Talk given to L’Arche UK PEC Meeting Nov 2000 1,754 words
In November 2000 the Pastoral Ecumenical Committee of l’Arche UK invited Fr Tom to meet with them – at a time when increased regulation of care provision seemed to be threatening the community and relationship dimensions of L’Arche.
Tom invited the group to step back and ask themselves what lies at the heart of being Christian… a ‘yes’ to God’s revelation of himself, in itself a response which springs from wonder and gratitude of heart rather than the laborious task of law-keeping; God’s self-revelation and the sacrificial gift of himself, also reveals who we are.
The Resurrection message: “Tell them that I go before them”, has so many implications for us, this sense of responding to, making real, ‘realising’, the presence which goes before us.
This call to grow into God’s reality is especially important in understanding life in community. It frees us from an excessive concern for ourselves… in this sense to become more professional is a way of loving people...
We are God’s Work of Art
It is good, from time to time, to step back and ask ourselves what lies at the heart of being Christian.
- Is it because I happen to have grown up in the culture of this ‘belief system’ rather than another?
- Or is it that I accept Jesus as a prophet and a moral teacher? One among the world’s many ethical guides, with a unique challenge summed up in the Beatitudes?
- Or perhaps it is to accept the Bible as the foundation document defining Christian discipleship and Christian community. Rather as the Koran is for Muslims?*
(*The Bible draws its sacred character not as a foundation text but as a guaranteed description of God’s self-revelation in the history of his people, in Jesus Christ, and in ourselves. It is only prescriptive in so far as it is descriptive!)
None of these will quite do, will they?
I suggest that at the heart of being–a-Christian is a ‘yes’ to God’s revelation of himself. It is a response to God, who has and does show himself as one passionately self-giving in our regard. God, who is most fully revealed in the mystery of Christ
· The Word involved in all creation as it unfolds
· The Word who enlightens every person’s heart
· The Word who reveals God as love in a robust unsentimental way, love as taking people seriously
· The Word who died for what he had lived for, who is now the Risen Victim.
All this and more is what Paul meant by the Mystery held secret but now revealed to us. God’s initiative on our behalf calling us to personal and corporate response.
A response which springs from wonder and gratitude of heart rather than the laborious task of law-keeping, even keeping the two commandments, to love God and to love neighbour. For Jesus’ real dynamic was: As I am beloved of the Father, so I’ve loved you, so you love each other.
It is the urgent freedom Paul speaks of, especially in Romans and Galatians.
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God’s self-revelation and the sacrificial gift of himself, also reveals who we are. As Christ is the image of God, so are each of us. This is our true ‘self’ and that of each person we meet. We are open to the infinite. One created in the image of another, as model, becomes truly oneself in becoming as the other is.
Of course, to believe ourselves and others to be created images of God and potentially to be as God is, sounds very high minded, faintly absurd, given the mess we find ourselves to be, and the mess in our relationships and communities. Who is kidding who?
But that has been the human dilemma from the opening time of Genesis 1 and 2 (where the experience of life as dysfunctional is so starkly portrayed in tension with our being in the image of God) – from Genesis right through to God’s glory being incarnated in ‘the one who was in our midst whom we knew not’
Indeed today there is so little offered us by our contemporary society, in its media and its language, that helps us to perceive the glory within that if we believe, if we know, it to be true then we must really work at it in our prayer and our pondering and our sharing.
Perhaps too we have to enter deeply into the mystery of Christ’s cross. The scandal that at the very moment when every visible sign of God’s presence, every visible sign of human dignity, was obliterated – at that very moment God’s glory was most present.
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Understanding our lives as Christians as lives which say ‘yes’ to God’s self-revelation gives us a profound sense of the Resurrection message: Tell them that I go before them. This has so many implications for us, this sense of responding to, making real, ‘realising’, the presence which goes before us.
When we sign a cheque for CAFOD or Christian Aid we are not setting up a relationship with those who are dispossessed, we are responding to a relationship which already exists. When we begin to respond to anyone we meet (just or unjust!) as someone that matters, we are living a truth that goes before us not creating something new, as it were.
Especially is this call to grow into God’s reality important in understanding life in community. It frees us from and excessive concern for ourselves, frees us from using the community for our own little (or big?) ego programmes.
St. Paul used a vivid image for the community which is Church, the image of Christ’s extended ‘Body’. Paul is talking about Church as a sort of sacrament for all human communities, especially those explicitly Christian.
What is true of a community as body?
· One thing is that each member is partial, and received from and gives to the community as a whole. Learning to be at peace at making one’s own partial contribution is a great gift to community! and to oneself!
· A second thing is that a community is not just its collective members. A hand is not fingers plus thumb plus palm. A body is not the sum of its parts.
· A third thing is that although we often talk of ‘building community’ we would do better to talk of ‘realising our community’. (When Paul challenged those in Corinth who were being divisive he did not say ‘build community’. That would not have occurred to him. What he did say was: ‘Don’t you realise you are one, how can you live as if you are not?’)
· And a fourth thing is that a body depends as much on its seemingly insignificant, even awkward, members as it does on the obviously useful ones. (One of the great signals that L’Arche can give in our horribly functional society.)
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We all get to know, sooner or later, that to live community means being vulnerable to one another, being patient with one another and being in touch with one another. But many communities, not just L’Arche, find that modern pressures are under mining this sort of poverty in relationships. The increased call to be professional and the increase in legal requirements seem to threaten immediacy and dependency.
How can we love each other when management speak takes over?
We use the word ‘love’ today in many ways. And very often it means; I love you because you make me feel OK. Really, to love is to take someone seriously as a person. It is more an act of will than an emotion. (Our emotions may help, but they may also hinder!).
In this sense to become more professional ought to be a way of loving people. It need not stop us being amateurs. (The word amateur means to act out of love and is usually an alternative to being a professional!). We expect a doctor or politician to be professional otherwise they would not take people seriously. Likewise training and management skills in L’Arche, if kept in proportion, are ways of taking people seriously. And, likewise, all these regulations about fire doors, and food hygiene, and seat belts. In themselves they are all ways of caring, of taking people seriously.
The main problem both with professional requirements and with regulations is that instead of being subsidiary means to community life they dominate (or for some fascinate) us. More and more time and attention is taken over in committees and Councils. And we find that we never have space to ponder together, never have creative leisure to clarify the deeper questions of our vocation, or work at the more important ‘signs of the times’. We become driven by necessity rather than driving with due consideration. To seek wisdom in all this means being aware of the issues and making definite decisions, otherwise the technical always drives out wisdom.
Two stories to end with:
v Jesus said that ‘law (and regulations?) are for people, not people for law’. But Anglo Saxons love keeping rules:
One of our monks became prior of the Benedictine house in Rome. Shortly afterwards the Vatican produced a list of regulations for students in Rome. What sort of time they should be in, clothing etc. The Rectors of the different colleges were furious and called a joint meeting. Each country voiced its own response – The Canadian rector that it was quite undemocratic and he would call a student’s meeting, the French that the philosophy behind the document was pitiful, the English (presumably) that there was no pragmatic way of handling all the requirements. So, they decided, they would write a joint letter of response. OK. At which the Italian monsignor, who was a man of much experience, said ‘Wait a moment. What really is the problem? In the Church we all have our jobs to do. The officials to write documents – they have done that. Mine is to read documents – I have done that, and I appreciate the foreword is very beautiful about the nature of theology and the pursuit of divine learning; and of the list of regulations – I note that nos. 3 and 7 and 12 will be important on occasions. I have done my job to read the document. And it is the file’s job to keep documents. So I fold it up and put it in the file. I don’t see where the problem lies.
Law is there to support and enable life, not to dominate it or make us slaves.
v We had a clergy fraternal where I live recently, and one of the clergy said, during coffee; Tom, are you anti PCs and mobiles and modern technologies? To which I said: You wouldn’t suggest that because I am not married I must be anti-women, would you? I use to teach computer studies and my danger would be fascination, pre-occupation, a loss of human immediacy and reflective space (or something like that).
At the end of the day our local vicar said: I was very struck by your exchange about IT and not being married! Perhaps today we have all got to learn a spiritual discipline about having or not having, and the art of using, the ever- increasing technology now available.
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All things are of God, but no things are God – let us beware of idols! (cf 1 John 5 v 20, 21).