Wednesday, 25 February 2009

Lenten Retreat.

The baptism of Jesus by John is one of the more significant 'wilderness experiences' in the life of Christ. It follows the proclamation by John and precedes the temptation of Christ in the wilderness (in Luke's Gospel). The baptism is in a literary context a 'naming' ceremony, it tells the reader who Jesus really is, by the direct intervention of the voice of God as well as by the juxtaposition of the fulfillment of scripture (the voice of one crying in the wilderness...), the voice of God and historical footnote (in the fifteenth year of the reign of Emperor Tiberias...). That this is followed by the family tree of Christ, showing Him to be the son of God (both by the aforementioned voice of God) and by virtue of a family tree tracing Him to God, gives great emphasis to what comes next.

What comes next, after these extraordinary events which fulfil scripture and name Jesus as the Christ, is a literary construct which would have had instant impact upon the contemporaneous reader, for we see a shamanic initiation sequence in Christ GOING to the wilderness, then INTERACTING with a power which he overcomes and then RETURNING to the place he came from, stronger and with a clear message. This is a literary construct familiar to the people of the time as well as being familiar in the context of a type of pilgrimage, we have looked before at the oracles, particularly in Pausanias, where one GOES, HEARS and RETURNS, but the interaction is the key to the initiation sequence. I wonder if the Qmran community existed as a place of ritual encounter in the desert, a messianic retreat centre for the initiated? The recent scholarship relating to the type and variety of graves found there would lead me to think so.

Anyhow, Christ (and readers are in no doubt that He is now Christ,) goes to the desert for forty days, as we are doing today, at the beginning of Lent. He -and I hope we- will encounter something there which will make us stronger and then will urge us on for the rest of the year in proclaiming our truth, that the year of the Lord's favour, the acceptable time, could be upon us if we repent and believe the good news of Jesus Christ. The Shamanic initiation sequence of first century Judean writings goes further though, for the shamen has to not only return and preach, but also be rejected by his own kind, after which he would leave the area. Christ, of course, after returning from the desert preached in Galilee but was rejected at Nazareth, His hometown, as He fulfilled the word of God within Himself, leading to the attempt on His life. After a period of healing and preaching He calls His first disciples, now the shaman that this literary construct leads us to recognise.

Lenten preaching and the guidance of Lenten quiet days can be a fraught affair and unless some of the message given is rejected, I wonder if the 'real deal' is being delivered. Fasting and retreat are an integral part of Lent, along with repentance, which includes Sacramental confession and some clear, visual reparation for wrongs done, the sequence above includes both interior dialogue, dialogue with God as well as visual and actual action. Proclaiming the year of the Lord's favour involves asking that of people which is difficult - real and actual change - for this is what we offer God, in the place of encounter which is the season of Lent, as our part of the covenant of faith. We say that we DESERVE His grace, 'Lord, we do well, always and everywhere, to give you thanks...' in the encounter of the Mass, but we are given forty days to repent and show that we are worthy of the year of the Lord's favour, which will come when our return from the place of encounter is so corporately strong that the fire of the Holy Ghost in us will be so strong, so evident to those around us, that we will, in truth, renew the face of the earth.

As Catholic Anglicans, as people put in this place at this time by the Lord, we have a particular duty, a particular renewal to undertake when we come out of the place of encounter as Christ did, fearlessly teaching the word of God to an attempt on His life and the final, joyful death and resurrection. For the first three or four centuries of the new earth, after the bodily resurrection of Christ, the Christian Church was persecuted and had no public voice until the conversion of Constantine when the faith became almost fashionable. The early Christians adopted a pacifist outlook, persecuted by a military power and their only united voice, the strongest, most eloquent platform they had was one of witness and strength in the face of the persecution and in their martyrdom. However, once the faith had been accepted by the establishment it had the ear of the most powerful people in the land - Christianity became the established Church, a position which brought immense strength and which we in the Church of England still wrestle with today. Being a national Church brings great possibilities but also great temptation. Augustine reminds us that government, even pagan government, is necessary for the avoidance of injustice and merits our support and obedience, but what of a Church which is the established Church and then attaches itself so closely to following the zeitgeist that it is in danger of losing its unique Christian voice? Could it be that our return from the desert after our encounter with God over Lent, might just result in our preaching that the Church of England is careering down the wrong pathway but that we will offer alternatives and direction? I can see that our first century Judaic shamanic initiation sequence would result in our being chased to our deaths, but Luke recounts the avoidance of the attempt on the life of Christ and His subsequent teachings and calling of disciples. Four hundred years later, after persecution and torture, the tide started to turn on earth, as it had in heaven.

Part of the Burford community look for the coming of the Kingdom. They write this 'Ecumenism in the monastic life is one of seeking God together but, as the angel said to the disciples after the Ascension, ‘Why stand ye here looking up into the sky?’ The Risen One is amongst us ~ of whatever tradition or denomination.'

And offer this update... First of all, a word about Sr Scholastica who is 91 years young, and though she feels increasingly frail, her mind and memory are crystal clear. She is living at St Katharine’s House, Wantage, and being cared for extremely well. She is able to attend the daily Eucharist and Yvonne Morris, an oblate of West Malling Abbey, comes to say Vespers with her most days. What she most loves is to be outside and is a dab hand at persuading people to push her out in her wheelchair. Although almost blind, she loves receiving letters and cards, and a friend comes to read them to her. If you would like to write to her the address is: St Katharine’s House, Ormond Road, Wantage, OX12 8EA.

Bertie the cat busies herself and Abbot Stuart writes this...

And what of the plans for the new monastery?
The Planning Committee, which was to have met on 5th February, was snowed off and didn’t meet until 12th. In the meantime an on-line objection was lodged by someone who doesn’t know the building, pleading for the retention of the farmhouse - which has had a demolition permission for the last three years! The Society for the Preservation of Ancient Buildings was then alerted and they asked English Heritage to consider putting a preservation order on it. An hour and a half before the postponed planning meeting EH lodged a request that consideration of our application be deferred until such time as the site had been assessed by their officers.

The Committee did, however, consider our proposals and were very enthusiastic and positive in their comments on the plans and “are minded to approve them” but have to wait for the decision of English Heritage. So now everything is on hold while the officers compile their report and it wends its way through the bureaucracy of EH. As you can imagine, this is very frustrating - and is potentially a very expensive hitch because the whole project depends on being able to re-develop the site of the old farmhouse

It was not my intention to follow the Bishop Williamson saga any more, but it has become so extraordinary I thought I would provide links to the parties with notorious holocaust denier David Irving on Ruth Gledhill's blog as well as links on our friend Chris Gillibrand's Cathcon blog, which show the extraordinary scenes as the Bishop left Buenos Aries and , this morning, landed in, wait for it, London! Whether Williamson will move into the house in Wimbledon, Bristol or Preston is yet to be seen. I have speculated before that Britain's SSPX houses were reorganised a few years ago after an outbreak of (relative) liberalism and that I suspected that Williamson would find a core of supporters here amongst the SSPX clergy. He is, of course, British, so it seems natural he might return home. Vatican/SSPX relations will be interesting as will be relations between the SSPX and local ordinaries in this country. As we said a couple of weeks ago, the rhetoric put out on SSPX websites and newsletters has not been of reconciliation with Rome. Damian Thompson has similar feelings, the Daily Telegraph has a video and every other paper has comment on the leader board on their websites today.