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Sunday, November 29, 2015

Advent 1 Reflection




Advent 1 2015

Readings Jer 33: 14-16; 1 Thess 3: 9-13; Luke 21: 25-36

Reflection

With the ordination yesterday, I have already reflected on part of the gospel for this morning and simply offer a minor reflection for this start to Advent.

The signs of Christmas, decorations and all the seasonal paraphernalia, have been in supermarkets and shops for perhaps a month now.  The commercial world has been ready for Christmas – raring to go you might say – for some time.

By comparison the church doesn’t seem to be in quite the same space.  Of course I think that fortunate: I walk past the trinkets in the gift aisle at the supermarket – and wonder at the ‘Advent Calendar’ with its little treats, each day on the calendar marking the countdown to the great day.

I am impressed by the stark contrast between the sticky treats or sentiments of some Advent Calendars and the way the Church keeps Advent.  There is nothing sweet, sticky or in any way sentimental or tinselly about the first Sunday of Advent. 

Last Judgement, Giotto, 1306 detail
Instead we are confronted with images of the end of the world; with the winding up of all things; the wrapping up of time and with the coming of God.  Images of storm and disaster, the end of days, shake us – we will, it is true, get to Christmas, to the promise of the child in the manger, but not before this drum roll of doom and disaster has shaken us.

Why is it like this?  Why do we have the shock and the disorientation of the apocalypse as our start on the way toward Christmas?

Think of Advent 1 as a ‘wake-up call’ – the church rouses itself from sleep, from apathy, from sloth and despair.  We are roused to focus once again on what really matters – and maybe it takes a shock to wake us up; imagine a sleepy driver who at the wheel suddenly realises he is on the wrong side of the road and, horn blaring, there is a giant Kenwood truck bearing down towards him.  Under enough stress, one wakes up!

To be awoken like that – is to be forced to get back on track; get back to living the journey we are created for and called to work at through all our living; our life’s journey into God and to do our part in building the kingdom.

This Sunday of the new liturgical year wakes us up to face our deepest anxieties and fears.  Our mortality – and what that means in the limitless abyss of the universe, vast beyond all conception.  What are we?  We hide from that thought by all the trappings, tinsel, playthings and anodyne that the world can provide.  Yet on this day the Church rouses us to face that deepest dread and find our pathway again – because the church has something wonderful to show us.

Behind the unsettling apocalyptic noise of this day, the Church is urgently whispering, ‘Come and see’, the world is much, oh so much more than you have ever dreamed my love; don’t stay asleep; wake up; the dawn is near; eternity is all about you.  Come and see.

These thoughts call to mind of R.S.Thomas’s poem ‘The Bright Field’

The Bright Field

I have seen the sun break through
to illuminate a small field
for a while, and gone my way
and forgotten it. But that was the pearl
of great price, the one field that had
treasure in it. I realize now
that I must give all that I have
to possess it. Life is not hurrying
on to a receding future, nor hankering after
an imagined past. It is the turning
aside like Moses to the miracle
of the lit bush, to a brightness
that seemed as transitory as your youth
once, but is the eternity that awaits you.


On this Advent Sunday, we are to wake up and turn aside and in the brightness of a world seen afresh, be ready for the eternity that awaits us.

Saturday, November 28, 2015

Ordination in Interesting Times


An ordination in the Cathedral this afternoon - difficult for any preacher I suspect ...

Reading Luke 21:34-36;

Advent Eve: it is an interesting time for an ordination.

In the week of the Paris attacks the BBC, ITV news, various British papers (Spectator, Telegraph, The Times and the Daily Mirror) announced that the Archbishop of Canterbury had confessed that the attacks in France had made him doubt the presence of God.

Just this week this event was seized upon by the columnist Joe Bennett in Thursday’s Otago Daily Times where he ridiculed the Archbishop of Canterbury (and faith generally) because Archbishop Justin had made this confession of doubt about God.  Well, the Archbishop obviously didn’t have his media consultant by him at the time, and it is not the first time he has made this sort of admission – but good on him!

A lot about the ordained life and the life of faith generally might be drawn from this incident: the Archbishop demonstrated honesty, emotional capacity, and vulnerability.  He was willing to share the shock and pain of a society in a time of crisis; he stepped out from behind the façade of office and presented the reality of Christian faith, and the pain and questioning it entails.  

He modelled the way faith has to be lived - always in tension with doubts and questions.   Such public vulnerability carries many risks: he may be criticised for such frankness by some ‘believers’ while behind that is an abyss of secularism and unbelief that mocks faith and jeers at the falling numbers in the Christian churches.

For all the ordained and those about to be, this incident reminds us of the hazards of our calling: what it means to be vulnerable; what it means to live with the tension of faith and doubt; what it means to minister in a social context where faith is out of fashion and churches struggle to survive. 

While it is easy to get discouraged in ministry and wonder about our calling, from the beginning the Church has always remembered that the reality we are caught up in from one moment to the next is far from being the whole story. 

This time before Advent is the season when we are expected to remember this.  For instance you may recall how over the last few weeks we have been reading much from Daniel, from Revelations, and the little apocalypses in the Gospels.   Sometimes we have fretted over these obscure and difficult passages of apocalyptic scriptures and wanted to protest at why we are expected to read this in church.  What sense will people make of them? We may imagine visitors leaving our services and shaking their heads in disbelief and confusion.  

Nonetheless for centuries at this season the practice of the church has been to look beyond the things of the present and toward the end of time:  when we engage the apocalyptic texts our spiritual horizon expands to include an unimaginable future holding judgements, desolation, and the end of all things.  

To have that ‘sense of the end’ within our spiritual tradition means that changes in society and culture, being in fashion or out of fashion, knowing calamity and disaster, however traumatic and horrible at the time, do not define the church.  You could say that our faith is, in a sense, ‘future-proofed’.

But of course there is more to it than that.  Running all the way through the scriptures are the stories of the spiritual life and the endless scope we have for getting ourselves into trouble and losing heart – whether we think about the sometimes comical lesson of Jonah in Nineveh or Paul’s cranky letters to churches that have lost their way.  

We can see that most clearly in the Gospel for our liturgy today:  where the Gospeller warns the faithful “Be on guard so that your hearts are not weighed down”.  It can be better translated as saying: “pay attention to yourselves …” (so that the troubles of the present moment don’t distract or overwhelm you).

‘Pay attention to yourselves’.  He gives us simple directions – about being alert and praying – and this practise of self-awareness, something developed through prayer, silence and with a good spiritual director, this discipline of paying attention to ourselves, is at the very heart of the ordained life.  Without it we lose direction and quickly become weighed down with a multitude of things and lose heart.

As I said, it’s an interesting time to be ordained, the eve of Advent.  Remember the Archbishop of Canterbury caught on the spot, blurting out what is in his heart and not afraid to appear vulnerable, maybe even foolish; a target for a world where faith is out of fashion:  that kind of faithful vulnerability is at the heart of the ordained life.  To live with that faithful openness will not solve all the problems the church faces; the problems of a broken world; problems of war, poverty, climate change; but it keeps us honest and therefore open to what God will do in us and through us.

The eve of Advent is an interesting time to be ordained, the rumours of the end of time resonate through the soul of the church, and amidst all this, tomorrow we start a new liturgical year, and our newly ordained take up their ministry.  ‘Pay attention to yourselves.’








Saturday, November 21, 2015

Christ the King


Christ the King 2015

Reflection

This is the last Sunday of the Church Year. Once we called it ‘Stir Up Sunday’ (after the collect the church used for thousands of years) but for some decades we have instead observed this Sunday as the Feast of Christ the King, ending the year proclaiming the rule of Christ.

Even the most steadfast believer, the most devout, the most optimistic, must be struck by the horrible discrepancy between a liturgy that proclaims the rule of Christ and what one has encountered in the morning papers or the TV news.  In the wake of violence in the Middle East, terrorism in Beirut, Paris, Nigeria and Mali – to speak of the ‘Rule of Christ’ might seem naïve at best or, at worst, an instance of disingenuous, cynical, religious propaganda.

Our understanding, our language, our imaginative capacity limits us.  Pilate presses Jesus with questions and Jesus instead highlights the inadequacy of Pilate’s thinking: he simply says “You say that I am a King …” Instead we need to attend to the grammar of faith, which is driven by the religious imagination.  I have two images in mind that may illustrate what I mean.  One is the Paschal Candle and the other is Holman Hunt’s painting ‘The Light of the World’.

Each year, at the Easter Vigil, the Paschal candle is carved with the numerals of the year and with the symbols of the first and last letters of the Greek alphabet, the Alpha and the Omega.  As a representation of time it is an oxymoron, an enigma: the specific moment of time marked by the year is enfolded by the emblems for the start of time and the end of time.  This is the grammar of the religious imagination, it is a grammar that consumes itself.

The painting known as ‘The Light of the World’ (1851-53) by Holman Hunt is one of the best-known devotional paintings; it is an allegorical illustration of the text in Revelation 3:20 "Behold, I stand at the door and knock; if any man hear My voice, and open the door, I will come in to him, and will sup with him, and he with Me".   It show a richly robed Christ, crowned with a crown of thorns and bearing a lantern, knocking at an overgrown, and obviously long-unopened door, to which there appears to be no handle other than what may be on the inside.  The door is of course the closed mind or the closed heart.  The painting presents the enigma of the religious imagination: on the one hand we see Christ, the light of the world; on the other hand is the closed door of the shut mind.  The painting, its juxtaposition of the door and Christ, confronts us with the enigma of our refusal to see or respond to Christ.

The gospel presents us with a similar juxtaposition.  We are drawn into a dramatic encounter as Pilate talks to Jesus – it is not just two different personalities that we see but different worlds, and different dimensions confront each other.  It would be fascinating to try and script this for a play.  Pilate’s world: of court politics, ways and means, the slippery pole of power, of duties and taxes; Pilate’s world cannot begin to comprehend who Jesus is.  We get the impression that he realises there is more to this Jesus than he can understand; we catch a sense of his curiosity and of the tragedy of someone caught up in the machinery of their own political world.  He cannot understand Jesus.

‘Are you a King?’

The question is of course absurd.  His words probe infinity and rebound to him: “You say that I am a king.”  One might as well have asked “Are you a plumber?” There is no word for what God is.

In this moment we recognise our kinship with Pilate: he is very much like anyone of us.  His mental and spiritual capacity is severely limited – and he cannot even remotely conceive the mystery of the truth about the one who stands opposite him.

In its way, Pilate’s question is our question, and it is unanswerable – we have no language or comprehension to make sense of an answer.

And yet, despite our limitations, despite our finitude, despite even the darkness that we may fear in the world, on this Sunday we proclaim that Christ rules. 

From that haunted question in Pilate’s court, and the story that runs from there to the cross, the empty tomb and echoes still to touch our own lives … on this day we proclaim Christ rules.

From our finite moment in time we contemplate the immeasurable reach of eternity; we offer the bread and wine, and we proclaim Christ, our Alpha and Omega! 


In this finite moment we attend to the one who is the ‘Light of the world’ and continues still to knock at the door of our closed minds and rebellious hearts, always seeking our response.  


Thursday, November 19, 2015

Cathedrals - Repositories of the Spirit


It is curious how people seek out Cathedrals.  On Wednesday evening in the Chapter Room, during a meeting, someone put their head around the door and asked if they could have a look upstairs in the Cathedral.  He was the guide for a group of Polish tourists and they had been delayed in their travels, arriving well after the Cathedral had been locked up for the night.  It was no problem for me to leave the meeting and take them upstairs.

They were a marvellous group - all, I am sure, solid Roman Catholics.  They were curious about our altar and its splendid frontal; absolutely fascinated by the building (though, Lord knows, Cathedrals can be no novelty to them);  and extremely well informed and curious with lots of good questions. This was the kind of group that it was a joy to take around.

My thoughts shifted to the scenes inside and out of Notre Dame after the Daesh murders this week - so-called secular France and yet people flocked to Notre Dame.  The cathedral is a repository of the Spirit ... that thought warms my heart.

Sunday, November 15, 2015

In the Furnace of the world


Pulling the threads together for the Evensong meditation ... variations on a theme, holding the events of this week in Beirut and especially Paris under the scrutiny of Daniel and the apocalyptic parables of Matthew 13 ...


Choral Evensong 33d Ordinary Sunday
15 November 2015
Readings. Daniel 3; Matthew 13:24-30; 36-43.

The readings for Evensong tonight are very much in the spirit of the apocalypse, reflecting the focus upon the end-times that the church requires at this time of the close of the liturgical year.

The reading from Daniel, in parts repetitive and turgid, closes with an image that is dear to me.  This is, as I said this morning, apocalyptic literature, the literature of the dispossessed. Here the exiled Jews are being harried for their faith and required to act against God.  So these 3 brave men suffer their punishment but are unharmed by the furnace.  In the furnace, we see them walking and with them a fourth figure, God himself.  This passage works imaginatively: it explores what it is to be a person of faith and where God is in the midst of a time of trial.  Think of the furnace as the world, a place of violence and persecution, and in the midst of that furnace, God walks with you.

The parables from Matthew’s Gospel similarly engage the confusion of reality we experience in the world where good and evil coexist; where beliefs differ; where deep differences exist; and behind divergence and difference the question of what may constitute truth.  The parables don’t answer the question but instead resist any attempt to foreclose on an answer.  The weeds are to remain.  Weeds and wheat will coexist.  The matter is to be left to God to the end time.


So, hold the image of Daniel’s fiery furnace in your mind; with that hold the images of the wheat and the weeds; in the fiery furnace of the world where it is so tempting to impose one’s reality and preference by force, we are held back.  The world is more complicated than we have imagined; God’s purpose may be more charged with love, compassion and grace than we can ever have imagined.  We are restrained by openness to grace.

The events this week in Beirut and especially in Paris with violent attacks being mounted against civilians can helpfully be weighed against these texts.   One commentator from the Islamic world has claimed that the attacks in Paris are an ISIL attempt to force the West to strike against Islam.

ISIL wants the world divided into black and white (like its flag); it wants to eliminate any sense that Muslims and non –Muslims can coexist.   Its most basic premises and its very existence are threatened at the sight of the Western world opening its arms in a humane and decent way to refugees fleeing the war in Syria and Iraq,  ISIL can only prosper where there is division and intolerance and no possibility of coexistence.

In the furnace of the world, we are to continue to love, to show compassion, to behave decently; to withhold judgement and to embrace difference and diversity.  All else is to be left in the goodness of God.  In the furnace of the world, love endures over evil.


Saturday, November 14, 2015

Horror in Paris & Playing on the doorstep of Eternity


I write very much against the news of today with the tragic events in Paris rattling remorselessly against the gospel for tomorrow...


33d Sunday in Ordinary Time
Readings: Mark 13:1-8;

On a Friday evening you go out for dinner, a meal and some wine at some small street corner restaurant.  All is well, the world continues in its ordered way. Until, that is, men with automatic weapons suddenly enter and open fire at random.  The ordered civilised world you are familiar with is suddenly transformed into mayhem and a portal to hell.  I have in mind, of course, the horrific attacks in Paris in the last 24 hours.

We are near the end of our liturgical year and this is the time of the year when the church requires us to direct our attention to what we may call the end-times.  It is a kind of reality check on human life, our projects and ambitions, civilization itself.  As the church year wraps up, the end-times remind us that the universe has a scope and a purpose far beyond our comprehension and most daring speculation.

Of course to think about the end-time is to check the way we are beguiled by illusion.  We tend to fend off the prospect of our own demise and instead see the continuation of life all about us and landmarks and signs and symbols which suggest permanence.  We see the sweep of the ridges above our city, trace the familiar line of Flagstaff; we fondly admire our much loved buildings, particularly our cathedral – and forget that a million years prior to us and a million years hence, none of these things were or will be.  Our place in eternity is minimal.

There is nothing new in thinking this.  We know this, it’s just that we tend to dismiss the thought as disturbing.  But the idea of remembering our mortality, the memento mori symbolised by a skull or an hour glass, is an ancient discipline.  That wonderful Dean of St Paul’s, John Donne, practised it and even had himself painted wearing his shroud.  More modern manifestations of a similar awareness may be the numerous contemporary films on the themes of the apocalypse – global warming, tsunamis, earthquakes, plague, and cosmic destruction.  We entertain ourselves with thoughts of our own destruction; but maybe beneath the entertainment is a deeper and primordial intuition.

Jesus taps into this as he leaves the temple which is going to be the backdrop of his passion.  His disciples admire the great architectural statement of this vast edifice and he brings them back down to earth with a thump and tells them of things to come that they would rather not hear.   

The world that seems so powerful, so certain, so fixed and enduring suddenly starts to change as he unfolds for them what is sometimes called “the little apocalypse”: telling them about the mystery of the future and of the last things.  There is a tradition in the Old Testament of apocalypse – for instance the curious visions in Daniel and it has been said that apocalypse is ‘the literature of the dispossessed’, meaning a coded literature for people who are oppressed and are forced to look for hope and vindication in a future beyond what they can imagine.  In the New Testament the Book of Revelation is exactly that.


Now this Sunday, with one of the great cities of our world in mourning, as we contemplate the fragility and finitude of all things, the vision of apocalypse does not lessen the horror of what has been done in Paris; it may not diminish other horrors of the past or those yet to come; it will not diminish the grief of loss and anguish; but apocalypse spurs us into compassion and love – because we are in the space that is given to us and this is where we play our part.  

The thought calls to mind the mystic Thomas Merton in The Sign of Jonas, where Merton remarks:
“Sooner or later the world must burn, and all things in it – all the books, the cloister together with the brothel, ….  Sooner or later it will all be consumed by fire and nobody will be left – for by that time the last man in the universe will have discovered the bomb capable of destroying the universe and will have been unable to resist the temptation to throw the thing and get it over with.
   And here I sit writing a diary.
But love laughs at the end of the world because love is the door to eternity and he who loves God is playing on the doorstep of eternity, and before anything can happen love will have drawn him over the sill and closed the door and he won’t bother about the world burning because he will know nothing but love.”  (Thomas Merton, 1915-1968. The Sign of Jonas)

That is why we are here this morning.  We hold the dead, the maimed, the suffering of Paris, the bloodied ruins of restaurants and concert hall, and as we offer the bread and the wine we are joined with Christ in the great love offering that transforms the world and us … in the Eucharist we are playing on the doorstep of eternity.




Sunday, November 8, 2015

All Souls and Remembrance Day


I have been impressed by the occurrence of All Souls Day and the observance of Remembrance Sunday falling within the one week.  Each of these occasions is about remembering the dead.  

The Feast of All Souls is of course the occasion when we remember all who have died in the faith of Christ, acknowledging our connection with them beyond time in the Church, the Body of Christ.   

Traditionally the range of the doctrine behind ‘All Souls’ has restricted it to those considered within ‘the faith of Christ’ but that restriction begs more questions than it answers.  Who are we to speak for God or determine the reach of Christ?  In fact it seems to me that the reach and range of this feast is immeasurable: it presents us with the impossible prospect of countless souls, millennia upon millennia, being remembered before God in prayer. 

The feast is the most daring stretch of the liturgical imagination and the most ambitious expression of our hope in Christ.  It takes us beyond the scope of our finite imagining, our conceptual framing, and all reach of words, gathering us up into the mystery of being, time and mortality that compels us to silence in which we may at best light a votive candle or let the music of lux aeterna speak.

By comparison with All Souls, the scope of Remembrance Day seems relatively modest.  Even so, it is huge and imaginatively intolerable as one considers images of war cemeteries, crosses after crosses in endless progression; name after name etched on walls of remembrance, caves, cells, and monuments around the world; the countless dead whose remains are lost in the forests, steppes, and killing fields of Europe and Asia; those lost in the oceans of the world; or those vaporised by nuclear weaponry.  The mind and spirit falter at the scope of what such remembrance may require. At the tomb of every unknown warrior this immeasurable army of the unknown dead attends.

It is worth remembering how in July, 1945, Benjamin Britten accompanied the violinist Yehudi Menuhin on a brief tour of defeated Germany. One day, the two men visited the concentration camp at Bergen-Belsen, and performed works by Mozart and others for some former inmates. Stupefied by what he had seen, Britten went home to the East Anglian coast and set to music the most spiritually scouring poetry that he could find—the Holy Sonnets of John Donne.

Of these, Sonnet 7 of Donne’s Holy Sonnets is the poem that most powerfully expresses the impossibility of remembering or imagining our mortality across the sweep of eternity.  Nonetheless it somehow accomplishes the impossible in the bare 8 lines of its octave.  

Anticipating the Last Judgement Donne summons all our dead and our living:

At the round earths imagin’d corners, blow
Your trumpets, Angells, and arise, arise
From death you numberlesse infinities
Of soules, and to your scattred bodies goe,
All whom the flood did, and fire shall o’erthrow,
All whom warre, dearth, age, agues, tyrannies,
Despaire, law, chance, hath slaine, and you whose eyes

Shall behold God, and never taste deaths woe.

...

Friday, November 6, 2015

Approaching Remembrance Sunday


I have been thinking over the strangeness of Remembrance Sunday 


Thinking about Remembrance Sunday



“Those who don't know history are doomed to repeat it.” (Edmund Burke)

“Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it." (George Santayana)



Each year Remembrance Sunday amends the Cathedral calendar as the principle Choral Eucharist is for that day set aside and a Civic Service of Remembrance is held in its stead.   (Cathedral folk are used to this happening – I think they understand that Cathedrals serve the city and offer opportunities for worship on special occasions that include everyone regardless of faith.)  You can also look at this another way: each year on Remembrance Sunday, people who might usually do something quite different, elect to come to the Cathedral to observe Remembrance Sunday.

The task of remembering the fallen has not got any easier: it is probably fair to say that there are no longer any surviving veterans of WWI.  That generation has gone.   But the legacy of WWI is immense, the books, films, memoirs, diaries, photographs and so on is available, accessible and impressive; it has seeped into our cultural memory sufficiently at least for most of us to have a glimmering impression of the conflict.

And yet … despite these abundant resources are we clear about what we remember and why we remember?

It has been commonplace to quote Edmund Burke and George Santayana about history and the need to know it or to remember it if we are not to repeat the disasters of the past.  It would be foolish to doubt the wisdom of those statements but also foolish to deny the evidence of WW2 and various conflicts since then that remind us of our limited ability to avoid conflict in the future.  The student of history knows that the memory of the past can easily be overridden by forms of self-interest and the emotions and fears of the present.

One of the things to happen on Remembrance Sunday is that we come together as a people and not simply as denominations or believers.  This is a day when we remember the common bond we share as a nation; we remember a time of trial, mostly before our life time, when our nation endured a war and the hardships and losses it inflicted.  We remember also that we were one of many nations similarly afflicted. 

The point I want to consider here is the extraordinary significance of what we come here to do: the strangeness of it and the wonder of it.  I think that to come together in the way we do is first of all a departure from the fragmented, selfishness that has become so common a feature of our society now.  We are doing something together that we see as strengthening and affirming the bonds of our society, and within that affirmation is also a whole complex cluster of distinctive human values.

Second, this common purpose and common act of remembering turns against the tide of our aggressively secular society, because this is an essentially religious action.  It is something that binds us together.   The word religion means just that ‘to bind together’.  

Even if we don’t think of ourselves as religious, this act of remembrance only makes sense as a religious act.  Think about it: we stand with neighbours and strangers; we remember back before our life-time; we remember countless unknown souls; we remember nations other than our own; we remember, but we are remembering not in the sense of a name or a face, but in a more abstract sense, remembering the countless human others who have endured a darkness that we seek to avoid.  To do this takes us beyond and out of ourselves, it is an activity of the mind, the spirit and the imagination.   Peace demands no less.

I of course want to say more.  As the Dean of this Cathedral, as a man who believes in Christ – I want to point to the way observing Remembrance Day draws us into the mystery we name as God.  To share as we do this day a common liturgy, to pray together, to express a common faith and hope is to draw upon the immense power of God within us and beyond us.  To do this is to begin to change the world and in that moment also to change ourselves. May that be so.



Sunday, November 1, 2015

Reflection for All Saints Day 2015


This reflection evolved during the return flight from Brisbane yesterday and the thought that guided me was the sheer resilience and strength of the saints and that the reality of the saint is so different from the sickly and conventional imagery that can sometimes be evoked at the thought of 'saintliness'. The reflection grew from there and with it a sense of the danger of sanctity - and the injunction to 'live dangerously' came to mind.  I tried this thought out on Christine as we flew and she inquired whether I felt that the parents of St Hilda's girls attending the service tomorrow would think that they sent their girls to St Hilda's to be encouraged by the Dean to live dangerously!


St Hilda

Every year we meet here on All Saints Day and St Hilda’s naturally enough uses this Feast for All Saints to remember St Hilda of Whitby whose festival otherwise occurs too late in the year.  What we know of Hilda from contemporary records is that she was extraordinary – descended from the Northumbrian kings, she led a religious community with great energy, commitment and wisdom.  She was like a magnet in the north, attracting people by her character, and her faith. Of course you know all this - it's the mix of fact and legend that has been passed on over the centuries – what we don't know is the really interesting stuff: what made her become the sort of person she was; what difficult decisions did she make; what dangers or hardships did she face; what made her real?

I suggest that to be real is the critical mark of the Saint – not some sort of moral perfection – but someone with a rich inner life, a deeply developed character, a profound strength. Someone who is not caught up in themselves, or held captive by peoples’ opinion of them – that’s the rough out line I’d give for someone on the track to sainthood.  My hunch is that you don't get to become that sort of person without having to take some risks. I bet Hilda took some chances, some real risks.

Anne Tyler

Which brings me to the second woman, the American novelist Anne Tyler who wrote a novel with the marvellous title of Saint Maybe.   It is about – well you could say it is about family life – and about becoming a real person and the risks and persistence that task involves.   I want to share with you one little exchange between two characters that gives us a clue about Tyler’s theory about sainthood: that it is fraught with risks; that it is about reality, and that this kind of reality, lived deeply is likely to look very odd to cautious, careful people.  See what you make of this:

“You think I don't know what I'm up to, don't you,” Daphne said.
“Pardon?”
“You think I'm some ninny who wants to do right but keeps goofing. But what you don't see is, I goof on purpose. I'm not like you: King Careful. Mr. Look-Both-Ways. Saint Maybe. … Mess up, I say!” Daphne crowed. “Fall flat on your face! Make every mistake you can think of! Use all the life you've got!”

At the very least what I hear Tyler’s Daphne saying, is that real living is courageous; that it requires us to be willing to make mistakes, to get things wrong, and not to give up but keep right on trying.  But I think she is also saying something more, something a little harder to put into words - there is commitment here, there is love and passion amidst all the uncertainty, I’d call it faith.  Faith requires “all the life you've got.”

Etty Hillesum

Which brings me to my favourite ‘saint’ – probably not a Christian – but details of that kind don't trouble God.   Her name is Etty Hillesum.   Etty was Dutch, she was Jewish, and she was caught up in the holocaust.  She qualified as a lawyer, devoted herself to left wing politics, but when the Nazis invaded Holland she chose to stay with her people rather than escape; she chose to share their fate. She took a terrible risk.  Through these few years something changed in her – she became less interested in politics, it was as if in the darkness of the Holocaust she chose an inward path.  She worked tirelessly to help people but her true self, her reality was being formed within her – in the mess and the darkness, the evil, of the Holocaust – there God became her truth.   To read her diaries and her letters is to catch a glimpse of a Saint being formed, grumpy, dissatisfied, but real and marvellous.

I think she wanted to be a writer – but all we have a of her are the vivid fragments of her diaries and letters. This creative drive was central to her but she redefined it: “I do believe it is possible to create, even without ever writing a word or painting a picture, by simply moulding one’s inner life. And that too is a deed.”

She seemed able to resist the compulsion of the ego to draw attention to herself.  Her advice was: “Become simple and live simply, not only within yourself but also in your everyday dealings. Don’t make ripples all around you, don’t try to be interesting, keep your distance, be honest, fight the desire to be thought fascinating by the outside world.”

In the desperate times of the war and the holocaust, it may seem surprising that she turned from politics and judgement – and embarked on an inner transformation.  She said: “Each of us must turn inward and destroy in himself all that he thinks he ought to destroy in others.”

In another letter she said a little more:   “I really see no other solution than to turn inwards and to root out all the rottenness there. I no longer believe that we can change anything in the world until we first change ourselves. And that seems to me the only lesson to be learned.”

When I read Etty’s diaries and letters, it is the reality of her inner life that rings true and is utterly real.   Like the brief comment:“Sometimes the most important thing in a whole day is the rest we take between two deep breaths, or the turning inwards in prayer for five short minutes.”  Or the sense of inner peace amidst the horror of the war, as when she says: “Sometimes my day is crammed full of people and talk and yet I have the feeling of living in utter peace and quiet. And the tree outside my window, in the evenings, is a greater experience than all those people put together.”

Perhaps best of all is her simple ambition to be real: “I don’t want to be anything special. I only want to try to be true to that in me which seeks to fulfill its promise.”


In 2013 pope Benedict XVI retired from office and in one of his retiring addresses he referred to Etty Hillesum, saying:“...I am also thinking of Etty Hillesum, a young Dutch girl of Jewish origin who died in Auschwitz. At first far from God, she discovered him looking deep within her and she wrote: “There is a really deep well inside me. And in it dwells God. Sometimes I am there, too. But more often stones and grit block the well, and God is buried beneath. Then he must be dug out again” (Diaries, 97). In her disrupted, restless life she found God in the very midst of the great tragedy of the 20th century: the Shoah. This frail and dissatisfied young woman, transfigured by faith, became a woman full of love and inner peace who was able to declare: “I live in constant intimacy with God"...”