‘Here is my life, my honour, my will, I am yours.’ Sermon for St Teresa of Avila

St Teresa of Avila CWS

2 Timothy 4:1-8; Mark 4:1-9

Avila is a mountain fortress city whose grim medieval walls speak of strength, fortitude and determination. For centuries it was a frontline post in the Spanish struggle between Christianity and Islam and even the Cathedral, built into the walls, is more castle than house of prayer.

It was here, in 1515, in this masculine and martial city, that Teresa, founder of the Discalced, or ‘Unshod’  Carmelite Order, and prolific spiritual writer was born. Columbus had only recently discovered the New World and Luther was yet to initiate the Protestant Reformation when the twenty-one-year-old Teresa ran away from home to enter Avila’s Carmelite Convent.

Having seen her mother die in childbirth delivering her eleventh sibling and being far too independent spirited to be subservient to a husband, Teresa saw convent life as her future.

Despite the soft lifestyle convents then afforded – her father paid for her to have a suite of rooms, kitchen, oratory, guest room, servants and companions – she struggled with both ill-health and her prayer life.

Eventually, when in her forties, Teresa felt called to found a new convent, returning to the primitive Rule followed by hermits on Mount Carmel in the Middle Ages. She devoted the rest of her life to creating a network of convents following this simple Rule and focussed, through prayer, poverty and obedience, wholly on God, recruiting the much younger St John of the Cross to carry these reforms over into the monastic side of the Order.

Even while she was traversing Spain, battling with ill health, ecclesiastical authorities, the Inquisition and fellow religious reluctant to give up their comforts, she was writing – hundreds of letters and many books.

On her death in 1582 these letters and manuscripts were preserved by the recipients and her Order, giving us the opportunity to be enriched by her deep and immensely practical, searching and humorous teaching on prayer.

Her autobiography famously begins: ‘Having virtuous and God-fearing parents would have been enough for me to be good if I were not so wicked.’ She also wrote:‘A sad nun is a bad nun. I am more afraid of one unhappy sister than a crowd of evil spirits. What would happen if we hid what little sense of humour we had? Let each of us humbly use this to cheer others.’ Her oft quoted words: ‘From silly devotions and sour-faced saints, good Lord, deliver us.’ are found no where in her writings, but give an accurate flavour of her humour and her groundedness.

Teresa’s writings on prayer are marvellously inventive and innovative. They are not very systematic because they are written to encourage and instruct different communities in different situations.

She breaks of from the narrative in her autobiography to describe prayer in terms of making and watering a garden for God. Without water the garden would not flourish – but where does the water come from? It can be drawn by hand from a well, which is very hard work. It might be supplied by an aqueduct or water-wheel, or from a stream flowing right through it or directly from heaven, from the hand of God. Each of these waters she uses to illustrate a different form of prayer.

In the Way of Perfection she explores the Lord’s Prayer line by line and shows how it is not just a prayer but an aid to prayer, a means by which Christ shows his nearness to us, how ‘thy kingdom come’ is relevant to us here, now.

And in her masterpiece, The Interior Castle, she uses the image of fortifications like those guarding Avila, exploring some of the many rooms, gardens, mansions, spaces that go to make up the whole community of God with the King of Glory dwelling in the centre.

Growing up in a well-to-do household, then, before she began her reforms, spending twenty years in a convent that replicated all the comforts of home,meant that Teresa was profoundly aware of the stresses, strains and temptations in the world around us that can all too easily choke our prayer life and distract us from focussing on God. She understood only too well how the good seed of God’s love can wither for lack of attention.

Which is perhaps why, in her book Way of Perfection she starts with three driving principles: Love of Others, Detachment and True Humility. Practising these three gives us a clear path for focussing on God. Love of others requires piercing the façade of appearances to discover the Lord who dwells in everyone’s heart. Those who love God care deeply about others, they want goodness for them, they are not shocked by faults or put off by discourtesy. We are asked to love others as God loves us.

Teresa admits that Detachment is easy to talk about but hard to do. It is about valuing the freedom to love God above everything else in life. That’s not just material things, the thorns that grow up around us obscuring our view of both the world and God, it also requires being detached from our own selves.

This is where True Humility comes in. If our first concern is for ourselves then we can never be free to fully serve God. Teresa reminds us that ‘People wrapped up in themselves make an unattractive parcel.’

Practising Love of Others, Detachment and True Humility enables us to discern the truth that Teresa finds at the heart of prayer – God is very near us. She reminds us that ‘All harm comes from not understanding that He is near.’ In the Parable of the Sower the sower is Christ himself, broadcasting God’s word into our hearts. When we hear the Gospel read in Church or receive Holy Communion we are reminded not only that Jesus is very close to us, but also that the good seed of God’s love has been sown inside us.

For Teresa one key sign of how that good seed had taken root in us is the way we treat others. Love of Others is not just a starting point for God-centred prayer, it is also a fruit of that prayer.

For some, the Marthas, the active ones, it might also be their chief form of prayer. In another place she uses Martha as an example of someone who wasn’t contemplative, but who used her practical skills to greet the Guest who is Jesus. By service Martha was living prayer, working it out in the world.

And this brings us to the famous saying:

‘Christ has no body now but yours.
No hands, no feet on earth but yours.
Yours are the eyes through which
he looks with compassion on this world.
Yours are the feet with which he walks to do good.
Yours are the hands through which he blesses all the world.
Yours are the hands, yours are the feet,
yours are the eyes, you are his body.
Christ has no body now on earth but yours.’

Despite the fact that she is known as a mystic – one who focusses on heavenly things – Teresa very firmly concentrated on the Incarnate Christ. Jesus walking this earth and taking part in life was key to her faith. Jesus still walking this earth, in the Spirit and in us was also vital to her. Prayer and action are integrally bound, how

we treat others, the world, ourselves, is prayer and is informed by prayer. In the parable of the Sower the birds that take the seed from the path are like those who deprive others of the possibility to grow, to be fulfilled, to hear God’s word. We are called to be the opposite. Prayer should not just enable us to be filled with God’s love, it should help us to spread that love through our engagement with the world.

But the nearness of Christ that Teresa calls us to recall is also a reminder of how to pray. Because one of her key insights is that we should pray as if we are talking to a companion. Prayer then becomes not a list of wants but a dialogue, a conversation with a friend in the same room as us. We speak to our friends often, we make mistakes with them and we try again.

Prayer is like that – sometimes it feels as if it has landed on stony ground and been burnt up, sometimes it gets lost among the mess of the day, sometimes we feel too busy or too ashamed of ourselves to see our friends. But Teresa tells us to keep trying. God’s friendship is constant – as the prayer she wrote on her bookmark reminded her – God will listen and forgive whenever we make the effort to get in touch.

The oft told story that illustrates Teresa’s own companionable relationship with Christ involves a mule that unseats her into a stream in front of a party of nuns, When Teresa complains to Jesus ‘What did you do that for?’ he responds ‘That’s how I treat all my friends,’ to which she swiftly retorts ‘No wonder you have so few, then.’

St Teresa, along with St John of the Cross, was made a Doctor of the Church in the twentieth century. Both achieved this title because in their lives and in their writings they sought to draw others into God’s presence.

Teresa, like John Wesley, who echoes her words ‘I am all yours Lord, dispose of me according to your desire’ in his Covenant Service, lived a life of ceaseless journeying to reach as many people as possible and sow the love of God in their hearts. She saw, in Paul’s words to Timothy, herself ‘being poured out as a libation’.

But all she did was about laying the foundations for the next generation and the next and the next, right down the line until us, to continue to both walk with Christ and walk as Christ in the world and to keep broadcasting the seed that is God’s word, God’s presence among us, until the whole of creation is drawn into companionship with the One who is always waiting for us.  Keep at it, she says, keep trying, and the God who walked this earth as Jesus will be your constant companion on the Way. Amen.

St Teresa’s Bookmark

Let nothing disturb you,
Let nothing frighten you,
All things are passing;
God only is changeless.
Patience gains all things.
Who has God wants nothing.
God alone suffices.

If you would like to make an initial exploration of St Teresa I would recommend the following books:

A Month with St Teresa of Avila, Ed Rima Devereaux, SPCK, 9780281079049;

My Life – My Prayer: The Autobiography of St Teresa of Avila for everyone, Elizabeth Ruth Obbard, New City, 9781905039302;

St Teresa’s WAY OF PERFECTION for everyone, Elizabeth Ruth Obbard, New City, 9780904287783;

TRAVELLING INWARDS: St Teresa’s Interior Castle for Everyone, Elizabeth Ruth Obbard, New City, 9781905039210.

For deeper reading the Classics of Western Spirituality translation of the Interior Castle is still one of the best, Kieran Kavanaugh’s introduction is excellent: Paulist Press, 9780809122547.

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From Buried Grain: Harvest Sermon

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Gospel Reading: Mark 9:38-50

Words written by our worshipping community for the 100 Days of Prayer seem fitting for harvest time a century after the outbreak of the first War, talking as they do of Nature’s regenerative powers, which our farmers harness to bring seed from the soil and food to our tables:

‘As we think of the former battlefields
in France and Belgium
we give thanks for the earth’s power
to heal itself and regenerate new life and growth.
As the land seeks to heal itself, Lord,
we ask you to heal the hatred and bitterness
between peoples in many parts of the world. Amen.’

In the 1918 painting We are making a new world, which hangs in the Imperial War Museum, artist Paul Nash depicts a cragged, pitted khaki grey earth devoid of any hopeful green hues. Out of frozen mud breakers rise innumerable split, cracked, brown pillars; limbless, lifeless, the remains of a woodland copse, a colony of crosses shorn of their beams, tree trunks blasted into battered submission like the many companies of men shelled, gassed, bayoneted, whose corpses sunk beneath the mud are seeding the earth with a new harvest.

Nash We Are Making

Today, while signs of that overwhelming devastation remain in the shape of strange undulations and the neat white rows of military gravestones, those battlefield sites are green again. Nature, assisted by the determined nurturing of Belgian and French farmers, has returned fertility to the soil. The landscape is productive just as it would have been 104 years ago, when the factory workers and farmhands of North Somerset first marched to the front.

Then they would have seen an aggregation of field and furrow, hedge and copse, hill and valley, ripe with the promise of harvest, in many ways reminiscent of the land they had just left, a reminder of all that they held dear, a symbol of what they had been called to fight for.

How do you see, feel, experience the land around you? Is it what attracted you to this area? When you look out on hill and valley, field and wood does it makes you smile, does it give you peace? Is it a green barrier keeping you isolated from family, friends, from shops, doctors or employment. Perhaps it is something you pass through on the way to elsewhere – glimpsed fleetingly, half catching your eye, dimly registering it as English, as Somerset, familiar, comforting. Or is it your workplace, your partner and sometimes your adversary, who needs tending, coaxing, battling with, who’s signs take you an age to learn and who is, even after years of close attention, still throwing you curveballs? Like this year – snow that kept sweeping back, biting into Easter, a passable spring and then blazing dry heat leaving the grass brown and crops wizened.

If we use Google maps to view this crescent of land covering Barrow Gurney and Flax Bourton, then the outline map gives us bare details – roads, the school, a handful of B&B’s, the quarries, a cake-makers in Farleigh Green and one Church – Flax Bourton (Barrow Gurney Church doesn’t get a mention).

Switching to satellite mapping gives a very different picture – the grey wounds of the quarries, the formal elegance of the Court gardens, woodland and hillside, houses and fields – both churches – and at street level you will notice that the Google car made it all the way up Barrow Church drive to the outer car park gates.

If we were to take the thoughts, knowledge, memories, perceptions of each of us to create maps of the area then we would come up with something very different again. One person’s map might be very detailed in a tiny area, with some parts hardly sketched in and others dark and impenetrable – places of fear, threat or worry. Someone else might be able to block in patches of wild flowers, specific trees or bird song. Another person’s might record in detail the potholes, signs and infrastructure of our highways. Another’s might be filled with picnics, a first kiss, children playing. And maybe our farming neighbours would be giving us soil pH, moisture levels, crop preferences, the gaps in the hedges where the sheep always seem to get through, or the bend in the track that is only just wide enough for tractor and trailer. We live together in this particular space but we all see it very differently, its geography, its geology, its flora, its fauna, its history – they matter to each of us in quite individual ways.

The Christian faith talks about God dwelling among us. Jesus, we believe, was located in a particular time and place – Jerusalem 2000 years ago. But we also talk about him being present right here, right now. ‘The Lord is here, his Spirit is with us’ we say in the prayer that gathers us around the table to remember his Last Supper. While William Blake manifests him more physically in this land: ‘And did those feet in ancient time/Walk upon England’s mountains green:/ And was the holy Lamb of God,/ On England’s pleasant pastures seen!’

If we are not careful we can use our faith to take us back to a mythical golden age, a time when everyone went to church and everything was simpler. If anyone caught Ian Hislop’s TV series, Olden Days, you would have seen just such an example of pastoral myth making in the art of Myles Birket Foster. A bankable celebrity in his day, Birket Foster’s paintings of rural landscapes, farms, villages and pubs were the ultimate in chocolate box flummery. Every animal in his pictures was well-fed and contented, every hay wain piled high with sun-kissed goodness, every field groaning with golden corn, every child rosy cheeked and every adult merrily intent on their labours. No roads were metalled, no railway lines cut through the verdant landscape, no factory chimneys blasted filthy smoke. All progress was excised for the sake of a pastoral idyll that never existed.

 ‘The Lord is here, his Spirit is with us’ is not about holding us back in an impossibly rosy past, it grounds us in the reality of a messy now and drags us forward into the potential of a God-focussed future, which we call ‘the Kingdom’.

Jesus was born during a politically turbulent time, into a society that worked a hard land under the yoke of occupation. And Jesus suffered – he lived immersed in the complexity, tough choices and muddle of daily life.

Harvest Thanksgiving is also not just a quaintly cosy celebration of bringing home the crops. It is a reminder that life is uncertain, that our food chains are fallible, that the rains may not always come, that harvests may fail.

Harvest prompts us to remember that this place we live in and on is in a state of constant change. It is not a Myles Birket Foster painting, caught in an eternal loop of sunshine and fertility. Soil has to be improved, quarries have to expand, houses need to be built, but also ecologies need to be sustained, the other species we share this space with need to be encouraged and protected, compromises have to be made.

And not every child is rosy-cheeked, not every adult happy in their work, their home, their life – hard times hit many – harvest is a reminder that all good gifts around us are there to be shared, not kept to ourselves.

Through that sharing we don’t look back to a time of agrarian self-sufficiency, rather we strain towards the Kingdom where all feast together at God’s table regardless of age, race, gender, ability or status. Building that Kingdom – as Jesus own life shows us – isn’t achieved without sacrifice.

In our Gospel reading Jesus talks about stumbling-blocks, about salt that has lost its saltiness and is good for nothing. Perhaps that is something our farmers know about – when stock refuses to yield, or fields refuse to flourish, then tough decisions must be made. Much loved animals, or a favourite piece of land need to be sacrificed so that the whole farm has a chance to survive, to grow. That doesn’t happen without soul-searching or sadness and I’m sure that this year’s roller-coaster weather has brought heartache and hard choices to many farms.

‘The Lord is here, his Spirit is with us’ we say and we believe that Jesus is somehow located in this land. ‘Christ plays in ten-thousand places’ wrote Gerard Manley Hopkins, and if anyone could discern Jesus in this space, in the kestrel or dappled sunlight, the fiery flash of a kingfisher, the darting flame of a dragonfly, it was him, poet of God in the landscape – both interior and exterior.

163a Glendurgan Emperor DragonflyPool all our many images, thoughts, memories and we create a multi-dimensional map that spirals inwards and outwards with myriads of connections that bind us to each other, to the very ground on which we walk, the air we breathe. In this very inter-connectedness, Hopkins teaches us, Christ lives ‘Lovely in limbs, and lovely in eyes not his.’

So, we are called to treat the land as we would treat Christ. To treat the kestrel, the kingfisher, the dragonfly as we would treat Christ. To treat each other as we would treat Christ. To give thanks for the harvest as we give thanks for the bread and wine we bring to Christ’s table and to share everything as if we are sharing out Christ himself.

054 Kynance Kestrel

Mary, writing her wrinkles out of the story

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Patronal Festival, Barrow Gurney

Isaiah 61:10-11; Luke 1:46-55

Mary, Mary, quite contrary – how did your story grow? We have a conundrum with Mary – she is so important to the story of the Church and the Christian Faith, yet we know very little about her. Biblical information for her peters out after Jesus’s birth and early ministry. Only John, who never gives her a name, mentions her standing at the foot of the Cross, and throws out the detail that she’s accompanied by her sister. It is his description of watchers by the Cross, including the mother of Jesus and the disciple Jesus loved that has given us the iconography we see on rood screens around the world: the crucified Christ flanked by mother Mary and the Apostle John.

Her next and last mention is by Luke early in Acts when, after Jesus’s ascension the disciples return to the upper room in Jerusalem and: ‘All these were constantly devoting themselves to prayer, together with certain women, including Mary the mother of Jesus, as well as his brothers.’

And that’s it. The Church emerges and Mary is gone.

She isn’t described as taking the body of her dead son in her arms after he has been removed from the Cross. Yet we have many depictions of this moment, especially Michelangelo’s wonderful Pieta. There is no reference to her being painted by an artist, doctor and writer called Luke, although for centuries that was a flourishing tradition, and there is certainly no mention in Scripture of the event the Catholic Church calls ‘the Assumption’ when Mary ascends bodily and alive straight to heaven, just like her son before her.

While the Assumption only became official Catholic doctrine in 1950 it had been celebrated since around the fourth century and there are many stories surrounding it. In the Orthodox Church, Mary, the Theotokos, the God-bearer, does die. The Feast of the Dormition of Mary is held on 15 August, the same day as the Western Church celebrates the Assumption. The Dormition, in Orthodox theology, explains how Mary died in old age, her soul went straight to Christ but her body was laid in a tomb. Three days later she was resurrected and she ascended bodily to heaven.

This is all very colourful and convoluted. Both the Assumption and Dormition show a clear mirroring of Christ’s death, resurrection and ascension. They emphasise the specialness of Mary, her role as God-bearer, her voluntary acceptance of a task that was massively risky and whose true meaning was way beyond her comprehension.

This could easily bring us back to her youth, to the Annunciation, to the angel that tells a young girl ‘Do not be afraid’ and to the moment a vulnerable lass says ‘yes’ to God’s audacious plan. But that’s not, yet, where I’m going – instead we will return to Michelangelo’s Pieta.

If Jesus died in his thirties then Mary would be at least mid-forties. Yet Michelangelo has given her the smooth, unlined face of youth – there are no marks on her of the pain of motherhood, of life, let alone tearing grief at the death of her eldest son. She has the inscrutable porcelain skin of a debutante. Her sadness is palpable but contained, she is as passive as the limp body she holds in her arms. Michelangelo has erased her age. And that, perhaps, is symbolic of an attitude still prevalent in society and in the Church.

When Mary reaches maturity she disappears. The Church only wants to know her when young, it even gives her a form of eternal youth through the doctrines of the Assumption and Dormition.

Where do many Church leaders today try to focus our attention? They ask us to put our resources, time and effort into attracting the young – children, youth, young families. They want us to ramp up the rock, hit the zeitgeist, tune in to technology, be on trend, showcase the latest worship songs, ditch the traditional, the tried and tested, the rites and symbols that have accrued generation after generation of meaning, that are steeped in Scripture and the Spirit.

Yes, yes, whittling out the redundant, stripping out the needlessly archaic, cutting out the clutter and finding fresh ways for us to meet with God face to face are vital. We are the Church of the Resurrection, the Ascension, Pentecost – looking forward, upward, outward is a key component of our job description.

But to place such emphasis on the young – and let’s face it, in many cases it is the young and affluent who the Church is targeting – misses the reality of who we are in the majority of our churches, and perhaps even in the nation.

Many of us in many churches are in middle age and later life. Of course, our mission is to young and old, to rich and poor, to those with many abilities and those with more limited abilities, it is to the full diversity of humanity. As Mary says in the Magnificat: God’s mercy is offered from generation to generation.

Yet we live in a society that glamourises, fetishizes, youth – focussing massively on their wants and needs and aspirations (which makes life for them at times exceptionally tough – how do you live up to the advertisers’ view of perfection?) whilst simultaneously lamenting that the average age of our population is rising, that older folk are in the majority. Concurrently, financial pressures are squeezing hard the budgets of many councils resulting in drastic cuts to services that especially affect the elderly, infirm and vulnerable.

The Church sees its numbers fall and the average age of congregations rise and its reaction seems to be to channel key resources into missions aimed at the young.

Now, I love working in school, with toddlers, with young families and young adults. Their energy and thinking energises me, I relish the challenge of communicating the depth of God’s good news to generations that have scant knowledge or regard for the Christian faith.

But most of us in this worshipping community are older, as are, possibly, the majority of our villagers. We also have our wants and needs and aspirations. We also have spiritualities that have changed, grown and developed since the time of our parents. We don’t want to become, like Mary, written out of the story when grow older.

Perhaps, thinking of our first reading, we don’t often feel like gorgeously decked out brides and bridegrooms, filled with the buzz of anticipation and new life. But we are all still brides because we are part of the Church and the Church is the Bride of Christ. Every minute of every hour of every day Christ still calls us to be God’s faithful partner working to fill the world with the good news of God’s love. No matter what our skills, experience, age or wisdom God still values our ‘yes’ to the challenges of being the Church in today’s world as much as the apostles ‘yes’ to Jesus’s injunction to go and make disciples, baptise and teach, and as much as Mary’s ‘yes’ to the angel’s announcement that she was to be the gateway to the incarnation.

We don’t need the age-negating doctrine of the Assumption. However, Mary’s song, the Magnificat, while it is most often sung in the high voices of young choristers, is still our song, a song for every generation, a song of God’s preference for the weak over the strong, the hungry over the satisfied, the lost over the proudly self-sufficient.

I see our National Church and many of our Dioceses focussing resources on models of mission that favour the cosmopolitan young, wooing them with bigger, high-tech plant concentrated in a few urban hot-spots. Are we, the faithful, more mature remnant, gathered in scattered, less accessible places, becoming, like the older Mary, invisible to the Church?

Yet, still God calls us, asks us, to say ‘yes’ to being the Church of the Resurrection, the Ascension, Pentecost – looking forward, upward, outward. After the beginning of Acts we don’t know what happened to Mary, but the Assumption seems partly to be the Church’s recognition that she remained faithful to God and to Christ, that she worked quietly in the background, devoting herself to prayer. After Christ’s birth her calling had changed, gone was the youthful passion of the Magnificat – perhaps her prayer became similar to that so eloquently expressed by John Wesley in the Covenant Service:

I am no longer my own but yours
Put me to what you will
Rank me with whom you will;
Put me to doing
Put me to suffering;
Let me be employed for you
Or laid aside for you
Exalted for you
Or brought low for you;
Let me be full
Let me be empty
Let me have all things
Let me have nothing
I freely and wholeheartedly yield all things
To your pleasure and disposal.

In that prayer there are echoes of the Magnificat, an acknowledgement that God will ask different things of us over the years, but also that every one of us, young or old, rich or poor, full or empty, is of equal value in God’s eyes. In the Church, God’s family, no one should be exalted over any other and no one, no one, should ever be invisible.

Take the Magnificat home to be your prayer of the week. Pray through it each day, and as you do ask yourself: What are the implications of these words for the way we act as a Church? What has this song meant to me over the years? What did it say to me when I was younger and what does it say to me now? How has this changed – what aspects of the song have become less important and what, more? How can we be the Church that fills the hungry with good things, lifts up the lowly and brings God’s mercy and grace not just to this generation but to the next and to the ones to come?

 

Come to the Feast: sermon on commissioning a new communion assistant

Eucharist 30

John 6:1-21

Five barley loaves and two small fish. A young boy’s picnic becomes a sustaining meal for 5,000 people. Jesus walks across a lake in the drama of a storm. His injunction to his disciples: ‘It is I; do not be afraid.’

This is a passage of great vitality, energy, pizzazz – breaking cosmic rules, shaking up the possibilities of hospitality, turning the norms of physics and society inside out.

Remember how the John, the Gospel writer, doesn’t give us a Last Supper meal. Instead he places symbolic meals throughout his story of Jesus. Each one of them many layered, each giving hints and guesses about the significance, the symbolism, the imagery of that Last Supper – drawing through Abraham’s entertaining of the three Angels – the Old Testament Trinity – through Passover, Temple sacrifice and much more, to bring Jesus into our presence, that when we share bread with one another we share it with him, and we share him with one another.

Shared: meals are shared – bread is broken, divided between every person at the table. When a meal involves Jesus it involves a community, it isn’t a solitary affair.

We’ve mentioned many times the structures and systems of Jewish life in Jesus’s day, how there were rituals for every aspect of living and how those rituals were often part of a codification of cleanliness and uncleanliness, part of a hierarchy of holiness and worth. We know how Jesus himself is judged by this system: the charge that he eats with tax collectors and sinners; his poor treatment when invited to eat a Pharisee’s house; his instructions about sitting at the lowest table when asked to a meal, so that your host may request you move to a higher place.

When the 5,000 gathered to eat the meal that Jesus gave we aren’t told whether everyone sat according to their social status. John spares us the detail, given in the Synoptic version,  that the 5,000 figure means the men (NRSV gives us ‘people’ not ‘men’) and that there were also women and children – uncounted because they were of less value. Perhaps this is an indication that, for John, this was an egalitarian event – everyone sharing equally regardless of status, whether they were deemed clean or outcast, whether they were reliable witnesses or the voiceless.

When Jesus feeds, everyone has as much as they want. Not as much as they need – as much as they want. That’s true generosity. Twelve baskets of leftovers – yes, that’s generosity. Rules are being broken. Eating with Jesus means entering into a new society. a society where gifts given by a child, one of the voiceless, has value enough to feed the community.

Then this meal is coupled, by John and by those who set our portions of Scripture to be read today, with the story of Jesus walking across the water one dark and stormy night. The disciples see him atop the waves and they are terrified. They’ve rowed for three or four miles from where they left him.

Have they seen Jesus from miles away, a tiny figure that swings in and out of vision, getting imperceptibly, inexorably larger, closer, whenever they spot him? Are they terrified because each time the waves rise he disappears from view and there are heart-stopping seconds before they see him again? Are they terrified because they were there when the fully-fed crowd tried to whisk Jesus away and crown him as their renegade revolutionary king, and in their hearts they also believe this about him, so every time he slips out of view the terror is that he has sunk and all their dreams of freedom have drowned with him? Are they terrified because they can only associate such unnatural acts with malevolent ghostly spirits? Or are they terrified because he is a man walking on water and all the laws of nature are unreeling before their eyes?

Then he comes to them and speaks: ‘It is I.’ – echoes of ‘I am who I am’ – YHWH. ‘Do not be afraid.’ –  the words of angels, agents of divinity, when they bring God’s message to humanity.

They have moved from a shared meal into the presence of the Holy One. They are aware that the hands that broke bread for them belong to the God who created them. ‘It is I.’ God is with them and for God all time is no time, every second eternity, eternity, for God, lasts a second: ‘and immediately the boat reached the land towards which they were going.’

Every day Christians around the world share a meal. It is this meal, that Jesus himself gave us, asked us to ‘do this in remembrance of me.’ Bread is taken, blessed, broken and shared. Is it given to everyone? Should it be? Is it shared out in a hierarchical way? Should it be? Do we eat as much as we want? Perhaps we never can – it is a symbolic meal, not there to fulfil our physical hunger. But it should be a binding mechanism, drawing us together as a community that does its utmost to make sure that no one goes hungry.

Do we eat as much as we want? Perhaps we never can – it is a symbolic meal, God is infinite, however much of God we try to understand, experience, take into our lives, we will never, in this life, know more than a tiny crumb of who God is, how God is, why God is, what God is.

Ever since I was a child it has been a privilege and a wonder to be part of this meal. It is always a risky thing to do: it has the potential to be banal, farcical, just plain odd and out of tune with daily experience. But it also shimmers with the possibility, the danger, the disturbance, of meeting with God, of stretching out and beyond our skins and into perceptible connection with our souls, of lighting us up with the fire of God’s love. There are times when this meal – the Lord’s Supper, Divine Liturgy, Holy Communion, the Mass, Eucharist, whatever you call it – can walk on water, feed thousands, turn time, physics and society on its head, re-member that moment in the Upper Room when bread was broken and wine outpoured, re-present that once-only cosmic shudder as God is fractured, tortured, raised up on the Cross.

This meal is communal to its very core, hence the injunction that a priest cannot hold this service without at least one other person present. And everyone is involved to sing and pray it into being. Readers and preachers feed us with God’s holy Word, musicians tune us into the divine rhythm, intercessors gather the cares of the community into God’s presence, communion assistants share the meal equally and with reverence to all who come to the table, the minister presides, or facilitates, acting on behalf of everyone, so that all may draw creation into Christ and Christ into their hearts.

We end the meal by being sent out to love and serve the Lord. How do we do that? John reminds us that after everyone had eaten what they wanted there were 12 baskets of food left over. Who gets that? We are sent out. Whatever benefits we have gained from this meal are not to be kept to ourselves. There will always be more than we need or want, there will always be 12 baskets for us to share. This is the meal that Jesus gave us. Jesus released it, let it go, offered it as gift marking God’s overwhelming generosity. So, it is our meal – we can have a part in shaping it for the next generation, we can preserve its integrity but re-member it for a world vastly different from Palestine 2,000 years ago. But whatever we do with it, we are asked to send it out into the world. It is a gesture of hospitality, it is the nutrition for revolution, it is the food of true humanity, with Scripture it is a gateway to God.

What you want… what you get

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Public Image Ltd, Bristol O2 arena, May 2018

When John Lydon takes the stage wearing chef’s trousers, a loose white shirt, dark weskit and round pebble glasses it looks as if Father Brown has just been booted off Masterchef. Combine that with one guitarist who reminded reminiscent of a cross between Phil Jupitus and Alan Yentob, another who seemed to be channelling a super-skinny version of Warren Ellis of the Bad Seeds and a drummer who looked like everyone’s favourite retired football hooligan and I began to wonder what we were in for. Would there be any of the wire-whipped ire of the Sex Pistols, the insidious, needling subtlety of Metal Box, the outright black chanting rage of Album (or Compact Disc/Cassette, whichever format you prefer)?

From the opening chords of new track ‘Warrior’ it was obvious why Lydon works with this iteration of the band – they are his peers, a close-knit coterie of quality musicians who play with grit and grime and virtuosity. The sound was tight, loud, hard, punching and fearsome. Perfect for a predominantly male crowd whose average age would have been pushing 50 – this was a band who have lived a bit, seen the ups and downs of life, probably knew something of the perils of mortgages, babies and settled domesticity that were the mainstay of much of their audience’s daily round.

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Newer material predominated the first half of the gig, much of it culled from the last studio album. What the World Needs Now is not an immediate ‘wow’ of an album, it doesn’t grab with innovation, it doesn’t reverberate with spiked fury, it doesn’t spit on the grave of its musical antecedents. But it s a grower, filled with passionate, barbed, provocative and socially grounded songs. The flabby complacency of contemporary Western society still pushes Lydon to jab and stab. Live ‘Double Trouble’, ‘Corporate’ and ‘Spice of Life’ stand out, with ‘Shroom’ providing a suitably gobby, potty-mouthed dissing of bland cosiness with which to close down the encore.

Mixed in, and making up much of the latter half of the night, were the hits – ‘Rise’, ‘Black Rubber Bags’, ‘This is not a Love Song’, ‘Public Image’, all elicited an enthusiastic sing-along response from the crowd, including me. I guess ‘Rise’ with its reprise ‘anger is an energy’, is still the track that appeals most to me – but it seems to hit the spot for many others as well. I would have been disappointed if it hadn’t been played, but then, looking back, that’s part of my own complacency – the new material has its own vivacity and bite, it matters to Lydon the way this world is destroying itself, he is still a prophet crying in the wilderness, an outsider who calls out the hypocrisy of a world where business is king and individuals, especially the hard-pressed and hard-up are fodderstompf.

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Despite the fact that Lydon is himself in the business of entertainment, plying his trade with gigs and merchandise, he does come across as a man of integrity – although maybe that’s what we want to think – one who still wants to subvert the rules, sometimes just for the sheer fun of it, sometimes to make a trenchant point about the cruelty of civilisation. Mayhap he and Father Brown aren’t that far apart – they might even agree on some of the sentiments Lydon expounds in ‘Religion’ – both not afraid to stand up publicly for their beliefs, both prepared to be countercultural, both gifted preachers trying to reach beyond the faithful to change the world. However, I doubt whether Father Brown would end a sermon with a chorus of ‘bollocks, its all bollocks’.

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Watching them pass like clouds in the sky

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It is nigh on a month since I went to the Kaitlyn Aurelia Smith gig at Bristol IMAX. The LA based composer (that’s Los Angeles, not Long Ashton), was performing her 2017 album The Kid on her modular system Buchla 100 synthesiser. As a backdrop to her music the huge IMAX screen was used to show Sean Hellfrisch’s elemental and immersive visuals.

For swathes of the audience who gathered around afore and aft the performance, the Buchla 100 was the star. Devotees of arcane technology stood, glegging reverently at its sinuous collection of wires and cables; its solidity and early sci-fi appearance offering both an unearthly and ancient aura.

Smith opened with a diffident and slight introductory welcome, but turning to the Buchla transfigured her into a Tardis manipulating timelord, pulling plugs, switching sockets, tapping keyboards, singing along gently, but with evident enjoyment, to her own tracks. The music and visuals flowed seamlessly together, perfectly instep, each illuminating the other and the gig’s fifty minutes speed by as we were drawn deeper and deeper into a vision that was cosmic, atomic, cellular, human.

Hellfrisch’s visuals were like finding yourself inside a 1970s lava lamp nestling inside a kaleidoscope. Blobs were forming, flowing, dividing, growing, joining, splitting, expanding over and over. Shapes slipped and slid, multiplied, chained, dripped and ran like code down the screen. Colours swirled as cells, spheres, drops formed and reformed, replicated, twinned and twined, pulsing, pumping. If the structure of Smith’s album is about the formation of a child from conception to the acceptance of mortality, as I have read elsewhere, then these visuals were a perfect accompaniment – synthetic in their production but organic in their display.

Initially, they mirrored the early division of cells, later they were more like synapses firing, neural pathways forming, organs growing, developing, aging, thoughts snapping through the brain, or the body. They gave a sense not simply of physical growth but also of thoughts blossoming into ideas, into character, exploration of the world leading to self-awareness. Maybe that’s reading too much in – but not if you are listening to Smith’s music at the same time – especially if you can recall the titles of the tracks as you are hearing them.

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The synthetic nature of the visuals’ creation might have tended towards a mechanistic view of person – the popular perception of the mind as a machine, a super sophisticated computer, which can be observed and dissected with each form and function fully understood – in much the same way as the post-show audience was keen to unpack the mysteries of the Buchla 100. But the music mitigated against this – it told a different story, possibly because it told a story which wasn’t reducible to linearity. Perhaps the visuals looked like machine code, but they were also more amorphous, more cloud-like, splitting and dividing in unexpected ways. The titles of some of the tracks are reminders that consciousness is relational, it is collaborative, it is a story with flow and development, it cannot simply be reduced to mechanism, just as the notes on a stave cannot completely define music which floats and flows, sparking fresh ideas and associations. Smith has created music that shimmers with the ethereal, swirls with unearthly delights but which is grounded in the messy complexity of human being.

And that’s a big part of her story. The Kid is an impersonal title for an artwork that explores what it means to be a person. The tracks talk about embodiment, about learning, following, finding a place in the world, and discovering distinctiveness – which can lead to loneliness, or to intimations of mortality. Does the Buchla 100 exist simply on its own, an independent unit with no reliance on any other instrument, or does it require external input – electricity, someone to play it? Would Smith’s music be meaningful without listeners? It might exist without them, but would it have value without anyone, anything to hear? But if her concept is personal, is it also individualistic? Does it follow the prevailing ascendency of individualism? Possibly – it is a single artist’s creation using a single, unusual instrument. Possibly not – it has become fully realised through collaboration with a fellow artist, playing it live risks, or invites, the interactions of an audience – coughing, clapping at inopportune moments, sighing, shifting in their seats, tapping along to the rhythm, or even silently processing and reimagining the material offered.

Both music and visuals are carefully controlled in their production. Perhaps that is a clue to an isolated interiority, a need to be in charge, to command the conformity of the external world to the individual’s need. Yet this is music whose layers slip and slide – controlled, yes, but running across a multiplicity of levels, growing more like a corkscrewing honeysuckle putting out myriad side shoots than a landscape bisected by the regular lines of telephone poles. The same applies to the morphing, splitting, shifting visuals, and when you throw in Smith’s extempore live vocals you find control unspooling. The album is called The Kid, which is generic, instead of the more individualistic ‘Young Kaitlyn’ because connectedness, society, the network of ecological inter-reliance is at its heart. More than that, and I think the visuals were vital in making this clear, body and mind are completely enmeshed – there is no mind body dualism here, learning comes through the body as much as the brain. The flowing, oozing lava lamp forms, the splitting, re-joining, grouping, ungrouping, regrouping cells, were as much about the whole body growing, reshaping, exploring and redefining its place in the space of existence as they were about the mind stretching towards maturity (or even puberty).

That struggle towards maturity is often said to require an acceptance of your own mortality. On the final track, ‘To Feel Your Best’ Smith sings: “I’m gonna wake up one day and you won’t be there/’Cause I care that’s why I stare… I’m gonna miss, miss, miss, will miss your face.” Is this the knowledge that signifies the end of childhood? Perhaps that is how Smith sees it. Closing the album here is possibly a self-conscious acceptance that every project has its limits. Mortality is the absolute limiter. Accepting it acknowledges the finitude of our power, recognises that our attempts at control can never fully succeed.

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One of the tracks is titled ‘In the World, but Not of the World’, which, with its echoes of the Christian Gospel of John (Chapter 17, verse 16) raises theological implications. I’m probably completely wrong to associate ‘the kid’ of The Kid with Christ, but it is interesting to make that connection. I’m writing this during the ten days between the two Christian feasts of the Ascension and Pentecost. Pentecost is seen as the more important event – the moment when God’s Spirit breathed through the rag-tag of Jesus followers and sent them out from the protection of a locked room into the furnace of the Roman controlled world to tell the story of God’s eternal connectedness with each individual and every aspect of creation. The Ascension is the final chapter in the Resurrection story – the physical removal of the resurrected, but still physical, body of the living Jesus from earth to heaven. It is a dramatic, perhaps ungainly (especially the way it has been depicted by Western artists) reminder how every speck of human vitality, every scintilla of human vulnerability has been shared by God in Jesus and, in this moment of ascension, is taken into the very heart of God.

If you are not a person of faith, then mayhap you can discern in this an image of our interconnectedness. Then Hellfrisch’s visuals and Smith’s music might work on a cosmic level, describing, perhaps the creation of stars, the division of bacteria, the roiling boil of the primeval soup, the rootedness of all creation in the pin-prick point just before the moment of the ‘big bang.’ But, in the connectedness with God made manifest in Jesus, Christians might also find comfort and inspiration that God takes utterly seriously everything that makes us ‘us’. That includes the mess, some of it grubby, some sensuous, some creative, some destructive. God absorbs it all into the Godhead and so changes it all into something new, something transfigured.

Ultimately, it might be that Smith’s work is about much more than development – there is the continuity of growth but also the transformation that comes with engagement beyond the self, the joining up of all the neural, social, ecological, international networks that take us beyond the individual into a wider, broader, more complex, more enriching sphere of being. And in live performance, in conjunction with Hellfrisch’s film, she draws us, through the minutiae of the images and her silken layering of sound, beyond the linearity of a child growing and into a space where every note crackles with the possiblity that all moments might be one moment and all matter one matter.

Music 2017

1. Elwan, Tinariwen, Wedge

2. The Kid, Kaitlyn Aurelia Smith, Western Vinyl

3. American Dream, LCD Soundsystem, Columbia

4. Modern Kosmology, Jane Weaver, Fire Records

5. Masseduction, St Vincent, Lorna Vista Recordings

6. Blue Lips, Tove Lo, Universal

7. Out in the Storm, Waxahatchee, Merge Records

8. Dark Days + Canapés, Ghostpoet, Play It Again Sam

9. Piano is Evil, Amanda Palmer, 8ft. Recordings

10. Hitchhiker, Neil Young, Silver Stars and Bars

2017 was a year filled with music. Listening to every piece listed in the book 1001 Albums You Must Hear Before You Die was the big project for the year. To some extent it was an impressionistic listen – randomly working through one album after another with nary a break in-between. Pause, reflect, get on with the next entry. It was great for filling in gaps, for confirming prejudices and occasionally for challenging them. The huge variety, of music, lyrics, stories, artists, was heartening. The odd discovery made the whole project worthwhile, the tying together of genres and bands enlightening. I’m glad I did it, but I won’t be doing it again. However, I have annotated the book with albums I shall revisit in a more leisurely way.

All this historical dabbling made for little time for new music. I only managed three gigs – The Jesus and Mary Chain, Black Rebel Motorcycle Club and Goldfrapp. Each had a new album to promote (the BRMC one is an early 2018 release), so plenty of music from these as well as the backlist. Seeing the JAMC so long after their glory days was a gamble and one I wasn’t too confident about once I had heard the new material, which seemed to be a weary self-pastiche. Live, they were OK, anything from Psychocandy was bound to be special, even if the execution was a touch ponderous, but the new songs were forgettable.

BRMC played the gig I had hoped for from JAMC – alert and angry, tight and varied, potent and airborne – it was an excellent mix of old hits and new tracks, corporate noise and mellower solo performances, all delivered with intensity and conviction. A week later and it was Goldfrapp, sold out, packed but with a gentler vibe. I had been listening to the new album, Silver Eye, quite a bit, and enjoying it – partly because it is pretty much more of the same and what Goldfrapp does, they do very well – so was filled with high expectations for the evening. I wasn’t disappointed – much new material but all the hits that mattered as well, even if I did record them upside down on my phone – delivered with sensuous skill and clear delight. Alison Goldfrapp commanded the stage performing how and when she wanted, proud of the new songs but also blasting through the hits with celebratory vigour. It was a cracking gig, only slightly dampened by the two hour wait for a bus home.

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New music listening was mostly crammed into the last two months of the year, although I had picked up on Elwan back in the early spring and kept going back to it. Even without knowing anything of the background to Tinariwen, Tuareg musicans who have been working together for years and were forced out of their homes in Mali in 2012 by Islamic militants, there was something hypnotic and compulsive about the music. I love the mix of scuzzy Western guitar fuelled rock with more traditional sub-Saharan rhythms, visions and aspirations. These are songs of lament, loss, defiance, both communal and individual, contemporary psalms, grounded but with spirit.

Modern Kosmology 1Kaitlyn Aurelia Smith’s The Kid is probably my second most played album of the year. That’s partly because her style of electronic layering works well with sermon writing. This puts her in the same category, for me, as Juliana Barwick and Grouper, but really her music on The Kid has kinship with Goldfrapp, combining both a quirky accessibility with a more nuanced vision of growth and humanity. There are echoes of Tomita and Jean Michel Jarre alongside an organic exuberance which is immensely affecting and enjoyable. Modern Kosmology, by Jane Weaver, feels like a close cousin to Smith’s work, which is probably why I like it. Again, there are hints of Goldfrapp, indeed they are strong at times, building into an album that is more overtly dance than meditative swirl, but still with a reflective anchoring.

I most surprised to hear from LCD Soundsystem again, I thought that James Murphy had laid the project to rest. Even more surprising and pleasing was the strength of American Dream, which mixes together all those wonderful musical references, which have long been a Murphy staple, to create something both fresh and knowing, invigorating despite its underlying cynicism. At his best Murphy’s sound is off-kilter Teutonic and in this, which is some of his finest work so far, Can and Kraftwerk seem to have melded with late David Bowie into an extended riff on the morality of mortality. There is something nostalgic about listening to American Dream, but nothing like that which comes from Neil Young’s Hitchhiker, which is recorded in 1976 but never before released. Young and just an acoustic guitar is often a winning and wondrous combination. Yes, just about all these songs are well-known in other versions, often heavier, more rambling, but here they stand up on their own as masterful mini-stories.

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There was a time when my reading switched from literary fiction to crime thrillers. I didn’t feel any connection with contemporary literature, it didn’t seem to touch my life, or expand it. Crime fiction was about a puzzle and a good story, so satisfied my need to read but not any desire to explore. At the moment I’m in a similar place with contemporary music. Little of what new or established male artists, with a few exceptions such as Nick Cave and Michael Gira, are producing seems to affect me. I can’t find common ground with most bands, they are not speaking to me neither are they speaking about me. So I’ve switched to listening to many of the young female bands and artists, especially those of Scandinavian origin. Again, there is no connection between me and these millennials, their lives are foreign to me, but their music appeals in its innovation, energy, ennui, mix of dark introspection, fierceness, skill and celebration. St Vincent’s Masseduction, like Laura Marling’s almost equally fine Semper Femina, is subtle, deep, serious, sad and yet also fizzing with life, exuberance, passion, challenge, while Tove Lo is just plain raunchy on Blue Lips, a reprise of last year’s Lady Wood, that is sensual, charged and yet also emotionally draining. Waxahatchee, who’s music I’ve followed for a while, pushes that blending of the internal and the external further. Out in the Storm builds from fine song-writing into a swirling, dirty rock ride, excoriating a dead relationship, escaping from the slough of post parting blues.

Piano is Evil

Like Neil Young, Amanda Palmer released two albums in 2017 and also like him, one, Piano is Evil, is pretty much just her and one instrument, this time a piano that is hammered, banged, pulverised into compliance with dense and angry song-telling. This is the stripped-back version of her 2012 album Theatre is Evil, and the excising of the big band type production benefits the songs hugely, giving her space to inhabit them and let the sheer bloodiness of life, love, loss pour out compulsively and comprehensively.

Finally, Ghostpoet, who, in his themes of immigration, intolerance and strangers in a strange land, takes us back to the beginning and Tinariwen. Dark Days + Canapés was a bit of grower for me, requiring several listens to begin to warm to it. The world, according to Ghostpoet, is not a happy place – immigrants drown desperately trying to bring their families to lands that offer work and opportunity, relationships curdle, social media blocks out reality and fantasy leads us further and further away from making a positive difference to the physical environment. The lyrics are taut, fragile without being frail, finely attuned to the music which slips through a Bristol trippy vibe (that I was only ever marginally aware of) into a more funky mix ameliorated by drainpipe black Goth guitars which scratch the stories of alienation and attrition under the skin. It is not an easy album, but it is a discerning one that deserves attention.

From the desert to the sea via bedrooms, bawdy, birth, bigotry and break-up, there has been much worthwhile to listen to in 2017’s music. Without the blessing and curse of 1001 classic albums to plough through, I am looking forward to exploring new creations in 2018.