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Compassion towards Detainees

I read with a deep sense of shame, disgust and anger of the suicide three months ago of Marcin Gwozdzinski, a Polish detainee at Harmondsworth Detention Centre.  The report, in The Guardian, carried this harrowing account of the event:

“He was crying, begging for help from the guards, telling them to call an ambulance, that his mental health was an emergency,” said another detainee,  … “They told him he would get no help and to stop calling for an ambulance. He broke down like a baby. Still they did nothing.”

In view of this I have written a letter to the Prime Minister and Home Secretary to plead that the government show compassion to those held in custody.  I fear, as many do, that this is yet another example – and a tragic one – of the way our country is hardening its heart following Brexit.  I understand that we are the only country in Europe with no time limit on immigration detention despite a campaign by MP’s and others to impose a 28 day limit and only then as an “absolute last resort”.  These deaths leave those responsible – and, by implication, all of us in the UK – with blood on our hands, blood which, like the blood of Abel, cries out for justice.

COMPASSION – the biblical gift to the human spirit

Johann Baptist Metz, the German Catholic theologian (b.1928), argued 1 that compassion is ‘… a primary reaction to another person’s suffering.  It possesses a political dimension, in that a merely private attitude … is not enough.  And since it has to be exercised in the midst of oppression and repression, it has to become justice.
In the Gospels, Metz observes, Jesus is more attentive to the sufferings of others than their sins, but is very critical of the sins of hypocrisy committed by the scribes and Pharisees – the religious authorities.  Unfortunately, however,
‘Christianity very soon began to have serious difficulties with this fundamental sensitivity to other people’s sufferings, which is inherent in its message.  The worrying question about justice … for the innocent who suffer, which is at the heart of the biblical traditions, was transformed, …with excessive haste, into the issue of salvation for sinners.’ 2
            Metz pointed out that Jesus had been more concerned with people suffering than their sin and points out that the parable of the Good Samaritan has entered into the narrative of humankind’s memory.  The God whom Jesus reveals is one who connects with people because of his revealed compassionate heart from which compassion emerged.  Metz argued that ‘compassion’ was the only word which could adequately carry this sense of divine sensitivity to human suffering and a key word for a global programme for Christianity and the ‘biblical gift to the human spirit’.  Such an imperative demands justice and, if Europe embraced a political culture inspired by compassion it would offer a creative, inspirational landscape.  Although this might seem naïve any politics of freedom must move beyond a narrative of economic competition to the morality of compassion.    He quotes how the Jesuit theologian Ignacio Ellacuría (martyred in San Salvador in 1989) wrote of the way the church, maintaining political neutrality, needs instead to express a passionate solidarity with the needs of the suffering poor. He described this as a spirituality of ‘open eyes’ that sees more and pays attention to the needs of the suffering regardless of how difficult that might be, for God is their friend.

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1  Sobrino, Jon, 2016, Fifty Years for a Future that is Christian and Human, in ‘Journeys of Liberation: Joys and Hopes for the Future’, ed. Maria Clara Bingemer, ‘Concilium: International Journal of Theology’, p.70

2 Toward a Christianity of Political Compassion in ‘Love that Produces Hope: The Thought of Ignacio Ellacuría’, ed. K. Burke Sj and others, 2006, Liturgical Press

Compassion and Contemplation

Compassion means to understand another’s pain at such a deep level that it’s like feeling it yourself. Many mentors have told me over the years that the essence of pastoral ministry is connection and presence, being with. One seminary professor liked to say that the most important thing in parish ministry is to love the people you serve. It stands to reason that anything that makes us more compassionate will enable us to enter more deeply into the ministry that is ours as pastors.

The question then is how to develop compassion, which is a bit like asking how we learn to love. Through intention, perhaps. Through practice, certainly. But Henri Nouwen and his collaborators point out in their book entitled Compassion that “compassion asks us to go where it hurts, to enter into places of pain, to share in brokenness, fear, confusion, and anguish.” In other words, it doesn’t always feel good. Nouwen et al add—and I think this is significant—“Compassion … is not as natural a phenomenon as it might first appear.”

I propose that contemplative practices can facilitate direct connection with other beings, in ways we are only beginning to understand, enlarging our capacity for profound compassion. If contemplative practice can awaken our compassionate hearts, it can help us minister to people—even, or perhaps especially, those we might see as annoying and maybe even try to avoid.

The seed of my interest in this subject was planted in something that took place some years ago, during a period when I was faithfully maintaining a daily practice of Centering Prayer. I walked into a crowded convenience store and crossed paths with a store employee. I was heading for the coffee; she was carrying some bottled drinks to the refrigerator. As she walked by, I experienced a powerful sensation that she was carrying a great deal of pain – not physical, but emotional – and I offered a prayer for her. I felt that same sensation again when I went to pay for my coffee and she was back at the cash register, and this encounter stayed with me for a good long time after I left the store.

What just happened? I wondered. I’d never experienced anything like this before. I sensed that it was more than just a matter of emotional intelligence, i.e. picking up on visual clues such as her facial expression and body language. It wasn’t a particularly pleasant experience for me, since it involved my feeling some of what I perceived to be her pain; on the other hand, it also felt sacred. Even after those impressions faded, I continued to reflect on what had connected us for those few moments, and how it was even possible.

Much later, when I had returned to the regular practice of Centering Prayer after a time away, I had another similar experience. This one was even more intense. While sitting with others in contemplative prayer, I suddenly had an overwhelming sense of the goodness of one individual in particular. To be honest, this was someone I had previously found rather annoying. But now it was as if this goodness were a tangible quality that was overflowing into the room, blessing all of us; the word that came to my mind to describe this person in the moment was “golden.”

Another time, while sitting in silence with a woman who had experienced real pain in her life and whose physical appearance bore mute witness to what she’d been through, I glanced at her and was overwhelmed by her beauty. Again, it was as if what I perceived as beauty was not a matter of looks but more a kind of energy that radiated from the depth of her person and had moved between us.

As we develop our compassion for the world, we become better positioned to lead our parishes in responding to those needs and fulfilling the baptismal promise expressed in the Book of Common Prayer to “strive for justice and peace among all people.” As Thomas Merton wrote after his well-known Louisville experience, “If only they could see each other as they really are. If only we could see each other that way all the time. There would be no more war, no more hatred, no more cruelty, no more greed. … But this cannot be seen, only believed and ‘understood’ by a peculiar gift.”

Additionally, many of us believe that good preaching requires becoming aware of what the text might have to say to the particular circumstances in which we preach, and what the people we preach to need to hear. I think the perception of contemplative compassion has something to contribute in both of those areas, but especially in the understanding of who the people we preach to really are, what they are experiencing in their lives, what hurts and doubts nag at them, what they need to feed their souls.

I cannot think of any quality that is more needed in our world today than compassion, and each parish is in its own way a microcosm of that world. If a greater capacity for compassion is a natural outcome of contemplative practice—and it seems that it is—that is a wonderful and valuable asset for anyone in pastoral ministry. We so need that open-hearted connection to God, and to our people.

Catherine Kerr
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Catherine D. Kerr is an Episcopal priest, spiritual director, and contemplative photographer. She serves as rector at Good Shepherd Church in Hilltown, Pennsylvania, USA and is a graduate of the Shalem Institute for Spiritual Formation: Going Deeper: Clergy Spiritual Life and Leadership Program. Catherine and her husband, Chris, have two grown children.

 

SERMON FOR THE 26TH SUNDAY IN ORDINARY TIME

Preached at the Church of S. John Chrysostom, Peckham on October 1st, 2017

Jesus said: “Be compassionate
as your Father is compassionate.” (Lk.6:36)

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INTRODUCTION
Sometimes I find is very hard to say “no”.  I don’t think that’s unusual – there seem to be plenty of others whose first re-action, if asked to do something – is to say “yes” and then regret it afterwards.  Are we all ‘people- pleasers’?  Do we think saying ‘yes’ is the easy way out?  I don’t know.  But I do know that the parable Jesus told today resonates for me.  Those two sons, the one who said ‘yes’ and then didn’t and the one who said ‘no’ and then did seem types that I, for one (and I guess many others) can relate to.  Which was the best response?  Why did Jesus tell the parable?  What was He trying to say?  What does it say to you?  Perhaps we should have a conversation about it – you could get into groups and talk it through and then we could share our insights together afterwards….

And that would be the sort of thing that happened when Jesus told the story because that’s how Jesus taught.  He taught through using ‘parables’, word-pictures that hang before our eyes inviting us to explore their meaning.  Jesus rarely taught as we might understand the notion of ‘teaching’ – this is what the Church teaches, for example.  Rather he taught about the kingdom, or Reign of God, by way of these many-layered word-pictures inviting people (as he did today) to consider their response.  I’ll leave you to talk about it over coffee, or to ruminate on it as the week progresses.  What I want to pick up on today is that phrase Jesus used, he “thought better of it”.  Some translations say he “changed his mind”.  Or we might say he “had a change of heart” and it’s that phrase I want to explore.

CONVERSION OF HEART
Jesus is all about helping us to change our hearts, to be converted from what is life-denying to what is life-affirming.  I’m sure all of us, as we read the papers, listen to the news or hear of the terrible things happening in our society and neighbourhoods, would agree that people need to change.  In particular I think of the terrible violence that many young people suffer – the knife crimes that occur, the fear that lurks streets and schools and the anger that seems to fill so many people’s heart – and it makes me wonder what can be done unless there is a change of heart.

And that won’t come because of pronouncements by the church or government but it will come if people like you help those you know – your children and grandchildren, for example – to reflect on what might help create a better world for them to live in. How can they be helped to change their hearts?  How can I be helped to change mine?  What example do I set?  Have I closed my own heart to this matter of ‘inner conversion’?  Are there areas of my life which are closed off from God – from the gospel of Christ?  Am I so strong-willed that I won’t or can’t change?  Is my heart a fertile place for the Word of God to grow, or is it a hard place?

COMPASSIONATE HEARTS
Recently someone wrote to me about the way she realised her heart was growing harder. About six years ago‘, she said, ‘I became troubled that my heart was becoming like stone, and I made a conscious choice to change this situation.  I knew that only God could help me on this one, and He did.’  She went on to observe: ‘I’ve noticed that, as some people get older, they become increasingly bitter and resentful about what life hurls at them.  They may even choose to have hatred running in their lives.  It sort of energises them and keeps them going.’

Personally I had noticed something similar in some people’s attitudes towards those of other nationalities – and especially towards refugees and immigrants following Brexit.  And I reflected on something the Holy Father wrote last year: “Jesus’ only judgement” he said, “is one filled with mercy and compassion.”

THE COMPASSION OF GOD
Whilst all the world’s great religions attest to God’s compassionate nature, Christianity is the one most rooted in this Divine attribute.  God’s relationship with the world and with all people is defined by love and compassion – and we’re called to act with this gift that can transform the world.  It was out of compassion for us that God entered creation in the Incarnation.  We sing about it in one of our most popular hymns: Jesu, thou art all compassion!  When He saw His friends weeping at the grave of Lazarus, He felt compassion for them and wept alongside them (Jn 11: 33-35).  Moved with compassion for the suffering of others, He healed the large crowds who came to Him (Matt. 14:14) as well as individuals who sought His healing (Mk 1: 40-41).

And when a Pharisee asked Jesus “What’s the greatest Commandment?” (Matt. 22: 34-40) He replied: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind and your neighbour as yourself.”  If only we had the courage to share those words with others!  That would change a lot of hearts!  Because when asked: Who is my neighbour?” Jesus responded by telling the Parable of the Good Samaritan (Lk. 10:25-37),

The example of that hated foreigner who showed active compassion in the face of suffering is something I wish we could share with all young people.  And old people, as well!  It’s easy to become blind and deaf to this Commandment because it does not come naturally.  Too often we give attention to the lure of those life-diminishing forces that can be difficult to avoid.  The Bible is clear that compassion is an attribute of God and, therefore, is to be an attribute also of God’s people. For example, S. John, in his First Letter, asks: “If anyone has material possessions and sees his brother in need, but has no pity on him, how can the love of God be in him?” (3:17).

But to seek to live with compassion isn’t easy.  It’s not the same as kindness or being sympathetic.  Rather it involves being open to the world and meeting it with love in action.  So because this matter of re-making one’s heart, this need for continuous conversion of the heart, is hard I’ve created a new, online Spiritual Association of the Compassionate Hearts of Jesus and Mary to provide the means whereby members can ‘soften’ their hearts and develop a compassionate heart for the sake of the world.  It offers many simple ways of doing this, many prayer-practices and reflections for meditation and has the approval of the Bishop of Southwark

COMPASSIONATE HEARTS OF JESUS AND MARY
Sometimes Anglicans speak in a rather smug and disparagingly way about the Hearts of Jesus and Mary – they don’t like images of the bright red Sacred Heart, crowned by the cross, surrounded by fire and encircled with the Crown of Thorns.  Too explicit; too graphic – especially when Jesus is shown holding it out for our gaze.   Yet it clearly touches and provokes a response in hearts that are simpler and unbiased.   When, for example, during a recent school retreat a child was asked why Jesus’ heart should be shown outside His body he simply replied: “Because he loves us so much he can’t keep it in!”

But in the nineteenth century some Anglicans began to realise the importance of devotion to the hearts of Jesus and Mary.  The first Franciscan community for men in the Church of England was dedicated to the Divine Compassion which is just another way of speaking of the Sacred Heart.  One of its funding members, Fr. Andrew, wrote the hymn ‘O dearest Lord thy sacred head, with thorns was pierced for me’ which concludes with this verse:

O dearest Lord thy Sacred Heart
with spear was pierced for me;
O pour thy Spirit in my heart
That I may live for thee

CONCLUSION
In the end devotion to the Sacred Heart is simply about making my heart – the centre of my being – like Christ’s.   Nurturing within myself His love and compassion.  So the fact that the Sacred Heart has never had a place in the life of the Church of England is a cause for great sadness:  it is our loss as is the fact that we give little attention to the heart Jesus’ Mother who, in one Orthodox tradition, is known as the ‘Softener of Evil Hearts’. The reality of the Divine Compassion is something we need to desire to flow in our hearts and be lived out in our lives.  Perhaps we might ask ourselves what would it mean to have a heart like His?  How can my heart become more “sacred”?  How can Mary help me to soften my heart?  For, in the end, the Sacred Heart is about understanding Jesus’s love for me and all people and inviting me to love others as He did.

So I invite you to consider joining the Association, it’s free and simply asks that you spend a little time each day quietly meditating on God’s compassionate love for you; find a means of expressing compassion and reflect on your practice that your heart might be more like the Heart of Jesus.  If more people changed their hearts and lived out of the compassionate hearts of Jesus and Mary, wouldn’t the world be a better place?

SOME PRINCIPLES FOR A COMPASSIONATE HEART

A set of daily Principles for Compassion have been published which are intended to offer a means of reflecting on some of the ways in which we might develop a compassionate heart.  They are available here.  For ease of use they are divided into daily portions but are also separated into sections which might be read together.  The idea for creating them owes much to those Principles which guide the lives of members of the Society of S. Francis.

Knowing that many will have other obligations and commitments, these reflections should not be regarded as a burdensome routine to be undertaken.  Rather it is hoped they might be of some interest and assistance in nurturing the great, universal virtue of compassion.

METANOIA

‘[Is] the full emergence of the glory of the mind of Christ.  The alternative orthodoxy begins in a view that God is not opposed to us; God is for us.  How is God served by people who fail to germinate?  God is rapturously delighted in every human being whose heart breaks open and blooms.  Then, as human beings come to their glory, the world comes to its glory.  It’s a view which is inclusive, recognizing that human beings on all paths are called to glorification, to the full emergence of the human being.  It’s evolutionary in that we are a work in progress, both individually and collectively.  Creation itself is not static but dynamic.’*

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* Cynthia Bourgeault Returning to Essentials: Teaching an Alternative Orthodoxy (Center for Action and Contemplation: 2015)

Forgiving those who sin against others

From time to time one hears people exclaim: “I can never forgive what x did to y!”  Y is often a family member, friend or associate who has hurt someone close to us.  It’s a feeling we can also experience when some atrocity is reported, especially where children or vulnerable people are concerned.  It’s said with great feeling and, in some cases, is one that stays with x for many years, unless it can be resolved.  It can become like a weight x carries and usually causes pain and bitterness when recalled.   The weight, usually, is that of anger which lies hidden within us, like some wild animal trapped in a cage which roars when approached and lashes out when released.

FORGIVE US OUR SINS
But the fact is that we cannot forgive x for the wrong they do to y.  It’s not in our power to do so for we are not subject to the wrong that has been perpetrated.  We are, in a sense, ‘collateral damage’.

When Jesus taught His disciples to pray he taught them to ask that their trespasses be forgiven insofar as they were prepared to forgive the trespasses done to them, not to others:
“Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.”

In Matthew the word ‘trespass’ is usually interpreted as ‘debt’ (Greek: ὀφειλήματα (opheilemata) Matthew  6: 12):
“And forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtor”

and Jesus goes on to explain to His disciples: “For if you forgive others their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you; but if you do not forgive others, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses.” (Matthew 6:14)  

Luke, however, gives us this reading:
“And forgive us our sins, for we ourselves forgive everyone indebted to us.” (11:4)

The change from ‘debt’ to ‘trespass’ in the Our Father first appeared in the Greek versions of the prayer by the 3rd cent. writer, Origen of Alexandria and this wording made its way into important English translations such as the 1549 Book of Common Prayer.  Whatever the reason for the various interpretations it is clear that Jesus here is telling His disciples that they have the power to affect a change of heart for themselves.  He does not tell them that they can forgive someone the sin done to another.

In Luke 17:3 Jesus tells His disciples: “If another disciple sins, you must rebuke the offender, and if there is repentance, you must forgive.”  Jesus says we are to forgive him if he repents and admits his wrong, not regardless of whether he does so.  “If the same person sins against you seven times a day, and turns back to you seven times and says, ‘I repent,’ you must forgive.”  But this concerns how to respond to someone who repents and asks forgiveness.

At the end of John’s gospel when he recounts the appearance of Jesus to His disciples on the evening of the day of Resurrection Jesus says to them:

“Receive the Holy Spirit.  If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.”   (John 20: 22/23)   This verse has always been understood to give authority to grant forgiveness to those who repent and seek forgiveness for it needs to be held in the context of all other teachings about the matter which in the Scriptures.

But forgiveness does not cancel justice.  In his encyclical Dives in Misericordia John Paul II notes that the “requirement of forgiveness does not cancel out the objective requirements of justice. . . . In no passage of the gospel message does forgiveness, or mercy as its source, mean indulgence toward evil, toward scandals, toward injury or insult.  In any case, reparation for evil and scandal, compensation for injury, and satisfaction for insult are conditions for forgiveness” (DM 14).

PRAYER AND FORGIVENESS
Christians are called to pray that someone who has committed a grave sin will realise that they have done wrong and seek to make amends, but when the act is particularly evil then this may be almost impossible: “If you see your brother or sister committing what is not a mortal sin, you will ask, and God will give life to such a one—to those whose sin is not mortal. There is sin that is mortal; I do not say that you should pray about that.” (1 John 5:16)  However, when someone says: “I can never forgive x for what they did to y” they may be indicating that they cannot or will not let go of the anger they feel for what has been done and it usually concerns something that is acutely grave in character.

LOVE AND FORGIVENESS
A helpful article states:
‘St. Thomas Aquinas tells us love is “willing the good of the other” selflessly (cf. I Cor. 13:5). In a sense, this is all God can do, because “God is love” (I John 4:8). God can do nothing other than will to share the infinite good of himself with every single person ever created or conceived—even the souls who reject his love and forgiveness, because a God not loving would be a God contradicting his own essence, which is absurd.

Thus God’s love is unconditional, because in one sense it has nothing to do with the other.  It comes from within, regardless of what happens outside of the godhead. This brings profound meaning to Jesus’ words: “Love one another as I have loved you” (John 15:12). In essence, Jesus is calling us to love with that same unconditional love with which he loves as the God-Man.  Regardless of varying situations and relationships in our lives, “God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit” (Rom. 5:5) empowering us to “will the good of the other” regardless of what “the other” may bring our way.

On the other hand forgiveness is not unconditional.  It’s a two-way street.  God offers his forgiveness to all out of his unconditional love and, therefore, so must all Christians.  But here’s the rub. Because forgiveness is dependent upon the other, it cannot actually take place until there are willing partners on both sides of the divide. ‘  (Tim Staples. Director of Apologetics and Evangelization at ‘Catholic Answers’)

CARRYING ANGER
It might be that when someone feels they can never forgive another they are indicating that they carry a hidden reservoir of anger that erupts whenever they recall a particular incident.  It may be that the incident concerned the abuse of someone they love or inflicted pain and suffering on innocent victims and they feel angry about the incident whenever it is recalled.  And anger, if not addressed appropriately, can have a corrosive effect on the person who carries it and those connected to them.   People who have reflected on this matter have noticed that it takes less energy to love and forgive than it does to stay angry and hold a grudge.  Forgiveness brings peace to your life.   We need to forgive someone, not for their benefit, but for our own peace of mind.  The burden of anger we can carry can be enormous and our anger often only affects the person who carries it – not the person towards whom the anger is directed.  Someone has suggested that we should “Shift the focus, feel the pain and think of the thousands of others in the world who are also feeling the same pain, then send a loving-kindness message to everyone to be relieved of this suffering.”

One of the ways that this can be done is to direct a prayer, such as this, towards the object of our anger: “May … be filled with your compassion, O Lord.  May your Mother’s love enfold them.”  The danger of holding anger have long been realised.  S. Jerome said that “Anger is the Door, by which all Vices enter the Soul” and S. James had observed that: “anger does not produce God’s righteousness.” (James 1:20)  But ‘anger’ against sin is may be ‘zeal’ and zeal is not a sin but is sometimes a duty.  Zeal at its core is an expression of love; anger is an expression of hatred.  So S. Paul tells us to ‘Put away from all bitterness and wrath and anger and wrangling and slander, together with all malice, and be kind to one another, tender-hearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ has forgiven you.’ (Eph.4: 31)

Righteous anger – or zeal – does not consume us but enables us to seek justice and mercy for all.  As human beings we need to cultivate a forgiving spirit for the contrary spirits of anger, pride, bitterness etc… can easily find a home within us.  Yet whilst we can cultivate a forgiving spirit we cannot forgive unless someone seeks to be forgiven, promises to refrain from sin and accepts the appropriate penance.  Even then ‘Penance requires . . . the sinner to endure all things willingly, be contrite of heart, confess with the lips, and practice complete humility and fruitful satisfaction.’ (Catechism of the Catholic Church 1450)  The Catechism goes on to observe that absolution concerns the: ‘remission of the eternal punishment of sin, but temporal punishment of sin remains. (CCC 1473)

In the end it is God alone who forgives sin (CCC: 1440).  Yet the path to our sanctification requires us to practice God-like acts and to learn how to cultivate a forgiving heart:

“But I say to you that listen, Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you.  If anyone strikes you on the cheek, offer the other also; and from anyone who takes away your coat do not withhold even your shirt.  Give to everyone who begs from you; and if anyone takes away your goods, do not ask for them again.  Do to others as you would have them do to you.

If you love those who love you, what credit is that to you?   For even sinners love those who love them.  If you do good to those who do good to you, what credit is that to you?  For even sinners do the same.   If you lend to those from whom you hope to receive, what credit is that to you?  Even sinners lend to sinners, to receive as much again.  But love your enemies, do good, and lend, expecting nothing in return.  Your reward will be great, and you will be children of the Most High; for he is kind to the ungrateful and the wicked.  Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful.

Do not judge, and you will not be judged; do not condemn, and you will not be condemned.  Forgive, and you will be forgiven; give, and it will be given to you.  A good measure, pressed down, shaken together, running over, will be put into your lap; for the measure you give will be the measure you get back.” (Luke 6: 27-38)

Fr. John-Francis Friendship SMMS

Life as Participation

After conversion, you don’t look out at reality; you look out from reality. In other words, God is not “out there”: you are in God and God is in you. You are in the middle of Reality! You’re a part of it. It’s a mystery of participation. After his conversion experience, Paul is obsessed with the idea that “I’m participating in something that’s bigger than me.” In fact, he uses the phrase “in Christ” 164 times to describe this organic unity and participation in Christ. “I live no longer, not I; but Christ lives in me” (Galatians 2:20). “In Christ” is his code phrase for this new participatory life.

This is a completely different experience of life. I don’t have to fully write my private story. It’s being written with me and in me. I am already a character on the stage. I am being used, I am being chosen, I am being led. After conversion, you will know that your life is not about you; you are about life. You are about God. You’re an instance of both the agony and the ecstasy of God that is happening inside of you, and all you can do is say yes to it. After transformation, it’s not about doing it right; it’s about being in right relationship. It’s not about being correct; it’s about being connected.

After conversion, you don’t experience self-consciousness so much as what the mystics call pure consciousness. Self-consciousness implies a dualistic split, with me over here thinking about that over there. The mind remains dualistic until you have a mystical experience. Then the subject/object split is overcome. You can’t maintain it forever, but you’ll know it once in a while, and you’ll never be satisfied with anything less. In unitive experience, you’re freed from the burden of self-consciousness; you are living in, through, and with another. That’s the same as the experience of truly being in love. Falling and being in love, like unitive experience, cannot be sustained at the ecstatic level, but it can be touched upon and then integrated within the rest of your life.

True union does not absorb distinctions, but actually intensifies them. The more one gives one’s self in creative union with another, the more one becomes one’s self. This is mirrored in the Trinity: perfect giving and perfect receiving between three who are all still completely themselves. The more one becomes one’s True Self, the more capable one is of not overprotecting the boundaries of one’s false self. You have nothing to protect after transformation, and that’s the great freedom and the great happiness we see in converted people. There’s no “little richard” here that I need to protect because it’s precisely that little richard that got in the way and has now passed away—with no noticeable losses. Or as Paul puts it, “Because of Christ, I now consider my former advantages as disadvantages . . . all of it is mere rubbish if only I can have a place in him” (Philippians 3:7-8).

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‘Gateway to Silence: I am God’s dwelling place’
(Richard Rohr: Adapted from Great Themes of Paul: Life as Participation

SERMON for EASTER 4 – Good Shepherd Sunday

“I come that they may have life, and have it abundantly.” (Jn.10:10)
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INTRODUCTION
You can’t miss it, can you!  Well you could, but you’d need to have your head in the sand.  The Election!  And not just in this country: the people of France are voting today for a new President: will it be Le Pen or Macron (I know who I’d vote for!)?  And Germany, too, is gearing up for their Federal Elections in September.  It’s not just Spring that’s in the air – but election fever!

Of course, we don’t vote for our Head of State.  Living in a monarchy we are spared the somewhat nauseating goings on that brought Trump to the White House.  But, nonetheless, we’re getting into the thick of it – will we be drawn by ‘Stable and Secure’; ‘For the Many not the Few’, or ‘Change Britain’s Future’?  Whatever soundbite attracts us let’s just remember that today is Good Shepherd Sunday and Jesus has His own slogan that He shares with us: not at first sight very political but in His day quite radical – “I am the Gate.”  So, what on earth did He mean by that?

I AM THE GATE
Well, to start with, this ‘I Am’ affirmation is one of seven (or, possibly, eight) in John’s gospel and, next week, will be followed by another: ‘I am the way, the truth and the life.’ (John 14: 1-14)   Now that  prefix, ‘I Am’, should alert us to the way in which these words were understood in Judaism.  They refer back to the moment when Moses stood before the burning bush on Mount Horeb and asked God, who addressed him out of the flames, to identify Himself.  Speak His Name.  And God declared: “I AM WHO I AM” (Ex.3:14).  Enigmatic to say the least!  Or, perhaps, it prevents  us from giving a name to the One who has no name; for once you can name someone you have a certain power over them.  So Jesus gives us ‘hints and guesses’ as to His identity.  “I am the Gate.”  I am the one through whom the sheep will enter the sheepfold.  I am in process and cannot be contained.

And a few verses later Jesus will bring all this to a climax when he says: “I am the good shepherd … And I lay down my life for the sheep” (10:14/15) thereby connecting Himself with the practice at that time, and still is in some places today, for a shepherd at the end of a day to lead their sheep from pastures to the walled-in sheepfold.  And then to lie down across the entrance to protect the sheep from scavengers.

WHO IS THE GOOD SHEPHERD?
In all these statements Jesus is using metaphors to shed new light; reveal things from a different angle; open up new meaning.  One of the connections the Israelites would have made was with the powerful understanding of the king, the ruler, as the human manifestation of the Divine Shepherd of Israel.  The Good Shepherd.  So when they did not live up to their duty to protect the people, especially the weakest and most vulnerable, the Prophets were not slow to criticise them: “Woe to the shepherds who are destroying and scattering the sheep of My pasture!” declares the LORD” said Jeremiah to King Zedekiah (Jer. 23:1).

And those who listened to Jesus would have sensed He was alluding to Himself as the One who, if the people listened, would lead the people to good grazing.  He knows His flock and cares for them and His purpose is fullness of life for those who follow Him: “The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy. I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly.” (Jn 10:10)  They might promise much and seem very appealing but they needed to be listened to with caution.  And whilst Jesus directs this allegory about the sheep and the shepherd toward the Pharisees, the Jewish religious leaders of his time, it’s one that is timeless.

GOOD SHEPHERD AND ELECTIONS
Now with a General Election looming there are plenty of promises being made by politicians about making life better for people.  And, of course, we all want a better, more abundant life; one where we can feel secure and of value.  And many people believe this will come, for example, once we have left the EU.  But there’s a danger when expectations have been raised, especially if these are predicated upon forces beyond our total control.

And then there are those ‘false prophets’ of whom Jesus said in the Sermon on the Mount: “They come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly they are ferocious wolves. By their fruit you will recognize them. … A good tree cannot bear bad fruit, and a bad tree cannot bear good fruit. … Thus, by their fruit you will recognize them.” (Matt.7)   Such an important and timeless metaphor.

MONTH OF THE SACRED HEART
Now it so happens that the General Election falls in the month dedicated to the Sacred Heart of Jesus.  Unfortunately the image of the Sacred Heart, and the devotions associated with it, are unfamiliar to many non-Catholics, although the first Franciscan community for men in the Church of England was dedicated to the Divine Compassion.  And that’s just another way of speaking of the Sacred Heart, of which the Jesuit priest and writer, Jim Martin, said: ‘(It) is nothing less than an image of the way that Jesus loves us: fully, lavishly, radically, completely, sacrificially.  It invites us to meditate on some of the most important questions in the spiritual life: In what ways did Jesus love his disciples and friends?  How did he love strangers and outcasts?  How was he able to love his enemies?  How did he show his love for humanity?  What would it mean to love like Jesus did?  What would it mean for me to have a heart like his?  How can my heart become more “sacred”?  For in the end, the Sacred Heart is about understanding Jesus’s love for us and inviting us to love others as Jesus did.’

And it’s rooted in Divine Compassion.  For our Faith tells us that it was out of God’s deep and powerful compassion for us, His lost sheep, that He came in human form to search us out and lead us home.  To His Kingdom.  In a world where hatred and resentment, hostility and fear of the other are ever present and seem to be growing, compassion is a virtue to be cultivated.  “Divine Compassion” wrote Br. Damian when he was Provincial of the Anglican Franciscans in the UK “… strikes at the very heart of the Good News.  … what Jesus has shown of the Divine nature is true of the numinous Being of the Father: He is above all compassionate, deeply caring, gentle as a Mother, and ready to heal, restore, forgive.”

COMPANIONS OF THE COMPASSIONATE HEARTS
And it is for all those reasons that a new international, ecumenical Spiritual Association, the Companions of the Compassionate Hearts of Jesus and Mary, is being developed.  Its aim is to help nurture in our hearts and spread in the world this most basic of all Christian virtues.  It welcomes any Christian who, recognising they often fail to live with compassion, wants to nurture that virtue in their own heart.

COMPASSION AND LIFE ABUNDANT
One of the reasons why it came in to being was to counter the belief that an abundant life is about possessing more things.  Just recall what that early Christian community in Jerusalem did as a consequence of God’s gift of abundant life: ‘All who believed were together and had all things in common; they would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need.’  (Acts 2: 44)

There was a generosity about those early Christians.  They discovered a joy, deep within them, because of this gift of life in all its fullness.  Listen to the rest of the description of the early Church: ‘Day by day, as they spent much time together in the Temple, they broke bread at home and ate their food with glad and generous hearts. … And day by day the Lord added to their number those who were being saved.’ (Acts 2:46f)

COMPASSION AS A MARK OF HUMANITY
Now I’m not suggesting that every Christian should sell all they have and give the proceeds to the poor, although there will be some who hear this invitation and seek to do just that and, like S. Francis of Assisi, it might motivate them to enter Religious Life.  But if that is not our calling, how are we to be formed as Christians?  What are our distinguishing marks?  To what do we need to attend, for example, in seeking to make a discerned choice in the Elections to Parliament?  We aren’t choosing a leader for our country but each of us has a responsibility to make that discerned choice.  And what needs to underpin that discernment?

Well, firstly, to desire the best for our fellow human-beings, especially the most vulnerable, and to become aware of any prejudices we may have that may interfere with that good desire and seek to set those aside.  Then to read the different political Manifesto’s and notice what they promise, and what they don’t!  Finally, as Christians, we ought to ask God to help us make the best choice we can that will accord with what He desires for us.   As our Archbishop’s have said in their Pastoral Letter concerning the Election: ’The United Kingdom, when at its best, has been represented by a sense not only of living for ourselves, but by a deeper concern for the weak, poor and marginalised, and for the common good.’  So beneath all our considerations we need to ask what most accord’s with the call of Christ – what reflects most fully God’s compassion for His creation. 

The Archbishop’s Letter goes on to note that: ‘Our Christian heritage, our current choices and our obligations to future generations and to God’s world will all play a shaping role’ and comments on how ‘Stability, an ancient and Benedictine virtue, is about living well with change. Stable communities will be skilled in reconciliation, resilient in setbacks and diligent in sustainability.’   And I would have added, if they had asked me (which I can’t for the life of me think why they didn’t!), not just ‘concern’ but compassion towards the foreigner and refugee in our midst.

CONCLUSION
The Bon Pasteur, the Good Shepherd, longs in the depths of His Sacred Heart to bring all into His sheepfold, His Kingdom.  He reaches out and asks that we, His disciples, do the same: ‘Be compassionate as your (heavenly) Father is compassionate’  (Lk.6:36)   And it is His compassion which must always inform and mould our hearts, not least in our dealings with each other and the world in which we live.  As Henri Nouwen, the great Catholic writer and pastor said: “Action with and for those who suffer is the concrete expression of the compassionate life and the final criterion of being a Christian.”

May the Good Shepherd move in our hearts as we seek to live out of His Will.

Amen.

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Preached at Church of S. John the Baptist, Eltham on May 6th, 2017
Readings: Acts 2: 42-47; 1 Pet.2: 19-25 and John 10: 1-10

‘ALL MAY, NONE MUST, SOME SHOULD’: The Sacrament of Confession and Companions

For many people ‘making your confession’ is something only Roman Catholics do.  However, Anglicans have always been encouraged to ‘make their Confession’ to a priest.  The Visitation of the Sick (Book of Common Prayer 1662) contains the following note: “… the sick person shall be moved to make a special Confession of his sins, if he feel his conscience troubled with any weighty matter.  After which the Priest shall absolve him (if he humbly and heartily desire it)…”

The Rite then gives the formula of Absolution:
‘Our Lord Jesus Christ, who hath left power to his Church
to absolve all sinners who truly repent and believe in him,
of his great mercy forgive thee thine offences:
And by his authority committed to me, I absolve thee from all thy sins,
In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost.  Amen”

This is still the formula many priests use when pronouncing Absolution.  However, the practise of ‘making your confession’ fell out of general use after the Reformation and only returned with the 19th century Catholic Revival in the Church of England.  Many priests, who realised and sought to explain its benefit, were persecuted and even imprisoned.  Yet, gradually, the practice became more common and today is widely available.  Although every priest may hear confessions as a consequence of their ordination (see The Declaration – Ordination of Priests)not all wish to do so and  it is usually necessary for them to obtain the permission of their Bishop if they wish to offer this pastoral ministry on a regular basis.

It is clear that all of us carry the burden of unresolved issues – anger, guilt, sin, etc.  Research into human psychology has shown how important it is to be able to deal with these matters.  Whilst Confession is not the same as therapy, there are connections not least in the matter of needing to vocalise what lies deepest in the heart to another who is bound by rules of confidentiality.  It has been observed that many Christians would be helped if they realised they could unload the burdens they carry within the confidentiality of the Sacrament and it has wisely been said that the Anglican attitude to Confession is: ‘All may, none must, some should’.

Evangelicals and Confession
“Cheap grace is the preaching of forgiveness without requiring repentance, baptism without church discipline, Communion without confession, absolution without personal confession. Cheap grace is grace without discipleship, grace without the cross, grace without Jesus Christ.” (Dietrich Bonhoeffer)

“If we’re not careful, we fall into cheap grace, we don’t pay any specific attention to a lot of the bad things we do.  A lot of people get two or three things that they struggle and those are the only sins that they only considered that they have committed.  Sin separates us from God.  It’s good to review what we are doing wrong.  If we say that we love Jesus but we want to do things that separate us from him then once again we’re lying and the truth isn’t in us.” (Prof. John Mark Reynolds: ‘The Christian Post’. Feb 2011)

Some Christians are concerned about the notion of confessing to a priest maintaining that only Christ, not the priest, has the power to absolve us.  However the priest only declares the reconciliation that Christ attains for us: it is not the priest’s absolution, nor any power s/he might have that secures forgiveness and reconciliation for us.  While it is true that the Sacrament may be celebrated only by an ordained priest its power does not belong to them.  The priest is “necessary” to the sacrament only as officiant, not as the person with the power, in and of himself, to forgive or absolve. That power is Christ’s and Christ’s only (see John 20:22/23).

Archbishop Justin Welby, whose background is as an Evangelical, has said: “It is enormously powerful and hideously painful when (Confession) is done properly … it’s really horrible when you go to see your confessor – I doubt you wake up in the morning and think, this is going to be a bunch of laughs.  It’s really uncomfortable. But through it God releases forgiveness and absolution and a sense of cleansing.” 1

Whilst many believe they don’t need to ‘make their confession’ nonetheless, we all carry a burden of sin which needs dealing with.   As John Newton observed: “We can easily manage if we will only take, each day, the burden appointed to it.  But the load will be too heavy for us if we carry yesterday’s burden over again today, and then add the burden of the morrow before we are required to bear it.” 

Confession and Conversion of the Heart
This Sacrament recognises our need to practice ‘continuous conversion’ of the heart.  “We have to be continuously converted all the days of our lives, continually to turn to God as children.” 2   And as God’s children the centre of our being – the heart – needs to be constantly re-focussed into Christ: “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God.”  Our Faith is all about that gentle re-ordering of the whole of our being in Christ and this process will reveal our need to be freed from those influences that draw the heart of who we are from God and His Reign.  “Truly I tell you, unless you change and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven” (Matt.18:3).  This command is less about being barred from that Kingdom as our ability to enter it.  Through the use of this Sacrament we open our hearts to the Beatitudes, ask that our failings be forgiven and acknowledge our need to be converted to the Reign of God.  To confess our sins to God is not to admit to God anything God doesn’t already know but it admits to us what we need to know and to have the slate wiped clean.  

Companions and Confession
Those seeking to live out the charism of the Association will realise their need of this ‘continuous conversion’ and seek the means whereby they can re-focus their lives.  It is not necessary for Companions to make their Confession but, in seeking to enable members (Companions) to: nurture a ‘new heart’, the heart of Christ; to enable continuous conversion in the hearts of members.’ (Purpose of the Association), the Sacrament is a traditional means of grace and of renewing the heart – re-focussing our lives.  Companions ‘look to the Sacrament of Confession (Reconciliation) as a means of cleansing and for renewing their own hearts’ (Charism of the Association).  Whilst they recognise the Sacrament as a means of Grace they are not required to use it.  But they do seek to be living with that humility which recognises and admits the truth of who we are in God’s sight – beloved sinners seeking amendment of life.  As S. Augustine said: ‘The confession of evil works is the first beginning of good works.” 3   And, one might add, it is the means whereby we find that peace which Christ offers his disciples.

So in our calling to be disciples of the Compassionate Heart of Jesus Companions will take seriously this call to be open with God about who they are, desiring that God might create in them clean hearts and renew the Spirit within them.

You desire truth in the inward being;
therefore teach me wisdom in my secret heart.
Purge me with hyssop, and I shall be clean;
w
ash me, and I shall be whiter than snow.
Let me hear joy and gladness;
let the bones that you have crushed rejoice.
Hide your face from my sins,
and blot out all my iniquities.
Create in me a clean heart, O God,
and put a new and right spirit within me.
(Ps. 51:6-10)
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Notes:

1   Justin Welby: Daily Telegraph. October 9th, 2013
2   ‘Continuous Conversion’: Oswald Chambers. My Utmost for His Highest
3  S. Augustine: Tractates on the Gospel of John; tractate XII on John 3:6-21, § 13
4   ‘Jesus said to them again, “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you.”  When he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit.  If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.” (John 20: 21-23)