Sunday, February 15, 2009

Matthew under the arm 142

Well, I was about to write that this is the end of the pilgrimage. However, any pilgrimage I have been on, including being Bishop of this Diocese, has never actually come to an end. I have just announced my retirement as Bishop of Argyll and The Isles. One person sent me an email to tell me that I was too young to retire. Of course, he's write, if I mean by to retire...full-stop! There are other ways I feel pushed and urged to serve as a priest, which, of course, I remain. Another person said to me, with a wry smile on his face, that I would be 'making for the trees'! Although that made me laugh, I came away with a disturbing question: 'Am I running away?' In a real sense, I might well be running away if I ignored the movement within me that senses that I have other tasks to address.
So, the pilgrimage with Columba is not coming to an end. Certainly the final verses of Matthew's Gospel have now been reached, but Columba and his companion (probably me!) will separate and pick up the threads of other vocations. Several who have followed this blog (if that is what it is!) have asked me to reveal the mystery of the destination of this pilgrimage.... Mmmm.
I realise that very few have followed this blog. Living in this Diocese of Argyll and The Isles, I have become accustomed to small numbers. Not that I am suggesting I am comfortable let alone complacent about that. From any reading of history or biography that I have done, there have always been crossroads that have been critical in cultural and individual development. Few have been around to witness them, let alone understand them. In this tiny and holy 'precinct' of the Holy and Catholic Church; this majestic and largely untamed region called once by Percy Grainger: 'the Penumbra of Europe', those of us who are dominated and inspired by its unintelligibility, can never claim to have reached a destination or rounded-off some experience. No job is ever done here. St John's Cathedral Oban, is a powerful emblem of precisely that. A complete Cathedral has a disturbing finality to it that closes of, no matter the size, possibility. Our architecture tells our story of incompleteness, a beautiful statement of the fact that we are as Theodore Roszak wrote: 'Unfinished Animals'.
Should this blog continue then? Well, if you have been following it at all, you may have some suggestions. But as a provisional 'walking stick' on this particular pilgrimage, it is bet perhaps that thank God for the opportunity and move on....

So here we are. I dare say this to Columba, as I have learnt that he sees 'conclusions' as the ignoring of dreams, the stunting of growth, the desire to capture for blandishment. 'Place the palms of your hands against this wall', he whispered mystifyingly. 'Why?' I asked with that rather pathetic feeling inside me that this was a pointless question. 'Remain there for a while and when you withdraw your hands you will open your hands with the gift of God's incomprehensible love which radiates even from stone.' Those were the last words I ever heard from Columba. But even that s not true. Throughout our time together I had kept notes of his comments and at least some of his activities, which I have shared with you. They resonate on, at least I hope so. So I placed my hands again on the wall and felt the cold sandy texture almost caressing my palms. And where are we as we touch the shrine of our pilgrimage? Back where we had begun, but strangely higher as if on a spiral. I turned after a while with my hands outstretched. I was alone.

Matthew 28.16-20
'Setting out for Galilee'. This is a vitally important indicator. For the disciples make their way to the point which they first encountered Christ. So the memory of the story of their discipleship is key. The experience of the raising of Christ that they had at the place of encounter, was an opening, or using a more traditional word, revelation. So the significance of the Raising dawns on them in the place of recollection. The experience of following, of friendship, of betrayal, of rejection, of anxiety, of agony and painful death was the circle on which they had made their pilgrimage.On returning, they did not come back to the exact spot, for that is the journey of nostalgia a best and self-indulgence at worst. Somehow the word 'authority' wakens them to realise that they have come round to their initiation but they are lifted themselves, caught up in the slip stream of the Raising.


Find a rock tat you can hold, that is no too heavy but substantial enough that you can feel its significant weight ad size. The age of the rock will be for the human imagination, immeasurable. It is safe to use the word 'timeless'. You had to lift it from somewhere in order to hold it. This was a raising. It is also a return to Galilee. Here is an experience of your beginning! The very stuff o he earth from which you cm an to which you have now returned. However, you have not entirely returned but have moved 'upwards' slightly. So,as you hold the rock, remember you first experience o God, no matter ho trivial and particular it was. Relive it. Tell the story of the encounter. Now replace the rock and lay you hands open as your commitment to allow the gift of your encounter t be passed on. 'I am with you to the end of time'.

A blessing from the Island of Iona

"Be the great Go between your two shoulders
To protect you in your going out and your coming in.
Be the Son of Mary ever near your heart,
And be the perfect Spirit upon you pouring.
Oh, the perfect Spirit upon you pouring. "

Bishop of Argyll and The Isles


Thursday, January 29, 2009

Matthew under the arm 141

“This is the last stage”. Columba pointed towards the city that lay on the side of the great hill many miles ahead of us. I certainly did not want this pilgrimage to end. “When we arrive, will we see each other again? I have this feeling, Columba, that you will want to separate.” Columba stopped with a sorrowful look on his face. “What, my good and trusty friend, will you remember most of this pilgrimage?” I laughed. After all, what I would not remember? “Every single situation we have been in from the unremarkable to the extraordinary, you have summoned me to reflect on the presence of God in it all”. “Continue that and you will never be separated from me. Like that other story of separation, however, you will not hold on to me…”

Matthew 27.11-15

There is a strong temptation just to let this passage be! The last phrase is: ‘…the story among the Jews’. Reference to the Jews in the Gospels has been approached by New Testament theologians in many ways. However, in the context of increased racial sensitivity and the constant awareness of anti-Semitism, this passage leaves the reader feeling at least uncomfortable. On the other hand, the inclination for those in power in any regime or institution not to have their less than just activities exposed is strong. Church history is charged with such stories of duplicity, intrigue, fear and evasion. The story also serves the purpose of underlying the significance of the fact of the empty tomb. That fact from then on, indeed, would be a constant challenge to all posturing of power, particularly religious and ecclesiastical ones.


Even with yourself, it may be difficult to admit that you have been involved in the undermining of someone in your lives – someone of whom you may have felt jealous. For must of us, however, there is that blushing remembrance of our collusion in someone else’s hurt or belittlement. Even if you have been spared such an experience, you can certainly imagine it. Imagine a scene of hiding and fear in which you have sought to deny someone else’s humanity in any way. Now imagine yourself wanting to find a way of denying Christ’s rising.
Argyll and The Isles


Thursday, January 15, 2009

Matthew under the arm 140

“It is important to arrive at the completion of this pilgrimage by night”, Columba said quietly as we climbed up the last of the steep valleys, at least of this pilgrimage. “Why, by night?” “Because I want to ensure that as you and I prepare to part, we greet the dawn together with that stillness which we have learnt on the way; that moment in the early part of the day, when the heart is most ready to receive the mystery of Christ”. I then remembered that we started in the dark, so that as were into our stride, the dawn appeared to welcome us on the pilgrimage. It is as if the hope of the dawn – the Resurrection – is written into the cycle of the Universe itself.

Matthew 28.9-10

Here we have a simple list of demands: ‘Do not be afraid….go….tell…’ Jesus does not say, ‘Now, let’s talk about your fear’. Nor does he say, ‘Now look. You ought not to be afraid.’ He makes a straight demand, as if he expects it, without reserve or hesitation, to be followed. Jesus ‘suddenly’ comes to meet the women. So why shouldn’t fear cease ‘suddenly’? The brothers ‘must leave for Galilee.’ No ‘please’ or ‘perhaps’, but another demand. Galilee is where the brothers were first formed as disciples. So going back to Galilee is to return to their first significant encounter with Jesus. That return would open up for them an avenue of grace again to perceive the mystery of the Resurrection.


As has been the case throughout this pilgrimage, memory is of vital importance. If Galilee would stimulate the memory of the disciples as to their first experience of Jesus, where would your ‘Galilee’ be? Where would be the experience…the first hint of Christ in the detail of your personal life? Do not overlook anything no mater how trivial it may seem. Remember that Christ gathers up the fragments that nothing be lost. Even a crumb of burnt toast in your memory might unloosen a whole array of delight or perhaps apprehension about your experience. One useful [and enjoyable] wayof enabling the exercise to be given the time that is needed for it, is to go for a long walk by yourself, if you are able. Take a little notepad. Don’t be afraid to talk to Christ. Return to your ‘Galilee’.

Bishop of Argyll and The Isles.


Monday, January 12, 2009

Matthew under the arm 139

We hadn’t eaten for two days. When we found a friendly inn, we sat by the fire and after a huge plate of broth, fell fast asleep. We woke early in the morning just before dawn. Columba looked pale. I asked him about his first experience of Christ. ‘It was early one morning, when my mother woke me as she always did with the words: ‘Christ has risen’, to which I was expected to respond, ‘He is risen indeed’. At Easter when we could shout ‘Alleluia!’ as well. But this particular morning I asked my mother where I could find this Risen Christ. She replied: ‘He is going ahead of you.’ So my experience, dear pilgrim friend, is that Christ is always just ahead of me.” “Just out of sight?” I added…. Columba remained silent and smiled.

Matthew 28.1-8
The actual raising by God of Jesus is not described in this passage. It is significant that we are left with the facticity of the empty tomb and bewildering words: ‘He is not here.’ I am silenced, but not as a withdrawal from those who would challenge and indeed dismiss the resurrection. This silence is recognition that I must have the humility to be challenged and to think about the faith that is based on the witness of those who experienced the Risen Christ. There is a human lust for certainty and to have things spelt out. When they are, of course, there is the dissatisfaction. This story creates breathless expectation not certainty, like a child constantly delighted with what may lie round the next corner. ‘Now He is going ahead of you’.


Recall a time when you have been deeply afraid. Who is involved in this memory? Where are you? What is the cause of the anxiety? Be as observant as you can. Blame no one in this exercise, least of all yourself. For many, the most troublesome experience of anxiety is when there is rejection. Now read this passage from Matthew carefully and maybe several times. Stop whenever a phrase or a word captivates you. Notice the tomb. Allow your imagination to picture every detail, every feeling associated with that detail. Listen to the words of the angel to the women.Allow your imagination to be free. Where would you go now? What is your first reaction? Note down as much of your experience of this exercise as you can recall. He is going before you!

Bishop of Argyll and The Isles

Monday, January 05, 2009

Matthew under the arm 138

[Perhaps it seems strange to be writing about Matthew’s account of The Passion, The Tomb and indeed about The Resurrection at this time of year. However, I remind myself that the mystery of Christ’s birth is really only perceived through the prism of the Crucifixion and the Resurrection. What is more, there is a strange and painful irony in that the Passion narrative is a matter for meditation during the appalling scenes of suffering, death (including children), hunger, fear and the creation of refugees within the small piece – Gaza…]

I had wanted Columba and I to by-pass what we were informed to be troubled territory, but Columba reminded me that a pilgrim must be faithful to where the path leads, including into the ‘heart of darkness’. Early one morning, a crowd passed our host’s house. Columba and I quickly moved among them to discover why they were looking so disturbed. They were holding aloft a painting of a young person who had spoken out against local leadership and had, as a result, been murdered. ‘What was the young person’s greatest quality?’ Columba asked. ‘Gentle integrity’, was the answer. “That’s a painting”, responded Columba, “that is carried aloft when you live gentle integrity yourselves.”

Matthew 27:62-66
One of the ways of undermining the humanity of those who are a threat, even when they’re dead, is not to name them, but to label them. A name brings intimacy. A label distances. The Christian Churches tragically find it all too easy to label rather than to name. Labelling someone is an attempt to ensure that we are protected from what seems alien. This is, of course, in total contrast to the Christian dynamic which is to love the alien. So Jesus, in the tomb is labelled as an ‘imposter’- a sham. What is more, a ‘leader of the people’ is perhaps more powerful when dead than when alive. For example, Che Guevara has now legendary status, after his death, as a guerrilla, someone who fought in South America for the oppressed. So sealing Jesus’ tomb was perhaps a futile attempt to erase Jesus memory, let alone undermine any story of resurrection.


One of the tragedies of modern conflict, particularly when it includes genocide, is not just the destruction of a people, but erasing as much evidence of the history as possible of that people: ‘shredding the papers’ of it’s story. The numbing fear of nuclear holocaust is not simply about millions of deaths and the turning of the earth to glass, but the erasure of any memory of humanity: the sealing of our tomb. That is why this passage is perhaps the most chilling of all in the New Testament. The sealing of the tomb is the final destructive act as it suffocates hope. What history of your life do you regard as essential and would be lost behind ‘the sealed tomb’? What would you do in order to keep the memory alive, so that what may seem lost at your death may be ‘raised’? Use the sentence to enter the exercise prayerfully.

Bishop of Argyll and The Isles.


Monday, December 08, 2008

Matthew under the arm 137

A wealthy pilgrim joined us for two days. A delicate looking man, he wore fine clothes, too fine for a long pilgrimage. Some distance back, he had heard Columba give a talk in a barn on the Christian life about the important dynamics in being a Christian: to pray and to love in action. He wanted to know more. Our new companion, took us into an inn and bought us a hearty supper. All those in the inn recognised him as a wealthy man. An old man approached him and started to insult him for his wealth and the lack of wear and tear on his face and hands. Columba turned to the old man and growled. [Beware of Columba’s growl!] “Your skin is hard and cracked from hard work and hard weather, but so is your heart and your mind. This man has opened his heart to the risk of God.”

Matthew 27.57-61
A burial place, particularly wealthy and powerful Jews, would not only be in keeping with their life-style but also be a place of ‘permanence’, where they could be remembered. In that sense, the memory of the dead person would live on in others. So it was a considerable sacrifice for Joseph of Arimathaea to make his own tomb available for Christ. Legend has it that Joseph came to Britain with the Holy Grail, a unfounded connectedness that ‘Celtic’ Christianity may have had to the passage of the ‘relics’ of Jesus life through Europe. This intriguing ‘walk on’ part in the Passion narrative is perhaps a deep reassurance to most of us who feel at some distance from the centre of the story.


This passage is one of the wonderful Gospel stories in which silence is so demonstrative of love, gentleness and generosity. The two Marys sitting opposite the tomb create that wonderful image of looking and listening with complete attention. In this exercise, in your own imagination, go back to a time when you were silent and were able to look and listen. What did it feel like for you? What was happening? Where in your life now do you feel you are being called to be a listener…someone who looks and gives attention? Give a little time to an occasion when you did not listen or look, when perhaps that might have been helpful. Now, in prayer, what do have which is most precious to you, that you would give out of love, out of love for Christ.

Bishop of Argyll and The Isles


Wednesday, December 03, 2008

Matthew under the arm 136

We had walked off the path, to sit for a while and look at the snow covered landscape that was now piercingly painful to look at in the bright sun. Columba’s fingers were blue with cold. His breath was laboured as he sat on a rock and tried to shield his eyes. We had left a village that morning, lucky not get beaten up. He had been invited to speak about our pilgrimage in the local church. Instead, Columba quietly chided the congregation that they were sitting there well-clothed and protected. ‘Homeless families are struggling to find warmth and you exclude them from the Church after they had been sleeping at the back overnight.’ The priest was furious. ‘You have taken advantage of my invitation to you to preach!’ Columba replied in the hearing of all as he left: ‘I haven’t started yet!’ For two days, we huddled with the families, until we were thrown out of the town for breach of the peace. God?

Matthew 27:45-56

The cry of God. Here was Jesus, God in History crying across the whole Universe, audible in every corner of it. Forsaken, Christ accompanies all those who feel abandoned by God; all those who experience His absence. In the blackest of black holes somewhere in space, the cry still echoes: ‘My God, why have you forsaken me?’ Yes, it’s a quotation from a psalm. The cry can be explained away but to no one’s satisfaction. The question ‘Why?’, is by its very nature never met with a satisfactory answer, let alone solution. God enters his own abandonment. In the middle of the terrifying earthquake and storm, at the moment of abandonment, the centurion recognises Jesus as the ‘Son of God’.


Simone Weil, the French philosopher and mystic starkly suggested that we cannot come to real belief in God without a real experience of atheism! Many of the great men and women of faith, seem to experience the Real Absence of God as well as the Real Presence. So allow yourself to experience in this moment of silent prayer a time when you not only did not believe in God, but felt the weight of his absence. Then feel yourself ‘cry out’ with Jesus about your sense of being abandoned. Maybe that describes where you are now! Remain with that experience. Now recall when you had an inkling of his presence. Both of the experiences are vital.

Bishop of Argyll and The Isles