The following reflection written after 30 years of Monastic life in one place , Ampleforth Monastery, is based on a re-reading of ideas of place , land and Kingdom in the scriptures. It is the fruit of Fr Tom’s own experience and the challenge gained from a close reading of two of the books of Walter Brueggemann, a bible scholar with whom Fr Tom felt himself in radical sympathy. Towards the end there are a series of clearly cited texts which all come from Brueggemann’s 1977 (extensively revised in 2002) seminal work The Land: Place as Gift, Promise, and Challenge in Biblical Faith , pages 174-5.
WHERE DO YOU DWELL
The Benedictine monastic tradition, in which I have lived for thirty years, is not only about people but place. It is about a certain part of God’s earth being a place that gives glory to God. It has, as they say, a “genius loci” as well as a “genius personae”.
As such it has to face the embarrassment of following a Lord and Master who deliberately opted for a life of no-place, of homelessness; or rather of having a home-no-where-but-every-where. It is a way of life that seeks to follow Jesus but cannot imitate him, in a Franciscan sense. But then 99% of Christians, having a home or land, face the same question. And indeed the early Christians urban communities did not seem to think that to obey the command “follow me” necessarily meant a literal imitation.
The dilemma is a real one and seldom raised. In all the long tradition of monastic spirituality, often recorded in abbots’ talks to communities, there is almost no theology of what it means to occupy land. And judging by the history of some communities the issue was a non-issue in faith; one of those areas of life in which we feel ‘surely God does not see’ and end up conforming to the manners of contemporary society.
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Monastic life is also a life that seeks (however inept we are in practice) to be formed by the Word of God. Its prayer life, its reading, and indeed St. Benedict’s rule itself, all seek to break open the Word of God that it may be the standard in all practical affairs and decisions and attitudes of life.
This obedience to the Word of God has to face special problems today because of the great advances of scriptural study and our awareness that God’s Word has always been mediated by, indeed made relative by, the historical characteristics of when and by whom it was written. We have on the one hand to avoid an anti-intellectual, naïve fundamentalism (so widespread these days) or an overly subjective and ‘spiritual’ reading of the Word. But, on the other, we also have to avoid letting our cleverness and knowledge about scripture lessen its ability to speak to our hearts as truly God’s word.
When we get used to reading scripture from the context of those who wrote it we realise that it was born out of an interplay between the current social concerns at the time of writing, the scriptural faith inherited by the author’s community (inherited usually through liturgy and spoken tradition), and the lived experience of that community seeking to be faithful to God in daily affairs. So, for example, we should not read Paul’s letters to the Corinthians as transmitting a ready-made hot-line theology to them, but rather as his responses to their own problems in the light of his own experience of faith. The theology evolves from this interplay.
Today we call this ‘contextual theology’ and it demands of us to take the same process equally seriously in our own context. It is heretical to believe that the enabling Spirit was more enabling then than she is in our own setting!
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Christian life, as Jewish, is essentially a life of hope. It lives fully today but always in the light of a promised tomorrow. It is important that we are clear about the nature of scriptural promise. We must avoid the tendency of restricting scriptural faith to what is called ‘radical personalism’ – hearing in scripture nothing but calls to make radical personal options in life, usually in a private, spiritual and subjective way.
But we must also avoid restricting scripture merely to a history of salvation, a history of ‘dramatic events, finding meaning in God’s intrusive and disruptive interventions’; such a history is without a place-to-be and leaves the enduring and normal elements of daily life neutral and irrelevant.
We shall only really appreciate covenant, promise and celebration if we re-discover them as essentially to do with land. I mean land not merely as soil to till, but as a place to live in, a place to belong.
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Here then are four models of land occupation. Each is a model for different peoples in our contemporary world. So we shall dwell mostly on the third and fourth. But they all formed part of the inherited memory in which Jesus grew up and formed the backdrop to what he meant by his Kingdom and ‘entering the joy of his Kingdom’.
A prologue to the four is given by Abraham as pilgrim. He is the archetype of one who leaves what is familiar and secure to come into a land of promise, and essentially a land WHICH I WILL SHOW YOU. A land not of expectation but of hope. A land of gift and fertility.
1. SPACE AND ALIENATION
In Egypt land is experienced as occupied space, labour as alienation, and flesh pots provide security, and endless problems lead to more problems. Oppression is legitimised by the gods of the Pharaohs. It is survival not life, space not place. A model of bondage.
2. LAND AS SOJOURN
In the desert the people are sojourners (not quite the same as Pilgrims). Desert is about being exposed and vulnerable. Land is no-place, but desert is also where consciousness is forced to dis-cover bare essentials, is forced to trust in a God who both provides but only provides what is needed. No lack but surfeit and no provision for the morrow.
Desert detaches from nostalgic memories of false and degrading security. But it is only to be understood as preparation for the reception of a promise. The promise is of land, of location, of a place to dwell. But a promise with dire warnings.
3. LAND AS A GIFT.
Before entry into the promise the people are warned of the inherent ambiguity and danger of entry. They are clear warnings of how the land is to be occupied in such a manner that enduring life will give glory to God and blessing to people - which, in the end, come to the same thing!
a) ‘The Lord your God is bringing you into a good land – of waters and valleys and hills, of wheat…, where you will eat without scarcity, where stones are iron, and in the hills copper… You shall bless the Lord your God for the land he has given you’. (Deut. 8)
Question: It is one thing to receive an initial gift, but how is the giftedness to be kept alive year after year as agriculture and mining develop?
b) Occupation of Land will lead to amnesia. Pre-occupation with administration and manipulation will kill memory. Busy-ness keeps people forgetful, which is bad for everything except a politics and economics of the instant and superficial.
Loss of memory leads to the illusion that life has always been as it is, and that it is ours by right. We shift from being recipients of grace to managers of achievement. And from the living God turn to household and secular gods who back up our security.
‘Take heed lest your hearts be deceived and you turn aside and serve other gods and worship them’. (Deut.11)
This is not petty jealousy on Yahweh’s part but his concern as to the only way in which people will sustain gifted existence.
c) A third warning is that land occupation should lead to greater not less responsibility in social and ecological matters. Greater not less obedience to the demands of Torah, the Law: sustaining the common good, recognising the poor, accepting aliens, widows… Observance of Sabbath and of Sabbath years (the Jubilee years) is intended to keep alive these concerns of social justice and an ecological sense and of a gifted existence.
Torah is essentially linked with land and with the human story of who does what to whom in the way land is occupied. Torah is to keep alive the story, as it should and could be, among those most likely to forget; it is not to cramp behaviour, to coerce, or to reduce life to legalism – but to keep alive the story of what it is for a people to be a single people and dwell in gifted land. To enjoy land is not to have superficial or indulgent fun in it, but to discover life, at its very root, as gifted and shared existence. (See Amos. 8).
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Such were some of the warnings at the boundary, at the point of entry. The model they hold out (our 3rd model) was under constant threat after entry. But at least the model seems to have been remembered until the time of David. Under Solomon and the Kings things began to change.
4. LAND AS APPROPRIATION
The Royal Kingdom under Solomon became an incredible civilisation of Producers and Consumers, based on an intricate Bureaucracy.
“The administrators” provided the food for Solomon and those he received at the royal table, each for a month at a time. They also provided barley and straw for the horses… The daily provisions were: 30 measures of fine flour, 60 of meal, 10 fattened oxen, 20 free-range oxen, 100 sheep, besides deer, gazelles, roebucks, and fattened cuckoos…
Judah and Israel lived in security, each man under his vine and fig tree…
Solomon extended his power over all the kingdoms from the river (Euphrates) to the land of the Philistines and the borders of Egypt.
“For his chariots Solomon had 4000 stalls and 12,000 horses” (1 Kings 4) (The two horse chariot was the latest weapon guaranteed to secure peace in perpetuity).
So far so good, and all no doubt interpreted as God’s blessings on his people. But its very prosperity depended on amnesia. The warnings must have seemed like romantic idealism. They were beautiful ideas, good to have floated around, but very dangerous as criteria for decisions.
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Solomon married Pharaoh’s daughter, which had been expressly warned against as leading to compromise and conformity.
The sophisticated system of production and consumption depended on slavery. The official account of Solomon’s unquestioned success is interspersed with asides about the slavery it involved. The text reads like a majority report with a minority adding paragraphs in defiance. And the Temple built by Solomon in magnificent style, while spoken of as glorifying God, in effect legitimated the royal consciousness, it domesticated God. It became a control on Yahweh. In fact the liberating God who had challenged the convenient royal gods of Pharaoh, Yahweh who had known how to be abrasive and angry and challenging, had now become a God of whom there were no expectations other than ensuring the politics and economics of production and consumption.
Yahweh the caller to liberation and the giver of land had become a Patron of the Royal system.
This control mechanism on God reduced Yahweh to being the very type of God who had legitimised Pharaoh’s kingdom and its oppression of the Israelites. Tragic irony indeed.
I wonder if Solomon, in all his wisdom, had slight misgivings at the Temple dedication as he prayed:
“The Lord who set the sun in the heavens
But said he would dwell in darkness
- I have built thee an exalted house
A place for thee to dwell in… (1 Kings 8)
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We could well go into greater detail about this fourth model, the model of land appropriation, because so many of its notes resonate with our situation in wealthy civilisations today. Two points need emphasis.
Every issue of justice is also a theological issue. If our focus and language is all about the processes of production and consumption, and the maintenance of our own class or national prosperity, then we will re-form our concept of God as the one whose entire existence is to maintain and enhance that success. You will not sing the Magnificat in Solomon’s Temple.
Secondly, the plausible but unfaithful success of Solomon and his successors eventually led to the collapse and Exile of the people. Because the dominant consciousness is preoccupied and becomes forgetful and unmindful of the warnings, it carries within itself the seeds of its own demise of landlessness.
This is why, when in due course the prophets provide a critique of the whole plausible enterprise they warn that the very things that Solomon rejoiced in as God’s blessings were in fact anathema to God. It is worth reading the taunting passages from Amos, for instance, alongside what I quoted from 1 Kings.
Why? Because the plausibility is an alibi for injustice and forgetfulness of the poor.
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We should really dwell at length on the prophetic critique of the production-consumption enterprise. Allow me merely to mention three of its characteristics.
The prophets unmask the illusions of their age. They force people to shed light on the dark areas of forgetfulness, to un-cover force and live by truth. It is that prophetic tradition of un-masking that lies behind New Testament language about light and dark, especially in St. John. It is what we mean by calling Jesus: the Light of the World. Needless to say it is a very painful and usually resented process for any society to recognise its illusions and alibis.
Secondly the prophets insist on suffering being named. It is of the nature of oppression that those who really suffer most are taught not to name that suffering and probably to interpret it in some subtle way as their own fault. The prophets reject that utterly and by naming the suffering for what it is, which includes the ability to grieve, and to lament, they open the way to liberation. This is what ‘compassion’ really is, a tough gut anger at what is being done to people. You find it again and again in the life of Jesus.
Thirdly, the prophets insist that life not only can be but will be different, because God is God. This is bad news for those settled in power or in riches. It is good news for those who are not. In other words the prophets introduce imagination where fatalism prevents any creative alternatives being even thinkable. Life can be other, not as wishful thinking, not as day-dream, but because recovering memory leads to authentic hope. Yahweh is not, as thought, the domestic, royal patron, but a living God of challenge and newness.
These themes in the prophetic critique all lie behind the gospel good news. Let us briefly look at that.
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It is normally presumed, in the spirituality we inherit, that Jesus spiritualised what he inherited, removing, in talking of the Kingdom, any reference to land and the social structures of its occupation.
This supposition is encouraged by the fact that the early Christians who wrote the New Testament were largely urban people, largely not of the administrative classes; they had to reflect on many different social realities than those of Jesus and his contemporaries. In writing the gospels there was a tendency to generalise and spiritualise what had been particular and concrete in the life of Jesus.
For Jesus the Kingdom of God was in fact a land concept, it referred to the promise of, and the preliminary enjoyment of, a place to be.
· Blessed are you poor, the Kingdom is yours.
· Blessed are the meek, they shall inherit the land.
In order to get a feeling for what Jesus meant by the Kingdom – and it is strangely enigmatic – we have to be able to live with dialectic. In this context, dialectic means a level of understanding, indeed a grasp of reality, which can only be expressed in seemingly contradictory statements. Reality is perceived as process and story which cannot be reduced to rationality, pure and simple.
Luke presents his dialectic in a stark way.
In the Magnificat God turns things over. Those with power lose it, those without power are raised. Those who are well fed go hungry, those who are hungry are filled. And Luke presents Jesus’ opening presentation sermon in the context of the Jubilee Year, the Year of the Lord’s favour. And that is all about concrete issues of indebtedness, restoration of just relationships, dealings aimed at good news for the poor and forgotten. (The following three paragraphs come from Walter Breuggemann’s 1977 edition of The Land….pp. 174-5)
“The resistance Jesus encounters is among those who possess most and have most to lose. The new possibilities are among those who have least and who welcome what is given. Thus the issue is posed not only between the old age and new age, but between haves and have-nots, between defenders of old land arrangements and recipients of new land…the action, the preaching, and the person of Jesus, all attest to new land being given. But the land being newly given is land presented in a dialectical way. The way to land is by loss. The way to loss of land is to grasp it...
“Thus at the heart of the reversal land – landless is a scandal. It is not a new scandal, for it is precisely what the whole history of Israel evidences in terms of gift and grasp. But now that whole dialectic is encompassed in one person.”
“On the other hand it will not do to treat the New Testament as though it contains a simple promise of the land, as has been hinted by some liberation theologies informed by Marxist rhetoric.
Rather the New Testament has discerned how problematic land is; when the people are landless, the promise comes; but when the land is secured, it seduces and the people are turned toward loss. Thus the proclamation of Jesus is about graspers losing and those open to gifts as receiving.”
This seems to me of great importance if we are to come up with a relevant theology of our N. Atlantic, production-consumption, societies. If liberation theology in third world countries has been born out of the first of our four models (Land as Bondage) and its overtones in the New Testament, a contextual theology for Britain may have to draw from our third and fourth models, and their overtones in the New Testament. No one can do this but ourselves. And it will not happen except in the context of taking risks and venturing all on creative alternatives. It is not a process of head-knowledge (though that has its place) so much as experience.
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May I finish by reflecting that we are already committed to a land/landless dialectic by celebrating the Eucharist.
In the Eucharist we take that which is ‘ours’, a piece of land-based creation, and formally hand it over, relinquish our grasp, our appropriation, our right to control. It is returned to us, sublimated, divinised, released, as gift. Only by losing land as self do we discover ourselves in land as gift.
A friend said to me recently “When we invite people as guests to the monastery, we do not invited them to our home, but we invite them to share with us being guests in God’s home”.
“Brueggemann, W. (1978 Firs Edtn.)The Prophetic Imagination” (Fortress Press, Philadelphia)
Brueggemann, W. (1977, First Edtn.) The Land: Place as Gift, Promise, and Challenge in Biblical Faith. London: SPCK
(The quotation is from The Land p.174-5)