It was a mystery to me and an uncomfortable one at that. How had I got into the situation where I had offered to write a book on holiness? Struggling to Be Holy was the exact title that I had given to the council of the theological college in Durham where I teach pastoral ministry, accompanied as I recall with a quip about knowing rather more about struggling than about being holy! Now the chips were down, for today I was to meet with a potential editor and I still had no idea what I was going to say to her. I had set aside the morning to think but the door bell had rung and a very distressed young woman was there to see me. She had been abused as a child and, whilst usually coping well, occasionally found herself in a very painful place. There is never much that can be said at such times. All that really helps is to be with her and to hold her as she cries. So that was how the morning passed and no thinking was done. Lunchtime found me dashing to the meeting with a sinking feeling in my heart. How had I got myself into this embarrassing position? In exasperation, I said out loud to myself, `I dont know anything about holiness! and it was as if a voice asked, So what have you just been doing? I was blank for a moment until I remembered the morning of sitting with someone in pain. Isnt that something about holiness then? the voice replied.
This stopped me in my tracks because it had never really occurred to me that caring for someone in need was about holiness. I suppose over the years, I had gathered the impression that someone like me was not holy. Holiness was about being contained and controlled, about keeping silent for weeks, about taking yourself away from people to be on your own. It was about being serene, peaceful, wise and devout and being endowed with extreme purity. Holiness had often seemed to be a quality which was acquired by strict discipline and effort and the ones most likely to be successful in the Christian life those who were rigidly self-controlled and ordered and who could seamlessly be quiet, retreat, keep the commandments, attend church frequently and so on! However, writing this book has made it very clear to me that holiness is much less about developing self-discipline than it is about learning to entrust yourself to the God who loves you. It is about taking the risk of allowing God to interact with the truth of ourselves, no strings attached. So those who think they have success in the Christian life may actually be at the most risk.
Every year, an enthusiastic new group of students arrive in Durham to train for the ordained ministry. They have jumped through many hoops to get there and have been thoroughly assessed in every aspect of their lives. Many come with established patterns of prayer and devotion and very soon discover that for a whole range of reasons training for ordained ministry damages their devotional health! People, understandably, get annoyed and upset that their disciplined and ordered approaches to God have gone awry. I have become increasingly certain over the years that God is nowhere near as anxious about this as they are, for it is all too easy to avoid real encounter with God through religious practice. As the success and often illusion of these structures are removed the ordinands are left to work out their relationship with God in this new context. The key thing is about sticking at this relationship when all the external props of established practice are removed. It is about being brought again to that place of utter dependency. As Metropolitan Anthony of Sourozh put it so well:
First of all, it is very important to remember that prayer is an encounter and a relationship, a relationship which is deep, and this relationship cannot be forced either on us or on God. If we could mechanically draw him into an encounter, force him to meet us, simply because we have chosen this moment to meet him, there would be no relationship and no encounter. We can do that with an image, with the imagination, or with the various idols we can put in front of us instead of God; we can do nothing of that sort with the living God, any more than we can do it with a living person (1).
In Lukes gospel we are told that Jesus is aiming the Parable of the Tax Collector and the Pharisee exactly at people who were complacently pleased about how they were doing in the religious life (2). As they come to pray the Pharisee lists his achievements: his moral behaviour, his fasting and his tithing, but the tax collector slumps down in utter despair and defeat and says only, God, be merciful to me, a sinner! It is him rather than the Pharisee with whom God can do business. If you come to God simply as you are, hiding nothing (Reflection 1), then God will help you to become more fully yourself. The Pharisee, however, is so taken up with himself that there is no care for the tax collector and definitely no spare capacity for an encounter with the God whom he is addressing!
Holiness is about God being present and our being present to God. The more we can be in honest relationship with God, the holier we will become. Some Christians behave as if the task is to persuade God to be with them, but the delightful truth is that he is already present in the relationship. The problem is to be present ourselves. God is there but where are we? I have an older friend whom I love to bits and to whom I am indebted for many things. She has inspired me and encouraged me in the Christian life by both her wisdom and her delightful sense of humour and has been a great source of practical help in my ministry. However, this was not always the case. Our first meeting was at a college lunch. Beth, my daughter, was a tiny baby who was being uncharacteristically grumpy and I was feeling exhausted and inadequate. A mutual friend introduced me to Marian who is an experienced psychiatrist and was, at that time, doing some work on the interface between depression and theology. Youre a counsellor, so Im sure youll have a lot in common, was the cheery introduction. All that I actually had in common was that I already felt depressed and the thought of making intelligent conversation with this rather bright and scary woman was only serving to make me more depressed. I felt inadequate and I shied away. Fortunately, I got a second chance, as Marian was to be on the management group for my job as the Bishops Advisor in Pastoral Care and Counselling. Initially, I was still suspicious and insecure but gradually trust grew. It was my defensiveness and fear that blocked the relationship as is so often the case between God and us. It was a question of trust and as I have grown to trust her she has been able to make a significant impact on my life and faith.
So God is in us already and it is we who have to learn to live creatively with him. This takes some considerable practice! We cannot make ourselves holy whatever effort we expend. What we need to be is as open as we can to the holiness which is within each of us. We need to allow God to give himself to us, even though we are not worthy, and through the experience of unconditional love and forgiveness (Reflection 3) we will be changed. The success of the venture is that we will become our real, best selves and this involves a different journey for each of us. There is a good illustration of this in Rowan Williams book Silence and Honey Cakes about one of the desert fathers:
There was a monk who complained that Abba Arsenius was not renowned for physical asceticism; the old man dealing with this asks the complainant what he had done before becoming a monk. He had worked as a shepherd sleeping on the ground, eating sparse meals of gruel; Arsenius had been tutor to the imperial family and slept between sheets of silk. In other words, the simplicity of the desert life represented no very great change for the censorious observer but a different world for Arsenius (3).
It is so important to keep this particularity in mind as we struggle to be holy. Since I was a child I have always been attracted to the idea of the Caucus-race in Alice in Wonderland. It is a crazy race which both starts and finishes unpredictably with the consequence that no one has any idea who has won. I think it appealed to my sense of the anarchic! When they all crowd round asking the Dodo who has won he finally, after much thought, pronounces that, Everybody has won, and all must have prizes (4). I am privileged to have a number of close friends, but the relationship with each one is unique, giving me different gifts, confronting me with different challenges. So it is that each walk with God is unique, what is a challenge for one of us will not be an issue for another. The challenge and opportunity for all of us, however, is to enter into a relationship with the living God which will help us to become more fully the person whom we hold the potential to be:
On his deathbed Rabbi Zuscha was asked what he thought life beyond the grave would be like. The old man thought for a long time: then he replied: `I dont really know. But one thing I do know: when I get there I am not going to be asked "Why werent you Moses?" Or "Why werent you David?" I am going to be asked "Why werent you Zuscha?" (5).
When we choose to be ourselves in free relationship to God, not to conform to the expectations of others, we choose life with all its joys and disappointments. We choose to be all that we are, with all that is delightful and all that is damaged. After many years of struggle within myself, I eventually delivered myself to a counsellor. I wanted fixing! I wanted certain aspects of myself sorting out. However, as the counselling proceeded it became clear that if I could jettison the parts of me I found troublesome I would also lose parts of myself which I valued. We are complex realities and we need to learn to love what we are, both delightful and damaged, and put it all into the hands of the master potter to form into something unique and beautiful. Being a priest, as I am, can make things harder and should definitely have a health warning. People have such high expectations of us and we are so vulnerable, not least if we start to believe the sometimes totally unrealistic and absurd expectations of perfection which people put upon us. We should not be seduced to living up to these but rather put our effort into living down to the heart of ourselves, a heart trusting in Gods love and mercy and not in our own efforts. Paul clearly knew about this way of being when he wrote, For when I am weak, then I am strong (6). Richard Rohr echoes the same theme, God takes me very seriously. But this frees me from the burden of having to do this chore myself? (7).
"The road to holiness is a long one. It takes more than a lifetime and struggling is inevitable as we live through loss, pain, thwarted desires (Reflection 2), accidents, joys, successes and failures (Reflection 6), but struggling put into the hands of God is constructive not destructive. (Reflection 1). Of course, we need Gods grace and that is assured, but we also need the help and support of wise and compassionate friends (Reflection 5). So growing in holiness is not achieved by our effort or self-control; it is achieved through a gift of God to us and our humble and stumbling acceptance of it. This poem powerfully depicts the way to holiness:
I have waged this war against myself for many years.
It was terrible,
but now I am disarmed.
I am no longer frightened of anything
because love banishes fear.
I am disarmed of the need to be right
and to justify myself by disqualifying others.
I am no longer on the defensive,
holding onto my riches.
I just want to welcome and to share.
I dont hold onto my ideas and projects.
If someone shows me something better
no, I shouldnt say better but good -
I accept them without regrets.
I no longer seek to compare.
What is good, true and real is always for me the best.
That is why I have no fear.
When we are disarmed and dispossessed of self,
when we open our hearts to the God-Man
who makes all things new
then he takes away past hurts
and reveals a new time
where everything is possible (8).
This place where everything is possible is indeed the place of holiness. It is the peace of discovering that we can be at home in ourselves and that God is and always has been at home there with us (Reflection 4). It is a coming home to what we have always dimly known was there, what we have glimpsed in holy others and what we have yearned for and struggled to achieve ourselves.
Think of someone you know you would say is holy. What are their characteristics?
How do you respond to the extract from Metropolitan Anthonys book Beginning to Pray on page 15?
Compare the prayers of the tax collector and the pharisee in Luke 18:9-14.
What do the stories about Arsenius and Zuscha tell us about the task of growing in holiness?
Do you agree that the place where everything is possible is indeed the place of holiness?
HIDING FROM GOD
I was dozing off, in the centre of Oxford, sitting in the scorching heat, amongst the frenetic throng of shoppers, waiting for a friend to return before attending an ordination. Suddenly, I was brought back to consciousness by a voice saying, Do you know the Lord Jesus Christ? My immediate thought was that it clearly wasnt aimed at me, but then with sinking heart I realised I was wearing a dog collar. I didnt open my eyes, hoping that the voice would move on, but it came again with even more insistence. `Do you know the Lord Jesus Christ? My immediately conceived answer, in the light of me clearly being ordained, was the facetious, Of course not, Im an Anglican! Before delivering this unhelpful quip, however, by the grace of God, I opened my eyes and saw sitting next to me an old, toothless, and very poor man. We fell into conversation and he told me that he had once known the Lord Jesus Christ but had done bad things. Well, that makes you and me both. I replied. And I still do bad things. It seems to me thats how human beings are and that all we can really do is to ask for Gods mercy and forgiveness. My awaited friend returned, the ordination beckoned and we moved off.
That man, however, stayed in my prayers and I remembered him later when I was preparing a sermon on the healing of the ten lepers in Lukes gospel (1). It seemed to me that his plea and mine, and indeed that of us all, needed to be the same as the lepers, Jesus, Master, have mercy on us! (2). When Jesus saw the lepers and heard their cry, his response was immediate and clear: Go and show yourselves to the priests (3). This must have seemed a most confusing and hurtful directive since lepers were only required to show themselves to the priest when they were healed. Was he mocking them, this travelling preacher man? Nevertheless, helpless and hopeless as they were, with nothing to lose, they obeyed and were made clean. When we cry for mercy, as the lepers did, a similar trust and obedience is asked of us, Go and show yourself, not to the priest but to God. We are asked to go and bring ourselves into Gods presence as we really are.
We are not many of us very willing to do this. We are not keen to show to God, others or ourselves the complex reality of what we are. Most of us, if were lucky, have a few strong hands to play in life, to show others and to offer. We all basically enjoy playing these strong hands because they show us off in the best possible light. Indeed, many of us will busily manipulate situations to give us the showcase that we need to use our best skills. I well remember arriving in my first parish as an arrogant new curate, rather proud of all the giftedness I thought I had to offer: able worker with young people; good preacher and teacher; a person of wide pastoral experience etc. Because of my determination to play one of my strong hands it took me ages to see that God wanted me to work with the older people. I had no idea how to do this, and was, therefore, fearful that I might not be shown to good advantage. Actually, of course, once I started to work with them, listened to them and with them to God, I was able to find a much better way forward than if I had been relying on my giftedness alone. The need to play our strong hands can be almost endemic amongst us and this is a great pity because it is not always from the places where we feel most confident, where we think we understand, that the deepest growth can occur. As Yehuda Amichai reflects:
From the place where we are right
flowers will never grow
in the spring.
The place where we are right
is hard and trampled
like a yard.
But doubt and loves
dig up the world
like a mole, a plough.
And a whisper will be heard in the place
where the ruined
house once stood (4).
Of course, none of this is to deny that we must learn to recognise our God-given gifts and to feel confident to use them. God, however, in my experience and in that of many of the people I have worked with, seems to be nowhere near as interested in our playing our strong cards as we are! Indeed, if we concentrate too much on doing what we think we are good at it can make us arrogant, self-dependent and even intolerant of others who are less gifted. As Dag Hammarskj?Âld challenges us in his journal, Markings:
`Better than other people. Sometimes he says: That, at least, you are. But more often Why should you be? Either you are what you can be, or not , like other people (5).
Our capabilities are often an abstraction, at best a pattern rather than a fact, and the key thing to grasp is that we are capable of doing whatever God enables us to do. The enterprise is Gods and how our capabilities play into that is in his hands, even to the extent that what might be asked of us is our willingness to be done to as much as to do, our willingness to be used or not used. I am always deeply moved by the Methodist Covenant Prayer although I find it almost impossible to pray:
I am no longer my own but yours.
Put me to what you will,
rank me with whom you will; put me to doing,
put me to suffering;
let me be employed for you
or laid aside for you
exalted for you
or brought low for you;
let me be full,
let me be empty,
let me have all things,
let me have nothing;
I freely and wholeheartedly yield all things
to your pleasure and disposal (6).
God wants us to offer him our strong and our weak `hands which can, of course, both in their different ways, make us struggle with holiness. What in fact we are invited to show God, to bring consciously into Gods presence, is the totality of our being. Not just our giftedness but that which fills us with despair, shame, fear, panic, frustration and even disgust. Recently, through a Succession of unlikely events, I found myself sitting, thinking and praying in my old undergraduate room at college. Sitting there made me very thoughtful. What exactly was the relationship between the young woman of then and the middle-aged woman of now? How were they connected? I could see growth but I also despaired that some essential key elements still troubled me and made me vulnerable. If we fail to offer these aspects of our reality to God he cannot work with them and our lives and ministries are impaired. In an article on prayer Jack Nicholls quotes Mother Mary Clare of the Sisters of the Love of God:
When you go before God in prayer you cannot leave anything behind. You carry in your heart every person, every incident, every thought, every feeling you have ever had and as you lay yourself before God so you bring all the mess as well. My prayer, she said, is really one sentence: "Here I am, what a mess" (7).
`Here I am, what a mess is powerful indeed. In the early days of being a priest, I was always very tense when I celebrated the Eucharist. I was a curate in a church with a very formal liturgy and initially I struggled to do everything in the way to which the people there were accustomed. One day, my nervousness led me to spill the wine all over the altar cloth. I was horrified by the mess. The whole altar was covered in red. I was so upset but knew I must carry on and as I said the words of consecration it was borne in on me that Gods intervention in the world through the death of Christ was much nearer to this mess I was witnessing than the very well-ordered celebration which we normally have; that the spilling of Christs blood involved a handing over to the forces of chaos and destruction which was what we were celebrating in this act. That picture has been etched on my mind and as I celebrate communion now it powerfully reminds me of the risk and cost of Gods action in Christ.
I used this quotation, Here I am, what a mess in a Quiet Day for the ordinands at college along with what I considered to be a great richness of other thoughts and ideas! It was this thought, however, and this thought alone, which people mentioned to me again and again that term. Somehow it really resonated in their hearts. If we hide from the unacceptable parts of our lives and refuse to take them with us in prayer then God cannot work with us and gradually change us into his likeness. Mother Mary Clares comment suggests that inevitably we cannot leave bits of ourselves behind when we pray but what we often do, of course, is fail to acknowledge the reality of this to ourselves.
I have lived much of my Christian life saying that God loves me but behaving as if Im convinced he is out to get me: that if I really let him in on my world, he will do things to me which will hurt and harm me. Can I really believe what I both say and preach, that I am beloved of God, if I am determined to hide myself from God and unwilling to entrust my whole self to him? People think I am very open. What you see is what you get is something I often hear said of me. Ha! Its true up to a point but there are deeply hidden depths which I am terrified to give up to anyone. Recently, I was sitting talking to a close friend late into the night with the comforting help of a bottle of red wine. She suddenly said, You know, you often come up to things I think you want to tell me and you dont. I just want to say that I notice and that I think It would be all right if you told me! But I want to stress theres absolutely no pressure to do so because I love you anyway. I was shocked and taken aback! Was I so very transparent? If so, I didnt like the vulnerability that made me feel. I was not hiding things well enough. Yes I knew she loved me and I loved her but would she still love me if she really knew me? That was the agony. I was unsure and scuttled quickly off to bed. It troubled me though and I couldnt sleep. Obviously, I didnt really believe in her love if I couldnt trust her with myself. It was just a fair weather thing and no real use. So, the next morning I went for it and shared the issue which she had sensed I was withholding. I was terrified and felt sick. It felt very out of control to have it in the open. However, she was wonderful, gentle and accepting and now I feel so much better that she knows and hasnt turned away. I also realised what a block it had been to the deepening of our relationship and understanding. I explain this at length because I think it can inform our relationship with God. Our failure to believe enough in his love, to entrust the mess of our real selves to him, is a serious barrier to the joy of knowing him better.
This is a real challenge for us! We all struggle with learning to see who we are and to stop hiding from ourselves. One of the givens of living in community as we do in a theological college is that all of us, students and staff included, have a mirror lifted up to ourselves. I tell the ordinands that we will all do well to look in it! What is interesting is that people always suppose that what they will be shown in the mirror of our community is their inadequacies and faults. This will sometimes be the case, but what is more often shown to us is that which others find delightful or helpful, the gifts in which they rejoice. These are often much harder for us to take on board than the negative things. I contrast this with an incident with my daughter Beth when she was tiny. I looked at her one day and told her what beautiful eyes she had. I have always remembered her response, Yes, Mummy, I know. Thank you. This gave me real pause for thought as I realised how entirely beyond adults this straightforward response would be. How we have lost the ability to receive good things from each other. ...