About Me

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Pilgrim, priest and ponderer. European living in Northumberland. I have been a parish priest, theological educator, cathedral precentor and dean of Sheffield, then Durham.**** I blog on faith, society, church matters, the North East, European issues, the arts, travel and anything else that intrigues.**** My sermons and addresses are at: http://northernambo.blogspot.com.**** Blogs during my time as Dean of Durham: http://decanalwoolgatherer.blogspot.com.

Tuesday, 24 December 2019

Be Born in us Today


One of our wedding presents we still use is a leather-bound visitors’ book. It’s much battered now, after forty five years; but it is a precious record of guests whom we have welcomed into our home – family, friends, strangers, and who knows, perhaps even angels entertained unawares. The shifting patterns of our personal relationships are traced through its pages: people we have worked with; people we were once close to; people who have died; people we have grown to love increasingly over the years. 

In our book, there are four entries from 1977 to 1983.  Those guests couldn't write their own names, so we did it for them when they crossed our threshold for the first time, long expected and already much loved. I needn’t tell you that they are our four children. The book brings it all back: the long months of waiting, the careful preparations, the sense of expectancy - joyful, but tinged with anxiety in case things should not be exactly right, or we might not be good enough parents, or we might not have enough love to give to this infinitely fragile creature who will be so dependent on us. There is nothing you would not do to welcome a child. And if that child does not arrive, or the visit is cut short, the pain would be unbearable. There is no loss like the loss of a child.

Each year in our churches and homes we prepare the crib to receive its honoured guest. It is an act of love, for there is nothing you would not do for this Child who comes to visit us. And like the preparations you make for any birth in the family, it is not just that we want everything to be outwardly right, though that matters. We want everything to be inwardly right too. The crib becomes a picture of our own lives being put back together, made beautiful for Christ.  St Teresa of Avila talked of the Interior Castle of our lives; but she might have spoken of the Interior Crib, with the heart as the manger-throne to receive the King of kings. 

How do we prepare this inward crib of ours? I said that there is no loss in life like the loss of a child. Yet our society has, in a way, lost a child, and Christmas brings it home with particular force. Who is this child we have lost?  I think it’s the child within us capable of expectation and wonder, happiness and delight.  Once upon a time, those qualities were in full flower in us.  We call it innocence, which perhaps means the capacity to be open the world in all its beauty and generosity and see into the life of things.  It’s a capacity that in many of us grown-ups tends to unripen until it is has shrivelled to a bud.  
I think I know 
Where all children come from but the puzzle
To me is, as they grow up, where they go.
Love, wonder, marvellous hope. All these can wither
With crawling years like flowers on a stalk;
Or to some piper's tune vanish for ever
As creatures murdered on a morning walk.

This year I have felt it again, the way Christmas erodes to the tired, tinselled routine, a thousand miles away from the simplicity and mystery of this wonderful festival.  Perhaps only the very young, the very poor, the very lonely and the very hurt understand Christmas: they have nothing to get in the way.  So what does it mean to say that Christmas is a time for children.  How do we acknowledge that in us all is an infant crying for the light? Don’t we yearn for that child to emerge from the dark and start playing? Don’t we ache to feel what we feel as we gaze as if for the first time on the ox and ass and shepherds and Mary and Joseph and the baby?  

If someone said, on Christmas Eve
‘Come, see the oxen kneel

‘In the lonely barton by yonder coomb
Our childhood used to know,’
I should go with him in the gloom,
Hoping it might be so.
 
We can hear this as nostalgia.  I see it more as a longing for meaning, the kind of meaning that children more easily grasp than adults.  Jesus says that unless we become like little children, we can never enter the kingdom of heaven.  And what is that but to rediscover not only the lost child in ourselves but the holy Child of Bethlehem.  If only we could find him again!  But Christmas says he is not far from any one of us, the one who brings truth and love into our world.  He comes as the stranger we do not recognise, yet he is the friend who cares about us.  He comes as the sovereign of the universe, yet he is the humblest of subjects.  He comes as the almighty creator, yet he is the slave who empties himself to be among us as one who serves. He is nearer to us than our own souls.  He asks for house-room in our crib.  He stands at the door and knocks, and waits to see what we will do with him.  
The fourteenth century mystical theologian Meister Eckhart said: “We must all become God’s mothers, for God desires to be born in each of us.” A poem a friend wrote a few years ago for her Christmas card captures beautifully the ‘how’, the ‘what’ and the ‘where’ of Christmas, the three life-changing questions we put to the nativity and the nativity puts to us. 

How should I best prepare?  Coming at you
with a running jump I might easily
just miss you altogether; land instead
where earth’s turn must face me with a shadow.

What if I lose the way, arriving late
to bend my knee; will all the food be gone,
leaving scattered embers and camel dung?

Where shall a baby safely lay his head
and not be overlooked or trampled on?

‘Within the manger of your heart,’ he said.

********

The first text quoted is from Charles Causley’s poem ‘School at Four O'Clock’.  The second is from Thomas Hardy’s ‘The Oxen’.  The final poem is by Sheila Bryer, ‘Advent’ (© S Bryer 2007, used with permission).

Friday, 20 December 2019

Values for Advent 4: Illumination

‘What if this present were the world’s last night?’  The seventeenth century metaphysical poet John Donne puts that question in one of his Divine Poems.  He was much exercised by thoughts about the end of the world and about death, the end of his world.  ‘This is my play’s last scene, here heavens appoint / My pilgrimage’s last mile’;  ‘Oh my black soul!  Now thou art summoned / By sickness, death’s herald, and champion’; ‘Repair me now, for now mine end doth haste, / I run to death, and death meets me as fast, / And all my pleasures are like yesterday’.  And with death come thoughts of darkness, for his was a troubled soul.  ‘To see God only, I go out of sight: / And to ’scape stormy days I choose An everlasting night’.  

For Donne, the Winter Solstice held powerful significance: the shortest day, the ‘year’s midnight’ as he calls it.  This precarious axis of the seasons when the sun’s light almost fails is for him a metaphor of his spiritual condition: wondering, hoping but not always expecting that the light will grow strong again, half believing that it might not.  Midwinter raises anxiety about the last things: solstitium: the sun stands still in the sky, the light burns low, and life is short, and nature holds out no promise that she will ever renew herself or that this pale sun whose rays barely penetrate to earth could ever warm another living thing.  

For most of us, the Solstice (at 4.19 am on the morning of Sunday 22 December) will pass unnoticed.  We are insulated from it not just by electric light and central heating and the ceaseless flow of online activity, but by the business that occupies us in the days before Christmas.  But those whose lives are tuned to the rhythms of the seasons and the rise and fall of light pay attention: Pennine farmers, market gardeners, seafarers, meteorologists, astronomers, poets.  For billions in our world, less burdened by technology than we are, these primal rhythms are close to what it means to sustain life, hold out the prospect of a tomorrow as well as a today.  ‘What if this present were the world’s last night?’ is not the private fantasy of a morbid soul.  It is the question to ask when the planet is spinning relentlessly towards an irreversible climate catastrophe.  The first victims to suffer will be the poor and voiceless of the developing world.  The world’s last night is no longer the fantasy of a fevered imagination.  The apocalypse is now.

In these days before Christmas, you may wish I’d lighten up (an apt image for the solstice if you think about it).  But while modern Anglican texts soften as Christmas approaches, the Book of Common Prayer maintains a tougher Advent focus.  Sunday’s collect is one of the most majestic in the book: ‘O Lord, raise up thy power and come among us, and with great might succour us’: we call on God as those who are helpless because he alone can rescue us.  In the Prayer Book communion rite, both the third and fourth Sundays of Advent give us gospel readings about John the Baptist, hardly comfortable reading for Advent.  The Great O antiphons of Advent are a crying for the light at this dark time of the year: ‘O Morning Star, splendour of light eternal and sun of righteousness: come and enlighten those who dwell in darkness and the shadow of death’.  And when Advent at last utters the name ‘God with us’ in the antiphon of the final day before Christmas Eve, it is longing and desire that run through it: ‘O Emmanuel, our King and our Lawgiver, the hope of the nations and their Saviour: come and save us O Lord our God’.  Come…. Come….It is futures that we fasten on in Advent: futures promised, futures glimpsed, and yes, futures feared as well.  

At the Solstice, people used to kindle fires to keep light and warmth alive and cherish them for the long year ahead.  Perhaps it is the distant origin of fairy lights and Christmas trees; perhaps we still need to echo our forebears and in ceremony and symbol act out the issues of light and dark. In many cathedrals and churches, the traditional Advent procession moves up the church from west to east: a movement towards the light, at first experienced partially, brokenly, as if it might be swallowed up again by the immense darkness in which we stand and wonder and wait.  Gradually that fragile light is established; it grows until it reaches its full strength, luminous, radiant like the heavenly Jerusalem, the city that ‘has no need of sun or moon to shine on it, for the glory of God is its light, and its lamp is the Lamb.’ ‘Eternity’s sunrise’ to quote Blake’s famous phrase.

Yet the hope remains future.  We don’t yet possess it.  We still pray ‘Maranatha, Come Lord Jesus!’, for the kingdom is not yet present and God’s purposed not yet fulfilled.  We ask every day in Advent that we may ‘cast away the works of darkness’ and that God may put upon us ‘the armour of light now in the time of this mortal life’.  We glimpsed the light of God’s presence in that great climax of the Advent Procession, but then it was taken from us again: for it was but a glimpse of glory given for a while.  It had to subside, for at the end we have to go outside again into the night, like the winter sparrow in Bede’s parable who flies into the warm lit hall only to fly out again into the cold and dark. 

It’s in that half-light of daily existence that the prayer, ‘Come thou long-expected Jesus’ becomes most real. It breathes desire, expectancy, hope.  We know we can face the night, for this vision will sustain us, Sol Invictus, the Unconquered Sun who is the glory of the nations.  We know that though we walk in darkness we have seen a great light and need not be afraid.  In midwinter the darkness envelops us again, fraught with ambiguity. The bright clear long light of summer is but a memory.  For now. But darkness is not necessarily ominous and bad.  In the Bible clouds and darkness are where you find the presence of God. ‘There is in God a deep and dazzling darkness’ says the poet, drawing on a long Christian mystical tradition.  ‘Churches are best for prayer, that have least light’ says Donne.

It was on Christmas Day in Durham Cathedral ten years ago that the ‘new creation’ high altar frontal was unveiled.  It shows the rising sun, its golden rays penetrating to and animating the extremities of creation.  It rises out of a blue sea, as if to remind us of Advent and waiting for the God’s purposes to be fulfilled.  For even the birth of Jesus is not the end but the beginning of our world’s redemption, the dawning of the light.  The sun has yet to rise completely and fill the sky.  Across the frontal is a thin red arc, almost invisible until you come close to it, the thread of pain and passion stitched across glory which is the cost of it, the destiny of the Holy Child.  On Solstice day, which this year falls on the first day of the week that we call Sun-Day, we celebrate the light that is coming among us while at the same time we hold in our hearts those who in the dark places of pain and passion wait each day for deliverance.

‘What if this present were the world’s last night?’  Only when we ask John Donne’s question for our world and for ourselves can we begin to hope.  It is a clarifying question, for it tells us that there is work to do and darkness to dispel and lives to change.   There are four days of Advent left to us.  We must make the most of them, especially as after Sunday the days will start getting longer again, and the light become stronger; for ‘the night is far spent and the day is at hand’, the day of Christ whose glory fills the skies. 

Wednesday, 18 December 2019

Values for Advent 3: Joy

This month I’m reflecting on some of the values that might help us keep these short precious weeks of Advent with what I suggested we might call ‘spiritual intelligence’.  You can find my previous offerings below this one on the website. The first was longing, when we looked at how Advent is meant to focus our desires on God and to nurture our hunger to see his kingdom come.  Last week’s theme was contentment, which I saw as rooted in thankfulness, the only way to cure the relentless drive to possess that is so evident before Christmas.   Today I want to look at a third value that I believe is fundamental to Advent.  That value is joy.  

‘Rejoice always’ says St Paul. In all things, let the watchword be joy.  Joy is the particular focus of this particular week. Last Sunday, the third of Advent is known as Gaudete from the opening word of the traditional introit at Mass: rejoice!  But joy is meant to mark all of Advent.  It is not a penitential season like Lent when we sing Miserere and lament the brokenness of things.  Rather, it’s a time to take up the ringing acclamations of the Hebrew scriptures that Zion’s ancient longings for God’s coming are about to come true.  ‘Listen! Your sentinels lift up their voices, together they sing for joy, for in plain sight they see the return of the Lord to Zion.  Break forth together into singing, you ruins of Jerusalem; for the Lord has comforted his people, he has redeemed Jerusalem’ (Isaiah 52.8-9).  And this glad expectancy is not only for human beings, still less the religious.  The whole creation utters its inarticulate song of joy at what is coming on the world: ‘let the heavens be glad, and let the earth rejoice; let the sea roar and all that fills it.  Let all the trees of the forest sing for joy before the Lord; for he is coming to judge the earth’ (Psalm 96.11-13).  And when the time comes for the forerunner to arrive, his birth brings not fear but delight: ‘you will have joy and gladness’ the angel tells his father Zechariah, ‘and many will rejoice at his birth’ (Luke 1.14).  

The word in Greek is chara, close to charis, grace, and eucharistia, thanksgiving.  So joy belongs both with God’s generosity (which is what grace means) and our response to him of gratitude.  The capacity to be joyful, then, flows from the capacity to recognise, celebrate and embrace God’s acts as our creator and saviour.  We are what we are, a people of joy, because of what he is, a God who is all-justice and all-goodness.  Augustine says that ‘the authentic life is to set our joy on you, grounded in you, caused by you’ (Confessions 10, 32).  For God has made room for us in his world.  He has given us all that is lovely to enjoy.  He has come among us as our Saviour Immanuel.  We find ourselves re-orientated towards his own life and love, like a sunflower being turned towards the sun and opened up by its light and warmth.  In all this, our wellbeing, our shalom, is secured.  What we call gladness, joy, happiness, delight well up within us because we know that ultimately all shall be well.  

St Augustine is a great theologian of joy because he is not afraid to explore his own human experience of pain and pleasure.  Here, you feel, is a man who has truly lived, who knows his own hungers and drives, satisfaction and disappointment, has tasted both sensuality and emptiness. In his Confessions, he lays bear a soul discovering how the experiences of human life and relationships both point to the secret of lasting happiness while at the same time withholding it.  He learns how to see into the life of the things so as to discern the God who beckons us there to know and love him.  He glimpses how our ordinary joys point to a larger, enduring joy.  ‘When I love you, what is it that I love?  It is not physical beauty nor temporal glory nor the brightness of light dear to earthly eyes, nor the sweet melodies of all kinds of songs, nor the gentle odour of flowers and ointments and perfumes, nor manna or honey, nor limbs welcoming the embraces of the flesh: it is not these I love when I love my God.  Yet there is a light I love, and a food, and a kind of embrace when I love my God - a light, voice, odour, food, embrace, of my inner man, where my soul is floodlit by light which space cannot contain, where there is sound that time cannot seize, where there is a perfume which no breeze disperses, where there is a taste for food no amount of eating can lessen, and where there is a bond of union that no satisfaction can part.  That is what I love when I love my God.’ (Confessions 10, 6)  Was ever delight more movingly or sensually expressed?

But Augustine knows, as we do, that even the best we enjoy of God in this world is partial and fragmented: fugitive pieces of a larger picture that still eludes us. In the Confessions he recalls his habit of looking for happiness in the wrong place, how he has had to learn that joy has a future tense that keeps waiting and longing alive: ‘Late have I loved you, beauty so old and so new, late have I loved you. You were within and I was living outside and looked for you there, and plunged into the lovely things you had made. You were with me but I was not with you. Those things kept me far from you…. But you called aloud and shattered my deafness.  You were radiant and beautiful.  I drew in my breath and now I long for you.  I tasted you, and now I feel hunger and thirst only for you.  You touched me, and now I am on fire for the peace which is yours’.  The paradox of Advent is that its joy is both now and not yet: both with us but still to come.  Only the future brings with it a joy that is without end.  

This is why, when Jesus came proclaiming that the kingdom of God was at hand, ‘the common people heard him gladly’ as the gospel puts it.  They knew that only God’s future could bring what they longed for, only his kingdom of righteousness and peace could usher in true and lasting happiness as the Sermon on the Mount makes so clear.  So it’s right to come back to the last things which ought to be our focus in this season.  What we look for in Advent is nothing less than a new world, God’s final word of judgment on all that is evil and wrong and the establishment forever of the kingdom of Immanuel in righteousness, joy and peace.  ‘God himself will be with them; he will wipe every tear from their eyes; death will be no more; mourning and crying and pain will be no more, for the first things have passed away’ (Revelation 21.4).  


This is the faith we confess in the climactic words of the Nicene Creed that ought to make our spirits dance and summon up a rush of joy every time we say them: ‘I look for the resurrection of the dead and the life of the world to come’.  Expecto in Latin – not just hope for but look for, which is what New Testament hope is.  At the eucharist, we celebrate the risen life of Jesus in our midst and proclaim his death ‘until he comes’.  And that reminds us, even in the midst of so much that makes us afraid, to hold in our hearts and our hopes the consummation of all things at the end of the age, when hope is emptied in delight, and we know him as he is.  It is the source of the joy that sustains us.  It’s the joy that no-one can ever take away.     

Saturday, 7 December 2019

Values for Advent 2: Contentment

I am offering a series of reflections in Advent in which I am suggesting some spiritual values we might cultivate during this precious but demanding season.  Last week I spoke about Advent as a time to of longing and desire.  Today I want to explore the value of contentment.  

At first sight, contentment seems to be incompatible with longing; after all, if we desire because we do not yet possess, it follows that we must be discontented in some way because of something we lack.  There is certainly a paradox here, for we know that we should be content with what we have and are, yet we hear the gospel promising us something that in St Paul’s words is ‘even better’.  We know that everything in this life is provisional, here only for a time.  At the Lord’s coming, it will be changed and we with it. It will become God’s new world; and we are taught to long for that day and to pray for it.  This is the focus of all God-given desire.  And because our condition falls so far short of what God would it to be, there should indeed be a divine discontent in us that throws us back on his mercy and recalls us to depend completely on his help and grace.  

At the same time, we are taught to recognise the goodness of things and to see in them God’s generosity and kindness.  We know we must learn how not to crave what we do not really need, nor to invest more than we should in what we are given.  Immanuel Kant’s insight helps here: ‘we are not rich because of what we possess but because of what we can do without’.  And by riches I don’t simply mean material things.  I mean any gift that promotes wellbeing and gives us pleasure or fulfilment, whether in the body, the intellect, the emotions or in our faculty for spiritual awareness that we call the soul.  Perhaps we can’t be content unless we could renounce even the best that God has given us.  

We need to lay alongside each other these two strands that run through the Bible.  This means learning how to desire God himself in all things and above all things.  We know that nothing less can ever ultimately satisfy.  So contentment and longing are held together when we see how it’s as much about appreciating the Giver as the gift, and that being content is to glimpse how every gift is a kind of sacrament of God’s loving generosity, not an end in itself but another means to knowing and loving him.  To turn it round, as St Paul does in the early chapters of his Letter to the Romans, the cravings and sins that lead human beings into depravity and destructiveness have the effect precisely of making the creature the ultimate end of our concern rather than the Creator.  The Bible consistently calls this idolatry.  Augustine describes sin as being ‘curved in upon oneself’, the ‘worth-ship’ that properly belongs to God our ultimate Source and End being deflected instead into the penultimate, the created, the transient.  Perhaps idolatry is surrender to a perverted kind of discontent that can never rest in the goodness and worth-ship of another.  And when we give our lives to these ends, we are, says St Paul, as good as dead already.   In an image of St Francis de Sales, we are like a bride who pays so much attention to her wedding-ring that she never even notices the bridegroom who gave it to her. 

What is the secret of contentment?  How do we achieve it in our western society that is so hungry to possess, whose besetting sins are so blatantly laid bare and played upon in this run-up to Christmas, the sins of avarice and its close relative, envy?  

St Paul has a key passage about this in his Letter to the Philippians.  It comes just after the well-known Advent exhortation to ‘rejoice in the Lord always and again I say rejoice’.  He has spoken of his joy in the Christ whose coming is near and then says: ‘I have learned to be content with whatever I have.  I know what it is to have little, and I know what it is to have plenty.  In any and all circumstances I have learned the secret of being well-fed, and of going hungry, of having plenty and of being in need’ (Philippians 4:11-12).  This owes more than a little to the Stoic philosophers whose ideal was to reach an inward contemplative stability by becoming more and more indifferent to outward circumstances.  The soul’s health, they said, did not depend either on prosperity or adversity, and to allow good fortune or bad to influence it would be to regress to a childish, even infantile state.  St Paul gives Christian meaning to this by saying that Christian stability is found not within but beyond himself.  ‘I can do all things through him who strengthens me’ he says.  ‘My God will fully satisfy every need of yours according to his riches in glory in Christ Jesus’ (Philippians 4.14, 19).  Like everything else, it is given.  We cannot achieve it on our own.

We can, however, cultivate a mentality that makes it more possible.  The clue, I believe, is thankfulness.  This means more than merely saying thank-you, though the words are important.  It is about being thankful at the core of ourselves, as when the psalmist begins his praises by saying ‘I will bless the Lord at all times; his praise shall continually be in my mouth’ (Psalm 34.1).  This is a worshipper for whom thankfulness and praise are a habit.  For him it is as natural to bless God as it is to sleep, eat and breathe.  This is fundamental to Jewish spirituality.  Everything in life is made holy, not by blessing it but by blessing God for it: ‘Blessed are you Lord our God, King of the Universe: you make this new day to dawn.  Blessed are you for the sleep I have enjoyed; for this food and drink, for the sabbath, for our homes and those who love us, for our lives and the hope that sustains us’.  

This is what Jesus did at the Last Supper.  He blessed God for the bread and the wine and commanded us to do this in memory of him.  His command was much more than an instruction to celebrate the eucharist.  It was a summons to be eucharistic in our own selves, to develop the habitus of always and everywhere blessing God for the goodness and mercy shown to us and to all living things.  The word eucharistia simply means thanksgiving.  It defines the man or woman or faith.  To be eucharistic people, men and women for whom thankfulness is a way of life, is to be on the path of true contentment.  

I have met a few people in whom I have glimpsed this.  When I became an incumbent in the early 1980s, I followed a priest who had died of a brain tumour without warning.  He was not even the age I am now, and had only been in the parish for a few months, yet in that short time he had earned a good deal of respect and affection.  When my wife and I went to the vicarage to measure up for carpets and curtains, we met his widow who was on the point of moving out.  We stumbled around as you do, trying to say something appropriate, but the words wouldn’t come.  But she said to us: ‘when John was alive, he taught me that the only real way of living well is to be thankful for everything.  And when we are, we find that sense of gratitude sustaining us even in the darkest of times.  I have so much to be thankful for in a lifetime of memories together.  It doesn’t take away the pain or the loss, but it does carry me through it.’  I have never forgotten it.  

As the General Thanksgiving says in its incomparable poetry, we are to bless God ‘for our creation, preservation and all the blessings of this life, and above all for the redemption of the world by our Lord Jesus Christ, for the means of grace and for the hope of glory’.  We could hardly do better than to pray that prayer every day in Advent, as retailers try to ratchet up our hungers.  It will help us keep Christmas with integrity, for we shall have begun to learn both the virtue of contentment, and with what gratitude to receive the greatest of all gifts when he comes. 

Sunday, 1 December 2019

Values for Advent 1: Longing

Each year, Advent puts a question to us.  It asks us what our values truly are.  This is because at no other time of year does liturgical time seem so dislocated from secular time.  Even against the backdrop of political turmoil when the future is uncertain, this is not a time of year when reflection is easy.  The traditional Advent focus on the Last Things, death, judgment, hell and heaven sits uneasily alongside Christmas fayres and lights and shop windows.  We wish we could sustain for these brief weeks what Philip Larkin called the ‘hunger to be more serious’, for then what a joy Christmas Eve would be.  Will we achieve it this year?

It’s easy for preachers in Advent to rally to the cry against consumerism and the plea for a less materialist and a more charitable, frugal, spiritually aware way of celebrating Christmas.  But we need to be careful, because we are all implicated in the values of our society and its febrile, often superficial approach to this season that prefers frippery and feel-good to real depth of challenge and possibly some pain.  So without pretending that I have any easy answers about how to observe a good Advent, I should like in these coming weeks to suggest values that could focus on its deeper meaning for us as Christian people and help us on the path towards spiritual intelligence. 

My first value is longing.  Longing, hunger, desire, is basic to the human condition.  We would not be human if we did not long for what we do not have to enjoy.  I am not speaking of selfish gratification here – I trust we have moved beyond that.  Globally, we long for a safer, more peaceful world, an end to human cruelty and the kind of terror we have seen in India in recent days.  We want to see the endemic needs that diminish the lives of so many met in a lasting way: poverty, hunger, disease.  In our nation we long for wholesome communities where neighbours care for one another, where there is a more developed instinct for what is right and just in our midst.  More personally we long for fulfilled intimate relationships, satisfaction in our work, the healing of what is broken within us, the feeling that our lives make some kind of sense.  

We long for these things.  And when I say we ‘long’ for them, I mean more than that we merely wish for them or sigh for them.  True longing engages our passions and our wills.  It involves the commitment of our entire being.  It does this because we know that human life is marred and flawed without the things we long for.  More than that, our very longings themselves are signs that we still have the capacity to envisage a better future for others and for ourselves.  Not to long for a better tomorrow would mean to settle for the compromises and shortcomings of today.  

Advent presents us with the prospect of the future.  It is, as theologians say, eschatological.  Its thrust is tomorrow, what is coming upon us and upon the world, and how tomorrow influences and shapes how we think about today.  But ‘tomorrow’, for Christianity, is not what blindly evolves out of today as events unfold.  If we thought we were at the mercy of the relentless chain of causes and effects, we would be better not to dwell on the future too much, for we would be overwhelmed with hopelessness and possibly despair.  But to focus on God’s tomorrow is to ponder how he intends to shape the world and us with it in order to bring about his good purpose.  So Advent challenges our habit of thinking about the future as somehow inevitable, whether it is the march of progress towards an ideal utopian future as much of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries assumed, or whether it is the collapse of civilisation into the dystopian abyss of anarchy and chaos.  The optimists and pessimists are both wrong: neither the best nor the worst will happen come what may.  Instead, the Bible gives us the vision of a re-imagined God-shaped future and invites us to begin to craft our present in the light of it.

When Jesus came into Galilee proclaiming that the kingdom of God was at hand, this is what he meant.  He believed, as his contemporaries did, that God would shortly bring history to an end and usher in the new era of righteousness and peace.  Some of you standing here will not taste death until you see the kingdom of God come’ he said.  So is our New Testament reading, Jesus finds a donkey and comes riding into Jerusalem on it, deliberately fulfilling the prophecy of Zechariah that this is how Zion’s king would arrive in his city.  And the crowd’s hosannas, culled from an acclamation in one of the royal psalms, tell us that the people knew exactly what they were seeing and celebrating.  ‘Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord!’.  The kingdom is upon us.  The old is about to be swept away and with it, all that depraves and corrupts human life.  Behold, the new is here.

I said that the people knew what they were caught up in.  The truth is that they did and they didn’t.  This is the critical point.  They thought that this messianic act was nothing less than the inauguration of the eschaton.  The last days had arrived, and with them, the overthrow of Roman political power and the reinstatement of Israel as the kingdom of the saints, ruled over by one like the Son of Man coming on the clouds in power and glory.  And when the man on the donkey wreaks havoc in the temple precinct, and goes on to speak about how not one stone of the temple would be left standing upon another, his messiahship seems assured.  How could anyone doubt that their ancient longings were about to be fulfilled before their very eyes?

But we know, as they did not, that less than a week later this messianic hero would be nailed to a tree.  And for those with eyes to see, this gave a wholly new meaning to words like ‘messiah’, ‘king’, ‘Son of Man’.  It radically re-defined what it meant to pray ‘thy kingdom come!’.  And if so, then it inevitably put a question against what the people had shouted for on the roadside into Jerusalem.  ‘Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord!’ – indeed; but not like the great stone of the apocalyptic writings hurled from heaven to crush to dust the great world empires.  Rather, to confront humanity with the truth and for the sake of that truth to die.  The crowd thought it knew what wanted.  But the passion unfolded a more excellent way.  This was to do with altogether more profound hungers and desires, deeper than the crowd could ever glimpse or dream of.  It exposed the shallowness of what they shouted for.  The very fact that it took just days for the cry of hosanna to be poisoned into crucify tells us this.

I am saying that it is good to have longings and hungers, but by itself it is not enough.  We must educate our desires, learn to hunger accurately, so that they become aligned to God’s own longing for the world and the redemption of the human race.  It would take a Saint Augustine to explain what this means.  But we could meditate in Advent on his profound insight that all our desires are fundamentally desire for God.  It’s only that sin has twisted and distorted them so that they become focused not on the Creator but on the creature with all the self-absorbed disordering consequences that idolatry always leads to.  Advent, I think, comes as an invitation to look at what we really want out of life, and what we want for the world, and to set it alongside and allow it to be interpreted by what Christian faith tells us is the source of true and lasting joy.  Advent can help us not only to understand and befriend our desires, but to try once again to focus them on God and his good purposes.  

This is how we shall learn how to cry hosanna to the king and to welcome him when he comes.  This is how our hearts, so restless at this edgy time of year, will find their rest in him who is the hope of creation and the Desire of Nations.

Matthew 21.1-13

Friday, 29 November 2019

The Deadly Sin of Envy




A Lecture given to the Carlisle Theological Society in October 2009
Posted on Black Friday 2019

When I agreed to speak to you tonight, we were probably at the lowest point of the recession.  At that time of despondency, it did not look likely that the economy would show signs even of the beginnings of recovery before the middle of next year.  Now, the financial environment appears to be a little less gloomy, and analysts are daring to talk about ‘green shoots’.  I am no expert, so I can’t judge whether such hopes are well-founded.  In north-east England, there has been considerable attrition as a result of this tsunami and I expect it is the same here.  It will be years before we see manufacturing industry in the north-east revitalised, if it ever is, employment levels back to where they were earlier this decade, and inward investment in our region once more flourishing.  
A disaffected public continues to ask why so little regulation has existed to check reckless speculation and the cynical exploitation of the markets.  We all hope, though we do not necessarily expect, that out of this debacle will emerge a more disciplined, more accountable culture that will begin to restore trust.  But a better managed economy will not necessarily address the underlying causes of this crisis.  These are, I am sure we agree, human, moral and spiritual in character.  Religious leaders are right to ask for some serious reflection on what the recession is teaching us about ourselves and our society.  

One book to do this is remarkable for having been written by the chairman, formerly the chief executive, of one of the major world banks.  So it is an insider’s view on the crisis and a refreshingly honest analysis of its roots.  But its author, Stephen Green, is also a non-stipendiary priest of the Church of England.   He is not ashamed to identify what he sees as the underlying malaise in western society that he describes as its Faustian deal with Mephistopheles.  To simplify, this amounts to the selling of our collective soul for the sake of short term material gain.  There is nothing new in this, as the power of the Faust legend down the centuries illustrates.  What is new is the global scale on which this age-old drama is acted out in the world’s financial markets.  The near-failure of the world banking system last year was as near a miss from global disaster as the Cuba Missile Crisis.  

Archbishop Rowan Williams has focused on the erosion of public values and regretted that there have been few signs that the powerful financial institutions and their leadership have begun to reflect on the moral and spiritual causes of this financial debacle.   He has called for repentance.  Repentance, as we know, means a change of mind.  It is close to what the third Benedictine vow calls conversio morum, the conversion of life.  It looks for a new way of living, a new set of attitudes and ambitions, a life that is focused not on our own selves but on God and what he looks for in humanity.  In a renewed, God-fearing society, there would still be accidents and they might be damaging, even catastrophic, but perhaps there would not be economic crises so patently traceable to basic faults due to the relentless pursuit of self-interest.  Such a society would be marked by caritas, generosity, mutuality, collaboration, self-giving and service.  The church is called to model precisely this vision of human beings living together in genuine koinonia.  

But what are the sins which we should repent of, and from which we should want to be delivered?  The usual candidates among the seven deadly sins are gluttony (which is over-indulgence) and avarice or greed (which is the inordinate hunger to acquire and possess).  These are both, like lust, sins of excess.  There is a long Christian tradition that understands these in relation to acquiring wealth.  What makes greed sinful, says Thomas Aquinas, is that it is the abandonment or collapse of spiritual desire for what is material and temporal.  Dante illustrates this in the Divine Comedy by depicting the greedy as tied up and laid face down on the ground because they concentrated too much on earthly things. (It is a good example of what is called contrapasso, literally ‘counter-suffering’: you are punished by the very thing you practise.) Stephen Green’s book suggests that the Faustian bargain so many wage their futures on is a symptom of precisely this.  

However, I want to suggest that Green doesn’t go deep enough into the human spirit.  All the sins of excess are disorders of desire, as Augustine so profoundly understood: it is not that we don’t love, but that our love is wrongly directed.  And if we ask where the origins of disordered desire are to be found, the answer is in the two fundamental sins of all.  The first of these is, of course, pride.  Pride is usually regarded as the worst of all sins because it is the most far-reaching in suppressing or perverting the love that should be directed outwards to God and to our neighbour.  It is, as Augustine says, ‘turned in on itself’.  And this obsession with ourselves is, says the tradition, nothing short of idolatry because there is no place in it for God.  (There is another graphic example of contrapasso in Dante where he shows the proud condemned to wander round for eternity bent double under the weight of their gorgeous copes which are made of lead.)  

But there is another perversion of love which is turned outwards, or at least looks as if it is, and that is envy. I want to focus on envy this evening because I believe it is the besetting sin of our age, and because apart from texts on moral theology, it is not given nearly enough attention in Christian reflection on our human state.  I don’t know, for instance, when you last heard a sermon on envy or when I last preached one.   But the Bible focuses on it a great deal as I shall illustrate, possibly more than it does on pride.  

What is envy?  It is an inward state of mind and heart.  I am careful not to say it is merely a feeling or emotion, though of course we experience it that way.  We could say that the seedbed of envy is our awareness that we lack something that someone else possesses.  This could be their material possessions, their human qualities, their successes or status in life, their religious faith, their personal relationships, their happiness.  All these can be the focus of envy.  But envy is not by itself knowing that someone else has something we do not possess.  Our chairman has the name Richard.  I do not have that name myself.  I recognise this lack.  But it does not make me envious of him.  Envy is born when I want what the other person has for myself, or simply wish that the other person could be deprived of it (which they would be if I took for myself what belonged to them).  

We need to be clear about the difference between
envy and jealousy and resolve that we shall use these words accurately.  Jealousy is the fear of losing someone we love or who is important to us to another person.  Envy is the frustration caused by another person having something that I do not have myself. So envy involves simply two people, myself and another, and is focused on a thing, while jealousy involves three (or more) people and focuses on a threat posed to a significant relationship.  We use that word accurately when we say, ‘I love her jealously’, meaning ‘I will not let her go to another person’.  It is exactly in this sense that Yhwh is a ‘jealous God’ according to the Second Commandment, because he will not ‘lose’ his chosen people to the worship of idols and graven images but shows ‘steadfast love to the thousandth generation of those who love me and keep my commandments’ (Exod 20. 4-6).  Try substituting ‘envious’ for ‘jealous’ in that command, and it ceases to make sense.  

Aquinas says that envy as sorrow on account of another person’s benefit or good, drawing on Aristotle’s definition of it as the pain caused by other peoples’ good fortune.  In this tradition, Dante says that envy is the love of my own good and resolve to pursue it perverted to a desire to deprive other people of theirs. In his Purgatorio, the punishment for the envious is to have their eyes sewn shut with wire because they have gained sinful pleasure from seeing others brought low. This tells us straight away that the other side of envy is Schadenfreude, the pleasure we get at other peoples’ misfortune.  They belong together because the usual way of dealing with envy is to damage or destroy the object of my envy, or to deprive the other person of it (possibly, though by no means necessarily, by taking it for myself).  In the last of the Ten Commandments, the prohibition against coveting what belongs to my neighbour is not forbidding me from admiring his house or his wife, his slave, his ox or his ass, nor acknowledging that I am not as well-endowed as he is.  It prohibits any action of mine that could spoil his enjoyment of them, what the French call jouissance, a legal term meaning the ‘proper enjoyment of possession’, either by stealing them, damaging them, violating or abusing them, disparaging them, or (and this is the inward attitude the torah wants absolutely to guard against) becoming so fixated on my neighbour’s fortunes that I lose sight of him as a person and destroy myself in the process.  The moral and theological point is that envy dehumanises.  It degrades the image of God in us.  It robs us of our dignity and worth because it deflects us from a person-centered relationship with God and with other people, which alone is the way towards human flourishing, into an idolatrous concern with what is material and impersonal. 

This dynamic of envy as emptiness or need allied to the instinct to ‘spoil’ the good that others have is studied extensively in the Bible,.  I should like to explore this theme in three Old Testament texts, the third of which begins to suggest how envy can be addressed as a spiritual problem.  I shall then comment on some New Testament texts that develop these themes before returning to our own day and asking what these biblical insights might suggest to us as we try to read the signs of the times and understand the human hungers and longings that permeate our society.  

My first text is a locus classicus of envy, the story of Naboth’s vineyard (1 Kings 21.).  It is a simple enough narrative.  Naboth has a vineyard up against the royal palace.  King Ahab wants it: when it comes to real estate, location is everything.  Naboth will not sell his patrimony, whereupon Ahab goes to bed and sulks.  Jezebel devises a scheme whereby Naboth is accused of sacrilege for resisting the royal, and therefore divine, will.  Naboth is stoned to death and Ahab takes possession of the vineyard, only to find Elijah already there to pronounce judgment for his contempt of his subjects and of his God.  

This looks like a story of avarice, inordinate desire, and so it is.  Ahab wants something so desperately that it occupies all his waking thoughts.  In his emptiness of spirit, the ennui that so many rich and powerful people know, he obsesses about something he does not need.  But there is an important clue about his deeper mental state.  ‘Ahab said to Naboth, “Give me your vineyard, so that I may have it as a vegetable garden”.’  In other words, the wanting is accompanied by a destructive impulse.  The vine, like the olive and the fig tree, symbolises the best and most productive that the land is capable of.  To degrade a vineyard into a vegetable patch is to spoil what has been handed down in an ancient family for centuries. What is spoiled is not simply a vineyard.  It is part of a family’s sacred geography.  It is terrain that holds long-cherished memories that are not transferrable to another place.  It is the patrimony not only of a man’s ancestry but of a people to whom the land was a divine gift and the charter of their freedom from tyranny.  Tyranny, always deeply implicated in envy, is precisely what Naboth resists.  A tyrant’s envy costs him his life, though as the story goes on to relate, the envier meets an altogether more ignoble end.    

My next text is more complex.  It is the story of Saul and David in the First Book of Samuel, one of the finest tales of the ancient world.  Its greatness as tragedy comes from recognising the need to ‘speak what we feel; not what we ought to say’, as Edgar puts it in the final speech of King Lear.  Like Lear, Saul is ‘every inch a king’: not ague-proof, but for all that, a man whose flawed dignity elicits our compassion and even our regard.  He starts out so well, the young, charismatic hero whose prowess with the sword wins him acclaim from the tribes of Israel longing, in their fragile bond, for some unifying symbol of their kinship that will offer stability in the chaotic, uncertain world of the 11th century BC.  But Saul’s problem is that he is never given the space to develop as king and as human being in his own right.  The scenery is always populated with others who surround him, in particular Samuel the prophet, Jonathan his son and heir, and David the bright-eyed youth whose magnetic looks and personality pulls all three of them into his orbit and whose sunny presence casts Saul into ever deepening shadows.  We have only to recall how Saul takes a rash oath to kill anyone who breaks a needlessly imposed fast, only to find that it is his own son Jonathan who is implicated, and how the people turn against Saul so that Jonathan may live; or how Saul is bowed down with melancholia and is soothed by David’s music; or how he frets about David’s absence from the feast, inventing every kind of reason why he has not come, then hurling a spear at his son because of his friendship with David; or the exquisitely crafted scene in the cave where David calls to Saul and delivers a long self-righteous speech, to which Saul listens and simply replies, ‘Is this your voice, my son David?’ and weeps; and at the emotional climax of the tragedy, the worn out king going in disguise by night to the woman at En-dor and learning from Samuel’s ghost that the coming day will be his last.  

Tragedy, in the strict sense, is a story told about greatness that is brought down by some failure in character, some ‘basic fault’.  What is Saul’s?  I propose that it is envy.  His obsession is not his own grandiosity (this was Solomon’s fault).  It is his preoccupation with what others have that he himself does not (or, if he has had it, he becomes deprived of it).  Again, we sense the void in his life, the emptiness that gives birth to envy.  He is envious of Samuel (even after he is dead) because of his direct access to the word of the Lord, something Saul has once enjoyed but now lost: ‘Is not Saul also among the prophets?  He is envious of first of his own son Jonathan and then of David for their military success and popular acclaim, qualities that fitted them so well for leadership, an art in which Saul for all his good beginnings, progressively fell short of Israel’s aspirations for what was required in a king.  There is a telling moment in the story when David returns from killing Goliath.  The women turn out (‘to meet Saul’, the text says carefully, not to adulate David directly) dancing and singing: ‘Saul has killed his thousands, and David his tens of thousands’.  It is meant, I think, as a celebration of them both, with the thousands-ten thousands comparison meant simply as a dramatic figure of speech to intensify their adulation: common enough, in Hebrew poetry.  But Saul takes it literally and is ‘very angry… “They have ascribed to David tens of thousands, and to me they have ascribed thousands; what more can he have but the kingdom?”  So Saul eyed David from that day on’  (1 Samuel 18.6-9).  This malevolent ‘eyeing’ (or, we could say, the ‘evil eye’) is envy in its purest form, with all its destructive intention laid bare.  

Most powerfully of all, in the way the story is told, he envies the love between David and Jonathan.  It is true that here we are dealing with a story about jealousy as well as envy, for both David and Jonathan pose a threat to Saul’s own attachment to each of them: each of them, he thinks, is taking the other away from him.  There are shades of Othello in this sad and beautiful tale.  But I think we can safely say that overshadowing his jealousy of his double attachment is his hard-edged envy of what existed between Jonathan the heir, and David, Saul’s friend turned (as he supposes) supplanter.  Such a friendship is what he does not have, and imagines he can never have.  And this, reinforced by his envy of David’s military success, is what he is determined to spoil by killing David and thereby destroy the very thing that animates and gives life to both his son and to himself, the love David is prepared to offer to them both.  There is only one way the mental distress of despair can end.  Saul falls on his own sword on Mount Gilboa, defeated by his own demons.  Who is to say whether, in the complex mysteries of the human mind, envy is the symptom or the cause?  But the symbolism is clear.  Envy always has the tendency to destroy.  In the end, say both the stories we have looked at, it visits destruction at home, in the very seat of the human soul.  

I spoke about the symbolism of Saul’s mental collapse and suicide.  This is a layer of the story we should pay attention to.  I said that envy always has the propensity to spoil.  In the psychoanalytic literature, this insight is associated with Melanie Klein whose work Envy and Gratitude (1957) proved ground-breaking in post-Freudian theory.  She says of envy that it entails an attack on the ‘good’ object because of its goodness, because the awareness of being separated from the ‘good’ which arouses envy becomes intolerable.  So acting out envious impulses is to relieve the tension between the ‘good’ and ‘bad’ objects.  Klein develops this theory in the light of her observation of infant behaviour at the mother’s breast, and the tendency of the infant to ‘split’ the ‘good breast’ from the ‘bad’.  What I want to stress is her insight that envy attacks the good object because it is good.  And this perfectly explains Saul’s erratic behaviour towards David.  The good that is ultimately spoiled by his own envy is not external but internal, his love for David and the wholesomeness that comes from it.  More than that, the clarity of his moral vision, the integrity of his own motives and attitudes becomes increasingly clouded and compromised through his envy.  In this sense, Saul has already ‘died’ as a human person long before he throws himself on to his own sword.  The seven sins, of which envy is perhaps the most potent, are rightly known as ‘deadly’. 

My final text from the Hebrew Bible is one of the psalms.  Envy is a frequent theme in the Psalter, particularly among the wisdom Psalms.  Psalm 37 warns the feverish complainant against the destabilising effects of envy: ‘Fret not thyself because of the ungodly, neither be thou envious against the evil doers’.  The antidote here is a calm and equable spirit, for the evil doers will soon be cut down like the grass.  Psalm 49 is more probing.  ‘Be not thou afraid, though one be made rich: or if the glory of his house be increased; for he shall carry nothing away with him when he dieth; neither shall his pomp follow him.’  There, the argument turns on human mortality: there is no point in being consumed by envy when death is the great leveller of high and low, rich and poor.  It is a bleak way of dealing with envy, though undeniably potent.  

However, the Psalter’s most searching anatomy of envy is to be found in Psalm 73.  It is unique in the Old Testament for its acute psychological and spiritual perception of human envy, not least as a meditation that autobiographically charts the landscape of the psalmist’s own life.  

The Psalm begins with what looks like an orthodox statement of belief: ‘truly God is good to the upright’ (or to ‘Israel’ depending on how we read the Hebrew) (1).  Statements like this (perhaps meant to be read in implied quotation marks?) are very easy to make, but the theme of the Psalm is to test whether the credal assertion matches experience.  So, without further ado the psalmist launches out on his story.  ‘As for me, my feet had almost stumbled… for I was envious of the arrogant’ (2-3).  Psalm 37 may warn against futile worry, but here the psalmist could not help himself.  The prosperity of the arrogant is described with striking imagery as if the psalmist has personally had his nose rubbed in their graceless affluence.  He sees them gliding around ‘sound and sleek’ (4), wearing their pride like a necklace and violence like clothing (6), a kind of second skin.  Porcine eyes  bulbous with fat (7), mouths gaping open to the sky and tongues greedily scouring the earth for fodder (9) build up the unpleasant image of a grotesque self-inflated beast – for such people, to the psalmist, have forfeited their right to be called human.  And this is the symptom of their deadly underlying disease, the functional atheism we have already met in Psalm 14.  Like the fool who says, ‘there is no God’, the arrogant proudly defy their Maker with the question that most characterises the arrogant: ‘How can God know?  Is there knowledge in the Most High?’  What does a remote, transcendent deity know or care about anything (11)?  
After this graphic and colourful portrait of hubris the psalmist returns to his testimony.  If the arrogant are so favoured, what is the point of being wise or good or religious – this is the heart of the psalmist’s dilemma.  ‘All in vain have I kept my heart clean, and washed my hands in innocence.  For all day long I have been plagued and am punished every morning’ (13-14).  The inward struggle between the faith of verse 1 and the experience of the following verses is an unbearable burden, for there is simply no answer to this conflict (15-16).  The circle of theodicy cannot be squared.  Until, that is, the great turning point of this Psalm.  ‘I went into the sanctuary of God’ (17).  In this life-changing moment, illumination happens; there is a sudden disclosure of how things truly are.  ‘Then I perceived their end’ (17).  It’s as if the psalmist has been given spectacles so that where previously there had only been hints and nudges of reality, now at last everything comes into focus. 

Something very striking happens to the psalmist’s discourse here.  Up to now, the story has been told in the 1st and 3rd person: this is how it is with them; these are the consequences for me.  But no sooner has he experienced this sudden reorientation of perspective than he turns to address God himself.  ‘Truly you set them in slippery places; you make them fall to ruin’ (18).  Narrative turns into prayer, and remains in that mode for the rest of the Psalm.  In other words, it is as the psalmist turns towards God that everything else begins to make sense and his envy begins to subside.  He understands now the truth already sketched out in Psalms 37 and 49.  Above all, he recognises that good fortune is a chimera, an insubstantial dream (20); once seen for what it is, those favoured by it are to be pitied, for it blinds them to the infinitely better, more lasting rewards the psalmist has now discovered. 

What are these rewards?  The psalmist likens his earlier, pre-enlightened state to that of a ‘brute beast’ (22).  So while the arrogant had become bestial through their pride and avarice, there had been a comparable risk to the psalmist: that he too would be brutalised through the sin of envy (3).  But what he now describes is how the corrupting effects of envy are transfigured by humanising desire.  This is no longer the destructive envy of others’ wealth and success but the life giving hunger for God.  Where envy had poisoned his vision, desire for God transforms and renews it.  And so the Psalm rises to a magnificent climax of faith: ‘Nevertheless I am continually with you; you hold my right hand.  You guide me with your counsel and afterward you will receive me with honour.  Whom have I in heaven but you?  And there is nothing on earth that I desire other than you.  My flesh and my heart may fail, but God is the strength of my heart and my portion for ever’ (23-26).  So the journey ends with an elaboration of the opening credal statement, but this time without quotation marks, for the conventional rewards-and-punishment formula he had trotted out has become his personal confession of a lived faith.  ‘But for me it is good to be near God; I have made the Lord God my refuge to tell of all your works’ (28).  He has made the pilgrimage from the words of religion to the inward experience of it, the most important journey a human being can ever make.  

Melanie Klein’s work was entitled Envy and Gratitude.  Her thesis was that gratitude is the polar opposite to envy and the antidote to it.  She defines gratitude as our response to what we experience as the true ‘good’.  She means by this that when we experience something as gift, our response is not the envious instinct to attack and destroy but the loving instinct to care, appreciate and give in return.  It awakens a life-instinct that is generous and transformative and that is the antithesis of the death-instinct that gives birth to envy.  This is because contentment is the hard-won realisation that we are not empty after all: the good permeates our lives, if we can only see it.  And the recognition that our cup is, so to speak, full of what is good, and the gratitude that flows from it, drains the poison out of our propensity to envy.  I think we can see this transformation happening in Psalm 73, which provides us with a happier ending than the stories of either Naboth’s vineyard or King Saul.  The psalm’s turning point marks the threshold at which the psalmist crosses over from envy to gratitude, from destructive impulse to the opening up of the self to all that will be integrative and healing.  

For a Christian theologian, this Kleinian language has strongly eucharistic overtones.  Eucharistia, thanksgiving, is of course a liturgical act commanded in the gospel in memory of Jesus on the threshold of his passion.  However, the eucharist is what it is in the larger sense that it expresses the offering of all of life to the Creator and Redeemer of the world.  To be a disciple is to live eucharistically.  To be the church is to be the community of disciples who are shaped by gratitude as the fundamental Christian virtue, and who are thereby being humanised by the transformative gift of grace.  So I want to say that in a fundamental sense, the antidote to envy is the eucharist, because it is in the eucharist that the human race does what it was created to do, to offer God its praise and thanksgiving, to ‘glorify God and enjoy him for ever’ as the Westminster Shorter Catechism has it.  And the consequence of this is as the broken, disordered fragments of our lives are gathered up, like the broken fragments of the eucharistic bread, and put back together again and healed.  Eucharistia is the answer to envy because it takes us out of our narcissistic self-absorption with our own envious desires, and instead invites us to gaze on larger things until, as the hymn says, we are ‘lost in wonder, love and praise’.  This integrative, individuating journey into divine lostness is envy’s ultimate anthithesis.  

There is one passage among many in the New Testament that encapsulates this perfectly.  Writing to the Philippians, Paul constantly underlines the life-giving, transformative effect of gratitude and joy on the believer and the church.  Towards the end of this most beautiful of his letters, Paul captures his major themes.  His final chapter reiterates the command to rejoice in the Lord always, and promises that because of God’s goodness, believers do not need to worry about their needs (‘fret’, in the language of Psalm 37).  It is the peace of God, passing all understanding, that will guard against anxiety.  Therefore, believers are to focus on the ‘good’: ‘whatever is true, whatever is honourable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things.’  Paul elaborates on his own circumstances.  ‘Not that I am referring to being in need; for I have learned to be content with whatever I have.  I know what it is to have little, and I know what it is to have plenty,  In any and all circumstances, I have learned the secret of being well-fed and of going hungry, of having plenty and being in need.  I can do all things through him who strengthens me… My God will satisfy every need of yours according to his riches in glory in Christ Jesus.’ (Philippians 4) 

The key word here is contentment.  Autarkeia literally means ‘self-sufficiency’, being able to support oneself without being dependent on others.  By extension, it came to mean in Stoic philosophy being free of my own inner desires, a state of equilibrium in which I am no longer driven by my needs and drives and envious desires, in other words, ‘contentment’.  We could say this equates in a theological sense, to not being empty. This is, I think, what Paul means here.  He is saying that only when we have begun to transcend our envy with all its destructive tendencies can we experience true liberation.  In Stoic philosophy such a state is achieved by the discipline of living contemplatively.  It would be tempting to say that for Paul contentment is God-given, arising spontaneously in the heart of the believer because of his or her free justification by faith in Jesus Christ.  It is, of course, but not in a simpliste way that excludes the contemplative way we have explored in the Hebrew wisdom literature.  It is I think a subtle marriage of gift-and-response: gift, because salvation cannot be earned by anything that we do, even contemplation; response because the gift is nothing until we do the lifelong ‘work’ of making it our own and inhabiting it. ‘I have learned to be content’ he says.  It is spiritual askesis, part of the artistry of being formed in the image of Christ that is both God’s and ours.  It begins with gratitude, for contentment means, theologically, that state of spiritual balance (to use a Benedictine idea) that comes from knowing that we are loved by God and are on the way to salvation.  Only then, as Paul says in the Letter to the Romans, can we offer our lives as as ‘living sacrifice’ (Romans 12.2).  With gratitude, it is an act of grace.  Without it, it is merely Pelagian effort.   

Envy infiltrates every aspect of modern life.  The reckless competitiveness and bonuses on a scale that beggars belief that have driven our financial institutions to the brink of ruin are a clear symptom of it.  On a smaller scale (but not always so small in the context of modest domestic finances) the advertising industry cleverly plays straight into our envious propensities, and largely encourages them in the young, whether it is electronic games, fast cars, must-have gadgetry or the cult of youth and the body beautiful.  It is perhaps futile to expect society to change very much, for its values have been formed now over many generations.  I do not think we should be too quick to blame post-Enlightenment economics for this: Christians flourished in the 19th century market place by developing the virtues of thrift, prudence and an ethic of hard work.  Is it too much to ponder whether this was because our forebears had a deeper awareness of the importance of gratitude and contentment than we?  If so, then the cultivation of these virtues would seem to be a high priority if our society is, like the prodigal son, ever going to come to its senses and understand the life of a human being in a larger context than simply the gratifying of needs and desires.  I have argued that if envy is the besetting sin of our day, its greatest need for moral and spiritual health is to recapture the life-enhancing generosity of eucharistia and autarkeia, of gratitude and contentment.  With these given house-room as fundamental values in our society, we might perhaps lose interest in even considering, let alone embracing, the Faustian bargains that put our souls in such danger.  

October 2009