The family returned from a ten day trip of Ireland last week. My highlight was exploring the Mourne Mountains which once inspired C. S. Lewis to dream up his tales of Narnia. The landscape was stunning and the walks invigorating. Meanwhile the children most enjoyed exploring the rock pools and pestering the Irish crabs around the rugged coastline.
During our trip we bounced between Northern Ireland and the South, visiting Hayley’s Irish family and enjoying various family excursions. On the Sunday we visited Silverstream Priory in County Meath for Mass. The children heartily approved of the quality of cake after Mass and I enjoyed catching up with the Prior on a short tour of the monastery. Some very good work is being done here.
So much so that the monks are flourishing, indeed there is a waiting list to join, with most vocations under the age of 40. Yet more proof that whilst institutional models of church continue to struggle in decline, the places where genuine encounter with the divine is encouraged are doing well. People today hunger for holiness, reverence and authenticity. Where it is found growth occurs.
Sunday it was back to parish duties in Pembury. Where we had three Masses and three different sermons from three different preachers! Congratulations to Deacon Roy who preached his first ever sermon as deacon at 9:15am. Congratulations also to Fr. Benedict Kiely who was the first preacher in my experience, possibly in history, to liken Jesus Christ to the erstwhile celebrity Jim Bowen! Father warned us that we must strive to enter the kingdom of God lest we die and look back on our life and hear that immortal catch-phrase ‘here is what you could have won!’
Norwich Cathedral has been close to my heart ever since I attended school there in the 1980’s. Built by Herbert de Losinga, a friend of St. Anselm take note, it is one of the finest Cathedrals in England with ceiling bosses and a cloister second to none. If you visit during a quiet moment the sacred beauty soon transports the soul to God in prayer. It is an architectural gem built to the glory of God, for the celebration of the sacraments, in days when our nation was a robustly Catholic realm.
But this summer moments for reflection, moments that lift the soul to God, will be few and far between in Norwich because the Church of England, in a move as naff as it is inappropriate, has placed a helter-skelter within. It is one of those embarrassing gimmicks, dreamt up by an ailing ecclesial institution, in the vain hope of appearing trendy and relevant to the world. And like all cringeworthy gimmicks it falls flat.
I can’t help but call to mind that passage in scripture where Jesus turns over the tables in the temple and chastises the cathedral chapter of his day for turning the house of God into a worldly den. Have the Cathedral chapter of today not pondered his point? Why do they again turn space for the sacred into space for housing the profane?
They are not alone. Rochester Cathedral has got in on the act by turning the entire nave into a crazy golf course! The justification is that it may attract new people. Yes but to what end? How does inane chatter over a ‘hole in one’ help people understand the purpose of these buildings? How does it facilitate reverence? How does it encourage encounter with the divine?
Those with poor spiritual formation will doubtless applaud, from the cynical atheist to the person whose notion of worship is all guitars and noise, but only because they themselves don’t appreciate sacred space. Meanwhile those who do appreciate silent devotion are rightly appalled. How tragic that the prayer soaked walls of these ancient and venerable buildings are now housing such blatant tomfoolery.
Not least when the attractions, which are not bad things in and of themselves, could easily be placed without. There is open space in front of Norwich Cathedral which would make a brilliant home for a slide. Similarly the grounds of Rochester Cathedral would make a good venue for crazy golf. The cathedrals would then have enticed new comers without spoiling the sacred space. So why didn’t they take this option? Do they also struggle to see the point of churches and Cathedrals in the first place?
Maybe the root cause is loss of faith and the real problem cognitive dissonance. For many clergy today, especially those of a liberal/modernist persuasion, have lost faith in scripture and the sacraments. And being more persuaded by the secular culture we inhabit, than the ancient faith that inspired the Cathedrals, they eke out an existence as Christian ministers, enjoying the status and stipend, but with waning personal faith. Today you find them everywhere embroiled in earthly not heavenly matters; speaking out passionately on immigration and plastic straws but utterly silent on divine judgment and the salvation of souls.
The growing absence of God in their lives has consequences. One of which is that they lose their faith in the God who is rumoured to inhabit sacred spaces. They no longer believe in the power of sacraments and no longer behave in church as though the veil between earth and heaven is thin here. And that, in truth, is what leads to slides and golf courses. For when you no longer trust that God himself calls people to him, you can only turn to your own efforts and ideas to bring the people in and fill up the coffers. Labyrinths, golf courses, slides and gimmicks are the inevitable end result. And that is perhaps the saddest aspect of this summer of stunts we witness in the ailing C of E.
People have historically been drawn to church by true faith and authentic holiness. But I guess, if the cupboard is getting very bare in that regard, all you have left to offer is golf and a display promoting your favoured causes.
Lift your eyes to heaven daily and never forget the spiritual realities of life. Because life is short and its ultimate purpose is not to build up treasure on earth but in heaven. That is the message of the Gospel this morning. And it is sound advice because we wont be happy, anyway, unless we learn to feed ourselves spiritually for we are children of God. Which means we were made for him, that we belong with him and he with us. And any life that excludes him, yes even a very privileged one in earthly material terms, is a tragedy of epic proportion.
That is the point of the parable. The rich man is cruising in life. There were always good harvests. He had good land. So he grew richer every year. But disaster awaited him because he neglected his spiritual life. So when he died very suddenly he was not ready to stand before God in judgement. All that magnificent grain was no use now. How much better had he stored up treasure in heaven. Truly life on earth is short but eternity, by definition, will last forever.
Notice Jesus does not condemn the wealth at any point. The politics of envy has no place in the church. There is nothing wrong with being rich. Just so long as we are in a right relationship with God. So if you are wealthy- good for you. Just don’t neglect your spiritual duty. Make sure you give to the life of the church and ever support the needy. Those with plenty make good friends of God but he does expect all of us to be generous with what we have been given. And, rich or poor, we have all been given something in life materially. So learning how we should deal with wealth is important for all.
The key to getting it right is to understand better the ancient biblical concept of stewardship. God made Adam his steward in the garden. It is what he asked of Israel when he gave them the promised land. But what does it mean to be ‘a steward’ for God.
Well the ancient office of steward was given to the one who cared for the kingdom when the King was abroad. To be a steward was therefore a great honour. But it was still ultimately a life of service. The steward did not get to sit on the throne and play at being King. He was looking after something until its rightful owner returned. We begin to see how Christian teaching considers all that we have been given in life as belonging ultimately to God not us. It is his world and we are simply asked to care for it. Not to live self indulgently as demigods within it.
This point becomes even clearer when we understand what the bible means when it says we are made in the image of God This does not mean, as the foolish imagine, that we look like God or are somehow mini-gods. Far from it. Consider a ten pound note. It bears the image of the Queen but is not a mini queen nor does it look remotely like her. It is a bit of paper. The image is there however to remind us that British money ultimately belongs to the crown, to the Royal mint. We just get to use it. So if we are made in God’s image- it is a statement that our lives ultimately belong to him. We are servants not masters in life, albeit ones with awesome responsibility. But out lives ultimately belong to him.
So we need to learn, as Christians, to live with an appropriate sense of duty to God. This is radically counter cultural today for our world is self obsessed and deeply self indulgent. Nevertheless we have to learn to be humble before God. Life is about responsibilities not rites! The man in the parable missed this point. He thought that because he had worked hard and done well it was all his own to do with as he liked, he forgot to consider what God might want of him. He neglected his duty to others. And he paid dearly in the end.
To be steward is to understand God has given us responsibility. That is awesome. He trusts us. He hands us life in this world and trusts us to live it in accordance with his will. Furthermore, if we need his help, the gift of grace, he’ll give that too in abundance. If we learn how to ask for it. But everything we have and are given belongs to God. So we should treat everything in our care as belonging to God and learn to be grateful for it. So we teach our children the faith because they, like us, belong to him. We use our money virtuously because it is his gift for which we are accountable. The same for our bodies, they are to be temples of his spirit, we are not free to use them profanely. For they too are his ultimately. He made them.
The rich man could not take his treasure with him because it was not his. It belonged to this world. He had no eternal claim over it. All those bountiful harvests ended up feeding somebody else once he died. His house went to someone else. In the end life went on perfectly well without him. It always does. For we are only passing through this life and none of us are here forever. So consider this week all that your are responsible for temporrily. What are you doing with the life God has given you. Are you being a good steward or a selfish demigod. That is what he will ask when you too die and leave your grain and barns behind and stand before him in judgement.
Father Nicholas is in Colombia at present. Pictured above is chief of the Ticuna tribe. He spent an afternoon complaining amiably to Father Nicholas that it is difficult to find a replacement. The young men of the tribe prefer the bright lights of the modern city to the ancient customs of the primitive jungle. They are off chasing the high life instead of showing interest in their own customs and traditions. Father Nicholas explained the same could be said in regard to recruiting decent priests. They then shared lunch together. The night was spent in a jungle tree house. Mrs. Leviseur reports that it wasn’t the most comfortable night of her life. It was however spiritually beneficial in that it led her to a great deal of fervent prayer.
A reminder that next week I begin my own vacation. Not to Bogota and the surrounding jungle but to Ireland. We are staying in County Down for a family holiday, in easy reach of County Cavan and Enniskillen where the Irish side of Hayley’s family are found. It should be great fun.
Please note that there will be no midweek Mass from Wednesday of this week until I return to parish duties on Sunday 25th August. The only exception will be Thursday 15th when Mass will be offered at 7pm for the feast of the Assumption.
During the ten days that I am away in Ireland the Sunday 8am Mass is being covered by Fr. Alastair Ferguson. The 9:15am and 11am will be taken by Fr. John Greatbatch, who is house and dog sitting for me. Do welcome him to the parish and support these services if you are resident.
The final day of the children’s holiday club saw the topic shift to Japanese sport. Little surprise that Sumo was centre stage, the children making a fabulous game in which they tap the sides of a box to try and knock their opponents player over. They loved it.
The children also drew images onto shrinkable plastic which were baked and hung on string to form pendents. As you can see it was very effective. Hello Kitty featured prominently amongst the girls work. Can you believe this Japanese icon is 45! More astonishing is that Nintendo, originally a company trading in cards, was formed in 1889!
The children had coloured some fish yesterday with felt tipped pens. These were sprayed with water to produce a stunning effect. The fish are then placed onto sticks with string to form Japanese festival flags. Carp feature heavily in Japanese culture.
The children had lots of help these last three days. Firstly from the helpers-older children who were on hand to assist with the trickier parts of craft and buddy up with any who required additional help or friendship.
And of course we could not run the club without an army of mummy leaders who not only watch over children and helpers but ensure coffee is in good supply. As you can see, despite the hard work, they are still smiling. Chief amongst them were Hayley and Tomi who planned the craft activity.
After the craft was completed, and final games played, we finished the club with a Sung Mass in church amidst clouds of incense. It was opportune that the feast of St. Ignatius Loyola fell this day- for he it was who sent St. Francis Xavier to preach the faith in Japan. At the Mass we asked for the intercession of the saints who were our special focus these past three days- St. Paul Miki and companions, St. Magdalene of Nagasaki and Blessed Justo Takayama- the Samurai of Christ.
Then we headed out to erupt the volcanoes. Alas my substituting coca-cola for pink lemonade to accompany some mentos led to an underwhelming end result. It was more of a pathetic fizzing than the anticipated eruption. Oh well- at least we could laugh about it. Another great year is complete.