Tag Archives: Authority

7 July: Know that I am God; Feast of the Translation of Saint Thomas of Canterbury.

Chapel of Saint Thomas of Canterbury, St David’s Cathedral.

Be still, and know that I am God:
I will be exalted among the heathen,
I will be exalted in the earth.

Psalm 46:10.

The text on the reading desk in Saint Thomas’s chapel invites us to compose ourselves, to be calm as we come before God. This is a quiet corner of Saint David’s Cathedral in Wales, but the saint it celebrates did not live a quiet life. Perhaps he had plenty of time to be still in God’s presence while he was in exile from England after disputes with the King, who wanted more control over the Church.

Archbishop Thomas, however, could not agree to this. God did not depend on earthly kings for his greatness: he was not and is not a tame god, working for a narrow national interest.

Be still, and know that I am God:
I will be exalted among the heathen,
I will be exalted in the earth.

In the stillness of his heart, Thomas accepted this and refused to be King Henry’s puppet. His martyrdom in his own Cathedral of Canterbury was the consequence of exalting God over his earthly lord.

This is the feast of the Translation of Saint Thomas – the day in 1220 when his bones were ‘translated’ to the new shrine in Canterbury Cathedral, and a better day for pilgrims to travel than late December, when he died.

Let us pray for the Church under persecution in so many parts of the world. And pray, too, for the Bishops of the Anglican Communion, gathered for their Conference, and for unity among all Christians, as Jesus prayed. AMEN.

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21 June: Lawful Authority

The Pharisees took counsel how they might entangle him in his talk. And they sent out unto him their disciples with the Herodians, saying, Master, we know that thou art true, and teachest the way of God in truth, neither carest thou for any man: for thou regardest not the person of men. Tell us therefore, What thinkest thou? Is it lawful to give tribute unto Caesar, or not?

But Jesus perceived their wickedness, and said, Why tempt ye me, ye hypocrites? Shew me the tribute money. And they brought unto him a penny. And he saith unto them, Whose is this image and superscription?

They say unto him, Caesar’s. Then saith he unto them, Render therefore unto Caesar the things which are Caesar’s; and unto God the things that are God’s.

When they had heard these words, they marvelled, and left him, and went their way.

Matthew 22:15-22.

This story takes place during Holy Week, the days of preparation for the Passover Feast in Jerusalem. Herod was around, as the Gospels tell us he took part in condemning Jesus. Here Herod is in an unlikely alliance with the Pharisees, collaborators lining up with the upholders of the Jewish Law; opposite views of the basis for civil society. Both groups are corrupt, both are tempted to confuse their own interests with those of God’s people, their authority is shaky and in both cases dependent on the Roman Occupation, for or against it, for their prestige. Does either group want a revolution?

Dr Johnson wrote:

The general story of mankind will evince that lawful and settled authority is very seldom resisted when it is well employed…. Men are easily kept obedient to those who have temporal dominion in their hands, till their veneration is dissipated by such wickedness and folly as can neither be defended nor concealed.

The Rambler, No. 50; in “Life of Johnson, Volume 1 1709-1765” by James Boswell.

Jesus sketches out the fine line we generally have to follow in respecting lawful authority. It requires grown up thinking, not Punch and Judy politics. But how best to resist indefensible wickedness and folly? It was a question of life and death for tomorrow’s saints, John Fisher and Thomas More.

For deeper and satisfying reflection on this passage, we suggest joining Sister Johanna as she eavesdrops on the discussion that Jesus so elegantly sidesteps, in this post from last May.

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30 May: A lesson in respect.

Tagore in later life.

Tagore also recorded an instance where he himself showed great respect to a person that someone in authority might have disdained to take any notice of. Tagore also knows how to tell a story well, so enjoy!
KALIGRAM, 1891. Yesterday, while I was giving audience to my tenants, five or six boys made their appearance and stood in a primly proper row before me. Before I could put any question their spokesman, in the choicest of high-flown language, started: “Sire! the grace of the Almighty and the good fortune of your benighted children have once more brought about your lordship’s auspicious arrival into this locality.” He went on in this strain for nearly half an hour. Here and there he would get his lesson wrong, pause, look up at the sky, correct himself, and then go on again. I gathered that their school was short of benches and stools. “For want of these wood-built seats,” as he put it, “we know not where to sit ourselves, where to seat our revered teachers, or what to offer our most respected inspector when he comes on a visit.”

I could hardly repress a smile at this torrent of eloquence gushing from such a bit of a fellow, which sounded specially out of place here, where the ryots* are given to stating their profoundly vital wants in plain and direct vernacular, of which even the more unusual words get sadly twisted out of shape. The clerks and ryots, however, seemed duly impressed, and likewise envious, as though deploring their parents’ omission to endow them with so splendid a means of appealing to the Zamindar.

I interrupted the young orator before he had done, promising to arrange for the necessary number of benches and stools. Nothing daunted, he allowed me to have my say, then took up his discourse where he had left it, finished it to the last word, saluted me profoundly, and marched off his contingent. He probably would not have minded had I refused to supply the seats, but after all his trouble in getting it by heart he would have resented bitterly being robbed of any part of his speech. So, though it kept more important business waiting, I had to hear him out.

  • ryot, raiyat: peasant farmer, or agricultural worker.

From Glimpses of Bengal Selected from the Letters of Sir Rabindranath Tagore.

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29 May: On the receiving end.

Christina Rossetti reminded us that we do not always know leaf from leaf; there are often stinging nettles and prickly brambles behind the pretty flowers. A careless hand could be stung or scratched if it reached in to pick a pink campion or a head of Queen Anne’s Lace.

Saint Augustine, as we heard the other day, was insensitive to the dignity of the Welsh bishops who came to visit him. This was hurtful. I imagine this set back Christian unity in these Islands when mutual respect would have healed many rifts. And Augustine was a saint; we lesser mortals need to be vigilant not to be careless in dealing with each other.

Nationality and race are not the only stumbling blocks to the unity of Christians or the unity of all people, but they matter. If they are not respected, especially by those in authority or power, people will feel hurt and insulted and will be disinclined to co-operate. Here is an eloquent example from 19th Century India. Tagore was by no means intemperate, unlike the man he describes.

Let us pray for the grace to see other people as fellow-children of God, brothers and sisters to be respected and loved as equals.

CUTTACK, 10th February 1893. He was a fully developed John Bull of the outrageous type—with a huge beak of a nose, cunning eyes, and a yard-long chin.

The curtailment of our right to be tried by jury is now under consideration by the Government. The fellow dragged in the subject by the ears and insisted on arguing it out with our host, poor B—— Babu. He said the moral standard of the people of this country was low; that they had no real belief in the sacredness of life; so that they were unfit to serve on juries. The utter contempt with which we are regarded by these people was brought home to me when I saw how they can accept a Bengali’s hospitality and talk thus, seated at his table, without a quiver of compunction.

As I sat in a corner of the drawing-room after dinner, everything round me looked blurred to my eyes. I seemed to be seated by the head of my great, insulted Motherland, who lay there in the dust before me, disconsolate, shorn of her glory. I cannot tell what a profound distress overpowered my heart. How incongruous seemed the mem-sahibs there, in their evening-dresses, the hum of English conversation, and the ripples of laughter! How richly true for us is our India of the ages; how cheap and false the hollow courtesies of an English dinner-party!”

From Glimpses of Bengal, Selected from the Letters of Sir Rabindranath Tagore“.

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14 August: Things that have changed my life II.

The second half of the teenagers’ reflections on things that changed their lives. I have avoided analysing their contributions or sermonising on them; I hope each reader can do so for themselves. I do remember that when I pinned up copies of these thoughts on the classroom display boards they were pleased, far more so than I had expected. Clearly these events DID change their lives.

Let us be aware in our dealings with young people, that we can change their lives for good or ill. For the most part, power lives with adults: let us pray for wisdom to use it well.

When my parents got a divorce and I was fostered for a year.

When I got my dog, because I have always wanted a dog.

My brother leaving home. I had to get used to being without him, and I don’ have anybody to help me with my homework.(This was written by a girl.)

Parents treating me differently as I got older, and getting more protective because I am a girl.

My mum getting married again because we had another person to tell us what to do and where to go and when to do it.

My little brother was born when I was ten.

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28 March: Palm Sunday

Vandalised altar piece, Saint David’s Cathedral.
All they that saw me have laughed me to scorn: they have spoken with the lips, and wagged the head.
He hoped in the Lord, let him deliver him: let him save him, seeing he delighteth in him. 
For many dogs have encompassed me: the council of the malignant hath besieged me. 
They have dug my hands and feet. They have numbered all my bones. 
And they have looked and stared upon me. 
They parted my garments amongst them; and upon my vesture they cast lots. 
But thou, O Lord, remove not thy help to a distance from me; look towards my defence. 
I will declare thy name to my brethren: in the midst of the church will I praise thee. 
Ye that fear the Lord, praise him: all ye the seed of Jacob, glorify him.

Ps 22: 8-9; 17-20; 23-24.

In today’s Psalm it is clear that the malignant have set out to humiliate the writer. Stepping into his shoes for the moment, I think of moments when I’ve been in trouble, usually with other boys. Which was worse on these occasions – to be stared at silently by authority, or to be ignored while he or she finished the work on the desk before them? Either way, this was a theatrical act to arouse fear in the culprits.

But here authority goes further, parting the writer’s clothing, treating it like a set of raffle prizes, and leaving him naked, to be stared at. If they’d had electricity we can be sure they would have turned the floodlights on him, arousing even more primal fear.

And yet – ‘I will declare thy name to my brethren: in the midst of the church will I praise thee.’ So went the martyrs, singing and praising God to the scaffold, like William Richardson last month. They were following Jesus, confident that he would lead them through the Valley of Death that he had conquered. The martyrs witnessed to the truth of love and the love of truth. Neither Love nor Truth were conquered on Calvary.

But the suffering and death were real. We should not insulate ourselves from that, from the flesh and blood of Jesus that was ‘ill-used’, as perhaps those who defaced this altar piece were trying to do. Rather we must accept to carry each our own daily cross and follow him, declaring his name to our brethren.

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21 February: Saint Peter’s Chair.

cattle-hill-stream-640x466

A couple of sentences at the end of the article* struck me.

‘Why has the Catholic priesthood wanted to present itself over the centuries as perfect, as impregnable? Since the child abuse scandal… this facade has crumbled and our priests are now humbler as a result and fewer in number.’

Read any of the Gospels and we see men who were far from impregnable. Look at the last chapter (21, 14-17) of John:

 This is now the third time that Jesus was manifested to his disciples, after he was risen from the dead. When therefore they had dined, Jesus saith to Simon Peter: Simon son of John, lovest thou me more than these? He saith to him: Yea, Lord, thou knowest that I love thee. He saith to him: Feed my lambs. He saith to him again: Simon, son of John, lovest thou me? He saith to him: Yea, Lord, thou knowest that I love thee. He saith to him: Feed my lambs. He said to him the third time: Simon, son of John, lovest thou me? Peter was grieved, because he had said to him the third time: Lovest thou me? And he said to him: Lord, thou knowest all things: thou knowest that I love thee. He said to him: Feed my sheep.

We all know about Peter’s betrayal: this scene of forgiveness and mission came after that; it came in the early days of the New World Order. No-one tried to cover up Peter’s terrible lapse, to pretend it had not happened. No-one made him out to be perfect.

I’m grateful to our own Fr Daniel Weatherley who likened St Peter’s Chair to those held by professors, who bring to the post all their wisdom and experience. Peter was a man of experience, and of hard-won wisdom.

Let’s pray with him: ‘Lord, you know everything, you know that I love you.’

And listen out for the call. Who will I be asked to feed today or tomorrow. What can I offer them?

*Stephen Hough, Struggles of the calling, the Tablet, 17.2.2018, p13.

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27 January: The murder that shook the Middle Ages.

crypt (640x481)

This link is to the British Museum blog  post about ‘the murder that shook the Middle Ages: that of Thomas Becket, Archbishop of Canterbury, in his own Cathedral.  In this period of Brexit and withdrawal from Europe, it is as well for us all to realise that:

In death Becket remained a figure of opposition to unbridled power and became seen as the quintessential defender of the rights of the Church. To this end you can find images of his murder in churches across Latin Christendom, from Germany and Spain, to Italy and Norway. Becket was, and remains, a truly European saint.

By no means was Thomas simply an anti-establishment English hero. Let us pray for the grace to discern when to support and when to oppose or challenge authority.

The British Museum will be holding a major exhibition about Becket and his world in the Autumn of 2020.

 

From 1170 to 1220, Saint Thomas’s remains lay in the Crypt of Canterbury Cathedral.

 

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23 November: The King VII, Jesus.

arch.people2

Should we understand Pilate’s question as a signal that he is now ready to listen? I don’t think so. Had Jesus detected even a hint of sincere open-mindedness in Pilate, he would have responded to it. But now, he is too weak and Pilate’s question about Jesus’ origin is far too big. Jesus remains silent. Pilate is not accustomed to such treatment and chooses this moment to remind Jesus of his power over him – once again, the power fixation – ‘Are you refusing to speak to me? Surely you know that I have power to release you and I have power to crucify you.

Even in the extreme weakness of his physical condition, Jesus cannot allow these ill-conceived words to stand uncorrected. He somehow manages to dredge up the strength to find breath and say, ‘You would have no power over me at all if it had not been given to you from above; that is why the one who handed me over to you has the greater guilt’ (John 19: 11). Another highly enigmatic statement which would have seemed incomprehensible to Pilate – and maybe seems so to us, too. When Jesus says that Pilate’s power over him is ‘given from above’, what does he mean?

Jesus’ statements are always multi-layered. Each time we reread scripture prayerfully we can find new depths in Jesus’ words. This statement is one of his most profound utterances. I would like to pause for a moment to consider its implications. Here, Jesus is saying an enormous amount in very few words. What Pilate understood by them cannot be ascertained, but we ourselves can reflect on them. We can recall that in John’s gospel, ‘from above’ refers to God, the Father and creator of all; it refers to the origin and perfection of all that exists and of all that is truly good and loving. This God, whose very being is goodness and love, cannot will what is evil. And, clearly, Jesus’ execution and all that led up to it, including Pilate’s complicity with the forces of darkness, is evil. The Father did not will this particular evil, or any other evil. But he does will human freedom – with the consequence that human beings are free to love God and each other, and to create or respond to all that is good and true in the world. Love is only love when it is given freely. But, by this same freedom, the human person can conceive the convoluted and tragic structures of sin – hatred, jealousy, slander, falsehood, murder, death, and so much more. The political power wielded by Pilate is part of the complex working out of human freedom on a world scale.

We can also reflect that Jesus knew that his mission was to confront, single-handed, sin and death at its source in a titanic battle against Satan. He understood its demands profoundly, and accepted it absolutely. He never shirked his mission*; he walked resolutely towards it, foreseeing and predicting that the consequences of his teachings and of his very presence in the world would lead to this moment he was now undergoing. He knew that, in fact, his mission was one with his very identity. He gave himself completely to it, holding back nothing, out of his unfathomable love for his Father and for the whole human race. This is why Jesus could say that Pilate’s power had been ‘given from above’ – inasmuch as Pilate was an unwitting instrument of the salvation of the human race.

Jesus’ words to Pilate, however, tell us here that, in Jesus’ estimation, Pilate plays only a very small part in a drama of cosmic proportions – ‘given from above’. And, once again, Jesus pays Pilate the profound compliment of interpreting Pilate in the best possible light, when he tells Pilate that the one who handed him over ‘has the greater guilt,’ for Pilate is the quintessential pawn, not merely of the Roman government and the hysteria of the Jewish authorities baying for his execution, but of the entire history of human evil, culminating in the pathetic, confused, self-absorbed political manoeuvres Pilate was trying to make with regard to Jesus. Jesus sees that Pilate is not fully to blame for his actions. His spiritual blindness and his preoccupation with power are moral failings that he has inherited from the human condition time out of mind. But, Jesus also wants to make it clear to Pilate that Pilate’s so called power is the power of a minnow as compared to a whale. It is no power. Pilate’s threats are only a tiny factor in the greater pattern of primordial evil that Jesus has been confronting all his life, and in his divine nature he would ultimately overthrow it, like a great whale overturning the whaling vessel and the crew that is trying to harpoon it. God’s infinite power ‘from above’ will turn evil on its head through Jesus. He is able to, and will, bring good out of what seems to have fallen completely beyond the furthest reach of goodness, for God’s arm is longer still. Indeed, it will reach into Jesus’ very tomb.

Probably all of this is way beyond what Pilate could consciously grasp. But, clearly, something came home to him, for the other gospels indicate that Pilate is thoroughly shaken now and wants to put as much space between himself and this intense and enigmatic preacher as he can. In Matthew’s account Pilate, at this point, publicly washes his hands of Jesus and of the whole situation. But in the gospel of John, Pilate continues to interact with the crowd, bringing Jesus out again before them, broken and bleeding. Pilate’s action elicits only an intensification of mob-hysteria, as they scream for Jesus’ execution. Again, Pilate challenges them: ‘Shall I crucify your king?’ They answer with the blatant hypocrisy Jesus had challenged in them repeatedly throughout his ministry: ‘We have no king but Caesar!’

And Pilate gives up. There is nothing for a politician to do but appease this group, give them what they seem to want and hope they will go away and give him less trouble in the future. And Pilate is first and last a politician. He orders Jesus to be taken away and crucified.

*The other gospels tell of Jesus’ agony in the garden of Gethsemane – but this is not a ‘shirking’ of his mission. Rather, it shows the reality of Jesus’ suffering, and of his human psyche instinctively recoiling from an excruciating death. But, through his prayerful communion with his Father, Jesus received the strength he needed to carry on.

SJC

 

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1 October, The Franciscans come to Mount Alvernia IV: a bed for the night

raindrops-storm-485x335

We see in this post, as in the last one, how Francis entrusted important decisions to other brothers, even when he was around and could have made his will prevail.

Saint Francis took with him to Tuscany Brother Masseo da Marignano of Assisi, the which was a man of great eloquence, and Brother Angelo Tancredi da Rieti, the which was a man of very gentle birth and in the world had been a knight, and Brother Leo, a man of exceeding great simplicity and purity, for the which cause Saint Francis loved him much. And with these three brothers Saint Francis set himself to pray, commended himself and his companions aforesaid to the prayers of the brothers that remained behind, and set out with those three in the name of Jesu Christ, the Crucified, for to go to the mount of Alvernia.

And as he went, Saint Francis called unto one of those three companions, to wit, Brother Masseo, and said unto him: “Thou shalt be our guardian and our superior in this journey, to wit, so long as we be going and staying together, and we will observe our rule, to wit, that we be either saying the office, or speaking of God, or keeping silence, and that we take no thought beforehand, either of eating or drinking or sleeping : but when it is time to seek a lodging, we will beg a little bread, and stay and rest in the place that God may make ready for us.”

Then the three companions bowed their heads, and making the sign of the cross, went on their way: and on the first night they came to a house of the brothers and lodged there. On the second night of their journey, by reason of the bad weather and because they were tired, not being able to reach any house of the brothers or any castle or village, when the night overtook them and bad weather, they took refuge in a deserted and dismantled church, and there laid them down to rest.

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