Wednesday, 4 October 2017

Saints on the Borderlands

I feel a strong kinship with Herefordshire. In Northumberland where I live, the borderland of the English Middle and East March is part of our identity. Marcher lands are of a piece, whether they are on the margins of Scotland or Wales. But my links with this county are more personal. My wife grew up in Ledbury, so this is historically her cathedral. Before that, my mother, a Jewish war refugee from Germany, found refuge in England and was sent to be looked after in the same town, in Ledbury not many doors down from the black and white house my wife’s parents would buy a few years later. It’s a coincidence that’s beyond curious.
And your native saint Thomas Cantilupe offers another connection. Not every cathedral is lucky enough to hold the shrine of a saint, but Hereford and Durham, where I was dean have that in common. The original Diocese of Durham reached up to the Scottish border where most of our northern saints came from, especially our beloved Cuthbert. Cantilupe, too, belongs to the borderlands, as the title of your Dean’s fine book Saints and Sinners of the Marches suggests. Maybe there is something about borderlands that fosters sainthood, and grows holy lives that we can admire, learn from and emulate.
Why do I suggest that? 
In Cuthbert’s and Cantilupe’s times, border regions were not safe places. You only have to see how the marches are peppered with castles and fortifications to see that. In these lands, fought-over for so long, life took on an uncertain, provisional character. Identity was less settled, institutions less permanent. Perhaps only the church provided a bigger perspective, a longer view, stood for stability, offered hope. In a debateable land, who can say what reassurance and safety this Cathedral that Cantilupe knew so well offered to people whose loyalties and allegiances were blown this way and that with the changing winds of history?
Our epistle reading from the Letter to the Hebrews offers, I think, a perspective on life in the borderlands and how it can grow saints. Abraham, says the text, “was called to set out for a place that he was to receive as an inheritance; and he set out, not knowing where he was going. By faith he stayed for a time in the land he had been promised, as in a foreign land.” And this sense of being on a journey in a strange land, never quite belonging, walking the borders of another country, is echoed in what follows. “They (these people of faith in the Old Testament) confessed that they were strangers and foreigners on the earth, for people who speak in this way make it clear that they are seeking a homeland;…they desire a better country, that is a heavenly one. Therefore God is not ashamed to be called their God; indeed, he has prepared a city for them.”
“What’s a saint?” yell the demons scornfully in Newman’s poem The Dream of Gerontius. We could answer that question in a thousand ways: “a bundle of bones / which fools adore / when life is o’er. / Ha! Ha!” Who doesn’t love belting it out in Elgar’s great oratorio? But here’s an answer I like, from Graham Greene in his novel The End of the Affair. “For if this God exists…if even you with your lusts and your adulteries and the timid lies you used to tell can change like this, we could all be saints by leaping as you leapt, by shutting the eyes and leaping once and for all… It’s something He can demand of any of us: leap.” The idea is that you only have to give yourself a little height by leaping, stretching, craning your neck even, in order to see beyond yourself and your little world. “A man’s reach should exceed his grasp, or what’s a heaven for?” asks Robert Browning. To glimpse heaven and then to find your life is changed because of what you have glimpsed – maybe that’s the essence of sainthood. And the reason we love our saints is precisely because they have seen what we long to see, touched heaven, and point us to the way in which we can do the same. 
This is what the writer to the Hebrews is getting at. He says that those who lived and died in faith were, in a sense, living on the borderland of two worlds. Their feet were firmly planted in one world, but they could gaze across to the other, as Moses on the brink of the promised land took in the landscape before him. “As it is they desire a better country, that is, a heavenly one” he says. That’s the language of the border where two landscapes meet, two countries, two realms. In the marches of the spiritual life, on one side there is this world where we are called to live as good citizens and faithful followers of Jesus, where we must be loyal to the Lord who is the way, the truth and the life, and through his death and resurrection embrace and embody the living hope that is the gift of the gospel. On the other side there is the new heaven and the new earth that we look forward to when we confess our faith “in the resurrection of the dead and the life of the world to come”. 
You could call it the city of God as Augustine did, or the kingdom of heaven, or the new creation. The point is that it is not far from each one of us; it is within our reach if only we will feel after him and find him in whom we live and move and have our being. In the north we sometimes speak of holy sites like Lindisfarne as “thin places” where the borderlands of earth and heaven seem almost to merge. And perhaps the saints like Thomas of Hereford and Cuthbert of Lindisfarne are thin people for the same reason that they have had the courage to leap, in Graham Greene’s image, and glimpse for themselves the glory of a world transformed, Jerusalem the golden, “blessed city, heavenly Salem, vision dear whence peace doth spring”. 
Isn't that an answer to the question, what's a saint? The saints belong to these borderlands because they look into both worlds of our human experience – the world we know because we live here, and the new heavens and the new earth that for now we only long for and on our best days, glimpse a little. The shrine of St Thomas Cantilupe is an ever-present sign in this cathedral of a life lived on the borderlands, this man who in purity of heart, in suffering and in healing looked into the world to come and embraced it. Thomas can help us be borderlanders too, people of the spiritual marches who know “we have here no abiding city, but seek that which is to come”. We can pray “thy kingdom come”, not as a wishful thought or a beautiful dream  but as a sure and certain hope, because of the saints who have already leaped towards it and who stretch out their hands to us to help us reach for it too. 
Hereford Cathedral, The Feast of St Thomas Cantilupe, 1 October 2017
Hebrews 11.7-10. 13-16; Matthew 24.42-46

Sunday, 24 September 2017

With a Twist of French: a sermon at a music festival

Today this Hexham Abbey festival “with a French twist” reaches its climax. I’d better own up at once to being an ardent Francophile. My love of France and its people, their rich legacy of art, literature and intellectual life, their heritage and landscapes has if anything been strengthened through the torturous Brexit we are inflicting upon ourselves.

At the end of this service we shall hear the Final of Louis Vierne’s first Organ Symphony. After that we are going to enjoy César Franck’s Violin Sonata, one of the greatest ever written. Franck was a Belgian by birth, but he lived and worked in Paris and thought of himself as entirely French. His final church post was as Titulaire and Maitre de Chapelle at Saint Clotilde with its Cavaillé-Coll organ that was the love of Franck’s life and the inspiration for much of his music. Vierne was his pupil and later Organist Titulaire at Notre Dame. I tell you all this because of something Vierne said about his teacher. He wrote in his memoirs that Franck had “a constant concern for the dignity of his art, the nobility of his mission, and the fervent sincerity of his sermon in sound….Joyous or melancholy, solemn or mystic, powerful or ethereal: Franck was all these.”

That phrase sermon in sound is striking. A sermon, literally, means a word or a speech, a conversation, a discourse. What we intuit about music is that it’s just that, a form of speech that communicates in ways that ordinary words can’t do. I want to be careful here. The crafted words of literature and liturgy, of drama and poetry do have that capacity, and the way they touch us can feel like our experience of music. For great art somehow knows us and reaches into our deepest selves taking us far beyond the power of ordinary speech. It awakens our imaginations, stretches our horizons, kindles our spirits. And if we have ears to hear, music it speaks to us of life in all its tragedy and glory. It speaks to us about ourselves. It speaks to us of God. “Joyous or melancholy, solemn or mystic, powerful or ethereal” said Vierne. Beyond the earthquake, wind and fire, or through them, or in them, we hear the still small voice of God’s Spirit.

What we listen to and how is something the scriptures take seriously. In the ancient world and still today, the body's orifices are regarded as needing scrupulous attention because they are the channels by which we are connected to the outside world. In particular, what we see and hear has the potential to uplift us or corrupt, and everything in between, because it allows the world beyond the boundaries of our bodies to penetrate. Seeing well, and even more gearing well, are highly significant. When Israel made a covenant with God, it was couched in the language of listening. “Tell us everything that the Lord tells you,” they say to Moses “and we will listen and do it.” In Proverbs there is a repeated call to find wisdom by paying attention: “My children, listen to me and be attentive to the words of my mouth”. When Jesus says “I am the good shepherd” the test of his authority and his integrity comes down to listening: “the sheep hear his voice…they follow him because they know his voice”.

When St Wilfrid founded this great abbey in 674, it was as a Benedictine community. (Yes, it was rebuilt as an Augustinian priory in the twelfth century, but let’s not forget its Benedictine origins.) The Rule of St Benedict is one of the classics of Christian writing. One of its great themes is obedience: to the scriptures, to the Rule, to the abbot, to the voice of the community, and most of all, to God. The word obedience is derived from the Latin obaudire whose root audire means to listen. The very first word of the Rule underlines that idea of serious listening. “Hearken to the voice of the Master and incline the ear of your heart.” Listen! Pay attention! Train your ears to respond. And when you hear, try to discern the prompting of the Spirit and let your open ears be a symbol of open hearts and open minds – open to God, and open to the wisdom of the inner voice of truth and conscience.

The capacity to listen well is basic to the good life. We know what it is like to be talking to someone who is looking away from us, only half paying attention, not caring enough to lend us their ears. Often it’s the distraction of some other voice, some more important person glimpsed over the shoulder, some better song than ours that's more worth listening to. And if our attention spans in modern life have never been generous, the worldwide web and social media have tended to shortened them still further. Four minutes, some say, is the limit. I’ve already been preaching longer. Who has the patience any more to sit through a Bach passion or a Beethoven symphony let alone a Wagner music-drama?

And that’s our challenge in these times. To let ourselves become overstimulated, incapable of investing time and effort in what is worthwhile is a besetting sin of our age; a craving for what belongs to the instantaneous, the immediate here and now, while we lose the judgment to decide what we should and shouldn’t pay attention to. Here is where music can teach us. There is no quick gratification in great art. You have to invest in it, take the time it takes, surrender to it. Music you give yourself to rather than merely play in the background is an opportunity not only to learn how to listen well, but to grow in the attentiveness that takes the larger and longer view and allows us to see our "instants" in a larger setting. It's how we become open to what the eighteenth century French spiritual writer De Caussade called, in a wonderful phrase, “the sacrament of the present moment”. It’s a gift, but we have to listen out for it, be attentive and open. Then, listening can be a life-changing event. For whenever life is touched and transformed, we can be sure that God is among us.

Back to Vierne and Franck and the phrase a sermon in sound. Cathedrals and abbeys like this one are sometimes spoken about as “sermons in stone”. You look around you as you sit a great building listening to great music. And aren’t you drawn, if you have any feeling, to think to yourself, there is something here that is bigger than me, older and wiser than me, something that touches me, speaks to me, compels me to pay attention? Maybe the music we have been enjoying in this festival has spoken to us, moved us in some way, opened once more the doors of our perception? If so, I call that an experience of God’s presence and his very self. And I think of Jesus walking the shores of Galilee, calling to anyone who would listen, inviting them to hear his words and find their lives changed. Can music call us to new ways of being alive in God’s world, new depths of wisdom and insight, new treasures of human experience to enrich our lives and share with others?

Music preaches the best of sermons if we will sit and listen. Of such is the kingdom of God.

Hexham Abbey Festival, 24 September 2017

Friday, 8 September 2017

In Memoriam John Fitzmaurice Petty, Provost & Dean of Coventry

I remember the first time I met John Petty. It was exactly thirty years ago. The Provostship at Coventry Cathedral was vacant. I had been Vice Provost there for just a few months. You can imagine that no one was more exercised than I was about who the new boss would be. The Bishop told me that his candidate would be coming to look us up and down, and that a colleague and I should go and meet him at the station and take care of his visit. They say first impressions count. Off the train he stepped energetically: lean, elegant, eager, expectant, and with a look of intelligent curiosity as if to say: Im not taking anything for granted and neither must you. Lets see how this goes, and what God might be saying to us about the future. 
Not long afterwards, in January 1988, John was installed as Provost. No-one who was there will ever forget the great procession of people from St Johns, Hurst, streaming down the steps from the ruins led by their former and much-loved incumbent. It seemed that the entire town had turned out for the occasion. This is the best job in the Church of Englandannounced John from the pulpit. Perhaps we should all feel like that about our ministry. I did at Durham, so John was only partly right. But I think everyone in Coventry Cathedral that day was heartened by the way he spoke about his new role and the enthusiasm he brought to it.
John came to Coventry with a long and solid experience of parish ministry. He was ordained priest in 1967, so this year marked his fiftieth anniversary. His curacies in Sheffield and south London formed him in the tough realities of urban life where the church has never had it easy or straightforward. So he relished the challenges of mission and ministry in Ashton Under Lyne and earned wide respect and affection for his complete commitment to the place and its people. He loved them and they him. Some of his parishioners were in tears at that great installation in Coventry. That sense of loss was both telling and moving. 
This earthy parish experience John brought to Coventry. He was no armchair theoretician. He aspired, I think, to be a practitioner for whom Christian prayer, service, mission, pastoral care and lived human relationships were the best evidence of the gospel that he knew. John loved the Cathedral. He had big ambitions for it and from his first day set about realising them with both energy and flair. Whether it was the international ministry of reconciliation symbolised by the cross of nails, or the spirituality of the place nurtured by liturgy and daily prayer, whether it was outreach to civic leaders or day to day involvement with the lives of ordinary people, he gave everything. He grasped avidly every opportunity to champion the Cathedral in the wider world. Some of us wondered whether he could sustain this furious pace. As I got to know him, I realised that this was simply the way he lived loving life so intensely, grasping it so joyously that he could not hold back from giving himself totally to it, in his work, his leisure, his relationships. We have heard earlier in this service about John the human being the husband, father, friend. To see him cycling round Coventry said it all. As did the study light in the Provosts House which would be on well after midnight every evening of the week bar Friday.  
But it takes more than hard work to make a good leader in any walk of life, especially in the church. One of his colleagues said that what was remembered about John was his visibility in the Cathedral, walking the nave several times a day in his cassock to talk to the staff and volunteers whose names and the names of their families and even their pets he remembered with unerring accuracy. He was an instinctive, warm-hearted pastor who was genuinely interested in people and cared about them. He was a natural encourager. The residents and staff of Mount House here in Shrewsbury know this from his years as their chaplain. One of the personal commitments that lived this our was a project he initiated called Remember Our Child, a ministry of prayer and pastoral support for parents who had lost children. John enjoyed the big public ceremonies, but just as characteristic was Johns capacity to reach out in quiet intimacy to those who were hurting years and even decades after experiencing this most painful of all bereavements. 
We who worked with John remember how his leadership style was to give space for his colleagues to flourish in their own roles. As his Precentor, I knew he completely trusted me with the Cathedrals worship and music, even when it came to organising the Royal Maundy service in 1995 and many other events where my job was to put the Cathedral and him personally on a public stage with all the scrutiny this brought. He knew how to delegate. He was proud of his team and was lavish with his praise for them. He wrote copious letters in his unmistakeable blue felt-tip to thank people, cycling round to deposit them at the central post-office in the small hours to make sure they arrived next day.  
Today we gather up the strands of Johns life both public and personal. We give thanks for him and celebrate all that he was and continues to be to us. In my mind as I remember him is what I heard him say a thousand times about Coventry Cathedral, that amazing place that holds together like no other place I know the brokenness of death and destruction with the healing, life-giving spirit of what has risen out of the ashes. To walk from the ruins into the new Cathedral is to walk from Good Friday into Easter he would say as he gazed at Graham Sutherlands tapestry of Christ in Glory, in my view the greatest work of art in a building crammed with treasures of the twentieth century.  
This funeral takes us on that same journey from Good Friday to Easter. For while we grieve Johns loss and feel our own mortality on a day when its natural and permitted to mourn, nevertheless we come here in sure and certain hope of the resurrection of the dead. In our reading from Corinthians, St Paul speaks about this movement from transience to eternity, from glimpsing to seeing and knowing. For now we see in a mirror, dimly, but then we will see face to face. Now I know only in part; then I will know fully, even as I have been fully known.Paul is able to say this out of his conviction that while faith, hope and love abide, the greatest of these is love. Perhaps thats how we need to remember those who have died, whom we love but see no longer: to allow the mercy and grace of God to shape the way we hold them in our hearts and memories. What will survive of us is lovewrote Philip Larkin, the twentieth century Coventry-born poet. What sustains us all on our journeys is the love from which nothing can separate us, not even the final journey all mortals must make in the dark shadow of death.
This was Johns faith. He held it unwaveringly. It saw this good man through a lifetime of devoted service. It was his reason for living, his nourishment, his inspiration, his joy. It will not have failed him at the gate of death. May he rest in peace, and at the last be received in the outstretched arms of Christ in glory.  
At St Chads Shrewsbury, 7 September 20171 Corinthians 13 

Saturday, 22 July 2017

Retreat Address on the Psalms 6 - Prayer and Happiness (Psalm 32)

Our last psalm is a song of gladness. It begins with a repeated ashre’, the happy Hebrew word we met at the start of the week in Psalm 65, Happy are those whom you choose and bring near to live in your courts. It introduces the beatitude “happy” or “blessed” are those who... Happy are those whose transgression is forgiven, whose sin is covered. Happy are those to whom Yahweh imputes no iniquity and in whose spirit there is no deceit (1, 2). So our retreat has begun and ended on a note of happiness, which is good. 

It is not too much to suggest that happiness is one of the defining themes of the Psalter.  The opening utterance of the entire book is the first of 23 such ‘beatitudes’ that are found throughout the Psalms: ‘Happy are those who do not follow the advice of the wicked, or take the path that sinners tread, or sit in the seat of scoffers; but their delight is in the law of the Lord’ (Psalm 1.1,2).  Psalm 1 is one of the latest in the Psalter.  We can safely assume that those who brought the Psalms together as a collection consciously placed Psalm 1 as a kind of introduction to the book by way of inviting readers to find in the Psalter a guide to happiness and contentment.  The message is: consider the Psalms, and discover in them the way of lived faith in Yahweh that is the safe path to blessing.  

Today’s psalm is in the same vein as that first psalm in the book, reflective in character, the fruits of the long experience of contemplating life and drawing lessons from its darker side.  Here it is sin and forgiveness that is the focus.  These are common themes in the wisdom literature where happiness is often spoken of as having a right assessment of human life, and in particular, recognizing where God is to be found in it. The New Testament takes up the idea of happiness sayings, like the makarioi, the Beatitudes with which Jesus begins the Sermon on the Mount, “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven; blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God”. If we were to translate these sayings as “happy those who…” as the Jerusalem Bible does, we would see their Old Testament roots more clearly.

The happiness of the believer in Psalm 32 is that of the forgiven sinner.  It is the thanksgiving of an individual who not only knows he or she has done wrong, but whose wrongdoing has led to the consequence of some unidentified suffering. My body wasted away through my groaning all day long; for day and night your hand was heavy upon me; my strength was dried up as by the heat of summer (3,4). It sounds as though it is some kind of sickness or injury. Then again, it could be hostility or persecution, or even, highly metaphorically, exile from home, family and temple. Or it could be a vivid picture of the misery we feel when our consciences are burdened by our sins and wrongdoings, the kind of inward distress the psalmist pours out in Psalm 51 which we recited yesterday. We don’t know, only that it was painful and deeply troubling. 

What’s clear is that the experience has been chastening, brought the psalmist to his or her senses. Then I acknowledged my sin to you, and I did not hide my iniquity. I said ‘I will confess my transgressions to the Lord’. That is a very thorough confession indeed. The psalmist uses three of the most important Hebrew words for doing what is wrong. Sin literally means missing the mark as in Romans, “all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God”. Transgression means crossing a boundary, not staying the right side of a line that defines right from wrong. It is a stronger, more conscious kind of word that represents deliberate rebellion against authority. Iniquity means that which is misshapen, twisted, deviates from what it should be. It’s the most inward of the three words. When you fall short or transgress, you are guilty. When you are distorted inwardly out of shape, you are more likely to feel shame. It’s worth noticing that these three words have already occurred in the psalm right at the beginning where the psalmist celebrated forgiveness and restoration with that double affirmation of happiness. 

The ‘naming’ of our wrongdoing is as characteristic of Hebrew faith as it is of Christianity.  I reminded us yesterday that Psalm 51 calls it “truth in the inward being”, that is, allowing our inner selves to be places of honesty and transparency rather than pretence.  We saw this when we looked at Psalm 106, that long psalm that rehearses Israel’s failure in history to live up to its covenant ideals. Integrity in the Bible is to accept our condition for what it is and allow God’s judgment and truth to do their purifying, healing work. And it’s this that led to God’s response. And you forgave the guilt of my sin. After the psalmist’s elaboration of sin in its many dimensions, the simplicity of that statement is striking. It’s like Nathan pronouncing to the penitent David, “the Lord has put away your sin”. It doesn’t take many words to describe a life-changing experience which this clearly was to the psalmist. But it takes a large and loving heart to be open to forgiveness, and to the transformation brought about by absolution. It’s a great reversal of the psalmist’s despair. Here is someone who thought they could never know release from the burden they were carrying. But now, all of a sudden, it’s lifted. The clouds have cleared. There is a deep and lasting gladness. For him or her, you sense that the words “go and sin no more” would have carried a lasting resonance.

The rest of the psalm reflects on this journey from sin to forgiveness. I will instruct you and teach you the way you should go. The poet is in wisdom mode now, determined never again to be found in that desperate and lonely place. What’s needed is to have understanding, not like a horse or mule that must constantly be restrained from blundering off the road. The only antidote to sin is to trust in the Lord. That way, not only will we avoid the torments of the wicked but we shall know the steadfast love of the Lord. The word is of course hesed, God’s tender mercy and loving kindness, the great covenant word that binds YHWH to his people and the to him. As another joyful psalm written out of the experience of forgiveness says, “the steadfast love of the Lord is from everlasting to everlasting on those who fear him, to those who keep his covenant and remember to do his commandments” (103). Our psalmist would have said amen to that. Which is why the psalm ends: be glad in the Lord and rejoice, O righteous, and shout for joy, all you upright in heart! When you are forgiven, you know a happiness like no other. For “whoever is forgiven much, loves much”. 


Which brings us to Mary Magdalen, whose festival it is today. Or rather, it doesn’t quite, because the sinful woman whom Jesus forgave and of whom he spoke those words is not named in the gospel. But there’s no doubt at all that Mary Magdalen could have told the same story as the psalmist. We know she was healed of “evil spirits and infirmities”, and we know she was one “from whom seven demons had gone out”. Hence Psalm 32 is one of those proper to today, and it makes a fine commentary on the colourful career of this woman who is so central in all four gospel accounts.

It’s moving to find this most passionate of our biblical saints honoured here at Mirfield in the beautiful glass screens that mark the Chapel of the Ascension. I too feel a personal involvement with Mary Magdalen owing to our frequent visits to the hilltop town of Vézelay in Burgundy. The marvellous Romanesque Basilica stands at the summit of the medieval town. It has for centuries been the focus of pilgrimages to honour her relics in their shrine in the crypt; and of course Vézelay is still one of the four traditional starting points of the Camino to Santiago da Compostela. Her relics were contested in the late Middle Ages, but her spirit still pervades the town, especially today when there will  festivities all over the hill and a great procession through the narrow streets. My second grandchild is called Madeleine, perhaps to commemorate family holidays in this beautiful part of France. 

Why am I telling you this? Because it has helped me to get to know the saint a little better and place myself under her patronage. I think understand something of how she was drawn to Jesus from a chaotic, wayward past in which her longings and loves had yet to find clear direction or focus. As I said earlier this week, St Augustine tells us that sin is not a failure of love but applying it to the wrong things. If ever this was true of anyone, it is Mary Magdalen. When I came to faith as a teenager, it was with a sense of relief I began to discover how to straighten out those idolatrous distortions, find purpose and meaning, aspire to purity of heart. I don’t want to dramatize it, but I can empathise with Mary when she came to the tomb in the half-light of an early morning and found it empty and something stirred within her and she knew that life had changed forever. 

So what can I offer you in my reflections as this week of retreat draws to an end and I say farewell? First, we need like Mary Magdalen to see ourselves as witnesses of the resurrection with an apostolic story to tell. This is one of those personal thanksgiving Psalms that chart a journey from desolation to consolation, from predicament to rescue, from the cry of distress to the shout of salvation. So it is full of the spirit of Easter. You are a hiding place for me; you preserve me from trouble; you surround me with glad cries of deliverance. Here are psalmists who have seen the great work of a God who brings hope out of despair, life out of death and light out of darkness. When God arises, earth’s morning breaks and shadows flee away. That was Mary’s experience in the garden on Easter Day. It’s the heart of Christianity because it is all founded upon the paschal mystery. We are an Easter people and alleluia is our song. Above all here in this Community of the Resurrection. Today is one of those festivals where the name of this community comes into its own, I think.

So secondly, like Mary, like the believer in Psalms 116 and 32, we need to tell and retell the story of personal transformation through divine power and love. This follows from being a witness to the resurrection and telling an apostolic story, for if we have glimpsed the risen Christ, encountered him in our own experience, then Easter is more than a story of the past, a lot more. It’s a story about the present, about how Christ has, in Gerard Manley Hopkins’ word, “eastered” in us. It’s a story about the future and how it is filled with the glorious hope for the creation and for ourselves that comes out of that encounter in a garden on the dawn of the first day of the week when the woman Mary, on behalf of all humanity, said to the man she had supposed to be the gardener, “Rabbouni”. 

The consequences of that dawn are nothing less than momentous for each of us as they were for Mary. For one thing, this transforming encounter, this life-changing experience gives birth to a profound sense of thankfulness, the gratitude that was the theme of our first address this week, Psalm 65, that celebrated the harvest and all God’s goodness to humanity and to the created world. Easter is at the heart of doxology and of the eucharistic life. For another, it brings home to us that we are witnesses of God’s continuing activity in human life, our own lives in particular. To bear witness and tell a story are the essence of evangelism. “Come and hear, all you who fear God” says another psalm, “and I will tell what he has done for me.” 

There is no substitute for faith-sharing in this personal way. It may seem naïve to reduce it to the revivalist chorus “this is my story, this is my song / praising my Saviour all the day long” but if we do not have a story to tell and a song to sing, we must ask ourselves how deeply our faith has imprinted itself on our character. If I learned anything in my distant evangelical past, it was that personal experience is what makes faith a living thing. Having your heart “strangely warmed” and telling a story about it to those who want to hear - the whole of mission is summed up in that. I have been young and now am old, but I hope to die professing the living, breathing faith that is to know and trust in God my light and life and love, that is to enter into the divine movement of incarnation, passion and resurrection, that is to have been forgiven much and therefore to love much.

Finally, we should cultivate truth in our inward being and renew our seriousness of purpose in our life together before God. Mary and the psalmist are mercilessly exposed in the texts. The flaws and ambiguities, the sins and offences are not hidden from us; and even if they were, they would not be hidden from God. That’s the fallacy of religious pretence because we know all along that God sees, and God knows, and it is only a matter of time before we shall be found out. We began with the ashre’, the makarios, the happiness of those who are forgiven, the blessings on those who are poor in spirit, pure in heart, who are merciful and who hunger for righteousness. These are the ones who will be filled, who will receive mercy, who will see God, who belong in the kingdom of heaven. And all because there is something transparent about these unrecognized, unsung nobodies, something that marks them as people of truth. Mary Magdalen is one of those happy ones.

I’m sure you agree that no other kind of Christianity is worth practising. In particular, you who have taken vows to live in this wonderful community did so because you were serious about following Jesus. Poverty, chastity and obedience, or as you now say, I think, stability, obedience and the conversion of life - those Sermon-on-the-Mount like virtues are signs that you are intentional about being Christians. For you, “truth in the inward parts” means there are no half-measures: all is given up for the sake of Christ. His yoke will no doubt not always feel easy, nor his burden light. But you believe in your hearts that this is to live according to the truth that is Christ himself, the truth to which you align yourselves in an ever deeper way hour by hour, day by day and year by year. This is what I call seriousness. Your witness is a treasure for all of us because it tells us that there is a more profound way of living than the superficial fantasies and illusions that crowd in upon us and seduce us, often against our better instincts, into dancing to their siren tunes.

And this retreat with its liturgy and lectio, its silence and its reflection is also a sign of wanting to embrace truth and always live in its light. The psalmist would tell us that while the light of scrutiny is not always comfortable because it searches us out and knows us, nevertheless it is at heart a kindly light that leads us on into truth and guides us in the paths of justice and mercy. So as people whom the psalm calls happy because we know we are reconciled and loved, we entrust ourselves to the Spirit of Truth to keep us faithful in the ways of God and to guide us in the imitation of Christ so that we find ourselves drawn ever closer into his wounded side where we find our rest and peace.

I am leaving you today, so I want to thank you for your welcome, your kindness, and your hospitality this week, and especially for the privilege of daily prayer with you in your marvellous church. You have been wonderful companions to live amongst these few days.  

As for your meditations as your retreat draws to a close, I think we should link where we have ended up with where we began, Psalms 65 and 32 and on this festival day focus on happiness, gratitude and joy. I mentioned the General Thanksgiving at the start of the week. If you can unearth the text in the Book of Common Prayer, why not find an opportunity to pray it today, in thankfulness “for our creation, preservation and all the blessings of this life, but above all for the redemption of the world by our Lord Jesus Christ, for the means of grace and for the hope of glory”. And why not ask that we may always have “that due sense of all thy mercies, that our hearts may be unfeignedly thankful, and that we shew forth thy praise, not only with our lips, but in our lives, by giving up ourselves to thy service, and by walking before thee in holiness and righteousness all our days; through Jesus Christ our Lord, to whom with thee and the Holy Ghost be all honour and glory, world without end”. To which we all say, Amen!