A seed becomes a sapling

Last night’s Harvest Supper brought  the Convivium events for 2018 to a successful close. What a year it has been!

It doesn’t seem that long ago that I was sitting in the bath tub reflecting on a collection of essays by Wendell Barry. I had been moved powerfully by his idea of conviviality, which eloquently brought together my own fascination with the idea of delight, concerns about how consumerism degrades communities, and my experiences of healthy church communities. It was then that I decided I would try to promote the ideals of conviviality at the Cathedral.

That decision was based (I’d like to believe) on more than the whim of a residentiary canon who likes to spend too much time in the hills. Brecon is a magical place that has been blessed with all the ingredients for fostering convivial communities: an ancient heritage, stunning countryside, friendly folk, and people with big hearts. The ideal of conviviality–living well with God, creation, and each other–fits this place like a hand and glove.

At first, the idea was simply to hold a day-long festival. But as I spoke with charities, members of the Cathedral, and local folk, the idea expanded quickly into Convivium. After the Church generously provided me with a grant, we were off to the races.

9 months later, we can now look back on a series of really successful events, each of which promoted an aspect of Convivium.

  • The Convivium Festival connected people with ideas of conservation and community;
  • St Eluned’s Day promoted Welsh heritage, drew 200 children, and ended with a Twmpath that was huge fun;
  • Brecon Community Harvest Supper celebrated the harvest, provided generous support for the Brecon Food Bank, and saw the Cathedral partner with the Brecon Food Festival.

By any measure, all of these events (fairly modest in themselves) were successful. Much harder to quantify, however, has been their impact. There’s a buzz here in Brecon now about the Cathedral. I can hardly ever walk into town now (in clericals or otherwise) without someone stopping me to chat. We now have strong relationships with the Food Bank, the local L’Arche Community, heritage groups, and the music scene plus new connections with environmental groups, charities, and other non-profits. New links with PAVO has led to the first group of volunteers coming to the Cathedral to spend the day clearing up the churchyard. And on the back of all this, life in the Cathedral has sparked with new life.

The Convivium seed has become a sapling.

Plans are well underway for 2019. The first Convivium academic conference is well underway as is a plan to run a junior conference with Priory School. The Convivium Festival (now slated for 14-15 June) is being expanded to 2-days with additional walks, workshops, and talks. We should shortly start advertising the first Convivium Retreat at Llangasty on the theme of Delight and including local walks in the stunning scenery of Llangorse and the Black Mountains. Stay tuned!

The seed never would have sprouted had it not been for the generosity of so many people. The friendships and connections made during the past few months have crowned the joy of watching a vision become a reality. Thanks to all who have given of their precious time and money to support the initiative.

It all just goes to show how fulfilling a more convivial world would be.

The Final Lap

Well, after five months of preparation, the big day is almost upon us. Friday we’ll set up gazebos, staging, get out the chairs and tables, test equipment and everything else needed to have the Cathedral ready for the festival. And then on Saturday it happens. The forecast couldn’t be better. All the charities will be present and we’ve promoted the day the best we can. So, everything’s in place. There’s no good reason why the day shouldn’t be a blast.

But will it be a success? On one level, I’m confident it will be. The guided walk up the Crug will be a delight. I know enough about the author Nick Hunt to know that his talk will be engaging. Hatful of Rain sound great and as Carolina barbecue is next to God…well, no worries there. And if the forecast holds and the Almighty ships in some Carolina sunshine to boot then for what more can one ask? We’re gonna have fun!

But that’s not why we’re doing it. The day will only really be a success if it’s the start of something. All the work will only have been worthwhile if our tagline, Living well with God, creation, and others captures people’s imaginations. It’ll only be a success if the charities involved connect with people.

The world is groaning (to borrow the language of St Paul) and it’s groaning loudly. In the face of all the tragedy–social, political, and ecological–that we and our way of life are producing, a spot of fun on a sunny day is as nothing.  It might even be offensive to those in the midst of all that tragedy.

Only if Saturday can begin to evoke a vision of a new world, of how we collectively can do things differently–living convivially with all that’s good, true, and beautiful–will we have achieved our goals.

But that’s going to take a lot. It’ll require people to think about God differently. It’ll definitely demand that a lot of people think about the Church differently (including most of us in the Church!). It’ll mean thinking about ourselves and our neighbours differently. And it’ll require us to relate to the natural world differently. That won’t happen overnight or even at a fun festival on a sunny day.

But who knows? Stranger things have happened than for a small Cathedral in a rural town in mid-Wales to be the start of something new. Perhaps in years to come, we’ll look back on 23 June as the start of a revival of conviviality.

In the 17th-century, we Anglicans were dismissed by other Christians as being too ‘subject to the vice of good fellowship.” Well, I can think of little that our world needs more right now than a bit of “good fellowship.”

Good fellowship with God, creation, and our neighbours: what’s that but mere Christianity?

The Convivium Festival is just the beginning. With good will and God’s blessing, who knows what we might achieve in the coming years. All I do know, is that I’m excited.

So, if you live locally, come along to the Cathedral this Saturday. If you live too far away to join us, then do please offer up a prayer for us.

We’re all in this together.

Pre-booking is still available here.

 

 

Locality

The fifth installment of guest essays on the Convivium Principles is by Fr Will Brown, rector of the Church of the Holy Cross, Dallas, TX. His regular contributions to Covenant and the Living Church, often bring together theology and ecology.

You drive through Atlanta (or, for that matter, Dallas or Houston) and take a look around, and up, and you wonder, what is this place? Is this a place? What’s going on here? Is this place trying to outdo New York or be something new under the sun? Is this progress, and if it is progress, is progress good or bad or both, and if both, how do you tell the good from the bad? (Walker Percy in “Going Back to Georgia” from “Signposts in a Strange Land: Essays”).

Written in 1978, these words have only become more apt with the passing of years, the questions more urgent. “Is this a place?” The question springs to my mind in connection with a preponderance of the “places” in which I find myself. And it leads to a deeper question: what makes a place? Might we identify place-making qualities in virtue of which a “place” becomes a place? And by extension, the perennial question facing the dislocated, those who find themselves, for one reason or another, “out of place” – what has gone wrong with our world? On account of what, precisely, has the prevailing sense of alienation, of being uprooted from one’s proper place, arisen in the consciousnesses of so many?

In his “Rule,” St. Benedict places great weight on stability, rootedness in place. The worst kind of monks, he says, are the gyrovagues, who have no fixed place, but “spend their whole lives tramping from province to province.” These monks are so miserable, says Benedict, that it is best not even to speak of them. By contrast, the defining feature of authentic brothers and sisters in a community is their rootedness in place, their resolution to remain there, barring some extraordinary circumstances, until they are dead. So important did Benedict believe this rootedness-in-place to be that he made it the cornerstone of monastic practice for his followers – it was (and is) the second of three vows made by every man and woman entering the Benedictine religious life: stability.

 Obviously, most of us are not monks. Our personal and professional lives are “out there,” in the broad sphere of the world. But the principle of stability can and should inform our secular commitments too. Rootedness-in-place is, after all, a means to an end. It’s meant, in Benedict’s telling, and in truth, one might say, to be a school of delight, a platform from which we learn really to see, and so to love. After all, love is not an abstraction. It’s rather discreet and particular – if it’s real, then it’s always local – it must find a fixed object within the domains we actually inhabit. And this is more than merely a moralistic or romantic concern, for we won’t spoil or ruin the objects of our love, nor suffer others to spoil or ruin them. This thought is an urgent one, as we see more and more of our world being spoiled and ruined.

“What is this place? Is this a place? What’s going on here?” Percy intuited a peculiar problem of modernity: the possibility, one might say, of being dislocated in place – a phenomenon expressed in the loneliness of people in cities, even as they are living amongst a great aggregation of other people and things. The problem of dislocation-in-place is likewise exacerbated by the increasing technological mediation of all relationships. How many times have I checked Facebook or Instagram this week?

There are better ways of life, and it is our task to find them and to live them, not only for our own sake, but for the sake of our fellow travelers who do not even (yet) realize that there is a problem, who tramp from one province of life to another, never knowing that there are better and deeper and richer ways of living, better loves to cultivate, non-virtual spaces to inhabit and to till.

Sustainability

The fourth installment of guest essays on the Convivium Principles is by The Revd Dr Zachary Guiliano, an associate editor of The Living Church and a deacon of the Church of England serving as assistant curate at St. Bene’t’s Church, Cambridge.

In the opening chapters of Genesis, we read of how God makes the world, a world teeming with life: the sun, moon, and stars; swarms of creatures filling earth, sea, and sky; bounded domains of alternating light and darkness; and amid this resonating harmony, men and women made in the image of God.

Yet that chapter and the world they describe are marked by even more. They are marked by meaningful work, goodness, and rest.

The Lord God is a labourer or master craftsman: he makes the heaven and the earth in all their splendour by his own powerful Word. He “marks out the horizon on the face of the deep” (Prov. 8:27), and orders “all by measure, weight, and number” (Wis. 11:20). He “stretches out the heavens like a tent and lays the beams of his upper chambers” (Ps. 104:2-3). He drenches the earth’s furrows and levels its ridges as he visits, plants, and waters it (Ps. 65:9-10).

This work is meaningful. As each stage, God “saw that it was good,” and at the end he saw “everything that he had made, and behold, it was very good” (Gen. 1:31). God took delight in the wisdom with which he made all things and in the world itself (8:30-31).

Finally, when all was “finished,” we are told that “on the seventh day, God rested from all the work that he had done. So God blessed the seventh day and hallowed it” (Gen. 2:2-3).

This is how the world was made, how it is meant to be: a good world marked by meaningful labour and rest. But our experience of the world in which we live is not so.

Are our lives marked by meaningful work?

Can we perceive and share in the goodness of the world?

Do we rest from our labour, or even feel we can rest?

We are often alienated from our labour: we see no meaning in it and barely “by the sweat of our brow” are we able to live by it. The goodness of the world feels like something for others, and even resting one day in seven is out of sight, amid the feverish activity of a world that only ever seems to speed up and not slow down.

This is not a sustainable or humane way to live ¾ neither in accordance with God’s will for us nor in harmony with nature and neighbour, for we rarely now interact with either. The way we live now will lead to mutual destruction as surely as war, famine, pestilence, or plague. Supposing ourselves the wise masters of the world around us, we find ourselves slaves, bound with chains that we forge link by link. We’re cogs in a relentless machine we can’t even pretend to understand.

This is not the freedom we were made for, “the glorious liberty of the children of God,” for which all creation “groans” (Rom. 8:22, 23).

Thankfully, in the Lord, we can begin again. For when we sense that something is not right, we have an inkling of what might be. We can hope for and pursue God’s future by a renewed way of life in the present that sustains us and our neighbour and the earth. But to do so, we need community, conviviality, and the grace of Christ.

We need community, for we cannot do this on our own. The Lord made the world to be a diverse order of all things, great and small, pulling toward the good that is common to us all, the source of goodness, God himself. By coming together, we will find greater vision and ability.

We need conviviality, for a life without joy is hardly life at all. We need renewed patterns of being with one another that are marked by neighbourliness, delight, and a gracious hospitality for one another. What makes for joy and gladness that can be sustained, not only for one generation, but a thousand?

We need the grace of Christ, for we could never do this in our own strength. We could never even catch a glimpse of life lived rightly were we to rely on our own powers of intellect, will, or affection. The forces of alienation and despair are too strong, and we are caught up in them even now. We need the Holy Spirit that kindles the fire of divine love: love for God and love for neighbour.

What would a better life, a more delightful life, a sustainable life look like?

It might look more like an image from the first chapters of Genesis: where every man, woman, and child can enter into the delight of their Maker, by taking part in every good art and skill, both at work and at rest.

We must begin with small steps, or we shall never begin at all. Let us try do so together.

Memory

The third installment of guest essays on the Convivium Principles is by Dr Hannah Matis, assistant professor of church history at Virginia Theological Seminary in Alexandria, Virginia.

For the Christian, the eucharistic feast is always an act of memory: called to “do this in remembrance of me,” the sacrament unites us in fellowship with each other, with those who have honored Christ’s command in the past, and those with whom we shall celebrate the wedding-supper of the Lamb.  We should be reminded that to remember Christ is not the exclusive prerogative of one age or generation but is a continuous, evolving practice.

The Christian theologian most fascinated by memory, St. Augustine, used to refer to memory as a storehouse: the collective memory of our own lives, of the past, of our countries, of an individual religious community, or of the Christian tradition as a whole, are all precious resources on which to draw, valuable ballast in a turbulent world.  By contrast, a community that has excised or forgotten its own traditions, is, like an amnesiac, extraordinarily vulnerable to manipulation from outside.

Memory may be a storehouse, but that does not mean that its contents are either simple or static.  Augustine wrestled with the shifting nature of human memory, not only with our capacity to forget, but also how events happening in the present can alter our perceptions of the past.  To the occasional exasperation of historians, Augustine’s Confessions are not a dispassionate account of his childhood but an ongoing conversation in prayer about how he should remember his early life, in particular, how God’s grace was mysteriously working in ways Augustine was not aware of at the time.  In his much later masterpiece on the Trinity, Augustine locates the image of God in us in the integrated relation of human memory, understanding, and will.  Neuroscientists remain perplexed by the sheer complexity of memory and how memories can be created or altered in our brains by shifting networks of neurons.  Memory is not an object we hold, but a living ecosystem within us, and between us.

Like all ecosystems, memory, whether of a single person, a community, or even an entire society, requires tending and nurture.  We are far more alert today to the effects of trauma and post-traumatic stress syndrome on an individual: a refugee, a soldier, a child, a battered spouse, can carry prisons inside their own minds, sometimes for the rest of their lives.  While how little we know is humbling, the act of narration, of articulating a story or changing an existing narrative, seems to play a crucial role in restoring agency to people who have been, and are being, crushed by their own memories.  Likewise, the act of interpretating the past is necessary for any community to develop a coherent and rooted identity, but particularly so for a Christian community that desires to be formed and shaped by Christ’s example while carrying with it the burden of its own past failures.  To engage honestly with a rich, complex, and not always edifying history, while aspiring to live “in remembrance of me,” can be an impressive act of Christian witness.

Augustine lived to see the last days of the greatest empire his world had ever seen.  It is ironic that Augustine, who of any of his contemporaries was perhaps the least flabbergasted by the fall of Rome should, in the end, have had perhaps the greatest impact in preserving its cultural legacy.  In the face of purists who claimed that the entire heritage of classical Greece and Rome was tainted by its paganism, Augustine argued that Christians were like the Israelites who, as they left Egypt, plundered the riches of the Egyptians: they could continue to benefit from their past without spiritual harm.  Communities of nuns and monks in the early medieval West laboriously copied by hand the great classical writers, saving texts for future generations.  They were not, and did not set out to be archivists and librarians in the modern sense, but they were members of Christian communities acutely aware of their role as guardians of the memory of their community and society, and of a past that they deemed worth preserving. In our world, where memory is treated so carelessly, that events or “facts” can be deleted with a few keystrokes, don’t we have a lesson to learn from the labors of a fifth-century bishop?

Hospitality

The second installment of guest essays on the Convivium Principles is by The Revd Clint Wilson, associate rector for Christian Faith and formation at St. George’s Episcopal Church in Nashville, Tennessee.

Let’s play a game. When you hear the word ‘hospitality,’ what pops into your mind? A hotel, a conference center, a cruise boat, or a theme park? Perhaps this seems like a strange question to you, but I’d like to follow the lead of several other writers who suggest that hospitality should actually be associated primarily with the Church and the cross of Christ. It’s ultimately through the cross and the Church that human brothers and sisters are turned from hostility to hospitality, but more on this in a moment.

A few weeks ago I found myself at a conference listening to the actor Tony Hale, who is famous for playing Buster Bluth in Arrested Development and who currently acts in the HBO comedy entitled, VEEP. Someone asked him if “fame is all that it is cracked up to be,” to which he provided a profound response. Simply put, he affirmed that the desire to be famous is rooted in the need to be known, and yet ironically, famous people are so often the least known, and the least able to trust others (who knows if fan or friend might be after their money, or seeking to use them?). Inevitably, Hale affirmed this state-of-affairs often leads to the adoration of the celebrity even as he or she lives in isolation with the illusion of community, friendship, and belonging.

In the heart of every person exists the need to belong—to know others and to be known—and ultimately, to become at home in God’s love. And there’s the rub, for this need and desire of the heart so often goes unfulfilled. As Henri Nouwen recognized,

In our world full of strangers, estranged from their own past, culture and country, from their neighbors, friends and family, from their deepest self and their God, we witness a painful search for a hospitable place where life can be lived without fear and community can be found” (Reaching Out, p.65).

              Convivium is committed to fostering a community that’s in stark contrast to the world by embodying a robust tradition of hospitality, as articulated in the following Convivium Principle: “There is no love without a delight that creates deep bonds of affection, a communion in which the lover seeks to dwell beneficially with and for the beloved. Such love arises when we seek to seek opportunities to practice hospitality.” This reality is reflected in the very meaning of the word convivium, which means to live together; feast, banquet.

The challenge before Christians and the Church is the reality that hospitality has at points been abdicated precisely by many in the Church as it has been farmed out as a specialized discipline, one that has now ballooned into an industry, such that it is largely un-tethered from the life of everyday Christian ministry and discipleship (“isn’t hospitality for those in the hospitality services?”).

As demonstrated by Dr. Christine Pohl in her excellent book, Making Room, hospitality has in the past functioned as a rich theological and pastoral tradition of the people of God. From Abraham’s hospitality to angelic messengers at the Oaks of Mamre, to Jesus’ invitation to Zaccheus, and the Messiah’s eye-opening meal with the Emmaus Road disciples, Pohl traces out the rich tradition of hospitality practiced by God and his people. Indeed, what is Jesus’s Last Supper and his body broken and his blood shed for us, but a redemptive banquet meal that continues to animate the life of the Church into the present day, and that turns us from hostility to hospitality, from being a stranger to a friend? It is precisely this vision that fueled and funded the early Church’s establishment of hospitals, hostels and more.

It is no accident that meals and hospitality have so often been at the heart of healing in race relations, in dialogue around ideological divides, and in diffusing tension amidst cultural differences. Indeed, our human family—our cities and rural communities—could use some hospitality. And the Good News is this: the promise of hospitality is endless for those who seek it out and for those who share it, because the God of hospitality who spread his arms on the hard wood of the cross, and who spreads a Table for the life of the world, will also work through our efforts too. Indeed, in welcoming the stranger we live as him, but more importantly, we receive and welcome him, the one in whom we know most fully, and are known most fully (Galatians 4:9).

Delight

The first installment of guest essays on the Convivium Principles is by The Revd Dr Jordan Hillebert, Tutor in Theology / Residential Tutor at St Padarn’s Institute in Cardiff. 

There are some things which are to be enjoyed, some which are to be used… Those which are to be enjoyed make us happy; those which are to be used assist us and give us a boost, so to speak, as we press on towards our happiness, so that we may reach and hold fast to the things which make us happy (Augustine, On Christian Teaching I.3).

As a simple depiction of how we navigate the world around us, Augustine’s distinction between use and enjoyment is as elegant as it’s perhaps obvious. We’re constantly weighing the barrage of stuff that we encounter every day in terms of either their usefulness or their sheer delightfulness. A spoon is rarely an object of delight. It’s useful when it successfully connects me to the thing I desire – another mouthful of sticky toffee pudding. It’s useless if it bends under the weight of all that caramel. The pudding, meanwhile, is there to be enjoyed. However useful the pudding may or may not be for nourishing my body or satisfying my hunger, I’m mostly interested in its capacity to make me happy.

The nearly instinctual set of judgments that go into something as simple as eating a dessert are repeated endlessly throughout the course of our lives. We pursue things that make us happy. We avoid things that make us unhappy. We make use of things that assist us in our pursuit of happiness. We disregard other things as useless to this pursuit. This is all just part and parcel of how we make our way through the world.

But of course, Augustine is not simply interested in the kinds of desires and decisions that propel us through the world. He’s interested in the world itself as created by God. The universe is not just some raw material that I can manipulate for my own use and enjoyment. It has a purpose, is shot-through with meaning. All things are loved into existence by God, and all things find their raison d’être in God. It’s necessary therefore that we use and enjoy things in the right way. It’s vital, in other words, that our use and enjoyment correspond to the true order of God’s good creation. This is what distinguishes use from abuse.

For Augustine (as indeed for most Christians throughout history), God is the supreme object of our enjoyment – the source and summit of humanity’s greatest joy. We don’t use God in order to gain something better. God is the happiness that we seek. We’re thus liberated from the pain and disappointment of seeking our ultimate joy in something else – something infinitely incapable of satisfying our deepest desire. Other people will let us down. Our possessions rarely hold our attention, let alone our affections. Too much sticky toffee pudding will inevitably rot our teeth. But the steadfast love of God endures forever (Ps. 136:1).

In locating our true enjoyment in God, we begin to learn what it means to use and delight in the world around us aright, that is, for God’s sake. If God is the supreme object of our enjoyment, then everything else is useful insofar as it puts us in relation to him. The things we buy, and eat, and wear, and use all have the capacity to make us thankful, to spur us toward acts of generosity, and to deepen our sense of dependence upon our creator. In the Eucharist we become especially aware of the real depth of creation’s holy usefulness. We make use of the fruits of creation, wheat and grape, to make bread and wine; we make use of bread and wine as a sacrifice of praise and thanksgiving; God in turn makes use of our handiwork to feed us with himself.

Far from emptying the world of delight, the recognition that God is the supreme object of our enjoyment fills us with wonder at creation’s transparency to the love and goodness of God. ‘The heavens are telling the glory of God; and the firmament proclaims his handiwork’ (Ps. 19:1). Upon receiving a vision of the world as ‘a little thing, the size of a hazelnut nut’ in the palm of her hand, Julian of Norwich wonders to herself how such a thing could last, ‘for it seemed to me so small that it might have disintegrated suddenly into nothingness.’ The answer, she famously discovers, is that it lasts, ‘and always will, because God loves it; and in the same way everything has its being through the love of God’ (Julian of Norwich, Revelations of Divine Love, 7). To enjoy the world aright is to love what God loves because God loves it – to delight in God’s delight for his creation.

We are therefore, as a fellow American expat living in Wales nicely puts it, ‘stewards of God’s delight.’ We use things aright when we use them for the love of God. We enjoy things aright when we come to see them as objects of God’s love. In this way, by the love of God poured into our hearts by the Holy Spirit (Rom. 5:5), the desires and decisions that propel us through the world come to reflect the true order of God’s good creation.

 

 

[1] Julian of Norwich, Revelations of Divine Love (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2015), p. 7.

Repenting of Plastic

Recently, my Facebook page and Twitter account have been full of stories about plastic. It seems that plastic is everywhere…literally. One study determined that the mind-boggling 5 trillion particles of mircroplastics across the globe is likely an extremely conservative estimate. We already knew about the Rhode Island-sized island of floating waste in the Pacific Ocean. Really, we didn’t need to be told any of this since we see discarded plastic in our everyday lives. I’m continually amazed by how much I find even on remote mountains and seemingly forgotten moors. Since the 1950s when high-density polyethylene made plastic affordable, we have managed to pollute the entire global with our rubbish. That means that in less than 70 years we have filled the planet with waste that will outlast our civilisation and those that follow.

We praise the Greeks for their enduring philosophy and political thought; the Romans for their enduring buildings and legal codes; the Middle Ages for their enduring Gothic architecture; and the Renaissance for their enduring art and ideals. But we’ve topped them all with plastic. That water or coke bottle you just finished off will potentially outlast anything they created. People will be stumbling across our plastic junk long after the pyramids have crumbled into the sand.

The thing is, we shouldn’t need yet another campaign to wake people up to what we’re doing to the environment. We’ve been here before with air pollution, toxic rivers, massive top soil erosion, chemical landscapes, and acidification. Over and over again, we seem to need to reach crisis point for us to respond, to stop for a moment and consider the costs of our cherished way of living.

One benefit of the plastic crisis is that none of us can even pretend to be innocent. I know absolutely what plastic is doing to the world, and yet try as I might, it’s almost impossible for me to avoid buying plastic products. In my home, we get our milk delivered in glass bottles, bake our own bread, buy produce in brown paper bags and local meats wrapped in paper, and try to avoid plastic drinking bottles, and yet each week we take a plastic bin full of plastics out to be recycled. We long ago sold our souls to plastic, and so it won’t be easy to win our freedom.

What are we then to do? I’m all for people joining in plastic free campaigns, pressuring business and the government to reduce the use of single-use plastics, and making people aware of what we’re all doing to our beautiful, God-gifted creation. But they don’t go far enough, not least because it’s hard for us to sustain these campaigns. Worthy causes so often become just another occasion for virtue-signalling.

Within the Christian tradition, there’s the idea of metanoia. This Greek word literally means to turn around or change direction. It’s what lies behind the Christian practice of repentance, which is far more than just saying sorry. It means using the occasion of your own sins to reflect honestly about yourself in order to turn your life around. You get caught gossiping, you become aware of the malicious delight you take in bad-mouthing others, and that painful, honest self-awareness encourages you to stop gossiping. You refuse to acknowledge your anger until suddenly you explode and hit a loved one. That action forces you to confront the real you and do something about it.

We need to use social sins like plastic waste to shake us out of our self-satisfied complacency. That waste hasn’t happened accidentally. It has come because we demand unlimited choices. The ‘right to choose’, that highest virtue of consumer culture, has created a civilisation marked by its waste. Cheap goods, throw-away items, food from far-flung corners of the planet preserved in plastic, supposedly pure water, soft drinks, and so on require plastic. Multiply that 6 billion fold and you end up with a planet that’s quickly becoming less a paradise of God and more the trash heap of humanity. In short, as with most other forms of pollution, plastic waste is showing us that we must learn to accept limits, that there really is no such thing as ‘free choice’.

We desperately need a social, even global, metanoia. And the only way that will ever happen is if we as individuals and local communities embrace metanoia, seeking with each other’s support, to turn our consumer lives around by striving to live well with creation. Early Christians won converts by demonstrating a different way of living. ‘How do these Christian love one another!’ they exclaimed. Likewise, we badly to live so that people today might exclaim, ‘How do these people love their environment!’ For Christians, this means extending the uncompromising command to love to include all of creation.

It’s only by embracing lifestyles in harmony with the nature that we can begin to show the world that there’s a radically different way for us to live, that we can be better than mere consumers, and that we can produce ideas, art, architecture, and literature instead of just plastic that will outlive our civilisation.

I must confess that I don’t like even to think about what that demands of me. My own pathetic attempt to reduce my use of plastic have shown me how much I remain a consumer and how little I really want to change.

But, God-willing, that self-awareness may be just enough that, with a bit of patience and a lot of grace, I may finally live out my Christian faith in a way that does some good to this world God has gifted to us all.

 

The Lily of Humanity

There’s an old tradition within Christianity of relating Easter to all of nature. Perhaps the most famous example of this is found in the 6th-century Easter Hymn, ‘Hail thee festival day’:

Lo, the fair beauty of the earth, from the death of the winter arising,
Every good gift of the year, now with its Master returns.

Daily the loveliness grows, adorned with the glory of blossom;
Green is the woodland with leaves, bright are the meadows with flowers.
He who was nailed to the cross is Lord and the ruler of all things;
All things created on earth worship the Maker of all.

Images like this remind us that Easter isn’t just about the redemption of humanity but also (and even more) about the renewal of all creation. In this way, every Spring declares that life triumphs over death, that winter eventually gives way to freshness and new life.

One of my favourite songs about Easter within this naturist tradition is by a little known medieval Franciscan troubadour, Iacapone da Todi. He came out of the same milieu as the composer of the well-known hymn ‘Love divine, all loves excelling’. It’s too long to quote in full (and I’m sure English butchers the medieval Italian), but I offer it as an Easter present. Christs anesti!

Christ has flowered in the pure flesh:
now let human nature rejoice.

Human nature, you were so darkened
that you had become like burnt hay!
But your Bridegroom has renewed you:
do not be ungrateful for such a lover.

Such a lover is the flower of purity
born in the field of virginity.
He is the lily of humankind,
of sweetness, and of perfect fragrance.

Divine fragrance he has brought us from heaven,
from the garden where He was planted:
This God was sent to us from the blessed Father
a twining of flowers…

The natural color of beauty he had took,
on dire lividness when he was reviled:
He bore bitterness sweetly,
and let his great worth be humiliated.

Mighty worth was brought low,
that breathing flower was trampled underfoot,
surrounded by piercing thorns,
and its great splendor covered.

Splendor that lightens any shade
was darkened by painful grief,
and his light was quite obscured,
in a sepulcher in the flower-garden.

The Flower placed there lay and slept,
it soon came to life again and arose,
blessed body and pure reflowering,
and appeared with great brightness.

A kindly brightness appeared to Magdalen
in the garden who lamented him as dead,
and comforted her in her great weeping,
so that her loving heart was rapt.

Her heart comforted the brethren,
and raised up many new flowers,
and stayed in the garden with them
with those lambs singing for love.

The Holy Work of Mother Bees

This short extract from my next writing project is appropriate for this evening. It comes in the midst of my discussing the connection within the Catholic tradition between God and nature:

“The Exsultet, sung in many churches at the Easter Vigil, captures something of the sense of creation being mysteriously close to God. The Exsultet is a long chant that rejoices in the victory of Easter and involves the blessing of the Paschal Candle, itself symbolic of the light of Christ. It’s full of majestic language about Christ’s resurrection and the overcoming of darkness by light. In the midst of this high theology, the chanter sings:

But now we know the praises of this pillar,
which glowing fire ignites for God’s honour,
a fire into many flames divided,
yet never dimmed by sharing of its light,
for it is fed by melting wax,
drawn out by mother bees
to build a torch so precious.

The image of mother bees building the precious Paschal Candle with their wax immediately grounds the exalted language about God and redemption in the ordinary activity of insects. That’s what I love about Catholicism—we can’t even celebrate Easter without including the bees.”

So, if you’re attending the Easter Eve service tonight, take a moment to give thanks to Mother Bee.

Gathering Scattered Grain: a Reflection on Bread for Maundy Thursday

My family has recently taken to making bread. The impetus for this was less artisanal than our desire to enjoy loaves of bread without the plastic bags they invariably come in. For a couple of months now we’ve been working hard to reduce our use of plastics, made easier (I must say) by the nearby Indoor Market with it’s butcher and produce.

I can’t say that we’ve mastered the art yet, but the smell of the baking bread and the imperfect results are enough to satisfy. As with most things, too, there’s a special delight in enjoying what your own hands have made…even if the technique of slicing evenly continues to elude me. It’s also fun to experiment with different ingredients to see what they produce.

When making our bread, we generally use varying ratios of white and wholewheat flour, ground from grain milled from wheat grown in some unknown field. Although there are pressing issues pertaining to wheat production (see here and here), the growing, milling, and baking of wheat into bread is one of the most ancient practices of settled humanity. In fact, we surmise that it was the discovery of how to do this that led us to hang up our walking staves and settle down. From bread springs all of human civilisation.

This memory of the impact of grain on humanity perhaps explains why it played a role in most Near Eastern and Mediterranean religions. The ancient Egyptians had the goddess Renenutet, the Greeks Ceres, and the Romans Demeter. Each of these religions used bread in their rituals, offering it to the gods for plentiful harvest, fertility, and childbirth. In each case, the ordinary produce of the earth, grain, was sanctified by an offering to the gods: earth and the divine came together ritually to give meaning to the people.

We see this dynamic powerfully expressed within the Jewish tradition in the Passover meal. The matzo, or unleavened bread, recalls the bread baked in haste by the Hebrew slaves (Exodus 12.39) before they fled captivity in Egypt.  At the start of the meal, the bread is called the ‘Bread of Affliction’ that the Hebrew ate during their slavery. But at the end of the meal, it’s called the ‘Bread of Freedom’, signifying their escape through the power of YHWH. Rabbi Sacks explains how the two can be the same thing:

Sharing food is the first act through which slaves become free human beings. One who fears tomorrow does not offer his bread to others. But one who is willing to divide his food with a stranger has already shown himself capable of fellowship and faith, the two things from which hope is born. That is why we begin the seder by inviting others to join us. That is how we turn affliction into freedom.

Within the Christian tradition, bread is the focus of the Eucharist and (depending on the tradition) either is or symbolizes the Body of Christ. ‘This is my body given to you. Do this in remembrance of me’, Jesus is recalled as saying at the Last Supper. In that Passover meal,  he took the Jewish symbolism and reoriented it to express a freedom that comes through faith in and love of him that spring from his broken body on the cross. The Eucharistic meal continues to this day to be the shared, symbolic meal of Christians as formative of us as a people as the Passover meal is for Jews. In it, we encounter the same ancient dynamic of heaven and earth uniting to evoke meaning for the people who share it. History seems to suggest that this is the only way we can collectively discover meaning in this chaotic world. I believe it also demonstrates that it’s the only sustainable way for us to value the natural world as a gift to be honoured rather than just a resource to be exploited.

One aspect of the cultivating-milling-baking process that I believe is unique to Christian is how it symbolizes fellowship. The image of scattered grain gathered together to form one loaf of bread captured the imagination of early Christians as an evocative symbol of unity. The earliest example of this comes from The Didache, written sometime during the first 150 years of the Church:

As grain was scattered over the hills and then was brought together and made one, so let your Church be brought together from the ends of the earth into your Kingdom (9.4).

Here we find the striking image of a multitude of grain dispersed across a landscape being brought together to form a single, nourishing loaf of bread. This was understood to represent the activity of God in the world: in Christ the dispersed and warring nations were being gathered together as one. Thus, the Eucharistic bread symbolized not just the Body of Christ but also humanity united in a fellowship of love. The bread that brings meaning also instills a mission: ‘This is my commandment that you love one another as I have loved you’. Mandatum is the Latin word for commandment and the origin of the name for today, Maundy Thursday, when Christians recall Christ’s Last Supper.

In the early 5th century, Augustine of Hippo gathered all these images together in a series of striking sermons. In his Sermon 227, he writes,

In this loaf of bread you are given clearly to understand how much you should love unity. I mean, was that loaf made from one grain? Weren’t there many grains of wheat? But before they came into the loaf they were all separate; they were joined together by means of water after a certain amount of pounding and crushing. Unless wheat is ground, after all, and moistened with water, it can’t possibly get into this shape which is called bread. In the same way you too were being ground and pounded, as it were, by the humbling of fasting and the sacrament of exorcism. Then came baptism, and you were, in a manner of speaking, moistened with water in order to be shaped into bread. But it’s not yet bread without fire to bake it. So what does fire represent? That’s the chrism, the anointing. Oil, the fire-feeder, you see, is the sacrament of the Holy Spirit.

The simply materials of nature signify and enable people to grab hold of meaning in this world and allow us to see ourselves reflected in the simplest products of a bountiful earth. As with Christ’s parables, we discover God not in majesty, high thoughts, or mystical vision but in the ordinary stuff of the earth. The same grain that brought scattered humanity together to form civilization now brings scattered humanity together to be formed by God.

 

The Neighbourly Meal

Yesterday after the 11 am service here at the Cathedral, Sarah and I were invited to lunch at the home of a member of our Cathedral community. It was the first proper sunny, spring-like day of 2018, and so also a day when it’s especially delightful to enjoy the company of others.

And what a lovely meal it was. Our host had invited to old friends of her’s over as well. Wine was served with nibbles and then we gathered at her kitchen table in her lovely old terraced home for a delicious lunch of chicken in a cream sauce with potatoes, leeks, carrots, and green veg all finished off with a lemon tart. Conversations flowed easily and ranged over everything from my broken ankle to travel literature about Persia and Russia. I returned home in a happy glow to a very pleasant, post-prandial nap.

In some ways, there was nothing remarkable about this experience. Almost everyone has similar experiences on a regular basis. Be it in our homes or at restaurants, there’s little more enjoyable than to gather with friends over a good meal. Good food and good company are, as they say, good for the soul.

At the same time, there’s much about such meals that is remarkable–only we take it for granted. Let’s look at the essential ingredients of a good meal like this:

  • Let’s start with the invitation: our host could easily have decided that the meal sounded a bit too much like hard work for a Sunday afternoon. There’s the pain of arranging when to have the meal (and this did take us a while!), cleaning house, shopping for food, cooking the meal, and cleaning up afterwards. All that took time and care and commitment. Our enjoyment of the meal was a direct tribute to the care she had taken to host it.
  • The guests had not only to accept the invitation but to do so with a proper frame of mind. There’s a world of difference between a meal among friends and one among strangers. If we had all shown up with the intention of escaping as soon as possible, the lunch wouldn’t have worked. So, for the meal to work, her hospitality had to be matched by our hospitable attitudes.
  • Almost every aspect of the meal required and evoked delight. There was the delight in selecting the menu; the delight in preparing a delicious meal that made the most of the ingredients; the delight in opening up the comfort of ones home to others; the delight in our enjoying her well-kept home; the delight in conversation; and delight in the food itself.
  • Finally, there was the sociability we take for granted but is needed to pull off such occasions well. And part of that sociability is the awareness that such gathering require a degree of vulnerability and commitment. We had to be willing to share ourselves for the conversation to flow. But even then, we couldn’t guarantee that it would and so had to accept that we might be stuck for a few hours in a dreary situation. We haven’t yet reached the point when it’s acceptable to say, “Well, this isn’t doing a thing for me. I’m leaving.” I suspect that realisation subconsciously helps (along with good wine) the conversation to flow. How different it is from our so-called online communities,which we can exit in an instant if we don’t like what we see.

There are undoubtedly many more essential ingredients for meals like this. But these, at least, all share a timeless character. Human beings have always gathered for meals. Our’s was only a more genteel version of community meals shared by our ancient ancestors around their campfires. Such neighbourly meals also transcend particular cultures since they’re ubiquitous–every culture has it’s version. Indeed, most of them weave such meals into the fabric of their own culture. They are, if you will, where we are most culturally ourselves.

Almost everything that made the meal a success is also something that evokes neighbourliness. The care, attention, vulnerability, commitment, delight, and even timelessness found in the meal are also needed for our being good neighbours with each other. If we don’t take the time to meet and get to know those bound to us by geography, we’ll never really be at home where we live. Throughout history, this is what it has meant to be at home, to belong in a place where we dwell and among people we didn’t choose. The meal is thus a microcosm of our local society; a kind of ritual that elucidates our belonging to one another. In a sense, from the dinner table springs everything else.

Perhaps it’s no mere coincidence that fast food is emblematic of our consumer culture.

By contrast, food that has been lovingly prepared reminds us that neighbourliness includes the natural world. Little connects us more to the ‘bountiful earth’ than our delight in cooking, a delight which abounds when done for others. This is why we can’t really replicate such meals by gathering at a fast food restaurant; even ordering take away to be eaten together at a home evokes a different atmosphere. There’s a mysterious link between the care given to preparing the meal and the enjoyment of the company around the table; it’s a link built out of affection and gratitude.

When I chose the Latin word for a festive meal, convivium, as the name for our new initiative, I had meals like this at the back of my mind. There’s something indefinable about convivial meals that’s suggestive of how a society ought to be. Hospitality, good cheer, appreciation of food, drink, and conversation, mutual delight, and gratitude within a domestic setting comprise the ‘good life’ to which people aspire. There’s also no space for artifice; conviviality demands genuineness.

During our conversation yesterday, someone remarked how wonderful it was that Jesus was always sharing a meal with someone in the Gospels. I pointed out that in the culture of that time, to be ‘at table’ was a powerful, familial symbol. By sharing meals with tax collectors and sinner, Jesus was saying, ‘These are my family’. That symbol was reinforced by his teaching about neighbourliness in the Parable of the Good Samaritan. And, of course, within the Christian tradition, the way we best express our neighbourliness is by sharing the meal of Bread and Wine. Meals can be powerful symbols indeed.

We just need to figure out how to make it symbolic of our society and relationship with nature as well.

‘You are what you eat’ goes the old saying. Perhaps, then, the world we want to make in the future is shaped in part by the kind of meals we enjoy in the present.