Fr Thomas Plant, Anglican Priest and Comparative Theologian

Month: November 2015

Thy Kingdom Come

“Thy Kingdom come,” we pray every Sunday, and rather more often, I hope. What do we mean?

Jesus reluctantly admits to Pilate that He is indeed a King, but His Kingdom is not of this world: not of fighting, not of political power, but of truth. Elsewhere, He tells us that this Kingdom is already here, within us. And yet He tells us to pray for the Kingdom to come. So, we are left with a Kingdom of truth, a Kingdom of the heart, which is in one sense already here, yet in another, yet to come.

C.S. Lewis explains this paradox as something like living in enemy territory even after the war has been won, like those Japanese soldiers stranded for decades in the jungle who never realised that they’d lost the war. And prayer is a kind of spiritual warfare. It’s warfare against sin, certainly, and especially against the sort of sin that leads to the violence committed by earthly kingdoms and caliphates, satrapies and soviets. But it’s a war that begins internally, with the conquering of our own hardened hearts.

The Kingdom of Heaven cannot be taken by the sword, but nor is the pen enough. I keep saying that Christianity isn’t a value system, it’s a spiritual path, and simply arguing about ethics from a “Christian perspective” or for that matter talking about prayer isn’t going to win the war. We’ve actually got to pray. In fact, the Apostle Paul tells us we’ve got to pray constantly. “Thy Kingdom come” needs to be at the core of our being, as natural as our heartbeat.

The first step is to realise that this Kingdom cannot coexist with sin, any more than righteousness with lawlessness, light with darkness, Christ with the Devil. So if we want God to reign within us, we do need to examine ourselves, confess our sins, and eliminate them. We need to make straight the path for Christ to enter in.

Which of course brings us to Advent, the start of the new Church year, the time of preparation for Christ’s birth not just in the world as some sort of memorial, but actually, really, spiritually, in our hearts. It begins next week, and that’s why the Feast of Christ the King is here, at the end of the old Church year, to remind us of exactly what we are hoping to usher in: the Kingdom, which is nothing short of immortality, the final victory over the tyrannies and territories of death and sin, where death is dead and violence is no more. So let us think carefully how we will make room this Advent for God to reign in us.

The opinions represented herein are those of Thomas Plant only.

2 before Advent: My, what large stones you have! Or, the Temple that will never fall

The disciples were almost incredulous at the size of the stones the Temple was made of, and well they might be.
Some weighed more than 100 tonnes, and the walls were twenty storeys high. But, you might wonder, hadn’t they been there before? Perhaps not. None of them were local to Jerusalem. For them, going there was much like going to the Vatican or Hagia Sophia for the first time might be to us, but without the benefit of guide books or photographs beforehand. Even their parents or grandparents’ reminiscences might not have lived up to the reality, since the Temple had been extensively and opulently rebuilt by King Herod fifty years before, surrounded by soaring Greek columns and vast cloisters. It’s not surprising that it exceeded their visual expectations; but what the Temple meant to them, their symbolic preconception of it, would have been very clear indeed, and only magnified by the staggering immensity of its architecture, because the Temple meant nothing less than their Jewish identity and independence. This was the Second Temple, and had stood for 500 years. It had variously been defiled by Syrian and Greek overlords, one of whom even had a statue of Zeus installed and pigs sacrificed on the altar. But since Rome took over in 63BC, the Temple had been purified and its rituals restored. By Jesus’ time, it was the finest place of worship ever built.
And Jesus said that it would fall. As, of course, it did, in AD70, sacked by the Romans after the Jewish rebellions, and you can see the booty being carried in triumph today on the Arch of Titus in Rome. Mark’s Gospel, the earliest of the four, was written around the same time, so its author knew about the fall of the Temple, but that does not mean that Jesus did not prophesy it. Here again we can put ourselves in the disciples’ shoes and imagine what this meant to them: it’s as if we had just come out of worship in St Paul’s Cathedral or St Peter’s, and Jesus was telling us that this great, inspiring symbol of our faith was going to be torn down, destroyed, or maybe like Hagia Sophia turned into a mosque. We would struggle to believe it, but we can imagine it.
Harder to imagine is why Jesus prophesied this at all. We given a clue in our Old Testament reading from Daniel. It’s one of the more recent Old Testament books, written in the genre we now call “Apocalyptic,” meaning “unveiling” or “revelation,” the most famous other example of which is the last book of the New Testament, the “Apocalypse” or “Revelation” of John. Put simply, it’s a particular subgenre of prophetic writing which takes present-day happenings and takes them of symbols revealing the end of the world, and while it doesn’t have its own section at Waterstones these days, it was very much in vogue back then. Whenever Jesus talks about the end of the age, the wars and famines and earthquakes and the destruction of this world order, he is drawing on that Jewish Apocalyptic tradition, and we have to set aside our modern, literalistic worldview to see what he means. We have to read the symbols.
The writer of this bit of Daniel predicts a war between the angels and the devils, with the heavenly hosts being championed by the Archangel Michael. This is the setting he envisages for the Resurrection, when, he says, “many of those who sleep in the dust of the earth shall awake, some to everlasting life, and some to shame and everlasting contempt.” Now bear in mind that not all Jewish sects believed in the Resurrection, or in any kind of afterlife or judgment at all; and chief among these were the upper-class Saduccees, who were in complete control of the Temple. Jesus clearly did believe in the Resurrection, so you can see why he was prophesying the end of Temple Judaism and locating himself in the Apocalyptic narrative we heard from Daniel.
Belief in what happens after death was controversial in Jesus’ day, and has remained so ever since. I can only assume that this passage of Daniel, about some waking to everlasting life and others to everlasting contempt, is what inspired those famous lines of William Blake some 1700 years later:
Every Morn and every Night
Some are Born to sweet delight.
Some are Born to sweet delight,
Some are Born to Endless Night.

Blake echoes the ideas of John Calvin, influential in his time, that what happens to us at the end of time is fixed by God from the beginning of time. You’re made either for heaven or for hell. But that determinism, the idea that we have no free control of our destiny, is not there in Daniel, is not taught by Jesus, and was firmly repudiated by the Church of England, as we find in today’s Collect, penned by the High Church Bishop John Cosin in the seventeenth century. We use it just before Advent because of its apocalyptic themes: Jesus, we prayed, “was revealed to destroy the works of the Devil,” so that “when he shall appear in power and great glory we may be made like him.” Our ultimate end is to be like Christ, an echo of John’s First Letter: “We know that, when he shall appear, we shall be like him; for we shall see him as he is.” Divinisation, apotheosis, becoming like God: that is what heaven is.
But the important bit of the Collect is how we get there. We prayed in that Collect, grant that we “may purify ourselves even as he is pure.” Purify ourselves! The very opposite of Calvin and his notion that we are what we are, and there’s nothing we can do about it. The Church teaches that no one is born to endless night. God has given us the freedom to purify ourselves.
He has also given us the means: the means of grace, and the hope of glory. And it is the Cross of Christ. It is the sacrifice by which the veil of the Temple is torn away and we see God face-to-face, as absolute, self-giving love. It is the sacrifice in which we can take part if we tear away the veil of a prosaic worldview that trusts only in stone-hard facts, training ourselves to see truth in the spaces between words, in the poetry of apocalypse; to see through the cracks of the world in all its horror those glimpses of the Kingdom of Heaven shining; to see the Body and Blood of Christ through bread and wine: 
To see a World in a Grain of Sand
And a Heaven in a Wild Flower,
Hold Infinity in the palm of your hand
And Eternity in an hour.

– More Blake. So come now to the Altar, take infinity in the palm of your hand, eat the Bread of Angels, purify yourself, be a Living Stone in that Temple which can never be destroyed.

The opinions represented herein are those of Thomas Plant only.

Blackwell Companion to Christian Ethics

I’m now now reading the Blackwell Companion to Christian Ethics, which is not the dull primer it sounds like. Rather, it is an intriguing compilation of essays edited by Stanley Hauerwas and Sam Wells arguing that we must derive Christian ethics directly from the narrative and pattern of the Eucharist. Worth a read, especially if you want to embed your Christian life, parish work and preaching more deeply in the Catholic conviction of the centrality of the Mass.

The opinions represented herein are those of Thomas Plant only.

All Saints, All Ears

“Listen:” the first word of the Rule of St Benedict, one of the oldest rules of life for monks and nuns. One word, carefully chosen, one simple order given as the basis for the entire spiritual life. Benedict could have chosen another word, like obey, or pray, or preach, or work, but his experience told him that all that comes later. First, just listen. I think it’s harder than ever really to listen, there’s so much to distract us nowadays.
We do spend a lot of time pretending to listen, though. How many times have you heard politicians being interviewed saying “I hear you?” – and you know full well that what they really mean is, I hear you, but I haven’t got time actually to listen to you. Your words have passed through my ears, but I’m not going to bother to process them now, because what I’ve got to say is more important.
But it’s not just politicians – most of us are guilty. You visit an ailing and elderly relative, and you’re sick of hearing about their cocktail of afflictions, what medicines they’re taking, and it doesn’t help if they’re slow of speech or hard of hearing, so if they talk too much you shut them up or if they don’t talk enough you fill in the awkward silences by blathering on about the weather, or Corrie, or the kids’ achievements, or anything – except them. And when you leave (because there’s always something important to do right after the visit, isn’t there?) you console yourself that you’ve been and “cheered them up.” But might it just be, if we’re honest, that actually, we dread expending the emotional energy of being with people in their pain and their grief? We change the subject, we watch the clocks, we make excuses. Anything but listen.
The saints are people who spend their lives listening: not just with their ears, but with their whole being, completely receptive: to God, of course. Receptive in their prayer, in their study, in their work, but also in their relationships, especially with the suffering and the needy whom they serve. So open, listening so deeply, that they become like antennae, receiving God’s love and then transmitting it into the world. Note the order: you have to be a receiver before you can be a transmitter. Hence the priority in St Benedict’s Rule of that first word, right at the top of the list for the spiritual life: “listen.”
Listening for God like the Saints is something we can all do. OK, our attention might be consumed by work, children, bills, ringing telephones, SMS, emails, Facebook. But the saints weren’t exactly layabouts, and they managed. St Francis, St John Vianney, Mother Teresa, weren’t cloistered up, but lived serving the poor in harsh conditions, and yet were profoundly still and spiritually receptive. St Ignatius of Loyola founded and led the entire Jesuit society, and yet is famed for the insight of his Spiritual Exercises.
OK, you might say, but none of them had children. But there is a long line of married saints, in fact, starting with Mary and Joseph. Think of someone like Rowan Williams, who has a wife and children and yet has somehow managed not only to be one of the stillest, holiest people I have met, but also to knock out a best-seller every year even while he was Archbishop of Canterbury. Or, indeed, of children who were saints themselves, like Saint Bernadette with her visions of Our Lady in Lourdes.
I know, first hand, that singles and married, children and pensioners alike, can learn to love the stillness and silence of prayer. You don’t have to be a monk or a nun, and you don’t have to wait until your hair’s turned grey. We can all be people of deep prayer, listeners to God, saints.
I’d go so far as to say that prayer is the whole point of being Christian. Just last week, I was in a remote Anglican friary in deepest, darkest Worcestershire. It’s near my parent’s house, and I often drive over there for mass, praying that my tyres will make it up the unmade road (and I did have a lucky escape one frozen winter morning). This time, I was only there for about an hour and a half. There were about ten people in the chapel, including the Franciscan brothers, keeping silence in the presence of the Blessed Sacrament, preparing for the Eucharist. But the silence wasn’t empty. They say you could “cut” the silence, generally when it’s of the negative sort, but this was a positive silence, even radiant. It was silence you could drink, and still be left panting for more. It wasn’t just an absence of noise: it was a silence with substance, a silence that you could tell came from within the people gathered there: no twitching, no clockwatching, no playing with mobile ‘phones. I took some of that wonderful silence with me, and as I drove home saw the world in brighter colours, calmly aware that God was there in all of it and all would be well. And I thought: if only I could see the world like this all the time. If only we all could. If only we could make the space, take the time out of our often pointless busyness, and see the world and each other as the gift that they are.
This vision doesn’t have to be a fantasy, for you or for me. St Benedict counselled dividing the day equally into three parts: prayer, work and rest. We might not be able to make quite that balance, but we can surely make some. We can prioritise and make time for some silence – silence in our environment that will feed our inner silence. We can make time not just to hear but to listen to God. Our own Anglican tradition, enshrined in the Prayer Book, gives us a very practical rhythm for doing this: the Daily Office of psalms and readings every morning and evening. It and the modern Common Worship office are available free, online or as an App for computers, tablets, and ‘phones, so you don’t even have to flick through the pages, and you can pray anywhere, at home, on the train, in the car park waiting to pick up the kids. Or you can pick up a short version from the back of church, and all you need is a Bible to go with it.
Advent is coming, our time of spiritual preparation for Christmas, of calm before the irruption of God into the world. How are you going to find that inner silence, silence like the Virgin’s womb, silence like the empty tomb, to make way for God to be born and reborn in you? There are so many ways to train the soul to be like the saints and listen.

The opinions represented herein are those of Thomas Plant only.

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