In old age Johnson observed: I hope GOD will yet grant me a little longer life, and make me less unfit to appear before him.
Life of Johnson by James Boswell.
Amen to both these prayers!
When Johnson visited Skye in the late XVIII Century, the crossing from the mainland was by boat – rowing boat – the bridge would have been unimaginable. The rain, and the rainbow, were facts of everyday life. And still are.
Historically it was an event within the life of Jesus and the early church and is now a feast-day for Christians, one that links Easter to Pentecost. But it is more than an historical event, it is at the same time an insight into life that we need to understand to better sort out the paradoxical interplay between life and death, presence and absence, love and loss.
The Ascension names and highlights a paradox that lies deep at the centre of life, namely, that we all reach a point in life where we can only give our presence more deeply by going away so that others can receive the full blessing of our spirits.
When Jesus was preparing to leave this earth he kept repeating the words: “It is better for you that I go away! You will be sad now, but your sadness will turn to joy. If I don’t go away you will be unable to receive my spirit. Don’t cling to me, I must ascend.”
Why is it better?
Any parent has heard similar words from their children, unspoken perhaps but there nonetheless. When young people leave home to go to college or to begin life on their own, what they are really saying to their parents is: “Mom and dad, it is better that I go away. You will be sad now, but your sadness will turn to joy. If I don’t go, I will always be your little boy or little girl but I will be unable to give you my life as an adult. So please don’t cling to the child you once had or you will never be able to receive my adulthood. I need to go away now so that our love can come to full bloom.”
To remain present to someone we love we have to sometimes be absent, in ways big and small. The pain in this kind of letting go is often excruciating, as parents know, but to refuse to do that is to truncate life.
The same is true for the mystery of death. For example: I was 22 years old when my mother, died. The pain was searing. Initially we were nearly overwhelmed with a sense of being of losing a vital life-connection (that, ironically, we had mostly taken for granted until then). And our feelings were mainly cold, there’s little that’s warm in death.
But time is a great healer. After a while, and for me this took several years, the coldness disappeared and her death was no longer externally painful. I felt again her presence, and now as a warm, nurturing spirit that was with me all time. The coldness of death turned into a warmth. She had gone away but now could give me love and blessing in new way.
The mystery of love and intimacy contains that paradox: To remain present to someone we love we have to sometimes be absent, in ways big and small. In the paradox of love, we can only fully bless each other when we go away. That is why most of us only “get” the blessing our loved ones were for us after they die.
And this is even true, perhaps particularly so, in cases where our loved ones were difficult characters who struggled for peace or to bless anyone in this life. Death washes clean and releases the spirit and, even in the case of people who struggled to love, we can after their deaths receive their blessing in ways we never could while they were alive. Like Jesus, they could only give us their real presence by going away.
“It is better for you that I go away!” These are painful words most of the time, from a young child leaving her mother for a day to go to school, to the man leaving his family for a week to go on a business trip, to the young man moving out of his family’s house to begin life on his own, to a loved one saying goodbye in death. Separation hurts, goodbyes bring painful tears, and death of every kind wrenches the heart.
But that is part of the mystery of love. Eventually we all reach a point where what is best for everyone is that we go away so that we can give our spirit. The gift that our lives are can only be fully received after we ascend.
Traherne is addressing Christ directly in this passage, acknowledging and rejoicing in his closeness to Christ, accepting that suffering unites Men – he of course means men and women – and Christ, now suffering on the cross for me.
What shall I do for Thee, O Thou preserver of Men?
Live, Love, and Admire; and learn to become such unto Thee as Thou unto me. O Glorious Soul; whose comprehensive understanding at once contains all Kingdoms and Ages! O Glorious Mind! Whose love extendeth to all creatures! O miraculous and eternal Godhead, now suffering on the cross for me: As Abraham saw thy Day and was glad, so didst Thou see me and this Day from all Eternity, and seeing me wast Gracious and Compassionate towards me. (All transient things are permanent in God.) Thou settest me before Thy face forever. O let me this day see Thee, and be united to Thee in Thy Holy Sufferings. Let me learn, O God, such lessons from Thee, as may make me wise, and blessed as an Angel of GOD!
Thomas Traherne invites us to live eternal life now through reading the Bible and regarding all of creation with all our faculties, including the imagination, a faculty, he would argue, of the soul.
The contemplation of Eternity maketh the Soul immortal. It can see before and after its existence into endless spaces. O what glorious creatures should we be could we be present in spirit with all Eternity! How wise, would we esteem this presence of the understanding, to be more real than that of our bodies! When my soul is in Eden with our first parents, I myself am there in a blessed manner. When I walk with Enoch*, and see his translation, I am transported with him.
The present age is too little to contain [my soul]. I can visit Noah in his ark, and swim upon the waters of the deluge. I can see Moses with his rod, and the children of Israel passing through the sea; I can enter into Aaron’s Tabernacle, and admire the mysteries of the holy place. I can travel over the Land of Canaan, and see it overflowing with milk and honey; I can visit Solomon in his glory, and go into his temple, and view the sitting of his servants, and admire the magnificence and glory of his kingdom.
No creature but one like unto the Holy Angels can see into all ages. Sure this power was not given in vain, but for some wonderful purpose; worthy of itself to enjoy and fathom. Would men consider what God hath done, they would be ravished in spirit with the glory of His doings. For Heaven and Earth are full of the majesty of His glory. And how happy would men be could they see and enjoy it! But above all these our Saviour’s cross is the throne of delights. That Centre of Eternity, that Tree of Life in the midst of the Paradise of God.
* Enoch ‘walked with God’ and was taken, or translated, into heaven and seen no more on earth, see Genesis 5:21-24.
+ Ark from Shrewsbury Cathedral, Margaret Rope. = The Tree of Life: Our Lady and the English Martyrs, Cambridge.
The events of Holy Week are shown with the Crucified at the centre, full of vigour as he stares death out. Above, the Risen Lord leads his first parents into Paradise, above that again the Ascension.
We have received the link to this Easter reflection by our old friend, Brother Austin, a link we gladly share.
Jesus understood his mission to be, to make his Father known; not by talking about him, but by being himself with other people, his Father’s Son – and that still remains the mission of the Church – go out and spread the Good News – what it means to be beloved of Abba, share your experience, not your knowledge, of who Jesus, the beloved of Abba, is for you.
At this time there were no defined doctrines, creeds or codes – so what were they expected to do when they were told to go out and spread the Good News? Was it to teach and preach? It was something much simpler and much more profound – they were asked to go and share what it was like to live with Jesus, after the Resurrection – share their experiences of being with him.
The Resurrection brought new insights – something Jesus had before his Passion and death; when he told them you do not understand now but you will… He spoke of God in an entirely new way, one which proved threatening to the Guardians of the Law, to Temple worship, Sabbath observances and ritual prescriptions. The last straw was calling God his father. The disciples after Good Friday, must have thought, maybe the authorities were right after all, that Jesus was not from God. Death was final, and put an end to dissent.
Two of them were walking to Emmaus with hopes shattered [we had hoped]. His death seemed to vindicate that Jesus must have been a sinner for this to happen –he who hangs on a tree is cursed – Deuteronomy 21.23; Galatians 3.13. But when he rose from the dead and appeared to them the whole system leading to his death is called into question. Jesus had been right; God is the way Jesus spoke of God; nothing like the description of his accusers. The reasons for getting rid of him were part of the sinful mechanism of getting rid of troublesome people – with nothing whatever to do with God. This leads to questioning the Law as not reflecting the true God. The Resurrection did not simply reveal Jesus’ innocence, not only was he right about God; it exposed the mechanism by which innocent victims are created by those who believe that in doing so they are doing God’s will.
It is true that the Law was given by God – but the interpretations of it are of human origin; and so, for example, keeping the Sabbath holy, came to mean observing all the restrictions imposed – not by God. The point of Sabbath is so as to enjoy the wonderful things God is doing through creation.
We can now imagine the innocence of the victim and see the complicity in violence of the perpetrators. If we see things as the disciples first did, feeling uncomfortable that Jesus may not have been up to what he promised – and then see him back, how would we talk about it? Our stories have beginnings and endings, and, so they had thought, did Jesus’ story – but now: how do we tell a story that has no ending? They tried telling this story which had no room for death – death happens to everyone – and they didn’t know how to do it.
Resurrection has now burst into our storytelling. They couldn’t tell the story in the old way, the new way they were inspired with we call the New Testament. It was not a question of eliminating death, but showing how death has its part in the story, but not as the ending. Jesus did not appear as someone who had been dead and is now better – like Lazarus. The risen Jesus is simultaneously dead and alive – as the five wounds testify – death as lost its power. He is at once dead and alive. His whole life, including death is present in its fullness. He has conquered death, not just for himself, but for all who share common humanity with him; death and its whole system by which all were held in fear, is not necessary. Whatever death is, and it happens to all of us, it is not what dictates or shapes the pattern of life. It is an empty shell, a bark without a bite. We will die, but death cannot separate us from the source of the fullness of life.
Because each one of us is unique [God doesn’t create copies], every sharing will reflect what is ours only, and wouldn’t happen without us – differences [not division] unity without uniformity – which we are able to do by sharing in his Spirit freely given in our Baptism.
His power is evident by upholding it all. But how shall His life appear in that which is dead? Life is the root of activity and motion: Did I see a man sitting in a chair, as long as he was quiet, I could not tell but his body was inanimate: but if he stirred, if he moved his legs, or stretched forth his arms, if he breathed or twinkled with his eyes, I could easily tell he had a soul within him. Motion being a far greater evidence of life, than all lineaments whatsoever. Colours and features may be in a dead picture, but motion is always attended with life. What shall I think therefore when the winds blow, the seas roar, the waters flow, the vapours ascend, the clouds fly, the drops of rain fall, the stars march forth in armies, the sun runneth swiftly round about the world? Can all these things move so without a life, or spring of motion? But the wheels in watches move, and so doth the hand that pointeth out the figures: this being a motion of dead things. Therefore hath God created living ones: that by lively motions, and sensible desires, we might be sensible of a Deity. They breathe, they see, they feel, they grow, they flourish, they know, they love. O what a world of evidences!
We are lost in abysses, we now are absorpt in wonders, and swallowed up of demonstrations. Beasts, fowls, and fishes teaching and evidencing the glory of their creator.
Boswell was struck by this passage in Samuel Johnson’s papers, recorded at Easter 1777. He was at church, even on Easter Sunday aware of his sinfulness, but on this Easter Day he received a personal revelation of God’s peace.
I was for some time distressed, but at last obtained, I hope from the GOD of Peace, more quiet than I have enjoyed for a long time. I had made no resolution, but as my heart grew lighter, my hopes revived, and my courage increased; and I wrote with my pencil in my Common Prayer Book,
Vita ordinanda. Order my life. Biblia legenda. Read my Bible. Theologiae opera danda. Study works of theology. Serviendum et lætandum. Serve and rejoice.*
He continued later: ‘I passed the afternoon with such calm gladness of mind as it is very long since I felt before. I passed the night in such sweet uninterrupted sleep as I have not known since I slept at Fort Augustus.’ In a letter to Boswell he says:—’The best night that I have had these twenty years was at Fort Augustus.’ His good nights must have been rare indeed.”
Well, what was Judas thinking when he went to the authorities for his pieces of silver? He will not have told himself that betraying Jesus was the worst thing he could do, so that’s just what he would do; no, he must have convinced himself that it was the best possible course of action in the circumstances.
Was he trying to force his Master’s hand, engineering a scene such as had happened in Nazareth at the start of his ministry, when Jesus passed through the crowd that was trying to stone him? (Luke 4:16-30) That seems unlikely as Luke says he was looking for a time when the crowd was not present in order to hand Jesus over. (22.6) Was he hoping that Jesus would then and there abandon his peaceful mission, instead establishing the Kingdom of Israel in a brilliant coup d’etat? Or did he see himself as clear-sighted, holding out no hope for Project Jesus, so he would cut his losses and take the money and run.
His suicide suggests that he was not that clear-sighted and cynical. I do not think he expected events to work out as they did; his self image may have been of a Mr Fix-it, forcing change on Jesus. Perhaps he expected the 11 and other disciples to rally round, overpowering or recruiting the posse sent to arrest Jesus and rampaging triumphant into the city. If he thought Jesus would enter into his Kingdom by military or mob force he was profoundly mistaken about him; but so were the other disciples, every one in their own way. But they clung together and did not hang themselves.
And then what? Clearly Jesus meant more to him than the money, the blood money that could not go into the treasury. (Matthew 27:3-8) His suicide speaks of hope abandoned – as we read yesterday, those who have something to hope for survive. Judas surely felt unable to return to the community of the disciples after what he’d done. Peter wept bitterly, but still stuck around. The reality of his prophetic words – you have the message of eternal life – did not sink in until Sunday morning. Too late to save Judas.
But never too late for his Lord and Friend to save Judas. That’s clearly what the artist of Strasbourg Cathedral felt, when he carved the Lamb of God rescuing Judas from his noose at the very gate of Hell.
We turn again to Eddie Gilmore of the Irish Chaplaincy. We are at the end of Lent, and hopefully – say it again, hope-fully – we are nearing the end of a much longer period of penitential living, as the vaccines begin to push the covid virus into the margins.
“Hope is an essential part of being human.”
So said Bishop Richard Harries in a recent ‘Thought for the Day’ and he cited an example of Allied prisoners in the second world war. Those who had something to look forward to, he explained, perhaps a wife and children to eventually return home to, were more likely to survive long years in captivity than those who didn’t.
Many of us will be looking forward to a variety of things, and it can be a way of getting through a challenging current reality. We might be looking forward to being able to meet up with friends and family again, to sharing physical touch, to singing in choirs, to attending live events. Many parents will, I’m sure, have been looking forward to the schools reopening! All of my children are dreaming of going travelling, and I must say that I’m quite keen to jump on a train or plane again too! After the long cold winter we might be looking forward to the coming of warmer weather, and perhaps even fantasising about lying on a tropical beach somewhere! Any beach would do me at the moment, tropical or not. In the Church’s year we may put up with a little self-imposed hardship during Lent, in the knowledge that the great feast of Easter will follow, and we’ll be able to stuff ourselves with chocolate again! The bible is filled with references to hope, often expressed in times of adversity, such as in Isaiah 40: “Those who hope in the Lord will renew their strength, they put out wings like eagles, they run and do not grow weary.” In Jeremiah 29 we hear of God promising those exiled from Jerusalem to Babylon, “a future full of hope.” And we are assured in Psalm 9 that, “The hope of the poor is never brought to nothing.”
We need to be careful that in our looking forward we do forget to receive whatever is given in the present moment. I’m sure I’m not alone in spending much of my waking time alternately dwelling on the past or either worrying about or anticipating the future, and missing therefore what’s right in front of my nose. When the Indian Jesuit Anthony de Mello was asked if he believed in life after death he replied, “I believe in life before death.”
During my interview for the Chaplaincy at the end of 2016, I ended my presentation to the panel with the words: ‘Irish Chaplaincy…Looking Ahead with Hope’. I’m not quite sure where those words came from but they seemed to strike a chord and they duly appeared in bold letters on the homepage of our new website. In looking for a name for our upcoming fundraising walks in April we decided on the name ‘Walk with Hope.’
Bishop Harries quotes a line by the poet R.S. Thomas, having noted that much of his poetry could be quite bleak. Thomas apparently wandered into a Welsh village one day and was suddenly filled with an overwhelming sense that, “There is everything to look forward to”.
Harries concludes with a suggestion of how we are to live in the day ahead, the hour ahead: “In the present, but with hope.”
We continue with Sister Margaret’s reflections on Penance as lived by Saint Francis.
Penance, as metanoia then, has three main elements:
An innermost change of heart under the influence of the Word of God;
Changing one’s life in harmony with the change of heart;
Bringing forth fruits worthy of penance.
Putting this another way, we then see that penance consists of three key elements:
Conversion: a change of mind, a change of heart, a turning from self to God;
Repentance: this change of heart, this conversion, reflects itself in a change of life (style, habits formed, etc.)
Fruits of Penance: the change of life results in the fruits of penance, in doing penance, in doing good deeds
By way of conclusion … it is important that we realise from the above that for Francis the life of penance begins with God, the initial action comes from God, and then come the visible signs of repentance. This fact is crucial to a true understanding of Franciscan Penance.
This ties up completely with the biblical teaching of penance as metanoia in which conversion (turning from self to God) is the central dynamic of the life of penance. For Francis, and for us, the way of penance is the way of choosing God in response to His invitation, the way in which God, and not ourselves, becomes the very centre of our existence.