November 2012


 

 

 

 

I speak this poem now with grave and level voice
In praise of autumn, of the far-horn-winding fall.

I praise the flower-barren fields, the clouds, the tall
Unanswering branches where the wind makes sullen noise.

I praise the fall: it is the human season.
Now
No more the foreign sun does meddle at our earth,
Enforce the green and bring the fallow land to birth,
Nor winter yet weigh all with silence the pine bough,

But now in autumn with the black and outcast crows
Share we the spacious world: the whispering year is gone:
There is more room to live now: the once secret dawn
Comes late by daylight and the dark unguarded goes.

Between the mutinous brave burning of the leaves
And winter’s covering of our hearts with his deep snow
We are alone: there are no evening birds: we know
The naked moon: the tame stars circle at our eaves.

It is the human season. On this sterile air
Do words outcarry breath: the sound goes on and on.
I hear a dead man’s cry from autumn long since gone.

I cry to you beyond upon this bitter air.

 

Archibald Macleish

 

 

have you not noticed
what the world is
really like?

it is like moonlight
shining in dewdrops
shaken, flying,
from the beak of a crane.

 

 

THE TREES are in their autumn beauty,
The woodland paths are dry,
Under the October twilight the water
Mirrors a still sky;
Upon the brimming water among the stones
Are nine and fifty swans.

The nineteenth Autumn has come upon me
Since I first made my count;
I saw, before I had well finished,
All suddenly mount
And scatter wheeling in great broken rings
Upon their clamorous wings.

I have looked upon those brilliant creatures,
And now my heart is sore.
All’s changed since I, hearing at twilight,
The first time on this shore,
The bell-beat of their wings above my head,
Trod with a lighter tread.

Unwearied still, lover by lover,
They paddle in the cold
Companionable streams or climb the air;
Their hearts have not grown old;
Passion or conquest, wander where they will,
Attend upon them still.

But now they drift on the still water
Mysterious, beautiful;
Among what rushes will they build,
By what lake’s edge or pool
Delight men’s eyes, when I awake some day
To find they have flown away?

 

W.B.Yeats, The wild swans at Coole

 

 

A Sermon preached at Emmanuel College, Cambridge Chapel 18 November 2012

Joy and Woe are woven fine

A clothing for the soul divine

Under every grief and pine

Lies a joy with silken twine

 

It is right it should be so

Man was made for joy and woe

And when this we rightly know

Through the world we safely go 

(William Blake)

 

For to me, living is Christ and dying is gain. (Philippians 1:21)

 

If someone was to ask you what was distinctive, attractive or even transformative about the Christian faith how would you respond? I want to open up one area this evening against the back cloth of these terms sermons about the way we live now. Here it is –   faith helps to negotiate the geography of dying. Indeed it asks us to embrace this life of both joy and woe as the raw material for our wholeness. In the befriending of death there is colour and wisdom and truth.

 

It would be surprising if many of us have spent much time looking at death in the face. Most of us desire a life of peace and contentment where our anxieties contain and so the harsher or more fearful or more threatening aspects of life are either kept under control or just put off until we have to face them when they occur.

 

However, some have little alternative but to face the reality of loss and change and even death. The unexpected diagnosis of cancer; the loss of parents; adapting to life without dependent children; finding a partner and losing a partner; coping with transitions of older age. These and other life experiences confront us with a number of questions.

Our past experiences and memories shape us too. All aspects of our past combine to make this the kind of people we are today: for good and ill. We all have to live with the choices we have made and the experiences that shape our lives. So, perhaps, how we embrace our dying within our living is fundamental to our well-being, our hopes, our fears, our loves, our passions and in the end, our salvation.

This theme of living our dying is based on three convictions. The first is that death in itself is not important. It is not charged with meaning, though for those left it is often fraught with meaning: death is simply the point or moment when a person ceases to live stop. What then is important is not death but dying.

The second conviction is what we call living can in fact be rightly seen as dying. We are all die and embracing a range of changes and losses throughout our lives were all living in a dying situation, diminishing constantly and reacting to the experiences that make for diminishment. It is worth looking back at some of the key points of our lives and asking how these events or experiences have shaped what life means for us and how we drill for wisdom.

The third conviction is that our struggle to live in the light of coming or approaching death is always charged with meaning. In part, our salvation depends upon what sense we make of it all in the light of our faith in God. This is why this area of living is such an opportunity and challenge – worthy of all the attention paid to it by writers, poets, preachers and artists.

 

We are involved now in the contradictions between life and death. Our living is partly surrender and partly fight! Our lives are a wonderful and mysterious mixture of giving up and not giving up, of surrender and resistance. In these paradoxes, in both aspects, both living our dying and dying to live we encounter God.

 

Think for a moment about your lives. Our lives are made up of a complex series of losses changes, movements, partings and endings. The child’s in us has to die before we become an independent teenager, and we do not become such until we have put away some of the cosy privileges and protectiveness of the child. Another area of life where we successively die to be reborn is that of parting. I never get used to parting either from people or places. The places where I have lived and worked twined themselves around my heart like ivy around a tree trunk. Every corner has a memory that can target at the heart. Leaving people is, of course, even more difficult than leaving places.

 

Yet we know that unless we part from one place and stage in life cannot begin in another. Sometimes our affection for the old has to be released in purified before we can treat the new with seriousness and respect. So it is with colleagues and friends. However heartrending the breakup of a relationship it often has to happen quite brutally in order that we can grow and work seriously with other people, partners and friends. To refuse to accept the death of one relationship can hamper the making of a new one. Here is an example of where growth begins with a walking away and letting go. Indeed, love is often proved in the letting go.

Sometimes the parting is not of our choosing or indeed negotiated by us and that indeed is painful. Others may make the decisions that shape our lives and losses.it is very hard in these circumstances not to feel the kind of death and rejection. Failing to get a job, compulsory redundancy, bereavement, sudden death and failed love are all examples of the experiences of dying and loss that make up our lives. And you will know what shape these experiences take in you.

The Church is about to enter the season of Advent and next week’s Carol service will meditate on the themes of hope and expectation. When I reflect on my many years of listening to people there are many common threads that emerge – coming clean and facing facts honestly; encountering suffering, pain and loss; drawing close to people and refusing to be isolated; asking for and accepting help; confronting the reality and finality of death but above all being able and willing to be vulnerable.

 

One thread relates very much to our theme. We are   perhaps conditioned to avoid confronting fear, to avoid the wilderness and the desert places in our own hearts world stop. We live under a kind of tyranny of certainty where strength, confidence, life, success and security dominate our emotional, social, ecclesiastical and political lives. In our healing, our growing we seek those things that we can control, that reassure us rather than face us with our fears doubts. And if we seek to control, avoid, deny then the way we live now will always be dominated by fear. Frightened individuals build frightened societies stop fearful Christians build fearful lives where uncertainty, contradiction, paradox and ambiguity are dealt with by going for false security, strength and certainty. Instead of drawing people together fear polarises and it separates and isolates people from one another and people from their very selves.

 

There can be healing and growth. When we accept our need of others, when we let go of our independence and our drive to succeed and be always in control. To give is to be powerful; to receive is to be vulnerable. The gospel demands that we are drawn out of this tyranny of certainty. Dying to self means that we help each other to hold together the paradoxes and contradictions between life and death, fear and faith, hope and despair, love and hate, alienation and relationship, fragmentation and connectedness.

Christ is part of the same offering, the same sacrifice, which is completed on the cross. It is for his self-offering that Christmas exhorts God’s gift in this lowly baby. Our discipleship affirms the trust and the death of Christ and its power to create new life, to transform all the fragments of our living and dying.

 

The gospel message offers is only a certain promise of uncertainty, of continuing loss and sometimes pain. It reminds as the comprehending mystery is the process of discovery and engaging with the struggle to manage these profound ambiguities or paradoxes as a condition of our living. It is about being in touch with our weaknesses and vulnerabilities as the basis of our living, loving and dying.

 

 

Here is the opening to my lecture in Southwark Cathedral last night

In a science museum, there is one exhibit in particular which attracted long lines of children: “Face Ageing”. A child sits down in front of an automatic camera and has their portrait taken. They wait and their digitized bust appears on a TV  monitor. Then, tapping a button like a VCR remote, each child could rapidly call up simulations of what she or he would look like at one year intervals, up to the age of 69. In seconds, the computer added grotesque pouches, reddy skin and blotches to their familiar features; the faces become elongated, then wider and then saggy. Lines become more heavily rutted. Boys lost hair, hair turned grey. The heads of both girls and boys grew then shrunk.

 

I watched on as an idle observer, amazed at the response. “I don’t want to get old”, said one boy while another child commented, unkindly perhaps, on a friend “he’s disgusting at 42”. Thanks, I thought to myself!

 

Nobody stayed in the booth long. Anyone could have stopped punching the button altogether at any age, or lingered longer at a particular age. But most swept through the changes of their punitive face course to the bitter end. They came out pre-occupied, distracted, some giggling recklessly, most edging away fast, not wanting to talk about the experience, not knowing what had happened in there. I think that most of the children came away feeling that they did not want to get old.

As Virginia Wolf says, “If you are young, the future lies upon the present, like a piece of glass, making it tremble and quiver.” Because I think it is part of a wider and interesting picture of a society prepared to face some of the cultural challenges and opportunities of ageing. People who are prepared to reflect on age, even if, or especially if, it fills them with fear, are surely all better prepared to think about the choices that might surround the shape of ageing for them as individuals or communities.

 

When we discover that we have been wrong, we say that we were under an illusion, and when we no longer believe in something, we say that we are disillusioned. More generally, analogies to vision are ubiquitous in the way we think about knowledge and error. People who possess the truth are perceptive, insightful, observant., illuminated, enlightened, and visionary; by contrast, the ignorant are in the dark. When we comprehend something, we say I see. And we say, too, that the scales have fallen from our eyes; that once we were blind, but now we see.

This link between seeing and knowing is not just metaphorical. For the most part, we accept as true anything that we see with our own eyes, or reg­ister with any of our other senses. We take it on faith that blue is blue, that hot is hot, that we are seeing a palm tree sway in the breeze because there is a breeze blowing and a palm tree growing. 

We are all prone to regarding the ideas in our own heads as direct reflections of reality, and this particularly true in the domain of perception. Heat, palm trees, blueness, breeziness: we take these to be attributes of the world that our senses simply and passively absorb.

For a different example of the utility of interpretation, consider your blind spot—the literal one, I mean. The blind spot is that part of the eye where the optic nerve passes through the retina, preventing any visual pro­cessing from taking place. If perception were just unembellished sensation, we would experience a chronic lacuna where this nerve interrupts our visual field. Buv we do not, because our brain automatically corrects the problem through a process known as coherencing.  

No matter what these processes do, though, one thing remains the same: we have no idea that they are doing it. The mechanisms that form our perceptions operate almost entirely below the level of conscious aware­ness; ironically, we cannot sense how we sense. And here another bit of meta-wrongness arises. Because we can’t perceive these processes in action, and thereby take note of the places where error could enter the picture, we feel that we cannot be wrong. Or, more precisely, we cannot feel that we could be wrong. Our obliviousness to the act of interpretation leaves us insensitive—literally—to the possibility of error.

 

 

 

Silence is the language of God, and the only language deep enough to absorb all the contradictions and failures that we are holding against ourselves. God loves us silently because God has no case to make against us. The silent communion absorbs our self-hatred, as every lover knows.

We put words between ourselves and things. Even God has become another conceptual unreality in a no-man’s land of language that no longer serves as a means of communion with reality. The solitary life, being silent, clears away the smokescreen of words that we have laid down between our mind and things. In solitude we remain face to face with the naked being of things. And yet we find that the nakedness of reality which we have feared is neither a matter of terror nor of shame. It is clothed in the friendly communion of silence, and this silence is related to love.

 

 

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