Gleanings, some hard-won, 1963-2013

*second of two articles on the anniversary of my ordination

In the last blog, I described the way waking visions and dreams in sleep have played a part in my self-understanding.

In this article, I want to share a collection of insights that have come to be very important to me. They may sound like clichés, but most clichés become so because they are, generally, true. There are ten of them–an important scriptural number, as I recall–perhaps we could call them spiritual commandments. I wish when I had been ordained, the bishop had given them all to me as a vademecum, or checklist about how to be a real priest. Alas, this kind cometh only by blood, sweat and tears, if not prayer and fasting. When I shared them with my friends at the anniversary party on September 6, I gave them only the bare bones of their meaning. Here I expand on each of them.

(1) The church is not the kingdom of God. How could I ever have thought it was? This was a kind of medieval left-over that I never heard challenged at seminary. The absolutizing of the church comes from the Dark Ages in Europe, when there was no government, and the church was the only game in town. If the church went down, what was left of civilization went down with it. It is this attitude which is behind the defensiveness of the Roman Catholic Church over issues of sexual abuse: the authority of the church, it was felt, had to be preserved at all costs. Happily, that church has broken through this mistaken attitude to a large extent, and is making amends, having realized that repentance enhances the authority of the church rather than defensiveness. So no, the church is not the kingdom: it is the servant and herald of the kingdom. It points beyond itself.

(2) Being a Christian is primarily about being a human being, not a member of a religious institution. The central Christian conviction is that God emptied Godself of the divine power, and took upon himself human form, the form of a slave, in fact. You can read Paul’s meditation about this in his letter to the Philippians in the New Testament, chapter 2, verses 5-11. Jesus did not come either to be a Christian–hey, he was a Jew–or to persuade anyone else to be a Christian. He came as a human being to point other human beings to the kind of lives they needed to be living if they wanted to see the kingdom come. There’s a prayer about that, in fact: “[may] your kingdom come!”

(3) Work with the people who want to work with you. I think I was past fifty when the truth of this burst upon me. I spent years trying to persuade people (I’m thinking here of parish life) who would rather have eaten ground glass than work with me to work with me. Meanwhile, the good folk who were ready and willing to work with me were being neglected in favour of the others. What a waste!

(4) The only moment available to us is the present moment, commonly called “now.” I used to tell my students that the secret of life (they had to come to every class, because I never knew when I would proclaim this, and would they want to miss out on the secret of life??) was this: to be lovingly present to the present moment. I say “lovingly” because there are other ways to be present to the present moment: guiltily, angrily, fearfully, and so on. Yesterday is gone, tomorrow never comes, today is the only day we have. This of course is an insight which becomes more real as one advances in age. It is also necessary to understand that the only entrance into eternity is from the present, not the past or the future.

(5) Include and transcend. This is a mantra from American philosopher Ken Wilber which I find profoundly illuminating. Many of the attitudes and practices and involvements of our lives lose their validity or their pertinence as time goes on. Rather than reject them, or tear them out by the roots, follow Rumi’s advice, give them a hug and move on, transcend them. This has a particular applicability to my Christian identity. I acknowledge that there is truth and beauty in all religious traditions, that the Christian tradition ought not to be absolutized. So I include my Christian identity in a larger spiritual identity which permits me, with Thomas Merton as a tremendous model, to encounter others primarily as human beings rather than persons identified in a limiting sense with their traditions of origin.

(6) Pain is the door to awakening. As Richard Rohr says, “we must go down before we even know what up is.” I think back to the time (I was 49) when my marriage ended. I had a very painful experience of failure and exile. But somehow out of that came such a spiritual awakening or expansion that I now think of the time before that as a time of profound sleep, and the time after as the beginning of my real awakening. I developed a periodization of my life at the time–being sleep, waking up, going crazy with the pain, becoming sane. I later realized I had to add a fifth stage: staying sane.

(7) Whatever of our pain or woundedness we don’t transform, we transmit. This is Richard Rohr again. It’s also what the Bible is talking about when it refers to how both negative and positive impulses are transmitted to “the third and fourth generations.” If we don’t deal with the wound, turn it into a sacred wound as Rohr would say, it will continue to infect our relations with others. Pain and suffering of some sort, he says, “seems to be the only thing strong enough to destabilize our arrogance and our ignorance,” to shake us up, in other words. (And thanks to Dawn Kilarski, who was the first person I learned this from.)

(8) God suffers when we suffer. If I didn’t believe this, I couldn’t be a Christian. It is the way forward through the apparent conundrum about why bad things happen to good people. The process theologians see this as part of the evolutionary process whereby God reconciles the world to himself. Muslims have a wonderful image of this in the image of the carpet of history. The open end of the carpet includes all the threads of our experience, including our suffering. God the weaver weaves them all into the forward movement of humanity. For Christians, of course, it is the crucifixion of Jesus which is the supreme emblem of this.

(9) For every stupid statement I made and that I regret, there were ten or a dozen statements I regret not making. This brings together two virtues, discernment and courage–or let’s just say guts. We need to know what to say and have the guts to say it when the moment is upon us. The book of Ecclesiastes in the Hebrew Bible says: “there is a time to speak and a time to keep silence.” I see a parallel here with Jesus’ comment that we should render to Caesar what belongs to Caesar and to God what belongs to God. Fine, in both cases: but which is which? We still have to tackle the discernment question; and having come to a conclusion, find the courage to say what we need to say when we come to the time to speak.

(10) The art of living is the art of knowing what is in front of your face at any one time, any particular “now.” This comes from the non-biblical gospel of Thomas, in which Logion (saying) 5 says this: “Know what is in front of your face, and what is hidden from you will be disclosed; for there is nothing hidden that will not revealed.” I read this as if for the first time about three years ago and found it astonishing. I was able to apply it immediately to certain parts of my past, about which I asked myself why I couldn’t see what was in front of my face. That then took me to the present, and the need and opportunity to ask myself what is in front of my face right now. You can test this for yourself right now, by asking yourself what is in front of your face at this very moment.


Ah wisdom! Hard won, but so precious. Having shared these insights with you, I ask you, as my companions on the journey, to point it out to me whenever you see me failing to remember what I say here, failing to practice what I preach.

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