Preacher The Revd Sister Margaret Anne McAlister ASSP
On Friday I went into Kew Gardens where I find it often good to go when one has some free time and the weather is fine. I went specifically to see the Great Broad Walk Borders – apparently the longest double herbaceous border in the world – and which opened this year. It’s currently in full bloom and is a beautiful sight and I certainly recommend you take the opportunity to see it if you haven’t already done so. At one end of the borders – the end near the Palm House – I sat down on a bench under an oak tree. The inscription on the bench was in memory of someone, but what caught my eye was that it included a biblical reference (somewhat unusual on a bench inscription). It referred to Ecclesiastes Chapter 3. That’s the chapter that opens with the famous passage about time –
“For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven:
a time to be born, and a time to die;”
and the passage concludes,
“a time to love, and a time to hate;
a time for war, and a time for peace.”
It’s a poetic, hymn-like passage and the most well-known section of the whole book. Ecclesiastes takes the form of a monologue spoken by a Teacher. The Teacher or Preacher or Philosopher may well have run an academy in Jerusalem in the late fourth century BC, when Judaism was having to come to terms with Greek philosophy. The Teacher seems to have been uncertain about organised religion and was deeply sensitive to the injustices of the world. Adopting the literary fiction of royalty, he writes of the futility of attempting to discover the meaning of life by human powers of observation. Our first reading today from the opening of the book sets the scene:
“Vanity of vanities, says the Teacher, vanity of vanities! All is vanity.”
The Teacher seeks for wisdom, but comes to pessimistic conclusions concerning human nature and the human condition. By the end of the book, however, some kind of spiritual optimism is attained. Despite the human lot of suffering, pain and injustice, nevertheless the book ends in chapter 12 with a summary of humanity’s main task:
“Fear God, and keep the commandments; for that is the whole duty of everyone.”
The final sentence of the book concludes that in the end God’s judgement will indeed be effected. Pessimism gives way to a belief in divine ordering.
It’s easy to be tempted to have a pessimistic outlook on life, given the evident suffering and injustices in the world. We hear of such matters daily in the news, and in our own experience we will all have stories to tell of how things have not turned out well, whether for ourselves or for others known to us. When events turn out badly for us, the pessimism of the opening of Ecclesiastes may well ring all too true to our experience. Hope, however, together with faith and love, are the three prime theological virtues that we need to cling to when the going gets tough. Without hope in our hearts, we can so easily become bitter and disillusioned, and such states of mind are not good for our well-being. As Christians we are set paradoxically in the world yet not of the world, as Jesus’ great high-priestly prayer in John’s gospel makes clear. Whenever we are tempted to apply merely worldly values to our decision-making, we need to remember our Christian priorities – our bias to the poor, the vulnerable, the helpless – our concern for justice, when we encounter power-games of injustice and greed.
The gospels are full of examples of Jesus’ refusal to enter into the dynamics of people’s power-games. Our gospel reading today from Luke is one such example. It occurs during Luke’s travel narrative when Jesus is on his way to Jerusalem. Someone in the crowd demands of Jesus,
“Teacher, tell my brother to divide the family inheritance with me.”
But Jesus is not going to be bullied into entering into family politics, and instead retorts – as so often, with a challenging question –
“Friend, who set me to be a judge or arbitrator over you?”
Jesus’ method is not about ordering people about and making judgements about their life-style. Instead, his way is to proclaim the kingdom of God and God’s love. He warns the person in the crowd who had appealed to him not to be obsessed with possessions or consumed by greed. Then Jesus goes on to tell a parable to illustrate his point – the parable of the rich fool, whose crops were abundant and who pulled down his barns in order to build bigger ones. The rich fool thought he could then “relax, eat, drink” and “be merry”. What he did not know was that the time for his death had come. The moral of the story? We need not to store up earthly goods for ourselves for our own benefit, but rather be “rich towards God”. We need to cultivate spiritual values and make decisions in our daily lives that accord with such values. Money and possessions can so easily distract us from what really matters in life.
As well as studying the gospels, perhaps one of the best ways of learning more of Christian spiritual values is to study the lives of the saints. Today is the feast day of St Ignatius of Loyola. He lived in sixteenth century Spain. The son of a Basque nobleman, Ignatius served as a soldier and was wounded in the leg by a French cannon ball at the siege of Pamplona in 1521. He convalesced in a relative’s castle, during which time he read a life of Christ and some lives of the saints. In time he came to realise that when he mused on chivalric ideas of courtly love, he was afterwards listless. Whereas when he read of Christ and the saints he afterwards glowed with a desire to do great things for God. He wrote his Spiritual Exercises, based on his experience. He gave up his military career and went on pilgrimage to Jerusalem and after studying founded the order of the Jesuits. He died on this day in 1556. Ignatius was a great man of prayer, and he advised his fellow Jesuits that on days when prayer was crowded out by busy activity, they must not give up the examen. The examen was Ignatius’ method of prayer, especially for the end of the day, when one reflects on what one has been most grateful for in the day, and also for what one has been least grateful. From this spiritual exercise Ignatius derived his principles of Consolation and Desolation. This encapsulates the great Ignatian idea that God is in all things – both the positives and the negatives of our experience. By reflecting on both over time we can come to discern God’s movement in our lives. The examen is a simple but powerful prayer technique and is well worth practising at the end of the day for a few minutes.
Truly seeing God in all things can take a life-time of prayer and reflection on our experience. Let’s take a leaf out of Ignatius’ book, and endeavour to practise a way of prayerful reflection that opens us up to the mystery of the divine movement in our lives. And let’s place our hope in God whose judgement is always true and whose love is unending and available for all.