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.

 

 

 

 

 

The Violence of Machines

“Industrialism…has been from its beginnings in a state of riot. It is based squarely upon the principle of violence towards everything on which it depends, and it has not mattered whether the form of industrialism was communist or capitalist; the violence towards nature, human communities, traditional agricultures, and local economies has been constant.”

Wendell Berry, ‘In Distrust of Movements’

Christians believe that human beings are broken. On the one hand, we’re dust breathed into life by Love, capable of compassion, generosity, kindness, and joy. On the other hand, we’re fallen creatures who bend our selfish wills against our Creator, creation, and each other. Nobility and savagery sit side by side in every human heart.

In one of his sermons, Rowan Williams, the former Archbishop of Canterbury, portrays these two tendencies as opposing impulses of identity: to identify ourselves either with or against the other. In our better moments, we identify ourselves with God, with the created world, and with our neighbours–this is love. In our worse moments, we identify ourselves against God, against the created world, and against our neighbours–this is pride. The first is an act of peace, the second an act of violence.

As the quote from Wendell Berry at the start of this post argues, from one perspective the Industrial Revolution can be seen as being based on ‘the principle of violence towards everything on which it depends.’ People like C.S. Lewis, Jacques Ellul, and R.S. Thomas tried to draw people’s attention to the dangers of the ‘Machine,’ by which they meant the development of technological means for imposing the human will on more and more of the natural world. Through technology, so the old rhetoric goes, humankind can break through the limits imposed on us by nature and fashion a world of our own making. Nature was no longer something with which we had to cooperate (like it or not) but that which must be conquered and dominated for our own good–be that economic prosperity, public health, the enlightenment of ‘backwards’ people, or the enrichment of the powerful.

Throughout his many essays, Berry points out the absurdity of believing that violence enacted on the present will lead to a better future,

“We do as we do, we say, ‘for the sake of the future’ or ‘to make a better future for our children.’ How can we hope to make a good future by doing badly in the present, we do not say. We cannot think about the future, of course, for the future does not exist: the existence of the future is an article of faith. We can be assured only that, if there is to be a future, the good of it is already implicit in the good things of the present.”

Or as Jesus says, ‘Therefore do not be anxious about tomorrow, for tomorrow will be anxious for itself.’ One of the reasons for this is that because the future is only a fiction, it can be used to excuse all sorts of villainy in the present. The ends justify the means. After two hundred years, we’ve become thoroughly accustomed to the idea of putting up with ugliness and inhumanity in the present in the belief that we’re thereby progressing towards a bright future. That future will assuredly be achieved by identifying ourselves against the world in which we belong and overcoming it.

Once we transcend distance, physical limitations, and death itself we can finally live like gods.

One of the most influential passages I’ve ever read (and have quoted in 2 of my 3 books) comes from a letter that J.R.R. Tolkien once wrote to a fan. He distinguished between ‘Art’ and ‘Magic’, the first found among his Elves and the latter, most blatantly, with Saruman and his attack on Fanghorn and later his corruption of the Shire.

While Art grows from a desire to be ‘sub-creative’ that is ‘at once wedded to a passionate love of the real primary world’, Magic ‘rebels against the laws of the Creator’ and leads ‘to the desire of Power, for making the will more quickly effective,–and so to the Machine…By the last I intend all use of external plans or devises (apparatus) instead of development of inherent inner power or talents–or even the use of these talents with the corrupted motive of dominating: bulldozing the real world, or coercing other wills.

J.R.R. Tolkien, Letter 131

What does all this mean in the present? It seems to me that the mounting fears of the present–pollution, climate change, soil erosion, growing inequalities, creaking institutions, loss of social cohesion, and even the managerial revolution–are pressing us powerfully to examine ourselves root-and-branch. For all of our achievements of the past 200 years, we have created–are creating–a world that seems increasingly unsustainable. As I used to say to my undergraduate students in my class on the medieval church: ‘Say what you will about medieval society, at least it could have lasted until the end of time. The jury’s still out on the longevity of our own society.’ Even the late Stephen Hawking was less than optimistic about humanity’s current trajectory.

But the future, as I said, is a fiction. What we do know in the present is that we and the world aren’t getting along very well. The violence of machines and systems imposes itself on the world as we develop at a frantic pace new means of bending that world to our individual and collective wills. And having banished the sacred, we find it hard to explain why we must accept sensible limits on how we live or with what we may tinker.

The answer to this isn’t to complain about the world or despair about the future. It’s certainly also not to demonize others, to add to the cacophony of debate and discord. This is our time; this is our present. Armed with the wisdom of the past, we must do what we can to live well in the present. Part of that old wisdom is the conviction that living well means embracing the virtuous life by upholding all that is good, true, and beautiful. Coming together with our neighbours to nurture that ‘good life’ is the best way for each of us to plant the kinds of seeds that may blossom and bear good fruit for the future.

“I wish it need not have happened in my time,” said Frodo.

“So do I,” said Gandalf, “and so do all who live to see such times. But that is not for them to decide. All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given us.”

 

 

 

 

 

Parable of the Prosperous Palace

Once upon a time…

…there was a magnificent palace. A palace larger and shinier than had ever been seen before. In the palace lived all the kingdom’s nobility: a prosperous people who enjoyed every pleasure imaginable.

Almost anything that they could dream up could be conjured for them by the wizards of the palace. And since every desire could be fed, they were free to create and savour new pleasures and to live however they wanted and to do whatever they pleased.

All the prosperous people of the palace shared three things in common:

First, they listened all the time to the wizards who could conjure up new pleasures. Although no one was forced to do what the wizards suggested, no one living in the palace was able to resist their charm or question the source of their magic. Yet no one ever complained about this since they liked listening to the wizards and imagining what pleasures they would conjure up next.

Second, the prosperous people of the palace rarely thought about the world outside the palace. In fact, many believed that the palace was the whole world, and so the only thing that mattered was what happened among the people in the palace. Few could remember what their world was like before the palace was built, except that it was backwards, brutal, and unfair.

Finally, despite having everything their hearts desired, almost no one was really happy. And everybody argued all the time. Just about everyone believed there was something slightly off about the palace, even if many couldn’t put their finger on it.

“This place is going to the dogs,” shouted the strongest supporters of the wizards.

“We need to be better about giving everyone equal access to their magic,” yelled the wizards’ strongest critics.

And so the prosperous people of the palace devoted their lives to pursuing their desires and arguing with each other about how to make the palace a better place or a more desirable place or, actually, a place that was much more like how each person thought it should be. Many of these ideas were fair and just in their intention, while others were merely selfish, unrealistic, or mean-spirited. Yet everyone, no matter their views, cared deeply for the palace, even if they didn’t know or much care for their neighbours.

All the top people in the palace worked with the wizards to govern and improve the palace. What they valued above all was that no one should ever question the palace itself or the magic that sustained it. The welfare of the palace depended totally on people always desiring and using the magic conjured by the wizards. Even the prosperous priests in the palace devoted their lives to helping people with their desires, finding meaning within the palace, and making the palace better and bigger. Like everyone else, the top people and priests always listened to the wizards and always argued, often (it seemed) for the sake of arguing.

Outside the palace, things were very different.

The exterior of the palace itself was ugly. Where inside it was shiny and bright, on the outside it was dark and ominous and ugly. When viewed from afar it appeared shapeless and no more solid than a dank mist. It’s outer precincts were filled with rubbish, pools of poison, and air no one could breath. And it had grown so large that hardly any of the kingdom itself lay outside it. It had swallowed all the old towns and villages, the old buildings and churches, and covered all the old fields and forests and rivers.

In what was left of the kingdom outside the palace lived a great multitude of people far more numerous than those who lived inside. They weren’t pretty or prosperous like those in the palace. They were too busy to think about their own desires and too burdened by life to think even about themselves. Crowded together, they survived on a little bit of food and the meagre hope that maybe one day they would be allowed to live in the palace.

These people mined the life of the land: the source of the wizard’s magic. It could be used by the wizards to conjure almost anything, but when it was taken from the earth it left behind corruption and death. Without the life force, the land withered and dried up like a leaf in winter. So that all the good things the prosperous people of the palace enjoyed and took for granted depended on sucking the kingdom dry of its life. The larger the palace became the more the land decayed.

With each passing year, the palace grew darker and darker. People began to notice that pieces of masonry were flaking off. Cracks started appearing, letting in noxious air. All the while, the arguments grew louder and more violent as the people began to fear for the future. And so, the wizards worked harder and harder to distract the prosperous people from looking outside the palace or wondering about the source of their magic. The top people suggested new ways of ensuring that the wizards’ magic would never stop, and the priests offered to help people feel less anxious about the cracks in the wall. All played along because everyone knew that if wizards’ spell was broken, the palace would collapse and fall into ruin. So, the prosperous people of the palace turned their minds even more to their desires, sucking the life-force out of the land faster and faster.

Eventually, the life force of the land was exhausted. The people turned on the powerless wizards because they could no longer cast their spells. They shouted down the top people for colluding with the wizards and they spurned the priests for having little useful to offer. Finally, they turned on each other for wasting the wizards’ magic and leaving them with nothing but the withered dust of a dead land. The palace crumbled into ruin and all the pleasures of yesteryear were forgotten and even the most noble achievements of the people vanished.

As for the great multitude that had never enjoyed life in the palace, their bitterness grew boundless and their hatred for the fallen people of the palace fiercer.

If only the people of the palace had remembered that long, long before the first stone of the palace was laid, the life of the land was given as a gift. “Tend and keep the land wisely,” their first settlers had been told, “and the life of the land will blossom and flourish. This gift has been given so that all may be fruitful and share in the abundance of life. As it is with the land so is it with you: without the life of the land you are but dust and to dust you and all your achievements will return.”

But this promise and warning few had remembered and even fewer cherished. Such were the once prosperous people of the palace that they could never see that in order really to live they had first to love.

For their hearts had withered long before the life of the land had.