again from the dead... (narrates Orthodox Patriarch Diodor - ed.). I find my way through the darkness towards the inner chamber in which I fall on my knees.Miracle of God. At a certain point the light rises and forms a column in which the fire is of a different nature... See also a line of lights at bottom-left Here I say certain prayers that have been handed down to us through the centuries and, having said them, I wait. Sometimes I may wait a few minutes, but normally the miracle happens immediately after I have said the prayers. From the core of the very stone on which Jesus lay an indefinable light pours forth. It usually has a blue tint, but the colour may change and take many different hues. It cannot be described in human terms. The light rises out of the stone as mist may rise out of a lake — it almost looks as if the stone is covered by a moist cloud, but it is light. This light each year behaves differently. Sometimes it covers just the stone, while other times it gives light to the whole sepulchre, so that people who stand outside the tomb and look into it will see it filled with light. The light does not burn — I have never had my beard burnt in all the sixteen years I have been Patriarch in Jerusalem and have received the Holy Fire. The light is of a different consistency than normal fire that burns in an oil lamp... At a certain point the light rises and forms a column in which the fire is of a different nature, so that I am able to light my candles from it. When I thus have received the flame on my candles, I go out and give the fire first to the Armenian Patriarch and then to the Coptic. Hereafter I give the flame to all people present in the Church."

While the patriarch is inside the chapel kneeling in front of the stone, there is darkness but far from silence outside. One hears a rather loud mumbling, and the atmosphere is very tense. When the Patriarch comes out with the two candles lit and shining brightly in the darkness, a roar of jubilee resounds in the Church.

The Holy Light is not only distributed by the Archbishop, but operates also by itself. It is emitted from the Holy Sepulchre with a hue completely different from that of natural light. It sparkles, it flashes like lightning, it flies like a dove around the tabernacle of the Holy Sepulchre, and lights up the unlit lamps of olive oil hanging in front of it. It whirls from one side of the church to the other. It enters some of the chapels inside the church, as for instance the chapel of the Calvery (at a higher level than the Holy Sepulchre) and lights up the little lamps. It lights up also the candles of certain pilgrims. In fact there are some very pious pilgrims who, every time they attended this ceremony, noticed that their candles lit up on their own accord!Marvel picture. For a few minutes after Holy Fire appearance, if it touches the face, or the mouth, or the hands, it does not burnhis divine light also presents some peculiarities: As soon as it appears it has a bluish hue and does not burn. At the first moments of its appearance, if it touches the face, or the mouth, or the hands, it does not burn. This is proof of its divine and supernatural origin. We must also take into consideration that the Holy Light appears only by the invocation of an Orthodox Archbishop.

The miracle is not confined to what actually happens inside the little tomb, where the Patriarch prays. What may be even more significant, is that the blue light is reported to appear and be active outside the tomb. Every year many believers claim that this miraculous light ignites candles, which they hold in their hands, of its own initiative. All in the church wait with candles in the hope that they may ignite spontaneously. OOften unlit oil lamps catch light by themselves before the eyes of the pilgrims. The blue flame is seen to move in different places in the Church. A number of signed testimonies by pilgrims, whose candles lit spontaneously, attest to the validity of these ignitions. The person who experiences the miracle from close up by having the fire on the candle or seeing the blue light usually leaves Jerusalem changed, and for everyone having attended the ceremony, there is always a "before and after" the miracle of the Holy Fire in Jerusalem.

The first written account of the Holy Fire (Holy Light) dates from the fourth century, but authors write about events that occurred in the first century. So Ss. John Damascene and Gregory of Nissa narrate how the Apostle Peter saw the Holy Light in the Holy Sepulchre after Christ's resurrection. "One can trace the miracle throughout the centuries in the many itineraries of the Holy Land." The Russian abbot Daniel, in his itinerary written in the years 1106-07, presents the "Miracle of the Holy Light" and the ceremonies that frame it in a very detailed manner. He recalls how the Patriarch goes into the Sepulchre-chapel (the Anastasis) with two candles. The Patriarch kneels in front of the stone on which Christ was laid after his death and says certain prayers, at which point the miracle occurs. Light proceeds from the core of the stone - a blue, indefinable light which after some time kindles unlit oil lamps as well as the Patriarch's two candles. This light is "The Holy Fire", and it spreads to all people present in the Church. The ceremony surrounding "The Miracle of the Holy Fire" may be the oldest unbroken Christian ceremony in the world. From the fourth century A.D. all the way up to our own time, sources recall this awe-inspiring event. From these sources it becomes clear that the miracle has been celebrated on the same spot, on the same feast day, and in the same liturgical frame throughout all these centuries.

Miracle of God. The Orthodox Patriarch was standing ... near the left column, when the Holy Light split this column vertically and flashed near the Orthodox PatriarchEvery time heterodox have tried to obtain the Holy Fire they have failed. Three such attempts are known. Two occured in the twelfth century when priests of the Roman church tried to force out the Orthodox church but by their own confession these ended with God's punishment. But the most miraculous event occured in the year 1579, the year when God clearly testified to whom alone may be given His miracle.

"Once the Armenians (monophysites - ed.) paid the Turks, who then occupied the Holy Land, in order to obtain permission for their Patriarch to enter the Holy Sepulchre, the Orthodox Patriarch was standing sorrowfully with his flock at the exit of the church, near the left column, when the Holy Light split this column vertically and flashed near the Orthodox Patriarch.

A Muslim Muezzin, called Tounom, who saw the miraculous event from an adjacent mosque, immediately abandoned the Muslim religion and became an Orthodox Christian. This event took place in 1579 under Sultan Mourad IV, when the Patriarch of Jerusalem was Sophrony IV.(The above mentioned split column still exists. It dates from the twelfth century. The Orthodox pilgrims embrace it at the "place of the split" as they enter the church).

Turkish warriors stood on the wall of a building close to the gate and lightning-struck column . When he saw this striking miracle he cried that Christ is truly God and leaped down from a height of about ten meters. But he was not killed-the stones under him became as soft as wax and his footprint was left upon them. The Turks tried to scrape away these prints but they could not destroy them; so they remain as witnesses.
He was burned by the Turks near the Church. His remains, gathered by the Greeks, lay in the monastery of Panagia until the 19th century shedding chrism.

Muslims, who deny the Passion, Crucifixion and Resurrection of Christ, tried to put obstacles in the way of the miracle. Well known Muslim historian Al Biruni wrote: "… a (note: Muslim) governor brought a copper wire instead of a wick (note: for the self lighting oil lamps), in order that it wouldn't ignite and the whole thing would fail to occur. But as the fire descended, the copper burned."

This was not the only attempt. The report written by the English chronicler, Gautier Vinisauf, describes what happened in the year 1192.

"In 1187, the Saracens under the direction of Sultan Salah ad-Din took Jerusalem. In that year, the Sultan desired to be present at the celebration, even though he was not a Christian. Gautier Vinisauf tells us what happened: "On his arrival, the celestial fire descended suddenly, and the assistants were deeply moved...the Saracens... said that the fire which they had seen to come down was produced by fraudulent means. Salah ad-Din, wishing to expose the imposter, caused the lamp, which the fire from Heaven had lighted, to be extinguished, but the lamp relit immediately. He caused it to be extinguished a second time and a third time, but it relit as of itself. Thereupon, the Sultan, confounded, cried out in prophetic transport: 'Yes, soon shall I die, or I shall lose Jerusalem.'"

One can ask the question of why the miracle of the Holy Fire is almost unknown in Western Europe. In Protestant areas it may, to a certain extent, be explained by the fact that there is no real tradition of miracles; people don't really know in which box to place the miracles, and they rarely feature in newspapers. But in the Catholic tradition there is vast interest in miracles. Thus, why is it not more well known? For this only one explanation suffices: Church politics. Only the Orthodox Churches attend the ceremony which is centered on the miracle. It only occurs on the Orthodox date of Easter and without the presence of any Catholic authorities.

It is a miracle - for a few minutes Holy Fire does not burnAs with any other miracle there are people who believe it is a fraud and nothing but a masterpiece of Orthodox propaganda. They believe the Patriarch has a lighter inside of the tomb. These critics, however, are confronted with a number of problems. Matches and other means of ignition are recent inventions. Only a few hundred years ago lighting a fire was an undertaking that lasted much longer than the few minutes during which the Patriarch is inside the tomb. One then could perhaps say, he had an oil lamp burning inside, from which he kindled the candles, but the local authorities confirmed that they had checked the tomb and found no light inside it.

The best arguments against a fraud, however, are not the testimonies of the shifting Patriarchs. The biggest challenges confronting the critics are the thousands of independent testimonies by pilgrims whose candles were lit spontaneously in front of their eyes without any possible explanation. According to our investigations, it has never been possible to film any of the candles or oil lamps igniting by themselves. However, I am in the possession of a video filmed by a young engineer from Bethlehem, Souhel Nabdiel. Mr. Nabdiel has been present at the ceremony of the Holy Fire since his early childhood. In 1996 he was asked to film the ceremony from the balcony of the dome of the Church. Present with him on the balcony were a nun and four other believers. The nun stood at the right hand of Nabdiel. On the video one can see how he films down on the crowds. At a certain point all lights are turned off - it is time for the Patriarch to enter the tomb and receive the Holy Fire. While he is still inside the tomb one suddenly hears a scream of surprise and wonder originating from the nun standing next to Nabdiel. The camera begins to shake, as one hears the excited voices of the other people present on the balcony. The camera now turns to the right, whereby it is possible to contemplate the cause of the commotion. A big candle, held in the hand of the Russian nun, takes fire in front of all the people present before the patriarch comes out of the tomb. She holds the candle with shaking hands while making the sign of the Cross over and over again in awe of the miracle she has witnessed. This video appears to be the closest one gets to an actual filming of the miracle.

2.47 AM

Can’t sleep. This is becoming a regular occurence, but not an annoying one. I have come to the conclusion that as much as I like – and need – sleep, there is something I like about being downstairs, in the silence, sipping a cup of herbal tea (with honey) and either just being still in a dimly lit room drinking in the noislessness or adding another post to my blog. I suppose it’s the nearest thing I have to a desert, here in bustling Swansea. Encountering the starkness of the night is the city’s equivalent to those barren wastes where Jesus and the saints retreated in order to advance in their walk with God. I need that too. It’s my escape from the insanity of restless busyness which every day threatens to drown me with its endless demands. So I like the night – it’s somewhere to run to and hide. Somewhere to re-charge my batteries and re-connect with God, myself and that silent centre within.

Saturday football

(A two year old blog imported from a blog I have just erased.)

It’s 10.15 AM and I have just finished breakfast. There is movement along the landing, between one of the bedrooms and the bathroom as Hannah gets ready for her job in Shoezone, a rather downmarket shoe shop in Swansea. Hannah is better (or worse) than any alarm clock on Saturday morning because she never walks without stomping, never opens a door without crashing it shut and never steps into the shower without somehow making it sound as if a large burly man was trying to squeeze through a rather narrow but cluttered space.

Alternatively Ruth, our youngest, comes a close second, with her radio/cd player blasting out Michael Jackson’s ‘Killer’ or her loud conversations with one of her friends (who must be deaf) about arrangements for their Saturday trip to Town.

It’s Saturday, and Saturday in the Williams household means only one thing – football (or to any Americans who may be reading this – soccer). It’s a day when we either go and watch our favourite team the ‘Swans’ – the nickname of Swansea City Football Club – at the Liberty Stadium, or if they are playing away, listen in on the radio. Either side of that main event we watch just about any other football match we can find on Sky, because football – any football – is something we have come to love.

It has not always been this way. For years Saturdays have come and gone. They have been days of easing down before the rigours of the Sunday rush when the most we would do was visit one of our parents, done a little shopping or just generally taken it easy. But one day everything changed. Hazel ’saw the light’.
I, personally, have always followed the Swans over the years, and even if I was too busy or far away to actually go and see them regularly, I would always check the results every Saturday and keep an eye on their progress (or regress). This however got much more serious for both Hazel and myself when over two years ago we decided we go and see the Swans play in their brand new 20,000 seater stadium at the Liberty. Hazel had never been to a live match before and was curious to see what it would be like and besides it was Ben’s birthday and a chance to go with him to see his favourite team. We could not have picked a better day. It was a bright September Saturday afternoon, the sun was ablaze in a cloudless blue sky and the Swans were playing their second or third match of the season. The place was packed and the atmosphere sparked with expectation. We were not disappointed. Swans put seven past a rather lacklustre Bristol City prompting the club to sack their manager a few days later, and Hazel was well and truly hooked.

One of my favourite stories in the New Testament is the conversion of St.Paul on the road to Damascus. What a story. One minute he was after the blood of Christians, approving of the murder of St. Stephen and arresting just about any of ‘The Way’ he could lay his hands on and the next he was telling anyone who would listen how Jesus was the long-awaited Messiah and Son of God. It was a complete turn around, a one-point turn, and for many years became for me a kind of model of Christian conversion that I longed to see in my own ministry (although I failed to realise at the time that it is actually the exception rather than the rule).
What happened to Paul in Christian terms happened to my wife in football terms. That day in the Liberty was her ‘Damascus Road’. Not only did we go on and see every other Swansea City home game for that season but the following year we bought a season ticket each and we have done so ever since. Our new foudn enthusiasm did not end there. We have bought dvd’s of their more outsanding games, treated ourselves to supporter’s scarves and other accoutrements and regularly check the clubs’ various websites to see what the latest news was. Once I even spent several hours queuing up for the players to sign the club calendar so I could surprise Hazel for Christmas. And the ‘magnificent obsession’ does not end there. All this has had the knock on effect of us watching just about any football match that comes on the television even minor league matches. It has also resulted in Hazel developing an understanding of the minutiae of the game even to the point of understanding the notoriously difficult ‘off-side’ rule. I was in awe of the change that had occurred.
What caused this turn around? What was responsible for such a transformation? Was it the atmosphere of the occasion, the weather or the score? I am sure it helped in some way as it all conspired to make something truly memorable and enjoyable. Like any true’ conversion’ the test would come when the skies are grey and rain-soaked, the atmosphere is poor and we lose at home. Hazel passed them all and she kept going. Her ‘conversion’ was the genuine article.

Was it some need or lack in her life which going to watch football filled? Was there a space or ‘football shaped’ hole in her life that needed filling? Maybe, as there were few things we would do together other than Church, shopping or occasional (and I mean occasional) trips or meals out.
Was it some kind of revelation or insight into something previously hidden that afternoon as we watched twenty four men chase a white ball around on a green blanket of grass watched by 18,000 chanting onlookers? Maybe. What else could have accounted for such a turn around in a life which, until then, faced in a competely opposite direction?

Whatever the cause, in the end, like St. Paul, it’s one of those wonderfully profound mysteries where everything seems to come together, coalesce and conspire to take an individual from one ‘place’ to another, where joy pours in to where joy was not before and life takes on another meaning or direction. It was certainly that for us. Now we do something that brings us closer together, and whether it was God or an inspired Swansea perfomance or both, I don’t really care. The fact is that life on Saturdays will never be the same but something we now both look forward to doing and enjoying together.

What's wrong with bigamy?

Watched a television article on bigamy today which told the heart-rending story of a woman who after eleven years of marriage discovered her husband had another wife. Although she was concerned about the many times he was away from home on ‘buisiness’ during their years together, she did not suspect that it was because he was spending time with the other woman. She only found out when this other wife got in contact with her and told her. You can only imagine the deep sense of betrayal both women experienced and the programme reflected that, focusing on the emotional and financial fallout for both women and the children fathered by their common husband.
But watching the programme I felt myself asking the question, why was there such insense? Why, in a society which has year on year undermined and distorted marriage, does it consider bigamy wrong? Isn’t bigamy just another variation on a theme? We have single parents, family units with several children by different fathers, homosexual and lesbian ‘marriages’ and arrangements where people live together as ‘partners’. Why not add bigamy to the ever-growing list of legitimized arrangements which succeeding governments have considered such an essential ingredient of today’s society where the only thing that is really sacrosanct is personal choice and freedom?

What is the measure of right and wrong anyway? Bigamy is wrong according to the Law but the Law, as we have seen, can be changed. In a society of shifting values which acknowledges no absolutes, truth is as shifting as the sands of the Gobi Desert. So what is there to say that something like bigamy is wrong except that people, who have entered into a legal arrangemnt of marriage, have been hurt in some way? But what about the thousands of women who live with an arrangement in which certain men come and go as they please, fathering children left right and centre? How many of these women and children face betrayal and financial deprivation every single day and yet no one cries ‘foul’ for them? On the news recently one woman (Sharon Matthews) was said to have had seven children by five different men! The mind boggles at the muliplying of the anger and sense of betrayal these ‘arrangements’ have caused.

Bigamy IS wrong because it breaks several fundamental laws, not least the Law of God which proclaims the inviability of the marriage bond. But in a land where God is denied, doubted or undefined then everything is up for grabs. The Centre has disappeared and everyone is a victim. Shouts of ‘wrong’ are growing louder and yet more faint because while we know it’s wrong even as we shout we are losing the notion of ‘why’. Once ‘why’ goes then everything is up for grabs and all we are left with is a sense of fear, loss, anger and betrayal with no-one, except God, to hear our cries for justice.

Learning from my mistakes

“We all learn from our mistakes” they say, but what ‘they’ don’t tell you is how long that process can take. I say this because I am still learning how to grow a parish and like all growing there are pains involved. For example how do you know what to do to be doing what God wants? For a time – well for the last twenty years – I thought it was all about stepping out in faith, you know like Abram who left his country, his people and his father’s household in order to strike out for the Promised Land. (Genesis 12:1-5) So my ministry has been about stepping out in faith left right and centre. Sometimes this has worked but more often than not it hasn’t. But because I have known no other way I have just kep doing it in the vain hope that something will ‘give’ along the line. Well it hasn’t and so I have had to stop and trudge wearily back to the proverbial drawing board and finally ask why. It’s taken me several months but I think I know the answer.

Going back to the Genesis text I realise I have mis-read it. Abram did not take the initiative. He did not one day decide he was going to step out in faith all on his own in the vague hope that his faith would somehow nudge God into a response. No. God came to him and called him. “The Lord had said to Abram, “Leave your country, your people and your father’s household and go to the land I will show you.” (Genesis 12:1). Note the emphasis. God spoke and God promised to show Abram the way. The step of faith by the father of faith was in response to God’s initiative.

We find the same pattern throughout the scriptures. Moses stepping aside to investigate a bush that was burning but not consumed only to be confronted by God who calls him to go and set His people free. (Exodus 3) Joshua given instructions by God to go and take the land (Joshua 1). Mary greeted by an angel who tells her she is carrying the Messiah, God’s Son in her womb and responding in faith “I am the Lord’s servant. May it be to me as you have said.” (Luke 1:26-38). Jesus telling the disciples to feed the hungry thousands “You give them something to eat.” (Matthew 14:16) And the disciples being told to wait in Jerusalem for the power from on high before going out to the nations to bear witness to him. (Acts 1:4,5)

Time and time again we see God’s people not acting on their own initiative but waiting on God before venturing out on a new challenge. That’s not to say that they did nothing in the meantime. They prayed and they served and they worked. But significant growth and a new movement of God only came when God acted and God’s people responded in faith.

So the lesson I am slowly learning is this. Wait on God and while you wait, work. Only be ready to respond in faith when the time comes. And the best way to be ready is to pray.

A time to live and a time to die

(I wrote this blog last year before my father died).

I write this blog having visited my father who is in hospital recovering from an infection. He is in the later stages of dimentia and so only vaguely knows who I am. There was a time about a week ago when we thought he was nearing the end. He had developed a chest infection, was confined to bed and had stopped eating or drinking. He was admitted to hospital in a very poor state and had to be put on a drip. He continued to show no interest in food or drink and slept most of the time. Knowing a little bit about dimentia (I am part time chaplian in a local Mental Health Hospital) I wondered if he had reached that stage in his illness when the eating/drinking reflexes had ceased to work and his mind was finally shutting down. But today he woke when we called and the nurse told us he was responding to the antibiotics and had eaten dinner. He jabbered away during the whole visit and smiled and winked and laughed – at what we don’t know. It was quite a transformation and suddenly there is life again and we are all amazed, puzzled and pleased.
Dad has had several ‘near misses’ over the past year with a couple of admissions to hospital after mini-strokes or a chest infection. Each time he has bounced back although a little weaker each time. He is 92 going on 93 and although there is little real quality to life, he is not ready to go yet. Why is this? When he is unable to recall his wife of 63 years, talk and think coherently, read a book or a newspaper or follow sports or watch a film, why does God keep him here when others die tragically young full of life and vigour with so much to look froward to and do?
I think that like much of life there is a deep mystery here which we cannot fathom and being a CHristian is, to a certain extent, about accepting this and trusting God. What is faith but trusting someone who possesses knowledge and power that you do not have but whose character is one of love and wisdom?
There are possible answers in my own situation which are not the full picture but seem to be lessons I am being taught. For example dad has never been demonstrative and so we have never been close in that sense. However as he jabbers away in bed I find myself stroking his hand or touching his face or tidying his hair. I kiss him before we leave and I smile a lot when he looks at me. There is intimacy now where there was distance. Is that why he is still here so that God has given me a chance to get closer to my father – a kind of healing? I don’t know.
Also in my busy life where I get caught up just doing ‘things’ almost on automatic pilot it does me good to make the trip down the hospital and feel upset and anxious about someone close. It’s a way, I suppose, of being made human again. I can’t protect myself all the time or become so ‘professional’ and self-controlled that I bury feelings and retain a sort of aloofness from the pains and sufferings of others. Of course breaking down at every funeral etc will render me completely incapable of seeing things through – someone has to be in charge – but at the same time it can lead to a kind of robotic subhuman behaviour which is surely not good for the soul.
So visiting dad is a kind of healing. It keeps me reaching out instead of closing off. So there is a “time to live and a time to die” (Ecclesiastes 3:2) but only when whatever needs to be done is done, or a lesson that needs to be learnt is learnt? And of course when God in His infinite wisdom decides, with dad, that it’s time to go.

Sleepless in Swansea

(From an earlier blog written in 2008)
This is the second night in a row that I can’t sleep. I don’t know if it is something I ate or drank or whether this is something that every 52 year old might as well get used to because this is what will occur on a more regular basis from now on in? One blessing is that this is one of the few ‘free’ moments I seem to have to write my blog, so “every cloud…”
What does fascinate me however about these nocturnal forays downstairs is how sharp my mind is and will be tomorrow too. Okay half way through the day I will need some kind of slap across the face or something to stimulate my digestive system, but generally I know I will be on top form mentally. Another side effect (benefit?) is that I get more emotionally tuned in to things. I mean that things move me more. I relate on a deeper level to the tragedy on the TV news or I find myself able to so empathize with a bereaved person so that I am on the verge of mingling my tears with theirs.
I know it does smack of some kind of loss of control and anyone reading this can be forgiven for thinking that maybe I am on the verge of some sort of breakdown. But a sleepless night does have its benefits, although I would not choose to remain awake like this and certainly not on a regular basis.
Which brings me to the subject of the spiritual disciplines. In the gospels Jesus several times calls on his disciples to “watch and pray” (Matthew 26:41; Mark 14:38). Jesus himself would spend time with God at all kinds of unearthly hours. In 2 Corinthians 6:5 Paul refers to something called “watching” which I take to be a kind of abstinence, not of eating or drinking, but of sleeping, in order to spend time in prayer. So maybe this is God nudging me awake to spend some time with Him that I could not afford in the day. Maybe it’s a call to “Come away…and rest a while” with Him (Mark 6:31) in His presence? If that’s the case then I am glad to be here, awake, banging the keys with God looking over my shoulder. Just me and Him and the dark hovering behind the bright computer screen on my desk.

The democratization of morality

In the absence of God, who decides whether a thing is right or wrong? Take sex outside of marriage, for example. Christians would agree that it is wrong and potentially destructive, undermining marriage and opening the door to unwanted preganancies etc. But times have changed and now society has decided that it is no longer taboo but actually perfectly acceptable. It has voted with its feet – or some other part of its anatomy – and collectively decided that we no longer need to view it as wrong. Morality therefore has become democratized. Because the majority are in favour, any conflicting – i.e. Christian - view is demonized as moralizing. A decision has been made, the votes cast, and sex before marriage is officially ‘in’. (Note: for many it has always been ‘in’ but never in such a publicly approving way). But there are huge problems with this approach because something (or someone) is fuelling this this way of thinking. Someone is persuading the majority that this is okay and the way forward. They, the public, are not uninformed, so who is informing them? Who or what is driving this forward?
Also there is a danger that if enough people think it is good then bad is turned on its head and evil is the new ‘good’ so to speak. Which reminds me of a passage from Isaiah: “Woe to those who call evil good, and good evil; who substitute darkness for light and light for darkness; who substitute bitter for sweet and sweet for bitter!” Isaiah 5:20. Isn’t that what has happened in Germany in the last world war. Somehow a whole nation was persuaded into thinking that getting rid of the Jews was a ‘good thing’ and that their presence was somehow evil. So thousands of blind eyes were turned as Hitler set about their extermination.
So the way things are going I am getting increasingly worried. Today it is sex before marriage, yesterday it was abortion on demand, what will tomorrow bring?

Isaiah and the art of preaching

Today I am thinking about my Sunday sermon. It will (possibly) be based on a text from the prophet Isaiah who was active about 745-680 BC. According to Jewish and Christian tradition he was the son of Amoz from the tribe of Judah and was the nephew of King Amaziah. In the Orthodox Liturgical calendar he is commemorated on May 9th which is the day before my birthday. All the Old Testament writers are remembered as saints in the Orthodox Church and some (all?) have a special day on which to remember them. So before you say happy birthday to me perhaps you will whisper one to Isaiah the day before.
People sometimes ask what makes me decide which text to preach on? As there are usually several texts to chose from, how do I know which one God wants me to use? Some are under the impression that it’s a ’simple’ process by which we – meaning priests, ministers and pastors etc – ‘hear’ a voice from God directing us what to say. “And the message for today is…” kind of thing. They assume that being men of God this is as natural to us as knowing how to mend a broken pipe is to a plumber! I must admit that would be great as it would remove the doubts I (too often) get as to whether I was in fact properly ‘tuned in’ to the Almighty when I sat down of a Friday to ponder what to say.
Others imagine a more mysterious process by which after prayer and fasting or all-night vigil, or maybe through meditation or even a dream, God communicates what He wants me to deliver. Unfortunately (or fortunately) it’s much more prosaic and mundane than either of the above. I merely go through the passages for that particular Sunday and use the one that ‘jumps out’ at me in some way. I then pray asking God to guide me and then sit down and read, reflect and write out (excuse the preacher’s alliteration) what the passage means, using illustrations to draw out the meaning and an application to put it into practice. Whether it ‘works’ or not is something I always wonder about – not without a little self-recrimination – but, when my faith is up to it, I am happy to leave it all in God’s very capable hands. If He can take a little clay and make a man, He can take something far less promising and make a sermon that will ’speak’ to the appropriate (and humble) person on the listening end.
Actually I am making it sound really easy and something anyone can do – and maybe they can. But we must be careful not rule out the much larger picture. The sermon is prepared and given within the context of a life that has been set aside to serve God – no matter how imperfectly, and I mean imperfectly. Also it’s meant for a congregation to whom God has – I believe – appointed me to lead and guide on the spiirtual path. Plus there’s the whole thing about Jesus’ promise to send the Holy Spirit to lead his Church into all truth, a promise made to a bunch of rather unpromising disciples just before his betrayal when every single one of them fled. And the fact is that I do pray every day in some form or another, so its not as if the lines of communication are closed until the day I prepare my sermon. Add to all that my desire to do God’s will and my congregation’s (assumed) desire to listen and learn, and what you get is something a bit more than just me in my study straining to produce another message to get me through another Sunday.
So mystery solved (or deepened). God cannot be restricted to a prayer or an hour with the Bible or constrained to construe a sermon within the narrow parameters of a rather specific means of guidance. He is always at work – as Jesus reminded his hearers – before, during and after my sermon-writing time because getting the message across is not just about the moment, its about all the moments put together flowing in a God-ward and God-ordained direction. So I will sit with Isaiah and God as the three of us collaborate together on what it is that needs to be said this forthcoming Sunday, safe in the knowledge that God, in some way, is in it all.

Capturing the moment

Another 're-cycled' blog post from 2008 (from another blog that has been discontinued)

It’s been a rather lacklustre day. The sky outside is almost uniformly grey except for some lighter and darker shades of the same colour. A watery and rather dull sun is trying to peek through wherever there’s a gap. I am joined here in the dining room by two animals. One is a rather large dun coloured cat affectionately known as “the Rat”. He is lying flat out on a large cushion in front of the radiator (which is on) making a low moaning noise which I take to be snoring. Alongside is Jack our black and white dog. He is licking his genitalia in a rather lacklustre kind of way a bit like you or I would scratch an eyebrow or absent mindedly straighten a tie. Why do they do that? I must try and google it sometime although what would you put? Dog, genitalia, lick? Might be interesting or, more likely, vulgar. I shall resist the low-level temptation to try.
We are not the only life in the building – a Vicarage – right now. Laughing her way (she is watching a cartoon on Sky) through sniffs and swallows is my fifteen year old daughter Ruth. She is home suffering from the very same cold she very generously gave to me earlier in the week. For the past two days we have both been laid up as we ran the rapids of a rather large volume of phlegm and other debris which has flowed with alarming regularity from our chests and noses. Where does all that come from? What is it? I resist another urge to google for an answer. Some things are best left out there on the ether.
Its been a rather lazy day. This morning I emerged from a fitful sleep, had a cup of tea followed by a bowl of branflakes and watched some mind-numbing morning TV. Later I read Morning Prayer and watched Ironman on my desktop, pausing halfway to make a cup of coffee. All this was interspersed with texts and phone calls from my wife Hazel and my son Ben who currently lives in Brighton. This in turn was followed by a cup of Earl Grey and a few slices of homemade fruitcake as I opened this blog.
All of these are the moments which collectively make up my day and, strung together, make up my life. They are rather odd building blocks aren’t they? I mean what do they build and what are they meant to achieve? Are they important events and do they contribute anything to the great scheme of things? I don’t know. All I do know is that they represent a part of my life lived and gone. I wonder what ‘the Rat’ is dreaming about?

I am ....the Life

Every now and again someone with a lot of time on their hands and with nothing better to do comes up with some statistics from a research project they have been working on which, while interesting from a "I have nothing else to read at the moment" point of view, seems to make very little contribution to anything worthwhile. For example someone has done some research into the benefits of going to church. Statistics tell us - they say - that those who go to church generally live longer, are more healthy and content than those who do not. Here is a quote from the Independent newspaper published October 2008:

"Regular attendance at church or chapel can be as good for the health as jogging. A study at the University of Pittsburgh showed that weekly attendance at a religious service added two to three years compared with three to five for physical exercise and 2.5 to 3.5 years for people who take statins. "Regular religious attendance is comparable with commonly recommended therapies, and rough estimates suggest religious attendance may be more cost-effective than statins,'' say researchers. One theory is that it reduces stress levels or that the camaraderie increases the ability to cope with stress. A similar effect has been found for having friends. Harvard University research shows that men and women who were less likely to attend church, travel, or take part in social activities were 20 per cent more likely to die early than those who socialised the most. Those who engaged least often in activities such as work, shopping, or gardening, were 35 per cent more likely to die prematurely."

Now on the face of it one has to wonder what the point of the exercise was. Is it an attempt to get people back to church? Or is it part of mankind's search for longer life? Whatever the real reason I don't think it will significantly alter the chosen lifestyle of too many people except the self-obsessed or the obsessive. But there is one aspect of this that did make me think.

Jesus once said "I am the way, the truth and the life" (John 14:6) If Jesus is the source of life then it makes sense that the closer you get to the source of life then the more life you will have in you! Just as if you want to get warm move closer to the fire, if you want life get closer to the source of that life. Jesus.

So maybe the research wasn't a complete waste of time after all.

Though the fig-tree does not bud

The following is from 22nd August 2009. I include it not because I am feeling anything like I was last year but because it is good to keep a balance in one's outlook.

"Though the fig tree does not bud and there are no grapes on the vines, though the olive crop fails and the fields produce no food, though there are no sheep in the pen and no cattle in the stalls, yet I will rejoice in the Lord." Habakkuk 3:17-18


Over the next few days I will have taken seven funerals, one burial of ashes, two weddings, two baptisms, three Holy Communions and one Churchlite (informal service) having preached or spoken at all but one. All this is ten days! As I write I am not quite half way through the list and wondering - as I do now and again - just how much of what I do really makes any observable or real impact on the lives of those at the receiving end? It's not that I don't enjoy - not perhaps the right word in some circumstances - what I am doing. I do. It is just that I do wonder, sometimes, how worthwhile all the effort is.

Take the recent four funerals I have taken over the past two days. I worked hard gathering the information about the lives of the deceased, trying to highlight the positive and individualistic aspects of their lives that would provide their family and friends with a picture of their loved ones which they could all recognise and relate too. Into those pictures I tried to carefully weave the Christian message of hope, comfort and faith. I individualised each of the prayers, expressing gratitude for the lives lived and the positive influences those lives had on those whose paths they crossed, and remembering too those left behind who had to deal with grief, guilt, loss and regret.

However no matter how well prepared my services and sermons were, the words seemed to drop into an ocean of silence with hardly a response other than a hint of a ripple on the surface of the congregation gathered. Sure people shook hands, one or two expressing gratitude for a 'nice service', but apart from that, nothing.

The Church growth gurus will invoke management speak and claim that if the Church were a business it would have gone under by now. "How many companies do you know who would get so little back from such huge investments of time and energy and still be trading?" is a typical line. And if we were talking about a business or a shop or an investment company they would be 100% right. Trouble is that we are not eiether of these things. Which brings me to my reflection. It's interesting how often the Scriptures talk about faithfulness in the face of apparent fruitlessness. Take Habakkuk above. The passage assumes there will be times of want - no buds on the fig trees, no grapes on the vine, the failure of the olive crop, fields with no corn, empty pens and stalls. In other words there will be times when nothing happens. The question is how should we respond? Moan? Complain? Give up? Try something else? No. Rejoice in the Lord! In other words give Him your complete attention. Spend time praying instead of complaining, worshipping instead of worrying and getting to know Him better instead of letting the circumstances dictate your faith.

It's interesting to note other similar references to how barren things can sometimes be. Jesus in the Parable of the Sower talks about how much seed falls on hard, shallow and weed ridden ground (Matthew 13) and exhorts his listeners that to be saved they must "endure to the end" (Matthew 24:13). Paul counsels Timothy to preach in season and out of season (2 Timothy 4:2) and many of the psalms are written out of times of loss and failure yet express a faithfulness that is in no way dependent on whether they are experiencing success or fruitfulness at the time.
Isaiah sums it all up, perhaps with a shrug of the shoulders, as he expresses God's take on all of this: "For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways, declares the Lord." Isaiah 55:8

So I guess I will just have to knuckle down and get on with it until the next time I feel a little peeved. Maybe by then I will be a little quicker to get to my feet and get going again.

Learning to pray at all times

I met Fr Pat Collins a few years back when he visited our Diocese. I was struck by his deep spirituality and the common sense of his teaching. Here is an article he has written about praying at all times:

"In his youth John Cassian (c360-433) had experience of monastic life in Palestine and Egypt. After spending some time in Constantinople and Rome, he moved to Gaul and began founding monasteries in 415 AD. In order to instruct the new members of his communities he gave a number of conferences on the spirituality of the desert fathers. In one of these, Conference Ten on Prayer he tackled the question “how does one pray without ceasing, as the New Testament encourages us to do?”. This particular conference was very influential. Apparently it was read in the refectories of religious houses for hundreds of years afterwards. When I taught spirituality courses in All Hallows College I can remember devoting two sessions to what Cassian had to say. Whereas I expected the students to be uninterested, in fact they were fascinated and I realized that his teaching still has relevance today. O God come to my assistance, O Lord make haste to help me (Ps 70.1)

John Cassian said that in the East the monks had discovered an effective way of praying always. They had a prayer formula or mantra which “was given to us by a few of the oldest fathers.....They did not communicate it except to a few who were thirsty for the true way.” Apparently, the older monks thought that the entire spirituality of the bible, whether that of the Old or New Testament, could be encapsulated in one verse. “To maintain unceasing awareness of God” says John, “keep this verse ever in mind: “O God come to my assistance, O Lord make haste to help me” (Ps 70:1). This verse has rightly been selected from the whole bible for this purpose. It fits every mood, every temptation, every circumstance. It contains a call for divine help, a humble confession of faith, a meditation upon human weakness, a confidence in God’s answer, an assurance of his on-going support.” It strikes me that Ps 70:1 expresses poverty of spirit and complete, trusting dependence on the person and providence of God not only for salvation but also for all one’s other needs.

Cassian then goes on to show by a series of practical examples how this verse can be invoked at different times e.g. when you can’t sleep during the night; when you can’t keep awake during prayer; when you are troubled by impure thoughts; when you are feeling conceited about some success; when you are worried about some future event etc. He says that prayerful repetition of the verse “will be a saving formula in your heart, will guard you from the attack of demons, will cleanse you of the stains of earthly life, lead you to contemplate the unseen things of heaven and carry you up to the highest forms of prayer which very few have experienced.”

Conceptual and Non-conceptual Prayer

Surprisingly, Cassian says that it is better not to think about the verse or ponder its meaning. If perchance the mind wanders - as it often will - it is important to gently bring it back to the reverent recitation of the verse. “This formula,” he says, “the mind should go on grasping until it can cast away the wealth and multiplicity of other thoughts and restrict itself to the poverty of this single verse.” In this way one becomes poor in spirit. “Such a one truly confesses himself the beggar of the Lord, like the psalmist who said, “I am a beggar and a poor man: God himself helps me” Ps 40:17.” If one invokes the verse hundreds of times during the day, it seems to penetrate the unconscious mind so that it becomes second nature to recite it. In that sense one is praying ceaselessly even when engaged with practical, everyday tasks. Although Cassian favours a conceptless, imageless relationship with the incomprehensible mystery of God, he does encourage people to engage in scriptural prayer of a conceptual kind. He says that the faithful recitation of Ps 70:1, prepares the mind to penetrate the spiritual meaning of scripture. As a result: “There are times when a person understands God’s scriptures with the clarity with which a surgeon understands the body when he opens up the marrow and the veins. These are the times when our experience seems to reveal the meaning before we understand it intellectually.” Then he goes on to say that the verse, “O God come to my assistance, O Lord make haste to help me” sums up whatever insight one might have gleaned as a result.

Sometime later he asserts that as a result of this kind of prayer, “The mind shall attain that purest of pure prayers; the prayer which looks to see no visual image, uses no concepts or words.....the mind is rapt upward; and devoid of the aid of the senses or of anything visible or material, pours forth its prayer to God with groanings and sighs that cannot be uttered. This explains the system of spiritual discipline,” he concludes, “there can be nothing more sublime than to fold the recollection of God into the little space of meditation upon a single verse, to summarize all the prayerful feelings in one sentence.”

A One Word Mantra

The prayer of recollection which was introduced to the West by Cassian, has been maintained and developed throughout European history. For example, Walter Hilton, who may have written The Cloud of Unknowing, advocated the use of a one word mantra. “If you want to gather all your desire into one simple word that the mind can easily retain, choose a short word rather than a long one. A one syllable word such as “God” or “love” is best. But choose one that is meaningful to you. Then fix it in your mind so that it will remain there come what may. This word will be your defence in conflict and in peace. Use it to beat off the cloud of darkness above you and to subdue all distractions, consigning them to the cloud of forgetting beneath you. Should some thought go on annoying you demanding to know what you are doing, answer with the one word alone. If your mind begins to intellectualize over the meaning and connotations of this little word, remind yourself that its value lies in its simplicity. Do this and I assure you these thoughts will vanish. Why? Because you have refused to develop them with arguing.” As a person gets to be proficient in this form of prayer the chosen word, which encapsulates all one feels and knows about God, will begin to pray itself within the person’s spirit in an unceasing way.

The Spirit will never stop praying inside him

Isaac of Nineveh wrote in the seventh century: “Once the Spirit comes to dwell in someone, the latter will not be able to stop praying, for the Spirit will never stop praying inside him. Thus, whether he sleeps or wakes, prayer will never be absent from the person’s soul. Whether she is eating or drinking, or sleeping or working, the sweet fragrance of prayer will effortlessly breathe in his heart. Henceforth he no longer prays at fixed times, but continuously.” John Cassian and the author of The Cloud of Unknowing have shown us a simple way of fulfilling Paul’s advice in Eph 5:20: “Pray at all times in the Spirit, with all prayer and supplication.”

Fr Pat Collins CM is a popular author, speaker and retreat leader who is based at St Peter’s Church in Dublin.

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