Tuesday, December 27, 2011

A Weekend in Oxford

I've been home now for two weeks, and what with one thing and another have not had the opportunity to finish blogging on my trip. So here goes.

The day before I left from Toulouse, Tony and I spent the day there. Besides being a charming town, there are two major churches there. The earlier is the Cathedral, dedicated to St. Sernin, a magnificent Romanesque building built between 1080 and 1120. The later is the Dominican basilica of the Jacobins, Gothic, 13th and 14th century, where the bones of Thomas Aquinas are now honored under the modern altar. Toulouse was the historic center of the Dominican Order for centuries. The Jacobins is unique, as far as I know, among major basilicas, in that massive pillars march down the center, making any unobstructed view of a high altar (which it lacks) impossible.

I spent the final weekend of my vacation in Oxford with a friend and Associate of the Order, Bob Jeffery. Bob has had a distinguished career in the Church of England, beginning as a curate in the North of England, then working in the C of E central offices in Westminster, then secretary of the British Council of Churches, Dean of Worcester and Sub-Dean of Christ Church Cathedral, Oxford. There were other jobs along the way, including Vicar of Headington, near Oxford. Bob also writes C of E obituaries for the Times of London.

He also knows just about everyone. So in September when he mentioned his good friend Henry Mayr-Harting, I could not contain myself, and somehow a dinner party was contrived with the M-H's. What a joy it was! Mayr-Harting is one of the greatest living scholars of ecclesiastical history, and held the Regius Professorship, being the first Roman Catholic to do so. Along with the professorship come duties as a Canon of Christ Church Cathedral, so Bob had the happy task of teaching this ecclesiastical scholar how to be an Anglican cathedral canon, which the Professor vastly enjoyed. He and his wife Caroline are utterly charming.

My good friend Robbin Clark has landed in Gloucester as the Dean of Women Clergy for that diocese, after retiring from a very successful tenure as Rector of St. Mark's, Berkeley. Robbin had been an exchange student from CDSP to Cuddesdon College, a seminary near Oxford, back in the 70's, and I think it is fair to say that it changed her life. She cultivated her relationships in the C of E for many years, and at a reunion a few years ago at Cuddesdon, where she was honored as their first woman seminarian, she let it be known she would be open to an interesting ministerial challenge upon retirement, and lo and behold! Robbin came over Saturday for lunch and met Bob, and then she drove me out to Cuddesdon, which I had never seen. Such a beautiful place! And the seminary is apparently doing well on all fronts. Deo gratias.

On Sunday, Dec. 11, I went with Bob to St. Peter's, Wolvercote, a short distance outside Oxford, where he presided and preached. The place was full, a wide range of ages, full bench of acolytes, and the six bells were pealed by an expert team for half an hour or so before the service. Of course, the Anglican world being approximately two inches wide, there was someone there I knew: Joanna Coney, who is now the head of Franciscan Tertiaries in Europe, and who had been at West Park in September for the international Anglican Franciscan leadership conference. A joyous reunion. And a joyous morning!

In the afternoon we went to the Ashmolean Museum, completely reworked, with a beautiful atrium and staircase. I am afraid, however, that the museum has chosen the route of educational and informative display, so that there are relatively few objects on view and a plethora of large, explanatory posters to tell you all about them. I would rather see more objects, but I suppose even Oxford needs to cater to the uninformed. My old friend the Alfred Jewel was there, however, so I was consoled.

We had tea and Vespers at the All Saints convent. They are few -- nine, I think, with seven in attendance at Vespers -- but very warm and welcoming. I cannot think of a nicer way to end the weekend and my vacation.

Monday, December 5, 2011

Avignon, Nîmes and Preaching in Limoux

I am now in the final week of my stay in Alet-les-Bains with my good friend Tony Jewiss. We had a wonderful short trip last week to Avignon and to Nîmes. There are three outstanding reasons to visit these places, apart from their own civic virtues: the Papal Palace in Avignon and the Arena and the Maison Carrée in Nîmes.

It is hard, I suppose, for any medievalist to visit the Papal Palace in Avignon and not have a world of reactions. The French papacy of the 14th Century and then the papal schism (1378-1417) were a huge part of the religious background to the age of Chaucer, Piers Plowman, and early English mystical writings like The Cloud of Unknowing, to say nothing of the vast Christian culture beyond England. So as Tony and I wandered around the vast palace, I had a wonderful meditation on the place of renewed Church administration in Christian culture (the Avignon popes modernized, in their own terms, the administration of the Church) and on the role of Church patronage of the arts.

The Arena and the Maison Carrée in Nîmes are among the best preserved ancient Roman buildings anywhere, both being the most perfect examples of their type that exist in Europe. The Arena is a medium-sized amphitheater for gladiatorial shows and other blood sports. It was used for other purposes through the centuries and its restoration first undertaken by Napoleon. It is still used for concerts, operas, and even for skating in the wintertime. The Maison Carrée is a temple built to honor the two sons of Marcus Vipsanius Agrippa, whom the Emperor Augustus, Agrippa's best friend, had adopted as his own. Exquisite!

Tony invited me to preach twice while I was in Limoux. The first was on Christ the King two weeks ago, and I preached extemporaneously. The second was yesterday, Advent II. I wrote it out early in the week so that it could be sent to the lay readers of the Church of England Chaplaincy in this area -- there are not enough priests to cover all the congregations, and it was Tony's turn to provide the sermon. I found it strange preaching a text that I had written some days ago, and to realize that several others might be preaching it as well. To facilitate others' reading, it was devoid of personal reference, which my sermons generally include. My usual practice is to write sermons the day before I preach them, so they are fresh in my mind in the morning. On Sunday I found myself reconsidering and reframing the material in my mind and then, in delivery, modifying and embellishing and providing background as I went on, which made it longer than I had intended. So here is the original text:

Isaiah 40: 1-11
2 Peter 3: 8-15a
Mark 1: 1-8

“Comfort ye”, in the words of the Authorized Version used by Handel in Messiah: “Comfort ye.” Israel in exile in Babylon has just learned that they are to return to Jerusalem. What they thought impossible is about to happen: the cruel exile, in which they had been ripped from Jerusalem, from Zion, from the City of David and the City of the Temple of the Most High God, is about to end. The magnificent poetry of the prophet of the end of the exile, whom we call Second Isaiah, begins with these words, and unfolds not only the joy of an Israel renewed, but one of the most profound meditations on the nature of God and reality in human thought, and not just in abstract thought: The one who comes with might, whose arm rules for him, is also the one who feeds his flock like a shepherd, who carries the lambs in his bosom and gently leads the mother sheep. What joy to contemplate the hope of return, God’s peace accomplished in the love of the Almighty for his flock.

This return of God’s people from their exile is how Mark begins his Gospel, the image he uses as the beginning of the Good News of Jesus Christ: Prepare the Way of the Lord. John the Baptist is calling Israel out into the wilderness so she can discover what she really is: a people in trouble, a people who need to turn around, which is what repenting is. Leaving behind their sins in the desert and being washed in the Jordan links them not only to the people returning from the Exile, but to the people escaping Egypt, wandering in the wilderness, receiving a new identity, a new life and a new direction at Sinai and at last entering into the Promised Land. John wants a new beginning. He doesn’t know what that beginning will be or who will lead it, or where it will go. His job is to get the people ready, get them to the River. He is the new Moses, waiting for the new Joshua.

When we confront scripture, especially texts as beautiful, multi-layered and moving as the beginnings of Second Isaiah and Mark, there are always several things going on in us at once. One is just to understand the text itself, where it came from, who it was written for and why, and what it meant at the time. Our Bible studies and private reading and continuing studies help us with that. What we learn about the language and history and customs of these times is preparing us for the second step, which is to imagine ourselves back into those days and into the lives of people and what happened to them. What joy must have gripped the Israelites in Babylon, even as they contemplated the hard journey ahead, trusting that steep mountains and deep valleys would be made passable on their journey back to Palestine. And what fearful anticipation must have gripped Israel as the Baptist announced that Something was about to happen, and that there was a way they could be made ready for it. People must have pondered all those things they had done and left undone, and rejoiced that there was a way to deal with them.

But when we have done our work of study, and when we have allowed our study to instruct our imagination, something else also remains. The Scriptures are the Word of God at least in part because they speak to us, to us as we are now. The Scriptures demand our best efforts to understand them as they are as texts and as they were as events, but all that is preparation for the life they give us.

The writer of Second Peter seems to have pondered this double sense of time, time then and time now, the conflation of the ancient time of God’s actions with his people in the past and the urgency of our time in the present. “With the Lord one day is like a thousand years.” The past and the present are one in God’s time. The Lord is not slow, but patient. Nevertheless, the day of the Lord will arrive like a thief in the night. So the time of the past and the time of the future come together in the present, in our lives now. The Babylonian Captivity, the Jerusalem of the unspeakable Herods, the Israel of then, is also ours today.

Who among us has not been in exile, been shut out, been carried away from our true home, whether in physical fact or in the sometimes greater reality of our inner lives, and longed for return? Who among us has not known deep in our hearts that our lives have gone wrong, and longed for the call to the wilderness, where they can be cleansed and made ready for something new? The truth is that the human condition is often to live in an alien land, sometimes objective and real outside ourselves, sometimes deeply interior. The truth is that it is our nature to go astray, at best to wander off into paths that take us nowhere good, or at worst, to take the roads that lead us into deep trouble. There is yearning deep in our hearts for the home we have left. There is a deep need in each of us to find what we have done wrong and right it, so that we can begin to be who we should be. These are Advent yearnings, Advent needs: We want the one to come who will save us, rescue us, and bring us home.

St. Augustine of Hippo was one of the great psychologists and doctors of the human heart. He confronted this longing in his own life and did something about it: he turned from the way of self to the way of God. And along the way he came to a profound understanding of himself, an understanding that can unfold some of the yearning, the desire for change and the conflation of time that these great texts give us. He locates it in our very natures, in the image of God written in our hearts at the moment we came to be, which is so powerful that it animates all our desires: “You have made us for yourself, O Lord, and our hearts are restless until they rest in you.” Our hearts are restless. We feel we are somehow in the wrong place, even when we are happy. We know our lives need change. And somehow we know that nothing in this world will completely satisfy those needs. It is not where we go or what we do or what we get or what we have that give us the peace and joy we crave. It is the love of God that gives us the hope we need, the hope that He will take us in his arms and tenderly lead us home, that when we meet him in the wilderness we will be made ready for his coming among us.