Tag Archives: faith

‘Leaving Alexandria’ and ‘Love unknown’

‘Love Unknown’ is the title of Ruth Burrow’s latest book, Archbishop Rowan Williams’ chosen book for Lent.  But it could also describe Richard Holloway’s quest for the presence beyond the absence, laid bare with searing honesty in his autobiography ‘Leaving Alexandria: A Memoir of Faith and Doubt.’  I have just read both books in quick succession and was struck by their experience of depression about the absence of God.  Ruth Burrows found her faith in “The Word became Flesh.”  Richard drifts away from his.  Both confess that at times they have felt a sham.

Faith is not the same as belief. There is a tendency in contemporary language to make the two words synonymous. Belief in its original Anglo-Saxon is about holding dear, to prize, to give allegiance to, to be loyal to. The accessibility of the mystery of God is prior to theological reflection.  Not the other way about.  As Richard Holloway says, “The opposite of faith is not doubt, it is certainty.”  And faith is not some mysterious religious quality which only a few possess. Faith is not something reserved for some holy, perfect, religious person, something given to some, but not given to others.  Ruth Burrows attests strongly to this.

Faith is a willing, but struggling trust in the revealed intentions of God; it is a confidence in what God promises. It can only be calibrated in terms of depth and perseverance. And it is also about humility, since faith may be as small as a mustard seed, hesitant, uneasy, filled with doubts, and yet determined to hold onto God’s promises even though the world and all its wiles will do everything to assail us. All the great saints of the past persevered by faith despite being persecuted and mistreated. But in doing so they were not exercising some Herculean choice, the reward of toil in preference to pleasure. For them faith was not simply belief that there was a God but trust that God rewards those who seek him.

God calls Abram to leave his father’s household in south-eastern Turkey and journey south into Canaan.  The promise God is making to Abram is a promise of blessing.  A blessing to him and through him a blessing to the world. The promise of a blessing is repeated on numerous occasions throughout the book of Genesis.  Eighty-eight times to save you counting.

The tragedy acted out in Holloway’s book is that God seems to be calling the precocious youth from Alexandria, Dunbartonshire with a promise of blessing.  But first he is distracted by the formularies and ritual and monastic rigours of Kelham seminary.  Then the peace he finds at Old Saint Paul’s Edinburgh devoting most of his time answering the knock from Jesus at the door, in other words, the passing vagrant, the insane, the drunk, the lonely and the homeless, eventually disintegrates into compassion fatigue.  And finally, whilst Bishop of Edinburgh and Primus of the Scottish Episcopal Church, he allows the dogmatic certainty of the institutional church to provoke his waspish mind and he walks away from his priestly vocation.

Ruth Burrows, on the other hand, lives out intensely all the truth disclosed by liturgy, scripture and doctrine against a background of “black depression.”  She matures in her faith, notwithstanding her “failure at prayer, not just now and then, but day after day, year after year!”  Her advice is, “His loving gaze rests on you.  You have no excuse.  Gird your loins and follow the Lord.”

Abrams Falls Trail

Abrams Falls Trail (Photo credit: Frank Kehren)

Both books are a wonderful read but both should be read with an open mind.

As we journey this Lent, God’s call to journey with him is not about having everything about the journey carefully worked out so that we know where God is calling us. Like Abram, it’s about being sufficiently open to God and ready to make space for God to work in us so that he will draw us closer to him.

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Green Lent

The wilderness is indifferent to our existence. It is a hostile place, where insects bite, snakes slither, thorn bushes gouge the flesh and wild animals roam. Here life is fragile and the path ahead leads us to the unexpected and the unknown.

Please join the Diocese of Aberdeen and Orkney this Lent on a wilderness journey where all we shall possess is a trust that life is good, that it is worth being alive, even when the going will be painful and harsh. We will have a number of encounters, be fed by ravens, but a moment of deep significance will usher in a radically different understanding of God’s creation.

Following a new path, we will emerge from the wilderness realising that we are being called to change the way we live our lives. From hereon, our life will take on a new direction, with a new sense of purpose beginning, as we seek a deeper meaning in all that we do.


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Vox clamantis in deserto

And the Spirit immediately drove him into the wilderness.  He was in the wilderness forty days, tempted by Satan; and he was with the wild beasts; and the angels waited on him.

The wilderness … had taken him, loved him, embraced him got into his veins, consumed his flesh, and sealed his soul to its own by the inconceivable ceremonies of some devilish initiation.

These contrasting passages describe two human beings being tested in the wilderness.  In the first extract, taken from the Prologue to Mark’s Gospel, Jesus, ‘a new Adam in Paradise’, is on a spiritual quest having heard ‘the voice crying out in the wilderness’  and is preparing to contend with dehumanising forces; in the second extract, from Joseph Conrad’s novella The Heart of Darkness, Kurtz has no spiritual resistance, no internal restraint, and has become corrupted by these forces.

The word ‘darkness’ evokes a number of ideas. There is the literal meaning of a physical absence or lack of light, the opposite of day, which itself implies impairment of vision where something may not be quite within one’s field of view, or even blindness, either temporary or permanent; or a mental state of confusion resulting in lack of comprehension.  And there is the abstract meaning that is imbued with a sense of something unpleasant, a space where a malign force may be in control.

When Jesus went to the River Jordan to be baptised, he heard a voice from heaven, ‘You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.’  Then the Spirit drove him into the wilderness.  Jesus was alone in the Judean desert, in the sense understood by Mark’s community that the wilderness is a non-human place, but he did not lack divine assistance because angels were with him, a sign of Jesus’ relationship with God. Significantly, he was also ‘with’ the wild animals.

Juxtapose this with Kurtz, the antitype of Jesus, whose typology is of Adam ejected from the Garden, and from God’s presence, who does not lack human company (more accurately, he has enslaved the indigenous people to his demonic task) and is antipathetic towards the wild animals because he is slaughtering elephants for their ivory. Earlier in the novella, we are persuaded to believe in Kurtz is a charismatic leader, yet this is not the whole truth for it is not until the end of the book that we discover that Kurtz’s real motive for setting out to the Dark Continent was to make money.  Thus he was an evangelistic free marketeer as well as a poet, a painter, a musician and an orator.  Unlike Jesus, who lived in a way that was self-consistent in his central commitment of loving faith, Kurtz had not set out with good intentions and consequently he had been easily corrupted, because he had no spiritual resistance or internal restraint.

…the wilderness had found him out early, and had taken on him a terrible vengeance for the fantastic invasion. I think it had whispered to him things about himself which he did not know, things of which he had no conception till he took counsel with this great solitude – and the whisper had proved irresistibly fascinating. It echoed loudly within him because he was hollow at the core….

When Marlow finally reaches Kurtz, he encounters a moral vacuum within a skeleton, “a speaking soul, a direct effluence from the heart of darkness”. A lost voice crying in the wilderness.  Humans, Conrad is saying, are naturally competitive and self-seeking and the story is emblematic of our contemporary ecological crisis; a measure of the gulf between humankind and God’s creation.  The potential for darkness exists in every heart. The failure to live sustainably is a failure not only in our material but in our spiritual ecology. Marlow is full of admiration for Kurtz. But Kurtz stares into the future and sees no exit strategy, for Kurtz remains god-like to the last, finally exercising judgement on himself,

I saw on that ivory face the expression of sombre pride, of ruthless power, of craven terror – of an intense and hopeless despair.  Did he live his life again in every detail of desire, temptation, and surrender during that supreme moment of complete knowledge?  He cried in a whisper at some image, at some vision, – he cried out twice, a cry that was no more than a breath –

“The horror! The horror!”

In Mark’s Gospel the Spirit drives Jesus into the wilderness to confront Satan, be ministered to by the angels and to establish an ideal association between a human being and the wild animals, affirming their intrinsic value in God’s love.  To inaugurate the Kingdom of God.  But as Richard Baukham says in Bible and Ecology, p.129, we do not have to wait to the escaton for this idealistic future, we can anticipate its realisation by respecting and preserving God’s non-human creatures and their environment.

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Where I stand

I believe that all creation has intrinsic value as God is the creator and lover of all that is.  We have become lured away from this central truth in our lives and as a consequence we are facing a growing ecological crisis.  But the threat to our wellbeing is not only external.  The ecology of our souls has been pillaged, raped, defiled, plundered and exploited by the materialistic powers of this world.  Like the physical ecosystem, our souls need to be restored (Michael Leunig, quoted in David Tacey, The Spirituality Revolution, p.220).

How we approach these interconnected crises  should be an expression of our spirituality because it is spiritual impoverishment that brought us to this wilderness place where we have become disconnected from the enduring values of the sacredness of life, our responsibility for the care of creation and a right relationship with our Creator.  We have become attached to things, not just for perfectly good reasons of utility, but as a means of defining our identity.  Materialism has become a condition of the mind.

We are aware that undesirable changes are taking place to our environment but we are too ready to seek out technological solutions to this crisis because our materialist mindset hustles us along this path, whilst ignoring the intensifying  detriment to our spiritual lives.  Our sense of foreboding has been muffled by well meaning but minor lifestyle changes.  We proclaim a ‘green gospel’ of tree planting and recycling, incanting the ‘reduce, reuse, recycle’ mantra but this environmental ethics is founded on utility, whereas it is a change of heart that is required; a conversion that will free us from the regressive cycle of over-consumption and the destructive patterns of behaviour that imprison us.

As a member of a liturgical church, it should come as no surprise that I place particular emphasis on liturgy and sacrament, as well as pastoral care.  But I am also called to social justice activism because the poor communities who contribute least to the causes of environmental and climate change are currently the most affected.  And I am seeking a balance in our economics for economic life has to be situated within the broader framework of the needs of the earth as well as humanity.

The direction of travel should start with a spiritually enriched society because when we meet others possessing an inner peace and a more holistic vision we too will want to journey with them.   Evelyn Underhill emphasises that we need to find “the centre of the circle first” because “it is at the centre that the real life of the Spirit aims first; thence flowing out to the circumference (The Life of the Spirit and the Life Today, p.227).  In other words, the spiritual and religious flows out into moral practice because within this vital energy we find inspiration in the the laments of the Psalmist to respect the earth, the dreams of Isaiah, and the visions of Jesus for the poor and the marginalised, urging us on the path that will lead us out of the wilderness.

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