A Pilgrim’s Progress for Today
John Scally - Spirituality November/December 2018
Dark and cold we may be
but this is not winter now.
The frozen misery of centuries,
breaks cracks, begins to move
The thunder is the thunder of the floes,
the thaw, the floods, the upstart spring.
Thank God our time is now . . . .
Affairs are now soul-sized
The enterprise is exploration
(Christopher Fry: A Sleep of Prisoners)
In 1979 as a gangly teenager I was swept away on a tidal wave of enthusiasm when Pope John Paul II came to visit Ireland. There was unprecedented excitement and energy but that feel-good factor quickly dissipated and a rare opportunity was lost to revitalize the Church in part because we were too complacent to appreciate how much we needed renewal. The visit of Pope Francis throws up another rare opportunity for us to renew ourselves. Will we take it or will we do what we did in 1979 and squander a moment of grace? Surely we do not have the same complacency now?
Pope Francis came to us as a pilgrim. One of the great spiritual classics is John Bunyan’s A Pilgrim’s Progress (Moody Classics, 1678). The visit of Francis is a timely invitation to write a new edition of this work in an effort to inject new life and energy into our society and Church. This pilgrimage will take us in two directions. The first calls on us to look back to remind us where we have come from so that we can be faithful to the story we are supposed to be telling. We are not going to be able to tell that story unless we know what it actually is. The second part compels us to look to the future to see how we can re-imagine that story for the world of today.
The Christian life is a journey - the journey is the way of holiness, the way towards wholeness - although the contours of this journey only become clear as the journey is travelled. That uncertain, often frightening - but never taken alone - journey has been memorably described by the Scottish poet Edwin Muir in his poem The Way:
Friend, I have lost the way.
The way leads on
Is there another way?
The way leads on
Oh places I have past!
That journey’s done
And what will come at last?
The road leads on.
Throughout the Old Testament and the letters of Paul and his companions, indeed the gospels themselves, account after account occurs of the way in which God has broken into the lives of women and men while they were journeying, utterly transforming their awareness of themselves, their understanding of life, their appreciation of God, and through that experience giving them a broader vision of the character of the people of God. One of the characteristic notes of the Gospels is the invitation issued by Jesus to women and men, ‘Follow Me’ ( Mt 4:19). This following involves renouncing of the disciples previous security - the security of the known, and the committing of the disciple to the unknown. The invitation of Jesus to ‘Follow Me’ was regarded as imperative if the fullness of life were to be embraced.
Discipleship involves moving from one mode of life to another, from one set of values to another, from one way of acting to another, and from a life circumscribed by family and friends to a life in community with women and men of diverse backgrounds and expectations. This journey brings difficulties: trials, temptations, the yearnings for the security of the known and tried. Yet it is only as the pilgrim faces these temptations and leaves behind the security of the known that the way itself becomes clear. To take this journey of God with humanity gives women and men the possibility of fullness of life. In the encounter with the God-with-us, God-for-us, women and men come to a fuller understanding of God, of themselves, of the meaning and purpose of life.
This journey is not just for a disparate group of individuals but by people who are part of a corporate body. The biblical images are images of the community. It is evident that Israel is a people on a journey, a community learning from their covenantal relationship with God, revising and enlarging their understanding as the pilgrim people of God. The Christian life is a communal adventure, a voyage of discovery, a journey, sustained by faith and hope - which is why ‘the people of God’ is the key image of the Church in Vatican Two.
The Source and the summit of all Christian perfection
All share the gospel call: ‘Seek ye first the kingdom of God’ (Mt 6:33). The Eucharist provides a common basis for the different approaches to our search of the kingdom, nurturing a sense of community and solidarity. From its earliest days the Christian community has gathered and celebrated the Eucharist. There are two crucial dimensions to the Eucharist, i.e. thanksgiving and remembrance. In the Eucharistic celebration Christians have always found their identity - thanking God and remembering how God revealed the divine plan for our salvation in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus. The Eucharist is the primary occasion of Christian self-understanding.
In the New Testament there were a number of different Christian communities, with particular cultural, linguistic and geographic traditions. However, despite this diversity, all the Christian communities celebrated the Eucharist to tell the good news of God’s revelation in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Thus the Eucharist offers a common identity even if in the complex world of the 1990s many people are taken on different paths in their ministries. Moreover, it unites by calling all together to confront in the words of the German theologian J.B. Metz the ‘dangerous and subversive memory of Jesus Christ’, reminding all that Jesus Christ gave himself as a sacrifice of love for our sake and calling all to do the same.
Sharing the bread and wine symbolises the bond of love which unites us all in God’s spirit and in that way creates an authentic community. Another important quality about the Eucharist is that it while it forges a bond of unity within a group it is never an exclusive celebration. Jesus sat down to have meals with a number of different people, and it is noteworthy in the contemporary context that many of them, like the tax-collector, were on the margins of society. To be true to the example of Jesus Eucharistic communities are compelled to share their most precious experience with all people of goodwill. Should we limit ourselves to finding Christ’s image without our brethren we will be limiting ourselves to contemplating the works of the Lord without being able to contemplate the Lord Himself.
Symbols give us our identity, self-image, our way of explaining ourselves to ourselves and to others. Symbols determine the kind of history we tell and retell. In the Christian tradition the Eucharist is a key symbol. In the act of breaking bread around the table of the Lord the force of love, of unexpected and invigorating innocence animates the Christina community. Only true love carries memorial weight, regenerates moments of tenderness, of unions of spirit. Such a love is never encountered in stony walls or architectural masterpieces rising to an impassive sky. Christians do not primarily wish to build memorials to the dead but to give food to the living. The secret of the Christian life is that only in love for the living is the spirit praised forever.
IN THE NAME OF THE SON
When Sartre wrote in Les Mouches that ‘there is nothing left in heaven, no one will give me orders. For I am a man, Jupiter and each man must create his own road’ God was relegated to peripheral status. The crisis of our age is at one level a spiritual crisis, a crisis of our collective souls. The fate of the soul is the fate of the society; the soul is the core, the heart, the inner reality of what makes us human. The conflicts in our society are but symptoms of an inner torment, of our aberrations on our spiritual journey. If we are to restore our society, we must begin in the inside.
From the very beginning Christians were people who thought, spoke and acted not in their own name, but in the name of the Lord. Jesus called the disciples to live in His name, to pray in His name (Jn. 15: 10), to meet in His name (Mt 18: 20), to welcome little children in His name (Mt. 18: 5) to cast out devils in His name (Mk 9: 38), to work miracles in his name (Mk. 9: 39) and to preach repentance to all nations in His name (Lk. 24: 47). To live in the name of the Father is to partake in an intimately personal relationship. To think, speak and act in the name of the Lord means that the divine name is the sacred space by which a Christian can hear with her ears, see with her own eyes and touch with her own hands the Word who is life and the subject of her witness (1 Jn. I). The name is a dwelling place, the ideal retreat to listen to Christ and receive the Word which is to be spoken. The name is the setting where the future meets the present. Only when the name is the true centre can we be free to heal the sick because it is only then that is possible to understand that the love of God and the love of neighbour cannot be separated.
The Acts of the Apostles show a great tenderness and an explicit recognition that the early Christian community were part of a healing ministry and that Jesus Christ was to be encountered in the suffering of the sick and that the community was founded for the poor and the rich.
A Christian was one who lived in communion with Jesus, and through Him in the Trinitarian God. To be true to the gospel vision it is necessary to keep one’s eyes on the Lord, to remain attentive to His will and to listen with care to his voice (Lk 10: 42). Only with, in and through Jesus Christ can the apostolate bear fruit. Consequently the first, indeed in a sense the Church’s only, concern must be to live in ongoing communion with the one who calls us out to witness in His name.
From this starting point it was inevitable that Christians would recognise that prayer was the basis and centre of all ministry. The Christian must be first and foremost a person of prayer. Without prayer, the Christian life easily descends to a mere busy life in which a person’s need for respect or affection dominates actions and being busy becomes a badge of honour - an end in itself. It is not necessarily true that absence makes the heart grow fonder. As many a ruined romance has demonstrated absence may cause the heart to wander. The parallel for prayer life does not need to be laboured.
While the first Christians in many cases heroically gave all of themselves to the apostolate they never deluded themselves that their work was their prayer. This is as crucial an insight for us now as it was then because it is when a pilgrim prays by herself that she keeps in a special way the divine flame burning within her. Equally in prayer she experiences the presence to whom she is called. Prayer is inclusive, helping all in need to open themselves to the healing presence of the Lord.
Their recognition of the importance of prayer was prophetic and particularly relevant to today. ‘That’s only a contemplative order’ is a phrase one sometimes hears today when people are talking about religious life. Apart from what it betrays about our understanding of religious life, it also says something about our attitude to prayer. It is as if prayer is on the periphery of the Christian life, instead of at the very centre. In the hustle and bustle of our everyday lives, it is often difficult to find the inner stillness to make space for God to speak to us. Much of prayer is the struggle to overcome our many distractions, to concentrate on the presence of God. Solitude is a fertile state of mind and spirit in which it is possible to concentrate on something for a long time and also to establish a relationship with whatever you are concentrating on. The founding Christians knew the importance of spending time alone with God.
Today the question is posed: ‘Who ministers to the minister?’ Jesus recognised that healthy ministry is impossible unless the Christian community first of all ministers to each other. Like everybody else Christians are broken and fragile people. We can only care for the wounds of others if we allow our own wounds to be healed by those who live with us in community.
HEAVEN KNOWS NO FRONTIERS
The late Brendan Behan once went into a bookshop and saw a copy of the Catholic Standard and remarked: ‘Ah here is the news of the next world.’ This is a revealing observation highlighting as it does the way in which many Christians think of the church’s purpose, i.e. to prepare our souls here in this world for the next world. The church is to be a radical presence which empowers all people to have a meaningful life.
In the Bible the question of where and how we can serve the Lord has an unambiguous answer. We find Him in the hungry, the thirsty, the stranger and the naked, we see Him wherever people are in need and cry out for help. (Matthew 25) The Christian God revealed to humankind in a definitive way in the bruised and broken body of the suffering Jesus, continues to reveal himself wherever human suffering is to be found. From the beginning Christians were people who recognised God in the course of their daily care to others. The heart of their ministry was the ongoing discovery of God’s presence in the midst of the human struggle.
Although they faced many difficulties: political, social and economic their faith insulated them from the danger of being totally overwhelmed by their problems and ensured that the disappointments and disillusionments of their apostolate did not narrow their vision nor blind them to anything beyond their own problems. Although their apostolate brought them in a very concrete and immediate way in contact with great misery they were able to see the face of a loving God even when nothing but darkness seemed present. In their practical ‘hands-on’ approach to people in need they came in touch with a larger presence. Their care for the sick and the poor revealed the deep connections of their individual lives with the saving life of Jesus Christ. As they entered into the struggles and pains of the people they served in Nazareth and beyond they reached out to these people to reveal to them God’s presence in their lives.
Their Christianity had a vital, personal quality rather than being something worn ostentatiously like a religious emblem. Their spirituality was deep, mysterious and beautiful, a religion that gave sympathy to their hearts and understanding to their minds. They helped in some small way to flower the salvation of humanity. They managed to give a little hope to all they cared for and a little hope is a powerful and precious commodity.
ON NOT FOLLOWING THE LEADER
The earliest Christian communities were house-churches, i.e. communities of equals where charismatic giftedness was the essential factor. The time is surely right to attempt to revive this tradition by attempting to change the way we work, to make the Church more ecclesial, by opening doors to the laity and allowing them to become authentic partners in the Church’s mission. Such an approach calls for courage to free the charisms of lay people and to offer them alternative fields of action. This may bring teething problems in which greater efficiency may have to be sacrificed for more effective witness. While the post Vatican Two Church has commendably invited lay people to share in its charismatic ideals is the time opportune for it to share more in the charismatic ideals of lay people?
A new model of leadership needs to emerge which is more circle than pyramid. Where there is a formal leadership, we hope it will be more at the heart, rather than from the top. The new understanding is reflected in the recent adage: ‘I am, because we are, we are therefore I am.’
We all share the guilt for the sins of the past; if we are to be redeemed either on an individual or societal basis, we must be cleansed at a level beyond the scope of sight and sound. This poses a major challenge for the Church to reach out to those who are seeking meaning in their lives. Thus since the Council our concern is to help people at both material and spiritual levels.
Unto us a child is born
Jesus Christ has put our dark past into the perspective of a wondrous future. We prepare ourselves to greet the risen Christ who experienced the fullest joy so that we too could share that glory. Describing the event James Kirkup in his poem There is a New Morning points to the birth of a new order:
There is a new world, and a new man
Who walks amazed that he so long
Was blind, and dumb; he who now towards the sun
Lifts up a trustful face in skilful song,
And fears no more the darkness where his day began.
The child born in a stable in Bethlehem for whom ‘there was no room in the inn’ still has the power to challenge contemporary society in a very powerful way. There are many aspects of the life and death of Jesus which merit careful study. However, I think it would be fruitful to reflect anew on the manner of his birth.
One of the most important truths of the Christian faith which the incarnation embodies is the fact of God’s trust in humanity. The incarnation highlights most starkly the full measure of human responsibility and human destiny as it is a declaration of God’s trust in humankind. The unknown God who is lord of all discloses to people that if they want to know what he is like, they should look in the stable - at a human life.
The noted Jewish philosopher, Emmanuel Levinas, has argued persuasively that God created people because he wanted someone to speak with ( God, Death and Time, Stanford University Press, 2000). This was why his Word had to be made flesh. This insight reminds us that us that God is a living God, someone who loves people and loves to be loved by people. It is not humankind who are waiting for God, but God who is waiting for us. Of course this, in a sense, leaves God vulnerable because effectively He has offered the future, at least in part, to us.
The baby came as, ‘the way, the truth and the life’. He came to bring ‘the Good News to the poor.’ It was a particular kind of Good News because its truth hurts as much as it liberates. Sadly there are many cosy corners that need to be challenged and many aspects of contemporary society that stand in need of liberation.
A Christianity which is audible without being visible is a counter-sacrament. If our Christianity is to regain its credibility it must forge a new alliance with the poor and marginalised. It must be bold enough to be baptised in the Jordan of the real state of Irish religion and courageous enough to be baptised on the cross of Irish poverty and social exclusion. Our search for the Irish face of Christ can not be authentic until we honestly confront the social structures and attitudes that cause some people to feel that there is no room for them in the inn.
Jesus formulated an alternative model of society. This Christ exalted even on the Cross, healed the broken, fed the multitudes, and significantly removed social stigmas (leprosy) and reintegrated outcasts like prostitutes and tax-collectors into society. We in Ireland could best put the Christ back into Christianity by integrating the outcasts in Irish society.
The church’s commitment to social issues must never be at the expense of its concern for individuals. The Celtic description of a disabled person as God’s own person (duine le Dia) is a good illustration of that point. Old life, injured life, disabled life: every life is God’s own life, God’s special gift and task.
As individuals we are invited to follow the example of Christ, to accept our call and our cross and follow him to eternal glory. As a community of Christian disciples the Church has been called to gather in order to provide space for the presence and the power of the living Christ in the world. Are we ready to remember who we are supposed to be and be transformed by Christ’s presence? Are we really willing to embark on this communal journey of discovering more about God and about the divine understanding of our ultimate end in life?
If we are to respond adequately to the challenge to build an inclusive society we must communally face up to awkward questions: Are we prepared as a society to confront the skeletons in the cupboards of contemporary society? Have we a vision of our nation and its needs for today?
At the heart of our understanding of the Church is that God has called us in Jesus Christ to help to build his kingdom. Hence all of Christian existence has to do with understanding this call and with organising our response to this call.
RUNNING TO STAND STILL
All the old absolutes and certitudes melted away after Vatican Two. The familiar black and white gave way to a breathtaking proliferation of grey. In such circumstances finding a way forward is problematic. However, for all the ambiguities, the Church has no option but to tentatively attempt this process, though as we grapple with our questions, we are often conscious of the inadequacy of our answers. For all their failings these answers are the best available and demand action.
As Louis MacNiece perceptively observed in his poem Entirely:
And if the world were black and
And all the charts were plain
Instead of a mad weir of
A prism of delight and pain
We might be surer where we wish to go
Or again we might be merely
Bored but in brute reality there is no
Road that is right entirely.
As the old tree of established structures are dying it is not easy to discern how to graft anew to the future vine. At the moment we are at an in-between time in our history caught between a rich tradition and an as yet unformed new direction.
In the final scene of the medieval epic La Chanson de Roland the great Christian hero Charlemagne sat exhausted in Aix, his battles with the Moors over. According to the poem, he was more than 900 years old. An angel wakened the old man from his sleep and told him to get up again and return to battle because the work would not be finished until the end of time. Charlemagne sighing says: Dieu, si penuse est ma vie. (O God how hard is my life) The work of the hero remains unfinished but who will do it if not (s)he? In a sense the Church in Ireland is wandering between two worlds, one dead, the other yet to be born, struggling to adapt to a fast-changing society. So how do we go forward? (To be concluded)